Friday, October 17, 2008

Ohio Litigating Its Way Through Election Cycle

Go to Original
By Mary Pat Flaherty

Earlier this year, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner met in her office with 61 lawyers and state election officials to try to keep disagreements over election issues from ending up in court.

That hasn't gone so well.

Brunner, a Democrat, has faced off against Ohio Republicans in eight lawsuits this presidential election cycle, and as Nov. 4 nears, the legal activity is stepping up.

"I'll bet I'll be in 12 by the time this is done," Brunner said.

Yesterday, the state Supreme Court ruled against Brunner in one of the cases, ordering her to allow poll watchers to observe early voting, which Republicans had sought. That came a day after Brunner had appealed another decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could jeopardize the ballots of 200,000 new voters next month.

Litigation is not new in Ohio politics, but it ramped up this year as the swing state became a closely contested presidential battleground. About 666,000 voters have registered in Ohio since January, with an edge to Democrats.

In 2004, a margin of about 118,000 votes won the state for President Bush and left a trail of bitterness over decisions made by Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican secretary of state at the time. During that race, Republicans dropped a plan to challenge more than 30,000 voters just days before the election.

This year, Brunner and Republicans have already been in and out of court on several issues, including how to handle absentee ballot requests and absentee voting.

The case now before the Supreme Court deals with voters whose registration information conflicted with Ohio's driver's license data or Social Security records. The mismatches could be the result of typographical errors, but they also could point to fraudulent registrations, the Republicans contend. They took Brunner to court to force her to provide county election boards with easily accessible lists of the mismatched voters to verify before Nov 4.

Brunner's appeal argues that producing the lists would disrupt local election boards that "have vitally important jobs to do in preparing Ohio for this historic election." Any problems could be corrected after the election, Brunner said.

If the Supreme Court does not overturn the earlier ruling, those voters would have to prove their eligibility before Election Day to receive a regular ballot. They could cast a provisional ballot, but it would be tallied only if the discrepancies were cleared up shortly after Nov. 4.

"The lawsuit is a very orchestrated effort to suppress voting," Brunner said yesterday.

"That is a shameful assertion coming from a chief elections officer," said Ohio Republican Party Deputy Chairman Kevin DeWine. "Yes, I am interested in suppressing fraudulent registrations."

DeWine said he believes many of the mismatches stem from clerical errors, but recent problems with voter drives in Ohio by the community-organizing group ACORN have heightened concerns about the accuracy of registrations.

Brunner and voting rights advocates have worried that the list of mismatches would allow Republicans to challenge those voters before Nov. 4 or at the polls. DeWine said the party would ask for each county's list but would not challenge individual voters.

State Democratic Party spokesman Alex Goepfert said "it is clear that the Republican Party would seek to use this information to disenfranchise eligible Ohio voters who have done absolutely nothing wrong."

Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project, which has sided both with and against Brunner, said he is leery of GOP motives for getting lists and added that "asking for sweeping changes right before an election is a recipe for mischief."

RNC launches negative robo calls campaign

Go to Original
By Samara Kalk Derby

The John McCain-Sarah Palin presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee began a negative robo call campaign Thursday attempting to strengthen a tenuous link between Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama and former radical Bill Ayers.

The call, which has been received locally, goes like this: "Hello. I'm calling for John McCain and the RNC, You need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home, and killed Americans."

It continues: "Democrats will enact an extreme leftist agenda if they take control of Washington. Barack Obama and his Democratic allies lack the judgment to lead our country."

The attack attempts to switch the focus from the real issue -- the economy, says the state Obama camp.

"McCain's campaign has admitted that the economy is a losing issue for them, so he's chosen to launch dishonorable and dishonest attacks like this," said Obama Campaign for Change Wisconsin spokesman Matt Lehrich.

"No amount of scare tactics and false attacks will hide the fact that John McCain can't defend the fact that he's voted with George Bush's disastrous policies 90 percent of the time and will continue the same Bush-McCain economic policies American families can't afford," Lehrich said.

Meanwhile, Kirsten Kukowski, communications director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, defended the auto calls.

"We're calling into question Barack Obama's judgment on who he surrounds himself with, people like Bill Ayers and Rev. (Jeremiah) Wright, because the voters need to know that he is associating himself with some people who have questionable backgrounds, have said and done questionable things," she said.

His associations are important because if Obama does win on Nov. 4 people should wonder who he is going to surround himself with in the Oval Office, "who he's going to have advising him, who's going to be in his ear," Kukowski said.

"We're making sure that the voters have the information that they need to make the right decision in November," she said.

Kukowski said it is her understanding that the calls are going out statewide.

The Huffington Post Web site is reporting that its received dozens of e-mails from voters who have either received the call or gotten a voice mail with a recording. Reports have come in from Wisconsin as well as Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina, Florida, Texas and Maine.

The phone messages come one day after a presidential debate in which McCain said he didn't care about an "old washed-up terrorist."

Still, Obama calmly described his relationship with Ayers, the one-time Weather Underground leader, who Obama said has become the centerpiece of McCain's campaign over the last two or three weeks.

"This has been their primary focus," Obama said during the debate Wednesday night. "So let's get the record straight. Bill Ayers is a professor of education in Chicago.

"Forty years ago, when I was 8-years-old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago he served and I served on a school reform board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan's former ambassadors and close friends, Mr. Annenberg.

"Other members on that board were the presidents of the University of Illinois, the president of Northwestern University, who happens to be a Republican, the president of The Chicago Tribune, a Republican-leaning newspaper.

"Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House. So that's Mr. Ayers."

Nader Displays New Fervor on the Bailout Issue

Go to Original

Standing on the steps of Federal Hall just after noon on Thursday, Ralph Nader was the same familiar tall, rumpled, graying figure, fervently railing against corporate power and greed.

“There are no bailouts for the working people of this country!” said Mr. Nader, 74, addressing a crowd of several hundred people on Wall Street, a mix of cheering fans toting “Jail Time for Corporate Crime” signs, curious workers on their lunch breaks and bewildered tourists snapping pictures. “Just bailouts for the speculative corporations of this country.”

In the $700 billion bailout plan for the financial system, Mr. Nader, now on his fourth presidential run, has finally found a real-life event to illustrate what he has made a cause of his career.

“Oh yeah, it’s got everything,” Mr. Nader said in an interview after the rally. “Taxation without representation, no public hearings. This is the worst yet, procedurally and substantively.”

Mr. Nader continues to draw scorn for his role in the 2000 election, when many Democrats felt his long-shot candidacy destroyed Al Gore’s chances of becoming president. But this time, some polls in critical swing states like Florida suggest he is drawing votes from Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee.

Mr. Nader has made his opposition to the bailout the cornerstone of his campaign, making appearances in nearly every state, largely under the radar of the national news media. His aides say he has sometimes attracted crowds in the thousands, especially in liberal enclaves like Madison, Wis., and in frontier states, like Colorado and Nevada.

The rally on Thursday was staged across the street from the New York Stock Exchange, where his campaign had set up a 31-piece band to play before his arrival, a large banner reading “Socialism Saves Capitalism” and a 25-foot-tall inflatable pink pig to drive home the message about corporate greed.

According to an article in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2000, Mr. Nader sounded an early warning about the government-sponsored lending institutions known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll showed Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, with a 14-percentage-point lead among likely voters in a head-to-head matchup with Mr. McCain, but when Mr. Nader was included in the question, the race narrowed, with 51 percent of those surveyed saying they were supporting Mr. Obama, 39 percent supporting Mr. McCain, and 3 percent for Mr. Nader.

In 2000, Mr. Nader received 2.7 percent of the nationwide vote, and in 2004, on far fewer states’ ballots, only 0.38 percent.

This year, his campaign said he would be on the ballot in 45 states, everywhere but Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas.

As Budgets Tighten, More People Decide Medical Care Can Wait

Go to Original
By Ceci Connolly and Kendra Marr

To monitor the multiple sclerosis attacking Ann Pietrangelo's central nervous system, her doctor recommends an annual MRI. Last year, the 49-year-old Winchester, Va., woman had to pay a $3,000 co-payment to get the imaging done.

This year, she's skipping the test. Even with insurance, it's more than her budget can tolerate, especially with the roller coaster on Wall Street devouring her retirement savings.

"I'm doing everything I can to avoid going to the doctor," she said.

From Park Avenue dental offices to the Arlington Free Clinic, the global economic crunch is forcing a growing number of Americans to scale back on medical care. Consumers are attempting their own form of triage, pushing off seemingly less-urgent services in the hope that their financial health will improve. But the danger, say physicians, is that the short-term savings may translate into more severe long-term health implications.

At the extreme are cases such as the Texas woman who went to the hospital complaining of back pain. Physician Doug Curran immediately spotted cancer on the X-ray.

"She'd had a lump in her breast for a while, but things were tight and she said she couldn't get it looked at," he recalled. "We're going to see more of that."

Nationwide, the number of consumers who went without a prescription, tapped into retirement savings to pay for health care or skipped a doctor visit for themselves or a child has risen since last year, according to a survey released this summer by the Rockefeller Foundation and Time magazine. One-quarter of the 2,000 respondents, for example, said they had decided not to see a doctor because of cost in 2008, up from 18 percent the year before. Ten percent said they did not take a child to the doctor for the same reason.

"When the economy is in the situation we have today, people make tough choices," said Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, who is head of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. "Things are just not going to get done."

After nearly a decade of steady -- often double-digit -- increases in drug spending, the research company IMS Health this summer recorded the first actual decline. And a survey by the Center for Studying Health System Change found that nearly 20 percent of Americans report having difficulty paying medical bills.

