Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama pick for treasury secretary tells Senate: Trillions for the banks, austerity for the people

Obama pick for treasury secretary tells Senate: Trillions for the banks, austerity for the people

By Patrick O’Connor

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President Barack Obama's nominee for treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, testified Wednesday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. Without providing specific details, Geithner said that he and the White House economic staff were working on a plan involving a handover to the banks of enormous sums, potentially trillions of dollars, in additional public funds.

The treasury secretary-designee's performance was welcomed by Wall Street. Stock indexes closed higher yesterday, clawing back most of the value lost in Tuesday's Inauguration Day market plunge. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose by 3.5 percent to 8,228, the S&P 500 rose by 4.4 percent, and the Nasdaq Composite gained 4.6 percent. Geithner's promise of further bailout measures drove banking stocks higher, with Citigroup, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase all gaining more than 10 percent.

These gains represented a vote of confidence in the Obama administration's pledge to place virtually unlimited public funds at the disposal of the financial elite.

Geithner is expected to be endorsed by the Senate Finance Committee Thursday morning and the Senate proper next week, with both Democratic and Republican support. As president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Geithner was directly involved in the bailout measures taken last year, including the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Speaking before the Finance Committee, he defended the various measures taken by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, merely suggesting that the previous bailout measures were not "aggressive" enough—that is, did not involve enough money.

Republican senators raised some questions about Geithner's failure to pay more than $30,000 in personal taxes from 2001 to 2004. But, as the New York Times noted, these were "lapses that might have doomed the nomination of a candidate less experienced and less respected among Republicans than Mr. Geithner." The nomination hearing was entirely amiable, with Geithner and the Democratic and Republican senators in agreement on all the central issues.

No one objected from either party when Geithner, in his opening statement, indicated that the Obama administration intends to deal with ballooning budget deficits resulting from government handouts to the banks by slashing bedrock social programs such as Social Security and Medicare. He told the committee, "Our program to restore economic growth has to be accompanied—and I want to emphasize this—has to be accompanied by a clear strategy to get us back as quickly as possible to a sustainable fiscal position." It was necessary to demonstrate, he added, that "we as a nation will return to living within our means."

Marketwatch noted: "He [Geithner] said the budget would have to tamed on a five-year horizon. Along these lines, Obama is looking for a ‘mechanism' to move forward on entitlement reform on a bipartisan basis."

Meanwhile, the banks are being rewarded with a new bailout package involving sums of public money substantially larger than that already committed by the Bush administration under TARP and related programs.

Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve chief and current chairman of Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, endorsed Geithner's nomination in remarks to the Finance Committee. Volcker said that the banking system was "broken" and fixing it would require "several trillions of dollars"—an estimate that no one challenged.

Geithner refused to give details of Obama's bank bailout program, which is expected to be unveiled in the next few weeks. He admitted, however, that one plan being considered involves the creation of a "bad bank," which would use public funds to buy and quarantine subprime mortgage and other "toxic assets" currently held by the banks. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer told the hearing that economic experts had advised him that such a plan would cost more than $3 trillion.

The "bad bank" option is the preferred course of many in the financial sector because it does not involve the federal government directly purchasing large stakes of the banks' and financial institutions' stock. Fears of such a partial "nationalization," which would largely wipe out the investments of major shareholders, have contributed to driving down the share values of many major banks, compounding their solvency crisis.

An article in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, "Banks Hit By Nationalization Fears," explained: "The common stock of the major banks tracked by the Dow Jones Wilshire US Banks Index has fallen roughly $287 billion in value since Jan. 2, a 43 percent decline in just over two weeks. Banks that have sought further government aid have suffered the most, with Citigroup's market value falling 61 percent and Bank of America's 64 percent. The market value of JPMorgan Chase, which hasn't sought new government aid, has fallen 42 percent."

The accelerating American and world recession, initially triggered by the subprime mortgage market collapse, is in turn rebounding on the financial system.

The latest economic data from the US includes record low homebuilder sentiment, as recorded by the National Association of Home Builders' (NAHB) Housing Market Index. The gauge was 8 in January, down from 9 in December—the lowest level recorded since the index began in January 1985. The NAHB added that it expected the current housing downturn—the worst in more than six decades—will further worsen this year.

General Motors has lost its status as the world's largest manufacturer, with its 8.35 million vehicles sold in 2008 falling short of Toyota's 8.97 million. GM had previously been the largest automaker in every year since 1931. President Fritz Henderson admitted yesterday that GM's January sales were looking no better than the month before, when they plummeted by 31 percent. He also warned that unless the company received the second part of the federal bridge loan next month, it would run out of cash and face bankruptcy.

Major corporate layoffs continue apace. Manufacturer and auto supplier Eaton Corp has announced 5,200 job cuts. Taken together with the 3,400 workers Eaton laid off late last year, the company has eliminated 10 percent of its total workforce. United Airlines announced that it is sacking another 1,000 workers. Mining giant BHP Billiton is to reduce its workforce by 6 percent, affecting 6,000 positions. Most of these are in Australia and Chile, while about 550 workers in Arizona will also reportedly be laid off.

Global economic activity is contracting at an accelerating rate. The International Monetary Fund has warned that it will sharply cut world growth forecasts in a new report due to be released in the next few days. "Things are not improving," IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn told the BBC.

