Monday, August 31, 2009

Diplomatic surprise -- Armenia and Turkey begin to mend long-festering conflict

Do miracles still happen? In a development that should give hope to societies all over the world caught up in seemingly intractable conflicts, Armenia and Turkey seem about to establish diplomatic relations for the first time since World War I. The countries have been negotiating since April with the help of mediators from Switzerland and the United States, according to the Reuters international news service. "The political consultations will be completed within six weeks, following which the two Protocols will be signed and submitted to the respective Parliaments for the ratification on each side," the foreign ministries of both countries said in a joint statement. "Both sides will make their best efforts for the timely progression of the ratification in line with their constitutional and legal procedures." Turkey and Armenia have been enemies since the mass killings and expulsions of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915, and Turkey still bitterly disputes characterization of the mass killings as genocide, even though that is exactly what it was. Armenians were legally discriminated against for decades in what became modern Turkey before and after the mass killings, and what was left of Armenia's historic territory joined the Soviet Union or it would probably have been absorbed by Turkey, too. The agreement, which includes a commission to examine the countries' troubled past, was applauded by the U.S. State Department. "We urge Armenia and Turkey to proceed expeditiously," spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement, according to Reuters. "We remain ready to work closely with both governments in support of normalization, a historic process that will contribute to peace, security and stability throughout the region." The agreement was timed as a precursor to a planned visit to Turkey by Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan in October, when he is scheduled to attend a World Cup soccer match between the two countries. Turkey has a considerable incentive for resolving its differences with Armenia -- Ankara wants to improve its international image to better its chances of joining the European Union. But the agreement has risks, particularly in expected outrage from nearby Azerbaijan, where an internal conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and Armenia's involvement in it, caused Turkey to close its border with Armenia in 1993. That was just two years after Armenia became an independent country with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Azerbaijan has strategic important to the West because of its natural gas reserves, yet the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved, 15 years after Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces signed a tense ceasefire, Reuters said.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Toyota takes clunker money and runs

News that Toyota will bail from a 25-year partnership with General Motors to produce vehicles at the only automobile manufacturing plant still operating in California should come as no surprise to anyone -- GM already announced in a bankruptcy court filing in June that it was abandoning its share of the joint venture. California officials tried to save the NUMMI plant in Fremont by offering tax breaks and other incentives, according to the Reuters international news service, but Toyota decided to close the plant as part of its global cost-saving strategy. The plant, and the combination of GM and Toyota, was an innovation when it reopened in 1984 to produce a redesigned Chevrolet Nova using Japanese manufacturing techniques. It had previously been a GM manufacturing facility. It now employs more than 4,000 autoworkers and supports as many as 35,000 supplier jobs, and will continue to build Toyota Corolla cars and Tacoma trucks until March 31. GM, which is reorganizing under court protection, ceased production of the Pontiac Vibe at the plant last month, and is discontinuing the Pontiac brand. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said Toyota's announcement was a "sad day" and said plans were underway to convert the plant to other uses, Reuters said. The plant was the only Toyota facility in the United States with a contract with the United Auto Workers union. A union official said the decision to close the plant was devastating. "This is no time to close a highly successful manufacturing facility," said Jimmy Settles, a United Auto Workers vice president. "California is one of the most important markets for Toyota." Perhaps ironically, Toyota was the largest recipient of stimulus dollars from the U.S. government's so-called "Cash for Clunkers" program that pumped $3 billion into the auto industry in an effort to boost sales. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Toyota officials told her office that GM's pullout from NUMMI left the plant with excess capacity and no outlook for increased demand in the current economic environment, according to Reuters. Toyota also complained that the plant was old and that production costs were too high in California, Reuters said.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Major league baseball players buy some justice for the rich

