Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Guardsmen train for urban conflict

Guardsmen train for urban conflict

By Rusty Murry

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More than 200 soldiers from the newly formed 1st Battalion, 138th Infantry Regiment of the Missouri Army National Guard came to Camp Clark from across the state on Saturday, March 14, to take part in training in several different combat scenarios. This is the first time Missouri has had an infantry unit in more than 35 years.

The new unit, headquartered in Kansas City, has companies and detachments across the state and will have more than 800 soldiers when it reaches full strength, according to a Missouri Army National Guard press release.

The 138th Infantry Regiment began in 1832 when it was organized as a volunteer militia company called the "St. Louis Grays." In its early days, the unit earned 13 battle streamers for combat in the Mexican War, the Civil War, World War I and World War II. The unit was changed to an engineer unit in 1974 and Missouri has been devoid of the infantry since that time.

The unit was training at Camp Clark in "the first consolidated drill to increase soldier's proficiency at certain tasks," said Battalion Commander Major Kevin Fujimoto. The objective is for these soldiers "to learn to react to situations encountered" and "learn basic soldiering skills such as reacting to contact, react to enemy fire and how to enter and clear a building," said Fujimoto.

This new infantry has been well received by soldiers. "It's new. It's different," and the "unit already has somewhat of a seasoned force. Soldiers from other units have chosen to join the infantry," said Fujimoto. Now they can be in this type of unit and not have to leave their home state. This new unit will better enable the Missouri Army National Guard to fulfill both the state and federal missions with which they are tasked.

The state mission is to be ready and available for disaster relief anywhere in the state, and the federal mission is, of course, to be ready and available to defend the nation here or abroad. That fact has brought forth soldiers that are excited to be a part of the infantry. "They have a lot of pride and people want to do their part," said Major Michael Pulkabek as we were led through the woods to the MOUT or Mobile Operations in Urban Terrain site.

The site consisted of simulated housing that a soldier might find anywhere in the world. Their job was to enter the buildings, identify friends or foes and react accordingly. Each four-man was squad was briefed by the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge, a Staff Sergeant who, due to security clearances, wished to be identified only as Sgt. Shawn. The soldiers were given some basic urban warfare knowledge before entering the structure. Things like how to "float" and be in constant position to react instead of walk and have to get ready, how to hold and keep their weapon in a ready position at all times and how to, contrary to their earlier training, point and shoot instead of take aim and shoot.

Given this bit of knowledge, the troops "stacked" outside the door of the building until given the go ahead to enter. The inside was dim; just cracks of sun and a small window offering slanting rays of dust filled light. Behind this wall an enemy, turn and fire; under that table, an explosive device; don't step on anything you can step over. Trust your team mates and follow the path of least resistance. Be sure that a dead enemy is dead. It was a lot of information to absorb in a short time.

The squad moved through the building. Slowly. Methodically. Laser sights registered hits on enemy targets and the sharp smell of gunpowder filled the cramped building. Wrong moves were corrected by Sgt. Shawn and the squad continued through the multi-level structure, clearing each room, stairway, long hall and level as they went. Sgt. Shawn told them, "It has to be a precision move to get in and engage before you can be engaged."

While the first squad went through the MOUT, the second was getting a little extra instruction and encouragement from their platoon sergeant. Gunfire could be heard in the distant timber as other squads progressed through the different training exercises. Medics were standing by just in case there were any injuries. Specialist 4th Class Luke Compton, of Nevada, Mo. was there as part of the 206th ASMC out of Springfield, Mo. The 206th provides medical support at Camp Clark and other places in the state. Compton wants to get into this infantry unit, but he was a little bit bored just watching the other troops train. There had not been any injuries nor need of their specialized services yet, but Compton said, "It's good if we're bored."

Finally, both squads cleared the building of enemy combatants and were debriefed; and the group moved on to the next training station. Establishing a perimeter first, they got their instructions from Sgt. Wallam. The small force was to proceed up a gully through the warm March woods which was thought to hold some enemy troops. Reassembling and fanning out they moved cautiously forward. Small arms fire crackled through the still afternoon, letting them know the enemy was close and that they had blundered into them.

More debriefing on things done properly and mistakes made followed, then the soldiers struck out to the next training area. It was the same scenario, but the cover was much thicker and the downhill terrain was rougher. Less than a hundred yards from the starting point, machine gun and small arms fire gave away the enemy position. The infantrymen returned fire, split their force and performed a very effective flanking maneuver. They quickly overtook the enemy troops and disarmed them.

A hasty perimeter was established, and Platoon Sergeant Randall, a 10-year veteran, checked his men for injuries and ammunition. All was well and Sgt. Wallam again debriefed the men. He had more good things to say than bad and the Alpha Co. Commander of the 138th, Captain Allen Sharrock, a sixth grade industrial arts teacher from Columbia, Mo., was pleased with the unit's performance. "For being a new unit they've been doing very well. I'm pretty impressed, actually," Sharrock said. This ended the group's training for the day and the group was led back up the hill, out of the woods.

