Wednesday, April 30, 2008

US central bank cuts rates

US central bank cuts rates

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The US central bank has cut interest rates by a quarter-point from 2.25 per cent to two per cent.

The cut, which had been expected to take place, is the seventh reduction since the Federal Reserve began cutting rates down from 5.25 per cent last September, in response to growing fears of an economic slowdown
It also means that the federal rate is now at its lowest since December 2004.

The cut comes as figures released on Wednesday showed that the US economy ha

"Recent information indicates that economic activity remains weak," the Federal Reserve said in a statement.

"Household and business spending has been subdued ... labour markets have softened further, financial markets remain under considerable stress and tight credit conditions and the deepening housing contraction are likely to weigh on economic growth over the next few quarters."

The US stock market rose sharply on the bank's decision, with the Dow Jones up 136 points to 12,968.

Inflation concerns

Al Jazeera correspondent John Terrett said that the move by the Federal Reserve was widely expected and reflects the fact that the bank sees the prospect of a US recession as a very real threat.

The US economy has been battered in recent months by a downturn in the housing market and the ongoing subprime mortgage crisis, in which people were offered mortgage deals they could not afford to repay.

The US central bank also said in its statement it would continue to monitor inflation, stating concerns that "uncertainty about the inflation outlook remains high."

On April 2 Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, told US Congress that a "recession is possible," adding that the bank believed there might be a "slight contraction" in the economy in the first six months of the year.

While many economists believe the US to already be in a recession, the expectation is that it will be a short one that could end this summer.

If this is the case, many analysts believe the central bank may hold rates steady for the rest of this year and cut rates next year when the economy is on sounder footing.

US Denies Report It Is Ramping Up Military Plans Vs Iran

US Denies Report It Is Ramping Up Military Plans Vs Iran

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The U.S. remains focused on halting Iranian meddling inside Iraq, the Pentagon's spokesman said here Wednesday, denying reports of new planning for military options against Iran.

"I'm not aware of any ramping up or revision of war plans for Iran," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters traveling with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is winding up a two-day visit here.

"Reports suggesting that are not consistent with what I know to be going on at the Pentagon," Morrell added.

CBS News reported Tuesday that the Pentagon has ordered new options to be drawn up for attacking Iran and that the State Department has begun drafting an ultimatum that would tell Iran to stop meddling in Iraq or else.

"The focus of our efforts to combat the supplying of arms, the training of terrorists in Iraq by the Iranians continues to be within the confines of Iraq," Morrell said.

Gates flatly denied on Tuesday that the Pentagon was preparing for military strikes against Iran.

But he said the arrival of the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Gulf, briefly raising the number of U.S. carriers there to two, should be seen as a "reminder" of U.S. military power.

The USS Harry Truman has since left the Gulf but remains in the U.S. Central Command's area of operations, defense officials said.

US military leaders have taken a harder tone on the threat Iran poses in recent weeks amid spiking U.S. casualties in clashes with Shiite militias that the U.S. charges is backed by Iran.

General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has charged that the Quds Force, a covert branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was funding, training and arming Shiite militants to kill U.S. troops.

Petraeus and other military leaders have said that the extent of the Iranian involvement became apparent last month after an Iraqi government crackdown in the southern port of Basra on armed gangs that exploded into violence.

He told Congress earlier this month that the Iranian-backed "special groups" were the greatest long-term threat to a viable democratic Iraq.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday he was increasingly concerned about Iran's behavior and pointedly warned that " it would be a mistake to think we are out of combat power."

Gates wraps up a visit here aimed at strengthening military ties with Mexico by paying tribute to veterans of a Mexican air force squadron that fought alongside the allies in the Pacific during World War II.

He placed a wreath at a monument to the pilots of Squadron 201 who lost their lives in the war.

Driven To Starvation

Driven To Starvation

How the auto industry continues to destroy the environment and is now abetting global hunger and poverty -

By William A. Cohn

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In the wake of widespread food riots which have resulted in fatalities and political turmoil in poor countries around the world, on April 14th the head of the World Bank warned that 100 million people are now at risk due to food shortages and escalating prices. Yet Robert Zoellick’s proposed New Deal for Global Food Policy offers more of a band-aid approach than a cure to the causes of such needless world hunger. Oddly, the World Bank failed to call for an end to those ethanol and other biofuels subsidies which have exacerbated global hunger and poverty by prioritizing feeding cars over feeding humans.

Speaking at the United Nations on April 21st, Bolivian President Evo Morales called his country’s food crisis “an external problem” caused by policies in which “cars come first, not human beings.” Peruvian President Alan Garcia joined in saying that biofuels harm the world’s poorest people. Morales previously blamed the world’s leading polluters for causing the severe weather which has ravaged Bolivia with floods since November 2007, destroying more than 1.2 million homes. On April 22nd, the environmental group Friends of the Earth released a report warning the EU of the perils of expanding biofuels use in Latin America.

Josette Sheeran, head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), told the BBC on April 22nd that WFP is now delivering food aid to an additional 100 million people who did not need assistance six months ago, “but today simply can’t afford enough food for their family.” International organizations have begun the unpleasant task of addressing the relationship between our addiction to transport fuels and the plague of world hunger and poverty. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon convenes a high-level conference on the food crisis this week, it appears that the long-anticipated resource wars are heating up.

On April 28th, Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapportuer on the right to food, called for a 5-year moratorium on the production of biofuels. He called the present US and EU policies a “criminal path” which are a main cause of the current worldwide food crisis. And things will only get tougher – the planet’s population is expected to grow by 50% to 9 billion in some 40 years, and the number of cars and trucks are expected to double to more than 2 billion in 30 years. And twice as many jetliners are projected to be in the skies in 20 years. The International Energy Agency says the world’s total energy demand will rise by 65% over the next 20 years. Corn ethanol, offered as a quick fix to oil depenednecy, is now seen as energy inefficient and environmentally destructive, as well as a cause of food scarcity.

Much of the global energy demand comes from cars. About 25% of the world’s oil goes to the US, and of that, more than half goes to its cars and trucks. US oil consumption has surged since the oil shocks of the 1970s and 1980s. In large part, this is because the US has some of the lowest gas prices in the world, the lowest energy taxes and the least fuel-efficient cars. Presidential candidates McCain and Clinton have played to voters short-term instincts by calling for a suspension of the federal gas tax during the summer travel season. Others, such as China, which has seen a seven-fold increase in vehicles between1990 and 2006, to 37 million – a figure projected to reach 300 million by 2030, feel that it is their right to follow suit. Sadly, the US has set the example of denying the need for sacrifice and change.

Exhausted

2007 was a breakthrough year in educating the public of the need for dramatic action to avert the most disastrous consequences of global warming, culminating in Al Gore and the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in this regard.

Responding to public pressure, politicians have put forth reform proposals which have met with resistance from affected industries. None have been more successful at resisting mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation to sustainable ecologically responsible business models than the automobile industry. While the auto industry has killed the electric car, and defied efforts to mandate greater fuel efficiency, it has embraced the development of cars using hydrogen and biofuels. This has aligned it with powerful economic and political interests in support of ethanol and other biofuels as the central initiative in response to global warming. Critics contend that these initiatives are designed simply to divert pressure for change.

The consensus is that biofuels are causing greater environmental harm in that they produce more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels given the pollution caused in producing these so-called green fuels. As well, we have seen resulting food shortages as farmers gear their crops for transport fuels. The fallacy of the touted silver bullet biofuels policies is in their failure to adopt a holistic approach to combating climate change. The danger of course, beyond the human suffering it has caused, is that such an omission wastes time and resources in addressing our precarious ecological situation.

