Monday, April 21, 2008

Food Rationing Confronts Breadbasket of the World

Food Rationing Confronts Breadbasket of the World

BY JOSH GERSTEIN

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Many parts of America, long considered the breadbasket of the world, are now confronting a once unthinkable phenomenon: food rationing. Major retailers in New York, in areas of New England, and on the West Coast are limiting purchases of flour, rice, and cooking oil as demand outstrips supply. There are also anecdotal reports that some consumers are hoarding grain stocks.

At a Costco Warehouse in Mountain View, Calif., yesterday, shoppers grew frustrated and occasionally uttered expletives as they searched in vain for the large sacks of rice they usually buy.

"Where's the rice?" an engineer from Palo Alto, Calif., Yajun Liu, said. "You should be able to buy something like rice. This is ridiculous."

The bustling store in the heart of Silicon Valley usually sells four or five varieties of rice to a clientele largely of Asian immigrants, but only about half a pallet of Indian-grown Basmati rice was left in stock. A 20-pound bag was selling for $15.99.

"You can't eat this every day. It's too heavy," a health care executive from Palo Alto, Sharad Patel, grumbled as his son loaded two sacks of the Basmati into a shopping cart. "We only need one bag but I'm getting two in case a neighbor or a friend needs it," the elder man said.

The Patels seemed headed for disappointment, as most Costco members were being allowed to buy only one bag. Moments earlier, a clerk dropped two sacks back on the stack after taking them from another customer who tried to exceed the one-bag cap.

"Due to the limited availability of rice, we are limiting rice purchases based on your prior purchasing history," a sign above the dwindling supply said.

Shoppers said the limits had been in place for a few days, and that rice supplies had been spotty for a few weeks. A store manager referred questions to officials at Costco headquarters near Seattle, who did not return calls or e-mail messages yesterday.

An employee at the Costco store in Queens said there were no restrictions on rice buying, but limits were being imposed on purchases of oil and flour. Internet postings attributed some of the shortage at the retail level to bakery owners who flocked to warehouse stores when the price of flour from commercial suppliers doubled.

The curbs and shortages are being tracked with concern by survivalists who view the phenomenon as a harbinger of more serious trouble to come.

"It's sporadic. It's not every store, but it's becoming more commonplace," the editor of SurvivalBlog.com, James Rawles, said. "The number of reports I've been getting from readers who have seen signs posted with limits has increased almost exponentially, I'd say in the last three to five weeks."

Spiking food prices have led to riots in recent weeks in Haiti, Indonesia, and several African nations. India recently banned export of all but the highest quality rice, and Vietnam blocked the signing of a new contract for foreign rice sales.

"I'm surprised the Bush administration hasn't slapped export controls on wheat," Mr. Rawles said. "The Asian countries are here buying every kind of wheat." Mr. Rawles said it is hard to know how much of the shortages are due to lagging supply and how much is caused by consumers hedging against future price hikes or a total lack of product.

"There have been so many stories about worldwide shortages that it encourages people to stock up. What most people don't realize is that supply chains have changed, so inventories are very short," Mr. Rawles, a former Army intelligence officer, said. "Even if people increased their purchasing by 20%, all the store shelves would be wiped out."

At the moment, large chain retailers seem more prone to shortages and limits than do smaller chains and mom-and-pop stores, perhaps because store managers at the larger companies have less discretion to increase prices locally. Mr. Rawles said the spot shortages seemed to be most frequent in the Northeast and all the way along the West Coast. He said he had heard reports of buying limits at Sam's Club warehouses, which are owned by Wal-Mart Stores, but a spokesman for the company, Kory Lundberg, said he was not aware of any shortages or limits.

An anonymous high-tech professional writing on an investment Web site, Seeking Alpha, said he recently bought 10 50-pound bags of rice at Costco. "I am concerned that when the news of rice shortage spreads, there will be panic buying and the shelves will be empty in no time. I do not intend to cause a panic, and I am not speculating on rice to make profit. I am just hoarding some for my own consumption," he wrote.

For now, rice is available at Asian markets in California, though consumers have fewer choices when buying the largest bags. "At our neighborhood store, it's very expensive, more than $30" for a 25-pound bag, a housewife from Mountain View, Theresa Esquerra, said. "I'm not going to pay $30. Maybe we'll just eat bread."

Food Crisis Defusing Some GM Crop Resistance

Food Crisis Defusing Some GM Crop Resistance

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Soaring food prices and global grain shortages are bringing new pressures on governments, food companies and consumers to relax their longstanding resistance to genetically engineered crops.

In Japan and South Korea, some manufacturers for the first time have begun buying genetically engineered corn for use in soft drinks, snacks and other foods. Until now, to avoid consumer backlash, the companies have paid extra to buy conventionally grown corn. But with prices having tripled in two years, it has become too expensive to be so finicky.

"We cannot afford it," said a corn buyer at Kato Kagaku, a Japanese maker of corn starch and corn syrup.

In the United States, wheat growers and marketers, once hesitant about adopting biotechnology because they feared losing export sales, are now warming to it as a way to bolster supplies. Genetically modified crops contain genes from other organisms to make the plants resistance to insects, herbicides or disease. Opponents continue to worry that such crops have not been studied enough and that they might pose risks to health and the environment.

"I think it's pretty clear that price and supply concerns have people thinking a little bit differently today," said Steve Mercer, a spokesman for U.S. Wheat Associates, a federally supported cooperative that promotes American wheat abroad.

The group, which once cautioned farmers about growing biotech wheat, is working to get seed companies to restart development of genetically modified wheat and to get foreign buyers to accept it.

Even in Europe, where opposition to what the Europeans call Frankenfoods has been fiercest, some prominent government officials and business executives are calling for faster approvals of imports of genetically modified crops. They are responding in part to complaints from livestock producers, who say they might suffer a critical shortage of feed if imports are not accelerated.

In Britain, the National Beef Association, which represents cattle farmers, issued a statement this month demanding that "all resistance" to such crops "be abandoned immediately in response to shifts in world demand for food, the growing danger of global food shortages and the prospect of declining domestic animal production."

The chairman of the European Parliament's agriculture committee, Neil Parish, said that as prices rise, Europeans "may be more realistic" about genetically modified crops: "Their hearts may be on the left, but their pockets are on the right."

With food riots in some countries focusing attention on how the world will feed itself, biotechnology proponents see their chance. They argue that while genetic engineering might have been deemed unnecessary when food was abundant, it will be essential for helping the world cope with the demand for food and biofuels in the decades ahead.

Through gene splicing, the modified crops now grown — mainly canola, corn, cotton and soybeans — typically contain bacterial genes that help the plants resist insects or tolerate a herbicide that can be sprayed to kill weeds while leaving the crop unscathed. Biotechnology companies are also working on crops that might need less water or fertilizer, which could have a bigger impact on improving yield.

