Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year from Alberto Gonzales

Well, there you go. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who resigned from the Bush administration 16 months ago in the midst of controversies over secret wiretapping and the politicization of the U.S. Justice Department, says he was not to blame for what went wrong during his tenure. "I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror," Gonzales said Tuesday in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Gonzales said he was not responsible for administration policies that caused him to fall into disfavor and is writing a book to explain his take on things. Gonzales was roundly criticized during much of his term after the firings of nine U.S. attorneys, apparently for political reasons, in 2006 and for testifying before Congress that he didn't recall events that led up to the firings. He also was attacked for his role in trying to get his predecessor, John Ashcroft, to approve domestic wiretapping from a hospital bed in 2004. "What is it that I did that is so fundamentally wrong, that deserves this kind of response to my service?" he said. "For some reason, I am portrayed as the one who is evil in formulating policies that people disagree with." Gonzales still is under investigation for alleged political meddling at Justice, the Journal said.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Isn't it time for Hamas to get reasonable about this?

Of course Israel has agreed to consider a 48-hour ceasefire in its attack on seemingly defenseless Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip. The Israelis understand that medical supplies and food are in short supply in the coastal territory that is home to 1.5 million Palestinians, and Israel doesn't want to be to blame for more civilian deaths. Of course, Israel doesn't really accept responsibility for anything that has happened, as the Jewish state blames the radical Islamic group Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip last year and has been ruling it ever since. And it cannot be denied that Hamas militants have repeatedly fired missiles into cities in southern Israel, trying to kill Israeli civilians. The new ceasefire plan came out of a discussion between French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the former prime minister, on getting humanitarian aid to Gaza residents, according to the Reuters international news service. Kouchner, rotating leader of the European Union, called for a permanent ceasefire, as did the United Nations, the United States and Russia. But "permanent ceasefire" is a contradiction in terms, since it is not possible for two peoples to live side-by-side in perpetuity yet never have any disputes. It's not even possible for two people to do that, much less two entire societies. And it's certainly not possible here, where the groups already are in a number of violent disputes. So, the only way to solve this is to settle it and, to do that, both sides must be amenable to a solution. The Israelis can be persuaded to stop shooting -- they've even offered -- but the Hamas side also must agree to talk. By refusing to sit down, however, Hamas is demonstrating that it will never agree to any kind of settlement. That is why Mahmoud Abbas is the leader of the Palestinian Authority, not Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. If the leaders refuse to meet, which they do, they can talk though other countries -- but they're going to have to talk. The lives of hundreds of thousands of people are, apparently, at stake.

Maybe the courts are not going to fix everything

Tuesday's federal court ruling that two Guantanamo Bay detainees have been legally being held for years by the U.S. government as enemy combatants raises the possibility that this country's legal system might not be able to undue all of the constitution wrecking wrought by the Bush administration. In what seems to be a setback to what seemed to be the steady rejection of policies promulgated by the Bush White House, a Washington, D.C., judge ruled that two detainees were enemy combatants and could be held indefinitely. The ruling, if upheld on appeal, means the Guantanamo Bay detentions will continue well into the term of the next president, Barak Obama. The cases of Yemeni detainee Moath Hamza Ahmed al Alwi and Tunisian Hisham Sliti are the first challenges to be fully heard in federal court since last June's U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognized that detainees had the right to file court object ions to their detentions, according to the New York Times. Al Alwi was alleged to have been a bodyguard for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Sliti was an al-Qaida recruit in Aghanistan who attended a military-style training camp. But the United States refused to formally charge the defendants or to reveal its evidence in open court. Most of the court proceedings were held in secret, the Times said. Leon is the judge who ruled last month that five Algerians were held illegally at Guantanamo for nearly seven years and ordered their release.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Billionaire investor bails on Ford

Could the decision of a billionaire investor to sell his stake in Ford Motor Co. at a loss be a signal to the market that the automobile industry will not be able to rebound, even with government help? Kirk Kerkorian's Tracinda Corp. has completed selling its 133.5 million shares of Ford, a spokeswoman said Monday, according to the Reuters international news service, and the timing is curious. Ford was considered the strongest of the top-3 U.S. automakers and, in fact, was the only one to refuse part of the $17.4 billion emergency loan package offered by the government on Dec. 18. If the automakers were going to be leading the U.S. economic rebound, the way the White House hopes, why would a wary investor like Kerkorian pull out? Not only that, the Tracinda pullout cements a huge loss for the company, which spent more than $1 billion buying Ford shares at an average price of $7.10. The stock is now selling at just over $2 a share. At one time, Kerkorian held a 6.5 percent stake in Ford, Reuters said. The Ford family holds just under 3 percent of the automaker's shares but controls 40 percent of the voting power through a separate class of shares, Reuters said.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Surprise! Foreign forces to stay in Iraq into next year and beyond

