Friday, February 15, 2008

Playing The Fear Card Again

Playing The Fear Card Again

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In late 2005, President Bush acknowledged that his administration had authorized a secret warrantless domestic surveillance program. The administration's program operated in violation of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment restriction against "unreasonable searches" without a warrant. It also violated of federal law -- the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) -- which makes it a crime to conduct electronic surveillance, except as "authorized by and conducted pursuant to a search warrant or court order." For the past two years, Congress has sought to rein in Bush's reckless disregard of the Constitution and the law. In early Aug. 2007, Congress unwisely passed a temporary expansion of FISA, called the Protect America Act (PAA), which provided virtually unchecked power to the administration to spy on American communications without warrants. Tomorrow, the unnecessary and dangerous powers given to the administration by Congress six months ago are set to expire. Now, as Congress and the administration wrangle over how to resolve their differences on surveillance legislation, Bush is reacting by spouting fear. Yesterday, he warned Congress that if it does not greatly expand the president's powers to spy, then the country faces terror strikes that would make 9/11 "pale by comparison." Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) added that Congress's unwillingness to cater to Bush's demands means that "there is probably joy throughout the terrorist cells throughout the world."

LET IT EXPIRE: Intelligence experts concede that very little will actually change Saturday if the PAA is allowed to expire. "Expiration of the current Protect America Act would not mean an immediate end to wiretapping." Every spying authorization already entered under the law "can remain in effect for 12 months from the date it was issued." As Richard Clarke, Bush's own former counterterrorism adviser, wrote recently in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Let me be clear: Our ability to track and monitor terrorists overseas would not cease should the Protect America Act expire. If this were true, the president would not threaten to terminate any temporary extension with his veto pen. All surveillance currently occurring would continue even after legislative provisions lapsed because authorizations issued under the act are in effect up to a full year." Moreover, new authorizations would be permitted through the underlying FISA law, which permits emergency surveillance of terrorists as long as a warrant is applied for within 72 hours. Kate Martin, Director of the Center for National Security Studies, added, "If the government learns of new individuals apparently plotting terrorist activities, it can immediately surveil such individuals -- whether they are here or calling here from abroad -- by obtaining a FISA court order." Lastly, the administration can continue to use its authority under Executive Order 12333 to conduct surveillance abroad of any known or suspected terrorist.

NO FEAR: President Franklin Roosevelt's cautionary admonition that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" remains particularly instructive in the current debate over surveillance. "For this president, fear is an easier political tactic than compromise," wrote Clarke. "With FISA, he is attempting to rattle Congress into hastily expanding his own executive powers at the expense of civil liberties and constitutional protections." Earlier this week, Bush and his conservative allies in Congress thwarted the passage of a 21-day extension of the PAA. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) explained, "The President and House Republicans cannot have it both ways, simultaneously arguing that the PAA is essential to national security and also engineering the defeat of an extension of it. The consequences for inaction are their responsibility." In a terse and direct letter to Bush, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) said, "I, for one, do not intend to back down â€" not to the terrorists and not to anyone, including a President, who wants Americans to cower in fear. We are a strong nation. We cannot allow ourselves to be scared into suspending the Constitution. If we do that, we might as well call the terrorists and tell them that they have won."

PUTTING TELEPHONE COMPANIES FIRST: The biggest sticking point in negotiations between Congress and the President over surveillance is whether to grant retroactive amnesty to telecommunications companies that broke the law and cooperated with the administration's illegal requests. Caroline Frederickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office, urged Congress not to "give the phone companies a 'get out of jail free' card. If the companies really 'did the right thing' as the president said, then they have nothing to fear from going to court." Bush has declared he will veto any bill that does not include retroactive immunity. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) pointed out that "the president has said that American lives will be sacrificed if Congress does not change FISA. But he has also said that he will veto any FISA bill that does not grant retroactive immunity. ... So if we take the president at his word, he's willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies."

When Strains on Military Families Turn Deadly

When Strains on Military Families Turn Deadly

By Lizette Alvarez and Deborah Sontag

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A few months after Sgt. William Edwards and his wife, Sgt. Erin Edwards, returned to a Texas Army base from separate missions in Iraq, he assaulted her mercilessly. He struck her, choked her, dragged her over a fence and slammed her into the sidewalk.

As far as Erin Edwards was concerned, that would be the last time he beat her.

Unlike many military wives, she knew how to work the system to protect herself. She was an insider, even more so than her husband, since she served as an aide to a brigadier general at Fort Hood.

With the general's help, she quickly arranged for a future transfer to a base in New York. She pressed charges against her husband and secured an order of protection. She sent her two children to stay with her mother. And she received assurance from her husband's commanders that he would be barred from leaving the base unless accompanied by an officer.

Yet on the morning of July 22, 2004, William Edwards easily slipped off base, skipping his anger-management class, and drove to his wife's house in the Texas town of Killeen. He waited for her to step outside and then, after a struggle, shot her point-blank in the head before turning the gun on himself.

During an investigation, Army officers told the local police that they did not realize Erin Edwards had been afraid of her husband. And they acknowledged that despite his restrictions, William Edwards had not been escorted off base "on every occasion," according to a police report.

That admission troubled the detective handling the case.

"I believe that had he been confined to base and had that confinement been monitored," said Detective Sharon L. Brank of the local police, "she would not be dead at his hands."

The killing of Erin Edwards directly echoed an earlier murder of a military wife that drew far more attention. Almost 10 years ago, at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, a different Army sergeant defied a similar restriction to base, driving out the front gate on his way to a murder almost foretold.

That 1998 homicide, one of several featured in a "60 Minutes" exposé on domestic violence in the military, galvanized a public outcry, Congressional demands for action and the Pentagon's pledge to do everything possible to prevent such violence from claiming more lives.

Yet just as the Defense Department undertook substantial changes, guided by a Congressionally chartered task force on domestic violence that decried a system more adept at protecting offenders than victims, the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq began.

Pentagon officials say that wartime has not derailed their efforts to make substantive improvements in the way that the military tackles domestic violence.

They say they have, for example, offered more parenting and couples classes, provided additional victims advocates and afforded victims greater confidentiality in reporting abuses.

But interviews with members of the task force, as well as an examination of cases of fatal domestic violence and child abuse, indicate that wartime pressures on military families and on the military itself have complicated the Pentagon's efforts.

"I don't think there is any question about that," said Peter C. McDonald, a retired district court judge in Kentucky and a member of the Pentagon's now disbanded domestic violence task force. "The war could only make things much worse than even before, and here we had a system that was not too good to begin with."

Connie Sponsler-Garcia, another task force member, who now works on domestic violence projects with the Pentagon, agreed.

"Whereas something was a high priority before, now it's: 'Oh, dear, we have a war. Well get back to you in a few months,' " she said.

The fatalities examined by The New York Times show a military system that tries and sometimes fails to balance the demands of fighting a war with those of eradicating domestic violence.

