Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Dirty Details of Voter Purges

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By: David Rosenfeld

Secretive, error-riddled methods for cleaning up the voter rolls and how the Help America Vote Act isn't helping.

Thousands of Americans will likely show up to the polls on Nov. 4 to find they are no longer registered to vote. That's an estimate base on past elections and the findings of two leading research groups that found state-sanctioned voter purges are widely inaccurate.

Both the Brennan Center for Justice and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group have independently called into question the methods states use to clean up their voter rolls and the integrity of the information those purges are based on. Roughly 13 million names were purged from the rolls in 2005 and 2006, and while most of the removals were legitimate, that still leaves thousands likely disenfranchised, they say.

Washington state, which canceled the second-highest percentage of voters, beefed up its voter-roll-cleanup efforts after a 2004 governor's race that determined 1,800 votes were cast by felons or on behalf of deceased people, said Washington Secretary of State spokesman David Ammons.

"It really radica lized us for cleaning up the rolls," Ammons said.

Sometimes, though, the purges get too radical. The Brennan Center report, "Voter Purges," shows that flawed purge lists threaten election integrity some eight years after the infamous felon purge lists used by Florida in 2000 wrongfully dropped at least 12,000 voters from the rolls.

The lists used to delete voters are "riddled with inaccuracies," according to the report. The bottom line, writes Myrna Perez, the report's author: "States maintain voter rolls in an inconsistent and unaccountable manner. Officials strike voters from the rolls through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation."

In Mississippi before the March 2008 primary, a county election official — from her home computer — secretly deleted 10,000 voters from the rolls.

During the 2008 New Mexico caucuses, thousands of registered Democrats found themselves improperly knocked off the rolls.

Ohio election integrity advocates point to massive voter purges before the 2004 election that totaled more than 300,000 voters.

In Michigan, the America Civil Liberties Union and the Advancement Project filed an injunction Sept. 17 to reinstate more than 200,000 voters purged over the past year.

The Michigan lawsuit in U.S. District Court would retroactively restore the voting rights before Election Day of an estimated 180,000 voters purged annually through the state's sharing of Department of Motor Vehicle records with nearby states. Other states have agreements to share driver's license records, but Michigan was singled out because it relies strictly on the DMV match to purge voters. A hearing was held for preliminary injunction on Oct. 1.

"They don't know that the person, merely by getting a driver's license, is registered to vote in that state," said Brad Heard, Advancement Project attorney. "If you're a student who wants to retain Michigan residency, since he's in Illinois, he might get a driver's license and still intend to vote in Michigan."

Kelly Chesney, spokeswoman for the Michigan Secretary of State, did not respond to a request for comment. The state has argued in court filings that the numbers of affected voters are inflated.

The suit would also block Michigan's practice of purging new registrations based on voter ID cards sent to voters that are returned as undeliverable, even those sent out within 90-days of an election. The state refused to process an estimated 30,000 registrations per year for this reason, the American Civil Liberties Union claims in its lawsuit. Similar efforts to verify new registrations through so-called "no-match" provisions are being disputed in Florida and Wisconsin.

Two months ago, the Advancement Project and the Fair Election Legal Defense Network accused Louisiana and Kansas, too, of illegally purging voters based solely on driver's license records.

In Louisiana, 21,000 voters were taken off the rolls when they picked up driver's licenses in nearby states after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

States Misunderstand Federal Law

The groundwork for today's voter purges stem from the federal Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002, which handed out $4 billion to states for voter-roll maintenance and overall election system upgrades. Much of that money went to software vendors to design the data management systems to maintain state databases. A handful of these vendors dominate the voting system industry, and their electronic voting machines and optical scanners often have a track record of faulty, insecure performance.

In 2006, Washington used $6 million in federal funds to create a centralized statewide database. In Colorado, a statewide database went live in April. From January of this year to the end of July, Colorado changed or canceled 45,658 voter registration records, spokesman Rich Coolidge said.

One of the biggest problems in managing voter registration rolls, says Gary Kalman of the Public Interest Research Group, is the inconsistency from state to state, and county to county, in enforcing federal law.

Kalman's study, "Vanishing Votes," found 19 states had not outlawed purging within 90 days of the vote — a prohibition found in the National Voter Registration Act. Four states — Colorado, Ohio, Rhode Island and Connecticut — have laws with purging deadlines explicitly within the 90-day period.

"If somebody dies within 90 days, becomes incarcerated or convicted of a felony, those voters may be purged before the election," said Coolidge, adding that no such statewide purge was planned though counties may take them up individually.

"There is widespread unawareness of the law," Kalman said. "So many states were saying they left it up to counties. Because you have rules being interpreted and enforced differently by counties, literally within one state, there is a difference in how they convey rules to voters. It's a decentralized system that can actually impact how votes are counted."

The Brennan Center also found vast inconsistencies with the way states and counties interpret certain provisions of the National Voter Registration Act.

States purge voters for several legitimate reasons looking for such things as a voter's death, duplicate registrations, change of address or felony convictions — which individual states treat differently. Social security numbers and driver's license records may also be used.

The Brennan Center report noted that consistent inaccuracies can be found in the data used to compile lists. For instance, according to the report, "some states purge their voter list based on the Social Security Administration's Death Master File, a database that even the Social Security Administration admits includes people who are still alive."

In most cases when voters are removed from lists, with the exception for the reason of an address change, election officials don't attempt to notify the voter, Perez wrote. Those who find themselves removed from the list may cast a provisional ballot while their voting status is reviewed.

Aside from common typos and other clerical errors, voter roll matching sometimes fails to account for the presence or lack of middle initials or non-standard surnames. This was largely the problem behind purge lists in Florida in 2000 and a pending purge in 2004 of 48,000 names that disproportionately affected African Americans that advocates identified and blocked.

"Far too often what appears to be a 'match' will actually be the records of two distinct registrants with similar identifying information," according to the Brennan Center report. "States have failed to implement protections to ensure that eligible voters are not erroneously purged."

13 Million Purged in 39 States

Voter purges in the years following the 2004 election were strongly encouraged by the Justice Department, citing voter fraud. The DOJ had the backing of provisions in HAVA as well the NVRA that required states to vigilantly keep its voter rolls spotless.

In 2005 and 2006, 39 states and the District of Columbia cancelled roughly 13 million voters from the rolls, according to a report to Congress by the Election Assistance Commission released last year.

Topping the list of states taking names off their registered-voter rolls in 2005 and 2006 were Colorado, with 16.9 percent of the roll removed; Washington, 15.4 percent; New York, 14.1 percent; Nevada, 13.2 percent; and Missouri, 10.4 percent.

Spokesmen for Secretary of State offices in Colorado and Washington — states with the two highest purge rates — said the overall number of cancellations included those who may have cancelled and then re-registered.

Estimates of how many people moved out of each state, based on U.S. Census Data in 1995 and 2000, roughly match the number of voter purges in each state, suggesting that a large portion of the cancellations may be justified. While Florida purged close to 1 million voters in 2005 and 2006, an estimated 1.3 million moved out of the state over a five-year period between 1995 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census.

Regardless of how many people should be appropriately removed from voter rolls, states still must follow the federal law meant to protect voting rights, said Heard, Advancement Project attorney.

"Certainly we're not advocating that people should be registered in multiple places," Heard said, but in some cases voters' rights are not being protected.

Sinking feeling as fall in jobs spreads wider

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By James Politi

JPMorgan economists have compared the US labour market with a boat sailing through rough seas over the past few months. The July data showed it "was taking on more water, but has not yet capsized". By August, the boat had indeed capsized, and in September there were "159,000 men and women overboard", according to figures released at the end of last week.

Last month's decline in non-farm payrolls was the largest since March 2003, and one of the clearest signs yet that turmoil on Wall Street and the US banking industry is spilling over into the broader economy: manufacturers cut 51,000 jobs; retailers shed 40,000; construction companies lost 35,000; and financial services groups slashed 17,000.

"The composition of the report doesn't give much comfort. Just about every sector lost jobs," said Goldman Sachs, which is expecting the US unemployment rate to increase from its current 6.1 per cent to 8 per cent by the end of next year. Before Friday its projection was that the unemployment rate would peak at 7 per cent during this cycle.

There are a few caveats, however. Although the US economy has lost jobs every month so far this year - a total of 760,000 since January - the rate at which positions are being shed remains slower than the pace of more than 200,000 monthly reductions seen in previous recessions. The September data came closer to that threshold, but did not cross it.

In addition, there was one notable distortion caused by hurricane Gustav, which affected coastal Louisiana last month, causing employers in the region to scale back their operations.

Nevertheless, many economists fear that the pace of job losses could increase further in October, especially as the full impact of the deepening financial crisis is felt in large and small companies across the US. Other one-time factors could also lead to a higher tally this month, such as the strike of 27,000 workers at Boeing and hurricane Ike, which hit Texas in mid-September but whose effect will be registered in October payrolls.

Beyond an accelerating pace of job losses, the non-farm payroll report also exposed worsening conditions for workers who are still employed. The average work week declined to 33.6 hours from 33.7 hours between August and September and the index of private sector hours worked dropped by 0.5 per cent - the largest monthly fall since 2003.

Meanwhile, the pace of workers' hourly earnings growth slowed from 0.4 per cent to 0.2 per cent - the slowest since April. To cap it off, the Department of Labor said that 337,000 Americans began working part time because they were unable to find full-time jobs. That category has swelled by 1.6m during the past 12 months to just over 6m people.

