Friday, November 5, 2010

Dead and dying coral reefs in Gulf of Mexico blamed on April oil spill

News that large swaths of dying coral reefs have been found southwest of the wrecked oil rig responsible for the largest offshore spill in U.S. history should come as no surprise to anyone. Logic dictates that the effects of the colossal April 20 blowout and spill will be far-reaching and catastrophic, the protests of oil and fishing interests in the Gulf of Mexico notwithstanding. Scientists studying the spill's aftermath said the damage to the reefs was almost certainly due to exposure to toxic chemicals like oil, according to the New York Times. “I think that we have a smoking gun,” said Charles Fisher, a marine biologist from Pennsylvania State University heading a U.S. government-sponsored scientific mission to the Gulf. “The circumstantial evidence is very strong that it’s linked to the spill.” The damaged coral was found Tuesday by the government expedition, which launched a submersible robot to view the coral and obtain samples. Scientists expect to return to the Gulf floor in December using a Navy submersible that can carry three people to depths of 15,000 feet, the newspaper said. An estimated 5 million barrels of crude flowed into the Gulf for months after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, killing 11 workers.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Obama blames economy for election losses but misses the point

U.S. President Barack Obama's statement yesterday that the majority Democrats had taken a "shellacking" in Tuesday's election because of the tepid economic recovery was shocking. Sure, if in the two years since Barack Obama took office with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the U.S. economy had completely turned around and U.S. industries were crying for more workers, the opposition Republicans probably would not have won 60 seats to control the House of Representatives. Economic success would most likely have enabled the Democrats to retain a portion of the popularity they achieved in 2008, when Obama led his party back into the White House on a wave of public disgust over the performance of the Bush administration. But for all his vaunted political skills, Obama has repeatedly misread the American public since taking office. U.S. voters did not turn the Republicans out of the White House merely because the economy had been disastrously mishandled by his predecessor, they elected the first black president to repudiate the seemingly gleeful lawlessness of the Bush administration. The George W. Bush presidency broke a long list of the country's most-cherished legal principles and traditions -- eviscerating the constitutional separation of powers, overruling the U.S. Bill of Rights, disrespecting the sovereignty of other nations, ignoring the Geneva Conventions. For all the good Obama has been able to accomplish in reforming the way the country regulates itself, he has decidedly failed to address the biggest problem -- the one that has left the United States unsure of how to function. Bush and other officials in his administration, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, must be called to answer for their abuses of power. An investigation doesn't necessarily mean anybody is guilty of anything, although it seems so, it just means the United States is not afraid to examine its conduct and make corrections when warranted. The Congress should set up a commission, with the power to compel witnesses to testify, to figure out what went wrong during the Bush administration and how to prevent it from happening again. That is the only way for the United States to regain its footing as an international leader and for Obama to redeem his presidency.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Blackwater still swirling in aftermath of Iraq invasion

Word from Washington that the Justice Department decided Monday not to charge a Blackwater Worldwide employee with murder for a killing in Baghdad that he admitted appears to spell the end of U.S. efforts to address the some of the excesses that have come, sadly, to characterize the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The decision followed a line of failures in high-profile cases brought against employees of companies that were armed contractors for the U.S. State Department in Iraq, a still-questionable arrangement with dire constitutional implications that still have not been adequately examined. The most notable prosecution that failed, of course, resulted in the acquittal of five former Blackwater guards who opened fire on civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2007, killing 17, according to the New York Times. The Justice Department decision came in a case involving Andrew Moonen of Seattle, who killed a guard protecting Iraq's vice president on Christmas Eve in 2006. The case was complicated by a blanket grant of immunity to State Department contractors, like Blackwater, but not to Defense Department contractors, immunity granted to Andrew Moonen, the Blackwater employee, by a U.S. Embassy official and by Moonen's claim of self-defense. The Justice Department has investigated the case for four years, and already paid damages to Moonen's family. But the murky legal environment that finally prompted Justice to drop the case is no accident. The government of George W. Bush went to war on dubious evidence and corrupted longstanding legal and constitutional principles along the way. The only real surprises here are that is has taken so long for these cases to be dismissed and the subsequent Obama administration's refusal to investigate misconduct by his predecessor. It will take decades to repair the damage to the legal system of the United States, and may take even longer for the country to regain its moral footing unless such an investigation is undertaken. The issue is not whether anyone will have to prison, although it may come to that. The future of the United States is on the line here -- the sooner the reckoning begins, the better for everyone.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Clinton: U.S. wants to increase help for Mexico's fight against drug cartels

Can the United States really help Mexico succeed in its battle against drug cartels that have expanded their influence farther and farther south from the border between the two countries? From the safety of Northern California, hundreds of miles from Tijuana, it used to look as if the Mexican government was forced to fight corruption it its own police forces before it could engage the drug traffickers that had turned even peaceful cities into dangerous places. But years of unabated violence have made the lines of power a lot easier to understand. That's why U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the other day that the powerful Mexican drug cartels were behaving a lot like political insurgent groups than mere gangs. "This is one of the most difficult fights that any country faces today," Clinton told San Francisco's nonpartisan Commonwealth Club in a speech Friday, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "We are watching drug traffickers undermine and corrupt governments in Central America, and we are watching the brutality and barbarity of their assaults on governors and mayors, the press, as well as each other, in Mexico." Clinton said the United States could help Mexico rebuild its criminal justice system and retrain its police forces to fight the cartels, which she said were acting like terrorists. "For the first time, they are using car bombings," she said. "You see them being much more organized in a kind of paramilitary way." Clinton's comments were no doubt a reference to U.S. efforts to find the body of David Hartley, a U.S. resident believed to have been shot by drug traffickers on Mexico's border with Texas, CNN said.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

French ban on Islamic face coverings ruled constitutional

So, is it merely nervy or something worse that France has made it a crime for women to wear Islamic face coverings in public? The county's top legal authority, the French Constitutional Council, decided Thursday that the so-called burqa ban, approved overwhelmingly by the legislature earlier this year, was legal under the country's constitution. Councilmembers ruled that the ban, which makes the wearing of the burqa full-body covering or the nigab face-covering punishable by a fine, was constitutional because it did not prevent the free practice of religion in a place of worship, according to Cable News Network (CNN). How could this happen in a place as modern and aware as France, which had the wisdom to oppose the United States' occupation of Iraq from the outset? Easily, it turns out. More than 80 percent of the country supported the ban in a poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project earlier this year, CNN said. Residents of Germany, England and Spain also backed the ban by large majorities but those countries have not imposed one, CNN said. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. residents oppose such a ban. The French government, which backed the ban, called the wearing of Islamic head coverings by women "a new form of enslavement that the republic cannot accept on its soil." France barred the wearing of all overt religious symbols, including Islamic headscarves, in the nation's public schools in 2004. CNN said 3.5 million Muslims -- 6 percent of the population -- live in France.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Passage of NASA funding bill highlights doubts about space program

Congressional approval of a $19 billion reauthorization bill for NASA on Wednesday would be a lot better news if the space agency were not proceeding with planned layoffs on Friday nor with President Barack Obama's plans to focus future efforts on commercial endeavors. Much of the $19 billion will be used for a last shuttle mission in June, to extend the life of the space station five more years and to build a new launch vehicle, according to Cable News Network (CNN)on. That's okay on the surface, but not beyond that. Overtly focusing the program toward commercial development is troubling, because that is a corruption of the space agency's purpose and what has repeatedly gotten NASA into trouble before. "We want to thank Congress for NASA's future," Lori Garver, NASA's deputy administrator, said on Thursday. "It puts NASA programs on a more sustainable future." That is disingenuous at best, because it is classic bureaucrat-speak. NASA gets into trouble, and astronauts die, when it thinks of itself as a business geared toward profit and not as an agency using public resources to advance scientific exploration. In the past, NASA generated huge public support because people were willing to use the nation's financial resources in quest of cosmic understanding. The first person on the moon, the first teacher in space -- these developments were embraced by the public in the interest of knowledge, not profits. And when things occasionally went tragically wrong, like when Apollo 13 burned on the launchpad in 1967 or the shuttles Challenger and Colombia were destroyed in 1986 and 2008, the entire nation mourned the loss. But the new NASA, trying to generate income by hiring itself out to major companies instead of advancing science, has managed to generate primarily indifference from the public. The shuttles blew up in flight because inspectors missed things or made bad decisions -- were these errors mere bad luck or at least partially the result of time pressure felt by NASA managers trying to complete no-gravity experiments being funded by U.S. or overseas corporations? We'll never know, because we allow federal bureaucrats nearly total immunity for bad decisions and their agencies try harder to protect their annual budget allocations than serve the public that pays for them. What is needed is a reordering of priorities that puts commercial applications at the bottom, not the top of the list. Commercial applications are fine, but they must be studiously kept behind safety and science -- and anyone, even senior government officials -- should be fired if they ever forget that again.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Obama government retreats to Bush-era state secrets dishonesty

