Thursday, January 31, 2008

Financial planning

News that the FBI is investigating 14 mortgage lenders and investment banks for allegedly making improper sub-prime loans to homebuyers and for other practices that have triggered or exacerbated the nation's housing crisis raises some interesting questions. FBI Director Robert Mueller said Thursday that more than 1,000 mortgage fraud investigations had been opened in all 50 states. "There is not a state that does not have some investigation," Mueller told reporters in Hawaii, according to the Associated Press. "It is a substantial problem but we've been through problems like this in the past." He did not name any of the companies, nor did he mention what investigation tools would be used. But what does the FBI plan to do, beyond the cooperation with the Security and Exchange Commission that Mueller discussed today? Will everything be done using records, or will agents be going to banks and lenders to question employees and officers? Will suspects be taken to secret locations for interrogation? Will waterboarding or other invasive interrogation techniques be employed? An anxious nation wants to know.

Turf war

What, exactly, do you think it will take for the federal government to get prepared for a catastrophic attack on the United States? If the Sept. 11 attacks -- when three planes were hijacked and flown hundreds of miles unimpeded until they crashed into major buildings (including the Pentagon), killing thousands -- weren't enough, just what will it take? Today's report from the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves should give all Americans pause. Officials at the Pentagon get paid a lot of money to work every day figuring out how to protect this country -- they probably have thousands of people devoted to this very subject -- and they don't have a plan for what to do in case of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack. "We looked at their plans - they're totally unacceptable," commission chairman Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general, said yesterday after reviewing strategies developed by U.S. Northern Command, according to the Reuters international news agency. "You couldn't move a Girl Scout unit with the kind of planning they're doing," Punaro said. Northern Command is the Pentagon unit, created after the Sept. 11 attacks, dedicated to homeland defense. But the commission says the military has not dedicated sufficient resources to prepare for such a role, despite the creation of Northern Command after the 9/11 attacks. Why not? Well, the commission says one reason is tension between the federal government and the states over who will be in charge of the nation's response. Great. The future of the country is in doubt because of a turf war between government agencies? Hello? Isn't there somebody in charge in Washington?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Kenya talks

The top U.S. diplomat in Africa said today that Kenya's main political parties locked in a deadly dispute over the outcome of the Dec. 27 election should agree to share power and form a coalition government. Jendayi Frazer made the statement as negotiators from the two parties prepared to meet Thursday for a second day of talks brokered by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Three-member teams from President Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity and opposition leader Raila Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement are trying to resolve a dispute that began with the Dec. 27 balloting and has descended into ethnic clashes and anarchy that threaten the country's roles as a major port and desirable tourist destination. Kibaki says he won the election for a second term but Odinga claims he won the vote and the election was stolen from him. Since the election, violence has broken out along tribal lines in normally peaceful Kenyan towns pitting members of Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe against members of the Luo, Luhya and Kalenjin tribes who back Odinga. Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the European Union declared their support for Annan's mediation effort yesterday at a meeting in London, the Reuters international news service reported.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Okay, does everyone understand now? The United States doesn't torture terrorism suspects and the question of whether waterboarding is torture is moot because the CIA doesn't do that anymore. It that clear? That depends on what "that" means. Or, so says new U.S. Attorney Michael Mukasey, who told Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) in a letter Tuesday that the CIA's current interrogation methods are legal and that's what matters. "The interrogation techniques currently authorized in the CIA program comply with the law," Mukasey wrote in the letter, according to the Reuters international news service. "Waterboarding is not, and may not be, used in the current program," the letter said. Mukasey's refusal to answer whether he considered waterboarding illegal nearly derailed his confirmation hearings last year, and the replacement for Bush's friend Alberto Gonzales pledged to review the interrogation program. But Mukasey's letter said he would not give his judgment about the interrogation method, in which water is used to make detainees feel they are drowning. "As a general matter, I do not believe that it is advisable to address difficult legal questions, about which responsible minds can and do differ, in the absence of concrete facts and circumstances," the letter said. Leahy rejected Mukasey's assertion. Mukasey is scheduled to testify before Leahy's panel today. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who was the nation's first director of national intelligence from 2005-2007, said in an interview published last week that waterboarding had been used but not during his term as spy chief. The issue is part of the uproar in Washington over the destruction of videotapes said to depict the use of waterboarding in interrogations of at least one suspected al-Qaida terrorist in 2002. Mukasey ordered the Justice Department to investigate the destruction of the tapes but has rejected calls for an independent counsel.

Quiet please

What's the deal with the Congress repeatedly interrupting President Bush's State of the Union speech last night with wild applause? They always do that -- no matter how inappropriate, no matter the president. But why? This guy is probably the worst president ever -- his popularity is in the toilet, the country has lost a lot of credibility, the executive branch is undermining the Bill of Rights, the economy is falling apart -- so what's the thing? And the speech? Things are great in Iraq, the economy is strong, the country needs more tax cuts. What, exactly, is the disconnect here? The Congress interrupted Bush's speech 70 times with applause. Perhaps the assembled lawmakers were not applauding the speech at all, but were clapping because they appreciate the fancy joint chamber, the fancy furniture, the government-paid cars, the $5,000 suits they get to wear. Fine tailors all around. Do you think they're getting paid too much? This is the guy who devoted the 2003 State of the Union speech to Saddam Hussein and Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and took the country to war on false pretenses. Applause? Maybe they're happy, ecstatic even -- like most of the country -- that it's almost over.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Kenya hopes fade