Yesterday's federal appeals court ruling that U.S. agents overstepped their authority in seizing evidence from a Bay Area laboratory appears absolutely correct. As Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the 11-judge panel's decision, the government was not permitted to take the results of steroids testing of hundreds of people -- many of them prominent athletes -- when it enforced a warrant for results of tests on 10 Major League baseball players, according to the Reuters international news service. Among the athletes whose steroid use was exposed by the documentation was Alex Rodriguez, the New York Yankees third baseman who admitted using performance enhancing drugs after Sports Illustrated magazine said he was mentioned, Reuters said. The ruling means the lab evidence probably cannot be used if the government decides to prosecute the multimillionaire players for perjury or any other charges U.S. officials come up with, assuming the decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is upheld when the case is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, as expected. This is how justice is figured out in our system. But it doesn't happen like that for everybody. This is justice for the rich. The biggest problem for the multimillionaire players is going to be how to put the revelations back into the bottle. But ordinary folks charged with crimes simply don't have the same kind of experience with the judicial system. Rich ballplayers are not going to be arrested and thrown into jail while their case plays out in court over months and years, but ordinary people -- who don't have tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for bail -- probably will. Rich ballplayers will be defended by the best lawyers their ludicrously wealthy labor union can afford; ordinary folks will have to come up as money as they can get their hands on just to get an attorney to represent them. People need to get attorneys because most cases are not decided in the courtroom but in pretrial consultations with judges, where non-lawyers are not allowed. We have created a legal system that rewards the rich with unprecedented access and opportunity at the expense of lower middle-class and poor people. The courts have evolved from a search for truth to a battle of egos, and ordinary people -- and ordinary justice -- are the biggest losers.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Israeli leader Netanyahu flies into week of contentious talks with U.S., Europe

Maybe the leaders of England and Germany will be able to understand what U.S. leaders seem to be unable to grasp during talks this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Europe. A freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank is reportedly the top of the agenda for Netanyahu's meetings with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell in London on Tuesday and Wednesday, and with German Prime Minister Angela Merkel in Berlin on Thursday, according to the Reuters international news service. The Palestinian Authority insists on such a freeze before it will agree to negotiate with Israel on a peace deal, and Israel actually is committed to a freeze under the George W. Bush-era road map peace framework. But as readers of this blog realize, the settlement issue is merely a distraction from the real issue -- do Israel's neighbors, particularly the Palestinian Authority, want to live in peace and cooperation with Israel. The louder Palestinian leaders insist on making a freeze a condition of talks, the louder they are answering that question with "no." New towns with homes for hundreds of thousands of people are a material asset to a poor country -- why wouldn't any country want that? The issue for Palestinian leaders is that they don't think their people will accept Jewish people being their neighbors and will vote them out of office if peace happens. The failure to prepare their people for peace with Israel is is an utter dereliction of their duty as leaders. They are still funding school curricula that teach Palestinian children to distrust and hate Jewish people -- people who will be their neighbors whenever peace finally comes to the region. There is no reason why settlements built by Israel on land destined to be part of a Palestinian state can't be part of that state -- unless the Palestinian government is planning a country with no Jewish people allowed. If that's the case, then Palestinian leaders have no desire to live in peace with Israel, because peace necessarily involves people living side-by-side in understood cooperation. If the leaders do not want peace with Israel, then all they are doing is buying time until they can resume warfare against the Jewish state. And that is what Netanyahu needs to explain to England, Germany and the U.S. envoy during his trip to Europe.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The worst keeps getting worse

