Thursday, February 5, 2009

Deluge Is Holding Up Benefits to Unemployed

Deluge Is Holding Up Benefits to Unemployed

Decline in Funding Forces Staff Cuts as Claims Swell

By Chris L. Jenkins

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Thousands of people in the Washington area and hundreds of thousands more across the country are waiting longer than they should for unemployment benefits at a time when they need the money the most because rising joblessness is overwhelming claims offices, records show.

The problem is compounded by a simultaneous decrease in federal funding, which has reduced staffing at some local government offices. The result is that the District and many states, including Maryland and Virginia, are failing to meet federal guidelines that require timely processing of unemployment claims, appeals and benefit payments, the records show.

It's likely to get worse. Figures released yesterday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Washington area unemployment has hit its highest level since August 1993. The jobless rate climbed to 4.7 percent in December from 3 percent a year earlier and 4.4 percent in November. That's well below the national average of 7.2 percent but still a burden for claims offices.

Carrie Kenworthy of Manassas has experienced the problem. She was laid off from her $80,000-a-year job as a mortgage loan officer in 2007. Then she tried to file for an extension in unemployment benefits in July. The Virginia Employment Commission denied her claim three times. Her appeals took more than two months because of a state backlog in cases.

Her benefit extension was approved last week, but not before she had been evicted from her three-bedroom Gainesville townhouse and sold most of her possessions. Yesterday, she was notified that she is being evicted from her new apartment in Manassas.

"You talk about a nightmare," Kenworthy, 45, said as she flipped through the sheaf of documents she used to prove her eligibility for benefits. "We're not on welfare. We're not looking for handouts. We worked for this, and we have to go through all this hardship just to pay our rent."

Officials in all three jurisdictions acknowledge the problems and say they are doing the best they can. But the tightening economy and budget cuts are affecting them as well.

"In short, we just don't have the staff," said Coleman Walsh, chief administrative law judge for the Virginia Employment Commission.

The problems are nationwide. Web sites and phone systems in some states are buckling under the strain. Electronic claim filing systems in New York, North Carolina and Ohio crashed recently because of the heavy volume and technical problems.

The problems have become so severe that legal aid offices in Northern Virginia, for example, report that complaints from people seeking unemployment benefits from the state have tripled since early last year.

"They keep coming," said R. Peyton Whiteley, a lawyer for Legal Services of Northern Virginia, referring to phone calls from distressed, recently laid-off workers. "People can't get to speak to someone, people getting bounced off phone lines, people don't get their money on time, people don't get their money at all. . . . It goes on and on."

Federal guidelines mandate that Virginia offer appeals hearings to 80 percent of denied applicants or employers within 30 days. In December, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the state processed 4.3 percent of the possible 1,319 cases. In Maryland, where federal guidelines require 60 percent compliance in 30 days, the state processed 10 percent. The District, also with a 60 percent requirement, handled 24 percent.

Guidelines also dictate that states pay 87 percent of beneficiaries within 14 days of approving a claim. In December, Maryland paid 77 percent of claims in that time; Virginia and the District each paid 74 percent of their claims on time.

"We know what this means for people. They are out here waiting for their money," said Joseph P. Walsh, acting director of the District's Employment Services Department. "But when you have the kind of unprecedented increases in unemployment insurance claims, your compliance numbers will turn on a dime."

Unemployment insurance programs are funded by taxes paid by employers. Some of the tax revenue goes to the federal government, which, through a funding formula, reallocates it to states to pay for the administration of their programs.

The problems are most acute in Virginia, which has the lowest unemployment in the region. The federal government has gradually been cutting the amount of money it sends to the state because it has had relatively low unemployment and provides fewer benefits to unemployed workers. The decreased funding last year forced the state employment commission to lay off 157 of its 1,109 employees and close five of its 37 workforce development offices, including one in Fairfax County. At the same time, unemployment insurance claims statewide increased nearly 84 percent from December 2007 to December 2008. Claims were up 136 percent in Northern Virginia.