Judge orders Chinese Muslims at Guantanamo freed

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By James Vicini

A federal judge on Tuesday, in a rebuke to the Bush administration, ordered the prompt release in the United States of 17 Chinese Muslims held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina read his ruling from the bench at a hearing to consider the appeals by the members of the Uighur ethnic group who are seeking their freedom and asking to come to the United States.

The judge said there was no evidence the detainees, who have been held at Guantanamo for nearly seven years, were "enemy combatants" or a security risk, and that the U.S. Constitution prohibits indefinite detention without cause.

He ordered them brought to his courtroom for a hearing on Friday and scheduled another hearing for Thursday of next week to determine the conditions of their release.

The Justice Department said it would file an emergency request on Tuesday evening for a stay with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. If it loses there, it has the option of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Today's ruling presents serious national security and separation of powers concerns and raises unprecedented legal issues," Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said in a statement.

The ruling was a setback for the Bush administration, which argued that federal judges do not have the authority to order the release into the United States of the detainees.

The White House strongly disagreed with the court decision and said it could set a dangerous precedent.

"The district court's ruling, if allowed to stand, could be used as precedent for other detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, including sworn enemies of the United States suspected of planning the attacks of 9/11, who may also seek release into our country," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

Attorneys for the prisoners said the landmark ruling was the first time a federal court had ever ordered the release into the United States of any Guantanamo prisoners.

The Uighurs had been living in a camp in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led bombing campaign that began in October 2001. They fled into the mountains and were detained by Pakistani authorities, who handed them over to the United States.

They remain in the prison even though the U.S. military no longer considers them "enemy combatants." The United States has been unable to find a country willing to accept them.

In 2006, the United States allowed five Chinese Muslims released from Guantanamo to seek asylum in Albania. The U.S. government has said it cannot return the Uighurs to China because they would face persecution there.


Many Muslim Uighurs, who are from Xinjiang in far western China, seek greater autonomy for the region and some want independence. Beijing has waged a relentless campaign against what it calls their violent separatist activities.

There are about 265 detainees at Guantanamo, which was set up in January 2002 to hold terrorism suspects captured after the September 11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants. Most have been held for years without being charged and many have complained of abuse.

"We are thrilled," said Sabin Willett, an attorney for some of the prisoners. "Justice has too long been delayed but today we saw a great judge give a principled and just decision."

Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch, said, "The government should not drag its feet, but should immediately release these men from their unlawful confinement."

Lawyers for the Uighurs said they would likely settle in Tallahassee, Florida, and the Washington, D.C., area, where religious and community leaders have offered to support them by providing housing and work.

Pakistan facing bankruptcy

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By Isambard Wilkinson

Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves are so low that the country can only afford one month of imports and faces possible bankruptcy.

Officially, the central bank holds $8.14 billion (£4.65 billion) of foreign currency, but if forward liabilities are included, the real reserves may be only $3 billion - enough to buy about 30 days of imports like oil and food.

Nine months ago, Pakistan had $16 bn in the coffers.

The government is engulfed by crises left behind by Pervez Musharraf, the military ruler who resigned the presidency in August. High oil prices have combined with endemic corruption and mismanagement to inflict huge damage on the economy.

Given the country's standing as a frontline state in the US-led "war on terrorism", the economic crisis has profound consequences. Pakistan already faces worsening security as the army clashes with militants in the lawless Tribal Areas on the north-west frontier with Afghanistan.

The economic crisis has already placed the future of the new government in doubt after the transition to a civilian rule. President Asif Ali Zardari has faced numerous but unproven allegations of corruption dating from the two governments led by his wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated last December.

The Wall Street Journal said that Pakistan's economic travails were "at least in part, a crisis of confidence in him".

While Mr Musharraf's prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, frequently likened Pakistan to a "Tiger economy", the former government left an economy on the brink of ruin without any durable base.

The Pakistan rupee has lost more than 21 per cent of its value so far this year and inflation now runs at 25 per cent. The rise in world prices has driven up Pakistan's food and oil bill by a third since 2007.

Efforts to defer payment for 100,000 barrels of oil supplied every day by Saudi Arabia have not yet yielded results, while the government has also failed to raise loans on favourable terms from "friendly countries".

Mr Zardari told the Wall Street Journal that Pakistan needed a bail out worth $100 billion from the international community.

"If I can't pay my own oil bill, how am I going to increase my police?" he asked. "The oil companies are asking me to pay $135 [per barrel] of oil and at the same time they want me to keep the world peaceful and Pakistan peaceful."

The ratings agency Standard and Poor's has given Pakistan's sovereign debt a grade of CCC +, which stands only a few notches above the default level.

The agency gave warning that Pakistan may be unable to cover about $3 billion in upcoming debt payments.

Mr Zardari is expected to ask the international community for a rescue package at a meeting in Abu Dhabi next month.

This gathering will determine whether the West is willing to bail out Pakistan.

Delta Force officer: US officials stopped plans to kill bin Laden

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By David Edwards and Muriel Kane

After September 11, 2001, a team of elite Delta Force commandos was sent into Afghanistan with an assignment to find and kill Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora -- but that mission failed.

The commander of the Delta Force team has now written a book which tells what he says is the true story of what went wrong. He appeared anonymously on CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday to summarize that story.

Bin Laden was known to be holed up at Tora Bora on a ridge with an elevation of 14,000 feet. The Delta Force team’s initial plan was to come at him from the direction he’d least expect, climbing over the mountains at his back, but that plan wasn’t approved by the higher-ups. Their second idea, to drop hundreds of landmines along the mountain passes to Pakistan to impede bin Laden’s retreat and then bring in helicopters, was also turned down.

"How often does Delta come up with a tactical plan that’s disapproved by higher headquarters?" CBS’s Scott Pelley asked the commando leader.

"In my experience, in my five years at Delta, never before," he replied.

The only remaining option was a frontal assault by 50 US Delta Force members plus their Afghan guides -- and the Afghan warlord accompanying the commandos frankly told them, "I don’t think you guys can handle it." A few million dollars from the CIA quickly secured his cooperation, but only to a degree.

The Delta Force leader told CBS that the Afghan fighters went home every night, abandoning whatever territory had been gained that day. "It was almost like it was an agreement, an understanding between the two forces fighting each other," he stated When the CIA did come up with an exact location on bin Laden, it was nighttime, and the Afghan support was nowhere to be found.

"It wasn’t worth the risk at that particular moment to go up there and play cowboy," the leader told CBS. "It was better to be cautious, refit, go up there with the entire force the next day and play the battle out as we had planned." But when he attempted to move on bin Laden the next day, his Afghan allies balked, saying they had negotiated a cease fire with al Qaeda, and even drew their weapons on the Delta force team to prevent it from acting alone.

Shortly thereafter, intercepted radio communications showed that bin Laden was on the move. A cave which al Qaeda members had been seen entering was bombed for several hours, and it was thought that bin Laden had died there. But when US forces checked the cave six months later, bin Laden’s body was not found. The Delta Force leader believes he received medical treatment in a local village and then got away safely into Pakistan.

CBS News had more details here.

This video is from CBS’ 60 Minutes, broadcast October 5, 2008.

Download video via RawReplay.com

Dennis Kucinich on the Democrats’ Bailout Betrayal

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By Chris Hedges

The passing of the $850-billion bailout pulled the plug on the New Deal. The Great Society is now gasping for air, mortally wounded, coughing up blood. It will not recover. It was murdered by the Democratic Party.

We are on our own. And don’t expect any help from Barack Obama and Joe Biden, who lobbied hard for the bill and voted for it. Ignore their rhetoric. Look coldly at the ballots they cast against us. We, as citizens, have only a handful of representatives left in Washington, most of whom were left sputtering in rage and frustration on the House floor. The sad irony is that some of them were Republican.

“This was the largest single act of class warfare in the modern history of this country,” Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who led the fight in the House against the bailout, told me by phone from Cleveland. “It is a direct attack on the American people’s ability to be able to stabilize their homes and their neighborhoods. This single vote will define the careers of everyone. We are back to taxation without representation, to markets that are openly rigged.”

“We buried the New Deal,” he said of the vote. “Instead of Democrats going back to classic New Deal economics where we prime the pump of the economy and start money circulating among the population through saving homes, creating jobs and building a new infrastructure, our leaders chose to accelerate the wealth of the nation upwards. They did so in a way that was destructive of free-market principles. They ripped away all the familiar moorings. We are in an uncharted sea where the traditional roles of the political parties are being switched. The Democrats have unfortunately become so enamored and beholden to Wall Street that we are not functioning to defend the economic interest of the broad base of the American people. It was up to the Republicans to protect not just a so-called free market but the American taxpayer and attempt to block this. This is an outrage. This was democracy’s Black Friday.”

Obama arrived on the Senate floor Brutus-like to thrust a knife into the back of the working and middle class. He lobbied hard for the bill. He did so, according to some who met with him on Capitol Hill, because he feared that if he opposed the bailout and it triggered a market collapse it could cost him the election. Better to placate the thieves on Wall Street than stand up for the masses of enraged and swindled citizens.

Obama’s betrayal is the betrayal of the Democratic Party. The Democrats gave us the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, which ripped down the firewalls that were put in place by the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act. The 1933 act, designed to prevent the kind of meltdown we are now experiencing, established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC). It set in place banking reforms to stop speculators from hijacking the financial system. With Glass-Steagall demolished, and the passage of NAFTA, the Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, tumbled gleefully into bed with corporations and Wall Street speculators. They achieved fundraising parity with the Republicans. They used institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as a welfare gravy train. The Democrats, including Obama, are as compromised as the Republicans.