Most likely, the latest revelations about coercive interrogation techniques used by the CIA in Afghanistan are not nearly the end of the story of U.S. excesses in the so-called War on Terror. But they certainly help explain the maniacal secrecy of U.S. authorities under the Bush administration in keeping information about the interrogation program from the public. Top government officials, notably but probably not limited to Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush, knew the program violated the country's international treaty obligations but authorized it anyway, and kept it secret not out of concern for the United States, as they said, but to keep their own selves out of trouble. They probably expected to be honored as heroes for saving the country from danger and gave only passing thought to the fact that they were sacrificing the United States' very reason for existence. They probably still don't get it, and blame the new president, Barack Obama, for whatever is about to unfold. The fact that their policies were rejected by an overwhelming majority of voters in the last election does not even register as a repudiation -- they think the public just doesn't understand. But the people of the United States know when the government is taking away their constitutional rights, spying on them, and doing nearly unspeakable harm to others while hiding behind the flag. The new information, contained in a top-secret CIA report being made public next week, include threatening detainees with a mock execution, a handgun and an electric drill, was revealed by officials who had access to the report, according to the Washington Post newspaper. The threatened execution was used in an effort to pursuade suspected al-Qaida commander Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, suspected of being the mastermind of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 sailors in 1999, to provide information to his interrogators. Federal law prohibits threatening a prisoner with immediate death, the Post said. Al-Nashiri later was one of three detainees subjected to waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning. A CIA spokesman said the agency did not endorse such excesses and promptly investigated any reports of them. "The CIA in no way endorsed behavior -- no matter how infrequent -- that went beyond formal guidance," said Paul Gimigliano, the agency spokesman, according to the Post. "This has all been looked at; professionals in the Department of Justice decided if and when to pursue prosecution. That's how the system was supposed to work, and that's how it did work." The actual report, which was compiled in 2004, is expected to be made public next week, the newspaper said.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Independent probe of BART shooting finds fault with police response

Well, we can only hope that the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency (BART) didn't spend too much taxpayer money for the investigation of a fatal New Year's Day shooting at Fruitvale Station it hired a San Francisco law firm to conduct. It didn't take a team of geniuses to conclude, as the investigation did in a public report released Aug. 18, that the police response to a disturbance on a train in Oakland that took the life of a young man was sadly inadequate. "The tactics of BART PD at the field level were seriously deficient," the report said. But everybody realizes that, or should, particularly the BART police. A man was shot and killed by a police officer, a shooting famously caught on the cell phone cameras of passengers, despite having complied with police orders to lie on the floor of the station platform. The non-public portion of the report, not released publicly because it concerned police police personnel matters, probably probes the thinking of police officers on the scene -- including Johannes Mehserle, who is charged with firing the fatal shot. Mehserle, who resigned from the BART police force after the shooting, is free on $3 million bail. The California Supreme Court refused to lower his bail last month. But the public part of the report raises major questions about the training and competence of the BART police -- which cast an unpleasant shadow over the leadership of this vital public agency. In addition, it raises the possibility that other police agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area are stuck in the same cycle of incompetence. According to the report, BART does not have a protocol for notifying supervisory personnel in the event of a serious incident, probably because incidents are rare on the transit system. As a result, the report said, there was inadequate supervision of and no command structure for the police officers on the train platform when Mehserle was shot. Perhaps because of that, or because of inadequate training, BART police did not follow best practices for law enforcement personnel confronted with such an incident, the report concluded. Officers involved in the incident were not immediately debriefed, Mehserle was not compelled to undergo counseling, witnesses were allowed to leave without being interviewed, and officers involved were shown video of the shooting before being questioned by BART investigators. The people of the Bay Area, and of any community in any state, have a right to expect that public employees are trained and supervised. This should go without saying, but the report had to state it directly because the BART police apparently had no appreciation of the obvious. This stuff is not hard. Law enforcement agencies must get it right or face being disbanded. That, it seems, is the best thing for the BART Police Department. For a link to the report, see

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Six Guantanamo detainees to be transferred this month

At least six inmates being held at Guantanamo Bay prison will be sent to other countries this month, the U.S. Justice Department said Wednesday, according to the Reuters international news service. The scheduled releases, assuming they proceed as planned, are in addition to the 11 Guantanamo inmates already sent overseas under the new administration of Barack Obama. Obama pledged to close the prison, on the U.S. naval base on the island of Cuba, by early next year during the 2008 election campaign. The prison, set up by the previous administration of George W. Bush to hold terror suspects captured overseas, has been controversial because of alleged mistreatment of detainees and because many prisoners have been held for years without charges. One of the suspects, an Afghani who was as young as 14 when detained on suspicion of throwing a hand grenade that injured two U.S. soldiers and a translator in 2002, could be returned to Afghanistan by Friday, Reuters said. A federal judge in Washington ordered his release last month unless he was formally charged, and U.S. prosecutors have discussed charging him in civilian court. All of the six inmates who release is being contemplated were either ordered released by federal judges or were cleared by the administration's detainee review process, Reuters said. Two detainees will be sent to Portugal and two to Ireland, the news service said, citing a report in the Miami Herald newspaper. The Washington Post newspaper also reported that 10 European countries have agreed to take detainees, including England and France, Reuters said. There still are more than 220 suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay, Reuters said.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Honduras suspends diplomatic relations with Argentina

