Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bush Torture Memos Released By Obama: See The Complete Documents

Bush Torture Memos Released By Obama: See The Complete Documents

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As part of an ongoing court case, the Department of Justice released on Thursday memos issued by the Office of Legal Counsel between 2002 and 2005, detailing techniques used for interrogation of terrorism suspects. In doing so, President Obama declared:

"While I believe strongly in transparency and accountability, I also believe that in a dangerous world, the United States must sometimes carry out intelligence operations and protect information that is classified for purposes of national security. I have already fought for that principle in court and will do so again in the future. However, after consulting with the Attorney General, the Director of National Intelligence, and others, I believe that exceptional circumstances surround these memos and require their release."

Certain aspects of the documents are redacted -- including the names of CIA officials -- but the evidence is of enough weight that Senate Judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy already felt compelled to offer the following statement:

These legal memoranda demonstrate in alarming detail exactly what the Bush administration authorized for "high value detainees" in U.S. custody. The techniques are chilling... We cannot continue to look the other way; we need to understand how these policies were formed if we are to ensure that this can never happen again. This is why my proposal for a Commission of Inquiry is necessary.

The Huffington Post has obtained the memos and is putting them on the website for the public to view. Please help us read through the material and report back what you find.PART 1

OLCMemo1 - Free Legal Forms

PART 2 (a continuation of the first document)

OLC memo 2 - Free Legal Forms


OLC Memo 3 - Free Legal Forms


Obama Memo 4 - Free Legal Forms

A Fight Rages Over a Tool Called "Cram Down"

A Fight Rages Over a Tool Called "Cram Down"

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A fight on Capitol Hill rages over a tool called "cram down." Proponents say is essential to fixing the foreclosure crisis and empowering homeowners to negotiate with the banks that hold their mortgages. Opponents say it will make lending riskier and raise interest rates. The battle lines are drawn, pitting Democrats against Democrats.

At the heart of the meltdown on Wall Street are piles and piles of mortgage loans for houses, which have been losing value for years as the housing bubble deflates. Many of these mortgages are "underwater," meaning the house is worth less than the amount owed on the mortgage. Many of these loans are the notorious Adjustable Rate Mortgages, which began at a lower interest rate and has now increased, driving up monthly payments. At the same time, millions of people across the country have lost their jobs or had their wages cut as a result of the contracting economy.

The situation has led to record foreclosure rates - almost 700,000 this year, or one every 13 seconds, according to the consumer group Center for Responsible Lending (CRL).

Economists and consumer advocates say that the foreclosure crisis is the root of the banking crisis and must be fixed in order to save the economy. But there is a collective action problem - renegotiating mortgages posses risks to the banks that own them and the middlemen (known as loan servicers), who manage the loans. The borrowers are at the mercy of the lenders and have no leverage to force them to negotiate.

This is where Congress comes in. Under current law, bankruptcy judges do not have the power to change the terms of a mortgage on a consumer's primary residence during bankruptcy proceedings. With the support of the Obama administration, Democrats in Congress have introduced the Helping Families Save Their Homes in Bankruptcy Act of 2009. One provision of the act would grant bankruptcy judges the power to alter troubled mortgages. This proposal has been a priority for powerful Democrats and has been near the top of their legislative agenda since the beginning of the year.

The CRL has been monitoring national foreclosure rates and policy plans to address the problem. In an interview with Truthout, CRL spokesperson Kathleen Day said the "cram down" provision is a vital piece of the overall solution and compliments the incentives offered to lenders, loan servicers and homeowners under the Obama administration's homeowner rescue package.

A plan passed under the Bush administration meant to help people refinance, known as HOPE for Homeowners, did not include the threat of "cram down," and was also missing key incentives for the lenders and loan servicers. The program allocated $300 billion and was supposed to help up to 400,000 people avoid foreclosure, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

More than six months later, only one homeowner has successfully made it through the entire process and refinanced their mortgage under the program, according to the Federal Housing Administration.

"Bankruptcy is the stick. Bankruptcy is the only leverage consumers have. They would be able to say to the lender 'look, either you work with me or a judge is going to do it down the line,'" Day said, adding "What the industry is going bananas over is giving bankruptcy judges the ability to modify a mortgage on a person's primary residence the way they can currently modify every other kind of contract. It's ridiculous, a judge can't touch a mortgage on a person's primary residence but they can modify [a loan] on a person's vacation home or their yacht or anything else."

"Most Americans today, in trouble, are desperately trying to hold onto their primary residence," said a proponent of the "cram down" power, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) in January, adding "The notion here is to create the environment for negotiation so that those who are holding the mortgages will not wait until bankruptcy, that they'll sit down ahead of time with the prospects that they're going to have this mortgage rewritten in bankruptcy and say, 'Let's see if we can do it before they go to bankruptcy court.' It creates a more positive negotiating environment."

Not all Democrats agree with Senator Dodd. A handful of self-labeled "moderate" Democrats stand in the way of giving judges the power to reduce or "cram down" mortgages during bankruptcy.

According to multiple press reports, the Democratic opposition to the bankruptcy power know as "cram down," has been led by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Indiana). Indiana has the 13th highest foreclosure rate in the country, according to Realty Trac.

Senator Bayh currently leads a group of 16 so-called "moderate" Democrats, who have become increasingly powerful as they represent the deciding votes in the Senate.