Certainly any new receptivity to genetically modified crops would be a boon to American exporters. The United States accounted for half the world's acreage of biotech crops last year.

But substantial amounts of corn, soy or canola are grown in Argentina, Brazil and Canada. China has developed insect-resistant rice that is awaiting regulatory approval in that country.

The pressure to re-evaluate biotech comes as prices of some staples like rice and wheat have doubled in the last few months, provoking violent protests in several countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti and Thailand. Factors behind the price spikes include the diversion of crops to make biofuel, rising energy prices, growing prosperity in India and China, and droughts in some regions — including Australia, a major grain producer.

Biotechnology still certainly faces obstacles. Polls in Europe do not yet show a decisive shift in consumer sentiment, and the industry has had some recent setbacks. Since the beginning of the year France has banned the planting of genetically modified corn while Germany has enacted a law allowing for foods to be labeled as "GM free."

And a new international assessment of the future of agriculture, released last Tuesday, gave such tepid support to the role genetic engineering could play in easing hunger that biotechnology industry representatives withdrew from the project in protest. The report was a collaboration of more than 60 governments, with participation from companies and nonprofit groups, under the auspices of the World Bank and the United Nations.

Hans Herren, co-chairman of the project, said providing more fertilizer to Africa would improve output much more than genetic engineering could. "What farmers really are struggling with are water issues, soil fertility issues and market access for their products," he said.

Opponents of biotechnology say they see not so much an opportunity as opportunism by its proponents to exploit the food crisis. "Where politicians and technocrats have always wanted to push GMO's, they are jumping on this bandwagon and using this as an excuse," said Helen Holder, who coordinates the campaign against biotech foods for Friends of the Earth Europe. GMO refers to genetically modified organism.

Even Michael Mack, the chief executive of the Swiss company Syngenta, an agricultural chemical and biotechnology giant, cautioned that the industry should not use the current crisis to push its agenda.

Whatever importance biotechnology can play in the long run, food shortages are making it harder for some buyers to avoid engineered crops.

The main reason some Japanese and South Korean makers of corn starch and corn sweeteners are buying biotech corn is that they have dwindling alternatives. Their main supplier is the United States, where 75 percent of corn grown last year was genetically modified, up from 40 percent in 2003.

"We cannot get hold of non-GM corn nowadays," said Yoon Chang-gyu, director of the Korean Corn Processing Industry Association.

But the tightening global supply has made it harder to get nonengineered corn from elsewhere. And as corn prices soar, millers and food companies are less able to pay the surcharge to keep nonengineered corn separate from biotech varieties. The surcharge itself has been rising.

Yoon said non-engineered corn cost Korean millers about $450 a metric ton, up from $143 in 2006. Genetically engineered corn costs about $350 a ton.

In Europe, livestock producers say that regulations on genetically modified crops could choke feed supplies at a time when they are already reeling from higher prices. Even after a new genetically engineered variety is approved for growing in the United States, it might take several years for Europe to approve it for import.

Moreover, European rules require an entire shipment of grain to be turned back if it contains even a trace of an unapproved variety. Such a problem last year disrupted exports of corn gluten, a feed product, from the United States to Europe.

Feed makers and livestock producers want faster approvals and a relaxation of the rules to allow for trace amounts of unapproved varieties in shipments.

Even in the United States, where genetically engineered food has been generally accepted, the wheat industry has had to rethink its reluctance to accept biotech varieties.

Because about half of America's wheat crop is exported, farmers and processors feared foreign buyers would reject their products. Facing resistance from American farmers, Monsanto in 2004 suspended development of what would have been the first genetically modified wheat.

But some farmers and millers now say that the lack of genetically engineered wheat has made growing the grain less attractive than growing corn or soybeans. That has, in turn, contributed to shrinking supplies and rising prices for wheat.

Milling & Baking News, an influential trade newspaper in Kansas City, Missouri, said in an editorial that companies that used wheat were now paying the price for their own "hesitancy, if not outright opposition" to biotechnology.

Cops Disguise Cameras As Fire Hydrants

Cops Disguise Cameras As Fire Hydrants

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In Florida, Sheriff Sgt. Ken Sonier “watches those who don’t want to be seen,” according to News-Press. Of course, in a healthy, non-brainwashed society most us would not take kindly to being watched, no matter the reason, but in the post-9/11 world far too many of us have bought into the idea we are somehow obliged to surrender our privacy in order to combat the terrorists, never mind we don’t have a good idea who the terrorists are. Fox News now tells us they have blond hair and blue eyes.

Sonier and the Lee County cops are busy installing “custom-made cameras” in fire hydrants, on exit signs in apartment buildings, and metal underneath cars. “Citizens don’t know what we do,” bragged Lee County Sheriff Lt. Gary Desrosiers of the Technical Investigations Unit. “And that’s a good thing.” It was presumably a good thing in East Germany, too, or so the fascist control freaks who once ran that country no doubt believed.

“The annual budget for the TIU is about $10 million, but that includes salaries and maintenance on all the department’s cell phones, laptops and equipment. Most of the equipment purchased is with federal grants.” More specifically, Department of Homeland Security grants.

“In Cape Coral, police accepted a $50,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase a Video Detective. It is capable of recording audio, video and stills from blocks away and can clean up images and sound recordings turned in as evidence. Now grainy footage of a bank robbery suspect becomes as clear as a yearbook photo.”

Bank robbery? More likely the technology will be used to monitor average citizens and catch them in the act of minor misdemeanors — littering, parking violations, drinking in public, smoking marijuana on the street corner, etc. It will be used as a revenue generator and a more effective way to get people in the system, herd them into the prison-industrial complex.

But it’s not all Stasi-style covert snooping. It’s also the psychological factor of living in a world based on Orwell’s dystopian novel. “Like security cameras in a bank, some systems are meant to be noticed. The sheriff’s office purchased two alert systems to startle vandals.”

In addition to acclimating folks to living in a militarized police state, such in-your-face systems are put in place to get the great unwashed used to being watched, same way Winston Smith was watched.

“One has flashing lights and the other has a loudspeaker and flashing lights and it takes their picture,” Sonier said. “It’s triggered by motion. A voice comes over the speakers and says something like, ‘Your picture has been taken. Leave the premises now.’ Their faces are like a deer in the headlights.”

In other words, the state will now bark orders at subjects. Middlesbrough and other British cities have similar systems, as do the cops in Baltimore. It’s all about making sure you understand you’re being watched. It’s all part of the control panopticon.

“One side effect of the Iraq war is military tools and tactics — sensors that can track gunfire, retina eye scans - are being even further fine-tuned. Still local law enforcement say some of it isn’t likely to hit the streets of Lee County for another decade, at least.”