According to interviews with law enforcement officials and court documents, the military has sent to war service members who had been charged with and even convicted of domestic violence crimes.

Deploying such convicted service members to a war zone violates military regulations and, in some cases, federal law.

Take the case of Sgt. Jared Terrasas. The first time that he was deployed to Iraq, his prosecution for domestic violence was delayed. Then, after pleading guilty, he was pulled out of a 16-week batterers intervention program run by the Marine Corps and sent to Iraq again.

Several months after Sergeant Terrasas returned home, his 7-month-old son died of a brain injury, and the marine was charged with his murder.

Deployment to war, with its long separations, can put serious stress on military families. And studies have shown that recurrent deployments heighten the likelihood of combat trauma, which, in turn, increases the risk of domestic violence.

"The more trauma out there, the more likely domestic violence is," said Dr. Jacquelyn C. Campbell, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing who also was a member of the Pentagon task force.

The Times examined several cases in which mental health problems caused or exacerbated by war pushed already troubled families to a deadly breaking point.

In one instance, the Air Force repeatedly deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere Sgt. Jon Trevino, a medic with a history of psychological problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Multiple deployments eroded Sergeant Trevino's marriage and worsened his mental health problems until, in 2006, he killed his wife, Carol, and then himself.

The military declared his suicide "service related."

A Call to Action

Within a six-week period in 2002, three Special Forces sergeants returned from Afghanistan and murdered their wives at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Two immediately turned their guns on themselves; the third hanged himself in a jail cell. A fourth soldier at the same Army base also killed his wife during those six weeks.

At the beginning of this wartime period, the cluster of murder-suicides set off alarms about the possible link between combat tours and domestic violence, a link supported by a study published that year in the journal Military Medicine. The killings also reinvigorated the concerns about military domestic violence that had led to the formation of the Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence two years earlier.

National attention to the subject was short-lived. But an examination by The Times found more than 150 cases of fatal domestic violence or child abuse in the United States involving service members and new veterans during the wartime period that began in October 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan.

In more than a third of the cases, The Times determined that the offenders had deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq or to the regions in support of those missions. In another third, it determined that the offenders never deployed to war. And the deployment history of the final third could not be ascertained.

The military tracks only homicides that it prosecutes, and a majority of killings involving service members are handled by civilian authorities. To track these cases, The Times used records from the Army, Air Force and Navy - the Marines did not provide any information -and local news reports.

It is difficult to know how complete The Times's findings are. What is clear, though, is that these homicides occurred at a time when the military was trying to improve its handling of domestic violence.

The Pentagon's domestic violence task force, appointed in April 2000 and comprising 24 military and civilian experts, met regularly for three years to examine a system where, they found, soldiers rarely faced punishment or prosecution for battering their wives and where they often found shelter from civilian orders of protection.

When the moment arrived to explain their findings and recommendations to Congress, however, the timing could not have been poorer. Deborah D. Tucker and Lt. Gen. Garry L. Parks of the Marines, the leaders of the task force, presented their final report to the House Armed Services Committee on the very day that the Iraq war began, March 20, 2003. Ms. Tucker called it "one of the more surreal experiences of my life."

"Periodically, members of the committee would call for a break and there would be some updated information provided on the status of our troops' entry into Iraq and how far they'd gotten," she said. "There was a map on an easel to the side."

"I knew that while we were at war all other considerations would push back," she added, "and I hoped that Operation Iraqi Freedom would be a quick matter on the order of Desert Storm."

The task force was disbanded, and its request to reconvene after two years to evaluate progress was rejected. But the Defense Department embraced most of its 200 recommendations and gradually made many changes, from the increase in advocates to domestic violence training for commanding officers.

"The services have taken huge strides to implement the recommendations," said David Lloyd, director of the Pentagon's Family Advocacy Program, starting with sending out "a strong message across the department that domestic violence is not acceptable."

Further, after the killings at Fort Bragg, Congress passed a law that made civilian orders of protection binding on military bases, and the Army gradually slowed the transition from war to home to help soldiers adjust.

Mr. Lloyd said he could not verify or comment on The Times's findings on domestic killings. But, he said, domestic fatalities do not provide a complete picture of the incidence of domestic violence in the military.

"You have a pie, a nine-inch shell, and you have a slice of that pie, but there are other slices: verbal abuse and psychological control and assault that didn't result in a homicide," Mr. Lloyd said. "Even if the fatality slice has increased and it would look larger, the other numbers have gone down."

According to the military, the number of general spouse and child abuse incidents reported to on-base family advocacy programs began declining in 1998, before the special effort to address the issue began, and continued to decline significantly through 2006. But whether those numbers reflect a genuine decline is a matter of debate, given that large numbers of service members have spent considerable time away on deployments and that the strengthening of sanctions for domestic violence has made some women more reluctant to report abuse.

The accuracy of the military's domestic violence data has also been questioned, by advocates, the Government Accountability Office and military officials themselves.

Last fall, in a statement released during domestic violence awareness month, Mike Hoskins, a Pentagon official, said, "We shouldn't necessarily take comfort in reduced rates of violence." He said they probably reflected "good news" but urged caution in interpreting the numbers.

Dr. Campbell, the former task force member, said the task force had recommended periodic anonymous surveys to ascertain the full extent of domestic violence. She also said that she believed the "true incidence" of domestic violence had probably increased as a result of service members returning from Iraq with combat trauma, which can exacerbate family violence.

"It's sort of like, on the one hand, they're improving the system, and on the other hand, they're stressing it," she said.

Others agree, noting that wartime places a burden on the military as a whole, even on those who do not deploy to combat zones but absorb additional duties at home.

Christine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation, which provides domestic violence assistance mostly to the wives of officers and senior enlisted men, said the organization's caseload had tripled since the war in Iraq began.

And John P. Galligan, a retired Army colonel who served as a military judge at Fort Hood and now represents military clients in private practice, said he, too, had seen a "substantial" increase in military domestic violence cases in his area.

"Sometimes I just sit and scratch my head," he said.

The separation of deployment, in and of itself, often causes marital strains.

"Even with a healthy marriage, there is a massive adjustment," said Anita Gorecki, a lawyer and former Army captain who represents soldiers near Fort Bragg and is married to an officer currently in Iraq. "Add on to that combat stress and injuries and sometimes it can create the perfect storm."

Some researchers draw a fairly firm connection between post-traumatic stress disorder and domestic violence. A 2006 study in The Journal of Marital and Family Therapy looked at veterans who sought marital counseling at a Veterans Affairs medical center in the Midwest between 1997 and 2003. Those given a diagnosis of PTSD were "significantly more likely to perpetrate violence toward their partners," the study found, with more than 80 percent committing at least one act of violence in the previous year, and almost half at least one severe act.

Pamela Iles, a superior court judge who was permitted by the Marines to set up a privately financed domestic violence education program at Camp Pendleton in California, views much of the domestic abuse on the base as "collateral" from the war. She sees the domestic violence committed by marines, many of them young, as a reaction to jumping back and forth between the dangers of war and the trouble at home.

