Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Credit crisis: Mervyn King offers little comfort as squeeze enters 'a new phase'

Go to Original
By Gary Duncan

The Bank of England’s Governor paved the way yesterday for it to take more radical steps to ease mounting financial stresses on British banks as he admitted that the credit squeeze had entered “a new and difficult phase”.

Mervyn King signalled to MPs that ground-breaking action to buy up or swap the illiquid mortgage-backed securities blamed for the near-seizure of credit markets could be taken, in a decisive attempt by the Bank to quell resurgent financial strains.

The Governor said that present conditions were “the sorts of circumstances in which central bank action is necessary to prevent a major shock to the system as a whole. We are discussing with the banks how a longer-term resolution of the problem might be reached,” he told the Commons Treasury Committee.

Mr King highlighted his concern over deteriorating financial conditions when he conceded for the first time that the economy faced a full-blown credit crunch. Until now, he had avoided using that term, but yesterday he emphasised that “across the world, confidence in financial markets is fragile”.

His comments came as renewed strains in Britain’s money markets were confirmed when sterling Libor interest rates for three-month loans between banks rose to 6 per cent, the highest since December 28.

The Governor also boosted City speculation that interest rates could be cut again as soon as next month. Asked whether market upheavals meant that the Bank was more predisposed to cut interest rates, Mr King replied bluntly: “Yes.”

His clear hint that the Bank was contemplating unprecedented measures to restore financial calm in its talks with commercial banks came as he pinned the blame for the funding drought in inter-bank lending firmly on largely untradeable assets, such as mortgage-backed securities.

“The heart of the problem stems from an overhang on banks’ balance sheets of assets in which markets have closed,” he said. “These assets cannot now be sold or used to secure funding in the market; they are difficult to finance.

That has created uncertainty about the strength of banks’ financial positions.”

The Governor made clear that the Bank would continue to lend against asset-backed securities. However, in a signal that he sees a sound case for stronger measures, he added: “Such lending can only be a temporary measure, but it can be a useful bridge to a longer-term solution.”

While he did not detail any specific measures, he underlined the case for more far-reaching action. “It is unrealistic to assume that markets for many asset-backed securities are likely to reopen speedily, or, when they do, to their previous levels of activity.”

While Mr King’s comments were seen as pointing to potential Bank moves that would remove asset-backed securities from banks’ balance sheets, he also emphasised to MPs that any action would come with two key conditions.

He said it was essential that the risk of losses on banks’ lending “remain with banks’ shareholders”, while any public funds should not simply subsidise new commercial lending by banking groups. The Governor could impose conditions on any new Bank of England support to ensure the first condition, but guaranteeing the latter could be much harder to achieve.

Mr King mounted a strong defence of the Bank’s handling of the credit crisis, rebuffing challenges from MPs who suggested it had been less proactive than the US Federal Reserve.

He also repeated his prediction that house prices were unlikely to rise over the next few years, while a sharp squeeze on household spending power was likely to continue for another year. Despite that, he dampened hopes of steep cuts in interest rates, pointing again to the difficult balancing act between pressures from rising inflation and weaker growth.

Death of the Bees: GMO Crops and the Decline of Bee Colonies in North America

Go to Original
By Brit Amos

‘Commercial beehives pollinate over a third of [North}America’s crops and that web of nourishment encompasses everything from fruits like peaches, apples, cherries, strawberries and more, to nuts like California almonds, 90 percent of which are helped along by the honeybees. Without this pollination, you could kiss those crops goodbye, to say nothing of the honey bees produce or the flowers they also fertilize’.1

This essay will discuss the arguments and seriousness pertaining to the massive deaths and the decline of Bee colonies in North America. As well, it will shed light on a worldwide hunger issue that will have an economical and ecological impact in the very near future.

There are many reasons given to the decline in Bees, but one argument that matters most is the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and "Terminator Seeds" that are presently being endorsed by governments and forcefully utilized as our primary agricultural needs of survival. I will argue what is publicized and covered by the media is in actuality masking the real forces at work, namely the impact of genetically modified seeds on the reproduction of bee colonies across North America

Genetically modified seeds are produced and distributed by powerful biotech conglomerates. The latter manipulate government agricultural policy with a view to supporting their agenda of dominance in the agricultural industry. American conglomerates such as Monsanto, Pioneer HiBred and others, have created seeds that reproduce only under certain conditions, often linked to the use of their own brands of fertilizer and/or insecticide.

The genetic modification of the plant leads to the concurrent genetic modification of the flower pollen. When the flower pollen becomes genetically modified or sterile, the bees will potentially go malnourished and die of illness due to the lack of nutrients and the interruption of the digestive capacity of what they feed on through the summer and over the winter hibernation process.

I will argue that the media reports tend to distract public opinion from the true cause which underlies the destruction of bee colonies. As such, outlined are four major arguments which the biotech conglomerates (which produce and market GMO seeds) have used to mislead the public regarding the demise of the bees. These arguments include Varroa mites, parasites, cell phones, and terminator seeds

Argument 1: Varroa mites2

Firstly, while there are some people who want to pin the blame on these mites, such views are unconvincing in that the argument does not make any sense because the main source of disease for these bees is intestinal disease. In fact, ‘many bee experts assumed Varroa mites were a major cause of the severe die-off in the winter of 2005. Yet when researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, traveled to Oakdale, California, where Anderson and a number of his fellow beekeepers spend winter and spring, they could find no correlation between the level of Varroa mite infestation and the health of bee colonies. ‘We couldn’t pin the blame for the die-off on any single cause,’ says Jeff Pettis, a research entomologist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland,3 However, treatments against mites may be leaving hives open to the onslaught of powerful pathogens, much in the same way the overuse of antibiotics lead to super bugs in society today. What does that say about our future? We have learned that in the 1960’s and 1970’s, among other human ailments, DDT was a major cause of cancer in humans and animals; however, the substitution of such pesticides was a closely guarded secret. Unfortunately, the long term effects on the human population has yet to be understood as the compromise of the immune system may be happening quicker than we are ready to accept, even regarding the advent of super bugs. One can see that even this medical implication has severe economical implications.

Argument 2: Parasites

Secondly; Crops and even hedges, verges, and woodlands, and even where bees remain are sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. These chemicals are the practical extension of an exasperating belief that nature is our enemy. Pouring poison on our food is a very simplistic way of dealing with our problems however it ignores the root causes. “New genetically modified crops, designed to be immune to certain pesticides and herbicides, have resulted in the increased usage of these chemicals. Pesticides, particularly Bayer’s imidacloprid, a nicotine-based product marketed under the names Admire, Provado, Merit, Marathon, and Gaucho have been concretely implicated4 in the destruction of bee populations before (see also)5. The fact that other bees and insects are not raiding deserted hives to feed on the honey as they normally would lends some credence to the theory of a toxic overload. The toxic overload is certainly a concern, but wouldn’t it also need to be considered that this is systematic in the degeneration of the digestive process, such as in humans inability to digest preservatives and not absorb the enzymes to break down the foods eaten for survival?

Argument 3: cell phones

Thirdly, there was also a misconstrued study on cell phone radiation 6 and its effects on the bee’s ability to navigate which turned out to be an over-zealous unthinking reaction by an article in the Independent news. Some have also mentioned other navigational hindrances such as UV radiation, shifting magnetic fields and even quantum physics7 as a reason to the destruction of the bees.

There is certain implications to this theory, and it has been proven that electromagnetic radio wave lengths to affect the navigation of the bees. However the sun emits radiation spurts all the time, yet this has not offered a hindrance to the bees.

Argument 4: Terminator Seeds

Lastly, ‘Leaked documents seen by the Guardian show that Canada wants all governments to accept the testing and commercialization of “Terminator” crop varieties. These seeds are genetically engineered to produce only infertile seeds, which farmers cannot replant, also to mention that the bees that are trying to collect pollen, found to have their digestive tract diseases, such as amoeba and nosema disease’8. These diseases are mainly located in the digestive tract system. After studies of the autopsy, the most alarming trait is that the lower intestine and stinger have discolored to black vs. the normal opaque color, Synominus with colon cancer in humans.

Figure 1: Extreme discoloration of intestinal tracts of bees.

When thoracic discs were cut from sample Georgia A-2 the musculature of bees was notably soft and discolored (A) when compared to healthy thoracic cuts (B).

