Friday, March 14, 2008

Lawsuit Seeks to Block Uranium Mining at Grand Canyon

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Flagstaff, Arizona - One of the great natural wonders of the world - the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River - is threatened by uranium exploration. Three conservation groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the approval of up to 39 new uranium drilling sites within a few miles of Grand Canyon National Park.

In December, the Kaibab National Forest granted British firm Vane Minerals approval to conduct exploratory uranium drilling on national forest lands along the park’s southern boundary with no public hearing and no environmental review. It is the first of five such projects slated for the area.

"Grand Canyon simply isn’t the place for uranium development," said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiff groups. "Our national treasures deserve better than the calamity of an adjacent industrial zone."

Filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Grand Canyon Trust, the lawsuit claims that the U.S. Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and two other laws when it approved the uranium exploration using a "categorical exclusion," the least rigorous analysis available to the agency.

The lawsuit claims that the Forest Service failed to consider the controversy surrounding uranium development, the significance of its proximity to the Grand Canyon, the overall cumulative impacts of four other future uranium exploration projects and the potential opening of Denison Corporation’s Canyon Mine - all located in the same area.

The lawsuit follows a letter sent by the same three groups outlining legal problems with the approval and requesting that the Forest Service withdraw its decision.

The Forest Service claims it has little power to deny uranium development under the 1872 Mining Law. But the mining law does not go against the agency’s separate obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act to carry out in-depth public and environmental reviews of such proposals.

"The Grand Canyon is facing a massive uranium build-up at its southern boundary," said Sandy Bahr of Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. "The mining law doesn’t negate the Forest Service’s duty to conduct detailed environmental and public reviews for new uranium development - and the Grand Canyon deserves at least that much."

On February 5, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution opposing uranium development on lands in the proximity of the Grand Canyon National Park and its watersheds.

The resolution requests the Arizona Congressional Delegation to initiate the permanent withdrawal from mining, mineral exploration, and mineral entry all federal lands in the Tusayan Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest and the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management in House Rock Valley.

Arizona Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has made no direct statement about uranium exploration at the Grand Canyon, but he has called for greater emphasis on nuclear energy in the United States along with increased production of domestic oil and continued development of alternative energy sources.

Congressman Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee of National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, told the "Tucson Citizen" newspaper in February that he has asked committee staff to explore how best to eradicate the provision for use of categorical exclusions. In the meantime, he asked, "If they find a vein of uranium to explore, how do we stop it?"

Grand Canyon National Park is one of the world’s great natural wonders whose protection for future generations has long been a priority for the citizens of Coconino County, the resolution says.

The Grand Canyon National Park also is an economic engine that now draws five million visitors per year who contribute to the economy of Coconino County, it says.

More than 2,000 uranium mining claims have been filed since 2003 in the Tusayan Ranger district alone, the majority of them within 10 miles of Grand Canyon National Park, says the Board of Supervisors.

Fueled by a 15-fold increase in uranium prices during the last eight years, planned uranium development has increased on federal lands immediately south of the Grand Canyon, where in addition to the 2,000 claims, there are five uranium exploration projects, and the possible opening of one mine.

"Some places should be off-limits to noise, heavy equipment traffic, drilling, and potential contamination from uranium exploration and drilling; the rim of the Grand Canyon is one of those places," said Dave Gowdey of the Grand Canyon Trust. "Congress should act now to protect the park and its surrounding public lands."

Betting the Bank

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By Paul Krugman

Four years ago, an academic economist named Ben Bernanke co-authored a technical paper that could have been titled "Things the Federal Reserve Might Try if It’s Desperate" - although that may not have been obvious from its actual title, "Monetary Policy Alternatives at the Zero Bound: An Empirical Investigation."

Today, the Fed is indeed desperate, and Mr. Bernanke, as its chairman, is putting some of the paper’s suggestions into effect. Unfortunately, however, the Bernanke Fed’s actions - even though they’re unprecedented in their scope - probably won’t be enough to halt the economy’s downward spiral.

And if I’m right about that, there’s another implication: the ugly economics of the financial crisis will soon create some ugly politics, too.

To understand what’s going on, you have to know a bit about how monetary policy usually operates.

The Fed’s economic power rests on the fact that it’s the only institution with the right to add to the "monetary base": pieces of green paper bearing portraits of dead presidents, plus deposits that private banks hold at the Fed and can convert into green paper at will.

When the Fed is worried about the state of the economy, it basically responds by printing more of that green paper, and using it to buy bonds from banks. The banks then use the green paper to make more loans, which causes businesses and households to spend more, and the economy expands.

This process can be almost magical in its effects: a committee in Washington gives some technical instructions to a trading desk in New York, and just like that, the economy creates millions of jobs.

But sometimes the magic doesn’t work. And this is one of those times.

These days, it’s rare to get through a week without hearing about another financial disaster. Some of this is unavoidable: there’s nothing Mr. Bernanke can or should do to prevent people who bet on ever-rising house prices from losing money. But the Fed is trying to contain the damage from the collapse of the housing bubble, keeping it from causing a deep recession or wrecking financial markets that had nothing to do with housing.

So Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues have been doing the usual thing: printing up green paper and using it to buy bonds. Unfortunately, the policy isn’t having much effect on the things that matter. Interest rates on government bonds are down - but financial chaos has made banks unwilling to take risks, and it’s getting harder, not easier, for businesses to borrow money.

As a result, the Fed’s attempt to avert a recession has almost certainly failed. And each new piece of economic data - like the news that retail sales fell last month - adds to fears that the recession will be both deep and long.

So now the Fed is following one of the options suggested in that 2004 paper, which was about things to do when conventional monetary policy isn’t getting any traction. Instead of following its usual practice of buying only safe U.S. government debt, the Fed announced this week that it would put $400 billion - almost half its available funds - into other stuff, including bonds backed by, yes, home mortgages. The hope is that this will stabilize markets and end the panic.

Officially, the Fed won’t be buying mortgage-backed securities outright: it’s only accepting them as collateral in return for loans. But it’s definitely taking on some mortgage risk. Is this, to some extent, a bailout for banks? Yes.

Still, that’s not what has me worried. I’m more concerned that despite the extraordinary scale of Mr. Bernanke’s action - to my knowledge, no advanced-country’s central bank has ever exposed itself to this much market risk - the Fed still won’t manage to get a grip on the economy. You see, $400 billion sounds like a lot, but it’s still small compared with the problem.

Indeed, early returns from the credit markets have been disappointing. Indicators of financial stress like the "TED spread" (don’t ask) are a little better than they were before the Fed’s announcement - but not much, and things have by no means returned to normal.

What if this initiative fails? I’m sure that Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues are frantically considering other actions that they can take, but there’s only so much the Fed - whose resources are limited, and whose mandate doesn’t extend to rescuing the whole financial system - can do when faced with what looks increasingly like one of history’s great financial crises.

The next steps will be up to the politicians.

I used to think that the major issues facing the next president would be how to get out of Iraq and what to do about health care. At this point, however, I suspect that the biggest problem for the next administration will be figuring out which parts of the financial system to bail out, how to pay the cleanup bills and how to explain what it’s doing to an angry public.

Mosaic News - 3/13/08: World News from the Middle East

Listening Post - Iranian media and elections

Richard Gizbert focuses on the media coverage of Iran’s parliamentary elections.

The cult of the suicide bomber

Few players in the ’war on terror’ are more chilling, or misunderstood, than suicide bombers. Yet the true scale of their grisly activities has never been properly calculated. Five years after the invasion of Iraq, Robert Fisk details the shocking extent of the most widespread campaign of self-liquidation in human history

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By Robert Fisk

Khaled looked at me with a broad smile. He was almost laughing. At one point, when I told him that he should abandon all thoughts of being a suicide bomber – that he could influence more people in this world by becoming a journalist – he put his head back and shot me a grin, world-weary for a man in his teens. "You have your mission," he said. "And I have mine." His sisters looked at him in awe. He was their hero, their amanuensis and their teacher, their representative and their soon-to-be-martyred brother. Yes, he was handsome, young – just 18 – he was dressed in a black Giorgio Armani T-shirt, a small, carefully trimmed Spanish conquistador’s beard, gelled hair. And he was ready to immolate himself.