Obama’s voting record in the Senate is in line with the corrupt Democratic mainstream, including Biden, who works on behalf of corporations and especially the credit card industry. Obama knows where power lies in the United States. It is not with the citizens, who with ratios of 100 to 1 pleaded with their representatives in Washington not to loot the national treasury to bail out Wall Street investment firms. Power lies with the corporations. These corporations, not us, pick who runs for president. You cannot be a candidate without their blessing and money. These corporations, including the Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation, determine who gets to speak and what issues candidates can or cannot challenge, from universal, not-for-profit, single-payer health care to Wall Street bailouts to NAFTA. If you do not follow the corporate script you become as marginal and invisible as Ralph Nader or Bob Barr or Cynthia McKinney.

Obama has always served his corporate masters. He opposed Rep. John Murtha’s call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq and supported continued funding for the war. He voted in July 2005 to reauthorize the Patriot Act. He did not support an amendment that was part of a bankruptcy bill that would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent. He opposed a bill that would have reformed the notorious Mining Law of 1872, which allows mineral companies to rape federal land for profit. He did not back the single-payer health care bill HR 676, sponsored by Kucinich and John Conyers. He advocates the death penalty and nuclear power. He backed the class-action “reform” bill—the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA)—that was part of a large lobbying effort by financial firms, which make up Obama’s second-biggest single bloc of donors. CAFA would effectively shut down state courts as a venue to hear most class-action lawsuits. Workers, under CAFA, would no longer have redress in many of the courts where these cases have a chance of defying powerful corporations. CAFA moves these cases into corporate-friendly federal courts dominated by Republican judges.

Obama’s support for the bailout, however, is his most egregious betrayal. He had a brief, shining moment to prove he could lead, to capitalize on a popular revolt that cut across the political spectrum. He never attempted to address or mobilize the aspirations and passions of the vast majority of Americans. He was as craven, servile and cowardly as the party he represents. He returned to the campaign trail after Friday’s vote as a slick and polished sales representative for our corporate state, telling us to calm down and accept the inevitable.

“Some of the most powerful speeches against this were given by members of the Republican Party who are on the political right,” Kucinich said. “They did a superb job in poking holes in the underlying assumptions of the bailout. They say what they believe. Give me somebody who says what they believe and I can figure out how to get them to a new place. When people say one thing and do another it is very hard to be able to move a debate.”

So let us honor, in our moment of defeat, the handful of elected officials who valiantly defied their party leaderships in the House to stage a remarkable revolt that at first succeeded. Kucinich is one. There were others—Brad Sherman, Marcy Kaptur, Peter DeFazio, Lloyd Doggett and Robert C. “Bobby” Scott. They are about all that is left of the old Democratic Party, the party that once looked out for the poor and the working class. Send them a note of thanks. They deserve it. And if you live in their districts make sure you get to the polls in November. They did not sell you out.

“We had two take-it-or-leave-it propositions and the second one was worse than the first,” Kucinich said, referring to the plan that came loaded with pages of tax cuts. “Tax cuts are antithetical to a bailout. We never solved the problem. There were never any hearings on the bill. This premise, that we could prop up the stock market with a $700-billion investment and create some liquidity, was flawed. The problem is that banks do not want to loan to each other. It is not a liquidity problem. Banks are afraid they are going to collapse in short selling. There is a war going on between security firms and banks. Banks are under assault. They are not loaning. The dynamic is driven by the Accounting Standards Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Fed.”

The root of the financial crisis, as critics of the bailout plan point out, is that millions of homeowners cannot pay their mortgages. The bailout, as the market decline on Friday following the vote illustrated, does not address the crisis. It solves nothing for the 10 million Americans who face foreclosure. It solves nothing for the growing numbers of unemployed and underemployed. It may well be the equivalent of tossing $850 billion of taxpayer money (including $150 billion in tax cuts) into a furnace and watching passively as our economy continues its plunge.

“We face a perfect financial storm,” Kucinich warned. “The elements are the deficit spending for the war of 3 to 4 trillion dollars, the trillion and more tax cuts, the war itself and the lack of serious investment in the country. We are being hollowed out. We are going to see more unemployment and more people losing their homes. With $700 billion we could have made a real investment in the country, in jobs, in infrastructure and in homes. Instead, we got robbed.”

A crisis made in the Oval Office

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By Dean Baker

A financial panic provoked by President Bush was designed to stampede Congress into passing the bail-out for Wall Street

This is the first time in the history of the United States that the president has sought to provoke a financial panic to get legislation passed through Congress. While this has proven to be a successful political strategy - after the House of Representatives finally passed the bank bail-out plan today - it marks yet another low point in American politics.

It was incredibly irresponsible for George Bush to tell the American people on national television that the country could be facing another Great Depression. By contrast, when we actually were in the Great Depression, President Roosevelt said: "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself."

It was even more irresponsible for President Bush to seize on the decline in the stock market five days later as evidence that his bailout was needed for the economy. President Bush must surely understand, as all economists know, that the daily swings in the stock market are driven by mass psychology and have almost nothing to do with the underlying strength in the economy.

The scare tactics of President Bush, Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary, and Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, created sufficient panic, so that by the time of the first vote on the emergency package in Congress, much of the public believed that the defeat of the bail-out may actually have had serious consequences for the economy. Millions of people have changed their behaviour because of this fear, with many pulling money out of bank and money market accounts, and adjusting their financial plans in other ways.

This effort to promote panic is especially striking since the country's dire economic situation is almost entirely the result of the Bush administration's policy failures. First and foremost, the decision of Paulson and Bernanke (and previously Alan Greenspan) to ignore the housing bubble, allowed for the growth of an $8tn bubble, which is now collapsing.

It is the collapse of this bubble - which has already destroyed more than $4tn in housing wealth, and is likely to destroy another $4tn over the next year - that is at the root of the economy's problems. While competent economists were warning of the bubble and the dire consequences of its collapse, the top officials in the Bush administration were celebrating the rise in homeownership rates.

The Bush administration made the crisis even worse by deregulating Wall Street. This led to the huge over-leveraging of financial institutions, which has vastly complicated the country's economic policies. It is especially disturbing that Secretary Paulson personally profited from these policies, earning millions of dollars in compensation from Goldman Sachs during his years there as its chief executive.

The collapse of the housing bubble, while falling short of the magnitude of the Great Depression, is likely to lead to the worst recession since the second world war. Repairing the damage caused by this bubble will be a long and difficult process. Cleaning up the damage to the political system from President Bush's unprecedented fear campaign may prove to be even more difficult.

Secrets of Iraq's death chamber

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Prisoners are being summarily executed in the government's high-security detention centre in Baghdad. Robert Fisk reports

Like all wars, the dark, untold stories of the Iraqi conflict drain from its shattered landscape like the filthy waters of the Tigris. And still the revelations come.

The Independent has learnt that secret executions are being carried out in the prisons run by Nouri al-Maliki's "democratic" government.

The hangings are carried out regularly – from a wooden gallows in a small, cramped cell – in Saddam Hussein's old intelligence headquarters at Kazimiyah. There is no public record of these killings in what is now called Baghdad's "high-security detention facility" but most of the victims – there have been hundreds since America introduced "democracy" to Iraq – are said to be insurgents, given the same summary justice they mete out to their own captives.

The secrets of Iraq's death chambers lie mostly hidden from foreign eyes but a few brave Western souls have come forward to tell of this prison horror. The accounts provide only a glimpse into the Iraqi story, at times tantalisingly cut short, at others gloomily predictable. Those who tell it are as depressed as they are filled with hopelessness.

"Most of the executions are of supposed insurgents of one kind or another," a Westerner who has seen the execution chamber at Kazimiyah told me. "But hanging isn't easy." As always, the devil is in the detail.

"There's a cell with a bar below the ceiling with a rope over it and a bench on which the victim stands with his hands tied," a former British official, told me last week. "I've been in the cell, though it was always empty. But not long before I visited, they'd taken this guy there to hang him. They made him stand on the bench, put the rope round his neck and pushed him off. But he jumped on to the floor. He could stand up. So they shortened the length of the rope and got him back on the bench and pushed him off again. It didn't work."

There's nothing new in savage executions in the Middle East – in the Lebanese city of Sidon 10 years ago, a policeman had to hang on to the legs of a condemned man to throttle him after he failed to die on the noose – but in Baghdad, cruel death seems a speciality.

"They started digging into the floor beneath the bench so that the guy would drop far enough to snap his neck," the official said. "They dug up the tiles and the cement underneath. But that didn't work. He could still stand up when they pushed him off the bench. So they just took him to a corner of the cell and shot him in the head."

The condemned prisoners in Kazimiyah, a Shia district of Baghdad, are said to include rapists and murderers as well as insurgents. One prisoner, a Chechen, managed to escape from the jail with another man after a gun was smuggled to them. They shot two guards dead. The authorities had to call in the Americans to help them recapture the two. The Americans killed one and shot the Chechen in the leg. He refused medical assistance so his wound went gangrenous. In the end, the Iraqis had to operate and took all the bones out of his leg. By the time he met one Western visitor to the prison, "he was walking around on crutches with his boneless right leg slung over his shoulder".

In many cases, it seems, the Iraqis neither keep nor release any record of the true names of their captives or of the hanged prisoners. For years the Americans – in charge of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad – did not know the identity of their prisoners. Here, for example, is new testimony given to The Independent by a former Western official to the Anglo-US Iraq Survey Group, which searched for the infamous but mythical weapons of mass destruction: "We would go to the interrogation rooms at Abu Ghraib and ask for a particular prisoner. After about 40 minutes, the Americans brought in this hooded guy, shuffling along, shackled hands and feet.