The 16-member coalition known as the Moderate Dems Working Group was announced in a press release on March 18.

At this time, it is unclear where the members of the Moderate Dems Working Group stand on the "cram down" legislation. Only three of the 16 senators returned calls inquiring about their stance on granting judges the power to adjust mortgages in bankruptcy.

The three responses were evenly split. A spokesperson for Sen. Ben Nelson said that he opposed the provision because it would raise interest rates on other borrowers and further destabilize the mortgage industry. A spokesperson for Sen. Kay Hagan (D-North Carolina) said that Senator Hagan "had reservations about the bill and is currently considering changes and discussing it with her colleagues." A spokesperson for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) said that Senator Nelson has supported "cram down" in the past and continues to support it in some form.

The senators from the Moderate Dems Working Group who failed to return multiple phone calls inquiring about their stance on the bankruptcy provision were: Evan Bayh (D-Indiana), Tom Carper (D-Delaware), Blanch Lincoln (D-Arkansas), Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin), Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas), Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), Mark Warner (D-Virginia), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mark Udall (D-Colorado) and Michael Bennet (D-Colorado).

Corporate special interest groups have been lobbying aggressively against the "cram down" legislation. The Mortgage Bankers Association and banks like JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and others have initiated an all-out effort to prevent it. Industry representatives argue that the bankruptcy reform legislation would further destabilize the already fragile mortgage market by adding unpredictable risks and making the value of mortgaged-backed securities harder to establish.

The lobbying effort succeeded in delaying consideration of the legislation and may have derailed it entirely. Jim Manley, Senate majority leader Harry Reid's spokesman, originally said that the bill would be brought up for a vote before the April recess. After a handful of Democrats jumped ship in March, Manley revised his estimate, saying that the bill would be delayed until after the recess.

It has been reported that the Democrats do not have 60 votes in favor of the "cram down" provision. However, what is often left out is the fact that Democrats only need 60 votes to break a Republican filibuster. The Democrats need a simple majority to pass the bill and could bring the bill to the floor for a vote and challenge Republicans to stand and filibuster, a move that would be dangerous in the current political climate where republicans have been criticized for being the party of "no."

Congress is scheduled to reconvene on Monday, April 20.

Iraq Study: Executions Are Leading Cause of Death

Iraq study: Executions are leading cause of death


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Execution-style killings, not headline-grabbing bombings, have been the leading cause of death among civilians in the Iraq war, a study released Wednesday shows.

The findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, point to the brutal sectarian nature of the conflict, where death squads once roamed the streets hunting down members of the rival Muslim sect.

Estimates of the number of civilians killed in Iraq vary widely. The study was based on the database maintained by Iraq Body Count, a private group that among other sources uses media reports including those of The Associated Press.

The authors concede the data is not comprehensive but maintain that the study provides a reliable gauge of how Iraqis have died in the six-year conflict.

The findings also provide further evidence of the brutal sectarian cleansing and retaliatory violence between Shiites and Sunnis that pushed the country to the brink of civil war before easing a year and a half ago.

"I think that a lot of the executions with torture had to do with trying to get people to move out of their houses," said Michael Spagat, one of the study's authors. "It had to strike fear into people's hearts. A lot of it is just hatred and retribution."

The study covered the period from the March 20, 2003 invasion through March 19, 2008, in which 91,358 violent deaths were recorded by Iraq Body Count.

The total number of civilian deaths in Iraq is widely disputed, but the count by the London-based group is widely considered a credible minimum.

Apart from media reports, Iraq Body Count uses figures from morgues and hospitals since the war started.

However, the authors focused on only 60,481 deaths linked to specific events, excluding Iraqis killed in prolonged episodes of violence during the U.S.-led invasion and the U.S. sieges of the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in 2004.

The study found that 19,706 of the victims, or 33 percent, were abducted and killed execution-style, with nearly a third of those showing signs of torture such as bruises, drill holes or burns.

That compared with 16,922, or 27 percent, who died in bombings, most of them in suicide attacks.

The figures were similar to those recorded by the AP.

While the study didn't assign blame for the killings, death squads largely run by Shiite militias were believed to be behind many of the bullet-riddled bodies that turned up by the dozens on the streets of Baghdad and other cities — often stripped of any identification.

Those death squads were seeking revenge for the deaths of Shiite civilians at the hands of al-Qaida and other Sunni religious extremists in suicide bombings and other attacks.

The authors said the number of execution-style killings is likely to be higher because it excluded Iraq Body Count's morgue figures. The morgue numbers were omitted because the specific weapon used could not be determined in those cases.

Nor did they attempt to speculate how many missing people could be dead.

Although such killings continue, the numbers of bodies found every day have dropped to the single digits since the U.S. troop surge and a cease-fire called by the main militia leader, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in August 2007.

The drop in violence is also due in part to the fact that many formerly mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad have been effectively segregated after the minority sect was purged by the death squads. Baghdad has since become a maze of concrete walls and checkpoints aimed at ensuring security.

Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst with the New York-based Human Rights Watch, blamed the sectarian violence and insurgency that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein on poor postwar planning by the United States.

"It bears out what we have known for some time now — that there was a massive shift in the 2004 time frame from civilian casualties caused by U.S. and multinational forces to the insurgency," he said.

