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.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Endangered polar bears get a little protection

News from Washington that the U.S. Interior Department had proposed protections for the entire range of the country's endangered polar bear population is yet another indication that the change at the White House signals major changes in policy for the world's most powerful military and economic giant. Thursday's announcement opens 60 days of public comment on the proposal, which designates more than 200,000 square miles of land, sea and ice along Alaska's north coast as critical habitat for the U.S. polar bear, according to the New York Times. A final rule is expected to be adopted June 30, 2009. Only 3,500 polar bears in the United States on land or U.S. territorial waters have been able to survive the loss of habitat blamed on global warming, which has melted the polar ice they live on. “Proposing critical habitat for this iconic species is one step in the right direction to help this species stave off extinction, recognizing that the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of sea ice caused by climate change,” said Thomas Strickland, the assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks under President Barack Obama, who took office in January. The previous administration under George W. Bush had declared the polar bear endangered due to melting ice and commercial activities but declined to take further steps to protect the creatures or their habitat, the Times said. If adopted, the new proposal would not remove the habitat from development but would require companies or government agencies to demonstrate that their activities will not negatively impact the species. Still, companies and environmentalists attacked the proposed regulations for opposite reasons. Commercial interests threatened to try to block the rules as being too broad and environmental groups complained they were too lax. In fact, the new rules are part of a settlement of a lawsuit filed by conservation groups that complained that the Bush administration had failed to designate protected habitat when it declared the polar bears endangered, the Times said.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Israel calls UN report on Gaza "unfair"

Okay, Israel's rejection of a United Nations report that accused Jerusalem of committing war crimes in its three-week Gaza offensive was more than expected. The Jewish state has actually been speaking out loudly against the findings of the report, which was approved last week by the UN Council on Human Rights. The report blamed both Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, for committing "actions amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity," during the offensive that ended in January, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Israeli President Shimon Peres, a former prime minister, told CNN on Monday that the report was "one-sided" and "unfair" because his country had the right to defend itself against the barrages of missiles fired from Gaza since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007. "The right of self-defense is non-negotiable," Peres said. "I think we have shown courage in war and we have shown devotion in peace and we shall continue to struggle for peace." Not to be outdone, Hamas also rejected the portion of the report accusing it of war crimes while endorsing accusations against Israel. Hamas and Israel also disagree about the number of casualties, with the Palestinian Center for Human Rights putting the Palestinian death toll at 1,419, including 1,167 civilians, and the Israeli military saying 1,166 Palestinians were killed.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pakistan fights back -- military launches massive attack on insurgents

News from Pakistan that government forces had captured the South Waziristan village of Kotkai from insurgents linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida was a welcome change from the usual depressing news coming from the nuclear-armed country and its troubled next-door neighbor, Afghanistan. At least four soldiers were killed in Pakistan's massive attack against militants operating in the country's south, along its long border with Afghanistan, according to Cable News Network (CNN). The attack comes as suicide attacks by terrorists against Pakistani government and security installations have been soaring, forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee. On Friday, a car bomb killed 13 people, mostly civilians, at a police station in Peshawar, a northern city near Islamabad, the nation's capital. Officials said there are as many as 15,000 insurgents in South Waziristan, the result of years of neglect, and the government has committed nearly 30,000 troops to battle them, CNN said. Pakistan's democratically elected government has been slow to fully engage the militants, observers say, but now appears committed to the fight. The wave of bombings has increased international pressure on the government in Islamabad, headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, the widow of Benazir Bhutto, because of fears over the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons arsenal. Bhutto, the daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founder of the Pakistan People's Party, became the first female prime minister of a Muslim nation in 1988. She was a leader in exile of the battle against former President Pervez Musharraf, the military commander who seized power in a 1999 coup and held it for eight years. Bhutto returned from exile in 2007 but was assassinated during the campaign for the 2008 election. Zardari took over party leadership after her death and outpolled Musharraf, who voluntarily gave up power. In Washington, a spokesman for U.S. President Barack Obama said the wave of attacks was evidence that Pakistani militants "threaten both Pakistan and the United States," CNN said. Obama recently approved an additional $7.5 billion in assistance to Pakistan over the next five years.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Iran tries to make nice with West by releasing Newsweek reporter