Western countries with troops in Iraq must have been gratified Sunday when the Iraqi Presidential Council granted final approval to a resolution allowing the forces to stay after the UN mandate expires Dec. 31. The resolution won parliamentary approval Tuesday, seemingly without the rancor that accompanied yearlong negotiations over the continued presence of more than 140,000 U.S. troops. That agreement was approved in November, according to the Reuters international news service. Great Britain has about 4,100 troops in Iraq and the other countries -- El Salvador, Australia, Romania and Estonia -- have several hundred troops. The resolution authorizes Iraq to negotiate bilateral agreements with the countries, Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman told Reuters. If it had not been approved by year's end, their troops would have been in Iraq illegally. The way it is now, British forces expect to complete their training mission by the end of May and withdraw completely by July 31. U.S. forces are expected to leave Iraqi cities by July and withdraw completely by the end of 2011. But, as we all know, the 400-pound gorilla sits wherever it wants, and U.S. troops are not going anywhere until the president of the United States orders it. The elected Shiite government in Iraq is fragile, as witnessed by attacks yesterday in Baghdad, Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi, and it protests the presence of U.S. forces much too much. There are many, many things that could go wrong and make it too dangerous for those forces to leave, no matter what Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. President-elect Barak Obama say now.

Thanks for the legacy

It was interesting, in a bizarre sort of way, to hear U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice try to put a good face on the outgoing Bush administration on Sunday morning television. Rice, who took over as Secretary of State just after the start of U.S. President George W. Bush's second term, told CBS-TV that history will be kind to the 43rd president, despite what his critics have been saying. "We can sit here and talk about the long record, but what I would say to you is that this president has faced tougher circumstances than perhaps at any time since the end of World War II, and he has delivered policies that are going to stand the test of time," Rice said in an interview that aired on the CBS show "Sunday Morning," according to Cable News Network (CNN). Rice was national security adviser in Bush's first time. Rice said people who think that the Bush administration will go down as one of the worst in history "aren't very good historians." The Rice interview apparently was part of the outgoing administration's farewell tour, with Bush and other officials giving positive assessments of the past eight years in the face of low approval ratings at home and a negative image abroad. "If you're making historical judgments before an administration is already out -- even out of office, and if you're trying to make historical judgments when the nature of the Middle East is still to be determined, and when one cannot yet judge the effects of decisions that this president has taken on what the Middle East will become -- I mean, for goodness' sakes, good historians are still writing books about George Washington. Good historians are certainly still writing books about Harry Truman." Rice also said the Bush administration succeeded on many international fronts, including the Middle East, China, India and Latin America. "When one looks at what we've been able to do in terms of changing the conversation in the Middle East about democracy and values, this administration will be judged well, and I'll wait for history's judgment and not today's headlines," she said. It is true that the Bush administration united the country in a measured response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, but then seemed to veer off course in attacking Iraq and reinterpreting the U.S. Constitution. Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks, apparently is still at large on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan border despite a war that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars and killed thousands of U.S. soldiers and tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Aghanis. The Bush government is scheduled to leave power on Jan. 20, when Barak Obama takes the oath of office as the 44th U.S. president. So, it's not quite over yet.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Five Muslims convicted of plot in New Jersey

Can it really be that five Muslim men from Pennsylvania and New Jersey planned to attack a military base near Philadelphia to kill as many U.S. soldiers as they could? That's what a jury convicted them of Monday after an eight-week trial in federal court in Camden, New Jersey, even though the defendants contended they were just blowing off steam when they discussed attacks on Fort Dix and other military installations. Attorneys for the United States accused the immigrants of trying to wage Islamist holy war, according to the Reuters international news service. FBI agents infiltrated the group after a Circuit City clerk reported they were trying to copy a tape of themselves firing guns in the air and calling for jihad, Reuters said. The defendants claimed there would not have been a plot without the encouragement of the FBI infiltrators. The defendants also argued that they were singled-out because of anti-Muslim feeling after the Sept. 11 attacks. Both of these arguments may be true to some degree. But it is not possible for the two scenarios to be so different. The FBI agents did not help the defendants buy and fire the guns used in the video -- that happened before the government got involved. Yes, men will boast, but there's a big difference between boasting among friends and boasting with weapons. The U.S. attorney says he will seek life-sentences for the five, Reuters said. Sentencing is scheduled for April.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Don't expect 'Chemical Ali' to get a fair trial

