Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The trouble with North Korea

If there are no consequences to North Korea's belligerent development of nuclear weapons technology at the expense of its own people's well-being, the regime in Pyongyang is not going to alter its behavior. That should be plainly obvious by now, after years of abandoned and broken agreements and still-angry relations with South Korea and the United States. So, reports from Seoul that North Korea has been hauling off equipment from the site of an internationally funded nuclear power station where construction was halted in 2002 should not have surprised anyone. Yet outraged reactions from South Korean officials reflect just such surprise, according to the Reuters international news service. "The removal of equipment without taking steps to settle financial issues is a clear violation of the agreement and can be construed as theft," one official told South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, Reuters said. More than 200 pieces of heavy equipment worth $39 million, including cranes, bulldozers and trucks, were left at the site in 2002 and could have been used in North Korea's latest nuclear test in May, officials said. Most of the 6,500 tons of steel left at the site also has been removed by the desperately poor Pyongyang regime, the newspaper said. North Korea's foundering economy has been further crippled by stepped-up international trade sanctions that followed its nuclear test in May. Western nations have been offering trade improvements as an incentive to induce the north, which depends on food aid shipments from the West every winter, to halt its development of nuclear technology. Pyongyang has recently signaled that it might be willing to resume talks, Reuters said. But to what end? Sanctions only seem to make the people of North Korea poorer and the government in Pyongyang even more angry. It may very well be that North Korea's government will have to be forced from power before a reasonable accommodation is possible.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Democratic irony in Czechoslovakia -- government could ban Communist Party

It's hard to be surprised to hear that Czechoslovakia might ban the Communist Party -- maybe, the surprise is that the Communists still exist formally in that country at all. The party is the sole surviving Communist Party in any of the former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe, according to the New York Times. The countries were dominated politically and economically by the Soviets for decades after World War II until the Soviet Union began to implode in the 1980s. Czechoslovakia broke away in 1989, in the so-called Velvet Revolution, but the Communist Party remained intact as the country embraced democracy. But now, a group of senators are trying to ban the party unless it recants its underlying philosophy of Marxist revolution. The group, led by Sen. Jaromir Stetina, whose grandmother helped found the Communist Party, have asked Prime Minister Jan Fischer, himself a former member of the party, to petition the Supreme Administrative Court to suspend party activities, the Times said. “We believe the Communist Party should be suspended until they give up the title of ‘communist’ and denounce Marx and Lenin, who regarded violence as a legitimate means of gaining power,” Stetina said. “Not even the millions of dead bodies, which are the consequence of Lenin’s policies, have convinced the Czech Communist Party to abandon his teachings.” But many Czechs believe the new Czech democracy should not ban any parties and leave decisions about who to seat in parliament to the electorate. The new push can reportedly be traced to a Communist Party statement following celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in November, the Times said. The statement denounced the democratically elected governments since 1989 for what it called "promises and lying" and contended that Czechs did not want to give up communism in 1989. “The Communists ruined this country and oppressed freedom and yet here they are 20 years later in our Parliament,” said David Cerny, the artist who painted a Soviet tank pink in 1991 to transform a memorial to the Soviet Army. “It is a national disgrace. The Communists are endangering the country. The Czechs need to wake up.” But the Communist Party received nearly 13 percent of the vote in the 2006 parliamentary elections and is the country's third largest political party. The party's leader, Vojtech Filip, told the Times that the Communist Party did not support regime change except at the ballot box. "We are a legal party and always act according to the Constitution," Filip said. But Filip did allow that he thought Karl Marx was "the greatest thinker of the millennium."

Friday, December 25, 2009

Still-sinking Japanese economy demonstrates the perils of public debt

If Japan's government is still in business, there's got to be hope for any and all countries burdened with debt -- even seemingly crushing debt. Lawmakers in Tokyo approved a trillion-dollar budget Friday that -- get this -- includes $485 billion in new debt that will push the country's indebtedness to nearly twice its gross domestic product, according to the New York Times. At 181 percent of GDP, Japan has by far the largest debt in the industrial world, the Times said. The new budget, which exceeds a trillion dollars for the first time, includes new spending on the country's education and welfare programs to help stimulate the economy, which is suffering from high unemployment and deflation. The budget is the first for the new government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, the Democratic Party candidate elected in September in an upset of the Liberal Democrats, Japan's majority party for nearly all of the past 55 years. In televised speeches Thursday and Friday, Hatoyama defended his spending plans, which shift the government's focus from public works projects to direct payments to individuals. "Together with all of you, I want to build a better Japan, a new Japan,” he said at a news conference. “I have adhered to the principle that people matter more than concrete." But there are signs that the Japanese people are starting to have doubts about the Democrats. Hatoyama's popularity rating has slipped below 50 percent from a high of 71 percent after the election, the Times said, although that could be due in large part to an accounting scandal involving his party. The scandal has imperiled the Democrats ambition to win control of the upper house of Japan's parliament in midterm elections next year, the Times said, and appears to have affected negotiations with the United States on the future of the giant U.S. airbase on Okinawa.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Obama admits failure at climate change conference

Well, at least we know they don't believe their own fantastic rhetoric. We're speaking, of course, of U.S. President Barack Obama's statement today that he understands why people view the just-concluded climate change summit in Copenhagen as a failure. "I think that people are justified in being disappointed about the outcome in Copenhagen," Obama said in an interview with PBS Newshour, according to the Reuters international news service. The conference ended with a nonbinding agreement to limit carbon emissions blamed for global warming, far short of a 50 percent reduction that was the stated goal of industrialized nations at the summit. But Obama, who was instrumental in overcoming sharp differences with China and India just to arrive at a nonbinding deal, said the fact that any agreement was reached at all was an important step. "Rather than see a complete collapse in Copenhagen, in whcih nothing at all got done and would have been a huge backward step, at least we kind of held ground and there wasn't too much backsliding from where we were," Obama said. "We were able to at least agree on non-legally binding targets for all countries -- not just the United States, not just Europe, but also for China and India, which, projecting forward, are going to be the world's largest emitters." Developing economic powers China, India, Brazil and South Africa, which were resistant to any deal that could limit their growth, signed on to the agreement at the last minute after Obama's personal intervention. "At a point where there was about to be complete breakdown, and the prime minister of India was heading to the airport and the Chinese representatives were essentially skipping negotiations, and everybody's screaming, what did happen was, cooler heads prevailed," Obama said. But many European participants had far less positive evaluations of the final agreement, however. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the deal "flawed and chaotic" and Sweden called it a disaster for the environment, Reuters said. British Environment Minister Ed Miliband told the Guardian newspaper on Monday that China had "hijacked" emission-reduction efforts, but Beijing accused England of trying to drive a wedge between developing nations to force them into an unfavorable agreement, Reuters said.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hypocrisy's new name -- Benedict defends the indefensible

One way to tell it's Christmas time in Rome is when Vatican leaders start overdoing the eggnog! How else to explain Pope Benedict XVI's decision to push Pope Pius XII toward sainthood before opening the records of his papacy to scrutiny, and with the pope's World War II-era participation in the Hitler Youth in Germany still a matter of controversy? Of course, this issue comes up because of statements today from a Vatican spokesman defending Benedict's decision, according to the New York Times. Benedict spoke of the "heroic virtues" of Pius XII and Pope John Paul II on Saturday, the next step in advancing both men to sainthood if it is found that they performed miracles. The spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, responded to criticism from Jewish groups who allege that Pius XII, who was the Vatican's ambassador to Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, did not try to prevent or stop the Holocaust before or after he became pope and helped many former Nazis escape to South America after the war, the Times said. Pius XII was pope from 1939 to 1958. Advancing Pius toward sainthood "should not in any way be read as a hostile act against the Jewish people, and we hope it will not be considered an obstacle in the path of dialogue between Judaism and the Catholic Church," Lombardi said. But how could it be seen as anything but? And how else to see the decision to beatify Pius XII before opening the church's extensive document archive from his papacy than a blatant attempt at obfuscation? Let's not forget that Benedict, the first pope with a Nazi background, still has a lot of explaining to do about his decisions to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop and to not mention the Nazis or Germany in remarks he gave at a visit to Israel's Holocaust memorial earlier this year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ousted Honduran leader to spend Christmas in Brazilian embassy

The latest word from Honduras is that ousted leftist president Manuel Zelaya and his family will spend Christmas in Brazil's embassy in Tagucigalpa, where he has been sheltered since sneaking into the country in September, three months after being forced out in a military coup. "For Christmas, the army has told me they will let my mother and my children in and we will be here saying a prayer for the Honduran people," Zelaya told the Reuters international news service by phone from the embassy complex. "No family would want to go through what we are going through unless they were perverse, cruel or heartless." Zelaya was awakened by soldiers June 28 and flown out of the country in his pajamas when the Honduran military seized control and installed a legislative leader as interim president. The coup, apparently designed to prevent Zelaya from moving Honduras closer to Venezuela's anti-U.S. leader Hugo Chavez over the objections of business leaders, was condemned by most countries including the United States, which demanded Zelaya's reinstatement. Zelaya's opponents also accused him of planning to change Honduras' constitution to allow him to stay in office beyond the end of his term in November, Reuters said. Negotiations failed to produce a settlement and Honduras' Congress voted against Zelaya's return to office. The interim government sponsored a new presidential election last month, won by opposition leader Porfirio Lobo. Many European and Latin American countries have refused to recognize the result but the United States said it offered a way to end Honduras' leadership crisis, Reuters said. Lobo is scheduled to be sworn in Jan. 27 and has promised amnesty for Zelaya and coup leaders, Reuters said.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Death of leading opposition cleric could spark new unrest in Iran

