Sunday, January 31, 2010

U.S. Justice Department opens investigation of alleged bribery in Iraq

From Washington comes word that the U.S. Justice Department is investigating allegations that Blackwater Worldwide, the largest outside contractor for the military in Iraq, paid officials of the government in Baghdad to allow the company to keep operating there. The department's fraud section opened the investigation late last year, according to the New York Times. The Iraqi government wanted Blackwater, since renamed Xe Services, expelled from the country following the shooting deaths of more than a dozen civilians in a Baghdad intersection in 2007. Company guards were protecting a diplomatic convoy when they opened fire in Nisour Square, apparently believing they were under attack. The shooting outraged the Iraqi public and led the government to order company employees out of the country. The last reportedly left in May. Five of six former guards allegedly involved in the incident were charged with manslaughter and other charges, but the case against them was dismissed in December out of concern that their rights had been violated. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said the government would appeal that dismissal. A sixth guard pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony. The existence of the bribery investigation was confirmed by three current and former U.S. officials, the newspaper said. The investigation appears to have started after a Times report that Blackwater officials had authorized $1 million in payments to Iraq officials to retain their support in the post-Nisour Square incident environment. If true, such payments would violate federal law barring U.S. companies from bribing officials of other countries. Investigators are working with the U.S. State Department and with federal prosecutors in North Carolina, where a grand jury has been reviewing the Blackwater contracts, the Times said.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Unrest in former Soviet republic of Dagestan spins out of control

No wonder the Russians are more interested in getting along with the West nowadays, certainly a lot more than in the days of the Soviet Union. Word comes from Dagestan that accelerating violence in the Caspian Sea republic could force Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to get further involved by appointing a strong leader to quell growing clan warfare and Islamic insurgent activity, like his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, did after years of conflict in nearby Chechnaya. Last week in Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital, for example, police were forced to close streets to protect against suicide bombers in districts that lost power and water, according to the New York Times. The vice speaker of Dagestan's parliament narrowly escaped assassination last week when a passing car opened fire with automatic weapons, the Times said. “In Dagestan, the problem is that there is a loss of control that is moving toward violence of another kind, which is stronger and stronger, and spiced with Islamic fundamentalism," said Pavel Baev, a senior researcher at the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute, told the Times. “There is no other kind of order. Only the fundamentalists can present themselves as honest men.” Worse, still, perhaps, is the general cynicism of a population frustrated by corruption and their government's seeming inability to control the country, a part of the Russian Federation since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Times said. Armored vehicles and bodyguards have become commonplace on the streets as a result of the rising violence. "People have no hope in law enforcement or in other protection or in justice anymore, said Magomed-Rasul Omarov, the press secretary for Dagestan's top Muslim religious leader told the Times. “If one case was brought to justice, you could say there was some hope.” Instead of becoming an economic powerhouse with its abundant natural resources and miles of Caspian Sea coastline, Dagestan has become economically dependent on money from Moscow. "You can't develop tourism when you have a murder every day," said Said Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala, who is confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt. Making matters worse, the failure of civil society is causing more and more young people to turn to Islamic extremism, the Times said.

Friday, January 29, 2010

China says cooperation with United States threatened by proposed arms sale to Taiwan

Word from Beijing is that China is "strongly indignant" and threatening to disrupt ties if the United States goes ahead with a planned $6.4 billion sale of advanced armaments to Taiwan. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei said Saturday that Beijing considers the proposed sale of Black Hawk helicopters, advanced Patriot missiles and other equipment to be "crude interference in China's domestic affairs and seriously harm China's national security," according to the Reuters international news service. "The United States' announcement of the planned weapons sales to Taiwan will have a seriously negative impact on many important areas of exchanges and cooperation between the two countries," He said in remarks given to the U.S. ambassador and published on the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Web site. "This will lead to repercussions that neither side wishes to see." China considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province, but Western nations know it is where the Nationalist Chinese fled after being defeated by the Communist Chinese in 1949, and is now a democratic nation of 23 million. But it has been a source of friction between the China and the United States for 60 years, since Beijing wants to incorporate it into the mainland and the United States has pledged to defend its independence. In fact, the United States refused to recognize the People's Republic of China until 1979, eight years after Beijing replaced Taiwan at the United Nations. U.S. officials said Taiwan needed the advanced armaments to strengthen its position in negotiations with China, particularly since a "thaw" in relations that began in 2008, Reuters said. Despite all the rhetoric, it is difficult to see how the sale of arms to Taiwan affects the relationship between China and United States, except to make Beijing a little uncomfortable. In 2008, when Washington sold $6.5 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan, and Beijing reacted by delaying a meeting on military cooperation with the United States. But Washington and Beijing are too intertwined economically to let even this do more than perhaps delay their burgeoning cooperation in financial and military sectors. There are simply too many advantages to such cooperation to turn back now.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