Iran's efforts to get along with Western nations continued yesterday when a Newsweek correspondent jailed four months ago during massive protests that followed the disputed June presidential election was released on bail. A pro-government news agency in Tehran said Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian, was freed on nearly $300,000 bail after confessing to charges of propagandizing against Iran and other charges, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Bahari was among 1,000 arrested in the protests that erupted after Iran's election commission said incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad had been overwhelmingly re-elected. Ahmedinejad's main challenger, Mir Hussein Moussavi, claimed the results were fraudulent, prompting the demonstrations. Bahari was one of 100 journalists, reform leaders and former ministers who went on trial in Iran's Revolutionary Court in August, CNN said. Iran's crackdown on the protests was consistent with its belligerence toward Western nations accusing Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian nuclear power program. Suspicions about Iran's program were heightened last month, despite the country's denials, when the United States revealed the existence of a secret nuclear enrichment facility near the holy Shiite city of Qom, in north-central Iran west of Tehran. But Iran abruptly changed course on its nuclear program, agreeing to allow international inspectors into the Qom facility and to export nearly all of its nuclear fuel for processing. Newsweek, which has denied that Bahari was engaged in anything but reporting, said Saturday that Iranian authorities did not give a reason why the journalist was released but that "humanitarian considerations were presumed to have played a role in the decision." Bahari, 42, is expecting his first child Oct. 26 and the mother has suffered "health complications," Newsweek said. The magazine also said on its Web site that Bahari's case was raised at recent talks between the United States and Iran in Geneva that resulted in the Qom agreement. Other charges filed against Bahari by Iranian authorities included favoring opposition groups, sending foreign reports to foreign media, disturbing the peace and possessing confidential documents, the Fars news agency reported, CNN said.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Trial of ex-BART cop who killed passenger ordered moved from Oakland

Is it really not possible to find a dozen intellectually honest people in a county of $1.5 million? That's what a judge ruled ruled Friday in ordering a case against a former transit police officer accused of killing an unarmed black passenger moved to another jurisdiction, according to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. While it's true that wide publicity has followed the seemingly inexplicable killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant on a train platform in Oakland and the civil unrest that erupted in the city's downtown in the aftermath, it cannot possibly be that enough people in California's seventh-largest county are unable to set aside their prejudices to make up an impartial jury. Yet that's the meaning of the judge's ruling that Johannes Mehserle, 27, the white BART cop who fired the fatal shot, cannot get a fair trial in Alameda County. The uproar over the shooting has continued to be so intense, the judge ruled, that it will "foreclose any real hope of insulating jurors from the pressure of the public outrage in Alameda County." Mehserle was shot and killed while lying face down on the platform at the Fruitvale Station of the BART regional transportation system. The shooting, which followed a disturbance on a train, was captured on dozens of digital and cell phone cameras. A BART-commissioned study found officers to be at fault in their handling of the disturbance and the immediate aftermath of the shooting. BART stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit, which carries more than 350,000 riders daily. "The incident is viewed by many as being a case about race relations between the police and minority communities," Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson wrote in his 28-page decision. "In essence, this case is an allegation of murder under color of law, inseparably entwined with a broad-scale political controversy." The judge also cited inflammatory statements by public officials following the shooting as additional justification for moving the case. Los Angeles and Sacramento counties have been mentioned as possible locations for the trial. The family of the slain youth, who have filed a $25 million wrongful death claim against the BART police, wanted the trial kept in Alameda County, the Chronicle said.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Maybe California's chief justice just forgot what he's supposed to do