Just how important is it that the United States, with the world's most powerful military and the world's most enduring democracy, engage in conduct overseas that would be patently illegal within its own borders? That question arose again yesterday, as it has repeatedly in the rather disturbingly slow dismantling of widely discredited George W. Bush-era policies, when the Obama administration invoked the state secrets doctrine in an effort to convince a federal judge in Washington to dismiss a lawsuit accusing the military of trying to kill a U.S. citizen in Yemen. According to the New York Times, the New Mexico-born citizen, Anwar Al-Awlaki, is living in Yemen and is associated with al-Qaida, the radical Islamic terrorist group blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. that killed thousands. His father, Nasser al-Awlaki, filed the lawsuit seeking an injunction to block the U.S. government from killing the son, the Times said. U.S. government lawyers completed a legal brief Friday contending the lawsuit should be dismissed because litigating the could result in the disclosure of confidential information -- the so-called state secrets -- and other grounds. The doctrine was invoked successfully numerous times during the last administration to short-circuit claims against the government for allegedly illegal activities in the war on terror. No one seriously questions whether the government has the right to keep secrets when disclosures would put innocent lives at risk. But that does not give the government the right to maintain secrecy when it wants merely to escape consequences for illegal activity. What we saw during the last administration, when the federal government eviscerated long-established constitutional principles to advance a dubious political agenda, should give everyone pause. There has to be a serious accounting. The Obama administration's most serious mistake so far was its refusal to review the previous government and to bring alleged lawbreakers to trial. Everything that happens now, including the Al-Awlaki case, is built upon that miscalculation. This time, the Times said, Obama-appointed Attorney General Eric Holder personally approved invoking the state-secrets defense. “It strains credulity to argue that our laws require the government to disclose to an active, operational terrorist any information about how, when and where we fight terrorism,” said Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman. That's logical, but only in the abstract, and it's a bad mistake to invoke it merely to justify other bad mistakes. If this is going to continue to be a government of laws, those laws are going to have to be enforced -- even if it means some well-known government officials will have to stand trial.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

FDA seems willing to gamble on introducing gene-altered animals

News that U.S. food safety regulators were preparing to authorize the introduction of genetically altered salmon into the nation's food supply is another obvious failure on the part of the deteriorating Obama administration. Rather than order the Food and Drug Administration to be sensible and undertake an exhaustive examination of risks posed by the new science of altering animals genetically, the Obama administration apparently plans to sit this one out, too. FDA officials have scheduled a hearing Monday on the application by AquAdvantage Salmon to produce salmon injected with growth hormones that mature twice as fast as salmon without the hormones, according to Cable News Network (CNN). The altered salmon would grow faster and mature earlier than wild or farmed salmon. "The food from AquAdvantage Salmon that is the subject of this application is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from the consumption of food from this animal," FDA officials concluded, CNN said. But let's think for a minute. Even if what the FDA says is true, is a "reasonable certainty" justification enough to gamble the future of the ecosystem that supports life? That's crazy thinking, right? The executive director of the nonprofit Food and Water Watch called the decision "rushed" and said the FDA can't even protect the safety of the food supply without adding gene-altered foods to its already overcrowded agenda. "It's impossible to talk about the risks other than saying they haven't been properly assessed, other than process has been rushed and we don't know," Wenonah Hauter told CNN. Hauter also said the FDA based its decision on information provided by AquAdvantage and should be thoroughly checking the data instead of simply accepting it. That doesn't seem to be an unreasonable request, considering what's at risk if anyone makes a mistake.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

U.S. officials say BP oil well in Gulf of Mexico has finally been plugged

Finally, there's some good news from the Gulf of Mexico. After a nearly five-month nightmare of uncertainty, the U.S. Interior Department has confirmed that the BP oil well that spewed millions of gallons of crude oil into coastal waters has been permanently plugged, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). The largest oil spill in U.S. history devastated one of the richest fishing and tourism regions in the United States, and years of even more uncertainty remain over whether Gulf wildlife and the area's fishing industry will ever recover. "We can finally announce that the Macondo 252 well is effectively dead," said former Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the U.S. response to the disaster. The spill began April 20 with an explosion on the BP-leased oil rig Deepwater Horizon that killed 11 workers. BP, the international oil company formerly known as British Petroleum, has agreed to pay the costs of capping the well, cleaning up the environment and compensating the thousands of people and businesses whose livelihood depended on the Gulf. BP put up $20 billion to compensate individuals and companies in the region at the request of U.S. officials, but the final cost of the spill and resulting damage has been estimated at $32 billion. Of course, the economic cost of the disaster is not the only cost to the United States. The spill exposed gaping holes in U.S. regulation of offshore drilling, the effects of which will likely reverberate in the industry for decades. Investigations into the cause of the disaster and the federal government's response are ongoing by members of Congress and at least two U.S. agencies, and lawsuits seeking damages are likely to be in court for years.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Iran releases one of three U.S. hikers allegedly captured across border

Tehran insisted this week's release of U.S. hiker Sarah Shourd, imprisoned for more than a year after she and two friends allegedly crossed the border from Iraq illegally, reflected Iran's respect for women and was not an attempt to elicit favorable treatment from the United States. "We have no expectations," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on state-run television, according to Cable News Network (CNN). But there is reason to doubt. More likely, Iran is trying again to tweak "the Great Satan," like the leader of the country's 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, used to call the United States. That would be typical of Ahmadinejad, who came to power and has stayed in power despite his embarrassingly self-serving and contradictory views. In fact, Ahmadinejad also said, "naturally, morally, the expectation would be that the U.S. government would take a step to release a number of Iranians they took from other countries." Hmmm, that sure sounds like a quid pro quo, doesn't it? Not only that, Ahmadinejad said Shourd had been released after more than a year in prison without trial because Iranians had "a very special respect for women." That would be preposterous if it wasn't so serious. Iran has held Shourd for more than a year out of respect? Ahmadinejad also said he had given U.S. officials a list of Iranians behind held in U.S. prisons, and expected them to be released. That's just what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said about the two other hikers arrested with Shourd in July 2009. "It would be a very significant humanitarian gesture for the Iranians to release them as well," Clinton said in Washington.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Protests threaten Greece's financial stability plans

Greeks took to the streets again yesterday after Prime Minister George Papandreou announced new austerity measures designed to keep Greece from defaulting on its international obligations, which include a new 110 billion euro loan from other European Union countries. The unrest appeared to be led by the country's powerful labor unions, which feel under threat from proposals to end their control of some of Greece's most vital professions. "The battle we are waging is for the survival of Greece," Papandreou said in the northern city of Thessaloniki, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "This is not a battle that the prime minister or his government will win or lose. This battle, we will either all win it together or we will all sink together." Greece's huge civil servant union, ADEDY, called a nationwide strike Monday to protest the latest austerity measures, which include thousands of layoffs at the national rail company, OSE, CNN said. "Unions don't agree with the social and economic politics of the government," said Spyros Papaspyrou, ADEDY's leader, CNN said. Other measures put forth by Papandreou include cuts in corporate income taxes aimed at halting the decline of the Greek economy, which is expected to contract by 4 percent in 2010 and 2 1/2 percent next year. As a condition of the EU loan, Greece is obligated to bring its massive budget deficit, now around 14 percent of its gross national product, down to the European Union limit of 3 percent by 2014, CNN said.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Florida pastor cancels Koran burning after call from Pentagon

News from Florida that a Christian pastor had canceled a planned Koran-burning spectacle on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that had attracted worldwide attention should give everyone pause. Sure, it's great that this obviously outrageously provocative and disrespectful act did not go forward, even if it took a call from the Pentagon to stop it, according to the Reuters international news service. The very justification for the creation of the United States was and is religious tolerance -- and that is how we became a worldwide symbol of freedom and why we became rich and powerful. Why change our basic understandings because there are people who don't like us? And it's not as simple as that Muslims don't like us, since there are millions of Muslims who live in the United States and other countries who don't bear us any ill will or, if they do, are able to put those feelings into proper context. The simple truth is that all religions think they're correct and, by logical extension, think other religions are not. Why would anybody follow sometimes inexplicable traditions and practices if they thought they were wrong? Maybe the problem is that people like Terry Jones, the pastor of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, have grown accustomed to looking only at the surface of things and have forgotten that everything really has meaning. On the surface, yes, a group of Muslim radicals destroyed the World Trade Center in New York. But the real problem is much, much deeper. The al-Qaeda operatives were men -- does that mean all men destroyed the World Trade Center and killed thousands of people? Of course not. They were religious zealots -- does that mean all religious zealots destroyed the buildings? Of course not. Let's not be stupid about this. The United States has proven that human beings can form democratic societies based not on ethnicity or religion or even proximity, but on shared desires and values. We exist as a country because we wanted to, and continue to want to. But let's not sacrifice the very things that made us great out of some misguided and poorly considered lurch toward self-preservation. We're a lot better than that, and have always been.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Oh no -- Castro says Cuba's government control of economy no longer works

Could it be? Has the world's foremost nonconformist thrown in the red towel? That's certainly what it seemed like this week with news that Fidel Castro, the former ruler of Cuba whose 1959 revolution toppled a U.S.-backed dictator and whose Communist government proved a thorn in the side of every U.S. president since Eisenhower, said his country's economic model would have to be changed. Castro, who ceded power to his brother, Raul Castro, in 2006 because of failing health, made the statements to a reporter from The Atlantic magazine, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore," Castro said in the interview, CNN said. The 84-year-old Castro's remarks might be an endorsement of changes undertaken by his brother, who has expanded private enterprise for farmers and barbers in Cuba and has warned his citizenry that they should work harder and expect less from the government. Cuba's centrally controlled economy pays workers around $20 a day but guarantees free health care and education, and nearly free housing and transportation.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