A sinister surprise. I had travelled to Khaled’s home to speak to his mother. I had already written about his brother Hassan and wanted to introduce a Canadian journalist colleague, Nelofer Pazira, to the family. When Khaled walked on to the porch of the house, Nelofer and I both realised – at the same moment – that he was next, the next to die, the next "martyr". It was his smile. I’ve come across these young men before, but never one who so obviously declared his calling.

His family sat around us on the porch of their home above the Lebanese city of Sidon, the sitting room adorned with coloured photographs of Hassan, already gone to the paradise – so they assured me – for which Khaled clearly thought he was destined. Hassan had driven his explosives-laden car into an American military convoy at Tal Afar in north-western Iraq, his body (or what was left of it) buried "in situ" – or so his mother was informed.

It’s easy to find the families of the newly dead in Lebanon. Their names are read from the minarets of Sidon’s mosques (most are Palestinian) and in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, the Sunni "Tawhid" movement boasts "hundreds" of suiciders among its supporters. Every night, the population of Lebanon watches the brutal war in Iraq on television. "It’s difficult to reach ’Palestine’ these days," Khaled’s uncle informed me. "Iraq is easier."

Too true. No one doubts that the road to Baghdad – or Tal Afar or Fallujah or Mosul – lies through Syria, and that the movement of suicide bombers from the Mediterranean coasts to the deserts of Iraq is a planned if not particularly sophisticated affair. What is astonishing – what is not mentioned by the Americans or the Iraqi "government" or the British authorities or indeed by many journalists – is the sheer scale of the suicide campaign, the vast numbers of young men (only occasionally women), who wilfully destroy themselves amid the American convoys, outside the Iraqi police stations, in markets and around mosques and in shopping streets and on lonely roads beside remote checkpoints across the huge cities and vast deserts of Iraq. Never have the true figures for this astonishing and unprecedented campaign of self-liquidation been calculated.

But a month-long investigation by The Independent, culling four Arabic-language newspapers, official Iraqi statistics, two Beirut news agencies and Western reports, shows that an incredible 1,121 Muslim suicide bombers have blown themselves up in Iraq. This is a very conservative figure and – given the propensity of the authorities (and of journalists) to report only those suicide bombings that kill dozens of people – the true estimate may be double this number. On several days, six – even nine – suicide bombers have exploded themselves in Iraq in a display of almost Wal-Mart availability. If life in Iraq is cheap, death is cheaper.

This is perhaps the most frightening and ghoulish legacy of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq five years ago. Suicide bombers in Iraq have killed at least 13,000 men, women and children – our most conservative estimate gives a total figure of 13,132 – and wounded a minimum of 16,112 people. If we include the dead and wounded in the mass stampede at the Baghdad Tigris river bridge in the summer of 2005 – caused by fear of suicide bombers – the figures rise to 14,132 and 16,612 respectively. Again, it must be emphasised that these statistics are minimums. For 529 of the suicide bombings in Iraq, no figures for wounded are available. Where wounded have been listed in news reports as "several", we have made no addition to the figures. And the number of critically injured who later died remains unknown. Set against a possible death toll of half a million Iraqis since the March 2003 invasion, the suicide bombers’ victims may appear insignificant; but the killers’ ability to terrorise civilians, militiamen and Western troops and mercenaries is incalculable.

Never before has the Arab world witnessed a phenomenon of suicide-death on this scale. During Israel’s occupation of Lebanon after 1982, one Hizbollah suicide-bombing a month was considered remarkable. During the Palestinian intifadas of the 1980s and 1990s, four per month was regarded as unprecedented. But suicide bombers in Iraq have been attacking at the average rate of two every three days since the 2003 Anglo-American invasion.

And, although neither the Iraqi government nor their American mentors will admit this, scarcely 10 out of more than a thousand suicide killers have been identified. We know from their families that Palestinians, Saudis, Syrians and Algerians have been among the bombers. In a few cases, we have names. But in most attacks, the authorities in Iraq – if they can still be called "authorities" after five years of catastrophe – have no idea to whom the bloodied limbs and headless torsos of the bombers belong.

Even more profoundly disturbing is that the "cult" of the suicide bomber has seeped across national frontiers. Within a year of the Iraqi invasion, Afghan Taliban bombers were blowing themselves up alongside Western troops or bases in Helmand province and in the capital Kabul. The practice leached into Pakistan, striking down thousands of troops and civilians, killing even the principal opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto. The London Tube and bus bombings – despite the denials of Tony Blair – were obviously deeply influenced by events in Iraq.

Academics and politicians have long debated the motives of the bombers, the psychological make-up of the men and women who cold-bloodedly decide to undertake the role of suicide executioners; for they are executioners, killers who see their victims – be they soldiers or civilians – before they flick the switch that destroys them. The Israelis long ago decided that there was no "perfect" profile for a suicide bomber, and my own experience in Lebanon bears this out. The suicider might have spent years fighting the Israelis in the south of the country. Often, they would have been imprisoned or tortured by Israel or its proxy Lebanese militia. Sometimes, brothers or other family members would have been killed. On other occasions, the example of their own relatives would have drawn them into the vortex of suicide-by-example.

Khaled is – or was, for I no longer know if he is alive, since I met him a few weeks ago– influenced by his brother Hassan, whose journey to Iraq was organised by an unknown group, presumably Palestinian, and whose weapons training beside the Tigris river was videotaped by his comrades. Hassan’s mother has shown me this tape – which ends with Hassan cheerfully waving goodbye from the driver’s window of a battered car, presumably the vehicle he was about to ram into the American convoy at Tal Afar.

None of this addresses the issue of religious belief. While there is evidence aplenty that the Japanese suicide pilots of the Second World War were sometimes coerced and intimidated into their final flights against US warships in the Pacific, many also believed that they were dying for their emperor. For them, the fall of cherry blossom and the divine wind – the "kamikaze" – blessed their souls as they aimed their bombers at American aircraft carriers. But even an industrialised dictatorship like Japan – facing the imminent collapse of its entire society at the hands of a superpower – could only mobilise 4,615 "kamikazes". The Iraq suicide bombers may already have reached half that number.

But the Japanese authorities encouraged their pilots to think of themselves as a collective suicide unit whose insignia of imminent death – white Rising Sun headbands and white scarves – prefigured the yellow headbands imprinted with Koranic script that Hizbollah guerrillas wore when they set out to attack Israeli soldiers in the occupied zone of southern Lebanon. In Iraq, however, those who direct the growing army of suiciders do not lack inventiveness. Their bombers have arrived at the scene of their self-destruction dressed as car mechanics, soldiers, police officers, middle-aged housewives, children’s sweet-sellers, worshippers and – on one occasion – a "harmless" shepherd. They have carried their bombs in Oldsmobiles, fuel trucks, garbage trucks, flat-bed trucks, on donkeys and bicycles, motor-bikes and mopeds and carts, minibuses, date-vendors’ vans, mobile recruitment centres and lorries packed with chlorine. Incredibly, there appears to be no individual central "brain" behind the bombings – although "groupuscules" of bombers obviously exist. Inspiration, imitation and the globalised influence of the internet appear sufficient to empower the bombers of Iraq.