Layoffs, shrinking bank accounts, rising medical prices and widespread anxiety that the economy is likely to worsen are prompting people to split pills, forgo screening tests such as colonoscopies, delay elective procedures such as laser eye surgery and turn to home remedies as cheaper alternatives. Hospitals report that unpaid medical bills are on the rise, pharmacists see a spike in cheaper generics, and demand for low-cost care is climbing.

Falls Church music teacher Lisa Emrich is coping with a dwindling number of piano students by cutting back on physician visits.

"I have too many doctors and specialists who all wish to see me twice a year," said Emrich, who is being treated for multiple sclerosis and arthritis. "Sometimes I might skip one if I'm doing well in that area. . . . When I see my neurologist, I'll ask about my arthritis, which doesn't make much sense. But I try to get as much as possible out of my doctor visits."

For Sandra Harrington, a waitress from Oxon Hill, the trade-off comes in treatment for an infected eye. Her doctor prescribed administering steroid drops twice a day. But as her tips have shrunk, she has decided that applying the $100 medication once a day is all she can afford.

"It's a vicious cycle," she said, explaining that because it is too painful for her eye to be exposed to direct sunlight, she works only night shifts. "People cut back. Then people like me suffer."

In the past month, traffic on the five-year-old advice site rose 14 percent. The site, which allows customers to pose a health question and "bid" $9 to $30 for a doctor's or a nurse's response, had nearly 400,000 page views in 30 days, said chief executive and founder Andy Kurtzig. In a telling sign, inquiries related to stress, high blood pressure, drinking and heart pain jumped 33 percent.

At the Arlington Free Clinic, the surge in people seeking care has been overwhelming, said Executive Director Nancy Sanger Pallesen. Last week, the clinic provided free preventive screenings to 19 new patients, but it turned away 27 others, she said.

"Those numbers are higher than what we were seeing just this summer," she said. "Unfortunately, we can't take them all in."

Even free care may not be a good deal for people with limited means. For some, the price of transportation is prohibitive; others fear discovering an illness they do not have the money to treat.

Many are forced to juggle competing medical needs. Pietrangelo must balance the importance of the MRI, which detects brain lesions, and the costly medications that prevent her from relapsing. She pays co-payments of $500 per drug per month. There are no generic alternatives.

"I can't shop around," she said. "My hands are tied."

Most analysts expect the medical crunch to worsen.

"We know from past experience that an economic downturn drives more people to be uninsured," said Len Nichols, director of health policy at the nonprofit, nonpartisan New America Foundation, a think tank. "They lose their jobs, they lose their income and their insurance."

That is what happened to Tim Doss. On Sept. 18, after driving a cement truck for an Indiana company for 10 years, he was laid off.

"They told me, 'As of midnight, your insurance is lapsed,' " he said. Doss, 50, and his wife have illnesses that require medications, regular doctor visits and tests. Creditors have come to their home trying to collect the $3,000 they owe in hospital co-payments from when they did have insurance.

The couple decided that Doss's annual checkup took precedence because he needed it to keep his commercial driver's license. The checkup, plus blood work for a fatty liver and high cholesterol, cost $300. He persuaded his doctor to provide free samples of his liver medicine.

Helen Doss does not plan to get an annual mammogram this year, even though her mother died of breast cancer at age 56. Doss was offered a free stress test at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital, but she is afraid it will turn up more problems that she can't take care of.

"I'm just holding off for a year and hoping nothing happens," she said.

Their primary-care physician, Steven Wilk, is devoting more time to helping patients decide what to postpone.

"Folks are asking us to try to limit what we order or pare it down to the bare-bones minimum," he said. "As a doctor, I worry about the risk of missing something at an early stage. It could lead to more serious problems down the road."

In past recessions, health-care spending briefly spiked -- as people raced to doctors before their insurance ran out -- and then fell sharply, according to industry analysts.

"Many times in health care there's a lag of three to six months before it hits really hard," said Donald Fisher, president of the American Medical Group Association, which represents large, multi-specialty providers. "If they have a problem, they get it fixed while they still have health insurance. Then we see a decline in elective procedures, and then we really see a drop-off."

In Plano, Tex., life feels like an endless downward spiral, Victoria Freudiger said, for herself and her husband. Losing jobs meant eliminating health insurance. No insurance meant Thomas Freudiger went to the hospital when he developed pneumonia this summer. That resulted in a $363 bill they couldn't pay. Now their credit is shot.

As the economy crumbled, both started canceling preventive screenings. She hasn't had a pap smear or a mammogram for close to two years; he is overdue for a colonoscopy. They use do-it-yourself dental cement to patch their teeth and put their best face forward in job interviews. And although her doctor prescribed Neurontin for her seizures, Victoria Freudiger tries calming techniques instead of the pills.

"Instead of taking them every day, I wait until I start feeling sick, and then I take them again," she said. "Both of us are suffering mentally, emotionally and physically."

Though the burden is especially heavy for uninsured Americans, even those who have coverage are feeling the pinch as employers shift higher deductibles and co-payments onto employees.

"The reason why health care was immune [to recessions] in the past was because most people were covered under good insurance plans," said Jean Mitchell, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University. Now, "people are realizing, 'Oh my gosh, I have to pay for this out of pocket.' "

In Durango, Colo., Marsha Porter-Norton and her husband, both entrepreneurs in their mid-40s, switched to a high-deductible plan when insurance premiums skyrocketed. Their new catastrophic policy costs $479 a month, but they have to pay the first $6,000 in expenses.

She is supposed to get ultrasounds twice a year to check on the fibroid tumors in her uterus. But the couple's retirement portfolio "has taken a massive hit," and they worry about their jobs, Porter-Norton said. So, for now, she's going to wait on the $500 ultrasound.

"I'm going to take a gamble," she said.

G.O.P. Donor Is Accused of Overcharging Pentagon

Go to Original

The Democratic chairman of a House investigative committee presented documents to the Pentagon on Thursday charging that a top Republican fund-raiser, Harry Sargeant III, made tens of millions of dollars in profits over the last four years because his contracting company vastly overcharged for deliveries of fuel to American air bases in Iraq.

In a written statement on Thursday, a lawyer for Mr. Sargeant, who is the finance chairman of the Florida Republican Party and a major fund-raiser for Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign, called the allegations “deeply disappointing” and asserted that they were not supported by the facts.

The contracting company, called the International Oil Trading Company, or I.O.T.C., was briefly in the news over the summer when a former partner filed a lawsuit against Mr. Sargeant in a Florida circuit court.

The former partner, a Jordanian named Mohammad al-Saleh, is a brother-in-law of King Abdullah II of Jordan. The court papers laid out his assertion that he obtained special governmental authorizations for the company to transport the fuel through Jordan and was then unlawfully forced out by Mr. Sargeant, who strongly disputed those allegations.

But the latest claims of impropriety by the company, presented by Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, go much further. Mr. Waxman uses e-mail messages, company documents, Pentagon reports and other information to make the case that Mr. Sargeant repeatedly received contracts to deliver the fuel even though his company was not the lowest bidder.

In one case, the letter from Mr. Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, asserts that Mr. Sargeant’s company submitted the highest of six bids, but received the contract anyway. In fact, Pentagon contracting officers complained that the company’s prices were unreasonably high and initially said they could not justify giving the work to Mr. Sargeant.

But for reasons the company was never able to explain, Mr. Waxman’s letter indicates, no other American company was given an authorization to transport the fuel through Jordan. And when the United States Central Command declared that the need for the fuel was urgent, the Pentagon was forced to award the contract to Mr. Sargeant’s company.

Nothing in the documents Mr. Waxman’s staff assembled indicated that there was any attempt by Mr. McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, or his staff to influence the granting of the contracts.

According to the documents, the Pentagon tried to negotiate a lower price with Mr. Sargeant, but he held firm, saying the prices were reasonable given his expenses. But as a result, Mr. Waxman’s letter says, the company has been paid $1.4 billion on four different contracts for the fuel deliveries and made a profit of $210 million after expenses.

The letter and other documents indicate that Mr. Sargeant currently has just one other partner in the venture, suggesting that they would largely divide those profits. “Mr. Sargeant’s personal gain from these four contracts may have been $70 million or higher,” Mr. Waxman’s letter says.

A spokesman for Mr. Gates, Chris Isleib, said that the Pentagon had supplied all the documents that Mr. Waxman had requested in the case. “As a result of these documents and subsequent discussions with the committee, Congressman Waxman asked the secretary of defense to investigate allegations that I.O.T.C. has overcharged for the delivery of fuel,” Mr. Isleib said in an e-mail message. The Pentagon will respond directly to the committee on that request, Mr. Isleib said.

Jim Greer, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said, “Since Harry Sargeant has been the finance chairman, he has always demonstrated the highest degree of ethics and integrity and has always served the party well.”

Brian Rogers, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said: “This obviously has nothing do with the McCain campaign. John McCain has always called for full transparency in military contracting, and if there’s a nonpolitical mechanism for looking at credible allegations, then that should obviously go forward.”

Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, said that further investigation was warranted even though the initial inquiry did not turn up direct evidence of political meddling. Mr. Waxman estimated that if the lowest bidder had been awarded the contracts, taxpayers would have saved some $180 million.

“The fact that the contracting officer warned them lends credence to the general allegation that this is profiteering and that this is an unfair contract,” Ms. Alexander said. “To allow that high of a profit to deliver fuel to the troops is not the kind of management we need right now.”

But Mr. Sargeant’s lawyer, Mark H. Tuohey III, said in his statement that “the interests of the U.S. taxpayer would have been better served if the authors had sought all of the facts and visited the Middle East to see, firsthand, how we supply fuel to U.S. forces in Iraq.” He called the deliveries “a highly complex, risky and, at times, life-threatening effort.”

Mr. Tuohey said the prices charged by the I.O.T.C. were justified in this environment. “The price paid by the U.S. government is driven by the complex, highly challenging supply chain that transports fuel to Iraq,” Mr. Tuohey wrote. After detailing some of those challenges, he added: “The conclusions in Chairman Waxman’s letter aren’t supported by the facts.”

