Sunday, April 20, 2008

Economist Fears Historic Loss of Assets for Minorities

Economist Fears Historic Loss of Assets for Minorities

By Sandip Roy

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Editor's Note: The current economic downturn could lead to the greatest loss of assets for communities of color that's ever happened, says Alan Fisher, executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition since 1992, which advocates for the right of low-income communities and communities of color to have fair and equal access to banking and other financial services. Alan Fisher was interviewed by NAM Editor and host of UpFront, Sandip Roy.

Whether we call it a recession or not, what's the effect of what's happening in the economy on the low-income communities who are part of your coalition?

I think low-income people and people of color have been struggling for many years now. The "recovery" has not helped them. Recent reports say that income levels for families are the same dollar-wise as they were in 2000, which means they are worth much less now. Food prices are going up, gas prices are going up and we have a huge housing crisis.

How many people are impacted by the housing crisis?

The housing crisis doesn't just impact those who are in the homes that are in trouble -- who in California may be half a million households -- but it impacts all of their neighbors and their city. Their neighbors' houses lose value, as their houses lose value. The cities are losing tax base, our whole state has been relying on home sales to keep going. The state says it has an $18 billion deficit in a fiscal year that ends June 30. I think we are in a deep crisis and whatever the economists may call it, regular people are suffering and having great difficulty.

Can you give an example of how regular people are suffering and what are the first signs of recession in these communities?

I think the signs of recession are people having to cut back on the basic things that they buy, on less meat, not being able to buy clothes for their children -- but much of this has been masked because of easy access to credit cards. Many people are in huge debt on their credit cards and have substituted those, or have taken out payday loans, to try to keep going. So, it's a dangerous situation that's been masked by the wealth of the most wealthy -- corporate profits -- while the people who are our neighbors are in tremendous trouble.

But wouldn't something like a recession rip this mask off, with the way people have been relying on credit cards and payday lenders to get by?

I think, whether we call it a recession or not, that it would be something that happens as people are unable to pay their credit card bills, as people are being forced to go into bankruptcy. With the new bankruptcy laws, it's even more punitive. Yet at the same time bankruptcies are going up.

Homelessness is also on the rise. There are many people who are tenants in homes, and if those homes are foreclosed on, then, even though they pay their rent every month, they are forced out. They don't get their security deposit back, and where do they go to look for housing? Rental prices are going up, so it's a tremendous squeeze on families.

There has been so much coverage of homeowners, but we haven't seen much on what has been the impact of the economic downturn on tenants.

I think we are just beginning to hear that. It's sort of hidden because you don't see it in the same aggregated fashion. We know it's happening; we're hearing it more and more. We're hearing from homeless organizations that it's impacting folks that are becoming homeless, but there are no numbers at this point that I know of.

Are you seeing a new profile of homeless people? Are homeless organizations reporting on new kinds of people who are becoming homeless and are coming to them for help?

I think it's just starting, so I haven't heard that yet. I've heard concerns about tenants and we've tried to get state legislature to do something about tenants, but the opposition from the mortgage industry and the bankers pushed it out of the bill.

Why are the mortgage industries opposing measures about tenants?

Because they want the houses, they want people out immediately, and they want to try to sell them again and recoup their money. As you can see from the Bear Stearns rescue, the concern is about the corporations at the federal level because of campaign financing. So no one cares that people are being forced out of their homes because these people aren't the big contributors; they might be written off as not even voting.

Where else would you be looking for to see the cracks, the great pressures that communities are going to be subjected to as result of the downturn?

What's caught my eye is that the city of Vallejo, Calif. almost went bankrupt, and it's still on the edge of that. They went bankrupt because they were paying their workers a decent wage. The governor took away the vehicle tax money when he first came into office, which meant that police and fire -- the most basic things that every city needs to have -- got cut.

You hear about libraries that are being closed down. They're talking about closing the parks; education and health care are being cut back by the governor. I think it's the whole infrastructure of society that's under attack. In a way, it's so large that it's hard for people even to take in what it means.

With the foreclosure crisis, for example, I've heard that one of the interesting things was that it was affecting both African-American communities and Latino communities really hard, but in different ways. African Americans were being affected mostly because they were existing homeowners who had refinanced their homes, not understanding the terms. For Latinos it was more of a language issue. First-time buyers had locked themselves into mortgages that they were not going to be able to pay. The results were the same -- both of them were losing homes -- but the way they were getting there was different. In cases of the economic downturn and recession, do you see that affecting different communities differently?

I think, as you are saying, the reasons for things may be different. The Asian-American and Pacific-Islander community -- the Korean Americans and Vietnamese Americans may be coming to home ownership later, like Latinos. It will have a broad impact, but I think each community is different in how it's going on.

But I know it's generally agreed that there's tremendous concern that this could be the greatest loss of assets for communities of color that's ever happened. We've all seen an increase in home ownership, but it was filled with fraud and greed on the part of the real estate industry and so people are in trouble now.

These communities are also reliant on payday lenders, especially poor communities, and I know your organization studies that. Have you seen any spike in payday lender abuse as a result of this downturn?

One of the difficulties with all of the statistics is that they're late. So, all we know about really is last year and that doesn't show a huge increase. But we are hearing that people are increasingly going to payday lenders, which are the lenders of last resort. We have a bill that we hope can make it through the legislature, to cap their interest rates.

The Federal Reserve has been taking some steps to avoid foreclosures; the state government is doing something. How would you grade their efforts?

I think the state government, the Federal Reserve, the federal legislature, the federal government are all making efforts that will have no large impact on the homeowner. Clearly, the federal government and the Federal Reserve had looked at large corporations and are concerned about that infrastructure. The predictions, which are probably very low, are that two million people could lose their homes. There's nothing that's comparable to that and many of the bills that would have really made a difference have been cut back in the legislature. There was an effort to try and soften the impact of bankruptcy on people, and that was soundly defeated by the corporate interests. There's been nothing that really can help people, and meanwhile thousands of people are losing their homes every week.

California home prices fall 26 percent amid foreclosures

California home prices fall 26 percent amid foreclosures

A glut of foreclosed homes helped prompt a 26 percent plunge in California home prices in March, highlighting a trend that experts said is likely to continue as low, introductory interest rates expire for people who bought near the height of the housing boom.

More than 38 percent of California homes sold in March had been foreclosed at some point during the previous year, DataQuick Information Systems said in its survey released Thursday.

Figures for previous years were not immediately available, but company analyst John Karevoll said the March percentage for foreclosed home sales was believed to be an all-time high for the state.

The state's median home price was $358,000 last month, down from $484,000 in March 2007, when the market peaked, DataQuick said. The number of new and resale houses and condos sold during the month fell 38.3 percent from a year earlier to 24,565.

DataQuick said the numbers also reflect difficulty in getting financing for expensive homes.

In March 2007, loans over $417,000 accounted for nearly 40 percent of home sales. Last month, those so-called jumbo loans accounted for less than 15 percent of sales.

The percentage of foreclosed homes on the market is growing as many potential sellers hang on to property and wait for prices to rebound.

Foreclosed homes in California sell for about 15 percent less than non-foreclosed homes in the same neighborhoods, bringing all prices down, Karevoll said.

The nationwide foreclosure glut is expected to worsen in May and June as two- and three-year introductory interest rates expire on homes purchased in 2005 and 2006, said Rick Sharga, vice president of marketing at RealtyTrac, a research firm.

As higher rates kick in, fewer homeowners will be able make payments, though possible rate cuts by the Federal Reserve may soften the blow, he said.

Nationwide, foreclosed homes have been selling for about 20 percent less than similar non-foreclosed homes, Sharga said.

California housing prices may bottom out in summer or fall, around the same time that foreclosures peak, said Karevoll. Lenders appear to have loosened the spigot in recent months -- a trend that will likely continue into the fall -- though credit will not be as easy to find as it was during the market's heyday, he said.

The big uncertainty is whether the economy will sour even more, making it more difficult for people who lose their jobs to make payments, Karevoll said.

"If we do have a recession in California, things will get bloody out there," he said.

The affordability of some foreclosed homes has helped some buyers.

Cyndie Schubert, who earns $16.94 an hour as a parking garage attendant, said she bought a San Diego home out of foreclosure for $250,000 after two years of looking for places that were out of her reach.

The first-time homebuyer had to buy a water heater and kitchen appliances but the plumbing was new.

"I walk to work, I have my white picket fence," said Schubert, who lives with her 25-year-old daughter. "It's got a little yard but that's all right."

