Friday, August 8, 2008

From food bank's chief, insight into hungry U.S.

From food bank's chief, insight into hungry U.S.

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Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of the nation's largest food bank network, stopped in Sarasota on Wednesday on a weeklong tour of Florida.

Escarra left her job as vice president of customer service at Delta Air Lines and took charge of America's Second Harvest in 2006.

The network feeds 25 million people annually through food banks around the country. It distributes 2.2 billion pounds of food, enough to make it comparable to the largest grocery chains in the nation.

Here is what Escarra said at All Faiths Food Bank in an interview about a coming advertising campaign, who she wants to be the next president, and what the economic slump means for those without enough to eat.

Q:How much has demand at food banks increased nationally, and who is visiting them?

ESCARRA:In January we surveyed our 200 food banks and demand was up 20 percent over last year. We're seeing more and more people visiting food banks for the first time because they've lost their jobs or they're not getting raises. They can't afford vegetables or protein, the essentials of a good diet. Most of the people who come to food banks are on food stamps, but those are only $3 per person a day.

Q:On the network's Web site, there is a lot of talk about "food insecurity." What does that mean?

ESCARRA:There are 35 million Americans living without knowing consistently where their next meal will come from. I think that's pretty stunning.

Making the situation all the more critical, food is up year over year 7 or 8 percent, dairy products and meat are up 25 to 30 percent, fuel is up 35 percent year over year.

Q:What do you receive in donations annually and how much do you need?

ESCARRA:We receive $75 million a year and we need about $250 million a year to feed the new demand. Most of our donations are from large manufacturing companies like Kellogg, General Mills. About a quarter of our donations come from the government.

Q:What are you doing to raise awareness?

ESCARRA:This November, we are changing our name to "Feeding America." We've found that "America's Second Harvest" has a lot of strength within the community of people who know what we do, but if you step outside that segment, people don't know that "America's Second Harvest" is a food bank. We're also launching a national advertising campaign through the Ad Council in November.

Q:Do you have a hard time convincing people that there is a hunger problem in this country?

ESCARRA:I think the public in general is not aware that it is so pervasive. Kids don't want to go to school and say, "Last night I had a piece of toast for dinner." Parents don't want to talk about it. Kids don't want to talk about it. Senior citizens really don't want to talk about it because they're proud. Then there is the fact that we've not spoken about it. It's not something America is proud of.

Q:Do you think we're in a recession?

ESCARRA:I think we are definitely in a recession and I haven't seen any indicators that would lead anyone to believe we're going to get out of it anytime soon. We're expecting this to be pretty severe for the next 18 months at least.

Q:Where is the need for food greatest?

ESCARRA:We have a lot of pockets around the country where we're giving people food but we're not giving them enough. Most of these are in rural parts of the country. It's difficult to get trucks in to take food to people.

With the price of fuel being at an all-time high you might be able to get the food but then you can't get the money for the transportation.

Q:What do you think it would take to solve the problem of hunger in America?

ESCARRA:I think it will take a lot of very strong leadership by the new president, who makes it a priority to address not only hunger in America, but also the issue of poverty. When you look at what happened in England five years ago, Tony Blair made it a priority and they substantially reduced childhood hunger in three to five years.

Q:Which president do you think would be best to solve the problem?

ESCARRA:We need to balance how we spread the wealth in this county. Sen. Obama has done a lot, before he ran for president, with our food banks. The reality is, we live in a country where wealthy people are getting wealthier and the tax breaks that were put in place by the Bush administration really need to be reviewed.

The Fire This Time?

The Fire This Time?

By David Michael Green

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Any American who's been on the planet for more than a few years has lived through a series of economic ups and downs — what economists call the business cycle. These booms and busts seem to follow one another as inevitably as sunset does sunrise.

Phil Gramm hasn't apparently noticed, but we're now pretty deep into an economic downturn — whether or not it officially qualifies as a recession yet or is simply on the way to becoming one.

But two things are especially striking about this particular iteration of our economic malaise. One is that we never quite seem to have had the boom we were supposed to get in between this bust and the last one. Gross domestic product, the key single indicator of economic health used to measure the state of the economy, has done reasonably well since the downturn that began in 2000. So has the stock market, and so, especially, have the one percent or so of the richest Americans, who have lately transitioned from being ridiculously rich to obscenely rich.

Most of the rest of us, on the other hand, may be excused for wondering when the good times hit, 'cause we somehow missed it. It's funny (hah-hah, right?), but in the go-go late 1990s, some economists were wondering whether Alan "The Second Coming" Greenspan and Robert "Token Wall Street Pseudo-Democrat" Rubin hadn't actually killed the business cycle forever, with only good times to come for generations on end. Ironically, the subsequent decade may be considered to have posed the same question, only with a very different meaning. Given the absence of any serious recovery content in the latest alleged recovery, maybe the business cycle is dead — only not with permanent boom, but permanent bust, instead.

In truth, though, we may come to look upon years like 2004 or 2005 as the good ol' days. That's because the second unique thing about the present downturn is the depth of down to which we may now be turning. I'm sure somebody was relieved when George Bush recently informed the country that the economic fundamentals are solid, but it sure wasn't me. Hard as it is to imagine that this president could get something wrong or speak, uh, somewhat less than candidly, my fear is that conditions are quite the opposite of those the cheerleader-in-chief portrayed. I remember well the recessions of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. This one doesn't feel anything like those. It seems a lot bigger. My fear is that the bottom may be falling out. My fear is that it's the fire this time.

I'm not an economist (not that economists so very often know what the hell they're talking about either), so I will readily admit that I don't have a lot of expertise on this question. But I will say one thing with confidence, however, even as a economics dilettante (in political science we call those people 'angry voters'). And that is that there are incredible signs of economic thin ice almost anywhere you turn today. The national debt has never been higher. Consumer debt has never been higher. Savings have never been lower. The trade deficit has never been higher. The dollar is spectacularly weak. Foreclosures are mushrooming. Quality jobs are disappearing in droves. People are working longer to maintain the same standard of living, or often less. Employers are economizing, among other ways, by cutting healthcare benefits. Real estate values are plummeting. Sure, it's a great time to be a bankruptcy lawyer or a repo man, but probably most of us would agree that keeping people in those two fields well employed isn't worth the trade-off of having an economy in the toilet.

George Bush has laughingly admitted that he got "gentlemen's C's" when he was in college (those are what the rest of us, whose daddies don't endow library wings at Ivy League schools, refer to as F's ), so perhaps that explains his misreading of the economy. For us folks not laughing quite so hard at his little riff out of the "Humor for Plutocrats" textbook, the real question, given the above-referenced indicators, is what in the world would it take for the Boy Wonder to finally say that the fundamentals of the economy are not sound? Does China have to start actually mailing him a monthly rental invoice for use of the White House? Does real estate have to lose fully half its value, rather than 'merely' 25 percent? Does the dollar need to become even more worthless than the 1930s Deutschmark for him to be concerned ("Get your wheelbarrows while they're hot, ladies and gentlemen, right over here!")? Or must low-hanging billionaires have to painfully downscale their lifestyles into those of impoverished multi-millionaires before he could perceive the hurt?

