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.