Saturday, February 27, 2010

Agreement in Sudan could resolve one of world's most intractable conflicts

Reports from Sudan say the rebel Justice and Equality Movement and the government in
Khartoum have agreed to a ceasefire that could help end a seven-year insurgency that has left hundreds of thousands dead in the east African nation. The deal was reached Tuesday at a four-way summit in Qatar attended by JEM representatives and the leaders of Sudan, Qatar and Eritrea, according to Cable News Network (CNN). A permanent ceasefire is expected to be signed by March 15, Tahir al-Fati, chairman of the rebel movement's legislative assembly, told CNN. Qatar has been mediating negotiations to resolve the conflict, which began with the start of the insurgency in 2003, CNN said. Sudan's government launched a brutal counterinsurgency that killed thousands and displaced as many as 2.7 million residents. The brutality of the insurgency, aided by Arab militias, resulted in the International Criminal Court filing genocide charges against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, CNN said. Those charges are still pending. The United Nations has reported that more than 300,000 people were killed in the conflict as a result of the fighting, disease and malnutrition, CNN said. Other participants at the summit were Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the emir of Kuwait; Idris Deby, the president of Chad, and Assais Afwerki, Eritrea's president.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Colombia's peaceful transition demonstrates commitment to democracy

Anybody still harboring doubts about the strength of South America's commitment to democracy -- perfectly understandable, in light of recent political events -- should take heart from Colombia's presidential transition. We're speaking, of course, of Friday's decision by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to withdraw from the next presidential election after the country's highest court ruled out last-minute efforts to make him eligible for a third term. The two-term incumbent's unexpected departure from the race makes former Finance Minister Juan Manuel Santos the front runner in the election in May, according to the Reuters international news service. Uribe bowed out of the race graciously after the ruling in a region known for tumultuous politics. "I accept and I respect the decision of the Constitutional Court," Uribe said after the ruling. "One dream inspires me: that the country betters its path, but does not change it." Uribe still enjoys wide popularity in Colombia, where he championed a crackdown on Marxist rebels and cocaine traffickers, and helped the country evolved from a failed narco state into one with a robust economy. Success against the rebels led to increased foreign investment and economic growth, Reuters said, and Colombia became the strongest supporter of the United States in a region that has seen anti-U.S. leaders come to power in nearby Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Colombia is now Latin America's largest coffee exporter and No. 4 oil exporter, Reuters said. Santos is expected to continue Uribe's policies, but faces a tough campaign against Medellin Mayor Sergio Fajardo and former defense minister Noemi Sanin.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Secretary of State says massive debt threatens U.S. security

In Washington, sometimes, the truth comes out when everybody least expects it, like when they're looking for something else. That seems to be what happened Thursday when, testifying before Congress on the U.S. State Department's request for additional funding, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated outright that the country's burgeoning deficit -- $1.4 trillion and growing -- threatened the country's security. Gee, you think? "We have to address this deficit and the debt of the United States as a matter of national security, not only as a matter of economics," Clinton told lawmakers on various committees, according to the Reuters international news service. "I do not like to be in a position where the United States is a debtor nation to the extent that we are." And, as if that wasn't obvious enough, Clinton added that debt to other nations hinders "our ability to protect our security, to manage difficult problems and to show the leadership that we deserve." So, was she talking to ordinary citizens who don't have advanced degrees in economics but still are able to understand what's going on, or to the Washington political elite who have the sheepskins but still seem unable to get it? Continuing deficits are the result of deliberate decision-making -- it's possible to make mistakes in the short term but by the time it's the long term, the term "mistake" doesn't cover it. Of particular concern to Washington is China's ownership of nearly $800 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds, Reuters said, and the possibility of Beijing trying to force changes in policy as a result. "The moment of reckoning cannot be put off forever," Clinton said. Of course, the value of China's holdings are directly related to the continued vibrancy of the U.S. economy, so Beijing has a strong interest in not forcing it to derail. But why doesn't the Congress have that same interest? What did they think would be the result of cutting taxes by billions of dollars at the same time they were authorizing the spending of hundreds of billions on an offensive war in Iraq? The $4.9 billion increase in the State Department budget is to pay for diplomatic and development work in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Clinton said. "We are now assuming so many of the post-conflict responsibilities, and that is the bulk of our increase," she said.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

