Friday, February 29, 2008

Turkey wraps

Turkey heeded demands from U.S. officials today and withdrew its forces from northern Iraq, where its troops had mounted an offensive against Kurdish rebels. Turkey said its forces had killed 240 rebels in eight days of fighting. The offensive apparently had U.S. backing when it began, since Turkey was given access to U.S. satellite intelligence, but that support appeared to fade after a few days when the Iraqi government complained about the encroachment on its sovereignty. President Bush called for a quick end to the campaign yesterday and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates left for Ankara on Wednesday. U.S. officials feared a long incursion would eventually involve the largely autonomous oil-rich Kurdish region in Iraq. "It must be recognized that military power alone will not resolve this conflict," Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barhan Salih, a Kurd, told the Reuters international news agency. "The time has come to engage all political and diplomatic initiatives to pursue a resolution to the underlying causes for this conflict," he said. The U.S. State Department called Turkey's withdrawal "a good thing." Turkey blames the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for 40,000 deaths in southern Turkey since 1984, when its campaign for a Kurdish state began. Its fighters are believed to be hiding in the mountainous region along the Turkey-Iraq border. Both Turkey and the United States consider the PKK to be a terrorist organization.

Criminal thinking

So, is contempt of Congress a real crime or not? This apparently will be up to the federal courts to decide now that Attorney General Michael Mukasey has refused Congress' request to bring citations against one present and one former top White House official. Mukasey said Friday that he would not prosecute former White House counsel Harriet Miers and current Chief of Staff Josh Bolten for refusing to cooperate with Congress' investigation into the firing of nine U.S. Attorneys in 2006. "The Department has determined that the non-compliance by Mr. Bolten and Ms. Miers with the Judiciary Committee subpoenas did not constitute a crime, and therefore the Department will not bring the congressional contempt citations before a grand jury or take any other action to prosecute Mr. Bolten or Ms. Miers," Mukasey said in a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, according to the Reuters international news service. Mukasey said President Bush had directed the two aides not to respond to the subpoenas, which was legal. Pelosi said Thursday she intended to go to court to enforce subpoenas issued by the House of Representatives last year — to Miers for testimony about the firings and to Bolten for failing to provide documents requested by the Judiciary Committee. But it's not clear what is in question here — why can't the House subpoena federal employees to give evidence in an investigation? How can this issue not yet be resolved after more than 200 years of federal law? If the issue goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, what will the justices who elected Bush do?

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Could it be that House Democrats are finally going to fight the Bush administration on its rampant abuses of power? It's hard to applaud anything coming out of the government these days, even after the 2006 election returned Democratic Party majorities to both chambers of Congress. But some credit apparently is due to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who today called on the Justice Department to begin a grand jury investigation into two top White House insiders who ignored Congressional subpoenas during the controversy over the politically motivated firings of nine U.S. Attorneys in 2006. The controversy led to the resignation of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last year. Then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers declined to testify about the firings, and Chief of Staff Josh Bolten refused to turn over documents demanded by the House. The House voted 223-32 this month to hold Miers and Bolten in contempt of Congress in a vote boycotted by House Republicans. Pelosi gave Attorney General Michael Mukasey one week to respond and said the House would file a lawsuit if he did not, according to the Associated Press. Predictably, Pelosi's move was greeting with bombastic criticism from the White House, where a spokesman called it "truly contemptible." That may turn out to be a truly regrettable choice of words.

Kenya kudos

Congratulations are due all around in Kenya, now that President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga have agreed to a coalition government to end a bloody post-election crisis that threatened the very existence of one of Africa's greatest national success stories. The two rivals, who ran against each other for president in a close election in December, signed a deal today that they hope will put an end to ethnic violence that killed more than 1,000 and displaced more than 300,000 Kenyans. In fact, Kenyans danced in the streets today when the agreement was announced. Odinga will take a newly created role of prime minister in the new government and cabinet seats will be based on each party's seats in parliament, according to the Reuters international news service. Today's agreement resolves what had been a nearly intractable dispute between Kibaki's Party of National Unity and Odinga's Orange Democratic Union following the Dec. 27 election, in which Kibaki claimed re-election but Odinga claimed was stolen from him. Kibaki said he won fairly and blamed Odinga for encouraging unrest instead of going to court to challenge the result. The protests that followed the balloting turned violent after police opened fire on demonstrators, and normally orderly Kenyan society began to break down on old tribal lines. The violence and unrest damaged Kenya's reputation as a regional economic and transportation center. The parties also agreed to rewrite the country's constitution in an effort to redress long-standing political and economic grievances that apparently were behind the ethnic violence. The U.S. State Department applauded the deal Thursday, but said Kenyans who promoted violence still could face travel bans. Congratulations apparently were especially due to former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan of Ghana, who acted as mediator and kept negotiations from breaking down completely despite some perilous moments.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Planning omission

Six years, tens of billions of dollars and 2,300 dead and injured U.S. soldiers later, the U.S. backed government of Hamid Karzai controls only 30 percent of Afghanistan, top U.S. officials said yesterday. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell said it would take five years to get Afghani and Pakistani forces ready to defeat the resurgent Taliban, which controls more than 10 percent of the country, and other insurgents. Most of Afghanistan's territory and population are under the control of local tribes, not the government, McConnell said, according to the Associated Press. Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, the Defense Intelligence Agency director, told the committee at the same hearing that the Pakistani government was trying to crack down on the lawless tribal area along the Afghan border area where Taliban and al-Qaida are believed to train. "Pakistani military operations in the (region) have not fundamentally damaged al-Qaida's position," Maples said. "The tribal areas remain largely ungovernable and, as such, they will continue to provide vital sanctuary to al-Qaida, the Taliban and regional extremism." Maybe the Congress can find out who is responsible for this mess.

Turkish traffic

Turkey's military incursion into northern Iraq illustrates further just how complex and dangerous the U.S. mission was from the start and continues to be. Just when the administration was touting the successes of U.S. forces and allies in gaining control of Iraq, NATO member Turkey has launched an attack with warplanes, attack helicopters and as many as 10,000 soldiers that threatens everything. Ankara contends its incursion is temporary and aimed only at Kurdish guerrillas, who live in the mountainous region on Iraq's northern border and have launched attacks of their own against Turkey to advance their cause of setting up a Kurdish state. Southeastern Turkey is home to millions of Kurds. The United States apparently agreed to the incursion, but now appears to be having second thoughts. The U.S.-backed government of Iraq calls the attack a violation of its sovereignty and demands immediate withdrawal. The last thing anyone needs is a war between U.S.-armed Turkey and the U.S.-trained and armed fledgling Iraq state. Acting Iraqi Prime Minister Barham Saleh said Wednesday that a prolonged offensive by Turkey would lead to "dire" consequences for the region, according to the Reuters international news service. "This is a very dangerous, precarious situation," Saleh told Reuters at a conference in Baghdad. Top Turkish officials are scheduled to meet today in Baghdad. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is due to meet today with Turkish officials in Ankara on Thursday, said Turkey must limit operations in Iraq to no more than a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Unexpected sense

The head of the Arab League has called on countries exacerbating political problems in Lebanon — presumably Syria and Iran — to ease up and let politicians in Beirut figure out what to do. Secretary General Amr Moussa, an Egyptian, said in comments to be published tomorrow that the problem of foreign influence in Lebanon was so great it had the potential to threaten other countries in the region. Moussa was in Beirut this week to broker talks between Lebanon's governing coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition, which are engaged in a power struggle over control over the government, according to the Reuters international news service. Lebanon has been without a president for the past three months. Moussa, who reported no progress in the talks, called the power struggle "unprecedented," and called for "new Arab and regional efforts" to resolve the crisis. Coalition leader Saad al-Hariri is a Sunni Muslim while the opposition is primarily Shiite. The coalition is backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, while the opposition is backed by Syria and Iran, Reuters said.