You wanna talk fundamentals, George? Let's talk about some really fundamental fundamentals. And, no, I don't mean yields-per-acre, pork belly futures or worker-productivity-to-energy-input ratios, dude.

There's no question that America has historically been an industrious, innovative and hard-working country. We still are today, though the hard-working part has gotten simultaneously more hard, less rewarding, and less driven by desire for advancement than need for survival. Perhaps the paradigmatic moment of our time was Clueless George on the campaign trail in 2004, gushing over a woman he met who said she worked three jobs to keep afloat. For Bush, it was an 'only in America' moment - completely oblivious, as he seemed to be, that this represents almost nobody's vision of the good life. Well, almost nobody. One imagines that Dick Cheney was smiling in the wings of that event, thinking to himself: "Once we get all of them doing that, our work here will be done!". Nowadays, no industrialized country in the world has workers who put in more hours per year than the US. None has such a glaring absence of economic support programs as America does, either.

But we've worked hard here, historically, like the good Protestants we are, and we've been technologically innovative and admirably determined in achieving our far-reaching aspirations. That's all good stuff, but just the same, though, there's been an undeniable dark side to the phenomenal success of the American economy. We've worked hard to produce a lot, true, but we've also — in a word — stolen a lot as well.

We stole from indentured servants from the beginning. We stole from Native Americans within minutes of landing here, and never stopped until we'd grabbed all the land and resources we wanted, leaving them casinos and poverty in return. We harnessed yokes around Africans and imported them as if they were agricultural beasts of burden, and continued to do so for centuries. We built our economic accomplishments on the backs of near-slave immigrant laborers, from Chinese coolies to Mexican wetbacks, along with Irish, Italian, German, Jewish and a whole lot of other nationalities in-between. We stole fully half of Mexico following a trumped-up war no less bogus than the current one in Iraq, then we did the same for Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines and more. We broke the backs of labor movements in order to enrich a few owners while grinding 'human resources' into impoverishment and early death. We exploited the entire continent-and-a-half of Latin America, installing local dictators in country after country who got personally wealthy by doing the oppressive and murderous dirty work for American resource extraction corporations. We assigned to women endless domestic chores without the slightest compensation, nor political power, nor even ownership of family wealth.

These are the obvious thefts — and there is no more accurate word for it — by which we've massively enhanced our wealth over a period of centuries. But there are less obvious ones as well. We have raped the environment for precisely the same purposes. You can get a lot wealthier a lot faster by not concerning yourself (or even paying compensation for) the environmental destruction caused by manufacturing, mining, drilling and more, than you would by having to be responsible for those very real costs of your enterprise. Economists like to gently refer to such factors as 'externalities.' That's a polite way to describe a process by which the rich get even richer through offloading the costs of their business to you and me, and keeping the profits for themselves.

Not content with any of that, however, we've also lately been engaged in other, new and improved, more subtle forms of national wealth theft. Rampant consumerism based on little plastic cards is quite effective, leaving costs to others, like our children. So is — as exhausted consumerism now heads for the ditch — turning our houses into piggy banks to keep an economy artificially afloat, until that can no longer be sustained either. Or running incredible trade deficits, or radically deflating the value of our currency to keep sales of American goods abroad halfway viable. Another nice trick you can do is run up the national debt and leave that to your kids as well. You can also ignore your infrastructural repair and development needs so people can party on now, instead of paying the taxes necessary to keep the economy strong for the next generation. Talk about eating your young. One of the best of all these games over last decades has been the uninhibited agenda of economic globalization which has now managed to successfully export American white collar jobs to India, right behind the blue collar ones that previously went to China. That was supposed to make us all richer, remember? Some people indeed are. Those without jobs, or working for half what they used to make, aren't in that small group however.

What all of these ploys have in common is that they are all methods allowing one to live larger than we're rightfully entitled to. Slavery is the most obvious example. You wanna live the good life? The most basic formula ain't that hard to figure out. Kidnap some dude from a less technologically developed part of the world, terrorize him with overwhelming force and psychological violence to go along with the real kind, then watch as he plows your field while you sit on the porch sipping Mint Juleps. Then, repeat. This is the most obvious example, yes, but really no different in principle from ripping off your own kids with tax 'cuts' unaccompanied by spending cuts, which drive up the national debt and hand the next generation the bill. Plus interest. Or stealing in the form of externalizing costs for remediating environmental destruction while the eco-evildoers go off scot-free with grossly inflated profits (indeed, in some cases, these would be non-existent profits, were the real costs to have been factored in). And so on, and so on.

The work of Reaganism-Bushism is nowadays finally beginning to be recognized for what it is. Americans have not felt such economic insecurity since the Great Depression. Whether the epiphany will come in time for them to finally recognize and give leave to the kind folks who dismantled the Good Times of previous generations, is unclear. A very possible scenario is that McCain barely wins in November — on the strength of fear, racism and the usual Rovian smear tactics — literally just months before economic anxiety finally crests over into newfound consciousness and rage. That would feel like a giant version of 2005, when Americans were frightened into re-electing the Little Tyrant, and almost immediately began to regret their choice. This was truly another paradigmatic moment, as Bush did his usual blustering performance, bragging about his mandate and the political capital he now planned to start spending. As he quickly found out when he tried to rip-off the Social Security system, and as his job approval ratings continued to sink until just about nobody other than a few crackers in the Texas Hill Country still thought he was doing a good job, the only mandate he had actually garnered was to be someone other than the cartoon caricature of a would-be president that Rove had turned John Kerry into (with the latter's ample assistance).

If McCain once again drags the spent and stinking carcass of kleptocratic robber baron public policy across the finish line in November, while the economy continues to deteriorate, he'll have only two choices on coming to office. One would be to abandon his party once and for all in a sort of reverse version of the U-turn François Mitterrand famously executed, moving from socialism to mixed economy capitalism during the 1980s. McCain might actually relish that notion. He probably hates the crap he's had to take from the bastards who rule his party nearly as much as the rest of us do. Plus he may know he's a one-term president no matter what, so what's he got to lose? And we know that he admires Teddy Roosevelt most of all the former presidents, and such a move would be right out of TR's playbook.

His other choice would be to continue to hew closely to right-wing orthodoxy while the ground disintegrates below our feet. This would surely please Grover Norquist and all the billionaires whose massive earnings are maybe off by ten percent lately (boo-hoo, fellas), but if he did this my guess is that the rest of the country might well turn on him with some caged-animal ferocity raging behind bared teeth. For reasons which still entirely elude me (though which nowadays probably have a lot to do with simply waiting it all out), the public massively disapproves of the Bush administration, but does nothing about it. My gut tells me, however, that having their hopes quashed once again as things get worse, and the guy they've just reluctantly chosen president continues the same destructive policies of doing nothing but making the rich richer, is a bridge too far. At the risk of mixing metaphors, I wouldn't want to be John McCain on the day that particular dam breaks.

But the bigger point is simply this. Americans historically did well by working hard, educating themselves and bringing clever innovation to the table. But for just as long they got really rich by stealing the extra wealth, whether from someone else's labor, from their neighbors, from the environment in which we live, or from the future.

What if there are no more piggy banks from which to steal? What happens if the US economy has finally hit the wall of remorseless reality, and can only produce what it can honestly produce? What happens to the American economy and American standards of living if all the gimmicks have been exhausted?