Side effect? No, this technology is designed and manufactured with the “civilian” market in mind. And if the stuff is too pricey for cash-strapped middle America police departments, no doubt the Ministry of Homeland Security will come to the rescue with grants and hand-outs.

Our rulers have put the control grid on the fast track, so it will not be a decade or more before we are so inundated with snoop technology there will be no going back.

Western Oil Majors' Control Of Global Oil & Gas Has Collapsed

Western Oil Majors' Control Of Global Oil & Gas Has Collapsed

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ROME: Consumer countries and international oil firms keen to gain greater access to the world's energy resources are likely to walk away empty-handed from talks with producer nations in Rome.

Record high oil, which struck $117 a barrel on Friday, has helped to drive up the profits of oil majors, but it has also increased the spending power of national oil companies and made them ever more reluctant to grant access to their resources.

"The relative positions of international energy companies and national energy companies are changing -- and not in our favour," Paolo Scaroni, chief executive of Italian oil and gas company Eni said in a speech at the opening of the International Energy Forum (IEF).

OPEC member Venezuela, under President Hugo Chavez, has spearheaded a global trend towards resource-holders seeking to maximise their returns from their energy wealth.

International firms have found themselves faced with tougher terms and shut out of the best energy territory.

During the 1970s, the international oil companies controlled nearly three-quarters of global oil reserves and 80 percent of production, Scaroni said.

Now, they control 6 percent of oil and 20 percent of gas reserves, and 24 percent of oil and 35 percent of gas production, he said. National oil companies hold the rest.

RESOURCE NATIONALISM HERE TO STAY

There is little sign the trend will reverse.

"When the prices went down in 1990s, we accepted to give them a higher share ... Now they have to accept a lower share, because they have a windfall profits," said Shokri Ghanem, head of Libya's National Oil Corporation.

National oil companies still have some need for cooperation with foreign investors as international and national firms alike battle with cost overruns, staff shortages and the difficulty of extracting oil and gas from more complex fields.

Producers are also keeping a nervous eye on the impact of high prices on demand and the development of alternative energy, although with fossil fuels expected to continue to make up more than 80 percent of the energy mix the threat to their revenues is minor.

The CEO of Royal Dutch Shell told the IEF the world would need all the energy it could get to keep pace with demand, which is projected to increase by more than 50 percent by 2030.

"Despite high prices, demand is not dropping, there is only slower growth. Easy oil and easy gas cannot supply all that surge in demand," Jeroen van der Veer told reporters.

"So it is not a matter of choice, do we do coal, or oil, or nuclear? The world will need everything, including biofuels. You name it."

In the immediate term, oil markets at least are well-supplied, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting (OPEC) have said, making clear the IEF talks in Rome would not be the occasion to revise their output policy.

IEF meetings, which have taken place every two years since the forum was set up in response to the 1990-91 Gulf war when oil spiked briefly to $40 a barrel, have a reputation for being no more than talking shops.

But although they have largely failed to come up with broad, concrete steps, they can produce a rash of smaller deals.

Qatar Petroleum International and Eni signed an agreement on oil and gas cooperation on Sunday, although Iran, which has been in protracted negotiations with Shell and Total over its South Pars field said it did not expect to sign any deals during the talks from Sunday to Tuesday.

US military tightens siege of Sadr City as cleric warns of war

US military tightens siege of Sadr City as cleric warns of war

By Peter Symonds

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Scores of people have died over the past week as US and Iraqi forces tightened their noose around the huge working class suburb of Sadr City in Baghdad and pressed into the remaining strongholds of the Madhi Army loyal to cleric Moqtada al Sadr in the southern city of Basra. The actual death toll is likely to be far higher as US air strikes continue to pound the densely populated slums.

In a statement late Saturday night, Sadr threatened an “open war until liberation” if the Iraqi government did not “take the path of peace and abandon violence against its people”. He lashed out at the regime, likening its repressive methods to those of Saddam Hussein. Referring to the pitched battles in 2004 between the Madhi Army and the US military, he asked: “Do you want a third uprising?”

Sadr’s “final warning”, however, was more a pathetic plea to the Iraqi government, than a declaration of war. “This government has forgotten that we are their brothers and were part of them,” he said, alluding to the fact that the Sadrist movement helped Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into office. Military operations were continuing, he declared, “despite our freeze of the Madhi Army, our initiatives to defuse the tension and our calls for peaceful protests and strikes”.

Sadr is well aware of the deep frustration and anger among Madhi Army fighters who fought Iraqi and US forces to a standstill in Basra and the suburbs of Baghdad, only to be ordered off the streets by the cleric on March 30. Far from ending the fighting, the deal struck between Sadrist leaders and the government enabled the US and Iraqi security forces to regroup and consolidate their positions after their initial offensive into Basra, launched on March 24, collapsed.

In Basra, Iraqi forces claimed to have seized the last major Sadrist stronghold—the district of Hayaniyah—on Saturday. The operation began at 6 a.m. with US warplanes and British artillery blasting the area in what was described as “a demonstration of the firepower available, if required,” according to a British military spokesman. Clashes erupted as Iraqi soldiers, bolstered by US and British advisers, entered the suburb. The Scotsman reported up to a dozen people dead and 130 wounded.

The previous day, Iraqi army forces surrounded a Sadrist office in Basra, demanded that it be evacuated and prevented people from attending Friday prayers. Sadr’s spokesman in Najaf, Saleh al-Obeidi branded the siege a provocation, saying: “The objective of the security forces is to further aggravate tensions and it shows the government’s claims that it is not targetting Sadr supporters to be false.” By Sunday, the Sadrists had surrendered the building.

In Baghdad, the US military is tightening its siege of Sadr City, home to more than two million urban poor. Construction began last week on a massive concrete wall designed to seal off the southern quarter of the suburb, which is now under American control. Even though heavily protected by M-1 tanks, Stryker vehicles and Apache attack helicopters, construction crews have come under fire, resulting in US retaliation with missiles and bursts of tank rounds.

Sadrist MP Maha al-Dori drew the comparison with the Israeli siege of Gaza. “They have now completely surrounded Sadr City. The media is talking about Gaza, while we now have a second ‘Rafah crossing’ in Sadr City,” she said. “The hospitals are jammed with dead bodies... The occupation forces completely ban and open fire at any convoy trying to deliver humanitarian aid. People here suffer from shortage of food supplies. The occupation forces have burnt the city’s markets,” she told Al Jazeera.

American military spokesmen insist that the operation is aimed at halting rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone, headquarters of the US occupation, but the broader aim is to crush the Madhi Army and establish complete control over Sadr City. A Madhi Army fighter, Abu Ameer, told the Washington Post that Iraqi and US armoured vehicles had entered Sadr City from three sides on Friday and appeared to be trying to divide the area into four.