Kenya deadlock

It's becoming painfully obvious that negotiators for Kenya's two largest political parties locked in an electoral dispute since December will not be able to resolve the conflict without a new election. Negotiators have reportedly been close to a deal many times to resolve the crisis, which has paralyzed the country and led to more than 1,000 deaths. But talks have broken down each time, most recently Tuesday, despite international pressure for a deal and hands-on mediation by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Opposition leader Raila Odinga, whose claims that President Mwai Kibaki stole the Dec. 27 election precipitated the crisis, agreed today to call off street protests planned to pressure Kibaki's government to reach a power-sharing agreement, according to the Reuters international news service. Violent police reaction to protests in December provoked riots in several normally peaceful Kenya cities, displaced hundreds of thousands of residents and led to a breakdown in civil order along old tribal lines. More than 40 ethnic groups make up Kenyan society. Reports from the negotiations in recent days suggested the parties were close to an agreement to create a new prime minister post for Odinga in Kenya's government. But such a deal would be a tacit acknowledgment by Kibaki that the December election was tainted, a charge he vehemently denies.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Surge in general

When is a surge not a surge? The Pentagon will be demonstrating this perhaps as early as July, and may in fact demonstrating it right now as the date for a planned drawdown of troops in Iraq approaches. Army Lt. Gen. Carter Ham said today that even after troops deployed in January 2007 for the President Bush-ordered increase in anti-insurgency forces are withdrawn, the U.S. deployment will be 8,000 soldiers more than when the surge started. Ham said the United States expects to have 140,000 troops in Iraq after the drawdown, compared with 158,000 now, according to the Reuters international news service. There were 132,000 soldiers in Iraq when the surge began, Reuters said. The increase in soldiers has been credited with a sharp reduction in violence against soldiers and civilians in Baghdad and other areas of Iraq. The strategy has been so successful, the military says, that it is planning a similar, although smaller, troop increase in Aghanistan. "There is an opportunity now to take advantage of the security that has been established by the five surge brigades and you want to sustain that and not jeopardize the gains that have been achieved," Ham said. But Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), speaker of the House of Representatives, said the surge was turning out not to be a temporary measure as initially portrayed by the White House. "As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, Americans continue to demand a new direction in Iraq and reject a continuation of the president's plan for a 10-year, trillion-dollar war in Iraq," Pelosi said Monday.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Pakistan speaks

Pakistan's two main opposition parties, which won 60 percent of the seats in last Monday's parliamentary election, appear poised to form a coalition to challenge U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf's shaky hold on power in the nuclear-armed nation. The Pakistan People's Party of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in Rawalpindi in December, won 87 seats in the 268-member National Assembly and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N won 67, giving the opposition a firm grip on power if they can reach an agreement. Sharif was the prime minister in 1999 when Musharraf, then commander of Pakistan's army, seized power in a coup. Musharraf's party, Pakistan Muslim League-Q, won only 40 seats. After the balloting, Sharif called on Musharraf, who left the army in January after imposing a state of emergency and removing justices from the supreme court, to step down. Musharraf has said he is not ready to resign. President Bush called on all sides to work together in the fight against terrorism. The United States has given Pakistan $10 billion in the past 10 years to help its military fight extremists. The election results will not be official until March 1.

Indecent investigation

At least they're making a show of it, anyway. News that Justice Department ethics investigators have been looking into how and why officials approved interrogation techniques regarded by other western nations as torture came as a surprise to Congress when it was revealed Friday. The disclosure by H. Marshall Jarrett, head of the department's Office of Professional Responsibility, came in a reply to a letter from two U.S. senators requesting such an investigation, the New York Times reported Saturday. It was the first public acknowledgment of an internal probe into a series of legal opinions from department lawyers starting in 2002 authorizing the harsh interrogation methods. Jarrett said the investigation began more than three years ago, but he did not estimate when it would be concluded. One thing we can be sure of is that the results of the probe, particularly if it reveals a chain of approvals that reaches the Oval Office, will not be released until after or just before President Bush leaves office in January.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Tap dancing fiends

Two days after top intelligence officials told Congress that U.S. spy agencies had been forced to miss intelligence since House Democrats allowed the government's expanded phone wiretapping authority to expire last week, the Bush administration said today that the program would resume under current law. The Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a joint statement Saturday saying telecommunications companies had agreed to continue to cooperate with the wiretapping program despite not getting the proposed immunity. "Although our private partners are cooperating for the time being, they have expressed understandable misgivings about doing so in light of the ongoing uncertainty and have indicated they may well discontinue cooperation if the uncertainty persists," the statement said, according to the Reuters international news agency. Well, isn't that good of them. Well, perhaps not. If people can be compelled to testify and turn over documents in court, certainly corporations can be required to do so. So, what's the point? Looks like there actually was none and the administration was merely playing the national security card one more time to intimidate Congress into yet another false step. That must be why President Bush has refused to compromise with Congress or agree to a temporarily renewal of the wiretapping authority.

Kenya agreement

Kenya's battling political parties have apparently reached an agreement on the creation of a new post of prime minister to give more power to the opposition and help resolve the two-month political crisis that has paralyzed the country. A government negotiator told the Reuters international news agency today that a draft bill is being circulated and that a deal to resolve remaining issues should be reached by Wednesday. The news gives a welcome boost to the political process in the usually peaceful East African nation, which has seen its economy and reputation damaged by unrest since a disputed presidential election in December. But a power-sharing deal would be an acknowledgement by the government that its count of the votes in December was suspect, as opposition leader Raila Odinga has argued. President Mwai Kibaki, who claimed re-election after the December balloting, has consistently denied wrongdoing. But any agreement will also include an investigation of what has gone wrong in Kenya since the election, when demonstrators were attacked by police, riots began across the country and society began to break down along old tribal lines. The unrest resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, displaced more than 300,000 people and severely damaged one of Africa's stablest economies. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan of Ghana, who is mediating the crisis, told negotiators to return on Monday to wrap up an agreement. "We must give the Kenyan people what they are hoping and praying for," Annan told Reuters. "They have suffered greatly."

