Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Warrantless wiretapping illegal? Obviously!

Sometimes, in our contemporary, contentious legal environment, it's hard to be sure that common sense will prevail in the end, as it should. But if today's federal court decision in San Francisco is any indication of what's ahead for the U.S. government in the aftermath of the disastrous administration of George W. Bush, there's still hope that things will be put right, or at least as right as they can be. We're talking, of course, of U.S. District Court Judge Vaughan Walker's decision today that the Bush-era warrantless wiretapping program was illegal. The chief judge of San Francisco's federal bench issued a 45-page ruling finding that the eavesdropping on the Al-Haramain charity based in Oregon was "unlawful surveillance" and the government was liable for damages, according to the New York Times. Compensatory damages could be as high as $20,000 for each of three individuals whose calls were intercepted by the National Security Agency, and as much as $200,000 each in punitive damages, according to one of Al-Haramain's attorneys, Jon Eisenberg of San Francisco, the Times said. The government has not announced whether it would appeal the ruling, which rejected a major tenet of the Bush administration's war on terror started after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Bush administration had long contended, and the Obama administration had agreed implicitly, that the president had the power to override the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a 1978 law requiring the government to obtain warrants from a secret court before it engaged in domestic espionage, and that it did not have to answer questions about it. The government contended Al-Haramain's challenge should be dismissed because requiring federal officials to respond could reveal national secrets. Instead, Walker issued a summary ruling in favor of the charity. Eisenberg said the ruling was "was an “implicit repudiation of the Bush-Cheney theory of executive power,” according to the Times. "Judge Walker is saying that FISA and federal statutes like it are not optional. “The president, just like any other citizen of the United States, is bound by the law. Obeying Congressional legislation shouldn’t be optional with the president of the U.S.” A spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department, Tracy Schmaler, said the Obama administration had already made it more difficult for the government to invoke the so-called "state-secrets privilege," as it had in the Al-Haramain case. Now, she said, the privilege could only be invoked when it was "absolutely necessary to protect national security,” the Times said. The Justice Department has not yet said whether it would appeal.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Trouble arrives: Obama proposes opening East Coast to oil drilling

There is a bright side to the Obama administration's surprise announcement Tuesday to open up 167 million acres of ocean along the Eastern Seaboard to oil and gas exploration. Isn't it better to get the work out of the way now, with a responsible government in Washington and strict safeguards in place, than to wait until the next oil shock forces a stampede to irresponsible exploitation? Hopefully, that's just what officials were thinking when they proposed the massive program that includes the Atlantic coast of the United States from Delaware to Florida, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska, according to the New York Times. The plan will be publicly revealed tomorrow at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, the Times said, even though officials began briefing members of Congress today. Under the proposal, years of geologic and environmental study by the U.S. Department of the Interior will be required before any of the tracts will be open for bidding, the Times said. The plan, developed after a series of public hearings and review of more than 500,000 public comments, is designed to help reduce the nation's oil imports, raise more revenue for the government and help gain support for the administration's climate change proposals. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said through aides that the proposal reflects the administration's desire to "rebalance" the nation's energy policies between drilling advocates and those who oppose any oil drilling on environmental grounds, the Times said. Sales of leases for the newly opened public lands are not expected before 2012, although a tract off Virginia already cleared for leasing could go out for bidding as early as next year, the newspaper said. The proposal also would open nearly 130 million acres in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea north of Alaska to exploration after extensive study, the Times said, but protect the environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska, as well as the entire West Coast of the United States. The Obama proposal is sure to arouse opposition from his environmental allies, who oppose nearly all drilling out of concern for the environmental effects of oil spills, which are virtually certain to occur despite efforts to prevent them. But Obama argued during his successful 2008 campaign that he favored opening some areas to drilling to reduce the country's dependence on imported oil, the Times said. At Wednesday's announcement, Obama also is expected to announce an agreement between the Pentagon and Agriculture Department to use more biofuels in military vehicles and to purchase hybrid vehicles for the federal motor pool.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Chinese automaker agrees to buy Volvo

Maybe, in the end, the piecemeal dismantling of the U.S. automobile industry will turn out to have been a good thing -- that the sold-off subsidiaries will thrive under new ownership that lives in far-different continents and plays by far-different rules, and far-stronger U.S. automakers will emerge. But it's hard to see, now, how the Ford Motor Co.'s sale yesterday of iconic Swedish automaker Volvo to a Chinese conglomerate will ever turn out well. Yesterday's $1.8 billion sale, announced at a news conference in Goteborg, Sweden, turns Hangzhou-based Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, owner of Geely Automobile, from a small Chinese carmaker into a major player in the world automotive industry, according to the New York Times. Ford, the only one of three major U.S. automakers that did not take a bailout from the U.S. government, had already sold off its Jaguar and Land Rover subsidiaries in a restructuring effort. Zhejiang Geely promised to keep Volvo production facilities in Sweden, even though Ford already assembles Volvos for the Chinese market at a plant in Chongqing, which also assembles Mazdas for sale in China. Zhejiang Geely also promised to keep Volvo separate from its Geely Automobile subsidiary, which builds small cars and is China's 12th largest automaker but the country's second largest completely independent of government ownership, the Times said. “I want to emphasize that Volvo is Volvo and Geely is Geely — Volvo will be run by Volvo management,” Zhejiang Geely founder Li Shufu said at Sunday's news conference. “We are determined to preserve the distinct identity of the Volvo brand.” The Swedish government seemed satisfied with the deal and issued a statement endorsing it, the Times said. Having been scared last year by the near-collapse of Saab, the Swedish government has acquiesced to the sale of Volvo to an apparently well-heeled Chinese buyer. “The future road for Volvo Cars is now defined,” said Maud Olofsson, the Swedish deputy prime minister and minister for enterprise and energy. “Regardless of who owns Volvo Cars, its brand will still be Swedish.” The deal is scheduled to close in the third quarter of this year, the Times said. Ford lost billions on the sale, 11 years after it paid more than $6 billion for the Volvo brand. But Ford integrated Volvo technology and know-how into its own vehicles, the Times said, and will still supply engines and body parts to the company for an unspecified time.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Arab League can't decide whether to endorse talks with Iran or between Palestinians and Israelis