Car crazy blowback

We live in a world that idolizes the car. Marketing tells us that the car gives us power, status and independence and that she is sexy, responsive and puts us in control. Cigarettes have been, and in parts of the world still are, marketed in a similar manner. Yes, our culture has given us a preference for the car. But our culture formerly gave us a preference for slavery and child labor. Change was seen as undesirable because it would impose a greater burden on us. Yet change happened suddenly when people realized such practices were wrong and must stop – even if cotton, for instance, would be more expensive.

An essential change in combating the direst global warming prospects is to protect and preserve our dwindling and threatened rainforests. Such action seems far-removed from the power of the common person. Getting away from the car is within the immediate control of most people, and it can produce a big impact. Christian Brand of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University recently completed a study commissioned by Tesco, the British supermarket chain, to analyze its employees carbon emissions over a year – the emissions generated by car travel dwarfed all other activities. The February 2008 report found that “Personal travel is generally dominant over items like electricity use (with car and air travel accounting for more than 75% and as much as 90% of personal emissions for most, especially younger and higher income, people). Car travel is the dominant factor.”

While people are switching their light bulbs and lowering their thermostats, few have been willing to forego the car. A study by the British environment agency Defra found that 75% of people were prepared to change their behavior to limit climate change, “But not in the ways that count most: Only 5% of car drivers said they had driven less because of environmental concerns.” Studies have shown that car ownership is a one-way door: once a person has a car they won’t give it up, and they then tend to want a bigger and better one – which means more pollution. Studies also show that cars tend to be used simply because they are there.

According to Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy, it is time to slam the door on our car addiction: “I listen when the scientists say that if we fail to mitigate climate change, the environmental, social, and economic consequences will be stark and severe. . . . There comes a moment when it is clear what you must do . . . [we must] create a low-carbon economy. In saying this, I do not underestimate the task. It is to take an economy where human comfort, activity and growth are inextricably linked with emitting carbon and to transform it into one which can only thrive without depending on carbon. This is a monumental challenge. It requires a revolution in technology and a revolution in thinking. We are going to have to rethink the way we live and work.”

Greenhouse gas emissions and climate context

The successes and failures of IPCC 2007, the 4th assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, can be measured in myriad ways including a drumbeat of media coverage of carbon footprints and green alternatives. One notable success is on the political front – following Kevin Rudd’s resounding defeat of John Howard as Australian Prime Minister, he quickly reversed national policy on climate-change, and in December signed the Kyoto Protocol in Bali, thus leaving the United States isolated as the only major country to reject it (On Feb. 26th, the White House signaled its conditional consent to a mandatory international agreement on climate change).

Lest we get too pleased with the developments of 2007 and early 2008, it is instructive to put this in recent historical context. In 1992, at the “Earth Summit” in Rio, the US and almost every country of the world endorsed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The treaty, ratified by the US Senate and other national legislatures, bound every industrialized (Annex 1 – the US, Canada, Japan, Europe and then Eastern Europe) country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of returning emissions to 1990 levels. Excepting the Eastern bloc countries, whose economies were crumbling, none of these Annex 1 countries progressed towards compliance, but rather, emissions increased despite follow-up negotiations in 1995 (Berlin), 1996 (Geneva) and 1997 (Kyoto).

The Kyoto Protocol, an addendum to the 1992 Treaty, which reduced the commitments of the signatories, has the EU states commit to the goal of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perflourocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride) to 8% below 1990 levels by 2012. The US and Japan had lesser targets, and the US rejected the Kyoto Protocol following a $13 million anti-Kyoto advertising campaign by The Global Climate Coalition, a lobbying group sponsored by General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, ExxonMobil, Shell and Texaco. The authors of Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future trace the nexus between the auto and oil sectors, which they term the “industry of industries,” and how the two have shaped the international landscape.

In 1993, Bill Clinton pledged that the US was committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000, saying; “Unless we act now, we face a future in which the sun may scorch us; where the change of season may take on a dreadful new meaning; and where our children’s children will inherit a planet far less hospitable than the world in which we came of age.” Seven years later Clinton made essentially the same speech, yet when he left office in 2001 greenhouse gas emissions were 15% over their 1990 levels. The dire warnings of IPCC 2007 are not new. Is time passing us by consigning us to the ash heap of history?

Unplugged

Resistance to real and sustainable solutions is still found at many levels, including those industries whose growth has depended upon carbon emissions. The award-winning 2006 documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car by director Chris Paine asserts that the technology exists which would allow us to dramatically reduce global warming emissions and our dependence on costly foreign oil, and improve our respiratory health.

General Motors developed a prototype electric car which could go fast and emit no exhaust fumes or carbon emissions. Like a mobile phone, it plugged in at night, and would be ready to drive in the morning. The electricity needed costs a fraction of the price of petroleum for the same travel distance. The auto and oil industries lobbied fiercely to defeat laws aimed at promoting the electric car. Why? Why kill such a potentially profitable new technology? Marketing electric cars as ‘clean’ transport would mean admitting their core product is dirty, and since electric cars run on a battery rather than a combustion engine, and it threatened the business model of the auto industry which profits by maintaining and replacing internal combustion engines. The biggest criticism of the electric car was that after 60 miles the battery needed to be recharged (as well, there is the issue of the source of the electricity which powers these cars – is it coal? or is it clean and renewable?). So the engineer Stan Ovshinsky created a battery that could run up to 300 miles at 70 mph on a single charge. According to The Independent, the auto and oil companies then bought that technology, and it has not been seen since.

In 1993, the US govt. agreed to subsidize the auto industry and to provide it with military technologies that would enable US carmakers to build prototype sedans capable of getting 80 mpg by 2003. As we know, the goals of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles have not been realized. The GM Precept (equipped with 2 electric motors), the aluminum bodied Ford Prodigy, and the largely plastic Dodge ESX3 were wheeled out with much fanfare at the 2000 North American Auto Show in Detroit, and then wheeled away, never to be seen again. Then in 2002, after more than a billion dollars of federal money had been spent, the Bush administration Energy Secretary flanked by the top executives of GM, Ford and Dodge announced the scrapping of the Partnership project explaining that the administration and the automakers now aimed to produce vehicles that would run on pure hydrogen.

Zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell cars have been touted by General Motors, Daimler Chrysler and lawmakers since 1990, but over the past five years less than 200 of these clean cars have been built. Meanwhile, battery electric cars have proven a more practicable and potentially enduring option, yet regulators have defied logic by continuing to promote the more expensive and cumbersome hydrogen alternative. Critics contend that the manner in which the auto industry and its politicians keep changing the tune is just smoke and mirrors, mere ploys intended to take the heat off and distract the public.

Running on empty

Drivers have been burning fossil fuels at artificially low prices. The warning of the renowned economist Sir Nicholas Stern that climate change is “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen” has been heeded by eminent economists and climate scientists. The operation of free market forces can encourage sustainable allocation of resources only when goods and services are priced properly. This can be achieved through heavy taxation (like alcohol and cigarettes), regulatory standards (like fuel efficiency for cars), or various cap and trade approaches. A carbon tax is widely seen as the most effective way to place overall costs at their source. (On pricing importance and challenges see “Big Foot,” The New Yorker, Feb. 25, 2008)

Making carbon emissions more costly provides incentives for conservation and investment in clean and renewable sources of energy. The 1972 Clean Water Act provides a relevant example of how industrial and consumer behavior can be modified towards ecological sustainability. The US today manufactures more products using less water than it did in 1972. Prior to then, people did not value water since it was free. Likewise, a heavy carbon tax will make consumers more mindful of the cost and the value of scarce resources. Yes, providing economic incentives for ecologically responsible behavior is essential to combating climate change. Currently, affected industries and the politicians they support are providing the wrong incentives.

In late February, the Canadian province of British Columbia proposed a carbon tax in its latest budget, which would be the first such tax in North America. The US, Europe and others have been resistant to adopting a carbon tax, despite a growing consensus that it is the best way to properly price the consumption of energy. Leaders have generally denied the need to make lifestyle changes which are seemingly essential to climate change adaptation, opting instead for a technology-based approach as enabling us to have our cake and eat it too. The European preference has been for cap and trade schemes which have been criticized for being a form of eco-colonialism which allows the rich to buy the right to impose their emissions on the rest. This in turn leads to finger-pointing and provides those short-sighted “leaders” in positions of power with excuses for inaction.