Friday, February 22, 2008

Nuclear Iran

So, are they or aren't they? When it comes to Iran's nuclear ambitions, it seems, no one but the Iranians know for sure. And they're not saying much, at least not publicly, beyond what appears to be exaggerated rhetoric. The International Atomic Energy Agency's secret report on Tehran's nuclear program says Iran has continued to enrich uranium despite U.N. sanctions, but has begun to answer questions about its past activities. The United States and its allies contend Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons but Iran vehemently denies this and contends it wants to generate electric power. But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said today that Iran's enrichment activities support a third round of sanctions, which include the tightening of travel restrictions on Iran's leaders and the freezing of additional assets. Britain and France introduced a new sanctions resolution in the Security Council yesterday with support from the United States, Russia, China and Germany, according to the Associated Press. Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazee, said the report "clearly" demonstrated the "exclusively peaceful nature" of Iran's nuclear program. But the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalizad, said Iran is increasing its nuclear capabilities and that "things are getting worse in terms of the enrichment part." A declassified U.S. intelligence report concluded last month that Iran stopped its weapons program in 2003, but several other countries, including Israel, warned that Iran's continuing nuclear research made weapons-building more likely. The IAEA board meets March 3.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

What the heck?

There's really only one logical reaction to President Bush's statement today that he won't compromise on his proposal to include legal immunity for phone companies in a bill to renew his warrantless wiretapping program: Huh? Doesn't he understand that he is out of options? The law that expanded the government's authority to do the warrantless wiretapping has already expired and the House of Representatives has already refused to reauthorize it with the retroactive immunity provision, even though the Senate approved it. He's out of options. Legislating is the art of compromise — if he wants a bill, he's going to have to bend. Bush wants Congress to protect phone companies from lawsuits from innocent people whose rights were violated under the law that expired last weekend. If the Democratic-controlled House doesn't crack under Bush's rhetorical assault, he's going to have to give it something it wants, too. That's governing in a democracy. But Bush contends the phone companies will be reluctant to cooperate with the wiretapping program without immunity, as if that's a bad thing. Aren't they U.S. companies? Can't they be compelled to cooperate? And why shouldn't they be liable if they're guilty of abuses? There are 40 lawsuits pending, but they're only lawsuits. The only way to find out whether the companies or the government is abusing the privilege is to let them go to trial.

Serbia strikes back

Tonight's mob attack on the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade is a further indication that international acceptance of Kosovo's independence is not a foregone conclusion but could be a very long and painful process. The sacking and burning of the embassy came after a fiery rally by as many as 150,0000 in Serbia's capital, apparently encouraged by the government, according to the Reuters and Associated Press news services. One person, presumably a rioter, was reported killed. The riot in Belgrade came on the fourth day since Kosovo's parliament declared its independence and followed attacks by mobs on NATO checkpoints on Kosovo's border. The NATO forces have been stationed in Kosovo since attacks on ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the population, in 1999. The United States and several members of the European Union immediately recognized the new country, promptly an angry reaction from Serbia, which accused the Western nations of undermining its territorial integrity. Serbia considers Kosovo the heart of its historic civilization. Russia and Spain, which are battling long-term insurgencies, also opposed recognition. Kosovo was a self-governing part Serbia, which is what remains of the former Yugoslavia. Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia broke away from Yugoslavia in a bloody war in the 1990s.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Castro theater

With Tuesday's announcement of Fidel Castro's retirement as president of Cuba and commander-in-chief of its armed forces, one of the great political stories of the 20th century comes to an anti-climactic end. Castro, the communist dictator of a tiny island nation just off the coast of Florida, proved to be an almost constant irritant to a long list of U.S. presidents, starting with John F. Kennedy. Castro was even mentioned as a possible suspect in the assassination of Kennedy in 1963, since Kennedy had apparently authorized a covert attack on Cuba that ended in defeat in 1961 and in light of heightened tensions during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The Soviets were Castro's biggest backers, and the United States has had no diplomatic or eonomic relationship with Cuba since Castro seized power in 1959. Castro's brother, Raul, who took over a caretaker government in 2006, is the new head of state. President Bush said Tuesday that he hoped Cuba under Raul Castro would embrace free elections and other democratic reforms, according to the Reuters international news service.

Kenya protests threatened

Opposition leaders in Kenya threatened a return to street protests today if ongoing high-level talks fail to resolve the two-month political standoff that has seriously damaged the ecoonomy and reputation of the East African nation. The Orange Democratic Movement of presidential election runner-up Raila Odinga said in a statement today that the government was "procrastinating" and not behaving like a "serious partner" in negotiations being mediated by Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary General, to resolve the crisis. "The ODM proposes that parliament be summoned within the next week to enact the necessary changes in the constitution to implement these mediation proposals. If that does not happen, ODM will resume peaceful mass action," the ODM statement said, according to the Reuters international news service. Protests in Nairobi following the razor-thin Dec. 27 election, in which President Mwai Kibaki claimed re-election but which Odinga claimed was stolen, turned violent under police pressure and quickly spread around the country. Tribal violence followed as society began unraveling. But Kibaki, Odinga and other leaders have been meeting for two weeks with Annan to try to resolve the crisis and save Kenya, long considered one of Africa's greatest success stories. Kibaki has consistently denied that anything untoward happened in the election, even though many of the ballots were reportedly destroyed and a recound is impossible. Negotiations on a reported power-sharing proposal have so far failed to produce an agreement.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Recognition politics

Serbia withdrew its ambassador from Washington today after the United States joined more than a dozen European nations in recognizing the new country of Kosovo, which declared its independence from Belgrade yesterday. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said envoys also would be withdrawn from other countries that recognized the new country, which Belgrade says is illegal. Serbian President Boris Tadic asked the U.N. Security Council yesterday to stop Kosovo's independence on the principle of protecting the sovereignty and borders of its members, according to the Reuters international news service. "The United States has today formally recognized Kosovo as a sovereign and independent state. We congratulate the people of Kosovo on this historic occasion," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today. "In light of the conflicts of the 1990s, independence is the only viable option to promote stability in the region." Kosovo has been essentially self-governing since 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia to force it to withdraw from the province over its treatment of ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population. Thousands of NATO soldiers were dispatched to protect the province, and remain to this day. But Serbia vowed never to accept the independence of Kosovo, which it considers the heart of its historic civilization. With the loss of Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro are all that remain from the former Yugoslavia, which fought a brutal war against its former provinces as it broke up in the early 1990s into the countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Macedonia and Serbia. Russia and China oppose Kosovo's independence, as do Spain and other nations with separatist movements within their borders.