News from Libya that the Arab League was unable to agree whether to endorse indirect peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel should be no surprise to anyone after the PA expressed outrage over Israeli plans to build 1,600 homes near east Jerusalem. The league's two-day summit in Sirte ended abruptly after the 22 nations were unable to agree on either a new endorsement of the peace talks or on formulating a new approach to Iran, according to the Reuters international news service. The Arab League did endorse U.S.-mediated proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority earlier this month. "Within the next few weeks, we have to decide what to do: whether to continue with the negotiations or to completely shift course," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said at a news conference after the summit closed down. Moussa said Arab states were frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah and would propose alternatives if there was no progress soon, Reuters said. "We cannot enter into a vicious circle to be added to the hundreds of previous vicious circles that will end in another zero result," Moussa said. "We are fed up with this." The stalemate is bad news for the stalled peace process, since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas probably will be reluctant to conduct substantive talks without the Arab League endorsement due to the threat from hardliners in his own community. Of course, there is no reason to expect anything from the Arab League if the Palestinians themselves are unwilling to pursue an actual peace agreement with Israel. And, of course, nothing is what came of the proposal before the Arab League to start talks with Tehran about Iran's nuclear program, Reuters said. Foreign ministers were unable to agree on their next step, even though Persian Gulf states near Iran had expressed concerns about problems if Tehran develops weapons or is prevented from doing so by Western states. "I do not believe the time has come where we can see that Iran has changed its behavior toward Arab countries," said Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister. Iran has insisted that its nuclear development is intended solely for peaceful purposes, even though it doesn't make sense for the country with the world's third-largest oil reserves to pursue nuclear power to generate electricity.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ethiopia politicians fear for health of imprisoned opposition leader

News from Addis Ababa that prison authorities had blocked opposition politicians from visiting their leader, Birtukan Mideksa, raises the possibility that Ethiopia's bumpy 19-year history as a republic could be over. Birtukan, leader of the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice party, has been in prison continuously since 2008, when she was rearrested after she renounced an apparently coerced confession to charges stemming from an outbreak of violence following the disputed elections of 2005. Birtukan and other leaders were sentenced to life in prison. On Saturday, eight fellow opposition politicians were turned away after they requested to visit Birtukan in Kaliti prison, in the wake of a U.S. State Department report that her mental health was deteriorating, according to the Reuters international news service. Kaliti prison is just outside Addis Ababa, the capital. "We are here today because we are worried about her health and we want to see for ourselves what her condition is," UDJ official Seye Abraha told Reuters outside the prison. "Only her mother and her daughter have been given access to her. They bar friends, they bar party colleagues, no lawyer, no independent doctors." U.S. officials called Birtukan a political prisoner in its human rights report for 2009, Reuters said. Ethiopian law only permits prison visits from friends and lawyers. Birtukan's party is considered the greatest threat to the continued rule of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front in parliamentary elections scheduled for next month, Reuters said.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Does Allawi party win signal return of normalcy to Iraq?

Bombastic rhetoric aside, the victory by secularist Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya bloc in last month's election, announced today in Baghdad, could be a sign that the war-torn country's halting moves toward Western-style democracy are finally showing some success. Allawi, the prime minister in 2004-5 at the height of the U.S. occupation, and his Iraqiya bloc took 91 seats in Iraq's 325-seat parliament, according to the Reuters international news service. Allawi's bloc, made up of more than 40 political parties, received millions of votes from Sunni Muslims alienated from the Shiite governments that have been in power in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Shiite Prime Minister's Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc took 89 seats but was rumored to be in negotiations with the controversial Iraqi National Alliance (INA) to form a coalition. The INA's 70 seats would give that coalition a near-majority in parliament, but would likely bring into the government anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army fought fierce battles with U.S. troops during the invasion. In brief remarks following the announcement, Allawi said he was extending "hands and heart" to all groups in Iraq. "For all who want and wish to participate in building Iraq, we will together bury political sectarianism and political regionalism," he said. But don't expect Maliki to leave office without a fight -- hopefully, a rhetorical one. "For sure, we will not accept these results," Maliki told a news conference after the announcement. More helpful remarks would have been, well, more helpful. If the 2005 exercise in coalition building is any indication, the process of forming a new government in Baghdad could take months. If it takes any longer, it could complicate the planned withdrawal of remaining U.S. forces in Iraq in 2011.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Quiet signing of abortion bill fulfills deal on new healthcare law