The fire this time?

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.

Our $100 Trillion National Debt

Our $100 Trillion National Debt

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The "official" debt of the United States is only around $10 trillion dollars as of August 6, 2008. This is a manageable number; we could pay it off in a few decades if we quit buying luxuries like food and clothing, and take a few other minor economy measures. Unfortunately, the "$10 trillion" number was produced by government accounting, which among other things allows one to ignore Social Security, Medicare, and the new prescription drug benefit. This is like ignoring rent, food, and utilities in your household budget… it will lead to a few bounced checks. Our real debt is about ten times higher.

Who says so? The President of the Dallas Federal Reserve, Richard W. Fisher. In a May speech at the Commonwealth Club of California, he states that the US national debt is close to $100 trillion. You can read his whole speech at the Federal Reserve web site.

The Real Debt

Here is what he said regarding the actual US debt:

"Add together the unfunded liabilities from Medicare and Social Security, and it comes to $99.2 trillion over the infinite horizon. Traditional Medicare composes about 69 percent, the new drug benefit roughly 17 percent and Social Security the remaining 14 percent."

Interested readers will notice that the new prescription drug benefit is projected to be more fiscally crushing than all of Social Security.

Mr. Fisher points out that this $99.2 trillion will be a bit of a burden to pay off:

"Let's say you and I and Bruce Ericson and every U.S. citizen who is alive today decided to fully address this unfunded liability through lump-sum payments from our own pocketbooks, so that all of us and all future generations could be secure in the knowledge that we and they would receive promised benefits in perpetuity. How much would we have to pay if we split the tab? Again, the math is painful. With a total population of 304 million, from infants to the elderly, the per-person payment to the federal treasury would come to $330,000. This comes to $1.3 million per family of four—over 25 times the average household's income."

You do have $1.3 million in your pocket, right? What, are you some kind of deadbeat?

Speaking of deadbeats, the "$99.2 trillion" estimate does not include the subprime bailout. So for those who like large round numbers, by the end of 2008 the real National Debt should be large, round, and about $100 trillion.

Other Unfunded Liabilities

The Fed's numbers do not include some other liabilities the US has acquired over the years. One massive but unquantifiable liability is the probability of future wars. If it cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars to invade the fifth-rate kleptocracy of Iraq and the foreign-aid regime of Afghanistan, how many trillions would wars against real powers cost? Perhaps I should ask "how many US cities" such wars would cost.

Some nations could legitimately plan for peace. Sweden has not fought a foreign war since 1814 (as many Swedes have pointed out in emails regarding my Swiss article). Switzerland, not since 1815. The US record is less hopeful.

The US is rarely not in foreign wars, and the current Administration has openly announced that the "Global War On Terror" will never end. Yet our government accounting is predicated on perpetual peace, on an ever-increasing flow of money into the official pyramid schemes.

In any case, whether you are pro- or anti- Empire, real accounting demands some reserves for future war contingencies. When even a few US cities are burning radioactive pyres, the flow of funds to Social Security and Medicare will suffer some interruption.

Any fiscal plan demands amortization of the accumulated hatred our foreign adventures have accumulated. The US taxpayer has aided every evil dictator since 1945. Stalin, Castro, Pol Pot, Nyerere, Idi Amin, go right down the roster and US money helped pay for the barbed wire and bullets (and the nuclear reactors, in the case of the Kim Dynasty rulers of Korea).

So far blowback has been quite mild. But in a world full of easy do-it-yourself WMD technologies, our luck can't hold forever. If the US were a private company, the "badwill" on our books would reach into the tens of trillions.

Tearing Up The Credit Cards

Most likely, the US will simply continue into bankruptcy. This is the most common pathway for nations with fiat currencies and unchecked ruling classes. But let's assume that somehow a Clone Army of 435 Ron Pauls gets into Congress, while genetic technology brings back Jefferson and Gallatin to their old offices. Can the US be made solvent again?

I think so. Most of the unfunded liability is medical. We know why the medical system does not work. So if we eliminate the FDA, guild restrictions on medical professions, and the ridiculous tax laws that force us into medical-insurance serfdom to employers, we could cut medical costs enough to phase out Medicare and the new "drug benefit." In this way more than half the shadow debt can be wiped out.

The answer for the Social-Security pyramid scheme is well known. Chile fixed its Social Security disaster decades ago, by giving large IRA-style allowances and phasing out the government payments to younger recipients. The sooner we do this the easier it will be… the Boomers start retiring soon.

Most important, we have to listen to the Founder's calls for free trade with all nations but entangling alliances with none. The US cannot stop every quarrel in the world even if we wished… and the actual record of our foreign-policy geniuses has been to send a couple of trillion dollars out to the very worst criminals in human history. Aid To Dependent Dictators must stop.

None of this will happen while Mordor-On-The-Potomac still possesses its plutonium credit card, the Fed. Just as we would for any other bankrupt relative, we must help Uncle Sam cut up his credit cards.

Bill Walker [send him mail] is a research technologist. He lives with his wife and four dogs in Grafton NH, where they are active in the Free State Project.

U.S. Headed Toward Bankruptcy, Says Top Budget Committee Republican

U.S. Headed Toward Bankruptcy, Says Top Budget Committee Republican

By Terence P. Jeffrey, Editor-in-Chief

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The ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee said the U.S. government is headed toward bankruptcy if it stays on its current fiscal course.

"We know that for a fact," Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told CNSNews.com in a video interview. "All the actuaries, all the objective scorekeepers of the federal government, are predicting this."









To back up this claim, Ryan cited an estimate by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office that says the government faces a $53-trillion shortfall to cover the costs of promised benefits in its entitlement programs.

"They say we are $53 trillion short of fulfilling the promises the government is making to the American people, in today's dollars," said Ryan.

"Meaning that if we want to keep the promises of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which are basically the three major entitlement programs, today we would have to set aside $53 trillion dollars and invest them at Treasury rates in order to do it," he said.

Ryan said that to deal with this situation the government must either reform the entitlement programs or eventually impose massive tax increases on American workers.

"For the last 40 years, the federal government has had to tax every dollar made in America at 18.3 cents on that dollar to pay the bills of the federal government," said Ryan.

"By the time my three children – who are three, five and six years old—are my age, the federal government will have to tax 40 cents out of every dollar made in America just to pay the bills for the federal government at that time," he said.

Ryan asked the Congressional Budget Office to determine what the tax rates would need to be to cover federal spending at that level.

"What they told me was really startling," said Ryan. "They said that the current low rate, the 10-percent bracket for low-income Americans, would have to go up to 25 percent. The middle-income tax rate for middle-income Americans would have to go up to 66 percent, and the top rate, which is what small businesses pay, would have to go to 88 percent.

"Those would be the tax rates you would have to have if you wanted to tax your way out of this problem," he said. "And if you did that, all experts conclude, you would literally crash the American economy."

Ryan portrayed the long-term budget crisis he believes the country is now facing as a generational challenge.

"The legacy of this country has always been that each generation confronts the challenges before it so that the next generation is better off," said Ryan. "In the past, we brought down the Iron Curtain and won the Cold War. We got through World War I. We got through World War II. We won the war on the Great Depression.