"One minute you are in Baghdad waiting for a bomb to go off and the next minute you are in Burger King," Judge Iles said. "There is a lot of disorientation."

A 9-Year-Old Witness

It was a little before dawn on Feb. 20, 2006, in a bedroom in Edwardsville, Ill. Carol Trevino and her 9-year-old son, sleeping deeply after watching "Wayne's World," were startled awake by a series of booms. "What was that?" Carol Trevino asked her son.

In seconds, Sgt. Jon Trevino, her estranged husband, barged through the door, according to a police report. Mrs. Trevino had just enough time to reach for her pepper spray before he shot her five times, the last time in the head. Then he shot himself.

Their son, wide-eyed, sat in bed watching his life explode, bullet by bullet.

Few details escaped the boy's notice. His father used a silver gun and it "didn't have a wheel on it, like the cowboys used," he told the Edwardsville police. The boy could even name the precise time of his mother's death: 4:32 a.m., as the glowing clock read.

Outside in Mr. Trevino's car was the immediate motive for the murder-suicide: divorce papers, evidence of a marriage destabilized by multiple deployments to war zones and by Sergeant Trevino's own increasing instability.

T. Robert Cook, his brother-in-law, said he believed Sergeant Trevino's domestic violence was triggered by his combat trauma. "I'm 100 percent sure it was the war," said Mr. Cook, who is raising the Trevinos' son along with his wife, Sheryl Gusewell, who is Carol's sister. "I don't have any doubt their marital problems placed a burden on him, but I am quite sure that, but for the war, he would have taken a different approach. When you see people being shot every day, death is not a big thing."

Sergeant Trevino, who had endured childhood sexual abuse and a difficult first marriage, suffered psychiatric problems long before he was dispatched to war zones to perform the highly stressful job of evacuating the wounded.

And the Air Force knew it.

Air Force mental health records show that Sergeant Trevino, who was 36, had been treated twice for mental health problems before the war: once in 1995 for serious depression as his first marriage crumbled, and then in 1999 for post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the childhood abuse and marital problems with his new wife, Carol. He was counseled and treated with medication both times.

As a result of these problems, the Air Force insisted that he secure a medical waiver for a promotion that he sought to become an aeromedical evacuation technician. And military doctors certified that he could handle the job, despite research that shows that pre-existing post-traumatic stress disorder is exacerbated in a war zone.

Col. Steven Pflanz, a senior psychiatrist in the Air Force, who was not involved in the Trevino case, said the Air Force considered the stress disorder to be treatable and therefore was willing to deploy an airman with a history of it. But the decision is not taken lightly, he said.

"It's not an exact science," he said. "You try to make your best prediction. We spend a lot of time with our customers."

In Sergeant Trevino's case, the prediction was wrong. He had trouble shaking off the carnage that he experienced so viscerally while evacuating injured service members. After one deployment to Afghanistan and two to Iraq, his mental health and his marriage deteriorated. When he returned from his second tour in Iraq, Sergeant Trevino acknowledged in a health assessment that he had "serious problems" dealing with the people he loved and that he was feeling "down, helpless, panicky or anxious."

The Air Force acted quickly. He was abruptly restricted from "special operational duty." An Air Force doctor diagnosed "acute PTSD," calling it a reaction to the war and marital problems. Sergeant Trevino began taking a cocktail of antidepressants and underwent therapy. According to doctors' notes, he did not express thoughts of homicide or suicide. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, he was considered well enough to be deployed domestically.

But his wife's family, which had taken him under its wing, found the once affable, quick-witted sergeant to be profoundly altered. His temper flashed unpredictably, white-hot. He acted threatened and paranoid, his behavior so erratic that he frightened his son. One late night, he took his son on a rambling drive to nowhere, ranting to the boy about his mother.

At least one time, he struck his wife. A friend gave Carol Trevino the pepper spray that she reached for the night of her murder. But she never considered his abuse serious enough to report him to the authorities.

Four days before the murder-suicide, Sergeant Trevino bought a gun.

"This is just one of those things that unfortunately happens," he wrote to his son in a suicide note. "I love you, and I know I let you down."

Justice Delayed

The Pentagon task force had one overarching recommendation: that the military work hard to effect a "culture shift" to zero tolerance for domestic violence by holding offenders accountable and by punishing criminal behavior.

There was, members believed, a core credo that needed to be attacked frontally: "this notion that the good soldier either can't be a wife beater or, if they are, that it's a temporary aberration that shouldn't interfere with them doing military service," as Dr. Campbell put it.

The way the military handled several cases involving the deaths of babies and toddlers indicates that this kind of thinking has been difficult to demolish at a time of war.

In October 2003, four months after Jose Aguilar, 24, a Marine Corps sergeant, returned from the initial invasion of Iraq, his infant son, Damien, wound up in the intensive care unit of a local hospital with bleeding in his brain and eyes.

Sergeant Aguilar, a mechanic based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, acknowledged to the local police that he had been rough with the 2-month-old baby, shaking Damien to stop him from squirming during a diaper change. He said that he had been abused himself as a child and that he did not mean to hurt the baby.

After the marine was charged with felony child abuse, he and his wife completed a parenting program.

The following summer, while the felony charge was pending, Sergeant Aguilar was deployed once more to Iraq, this time for nine months. His court case was delayed, which did not surprise local prosecutors.

Michael Maultsby, the assistant district attorney in Onslow County, N.C., who prosecuted Sergeant Aguilar, said that such frustrating delays in justice sometimes occur in his county, home to Camp Lejeune.

"It depends on the needs of the unit," Mr. Maultsby said. "We can't overrule them."

In April 2006, a year after Sergeant Aguilar returned from Iraq but before his felony case was resolved, Damien, who by then was 2, died of a brain injury. His father claimed that the boy had been injured by a fall in the bathtub. The medical examiner disputed that explanation. The marine was arrested, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and felony child abuse, and was sentenced last fall to 28 to 35 years in prison.

Marine officials would not comment on individual cases. Elaine Woodhouse, a Marine Corps social services program specialist, said that "the family advocacy program does not recommend or advise deployment of a marine when domestic or felony child abuse charges are pending." Still, that decision, she said, is left to the discretion of the commanders.

A conviction for domestic violence, unlike pending charges, almost always renders a service member ineligible to go to war, but that restriction has not always been considered binding, as is clear in the case of Sergeant Terrasas, who was stationed at Camp Pendleton.

One night in late December 2002, Sergeant Terrasas, drunk and angry over a telephone conversation about the looming war in Iraq, vented his anger by punching his wife, Lucia, in the face.

"He seemed to just lose it," Mrs. Terrasas told the police in Oceanside, Calif., who arrested him on misdemeanor charges.

But Sergeant Terrasas was deployed to Iraq before his case was heard. It was not until his return seven months later that he pleaded guilty, was placed on probation and was ordered to complete a 16-week batterers intervention program run by the Marine Corps.