Everybody has had the pleasure of dealing with government employees who don't seem to remember that they work for us, the citizens. But it's rare to get that attitude from a guy at the top. Today's subject, of course, is Saturday's remarks by Ronald George, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, who was harshly critical of the state's initiative process in a speech in Massachusetts, according to the New York Times. Speaking to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, an independent public policy think tank founded in 1780 by the leaders of the revolution against England, George said California's initiative process had "rendered our state government dysfunctional." Well, it certainly takes one to know one. This guy works for the government -- if the system functions badly, he's probably one of the main reasons because he's one of the most powerful officials. George was especially critical of California's two-thirds vote requirement to pass a state budget, a deadline that the legislature has missed repeatedly in recent years. No wonder. If the state doesn't have a budget, George and his colleagues might not get paid. And they do get paid, nearly $200,000 each per year. But who can even imagine how much nerve it takes to publicly denounce the very laws you're sworn to enforce. George said the two-thirds requirement was perhaps the "most consequential" impact of the referendum process because it limited "how elected officials may raise and spend revenue." But it's not difficult to understand why: the citizens don't trust their elected and non-elected officials. “California’s lawmakers, and the state itself, have been placed in a fiscal straitjacket by a steep two-thirds-vote requirement — imposed at the ballot box — for raising taxes,” George said. But these restraints are of officialdom's own making. If state officials could be trusted to take care of business without screwing up -- in 2009, the budget was passed so late that California had to issue IOUs -- the voters would not have to resort to the initiative procedure to get things done. A spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declined to comment on the chief justice’s speech, the Times said.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

FHA may need bailout for poor loan oversight practices

News from Washington that another giant federal home mortgage agency was collapsing under the weight of ill-advised loans is a surprise only in that U.S. authorities, like their private industry counterparts, still seem incapable of learning from their now legendary mistakes. Some 20 percent of loans guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration last year and 24 percent of loans from 2007 are in trouble, including default, according to the New York Times. But FHA has continued at a furious pace, four times as fast as last year, guaranteeing more than 6,000 loans worth $1 billion every day with the commercial home loan market nearly frozen, according to testimony today before Congress, the Times said. Congress is looking into concerns that the FHA could need a bailout in the next three years as its reserves fall, similar to what happened to government mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two agencies have already borrowed $96 billion from the U.S. Treasury and may need more, the Times said. FHA Commissioner David Stephens told Congress that his agency would not need a taxpayer bailout, despite the reports. “Let me simply state at the outset that based on current projections, absent any catastrophic home price decline, FHA will not need to ask Congress and the American taxpayer for extraordinary assistance — we will not need a bailout,” Stevens testified. But FHA critics were not mollified, and insisted that a bailout was looming. “It appears destined for a taxpayer bailout in the next 24 to 36 months,” said Edward Pinto, a former Fannie Mae exec, in testimony prepared for the hearing. Pinto, Fannie Mae's chief credit officer from 1987 to 1989, said losses would more than wipe out the agency’s $30 billion cash reserve. FHA loans are commonly packaged together and sold to investors as securities with backing by the U.S. Treasury through the Government National Mortgage Association, also known as Ginnie Mae.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Former UN chief tries to save Kenya settlement

Word that former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had arrived in Kenya brought some hope that the troubled coalition government in Nairobi can be saved. Annan arrived Sunday to restart efforts to revive the moribund reform process, which began in 2008 in the violent aftermath of a disputed presidential election in December that brought Kenyan society to the brink of collapse. Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, announced that he had won the election after a long-delayed count of the ballots but his main challenger, Orange Democratic Union leader Raila Odinga, charged that the count was fraudulent, sparking massive protests. More than 1,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in post-election tribal violence that continued for nearly two months until Annan and the acting African Union chairman, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, arranged a power-sharing deal that allowed Kibaki to remain as head of state and created a new prime minister position for Odinga. That arrangement has held despite a series of disputes. "I have been following events in Kenya very closely, and clearly, the Kenyan people are expecting more from the coalition government,” Annan said after arriving in Nairobi, according to Cable News Network (CNN). “More unity of purpose, more progress on the reform agenda, more concrete action to end impunity and combat corruption," Annan said. "These sentiments are understandable, and I will be urging the coalition government to listen to the voices of the people and do more to push forward the essential reforms." Primary among the disputes are about the pace of reform in Kenya, which has been slow, despite the settlement agreement's commitment to constitutional and police reforms, including prosecution of those responsible for the violence. "Far-reaching reforms such as the ones agreed on during the National Dialogue negotiations last year will necessarily take some time, and a lot of hard work, not only on the part of the government but on the part of all Kenyans,” Annan said. “And yet, with a sense of urgency and national spirit, it can be done and done in a reasonable time.” Annan said he would urge Kibaki and Odinga to pick up the pace of change.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

