Friday, April 10, 2009

More Squatters Are Calling Foreclosures Home

With Advocates’ Help, Squatters Call Foreclosures Home

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When the woman who calls herself Queen Omega moved into a three-bedroom house here last December, she introduced herself to the neighbors, signed contracts for electricity and water and ordered an Internet connection.

What she did not tell anyone was that she had no legal right to be in the home.

Ms. Omega, 48, is one of the beneficiaries of the foreclosure crisis. Through a small advocacy group of local volunteers called Take Back the Land, she moved from a friend’s couch into a newly empty house that sold just a few years ago for more than $400,000.

Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said about a dozen advocacy groups around the country were actively moving homeless people into vacant homes — some working in secret, others, like Take Back the Land, operating openly.

In addition to squatting, some advocacy groups have organized civil disobedience actions in which borrowers or renters refuse to leave homes after foreclosure.

The groups say that they have sometimes received support from neighbors and that beleaguered police departments have not aggressively gone after squatters.

“We’re seeing sheriffs’ departments who are reluctant to move fast on foreclosures or evictions,” said Bill Faith, director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, which is not engaged in squatting. “They’re up to their eyeballs in this stuff. Everyone’s overwhelmed.”

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Omega sat on the tiled floor of her unfurnished living room and described plans to use the space to tie-dye clothing and sell it on the Internet, hoping to save some money before she is inevitably forced to leave.

“It’s a beautiful castle, and it’s temporary for me,” she said, “and if I can be here 24 hours, I’m thankful.” In the meantime, she said, she has instructed her adult son not to make noise, to be a good neighbor.

In Minnesota, a group called the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign recently moved families into 13 empty homes; in Philadelphia, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union maintains seven “human rights houses” shared by 13 families. Cheri Honkala, who is the national organizer for the Minnesota group and was homeless herself once, likened the group’s work to “a modern-day underground railroad,” and said squatters could last up to a year in a house before eviction.

Other groups, including Women in Transition in Louisville, Ky., are looking for properties to occupy, especially as they become frustrated with the lack of affordable housing and the oversupply of empty homes.

Anita Beaty, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, said her group had been looking into asking banks to give it abandoned buildings to renovate and occupy legally. Ms. Honkala, who was a squatter in the 1980s, said the biggest difference now was that the neighbors were often more supportive. “People who used to say, ‘That’s breaking the law,’ now that they’re living on a block with three or four empty houses, they’re very interested in helping out, bringing over mattresses or food for the families,” she said.

Ben Burton, executive director of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, said squatting was still relatively rare in the city.

But Take Back the Land has had to compete with less organized squatters, said Max Rameau, the group’s director.

“We had a move-in that we were going to do one day at noon,” he said. “At 10 o’clock in the morning, I went over to the house just to make sure everything was O.K., and squatters took over our squat. Then we went to another place nearby, and squatters were in that place also.”

Mr. Rameau said his group differed from ad hoc squatters by operating openly, screening potential residents for mental illness and drug addiction, and requiring that they earn “sweat equity” by cleaning or doing repairs around the house and that they keep up with the utility bills.

“We change the locks,” he said. “We pull up with a truck and move in through the front door. The families get a key to the front door.” Most of the houses are in poor neighborhoods, where the neighbors are less likely to object.

Kelly Penton, director of communications for the City of Miami, said police officers needed a signed affidavit from a property’s owner — usually a bank — to evict squatters. Representatives from the city’s homeless assistance program then help the squatters find shelter.

To find properties, Mr. Rameau and his colleagues check foreclosure listings, then scout out the houses for damage. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Rameau walked around to the unlocked metal gate of an abandoned bungalow in the Liberty City neighborhood.

“Let the record reflect that there was no lock on the door,” Mr. Rameau said. “I’m not breaking in.”

Inside, the wiring and sinks had been stripped out, and there was a pile of ashes on the linoleum floor where someone had burned a telephone book — probably during a cold spell the previous week, Mr. Rameau said.

“Two or three weeks ago, this house was in good condition,” Mr. Rameau said. “Now we wouldn’t move a family in here.”

So far the group has moved 10 families into empty houses, and Mr. Rameau said the group could not afford to help any more people. “It costs us $200 per move-in,” he said.

Mary Trody hopes not to leave again. On Feb. 20, Ms. Trody and her family of 12 — including her mother, siblings and children — were evicted from their modest blue house northwest of the city, which the family had lived in for 22 years, because her mother had not paid the mortgage.

After a weekend of sleeping in a paneled truck, however, the family, with the help of Take Back the Land, moved back in.

“This home is what you call a real home,” Ms. Trody said. “We had all family events — Christmas parties, deaths, funerals, weddings — all in this house.”

On a splendid Florida afternoon, Ms. Trody’s dog played in the water from a hose on the front lawn. The house had mattresses on the floors, but most belongings were in storage, in case they had to leave again.

“I don’t think it’s fair living in a house and not paying,” Ms. Trody said.

She said the mortgage lender had offered the family $1,500 to leave but was unwilling to negotiate minimal payments that would allow them to stay. She said she and her husband had been looking for work since he lost his delivery job with The Miami Herald.

In the meantime, she said, “I still got knots in my stomach, because I don’t know when they’re going to come yank it back from me, when they’re going to put me back on the streets.”

The block was dotted with foreclosed homes.

Three of her neighbors said they knew she was squatting and supported her. One is Joanna Jean Pierre, 32, who affectionately refers to Ms. Trody as Momma.

Ms. Pierre said Ms. Trody was a good neighbor and should be let alone. “That’s her house,” Ms. Pierre said. “She should be here.”

Ms. Trody said that living here before, “I felt secure; I felt this is my home.”

“This is where I know I’m safe,” she added. “Now it’s like, this is a stranger. What’s going to happen?”

Even without furniture or homey touches, she talked about the house as if it were a member of her family. “I know it’s not permanently, but we still have these couple days left,” she said. “It’s like a person that you’re losing, and you know you still have a few more days with them.”

US Citizens Caught Up in Immigration Sweeps

U.S. citizens caught up in immigration sweeps

The detentions, which in some cases have nearly led to the deportation of citizens or legal residents, are drawing increased attention.

By Andrew Becker and Patrick J. McDonnell

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Rennison Vern Castillo thought his legal troubles were nearly over at the end of a jail stay for harassing his ex-girlfriend. But then a U.S. immigration hold order blocked his release.

"They think you're here illegally," a jailhouse guard said to him.

Castillo, mystified, insisted it was all a mistake. Though born in Belize, he had come of age in South Los Angeles, spoke fluent English, served a stint in the Army and had become an American citizen about seven years earlier.

He had some legal problems, but being in the country unlawfully was not one of them. Castillo said he wasn't worried -- not until he was shackled and transferred to a federal detention center. He spent months in custody before an appeals panel blocked his deportation and an immigration judge finally ordered Castillo set free.

Although his case is an extreme example, mistaken detentions are drawing increased attention as immigration officials mount workplace roundups and jailhouse sweeps in search of undocumented immigrants.

Immigration raids of factories and other work sites often result in at least a short-term detention of lawful residents and even citizens, as agents seal targeted businesses and grill workers about their status.

Officials in Washington said last month that the Obama administration was expected to rein in the controversial workplace raids -- shifting enforcement emphasis to target employers rather than workers. Immigrant advocates have long pushed for such a change, while others say easing workplace enforcement will encourage illegal immigration.

Castillo is one of many citizens and legal residents held for suspected immigration violations -- some for a few hours, some for much longer. No agency tracks such incidents, so statistical totals are not available.

Officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement downplay the problem.