Will coup leaders in Honduras ever accept the inevitable and allow the country's duly elected president to return to power? That question, which has been asked repeatedly in regional capitals since the military seized power in June, was back in the news again this week when Honduras suspended diplomatic relations with Argentina. The move was in retaliation for the South American country's expulsion of Honduras' ambassador a week earlier for what it said was a failure to protest the coup, according to Cable News Network (CNN). The ambassador, Carmen Eleonora Ortez Williams, was appointed by Jose Manuel Zelaya before his ouster and remained in her post as Honduras' new government, led by the legislature's leader, Roberto Micheletti, took over. The United Nations, the Organization of American States and the European Union have refused to recognize the Micheletti government and have called to Zelaya to be restored to power. Argentina had asked Ortez to leave for "for supporting the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti," CNN said, so Honduras ordered Argentina's diplomatic personnel to leave Tegucigalpa, the capital, within 72 hours. Honduras said its relations with Argentina would be "channeled" through the Argentine embassy in Israel, CNN said. The Honduran military seized power after Zelaya insisted on holding a referendum to extend term limits, even though the legislature had outlawed the vote and the supreme court said it was illegal. Micheletti, who was named provisional president by the legislature after Zelaya was sent into exile by the military, denied that a coup had taken place and said Zelaya was removed constitutionally.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

U.S. prosecutions expected in wake of UBS deal

At least the recent deal between the U.S. Justice Department and the giant Swiss bank UBS will result in more money for the deficit-ridden U.S. Treasury. U.S. prosecutors have opened 150 investigations against 150 U.S. citizens they believe were helped by Swiss bankers to avoid taxes on $20 billion in assets held in Europe, Central America and the Caribbean. Under the terms of the deal, a major dent in previously inviolate Swiss banking secrecy laws, 5,000 additional owners of hidden assets are expected to be revealed, according to the Reuters international news service. But Swiss bankers are believed to be still be hiding the identities of 10,000-15,000 more depositors from the United States with possibly hundreds of billions more in assets. Those names are not expected to be revealed in the current case, in which UBS also agreed to pay $780 million in fines. This apparently means that the United States has backed away from permanently neutering Switzerland's banking secrecy tradition, which has no place in the evolving global economy. It also looks like the United States has failed use the case to right one of the great festering wrongs from World War II, and force Swiss bankers to reveal the locations and amounts of money and assets stolen from victims of the Nazi conquest of Europe. Why Swiss banks should continue to be exempt from common human decency defies explanation. And, yet, even the world's most powerful nations seem to quiver at the prospect of correcting this indecency. In fact, if not for the testimony of one former UBS banker turned whistleblower, there may have been no case. That banker, Bradley Birkenfeld of South Boston, formerly of Geneva, pleaded guilty in 2008 to helping a South Florida billionaire hide $200 million in assets from U.S. tax authorities. Birkenfeld agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a lighter prison sentence.