"They sat him on a chair in front of us and took off his hood. He had a big beard. We asked where he received his education. He repeatedly said 'Mosul'. Then he said he'd left school at 14 – remember, this guy is supposed to be a missile scientist. We said: 'We know you've got a PhD and went to the Sorbonne – we'd like you to help us with information about Saddam's missile project'. But I said to myself : 'This guy doesn't know anything 'bout fucking missiles.' Then it turned out he had a different name from the man we'd asked for, he'd been picked up on the road by the Americans four months earlier, he didn't know why. So we said to the Americans: 'Wrong gentleman!' So they put the shackles on him and took him back to his cell and after 20 or 30 minutes, they'd bring someone else. We'd ask him where he went to school and he told us he had never been to school.

"Wrong person again. It was a complete farce. The incompetence of the US military was astounding, criminal. Eventually, of course, they found the right guy and brought him in and took his hood off. He was breathing heavily, overweight, pudgy, disoriented, a little bit scared."

On this occasion, the Americans had found the right man. The British and American investigators asked the guards to remove the man's shackles, which they did – but then they tied one of the man's legs to the floor. Yes, he had a PhD.

Again, the official's testimony: "We went through his history, what he'd worked on – he was obviously just a minor functionary in one of Saddam's missile programmes. Iraqi scientists didn't have the knowledge how to make nuclear missiles nor did they have the financial support necessary. It just remained in the dreams of Saddam."

The scientist-prisoner in Abu Ghraib miserably told his captors that he'd been arrested by the Americans after they'd knocked on his front door in Baghdad and found two Kalashnikov rifles a woman's hijab, verses from the Koran and, obviously of interest to his captors, "physics and missile textbooks on his bookshelves." But this supposedly valuable prisoner was never charged or previously interviewed even though he admitted he was a rocket scientist.

"I don't know what happened to him," the former official told me. "I tried to tell the UK and the US military that we've arrested this man but that he's got a wife, children, a family. I said that by locking up this one innocent person, you've got 50 men radicalised overnight. No, I don't know what happened to him."

For many of the investigators working for the Anglo-American authorities in Baghdad, the trial for the crime for which the Iraqi dictator was himself subsequently hanged was a fearful experience that ultimately ended in disgust. Through captured documents, they could see the dark, inner workings of Saddam's secret police. The idea of the Saddam trial was less to bring members of the former regime to justice than to show Iraqis how justice and the rule of law should operate.

"It was exhilarating to see Saddam being cross-examined," one of the court investigators said. "The low point was when he was executed. What drove me on was seeing how Saddam dealt with his victims – I was looking at a microcosm of all the deaths that had taken place in Iraq. But when he was executed, it was done in such a savage way."

Saddam Hussein was hanged in the same "secure" unit at Kazimiyah where Mr al-Maliki's people, in an echo of Saddamite Baathist terror, now hang their victims.

Iraq The death penalty

*The death penalty in Iraq was suspended after Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003. It was reinstated by the interim government in August 2004.

*The United Nations, the European Union and international human rights organisations all spoke out against the reintroduction.

*At the time, the government claimed the death penalty was a necessary measure until the country had stabilised. Amnesty International claims that "the extent of violence in Iraq has increased rather than diminished, clearly indicating that the death penalty has not proved to be an effective deterrent."

*Saddam, left, his half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti and Iraq's former chief judge Awad Hamed al-Bandar were hanged at the end of 2006 for their part in the killings of 148 people in the mainly Shia town of Dujail in 1982. Illicit videos of all three executions later became public. Saddam's body could be seen on a hospital trolley, his head twisted at 90 degrees. Barzan – Iraq's former intelligence chief –was decapitated by the noose. Officials said it was an accident.

*According to Amnesty, there were at least 33 executions reported in Iraq last year. About 200 people were estimated to have been sentenced to death.

UN agrees Afghan war cannot be won militarily

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The war in Afghanistan cannot be won militarily and success is only possible through political means including dialogue among all relevant parties, the United Nation's top official in the country said on Monday.

His comments come after Britain's military commander in Afghanistan said the war could not be won and that the goal was to reduce the insurgency to a level where it was no longer a strategic threat and could be dealt with by the Afghan army.

Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith said if the Taliban were willing to talk, that might be "precisely the sort of progress" needed to end the insurgency.

"I've always said to those that talk about the military surge ... what we need most of all is a political surge, more political energy," Kai Eide, the UN special envoy to Afghanistan, told a news conference in Kabul.

"We all know that we cannot win it militarily. It has to be won through political means. That means political engagement."

Mr. Eide said success depended on speaking with all sides in the conflict. "If you want to have relevant results, you must speak to those who are relevant. If you want to have results that matter, you must speak to those who matter," he said.

The British ambassador to Kabul said a troop surge would only create more targets for the Taliban. The comments were made to a French colleague who sent a telegram to Paris which was leaked and published in Le Canard Enchaine newspaper last week.

But the U.S. general commanding NATO forces said last month he needed three more brigades — possibly around 15,000 troops — on top of an extra 4,000 soldiers due to arrive in January.

Faced with the persistent reluctance of some of its European allies to send more troops to Afghanistan or allow them to fight once there, the United States has asked Japan and NATO countries to help foot the $17-billion bill to build up the Afghan army.

"The faster we get the (Afghan army) to the size and strength they need to be, the less they depend on us for providing security," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

The Afghan Defence Ministry says the cost of one foreign soldier in Afghanistan is equal to more than 60 Afghan troops.

More foreign troops have been killed in Afghanistan already this year than in any entire year since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

As casualties mount, so have Western calls for negotiations with the militants to bring an end to the conflict.

But the Taliban have repeatedly rejected the idea of talks unless all 70,000 foreign troops leave the country.

"As we said before, as long as the invader forces are in Afghanistan, we won't participate in any negotiations," Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told the Pakistan-based Afghan news agency, AIP, on Monday.

Mr. Yousuf also denied reports that negotiations had taken place between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Saudi Arabia.

"All these reports are wrong. We have neither held talks with any government bodies nor have we sent any delegation for talks anywhere," Mr. Yousuf told AIP.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also denied the reports but said he had asked the king of Saudi Arabia to help in talks with the militant group. Any negotiations would only take place in Afghanistan, he said.

Saudi Arabia was one of the few countries to recognize a Taliban government when they ruled most of Afghanistan in the 1990s. The hard-line Islamists were ousted in late 2001.

Congress grills Lehman boss over 500-million dollar wages

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US lawmakers Monday grilled the head of Lehman Brothers demanding he justify some 500 million dollars he had earned since 2000, as well as huge bonuses sought for top executives even as the bank failed.

Richard Fuld, the chief executive officer of the investment bank which fell prey in September to the credit crunch, was called to account by the House of Representatives oversight committee.

The hearings are the start of a series of probes promised by Congress which on Friday passed an unprecedented 700-billion dollar rescue package to shore up Wall Street, amid the country's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Committee chairman Henry Waxman targeted Fuld, saying over the years he had earned some 500 million dollars in bonuses and wages from Lehman Brothers. Fuld owned a 14 million dollar getaway in Florida, as well as a home in Idaho filled with an art collection, Waxman said.

"You've been able to pocket close to half a billion dollars and my question to you is that fair for a CEO of a company that's now bankrupt? It's just unimaginable to so many people," Waxman asked Fuld.

Figures provided by Lehman Brothers showed Fuld received some 52 million dollars from the bank in 2000. By 2006 that had ballooned to more than 106 million dollars.

But Fuld disputed that he had pocketed that much eight years, saying: "I would say to you that that 500 number is not accurate.

"I think for the years you're talking about here I believe my cash compensation was close to 60 million and the amount I took out of the company over and above that was closer to 250 million. Still a large number though."

In a series of written testimonies received over the weekend Fuld "takes no responsibility for the collapse of Lehman," Waxman said.

"Instead, he cites a 'litany of destabilizing factors,' and says that 'in the end, despite all our efforts, we were overwhelmed.'"

Lehman Brothers sought bankruptcy protection on September 15 after a frantic weekend of talks failed to find a buyer for the Wall Street giant ravaged by credit and real estate woes.

The massive bankruptcy filing in US federal court in New York listed 639 billion dollars in assets at 613 billion in debts, and prompted a bloodbath on the global financial markets.

Japan's Nomura Holdings is buying a swathe of Lehman Brothers' operations in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, after British bank Barclays sealed a 1.75-billion-dollar deal to acquire its investment banking and trading units.

"We can't continue to have a system where Wall Street executives privatize the gains and then socialize the losses. Accountability needs to be a two-way street," Waxman said.

And he pointed to an internal Lehman email in which the bank's compensation committee recommended as late as September 11 giving golden handshakes of more than 20 million dollars to be shared between three departing executives.

"In other words, even as Mr. Fuld was pleading with Secretary (Henry) Paulson for a federal rescue, Lehman continued to squander millions on executive compensation," Waxman told the committee.

"Many experts think Lehman's fall triggered the credit freeze that is choking our economy, and that made the 700 billion rescue necessary," Waxman said.

"Mr. Fuld will do fine. He can walk away a wealthy man, who earned over 500 million. But taxpayers are left with a 700 billion bill to rescue Wall Street and an economy in crisis.

"While Mr. Fuld and other Lehman executives were getting rich, they were steering Lehman Brothers and our economy toward a precipice."

There has been popular anger at the Wall Street bailout which many Americans, now struggling to pay their mortgages, blame on banks and financial institutions lining their pockets with the profits from the housing boom.

