Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Probe sought of Bush handling of Alaska oil-spill case

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By Renee Schoof

An environmental watchdog group asked the Department of Justice's inspector general on Monday to investigate whether the department had prematurely halted a criminal prosecution of BP for a 2006 oil spill in Alaska.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed the complaint on behalf of Scott West, who as the special agent in charge for the Environmental Protection Agency participated in the federal and state investigation of the spill.

West, who retired last week after 19 years as an EPA criminal investigator to take a job with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said he'd argued for more time last year because he and his team were looking for evidence to prove felonies. The Justice Department, however, said the evidence had been fully investigated and charged BP with a misdemeanor.

BP, one of the world's largest energy companies, agreed in October 2007 to plead guilty to the federal misdemeanor and pay $20 million in criminal penalties for two Prudhoe Bay spills. One was the largest spill on the North Slope; about 201,000 gallons of oil leaked onto the tundra and a frozen pond.

When the plea was announced last year, federal and state authorities said that the spills had occurred because BP hadn't spent the money necessary to maintain its pipes.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility asked the inspector general to determine whether the investigation was shut down prematurely and whether the fine was too low. It said the $20 million was only a fraction of what the EPA had recommended, according to a copy of a confidential memo from the EPA to the Alaska U.S. Attorney's Office that the employees group released.

Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility charged in a statement that the BP oil-spill settlement was part of a pattern of "lowball" public-safety and pollution settlements between corporations and the Justice Department under President Bush. When BP agreed to the settlement, it also agreed to pay $50 million in fines for a refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas, in 2005 that killed 15 people and $303 million in connection with price manipulation of the propane market.

"Occupational fatalities and pollution blowouts cannot be sanctioned so lightly that they are an acceptable cost of doing business," Ruch said. "A full autopsy of this case must be done to determine what killed the tough felony prosecution of a major environmental crime."

West said the government had a large amount of evidence that it hadn't had time to review. He also said he wanted to interview other people.

"We were seeing the potential . . . to develop evidence that would be able to prove felonious behavior on the part of the corporation and a number of its senior officials," West said. "There was a tremendous amount of work to do. This case was in full swing in the summer of 2007. It was nowhere near wrapping up."

"The allegations by Mr. West that the department improperly handled the case are not based in fact and are simply not true," a statement from the Justice Department said. "Mr. West implies that something sinister took place between June 12 and August 28, 2007. As with any investigation, there comes a point in time when further investigation is no longer warranted if it does not have a realistic chance of generating useful evidence."

BP said in a statement that it had cooperated fully in the investigation and it was "not aware of any evidence that anyone at BP violated the law."

At a meeting at the U.S. attorney's office in Anchorage on Aug. 28, 2007, Justice officials asked what investigators could prove if they had to go to trial that day. West said that he and everyone else agreed that they could prove only a misdemeanor. He said he "vehemently" asked for more time but that the department decided to end the investigation.

West released a copy of an internal June 12, 2007, memo from Assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward to colleagues assessing the case that suggests there was more work to do.

In a statement filed with the complaint, West wrote: "Because this company has strong political connections and because the unprecedented decision to shut down the investigation before it was complete was made by a recent political appointee, I as an experienced criminal investigator and senior manager at the EPA could come to no other judgment than that something 'sinister' did indeed occur in the summer of 2007."

West said the appointee was Ronald Tenpas, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the department. Before his appointment in May 2007, Tenpas worked in the Justice Department as an associate deputy attorney general and as an assistant U.S. attorney.

Andrew Ames, a Justice Department spokesman, denied that Tenpas ordered the case closed. Ames said that career prosecutors in the Justice Department recommended the misdemeanor charge and U.S. Attorney Nelson Cohen had made the decision based on the recommendation. Tenpas concurred with the decision, Ames said.

EPA spokesman Dave Ryan said that after a "robust 18-month criminal investigation, EPA, FBI and DOT (Department of Transportation), along with DOJ prosecutors, jointly concluded the corporation was liable for a negligent discharge of oil" and that no further investigation was likely to "be fruitful."

Cynthia Schnedar, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said his office was reviewing the request from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Fed Defies Transparency Aim in Refusal to Disclose

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By Mark Pittman, Bob Ivry and Alison Fitzgerald

The Federal Reserve is refusing to identify the recipients of almost $2 trillion of emergency loans from American taxpayers or the troubled assets the central bank is accepting as collateral.

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said in September they would comply with congressional demands for transparency in a $700 billion bailout of the banking system. Two months later, as the Fed lends far more than that in separate rescue programs that didn't require approval by Congress, Americans have no idea where their money is going or what securities the banks are pledging in return.

``The collateral is not being adequately disclosed, and that's a big problem,'' said Dan Fuss, vice chairman of Boston- based Loomis Sayles & Co., where he co-manages $17 billion in bonds. ``In a liquid market, this wouldn't matter, but we're not. The market is very nervous and very thin.''

Bloomberg News has requested details of the Fed lending under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and filed a federal lawsuit Nov. 7 seeking to force disclosure.

The Fed made the loans under terms of 11 programs, eight of them created in the past 15 months, in the midst of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

``It's your money; it's not the Fed's money,'' said billionaire Ted Forstmann, senior partner of Forstmann Little & Co. in New York. ``Of course there should be transparency.''

Treasury, Fed, Obama

Federal Reserve spokeswoman Michelle Smith declined to comment on the loans or the Bloomberg lawsuit. Treasury spokeswoman Michele Davis didn't respond to a phone call and an e-mail seeking comment.

President-elect Barack Obama's economic adviser, Jason Furman, also didn't respond to an e-mail and a phone call seeking comment from Obama. In a Sept. 22 campaign speech, Obama promised to ``make our government open and transparent so that anyone can ensure that our business is the people's business.''

The Fed's lending is significant because the central bank has stepped into a rescue role that was also the purpose of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, bailout plan -- without safeguards put into the TARP legislation by Congress.

Total Fed lending topped $2 trillion for the first time last week and has risen by 140 percent, or $1.172 trillion, in the seven weeks since Fed governors relaxed the collateral standards on Sept. 14. The difference includes a $788 billion increase in loans to banks through the Fed and $474 billion in other lending, mostly through the central bank's purchase of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds.

Sept. 14 Decision

Before Sept. 14, the Fed accepted mostly top-rated government and asset-backed securities as collateral. After that date, the central bank widened standards to accept other kinds of securities, some with lower ratings. The Fed collects interest on all its loans.

The plan to purchase distressed securities through TARP called for buying at the ``lowest price that the secretary (of the Treasury) determines to be consistent with the purposes of this Act,'' according to the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, the law that covers TARP.

The legislation didn't require any specific method for the purchases beyond saying mechanisms such as auctions or reverse auctions should be used ``when appropriate.'' In a reverse auction, bidders offer to sell securities at successively lower prices, helping to ensure that the Fed would pay less. The measure also included a five-member oversight board that includes Paulson and Bernanke.

At a Sept. 23 Senate Banking Committee hearing in Washington, Paulson called for transparency in the purchase of distressed assets under the TARP program.

`We Need Transparency'

``We need oversight,'' Paulson told lawmakers. ``We need protection. We need transparency. I want it. We all want it.''

At a joint House-Senate hearing the next day, Bernanke also stressed the importance of openness in the program. ``Transparency is a big issue,'' he said.

The Fed lent cash and government bonds to banks, which gave the Fed collateral in the form of equities and debt, including subprime and structured securities such as collateralized debt obligations, according to the Fed Web site. The borrowers have included the now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Banks oppose any release of information because it might signal weakness and spur short-selling or a run by depositors, said Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, a Washington trade group.

Frank Backs Fed

``You have to balance the need for transparency with protecting the public interest,'' Talbott said. ``Taxpayers have a right to know where their tax dollars are going, but one piece of information standing alone could undermine public confidence in the system.''

The nation's biggest banks, Citigroup, Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley, declined to comment on whether they have borrowed money from the Fed. They received $120 billion in capital from the TARP, which was signed into law Oct. 3.

In an interview Nov. 6, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank said the Fed's disclosure is sufficient and that the risk the central bank is taking on is appropriate in the current economic climate. Frank said he has discussed the program with Timothy F. Geithner, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and a possible candidate to succeed Paulson as Treasury secretary.

``I talk to Geithner and he was pretty sure that they're OK,'' said Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat. ``If the risk is that the Fed takes a little bit of a haircut, well that's regrettable.'' Such losses would be acceptable, he said, if the program helps revive the economy.