"The problem that we have right now—putting foreign policy aside and our fight with Islamic radicalism—is that we have an economic crisis, we have a fiscal crisis, and, that is, we will bankrupt this country, and the best century in America will be the last century," he added.

"Unless we turn our fiscal situation around and pay off this debt, and change the way these programs work to a more sustainable path, the next generation will have inferior living standards," said Ryan.

Ryan and his Budget Committee staff have developed a comprehensive plan for reforming federal taxing-and-spending policies that they believe will restore long-term solvency to the federal government.

Entitled "A Roadmap for America's Future: A Plan to Solve America's Long-Term Fiscal and Economic Crisis," the plan has been introduced as legislation (H.R. 6110) in the current Congress.

White House remains defiant on Miers, Bolten testimony

White House remains defiant on Miers, Bolten testimony

By Susan Crabtree

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Despite a court ruling last week rejecting its claim of executive privilege, the White House still rebuffs congressional subpoenas for chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former counsel Harriet Miers.

The two on Thursday requested that federal District Judge John Bates stay the ruling until the case is appealed. In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), White House counsel Fred Fielding said the administration would await the outcome of its appeal before "entertaining any requests for Mr. Bolten's compliance with the Senate Judiciary subpoena."

Fielding also noted that any request for testimony from former White House adviser Karl Rove would produce the same response.

Leahy had sent a letter to Fielding last week asking him to advise the committee when Bolten would comply with the subpoena in light of the judge's ruling.

Bates, in his decision, rejected the Bush administration's claim that White House aides have blanket immunity from congressional subpoenas and ordered Miers to testify and the White House to turn over a log describing documents it withheld from Congress.

The subpoenas sought testimony about what role, if any, senior White House officials played in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year, as well as the improper political hirings of attorneys and interns at the Department of Justice.

Leahy blasted the White House's ongoing resistance to the subpoena, saying that it was yet another example of the Bush administration flouting the rule of law.

"This continuing contempt of Congress is another example of the lengths to which this administration will go and how it uses government lawyers to protect its actions from scrutiny and increase its power, rather than respect the rule of law," he said in a statement.

Missing votes spark lawsuit

Missing votes spark lawsuit

Brunner: Touch-screen machines defective, company should pay

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The touch-screen voting setup used in half of Ohio's 88 counties doesn't work properly, and the former Diebold Election Systems should pay as a result, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner said in a court filing yesterday.

The move comes fewer than 90 days before Ohio voters go to the polls in an election that could decide the presidential race, but Brunner says safeguards will be in place by then in the affected counties to mitigate any risks.

"We will make the equipment work, but this is not something that Ohio should be satisfied with for the long term," Brunner said. "Our goal is to have Ohio taxpayers compensated for this equipment that doesn't function properly."

Brunner is seeking punitive damages from Diebold, now Premier Election Solutions, after she said an investigation showed that votes in at least 11 counties were "dropped" in recent elections when memory cards were uploaded to computer servers.

Elections workers discovered the missing votes, but not until many hours later in most cases, Brunner said. The malfunction first was discovered in Butler County in April, she said.

Forty-four counties, including Licking and Fairfield in central Ohio, use Premier touch-screens. Franklin County uses touch-screens from a different manufacturer.

Premier filed a lawsuit against the state and Cuyahoga County in May seeking a ruling that it had satisfied the obligations of its state contract to provide touch-screen voting machines in the county, which replaced the equipment this year.

County officials responded by accusing the company of breach of contract, fraud and negligence, and Brunner filed a counterclaim against the company yesterday in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

Brunner wants the court to find that Premier made false representations about its equipment and failed to live up to contractual obligations and warranties. Ohio spent millions of dollars in mostly federal funds to upgrade voting systems after problems with punch-card ballots in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.

Premier spokesman Chris Riggall said he hadn't seen the court filing and couldn't comment on it specifically.

But he said a conflict was identified involving the company's software and virus-protection software. A product advisory was issued in May, but Brunner said her office still is reviewing that explanation.

Riggall defended the systems, which he said are used nationwide and have features in Ohio, including a paper audit trail, to ensure votes are counted.

"We have, in fact, provided a quality voting system," he said. Last year, North Canton-based Diebold Inc. sought to make its Allen, Texas-based elections division more independent and changed its name.

Brunner, a first-term Democrat, commissioned a study last fall that concluded all touch-screen voting systems used in Ohio are substandard and should be replaced with a paper-ballot system.

But the Republican-controlled legislature and many elections officials objected, saying no election system is perfect and that security procedures should be beefed up instead. That is happening this fall.

Steve Harsman, director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said there were three instances since 2005 when memory cards in his county did not upload votes. The problem was caught but chalked up to human error at the time, he said.

Harsman, a former president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said he's confident that the problem has been identified and that procedures will be in place this fall to avoid any problems.

U.S. Attorney Scandal Probe Enters White House Circle

U.S. Attorney Scandal Probe Enters White House Circle

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The Justice Department investigation into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys has been extended to encompass allegations that senior White House officials played a role in providing false and misleading information to Congress, according to numerous sources involved in the inquiry.

The widened scope raises the possibility that investigators will pursue criminal charges against some administration officials, and recommend appointment of a special prosecutor if there is evidence of criminal misconduct.

The investigators have been specifically probing the role of White House officials in the drafting and approval of a Feb. 23, 2007 letter sent to Congress by the Justice Department denying that Karl Rove (President Bush's chief political adviser at the time) had anything to do with the firing of Bud Cummins, a U.S. Attorney from Arkansas. Cummins was fired in Dec. 2006 to make room for Tim Griffin, a protégé and former top aide of Rove's.

The February 23 letter stated, "The department is not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin," and that the Justice Department was "not aware of anyone lobbying, either inside or outside of the administration, for Mr. Griffin's appointment."

Federal investigators have obtained documents showing that Kyle Sampson, then-chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and Chris Oprison, then an associate White House counsel, drafted and approved the letter even though they had first-hand knowledge that the assertions were not true. The Justice Department later had to repudiate the Sampson-Oprison letter and sent a new one informing Congress that it could no longer stand by the earlier assertions.

The Justice Department's Inspector General (IG) and the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) are jointly conducting the current investigation. Both can initiate disciplinary action only against Justice Department employees and neither has prosecutorial powers.

People close to the investigation say that the investigators' final report will not only examine the reasons and circumstances behind the firings of the nine U.S. attorneys, but efforts by senior Justice Department and White House officials to mislead the public and Congress about the firings:

"It will be as much about the cover up as about the firings," said one former senior Justice Department interviewed at length because of his personal role in the firings. This source believes the investigators "are going to tell a narrative, and they have taken their investigation right into the White House."

If the IG and OPR believe that there is evidence of potential criminal wrongdoing, or evidence of wrongdoing by officials outside its jurisdiction altogether, they can recommend that the Justice Department initiate a criminal investigation.

If senior administration officials or White House officials come under suspicion, a special prosecutor would likely be named.

While a central focus for investigators apparently has been the role played by aides to Rove in the Griffin matter, some witnesses to the investigation told me that they have been asked specifically about Rove's own personal efforts.