McCain link to private group in Iran-Contra case

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John McCain’s campaign is criticizing Barack Obama for his ties to a former radical who engaged in violent acts four decades ago, but McCain himself was closely connected to a private group that supplied aid to rebels trying to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua during the Iran-Contra affair.
The U.S. Council for World Freedom was part of an international organization linked to former Nazi collaborators and ultra-right-wing death squads in Central America. The group was dedicated to stamping out communism around the globe.

The council’s founder, retired Army Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, said McCain became associated with the organization in the early 1980s as McCain was launching his political career in Arizona. Singlaub said McCain was a supporter but not an active member in the group.

"McCain was a new guy on the block learning the ropes," Singlaub told The Associated Press in an interview. "I think I met him in the Washington area when he was just a new congressman. We had McCain on the board to make him feel like he wasn’t left out. It looks good to have names on a letterhead who are well-known and appreciated.

"I don’t recall talking to McCain at all on the work of the group," Singlaub said.

The renewed attention over McCain’s association with Singlaub’s group comes as McCain’s Republican presidential campaign steps up criticism over Obama’s dealings with William Ayers, a college professor who co-founded the Weather Underground and years later worked on education reform in Chicago alongside Obama. Ayers held a meet-the-candidate event at his home when Obama first ran for public office in the mid-1990s.

Obama was roughly 8 years old when Ayers, now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was working with the Weather Underground, which took responsibility for bombings that included nonfatal blasts at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol. McCain’s vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, has said that Obama "pals around with terrorists."

In McCain’s case, Singlaub knew McCain’s father, a Navy admiral who had sought Singlaub’s counsel when McCain became a prisoner of war and spent 5 1/2 years in North Vietnamese hands.

"John’s father asked me for advice about what he ought to do now that his son had been shot down and captured," Singlaub recalled in one of two recent interviews. "I said, ’As long as you don’t give any impression that you care more about him than you care about any of the other prisoners, he won’t be treated any differently.’"

In the Iran-Contra affair, the Reagan White House arranged covert arms shipments to the Contra rebels financed in part by secret arms sales to Iran.

Iran-Contra proved to be the undoing of Singlaub’s council.

In 1987, the Internal Revenue Service withdrew the tax-exempt status of Singlaub’s group because of its activities on behalf of the Contras.

Elected to the House in 1982 and at a time when he was on the board of Singlaub’s council, McCain was among Republicans on Capitol Hill expressing support for the Contras, a CIA-organized guerrilla force in Central America. In 1984, Congress cut off CIA funds for the Contras.

Months before the cutoff, top Reagan administration officials ramped up the secret White House-directed supply network and put National Security Council aide Oliver North in charge of running it. The goal was to keep the Contras operational until Congress could be persuaded to resume CIA funding.

Singlaub’s private group became the public cover for the White House operation.

Secretly, Singlaub worked with North in an effort to raise millions of dollars from foreign governments.

McCain has said previously he resigned from the council in 1984 and asked in 1986 to have his name removed from the group’s letterhead.

"I didn’t know whether (the group’s activity) was legal or illegal, but I didn’t think I wanted to be associated with them," McCain said in a newspaper interview in 1986.

Singlaub does not recall any McCain resignation in 1984 or May 1986, nor does Joyce Downey, who oversaw the group’s day-to-day activities.

"That’s a surprise to me," Singlaub said. "This is the first time I’ve ever heard that. There may have been someone in his office communicating with our office."

"I don’t ever remember hearing about his resigning, but I really wasn’t worried about that part of our activities, a housekeeping thing," Singlaub said. "If he didn’t want to be on the board that’s OK. It wasn’t as if he had been active participant and we were going to miss his help. He had no active interest. He certainly supported us."

IRAQ: U.S. Urged to Share More of Refugee Burden

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By Zainab Mineeia

Despite a marked increase in the number of Iraqi refugees admitted into the United States, experts on Iraq and human rights and refugee organisations are calling on Washington to open the door wider amid fears that returning home remains dangerous for many displaced Iraqis.

The U.S. government has met its target of admitting 12,000 Iraqi refugees for the 2008 fiscal year, which ended on Sep. 30, and promises to admit more than 17,000 for the next year, in addition to 5,000 under a special visa programme.

Approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refuges live in Syria, Jordan and other neighbouring countries. Ninety thousand of them are seeking resettlement in the U.S., according to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Groups that advocate on behalf of refugees have praised the increased numbers of Iraqi refugees being resettled in the U.S. But considering the vast number that are seeking resettlement, the groups say the U.S. is still not doing enough.

"The U.S. certainly met its goal for this year, but next year's target of resettling 17,000 Iraqi refugees falls far short of what is needed," said Kristele Younes of Refugees International.

"We commend the U.S. government for meeting its target of resettling 12,000 Iraqi refugees in 2008. It represents a significant achievement," said Bob Carey, the International Rescue Committee's (IRC) vice president of refugee resettlement programmes.

"But that number was much too low to begin with," he added. "Now that systems are in place to process greater numbers of vulnerable Iraqi civilians, an increase of only 5,000 next year seems particularly meagre."

Many refugee and rights groups have noted a special responsibility for caring for displaced persons because the U.S. led the war that gave rise to the crisis.

Earlier in September, the U.S. State Department held a briefing on developments in the Iraqi Refugee Admissions and Assistance Programmes where it announced that the U.S. had crossed the threshold of 12,000 admitted refugees.

"I think you'll see the U.S. government admitting, over the course of fiscal 2009, tens of thousands of Iraqis into the United States," said Ambassador James Foley, who was appointed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the post of Special Coordinator for Iraqi Refugee Issues in 2007.

Experts on the Iraqi refugee crisis and human rights organisations have concerns about returning refugees to their homes in Iraq.

In an interview with IPS, Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert and the author of "The Modern History of Iraq", discussed the pros and cons that Iraqi families face when returning. "It's much safer -- there is no doubt about that. It's calmed down and security seems much better," said Marr.

But she also cautioned that these families could encounter difficulties when returning to Iraq. Some families find their homes have been occupied by others, and there are few job opportunities, she said.

Michael Kocher, who oversees IRC's international aid programmes, noted potentially even more serious consequences for returning refugees.

"For many Iraqi civilians, going home would be a death sentence," he said. "The reality is that all but a tiny fraction of uprooted Iraqis are staying put because they know their neighbourhoods are still violent, not safe, and lack basic services. To encourage and lure returns at this stage is irresponsible."

With U.S. elections coming up in November and a new president taking office in January, IRC issued a statement urging that the next U.S. administration recognise the special obligation to help vulnerable Iraqis, and vastly increase humanitarian aid in the region and for resettlement.

The IRC statement also called for pressure on the Iraqi government and others to adequately address the refugee crisis and set a global standard for granting sanctuary to more Iraqi refugees -- especially when they are imperilled and have exhausted other options.

The State Department was also critical of the Iraqi government for not doing enough for its refugees.

"The Iraqi government's unwillingness thus far to significantly share the international burden of assisting refugees would become more understandable if it were undertaking a serious and credible effort to prepare for large-scale returns," Foley said at the September press briefing.

In a recent statement, Refugees International alleged that the government of Iraq, despite a massive budget from increasing oil revenues, has been "ignoring the welfare of four million displaced Iraqis" by refusing to grant the requested funding to an Iraqi parliamentary committee on displacement and migration -- the third such rejected request this year.

Iraq's budget will be nearly 80 billion dollars, of which the committee has requested 4 billion dollars.

"There is no excuse for the government of Iraq's poor response to the displacement of Iraqis," said Younes in the statement. "...[T]he government has the resources to help people who have been uprooted from their homes."

"To stabilise Iraq, their needs must be met in the places they live now," she said.

Refugees International argues that Iraq is still dangerous for returning families. Despite the drop in violence over the past two years, the statement noted that "the situation is far from stable and many people's homes are damaged or occupied by militants or other families."

Returning to these locations, said Younes, could lead to further displacement.

"Most refugees believe they might never be able to go home, as they have been directly threatened and their homes are occupied," she said. "Instead of pressuring displaced civilians to return to danger and chaos, it is time for the government of Iraq to assist them in their areas of asylum."

Voting the Fate of the Nation

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By Chalmers Johnson

Will Economic Meltdown, Race, or Regional Loyalty Be the Trump Card in Election 2008?

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama called the forthcoming presidential election a "defining moment" in this country’s history. It is conceivable that he is right. There are precedents in American history for an election inaugurating a period of reform and political realignment.

Such a development, however, is extremely rare and surrounded by contingencies normally beyond the control of the advocates of reform. So let me speculate about whether the 2008 election might set in motion a political reconfiguration -- and even a political renaissance -- in the United States, restoring a modicum of democracy to the country’s political system, while ending our march toward imperialism, perpetual warfare, and bankruptcy that began with the Cold War.

The political blunders, serious mistakes, and governmental failures of the last eight years so discredited the administration of George W. Bush -- his average approval rating has fallen to 27% and some polls now show him dipping into the low twenties -- that his name was barely mentioned in the major speeches at the Republican convention. Even John McCain has chosen to run under the banner of "maverick" as a candidate of "change," despite the fact that his own party’s misgoverning has elicited those demands for change.

Bringing the opposition party to power, however, is not in itself likely to restore the American republic to good working order. It is almost inconceivable that any president could stand up to the overwhelming pressures of the military-industrial complex, as well as the extra-constitutional powers of the 16 intelligence agencies that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community, and the entrenched interests they represent. The subversive influence of the imperial presidency (and vice presidency), the vast expansion of official secrecy and of the police and spying powers of the state, the institution of a second Defense Department in the form of the Department of Homeland Security, and the irrational commitments of American imperialism (761 active military bases in 151 foreign countries as of 2008) will not easily be rolled back by the normal workings of the political system.