On an individual level, it is possible to see the friction and psychological trauma of families. Khaled’s mother, for instance, constantly expressed her pride in her dead son Hassan and, in front of me, she looked with almost equal love at his still-living brother. But when my companion urged Khaled to remain alive for his mother’s sake – reminding him that the Prophet himself spoke of the primary obligation of a Muslim man to protect his mother – the woman was close to tears. She was torn apart by her love as a mother and her religious-political duty as the woman who had brought another would-be martyr into the world. When my friend again urged Khaled to remain alive, to stay in Sidon and marry – eerily, the muezzin’s call to prayer had begun during our conversation – he shook his head.

Not even a disparaging remark about those who would send him on his death mission – that they were prepared to live in this world while sending others like Khaled to their fate – could discourage him. "I am not going to become a ’shahed’ [martyr] for people," he replied. "I am doing it for God."

It was the same old argument. We could produce a hundred good ways – peaceful ways – for him to resolve the injustices of this world; but the moment Khaled invoked the name of God, our suggestions became irrelevant. Rationality – humanism, if you like – simply withered away. If a Western president could invoke a war of "good against evil", his antagonists could do the same.

But is there a rational pattern to the suicide bombings in Iraq? The first incidents of their kind took place as American troops were actually advancing towards Baghdad. Near the Shia town of Nasiriyah, an off-duty Iraqi policeman, Sergeant Ali Jaffar Moussa Hamadi al-Nomani, drove a car bomb into an American Marine roadblock. Married, with five children, he had been a soldier in Iraq’s 1980-88 war with Iran and had volunteered to fight the Americans after Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. Shortly afterwards, two Shia Muslim women did the same.

In its dying days, even Saddam Hussein’s own government was shocked. "The US administration is going to turn the whole world into people prepared to die for their nations," Saddam’s vice-president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, warned. "All they can do now is turn themselves into bombs. If the B-52 bombs can now kill 500 or more in our war, then I’m sure that some operations by our freedom fighters will be able to kill 5,000." Ramadan even referred to "the martyr’s moment of sublimity" – an al-Qa’ida-like phrase that ill befitted a secular Baathist – and it was clear that the vice-president was almost as surprised as the Americans. But only two days after the US occupation of Baghdad, a woman killed herself while trying to explode a grenade among a group of American troops outside the capital.

Throughout the five years of war, suicide bombers have focused on Iraq’s own American-trained security forces rather than US troops. At least 365 attacks have been staged against Iraqi police or paramilitary forces. Their targets included at least 147 police stations (1,577 deaths), 43 army and police recruitment centres (939 deaths), 91 checkpoints (with a minimum of 564 fatalities), 92 security patrols (465 deaths) and numerous other police targets (escorts, convoys accompanying government ministers, etc). One of the recruitment centres – in the centre of Baghdad – was assaulted by suicide bombers on eight separate occasions.

By contrast, suicide bombers have attacked only 24 US bases at a cost of 100 American dead and 15 Iraqis, and 43 American patrols and checkpoints, during which 116 US personnel were killed along with at least 56 civilians, 15 of whom appear to have been shot by American soldiers in response to the attacks, and another 26 of whom were children standing next to a US patrol. Most of the Americans were killed west or north of Baghdad. Suicide attacks on the police concentrated on Baghdad and Mosul and the Sunni towns to the immediate north and south of Baghdad.

The trajectory of the suicide bombers shows a clear preference for military targets throughout the insurgency, with attacks on Americans gradually decreasing from 2006 and individual attacks on Iraqi police patrols and police recruits increasing over the past two years, especially in the 100 miles north of Baghdad. Just as the Islamist murderers of Algeria – and their military opponents – favoured the fasting month of Ramadan for their bloodiest assaults in the 1990s, so the suicide bombers of Iraq mobilise on the eve of religious festivals. There was a pronounced drop in suicide assaults during the period of sectarian liquidations after 2005, either because the bombers feared interception by the throat-cutters of tribal gangs working their way across Baghdad, or because – a grim possibility – they were themselves being used in the sectarian murder campaign.

The most politically powerful attacks occurred inside military bases – including the Green Zone in Baghdad (two in one day in October 2004) – and against the UN headquarters (in which the UN envoy Sergio de Mello was killed) and the International Red Cross offices in Baghdad in 2003. By December 2003, British officials were warning that there were more "spectacular" suicide bombings to come, and the first suicide assault on a mosque took place in January of the following year when a bomber on a bicycle blew himself up in a Shia mosque in Baquba, killing four worshippers and wounding another 39.

Scarcely a year later, another suicider attacked a second Shia mosque, killing 14 worshippers and wounding 40. In February 2004, a man blew himself up on a bus outside the Shia mosque at Khadamiyah in Baghdad, killing 17 more Shia Muslims. Only a few days earlier, a man wearing an explosives belt killed four at yet another Shia mosque in the Doura district of Baghdad. The suicide campaign against Shia places of worship continued with an attack on a Mosul mosque in March 2005, killing at least 50, two more attacks in April that killed 26, and another in May in Baghdad.

While Shia mosques were being targeted in a deliberate campaign of provocation by al-Qa’ida-type suiciders, markets and hospitals frequented by Shia Muslims were also attacked. Almost all the 600 Iraqis killed by suicide bombs in May 2005 were Shias. After the partial demolition of the Shia mosque at Samarra on 22 February 2006, the "war of the mosques" began in earnest for the suicide bombers of Iraq. A Sunni mosque was blown up, with nine dead and "dozens" of wounded, and two Shia mosques were the target of suicide bombers in the same week. In early July 2006, seven suicide killers blew themselves up in Sunni and Shia mosques, leaving a total of 51 civilians dead. During the same period, a suicide bomber launched the first attack of its kind on Shia pilgrims arriving from Iran.

Bombers were to attack the funerals of those Shia they had killed, and even wedding parties. Schools, university campuses and shopping precincts were also now included on the target lists, most of the victims yet again being Shia. Over the past year, however, an increasing number of tribal leaders loyal to the Americans – including Sattar Abu Risha, who publicly met President Bush on 13 September 2007, and former insurgents who have now joined the American-paid anti-al-Qa’ida militias – have been blown apart by Sunni bombers.

Only about 10 of the suicide bombers have been identified. One of them, who attacked an Iraqi police unit in June 2005, turned out to be a former police commando called Abu Mohamed al-Dulaimi, but the Americans and the Iraqi authorities appear to have little intelligence on the provenance of these killers. On at least 27 occasions, Iraqi officials have claimed to know the identity of the killers – saying that they had recovered passports and identity papers that proved their "foreign" origin – but they have never produced these documents for public inspection. There is even doubt that the two suicide bombers who blew themselves up in a bird market earlier this year were in fact mentally retarded young women, as the government was to allege.

Indeed, nothing could better illustrate the lack of knowledge of the authorities than the two contradictory statements made by the Americans and their Iraqi protégés in March of last year. Just as David Satterfield, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s adviser on Iraq, was claiming that "90 per cent" of suicide bombers were crossing the border from Syria, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was announcing that "most" of the suiciders came from Saudi Arabia – which shares a long, common border with Iraq. Saudis would hardly waste their time travelling to Damascus to cross a border that their own country shared with Iraq. Many in Baghdad, including some government ministers, believe that the nationality of the bombers is much closer to home – that they are, in fact, Iraqis.

It will be many years before we have a clearer idea of the number of bombers who have killed themselves in the Iraq war – and of their origin. Long before The Independent’s total figure reached 500, al-Qa’ida’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was boasting of "800 martyrs" among his supporters. And since al-Zarqawi’s death brought not the slightest reduction in bombings, we must assume that there are many other "manipulators" in charge of Iraq’s suicide squads.

Nor can we assume the motives for every mass murder. Who now remembers that the greatest individual number of victims of any suicide bombing died in two remote villages of the Kahtaniya region of Iraq, all Yazidis – 516 of them slaughtered, another 525 wounded. A Yazidi girl, it seems, had fallen in love with a Sunni man and had been punished by her own people for this "honour crime": she had been stoned to death. The killers presumably came from the Sunni community.