Mr. Sargeant is one of several dozen people who are listed on Senator McCain’s Web site as having raised $500,000 or more for him. He was the host of a fund-raiser for Mr. McCain at his mansion in Delray Beach, Fla., this year.

Mr. Sargeant came under scrutiny in August when media reports highlighted a cluster of more than $50,000 in unusual campaign contributions bundled together by Mr. Sargeant from a single extended family in California and a few of their friends. The donations set off questions of whether they might have been made by donors in name only who were reimbursed by someone trying to skirt contribution limits.

It turned out that the donations were not actually solicited by Mr. Sargeant but by another Jordanian business partner, Mustafa Abu Naba’a. The McCain campaign later said it would return all contributions solicited by Mr. Abu Naba’a and review all donations collected by Mr. Sargeant.

The conclusions from Mr. Waxman’s committee are sure to be wielded by Democrats as a cudgel against Mr. McCain.

Costs for delivering fuel to the troops in Iraq have an extremely contentious history. Late in 2003 Mr. Waxman charged that Kellogg Brown & Root, then part of Halliburton, the company led by Dick Cheney before he became vice president, had been overcharging for fuel.

Although the company strongly disputed allegations of overcharging, the Pentagon eventually terminated fuel-delivery duties for KBR, which is the company’s name now that it has left Halliburton. When the work was divided up and re-bid, the I.O.T.C. won four successive contracts to bring fuel through Jordan.

“The documents show that Mr. Sargeant’s company took advantage of U.S. taxpayers,” Mr. Waxman said in a statement. “His company had the only license to transport fuel through Jordan, so he could get away with charging exorbitant prices. I’ve never seen another situation like this. Mr. Sargeant rejected repeated pleas of senior officials to lower his unfair and unreasonable prices.”

Is Israel's booming high-tech industry a branch of the Mossad?

Go to Original
By Yossi Melman

In 2006 the Check Point Software Technologies company, which specializes in protecting computer systems from hackers and data theft, wanted to acquire an American company called Sourcefire, which works in the same field. The great advantage of Sourcefire was that its clients include the American Defense Department and the National Security Agency. The U.S. administration, however, by means of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, did not approve the acquisition.

The committee made its decision based on an opinion by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and NSA security officers. The two organizations were afraid that Check Point, which was founded by Gil Shwed and fellow graduates of Unit 8200, the Israel Defense Forces' high-tech intelligence unit, would have access to top-secret information, which it could pass on to Israel's intelligence community.

The fear and suspicion currently is directed not only toward Check Point, but also other Israeli high-tech companies like Verint, Comverse, NICE Systems and PerSay Voice Biometrics, some of which work in data mining and engage in software development for tapping telephones, fax machines, e-mail and computer communications.

The above accusations come from journalist and writer James Bamford, whose new book, "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America" (Doubleday), came out this week in the United States.

Bamford, a former producer for the ABC television network, has spent the last 30 years writing about the NSA - one of the most important and least-known intelligence agencies in the United States, but usually in the shadow of the Central Intelligence Agency. The NSA is responsible for eavesdropping on telephones, fax machines and computers; intercepting communications and electromagnetic signals from radar equipment, aircraft, missiles, ships and submarines; and decoding transmissions and cracking codes. It has contributed immeasurably to U.S. intelligence and national security.

In this respect, the United States resembles Israel: Successes attributed to the Mossad should often be credited to other intelligence units - first and foremost Unit 8200, the Israeli equivalent of the NSA.

This is Bamford's third book, and it affords a look into the mazes of the NSA. In 1982 the Justice department threatened to prosecute him for revealing agency secrets in his first book, "The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization." In his second book, "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency," he described the NSA with a great deal of enthusiasm, which made him the organization's hero of the day. The NSA even organized a party in his honor at headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. His new book, which is critical of the NSA, has sent him back to his starting point.

Bamford's main thesis is that before September 11, 2001, the agency failed along with other intelligence agencies in understanding the Al-Qaida threat, even though it had intercepted members' phone calls and e-mails. This stemmed in part from excessive caution for upholding laws and respecting citizens' privacy. In April 2000, then-NSA director general Michael Hayden (currently the director of the CIA), vividly described to a Congressional committee how, if at that very moment Osama bin Laden were to step onto the Peace Bridge at Niagara Falls and cross into the United States, "my people must respect his rights."

After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the organization swung over to the other extreme. According to Bamford, since September 11 the NSA has had no compunctions about violating the Constitution and has been eavesdropping on American citizens.

One of the outstanding examples in the book, which has been well-covered in the American media, is the fact that the NSA has listened in on bedroom conversations of journalists, military officers and officials serving in Iraq. The NSA may eavesdrop on and intercept transmissions outside the United States, but cannot do so to American citizens without a court order.

Another of Bamford's important assertions, which also concerns Israel, is that the largest telephony and communications companies in the United States - in fact all of them except QWEST - have cooperated with the NSA, allowing it to tap their lines and optic fibers.

The above-mentioned Israeli companies and others are important software and technology suppliers for not only the American telephony companies, but for the NSA itself. Bamford claims that 80 percent of all American telephone transmissions are conducted by means of the Israeli companies' technology, know-how and accessibility. Thus, Bamford believes, the American intelligence community is exposing itself to the risk that the Israeli companies will access its most secret and sensitive digital information.

Bamford does not provide any backing for this thesis; he only points to a circumstantial relationship. The Israeli companies were largely established by graduates of 8200, and therefore he says they are connected by their umbilical cords to Israeli intelligence, and their CEOs and boards of directors include senior Shin Bet officials like Arik Nir or former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy (Nir is the CEO of Athlone Global Security, a hedge fund that has invested inter alia in PerSay Voice Biometrics, and Ephraim Halevy is a member of the Athlone Advisory Board).

To put it mildly, Bamford has no love lost for Israel. In his articles, he publishes claims by American Navy officials who believe Israel maliciously attacked the American spy ship Liberty during the 1967 Six-Day War. He holds that the September 11 attack did not stem from radical Islam's basic hatred of America, but rather from its anger at the United States' support for Israel. He calls the nineteen September 11 terrorists "soldiers" and describes them with a great deal of sympathy - Davids who "only" demolished four airplanes of the American Goliath.

In this context, and apparently because of his deep hostility, Bamford asserts that in light of the problematic record of Israel, which did not hesitate to spy against America on American soil, Israeli companies should not have been given the keys to the kingdom of America's secrets. His attitude toward Israel apparently pushes him over the psychological brink, as his book hardly mentions the close cooperation between the two countries' intelligence communities, mainly in the war against international jihad terror or in monitoring Iran.

America’s Coup D’État in the Making: Deception and Self-Deception

Go to Original
By Claes G. Ryn

Following Plato, many moralists have associated political virtue with a reluctance to pursue and exercise power. To want to rule others is to be morally disqualified from doing so. The strong tendency in traditional Western political thought to disparage a desire for power has been unfortunate. Without some people governing others, basic social order could not exist, to say nothing of effecting desirable change. The prejudice against power-seeking has left politics too much to people with the wrong kind of ambition, who want to rule as an end in itself.

The reason for observing that the pursuit of power need not be immoral but can be a means to good is that this article will challenge a particular manifestation of the will to power – one that finds expression in increasingly influential arguments for boosting the prerogatives of the American president and the federal government. The criticism that will be directed here against that hankering for domination must not be misunderstood as stemming from opposition to any and all efforts to acquire power. What will be rejected is an inordinate and blatantly partisan, and therefore perverse, craving to rule – a dream not just about taking over the U.S. government but about dominating the world. The people who have this desire attempt to conceal its real nature by pretending that it comports well with the thinking of the framers of the U.S. Constitution. It is in fact alien to that thinking. Would that power of a different quality could prevail against it!

A merely self-serving desire for power cannot present itself as such. It must portray itself as a wish to assist others. How best to argue for giving you or your group great power? If you are able to persuade others that the present world is grossly oppressive and destructive of human happiness but that you can make it much better, those others may support mobilizing massive power and placing it in your hands or the hands of people like you. The more ambitious your scheme for benevolent change, the greater the need for power.

Since the French Revolution, ideologies have been exceptionally conducive to power-seeking. Jacobinism, Communism, and National Socialism are alike in promising glorious change and assuming the desirability of giving vast power to those who claim to know what needs to be done. A few years ago, David Frum and Richard Perle provided an all-purpose justification for unlimited power: putting "an end to evil" – the title of their co-authored book. Now there is a noble and ambitious goal! Power beyond the dreams of avarice would be needed to realize it. That rooting out evil might be an endless task only increases its appeal to a ravenous will to power. We are, of course, supposed to believe that the connection between advocating sweeping change and needing great power is purely coincidental.

Jacobinism and Marxism were openly revolutionary. They were the ideologies of out-groups challenging existing elites. What this writer has called neo-Jacobinism is the ideology of people on the inside, members of America’s elites, who wish to make the military and other might of the United States a more pliant and powerful tool and who are attempting a creeping coup d’état from within. According to their ideology, America is called by history to create a better world based on universal principles. Virtuous American power must be unleashed. Their main excuse at present for exercising extra-constitutional power is to combat "Terrorism," but any threat to their great cause is a potential justification for setting the Constitution aside.

The rise of the huge, centralized Federal government and the corresponding decline of limited, decentralized government resulted from changes deep in the American mind and imagination. The new Jacobins take advantage of the fading of the old ethos and hasten its disappearance by advocating notions incompatible with it.