The disintegration of society in Kenya continued unabated today as gangs of Kikuyu and Luo youth rampaged in western towns. Today, young people from the Kikuyu tribe, the same tribe as embattled president Mwai Kibaki, squared off against young people from the Luo tribe, which includes opposition leader Raila Odinga, in the western tourist town of Naivasha. Kenya has convulsed with ethnic violence since the closely contested Dec. 27 presidential election, which Odinga claims Kibaki stole. International observers have questioned the vote count, and Odinga has demanded that Kibaki resign and hold new elections. More than 85 have died in the past five days, according to the Washington Post. Post-election violence has claimed close to 800 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands in Kenya, which had been a stable democracy seen as a model for other emerging African nations. The Kibaki-Odinga dispute has apparently awakened long-simmering tribal rivalries among the Kikuyu tribe, which has long ruled Kenya, and the Luo and Kalenjin tribes, which backed Odinga. The initial optimism that surrounded last week's arrival of mediator Kofi Annan of Ghana, the former U.N. secretary-general, who arranged the first meeting between Kibaki and Odinga since the December balloting, appears to be fading.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Under pressure

News from the Middle East today is that Israel will resume fuel shipments to the Gaza Strip, the renegade Palestinian territory that broke away from the Palestinian Authority last year, the BBC is reporting. Restoring the fuel supply should help relieve a looming humanitarian crisis in the 1.5-million population territory, from which Israel withdrew in 2005. Israel had been blockading Gaza in response to daily artillery fire from militants directed at the nearby Israeli city of Sderot, but enough is enough. If authorities in the Gaza Strip, now controlled by the terror group Hamas, which still denies Israel's right to exist, cannot stop the shelling, the Israeli Army must do it. But to inflict more suffering on the people of the Gaza Strip seems pointless and cruel. Israel obviously believes Hamas is encouraging or at least tolerating the rocket attacks, which is probably true. The suffering of Gaza Strip residents does not motivate Hamas to resolve the crisis, but Israel should not be so callous. Plus, Israel is powerful enough to deal with the threat without endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands of residents. Of course, the threat has eased in recent days with the breaching of the Egyptian border, which had been closed since the Hamas takeover, and the free movement of Gaza Strip residents to Egyptian cities to buy supplies. Israel's decision to allow fuel shipments came at a hearing of the Israeli Supreme Court on a lawsuit brought by human rights groups opposed to the blockade.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Kenya crisis grows

New violence in Kenya's Rift Valley has cast serious doubt on the efforts of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to resolve the East African nation's political crisis that has claimed more than 700 lives. Dozens have been killed today in Nakuru, a previously calm lakeshore tourist town, the Reuters international news service reported, as tribal rivalries flared out of control, inflamed by the country's electoral dispute. Kenya, long considered one of Africa's most stable democracies, has been experiencing social disintegration since the close Dec. 27 presidential ballot, in which President Mwai Kibaki claimed re-election. Violence erupted after Kibaki's chief opponent and longtime political rival, Raila Odinga, claimed the election had been stolen. Kibaki is a member of the Kikuyu tribe, while Odinga is a Luo. The world has seen video of Kenyan police shooting demonstrators in the streets, savaging Kenya's reputation and disrupting its vital tourist trade. Annan was able to get Kibaki and Odinga to meet Thursday for the first time since the disputed election, but the meeting dissolved into acrimony during a post-conference press conference. Earlier entreaties by African Union Chairman John Kufuor and by diplomats from the United States and Great Britain were unsuccessful. Both the U.S. and Britain have said the election appeared flawed.

Torture update

Look at the bright side in the latest disappointment from the Bush Justice Department. Attorney General Michael Mukasey's decision Friday not to appoint a special prosecutor in the CIA interrogation tapes destruction disaster comes as bad news, sure, for anyone interested in finding out the truth about the government's latest missteps. The investigation will be left to career government attorneys with solid reputations but whose integrity will be suspect unless they find wrongdoing. But there is a bright side. Remember the bizarre independent counsel investigation of former President Bill Clinton? That was months and months of weirdness and absurdity followed by impeachment! At least we won't have to endure another gross misuse of government authority and taxpayers' money. Of course, Mukasey's briefing to the press Friday was not without its own strangeness. Mukasey, who was nominated after President Bush's friend, Alberto Gonzales, resigned under a cloud of controversy, again refused to say whether the use of waterboarding, the aggressive interrogation technique said to be depicted on the destroyed tapes, was legal under U.S. law or amounted to torture. Mukasey's refusal to answer that question nearly derailed his nomination, even though intelligence chief Mike McConnell had no doubt that it was torture in an interview with the New Yorker magazine earlier this month. Mukasey is scheduled to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and members have pledged to quiz him on the subject.