Sunday's death of reform-minded Shiite cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the most senior member of Iran's religious establishment, plunges the conservative government in Tehran into perhaps its most precarious state since the 1979 revolution that brought Islamic fundamentalists to power. Tens of thousands of supporters of Montazeri, 87, a founder of the modern Islamic republic who later broke with inspirational leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini over policy, are expected to converge on the holy city of Qom for his funeral next week over the objections of the government in Tehran. Coming just months after the disputed presidential election in June that resulted in street protests, mass arrests and charges of mistreatment against authorities, Montazeri's funeral could pose a direct challenge to the rule of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, according to the New York Times. The government was said to be preparing for a showdown by dispatching legions of riot police to the Qom area and closing the main highway from Tehran. Opposition leaders, such as former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karoubi, urged mourners to travel to Qom for the funeral, just days before a national day of protest planned for the Moslem holiday of Ashura on Dec. 27, the Times said. Montazeri, known throughout Iran as the plain-spoken cleric, had become an outspoken critic of the regime. He criticized Khameini and Ahmedinejad's government as non-Islamic and non-democratic, and accused the Basij militia, which has violently suppressed street rallies, of forsaking the "path of God" for the "path of Satan." Montazeri also has apologized for the 1979 sacking of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the holding of 53 hostages for more than a year, an event celebrated by the current government. “A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate,” Montazeri wrote. Montazeri is considered the father of the concept of clerical rule, an idea he later said was misinterpreted by Iran's leaders, and was placed under house arrest in 1997 for criticizing Khamenei. The house arrest was lifted in 2003 after legislators appealed to then-president Mohammed Khatami, who also was a reformer, the Times said.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Clashes with Maoists in Nepal could spell end of political peace

Clashes on the streets of Kathmandu on Sunday could signal the end of a tense political peace that has held for seven months since Maoists resigned en masse from Nepal's central government in a protest. Riot police fired tear gas and beat protesters with batons after demonstrators threw rocks at officers, the Reuters international news service reported. As many as 100 protesters and 17 police officers were injured. The protests kicked off a three-day strike aimed at returning the Maoists to power, which they gave up in a constitutional dispute with Nepal's president over control of the military. The Maoists, who gave up a 10-year-long insurgency to enter politics in 2006 and won a majority of parliament in a special election two years later, left the government after the president, Ram Baran Yadav, reinstated the army chief after he was fired by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the Maoist leader also known as Prachanda. Prachanda tried to fire the army commander over his refusal to integrate some 19,000 former Maoist rebels into the country's armed forces, as required under the 2006 settlement. United Nations human rights observers said Nepal's police used excessive force in charging the protesters and beating them with batons, Reuters said.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Saab closure could be the result of poor GM management

From New York comes word that embattled General Motors has decided to shut down Swedish automaker Saab, the iconic 3,400-employee company it bought 20 years ago. GM has been trying for months to sell off the brand as part of its bankruptcy filing but was unable to reach deals with at least two suitors, according to Cable News Network (CNN). A long anticipated arrangement with Swedish exotic carmaker Koenigsegg fell through earlier this year and a last-minute deal with Dutch automaker Spyker couldn't be concluded in time to save the brand. "Despite the best efforts of all involved, it has become very clear that the due diligence required to complete this complex transaction could not be executed in a reasonable time," said Nick Reilly, president of GM Europe, CNN reported. "In order to maintain operations, Saab needed a quick resolution. We regret that we were not able to complete this transaction with Spyker Cars." The Koenigsegg deal's collapse followed a similar pattern, with last-minute complications also scuttling that arrangement. "In the end, Koenigsegg discovered some issues they didn't think could be overcome in a timely fashion," said John Smith, GM's vice president of corporate planning and alliances. "Like everybody, we would have preferred a different outcome." Well, that's what they say and, maybe in today's worldwide credit starved business environment, that's exactly what happened. But in light of the September failure of a deal to sell GM's Saturn subsidiary, and GM's decision to shut down its Pontiac brand, there may be another dynamic at work. If the Pontiac, Saturn and Saab brands were in good shape, any carmaker -- except, perhaps, for the other bankrupt U.S. company, Chrysler -- should have been happy to own them. At the price GM should have been willing to part with them -- the largest U.S. automaker is a highly motivated seller, remember -- there shouldn't have been any reason for all three deals to fall through in such a similar manner. GM's deal to sell its Hummer brand to Sichuan Tengzhong, a Chinese heavy equipment maker, is still awaiting government approvals, CNN said.

Copenhagen climate deal turns out to be less than expected

Maybe this really was the best that could be achieved, and the agreement concluded the Copenhagen climate summit really is "meaningful and unprecedented," as U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday. "For the first time in history, all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change," Obama told reporters, according to Cable News Network (CNN). And for what it's worth, that's doubtlessly true. But for people who were hoping world leaders would begin to take seriously the threat posed by a warming climate that is causing earth's glaciers to melt, Friday's agreement did not anywhere near far enough. Environmentalists want nations to agree to a binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which most scientists blame for the higher temperatures. Comparisons over the centuries are not possible because accurate records were not kept before the 1800s. Obama said the countries had agreed to keep emissions at a level that would allow temperatures to rise less than two percent annually, a goal that would slow but not stop the warming. This is going to be the first time in which (many countries voluntarily) offered up mitigation targets," Obama said. "I think that it was important to essentially get that shift in orientation moving." Reuters said. Obama reportedly worked closely with China and India, the world's largest developing economies that have objected to emissions limits that could impede their progress, to get them to go along with the new agreement, Reuters said. The deal requires nations to put their emissions-reduction commitments into writing for consultation purposes, after which they could become binding commitments, Reuters said.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Officials race the clock to get deal at Copenhagen climate talks

U.S. officials are working furiously behind the scenes at the Copenhagen climate talks to arrange a multination emissions-reduction deal that includes China, the Reuters international news service reported Thursday. Their urgency comes from the impending arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama, due to arrive tomorrow, and their desire to have an international deal done or close to completion by that time. "We're making progress on all of our outstanding issues with the Chinese," one official told Reuters. "We have a good dialogue going and there are other parties as well. "There's still a way to go on all the issues and there's not much time left, so we certainly can't predict at this point what the outcome of the conference will be." Obama is scheduled to address the conference and could be bringing a new proposal for developed nations to help pay for poorer nations to deal with the effects of rising sea levels due to global climate change. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the conference today that the United States would help raise $100 billion a year by 2020 for such a fund. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the United States thinks an emissions-reduction deal is still possible at Copenhagen, despite differences between developed and developing nations on the size of the restrictions and on verification that have limited progress so far. "We want something that works for both the international community but also that works for the United States," White House press spokesman Robert Gibbs told Reuters. "We think the elements are there to reach that agreement." Obama is expected to be at Copenhagen for less than a full day, Reuters said, because he wants to return to Washington to continue working on healthcare reform legislation pending in Congress.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Democracy takes a holiday in West Bank political mess

Maybe the biggest casualty in the relentlessly intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict is democracy in the new country planned for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The latest from the West Bank is that the Palestinian Liberation Organization has extended the term of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas because it is expiring and the rebellious Hamas group that controls Gaza refuses to participate in elections scheduled for Jan. 24, 2010, according to the New York Times. That means, assuming Abbas agrees to stay in office -- not an entirely assured prospect, given recent public statements -- that the Palestinian people will no longer have elected representatives in a matter of weeks. Not that this would be the first time -- the PA deactivated its parliament after Hamas candidates won a clear majority in the 2007 elections and Western nations threatened to withdraw financial support if Hamas refused to change a charter provision calling for the destruction of Israel. But, then again, it's probably not entirely Hamas' fault; Middle East nations are well known for their lack of enthusiasm for democracy except westernized Israel, their avowed enemy. That is probably not a mere coincidence. The PLO Central Council reached its decision to extend Abbas' term at its meeting yesterday and today in Ramallah, the West Bank city where the PA has its headquarters. Hamas, which was unable to resolve its differences with the PA despite high-profile mediation by Egypt earlier this year, has rejected the PLO plan as "illegal," the Times said. Abbas has indicated he will not be a candidate for re-election no matter when the elections are held out of frustration with the peace process with Israel, which has stalled, but officials from the Palestinian, Israeli and United States governments have been trying to convince him to reconsider.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Uh oh -- lost Bush administration e-mails are recovered

News that millions of missing e-mail messages from the archives of the Bush administration have been recovered must have caused a lot of former officials' stomachs to drop in the nation's capital. Two nonprofit groups that had sued to recover the messages in 2007 announced Monday that 94 days of e-mail traffic between 2003 and 2005 would be reconstituted, according to Cable News Network (CNN). The e-mails, considered government property, are expected to reveal information on the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 and the 2003 disclosure of the identity of an undercover CIA agent married to former U.S. ambassador who was a critic of the Iraq war. The e-mails were requested by Congressional committees investigating the firings, which some alleged were politically motivated, but the Bush administration said they were missing. The groups Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive filed suit contending the Bush administration violated federal laws that require presidential records to be preserved. A federal investigation into the outing of former CIA agent Valerie Plame led to the conviction of a top administration official on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, but his sentence was commuted by former U.S. President George W. Bush. The question of whether former Vice President Dick Cheney was involved was never answered, but the answer could be in the missing e-mails. Of course, this being the federal government, it could be years before all of the messages are made public because of a disagreement over whether the release is required under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act or the Presidential Records Act, which allows records to be kept secret for up to 10 years after an administration leaves office.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Why are banks so desperate to get out of TARP?