In Maryland the number of new claims increased 31 percent from December 2007 to 2008. In the District, new claims increased 32 percent over that time.

Virginia officials said they have been trying to compensate for the staffing shortage by encouraging more people to apply online for benefits and developing an automated phone system to help customers with their claims. But the phone system has been overwhelmed, too, and advocates said workers shouldn't be required to have access to a computer to get their benefits.

"The access issue really starts from the beginning," said Carolyn Kalantari, a staff lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, a public interest law firm in Charlottesville that has been compiling complaints. "If you don't know how to use the Internet, you're in big trouble."

All of this translates into months of frustration and headaches for those already dealing with the trauma of job loss. In Kenworthy's case, she was initially found eligible for $347 a week after she was laid off from a Fairfax mortgage company 18 months ago. She worked several sales jobs after her benefits expired, but work never picked up in the real estate market. By July she realized she was eligible for a benefit extension that could help her weather the worsening economy.

But her application was denied. She appealed, and the state awarded her $71 a week in benefits in November. But she knew the amount was wrong, so she appealed again. It took more than two months to get an appeals hearing and finally, on Jan. 29, she received a letter notifying her that her initial claim for $347 a week had been approved -- retroactive to July. Her total amount in delayed unemployment wages: $6,940.

She is happy about the money but bitter about the process and its impact on her life. "You can't quantify the humiliation of eviction, begging bureaucrats and bad credit . . . for something that was preventable," she said.

Virginia officials said the problems have started to gain attention in Washington. Joyce Fogg, a spokeswoman for the state employment commission, said the state has received funding for an additional 140 positions to help ease the backlog. Unfortunately, many new employees won't be hired and trained until April.

That will be too late for Kenworthy. In an e-mail yesterday, she wrote: "Sheriff was just here I have until 8 a.m. Monday morning . . . homeless."

Rove says he won't comply with congressional subpoenas

Rove says he won't comply with congressional subpoenas

John Byrne

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Lawyer signals Rove cooperating with Justice Dept.

Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove "won't comply" with congressional subpoenas, according to a newspaper report of an event held in Los Angeles earlier this week.

Rove spoke Tuesday evening at Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit institution in Los Angeles, as part of the school's "First Amendment Week."

"One man loudly denounced Rove as a 'traitor' before he was escorted out," the Loyola Daily Breeze noted. "A woman held up a pair of handcuffs and said she would like to see Rove wearing them."

Rove mounted a "sprited defense" of Bush policies: warrantless wiretapping, Guantanamo Bay and so-called harsh interrogations. But among the questions bearing relevance on Rove's current predicament -- one answer stood out.

One questioner asked Rove whether he would comply with Congressional
subpoenas. Rove was subpoenaed last month to testify to the House Judiciary Committee about his knowledge surrounding the firings of US Attorneys and the prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman.

Rove "said he would not, and cited Janet Reno, President Clinton's attorney general, as his authority in resisting Congressional infringements on executive privilege."

His answer seems to contrast the sentiment of his Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, who told an investigative reporter earlier this week that Rove was cooperating with two Justice Department probes into the US Attorney firings and the Siegelman case.

"I can say that he would cooperate with the [Justice Department] investigation if asked," Luskin said. He made no such specific commitment to an investigation by the House Judiciary Committee, or the Senate Judiciary Committee, both of which have subpoenaed him to testify on the cases.

Luskin told Raw Story Thursday that while he hadn't seen the specific remarks, he was "confident that I've accurately expressed his position in this matter and it's consistent with what I have conveyed to [House Judiciary Chairman] Conyers and to the White House."

Rove also told the Los Angeles crowd that media coverage leading up to the election was "unbelievably tilted toward Obama," and "not healthy for the system."

"That coverage is putting a finger on the scale," Rove said, adding that most members of the national press corps live in Washington and New York and went to schools with a liberal bent.

The following video is Karl Rove's response to a Loyola Marymount University student when asked about the subpoena issued to him by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr. on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009:

Weekly US jobless claims hit new 26-year high

Weekly US jobless claims hit new 26-year high

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Initial claims for US unemployment benefits surged above 600,000 last week to the highest level since October 1982 amid a deepening recession, government data showed Thursday.