There were several groups going through the training that day and each one of them had a member of the media embedded in their ranks. Some of them were television reporters and others were newspaper reporters. This was done "because a strong media presence serves to create a more realistic scenario for troop training, as media presence is prevalent in today's theater," according to a Missouri National Guard press release. All of the soldiers went about their business in a professional manner and acted as though the media wasn't present. Soldiers and superiors alike were pleased with the day's events.

Chicago may replace some police patrols with private secrurity contractors

Can Private Security Guards Act As Cops?

That's Exactly What They May Soon Be Doing On The Far South Side

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They're private security guards, already on patrol, but they may soon have the powers of Chicago Police officers.

As CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reports, the private security officers now on patrol on the city's Far South Side are expected to have their powers expanded as part of a citywide ordinance now being prepared.

But officials are questioning whether this means public safety is being outsourced.

Mayor Richard M. Daley has already privatized many city functions. The Chicago Skyway has been leased to a Spanish conglomerate. Midway Airport is run by a Canadian company. The parking meters were sold to a firm run by Morgan Stanley, and as a result, the cost of parking in the city has skyrocketed.

But the question is whether another foreign firm providing cops on patrol may be privatization gone too far.

A single squad car, marked "special patrol," cruises up and down a small commercial strip on far south Michigan Avenue tonight. Its patrol area is between 100th and 116th streets, and area merchants have their doubts.

"As good as they may be, I don't think they probably have all the training that a policeman would have," said business owner Howard Bolling.

But the security guards are not supposed to replace Chicago Police officers, according to the alderman writing the ordinance. He said the enforcement powers of the private security group would remain highly limited.

"No traffic violations such as moving violations – such as moving violations. Small things – illegally parked, blocking the parking," said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th).

That wasn't exactly what Mayor Daley thought when he was asked about it on Saturday. He said the security force would have the power to enforce "moving violations and citations including loitering, littering and graffiti."

This means they're still working on it. But Beale was asked what would happen when they security officers tried to detain someone who didn't want to be detained and didn't respect their authority as they would a police officer's.

"Next thing you know, guns are drawn, and you have a real problem," Levine posited.

Replied Beale: "I'm not going to say what the future may hold. We can all predict unforeseen situations."

Mayor Daley said the city would benefit from the extra patrols.

"It's not a bad idea. You maybe have to refine it, but it's not a bad idea," the mayor said.

With Chicago Police stretched so thin, just having a few extra cars and extra uniforms is comforting to some people. The J. Carolina Hosiery store, for example, was robbed 14 times in the last year.

"The stores are being robbed, and then they're getting extorted, and you have the little gangbangers running in and out of stores trying to rob people," said store supervisor Larry McCullough.

Since the private security patrols arrived, the robberies have continued, "but it's slowing down, because it seems like more of the stores have to have their own guns and their own security."

In addition to the Fraternal Order of Police being against it, experts tell CBS 2 that asking private security guards to conduct police functions is dangerous, and potentially fatal, with most security guards paid much less and receive less training. Chicago's Police Supt. Jody Weis calls it all a work in progress.

"Let's be creative," Weis said. "If we can have police officers focusing on higher priority cases, it's worth talking about."

CBS 2 wanted to ask the Toronto-based firm which was the lowest bidder for contracts in the 9th and 10th wards about the background and training of its officers. Also in question was is how much experience the Canadian company has with the inner city problems which make the Roseland community a challenge for even the most streetw

Pentagon seeks clarity on China military build-up

Pentagon seeks clarity on China military build-up

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China's limited transparency about its rapidly expanding military capabilities creates uncertainty and risks of miscalculation, the Pentagon said in a report released on Wednesday.

The annual report to the U.S. Congress on Chinese military power said China's People's Liberation Army has "left unclear to the international community the purposes and objectives of the PLA's evolving doctrine and capabilities."

The report comes just weeks after Chinese boats jostled with a U.S. Navy surveillance ship in the South China Sea in a confrontation that heightened tensions over Chinese military activities near its coasts.

Risks to the United States and its allies in the Pacific region arise from incomplete defense spending figures and actions that appear inconsistent with declared policies, said the report, the first under the Obama administration.

"The limited transparency in China's military and security affairs poses risks to stability by creating uncertainty and increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation," the report said.

As it has in past years, the Pentagon analysis noted China is developing weapons that would disable its enemies' space technology such as satellites, and boosting its information and electromagnetic warfare capabilities.

In the Taiwan Strait, the balance of forces continued to shift in China's favor as China built up its arsenal of short-range missiles opposite Taiwan.

Beijing usually criticizes the Pentagon report, saying it unfairly portrays China as a military threat when it is committed to a "peaceful rise" as its economic power grows.

IMF director warns of war

IMF director warns of war

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Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, warned on Monday that the global economic situation is "dire" and could lead to social upheaval and war. The statement is the latest in a series of worried pronouncements from leading international figures in the financial and political establishment.

The IMF is projecting a 1 percent decline in the global economy this year, which Strauss-Kahn noted would be "the first setback of the world economy in over 50 years." The IMF chief was speaking before a meeting of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland.

The economic crisis, Strauss-Kahn said, would affect "dramatically unemployment for many countries. It will be at the roots of social unrest, some threats to democracy and maybe for some cases, it can also end in war."