This discoloration suggests that the bees were dead upon collection. When questioned the beekeeper confirmed that the bees were alive at the time of collection. Further, the tracheal system of these bees did not show signs of desiccation usually associated

with the collection of dead bees. Thoracic discs from this sample, after being placed in KOH for 24 hours, revealed peculiar white nodules”9

As seen above, it is certain that the digestive shutdown is due to hard material in the digestive tract that compromises the immune system. Circulatory problems would without doubt. Could it be that humans are going through the same process with the rise of Colon Cancer? As seen below in the comparison of the healthy Bee and the unhealthy bee, it is obvious that the bees that are ingesting GMO pollen are having severe digestive problems, so severe that the disease is terminal.

Figure 2: Digestive shutdown of the Honey Bee

The rectal contents of Georgia bees (A) were distinctly different then the contents of Pasadena bees (B). The rectal walls of GA bees were notably transparent revealing contents that looked like small stone packets (C). While Fyg (1964) describes similar stone like contents in poorly laying queens, the stones observed in the GA bees were not attached to the epithelium layer as Fyg (1964) describes. When these packets were ground and mounted, some unidentified floating objects (UFO’s) were observed. A cubic particle that resembles the cubic bodies of polyhedrios viruses (this viruses attacks wax moths) excepting that the cube observed was ~10x too big for a virus particle. There were fragments of pollen grains husks in all samples examined. All PA samples were found to have nosema spores in their rectal contents while none of the GA samples did. In two samples, epithelial cells were packed with spores.

The North American reliance on bees for pollination is at minimum from 30 to 40%. Does it not seem obvious that the digestion of foreign genetic agriculture directly affects the digestive process of the bees. Could it also be that there are similarities in the human population digestive process? It must also be noted that this increased epidemic of the bee colony collapse has risen significantly since the use of GMO agriculture in our foods. It is also suspect in the rise of new cases of medical ailments in humans such as colon cancer, obesity, heart disease, etc... In the writers’ opinion, the inability of the bees to pass matter digestively is quite similar to the present problems in the human digestive system


The proof is obvious that one of the major reasons of the bees’ decline is by the ingestion of GMO proteins. This is problematic, as there is such an increase of indigestible foods in humans and bees. The situation of colon cancer in humans is somewhat similar in occurrence. This is only a theory but leaves one to wonder what are we eating en mass. The external or complementary good of the bee is obviously a rise for a global concern. The long-term economical and environmental impact has yet to be completely understood.

The Ecological Impact of horizontal gene transfer and increase of rampant disease is not fully examined and if so, is kept silent by these Conglomerates. The Economic Impact of the Colony collapse would mean higher inflation, scarcity of agricultural goods, and ultimately the collapse of North America Agriculture Business.

The Environmental Impact of scarcity and increased demand for resources, will beyond doubt have severe repercussions for our long-term food security. The bio-diversity of the bees causes positive economic and ecological externalities. The negative externalities have yet to be fully grasped or understood.

Organic crops: still relatively untouched

The truth is that organic farming is relatively untouched as the bee crisis is concerned. Organic farming maintains the diversity of the eco-system and preserves the quality of the foods produced. The economic impact that the scarcity of bees will potentially have on our society as a whole is very worrisome. In the end, only our children will fully realize; that it was greed that destroyed our beautiful blue planet.


Thill, John. Colony Collapse: Do Massive Bee Die-Off Mean an End to Our Food System as We Know it? AlterNet (Accessed 7/9/2007 10:06 PM)

Colony Collapse Disorder. Wikkapedia Encyclopedia Online’Colony Collapse Disorder’

(Accessed July 12, 2007)

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)

(Accessed June 30, 2007)

CROP PROTECTION. Monthly 28 February 2001 – Issue No 135

Market Scope Europe Ltd. (Accessed July 10, 2007)

HONEY BEE Research Program. RIRDIC Honeybee Research Program Home Page. http://rirdic., (Accessed July 7, 2007)

Ho, Dr. Mae-Wan. ‘Recent Evidence Confirms Risks of Horizontal Gene Transfer’. ISIS Contribution to ACNFP/Food Standards Agency Open Meeting 13 November 2002, Institute of Science in Society, PO Box 32097, London NW1 0XR (Accessed July 16, 2007)

ISIS Contribution. ‘Recent Evidence Confirms Risks of Horizontal Gene Transfer”. ISIS Contribution to ACNFP/Food Standards Agency Open Meeting 13 November 2002 (Accessed July 17, 2007)

Vidal, John. ‘Canada backs terminator seeds’, The Guardian. Wednesday, February 9, 2005. (Accessed July 17, 2007)

Wilson, Dan. Lost colonies: ‘Where have the bees gone’? Appelton Post-Crescent, 5/18/2007 (Accessed July 19, 2007)

What’s Causing the Mass Disappearance of Honeybees? ‘What is causing the Dramatic decline in Honeybee Populations in the U.S and Elsewhere in Recent years’? – New York, NY, June 2, 2007

http:/ (Accessed July 10, 2007)


Hill, Scott. AlterNet, Posted on June 11, 2007, Printed on July 9, 2007


3 ‘The Vanishing’





8 Vidal, John. ‘Canada backs terminator seeds’ Wednesday February 9, 2005. The Gaurdian

9 Fall Dwindle Disease: A preliminary report

December 15, 2006

10 Fall Dwindle Disease: A preliminary report

Land Deal Could Open Alaska Wildlife Refuge to Oil

Go to Original

Anchorage, Alaska - A controversial land swap proposal could open portions of an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling, dividing Alaska natives and stoking opposition from environmentalists seeking to protect the bears, moose and birds that live there.

Supporters of the plan to exchange land in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which lies just south of the more-famous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, say they would like the plan to be approved by the administration of US president George W. Bush before the election in November.

"The window is the election," Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, a staunch backer of the plan, said at an Anchorage news conference. "We'd like to have an executive order out of the administration before they leave office."

The proposed land trade would give 110,000 acres of hydrocarbon-prone uplands within the refuge, plus mineral rights to another 97,000 acres, to Fairbanks-based Doyon Ltd. In exchange, the refuge would gain 150,000 acres of bird-friendly wetlands now owned by Doyon, plus 56,500 acres on which Doyon has pending land claims.

Doyon, owned by Athabascan Indians of interior Alaska, has long envisioned such a trade to give economic benefits to its shareholders while preserving traditional culture and the environment on which it depends.

"You can have both the subsistence lifestyle and the protection of that lifestyle, and you can have oil and gas exploration," said Norm Phillips, Doyon's resource manager.

But many people living closest to the potential development - many of them Doyon shareholders - oppose the plan because of the likelihood of oil pollution and the possibility of social upheaval such as a flow of drugs, alcohol and poachers over new roads.

"Usually, the indigenous people are at the losing end of any sort of oil development," said Dacho Alexander, first chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribe in Fort Yukon, a village of 600 near the proposed exchange parcels.

Alexander said the dispute illustrates the perennial clash between corporate goals and non-economic Native values.

The Yukon Flats basin holds an estimated 173 million barrels of oil - accounting for less than nine days of US consumption at current rates - along with 5.5 trillion cubic feet of gas and 127 million barrels of natural-gas liquids, according to the US Geological Survey.

It also holds unique ecological values.

Straddling the Arctic Circle, cradled by two mountain ranges and bisected by the Yukon River, the refuge encompasses boreal forests that support moose, grizzly and black bears and many other mammals.

Its network of lakes, streams, ponds and sloughs attract Alaska's highest concentrations of breeding ducks. It has some of Alaska's coldest winter days and, thanks to around-the-clock sunlight, scorching summer temperatures as high as 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest for this latitude in North America.

Fran Mauer, a retired Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and prominent critic of the land exchange, says the trade plan violates the refuge's conservation mission.

"I just don't see that it's in the public's interest to do it," he said.

But Doyon officials say that no matter what land the corporation ends up owning, oil and gas drilling is inevitable in the Yukon Flats.

"Even if the land trade doesn't happen, Doyon is still going to move forward with exploration out there," Phillips said.

Protesters Enter Bear Stearns Headquarters

Go to Original
By Karen Brettell

New York - About 60 protesters opposed to the U.S. Federal Reserve's help in bailing out Bear Stearns (BSC.N) entered the lobby of the investment bank's Manhattan headquarters on Wednesday, demanding assistance for struggling homeowners.

Demonstrators organized by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America chanted "Help Main Street, not Wall Street" and entered the lobby without an invitation for around half an hour before being escorted out by police.