Get the lead out

While the auto industry purports to be developing hydrogen car technology, it resists efforts to promote greater fuel efficiency from cars fired by fossil fuels. Indeed, it has a long track record in this respect – one similar to the deceptive practices of the tobacco industry. In February, Bob Lutz, the Vice-Chairman of General Motors Corp, the largest US automaker, told a group of reporters that global warming was a “total crock of shit” – a statement he stood by in subsequent questioning. A 40-year auto industry veteran and long-time campaigner against higher fuel efficiency standards, Lutz wrote in 2006 that forcing the auto industry to sell smaller cars would be “like trying to end the obesity problem in this country by forcing clothing manufacturers to sell smaller, tighter sizes.”

In Auto Mania historian Tom McCarthy uses archival records to examine a series of decisions made by the auto industry since 1900. The earliest cars were made to run on ordinary unleaded gasoline. In 1921, a team of GM researchers discovered that by adding small amounts of lead to the fuel supply they could solve the problem of engine knocking. The toxicity of led was well known at that time, and so GM and Standard Oil, which had formed a joint venture to manufacture leaded gas, launched a PR campaign to convince the public that there was no alternative to leaded gas. When the govt. took a hands-off approach leaded gas became the standard at US filling stations.

It is estimated that by 1996, when the sale of leaded gasoline for use in cars was banned in the US, seven million tons of lead had been released from auto exhaust pipes into the air, and nearly 70 million American children had been exposed to dangerous blood-lead levels. Lead is especially dangerous for children, and high blood-lead levels can result in physical and mental ailments including brain damage, anemia, liver and kidney damage and even death. McCarthy characterizes the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles as an evasive tactic to avoid the more effective but politically riskier step of raising fuel-efficiency standards. The average new car sold in the US today gets 20 mpg – the same as 15 years ago, and less than Henry Ford’s Model T got when it went on the market more than 99 years ago.

Noxious fumes

Studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) and NGOs have reached alarming conclusions. In France, auto emissions kill almost 10,000 people a year according to the Agency for Health and Environmental Safety. A WHO report covering Austria, Switzerland and France found that some 40,000 people die every year as a result of auto emissions. “Human natural defense mechanisms fail to prevent airborne fine particulate matter from penetrating into the lungs,” the German Council for Environmental Questions reported. The German Council found that auto particulate matter is “the most important health problem linked with air pollution.” These agencies propose a tax on cars proportionate to their fuel consumption and the costs of their toxic emissions.

CO2 emissions from road transport in Europe increased by 26% from 1990 to 2004. Since 1993, the European Union has been working to reduce passenger car CO2 emissions, but has encountered stiff resistance from auto industry lobbyists. For instance, the German car industry, which has lagged behind in reducing emissions, uses scaremongering tactics. In 2007, DaimlerChrysler deputy chairman and board member Erich Klemm told reporters that if the EU Commission proposal were approved, then factories would need to be closed costing 65,000 workers their jobs.

Some 70 paid auto industry lobbyists are based in Brussels, including those of the European Car Manufacturers Association and individual carmakers. Thus in 2007 when the European Parliament sought to establish binding targets for new passenger cars marketed in the EU, MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a prominent member of the MEP-industry group the Forum for the Automobile and Society stated, “we will not completely dismantle this proposal, but we will shape it in such a way that it will protect both the climate and the car industry.” Indeed, last December, the 33 carmaker lobbyists accredited to the EU Parliament helped water down a long-awaited European Commission proposal for curbing global warming pollution generated by new cars. The final version was much weaker than the original proposal, both in terms of carbon limits and penalties for offending carmakers

Environment NGO Greenpeace issued the following statement on December 19, 2007: “Last week in Bali, the European Union stood up like a lion for the world’s climate – this week the Union’s executive arm is going down like a lamb and putting carmakers’ short-term profits before our common survival. Car manufacturers are in the driver’s seat at the European Commission . . . [which] has come up with a pathetic legislative proposal that fails to demand any significant changes from the road transport sector, whose carbon dioxide emissions are continuing to rise.”

Euro-hypocrisy

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned EU leaders on March 13th that the EU would be left with “zero credibility” if it yields to pressure to renege on the commitments it made last year to combat global warming. As the Commission’s mid-March meeting in Brussels got underway, Germany and France were seeking concessions to heavy industry and Berlin was seeking exemptions for its carmakers. Echoing Daimler Chrysler as she made the claim that those countries that manufacture big cars should not be treated any worse than countries that make smaller cars, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated, “I will be standing up particularly for jobs in Germany’s car sector.” “Let them eat cake” has now become “let us drive SUVs.” There is much that could be done but for the Pavlovian resistance to change. For instance, a simple climate-fix is for carmakers to use lightweight material, such as carbon-fiber composites, because weight (not size) accounts for 75% of the energy needed to propel a car.

The Czech Republic, Germany, France, Austria and Italy want a pledge that heavy users of energy will be exempted from the Commission’s measures so that they will not lose investment. Talk about a loophole large enough to drive a truck through! Germany, with Europe’s biggest economy, also expressed concerns that its carmakers would suffer under the Commission’s proposal which subjected makers of heavy polluting luxury vehicles (like BMW, Mercedes Benz and Porsche) to heavy fines if they fail to reduce their carbon emissions.

The EU professed to be at the forefront of combating climate-change. Recall Ms. Merkel’s strong statements of leadership on the issue upon taking office as Chancellor and EU President (and in August pushing the G8 to commit to halve global carbon emissions by 2050). The March 31st Newsweek report on “Europe’s Worst Double Talkers,” looks at how Germany has talked green while “German policymakers in Berlin and Brussels are taking a different tact altogether,” concluding that the “rhetoric is failing to stand up to the reality.” The report notes the unusually close relationship between industry and government in Germany, and looks at the revolving door between government and the auto industry, with its powerful lobby. EPM Claude Turmes says “the German government defends German private companies, rather than the common interest.”

Overdrive

A new car that gets 20 mpg and which is driven 100,000 miles will produce more than 11 metric tons of carbon (a metric ton weighs 2,205 pounds). Every gallon of gasoline consumed produces about 5 pounds of carbon, meaning that in a 40 mile commute a SUV releases about a dozen pounds of carbon into the air. As Elizabeth Kolbert notes in her book Field notes from a catastrophe: Man, nature and climate change, “Carbon dioxide is a persistent gas, it lasts for about a century. Thus, while it is possible to increase CO2 concentrations relatively quickly, the opposite is not the case.” There is a growing recognition that every SUV bought today diminishes the prospects of human life in the future. We thus confront a moral imperative to break our self-destructive habits.

Greenhouse-gas emissions have risen dramatically in the past two centuries, and levels today are higher than at any time in the past 650,000 years. Climate-change is a global problem which demands global solutions. The rapid-growth of China and India surely means many millions of new car owners. Car ownership in these countries is extremely low relative to US standards (there are 9 personal vehicles per thousand eligible drivers in China and 11 in India, compared with 1,148 in the US – yes, more than a car per driver). Rapid income growth in these states means that many millions more will soon be able to buy cars.

In January 2008, Tata Motors of India unveiled its Nano, the world’s cheapest car, calling it the “people’s car” made of plastic and glue rather than welded steel and selling for 100,000 rupees ($2,500 USD). Nano is priced to get Indians, of which there are more than a billion, into a car. The Nano is expected to force other automakers to cut prices and to develop cheap cars, bringing millions more drivers onto the roads. A super-cheap auto will encourage people to rely on their car rather than mass transit. “This car promises to be an environmental disaster of substantial proportions,” says Yale environmental expert Daniel Esty. As the authors of Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future write, “Just consider the scale of the potential problem – for instance, the effects on global warming of 750 million more cars in India and China, belching carbon dioxide.” By most estimates, China has already surpassed the US as the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases.