Without citing specific countries, Strauss-Kahn also warned of regions of the world where "the financial collapse risk does exist."

The implications of the economic collapse for working people internationally are still in their initial stages. The ILO predicted in January that up to 50 million jobs would be eliminated throughout the world in 2009. This is likely an underestimation, as the economic crisis has sharply accelerated over the past several months.

Strauss-Kahn's position is one of concern over the prospect of mass opposition to the policies of the ruling elite as the economic situation deteriorates. He pleaded for the capitalist powers to implement policies that would prevent the crisis from "becoming a wasteland of unemployment." The major architects of the capitalist system over the past several decades are keenly aware that they have created an economic catastrophe that threatens social upheaval.

While Strauss-Kahn did not specify what he meant by the danger of war, his remarks came in the midst of hardening conflicts between the major powers over economic policy in the run-up to the G-20 summit meeting of major economies in London next month.

On Tuesday, German President and former IMF chief Hörst Koehler echoed some of Straus-Kahn's concerns and urged the countries participating in the G-20 summit to come up with a common plan for restructuring the world financial order. "I stand by my suggestion of organising a Bretton Woods II under the auspices of the United Nations to push forward a fundamental reform of the international economic and financial system," Koehler said. He warned that the outcome is a "test for democracy as a whole. Many citizens are unsettled. The coming months will be very tough."

In the back of the minds of many heads of state and figures such as Strauss-Kahn is no doubt the last time world leaders gathered in London to discuss a financial crisis. At the 1933 London conference, the major powers failed to come up with any coordinated agreement to respond to the Great Depression. The breakdown of the conference accelerated protectionist and beggar-thy-neighbor policies, which intensified the slump and exacerbated national antagonisms, culminating in the eruption of World War II.

As in 1933, world leaders are today proclaiming the need for international coordination, even as they fiercely defend the national interests of their respective financial and corporate elites.

In a column published in many world newspapers on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama asserted that "the leaders of the Group of 20 have a responsibility to take bold, comprehensive and coordinated action that not only jump-starts recovery, but also launches a new era of economic engagement to prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again."

The US continues to insist that European countries implement expanded stimulus packages, while Europe—particularly France and Germany—are insisting that the summit focus on new international financial regulations. While making vague reference to new regulations, Obama wrote that the efforts of the major powers "must begin with swift action to stimulate growth" and that fiscal stimulus "should be robust and sustained until demand is restored."

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon argued on Monday that France had already committed sufficient resources to stimulus and that it was necessary to "avoid creating a bubble of public debt." The major European powers have opposed further stimulus packages, in part over concern over inflation and the stability of the euro.

Whatever Obama's talk of "coordinated action," the US is implementing a policy that approaches the financial equivalent of preemptive war. The government has committed trillions of dollars to bail out Wall Street and US banks. Capitalizing on the still privileged position of the US dollar, the American ruling class is intent on funding these bailouts through the sale of massive volumes of debt on world markets, sucking up available financing and making it more difficult and expensive for other countries to get funding for their own programs.

The United States has initiated a policy of printing vast quantities of money—in part to finance the very debt that it is creating to bail out its banks. This potentially inflationary policy has generated an extremely nervous reaction from other powers, most noticeably China, which has over $1 trillion in dollar-denominated assets. These assets would plunge in value in the event of a major decline in the value of the dollar.

The head of the Chinese central bank argued on Monday for a new international currency to replace the dollar as the world reserve currency. On Tuesday, Li Xiangyang of the government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences called the Fed's new policy of purchasing US Treasuries "irresponsible." He said that China would likely ask for "specific measures" on the part of the US to ensure the value of Chinese holdings.

Behind these policy differences are competing interests. The financial stakes are considerable. Tens of trillions of dollars in paper wealth have been destroyed on world markets since the crisis began. The combined wealth of the world's billionaires has declined by almost a half. How will these losses be allocated?

Whatever the hopes of Strauss-Kahn and Koehler for a more coordinated policy that will help head off social conflict, there is an inexorable logic to the class interests involved. On the one hand, the ruling class in every country will work ruthlessly to impose the burden of the economic crisis on the backs of working people. This is already taking place through massive job- and wage-cutting and attacks on social programs. On the other hand, the economic crisis will exacerbate the struggle over resources between the major powers—a struggle that, within the capitalist system, can ultimately be resolved only through war.

Obama’s “carrot and stick” approach to Iran

Obama’s “carrot and stick” approach to Iran

By Peter Symonds

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The US administration made a much-publicised gesture toward Iran last Friday with the release of a video by President Obama to mark Nowruz, the Persian New Year. While the tone was conciliatory and the presentation slick, the essential strategy remains the "carrot and stick" policy outlined by Obama in his election campaign.

The US president offered Tehran a substantial carrot: the offer of "diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues" and the possibility for "the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations". The reference to the Islamic Republic of Iran—previously avoided by American officials—hinted that "regime change" was off the table and that the US might recognise the state that issued from the 1979 Iranian revolution.