The old American idea of government was indistinguishable from the commandment to "love thy neighbor." That morality stressed the importance of the person trying to control his own evil and weakness. Strength of will – character – had to be built up so that the person would become capable of more loving familial and local relationships and more responsible citizenship. This morality made for strong communities and self-reliance and minimized the need for government. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to the great reluctance among Americans in the early 19th century to give up power over their own lives to any distant authority.

The Constitution rested on an unwritten constitution, which was America’s religious, moral, intellectual, cultural, and social habits and beliefs. Traditional America encouraged a strong attachment to life lived up-close. It fostered self-restraint, modesty, respect for law, and a willingness to compromise. It was this heritage that brought into being the constitutional personality. Just as people were in the habit of imposing internal checks on desire, so were they predisposed to accept and respect external constitutional and other legal constraints. Without such people, the Constitution could not work as intended.

But the self-understanding of Americans slowly changed. Throughout the Western world a very different moral ethos was spreading that shifted attention away from intimate associations and local community. It rejected the old notion of original sin and of personal responsibility for people up close. It found morality not in acts of character toward particular individuals – neighbors – but in "idealistic," sentimental caring for unfortunate collectives and mankind at large. The older personality, which the Constitution both assumed and required, began to wither. Americans started to abdicate authority to benevolent-sounding politicians far away.

Increasingly, doing good became perceived as the responsibility of government, which alone could take on the large projects now said to be demanded by morality. Governmental, collective action gradually replaced individual, private and communal responsibility. The moral momentum behind the old decentralized society weakened. Today strong, centralized Federal power seems to more and more Americans not merely acceptable but desirable. This is so because they are absorbing the anti-traditional moral sensibility now dominant not only in the universities, the arts, the news media, and the entertainment and publishing industries but in many churches. Hence Americans say increasingly to government: "Act for us!"

Much of the intellectual opposition to this trend has been confused and self-defeating. A prime example is the way many conservatives, thinking that they were shoring up traditional beliefs, attached themselves to the ideas of Leo Strauss (1899–1973), whose disciples became a major force in American academia and national politics. A refugee from Nazi Germany, Strauss taught for many years at the University of Chicago. Because he appeared to defend a classical, ancient notion of universal moral right, many did not notice that he was actually discrediting respect for tradition. Strauss and his disciples advocated an anti-historical, un-conservative notion of moral universality.

According to Strauss, no real philosopher gives any credence to "the conventional" or "the ancestral," to use his terms. To respect them represents the greatest of all intellectual sins, "historicism." Inherited ways are, he insisted, mere accidents of history. Respect is owed solely to "the simply right," which is ahistorical and rational. Strauss sharply criticized Edmund Burke, who saw the possibility of moral universality acquiring historical form. Strauss’s abstract notion of natural right ruled out the idea that a particular tradition might, despite inevitable flaws, embody the quest for moral universality and be, for that reason, worthy of allegiance.

Strauss’s ideas were blithely absorbed by many Christians, not least philosophically unsophisticated and naïve Roman Catholics, who perceived him as a defender of moral right. They did not realize that his conception of universality was markedly different from that of Christianity and related philosophical currents. They did not understand or care that in rejecting tradition as a proper source of guidance Strauss was attacking one of the pillars of their faith. They did not comprehend that by sharply separating the universal from the particular Strauss ruled out universality becoming selectively incarnate in history and was striking at the very core of their professed beliefs. Specifically, he was denying the possibility of the Incarnation, of the Word becoming flesh.

Straussian political philosophy has sought to detach Americans from their historically existing tradition of constitutionalism with its deep and distinctive roots in history and to make them loyal instead to abstract principles of Straussian design that have been attributed to the founders. Straussians are not all alike – in a few, the anti-historical prejudice is diluted to some extent by respect for America’s actual past – but prominent disciples of Strauss such as Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, and Walter Berns, who differ in some ways, all agree that what is admirable about America is not its concrete, historical self but the abstract principles of the founders. In the last few decades, Straussian conceptions of Americanism, patriotism and virtue have been widely advocated in academia, including America’s military academies. That terms like these can be given a distinctly anti-traditional meaning has been little noticed.

By propagating a rationalistic, anti-historical notion of moral right Strauss and his disciples have created a deep prejudice against cherishing America’s distinctive, historically evolved Christian and British past. But this was the cultural heritage that nurtured the inner and outer restraints of American constitutionalism. Because Straussian anti-traditionalism has confused and weakened so many who wanted to defend that heritage, it has been in some ways more destructive of it than standard liberal anti-traditionalism.

Despite plentiful ceremonial praise for the Constitution and virtual orgies of constitutional legalism, we are living through the progressive dismantling of America’s proudest political achievement. One sign of the precarious condition of the Constitution is that many imagine that it could be restored by electing more politicians sympathetic to its tenets and by having more "strict constructionists" appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the old American constitutionalism is inseparable from the moral-spiritual and other culture that gave it birth. Limited government and liberty were made possible by people who, because of who they were, put checks on their appetites, ran their own lives and communities, and behaved more generally in ways conducive to freedom under law. Restoring American constitutionalism would presuppose some kind of resurgence of that old culture. Americans would have to begin viewing life rather differently from how they are viewing it now. They would have to rearrange their priorities and start acting differently, placing more emphasis on family, private groups and local communities. They would have to want to take back much of the power ceded to politicians. Is that likely to happen? If not, the Constitution may not be salvageable.

The time has certainly come to consider what might take the place of American constitutionalism. That so many admirers of the old Constitution are prone to nostalgic dreaming and elaborate defenses of what is long gone is a sign of moral and intellectual paralysis.

But there are people who have thought for a rather long time about what should replace the Constitution of 1789. They include leading Straussians and neoconservatives who have masked their agenda by pretending to defend what is being lost. It is only fair to add that the strategic designs of secretive and obfuscating leaders are not always obvious to the rank and file.

Straussians and neoconservatives have warned against the consequences of abandoning America’s "founding principles," but they are not referring to the ways and beliefs of the founders but to abstractions of their own devising that they falsely attribute to revered historical figures. Those principles are more reminiscent of the French Jacobins than of the founders.

Straussians and neoconservatives have also warned of the consequences of the "closing of the American mind" – the title of Allan Bloom’s 1987 best-selling book – but the mind that they want kept open is not the old American mind but what they would have preferred it to be, their own version of the Enlightenment mind.

The same people have warned of American cultural decline, as measured some years back by William Bennett’s "cultural indicators," but what they want is not the old American virtues of neighborliness, localism, self-control, compromise, and the rule of law, but the purported virtue of vigorously asserting universal principles in the world. The new Jacobins disdain moral hesitation and ambiguity, demanding what they call "moral clarity." You are either on the side of good, spreading "democracy" or "freedom," as they understand them, or you are siding with the enemy.

The new Jacobins have a double message. On the one hand, they tell Americans that their society is in great danger: It is threatened domestically by fragmentation caused by lack of virtue and patriotism, by moral nihilism, historicism, and multiculturalism. It is threatened from abroad by Terrorism and "Islamofascism." But, on the other hand, the new Jacobins want to be reassuring: Be not afraid! We, the patriotic champions of American principles, are here to protect you! We promise you order and security and an America committed to right in the world.

Their notion of America reveals its alien origins even in strange-sounding language, as in the name "Department of Homeland Security." They are popularizing un-American ideas of governance, notably the so-called "unitary" executive – the notion of the preeminence of the president, who is to be as little constrained as possible by checks and balances and the rule of law. Their goal is wholly at odds with the constitutionalism of the framers.

Lest too many worry about the expansion and centralization of federal power, the neo-Jacobins do not let Americans forget even for a day the great and acute danger of Terrorism. A country that spends almost as much on its military and national security as the rest of the world put together has to tremble continuously before possible threats. People who resist the progressive erosion of American liberties are portrayed as unpatriotic and a threat to national security.

Those who would protect us are advancing the coup from within by teaching us to associate American security and virtue with the leadership of a strong man. Here, as in other ways, Straussian and neoconservative ideas have blended with and hardened standard liberal thinking. In the mid-20th century it was academics like James MacGregor Burns who inspired a cult of the presidency. Burns, who eventually became president of the American Political Science Association, was the quintessential modern American liberal. He advocated popular rule through strong presidential leadership in the Roosevelt-New Deal mode. He knew well that this notion flatly contradicted the framers. They opposed "democracy" and assumed that if any branch of the U.S. government were preeminent, it would be the Congress. Now it is Straussians and neoconservatives who most extol strong executive leadership and more generally muscular federal government. They see the powers of the executive as trumping the powers of the other branches, especially at a time of national emergency. Then the president must embody and express the will of the nation as he sees fit.

Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield is the intellectual figurehead of those attempting to justify the creeping coup from within. In The Wall Street Journal (May 2, 2007) he has stressed that, now more than ever, America needs a "strong executive." Basing his argument on a strained and transparently unhistorical interpretation of the framers, he contends that the rule of law has drawbacks, "each of which suggests the need for one-man-rule." For one thing, the law can produce only what is mediocre, "an average solution even in the best case." For another, the law lacks "energy." In a crisis, government must put forth "energy," and "the best source of energy" is "one man." What America needs today, Mansfield declares, is "a wise man on the spot" with freedom to act for the whole. To "subordinate" the president to law and the legislature is "dangerous." Then "he could not do his job." Not only is a strong executive needed to deal with emergencies, Mansfield contends. It must also be able to overpower domestic opposition, "oppose a majority faction produced by temporary delusions in the people." Americans admire strong presidents not just in politics but also in corporations, he argues.

If it is suggested that there is a connection between a strong executive and imperialism, Mansfield regards it as better to err on the side of imperialism than isolationism. The difficulties of the war in Iraq arose, he writes, "from having wished to leave too much to the Iraqis, thus from a sense of inhibition rather than imperial ambition." It seems apposite that Mansfield, the advocate of muscular executive power capable of enforcing its will at home and abroad, should also be a champion of what he calls "manliness," the topic of his recent book.