Two former senior Justice Department officials, former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and principal Associate General William Moscella, have separately provided damaging information to the two internal investigative agencies.

Both, according to sources familiar with their still-confidential testimony, said they inadvertently gave misleading testimony to Congress about the firings of the U.S. attorneys because they were misled by Rove himself in addition to other White House figures.

In his March 6, 2007, testimony to Congress, Moscella contended that all but one U.S. attorney was fired because of issues related to their performance. When specifically asked if Rove played any role in the firings, he testified: "I don't know that he played any role."

But one day before the congressional testimony, on March 5, 2007, McNulty and Moscella attended a strategy session at the White House in which they discussed Moscella's testimony and how he should answer allegations that most of the U.S. attorneys were fired because of politics.

McNulty and Moscella told investigators that among the attendees were Rove and Sampson, then Gonzales' chief of staff. Neither Rove nor Sampson, both men told investigators, told them anything about their own role in the firings even as they encouraged Moscella to say politics had nothing to do with it.

One senior Bush administration official told me that White House staffers talk about their "nightmare scenario" in which any one of the three currently internal DOJ probes "spins out of control" and leads to the appointment of a special prosecutor with broad authority.

And the probe by the Justice Department's IG and OPR and firings of nine U.S. attorneys is only one of three internal DOJ investigations that have the potential of morphing into criminal probes of the Bush administration--and even the appointment of a special prosecutor. DOJ's IG is probing whether former Attorney General Gonzales testified truthfully to Congress about the administration's warrantless electronic eavesdropping program. A probe by OPR is investigating whether government attorneys acted within the law in authorizing and overseeing the eavesdropping program.

Former and current Justice Department investigators caution against assuming that just because White House officials are being scrutinized, a criminal investigation or one conducted by a special prosecutor will be the likely result. They noted that the threshold for initiating a criminal probe is relatively high, and the standard for appointing a special prosecutor even higher.

They also said that cases involving false statements to Congress are considered by prosecutors one of the most difficult to prove, which in turn could lead officials to be reluctant to act in either requesting a criminal probe or pressing for a special prosecutor in the first place.

A spokesman for the Inspector General declined to comment about any aspect of the investigation because the probe is still ongoing.

***

Apparently, advances in the investigations have been spurred by key emails that the Bush administration has withheld from Congress--claiming executive privilege--and that have now been obtained by DOJ investigators.

Among other things those documents show that Oprison, the associate White House counsel, knew that Rove was involved in the US Attorney firing when he reviewed drafts of the letter and approved final language claiming Rove was not involved.

Some of these emails withheld from Congress based on claims of executive privilege were provided to me by an administration official for this National Journal story posted on May 10,, 2007.

Additional emails and other material withheld and not provided to Congress were made available to me for this story.

A senior Justice Department official said in an interview that it was the discovery of a December 19, 2006, e-mail from Sampson to Oprison--in which Sampson wrote that "getting [Griffin] appointed was important" to Rove and to then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers--that prompted the Justice Department to repudiate the February 23, 2007 letter to four Senate Democrats.

The Dec. 19, 2005 email clearly suggests that both Sampson and Orpison had reason to believe that the letter that Sampson drafted and Oprison edited and approved was false.

Confronted with the email after it was made public, Sampson was asked during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 27, 2007 whether Rove had advocated for Griffin to be made a U.S. attorney:

"I knew that [then-White House political director] Sara Taylor and [Taylor's then deputy] Scott Jennings had expressed interest in promoting Mr. Griffin for appointment to be U.S. attorney, and I assumed, because they reported to Karl Rove, that he was interested in that," Sampson testified.

So why did Sampson draft and approve the letter saying that there had been no involvement by Rove?

His explanation to the Senate Judiciary Committee was this: "In February, when I participated in the drafting of that [February 23] letter, I did not remember then ever having talked [directly] to Mr. Rove about it. I don't remember now ever having talked to Mr. Rove about it. I'm not sure whether Mr. Rove was supportive of Mr. Griffin's appointment."

Before drafting the letter, Sampson made no further effort to talk to Rove, Taylor (who as White House Political Director was Rove's top aide), or to Jennings as to whether the allegations were true, Sampson's attorney Brad Berenson told me in an interview.

Sampson did, however, send the letter to the White House for Oprison for review. According to Berenson, in sending the letter, Sampson was relying on Oprison to see that it was accurate. Berenson told me:

"Kyle didn't want to traffic in assumptions, so he circulated the letter to the White House for confirmation whether what he believed to be true was accurate or not. He drafted the letter according to his understanding of the facts, and he circulated it beforehand to other people for clearance to assure that it accorded with their understanding of the facts."

Why did Oprison in turn approve the letter to be sent knowing what he knew?

Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, told me that Oprison "had no reason to believe" that the reference to Rove was inaccurate and cleared the letter. Asked about the December 19 e-mail in which Sampson told Oprison that Griffin's appointment was important to Rove and Miers, Fratto said: "Chris did not recall Karl's interest when he reviewed the letter."

Oprison, in turn, consulted with White House Counsel Fred Fielding and Deputy White House Counsel Bill Kelley in approving the draft of the letter, according to a review of White House records undertaken in response to questions for this story.

Did Oprison, Fielding, or Kelly think to seek out Rove and Rove aides Taylor and Jennings to see if they played any role in seeking Cummins to be fired and Griffin named to replace him?

Fratto told me that Oprison and others in the White House counsel were relying on Sampson that such was not the case: "We have no record of that letter even leaving the White House counsel's office."

****

Sampson also played a central role in the drafting of a January 31, 2007 letter from acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling to Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) implying that the White House had never contemplated using an obscure provision in the USA PATRIOT Act to install Griffin as a U.S. attorney without Senate confirmation.

Gonzales and Sampson later changed course completely--when confronted with evidence to the contrary--and testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Bush administration did indeed consider using the PATRIOT Act to install Griffin as a federal prosecutor.

Under an obscure provision in the act, the President had authority to permanently install interim U.S. attorneys without their being confirmed by the Senate. Pryor suspected that this was exactly what was going on--which later turned out to be the case. But the Bush administration still misled him into thinking otherwise.

Records withheld from Congress by the Bush administration because of claims of executive privilege--but allowed to be reviewed by IG and OPR investigators--show that Oprison once again assisted Sampson in drafting the response to Congress.

Despite the fact that Justice Department records show that Sampson and Oprison worked closely together devising the original plan to install Griffin as U.S. attorney under the PATRIOT Act provisions, both men helped write a letter to Congress saying that such plans never existed.

The January 31, 2007 letter to Pryor contended that "not once" had the Bush "administration sought to avoid the Senate confirmation process" by exploiting the PATRIOT Act.

In drafting the letter, Sampson consulted with Sara Taylor. Taylor had been aware of the possible use of the PATRIOT Act to permanently install Griffin, according to withheld administration papers.

In an e-mail to Sampson, after it appeared that Griffin's appointment as U.S. attorney was in trouble, Taylor wrote: "I'm concerned we imply that we'll pull down Griffin's nomination should Pryor object."

A senior executive branch official who read the e-mail said that it demonstrates that Taylor signed off on the letter despite the fact that she, Oprison, and other White House officials knew that the administration had indeed considered using the PATRIOT Act to make Griffin a U.S. attorney.

