Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Can special prosecutor unravel political firings of U.S. Attorneys?

Does anyone feel reassured now that Attorney General Michael Mukasey has appointed a special prosecutor to consider criminal charges in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006? It's hard to generate much enthusiasm, given the lackluster performance of the Justice Department since Mukasey was brought in to clean up the mess left by Bush's good friend, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who resigned under fire in 2007. Results of an internal Justice Department investigation released this week blamed Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty for allowing the politically motivated firings of several of the federal prosecutors, according to the Reuters international news service. "The primary responsibility for these serious failures rests with senior department leaders -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty -- who abdicated their responsibility to oversee the process and ensure that the reasons for removal of each U.S. attorney were ... not improper," the report concluded. There was a time -- before the horrendous investigation and impeachment of Bill Clinton -- that the appointment of a special prosecutor sent fear up the spines of many a political officeholder with reason to fear the truth. But this is now. On Monday, Mukasey appointed Nora Dannehy, a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, to investigate -- this time with subpoena power. The inspector-general's investigation did not have the power to compel testimony, and many White House officials -- including President George W. Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, refused to cooperate. In a statement coinciding with Dannehy's appointment, Mukasey called Gonzales's firing of the U.S. Attorneys "arbitrary and unprofessional." Maybe there is reason for hope for a legitimate investigation.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Conveniently, Myanmar forgets about repression

Maybe the military rulers of the southeast Asian country of Myanmar, formerly Burma, just forgot that their totalitarian government's refusal to recognize a national election and continued repression of its pro-democracy citizens is the reason international sanctions were imposed by the West. Maybe it just slipped their minds that they have held Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy party, under arrest or house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years. Why else would Myanmar's foreign minister tell the United Nations that it's the sanctions, not the repression, that are causing its problems. "Powerful countries should refrain from practicing hegemonic policies, either through political or economic pressures," Foreign Minister Nyan Win said Monday in a speech to the General Assembly, according to the Reuters international news service. "My own country has the potential to contribute to energy and food security of our region." But for those nasty sanctions. The penalties were imposed by the United States and European Union last year after 31 people died and 3,000 arrested in a military crackdown on pro-democracy protests by Buddhist monks. The U.N. Security Council has demanded the release of all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi. Her party won the general election in 1990 but the country's military government refused to recognize the results, according to the BBC.

Surprise! House demands more scrutiny of bailout proposal

How did they do it? Somehow, the U.S. House of Representatives resisted what must have been unbelievable pressure to panic from the White House and many members of the public and rejected, at least initially, a proposed the Bush administration's $700 billion plan to bail out the banking industry. Stocks plummeted around the world following the vote, forcing some $1.7 trillion in paper wealth to disappear. House Republicans led the opposition to the bill, which failed, 228-205, despite appeals from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, according to the Reuters international news service. The administration touted the bill as the best opportunity to keep the financial system afloat and prevent the U.S. economy from slipping into recession. But opposition came from Republicans who felt the plan violated their laissez-faire philosophy and Democrats who objected to bailing out mortgage companies and investment banks responsible for the collapse of the real estate market. "This isn't legislation. This is extortion," said Republican Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite of Florida. "This is so embarrassing it turns the stomach of most Americans." But Bush and his advisers disagreed with that assessment while trying to figure out what to do next. "I was disappointed in the vote that the United States Congress (had) on the economic rescue plan," Bush said in Washington, according to Reuters. "Our strategy is to continue to address this economic situation head-on and we'll be working to develop a strategy that will enable us to continue to move forward." The U.S. Senate still plans to take up the bill and could propose changes to make it more palatable to representatives. Bush plans to address the nation on the economic crisis on Tuesday.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Far-right parties surge in Austria

Just when it looked as if the countries of the European Union would remain among the world's most stable nations, far-right parties in Austria made huge gains in today's parliamentary elections. The Reuters international news service reported that nearly a third of voters cast their ballots for candidates of Austria's two largest far-right parties, raising doubts that the mainstream Social Democrats can assemble a secure coalition. It was the worst showing for the Social Democrats and the other leading mainstream party, the conservative Peoples Party, since World War II. The results mean the anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant far-right parties could be brought into the government because the Social Democrats and the Peoples Party have been unable to resolve differences that broke up their last coalition government in 2005. The pro-environment Greens party also lost ground and finished behind the two largest parties and the two far-right parties, Heinz-Christian Strache's far right Freedom Party and Joerg Haider's right-wing populist Alliance for Austria's Future. Analysts attributed the election results to Austrians' dissatisfaction to Parliament's inability to approve anti-inflation measures. The Freedom Party was part of the ruling coalition in 2000, prompting European Union sanctions.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Let them eat moon cake

