Friday, May 9, 2008

Raw Sewage Pouring Into Rivers, Streams Across US

Raw Sewage Pouring Into Rivers, Streams Across US

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America's aging sewer systems continue to dump human waste into rivers and streams, despite years of fines and penalties targeting publicly owned agencies responsible for sewage overflows, a Gannett News Service analysis shows.

The analysis of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data found that since 2003, hundreds of municipal sewer authorities have been fined for violations, including spills that make people sick, threaten local drinking water and kill aquatic animals and plants.

DATABASE: Sewer treatment plant reports by state

Local governments across the USA plan to spend billions modernizing failing wastewater systems — some of which are more than 100 years old — over the next 10 to 20 years, EPA, state and local sewer authority officials said.

Those improvement efforts face a huge challenge mitigating problems in what the EPA estimates to be 1.2 million miles of sewers snaking underground across the USA.

Waste gurgles from manholes and gushes down streams and rivers somewhere in the USA almost every day, the EPA estimates.

• In March, 700,000 to 1.3 million gallons of human feces and other waste spilled from a damaged pipe into Grand Lagoon at Panama City Beach, Fla., said Al Shortt, the city's utilities director.

• In January, about 20 million gallons of sewage flowed into Pennsylvania's Schuylkill River after a 42-inch pipe ruptured near Reading, according to the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

• Also in January, heavy rain, deteriorating pipes and operator error sent about 5 million gallons of sewage into Northern California's Richardson and San Francisco bays, EPA documents show.

"When people flush their toilets, they think the sewage is going to the treatment plant, and that's where they deserve to have it go," said Nancy Stoner, a project director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which says the government isn't doing enough to police sewage overflows.

Gannett News Service analyzed enforcement and compliance records compiled by the EPA and state regulators from January 2003 to February 2008.

The analysis found that at least one-third of the nation's large, publicly owned sewage treatment systems were the subject of formal enforcement actions by the EPA or state regulators for sewage spills or other violations. Those enforcement actions included fines as well as orders to fix problems or expand treatment capacity. Fines totaling $35 million were assessed against 494 of the nation's 4,200 municipal facilities that treat at least 1 million gallons of sewage daily, the analysis shows.

In addition, some states have levied penalties that aren't included in the EPA data. Cities with the largest fines included San Diego ($6.2 million), New York ($3 million) and Los Angeles ($1.6 million).

An EPA 2004 report to Congress estimated that 850 billion gallons of storm water mixed with raw sewage pour into U.S. waters every year from older, combined sewer systems that were designed to overflow in wet weather. These combined systems, built by cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, are now considered antiquated and a threat to public health and the environment, according to the EPA and environmental groups.

An additional 3 billion to 10 billion gallons of raw sewage spill accidentally every year from systems designed to carry only sewage, according to the 2004 report. Causes of these spills include improper connections, clogs from debris, construction accidents and cracks in aging pipes.

The EPA estimates that as many as 5,500 people get sick every year from direct exposure to sewer overflows near beaches.

Regulators and citizens' lawsuits have pressured local governments to take on costly, complex modernization projects that may take more than a generation to complete.

Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, for example, has agreed to a project that could cost $3 billion over the next 20 years.

"There's nowhere near enough money, and there's no pot where it's going to come from," Arletta Scott Williams, executive director at Pittsburgh's wastewater treatment plant on the Ohio River, said at a town hall meeting last fall.

Ratepayers are being asked to foot much of the bill. A review of local authorities' responses to costly consent decrees requiring sewer system improvements found rates have already increased in several cities, including Louisville, Nashville, Atlanta and San Diego. The review showed pending increases for cities including Pittsburgh, Washington and Los Angeles.

The EPA's 2002 Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis reported the nation's municipal sewer authorities' capital needs to meet clean water requirements from 2000 to 2019 ranged from $331 billion to $450 billion. Based on that data, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies now puts that range at $350 billion to $500 billion for the next 20 years, association spokeswoman Susan Bruninga said.

This year, the federal government has budgeted $687 million for such improvements.

One modernization project alone, in Indianapolis, could cost $1.2 billion. Residents hope the repairs will end years of smelly and unsightly problems along Fall Creek.

"I have walked this area on numerous occasions and could see condoms decorating bushes where the water level had been high (and), feminine hygiene products along the shores, toilet paper hanging in bushes," said Richard Van Frank, a local environmental activist and retired biochemist.

Legislation that would require sewer authorities to notify the public of overflows and spills is pending in Congress.

One environmental group, American Rivers, uses humor and a "Spill of the Week" Web blog to encourage support for a nationwide public notification law.

"We try to be a little snarky about this," said Josh Klein, a campaign coordinator for American Rivers. "After all, we're talking about poop. But it is a serious issue."

Neocons Admit that "War On Terror" Is a Hoax

Neocons Admit that "War On Terror" Is a Hoax

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Key war on terror architect Douglas Feith has now confirmed Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Wesley Clark in admitting that the so-called War on Terror is a hoax.

In fact, starting right after 9/11 -- at the latest -- the goal has always been to create "regime change" and instability in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Lebanon so as to protect Israel. And the goal was never really to destroy Al Qaeda.

As reported in a new article in Asia Times:

Three weeks after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld established an official military objective of not only removing the Saddam Hussein regime by force but overturning the regime in Iran, as well as in Syria and four other countries in the Middle East, according to a document quoted extensively in then-under secretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith's recently published account of the Iraq war decisions. Feith's account further indicates that this aggressive aim of remaking the map of the Middle East by military force and the threat of force was supported explicitly by the country's top military leaders.

Feith's book, War and Decision, released last month, provides excerpts of the paper Rumsfeld sent to President George W Bush on September 30, 2001, calling for the administration to focus not on taking down Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network but on the aim of establishing "new regimes" in a series of states...

***

General Wesley Clark, who commanded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign in the Kosovo war, recalls in his 2003 book Winning Modern Wars being told by a friend in the Pentagon in November 2001 that the list of states that Rumsfeld and deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz wanted to take down included Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Somalia [and Lebanon].

***

When this writer asked Feith . . . which of the six regimes on the Clark list were included in the Rumsfeld paper, he replied, "All of them."

***

The Defense Department guidance document made it clear that US military aims in regard to those states would go well beyond any ties to terrorism. The document said the Defense Department would also seek to isolate and weaken those states and to "disrupt, damage or destroy" their military capacities - not necessarily limited to weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Where does Israel come in?

Well, the Asia Times article continues:
Rumsfeld's paper was given to the White House only two weeks after Bush had approved a US military operation in Afghanistan directed against bin Laden and the Taliban regime. Despite that decision, Rumsfeld's proposal called explicitly for postponing indefinitely US airstrikes and the use of ground forces in support of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in order to try to catch bin Laden.