A seasonally adjusted 626,000 first-time jobless claims were filed in the week ended January 31, the US Labor Department said, far more than the 580,000 expected by most analysts.

The Labor Department revised upward the previous week's claims to 591,000, from 588,000, in its weekly snapshot on unemployment.

On a four-week rolling average, considered a more reliable indicator of labor trends, initial jobless claims rose 7.2 percent from the prior week to 582,250, the highest level since December 1982.

According to the department's seasonally adjusted data, the insured unemployment rate was 3.6 percent in the week ended January 24, unchanged from the week ended January 17 and the highest rate since August 1983.

The United States currently has a record 4.79 million people on the unemployment benefit rolls, the highest number since publication of the data began in 1967.

The Labor Department's January jobs data, due to be published Friday, is expected by most analysts to show the unemployment rate rose to 7.5 percent, from 7.2 percent in December.

Dispute Mounts Over Key US Base in Kyrgyzstan

U.S. Searches for Alternative to Central Asian Base

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The Obama administration scrambled Wednesday to come up with an alternative to a crucial United States air base in Central Asia, used to supply the growing military operation in Afghanistan, after the president of Kyrgyzstan ordered the American base in his country closed.

Defense and State Department officials said they had concluded that Russia had pressed Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic, to expel the Americans. Russia has promised not to impede the American-led fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but has also sought to push United States forces out of bases it began leasing in Central Asia in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The Kyrgyz Parliament planned to vote Friday on a measure that would close the base at Manas, a major air hub for troops and cargo. Loss of the base would present a significant problem for the Obama administration as it deploys as many as 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan over the next two years. Taliban attacks have made another prime supply route to Afghanistan — an overland pass through Pakistan — highly unreliable.

A senior State Department official said that negotiations with Kyrgyzstan over the base had been halted and that the alternatives under consideration included bases in Europe and the Persian Gulf, as well as a possible expansion of existing bases in Afghanistan.

The United States has leased the Central Asian base since after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, but American officials said they believed that Russia was using an offer of more than $2 billion in loans and grants to Kyrgyzstan to force the United States out of the region, colloquially referred to as “the Stans.”

“The motivation is to have a strong bilateral relationship with the Stans that prevents the Stans from hosting U.S. or NATO facilities on their soils,” a Defense Department official said.

About 15,000 personnel and 500 tons of cargo pass through Manas each month. The base is also the home of large tanker aircraft that are used for in-air refueling of fighter planes on combat missions over Afghanistan.

The American officials, who insisted on anonymity because of the delicacy of the negotiations, said that it was possible that the United States would resume talks with Kyrgyzstan but that for the next weeks the United States would be investigating whether some of the functions of the base could be relocated, perhaps to more than one place.

The State Department official said it was still possible that the United States might offer Kyrgyzstan more compensation for the base after the other alternatives and their costs had been explored. “Once we evaluate what this is really worth to us, we’ll talk to them about money,” he said. The United States calculates that it pays Kyrgyzstan more than $150 million in assistance and compensation each year. But the State Department official said that only a portion of that money went directly to the Kyrgyz government. “Frankly, we haven’t been excessively generous,” the official said.

The State Department official said that “fundamentally it comes to money, and the Russians are trying to buy us out.”

A statement by the Kyrgyz government on Wednesday argued that the American mission in Afghanistan had outlasted its original goals, the terrorist threat there had “been removed,” and that NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan had caused unacceptable civilian casualties.

The Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, announced the decision on Tuesday in Moscow, where his impoverished country won $150 million in aid and the forgiveness of $180 million in debt in addition to the $2 billion in loans. Russian officials claimed that the announcement of the base closure was purely coincidental, but Russia has long resented the United States presence in Central Asia.

If the measure passes the Kyrgyz Parliament on Friday, as expected, Washington would have 180 days to close the base. The senior Defense official said the closure “has all the earmarks of being a done deal.”