U.S. taxpayers could lose money on General Motors stock offering

Reports from New York that insiders say U.S. taxpayers stand to lose money on the bailout of General Motors should come as no surprise to anyone. In agreeing to refinance the largest U.S. automaker back in 2009, albeit accepting a majority of the common stock of the bankrupt company, the federal government was obviously taking a huge risk and entering uncharted economic waters. But preparations for the expected return of General Motors shares to public trading later this year reveals a long list of unanswered questions that really should have been anticipated long before now. U.S. taxpayers still have more than $40 billion invested in the automaker, according to the Reuters international news service. Should shares in the revamped GM be sold at a discount to early investors in ordinary Wall Street practice, even though taxpayer money is at risk? Should shares in GM be pulled from trading if they fall to below the break-even point for taxpayers? If not, and shares fall, how much money should the government be willing to lose on the stock before halting trading? GM was able to eliminate $40 billion in debt and other obligations in bankruptcy, including its most unprofitable car lines, Reuters said, but still owes $26 billion to its employee pension fund. The new company needs to have a capitalization of at least $70 billion after its first public offering for taxpayers to recoup all of their investment, the news service said.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

New Israeli-Palestinian talks are doomed to failure

Nothing constructive is likely to emerge from the latest talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas because both leaders are too weak and the two sides are too far apart. Netanyahu cannot maintain his majority in Israel's parliament without the support of conservative settler parties that oppose further territorial concessions, and Abbas does not even have authority over all the territory he expects to make part of the Palestininan-dominated new country to emerge from a comprehensive peace agreement. The talks, which would not have even been scheduled without diplomatic pressure from the United States, have started just in time to resolve the still widely misunderstood issue of Israeli settlements when Israel's freeze on such construction expires Sept. 26, according to the Reuters international news service. The Abbas-led Palestinian Authority considers a freeze extension to be a necessary condition of its continued participation in the talks; Israel insists on continuing to build housing for its population, and obviously considers such construction to be its prerogative as a conquering power. But these people have been over this same issue for decades. It should be obvious to everyone involved that somebody is going to have to blink first. But whom? It doesn't help, of course, that both sides think they have already blinked numerous times with questionable results. Israel has maintained its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for more than 40 years, and the Palestinians -- people who did not even exist as a people until they were disowned by their Arab brethren after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war -- have a functioning government and observer status at the United Nations. Complicating matters is the breakaway Hamas government in Gaza, which broke off from the West Bank government in 2007 to protest the PA's moves toward settlement with Israel. In the midst of the pessimism is U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said recently that her view is that the issues could be settled within one year. Good luck with that.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Iran's first nuclear reactor caps decades of living dangerously

What in the world is the West going to do about Iran? News that Iran had started loading fuel into its first nuclear power plant in Bushehr is a reminder of the limits of muscular foreign policy. Decades of confrontation with Tehran, including economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, have served only to get us where we are now: less control over events combined with deepening mistrust and growing animosity. "Despite all the pressures, sanctions and hardships imposed by Western nations, we are now witnessing the start-up of the largest symbol of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities," Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi told a news conference on Iranian television as technicians prepared a fuel rod assembly at the plant, according to the Reuters international news service. Iran completed the plant with the help of Rosatom, Russia's state nuclear corporation, over the objections of the United States. But a U.S. State Department spokesman said Washington did not consider the Bushehr reactor to be a proliferation threat because Russia would be providing fuel and taking back spent fuel rods for reprocessing. "Russia's support for Bushehr underscores that Iran does not need an indigenous enrichment capability if its intentions are purely peaceful," spokesman Darby Holladay told Reuters. Russia backed a U.N. Security Council resolution in June that imposed a fourth round of economic sanctions on Iran to discourage Tehran from trying to develop nuclear weaponry. Construction of the reactor at Bushehr was started in the 1970s, before the Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and started what has now been more than 30 years of animosity between Tehran and Washington.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Billions earmarked for Haiti rebuilding projects

News that an international commission announced $1.6 billion in projects to help build new homes, improve agriculture and rebuild schools in earthquake-ravaged Haiti is welcome, albeit late, news. The quake that killed 300,000 and reduced cities to rubble in the poor Caribbean nation was in January, after all, and hurricane season is approaching. The news was announced Tuesday during a meeting of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission in the nearly destroyed capital city of Port-au-Prince, according to the Reuters international news service. The commission, chaired by Haiti's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton is responsible for distributing more than $5 billion dollars in international aid pledged to the relief effort in the next two years. Foreign governments and nongovernmental aid agencies pledged a total of nearly $10 billion for Haiti's recovery in March, Reuters said. Projects approved Tuesday included $200 million to create 50,000 jobs in agriculture and increase production, a United Nations rubble-removal program and construction of a teaching hospital to train new doctors and nurses. More than 1.5 million people are still living in refugee camps in Port-au-Prince, Reuters said.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Myanmar plans election for Nov. 7 but bars pro-democracy leader

Do the military rulers of Myanmar, the southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma, really think the rest of the world thinks they have created a democracy? That's apparently the purpose of Friday's Myanmar National Radio announcement Friday that the country will hold general elections on Nov. 7 despite refusing to allow leading democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kui to participate. Suu Kui has been under house arrest for more than 14 of the past 20 years since her party won a landslide victory in the 1990 election that the ruling junta refused to recognize. "There is no illusion about freedom and fairness in this election," Aung Zaw, the Thailand-based editor of The Irrawaddy magazine told Cable News Network (CNN). Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, CNN said. Suu Kui's party, the National League for Democracy, decided not to compete in this year's election after she was barred from running for office. "Everything is just so convenient for the regime since the NLD is out, Suu Kyi is not running," Aung Zaw told CNN. "Plus USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party, the government-backed party) is the largest, strongest party in this country. There is no way any other political parties could compete with them." Members of NLD who formed another party, National Democratic Force, have been allowed to meet but have not been permitted to campaign, CNN said.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wonder of wonders -- Venezuela and Colombia still recognize each other

Actually, the only surprise in what Venezuela does anymore is that its radical leftist leader, President Hugo Chavez, hasn't gotten into any new trouble internationally. To the contrary, Venezuela appears to have become a more-or-less responsible member of the South American community of nations. Case in point: Tuesday's agreement to restore full diplomatic relations with its oft-estranged neighbor, U.S. ally Colombia. Chavez was in Santa Marta for Tuesday's ceremony announcing the resumption of relations and agreement to form commissions for economic and security cooperation between the two countries, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "I think we've taken a step forward in re-establishing confidence, which is one of the basic tenets of any relationship," Colombia's newly elected president, Juan Manuel Santos, said at the announcement, CNN reported. The countries have been arguing for years over allegations by former President Alvaro Uribe that Venezuela was harboring Marxist guerrillas seeking to overthrow Colombia's pro-U.S. government. Chavez was particularly aggrieved by Colombia's 2008 raid on rebel camps across the border in Ecuador, and by last year's military agreement between Colombia and the United States. Santos was Colombia's defense minister in the Uribe government. But both countries' leaders were all smiles Tuesday. "I came here to turn the page," Chavez said, according to CNN. There are billions of dollars in trade at stake. Bilateral trade between Caracas and Bogota reached $7.3 billion in 2008 but has fallen sharply since then as relations between the countries soured, CNN said.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Not everything goes -- U.S. tobacco companies to pay $30 million for bribing officials

News that two U.S. tobacco companies had agreed to settle charges that they bribed their way into overseas sales contracts is a timely reminder that laws against excessive avarice are an unfortunate necessity of a capitalist economic system. Competition works -- the best products and the best companies will prevail over lesser competitors -- but only when everybody is playing by the same rules. The two companies, Universal Corp. of Richmond, Va., and Alliance One International of Morrisville, N.C., are going to be paying nearly $30 million for violating this most-basic of capitalist principles, according to the New York Times. The two companies, which supply tobacco leaves to cigarette and cigar makers, agreed to pay to avoid a civil trial and criminal charges that they bribed officials in eight countries. Universal was accused of bribing government officials in Thailand, Malawi and Mozambique, and Alliance One with bribing officials in Thailand, China, Greece, Indonesia and Kyrgyzstan. Universal issued a statement saying that it had reported the misconduct to authorities and had cooperated with the investigation, the Times said. “We have absolutely no tolerance for this type of activity,” the chief executive, George C. Freeman III, said in the statement, the Times said. Universal said the U.S. Justice Department agreed not to prosecute the company any further if it follows the terms of the agreement for the next three years. Alliance One could not be reached for comment, the Times said.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Isn't it time to give up on banning gay marriage?