U.S. automakers say "domo arigato" to Toyota

Maybe all U.S. automakers should call their next new vehicles by the name "Domo Arigato," which means "thank you very much" in Japanese. With the Toyota Motor Corp. on the ropes following a series of safety recalls that has so far reached 8 million vehicles and sent its stock price plummeting, the U.S. Congress announced an investigation into the formerly formidable Japanese carmaker's response to the crisis. In addition to recalling millions of cars in the United States, Toyota has suspended most of its U.S. manufacturing and sales and expanded its recall to include vehicles made in China and in Europe, according to the Reuters international news service. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Thursday he planned a hearing to see "how quickly and effectively" Toyota has responded to complaints about malfunctioning gas pedals. "Like many consumers, I am concerned about the seriousness and scope of Toyota's recent recall announcements," Waxman said. The recalls and repairs alone will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to Toyota, which last year supplanted General Motors Corp. as the world's largest automaker. Combined with the expected loss of customers and the damage to its reputation, the crisis is a still-growing disaster for Toyota. The car company told its dealers on Thursday that it would take months to repair all of the affected vehicles. Toyota said it would send recall notices to vehicle owners in lots of 10,000 to try to avoid overwhelming car repair shops, according to spokesman Mike Michels. "Obviously, the dealers couldn't handle everybody coming all at once," Michels said. "So that does have to take place over time. This volume of vehicles will obviously take a number of months. I don't have an estimate on that." Some U.S. dealers told Reuters they were making plans to hire additional staff and extend their hours to handle the repairs.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

New elected president takes office in Honduras as previous one returns to exile

Does anyone else think it weird that the Honduran military ousted President Manuel Zelaya with the backing of political leaders because they reportedly feared he was planning to extend his term in office, and then Honduras' Congress voted a lifetime appointment to the guy they picked to replace him? Of course, Roberto Micheletti, the former legislative leader who took over the presidency on an interim basis after Zelaya was sent out of the country at gunpoint, didn't get appointed president for life or anything like that. He was named legislator for life after taking Zelaya's place until the November election, when Honduras elected a new president, Porfirio Lobo. Lobo, who lost to Zelaya in the 2005 election, was sworn in Wednesday. Lobo promptly signed an amnesty allowing Zelaya to leave the country and go into exile in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. The amnesty, passed by Congress on Tuesday, removed the threat of arrest to Zelaya on abuse of power charges but also immunized coup leaders from criminal charges, according to the New York Times . “We are emerging from the worst political crisis in our history,” Lobo said in his inaugural address at the national stadium in Tegucialpa. But Honduras faces huge challenges in the year ahead. No Western nations recognized Micheletti's interim government after the coup and Honduras was been expelled by the Organization of American States. The Times said Honduras lost $2 billion in aid and investment following the coup.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Problems in Iraq solved! Chemical Ali goes to the gallows

Well, now that Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as Chemical Ali, has been hanged, it figures to be just a few more hours before the 140,000 U.S. soldiers still stationed in Iraq come home -- right? Wrong. The execution of Saddam Hussein's 68-year-old cousin, perhaps most notorious for ordering a poison gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja that killed more than 5,000, was a foregone conclusion after his fourth trial ended, as expected, in his eighth death sentence. But many Iraqis probably wondered what was going to happen to him, since previous dates with the executioner were put off by the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad for political reasons. Yet there he was Monday, shown on Iraqi state television from Baghdad, standing on a scaffold with a rope around his neck, according to the New York Times. “His execution turns the page on another black chapter of repression, genocide and crimes against humanity that Saddam and his men practiced for 35 years,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a prepared statement. “His execution is great news for all Iraqis,” said Fakhri Karim, an adviser to Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. “He was the killing machine of the former regime.” Majid also was known for leading the Anfal campaign after the Iran-Iraq war that killed at least 180,000 Kurds, and for killing thousands of Shiites in southern Iraq after they revolted following the first Gulf war in 1991. The execution of Majid occurred just after three hotels catering to tourists were bombed in Baghdad, no doubt bringing back memories of the years of insurgent attacks after the 1993 invasion by U.S. forces that ousted Hussein's regime. Hussein was hanged in 2006.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

He's back -- Osama bin Laden vows more attacks on United States

Some guys never give up. We're referring, of course, to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who apparently released a new audiotape claiming responsibility for a failed attack on an airliner on Christmas Day and threatened new attacks against the United States. The authenticity of the new message was not confirmed by the White House, which characterized it as "hollow justification" for the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on New York and Washington, according to the Reuters international news service. In the tape, the voice presumed to be bin Laden's said the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 near Detroit was a continuation of its fight against the United States for backing Israel's survival in the Middle East. "Our attacks against you will continue as long as U.S. support for Israel continues," bin Laden said on the tape. "It is not fair that Americans should live in peace as long as our brothers in Gaza live in the worst conditions." Bin Laden also praised the foiled attack on the plane by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was subdued by fellow passengers before he could ignite chemicals he had been hiding in his underwear. U.S. President Barack Obama, to whom the tape was addressed, said shortly after the failed attack that a wing of the terrorist group based in Yemen was responsible. So, it looks like al-Qaida is still in business -- but so, obviously, is the United States. The spectacularly cataclysmic al-Qaida attack that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York did not, as bin Laden apparently thought, cause the collapse of the United States or the disengagement of its allies. In fact, the opposite has happened, despite the preposterously bad administration of George W. Bush in Washington. And, now, the failed attack on Northwest 253 has prompted an increase in military aid to Yemen and a series of attacks on suspected al-Qaida positions that reportedly killed several of the group's top leaders but not bin Laden himself, even though Yemen became a haven for al-Qaida fighters after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Reuters said. In perhaps the most encouraging development, Western powers have planned two international conferences this week in London to discuss their approaches to Yemen and Afghanistan. The embattled government in Sanaa also is reportedly trying to resist a Shiite rebellion in the country's north and separatists in the south, Reuters said.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Venezuela's Chavez could lose control of Congress