China's spacewalk breakthrough is a reminder of how off-course the U.S. space program has flown since the heady days of the moon landing 40 years ago. Just hearing about overjoyed Chinese people celebrating their country's accomplishment as the third nation to walk in space brought back memories of the contribution of the United States in the search for knowledge about the universe, before NASA reduced the program to a search for revenue-generating spaceflights. To be sure, NASA still launches ships to explore the planets -- maybe once a year. But its primary focus for decades has been the now-crippled space shuttle program, which apparently was designed not to travel on the path of international cooperation but to perform tasks in weightlessness for big corporations. As it turns out, China launched its space program, aimed at creating its own space station, because it was blocked by the United States and other Western nations from being part of the International Space Station due to concerns about technology sharing. But China's feat also shows that the people running the world's most-populated nation are highly sensitive to their country's reputation, both domestically and internationally. CNN reported that China's government-controlled media has reported on the space flight extensively, to the point of precluding coverage of the embarrassing and presumably criminal contaminated milk scandal.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Wishing it were true does not make it true

Nice to hear that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is committed to peace talks with Israel, even as he and other Arab leaders blamed the Jewish state for the delay in reaching a comprehensive settlement of the 5,000-year-old Middle East conflict. In the United States to address the U.N. Security Council, Abbas said Friday that he would continue to talk peace with whomever succeeds Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who resigned earlier this month, according to the Reuters international news service. "Settlement activity is not only an obstacle but it risks undermining the peace process," Abbas said, according to Reuters. But Abbas, in effect a leader without a nation, knows that his complaints about Israel's settlement activity are disingenuous at best. If Israel is going to keep its settlements it any peace deal with the Palestinian Authority, as Israel intends, then building on that territory does not impact the deal. The Palestinian Authority still will get the better of any agreement, since the Palestinians do not have a country now and the Authority cannot even control the territory it does have. Millions of Palestinians have been forced to live in territory controlled by the radical Islamic group Hamas, which advocates the destruction of Israel. It is ridiculous to expect Israel to reach a deal with such people, yet Abbas appears to be incapable of understanding that and regaining control of the Gaza Strip. If the Palestinian Authority really wants peace, it will accept the reality of living alongside Israel. Until it does, there cannot be any agreement.

More good news and bad news from Russia

First, the good news about Russia's nuclear capability. President Dmitry Medvedev announced today that Russia would modernize its armed forces, including its warships armed with nuclear weapons, according to the Reuters international news agency. This could well be good news because the Russians, and before them the Soviets, were notorious for building environmentally irresponsible nuclear facilities without proper safeguards (think Chernobyl). Former Soviet nuclear facilities deteriorated further after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the United States and other Western nations had to go in and secure the region's vast weaponry. If Moscow finally wants to improve the safety of its nuclear arsenal, nobody should complain. Of course, it would be better if Moscow said it was eliminating its nuclear weapons and its reliance on poorly constructed nuclear power generating plants. Instead, there is the bad news. Medvedev resorted to bellicose rhetoric apparently designed to antagonize the United States, Vladimir Putin-style, like his recent deal-making with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. "We must ensure superiority in the air, in carrying out precision strikes at land and sea targets and in the timely deployment of forces," Medvedev told military commanders after military exercises in Russia's southern Orenburg Region, Reuters reported. Medvedev said Russia must have "a guaranteed nuclear deterrent system" by 2020. These remarks apparently were directed at the United States, which has announced plans for a missile defense system in former Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. If Russia, emboldened by oil revenue, doesn't want to return to the days of nuclear tension with the West, it had better tone down the rhetoric and find a better way to release its pent-up aggressions than attacking weak neighbors.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bully pulpit

Wasn't that crazy to hear that crazy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speak before the United Nations on Tuesday? Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, might have had a point in attacking the United States and other Western nations as "bullying powers" for applying military diplomatic and economic pressure on his country -- if Iran wasn't playing the same game in its part of the world. Sure, the West is encouraging Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions -- Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons to threaten its neighbors and is funding terrorist groups in the Middle East with oil profits. Given that track record, it would be irresponsible not to try to keep Iran out of the nuclear club. This is the same guy who went to Columbia University in New York to say there were no homosexuals in Iran. What? This is a problem because it is impossible to tell what Ahmadinejad is thinking, or even if he is. "As long as the aggressors, because of their financial, political and propaganda powers, not only escape punishment, but even claim righteousness, and as long as wars are started and nations are enslaved in order to win votes in elections, not only will the problems of the global community remain unsolved, but they will be increasingly exacerbated," he said, according to the Cable News Network. Good rhetoric, dude. How are the women in Iran doing under Islamic rule? Let's not forget -- this was a speech, no doubt written by some highly salaried speechwriters under the direction of Iran's religious leaders. What does Ahmadinejad really think? He made that clear -- it's the Jews fault. This is a moron masquerading as a statesman. Hopefully, nobody is fooled.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Leftist Bolivia leader facing opposition