GM announces shutdown of Hummer

Just when it seemed that General Motors had started down the yellow brick road to solvency comes word that a deal to sell its money-losing Hummer brand to a Chinese company had collapsed. Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machines said Thursday that it was pulling out of an agreement reached eight months ago to buy Hummer, the builder of large sport utility vehicles modeled after the military's Humvee troop transport vehicle. The Chinese company said it was unable to get approval from the Chinese government for the $150 million deal, according to the New York Times. General Motors, which has been trying to sell off subsidiaries in an effort to emerge from bankruptcy protection, said it would close the brand. GM finally was successful this week in selling Saab, but has already announced the closure of Pontiac and Saturn. Had the deal been approved, Tengzhong would have been the first Chinese company to sell vehicles in North America, the Times said. "Tengzhong worked earnestly to achieve an acquisition that it believed to be a tremendous opportunity to acquire a global brand at an attractive price,” Tengzhong said in a statement.
“We have since considered a number of possibilities for Hummer along the way, and we are disappointed that the deal with Tengzhong could not be completed,” said John Smith, G.M.’s vice president for corporate planning and alliances. “G.M. will now work closely with Hummer employees, dealers and suppliers to wind down the business in an orderly and responsible manner.” Hummer caused a splash after its introduction in 1992 with celebrity endorsements, including by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who owned several of the powerful-looking SUVs. GM bought the company in 1999. But rising fuel prices dimmed demand for the vehicles, and it became a symbol of inefficiency because of its gas mileage. Hummer sold only 265 vehicles in the United States in January and just over 9,000 last year, a decline of 67 percent, the Times said.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Memos say Republican leader did not object to destruction of interrogation tapes

So when was it, exactly, that the inmates took control of the asylum? News from Washington that newly released documents indicate that the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee did not object to CIA plans to destroy videotapes of "enhanced" interrogations of terror suspects in 2003 again raises the uncomfortable specter of a U.S. Congress abdicating its oversight responsibilities under pressure from the executive branch. The formerly secret documents were released Monday in response to freedom-of-information requests by three nonprofit organizations, according to the New York Times. The disclosures should add impetus to a criminal investigation into the destruction of the tapes started by the Justice Department in 2008. Attorney General Eric Holder, who took office last year after the inauguration of Barack Obama, a Democrat, also asked investigators to review the decision to use invasive interrogation techniques following the election of Barack Obama, a Democrat, to the presidency. The documents also show that the CIA refused to allow ranking members of Congress to see any of the covert prisons the agency used to house terror suspects captured overseas or to witness any of the "enhanced" interrogations approved by then-president George W. Bush in apparent violation of U.S. treaty obligations. The committee chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), issued a statement Monday denying that he approved the destruction of the tapes. The tapes, reported to show the interrogations of top al-Qaida operatives Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were destroyed by the CIA in 2005. But a CIA memo prepared after Roberts was briefed by the agency in February 2003 says "Senator Roberts listened carefully and gave his assent," the Times said. The nonprofit groups that requested the memos, Amnesty International USA, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University, said the 100 pages of documents, which were heavily blacked out, showed the need for a full public investigation of the interrogation program, the Times said.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dutch government collapses over Afghanistan commitment

Does Saturday's collapse of the ruling coalition in the Netherlands signal the beginning of the end of NATO's military role in Afghanistan? From Amsterdam comes reports that the minority Labor Party has left Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's coalition after days of talks about extending the mission of the 2,000 Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province. Labor balked at Balkenende's demand that partners in the Christian Democratic Alliance-led coalition approve a two-year extension of the troops' mission, which is scheduled to end in August, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). "There is no longer a fruitful path" for the three-year-old coalition," Balkenende said. Deputy Prime Minister Wouter Bos, the Labor leader, said the three-party alliance was no longer sustainable, CNN said. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen requested the extension earlier this month, CNN said. The Dutch forces' mission was last extended in 2007. Balkenende, who has been prime minister since 2002, said Saturday that he would submit the resignations of the 25 cabinet members to Queen Beatrix later today, meaning new election could be held as early as June. But if the war in Afghanistan is as unpopular in countries across the NATO alliance as it is in the Netherlands, and it appears to be, NATO's commitment to the U.S.-led mission there could soon be curtailed or terminated.