Only 4 percent of the Iraqi deaths included in the study, or 2,363, were a result of U.S. airstrikes, which frequently targeted suspected insurgents hiding in houses. But 46 percent of the victims whose gender could be determined were female and 39 percent were children.

The authors caution that those percentages may be inflated "because the media may tend to specifically identify female and young victims more readily than male adults among the dead."

The airstrikes also caused the largest number of civilian deaths in individual attacks, with an average number of 17 people killed in bombs dropped by warplanes, compared with an average of 16 people killed by suicide attackers on foot, the figures showed.

Garlasco, who was not involved in the study, said that reflected a grim reality.

"The airstrike data is very similar to Afghanistan in that when civilians are killed in an airstrike it tends to be a significant number," he said. "Air power can be a very discriminating force, but when mistakes are made civilians pay and they pay big."

Spanish attorney general: No torture probe of 'Bush 6'

Spanish AG: No torture probe of 'Bush 6'

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Spanish prosecutors will recommend against opening an investigation into whether Bush administration officials sanctioned torture against terror suspects, that country's attorney general said Thursday.

Attorney General Candido Conde-Pumpido told reporters that the case was without merit because the officials were not present when the alleged torture took place and that a trial would turn Spain's National Court into "a plaything" for political ends.

The intention had been to target six officials whose advice and legal opinions cleared the way for the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay: former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, former vice presidential chief of staff David Addington, Justice Department officials John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, and Pentagon lawyer William Haynes.

"If one is dealing with a crime of mistreatment of prisoners of war, the complaint should go against those who physically carried it out," Conde-Pumpido stated. "If there is a reason to file a complaint against these people, it should be done before local courts with jurisdiction, in other words in the United States."

Attorney Scott Horton, who reported on Monday that Spanish prosecutors had decided to press forward with the investigation, now explains that "the Spanish prosecutors report to the attorney general and he is entitled to review and modify their decisions much in the way that the U.S. attorney general supervises and directs the work of career federal prosecutors."

Horton goes on to say, "Interventions of this sort, however, are fairly unusual. 'The circumstances of the attorney general’s announcement suggest that political intervention at a very high level has occurred,' remarked one lawyer involved with the complaint. The attorney general’s intervention may well reflect the concern of the government of Prime Minister Jose Zapatero over relations with the new Obama administration."

Gonzalo Boyé, one of the four human rights lawyers who brought the case in Spain, said the decision by Conde-Pumpido was not only politically motivated but sets a terrible course for Spanish justice.

When provisional criminal proceedings began in late March, Boyé believed Spain's chief prosecutor would have little choice but to approve the prosecution. "The only route of escape the prosecutor might have is to ask whether there is ongoing process in the US against these people," he told the Observer. "This case will go ahead. It will be against the law not to go ahead."

Now Boyé is complaining bitterly about the recommendation to drop the case. "The attorney-general speaks of the court being turned into a plaything," he told the Associated Press. "Well, I don't think the attorney-general's office should be turned into a plaything for politicians. It is a terrible precedent if those intellectually responsible for crimes can no longer be held accountable."

Boyé also told CNN that the case could still go forward if Judge Baltasar Garzon decides to pursue it, and he noted that prosecutors had opposed Garzon's investigations of ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. "It's up to the resolution of a court as it has always been," Boye stated. "Garzon has to decide. This is a jurisdiction decision for a judge, not for the prosecution."

However, a senior court official told AP that prosecutors will recommend that Garzon be replaced by a different judge who is already investigating whether secret CIA flights to Guantanamo entered Spanish airspace. This would be another serious blow to the hopes of human rights lawyers.

"It's a shame the prosecutor is taking this position, but not a surprise," Boyé observed. "They always obey political orders. They don't want to be in a bad position in front of the Obama administration."

Spanish AG says no torture probe of US officials

Spanish attorney-general says prosecutors will recommend against torture probe of US officials

AP News

Apr 16, 2009 05:50 EST

Spanish prosecutors will recommend against opening an investigation into whether six Bush administration officials sanctioned torture against terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, the country's attorney-general said Thursday.

Candido Conde-Pumpido said the case against the high-ranking U.S. officials — including former U.S. Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales — was without merit because the men were not present when the alleged torture took place.

"If one is dealing with a crime of mistreatment of prisoners of war, the complaint should go against those who physically carried it out," Conde-Pumpido said in a breakfast meeting with journalists. He said a trial of the men would have turned Spain's National Court "into a plaything" to be used for political ends.

Prosecutors at Spain's National Court have not formally announced their decision in the case, but Conde-Pumpido is the country's top law-enforcement official and has the ultimate say.

While an investigative judge is not bound by the prosecutors' decision, it would be highly unusual for a case to proceed without their support.

A senior court official told The Associated Press that a formal announcement would not come until Friday. He said prosecutors would stop short of an outright call for dismissal of the case, but would raise a series of legal objections that would make it impossible for it to proceed in its current form. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Coming less than three months after the Bush administration left office, the case was the first of several international efforts to indict former administration officials. Human rights groups have also tried to bring suit against Bush officials in a German court.

In addition to Gonzales, the complaint named ex-Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith; former Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, David Addington; Justice Department officials John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee; and Pentagon lawyer William Haynes.

It alleged that the men — who have become known as "The Bush Six" — cleared the path for torture by claiming in advice and legal opinions that the president could ignore the Geneva Conventions, and by adopting an overly narrow definition of which interrogation techniques constituted torture.