After a sandstorm grounded US helicopters, Ameer explained: “Now it’s turning. The whole city is defending themselves. It’s a gift from God [the sandstorm]. It serves us in an unbelievable way because they don’t have air cover.” Expressing his frustration at being forced to fight defensively by Sadr’s March 30 statement, he added: “If only Moqtada gives us an order, we will set fire and burn them wherever they are.”

Iraqi troops have been thrust into the forefront to take the brunt of the fighting. Last week, an entire Iraqi company abandoned its position, leaving a gaping hole in the frontline. An army captain explained to the New York Times that his unit was down to less than half its strength of 150, lacked ammunition and its machine guns were not working. “Most of my soldiers have family inside Sadr City. Their tribes and cousins and relatives are there. They can’t fight in Sadr City,” he explained.

The Basra offensive

The Sadr City episode gives another glimpse into the turmoil inside the Iraqi security forces during the first days of the Basra offensive when hundreds of soldiers and police refused to fight or openly went over to the Madhi Army. The government has since dismissed 1,300 soldiers who took part in the operation. Last week, it replaced the top army and police commanders in Basra, recalling them to their posts in Baghdad.

A British officer described last month’s disaster in yesterday’s Telegraph. “There were literally thousands of troops arriving in Basra from all over Iraq. But they had no idea why they were there or what they were supposed to do. It was madness and to cap it all they had insufficient supplies of food, water and ammunition. One of the newly formed brigades was ordered into battle and suffered around 1,200 desertions within the first couple of hours—it was painful to watch.”

While the Bush administration insisted that the Basra offensive was an Iraqi operation, it was launched in the immediate wake of Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to Baghdad. American analyst Gareth Porter wrote in the Asia Times on Saturday that one of Cheney’s objectives “was to get [Prime Minister] Maliki to go along with the [US General] Petraeus plan to eliminate the commanding position of Moqtada’s forces in Basra. Maliki has told Iraqi officials that Cheney put pressure on him to go along with the Basra operation.”

According to Porter, Maliki apparently rushed into the operation and shunned US support, fearful that it would provoke widespread opposition to his already despised government. “The Shiite south has become the most anti-occupation region in the country,” the article stated. “The British polling firm ORB, which has been doing opinion surveys in Iraq since 2005, found in March that 69 percent of respondents in the south believed that security would improve if foreign troops were withdrawn, and only 10 percent believed it would get worse.”

As fighting with the Madhi Army has intensified, the Bush administration has stepped up its anti-Iranian rhetoric, accusing Tehran of arming and training anti-occupation militia. Along with the allegation that Iran is intent on building nuclear weapons, the accusation that Tehran is waging “a proxy war” in Iraq is being cultivated as a pretext for a US military attack.

For all their occasional anti-American bluster, Iranian authorities have backed the US puppet regime in Baghdad and held talks with US officials to assist in stabilising the American occupation. In an unusually direct statement last weekend, Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, strongly supported the Iraqi army drive into Basra, while criticising US operations in Sadr City. “The idea of the government in Basra was to fight outlaws,” he said. “This was the right of the government and the responsibility of the government. And in my opinion the government was able to achieve a positive result in Basra.”

Qumi’s statements are another political lifeline for Maliki who was floundering as the initial offensive into Basra crumbled. Top Iranian officials were reportedly involved also in pressuring Sadr to call his militia off the streets on March 30. Maliki had placed its reputation on the line by personally taking charge of the Basra operation and demanding that Sadr disband the Madhi Army as a condition for participating in provincial elections. No such ultimatum has been given to Maliki’s Da’wa party or its ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which would use their militia to secure political dominance in the Shiite south prior to the October poll.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who flew into Baghdad yesterday, expressed satisfaction at the Maliki government’s “remarkable progress” toward achieving “political unity”. It was in part, she said, a by-product of Maliki’s “very good decision” to try to wrest Basra from the control of “criminals and militia”. The military crackdown on the Shiite urban poor has garnered support from Kurdish and Sunni political leaders. Massoud Barzani, head of the northern Kurdish autonomous region, has offered Kurdish troops to fight the Madhi Army. Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, who has been sharply critical of Maliki’s pro-Shiite bias, has agreed to a joint statement expressing support for the Basra operation.

What is routinely presented in the international media as inter-Shiite infighting in fact reflects sharpening class divisions among the Iraqi population as a whole. Da’wa and ISCI, which have backed the US invasion from the outset, reflect the interests of layers of the Shiite clerical and merchant elite who have increasingly come into conflict with the vast majority of the Shiite population, whose lives have been devastated by the impact of the US occupation. Sadr has increasingly accommodated himself to the US occupation and, while seeking to maintain his popular base, is just as fearful as the rest of the Shiite establishment of a social explosion.

As for Iran, Tehran’s latest assistance for the US occupation will not prevent an American military attack. What is driving Washington’s continuing threats against Iran are the same strategic and economic considerations that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq—in particular, American ambitions to secure its dominance over the energy-rich regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. At every turn, the Bush administration has taken any concession offered by Tehran but continued to warn that “every option is on the table”. The latest statement by the Iranian ambassador will only encourage US military operations to suppress the Shiite working class in Baghdad and Basra, which is an important precondition for any strike on Iran.

Sharp clashes continued in Sadr City on Saturday and Sunday. US spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Steve Stover announced yesterday that a further 12 Madhi Army fighters had been killed in fighting, in what he described as an “uptick in violence in comparison with the past couple of weeks”. Sharp fighting also took place yesterday in the predominantly Shiite city of Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad, where the US military claimed to have killed 40 militiamen and arrested 40 more.

The casualty figures are in all likelihood a gross underestimate. Sadrist MP, Salah al-Ugaili told Agence France Presse on Friday that 398 people had been killed and 1,331 wounded since March 25 in Sadr City alone. Doctor Wiyam Rashhad, head of one of Sadr City’s three hospitals, told the news agency that his facility had registered 135 killed in the clashes and another 800 wounded.

Halliburton Profit Rises After Oil Climbs to Record

Halliburton Profit Rises After Oil Climbs to Record


By Jim Kennett

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Halliburton Co., the world's second-largest oilfield contractor, said profit rose 5.8 percent after crude topped $100 a barrel, prompting producers to increase spending on Middle East and Latin American projects.

First-quarter net income climbed to $584 million, or 64 cents a share, from $552 million, or 54 cents, a year earlier, the Houston-based company said today in a statement. Halliburton shares fell after the company said increased competition was squeezing prices on large overseas projects.

The number of drilling rigs active outside North America rose 6.5 percent as New York oil futures traded 68 percent higher than a year earlier. Revenue jumped 18 percent to $4.03 billion as sales gains outside North America made up for pricing pressures in the U.S., Halliburton said.