Instead, the Rumsfeld paper argued that the US should target states that had supported anti-Israel forces such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

***
After the bombing of two US embassies in East Africa [in 1988] by al-Qaeda operatives, State Department counter-terrorism official Michael Sheehan proposed supporting the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against bin Laden's sponsor, the Taliban regime. However, senior US military leaders "refused to consider it", according to a 2004 account by Richard H Shultz, Junior, a military specialist at Tufts University.

A senior officer on the Joint Staff told State Department counter-terrorism director Sheehan he had heard terrorist strikes characterized more than once by colleagues as a "small price to pay for being a superpower".
And if "terrorist strikes" were a "small price to pay for being a superpower"- and that is the reason that the U.S. government refused to disrupt the alleged planners of the 9/11 attacks - doesn't that add weight to the claim that the U.S. government intentionally allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur? In other words, doesn't this statement by a senior officer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tend to prove that 9/11 was intentionally allowed to occur as the "New Pearl Harbor" which would allow America to act like "a superpower" and re-make the Middle East in its own (and Israel's) image?

This is not an unreasonable question, especially given that Feith, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and most of the other key architects of the "war on terror" were part of the Project for a New American Century and its plea for a "New Pearl Harbor" to justify expansion of American militarism and regime change in the Middle East.

And remember that many of the key members of PNAC and architects of the "war on terror" had previously created the "Clean Break" strategy for Israel, which called for a policy of war and regime change against Israel's enemies.

The war on terror was never intended to be about fighting terrorism. As even Newsweek has now admitted, the war on terror is a hoax.

Report Pushes Passage Of Thought Crimes Bill

Report Pushes Passage Of Thought Crimes Bill

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The Internet is now becoming a new front in the phony terror war. Legislation like the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 that is in the forms of HR 1955 and S 1959 which seek to give the government powers to define thoughts and belief systems as homegrown terrorism, is on the brink of being pushed down our throats. HR 1955 was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 404-6 and now it appears as if the U.S. Senate is attempting to justify its future passage. The U.S. Senate homeland security committee lead by war mongering fascist Joesph Lieberman, investigated the so called growing threat of terrorists using the Internet for recruiting and training purposes. In their report, they paint the Internet as a dangerous tool for terrorists and conclude that new laws need to be passed “to prevent the spread of the ideology.” It is incredibly convenient that S 1959 provides the legislation that is called for in their report. The true purpose of this report is to push for the passage of S 1959 which will give the government powers similar to what the government of Oceania used in George Orwell’s book 1984.

The Hartford Courant ran an article on this Senate homeland security committee report. According to their article, the report hypes the threat of homegrown terrorism and how the Internet is playing a key role in spreading the message of so called terrorists. Below is a blurb taken from the article.

A Senate homeland security committee report set for release Thursday details a growing threat from terrorists’ use of the Internet as a recruiting and training tool. The report concludes that the U.S. government should consider its own outreach program as a counter to the Web strategies of groups such as al-Qaida.

A draft of the staff-generated report obtained by The Courant says that “radicalization is no longer confined to training camps in Afghanistan or other locations far from our shores; it is also occurring right here in the United States.” The homeland security committee, led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, has investigated “the threat of homegrown terrorism” in several hearings since last year.

This report paints Internet use by terrorists as having an unlimited reach, including into English-speaking communities in the United States. Al-Qaida, it says, runs a “a multi-tiered online media operation in which a number of production units associated with [al-Qaida] or allied violent Islamist organizations produce content consistent with the core terrorist enlistment message.”

The “thousands” of terrorist-operated websites have become “an effective distribution system for the core enlistment message and other content,” the report contends. There is no longer as much of a need, it suggests, for physical training camps.

First off, the threat of terrorist operated Internet sites is a complete fraud. IntelCenter a CIA front group which supposedly finds all of these Al-Qaeda terrorist video and audio tapes on the Internet never provides the source of where they obtain the terrorist propaganda. If these materials were real terrorist propaganda and they didn’t want to reveal the source, why have we not seen warrants served, the web servers seized and people questioned? Why is it that the terrorist video and audio tapes that are released by this so called terrorist organization always seems to indirectly help the Bush administration? Since no warrants have been served, no Internet servers seized, no people questioned and the propaganda always seems to help the Bush administration it is pretty obvious that IntelCenter is the one releasing this so called terrorist propaganda. After all, the Bush administration and the military industrial complex have a great deal to gain by ensuring that this phony terror war continues. In addition to this, if there were really thousands of these terrorist-operated Internet sites, how is it that a multi-billion dollar defense and intelligence apparatus is incapable of connecting the dots through these sites to track down these so called terrorist leaders like Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahri and Adam Gadahn? The answer is simple. Al-Qaeda is a massive psychological warfare operation designed to make the American people believe that the war on terror is actually real.

The newly coined concept of homegrown terrorism is meant to target political dissidents and other individuals who do not like what the government is doing. It is specifically meant to target American citizens. There is no question that the alternative media which has flourished on the Internet is doing a great deal of damage to their psychological warfare operations. Through S 1959, the establishment wants to give the government a blank check to define homegrown terrorism as anything they want so they can eventually arrest people for having particular belief systems. This legislation actually makes it legal for the government to arrest and prosecute people for thought crimes. This would be a very handy tool for the government to use in cracking down on the alternative media which is increasingly speaking out against globalization. It has nothing to do with the government keeping us safe from Al-Qaeda and groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda on the Internet. After all, Al-Qaeda was originally created by the CIA in the late 1970s and they’ve been controlled by them ever since.

Here’s more from the Hartford Courant article detailing the report’s conclusion on what needs to be done about terrorist activity on the Internet.

The report details four stages of developing a vulnerable person into a terrorist, as taught by New York Police Department specialists. “Left unchallenged, it is very possible that the core terrorist enlistment message espoused over the Internet will drive more individuals in the United States all the way through the four stages of the radicalization process,” it says.

So, how would it be challenged? Right now “there is no cohesive and comprehensive outreach and communications strategy in place to confront this threat,” the report says. Several agencies have existing, narrow missions, but the report argues for a more comprehensive approach. “We must isolate and discredit the violent Islamist ideology as a cause worth supporting.”

According to the report, new laws should be considered “to prevent the spread of the ideology.” And those looking for solutions need to act “quickly and aggressively.”

The report concludes: “The safety of the American people depends on it.”

Isn’t it interesting that S 1959 provides just the legislation that will achieve what this report concludes? How does the U.S. government think they can prevent the spread of so called terrorist ideology through a law? S 1959 is incredibly dangerous because it literally gives the government a blank check to constantly redefine what homegrown terrorism is. This means they can change the belief system that constitutes the ideology of homegrown terrorism and violent radicalization whenever they want. S 1959 will literally legalize much of what the corrupt regime in George Orwell’s book 1984 utilized to keep control of their citizens.