In Japan, the world's second-largest economy, the government has downgraded its assessment of the national economy for the fourth straight month. Also in Asia, Singaporean officials said yesterday they expected gross domestic product to decline this year by 2 to 5 percent, revising an earlier forecast issued just three weeks ago of growth ranging from negative 2 percent to 1 percent. In the fourth quarter of 2008, Singapore's largely export-driven economy contracted by 16.9 percent on an annualized basis.

In Europe, the German government yesterday cut its 2009 GDP forecast to negative 2.25 percent—down from the 0.2 growth predicted last October—marking the deepest recession since World War II. Portugal had its credit status downgraded by rating agency Standard and Poor's—making it the third Eurozone country, after Spain and Greece, to be hit in recent days by revised credit ratings. Other economies are expected to soon follow.

Bowing to the right on Inauguration Day

Bowing to the right on Inauguration Day

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The inauguration speech delivered by President Barack Obama Tuesday has been the object of near-delirious praise from the mass media and the editorial pages of the major US dailies. Even those forced to acknowledge that the 18-minute address was flat in its delivery, banal in much of its content and lacking any oratory that will be long remembered insist that it mattered little what Obama actually said. The important thing was his very presence on the steps of the Capitol—and that of the massive crowd on the Washington Mall—symbolizing “change.”

Eschewing genuine analysis and dedicating its coverage instead to self-delusion and deluding others, the media almost universally fails to grasp the immense contradiction between the sentiments that brought nearly two million people to Washington for the event and the politics that underlay what Obama actually said.

Those standing in the cold came to celebrate the exit from the political stage of a hated president, George W. Bush, and what many hoped would be the beginning of fundamental change. The speech itself, however, was crafted in large measure to appease the Republican right and signal continuity with its essential policies.

Most glaring in this regard were the first substantive lines describing the crisis enveloping the United States as Obama assumes the presidency. Before even referring to the profound economic crisis that has claimed some 3 million jobs and is destroying hundreds of thousands more every month, Obama took his cue from Bush, painting terrorism as the nation’s preeminent challenge.

“Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred,” he declared.

With these few words, Obama gave his assurance that the “global war on terror” will remain the lasting legacy of Bush, Cheney and Co., providing the continued pretext for aggressive war abroad and the violation of democratic rights at home.

Contained in this formulation is the continuation of all the lies and political intimidation methods utilized by the last administration to foist the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq onto the American people. Principal among them is the fraudulent claim that the American military has been sent to occupy these countries and kill large numbers of their citizens in order to fight terrorism, when, in fact, the real reason for these wars is the drive for American imperialist hegemony over the vast energy reserves of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.

Continuity, rather than change, is the hallmark of the incoming administration’s attitude towards both of these wars. To the extent that a partial drawdown of troops is to be carried out in Iraq, it will be done under the timetable worked out by the Bush administration and for the purpose of escalating the counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan. Overseeing the process, moreover, will be Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, as well as the senior commanders picked by the Republican president.

By invoking an undefined “far-reaching network” of worldwide terror Obama kept in place the ideological pretext for wars yet to come, potentially against Iran, Pakistan or countries as yet unnamed.

This element of the speech won firm approval from the virulently right-wing editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. In its lead editorial, the Journal applauded Obama for his “clear declaration that we are indeed fighting a ‘war’” against terrorism. It continued: “Many of his supporters on the left, and around the world, have been hoping that Mr. Obama will return US national security policy to its pre-9/11 assumptions. The Democrat was warning our adversaries—and some of our allies—that his foreign policy will have as much continuity as change, and that he isn't about to jettison policies that protect Americans.”

In other words, the speech reassured the predominant sections of the American financial elite, whose interests the Journal consistently defends, that policies of militarism and aggression that it sees as vital to maintaining and advancing its global aims will continue unabated.

As for Obama’s “supporters on the left”—i.e., the majority of the American people who want an end to war and voted for him in large measure to achieve that aim—they have once again been politically disenfranchised by the two-party system.

The speech received general applause from the media pundits of the right. Former Reagan speech-writer Peggy Noonan noted that Obama used “language with which traditional Republicans would be thoroughly at home.”

Most popular among this socio-political layer were the sections of the speech suggesting that the economic collapse precipitated by Wall Street is the fault of the American people as a whole, who now must accept sacrifice in the interests of the nation. In particular, they fastened on the lines about a “new era of responsibility” and the financial meltdown being the result of “greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

Columnist George Will, who hosted Obama at a pre-inauguration dinner with other right-wing commentators, praised in particular his use of the Biblical phrase, “The time has come to set aside childish things,” interpreting it as an admonition to the vast majority of the American people for demanding “more goods and services than they are willing to pay for.” Driven by his contempt for working people, Will happily endorses the demand that they give up such “childish things” as the belief that they have a right to a job, a home, health care and a decent income.

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal noted approvingly in its main article on the inauguration, “The implicit message is that it isn’t sufficient to blame the Bush administration, or Wall Street or the man down the street for today’s economic pain, but to accept that a whole nation is complicit in it.”

This indeed is the implication of Obama’s words. How are workers, who have faced an ever more uphill battle to make ends meet off of steadily declining real wages, “complicit” in the financial fraud and criminality that have dominated Wall Street, generating obscene fortunes for those at the top, while dragging the economy into ruin? This neither Obama nor his right-wing admirers bother to explain.