Fratto, the White House spokesman, contends that the email does not show that Taylor wanted to utilize the PATRIOT Act to appoint Griffin but instead only indicated that Taylor wanted Griffin confirmed the ordinary way. "We battle with the Senate with nominations every day," Fratto said. "It is very important to us.... That's what Sara was saying: 'We shouldn't imply we're willing to walk away from the nomination.'"

But sources familiar with Sampson's interview with Justice's Inspector General tell me that Sampson told quite a different story: that Taylor, Jennings, and Oprison all had repeatedly pressed him to utilize the PATRIOT Act to install Griffin and other potential U.S. attorney candidates without Senate confirmation.

Documents made public after Sampson, Taylor, and Oprison collaborated on their letter to Pryor indicate that Sampson himself wanted to invoke the PATRIOT Act to install Griffin--party because he thought it was important to Rove.

On December 19, 2006, Sampson e-mailed Oprison with his own detailed strategy to have Griffin stay permanently as U.S. attorney, utilizing the PATRIOT Act: "I think we should gum this to death... ask the Senators to give Tim a chance. meet with him. give him some time in office to see how he performs, etc. they ultimately say, 'no never' (and the longer they forestall the better). Then we can tell them we'll look for other candidates, and otherwise run out the clock. All of this should be done in 'good faith' of course."

By that time, Griffin would have been able to serve out the remainder of the Bush administration because of his appointment as interim U.S. attorney under the emergency provisional authority of the PATRIOT Act.

Sampson added in his e-mail: "The only thing really at work here is a repeal of the AG's appointment authority. There is some risk that we'll lose that authority, but if we don't ever exercise it then what's the point of having it."

Then Sampson concluded his email by saying: "I'm not 100 percent sure that Tim was the guy on which to test drive this authority, but know that getting him appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc.," The reference is to Harriet Miers and Karl Rove.

The day after the email was sent, Cummins formally resigned as U.S. attorney and Griffin was named as his interim replacement. Cummins told me that officials at Justice sped up the timetable on his departure, going so far as to call him on a cell phone when he was on a hunting trip with his son to say he must leave on December 20. The abrupt demand for Cummins' departure on that date appears to indicate that Sampson and the White House were attempting to implement their plan.

Berenson, Sampson's attorney, told me that the letter Sampson had helped draft and approved to be sent to Congress was technically accurate because Sampson and Oprison never ultimately implemented the plan to install Griffin as U.S. attorney through the PATRIOT Act provision. "The principals never adopted it, and it was never done," Berenson said. "The statement in the letter is accurate."

***

It is still unknown what conclusions the Inspector General will reach in his much anticipated forthcoming report on the firings of nine U.S. attorneys.

But it is clear that a priority for his investigation is whether top Justice Department political appointees and senior White House officials purposely mislead Congress about the firings. Many of those whose conduct has been scrutinized have had senior positions in the administration or the White House: Kyle Sampson was the chief of staff to the Attorney General of the United States. Sara Taylor was White House political director. Scott Jennings was Taylor's deputy as well as a top aide to Rove. And Karl Rove is, of course, Karl Rove.

Several of those people, under federal regulations, could be the subject of an investigation by a special prosecutor if Fine believes there is evidence of potential crimes.

At a minimum, if two other reports that Inspector General Fine has already made public about the politicization of the Justice Department during the Bush administration are any guide, the report on the firing of nine U.S. attorneys will be scathing and contain new disclosures embarrassing to the White House.

Whether the fears of administration officials--their "nightmare scenario" of top White House officials having to face a criminal investigation or even be probed by a special prosecutor turns out to be the case--remains to be seen.

Threats, Lies and Audiotape

Threats, Lies and Audiotape

'2 US aircraft carriers headed for Gulf'

'2 US aircraft carriers headed for Gulf'

Two additional United States naval aircraft carriers are heading to the Gulf and the Red Sea, according to the Kuwaiti newspaper Kuwait Times.

Kuwait began finalizing its "emergency war plan" on being told the vessels were bound for the region.

The US Navy would neither confirm nor deny that carriers were en route. US Fifth Fleet Combined Maritime Command located in Bahrain said it could not comment due to what a spokesman termed "force-protection policy."

While the Kuwaiti daily did not name the ships it believed were heading for the Middle East, The Media Line's defense analyst said they could be the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Ronald Reagan.

Within the last month, the Roosevelt completed an exercise along the US east coast focusing on communication among navies of different countries. It has since been declared ready for operational duties. The Reagan, currently with the Seventh Fleet, had just set sail from Japan.

The Seventh Fleet area of operation stretches from the East Coast of Africa to the International Date Line.

Meanwhile, the Arabic news agency Moheet reported at the end of July that an unnamed American destroyer, accompanied by two Israeli naval vessels traveled through the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean. A week earlier, a US nuclear submarine accompanied by a destroyer and a supply ship moved into the Mediterranean, according to Moheet.

Currently there are two US naval battle groups operating in the Gulf: one is an aircraft carrier group, led by the USS Abraham Lincoln, which carries some 65 fighter aircraft. The other group is headed by the USS Peleliu which maintains a variety of planes and strike helicopters.

The ship movements coincide with the latest downturn in relations between Washington and Teheran. The US and Iran are at odds over Iran's nuclear program, which the Bush administration claims is aimed at producing material for nuclear weapons; however, Teheran argues it is only for power generation.

Kuwait, like other Arab countries in the Gulf, fears it will be caught in the middle should the US decide to launch an air strike against Iran if negotiations fail. The Kuwaitis are finalizing details of their security, humanitarian and vital services, the newspaper reported.

The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman - lie just across the Gulf from Iran. Generals in the Iranian military have repeatedly warned that American interests in the region would be targeted if Iran is subjected to any military strike by the US or its Western allies.

Bahrain hosts the US Fifth Fleet, while there is a sizeable American base in Qatar. It is assumed the US also has military personnel in the other Gulf states, The Media Line's defense analyst said.

Iran is thought to have intelligence operatives working in the GCC states, according to Dubai-based military analysts.

The standoff between the US and Iran has left the Arab nations' political leaders in something of a bind, as they were being used as pawns by Washington and Teheran, according to The Media Line analyst.

Iran has offered them economic and industrial sweeteners, while the US is boosting their defense capabilities. US President George W. Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have paid visits to the GCC states in a bid to win their support.

Greed Above, Death Below

Greed Above, Death Below

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The need for a criminal inquiry into the Crandall Canyon mine disaster is shockingly clear now that investigators have detailed how greedy mine operators concealed danger warnings and literally chiseled underground pillar supports to the breaking point. The roof of the Utah mine collapsed last summer, killing six miners and leading three would-be rescuers to their deaths.

The mine’s operator, Genwal Resources, a subsidiary of the Murray Energy Corporation, has insisted that an earthquake caused the collapse. But a federal investigation concluded that the mine was “primed for a massive pillar collapse” after management mined beyond safety limits to scrape extra coal profits from the floor and supports. Compounding the tragedy, the company never alerted federal monitors to three earlier outbursts — the last only three days before the disaster — in which pressure from above caused coal to explode from winnowed supports. No miners were harmed, but the company clearly was alerted to trouble brewing below.