Russian officials took pains on Wednesday to reassure President Obama that they hoped to cooperate with him in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But the conciliatory words sounded peculiar beside the blunt fact of the base closure, which seemed to communicate that American plans in the region should be coordinated with Moscow.

“The calculation behind the Russian move is that the Americans have not so many alternatives,” said Fyodor A. Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Politics. “If you need something there, you should go not to Bishkek but to Moscow.”

Russian leaders also hope to secure concessions from Mr. Obama on a variety of issues, among them planned missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland, revamped security structures in Europe, and a renegotiation of the Start I arms treaty.

President Dmitri A. Medvedev said Wednesday that Russia and its allies were ready for full-fledged, comprehensive cooperation with the United States and other coalition members in fighting terrorism in the region. But he also laid out his own view of the best approach in Afghanistan, with veiled criticism of the United States.

“Democracy cannot be forced — it must grow from within,” he said. “It’s not the number of bases that matters. It would be good if that would reduce the number of terrorists, but the fight against terrorism is not limited to building up military forces.”

But by stressing that they are ready to search for alternatives in Europe, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan itself, the Americans also appeared eager to signal that they would not allow Russia to dictate the terms of its engagement in Afghanistan or the region.

This is not the first time that United States officials have tangled with Kyrgyzstan over the base at Manas. During negotiations this summer, the State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would pay more than $150 million in assistance and compensation for the base this year. At the time, a government statement said the United States had contributed more than $850 million to support democracy, economic development, aid projects and security in the Kyrgyz Republic since its independence from the Soviet Union.

At a news conference in Moscow on Tuesday, Mr. Bakiyev complained about a 2006 incident in which a United States serviceman had shot a Kyrgyz truck driver on the base, and said Washington had also ignored his requests for more money.

“Eight years have passed,” he said. “We have repeatedly raised with the United States the matter of economic compensation for the existence of the base in Kyrgyzstan, but we have not been understood.”

Kyrgyzstan’s close relations with the United States have long unsettled Russia and China, which both have military interests in the region.

In 2005, the country appeared to move further into Washington’s orbit after a popular uprising, supported in part by the United States, toppled the corrupt and increasingly authoritarian government of Askar A. Akayev, sending the president fleeing across the border. The bloodless coup was part of a wave of popular revolts, known as color revolutions, that remain a source of anger and suspicion among Russian officials, who consider them Washington-hatched schemes meant to undermine Russia’s influence in the region.

The Reality Of FEMA Camps And The Martial Law Apparatus

The Reality Of FEMA Camps And The Martial Law Apparatus

By Lee Rogers

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There is no doubt that the government is preparing a nationwide system of detention facilities under the guise of emergency management that could be used to house large quantities of Americans during a time of civil strife. Many think that it is a conspiracy theory, but it is not. It is a fact that the federal government has many facilities right now that can be used to house large numbers of political dissidents if the need arises. During World War II, the U.S. government through an executive order by FDR forced many Japanese-Americans to move into internment camps. In 2006, George W. Bush signed legislation to preserve these camps. Why would he do this unless there was a chance that they would be used in the future? In addition, KBR the engineering and construction arm of Halliburton was recently awarded a $385 million contract to build detention facilities under the guise that they would be used to house illegal immigrants. This news broke at a time in which outrage against illegal immigration was at an all-time high and covered extensively in the media which in essence made the announcement less controversial. There is also a great deal of anecdotal and video reports of detention facilities in many areas around the nation that have been posted on the Internet by concerned citizens. With all of this in mind, it is additionally disturbing that institutions like the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Northern Command have been incrementally moving this country into a militarized police state through a wide variety of initiatives and programs. With the economy unraveling on a day to day basis the possibility of civil strife becomes greater and greater and the possibility of the establishment needing these types of facilities continually increases.