Does anyone believe the next trial of Iraq's notorious "Chemical Ali" will be fair and impartial? More likely, the next prosecution of Ali Hassan al-Majeed, known as Chemical Ali for ordering the use of poison gas to kill tens of thousands of Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s, will be like the "trial" and hanging of Saddam Hussein. The humiliating execution of the Iraqi president actually was an embarrassment for the government in Baghdad and its U.S. benefactors, because it was so unfair. No matter how terrible his administration was, civilized society demands civilized legal proceedings, not courts where all decisions have already been made, so the administration of justice is a public matter. Saddam was prevented from attending large portions of the trial even though his life was at stake, members of his legal team were assassinated and, no doubt, information known to the prosecution was withheld from his defense. But these are serious violations of rights the United States considers obvious, at least for its own people. If Iraq wants to become a member of the civilized nations' club, which it evidently does, it had better develop a trustworthy, and trusted, legal system. A third trial for Majeed, who has already been sentenced to death twice, according to the Reuters international news service, begins Friday before Iraq's High Tribunal in Halabja, scene of a 1988 gas attack that killed 5,000 Kurds. Majeed and three other high-ranking officials in Saddam's government heard prosecutors describe the gassing while relatives of the victims demonstrated outside, Reuters said. The Halabja trial is being overseen by Judge Mohammed al-Uraibi, a Shiite who presided over the first two trials, Reuters said. Also facing charges in the case are Sultan Hashem, a former defense minister, and two intelligence officers. Majeed already faces death sentences for his role in Saddam's military's "Anfal" campaign, which killed tens of thousands of Kurds, and for his part in crushing a Shiite revolt after the 1991 Gulf War.

U.S. withdraws support for Zimbabwe power-sharing deal

Better late than never. The United States has pulled its support for a proposed power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe, making the departure of embattled Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe a foregone conclusion. The Bush administration's top envoy in Africa, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer, announced the policy shift Sunday after advising other southern Africa governments of the change. The change should spell the end of the 28-year Mugabe regime, which led the country from independence to regional power and, now, to disappointment and embarrassment. Frazer said Mugabe, who has struggled to hang onto power since losing the first round of last year's presidential election and claiming victory in a tainted runoff, was "out of his mind," according to the Associated Press in an article published in the New York Times. The last straw, apparently, was a recent outbreak of cholera due to the country's deteriorating infrastructure that Mugabe blamed on biological warfare from the West. But Mugabe has been a burden on his country for years, and it's encouraging, if tragically late, to see U.S. leaders to advocate change. Western nations are now expected to throw their support behind Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who was supposed to become prime minister under the power-sharing deal negotiated after the tainted election. Tsvangirai, who won the first round of voting in March but did not get 50% of the vote in the official count, was forced to withdraw from the runoff due to escalating violence by Mugabe supporters. But Mugabe has failed to live up to the terms of the deal so far, even though it would keep him in power -- essentially, a gift from former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who negotiated the agreement. But now, the U.S. decision to pull the plug could splinter support for Mugabe from neighboring countries. Frazer said the United States was finally convinced that Mugabe was not willing to share power. She called Mugabe "a man who's lost it, who's losing his mind, who's out of touch with reality." But South Africa is sticking with Mugabe, at least for now. Thabo Masebe, a spokesman for current South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, said Sunday that "our position has not changed," the AP said. Tsvangirai spokesman Tendai Biti said the MDC would pull out of the power-sharing agreement on Jan. 1 if it hasn't been fully implemented, the AP said.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Canada approves bailout for U.S. automaker subsidiaries

Canada's announcement Saturday that it was offering $4 billion in emergency loans to subsidiaries of failing U.S. automakers must have been good news in Detroit, Michigan, where General Motors, Ford and Chrysler have their headquarters. The announcement by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton MgGuinty came the day after U.S. President Bush announced a $17.4 billion rescue plan for the industry, according to the Reuters international news service. Harper said Saturday that the cost of the industry's complete collapse in Canada was too high. "There are literally across the country hundreds of thousands if not millions of potentially affected families by the distress of this industry," Harper said. "And we are obviously making sure at this Christmas time that, within the confines of our responsibility for taxpayer money, that we are also going to look after their interest." Failure of the U.S. automakers would cost 600,000 jobs in Canada, mostly in Ontario, within five years, according to a provincial advisory panel. Harper said his government would not allow the U.S. automakers to close their Canadian operations. Harper also said he was assured by Bush and incoming U.S. President-elect Barak Obama that they would not let the companies fail. "We may well have much smaller companies but they will not fail in my judgment," Harper said. "The question then for Canada is to ensure that as they are restructured that we retain our market share." The Canadian bailout package also included help for auto parts suppliers and better access to credit for consumers, Reuters said.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Auto industry bailout seems to make sense