“The story with Halliburton is international, and the international story is supported by sharply higher oil prices,'' said Gene Pisasale, who helps oversee $25 billion in assets, including about 682,000 Halliburton shares, at PNC Capital Advisors in Baltimore. “That bodes well for international exploration, much of which is oil-oriented.''

Competition from rival oilfield contractors is affecting the prices Halliburton can charge on long-term projects in such markets as the Middle East and West Africa, Chief Executive Officer David Lesar told investors on a conference call. Losing a bid can mean the company is out of business in that region for a number of years, he said.

Margin Concerns

Those comments and concern over rising diesel costs, which are narrowing profit margins on some well services, pushed the company's stock lower, said Mark Urness, an analyst at Calyon Securities USA Inc. in New York.

Halliburton fell 65 cents, or 1.4 percent, to $46.78 at 11:31 a.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Before today, the shares had jumped 25 percent this year, seven times the gain by Schlumberger Ltd., the biggest oilfield contractor.

Halliburton's per-share profit matched the average of 10 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Earnings from the company's largest division, which helps clients maximize production from established fields, rose 11 percent.

Demand strength in the Middle East and Latin America made up for a 2 percent decline in North American business and a “relatively flat'' environment in Europe, Africa and the former Soviet Union, Halliburton said.

`Next Leg Up'

Lesar, 54, said more demand growth is coming. “The fundamentals of the world oil and gas market are projecting that the next leg up in the extended cycle is near,'' he said in the statement.

Schlumberger, based in Houston and Paris, on April 18 reported a 13 percent gain in first-quarter net income. Baker Hughes Inc., the No. 3 oilfield-services company, is scheduled to report its results tomorrow.

Halliburton's profit from drilling and evaluation services climbed 6.1 percent. The segment includes drill-bits, drilling fluids and directional drilling, which allows a customer to change the direction of a well to target a reservoir.

Worldwide, the number of active rigs rose 2.4 percent from a year earlier, with most of the gains occurring in South America and the Eastern Hemisphere, according to a count by Baker Hughes. North American drilling activity climbed 1.4 percent, driven by a 2.1 percent increase in the U.S.

International Expansion

Halliburton is adding research and training centers from Russia to Singapore as it diversifies away from North America, which accounted for 47 percent of revenue last year. U.S. and Canadian business is dominated by regional natural-gas markets, where weather can cause prices to surge or plummet.

Lesar splits his time between the U.S. and Halliburton's regional corporate headquarters in Dubai. The Eastern Hemisphere accounted for 41 percent of Halliburton's first-quarter revenue. Lesar has said he'd like the region ultimately to account for half of sales.

Halliburton derived 54 percent of its profit from North America in the first quarter, down from 58 percent a year earlier. Latin American operations had a 45 percent increase in earnings. Brazil's recent deepwater discoveries, fields called Tupi and Carioca, will fuel increased spending by oil companies, PNC's Pisasale said.

“With the recent developments in Brazil, you're going to see a lot more activity down there,'' he said. “The Tupi and the Carioca discoveries, which are particularly huge, multibillion-barrel fields, bode well for service companies like Halliburton and Schlumberger.''

State Oil Companies

Overseas work is being driven by government-owned oil companies that increasingly hire Halliburton and other services providers to do work previously done by international oil companies like Exxon Mobil Corp. Service companies work under contracts, while oil companies take a stake in the field being developed.

Halliburton's work with state oil companies includes a three-year contract to drill wells at Saudi Arabia's massive Khurais project and a three-year deal with Mexico awarded in January. Today, the company announced a contract for the offshore portion of Saudi Arabia's Manifa oil project.

Halliburton is the largest oilfield contractor in North America and the largest provider of so-called pressure pumping, which injects water or sand into rock formations to make gas flow more easily.

Increased competition cut into pricing for pressure pumping, or fracturing as it is sometimes called, in the past two quarters, according to Halliburton.

Torture Victim's Records Lost at Guantánamo, Admits Camp General

Torture Victim's Records Lost at Guantánamo, Admits Camp General

By Elana Schor

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No evidence of al-Qaida suspect's interrogation. CCTV automatically recorded over tapes.

The former head of interrogations at Guantánamo Bay found that records of an al-Qaida suspect tortured at the prison camp were mysteriously lost by the US military, according to a new book by one of Britain's top human rights lawyers.

Retired general Michael Dunlavey, who supervised Guantánamo for eight months in 2002, tried to locate records on Mohammed al-Qahtani, accused by the US of plotting the 9/11 attacks, but found they had disappeared.

The records on al-Qahtani, who was interrogated for 48 days - "were backed up ... after I left, there was a snafu and all was lost", Dunlavey told Philippe Sands QC, who reports the conversation in his book Torture Team, previewed last week by the Guardian. Snafu stands for Situation Normal: All Fucked Up.

Saudi-born al-Qahtani was sexually taunted, forced to perform dog tricks and given enemas at Guantánamo.

The CIA admitted last year that it destroyed videotapes of al-Qaida suspects being interrogated at a secret "black site" in Thailand. No proof has so far emerged that tapes of interrogations at Guantánamo were destroyed, but Sands' report suggests the US may have also buried politically sensitive proof relating to abuse by interrogators at the prison camp.

Other new evidence has also emerged in the last month that raises questions about destroyed tapes at Guantánamo.

Cameras that run 24 hours a day at the prison were set to automatically record over their contents, the US military admitted in court papers. It is unclear how much, if any, prisoner mistreatment was on the taped-over video, but the military admitted that the automatic erasure "likely destroyed" potential evidence in at least one prisoner's case.

The erased tapes may have violated a 2005 court order to preserve "all evidence [of] the torture, mistreatment and abuse of detainees" at Guantánamo. The order was retroactive, so it also applies to the 2003 loss of al-Qahtani's records.

Lawyers representing other Guantánamo detainees are asking whether tapes of their clients' treatment may also be erased. "You can't just destroy relevant evidence," said Jonathan Hafetz, of the Brennan Centre for Justice in New York.

David H Remes, a lawyer for 16 Guantánamo prisoners, said the CIA's destruction of interrogation videos shows the US government is capable of getting rid of potentially incriminating evidence.

"[In Guantánamo] the government had a system that automatically overwrote records," Remes told the Guardian. "That is a passive form of evidence destruction. If a party has destroyed evidence in one place, there's no reason to assume it has preserved evidence in another place."

More than 24,000 interrogations were videotaped at Guantánamo, according to a US army report unearthed by researchers at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

The US military office at Guantánamo did not return a request for comment from the Guardian about its taping policies.

US News Media's Latest Disgrace

US News Media's Latest Disgrace

By Robert Parry

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After prying loose 8,000 pages of Pentagon documents, the New York Times has proven what should have been obvious years ago: the Bush administration manipulated public opinion on the Iraq War, in part, by funneling propaganda through former senior military officers who served as expert analysts on TV news shows.