`Unclog the Market'

Frank said the Fed shouldn't reveal the assets it holds or how it values them because of ``delicacy with respect to pricing.'' He said such disclosure would ``give people clues to what your pricing is and what they might be able to sell us and what your estimates are.'' He wouldn't say why he thought that information would be problematic.

Revealing how the Fed values collateral could help thaw frozen credit markets, said Ron D'Vari, chief executive officer of NewOak Capital LLC in New York and the former head of structured finance at BlackRock Inc.

``I'd love to hear the methodology, how the Fed priced the assets,'' D'Vari said. ``That would unclog the market very quickly.''

TARP's $700 billion so far is being used to buy preferred shares in banks to shore up their capital. The program was originally intended to hold banks' troubled assets while markets were frozen.

AIG Lending

The Bloomberg lawsuit argues that the collateral lists ``are central to understanding and assessing the government's response to the most cataclysmic financial crisis in America since the Great Depression.''

The Fed has lent at least $81 billion to American International Group Inc., the world's largest insurer, so that it can pay obligations to banks. AIG today said it received an expanded government rescue package valued at more than $150 billion.

The central bank is also responsible for losses on a $26.8 billion portfolio guaranteed after Bear Stearns Cos. was bought by JPMorgan.

``As a taxpayer, it is absolutely important that we know how they're lending money and who they're lending it to,'' said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia- based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Ratings Cuts

Ultimately, the Fed will have to remove some securities held as collateral from some programs because the central bank's rules call for instruments rated below investment grade to be taken back by the borrower and marked down in value. Losses on those assets could then be written off, partly through the capital recently injected into those banks by the Treasury.

Moody's Investors Service alone has cut its ratings on 926 mortgage-backed securities worth $42 billion to junk from investment grade since Sept. 14, making them ineligible for collateral on some Fed loans.

The Fed's collateral ``absolutely should be made public,'' said Mark Cuban, an activist investor, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team and the creator of the Web site BailoutSleuth.com, which focuses on the secrecy shrouding the Fed's moves.

The Bloomberg lawsuit is Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 08-CV-9595, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

Bush Spy Revelations Anticipated When Obama Is Sworn In

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By Ryan Singel

When Barack Obama takes the oath of office on January 20, Americans won’t just get a new president; they might finally learn the full extent of George W. Bush’s warrantless domestic wiretapping.

Since The New York Times first revealed in 2005 that the NSA was eavesdropping on citizens’ overseas phone calls and e-mail, few additional details about the massive "Terrorist Surveillance Program" have emerged. That’s because the Bush administration has stonewalled, misled and denied documents to Congress, and subpoenaed the phone records of the investigative reporters.

Now privacy advocates are hopeful that President Obama will be more forthcoming with information. But for the quickest and most honest account of Bush’s illegal policies, they say don’t look to the incoming president. Watch instead for the hidden army of would-be whistle-blowers who’ve been waiting for Inauguration Day to open the spigot on the truth.

"I’d bet there are a lot of career employees in the intelligence agencies who’ll be glad to see Obama take the oath so they can finally speak out against all this illegal spying and get back to their real mission," says Caroline Fredrickson, the ACLU’s Washington D.C. legislative director.

New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh already has a slew of sources waiting to spill the Bush administration’s darkest secrets, he said in an interview last month. "You cannot believe how many people have told me to call them on January 20. [They say,] ’You wanna know about abuses and violations? Call me then.’"

So far, virtually everything we know about the NSA’s warrantless surveillance has come from whistle-blowers. Telecom executives told USA Today that they had turned over billions of phone records to the government. Former AT&T employee Mark Klein provided wiring diagrams detailing an internet-spying room in a San Francisco switching facility. And one Justice Department attorney had his house raided and his children’s computers seized as part of the FBI’s probe into who leaked the warrantless spying to The New York Times. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales even suggested the reporters could be prosecuted under antiquated treason statutes.

If new whistle-blowers do emerge, Fredrickson hopes the additional information will spur Congress to form a new Church Committee -- the 1970s bipartisan committee that investigated and condemned the government’s secret spying on peace activists, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other political figures.

But even if the anticipated flood of leaks doesn’t materialize, advocates hope that Obama and the Democratic Congress will get around to airing out the White House closet anyway. "Obama has pledged a lot more openness," says Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was the first to file a federal lawsuit over the illegal eavesdropping.

One encouraging sign for civil liberties groups is that John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, is a key figure in Obama’s transition team, which will staff and set priorities for the new administration. The center was a tough and influential critic of the Bush administration’s warrantless spying.

Among the unanswered questions:

  • Were there quid pro quo promises made to the phone companies and internet carriers who cooperated with the secret spying? For example, were co-conspirators promised lucrative government contracts?

  • Did the program appropriate the CALEA wiretapping infrastructure? Under CALEA, Congress forced telecoms to build surveillance capabilities into the phone and internet network, but promised it would only be used with court orders.

  • What did the first version of the surveillance program sweep into its net? In March 2004, a squadron of top officials at the Justice Department, including then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI head Robert Mueller, threatened to resign over the illegality of the program. The program was subsequently scaled back, but nobody knows what the NSA was doing that was bad enough to horrify Ashcroft.

  • What was the legal rationale for the surveillance?FISA explicitly made warrantless domestic eavesdropping illegal, but the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a series of memos justifying the spying anyway. The ACLU is fighting the Bush administration for access to the documents, as well as secret memos justifying torture.

    "It’s difficult to see how Sen. Obama could call his administration transparent if his administration continues to suppress non-sensitive information that should have been released a long time ago," says the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer.

The other looming question is whether, as president, Obama will continue the warrantless spying himself. Obama voted with the majority in Congress to legalize the Bush spying program in July, but the constitutionality of the measure is yet untested. An Obama administration is less likely than Bush to devise convoluted legal end-runs around the Constitution, according to Marc Rotenberg, the head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"Keep in mind that Obama is a constitutional scholar and has a deep understanding of checks and balance," says Rotenberg. "It’s hard to imagine that an Obama administration would support ... warrantless wiretapping."

With the financial markets and the economy in deep trouble, it’s unlikely that Obama will quickly turn to the issue of warrantless wiretapping. But the EFF’s lawsuit against AT&T over the surveillance could force the new administration to pick a side quickly. In December, a federal judge in San Francisco will hold a hearing on whether the retroactive immunity granted to AT&T and other telecoms as part of the FISA Amendments Act is Constitutional. Obama voted for the act in order to legalize the spying program, but tried unsuccessfully to strip out the immunity provision.

EFF’s Opsahl hopes that if EFF prevails in December, an Obama administration might let the decision stand, clearing the way for EFF’s lawsuit to proceed.

"If we are victorious in our constitutional challenge, I would hope the Obama administration would accept that loss and move on without an appeal," says Opsahl. "But we will have to see."

In Final Days, Bush Pushes for Iraq's Oil

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By Maya Schenwar

As the Bush administration rumbles to an end, it is pushing with increasing urgency for a commitment to a long-term US presence in Iraq. Though the military aspect of this "commitment" has garnered substantial publicity, the administration is equally invested in the economic aspect: securing US control over Iraqi oil before Bush leaves office, according to experts in the field.

A leaked version of the US-Iraq status-of-forces agreement (SOFA), supplied and translated for Truthout by American Friends Service Committee Iraq consultant Raed Jarrar, states that the US will indefinitely "continue to protect Iraq's natural resources of gas and oil and protect Iraq's foreign financial and economic assets."

According to Jarrar, the Bush administration and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are in basic agreement on the SOFA, probably because an American presence in Iraq would keep Maliki in power. However, the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi Parliament and the Iraqi people oppose the pact and reject US control over Iraq's resources.

In October, just as the Bush and Maliki administrations were attempting to finalize the SOFA's terms - under the wary gaze of Parliament - the Iraqi cabinet dropped another big one in Parliament's lap: the Iraq oil law. The law would set the rules for foreign investment in Iraq's oil industry, and determine how oil revenues are shared within Iraq. Many in Parliament say both the SOFA and the oil law would prolong the US occupation, allowing American control over both its people and its resources. Parliament will debate the oil law this week.