Her mortgage payment of $1,104 eats up much of her first monthly paycheck, but it's only $300 more than what she was paying to rent an apartment in a crime-ridden neighborhood where she was raised in suburban El Cajon. She pays her other bills with her second monthly paycheck.

"I got caught up on my bills, and it was time for me to do something," said Schubert. "I'm 52. It was time for me to leave (my daughter) some kind of legacy."

The foreclosure glut has hit California especially hard. The state ranks only behind Nevada -- and just ahead of Florida, Arizona and Colorado -- in the percentage of households in foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac's March rankings.

California and Arizona are victims of an overheated market in the early part of the decade, when banks lent money for homes that buyers could not afford, said Sharga. Nevada and Florida had lots of speculative buyers.

Los Angeles Neighborhood Housing Services, a nonprofit group, is counseling about 2,000 financially troubled homeowners a month this year, up from about 200 a month during the same period last year, said Lori Gay, chief executive officer.

The group developed a "triage system" to accommodate the flood of people seeking to avoid foreclosure, Gay said. Previously, the organization worked with people over three or four months, often in classrooms. Now it asks people to tackle questions online and aims to give them quick answers.

"We're expediting in a way that we wouldn't have to before," Gay said. "Now there's not a lot of time. They're up against the wall."

Food - The Ultimate Weapon Of The Ruling Elite

Food - The Ultimate Weapon Of The Ruling Elite

By William Bowles

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U
sing food as a weapon is as old as the siege but today’s barbarians have upped the anté by several orders of magnitude.

“…There are only two possible ways in which a world of 10 billion people can be averted. Either the current birth rates must come down more quickly. Or the current death rates must go up. There is no other way. There are, of course, many ways in which the death rates can go up. In a thermonuclear age, war can accomplish it very quickly and decisively. Famine and disease are nature’s ancient checks on population growth, and neither one has disappeared from the scene … To put it simply: Excessive population growth is the greatest single obstacle to the economic and social advancement of most of the societies in the developing world.” — Speech to the Club of Rome by Robert McNamara, Oct. 2, 1979

“Overpopulation and rapid demographic growth of Mexico is already today one of the major threats to the national security of the United States. Unless the U.S.-Mexico border is sealed, we will be up to our necks in Mexicans for whom we cannot find jobs.” —Robert McNamara, then World Bank president, March 19, 1982

McNamara’s thinly veiled genocidal utterances took place over thirty years ago, echoing the wealthy and the privileged’s fear of the ’great unwashed’ when ‘over-population’ was the buzzword. So not much has changed has it, we’re hearing the same, tired old messages being rolled out once again by the ruling elites and their spin doctors. McNamara’s cries of fear about being up to his neck in Mexicans is exactly same as the current bogey doing the rounds in Europe, only now they’re Africans.

Thus the current explosions in Haiti, Eygpt, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere over the rocketing price of basic foodstuffs such as cooking oil and rice prompted the BBC to describe them as first and foremost “a potential threat to Western security” (BBC News 24, 13 April, 2008), never mind the threat to human life, but then it reveals exactly where the BBC’s head is at, protecting the status quo.

To add insult to injury, the crétin Gordon Brown has the damn nerve to say,

“Rising food prices threaten to roll back progress we have made in recent years on development. For the first time in decades, the number of people facing hunger is growing.”

Progress? What planet does our glorious leader live on? Standards of living have been falling for everybody (except the rich who, as a consequence, have just gotten even richer by stealing even more from the poor), since the 1970s when the ‘neo-liberal’ agenda was initiated and not only have the poorest been the hardest hit but we’ve seen millions of the formerly ‘middle classes’ dumped unceremoniously back where they ‘belong’, with the poor. Social status doesn’t put food on the table. So much for the capitalist ‘good life’.

These are the facts: real wages in the US have fallen since the 1970s. It’s reckoned that around 40 million Americans now live under the ‘official’ poverty level, but at least they can still eat something, not so the millions of people in the so-called developing world who already immiserated by so-called free trade, have been hit with a double whammy, nay, a quintuple whammy.

Whammy #1: ‘Free Trade’

The poor countries of the world have been ‘persuaded’ that growing food for export so as to earn foreign currency which they then have to use to buy imported food (guess where from?), is better than growing food in their back yard. And to make sure they live up to their end of the ‘bargain’, under WTO ‘rules’ they get punished if they try to control imports.

Countries grew their own food which not only fed them but also created employment, now grow food and things like flowers, for export in order to ‘earn’ the precious dollar which obviously they have to spend on importing the food they once grew. Worse, the subsidized food imports wipe out what remains of indigenous agriculture, it simply can’t compete. What an insane setup! It only makes sense when you realize that the managers who setup this ‘deal’ work for BIg Business, they call the shots. If it were a ‘Mafia’ deal it would be called criminal extortion.

Of course, we in the West with our wealth subsidize the production of food, so the poor of the planet get hit with a whammy within a whammy. Not having the resources to subsidize their own food production, as the cost of importing food rises but not the price they get for exporting food to us, they are truly caught between a rock and a barren place.

And it’s the same IMF and World Bank policies which created the latest crisis to hit the poor of our planet, that are responsible for creating such an unequal relationship in the first place.

Whammy #2: Energy

And of course to grow all these crops for export needs lots of energy and lots of water, and lots of fertilizer, and lots of pesticides, all of which must be bought with precious foreign currency (and until recently, only dollars would be accepted). With oil now selling at over $113 a barrel, the cost of producing anything has shot through the roof. The winners: The Big Oil Cartels. No need to tell you who the losers are.

But the actual cost of producing the oil hasn’t risen much at all, the entire responsibility for these increases has to be placed where it belongs, on the commodities speculators and the Big Five oilcos. In other words, on all those grimy gamblers in investment corps and pension fund managers. It’s the system.

Whammy #3: ‘Bio-fuels’

The latest addition to the armoury of food used as a weapon and perhaps the most obvious example to date, is converting production from food staples to so-called bio-fuels.

For rather than us just using less energy, we buy it from the poor of the planet in the form of ‘bio-fuels’. Brilliant isn’t it. What poor country needs to produce ethanol? It has no possible use except perhaps to make moonshine.

But we knew that this would happen and everybody told our cretinous, criminal leaders what would happen. They’re too busy producing wheat for export to feed all those damn cows, cows that we turn into hamburgers for our consumption, but now, instead of producing wheat for export to make burgers, we’re producing ethanol to put in our automobiles. Either way it’s madness!

And in any case, as a leaked EU report shows, bio-fuels do nothing to halt the production of greenhouse gases (they may even increase it), the entire ‘bio-fuels’ thing is one gigantic scam, largely to do with what is the most profitable crop to grow (see ‘Industry asks for biofuels policy U-turn).

Whammy #4: Water

Fact: It takes 1,000-2,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of wheat

Fact: It takes 10,000-13,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of meat (Source: FAO)

And guess what gets produced the most, largely for Western consumption—burgers. And not surprisingly, the ‘neo-liberal’ agenda has seen the enforced privatization of water across the planet along with other key resources formerly held in communal ownership.

Whammy #5: Climate Change

Predictably, climate change impacts on those least able to deal with it, the poor. And lest we forget, the majority of the planet’s population are poor. The connectedness between everything must surely be apparent to you, the reader, the fact that messing up the biosphere the way we have been doing for the past two hundred years reverberates throughout the planet. And our political elites call themselves civilized!

Meanwhile, back in the land of the powerful, we’re busy planning for endless war in order to preserve our privilege, so even as our glorious leaders pontificate on about this or that crisis facing us, they’re spending billions on developing robots to shit bombs on the planet’s poor from a comfortable armchair some distance from the scene of the ‘action’.

“UAV Market to Top $13 Billion by 2014

Washington, D.C. (PRWEB) April 14, 2008 — The global war on terrorism has prompted the United States to pump significant amounts of money into its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) programs, asserts Forecast International analyst Larry Dickerson.” — www.aviationtoday.com/webinars/2008_0417.html

How can anybody in his or her right mind not view these people and the entire class in whose interests they work so tirelessly, not see them not only as war criminals but as destroyers of life! These are truly barbarians in every sense of the word, for they destroy everything of beauty and value including entire countries in order to preserve their piece of the action.

No wonder the Hollywood obsession with ‘saving the planet’ but when will we see a movie about saving ourselves and our home from these predatory mass murderers?