Sergeant Terrasas attended a few classes. But the Marine Corps, facing a runaway insurgency in Iraq, pulled him out of the batterers program and shipped him off to war for a second time in early 2004.

This deployment was illegal. A 1996 law bans offenders who are convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from carrying firearms, with no special exception for military personnel. The ban is referred to as the Lautenberg amendment after its sponsor, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey.

Army and Marine regulations, formulated in response to the weapons ban, explicitly prohibit deployments for missions that require firearms, and extend the policy to felony domestic violence offenders, too. The Marine Corps would not comment on Sergeant Terrasas's deployment, citing confidentiality rules.

When Sergeant Terrasas returned from war, he completed his batterers program, said his lawyer, Philip De Massa. But his anger, tested by two tours in Iraq, still surfaced. In September 2005, when the police responded to a domestic argument, he broke down crying and told one officer that he suffered from "postwar traumatic syndrome." There is no record that he sought or received mental health help.

Nearly two weeks later, the Terrasases' 7-month-old son, Alexander, died from a powerful blow to the head. Mr. Terrasas was charged with murder. Last August, after a deal with prosecutors, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for felony child endangerment.

He never admitted to abusing his child.

Broken Promises

Sgt. Erin Edwards, emboldened by a year in Iraq, returned to Texas with the courage to end her troubled marriage.

"Being apart for such a long period of time enabled her to realize she could survive without him," said Sgt. Jami Howell, 28, who was her best friend.

When Erin Edwards told her husband that she wanted a divorce after four years of marriage, he responded as she had long feared.

On June 19, 2004, he followed her to their baby sitter's house to hand her a written proposal for a custody arrangement. When she did not immediately respond, he beat her so badly that she wound up in the emergency room.

Even before the assault, William Edwards's troubles had so badly affected his performance at work that his commanding officer, Capt. Brian Novoselich, took the time to meet with him weekly to check on his welfare. After the assault, it was the captain who confined him to the base.

But William Edwards repeatedly left unescorted and often stayed with his brother, who lived across the street from Erin Edwards in Killeen. On several occasions, she alerted the police and his superiors that he was lurking.

On July 21, 2004, Erin Edwards went to court to make the temporary protection order permanent. At the hearing, William Edwards told the judge that he had enrolled in alcohol and domestic violence classes after the June assault, according to a transcript.

"I had hit rock bottom when I touched my wife, man," he said in court. "That was the worst day ever in my life. I had always told my wife that I would never touch her, ever, physically."

William Edwards also acknowledged that when the police showed up that day, he begged his wife not to press charges, saying: "Don't do this to my career. Don't do this."

Erin Edwards spoke of the effect on their children, who witnessed the assault. "Since the incident happened, all my son talks about is how his father hurt his mother, and that 'Daddy is going to kill Mommy,'" she said.

She also stated, and her husband learned for the first time, that she was transferring and moving with the children. William Edwards was "visibly upset" by this, according to Army documents turned over to the police.

The following morning, after reporting to an exercise session with other soldiers, William Edwards left the base alone one final time. After the murder-suicide, local police officers securing the scene noted that both bodies were dressed in military camouflage clothing with nameplates that said Edwards. Both were 24.

At Erin Edwards's funeral, her boss, Brig. Gen. Charles Benjamin Allen, who was killed in a helicopter crash in late 2004, eulogized the soldier with a cracking voice. More than three years later, her relatives note that not even he, with his high rank, was able to ensure that the military was doing more than taking a troubled soldier "at his word," as Mary Lou Taylor, Erin's aunt, said.

"He couldn't or failed to help her be safe," Ms. Taylor said.

William Edwards's former commanding officer, Major Novoselich, said in a recent interview that he was "shocked by the end result." Now a professor at West Point, he said he had assumed that William Edwards's immediate supervisors were monitoring him.

Near Fort Hood, Detective Brank of the Killeen police said soldiers continued to defy restrictions to the base.

"I am surprised," she said. "Fort Hood is not enforcing these orders."

The Army examined Erin Edwards's death as part of a fatality review program recommended by the Pentagon task force "to ensure no victim dies in vain."

A one-paragraph summary of the review seemed to discount the findings of the civilian police investigation. The summary noted that Erin Edwards had refused the assistance of the base's family advocacy program, while William Edwards had enrolled in it. It added that William Edwards had "appeared to comply" with his restrictions. Until the day he "eluded his military escort" and killed his wife.

House Leaves Surveillance Law to Expire

House Leaves Surveillance Law to Expire

By Carl Hulse

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Washington - The House broke for a week's recess Thursday without renewing terrorist surveillance authority demanded by President Bush, leading him to warn of risky intelligence gaps while Democrats accused him of reckless fear mongering.

The refusal of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, to schedule a vote on a surveillance measure approved Tuesday by the Senate touched off an intense partisan conflict over the national security questions that have colored federal elections since 2002 and are likely to play a significant role again in November.

Trying to put pressure on Democrats, Mr. Bush offered to delay a trip to Africa to resolve the dispute and warned that failure to extend the expanded power under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which expires Saturday, could hamper efforts to track terrorists.

"Our intelligence professionals are working day and night to keep us safe," Mr. Bush said, "and they're waiting to see whether Congress will give them the tools they need to succeed or tie their hands by failing to act."

But Ms. Pelosi and other House Democrats said Mr. Bush and Congressional Republicans were at fault because they had resisted temporarily extending the bill to allow disagreements to be worked out. Democrats would not be bullied into approving a measure they considered flawed, she said.

"The president knows full well that he has all the authority he needs to protect the American people," said Ms. Pelosi, who then referred to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's admonition about fearing only fear itself. "President Bush tells the American people that he has nothing to offer but fear, and I'm afraid that his fear-mongering of this bill is not constructive."

The decision by the House Democratic leadership to let the law lapse is the greatest challenge to Mr. Bush on a major national security issue since the Democrats took control of Congress last year.

Last summer, Democrats allowed the surveillance law to be put in place for six months although many of them opposed it. They have also relented in fights over spending on the Iraq war under White House pressure. But with Mr. Bush rated low in public opinion polls as he enters the last months of his presidency, Democrats are showing more willingness to challenge him.

Republicans say House Democrats are taking a risk, especially in light of the strong bipartisan Senate vote for the bill.

"They can't pass a Mother's Day resolution and got 68 votes for this bill," said Representative Adam H. Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference.

The battle over the surveillance bill was also tangled up in the rancor over a House vote to hold in contempt Joshua B. Bolten, the White House chief of staff, and Harriet E. Miers, the former White House counsel, for refusing to testify about the firing of United States attorneys. Republicans said the House was devoting time to that issue when it could be considering the surveillance program, and they staged a walkout in protest.

The main sticking point is a provision in the Senate bill that provides legal immunity for telecommunications companies that, at the Bush administration's request, cooperated in providing private data after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Many House Democrats oppose that immunity.