At the same time, Obama made clear that Iran would not achieve its "rightful place... through terror or arms". "Arms" and "terror" are code words for continuing US demands that Tehran abandon its uranium enrichment project and end its support to organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah that have resisted aggression by Israel, America's key ally in the Middle East. And while Obama ruled out threats and offered "honest engagement," the stick of sanctions remains in place and the threat of US military action continue to loom in the background.

Not surprisingly, the response from Tehran has been cautious. Speaking one day after Obama's video address, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei bluntly declared "changes in words are not adequate" and called for changes in US policies and actions. The speech, which was pitched to the regime's close supporters, enumerated all the obstacles to improved relations: three decades of hostility and sanctions, support for Iraq in its war on Iran in the 1980s, and Washington's support for Israel and its crimes.

Khamanei did not, however, shut the door on negotiations. For all its anti-American bluster, the regime represents the interests of the Iranian bourgeoisie and is quite capable of reaching an accommodation with US imperialism, as long as its own strategic and economic interests are enhanced. Tehran quietly assisted in the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and has played a key role in stabilising the US occupation of Iraq over the past year by reining in Shiite militias.

One aim of Obama's video appears to be to influence the outcome of Iran's presidential elections in June. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the 2005 elections in part by capitalising on popular outrage at the Bush administration's threats: he pledged to proceed with Iran's nuclear program and ruled out any relations with the US.

Even if Ahmadinejad were replaced by someone more amenable to US overtures, the Iranian president does not have the final say over the country's defence and foreign policy. The US would still have to deal with Khamanei. According to the Wall Street Journal, as part of its review of policy toward Iran, the Obama administration is debating whether to send a presidential letter directly to the Iran's Supreme Leader, setting out the basis for negotiations.

Obama's approach does represent a tactical shift from that of the Bush administration. Sections of the American foreign policy establishment backed Obama's election as a means of salvaging US interests from the disaster created by Bush's war in Iraq. Some sort of rapprochement with Iran was regarded as a key element in stabilising the US occupation of Iraq and refocussing Washington's priorities toward Afghanistan, Pakistan and the resource-rich region of Central Asia.

Significantly, the first US diplomatic initiatives toward Iran have been on Afghanistan. For the first time, the US State Department is sending a senior diplomat to Moscow this week to take part in a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), convened to discuss the anti-occupation insurgency in Afghanistan. The decision opens up the possibility of talks with Iranian representatives, who have observer status at SCO meetings. The SCO was established in 2001 by China and Russia, primarily as a means of countering US influence in Central Asia.

Washington has also invited Iran to participate in a March 31 conference in The Hague, called to address the deepening crisis in US-occupied Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan. The gathering would provide an opportunity for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to meet with Iranian diplomats. Italy has invited Tehran to a meeting of foreign ministers on Afghanistan on the sidelines of the G8 meeting in Trieste in June. Tehran is yet to indicate if it will attend either meeting.

Even on the issue of Afghanistan, however, US and Iranian interests diverge. While asking for Iranian assistance, the US is seeking an accommodation with sections of the anti-occupation insurgency. Any deal that gave a political voice in Kabul to elements of the Taliban would be anathema to Iran, which backed anti-Taliban factions up to 2002. Highlighting US duplicity, Iran's parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani recently declared: "They open the window every morning and shout about terrorism, but then secretly sit down to talk with the Taliban."

A far greater stumbling block is Iran's nuclear program, which Washington claims is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. Tehran insists its nuclear projects are purely for civilian purposes and has adamantly refused to bow to US demands to shut down its uranium enrichment plant and end construction of a heavy water research reactor. Any prospect of a compromise is further complicated by Israel's barely concealed threats to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities to prevent any possibility of Iran countering Israel's own nuclear arsenal. The installation of a right-wing, militarist regime in Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu only heightens the dangers.

A rapprochement with Iran might offer the US certain benefits. In the short term, these include a possible military supply line into Afghanistan as an alternative to the increasingly dangerous routes through Pakistan. In the longer term, Iran is essential to the stability of both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, any comprehensive US-Iran deal that enhanced Tehran's position would inevitably provoke opposition from US allies in the region—not only Israel, but Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf States.

Like Bush, Obama is not about to compromise on American strategic interests. In case Tehran is not willing to negotiate on US terms, the Obama administration is preparing for confrontation. Obama's video is part of this two-track policy. As the Wall Street Journal explained on Saturday: "Mr Obama's words aren't just aimed at Iran—European allies as well as Russia and China are also target audiences. Senior US officials say his administration wants to persuade the world that it is different from President George W. Bush and is going the extra mile to give Iran a chance. If Tehran rebuffs the overtures and sticks to its nuclear program, Washington can more easily seek broad support for coercive measures, such as financial sanctions or even potentially military action, they say."

Even as it is extending an offer of talks to Iran, the US is reassuring allies in the Middle East—above all, Israel—that their interests will be protected. At the same time, Washington is making overtures to Syria—Iran's chief ally in the region—with the object of isolating Tehran prior to punitive sanctions or military action. In the final analysis, while more carefully nuanced and packaged, the Obama administration's policy on Iran is not essentially different from that of its predecessor.