Separate investigations by mine safety and Labor Department officials have left grieving families haunted by evidence that the deaths might have been avoided if the company had not flouted deep-mine safety rules. Investigators found the company’s engineering plan was dangerous in its design and should never have been accepted by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Existing computer models could have demonstrated this, but overseers failed to consult them. The safety administration also failed to take full control of the rescue.

Crandall Canyon provided a gross demonstration of regulators’ obeisance to the industry. This is a life-threatening flaw that has grown under the Bush administration’s pro-industry practices. The need for stronger laws and more conscientious regulation grows urgent as the industry booms once more in the energy crisis. The men buried in Crandall Canyon deserve justice.

E.P.A. Won’t Ease Ethanol Requirements in Gas

E.P.A. Won’t Ease Ethanol Requirements in Gas

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The Environmental Protection Agency rejected on Thursday a request to cut the quota for the use of ethanol in cars, concluding, for the time being, that the goal of reducing the nation’s reliance on oil trumps any effect on food prices from making fuel from corn.

The E.P.A. administrator, Stephen L. Johnson, said that the mandate was “strengthening our nation’s energy security and supporting American farming communities,” and that it was not causing “severe harm to the economy or the environment.”

The effect of the decision on fuel and food markets is hard to determine. Recently, high energy prices have led to even more ethanol production than the quota required. On the other hand, rising corn prices made some ethanol operations unprofitable, especially as oil prices started to fall.

So ending the quota might not have reduced the use of ethanol, but it might decline even with the quotas remaining in place. Still, the debate is fraught with symbolism — as a sign of unease over government intervention in the energy and food markets, with all the unintended consequences that ensue. The decision is an indication that Washington is unwilling to retreat from a policy that is very popular among grain farmers, if not among ranchers.

Companies that use corn to fatten livestock and poultry, along with others in the food business, had called for lifting the requirements, saying that their costs were rising as millions of pounds of corn were diverted from feeding livestock to fueling cars. Farmers argued that the jump in corn prices was driven not so much by the demand for ethanol as by growing demand for grain-fed meat around the world, and their own higher costs for diesel fuel.

Governor Rick Perry of Texas, a leading cattle state as well as a bastion of the oil business, made the request in late April, and the E.P.A. said it received 15,000 comments during its three-month-long review.

The rules that the E.P.A. reconsidered on Thursday set a floor for ethanol use, not a ceiling, and not even the floor was firm, because under the rules, the E.P.A. could issue a waiver if the requirement became “onerous.”

Renewable fuel use in 2004 was 3.5 billion gallons, according to the E.P.A. — mostly ethanol, which is a form of alcohol, but including some biodiesel, which contains oil from crops. The goal for this year had been 5.4 billion gallons but in December, with the price of oil soaring, Congress raised the renewables quota to 9 billion gallons for this year, and laid out a schedule of annual increases that would bring it to 11.1 billion gallons in 2009. In 2022, the quota would be 36 billion gallons.

The agency has not completed an analysis of the effect of the mandate as the quota rises.

That target requires not only more ethanol but new cars and new filling station equipment, because nationally, gasoline consumption of fuel for cars, vans, sport utility vehicles and motorcycles is only in the range of 140 billion gallons, and ordinary cars can burn ethanol in blends with gasoline no higher than 10 percent. But ethanol is part of the auto industry’s long-term strategy; General Motors plans that by 2012, half the vehicles it builds will be able to accept blends of up to 85 percent ethanol.

The long-term hope, backed up with generous government incentives, is to make motor fuel from “cellulosic,” or non-food, sources. Private companies are feverishly pursuing technologies for using wood chips, wheat straw, waste plastic and even municipal garbage to make ethanol and other liquid vehicle fuels. But none of these is commercial at the moment.

Secret EU security draft risks uproar with call to pool policing and give US personal data

Secret EU security draft risks uproar with call to pool policing and give US personal data

· Closer links needed to beat terrorism and crime
· Blueprint wants new force to patrol world flashpoints

Go To Original

A German and an Italian officer with the joint EU force Frontex check a lorry for illegal immigrants on the Polish border. The agency, which is seen as one model of future integration, patrols the EU's frontiers. Photograph: Sven Kaestner/AP

Europe should consider sharing vast amounts of intelligence and information on its citizens with the US to establish a "Euro-Atlantic area of cooperation" to combat terrorism, according to a high-level confidential report on future security.

The 27 members of the EU should also pool intelligence on terrorism, develop joint video-surveillance and unmanned drone aircraft, start networks of anti-terrorism centres, and boost the role and powers of an intelligence-coordinating body in Brussels, said senior officials.

The 53-page report drafted by the Future Group of interior and justice ministers from six EU member states - Germany, France, Sweden, Portugal, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic -argues Europe will need to integrate much of its policing, intelligence-gathering, and policy-making if it is to tackle terrorism, organised crime, and legal and illegal immigration.

The report, seen by the Guardian, was submitted to EU governments last month following 18 months of work. The group, which also includes senior officials from the European Commission, was established by Germany last year and charged with drafting a blueprint for security and justice policy over the next five years.

Baroness Scotland, the UK attorney general, had observer status with the group to assess the implications for Britain, whose legal system, unlike continental Europe, is based on the common law.

The group's controversial proposals are certain to trigger major disputes, not least its calls for Europe to create an expeditionary corps of armed gendarmerie for paramilitary intervention overseas.

The report said the EU would fail to beat terrorism unless it developed a full partnership with Washington, a process currently pushing ahead in fits and starts.

"The EU should make up its mind with regard to the political objective of achieving a Euro-Atlantic area of cooperation with the United States in the field of freedom, security and justice," it said.

Such a pact, which should be finalised by 2014 at the latest, would entail the transfer of vast volumes of information on European citizens and travellers to the US authorities. Negotiations have long been under way to agree such a pact, but have been bedevilled by divergences in privacy law and data protection regimes.

The US is already demanding that EU countries sign up for a battery of security measures on transatlantic flights and the supply of personal information on passengers if they are to enjoy visa-free travel to the US. Under one such accord struck in March between Washington and Berlin, the Germans are to make DNA and biometric information on travellers available.

The European Commission and the US homeland security department are also trying to iron out discrepancies in privacy laws to allow the wholesale exchange of data. The aim is to reach a binding international agreement this year or next.

Last month the American Civil Liberties Union wrote to MEPs pressing Brussels to reject US pressure because the US is "a country that, in privacy terms, is all but lawless ... US privacy laws are weak. They offer little protection to citizens and virtually none to non-citizens."

While urging a comprehensive transatlantic electronic pact, the Future Group focuses mainly on boosting police cooperation and integration between EU states, policies which would reinforce the powers of European agencies and institutions bearing acronyms such as Europol, Eurojust, Frontex, and Sitcen and perhaps see new agencies established to deal with security and intelligence operations.

Several member states, not least Britain, will have deep qualms about the proposals, with the British likely to balk at automatic pooling of national intelligence.

Anti-terrorist campaigns can only be effective if "maximum information flow between [EU] member states is guaranteed," the report said. "Relevant security-related information should be available to all security authorities in the member states." It said "networks of anti-terrorist centres" was a possible solution.