In the aftermath of the frantic dealmaking that consumed Washington the past few weeks, U.S. President Barack Obama quietly signed an executive order barring federal funding for elective abortions in a concession to anti-abortion Democrats who voted for the health-care overhaul. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Michigan), leader of an anti-abortion bloc in the House of Representatives whose support was crucial for the approval of the sweeping health-care proposal, according to the New York Times. Obama signed the bill into law on Tuesday in an elaborate White House ceremony. In contrast, Wednesday's signing of the executive order was done in the Oval Office with no fanfare in front of a few invited lawmakers, with no media present. Pro-choice lawmakers did not object to the order because it merely complied with existing federal law, the Times said. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats rejected a host of amendments and moved toward passage of a companion health-care reform bill that would raise subsidies for senior and low-income citizens and take the nation's banks out of the student loan business. The bill would turn the federal government into the direct lender for student loans, instead of the guarantor as it is now, and increase the maximum dollar amount students can receive in federal Pell grants. The move is expected to cost the banking industry -- including federal lending giant Sallie Mae -- billions of dollars in revenue. Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, banking giants that received billions of dollars in assistance from the government as part of the financial system bailout, have traditionally been the largest beneficiaries of the student loan program, the Times said.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Airlines want out of new penalties for extended tarmac delays

Even before new rules imposing fines on airlines that leave passengers waiting more than three hours on airport tarmacs take effect, air carriers are stacking up exemption requests. US Airways has become the latest to apply for a waiver from the new U.S. Department of Transportation requirements, which are not scheduled to go into effect until April 29, according to Cable News Network (CNN). US Airways has asked for a waiver for its hub in Philadelphia to avoid fines as high as $27,500 per passenger in the event of a long delay. US Airways' filing backed requests for similar exemptions from competing airlines JetBlue, Delta, American and Continental, CNN said. The filing said US Airways needs the exemption "because it shares the same airspace, is part of the same air traffic control center (New York Center), and has the same congestion challenges as JFK, LaGuardia and Newark," CNN said. Federal officials have not acted on any of the requests, but a DOT spokesman reacted negatively in a prepared statement. "Carriers have it within their power to schedule their flights more realistically, to have spare aircraft and crews available to avoid cancellations," spokesman Bill Mosley said. But Mosely might have been responding to a statement by Continental CEO Jeff Smisek that his airline would cancel flights to avoid penalties. Of course, the new regulations would have no meaning at all if airlines can be excused from complying with them, right? And the regulations probably would not even have been proposed were it not for a series of well-publicized incidents in which passengers were kept for hours aboard planes at airports, even though it really doesn't seem to be so difficult to figure out how disrespectful and downright uncomfortable such involuntary confinement is for airline customers. Right? In fact, an airline passengers' rights activist said as much in a statement released after the requests. "The fact that the airlines are already working actively to find loopholes and excuses to avoid compliance with the new consumer protections before the regulations even go into effect demonstrates their continued hostility to consumers and new laws and policies designed to protect them," said Kate Hanni, the founder of

U.S. and Russia appear on verge of nuclear arms reduction deal

With Western nations focused on emerging nuclear powers North Korea and Iran, word from Washington on Wednesday that the United States and Russia are on the verge of reaching a new agreement to reduce the world's largest nuclear arsenals comes as quite a surprise. But it's a good surprise for a change. Officials from both countries say U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev have managed a way around the last remaining obstacle to a deal to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991 that expired in December, according to the New York Times. The two leaders reportedly need one more meeting to finalize the new agreement, which would require their countries to reduce warheads and launchers by more than 25 percent, the Times said. The White House and the Kremlin declined to comment on the reports, but officials on both sides confirmed the breakthrough on the condition of anonymity, the newspaper said. A signing ceremony is planned in Prague early next month. The deal caps a year of sometimes problematic negotiations that was originally intended to wrap up a new deal by the end of 2009. But the talks got hung up on verification, sharing information and limits on missile defense systems, the Times said, even though Obama agreed not to construct a planned European-based missile shield authorized by his predecessor, former President George W. Bush. The planned Prague ceremony would help jump-start an international summit on nuclear nonproliferation that Obama has scheduled for April 12 and 13 in Washington, the Times said.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Obama signs national healthcare overhaul law

The news from Washington that President Barack Obama had signed into law the hard-fought healthcare reform bill set off cheers in the White House and cries of outrage from Republican statehouses across the country. The months of partisan sniping over the bill that seemed to threaten the very foundation of the political system of the United States were on hold Tuesday, at least temporarily, for a signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House, according to the Reuters international news agency. "We have now just enshrined, as soon as I sign this bill, the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their healthcare," Obama said. But as expected in the partisan-divided atmosphere that permeates federal policymaking, 14 states filed suit minutes after the bill-signing to try to block the sweeping $940 billion overhaul of the nation's healthcare system and Republicans in Congress vowed to continue to resist the measure. Democrats said they had the votes to pass a package of changes needed to implement the bill. Among the changes approved by Congress are provisions that extend coverage to $32 million people who do not have health insurance now, bar insurers from refusing coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions, expand Medicaid and raise taxes on the wealthy. Obama said he thought most U.S. residents will be happy with the changes, even though everyone will be required to purchase health insurance with the help of government subsidies. "I'm confident you'll like what you see," Obama said. But Republicans do not. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican whose department is one of the states that filed suit, said the bill was unconstitutional because it required all residents to have insurance. "It forces people to do something -- in the sense of buying a health care policy or paying a penalty, a tax or a fine -- that simply the Constitution does not allow Congress to do," he said. Other Republican critics of the legislation vowed to make opposition to the legislation a focal point of midterm congressional elections scheduled for November, Reuters said.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Georgia court throws out legislature-imposed ceiling on court-awarded damages