Does anyone really think life would not be worth living if gay people were allowed to marry? That seems to be just what anti-gay marriage partisans have been saying since a San Francisco federal court struck down California's Proposition 8, a ban on such unions approved by voters in 2008. “This is going to set off a groundswell of opposition,” prominent Prop. 8 backer Jim Garlow, pastor of Skyline Church in La Mesa, Calif., told the New York Times. “It’s going to rally people that might have been silent.” The ruling applies only to the parts of Northern California included in Walker's district, and not to the rest of California nor to any other U.S. states that already have banned gay marriage. So, what's the big deal? It's not like the court is requiring people in Northern California to enter into gay unions, is it? No, the court simply said the government cannot make laws that extend benefits to some people while excluding them from others on the basis of who they love. “Proposition 8 cannot withstand any level of scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause,” highly respected Judge Vaughan Walker of the Northern District of California said in his ruling. “Excluding same-sex couples from marriage is simply not rationally related to a legitimate state interest.” This is the kind of ruling we expect from our courts when the government does something outrageous, particularly when that something reflects the passion of the moment. We have rules that protect minorities precisely for this reason -- the government is barred from enacting discriminatory provisions. The disconnect here is that the opponents of gay marriage try to use the government to advance a religious-oriented agenda, not the other way around. Why did they even go to court in the first place? A rational judiciary could not decide this case any other way, and the fact that some courts have allowed states to ban gay marriage is both preposterous and insulting.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

General Motors, Chrysler and Ford sales rise, perhaps

Could it possibly be true that U.S. automobile companies General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are reporting sales gains and, assumedly, profits instead of more red ink?
That is what U.S. automakers said Tuesday, even though many of the figures were adjusted to allow for corporate changes, like Ford's sale of its Volvo brand, and the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler, according to the Reuters international news service. The announcements were not well-received by stock market investors, who sent Ford shares down nearly 2 percent, even though normally buoyant Toyota and Honda sales fell in July. But the sales increases were met with enthusiasm by some industry analysts, who had feared the U.S. economy was facing a double-dip recession. "In June, you had the feeling that maybe the industry wasn't out of the woods, and there was a lot of talk of a double dip. But June really seems to have been a blip," Al Castignetti, the head of Nissan sales in the U.S. market, told Reuters. Yeah, maybe. The big problem is that auto industry players talk on and on but what they say may not have anything to do with what's really going on. GM and Chrysler have been allowed to take billions of dollars worth of debt off their balance sheets -- without paying the money back, of course, and eventually sticking the taxpayer with the bill -- and to re-enter the world of real companies even though the U.S. taxpayer owns major amounts of their shares. How can anyone ever trust company reports again? Ford did not take bailout money or file for bankruptcy but have shown little resiliency going forward. Where are the new U.S. car models? Where are the new head-turning designs? Doesn't anyone in the industry care that nobody talks about American cars anymore unless they work for the Justice Department? "We are certainly optimistic about our prospects for the third quarter," Ford's U.S. sales chief, Ken Czubay, told Reuters. Yeah, right.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Florida church announces Quran burning event

Maybe the tea partiers have found a new hero. News that a Florida pastor was planning a Quran-burning event to mark the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is typical of the kind of ignorant thinking that characterizes the tea party movement and its over-publicized icon, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The announcement of the Islamic good book burning that Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, says is to remember the victims of attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and to express outrage against that religion, has sparked cries of outrage from leaders of U.S. religious denominations, according to Cable News Network (CNN). As we all know, the 19 9-11 hijackers were Muslim and the United States blames the attack on al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, also a Muslim. "We believe that Islam is of the devil, that it's causing billions of people to go to hell, it is a deceptive religion, it is a violent religion and that is proven many, many times," Jones said on CNN this week. Jones is the author of a book entitled "Islam is of the Devil" and his church sells T-shirts and coffee mugs bearing the phrase. But many Muslim and Christian leaders urged Jones to call off his event because it would just aggravate tensions, Reuters said. "American Muslims and other people of conscience should support positive educational efforts to prevent the spread of Islamophobia," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American Islam Relations. The CAIR called on Muslims and others to hold 'Share the Quran" dinners to educate the public during Ramadan, the month-long fast that begins in August, and began a campaign to distribute copies of the Quran to U.S. leaders, Reuters said. An evangelical Christian group issued a statement promoting "relationships of trust and respect" with members of other religions. "God created human beings in his image, and therefore all should be treated with dignity and respect," the statement said. But "dignity and respect" for others is not what the Dove World Outreach Center is selling. Tellingly, the group also said it was promoting a rally on Monday to protest as "godless" Gainesville's openly gay mayor, Craig Lowe. At least we know this group has nothing to offer. The planet seems always to have been overpopulated with people who claim to know precisely what god is thinking.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Arab League rhetoric ignores the facts

Thursday's declaration by the Arab League that it favored direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel whenever PA President Mahmoud Abbas agrees to participate is the height of arrogance. After all, the intransigence of the very 21 countries that make up the League of Arab States is responsible for the perpetually unsettled political situation in the Middle East and the political and economic isolation of the Palestinian people. Of course, the league is free to continue to blame the situation on Israel, but false rhetoric does not become truthful merely by how often or how vehemently it is repeated. The league issued its declaration after Abbas briefed members of its peace process committee at a meeting in Cairo, according to the Reuters international news service. League members agreed to send a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama outlining Palestinian concerns over the negotiating process with Israel in the face of that country's refusal to extend a 10-month partial ban on settlement construction after Sept. 25, Reuters said. "There is a green light from the Arabs to go to direct negotiations if we receive terms of reference (for the negotiations) in line with the letter," Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior Abbas aide, told Reuters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants direct negotiations with Abbas to begin immediately, but his coalition is tied to pro-settler political parties that adamantly oppose extending the partial settlement freeze. The prospects for a breakthrough in such talks is, of course, unclear. But nobody should forget how the situation got to this point. Instead of accepting Palestinians and Jews as brothers and neighbors, which they clearly are, Arab states have chosen to keep Palestinians who fled the three wars they started in refugee camps for decades and to keep maintain a constant state of hostilities against Israel, first as warring enemies and now through radical proxy groups.

Monday, July 26, 2010

BP's defense of Alaska pipeline safety is not reassuring

Assurances from British Petroleum, owner of the largest stake in the Alyeska consortium that operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, that the 800-mile oil pipeline is not deteriorating dangerously have apparently not satisfied congressional investigators looking into reports of inadequate maintenance. After all, the consortium's managing partner is BP, the company responsible for the catastrophic oil spill caused when a deep-water drill rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, killing 11 workers. To its credit, BP has agreed to cover the cost of restitution and placed $20 billion in escrow for expected damage claims stemming from the Gulf spill. But BP has made no such offer for the deteriorating pipeline. According to Cable News Network (CNN), a little-reported spill of 5,000 gallons of oil on the ground near Delta Junction, Alaska, has reignited concerns about the safety of the pipeline. "There's incident after incident within the last six months (that) might seem like small things, but when you put them all together, in a relatively short period of time, it really tells you how poorly this pipeline is being maintained," Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, told CNN. The news service also said an unnamed source said deferred maintenance year after year was endangering the pipeline. Officials have refused to allow CNN to videotape near the site of the spill, the news service said. Alyeska's vice president of operations, Mike Joynor, told CNN that the pipeline was safe and said he was unaware of any incident involving a CNN news crew. Joynor said Alyeska was investigating the spill. He said Alyeska was developing rules to avoid such incidents in the future but that the rules would not be made public. "We stick to what our core values are: safety, integrity, environmental protection and protection of a safe workforce," Joyner said.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Big surprise -- no prosecutions in U.S. attorney firings

News out of Washington that the U.S. Justice Department has decided not to prosecute former Bush administration officials for improperly firing nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 is disheartening to Americans who believe the country needs to understand what went so terribly wrong when George W. Bush was president, but it is no shocker. The timidity with which the Obama administration has approached the question has not inspired any confidence in the new president's leadership -- in fact, the contrary is true. The breathtaking damage done to the basic law of the United States by the last administration and the acquiescence by the very officials who had taken solemn oaths to defend the Constitution demands action, not further timidity. The people of the United States have the right to have confidence in their government, not the persistent sense that their leaders are willing to sacrifice the country's founding principles to preserve their own lives of privilege. At the very least, the people should demand to know why civil liberties were curtailed, why the country's treasure was compromised by wars without end, why the White House was allowed to amass virtually unlimited power and why almost no one in office is talking about how to start putting things back to the way they should be. The legal system is a very good place to start this re-examination, especially if the White House is not willing or able to lead a process that will surely lead to limitations on presidential authority. President Obama should reject the decision by Attorney General Eric Holder not to prosecute former Bush administration officials in the U.S. attorneys case, as Cable News Network (CNN) reported, and rethink his earlier reluctance to pursue other officials. Obama seems destined to be a one-term president no matter what he does at this point; at least he can leave a legacy we will always remember and be proud of.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