"ICE does not detain United States citizens," said spokesman Richard Rocha, adding that agents thoroughly investigated people's claims of citizenship. "ICE only processes an individual for removal when all available facts indicate that the person is an alien."

He declined to comment on Castillo's case or others, citing privacy concerns or pending lawsuits.

The surge in ICE workplace actions during the Bush administration spawned fierce complaints from employees caught up in dragnets at factories, slaughterhouses and poultry farms.

Mike Graves, a two-decade veteran of the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, said he was handcuffed and held for eight hours in December 2006 when ICE agents raided Swift plants throughout the heartland.

"My government treated me like a criminal, and I didn't do anything wrong," said Graves, a native of Iowa.

An ICE raid last year at a Van Nuys printer cartridge manufacturer, Micro Solutions Enterprises, generated wrongful-arrest claims from more than 100 citizens, said Peter Schey, chief lawyer at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles. All were held for two to three hours before being released, Schey said.

Americans seldom carry proof of their legal status, which can be a factor in the confusion about detainees' citizenship. There is no comprehensive database or list of all citizens for agents to check.

Official investigations may miss crucial documents such as birth certificates and naturalization papers. In some cases, names have been jumbled or misfiled and records lost. Confused detainees have signed their own removal orders. Some in custody may even be unaware of their citizenship or unable to prove it without a lawyer's help.

Unlike suspects in criminal matters, however, immigration detainees have no right to government-appointed counsel -- and, in some cases, have no access to paid lawyers. Fast-track deportation procedures enacted by Congress in recent years also limit court review once the expulsion process is underway.

In border regions like Southern California, residents on both sides of the international boundary have for generations moved back and forth without regard for passports, status or birth certificates. Many U.S. citizens by birth or parentage have no proof of their status.

Frank Ponce de Leon, a native of Mexico who lives in La Puente, got out of ICE custody Dec. 31 after spending almost three months locked up -- all the while insisting he was a citizen. The longtime California resident had never sought citizenship because he was the son of an American-born parent. His father was a New Mexico native and U.S. serviceman during World War II.

"I knew they couldn't hold me forever, and sooner or later they would see it my way because I had every right," said Ponce de Leon, 47, whose five California-born children include a daughter, Deanne, 22, who served in Iraq as an Army nurse.

On occasion, the uncertainty can lead to mistaken deportation, as was the case with Pedro Guzman, a mentally disabled U.S. citizen living in Lancaster.

U.S. immigration officials shipped Guzman to Tijuana in May 2007 from the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, where he was being held on a misdemeanor trespassing charge. The Los Angeles native, then 29, spent three months rummaging for food in dumps and sleeping in the Mexican borderlands as his desperate mother, a fast-food cook, searched for him in hospitals, shelters, jails and morgues, his family said.

Eventually Guzman, a cement finisher with limited Spanish and a second-grade reading ability, was reunited with his family in the border town of Calexico.

The Guzman case sparked Washington hearings at which immigration authorities were chastised by Congress members and accused of "stunning incompetence." ICE officials called the case an aberration and vowed to review all citizenship claims before anyone was detained or deported.

Out of more than 1 million detentions, ICE officials say, Guzman was the only citizen known to have been shipped out of the country. But others dispute that claim.

Rachel E. Rosenbloom, supervising attorney at Boston College's Post-Deportation Human Rights Project, cited at least eight cases of wrongly deported citizens and said she expected the number was substantially higher.

One such case, detailed in an upcoming report by Rosenbloom's group, is the curious saga of Duarnis Perez. He is a native of the Dominican Republic who became a U.S. citizen at 15 when his mother was naturalized. But he didn't know citizenship had been conferred on him as well. He assumed he was illegal, and so did everyone else.

Perez was deported and subsequently arrested trying to sneak back into the United States from Canada. He spent almost five years in prison for unlawful reentry. It was only upon his release in 2004 that an ICE official reviewed his file and informed Perez that he had been a citizen all along.

In Castillo's case, he was an infant when his mother left Belize and sought work in Los Angeles. She later became a nurse and sent for her son. Castillo attended elementary school in South L.A. and graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1996. He became a naturalized citizen in 1998. He joined the Army and served in Korea, then was posted to Ft. Lewis, Wash. He was honorably discharged in 2003.

After domestic disputes with a girlfriend, he was convicted in 2005 of felony harassment and violating a no-contact order, and was sent to Pierce County Jail in Washington state for eight months. He was in a holding area with inmates about to be released when a corrections officer held him back.

Castillo was handcuffed and whisked off in a van to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. A federal officer said records showed he was an illegal immigrant.

"Your records are wrong," Castillo said he replied. He said he told the officer that he was a citizen but that his naturalization certificate had never arrived. It was sent to the wrong address, he later learned.

Castillo went before an immigration judge, who appeared via video conference, a common procedure in the crowded immigration court system. Again, he claimed citizenship. The judge didn't believe him. He was ordered deported on Jan. 24, 2006.

The nonprofit Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a legal advocacy center based in Seattle, provided a lawyer to handle Castillo's appeal. The lawyer searched for Castillo's naturalization documents and records of his military service.

The Board of Immigration Appeals blocked Castillo's deportation, noting proof of his military service. A month later, he was released without further explanation. It turned out Castillo was the victim of a paperwork mix-up: His name was spelled wrong in immigration records. And he had been assigned more than one "alien number," causing further confusion.

Castillo, now 31, is still incredulous.

"If it had taken 30 days to figure it out, I wouldn't be upset. But seven months?" he said in an interview.

He, like Guzman and others with similar experiences, has filed suit against the ICE.

"I want them to recognize they made a mistake," Castillo said. "Something needs to change. If it can happen to me, it's going to happen to someone else."

Getting a Death Grip on Memory

Getting a Death Grip on Memory

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A headline in The New York Times announced a few days ago: "Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory." This news ran above the fold on the front page.

"Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain," the article began. Readers quickly learned that it's starting to happen: "Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory ..."

Big deal.

American media outlets have been pulling off such feats for a long time.

The scientists trying to learn how to wipe out "specific types of memory" are lagging way behind.

Don't need to remember the vast quantities of napalm, Agent Orange and cluster bombs that the US military dropped on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the 1960's and 1970's? Or the continuing realities of burn victims, dioxin poisoning and unexploded warheads?

Don't want to consider the many thousands of civilians killed by Salvadoran death squads, Guatemalan troops and Nicaraguan contra guerillas during the 1980's, courtesy of US taxpayers?

Don't care to recall the Pentagon's estimate that the Gulf War in early 1991 killed 100,000 Iraqi people during a six-week period?

Forget about it! That's what selective memory is for.

Prefer not to recollect how the US government trained and armed President Reagan's beloved "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan - including the likes of Osama bin Laden and other fundamentalist mujahedeen - for their insurgency against the Soviet occupiers in the 1980's? Rather not remember how those "freedom fighters" became "terrorists"?

Hate that particular gray? Then wash it away!

Enough bleach in the spin cycles will do the trick. There's more than one way to be "editing memory."

"So far, the research has been done only on animals," the Times reported in its April 6 story. "But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people."

The Times account managed to balance enthusiasm for the advances of scientific research with some potential downsides: "Millions of people might be tempted to erase a severely painful memory, for instance - but what if, in the process, they lost other, personally important memories that were somehow related?"

Dominant media have blotted out countless painful memories - national or personal - if only by treating them as irrelevant or incidental to news and concerns that really count. All in a day's work: part of the mix of organized forgetting.

"The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished, not by doing something, but by refraining from doing," Aldous Huxley observed. "Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth." And, of equal relevance to the brave new world of US mass media in 2009: "The propagandist's purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human."

With constant media prompts, the widely replicated screens end up screening us, from ourselves and from each other.