Suffice to say, S 1959 is an unconstitutional piece of legislation, but that hasn’t stopped the traitors in the Senate homeland security committee from endorsing its virtues through the findings in this report. They claim that the safety of the American people depend on them passing more legislation that restricts and reduces freedom. This is an absolute lie; because anytime you give up liberty for security you don’t get either one. There is no doubt that the purpose of this report is to convince the American people that S 1959 has to be passed.

Undoubtedly, most Americans would prefer to face the terrorists than have the government pass legislation like S 1959 that they claim is designed to protect us. The government failed to protect us on September 11th, 2001 because they engineered the attacks to justify a police state in America and wage perpetual war. If we had a real war on terror, there would be mass arrests of U.S. government officials and intelligence officers in the CIA, British Intelligence and the Mossad. We could temporarily house these terrorists in their nice little FEMA run concentration camps that they have already built. It is a proven fact that the majority of real terrorism is sponsored by governments and their associated intelligence agencies. With that in mind, there is no question that this report from the Senate homeland security committee is a big load of horse crap.

Hinchey Calls Blue Dog Behavior "Absolutely Shameful"

Hinchey Calls Blue Dog Behavior "Absolutely Shameful"

By Daniel W. Reilly

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Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) issued a stern rebuke to a group of fellow House Democrats on Thursday, saying that the behavior of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition was "absolutely shameful," after the group revolted on Wednesday over the cost of veterans' educations benefits in a war funding measure, delaying consideration of the $183 billion supplemental spending bill.

"It is absolutely shameful that members of the Blue Dog coalition would vote to take this country into Iraq on false intelligence and lies, repeatedly vote to fund the disastrous military occupation of that country, but choose to turn their backs on the brave members of our armed forces by refusing to support an expansion of education benefits for them when they come home," Hinchey said in a statement.

Hinchey's comments underscore a division within the Democratic caucus over what to include in the supplemental, which could be the only appropriations bill passed out of Congress this year.

House Democrats were forced to postpone consideration of the measure after many Blue Dogs objected to the bill, saying a provision to provide education benefits for returning soldiers violates "pay-as-you-go" rules, which require offsetting new spending.

The veterans benefits package was estimated to cost $720 million for the first two years of the program.

Many Blue Dogs argued the GI benefits package was tantamount to creating a new entitlement program and thus should be offset, an argument that did not sit well with Hinchey, who has long opposed the Iraq war.

"This is a slap in the face to our servicemen and women who courageously risk their lives each day in Iraq and in Afghanistan," Hinchey said.

"The idea that these benefits should be subject to pay-go is ridiculous," Hinchey said in an interview. Instead, Hinchey argued that providing returning soldiers with a college education is an investment that will benefit the country far more than paying for reconstruction in Iraq.

But Hinchey didn't stop there.

"How can the Blue Dog coalition possibly say that an expansion of education benefits is too costly when their votes to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to fight in Iraq violate the same pay-as-you-go rules they claim to so deeply respect?"

Hinchey said he didn't care if his comments caused any tension in the caucus.

"I don't care about push-back [from these comments]," he said. "I am happy to have push-back."

UPDATE: Several Blue Dog members did indeed push back on Hinchey's comments.

"As a group which includes a number of veterans, the Blue Dogs are unwavering in support of our brave service men and women who have risked their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the group's co-chairman for communications.

"We want to pass a GI Bill that is fully paid for so that there is absolutely no chance that these important benefits for our veterans will be cut due to budgetary constraints in the future. We support this program; we just want to make sure that it is done in a responsible manner."

The Soldiers Project: Mental Health Care Confidential

The Soldiers Project: Mental Health Care Confidential

By Sari Gelzer

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The significant numbers of returning service members and veterans who are in need of mental health care have recently been put into the spotlight by a RAND Corporation report, which found approximately 300,000 men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression.

However, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Judith Broder did not need to hear statistics four years ago to realize the wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan were going to have a profound psychological impact on returning troops.

In 2004, after seeing the play "The Sand Storm: Stories From the Front," written by Iraq war veteran Sean Huze, Dr. Broder said that she became strikingly aware of the horrific experience some troops were having in Iraq with regards to what they were seeing and doing.

Inspired by Huze's play, Dr. Broder founded The Soldiers Project, a non-profit group of mental health professionals who offer free mental health services to Iraq and Afghanistan service members, veterans and their families.

The Soldiers Project will be hosting an upcoming conference on May 16-18 in Los Angeles, aimed at bringing attention to the mental health experiences and needs of returning troops.

Congressman Bob Filner (D-California), chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Veterans' Affairs, will speak at the conference about the need for reform in mental health care for returning veterans and active duty members.

"This war is producing tens of thousands of young people who have PTSD and/or brain injury. Unless we more adequately diagnose and treat these people, we are going to see more suicides, domestic violence, homelessness, all of which can be prevented if you accurately diagnose people and get them into treatment," Filner told Truthout.

Filner said that he is attempting to get more federal funding for organizations like The Soldiers Project.

"If the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] is not doing its job, at least some people have stepped in to try and do it," said Filner.

Training and Reintegration

The Soldiers Project trains mental health professionals to be able to work with the unique needs of returning veterans because many therapists in private practice are "insulated from the horrors of war as our whole population is," according to Dr. Broder.
In Dr. Broder's experience, the hardest part for her as a therapist is hearing how horrible some soldiers feel about themselves when returning home.

"It tears my heart out because these are young people who were raised to love their neighbors and to believe that killing is wrong. But, because its necessary in war to partially undo these lessons, it has destroyed or fractured their character in some ways," she said.

The best way to reintegrate their personality back into civilian society, according to Dr. Broder, requires service members to establish a relationship with a therapist who can bear witness to what they have gone through.

The confidentiality offered by The Soldiers Project, and the openness to the wide definition of family members and loved ones who are eligible for treatment, have made The Soldiers Project a distinct alternative from mental health services offered by the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or by Vet Centers.

Stigma Within

An online survey conducted by The American Psychiatric Association found three out of five members of the military worry that seeking help for mental health problems will harm their military careers. The RAND report also found over half of those with symptoms of PTSD did not seek treatment.

Representative Filner said he wants the military to demonstrate that confronting and dealing with mental health is something they encourage. "The army and marines should take a midlevel officer, who admitted he had PTSD and was treated for it, and promote him to general so people know that the culture accepts it rather than a stigma being against it," said Filner.

Iraq war veteran Jim Castellanos, who served six years in the Marine Corps, is scheduled to be a panelist at the upcoming conference. He witnessed first hand, while serving in Iraq, the stigma that surrounds getting treatment. Castellanos prefaced his story with an apology about the graphic nature contained in it. "When we were in Iraq, when my roommate was killed and his brain matter was on his rifle because he got hit by shrapnel, one of our staff sergeants had to go and clean out his rifle with a hose. That shook him up really bad," said Castellanos.