One of George Bush’s most insidious legacies in Iraq thus remains its most mysterious; the marriage of nationalism and spiritual ferocity, the birth of an unprecedentedly huge army of Muslims inspired by the idea of death.

Bhutto had "proof" state rigging poll

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By Simon Gardner

Benazir Bhutto was poised to reveal proof that Pakistan’s election commission and shadowy spy agency were seeking to rig an upcoming general election the night she was assassinated, a top aide said on Tuesday.

Senator Latif Khosa, who authored a 160-page dossier with Bhutto documenting rigging tactics, said they ranged from intimidation to fake ballots, and were in some cases unwittingly funded by U.S. aid.

Bhutto had been due to give the report to two visiting U.S. lawmakers over dinner on December 27, the day she was killed in a suicide bombing.

"The state agencies are manipulating the whole process," Khosa, a top Bhutto aide and head of her Pakistan People’s Party election monitoring unit, told Reuters.

"There is rigging by the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), the election commission and the previous government, which is still continuing to hold influence. They were on the rampage."

President Pervez Musharraf’s spokesman Rashid Qureshi dismissed the claim as "ridiculous".

"It makes one laugh," he said. "The president has said a free, fair, transparent and peaceful election is essential, which forms part of his overall strategy for transforming Pakistan into a fully democratic (nation)."

"Benazir’s coming back to Pakistan was part of a national reconciliation ordinance," he added. "Take it from me, it’s going to be perhaps the best election that Pakistan has ever had."

Khosa said the report, entitled ’Yet another stain on the face of democracy’, details how the spy agency was planning to issue 25,000 pre-stamped ballots for each of 108 candidates for national assembly seats in Punjab from the party that backs President Musharraf and formed his government.


"They have used intimidatory tactics, they intimidated the returning officers into rejecting nomination papers ... they prevented candidates from submitting their nomination papers," Khosa said.

"This happened in Baluchistan and in the other central areas of Pakistan. It happened in Sindh."

He said the ISI also had a "mega computer" which could hack into any computer and was connected to the Election Commission’s system.

Separately the commission had tried to manipulate the voting register by leaving millions of potential voters out, he added.

An initial draft list of voters published in June put the electorate at 52 million people, more than 20 million short, triggering a backlash from Musharraf’s political opponents.

The Supreme Court ordered the commission to revise the list, and in October it raised the total to 80 million.

"The Election Commission is completely subservient to the government," Khosa said.

In the Election Commission’s case, U.S. financial aid had been used in rigging, he added, stressing however he did not believe it was diverted military aid.

"She was going to give the dossier to two U.S. lawmakers simply because they happened to be visiting. It was then going to be made public," Khosa said.

"Benazir was supposed to hold a press conference. It was going to be distributed to everyone, but unfortunately that did not arise because she was assassinated."

Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan 2008

Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan 2008

The horrible, honest reality of the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan like you haven’t heard it before.

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Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan., features testimony from U.S. veterans who served in those occupations, giving an accurate account of what is really happening day in and day out, on the ground. Continued

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Katrina Contractor Has Reaped Millions

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The company charged with distributing aid checks has been blamed for its slow response yet received a pay raise from the state of Louisiana.

New Orleans - Two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of homeowners are still waiting for their government rebuilding checks, and many complain they can’t even get their calls returned. But the company that holds the contract to distribute the aid is doing quite well.

ICF International of Fairfax, Va., has posted strong profits, gone public, landed additional multimillion-dollar government contracts - and recently secured a potentially big raise from the state of Louisiana.

In the waning days of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco’s administration, state officials increased the management contract ceiling from $756 million to $912 million - this, after the Legislature wanted to fire ICF over its handling of the homeowner recovery program, called Road Home.

"It is outrageous that ICF couldn’t do the job for more than $750 million and that they were given a pay raise after their history of disappointing service," Blanco’s successor, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, said in an e-mail Thursday.

Displaced residents expressed anger.

"I’m flabbergasted that this company could be so inefficient and could mess up so consistently and for so long," said Bill Yurt, 57, who has been living in a FEMA trailer for 2 1/2 years.

Yurt said ICF hasn’t sent an appraiser to determine the grant amount that will resurrect his gutted house in the New Orleans neighborhood of Gentilly. And his calls to an ICF caseworker have gone unreturned for a month.

Road Home was created in June 2006 as a state-run, federally funded plan to compensate homeowners for the breach of New Orleans’ government-run levees. Homeowners can apply for grants to repair their homes or to obtain buyouts if they don’t want to fix things up.

As of last month, 56,000 applicants - nearly 40% of the qualified total - had yet to receive a cent. Plagued by cost overruns and delays, Road Home is expected to cost federal taxpayers $10 billion and has become a glaring symbol of frustration in post-Katrina New Orleans.

"Supposedly they had the expertise, but what we’ve learned ever since is it’s been on-the-job training," said Frank Silvestri, co-chairman of the Citizens Road Home Action Team, or CHAT, a community group that was formed in anger over ICF.

ICF spokeswoman Gentry Brann blamed the state’s ever-changing rules and political meddling by officials and community groups for many of Road Home’s difficulties.

She said Road Home had come to be regarded as an entitlement program The company, she said, must carefully evaluate 157,000 applications to guard against fraud.

Suddenly, a Dangerous Turn

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By Robert Parry

Two seemingly disconnected events have created a suddenly dangerous turn regarding the future of U.S. wars in the Middle East.

One was the abrupt resignation of the person who has been the biggest obstacle to a U.S. military strike against Iran, Admiral William Fallon, the chief of Central Command which oversees U.S. military operations in the volatile region.

The second is the ugly direction that the Democratic presidential competition has taken, with Hillary Clinton’s campaign intensifying its harsh rhetoric against Barack Obama, reducing the likelihood that he can win the presidency – and thus raising the odds that the next president will be either John McCain or Sen. Clinton, both hawks on Iran.

Throughout the campaign, Clinton has mocked Obama as inexperienced for his desire to engage in presidential-level diplomacy with Iran and other adversarial states. And she recently judged him as unqualified to serve as Commander in Chief, while declaring that both she and Sen. McCain have crossed that "threshold."

The cumulative effect of Clinton’s attacks on Obama’s qualifications – combined with her campaign’s efforts to turn many white voters against him as the "black candidate" – has buoyed Republican hopes for November.

By simultaneously marginalizing and dirtying up Obama, the Clinton campaign also has tamped down the excitement of many Democrats, especially the young, for a candidate that they see as offering a refreshing message of hope and change.

Replacing Obama’s message of reform and reconciliation is a Clinton message of resentment and victimization, as voiced by former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro who claimed that Clinton confronts "sexist media" bias as a woman while Obama gets an easy ride because he’s black.

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," Ferraro, the former Democratic vice presidential candidate, told The Daily Breeze of California. "And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is."

The idea that a black man in America, who was raised by a single mother and who bears an exotic foreign-sounding name, would be deemed "very lucky" struck many Americans as a bizarre choice of words. But it fits with a key sub rosa theme of the Clinton campaign, that an unqualified black man was cutting line in front of a better qualified white woman.

Clinton gingerly distanced herself from Ferraro’s comments and Ferraro resigned from Clinton’s finance committee. But even political analysts who are fond of Clinton found the larger picture of her campaign strategic demeaning of Obama offensive.

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann said he decided reluctantly that he must speak out against the Clinton campaign’s behavior.

"As it has reached its apex in their tone-deaf, arrogant and insensitive reaction to the remarks of Geraldine Ferraro, your own advisers are slowly killing your chances to become president," Olbermann said in a "Special Comment" on March 12.

"Senator, their words, and your own, are now slowly killing the chances for any Democrat to become president. … You are now campaigning as if Barack Obama were the Democrat and you were the Republican. As Shakespeare wrote, Senator, that way madness lies."