So why is it that we turn away from the carnage ostensibly wrought in our name? After all, people give generously to so-called charities, so it’s not that people don’t care about the plight of others.

Again, I come back to the corporate/state media for surely without their active complicity in covering up the endless atrocities being committed would we stand for it? I think not, but then I’m an eternal optimist about the real nature of the human spirit once we stop fearing and start thinking and feeling.

The major reason is the media’s (never mind the politicians) failure to connect events with the underlying economics that drives them to act the way they do. Thus the ‘credit-crunch’ is so misnamed in order to hide the fact that it’s the economic and political policies of our governments in cahoots with Big Business that created the crisis in the first place (as it has all previous crises).

The ‘credit-crunch’ is merely symptomatic of a sick system that needs to be replaced poste haste.

The issue is really quite simple, as long as we have ruling elites joined at the hip to Big Capital, running the show, they will never, not in a million years entertain the idea of doing away with the present economic system—which is the cause of all our miseries—and replacing it with a saner and more modest way of earning a buck, there’s too much at stake and for so few, dammit! Only we, the so-called people can do that, they won’t even begin to change things unless we either force them to or failing that, get rid of them.

Three States Subjected To "Martial Law Sweeps"

Three States Subjected To "Martial Law Sweeps"

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Federal law enforcement agencies co-opted sheriffs offices as well state and local police forces in three states last weekend for a vast round up operation that one sheriff's deputy has described as "martial law training".

Law-enforcement agencies in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas took part in what was described by local media as "an anti-crime and anti-terrorism initiative" involving officers from more than 50 federal, state and local agencies.

Given the military style name "Operation Sudden Impact", the initiative saw officers from six counties rounding up fugitives, conducting traffic checkpoints, climbing on boats on the Mississippi River and doing other "crime-abatement" programs all under the label of "anti-terrorism".

WREG Memphis news channel 3 reported that the Sheriff's Department arrested 332 people, 142 of whom were fugitives, or "terrorists" as they now seem to be known.

Hundreds of dollars were seized and drugs recovered, and 1,292 traffic violations were handed out to speeding terrorists and illegally parked terrorists.

Click here to watch a WREG Memphis news report

The authorities even raided businesses and store owners, confiscating computers and paperwork in an effort to "track down possible terrorists before something big happens".

The Sheriff's Department is determining if and when they plan another round-up.

The operation, which involved police, deputies, the FBI, drug agents, gang units and even the coast guard, is just one example of how law enforcement at the state and local levels is being co-opted and centralized by the Department of Homeland Security via massive federal grants.

It also highlights how the distinction between crime and terrorism is becoming irrelevant.

An Infowars reader called in to the Alex Jones show yesterday to alert us to the story and explain that he had gleaned the information from a his friend, a sheriff's deputy in Memphis, who had described the operation as "training for martial law in America".

Forget innocent until proven guilty, you are now a terrorist suspect until you are told otherwise.

It is now the norm to consider everybody equally likely to be guilty of something than innocent. This is proactive policing, not preventative or reactive policing, and is widely indicative of a society that is NOT free.

This form of proactive policing is a phenomena indicative of a once free state rapidly declining into a authoritarian police state.

If there was a real terror threat in these states, it would surely make sense to for law enforcement agencies to target known trouble areas, and follow up on already existing leads. Instead we are seeing local police and the coast guard being recruited to randomly target anyone in any area as possible terrorists.

Surely if there was a real terror threat, this activity would harm the effort to combat it.

Of course, such activity is clearly not related to a real and tangible terror threat, it is related to the ongoing effort to vastly increase the size and scope of the federal government and increase the power it has over American citizens.

The information and intelligence from the operation will be collated and routed through federally funded state-run fusion centers, which are working in conjunction with the military arm of the DHS, NORTHCOM.

Such information will soon include the DNA and other biometric information from every person arrested, which DHS head Michael Chertoff has declared is no longer your personal information.

We recently reported on the fact that after 9/11 the Justice Department advised the Bush administration that it was able to effectively suspend the Fourth Amendment where domestic counter terrorism operations are concerned.

In light of this, and given that the government has begun to class any crime as terrorism and set local and state police to work on "anti-terror" operations, it is clear that the protections provided by the Bill of Rights and the Constitution are under direct threat.

We have seen how new provisions will effectively nullify the U.S. constitution, and a recent spate of executive orders, in particular PDD 51, outline preparations for the implementation of open martial law in the event of a declared national emergency.

Centralized and federally coordinated law enforcement programs complement nationwide FEMA programs to train Pastors and other religious representatives to become secret police enforcers who teach their congregations to "obey the government" in preparation for the implementation of martial law, property and firearm seizures, mass vaccination programs and forced relocation. The effects of this particular program have already been witnessed.

Carter's Peace Mission

Carter's Peace Mission

There's way out of this mess that doesn't involve slaughtering each others children

By Mike Whitney

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Jimmy Carter arrived in Syria today in an effort to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He is scheduled to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal. Carter has been severely criticized in the western media for meeting with Hamas and was snubbed by Israeli leaders during his stay in Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, all refused to meet with the former president. They believe that Carter's trip undermines Israel's current policy towards the Palestinians and will force them to negotiate with a group they think is a terrorist organization.

Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 and has devoted his life to spreading democracy, human rights, and ending poverty. He has no interest in upstaging the Bush or Olmert. His only interest is stopping the bloodshed and ensuring security for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Carter has been a good friend to Israel and doesn't deserve the chilly treatment he received. In 1978 Carter brought Egypt's President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David for negotiations which ended in a historic treaty. When negotiations stalled, Carter rushed to Cairo and helped Sadat and Begin work out a compromise. That ended the state of war between Eqypt and Israel and led to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Sinai Peninsula. The treaty has endured for 30 years. Israel is a safer place because of Jimmy Carter.

The official Israeli policy towards the Palestinians is both brutal and irrational. Hamas won in elections that were monitored by the international community and were declared "free and fair". They are the legitimate government in the occupied territories. Israel needs to accept that fact and move on. The real reason that Israel does not want to negotiate with Hamas has nothing to do with terrorism. Olmert has made this clear in an interview he gave as Minister of Industry and Trade in 2003:

"We are approaching the point where more and more Palestinians will say: we have been won over. We agree with [National Union leader Avigdor] Lieberman. There is no room for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All that we want is the right to vote. The day they do that, is the day we lose everything. Even when they carry out terror, it is very difficult for us to persuade the world of the justice of our cause. We see this on a daily basis. All the more so when there is only one demand: an equal right to vote....The thought that the struggle against us will be headed by liberal Jewish organizations who shouldered the burden of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa scares me."

Olmert makes important point, that Israel feels that its future as a Jewish state is threatened by a "demographic time-bomb"; that if they fail to impose their own unilateral settlement on the Palestinians---by seizing land and creating de facto borders--Jews will eventually become a minority in Israel. This's the fear that's driving the policy, not racism or terrorism.

Olmert adds:

"Had I believed that there is a real chance of reaching an agreement, I would have recommended making an effort. But that is not the case. The choice we will be facing will be between less than a Geneva Accord -- which means a return to the 1967 border, the crushing of Jerusalem, and a struggle to our last breath to ward off the international pressure to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees into the shrinking State of Israel -- and a comprehensive unilateral move, and I stress the word comprehensive. Through such a move we will define our borders, which under no circumstances will be identical to the Green Line and will include Jerusalem as a united city under our sovereignty."

Olmert is merely implementing Ariel Sharon's policy of "disengagement" which cuts off all real dialog with the Palestinians and imposes a unilateral settlement. That's why Carter has been treated so brusquely; his trip just draws attention to the intransigence of Israeli policy.

On Friday,
the Washington Post published an op-ed by Hamas Foreign Minister, Mahmoud al-Zahar which clearly articulates the position of Hamas. It is well worth reading in its entirety. Al Zahar, whose 21 year old son, Hussam, was tragically killed three months ago in an Israeli air-strike, was studying finance and planned to become and accountant. Al Zahar lost another son and a son in law in 2003.

Al Zahar: "President Jimmy Carter's sensible plan to visit the Hamas leadership this week brings honesty and pragmatism to the Middle East while underscoring the fact that American policy has reached its dead end. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice acts as if a few alterations here and there would make the hideous straitjacket of apartheid fit better. While Rice persuades Israeli occupation forces to cut a few dozen meaningless roadblocks from among the more than 500 West Bank control points, these forces simultaneously choke off fuel supplies to Gaza; blockade its 1.5 million people; approve illegal housing projects on West Bank land; and attack Gaza City with F-16's, killing men, women and children. Sadly, this is "business as usual" for the Palestinians.