Indian climatologist and IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri criticizes the climate impact of Nano: “Before we unleash this kind of animal on the streets of India, we ought to explore the public transportation options.” The Nobel Prize winner says the Nano “is clearly a carbon-intensive option. We need to impose a price on that carbon.” He proposes making drivers pay carbon tolls.

Given the information and scenarios for the future put forth by IPCC 2007, the issue is clearly how we get from here to there – both in terms of how we transport ourselves and in achieving needed climate-change mitigation. Some analysts maintain that the technology exists to double fuel efficiency. Passenger vehicles in the US now account for 40% of its oil use and 10% of global oil use. But the political will to reduce carbon emissions has been lacking. In fact, the will has been to stifle solutions aimed at promoting a sustainable energy policy (recall that in January 2001 upon taking office President Bush sought to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and appointed Dick Cheney to head an energy commission charged with establishing US energy policy, yet the administration has steadfastly refused to disclose who served on and consulted the Commission).

Energy policy, developed behind closed doors, has even overridden anti-bribery laws (see Peter Maass, “The Fuel Fixers,” New York Times Magazine, 12-23-07) prompting British and US officials to call off bribery investigations and prosecutions in deference to a need for scarce oil. As well, secretive energy policy based on antiquated obsolete premises has led to costly wars precipitated by a perceived need to maintain access to foreign oil. Such reliance on old school thinking will surely necessitate ever-more brutal overseas interventions. As Peter Maass concludes, “The choice is simple: Make painful but necessary changes to reduce our addiction to oil, or sink deeper into our moral sludge.”

Fossil fools

In a March 26th editorial, the International Herald TribuneIHT also called for greater fuel efficiency, noting that until last December US fuel efficiency standards had not been raised for 30 years, and that US per-capita emissions of carbon dioxide are twice that of Germany and Japan and three times that of France. lamented that the Bush administration’s “shortsighted policies . . . mean the country is far too dependent on oil that is both ruinously expensive and ruinous for the environment,” concluding that “the era of cheap oil is truly over” and “the nation has to replace the oilmen in the White House.” The

A 2002 report by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the health risks from automobile emissions bears the words “don’t cite, don’t quote” on each page. This caution was prompted by fears that the auto industry would sue the EPA, which had sought strict limits on emissions in 1977 but had to relent under pressure from the auto industry. More recently, the EPA has become a willing accomplice of the auto industry’s efforts to thwart emission controls. The December 21, 2007 New York Times editorial “Arrogance and Warming,” opined, “The Bush administration’s decision to deny California permission to regulate and reduce global warming emissions from cars and trucks is an indefensible act of executive arrogance that can only be explained as the product of ideological blindness and as a political payoff to the automobile industry.”

In late December, the EPA told 17 states, including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California, that they could not set their own more stringent standards for carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks. Denying a two-year-old application from the states to act pursuant to the 1974 Clean Air Act, the agency said that it was up to the federal govt., not the states, to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles. The Bush administration thus prevailed for the time being, despite the April 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA that the states could act. The director of the Environmental Defense Fund noted, “The Administration’s denial of California’s request relies on a flawed argument that the federal courts have already rejected.”

Carmakers lobbied using the arguments they made against the catalytic converter and other changes that made cars cleaner, saying the proposed emissions standards were not technologically feasible, would cost too much, would deny consumer choice, and now added that the states have no right to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. The EPA, using the auto industry’s rationale, said that it was up to the federal govt., not the states, to regulate CO2 emissions from vehicles. This was the first time the EPA fully denied California a waiver under the Clean Air Act. EPA staff reported that the agency’s head ignored their conclusions, instructing them to provide the legal rationale for his decision. One staffer told a reporter, “California met every criteria . . . on the merits, the same criteria we have used over the last 40 years.” Insiders at the EPA suggested to the Los Angeles Times that Dick Cheney was behind the action. The states had adopted tougher fuel efficiency and tailpipe standards, scheduled to be phased in between 2009 and 2016, to cut global warming emissions by 30 percent. In January 2008, California sued the US govt. asserting that it is “ignoring the will of millions of people who want their govt. to take action in the fight against global warming.”

Once again, as in the Dept. of Justice lawsuit against the tobacco companies, administrative agency political appointees acted at the behest of the White House and against the findings of their own experts. Commenting on the March 14th disclosure that Bush had issued an executive order to the head of the EPA on its anti-smog rule, John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said “Never before has a President personally intervened at the 11th hour, exercising political power at the expense of the law and science, to force the EPA to accept weaker air quality standards than the agency chief’s expert scientific judgment had led him to adopt. It is unprecedented and an unlawful act of political interference.” Why such obstruction?

Exxon Mobil earned a record $40.6 billion in 2007, besting its own 2006 record for profits earned by a company. Bush and Cheney have financial interests in the oil and gas industries as well as in corporations like Halliburton which provide ancillary services. Despite growing recognition of the serious threat posed by global warming, in 2008 the US govt. will spend 88 dollars on the military for every dollar it spends on climate-related programs according to the 2008 study by the Institute for Policy Studies entitled Military vs. Climate Strategy. “While we spare no expense to wage war, we seem to have no money to spare on averting climate disaster,” says the report’s author.

Bio-fuelish

Legislation in the US and EU has turned ethanol into big business which has spawned industry lobbying groups such as the “American Coalition for Ethanol.” In March 2007, EU leaders pledged to raise the share of biofuels in transport from 2% to 10% by 2020. DaimlerChrysler and other automakers have promoted clean, green biofuels as a response to environmental pressure groups. In January 2008, however, the EU Commission’s in-house scientific unit completed a study which found that EU biofuels promotion policy’s environmental costs outweigh its potential benefits. Likewise, in the US, where some 200 govt. biofuels subsidies cost taxpayers $7 billion per year, General Motors and other carmakers have promoted biofuels. Biofuels are also promoted as national policy in Brazil, China, India and elsewhere.

Almost every European or American who owns a car is already partly running his engine on ethanol, as the law de facto imposes forced blending of an increasing percentage of ethanol into regular gasoline. Carmakers and others have thus jumped on the ethanol bandwagon by producing cars that can run on any blend of gasoline and ethanol. Every liter of ethanol produced in the US enjoys a govt. subsidy of some 50 cents. Towards what end? UC Berkeley Professor David Pimentel found that ethanol production is neither economical (absent state subsidies it would not be viable) nor ecological. His 2005 findings have gained much recent support.

Two studies published in February 2008 in the venerable journal Science conclude that almost all the biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels when the pollution caused by producing these fuels is taken into account. These studies looked for the first time at the comprehensive emissions effects of the vast lands that are being geared towards biofuels development, and found that the resulting rainforest and other destruction of natural ecosystems has dramatically increased the release of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

Princeton University environment and economics scholar Timothy Searchinger, the lead author of one of the studies, characterized the net increase of greenhouse gas emissions as substantial. His study finds that despite EU restrictions on the type of biofuels produced (most of the biofuels produced in Europe is biodiesel made from vegetable oils), biofuels promotion in the US and Europe is transforming land use and indirectly destroying natural habitats. Brazilian farmers, for instance, are deforesting the Amazon to produce soya beans for US consumers whose farmers have shifted to producing corn-based ethanol. And, according to a February report of Friends of the Earth, the increasing demand for palm oil created by the EU biofuels policy is causing the destruction of Indonesia’s forests and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples, and leading to other human rights abuses there.