That day in Dallas

Everybody who was alive on Nov. 23, 1963, still remembers what they were doing when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. So, the announcement expected today that the Dallas County District Attorney's Office has found some long-lost Kennedy-related items in an old safe in the county courthouse is sure to bring a tidal wave of old memories. Dallas DA Craig Watkins is expected to make the announcement at a press conference today, the Dallas Morning News reported Sunday. The Kennedy assassination was a watershed moment in U.S. history; it was for many the day the United States lost its innocence. Most Americans believed for years that the killing was the result of a conspiracy; many still do because Oswald was shot and killed two days later. A presidential commission chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren conducted an extensive investigation and determined Oswald acted alone; a Congressional investigation some 20 years later concluded it likely there was a conspiracy. The items in the safe reportedly do not allay suspicions; they include a transcript of a purported conversation one month before the assassination about plans to kill Kennedy between Oswald and his killer, Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Other items in the safe are clothing, possibly belonging to Oswald and Ruby, letters to and from former Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, who prosecuted Ruby, transcripts of the Ruby trial and letters to Ruby. The transcript is believed to be part of a movie script, Countdown in Dallas, that Wade worked on, the newspaper reported. The FBI investigated the transcript as part of the Congressional investigation. Kennedy was fatally shot as he rode through the streets of Dallas in an open motorcade; then-Texas governor John Connally was shot and seriously wounded but survived. Connally became a member of the Republican Party and served as Secretary of the Treasury under President Richard Nixon in 1971 and 1972.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Meating up

Just because one meatpacker has been forced to recall 143 million pounds of beef and pork in the wake of a cattle slaughter video posted on the Internet by the Humane Society of the United States doesn't mean we humans are entitled to a pass on the moral issues involved in the raising and killing of animals for food. While it's true that the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. of Chino, Calif., was the only slaughterhouse videotaped abusing cattle, practices employed at the plant likely are more typical than the industry admits. The fact that the recall included meat products back to 2006 demonstrates that the animal abuse was long-term, as Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement yesterday. Government officials are especially concerned because federal agencies purchased 37 million pounds of the beef for school lunch and other programs. The video also showed the plant using machines to force cows to slaughter that were took sick to move, even though such animals are not supposed to be included in the food supply because of the risk of "mad cow" disease. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture said the risk of disease was slight and most of the meat had probably already been consumed. Many officials have called for increased government monitoring of the meat industry. But the abuse of food animals is a pervasive problem that goes beyond one industry, and one kind of animal. Cattle consume many times the amount of protein they produce, yet rain forests are being cleared to create more rangeland. If human beings are indeed smarter than animals, we should act like it.

Torture update

Just when it looked like things couldn't get much worse for the reputation of the United States, a senior Justice Department official told a House subcommittee last week that the Bush administration actually did authorize the CIA to use invasive interrogation techniques on suspected al-Qaida members. The Washington Post reported today that Steven Bradbury, acting chief of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, told the committee on Thursday that the reason what sounds like torture and looks like torture wasn't torture was that it didn't violate administration guidelines. Well, at least we now know how President Bush keeps a straight face when he protests that the United States does not torture prisoners. Bradbury didn't smile, either, when he testified that pain suffered by a prisoner had to be both severe and long-lasting for an interrogation tactic to be considered torture. "Something can be quite distressing, uncomfortable, even frightening," Bradbury told the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. "If it doesn't involve severe physical pain, and it doesn't last very long, it may not constitute severe physical suffering. That would be the analysis." The blunt testimony outraged many legal scholars and civil liberties groups, the Post said, including Martin Lederman, a former Office of Legal Counsel official who teaches law at Georgetown University. Lederman called Bradbury's testimony "chilling." Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch said the Bush administration's conduct puts Americans at risk of mistreatment by other countries. Bradbury's testimony followed the recent admission by CIA Director Michael Hayden that the CIA used waterboarding when it interrogated Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Bradbury is only the acting chief of the Office of Legal Counsel, and not the permanent chief, because the Senate has refused to confirm him for the past two years because of memoranda he wrote in 2005 justifying waterboarding, head-slapping and other invasive interrogation techniques.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Pakistan stability

Today's apparent suicide bombing that killed at least 37 people outside an opposition candidate's office today in northwest Pakistan demonstrates the risks of the inconsistent policies of embattled President Pervez Musharraf. Pakistani voters go to the polls Monday in a parliamentary election already marred by last month's assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, an opposition leader who just recently returned from exile. Musharraf, the ostensibly pro-Western former military commander who has taken more than $10 billion from the United States in the past 10 years to fight al-Qaida-linked terrorists in northwest Pakistan, recently reached an agreement with at least one prominent insurgent group in the largely ungoverned region. The U.S. government believes al-Qaida's leadership, including Osama bin Laden, are hiding in the region and have pushed since the Sept. 11 attacks, with obviously limited success, for Musharraf to capture them. Voters are expected to elect a parliament hostile to Musharraf, who left the army last year. The vote was originally scheduled for Jan. 9 but was postponed after Bhutto's assassination. Opposition parties, which include Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, have complained about expected vote rigging by Musharraf's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q. Musharraf said today that Monday's vote would be fair and peaceful, according to the Reuters international news service.

Balkan ballet

Serbia has nothing but its own arrogance and stupidity to blame for Kosovo's drive for independence, which is expected to come to fruition tomorrow. Kosovo's parliament is expected to declare independence from Serbia, despite frantic diplomatic maneuvering and threats of sanctions from Belgrade. The European Union today approved a 2,000-member force to replace U.N. peacekeepers who have been separating the breakaway province from Serbia since NATO forced Belgrade to withdraw its troops with a 78-day bombing campaign in 1999. Serbia, which includes Montenegro, is all that remains of the former Yugoslavia, which saw its provinces of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzogovina and Macedonia secede in the brutal war of 1991-1999. Kosovo, with a population that is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, was a largely self-governing province of Yugoslavia until 1989, when former Yugoslav president Slobodon Milosevic, subsequently indicted for war crimes, began exerting more control. In 1998, Yugoslavia sent soldiers to Kosovo to put down an insurgency by the Kosovo Liberation Army, leading to the 1999 NATO intervention. The United States and most of the European Union are expected to recognize Kosovo's independence in the next few days, despite protests from Serbia and Russia, which have denounced Kosovo's expected declaration as illegal and the West's acceptance of it as a bad precedent. Serbia considers Kosovo to be the cradle of Serbian civilization and a historical part of its territory.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Kenya side trip

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who left for Africa today on a 6-day trip with President Bush, plans to leave the president on Monday to travel to Kenya to help mediator Kofi Annan resolve the post-election crisis that has torn apart the East African country. In a speech yesterday at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art, Bush said he was sending Rice to Kenya to tell leaders to find a way to stop the violence and resolve the election dispute, according to the Los Angeles Times. Rice plans to meet with Annan, the former U.N. leader, and with President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga. Odinga claims Kibaki stole the presidential election on Dec. 27, setting off weeks of protests and violence along tribal lines that has undermined the foundation of the 46-year-old democracy. More than 1,000 people have been killed and 300,000 forced from their homes. Kenya had been one of Africa's most stable countries since winning independence from Britain in 1963. Bush's Africa trip, his second since becoming president in 2001, will take him to Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia. His speech yesterday at the Smithsonian highlighted the success of his $18 million emergency program for AIDS relief. Bush said that when he visited Africa five years ago, 50,000 people were receiving medicine to treat HIV/AIDS, but now, more than 1.3 million people are being treated. "Some call this a remarkable success, I call it a good start," he said.