Word out of Bolivia is that tensions are running high after clashes between supporters of the leftist government of Evo Morales and backers of four eastern states that have declared autonomy from the central government in La Paz. Morales accused the eastern state governors of trying to overthrow the government as supporters of his proposed reforms threatened to march on Santa Cruz, Bolivia's wealthiest city. The government is currently in negotiations with the governors over proposals for wider oil revenue distribution and a proposed new constitution that would give more power to indigenous Bolivians, according to CNN, after clashes earlier this month that killed at least 30. Before leaving for the United Nations in New York, where he was scheduled address the General Assembly, Morales offered a new proposal on revenue sharing and expelled the U.S. ambassador, CNN said. But opposition leaders say Morales is trying to impose an autocratic government. "We don't want a dictatorship or a communist regime," said Anyelo Cespedes, president of the anti-Morales Santa Cruz Youth Union. "We have our way of life, and we don't want that changed." But peasant leader Julian Torricoone said the real argument was whether all Bolivians should share in the country's oil wealth, CNN said. "The fight here is between poor and rich," Torricoone said. "The government of Evo Morales took power by a majority, and now these opposition governors don't want to let him govern." Morales is an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro.

What is taking so long?

There's really only one reaction to word that the FBI has opened investigations into possible fraud at some of the largest subprime mortgage lenders in the United States -- what took you so long? Nobody watching the unfolding breakdown of the U.S. financial system doubted that some kind of massive fraud was taking place -- except, maybe, the government regulators whose very job was to keep watch and guard against it. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers and AIG -- names everyone is familiar with now because they were some of the worst offenders in the financial crisis -- are among the 26 targets of the FBI investigation, according to CNN. FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress earlier this month that 1,400 individual real estate lenders, brokers and appraisers were under investigation in addition to the 26 firms. "The FBI currently has 26 pending corporate fraud investigations involving subprime lenders," FBI Special Agent Richard Kelko told CNN. "As we have seen, this number can fluctuate over time, however we do not discuss which companies may or may not be the subject of an investigation." CNN said it previously learned Countrywide was being investigated. The financial crisis was triggered by a decline in home prices, which had been rising for 10 years, that undermined millions of mortgage loans extended using relaxed lending standards. The resulting rise in defaults has placed new strains on the U.S. economy and has begun to felt worldwide. Of course, the mere creation of an investigation does not mean crimes were committed, even though more than 400 brokers, lenders, appraisers and others were arrested in June by the FBI's Mortgage Task Force on suspicion of causing more than $1 billion in losses, according to CNN. Still, it is gratifying to see the government begin to take alleged fraud in the economic system seriously. Next, maybe the FBI is going to investigate how the U.S. automobile industry was driven into the ground.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Abuse photos to be released

The federal appeals court that upheld a judge's order releasing photos showing prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq advances the necessary dismantling of some of the Bush administration's most outrageous policies. The Second Circuit court in New York ruled that U.S. District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein was right in 2006 when he ordered the release of the photos over the objection of the Defense Department in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other rights groups. According to the Reuters international news service, the Pentagon had tried to quash release of the photos, which are said to depict detainees being abused by U.S. soldiers but not sexually humiliated, as they were at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The 29 photos are in U.S. Army investigative files, Reuters said. The Pentagon appealed Hellerstein's order, arguing that releasing the photos could endanger U.S. soldiers and invade the privacy of the detainees. But the appeals court said release of the photos was in the public interest. "The photographs depict abusive treatment of detainees by United States soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan," the court said. The ACLU said the ruling could prevent further abuse of U.S. prisoners. "These photographs demonstrate that the abuse of prisoners held in U.S. custody abroad was not aberrational and not confined to Abu Ghraib," ACLU attorney Amrit Singh said. "Their release is critical for bringing an end to the administration's torture policies and for deterring further prisoner abuse." The U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan declined to comment. The government is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The government's condoning of prisoner abuse in the war on terror has been blamed for a marked deterioration in the international standing of the United States.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The death of capitalism