Cleric Hashim al-Ta'i, of the Iraqi Islamic Party, captured the sentiments of many in a late October sermon on the Baghdad Satellite Channel, saying, "There is a unanimous Iraqi voice which says: No to an agreement that consolidates the occupation and prolongs its life; no to an agreement that consolidates sectarianism and racism and fragments the country into groups and cantons; no to an agreement that mortgages the country and its resources for many decades."

However, that unified voice clashes with another, very powerful voice in Iraq: American and British oil companies, which share the interests of the Bush team, according to Antonia Juhasz, a fellow with both the Institute for Policy Studies and Oil Change International.

"US and British oil companies and the Bush administration have been circling their wagons in Iraq over the last few months to bring both the SOFA and the Iraq oil law to a conclusion before Bush's term in office officially comes to a close," Juhasz told Truthout. "The Bush administration, US oil companies and the al-Maliki government are all on the same timeline for trying to lock in the continued presence of the US military in Iraq, which is the al-Maliki government's only hope of holding on to power - and US oil corporations' only hope of securing their long-sought control over Iraqi oil."

The large oil companies seek long-term contracts that would give them control over much of Iraq's oil and oil production, according to Juhasz. Although Kurdistan has entered into several contracts with foreign oil companies, Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein Al Shahristani declared that any contract signed before the passage of the oil law is void.

In addition to pushing the international SOFA and Iraq's oil law, the Bush administration is attempting to unilaterally carve a place in US law for a takeover of Iraqi oil, according to Jim Fine, legislative secretary for foreign policy for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. In a signing statement tacked on to the 2009 Defense Authorization Bill, Bush excused himself from a provision intended to rein in US power of Iraq's oil.

The statement - if one accepts it as authoritative - would allow Bush to use defense funds "to exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq." Bush wrote that prohibiting such a use of funds "purport(s) to impose requirements that could inhibit the president's ability to carry out his constitutional obligations."

Experts view this latest expansion of Bush's powers in Iraq as a kind of rush to the finish line: an attempt to accomplish as many of the administration's oil-control goals before it steps down and the Obama administration - which may well have different ideas - steps up. Bush's signing statement could forebode a weighty US push for Iraq's oil in the next two months, whether or not the SOFA passes, according to Fine.

"The signing statement is in effect a corollary to the Bush doctrine of preventive warfare, which he is now extending to military action to seize control of natural resources in a foreign country," Fine told Truthout. "The logic of the signing statement is inescapable and extremely dangerous. Absent repudiation by a future president, this and other authorities that President Bush has asserted in signing statements constitute a foundation for draconian unilateral action by the US."

However, the US's next president seems to have a very different interpretation of the US's relationship to Iraq's oil. In fact, Juhasz took the title of her book, "The Tyranny of Oil," from a line in President-elect Barack Obama's Iowa Caucus victory speech. Obama emphasized his hopes for a transition away from oil and toward sustainable energy sources throughout his campaign. He has also promised a drawdown of troops in Iraq.

The next two months will measure just how far President Bush is willing to go to fulfill the objectives that, many say, underlie his occupation of Iraq. Erik Leaver, Foreign Policy in Focus's policy outreach director, says that the administration's last-ditch efforts - the signing statements, the SOFA, the oil law pressure - demonstrate that Bush has not taken his eye off Iraqi oil.

"Although Bush has verbally assured the Iraqi people that we are not occupying their country for oil, the actions of the United States
indicate otherwise," Leaver told Truthout. "The language calling for the protection of Iraq's oil resources in the long term agreement between Iraq and the US is another strong indication of what the US intent is inside of Iraq - gaining long-term access to Iraq's oil."

Judge Rules Against White House In E-mail Case

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By Pete Yost

A federal judge on Monday ruled against the Bush administration in a court battle over the White House's problem-plagued e-mail system. With two-and-a-half months remaining before the Bush administration leaves office, U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy ruled that two private groups may pursue their case as they press the government to recover millions of possibly missing electronic messages.

Kennedy rejected the government's request to throw out the lawsuits filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive.

The government had argued that the courts did not have the authority to order the White House to retrieve any missing e-mails.

Kennedy, an appointee of President Clinton, said the two private groups seek precisely the relief outlined in the Federal Records Act and upheld in a previous case by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

CREW and the National Security Archive want a court order directing the archivist of the United States to initiate action through the attorney general to restore deleted e-mails.

Meredith Fuchs, the National Security Archive's general counsel, said that because of the ruling, a court order directing the White House to preserve 65,000 computer backup tapes remains in place.

Fuchs said that when the Bush administration surrenders its records to the government on Jan. 20, the incoming administration of Barack Obama can "do the right thing here and clean up this mess by ensuring that any missing e-mails are restored from computer backup tapes."

A White House document obtained by The Associated Press in August says the White House is missing as many as 225 days of e-mail dating to 2003.

The nine-page draft document about the White House's e-mail problems invites companies to bid on a project to recover missing electronic messages. The end date for the work was listed as April 19, 2009. The White House has not said whether it has hired a contractor.

CREW executive director Melanie Sloan called the court ruling "a clear victory for the American people. The Executive Office of the President does have to answer for the missing e-mail."

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the opinion is under review and that presidential aides are conferring with the Justice Department about the next steps in the case.

Sheila Shadmand, a Washington lawyer representing the National Security Archive, said the ruling enables protection of records "before they get carted off or destroyed as the current administration packs its bags to leave."

In February, a former White House computer expert told Congress the White House had no complete inventory of e-mail files, that there was no automatic system to ensure that e-mail was archived and preserved, and that until mid-2005 the e-mail system had serious security flaws.

Researchers at the National Security Archive disseminate historical materials to the public. CREW argued that the Bush administration is harming the private organization's efforts to gain future access to important historical documents that would shed light on the conduct of public officials.

Remembering The Victims of Those Who Profit From War:War is a Racket

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By Chycho

Remembrance Day (Australia, Canada, United Kingdom), also known as Poppy Day (Malta and South Africa) and Armistice Day (France, New Zealand, and many other Commonwealth countries; and the original name of the day internationally) "is a day to commemorate the sacrifices of members of the armed forces and civilians in times of war, specifically since the First World War. It is observed on 11 November to recall the end of World War I on that date in 1918.”

How unfortunate that we have a need for such a day, especially since “War is a racket It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” So stated Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC, the most decorated Marine in US history.

Today, and every day, we should remember why we have sent our children to die, and to kill. We should remember that war is meant to consolidate assets for the oligarchy. We should also remember that the majority of casualties of every War have been civilians. That not only soldiers, but countless innocents have been caught in the line of fire between warring corporations to increase the wealth of the privileged few.

One of the best summations of war that I have ever found is given by Major General Butler in his book, WAR IS A RACKET:

In the World War [I] a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few – the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill.

And what is this bill?

This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

The above book should be mandatory reading and part of every curriculum, in every school, in every country around the world.

Today we should remember that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has resulted in over 1.2 million civilian deaths as well as creating over 4 million refugees. We should remember that our present wars are expanding beyond the boundaries of containment.

We should also remember our recent history and the legacy of war, maybe then we can prevent it from repeating itself. The following websites contain images that will be a part of our history for future generations to come, after all what better way to remember history then with photos:

- Hiroshima, the pictures they didn’t want us to see and why

- Photo journal of a German soldier on the Eastern Front

- The Iraq War as a Trophy Photo

- "War against Terrorism" in Afghanistan

- A Vietnam Photo Essay

- The War to End All Wars: World War I

And with all wars there is genocide, so we must also remember the end result of war:

- The Canadian Genocide of Aboriginal Peoples

- Native American Genocide in the United States

- Armenian Genocide

- Rwandan Genocide

- Genocide in progress: Darfur

The above is just a sample of our deeds and why it is important to have a ‘Remembrance Day’. But today should not be just about our children that we have turned into killers, it should also be about the innocent civilian victims created due to our ignorance as to the true cause and cost of war. We have sacrificed millions so that we can remain apathetic.

We should remember that war is neither about honor, duty, justice or peace. War is about money, greed, power, and death and destruction. It is about sacrificing our children to propagate fear.

We should also remember that we have the power to stop Preemptive Wars of Aggression that are being waged in our name and with our children’s innocence and blood - after all, there are over 6.7 billion of us... for now.

A Quiet Windfall For U.S. Banks

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By Amit R. Paley

With Attention on Bailout Debate, Treasury Made Change to Tax Policy

The financial world was fixated on Capitol Hill as Congress battled over the Bush administration's request for a $700 billion bailout of the banking industry. In the midst of this late-September drama, the Treasury Department issued a five-sentence notice that attracted almost no public attention.