It's way too early to tell if the White House plan to offer as much as $17.4 billion in loans to the three largest U.S. automobile manufacturers will enable them to avoid collapse. General Motors and Chrysler are expected to begin borrowing money almost immediately to stay in business, according to the Reuters international news service, while Ford claims to have enough cash to stay afloat for another year. The world economic crisis has taken an enormous toll on manufacturing across the globe, and the large U.S. automakers are particularly vulnerable after years of slumping sales. Of course, the slump started long before the economic crisis, as U.S. automakers ignored logic and, worse, tried to game the market to continue producing gas-guzzling vehicles that offered more profit than fuel-efficient cars and trucks. The market for gas-hogging SUVs, for example, would never have grown so large had not automakers lobbied for, and won, exemptions from clean-air requirements for the vehicles. But to have General Motors and Chrysler fail at the same time at a cost of hundreds of thousands of jobs, with the economy already entering a recession, probably is too risky for the U.S. economy. Most of the money for the loans will come from the $700 billion financial system rescue package currently being distribued by the U.S. Treasury. "If we were to allow the free market to take its course now, it would almost certainly lead to disorderly bankruptcy and liquidation for the automakers," U.S. President George W. Bush said Thursday in announcing the program. U.S. stocks rose on the news, with GM shares jumping 10.9 percent. Bush had to create the auto sector program on his own after members of his own party blocked a Democratic Party-backed deal last week. The deal includes a March 31 deadline for the companies to come up with restructuring plans. Democratic President-elect Barack Obama, who will inherit the program when he takes officer Jan. 20, welcomed the loan move as a necessary step. But he said he wanted to make sure workers did not bear the brunt of the restructuring. "My top priority in this administration is to create 2.5 million new jobs and I want some of those jobs to be in the auto industry," Obama said. The U.S. auto slump has impacted car parts makers and other manufacturers worldwide. Mexican conglomerate Alfa said Friday it was halting production at its nine parts plants in Mexico and Japanese automakers also are expected to report lower earnings.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Chief U.S. financial regulator was awake the whole time

Nice to see the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission hasn't lost its oft-admired sense of humor. Thursday's indictment of seven people, including a former Lehman Brothers salesman, for participating in an insider trading scheme that netted $4.8 million in illegal profits, demonstrates that federal regulators were not asleep at the Big Board when Wall Street bigwigs caused the nation's financial system to hemorrage at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. No, regulators knew enough to watch the salesman who tipped friends and relatives about 13 impending mergers -- Matthew Devlin, according to the Reuters international news service -- for a year before filing the complaint in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. $4.8 million. Maybe that's why U.S. regulators allowed billions of dollars worth of subprime mortgages to be traded back and forth so often they became securities to the world's largest banks, and were used to secure billions of dollars worth of more loans. The crash of the mortgage market is likely not even over yet, despite the multibillion-dollar rescue packages being prepared by countries around the world, and reverberations will likely be felt for many years. The crash even claimed venerable Lehman Brothers, which was forced to file for bankruptcy and sell part of itself to Barclays. But we all can rest assured. The SEC has not been asleep, and at least a couple of insider traders may be going to jail.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

U.S. prepares for life in Iraq without Blackwater

The only conclusion to be drawn from a still-secret U.S. government draft report on the Blackwater situation in Iraq is that Washington finally is taking seriously threats from Baghdad to bar the private security firm. According to the Reuters international news service, the report by the State Department Office of Inspector General recommends that the United States find new contractors to take over the job of guarding diplomats in Iraq. "The department faces the real possibility that one of its primary worldwide personal protective services contractors in Iraq -- Blackwater USA -- will not receive a license to continue operating in Iraq," unnamed sources told Reuters. The Blackwater contract has been under attack since September 2007, when Blackwater guards shot 14 unarmed civilians and wounded 20 others in a Baghdad intersection. Five guards were charged Dec. 8 with 14 counts of manslaughter and 20 counts of attempted manslaughter following an investigation. The guards alleged that they had been fired upon. The incident outraged the Iraqi public and damaged relations between Washington and the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad. The FBI is still investigating the incident. Sources also told Reuters that the report did not recommend terminating the contract with Blackwater, the largest of several security contractors operating in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Chavez keeps the pressure on U.S.