Absent from Obama’s speech was any reference to the most salient feature of modern-day American life: the uninterrupted growth in social inequality. Only by deliberately ignoring the reality of a society in which the top 1 percent controls 40 percent of the wealth and where a CEO makes 344 times the income of an average worker could the Democratic president weave into his speech the false and deeply reactionary notions of “collective failure” and “equality” of responsibility.

The meaning of these arguments is unmistakable. The advent of Obama will signal no reprise of the New Deal or the Great Society. There will be no revival of social reformism, but rather a turn to fiscal austerity and counter-reforms directed against what little remains of a social safety net in America, embodied in such programs as Social Security and Medicare.

The central political aim of the new administration, like the one that it is replacing, will be protecting the interests and wealth of a narrow financial elite, who will be bailed out at the expense of millions of American workers and their families.

As this policy unfolds—and as the economic crisis deepens—the media attempts to cast Barack Obama as the personal embodiment of change will inevitably fall flat. The reality that the new American president is an utterly conventional politician, the product of a corrupt political machine and the faithful servant of the financial and corporate interests that funded his election campaign will begin to set in.

At that point, the stark contradiction between the aspirations and objective interests of the large numbers of working people on the Washington Mall Tuesday and the class nature of the Obama administration will find its expression in the eruption of social struggles directed against this government itself.

Obama Frees Bush Historical Records

Obama Frees Bush Historical Records

By Robert Parry

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When authoritarian forces seize control of a government, they typically move first against the public’s access to information, under the theory that a confused populace can be more easily manipulated. They take aim at the radio stations, TV and newspapers.

In the case of George W. Bush in 2001, he also took aim at historical records, giving himself and his family indefinite control over documents covering the 12 years of his father’s terms as President and Vice President.

It was, therefore, significant that one of Barack Obama’s first acts as President was to revoke the Bush Family’s power over that history and to replace it with an easier set of regulations for accessing the records.

Just as George W. Bush upon taking office in January 2001 immediately delayed the scheduled release of documents from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Obama wasted no time in reversing that policy by signing a new executive order on his first working day in office.

Eight years earlier, George W. Bush initially postponed the document release and then – after the 9/11 attacks – sought to extend the cloak of secrecy over those documents virtually forever.

Bush signed Executive Order 13233 on Nov. 1, 2001, granting the sitting President as well as former Presidents or ex-Vice Presidents – or their heirs – veto power over release of many documents.

In other words, Bush was giving himself and his family effective control over key chapters of 20 years of American history (his father’s eight years as Vice President and four years as President, and his own eight years as President).

Presumably at some point, that power would have passed to George W. Bush’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara, and to their progeny, giving the family a kind of dynastic control over how Americans would understand key events of an important national era.

Self-serving myths could become a substitute for accurate history – all the better to protect the Bush Family’s interests.

Frustrations

In a real-life sense, what Bush’s order did was frustrate the ability of journalists and historians to file Freedom of Information Act requests for even routine information from the 12 years of the Reagan-Bush-41 era.

Information that once was quickly available – like calendars of senior officials – became subject to multiple layers of approvals, stretching out a process from days or weeks to months or to a year or more.

First, the government archivists examined the material to excise any classified or personal information. That essentially was the extent of the old process for opening up routine documents in a brief period of time.

Under the Bush rules, however, even routine documents were referred to designees of both the sitting and former Presidents (or ex-Vice Presidents) for a decision on asserting some privilege. Even if no privilege was asserted, the process was stretched out by months, sometimes more than a year.

And once some routine document finally got released – if the information required a follow-up request to clarify something – the cumbersome process would start all over again.

Anyone with a deadline was either forced to write with limited (and possibly misleading) information or had to forego writing altogether. The delays were an effective means of killing stories that might embarrass the Bush Family.

A Gates Question

Sometimes the stories weren’t just about history either. For instance, I encountered frustrations from Bush’s executive order over the past two years as I sought documents pertaining to the credibility of Bush’s choice for Defense Secretary, Robert Gates.

Gates had been deputy national security adviser under Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, and nailing down Gates’s whereabouts on a specific day in April 1989 would have supported or undermined his credibility in relation to allegations implicating Gates’s in Reagan-Bush-41 era scandals.

So, on Nov. 15, 2006, a week after Gates’s Pentagon nomination, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Gates’s calendars from 1989.

Based on my (pre-Bush-43) experience, I thought the information might be available before Gates’s confirmation hearings in December. However, it took until late March 2007 for the George H.W. Bush Library to send me the calendar entries.

Initially, when I examined the calendar entries, they appeared to support Gates’s claim that he was at work at the White House on the day in question. Still, I checked on a couple of entries that he had listed for public events, and it turned out that he had skipped them.

Because of those discrepancies, it became necessary to check on the non-public events listed on Gates’s calendar, such as meetings with other officials. I filed two additional FOIA requests on April 5, 2007.

The two requests cleared the initial review by the archivists in mid-to-late summer 2007. But then, the requests got hung up in the Bush Family clearance process, requiring approval from representatives of both the senior George Bush and the junior George Bush.