But corporate tax lawyers quickly realized the enormous implications of the document: Administration officials had just given American banks a windfall of as much as $140 billion.

The sweeping change to two decades of tax policy escaped the notice of lawmakers for several days, as they remained consumed with the controversial bailout bill. When they found out, some legislators were furious. Some congressional staff members have privately concluded that the notice was illegal. But they have worried that saying so publicly could unravel several recent bank mergers made possible by the change and send the economy into an even deeper tailspin.

"Did the Treasury Department have the authority to do this? I think almost every tax expert would agree that the answer is no," said George K. Yin, the former chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the nonpartisan congressional authority on taxes. "They basically repealed a 22-year-old law that Congress passed as a backdoor way of providing aid to banks."

The story of the obscure provision underscores what critics in Congress, academia and the legal profession warn are the dangers of the broad authority being exercised by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. in addressing the financial crisis. Lawmakers are now looking at whether the new notice was introduced to benefit specific banks, as well as whether it inappropriately accelerated bank takeovers.

The change to Section 382 of the tax code -- a provision that limited a kind of tax shelter arising in corporate mergers -- came after a two-decade effort by conservative economists and Republican administration officials to eliminate or overhaul the law, which is so little-known that even influential tax experts sometimes draw a blank at its mention. Until the financial meltdown, its opponents thought it would be nearly impossible to revamp the section because this would look like a corporate giveaway, according to lobbyists.

Andrew C. DeSouza, a Treasury spokesman, said the administration had the legal authority to issue the notice as part of its power to interpret the tax code and provide legal guidance to companies. He described the Sept. 30 notice, which allows some banks to keep more money by lowering their taxes, as a way to help financial institutions during a time of economic crisis. "This is part of our overall effort to provide relief," he said.

The Treasury itself did not estimate how much the tax change would cost, DeSouza said.

A Tax Law 'Shock'

The guidance issued from the IRS caught even some of the closest followers of tax law off guard because it seemed to come out of the blue when Treasury's work seemed focused almost exclusively on the bailout.

"It was a shock to most of the tax law community. It was one of those things where it pops up on your screen and your jaw drops," said Candace A. Ridgway, a partner at Jones Day, a law firm that represents banks that could benefit from the notice. "I've been in tax law for 20 years, and I've never seen anything like this."

More than a dozen tax lawyers interviewed for this story -- including several representing banks that stand to reap billions from the change -- said the Treasury had no authority to issue the notice.

Several other tax lawyers, all of whom represent banks, said the change was legal. Like DeSouza, they said the legal authority came from Section 382 itself, which says the secretary can write regulations to "carry out the purposes of this section."

Section 382 of the tax code was created by Congress in 1986 to end what it considered an abuse of the tax system: companies sheltering their profits from taxation by acquiring shell companies whose only real value was the losses on their books. The firms would then use the acquired company's losses to offset their gains and avoid paying taxes.

Lawmakers decried the tax shelters as a scam and created a formula to strictly limit the use of those purchased losses for tax purposes.

But from the beginning, some conservative economists and Republican administration officials criticized the new law as unwieldy and unnecessary meddling by the government in the business world.

"This has never been a good economic policy," said Kenneth W. Gideon, an assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy under President George H.W. Bush and now a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a law firm that represents banks.

The opposition to Section 382 is part of a broader ideological battle over how the tax code deals with a company's losses. Some conservative economists argue that not only should a firm be able to use losses to offset gains, but that in a year when a company only loses money, it should be entitled to a cash refund from the government.

During the current Bush administration, senior officials considered ways to implement some version of the policy. A Treasury paper in December 2007 -- issued under the names of Eric Solomon, the top tax policy official in the department, and his deputy, Robert Carroll -- criticized limits on the use of losses and suggested that they be relaxed. A logical extension of that argument would be an overhaul of 382, according to Carroll, who left his position as deputy assistant secretary in the Treasury's office of tax policy earlier this year.

Yet lobbyists trying to modify the obscure section found that they could get no traction in Congress or with the Treasury.

"It's really been the third rail of tax policy to touch 382," said Kevin A. Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

'The Wells Fargo Ruling'

As turmoil swept financial markets, banking officials stepped up their efforts to change the law.

Senior executives from the banking industry told top Treasury officials at the beginning of the year that Section 382 was bad for businesses because it was preventing mergers, according to Scott E. Talbott, senior vice president for the Financial Services Roundtable, which lobbies for some of the country's largest financial institutions. He declined to identify the executives and said the discussions were not a concerted lobbying effort. Lobbyists for the biotechnology industry also raised concerns about the provision at an April meeting with Solomon, the assistant secretary for tax policy, according to talking points prepared for the session.

DeSouza, the Treasury spokesman, said department officials in August began internal discussions about the tax change. "We received absolutely no requests from any bank or financial institution to do this," he said.

Although the department's action was prompted by spreading troubles in the financial markets, Carroll said, it was consistent with what the Treasury had deemed in the December report to be good tax policy.

The notice was released on a momentous day in the banking industry. It not only came 24 hours after the House of Representatives initially defeated the bailout bill, but also one day after Wachovia agreed to be acquired by Citigroup in a government-brokered deal.

The Treasury notice suddenly made it much more attractive to acquire distressed banks, and Wells Fargo, which had been an earlier suitor for Wachovia, made a new and ultimately successful play to take it over.

The Jones Day law firm said the tax change, which some analysts soon dubbed "the Wells Fargo Ruling," could be worth about $25 billion for Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo declined to comment for this article.

The tax world, meanwhile, was rushing to figure out the full impact of the notice and who was responsible for the change.

Jones Day released a widely circulated commentary that concluded that the change could cost taxpayers about $140 billion. Robert L. Willens, a prominent corporate tax expert in New York City, said the price is more likely to be $105 billion to $110 billion.

Over the next month, two more bank mergers took place with the benefit of the new tax guidance. PNC, which took over National City, saved about $5.1 billion from the modification, about the total amount that it spent to acquire the bank, Willens said. Banco Santander, which took over Sovereign Bancorp, netted an extra $2 billion because of the change, he said. A spokesman for PNC said Willens's estimate was too high but declined to provide an alternate one; Santander declined to comment.

Attorneys representing banks celebrated the notice. The week after it was issued, former Treasury officials now in private practice met with Solomon, the department's top tax policy official. They asked him to relax the limitations on banks even further, so that foreign banks could benefit from the tax break, too.

Congress Looks for Answers

No one in the Treasury informed the tax-writing committees of Congress about this move, which could reduce revenue by tens of billions of dollars. Legislators learned about the notice only days later.

DeSouza, the Treasury spokesman, said Congress is not normally consulted about administrative guidance.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Finance Committee, was particularly outraged and had his staff push for an explanation from the Bush administration, according to congressional aides.

In an off-the-record conference call on Oct. 7, nearly a dozen Capitol Hill staffers demanded answers from Solomon for about an hour. Several of the participants left the call even more convinced that the administration had overstepped its authority, according to people familiar with the conversation.

But lawmakers worried about discussing their concerns publicly. The staff of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, had asked that the entire conference call be kept secret, according to a person with knowledge of the call.

"We're all nervous about saying that this was illegal because of our fears about the marketplace," said one congressional aide, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "To the extent we want to try to publicly stop this, we're going to be gumming up some important deals."

Grassley and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have publicly expressed concerns about the notice but have so far avoided saying that it is illegal. "Congress wants to help," Grassley said. "We also have a responsibility to make sure power isn't abused and that the sensibilities of Main Street aren't left in the dust as Treasury works to inject remedies into the financial system."

Carol Guthrie, spokeswoman for the Democrats on the Finance Committee, said it is in frequent contact with the Treasury about the financial rescue efforts, including how it exercises authority over tax policy.

Lawmakers are considering legislation to undo the change. According to tax attorneys, no one would have legal standing to file a lawsuit challenging the Treasury notice, so only Congress or Treasury could reverse it. Such action could undo the notice going forward or make it clear that it was never legal, a move that experts say would be unlikely.

But several aides said they were still torn between their belief that the change is illegal and fear of further destabilizing the economy.

"None of us wants to be blamed for ruining these mergers and creating a new Great Depression," one said.

Some legal experts said these under-the-radar objections mirror the objections to the congressional resolution authorizing the war in Iraq.