Spanish law gives its courts jurisdiction beyond national borders in cases of torture or war crimes, based on a doctrine known as universal justice.

While saying his office supported the principal of universal justice, Conde-Pumpido said Spanish courts had no business trying the American officials.

"If there is a reason to file a complaint against these people, it should be done before local courts with jurisdiction, in other words in the United States," he said.

Gonzalo Boye, one of the human rights lawyers who brought the case in Spain, said the decision by Conde-Pumpido was politically motivated and set a terrible course for Spanish justice.

"The attorney-general speaks of the court being turned into a plaything. Well, I don't think the attorney-general's office should be turned into a plaything for politicians," Boye told The Associated Press. "It is a terrible precedent if those intellectually responsible for crimes can no longer be held accountable."

In previous comments, Boye had made a point of saying he was going after the Bush administration's senior lawyers and advisers — not the rank and file military and intelligence agents who may have carried out the abuse — because he considered them ultimately responsible.

The case was first presented last month to crusading investigative judge Baltasar Garzon, the magistrate who prosecuted ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1990s. Under Spanish law, he passed it on to prosecutors for a recommendation on whether to launch a full-blown investigation.

The court official told AP that in addition to raising the legal doubts, prosecutors will say that Garzon should be replaced by another judge who is already investigating whether secret CIA flights to Guantanamo ever entered Spanish airspace.

Observers say the removal of Garzon would be another serious blow for the hopes of human rights lawyers, who saw him as being sympathetic to their cause.

Most of the American officials named in the case have remained silent since the allegations first surfaced in March. Feith, however, has called Spain's claim of jurisdiction "a national insult with harmful implications."

Former President George W. Bush has steadfastly denied the U.S. tortured anyone. The U.S. has acknowledged that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described plotter of Sept. 11, and a few other prisoners were waterboarded at secret CIA prisons before being taken to Guantanamo, but the Bush administration insisted that all interrogations were lawful.

Obama administration likely to redact Bush torture memos

Obama likely to redact key CIA torture memos

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Regardless of redactions, techniques may leak

The Obama Administration is likely to redact key elements of several "torture" memos promulgated by the Bush Administration which dictated which techniques could "legally" be applied during prisoner interrogations.

Two officials told the Wall Street Journal Wednesday that "certain operational elements" of the program are to be kept secret, as well as what techniques were applied to particular prisoners.

Most likely to be kept from the spotlight is details in a still-classified memorandum which approved a method in which a prisoner's head could be struck against a plywood wall "as long as the head was being held and the force of the blow was controlled by the interrogator."

Such a technique was outlined in an International Red Cross report that was leaked to a reporter at the New York Review of Books. That story told of guards tying towels around at least two prisoners' necks and hurling them against a plywood wall, among numerous other macabre torture techniques.

Marc Ambinder, a veteran correspondent for The Atlantic, reported Wednesday that senior Administration officials "said that the Journal story does not reflect the current state of thinking, [but] would not disclose what decisions had been made."

"Holder, the attorney general, and others have argued internally that most of the information contained within the memo has already been released," Ambinder wrote. "The ACLU and other civil liberties groups have obtained more than 100,000 pages of formerly secret documents. The International Committee of the Red Cross's damning report on detention and torture was leaked to reporter Mark Danner last month; federal prosecutors and senior military officials have acknowledged, in detail, that not only were prisoners in CIA and military custody tortured, but described the means used to torture them.

"Others, knowing Washington's ways, believe that if the CIA is worried that some of the torture methods are truly gruesome, well, that's exactly the first bit of information that an enterprising official will leak," Ambinder added. "More headlines will be made."

An announcement on the release of the Bush-era torture memos is expected today.

NSA spied on member of Congress; broke new laws, targeted Americans

NSA spied on member of Congress and broke new laws, report says

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UPDATE (at bottom): Senate intelligence committee plans hearing on reported NSA violations

An article in The New York Times

Even more shocking, the paper reveals that under the Bush administration the NSA spied on a member of Congress and sought to wiretap the lawmaker without a warrant.

Reports the Times:
detailing new violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reports that in recent months the National Security Agency has been intercepting the communications of Americans on a scale going well beyond the broad legal limits established last year by Congress.
And in one previously undisclosed episode, the N.S.A. tried to wiretap a member of Congress without a warrant, an intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said.

The agency believed that the congressman, whose identity could not be determined, was in contact — as part of a Congressional delegation to the Middle East in 2005 or 2006 — with an extremist who had possible terrorist ties and was already under surveillance, the official said. The agency then sought to eavesdrop on the congressman’s conversations, the official said.

The official said the plan was ultimately blocked because of concerns from some intelligence officials about using the N.S.A., without court oversight, to spy on a member of Congress.
According to the Times, the NSA unintentionally spies on many Americans because it can't distinguish between American and non-American calls as "it uses its access to American telecommunications companies’ fiber-optic lines and its own spy satellites to intercept millions of calls and e-mail messages."

The NSA's operational problems have "come under scrutiny from the Obama administration, Congressional intelligence committees and a secret national security court," and officials are concerned that the controversy "could damage the credibility of legitimate intelligence-gathering efforts."

The Justice Department has already issued a statement confirming the problems but insisting that it has taken "comprehensive steps to correct the situation and bring the program into compliance."

However, constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald suggests that "these widespread eavesdropping abuses enabled by the 2008 FISA bill -- a bill passed with the support of Barack Obama along with the entire top Democratic leadership in the House, including Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, and substantial numbers of Democratic Senators -- aren't a bug in that bill, but rather, were one of the central features of it."

"Everyone knew that the FISA bill which Congressional Democrats passed -- and which George Bush and Dick Cheney celebrated -- would enable these surveillance abuses," Greenwald continues. "That was the purpose of the law: to gut the safeguards in place since the 1978 passage of FISA, destroy the crux of the oversight regime over executive surveillance of Americans, and enable and empower unchecked government spying activities. This was not an unintended and unforeseeable consequence of that bill. To the contrary, it was crystal clear that by gutting FISA's safeguards, the Democratic Congress was making these abuses inevitable."

"There are exceedingly few specifics in [the Times] story detailing exactly what the abuses were," Greenwald says in conclusion "In other words, most of the information about the NSA's abuses remain concealed. We have learned only a small fraction of what took place."

Read the full New York Times story here.

UPDATE: Senate intelligence committee plans hearing on reported NSA violations

According to a follow-up report published mid-day, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told the Times:

“These are serious allegations, and we will make sure we get the facts. The committee is looking into this, and we will hold a hearing on this subject within one month."

Sen. Feinstein is the head of the Senate intelligence committee.

Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent out a press release in the Thursday morning hours after the Times story was published.

In reaction, Feingold writes, "Since 2001, I have spent a lot of time in the Intelligence Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and on the floor of the Senate bringing attention to both the possible and actual effects of legislation that has dangerously expanded the power of the executive branch to spy on innocent Americans."

Media attacks California teachers

Media attacks California teachers

By Kevin Martinez

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Over the course of the past three weeks, a number of articles and opinion pieces have come out in different organs of the California press that target the efforts of teachers to defend their jobs and public education in the face of the worst fiscal crisis in the state’s history.

Facing a $42 billion shortfall, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic-controlled State Legislature passed a massive austerity budget in February that cuts current state spending by $14 billion. Allocations for education were gutted by $8 billion, out of which upwards of $5 billion is to come from kindergarten through grade 12 schooling.

School districts across the state are scrambling to figure out how to cope with these cuts. They are firing teachers, eliminating school programs, and foregoing regular maintenance and sanitation at buildings, among other things, to address the situation (See for example: Long Beach, California school board votes for deep cuts). More than 26,500 layoff warnings have gone out to educators, as well as another 15,000 layoff warnings to janitors, bus drivers, and school administrators, warning them that their positions are at risk.

The attacks on public education are widely opposed by those who work in the school system, as well as by parents, students, and working people in general. In March state-wide demonstrations were held to voice opposition to the layoffs. They were dubbed “Pink Friday,” a reference to the pink slips that the school districts were sending out to laid-off teachers on the last working day of the week (See: California teachers protest mass layoffs).

The media sought to downplay these events. In the subsequent weeks there have been a series of articles in the Californian press defending the cuts.

Most of these statements claim that California’s teachers are supposedly the highest paid in the nation, that overcrowding in schools is not a serious problem, and that the teaching profession as a whole should not be spared what is happening throughout the rest of the economy—in other words, job termination and unemployment. The authors accept the false premise that cuts have to be made in public education if California is to be brought back into good financial standing.

One article in the opinion section of the Los Angeles Times March 26, entitled, “Why should teachers be a protected class?” was written by Larry Sand, the president of the so-called California Teachers Empowerment Network.

Accusing the California Teachers Association of “whipping up hysteria about possible layoffs” culminating in the Pink Friday rallies, Sand wrote:

“Now, everyone knows that a pink slip means, ‘You're fired.’ But it is very clear that these RIF’s (‘Reduction-in-force notices’) are nothing more than an alert to a possible layoff—sort of the difference between a bullet to the head and a warning shot.” In other words, the pink slips are merely warning shots before actual bullets to the head.

After speculating about how much federal stimulus money Los Angeles school districts may receive, Sand gets down to his real message: “In all honesty, it is certainly possible that some teachers will have to be let go. Although no one would diminish the seriousness of a job loss, we must be realistic. Our state is in dire financial straits—why should teachers be a protected class?”

In other words, because working people as a whole must pay for the present crisis, opposition to teacher layoffs and the decimation of public education is illegitimate.

Citing statistics about how the student population of Los Angeles has shrunk from 2003 to 2007 by 7 percent, while the corresponding teacher population has only shrunk by 1 percent, Sand argues that if the district were to go back to the 2003-2004 ratio of 20.64 students per teacher, it would need 2,000 fewer teachers than now.

In an effort to tap into widespread dissatisfaction with the California Teachers Association (CTA) and steer it into an attack on educators’ jobs, Sand argues, “Unions hate the thought of fewer teachers—it means less money in the form of dues for them.”

The reality is that regardless of the agenda of the CTA, it is the working class that is opposed to cutting the number of teachers in the schools, and the children of the working class who will suffer the real consequences should these cuts take effect. The union is actually working to shore up its position—not that of the teachers it supposedly represents—in the face of the present crisis by negotiating deals with the governor and thus proving its usefulness to the political establishment.