Chavez continued

Not entirely surprisingly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Friday said that the United States was plotting with the government of Colombia to attack his country. On the same day that Colombia hosted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a group of U.S. lawmakers, Chavez accused Colombia, Venezuela's western neighbor, of conspiring against him, according to the Reuters international news service. "I accuse the government of Colombia of plotting a conspiracy, acting as a pawn of the North American empire, of plotting a military provocation against Venezuela," Chavez told reporters in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. More likely, Chavez was venting outrage against the reason for Rice's visit — a pending free trade deal between the United States and Colombia. Chavez has gone off the handle before — remember when he called President Bush the "devil" at the United Nations last year and when the Spanish king told him to "shut up" at a conference in Europe? Tense relations between Colombia and Venezuela sank to a new low last year after Colombian President Alvaro Uribe kicked Chavez out of negotiations with Colombian rebel groups for the release of hostages, and Venezuela withdrew its ambassador. Chavez later was able to negotiate the release of two hostages held by FARC — Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — on his own. Chavez is a close ally of Fidel Castro in Cuba, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Hopeful handshake

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga met Thursday and shook hands for the first time since the disputed Dec. 27 election that has thrown the East African nation into political turmoil. The two vowed to solve the political crisis that erupted after Kibaki claimed victory in a close election and swore in a new cabinet, even as Odinga disputed the vote counting process. The United States and Great Britain also expressed concerns about the vote. Thursday's meeting, which occurred at the urging of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan of Ghana, ended with more heated rhetoric after Kibaki called himself Kenya's duly elected leader in remarks to reporters. Odinga's Orange Democratic Union party called Kibaki's claim to the presidency "illegal." Thursday's meeting happened after Annan apparently convinced Odinga to call off protests planned for that day. Recent protests have turned violent and resulted in the deaths of more than 600, many at the hands of police who have fired on demonstrators.

Colombia pact

Caution, not cheerleading, would appear to be in order as the U.S. Congress considers a free-trade agreement with Colombia, perhaps this country's closest ally in South America. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged lawmakers to approve the deal yesterday before she left with nine Democratic lawmakers on a trip to Medellin, Colombia's capital. Rice is hoping to convince the legislators to vote for the trade accord, the Reuters international news agency reported. But the record of previous free-trade agreements has caused concern as many U.S. manufacturing businesses have moved to take advantage of lower wages in other countries. Indeed, the AFL-CIO strongly opposes the deal with Colombia, Reuters said. The three leading Democratic presidential candidates — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards — also oppose the pact. Rice acknowledged Thursday that Colombia still needs to improve its human rights record but said Congress should approve the deal to acknowledge the country's progress in reducing the influence of drug gangs and paramilitary forces. Colombia's capital used to be home to the infamous Medellin drug cartel. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has indicated she does not anticipate scheduling a vote on the pact this year. But Pelosi supported the free trade deal with Peru that was approved by Congress in December.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Running interference

The Bush administration is trying to hide something -- most likely, the involvement of auto industry executives -- in last month's decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to deny California's request to impose tougher vehicle emissions standards than the federal government. Documents released today by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) reveal that agency staff supported granting the waiver, which would be the first ever on carbon emissions and is opposed by automakers. Boxer's Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee is investigating the EPA's decision, and the agency sent over documents that were heavily edited, apparently to hide whatever the administration wanted hidden. But committee staff then released unedited copies of the documents. California filed suit Jan. 2 to challenge the decision. The documents also say agency staff believe EPA will lose the California suit but would prevail in a lawsuit from auto manufacturers. The industry favors new federal regulations that mandate a smaller increase in fuel economy than California's rules, which are backed by 11 other states. EPA chief Stephen Johnson is scheduled to testify before the committee on Thursday.

Tehran tantrum

Iran refused today to halt its nuclear research despite yesterday's agreement by world powers on an outline for a new sanctions resolution. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran was determined to develop nuclear technology to generate electrical power, the Reuters international news agency reported, and called opposition from Western nations a "mistake." World powers agreed on the new resolution yesterday, although without punitive measures the United States was pushing for. But why, exactly, would Iran need nuclear power for electricity when it sits atop the world's third-largest oil reserve, behind only Saudi Arabia and Canada, and has huge natural gas reserves? Most likely, what the Western nations believe is not a mistake at all — Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons, despite a U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran stopped work on such weaponry in 2003. That assessment apparently was behind the decision of China and Russia, who have major trade relationships with Iran, to oppose punitive sanctions proposed by the United States, including a ban on business with leading state banks.

Strategy change?

So, Pakistan is not trying to find Osama bin Laden? That's what Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, said yesterday during a visit to France, according to the Associated Press. But isn't finding bin Laden the justification for sending U.S. troops to Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan, and dislodging the Taliban from power there? And isn't that why the U.S. has given billions of dollars to Pakistan? Musharraf said Tuesday that it was more important to fight remnants of the Taliban on the Afghan border than to search for leaders of al-Qaida, the terrorist group that took responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, and the fact that bin Laden and al-Qaida second-in-command Ayman Al-Zawahri are still at large and believed hiding in the border region "doesn't mean much." What does the White House think about this? A top State Department official, counterterrorism chief Dell Dailey, said the Bush administration was displeased with the quality of intelligence from Pakistan about what was going on in the border region. "We don't have enough information about what's going on there -- not on al-Qaida, not on foreign fighters, not on the Taliban," Dailey told the AP. Musharraf, who as commander of Pakistan's military seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, said the remnants of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime and its Pakistani sympathizers are the "more serious issue" for both countries. Musharraf, the former commander of Pakistan's armed forces, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who met with Musharraf yesterday, expressed support for Pakistan's fight with extremists, the AP reported.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Calling on Kenya