"There are no provisions for homeowners in this deal. There are people out there struggling who need help," said Detria Austin, an organizer at NACA, an advocacy group for home ownership.

Bear Stearns employees were alternatively amused and perplexed, taking pictures on their cell phones.

"Homeowners, that's more than $1 trillion (in mortgage debt), you're crazy," one man in a suit screamed at a protester on the street.

On March 16, JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) said it would acquire its rival the Bear Stearns Co Inc. for $2 per share, in a deal brokered by the Federal Reserve aimed at heading off a bankruptcy and a spreading crisis of confidence in the global financial system.

On Monday, JPMorgan raised its offer to about $10 a share to appease angry stockholders who vowed to fight the original deal. Bear Stearns traded at $10.86 a share at 1:30 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.

As part of the deal, the Fed agreed to guarantee up to $29 billion of Bear Stearns assets.

The agreement has raised concerns that the U.S. government is prepared to help rescue a failing Wall Street bank while declining to bail out millions of home owners facing the possibility of foreclosure.

Mosaic News - 3/25/08: World News from the Middle East

Anti-war Campaigners Have To Change Electoral Tactics

Neither Clinton nor Obama has a real plan to end the occupation of Iraq, but they could be forced to change position

Go to Original
By Naomi Klein and Jeremy Scahill

'So?" So said Dick Cheney when asked last week about public opinion being overwhelmingly against the war in Iraq. "You can't be blown off course by polls." A few days later, his attitude, about the fact that the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq has reached 4,000, displayed similar levels of sympathy. They "voluntarily put on the uniform," the vice-president told ABC news.

This brick wall of indifference helps explain the paradox in which we in the US anti-war camp find ourselves five years into the occupation of Iraq: anti-war sentiment is as strong as ever, but our movement seems to be dwindling. Sixty-four per cent of Americans tell pollsters they oppose the war, but you'd never know it from the thin turnout at recent rallies and vigils.

When asked why they aren't expressing their anti-war opinions through the anti-war movement, many say they have simply lost faith in the power of protest. They marched against the war before it began, marched on the first, second and third anniversaries. And yet, five years on, US leaders are still shrugging: "So?"

That's why it's time for the anti-war movement to change tactics. We should direct our energy where it can still have an impact: the leading Democratic contenders.

Many argue otherwise. They say that if we want to end the war, we should simply pick a candidate who is not John McCain and help them win: we'll sort out the details after the Republicans are evicted from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Some of the most prominent anti-war voices - from to the Nation, the magazine we both write for - have gone down this route, throwing their weight behind the Obama campaign.

This is a serious strategic mistake. It is during a hotly contested campaign that anti-war forces have the power to actually sway US policy. As soon as we pick sides, we relegate ourselves to mere cheerleaders.

And when it comes to Iraq, there is little to cheer. Look past the rhetoric and it becomes clear that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton has a real plan to end the occupation. They could, however, be forced to change their positions, thanks to the unique dynamics of the prolonged primary battle.

Despite the calls for Clinton to withdraw in the name of "unity", it is the very fact that Clinton and Obama are still fighting it out, fiercely vying for votes, that presents the anti-war movement with its best pressure point. And our pressure is badly needed.

For the first time in 14 years, weapons manufacturers are donating more to Democrats than to Republicans. The Democrats have received 52% of the defence industry's political donations in this election cycle - up from a low of 32% in 1996. That money is about shaping foreign policy and, so far, it appears to be well spent.

While Clinton and Obama denounce the war with great passion, they both have detailed plans to continue it. Both say they intend to maintain the massive green zone, including the monstrous US embassy, and to retain US control of Baghdad airport.

They will have a "strike force" to engage in counter-terrorism, as well as trainers for the Iraqi military. Beyond these US forces, the army of green zone diplomats will require heavily armed security details, which are currently provided by Blackwater and other private security companies. At present there are as many private contractors supporting the occupation as there are soldiers, so these plans could mean tens of thousands of US personnel entrenched for the future.

In sharp contrast to this downsized occupation is the unequivocal message coming from hundreds of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq Veterans Against the War which, earlier this month, held the Winter Soldier hearings in Silver Spring, Maryland - modelled on the 1971 Winter Soldier investigation, in which veterans testified about US atrocities in Vietnam - are not supporting any candidate or party. Instead they are calling for immediate, unconditional withdrawal of all US soldiers and contractors. Coming from peace activists, the "out now" position has been dismissed as naive. It is harder to ignore coming from the hundreds who have served - and continue to serve - on the frontlines.

The candidates know that much of the passion fuelling their campaigns flows from the desire among so many rank-and-file Democrats to end this disastrous war. Crucially, the candidates have already shown that they are vulnerable to pressure from the peace camp. When the Nation revealed that neither candidate was supporting legislation that would ban the use of Blackwater and other private security companies in Iraq, Clinton changed course. She became the most important US political leader to endorse the ban - scoring a point on Obama, who opposed the invasion from the start.

This is exactly where we want the candidates: outdoing each other to prove how serious they are about ending the war. That kind of battle has the power to energise voters and break the cynicism that is threatening both campaigns.

Let's remember, unlike the outgoing Bush administration, these candidates need the support of the two-thirds of Americans who oppose the war in Iraq. If opinion transforms into action, they won't be able to afford to say, "So?"

The Secret American-Iranian Security Deal In Iraq

How it connects to McCain’s visit to Israel

Go to Original

Arab onlinenewspaper published in London, is the only newspaper to report this a week ago but I waited few days to see if there is any development provides evidence to the newspaper claims, and the military campaign in Basra was what i am waiting for.

Arab online says that there are secret Iranian – American negotiations at Ahmadinejad’s visit to Iraq [please remember there were other developments in this week period, like the U.S. embassy refused to meet the Iranian delegation…etc]

The report contains details and names of people who attended the meeting from both sides which we don’t need here, so this is what the newspaper said in short:

Ahmadinejad offered to calm the situation in Iraq, using the three days attacks-free visit to Iraq as a demonstration of what can Iran do, the second offer is to accept the long term Iraqi – American agreement

To remove Iraq from the 1546 U.N. resolution, which gives the permission for the “Coalition Forces” to use force any Iraq’s neighboring country, if intelligence reports give evidence that the country exporting terrorism to Iraq, there is also a chapter allowing American forces to use Iraqi territory to attack another countries.

- To end all American – European political and logistic support for the Iranian opposition, especially Iran’s Resistance Council Organization, Pijac Kurdish organization, and other small opposition groups [Arabs, Turkmen, Azari…etc].

- Stop the secret and public American administration incitement of toppling the Iranian regime.

- End the U.S. and Europe campaign to push for the Iranian Jews immigration to Israel.

- To put an end to the campaign of the need to for pre-emptive strikes against selective and sensitive intelligence, military and nuclear Iranian sites.

The most important part of these negotiations is; What Iran can do for the U.S. in Iraq:

Ahmadinejad mentioned that he is negotiating with a previous blessing from Ayatollah Khamenei, and that’s reassured the Americans about the seriousness of the negotiations.

So, Ahmadinejad commitments are:

- Intelligence cooperation in Iraq and the region, wihle Washington gives Iran a space to maneuver internationally, easing the international pressure and the embargo, as a result, Tehran to postpone uranium enrichment operations for a period of two years, with the approval of Iran’s nuclear programme by the inspection teams of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

- Full cooperation between Tehran and Washington in all areas, and Iran to ensure the submission of several laws in Washington’s favour by the Shiite coalition blocs and Iraqi Kurdistan Alliance, including oil and gas law, the provinces a law, as opposed to because the American President George Bush to use his powers delegated by the military gives him the right to selective attacks on Iranian sites sensitive, to ensure the security of the American forces and the Iraqi people.

This “Iran - American” deal raised concerns in Israel therefore they invited McCain, the Republican candidate to visit Tel Aviv and asked him to visit Baghdad to be informed about what has been achieved talking with the Iranians, promised him that if the mission is successful, then he will get the support of Tel Aviv and the Zionist lobby in America presidential election.

US Moves Towards Engaging Iran

Go to Original
By M K Bhadrakumar

The coming few weeks are going to be critical in the standoff between the United States and Iran as the upheaval in the Middle East reaches a turning point. And all options do remain on the table, as the George W Bush administration likes to say, from military conflict to a de facto acceptance of Iran's standing as the region's dominant power.

One thing is clear. The time for oratorical exercises is ending. A phase of subtle, reciprocal, conceptual diplomatic actions may be beginning. An indication of this is available in the two radio interviews given by Bush last weekend and beamed into Iran, exclusively aimed at reaching out to the Iranian public on the Persian New Year Nauroz.