City of Oakland OKs large medical marijuana farms

News that the San Francisco Bay Area city of Oakland had approved large-scale medical marijuana farming for medical use was met by silence by opponents of such cultivation and by U.S. authorities who have eased up on enforcement of a federal ban since the 2008 presidential election. The city council of Oakland, a city of 350,000 across the bay from San Francisco, passed a provision Tuesday legalizing "industrial" marijuana cultivation and agreed to issue as many as four permits for large operations next year, according to the Reuters international news service. Medical marijuana has been legal in California under a state law approved by voters in 1996, but it is still illegal under federal law and cultivation has only been allowed by individuals in small garden operations. But Oakland officials said the city would profit by allowing and taxing large-scale cultivation. "This is going to grow as an industry," City Councilwoman Jean Quan said during the debate. "And someone is going to have a high-tech producer." The city plans to impose an array of new taxes on growers and sellers next year, Reuters said. The council approval has no relation to a ballot initiative on the November ballot that would, if passed, make California the first state to legalize marijuana use. But law enforcement officials complain that underground marijuana cultivation in California have been dominated by criminals.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Troubled border with Mexico gets White House attention

News that hundreds of U.S. National Guard soldiers and border protection agents have been sent to the Mexico border to prevent illegal immigrants and illicit cargo from crossing into the United States is both welcome and unwelcome at the same time. While a stronger U.S. response to rising reports of drug-related violence in border regions is long overdue, excessive reliance on the military to resolve the nation's problems is extraordinarily ill-advised. Nobody can seriously oppose using soldiers to stop violence from heavily armed drug gangs that is spilling over into U.S. border cities, as the Reuters international news service is reporting, but using soldiers to do what diplomats should have been doing in talks with the Mexican government should be prevented. The United States has plenty of leverage with Mexico City to pressure that government to better its border enforcement and to direct more of its oil wealth to better the lives of its citizens so they won't be forced by economics to flee. That people are forced to leave their country and live second-class lives in another place to provide food for their families should be an issue of paramount importance to countries around the world. But excessive reliance on the military has taken an unacceptable toll on the United States both economically and philosophically. This country has compromised some of its most basic principles in pursuit of military dominance in other parts of the world. The historic changes in Washington have so far been unable to reverse that trend, and we will all be a lot worse for it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Former Bush adviser defends decision to abuse detainees

Anyone -- including, unfortunately, U.S. President Barack Obama -- who thinks the long nightmare that was the George W. Bush administration is behind us should consider what the former official who approved brutal interrogations of terror suspects said the other day. According to transcripts released Thursday, Judge Jay Bybee, who headed the Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003 and recommended the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques, told Congressional investigators that he stood by his advice. “We took a muscular view of presidential authority,” Bybee said, according to the New York Times. “We were offering a bottom line to a client who wanted to know what he could do and what he couldn’t do. I wasn’t running a debating society, and I wasn’t running a law school.” Bybee's deputy, John Woo, now a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley, wrote the infamous memos approving the use of waterboarding and other invasive techniques and Bybee approved them. Bybee made his comments in closed-door testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, which is still investigating the conduct of the Central Intelligence Agency during the Bush administration. Bybee was appointed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco after he left the White House but before the contents of the torture memos were revealed publicly. Many of the memos were withdrawn by the government after the contents were leaked to the media. Bybee and Yoo were accused of misconduct after a Justice Department investigation, but its conclusions also were withdrawn. Of course, the point is not only that Bybee was in the middle of some of the worst abuses of power in the nation's history -- it's also that he still thinks he was right. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney also believe they were right to erode respect for the rule of law that has made the United States a great nation, as if ruining the country's great traditions and sacrificing its founding principles could ever be the way to keep it safe.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

International alarm sounds on food inspections in China

Word from China that officials were stepping up food inspections in the wake of last week's seizure of 64 tons of milk powder contaminated by the flame retardant melamine sounds like too little, far too late. This is not the first time contaminated milk has gotten through China's vast and varied food regulatory system; residents have not forgotten the 2008 incident in which contaminated milk killed six kids and sickened hundreds of thousands. The milk seized last week could have resulted in a similar toll or worse -- China still does not have a uniform system of regulating food safety for the entire country. "China attaches great importance to food safety, particularly dairy quality and safety," Chen Rui, a top Ministry of Health official told reporters on Tuesday, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "The ministry will continue to organize the national dairy safety standards to track evaluations, listen to the food production companies and consumer opinion, and constantly revise and improve the national dairy safety standards." If only China's trading partners could believe that. China is usually extremely guarded about such matters and the health ministry did not offer much information beyond saying an investigation was under way. But investigations in China usually get results. In 2008, 21 people were convicted of criminal charges and two were executed in the aftermath of that tainted milk scandal.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Palestinian rhetoric on Israeli settlements is just talk

Anybody can say anything about whatever they want to about anything, and it is with that understanding that Sunday's statement by former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei about Israeli "settlements" in Jerusalem being a "time bomb" should be viewed. Qurei and Israeli opposition leader Tsipi Livni, the former foreign minister, urged moderates on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to work harder to settle their differences. "The Jerusalem situation, I think, is a time bomb if it continues in this way," Qurei said a meeting of academics in Jerusalem, according to the Reuters international news service. "It has an impact on the Palestinian people . . . and on trust on both sides." Qurei was discussing Israel's continuing construction of housing for its citizens in formerly Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem, often after demolishing Palestinian-owned housing. "It is 19 years since Oslo and things remain as is," Qurei said, referring to the historic agreement that recognized Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank of the Jordan River, which Israel captured, along with East Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war, and led to the return from exile of Yasir Arafat. Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching the Oslo Accords. But the lasting peace that seemed within reach in 1993 no longer appears at hand, not after the years of violence and mistrust that supplanted what turned out to be naive optimism -- on both sides. If the Israelis assumed that their Arab enemies, with whom they had already fought three all-out wars, were now willing to accept their Jewish neighbors as equals, and if Palestinian leaders assumed they were on the fast-track to statehood without having to undo the hatred they had been planting in the hearts of their people and convince them to work for peace, they both were tragically mistaken. The repeated failure of all parties to accept these realities are responsible for the current situation.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Appeals court does what oil industry wants in Louisiana

If you know what you're doing in the legal world and you have plenty of resources, you can pretty much always find a judge, or judges, willing to do whatever you want. So it was no surprise Thursday when a federal appeals court in New Orleans enjoined the Obama administration from implementing a six-month moratorium on deep-water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The three-judge panel upheld a judge's ruling last month that struck down the moratorium as too broad and unfair to the fishing industry, and agreed that it should not even be enforced during the months it will take for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, according to the New York Times. Lawyers for the U.S. Department of the Interior had argued that the catastrophic BP oil rig explosion and massive leak made the moratorium necessary; industry representatives contended the suspension of drilling was crippling economically and should not be enforceable while their lawsuit challenging it was pending. Of course, ordinary people may find it impossible to imagine a situation where immediate and drastic government intervention is more appropriate -- a highly technical operation on a mass scale gone awry, causing incalculable and continuing environmental damage. Ordinary people might think that such a situation is precisely why the government is necessary. But the oil industry is not ordinary people; apparently, neither is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who opposed the stay on economic reasons even though the leak has rendered the Louisiana coast virtually unusable and, apparently, destroyed the Gulf fishing industry. Then again, the appeals court ruled that the Interior Department had not proven that it would suffer irreparable injury if drilling operations were not halted like the administration was demanding. It's hard to argue against that proposition, even though the sea bottom drilling operation that blew up and killed a dozen workers has so far resisted all efforts at repair. After all, there are 3,000 drilling platforms in the Gulf, and only one of them has ever exploded and caused a catastrophic oil spill.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Refusing to sell fuel would be step toward war

Has it become the official position of the United States that war with Iran is considered the best way to move beyond the current stalemate over Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons development? That's how it seemed Monday after Iran complained that three U.S. allies had refused to permit Iranian planes to refuel at airports in their countries. If it's true, it's an extremely hostile and provocative act -- especially since it comes just days after the United States and European Union imposed a wide-ranging array of sanctions against Iranian business and government interests. "Since last week, our planes have been refused fuel at airports in Britain, Germany and UAE because of the sanctions imposed by America," the secretary of the Iranian Airlines Union, Mehdi Aliyari, told Iran's ISNA news agency, according to the Reuters international news service. "Refusing to provide fuel to Iranian passenger planes by these countries is a violation of international conventions." The governments in Britain, Germany and the United Arab Emirates immediately denied the allegation and said they were complying with worldwide agreements and fulfilling contracts with Iranian airlines. But will they when current contracts expire, and how much pressure will Iran endure before lashing out against its neighbors or against Israel? The new sanctions are aimed at restricting Iran's ability to import refined oil products, like gasoline, that it does not produce on its own, even though it is the world's fifth-largest exporter of petroleum. An Iranian lawmaker, Hesmatollah Falahatpisheh, told ISNA that his country would retaliate against any country refusing to service its airplanes, Reuters said. "Iran will do the same to ships and planes of those countries that cause problems for us," he said. But more countries and companies are agreeing to comply with the new sanctions regime. This summer, United Arab Emirates froze more than 40 accounts of Iranian individuals and companies suspected of helping Iran evade current U.N. sanctions, which are not as strict. Western countries think Iran is trying to use its civilian nuclear power program to advance its development of nuclear weapons, but Iran denies the allegation.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Obama grows into commander-in-chief role