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Captain" Hugo aims rhetorical phasers at Barack Obama

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez criticized U.S. President Barack Obama as "lost in the Andromeda Nebula" on Sunday after Obama said the United States had been asked to do more to restore the president of Honduras, who was ousted in a coup last month. "We are not asking you to intervene in Honduras, Obama," Chavez said on his weekly television show, according to the Reuters international news service. "On the contrary, we are asking that 'the empire' gets its hands off Honduras and get its claws out of Latin America." The Venezuelan leader has been highly critical of United States' involvement with Latin American countries and repeatedly accuses Washington of trying to dominate the region. He claims the United States had advance knowledge of the Honduras coup in June and had arrangements in place to fly deposed President Manuel Zelaya out of the country from a U.S. military base. Obama has denied the charges, which does not necessarily mean they're untrue. But Chavez, for his part, is no stranger to bombastic rhetoric. He frequently launches into tirades against what he called U.S. imperialism and, remember, he's the guy who called former President George W. Bush "the devil" at the United Nations in 2006. Chavez is known to be angry about an agreement between the United States and his neighbor, Colombia, that grants access to military bases for U.S. troops to help in the fight against the drug trade, Reuters said. Chavez claims the agreement makes it easier for the United States to attack Venezuela to steal its oil reserves, and is actively purchasing Russian armaments to beef up his armed forces. "This is just the start of an imperial military expansion," Chavez said. The Venezuelan president called on the United States to withdraw from its longtime base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and from the Soto Cano airbase in Honduras.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

North Korea tries to creeps back into civilized world

News from Seoul today that North Korea agreed to reopen its border with South Korea means one thing above all -- that Pyongyang, despite sometimes bewildering antisocial behavior -- still wants to be part of the world community. Knowing this should give Western policymakers renewed incentive to redouble efforts to bring North Korea to world or regional talks aimed at rolling back the impoverished communist nation's nuclear weapons programs. The border development followed a face-to-face meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and Hyon Jong Un, head of South Korean Hyundai Group, who had gone to Pyongyang to arrange the return of a worker who had been detained, according to the Reuters international news service. The Hyundai group runs tourism programs to North Korea and operates an industrial park across the border that is a major source of income for Pyongyang. But that income has been sharply reduced in the past 18 months as north-south diplomatic tensions have increased, Reuters said. Today's agreement also means the reinstatement of a celebrated program that permits reunions of families separated by the partition of the country after the Korean War ended in 1953. North Korean media portrayed the two high-level meetings as a tribute to Kim, who is believed to be in poor health and maneuvering to have his son succeed him as leader. But North Korea has a lot to answer for, including recent nuclear tests, missile launches and sales of technology to other rogue states, before it can be admitted into the club.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Maybe U.S. should rethink shuttle plan

News this week that NASA plans to use $50 million in economic stimulus money to encourage proposals for commercial passenger transportation to space raises the fairly obvious question of why the U.S. space agency decided to retire its fleet of shuttles before developing an alternative. While it's certainly encouraging that NASA is finally serious about replacing the shuttle, which is scheduled to make its last trip in 2010, the U.S. space program will be forced to depend on Russia's Soyuz space capsule and rocket until a new craft is developed. "The main thing that the public should be taking note of is that right now we are (solely dependent) on the Russians (for space transports) after 2010," Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, one of the U.S. companies competing to build the next space vessel, told the Reuters international news service. Musk could have a point, considering that Russia has not been among the United States' most reliable allies. Then again, NASA relied on the Soyuz for transport to the international space station for years when the shuttle fleet was grounded. Musk's company, Space Exploration Technologies, and another company, Orbital Sciences Corp., already share a $500 million contract to develop and build rockets and capsules to bring supplies to the station. Other U.S. firms that have expressed an interest in the commercial passenger program include Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Airborne Systems, Boeing Co, Tether Applications, Retro Aerospace, Emergent Space Technologies, Davidson Technologies and Paragon Space Development Corp, Reuters said. NASA is planning a workshop for interested companies on Thursday in Houston.