For even a possibility of that occurring, the vote in November would have to result in a "realigning election," of which there have been only two during the past century -- the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and of Richard Nixon in 1968. Until 1932, the Republicans had controlled the presidency for 56 of the previous 72 years, beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860. After 1932, the Democrats occupied the White House for 28 of the next 36 years.

The 1968 election saw the withdrawal of the candidacy of President Lyndon Johnson under the pressure of the Vietnam War, the defeat of his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, not to mention the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. That election, based on Nixon’s so-called southern strategy, led to a new political alignment nationally, favoring the Republicans. The essence of that realignment lay in the running of Republican racists for office in the old Confederate states where the Democrats had long been the party of choice. Before 1968, the Democrats had also been the majority party nationally, winning seven of the previous nine presidential elections. The Republicans won seven of the next ten between 1968 and 2004.

Of these two realigning elections, the Roosevelt election is certainly the more important for our moment, ushering in as it did one of the few truly democratic periods in American political history. In his new book, Democracy Incorporated, Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin suggests the following: "Democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs."

However, the founders of this country and virtually all subsequent political leaders have been hostile to democracy in this sense. They favored checks and balances, republicanism, and rule by elites rather than rule by the common man or woman. Wolin writes, "The American political system was not born a democracy, but born with a bias against democracy. It was constructed by those who were either skeptical about democracy or hostile to it. Democratic advance proved to be slow, uphill, forever incomplete.

"The republic existed for three-quarters of a century before formal slavery was ended; another hundred years before black Americans were assured of their voting rights. Only in the twentieth century were women guaranteed the vote and trade unions the right to bargain collectively. In none of these instances has victory been complete: women still lack full equality, racism persists, and the destruction of the remnants of trade unions remains a goal of corporate strategies. Far from being innate, democracy in America has gone against the grain, against the very forms by which the political and economic power of the country has been and continues to be ordered."

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal introduced a brief period of approximate democracy. This ended with the U.S. entry into World War II, when the New Deal was replaced by a wartime economy based on munitions manufacture and the support of weapons producers. This development had a powerful effect on the American political psyche, since only war production ultimately overcame the conditions of the Great Depression and restored full employment. Ever since that time, the United States has experimented with maintaining a military economy and a civilian economy simultaneously. Over time, this has had the effect of misallocating vital resources away from investment and consumption, while sapping the country’s international competitiveness.

Socioeconomic conditions in 2008 bear a certain resemblance to those of 1932, making a realigning election conceivable. Unemployment in 1932 was a record 33%. In the fall of 2008, the rate is a much lower 6.1%, but other severe economic pressures abound. These include massive mortgage foreclosures, bank and investment house failures, rapid inflation in the prices of food and fuel, the failure of the health care system to deliver service to all citizens, a growing global-warming environmental catastrophe due to the over-consumption of fossil fuels, continuing costly military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, with more on the horizon due to foreign policy failures (in Georgia, Ukraine, Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere), and record-setting budgetary and trade deficits.

The question is: Can the electorate be mobilized, as in 1932, and will this indeed lead to a realigning election? The answer to neither question is an unambiguous yes.

The Race Factor

Even to contemplate that happening, of course, the Democratic Party first has to win the election -- and in smashing style -- and it faces two formidable obstacles to doing so: race and regionalism.

Although large numbers of white Democrats and independents have told pollsters that the race of a candidate is not a factor in how they will decide their vote, there is ample evidence that they are not telling the truth -- either to pollsters or, in many cases perhaps no less importantly, to themselves. Andrew Hacker, a political scientist at Queen’s College, New York, has written strikingly on this subject, starting with the phenomenon known as the "Bradley Effect."

The term refers to Tom Bradley, a former black mayor of Los Angeles, who lost his 1982 bid to become governor of California, even though every poll in the state showed him leading his white opponent by substantial margins. Similar results appeared in 1989, when David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York City and Douglas Wilder sought election as governor of Virginia. Dinkins was ahead by 18 percentage points, but won by only two, and Wilder was leading by nine points, but squeaked through by only half a percent. Numerous other examples lead Hacker to offer this advice to Obama campaign offices: always subtract 7% from favorable poll results. That’s the potential Bradley effect.

Meanwhile, the Karl Rove-trained Republican Party has been hard at work disenfranchising black voters. Although we are finally beyond property qualifications, written tests, and the poll tax, there are many new gimmicks. These include laws requiring voters to present official identity cards that include a photo, which, for all practical purposes, means either a driver’s license or a passport. Many states drop men and women from the voting rolls who have been convicted of a felony but have fully completed their sentences, or require elaborate procedures for those who have been in prison -- where, Hacker points out, black men and women outnumber whites by nearly six to one -- to be reinstated. There are many other ways of disqualifying black voters, not the least of which is imprisonment itself. After all, the United States imprisons a greater proportion of its population than any other country on Earth, a burden that falls disproportionately on African Americans. Such obstacles can be overcome but they require heroic organizational efforts.

The Regional Factor

Regionalism is the other obvious obstacle standing in the way of attempts to mobilize the electorate on a national basis for a turning-point election. In their book, Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics, the political scientists Earl and Merle Black argue that the U.S. electorate is hopelessly split. This division, which has become more entrenched with each passing year, is fundamentally ideological, but it is also rooted in ethnicity and manifests itself in an intense and never-ending partisanship. "In modern American politics," they write, "a Republican Party dominated by white Protestants faces a Democratic Party in which minorities plus non-Christian whites far outnumber white Protestants."

Another difference on the rise involves gender imbalance. In the 1950s, the Democratic Party, then by far the larger of the two parties, was evenly balanced between women and men. Fifty years later, a smaller but still potent Democratic Party contained far more women than men (60% to 40%). "In contrast, the Republican Party has shifted from an institution with more women than men in the 1950s (55% to 45%) to one in which men and women were as evenly balanced in 2004 as Democrats were in the 1950s."

Now, add in regionalism, specifically the old American antagonism between the two sides in the Civil War. That once meant southern Democrats versus northern Republicans. By the twenty-first century, however, that binary division had given way to something more complex -- "a new American regionalism, a pattern of conflict in which Democrats and Republicans each possess two regional strongholds and in which the Midwest, as the swing region, holds the balance of power in presidential elections."

The five regions Earl and Merle Black identify -- each becoming more partisan and less characteristic of the nation as a whole -- are the Northeast, South, Midwest, Mountains/Plains, and Pacific Coast. The Northeast, although declining slightly in population, has become unambiguously liberal Democratic. It is composed of New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont), the Middle Atlantic states (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania), and the District of Columbia. It is the primary Democratic stronghold.

The South is today a Republican stronghold made up of the eleven former Confederate states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia). A second Republican stronghold, displaying an intense and growing partisanship, is the Mountains/Plains region, composed of the 13 states of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

A second Democratic stronghold is the Pacific Coast, which includes the nation’s most populous state, California, joined by Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington. The Midwest, where national elections are won or lost by the party able to hold onto, and mobilize, its strongholds, is composed of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The two most important swing states in the nation are Florida (27 electoral votes) and Ohio (20 electoral votes), which the Democrats narrowly lost, generally under contested circumstances, in both 2000 and 2004.

These five regions are today entrenched in the nation’s psyche. Normally, they ensure very narrow victories by one party or another in national elections. There is no way to get around them, barring a clear and unmistakable performance failure by one of the parties -- as happened to the Republicans during the Great Depression and may be happening again.

Why This Might Still Be a Turning-Point Election

Beyond these negatives, in 2008 there have been a number of developments that speak to the possibility of a turning-point election. First, the weakness (and age) of the Republican candidate may perhaps indicate that the Party itself is truly at the end of a forty-year cycle of power. Second, of course, is the meltdown, even possibly implosion, of the U.S. economy on the Republican watch (specifically, on that of George W. Bush, the least popular President in memory, as measured by recent opinion polls). This has put states in the Midwest and elsewhere that Bush took in 2000 and 2004 into play.

Third, there has been a noticeable trend in shifting party affiliations in which the Democrats are gaining membership as the Republicans are losing it, especially in key battleground states like Pennsylvania where, in 2008 alone, 474,000 new names have gone on the Democratic rolls, according to the Washington Post, even as the Republicans have lost 38,000. Overall, since 2006, the Democrats have gained at least two million new members, while the Republicans have lost 344,000. According to the Gallup organization, self-identified Democrats outnumbered self-identified Republicans by a 37% to 28% margin this June, a gap which may only be widening.

Fourth, there is the possibility of a flood of new, especially young, first-time voters, who either screen calls or live on cell phones, not landlines, and so are being under-measured by pollsters, as black voters may also be in this election. (However, when it comes to the young vote, which has been ballyhooed in a number of recent elections without turning out to be significant on Election Day, we must be cautious.) And fifth, an influx of new Democratic voters in states like Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico threatens, in this election at least, to dent somewhat the normal regional loyalty patterns described by Earl and Merle Black.

Above all, two main issues will determine whether or not the November election will be a realigning one. Republican Party failures in managing the economy, in involving the country in catastrophic wars of choice, and in ignoring such paramount issues as global warming all dictate a Democratic victory. Militating against that outcome is racist hostility, conscious or otherwise, toward the Democratic Party’s candidate as well as deep-seated regional loyalties. While the crisis caused by the performance failures of the incumbent party seems to guarantee a realigning election favoring the Democrats, it is simply impossible to determine the degree to which race and regionalism may sway voters. The fate of the nation hangs in the balance.