Secrecy bailout

Why is the White House afraid to let our courts determine if telephone companies are liable for damages for revealing the private phone records of innocent U.S. citizens? The Bush administration's insistence on retroactive immunity for phone companies that have cooperated with the government's warrantless surveillance program smacks of pandering to business at the expense of citizens' privacy rights. The issue was the controversy du jour in Washington today as the House of Representatives refused to reauthorize the Protect America Act, which permitted wiretaps without permission from a secret national security court set up in 1978 specifically for that purpose. Democratic Party leaders in the House said they had not actually refused to reauthorize the law but needed more time to get a bill together. The House adjourned for a 12-day recess and Bush left for a 5-nation trip to Africa. The Senate passed a reauthorization bill on Tuesday. But the White House played the national security card today, with Bush accusing the Democrats of making it "harder for us to protect you, the American people." Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, said in a Washington Post article Friday that the government was finding it more difficult to get cooperation from phone companies without the immunity in place. But Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, a leading Democrat, called the administration's rhetoric "a scare tactic" designed to "keep Americans in the dark about the administration's massive lawbreaking," according to the Reuters international news service.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Halfway there

Negotiators for Kenya's feuding political parties failed today reach a deal on power-sharing in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election that has led to a a partial breakdown of civil society in the formerly admired African nation. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is mediating the talks, had hoped to have a final agreement this week to settle the election dispute, which pits the re-elected president against his main challenger, who claims the vote was stolen. Post-election protests turned violent in the days after the Dec. 27 vote, resulting in 1,000 people killed and 300,000 driven from their homes. Negotiators from the Party of National Unity and the Orange Democratic Movement did agree to rewrite the country's constitution to grant more power to the legislature. The constitution dates back to the country's independence from Britain in 1963. The talks are expected to resume on Monday.

Bill of particulars

This is the administration that never gives up, even when it can't possibly be right. Today, the Bush administration appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to get a ruling that limits the amount of evidence the government must provide to Guantanamo Bay prisoners who challenge their detentions. The administration wants to overturn an appellate court ruling that the military could not decide what evidence to reveal to detainees when their cases were reviewed, but had to release nearly all the evidence in its possession. More than 180 Guantanamo Bay prisoners — many held for years without charges — have challenged decisions by military tribunals declaring them as "enemy combatants" under the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. The Supreme Court is already deciding whether detainees have the right to access the federal courts when they appeal. But doesn't the United States have a tradition of justice in its court system? How can it ever be right for the government to withhold potentially exculpatory evidence from a court proceeding? Then again, the Bush administration has gotten away with doing some amazing things to the Bill of Rights.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Taking sides

To no one's surprise, especially Venezuela's outspoken president, Hugo Chavez, the U.S. government said today it was backing Exxon in its multibillion-dollar dispute with Venezuela over seized assets. The dispute, in which Exxon Mobil obtained court orders freezing $12 billion in Venezuelan assets, led Chavez to threaten to cut off his country's oil imports to the United States. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday that the United States supports "the efforts of Exxon Mobil to get a just and fair compensation package for their assets according to the standards of international law," according to the Reuters international news service. Venezuela nationalized an oil production project co-owned by Exxon Mobil and British Petroleum, part of Chavez's efforts to exert more control over his country's natural resources. Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips abandoned Venezuela last year during a wave of nationalizations; BP and other European companies elected to stay in the country as minority partners. Chavez has contended that Exxon Mobil was doing the bidding of the United States in an "economic war" to force him out, but U.S. officials say they are not involved in the disagreement. "We are not involved in that dispute," McCormack said yesterday. "It is something that has to be litigated between Venezuela and Exxon Mobil and various courts around the world." In a related matter, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the United States was investigating whether a recent deal between Venezuela's state-run oil company and Iran violated the U.S. Iran Sanctions Act. The United States accuses Chavez, an avowed Marxist, of giving sanctuary to guerrillas battling the pro-U.S. government in neighboring Colombia.

Fired up

There's good news and bad news in the $168 billion economic stimulus bill signed today by President Bush. The good news is that most U.S. taxpayers and low- and fixed-income residents will get tax rebate checks of between $300 and $1200 later this year to help stimulate economic growth. The bad news is that borrowing tens of billions just might not be the best way to revive an economy already burdened with trillions of dollars in debt.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Soaking in it

Of course, it's too much to hope for with oil executives running the United States, even during the presidential election campaign, but wouldn't it be nice if escalating tensions with Venezuela, a major energy supplier, leads to a re-examination of U.S. dependence on foreign oil? The drain on the U.S. economy is enormous, with imports running near 10 million barrels a day and the per barrel price still above $90, and it's mostly unnecessary. The United States still produces around half of the oil it uses every day and could expand its production of alternative fuels and other sources of energy if massive conservation efforts fall short. But that will take a major campaign by the White House, and the current occupant does not appear to be interested. Are any of the candidates listening? The economic and political cost of oil is in the news because Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez cut oil exports to Exxon Mobil Corp. today in retaliation for the oil giant's obtaining a court order freezing $12 billion in assets owned by PDVSA, Venezuela's state oil company. Exxon Mobil sought the freeze to ensure payment for an oil project the South American country nationalized last year. Chavez had threatened to cut all oil exports to the United States, its largest customer, saying Washington was behind Exxon Mobil's move. The United States has denied the allegation. Other major oil producers have said they will make up for any interruption in Venezuelan supplies, according to the Reuters international news service.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Kofi's choice

The seemingly on-and-off negotiations between Kenya's feuding political parties could be catapulted to a settlement this week after former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan invited negotiators to a secret location outside Nairobi. The invitation came after negotiators for President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga met Monday, apparently undeterred by a brief return to confrontational rhetoric over the weekend. The Reuters international news agency reported today that sources confirm that Kibaki's Party of National Unity and Odinga's Orange Democratic Union have agreed to a power-sharing arrangement until new elections can be held. An Annan spokesman said a deal is expected within 72 hours. A deal would help resolve Kenya's biggest crisis since independence, as normally peaceful streets have been wracked with violence since the disputed Dec. 27 election. Kibaki said he was re-elected in the balloting, but Odinga said the vote was stolen from him. Protests after the election were met with force from police and rioting broke out after Kibaki was sworn in for second term and appointed a new cabinet on Dec. 30. More than 1,000 have been killed and 300,000 displaced since the election. with violent protests in the streets. The violence has damaged Kenya's image as a regional tourist and transportation hub. The Kenya stock market has fallen more than 12 percent since the crisis began. Britain's Africa Minister Mark Malloch-Brown told Reuters he was cautiously hopeful Kenya's political rivals could strike a deal this week. The diplomat also said changes would be made to Kenya's constitution on the powers of the president and the election commission.