Word that the Supreme Court for the state of Georgia had thrown out as unconstitutional a state law limiting the amount of damages that could be awarded to victims of medical malpractice raises the possibility of the return of respect for civil rights for all U.S. residents. Monday's ruling found the law, which capped damages for pain and suffering at $350,000, violated the constitutional right to trial by jury because it limited the right of juries to determine the outcome of lawsuits. “The very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury,” Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote in the unanimous decision, according to the New York Times. The ruling upheld a lower court's decision that found the statute unconstitutional because it prevented Betty Nestlehutt, a Marietta, Ga., real estate agent disfigured by unsuccessful facelift surgery, from receiving the full $1.26 million in damages awarded by an Atlanta jury after she sued her doctor. The verdict included $900,000 in compensation for pain and suffering. “The bedrock of our democracy — our ability to self-govern at the ballot box and in the jury box — remains intact,” said Adam Malone, the lawyer who represented Nestlehutt. Of course not everyone agreed with the decision. Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery, the physicians group that performed the surgery, could not be reached for comment, the Times said. But a leading Georgia Republican, Nathan Deal, who resigned from his long-held seat in the U.S. Congress last week to run for governor, criticized the ruling as "a setback" for Republican-led tort reform efforts in the state, according to WGCL-TV, the CBS affiliate in Atlanta. "This ruling is a setback for the effort to reduce health care costs for Georgians," Deal said. "This is important to all Georgians. Tort reform helps reduce the cost of health care to individuals and stops doctors from leaving our state, as they did prior to its passage." Thirty states and the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have imposed caps on jury awards in malpractice cases, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Times said. Such caps have been struck down by courts in New Hampshire, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and Illinois since the 1980s.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Coalition of states claims climate change is still up in the air

Well, if U.S. President Barack Obama has learned anything in his first year in office, it's that there's no way to please everybody, no matter what. So, news from Washington today that 12 states had joined lawsuits seeking to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions shouldn't surprise anyone. Lawsuits are one of the major ways that public policy gets done, especially when business interests are involved. Florida, Indiana, South Carolina and nine other states asked the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to block the EPA from issuing rules to control such emissions, according to the Reuters international news service. Their petitions join three filed earlier this year by Virginia, Texas and Alabama, Reuters said. The suits ask the EPA to reopen hearings on an "endangerment finding" it issued last year that greenhouse emissions are dangerous to people. The April finding, which became final in June, enabled the EPA to begin regulating greenhouse emissions under the Clean Air Act. Regulations expected to be issued shortly would require cars and light trucks to increase their energy efficiency. "If EPA doesn't reopen the hearings we will move forward to try to stop them from regulating greenhouse gases," said Brian Gottstein of the Virginia Attorney General's office, Reuters said. The states complain that the new rules are too heavily based on climate change reports from the United Nations that have been criticized for exaggerating some data. But 16 other states have petitioned to join the case in support of the EPA. The new rules are consistent with an Obama administration pledge to use regulations to curtail emissions if Congress does not pass a climate bill, which has been stalled in the legislature, Reuters said.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Pope Benedict's apology for clergy abuses of children draws fire

OK, it's a virtually impossible situation for the guy. He's the head of the largest denomination of Christianity, the world's largest religion -- he's the head of state of his own country, the Vatican -- and now he's being forced to apologize for inexcusable misconduct committed by scores of his top officials. But having been forced into this clearly unenviable position, wouldn't you expect Pope Benedict XVI to try to answer the obvious questions and address the most grievous wrongdoing, so he won't be back here, apologizing again, in another six months? Yet the pope, in an eight-page apology letter to the people of Ireland, apologized for suffering caused by pedophile priests at Catholic dioceses and seminaries and called for an official inquiry, but failed to call on bishops to resign or address the still-unfolding abuse scandal in countries across Europe, according to the Reuters international news service. "You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry ... I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel," Benedict's letter said. "I can only share in the dismay and sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way the Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them." The letter is a response to an Irish government report on widespread abuse of children by priests in Ireland between 1979 and 2004, which said the church there had tried "obsessively" to conceal the truth, Reuters said. "Grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness," Benedict's report said. "Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and goodwill of the Irish people toward the Church." Abuse cases have also been reported in Germany, the pope's native country, Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands, France, England and Poland in Europe, as well as earlier in the United States, Australia and Canada, Reuters said. Similar scandals in the United States did serious damage to the reputation of the Catholic Church, which paid $2 billion in settlements. "I had high hopes for this pastoral letter," San Bartley, president of Voice of the Faithful, a group formed in 2002 in response to abuse cases in Boston, told Reuters. "I see now the Church still refuses to hold accountable bishops who endanger children."

Friday, March 19, 2010

Russia moves toward backing sanctions against Iran

Just when it seemed that international efforts to convince Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program were failing comes word that Russia was dissatisfied with Tehran's level of cooperation and might be willing to support sanctions in the future. Speaking to the press following a meeting between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just outside Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country did not rule out the possibility that sanctions could be necessary to convince Iran to stop trying to develop nuclear weaponry, according to the Reuters international news service. Lavrov said reports from the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency indicated that Iran did not appear to be close to developing such weapons at this time. "The reports that the IAEA director-general publishes on a regular basis contain very precise assessments that do not give reason for any sort of alarm," Lavrov said. "But that does not mean that we are satisfied with Iranian actions. What we see is that they are letting the opportunity to establish normal, systematic, mutually beneficial dialogue with the international community slip away." U.S. officials have been trying to convince the UN Security Council to agree to impose severe international sanctions on Iran's Islamic government, with which it has exchanged threatening dialogue over the past few years. Iran has threatened to attack Israel, a close U.S. ally, and has been involved in sharp public exchanges with both countries over the years since the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. But both Russia and China will have to agree before the Security Council can impose new sanctions on Iran. "As President Medvedev has said, sanctions rarely work, but situations can arise when they are unavoidable, and we do not rule out that such a situation may arise in relation to Iran," Lavrov said, according to a Reuters report citing the Interfax news agency.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