Antigua and Barbuda beneficiaries of the 'other' Hugo Chavez

What does it mean that Venezuela's virulently anti-United States president, Hugo Chavez, just gave $50 million to help the Caribbean two-island country of Antigua and Barbuda cope with financial losses from the collapse of a bank owned by Texas billionaire Allen Stanford? Antigua's prime minister, Baldwin Spencer, announced Thursday that Venezuela had agreed to loan the tiny country $50 million on favorable terms to help it weather the crisis. "Today, I am pleased to advise the nation that at one o'clock this morning President Hugo Chavez signed the necessary paperwork to approve the immediate transfer of the full amount of $50 million to the government's call account at the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank," Spencer said, according to the Reuters international news service. Spencer led Antigua to join the Chavez-inspired ALBA alliance of leftist Latin American countries two months ago, an alliance that includes Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba, which was created as an alternative to U.S. economic influence in Latin America, Reuters said. Aiding Antigua is another way for Chavez to gain influence in the region, since the United States has not offered such aid because it believes Antigua's government was involved in a $7 billion fraud allegedly perpetrated by Stanford through his Antigua-based Stanford International Bank. The U.S. Justice Department handed down indictments in June accusing Stanford, three bank executives at the bank and Antigua's chief bank regulator with complicity in the fraud. Investors from the United States, Mexico, Colombia and Peru have sued Antigua for $24 billion, accusing the country of helping the fraud. Venezuelan investors also lost money in the investment scheme, which involved certificates of deposit from the bank, Reuters said. Antigua is a member of another Chavez-inspired group, PetroCaribe, which allows poor countries in the region buy oil on credit. This is not the first time Chavez's dislike for the United States has "encouraged" him to help his neighbors -- hopefully, it won't be the last.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Is China ready to comply with WTO decisions?

Wednesday's decision by the World Trade Organization that China had improperly imposed limits on imports of books, music recordings and movies adds to the pressure on Beijing to start complying with international standards in its economic dealings with the rest of the world. In a decision delayed nearly a year, the WTO panel found that China violates international rules with import limits and by requiring all such imported products to go first to state-owned enterprises before being sold to consumers. "Foreign individuals and enterprises, including those not invested or registered in China, are accorded treatment less favorable than that accorded to enterprises in China with respect to the right to trade,” the WTO panel said in its decision, according to the New York Times. The ruling, which came on a complaint filed by the Bush administration in 2007 after pressure from Congress to resolve inequities in the U.S.-China trade relationship, could begin to force China to lift restrictions on imports and be more aggressive in enforcing copyrights from other countries. Chinese consumers can buy copies of pirated copies of U.S.-made books, music and movies at severely discounted products, the Times said. But knowledgeable observers said any change in Chinese policies is likely to take years, if at all. Ron Kirk, the U.S. trade representative, said the decision “promises to level the playing field for American companies working to distribute high-quality entertainment products in China so that legitimate American products can get to market and beat out the pirates," according to the Times. But that's only if the Chinese government complies. China has lost two WTO rulings in the past 13 months -- on auto parts imports and counterfeiting protection -- and still has failed to comply, the Times said. “They’ve got a poor record of compliance. They keep filing appeals,” Lyle Vander Schaaf, a Washington, D.C. attorney who specializes in W.T.O. disputes, told the Times. China also has right to appeal the latest decision, and a statement of regret from the country's commerce ministry said it may challenge the decision. If China does appeal and loses, the United States has the right to impose trade sanctions under WTO rules. But, seriously, how likely is Washington to do that?

Friday, August 7, 2009

You could learn a lot from a politician

Did it strike anybody else as odd to hear U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lecture the Kenyan government about corruption yesterday during a visit to Nairobi? Clinton, who met Wednesday with government leaders and attended the annual African Growth and Opportunity Act conference, told a town hall meeting at the University of Nairobi that corruption in Kenya's government was preventing the country from developing economically. "The fact is Kenya has not fulfilled its economic promise," she said, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). "I believe it has not realized . . . a functioning democracy." Clinton acknowledged her message was "harsh," but how could it not be after the country's violence-marred 2007 presidential election. President Mwai Kibacki claimed re-election after a 2008 runoff against opposition leader Raila Odinga, now the country's prime minister, who was forced to flee the country during the campaign because of attacks against him and his supporters. The prime minister post was created for Odinga to settle the dispute, but not before hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and 1,300 killed in post-election violence forces. Clinton said the message about corruption was coming from U.S. President Barack Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, CNN said. Yet true as her words might have been, it still was weird to hear them from Clinton, whose husband, Bill, was impeached in 1998 over a White House sex scandal. Only the second U.S. president ever impeached, Bill Clinton was tried in the U.S. Senate but survived the largely partisan vote to remove him from office and completed his second term in office. Maybe self-righteousness just goes with holding high office. Of course, it's not nearly as ridiculous as hearing ex-President George W. Bush lecture other countries about free elections.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cyber attack on Twitter, Facebook was much ado about little