Now we know the names of the Pentagon's drones - Predators and Reapers - but not the names of the people they're killing.

Easy enough to approve of bombing people when they've been rendered unreal. Forgetting becomes a simple matter.

Is some memory not worth remembering? Of course, we could always let the market decide.

Obama 'absolutely' supports move to dismiss wiretapping suit

White House: Obama 'absolutely' stands behind effort to throw out warrantless wiretapping suit

Eric Brewer

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President Barack Obama endorsed a Justice Department move to dismiss a case in which the National Security Agency is being sued over its warrantless wiretapping program, because he believes the case presents a risk to national security, the White House told Raw Story Thursday.

In response to a question at Thursday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that President Obama stands firmly behind a Justice Department brief filed last week which aims to have a civil liberties group’s lawsuit dismissed.

He “absolutely does,” Gibbs said. “Obviously, these are programs that have been debated and discussed, but the President does support that viewpoint.”

The Electronic Frontier foundation is suing the NSA for damages over a program in which the government tracked the phone calls and emails of thousands of Americans following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

In their filing Friday, the Justice Department argued that the case should be dismissed because information surrounding the program was a “state secret” and therefore couldn’t be litigated or discussed. It also proposed that the government was protected by “sovereign immunity” under federal wiretapping statutes and the Patriot Act, arguing that the United States could only face lawsuits if they willfully elected to disclose intelligence obtained by wiretapping.

In other words, the motion posited that government agencies couldn’t be sued for spying because they never intentionally told anyone they were engaged in warrantless wiretaps, even if such a program violated the law.
During his presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama criticized the Bush Administration for its use of “state secrets” as a legal argument to prevent lawsuits from moving forward. His campaign website listed state secrets under the headline “Problems.”

“The Bush administration has ignored public disclosure and has invoked a legal tool known as the ‘state secrets’ privilege more than any other previous administration to get cases thrown out of court,” his campaign site said.

Raw Story questioned Gibbs about the apparent contradiction.

“Before he was elected, the President said that the Bush administration had abused the state secrets privilege,” this reporter asked. “Has he changed his mind?”

“No,” Gibbs replied. “I mean, obviously, we're dealing with some suits, and the President will -- and the Justice Department will make determinations based on protecting our national security.”

“So he still thinks that the Bush administration abused the state secrets privilege?” Raw Story asked.

“Yes,” Gibbs said.

The invocation of state secrets privilege as a means of derailing suits against the government is nothing new. The Obama Justice Department made this claim in February, in response to a suit brought by victims of extraordinary rendition. But the Department’s “sovereign immunity” argument is unexpected.

A close review of the Department's brief suggests that the Justice Department took a quote out of context in an effort to bolster their case.

The Department asserts that the United States can’t be sued because it’s specifically excluded under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act. “In the Wiretap Act and ECPA, Congress expressly preserved sovereign immunity against claims for damages and equitable relief, permitting such claims against only a 'person or entity, other than the United States,'” the Department wrote.

In that section of the law, however, the phrase “other than the United States” is there only because those sections specify the penalties to be used in cases in which the law is violated by someone other than the United States. In contrast, another section of the law specifies penalties for violations of the law by the United States. (More on the law can be read at section 2520 (in chapter 119) and section 2707.)

Some legal scholars have raised eyebrows at the claim.

Orin Kerr, professor at George Washington School of Law, believes that the Administration's argument they can't be prosecuted unless they willfully provide wiretapping intelligence seems spurious.

"The statute itself says 'any willful violation,' and it expressly covers all of Chapter 121 (the Stored Communications Act), all of Chapter 119 (the Wiretap Act), and those explicit sections of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act]," Kerr wrote.

The banks are too powerful and they are ruining the rescue plan

The banks are too powerful and they are ruining the rescue plan

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Recent events have made me pessimistic that America's latest bank rescue plan will work. Worse, it is the disastrous banks themselves that are being allowed to wreck any efforts to resurrect the global economy.

When Tim Geithner, the stumbling Treasury secretary, announced the latest US plan, there was already considerable doubt. Outside investors are supposed to be enticed to buy horrible assets from banks with the help of massive aid from the government. If it goes wrong, the government will shoulder most of the losses. But even so, why should investors want to buy assets no one wants when banks have been unable to sell the same toxic waste for months already?

Let's be clear: bank balance sheets have to be cleaned up no matter what you think about banks and bankers. Sensible economists and business people understand that fully-functioning banks unfettered by past mistakes are a primary requirement for the global economy to recover properly. They perform such basic financial roles that all other businesses are dependent on their health. Yesterday I blogged about an idea to start new state-owned financial institutions with clean balance sheets.

But returning to the financial institutions we have, what has happened since the Geithner plan?

First, genius accounting standard-setters in the US bowed to huge pressure from banks to allow them to use considerable discretion when valuing various assets on their books. The banks say they were in part ruined by "mark-to-market" rules that forced them to write down the value of assets too quickly when markets were falling last year. The tumbling values of assets necessitated calls to repay debts in the same way that you would be asked to repay a personal loan once the lender became worried that you could no longer service the interest.

But mark-to-market at least gives investors a reasonably objective view of the worth of assets since it means stating that the value of something is what it would fetch in a market. What's the point of saying those beautiful oranges are worth £10 for five when the woman standing in front of you will pay only £2? Accounting standard-setters would rather banks just told us how much their assets are worth - and, presumably, different banks will have different opinions about the same assets. The oranges will be worth a million each when they are the last five oranges on Earth.

This is madness if we want to restore confidence in banks and markets. But paradoxically it might make investors more inclined to buy the toxic assets under the Geithner plan since they can then park them on their balance sheets and never acknowledge their true worth until, by a miracle, they go up in value.

And that leads us to the second disturbing revelation: some of the buyers of the toxic debt might be the very banks themselves who are trying to sell it. It has recently emerged that large investment banks are considering using vast government guarantees to buy bad assets from each other. The amount of overall waste on banks' books stays the same, it remains administered by the same idiots, the health of the banks becomes harder to gauge as risk associated with balance sheets once again becomes spread round the system. The brilliant part is that this time taxpayers are formally covering any of the losses. Show me the fools that will let this happen.

Meanwhile, few have yet discussed stopping banks from buying each other's assets for another important reason: the banks themselves need to be smaller or they will forever be too big to fail. What has happened since certain massive banks, whose failure would have meant disaster, went on life support? They have been pushed into the arms of other banks. Commercial banks such as JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America have acquired investment banks such as Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch. In the UK we have taken large banks such as HBOS and put them into other banks, making the whole still larger and still too big to fail. Interestingly, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor (opposition finance minister for those outside the UK), has been talking about this problem today.

My overall fear is that in spite of everything that has happened, banks are still the enormously powerful lobbyists that they were before. As a columnist in the Financial Times says today: "In France in the 1980s, the socialists took over the banks. In the US in the 2000s, the banks took over the government."

At the G20, the continental Europeans signalled that they were prepared to fight bank influence in accounting and regulation. It is a fight they may lose, but at least they are not just lying down and being trampled on like Barack Obama and the US Congress.

Moody's Downgrades The Whole Country

Moody's Downgrades The Whole Country

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The Federal government is still AAA, but every municipal debt issuer is now suspect and shaky according to Moody's.

For the first time ever, the ratings agency placed all munis on negative outlook, a precursor to potential downgrades. Historically, the agency looked at munis individually and considered them to be too diverse to make blanket statements about.

But it seems overspending and the hollowing out of the revenue base is a nationwide phenomenon affecting cities and states everywhere.