Last week's attack on the Nahal Oz fuel depot should not surprise critics in the West. Palestinians are fighting a total war waged on us by a nation that mobilizes against our people with every means at its disposal -- from its high-tech military to its economic stranglehold, from its falsified history to its judiciary that "legalizes" the infrastructure of apartheid. Resistance remains our only option. Sixty-five years ago, the courageous Jews of the Warsaw ghetto rose in defense of their people. We Gazans, living in the world's largest open-air prison, can do no less.

Al Zahar claims that Israel has tried to negate the results of what was called "the fairest election ever held in the Arab Middle East" and used it to wage a new war against the people of Gaza; a war that was approved by the Bush White House.

"Now, finally, we have the welcome tonic of Carter saying what any independent, uncorrupted thinker should conclude: that no "peace plan," "road map" or "legacy" can succeed unless we are sitting at the negotiating table and without any preconditions."

Al-Zahar then presents a litany of Palestinian grievances mixing in a bit of the conflict's bitter history:

"Our movement fights on because we cannot allow the foundational crime at the core of the Jewish state -- the violent expulsion from our lands and villages that made us refugees -- to slip out of world consciousness, forgotten or negotiated away. Judaism -- which gave so much to human culture in the contributions of its ancient lawgivers and modern proponents of tikkun olam -- has corrupted itself in the detour into Zionism, nationalism and apartheid."

A "peace process" with Palestinians cannot take even its first tiny step until Israel first withdraws to the borders of 1967; dismantles all settlements; removes all soldiers from Gaza and the West Bank; repudiates its illegal annexation of Jerusalem; releases all prisoners; and ends its blockade of our international borders, our coastline and our airspace permanently. This would provide the starting point for just negotiations and would lay the groundwork for the return of millions of refugees. Given what we have lost, it is the only basis by which we can start to be whole again." (Washington Post)

These are difficult issues and will require intensive negotiations before they can be resolved. But the present policy provides no path for resolution or reconcilliation; just more animosity and bloodshed. The Bush-Olmert plan is a failure; the killing has only increased.

Carter's trip is a reminder that there's still a way out of this mess that doesn't involve slaughtering each others children

Our Reign Of Terror

Our Reign Of Terror

In shocking testimonies that reveal abductions, beatings and torture, Israeli soldiers confess the horror they have visited on Hebron

By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem

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The dark-haired 22-year-old in black T-shirt, blue jeans and red Crocs is understandably hesitant as he sits at a picnic table in the incongruous setting of a beauty spot somewhere in Israel. We know his name and if we used it he would face a criminal investigation and a probable prison sentence.

The birds are singing as he describes in detail some of what he did and saw others do as an enlisted soldier in Hebron. And they are certainly criminal: the incidents in which Palestinian vehicles are stopped for no good reason, the windows smashed and the occupants beaten up for talking back – for saying, for example, they are on the way to hospital; the theft of tobacco from a Palestinian shopkeeper who is then beaten "to a pulp" when he complains; the throwing of stun grenades through the windows of mosques as people prayed. And worse.

The young man left the army only at the end of last year, and his decision to speak is part of a concerted effort to expose the moral price paid by young Israeli conscripts in what is probably the most problematic posting there is in the occupied territories. Not least because Hebron is the only Palestinian city whose centre is directly controlled by the military, 24/7, to protect the notably hardline Jewish settlers there. He says firmly that he now regrets what repeatedly took place during his tour of duty.

But his frequent, if nervous, grins and giggles occasionally show just a hint of the bravado he might have displayed if boasting of his exploits to his mates in a bar. Repeatedly he turns to the older former soldier who has persuaded him to speak to us, and says as if seeking reassurance: "You know how it is in Hebron."

The older ex-soldier is Yehuda Shaul, who does indeed "know how it is in Hebron", having served in the city in a combat unit at the peak of the intifada, and is a founder of Shovrim Shtika, or Breaking the Silence, which will publish tomorrow the disturbing testimonies of 39 Israelis – including this young man – who served in the army in Hebron between 2005 and 2007. They cover a range of experiences, from anger and powerlessness in the face of often violent abuse of Arabs by hardline Jewish settlers, through petty harassment by soldiers, to soldiers beating up Palestinian residents without provocation, looting homes and shops, and opening fire on unarmed demonstrators.

The maltreatment of civilians under occupation is common to many armies in the world – including Britain's, from Northern Ireland to Iraq.

But, paradoxically, few if any countries apart from Israel have an NGO like Breaking the Silence, which seeks – through the experiences of the soldiers themselves – as its website puts it "to force Israeli society to address the reality which it created" in the occupied territories.

The Israeli public was given an unflattering glimpse of military life in Hebron this year when a young lieutenant in the Kfir Brigade called Yaakov Gigi was given a 15-month jail sentence for taking five soldiers with him to hijack a Palestinian taxi, conduct what the Israeli media called a "rampage" in which one of the soldiers shot and wounded a Palestinian civilian who just happened to be in the wrong place, and then tried to lie his way out of it.

In a confessional interview with the Israeli Channel Two investigative programme Uvda, Gigi, who had previously been in many ways a model soldier, talked of "losing the human condition" in Hebron. Asked what he meant, he replied: "To lose the human condition is to become an animal."

The Israeli military did not prosecute the soldier who had fired on the Palestinian, as opposed to Gigi. But the military insists "that the events that occurred within the Kfir Brigade are highly unusual".

But as the 22-year-old soldier, also in the Kfir Brigade, confirms in his testimony to Breaking the Silence, it seems that the event may not have been exceptional. Certainly, our interview tells us, he was "many times" in groups that commandeered taxis, seated the driver in the back, and told him to direct them to places "where they hate the Jews" in order to "make a balagan" – Hebrew for "big mess".

Then there is the inter- clan Palestinian fight: "We were told to go over there and find out what was happening. Our [platoon] commander was a bit screwed in the head. So anyway, we would locate houses, and he'd tell us: 'OK, anyone you see armed with stones or whatever, I don't care what – shoot.' Everyone would think it's the clan fight..." Did the company commander know? "No one knew. Platoon's private initiative, these actions."

Did you hit them? "Sure, not just them. Anyone who came close ... Particularly legs and arms. Some people also sustained abdominal hits ... I think at some point they realised it was soldiers, but they were not sure. Because they could not believe soldiers would do this, you know."

Or using a 10-year-old child to locate and punish a 15-year-old stone-thrower: "So we got hold of just some Palestinian kid nearby, we knew that he knew who it had been. Let's say we beat him a little, to put it mildly, until he told us. You know, the way it goes when your mind's already screwed up, and you have no more patience for Hebron and Arabs and Jews there.

"The kid was really scared, realising we were on to him. We had a commander with us who was a bit of a fanatic. We gave the boy over to this commander, and he really beat the shit out of him ... He showed him all kinds of holes in the ground along the way, asking him: 'Is it here you want to die? Or here?' The kid goes, 'No, no!'

"Anyway, the kid was stood up, and couldn't stay standing on his own two feet. He was already crying ... And the commander continues, 'Don't pretend' and kicks him some more. And then [name withheld], who always had a hard time with such things, went in, caught the squad commander and said, 'Don't touch him any more, that's it.' The commander goes, 'You've become a leftie, what?' And he answers, 'No, I just don't want to see such things.'

"We were right next to this, but did nothing. We were indifferent, you know. OK. Only after the fact you start thinking. Not right away. We were doing such things every day ... It had become a habit...

"And the parents saw it. The commander ordered [the mother], 'Don't get any closer.' He cocked his weapon, already had a bullet inside. She was frightened. He put his weapon literally inside the kid's mouth. 'Anyone gets close, I kill him. Don't bug me. I kill. I have no mercy.' So the father ... got hold of the mother and said, 'Calm down, let them be, so they'll leave him alone.'"

Not every soldier serving in Hebron becomes an "animal". Iftach Arbel, 23, from an upper-middle class, left-of-centre home in Herzylia, served in Hebron as a commander just before the withdrawal from Gaza, when he thinks the army wanted to show it could be tough with settlers, too. And many of the testimonies, including Mr Arbel's, describe how the settlers educate children as young as four to throw stones at Palestinians, attack their homes and even steal their possessions. To Mr Arbel, the Hebron settlers are "pure evil" and the only solution is "to remove the settlers".