Significantly, ahead of Bush's interviews, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger spoke. Kissinger, incidentally, is a foreign policy advisor to the Republican Party's presidential nominee, Senator John McCain. For the first time, Kissinger called for unconditional talks with Iran. That is a remarkable shift in his position. Kissinger used to maintain that the legacy of the hostage crisis during the Iranian revolution in 1979 and "the messianic aspect of the Iranian regime" represented huge obstacles to diplomacy, and combining with "Persian imperial tradition" and "contemporary Islamic fervor", a collision with the US became almost unavoidable. Interestingly, Kissinger's call was also echoed by Dennis Ross, who used to be a key negotiator in the Middle East, and carries much respect in Israel.

Bush's interviews with the government-supported Voice of America and Radio Farda, especially the latter, were a masterly piece in political overture. He held out none of the customary threats against Iran. This time, there was not even the trademark insistence that "all options are on the table". There were no barbs aimed at President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Least of all, there were no calls for a regime change in Tehran. Bush simply said something that he might as well have said about Saudi Arabia or Egypt. As he put it, "So this is a regime and a society that's got a long way to go [in reform]."

Bush spoke of the evolution of the Iranian regime's character rather than its overthrow. The criticism, if any, of Iranian government policies approached nowhere near the diatribes of the past. There was none of the boastful claims that the US would work toward isolating Iran in its region and beyond. In fact, Bush acknowledged, "There's a chance that the US and Iran can reconcile their differences, but the [Iranian] government is going to have to make different choices. And one [such choice] is to verifiably suspend the enrichment of uranium, at which time there is a way forward."

Bush assured that in return the US would be "reasonable in our desire to see to it that you have civilian nuclear power without enabling the government to enrich [uranium]". Here again, he pointed out that the problem is that "they [Iranian governments] have not told the truth in the past, and therefore it's very difficult for the United States and the rest of the world - or much of the rest of the world - to trust the Iranian government when it comes to telling the truth".

Bush elaborated, "Well, one thing is to reiterate my belief that the Iranians should have a civilian nuclear-power program. It's in their right to have it. The problem is that the government cannot be trusted to enrich the uranium because, one, they've hidden programs in the past and they may be hiding one now - who knows? And, secondly, they've declared they want to have a nuclear program to destroy people - some - in the Middle East. And that's unacceptable and it's unacceptable in the world. But what is acceptable to me is to work with a nation like Russia to provide the fuel so that the plant can go forward. Which therefore shows that the Iranian government doesn't need to learn to enrich."

Arguably, Bush's interviews signify that "unconditional talks" may have begun with Iran. Everything - almost everything - he said indeed had a caveat. But then, isn't that how negotiations commence without loss of face between any two stubborn adversaries?

Any number of reasons could be attributed to the Bush administration finally jettisoning a war strategy toward Iran. First and foremost comes the unbearable financial cost of waging a war with Iran, which would have to be underwritten by China, Saudi Arabia and Japan. As Nobel Laureate and US economist Joseph Stiglitz stated last week, the impact of the subprime crisis in the US will persist for two to three years, and only after that time could the US economy hope to recover. Stiglitz blamed the Iraq war for dragging down the US economy. "It has proven to be an enormous error," he said, stressing that the Iraq war has been "a disaster in every way".

If in 2001 the US spent about US$4.4 billion a month on military operations in Iraq, the figure had jumped to $8.4 billion by 2007. By the end of the current year, the financial costs of the Iraq war could rise above $650 billion. The human costs have been equally unacceptable. The number of US troops fallen in Iraq now exceeds 4,000. Over 29,000 soldiers have been wounded. The brand "America" has taken a beating that will take years to repair. The horrific images of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Haditha, Mahmudiya and Bagram will linger in memory for a long time.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll in March shows that 63% of Americans feel the Iraq war was not worth fighting and only a slight majority of Americans believe now that the war will one day succeed. Clearly, there is no stomach for yet another war in the remaining term of the Bush presidency.

Equally, everything is up in the air on the warfronts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush administration has its hands full. The sudden visit of US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher, to Islamabad on Tuesday, no sooner than the newly elected Pakistani government assumed office, underscores the gravity of the crisis facing the Bush administration in Afghanistan.

What is at stake now is Pakistan's willingness to continue as an ally in the "war on terror". At the very minimum, the terms of engagement will have to be renegotiated, which, of course, is going to take time and a lot of patience and give-and-take. That is, assuming the Pakistani leadership will show the grace to take the Bush administration as anything other than a lame duck.

This became apparent when soon after meeting the US officials in Islamabad on Tuesday, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif - who is emerging as Pakistan's number one politician - alleged publicly that the people of Pakistan are being "mercilessly" killed in the name of the "war on terror".

"We should not kill our own people for the sake of others," he said. He sought a review of the entire war strategy. "The basic issue is that just as the US wants to be safe from terrorism, we don't want to see bombs and missiles flying in our villages, we want our people to be safe and we don't want blood to flow in our streets," Sharif insisted.

He was virtually endorsing a call by the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, which is forming the government in the sensitive North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, for a negotiated solution to the alienation in Pakistan's tribal areas. Clearly, with hardly a week to go for the 60th anniversary summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Bucharest, Romania, the agenda of the Afghan war has become much more than an issue of the alliance's force levels.

The status of the Iraq war, too, hangs in balance. After what appeared to be a descending calm, the security situation is showing signs of fragility. Sunday's mortar strikes on Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, which is home to the Iraqi government and the US Embassy, underline the pretence behind the Bush administration's claims of "success" of the so-called "surge" strategy. It does seem as if someone just thought of shaking up the dream world that Washington sought to create.

Again, the southern Basra region has gone under curfew following fighting among Shi'ite political parties and their militias. Most ominous, the Mahdi Army, loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, is showing signs of becoming restive. Its self-imposed ceasefire was one main reason why the graph of violence had dipped in recent months.

The Bush administration's priority will be to leave it to the next president in the White House to decide on any major reduction of troops in Iraq. But that means the Iraqi situation will remain in focus all through the period of the presidential campaign till November. The Bush administration needs to count on Tehran's tacit cooperation with the US to use its formidable influence with Iraqi groups. Belligerence toward Iran is hardly the way the Bush administration can realize this objective.

But after a recent visit to Iran, prominent US author and commentator Selig Harrison wrote in The Boston Globe newspaper, "Tehran is seething over what it sees as a new 'divide and rule' US strategy designed to make Iraq a permanent US protectorate". He was referring to the current US strategy of building up rival Sunni militias - euphemistically called the "Sunni Awakening" - so as to fence in the Shi'ite-dominated government in Baghdad.

The Sunni militias presently number some 90,000 US-equipped fighters, each paid $300 per month. But, as Harrison recounted his conversations in Iran, "The message was clear: Unless [US General David] Petraeus drastically cuts back the Sunni militias, Tehran will unleash the Shi'ite militias against US forces again."

Sunday's violence, conceivably, may be a harbinger of things to come unless the US accommodates Iranian interests. It may have displayed that Iran has the will and the capacity to remain the dominant influence in Iraq with or without a stable government in Baghdad and with or without US acquiescence. The Bush administration has no real choice in the matter. Conversely, what the Bush administration could do is to build on the convergence of interests with Tehran in keeping the Iraqi security situation from degenerating in the critical months ahead in US domestic politics.
Harrison sums up his impressions following talks with interlocutors in the Iranian government: "Iran and the US have a common interest in a stable Iraq ... Before cooperating to stabilize Iraq, however, Iran wants assurances that the US will not use it as a base for covert action and military attacks against the Islamic Republic and will gradually phase out its combat troops. Cooperation will endure only if Washington lets the Shi'ites enforce the terms for the new ethnic equation in Iraq and, above all, if it recognizes Iran's right by virtue of geography and history to have a bigger say in Iraq's destiny than its other immediate neighbors, not to mention the faraway United States."

Evidently, the crucial ingredient henceforth of the Bush administration's Iraq policy is no longer a withdrawal schedule but a political and diplomatic underpinning for a military strategy. Hence the importance of US Vice President Dick Cheney's current tour of the Middle East. Quite uncharacteristically, Cheney eschewed any strident anti-Iran rhetoric during his tour. (The Iranians, on their part, reciprocated by ignoring Cheney's presence in the region.)