GOP Judges Aid White House Cover-up

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By Jason Leopold

A Republican-dominated federal Appeals Court panel has blocked the enforcement of a congressional subpoena, effectively guaranteeing that George W. Bush will leave the White House without his senior aides having to explain the firings of nine prosecutors.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia granted the White House a stay on subpoenas that sought testimony from former White House counsel Harriet Miers and internal documents from White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.

The panel also refused to expedite consideration of a White House appeal challenging a District Court ruling that had ordered Miers and Bolten to comply. In other words, the stay either ends the case or forces the next Congress to renew the subpoenas in 2009 after Bush leaves.

Two of the Appeals Court judges were appointed by Republicans – Douglas Ginsberg by Ronald Reagan and Raymond Randolph by George H.W. Bush. The third judge, David Tatel, was appointed by Bill Clinton.

The two Republican judges said they were granting the stay to give the Bush administration more time to defend its broad claims of executive privilege, but they also refused to hear the appeal and noted that the subpoenas would expire at the end of the year when the 110th Congress dissolves.

“In view of the above considerations, we see no reason to set the appeal,” the ruling said. “If the case becomes moot, we would be wasting the time of the court and the parties."

Democratic-appointed Judge Tatel, while concurring on the stay, questioned the Republican judges’ logic.

“I am perplexed by the panel majority’s willingness to grant a stay while hypothesizing that the expiration of the 110th Congress might moot the case before it is heard on the merits,” Tatel wrote. “Never have we granted a stay that would have the effect of irrevocably depriving a party of its victory in the District Court” before Judge John Bates.

Tatel said he joined in the ruling because he believed the 111th Congress could revive the case when it convenes in 2009, although that means the Bush administration would have succeeded in delaying a resolution of the controversy until President Bush had left office.

Possible Appeal

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers indicated that his committee would appeal the decision, but he did not say whether he would wait until next year to do that.

"While the delay caused by this incorrect decision is unfortunate, at the end of the day, I believe Judge Bates’s decision will be affirmed and that Harriet Miers and other key witness will appear before the House Judiciary Committee, and that we will get to the bottom of the Bush administration’s disgraceful politicization of the Justice Department," Conyers said.

On July 31, Judge Bates ruled that the White House’s legal argument of blanket executive privilege lacked legal precedent and that Miers must comply with the congressional subpoena, invoking executive privilege only on a question-by-question basis.

Bates called the White House executive-privilege position “entirely unsupported by existing case law. … In fact, there is Supreme Court authority that is all but conclusive on this question and that powerfully suggests that such advisors do not enjoy absolute immunity.”

The White House then sought a stay of Bates’s ruling pending appeal.

Carl Nichols, the Justice Department’s deputy assistant attorney, told the Appeals Court panel that Miers would suffer professionally and personally if she were forced to testify before Congress about the U.S. Attorney firings. However, Nichols did not provide details on how that might occur.

Meanwhile, House counsel Irvin Nathan said Miers has crucial information to help the Judiciary Committee move its probe forward.

The dispute arose when President Bush forbade Miers and Bolten to comply with a congressional subpoena about the prosecutors’ firings in 2006. The House then voted to hold the two officials in contempt of Congress, the first time in 25 years a full chamber of Congress has voted on a contempt-of-Congress citation.

Last week, the Justice Department’s Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility issued a 356-page report on the U.S. Attorney firings that “found significant evidence that political partisan considerations were an important factor in the removal of several of the U.S. Attorneys.”

Inspector General Glenn Fine and H. Marshall Jarrett, head of the Office of Professional Responsibility, found that Miers was involved in at least two of the dismissals and that Bolten played a role in at least one.

Neither Miers nor Bolten agreed to be interviewed by the Justice Department’s internal watchdogs.

‘Hindered’ Probe

Although Miers’ refusal to cooperate “hindered” the 18-month investigation, Fine and Miers were able to piece together enough evidence to conclude that Miers likely played a role in the firing of John McKay, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington.

According to the report, McKay’s firing was due, in part, to the fact that he would not convene a federal grand jury and secure indictments of alleged voter fraud in the 2004 governor’s race in the state in which Democrat Christine Gregoire defeated Republican Dino Rossi by a margin of 129 votes.

In an interview last year, McKay said some Republicans in his district with close ties to the White House demanded that he launch an investigation into the election and bring charges against individuals for voter fraud. But McKay concluded there was no evidence to support the suspicions.

McKay also said he believes he was not selected for a federal judgeship by local Republicans in Washington State last year because he did not file criminal charges against Democrats.

McKay said he requested a meeting with then-White House Counsel Miers to discuss the matter.

"I asked for a meeting with Harriet Miers, whom I had known since work I had been involved in with the American Bar Association, and she immediately agreed to see me in August of 2006," McKay told me.

McKay said that when he met with Miers and her deputy William Kelley at the White House, the first thing they asked him was, "Why would Republicans in the state of Washington be angry with you?"

That was "a clear reference to the 2004 governor’s election," McKay said in characterizing Miers’s and her deputy’s comments. "Some believed I should convene a federal grand jury and bring innocent people before the grand jury."

The meeting with Miers and Kelley did not have a positive impact on McKay’s request to be appointed a judge at U.S. District Court. Instead, McKay said it appears that he landed on the list of U.S. Attorneys to be fired just a few weeks after his meeting with Miers and Kelley.

Moreover, according to the report, Miers was involved in pushing out Bud Cummins, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

Bolten was allegedly contacted by Steve Bell, chief of staff to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-New Mexico, who expressed dissatisfaction with the state’s U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, according to the report, because Iglesias would not prosecute alleged voter fraud cases.

Bell allegedly asked Bolten whether the White House could intervene and have Iglesias removed, according to the report.

Bolten and Miers still may find themselves subpoenaed by Nora Dannehy, a federal prosecutor from Connecticut who was appointed by Attorney General Michael Mukasey to continue the investigation.

Dannehy may have subpoena power, something that Fine and Jarrett lacked. She is charged with investigating whether any Justice Department or White House officials committed crimes as a result of the firings and in their efforts to cover it up after the fact.

Dannehy is expected to file preliminary report with the Justice Department in 60 days.

Iran, the IAEA, and the Laptop

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By Muhammad Sahimi

Where is the digital chain of custody?

In August 2002, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an armed Iranian opposition group listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization but supported by the neoconservatives within and without the Pentagon, provided the first concrete evidence of the existence of Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. In February 2003, Iran formally declared the existence of the facility to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Since then, Iran’s nuclear facilities and program have undergone the most intrusive and time-consuming inspections in the history of the IAEA, including from October 2003-February 2006, when Iran voluntarily implemented the provisions of the Additional Protocol of its Safeguards (SG) Agreement with the IAEA, which it had signed but not ratified.

Despite the intrusive inspections and intense propaganda, which consisted mostly of lies, exaggerations, half-truths, and dire predictions by the neoconservatives, the War Party, and the Israel Lobby, the IAEA could identify only a few breaches of Iran’s SG Agreement – none serious – and what ultimately turned out to be non-issues altogether.

According to Iran’s SG Agreement, a breach happens when Iran

  1. Receives nuclear materials and/or technology without declaring them to the IAEA, and
  2. Carries out secret experiments with its declared or undeclared nuclear materials.

Iran has acknowledged breaching its SG Agreement by failing to report to the Agency the following activities:

  • In February 2003 Iran acknowledged that in 1991 it imported from China 1800 kg of uranium compounds, and that it used some of them in experiments to test its conversion processes.
  • In October 2003 Iran acknowledged that it had used a small amount of its imported uranium hexafluoride (UF6) in the P1 centrifuges at its centrifuge workshop. Up to 19 centrifuges had been used.Note that the establishment of the centrifuge workshop is not, by itself, a breach of the SG Agreement. In fact, so long as nuclear materials have not been introduced into the centrifuges, even their manufacturing does not concern the IAEA.
  • Iran acknowledged that from 1989-1993 it carried out experiments that produced polonium-210, a highly radioactive but unstable material with a short half-life. While polonium-210 does have civilian applications (such as radioisotope batteries), it can theoretically be used for initiating the fission chain reactions that result in a nuclear explosion. Due to its instability, however, polonium-210 is not used for this purpose.
  • Iran acknowledged importing in 1993 50 kg of natural uranium metal and using 30 kg of it for experimenting with atomic vapor laser isotope separation. Note that, it was the U.S. in the 1970s that suggested to Iran the idea of uranium enrichment by lasers, and sold it four laser instruments in 1978, only a few months before the Iranian Revolution.
  • Between 1988 and 1993 Iran carried out experiments on plutonium separation, using very small amounts of uranium oxide (UO2).

    In addition, there were certain other contentious issues between Iran and the IAEA that turned to be non-issues:

    1. The past and current administration of Iran’s Gechin uranium mine and mill (near Bandar Abbas in southern Iran). The IAEA was concerned about secret use of uranium from the mine by Iran’s military.
    2. Procurement of certain equipment, with potential nuclear applications, and their use by researchers at Sharif University of Technology, one of Iran’s top universities.
    3. The source of nuclear contamination at a physics research laboratory in Lavisan-Shian near Tehran.
    4. The procurement activities of the former head of the same physics research laboratory. The IAEA was concerned that he had been used as a cover for clandestine nuclear activities.
    5. Iran’s possession of a 15-page document that described the procedures for converting UF6 into uranium metal and casting and machining enriched uranium metal into hemispheres, suitable for a nuclear weapon.