The CTA is one of the biggest supporters of Schwarzenegger’s budget proposals, as explained by an April 11 article in the San Francisco Chronicle (“Teachers are biggest backers of budget measures”), which reports that the union has contributed more than $5.3 million to the campaign to pass the governor’s so-called “budget reform package.” In order for many of the budget cuts enacted by the governor and the legislature in February to take place, they have to be approved at the ballot box. In an effort to win support for these budget measures, the CTA has agreed to a rotten deal with Schwarzenegger in which it will back Proposition 1B that would guarantee $9.3 billion in state funding after the present cuts, in exchange for supporting the overall budget.

In a column published in the Los Angeles Times on March 25, Steve Lopez uses the looming budget cuts to attack experienced teachers, whose jobs are more protected against cuts due to seniority standards.

Lopez writes, “In LA Unified, there is a possibility that if the cuts are made, the best and brightest teachers will be on the unemployment line, replaced perhaps by burned-out bureaucrats who may not have been in a classroom since the Carter administration and might never have been good teachers to begin with.”

Lopez advocates, along the lines promoted by President Obama, “education reform,” by which is meant charter schools and merit pay. “We need more flexibility all around—and less dead weight at the district headquarters—if we’re going to handle budget cuts and have any hope of improving our schools.”

In other words, accepting the budget cuts and the attacks on teachers as entirely legitimate, Lopez advances a right-wing attack on education, in which supposedly incompetent teachers are blamed for the crisis in California’s public education system. He advocates measures that would further bleed public schools of adequate financing.

This is an effort to divert people’s attention away from the real source of the state’s poor-performing schools—that is, the current budget cuts on top of years and years’ worth of prior cuts, a testing mania inspired by the misnamed No Child Left Behind Act, inadequate pay for teachers, and deteriorating socio-economic conditions for children. Instead, he seeks to pit newer educators against more experienced ones in a scramble for remaining jobs.

A recent article in the Orange County Register, dated April 9, called “Teachers underpaid or over paid? Economists can’t agree,” cites a statistical argument between economists over teacher pay in order to suggest that educators receive fair salaries. Published in the midst of massive attacks on teachers’ jobs, the objective of such a piece is to suggest that it is wrong to get upset about the education cuts, because teachers are, indeed, duly compensated.

The reasoning behind this argument, as presented in the article, is that by some measures teachers are paid equivalent to their counterparts in other fields with similar levels of education and job experience. This ignores the fact, however, that all working people are underpaid and that real wages have stagnated and declined for several decades in the United States. The fact that, according to some measures, teachers receive the same pittance that other workers do is hardly a sign that their compensation is fair.

The underpayment of teachers does not fundamentally stem from whether or not they receive an equivalent wage to those with similar educational and professional characteristics, but from the fact that teachers’ role as educators of future generations is not and cannot be adequately compensated in a socio-economic system that places profit and private interests above those of social needs.

The budget passed by the California legislature that guts funding for public education and a vast array of other social services and programs leaves intact the wealth of the state’s dozens of billionaires and multi-millionaires, whose vast riches will not be touched to rescue an education system that serves the country’s most populous state.

The attacks on teachers in the California press come under conditions in which the job prospects for all working people throughout the state grow worse by the day, and living standards are eroded. Unemployment in the state is expected to reach nearly 12 percent according to UCLA’s Anderson Forecast.

The only way forward in defending teachers and their jobs as well as reverse the draconian cuts to public education is to demand that no one in the teaching profession lose their jobs because of the California budget fiasco. Enormous relief should be made available to fully fund education in the United States and reverse the decades’ long assault on the arts and sciences. Higher education must also be made available to everyone with a desire to learn.

A real alliance between teachers, parents, and students must be engendered in order to break from the stranglehold of the Democratic Party and their trade union underlings like the CTA. This can only be brought into being with the emergence of a mass socialist movement with the explicit goal of providing excellent quality education for all.

Obama, automakers step up blackmail of GM and Chrysler workers

Obama, automakers step up blackmail of GM and Chrysler workers

By Jerry White

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In an interview published Wednesday, the top executive at Italian carmaker Fiat said the company was “prepared to walk” away from a planned merger with Chrysler LLC if American and Canadian auto workers did not agree to severe wage and benefit cuts over the next two weeks.

The Obama administration has set an April 30 deadline for Chrysler to impose the concessions and conclude a deal with Fiat or face the cut off of federal loans, a move that would throw the 85-year-old Detroit automaker into bankruptcy and most likely liquidation.

In the interview at his Rome office, Sergio Marchionne told the Toronto Globe and Mail that US and Canadian workers would have to reduce their wages to the level of non-union workers at Japanese and German-owned factories in North America. “We cannot commit to this organization unless we see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Marchionne—who was educated in Canada and began his automotive career there—denounced the sense of “entitlement,” which, he said, Chrysler workers harbored on both sides of the border. “The minute you talk to me about historical entitlement in an organization that is technically bankrupt, it’s a nonsensical discussion,” he said. “There is no wealth to be distributed.”

Last month, President Obama singled out Marchionne for praise and described Fiat as a company where “the current management team has executed an impressive turnaround.” According to the industry publication AutoWeek, the president’s auto task force is considering asking the Fiat CEO to run Chrysler, a proposal Marchionne said he would accept.