Into the Abyss

If followed to its logical – yet crazed – conclusion, the madness also might be leading the United States into the ever deepening abyss of Middle East wars.

After all, both McCain and Clinton were staunch supporters of the Iraq War, now nearing its fifth anniversary with no end in sight.

McCain remains an Iraq War advocate, even he says if the U.S. occupation must last a century or more. Clinton only reversed herself on the war as she prepared to run for the Democratic nomination, realigning herself with the anti-war views of most Democrats, but she refused to admit that her 2002 war-authorization vote was a mistake.

Both McCain and Clinton also favor a hard line toward Iran.

During a South Carolina campaign stop in April 2007, as the Bush administration was pounding the war drums with Iran, McCain veered off into a musical rendition, changing the lyrics of an old Beach Boys song to "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran."

In September 2007, Clinton supported a Senate resolution co-sponsored by neoconservative Sen. Joe Lieberman that sought to have Iran’s Revolutionary Guard designated a "global terrorist organization," a move that Sen. James Webb, D-Virginia, warned could be tantamount to a declaration of war.

A month later, however, President George W. Bush opted for a less extreme position than the one Sen. Clinton favored. He designated only the Quds Force, a special operations branch of the Revolutionary Guard, as a "global terrorist" group.

Now, however, the abrupt resignation of Admiral Fallon, who had publicly challenged the saber-rattling toward Iran coming from the White House, removed one of the chief obstacles to the use of military force against Iran over its nuclear program.

Intelligence sources have told me that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were eyeing possible air strikes against Iranian targets in 2007 before they encountered Fallon’s stiff opposition.

The White House hardliners also met resistance from the U.S. intelligence community, which released a National Intelligence Estimate reporting that Iran had shut down a key element of its nuclear weapons program.

Since Fallon’s sudden resignation, intelligence sources have said they do not foresee an imminent U.S. assault on Iran, although one source said Fallon quit, in part, over a new White House demand for an updated attack plan.

More likely, the sources say, the issue of how to deal with Iran will pass to the next president. In that regard, McCain and Clinton promise more tough talk and belligerence, while Obama vows to speak directly with Iran’s leaders over how to reduce tensions.

Yet, the combined events of the past several days – the sudden ouster of the chief military opponent of an expanded war in the Middle East and the apparent decline in the political fortunes of the most dovish candidate – suggest that the Bush-Cheney belligerent strategies may well outlast their terms of office.

State Department: Anti-Zionism is the New Anti-Semitism

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New forms of anti-Semitism are emerging around the world, promoting prejudice against Jews by attacking Israeli policy and Zionism, the philosophic underpinning of a Jewish state, the State Department reported Thursday.

While common throughout the Middle East and in Muslim communities, the new anti-Semitism is not confined to those populations, said the report, prepared by the office of the special envoy for monitoring anti-Semitism.

For example, the report cited frequent requests to the United Nations to commission investigations of reports of alleged atrocities and other human rights violations by Israel.

Unremitting criticism of Israel is mounting, the report said, and Israeli policy is sometimes likened to the Nazis. At the same time, the report to Congress said, there is a failure to pay attention to regimes guilty of grave violations.

This has the effect of reinforcing the notion that the Jewish state is one of the greatest sources of abuse of the rights of others "and thus, unintentionally or not, encourages anti-Semitism," the report said.

While Israel’s policies and practices must be subject to criticism and scrutiny to the same degree as other countries’, "those criticizing Israel have a responsibility to consider the effect their actions may have in promoting hatred of Jews," the report said.

It was issued with a tribute to Tom Lantos, the Holocaust survivor who was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee until his death last month. Lantos, instrumental in persuading the State Department to monitor anti-Semitism, was praised as "a leader of moral force and a champion of human rights."

His successor, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., said in a statement that the report "provides evidence of a disturbing resurgence in anti-Semitism around the globe."

"All too often, legitimate criticism of the state of Israel can veer into naked anti-Semitism characterized by vile hate speech," Berman said. "And all too often it goes unchallenged."

The report singles out Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a Holocaust denier whose government practices official anti-Semitism against its Jewish minority, and the Syrian government as routinely demonizing Jews.

In Belarus, state enterprises produce and distribute anti-Semitic material, and in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez has publicly demonized Israel and used stereotypes about Jewish financial influence and control, the report said.

Government media in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have become "vehicles for anti-Semitic discourse," the report said.

Military Stigmas Treat War Trauma as Admission of Weakness

Military Stigmas Treat War Trauma as Admission of Weakness

By Penny Coleman, AlterNet
Posted on March 14, 2008, Printed on March 14, 2008

The seven qualities of leadership itemized in Army Field Manual (FM) 22-100 are loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Nowhere in that list is there any reference to heartlessness, lack of compassion and a cavalier disregard for the wellbeing of one’s troops. And there is certainly no reference to posturing, denial or dissembling. Leading by example trumps mindless stoicism every time.

Back in 1974, when Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer, mastectomy was still considered a taboo topic, too shameful and frightening to be openly discussed. "Too many women are so afraid of breast cancer," she told a gathering of the American Cancer Society, "that they endanger their lives. These fears of being ’less’ of a woman are very real, and it is very important to talk about the emotional side effects honestly. They must come out into the open."

Ford’s courageous decision to use her position as First Lady to set a visible example for other women made a significant impact on public attitudes. According to the New York Times, "Within weeks, thousands of women who had been reluctant to examine their breasts inundated cancer screening centers. One of those following Mrs. Ford’s example was Happy Rockefeller, the wife of the Vice President, Nelson A. Rockefeller. She, too, had breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Mrs. Rockefeller and many others said Mrs. Ford’s example gave them the courage to discuss their experiences openly."

Researchers have since dubbed that phenomenon the "Katie Couric Effect" in honor of the co-anchor of NBC’s "Today Show" who, in March 2000, underwent a colonoscopy on live TV. Couric, who lost her husband to colorectal cancer in 1998, decided to undergo the procedure on-air to "further the science being done on all aspects of colon cancer and increas(e) awareness about the critical role screening plays in combating the nation’s number two cancer killer." According to Mark Fendrick, one of a team of University of Michigan doctors who studied the public response to the Couric demonstration, in the days and months following, the number of Americans who signed up for the exam rose by more than 20 percent. "This test," said Fredrick, "which requires healthy people to undergo an invasive, uncomfortable and often embarrassing exam, especially needed a celebrity advocate to reduce the stigma and fear, and thereby increase participation."

Interesting. A celebrity advocate to reduce stigma and fear.

In our military today, the stigma and fear that attach to post-traumatic stress injuries is a contributing factor to the current epidemic of suicides among American soldiers and veterans, 120 a week according to the recent study by CBS news. The stigma attaches to any admission of weakness, especially weakness of mind. The fear is of being shunned, shamed, punished or encumbered by a health record that might compromise future employment options. That stigma and fear might be profoundly challenged by an officer willing to go public with his -- and I use the male pronoun intentionally -- post-traumatic stress.

The need for service members to forego notions of manliness intrinsic to traditional military culture, to "come out of the closet" as it were, was raised poignantly by Mike Bowman, the father of Tim Bowman, when he testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in December. Tim, a Specialist in the Illinois National Guard, suffered from post-traumatic stress and took his own life after returning from Iraq.

Bowman made the point that, like most of the rest of the guys in his unit, Tim refused to go to the VA for help when his symptoms became invasive. Instead, they seek "counseling of some form or another -- privately - away from the military, away from the V.A., some as far as 100 miles away from home, to make sure that that information does not get back to their unit." In his statement, Bowman emphasized the courage and clarity evidenced by a soldier admitting a psychic injury. Instead of punishing or decrying such a soldier, Bowman insisted, "Grab that soldier and thank him for saying, ’I’m not OK,’ and promote him. A soldier that admits a mental injury should be the first guy you want to have in your unit because he may be the only one that really has a grasp on reality."