But what multiplies the "Iranian challenge" is the grim reality that Tehran may have withstood all attempts by the Bush administration to create dissensions within the Iranian regime. Following the recent parliamentary elections in Iran on March 14, the regime has greatly consolidated. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), custodians of the Iranian revolution of 1979, are finally on the threshold of consolidating their political power in addition to the considerable economic and administrative power they already enjoy.

The so-called "reformist" platform - comprising 21 moderate parties that included the allies of former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi - could together muster only less than 20% of seats in the new Parliament. The "reformist" coalition was the Bush administration's best hope.

In effect, the "reformist' coalition has become a spent force and is now likely to disintegrate. Already by end-February, Rafsanjani seems to have sensed this defeat of "black Shi'ism" by "red Shi'ism". He quickly changed tack and made up with Ahmadinejad. The ultimate clincher, of course, was the extraordinary gesture of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to publicly voice support of Ahmadinejad. Addressing the powerful Assembly of Experts (headed by Rafsanjani) on February 26, Khamenei praised the role of Ahmadinejad for "great success" on the nuclear issue. Later in the evening on the same day, Rafsanjani visited Ahmadinejad.

The IRGC has cadres numbering 10 million. Late spiritual leader ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had envisaged the IRGC to be the core of the Iranian revolution. The parliamentary elections have created a new power calculus devolving on the IRGC. The high turnout at the elections - over 60% - lends unquestionable legitimacy to this extraordinary political transformation of the Iranian regime, returning it, as it were, to its revolutionary moorings.

But it has not been the kind of "regime change" the Bush administration sought. Khamenei has emerged more powerful than ever and Ahmadinejad has considerably strengthened his political standing. Khamenei has risen above nitpicking by senior clerical conservatives. Thus, from Washington's perspective, the new Iranian Parliament will have a preponderant share of "hardliners" and will be more radical and more "loyal" to the regime - to use Western cliches. Bush's interviews on the occasion of Nauroz are a grudging admission of the emergent political alignment in Tehran. The Bush administration is pragmatic enough to estimate the need to engage Iran.

The real issue now is whether the emboldened leadership in Tehran shares the Bush administration's sense of urgency. It will carefully weigh its options. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced on Monday that Tehran "recently requested for membership" of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Ahmadinejad will be attending the SCO's summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Meanwhile, Iran's proposal to Russia to form a gas cartel is set to take off at a meeting of gas-producing countries in Moscow in June.

Tehran will surely estimate that Russia-US disputes are hard to settle; that Russia has major commercial interests in Iran; that Moscow needs Iran's endorsement of a multinational arrangement to exploit the Caspian Sea's energy resources. At the same time, Tehran estimates that a viable US exit from Iraq is still a long way off and in the run-up to the US presidential election, the Iraq war looms as a contentious domestic issue.

Besides, Tehran remains on the lookout for a shift in the US stance on the Nabucco gas pipeline sourcing Iranian gas via Turkey for the European market. Last week, Switzerland's Elektrizitaetshesellschaft Laufenburg signed a 25-year deal with the National Iranian Gas Export Company for the delivery of 5.5 billion cubic meters of Iranian gas annually. The agreement was signed during the visit of the Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey to Tehran.

Without Nabucco, the US strategy to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian gas supplies will remain a pipedream, and without Iranian gas, Nabucco itself makes little sense, while Nabucco will be Iran's passport to integration with Europe.

Conceivably, Cheney, who takes a keen interest in energy diplomacy, would have kept Nabucco at the back of his mind in Ankara on Monday during his Middle East tour, on a day when Turkmenistan President Gurbangulu Berdimuhammedov also happened to be visiting the Turkish capital. An unnamed Turkmen official had earlier mentioned that Nabucco would be on the agenda of Berdimuhammedov's talks.

Home prices, consumer confidence plunge in US

Go to Original
By Joe Kay

In continued signs of economic recession in the US, figures released on Tuesday show home prices and consumer confidence falling sharply.

The Conference Board, a business-backed research group in New York, reported that its index of consumer confidence fell to a five-year low in March, to 64.5 from a revised 76.4 in February. The reading was far below Wall Street expectations of 73.0.

The index is a relative measure, with confidence in 1985 set at 100. The overall index is at its lowest level since the early 1990s, except for a brief period in 2003.

The Conference Board noted that there was a particularly sharp drop in the index measuring expected future confidence, to 47.9 from 58.0. “The Expectations Index, in fact, is now at a 35-year low (Dec. 1973, 45.2), levels not seen since the Oil Embargo and Watergate,” a press release noted.

The collapse of consumer confidence is a reflection of the increasing economic strain felt by millions of Americans, who have been hit by high commodity prices, declining wages, and increasing unemployment. In February, employment fell by 63,000 jobs, the second consecutive monthly decline and the worst figure since 2003.

A major factor in the decline in consumer confidence is the continued atrophy of the housing market. High home prices had allowed many workers to sustain spending under conditions of economic stagnation. As housing prices drop, many homeowners are finding that they now have more debt than their homes are worth, leading to a surge of foreclosures.

US home prices recorded a huge drop in January, according to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Schiller Index. A 20-city composite index saw an annual decline of 10.7 percent, the sharpest fall since the index was begun in 1983.

Price declines were most severe in cities where the housing bubble has been most pronounced, including Las Vegas, Nevada (-19.3 percent); Miami, Florida (-19.3 percent); Phoenix, Arizona (-18.2 percent); San Diego, California (-16.7 percent); and Los Angeles, California (-16.5 percent).

In Detroit, Michigan, home prices fell by over 15 percent, reflecting the ongoing economic decline of the center of the American auto industry. The average price for a house in the city of Detroit (excluding suburbs) fell 54 percent from a year ago, according to the Detroit Board of Realtors.

The sharpest drops have occurred in cities where the foreclosure rate is the highest. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, foreclosure-related sales have accounted for more than 40 percent of all sales in many cities, including Las Vegas and San Diego.

Among the cities included in the index, only Charlotte, North Carolina, saw an increase in home prices, by 1.8 percent.

David Blitzer, chairman of the Index Committee at Standard & Poor’s, commented, “Unfortunately, it does not look like early 2008 is marking any turnaround in the housing market, after the declining year recorded throughout 2007... The monthly data show that every one of the MSAs [Metropolitan Statistical Areas] has now declined every month since September 2007, marking five consecutive months. On top of that,” he noted, “the declines have increased through time, in general, as 13 of the 20 MSAs reported their single largest monthly decline in January.”

This means that the housing market still has a long way to go before prices start to stabilize. Figures released on Monday show that the median price of existing homes being sold in February fell by 8.2 percent.

The US housing market has been a significant factor in the financial crisis on Wall Street, where several large banks have speculated heavily in mortgage-related securities.

On Monday, New York City’s independent budget office estimated that 20,000 people will lose their jobs on Wall Street over the next two years. This figure, which does not take into account the recent crisis at Bear Stearns, likely significantly underestimates the number of job losses. According to Bloomberg News, some 34,000 jobs in the financial sector have been lost in the last nine months alone, including 6,200 jobs at Citigroup, 4,990 at Lehman Brothers, and 2,940 at Morgan Stanley. Bear Stearns may shed as many as 8,000 jobs as part of its restructuring after being purchased by JPMorgan Chase.

One week ago, in order to stave off a financial meltdown, the Federal Reserve supported the move by JP Morgan Chase to purchase Bear Stearns. At the same time, the Fed announced an unprecedented move to shore up other investment banks by opening its lending discount window. Previously, only commercial banks were allowed to borrow at special discount rates offered by the Fed.

Investment banks have been quick to seize on the Fed’s offer, indicating that they are in deep financial trouble and eager for cash. Close to $30 billion has been borrowed so far.

In another sign of a continued crisis among investment banks, JPMorgan Chase and UBS AG announced on Tuesday that they are cutting their earnings forecast for Merrill Lynch. Next to Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch is considered to be the most exposed of the major investment banks to the housing market collapse. JPMorgan Chase analysts predicted that Merrill would have to write down an additional $2.1 billion of subprime debt.

Blackwater abandons plans for California training camp

Go to Original
By Kevin Martinez

On March 7, private contractor Blackwater Worldwide announced it was abandoning plans to construct a military and police training facility in Potrero, California, a small town in southeast San Diego County. The decision came after a storm of public protest that culminated in a special recall election that replaced county officials who supported Blackwater’s bid.