Word from Caracas on Monday that the presidents of Venezuela and Cuba signed a $2 billion trade accord should remind U.S. businesses all next year of the folly of the inflexible and cantankerous Bush administration. The White House alienated so many countries around the world with its over-aggressive attitude that bilateral relationships may be years from resolution. Of course, U.S. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have less than a month remaining in their eight-year term. But the damage to international relationships will be felt for years. The enmity between Bush and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is the stuff of legend, and has contributed mightily to the decline of U.S. influence in South America. The deal between Cuba and Venezuela demonstrates clearly the cost of the self-absorbed Bush administration's whiff on an ideal opportunity to end the five-decade embargo of Cuba when Castro's brother, Fidel, gave up power in 2006. The United States could have captured a large portion of the $2 billion in trade and hurried the inevitable reconciliation with Cuba after a five-decade embargo that separated families and alienated millions in the southern United States. The deal between Cuba and Venezuela includes 163 joint projects, a six-fold increase from this year, according to Cable News Network (CNN) . The enmity between Bush and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has become the stuff of legend, and the United States is forced to tolerate Soviet warships visiting the Caribbean Sea because of it. Castro's first foreign state visit since being elected to Cuba's presidency in February also is scheduled to include participation in the Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development on Tuesday and Wednesday in Brazil.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

U.S. troops figure to stay in Iraqi cities long after June

Anyone who really thought the United States was going to pull all of its troops from Iraqi cities by the end of June was kidding themselves, no matter what the new security pact says. There really should be no controversy -- U.S. troops are going to stay in combat roles wherever and whenever U.S. and Iraqi officials think they should, and no negotiated agreement is going to change that. The outraged reaction to Saturday's statement by U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is naive, uninformed or both. Odierno said Saturday that some U.S. troops could remain in Iraqi cities after July 1, and an Iraq government spokesman said U.S. troops could stay even beyond the pact's 2011 final cutoff date, according to the Reuters international news service. Odierno said troops could remain if they are supporting Iraqi forces rather than serving in combat, but that is just legalese. The United States has not invested hundreds of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq just to leave before the country has been stabilized; Iraqis themselves have not sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives building democratic institutions just to collapse into anarchy after U.S. troops leave. A spokesman for Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki got it right last week when he said U.S. forces could stay beyond 2011. Dr. Ali al-Dabbagh said in Washington that Iraq's security forces could need as long as 10 years to be ready to take over from U.S. troops. Of course, al-Maliki's office disavowed Dr. Ali al-Dabbagh's statement as a "personal opinion," but that was likely for consumption by Iraqis still outraged by the U.S. occupation. The security pact, which was approved by Iraq's parliament last month, still must be put to a national referendum next year.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mugabe constitutional amendment move is cynical

Today's move by embattled Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to publish a draft constitutional amendment implementing a power-sharing deal with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change should not be interpreted for more than what it is. Mugabe has no intention of sharing power with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai or anyone else and publishing the amendment without consulting his supposed MDC partners illustrates this clearly. The international community should not be fooled and should continue to pressure Mugabe to turn the government over to Tsvangirai, the top vote-getter in the March election. Election officials from Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, which lost control of the parliament in March, destroyed the ballots they claimed necessitated a runoff between Tsvangirai and Mugabe, making a recount impossible. Mugabe claimed victory in the June runoff, even though Tsvangirai withdrew because of widespread violence he blamed on Mugabe supporters. Tsvangirai and Mugabe signed a power-sharing agreement brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki in July, but its terms have not been implemented. Amendment 19 would formalize the terms of the deal, which created the prime minister's post for Tsvangirai, according to Cable News Network (CNN). MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa told CNN that the majority party will not support the amendment if it does not address outstanding issues, such as control of vital ministries in the government. The two parties agreed to the amendment last month but Mugabe's party has not cooperated under previous agreements. "In the event that the collaboration that we envisage is not forthcoming, then that will necessitate fresh harmonized elections at some point in time," Chamisa said, according to CNN. Zimbabwe is battling a cholera epidemic that has infected more than 16,000 people, according to the World Health Organization, CNN said. ZANU-PF blamed the epidemic on Great Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler.

Friday, December 12, 2008

How hard is it to pressure North Korea?