Friday, February 19, 2010

FBI pins blame for anthrax attacks on Army microbiologist

News that the FBI had wrapped up its long-running investigation into the anthrax mailings that terrorized the United States in the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 is, apparently, not reassuring to anybody. Friday's announcement set off a storm of criticism because some government experts were still studying the evidence collected in what have called the largest investigation in FBI history. U.S. Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-New Jersey), a physician, said the closure of the case was premature and laid out only "barely a circumstantial case" against a U.S. Army scientist, according to the New York Times. "Arbitrarily closing the case on a Friday afternoon should not mean the end of this investigation,” Holt said, since the National Academy of Sciences was still studying the FBI's scientific work, and since the bureau had accused the wrong man earlier in the probe. The case catapulted into the national spotlight just a week after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington when anthrax-contaminated letters began arriving at the offices of news organizations and two senators. Five people were killed and 22 more, including five postal workers, were exposed to the contamination, and offices on Capitol Hill and the U.S. Supreme Court had to be evacuated. The U.S. Postal Service spent hundreds of millions of dollars to decontaminate its offices, the Times said. But the FBI concluded in a 92-page report that Dr. Bruce Ivins, who even helped work on the investigation at the Army’s biodefense laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md., was solely responsible for the contaminated mailings, based on coded DNA messages discovered in them. Ivins killed himself in 2008 after months of being followed and questioned by agents. But Ivins' colleagues at the U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fredrick, Md., said the scientist was not capable of such an act, and doubted whether he had the capability of producing the powder in his lab, the Times said. The report also revived memories of the FBI's earlier incorrect pursuit of Dr. Steven Hatfill, a former Army scientist who was kept under 24-hour surveillance in 2002 and 2003. Hatfill eventually sued the government for violating his privacy and settled for $4.6 million, the Times said.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Public employee pensions, benefits threaten to bankrupt government as they soar out of control

Will state governments in the United States have to collapse before political leaders take the pension funding crisis seriously? What will happen to the already-gasping financial system if that happens? These questions returned to the headlines Thursday when the nonprofit Pew Center on the States released a new report revealing a $1 trillion shortfall nationwide in state contributions to employee pension and retirement plans. Only four states -- Florida, New York, Washington and Wisconsin -- had paid enough into their pension plans to cover their obligations, the report said, according to the Reuters international news service. Pew Center managing director Susan Urahn characterized the first 10 years of the new century as a "decade of irresponsibility," Reuters said. "Over the last 10 years, many states have shortchanged pension plans in good times and bad," Urahn said. "The growing bill coming due to states could have significant consequences for taxpayers -- higher taxes, less money for public services and lower state bond ratings." The situation with retiree health benefits also is dire, the report said, with only five percent of $587 billion in expected liabilities paid. Only Alaska and Arizona have more than 50 percent of the assets needed to pay that bill. It looks like it's well past time for states to change the system of having public management employees negotiate with public rank-and-file employees to set salaries and benefits, because it's obvious that no one is looking out for the taxpayer.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

TSA's hands-on approach to airline safety has consitutional implications

Maybe it's the continuing refusal of the country's legal authorities to address abuses of power committed by the Bush administration in blatant violation of U.S. constitutional legal principles that's to blame. But maybe, just maybe, all these years of neglecting the civic education of our nation's young people is responsible for the fact that so many adults have absolutely no understanding of the law. How else to explain the lack of outrage at the latest indignity from the Transportation Security Administration, the newest federal agency designated to make air travel too unpleasant for anyone but overpaying, prescreened first-class passengers. This week's announcement that airport screeners would begin routinely swabbing air passengers' hands at airport gates to test for traces of explosives further demonstrates just how far things have deteriorated. The hand-swabbing plan, a reaction to the attempting bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, is being put into effect at airports all over the country, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "The point is to make sure that the air environment is a safe environment," Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary, told CNN. "We know that al Qaeda [and other] terrorists continue to think of aviation as a way to attack the United States. One way we keep it safe is by new technology [and] random use of different types of technology." CNN said security experts it consulted agreed that hand swabbing was a good way of ensuring that no explosives had been brought onto a flight, and even the American Civil Liberties Union agreed that swabbing not objectionable constitutionally, provided the TSA only tests for explosives and does not discriminate against people who might initially test positive for reasons that have nothing to do with explosives, like heart patients. But even if the program does unfold without problems, how long will it be before overzealous inspectors overdo it at any of the thousands of locations they will be overseeing? And what will that mean for the right to privacy, which is already under attack by the government? A search without a warrant is a search without a warrant -- and should continue to be against the basic law of the United States.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New power dispute in Kenya threatens shaky government