And of course the US government is affected by those same phenomenon -- we think the government's revenue expectations remain wildly optimistic, given the slowdown and the collapsing of the income gap -- but alas the Fed still has the printing press and should be able to hold onto its AAA rating for awhile longer.

Meanwhile, New York actually managed to float a bond at a 5.55% interest rate and a 2036 maturity. Who'd have guessed?

Traces of explosives in 9/11 dust, scientists say

Traces of explosives in 9/11 dust, scientists say

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Tiny red and gray chips found in the dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center contain highly explosive materials — proof, according to a former BYU professor, that 9/11 is still a sinister mystery.

Physicist Steven E. Jones, who retired from Brigham Young University in 2006 after the school recoiled from the controversy surrounding his 9/11 theories, is one of nine authors on a paper published last week in the online, peer-reviewed Open Chemical Physics Journal. Also listed as authors are BYU physics professor Jeffrey Farrer and a professor of nanochemistry at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

For several years, Jones has theorized that pre-positioned explosives, not fires from jet fuel, caused the rapid, symmetrical collapse of the two World Trade Center buildings, plus the collapse of a third building, WTC-7.

The newest research, according to the journal authors, shows that dust from the collapsing towers contained a "nano-thermite" material that is highly explosive. Although the article draws no conclusions about the source and purpose of the explosives, Jones has previously supported a theory that the collapse of the WTC towers was part of a government conspiracy to ignore warnings about the 9/11 terrorists so that the attack would propel America to wage war against Afghanistan and Iraq.

The next step, Jones said in a phone interview on Monday, is for someone to investigate "who made the stuff and why it was there."

A layer of dust lay over parts of Manhattan immediately following the collapse of the towers, and it was samples of this dust that Jones and fellow researchers requested in a 2006 paper, hoping to determine "the whole truth of the events of that day." They eventually tested four samples they received from New Yorkers.

One sample was from a man who had swept up a handful of dust on the Brooklyn Bridge, where he was walking when the second tower fell. As the journal authors note, "It was, therefore, definitely not contaminated by the steel-cutting or clean-up operations at Ground Zero, which began later. Furthermore, it is not mixed with dust from WTC-7, which fell hours later."

Another man collected dust in his apartment, about five blocks from the World Trade Center, on the morning of Sept. 12. There was a layer about an inch thick on a stack of folded laundry near an open window.

Red/gray chips, averaging in size between .2 and 3 mm, were found in all four dust samples. The chips were then analyzed using scanning electron microscopy and other high-tech tools.

The red layer of the chips, according to the researchers, contains a "highly energetic" form of thermite. While normal thermite (a mixture of finely granulated aluminum and an oxide of metal) can be incendiary, "super thermite" is explosive. He says there is no benign explanation for the thermite in the WTC dust.

Jones made headlines in 2005 when he argued that the rapid and symmetrical fall of the World Trade Center looked like the result of pre-positioned explosives. He argued that fires alone wouldn't have been hot enough to crumble the buildings; and that even if struck by planes, the towers should have been strong enough to support the weight of the tops as they crumbled — unless they were leveled by explosives.

Essentially forced to retire, Jones says he is now paying for research out of his own pocket. He likens himself to Galileo and Newton, who stood by their consciences. "I would like to think I could stand up for the truth," he says.

The dust study vindicates his earlier theories, Jones says, but he has mixed feelings about the implications. "As a young student said to me a while back: 'It's exciting from a scientific point of view, because things are now making sense. But I feel sad for my country.' "

Hijacking of US ship raises threat of intervention in Somalia

Hijacking of US ship raises threat of intervention in Somalia

By Bill Van Auken

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As the hostage drama off the coast of Somalia continued into its second day Thursday, there were indications that the Obama administration may be preparing yet another military intervention, this time in the Horn of Africa.

The ongoing standoff between a small band of Somali pirates in a lifeboat and a US destroyer, which is being joined by other warships and planes, followed an unsuccessful attempt to hijack the 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama freighter, a US flag ship.

After four armed Somalis managed to scale the side of the ship and seize it, the 20-member crew put up resistance. According to reports, however, the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, volunteered to act as a hostage, going with the pirates on the ship’s enclosed lifeboat in order to prevent any clash between them and his crew.

Reached by Reuters via satellite phone, one of the pirates sounded desperate. “We are surrounded by warships and don’t have time to talk,” he said. “Please pray for us.”

The seizing of ships for ransom has been going on in the region for years and increased significantly in 2008, with the number of incidents off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden climbing to 150. There are 16 ships currently being held for ransom.

The shipping firms themselves have treated the attacks as a nuisance that barely dents their profits. They have preferred to treat paying off pirates as a cost of doing business rather than arm their crews against them. Though often heavily armed, the pirates have killed no one thus far.

What makes this latest incident different, however, is that the ship is the first American vessel to be attacked by the pirates. It therefore provides the pretext for a militarist intervention and provokes a wave of jingoism in the media, sections of which are braying for retaliation.

The head of the US Central Command announced Thursday that the US military would be escalating its presence in the Horn of Africa over the next 48 hours. Speaking before an audience in Florida, Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus declared, “We want to ensure that we have all the capability that might be needed over the course of the coming days.” He provided no specific information on what this buildup entailed.

The New York Daily News, citing unnamed military sources, reported Thursday that “US military commanders have already prepared battle plans for ending the scourge of piracy on the high seas off Somalia if President Obama pulls the trigger.”

According to the report, these plans involve attacks on seacoast towns and villages such as Eyl, Hobyo, Caluula and Haradheere, from which the pirates set sail.

The newspaper quoted Robert Oakley, the retired US ambassador who served as special envoy to Somalia under the first Bush and the Clinton administrations in the 1990s as saying that US special operations forces have prepared plans for mounting a land assault.

“Our special operations people have been itching to clean them up,” he told the newspaper. “So far, no one has let them. They have plans on the table but are waiting for the green light.”

While administration officials reported that President Barack Obama has received several briefings on the hostage drama, he has remained tight-lipped about it, rebuffing reporters’ questions on Wednesday and Thursday.

Vice President Joseph Biden, however, insisted that the administration was working “around the clock” on the crisis.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented on the hijacking attempt Wednesday, saying that the administration was “deeply concerned” and was “following it very closely.”

Clinton went on to state, “Specifically, we are now focused on this particular act of piracy and the seizure of the ship that carries 21 American citizens. More generally, we think the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy.”

The cable television news channels have devoted most of their coverage to the standoff, focusing on the “heroism” of the crew and questioning why the pirates cannot be stopped.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the most consistent voice of the Republican right, carried an editorial bearing the subhead, “Pirates are flourishing because the world is letting them,” and goading Obama for failing to take decisive action.

“We don’t advocate reverting to Roman methods (e.g., crucifixion) for dealing with pirates, though the Administration could apply the Stephen Decatur standard by bombing the Somali pirate city of Eyl,” the editorial stated. “US law is clear that pirates who attack US flag ships deserve life in prison. But treating captured pirates as enemy combatants unworthy of Geneva Convention protections would help in cases where pirates attack foreign-flagged ships and international law is now more ambiguous.”

Throwing in for good measure the recent arrests of American journalists in North Korea and Iran, the editorial suggested “a similar attitude” towards those countries—presumably including military retaliation. It went on to reproach the administration for not rebuffing the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon for agreeing to consider charging officials from the Bush administration for their role in making torture—including of Spanish citizens—a state policy of the US government.

“If the US government won’t protect American citizens from the legal anarchy of postmodern Europe, how can we expect it to protect American sailors from the premodern anarchy of Somalia, much less the tyrannies of Tehran and Pyongyang?” the Journal editorial concluded.

There is little doubt that if the hostage drama drags on, this type of criticism of the Obama administration for not taking decisive military action will only grow more strident and widespread.