Good to see the United States sticking to common sense and demanding that North Korea live up to earlier agreements before being able to take advantage of them. The United States said Friday that future shipments of fuel oil will be held up until Pyongyang signs on to protocol to allow verification of its denuclearization activities, according to the Reuters international news service. At least U.S. officials have been able to reach common ground with its four negotiating partners -- Japan, Russia, China and South Korea -- to hold up future shipments under an accord reached last year. Negotiations between the United States and fuel-starved North Korea over the past 10 years have yielded several agreements but little verifiable progress. North Korea first tested a nuclear device in 2006. The Bush administration has been negotiating with Pyongyang in hopes of reaching a new agreement before President George W. Bush leaves office next month, but talks in Beijing collapsed Thursday, Reuters said. Lead U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill briefed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday on the failure of the talks, Reuters said. "There's the opportunity for North Korea to sign on to this verification protocol," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "That still exists. We'll see. The ball is in their court." About half of the heavy fuel oil promised under last year's agreement remains to be delivered. But how hard can it be to get North Korea to agree to live up to its denuclearization pledge? The country cannot even grow enough food to feed its own people and depends on food shipments from the West to get through winter. Reuters said Pyongyang may think it can get a better deal under Bush's successor, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who takes office on Jan. 20.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Timing is everything in war on terror

What a difference a change at the top makes. A month before a new president takes office, the U.S. military plans to change its focus in the war on terror and increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced today in Kandahar that the United States will add as many as 20,000 soldiers to its forces in Afghanistan, Cable News Network (CNN) reported. After seven years of war in Iraq, U.S. leaders are finally reacting to the resurgence of the Taliban and to continuous reports that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden has been hiding there since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Gates, who has reportedly been asked to stay on as defense secretary even after President George W. Bush leaves office, said the United States would move up to three brigades to Afghanistan to supplement the 31,000 U.S. troops already fighting there. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, reportedly requested four brigades, CNN said. But Gates said the Pentagon would not be able to commit any new troops to Afghanistan before the spring or summer of next year.

Will Senate report lead to punishment for Bush administration officials?

That fact that a secret U.S. Senate report on abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, blames former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top senior U.S. officials does not absolve Congress of responsibility. While portions of the report released Thursday by the Senate Armed Services Committee names Rumsfield, President George W. Bush, Gen. Richard Myers (head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and other top officials, U.S. residents know that their representatives in Congress -- House and Senate, Republican and Democrat -- largely went along with what the administration was doing. With few exceptions, legislators in the top leadership posts of both parties consulted with administration officials -- often secretly -- and signed on to some of the most odious practices championed by the White House. The summary blames Bush administration officials, notably Rumsfeld, for authorizing waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques on Dec. 2, 2002, according to the New York Times. Even though Rumsfeld rescinded that authorization six weeks later, the summary says, prisoner abuse "was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own" but grew out of policies that "conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees." The summary was released Thursday by leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and John McCain of Arizona, the Times said. The report itself remains classified.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Administration headed towards small victory at Supreme Court

Skeptical Supreme Court justices appeared poised Wednesday to give the Bush administration a rare victory in its relentlessly hopeless battle to preserve aspects of the greatest executive power grab in U.S. history. The justices seemed reluctant to allow a Muslim resident of New York detained following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to include former top U.S. officials in a civil lawsuit alleging mistreatment, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Javaid Iqbal contends that former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller can be held personally liable for Bush administration policies that allowed mass detentions of Muslim immigrants following Sept. 11, even though government officials are generally immune when they act in their official capacities. Iqbal claims he was held in solitary confinement for six months and subjected to physical and psychological abuse while in custody in Brooklyn but was never charged with any terror-related offenses. He was deported to Pakistan after he pleaded guilty to fraud. Chief Justice John G. Roberts told Iqbal's attorneys that they needed to show some extraordinary circumstances that would allow such sweeping liability in the case. "What you have to show is some facts showing that they [top officials] knew of a policy that was discriminatory based on ethnicity and country of origin," Roberts said. An attorney for the U.S. government, Solicitor General Gregory Garre, contended that even such discriminatory conduct was justified in the days and weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. Even Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens, who do not vote repeatedly with the court's conservative majority, appeared skeptical of Iqbal's lawsuit. A ruling in favor of Iqbal, who prevailed in the Court of Appeals, could subject Ashcroft, Mueller and other top Bush administration officials to testimony under oath about decision-making in the top echelons of the U.S. government in 2001. A ruling is expected by June.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Negotiations over Congo fighting said to make progress