The many proponents of the theory of the "unitary" executive include John Yoo, now a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. As a Justice Department lawyer in the Bush administration, Yoo, formerly at the American Enterprise Institute, famously defended broadly discretionary presidential power and the use of torture in the war against terrorism. Michael Goldfarb, previously at the Weekly Standard and now deputy communications director for the McCain for president campaign, has asserted that the framers "sought an energetic executive with near dictatorial power in pursuing foreign policy and war."

Voices calling for unleashing allegedly virtuous American power have long been heard in the electronic media, the major newspapers – Washington Post and New York Times prominent among them – the big news magazines, and the leading opinion periodicals. Long before 9/11 Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post that America must take advantage of being the only superpower to create a world to its liking. How should it accomplish this goal? "By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will" (March 5, 2001). Why should virtuous America not be "implacable"? Robert Kagan wrote in the same newspaper that "America . . . can sometimes seem like a bully on the world stage." "But really, the 1,200-pound gorilla is an underachiever in the bullying business" (November 3, 2002).

The handwriting is all over the wall. It is becoming clearer with each passing day that neo-Jacobinism and related currents, which may have seemed innocuous and "merely academic" to some, have provided ideological cover for an ever more grasping and ruthless pursuit of power. People of great ambition who want to exercise the power being abdicated by Americans are trying to make us accept and even welcome the final disappearance of American constitutionalism and its culture of modesty and self-restraint.

As already mentioned, some earlier assaults on traditional Western civilization were launched by openly radical agitators who saw themselves as on the outside of their societies. Their justifications for seizing power were revolutionary doctrines like those of Marx and Trotsky. Today’s rolling, gradual coup is engineered by already powerful people who want to consolidate and expand their power. Wishing not to antagonize too much those who still identify with an older America and still wield some power, they try not to appear too radical and so often present themselves as "neoconservatives" or even "conservatives." As should be clear from their own words, that does not make them friends of traditional America.

Needless to say, neo-Jacobin ideology, though long a potent force, is not the only way of justifying the coup from within. Those working to centralize power are strongly entrenched in both major parties and in other influential American institutions, and they employ different ideas and symbols to woo and co-opt different constituencies.

Given the growing problems of the United States, why not welcome these efforts to rethink the ways of traditional America? Because they are inspired by highly dubious motives that color the proposals for change. Though those trying to impose a new power structure often speak in the name of America and their rhetoric is sometimes faintly conservative, they are not inspired by a desire to protect and reconstitute the best of the Western tradition. By changing the meaning of words, they are rather trying to reconcile us to the demise of that heritage and its replacement with their own enlightened and virtuous regime. Their response to the crisis is aggravating the crumbling of the American constitutional order. Their prescriptions contain the outlines of tyranny and must fill the friends of traditional American and Western civilization with trepidation.

What is ominous about these, our purported saviors, to repeat, is not that they want power. It is that they represent a conceited and self-absorbed special interest and have an obsessive desire to rule others – a desire that cannot be concealed by feigned benevolence toward Americans and all mankind. It is necessary to expose their false solutions to what are real problems and to explore by what measures the best of our civilization might, despite daunting odds, be given a new lease on life.

Banks Reap Whirlwind of Govt Spending

Go to Original
By Adrianne Appel

The George W. Bush administration handed 125 billion dollars to nine of Wall Street's richest banks, but this will do little to help the economy that is crumbling around ordinary U.S. citizens, independent experts and activists say.

"There is no way a modern economy can function without good roads, telecommunication, rail transport and an educated labour force," Allan Mendelowitz, a member and former chairman of the Federal Housing Finance Board, told IPS.

Bush's new Office of Financial Stability, led by Neel Kashkari, sealed a deal Tuesday to provide the billions, plus 125 billion dollars more for small banks, to encourage them to start lending to each other and the world's biggest businesses again.

A freeze in lending, related to the banks' risky trading ventures, has slowed the global economy, rocked stock markets around the world, and tightened lending throughout the U.S. economy.

"We're not proud of all the mistakes that were made by many different people, different parties, failures of our regulatory system, failures of market discipline that got us here," said Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Thursday in an interview on Fox Business Network.

Earlier Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke painted a grim picture of the months ahead, but tried to sound confident of the government's ability to fix the economy.

"We will not stand down until we have achieved our goals of repairing and reforming our financial system," Bernanke said, echoing a statement by leaders of the G8 richest nations.

But markets around the world were reeling again on Thursday, and declined significantly in Asia, Britain, Germany and France.

The stock market in the U.S. has been erratic, gaining or losing hundreds of points nearly every day. It ran up 936 points Monday, was down 733 points Wednesday and on Thursday by closing time was up 400 points.

Lewis Pitts, a public interest lawyer in North Carolina, said, "Look at the whirlwind of activity that's focused on a select few, the wealthiest. Meanwhile, it's a mess out there. There is real pain among the working poor," he said.

"Just think if we used those billions directly on jobs," Pitts said.

The U.S. funds for the banks are being drawn from 700 billion dollars approved by Congress Oct. 3 under an emergency request by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The nine big banks that received the 125 billion dollars hold 50 percent of all deposits in the U.S.

"The American people must understand that this carefully structured plan is aimed at helping you," Bush said earlier in the week.

Bush and Paulson, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs, originally proposed using the funds to buy up bad mortgage assets from the Wall Street firms, a controversial idea opposed by many economists as ineffective and objected to by much of the public.

But with markets sliding, lending at a standstill and pressure from some European nations, the Bush administration changed course last week and announced the bank buyout programme, which runs counter to its hard-line, free-market ideology.

"I frankly don't want the government being involved with businesses, owning businesses. I don't think it's good for the country. It was necessary that the stock be purchased to help us through this financial crisis, but in the long run it's not good for the country," Bush said Wednesday.

"They've handled this very poorly. They have a strong ideology that markets are perfect and are self-correcting. It's not true," Mendolowitz said. "This administration sat on its hands until the situation on the ground became so severe and the facts trumped their ideology and dogma."

"At this point what they are doing is trying to prevent another great depression. It's too late to prevent a recession, we're in the midst of it," he said.

The Bush administration should have acted sooner, he said, adding that its misguided policies "have weakened our economy and society".

"In the developed world we have the worst income distribution of any country. A smaller and smaller portion of our population has a larger claim on wealth. This manifests in that the working poor have less and less income and have a harder time making ends meet," Mendelowitz said.

Focusing on infrastructure and education would be a good start, Mendelowitz said. "Infrastructure projects create real jobs."

Still, turning the nation around, if the next president wishes to, will not be easy.

"Look at all the damage that's been caused in two presidential terms," he said.

Democratic congressional leaders have announced a plan for 150 billion dollars in spending on roads and social support programmes, to be considered by the lame-duck Congress after elections in November.

"The whole concept of bailing out these institutions is dubious," said Phil Mattera, director of the corporate research project of Good Jobs First, an independent non-profit.

"Buying a stake in them might be sensible but there must be safeguards against conflicts of interest, and as long as the federal government is not being ripped off," Mattera said.

The U.S. seems to have negotiated a soft deal with the banks, he said.

Under the Paulson plan, the U.S. will receive 5 percent interest on the bank shares it purchases for three years and nine percent thereafter.

The British negotiated 12 percent interest in a similar arrangement with banks and investor Warren Buffet will receive 10 percent interest on the stock he purchased from General Electric.

"There are a lot of problems. In all the panic about a market collapse it shouldn't be that these issues are going to be put aside until it's too late," Mattera said.

McCain Was Not Tortured, POW Guard Claims

Go to Original
By John Hooper

The Republican US presidential candidate John McCain was not tortured during his captivity in North Vietnam, the chief prison guard of the jail in which he was held has claimed.

In an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Nguyen Tien Tran acknowledged that conditions in the prison were "tough, though not inhuman". But, he added: "We never tortured McCain. On the contrary, we saved his life, curing him with extremely valuable medicines that at times were not available to our own wounded."

McCain, who fell into enemy hands after his plane was shot down in 1967, has frequently referred to being tortured and has cited his experiences as a reason for vigorously opposing the endorsement by the Bush administration of the use of techniques such as "water-boarding" on terrorist suspects.

Shortly after his release in 1973 McCain told US News & World Report that his prison guards had beaten him "from pillar to post". After being worked over at intervals for four days, he said, he had become suicidal and agreed to sign a "confession" admitting to war crimes.

In his 1999 autobiography, Faith of My Fathers, he described how after his capture he was subjected to inhuman treatment in an effort to force him to disclose his ship's name, squadron number and the target of his final mission. He was threatened with the withdrawal of medical assistance and, while still suffering from his crash injuries, his guards "knocked me around a little".

For his service in Vietnam and his actions as a POW, McCain was awarded the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Purple Heart.

Tran, now 75, said McCain reached Hanoi with the worst injuries he had seen in a downed pilot. But he denied torturing him, saying it was his mission to ensure that McCain survived. As the son of the US naval commander in Vietnam, he offered a potential valuable propaganda weapon.

However, recommending McCain for a medal after the war, his former cellmate, the much-decorated Colonel George Day, said the admiral's son had forced his interrogators to "drug him and torture him to get any cooperation", according to a letter in the US National Archives cited earlier this year by the Washington Post. Day said McCain suffered "torturous abuse".

Tran told Corriere that McCain was sent to hospital the day after he was brought to Hanoi and stayed there for a month. "I never lost him from sight. I was frightened a doctor or nurse might do him harm."

Tran dismissed as "absolutely impossible" perhaps the most famous story from McCain's autobiography: that one Christmas, a guard traced a cross in the mud in front of him. "My men were all communists and atheists," he said.

As to why McCain, then 36, left North Vietnam with prematurely grey hair, Tran denied it was because of mistreatment. "It's that in prison you think too much."