General Motors changes focus to profit, not survival

News from Detroit that General Motors could make money this year after losing as much as $88 billion since 2004 probably comes as a big surprise -- and a good one for U.S. taxpayers, who own 60 percent of the country's largest automaker as a result of government efforts to save the company. GM's new chief financial officer, Christopher Liddell, who left a similar job at Microsoft in December, said the company had a "reasonable chance" of earning money in 2010, according to the New York Times. "Preconditions for success are extremely good," Liddell said at a news conference at GM headquarters. Liddell also said GM was considering a stock offering this year that could substantially increase the value of the government stake, the Times said. "It's an important part of rejuvenation for the company," he said, "but it's important that we do this at the right time." Liddell said GM would wait until the national economy and the automobile market had improved before attempting to sell shares, the Times said. General Motors, once the world's largest carmaker before losing that title to Toyota, emerged from bankruptcy protection last summer. Liddell said the company was in better financial shape than critics contended, and said it had made substantial progress since its bankruptcy filing in 2009.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A change in succession is known to be extreme

From Washington comes word that President Barack Obama has restored the traditional order of succession at the Pentagon in the event of a catastrophe that takes the lives of or incapacitates top defense department officials. In an executive order published quietly on March 1, Obama has done away with a system set up by former President George W. Bush, which had elevated a close adviser of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ahead of the secretaries of the Army and Navy. The current defense secretary, Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, supported the old system, according to the New York Times. “After reviewing the issue, the secretary determined that the historical pattern of precedence made the most sense and recommended the president restore the traditional line of succession,” Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, told the Times. The change means that the Army and Navy secretaries return to third and fourth in the line of succession, after the deputy Pentagon secretary. Bush had elevated the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Stephen Cambone, a longtime Rumsfeld confidante, to the third position on the succession list. Top Pentagon officials said at the time that the change was to ensure that someone with a wide range of expertise, not just with a single military service, would take over if necessary. But other officials said the change was made because of a running dispute between Rumsfeld and Army leadership, the Times said. It sounds reasonable so far. But it would be a lot better than merely reasonable if Obama's decision signals that the White House was preparing to roll back the Bush administration's more serious seizures of power -- such as the evisceration of the separation of powers doctrine -- that were formerly considered unthinkable.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Anti-government demonstrators threaten to paralyze Bangkok

Word comes from Bangkok that red-shirted demonstrators massing since Friday plan to take their anti-government protest to a nearby military base to dramatize their demand that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve parliament and call new elections. The size of the protest, which has grown since Friday and is now estimated at more than 150,000 demonstrators, illustrates the sharp political division in Thai society exacerbated by the court-ordered ouster of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra in 2008. Thaksin, populist leader of largely poor, rural voters from Thailand's countryside, had been ousted in a military coup in 2006 and accused of corruption, but his supporters were returned to power by voters in 2007. That government was accused of election malfeasance and removed by the courts in 2008 "We will march over there, brothers and sisters. We will go to the infantry to get an answer from Abhisit himself," said Nattawut Saikua, a leader of the protest group, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), according to the Reuters international news service. "With this many people on the streets, I don't see how he still thinks he has any legitimacy." Abhisit came to power following the removal of the pro-Thaksin government and the court-ordered dissolution of his political party, which followed months of demonstrations by yellow-shirted Abhisit supporters. Later, the court ordered Thaksin to surrender more than $1 billion in assets it said were improperly acquired, Reuters said. The yellow shirts occupied the prime minister's office for three months and blockaded Bangkok's international airport until the government was dissolved.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Auditing giant could face huge lawsuits over Lehman Brothers collapse

From New York comes word that Big Four accounting giant Ernst & Young could be facing huge liabilities for failing to recognize the perilous state of Lehman Brothers, the giant investment bank that collapsed in 2008 and set off the world financial crisis. A report Thursday from a court-appointed examiner overseeing Lehman's bankruptcy filing suggested that Ernst & Young was negligent or worse for not noticing that Lehman had been writing off assets using an accounting technique to lower its debt on paper, according to the Reuters international news service . In his report, the auditor, Anton Valukas of the Chicago-based Jenner & Price law firm, said Lehman's use of a sale and repurchase program called Repo 105 had no business purpose outside of hiding assets to make the investment bank appear less leveraged than it actually was. Lehman's 2008 bankruptcy filing, the largest in U.S. history, sent shockwaves through the world economy and could have triggered the global economic crisis. In a statement, Ernst & Young said it had done nothing wrong and bore no responsibility for what happened, even though it audited the company for 2007 and already was preparing for the year-end audit when Lehman collapsed. "Our last audit of the company was for the fiscal year ending November 30, 2007. Our opinion indicated that Lehman's financial statements for that year were fairly presented in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), and we remain of that view," the statement said. "After an exhaustive investigation the examiner made no findings in his report that Lehman's assets or liabilities were improperly valued or accounted for incorrectly in Lehman's November 30, 2007, financial statements." Valukas had stated in his report that the repurchase transactions at least contributed to Lehman's collapse, and that the company had "colorable claims" against Ernst & Young for not realizing the damage they were doing, Reuters said. The chairman of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Bryan Marsal, told Reuters through a representative that the company would "evaluate" the report to see if "it might help us in our ongoing efforts to advance creditor interests."