One request wasn’t released until May 2008, more than a year after my FOIA; the second request wasn’t sent out until September 2008, more than a year after the archivists had removed any sensitive information.

The additional information clarified a few points for me but did not conclusively establish Gates’s whereabouts on the day in question. That would have required another follow-up or two, but the interminable delays had left little time before Election 2008.

Assuming that Gates would be out of his senior position by the time any new FOIAs could be processed under Bush’s rules, I decided that it made little sense to continue pursuing this question.

Ironically, President Obama has renewed the timeliness of this Gates credibility question in two ways: first, by keeping him on as Defense Secretary and now, by revoking the Bush Family’s power to delay and obstruct.

In his first full day in office, Obama revived hope that historical records might become available in a reasonable length of time.

Jobless claims surge and housing starts tumble

Jobless claims surge and housing starts tumble

By Lucia Mutikani

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The number of U.S. workers lining up for state jobless benefits surged last week and home building slumped to a record low in December, data showed on Thursday, as the economy's downward spiral accelerated.

The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s is forcing companies to slash jobs, creating a vicious cycle for an economy mired in a year-long recession.

This was the first major set of grim economic data to greet President Barack Obama, who took office on Tuesday, and analysts said it underlined the need for swift government action to heal the fractured economy.

The White House said Obama was working to implement a rescue plan quickly, but believed the economic climate could still worsen before getting better.

"The young, new administration woke up to a pounding economic hangover. It's a hangover that will likely last for some time since no one yet knows how to deal with it," said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group in Princeton, New Jersey.

Adding to the ranks of unemployed, technology giant Microsoft Corp announced the largest job cuts in its history on Thursday, laying off up to 5,000. Chipmaker Intel Corp and chemical company Huntsman Corp also announced thousands of job cuts this week.

First-time applications for state jobless benefits rose to a seasonally adjusted 589,000 in the week ended January 17 from 527,000 the prior week, the Labor Department said.

This was the highest number since a matching reading in the week of December 20 and exceeded analysts' forecasts of a rise to 540,000 new claims. The last time claims were higher was in 1982, when they notched a weekly rise of 612,000.

Underscoring the deterioration in the labor market, the number of people remaining on jobless rolls after drawing an initial week of aid jumped 97,000 to 4.61 million in the week ended January 10.

The dour data and Microsoft's job cuts weighed on U.S. stocks, with the Dow Jones industrial average ending down 105.30 points, or 1.28 percent, at 8,122.80.

Long-dated government bond prices, which normally benefit from signs of growing economic distress, were hurt by U.S. Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner's critical comments of China's currency policies. China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasuries.

DOWNTURN DEEPENING

"The economy is getting worse. At a minimum there is no sign of recovery and more likely the downturn is deepening. We are likely seeing feedback from job losses into the housing market," said Sal Guatieri, an economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

Indicating that the recession was worsening, housing starts plummeted 15.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 550,000 units, the lowest since records began in 1959, from 651,000 units in November, Commerce Department data showed.

That was the biggest percentage drop since January 2007, when housing starts fell 16.2 percent, and was sharply below analysts' expectations of an annual rate of 610,000 units.

New building permits, which give a sense of future home construction, dropped 10.7 percent to 549,000 units, the lowest since tracking of the data began in 1960, from 615,000 units in November and sharply below analysts' estimates of 610,000.

For the whole of 2008, housing starts plunged 33.3 percent, the biggest decline since 1974, while permits plummeted 36.2 percent, also the largest fall since 1974.

Analysts reckon the economy might not pull out of its current slump unless the housing market, the source of the financial and economic turmoil, stabilizes.

The housing market crash has reduced household wealth, causing a sharp decline in consumer spending, which accounts for about two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.

"These are awful numbers. The U.S. economy cannot emerge from recession unless home prices and sales stabilize and builders begin to break new ground," said the Economic Outlook Group's Baumohl.

U.S. mortgage applications dropped last week as a jump in home loan rates sapped demand for refinancing, the Mortgage Bankers Association said on Thursday.

Average 30-year mortgage rates rose 0.35 percentage point in the week ended January 16 to 5.24 percent, after touching the lowest level in the history of the trade group's survey, which dates to 1990.

Separately, data from a U.S. housing regulator showed home prices accelerated their decline in November, falling 1.8 percent after dropping 1.1 percent in October.

The National Association of Home Builders said on Wednesday U.S. home builder sentiment sagged in January to its lowest since records started in 1985.

Obama to close terrorist 'black sites'

Obama to close terrorist 'black sites'

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President Obama on Thursday will order the closure of so-called black sites, where CIA and European security services have interrogated terrorist suspects, under executive orders dismantling much of the Bush admistration's architecture for the war on terror, according to four individuals familiar with a draft executive order.

Mr. Obama will shutter "all permanant detention facilities overseas," the draft said, according to the individuals who asked not to be named because the orders have not yet been signed. There are at least eight such prisons, according to published reports. The Bush administration never revealed the number or location of the facilities, although several were said to be in Eastern Europe.

The individuals said there will be three executive orders. One will order the black sites closed and require all interrogations of detainees across the entire U.S. intelligence community to adhere to the U.S. Army Field Manual. The manual specifies a range of interrogation techniques that are not considered torture.

Another executive order will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within 12 months, in accordance with an Obama campaign pledge. The final order deals with overall detention policy.