The appointment of the hawkish, pro-Israel Dennis Ross as Obama's special envoy for the Persian Gulf speaks volumes. Ross was closely involved in the preparation of reports on Iran policy last year by two think tanks—the Bipartisan Policy Center and the right-wing Washington Institute for Near East Policy—that mapped out a detailed strategy that led inexorably from the negotiations to military conflict if Iran failed bow to US demands. Ross is in charge of the White House review of Iran policy which is due to conclude this month.

Democrats prepare to ditch AIG bonus bill

Democrats prepare to ditch AIG bonus bill

By Tom Eley

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Within days of the overwhelming passage by the House of Representatives of a bill imposing a 90 percent surtax on bonuses awarded by the insurance giant American International Group (AIG) and other firms that have received government bailout money, the Democratic leadership in both the House and the Senate have signaled they will drop the measure.

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, "If the [AIG bonus] money is returned, the legislation may no longer be necessary." This followed the previous day's announcement by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo that 15 of 20 top AIG executives had returned their bonuses.

On the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday said the chamber would delay consideration of its version of the House bill until sometime next month—supposedly to allow Republicans more time to study the legislation.

The turnaround follows statements by President Obama and top administration officials over the last several days distancing themselves from the congressional bills and reassuring the financial elite that they will impose no serious limits on executive compensation in return for the continuing flood of taxpayer money to the largest financial institutions.

The congressional stand-down on the executive bonus legislation demonstrates the political dictatorship wielded by finance capital through two parties that are utterly subservient to Wall Street. The outrage of millions of Americans—suffering under soaring unemployment, wage cuts, foreclosures and the loss of retirement savings—counts for virtually nothing when set against the insistence of a miniscule financial elite that they suffer no diminution of their vast personal fortunes as a consequence of an economic catastrophe of their own making.

The servility of Congress was on full display at a hearing on the AIG bonuses held Tuesday by the House Financial Services Committee at which Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, joined by New York Federal Reserve Bank President William Dudley, testified.

The hearing provided a fittingly anticlimactic end to the week's political theater. Responding to growing public outrage over executive compensation at bailed-out firms, congressional leaders of both parties as well as President Obama last week feigned outrage and hypocritically criticized the AIG bonuses.

Since September, AIG has received four separate infusions of government funds totaling $173 billion. Yet this month it paid at least $165 million in "retention bonuses" to executives and traders, including those in its Financial Products Division which was responsible for the firm's vast overleveraging in credit default swaps.

In response to the House bill passed last Thursday, Wall Street and the media launched a vicious counterattack, with the banks and financial firms threatening to boycott the Obama administration's bank rescue programs and allow the economy to crash should any serious restrictions be placed on the executives' "right" to award themselves enormous compensation packages.

According to a Wall Street Journal report Tuesday, major finance industry executives had already launched a furtive campaign of sabotage against the Obama administration's plan to put banks that had received bailout funds through "stress tests." These are supposed to determine whether the banks require further infusions of taxpayer cash in return for a bigger government equity stake in the firms.

The Journal reported that when administration officials contacted bank CEOs over the weekend to ask for their support for the new plan, announced Monday, to offload the banks' toxic assets, "Some bankers say they turned the conversations into complaints about the anti-bonus crusade consuming Capitol Hill. Some have begun ‘slow-walking' the information previously sought by Treasury for stress-testing financial institutions..."

Brought to heel, President Obama and top administration officials made clear on Sunday that they opposed the House bill and stressed that the new bailout measure would include no limits on executive compensation.

It was against this backdrop that the House Financial Services Committee questioned Geithner and Bernanke on Tuesday. The hearing was held not to reveal the extent to which Wall Street has funneled hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer funds into the bank accounts of wealthy executives and traders, the complicity of government officials, or the real roots of the economic crisis, but rather to provide a measure of political cover for all those involved in these activities, including the bankers, the regulators and the congressmen themselves.

The committee chairman, Barney Frank (Democrat of Massachusetts), called the hearing, ostensibly on the AIG bonuses, to provide Geithner and Bernanke with a platform to push their demand for Congress to grant the Treasury and the Federal Reserve broad new powers to rescue collapsing non-bank financial institutions such as AIG.

In his opening statement, Frank declared his support for the proposal. "We need to give somebody, somewhere in the federal government... the power to do what the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) can do with banks," he said.

Bernanke told the committee, "If a federal agency had had such tools on September 16 [the date in 2008 when the Federal Reserve purchased a nearly 80 percent stake in AIG], they could have been used to put AIG into conservatorship or receivership, unwind it slowly, protect policyholders, and impose haircuts on creditors and counterparties as appropriate."

The claim that the AIG collapse was caused by a lack of regulatory authority is self-serving. In fact, the federal bodies with powers to monitor the financial industry—including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve—not only turned a blind eye to the financial skullduggery of AIG and scores of other firms, they actively encouraged it.

The media had hyped the hearing as a forum where Geithner and Bernanke would be "grilled" by outraged congressmen. In the event, there were only a handful of pointed questions.