In 2002-03, these military analysts were ubiquitous on TV justifying the Iraq invasion, and most have remained supportive of the war in the five years since. The Times investigation showed that the analysts were being briefed by the Pentagon on what to say and had undisclosed conflicts of interest via military contracts.

Retired Green Beret Robert S. Bevelacqua, a former Fox News analyst, said the Pentagon treated the retired military officers as puppets: “It was them saying, ‘we need to stick our hands up your back and move your mouth for you.’” [NYT, April 20, 2008]

None of that, of course, should come as any surprise. Where do people think generals and admirals go to work after they retire from the government?

If they play ball with the Pentagon, they get fat salaries serving on corporate boards of military contractors, or they get rich running consultancies that trade on quick access to high-ranking administration officials. If they’re not team players, they’re shut out.

Yet, what may be more troubling, although perhaps no more surprising, is how willingly the U.S. news media let itself be used as a propaganda conduit for the Bush administration regarding the ill-advised invasion of Iraq.

Fox News may have been the prototype of the flag-waving “news” outlet that fawned over pro-war retired military officers and mocked anti-war citizens.

But the same imbalance could be found at the major networks, like NBC where then-anchor Tom Brokaw spoke in the first person plural as he sat among a panel of retired brass on the night of the Iraq invasion – March 19, 2003 – and said: "In a few days, we're going to own that country."

The blame also goes far beyond the TV networks, to the most prestigious print publications. The New York Times famously promoted fictional stories about Iraqi aluminum tubes for building nuclear weapons, and the Washington Post editorial page remains to this day an ardent cheerleader for the war.

So, the real question is not how widespread the ethical lapses of the U.S. news media were – both in palming off self-interested ex-generals as objective observers and for failing to demonstrate even a modicum of skepticism in publishing false articles that paved the way to war.

Rather, the urgent question is what must be done if the United States is to reclaim its status as a functioning constitutional Republic in which a reasonably honest news media keeps the public adequately informed.

Having spent most of my career on the inside at places such as the Associated Press and Newsweek, it’s been my view for many years that the mainstream U.S. news media can’t be reformed, that it is beyond hope.

Though there are still good journalists working at major news companies – and the better news outlets do produce some useful information, like Sunday’s story in the Times – the central reality is that corporate journalism is rotten at the core and won't stop spreading the rot throughout the U.S. political process.

That’s why for the past dozen-plus years at Consortiumnews.com, we have called for a major public investment in honest journalism, so information can be produced that it is both professional and independent of the kinds of external pressures that have deformed today’s mainstream press.

We must find new ways to tell the news.

The Reagan Era

The scope of the problem dawned on me in the late 1980s, as I watched the widespread criminality of the Iran-Contra and related scandals – ranging from money-laundering, gun-smuggling, drug-trafficking and acts of terrorism – get swept under the rug because they implicated senior U.S. officials.

During those years, I witnessed the Washington press corps – which still basked in the glory of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers – rushing headlong toward becoming little more than a propaganda funnel for the powers-that-be.

Indeed, in 1992, my first book, Fooling America, argued that the Watergate-Vietnam-era press corps was undergoing a historic transformation into a snarky conveyor of ill-considered conventional wisdom.

The book also made the case that this transformation was not accidental, nor was it driven just by corporate greed and journalistic careerism (though there was plenty of both). There also was a powerful ideological component.

Behind the scenes, the Reagan administration had constructed a domestic framework modeled after CIA psychological warfare programs abroad. The main difference this time was that the psy-op took aim at the American people with the goal of managing how they perceived events, what insiders called “perception management.”

From documents that I uncovered during the Iran-Contra scandal, it was clear that the motive behind this extraordinary operation was the bitterness that conservatives felt toward the mass protests against the Vietnam War and toward American journalists whose reporting supposedly had undermined the war effort.

So, Ronald Reagan’s team made it a high priority to rein in troublesome journalists and to reverse the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome,” the American people’s revulsion over any more foreign military adventures.

The documents revealed that the domestic operation took shape in the early 1980s under the guidance of CIA Director William Casey, who even donated one of the CIA’s top propagandists, Walter Raymond Jr., to manage the program from inside President Reagan’s National Security Council staff.

Other factors fed into the success of this propaganda operation, especially the rise of a bright group of political intellectuals known as the neoconservatives. They proved especially adept at using McCarthyistic tactics to marginalize and silence dissent.

The crowning achievement of this decade-long effort came during the first Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. President George H.W. Bush believed that a successful U.S.-led ground offensive could finish the job of bringing the American people back from their post-Vietnam malaise.

However, after months of devastating aerial bombings, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had persuaded Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops from Kuwait with no more killing, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and other front-line U.S. commanders favored the deal.

But Bush rebuffed the offer, instead ordering the ground attack that slaughtered tens of thousands of fleeing Iraqi troops during a 100-hour campaign. [For details, see the Colin Powell chapter of Neck Deep.]

When the ground war ended, Bush offered an insight into his central motivation. In his first comments about the U.S. victory, he declared: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”

Amid the war euphoria, some American journalists who had thought a less violent solution should have been pursued – including conservative columnist Robert Novak – offered cringing self-criticisms about their mistaken doubts.

The only sustained criticism of President Bush on the war came from the neocons, like Charles Krauthammer, who complained that Bush should have let the killing go on, that he stopped the ground war too soon, that he should have conquered Baghdad and occupied Iraq.

In my book, Fooling America, I told the story of this decline and fall of the U.S. news media, from its glory days of Watergate to its groveling days of the early 1990s. But 16 years ago, few people wanted to hear the story – or believe it.

The common view at the time was that the Washington press corps was still the aggressive watchdog of Watergate fame and, if anything, was too “liberal.” Though I had a major publisher in Morrow, the book got little circulation and was trashed by key book reviewers, including one from the Washington Post.

The thought that the heroic Washington press corps was changing into something cowardly and reckless was an idea whose time had not yet come.

[Fooling America has long been out of print, but some of the material can be found in Robert Parry’s later books, Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep.]

Repeating History

In the investigation of how the Pentagon used TV military analysts to sell the Iraq War – thus allowing George W. Bush to “complete the job” left unfinished by his dad – the New York Times also traced the administration’s P.R. theories back to the Vietnam War and to the early days of the Reagan era.

“Many [TV military analysts] also shared with Mr. Bush’s national security team a belief that pessimistic war coverage broke the nation’s will to win in Vietnam, and there was a mutual resolve not to let that happen with this war,” the Times reported in the article by David Barstow.

“This was a major theme, for example, with Paul E. Vallely, a Fox News analyst from 2001 to 2007. A retired Army general who had specialized in psychological warfare, Mr. Vallely co-authored a paper in 1980 that accused American news organizations of failing to defend the nation from ‘enemy’ propaganda during Vietnam.