Republicans Abuse Prosecutorial Powers to Intimidate Voters

Go to Original
By Steven Rosenfeld

As the presidential election comes to a close, the Republican Party -- and its allies in law enforcement at the FBI and at county levels in Ohio -- are announcing voting-related prosecutions that civil rights advocates say are intended to intimidate voters, despite prosecutorial rules that bar these disclosures before an election.

The foremost example was Thursday’s leak to the media by top FBI officials of a new investigation of ACORN, a low-income advocacy group which registered 1.3 million new voters in swing states in 2008. The Associated Press reported "senior officials" confirmed the FBI investigation, saying they "spoke on condition of anonymity because Justice Department regulations forbid discussing ongoing investigations particularly so close to an election."

"The reports by unnamed sources within the FBI that they have begun an investigation of ACORN is patently inconsistent with the DOJ prosecution manual," said Gerry Hebert, a former Justice Department Voting Section Chief who now runs the Campaign Legal Center in Washington.

"Whether they are prosecuting or not, it is clearly intimidation," said Jeff Gamso, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio. "That is what press reports do. You intimidate people into not going to the polls and not voting."

The FBI leak has counterparts at the county level in Ohio, raising the same voter intimidation concerns.

In Columbus, Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien, a Republican, confirmed in numerous state media reports on Wednesday that he was investigating a group called Vote From Home that registered more than 11,000 new voters from inner-city neighborhoods. A Franklin County Board of Elections spokesman said it learned about the group from a college website and found some of its members had registered and already voted in Ohio.

"The story indicated that these people were out of state Democratic Party activists who moved into Columbus to work temporarily and they listed this Columbus address as their residence to vote," said Ben Piscitelli, the BOE spokesman. "Under state law, you have to be a resident in the state 30 days prior to the election. The residence has to be a place to which you plan to return."

Piscitelli said it did not appear the group’s members, who include students from the nation’s top law schools, could meet the ongoing residency requirement. "We referred this to the Franklin County prosecutor to see what is illegal about this," he said. "As we explained to local reporters, there is nothing inherently illegal about having 13 people register at a single address."

"Vote From Home’s great crime is they helped 11,000 people register to vote and helped people get absentee ballots," said Robert Fitrakis, a Columbus election lawyer. "All this was leaked to the press, to FOX news, to TV-6, which is Sinclair Broadcasting, which is more conservative than Fox News ... They are trying to put a chilling effect on voting. They are trying to scare people into not voting by using criminal prosecutions."

Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien did not return requests to comment.

The FBI leak and Franklin County investigation are not the only examples of publicized legal tactics in Ohio that civil rights lawyers say are intended to scare new voters.

In recent weeks, the Ohio Republican Party and Democratic secretary of State have been at odds in federal court over whether Social Security and state motor vehicle records can be used to verify or reject more than 200,000 voter registrations -- equal to a third of the state’s new voters in 2008. On Wednesday, the day the secretary of state appealed a federal court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, an Ohio Republican Party spokesman said the GOP did not intend to use these database records to challenge voter registrations -- an assertion that left some Democrats saying the Republicans had embarked on a "chaos" campaign to confuse the public.

At the same time as the Ohio Republican Party was disavowing using any "no-match" data to challenge new voters, it also asked the state’s 88 county election boards for voter registration information on all new voters, including people who registered and then voted during a week-long window in early October.

"The Ohio Republican party ought to stop harassing innocent voters," Carrie Davis, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Ohio said in a statement Thursday, looking at the party’s tactics. "The party is continuing to imply wrongdoing by undertaking a sweeping investigation of legitimate voters for simply having the nerve to lawfully cast a ballot."

Earlier this month, a coalition of national civil rights groups sent a letter to the Greene County Prosecutor Stephen Haller and Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer that made the same election records request as the Ohio Republican Party -- seeking lists of newly registered and early voters. Their coalition’s letter said the Greene County officials’ planned investigation of legal voters would violate voter intimidation sections in the federal Voting Rights Act and National Voter Registration Act. Haller subsequently ended his investigation, however that state party has continued to seek the same voter records.

On Thursday another Ohio election lawyer who asked not be named said had he heard that prosecutors in Delaware County, a Columbus suburb, and Hamilton County, where Cincinnati is located, also were considering voter registration cases before the November election. Spokespeople for both prosecutors said they could not comment on future or pending investigations.

"What we are seeing is a political party is going to partisan county prosecutors to look into election law issues, completely bypassing the bipartisan county boards of elections," the attorney said. "Ideally, the way the process would work is the bipartisan election board takes a look at the information."

John McClelland, Ohio Republican Party spokesman, said his party was not encouraging Republican county prosecutors to pursue voting rights cases before the election.

"I believe if you talk to the Franklin County prosecutor, he will tell you that it (the Vote From Home referral) was sent to him by the bipartisan county board of election," McClelland said. "It sounds like you are talking to Democrats. I would ask that the spokespeople you are speaking to check their facts."

McClelland did not respond to a follow-up e-mail asking how the Ohio GOP intended to use the data it was collecting on newly registered voters and early voting. The party asked Ohio’s county election boards to produce those records by Thursday.

At the Franklin County board, spokesman Ben Piscitelli said it was not the BOE’s role to work out issues concerning Vote From Home’s voter registration and residency issues.

"Why would we do that?" he said. "It is our job to facilitate elections. We did verify registrations. We have more than 800,000 people registered to vote. You have no idea how busy we are ... We have no political agenda here."

But the Ohio ACLU’s Gamso said these actions were not as innocent as McClelland or Piscitelli suggest.

"What this is all about is keeping people from going to the polls at all," he said. "It is designed to keep people from voting. It is too late to keep people from registering. Voter registration is closed. But what you can do is set up a system where if they try to go to the polls they will be harassed, or create an expectation that will happen. That is the point."

German government rushes through €500 billion rescue package

Go to Original
By Ulrich Rippert

In her statement to the German parliament on Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel (Christian Democratic Union, CDU) expressly defended her government’s €500 billion “rescue package” for the banks. While the level of government endorsement and financial assistance made available are extraordinarily high and of a “so far unknown order of magnitude,” they are at same time “unavoidable,” Merkel said.

The chancellor stressed that the size of the rescue package had to be seen in connection with the extent of the crisis. The world economy is currently experiencing its most severe test since the 1920s. In the past week money markets had practically come to a halt and the sharp decline in stock market prices could have started a “fatal downward spiral.”

In the course of the past few weeks, the “urgently necessary confidence between finance market actors” had continuously eroded, Merkel maintained. Finance institutes were extremely reluctant to lend to one another. Mutual distrust meant that the banks were “nearly completely paralysed with unpredictable consequences for growth and jobs,” and it turned out that the state was the only institution that could restore confidence between the banks.

Merkel went to great lengths to present the billions being placed at the disposal of the banks as “in the interest of citizens.” On a number of occasions she repeated that the aim of the finance package was not to rescue individual banks, but rather “to protect citizens.” The chancellor continued, “We are thereby fulfilling our obligation to protect the interests of the German people.” As far as the state was concerned, there would be no “payments for the banks without something back in return.”

Merkel announced a rigorous intervention by the state in this respect and termed the multibillion-euro gift to the banks a step on the way to creating “structures for a humane free-market economy.”

It was notable that the chancellor never provided any details regarding her government’s plans for “rigorous intervention.” Two weeks ago she had demanded that irresponsible managers be made accountable for their actions. German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück (Social Democratic Party, SPD) also recently called for a cap on managers’ salaries to ensure they did not exceed €500,000 a year.

In Merkel’s government statement, however, there was no mention of such measures. Not a word was spoken about the criminal activities of the financial elite or possible measures against those responsible for the crisis. No mention was made of any limits to salaries and bonuses; nothing was said about the role of Deutsche Bank Chairman Josef Ackermann, who last year took home €14 million and heads the informal government committee that drafted the rescue plan for the banks.

Instead, Merkel invited credit and financial interests to take part “constructively and critically” in reforming and stabilizing the finance system.

Merkel then announced that the government sought to enlist the services of a team of experts to compile suggestions for new rules for the financial markets. Her proposal for chairman of the new committee was Hans Tietmeyer, the former president of the Federal Bank. Merkel praised Tietmyer, declaring that he has “a great deal of experience.”

Merkel neglected to mention one important fact: Tietmeyer is a member of the supervisory board of the finance company Hypo Real Estate (HRE), which was rescued at the beginning of October with a €50 billion bailout package. When a number of parliamentary deputies pointed out this fact, Tietmeyer withdrew from the “team of experts.”

What remains clear is that the “team of experts” is comprised predominantly of bank managers and will only serve to reinforce the influence of the banks on the process of government decision-making.

The banks dictate

Until now, the German banks have largely dictated the actions of the government in the financial crisis.

Two weeks ago Merkel and Steinbrück rejected a US-style rescue package in favour of a “case by case” approach. Leading bankers were outraged and demanded the government agree to a rescue plan, which allowed them virtually unrestricted access to the resources of the German treasury. Bank boss Ackermann exerted massive pressure in order to implement the interests of high finance.

A recent edition of Der Spiegel magazine reports on how the billions-strong deal for the rescue of HRE came about. Representatives of Germany’s leading banks demanded that the government take over the losses and toxic credits of Germany’s largest real estate finance house. The government, however, wanted to restrict its support to a state endorsement and demanded that the banks become involved.

“On two occasions the talks threatened to collapse,” Der Spiegel reports. The banking federation had begun to make preparations for the insolvency of HRE. “The turnaround came following a telephone call between Steinbrück and Ackermann shortly after midnight. The banker made clear to the finance minister that the collapse of HRE would lead to the possible breakdown of the entire mortgage bond market the next day.” In order to increase pressure on the government, Ackermann stressed that HRE is “the most reliable source for the refinancing of German banks.” Its collapse would “set an avalanche in motion” that nobody would be able to control.