The Blackwater mercenary outfit, headquartered in Moyock, North Carolina, is best known for an incident last September 16 in Iraq, when a convoy of its heavily armed security contractors opened fire without provocation at a Baghdad intersection, killing 17 unarmed civilians and wounding 27 others. The incident focused public attention on the operations of Blackwater and other security contractors, who operate with impunity in Iraq at the behest of the Bush administration and the US military, and who have been responsible for numerous instances of violence against Iraqi civilians.

The move to Potrero, California, would have been the second expansion of Blackwater in the US. In May 2007, Blackwater opened up “Blackwater North,” a training center in Rockford, Illinois. Due to widespread popular opposition to plans for the installation in Potrero, the mercenary company was not able to implement its California project. Town residents moved to recall every official who voted to allow the company into their backyard.

Despite spending more than $1 million on buying the property and seeking county approval, Blackwater announced on March 7, 2008, that it was withdrawing its application for the project. The company insisted that it had nothing to do with the recall election or the community’s strong disapproval, but instead cited its own noise tests. San Diego County noise standards require less than 50 decibels, well below the gunfire noise tests of 80 decibels.

The training camp, which had been dubbed “Blackwater West,” would have given the company a strategic West Coast foothold. Blackwater was planning to build an 824-acre military complex on a former chicken and cattle ranch, in rural Potrero, population 850. The area is known for heavy border crossing due to its close proximity to the US-Mexico border, just eight miles away. There are many indications that the private contractor wanted to utilize its paramilitary capabilities to strengthen the US Border Patrol’s efforts to further militarize the international border.

At a public hearing with the Potrero planning group on September 13, 2007, Brian Bonfiglio, vice president of Blackwater, was asked whether the facility would be used for the deployment of Border Patrol agents. “Actually, we’ve offered it up as a substation to Border Patrol and US Customs right now,” Bonfiglio replied. “We’d love to see them there.”

In May 2005, the company’s then-president Gary Jackson appeared before a US House subcommittee to testify on how Blackwater could help train Border Patrol agents and private security personnel. Discussing hypothetical contracts worth $80-$200 million, Jackson reportedly told Congress, “I can put as many men together as you need, trained and on the borders.”

One of Blackwater’s many friends on Capitol Hill is California Congressman Duncan Hunter, a ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee and, until 2006, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Hunter met with company officials in May 2006 to discuss their border patrol proposal. Hunter recommended that the firm contact Dianne Jacob, the county supervisor of Potrero and one of five county supervisors to vote in favor of Blackwater West. Company officials met with Jacob in May, and in June submitted their proposal to the county. In December of that year, the Potrero planning group voted to support Blackwater’s bid for a military training camp.

At a February 7, 2007, meeting of the Planning Commission, Brian Bonfiglio admitted the close connections between Duncan Hunter and Blackwater. As recorded in the meeting’s minutes, Bonfiglio stated, “We talk to Duncan about many things” (emphasis in original).

The mercenary training facility for 360 staff and “students” would have included 11 firing ranges, a helipad, an armory, a mock combat “village,” and a heavy vehicle operator’s course that would have covered the length of 10 football fields. The facility also would have encroached upon endangered wildlife in the Cleveland National Forest, such as the California condor and Golden eagle.

The firing range could have also posed a serious safety risk for the residents of Potrero. Many residents of Mount Carroll, Illinois, home to Blackwater’s second training facility, have complained about stray bullets falling on their homes and property. The regular detonation of ammunition in such a dry, fire-prone area would have put the residents of San Diego County at serious risk, especially after the deadly Harris Fire of 2007. Indeed, many fires have been ignited by live-fire exercises at military bases in the past. Even a fire started off-site could have become an inferno if the flames reached an armory full of weaponry in the box canyon where Blackwater sought to locate.

During the October wildfires last year, many residents of Potrero were trapped in the canyon, suffering from a lack of water, food and other supplies. Despite a sheriff’s blockade on the small town, Blackwater VP Brian Bonfiglio, with the aid of local politicians, was able to enter the area and hand out supplies and Blackwater logo pins to homeless and hungry residents from the back of his white Hummer, while community-based relief efforts were impeded by local police.

According to Adrian Del Rio, one of the many volunteers who tried to get supplies into Potrero, a sheriff who publicly supported Blackwater contemptuously asked him, “Why do you need to go to Potrero? There are not too many people—just a bunch of drug addicts.” Tragically, one person from the town died in the fires.

Blackwater also set up a tent city to house 200 people who were displaced by the wildfires. This cynical PR stunt was aimed at influencing votes in the upcoming recall of local officials who voted for Blackwater West. Just weeks before recall ballots were to be sent on November 13, Blackwater was the only “relief” organization allowed to help this hard-hit community.

Carl Meyer, a town resident who successfully ran to replace the Potrero Community Planning Group chairman, told the media, “Locals will hopefully see through this disaster capitalism. When we talk to people door-to-door it does not seem to change their minds about Blackwater—they see right through this.”

Meyer, along with many other local activists, began gathering petitions last July for a recall election of the five planning group members who voted for the training camp. On October 9, 2007, more than 200 anti-Blackwater and antiwar protesters marched to the gates of the proposed site, while a few dozen supporters of the mercenary company gathered on the other side of the road.

Despite Blackwater’s so-called aid to the community, Potrero residents came out decidedly against Blackwater and on December 11, 2007, voted to recall all five of the Planning Commission officials who voted for the training camp. By March of this year, Blackwater had made its decision not to move to Potrero.

Blackwater Worldwide still maintains a massive operation, training more than 40,000 people a year, from both US and foreign military and police services. According to Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army: “About a decade ago Blackwater didn’t even exist; today it has become one of the most powerful actors in the so-called ‘global war on terror.’ The company boasts of a database of 21,000 troops it can deploy on a moment’s notice.”

Blackwater was founded in 1997 by Erik Prince, a former Navy Seal and son of a wealthy auto-parts industrialist. Prince interned for the first President Bush, but in 1992, he and his father supported the candidacy of arch-conservative Pat Buchanan.

At age 19, Erik Prince made his first contribution of $15,000 to the Republican Party. By 2006, he was a regular contributor to the Republicans, giving more than $200,000 in donations to various candidates. The list of those to whom he has contributed reads like a who’s who of the Republican right, and includes Senators Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Rick Santorum (Penn.), Rep. Duncan Hunter and indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The Prince family participates in a network of right-wing evangelicals. It has donated generously to a number of Christian outfits and ultra-conservative causes as well. Prince’s father donated money to the evangelical Gary Bauer, founder of the Family Research Council and one of the authors of the neo-conservative document “Project for a New American Century.” Erik Prince serves as a board member of Christian Freedom International, a missionary group dedicated to defending “persecuted” Christians around the globe.

Blackwater went from receiving government contracts in the tens of millions between 1995 and 2005 to $593 million in 2006. Its rise thus directly coincided, together with numerous other arms merchants and private security firms, with the ascension of the second Bush administration

Blackwater was awarded an exclusive $27 million deal to provide security to L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in the early days of the US occupation of Iraq. For their services in Iraq, Blackwater and other contractors were given immunity, whereby none of their employees could be held accountable and tried by an Iraqi court for crimes committed in the occupied country, the same privilege awarded to US troops.

While private security contractors are not commissioned to take part in offensive operations, according to an October 1, 2007, memo from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Blackwater guards were the first to fire in over 80 percent of the nearly 200 shooting incidents they were involved in since 2005. In the majority of these instances, they fired from moving vehicles and did not remain on the scene to see if any casualties were inflicted.

In the deadly incident last September involving Blackwater mercenaries, multiple investigations found no evidence that their convoy had been fired upon, despite the contractor’s claims to the contrary. After the massacre, Erik Prince was called to testify before Congress, but the House Committee was asked by the State Department not to directly question him about the shooting at the hearing.

In light of the unfavorable publicity surround this and other incidents involving Blackwater, Prince told the Wall Street Journal in an article dated October 15, 2007, that he saw the market diminishing for his company’s line of dirty work in Iraq and was refocusing more on domestic security. Blackwater thus saw an opportunity in Potrero, California, to expand its operations around several military bases, as well as the US-Mexican border.

Supreme Court Rules Bush Exceeded His Powers

Go to Original
By David G. Savage

Saying he does not have "unilateral authority" to force states to comply with an international treaty, justices vote 6-3 to reject presidential order to reopen cases of foreign nationals.

Washington - The Supreme Court rebuffed President Bush on Tuesday for exceeding his powers under the law, ruling he does not have the "unilateral authority" to force state officials to comply with an international treaty.