Sure, it was annoying to be kept off the Twitter microblogging site for hours on Thursday. But unless it was your responsibility to keep Twitter and at least two other social networking sites -- Facebook and LiveJournal -- free from so-called Denial of Service attacks, you weren't harmed in any way. So why all the outage outrage? According to the Cable News Network CNN), some users of the social networking sites reacted with "near-panic" to being unable to use the services. Such sites have proved themselves extremely valuable for promoting businesses and causes, and for finding and keeping in touch with long-lost and newfound friends, but what explains the odd reaction or, rather, overreaction? Okay, this probably was the first time most Internet users have dealt with such an attack on a site they use, but this is part of the new world of the Web. Everyone tries to protect their computers from being compromised cyberthreats that were unknown a decade ago; even Twitter, the target of the attack, understood that this was part the risks inherent to such enterprises. "Attacks such as this are malicious efforts orchestrated to disrupt and make unavailable services such as online banks, credit card payment gateways, and in this case, Twitter for intended customers or users," Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told CNN in an e-mail. "We are defending against this attack now and will continue to update our status blog as we defend and later investigate." That's right. It's part of the business, and hunting down the perpetrators is part of that, too. No surprise, no panic. Computer users should remember that the ubiquitous Internet is a relatively recent phenomenon and that there were plenty of things to do before social networking, and still are. The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team told CNN that it is impossible to fully prevent such attacks but said computer users should keep their antivirus software updated and their firewalls properly maintained.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Situation in Afghanistan looks dire for this month's election

A formerly secret map showing nearly half of Afghanistan under insurgent control or at high risk of attack by the Taliban or other groups earlier this year has raised concerns about security for the presidential election scheduled Aug. 20. The map, produced in April, shows 133 of the country's 356 districts as high-risk with at least 13 under insurgent control, the Reuters international news service reported Wednesday. At-risk areas include regions near Kabul, the capital, according to the map, which bears markings from the country's Interior Ministry and the UN Department of Safety and Security. The Taliban have promised to disrupt the elections as part of recent violence that has escalated to the worst level since 2001, and have asked the population to boycott the polls, Reuters said. Insurgents fired nine missiles into Kabul on Tuesday, the first such attack in years. The UN confirmed the map's authenticity to Reuters but refused further comment. "The map is an Afghan government map," U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique said in Kabul. "It's certainly not for us to speak publicly on it or comment on it or define it." But it bodes poorly for the new aggressive strategy put in place by U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this year. If violence in the south keeps ordinary Afghanis from the polls, it could threaten the reelection of Hamid Karzai, who has led the pro-Western government in Kabul since 2001 and won a national election in 2004. Karzai's main power base is the Pashtun region in the south, Reuters said. Aghanistan's Ministry of Defense said, however, that it would be able to protect the balloting. "The Afghan National Security Forces and the International Security Assistance Force are ready to secure the upcoming elections and we expect that no major security incident will take place during the elections," said Gen. Zaher Azimy, a ministry spokesman. The government and NATO insist that the Taliban only have strength in the south and east, Reuters said.