Venezuelans returned to the streets today in protests over the country's deteriorating economic picture as this year's parliamentary elections drew nearer. Observers say President Hugo Chavez's hold on Congress could be in danger after devaluation of the currency and in the face of water and power outages caused by a severe drought. An opposition legislature could prevent Chavez from ruling by decree, a tactic he has used to make fundamental socialist-inspired changes in the Venezuelan economy, according to the Reuters international news service. Pro-Chavez marchers also took the streets on Saturday in a show of support for the government's aid programs for Venezuela's poor. "Tremble, you oligarchs -- this is the joy of the patriotic revolution," Chavez told his supporters, Reuters said. "The streets no longer belong to the oligarchs." The pro-Chavez march also was celebrating the 11th year of his presidency, which ushered in years of friction with the United States. Chavez called former U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" at the United Nations in New York in 2006, no doubt because he was briefly removed from power in 2002 by a coup he blamed on the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. But Chavez returned to office and has since consolidated government control of the economy, including the state oil company and the judicial system. Chavez gained control of the legislature in 2005 after opposition parties boycotted parliamentary elections, Reuters said.

Prosecuting Blackwater guards changes very little

Even if the U.S. government is successful in having murder and other charges reinstated against five Blackwater security guards implicated in the shooting deaths of 14 civilians in a Baghdad intersection in 2007, it may help somewhat in soothing some suspicions among the leaders of Iraqi society but is probably not going to do anything to heal the fundamental damage done to the United States. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Saturday on a visit to Iraq that Washington would appeal a federal judge's decision tossing out the charges because the guards' constitutional rights had been violated by the government. "The United States is determined, determined to hold accountable anyone who commits crimes against the Iraqi people," Biden said, according to the Reuters international news service. "While we fully respect the independence and integrity of the U.S. judicial system, we were disappointed by the judge's decision to dismiss the indictment, which was based on the way in which some evidence had been acquired." The dismissal reopened long festering wounds among Iraqis disturbed by the massive loss of life in the years that followed the defeat of Saddam Hussein, even though thousands of U.S. serviceman and women also died in the effort to set up a democratic government in Baghdad. The five guards were accused of responsibility in the deaths of the civilians by opening fire in Baghdad's Nisour Square. The guards claimed they began shooting because they thought they were under attack as they were escorting a diplomatic convoy through the city as the height of the insurgency. A sixth guard pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for testimony against the other five. The Nisour Square shooting served to focus attention on the propriety of the military's use of private contractors to fight in Iraq in place of lesser-paid U.S. soldiers. But military adventure undertaken by the Bush administration in Iraq in 2003 also raised serious questions about the constitutional underpinnings of the U.S. government -- questions that will have to be answered if Washington intends to retain any of its traditional moral authority in the new century. The paralysis in the capital in Washington that has prevented any significant legislative progress in the new administration of Barack Obama is symptomatic of this problem -- the train has left the tracks, and the conductor refuses to halt the locomotive. At issue now is the future of the separation of powers doctrine in the U.S. Constitution, the power of the president, the authority of the Congress to declare war and the nation's revered Bill of Rights, which has surely suffered severely. At a time of international challenge, the United States appears leaderless and its citizenry inexcusably uninformed.

Friday, January 22, 2010

How does diplomacy make sense when dealing with Taliban?

News that Turkey plans to bring Afghanistan's often warring neighbors together at an international conference raises some interesting questions, but not all of them are good ones. While it seems like things can only get better in the region if the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan talk, their reported plans to invite Taliban leaders to join them is a sad miscalculation. Who can forget the Taliban's misogynistic misrule of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, their destruction of ancient statues of Buddha and their decision to protect Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader blamed by the United States for planning the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.? Who in their right mind would expect them to bring anything positive to negotiations? Well, Turkey, for starters. NATO's only Islamic nation has been actively engaged in behind-the-scenes talks to get Afghanistan, Pakistan and Taliban insurgents together in the week before a planned international conference on the future of Afghanistan in London, according to the Reuters international news service. "The Turks are playing a behind-the-scenes role patching up relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan," an unnamed official told Reuters. "The Turks are among those working on negotiations with the Taliban. There's a lot happening behind the scenes that people don't know about." Turkey has unique ties to both countries since the days of the Ottoman Empire, Reuters said. Afghanistan's discredited president, U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai, is said to be a major source behind trying to open negotiations with the Taliban. But the military defeat of the Taliban's ruthless government in 2001 is the very reason Karzai was elected in Afghanistan, and the reason why Western nations still support him despite a questionable re-election in November. And fighting a resurgent Taliban is why U.S. President Barack Obama announced in December that 30,000 additional troops would be sent there. Moves toward negotiations with the Taliban under these conditions do not make any sense.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Corporations are people, too