Faced with such extortion the German government caved in and Steinbrück accepted the banks’ conditions. Der Spiegel describes the dramatic hours in the early morning of October 6 as follows: “At 2 a.m. the Asian stock exchanges opened, the bank had to be saved before this time; the Irish subsidiary (of HRE) had to be reintegrated into the process of monetary circulation. At 1:30 a.m. Merkel and Ackermann spoke on the phone again and sealed the deal.”

The government assumed responsibility for an endorsement totalling €26.5 billion, while the banks were allowed to endorse just €8.5 billion.

The latest rescue plan agreed by the German cabinet on Monday, involving government endorsements and state subsidies amounting to a total of a half a trillion euros, confirms that the government has delivered itself completely into the hands of the banks. Statements by the chancellor and finance minister that no important banks would be allowed to go bankrupt, while at the same time they would exert no influence on the operational business of the banks, make the government a hostage of the banking community.

The banks, which lack any sort of overview of the extent of the toxic credits on their balance books, can now reveal such debts and rely on the government to make billions available to bail them out. The government has committed itself to pay out almost unlimited sums of taxpayers’ money.

Bank managers, who are elected by no one and are only answerable to their clientele and the drive for profit, are dictating the financial policy of the government. They are not only determining the content of the rescue plan, which places hundreds of billions of euros at their disposal, they are also sweeping aside basic democratic rights and parliamentary procedures.

The emergency procedure by which the €500 billion package has been swept through parliamentary committees this week evokes memories of the emergency decrees brought into force by the government of Heinrich Brüning following the German bank crash of 1931. The emergency laws introduced by Brüning suspended democratic procedures and smoothed the path not only for the semi-dictatorship of Papen and Schleicher, but also their successor—Adolf Hitler.

A law that limits the financial capacity of not only the current government, but no doubt of many future governments—and which implies drastic economic measures affecting the lives of millions—is being rushed through parliament in only five days without any serious discussion.

The German constitution stipulates precise time limits for the passing of a bill in parliament. According to the constitution, the government must first present its bill to the upper house of parliament, which then has six weeks to arrive at a judgement. This period can be shortened or extended if necessary by three weeks at a time.

Following declarations on the bill from the chamber of states and a statement of justification for the measures from the government, the draft then goes to parliament. Following a first reading of the draft and committee consultations, the bill can then be forwarded for a second and third reading. The upper house then has three weeks to make the bill law.

This procedure can only be shortened with the express agreement of all the parties represented in the parliament, which agree in this special case to sacrifice their constitutional rights. This is why, following the cabinet meeting on Monday, the chancellor immediately consulted with the chairmen of all of the parliamentary groups and received from all of them—including the Left Party—their agreement to the emergency procedure.

In her government statement yesterday, Merkel expressly thanked all of the parliamentary groups for their close and trusting cooperation. Now the finance package is to be hurried through all three readings of the Bundestag (parliament), put to a vote in the upper house, and signed into law by the federal president by this weekend.

Parliament has thereby voluntarily ceded its control function in a matter in which the interests of the population are directly concerned. This self-castration by parliament has huge consequences. It encourages this and future governments to implement laws—judged to be urgent and indispensable—over the heads of parliament and the electorate in the form of emergency decrees.

The duplicity of the Left Party

The Left Party has played a particularly cynical role in the passage of the German banking rescue plan. It could have stopped the law if it had made use of its right to veto and had insisted on defending the democratic rights of the parliament. It did no such thing.

Now the party leadership has announced that its deputies will vote against the measure in the Bundestag. This is, in fact, a symbolic gesture because the bill is assured a majority by the other parties. If the government were dependent on the votes of the Left Party, there can be no doubt that the party would vote in favour. This is made clear by the statements of many prominent representatives of the party, who have affirmed the package in principle.

Even before the details of the plan had been announced, Left Party leader Oskar Lafontaine appeared on television on Sunday and described the measures dictated by the banks to be “unavoidable and correct.”

The party’s national organiser, Dietmar Bartsch, criticized the hesitation of the government in concluding the package and accused it of having “slept through the crisis somewhat.” He then went on to praise the rescue package, saying, “The decision has finally been taken for the necessary systematic regulation of the banks in Germany.”

Herbert Schui, a speaker for the Left Party in the Bundestag, told the newspaper Neues Deutschland, “The $700 billion US rescue plan, and now the plan submitted by the chancellor, are better than no solution.”

The spokesman on financial affairs for the Left Party parliamentary group, Axel Troost, even sought to claim authorship for the rescue program. In an October 14 statement, he criticises the behaviour of the government, but then adds, “A few weeks ago the Left Party suggested a contingency fund for private banks. All other parties rejected the motion on September 24 as unnecessary...”

When the extent of public opposition to the rescue plan became clear, the party leadership changed their tactics. Now Lafontaine has announced that his parliamentary faction will vote against the government bill on Friday. This is typical. When the Left Party could make a difference—e.g., in the emergency procedure to push the bill through parliament—the Left Party supports the government. When the government is no longer dependent upon their votes they vote in opposition in the hope that they can hide their tracks.

Politics, however, has an inexorable logic. The Left Party could have blocked the law on Monday. It could have also called for a demonstration against it. But this exactly what the party does not want. It regards the measures to rescue the banks—in the words of Lafontaine—as “inevitable and correct.” On this basis it has joined the government coalition. Neither its latest criticism of the measure, its demand for a supplementary economic program, nor its call for the restriction of managers’ salaries can hide the fact that it is firmly in the government’s camp.

Asian markets plummet amid fears of global recession

Go to Original
By Peter Symonds

Markets throughout Asia plunged yesterday following large losses on Wall Street on Wednesday and growing fears about the impact of a protracted global recession on the region’s economies. The falls abruptly ended the market euphoria earlier in the week, after the announcement of huge bank bailouts in the US and Europe, and sent share values plummetting toward the record lows reached last week.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 led the way with a decline of 11.4 percent—its worst one-day fall since the October 1987 share market crisis. Underscoring its volatility, the Tokyo stock market had rocketted up by a record 14 percent just two days earlier. Last week, share values plunged by 24 percent in five days—the worst weekly performance in the Nikkei’s 50-year history.

Share markets throughout the region followed suit. South Korea’s Kospi lost 9.4 percent and the Australian S&P/ASX index was down 6.7 percent. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng fell by 4.8 percent, but the sub-index covering mainland Chinese companies fell even further. The Shanghai Composite Index dropped by 4.3 percent and the Shenzhen Composite Index by 4.7 percent. The MSCI Asia Pacific Index of share prices across the region fell by 8.5 percent, its biggest drop on record.

Throughout the region, there are deep concerns that export markets in the US and Europe will rapidly shrink as the world economy slows down. The debate is no longer about whether there will be a global recession but rather how long and how deep it will be. Figures released on Wednesday showing a marked monthly decline in consumer spending in the United States—the third in a row—translated into sharply falling shares for Asian exporters.

Takashi Ushio, investment strategy head at Marusan Securities, told Reuters: “There’s a certain degree of panic selling in Tokyo but the sentiment’s different from last week. Last week people were panicking over the financial system, nobody really knew what would happen. But now it’s the real economy.” Yoshinori Nagano, a strategist at Daiwa Asset Management, told “The American spending spree in the past few years has totally evaporated. The earnings outlook for auto manufacturers and electronic makers is particularly harsh.”

Toyota, Japan’s biggest automaker, slumped 9.3 percent and Honda, which makes half its profit in North America, lost 7.9 percent. Mazda fell 4.2 percent, on top of a decline of 9.2 percent on Wednesday. Sony, Japan’s second largest manufacturer of consumer electronics, dived 13 percent. Sharp fell by 11 percent. Nintendo, which generates 90 percent of its revenue from exports, plunged by 10 percent. Steelmakers, shipping companies and corporations trading in commodities were all hard hit. Mitsubishi Corp, which derives half of its profit from commodities, fell by 15 percent, while Mitsui Co plunged by 17 percent.

Japan has already recorded a 3 percent contraction in GDP for the second quarter on an annualised basis with predictions the economy is heading deeper into recession. Taro Saito, a senior economist with NLI Research Institute, told Agence France Presse that Japan’s economy could shrink throughout 2008 as a whole. “That was unthinkable a while ago,” he said.

The relative stability of the Japanese financial system has contributed to a rising yen as investors have sought safe havens. The so-called carry trade—borrowing in Japan where the benchmark interest rate is just 0.5 percent to invest in countries with higher rates—has slumped. But the rise of the yen by 22 percent against the US dollar since late June is hitting exporters hard. Analysts have calculated that Toyota, for instance, loses 35 billion yen ($350 million) for every one yen fall of the US dollar.

Having virtually no room to cut interest rates, the Japanese government has drawn up an $18 billion emergency stimulus package in a bid to halt the slide into recession. In a measure of the fear gripping ruling circles, the opposition dropped its plans to block the measure, which passed yesterday in the upper house as share values plunged. Newly installed Prime Minister Taro Aso expressed the hope that the package would be “effective to a certain degree” but warned that “further steps may be needed”.

China’s slowdown

China is often viewed as the growth engine that will pull the world economy out of recession. But its rapid growth rates are heavily dependent on export markets in the US, Europe and Japan as well as continuing huge inflows of foreign investment. The Wall Street Journal concluded from statistics published by China’s central bank on Tuesday that capital flows into China had “slowed sharply and even reversed in recent months... analysts estimate that anywhere from $10 billion to $25 billion left the country in September, just as the financial crisis intensified.”