Maybe former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Ghana can figure out what to do to restore civil order and democracy in Kenya and how to get the government and opposition to agree to do it. Annan is due to arrive in Nairobi on Tuesday, and faces a dire situation that only seems to be getting worse. The world has seen police loyal to President Mwai Kibaki -- whose re-election in December has been challenged as rigged by the man he defeated, opposition leader Raila Odinga, and questioned by the United States and Great Britain -- shoot demonstrators in the streets of several cities. Kenyan society is disintegrating along tribal lines, and something must be done to save East Africa's most stable and prosperous democracy. If Kibaki's re-election was, indeed, invalid, as Odinga says, Kibaki needs to be removed from office by whatever pressure the international community can bring. But if the election results were valid, Odinga needs to stop inciting his supporters to demonstrate in the streets and stop provoking the police. Odinga said today that he was the "rightful elected president and that "Kibaki stole his way into power," according to the Reuters international news service. But Odinga and Kibaki have a complicated personal rivalry that could be impacting the unfolding events. Kenya's government has raised formal complaints about interference from Western nations. More demonstrations are planned for Thursday, raising the specter of further violence. More than 650 have been killed and 250,000 displaced since the start of protests after last month's balloting.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Situation deteriorating

Israel's decision Friday to tighten its siege of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip by closing all borders and blocking fuel supplies has added to Palestinian skepticism about the Jewish state's intentions in peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Gaza's main power station shut down Sunday, plunging parts of the territory into darkness, even though most of the area's electricity comes from Israel and Egypt and that supply has not been interrupted. Less than a third of Gaza's power comes from the main power station, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said the blockade was in response to continuing missile attacks from Gaza and "everything would go back to normal" if the rocket fire stopped. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose government was driven from Gaza by Hamas forces last June, called on Israel to reopen the border crossings and on Gazans to stop giving Israel "justification" for its siege. Hamas refuses to recognize the existence of Israel. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are in the midst of negotiations for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on territory captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war. But relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which seem to have improved since U.S. President George W. Bush's recent visit to the region, have been complicated by the Gaza situation and by yesterday's comments by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, who said his group was holding body parts of Israeli soldiers killed in a 34-day war in 2006.

News from planet 1

Last week's news that a NASA satellite passed within 126 miles of the planet Mercury hearkens back to the day when the government offered hope for the future along with its regular portion of ugly war news. Plans call for the MESSENGER probe to again fly by in October and next year before assuming an orbit around the closest planet to the sun in 2011, according to the Reuters international news service. The first data transmissions from the craft are expected to be received on earth beginning Tuesday. NASA says the mission is designed for gather information on the composition of Mercury's surface, its geologic history and its relationship with the solar wind. Notice, however, that nowhere in that list of accomplishments are any corporations looking for cheap manufacturing processes or any other countries trying to gain an advantage on others. This one, apparently, is for the sake of knowledge. There was a time, although it's hard to believe now, that the space program's reason for being was the gathering of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It used to be about learning more about the universe and the meaning of human life, assuming there is one. MESSENGER is an acronym for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging. It was launched in 2004. "We were closer to the surface of Mercury than the International Space Station is to the Earth," said Michael Paul, a mission engineer, according to Reuters.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Suspicious minds

It's obviously too early for any judgments about Pakistan's arrest of two al-Qaida linked suspects in last month's assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The two suspects, including a 15-year-old boy, allegely have ties to al Qaeda-linked militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, who operates in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, according to the Reuters international news service. President Pervez Musharraf blamed the killing on al-Qaida right after it happened, and CIA director Michael Hayden made a similar claim yesterday. Many observers in and out of Pakistan suspect the involvement of Musharraf's government either directly or indirectly, since Bhutto was a charismatic opposition leader who was likely to be returned to parliament in the country's rapidly approaching elections. But the boys allegedly told authorities they were to be part of a suicide bombing if the shooting was not successful, Reuters said. So, even if the charges are true, there are a lot of suspects still out there.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Economic realities

What do the Republicans and Democrats who run the country really think about us, the people they work for? Follow the new debate, started today by President Bush's economic stimulus proposal, and all will be revealed. Bush proposes cutting taxes by up to $150 billion in an effort to shore up the U.S. economy, which many economists believe is sinking into a recession — consecutive quarters of declining economic output. The U.S. economy shrank in December. But like the tax cut of 2001, in which taxpayers received rebate checks from the federal government, Bush's plan returns most of the money to the richest taxpayers. Bush also wants temporary tax breaks to encourage business expansion. Plans proposed by Democrats would include increased spending on unemployment benefits and food stamps, in part because lower-income people are considerably more likely to spend the money faster. But years of mismanagement of the economy are bound to diminish the impact of any tax cuts. The administration has used the standard Republican tactic of covering up economic problems by lowering the value of the dollar against foreign currencies — part of the reason the price of oil is near $100 a barrel. That's why the president was forced last week to beg Saudi Arabia — unsuccessfully — to increase oil production. Somehow, the U.S. public consistently fails to make the connection between a Republican president and the counterproductive Republican economic strategies. The economy probably is in much worse shape than the government is letting on. The fact that the stock market went down today after Bush's plan was announced attests to that. But the 2008 election is approaching fast.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Contemptuous conduct

Could a civil lawsuit in New York be the beginning of the end of the Bush administration's rampage through the U.S. Constitution? Today, a federal judge said he thinks the government was lying when its attorneys told the court there were no records or transcripts of interrogation tapes of two suspected al-Qaida terrorists that were destroyed in 2005. Judge Alvin Hellerstein's remarks came during a hearing in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups contended the government illegally refused to turn over records requested by the organization under the Freedom of Information Act. Hellerstein said in court that was "hard to believe" that there were no existing records, according to the Reuters international news service. "It would seem to me, in fact, that you were gulled and the court was gulled," Hellerstein told Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Skinner, Reuters said. Hellerstein also said he would likely find the CIA had not complied with a court order but not find it in contempt. The judge still could subpoena CIA officials to explain what happened to records of the tapes, which reportedly show the use of harsh interrogation techniques in questioning of Abu Zabaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri at a secret prison in Thailand. With Congress still cowed by the Bush administration's aggressive seizure of power since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it is left to the courts to restore constitutional balance to the U.S. government.