Justice delayed

Finally, let the adjudication begin! The United States has formally charged six suspects held at Guantanamo Bay for years with murder and conspiracy charges stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks and asked for the death penalty. The six suspects include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Pakistani national who claims to have planned the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. The U.S. government wants to try the six suspects — Mohammed, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi and Walid bin Attash — together in the same proceeding. It will be the first U.S. military tribunal involving the death penalty since World War II. The tribunal system was established after the Sept. 11 attacks to try suspects the Bush administration termed enemy combatants, not subject to the U.S. court system. Many have been held at Guantanamo Bay for years without charges. Yet difficult questions remain before the proceeding can begin, including whether evidence obtained from Mohammed through the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" will be admissible. Mohammed was one of three terror suspects subjected to waterboarding, a technique that involves making suspects feel they are drowning. The technique has been repudiated as torture by the United Nations. Rules of the Guantanamo Bay tribunal bar the use of evidence gained through torture, as does an international treaty the United States has signed. But Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, a legal adviser at the Guantanamo prison camp, would not rule out the use of evidence gathered during the CIA interrogation of Mohammed. "The question of what evidence will be admitted, whether (involving) waterboarding or otherwise, will be decided in the court," Hartmann told the Reuters international news service. Civil rights groups in the United States questioned the fairness and legality of the tribunal system, Reuters said, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Back to emnity

Settlement of Kenya's political dispute that has descended into ethnic violence that threatens the country's very future appeared further away Sunday after opposition leader Raila Odinga backed away from conciliatory statements and demanded the resignation of President Mwai Kibaki. Speaking before supporters in western Kenya, Odinga told a cheering crowd that Kibaki "must step down or there must be a re-election — in this I will not be compromised," according to the Reuters international news agency. Odinga, who accuses Kibaki of stealing the Dec. 27 presidential election between the two of them, had previously agreed to negotiations with the help of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Last week's conciliatory comments led to Annan's comments Friday that a settlement was imminent. Post-election violence killed more than 1,000 Kenyans and displaced more than 300,000 as society broke down along old tribal lines. There are more than 40 ethnic groups in Kenya.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Welcome to the big leagues

Angry rhetoric is probably not going to help Venezuela prevail in the legal battle over its seizure of Exxon Mobil assets in the South American nation. But fiery talk, a hallmark of the Hugo Chavez era, was offered Friday when Venezuela's oil minister accused the U.S. oil company of "legal terrorism" for winning court orders freezing $12 billion of the country's assets. The minister, Rafael Ramirez, said Exxon Mobil "aims to subject us to a situation of judicial terrorism, of legal terrorism," according to the Reuters international news service. "We are not going to back down, we are going to beat them in this battle," Ramirez said in Caracas. Exxon Mobil sought the freeze after Venezuela expropriated assets the company refused to sell last year when the country embarked on a campaign to gain more control over its natural resources. Other companies capitulated to Venezuela's demands. With arbitration pending, Exxon won court orders in Britain, the Netherlands and the Caribbean freezing up to $12 billion in assets controlled by state-run oil company PDVSA and another order in New York freezing $315 million in funds at a U.S. bank. A U.S. court will hear arguments on the order on Wednesday in New York, and a London court will hold a hearing on Feb. 22. Ramirez said Exxon Mobil was acting on behalf of the United States in an effort to destabilize the Chavez government, which has engaged in rhetorical battles with Washington on a number of subjects. Chavez called President Bush "the devil" in a speech at the United Nations. A U.S. government spokesman in Washington said the battle was between Venezuela and Exxon Mobil and that the Bush administration was not involved. The United States is Venezuela's biggest oil customer.

Vicious harvest?

Today's bomb attack that killed at least 27 at a political rally in northwest Pakistan is yet another indication of the short-sightedness of President Pervez Musharraf's policy of accommodating al-Qaida-linked insurgents in his nuclear-armed country. The bombing, believed to have been a suicide attack, disrupted a rally of hundreds of supporters of the Awami National Party in Charsadda, about 25 miles from Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province. The Reuters international news agency said at least 27 were killed and 40 injured. The ANP is a regional party representing the Pashtuns ethnic group in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. Meanwhile, in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, the Pakistan Peoples Party of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto held a campaign rally that attracted 100,000 while police clashed with protesters demanding Musharraf's resignation. The Islamabad protest included hundreds of lawyers demanding the restoration of Pakistan's former Supreme Court. At the PPP rally, Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, emerged from the traditional 40-day Islamic mourning period to address the party faithful. "Her whole life was for you," Zardari told the crowd, Reuters said. "My whole life is for you. My children's lives are for you." While the political drama was unfolding around the country, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, met with Musharraf and Pakistan's top military leaders to discuss expanding the U.S. military role in Pakistan. Musharraf has previously refused to allow U.S. forces on Pakistani soil. Musharraf reportedly reached an agreement Wednesday with the largest insurgent group, the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, whose leader, Baitullah Mehsud, has been blamed for Bhutto's assassination by the Pakistani government.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Kenya deal seen

Could a breakthrough in Kenya's tragic political and social crisis be near? Mediator Kofi Annan of Ghana, the former U.N. Secretary General who is leading mediation efforts between the two feuding political parties, said today that a settlement could be coming by the end of next week. "I sincerely hope that we will conclude our work on ... the settlement of the political issues by early next week," Annan said Friday, according to the Reuters international news service. "We are all agreed a political settlement is necessary with a little patience and a bit of luck." The crisis erupted along ethnic lines after President Mwai Kibaki was re-elected Dec. 27 but the vote count was rejected by opposition leader Raila Odinga. International observers say there were irregularites but a recount is not possible because large numbers of ballots were destroyed. Local media has speculated that Kibaki's Party of National Unity and Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement were negotiating a power-sharing arrangement, Reuters said. The crisis, which began with street demonstrations and escalated into tribal violence that has swept across the country, threatens to destroy Kenya's reputation as a stable, democratic and economic model for Africa.