Fiat’s “turnaround” was accomplished through a vicious attack on workers in Italy, shutting plants and carrying out mass layoffs, which provoked repeated strikes and demonstrations. In a recent interview, the Fiat boss signaled his support for the destruction of hundreds of thousands more jobs in the global auto industry, saying the biggest obstacle to returning to profitability was “overproduction.”

Even if a merger were successful, it would only lead to far more downsizing at Chrysler, which has reduced its worldwide workforce from 123,000 to 54,000 over the last ten years. The White House is demanding more aggressive cost-cutting than the plans already laid out by the company, which includes the closure of six of Chrysler’s 30 North American plants and the elimination of thousands more hourly and salaried jobs.

President Obama has called for far more “painful concessions” from workers, which are likely to include immediate wage and benefit cuts for current workers. Chrysler previously threatened to pull all of its operations out of Canada if workers did not accept a US$16 an hour cut in hourly labor costs to match what the company pays workers at its US plants.

According to the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Auto Workers union has so far balked at this demand, offering Chrysler the same US$6 an hour reduction it has already given General Motors of Canada, “plus agreeing to reduce break times at Chrysler plants in Brampton, Ont., and Windsor, Ont., which would reduce hourly costs by what the union says is several more dollars an hour.”

The Treasury Department also reportedly wants the banks and investors who control Chrysler’s debt to give up about 85 percent of the $6.9 billion they are owed. The Bloomberg news service said the four largest lenders are JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup, Goldman Sachs Group and Morgan Stanley—all recipients of Wall Street bailout money. The banks are reportedly holding out, believing they can get most of their money back if Chrysler is forced to file for bankruptcy.

General Motors

An even more brutal downsizing is being planned for General Motors, along with the gutting of living standards and working conditions of its 62,400 remaining hourly workers. The White House has given GM until May 31 to impose sweeping concessions and implement downsizing plans that would go well beyond the 47,000 worldwide job cuts, including 21,000 in North America, the company has already proposed.

Last month the administration removed GM CEO Richard Wagoner—who reportedly had resisted plans to take the company into bankruptcy—and moved to install a board of directors prepared to carve up the company on behalf of the most powerful sections of the financial elite.

The White House appointed Kent Kresa as the non-executive chairman of the board. An advisor to the Carlyle Group private equity firm, Kresa was the CEO of the giant defense contractor Northrop Grumman for 13 years, during which time he acquired 16 companies and led the consolidation of the aerospace and defense industry, which saw the destruction of 600,000 jobs between 1990 and 2004.

This week Kresa told the Detroit News it looked increasingly unlikely that a deal could be reached outside of the bankruptcy courts. He said GM has been planning for weeks for a possible bankruptcy filing if it can’t meet the June 1 deadline set by the Obama administration’s auto task force, members of which are operating out of GM’s headquarters in Detroit’s Renaissance Center.

The task force, which is stacked with former Wall Street investors, has made it known that it favors a so-called “363 sale” in which a bankruptcy court breaks up GM into two entities—a “good” GM, which includes the company’s most profitable brands, dealerships and factories, and a “bad” one, where its undesirable assets, including dozens of factories and tens of billions in pension and retiree health care obligations, would be dumped.

The “new” company, which would benefit from an entirely re-written UAW contract guaranteeing poverty wages and sweatshop conditions, would be sold off to private investors who would no doubt benefit from all sorts of federal loans and guarantees against losses. The old company would languish in the bankruptcy courts for years before being wound down, leaving pensions in the hands of the government.

In his remarks at Georgetown University Tuesday, President Obama reiterated that GM and Chrysler would have to make “unpopular choices” in order to put themselves on the “path to profitability.” He cynically feigned concern about the “hundreds of thousands of workers whose livelihoods hang in the balance” when, in fact, it is their jobs and living standards which he is destroying.

In the face of this unprecedented attack, the UAW has continued to maintain its silence. There is little doubt that the union bureaucracy has already agreed to all of the concessions demands involving the wages, benefits and working conditions of the almost 90,000 UAW members at GM and Chrysler. This would be in line with its decades-long policy of labor-management “partnership,” in which the UAW has given up most of the gains won in generations of struggle. The only real concern of the UAW is the tens of billions owed by GM and Chrysler to its retiree health care trust fund, which the union bureaucracy had counted on as a lucrative source of investment revenue to offset the income losses resulting from the loss of two-thirds of its dues-paying membership.

The Detroit Free Press Wednesday cited a person close to the talks who said the Obama administration was expressing its willingness to protect the retiree trust fund—and therefore the financial interests of the UAW—to a greater extent than the banks and bondholders, even if the companies went into bankruptcy.

“That means that while bondholders are being pushed to take pennies on the dollar for their debt, the union remains on track to receive a substantial ownership stake in the automakers if deals can be hammered out,” the Free Press reported. “In return, the UAW would forgive the automakers part of the $30.6 billion they owe the union to start a retiree health care fund that takes huge liabilities off the automakers’ books.”

Behind the scenes the union bureaucracy is in intense negotiations with the White House over what it can gain from the carve-up of the auto industry and its collaboration in the brutal exploitation of auto workers. This includes a major ownership stake in the “new” auto companies, whose share values would presumably rise sharply after they dispensed with their pension obligations and other debts and had secured a sweetheart contract from the UAW.

Among those included on Obama’s auto task force is Ron Bloom, a former partner at the Wall Street investment firm Lazard Freres & Co. Bloom has worked for the United Steelworkers bureaucracy since 1996, advising the union as it collaborated with various billionaire asset strippers during the dismantling of the steel industry.