As stated by a UN Environment Programme spokesperson, “There was an unfortunate effort to dress up biofuels as the silver bullet of climate change.” Overlooked was the effect on land use and its ecological consequences. As Princeton’s Searchinger noted: “The land-use problem is not just a secondary effect. It is major. The comparison with fossil fuels is going to be adverse for virtually all biofuels on cropland.” This is not to suggest that biofuels have no potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but simply that present biofuels initiatives are ineffective and must be rethought. Indeed, the unintended consequences of biofuels promotion are many.

Hungry for change

With the price of essential food staples rising dramatically, people have begun asking why energy policy favors feeding automobiles rather than people. The US govt. response to climate-change is inappropriate at many levels, including its misguided incentives to promote corn-based ethanol as the primary substitute for foreign oil. This massive agribusiness subsidy does not reduce carbon emissions, but it has reduced nutrition for the poor and middle class, who have been hit hard by the steep rise in food prices in recent months as farmers have been given the incentive to gear their crop production towards the automobile.

Ethanol plants are projected to use half of America’s 2008 corn harvest (even if the entire corn crop were used it would replace only 7% of US oil consumption), and the diversion of corn usage from food to fuel is resulting in higher food prices (e.g., theApril 11th IHT reports that corn doubled in price in the last 2 years, and The Economist reports that world wheat prices rose 25% during the last week of February 2008 to its highest price in 28 years) and widespread food shortages as soaring prices have led farmers to replace crops such as wheat with corn. The resulting shortage of wheat and many other related foods has exacerbated poverty, hunger and starvation not just in America, but globally (see “The Fight between Fuel and Food,” Risk Management Magazine, April 2007). As well, the severe weather which has resulted from climate-change has disrupted agriculture and food production.

Food stocks are dwindling worldwide. On March 6th, the executive director of the UN World Food Programme, Josette Sheeran, said that as a result of climate change, high food and oil prices and low food stocks, the world economy “has now entered into a perfect storm for the world’s hungry” which will likely increase in the coming years and continue for the foreseeable future resulting in major social disruptions. On March 7th, noting that “the world’s poorest are hit hard,” Ms. Sheeran warned the EU that its biofuels policy had driven food prices to record levels. We are in a vicious cycle whereby our addiction to transport fuel produces severe weather which threatens food production, and then the effort to find alternative transport fuel adds further to global hunger and poverty. Critics contend that all the convoluted solutions of the oil and auto industries are designed to avoid a simpler one – reducing the consumption of transport fuel.

Biofuels policy is socially inequitable as well as ecologically irresponsible -- it shifts the financial burden of fuel consumption from those actually consuming it at the fuel pumps to the whole of society since only the relatively affluent drive a car, but everybody needs to consume food. As well, promoting ethanol shifts the cost of fuel consumption from industrialized to developing countries because corn is a primary source of nutrition. And this costly endeavor is increasingly being shown not to fulfill its stated purpose – to mitigate climate change. To the contrary, it seems to be exacerbating ecological destruction as well as social dislocations and human suffering.

On April 11th, the head of the World Bank reported that “In just two months, rice prices have skyrocketed to near historical levels, rising by around 75% globally.” Mr. Zoellick also noted that the price of wheat has risen 120% over the past year and that the poor spend as much as 75% of their income on food. The World Bank estimates that food prices overall have risen by more than 83% over the past three years. Also on April 11, a European environment advisory panel urged the EU to suspend its targets for biofuel use in transportation fuels, concluding that Europe’s rush to biofuels was causing deforestation in Southeast Asia and higher grain prices. And the April 15th New York Times reported that at the April 12-13 G7 conference several finance ministers and central bankers called for a reconsideration of recent biofuels policies. An economist commenting on the food crisis told the Times, “Ethanol is about the only lever we have to pull, but none of the politicians have the courage to pull it.”

Reality check

There are no silver bullets for fixing the ecological harm caused by our greenhouse gas emissions. Just as the ethanol solution failed to take an integrated approach (conveniently, negligently, or just unwittingly overlooking its actual environmental impacts), other green alternatives to fossil fuels such as the hydrogen car tend to overlook the fact that the production of hydrogen requires using energy. Half the electricity generated in the US comes from burning coal (and coal is the largest source of energy in China), so if that energy comes from coal, then the carbon emissions have not been fixed – just rearranged. So, unless the electricity which fuels hydrogen or electric cars comes from clean and renewable sources, the best car of the future is likely no car at all.

The laws of thermodynamics present humanity with the inconvenient truth that the use of matter and energy produces waste products (just as you can’t make something from nothing, you can’t make nothing from something). These waste products, including carbon, have reached a level that clearly threatens the natural ecosystem which sustains us. David Pimentel, now professor emeritus at Cornell where he has led studies on the energy impacts of ethanol and other biofuels, wrote on March 18th, “The science is clear: The use of corn and other biofuels is an ethically, economically, and environmentally unworkable sham.”

As noted by the global community at the 1992 Rio and 2002 Johannesburg Earth Summits, “present day production and consumption patterns are unsustainable.” If we wish to protect biodiversity and our progeny, our energy policies must evolve from the way we have become accustomed to doing things towards allocating resources with a broad global perspective on impacts and sustainability. Our present biofuels policies have not yet done that.

We are in a vicious cycle whereby our addiction to transport fuel produces severe weather which threatens food production, and then the effort to find alternative transport fuel adds further to global hunger and poverty. Critics contend that all the convoluted solutions of the oil and auto industries are designed to avoid a simpler one – reducing the consumption of transport fuel.

William A. Cohn, lecturer on law, ethics and logic at the University of New York in Prague, wishes to thank UNYP students Florian Schmid and Alexander Kolb for their assistance and Dr. Eric Zencey of Empire State College for his valued insights on ecology

Israel is suppressing a secret it must face

Israel is suppressing a secret it must face

How did a Jewish state founded 60 years ago end up throwing filth at cowering Palestinians?

By Johann Hari

Go To Original

W
hen you hit your 60th birthday, most of you will guzzle down your hormone replacement therapy with a glass of champagne and wonder if you have become everything you dreamed of in your youth. In a few weeks, the state of Israel is going to have that hangover.

She will look in the mirror and think – I have a sore back, rickety knees and a gun at my waist, but I'm still standing. Yet somewhere, she will know she is suppressing an old secret she has to face. I would love to be able to crash the birthday party with words of reassurance. Israel has given us great novelists like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, great film-makers like Joseph Cedar, great scientific research into Alzheimer's, and great dissident journalists like Amira Hass, Tom Segev and Gideon Levy to expose her own crimes.

She has provided the one lonely spot in the Middle East where gay people are not hounded and hanged, and where women can approach equality.

But I can't do it. Whenever I try to mouth these words, a remembered smell fills my nostrils. It is the smell of shit. Across the occupied West Bank, raw untreated sewage is pumped every day out of the Jewish settlements, along large metal pipes, straight onto Palestinian land. From there, it can enter the groundwater and the reservoirs, and become a poison.

Standing near one of these long, stinking brown-and-yellow rivers of waste recently, the local chief medical officer, Dr Bassam Said Nadi, explained to me: "Recently there were very heavy rains, and the shit started to flow into the reservoir that provides water for this whole area. I knew that if we didn't act, people would die. We had to alert everyone not to drink the water for over a week, and distribute bottles. We were lucky it was spotted. Next time..." He shook his head in fear. This is no freak: a 2004 report by Friends of the Earth found that only six per cent of Israeli settlements adequately treat their sewage.

Meanwhile, in order to punish the population of Gaza for voting "the wrong way", the Israeli army are not allowing past the checkpoints any replacements for the pipes and cement needed to keep the sewage system working. The result? Vast stagnant pools of waste are being held within fragile dykes across the strip, and rotting. Last March, one of them burst, drowning a nine-month-old baby and his elderly grandmother in a tsunami of human waste. The Centre on Housing Rights warns that one heavy rainfall could send 1.5m cubic metres of faeces flowing all over Gaza, causing "a humanitarian and environmental disaster of epic proportions".