What is ignored, or deliberately concealed, by both the American political establishment and the media, is Washington’s responsibility for creating the conditions in which piracy has flourished in Somalia. Hillary Clinton talks of a “scourge of piracy,” but the Somali people have for decades been the victims of the scourge of US imperialism.

Today, the country is one of the three poorest nations on the face of the planet. “Somalia is the site of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe,” the aid group Refugees International declared in a recent statement, pointing out that over 240,000 Somalis now live in squalid conditions in Dadaab, Kenya, the largest refugee camp in the world.

“Somalia is a nation in ruins, mired in one of the world’s most brutal armed conflicts,” Human Rights Watch stated. “Two long years of escalating bloodshed and destruction have devastated the country’s people and laid waste to its capital of Mogadishu.”

In a report released at the end of March, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs pointed to a desperate “humanitarian crisis in the country,” exacerbated by a drought that has left millions of people without access to drinkable water. “The water shortage has forced many people to walk long distances—up to 20km—while others are selling the remaining commodities they have to purchase water,” the agency said. Meanwhile, the UN’s appeal for humanitarian aid has been largely ignored by Washington and the other world powers, with only $251 million raised, barely more than a quarter of the $918 million requested.

The immediate cause of this catastrophe is the December 2006 invasion of Somalia organized by the US, using Ethiopian troops as its proxies, in order to overthrow a popular government formed by a movement known as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) on the basis of unfounded claims that its Islamist views somehow made it an ally of Al Qaeda.

In the ensuing popular resistance to the US-backed Ethiopian occupation, an estimated 16,000 civilians lost their lives, while another 1.2 million were forced from their homes. After Ethiopia pulled its troops out of Somalia last year, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the puppet regime of warlords installed at Washington’s behest, collapsed, and a former leader of the UIC was elected the country’s new president, apparently with the acquiescence of the US government.

This is only the latest episode in the long history of US intervention in Somalia, dating back to the 1970s and its support for the brutal dictatorship of Siad Barre, whom Washington maintained as a counterweight to Soviet influence in neighboring Ethiopia. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Washington no longer needed Barre as a pawn in the Cold War. It withdrew its support, leading to the regime’s collapse and the descent of the country into clan-based civil war. The same pattern was seen in Afghanistan, with equally catastrophic results.

The subsequent US military intervention launched by the Republican administration of George H.W. Bush in 1992 and continued by the Democratic Clinton administration in 1993 under “humanitarian” pretenses only exacerbated these conflicts and deepened the suffering of the Somali people. US troops were forced out in 1993 after their attempt to kill a recalcitrant warlord led to the disastrous “Blackhawk Down” battle that claimed the lives of 18 American soldiers.

Thereafter, Somalia was once again abandoned to its fate, save for the 2006 invasion and sporadic US missile attacks.

While Washington and other major powers bemoan Somalia’s status as a failed state, major European companies have taken advantage of this status and its long, unpatrolled coastline to use the country as a dump for toxic waste for nearly 20 years. According to UN estimates, the cost of dumping these materials off Somalia is only $2.50 per ton, compared to $1,000 per ton for disposing of them in Europe. This waste has included radioactive uranium waste, lead, heavy metals like mercury and cadmium, and other chemical, industrial and medical wastes.

When the Asian tsunami struck in 2004, wave action churned up the waste and washed it as much as six miles inland. The effects on the health of the local population have been described as disastrous.

According to some accounts, the current wave of piracy began with fishermen attempting to stop foreign ships from offloading this deadly cargo.

Thus, the US armada—as well as the warships dispatched by a number of other powers, including Britain, Germany, India and China—are not patrolling the Somali coast to defend international law, which they have ignored when it comes to the ravaging of Somalia itself. The purpose of the US intervention is to assert American hegemony over the strategically important sea lanes of the Gulf of Aden, through which nearly 12 percent of the world’s oil is transported.

Any American military action in Somalia, whether justified in the name of suppressing piracy or, once again, providing humanitarian relief, will be conducted with this predatory imperialist aim.

Supreme Court limits right of union workers to sue for discrimination

Supreme Court limits right of union workers to sue for discrimination

By John Burton

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In a reactionary, pro-business ruling that reverses decades of settled law, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 last week that workers lose their right to file federal discrimination lawsuits under the 1964 Civil Rights Act whenever a union collective bargaining agreement includes a mandatory arbitration clause.

Mandatory arbitration means that a party agreeable to the company rather than a federal court and jury will decide a dispute, and can do so without making findings of fact or explaining reasons for the decision. There is no right to an appeal, even where the arbitrator disregards the applicable law. Such clauses have become ubiquitous, as businesses insist on compelling arbitration to keep from being hauled in front of juries and forced to defend their actions.

With last week’s Supreme Court decision, it is now the rule that contracts negotiated by union bureaucrats trump federal laws enacted to protect against workplace discrimination.

The plaintiffs in the case, 14 Penn Plaza, LLC v. Pyett, were security guards represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, which had a collective bargaining agreement with a consortium of New York City commercial landlords. The contract contained a provision to force workers to arbitrate their federal discrimination claims along with alleged violations of the contract itself, such as seniority provisions and work rules.

The SEIU bureaucracy made a deal with a new contractor to replace the plaintiff security guards in the high-rise adjacent to Penn Station with lower-paid workers, which resulted in a grievance claiming violations of federal age discrimination laws as well as seniority rights. At the arbitration hearing, the SEIU withdrew the age discrimination claims because of a “conflict of interest”—namely, that the reassignments were made possible by the union’s own deal with the new contractor.

The transferred security guards then filed age discrimination suits in federal court against the landlords.

The Supreme Court dismissed the security guards’ lawsuit in a decision authored by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by the three other members of the extreme right-wing bloc, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia. “Swing” Justice Anthony Kennedy, who invariably votes in favor of business interests, provided the crucial fifth vote.

As usual, the right-wing majority proceeded by working backward from its desired political conclusion to fashion its legal reasoning, in the process brushing aside any legal precedent standing in the way.

Thomas brushed aside Alexander v. GardnerDenver Co., which federal courts had been following for 35 years. In that case, a black worker filed a racial discrimination claim after his termination for “just cause” was upheld in a mandatory arbitration. The Supreme Court in 1974 rejected the employer’s argument that the worker could not pursue claims for workplace discrimination in federal court.

Associate Justice Lewis Powell, an appointee of Richard Nixon writing for a unanimous court, explained, “Parties usually choose an arbitrator because they trust his knowledge and judgment concerning the demands and norms of industrial relations. On the other hand, the resolution of statutory or constitutional issues is a primary responsibility of courts, and judicial construction has proved especially necessary with respect to [anti-discrimination laws], whose broad language frequently can be given meaning only by reference to public law concepts.”

This means that certain issues under the contract, such as those concerning seniority, are appropriate for an arbitrator, who is being asked to determine rights under the collective bargaining agreement itself. Disputes involving core civil rights, such as freedom from discrimination in the workplace, however, should be left to judges and juries.

As of last week, that is no longer the law.

Since 1974, American unions have evolved into little more than appendages of the employers. Even 35 years ago, however, the Supreme Court in Alexander recognized that “harmony of interest between the union and the individual employee cannot always be presumed,” and “the union may subordinate the interests of an individual employee” to its own interests.

As did reactionary judges during the first part of the twentieth century when striking down minimum wage and maximum work-hour regulations, Thomas in his decision exalted supposed “arm’s length” contract principles over laws enacted to protect workers’ rights. “As in any contractual negotiation, a union may agree to the inclusion of an arbitration provision in a collective bargaining agreement in return for other concessions from the employer. Courts generally may not interfere in this bargainedfor exchange,” Thomas wrote.