Today's White House ceremony marking the signing of new economic sanctions against Iran illustrates the recognition by U.S. President Barack Obama that his well-meaning leftist ideology does not always translate well to international affairs. The kind of world Obama envisioned when he spoke so hopefully in Cairo just after taking office in 2009 is not the kind we have. Iran has not responded forthrightly to U.S. efforts to convince Tehran to abandon nuclear weapons development and, instead, has threatened the United States and its allies -- notably Israel. Iran denies trying to develop nuclear weapons and insists its program is for peaceful purposes. But Tehran has lied before and, given the tense relations between Iran and the United States almost continuously since the violent 1979 revolution that replaced the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran with an Islamic government, could reasonably be expected to do so again. Previous rounds of sanctions imposed by Western nations have not been effective in getting Iran to honestly discuss its nuclear ambitions. Obama's endorsement of further sanctions -- this time, expected to restrict Tehran's import of oil for domestic purposes and severely penalize private companies that enable Iran to get around them -- indicates that he, too, is frustrated by the lack of progress and convinced of the need to take determined action short of outright war. "There should be no doubt -- the United States and the international community are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons," Obama said at the signing of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act. "With these sanctions -- along with others -- we are striking at the heart of the Iranian government's ability to fund and develop its nuclear programs. We are showing the Iranian government that its actions have consequences." Iran has already starting feeling the effects of the newly toughened sanctions, Reuters said. French oil giant Total announced it would stop selling refined fuel to Tehran and Spain's Repsol withdrew from a contract to help develop Iran's South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf, the news service said.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

ACLU challenges government's no-fly list -- 10 years late

News that the American Civil Liberties Union had filed suit to challenge the federal government's "no-fly list" should be regarded as both good news and bad news for U.S. residents concerned about Washington's growing authority over their lives. That it has taken so many years to assemble a credible constitutional challenge to what assuredly was an immense power grab by federal authorities speaks quite loudly about the passivity of most Americans and their lack of involvement in governing their country. To be sure, the circumstances that led the feds to closely monitor airplane travel after the Sept. 11 attacks were unprecedented and outrageous. But the emergency that arguably justified the imposition of such a draconian regulatory regime -- barring U.S. citizens from traveling on airplanes based on possibly incorrect but still secret information -- has surely passed. And that it took a citizens group to mount that challenge, and not any of the array of federal agencies whose taxpayer-funded mission is to defend the U.S. Constitution, is nothing short of disgraceful. Even the lawsuit filed Wednesday tacitly accepts the legality of the restrictions, since it argues on behalf of 10 residents that the rules are unconstitutional because they do not permit people on the list to challenge their inclusion, according to the Reuters international news service. An ACLU lawyer told Reuters that the lawsuit was the first filed on behalf of legal U.S. residents challenging the no-fly list system. A lawsuit by a non-citizen seeking to get removed from the list is still pending, Reuters said. "The Constitution does not permit such a fundamental deprivation of rights to be carried out under a veil of secrecy and in the absence of even rudimentary process," the suit filed Wednesday says. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., and names Attorney General Eric Holder, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Timothy Healy, director of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, Reuters said.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Aquino election could jumpstart government reform in Philippines

Of course, it's not the first time that the election of a new government in the Philippines captured the imagination of people hoping for honesty and integrity in the southeast Asian country. But the landslide victory of Benigno Aquino III, son of two of the country's most beloved leaders, could be the start of something extraordinary for the traditional ally of the United States. Aquino, who has promised to eliminate corruption and protect Philippine democracy, takes office June 30. He also has promised to negotiate with Marxist and Islamic rebels in the county's south, whose long-running insurgency threatened to disrupt the presidency of his mother, Corazon Aquino, who replaced longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. She survived seven coup attempts before her term expired in 1992, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Aquino's father, Benigno, known as Ninoy, was murdered in 1983 upon his return from exile to the Philippines, where he was planning to lead a campaign against Marcos. Aquino easily defeated eight other candidates in May's presidential election, including former President Joseph Estrada, and the day of his inauguration, planned for a seaside park in Manila, has been declared a national holiday. Aquino has promised a truth commission to ferret out corruption in government, and pledged to appoint a former chief justice to look into fraud allegations arising during the term of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, CNN said.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Federal judge blocks moratorium on deepwater drilling in Gulf

Of course the White House is planning to appeal a federal judge's ruling Tuesday that blocked U.S. President Barack Obama from imposing a six-month freeze on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Obama ordered the moratorium after British Petroleum was unable to stop a massive oil leak that followed an explosion aboard an undersea drilling platform off the coast of Louisiana in April. And, of course, companies that supply boats and other equipment to oil exploration companies went to court to try to block Obama's decision. U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman granted a preliminary injunction to stop the federal government from enforcing the moratorium, despite the catastrophic and still-growing damage being done to the region's environment and economy. Government officials estimate more than 2 million gallons of oil are flowing unimpeded into the Gulf every day, according to Cable News Network (CNN). The moratorium stopped all companies from drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet and stopped any new permits from being issued until authorities can figure out what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform and how to ensure it doesn't happen again. That sounds like common sense, doesn't it? But common sense has become, like beauty, a matter of personal perspective. How else to explain why Louisiana's Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu urged the feds not to appeal the ruling. "I'm going to strongly urge the administration not to appeal this ruling, but to try to find a way forward that would achieve the president's goals for safety and responsibility, but at the same time would not jeopardize and threaten a very vibrant and necessary industry for decades," Landrieu told reporters, CNN said. In his ruling, Feldman sided with industry-support companies that contended they would be irreparably harmed by the moratorium, even though the explosion and spill already had done catastrophic harm to the environment and to the 11 workers who were killed. "An invalid agency decision to suspend drilling of wells in depths of over 500 feet simply cannot justify the immeasurable effect on the plaintiffs, the local economy, the Gulf region, and the critical present-day aspect of the availability of domestic energy in this country," the judge wrote. Justice Department attorney Brian Collins had argued on Monday that the moratorium was necessary to allow federal authorities to review the safety of deep-water oil drilling operations. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president would file an immediate appeal of the ruling. "The president strongly believes, as the Department of Interior and Department of Justice argued yesterday, that continuing to drill at these depths without knowing what happened does not make any sense," Gibbs said. In a statement Monday, BP said it had already spent $2 billion responding to the spill, including payment of 32,000 individual claims.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Use of military contractors continuing in Afghanistan

How quickly they forget! News from Washington that a subsidiary of the private security company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide had been awarded a contract worth as much as $120 million to protect U.S. diplomats in two cities in Afghanistan should be a cause of alarm to people of principle everywhere. A U.S. State Department official confirmed Saturday that U.S. Training Center had won the 18-month contract, according to Cable News Network (CNN). It could very well be that, on some level, U.S. Training Center was the most qualified bidder, like the official said. But it doesn't take a genius to realize that hiring the former Blackwater to do anything else in U.S. war zones overseas raises the specter of the horrific 2007 shooting of 17 civilians by company guards in Baghdad. Military prosecutors are still pursuing criminal charges against five guards in connection with the shooting, which forced the military to reconsider the use of private contractors in Iraq. But, apparently, not seriously enough, if the military is using them in Afghanistan, too. Why the guards are even necessary has not adequately been explained, not with tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers on the ground, and soldiers of many other nations, in both countries for years. Americans who had hoped for more accountability from their government after the dangerously secretive Bush administration are surely disappointed by the new Obama administration's lack of candor about the continuing troop deployments. Employing another subsidiary of Blackwater, even though it changed its name to Xe Services. It's time for the U.S. government to come clean with the American people about how many contractors are operating in both countries and how much more money it is costing to use them instead of U.S. soldiers.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Gruesome execution of convicted murderer makes the point

U.S. residents, especially those in Utah, probably feel a lot safer today after the firing-squad execution of a convicted killer. Ronnie Lee Gardner, 49, had been on death row since 1985, when he shot and killed an attorney during an escape attempt from a Salt Lake City courthouse, where he was on trial for killing a bartender in 1984. It was the third execution by firing squad in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Gardner's execution came hours after his appeal for a stay was denied by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the U.S. Supreme Court denied his last-minute appeal, according to the Reuters international news service. Herbert does not have the power to commute a death sentence but can issue a temporary stay. Gardner was shot in the chest by a 5-man firing squad and declared dead at 12:20 a.m. at Utah State Prison in Draper, Reuters said. He had been strapped to a metal chair and hooded, and a target was placed over his chest. The execution was witnessed by Jason Otterstrom, the son of the slain bartender, Melvyn Otterstrom, while Gardner's relatives held a vigil outside the prison. Gardner has asked his relatives not to witness the execution, Reuters said. Attorney Michael Burdell was the fatal victim in the courthouse shooting. A bailiff also was shot and recovered, but suffered health problems until his death in 1995. A Salt Lake City bishop called the firing squad execution "barbaric," Reuters said. "If you're going to do the death penalty, lethal injection would be the more human way," said Bishop John Wester of the city's Roman Catholic Diocese. "It emblazons in our consciousness the violence that guns wreck on our lives." But Gardner chose the firing squad himself, under the death penalty rules in effect at the time, Reuters said. Utah no longer offers the firing squad as an option for a condemned person.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