Friday, March 12, 2010

FAA proposes new fines against American Airlines

News that federal airline regulators had proposed a new round of fines against American Airlines for maintenance violations raises troubling questions about the safety of air travel in an era of employee and service cutbacks. Friday's announcement by the Federal Aviation Administration that it wanted to impose $787,500 in fines against the airline for three violations, of which two involved ignoring agency directives, according to Cable News Network (CNN). The airline said it was committed to safety and would discuss the proposed fines with the FAA, apparently with the goal of getting them reduced or eliminated. "American Airlines is very proud of our safety record and our employees' commitment to safety every day," the company said in a prepared statement. "Safety is fundamental to the American Airlines culture and to our success." But the airline's protestations do not explain why it failed to adequately inspect rudders on four Boeing 757s that flew in 2008 after the FAA ordered the inspections, why it allowed one of its planes to fly passengers 10 times despite knowledge of a malfunctioning computer and why is allowed an MD-82 to fly twice even though its may not have gone through proper safety checks. American Airlines said it stood by its FAA-certificated mechanics, which it said "have met and passed all FAA experience requirements, written tests, and practical examinations." But rhetoric does not take the place of action and, if airline cutbacks are starting to affect maintenance the way they have already affected service, government regulators are going to have to get more serious about what the companies are allowed to do. Then again, maybe they are. American is the fourth major airline to face fines in the past year for failing to follow FAA repair orders. The FAA proposed fines of $5.4 million against US Airways and $3.8 million against United Airlines for maintenance violations, and Southwest Airlines paid $7.5 million in March to settle another agency safety complaint, CNN said.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Israelis get an earful from Biden

If Tuesday's announcement of new East Jerusalem housing sparked such outrage from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, imagine what he's going to say when he finds out the eastern half of the city is already part of Israel and has been for more than 40 years. Biden was sharply critical of Israel following the announcement on Wednesday, saying the move would "inflame tensions" with the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future West Bank state, according to the Reuters international news service. It may be news to all of them, but Israel has been in control of East Jerusalem since 1967, when its soldiers drove Jordan from the West Bank in yet another war started by Israel's Arab neighbors. Jews had been prevented from entering the historic old city after Israel's founding in 1948, even though East Jerusalem contains sites sacred to Jews and Muslims since before the birth of Christ. But Israel agreed to negotiate the future of Jerusalem with the Palestinian Authority in 1993, and considered the possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the Palestinian's capital in 2001. A lot has changed since then, including the election of a conservative government in Israel that opposes territorial concessions. Tuesday's announcement of 1,600 new units in East Jerusalem sparked the expected outrage from Arab nations but the United States' criticism apparently surprised Israeli leaders. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered a partial freeze of West Bank settlement construction last year in an effort to encourage the Palestinian Authority to return to negotiations over a future Palestinian state in the area, but specifically excluded East Jerusalem. "It is incumbent on both parties to build an atmosphere of support for negotiations and not to complicate them," Biden said Wednesday in a meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. "Yesterday, the decision by the Israeli government to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem undermines that very trust, the trust that we need right now in order to begin ... profitable negotiations." Abbas urged Israel to cancel its housing plans, Reuters said. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also condemned Israel's decision after giving a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., Reuters said.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Indirect peace talks between Israel and Palestinian Authority are pointless

Word from Ramallah yesterday that Palestinian leaders had agreed to take part in indirect peace talks with Israel is at once good news and bad. It's good news, of course, because the Palestinians and Israelis are going to have to be in constant and constructive contact with each other if there is any hope of the two societies living together in peace. But it's bad news, too, because the Palestinian Authority agreed only to hold indirect talks with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, with the United States acting as mediator, and that's a huge step in the wrong direction. Nothing can come from indirect talks that will be better than what the Israelis and Palestinians can achieve together, and whatever comes of them is likely to be a lot less useful for both. Sunday's agreement to hold indirect talks for four months was arranged after the Arab League endorsed the talks at a meeting in Cairo on Wednesday, according to the New York Times. The PA had refused to resume negotiations until Israel agreed to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, which it wants for the capital of a future state. The new agreement comes one day before U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to arrive in the region for the highest-level talks since the election of Biden and President Barack Obama. Israel accepted the indirect talks offer last week; the talks will be the first between the two sides in 14 months. But all the maneuverings and nuances cannot hide the real problem that keeps the PA from reaching a comprehensive peace deal. The Palestinian leadership doesn't want one, even though it promises tremendous benefits for the Palestinian people. Have Palestinian Authority-run schools stopped teaching children to hate Jews? Are Palestinian children still taught to mistrust their Israeli neighbors? It will take at least two generations to fix the years of hatred deliberately sowed by the PA, and Hamas-run schools in Gaza are undoubtedly worse. It will take generations to fix this, but the PA hasn't even started yet. This is the work that any real peace will require, and it's not getting done. Palestinian leaders prefer to dither over boundary lines and eschew any real compromises, because they know -- and the radical elements that dominate regional political discourse know, too -- that they are simply unwilling to accept Israel.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lawyers, guns and Starbucks