Talk about ingratitude! News that two of the country's largest banks have agreed to raise billions of dollars from investors to pay back bailout loans from U.S. taxpayers seems preposterous on its face and even worse after a little thought. Citigroup has reached a deal with federal regulators to repay $20 billion, after the government sells its $25 billion stake in company stock, according to Cable News Network (CNN), and the government has agreed to a $25 billion repayment in full from Wells Fargo Bank, according to the Reuters international news service. The two banks are the largest still in the Troubled Asset Relief Program, set up by the United States to prop up the ailing U.S. financial system in 2008, and are trying to get out of the stricter regulation required of institutions that accepted taxpayer financing. The announcement coincides with meetings between U.S. President Barack Obama and bank CEOs in Washington, D.C., to discuss the future of the financial system. While it's certainly a good sign that banks are able to repay their government loans, releasing them from regulatory obligations seems counterproductive. Citigroup, for example, is expected to report a $1.1 billion loss in the fourth quarter of 2009. Maybe regulators can explain how a bank losing money can afford to pay a $20 billion bill? Wells Fargo was in much better shape than Citigroup when the financial system tanked, needed less borrowing and agreed to fewer restrictions, Reuters said. Wells Fargo plans to raise most of the money by selling additional stock, Reuters said. The Citigroup deal is more complicated, and involves the issuance of billions of shares of Citigroup common stock, now selling around $3 a share, and the sale of new securities. That's great if the instruments sell, and if the bank can afford the additional burdens. But Citigroup is losing money. What it looks like is that these institutions are desperate to get out of government-imposed restrictions on how much they can pay their top executives. Isn't that the same kind of bad management and poor accounting that got these companies into trouble in the first place?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Arroyo government settles mass tribal kidnapping in Philippines

Officials of the Arroyo administration in Manila must be relieved that a tense standoff with dozens of hostages in lawless Mindanao has been resolved safely, even at the cost of a bit of integrity. Authorities in Prosperidad convinced a group of tribal gunmen to release their 42 remaining hostages and surrender Sunday by promising not to charge them for the kidnapping and by allowing criminal charges already pending against them to be tried in tribal courts. "At last the crisis is over," provincial vice-governor Santiago Cane told the Reuters international news service. "The guns, bullets and grenades of these men are with me now." The gunmen had originally taken 71 hostages in Agusan del Sur province after a gunbattle with a rival tribal group but released 29, including 18 children, before the final negotiations. The southern island of Mindanao has been a rebel hotbed for decades, with Islamic and communist militia jockeying for power with private armies controlled by wealthy families and the authorities in Manilla. Reuters said studies by the Asia Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2007 found more than 5,000 people had been killed and tens of thousands displaced in clan feuds in the southern Philippines. The kidnapping came just three weeks after the massacre of 57 people in nearby Maguindanao province raised questions about the administration of Gloria Arroyo months before next year's presidential election.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Concerns over cybercrime bring United States back to Internet talks

News from Geneva that the United States has agreed to discuss Internet security with Russia and the United Nations raises hopes of a new treaty between the world powers to demilitarize cyberspace. The very existence of the talks represents a huge shift in U.S. policy since a new president took office in January, since the previous government in Washington had refused to discuss the subject with Russia for years, according to the New York Times. The negotiations also are further evidence of friendlier relations between Moscow and Washington since Barack Obama became president of the United States in January, as they are proceeding in tandem with talks expected to lead to a new round of cuts in the two countries' nuclear weapons arsenals. Talks with UN disarmament negotiators are expected to resume in January along with informal discussions at an Internet security conference in Germany. The renewed efforts apparently mean the Obama administration is taking the issue of computer security seriously despite differences with the Russians on enforcement issues, the Times said. Some experts say the two superpowers are trying to avoid an Internet arms race in which countries develop increasingly powerful cyberweapons to disrupt computer systems that control weapons and security in other nations, which is why UN arms control negotiators are becoming part of the talks. The United States had previously considered the negotiations as a purely economic matter. But last month, high-ranking Russian security officials met in Washington with representatives of the National Security Council and the U.S. departments of state, defense and homeland security, the Times said, setting up the January dates for serious negotiations.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Latest Blackwater revelation tries the nation's soul

Just in case anyone had any doubt about the seriousness of the Bush administration decision to use private contractors instead of soldiers to conduct the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the latest revelations might very well convince them. According to the New York Times, employees of Blackwater Worldwide -- the Reston, Vir., private security company hired by the Pentagon to protect diplomats in Iraq -- took part in covert CIA raids and assassinations, and might have had a role in the agency's controversial and morally suspect rendition program. Officials at Blackwater, which renamed itself Xe Services following the fatal shooting of 17 unarmed civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2007, have consistently denied involvement in covert CIA activities. But those denials are under attack in the U.S. Congress and in a U.S. court, where investigations are revealing a disturbing pattern of involvement far beyond what the military or the company have admitted to. Citing interviews with unnamed current and former Blackwater employees and military officials, the Times said security contractors appear to have participated in CIA-authorized raids in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2004 and 2006 and might have played roles in flying detainees to secret prisons operated by the CIA in other countries. The fact that information is still so scarce should give pause. While some clandestine operations can be expected, particularly in times of war, it is generally understood that these affairs are being carried out by highly trained military operatives, not outside contractors whose training and abilities are unknown and, as such, highly suspect. Do residents of the United States want military operations conducted by companies largely made up of foreign nationals with no allegiance to their country nor commitment to its values? Do the residents of the United States want military operations conducted outside the protection of U.S. law and the control of U.S. officials? Residents may have to make that decision soon, because the House Intelligence Committee is presently investigating Blackwater's role in the C.I.A. assassination program revealed this year and promptly eliminated by new agency director Leon Panetta, and a grand jury in North Carolina is investigating allegations of illegal conduct by Blackwater in Iraq, the Times said. Among the facts still to be discovered is whether CIA, military or White House officials approved the participation of outside contractors in these covert activities.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The government is really on trial in Padilla case

Word from San Francisco that the Obama administration is pressing for the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by an infamous terror suspect should come as no surprise to anyone. As everyone has seen in the past 12 months, last year's historic change at the top of the U.S. government did not mean that everything would be completely different from that point on. The government is involved in so many things, it is not possible -- nor desirable -- for all of them to change immediately. When it comes to lawsuits already in process, like the one filed by the family of Jose Padilla against University of California Professor John Yoo, the government cannot reverse positions without considerable legal maneuvering. Anyway, even if the government wanted to change course, it could, and maybe should, simply rely on the legal process to force that change. Even given that, it is not always clear what the government's best interest is. Take the Padilla case. You remember Padilla, right? He is the U.S. citizen accused of plotting with al-Qaida to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb in the United States in 2002. Padilla was declared an "enemy combatant" by the Bush administration and isolated in a U.S. Navy brig in South Carolina for more than three years. His and, his family's lawsuit alleges, was subjected to the kind of corporal mistreatment that Yoo, then a U.S. Justice Department lawyer, contended was not torture in a now infamous memorandum in 2002, according to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. According to allegations in the lawsuit, Yoo was subjected to sleep and sensory deprivation, kept for long periods of time in total darkness and blinding light, and threatened with the deaths of himself and his family if he didn't talk to U.S. interrogators. This is the kind of mistreatment the United States and scores of other nations agreed to eliminate in treaties signed after World War II. But Yoo's 2002 memo theorized how the Bush administration could possibly justify mistreatment of detainees while maintaining that the United States adhered to international treaties pledging that it would not engage in such conduct. The Padilla family lawsuit sought token damages against Yoo, contending that he had personally authorized the mistreatment, the Chronicle said. But the United States -- then the Bush administration, now the Obama administration -- contends that there is no legal right to sue lawyers who give advice to the president on issues of national security. That is not an insignificant point, and is probably correct. It will be interesting to see if the federal courts can resolve the question without deeply limiting access to the court system that citizens authorize and pay for. Yet the legal machinations are obscuring what is the fundamental issue here -- the United States mistreated detainees in violation of its own laws and its international obligations. The Obama administration is fighting the claim because that's what lawyers do when sued -- fight until and unless an honorable settlement becomes clear. And what about Padilla himself? The government withdrew the dirty bomb charges and put him on trial for an unrelated conspiracy, for which he was convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison, even though he likely has gone insane while incarcerated -- if he wasn't insane already. So, whether Padilla's family can sue or not, all the legal arguments in the world cannot change that the U.S. government's reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks went beyond the bounds of civilized conduct. The people have already spoken and replaced the Bush administration -- it's time for the legal system to stop obfuscating and start putting the responsible officials on trial.