Even if nothing good comes out of the Bush administration's proposed $700 billion intervention in the mortgage crisis, maybe we can get U.S. economic leaders to stop pretending they're capitalists. Capitalists who expect the government to bail them out when the economic roller-coaster they've been pillaging runs off the track, as it inevitably must, are not capitalists -- they're beggars looking for a handout from the same hand they've been biting for years. That the supposedly laissez-faire Bush administration has to ask Congress to rescue the financial system is a humiliation and a repudiation of decades of Republican Party economics. Where were the market "corrections" to prevent the meltdown? Where were the cooler heads to calm the reckless investors? And, as long as we're on the subject, where were the government regulators whose job it is to prevent such breakdowns? The taxpaying public will accept any reasonable plan to fix the economy -- they're the ones who will suffer if the cart comes apart in the ditch. And it will be worth it if the economic giants who control the money will stick their socks in it for awhile.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Another failure for U.S. diplomacy?

In yet another apparent failure for Bush administration diplomacy, North Korea said Friday it would restart its Yongbyon nuclear plant that was being dismantled under an international aid pact. North Korea said it had already begun rebuilding Yongbyon, a Soviet-era nuclear facility that generated plutonium for North Korea's nuclear weapons, despite agreeing last year to dismantle the plant in exchange for economic assistance from China, the United States, Japan, Russia and South Korea. North Korea pulled out of the deal to protest U.S. refusal to remove it from a terrorism blacklist without additional verification of its disarmament claims, according to the Reuters international news service. "The DPRK (North Korea) neither wishes to be delisted as a 'state sponsor of terrorism' nor expects such a thing to happen," the North's official KCNA news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying Friday, Reuters said. North Korea exploded a nuclear device two years ago. But U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said it would take months for North Korea to restart the Yongbyon plant. "They have not got to that point yet. We would urge them not to get to that point," McCormack said, according to Reuters.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Surprise! Power-sharing talks deadlock in Zimbabwe

Why is Robert Mugabe still president of Zimbabwe? It should be obvious to everybody, especially South African President Thabo Mbeki, the regional mediator, that Mugabe is simply not going to compromise in good faith with prime minister-designate Morgan Tsvangirai for the good of the country. That this government crisis soap opera is still continuing, six months after Mugabe's party lost control of Zimbabwe's parliament in an election marked by violence and threats by supporters of the government, shows that no deal will be possible until Mugabe leaves office. The latest deadlock occurred Thursday, when Mugabe and Tsvangirai met to decide on cabinet ministers. It was their first meeting since Mugabe ostensibly agreed Monday to share power with Tsvangirai in a coalition government negotiated with the help of South African President Thabo Mbeki, according to the Reuters international news service. The agreement was apparently an effort to duplicate a power-sharing deal that helped settle a similar election dispute that evolved into ethnic conflict in Kenya. But Mugabe's commitment to the deal is tenuous at best, and he cannot be trusted to fulfill his obligations. The one-time national hero, who distinguished himself in Zimbabwe's struggle for independence from Great Britian in 1980, has presided over the collapse of his country's once-powerful economy. Inflation is running at 11 million percent in Zimbabwe and millions of citizens have fled to neighboring countries. But Mugabe has since denounced the deal as a "humiliation" in subsequent talks with his supporters. Under the terms of Monday's agreement, Mugabe's ZANU-PF party would control 15 of the government's 31 ministries, Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party would appoint 13 ministers and Arthur Mutambara's breakaway MDC faction would control three ministries.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What does Russia want?

Is Russia willing to risk the end of its post-Soviet Union rapproachment with the West over Georgia's two breakaway provinces? That's what it seemed like Wednesday after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev committed his military to protect South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgian attack in a pair of treaties. According to the Reuters international news service, the treaties formalize military, diplomatic and economic ties between the three governments, despite opposition from the United States and the European Union. Russia invaded the two provinces last month and routed Georgian forces in response to what it said was aggression from Tbilisi. Russia contends it invaded to stop "genocide" against ethnic Russians in the two provinces, but promptly recognized the regions as independent states. The West accused Russia of a disproportionate response and the U.S. State Department said Russia should honor its previous commitments on Georgia's territorial integrity, Reuters said. But Russia seems determined to block Georgia, and perhaps other former Soviet republics, from joining NATO and becoming part of the Western alliance. Georgia will presumably not be suitable for NATO membership until it controls its own territory, hence Russia's promise to protect South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Medvedev promised to prevent Georgia from retaking the two regions. "A repeat of the Georgian aggression ... would lead to a catastrophe on a regional scale, so no one should be in doubt that we will not allow new military adventures," Medvedev said, according to the BBC. But NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Georgia could still join the alliance during a visit to Georgia by representatives of all 26 NATO countries.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Guantanamo Bay disaster likely to outlast Bush term