Kenya upheaval

Protests continued today in Kenya, more than two weeks after the country's president, Mwai Kibaki, claimed victory in a hotly disputed presidential election. Police fired tear gas and live rounds into the air to disperse demonstrators in Nairobi, the capital, and the western town of Kisumu, an opposition stronghold, the Reuters international news service reported. More than 600 have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by violence that has paralyzed the East African country since the election, which Western nations have characterized as flawed. An African Union mission to try to start negotiations between Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga ended in failure last week. Odinga claims Kibaki stole the Dec. 27 election. A member of Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement, which holds the most seats in Kenya's parliament, was elected as speaker this week. Another mission headed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan of Ghana is reportedly on hold. Yesterday, the European Union indicated it was reviewing its program of aid to Kenya, which was one of Africa's most stable and prosperous nations until the unrest began. The EU had planned to send $600 million in aid to Kenya through 2013, Reuters said.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Taking the fall

Hopefully, nobody but nonsensical Republican lawmakers are going to buy the Bush administration's latest gambit to blame the 2005 destruction of videotapes of two al-Qaida suspects on a newly retired CIA official. Today's comments by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, that Jose Rodriguez, the CIA's former head of clandestine operations, "hadn't gotten authority from anyone" before he allegedly ordered the destruction of the tapes are preposterous. Rodriguez, who retired earlier this month, is taking the fall for the Bush administration's malfeasance. We already know that higher-ups in the White House knew about the tapes and were involved in discussions over whether to destroy them. There doesn't appear to be much question about the involvement of President Bush or Vice President Cheney or both. All that's missing is the smoking gun, as it were. Today, the committee took closed-door testimony from acting CIA general counsel John Rizzo, who said he advised against destroying the tapes, which reportedly show the use of "enhanced" techniques to get the suspects to talk. Rodriguez has refused to testify without immunity — a technical matter that can either be worked out or he can apply for another of those Bush pardons. The existence of the tapes, as we know, was not revealed to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks or to federal judges who demanded evidence from the government for trials.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Customer service

What is the United States expecting from the billions of dollars and thousands of lives invested in Iraq? Some say oil, some say greater stability in the volatile Middle East. Remarks yesterday from Iraq's defense minister suggests yet another possibility — a very, very, very good customer. On a visit to the United States, Abdul Qadir told the New York Times on Monday that Iraq expects to need foreign military help (read United States) to help defend its borders for 10 more years, even if it is able to maintain internal security by 2012. Qadir told the Times that Iraq wants to buy billions of dollars worth of weapons for its new U.S.-trained army, including vehicles, helicopters, tanks and artillery. Iraq's previous armed forces were disbanded after the 2003 U.S. invasion, but its stores of weapons were left unguarded and apparently fell into the hands of insurgents.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Contempt for Congress

So, it turns out that Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA official said to have made the decision to destroy the infamous interrogation videotapes, will not testify before Congress on Wednesday, as expected. No, he has been "excused" from appearing, his lawyer told the Reuters international news service today, because he would not answer questions unless he was granted immunity. Hmmm. Wasn't Rodriguez subpoenaed by the House Intelligence Committee, and doesn't that compel him to testify? Rodriguez was the head of the CIA's clandestine branch in 2005 when the tapes, said to show the use of waterboarding on two suspected al-Qaida members, were destroyed. Rodriguez retired from the agency this month. The CIA revealed the existence of hundreds of hours of videotapes, and their destruction, last month, prompting investigations by the Justice Department and by Congress. CIA lawyer John Rizzo is the only person expected to testify at Wednesday's closed-door hearing, Reuters said.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tongue torture

The director of national intelligence says in a magazine article published today that waterboarding, the interrogation technique that simulates drowning, would be torture if used against him. But Mike McConnell also refuses to condemn the practice, reportedly used against two suspected al-Qaida operatives in the destroyed CIA videotapes, and says the United States does not participate in torture. What? It is generally conceded that the videotapes showed the use of waterboarding on the two suspects, and the head of U.S. intelligence says waterboarding is torture. What is the problem here? The fact that President Bush also denies that the U.S. uses torture, even as he threatens to veto a bill in Congress that would bar the CIA from using waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques not authorized by the military, does not change the truth of the situation. If the president believes the threat of terrorism outweighs the country's founding principles, he ought to make that case to the American people and stop his advisers from bludgeoning the language. CIA spokesman Mike Mansfield also weighs in today on the noncontroversy, saying "the information developed through the detention and interrogation program has been irreplaceable, and the program has operated in strict accord with American law." Of course, that doesn't mean anything, either. To paraphrase a great philosopher of the big screen, stupid is as stupid says.