He believes it would be possible even within these constraints to treat Palestinians better. He adds: "We did night activity. Choose a house at random, on the aerial photo, so as to practise combat routine and all, which is instructive for the soldiers, I mean, I'm all for it. But then at midnight you wake someone up and turn his whole house upside down with everyone sleeping on the mattresses and all."

But Mr Arbel says that most soldiers are some way between his own extreme and that of the most violent. From just two of his fellow testifiers, you can see what he means.

As one said: "We did all kinds of experiments to see who could do the best split in Abu Snena. We would put [Palestinians] against the wall, make like we were checking them, and ask them to spread their legs. Spread, spread, spread, it was a game to see who could do it best. Or we would check who can hold his breath for longest.

"Choke them. One guy would come, make like he was checking them, and suddenly start yelling like they said something and choke them ... Block their airways; you have to press the adams apple. It's not pleasant. Look at the watch as you're doing it, until he passes out. The one who takes longest to faint wins."

And theft as well as violence. "There's this car accessory shop there. Every time, soldiers would take a tape-disc player, other stuff. This guy, if you go ask him, will tell you plenty of things that soldiers did to him.

"A whole scroll-full ... They would raid his shop regularly. 'Listen, if you tell on us, we'll confiscate your whole store, we'll break everything.' You know, he was afraid to tell. He was already making deals, 'Listen guys, you're damaging me financially.' I personally never took a thing, but I'm telling you, people used to take speakers from him, whole sound systems.

"He'd go, 'Please, give me 500 shekels, I'm losing money here.' 'Listen, if you go on – we'll pick up your whole shop.' 'OK, OK, take it, but listen, don't take more than 10 systems a month.' Something like this.

"'I'm already going bankrupt.' He was so miserable. Guys in our unit used to sell these things back home, make deals with people. People are so stupid."

The military said that Israeli Defence Forces soldiers operate according to "a strict set of moral guidelines" and that their expected adherence to them only "increases wherever and whenever IDF soldiers come in contact with civilians". It added that "if evidence supporting the allegations is uncovered, steps are taken to hold those involved to the level of highest judicial severity". It also said: "The Military Advocate General has issued a number of indictments against soldiers due to allegations of criminal behaviour ... Soldiers found guilty were punished severely by the Military Court, in proportion to the committed offence." It had not by last night quantified such indictments.

In its introduction to the testimonies, Breaking the Silence says: "The soldiers' determination to fulfil their mission yields tragic results: the proper-normative becomes despicable, the inconceivable becomes routine ... [The] testimonies are to illustrate the manner in which they are swept into the brutal reality reigning on the ground, a reality whereby the lives of many thousands of Palestinian families are at the questionable mercy of youths. Hebron turns a focused, flagrant lens at the reality to which Israel's young representatives are constantly sent."

A force for justice

Breaking the Silence was formed four years ago by a group of ex-soldiers, most of whom had served in Israel Defence Forces combat units in Hebron. Many of the soldiers do reserve duty in the military each year. It has collected some 500 testimonies from former soldiers who served in the West Bank and Gaza. Its first public exposure was with an exhibition of photographs by soldiers serving in Hebron and the organisation also runs regular tours of Hebron for Israeli students and diplomats. It receives funding from groups as diverse as the Jewish philanthropic Moriah Fund, the New Israel Fund, the British embassy in Tel Aviv and the EU.

Truth as a Causality of War

Truth as a Causality of War

"Just as the Wall is Called a Fence, So are the Mercenaries Called Contractors"

By Dan Glazebrook

Go To Original

Robert Fisk has a well-earned reputation as one of the most honest and hard hitting foreign correspondents in the British media. He has worked in Northern Ireland, where he exposed the presence of the SAS in the mid-1970s, as well as Bosnia, Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon. It was here, as a witness to the immediate aftermath of the Israeli-organised Sabra and Shatila massacre of 2000 Palestinian refugees, that his journalism took on its current form: angry, passionate, and as he puts it "partial on the side of the victims"--a style of journalism which, unfortunately, is not shared by many of his colleagues in the profession. In the midst of a torrent of lies and propaganda emanating from our media about British and US policy on the Middle East, Fisk's writings are a breath of fresh air--although the hellish reality he depicts does not always make for pleasant reading.

When I met Fisk in Christchurch College, sandwiched between an earlier speaking engagement in Bristol, and a lecture at the Oxford Literary Festival--seemingly without a moment's rest--we began by talking about the role of journalism in times of war. Firstly, I wanted to know, does journalism, by sanitising or justifying war, also have a role in perpetuating it?

There are several things. First of all, there's the inability of many journalists from the United States to actually tell the truth about the Israel-Palestine situation--hence, occupied territories are called disputed territories, the wall is called the security barrier, a colony or settlement is called a neighbourhood or an outpost. Which means that if you see a Palestinian chucking a stone, if it's about an occupation, you can understand it, but if it's about a dispute, which you can presumably settle over a cup of tea, then obviously the Palestinians are generically violent. So you demean one side in this appalling conflict.

Then you have this business where television will not show what we see, for reasons of so-called "bad taste". I remember once being on the phone to a TV editor in London when Jazeera were asked to feed some tape of children killed and wounded by British shell fire in Basra, and the guy started saying, "there's no point feeding us this, we can't show this"the first excuse was, "people will be having their tea, so we can't put it on", and then it was, "this is sort of pornography, we don't show this". And it ended up--it is mesmeric to listen to this stuff - the last thing was "We have to show respect for the dead". So we don't show any respect for them when they are alive, we blow them to bits, and then we show respect for themSo because of this - and these bloodless sandpits with ex-generals pontificating - it becomes a game; you start propagating this idea that war is primarily about victory or defeat - when in fact, it's about death, and the infliction of massive pain.

I was in Iraq in 1991, when the British and Americans had been bombing one of the highways. There were women and children dead and in bits, and all these dogs came out of the desert and started eating themIf you saw what I saw you would never ever think of supporting war of any kind against anyone again.

But of course, the politicians--our leaders--are very happy that these pictures are not shown, because they make war more attractive, less painful.

Do the British public never get to see this, more realistic, picture of war?

Look, if an Iraqi soldier is obliging enough to die by the side of the road in a romantic pose, and you can get him against the skyline without any boiled flesh - you know, "the price of war: an Iraqi soldier lies dead", you know the sort of caption by now - you can do that." But that's about it.

Journalistic standards are degenerating rapidly in other areas too. Watching the news two weeks ago, I was shocked to see Yassin Nassari and Abdul Patel referred to by the BBC as 'terrorists'--not "alleged" or "suspected", but straight down the line "terrorists" - when the only charges they faced related to "possession of materials" (Islamist literature and video), and they had not even been accused of planning terrorist attacks, let alone carrying any out. Has 'terrorism' become a 'catch-all' phrase?

I've seen cases in the United States where the evidence of terrorism is a copy of a Lebanese newspaper.

I've just had an interesting example of what's going on. I was lecturing in Ottawa to 600 Muslim Canadians, and I said to them "you are absolutely right to exercise your right to free speech to attack the United States and Israel when they kill people, commit torture, occupy other people's lands- but why don't I ever hear you condemning the regimes in Egypt, Damascus, Libya and so on?" Silence. I couldn't work it out.

So what was going on?

Later, I was driving across Canada with two Muslims and they told me. In Canada, if they speak out against these regimes--the Syrian regime, or the Egyptian--what happens is that these various countries have their own muhabarat people in Canada--security people--who will then pass home the message that certain people are speaking up against Mubarak, Assad, or whoever. Then, under the new friendship between intelligence services, the Syrian or Egyptian regime tells the Canadians that there is a potential terrorist--anti-regime, right?--and CSIS, the Canadian version of the FBI, starts putting taps on them. So, by exercising their freedom of speech against dictatorships, they end up being suspected of terrorism by their new country of citizenship. So the result is, at the end of the day, they are silent. As I would be too, in their position.

What about the silence of the rest of us, who are not so easily excused? With ever dwindling numbers on the anti-war demonstrations, have we forgotten what is really going on in those countries suffering Western "liberation"?

You keep having to say to people in London, "but it's real"--because most people don't have any experience of war in the West anymore. There isn't a single one of our political leaders with any experience of war. Bush dodged it, Cheney dodged it, Powell was in Vietnam, but he's gone. Hollywood is their experience of war. And when you send people off to war, and your experience is Hollywood, you might be a bit shocked when they start dying. At the end of the day, it isn't real to them.