Castellanos said that once the staff sergeant started seeing a psychiatrist in Iraq while they were still deployed, the command blatantly disrespected the staff sergeant with comments implying that he was weak. When the capable staff sergeant was given work, his higher-ups would give him missions with the least responsibility, such as filling sandbags. Castellanos described this as a show of disdain.

Due to this stigma, many of her clients are encouraged to come in by family members. "In many cases, it usually starts with a phone call to The Soldiers Project from a girlfriend or wife saying that their man has returned and they can barely recognize him, but that they love him and want to save the relationship," said Dr. Broder.

The bureaucracy of the VA has created barriers for some family members. The VA will only see the spouse of a veteran who is legally married, according to Dr. Broder. They do not see those who have been in long-term relationships but aren't married, those who are in homosexual relationships, grandmothers who might be primary caretakers, or any family member if the veteran has not gone to the VA and registered themselves.

In addition to restrictions for family members, Dr. Broder said that other barriers exist for veterans as well. The VA does not see mental health patients on nights or weekends, which creates limitations to those who have strict work schedules.

The vet centers, which are funded by the VA, are much more accessible and welcoming to service members, according to Dr. Broder, but they too have restrictions. They limit services to only those who have been in a combat zone.

"This excludes the radio operators who are hearing all the time about who is being killed and where bodies are being taken," said Dr. Broder, noting that this excludes a portion of veterans who deserve treatment but are not receiving it.

"The issue of mental health has been underplayed and nobody wants to admit the extent of it," said Filner, explaining why the VA doesn't have sufficient resources to handle the mental health needs of returning veterans.

Obligation of a Nation

The Soldiers Project is an example of people around the nation who want to help these young men and women coming back, according to Representative Filner.

The group of close to 200 mental health care professionals was started in Los Angeles and now has affiliated groups in Chicago, New York and Seattle.

Dr. Broder hopes programs like The Soldiers Project will appear all over the country, especially near bases and in smaller cities where services are not easily available.

On Friday night, the play that inspired the inception of The Soldiers Project four years ago will make its way to Los Angeles again, featuring a performance by the playwright Huze.

"I hope it grabs everyone the way it grabbed me," said Dr. Broder, "there is something emotional about knowing why we are doing what we are doing."

Iraqi Military Orders Sadr City Residents to Evacuate

Iraqi Military Orders Sadr City Residents to Evacuate

By Leila Fadel

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Baghdad - Iraqi security forces, after more than 40 days of intense fighting, on Thursday told residents to evacuate their homes in the northeast Shiite slum of Sadr City and to move to temporary shelters on two soccer fields.

The military's call indicated the possibility of stepped-up military operations and came as Iraqi security forces raided a radio station run by backers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. In the southern port city of Basra, militants launched rockets that struck a coalition base, killing two contractors and injuring four civilians and four coalition soldiers.

Sadr City has been a battleground since late March, enduring U.S. airstrikes, militia snipers and gunbattles between U.S. and Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Sadr.

Already some 8,500 people have been displaced from the sprawling slum of some 2.5 million people, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent. For weeks, food, water and medical shortages have affected about 150,000 people, aid agencies said.

Two soccer fields in east and northeast Baghdad are expected to receive some 16,000 evacuees from the southeast portion of the city where the fighting has been most intense.

Col. Abdul Amir Risna Sigar, the director of sports facilities in Baghdad, said his organization would set up 500 tents around the two fields but are waiting for final orders. The Iraqi Red Crescent was stockpiling food, medical supplies and tents after being informed of the evacuation. It will be responsible for setting up the shelter and living areas for evacuees, the general director, Mazen Saloum, said.

Right now the fields are empty, and families have not come.

Um Mohammed, 48, ignored the Iraqi soldiers calling over loudspeakers for residents to leave their homes on Thursday. Earlier this week the Iraqi army dropped fliers around her home that asked residents to turn over Mahdi Army militiamen and cooperate with the government.

"The residents here are laughing at the government," she said. "Their demands are very strange. Either hand over our sons or leave our houses to live in small tents."

Um Mohammed will stay in her home, she said, even though her neighborhood is beset by gunbattles and sporadic airstrikes.

"We refuse to leave," she said. "Our death will be inside our homes."

In most of Sadr City, people haven't had food rations for more than a month and a half, and the Red Crescent has distributed thousands of food packs, 100 tons of flour and supplied four tons of medical supplies to the two main hospitals. Five hundred to 1,000 people have been killed in more than 40 days of fighting.

The U.S. military also distributed aid and treated citizens for medical conditions as troops continued their battle on the edges of Sadr City.

The U.S. military is putting up barriers to isolate the southern portion of the city, about 2 square miles, where they believe militants are launching rockets into the heavily fortified Green Zone, where Iraqi government offices and the U.S. diplomatic mission are housed. They expect the project to be complete in less than two weeks. The walls will isolate about 800,000 people in the sprawling slum from the rest of the district to stem the flow of rockets and weapons, said Col. Allen Batschelet, the chief of staff of the U.S. military Baghdad command.

"We're putting a series of these barriers that allows us to control access," he said. "Is it disruptive? You bet. Does it slow down commerce? No doubt. But right now that's the cost of reducing the illegal flow of weapons and arms that were getting in there previously."

On Wednesday, Iraqi security forces raided and stopped the broadcast of the Sadrist Al Ahad radio station, radio employees said.

"The army told the manager that the radio station is considered to provoke terrorism," said Akhbal Hameed, a 38-year-old radio employee. "The Iraqi forces blocked, raided and evacuated the building."

Iraqi officials said they didn't shut down the station and only conducted a raid.

US Lawmakers Introduce New Net Neutrality

US Lawmakers Introduce New Net Neutrality Bill

Grant Gross

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Two Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced a bill that would subject broadband providers to antitrust violations if they block or slow Internet traffic.

Representative John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has sponsored the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act along with Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from the Silicon Valley area of California.

The legislation requires Internet service providers to interconnect with the facilities of other network providers on a reasonable and nondiscriminatory basis. It also requires them to operate their networks in a reasonable and nondiscriminatory manner so that all content, applications and services are treated the same and have an equal opportunity to reach consumers.

Any ISPs that do not follow these net neutrality rules would be subject to antitrust enforcement.

The legislation, introduced Thursday, earned praised from some consumer and online rights groups. Large broadband and mobile phone service providers have begun to discriminate against some content, with Comcast saying it has slowed some customer access to the BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol during times of network congestion, they say. Other broadband providers have talked about managing their networks or asking some popular Web sites to pay more for fast service, net neutrality advocates have said.

"The bill squarely addresses the issue of the enormous market power of the telephone and cable companies as the providers of 98 percent of the broadband service in the country," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. "The bill restores the principle of nondiscrimination that allowed the Internet to flourish in the dial-up era, making certain that the same freedom and innovation will flourish in the broadband era without burdensome regulation."