Big surprise -- Citigroup and banking regulators disagree on bailout repayment

From Washington comes word that it could be months before U.S. government banking regulators allow banking giant Citigroup to repay billions of dollars it took from taxpayers in three separate capital bailouts last year and in 2009. Citigroup wants to escape from the tight regulatory regime imposed on it after the bank accepted taxpayer money to stay afloat during the height of the economic downturn, but the multifaceted rescue has made repayment an unusually complex process, according to the Reuters international news service. While rival Bank of America's proposed path out of the Troubled Asset Relief Program involves the raising of some $20 billion to repay the government, Citigroup must figure out how to let the government sell 7.7 billion shares of stock it owns -- nearly a third of outstanding shares -- and how much to pay for the U.S. guarantee of $182 billion worth of bank securities. The government never purchased Bank of America stock and never signed an agreement to protect its assets, Reuters said. In light of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair's statement that the government would have to "be very careful" in allowing banks to buy their way out of TARP, and the array of agencies that would have to sign off on Citigroup's exit, the timeframe is most likely months, rather than weeks, Reuters said. Knowing all this, and understanding how much taxpayers have paid and will paying in the future to keep Citigroup around -- since the bailout funds were borrowed money -- it doesn't make sense for the financial institution to argue with regulators who are the only reason the bank is still around.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Leftist Morales expected to win again in Bolivia

The aftershocks of the eight-year term of former U.S. President George W. Bush are still reverberating in South America, where Bolivia's leftist president, Evo Morales, is expected to win a second term in office and his Movement Toward Socialism party to win control of Congress. Morales, a self-proclaimed admirer of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and an ally of Venezuela's anti-U.S. leader Hugo Chavez, is wildly popular among the 60 percent of Bolivians who live in poverty but has attracted the ire of the country's business elite. Morales is the first Andean Indian to be elected the country's president, and his re-election probably will lead to more government control over the economy, according to the Reuters international news service. The former coca leaf farmer and llama herder has already nationalized the country's energy and mining industries, and used the income to give cash payments to schoolchildren, new mothers and the elderly, Reuters said. Morales, known for fiery speeches in which he rails against capitalism and calls the United States "the empire," also was successful in changing Bolivia's constitution to allow him to run for a second term, as have other South American leaders. Morales faced two more-conservative challengers, Manfred Reyes Villa, a former governor, and Samuel Doria Medina, who made a fortune in the cement business. Reyes Villa, the stronger challenger, contended during the campaign that Morales was bent on accumulating more and more power, Reuters said. "What's in play in this election is democracy," he said. Bolivia's economy is expected to grow nearly 3 percent in 2009 despite the global economic downturn, the continent's most robust growth rate, Reuters said.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Return to sanity means renewed focus on stem cells

U.S. residents got another reminder today of the major change in leadership they voted for last November when the National Institutes of Health announced approval of 13 new human embryonic stem cell lines for federally funded research, and said 96 more were under review. The NIH announcement was highly anticipated by researchers all over the United States, who were barred by former U.S. President George W. Bush from using federal money for research on all but the embryonic stem cell lines available in 2001 because of moral concerns, according to the New York Times. New U.S. President Barack Obama promised during the 2008 campaign to relax the ban in the interests of science and health, since stem cell research holds the promise of curing some of humanity's most-intractable maladies. Obama did so in March, two months after he took office. Concern over gathering stem cells has relaxed since the 2007 discovery that even adult cells could be reprogrammed to the embryonic stage, the Times said. Researchers applauded today's NIH announcement, because it helped to relieve them of the burden of separating their research into two parts -- research acceptable to the government, and eligible for public grants, and research that could only be paid for with private funding. “You can imagine what it meant not to be able to carry a pipette from one room to another,” Ali H. Brivanlou, a researcher at Rockefeller University in New York, told the Times. “They even had to repaint the walls to ensure no contamination by federal funds.” Brivanlou derived two of the 13 newly approved stem cell lines using private funding. The others were prepared by Dr. George Daley of Children’s Hospital Boston, the Times said. Daley told the newspaper that private funding was hard to get and getting harder, and that he was looking forward to being able to use federal grants to fund his research. Since that date, biomedical researchers supported by the N.I.H. have had to raise private money to derive the cells, which are obtained from the fertilized embryos left over from in vitro fertility clinics. NIH director Francis Collins said he thought most researchers would be happy with the decision, even though they still were barred from deriving stem cells themselves. Collins also said induced embryonic cells were not exactly the same as those derived from fertilized human embryos, so researchers still needed to use both kinds.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pragmatic former revolutionary wins Uruguay presidency

Word comes from Uruguay that a former guerrilla leader turned politician has been elected president of the South American country after pledging to continue the leftist economic policies of his predecessor. Jose Mujica, 74, a Socialist senator who served 15 years in prison for his role in founding the radical Tupamaro insurgency that fought for years to install a Cuba-inspired Marxist government, was leading by 10 percentage points in Sunday night's runoff with 80 percent of the vote counted, according to the New York Times. Tens of thousands of turned out on the banks of the Rio de la Plata in Montevideo, the capital, to celebrate the election of Mujica, the candidate of the ruling Broad Front party. Current president Tabare Vazquez, whose socialist and market reforms helped lower Uruguay's unemployment rate while boosting economic investment, had enjoyed a more than 60 percent approval rating but was ineligible to run again, since Uruguay's constitution only permits a single term. “Tomorrow the commitment to our homeland continues,” Mujica said today in a speech, as Vázquez stood nearby. “Thank you, Tabaré, for the continuation of this government.” Mujica, who had caused a stir in the region by criticizing Argentina's president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, promised Sunday to "fight hard to have a good relationship with Argentina," the Times said. Mujica defeated National Party candidate Luis Lacalle, Uruguay's president from 1990 to 1995. Lacalle, who favored privatization of government-owned industries, also lost re-election bids in 1999 and 2004. He conceded the election in his own Sunday night address. The Broad Front coalition includes the Communist and Christian Democratic parties.

Doubts about Iran's intentions increase after IAEA censure

So, what is Iran thinking now? Today's announcement that the Islamic republic plans to build 10 new uranium enrichment plants to add to its known facilities at Natanz and Qom can only be seen as a rebuke, even if a petulant one, to Friday's censure by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But why? Does Iran think it is impervious to international economic sanctions, or to military action if it starts developing nuclear weapons? Is it? The UN's nuclear monitoring agency voted 35-0 to condemn Iran for secretly building an underground enrichment facility near Qom, including votes from usual Tehran supporters Russia and China, according to the Reuters international news service. The existence of the plant, which apparently had been suspected by Western countries' spy agencies for some time, was revealed by Iran in September and discussed publicly for the first time in October by U.S. President Barack Obama at a conference in Geneva. The revelation added renewed urgency to Western nations' effort to prevent Iran, the world's fifth-largest oil exporting nation by volume, to develop nuclear weaponry, because the enrichment plant is not suitable for civilian nuclear power, Tehran's stated intention. Iran has backed away from an agreement with Western nations to surrender its uranium stockpiles in exchange for a guaranteed supply of low-level enriched uranium to power a medical research reactor, adding to Western suspicions. "We have a friendly approach toward the world but at the same time we won't let anyone harm even one iota of the Iranian nation's rights," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said Sunday, Reuters said. Ahmedinejad maintains Iran has a right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. But Ahmedinejad does not discuss why a major oil producer like Iran would even need nuclear power for electricity when it has such an abundant supply of petroleum, a safer fuel. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iran's Mehr News Agency that "10 new enrichment plants will be built," Reuters said, and that locations for five of them had already been decided. The 10 proposed enrichment plants would be the same size as the facility at Natanz, Iran's main enrichment site.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Credibility deficit could doom Bernanke renomination

It might be funny, if the economic crisis wasn't so painful to so many, to hear U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke complain about efforts in Congress to overhaul the government's financial regulatory system. Bernanke was sharply critical of a Senate proposal to transfer much of the Fed's authority to regulate banks to a new consumer protection agency, according to the New York Times. Bernanke wrote an opinion column on the Washington Post Web site warning Congress and taxpayers unhappy about the nearly trillion-dollar bailout of the financial sector to leave the Federal Reserve system alone. "Now more than ever, America needs a strong, nonpolitical and independent central bank with the tools to promote financial stability and to help steer our economy to recovery without inflation," Bernanke wrote. But Bernanke, appointed by former U.S. President George W. Bush in 2006 and nominated by U.S. President Barack Obama to a new 14-year term beginning next year, has a lot of explaining to do. Particularly, he needs to explain why the Federal Reserve and executive branch regulators were seemingly asleep at the controls when the financial system tanked. It was fairly obvious even to lay people that the overheated housing market, where financial institutions were allowed to make thousands of bad home loans and then sell those bad loans to other institutions as securities to back even more bad loans, was headed for a crash. So, why didn't regulators -- and Bernanke, the lead expert -- stop such practices before it was too late?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Kremlin says U.S. and Russia to sign weapons-reduction deal in December

Anybody still remember the Cold War? Remember air-raid sirens and fallout shelter drills? Remember Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev saying "We will bury you?" Remember the Soviet Union? Those days were brought to mind Friday when Russia said it expected to sign a new agreement with the United States to destroy a portion of the two countries' arsenals of thousands of nuclear weapons, according to the Reuters international news service. The new deal, designed to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that expires Dec. 5, got a boost in April when Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama issued a joint statement about reaching a new agreement and again in July when the two agreed to cut their arsenals by a third. Diplomatic frictions that damaged Russia-U.S. relations were relaxed in September when Obama said he would roll back plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe, even though outstanding issues from Russia's brief war with U.S. ally Georgia remain unresolved. Today's report was attributed by Reuters to an unnamed source in Minsk, where Medvedev was meeting with regional leaders. "This treaty is a great move ahead and will improve relations between the United States and Russia," Roland Timerbayev, a former Soviet ambassador and nuclear arms negotiator, told Reuters. But both sides said it is possible that they will not be able to reach a deal before the Dec. 5 expiration of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. "The delegations of Russia and the United States are working incessantly but not looking at the time," the Russian Foreign Ministry said. "The timeframe for signing new agreement is important but does not define the negotiating process; rather, (the process is defined) by the striving of the leaders of Russia and the United States to agree a full, properly working bilateral agreement." Diplomats from both countries say continuing cooperation between Russia and the United States on dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions have helped them to resolve remaining issues on a new treaty.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Israel rejects Palestinian rejection of peace moves