"It's just like after September 11. Back then no one wanted to be seen as not patriotic, and now no one wants to be seen as not doing all they can to save the financial system," said Lee A. Sheppard, a tax attorney who is a contributing editor at the trade publication Tax Analysts. "We're left now with congressional Democrats that have spines like overcooked spaghetti. So who is going to stop the Treasury secretary from doing whatever he wants?"

Anti-U.S. sentiment grows in Syria after raid

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By Brooke Anderson

The U.S. incursion into Syria late last month put this eastern border town near Iraq on the world stage and many of its residents on edge.

"At the beginning of the war, we were scared. Then we got used to it. Now we're scared again - and angry," said Yusef Tara, who spoke to a reporter near the site of the Oct. 26 U.S. commando raid against an alleged al Qaeda in Iraq hideout that Damascus says killed eight civilians.

In this tightly controlled police state that had been trying to change its image and end years of global seclusion, protest groups are now allowed to stage anti-American rallies. And even though YouTube is banned, video footage of four U.S. helicopters carrying out the raid is making the rounds on cell phones.

The anti-American sentiment is in sharp contrast to months of toned-down rhetoric against the Bush administration as the two countries edged toward serious talks. The United States had been pleased that Syria accepted Iraqi refugees, made peace overtures to Israel, established full relations with Lebanon and shared intelligence about al Qaeda radicals. Two months ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met in New York with her Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem, in the highest-level talks between the two nations since 2005.

At the same time, the United States accused Syria of not doing enough to curb the flow of militant fighters from Syria into Iraq.

Now, the local media refers to the United States in language reserved for Israel after a military operation in the West Bank or Gaza Strip - war crimes, martyrs, terrorists and deaths of innocent civilians.

"This is the first time in Syrian-U.S. bilateral relations since 1945 (the year diplomatic relations were established) that the Americans attacked Syria," said Sami Moubayed, a political analyst in Damascus, Syria's capitol. "The raid makes it difficult for bilateral relations."

After the incursion, Al-Arabiya television reported that Iraqi troops had increased the number of personnel near Abu Kamal, a town of about 30,000 residents that borders Iraq's Anbar province and has no paved roads, daily power outages and cement homes with dirt floors. Syria also sent additional troops to the frontier, but has since withdrawn them to reduce security cooperation with the United States, officials say.

At the site of the raid, a large cement building under construction along the Euphrates River, there is an eerie calm as military police stand guard in an isolated area accessible by a bumpy, dirt road.

U.S. officials say the raid killed Abu Ghadiyah, an Iraqi who they believe was a top al Qaeda in Iraq militant operating a network that smuggled fighters into Iraq to carry out suicide bombings and other operations. They say several of his bodyguards were also killed.

As Saoud Rak Khalif entered the building, he viewed dried blood, shattered glass and walls pockmarked with bullet holes. His brother Ahmed, a 21-year-old construction worker, died during the raid by U.S. Special Forces.

"They did to us what they're doing to the Iraqis," Khalif said. "I have nothing against the American people. But they attacked civilians. This is terrorism."

Another fatality was Ali Abbas Ramadan, whom family members described as a 35-year-old construction site guard.

"I was in a tent when the helicopters came. The (American) soldiers came to inspect it. I don't know why," said 7-year-old Mariam Ramadan, Ramadan's daughter. "They were speaking a foreign language, and I didn't understand anything."

Syria has demanded that Washington apologize for the strike and has threatened to cut off cooperation on Iraqi border security. The government has also ordered all foreign staff of the American Language Center and American Cultural Center in Damascus to leave the country, and postponed a Nov. 12 meeting of a joint Syrian-Iraqi committee in Baghdad to improve troubled relations.

Baha Rakad, a member of the Human Rights Association in Syria, has pledged to file a lawsuit in Syrian courts against President Bush and the Pentagon on behalf of the victims of the raid.

Meanwhile, political analyst Moubayed points out that Syria's response to the raid has so far been restrained and that President Bashar Assad has expressed hope that Sen. Barack Obama's victory in the U.S. presidential election will bring "constructive dialogue."

"We did not expel the U.S. charge d'affaires, nor recall our ambassador," Moubayed said. "We are keeping room for future dialogue with President Obama."

Obama puts 'hundreds' of Bush rulings under review

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By Leonard Doyle

Beset by war on two fronts, a rapidly emptying national Treasury and the worst economic crisis in decades, Barack Obama and George Bush are trying to ensure that the transfer of power between them goes as smoothly as possible.

The President-elect and Mr Bush will begin substantive discussions on the handover today when the Obamas visit the White House. While Laura Bush takes Michelle Obama on a tour of the first floor residential areas of her new home, Mr Bush will host his successor for talks in the Oval office.

Co-operation between the outgoing administration and the Obama team on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, looming threats of terror attacks and economic mayhem are being described by aides as "unprecedented". Mr Bush said at the weekend that a seamless transition is "a top priority for the rest of my time in office".

Though far from a backslapping relationship, both President Bush and Mr Obama are said to share a common desire for a smooth transition and for the new administration to hit the ground running before further problems pile up. There are widespread expectations that the new President will be quickly tested abroad, either by acts of terrorism or direct challenges to United States interests by countries such as Iran or Russia.

The political talk shows on television yesterday morning provided evidence of the desire for co-operation, with Mr Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, urging Congress to adopt an economic stimulus package asked for by the Bush administration to ease the pain of recession. But he made clear that the President-elect would not back away from tax cuts for 95 per cent of working families and would proceed with a tax hike for the wealthiest Americans, those earning more than $250,000 (£160,000) a year, despite of the economic slowdown.

It is also obvious that the mood of co-operation may well snap before the 20 January inauguration as Mr Obama presses for access to confidential documents and lays out plans to reverse Mr Bush's controversial legacy.

Public expectations for change are sky high, but the Obama team is trying to decide which of the expansive campaign promises it made over the past 21 months should take priority in the administration's first 100 days. The "big-bang" approach – pressing ahead on multiple fronts – seems to have been put on hold by his transition advisers. John Podesta, the leader of the transition team, pointed yesterday to a more pragmatic "step-by-step", or "hybrid", start to the presidency.

In a radio address over the weekend Mr Obama he said his first priority is an economic recovery programme. Now the debate is whether to tackle health care, climate change and energy independence all at once or to stagger them. But his team is discouraging talk of a fast-paced 100-day agenda.

Mr Obama has made clear for months, however, that he wants to scrap as many as 200 of the most controversial decisions of Mr Bush's eight years in office. A team of 48 advisers is already drawing up a list of measures they intend to undo, relating to torture, federal funding for stem cell research, reproductive rights and climate change.

As soon as he takes over Mr Obama is expected to issue an executive order declaring that CO2 emissions from factories are a danger to human welfare, a big leap forward in the battle to reverse the effects of climate change. He will also reverse a decision to prevent California from regulating CO2 emissions from cars. At the stroke of a pen Mr Obama is expected to wipe out many Bush-era policies that have caused angst abroad, including the global ban on US aid for family planning groups abroad that provide any advice on abortion.

Mr Obama and Mr Bush have met in the White House before. On a visit with a group of newly elected senators in 2004, Mr Obama relates in his memoir, The Audacity of Hope, the President called out "Obama!" before taking him to one side and offering him the following, now rather prophetic-sounding, advice: "You've got a bright future. Very bright. But I've been in this town a while and let me tell you, it can be tough ... Everybody will be waiting for ya to slip. So watch yourself."

Breaking down walls: Black history at the White House

*When Barack and Michelle Obama walk through the White House today, they will be carrying with them the mixed emotions of generations of African-Americans.

There will be reminders of the length of time it has taken for black Americans to feel at home in a mansion built by slave labour and where for decades the only blacks welcome were servants.

It was not until 1973, under Richard Nixon's presidency, that Sammy Davis Jr and his wife became the first black guests to sleep over.

After Booker T. Washington dined there with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 a newspaper called it "the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen".

Before the election Mr Obama referred to the powerful symbolism of his children, Malia and Sasha, scampering about the White House.

In 1801 Thomas Jefferson brought slaves with him to the White House, and for nearly fifty years they helped run it.

Amidst the struggles over slavery, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass was the most prominent black visitor. When Barack Obama's hero Abraham Lincoln was president, he visited three times.