Hot potato

What difference does it make if Marxist rebels in Colombia responsible for an insurgency that has gone on for decades are called insurgents or terrorists? It means something to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the socialist leader who called President Bush "the devil" at the United Nations. Chavez said Saturday that there was no military solution to the long-running guerrilla war and that peace talks would never succeed if Colombia's government, and the United States and its allies, continued to label the rebels as terrorists, the Reuters international news service reported. "As long as the Colombian government keeps calling them terrorist groups that should be exterminated, what peace is possible?" Chavez said at a socialist party conference. Chavez, who won international praise this week for negotiating the release of two female politicians kidnapped by the rebels, wants to play a larger role in ending the conflict. But Colombia has refused to stop calling the insurgents "terrorists," blaming them for kidnappings, bombings of civilians, using children as soldiers and drug dealing. The largest group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, or FARC, still holds hundreds of hostages in remote camps. FARC is fighting for fairer wealth distribution in Colombia, Reuters said.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

No hurry in Iraq

Americans seeking the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq are certainly going to be disappointed by President Bush's statement today that he might slow down plans to cut troop levels this year. Bush also said in Bahrain that he expected the U.S. military presence in Iraq to continue after his presidency ends next year. But is anybody surprised? No one who is paying attention should have expected anything different; the situation in Iraq, while reportedly improved, is far from settled. The suicide bombers seem to have switched their attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan as U.S. forces expand their control north of Baghdad. Even the U.S.-supported government in Iraq appears to be moving towards reconciliation with the Sunnis who were in power when Saddam Hussein was in charge. Bush stopped in Bahrain on his way home from Israel, where he tried to advance negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on a peace agreement, which he said was possible before he leaves office.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Abdication continues

At least it's not just Congress' fault. The federal courts continued their abdication of responsibility to oversee the Constitution today when the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Washington decided that four British citizens held at Guantanamo Bay prison could not sue the Pentagon and the military over alleged torture and religious rights violations. The ruling went beyond a federal trial judge's decision to dismiss most of the lawsuit -- except for the religious rights claims -- by dismissing the entire suit. Look, if these guys were held by the United States and tortured or treated inhumanely, why shouldn't they have a chance to go to court and prove their claims? Yes, we're at war with terrorists and the security of the United States may be at risk, but it's our basic laws and principles that we're defending -- the same laws and principles that our courts are treating so lightly. The courts were the last hope of turning around the government stampede over constitutional checks and balances -- solving this problem at the ballot box will take a very determined effort over a very long time.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Keeping Kenya

To be sure, it was difficult to see how Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, and opposition leader Raila Odinga could accomplish anything through negotiation in the overheated political situation in the East African nation. So, it came as so surprise to hear today that diplomats from the African Union, the United States and Great Britain were unable to get the feuding political leaders to resolve the dispute over last month's contested election, as the Reuters international news service reported. Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement party claim Kibaki stole the election after losing the popular vote on Dec. 27; Kibaki claimed victory and swore in a new cabinet Tuesday. The dispute has resulted in unrest that has so far cost at least 500 lives and displaced 250,000 in a country that had been one of Africa's biggest success stories. AU Chairman John Kufuor, in Nairobi to mediate talks that never came about, said both sides agreed to work with a new panel headed by former U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan. Kufuor left Nairobi today after a two-day visit. But if Kibaki did steal the election, there is nothing to negotiate. He needs to be forced out (maybe to face criminal charges) and the proper winner of the balloting needs to to be seated. Kibaki and Odinga reportedly had reached an agreement through intermediaries to examine the election results and hold new balloting if needed, but Kibaki reportedly repudiated the deal, Reuters said. Kibaki's office denied knowledge of an agreement. Kenya's National Commission on Human Rights today demanded a criminal investigation into the conduct of the country's electoral commission. Both the U.S. and Britain have said the election was flawed.

Saying the unthinkable

Does President Bush really know what he said in Jerusalem today? Does he really think Jews and Arabs can live together in peace, without heavily armed soldiers guarding national borders -- and do it next year? Maybe peace is possible -- for the sake of the world, it better be possible -- but next year? Bush called on Israel today to end its occupation of the West Bank, which it took in 1967 from Jordan, which took it from the Palestinians in the 1948-49, and for Palestinians to give up their goal of returning to their pre-1948 homes in what is now Israel. In return, the Palestinians would get an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza. Bush also called upon Israel to stop settlement activity in its West Bank population centers and in East Jerusalem, which it regards as part of its capital. Bush wants to accomplish this before he leaves office next January. This might be possible in a perfect world, where soldiers don't kidnap and torture other soldiers and don't threaten and humiliate civilians, but we don't live in a perfect world. In our world, Palestinian children are taught to hate Israeli (read Jewish) children, Arab extremists mutilate the bodies of Israeli soldiers and Israel destroys the homes of suspected militants and their families and imprisons tens of thousands of Arab suspects and holds them indefinitely. We'd all like to see them live in peace, but it will take a lot longer than one year -- even if they do agree to stop fighting -- for the Jews, Arabs and Palestinians of the Middle East to learn to trust each other.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Half empty