Surveillance efforts will not cease when the law lapses. Administration intelligence officials said agencies would be able to continue eavesdropping on targets that have already been approved for a year after the initial authorization. But they said any new targets would have to go through the more burdensome standards in place before last August, which would require that they establish probable cause that an international target is connected to a terrorist group.

Intelligence officials also told reporters Thursday that they were worried that telecommunications companies would be less willing to cooperate in future wiretapping unless they were given immunity.

Ben Powell, general counsel for the director of national intelligence's office, said some carriers had already asked whether they could be compelled to cooperate even without legal protection, although he indicated that none had actually threatened to halt operations.

Ms. Pelosi said that she believed that the differences could be resolved within three weeks and that she had told the chairmen of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees to work with their counterparts in the Senate to seek a compromise.

Congressional Republicans sharply criticized Democrats for not moving on the final measure.

"I think there is probably joy throughout the terrorist cells throughout the world that the United States Congress did not do its duty today," said Representative Ted Poe, Republican of Texas.

Democrats said Republicans, struggling politically, were trying to create an air of crisis.

"This is a manufactured political crisis," said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat. "They want something to put in front of the American people to take their minds off the state of the economy."

How Far Will the Clintons Go?

How Far Will the Clintons Go?

Hillary Clinton, who has built her case for the presidency on her superior “ready on Day One” management skills, burned through almost $130 million of campaign money, had to kick in $5 million from her own murky family funds, and is now pressing her chief financial backers to find creative ways to raise more money.

Some of those financial schemes appear to skirt the law – as some backers consider putting money into “independent” entities that can spend unlimited sums but aren’t supposed to coordinate with the campaign – while other ideas are more traditional, like appealing to wealthy donors involved with the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby.

Sen. Clinton’s new scramble for money – as well as her campaign’s declaration that it is prepared to override the will of the elected Democratic delegates if necessary to secure the nomination – raise the question of just how far Bill and Hillary Clinton are willing to go to achieve their presidential restoration.

Some Democrats, who have e-mailed me, praise the ruthlessness of the Clinton political machine, arguing that only a readiness to throw sharp elbows can defeat the Republicans this fall. These Democrats hate what they call Barack Obama’s “Kumbayah” message of national reconciliation, a reference to the campfire song based on an old African spiritual.

However, other Democrats fear that the Clintons are putting their personal ambitions ahead of what’s good for the party and the country, that they are ready to dirty up Sen. Obama with attack ads and dismiss his millions of supporters as – what one key Clinton backer called – “a cult of personality.”

If the Clintons overturn the majority will, the Democratic convention in Denver could bring to mind the infamous Chicago convention in 1968 when the Democratic establishment imposed its favored candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, on a rebellious rank-and-file, contributing to the election of Republican Richard Nixon.

Though a repeat of the 1968 violence is unlikely, a Clinton-driven insistence that the will of Democratic voters be cast aside could alienate millions of young people and independents who have rallied to Sen. Obama’s message of political change. [For details on the comparison to 1968, see’s “Stomping on Their Children’s Dreams.”]

In a conference call to reporters this week, Sen. Clinton’s communications director, Howard Wolfson, made clear that the campaign was prepared to rely on her superior support among the 796 “superdelegates” – party insiders and government officials – to overcome Obama’s lead among delegates chosen through primaries and caucuses.

“I want to be clear about the fact that neither campaign is in a position to win this nomination without the support of the votes of the superdelegates,” Wolfson said, adding that the Clinton campaign would make no distinction between the caucus/primary delegates and the “superdelegates.”

“We are interested in acquiring delegates, period,” Wolfson said. [Boston Globe, Feb. 13, 2008]

Senior strategist Mark Penn also indicated that the Clinton campaign would press the issue of seating pro-Clinton delegates from Florida and Michigan, where she won unauthorized primaries conducted after the national party barred the states from holding contests before Feb. 5 and after other major candidates agreed not to compete.

The Money Race

The Clinton campaign also is appealing for substantial sums of money to spend on advertisements in upcoming primary states: Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 13 that some of Sen. Clinton’s top fund-raisers, who have “maxed out” at the individual limit of $2,300 and have tapped out their personal network of donors, are consulting with lawyers about how they can create “independent” groups that can spend unlimited money in support of her campaign.

Susie Tompkins Buell, founder of the Esprit clothing company, was weighing whether to start her own entity for buying ads to promote Clinton or to put money into an existing pro-Clinton organization, like the feminist political organization Emily’s List which has already spent about $1 million on Clinton’s behalf, the Journal reported.

"We all feel very passionate about it, so the question is, what is the best thing we can do to get her across the finish line?" Buell told the Journal.

The Journal interviewed another Clinton fund-raiser, who declined to be named but who said he might spend $500,000 on pro-Clinton television, radio and newspaper ads.

As the Journal noted, however, “It's not certain that any of the efforts by the Clinton fund-raisers will get off the ground [because] campaign-finance law makes it difficult for campaign insiders to fund independent efforts to elect candidates.” [WSJ, Feb. 13, 2008]

“Independent” campaign initiatives carry both legal and political risks. Not only would a new group have to convince Federal Election Commission lawyers that it is not collaborating with the candidate, the tactic also might remind Democrats of how pro-Republican “independent” organizations, such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, attacked – or “swift-boated” – Sen. John Kerry’s Vietnam War record.

On the other hand, some hyper-partisan Democrats might laud Sen. Clinton for resorting to hardball tactics that have worked for Republicans.

AIPAC Appeal

The Clinton team also was shaking the money trees in more traditional ways.

For instance, campaign finance director Jonathan Mantz met with donors from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a Washington hotel lobby when the AIPAC supporters were in town for other business, the Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 14.

AIPAC wields its legendary influence in Washington, in large part, because of its ability to pour money into cash-strapped political campaigns.

A longtime Democratic operative once recounted an anecdote to explain how AIPAC has amassed its extraordinary clout. He recalled a situation when he was working for a powerful House committee chairman who normally ran unopposed but found himself facing a well-financed Republican challenger.

Unaccustomed to raising large sums of campaign cash, the senior Democrat asked some of his aides to reach out to people they knew. One call was made to AIPAC chief Thomas Dine, who assured the congressman that there was no need to worry.

Suddenly, campaign contributions were pouring in from all over the country, from AIPAC’s network of donors. With that one phone call, the congressman’s financial problems were solved, assuring both his reelection and his gratitude to AIPAC.

However, given the political sensitivity of the Iraq War – and AIPAC’s perceived support for neoconservative strategies in the Middle East – many rank-and-file Democrats view the pro-Israel organization with greater suspicion these days.

But the Clinton campaign apparently feels the risk in reaching out to AIPAC is worth the reward.

Sen. Clinton’s money scramble also has raised eyebrows about the sources of the Clinton family income. The New York Times’ Feb. 15 lead editorial urged Clinton and Sen. John McCain to join Sen. Obama in releasing tax returns that provide details not included in annual congressional disclosure forms.