North Korea's risky bargain for attention from West

Why would North Korea be trying to start a catastrophic war with South Korea and the United States? That must be what Western leaders are wondering after Pyongyang flatly rejected findings of an investigation by five nations that blamed North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean warship in March. "War may break out at any time," North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations told the UN Security Council on Tuesday, after accusing South Korea of "fabricating" the findings, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Of course, there's a simple answer to the question. It wouldn't be, bombastic rhetoric to the contrary. What countries say is not always what they mean, at least not exactly. North Korea had to say something in response to the very public accusations and pressure for economic sanctions by the United States, although outright denial might not have been the best course of action in the face of damning evidence presented to the Security Council, and 46 dead sailors. "If the Security Council releases any documents against us, condemning or pressuring us ... then myself as diplomat, I can do nothing," North Korean Ambassador Sin Son Ho said, according to CNN. "The follow-up measures will be carried out by our military forces." But North Korea's military is no match for South Korea's, and certainly not for United States forces pledged to support Seoul. Any North Korean attack would be a true suicide bombing. So, the threat of war is a hollow one, perhaps designed either distract attention from Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program or to cover for a tragic mistake by North Korea's financially stretched and, obviously, questionably competent military. Maybe North Korea is just posturing to accept emergency food assistance again this winter, only this time as a peace offering instead of as charity. Or, maybe, Pyongyang thinks it can make Western nations forget about financial sanctions that are sure to be adopted to punish North Korea for the sinking of the Cheonan. But Pyongyang would receive a lot more assistance from the West if it stopped all the pretenses and started behaving like a modern country interested in cooperation with the rest of the world.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

New British leader reluctantly endorses Afghanistan war

Maybe David Cameron's endorsement of the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan would have been more convincing had the British prime minister not been forced to re-route his helicopter because of threats from insurgent forces. Or maybe, just maybe, it would have been more convincing had it been an actual endorsement and not a bad facsimile of one. Cameron's remarks, delivered at a Kabul news conference with Afghani President Hamid Karzai, were apparently intended to reassure the war-ravaged country's leaders that the British were not planning to withdraw its 10,000 troops from the U.S.-NATO force fighting the Taliban. “This is the year when we have to make progress — progress for the sake of the Afghan people, but progress also on behalf of people back at home who want this to work,” Cameron said, according to the New York Times. "What we want — and in our national security interest — is to hand power over to an Afghanistan that is able to take control of its own security." Well, sure, but that's hardly the same thing as saying that Britain, like the United States, is committed to supporting NATO forces battling the Taliban until the government in Kabul is strong enough, and trustworthy enough, to stand on its own. The fact that Cameron left that part out is what's noteworthy. He didn't say it because Britain apparently doesn't think about Afghanistan in those terms. The British are fulfilling the commitment former British Prime Minister Tony Blair must have made to former U.S. President George Bush, but that's it. England is pulling out of the international force next year, success or failure notwithstanding. That probably doesn't come as news to current U.S. President Barack Obama, who recently increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and who probably talks honestly with whomever lives at 10 Downing St., but may be a source of consternation for the soldiers who are doing the actual fighting and risking their actual lives. Then again, Cameron's trip to a military base in Afghanistan's Helmand Province had to be called off because of intelligence reports of threats against his helicopter. Maybe Western leaders, U.S. officials included, will eventually have the good sense to be embarrassed about having to sneak in and out of countries being occupied at a cost of billions of dollars and thousands of lives -- for the benefit, of course, of the people who already lived there long before Western soldiers arrived.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Swiss lawmakers miss opportunity to perpetuate banking secrecy

Do legislators in Switzerland have more sense than Swiss negotiators who reached a deal with the United States in 2009 to reveal the names of nearly 4,500 U.S. clients of Swiss banking giant UBS thought to be hiding assets overseas? It's hard to understand why the National Council voted to reject the deal, which had been demanded by the U.S. government despite Switzerland's long tradition of banking secrecy. The U.S. Department of Justice had already fined Switzerland nearly $800 million for keeping secret the names of thousands of UBS depositors suspected of evading billions of dollars in taxes, and the upper house, the Council of State, approved the deal earlier this week. Apparently, the lower house was bowing to pressure from Swiss banking interests, who wanted to hang onto the illogical secrecy tradition, when it voted to kill the agreement. The bankers certainly understand that the 4,500 names would only be the beginning of the eventual dismantling of the entire secrecy system, an anachronism in the global economy. But the deal seemed an overly generous compromise that would have endorsed the continuation of the strange system. After all, why should any depositors' names be secret? There may be legitimate reasons to conceal assets, but they're hard to think of offhand. And avoiding taxes should certainly not be one of those reasons. Swiss bankers have hidden behind the secrecy system long enough -- the world wants to know what happened to the billions of dollars and precious artwork deposited by Nazi officials when they looted the vaults and museums of Europe during World War II.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Justice delayed in India

It's hard to know what to think about news from India that seven former employees of Union Carbide, the U.S. chemical giant that owned the plant in Bhopal blamed for the world's worst industrial accident, had been sentenced to jail terms for negligence. The seven plant officials received two-years in jail and fines of 100,000 rupees, about $2,100 in U.S. currency, in contrast to the severity of the 1984 accident, which killed at more than 3,000 people immediately and as many as 25,000 in subsequent years, according to the Reuters international news service. The former Union Carbide subsidiary that owned the plant, Union Carbide India Ltd., was fined 500,000 rupees for the release of toxic gases near Bhopal's teeming slums. Union Carbide has since paid $479 million in fines to the Indian government, was acquired by Dow Chemical Co., and sold its stake in the Indian subsidiary to another company, which renamed it Eveready Industries. But it isn't very hard to empathize with hundreds of protesters who gathered outside the Bhopal courthouse to complain that the sentences were too light and took far too long -- more than 25 years -- to be handed down. Some of the protesters carried signs that said "hang the guilty" and "they are traitors of the nation," Reuters said. "They may have been punished, but what about us? There are so many of us who have not received any compensation," one of the victims, Shanta Bai, told Reuters. Activists told Reuters that as many as 100,000 people who were exposed to the toxic gases suffer from cancer, blindness, immune and neurological disorders, and female reproductive disorders, and that some women living near the plant gave birth to children with birth defects.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pope Benedict's visit to Cyprus could start reconciliation process

Could religion be the catalyst for settling the decades-long dispute between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus? That prospect was raised Saturday when the leader of the Roman Catholic Church met with Sheikh Nazim, head of the northern Cyprus-based Islamic Sufi Nagshbandi sect in Greece-controlled southern Cyprus. On a trip that had been billed as nonpolitical, Benedict found a way to meet with Nazim, who had to travel from Turkey-controlled northern Cyprus, according to the Reuters international news service. Cyprus has been split nearly in half since Turkey invaded the island in response to a coup by Greek Cypriots in 1974; a U.N. peacekeeping force patrols a buffer zone between the two Mediterranean countries. The Greece-aligned government in the south is recognized internationally while the Turkey-controlled government in the north is recognized only by Ankara. The European Union only recognizes the southern Cyprus government, complicating Turkey's long effort to join Europe's market. The two religious leaders made conciliatory statements to each other, with Nazim saying Benedict was "a great man" and that he hoped "our hearts are moving in the same direction," according to the Reuters international news service. They met in the Holy Cross Church in the U.N.-guarded buffer zone, Reuters said. In an earlier speech in southern Cypress, Benedict told Archbishop Chrysostomos, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Cypress, that he wanted everyone to "find the wisdom and strength to work together for a just settlement." But even earlier in the day, Benedict heard charges from Cyprus President Demetris Christofias that churches and heritage sites in the north were being destroyed by Turkish forces, Reuters said. Turkish Cypriot leaders acknowledged some of the damage and said they were trying to restore the historic places, but also complained that Muslim places of worship in the south had been desecrated. On Friday, Chrysostomos accused Turkey of "ethnic cleansing" in northern Cypress, Reuters said.

Friday, June 4, 2010

New GM venture raises uncomfortable questions

Is anyone else uncomfortable about Friday's announcement by post-bankruptcy General Motors, still the largest U.S. automaker, that it would create new venture capital firm to invest in new technologies? The new GM, now 61 percent owned by the U.S. government, said it would put $100 million into a new company to help startup companies working on renewable fuels, advanced materials and other automobile-related ventures. The announcement, reported by the New York Times, came amid an almost unbelievable run of good fortune for the company, which was able to shed a list of troubled subsidiaries in its short trip to bankruptcy court. GM reported its first quarterly profit in three years while its chief rival, the usually unimpeachable Toyota Motor Co. -- is still preoccupied with the discovery of manufacturing defects that caused the recall of millions of cars worldwide and resulted in millions of dollars in fines, so far. “We are constantly looking for ways to deliver the best technology for our customers,” Stephen Girsky, a G.M. executive, said in a written statement. “Our goal is to nurture these innovative technologies to help bring them to market, and to ensure our customers have access to the best technology available.” Spokeswoman Sherrie Childers-Arb told the Times that the new subsidiary, General Motors Ventures, had already identified companies to invest in. But will it be the new, nimble, embarrassed and chastised GM that will be buying into startups with promising ideas, or the old GM that wants to buy new companies to block their products from gaining market share? That's what happened, we still can recall, to the early electric car and, even earlier, to transit systems across the country.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