Unfortunately, a soldier who has such a grasp on reality, a soldier who has the insight and education to understand that his or her ability to function reliably in a combat situation is compromised, currently faces a very different scenario, in which the convenience and judgment of commanding officers are prioritized. As of December 2006, new Pentagon guidelines give commanders the right to decide whether or not a soldier with a "psychiatric disorder in remission, or whose residual symptoms do not impair duty performance" may be sent back to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Aside from the obvious question of commanders’ qualifications to make decisions about the mental health of the soldiers in their charge, there is something truly insidious lurking behind the new guidelines. According to Dr. Katherine Scheirman, a retired Air Force colonel who served as chief of medical operations in the Air Force’s European headquarters from July 2004 to September 2006, a medical discharge can take months, sometimes longer, and all the while the commander is stuck with an undeployable soldier. An administrative separation usually takes a few weeks, at most. So commanders have a choice. They "can send him to the hospital and say, ’Hey, this guy isn’t able to do his work. Would you look at him for PTSD?’ Or they can just kick the guy out. If you kick the guy out, you’ll get somebody to replace him. So that’s the incentive for the commanders."

That incentive conveniently merges with beliefs of the many "traditional" officers who continue to insist that PTSD is just an excuse for cowardice, weakness, or the old stand-by, malingering. "I’ve never had a guy in my unit develop PTSD," one senior general from Iraq recently told CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier. "It’s nonsense." Such Neanderthal attitudes are encouraged by a cabal of conservative culture warriors in Congress who believe that PTSD is faux science, touted only by a bunch of anti-war activists to justify their liberal politics. And they are using that reasoning to justify this administration’s astonishingly callous health care policies for active and veteran service members.

According to the Army’s own studies, one in three soldiers will return from Iraq with significant mental health problems. Like Tim Bowman, far too many are still ashamed to ask for the help they need and, if the CBS report is read as a cautionary tale, far too many will end up as suicides. The lives and futures of every soldier who might be moved by example, who might be saved by the "Couric Effect," should be reason enough for senior officers to finally and definitively disown the stubborn machismo that sustains the stigma, and visibly demonstrate their belief that post-traumatic injuries are not a sign of weakness or cowardice. Such injuries cannot and should not be sucked up. Even by the manliest. Where are they?

I call on our generals and other senior officers to lead by example. And lest your mottos take on a hollow tone: "Leave no man behind." "Be all you can be." "Do Something Amazing. Aim High." "Honor. Courage. Commitment." And "Semper Fi."

Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam Veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War, was released on Memorial Day, 2006. Her blog is Flashback.

FDA panel recommends limits on Amgen anemia drugs

FDA advisors say Amgen’s Aranesp should still be used but suggest it be limited to certain cancer types.

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By Daniel Costello

In mixed news for biotech giant Amgen Inc., a Food and Drug Administration panel recommended Thursday that doctors continue to prescribe the company’s lucrative anemia drugs for patients with cancer. But the panel suggested scaling back which patients should be treated based on their type of cancer and the severity of the disease.

The recommendations could lead to further sales declines in the company’s blockbuster drug Aranesp. Thousand Oaks-based Amgen makes an identical product that is sold under the name Procrit by Johnson & Johnson.

The drugs have come under increased scrutiny by federal health officials. Six studies suggest the drugs could fuel cancer growth in certain patients and accelerate their death. Sales have dropped sharply since the FDA added a so-called "black-box" warning to the medicines a year ago.

At Thursday’s hearing, the panel focused on a growing theory that the drugs might in some instances do more harm than good.

One idea is that the medications could spur growth of blood vessels that can nourish tumors, although there is little conclusive evidence of this. Research into the issue is ongoing, but it could be years before it’s settled.

Although the tone of questions posed to Amgen executives at the meeting was more cordial than at a session last year, panelists made pointed inquiries. Some appeared to raise concern that the drugs can be harmful even when used according to their labels.

"How long do patients have to continue to be exposed to a drug that we are not sure is safe?" said Dr. Judith Kramer of Duke University.

Dr. Vinni Juneja, an FDA medical officer in the biologic cancer drugs division, asked whether the medicines’ risks outweighed the benefits. "At best, 30% of patients derive a benefit in the avoidance of transfusions, while all patients incur the risks," Juneja said.

The medications treat anemia by boosting the production of red blood cells in patients with kidney disease and cancer. The only alternative treatments for severe anemia are blood transfusions that carry risks of their own.

Asked whether it recommended the drugs for anemia caused by cancer treatment, the FDA committee voted 13 to 1 in favor.

The members voted 9 to 5 that the drugs should no longer be taken by patients with breast cancer or head and neck cancer based on studies that have raised concern that risks in those populations might be higher than in others.

On another important question, the panel voted by a wide margin that doctors should not give the drugs to patients whose cancers are still considered curable. The FDA typically heeds the advice of such advisory committees but isn’t required to do so.

In a statement after the meeting, Amgen said it "takes very seriously the safety signals seen in recent trials where [the drugs] were used outside of the labeled indication. The role of the [panel] is to advise the FDA. We are committed to working with the FDA to consider the input from the committee and to implement future label changes."

It remains unclear to what extent Amgen’s sales would be affected by the new restrictions. The FDA may further clarify precisely which patients fit into the categories under scrutiny, particularly those that are vague such as the patients whose cancer is still deemed curable.

Mark Schoenebaum, a biotech analyst at Bear Stearns & Co., estimated that 25% to 45% of the company’s current $1.6-billion U.S. oncology market is at risk. Aranesp sales fell nearly 20% last year to $3.2 billion, according to health research firm IMS Health Inc.

"The punch line is that total use in cancer patients will decline, although it’s unclear how much. But this isn’t the worst-case scenario," Schoenebaum said.

Amgen’s stock rose $2.19, or nearly 5%, to $47.18 during the regular session Wednesday, but fell as low as $44.99 in after-hours trading.

Even with the increased scrutiny around the anti-anemia blockbusters in recent months, many doctors remain cautiously positive about their role in cancer treatment.

Dr. Steven O’Day, an oncologist with the Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in Santa Monica, said the panel recommendations were likely to lead him to curtail use of the drugs in even more patients than he has over the last year.

But "patients should remember there is balance of good and bad with these" drugs, he said. "They are enormously beneficial to a lot of people."

AOL to buy Bebo for $850 million

The purchase of the social networking site would strengthen the struggling Internet pioneer’s transformation into an online advertising contender.

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By Jessica Guynn

After several months of negotiation, Time Warner Inc.’s AOL agreed Thursday to buy the social networking site for $850 million, part of its bold strategy to grab a greater share of online advertising.

Analysts say it’s a potentially powerful pairing if AOL succeeds where others have struggled, in making money from the growing Internet phenomenon of social networking.

That could prove daunting if the economic downturn takes a big bite out of online advertising dollars. Speaking at a Bear Stearns Cos. conference Monday, Time Warner Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes said AOL’s advertising had slowed.

The deal makes a potential AOL pair-up with Yahoo Inc. less likely, analysts said. In an attempt to fend off a takeover bid from Microsoft Corp., Yahoo has had discussions with AOL about a joint venture or outright purchase.

There has been speculation for years that Time Warner would sell or spin off the troubled Internet unit.

The all-cash deal is a windfall for Bebo Inc.’s husband-and-wife founders, Michael and Xochi Birch, who in just three years turned the company into a popular destination for teens as well as major advertisers. The couple will leave Bebo, which they launched in their San Francisco living room and is their sixth start-up.

Now Bebo’s challenge will be to reinvigorate AOL, the Internet pioneer that rose to prominence in the early 1990s with a similar focus on becoming an online hangout. Another innovation, its instant-message product, has remained popular even as the company aged and its fortunes sagged.