SEC proposals reveal what went wrong on Wall Street

A long list of plans revealed today by a top U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission official to expand regulatory oversight of financial markets -- increased examinations, stepped-up enforcement and more subpoenas to compel truth-telling -- sound great on paper. But the list raises a larger question that has not been answered, or even asked. What has the SEC been doing until now? The director of the SEC Enforcement Division, Robert Khuzami, announced the agency's plans Wednesday in a speech to the New York City Bar Association, according to the Reuters international news service. Khuzami, a former federal prosecutor who took over the SEC's oft-maligned Enforcement Division in March, said there would be a "general sense of renewed urgency" to find and stop wrongdoing in the financial markets like the reckless practices blamed for the recent meltdown. The SEC has been under fire for failing to identify and stop those practices, and also for failing to detect massive frauds, like the multibillion-dollar scheme run by Wall Street insider Bernard Madoff for decades. "No one has told me to bring more cases," Khuzami said, according to Reuters. "What they have told me is we need to be vigorous advocates for investors." But why would Khuzami have to be told to do that? Why wouldn't the SEC do that -- why wasn't the SEC doing that -- as a matter of course? Isn't that the agency's reason for being. The same idea applies to other changes now underway that Khuzami announced Wednesday. Khuzami said the SEC is creating new divisions to probe cases involving asset management, foreign corrupt practices, market abuses, municipal securities and public pensions, and structured products, Reuters said, and a new group has already been set up for abuses in the subprime mortgage market. Does that mean the SEC wasn't already doing these things? Khuzami's announcement of a new office to investigate complaints and tips also is cause for concern. It's nice that the agency plans to do this going forward, but what has it been doing? Did it really take a massive economic collapse and subsequent worldwide recession to convince the SEC that these steps were necessary? Doesn't anybody in Washington know how the game is played?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Marine scientists will prove the obvious at ocean garbage patch

Don't expect any good news from this month's research mission to the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," the hundreds of miles of plastic debris drifting in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. A crew of 30, including marine scientists and technicians from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography left on the three-week fact-finding tour on Sunday, according to the Reuters international news service. The mission is designed to figure out just how much garbage is out there and what effect it is having on the marine ecosystem. Among the concerns are whether the garbage is killing the plankton, whether fish are ingesting the plastic, and if species are attaching themselves to the plastic and being transported to areas where they don't belong. "The concern is what kind of impact those plastic bits are having on the small critters on the low end of the ocean food chain," Bob Knox, the deputy director of research at Scripps, told Reuters on Monday. The crew is expected to conduct research in a laboratory aboard the 170-foot ship, the New Horizon, and to bring back samples for more-intensive study back in San Diego, Reuters said. But the research will most likely prove all of the above. Our rapidly growing human family is dumping so much garbage that the capacity of the oceans to disperse it has finally been exceeded. We're going to have to stop throwing away so much trash and figure out how to get rid of the junk we already have without doing irreversible harm to our environment.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Malaysia cracks down on protesters in Kuala Lumpur

Word from Malaysia is that the new government of Prime Minister Najib Razak has launched a crackdown on protesters in the capital who were rallying for the repeal of a law that permits the government to hold people indefinitely without charge. Nearly 600 people were arrested at the rally, which was organized by opposition parties and attracted upwards of 20,000 protesters, according to the New York Times. It was the largest demonstration in Malaysia in two years, the Times said. The crackdown was a keen disappointment to opposition leaders, who had hoped for relaxed enforcement of the Internal Security Act by the new government. Najib had raised those hopes since promising to respect civil rights and releasing 13 political detainees held without trial since taking office four months ago. Najib also had gotten praise from business leaders by relaxing a racial-preference system that had riled the country's minority populations, the Times said. But such liberalization seemed illusory Saturday as thousands of police officers using tear gas and water cannons broke up the massive rally. “We can provide them stadiums where they can shout themselves hoarse till dawn, but don’t cause disturbance in the streets,” Najib told the Malaysian news media on Sunday, the Times said. The ruling party has long been intolerant of street protests, and opposition leaders charged that Najib was reverting to the policies of previous administrations despite his rhetoric. In fact, the Times said, former Health Minister Chua Jui Meng left the ruling party in protest last month, saying Najib was "an iron fist behind the velvet glove." And on Sunday, opposition politician Lim Kit Siang wrote in his blog that the "greatest violators of human rights are often the police and the law enforcement agencies," the Times said. More than 1,500 people died in police custody between 2003 and 2007, according to the Malaysian Home Ministry, the Times said.