What does it mean that a doctrinaire conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court just eliminated the evolving theory of campaign finance reform? Well, it means a lot of things -- none of which bode particularly well for the future of elections in the United States -- but maybe it will finally force the right wing to stop labeling judges they don't like as "activist." And maybe, just maybe, it will convince U.S. citizens that who they elect to the White House really matters, since the five conservative justices who formed the 5-4 majority were nominated to the court by conservative Republican presidents. Maybe it's the term "conservative" that needs an overhaul, since the conservative majority voted to invalidate decades of jurisprudence aimed at protecting the society's interest in free elections while trying to place practical limits on campaign contributions. That's about as activist as it gets at this level! The ruling overruled two earlier Supreme Court decisions limiting the role of corporations and associations, like labor unions, in election campaigns -- a 1990 ruling upholding the constitutionality of placing limits on corporate campaign spending and the 2003 decision upholding the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, more commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law. McCain-Feingold barred corporations from paid political advertising on television and radio for or against individual candidates in the last 60 days before a general election. In the abstract, of course, the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (No. 08-205) was inarguably correct. “If the First Amendment has any force,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, according to the New York Times, “it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” It's hard to argue with that, and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined the decision. But as Justice John Paul Stevens pointed out in his 90-page dissent, the majority had erred by treating corporate speech as equivalent to human speech. "The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court's disposition of this case," Stevens wrote, joined by the other three members of the more-liberal wing, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Stevens read his dissent from the bench. In a way, the division on the court reflects the division in U.S. politics, where members of the two major parties in Congress seem almost irreconcilably at odds about the country's major challenges. Perhaps as a reflection of that divide, U.S. President Barack Obama was unusually critical of the Supreme Court in a statement after the ruling. “With its ruling today,” he said, “the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Obama called on Congress to respond 'forcefully' to the ruling, perhaps by rewriting the invalidated law in a constitutionally acceptable manner. But it's hard to see, at least at this moment, how that can possibly be accomplished.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

New agreement could mean end is near for Honduras crisis

Word from Honduras that an agreement has been reached to allow former President Manuel Zelaya to leave the country bodes well for a negotiated end to a constitutional crisis that has poisoned relations with most of the rest of the world. Honduras' new president-elect, Porfirio Lobo, and the president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez, signed the pact Wednesday, and Zelaya said it was "a good gesture" and that he would study it, according to the New York Times. Zelaya has been holed up in the Brazil's embassy in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, since September, when he snuck back into the country after being ousted by military leaders fearful of his growing alliance with leftist South American leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Most countries, including the United States, demanded Zelaya's return to office but military leaders refused, even as former allies suspended aid to Honduras, one of Latin America's poorest countries. But Zelaya's term has since expired, and Lobo is now trying to improve the country's international standing, the Times said. He is scheduled to be sworn in on Jan. 27. Under the agreement, Zelaya would be free to leave Honduras with no restrictions and a long list of charges leveled by the interim government would be dropped, the Times said.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Lack of information left Massachusetts voters frustrated

Why are so many supposedly informed political pundits confused about why a conservative Republican won Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in Massachusetts? Can't anyone in Washington spell frustration? Massachusetts voters, among the nation's most liberal, were expressing their disappointment with the suddenly disoriented Democratic Party-dominated government in Washington -- in general -- and the Democratic nominee for senator, State Attorney General Martha Coakley -- in particular. Had the presidency of Democrat Barack Obama not gotten bogged down in behind-the-scenes bargaining on the healthcare bill instead of conducting the public's business in public, Coakley could have been another supporter of what most Americans want -- a single-payer system. Instead, Obama gets a 41st Republican Senator to snipe at him daily and try to obstruct his more-liberal legislative priorities. Of course, Coakley deserves a lot of the blame for her oblivious campaign style, which included a couple of incredible gaffes that made her appear to be an out-of-touch elitist. That is no way to convince regular people to vote for you. By contrast, state Senator Scott Brown, her opponent, drove around the state in a pickup truck, called into talk radio shows around the state and campaigned with local sports figures, according to the New York Times. Is a subtle pattern beginning to emerge? Of course, the real problem with all of this is that the public, even the Massachusetts public, has confused what they see on television with what they used to read in the newspaper and mistaken the nattering nabobs of Fox News-style broadcasting with actual journalists trained to report the news with as little bias as possible. The public is frustrated by the pace of legislating in Congress and took it out on the White House -- as if people simply are not aware of the positive changes that have taken place in the executive branch since Obama became president. The government is clearly making progress toward undoing the eight years of damage done by previous occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. -- the promised closing of the disgraceful Guantanamo Bay prison is imminent and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, another part of the executive branch, has returned to protecting the air and water. Maybe a lot of people think the changes are not happening quickly enough, and maybe they aren't. But George W. Bush was in office for eight years and Obama has been in office for only one. That doesn't seem to be enough justification for returning control of the government to the Republicans.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Iran puts into writing what everyone knew all along