One of the blackest marks against the administration of George W. Bush, the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is likely to continue sullying the reputation of the United States even after he leaves office. Senior officials in the Bush administration have told the Reuters international news service that the controversial facility, opened in 2002 to house terrorism suspects, will not be able to be closed by the end of Bush's presidency in January. This is despite stepped up efforts by the administration to return Guantanamo detainees to their own countries, Reuters said. "We have really kicked our efforts into overdrive," a senior State Department official said. About 60 of the prison's 255 detainees are in the process of being sent home and as many as 80 are expected to face military tribunals at the prison, Reuters said, but 115 are considered too dangerous to release despite a lack of evidence against them. "No one wants to release the next Mohamed Atta," an unnamed official told Reuters, referring to one of the 9/11 hijackers. Officials told Reuters that the State Department has been rushing to reach deals with several countries to take prisoners, and that Secretary of State's recent trip to North Africa included talks on that subject with Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. More than 500 prisoners have been released from Guantanamo Bay over the years, including many who were held without charges. Both leading candidates to replace Bush, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, have promised to close the prison. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush wanted to see Guantanamo closed but keeping the country safe was his key concern.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Headed for a showdown

If Iran's nuclear research is considerably more advanced than Iraq's was, as U.S. and British officials claim, Tehran's refusal Monday to continue to cooperate with a U.N. inquiry means it's close to confrontation time for the Islamic republic. Iran, which Western nations accuse of trying to build nuclear weapons, has been stalling investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency for years while stepping up uranium enrichment; a secret IAEA report alleges Iran added more than 3,000 centrifuges since May, according to the Reuters international news service. Iran, which sits on one of the world's largest reserves of oil, says it is developing nuclear energy to generate power and claims that the IAEA's requests for information exceed its duty to cooperate with the agency. Britain, which claims Iran is showing "contempt" for the United Nations, says it will push for tougher international sanctions to force it to comply. The United States and Israel have threatened military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the standoff. "On the issue of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program, we have arrived at a gridlock. Without Iran's assistance and cooperation, we cannot move forward," a senior U.N. official told Reuters.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Government policies led to Wall Street meltdown

Today's refusal by top federal and bank officials to intervene on behalf of Lehman Brothers, the United States' fourth-largest investment bank, probably says more about the U.S. government than it does about the greedy banking industry. The crisis on Wall Street, where hundreds of billions of dollars have been lost in recent months, was precipitated by the still-unfolding collapse of the real estate market. Yet even as officials were deciding to let Lehman Brothers fail, they managed to find a buyer for another prominent investment bank, Merrill Lynch. Hopes of a federal rescue for all of the famous firms were dashed Saturday after a series of meetings in Manhattan between top business and government officials, the New York Times said. Bank of America and Barclay's had discussed a plan to buy some or all of Lehman Brothers' still-profitable assets, but that plan fell through when the two companies failed to get a commitment from others to spread the losses by buying the rest of the assets, the Times said. But the investment banking collapse owes itself to lax regulation on the part of government -- assuming, as everyone most likely does -- that capitalist greed drives the money market. As we saw with the nearly $9 billion collapse of California-based IndyMac Bank, federal bank regulators let bankers lend money on mortgages backed by other mortgages. When home values began to fall, a fairly cyclical event that happens periodically, unpaid mortgages guaranteeing other unpaid mortgages guaranteeing more unpaid mortgages were bound to begin to fail. The resulting cascade of failed loans now threatens the stock market and the entire economy. Other economic casualties expected this week include insurer AIG and Washington Mutual Bank.

Bush legacy? War is the answer

If anyone still wonders what U.S. President George W. Bush's legacy is going to be, think about war. The United States already has committed to sell or transfer $32 billion in weapons to other countries this year, nearly three times more than in 2005, the New York Times reported today. The total includes tanks, helicopters, jets, missiles and warships, the newspaper said. Bush administration officials say the weapons are not intended to stoke conflict but are aimed at increasing stability in volatile regions, such as the Middle East, south Asia and Latin America. “This is not about being gunrunners,” said Bruce S. Lemkin, the Air Force deputy under secretary who is helping to coordinate many of the biggest sales, told the Times. “This is about building a more secure world.” International weapons sales began to surge in 2006, reflecting changes in alliances around the world. For example, many countries formerly part of the Soviet Union or dominated by it are now buying weaponry from the United States, which also is rearming Iraq and Afghanistan. Around 60 countries also share $4.5 billion in military aid from the United States to buy U.S. weapons, including Israel and Egypt, the largest recipients. Arms control advocates and members of Congress have begun questioning the stepped-up sales, the newspaper said. “Sure, this is a quick and easy way to cement alliances,” said William D. Hartung, an arms control specialist at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute, told the Times. “But this is getting out of hand.” Rep. Howard L. Berman of California, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said he supported many of the individual weapons sales but he worries that the sales blitz could have some negative effects. “This could turn into a spiraling arms race that in the end could decrease stability,” he told the Times.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and us