Shut Guantanamo on Day One, Obama urged

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By Jane Sutton

Five human rights groups urged European governments on Monday to accept Guantanamo prisoners who cannot be sent home for fear of persecution, while a sixth group called on U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to sign an order shutting the prison camp on the day he takes office.

The global efforts are aimed at pressuring Obama to make good on his campaign pledge to close the widely reviled Guantanamo detention camp and halt the special tribunals that try foreign terrorism suspects outside the regular courts.

"President-elect Obama, with a stroke of your presidential pen, on Day One of your administration, you can ensure that our government will be faithful to the Constitution and to the principles upon which America was founded," the American Civil Liberties Union said in a full-page ad in the New York Times.

"Give us back the America we believe in," the ACLU urged Obama, who takes office on Jan. 20.

The detention camp at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is widely viewed as a stain on America's human rights record. It has held more than 750 captives from around the world since opening in 2002, including many who were caught up in sweeps or sold for bounties during U.S. efforts to route al Qaeda and associated groups after the hijacked plane attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

About 255 men are still held at Guantanamo, including 50 the United States has cleared for release but cannot repatriate for fear they will be tortured or persecuted in their home countries.

In Berlin, five international rights groups issued a joint call to European governments to help close Guantanamo by granting humanitarian resettlement and protection to those 50 captives, who are from nations that include China, Libya, Russia, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan.

"This would have a double effect: helping to end the ordeal of an individual unlawfully held in violation of his human rights, and helping end the international human rights scandal that is Guantanamo," said Daniel Gorevan, who manages Amnesty International's "Counter Terror with Justice" campaign.


Joining Amnesty in the statement were the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch, Reprieve and the International Federation for Human Rights. The groups issued the joint statement after a closed two-day meeting in Berlin.

"This is a key opportunity for both sides of the Atlantic to move beyond the misguided acts of the war on terror: rendition, secret detention, and torture," said Cori Crider, staff attorney at Reprieve, a British group that advocates for prisoners' rights.

The U.S. State Department's legal adviser and other senior officials have been traveling around Europe, North Africa and elsewhere trying to persuade nations to take home their Guantanamo prisoners.

Some governments have denied that the Guantanamo prisoners are in fact their citizens, while others have been reluctant to agree to U.S. requests to imprison or monitor Guantanamo returnees.

The outpouring of international goodwill for Obama's election victory suggests America's first black president may enjoy a diplomatic honeymoon among nations that have been reluctant to help the Bush administration find a way out of the Guantanamo quagmire.

But Obama will also need support at home if he is to shut it down. The United States still wants to try about 80 Guantanamo prisoners on terrorism charges and holds a few dozen others it does not intend to try but considers too dangerous to release.

During his election campaign, Obama said he favored holding those trials in the United States.

Those facing charges include five accused Sept. 11 plotters. But proposals to move any Guantanamo prisoners to the United States -- such as to U.S. military prisons in Kansas and South Carolina -- have been met with resistance among U.S. congressional representatives.

The Mini Depression and the Maximum-Strength Remedy

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By Robert Reich

This is not the Great Depression of the 1930s, but nor is it turning out to be merely a bad recession of the kind we've experienced periodically over the last half century. Call it a Mini Depression. The employment report last Friday shows job losses accelerating, along with the number of Americans working part time who'd rather be and need to be working full time. Retail sales have fallen off a cliff. Stock prices continue to drop. General Motors is on the brink of bankruptcy. The rate of home foreclosures is mounting.

When Barack Obama takes office in January, he will inherit a mess. What to do? (Because I'm an informal economic adviser, I should warn anyone who reads this that it reflects only my thoughts and therefore should not be attributed to him or to anyone else advising him.)

First, understand that the main problem right now is not the supply of credit. Yes, Wall Street is paralyzed at the moment because the bursting of the housing and other asset bubbles means that lenders are fearful that creditors won't repay loans. But even if credit were flowing, those loans wouldn't save jobs. Businesses want to borrow now only to remain solvent and keep their creditors at bay. If they fail to do so, and creditors push them into reorganization under bankruptcy, they'll cut their payrolls, to be sure. But they're already cutting their payrolls. It's far from clear they'd cut more jobs under bankruptcy reorganization than they're already cutting under pressure to avoid bankruptcy and remain solvent.

This means bailing out Wall Street or the auto industry or the insurance industry or the housing industry may at most help satisfy creditors for a time and put off the day of reckoning, but industry bailouts won't reverse the downward cycle of job losses.

The real problem is on the demand side of the economy.

Consumers won't or can't borrow because they're at the end of their ropes. Their incomes are dropping (one of the most sobering statistics in Friday's jobs report was the continued erosion of real median earnings), they're deeply in debt, and they're afraid of losing their jobs.

Introductory economic courses explain that aggregate demand is made up of four things, expressed as C+I+G+exports. C is consumers. Consumers are cutting back on everything other than necessities. Because their spending accounts for 70 percent of the nation's economic activity and is the flywheel for the rest of the economy, the precipitous drop in consumer spending is causing the rest of the economy to shut down.

I is investment. Absent consumer spending, businesses are not going to invest.

Exports won't help much because the of the rest of the world is sliding into deep recession, too. (And as foreigners -- as well as Americans -- put their savings in dollars for safe keeping, the value of the dollar will likely continue to rise relative to other currencies. That, in turn, makes everything we might sell to the rest of the world more expensive.)

That leaves G, which, of course, is government. Government is the spender of last resort. Government spending lifted America out of the Great Depression. It may be the only instrument we have for lifting America out of the Mini Depression. Even Fed Chair Ben Bernanke is now calling for a sizable government stimulus. He knows that monetary policy won't work if there's inadequate demand.

So the crucial questions become (1) how much will the government have to spend to get the economy back on track? and (2) what sort of spending will have the biggest impact on jobs and incomes?

The answer to the first question is "a lot." Given the magnitude of the mess and the amount of underutilized capacity in the economy-- people who are or will soon be unemployed, those who are underemployed, factories shuttered, offices empty, trucks and containers idled -- government may have to spend $600 or $700 billion next year to reverse the downward cycle we're in.

The answer to the second question is mostly "infrastructure" -- repairing roads and bridges, levees and ports; investing in light rail, electrical grids, new sources of energy, more energy conservation. Even conservative economists like Harvard's Martin Feldstein are calling for government to stimulate the economy through infrastructure spending. Infrastructure projects like these pack a double-whammy: they create lots of jobs, and they make the economy work better in the future. (Important qualification: To do this correctly and avoid pork, the federal government will need to have a capital budget that lists infrastructure projects in order of priority of public need.)

Government should also spend on health care and child care. These expenditures are also double whammies: they, too, create lots of jobs, and they fulfill vital public needs.

Expect two sorts of arguments against this. The first will come from fiscal hawks who claim that the government is already spending way too much. Even without a new stimulus package, next year's budget deficit could run over a trillion dollars, given the amounts to be spent bailing out Wall Street and perhaps the auto industry, and providing extended unemployment insurance and other measures to help those in direct need. The hawks will argue that the nation can't afford giant deficits, especially when baby boomers are only a few years away from retiring and claiming Social Security and Medicare.

They're wrong. Government spending that puts people back to work and invests in the future productivity of the nation is exactly what the economy needs right now. Deficit numbers themselves have no significance. The pertinent issue is how much underutilized capacity exists in the economy. When there's lots of idle capacity, deficit spending is entirely appropriate, as John Maynard Keynes taught us. Moving the economy to fuller capacity will of itself shrink future deficits.

The second argument will come from conservative supply-siders who will call for income-tax cuts rather than spending increases. They'll claim that individuals with more money in their pockets will get the economy moving again more readily than can government. They're wrong, for three reasons. First, income-tax cuts go mainly to upper-income people who tend to save rather than spend. Most Americans pay more in payroll taxes than in income taxes. Second, even if a rebate could be fashioned, people tend to use those extra dollars to pay off their debts rather than buy new goods and services, as we witnessed a few months ago when the government sent out rebate checks. Third, even when individuals purchase goods and services, those purchases tend not to generate as many American jobs as government spending on the same total scale because much of what consumers buy comes from abroad.

Fiscal hawks and conservative supply siders notwithstanding, a major stimulus is in order. Government is the spender of last resort, and the nation is coming close to its last resort.

The Case for U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

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The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.