Reports of progress are emerging from talks between Tutsi rebels and Congo's government in Kenya, where regional diplomats are trying to avoid a repeat of the 1998-2003 war that resulted in an estimated 5 million deaths. A U.N. envoy told reporters in Nairobi that talks are expected to resume later this month, according to the Reuters international news service. "They have made progress in their talks and they will continue," said Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president of Nigeria. "The doors are not closed." Only representatives from Congo's military and Gen. Laurent Nkunda's rebel army showed up for the talks, even though more than 20 armed groups were invited. The talks are aimed at ending fighting in Congo's North Kivu province, which has displaced a quarter of a million people since August. Nkunda's National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) declared a ceasefire with the army after its forces reached the outskirts of Goma, capital of the North Kivu province, in October and the truce has stayed in force for more than a month. But fighting continues between CNDP forces and the Mai Mai militia and Hutu rebels from Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were killed in 1994. The United Nations has 17,000 peacekeeping troops in Congo.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Blackwater Worldwide gets to walk away

The indictments are in. Five Blackwater Worldwide security guards were charged Monday with multiple counts of manslaughter that could earn them decades in prison if they're convicted of shooting unarmed civilians in Baghdad's Nisoor Square in 2007. The five men surrendered to authorities after the indictments were unsealed, the Reuters international news service said. Blackwater, the North Carolina contractor that was hired by the State Department to protect diplomats and others in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and which presumably was responsible for training and equipping its employees, was not accused of any crimes. A sixth guard has pleaded guilty to lesser charges and is believed to be providing testimony to prosecutors. The guards were escorting a convoy of diplomats through a crowded Baghdad intersection when they claim they came under attack and opened fire, killing 14 and wounding 20 civilians. But a yearlong FBI investigation was unable to turn up any evidence that anybody was firing except the Blackwater guards, Reuters said. "The government alleges in the documents unsealed today that at least 34 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, were killed or injured without justification or provocation by these Blackwater security guards in the shooting at Nisoor Square," said Patrick Rowan, assistant attorney general for national security, according to Reuters. Blackwater, for its part, said its employees acted within the scope of their authority. "Based on the information available to us, we understand that these individuals acted within the rules set forth for them by the government and that no criminal violations occurred," the firm said. Brent Hatch, a lawyer on the legal team representing the guards, said the men were innocent. "They were hired as State Department contractors to protect State government officials," Hatch told reporters in Salt Lake City, where the guards surrendered. "They did their job as they were contracted to do, as they were required to do, and as the State Department asked them to do it." Arraignment is scheduled for Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C.

Anarchy in the birthplace of democracy

The irony of anarchy in Greece, the birthplace of Western democracy, is not lost on anyone. Rioting by young people has spread across the country from the major cities of Athens, where the police shooting of a 15-year-old on Saturday sparked the escalating unrest, and Thessaloniki. As of Monday, 34 civilians and 16 police officers have been injured in the rioting, which has destroyed homes, government buildings and offices of the ruling conservative party in Athens, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "We've just lost count of how many demonstrations are taking place now," a police spokesman told CNN. Prime Minster Kostas Karamanlis condemned the violence in a nationally televised speech and promised to punish those responsible for Saturday's shooting. The violence erupted immediately after the shooting, which police said occurred as disaffected young people -- called the "known-unknowns" in Greece -- attacked a police car with stones, CNN said. A police statement said the young man who was killed was attempting to throw a firebomb, but many observers disputed the official account. Two police officers have been arrested in connection with the shooting. On Monday, demonstrators barricaded streets and threw gasoline bombs at riot police in the two largest cities. The Karamanlis government, which holds a bare one-vote majority in Greek's parliament, could fall if citizens grow frustrated over its inability to control the violent demonstrations. The U.S. and British embassies have already warned employees and tourists to avoid downtown Athens and other major cities.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sarkozy tells China to get real on Tibet

Score another one for French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The French leader met with the Dalai Lama in Poland on Saturday, despite warnings from China that such a meeting could impact relations between France and China. Not only that, Sarkozy directly implied what everybody has been thinking -- that Beijing is being overly sensitive about the West's continuing contacts with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. "There's no need to dramatize things," Sarkozy said after China canceled a major summit with the European Union this week in protest, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). Sarkozy currently holds the rotating chair of the EU. Leaders from France and China were in Gdansk this week for celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to former Polish President Lech Walesa. Sarkozy told reporters after the meeting that the 30-minute session had gone "very well," Reuters said."I told him how much importance I attach to the pursuit of dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese leadership," Sarkozy said. Reuters said Sarkozy told the Tibetan leader, who leads a government-in-exile in the Indian city of Dharamsala, that his concerns about Tibet are "shared in Europe." The Dalai Lama fled China after a failed revolt against Chinese rule in 1959. China denounces the Dalai Lama as a separatist and meets with him only grudgingly, as it did earlier this year before the Beijing Olympics. He remains a revered figure in Tibet, Reuters said. China was outraged when French activists took the streets in April as the Olympic flame passed through Paris in April to protest Beijing's crackdown on pro-independence Tibetans earlier this year.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Former Blackwater guards reported ready to surrender