Home for the holidays

If the Bush administration wants to slash its huge proposed budget deficit for next year, it looks like the government's international travel budget can be cut back severely. Comments today by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights that waterboarding violates the U.N. Convention against Torture and that violators are subject to universal jurisdiction means that U.S. military officials can be arrested as war criminals and prosecuted by nations around the globe. If the waterboarding of three suspected al-Qaida terrorists in 2002 was authorized by the White House, does that mean no more midnight flights to Baghdad by President Bush and Condoleezza Rice? "I would have no problems with describing this practice as falling under the prohibition of torture," High Commissioner Louise Arbour told a news conference Friday in Mexico City, according to the Reuters international news agency. "There are several precedents worldwide of states exercising their universal jurisdiction ... to enforce the torture convention and we can only hope that we will see more and more of these avenues of redress," Arbour said, according to Reuters. Maybe that explains why the tapes were destroyed.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Action on Kenya

News that the United States has threatened to revoke the visas of eight Kenyans, including four politicians, adds a new wrinkle to the political and social crisis engulfing the East African nation. Until now, the United States has used its influence to pressure the parties involved in the dispute to negotiate a solution to the six-week crisis that has resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and 300,000 refugees. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is leading international mediation efforts. But letters sent Feb. 5 by the U.S. embassy in Nairobi informed four as yet unnamed politicians and four business leaders that their freedom to travel to the United States could be blocked because of suspicions about their exacerbating the tribal violence that threatens the very future of Kenya. It apparently marked the first time the United States has moved toward assessing blame for the crisis, at least publicly. "It's a very clear warning to them that their actions have put them in jeopardy of losing their visas," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Wednesday in testimony before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. "We are going to continue to evaluate these cases over the next few days here to see whether in fact they ought to have their visas revoked." Violence erupted in Kenya after its Dec. 27 presidential election in which President Mwai Kibaki was re-elected after a disputed vote count. Challenger Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement claimed the election was stolen and his followers took the streets in protest. Police fired on the protesters in Nairobi, Kenya's capital, and the violence has spread to areas around the country, particularly the formerly peaceful Rift Valley, a tourist mecca. Casey also addressed the election dispute in his testimony, and said a recount would not be possible because a large portion of the paper ballots were destroyed. In another development Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer called for an "impartial and independent investigation" into who incited the violence in Kenya in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs subcommittee, according to the Reuters international news service.

Pakistan questions

What does it mean that Taliban militants declared a cease-fire with Pakistan on Wednesday and that Islamabad said it was preparing to negotiate with al-Qaida-linked extremists along the country's border with Afghanistan? It means the United States spent billions driving the Taliban from Aghanistan and spent $10 billion propping up President Pervez Musharraf at the expense of Pakistan's democracy, and yet Benazir Bhutto was killed anyway and all Washington got was a Hamid Karzai t-shirt. Anybody still wondering why Musharraf refused to move against the militants and failed to find Osama bin Laden has their answer now — he was trying to get into bed with them. It also brings into question Musharraf's contention that Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the militant umbrella group Tehrik-e-Taliban, was responsible Bhutto's assassination. This bodes very poorly for U.S. policy in Asia and for keeping Pakistan's nuclear weapons and technology away from Islamic extremists.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Republican victory

That must have felt good. Senate Republicans succeeded, by one vote, in stopping Democrats from pushing through an economic stimulus plan that was more expensive but more geared towards lower-income Americans than President Bush's proposal. The $146 billion Bush plan would give a one-time payment of $600 to individuals plus $300 per child. By contrast, the $158 billion Democratic plan would have given $500 per person, and $300 per child, but also would have given money to retirees and disabled veterans and would have extended unemployment benefits. "There is a better way to go," said after the vote, according to the Reuters international news service. Democrats fell one vote short of the 60 votes needed to limit debate in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to schedule a re-vote, his spokesman said. Democratic senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, leading contenders for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, returned to Washington to vote in favor of the measure. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican front-runner for the nomination, did not return to the Senate for the vote.

Kenya consternation

The U.N. Security Council could be considering sending peacekeeping forces to Kenya to separate the rival political factions whose election dispute has disintegrated into tribal street fighting that has resulted in more than 1,000 deaths since December. Today, the Security Council approved its second resolution in a week demanding an end to what it called "ethnically motivated attacks" and calling on the government to dismantle armed gangs and improve the humanitarian situation, the Reuters international news service reported. More than 300,000 Kenyans have been displaced since President Mwai Kibaki was re-elected Dec. 27 in an election opposition leader Raila Odinga denounced as fixed. The 15-country council did not specifically mention what its next step would be, but the use of U.N. troops is a possibility if Kenya's political leaders cannot resolve the conflict. The council expressed support for mediation efforts headed by former Secretary General Kofi Annan, who has brought the opposing factions together for negotiations. The statement had expressed concern over "abuses in the presidential election" but that language was removed after objections from Russia, Reuters said. Also today, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a mission to Nairobi for three weeks to investigate allegations of "grave human rights violations." U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes is scheduled to arrive in Kenya on Friday for a three-day visit to assess the humanitarian situation.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Hanging on in Chad

France said Tuesday it was prepared to intervene to defend Chad's president, Idriss Deby, who is under siege by rebel forces that have advanced to the central African nation's capital. France has more than 1,000 troops stationed in its former colony. Rebels fought in the streets of N'Djamena, the capital, for the past few days before pulling back and regrouping just outside the city. The rebels, led by Mahamat Nouri, head of the UFDD faction, are trying to topple Deby, who they accuse of being corrupt and dictatorial. "Our biggest handicap is the French army, not Idriss Deby," Nouri said Tuedsay, according to the Reuters international news agency. "Without France, we are ready to chase Deby away today." French President Nicolas Sarkozy got the backing of the U.N. Security Council on Monday, and said France would "do its duty" to defend Chad's government. Chad accuses neighboring Sudan of supporting the rebel offensive, but Sudan accuses Chad of backing rebels in its troubled Darfur region. The U.S. State Department has called on the rebels to withdraw.

Torture chamber

So, what is it with Bush administration officials? They don't understand the Geneva Convention, they don't understand how legal is different from illegal, they don't understand the principle of principle? How can it be that the people who run our government don't know this stuff? We're discussing, of course, today's admission by CIA Director Michael Hayden that his agency used waterboarding while interrogating three suspected al-Qaida terrorists in 2002 and 2003. So much for President Bush's pained protests of "the United States does not torture." Hayden made the admission during testimony Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Hayden said the CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubayda and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri to get information after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the Reuters international news service. Hayden also told senators that he banned the technique in 2006, but National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell said at the same hearing that waterboarding can still be done by the CIA with the consent of the president and attorney general. Waterboarding involves strapping suspects down and pouring water over their faces to create the sensation of drowning, and is banned by the U.N. Convention Against Torture. "We used it against these three detainees because of the circumstances at the time," Hayden told the committee, Reuters said. In other words, the Bush administration thinks the United States respects its treaties and commitments except when it doesn't. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois called on the Justice Department to open a criminal inquiry into whether any laws were violated and threatened to block a key Bush appointment if it doesn't. Well, at least we know why new Attorney General Michael Mukasey has refused to tell Congress whether he thinks waterboarding is torture.