So how did it come to this? How did a Jewish state founded 60 years ago with a promise to be "a light unto the nations" end up flinging its filth at a cowering Palestinian population?

The beginnings of an answer lie in the secret Israel has known, and suppressed, all these years. Even now, can we describe what happened 60 years ago honestly and unhysterically? The Jews who arrived in Palestine throughout the twentieth century did not come because they were cruel people who wanted to snuffle out Arabs to persecute. No: they came because they were running for their lives from a genocidal European anti-Semitism that was soon to slaughter six million of their sisters and their sons.

They convinced themselves that Palestine was "a land without people for a people without land". I desperately wish this dream had been true. You can see traces of what might have been in Tel Aviv, a city that really was built on empty sand dunes. But most of Palestine was not empty. It was already inhabited by people who loved the land, and saw it as theirs. They were completely innocent of the long, hellish crimes against the Jews.

When it became clear these Palestinians would not welcome becoming a minority in somebody else's country, darker plans were drawn up. Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, wrote in 1937: "The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war."

So, for when the moment arrived, he helped draw up Plan Dalit. It was – as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe puts it – "a detailed description of the methods to be used to forcibly evict the people: large-scale intimidation; and laying siege to and bombarding population centres". In 1948, before the Arab armies invaded, this began to be implemented: some 800,000 people were ethnically cleansed, and Israel was built on the ruins. The people who ask angrily why the Palestinians keep longing for their old land should imagine an English version of this story. How would we react if the 30m stateless, persecuted Kurds in the world sent armies and settlers into this country to seize everything in England below Leeds, and swiftly established a free Kurdistan from which we were expelled? Wouldn't we long forever for our children to return to Cornwall and Devon and London? Would it take us only 40 years to compromise and offer to settle for just 22 per cent of what we had?

If we are not going to be endlessly banging our heads against history, the Middle East needs to excavate 1948, and seek a solution. Any peace deal – even one where Israel dismantled the wall and agreed to return to the 1967 borders – tends to crumple on this issue. The Israelis say: if we let all three million come back, we will be outnumbered by Palestinians even within the 1967 borders, so Israel would be voted out of existence. But the Palestinians reply: if we don't have an acknowledgement of the Naqba (catastrophe), and our right under international law to the land our grandfathers fled, how can we move on?

It seemed like an intractable problem – until, two years ago, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research conducted the first study of the Palestinian Diaspora's desires. They found that only 10 per cent – around 300,000 people – want to return to Israel proper. Israel can accept that many (and compensate the rest) without even enduring much pain. But there has always been a strain of Israeli society that preferred violently setting its own borders, on its own terms, to talk and compromise. This weekend, the elected Hamas government offered a six-month truce that could have led to talks. The Israeli government responded within hours by blowing up a senior Hamas leader and killing a 14-year-old girl.

Perhaps Hamas' proposals are a con; perhaps all the Arab states are lying too when they offer Israel full recognition in exchange for a roll-back to the 1967 borders; but isn't it a good idea to find out? Israel, as she gazes at her grey hairs and discreetly ignores the smell of her own stale shit pumped across Palestine, needs to ask what kind of country she wants to be in the next 60 years.

Powering Down the Patriot Act

Powering Down the Patriot Act

By Brian Beutler

Go to Original

In the wake of another damaging report detailing the bureau's abuse of its data-gathering power, Congress is seeking to limit the use of national security letters.

There's a move afoot on Capitol Hill to rein in some of the vast powers conferred upon government investigators by the Patriot Act, the infamous, hastily crafted law written in response to the 9/11 attacks. New legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress intended to curb the FBI's ability to collect private data on virtually anybody using a tool called a national security letter (NSL). The bills come in the wake of yet another damaging FBI inspector general report on the bureau's abuse of its expanded authorities.

"The privacy of American citizens is a core value in our society," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a former federal prosecutor and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at an April 23 hearing on the FBI's use of NSLs. "I think this is our next really big civil liberties issue."

And addressing that issue may start with a bill, sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), which would both drastically limit the circumstances under which these secretive orders are issued and strictly regulate how the information obtained is handled by the FBI.

NSLs function, in some superficial ways, as traditional subpoenas. Like subpoenas, they require recipients to turn over information that might be relevant to criminal investigators. Unlike subpoenas, however, NSLs aren't subject to judicial oversight, making them ripe for abuse.

An NSL authorizes the acquisition of what's known as metadata, information like phone records and financial statements - that reveal a suspect's behavior only. An NSL can't, for instance, serve as a warrant for a wiretap, which gathers the contents of a conversation, but it can be used to obtain reams of data (such as phone numbers called) about an individual's calling patterns. It is often used to collect a person's business (or "transactional") information as well - with an NSL, the FBI can ask for a person's insurance information, but not his medical records.

NSLs aren't subject to the approval of any court or judge, they can be issued under extremely broad circumstances, and, by way of a sweeping gag order, they forbid the recipient from discussing the information request under almost any circumstances. Their use has exploded since the passage of the Patriot Act, which removed almost all legal restrictions on the FBI's authority to issue them.

Dubbed the National Security Letter Reform Act of 2007, Feingold's bill would check NSL authority in a number of ways. Among other things, it would limit the type of information the FBI can demand in an NSL to a defined category of less-sensitive data (such as names, addresses, account numbers, IP addresses, and other identifying materials), while requiring agents to seek more personal information (phone and financial records, for instance) through some sort of judicial process. It would limit the now-indefinite term of the gag order to no more than six months. And it would restrict the FBI's ability to share the obtained information - now accessible to thousands of people - with other agencies. A similar bill introduced in the House by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) would allow victims of illegally applied NSLs to sue for damages in civil court.

Both bills seek to prevent the FBI from repeating an incident that took place in North Carolina in July 2005. At the time, FBI agents in Raleigh were seeking the educational records of an Egyptian man named Magdy Mahmoud Mustafa el-Nashar, once a student at North Carolina State University, in conjunction with their investigation of the London subway bombings earlier that month. (As it turns out, he was innocent of any wrongdoing.) As part of an apparent attempt to avoid judicial oversight, and despite the fact that NSLs do not apply to school records, the FBI handed university officials an NSL. In doing so, the bureau broke the law.

Realizing, correctly, that NSLs did not apply to el-Nashar's private files, lawyers for the university refused to turn over his records to the FBI, telling the agents to come back with a grand jury subpoena instead.

In fact, according to a report released earlier this month by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the FBI had already obtained the documents using a subpoena days before the university rebuffed its NSL request. But then, perhaps to keep its investigation of el-Nashar as covert as possible, FBI agents returned the documents to the school and re-requested them with the unlawful NSL. When the university refused to comply with the letter, FBI director Robert Mueller used the occasion to argue that his agency's NSL authority needed to be strengthened.

Not all letter recipients have been as cautious as North Carolina State. A 2007 FBI audit, which sampled 10 percent of all NSLs issued since 2002, discovered hundreds of instances in which the FBI collected information it didn't have the authority to obtain. In only four cases was that improperly obtained information purged from the FBI's databases, Feingold said at last week's hearing.

A widely reported inspector general review in 2007 documented hundreds of other examples of NSL abuse, and a follow-up report released this March concluded that the FBI had failed to implement safeguards to mitigate those abuses.

Aside from the Judiciary committee's ranking member, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), only two Republicans - Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) - attended last Wednesday's hearing. As a harbinger of the legislative skirmish ahead, both men voiced strong reservations about the bill. Sessions, who once served as Alabama's attorney general, said he disagreed with a previous tightening of the national security letter provision in the Patriot Reauthorization Act of 2005, and objected to further restrictions on the FBI's use of NSLs. The limits in the proposed legislation, Sessions said, were "all to make sure that the spies and terrorists have their full rights - in fact, have more rights than drug dealers."

A distinctly different view was voiced by Specter, who complained that, when it comes to the FBI's use of NSLs, Congress currently does not have "the semblance of effective oversight."