The orders discuss the status of the estimated 250 detainees at Guantanamo and what to do with them and calls for a series of reviews on the status of the prisoners and the military commissions set up to try them. The review will look at transferring prisoners to military facilities in the United States.

Mr. Obama, in one of his first acts as president, on Wednesday suspended all the military commissions for 120 days. During his campaign and after his election, he promised that his administration would not practice torture. In his Inaugural address Tuesday, he said, "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals … Those ideals still light the world and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."

Congressional committees were informally briefed about the executive orders on Wednesday. Administration officials discussed them with senior Republican legislators late Wednesday and will be briefing others opposed to changing current U.S. policies involving terrorist suspects, a former Justice Department official familiar with the drafts said. He asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The official said "there are serious concerns as to where the detainees will be held" and that sending them "into the U.S. federal court system may lead to some of them being released" because the military commissions have different guidelines regarding evidence.

White House officials declined to comment on the status of the orders.

A Pentagon official said it "would be to speculative to say what will happen with each detainee once the facility is closed" but "clearly there are some dangerous detainees at Guantanamo and they will continue to fight us. It's still way to soon to make judgement calls as to what facilities they will be held in the U.S. or abroad." The official also asked not to be named.

Meanwhile, the fallout from Guantanamo Bay is stalling the appointment of Attorney General-designate Eric Holder, who said in his confirmation hearing last week that "waterboarding is torture" and now faces questions about whether he will prosecute U.S. intelligence agents who used that interrogation method.

Awaiting an answer, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee delayed for at least a week a committee confirmation vote on Mr. Holder that was originally scheduled for Wednesday.

The new executive orders reverse much of former President Bush's approach to the war on terrorism. Indeed, his outgoing director of national intelligence, Admiral Michael McConnell, warned publicly last week that the CIA would be hamstrung if it abided only by the Army Field Manual in conducting interogations. "Does the [intelligence] community need interrogation techniques beyond what's in the Army Field Manual? In my opinion we do," he told reporters at a farewell press conference.

According to the manual, interrogators are encouraged to develop a rapport with a prisoner. The manual allows the interrogator to exploit the fears of a prisoner, but stop short of threatening him. Other allowed techniques include taking advantage of a prisoner's strong feelings about an issue, showing false solidarity or attacking a prisoner's pride.

Mr. Obama has hinted that the manual should dictate the treatment of detainees. On Jan. 11, Mr. Obama told ABC's This Week: "If our top army commanders feel comfortable with interrogation techniques that are squarely within the boundaries of rule of law, our constitution and international standards, then those are things that we should be able to do."

However, Republican leaders are already raising questions about changing procedures that many say have kept the United States from being attacked again after Sept. 11. House minority leader, John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, said in a statement, "The key question is where do you put these terrorists? Do you bring them inside our borders? Do you release them back into the battlefield? Is it really necessary to suspend the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the avowed mastermind of the Sept. 11 plot, even though he has objected to the delay?"

Responding to the imminent moves to close Guantanamo, Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, plans to introduce Thursday the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility Safe Closure Act of 2009, his office said. It would require Mr. Obama to provide Congress 90 days notice before taking any action to close the facility or to transfer detainees to other prisons. It would also mandate a study on security, logistics and alternatives before taking action.

"We cannot afford to make snap decisions about detainee policy and the American people should be able to judge any policy changes for themselves," Mr. Brownback said. "This legislation would require an open and comprehensive review of the factors related to moving the Guantanamo detainees."

Jeffrey Addicott, director for the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, said that the president is making a mistake by closing the facility. He said that military commissions are authorized by Congress and operate under the law of war.

However, Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Consitutional Rights, applauded the decision. "We are proud that President Obama made addressing Guantnamo one of his first acts in office," he said.

Supreme Court strikes down Internet censorship law

Supreme Court strikes down Internet censorship law

Nick Cargo

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It took ten years, but free speech advocates are celebrating the demise of a controversial law they said violated the First and Fifth Amendments in its aims to "protect children."

The American Civil Liberties Union announced Wednesday that the Supreme Court will not hear Mukasey v. ACLU, the Bush administration's attempt to appeal federal court rulings against the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), passed by Congress in 1998 after the fall of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

"For over a decade the government has been trying to thwart freedom of speech on the Internet, and for years the courts have been finding the attempts unconstitutional," said ACLU senior staff attorney and lead counsel Chris Hansen. "It is not the role of the government to decide what people can see and do on the Internet. Those are personal decisions that should be made by individuals and their families."

Federal Judge Lowell A. Reed Jr. in Philadelphia struck the first blow to the law with an injunction in 1999, the Third Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals upholding the decision in June 2000. The Supreme Court concurred in June 2004, pending trial. Judge Reed, in early 2007, again ruled COPA unconstitutional, leading to Mukasey.

COPA, as codified, would have made it an offense punishable by a fine up to $50,000 and/or up to 6 months' imprisonment for transmitting "any material that is harmful to minors" for commercial purposes on the World Wide Web if not put behind a safeguard such as a requirement for payment or a special access code. Additional fines would have been levied for "intentionally" violating the law.