Word from Nairobi that Prime Minister Raila Odinga had called on former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan of Ghana to intervene in a disagreement that threatens to bring down Kenya's still-shaky coalition government. Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki are again caught up in a power struggle that demonstrates the fragility of the reluctant coalition Annan arranged in 2008 to settle weeks of ethnic violence following a disputed presidential election. The new crisis erupted after Kibaki overruled Odinga's decision to suspend two cabinet ministers -- one from each national party -- whose departments are caught up in a corruption scandal. Both Kibaki and Odinga claim they have the exclusive power to suspend ministers under Kenya's constitution. "The office of a minister can only become vacant if the president so directs," Kibaki said in a statement, according to Cable News Network (NCC). But Odinga said Monday that he had the power to oversee government officials. "The law is clear. On matters of discipline, suspension or interdiction of public officials including Cabinet ministers, the prime minister has exclusive authority," Odinga said in a statement. "Legally and constitutionally, neither the president nor the prime minister is superior to the other." Kibaki had already suspended several workers in the scandals, which involved billions of dollars in missing funds and supplies in the agriculture and education departments. But Odinga stepped in to suspend the ministers -- William Ruto and Samuel Ongari -- even though each has powerful tribal constituencies. That's when Kibaki stepped in to overrule his prime minister. The United States and Great Britain suspended education assistance to Kenya after auditors reported fraud in the government education program, CNN said.

Monday, February 15, 2010

U.S. urges sanctions against Iran's Revolutionary Guards

Could Iran have finally run out of time to comply with Western demands that it stop trying to produce nuclear weapons? Monday's comments threatening international economic sanctions against the country's elite Revolutionary Guards raises the stakes even further by exposing the men behind the curtain. The Revolutionary Guards are the power behind the theocracy -- and now, finally, Western nations have gotten personal. What else to make of Monday's comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatening to include the group in the next round of economic sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program. Speaking in Qatar on her way to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, Clinton said the United States would not "stand idly by" while Iran pursued nuclear weapons, according to the Reuters international news service. "We are planning to try to bring the world community together in applying pressure to Iran through sanctions adopted by the United Nations that will be particularly aimed at those enterprises controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which we believe is, in effect, supplanting the government of Iran," Clinton said. The Revolutionary Guard group, which was set up after the 1979 revolution to protect the country's rulers, has 125,000 soldiers and includes army, navy and air divisions, Reuters said. The group is separate from Iran's 350,000-soldier army and is under the command of the country's top religious authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The group has steadily expanded its reach and is now involved in construction projects, international trade and oil and gas development. Clinton said the United States thinks the Revolutionary Guards group was overpowering Iran's civilian government and aiming to set up a military dictatorship. "We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the parliament, is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship," she said. "That is our view." Clinton also made a point of stating that the United States was not contemplating war with Iran. "We are planning to try to bring the world community together in applying pressure to Iran through sanctions adopted by the United Nations that will be particularly aimed at those enterprises controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which we believe is, in effect, supplanting the government of Iran," she said. But what politicians say is not always what they mean. It should be fairly obvious to everyone where this is headed, unless Iran drops its pretenses and agrees to give up its uranium enrichment programs.

Obama decision on nuclear power is potentially volatile compromise

Certainly being president of all the people means having to do things that may disappoint your supporters but benefit the country as a whole. That, certainly, is behind U.S. President Barack Obama's repeated entreaties to the Republican Party minorities in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, despite his Democratic Party's majorities in both. And that probably explains his thinking Monday, when an unnamed official told the Reuters international news service that he would announce an $8.3 billion loan guarantee to help the Southern Co. of Atlanta build two nuclear reactors. But there should be, one would hope, a limit to the number of basic principles you're willing to surrender. Healthcare reform appears to have been inadvisedly compromised away, so expansion of the civilian nuclear power industry would have been a very good place to start holding the line. There's a good reason no nuclear power plants have been built in the United States for 30 years -- even besides the nearly incalculable damage that a major accident could cause, nuclear waste disposal technology is not now, even after all these years, and obviously may never be ready for prime time. Yet Obama plans to put the federal taxing power behind a utility company to help it build two more reactors at an existing two-reactor nuclear plant outside Atlanta. Obama is backing nuclear power as an environmentally desirable alternative to fossil fuel plants, even though his decision will likely damage his pro-environment credentials. The loan guarantees will enable the Southern Co. to finance 70 percent of the new construction, which is expected to cost as much as $9 billion when the plants are completed in 2016 or 2017.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Biden says China will sign on to Iran sanctions