The Constitution gives the president the power "to execute the laws, not make them," said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Unless Congress passes a law to enforce a treaty, the president usually cannot do it on his own, he said.

The 6-3 decision was a rare defeat for Bush in the courts, and it came in an unusual case that combined international law, foreign treaties and the fate of foreign nationals condemned to die in Texas, California and several other states.

In a surprise move three years ago, Bush intervened on the side of the Mexican government and said Texas prosecutors should reopen the cases of Jose Medellin, a Houston murderer, and several others serving death sentences. Bush cited the Vienna Convention, which obliges signing countries to notify each other when one of their citizens is arrested and charged with a serious crime. Mexico said American prosecutors failed repeatedly to give notice when Mexican natives were charged with capital crimes.

In rejecting Bush's order Tuesday, the high court, led by its conservatives, took the opportunity to make a strong statement on the limits of presidential power.

Roberts cited the "first principles" of America's Constitution. "The president's authority to act, as with the exercise of any governmental power, must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself," Roberts said. "[G]iven the absence of congressional legislation . . . the non-self- executing treaties at issue here did not expressly or impliedly vest the president with the unilateral authority to make them self-executing.

"It should not be surprising," Roberts added, "that our Constitution does not contemplate vesting such power in the Executive alone."

The decision upholds Texas prosecutors and judges who refused to reopen the cases of the Mexican nationals on death row there. By implication, it also blocks a challenge on behalf of several dozen Mexican natives who are serving death sentences in California.

The three dissenters, led by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, took the view that treaties are part of American law once they are ratified by the Senate.

At the White House, Press Secretary Dana Perino said the decision was a defeat, but on a narrow issue. "We're disappointed with the decision, but we're going to accept it, and we're going to be reviewing it in regards to the impacts that it may have," she said.

Since 2001, Bush has claimed the power to run the war on terrorism without interference from Congress or the courts. He and his White House lawyers have said his powers as commander in chief of the armed forces allow him to act unilaterally to protect the nation's security.

Citing this authority, he ordered the military to imprison "enemy combatants" without charges or hearings, and he told the National Security Agency to intercept international phone calls from suspected terrorists without seeking judicial warrants. He also has claimed the power to order harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists without oversight from Congress or the courts.

Civil libertarians have gone to court repeatedly to challenge Bush's actions, but they have won few clear victories.

Four years ago, the high court said war did not give the president a "blank check," but the justices stopped well short of forcing major changes at the military's prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Another challenge to that prison is pending before the court.

Pepperdine law professor Douglas W. Kmiec said Tuesday's opinion in Medellin vs. Texas may be "an epitaph for an administration that has sought to deploy all sorts of means of embellishing presidential authority." Bush's order was "clearly an executive overreach," said Kmiec, a former Reagan administration lawyer, and he called Roberts' opinion "a strong reaffirmation of the role of Congress in treaty making."

But liberal advocates faulted the court for undercutting an international treaty.

"The most disturbing aspect of this case is that Chief Justice Roberts is signaling that the United States can simply ignore its obligations under international treaties," said Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way. "It's a ruling that will further erode our standing in the world."

Donald Donovan, a New York lawyer who represented Medellin, said the court should have stood behind Bush's effort to enforce U.S. legal commitments. "Having given its word, the United States should have kept its word," he said.

Mexico does not have the death penalty, and its officials said they could supply lawyers for those who were charged with capital crimes in the United States. When Mexico sued over the issue, the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled in 2004 that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention. Its ruling named 51 Mexican nationals.

It was unclear how that ruling could be enforced. Bush, a former Texas governor, told Texas officials that they had to abide by the ruling of the International Court. He said he did so "pursuant to the authority vested in me as president by the Constitution and laws of the United States."

Texas prosecutors balked and decided to fight Bush in court. In Tuesday's opinion, Roberts concluded first that the Vienna Convention is not "binding federal law," since Congress had not passed a law to enforce it. And in such cases, the president had no authority to force state or local officials to comply with the treaty or the ruling of the International Court.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Roberts' opinion. And Justice John Paul Stevens concurred in the result, saying the treaty at issue did not have the force of law in this country.

Toxic Trailers Redux: When Did FEMA Know?

Go to Original
BY Deepa Fernandes

Newly found documents show OSHA detected dangerous levels of formaldehyde in trailers used to house Katrina evacuees as early as 2005—but FEMA mass distributed them anyway.

If you drive around Louisiana these days and scan the AM/FM offerings, you'll hear one recurring radio spot: In the wake of the latest tests showing high levels of formaldehyde emissions in federally issued trailers, FEMA wants to talk to all remaining post-Katrina evacuee trailer residents about how to get their living quarters tested for formaldehyde. What you won't find as easily on the dial, at least not yet, is Texas attorney Anthony Buzbee's allegation that FEMA knew about the formaldehyde problem even before the mass distribution of emergency homes began.

Buzbee is one of several lawyers representing over 10,000 trailer residents in a class action lawsuit against FEMA and more than 60 trailer manufacturers. He told Mother Jones that newly obtained Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) documents show the Occupational and Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had been testing formaldehyde exposure around the trailers as early as October 2005—almost a year before tests were made public. Indeed, when OSHA placed monitors on employees at various trailer distribution sites across Mississippi that fall, it discovered alarmingly high levels of formaldehyde emanating from the very same trailers the FEMA workers were distributing to evacuees. OSHA is required to inform employers, in this case FEMA, of excessive levels of formaldehyde; the 2005 test results revealed levels up to 6.7 times higher than what is deemed safe in a workplace. Says Buzbee, "The documents clearly show that FEMA was aware of the formaldehyde problem before it even distributed the trailers to the Katrina victims."

Disturbed by the brazenness of FEMA in beginning mass distribution of trailers it knew were toxic, Buzbee is pushing for a congressional investigation against the agency. While FEMA has not returned calls for comment on whether they had been informed of the OSHA results, Buzbee says it's standard policy for OSHA to notify employers immediately if they detect levels of formaldehyde that are higher than the permissible limits, and their procedure gives these employers 60 days to remedy the situation." Why, then, "would OSHA have broken this protocol and not told FEMA? After all, it was FEMA employees who were being directly affected by the formaldehyde exposure."

Formaldehyde is a somewhat complex gas, and different government agencies consider different levels safe. OSHA says that for workers, whose exposure would be periodic and total a maximum of eight hours per day, the allowable limit of formaldehyde is 0.75 parts per million. However, the Department of Health and Safety, through its Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, has a much lower limit of 0.008 parts per million, because its measurement is based on chronic exposure. Accordingly, while formaldehyde levels exceeded the OSHA limit in 12 cases out of the approximately 200 tests the agency conducted in Mississippi between 2005 and 2006, the ATSDR limit, according to Buzbee and borne out by FOIA documents, "was exceeded by many many times in every single case."

While the levels of unsafe formaldehyde exposure appear to differ widely, Buzbee asserts that the trailer residents have been exposed to far beyond what is safe by anyone's standards. His assertion holds water with the EPA, which considers any exposure over 0.1ppm—only slightly higher than ATSDR's—likely to cause adverse health effects. Says Michael Walsh, a professor at the NYU School of Medicine's Department of Environmental Medicine, "The bottom line is that if [formaldehyde] exposure exceeds the safety level, those who were exposed should be concerned."

And what are the symptoms of such exposure? Per the ATSDR: "Low-dose acute exposure can result in headache, rhinitis, and dyspnea; higher doses may cause severe mucous membrane irritation, burning, and lacrimation, and lower respiratory effects such as bronchitis, pulmonary edema, or pneumonia. Sensitive individuals may experience asthma and dermatitis, even at very low doses. Formaldehyde vapors are slightly heavier than air and can result in asphyxiation in poorly ventilated, enclosed, or low-lying areas."

Poor ventilation is perhaps the one characteristic that defines all the travel trailers that Katrina evacuees are occupying. During the hot months, it is impossible to leave the trailer door open for even a second, as precious cool air from the air conditioner escapes. Not only would living in a trailer constitute a constant or chronic exposure because of the number of hours per day that people are exposed, but it would likely also constitute a concentrated exposure due to the poor ventilation of these homes.

Buzbee and the residents who spoke to Mother Jones all believe those late 2005 tests should have raised an immediate alarm—yet no one alerted residents to the potential danger until an entire year later. This spring, residents had a chance to talk to FEMA officials about their concerns, at one of several government-sponsored "Public Availability Sessions" across the state.