It was a shock, really, to see a pistol-toting customer waiting on line for a latte at the local Starbucks last week. OK, customer service is not what it was -- everybody can see that -- but aren't we just a tad more civilized than this? The answer to that somewhat-rhetorical question is, apparently, a resounding "not exactly." What else is there to think about the latest gun-enthusiast trend sweeping the country -- or, at least, growing in the 43 states that have laws allowing people to carry guns openly? Of course, groups behind the open-carry movement, which broke through to public consciousness last summer when opponents of the health care system overhaul proposed by President Barack Obama began showing up wearing sidearms at town hall-type meetings across the country, say they're just exercising their Second Amendment rights. “Our point is to do the same thing that concealed carriers do,” co-founder Mike Stollenwerk told the New York Times. “We’re just taking off our jackets.” It's a movement, apparently, designed to pressure government to relax restrictions on carrying concealed weapons. Armed gatherings -- known as meetups -- became popular almost immediately because California issues very few permits for concealed weapons while, like most states, has almost no restrictions on open-carried weapons. “It is a discriminatory issue in California,” said Paul Higgins, 43, moderator of a Web forum called “If you are politically connected, if you’re rich, if you’re a politician, if you’re a celebrity, you get a permit. Otherwise, you don’t.” The meetups were quickly barred from some restaurants, concerned that the open display of weapons would or did upset patrons, but other establishments have embraced the movement. There have been more than 140 meetups in California this year in restaurants and coffeehouses, including Starbucks, which has rejected calls for a ban. “The political, policy and legal debates around these issues belong in the legislatures and courts, not in our stores,” Starbucks officials said in a public statement this month. That's true, of course, but it's also not the whole truth. Corporate citizenship certainly means more than occasionally taking a stand on a subject of personal interest -- citizens have to decide questions and advise their government on a variety of issues. That is the role of a citizen in a democracy -- things are most often about other people but everyone has to help the government figure out what to do. And that figuring had better be underway, because some painful decisions are going to have to be made and it's better to make them before people start getting shot.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Turkey acts like victim of House committee's genocide vote

Turkey reacted furiously but predictably Thursday after the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to condemn as genocide the mass killings of Armenians after World War I in what is now Turkey. As many as 1.5 million Armenians died in the chaos of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, which was defeated in the war along with its ally, Germany. But Turkey vehemently refuses to acknowledge the killings as genocide, contending instead that the slayings did not qualify as a genocide because they were not planned. "We condemn this bill that denounces the Turkish nation of a crime that it has not committed," Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said from Ankara, the capital, according to the New York Times. Turkey also recalled its new U.S. ambassador, Namik Tan, for consultations, the Times said. The nonbinding resolution passed the Foreign Affairs Committee on a 23-22 vote, even closer than a 2007 vote that was quickly squashed by the Bush administration out of concern for evolving diplomatic relations with Turkey. The Obama administration also tried, apparently too late, to prevent the committee from approving the resolution, the Times said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Rep. Howard Berman (D-California), the committee chairman, that a vote could damage U.S.-sponsored efforts aimed at reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, its neighbor. Those efforts were successful in producing still-pending agreements between the two countries for closer relations, open borders and to set up a commission to examine the historical record. "We've pressed hard to see the progress that we've seen to date, and we certainly do not want to see that jeopardized," said Philip Crowley, a State Department spokesman. Crowley said Obama discussed normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia on Wednesday with Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, the Times said.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

U.S. government starts making sense on Blackwater

Why it took a change in administrations in Washington to get top congressional officials to start thinking again is a little hard to understand, yet there we are. We're discussing, of course, letters sent to top Obama administration officials by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a fellow Democrat, asking whether controversial military contractor Xe Services, the former Blackwater Worldwide, should be barred from bidding on future Iraq contracts, according to the Washington Post. Blackwater, you recall, is the Myock, N.C., company that has been paid billions of dollars over the past 7 years to provide support services for U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But several well-publicized shooting incidents in Baghdad, including one that resulted in the deaths of 17 civilians, made the company the object of scorn in Iraq and nearly brought down the newly restored Iraqi government. So, wouldn't you expect past performance to be at least one major factor in the selection of bidders for a new $1 billion contract to train a new national police force in Afghanistan? That's the context in which Levin (D-Michigan) wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the only Bush administration holdover in new President Barack Obama's cabinet. "The inadequacies in Blackwater's performance appear to have contributed to a shooting incident that has undermined our mission in Afghanistan," Levin told the Post in an e-mailed statement. It's been a long time since we've heard U.S. officials speak so honestly about the company. Last May's incident, in which two Blackwater contractors allegedly killed two Afghani civilians and wounded a third, damaged relations between the local population and U.S. forces. The military sees strong relations between troops and Afghani citizens as vital for securing the country and putting down a stubborn al-Qaida insurgency. A Xe Services spokesman said Levin's query was appropriate and welcome. "We are confident that Xe's record of service in training thousands of security personnel in Afghanistan demonstrates the company's strong record of supporting critical U.S. government initiatives in Afghanistan, which are essential in advancing the United States national interest," said the spokesman, Mark Corallo, in an e-mailed statement. The Pentagon's Bryan Whitman said there was no effort within the military to ban Xe Services, as far as he knew, and it would be legally allowed to submit a bid on the Afghanistan contract. Levin's second letter, to Attorney General Eric Holder, called for an investigation into whether Blackwater tricked the Army into awarded it a separate $25 million contract to train police in Afghanistan by creating a shell company named Paravant. Corallo said military officials knew Paravant was a Blackwater subsidiary when the contract was awarded.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Brazil's refusal to join Iran sanctions regime means only one thing