Say whatever you want to about U.S. Vice President Joe Biden -- and, indeed, many people say a lot of things that are not complimentary -- he does tell it exactly how it is. Of course, you're not always sure if he's speaking with the approval of U.S. President Barack Obama, the head of the government, or if he's just revealed something that would have been better kept unsaid, but his comments do have the ring of truth. That is a rare quality in a politician these days. So when Biden told the NBC-TV program "Meet the Press" on Sunday that the United States expected China to agree with international efforts to impose punitive economic sanctions against Iran for refusing to end its nuclear weapons program, he was making perfect sense. "We have the support of everyone from Russia to Europe," Biden told NBC, according to the Reuters international news service. "I believe we'll get the support of China to continue to impose sanctions on Iran to isolate them, to make it clear that in fact they cannot move forward." China, which depends on Iran for oil imports, is the fifth veto power on the UN Security Council and must agree before international sanctions can be imposed or enforced. Iran, for its part, continues to deny trying to build a nuclear weapon and insists its nuclear technology development is intended only for peaceful purposes. But it's illogical for the world's third largest reserves of oil to seek nuclear power for energy -- it has oil. Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology only makes sense if it seeks nuclear weapons. And China certainly understands the threat to the world economic order, in which it is just now getting the upper hand, if an unstable head of state like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad figures out how to build nuclear bombs.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

European summit on bank secrecy looks like more empty rhetoric

All the talk in Europe about ending decades of bizarre bank secrecy rules aimed at protecting trillions of dollars hoarded by the world's richest families is only that -- more talk. Sunday's international conference in Luxembourg is designed to create the impression of progress, even though the holders of all that wealth have no intention of being exposed nor of paying taxes on more than a tiny portion of it. The conference brings together the finance ministers of Switzerland, the world's leader in secret offshore accounts, and Luxembourg and Austria, the European Union secrecy leaders, according to the Reuters international news service. Ministers from Lichtenstein, a longtime money secrecy haven that recently embraced transparency, and Germany also are expected to attend. "This meeting will chiefly be about tax evasion and how to tackle it cross-border," a person with knowledge of the agenda told Reuters. "It will be about bank secrecy, but there is no common position as yet." Germany has joined with the United States in efforts to crack the bank secrecy wall to increase government tax receipts. Of course, it would be a lot more reassuring if the countries could agree on bank transparency because it's the proper thing to do, and regard the increased tax collections as a secondary -- although substantial -- benefit. If ordinary people have to pay taxes every year on their holdings, why should the super-rich be able to hide behind archaic secrecy rules to escape their share? They are, after all, the largest beneficiaries of laws and traditions protecting private ownership. Then again, doing away with these secrecy regimes will by implication peel away the senseless protection enjoyed by the perpetrators of one of modern society's greatest evils -- the confiscation of wealth from countries all over the world by the Nazis in World War II. Until the banks are willing or are forced to reveal what happened to all of that wealth -- or, if it's gone, who made off with it -- protestations about reining in secrecy laws won't amount to anything worthwhile.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ceasefire with Yemeni rebels could help government fight al-Qaida

Today's announcement of a ceasefire with Houthi rebels in the northwest could be the best news Yemen's embattled government has gotten in years. The ceasefire was expected to take effect at midnight Thursday and, if it holds, should help the government focus on the country's al-Qaida insurgency, which made headlines in December by taking credit for an unsuccessful attempt to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day. Yemen has a powerful new incentive for going after al-Qaida rebels -- last month's international conference in London made such an effort a prerequisite for billions of dollars in development aid from Western nations, according to the New York Times. Yemen, one of the world's poorest countries, is seeking outside investment to improve often poor living conditions, including desperate shortages of food and water, that have made the Arabian Peninsula country largely ungovernable and limited the government's authority to major cities. The government in Sana also battling a secessionist movement in the south. Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, said four committees would be formed to monitor compliance in the north, and rebel leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi issued a statement Thursday accepting the conditions of the ceasefire, the Times said. Among those conditions are the opening of blocked roads, withdrawing fighters from civilian areas and the return of detainees. The government also demanded that the rebels stop attacks on neighboring Saudi Arabia, which briefly attacked the rebels in November after a border guard was killed. But more than 100 Saudi soldiers have been killed in guerrilla-style attacks since then, the Times said. The Houthi rebels are considered Zaydis, a Shiite offshoot, the Times said.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