IAEA plans inspection of Iran's formerly secret uranium enrichment facility

News that Iran has actually scheduled a team of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect a formerly secret uranium enrichment facility being built near Qom appears to be a clear signal that the Islamic republic has changed course and decided to cooperate with the world community on nuclear proliferation. Iran agreed last week to permit inspectors to tour the underground facility, which previously had been kept secret in violation of IAEA notification requirements, according to the Reuters international news service. "IAEA inspectors will visit Iran's new enrichment facility, under construction in Qom, on 25th of October," said Mohammad ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency said at a news conference with Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's nuclear effort. "It is important for us to have comprehensive cooperation over the Qom site. It is important for us to send our inspectors to assure ourselves that this facility is for peaceful purposes." Details of the inspection will be worked out at a meeting on Oct. 19, Reuters said. Western nations believe Iran is covertly developing nuclear weapons and has imposed a series of international trade sanctions against the country to force it to end or curtail its program. Tehran insists its nuclear work is aimed at the peaceful development of nuclear power for electricity, even though Iran's underground oil reserves are among the world's largest. But Iran has not exactly been truthful over the years, probably because of suspicions about the United States, which it regards, along with Israel, as its enemy. So, the disclosure of the secret facility caused an international furor culminating in last week's meeting in Geneva between Iran and the world's six strongest military and economic powers -- the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. The plant is not expected to be operational for 18 months. The Geneva meeting, at which Iran also agreed to send most of its nuclear material to France and Russia for processing, was the highest-level diplomatic contact between the United States and Iran since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah and brought religious leaders to power. U.S. President Barack Obama's top adviser on national security, James Jones, said Iran did not appear to be closer to having a nuclear weapon, contradicting a New York Times report on Saturday that a separate IAEA assessment had concluded Iran's program had advanced sufficiently to begin building a nuclear weapon.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Iran appears to be ready for negotiations over its nuclear programs

News that Iran has agreed, at least in principle, to open its secret uranium enrichment plant near Qum to international inspectors and to send abroad most of the uranium it has already enriched raises the intriguing prospect of a significant change in the world order. The agreement could signal a new willingness on Iran's part to cooperate with leading world powers on a host of pending issues, including its suspected quest for nuclear weapons, its support for terrorist groups and its threats to attack Israel. But it also could simply be more obfuscation or prevarication by the Islamic republic, which has already misled Western nations about its nuclear facilities, according to the New York Times. Iran denies it is trying to build nuclear weapons and insists it only wants to develop nuclear power for electricity -- a claim seemingly belied by its vast petroleum reserves. Western nations have threatened to impose additional economic sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear activities, and Iran could simply be trying to prevent that. “We’re not interested in talking for the sake of talking,” U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters in the White House on Thursday, the Times said. “If Iran does not take steps in the near future to live up to its obligations, then the United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely." U.S. allies France and Britain have agreed to delay imposing additional penalties on Iran until December. Obama said Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, agreed to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the Qum facility within the next two weeks. The multiparty negotiations near Geneva that led to Thursday's agreement were the highest-level direct contact between Iran and the United States since the 1979 revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah and included a yearlong embassy hostage crisis that was the start of decades of animosity between the two countries.