It's hard to know what to think about President Bush's statements today on the first day of his first visit to the Middle East as president. Bush said he believes Israel and the Palestinian Authority will sign an agreement leading to a Palestinian state this by the time his term ends next January, but also said the division of Palestinian territory precipitated by the extremist group Hamas could take longer than a year to resolve. These statements are contradictory, since Israeli leaders told Bush they would not agree to a deal without the Hamas question being resolved. Hamas, which refuses to accept the existence of the Jewish state, took control of the Gaza Strip in June after winning a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament at the ballot box. Bush met first with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres before heading over the Jordan River to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the Ramallah compound where the Yasir Arafat was besieged by Israeli forces a few years ago, according to the Reuters international news service. Reuters said a poll by Israel's Yediot Ahronoth newspaper found that 77 percent of Israelis do not think Bush's visit will bring progress in the peace process.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Strait of Hormuz resolution

With President Bush's comment yesterday that Iranian speedboats committed "a provocative act" by approaching and threatening three U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz, how long will it be before he asks Congress to pass one of those open-ended resolutions that authorize the use of force? The 2002 Iraq war resolution, which authorized the use of force against Iraq, and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which authorized President Lyndon Johnson to use "all necessary steps" to protect U.S. forces, were used by the White House to wage wars without a formal declaration of war from Congress. Whether the U.S. warships in the strait, the only shipping access to the Persian Gulf through which 17 million of crude oil pass daily, were ever in danger from the five speedboats doesn't even seem to matter now. If President Bush was looking for a way to start hostilities with Iran, he may have gotten it.

Breakdown in Kenya

Hours after Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga, who claims last month's election tally was fraudulent, turned down President Mwai Kibaki's offer of negotiations, Kibaki appointed a new cabinet and rioters returned to the streets in Nairobi, the nation's capital. Odinga had agreed to meet with Kibaki if the talks were part of African Union efforts to mediate the crisis, which has sparked violence that has so far claimed 500 lives. African Union Chairman John Kufuor, the president of Ghana, has arrived in Nairobi and planned to begin working tomorrow. But Kibaki did not invite Kufuor to participate in talks with Odinga, according to the Reuters international news service. Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) said the talks would be a "sideshow" without international mediation, and called the appointment of a new cabinet illegal. The top U.S. diplomat in Africa, Jendya Frazer, also offered to help mediate between Odinga and Kibaki. Odinga wants Kibaki to resign and agree to a new election, but Kibaki rejects international mediation his political party says the crisis is an internal matter, Reuters said. Kenya has the largest economy in East Africa and the turmoil has disrupted shipments of supplies to Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Sudan, which rely on Kenya's port of Mombasa.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Killing us softly

The U.S. Supreme Court appeared divided on ideological lines today when the justices heard arguments in a Kentucky appeal challenging the constitutionality of the lethal injection method of execution. An attorney for two inmates on death row contend the three-drug combination used in nearly all executions in the United States can cause excruciating pain when the first drug does not render the condemned person totally unconscious. In those cases, application of the second drug, a paralytic agent, is extremely painful and leaves the inmate unable to say anything. Attorneys for Kentucky and for the Bush administration, which is defending the execution method, argued that it will result in painless death if properly administered. Conservative justices Antonin Scalia and John Roberts, the chief justice, seemed skeptical of the inmates' contentions while more-liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens appeared sympathetic to the inmates' arguments, according to the Reuters international news service. The case, which has temporarily halted all executions in the 36 states that allow them, is the first time the Supreme Court has heard oral argument on the legality of a specific method of execution since it upheld the use of firing squads in 1879.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Third front

Uh oh, the Bush administration is at it again. The New York Times reports today that the top U.S. national security advisers met Friday with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to discuss expanding the CIA's covert operations in Pakistan. Many in the government want the CIA and the military to be more aggressive and conduct more operations in the tribal region along Pakistan's long northern border with Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden is said to be hiding. But what have they been doing all this time if not that? Isn't that the reason the United States cozied up to Pakistan dictator Pervez Musharraf, to have the freedom to do that? Of course, there are dangers. Some in the government warn that the presence of U.S. forces will cause a backlash against Musharraf, and damage relations with the Pakistani military. Pakistan has 100,000 troops in the tribal areas but has apparently had little success against al-Qaida insurgents. The Times said the White House meeting on Friday was part of a reassessment of U.S. policy toward Pakistan following last month's assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Kenya breakthrough?

Word from Kenya that the chairman of the African Union will visit next week in hopes of resolving a political crisis that has descended into violence that killed 300 and uprooted more than a quarter-million people is the first really good news for that nation since last month's disputed presidential election. Kenya agreed today to allow the visit of John Kufuor, the president of Ghana, after behind-the-scenes negotiations between officials of the two nations, the Reuters international news agency reported. Violence broke out after Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner of the Dec. 27, 2007, election that the opposition charges was rigged. Opposition leader Raila Odinga, who helped Kibaki win the 2002 election, appeared headed to victory last month before the final count was released. International observers said the election did not meet democratic standards, Reuters said. It's difficult to see how the situation can be resolved without Kibaki resigning from office, as his recent offer to form a unity government with Odinga indicates. But some resolution is urgent, since the crisis has affected hundreds of thousands of people in neighboring countries that depend on Kenya for shipping and transportation.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Hand in pocket

What happened to Adam Smith's invisible hand that guides capitalists to do the best things for the most people? Yesterday's news that Japanese carmaker Toyota outsold Ford to become the second largest automaker in the world in 2007 is the latest bad news in a long run of it for the U.S. automobile industry. Ford had been the No. 2 automaker in the world for more than 70 years, but the U.S. auto industry has been in decline for decades. Why? Well, it isn't bad luck. It's nearly 35 years since the oil embargo of 1973 yet the United States still doesn't have a small car as good as the Japanese have been building for decades. What's that about? Haven't U.S. automakers had enough time to realize that efficiency and low-emissions were vital to competing on the world stage? Why does the U.S. government give tax breaks for building inefficient cars? The effects of this threaten more than the bottom line of a few companies — there are tens of thousands of jobs at stake, and the well-being of tens of thousands of families. Maybe there ought to be criminal penalties for messing up so badly — if money doesn't move them, avoiding prison ought to be a big enough incentive to encourage these characters to do a better job.