China puts the brakes on torture of suspects, witnesses

News that China had issued new rules discouraging the use of torture to encourage suspects to confess or witnesses to testify in court is a great development for the criminal justice system there, but should be a giant stop sign for western governments trying to open trade routes to the world's most populous country. Sure, the new regulations announced Sunday bring China more in line with western ideas of justice and human rights, and are welcome, but they are long overdue. China executes more people -- 1,700 a year is Amnesty International's estimate -- than the rest of the world's countries combined, according to the New York Times. Mistreatment of suspects and, sometimes, of reluctant witnesses is common in China, the Times said. What that says about Western companies and governments doing business with China is not good, since they are supporting a terrible system. Apparently, the central government's previous attempts to liberalize the system have met with mixed results, the Times said. So, the latest pronouncement by top Chinese law enforcement and judicial bodies, while positive on the surface, will only mean improvement if enforced nationwide. The new regulations, which bar the use of confessions obtained by torture and require police officers to testify in court if a defendant alleges mistreatment, were issued a few weeks after a farmer was released from prison after 10 years after he was convicted using a confession obtained through torture. The case came to light after the alleged victim turned up alive, and caused an uproar in the normally closed society -- a huge concern for the government in Beijing, which puts a premium on social order. “Judicial practice in recent years shows that slack and improper methods have been used to gather, examine and exclude evidence in various cases, especially those involving the death penalty,” the central government said in a statement, the Times said. Legal observers in China were optimistic over the new rules. “They have come just in time because the necessity is so great,” said Zhang Xingshui, a Chinese defense lawyer. “It is a good cure for loopholes, because legal workers are often under so much pressure to get cases closed no matter what it takes.” A professor at the government-owned Chinese People's Public Security University in Beijing told the Times that the provision requiring police to testify in court was revolutionary for China. “This may be common practice for police in the West or in Hong Kong, but it is a new thing for Chinese policemen to testify in court,” Cui Min said. “We have to cultivate a new mindset, one that accepts the idea of possibly setting free a criminal over wrongfully convicting an innocent man.” Of course, it would have been a lot better if Western countries had insisted on major reforms in China before opening their markets and integrating Beijing into the world economic system. But China appears to have fully embraced the idea that there is more to be gained from peaceful relations with the rest of the world than from aggressive isolation, even if it means liberalizing how the Communist Party runs the country. And that is very good news.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Israeli move to stop flotilla explodes into shooting and damaging rhetoric

It looks like Israel has a lot to answer for after its commandos killed at least nine activists trying to outmaneuver the county's blockade of the Gaza Strip territory controlled by Hamas. The commandos staged a predawn raid to try to stop the six-ship flotilla of 700 activists after it refused orders to stop. The flotilla was bringing thousands of tons of supplies to Gaza's isolated Palestinian population, but violence broke out before the boats could be secured and brought to the Israeli port of Ashdod to be searched, according to the Reuters international news service. European countries that had been steadily warming to Israel for two decades were quick with condemnations including, as expected, the usually hostile General Assembly of the United Nations. Turkey, the Muslim country that has been trying to join the European Union for years and has recently been facilitating negotiations between Israel and Syria, also joined the anti-Israel chorus. But Israel rightly contends that it had a right to enforce its blockade, which was imposed to prevent material that could be used to make weapons from reaching Gaza. Militants have fired thousands of missiles from the territory into southern Israeli cities. Egypt has cooperated with Israel in officially sealing the territory, but there have been reports of massive amounts of smuggling through tunnels under the border between Egypt and Gaza. But Israel is being sadly unrealistic if it ignores the magnitude of its miscalculation. That the commando raid went awry is not entirely Israel's fault, since the supposedly peaceful activists had obviously expected something to happen and came armed with, at least, crude weapons. But Israel did send paratroopers to seize control of the flotilla instead of using navy vessels to force the activists into Ashdod so the cargo could be searched. Israel will investigate the conduct of its soldiers and, hopefully, figure out what went wrong. But Israel will be forced to do it alone, since the rhetoric coming from the Palestinian Authority and other Arab states shows they are less interested in preventing violence than in scoring propaganda points against the Jewish state. Turkey called Israel's actions "terrorism," a comment so illogical it precludes any reasonable response. The Palestinian Authority called the attack on the flotilla "a massacre," which it obviously wasn't. Israel certainly did not expect its commando raid to go so terribly wrong. U.S. President Barack Obama got it exactly right when he said he regretted the loss of life and demanded a full accounting of what transpired at sea.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Obama's proposals for NASA fail to gain much altitude on Capitol Hill

Plans hatched in the Bush era for a new NASA moon landing may not have seemed terribly logical, since U.S. astronauts already visited there in the 1960s and 1970s. But changing those plans to advance human space travel in the future is turning out to be a lot harder than it should be. What else would explain the chilly reception the Obama-appointed head of the United States space agency -- Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. -- faced, even from Democrats, when he went before Congress on Wednesday to explain the new administration's proposed 2011 budget? Obama has proposed boosting NASA's budget by $6 billion over five years and directing the extra funds toward aeronautic and climate research, and science missions using robotic ships, not astronauts, according to the New York Times. But U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee told Bolden that Obama's proposed spending was nowhere near enough to achieve the president's loftier goals, and it makes no sense to cancel the existing program to return to the moon without the money to do anything else. Obama proposed in a speech last month that NASA gear up to put astronauts on an asteroid by 2025 and on Mars by 2035, and to cancel the existing Constellation program and open travel to the moon and the international space station to private companies instead. “So far we have not seen any hard analysis from the administration that would give us confidence that it can be done for the amount budgeted,” Gordon said. Gordon said the administration's projections were far less than a NASA panel had estimated human travel to an asteroid and Mars would cost. “It does no good to cancel a program that the administration characterizes as ‘unexecutable’ if that program is simply replaced with a new plan that can’t be executed either,” he said. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, also a Democrat, said she was "very dubious" that NASA would continue to work on the Constellation program while Obama's proposals were pending, the Times said. But Obama also proposed that the Constellation program's proposed Orion crew capsule that was going to return astronauts to the moon be redeveloped into a "lifeboat" for space station astronauts. Bolden said at the hearing that NASA estimates the capsule will take five years and $4.5 billion to develop, the Times said.

Arrest of Indian leader sparks concern over U.S. ally Peru

Word from Lima that Indian leader Alberto Pizango had been taken into custody upon his return to Peru raises new worries about the future of one of South America's staunchest U.S. allies. Pizango was arrested at the airport after 11 months of exile in Nicaragua, where he fled to avoid sedition charges stemming from anti-development protests in the Amazon that turned violent, according to the Associated Press in an article published in the New York Times. More than 30 police officers and demonstrators were killed last June during protests against government decrees allowing exploration of potential oil and gas resources in the Peruvian rainforest, the Indians' ancestral lands. Violence broke out after authorities tore down roadblocks set up by the demonstrators in Bagua to block access to the rainforest, and Pizango was charged with fomenting the violence. Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, granted Pizango political asylum. But Pizango said he had been away from Peru long enough. "I think that I have waited too long and will make this enormous sacrifice that has cost me and is costing me so much," Pizango said before he left Nicaragua. Groups of Pizango supporters rallied at the airport as his plane came in, backing his contention that the government should have consulted native groups before allowing the planned exploration. Opponents of Pizango also protested at the airport, urging the government to press charges against the Indian leader. Government officials claim potential discoveries could generate enough money to end poverty in Peru but, hopefully, not at the cost of the country's vibrant democracy.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Top U.S.official 'frustrated' by failure of oil spill cleanup

Nice to see that U.S. regulators are "frustrated" by the failure of oil giant BP to stop the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from one of its wells, but it's nothing short of astounding that the people who were supposed to be overseeing production by the oil companies operating in this country apparently weren't doing so. Why else would the massive U.S. regulatory apparatus been caught so unprepared? Yes, the oil spill was an accident and is a tragedy of probably incalculable proportions. And yes, a gusher at such a depth -- nearly a mile under the ocean -- is unprecedented. But no one in the industry or at the regulatory agencies should be permitted to pretend that it should not have been anticipated. The oil industry -- in this case, BP, formerly known as British Petroleum -- had to apply to the government for permission to operate in the Gulf of Mexico, they had to offer production estimates and pay taxes and they had submit plans for the drilling and for how they were going to take care of any emergencies that were sure to result. What were those plans? Where are those plans? If they didn't include what to do in the event of an explosion on a drilling platform, as occurred in April on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon platform, what did they include? What about other companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere? Do they have such plans? Why not, if their plans included drilling at such depths? And, if not, will they be required to have them now? What we're discussing, of course, is Sunday's statement by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that he no longer has confidence that BP officials "know exactly what they're doing," according to Cable News Network (CNN). Add to that comments by Marcia McNutt, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, that BP's plans for stopping the gusher were probably infeasible. "I think everyone has to understand that the kinds of operations they're doing in the deep sea have never been done before," McNutt told CNN. But the problem is not that "everyone" has to understand that -- the problem is the regulators seem not to have understood it. Why even regulate oil production at all if obvious risks are not being planned for? Why have the regulators been doing all this time if we have to ask these questions now, when oil has begun washing up on some of the country's most beautiful beaches and contaminating some of the country's richest fishing and wildlife areas? If U.S. President Barack Obama's plans to revamp the federal government do not include better regulation of some of the country's biggest and most vital industries, he had better start explaining why not.