Frank himself is a longstanding ally of Wall Street and one of the top congressional recipients of campaign funding from the finance industry. He played a critical role in congressional passage of the original Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in October of 2008. He claimed at the time that TARP would avert economic suffering for millions of Americans by handing over hundreds of billions to the biggest banks.

The committee members as a whole have received millions of dollars in campaign funds from Wall Street firms while participating in junkets and receiving other favors from banking industry lobbyists.

Frank's obsequiousness before Bernanke and Geithner stood in stark contrast to threats he made at the outset against a small group of protesters who attended the hearing, carrying signs with slogans like "Where's my pension?" Frank told the group if they attempted to "disrupt" the proceedings by holding up signs they would be removed. Later, he interrupted testimony to threaten them with police removal.

Democratic Representative Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania raised the likelihood that Obama would turn to Congress for approval of new funds to bail out Wall Street. Geithner did not deny the possibility. "It's our obligation to protect the financial system," he said. "If that required more resources, it would be our obligation to come to you."

Kanjorski warned, "It's not going to be an easy lift on behalf of the Congress."

Among the Democrats, Geithner faced his most critical questioning from California Congressman Brad Sherman, who cultivates the image of a populist opponent of the Wall Street bailouts—despite receiving nearly $170,000 in campaign donations from the finance industry in the 2008 election cycle alone.

Sherman admonished Geithner that it was the duty of his office to restrict executive compensation at bailed-out firms. He demanded to know if Geithner would publish a list of pay packages for executives at other bailed-out firms.

"You're right, this goes well beyond AIG," Geithner conceded. But he refused to commit to providing such a list, saying only that he would "reflect on the suggestion you made." There the matter ended.

Most of the more pointed questions came from the Republican committee members, who raised the question of the "moral hazard" of government intervention into the markets and concerns about the effects of the bailouts on "free market" competition. This they coupled with denunciations of any limits on executive pay.

As for the AIG bonuses, the hearing produced no new revelations. Geithner continued to claim that he knew nothing of the bonuses until March 10. This in spite of published reports in major newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal documenting that his aides—both when he served as president of the New York Federal Reserve and since becoming treasury secretary—discussed, approved and helped to draft the AIG executive bonuses.

Bernanke said that he was aware of the AIG bonuses, but claimed that Federal Reserve attorneys had told him he had no ability to block their disbursal. Geithner and Bernanke both argued that the AIG bonuses were contractually guaranteed, and therefore could not be touched.

Billions for Wall Street, budget cuts for working people

Obama press conference reveals right-wing consensus in Washington

By Patrick Martin

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The presidential press conference held Tuesday night, nationally televised from the White House, was a demonstration of the vast social gulf that separates the financial and political establishment of the United States—including the highly-paid representatives of the corporate-controlled media—and the working people who constitute the vast majority of the population.

The opening statement from President Obama and nearly all the questions revolved around the administration's economic policies, with the discussion focused largely on the twin preoccupations of the US ruling elite: that every effort should be made to guarantee the wealth and profits of Wall Street, and that sufficient sacrifices should be imposed on the American people.

The week before the press conference was dominated by the explosion of public anger over the revelation that $165 million in taxpayer funds were being used to pay bonuses to executives at AIG, the giant financial services firm whose speculative operations helped trigger the worldwide crisis. Over the past six months, the firm has received over $170 billion in federal funds to stave off bankruptcy.

After the passage Thursday by the House of Representatives of a bill to impose punitive taxes on the bonuses, there was a sharp backlash in ruling circles, as the Obama administration, congressional Republicans and Democrats, and much of the media began to denounce the attacks on AIG as counterproductive and even illegitimate.

Obama continued along this line in his opening statement to the press conference, where he concluded a summary of his administration's economic policies by declaring that "our economy only works if we recognize that we're all in this together" (an implicit rejection of efforts to blame the financial speculators for the crisis), followed by an explicit defense of "bankers and executives on Wall Street" and the capitalist system as a whole.

"The rest of us can't afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit," he said. "That drive is what has always fueled our prosperity, and it is what will ultimately get these banks lending and our economy moving once more."

It was hardly to be expected that this proposition would be challenged by the representatives of the big business media, some of whom are themselves multimillionaires. It appeared from the pattern of questioning that there was a tacit agreement on both sides—president and press corps—to downplay the AIG scandal and forestall the danger that it could trigger a wider opposition among the American people to the entire Wall Street bailout.

There was only one question on AIG, and none at all on the plan announced only the day before by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to subsidize the bank sell-off of toxic assets, to the tune of hundreds of billions more in taxpayer funds. Hedge funds and other financial speculators are already slavering over the prospects of double-digit returns on investments where they put up little cash and enjoy a federal guarantee against losses.

The failure to ask a single question on the latest bank bailout is extraordinary and can be explained only as a conscious decision by the corporate-controlled media to avoid any further inflaming of "populist" sentiments.

Instead, both Obama and his media questioners sought to change the subject to the ongoing conflict in Congress over the new administration budget, with Obama repeatedly pressed to explain why, given the huge and mounting projected deficits, he was proposing to expend large amounts for health care, energy conservation and education (never mind that these supposedly vast sums are dwarfed by the amounts being handed over to Wall Street).