Material deemed "harmful to minors" under COPA included written, photographic, recorded and otherwise "communicated" material that, based on the average person's interpretation of "contemporary community standards," is "obscene" or "designed to appeal to, or is designed to pander to, the prurient interest." The law further reads that any material that "depicts, describes, or represents, in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, an actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual act, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals or post-pubescent female breast," that "taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors."

Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation was novelist and activist Patricia Nell Warren of Wildcat Press. "Wildcat's position was this," she said. "[These] two bills were supposedly aimed at hard-core porn but they were so broadly written that they would be used to criminalize the commercial provision of all kinds of legitimate content to minors on the Internet, whether health information or literature. And such laws definitely would be used by ultraconservatives to limit availability of LGBT content on the Web. For this reason, we felt that it was important for us, as a gay-owned small press, to participate in these lawsuits. The Philadelphia Gay News was also involved.

"The Supreme Court decision puts the onus where it belongs -- on parents, who have the right to use software filters to try keeping their minor kids from viewing material that they disapprove of."

"The Court's decision not to review COPA for a third time affirms what we have been saying all along," ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro said. "[The] government has no right to censor protected speech on the Internet, and it cannot reduce adults to hearing and seeing only speech that the government considers suitable for children."

Judge Rules Against NAFTA Superhighway Protest

Judge Rules Against NAFTA Superhighway Protest

By Mark Anderson

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U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez has denied a request by an anti-NAFTA highway group for a temporary restraining order and motion for preliminary injunction against the city of ....San Antonio..... This legal action was sought by Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom because the city denied TURF’s paid applications to hang two informational banners over public streets in preapproved areas. ....

GRASSROOTS GROUP FIGHTS NAFTA SUPERHIGHWAY

However, the judge did not rule on the merits, so this case may go to the discovery phase, which could set a precedent on what degree citizen banners over public right-of-ways are protected by the First Amendment. For now the city's stance is having a major impact on ....San Antonio.... citizens' awareness about gas-tax alternatives to converting part of the U.S. 281 freeway into a tollway. TURF says such conversions are meant to phase out freeways so they don't compete with growing toll networks that could culminate in construction of the Trans-Texas Corridor part of the NAFTA highway system.

The TTC was recently declared "dead" by ....Texas.... highway officials who, however, conceded that the same basic plan will proceed piecemeal under a different name. Its huge proposed size, up to a quarter-mile wide in some areas, may be scaled back to roughly 400 feet, as reported in another recent AFP online story.....

All banners hung across San Antonio's thoroughfares must be made by preapproved, bonded sign companies, a requirement that TURF met by hiring Allied Advertising to make the banners, as noted Jan. 5 when the judge heard the case. American Free Press attended the four-hour hearing at the John Wood United States Courthouse

One banner – the one made and paid for, although TURF was given a refund when the city balked – is about tolling the freeway and provides the web site www.281overpassesnow.com for those who want more information. ....

TURF founder Terri Hall, a well-known Trans-Texas Corridor opponent, said during testimony that the people cannot get this information anywhere else and that other means of getting her toll-related messages out to the public proved too expensive. She also argued that the city itself is by no means neutral when it comes to toll policy.....

Those called to testify Jan. 5 besides Ms. Hall were three city employees involved in the decision-making process regarding sign regulations, most notably Rod Sanchez, director of planning and development services. The buck stops with him. Two of his underlings, including David Simpson, his immediate subordinate, also testified, as did Kandice Lopez of Allied Advertising.....

As shown in court with the admission of more than 20 exhibits, the city – through Simpson and his underling – had first indicated to the sign company, in separate email and phone correspondence for each banner, that TURF's applications and designs for the two banners were acceptable for temporary placement, which is the status for all banners hung in the city's preapproved areas. Banners are typically displayed for perhaps four weeks. Permits last 90 days. But soon the city did a "180" and denied the permits without clear explanation, as Hall and her attorney told the judge, explaining the reason for this lawsuit.....

The other proposed banner (www.RecallDiane.com) plugs TURF's effort to raise public awareness about the proposal to recall District 8 City Council member Diane Cibrian for allegedly flip-flopping on the toll issue. Ms. Cibrian said she opposed tolling freeways until she got into public office and switched to a pro-toll stance. No recall election has been set yet, however, a point duly noted by TURF attorney David Van Os when the city's hired attorney, Shawn Fitzpatrick. argued that the ordinance does not allow overtly "political" banners. Fitzpatrick argued that both banners are essentially "political" and therefore not allowable under the ordinance, which is actually silent on that point.....

Ms. Hall has long argued that the tolling of freeways is part of the larger plan for installing the TTC, in that doing so would eliminate freeways as competition to tollways and force people to use tollways, including the massive TTC – which would be a much wider tollway partly because of parallel rail and utility lines. ....

As a major part of the NAFTA superhighway envisioned by hemispheric planners who want a North American Union to supplant the ..U.S..., ..Mexico.. and ..Canada.., the original TTC plan could gobble up almost 600,000 acres, much of which is prime ranchland that has been in the same ....Texas.... families for generations. The TTC alone would amount to over 4,000 miles of right-of-way.....

Judge Rodriguez heard strong arguments Jan. 5 by the TURF attorney that the ordinance does not actually define "community announcement." Moreover, the three city officials called to testify who are in charge of signage regulations could not agree on a solid definition. They sometimes contradicted each other, as the judge noted in his ruling.....