But broadband providers and some congressional Republicans have argued that net neutrality legislation isn't necessary. The broadband market is becoming more competitive and net neutrality regulations could hamper investment in broadband networks, some Republicans said during a hearing this week.

Competition is happened at "all levels of the Internet," Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said this week. "Our hands-off policy is working."

Conyers and Lofgren were cosponsors of a similar bill introduced in 2006, when Republicans held a majority in the House. With significant Republican opposition, the 2006 bill died, but Democrats were elected to the majority late that year.

"Americans have come to expect the Internet to be open to everyone," Conyers said in a statement. "The Internet was designed without centralized control, without gatekeepers for content and services. If we allow companies with monopoly or duopoly power to control how the Internet operates, network providers could have the power to choose what content is available."

US congressional hearings expose stonewalling on veteran suicide data

US congressional hearings expose stonewalling on veteran suicide data

By Naomi Spencer
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The House Veterans Committee on Tuesday revisited the issue of military suicides in light of a pending lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs by veterans’ rights groups. Following the court-ordered release of internal emails regarding staggering veteran suicide rates, Department of Veterans Affairs officials were accused of “criminal negligence.”

At the same time, a new estimate indicates that veteran suicide deaths could exceed combat fatalities for Iraq and Afghanistan forces.

The hearing, called “The truth about veteran suicides,” centered on emails released last month by the federal District Court of Northern California. The emails showed that there were an average of 12,000 annual suicide attempts by veterans within the VA system. The emails also revealed that the VA was aware of an estimated suicide rate of 6,570 per year across the veteran population. With regard to both figures, the emails made clear that top officials did not want the information to be made public.

The lawsuit (Veterans for Common Sense et al. v. Peake et al.), brought last June by veterans groups Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, is seeking to force a restructuring of the veterans’ medical system to better handle the growing numbers of seriously injured and mentally traumatized veterans. Of particular concern to the groups are the hundreds of thousands of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI), who are at the greatest risk for suicide.

In November 2007, CBS News independently arrived at an estimate of 6,256 veteran suicides in 2005—a figure that top VA officials vociferously denied at the time. At a December hearing before the Veterans Committee, VA Mental Health Director Iraq Katz said the CBC figure “is not, in fact, an accurate reflection of the rates of suicide.” Katz testified that “from the beginning of the war [in 2001] through the end of 2005 there were 144 known suicides among these new veterans.”

Just days after the December hearing, however, Katz confirmed in an email exchange with VA Undersecretary Michael Kussman that veterans were committing suicide at an average rate of 18 per day, in line with the CBS figures reports, adding, “VA’s own data demonstrate 4-5 suicides per day among those who receive care from us.”

On February 13, Katz sent an email to the department’s communications officer with the subject line “Not for the CBS News Interview Request.” Katz wrote: “Shh! Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”

In testimony Tuesday, VA Secretary James Peake and Katz denied a deliberate attempt to stonewall the data, and portrayed the department as fastidious in its tracking of mentally traumatized and suicidal veterans. Peake told the panel that the “VA has long subjected its own data, that of the Department of Defense, and data from nationally accepted statistical sources to careful and painstaking analysis to obtain the truth about veterans’ suicide.”

Referring to the February 13 email, Peake suggested Katz did not want to release the figures out of concern that they were not complete and could be manipulated. “The number of [suicide] attempts referenced was based on only three months worth of data, too short a time period to determine if it was reliable,” he said. Katz’s “Shh!” was simply poor style, Peake suggested. “We’re as far from hiding information from the public as anyone I know.”

Significantly, however, rather than questioning the accuracy of the figure of 12,000 annual suicide attempts, in his testimony Peake suggested it might be conservative. “I can appreciate that the number of 1,000 suicide attempts a month might be shocking,” he said, “but in a system as large as ours ... and consistent with the literature, we might well expect a larger number of attempts than that.”

Democrats on the panel called for Katz’s firing, a suggestion Peake rejected. Committee Chair Bob Filner, a California Democrat, said Peake’s testimony revealed “a culture of bureaucracy.” “This is a matter of life and death, and I think there was criminal negligence in the way this was handled.” Filner told Peake, “The pattern is deny, deny, deny. Then when facts seemingly come up to disagree with the denial, you cover up, cover up, cover up.”

Arizona Democrat Harry Mitchell said that the VA refused to provide him specific information on what resources the department had devoted to suicide prevention for four months. Indicative of stonewalling, the VA then told the congressman to file a Freedom of Information Act request. Mitchell threatened Peake with a congressional subpoena if the VA did not provide the data by May 9.

The Democrats are anxious to turn the debacle to their favor without questioning the source of soaring suicides and mental trauma—the brutal occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the funding for which congressional Democrats have continuously approved.

The most damning testimony came from Ronald Maris, the director of the Suicide Center at the University of South Carolina. Maris served as an expert for the veterans’ groups at the trial last month. He told the congressional committee that the VA stonewalled the plaintiffs over documents related to suicide attempts. “I was given only 170 of the estimated 15,000 incident briefs and none of the root cause analyses,” he said.

Maris also related that during a deposition, William Feeley, the VA’s Health Care Operations deputy undersecretary, admitted that he had not read “from cover to cover” the VA’s mental health program. When asked whether there were methods for tracking troops who may be at risk for suicide, Feeley responded, “I’m not sure, sorry.” He also told the court, “Suicide rates are not a metric we are measuring.”

At one point, Feeley declared, “Suicide occurs like cancer occurs.” Maris commented during his testimony Tuesday, “We all have to die, but no one needs to suicide. The VA seems to think that a certain number of vet suicide deaths are inevitable and that there is not much we can do about them.”

According to Maris, VA documents turned over to the court state that “90.9 percent of the VA facilities do not have suicide case managers.” While there are “suicide coordinators” in all of the VA’s 154 medical centers, Maris said, there are none at all in their 875 community-based outpatient clinics, most of which do not have psychiatrists on staff.

The much-touted suicide prevention hotline established by the VA, Maris said, was utilized by less than 1 percent of those veterans who committed suicides, according to documents reviewed by the court.

Pointing out the inadequacy of the VA’s suicide screening, Maris noted that the process involves asking only two questions of veterans: “Have you felt depressed or hopeless in the last two weeks?” and “Have you thought about hurting or harming yourself in the last two weeks?” If the veteran answers “no” to the second question, Maris said, then no further screening is conducted. “Asking one or two suicide questions, which could easily be denied, misunderstood, misrepresented, etc., is not a suicide screen up to the standard of care. Probably self-destruction is undercounted by the VA with such perfunctory screens.”

Maris also noted that although the VA measures suicide risk factors such as depression, drug dependency, and feelings of hopelessness, the VA relies entirely on self-reporting. “Since hopelessness and depression are key suicide risk factors, they should be measured systematically, not by subjective self-reporting,” he said. “Some vets may not even know if they are depressed, hopeless, or suicidal.”