I went to one such talk earlier this year, held in Louisiana's largest FEMA trailer park, built in the aftermath of Katrina. The park, called Renaissance Village, sits in Baker, Louisiana, just northeast of Baton Rouge. The talk promised residents free food, bottled water, and a chance to be among the first evacuees to have their questions answered by experts from both FEMA and the CDC soon after CDC test results were announced. Yet if residents were upset or distressed when they arrived at this first meeting in Baker, most left the meeting downright angry, like one Renaissance Village trailer resident, Lena, who did not want to give her last name. "It's all a string-along," she said that day. "It's a bunch of nothingness. Just words to keep you going, and thinking that help is coming, making you think that the government cares."

At the Renaissance Village meeting, residents and people like attorney Buzbee had a barrage of burning questions for the government officials. How many trailers in Renaissance Village had been tested? Michael McGeehin, representing the CDC, was unable to provide an exact count. Residents protested that they did not know a single person who had had the tests done. McGeehin responded that the trailers were chosen in a scientific manner across the state. When residents then berated him chorus-style, "that is not good enough; it is not good enough," McGeehin bluntly responded, "YES it is. YES it is."

While McGeehin was the one before the gathered crowd facing repeated questions about the test results, he was quick to deflect them to FEMA every time residents asked why their trailer wasn't tested in his study. He repeatedly pointed to a row of seated officials at computers who worked for FEMA, saying FEMA has said "that anyone who wants their trailer tested can have their trailer tested."

Lena, who has lived with her two sons in Renaissance Village since October 2005, did as instructed and took a seat before a FEMA official, asking if her family's trailer could be tested. The response from Jennifer, who later identified herself as a FEMA "supervisor" but refused to give her last name, was mechanical: "That's a CDC question, Ma'am." When I intervened over Lena's shoulder, my press pass flashing and my microphone pointed at the FEMA official, and told her that CDC is directing residents to her FEMA staff because it is FEMA who will now be doing follow up testing, she glanced quickly at me, then at Lena, and then reversed her position, saying, "We can do that." However, when Lena asked how long the process would take, Jennifer responded, "I don't have any information on that."

Over the next 20 minutes, I watched while Lena was bounced between officials who treated her with alternating condescension—as when Lena expressed a deep fear of not being able to "make it" given the exorbitant prices of rentals in New Orleans, and one responded, "If you think you're going to fail, what's going to happen? Think positive, you know, I've always told my kids…"—and contempt, as when Lena asked the supervisor to help her because she felt she was getting nowhere and was abruptly told, "That's what we have case workers for."

Among the various supervisors, FEMA caseworkers, and FEMA press officials at the Renaissance Village meeting, no one could definitively answer whether or not FEMA was going to test more trailers for formaldehyde. That day, it seemed the best FEMA was offering residents concerned about their health was a motel room. And while a new space may seem like a good first step, many residents fear it's a quick and simple path to homelessness. Fear of losing the only stable homes people have, even if they are potentially toxic, means that many residents won't even start a case with FEMA. Stories abound among residents of neighbors and friends at Renaissance Village who have been moved first out of their trailer, and then, one month later, out of a FEMA-funded motel room, cast starkly on their own.

To Lena, the situation is simple. "I believe that people who have case workers are scared. They are being made to believe that they have a place, but they really are not stable and they are not going to have stability unless something that is concrete, that's well grounded or well rooted happens. For me, I'm afraid. How do I step out when there are so many lies? The government [is] not giving the employees the answers for us, because I believe there is no answer for us. They just hope that we probably all drop dead like flies."

Health insurers to meet with state agency on rescission probe

Go to Original
By Lisa Girion

Consumer advocates worry that the closed session will advance a plan that critics say could make it easier to cancel policies. Regulators say that's not on the agenda.

California's largest health insurers, facing possible fines and other penalties for the way they sometimes cancel policies after patients pile up medical bills, meet today with regulators to discuss ongoing state enforcement efforts.

The meeting was called by the Department of Managed Health Care, which oversees health maintenance organizations and other types of health plans, because it was nearing completion of investigations into the cancellation practices of Health Net Inc., Kaiser Permanente and Blue Shield of California, said spokeswoman Lynne Randolph.

The department plans to discuss the standards to which it is holding the insurers' practices, she said, as well as remedies for problems identified in the probes of policy cancellations, known as rescissions.

"This is our opportunity to move forward and conclude this phase of our investigation into rescissions," Randolph said. "Our goal is to bring a quick resolution to this problem to protect consumers today from illegal rescissions."

Randolph said the results of the remaining three investigations would be announced soon but that the process -- including today's meeting with the health plans -- was confidential until then to protect the insurers' due-process rights.

The closed meeting has alarmed consumer advocates because it comes as the insurance industry is pushing a plan that critics believe could make it easier for sick patients to lose coverage through no fault of their own. But the department said the industry's proposal was not on the agenda.

California insurers -- battered by newly aggressive regulators, a $9-million court judgment and stinging criticism from lawmakers, judges and consumer advocates -- are fighting on several fronts this spring in Sacramento and elsewhere.

Insurers are under attack in California courts and the Legislature for canceling policyholders after they have incurred significant medical expense.

The state's insurers defend their cancellation policies and performance. They say that policy reviews and cancellations affect only a small percentage of policies and that the reviews are essential to combat potential fraud.

It has been a year since the department announced the results of its first major rescission investigation. In that case, it alleged that Blue Cross systematically violated state law in the way it canceled sick policyholders for purported misstatements on applications.

The department said the insurer failed to determine whether policyholders intended to misrepresent their medical history when applying for coverage.

The department said it would seek a $1-million fine from Blue Cross, a unit of Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc., but it has yet to collect.

Consumer advocates said they were concerned that today's meeting would stray into the industry's proposal for rescission. That proposal, among other things, would insulate insurers from the biggest threat currently posed by rescissions: punitive damages.

In the first reported verdict in a rescission lawsuit in California, a judge awarded more than $9 million last month to Patsy Bates, a Gardena hair salon owner dropped by Health Net while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

The largest portion of Bates' award was punitive damages. Evidence showed that the company paid bonuses to an employee based in part on the number and value of rescissions she carried out.

Sam Cianchetti, the private arbitration judge who decided the case, called the company's behavior "reprehensible."

Several insurance companies and America's Health Insurance Plans, a Washington-based trade group, are promoting versions of a plan to create an independent review process for rescissions in efforts to restore confidence in the affected individual insurance market.

Consumer advocates said the industry proposal actually would eliminate existing consumer protections. The proposal would require patients to submit to an insurer's internal grievance procedures and then to a third-party review before resorting to the public courts.

If the third-party reviewer found in favor of the insurer, the patient would have the burden of proving in court that the decision was wrong. The proposal, aimed at avoiding litigation, would not allow patients in such cases to pursue punitive damages.

"It seems like insurers' wish list," said William Shernoff, the Claremont lawyer who represented Patsy Bates against Health Net.

Several health plans, including Kaiser, Health Net and Blue Cross, support some type of third-party review to validate their rescission decisions. They say such reviews could offer patients peace of mind and faster results than litigation.

But critics said the industry proposal was a nonstarter.

"It is only the threat of legal review and penalty that makes the regulatory process function and deters wrongful conduct," said Jerry Flanagan, a patient advocate with Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog.

Whether or not the industry succeeds in getting an independent rescission review system adopted as law, at least two insurers -- Health Net and Blue Cross -- said they were moving forward on their own.

"Blue Cross is in the process of developing an outside third-party review process for all rescission," said Shannon Troughton, a spokeswoman for parent company WellPoint. "This means an independent, outside agent will help us validate whether rescission of a member's benefits is warranted," she said. "Blue Cross will be bound by the decision of the third-party reviewer."

The meeting comes on the eve of a Senate Health Committee hearing set for Thursday on the department's enforcement of existing rescission law, as well as a host of other issues. The common thread among the agenda items is whether the department has grown too cozy with the industry.

At the same time, legislators are seeking to further curtail rescissions. Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) is author of a bill that would prohibit insurers from paying bonuses to employees based on rescission activity. And Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) is pushing a bill that would prevent health plans from rescinding patients without prior approval from regulators.

Also, the Department of Insurance is putting the final touches on its proposed rescission regulations and is expected to release a draft within a month.

"We are in the process of meeting with insurers and consumer groups," said Byron Tucker, a spokesman for Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. "The language we will propose will come out of those meetings."