“The need for greater transparency regarding the income and overall financial dealings of candidates and their spouses was underscored by Mrs. Clinton’s recent decision to make a $5 million loan to her campaign,” the Times wrote. “The campaign said the money came from her share of the Clintons’ joint resources, and that calls attention to the lack of information about their family finances.

“As a former president, Bill Clinton has been making millions annually giving speeches and traveling the globe. What is publicly known about his business dealings is sketchy, and clearer disclosure of them is required to reassure voters that Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy is unencumbered by hidden entanglements.”

On Feb. 9 at, we published an article that made a similar point, noting that the Clintons have amassed virtually their entire multi-million-dollar fortune (estimated at around $30 million) in the seven years after leaving the White House.

While some of that money is explained from book contracts, the bulk of the family’s post-presidential income appears to come from Bill Clinton’s lucrative speaking engagements and financial deals with political backers. [See’s “Hillary’s Curious Campaign Loan.”]

The larger campaign question, however, may be whether the Clintons will set any limits on their hunger to return to the White House – and whether Democrats will view that single-minded determination as a plus or a minus.

Bank Risk Soars on Concern Bond Insurer Breakup May Fuel Losses

Bank Risk Soars on Concern Bond Insurer Breakup May Fuel Losses

By Abigail Moses

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The cost of protecting banks from default soared on concern a proposal to break up bond insurers MBIA Inc. and Ambac Financial Group Inc. may trigger further credit market losses.

Credit-default swaps on the Markit iTraxx Financial index of 125 banks and financial institutions jumped 6 basis points to 100 at 11:45 a.m. in London, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co. The Markit iTraxx Japan index rose 4 basis points to 86, Morgan Stanley prices show.

New York Insurance Department Superintendent Eric Dinallo said regulators are trying to help the two biggest bond insurers raise $15 billion to avert rating downgrades that may endanger the $1.2 trillion of debt they guarantee worldwide. One option is to split the insurers' municipal bond business from their money-losing subprime-mortgage units, Dinallo said in a Bloomberg Television interview yesterday.

``A forced breakup along the good business, bad business lines wouldn't be good for banks,'' said Nigel Myer, a research analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort in London. ``Removing the solid cash flows from the municipal bonds would leave the rump rather naked and potentially much less able to meet its obligations.''

Credit-default swaps on Zurich-based UBS AG, Europe's second-biggest bank by assets, rose 3 basis points to 95, according to CMA Datavision. UBS posted the biggest-ever loss by a bank this week, writing down $13.7 billion on securities infected by U.S. subprime mortgages including $871 million on credit protection purchased from bond insurers.

A basis point on a credit-default swap contract protecting 10 million euros ($14.6 million) of debt from default for five years is equivalent to 1,000 euros a year.

Deutsche Bank

Contracts on Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank AG, Germany's biggest bank, rose 5 basis points to 85 and Credit Suisse Group, Switzerland's second-biggest bank, rose 4 basis points to 92, CMA prices show.

``The stakes have been raised for the banks,'' Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc analysts led by Michael Cox said in a note to investors today. The threat of an MBIA and Ambac breakup is a ``severe negative'' for bonds and credit-default swaps guaranteed by the companies, the report said.

Credit-default swaps are financial instruments based on bonds and loans that are used to speculate on a company's ability to repay debt. They pay the buyer face value in exchange for the underlying securities or the cash equivalent should a borrower fail to adhere to its debt agreements. A rise indicates deterioration in the perception of credit quality; a decline, the opposite.

Rescue Deadline

Dinallo may have less than two weeks to find a solution. Moody's Investors Service said it plans to complete its review of Armonk, New York-based MBIA and Ambac of New York by the end of the month.

FGIC Corp., the fourth-biggest bond insurer, lost its Aaa rating at Moody's yesterday. The company is in worse financial shape than larger competitors MBIA and Ambac, the ratings firm said. The insurance units of New York-based FGIC were cut six levels to A3 and may be reduced again, Moody's said.

The benchmark Markit iTraxx Crossover Index of credit- default swaps on 50 companies with mostly high-risk, high-yield credit ratings rose 24 basis points to 565 today, according to JPMorgan.

Contracts on the Markit iTraxx Europe index of 125 companies with investment-grade ratings rose 6 basis points to 108.5, Deutsche Bank prices show.

The CDX North America Investment Grade Index rose 2.25 basis points to 140.25 at the close of trading in New York, according to Deutsche Bank.

Banks at Risk From $203 Billion Writedowns, Says UBS

Banks at Risk From $203 Billion Writedowns, Says UBS

By Poppy Trowbridge

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The world's banks ``remain at risk'' of up to $203 billion in additional writedowns, largely because the bond insurance crisis could worsen, UBS AG said.

``Banks have made progress in credit-market related writedowns,'' London-based UBS analyst Philip Finch said in a note to investors today. ``But more are expected,'' he added.

Writedowns for collateralized debt obligations and subprime related losses already total $150 billion, Finch estimated. That could rise by a further $120 billion for CDOs, $50 billion for structured investment vehicles, $18 billion for commercial mortgage-backed securities and $15 billion for leveraged buyouts, UBS said. ``Risks are rising and spreading and liquidity conditions are still far from normal,'' the note said.

U.S. monoline insurers MBIA Inc. and Ambac Financial Group Inc. are struggling to maintain the AAA ratings on their insurance units because of losses on residential mortgages, exposing banks to possible writedowns on CDOs guaranteed by the insurers. Monoline insurers guarantee the repayment of bond principal and interest in the event of defaults.

Ambac was the first monoline insurer to ever be downgraded when Fitch Ratings cut it to AA from AAA in January, citing ``significant uncertainty'' over the insurer's business model.

Regulatory Response

A regulatory backlash against the banks also threatens to cut profits in the global banking sector by 5.3 percent this year, which could result in additional capital requirements for banks, according to Finch.

Increased credit costs of 10 basis points would lower 2008 sector earnings to 5.9 percent from 10 percent, the report said. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.

HSBC Holdings Plc, Europe's largest lender, Bank of America Corp., the biggest U.S. bank by market value, and UniCredit SpA, Italy's largest bank by assets, would be included among a ``defensive portfolio,'' UBS recommended.

HSBC rose 0.3 percent to 749.5 pence at 11:54 in London trading. Bank of America fell 5 cents to $42.19 in Germany and UniCredit declined 0.7 percent to 4.97 euros.

Rising defaults on subprime mortgages in the U.S. last year sparked a collapse of global credit markets. The ensuing cash shortage led to large writedowns by banks in the second half of 2007.

With additional reporting by Jon Menon. Editors: Francis Harris, Ben Vickers

Banks Begging For Government Bail Out

Banks to ask government to take bad loan risk: report

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The banking industry is proposing to members of the U.S. Congress and the White House that some of the risk of troubled mortgages should be shifted to the federal government, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

One proposal has been advanced by officials at Credit Suisse Group (CSGN.VX: Quote, Profile, Research) and would let the U.S. Federal Housing Administration guarantee mortgage refinancings by some delinquent borrowers, said the report.