Separately this week, the National Institute of Mental Health director, Thomas Insel, told reporters during a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association Monday that “suicides and psychiatric mortality ... could trump combat deaths” from the two wars. Insel said he based the opinion on a study published last month by the RAND Corporation think tank, which said that some 300,000 new veterans suffer from PTSD, and that 320,000 have sustained a traumatic brain injury. The study found that only half of these soldiers sought treatment for their injuries.

House of Representatives passes Democratic home mortgage bill backed by the Fed and banking industry

House of Representatives passes Democratic home mortgage bill backed by the Fed and banking industry

By Barry Grey
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The House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill that provides limited relief to a fraction of the millions of homeowners who are unable to meet their mortgage payments, while enabling mortgage companies and banks to offload failing loans to the federal government.

The bill passed by a vote of 266 to 154, with 39 Republicans joining with all but six House Democrats to support the measure. President Bush on Wednesday announced that, should a similar measure be passed by the Senate, he would veto the bill. The upper legislative chamber is scheduled to consider its version of the bill next week.

The House bill, authored by Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is carefully tailored to marginally reduce the flood of home loan defaults and foreclosures, at a minimal cost to the government, so as to stabilize the housing market and stem the losses suffered by banks and financial institutions from the collapse of subprime mortgage-backed securities.

The main provision of the House bill calls for the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to guarantee up to $300 billion in refinanced home loans. Home owners with subprime and adjustable rate mortgages, who demonstrated their ability to pay off a refinanced loan, would have the principle on their loans reduced and the debt converted to a thirty-year, fix-rate mortgage, resulting in lower monthly payments.

Home owners who received refinanced mortgages and subsequently sold their homes would be forced, under the plan, to pay the government a portion of the profit, if any, they made from the sale.

The plan is entirely voluntary, i.e., banks and mortgage lenders would have the option to accept a reduction in the principal on troubled loans in return for a federal guarantee on the refinanced mortgages. Any losses from defaulted FHA-backed loans would be borne by the federal government, not the banks or mortgage lenders.

No bank or mortgage lender would be required to participate in the plan, and the financial firms would decide which, if any, loans they refinanced in return for a government guarantee against losses. As a result, mortgage companies and banks that decide to participate will “cherry pick” the loans they refinance, choosing from among the loans which qualify under the terms of the bill only those they believe most likely to default.

A major goal of the plan is to reduce the rising number of homes that are “underwater”—worth less on the market than the outstanding debt owed to the mortgage provider. Estimates of the current number of such home-owning families in the US vary between 4 million (roughly one in 12 families with mortgages) and 10 million. With home prices expected to fall another 15 percent over the next two years, Moody’s Economy.com predicts that by early 2009 nearly one in four, or 12 million, homeowners will be underwater.

It is generally believed that the credit squeeze and resulting banking crisis can be overcome only if and when the housing market stabilizes and home prices stop falling.

Congressman Frank had said his bill would provide relief to between 1.5 million and 2 million distressed home owners over the next five years. However, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) last week released an estimate that concluded the measure would help a maximum of 500,000 home owners. With 1.5 million families already in foreclosure as of January, and another 2.8 million likely to face foreclosure over the next four years, according to the CBO, the House bill stands to help only 8.6 percent of foreclosure victims.

It does nothing to help those who have already had their homes foreclosed, or block banks and mortgage lenders from carrying out new foreclosures. Last week, RealtyTrac, a firm that tracks defaults and foreclosures, reported that foreclosure filings rose by more than 112 percent in the first three months of 2008 over last year. Lenders are currently filing foreclosure proceedings against more than 7,000 home owners a day.

The CBO explained that of the 9 million home owners who hold subprime or other high-interest mortgages, “most would mot be refinanced under the proposed program.” Some 40 percent, it noted, have second liens on their homes, and the holders of these loans are unlikely to agree to forgive a portion of the debt. Other borrowers will not be aware of the program, and still others will be unable to afford even a cheaper loan because of “a significant event, such as job loss, illness, divorce or death.”

Of the approximately 1.4 million remaining subprime borrowers, according to the CBO, less than 40 percent are likely to find their primary lenders willing to participate in the plan.

For these reasons, the CBO estimated that the actual cost of the program—resulting from defaults of FHA-backed refinanced loans—would amount only to $2.7 billion over the next five years. This is less than the amount spent on the Iraq war every 15 days, and a billion dollars less than the 2007 earnings of the top hedge fund manager in the US.

Congressional Democrats did not dispute the CBO’s findings. Steven Admamske, a spokesman for Rep. Frank, called the CBO estimate “very good news.” During the debate on the House floor Thursday, Frank defended his bill on the basis of the 500,000 figure.

Banking industry associations are generally supporting the bill, because it is entirely voluntary, gives banks the option to offload bad loans to the government, and does not prevent banks from foreclosing on home owners or impose other restrictions.

The bill also includes a provision barring lawsuits against certain mortgage servicers.

In a speech Monday at Columbia University in New York, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke tacitly endorsed the Democratic measure, saying “the best solution” for home owners whose mortgage debt is greater than the value of their home “may be” a modification of the loan to make it more affordable, “perhaps combined with a refinancing by the Federal Housing Administration or another lender.”

Frank sought to win the support of the Bush administration by including in the bill several measures promoted by the White House, including tighter regulation of the government-chartered mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, an overhaul of the FHA and an expansion of the cap on mortgage revenue bonds issued by states and localities.

However, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, after some wavering, said Wednesday he opposed the bill on the grounds that it is “too prescriptive and goes too far in terms of shifting risk from lenders to taxpayers.” He added that the Bush administration did not want to impede a “necessary correction” in house prices.

Bush, after meeting with Republican legislators Wednesday, said he was opposed to the bill because it would “reward speculators and lenders.” He said he would “veto the bill that’s moving through the House today if it makes it to my desk.”

This supposed aversion to “rewarding speculators” comes from an administration that helped broker the rescue of Bear Stearns in March with $29 billion in guarantees from the Fed and has worked with the Fed to pump close to $1 trillion into the financial markets and provide backing for a half-a-trillion dollars in mortgage-backed securities held by Wall Street banks and finance houses whose value has plummeted since the collapse of the housing market.

The administration’s programs to deal with the housing crisis, all based on voluntary agreements with major Wall Street firms and mortgage lenders and servicers, have to date aided a derisory number of homeowners. One program, called FHA Secure, has, according to some estimates, helped a total of 2,000 home owners. Another, called the Hope Now Alliance, has secured loan modifications for 179,500 borrowers.

When the Bush administration speaks of speculators, it includes the millions of home owners who were victimized by predatory lenders, who pushed subprime adjustable rate mortgages on unsophisticated home buyers with the assurance that home prices would continue to rise and the buyers would be able to refinance out of their high-interest rate loans before their mortgages reset to even higher monthly payments.