All the press questions on fiscal policy echoed the administration's right-wing critics, Republican and Democrat, and Obama responded in kind, presenting fiscal responsibility as his central goal and boasting at one point that he was reducing discretionary federal spending on social programs—the amount not legally required by entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare—to the lowest percentage of GDP since the 1960s.

Particularly revealing was Obama's treatment of health care reform, which his opening statement relegated to the last in a list of his major priorities. He described it in the following terms: "We invest in reform that will bring down the cost of health care for families, businesses and our government."

Millions of working people voted for Obama in the belief that a Democratic administration would expand access to health care and put an end to the scandal of 50 million people living without health insurance, and tens of millions more underinsured. The new administration, however, treats health care not as a basic human right or a necessity of modern life, but as a fiscal problem, the focus of cost-cutting efforts.

In response to one question about what he would require to sign a budget bill, Obama said, "I expect that there's serious efforts at health care reform and that we are driving down costs for families and businesses, and ultimately for the federal and state governments that are going to be broke if we continue on the current path."

He later went so far as to declare the slashing of healthcare costs an economic as well as a fiscal imperative. "If we don't drive down the costs of health care," he said, "then we won't grow 2.6 percent, we won't grow 2.2 percent. We won't grow."

Obama likewise referred several times to the necessity to control the rising costs of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, although he suggested that it was premature to discuss such measures openly in the midst of an economic crisis (and the bailout of Wall Street).

There was not a single question from the press about rising unemployment and the ongoing destruction of jobs, which is proceeding at a far more rapid pace than the alleged job creation under the Obama stimulus plan. The jobless toll has risen by more than 600,000 in each of the past three months, and is expected to show another huge increase when figures for March are reported next week.

There was only one question on the mounting social crisis, when a writer for the African-American magazine Ebony asked Obama about a recent report that two percent of American children are now homeless. Obama made a perfunctory expression of sympathy and then returned to the subject of his budget proposal.

The single-minded focus on the fortunes of Wall Street was expressed as well by the absence of any questions on Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran or US relations with China and Russia. Not a single question was asked on foreign policy—aside from the crisis on the US border with Mexico—until the press conference was nearly at an end.

The chasm separating the press conference participants and ordinary people was perhaps most starkly demonstrated by the question by NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd, who asked Obama, "Why, given this new era of responsibility that you're asking for, why haven't you asked for something specific that the public should be sacrificing to participate in this economic recovery?"

Obama was compelled to note in response that working people are already facing severe hardships from the impact of the economic crisis, in the form of jobs eliminated, wages cut, and opportunities lost for themselves and their children. But Todd followed up by pressing for an explicit call by the president for public sacrifice.

The representative of NBC (owned by one of the biggest US corporations, General Electric) was apparently indifferent to the obscene double standard involved in demanding further cuts for working people while trillions of dollars are being handed over to bankers, speculators and hedge fund billionaires.

Diebold Admits Voting System Flaws

Diebold admits voting system flaws

E-voting manufacturer says votes could be changed undetected

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Critics of electronic voting systems have had their warnings vindicated by two recent announcements. An official with Premier Election Systems, formerly known as Diebold, admitted that its audit log system was flawed enough that it would be possible to delete votes undetected, and several elections officials in Kentucky were arrested on charges related to election fraud, including changing electronically recorded votes.

Wired reported that officials from Premier admitted in a hearing held March 17 in California that their tabulation software could miss significant events, including the deletion of votes on Election Day. They said the flaw is present in every version of the software.

The California Secretary of State's office discovered that audit logs from Diebold machines in Humboldt County, Calif., did not record known ballot deletions, according to Wired. Justin Bales, general sales manager for Premier's western region, told a state investigator that the software does not record deletions and never has.

The office was originally investigating the deletion of 197 votes in Humboldt County when its investigators discovered that the audit logs provided no information on the event.

The software also does not record timestamps on the events it does document, and it includes a "clear" button that allows the easy deletion of the audit logs, according to Wired and GovTech.

Such audit logs have been at the heart of the electronic voting machine controversy. Critics of the machines have long charged that it would be possible to change the recorded votes undetected, and they have urged that, at a minimum, the machines should generate a paper receipt that the voter would confirm was an accurate record of the vote. Elections officials would keep the paper records and use them to verify the accuracy of the electronically tabulated results in the event of a challenge. Voting machine makers have generally responded to such criticisms by saying that the combination of audit logs and capable elections officials following protocols would prevent fraud.

In Clay County, Ky., the FBI arrested several county elections officials on a variety of election fraud charges, including changing votes already recorded on the electronic voting machines, according to a Lexington, Ky., NBC affiliate. They have pleaded not guilty, the Associated Press reported.

According to the indictment against the eight defendants, some of the fraud also included instructing others on how to change votes on the machines and identifying voters who had sold their votes.

Commander confirms Netanyahu war plans

Commander confirms Netanyahu war plans

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Israel is preparing for all-out war on multiple fronts that include Iran, Syria and Lebanon, a senior military commander claims.