Thomas dismissed Alexander v. Gardner-Denver with the sophistry that the case stood only for the narrow principle that workers could not be forced to give up their right to be protected from discrimination in a collective bargaining agreement. According to Thomas, companies can still insist that workers give up their right to file lawsuits enforcing those rights.

Thomas’s argument flies in the face of the legal axiom that there can be no right without a meaningful remedy.

In a strongly worded dissent, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, the senior member of the court’s liberal wing, denounced Thomas for his “subversion of precedent.” Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and Stephen Breyer also dissented.

G8 document on world hunger warns of global instability

G8 document on world hunger warns of global instability

By Hiram Lee

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A document prepared by the Group of Eight, or G8, countries for its inaugural summit of agricultural ministers entitled “The Global Challenge: To Reduce Food Emergency” was leaked to the press this week, revealing the G8's concerns of global instability arising from a worldwide food crisis.

According to a report in the Financial Times, the document states, “Without immediate interventions in agriculture and agri-marketing systems the 2007 crisis will become structural in only a few decades.” The report also stresses that global food production must be doubled by the year 2050 in order to meet the needs of a growing world population.

Should the present food crisis continue to gain momentum, the report goes on to say, it will have “serious consequences not merely on business relations but equally on social and international relations, which in turn will impact directly on the security and stability of world politics.”

The G8 document and agricultural summit come on the heels of a report delivered to a United Nations Food Policy conference in Thailand by Jacques Diouf, the director general of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), in which Diouf declared more than one billion people would go hungry this year as a result of the economic crisis and its impact on both food production and prices.

Like the UN's conference, the G8 agricultural summit to be held in Italy April 18-20 has been initiated as a response to an intense crisis in high food prices beginning in 2007 and its eruption into riots in no less than 30 countries in 2008. It marks the first time the agricultural ministers of the G8 countries have met in their own summit, independent of the regular G8 summit of world leaders.

While global food prices have fallen from their 2008 peaks, they are still at elevated levels. World food production now faces the added impact of the massive economic and credit crisis.

The G8 countries of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Germany, Russia and Japan will be joined at the summit by the G5—China, India, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa—as well as Australia, Egypt and Argentina.

The aim of the meeting, as stated on its official web site is to “identify a common strategy to tackle the world food emergency and the problem of soaring prices of agricultural raw materials.” The ministers attending the agricultural summit are expected to make recommendation to the G8 world leaders when they meet in July.

With the food crisis reaching a level at which it presents a threat to the very security of governments throughout the world, capitalist leaders are finding it necessary to make at least a show of support for the world's hungry.

Last week, during the G20 summit in London, President Obama announced his intentions to request $1 billion in aid from the US Congress in order to provide assistance to the agricultural programs of developing countries. The number is a pittance. The FAO has estimated that at least $30 billion per year would be necessary to draw international agricultural production out of its state of crisis. This is a fraction of the amount handed over by the American government to the banks and financial institutions.

The half-hearted nature of Obama's request was further revealed by the president's actions this week. While Obama was only prepared to make the gesture of $1 billion for the food crisis that has resigned one billion people around the world to starvation, the president requested Thursday from Congress an additional $83.4 billion with which to continue the ongoing wars of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new request would bring to $150 billion the amount of funds allocated to the wars thus far for 2009.

Ultimately, neither Barack Obama nor any of the other world leaders comprising the G8 or G20 countries are willing or capable of resolving the world's food crisis. While presently forced by unfavorable circumstances to present a level of concern to the world's hungry, the leaders of the G8 countries and the agricultural ministers whom they employ represent the interests of the ruling elite of their own countries.

Whatever conclusions reached by the G8 agricultural summit, they will not address the root problem of the crisis. At no time will it be permissible to question or challenge the domination of private property, profit and the personal accumulation of wealth through rampant speculation in agricultural commodities over the world's food supplies and distribution.

It is significant that the agricultural ministers of the leading capitalist countries present the question of world hunger not as an issue of basic human rights, but as a matter of security. What is expressed in the G8 document and its upcoming agricultural summit, far more than a concern for the state of starvation into which at least a billion of the world's population has been plunged, is the fear that further disruption in agricultural production and food prices will contribute to mass social upheaval and revolution as the world economy enters the greatest economic crisis in generations.

Economic decline deepens in Europe, with German exports in free fall

Economic decline deepens in Europe, with German exports in free fall

By Stefan Steinberg

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The latest figures from Eurostat, the statistical arm of the European Commission, reveal the extent of the decline of the European economy following the eruption of the international economic and finance crisis.

According to Eurostat figures issued at the beginning of April, the economy of the 16 European nations that are part of the eurozone shrank 1.6 percent in the last three months of 2008 compared to the previous quarter. Compared to the same period in 2007, eurozone GDP shrank by 1.5 percent.

The combined economy of all 27 European Union nations also contracted, down 1.5 percent at the end of 2008 compared to the previous quarter, and 1.4 percent down compared to the last three months of 2007.

The main reason for the decline in the eurozone economies in 2008 was a sharp fall in export revenues for major European exporters. Throughout the eurozone, exports fell by 6.7 percent, while business investment declined by 4.0 percent. Germany, in particular, experienced an above average economic decline for the last quarter of 2008—2.1 percent.

German exports in free fall

The most recent figures for Germany—Europe’s biggest exporter and the continent’s largest economy by far—reveal that its economic decline is accelerating with a number of reports speaking of the country’s exports in “free fall.”

Figures released by Germany’s statistics bureau on Tuesday revealed that exports were down 23 percent in February compared to a year ago. Exports to EU countries (two-thirds of the total) dropped by 24.4 per cent, compared to a 20.6 decline of exports to non-EU countries. The fall-off in German exports in the first two months of 2009 represents the most dramatic collapse since the 1950s.

As a result of the slump in exports, Germany’s trade surplus has been nearly halved to 8.9 billion euro in February 2009, down from 17.1 billion euro a year ago.

This decline in exports in February is virtually identical to the drop registered in January and clearly indicates the shrinking demand on world markets for Germany’s highly-developed, but expensive, cars, heavy machinery and engineering products. The BGA association of German exporters and wholesalers declared that the latest figures reflected a massive worldwide slump that would result in large profit losses for its members.

The German economy is heavily dependent on revenues from its exporting industries. Its exports were equivalent to more than 47 percent of national GDP in 2008. This is more than double the total of its leading competitors. The comparable figure for Japan is less than 20 percent, and for the US about 13 percent.

Separate figures from the German economic ministry indicate that the country’s manufacturing orders were down 38 percent in February compared to the same month in 2008.

The problems confronting the German economy were underlined by the latest numbers released by the Daimler auto company.

At the company’s shareholder meeting on Wednesday, Daimler chairman Dieter Zetsche revealed that the concern’s global sales fell 23 percent in the first three months of this year. While some German auto makers producing cheaper cars have been able to profit from the German government’s generous subsidy program to the car industry, demand for Mercedes-Benz cars, Daimler’s two-seater Smart and big trucks has slumped significantly. The group sold just 244,800 cars, compared with 318,000 a year ago.

Zetsche declared that the company would confront the slump in demand for its products with a drastic savings program. Many of the company’s workers are already on short-time working with no corresponding wage compensation and the firm is no longer ruling out compulsory redundancies.

On the same day as the Daimler announcement, the Osnabrück-based Karmann company declared it was filing for bankruptcy protection. Karmann is an independent contract carmaker and supplier which has been in business since 1901. The company is now undergoing bankruptcy because of the slump in demand for its products—particularly from Daimler and Audi.