Powering Down the Patriot Act

Powering Down the Patriot Act

By Brian Beutler

Go to Original

In the wake of another damaging report detailing the bureau's abuse of its data-gathering power, Congress is seeking to limit the use of national security letters.

There's a move afoot on Capitol Hill to rein in some of the vast powers conferred upon government investigators by the Patriot Act, the infamous, hastily crafted law written in response to the 9/11 attacks. New legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress intended to curb the FBI's ability to collect private data on virtually anybody using a tool called a national security letter (NSL). The bills come in the wake of yet another damaging FBI inspector general report on the bureau's abuse of its expanded authorities.

"The privacy of American citizens is a core value in our society," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a former federal prosecutor and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at an April 23 hearing on the FBI's use of NSLs. "I think this is our next really big civil liberties issue."

And addressing that issue may start with a bill, sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), which would both drastically limit the circumstances under which these secretive orders are issued and strictly regulate how the information obtained is handled by the FBI.

NSLs function, in some superficial ways, as traditional subpoenas. Like subpoenas, they require recipients to turn over information that might be relevant to criminal investigators. Unlike subpoenas, however, NSLs aren't subject to judicial oversight, making them ripe for abuse.

An NSL authorizes the acquisition of what's known as metadata, information like phone records and financial statements - that reveal a suspect's behavior only. An NSL can't, for instance, serve as a warrant for a wiretap, which gathers the contents of a conversation, but it can be used to obtain reams of data (such as phone numbers called) about an individual's calling patterns. It is often used to collect a person's business (or "transactional") information as well - with an NSL, the FBI can ask for a person's insurance information, but not his medical records.

NSLs aren't subject to the approval of any court or judge, they can be issued under extremely broad circumstances, and, by way of a sweeping gag order, they forbid the recipient from discussing the information request under almost any circumstances. Their use has exploded since the passage of the Patriot Act, which removed almost all legal restrictions on the FBI's authority to issue them.

Dubbed the National Security Letter Reform Act of 2007, Feingold's bill would check NSL authority in a number of ways. Among other things, it would limit the type of information the FBI can demand in an NSL to a defined category of less-sensitive data (such as names, addresses, account numbers, IP addresses, and other identifying materials), while requiring agents to seek more personal information (phone and financial records, for instance) through some sort of judicial process. It would limit the now-indefinite term of the gag order to no more than six months. And it would restrict the FBI's ability to share the obtained information - now accessible to thousands of people - with other agencies. A similar bill introduced in the House by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) would allow victims of illegally applied NSLs to sue for damages in civil court.

Both bills seek to prevent the FBI from repeating an incident that took place in North Carolina in July 2005. At the time, FBI agents in Raleigh were seeking the educational records of an Egyptian man named Magdy Mahmoud Mustafa el-Nashar, once a student at North Carolina State University, in conjunction with their investigation of the London subway bombings earlier that month. (As it turns out, he was innocent of any wrongdoing.) As part of an apparent attempt to avoid judicial oversight, and despite the fact that NSLs do not apply to school records, the FBI handed university officials an NSL. In doing so, the bureau broke the law.

Realizing, correctly, that NSLs did not apply to el-Nashar's private files, lawyers for the university refused to turn over his records to the FBI, telling the agents to come back with a grand jury subpoena instead.

In fact, according to a report released earlier this month by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the FBI had already obtained the documents using a subpoena days before the university rebuffed its NSL request. But then, perhaps to keep its investigation of el-Nashar as covert as possible, FBI agents returned the documents to the school and re-requested them with the unlawful NSL. When the university refused to comply with the letter, FBI director Robert Mueller used the occasion to argue that his agency's NSL authority needed to be strengthened.

Not all letter recipients have been as cautious as North Carolina State. A 2007 FBI audit, which sampled 10 percent of all NSLs issued since 2002, discovered hundreds of instances in which the FBI collected information it didn't have the authority to obtain. In only four cases was that improperly obtained information purged from the FBI's databases, Feingold said at last week's hearing.

A widely reported inspector general review in 2007 documented hundreds of other examples of NSL abuse, and a follow-up report released this March concluded that the FBI had failed to implement safeguards to mitigate those abuses.

Aside from the Judiciary committee's ranking member, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), only two Republicans - Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) - attended last Wednesday's hearing. As a harbinger of the legislative skirmish ahead, both men voiced strong reservations about the bill. Sessions, who once served as Alabama's attorney general, said he disagreed with a previous tightening of the national security letter provision in the Patriot Reauthorization Act of 2005, and objected to further restrictions on the FBI's use of NSLs. The limits in the proposed legislation, Sessions said, were "all to make sure that the spies and terrorists have their full rights - in fact, have more rights than drug dealers."

A distinctly different view was voiced by Specter, who complained that, when it comes to the FBI's use of NSLs, Congress currently does not have "the semblance of effective oversight."

Powering Down the Patriot Act

Powering Down the Patriot Act

By Brian Beutler

Go to Original

In the wake of another damaging report detailing the bureau's abuse of its data-gathering power, Congress is seeking to limit the use of national security letters.

There's a move afoot on Capitol Hill to rein in some of the vast powers conferred upon government investigators by the Patriot Act, the infamous, hastily crafted law written in response to the 9/11 attacks. New legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress intended to curb the FBI's ability to collect private data on virtually anybody using a tool called a national security letter (NSL). The bills come in the wake of yet another damaging FBI inspector general report on the bureau's abuse of its expanded authorities.

"The privacy of American citizens is a core value in our society," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a former federal prosecutor and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at an April 23 hearing on the FBI's use of NSLs. "I think this is our next really big civil liberties issue."

And addressing that issue may start with a bill, sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), which would both drastically limit the circumstances under which these secretive orders are issued and strictly regulate how the information obtained is handled by the FBI.

NSLs function, in some superficial ways, as traditional subpoenas. Like subpoenas, they require recipients to turn over information that might be relevant to criminal investigators. Unlike subpoenas, however, NSLs aren't subject to judicial oversight, making them ripe for abuse.

An NSL authorizes the acquisition of what's known as metadata, information like phone records and financial statements - that reveal a suspect's behavior only. An NSL can't, for instance, serve as a warrant for a wiretap, which gathers the contents of a conversation, but it can be used to obtain reams of data (such as phone numbers called) about an individual's calling patterns. It is often used to collect a person's business (or "transactional") information as well - with an NSL, the FBI can ask for a person's insurance information, but not his medical records.

NSLs aren't subject to the approval of any court or judge, they can be issued under extremely broad circumstances, and, by way of a sweeping gag order, they forbid the recipient from discussing the information request under almost any circumstances. Their use has exploded since the passage of the Patriot Act, which removed almost all legal restrictions on the FBI's authority to issue them.

Dubbed the National Security Letter Reform Act of 2007, Feingold's bill would check NSL authority in a number of ways. Among other things, it would limit the type of information the FBI can demand in an NSL to a defined category of less-sensitive data (such as names, addresses, account numbers, IP addresses, and other identifying materials), while requiring agents to seek more personal information (phone and financial records, for instance) through some sort of judicial process. It would limit the now-indefinite term of the gag order to no more than six months. And it would restrict the FBI's ability to share the obtained information - now accessible to thousands of people - with other agencies. A similar bill introduced in the House by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) would allow victims of illegally applied NSLs to sue for damages in civil court.

Both bills seek to prevent the FBI from repeating an incident that took place in North Carolina in July 2005. At the time, FBI agents in Raleigh were seeking the educational records of an Egyptian man named Magdy Mahmoud Mustafa el-Nashar, once a student at North Carolina State University, in conjunction with their investigation of the London subway bombings earlier that month. (As it turns out, he was innocent of any wrongdoing.) As part of an apparent attempt to avoid judicial oversight, and despite the fact that NSLs do not apply to school records, the FBI handed university officials an NSL. In doing so, the bureau broke the law.