Well, it's finally put up or shut up time for the West on Iran's nuclear program, as if what happened wasn't obvious all along. We're discussing, of course, Tehran's formal rejection of a United Nations proposal to send most of the country's enriched uranium abroad for processing. The International Atomic Energy Agency announced that it had received a letter from Iran rejecting parts of the proposed deal, designed to prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons, according to the Reuters international news service. Western nations had backed the plan offered by former IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei but Iran allowed the proposal's Dec. 31 deadline to pass despite threats of economic penalties for noncompliance. The plan would have required Iran to transfer at least 70 percent of its nuclear fuel to a European nation for enrichment to levels suitable for power but not for weaponry. Iran reportedly agreed to the deal in principle in October at six-party talks in Geneva, but has raised objections to its provisions ever since. Now, it's up to the United States, European Union and other Western nations to either come up with a sanctions regime that will force Iran's capitulation or raise the stakes and put some threat of force on the table. Parties to the October talks -- the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China -- have started to discuss future actions, Reuters said. Of course, that only makes sense if the six powers really thought Iran would comply with the terms of the deal -- a considerable reach given Iran's behavior in the past. The six powers, and the West, surely already have plans in place for what to do now -- hopefully, they'll let the rest of us know soon, because the security of the entire world would seem to be at risk.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

'Chemical Ali' gets sentenced to death -- again

While it's certainly exciting to see society returning to normal in Iraq after all those terrible years of uncertainty before and after the 2003 U.S. invasion ousted Saddam Hussein's despised government, it's getting harder to tell how interested the country's elected leadership in Baghdad is in justice as opposed to revenge. What brings this to mind is Sunday's decision by the Iraqi High Tribunal to sentence Ali Hassan al-Majeed to death for the fourth time, according to the Reuters international news service. Nobody, apparently, disputes that Majeed, a Saddam cousin who became known as "Chemical Ali" for ordering the use of poison gas against civilians, was an awful person. But nobody who saw the extraordinary show trial and execution of Saddam in 2006 -- except, perhaps, those bent on revenge for his widely renowned cruelty -- could help but be troubled by the apparent lack of fairness in the proceedings. Saddam's conviction and execution were so obviously predetermined that there was little justification for the trial at all, except as a formality. At least Saddam was only sentenced to death once -- for crimes against humanity in the slaying of 148 Shiite men and boys after a failed assassination attempt in 1982 -- even though he is believed to be responsible for the deaths of nearly 300,000 people, Reuters said. But Majeed had already been sentenced to death three times before the trial that concluded Sunday for a 1988 gas attack that killed 5,000 Kurds. Then again, Majeed is still alive, while Saddam was rushed to the gallows and hung while the families of tens of thousands of his victims waited for some accounting. In addition to Sunday's verdict, Majeed has been sentenced to death for a 1988 military campaign against ethnic Kurds, for ruthlessly suppressing a Shiite revolt following the 1991 Gulf War and for a 1999 slaughter and displacement of Iraqi Shiites, Reuters said. Everyone hopes post-Saddam Iraq will be a stable, democratic nation going forward. But show trials and executions only undermine the moral character of the state and serve as a warning that the inhumanity that flourished in Saddam's Iraq may not yet be extinguished.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Vermont nuclear plant controversy raises same old questions about reliability

Reports of a resurgence of interest in nuclear power plants may well be accurate as well as troubling but are, hopefully, premature. Reports from the state of Vermont demonstrate why. From Montpelier comes word that officials of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant are under investigation for allegedly misleading state regulators about the source of radioactive tritium discovered in a well near the plant, according to radio station WPTZ. The state Public Service Board was not informed of the existence of a system of underground pipes carrying radioactive fluids around the plant, the radio station said. The issue has sparked a statewide controversy because Vermont Yankee is seeking permission to operate beyond 2012, when its 40-year operating license is due to expire. "I'm very unhappy about what we've learned about their representations to the PSB," said Gov. Jim Douglas, a longtime backer of the plant. Douglas asked the plant's operator, Entergy Corp. of New Orleans, to explain what happened -- whether the misrepresentations were inadvertent, which appears likely, or deliberate, which is far more sinister. Entergy Vice President Jay Thayer told a local television station that the mistake was inadvertent, that he didn't know about the pipe system at the time he testified at a PSB hearing. "I take full responsibility," Thayer said. "It's pretty serious, and I'm very sorry about it." Sorry? About a nuclear plant, where thousands of lives and future generations could be at risk? Does sorry really cut it? That's really the problem -- that humans, even humans with the best of intentions, are inherently incapable of being perfect -- and perfection is required when dealing with radioactivity on such a large scale. To their credit, state legislative leaders have demanded a new reliability report on the plant, even though their consultants delivered one last year. The new report is due Feb. 16, the radio station said.

Friday, January 15, 2010

What is so important about NBC's late-night spat?