But it's all too real to the inhabitants of the Middle East, who have been subject to Western sponsored blitzkrieg and massacre for decades--from the ongoing nakbah against the Palestinians, through Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the US arming of Iraq in the 8 year war against Iran, the 1991 Gulf 'War', and subsequent economic genocide of UN sanctions on Iraq--not to mention the West's backing for the dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. All of this has been witnessed first hand by Fisk, who believes the Muslim world has shown incredible restraint in the face of all this oppression:

I'm surprised 9-11 didn't happen before, that it took that long. Now, whether that is because it took a lot of planning, I don't know, but I am amazed that you can knock on a front door in the West Bank and not have them slap you in the face--instead of that, they offer you in for coffee and a meal. Can you imagine putting it the other way around--if we were being bombed and occupied by Arab armies and a friendly Arab reporter turned to chat, I don't know if I would open the door; would you?

The true extent of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan has been masked by the massive use of mercenaries--hidden from the troop figures. Estimates suggest 1000 have been killed in Iraq alone. Fisk is one of very few journalists to call them by their name, as opposed to the "contractor" euphemism:

"Just as the wall is called a fence instead of a wall, and it's a neighbourhood not a settlement, so these are now contractors rather than mercenaries. I've always called them mercenaries. When they say two 'contractors' have been murdered, the idea that they are going around in an armoured humvee loaded with weapons doesn't come into the brain pod immediately does it?"

What is your experience with these mercenaries?

I noticed that in 2003, they were popping up with belts loaded with machine gun bullets in the hotel I was in. It was obvious they were going to attract attacks like honey. So I went to some of them and said "look, for god's sakes, can't you just keep your weapons in your room?" - in those days, you weren't being attacked in the street - "you're making this out to be a barracks--you're endangering yourselves and you're endangering us" And this guy walked up to me with two rifles--he'd overheard the conversation--and he said, "well when you're in trouble mate, don't come asking me for help". I said, "I don't want your fucking help, I want you to leave."

But they didn't leave. And the big excuse for staying now is, of course, the looming spectre of civil war. Is there, then, a functional value to the occupation of the "civil war theory"?

The first man I ever heard mention the danger of civil war in Iraq was Dan Semor, spokesman for the occupying power in the Green Zone in August 2003. No one had ever heard about the danger of civil war before, no Iraqi ever mentioned it. I remember thinking, what are they trying to do, frighten the Iraqis into obedience?

I'm not suggesting that the American military are trying to stir up sectarian strife, but it's not impossible that there are certain institutions operating either at one remove--i.e. with Iraqis or not - in order to get militias to fight each other rather than fight the Americans. The French did that in Algeria--it's a fact. I don't know if the same thing is happening in Iraq, but given everything else that's gone on--murder, torture, etc--who knows?

But you don't actually have to set off car bombs to do this. Look at the way we as journalists publish all these maps, you know--Shi'ites at the bottom, Sunnis in the middle, Kurds at the top. The British did the same in Belfast - green for Catholics, Orange for protestants, medium sherry colour for mixed areas, for people who are inconsiderate enough to marry across the religious divide. But we don't, obviously, do these ethnic maps about Birmingham or Bradford or Washington. I could draw you an ethnic map of Toronto, with the suburb of Mississauga green for Muslim. But they wouldn't print it. Because in our superior, civilised Western society, we don't acknowledge it. In their society, we spend our time pointing it out to them. I was in New York some months ago, and on the front cover of Time was "How to tell a Sunni from a Shia." Can you imagine it? And one of the ways was look at the licence plate of the car. So, you know, we contribute to civil strife, by constantly saying, "look at the guy in the next village". So you don't need to set up car bombs to divide people, you can do it quite successfully just by constant repetition - civil war, Shiites, militias, Sunnis, power. You create the narrative. And then in due course, people fall into line because it is the only one they get.

I once asked the brother of s Sunni dentist who had been shot dead, "So, will there be civil war?" He replied, "Why do you people want us to have a civil war? I'm married to a Shi'ite--do you want me to kill my wife?" He said, "We're not a sectarian society, we're a tribal society--the Duleimis have got lots of Sunnis and Shias." And that was a response, you see, to an idea that had been set off by Dan Senor, the official spokesman for the occupying power.

Unfortunately, the sectarian lines are becoming clearer in Iraq by the day, with the US army building walls to create separate ghettoes in Baghdad, and with the Kurdish north now negotiating its own oil deals. The Western imposed solution for Bosnia was full-scale ethnic partition. Will this be the future of Iraq?

Bosnia was in Europe, so eventually, we wanted to switch the war off. Iraq is a different matter--we're in Iraq for oil. If the national product of Iraq was asparagus, we would not be there, I promise. There are parallels with Bosnia, not least indifference towards the Muslim victims--we did nothing for them until the war had consumed a quarter of a million of them--and we don't care about the Iraqis. But I think there are big differences with Bosnia. There are more parallels, I think, between the NATO-Serb Kosovo war, because that is where we got people used to the idea that bombing civilian trains on railway bridges, bombing hospitals, bombing TV stations was OK. So when we hit lots of civilians in Iraq, it was "well, we were doing that back in Serbia, weren't we?". We bombed Al-Jazeera in Kabul, they bombed Al-Jazeera in Baghdad, which was not even an Iraqi station. So I think the Kosovo war started off the acceptability of doing these things.

Whatever the occupier's plans for Iraq, and whatever barbarities it imposes, one thing is for sure--the future of that country is not entirely in their hands. Even with their full scale promotion of sectarian violence in 1950s Algeria, the French were still forced to leave. The dilemma for the US in Iraq, as Fisk puts it, is that "they must leave, they will leave, but they can't leave--that is the equation that turns sand into blood". For those who want to understand this process, and what it means in human terms, rather than simply be lied to about it, Robert Fisk's reporting is a good place to start.

European Officials Agree on Framework for Outlawing Online Terror Recruiting

European Officials Agree on Framework for Outlawing Online Terror Recruiting

PARIS — European Union justice ministers agreed Friday to toughen laws across their 27-nation bloc to punish those who promote violence and recruit people for terrorist attacks.

Reflecting mounting anxiety that the Internet has become a crucial tool for would-be terrorists, the agreement will make it a crime to disseminate terrorist propaganda through the Internet for recruiting, training and bomb-making purposes.

European Union officials described the agreement as a framework that member countries would have to incorporate into their own laws.

Countries that already have strong antiterrorism laws, like Spain and Britain, which have suffered terrorist attacks and give sweeping powers to the police and investigators in terrorism cases, will not need to make significant changes. But countries with more lenient rules, like Sweden and Denmark, may need to adopt new, tougher legislation.

The new rules, aimed at codifying terrorist crimes among countries with very different histories and experiences with terrorism, underscore a growing consensus that in the campaign against terrorism, the mere transmission of information and ideas could be considered a criminal act.

The agreement is intended to help the police find and arrest suspects in cross-border investigations, but also to prevent radicalization.

“The Internet is used to inspire and mobilize local terrorist networks and individuals in Europe,” thus “functioning as a ‘virtual training camp,’ ” the ministers said in their agreement. In a separate move, the ministers agreed on a plan for tighter controls on the sale of explosives and other bomb-making materials.

In an interview in Brussels on Tuesday, Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, acknowledged that the Internet was becoming an even more dangerous tool for radicalization, and that member states had to develop a revolutionary joint strategy to counter its message.

He said that preventing radicalization was one of the major challenges facing member states, and one of the toughest subjects on which to forge agreement.

“It’s a real challenge because most of the policies are in the hands of the member states,” Mr. de Kerchove said.

While the European Union as a whole has improved cooperation among its members in investigations and border control, he called prevention of radicalization an area “where we may do better.”

The new initiative “important because the Internet plays a huge role — in incitement, in communication, in providing information on how to mount an attack,” he said.

The agreement updates antiterrorism laws passed by the European Union after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The laws were aimed at preventing potential terrorists from exploiting loopholes in various legal systems across the continent.

It could make it easier for authorities to shut down Web sites disseminating terrorist propaganda and bomb-making instructions, and to identify and pursue proselytizers and recruiters. It could also help courts and administrative authorities demand that Internet service providers remove information considered dangerous.

Friso Roscam Abbing, European Commission spokesman on justice and interior issues, said it was not known how many nations would have to change their laws. It was now up to member nations to analyze whether their legislation matches the goals laid down, he said.

Each member country will decide the severity of prison sentences.