If the five former Blackwater Worldwide security guards indicted in the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad last year surrender to the FBI Monday as planned, the U.S. State Department will no doubt portray it as the fitting end to a very bad moment. It is neither. Rather, the indictments merely open another chapter in a tragic story that has damaged the reputation and shaken the very foundation of the U.S. military. First off, let's acknowledge that much of the damage caused by the shooting in Nisour Square in the Iraqi capital can never be healed for the families of the dead and will likely never be over for the former U.S. soldiers accused of committing an atrocity. The Sept. 16, 2007, shooting raised the ire of the U.S.-supported Iraqi government and probably was the motivating force behind the recently agreed-upon Status of Forces agreement calling for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by 2011. The shooting also made clear the need for a debate over the use of military contractors in actual conflicts, a discussion that had been scrupulously avoided by the Bush administration. The five former guards, Donald Ball, 26, of West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, 27, of Knoxville, Tennessee.; Evan Liberty, 26, of Rochester, New Hampshire; Nick Slatten, 25, of Sparta, Tennessee; and Paul Slough, 29, of Keller, Texas, will likely face murder or other charges when a federal grand jury indictment is unsealed Monday. A sixth guard is reportedly in plea negotiations. Blackwater has repeatedly claimed the guards were under attack and returning fire when the Iraqis were killed. The Justice Department, State Department and Blackwater declined to comment on the case Friday, according to the Reuters international news service. Reuters also said Friday that the government informed Blackwater Worldwide that the company will not face charges in the shooting.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Dismantling of Bush legacy to continue

Hopefully, the U.S. Supreme Court would not have agreed to review the case of a Qatari man being held as an enemy combatant in the United States if it wasn't planning to change the circumstances of his detention. But we probably won't know until at least March, when the justices hear arguments in an appeal from Ali Al-Marri, who has been held in solitary confinement, without being charged, for more than six years in the U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. According to the Reuters international news service, the federal government suspects Al-Marri, who arrived in the United States on the day before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, of being a member of al-Qaida. But whether al-Marri is or is not a terrorist is only incidental to the larger questions raised by the case. The real issue is whether the president can authorize the indefinite detention of U.S. residents, citizens or not, without charging them with any crimes. Lawyers for the Bush administration say, obviously, that such detentions are acceptable under the extraordinary circumstances of the war on terrorism. But al-Marri's appeal of an appellate court decision from July, contends that the president has overstepped his authority and violated basic American legal principles. Al-Marri is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"We are hopeful that the court will ... ensure that people in this country cannot be seized from their homes and imprisoned indefinitely simply because the president says so," said Steven Shapiro, the ACLU's legal director, according to Reuters. Al-Marri was arrested in December 2001 on charges of credit card fraud, lying to the FBI and other charges. He pleaded not guilty, and the U.S. government dropped the charges in 2003 and designated Marri an enemy combatant. According to Reuters, two other U.S. residents have been held as enemy combatants inside the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks. Jose Padilla of Chicago was held in Charleston for three years before being tried and convicted of offering his services to terrorists in criminal court in Miami; and Yaser Esam Hamdi was deported to Saudi Arabia in 2004 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled he had the right to challenge his detention in U.S. courts.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

WorldCom's Ebbers asks for clemency; $11 billion doesn't seem so bad anymore

The request for clemency by imprisoned ex-WorldCom Inc. chief executive Bernard Ebbers raises some interesting questions. The U.S. Justice Department acknowledged Wednesday that Ebbers, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for masterminding an $11 billion accounting fraud that led to the collapse of the former high-flying telecommunications firm, has asked for clemency from outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush, according to the Reuters international news service. Bush, who leaves office Jan. 20, has the power to pardon criminals or commute their sentences. But Bush, who has been inundated with high-profile clemency requests from corporate criminals, has been stingy with pardons so far. Ebbers' request is under review, a Justice Department spokeswoman told Reuters, as are similar requests by former junk bond king Michael Milken and former publishing mogul Conrad Black. Ebbers' appeal of his 2005 conviction on conspiracy, securities fraud and other charges was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. Milken served 22 months for securities fraud violations in the 1990s and is requesting a presidential pardon. Black, former head of Hollinger International and a member of the British House of Lords, asked Bush to commute his 6 1/2-year sentence for defrauding shareholders. In light of the $700 billion currently being doled out to rescue an economy seemingly pillaged by Wall Street wheeler-dealers likely to be remembered one day as criminals, what Ebbers, Milken and Black were convicted of doing just doesn't seem quite so bad.