Maybe Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was only kidding Thursday when he said Israel was more interested in winning international support for its efforts toward peace with Palestinians living in the West Bank than what the Palestinians themselves think. Or, maybe, just maybe, his remarks reflected Israel's frustration with the Palestinian Authority's blanket refusal to begin talks on a peace settlement until Israel stops building homes on land the Palestinians want for their own country. "The last thing that should interest us is the Palestinians' concern," Lieberman said on Israel Radio, according to the Reuters international news service. "Before the Palestinian issue, what should interest us is our friends in the world. We spoke to them and most said, 'help us to help you.'" Lieberman's statement was in reaction to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' outright rejection of Israel's announcement of a 10-month partial freeze of settlement activity in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered the partial freeze in an effort to get the PA to agree to restart peace negotiations. But Abbas, who is threatening to leave government if and when his current term ends, demands a total freeze on building on lands claimed by his stateless people including East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967. Israel has annexed East Jerusalem and made it part of its capital, but most of the world's nations have not accepted it. Yet Western nations lined up behind Netanyahu's proposal despite Palestinian objections, Reuters said. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called Israel's move "a positive contribution to peace, and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged that Israel's proposal "become a step toward resuming meaningful negotiations." Israel's chief backer, the United States, has called for the resumption of negotiations without preconditions. But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israel's Army Radio that Israel's proposal was merely a bid to deflect pressure from the United States, Reuters said. "At the end of the day, Netanyahu needs to make peace with us, the Palestinians, he doesn't need to make peace with Americans," Erekat said. "If that's what he wants, that is his business. The last I know, Washington is 6,000 miles from Jerusalem, while Jericho is 67." More than 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem alongside 2.7 million Palestinians, Reuters said.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

General Motors could close Saab next week

The latest word from General Motors Corp. in Detroit is that it could close its Saab Automobile subsidiary next week if it cannot find a new buyer after a reported deal to sell the legendary company collapsed. The troubled U.S. automaker said today that its board would meet next week to decide the fate of the 70-year-old Swedish automaker, which it bought in two parts in 1990 and 2000, according to the New York Times. GM could be forced to close the 4,000-employee company because Swedish exotic car maker Koenigsegg unexpectedly pulled out of the deal Tuesday. Koenigsegg issued a statement blaming the collapse on GM taking too long to close the deal. “The time factor has always been critical for our strategy to breathe new life into the company,” Koenigsegg said. “Unfortunately, delays in closing this acquisition have resulted in risks and uncertainties that prevent us from successfully implementing the new Saab business plan.” GM appeared surprised by Koeinsgegg's decision, Reuters said. “We negotiated in good faith and we met all our timing obligations under the agreement,” said a G.M. spokeswoman, Renee Rashid-Merem. GM chief executive Fritz Henderson said he was "very disappointed" by the failure of the Saab deal. But Henderson should not have been surprised. It is the third time in the past two months that a GM brand sale was scuttled at the last minute. Its proposed sale of its Saturn brand to Penske Automotive Group collapsed just before it was final in September, and GM pulled out of a deal to sell its Opel operations in Europe last month. GM is being forced to sell off some of its parts as it reorganizes under bankruptcy court protection.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lessons learned? Federal Reserve asks for some of its billions back

Here we go again! News that the U.S. Federal Reserve had asked some banks to repay money they got from last year's $700 billion financial system bailout would seem to be good news, since it means those institutions have recovered. But what many U.S. banks who are trying to repay the Troubled Asset Relief Program really want is to escape the tighter oversight imposed by the federal government as a condition of receiving taxpayer funds, the Reuters international news service reported Tuesday. Citing an unnamed source, Reuters said nine of the 10 banks that were among the 19 stress-tested in May and found to need additional capital are now clamoring to leave the program, which provided billions in capital to more than 500 banks and a few struggling industrial companies. But the nine, including Bank of America Corp., Citigroup, Wells Fargo & Co. and Fifth Third Bancorp, began to prosper again in no small part due to the restrictions imposed by the program. Requirements for participation included perfectly sensible limits on executive compensation, dividend payouts and share buybacks. If those banks are released from the program, they also get released from those requirements. What is to prevent them from doing the same things that got them into so much trouble? Sure, there are regulators, but there were regulators before and the financial collapse still happened. The 10th bank, GMAC Corp., is not expected to be able to raise capital anytime soon. The 10 banks that passed the June test repaid the government in June and have already left the program, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Citigroup's situation is different from the other stress-tested banks because the federal government invested billions of dollars in shares of the bank's common stock and trust-preferred securities in an effort to keep it solvent.

U.S. airlines fined for stranding passengers on plane

Today's announcement that fines have been imposed on three airlines for stranding 47 passengers for six hours overnight on a plane at the Rochester, Minn., airport does raise a few questions. The fines, totaling $175,000, were the first ever imposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Airline Enforcement Office against any airlines for stranding passengers aboard aircraft, according to the Reuters international news service. The questions? There's an Airline Enforcement Office? The first fines ever? This is certainly not the first stranding -- what has the Airline Enforcement Office been doing all this time? A check of the agency's Web site offers no clues, except that the agency has been in existence for at least 10 years. Now, according to the site, the agency is proposing new rules to require airlines to do more to reduce the likelihood of stranded passengers and to take better care of them when it does happen. Continental Airlines and its affiliate, ExpressJet Airlines, were fined $100,000 and Mesaba Airlines, a unit of Delta Air Lines, was fined $75,000 for the
Aug. 8 incident, in which a Continental Express jet operated by ExpressJet en route from Houston to Minneapolis was forced to land at Rochester because of bad weather. The passengers were kept on the plane because Mesabe, the only airline operating in Rochester at the time, refused to allow them to deplane and enter the terminal because there were no federal security officers on duty. But AEO officials determined that Mesaba could have allowed the passengers to enter the terminal to wait, provided they stayed in the secure area, Reuters said. Why isn't that a matter of simple common sense to airlines?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Islamic cleric's anti-government views achieve new stature in Iran

From Iran comes word that a high-ranking Islamic cleric once close to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the inspiration of the 1979 revolution, has emerged as the spiritual leader of ongoing opposition to the reigning government in Tehran. Followers of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, regarded as the most knowledgeable Islamic scholar in the country of 66 million, could pose a real threat to the Shiite theocracy headed by current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and to the conservative government of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Iran's president. Montazeri has long been critical of Khamenei in his religious edicts but has stayed out of trouble during the post-election crackdown, probably because of his religious credentials and his role in the 1979 revolution, the New York Times said Saturday. Montazeri, now in his 80s, was seen as Khomeini's successor following the revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran. But the two had a falling out over what Montazeri saw as as abuses of power by the Islamic government during a series of executions of political prisoners in 1988, the Times said. The crackdown on opposition following the June election, in which Ahmedinejad claimed to have been re-elected but his chief opponent, former prime minister Mir Hussein Moussavi, alleged a fraudulent ballot count, has refocused the country's attention on Montazeri. Thousands have been arrested and many executed, and those imprisoned have complained about terrible treatment by authorities. "A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate,” Montazeri said in written comments posted on Web sites since the election, the Times said. Mehdi Kalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former seminary student in Qom, said Montazeri is the leading cleric criticizing the theocracy from a religious perspective. “We have many intellectuals who criticize this regime from the democratic point of view,” Khalaji told the Times. "He criticizes this regime purely from a religious point of view, and this is very hurtful. The regime wants to say, ‘If I am not democratic enough that doesn’t matter, I am Islamic.’ He says it is not an Islamic government.” Montazeri's contentions also make sense to the West, where political observers wonder about religion's role in the Iranian government's excesses, including its apparently single-minded pursuit of nuclear weaponry.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Feds move to drop charges against one Blackwater guard

What does it mean that the U.S. Justice Department wants to dismiss criminal charges against one of five former Blackwater security guards facing multiple manslaughter charges for their roles in a 2007 shooting incident in Baghdad in which 14 civilians were killed? Well, it might mean very little, since the charges would be dropped without prejudice and could be refiled later in the case. More likely, it means that a second guard, Nicholas Slatten of Sparta, Tenn., has agreed to give testimony against the four others who still face charges stemming from the shooting of civilians by a private security company hired by the U.S. military to protect diplomats in Baghdad threatened by unrest in the years following the 2003 invasion. The five former guards pleaded not guilty to 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 attempted manslaughter counts and one weapons violation in January. A sixth Blackwater guard, Jeremy P. Ridgeway, 34, of Fallbrook, Calif., pleaded guilty to fewer charges in 2008 in a deal for his testimony, according to the Reuters international news service. The Nisour Square shooting helped to sour relations between Iraq's elected government and the Bush administration, which had destroyed the former government of Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Subsequent investigation found Hussein's government played no role in the 2001 attacks. The incident prompted Iraq's government to refuse to renew Blackwater's authority to operate there, and the company's military contract was not renewed in May. However, Blackwater guards have continued to operate in Iraq while replacement contractors are being sought. The shooting also reignited a debate over the use of private contractors to fulfill duties traditionally handled by soldiers at substantially lower costs. The motion to dismiss charges against Slatten was filed under seal, and no explanation was offered publicly, Reuters said. "While we never comment on sealed motions, it is a long-standing legal principle that charges against a defendant dismissed without prejudice allow the government to recharge the defendant at a later date if the evidence warrants," said Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman. The shooting happened on Sept. 16, 2007, as guards escorted a diplomatic convoy through a crowded Baghdad intersection, Reuters said.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pretrial publicity forces relocation of trial of transit cop who shot passenger in Oakland