By combining its instant-messaging communities -- AIM and ICQ -- with Bebo, AOL hopes to attract more users and drive more traffic to its sites while jump-starting sluggish advertising growth.

"We feel we can get back into the leadership position in social media and community, which is our heritage at AOL," said David Liu, senior vice president of social media and messaging.

Time and again, AOL has sought to restore its former glory. Facing competition from Internet search giants Google Inc., Yahoo and Microsoft, AOL has shelled out nearly $1 billion for companies to create an online advertising network that sells ads on its own properties and across the Web.

Now, AOL wants to establish a beachhead in social networking.

"AOL was in danger of becoming your father’s Oldsmobile," said Anthony Valencia, an analyst for TCW Group in Los Angeles. "This acquisition is designed to prevent that."

Yet, other companies enamored of social networking are finding it difficult to turn these hangouts into moneymakers. During its fourth-quarter earnings call Jan. 31, Google said it was having a harder time generating ad revenue from social networking. Google has a partnership with MySpace Inc., the leading social network, which News Corp. purchased in 2005 for $580 million.

Last year, Microsoft paid $240 million for a tiny stake in the No. 2 social-networking site, Facebook Inc., giving the Palo Alto-based company an eye-popping $15-billion valuation.

AOL Chief Executive Randy Falco defended Bebo’s purchase price, which apparently was too rich for others. Analysts speculated that Bebo, which is privately held and does not disclose financial details, was on track to generate about $50 million in revenue this year. Bebo entertained bids from other major Internet and media companies before saying yes to AOL.

"It’s a way for AOL to get some skin in the game," said Jupiter Research analyst David Card. EMarketer predicts that $4.1 billion will be spent worldwide on social network advertising by 2011, up from $480 million in 2006.

Falco called the Bebo deal "game-changing" for AOL. With 40 million users, Bebo is the top social networking site in Britain but trails Facebook and MySpace in the United States. In January 2008, Bebo had 22.4 million unique visitors worldwide who averaged more than 3 1/2 hours on the site during the month, according to ComScore Inc.

As at other social-networking sites, Bebo members interact by posting personal information, uploading photos and commenting on one another’s profiles. It distinguished itself by partnering with major media players such as MTV and CBS and by producing such popular original series as "KateModern," the sequel to interactive drama lonelygirl15, which boasted sponsors such as Gillette and Microsoft’s MSN.

Bebo also hired former Google executive Joanna Shields to grow the business. Discussions with AOL got underway after Shields gave a presentation last October to Time Warner executives that impressed AOL’s chief operating officer, Ron Grant. Shields will stay on board as president of the 100-employee company.

The Birches -- Michael, 37, and Xochi, 36 -- are among the Internet’s most recent success stories. Married for 14 years with two kids and another on the way, they stand alongside the creators of video-sharing site YouTube Inc., which sold to Google for $1.65 billion, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The pair will cash out a majority stake in Bebo. Venture capital firm, Balderton Capital, which put in $15 million for a 15.7% stake, will pocket about $140 million.

Whether AOL can stage a comeback is another question. "Bebo has the potential of becoming a valuable asset to AOL if AOL manages it well and executes well," said Gartner Group analyst Ray Valdes. "It’s unclear if they will be able to."

Guantánamo prisoner refuses to cooperate with military show trial

"I’ve been tortured. I’m a human being. I have not violated any law"

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By Joe Kay

Mohammed Jawad, one of the first of the prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, internment camp to face the US government’s new military commission system, is refusing to cooperate in the trial.

At an initial hearing before a military judge on Wednesday, Jawad would not respond when asked if he would accept a military-appointed lawyer to represent him. He denounced the entire process as illegal and charged that he was tortured to elicit false confessions.

At 23 years of age, Jawad is one of the youngest of the prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, and one of two who were captured when they were juveniles. He was detained in December 2002, when he was only 16. He is accused of having thrown a grenade that injured two US soldiers in Afghanistan.

If convicted, Jawad faces life in prison. Even if he were acquitted of the charges—an unlikely prospect—he could still be held indefinitely on the grounds that he is an "enemy combatant."

To call the trial "undemocratic" does not capture the utter injustice of the proceedings, which are a mockery of due process and worthy of a police-state regime. Jawad was captured in December 2002. He has said that he was tortured by Afghan police, and he has been held for over five years without trial under wretched conditions at the US prison camp in Cuba. At the hearing on Wednesday, Jawad complained of a constant headache from years of round-the-clock bright lights in his prison cell.

Under these conditions, the statements of Jawad at his hearing reflect a certain dignity, a protest—to the extent that this is possible—against a court system that has condemned him in advance.

Proceedings were delayed because Jawad refused to leave his cell. He was eventually brought in while wearing handcuffs, leg shackles and an orange prison jumpsuit.

According to press reports, he refused to cooperate and instead denounced the proceedings. "I’ve been tortured," he said through a translator. "I am innocent. I have not violated any law. I’ve been brought here illegally. It’s an injustice to me."

"When I was arrested I was only 16. Is this in the US Constitution, to treat a 16-year-old unfairly?" he asked. "The American government said the Taliban has been very cruel in Afghanistan, that they killed people without any trial and imprisoned people without trial. When I was in detention at Bagram [Air Force Base in Afghanistan], Americans killed three people. They beat people and arrested us without trial. We’re not given any rights."

Jawad refused to acknowledge his military lawyer, Colonel J. Michael Sawyers. "I should be given freedom to find a lawyer," he insisted, to which the military judge, Colonel Michael Kohlmann, replied, "That’s not going to happen."

Throughout the hearings, Jawad’s demeanor reflected the consequences of his years of abuse. According to a report from an observer for Amnesty International, Jawad "was visibly agitated and uncomfortable throughout the proceedings. He would often rub his forehead and put his head in his hands. At times he rocked forward and exhaled audibly. When he put his hands to his head, the guards behind him would remove them and place them back on the table. Eventually they gave up on this."

At a certain point in the hearings, Jawad took off his translation headphones and laid his head on his forearms. He remained like this until after the proceedings were over and all the observers had left the room.

The young prisoner denies that he threw the grenade that injured the US soldiers. At a "Combatant Status Review Tribunal" in 2004, at which he was determined to be an "enemy combatant," Jawad said he had been brought to Afghanistan from his home in Pakistan by people who said he would have a job clearing mines. He said that at the time of the attack on the US soldiers, the person who brought him to Afghanistan gave him a grenade and told him to hold on to it. He said that it was likely this other individual who threw the grenade that exploded in the soldier’s car.

Even if Jawad did commit the act for which he is accused, he stands guilty of nothing more than opposing, through a desperate act, a foreign occupying force that since the invasion in October 2001 has sought to impose its will upon the Afghan population. The US military routinely kills civilians in bombing campaigns, but no one is ever held accountable for these crimes.

The outcome of the hearing was inconclusive. The term of service of Jawad’s lawyer is set to end in a few days, and a new lawyer will have to be appointed. Kohlmann decided to delay any further action until the new lawyer is briefed on the case, which could take months.

An article in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday reported, "Army Col. Steve David, the chief defense lawyer for the tribunal, has informed Kohlmann that he is unable to assign a new lawyer for Jawad in the near future because he has only nine on staff with 14 active cases. That includes the six Sept. 11 suspects, who by American Bar Assn. rules for capital cases should each have at least two military lawyers. The prosecution has more than 30 attorneys preparing the government’s side."

The trial of Jawad and a few of the other prisoners slated for military commissions are intended as trial runs before the more high profile cases against alleged 9/11 conspirators announced in February. The government evidently wants to prepare itself to handle inconvenient developments—such as the refusal of one or another of the prisoners to participate. However, the Jawad case merely highlights the thoroughly illegitimate and criminal character of the entire process.