British court orders government to reveal information on torture

The revamped U.S. government could face the biggest test of its commitment to changing the worst excesses of the Bush administration now that a British appeals court has agreed to the disclosure of secret intelligence about the alleged mistreatment of a Guantanamo Bay detainee. The Court of Appeal in London turned down the British government's request to prevent the release of information about the incarceration of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and claimed he was mistreated while in CIA custody, according to the Reuters international news service. Mohamed, an Ethiopian national, claimed he was flown to Morocco by the CIA and tortured for 18 months, including having his penis cut, before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2004, where he was further subjected to sleep deprivation and threats. Morocco has denied holding him, Reuters said. Mohamed was never formally charged and was released last year. In 2008, the British High Court ordered the release of all information held by the government in London but permitted the blacking out of seven paragraphs of information gathered by U.S. intelligence. Wednesday's order concerned the release of those paragraphs. The office of U.S. national intelligence director Dennis Blair expressed "deep regret" at the order, Reuters said. "The protection of confidential information is essential to strong, effective security and intelligence cooperation among allies," the statement said. The ruling presents "challenges," the statement said, but the United States and England "remain united in our efforts to fight against violent extremist groups." British Foreign Secretary David Miliband had argued to the court that such a disclosure could affect his country's security because such a release could make the United States less willing to share intelligence. But the court upheld a 2009 finding by two judges that "overwhelming public interest" in the information should be respected. "The treatment reported ... could be readily contended to be at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United States authorities," the judges found. Miliband also said the British appellate court would probably have refused the release of classified information from the United States had the material not be released by a U.S. court in another case in December. "Without that disclosure, it is clear that the Court of Appeal would have overturned the Divisional Court's decision to publish the material," Miliband said in a statement. In England, a human rights group said the release shows the extent to which the British government had gone to defend the U.S. government's conduct of the war on terror. "These embarrassing paragraphs reveal nothing of use to terrorists but they do show something of the UK government's complicity with the most shameful part of the War on Terror," said Shami Chakrabati, director of the group Liberty.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Costa Rica elects new president to succeed Arias

Latin American business leaders probably were delighted with Sunday's easy victory by Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica's presidential election. Chinchilla, currently vice president in the administration of Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, well-outpaced her two closest rivals and garnered 47 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff. Her election means a continuation of pro-business policies that have proved controversial in the Central American country but are credited with helping Costa Rica avoid the worst effects of the global economic slowdown, according to the Reuters international news service. Chinchilla is the first elected female president in Costa Rica, which has long been one of Latin America's most stable countries. She and Arias, who is finishing his second term in office and plans to retire, championed the U.S.-backed Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that relaxed trade barriers between the United States, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. But CAFTA met with widespread opposition in Costa Rica before being narrowly approved by voters in 2007. "I am thankful for the good work of the outgoing government and thankful our country is again moving forward and refuses to allow this advance to stop," Chinchilla said told cheering supporters in San Jose. She promised to expand existing trade pacts and attract new investment to Costa Rica's vibrant economy in the campaign, and received twice as many votes as either of her two strongest opponents, center-left Otton Solis, a CAFTA opponent, and conservative Otto Guevara. Costa Rica's economy is thriving on a mixture of tourism, manufacturing and exports of its popular coffee, pineapples and bananas, Reuters said.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