In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that says, "Wanted: Dead or Alive".
George W. Bush

In recent history, two concepts of justice have stood out. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., believed in a kind of justice that could only be achieved when systematic oppression had been eliminated from the world. Along the way, people would have to be held accountable for their crimes. Those who had done wrong would have to admit that they had done wrong and pay some appropriate restitution for their crimes, as happened decades later in South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commissions. But justice was forever intertwined with a changing of the human spirit for Dr. King. It was the societal uplifting of love over hate, of human dignity over human debasement. It was a coming to terms with our violent history and affirming values of love and compassion over those of hate and retribution.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, believed in the justice of old Western movies and gunfights.

When he inherits the Bush legacy on January 21st, 2009, Barack Obama will have to choose between these two approaches. The decision he makes will reverberate around the world and be one of the first indicators of whether "Change We Can Believe In" was merely good sloganeering.

Ending Bush’s imperial misadventures in Iraq will certainly be a top priority for the incoming administration, but Obama will also be tested in Afghanistan. His words so far — calling Afghanistan the "central front" in the "War on Terror" and demanding more military action against insurgents allied with the Taliban — don’t inspire confidence that he would chose the King doctrine over the Bush doctrine.

Reckless Interventions

In 1996, the Taliban, a faction of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen with fundamentalist Wahabi Muslim beliefs, took control of Kabul and most of Afghanistan. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, supported the Mujahideen (who from the very beginning had fundamentalist tendencies) as part of the "Afghan trap" which succeeded in fatally wounding the Soviet empire. While many Afghans greeted the Taliban’s rise to power with delight, their theocratic government soon began to grate on the people of Afghanistan, for whom fundamentalist Islam was almost as foreign as Mormonism.

After the events of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration portrayed the Taliban as deeply connected with al-Qaeda, the terrorist network that claimed responsibility for the attacks, and therefore argued for going to war against Afghanistan. When the Taliban countered that they were happy to give up Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, if the U.S. could produce any evidence for the allegation, the U.S. scoffed. Then the U.S. invaded.

The invasion succeeded in two things: First, it brought down a terrible fundamentalist regime while taking an inordinately heavy toll in civilian causalities. The Taliban had instituted a brutal form of shariah law and forced minorities to wear identification tags. They had even destroyed ancient Buddhist carvings claiming that the depiction of the human form is "unislamic." Many Afghans — particularly the half of the population who happen to be women — were excited to see the Taliban ousted. While this is an accomplishment, it’s worth remembering that expectations for improvement in women’s lives were largely unmet.

The second and even more dangerous accomplishment of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was to elevate the Taliban, al-Qaeda and anyone willing to resist U.S. aggression to the status of heroes or freedom fighters.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand what most Afghans and many South Asians, Muslims, and others around the world felt after the invasion is to remember how Americans felt after the September 11 attacks. George W. Bush was a deeply unpopular president. The election that brought him to power had split the population, with shady dealings in Florida and an activist Supreme Court ultimately deciding the race in favor of Bush. Many of my liberal compatriots despised the president, who was already acquiring a reputation for spending his presidency on vacation.

But after the 9/11 attacks, those same liberals were rallying around Bush. The logic was simple: in a time of crisis, with your country under attack, you support those who are going to defend you. You may not like George W. Bush, but his policies his armed forces stand between you and whoever caused significant damage to New York and Washington, DC.

By the same logic, who stood between Afghan civilians and the NATO aerial bombardments that killed about 3,000 people? The Taliban. Every bomb that detonated on a wedding party led to tens, perhaps hundreds of young people — mostly young boys and many of them orphans — joining the resistance movement under the flag of the Taliban.

And it’s not just that the Afghan population believes that the Taliban resistance is legitimate; that resistance is legitimate under international law. No less important a document than the United Nations charter gives the Taliban and other Afghans the right to legitimate self-defense against U.S. aggression.

The Real War against Fundamentalism

So if aerial bombardments and occupations give legitimacy to those very fundamentalists who Afghans would remove from power, what does the real war on fundamentalism look like?

In 1999 I was the first staff person of the International Network for the Rights of Female Victims of Violence in Pakistan, a group that was combating "honor crimes" along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. These were incidences of domestic violence, often against a wife, a sister, a daughter or even a mother who was accused of having some kind of illicit sexual relationship. We understood that these crimes were on the rise because of the spread of Taliban-style Wahabi Islam into tribal areas that already had an extremely patriarchal view of women’s bodies.

What was our weapon of choice in fighting against the Talibanization of what has traditionally been a tolerant, ecumenical form of Islam? Education. We taught women their rights under Pakistani and Afghani law, we taught about the passages in the Quran that mentioned women’s rights, and we also tried to educate people about other traditions — whether they be secular humanist traditions or the Hindu and Christian traditions of neighboring countries and tribes. In other words we tried to undermine the hatred, the xenophobia, the fear upon which fundamentalism is built.

Such efforts may take generations, and they almost always require the state to play a role in education, development and ensuring employment for all. But ultimately education is the only way to combat religious fundamentalism, just as negotiation is ultimately the only way to end war.

Buying into a Failed Solution

While Obama’s election may indicate a shift in U.S. foreign policy (and hopefully a rejection of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war), Obama has prescribed more military operations in Afghanistan.

For more than a year, Obama has argued for redeploying U.S. troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. He has called Afghanistan the "central front in the War on Terror" and has even threatened to bomb Pakistan should there be evidence that Afghan warlords are hiding there and the Pakistani government isn’t "doing enough" about it. (On this last point, Bush has already bombed Pakistan several times over the last few months, prompting the Pakistani government to publicly rebuke the U.S. for violating its sovereignty.)

While Obama’s rhetoric in arguing for increased involvement in Afghanistan makes some sense — he claims that Bush has been so involved with Iraq that the al-Qaeda leaders who allegedly orchestrated the September 11 attacks are still at large — his proposed methodology doesn’t.

Instead of scaling up an already disastrous war, the United States could change course in a way that would ultimately do a lot more to ensure the world’s safety. Such measures should include:

  1. Withdrawing troops. International law is clear on this subject. No country may occupy another indefinitely and certainly not without the will of the people being occupied. If an Obama administration truly thinks that withdrawing U.S. and NATO troops would be a bad thing for Afghans, hold a referendum to see who would like the troops to remain.
  2. Working with the various Afghan factions to begin negotiations. Wars are rarely stopped on the battlefield, and those that are have a tendency to break out again after a few years. The recent history of Afghanistan illustrates this point. It’s better by far for enemies and friends, Pashtun, Tajik, and others to settle differences through negotiation based on mutual respect and the rule of law.
  3. Once stability and security are guaranteed in Afghanistan, beginning the attack on fundamentalism in earnest. Working to incorporate Afghanistan into the international human rights framework through enforcing UN measures which Afghanistan has already ratified, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is one step that can be taken in this regard. Another is major investment in social infrastructure and particularly health and education measures which will ultimately help Afghanistan recover from being bombed "into the stone age."

If the idea of immediately stopping all military operations in Afghanistan sounds radical, it shouldn’t. No less than President Hamid Karzai pleaded for an end to the bombings immediately after the U.S. election, as yet another wedding party fell victim to bombs from the sky.

For the sake of all us, Afghan and American, let’s hope President Barack Obama heeds his call.

Seven pointless years in Afghanistan

Go to Original
By Robert Skidelsky

A negotiated settlement with the Taliban would precipitate the end of an unwinnable conflict

Seven years after the beginning of the American-led bombardment of Afghanistan the Taliban are still fighting. Some 50 insurgents died recently in an assault on Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. Osama bin Laden is nowhere to be found. Has the time come for NATO to declare victory and leave?

Recently, a French diplomatic cable relating a conversation on September 2 between the French ambassador to Afghanistan, Francois Fitou, and his British colleague, Sherard Cowper-Coles, was leaked in Le Canard Enchainé, a French satirical magazine. Cowper-Coles was reported to have said that the security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating, that NATO's presence was making it worse, and that the two American presidential hopefuls should be dissuaded from getting bogged down further. The only realistic policy would be to cultivate an "acceptable dictator." Of course, the British foreign office denied that these thoughts reflected the British government's views.

The departing commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, has claimed that defeating the Taliban was "neither feasible nor supportable." Two days after making that gloomy assessment, the French chief of the defence staff, General Jean-Louis Georgelin, followed suit. And Kai Eide, the UN Secretary-General's special representative in Afghanistan, has agreed that the situation cannot be stabilised by military means alone. All call for a concerted political effort implying some form of negotiation with the Taliban.