FBI Found to Misuse Security Letters

2003-06 Audit Cites Probes of Citizens

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By Dan Eggen

The FBI has increasingly used administrative orders to obtain the personal records of U.S. citizens rather than foreigners implicated in terrorism or counterintelligence investigations, and at least once it relied on such orders to obtain records that a special intelligence-gathering court had deemed protected by the First Amendment, according to two government audits released yesterday.

The episode was outlined in a Justice Department report that concluded the FBI had abused its intelligence-gathering privileges by issuing inadequately documented "national security letters" from 2003 to 2006, after which changes were put in place that the report called sound.

A report a year ago by the Justice Department’s inspector general disclosed that abuses involving national security letters had occurred from 2003 through 2005 and helped provoke the changes. But the report makes it clear that the abuses persisted in 2006 and disclosed that 60 percent of the nearly 50,000 security letters issued that year by the FBI targeted Americans.

Because U.S. citizens enjoy constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, judicial warrants are ordinarily required for government surveillance. But national security letters are approved only by FBI officials and are not subject to judicial approval; they routinely demand certain types of personal data, such as telephone, e-mail and financial records, while barring the recipient from disclosing that the information was requested or supplied.

According to the findings by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, the FBI tried to work around the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees clandestine spying in the United States, after it twice rejected an FBI request in 2006 to obtain certain records. The court had concluded "the ’facts’ were too thin" and the "request implicated the target’s First Amendment rights," the report said.

But the FBI went ahead and got the records anyway by using a national security letter. The FBI’s general counsel, Valerie E. Caproni, told investigators it was appropriate to issue the letters in such cases because she disagreed with the court’s conclusions.

In total, Fine said, the FBI issued almost 200,000 national security letters from 2003 through 2006, and they were used in a third of all FBI national security and computer probes during that time. Fine said his investigators have identified hundreds of possible violations of laws or internal guidelines in the use of the letters, including cases in which FBI agents made improper requests, collected more data than they were allowed to, or did not have proper authorization to proceed with the case.

Fine also pointed to the FBI’s "troubling" use of the letters to obtain vast quantities of telephone numbers or other records with a single request. Investigators identified 11 such cases, involving information related to about 4,000 phone numbers, that did not comply with USA Patriot Act requirements or that violated FBI guidelines.

The latest findings reignited long-standing criticism from Democrats and civil liberties groups, who said the FBI’s repeated misuse of its information-gathering powers underscores the need for greater oversight by Congress and the courts.

"The fact that these are being used against U.S. citizens, and being used so aggressively, should call into question the claim that these powers are about terrorists and not just about collecting information on all kinds of people," said Jameel Jaffer, national security director at the American Civil Liberties Union. "They’re basically using national security letters to evade legal requirements that would be enforced if there were judicial oversight."

Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said in a statement that Fine’s report "should come as no surprise" because the survey ended in 2006, before the FBI introduced procedural changes to better control and keep track of requests for the security letters.

FBI Assistant Director John Miller said a new automated system will keep better tabs on the letters, and they are now reviewed by a lawyer before they are sent to a telephone company, Internet service provider or other target. "We are committed to using them in ways that maximize their national security value while providing the highest level of privacy and protection of the civil liberties of those we are sworn to protect," Miller said.

Fine said that FBI employees "self-reported" 84 possible violations of laws or guidelines in the use of the letters, in 2006, which "was significantly higher than the number of reported violations in prior years." But he noted that his office already had begun its initial investigation into the letters by then, which might have contributed to the increase.

About a quarter of the reported incidents were because of mistakes made by telephone or Internet providers, including some in which they provided either the wrong information or disclosed more than the FBI requested. But many of those cases should have been caught by the FBI earlier, Fine said.

NRCC Says Ex-Treasurer Diverted Up to $1 Million

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By Paul Kane

The former treasurer for the National Republican Congressional Committee diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and possibly as much as $1 million -- of the organization’s funds into his personal accounts, GOP officials said yesterday, describing an alleged scheme that could become one of the largest political frauds in recent history.

For at least four years, Christopher J. Ward, who is under investigation by the FBI, allegedly used wire transfers to funnel money out of NRCC coffers and into other political committee accounts he controlled as treasurer, NRCC leaders and lawyers said in their first public statement since they turned the matter over to the FBI six weeks ago.

"The evidence we have today indicated we have been deceived and betrayed for a number of years by a highly respected and trusted individual," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the NRCC chairman.

The committee also announced that it has submitted to banks five years’ worth of audits and financial documents allegedly faked by Ward, some of which were used to secure multimillion-dollar loans. It is a violation of federal laws to obtain loans through false statements; the crime is punishable by up to $1 million in fines and 30 years in prison.

Before yesterday, the committee, which raised $49 million in 2007, had not acknowledged that any money was missing. It announced on Feb. 1 that it had discovered "irregularities" that might involve fraud, dismissed Ward and called in federal investigators.

Robert K. Kelner, a lawyer with Covington & Burling, which has been hired to oversee an internal forensic audit, told reporters he is certain only that Ward had made "several hundred thousand dollars" in unauthorized money transfers since 2004. However, he said, the year-end report filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in 2006 overstated the NRCC’s cash on hand by $990,000.

That may be the upper level of what Ward allegedly skimmed from NRCC coffers, Kelner said. But the total will not be known until forensic auditors finish "drilling down" to determine how much money might have been misappropriated and how much may be missing as a result of sloppy bookkeeping, he said.

Kelner said Ward was the only NRCC official empowered to use wire transfers to shift money into any account without a second approval. After transferring the money into accounts he controlled, often for dormant fundraising committees associated with the NRCC, Ward allegedly moved it into accounts for his political consulting business or his personal bank accounts, Kelner said.

Kelner said the NRCC has had no contact with Ward since he was fired on Jan. 28. Ronald Machen, Ward’s attorney, declined to comment on the investigation yesterday, as did the FBI.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Ward had served as treasurer for 83 GOP committees this decade. In the past five years, the committees took in more than $400 million in contributions.

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) told The Post this week that Ward paid himself $6,000 from King’s PAC in 2007 after the congressman thought he had closed down the committee. reported last night that Ward lent himself more than $4,200 from the political action committee of Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), an unusual expenditure for a campaign treasurer to make. Ward repaid the money early last month, after the FBI was called in to investigate his work at the NRCC, reported.

According to a source familiar with the investigation, some of those committees were closed down in filings to the FEC but their accounts were left open at banks. That would have allowed Ward to divert money into their coffers and then to his political consulting firm or his personal bank accounts.

Kelner said the NRCC had not met with its outside auditors for nearly five years, describing that as unusual. Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), who previously served as chairman of the NRCC’s audit committee, said he had asked to meet with the outside auditing firm, Deloitte & Touche, and that the fake audits were almost perfect forgeries.

"I sought for several years to meet with the outside auditors," Walden said. "There was always some seemingly legitimate reason why that didn’t happen." The scheme began to unravel this year, when Rep. K. Michael Conaway (Tex.), the new head of the audit committee, insisted on meeting the auditors.

The magnitude of the alleged fraud staggered Republicans, who are bracing for the final accounting from the forensic audit in six to eight weeks. Many said they expect a total far greater than the minimum cited yesterday.

The largest confirmed political fraud in the modern campaign finance era, after a 1974 law set strict contribution limits, is believed to be the embezzlement of $1 million from the 1992 presidential campaign of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.).

Cole told reporters yesterday evening that the NRCC has spent about $370,000 on the audit being conducted by Kelner’s firm and accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers, draining precious dollars from a campaign committee that has badly trailed its Democratic counterpart in fundraising for more than a year.

Kelner said federal election and banking laws, which require proof that such frauds were done "knowingly," are likely to put the legal burden on Ward and not the NRCC. He said the internal probe so far has turned up no signs of "anybody else colluding with" Ward. staff writer Ben Pershing and Washington Post staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.