As the Treasury Department argued in a recent power point presentation, “Home owners who can afford their mortgage but walk away because they are underwater are merely speculators.”

There are indications that, despite Bush’s veto pledge, the administration is looking to negotiate a deal with the Democrats that would provide even more sweeteners for the banks and mortgage companies. Keith Hennessey, director of the White House National Economic Council, said Wednesday that differences between congressional Democrats and the White House were not “insurmountable.” Hennessey, according to the Wall Street Journal, “expressed interest in finding a way for the White House to get more involved in negotiations as the debate advances.”

The Journal reported that the White House wants “greater flexibility” for the FHA and lenders than that provided in the House bill. Specifically, it wants to give the FHA “the ability to charge higher premiums for higher-risk deals—for instance, those involving home owners with low credit scores.”

Lebanon on brink of civil war

Lebanon on brink of civil war

By Chris Marsden
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Lebanon stands on the brink of all-out civil war. A general strike by the leading trade union to protest rising prices and demand an increase in the minimum wage has led to armed conflict between the pro-Western Sunni and Druze-based government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the Shia-based Hezbollah and its ally, Amal.

For the past two days, the conflict has constantly escalated. On Wednesday, supporters of the Hezbollah-led opposition blocked roads in the capital Beirut. About a dozen people were injured in stone-throwing by rival pro- and anti-government gangs of young men.

On Thursday, Sunnis and Shiites exchanged gunfire in the village of Saadnayel in the eastern Bekaa Valley—a crossroads linking the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek with central Lebanon and Beirut.

Supporters of Hezbollah have blocked the road to the country’s only airport, closing it. Burning tyres and earth blockades have been erected, paralysing the capital city.

Heavy fighting broke out in the al-Mazraa district of West Beirut between Sunni and Shia fighters. Opposition gunmen used rocket-propelled grenades to destroy an office belonging to the pro-government Future Movement. Its weapons and ammunition were seized.

The army was deployed in key thoroughfares and crossroads dividing Beirut from the Shia-dominated suburbs in the south. Troops in riot gear stood between rival stone-throwing youths in the mixed Sunni-Shia Mazraa district.

Lebanon’s army command has warned that a “continuation of the situation... harms the unity of the military establishment.”

The conflict brings to a head a 17-month stand-off between the US- and Saudi-backed government and Hezbollah, which has the support of Iran and Syria. Lebanon’s presidential election has been postponed 18 times. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has designated May 13 as the date for the next attempt to elect a new president after this month’s failure to secure a compromise by Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.

The ruling March 14 group, though appearing as the victim of an offensive by Hezbollah, has, in fact, been working for months towards an open conflict with the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance, which also includes the Christian Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun. It has done so in collaboration with the United States and Israel, both of which have made clear their intention to resume hostilities against Hezbollah, and threatened Syria and Iran.

Lebanon has long been the focal point of a regional contest between the US and its allies—Israel, Saudi Arabia and France—and Syria, Iran and their local allies, Hezbollah and Amal. Washington has repeatedly blocked any compromise with Hezbollah because it wants Lebanon to function as its protectorate and as an extension of its main power base in Israel. This would, in turn, be a precursor to possible regime change in Syria and Iran to establish US hegemony in the oil-rich region.

Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. But Israel made clear its continued designs on the country when, targeting Hezbollah, it declared war against Lebanon in July 2006, during which more than 1,200 people were killed, many more were injured and vast swathes of the country’s infrastructure were destroyed.

Israel’s inability to defeat Hezbollah created a major political crisis in Jerusalem, while winning Hezbollah further popular support amongst the Shia masses.

Since that time, the US has been anxious to create a pretext for conflict with Hezbollah, Syria and, ultimately, Iran, blocking tentative peace talks between Israel and Syria and mounting repeated provocations against both Damascus and Tehran. Last September, Israeli warplanes bombed Syria, with unnamed US sources claiming that the target was a partly-constructed nuclear reactor.

On February 28, the USS Cole was stationed off Lebanon’s coast, joined later by the Nassau battle group, which includes six vessels, including amphibious landing craft, and a contingent of over 2,000 Marines. A top US official declared at the time, “The United States believes a show of support is important for regional stability. We are very concerned about the situation in Lebanon. It has dragged on very long.”

That same month, the Bush administration announced a further round of sanctions against Syria, directed at unnamed individuals alleged to have played a role in supporting the resistance in Iraq.

On April 24, the Bush administration released intelligence claiming to prove that Damascus was building a nuclear reactor, with the assistance of North Korea, at the site targeted by Israel’s air force last year. A White House statement ominously warned that Syria’s alleged covert construction of the reactor was “a dangerous and potentially destabilising development for the region and the world.”

The US justification for Israel’s earlier bombing paves the way for similar measures to be undertaken. The allegations also chime with the repeated accusations that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program.

For its part, following on from its September 2007 air raid, Israel assassinated senior Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah in Damascus on February 12 of this year, an action widely seen as aimed at provoking retaliation and providing the pretext for another Israeli war in Lebanon.

On May 8, amidst the escalating conflict in Lebanon, President George Bush said he was again extending for one year US sanctions against Syria, using the charge that it was trying to secretly build a nuclear reactor. The sanctions include a freezing of Syrian assets and an embargo on several imported goods. Bush accused Damascus of supporting terror, continuing its interference in Lebanon and Iraq, and attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction and missile programs.

The provocative actions of the Siniora government against Hezbollah can only be viewed as an extension of this US/Israeli-led offensive. In a televised February 10 speech, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt threatened Hezbollah: “You want disorder? It will be welcomed. You want war? It will be welcomed. We have no problem with weapons, no problem with missiles. We will bring them to you.”

Last week two moves were made towards doing just that.

At the weekend, Jumblatt accused Hezbollah of monitoring Beirut International Airport with security cameras in preparation for a possible attack or kidnapping. On Tuesday, the government ordered the commander of security at the airport, Brigadier General Wafiq Shuqeir, to return to the Army Command, accusing him of sympathising with Hezbollah and failing to deal with the secret camera it allegedly set up overlooking the main runway.

Shuqeir is close to Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker and leader of Hezbollah’s coalition partner, Amal. It is this action that prompted the barricading of roads to the airport.

In the same speech, Jumblatt also accused Hezbollah of setting up its own private telecommunications network to eavesdrop on calls made in Lebanon. This was followed on Tuesday by a government declaration that Hezbollah’s telephone network was “illegal and unconstitutional” and a threat to state security, referring a dossier on the issue to the judiciary.

Targeting the network was bound to illicit a strenuous response. Hezbollah does indeed operate an extensive fixed-line telecommunications network.