Israeli army Home Front Command Major General Yair Golan said Sunday that Tel Aviv is preparing for "all possible scenarios", indicating that one such scenario would be to fight a simultaneous war against Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

The confirmation comes as US President Barack Obama seeks "new beginnings" with its arch-rival Iran. The US offer has been met with world praise but with fury in Tel Aviv.

Israeli media outlets late on Sunday began propagating wild scenarios that Iran is using the Lebanese Hezbollah to recruit Palestinian fighters to carry out terror attacks on Israel.

Citing anonymous sources, the reports began to surface after Tel Aviv countered an alleged bombing attempt outside a shopping mall in the northern city of Haifa.

"We are treating the attempted attack in Haifa with great gravity. A huge disaster was prevented by a miracle," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a weekly cabinet meeting after the bomb was defused on Sunday.

Israel has long accused Iran of arming Hezbollah and Palestinian groups via Syria, in an attempt to demonize the two Muslim countries.

Tel Aviv also accuses Tehran of developing nuclear weaponry -- a charge denied by the UN nuclear watchdog.

At a conference held in Tel Aviv, Golan also confirmed the likeliness of Israel staging another military confrontation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Although Israel does not consider rocket attacks from Gaza as a serious threat, there is the possibility of "dangerous" missile attacks by other countries, he said.

He failed to elaborate how such missile attacks would relate to Gaza.

His remarks came as reports claim that the soon-to-be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has plans for "a major military conflict in the coming months."

The commander also revealed that Tel Aviv will install new warning systems across Israel in preparation for its war plans.

The last Israeli-waged war on the Gaza Strip, which began on December 27, killed at least 1,350 Palestinians and wounded more than 5,450 others in the densely-populated sliver.

The aggression was the last in a series of operations carried out by the Israeli forces against the natives of the land since occupying Palestine in 1948.

Narco wars loom over Clinton agenda in Mexico

Narco wars loom over Clinton agenda in Mexico

By MATTHEW LEE

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is heading to Mexico on Wednesday to pursue a broad diplomatic agenda that will be overshadowed by spiraling drug violence and fears of greater cross-border spillover.

A day after the Obama administration announced it would send more money, technology and manpower to secure the United States' Southwestern frontier and help Mexican authorities in their battle against drug cartels, Clinton was to depart on a two-day trip to Mexico City and Monterrey aimed at bolstering anti-narcotics cooperation.

U.S. officials say they do not want relations with Mexico to be dominated by the violence, which has spread from the border region on the Mexican side into some U.S. border states. The officials maintain that Clinton also wants to discuss trade, climate change and the global financial crisis in her meetings.

Among the contentious issues are new Mexican tariffs on 89 U.S. products imposed last week in retaliation for a U.S. decision to cancel a cross-border program that gave Mexican truckers access to U.S. highways. Mexico's move could affect about $2.4 billion in annual trade.

Yet U.S. officials acknowledge that the violence between Mexican President Felipe Calderon's government and the cartels, along with bloody turf battles among the traffickers, are the most urgent issues the two countries face. Clinton's talks are designed in part to encourage Mexican authorities to do more in response to the stepped-up U.S. effort, they say.

The escalating violence has set off alarm bells in the U.S. and triggered a State Department travel alert last month that compared recent confrontations between Mexican authorities and the cartels to "small-unit combat." Mexican officials say the violence killed 6,290 people last year and more than 1,000 in the first eight weeks of 2009.

It has also led to a spate of kidnappings and home invasions in some Southwestern U.S. cities, prompting calls from state and local officials for troops to be sent to the border.

Clinton's trip marks the start of several high-level meetings on the matter. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder are to meet with Mexican officials in early April before President Barack Obama is expected to visit Mexico ahead of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration rolled out a multi-agency plan to protect the border, including the deployment of nearly 500 federal agents and support personnel, building on efforts begun during the Bush administration. However, officials did not say where the additional agents would come from or how long they would stay in their new assignments.

"If the steps that we've taken do not get the job done, then we will do more," Obama said Tuesday during a prime-time news conference.

Obama said the U.S. needs to do more to prevent guns and cash from flowing back to the cartels.

"That's part of what's financing their operations. That's part of what's arming them. That's what makes them so dangerous," he said. "And this is something that we take very seriously and we're going to continue to work on diligently in the months to come."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry last month asked for 1,000 troops be sent to bolster border security in his state. Napolitano said Tuesday officials were still considering whether to station National Guard troops along the Arizona and Texas borders with Mexico, which some governors have requested.

In addition, officials said they will increase the number of immigrations and customs agents, drug agents and antigun-trafficking agents operating along the border. The government also will allow federal funds to be used to pay for local law enforcement involved in Southwestern border operations and send more U.S. officials to work inside Mexico.

At the same time, U.S. prosecutors say they will boost efforts to go after those smuggling guns and drug profits from the U.S. into Mexico, and allowed that the problem was not only one of supply, but of demand for illicit narcotics in America.

Those steps come in addition to a three-year, $1.4-billion-dollar Bush administration-era program known as the Merida Initiative through which Congress already has approved $700 million to support Mexico's efforts to fight the cartels. Obama has said he wants to revamp the initiative.