Relatives of Oscar Grant, the young Hayward man whose slaying by a transit cop on a train platform in Oakland sparked riots and protests in the California city's downtown, applauded the news Thursday that the trial of now former BART police officer, who is accused of murder, will be moved to Los Angeles. Family members did not want the case moved to more-conservative San Diego, one of several counties considered as a venue for the trial by the Oakland judge who decided to move the case last month, according to the http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/11/20/BAP71ANCJB.DTL. But Grant's family also opposed moving the trial out of racially diverse Alameda County, across the bay from San Francisco. Grant, 22, was shot and killed while being restrained along with a dozen others at the transit agency's Fruitvale Station following a disturbance on a train. BART is an acronym for Bay Area Rapid Transit, a regional rail system that carries 350,000 passengers daily. The shooting was captured on dozens of cell phone cameras and has been seen by millions on the Internet and on television, the Chronicle said. A BART-commissioned found transit police did not respond adequately to either the disturbance or in the aftermath of the shooting, leading to calls for the disbandment of the BART force. Jacobson ruled last month that the former officer, Johannes Mehserle, could not get a fair trial in Alameda County because of pretrial publicity and the possibility of civil unrest during and after the proceeding. Mehserle resigned from the BART police force immediately after the shooting, presumably to avoid being compelled to give testimony under oath. Mehserle's attorneys, who say the officer pulled his gun by mistake, sought to have the case moved to San Diego County. "I think I can get justice for Oscar in Los Angeles," said Cephus Johnson, Grant's uncle. An attorney for the Grant family, widely known Oakland lawyer John Burris, said Jacobson's ruling was "the most important ruling that will be made in this case other than the verdict." Burris said "Mehserle would have walked" if the case had been moved to San Diego County. Jacobson's decision Thursday to move the case to Los Angeles, to the same courthouse where ex-football star O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and a friend in 1995, came after more than an hour and a half of argument, the Chronicle said. Jacobson said he would ask for a different judge to be appointed to preside over the trial.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Amnesty offer on overseas bank accounts attracts nearly 15,000 takers

U.S. tax authorities say publicity about a settlement with a giant European bank has at least helped inspire nearly 15,000 U.S. owners of overseas bank accounts that have been off the books for years to come forward and pay taxes on their holdings. Tuesday's announcement by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, reported by the New York Times, attributes the response to the Oct. 15 end of an amnesty program under which U.S. taxpayers who declared their holdings were eligible for reduced penalties and avoid tax evasion charges. The catalyst was the future release of the identifies of more than 4,000 U.S. residents with offshore accounts with UBS, a Swiss megabank that offered anonymity to depositors. But UBS agreed in February to reveal names of 4,500 depositors with accounts totalling more than $18 billion as part of a settlement of a U.S. government lawsuit charging the bank with selling offshore financial products intended to enable tax evasion, the Times said. Under the terms of the deal, UBS also must admit criminal wrongdoing and pay $780 million in fines. and admit to criminal wrongdoing. “We are talking about billions of dollars coming into the U.S. Treasury,” said IRS chief Douglas Shulman, the Times said. head of the Mr. Shulman said. “We have now gained access to thousands of taxpayers and bank accounts that we have never had before.” More than half of the depositors revealed their holdings in the month before the deadline. "We had a flood at the end," Shulman said. Many of the accounts belonged to UBS customers but many did not, the Times said. The IRS said it was expanding its investigation of offshore tax havens around the world. But not a word was said about holding the Swiss banking industry to account for the billions of dollars stolen from Europeans during World War II by the Nazi government of Germany and deposited in Switzerland, where it presumably remains.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kosovo conducts first election as independent nation

Low turnout by European standards failed to dim the excitement among government leaders in Pristina on Sunday as voters in Kosovo went to the polls for its first local election since declaring itself independent from Serbia last year. "Today we are showing that our country and its citizens have deserved independence, democracy and the European Union perspective," Prime Minister Hashim Thaci exulted after the vote, according to the Reuters international news service. Forty-five percent of Kosovo's 1.5 million voters turned out for the balloting, in which the population chose mayors and councilmembers in the new country's 36 municipalities. Winners will not be determined until runoff elections next month. Some analysts blamed the low turnout on frustration over the country's sluggish economy and 40 percent unemployment rate, Reuters said. "The faith is lost in Kosovo because of high corruption among the political parties," said Halil Matoshi, a local analyst. "People that vote today are mainly party militants." That's certainly possible, but it's a little hard to believe that the population of a brand new country that fought so hard to be independent would be jaded by politics. The turnout also was impacted by Serbian calls for a boycott by voters of Serbian descent, who make up seven percent of Kosovo's population. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after NATO bombers drove Serbian forces from the then-province to stop the killing of ethnic Albanians, who make up 88 percent of the population. Kosovo's independence has only been recognized by 63 countries, primarily Western nations, including the United States. Serbia and Russia have refused to recognize the new country. Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe, with a per capita income of $2,300 annually, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Britain takes stock of Iraq war abuse claims

News from London that the British government has launched an investigation into more than 30 allegations of abusive conduct by its soldiers in Iraq makes it likely that the staunch U.S. ally has already realized that the price of war goes far beyond the cost in treasure. In a statement released Saturday, the British Ministry of Defence said many of the claims filed by Iraqi civilians have been pending for awhile but would be resolved, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "We are now looking into these new cases," a ministry spokesman told CNN. "Some of the cases we are looking at though go back a while, some are even from February this year, so all 30-something cases are at different stages in the investigation." An attorney for the Iraqis told Independent Television News, a CNN affiliate in London, that most of allegations involved sexual abuse of civilians. "There was a lot of sexual abuse," said the attorney, Paul Shiner, who likened the abuse to what happened at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Shiner said allegations include forcing a 14-year-old boy to commit sexual acts and the rape of an Iraqi man by two soldiers. "It is using sex as a mechanism to humiliate," Shiner said. "There are too many cases. Armed forces minister Bill Rammell said it was too early to jump to conclusions about the allegations but all would be investigated. "Over 120,000 British troops have served in Iraq and the vast, vast majority have conducted themselves to the highest standards of behavior, displaying integrity and selfless commitment," Rammell said. "While there have been instances when individuals have behaved badly, only a tiny number of individuals have been shown to have fallen short of our high standards." But soldiers who engage in sexual abuse of prisoners and children are not merely 'falling short' of some lofty standard. They are not just boys letting off a little steam. They are criminal deviants who have no place in human society, let alone handed sophisticated weaponry and entrusted with the defense of one of the world's great countries. It looks like the British armed forces, like the U.S. military, must at a minimum put more energy into understanding the psychological makeup of their soldiers and into understanding the effects of what is certainly unimaginable stresses on them. And if military leaders of both countries do not want to or are incapable of taking this seriously, both countries must find other military leaders who will and can.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Human Rights Watch report raises troubling questions about China

If it is indeed true that China's government is permitting local authorities to operate secret jails in Beijing where citizens are mistreated, it's time for the United States to re-evaluate trade relations with the world's most populous nation. Of course, we're not talking about returning to the days of complete non-engagement -- the U.S. and China are far too interdependent economically for that. Rather, it is because we are so tied together economically that China would be likely to respect and comply with reasonable demands to restrain its totalitarian tendencies. Beijing certainly understood that its decision to become part of the world economy meant unprecedented scrutiny of its internal affairs and, as a result, an obligation to conduct itself in a more transparent and civilized manner. That's why Thursday's report from the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch is so troubling. The report alleges that the government in Beijing permits local governments to operate a system of secret prisons in which prisoners are routinely mistreated, according to the New York Times. Abuse is routine even in detention centers run by the national government but is even worse in the unofficial jails, the report said. "We're talking about a country with torture in formal detention centers, and the black jails are 10 floors down" in terms of treatment of detainees, said Sophie Richardson, the group's advocacy director for Asia. Richardson said abuses that were widespread in China’s official prison system, which has some judicial supervision, were even worse in unofficial jails, which have no oversight. But China denies that the unofficial detention system exists. “There are no black jails in China,” Qin Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in Beijing on Thursday, the Times said. “If citizens have complaints and suggestions about government work, they can convey them to the relevant authorities through legitimate and normal channels.” But Human Rights Watch said China's system for protecting detainees was being subverted by local officials, who had an incentive to block such complaints from reaching national officials. The issue is considered serious enough by the U.S. government for President Barack Obama to raise when he meets next week in Beijing with Chinese President Hu Jintao, according to National Security Council official Jeffrey Bader, the Times said.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Why does Iran need more time to decide if it will fulfill its nuclear obligations?