Foreign policies

Gee, it's getting harder and harder to trust the Bush administration on international relations. The repeated crises in Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan and, of course, Pakistan seem make every White House decision suspect. Sometimes, it's hard to tell whether the administration is being unrealistic, naive, ridiculous or all three. In that context, it's impossible to view Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's meeting yesterday with Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammad Abdel-Rahman Shalgam in Washington with anything but concern. Dialog would seem to be a good thing, but there are limits. Libya has resolved some concerns, but not nearly all, since reportedly renouncing terrorism and nuclear weapons in 2003 in exchange for good will and economic support from the United States. Libya did release a Palestinian doctor and five Belgian nurses it held for seven years (seven years!) on seemingly ludicrous charges of spreading the AIDS virus. But Libya still refuses to release political prisoners or settle cases that arose from the Pan Am flight 103 crash over Scotland in 1988 and the bombing of a disco in West Berlin in 1986, according to the Reuters international news service. A White House spokesman said Rice raised these issues in a one-hour meeting with Shalgam, because she wants to work with Libya on Kosovo, Iran and Sudan. But words are not the same as action. Friendship with the United States used to be a nearly priceless commodity, until the Bush administration devalued it like the dollar.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Welcome aboard

What do you suppose went into yesterday's announcement that the Justice Department had launched a criminal investigation into the CIA's destruction of videotapes said to show harsh interrogation of terror suspects? It took weeks for Attorney General Michael Mukasey to determine that a crime might have been committed in the destruction of hundreds of hours of tapes that were withheld from the Sept. 11 Commission and from judges who requested them for criminal cases, even though that's more than obvious. Come on, the federal government keeps everything and there are hundreds of federal buildings in cities all over the country because it needs places to put things. Do we really think it's just a coincidence that evidence of illegal conduct is the one thing that gets destroyed? It's more than two years since the tapes were destroyed with the apparent knowledge of White House insiders. What kind of calculation or arrangement did Mukasey have to make here? He's the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, isn't he? Maybe the Bush administration is just circling the proverbial wagons, trying to keep its remaining public servants out of prison for one more year? We can only hope the Congressional investigations will be more believable, but it's only a faint hope.

People won't

Why do you think President Bush won't use the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve to ease oil prices, as the White House said yesterday. The man is a conservative Republican -- they don't believe in using the power of the government to help everyday people. He's also rich and makes money in the oil business, where profits increase dramatically whenever the price of oil goes up. Weren't voters thinking about this when they voted for the man, some of them twice? Is there a disconnect here? "We have to figure out a way to increase supply here in the United States," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday. Well, that's nonsense. Supply will increase, even in the United States, when the price gets higher. But what about an innovative energy policy that encourages conservation and alternative fuels, which has the added bonus of helping the environment? What about a creative foreign policy that breaks up the OPEC cartel? No, a permanent solution to energy shortages are beyond the capability and desire of the current administration.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Capital disappointments

On the same day that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted that the Israel might have to share its capital city with an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank of the Jordan River, he refused to ease the system of roadblocks that has restricted the movement of people and goods in the West Bank, the Reuters international news service reported today. Restrictions imposed by Israel, ostensibly for security, have damaged the Palestinian economy and made the passage to a negotiated settlement even longer. These actions are contradictory. Either the Israelis and Palestinians are going to accept each other as equals and live as neighbors, or there is not going to be peace in the Middle East. But the partition of Jerusalem should not be an issue. Israel had decades of negative experience with a divided capital when East Jerusalem was part of Jordan, and has shown itself to be a good steward of the holy sites. Keeping Jerusalem in Israel is the only way to protect access for all religions, which was not the case before 1967. If the Palestinians are offered an independent self-governing country with international recognition, even if Ramallah or another city is its capital, they are not going to turn it down.

Happy New Year

Yesterday's release from prison of Sara Jane Moore, one of two women who tried to assassinate President Ford over a three-weeks period in 1975, hearkens back to the tradition of rehabilitation and mercy that used to a hallmark of the U.S. justice system. Moore was released Monday from the low-security federal prison for women in Dublin, Calif., a suburb of Oakland. Moore took a shot at Ford but missed as the country's only non-elected president left the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, just 17 days after a Manson family follower, Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme, failed to get off a shot at Ford in Sacramento. Moore served 32 years of a life sentence, back in the day when people sentenced to life in prison were eligible to apply for parole after seven years. Fromme is serving a life sentence in a prison medical facility in Texas but has not requested parole, even though she is eligible to apply for it. Congress abolished such parole in 1987, according to the Reuters international news service. Ford, then the vice president, became president after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, but lost his bid for election to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Ford died in 2006.