The only real question left unanswered about NBC's late-night schedule shakeup is why anybody outside of the television networks should care. Whether Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien or Jimmy Fallon or David Letterman or even Russell Brand and Katy Perry host the Tonight Show is not a big deal to anyone but Leno, O'Brien, Fallon, Letterman, Brand and Perry -- and their agents, of course -- despite all the mindless jawing on network television. Sure, O'Brien looks like the loser in this, since it's his tenure on NBC's Tonight Show -- a program with a long, mostly admirable history -- that faces the most uncertainty. But NBC is not threatening to kick him off its station without a penny -- he has more than two years left on a five-year contract and should get some $30 million if he loses the Tonight Show, according to the New York Times. Big deal. Thirty million and he's complaining? He'll never have to work another day in his life unless he wants to, and, if he does decide to, the unbelievable publicity of the last two weeks means he'll make a ton of money. His continuous pouting is at best disingenous and at worse -- well, something worse. An unnamed TV executive told the Times that under the most likely scenario, O'Brien will host the Tonight Show for one more week beginning Monday.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

U.S. oil companies launch new Iraq invasion

And they're off! We're talking, of course, about the latest charge by U.S. companies toward financial nirvana in Iraq, where their expertise is apparently essential for the world's second largest proven oil reserves to be re-equipped for full production. Iraq officials are aiming for a five-fold increase in production to more than 11 million barrels a day in the next seven years, according to the New York Times. That level of oil production would rival Saudi Arabia and Iran for No. 1 in the world, the Times said. Such an increase means billions of dollars in contracts for new oil drilling, repairs to thousands of miles of pipeline, updating current facilities and construction of many more -- including, possibly, a new port on the Persian Gulf. U.S.-based oil-services companies Halliburton, Baker Hughes, Weatherford International and Schlumberger have either started sending workers and equipment to Iraq or have plans to, and construction and engineering giants KBR, Bechtel, Parsons, Fluor and Foster Wheeler are not far behind, the Times said. But Halliburton and its former subsidiary KBR, which used to be run by former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, Bechtel and Parsons were criticized by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction for earlier work in the country, and could be headed for trouble before they're offered more. The companies have denied intentional wrongdoing and say that their experience in Iraq and in other oil-producing countries in Central Asia gives them an advantage, the Times said. “KBR has historic experience on previous oil and gas production projects ranging from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan,” said Heather Browne, KBR’s director of corporate communications, in an e-mail to the Times. “Our pursuit of additional contracts in the region is based on this experience in addition to KBR’s work on Project RIO (Restore Iraq Oil).” David Lesar, Halliburton’s chief executive, said in October that his company was already doing work on oil wells there. “I think you see everybody trying to establish a base there, and we’re no exception,” he said. “Clearly, a great future there and one we will participate in — in a big way.” Iraq has signed 10 production contracts with international oil companies in the past few months and officials say they hope to drill at least 430 oil wells during the next two years, the Times said.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What's going on with Google and China?

Is Google doing the bidding of the U.S. government by threatening to leave China, ostensibly in a dispute over Beijing's efforts to censor content on the Internet? It might as well be, since last week's surprise announcement by the Internet search giant suggests many of the responsibilities the United States expects China to voluntarily accept as a world superpower. Of course, the most important among them is to stop jailing political opponents and otherwise mistreating its citizenry. Good luck with that, right? But it does demonstrate to China the urgency and complexity of good world citizenship. Google's threat -- so far not implemented -- already has affected relations between China and the United States, and not in a good way, according to the Reuters international news service. Top officials in the Obama administration called Google's announcement "a big deal," Reuters said. China has not commented officially on Google's threat, which the company said was in reaction to censorship of its Web sites from Beijing and to a series of cyber attacks emanating from China. But Google and other U.S. companies have done Beijing's bidding for years, even allowing the Chinese government to use their servers to track down dissidents. And the U.S. government has seemingly gone along with it. But now, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke called Google's concerns about Internet security in China "troubling." "The administration encourages the government of China to work with Google and other U.S. companies to ensure a climate for secure commercial operations in the Chinese market," Locke said. Of course, the new U.S. focus could be due to the change of administrations in Washington, even though Obama government officials spent last year trying to make Beijing comfortable with lending $800 billion to Washington. Lately, however, the United States has angered China by agreeing to sell sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan, agreeing to meet with the Dalai Lama and putting tariffs on some of China's exports. Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom group that had criticized Google in the past for complying with Beijing's demands, applauded the Silicon Valley company for what it called "standing up to the Chinese authorities."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