The Credit Suisse plan would open the way for nearly 600,000 sub prime borrowers, many of whom are delinquent on their mortgages, to refinance into loans backed by the FHA, said the Journal, which cited a Credit Suisse spokeswoman.

The Journal said officials from JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM.N: Quote, Profile, Research) are also pulling together their own proposal to expand the number of homeowners who could refinance into FHA-backed loans.

Spokespeople for Credit Suisse and JPMorgan were not immediately available.

Bond insurer woes could become market "tsunami": Spitzer

Bond insurer woes could become market "tsunami": Spitzer

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The bond insurer problem must be fixed, or else it could become a "financial tsunami" that wreaks havoc on the broader economy, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer is due to tell the Congress Thursday.

A copy of Spitzer's prepared testimony was obtained by Reuters on Wednesday.

New York State Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo is working with banks on rescue plans for several bond insurers, which guarantee more than $2.4 trillion of debt and are expected to suffer big losses from insuring bonds linked to subprime mortgages and other risk assets.

Those losses threaten the top credit ratings that insurers need to win new business. If insurers are downgraded by ratings agencies, investors that can only hold top-rated bonds may have to sell billions of dollars of securities, lifting borrowing costs for cities and consumers alike.

About two-thirds of bond insurers' business is guaranteeing municipal debt, and one-third is insuring repackaged consumer debt.

Higher borrowing costs and general credit market difficulties "could be a financial tsunami that causes substantial damage throughout our economy," Spitzer said in the testimony prepared for delivery to a House of Representatives Financial Services subcommittee at 11:30 a.m. EST on Thursday.

Spitzer's comments echoed recent remarks from Deutsche Bank Chief Executive Josef Ackermann, who said that bond insurer downgrades could send shockwaves through financial markets.

Regulators hope to help bond insurers keep their top credit ratings, but are also looking at protecting only the insurers' municipal bond insurance segments, Spitzer said.

"We have been clear from the beginning that municipal investors cannot be allowed to suffer from problems caused by another sector of the market," he said.


On Thursday, the New York Democrat in a CNBC interview laid blame for the subprime crisis and its broader fallout on the Bush Administration.

Spitzer recalled that several years ago the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency went to court and blocked New York efforts to investigate the mortgage activities of national banks. Spitzer argued the OCC did not put a stop to questionable loan marketing practices or uphold higher underwriting standards.

"This could have been avoided if the OCC had done its job," Spitzer said in the interview. "The OCC did nothing. The Bush Administration let the housing bubble inflate and now that it's deflating we're dealing with the consequences."

"The real failure, the genesis, the germ that has spread was the subprime scandal," Spitzer said. Fraudulent marketing and teaser rates that later ballooned were practices that should have been stopped.

"When mortgages are being marketed, there is a marketplace obligation to ensure the borrower can afford to pay back the debt," he said.

The subprime problem, he said, spread into other markets and is now causing pain for individuals, who may not be able to get mortgages, and giant bodies such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, whose latest bond auction fell through, he said. He also linked the mortgage crisis to the current struggles of the bond insurers.

Yet Spitzer deflected questions about New York state's role 10 years ago in allowing bond insurers, which had long guaranteed safe public-sector bonds, to back risky mortgage bonds and complex structured debt.

Bush, The Predatory Lenders' Partner in Crime

Predatory Lenders' Partner in Crime

By Eliot Spitzer

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How the Bush Administration stopped the states from stepping in to help consumers.

Several years ago, state attorneys general and others involved in consumer protection began to notice a marked increase in a range of predatory lending practices by mortgage lenders. Some were misrepresenting the terms of loans, making loans without regard to consumers' ability to repay, making loans with deceptive "teaser" rates that later ballooned astronomically, packing loans with undisclosed charges and fees, or even paying illegal kickbacks. These and other practices, we noticed, were having a devastating effect on home buyers. In addition, the widespread nature of these practices, if left unchecked, threatened our financial markets.

Even though predatory lending was becoming a national problem, the Bush administration looked the other way and did nothing to protect American homeowners. In fact, the government chose instead to align itself with the banks that were victimizing consumers.

Predatory lending was widely understood to present a looming national crisis. This threat was so clear that as New York attorney general, I joined with colleagues in the other 49 states in attempting to fill the void left by the federal government. Individually, and together, state attorneys general of both parties brought litigation or entered into settlements with many subprime lenders that were engaged in predatory lending practices. Several state legislatures, including New York's, enacted laws aimed at curbing such practices.

What did the Bush administration do in response? Did it reverse course and decide to take action to halt this burgeoning scourge? As Americans are now painfully aware, with hundreds of thousands of homeowners facing foreclosure and our markets reeling, the answer is a resounding no.

Not only did the Bush administration do nothing to protect consumers, it embarked on an aggressive and unprecedented campaign to prevent states from protecting their residents from the very problems to which the federal government was turning a blind eye.

Let me explain: The administration accomplished this feat through an obscure federal agency called the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). The OCC has been in existence since the Civil War. Its mission is to ensure the fiscal soundness of national banks. For 140 years, the OCC examined the books of national banks to make sure they were balanced, an important but uncontroversial function. But a few years ago, for the first time in its history, the OCC was used as a tool against consumers.

In 2003, during the height of the predatory lending crisis, the OCC invoked a clause from the 1863 National Bank Act to issue formal opinions preempting all state predatory lending laws, thereby rendering them inoperative. The OCC also promulgated new rules that prevented states from enforcing any of their own consumer protection laws against national banks. The federal government's actions were so egregious and so unprecedented that all 50 state attorneys general, and all 50 state banking superintendents, actively fought the new rules.

But the unanimous opposition of the 50 states did not deter, or even slow, the Bush administration in its goal of protecting the banks. In fact, when my office opened an investigation of possible discrimination in mortgage lending by a number of banks, the OCC filed a federal lawsuit to stop the investigation.

Throughout our battles with the OCC and the banks, the mantra of the banks and their defenders was that efforts to curb predatory lending would deny access to credit to the very consumers the states were trying to protect. But the curbs we sought on predatory and unfair lending would have in no way jeopardized access to the legitimate credit market for appropriately priced loans. Instead, they would have stopped the scourge of predatory lending practices that have resulted in countless thousands of consumers losing their homes and put our economy in a precarious position.

When history tells the story of the subprime lending crisis and recounts its devastating effects on the lives of so many innocent homeowners, the Bush administration will not be judged favorably. The tale is still unfolding, but when the dust settles, it will be judged as a willing accomplice to the lenders who went to any lengths in their quest for profits. So willing, in fact, that it used the power of the federal government in an unprecedented assault on state legislatures, as well as on state attorneys general and anyone else on the side of consumers.