Realizing, correctly, that NSLs did not apply to el-Nashar's private files, lawyers for the university refused to turn over his records to the FBI, telling the agents to come back with a grand jury subpoena instead.

In fact, according to a report released earlier this month by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the FBI had already obtained the documents using a subpoena days before the university rebuffed its NSL request. But then, perhaps to keep its investigation of el-Nashar as covert as possible, FBI agents returned the documents to the school and re-requested them with the unlawful NSL. When the university refused to comply with the letter, FBI director Robert Mueller used the occasion to argue that his agency's NSL authority needed to be strengthened.

Not all letter recipients have been as cautious as North Carolina State. A 2007 FBI audit, which sampled 10 percent of all NSLs issued since 2002, discovered hundreds of instances in which the FBI collected information it didn't have the authority to obtain. In only four cases was that improperly obtained information purged from the FBI's databases, Feingold said at last week's hearing.

A widely reported inspector general review in 2007 documented hundreds of other examples of NSL abuse, and a follow-up report released this March concluded that the FBI had failed to implement safeguards to mitigate those abuses.

Aside from the Judiciary committee's ranking member, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), only two Republicans - Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) - attended last Wednesday's hearing. As a harbinger of the legislative skirmish ahead, both men voiced strong reservations about the bill. Sessions, who once served as Alabama's attorney general, said he disagreed with a previous tightening of the national security letter provision in the Patriot Reauthorization Act of 2005, and objected to further restrictions on the FBI's use of NSLs. The limits in the proposed legislation, Sessions said, were "all to make sure that the spies and terrorists have their full rights - in fact, have more rights than drug dealers."

A distinctly different view was voiced by Specter, who complained that, when it comes to the FBI's use of NSLs, Congress currently does not have "the semblance of effective oversight."

McCain Health Plan Would Strip Millions of Coverage

The McCain Health Plan: Millions Lose Coverage, Health Costs Worsen, and Insurance and Drug Industries Win

By Roger Hickey

Go to Original

Today Arizona Sen. John McCain will deliver what his handlers are hyping as a major address on health care. McCain's plan is a dangerous fraud.

He wants voters to think he is going after health care cost inflation. In reality, he wants to dismantle the employer-provided system that now covers over 60 percent (or about 158 million) of non-elderly Americans, forcing millions of us who now get fairly decent health insurance on the job to instead buy whatever they can find on the individual market controlled by unregulated and predatory insurance companies. And he would drive health care costs upward, not downward.

This is truly amazing: McCain and his handlers knew they had to say something about health care. So they turned to their friends (and financial supporters) in the health care industry and the conservative think tanks. And they have adopted the most extreme right-wing ideological approach, premised on the idea that the big problem in health care is that Americans have too much insurance - in their words, we don't have enough "skin in the game" - and that only when we have to buy health care with money that comes directly out of our own pockets will consumers force doctors, hospitals and insurance companies to become more efficient.

So that's the theory. But it is contradicted by the facts. Most of us already pay part of our premiums out of our own pockets, and we increasingly have to shell out for co-pays in order to get to see a doctor. The result - in practice - is that most people, even those with good insurance, now think twice or three times about even getting regular preventive health checkups. Having lots of "skin in the game" has meant that millions of Americans don't get health care they need - and that's one of the big problems in U.S. health care driving costs up, not down.

But McCain, like George Bush, pays more attention to ultra-conservative theory than he does to the facts. So McCain wants to tax workers' health care premiums that are paid for by employers. Ask any expert, conservative or liberal, and they will tell you the result will be companies will stop providing health care as an employee benefit. Fortune Magazine quotes one of their experts on the impact of McCain's plan: "I predict that most companies would stop paying for health care in three to four years," says Robert Laszewski, a consultant who works with corporate benefits managers.

Now keep this in mind: McCain and his corporate advisers don't dispute this. The massive upheaval that would result - millions of families losing their health coverage on the job and then having to try to find an insurance company that would sell them a new policy that would cover their families - that's not an unintended consequence of his proposal. That chaotic loss of health security is exactly what McCain intends to happen. He wants us all to buy insurance not as part of a group - like an employee group or a co-op - that can negotiate for better coverage at lower premiums, but as individuals, at the mercy of the private insurance companies.

And get this: McCain wants to abolish the regulations that currently exist in most states that require companies to insure people with pre-existing conditions, provide benefits that don't exclude some medical conditions, and prevent them from charging huge premiums for crumby benefits. How would he do this? By "giving people the freedom" to buy insurance in other states with weaker regulations. You can bet that most of the big insurance companies are now shopping around for the state that wants to become the corporate headquarters state for the new deregulated health insurance industry - if President McCain wins. Delaware? Mississippi? Arizona?

But, but, but ... I can hear some people saying, McCain does give people refundable tax credits to help pay for health insurance. And that is part of his package. But his whole philosophy is that too many millions of American's are getting health care benefits that are too rich, and you certainly can't say that about the level of tax subsidy he would provide - $2,500 per year for individuals and $5,000 for a family, according to the McCain for President website. Last year the average yearly cost of the most popular type of insurance plan offered by employers hit $11,765, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study. So the average person with a family would end up paying $11,765 minus the $5,000 tax credit, or $6,765 - about double the $3,226 Kaiser tells us the average employee paid for his or her share of premiums.

Again, this is NOT unintentional. McCain and his corporate advisers think it is good for individuals and families to pay more because it makes them think twice before seeking health care, and - in theory - they will shop around for cheaper care. And if they can't cover the costs of real health insurance with McCain's tax credit, the insurance industry will sell you lower-cost plans with big holes in coverage or costly co-pays - that is, if you are not already sick and you aren't too old for them to see you as profitable.

And McCain will be glad to help you invest your tax credit in a Health Savings Account - a savings account coupled with an insurance plan cooked up by his friends in the insurance industry with such high deductibles that it only applies for catastrophic health costs. For those normal trips to the doctor, you just take money out of the savings account until there is nothing left - and then you really reduce health care costs by forgoing the trip to the doctor altogether.

The ultra-conservatives have a name for this combination of tax credits and HSAs. They call it "consumer-directed health care." A better name is "high-cost health care" - or "insurance company-directed health care." And although they promote it as saving money for individuals, for our economy and our society, the available evidence shows that it does nothing to reduce health care costs - but it will leave millions of people with worse coverage, more chronic health problems, and higher levels of health cost-driven bankruptcies. And, perhaps most importantly for McCain's financial backers, it would leave the insurance industry and the drug industry even more in control of America's health care system than ever before.

The release of this McCain health care plan is an important test for the mainstream media. Health care experts who are "reality-based" will, if asked to comment, tell reporters that there is no evidence that McCain's proposals will do anything to reduce health care costs, but will the media fall for the McCain spin?

Here's the story they would like major media to report:

"While Democrats Obama and Clinton, stuck in an endless primary contest, fight with each other over who would cover more of the uninsured, John McCain has been using the luxury of uncontested time to develop a thoughtful plan for bringing down health care costs - the issue voters care most about when it comes to their own family budget worries. And McCain's plan would attack the health cost spiral by unleashing the power of individual consumers and families in a more competitive health care marketplace, not by using the power of the federal government to either provide health care and not by dictating health insurance arrangements between workers and employers. Expanding consumer choice - and encouraging health care consumers to be wise purchasers of health care, said McCain, is the best way to force the health care system to become more efficient and reduce the burden of health care costs."

Most honest reporters will note that the McCain will not improve the lot of America's 47 million uninsured, but they may give McCain credit for focusing more on controlling prices than Obama and Clinton. That might sound "fair and balanced" - but it would be wrong.

The reality is, McCain's proposals would greatly increase the number of uninsured Americans, while also doing nothing about health care costs except increasing the number of people who can't afford good quality health care for themselves and their families. Let's see if the media gets both parts of the story right.