U.S. environmental regulators decide to protect jaguar

U.S. residents got another example of the kind of change they voted for in 2008 when the Obama administration announced Tuesday that it would protect the habitat of the jaguar, even though the last of the big cats in the United States is believed to have died last year. Tuesday's announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service settles, at least for now, a long-running dispute over the jaguar's status as an endangered species, according to the New York Times. The jaguar has been listed as endangered since 1997, but regulators never designated any critical habitat for the wide-ranging animals, which were formerly believed to have ranged from Louisiana to California, the Times said. Wildlife activists sued to force the government to come up with a species-recovery plan, as required by the Endangered Species Act and a federal judge in Tucson ordered regulators to draft such plans or explain why not. This time, the Fish and Wildlife Service dropped longstanding opposition to such planning and agreed to comply despite fierce opposition from ranchers, who long opposed protecting the habitat of such wide-ranging predators, the Times said. The designation will protect the jaguar if it returns to the western United States. There are 5,000 jaguars in Mexico and thousands more in Central and South America. Conservationists applauded the decision as historic. "It will reorient land conservation in the Southwest," said Michael Robinson of the Center on Biological Diversity of Tuscon, the nonprofit group that sued. "We will see planning to ensure jaguars can reach each other." Robinson said the new designation could affect decisions to allow tree harvesting or mining on public lands within the jaguar habitat, the Times said.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Plans for Mars exploration offer hope for international cooperation in space travel

If there's ever going to be a United Federation of Planets or anything like it with human beings involved, the next step -- fairly obviously -- has to be cooperation on space exploration between beings on this planet. Toward that end, apparently, comes word from NASA's Mars Exploration Program in Sunnyvale, Calif., that a merger between the U.S. and European Union space programs is being planned, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars program at the Ames Research Center, told CNN that an agreement could take a year to complete and joint missions could begin by 2016. "The European Space Agency's council and their program board have agreed to the terms that we're working with and have endorsed this partnership to go forward," McCuistion said. "So we are starting the new year with a renewed excitement for missions beginning in 2016 to be done in a joint partnership between Europe and NASA." Such an agreement would have the twin advantages of sharing the cost of the multibillion-dollar missions and assuring that any knowledge gained does not benefit one nation over another but contributes to overall human understanding of the universe. "That's a very challenging mission of launching something from here, putting it into orbit at Mars, getting it to the surface and collecting samples, getting those samples back into orbit, then return them to Earth," McCuistion said. "This is a mission that will change our understanding of Mars and change our understanding of planetary science significantly. It really needs to be a global effort." But understanding that means the integration of the space programs of the Soviet Union and China, something that could be decades away given the current state of international relations on the third planet.

Friday, January 8, 2010

White House report on failed airline bombing reveals glaring mistakes

We're all happy that the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines plane failed on Christmas Day when the alleged terrorist was overpowered and subdued by alert passengers. But a lot of people, including U.S. President Barack Obama, were not happy to find out that federal authorities knew the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab of Nigeria, posed a threat but hadn't yet placed him on a no-fly list. "The intelligence fell through the cracks," Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan told reporters Thursday, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "This happened in more than one organization." That could well be what happened, but it's far from reassuring. Nine years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington exposed major weaknesses in U.S. intelligence and led to the creation of a multibillion-dollar domestic security operation, the new apparatus failed a basic test. "Though all of the information was available to all-source analysts at the CIA and the NCTC [National Counter Terrorism Center] prior to the attempted attack, the dots were never connected," said the report, written by a Brennan-led panel. The dots were never connected? There are terrorists trying to kill us and the government is looking for dots? Maybe that's the problem, right there! It's sounds a little like all of the excuses we heard after the 9-11 attacks about how three hijacked airliners could have flown undisturbed for hours until they had crashed into buildings and killed thousands of people in New York and Washington in 2001, doesn't it? Isn't a little late for the country to rely on luck to prevent terrorist attacks? Or, if we were going to rely on luck, why did we spend those untold billions of dollars on security upgrades?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

U.S. expects expensive new pollution standards to bring major health benefits

New pollution regulations proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could impose costly requirements on businesses and local governments but result in measurable health benefits to millions. The new standards proposed Thursday by the Obama administration will, assuming implementation, replace Bush administration-promulgated standards that were challenged as too weak by environmentalists and being reviewed by the courts, according to the New York Times. “E.P.A. is stepping up to protect Americans from one of the most persistent and widespread pollutants we face,” said EPA chief Lisa Jackson, an Obama appointee. “Smog in the air we breathe poses a very serious health threat, especially to children and individuals suffering from asthma and lung disease. It dirties our air, clouds our cities and drives up our health care costs across the country.” The new rules would limit levels of ground-level ozone, or smog, to between 0.6 and 0.7 parts per million over the next two decades, and would cost polluting industries as much as $90 billion a year to implement. The Bush administration proposed a 0.75 ppm limit. But the EPA said benefits to human health from the lower limits would be as much as $100 billion a year in reduced medical costs. The agency said as many as 12,000 premature deaths from heart or lung disease could be avoided, as well as thousands of cases of bronchitis, asthma and non-fatal heart attacks. “This is exactly what states and localities have advocated for 30 years,” said S. William Becker of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, the Times said. “The benefits will likely trump the costs many times over.” But what would environmental regulation be without industry opposition to rules that seem unquestionably beneficial? The American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil companies, issued a statement claiming the benefits were likely overstated and did not justify the extra burden on industry. It called the proposal "an obvious politicization of the air quality standard setting process" that would negatively impact future fuel development, the Times said.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Isn't it time to get tough with Iran?