Word from the U.S. capital Wednesday that Interior Department employees regulating the energy industry received gifts, drugs and even sexual favors from companies doing business with the government confirms the worst about the current administration. Just as President Bush and his team have at times seemed oblivious to constitutional traditions restricting their conduct, at least 19 federal employees took illegal gratuities from the companies they were regulating in direct violation of federal law. The improper conduct was revealed in a report issued Wednesday by the inspector general of the Interior Department, who conducted a two-year, $5.3 million investigation following a whistleblower complaint in 2006. Two Interior Department employees "received combined gifts and gratuities on at least 135 occasions from four major oil and gas companies with whom they were doing business -- a textbook example of improperly receiving gifts from prohibited sources," Inspector General Earl Devaney told Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in a letter accompanying the report, according to the Cable News Network. Randall Luthi, head of the department's Minerals Management Service, said the public had not suffered financial losses as a result of the employees' behavior. As many as seven of the employees still work for the department, CNN said. The Mineral Management Service is responsible for selling oil and gas collected as rent from companies drilling on federal laws. Leading Democrats in Congress accused the Bush administration of being too close to the oil industry, and of cheating the American people out of royalties owed by companies, CNN said. "The Bush administration put an 'America for Sale' sign on the White House lawn from day one and has been courting Big Oil ever since," Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York and chairwoman of the House Rules Committee, said in a written statement, according to CNN. "Democrats have been saying it for some time, but this proves it. This administration is literally in bed with Big Oil. Little did we know they were such a cheap date." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a similar statement. "This report documents the 'pervasive culture of exclusivity' that has cheated the American taxpayer out of the billions of dollars owed them by the oil companies," she said. Two oil companies mentioned in the report, Shell and Chevron, declined to comment, saying they still needed to review it, CNN said.

Pakistan military says U.S. did not get permission for raid

Could this be true? Could the United States military have launched an attack inside Pakistan without the OK from the close ally? That's what Pakistan's new military chief implied Wednesday when he called last week's attack "reckless" and said no further actions would be permitted by foreign forces. The Cable News Network reported Wednesday that Chief of Army Staff Parvez Kayani, who succeeded former President Pervez Musharraf last year, said "no external force is permitted to conduct operations ... inside Pakistan." This apparently is Kayani's first foray into politics since Musharraf, who used his position as head of the military to seize power in a 1999 coup, appointed Kayani after he left to become civilian president last year. Musharraf resigned resigned the presidency last month. The political awakening of Kayani raises the prospect of a new military takeover of nuclear-armed Pakistan, a key player in the U.S.-sponsored war on terror. But the war on extremists, many of whom are believed to be taking refuge on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, is unpopular in Pakistan. Musharraf had been careful to limit any overt U.S. presence in Pakistan, fearing a violent reaction, and pointedly refused to permit U.S. forces to operate from Pakistani territory. The country has struggled to regain political stability since Musharraf left office. The Pakistan People's Party leads the government, but the civilian governing coalition that helped to force Musharraf out has splintered.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Lawsuit over Cheney papers demonstrates how bad it's gotten

It's hard to believe that it's come to this, but now it looks like it's going to take a lawsuit to force Vice President Dick Cheney to put the interests of the country ahead of his own. A group of historians and advocates of open government announced Monday that they had joined a nonprofit advocacy group in asking the federal court in Washington, D.C., to order Cheney to preserve his vice presidential papers when he leaves office. The open government advocates and historians want Cheney to be ordered to preserve his papers for review after George W. Bush's term of office ends in January out of fear that Cheney will destroy them in violation of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, according to the Washington Post. Cheney has argued on occasion that the Office of the Vice President is not part of the executive branch because the vice president chairs the U.S. Senate. The records could reveal what went on behind closed doors in the most controversial deliberations of the Bush administration, including the decisions to attack Afghanistan and Iraq after Sept. 11, 2001, the drafting of U.S. energy policy and the domestic wiretapping program. The lawsuit, conceived by the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, asks for a court determination that the vice president's records are covered by the 1978 act, which was passed in reaction to the Watergate scandal. A spokeswoman for Cheney said the vice president "currently" follows the act. Cheney has not disclosed his plans for his papers.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Tiny troop cut shows Bush still thinks he got it right