Monday's report from Vienna that a top U.S. diplomat said Iran should get more time to decide whether to fulfill the obligation to give up most of its nuclear fuel under a deal negotiated in Geneva in September does not make sense unless something else is going on that has been left out of the public record. Iran agreed to the deal to secure enriched uranium for its nuclear medicine facility and avoid stepped-up economic sanctions by the United States and other world powers; if Tehran wants out of the agreement, it should drop pretending and continue on the road to pariah statehood. "There have been communications back and forth. We are in extra innings in these negotiations. That's sometimes the way these things go," said Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations-sponsored entity that monitors on nuclear activity worldwide. "We want to give some space to Iran to work through this," Davies said. "It's a tough issue for them, quite obviously, and we're hoping for an early, positive answer from the Iranians." But the Iranians have a history of stalling for time to continue developing their offensive capacities, and not to contribute to peaceful resolution of ongoing disputes. Iran contends its nuclear development is intended for peaceful purposes, despite its huge oil reserves and the revelation in September that it was building a secret enrichment plant at a military base near Qom. U.S. experts say the plant could not have enriched enough uranium for a civilian nuclear power plant and was almost surely designed for nuclear weaponry. Turkey has offered to mediate the international dispute, but it is apparent that Tehran is not willing to halt its activities despite the risk of sanctions. That's why Iran has not yet offered a formal reply to international demands that it comply with the agreement, and why it doesn't make sense to give the Islamic republic even more time to stall. If the international community's patience is "not infinite," as Germany's chief negotiator said the other day, it's time to bring on the "consequences" that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of in Berlin. There is no reason to wait until the end of the year. Iran can continue to protest diplomatically all it wants, but it should do so without its stash of nuclear fuel and without its ability to threaten nearby countries.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Proposed Honduras deal collapses as violence increases in capital

A pair of bombings Friday rocked the capital of Tegucigalpa as a week-old agreement to form a unity government to resolve Honduras' four-month political formally collapsed, apparently beyond repair. The two explosions Friday caused little damage and no injuries but put an explanation point on the failure of regional efforts to end the crisis, which began with a military coup in June, according to the Reuters international news service. Honduras has been isolated internationally since coup leaders forced the elected leftist president, Manuel Zelaya, into exile and named legislative leader Robert Micheletti to replace him. Military leaders feared that Zelaya, an ally of Venezuela's famously anti-U.S. president, Hugo Chavez, was planning to move impoverished Honduras even further to the left and was planning to stay in office beyond the end of his term of office in January. Zelaya repeatedly denied that he had designs on extending his term. Under pressure from the United States and other nations, the two sides announced an agreement last week to form a unity government and to have Honduras' Congress vote on who would lead the country, but that deal broke down over differences about who would lead the cabinet in the interim. Zelaya, who was forced to leave the country in his pajamas but had sneaked back into Honduras and took refuge in Brazil's embassy, said Thursday that the deal was dead and urged voters to boycott the Nov. 29 election. "It's absurd what they are doing, trying to mock all of us, the people who elected me and the international community that supports me," Zelaya said, according to Reuters. "We've decided not to continue this theater with Mr. Micheletti." Zelaya refused to appoint ministers to the reconciliation cabinet, as called for in the agreement, prompting Micheletti to name all of them. Micheletti took to the airwaves to announce the appointments. "We've completed the process of forming a unity government," Micheletti told the country. "It represents a wide spectrum despite the fact that Mr. Zelaya did not send a list of representatives." But the Micheletti government surrounded the Brazilian embassy with tanks and soldiers on Friday, signaling the end of reconciliation efforts and a continuation of the standoff.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

For whom the final bell tolls

News from Los Angeles that a federal judge has refused to dismiss civil fraud charges against Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Financial Corp., and two of his associates means that regulators are still pursuing the fabulously wealthy wheeler-dealers whose recklessness helped cause the collapse of world financial markets and sparked a global recession. Of course, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed only civil charges against Mozilo and fellow top Countrywide officers David Sambol and Eric Sieracki, so any penalties assessed against them, assuming they're found guilty, will be financial. Hopefully, criminal charges against scores of financial roughriders responsible for the massive frauds that helped sink the country's housing market are still in the offing. Mozilo built Countrywide into the country's largest mortgage lender in large part through tens of billions of dollars worth of subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages, according to the Reuters international news service. But when the poorer-quality loans began failing, the SEC alleged, Mozilo reassured investors that Countrywide's portfolio was strong while using stock options to buy millions of dollars in company stock and then selling it for more than $139 million in profits, Reuters said. The SEC said in its complaint that Mozilo admitted in an e-mail to colleagues that Countrywide was "flying blind" about the quality of its loans. Countrywide had to be sold to Bank of America in a $2.5 billion deal arranged by federal regulators in 2008. U.S. Judge John Walter in Los Angeles found it possible, as the SEC's complaint alleged, that Countrywide's management was responsible for "the virtual abandonment of prudent underwriting guidelines and the resulting proliferation of poor quality loans, during the same period Countrywide was touting the superior quality of its underwriting guidelines and its loan portfolio." Mozilo's attorney, David Siegel said he was disappointed by the judge's decision but predicted that Mozilo would be "vindicated" in a trial. "Angelo Mozilo is an innocent man who helped millions of people find a home for more than 40 years," Siegel said, according to Reuters.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Italy demonstrates to United States how to handle government wrongdoing

The democracy wasting disease that was the Bush administration until this year got its latest comeuppance on Wednesday when a court in Italy sentenced 23 U.S. residents, including at least 22 CIA agents, to prison terms of at least five years each for abducting a Muslim cleric in 2003 and secreting him to Egypt for interrogation. The case, which has been ongoing since 2007, is the first judicial reckoning of the practice of extraordinary rendition, a constitutional perversion under which U.S. agents abducted suspects in other countries and took them to a third country that permitted harsh interrogations, according to the Reuters international news service. The U.S. citizens were tried in absentia because Washington refused to allow them to be extradited to Italy to face trial. Two members of Italy's spy service, Sisma, were sentenced to three-year prison terms for participating in the renditions, suggesting that Italy was aware of the U.S. operation that took the cleric, Abu Omar, off a street in Milan and flew him to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and then to Egypt. Abu Omar claimed he was held without charge and mistreated in Egyptian custody until his release in 2007. U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said today that the Obama administration was "disappointed" in the convictions and would probably appeal, but refused to comment further. But human rights groups opposed to the practices of the Bush administration showed no such reluctance. Joan Sunderland of Human Rights Watch called the verdict "historic," Reuters said. Amnesty International admonished the United States for having gone to court at all. "The United States shouldn't need a foreign court to distinguish right from wrong," the group said in a statement. "The Obama administration must repudiate the unlawful practice of extraordinary rendition -- and hold accountable those responsible for having put the system in place -- or his administration will end up as tarnished as his predecessor's." The United States has never acknowledged any rendition flights from Italy, Reuters said.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Israeli settlements are not the problem in Middle East

Maybe if most Arab nations were democracies that acted only with the approval of their citizens, they would more-easily be able to understand what has happened to the Middle East peace process. It's fairly obvious that U.S. President Barack Obama, who perhaps unwisely raised expectations in the Arab world about changing this country's policies toward Israel, has acquired a greater appreciation of what Jerusalem has been telling him about peacemaking with the Palestinian Authority. Israel's willingness to compromise, which has varied over time, has never produced a lasting agreement because Palestinian leaders have been unwilling to prepare their people for the possibility of peace -- probably out of fear for their own safety -- after years of agitating for war. Israeli intransigence is not the chief cause of the decades-long deadlock; rather, it's the refusal of the Palestinians and of most of the countries in the region to plan for a future that includes their Jewish cousins. That's why it was kind of sad to see U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton go traipsing around the Arab world this week trying to convince those countries to accept Israel's partial settlement freeze proposal and return to peace talks, as the Reuters international news service reported. The Palestinian Authority still thinks its warlike posture toward Israel, a posture supported by its Arab backers, is the best way to achieve its goal -- a Middle East without Israel. That's why previous overly generous Israeli peace offers that included the sharing of Jerusalem were rejected by Palestinian authorities. Now, with the election of a conservative government in Israel, such offers are almost certainly off the table. But a readers of this blog know, Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank is not an obstacle to true peace in the region. What it does complicate, however, is the kind of peace that is merely the absence of war. If Palestinians and Israelis are going to live side-by-side in the long term, it won't matter what country they live in assuming their rights are respected and protected. The fact that this has yet not occurred to anyone in the region strongly suggests that none of the parties is prepared to come to anything more than an interim agreement, if at all.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

U.S. regulators let CIT Group go under despite $2 billion investment

Why would the government allow a 100-year-old lender that provided funds to hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses fail while bailing out large sectors of the financial system? That was the obvious question Sunday when CIT Group Inc. of New York filed for bankruptcy under the weight of nearly $65 billion in debt, according to the Reuters international news service. The bankruptcy is the fifth largest in U.S. corporate history, and sidelines, at least temporarily, a major source of financing for a sector of the economy responsible for nearly half of the nation's jobs. CIT said in a statement that it hoped to eliminate $10 billion of debt in bankruptcy and emerge quickly. The company has $71 billion in assets. “The decision to proceed with our plan of reorganization will allow CIT to continue to provide funding to our small business and middle market customers, two sectors that remain vitally important to the U.S. economy,” CIT's chairman and CEO, Jeffrey Peek, said in a prepared statement. “This market-based solution allows CIT to enter into the reorganization process well-prepared and positioned for a swift emergence. We also acknowledge our constructive working relationship with our regulators and look forward to their continued guidance as we move through this process.” Analysts said the 101-year-old company was a victim of the global credit crisis, Reuters said, as its loan porfolio suffered heavy losses and it ultimately was unable to raise enough money by selling bonds. In a letter to customers on Nov. 1, CIT said none of its subsidiary businesses, such as CIT Bank of Utah, would be affected by the bankruptcy filing. But the U.S. taxpayer is affected, since CIT received $2.33 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program in December. The government will only be repaid now if any money is left after banks and bond investors are paid because it is considered a preferred stockholder. Holders of CIT's common stock will not be repaid, Reuters said.