Brazil's continued refusal to join Western efforts to deny nuclear weapons to Iran can lead to only one conclusion -- Brasilia is more interested in keeping open its own options to build atomic weaponry than in international peace and security. Does anyone really think that the world will be a safer place if Iran and its crazy leader, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, have nuclear weapons? Of course not, yet Brazil turned down U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's latest offer to the country to join the multination effort to sanction Iran today in Brasilia, according to the Washington Post newspaper. Western nations meeting at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna denounced the recent Iranian decision to enrich its uranium to nearly 20 percent, well beyond the 5 percent needed for nuclear reactors, the Post said. "Iran seems determined to defy, obfuscate and stymie," said Ambassador Glyn Davies, who leads the U.S. delegation to the UN nuclear watchdog agency. Iran says it has no designs on nuclear weapons but needs higher-grade uranium for its medical isotope reactor, a claim dismissed as untrue by Western leaders. Of course, anybody hoping that Brazil, the world's eighth-largest country, would soon be taking its place among the world's most-responsible powers, must be sorely disappointed. Instead of signing up for the world effort, Brazil's leader, Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva, told a news conference it would not be wise "to push Iran into a corner" on the nuclear issue after his meeting with Clinton. The nonprofit Institute for Science and International Security released an analysis Wednesday that said a stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium could be made into a bomb's worth of weapons-grade fuel in about a month, the Post said.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

General Motors signals improving financial situation with bigger investments

Tuesday's announcement by General Motors of more than a billion dollars in increased investment in its European operations could be a signal that the worst is over for U.S. automakers in the global economic slowdown. GM said it would pump the additional money into its ailing Opel operation in Germany and its Vauxhall subsidiary in Great Britain, according to the New York Times. The added investment more than triples the automaker's previously announced investment in the European brands, and appears designed to leverage promised subsidies from European governments. GM has asked for $2 billion in loan guarantees in addition to a $2.7 billion package of subsidies from Britain, France, Spain and other countries with Opel factories, the Times said. Those governments and unions in Europe had demanded that GM pay for 50 percent of the cost of restructuring its operations, the Times said. The United States government has paid billions of dollars to rescue General Motors, once the world's largest automaker and still the largest in the United States, and will own half of the legendary U.S. automaker when it emerges from bankruptcy reorganization. GM released a statement calling the increased investment “a vote of confidence in Opel/Vauxhall’s long-term business strength.” But the head of Opel/Vauxhall's European works council, Klaus Franz, said the new money meets the demands of the countries and unions in Europe. "They saw we were running out of cash and running out of time," Franz said. "I think they saw that there was no alternative if they wanted to get aid from European governments." British business minister Ian Lucas and Kurt Beck, premier of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, welcomed GM's announcement. "After a long period of uncertainty, it's high time to offer the Opel factories and employees reliable prospects for the future," Lucas and Beck said in a joint statement. GM's increased investment actually was signaled Monday by Nick Reilly, the president of GM Europe, who said in Geneva that GM believed it could not continue to be a global automaker without a major presence in Europe. Reilly said that was the explanation for GM's decision in November to back out of a deal to sell a majority of Opel to Magna International, a Canadian-Austrian auto parts company, and a Russian partner. Opel still plans to close a factory in Belgium and to cut 8,300 jobs in Europe, the Times said.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Guantanamo Bay cases leave constitutional doctrine in tatters

Word that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to decide the fate of a group of Chinese Muslims held without charges for eight years at Guantanamo Bay again demonstrates the collapse of the separation of powers doctrine of the U.S. Constitution. Monday's three-paragraph ruling, which vacated a federal appeals court decision and asked the trial court to reconsider releasing eight Uighurs from the military prison into the United States, according to the New York Times, illustrates just how disoriented the legal system has gotten since the 9/11 attacks and the start of the war on terror. That fundamental constitutional precepts have had to be ignored or openly violated to promulgate the government's response to the attacks is indicative of Washington's fundamental -- and potentially dangerous -- mistakes. But how little attention is being paid to reorienting the constitutional government and undoing the worst of those errors should be raising alarm bells all across the United States, and in the dozens of countries who modeled their own constitutional systems on the U.S. examples. Long the object of admiration by constitutional scholars and students across the country and the world, the concepts of separation of powers and of checks and balances -- under which the three U.S. branches of government maintain a kind of symbiotic relationship -- have been largely eviscerated by the concentration of power in the executive. That there is already a constitutional theory to explain this phenomenon -- the unitary executive doctrine -- contradicts the oft-repeated justification that the growth of executive power during the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush (2001-2008) was a reaction to the extraordinary circumstances of the war on terror. Under the separation of powers doctrine, the legislative and judicial branches are supposed to share complementary powers and protect their exclusive domains. But under the George W. Bush presidency, the executive decided what portions of what acts of Congress to follow, decided what if any rights it would afford criminal suspects, imprisoned suspects indefinitely without charge, set up a system of secret prisons, gave itself the authority to kidnap citizens of other countries and to ignore treaty obligations approved by the U.S. Senate. The judicial branch of the U.S. government has failed to defend its constitutional duties and, instead, has issued rulings that, in large part, permitted the executive to do precisely as it wished. In the Uighur ruling on Monday, the Supreme Court again avoided ruling directly on the issues and sent the case back to the trial judge in light of recent developments in the case -- among them, agreement by other countries to accept some or all of the detainees. The underlying appeals court decision that was vacated by the Supreme Court had overruled a trial judge's decision that the seemingly indefinite incarceration of the Muslims was impermissible under the U.S. Constitution.