According to Time-CNN, “Hizballah had some time ago installed its own, in-house dedicated fiber-optic telephone network, connecting its headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut to its offices, military posts and cadres as far south as the Israeli border. During the summer 2006 war, Israel had jammed cell phone signals throughout south Lebanon and monitored the Lebanese telephone system, but Hizballah’s internal communications channels had survived thanks to its private fiber-optic system.

“Since the war, however, Hizballah has expanded the network to cover its new military frontline north of the United Nations-patrolled southern border district, and into the Bekaa Valley to the east. Part of the system incorporates a WiMAX network allowing long-distance wireless access for the Internet and cell phones.

“More recently, Hizballah has dug trenches for fiber-optic cables in the mainly Christian and Druze Mount Lebanon district and in north Lebanon, according to Marwan Hamade, the Lebanese minister of telecommunications.”

An attack on this network would severely curtail Hezbollah’s ability to defend itself from Israeli aggression or from an attack by its internal opponents. The provocation had the desired effect. On Thursday, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah gave his first press conference since 2006, stating that the decision to close down the organisation’s private telecommunications network was a “declaration of war.”

Describing the network as the most important weapon against foreign aggressors, he said, “This decision is first of all a declaration of war and the launching of war by the government... against the resistance and its weapons for the benefit of America and Israel. Whoever declares war against us and who launches a war against us even if he’s our father or brother, or just a political opponent, we have the right to confront him to defend ourselves, to defend our weapons, to defend our resistance and to defend our existence.”

He demanded the government rescind its decision and also reinstate Brig Gen Wafiq Shuqeir.

US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe yesterday demanded that Hezbollah “stop their disruptive activities” and choose whether to be “a terrorist organization or be a political party.”

Bush is scheduled to meet with Siniora at the end of next week at Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh, following his attendance at Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations and a visit to Saudi Arabia to celebrate 75 years of US relations with the kingdom. For its part, Saudi Arabia has accused unnamed “foreign extremist sides” of fomenting the present conflict.

The U.S. War on Journalists

The U.S. War on Journalists

By Amy Goodman
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Judge Orders EPA to Hurry on Carbon Monoxide

Judge Orders EPA to Hurry on Carbon Monoxide

By Bob Egelko

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San Francisco - The Bush administration has violated legal deadlines for updating the nation's clean-air standards on carbon monoxide, a federal judge in San Francisco has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White told the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday to follow a schedule that would allow a full scientific review, public comment and any proposed changes in the standard to take place by May 2011. The EPA had proposed a timetable that would extend through October 2012.

Carbon monoxide, an odorless and invisible by-product of incomplete combustion in auto exhaust, refinery fumes and other emissions of fossil fuels, is lethal at high levels and can cause health problems and birth defects at lower levels. It is one of the pollutants for which the EPA sets a nationwide standard, requiring states to devise their own plans for compliance.

The current national standard was set in 1971. Federal law requires a reassessment every five years, but the EPA last reviewed the standard in 1994 and made no changes, said Shana Lazerow, a lawyer for Communities for a Better Environment, one of the groups that sued the federal agency.

Environmental groups in the lawsuit said recent scientific studies have found that carbon monoxide is dangerous at levels that were previously considered safe. They said two reports in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, published in 2001 and 2005, both found low birth weights among children born to women who were exposed to carbon monoxide at levels far below those allowed by the 1971 standard.

"Current health standards allow our children to be exposed to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide across the country," said Jeremy Nichols, director of Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action, another plaintiff in the case.

Lazerow said studies also show that poor and minority children are most at risk.

Environmental advocates and officials in California and other states have accused President Bush's EPA of foot-dragging in regulating pollutants, including greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, and ignoring scientific recommendations.

The EPA says it has come up with a new approach to clean-air regulation that will streamline the process while incorporating the latest scientific information. But White, in his ruling, noted that the agency's own advisory panel of independent scientists called the new procedures "entirely unsuitable" in January, saying they failed to provide timely information about the contents of proposed regulations.

The judge said the EPA conceded it had missed the deadline for reassessing the carbon monoxide standard but argued that it should now have five years from the time the suit was filed in 2007, shortly before the agency took the first steps in the review process. White disagreed, saying the evidence showed a thorough review could be completed 17 months earlier.

There was no immediate comment from the EPA.

Special Counsel Shut Down Probe of Siegelman Case Last Year

Special Counsel Shut Down Probe of Siegelman Case Last Year

By Ben Evans

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Washington - The U.S. Office of Special Counsel last year shut down a previously undisclosed investigation into the federal prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, according to an internal memo made public Wednesday.

The investigation was being conducted by a task force formed at the agency a year ago to pursue high-profile political investigations in Washington, most notably whether the White House played politics in firing U.S. attorneys. It began gathering information on the Siegelman case in September and was planning to request documents from the Justice Department in October before Special Counsel Scott Bloch ordered the case closed, according to the Jan. 18 draft memo, made public by the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.

The investigation was one of many that the task force had taken up, and the memo shows that Bloch frequently differed with investigators about which cases to pursue.

For example, he asked the task force to broaden its investigations into the fired prosecutors and into whether federal agencies received political briefings from the White House to boost GOP electoral fortunes. But he shut down an investigation into whether the Justice Department was hinging its hiring decisions on job applicants' political affiliations.

An attorney for Bloch, who himself is under a federal investigation, declined comment. But a person familiar with the origins of the POGO draft document said the decision to not pursue Siegelman or other cases stemmed mostly from a shortage of time and resources. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

Siegelman, a Democrat, said the memo suggests further political interference in his case and reiterated his call for the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to take up the matter.

"The question is who told them to shut it down," Siegelman said Wednesday when told of the memo. "Why would you start an investigation and let it proceed and then shut it down? The logical conclusion is that somebody intervened and told them to shut down the investigation."

Siegelman has long claimed that Republicans engineered his prosecution on bribery and other corruption charges to kill his chances for re-election, a claim repeatedly denied by federal prosecutors. His attorneys requested earlier this year that the Justice Department appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether White House appointees in Washington, including former Bush adviser Karl Rove, influenced the case. Rove also has denied any involvement.

The Special Counsel's office is an independent agency charged with investigating unlawful political activity by government employees and ensuring that government whistle-blowers are not subjected to reprisals.

The January memo is a summary of the task force's activities and recommendations since it was formed in May 2007. It says investigators expressed concerns about closing the Siegelman investigation before completing it. But the task force was "directed to not further investigate this case and to wait for further instructions."

The memo says the task force still considered the case open and was requesting authorization to continue.

"I'm stunned by all this," said Vince Kilborn, one of the former governor's attorneys. "If an ongoing government investigation was shut down, I would say it's potential obstruction of justice."

FBI agents raided the office and Bloch's home this week in an investigation into whether he destroyed evidence potentially showing he retaliated against staffers who opposed his policies.

Siegelman, who served one term as governor after being elected in 1998, was convicted in 2006 on bribery and other charges and sentenced to more than seven years in prison. He was recently released on bond pending appeal.