A draft report by US intelligence agencies has also concluded that Afghanistan is in a "downward spiral" and casts serious doubt on the Afghan government's ability to stem the Taliban's resurgence. Moreover, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted a Ramadan breakfast for the Afghan government and Taliban representatives. Predictably, both parties deny that any serious negotiations took place, while the US and Britain claimed to know nothing about this "Saudi initiative." But Afghan defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak subsequently said that resolution of the conflict required a "political settlement" with the Taliban.

Yet at the recent NATO summit in Budapest, US defence secretary Robert Gates called on NATO members to provide more troops for missions in Afghanistan. He accused the British of being "defeatist" and argued that Afghanistan's deteriorating security situation could be addressed with an Iraq-style "surge," which has undoubtedly brought down violence levels in that country. The Americans have already committed 8,000 extra troops for next year.

So there seems to be a split. The British and French are busy briefing, and preparing to scale down their commitments in Afghanistan. They believe that boosting allied forces will only increase the sense of occupation and give the Taliban more targets. The emergence of a "realistic dictator" might allow NATO to withdraw most of its troops within a few years.

But the Americans want a "surge," and the US general commanding NATO forces in the country said last month that he needed three more brigades, some 15,000 troops in all, and Gates has asked the Europeans either to send or pay for them. The Americans recognise the importance of courting those Taliban leaders they believe to be motivated by tribal loyalties rather than religious ideology, but they oppose the latest Afghan policy of negotiating directly and officially with the Taliban.

Barack Obama advocates increasing troop levels in Afghanistan above the levels that the Bush administration has already pledged. Obama has that said he would send troops from Iraq as an urgent priority and made it a campaign issue to criticise the Bush administration for neglecting Afghanistan and diverting resources needed there to the misguided war in Iraq.

What candidates promise on the stump is not always what they do in office. In the second presidential debate, Obama said, "We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaeda." Are his patriotic credentials strong enough for him to renege on this pledge and pursue negotiations to withdraw without capturing the talismanic Osama? What would a US withdrawal mean for Afghanistan, for Pakistan, and for the future of NATO? To retreat from its first major "out of area" mission would be a damaging blow for the alliance.

And what about the British? Have they suddenly remembered the unsustainable cost of fighting asymmetric conflicts? Afghanistan has never been a place any foreign army could stay for long. The British were burned there twice (1840-01, 1878-80). So were the Russians.

Rudyard Kipling got his arithmetic right in 1886:

'No proposition Euclid wrote,
No formulae the text-books know,
Will turn the bullet from your coat,
Or ward the tulwar's downward blow
Strike hard who cares – shoot straight who can –
The odds are on the cheaper man'

Raped in the Military? You'll Have to Pay for Your Own Forensic Exam Kit

Go to Original
By Penny Coleman

Sarah Palin’s decision not to pay for rape kits when she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, was an issue in the campaign for the White House. But allow me to introduce the large pink elephant that has been sitting quietly in the corner of the room: TRICARE, the Pentagon’s Military Health System that covers active duty members, doesn’t pay for rape kits, either.

Spec. Patricia McCann, who served in Iraq with the Illinois Army National Guard from 2003 to 2004, raised the issue at the Winter Soldier Investigation in March. McCann read a memo issued to all MEDCOM commanders clarifying that "SAD kits" -- which are forensic rape kits -- "are not included in TRICARE coverage." *

That would put Alaska and the military in a very special category.

Women in the military are twice as likely to be raped as their civilian counterparts. In fact, "women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq," Congresswoman Jane Harman, D-Calif., told the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs in May.

Harman said, "The scope of the problem was brought into acute focus for me during a visit to the West Los Angeles VA Health Center where I met female veterans and their doctors. My jaw dropped when the doctors told me that 41 percent of the female veterans seen there say they were victims of sexual assault while serving in the military, and 29 percent said they were raped during their military service."

In July, a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing subpoenaed Kaye Whitley, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), to explain what the department is doing to stop the escalating sexual violence in the military. Her boss, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, ordered her not to appear.

Whitley was finally made available to the committee on Sept. 10, but only after having been threatened with a contempt citation.

Whitley first informed the committee that the DoD was conducting a "crusade against sexual assault."

She then sought to reassure the committee with an accounting of all the heroic measures the Pentagon is planning to implement in the very near future.

But finally, she had to admit that in 2007 there were 2,688 sexual assaults in the military, including 1,259 reports of rape. Just 8 percent (181) of those cases were referred to courts martial, compared to a civilian prosecution rate of 40 percent. And almost half of those cases were dismissed without investigation. (And I say Whitley "had to admit" the number of cases because in 2004, Congress woke up to the fact that the DoD was blowing off the issue and required the military to make yearly reports on all matters relating to sexual assault in the Armed Forces. But those reports did not indicate either prioritizing or progress -- hence the hearings.)

Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., asked the committee if anyone thought that "ordering its employees to ignore subpoenas to discuss the topic" sounded as if DoD was taking any of this seriously. "Let me be very clear. Preventing and responding to sexual assault perpetrated against our soldiers is simply much too important to be playing a game of cat and mouse." He later told Stars and Stripes that there are only seven people on Whitley’s staff to devise and implement the military’s sexual assault program for the entire military. That number speaks for itself.

This is not news. As far back as 1995, Reuters reported that "Ninety percent of women under 50 who have served in the U.S. military and who responded to a survey report being victims of sexual harassment, and nearly one-third of the respondents of all ages say they have been raped."

Furthermore, the Pentagon acknowledges that 80 percent of military rapes are not reported in the first place, suggesting that the actual number, if it were known, would be astronomical.

Cat-and-mouse games may sound like kid stuff, but refusing to pay for a rape kit is anything but. It implies that the victim is to blame. It does not encourage victims to come forward. And it makes it far more likely that soldiers will interpret the permissive climate as institutionally sanctioned misogyny.

In her Winter Soldier testimony, McCann noted, "The assistant secretary of defense is soliciting legislative changes to TRICARE benefits which will include these kits within covered TRICARE supplies."

I have been in touch with the office of the assistant secretary, S. Ward Casscells, M.D. It seems that he has indeed solicited such legislation, and it is due to go into effect in December as an amendment to the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2007. The amendment contains some "background" that is worth sharing.

Currently, forensic examinations are not covered for beneficiaries in civilian health care facilities through TRICARE medical plans because TRICARE "may cost share only medically or psychologically necessary services or supplies. Forensic examinations are not conducted for medical treatment purposes, but for the preservation of evidence in any future criminal investigation and/or prosecution."

The decision to treat rape kits as purely evidentiary, ignoring the very real medical and psychological benefits to the victim, is reprehensibly primitive thinking. Making sure that those legislative changes happen as planned would be a long overdue step out of the primal ooze that has slimed our military in the eyes of our citizens and the world.

Speaking to Palin’s decision not to pay for rape kits, the former governor of Alaska, Tony Knowles, was quoted in Palin’s hometown paper, the Frontiersman, as saying, "We would never bill the victim of a burglary for fingerprinting and photographing the crime scene, or for the cost of gathering other evidence. Nor should we bill rape victims just because the crime scene happens to be their bodies."

When Barack Obama decides who he will appoint to head the Department of Veterans Affairs in his administration, he should consider appointing someone who also understands how important it is that women’s bodies, souls, dignity and health be taken seriously. Tammy Duckworth, who is reported to be at the top of his list, certainly has had personal experience with a health care delivery system she has called "a little bit arcane."

Duckworth is now director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, but in 2004, she was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in Iraq and lost both of her legs in a crash. She describes the care she received at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as "excellent," but adds, "the comfort package I received contained men’s Jockey shorts, and the local VA hospital carried Viagra but not my birth control."

There are currently about 1.7 million female veterans in the United States, and the Department of Defense estimates that there are about 200,000 women, 15 percent of the military, on active duty. Thirty-nine percent of those women return from Iraq or Afghanistan with mental health issues, and, for more than a third who seek VA health care, the precipitating trauma was a sexual assault.

Every VA center now screens both men and women for sexual trauma. That is an improvement. Still, Duckworth says, "I don’t think the VA mental health care system is ready for (female veterans)." It would be encouraging to see a VA director who has some understanding of how important that is to fix.

*The overwhelming indictment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the heartbreaking devastation they have wrought on the souls of young American soldiers -- are now the subject of an invaluable book edited by Aaron Glantz and issued by Haymarket Books.