Formerly the “pride” of its economy, Germany’s reliance on exports is increasingly proving to be its Achilles heel. German banks have less exposure to the “toxic debts” run up by US and British banks, and the country has not experienced the sort of housing bubble and consumer booms that affected the US, Britain and EU countries such as Spain, but the longer and deeper the world recession lasts, the more painful the consequences will be for the export-driven German economy.

It is already reckoned that the German economy will suffer a more pronounced economic decline than the US and Britain this year. The most recent figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development anticipate a 5.3 percent contraction of the German economy for 2009—compared to 4 percent for the US and 3.7 percent for the U.K. Some German sources envisage an ever steeper level of decline. “Our destiny hangs on exports,” says Jörg Krämer, chief economist at Commerzbank in Frankfurt, who reckons German GDP could fall by up to 7 percent in 2009.

The social and political implications of such an economic decline are underlined by the fact that since the Second World War the German economy has never contracted by more than 1 percent in a single year.

The slump in the German and European economies has inevitably led to a significant rise in unemployment. According to IHS Global Insight economist Howard Archer: “Extended and now deep economic contraction, extremely weak business confidence and deteriorating profitability is weighing down ever harder on labour markets.”

So far Germany has kept a massive rise in unemployment at bay with the widespread introduction of short-time working in many of its factories. Even so the unemployment rate in Germany rose from a 16-year low of 7.6 percent last September to 8.1 percent in March as a series of companies either closed down completely or implemented significant job cuts.

The president of Germany’s central bank the Bundesbank, Axel Weber, warned last week that the severity of the recession had been consistently underestimated and “the labour market could face the threat of a massive hit if the expectations of companies are repeatedly dashed.”

Unemployment in the EU

The growth of unemployment in Germany is matched by a rise in unemployment across Europe. After gradually falling in recent years to record lows of less than 7 percent at the start of 2008, the official unemployment rate in the 27 nation European Union (which excludes a number of hidden forms of unemployment) rose to 7.9 percent in February. This is an increase of over one percent compared to February 2008 (6.8 percent).

According to Eurostat an estimated 19.2 million people were without jobs in February across the EU, of whom 13.5 million were in the eurozone. This latter figure represents 8.5 percent of the total workforce in the eurozone countries.

The figures for unemployment are expected to rise to double figures within the coming months when countries such as Germany ditch their existing forms of short-time working and enforce mass redundancies.

Jennifer McKeown at Capital Economics predicts that “given the usual lag between developments in the labour market and those in wider activity, we see the unemployment rate rising to 10 percent by around the middle of this year.”

The combination of economic slowdown, reduced consumer spending and soaring unemployment is fuelling explosive political clashes across the European continent. As is clear from the case of Germany, the crisis which began last year with the collapse of leading banks and financial institutions has long since spread to the “real economy” with disastrous consequences for broad layers of the working population.

The economic crisis has already claimed the governments of Latvia, Iceland and Belgium, produced serious political tremors in Hungary, and led to major demonstrations or riots in a number of countries, including Bulgaria, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania and now, Moldova. France and Italy have witnessed mass protests and demonstrations, and a series of militant industrial actions has recently taken place in France.

Under conditions where European elections are due to take place at the start of June and federal elections in September, leading political figures in Germany are already warning of the danger of social breakdown and “massive political conflicts.”

These were the words used by the head of the IG Metall union, Berthold Huber, in an interview with the Stuttgarter Zeitung this week in which he made clear that the union bureaucracy would do everything in its power to stabilise the situation. In the same interview Huber called for closer collaboration between the trade unions and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and appealed for workers to make sacrifices in response to the crisis.

The trade union bureaucracy can rely on a positive response from Germany’s leading political parties. According to a recent report in the Wirtschaftswoche, the weekly business news magazine: “In the mega-election year of 2009 trade unions are in demand like never before. Whoever wants to win elections is keen to show themselves alongside trade union functionaries this year—rather than business bosses. For months the SPD and the Left Party have been courting the favours of the trade union lobby. In the meantime the conservative union parties and the (free market) Free Democratic Party are also infected.”

The looting of America

The looting of America

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The New York Times on Thursday published a front-page article that provides further insight into the economic and class interests that are being served by the Obama administration’s economic “recovery” policies.

Headlined “Small Investors May Be Enlisted in Bank Bailout,” the article outlines discussions between the administration and Wall Street investment firms on structuring the so-called “Public-Private Investment Program” announced last month in a manner that will allow people of modest means to invest in the scheme, whose purpose is to enable the banks to offload their toxic assets at public expense.

When the plan was announced March 23 by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, it sparked a wild rally on the stock market. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 497 points when it became clear that the government was offering to provide up to 95 percent of the capital, insure almost all potential losses and virtually guarantee large profits for hedge funds and other financial firms that agree to purchase the bad debts of the banks at inflated prices, with the taxpayers underwriting the windfall for Wall Street and assuming virtually all of the risk.

Thursday’s Times article indicates that opening the scheme up to small investors is seen as a way of providing a “democratic” gloss to what is, in reality, a brazen plan to plunder the public treasury for the benefit of the very bankers and speculators who are responsible for the financial crash. Evidently not seeing a contradiction, the article also makes clear that the bailout measures are being drawn up in the closest consultation with the Wall Street insiders who stand to profit from them.

“Some of the biggest investment managers in the United States,” the Times notes, “including BlackRock and PIMCO, have been consulting with the government on ways to rebuild the country’s broken financial markets.”

The article quotes Steven A. Baffico, an executive at BlackRock, as saying, “It’s giving the guy on Main Street an equal seat at the table next to the big guys.” This is true only in the sense that “Main Street” will be given the opportunity to absorb the bulk of any losses while the “big guys” cream off the best assets and pocket the profits.

There are political concerns behind this effort to create the appearance of offering the general public a cut in the winnings. Hedge fund managers are wary that when, as they anticipate, their partnership with the Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) pays off with double-digit profits there will be a public outcry, similar to that which erupted over the AIG executive bonuses. This, they fear, might lead to limits on their compensation, higher taxes on their fortunes or similar intolerable infringements.

More important are definite commercial calculations. By opening up the scheme to the broad public, the private firms chosen by the Treasury to operate the plan stand to increase greatly their take from investor fees. As the Times puts it, “For the investment managers, the benefits are potentially large. These big firms can charge healthy fees to investors for taking part.”

There is one particularly remarkable passage in the Times account. “But the comparison one industry official uses to illustrate the mistake that America must avoid,” the newspaper writes, “is the large-scale privatization in Russia in the 1990s, which involved a transfer of entire industries to a few, well-connected oligarchs. That experience tarnished the idea of free-market capitalism in Russia and undermined its program to move toward a market economy.”

The many differences in political and historical circumstances aside, there is a very real parallel between the plundering of Soviet society by the former Stalinist bureaucrats and their domestic gangster and foreign imperialist allies and the current manner in which the economic crisis in the US is being seized upon by Wall Street and its political instrument, the Obama administration, to further enrich the American financial aristocracy. Indeed, the perpetrators are themselves quite conscious that they are engaged in a similar—although much bigger—looting operation.

The scale and character of the operation are further indicated by another New York Times article published this week. This one, authored by Times financial writer Andrew Ross Sorkin and published on Tuesday, concerns the role of the FDIC in the new bailout scheme.

The article begins by noting that the FDIC was established 76 years ago, in the depths of the Great Depression, to provide a government guarantee, initially up to $5,000 and now up to $250,000, on the bank deposits of small savers. It describes the transformation of the FDIC, under the toxic asset disposal plan of the Obama administration, as follows:

“It’s going to be insuring 85 percent of the debt, provided by the Treasury, that private investors will use to subsidize their acquisition of toxic assets.”