“‘We lost the war – not because we were outfought, but because we were out Psyoped,’ he wrote. He urged a radically new approach to psychological operations in future wars – taking aim not just at foreign adversaries but at domestic audiences, too.

“He called his approach ‘MindWar’ – using network TV and radio to ‘strengthen our national will to victory.’”

But the danger of “MindWar,” aimed by the U.S. government at the American people, is that it turns inside-out the concept of a democratic Republic in which a well-informed people exercise meaningful control over their government.

Instead, you end up with a duplicitous government using propaganda, fear and intimidation to whip the people into line. Rather than the government being the servant of the people, the people become the servant of the government.

Then, as undemocratic regimes have shown throughout history – with the voice of the people silenced – insiders get a free hand to carry out foolhardy policies and to line the pockets of their friends.

With the U.S. taxpayers now looking at an open-ended Iraq War with the total cost possibly reaching $3 trillion, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who the “winners” were in this “MindWar.”

Often they were the same TV military analysts and news media pundits who were advocating for the invasion more than five years ago. Almost everyone of them has made out like bandits, many with fat stock portfolios and posh vacation homes, not to mention appreciative CEOs back at corporate central.

The “losers” should be equally apparent. Besides the fleeced American taxpayers, there have been more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead, another 30,000 wounded, and hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed Iraqis.

This bloody march of folly began some three decades ago when the U.S. news media began surrendering its responsibility to keep the people informed and instead opted for the easier and more lucrative role of acting as propagandists for the powerful.

The New York Times article is just further proof of that sorry reality.

Ending Slavery for Pennies

Ending Slavery for Pennies

By Katrina vanden Heuvel and Greg Kaufman

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The exploitation of farmworkers should not be tolerated in Florida. It should not be tolerated anywhere in the United States. There are many social problems that are extremely difficult to solve. This is not one of them.

- Eric Schlosser, investigative reporter and author of Fast Food Nation

On April 15, at a packed Senate hearing on working conditions for tomato workers, Senator Bernie Sanders asked Detective Charlie Frost, investigator for the human trafficking unit at the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, “Do you believe that there is human trafficking happening in Florida agriculture as we speak right now?”

“It’s probably occurring right now while we sit here,” Frost said. “Almost assuredly it’s going on right now.”

“Detective, would you agree that in these slavery cases, there are people higher up the economic chain who are complicit and who benefit financially from what goes on?” Sanders asked. “[And if so,] do you believe we need to change the law to prevent the growers from shielding themselves from responsibility?”

“They isolate themselves from what is occurring, and they benefit from what’s going on,” Frost said. “We have to do something. We have to hold them accountable. This is occurring in their backyard, this is occurring in our fields, this is occurring in our country.”

Not a single Republican committee member was on hand to hear this or any of the other testimony that described slavery in the US in 2008; worker conditions that are -- as Eric Schlosser put it — “like something you might encounter in the year 1868, not 2008″; or the loopholes in labor laws which allow systemic exploitation to continue. The “party of Lincoln” was simply MIA, while Sen. Sanders was joined by his Democratic colleagues, Senators Edward Kennedy, Richard Durbin, and Sherrod Brown.

Mary Bauer, Director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Law Poverty Center, testified that “for every [slavery] case we hear about, there are hundreds of other cases with similar kinds of power relationships… less dramatic but still incredibly oppressive circumstances that in effect amount to forced labor that are extremely common, and in fact close to the norm in many industries…. I do not believe that the American people would be comfortable if they knew how their food is being produced. They would not want to eat food that had been produced in this way.”

The hearing revealed that even when multibillion-dollar corporations like McDonald’s and Yum! Brands (whose subsidiaries include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver’s and A&W) attempt to do the right thing — and pay the workers more — powerful agribusiness interests have stood in the way. These corporations agreed to supplement the workers at a rate of an additional penny per pound for the tomatoes they purchase. Doesn’t sound like much — and it isn’t for the corporations — but it would result in about a 75 percent salary increase for workers who a 2001 US Department of Labor report described as “a labor force in significant economic distress… [with] low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings, [and] significant periods of un- and underemployment.”

As some growers began to implement the Yum/McDonald’s agreement — an extra paycheck cut to the farmworkers by the buyers, not the growers, mind you — the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), representing 90 percent of the state’s growers, said any members who adopted this policy would be fined $100,000 per worker benefiting from the agreement.

Reginald Brown, Executive Vice President of the FTGE, was at the hearing trying, desperately, to justify opposition to the agreement as stemming from legal concerns.

Sen. Sanders entered into the record a letter from 26 legal professors specializing in labor law, including antitrust dimensions of labor standards, writing that “the ostensible legal concerns of the Growers Exchange are utterly without merit.” (In fact, the experts concluded, the only real antitrust issue might be several growers agreeing amongst themselves to reject the deal.) He noted that McDonald’s and Yum! Brands also entered letters into the record stating that there are no legal problems with the extra penny deal and that they want it implemented.

“I gather that McDonald’s and Yum have some money to hire some pretty good attorneys,” Sen. Sanders told Brown. “You might want to reconsider the attorneys you are using and rethink this issue.”

Then Brown argued that it wasn’t just the legal argument, but also that buyers would look to Mexico for cheaper tomatoes (even though it’s the buyers who are offering to pay the extra penny). Brown said that the “tomato industry will go away, and Florida’s economy will suffer.”

It was as if Brown were acting out the very analogy that Lucas Benitez — a former tomato worker, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), and recipient of the 2003 RFK Human Rights Award — drew in his testimony between the opposition farmworkers rights advocates face today and that which confronted abolitionists 200 years ago. (These early 19th century abolitionists were the predecessors to those who later founded The Nation in 1865.)

“Exactly 200 years ago, near this very spot, men in your position voted to outlaw the importation of slaves into the United States,” Benitez testified through a translator. “That little known act did not end slavery, but it was an important step toward the eventual abolition of a brutal institution. At the time, passing that piece of legislation was complex, controversial and courageous. Those who supported the status quo argued that most slaves were happy with their lot, that they were certainly better off than where they came from, and that the economic collapse of US agriculture would surely follow.”

Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to view Brown and his cohorts as 21st century George Wallaces or Bull Connors, standing in the way of the progress of human rights in our own nation. Brown boasted of the workers who continue to return to the fields; of the “entry level job” tomato picking represents on the way towards achieving the American dream; of the “shock” that FTGE felt in response to the slavery cases — cases Schlosser pointed out were never uncovered by the growers who work with the labor contractors, but by CIW - in the relatively small town of Immokalee; and, time and again, Brown pointed to Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) — “an independent third party” that is auditing growers to make sure workers are treated with respect and paid fair wages. But Sanders revealed that two of the five members of the SAFE Board of Directors are Brown himself and Mike Stuart, President of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA). FFVA lists helping growers meet their labor needs while keeping costs down as one of its key responsibilities. Further, neither Brown nor Stuart reveal their positions in the industry on the SAFE website.