While cooperation between national police forces in the EU was advancing, the report conceded that the sharing of espionage and intelligence material was a "considerable challenge" as it clashed with the "principle of confidentiality" that is the basis for successful exchanges.

The report calls for a bigger role for "Sitcen" in coordinating intelligence sharing. Sitcen, or the Joint Situation Centre, is a shadowy intelligence body based in Brussels which started as a foreign policy tool supplying analysis on international crises to Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, but which now focuses on counter-terrorism and internal security policy.

Key points

· National police forces to cooperate and integrate

· Improve European-level crisis management

· Need to harness the talents of "different actors" in fighting terrorism

· National security services and intelligence agencies need to collaborate much more closely

· New EU internet-based propaganda campaign to defeat radicalisation and terrorist recruitment

· Create "European Gendarmerie Force" for deployment and intervention abroad. Pooling of EU funds for such missions

· Common EU immigration policies. By 2014, EU leaders should make the political decision on whether to enter a "Euro-Atlantic area of freedom, security, and justice" with the Americans

The Hamdan Principle and You

The Hamdan Principle and You

By Robert Parry

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The U.S. military commission’s split guilty verdict on Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden, has drawn praise from the Bush administration and criticism from civil rights groups, but what has been overlooked is the chilling message that “the Hamdan principle” sends about future prosecutions in the “war on terror.”

This new principle holds that anyone – regardless of how tangential a connection to actual acts of terrorism – can be prosecuted through the kangaroo court of the military commissions and be sentenced to a long prison term (or even death). Though Hamdan is a Yemeni, the principle would seem to apply to U.S citizens, too.

In effect, a parallel legal system has been created outside the U.S. Constitution in which the President can order someone locked up indefinitely simply by calling the person an “enemy combatant” and then subjecting the person to what amounts to a “star chamber” proceeding that permits use of secret evidence and coerced testimony.

Though some legal experts insist these special courts don’t apply to U.S. citizens, the language of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and a recent federal court ruling make clear that President George W. Bush’s asserted wartime power to order indefinite detentions covers citizens and non-citizens.

In July, the conservative-dominated U.S. Appeals Court in Richmond, Virginia, opened the door for Bush or a successor to throw American citizens as well as non-citizens into a legal black hole by designating them “enemy combatants,” even if they have engaged in no violent act and are living on U.S. soil.

Though that 5-4 ruling on July 15 addressed the case of Qatari citizen (and Peoria, Illinois, resident) Ali al-Marri, the court’s more liberal judges expressed alarm that the same legal reasoning for denying al-Marri meaningful due process could be used to lock up U.S. citizens.

“For over two centuries of growth and struggle, peace and war, the Constitution has secured our freedom through the guarantee that, in the United States, no one will be deprived of liberty without due process of law,” wrote Judge Diana Motz, a Bill Clinton appointee, who dissented against the court’s approval of sweeping presidential powers.

Motz noted that al-Marri has been imprisoned for more than five years, “without acknowledgement of the protection afforded by the Constitution, solely because the Executive believes that his indefinite military detention – or even the indefinite military detention of a similarly situated American citizen – is proper.”

Further, the assumption of some legal experts that Military Commissions Act doesn’t cover U.S. citizens ignores legal fine print buried deep inside the statute, which was passed at Bush’s bidding in 2006 when Republicans controlled the Congress.

One section of the law states that “any person is punishable as a principal under this chapter who commits an offense punishable by this chapter, or aids, abets, counsels, commands, or procures its commission.”

Another clause says “any person subject to this chapter who, in breach of an allegiance or duty to the United States, knowingly and intentionally aids an enemy of the United States ... shall be punished as a military commission may direct.” [Emphasis added]

Presumably, Osama bin Laden has no “allegiance or duty to the United States.” Such a phrase seems aimed at any American citizen who is viewed by the President as somehow aiding or abetting an enemy of the United States. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Who Is ‘Any Person’ in Tribunal Law? or our book, Neck Deep.]

Prosecuting a Nobody

The mundane nature of Hamdan’s service to al-Qaeda – as a salaried driver who apparently never engaged in combat – represents another chilling message about the broad sweep of the President’s authority.

If a driver can be deemed an “enemy combatant” and be subjected to prosecution under a military commission, what about someone who might be called “a propagandist” or “a political sympathizer?” Under the powers claimed by the Bush administration, only the President and his appointees decide.

Though the military commission’s verdict in the Hamdan case on Wednesday acquitted the defendant of conspiracy and other more serious charges, the guilty verdict against him for providing material support for terrorism – i.e. driving a car for al-Qaeda – still left him vulnerable to a life sentence.

A former chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Col. Morris Davis, highlighted the rigged nature of the process when he testified that senior Pentagon officials made clear to him that only guilty verdicts would be acceptable and that some high-profile convictions were needed to boost Republican electoral prospects.

Davis also described the role of Defense Secretary Robert Gates in pushing out Maj. Gen. John Altenburg, who was considered a fair-minded “convening authority” responsible for deciding which cases merited prosecution.

Instead, Gates appointed Susan Crawford, a former Reagan administration official, who merged the duties of the “convening authority” with those of the prosecution, according to Davis.

Davis said he finally resigned in October 2007 when he was put under the command of the Pentagon’s general counsel, William J. Haynes, who had worked closely with Vice President Dick Cheney’s office in developing the theories of the all-powerful President and for permitting detainees to be subjected to the simulated drowning of waterboarding.

Beyond the politicization and use of tainted evidence, the legal process is fixed in another way. Even if Hamdan had been acquitted of all charges or if his time-served would cover his sentence, he would remain locked up indefinitely as long as Bush or a successor believes the “war on terror” continues.

[On Thursday, the military commission gave Hamdan a five-and-a-half-year sentence, which could be completed by the end of the year by counting time already served. However, the Bush administration declined to comment on what would happen to Hamdan after his sentence ends.]

Election Stake

Ultimately, the future of the military commissions and Bush’s expansive view of presidential authority will come down to the November election.

Republican John McCain, who voted for the Military Commissions Act, has vowed to appoint more U.S. Supreme Court justices, like Samuel Alito and John Roberts who favor broad presidential powers. Right now, the Supreme Court has a narrow 5-4 majority against Bush's imperial theories, but one vacancy on the majority side could change all that.

McCain also says he intends to pursue the “war on terror” until victory is achieved, even though no one can define victory and no one expects this "war" to end in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, Democrat Barack Obama, a former constitutional law professor, voted against the Military Commissions Act and has said he would funnel accused terrorists into traditional civilian and military courts where normal rules of evidence apply.

After Hamdan’s conviction, McCain issued a statement saying, “Unlike Senator Obama who voted against the MCA and favors giving al-Qaeda terrorists direct access to U.S. civilian courts to contest their detention, I recognize that we cannot treat dangerous terrorists captured on the battlefield as we would common criminals.”

McCain’s comments, however, ignored that Hamdan was cleared of charges that he was a “dangerous” terrorist. He also wasn’t “captured on the battlefield.” He was picked up after dropping off his family near the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The political hyperbole that has long surrounded the “war on terror” is another chilling warning to anyone who might come into the crosshairs of the Bush administration or a future McCain administration: actual facts don’t much matter either.