Does the United States really think additional economic sanctions will force Iran to come to the conclusion that its future depends on peaceful relations with Western nations? That years of international economic pressure -- which so far have only made Tehran more belligerent -- can be raised to a level that Iran cannot continue to ignore with impunity? Just hearing the words out loud makes it easy to see how preposterous that is. Yet Washington is at it again, trying to convince reluctant allies that depend on Iran for oil to power their economies to comply with stricter economic sanctions. "We have already begun discussions with our partners and with like-minded nations about pressure and sanctions," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters Monday at a news conference in Washington, according to the Reuters international news service. "Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guard elements, without contributing to the suffering of the ordinary (people), who deserve better than what they currently are receiving." If this sounds familiar, it should. Every president since Jimmy Carter has tried some measure of the same tactic to influence Tehran but has failed. There is no reason to think the strategy will succeed this time. Look at the way Iran's government is trying to repress the reform movement -- arrests and mistreatment of detainees. If this also sounds familiar, it should. But making things a little more difficult for Iran will not be good enough -- things have to be a lot more difficult before Tehran will be forced to care. Iran has obviously realized that despite all the rhetoric, Western nations do not actually want to cut their crippling dependence on oil from the Middle East -- even though that has always been the only way to get Tehran to take notice.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Criminal charges dismissed? Iraq responds with lawyers

From Baghdad comes word that Iraq's government plans to help victims of the notorious 2007 shooting in Nisour Square to file lawsuits in the United States against private security guards working for the U.S. government. An Iraqi government spokesman called "unacceptable and unjust" last week's decision by a U.S. judge to dismiss murder and other charges against five employees of Blackwater Worldwide, then the largest U.S. security contractor, according to the Reuters international news service. Fourteen civilians were killed in the 2007 shooting when guards protecting a U.S. convoy opened fire in a crowded Baghdad intersection. The guards claimed they were reacting to gunfire and an explosion when they began shooting, but Iraqi witnesses said the guards shot indiscriminately. "The government will facilitate a lawsuit from Iraqi citizens to sue the guards and the company in a U.S. court," spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters. Al-Dabbagh also said the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad would ask the U.S. Justice Department in Washington to review the decision by Judge Ricardo M. Urbina throwing out the charges. The shooting provoked widespread outrage in Iraq and led to a new agreement between Washington and Baghdad that lifted immunity provisions that had protected the private guards from Iraqi law. Blackwater changed its name to Xe Services after the shooting, and Iraq barred the company from working in the country. Dabbagh said Iraq was investigating whether any Blackwater employees were still in the country, Reuters said. "We don't want any member of this company, which committed more than one crime in Iraq, to work in Iraq," Dabbagh said.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

West rachets up aid to Yemen to boost anti-terror battle

Why would a sudden increase in U.S. military aid to the Arabian Peninsula nation of Yemen transform the Middle East's poorest nation into a loyal ally in the war on terror? It's kind of hard to see, given that Yemen harbors a branch of the al-Qaida
terrorist group that has been the avowed enemy of the United States for years and is responsible for devastating attacks that have killed thousands of people. But Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, announced Friday that the United States would more than double its $70 million in annual military support to help the government in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, crack down on militants believed to be setting up headquarters there, according to the Reuters international news service. "We have, it's well known, about $70 million in security assistance last year, Petraeus said at a news conference. "That will more than double this coming year." British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Western support was needed to help Yemen avoid becoming a haven for terrorists, and announced a high-level meeting in London later this month. "The international community must not deny Yemen the support it needs to tackle extremism," Brown said. The al-Qaida in Yemen branch itself has claimed responsibility for this month's aborted attack on a passenger jet and is responsible for the attack on the USS Cole in Aden that killed 17 U.S. sailors in 2000 -- even before the still-hard-to-believe attack by its parent organization that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Justice can wait -- charges against Blackwater defendants dismissed

The longer the United States puts off a comprehensive review of George W. Bush's presidency, the more disgraces like these are going to happen. We're discussing, of course, Thursday's decision by a federal judge to dismiss murder and other charges against five private security guards involved in a 2007 shooting that killed 17 civilians in Iraq. In a 90-page ruling, U.S. Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of Federal District Court in Washington said government officials had misused statements made by the five defendants in such a "reckless violation of the defendants’ constitutional rights" that dismissal of the indictment was the appropriate sanction, according to the New York Times. That works out well for the five guards who worked for Blackwater Worldwide, the McLean, Vir., company that provided security for foreign diplomats in Baghdad following the U.S. invasion in 2003, and, perhaps, for the rest of us in the long run, because it discourages prosecutorial overzealousness by the government. But there is a price to be paid. The decision further delays the urgently needed reckoning - the conduct of the U.S. government during the Bush administration has put the philosophical basis of the country at risk. The U.S. government has put its own survival ahead of its founding principles -- that's why it feels justified in operating secret prisons in other countries, torturing suspects, kidnapping suspects in other countries and holding them for years without charge or access to attorneys, in spying on its own citizens. These were supposed to be the truths we held self-evident and, yet, our government has chosen to restrict them with the support of the citizenry. It is an outrage.