    So, though it may seem that Iran was in deep trouble with the IAEA, it certainly was not. The Iranians turned out to be more truthful than George Bush, Dick Cheney, and the neocons. In its Feb. 22, 2008, report to the Board of Governors of the IAEA, the Agency declared satisfactory resolution of all the above issues and non-issues.

    For example, Iran had contended that the 15-page document had been provided by A. Q. Khan with the design for the P1 centrifuges in 1987, as a sweetener for future deals, without Iran asking for it. After checking with Pakistan, the IAEA confirmed Iran’s contention.

    Regarding the contamination issue, which the neocons and the Israel Lobby had declared as the missing "smoking gun," the IAEA environmental sampling and tests confirmed Iran’s explanation that they had been brought into the country by the imported centrifuge parts. The IAEA declared that its analysis "tends, on balance, to support Iran’s statement."

    Documents From the Stolen Laptop

    Given the February 2008 report, it would have been reasonable to expect that Iran’s case before the Board of Governors, and even the United Nations Security Council, would be closed. Absolutely not! The U.S. and its European allies have no intention of letting Iran off the hook, even when they have nothing to press it with.

    It has been a pattern that each time the IAEA declares its satisfaction with Iran’s explanations for any issue, new allegations and questions are raised, and Iran’s response to them is declared "urgent" and its timing a "defining moment." This time was no exception.

    After declaring its satisfaction with all the above issues and non-issues, Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s deputy director general of safeguards – a man who has a reputation inconsistent with impartiality and objectivity – presented a briefing to the Board of Governors in Vienna in which he presented a dark view of Iran’s nuclear program under the guise of "Agency Evaluation," as if his employer had not just declared its satisfaction with the resolution of many issues that, up until then, had been considered "crucial" and "critical." In fact, there are persistent rumors about tension between Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA’s director-general, and his SG experts.

    Heinonen spoke about three supposedly secret projects: Project 5 for converting UO2 to "green salt" (so named due to its color and smell) or uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), an intermediate compound in the conversion of uranium ore to gaseous UF6; Projects 110 and 111 for the design of device and re-entry vehicle for a missile; and Project 3.12 for testing high-power explosives. They were supposedly led by Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a 40-year-old physicist, not a nuclear engineer as has been reported in the West, who received his Ph.D. from Shiraz University in southern Iran and works openly in physics research institutes in Tehran. The same type of accusations was repeated in the IAEA’s reports presented to the Board of Governors on May 26, 2008, and Sept. 15, 2008.

    What was the source of the new "information" and "data" that Heinonen was talking about? A laptop that had been purportedly stolen in Iran, taken out of the country, and made available to Western intelligence agencies in Turkey. Iran’s MEK has been given credit for the theft.

    But the existence of the laptop has been known since 2004. The first time there was any indirect reference to it was on Nov. 17, 2004, when, in a conversation with reporters, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell briefly referred to "new, missile-related" intelligence on Iran.

    Shortly thereafter, articles were published in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times about the laptop they claimed contained the "smoking gun" for Iran’s (nonexistent) nuclear weapon program. Journalist Gareth Porter cited reports that the laptop had been given to the MEK by Israel.

    My own information indicates that, because the MEK is completely discredited in Iran, Israel’s first preference was for the laptop to be publicized by Iran’s monarchist opposition groups (which are supported by Iranian Jews in the U.S. and Europe), but that they had refused to go along (some of the most senior statesmen among the Iranian monarchists actually support Iran’s nuclear program).

    In July 2005, the Bush administration began exerting pressure on the United Nations to take action against Iran and, as part of its concerted efforts, it briefed Dr. ElBaradei on the contents of the laptop on July 18. But then the U.S. stopped pressing the issue.

    Most experts have cast doubt on the authenticity of the laptop’s documents. A senior European diplomat was quoted by the New York Times’ William J. Broad and David E. Sanger in a Nov. 13, 2005, article as saying, "I can fabricate that data. It looks beautiful, but is open to doubt." Another European official said, "Yeah, so what? How do you know what you’re shown on a slide is true, given past experience?"

    A senior intelligence official was quoted as saying, "It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that beautiful pictures represent reality, but that may not be the case." Another U.S. official was quoted as saying, "Even with the best intelligence, you always ask yourself, ’was this prepared for my eyes?’" Julian Borger of the Guardian quoted an IAEA official as saying "there is some doubt over the provenance of the computer."

    Commenting on the New York Times article, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington said that "the information [in the laptop’s documents] actually describes a reentry vehicle for a missile. This distinction is not minor. The information does not contain any words such as nuclear or nuclear warhead. The ’black box’ carried by the reentry vehicle may appear to be a nuclear warhead, but the documents do not state what the warhead is." In other words, even if the documents are authentic, they do not prove anything about the existence of a secret nuclear weapon program in Iran. The New York Times refused to publish Albright’s rebuttal of the claims made in the article by Broad and Sanger.

    Aside from the above experts’ opinions, there are many reasons to believe that the documents are not authentic.

    1. Anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of how the Iranian political establishment works knows that often even the most harmless documents are classified as "top secret." Yet none of the documents had been designated as such.
    2. As Borger of the Guardian reported, all the documents are in English, without any Persian notes. That is odd for a country where the official language is Persian, and many do not know much English. Why had the documents not been translated?
    3. If the documents include exchanges between various officials, then anyone with even elementary knowledge of the workings of the Iranian bureaucracy knows that, once a document is received by some official, he writes (in Persian) in the margins in his own hand "received," and signs and dates it. Do the documents have such notes?
    4. Why would the documents name the projects’ leader, Dr. Fakhrizadeh? Iran has had experience with the murder of prominent people in its missile program. In July 2001, Col. Ali Mahmoudi Mimand, known as the father of Iran’s missile program, was found dead in his office. After the laptop was supposedly smuggled out of Iran, Dr. Ardeshir Hassanpour, a prominent and award-winning figure in Iran’s nuclear program, was murdered on Jan. 15, 2007. Stratfor.com reported that Israel’s Mossad had murdered Dr. Hassanpour. We also know that a large number of Iraqi nuclear scientists have either disappeared or been killed. Why does a man like Dr. Fakhrizadeh, who supposedly knows so much of Iran’s secrets, work and appear in public so freely?
    5. Why could Iran not hide such documents? This is a nation that could hide the development of its extensive uranium enrichment program for 18 years. Iran is also a nation with a thousand-year culture of writing in coded language.
    6. Why would such sensitive documents be put on a laptop? Even then, why was the laptop not at a secure place with very tight control, given the degree of secrecy that the Iranian government applies to all of its affairs?
    7. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (MI) is known in the Middle East as a ruthless and extremely efficient organization. If the laptop with all the sensitive documents had been stolen, its absence should have been noticed almost immediately. In that case, Iran’s MI should have been able to at least trace back the events in order to identify the person who stole the laptop. There has never been a report in Iran about the discovery of such a spy.
    8. If the documents were authentic, then, given that some time after the laptop had been stolen, the Iranian officials knew that they would be confronted with the documents, they should have been able to prepare reasonable and plausible explanations for the documents. After all, as noticed above, Iran provided satisfactory answers to all the issues and non-issues listed above. Yet Iran’s only response so far has been that the documents are forgeries.
    9. Some of the documents describe and discuss issues that can be found in the open literature. Some others have to do with Iran’s conventional arms industry, which Iran has readily admitted and talked about. Therefore, it would be easy to copy such documents, or create some based on the available information.
    10. Why would Iran have a separate project for the green salt when it has openly, and under the IAEA’s Safeguards, established the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan that produces the same uranium compounds?
    11. Even if some of the documents are authentic, how do we know that, for example, they are not just indicative of Iran’s efforts for its missile program?
    12. If the documents contain such devastating information, why did the U.S. and its allies wait four years to confront Iran? After all, the documents seem to provide the long-missing "smoking gun." In fact, at first the U.S. made much noise about the laptop, and asked for and convened an emergency meeting of the Board of Governors of the IAEA in January 2006. But then it stopped crying "wolf."
    13. The contention is that the laptop was stolen by a member of the MEK. However, it is practically impossible for the MEK to be able to penetrate the Iranian government at such a sensitive level. After the MEK started its armed opposition to the Islamic Republic in June 1981 and assassinated many top government officials, its member were ruthlessly eliminated from all levels of Iran’s bureaucracy.

    Digital Chain of Custody

    Although very difficult, if not impossible, one might argue that one can find plausible answers to the above questions. However, one crucial piece of information about the laptop and its contents can shed definitive light on the authenticity of the documents. This is the documents’ digital chain of custody, which has not been discussed or mentioned. It is defined as "An account documenting data at a particular place and time." It is a technique by which one can trace back electronically stored documents on a computer to their original source – the electronic source from which they were copied, or when and how the documents were uploaded electronically, etc. If done in a forensically sound manner, it will generate a digital fingerprint. Then, a credible forensic test can reveal when or how different versions of the documents were created.

    Therefore, it should not be difficult to analyze the digital chain of custody of the laptop’s documents, in order to better understand their original source. That would settle at once the question of the documents’ authenticity. Iran has asked to see the laptop in order to analyze it, but the IAEA has responded that its source does not allow that.

    Dr. ElBaradei has said repeatedly that the IAEA is bound to "follow due process, which means I need to establish the veracity, consistency, and authenticity of any intelligence, and share it with the country of concern." But once again, in Iran’s case this established procedure has not been followed. Iran has not even been presented with an analysis of the digital chain of custody of the documents, indicating their authenticity. Yet it is being pressed to respond to charges of doubtful legitimacy.