Afghanistan situation just keeps getting worse

Just when it seemed the chaotic political situation in war-torn Afghanistan was about to get some clarity comes word that presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah had withdrawn from Sunday's runoff election. Abdullah's decision to withdraw casts further doubt on the legitimacy of the troubled Western-backed government in Kabul led by Hamid Karzai, which has been wracked by a growing insurgency, corruption charges and fraud allegations from the first round of balloting in August, according to the Reuters international news service. With tears in his eyes, Abdullah told thousands of supporters in a tent in Kabul that he was dropping out because Afghani authorities would not meet his demands to ensure a fair runoff, including sacking the country's top election official. Karzai got the most votes in the first round but a United Nations investigation found widespread fraud, triggering the runoff, Reuters said. The fraudulent election was an embarrassment to the United States and its allies, who have dedicated more than 40,000 troops to defend Afghanistan's government against resurgent Taliban forces battling for control of the country. The Taliban had threatened to disrupt the first round of voting with limited success and also is threatening to disrupt Sunday's balloting. The election crisis comes as U.S. President Barack Obama was said to be waiting for the outcome of the voting before deciding on a proposal to send 30,000 additional soldiers to bolster Afghanistan forces. But Abdullah's withdrawal could be even more embarrassing to Western countries, because it leaves an election with only one candidate -- hardly an example of vibrant democracy. The prospect and promise of democratic government was expected to help the West make its case against Taliban influence. "It is a shocking failure of efforts by the West and other international communities to build a democracy in Afghanistan," said Norine MacDonald of The International Council on Security and Development, a policy research group. Nevertheless, Karzai defiantly refused to consider a unity government with Abdullah and the Independent Election Commission said the election must proceed as scheduled on Nov. 7. "It is now a matter for the Afghan authorities to decide on a way ahead that brings this electoral process to a conclusion in line with the Afghan constitution," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Reuters from Morocco. "We will support the next president and the people of Afghanistan, who seek and deserve a better future." British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Karzai must fix his government's corruption problem, improve the country's security forces and speed up efforts to improve economic conditions in the impoverished countryside.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Bank seizures belie news about improving economy

Today's news that U.S. regulators had seized nine Western banks is a sure sign that the world's largest economy is still in crisis, even while federal officials and traders on the New York Stock Exchange behave as if the nation's financial system has already recovered. The nine failed banks owned by FBOP Corp., an Illinois-based bank holding company, and their scores of branches were acquired by U.S. Bancorp of Minneapolis, which owns 770 U.S. Bank branches in Illinois, Arizona and California. The largest of the nine banks, California National Bank of Los Angeles, had 68 branches in Southern California. The nine bank seizures were the most in a single day since the financial crisis began, according to the Reuters international news service. "We're getting ready to turn everything over to U.S. Bank," said Roberta Valdez, a spokeswoman for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, which is helping to supervise the transfer. "[The banks] will continue to operate as normal in the interim." Today's takeovers bring to 115 the number of bank failures in 2009, the most since 1992, and more are yet to come, Reuters said, as depressed commercial real estate prices make billions of dollars in loans uncollectable. Small banks are expected to be the hardest hit because they are not as diversified as larger banks, Reuters said. Other banks expecting to report big losses this year include Zions Bancorp of Salt Lake City, Columbus, Georgia's Synovus Financial Corp of Columbus, Georgia, and Comerica Inc. of Dallas. U.S. Bancorp has been helping to pick up the slumping industry in the West by buying Downey Savings of Newport Beach and PFF Bank & Trust of Pomona last November and, in October, buying 20 branches from BB&T Corp. in Nevada.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Coast Guard admits Sept. 11 training exercise was a bad idea

For anyone who still thinks it impossible that the U.S. military was caught napping on the fateful day that terrorists crashed jumbo jets into the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001 comes news of an internal U.S. Coast Guard investigation that found that scheduling a training exercise on the Potomac River on the anniversary of that attack was a mistake. Gee, you think? False reports of gunfire near the Pentagon, where President Barack Obama was attending a memorial ceremony, prompted FBI agents to rush the scene and caused the grounding of 17 flights at nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the New York Times said, citing a report yesterday by the Associated Press. CNN and Fox News reported the shots on television after hearing about them on a police radio, even though no shots were actually fired, the Times said. Instead, the exercise raised unnecessary fears that Washington had again come under attack on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the report found. The Coast Guard said it did not know that Obama was in the vicinity and would not have conducted the drill if it had known, and promised to use more-secure communications in the future. Of course, the biggest question has to be why the Coast Guard didn't figure any of this out before. Like the incident in April when an airplane painted to look like Air Force One caused panic in New York City when it flew dangerously close to skyscrapers in a publicity exercise without notifying local authorities, federal authorities display stupidity at best or contempt for the citizenry at worst when they pull such stunts. If it's only stupidity, it certainly seems a likely explanation for what happened, or failed to happen, on the real Sept. 11.

Monday, October 26, 2009

U.S. officials step up pressure on Honduras coup leaders

Will leaders of the June coup that ousted Honduras' democratically elected leftist leader finally give in to international pressure and reinstate President Manuel Zelaya? That question took on increased significance this week after word that U.S. Secretary of State had telephoned the head of the interim government, former conservative legislator Roberto Micheletti, and Zelaya, prior to dispatching top officials to try to resolve the crisis. Clinton told Micheletti about "increasing frustration" in the United States and Latin America about the failure of months of negotiations to make any progress in returning Zelaya to power, according to the New York Times. Zelaya was removed from office June 30 by the Honduras military and forced into exile. Coup leaders accused Zelaya of plotting to change the country's constitution to extend his term in office beyond its January expiration, as his outspoken supporter in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, had already accomplished. National elections are scheduled in November. Zelaya secretly returned to Honduras on Sept. 21 and has been living in Brazil's embassy in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, under threat of arrest by coup leaders. The Obama administration condemned the coup in June but has since been accused across Latin America of failing to do enough to return Zelaya to power, the Times said. The interim government has been blamed for refusing to compromise and for repression of the press, human rights activists and supporters Zelaya, who hold daily demonstrations outside the Brazilian embassy, the Times said. But Micheletti has so far adamantly refused to agree to any deal that would return Zelaya to power. A U.S. State Department official told the Times that Clinton pressured Micheletti to resolve the crisis by the November election. “The purpose [of the call] was to remind him there were two pathways to the elections -- one where Honduras goes by itself and the other where it goes with broad support from the international community,” the official said. But the crisis also has led to friction in the U.S. Congress, where Democratic Party leaders have called for more U.S. pressure on the interim government to give up power and Republican Party leaders have demanded U.S. President Barack Obama reverse his condemnation of the coup.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Nuclear deal with Iran faces crucial test tomorrow

Iran's effort to forestall tightening international economic sanctions over its nuclear program faces its first major test tomorrow when UN inspectors are scheduled to enter its formerly secret uranium enrichment facility near Qom. Nobody except the Iranians even knows if the experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency will actually be admitted to the site, even though Iran agreed to that in Geneva last month under pressure from Western nations, according to the Washington Post. The meeting was noteworthy for several developments, including the first public announcement of the existence of the enrichment plant and the highest-level official contact between Iran and the United States since 1979. Iran acknowledged the plant's existence in a letter to the IAEA last month, just before the Geneva conference. Tehran insists it has no designs on nuclear weapons but is merely developing nuclear power for electricity, which it insists it has a right to. But the plant, still under construction on the side of a mountain at a military base yet apparently known about for years by intelligence agencies worldwide, only is suitable for weapons development, the Post said. Iran plans to place only 3,000 centrifuges at the site, which is not enough to enrich uranium for a civilian nuclear plant, the Post said citing expert sources. Analysts say it would take Qom's centrifuges at least 20 years to produce enough uranium to power a 1,000- megawatt nuclear power reactor for a year. But the equipment could produce enough enriched uranium to build three nuclear bombs annually, the Times said. "There is no Iranian document saying the facility is designed for a military program, but what else can it be good for?" a senior Middle East-based intelligence official who studies Iran told the Times. In fact, the Qom plant has forced the United States to reconsider the 2007 conclusion of its intelligence agencies that Iran had halted nuclear weapons research in 2003. "Qom changed a lot of people's thinking, especially about the possibility of secret military enrichment" of uranium, another former officials told the Times. The revised assessments are classified, the Times said. But the public revelations about the plant do raise obvious questions about Iran's intentions, despite its protestations to the contrary. Of course, it never made sense that Iran needed to pursue civilian nuclear energy when it sits atop a sixth of worldwide oil reserves. If Russia and China are sufficiently alarmed, Qom could be the catalyst for further tightening of worldwide economic sanctions, just when it seemed Iran wanted to rejoin the nations trying to figure out how to live in peace.