GM offers buyouts to entire US hourly workforce

GM offers buyouts to entire US hourly workforce

By Jerry White

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General Motors offered buyouts to all of its 74,000 US hourly employees as the automotive giant continues to downsize operations in response to declining US market share and massive financial losses. With the collaboration of the United Auto Workers union, the automaker plans to push out tens of thousands of higher-paid senior workers, replacing most of them with new hires making half the wages and far fewer benefits.

On Tuesday the company announced a staggering $38.7 billion loss for 2007, the largest in the history of the auto industry. The majority of the losses relate to the write-off of tax credits and other accounting charges. Excluding those charges, GM posted a pretax loss of $1.4 billion for the year, compared to a pretax profit of $628 million a year ago.

GM reported a fourth-quarter loss of $722 million due to the US economic slowdown, tighter credit markets and rising fuel prices, which have undermined sales of its highly profitable pickup trucks and SUVs. GMAC Financial Services—in which GM has a 49 percent stake—lost $2.3 billion in 2007 due to the housing and mortgage crisis.

About 40 percent of the company’s revenues and more than half of its vehicle sales in 2007 came from outside the US. GM sales and profits grew in Asia, Latin America and Europe in 2007. However, Europe saw a year-to-year profit decline of $300 million despite a wave of plant closings and other cost-cutting in Belgium, Germany and Sweden. Company officials threatened to push through further “restructuring” in Europe if costs were not brought down.

With 9,369,524 vehicles sold worldwide, GM barely held on to its position as the world’s largest car company in 2007, selling just 3,000 more vehicles than rival Toyota. In 1955, four out of five of the world’s cars were produced in the US, half of them by General Motors. Today, Detroit’s Big Three automakers—GM, Ford and Chrysler—barely produce half the cars and trucks sold in the US alone, with GM selling one quarter, compared to nearly 50 percent in the 1960s.

Company CEO Richard Wagoner said GM planned to save billions and return to profitability through the buyout programs and the new labor agreement it signed last fall with the UAW. The contract slashes wages and benefits for new hires and rids GM, Ford and Chrysler of their obligation to pay health-care benefits for hundreds of thousands of retirees and their spouses.

Under the new buyout offer, GM is offering $45,000 to qualified production workers and $62,500 to skilled tradesman to retire early with pension and health benefits. About 46,000 of GM’s UAW-represented workers have the required 26 years of service to qualify for the offer. The rest of the workers are being offered up to $140,000 to sever all ties to the company and leave with no pension or health care.

The UAW has worked hand in hand with the auto companies to carry out an “orderly downsizing” of the US auto industry and transform the factories into low-wage sweatshops. Over the past two years, the UAW worked with GM to eliminate 35 percent of the workforce.

During the 2007 contract talks, the UAW suppressed rank-and-file opposition to the wage and benefit cuts. In exchange for the historic concessions granted by the UAW, the union bureaucracy was given control of a retiree health-care benefit trust fund—worth more than $50 billion.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said Thursday he expects 15,000 to 20,000 GM workers to take the early retirement and buyout packages. Under the new labor agreement, Gettelfinger said, GM was obligated to replace these workers. While this would guarantee that the union bureaucracy suffered no loss of dues income, at least 16,000 workers would be hired under the lower-tier wage and benefit scale, agreed to by the UAW, which reduces hourly wages from $28 to $14. According to the Wall Street Journal, new workers will earn a total of $25.65 an hour in wages and benefits, as opposed to $73 an hour in total compensation for current workers.

Ford, the No. 2 US automaker, is also expected to offer packages to all 54,000 of its hourly workers. It also plans to eliminate laid-off workers whose salaries are guaranteed under the so-called Jobs Bank program, and hire thousands of lower-paid workers under its own agreement with the UAW.

Chrysler LLC is trying to cut up to 21,000 of its 45,000 US manufacturing jobs. The company’s private-equity owner Cerberus Capital Management announced last week they would slash the number of models the number three US automaker produced and would consolidate their dealership network as part of a plan to transform Chrysler into a much smaller, more profitable company.

The destruction of thousands of jobs and the wage cuts are expected to have a devastating impact on living standards, particularly in the Midwestern US states, where the auto industry is centered. At 7.5 percent, Michigan’s unemployment rate is already the highest in the nation. Since 2006, more than 70,000 homes in Detroit have been foreclosed and property values are down nearly 20 percent.

Sean MacAlinden, an analyst with the industry-friendly Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told the Chicago Tribune that Toyota, the leading foreign car manufacturer in the US, will start slashing wages for its new hires and that other foreign carmakers will be close behind. “Away we go. We are going to see a downward spiral in wages,” MacAlinden said.

MacAlinden expects Detroit’s Big Three to slash their workforces by another 59,000 blue-collar workers over the next three years, while hiring 38,000 new workers under the lower-tier wage and benefits package, which disqualifies them from the standard pension and retiree health-care benefits that UAW members previously received.

Police to be given real-time access to spy satellite data.

Police to be given real-time access to spy satellite data.

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A plan to use U.S. spy satellites for domestic security and law-enforcement missions is moving forward after being delayed for months because of privacy and civil liberties concerns.

The charter and legal framework for an office within the Homeland Security Department that would use overhead and mapping imagery from existing satellites is in the final stage of completion, according to a department official who requested anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about it.

The future of this program is likely to come up Wednesday when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff goes to Capitol Hill to talk about his department's spending plan.

Last fall, senior Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee asked the department to put the program on hold until there was a clear legal framework of how the program would operate. This request came during an ongoing debate over the rules governing eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists inside the United States.

The new plan explicitly states that existing laws which prevent the government from spying on citizens would remain in effect, the official said. Under no circumstances, for instance, would the program be used to intercept verbal and written conversations.

The department currently is waiting for federal executive agencies to sign off on the program — called the National Applications Office — and will share the details with lawmakers soon.

Domestic agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Interior Department have had access to this satellite imagery for years for scientific research, to assist in response to natural disasters like hurricanes and fires, and to map out vulnerabilities during a major public event like the Super Bowl. Since 1974 the requests have been made through the federal interagency group, the Civil Applications Committee.

These types of uses will continue when the Homeland Security Department oversees the program and becomes the clearinghouse for these requests. But the availability of satellite images will be expanded to other agencies to support the homeland security mission. The details of how law enforcement agencies could use the images during investigations would be determined in the future after legal and policy questions have been resolved, the official said.

It is possible that in the future an agency might request infrared imaging of what is inside a house, for instance a methamphetamine laboratory, and this could raise constitutional issues. In these instances, law enforcement agencies would still have to go through the normal process of obtaining a warrant and satisfying all the legal requirements. The National Applications Office also would require that all the laws are observed when using new imaging technology.

Requests for satellite images will be vetted even more than they were when the requests went through the Civil Applications Committee. All requests will be reviewed by an interagency group that includes Justice Department officials to ensure civil rights and civil liberties are not violated.

This new effort largely follows the recommendations outlined by a 2005 independent study group headed by Keith Hall, a former chief of the National Reconnaissance Office and now vice president of the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.