Monday, February 4, 2008

One for the whales

The U.S. Navy was notably reserved Monday following a federal judge's ruling that the military service must not use sonar in training exercises along the southern coast of California. "We are aware of the court's decision and we are studying it," Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Cindy Moore said in Washington, D.C. In her 36-page decision, U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper said the White House did not have the authority to exempt the U.S. Navy from complying with the National Environmental Policy Act in testing sonar on the southern coast of California. Judge Cooper said there was no emergency to warrant the exemption. Environmental groups, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, had challenged the sonar testing because it was harmful to whales and other marine mammals. But the judge did not consider a waiver signed by President Bush on Jan. 15 exempting the Navy from complying with the Coastal Zone Management Act because, she said, she had sufficient authority under NEPA to bar the sonar testing. In an earlier ruling, Judge Cooper said the Navy could not use sonar within 12 miles of the coastline. "It's an excellent decision," said Joel Reynolds, an attorney for the NRDC. "It reinstates the proper balance between national security and environmental protection." No word from the Navy on when it will appeal.

Deficit thinking

One day someone is going to have to explain how Republicans, particularly President Bush, have the reputation of being fiscally conservative while governing the country into massive budget deficits. Of course, we're talking about the proposed $3.1 trillion budget for 2009 that Bush introduced today, a spending plan sure to increase the nation's budget shortfall by hundreds of billions of dollars this year and next. Bush proposes boosting defense spending and cutting Medicare costs next year while cutting taxes this year in an effort to boost the economy. The White House acknowledged that the budget does not include the actual cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will probably add at least $400 billion to the deficit in the next 23 months. "We've made a determination to drive up the deficit in order to stimulate the economy," Jim Nussle, Bush's budget director, told the Chicago Tribune. "I'd much rather work with a balanced budget ... but I also would much rather make sure that our country is protected." The White House acknowledges that the accumulated national debt will rise to over $10 trillion by next year. It was $5.77 trillion at the end of Bush's first year in office.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Kenya conflict continues

Today's calls by the opposition Orange Democratic Movement for the African Union to send peacekeepers to Kenya to calm street violence that erupted after the disputed Dec. 27 election seem more political than safety-oriented. ODM officials said the Kenyan security forces could not be trusted to be fair in policing a crisis that has apparently pushed the East African nation to the brink of anarchy. But police seemed to take a more restrained approach today to the ethnic violence that has killed over 800 and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is expected to restart mediation efforts Monday. Annan's efforts resulted in an agreement last week on a negotiating framework for negotiators from the two main parties, the ODM and President Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity. Kenya erupted in violence after the election, in which Kibaki claimed re-election over the objections of ODM's Raila Odinga, who claimed he won the balloting. The violence has continued along tribal lines, as civil society disintegrates. International observers have said the ballot count was too disorganized to know who won, or to conduct a recount.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Casualties mounting

Just when it seemed the Bush administration was about to fade into historical disrepute, federal prosecutors have convinced a grand jury to subpoena a New York Times reporter who wrote a book about the CIA. In a move reminiscent of earlier administration efforts to restrict freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, writer James Risen was ordered to appear before the Alexandria, Va., grand jury on Feb. 7 to answer questions about a chapter in his 2006 book, State of War. In the chapter, Risen says the CIA unsuccessfully tried to infiltrate Iran's nuclear program. The information was never published in the New York Times. But that's not the point. Freedom of speech and of the press is, and how much is that going to be worth if the government is going to go after writers who say things it doesn't like? What's next — the blogosphere police?

Tie goes to the detainees

Yesterday's 5-5 vote by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., could leave it up to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether suspected enemy combatants held at Guantanamo Bay should be allowed to review all evidence gathered in their cases by the federal government. The vote leaves in place an earlier ruling by a three-judge panel that the military could not decide what evidence to show prisoners who challenged their detentions under the U.S. Detainee Treatment Act. The U.S. Justice Department had requested the 10-judge panel to overrule the smaller panel, and is expected to ask the Supreme Court to intervene. If allowed to stand, the ruling could force the military to release substantially more information about Guantanamo detainees than it wants to. A spokesman in Washington, D.C., said the Justice Department was "disappointed" by the decision. "We are reviewing the decision and considering all our options," Chief Counsel Erik Ablin said yesterday, according to the Reuters international news agency. Combatant Status Review Tribunals have been held for more than 500 detainees, and 38 have been removed from enemy combatant status. But more than 100 have appealed. Judge A. Raymond Randolph, who voted to grant the review requested by the military, said the ruling means the government will have to share classified information with lawyers for the detainees. But Chief Judge Douglas Ginsburg said the government can still withhold sensitive information from detainee lawyers if it is made available to the court to review in secret.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Pollution politics

Looks like the Bush administration is going to have to back down now that Iowa and Florida have asked to join a lawsuit filed by California and 16 other states to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to allow them to impose tougher vehicle emissions standards than the federal government. The states filed suit after EPA denied California's request for a Clean Air Act waiver that would have permitted the tougher standards without legal action. The case has raised suspicions in Congress that U.S. automakers had pressured the Bush administration, which then pressured EPA to deny the waiver. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, a Bush appointee, said California's emissions limits weren't needed because Congress just passed energy legislation raising fuel economy standards nationwide. But it doesn't take a legal genius to see this one — EPA has it completely backwards, and probably not by accident. It's not like the California regulations would have resulted in dirtier air, which would then have been a cause for EPA concern. The opposite is true. Documents released by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) earlier this month revealed that Johnson overruled his own staff when he denied the waiver. The documents, which were initally withheld from Congress on executive privilege grounds, also revealed that EPA staffers believe California is likely to prevail against the agency in court. California has the toughest vehicle emissions standards in the country because of pollution problems in heavily populated areas, and had been granted waivers more than 50 times. Many of the other states involved have adopted or are considering the California standard.

Table manners

Finally, some good news out of Kenya, although it's only preliminary. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said today that the two main political parties locked in a deadly dispute over Kenya's Dec. 27 presidential election have agreed to a framework for negotiations to resolve the monthlong crisis, the Reuters international news agency reported. Annan said President Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity and opposition leader Raila Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement of opposition leader Raila Odinga committed to discuss how to stop the rash of tribal killings, resolve the immediate political crisis and get humanitarian aid to 300,000 Kenyans displaced by violence within 15 days, Reuters said. Annan, who is heading mediation efforts in the east African nation, was joined today by current Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Kibaki was re-elected to a second term on Dec. 27 after a ballot count that raised the concern of international observers. Since the results were announced, Kenya has been convulsed by tribal violence in formerly calm communities. Kibaki claimed victory and appointed a new cabinet, but Odinga said the election was stolen from him. Annan said the parties also committed to finding a long-term solution to problems exposed by the violence, which apparently date back to land and wealth distribution at the time of Kenya's independence from Great Britian 44 years ago. More than 800 have died in the past month's violence; two members of parliament from the Orange Democratic Movement have been killed in the past week.