Word out of Washington that U.S. President George W. Bush plans tomorrow to announce a troop cut of 8,000 in Iraq shows that even after five years of war and the rejuvenation of the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan, the president still clings to the idea that deposing Saddam Hussein after the Sept. 11 attacks was the right thing to do. Bush plans to tell the country tomorrow that the troop withdrawal, from a U.S. force of 146,000 soldiers, is possible because of a reduction of violence in Iraq, according to the Reuters international news service. "While the enemy in Iraq is still dangerous, we have seized the offensive, and Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight," Bush plans to say at the National Defense University, Reuters said. "And if the progress in Iraq continues to hold, Gen. [David] Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009." An 2007 increase in troops by 30,000, known as Bush's "surge" strategy, is credited with helping to calm the often-volatile situation in Iraq. But Bush had been warned repeatedly that the Iraq invasion force was too small to adequately police the country, a prediction that proved correct. Bush conceded the point in 2007 when he implemented the so-called "surge." Bush also said he planned to shift additional troops to Afghanistan, where the war on terror apparently should have been fought in the first place. The United States has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan along with a NATO force, but the Taliban have regrouped anyway, appear to control large portions of the countryside and are stepping up attacks.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Zardari wins vote in Pakistan, succeeds Musharraf

Saturday's election of Asif Ali Zardari as president of Pakistan appears to be just what the Bush administration hoped for. The world's only Islamic nuclear state replaced its unpopular U.S.-backed dictator turned president with a Western-leaning politician, the widower of beloved former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who gives every indication he will continue his country's controversial role in the U.S.-supported war against militants. Zardari received 480 out of 702 votes from Pakistan's electoral college according to unofficial results, the Reuters international news service reported. The electoral panel consisted of members of both houses of Pakistan's parliament and four provincial assemblies. "To those who would say the People's Party, or the presidency, would be controversial under our guardianship, under our stewardship, I would say 'listen to democracy'," Zardari said after the vote. Bush administration stalwart Condoleeza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, praised Zardari for his commitment to the war on terror, which is unpopular in Pakistan. "Now with a new president, I think we have got a good way forward," Rice told reporters. Zardari, a former businessman, spent 11 years in jail on corruption and murder charges but was never convicted and denied any wrongdoing. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said President George W. Bush was looking forward to working with Zardari on "issues important to both countries, including counterterrorism and making sure Pakistan has a stable and secure economy," Reuters said.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Abbas restates the obvious on peace with Israel

The only good news in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' comment to Israeli President Shimon Peres that a comprehensive peace deal may not be attainable this year is that the two leaders actually met in Italy this week. The rest of Abbas' comment "it appears as if we will not be able to reach full agreement of the issues of Jerusalem, borders, refugees and water by the end of the year," as reported by the Reuters international news service, is mere rhetoric. The Palestinian Authority certainly must understand that it at least demonstrate the power to control its own territory before it can seriously negotiate a peace deal, no matter who becomes prime minister of Israel later this year. "We are determined to continue accelerated diplomatic negotiations concurrently with the change of administration in the United States," Abbas said, according to Reuters. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who also was in Italy, told Reuters that there still may be a chance for an agreement this year. But if Israel's latest proposal -- to give the Palestinian Authority 92.7 percent of the occupied West Bank, all of Gaza and another desert territory -- is not acceptable, it's hard to know what is. The Palestinian Authority appears to be holding out for an agreement to share the city of Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital, and a settlement of claims by Palestinians who fled Israel when the Jewish state was established in 1948. But these issues are not resolvable by the current governments and are being raised by the Palestinian Authority out of fear, to ensure that no agreement is reached. Division of Jerusalem is a preposterous idea -- Arabs and Jews know this idea is unworkable. But if Israel is going to retain control of Jerusalem, it will have to commit to and figure out a way to permit Palestinians to visit Christian and Muslim holy sites. The so-called right-of-return issue probably can be settled with money, but only if the Arab nations that back the Palestinian Authority agree to similarly compensate Jewish families - and there are thousands -- who were forced to flee Arab cities before and after the establishment of Israel.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