In other words, the function of the FDIC is being transformed from guaranteeing the bank deposits of small savers to guaranteeing the investments of multimillionaire investment fund managers. And, as the article notes, this is occurring without a vote by Congress.

The FDIC will be insuring more than $1 trillion in new obligations incurred as the government covers the bad debts of the banks. However, the FDIC’s charter limits the obligations it can take on to $30 billion. The Times article quotes one “prominent securities lawyers” as saying, “They may not be breaking the letter of the law, but they’re sure disregarding its spirit.”

How does the government justify this breach? By calculating the obligations which the FDIC is assuming not at their monetary value, but at their value as “contingent liabilities.” That is, according to how much the FDIC expects to lose from its vast extension of credit to Wall Street firms (in the form of nonrecourse loans, i.e., loans in which the firms put up no collateral of their own, but only the supposed value of the toxic assets they are purchasing).

And what is the sum total of these “contingent liabilities”? Sorkin writes: “’We project no losses,’ Sheila Bair, the chairwoman, told me in an interview. Zero? Really? ‘Our accountants have signed off on no net losses,’ she said. (Well, that’s one way to stay under the borrowing cap).”

What is the significance of this astonishing reasoning? Simply this: The Obama administration, in order to protect the wealth and power of the financial elite, is facilitating and directly perpetrating on a colossal scale the same type of accounting fraud and reckless leveraging that led to the economic catastrophe in the first place.

Who is to pay the price for this looting operation? The answer can be seen in the Obama Auto Task Force’s demands for the liquidation of much of the US auto industry and the brutal downsizing of what remains, combined with the imposition of poverty-level wages on those workers who remain in the surviving plants and the gutting of the pensions and health benefits of retirees. It can be further seen in the administration’s pledge to slash social programs, including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The administration’s “recovery” plan is a barely disguised scheme to preserve the fortunes of the financial aristocracy, whose interests it represents, by imposing poverty and social misery on the working class.

U.S. planes with Israeli pilots bombed Sudan

U.S. planes with Israeli pilots bombed Sudan

By Abayomi Azikiwe

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In the aftermath of the issuance of warrants for the arrest and prosecution of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, the imperialists and their allies are escalating political, diplomatic and military attacks on that African country. Al-Bashir was accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in The Hague, Netherlands, of being responsible for war crimes purportedly committed in security operations carried out against various rebel groups in the western Darfur region.

The recently appointed U.S. special envoy to Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, visited the country in early April. Although Gration spoke very diplomatically with regard to improving relations between Sudan and the United States, developments over the last several months indicate that the current administration’s policies are still designed to undermine the sovereignty of the Sudanese state.

Reports have recently surfaced that Israeli-commanded, U.S.-made jets and drones bombed at least two convoys in eastern Sudan in January and February, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people from several countries in the Horn of Africa region.

The U.S. was initially suspected of direct involvement in the bombings. However, subsequent statements and news agency articles indicate that the Israeli Defense Forces executed the operations under the guise of intercepting arms shipments from the Islamic Republic of Iran to Hamas in Gaza, where the Palestinian people had been resisting a vicious Israeli attack and invasion.

Both U.S. and Israeli officials have confirmed a bombing attack on a convoy of trucks in Sudan, claiming they were carrying arms for Gaza. On March 31, Anti-War News reported that Israeli officials “today confirmed that dozens of aircraft, fighter-bombers and drones were involved in the January attack against a truck convoy in Sudan, which killed at least 39 people and destroyed dozens of trucks allegedly loaded down with weapons.”

Sudan officials said the attacks took place on Jan. 27 and Feb. 11. The government denied that the convoys were involved in arms smuggling, saying that the vehicles were transporting nationals from other countries in the region.

The charge of arms smuggling is the pretext for an international conference to take place in May in Ottawa, Canada, according to a leading Israeli newspaper, which says that “Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Denmark, the U.S. and Israel will also take part. Immediately after the conference a ‘war game’ is scheduled to take place in Washington, with the participation of security officials and diplomats from the countries involved. The ‘war game’ will practice a scenario of foiling arms smuggling from Iran to the Gaza Strip.” (Haaretz, April 1)

Sudan gains support against ICC warrants

Meanwhile, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has won the political support of a number of states and regional organizations. Since the ICC warrants were issued, Al-Bashir has traveled both inside the Darfur region as well as outside the country to Egypt, Libya and Qatar, where the Arab League summit was held. The president has been received warmly and is accepting the support and sympathy of other regional organizations, including the African Union.

Neighboring Egypt, where the regime is wholly dependent on U.S. support, has also been pressured by the imperialists for supposedly not doing its part to stop the transport of weapons from Iran to the Palestinian people in Gaza. President Hosni Mubarak is reported to have warned the Sudanese government to cease arm shipments destined for Gaza.

Since the days of the Bush administration, the U.S. and Israel have been contemplating an aerial bombardment of Iran. Iran has been accused of arming resistance forces in Lebanon and Iraq as well as in occupied Palestine. This latest provocation against Sudan provides the military and political means to implement imperialist aims and objectives in both Africa and the Middle East.

Demand dropping of charges

The ICC has exposed its hypocrisy by indicting the sitting president of an African nation while doing nothing about the tremendous war crimes committed by the U.S. and Britain in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, it has been estimated that more than one million people have died and some four million others have been displaced internally and externally since the beginning of the U.S. occupation in March 2003. Although the administration of President Barack Obama has pledged to draw down its forces in Iraq to 50,000 troops over the next two years, the continued presence of U.S. troops in this Middle East nation still constitutes an occupation. Since the withdrawal of British forces from Basra in March, the U.S. is forced to take even greater responsibility for the war.

At the recent NATO summit in Strasbourg, France, attended by Obama, lip service was paid to the U.S. administration by the European imperialists, who agreed that NATO would send 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan. However, they will not take on a combat role, despite Washington’s insistence. At the same time, Canada and Britain are expressing reluctance about continuing to maintain their troop presence in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, more civilians are being killed in so-called anti-terrorist operations by U.S. forces, which have attacked villages with warplanes, drones and direct combat offensives. The U.S. is also threatening to neutralize or possibly remove the puppet leader of Afghanistan, Mohammad Karzai, by appointing a prime minister to the occupation-supported government. Karzai, who is under enormous pressure from the Afghan people, has had to object to these U.S. plans and declare that his government is not a puppet regime.

Despite these crimes of “preemptive” war, occupation and the wholesale massacre of civilians, the ICC has not seen fit to indict any Western states. Neither the U.S. nor Sudan is a signer of the Rome Treaty that created the ICC. If the U.S. is not subject to its jurisdiction, then why should the government in Sudan submit to its arbitrary actions?

In other parts of Africa, the U.S. backed and paid for the Ethiopian invasion and occupation of Somalia, beginning in December 2006. While Ethiopian forces have withdrawn from Somalia after a two-year occupation, this episode created one of the worst humanitarian crises on the continent, leaving thousands dead and a million displaced.

In addition, the southern African nation of Zimbabwe will continue to be a target of economic sanctions by the U.S. despite the formation of an inclusive government headed by President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Because of Mugabe’s program to return white-owned land to the African people, Zimbabwe’s economy has been destroyed by sanctions. The country is now recovering from a cholera outbreak that killed 4,000 people and sickened many others.

A serious double standard operates with respect to countries that attempt to follow a political policy independent of U.S. aims on the African continent. As a result of these contradictions, people in the West concerned about the war crimes of the imperialist states must demand that the ICC charges be dropped against Sudan and its leaders.

At the same time, anti-imperialists should tell the U.S. administration to halt all threats and intimidation tactics against Sudan and any other states or political forces in Africa that seek to exercise their right to self-determination.