"Given the lack of definitions or limiting terms in the [city] code and the placement of decision-making authority in the director of development services [Mr. Rod Sanchez]," the judge wrote in his ruling, "the ordinance appears to allow virtually unfettered discretion in the director to determine what qualifies as a 'community announcement.' Standing alone, this evidence would suggest that the ordinance is constitutionally problematic because that amount of discretion seems unreasonable in light of the nature of the forum and could permit the director to make decisions based on viewpoint."
He added: "...There is a distinct possibility that the plaintiffs may ultimately prevail on the claim that the ordinance violates the First Amendment as applied to them..." ....

Ms. Hall added in a Jan. 14 news release: "The case now goes to the discovery phase where we'll be able to lay out the facts of the case more fully in what ultimately could be a precedent-setting decision as to whether the space above roadways of public streets is indeed protected from government infringement by the First Amendment."....

The reason Judge Rodriguez did not grant TURF's injunction request was that TURF, in his view, did not meet the high standard of evidence needed to grant an injunction. He pointed to Sanchez's argument on whether the city street is a "limited" or "traditional" public forum and noted that this is a sticking point, given Sanchez's observation that in a limited forum, the city believes advocacy banners about a particular viewpoint should be disallowed. The city allows banners for blood drives, fundraising by community groups and other seemingly neutral purposes, but it has never before dealt with information like TURF's, as city officials admitted in court.....

Ms. Hall released a statement the day after the Jan. 5 hearing; it states, in part:....

"First the City denied our banners saying we didn’t meet the ‘definition,’ now they’re saying they denied the banners because the content or message of the banners was ‘controversial.’ They’re making this stuff up on the fly, demonstrating for all of us that this is a politically motivated gag order of citizens who dare oppose the politics of those in power. The City’s reasons for denial are NOT in the ordinance, plain and simple. The Judge even said so on several occasions."....

She added: "It’s no secret that Mayor [Phil] Hardberger and many councilmembers as well as city staff who sit on the Metropolitan Planning Organization have cast votes for and advocated toll roads. Based on the city’s actions, one can conclude that the city will not tolerate differing viewpoints or give fair and equal access to citizens’ groups wishing to utilize temporary banners to communicate important community information to its fellow citizens in the public’s right of way."

Israel threatens Gazans with another attack

Israel threatens Gazans with another attack

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Israel has threatened to launch a new strike against Gaza after having failed to diminish Hamas's power through three weeks of offensive.

"During the operation that we have carried out in the Gaza Strip we have destroyed 150 tunnels, including some which were targeted several times...If we are forced to, there will be more attacks," said Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday.

Israel fought a three-week long war against Hamas allegedly to destroy the movement's military power. It launched hundreds of attacks on several tunnels and homes in the southern Gaza Strip “to destroy the tunnels through which Hamas brings arms into the region”.

Palestinians, however, say the tunnels are used to import food to the besieged populated territory which has been under an 18-month Israeli blockade.

Earlier in the day AP Television News footage showed Palestinians filling a fuel truck with petrol that came through a cross-border tunnel from Egypt.

The footage also showed workers busy clearing blocked tunnels and bulldozers carrying out other repairs.

While Israel claims that 80 percent of the tunnels were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead, Yuval Diskin, head of Israel's internal security service (Shin Bet), said formerly that the "The operation did not deal an irreversible blow to the tunnel industry," and Hamas could still rearm itself.

Hamas had also vowed to resume arming, saying "the manufacturing of holy weapons is our goal."

The Israeli 22-day offensive which killed more than 1,300 people including 460 children across the Gaza Strip has finally failed to achieve the primary goals including "halting rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip".

In Final Legal Act, Bush Appeals Spy Ruling

In Final Legal Act, Bush Appeals Spy Ruling

By David Kravets

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With a mere 64 minutes left in its last full day in office, the Bush administration asked a federal judge to stay enforcement of a ruling that would keep alive a lawsuit which tests whether the president can bypass the Congress and eavesdrop on Americans without warrants.

The request was lodged with U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker of San Francisco at 10:56 p.m. EST on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday -- about 13 hours before the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The filing was among now former President George W. Bush's final legal acts in office.

The Bush administration asked Walker's permission to appeal his Jan. 5 decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Walker had ruled that "sufficient facts" exist that two U.S.-based lawyers for an Islamic charity might have been spied upon for the case to proceed to the next stage.

The case seeks the courts to rule on the constitutionality of the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping program the president approved in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Congress authorized the spy program last year as part of legislation immunizing participating telecommunication companies from lawsuits accusing them of violating their customers' civil liberties, but the spying in this case allegedly happened in 2004. Eric Holder, the incoming U.S. attorney, said the Obama administration supported the spy legislation and would defend it in a separate challenge.

On Monday, the Bush administration sought to prevent the disclosure of a Top Secret document at the center of a closely watched spy case, a document Walker ruled could be admitted.

The suit involves two American lawyers who the Treasury Department accidentally gave a Top Secret document in 2004 showing they were illegally eavesdropped on by the government when working for a now-defunct Islamic charity that year.

Their suit looked all but dead in July when they were initially blocked from using the document to prove they were spied on. They were forced to return it to the government.