It’s in this environment that a worker picks an average of two tons of tomatoes a day for about $50, or $10,000 - $12,500 annually (a Department of Labor figure inflated by including supervisory personnel); where much if not all of their salaries go towards paying for trailers where 8 - 10 workers live together; where complaints are met with threats, beatings or worse. And when these workers — whether US citizens or immigrants, and witnesses testified that these issues apply to both — are enslaved, or forced into debt-servitude, or beaten, or sexually harassed, or not paid, or having their families back home threatened, their access to help is far more limited than that of other workers. Bauer noted that they have no right to organize; no overtime pay; no federal minimum wage law on smaller farms or in short harvest seasons; exemptions to child labor laws; and state health and safety laws that exclude farmworkers. She said this isn’t a Florida-only problem, it’s the widespread result of “agriculture exceptionalism.” Schlosser said that as recently as the 1950’s Florida police would prosecute African-Americans under vagrancy laws and send them to the fields to work off the fines.

Both Senators Kennedy and Sanders said this is just the beginning of investigating these injustices. In his concluding statement, Sen. Sanders said a GAO audit of wage and hour records of the growers is needed; agriculture workers need to be covered under both the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act; changes need to be made to the federal trafficking statutes to address growers and others who are avoiding prosecution by remaining willfully blind to the abuses around them; anti-trust implications of the FTGE activities need to be examined; and “we need to make sure that slavery, servitude and other abuses in the Florida tomato industry continue to receive the attention both in and outside Congress that they deserve so that it is stopped once and for all.”

As for Benitez, he’s been a part of this struggle for decades. He recalled during a 1997 worker hunger strike a grower saying that they would never meet the workers’ single demand for dialogue. “‘Let me put it to you like this,’” the grower said. “‘The tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run a farm.’” Benitez continued, “That’s how they’ve always seen us, just another tool and nothing more. But we aren’t alone anymore. Today there are millions of consumers with us willing to use their buying power to eliminate the exploitation behind the food they buy. And a new dawn for social responsibility in the agriculture industry is on its way. With the help of Congress and with the faith that the complicated will be made clear under the purifying light of human rights, today, just as it was 200 years ago, we will witness the dawn of that new day.”

Huge War Supplemental in Works

Huge War Supplemental in Works

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The House Democratic leadership is close to finalizing a decision to combine all outstanding Bush administration requests for war funding — totaling at least $170 billion — into one huge bill, according to lawmakers and aides.

Such a move would clear war funding from the congressional agenda until well into the next administration.

On top of the war funding, Democrats also want to attach billions of dollars in domestic spending initiatives to the measure, which could be the only appropriations bill enacted this year.

John P. Murtha , D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, estimated the bill would outline about $102 billion in war spending for the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, plus an additional $70 billion or so in fiscal 2009 war spending.

A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., said that no final decision has been made on the strategy for the bill, but privately, other lawmakers and aides said that the decision to combine two fiscal years of war funding in one bill was nearly complete.

“This would be a strong possibility,” said one senior Democratic aide, adding that by passing 2009 war funding now, Congress “could provide the next president the ability to use the funds any way they wish.”

The aide said that a Democratic president, for example, would be free to use the money to begin withdrawing troops.

More immediately, Democratic leaders believe that by offering more than $170 billion in war funding, they can blunt Republican attacks on them for failing to support the troops, a senior Democratic appropriator said. The lawmaker, who declined to be identified, said the strategy also would increase Democrats’ leverage to seek extra discretionary funding.

But Republican leaders were quick to warn that the strategy, while generally welcome, would not be a successful way to add domestic funding to the bill.

“That would be OK, but it still doesn’t provide a way for Democrats to get a bunch of extra spending done without both White House and veto-sustaining Republican opposition,” said House Minority Whip Roy Blunt , R-Mo. “We are not going to do this supplemental if it includes stuff that is not defense-related.”

The White House declined to comment on the Democratic strategy.

House to Consider Bill Early Next Month

This latest tactical approach by House Democratic leaders comes after an earlier idea to split the supplemental into separate portions for Iraq and Afghanistan ran into strong criticism. The White House, Republicans and even some defense-minded Democrats attacked the notion as unworkable after that proposal was floated last week.

James P. Moran , D-Va., a senior House appropriator, said that the new plan was the “best idea yet” because it would provide funds for the military through June 2009.

Democratic leaders have not decided yet how to attach the domestic funding to the supplemental or whether the total bill would fall within the $170 billion range, Moran said.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer , D-Md., said that House leaders planned to bring the supplemental to the floor by the first week of May. A committee markup had been planned for this week but got pushed off, with some discussion of the supplemental heading straight to the floor.

But Jerry Lewis of California, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, warned against bypassing the committee.

“Any attempt by the Democrat leadership to use procedural gimmickry to jam billions in unrelated spending down the throats of the American public . . . will ignite the full and unadulterated opposition from the Republican members of this committee,” he said.

The administration requested a total of $196.4 billion in fiscal 2008 for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Late last year, Congress approved $88.3 billion of that request (PL 110-116, PL 110-92, PL 110-161), according to the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) tally.

The administration requested $70 billion for war funds for fiscal 2009 in its February budget request, citing an inability to fully outline next year’s needs while this year’s request was still outstanding.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates testified in February that the total request for war funding for fiscal 2009 could be around $170 billion.

But at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, OMB Director Jim Nussle refused to say whether Bush would submit an updated fiscal 2009 war request.

Senate appropriators made it clear at the hearing that they would insist on including domestic funding in the war supplemental. Nussle warned the committee the president will veto any bill that costs more than the $108.1 billion he has requested.

“The president has made it clear that he will veto any attempt to hijack this much-needed troop funding bill,” Nussle said.

This stance angered committee members. “Since you’re pugnacious, guess what? I’m going to be pretty pugnacious, too,” said Barbara A. Mikulski , D-Md., before insisting she wants the bill to include $490 million for local law enforcement grants.

The Senate panel is considering including around $24 billion in domestic funding, a Senate aide said, with about $10 billion of that to be set aside for infrastructure projects such as bridge and road repairs.

It also could include funding for economic “stimulus” items, such as unemployment insurance, as Democrats try to link the war’s cost to the struggling U.S. economy.

Other possible add-ons include $500 million for the World Food Programme and $350 million for wildfire suppression programs, appropriators said.

Nussle urged senators to save their domestic funding plans for the regular appropriations process rather than risk slowing enactment of the war funding measure, which Nussle said is needed by Memorial Day to avoid furlough notices being sent out to Defense Department employees.