She says she wants a revolution

Maybe it's the language itself that's to blame. In American English, there are many words that mean the same thing, or almost the same thing. And sometimes, the different shades of meaning are regional, because the United States is a very big country with hundreds of millions of people speaking slightly different dialects. Perhaps that explains former Alaska governor Sarah Palin telling Saturday's national Tea Party Convention that "America is ready for another revolution," according to Cable News Network (CNN). Palin, who achieved national prominence in 2008 as the Republican Party nominee for vice president but who became the butt of irreverent jokes for her lack of command of domestic and foreign policy issues, told the conservative group that they were right to be concerned about the Obama administration's approach to the economy and national security. "The Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda will leave us less secure, more in debt and under the thumb of big government," she said, referring to the president and the top Democratic Party leaders in Congress. "We are drowning in national debt and many of us have had enough." Of course, Palin did not mention the astonishing increase in the national debt during the eight-year Bush administration, nor the financial crash that happened under its regulatory watch. Republicans rarely do, particularly on the national stage. But the voters certainly knew as they booted the party out of the White House and elected a large majority of Democratic Party legislators 16 months ago. On international affairs, Palin was critical of Obama's policies -- perhaps a sneak peak at the Republicans' 2012 campaign strategy. She, of course, denied that she was politicizing national security, even though that is exactly what she did. "It's not politicizing our security to discuss our concerns because Americans deserve to know the truths about the threats that we face." But her call for "another revolution" was truly amazing. Does the woman whose greatest claim to knowledge of world affairs was that she could see Russia across the water know what the original American Revolution was about? Does she know that colonists from Great Britain revolted to stop England from continuing what they saw as years of over-taxation and disrespect? Does she know that the Obama administration has been in office for 16 months and has continued nearly all of the policies of the previous, Republican, administration? Does she realize that the U.S. system has enabled her to rise to political prominence? Does she understand that after her preposterous campaign, she was able to get a book published under her name that will probably relieve her of the need to work again in her life? Does she know what revolution means?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Britain and Ireland agree to save Northern Ireland deal

Word from London is that Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the now-disarmed Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, has scored a political coup with the last-minute rescue of a power-sharing deal on the future of the British province. The deal calls for the transfer of the six counties of Northern Ireland still under British rule to a commission of representatives of the often-contentious Protestant and Roman Catholic communities. The breakthrough came Friday after 10 days of intensive negotiations between British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen and the leaders of the two communities, according to the New York Times. Of course, the agreement also was a coup for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who played a major rule in the negotiations. Clinton apparently had been involved in U.S. mediation efforts, when her husband was president, that helped arrange the historic 1998 power-sharing agreement that disarmed violent militias that had supported Protestants and Catholics engaged in 30 years of sectarian conflict that became known as the "troubles." “We are closing the last chapter of a long and troubled story, and we are opening a new chapter for Northern Ireland,” Brown said at a news conference with Cowen, Peter Robinson, head of the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party, and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. “I think people have looked over the abyss and said, ‘There is no return to the past.’” Cowen called the agreement "an essential step for peace, stability and security in Northern Ireland,” Reuters said. Clinton is expected to return to Northern Ireland later this year to head up an international conference aimed at encouraging investment in the province.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

New York State steps into Bank of America bailout as feds settle

At least somebody in government still thinks it's their job to look out for the beleaguered U.S. taxpayer. We're speaking, of course, of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who has sued Bank of America for securities fraud over its 2008 merger with Merrill Lynch on the same day that federal authorities who pumped billions of taxpayer dollars into the bank settled their complaints for insignificant amounts of cash. In a lawsuit filed Feb. 5, Cuomo accused the bank and its two top officers of securities fraud in connection with the merger, claiming they misrepresented the financial condition of Merrill Lynch to shareholders as they were voting on whether to approve the deal, according to the New York Times. In the suit, Cuomo said the bank failed to reveal $16 billion in losses to shareholders but told federal officials that the losses necessitated an additional $20 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, set up by the U.S. government to help financial institutions weather the global financial crisis. “They understated the problems, the losses to the shareholders, they overstated their ability to terminate the arrangement to the federal government to secure $20 billion in TARP money, and that is just a fraud,” Cuomo told the Times. “The Bank of America and its officials defrauded the government and taxpayers at a very precarious time.” But the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission allowed the bank to escape federal charges by paying $150 million in fines, despite Merrill Lynch payments of billions of dollars in bonuses to its executives just before the merger. Bank officials said the fact that the government chose to settle showed that Cuomo's fraud allegations against it and against Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Lewis and Chief Financial Officer Joe Price were not true. “The evidence demonstrates that Bank of America and its executives, including Ken Lewis and Joe Price, at all times acted in good faith and consistent with their legal and fiduciary obligations,” Bob Stickler said in an e-mail to the Times. “The SEC had access to the same evidence as the N.Y.A.G. and concluded that there was no basis to enter either a charge of fraud or to charge individuals." Lewis and Price have since left their posts, the Times said. The SEC settlement still must be approved by a federal judge who already turned down a proposed $33 million settlement of the case. But this time, the bank agreed to have an independent auditor review its disclosures and to give shareholders the right to vote on executive pay, the Times said.