But two weeks ago, Walker said the document could be used in the case because there was sufficient, anecdotal evidence unrelated to the document that suggests the lawyers for the Al-Haramain charity were spied upon. Without the document, the lawyers — Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoo — don't likely have a case.

In its Monday filling, (.pdf) the government repeated its assertion that the use of the document in the case would jeopardize national security. The administration said the document was protected by the so-called state secrets privilege and objected to even Walker reviewing it — yet alone the lawyers for Belew and Ghafoo — who Walker said could see it in private.

"If the court were to find … that none of the plaintiffs are aggrieved parties, the case obviously could not proceed, but such a holding would reveal to plaintiffs and the public at large information that is protected by the state secrets privilege — namely, that certain individuals were not subject to alleged surveillance," the administration wrote.

By the same token, the administration argued, if Walker allowed the case to proceed after reviewing the document, it "would confirm that a plaintiff was subject to surveillance."

The government continued: "Indeed, if the actual facts were that just one of the plaintiffs had been subject to alleged surveillance, any such differentiation likewise could not be disclosed because it would inherently reveal intelligence information as to who was and was not a subject of interest, which communications were and were not of intelligence interest, and which modes of communication were and were not of intelligence interest, and which modes of communication may or may not have been subject to surveillance."

A hearing is scheduled in Walker's courtroom on Friday.

"We filed this lawsuit to establish a judicial precedent that the president cannot disregard Congress in the name of national security," said Jon Eisenberg, the lawyer for Belew and Ghafoo. "Plaintiffs have a right to litigate the legality of the surveillance."

The Return of Triangulation

The Return of Triangulation

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The mosaic of Barack Obama's cabinet picks and top White House staff gives us an overview of what the new president sees as political symmetry for his administration. While it's too early to gauge specific policies of the Obama presidency, it's not too soon to understand that "triangulation" is back.

In the 1990's, Bill Clinton was adept at placing himself midway between the base of his own party and Republican leaders. As he triangulated from the Oval Office - often polarizing with liberal Democrats on such issues as "free trade," deregulation, "welfare reform" and military spending - Clinton did well for himself. But not for his party.

During Clinton's presidency, with his repeated accommodations to corporate agendas, a progressive base became frustrated and demobilized. Democrats lost majorities in the House and Senate after just two years and didn't get them back. Along Pennsylvania Avenue, numerous left-leaning causes fell by the wayside - victims of a Democratic president's too-clever-by-half triangulation.

Now, looking at Obama's choices for key posts, many progressive activists who went all-out for months to get him elected are disappointed. The foreign-policy team, dominated by strong backers of the Iraq invasion, hardly seems oriented toward implementing Obama's 2008 campaign pledge to "end the mindset that got us into war." On the domestic side, big-business ties and Wall Street sensibilities are most of the baseline. Overall, it's hard to argue that the glass is half full when so much is missing.

The progressives who remain eager to project their worldviews onto Obama are at high risk for hazy credulity. Such projection is a chronic hazard of Obamania. Biographer David Mendell aptly describes Obama as "an exceptionally gifted politician who, throughout his life, has been able to make people of wildly divergent vantage points see in him exactly what they want to see."

But in the long run, an unduly lofty pedestal sets the stage for a fall from grace. Illusions make disillusionment possible.

There's little point in progressives faulting Obama because so much of their vital work remains undone at the grassroots. A longtime Chicago-based activist on the left, Carl Davidson, made the point well when he wrote after the November election that "one is not likely to win at the top what one has not consolidated and won at the base."

By the same token, we should recognize that Obama's campaign victories (beginning with the Iowa caucuses) were possible only because of the painstaking work by antiwar activists and other progressive advocates in prior years. To make further progress possible, in electoral arenas and in national policies, the country must be moved anew - from the bottom up.

As his administration gets underway, disappointed progressives shouldn't blame Barack Obama for their own projection or naivete. He is a highly pragmatic leader who seeks and occupies the center of political gravity. Those who don't like where he's standing will need to move the center in their direction.

Obama has often said that his presidential quest isn't about him nearly as much as it is about us - the people yearning for real change and willing to work for it. If there's ever a time to take Obama up on his word, this is it.

Crucial issues must be reframed. The national health care reform debate, for instance, still lacks the clarity to distinguish between guaranteeing health care for all and mandating loophole-ridden insurance coverage for all. With the exception of Rep. John Conyers' single-payer bill to provide "enhanced Medicare" for everyone in the United States, each major congressional proposal keeps the for-profit insurance industry at the core of the country's medical-care system.

As for foreign policy, the paradigm of a "war on terror," more than seven years on, remains nearly sacrosanct. Among its most stultifying effects is the widely held assumption that many more US troops should go to Afghanistan. Rhetoric to the contrary, Obama's policy focus appears to be fixated on finding a military solution for an Afghan conflict that cannot be resolved by military means. The escalation is set for a centrist disaster.

During his race for the White House, ironically, Obama was fond of quoting Martin Luther King Jr. about "the fierce urgency of now." But King uttered the phrase in the same speech (on April 4, 1967) that spoke of "a society gone mad on war," condemned "my own government" as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and declared: "Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now."

Barack Obama never promised progressives a rose garden. His campaign inspired tens of millions of Americans, raised the level of public discourse and ousted the right wing from the White House. And he has pledged to encourage civic engagement and respectful debate. The rest is up to us.