Last week we were the first to break news of legislation proposed in Congress by Representative Alcee Hastings (D-FL) that would legalize and authorize the construction of National Emergency Centers on open and closed military bases which would be run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency otherwise known as FEMA. It is already confirmed that infrastructure which could possibly be used in this capacity is already available to the U.S. government. So for all intents and purposes this bill will essentially provide the legal capacity for them to use already existing facilities as emergency centers. It also provides the government the authority to create additional facilities on closed and open military reservations so long as a minimum of 6 emergency centers are built to fulfill the needs of the FEMA regions designated in the bill. The language in the bill also authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security to use these facilities for whatever purpose that the Secretary believes is necessary. So if the Secretary wanted to use them as concentration camps, death camps or torture facilities, the language in the bill authorizes that activity.

We also have a declassified U.S. Army document posted on the U.S. Army’s official web site outlining U.S. Army Regulation 210-35 which describes standard operating procedures on how to setup a Civilian Inmate Labor Program. Although the document focuses in on using individuals that are already in civilian prisons for the purposes of the program, the standard operating procedures included in this document could be used for political dissidents or anyone for that matter who are taken to National Emergency facilities on military reservations.

Additionally, in the 1980s it was reported that Oliver North had assisted FEMA in drafting preparations for civil defense. The plans included the suspension of the U.S. Constitution, the imposition of martial law, internment camps, turning control of state and local governments to military commanders and giving dictator like powers to FEMA in the event of a national emergency including events such as nuclear war and widespread political dissent. This news was reported by the Akron Beacon Journal, the Miami Herald and other publications on and after July 5th 1987. North himself was questioned about this report during the Iran-Contra scandal by Congressman Jack Brooks but was stopped by the committee Chairman because it touched upon classified information.

In 2002, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an additional report, referencing these prior news articles and additional information stating that the conditions for martial law have been set in the United States.

With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Northern Command in 2002, the federal government has even more tools to use to quell dissent during a time of civil strife. U.S. Northern Command now has a full brigade of troops at their disposal to deploy domestically. Additionally, an agreement between U.S. Northern Command and Canada Command has been signed without any sort of Congressional approval allowing Canadian military troops to enter the United States during a number of declared civil emergencies. On top of that, the Department of Homeland Security is providing grants at the local level to militarize police forces and setup a technological infrastructure to provide additional capabilities to track and trace the American people.

Back in 2007, George W. Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive 51 a continuity of government directive which is worded specifically to grant the President dictatorial powers over the executive, legislative and judicial branches during a declared catastrophic emergency.

FEMA according to a report from the Associated Press has even been looking into ways to expand their capabilities of transporting large quantities of people via train during emergencies. This is particularly disturbing since this was the preferred method of transportation used by the Nazis to transport Jews to the concentration camps during World War II.

It is simply impossible to dismiss all of these separate reports as pure coincidence. There is a definitive push to setup a fully functioning apparatus that will be used in a time of civil strife or any sort of national emergency to have the capability to round up large groups of people and put them in FEMA run detention camps. It is important to note that this is not some sort of left-wing conspiracy to round up people who don’t like Barack Obama as Family Security Matters believes. Both Republicans and Democrats have been behind this agenda for several decades, as all of this information indicates.

It is true that nobody knows with 100% certainty if the government will round up large numbers of political dissidents during a time of civil strife. However, they are certainly building the infrastructure to do it. With the global economy collapsing around the world, there will naturally be an increasing amount of dissent the worse the economy gets. The protests in Iceland, France, Greece and in other countries is evidence of this. As a result, all of this information should be of great concern to the American people. After all, it is doubtful that they are getting this infrastructure ready if they didn’t think that they might have to use it in the future.

Judges Took Bribes to Send Children to Privately Owned Juvenile Detention Centers

State may compensate juveniles sentenced by judges in Luzerne

By Tracie Mauriello

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State lawmakers are seeking ways to compensate children sent to detention centers by a pair of Luzerne County judges charged with taking kickbacks for sending juvenile defendants to facilities in Luzerne and Butler counties.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf said yesterday he would hold a hearing to find ways to help the children and their families. One option is to provide money from the crime victims compensation fund, said Mr. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery.

