Wednesday, June 30, 2010

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

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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Aquino election could jumpstart government reform in Philippines

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

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Federal judge blocks moratorium on deepwater drilling in Gulf

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

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Use of military contractors continuing in Afghanistan

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

Friday, June 18, 2010

Gruesome execution of convicted murderer makes the point

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

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

North Korea's risky bargain for attention from West

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

Thursday, June 10, 2010

New British leader reluctantly endorses Afghanistan war

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

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Swiss lawmakers miss opportunity to perpetuate banking secrecy

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

Monday, June 7, 2010

Justice delayed in India

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

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pope Benedict's visit to Cyprus could start reconciliation process

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

Friday, June 4, 2010

New GM venture raises uncomfortable questions

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

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

China puts the brakes on torture of suspects, witnesses

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