The agreement is likely to face opposition in countries where the preservation of civil liberties and freedom of expression can outweigh security concerns.

The ministers defended their initiative as a balanced approach to a widening problem.

“We have been able to strike a very sensitive balance between two important goals,” said Lovro Sturm, justice minister of Slovenia, after the meeting on Friday. “We have to make sure that we respect the human rights and fundamental freedom of the citizens. On the other hand this enables us to lead a more effective fight against terrorism. This improves the capability of the E.U. to prevent terrorist offenses.”

In a separate initiative, the ministers agreed to create a European database to give member governments permanent access to information on incidents and attacks involving explosive devices. The database, which will be run by Europol, the European police agency, will monitor the sale of bomb-making materials and include an early warning system on stolen explosives and other equipment.

Earlier this month, Europol said that the number of arrests connected to terrorism doubled in the European Union in 2007 compared with the year before. Most of the attacks carried out within the bloc, it said, were linked to separatist movements, rather than militant Islam.

Torture Question Hovers Over Chertoff

Torture Question Hovers Over Chertoff

John Yoo and some other Bush administration lawyers who built the legal framework for torture are now out of the U.S. government, but one still holds a Cabinet-level rank – Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

In the summer of 2002, Chertoff, then head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, offered assurances to the CIA that its interrogators would not face prosecution under anti-torture laws if they followed guidelines on aggressive techniques approved by the Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, where Yoo worked.

Those guidelines stretched the rules on permissible treatment of detainees by narrowly defining torture as intense pain equivalent to organ failure or death. Specific interrogation techniques were gleaned from a list of methods that the U.S. military feared might be used against American soldiers if they were captured by a ruthless enemy.

Three years ago, when Chertoff was facing confirmation hearings to be Homeland Security chief, the New York Times cited three senior-level government sources as describing Chertoff’s Criminal Division as fielding questions from the CIA about whether its officers risked prosecution if they employed certain harsh techniques.

“One technique the CIA officers could use under circumstances without fear of prosecution was strapping a subject down and making him experience a feeling of drowning,” the Times reported.

In other words, Chertoff appears to have green-lighted the technique known as “waterboarding,” which has been regarded as torture since the days of the Spanish Inquisition.

Chertoff reportedly did object to some other procedures, such as death threats against family members and mind-altering drugs that would change a detainee’s personality, the Times reported. [NYT, Jan. 29, 2005]

During his Senate confirmation hearings in February 2005, Chertoff denied providing the CIA with legal guidance on the use of specific interrogation methods, such as waterboarding. Rather, he said he gave the agency broad guidance in response to questions about interrogation methods.

"You are dealing in an area where there is potential criminality," Chertoff said in describing his advice to the CIA. "You better be very careful to make sure that whatever you decide to do falls well within what is required by law."

Nevertheless, the evidence continues to build that Chertoff’s assurances gave CIA interrogators confidence they would avoid prosecution as long as they stayed within the permissive guidelines devised by deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo and his boss at the Office of Legal Counsel, Jay Bybee.

The Abu Zubaydah Case

Chertoff’s reported assurances to CIA agents appear to have led directly to the use of waterboarding against alleged al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in August 2002.

"The CIA was seeking to determine the legal limits of interrogation practices for use in cases like that of Abu Zubaydah, the Qaeda lieutenant who was captured in March 2002," according to the New York Times article.

The Abu Zubaydah case was the first time that waterboarding was used against a prisoner in the “war on terror,” according to Pentagon and Justice Department documents, news reports and several books written about the Bush administration’s interrogation methods.

In The One Percent Doctrine, author Ron Suskind reported that President George W. Bush had become obsessed with Zubaydah and the information he might have about pending terrorist plots against the United States.

"Bush was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth," Suskind wrote. Bush questioned one CIA briefer, "Do some of these harsh methods really work?"

The waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah was videotaped, but that record was destroyed in November 2005 after the Washington Post published a story that exposed the CIA's use of so-called "black site" prisons overseas to interrogate terror suspects.

John Durham, an assistant attorney general in Connecticut, was appointed special counsel earlier this year to investigate the destruction of that videotape as well as destroyed film on other interrogations.

The CIA officials who pressed Chertoff to give assurances protecting CIA interrogators included former CIA General Counsel Scott Muller and his deputy, John Rizzo, according to the New York Times. Muller and Rizzo, who is now the CIA’s general counsel, are at the center of Durham’s probe.

The Times also reported that Chertoff participated in the drafting of a second still-secret memo in August 2002, which allegedly described specific interrogation methods that CIA interrogators could use against detainees.

Those interrogation techniques were derived from the Army and Air Force’s Survival, Evasion, Rescue, and Escape (SERE) training program. But those techniques were meant to prepare U.S. soldiers for abuse they might suffer if captured by a brutal regime, not as methods for U.S. interrogations.

New ACLU Document Release

This past week, the American Civil Liberties Union released more than 300 pages of documents showing that in 2003 military interrogators used methods they learned during SERE training against eight Afghanistan detainees held at the Gardez Detention Facility in southeastern Afghanistan.

Those methods included forcing a detainee to kneel outside in wet clothing, spraying the person with cold water, and punching and kicking a detainee over the course of three weeks.

One of the prisoners, an 18-year-old Afghan militia fighter named Jamal Naseer, later died. The documents released to the ACLU say his body was so severely beaten by his interrogators that it appeared to be a black and green color at the time of his death.

Amrit Singh, an ACLU attorney, said the SERE tactics that were approved by the Justice Department were never intended to be used by the U.S. government against its detainees.

The latest disclosures further erode claims by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that prisoner abuses at Gardez – or the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib – were isolated acts by a few “bad apples.”

To the contrary, it appears that the policies approved by Bush and the assurances provided by Chertoff and others led to the atrocities at the CIA detention centers as well as the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

An action memorandum, dated Feb. 7, 2002, and signed by President Bush, stated that the Geneva Convention did not apply to members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

That, in turn, led Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq to institute a “dozen interrogation methods beyond” the Army’s standard practice under the convention, according to a 2004 report on the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prepared by a panel headed by James Schlesinger.

Sanchez said he based his decision on “the President's Memorandum,” which he said had justified "additional, tougher measures" against detainees, the Schlesigner report said.

Other prisoner abuses resulted from Rumsfeld’s verbal and written authorization in December 2002 allowing interrogators to use “stress positions, isolation for up to 30 days, removal of clothing and the use of detainees' phobias (such as the use of dogs),” according to a separate report issued by Army Maj. Gen. George R. Fay.

“From December 2002, interrogators in Afghanistan were removing clothing, isolating people for long periods of time, using stress positions, exploiting fear of dogs and implementing sleep and light deprivation,” the Fay report said.

Mora’s Complaint

Rumsfeld’s approval of certain interrogation methods outlined in a December 2002 action memorandum was criticized by Alberto Mora, the former general counsel of the Navy.

“The interrogation techniques approved by the Secretary [of Defense] should not have been authorized because some (but not all) of them, whether applied singly or in combination, could produce effects reaching the level of torture, a degree of mistreatment not otherwise proscribed by the memo because it did not articulate any bright-line standard for prohibited detainee treatment, a necessary element in any such document,” Mora wrote in a 14-page letter to the Navy’s inspector general.

Additionally, a Dec. 20, 2005, Army Inspector General Report relating to the capture and interrogation of Mohammad al-Qahtani included a sworn statement by Lt. Gen. Randall M. Schmidt. It said Secretary Rumsfeld was “personally involved” in the interrogation of al-Qahtani and spoke “weekly” with Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander at Guantanamo, about the status of the interrogations between late 2002 and early 2003.

Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents al-Qahtani, said in a sworn declaration that his client, imprisoned at Guantanamo, was subjected to months of torture based on verbal and written authorizations from Rumsfeld.

“At Guantánamo, Mr. al-Qahtani was subjected to a regime of aggressive interrogation techniques, known as the ‘First Special Interrogation Plan,’ that were authorized by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,” Gutierrez said.

“Those techniques were implemented under the supervision and guidance of Secretary Rumsfeld and the commander of Guantánamo, Major General Geoffrey Miller. These methods included, but were not limited to, 48 days of severe sleep deprivation and 20-hour interrogations, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, religious humiliation, physical force, prolonged stress positions and prolonged sensory over-stimulation, and threats with military dogs.”

Gutierrez’s claims about the type of interrogation al-Qahtani endured have since been borne out with the release of hundreds of pages of internal Pentagon documents describing interrogation methods at Guantanamo and at least two independent reports about prisoner abuse.