The hearing, which has not yet been scheduled, is at the request of Republican Sens. Lisa Baker and John Gordner, whose districts include parts of Luzerne County.

They made the request yesterday, the same day a third Luzerne County court official was arrested in the ongoing corruption probe.

Court Administrator William T. Sharkey Sr., 57, of West Hazelton, yesterday agreed to plead guilty to embezzling more than $70,000 in illegal gambling money seized by authorities between June 1998 and June 2008.

Two other county court officials were charged last week with fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud.

Judge Mark A. Ciavarella and former Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan are accused of taking $2.6 million for sending children to two facilities owned by Pittsburgh businessman Greg Zappala.

Judges Ciavarella and Conahan each could face prison terms of up to seven and three months, according to the terms of plea agreements they signed last week.

No charges have been filed against Mr. Zappala, who is the brother of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and son of former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr.

Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court has agreed to review all juvenile cases adjudicated in Luzerne County during in the last five years.

That's good news to parents such as Susan Mishanski, whose 17-year-old son was sentenced by Judge Ciavarella last year to 90 days in a juvenile facility in Carbon County.

She said the punishment was excessive and that it traumatized her son, a first-time offender who was expecting community service or a fine for punishing another boy last year. Instead, he was taken from the courtroom in shackles and brought to Camp Adams, where he was beaten by other teenagers, forced to wear ripped clothes four sizes too big and permitted visitors only twice a month for an hour, she said.

"He was humiliated and he was scared," said Ms. Mishanski of Luzerne County. "I'm absolutely thrilled now that [these judges] got caught."

Judges Ciavarella and Conahan are scheduled to enter pleas Feb. 12 in U.S. District Court in Scranton.

Mr. Ciavarella, who stepped down as president judge but remains on the court, is continuing to receive a salary of $161,850, although he has been stripped of his judicial powers. Under the terms of his plea agreement, be must resign within 10 days of pleading.

His salary had been $163,260 but was reduced by $1,410 when he stepped down as president judge.

The Supreme Court last week revoked Judge Conahan's certification as senior judge, a designation given to retired judges who agree to temporary fill in at county courthouses as needed.

Judge Conahan retired in January 2008. He received $39,387 in per-diem pay for work between June 2008 and January 2009, according to records of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. It was not clear if he received payments in the first half of last year.

Mr. Sharkey could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 in fines. As part of the plea agreement, he also must pay $71,000 in restitution and resign within 10 days of entering a plea.

Blackwater Guards Immune Under Law, Pentagon Says

Blackwater Guards Immune Under Law, Pentagon Says

By Ken Fireman

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The U.S. Defense Department concluded in 2007 that Blackwater Worldwide contractors can’t be prosecuted under federal law for a shooting incident in Iraq that left 17 civilians dead.

In a letter to North Carolina Representative David Price, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England said contractors are subject to prosecution under federal law for alleged misconduct committed overseas only when they are working for the Pentagon or supporting its mission.

Blackwater was working for the State Department when the September 2007 incident took place in Baghdad. The company was “not engaged in employment that was in support of the DoD mission,” England said in a letter to Price on Dec. 14, 2007.

The Democratic congressman’s office released a copy of the letter today. It was reported earlier by the Associated Press.

A spokesman for Price, Paul Cox, said in an e-mailed statement: “Regardless of the views expressed in this letter, it’s up to the courts alone to determine whether these security contractors fall under federal criminal jurisdiction.”

Five Blackwater employees were charged in December with manslaughter and weapons violations in connection with the shooting incident. A sixth employee pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. The Moyock, North Carolina-based company wasn’t charged in the case.

The Justice Department on Jan. 27 filed a legal brief arguing that the law governing the criminal actions of Pentagon contractors should apply to the Blackwater employees. Government lawyers argued that both the State and Defense Departments had a common mission to stabilize Iraq.

“Both departments fulfill mutually supporting responsibilities and work hand-in-hand to achieve that single, common objective,” the brief said.

Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said today that the government’s prosecution of the Blackwater employees will continue. “We’re going forward,” he said.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell declined to comment on the letter.