U.S. must have deal with new Pakistan leadership

This week's attack by U.S. Special Forces on a suspected al-Qaida stronghold in Pakistan could signal the start of a new phase in the war on terror and may explain why the United States acquiesced in the resignation of Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, who was backed by U.S. President Bush as a key ally in the war on terror, had long refused to allow U.S. forces to operate in Pakistan, fearing a popular backlash that could destabilize the nuclear-armed country. But the United States, which has worked behind the scenes to promote Pakistan's new majority government headed by the Pakistan People's Party, must have gotten the green light from Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani or PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari before proceeding with the attack. U.S. officials have long complained about Musharraf's refusal to allow U.S. forces to attack inside the country, since they believe Pakistan has not been aggressive enough in battling al-Qaida and suspect that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is hiding on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Of course, if the Bush administration has not cleared its new aggressiveness with Pakistan's new civilian leadership, the U.S. attack could have severe consequences for this country's efforts in the Muslim world.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

U.S. brings moral and financial support to Georgia

That's right; if the Russians are not going to live with its neighbors peacefully without pressure from the United States and European Union, it's time to ratchet up the nonlethal type of influence. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is traveling to Georgia this week to do just that; he met with the leaders of Azerbejian on Wednesday and announced a $1 billion aid package for Georgia. Georgia was humiliated in last month's five-day war with Russia and suffered massive damage to its cities and its armed forces. The United States has condemned Russia's use of force to defeat Georgia's effort to retake its South Ossetia province on the Russian border, acccording to the Reuters international news service. Azerbejian, like Georgia a former Soviet republic still dependent on Russia, is a key part of a Western strategy to use the newly independent countries for oil export routes that bypass Moscow. Cheney also plans to visit Georgia and Ukraine. Russia claims it launched its crushing attack to protect civilians in South Ossetia and the other breakaway province, Abkhazia, in westernmost Georgia. "President Bush has sent me here with a clear and simple message for the people of Azerbaijan and this entire region: The United States has deep and abiding interests in your well-being and security," Cheney said in Azerbejian, according to Reuters. "The United States strongly believes that together with the nations of Europe, including Turkey, we must work with Azerbaijan and other countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia on additional routes for energy exports that ensure the free flow of resources." The West believes the oil transport route could be in jeopardy after the Kremlin sent its troops deep into Georgia, Reuters said. Russia, apparently reacting to the West's rapid recognition of the independence of Kosovo from Serbia earlier this year, quickly recognized the independence of the two Georgian provinces. Russia also claims the United States helped to create the conflict in Georgia by supporting outspoken Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Largess envy -- Venezuela's Chavez tries to surpass Washington on aid

There's a bright side to the overheated rhetorical competition between U.S. President George W. Bush and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez appears to be using his nation's vast oil wealth to overtake the United States as the largest benefactor in Central America and the Caribbean, according to the Reuters international news service. Venezuela has offered and is providing hundreds of millions of dollars in food aid to less prosperous neighbors and billions in low-interest loans to help area nations -- even those aligned with Washington -- buy Venezuelan oil. The United States, which has publicly disagreed with Chavez on trade and fighting drugs, has long been the region's greatest source of international aid. The enmity between Chavez and President Bush is legendary; the Venezuelan leader once called the U.S. president "the devil" at the United Nations. But if it is motivating Venezuela to share its wealth with its neighbors, why not? According to Reuters, Venezuela has helped pay for Jamaica's bailout of an airline, the purchase of power generators in Nicaragua and expansion of an airport and a fuel storage facility in Dominica, as well as helped Cuba survive economic collapse. Close U.S. allies Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica have sought and received aid from Venezeula. So what if Chavez is motivated by more than mere altruism -- the result is the same. Surely, the United States is secure enough not to worry about who gets the most credit.

Gonzales escapes prosecution for top-secret mistakes

Too bad everybody isn't entitled to the deference by prosecutors afforded to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales this week. The Justice Department decided not to prosecute Gonzales for mishandling top-secret government documents in 2005, even though an internal investigation concluded that he had, in fact, improperly took home classified notes and reports on the secret domestic wiretap program launched by President Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. "Gonzales mishandled classified materials while serving as attorney general," the report concluded, according to the Reuters international news service. Gonzales resigned under pressure in 2007 after suspicions were raised that the Justice Department fired U.S. attorneys for political reasons. The national security division of the department's inspector general's office said Tuesday it would not prosecute Gonzales for improper handling of classified documents, apparently because the violations appear to be unintentional. An attorney for Gonzales, George Terwilliger, said Gonzales never intended for the materials, which included notes Gonzales made of an emergency congressional briefing about the secret wiretap program in 2004 before he became attorney general, to be disclosed. Gonzales was White House Counsel during the March 10, 2004, briefing, after which he went to the hospital room of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to try to convince him to reauthorize the wiretapping program, Reuters said.