According to the Schlesinger report, orders signed by Bush and Rumsfeld in 2002 and 2003 authorizing brutal interrogations “became policy” at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

In February, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) confirmed that it launched a formal investigation to determine, among other issues, whether agency attorneys, including Chertoff, provided the White House and the CIA with poor legal advice when it said CIA interrogators could use harsh interrogation methods against detainees.

Yoo is currently a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

GIs in Sadr City Under Fire From Friends and Foes

GIs in Sadr City Under Fire From Friends and Foes

By Leila Fadel

Go to Original

Baghdad - Three weeks after U.S. troops were ordered into the sprawling Shiite Muslim slum of Sadr City to stop rockets from raining down on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad's Green Zone, they're caught in crossfire between Shiite militiamen and the mostly Shiite Iraqi army.

American soldiers who try to move around this urban area, even in the U.S. Army's state-of-the-art Stryker armored vehicles, risk being ambushed. The soldiers in a platoon from the 25th Infantry Division quickly learned that holding a position puts them in the line of fire from both the Mahdi Army militia and the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces.

The American soldiers can't go on the offensive from the run-down two-story house they commandeered in south Sadr City, but must hunker down and wait to get shot at.

An Iraqi family evacuated the house just before the fighting started. It has rats and clogged toilets but no electricity or hot water, and no air conditioning or heating. The American soldiers have had one shower and barely a change of clothes since they got here.

Things got a lot worse last weekend, when bullets started flying at the house, targeting soldiers on the rooftop and in the rooms on the second floor.

"Where's it coming from?" the soldiers on the roof shouted to one another.

"I think it's coming from the north and west," one soldier said over the radio. "Is the Iraqi army shooting at us?"

Three times that day, the Iraqi army unit just up the road from the house was told to hold its fire because its erratic shots were hitting the house that its American allies occupied.

Three times, the Iraqis kept right on shooting.

"They told them to stop shooting," Lt. Adam Bowen, the platoon leader, told his men of the 3rd platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division, from Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

More shots rang out.

"Well, that lasted," said Sgt. David Stine, 28, of Iola, Ill., laughing.

One floor below, in a green pastel living room decorated with a picture of a Japanese garden and a bouquet of plastic roses, Spc. Matthew Fisher of Evansville, Ill., pointed his weapon out the window, searching for snipers on the rooftops.

His buddies call him "I Spy" because of his knack for spotting things and sometimes seeing things that aren't there.

Bullets slammed into the green pastel door with a small window at the top, where Sgt. Jared Hicks, 23, of Three Rivers, Mich., stood guard behind a pile of bricks taken from the roof of the house, the muzzle of his rifle poking through the broken glass.

Just before 4 p.m., Bravo Company's commander went to the Iraqi army checkpoints up the road to demand that the Iraqis stop shooting.

Fisher looked out his window at the rooftops and saw a military-age man running on the roof across from him.

"Is that IA or JAM?" he asked, using the initials for the Iraqi army and for Jaysh al Mahdi, the Arabic name of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

The Americans couldn't shoot until they were sure who was on the roof. Fisher looked at the sky and saw a flock of pigeons flying back and forth, following the directions of a man waving a flag. It appeared that militia groups were signaling each other.

Caught in the Middle

Three weeks ago, Bowen's 3rd platoon was doing what it regarded as peacekeeping patrols, meeting local officials and tribal leaders in a relatively peaceful area north of Taji, which is about 12 miles north of Baghdad, checking out suspicious vehicles and searching for weapons caches.

Bowen and his men were sent to Baghdad after the Iraqi government launched a major offensive against Shiite militias in the southern port city of Basra. The Mahdi Army held off the government forces in Basra and neighboring provinces, then went on the offensive in Sadr's biggest stronghold, Sadr City, a slum in northeast Baghdad that's home to some 2.5 million people.

The Sadrists maintain that their Shiite rivals in the government of U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki are trying to undercut their power and popularity before provincial elections planned for October. The Sadrists, with a populist appeal to poor and marginalized Shiites, are likely to dominate Iraq's southern Shiite provinces in the elections.

Whatever the origin of Iraq's latest violent convulsions, American soldiers appear to have been dragged into the fight, backing the Shiite government against the Shiite Sadrists.

"It ticks you off it all started as an Iraqi offensive and now . . . it's definitely linked to Basra," said Lt. Col. Dan Barnett, the commander of the 1st Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, who's heading the American efforts in Sadr City. "I don't think it's over."

Bowen's 3rd platoon soldiers liked what they were doing in Taji, but in Sadr City, residents view U.S. soldiers as occupiers and worry that wherever the Americans are, trouble will follow.

"Before we came out here, I considered us peacekeepers, but now we're considered the bad guys," said Staff Sgt. Travis Evans, 33, of Seattle.

Outside the platoon's commandeered house, residents looked curiously at the U.S. soldiers who'd suddenly become their neighbors. Children picked through the garbage out front: khaki plastic bags from the young soldiers' preserved meals and bottles filled with urine because the toilets weren't working. The laughing children were quickly shooed away.

The platoon was supposed to stay just 96 hours. Now there's no end in sight.

"I guess we didn't expect this much resistance for their cause," Evans said.

Home, Hot Meals, and Family

Amid the shooting at the roof and the second floor, Bowen was fighting his own battle against the stopped-up toilets on the ground floor. His weapons were duct tape and a pipe. Closing off the top of the pipe with the tape, he used the makeshift plunger to unclog the Eastern-style toilets, porcelain holes in the floor.

"It's times like this I realize the duality of war," he said. "The guys upstairs are shooting at people, and we're trying to figure out how to shove poop down a hole."

Bowen went to work pushing the human waste of his soldiers.

For the men of the 3rd platoon, life in Sadr City has been predictable boredom pierced by moments of sheer terror. In the 16 days they'd been in the district, they'd had one 12-hour break and suffered through an ambush by the Mahdi Army that destroyed one of their vehicles and nearly killed some of their men.

They lie on the uncomfortable sofas in the heat and talk about home, real toilets, hot meals and girlfriends, their wives and their children.

They borrowed toy guns from a store attached to the home, which provides a livelihood for the family that lives here, aimed the toys at one another and joked about their situation.

Over the radio, the soldiers heard that Sadr's brother-in-law had been killed, and that the assassination could increase the violence. They were told not to refer to the enemy as JAM but as insurgents or special groups.

"That's retarded," Bowen said. They were caught in a political crossfire as well as a real one.

"I hate Sadr City," Bowen said. Before his stint here, he'd sympathized with Iraqis who lived in misery and detested foreign occupation. "It's always the poor and lower middle class that fight. Look at us."

Now he finds it hard to sympathize, with bullets flying at his men.

Over the radio, a soldier reworked the words to Gloria Gaynor's song "I will survive."

"There once was a man, he was petrified," he sang. "He was scared every time he heard a ricochet off his vehicle."

"Tell Him to Stop Coming Here"

The next day, the shooting died down and a bald-headed Iraqi dressed in a dishdasha, a long flowing gray robe, bravely walked up to the door of the house and called out to the U.S. soldiers with the only English word he knew.

"Mister!" he said.

Through an interpreter, the man, who said his name was Abu Youssef, told the soldiers that this was his home and he wanted to return.

"Joe, tell him we aren't leaving until the area is safe," Bowen told his interpreter.

The man looked confused. He'd split his family among three homes just before the fighting began March 25.

"Will you leave tomorrow?" he asked.

"My daughters are in school; they need to study; can I get their books?" he said. The soldiers asked the interpreter, nicknamed "Joe," to go through the house and give Abu Youssef books. Joe handed them over in a plastic bag through a crack in the door, barring the man from his home.

"Please watch the cigarettes," Abu Youssef said, referring to his little store, which the Americans called Wal-Mart. "I have no money."

He returned one more time and asked to take the cigarettes to sell and support his family until he could come home.

"Tell him to stop coming here," Bowen said.

Bowen said he didn't feel bad for seizing Abu Youssef's home. "They have the power to stop this shit and no one does. The power is in the people; it's always been with the people, but no one wants to stand up."

"I'd blow up half my house to get back inside," said Cpl. David Morelock of Greeneville, Tenn.

Spc. Brodie Berkenbile, 20, of Athens, Tenn., said he'd fire a sniper rifle at people from his rooftop if a foreign army took over. But this is different.

"We're trying to help them," he said.