China’s growth rates are still predicted to remain at around 8 to 9 percent, down from 10 percent in the second quarter of this year and 12.6 percent a year earlier. However, there are already signs that this slowdown is having a dramatic impact on Chinese manufacturing. China’s customs agency announced on Monday that 52.7 percent of the country’s toy exporting companies—3,631 in all—had ceased operations in the first seven months of the year. Most were small, but this week a major manufacturer, Smart Union, shut its doors, throwing more than 6,000 employees out of work.

The mood was bleak at the Canton Fair, the world’s largest export exposition, which opened on Wednesday. Kevin Cao, export manager for HuangYang Bronze Company, bluntly told the New York Times: “It’s a disaster.” The company has seen its exports of aluminium wire cut by 50 percent and has cut its workforce by a quarter. Other manufacturers reported sharp declines.

While China is still reporting rising exports and large trade surpluses, the New York Times pointed out that when adjusted for inflation and the rising yuan, exports actually shrank by 0.5 percent in August. While inflation figures for September are not yet available, the article predicted that the 21.5 percent rise in exports for September, announced on Monday, was likely to vanish as well.

Any decline in the Chinese growth rate will hit countries throughout the region that rely on exports of commodities and components to China. On the Australian share market, the major mining companies were particularly hard hit—BHP Billiton was down by 13 percent and Rio Tinto by 16 percent—amid fears of falling demand and commodity prices. A slowdown in China will also reverberate in Japan and South Korea, which have profitted through the export of capital goods. China is now the largest export market for both countries.

South Korea has also been badly affected by the global financial crisis. Yesterday, the won plunged by 9.7 percent against the US dollar—its worst one-day fall in a decade—as fears grew over the country’s banking system. South Korean banks have a high ratio of loans to deposits and have been heavily reliant on international borrowing, which has dried up. The international credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s warned this week that it may downgrade seven South Korean banks.

Economic commentators are warning that Asia is by no means safe from the global economic crisis. Recalling the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, the Economist magazine noted this week: “In many ways the region is far better placed to withstand the present shock. Its banks are stronger, its currency regimes less rigid, its foreign-exchange reserves bigger. On the other hand, a decade of accelerated globalisation has seen every country integrated even more closely into the world economy. None can hope to be immune from a global economic slowdown.

“The region may not face the sort of meltdown experienced at the end of the 1990s. But prospects for growth look much bleaker than they did even a fortnight ago. Exports to rich countries still matter, albeit less than they did. And so does trade finance, which lubricates Asia’s trading machinery. Ships are sitting empty in big Asian ports, their cargoes piled up on the dockside because no bank will guarantee them. Despite strong balance sheets, Asian banks may need more capital if they are to make up a shortage of Western trade credit.”

An editorial in the Financial Times on Wednesday entitled “Stimulating Asia: Those who live by export-led growth can also die by it,” concluded that Asian economies had to make a major readjustment. “Export-led growth has served Asia well and can continue to do so. Export-led growth that relied on the US to run a vast trade deficit was always unsustainable, however, and vulnerable to precisely this kind of reversal.” Like a number of other commentators, the editorial called for measures to encourage greater domestic consumption in Asia as a means of boosting regional and international economic growth.

However, as Ifzal Ali, chief economist of the Asian Development Bank, told the New York Times: “Consumer behaviour cannot be changed by the wave of a wand. Domestic demand-led growth is easier said than done.” Stephen Roach, chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, has calculated that total personal consumption in China and in India, each with a population of more than a billion, is still behind that of Germany with a population of just 82 million. Moreover, any attempt by the major Asian economies to spend on stimulating domestic consumption may well rebound on the United States, which has relied on the investment of the trade surpluses from Asia to prop up its huge deficits.

Those looking for a ray of economic hope in Asia will be disappointed. It is particularly noteworthy that despite the gathering storm clouds, there have been no displays of regional cooperation. No one has even suggested emergency meetings of the various regional forums—from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to the much-vaunted East Asian Summit. South Korea’s appeals to Japan and China for stronger measures to defend Asian currencies have fallen on deaf ears. On Wednesday, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo grandly announced that a $10 billion standby fund would be established to assist countries in the region with liquidity problems, only to be undercut by World Bank officials who declared that the plan was not final.

Far from producing greater cooperation, the economic crisis will only sharpen existing tensions in the region and internationally as each government scrambles to defend its own economic interests at the expense of others.

A political farce, not a debate

Go to Original
By Patrick Martin

Wednesday’s nationally televised encounter between Barack Obama and John McCain was less a debate than a ritualized episode of a peculiarly American form of political theater.

The two candidates, both multi-millionaire representatives of the upper crust of American society, shared the stage with another multi-millionaire, an aging TV anchorman who confined the subjects and questions to the banal and predictable, excluding anything that would call into question the overarching right-wing framework of the discussion. (Where in this debate, for instance, was there a question on the latest figures showing that 28 countries have a lower infant mortality rate than the US, or on the growth in the number of working poor, or on the plunge towards bankruptcy of state and local governments?)

The debate was broadcast simultaneously on all four television networks and three cable news networks, each with its own set of millionaire anchormen and pundits, who formed a media chorus proclaiming the significance of the event as the last and potentially defining contest of the presidential campaign.

This was bolstered by an elaborate apparatus of “expert” panels, focus groups and instant polls, all designed to give the impression that something of enormous historical significance was taking place. When the event was over, however, nothing but a few sound bites remained, and nothing at all of genuine political content.

The reason for the emptiness and hollowness of the exercise is not difficult to discern, although it remains an unmentionable in the mass media. The two parties, despite their feverish competition for political office, dominated by mudslinging and character assassination, represent the same class interests.

The Democrats and the Republicans comprise rival factions of the financial aristocracy that dominates American society and is responsible for the economic catastrophe that has erupted over the past month. Accordingly, neither party wants a serious or critical examination of the causes of the financial collapse or of the consequences that will inevitably befall the vast majority of the people—lost jobs, lost homes, lost incomes, lost futures for their children. In a word, economic and social ruin.

Thus the disorienting spectacle on Wednesday night, where the candidates devoted a grand total of nine minutes (out of 90) to what Obama conceded was “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.” Neither candidate went beyond previous comments on the crisis, and both took the identical position—they had voted in the Senate for the initial $700 billion bailout for Wall Street, and they now supported the second and even more massive handover of public funds in the form of capital injections into the major banks, announced by the Bush administration the day before the debate.

It seems to be a mathematical law of American bourgeois politics that the differences between the candidates are inversely proportional to the significance of the issue. The candidates placidly agreed that the federal treasury should be placed at the disposal of the same financial criminals who caused the crisis, and then turned to a bitter exchange over campaign tactics, followed by a restatement of familiar (and largely minor) differences over a range of domestic subjects from taxes to education.

The third Obama-McCain debate will be remembered mainly for McCain’s insistence on insulting the intelligence of his audience with no less than 24 references to a Toledo, Ohio plumber, Joseph Wurzelbacher, whom he presented as the personification of the American small businessman about to bankrupted by Obama’s alleged addiction to high taxes. Within 24 hours of the debate, nearly every fact McCain asserted about “Joe the plumber” has been called into question.

The main concern for Obama, with a wide lead in the polls and in state-by-state electoral vote projections, was to demonstrate again to the American ruling elite that he can be trusted to defend their interests. As in the previous debates, he refrained from any verbal lashing of the wealthy speculators whose parasitic operations brought about the market crash. It was left to McCain, the Republican, to declare the American people “innocent victims of greed and excess on Wall Street.” Obama, by contrast, cited his billionaire supporter Warren Buffett, the richest man in America, as a key adviser on economic policy.

McCain’s performance was incoherent and self-contradictory. He began with the reference to “greed and excess on Wall Street,” then followed by denouncing Obama for allegedly advocating “class warfare” in his tax policy. He reiterated his support for the gargantuan federal bailout of the banks, then spent the rest of the debate accusing his opponent of advocating “big government” and “throwing money at the problem” when it came to such issues as health care, education, energy policy and job creation.

The most revealing episode in the 90-minute session was Obama’s conclusion to the lengthy exchange on negative campaigning, and his relationship with former 1960s radical Bill Ayers. The Democratic candidate said, “The allegation that Senator McCain has continually made is that somehow my associations are troubling. Let me tell you who I associate with. On economic policy, I associate with Warren Buffett and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. If I’m interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate, Joe Biden, or with Dick Lugar, the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or General Jim Jones, the former supreme allied commander of NATO. Those are the people, Democrats and Republicans, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House.”

Republicans, billionaires, bankers, senators, generals—that sums up the “change we can believe in” that Obama represents. The Democratic candidate cites these pillars of the US political and corporate establishment as proof of his non-radicalism, as a guarantee that he will do nothing to challenge the wealth and power of the ruling elite.

There is a logic to politics. If, as appears likely, Obama takes office as US president on January 20, 2009, his administration will be committed from the very first day to imposing the burden of the global financial crisis on the backs of the American working class.

There was one further episode of importance. In the course of the discussion of negative campaigning, Obama made a reference to the fascistic tenor of elements attracted to Republican campaign rallies in recent weeks, particularly those for vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, noting that some people “were shouting, when my name came up, things like ‘terrorist’ and ‘kill him,’ and that your running mate didn’t mention, didn’t stop, didn’t say, ‘Hold on a second, that’s kind of out of line’.”

McCain, chillingly, did not condemn the death threats against Obama, declaring instead, “Let me just say categorically I’m proud of the people that come to our rallies.”

Neither Obama nor moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS sought to press the issue. And when Schieffer gave Obama the opportunity to comment on Palin directly, asking him whether she was qualified for the presidency, Obama chose to avoid the issue entirely, and made no reference to Palin’s connections to extreme-right groups like the Alaskan Independence Party. In this too, Obama toes the line of the right-wing consensus—the growth of fascist tendencies within the Republican Party is not to be criticized, even when these elements directly threaten violence.