The complicity of the UAW in this corporate-government conspiracy only underscores its thoroughly rotten character and the need for auto workers to break free from it and form new organizations of struggle.

As Obama pledges more bailouts, US banks step up home foreclosures

US banks step up home foreclosures

By Barry Grey

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One day after President Barack Obama defended the multi-trillion-dollar bailout of the banks and pledged to funnel more taxpayer funds into their coffers, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page article headlined “Banks Ramp Up Foreclosures.”

The article reported that some of the country’s largest mortgage companies and banks, including those that have received billions of dollars in government handouts, have sharply increased their foreclosure filings since Obama announced his “Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan” last month. Among the firms mentioned were JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and the mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These four companies alone have received upwards of $450 billion in government cash and loans.

Coming on the heels of Obama’s economic policy speech, in which he cited as the keys to economic “recovery” the continued taxpayer bailout of Wall Street combined with downsizing and wage-cutting in the auto industry, health care “reform” to cut corporate health insurance liabilities, and major cuts in social spending, including for basic programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the Journal article underscores the class interests that drive the administration’s policies.

Obama is providing massive subsidies to the very banks and financial firms that are boosting their profits by intensifying their assault on the working class.

The Journal article followed a report Tuesday on “NBC Nightly News,” broadcast within hours of Obama’s speech at Georgetown University, that millions of Americans are being notified by banks and credit card companies which have received government bailouts that their credit card interest rates and fees are being sharply increased.

The NBC report cited Bank of America, which has received $50 billion in handouts under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) plus more than $300 billion in government guarantees on its bad debts, Citigroup, which has received $45 billion in TARP money plus a similar guarantee on its debts, JPMorgan Chase ($25 billion in TARP money), American Express ($3.39 billion in TARP funds) and Capitol One ($3.55 billion in TARP money) as among the bailed-out firms that are ratcheting up their credit card fees and interest rates. Capitol One, the report noted, has jacked up its rates to as high as 29 percent.

The report noted that in addition to the TARP money, the firms are benefiting from government loans at virtually zero interest.

The Journal article on foreclosures indicated that the administration’s housing scheme, far from providing relief for most families facing foreclosure, has facilitated the efforts of banks and mortgage companies to drive distressed borrowers out of their homes.

The Obama plan, announced in early March following intensive consultations with bankers and mortgage lenders, bowed to industry demands that there be no reduction in the principal owed by homeowners. It was crafted to provide lower interest payments to only a small fraction of the millions of delinquent borrowers.

The Journal cited an official at the mortgage division of GMAC, the financial arm of General Motors and another TARP recipient, who said that to date only some “10 percent of borrowers in some stage of foreclosure appear to be eligible for the federal program.”

Banks and mortgage lenders had initiated internal moratoriums on foreclosures while they awaited the administration’s announcement of its housing plan. Now these moratoriums have been lifted and the companies are systematically reviewing their mortgage accounts to determine which borrowers are ripe for foreclosure.

Foreclosure-related filings rose by nearly 6 percent in February from the previous month, according to the Journal, and were up almost 30 percent from February 2008. Meanwhile, the backlog of seriously delinquent home loans has been growing, in tandem with the surge in layoffs.

The Journal noted: “In California, notices of trustee sales, which are preludes to foreclosure sales, climbed by more than 80 percent to 33,178 in March, from February, according to data from and the Field Check Group.”

The article cited an official with Lazard Asset Management who expects home prices to fall 22 percent to 27 percent from their January levels. It said, citing Moody’s, that more than 2.1 million homes will be foreclosed this year, up from 1.7 million in 2008.

The article quoted Michael Thompson, director of Iowa Mediation Service, as saying, “We’re getting so many of these cases where people don’t fit the new [Obama] program.”

These are indices of a social catastrophe that is enveloping ever wider layers of the population, even as Obama, his top economic adviser Lawrence Summers and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke point to rising stock prices and a revival in bank profits as signs of economic recovery.

They aim to convince the population, which is outraged over the profiteering and gambling of Wall Street which precipitated the economic crash and remains bitterly opposed to the taxpayer bailouts, that a revival in the fortunes of the financial elite is the road to renewed growth in the broader economy. On this basis, they will justify a further plundering of the public treasury to bolster the banks and deeper cuts in the jobs and living standards of the broad mass of the people.

As Obama said in his speech, he is laying a “new foundation for growth and prosperity where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.” The “we” who will consume less is the working class, not the ruling elite. In fact, the recovery on Wall Street is predicated on a steep and permanent reduction in the living standards of the people.

There can be no recovery in the jobs and living standards of working people apart from the working class undertaking a social and political offensive to break the stranglehold of the financial aristocracy. The only alternative to deepening poverty and social misery is a struggle to replace the bankrupt capitalist system with socialism.

This entails the nationalization of the banks and finance houses without compensation to the big shareholders and CEOs and their transformation into public utilities under the democratic control of the working class. Only on this basis can economic life be organized to meet the needs of the people—including the right to a good-paying job, a secure home, education, health care and a decent retirement—rather than the socially destructive drive for personal wealth of the financial elite.

The World Socialist Web Site, the Socialist Equality Party and the International Students for Social Equality are sponsoring a series of conferences on “The World Economic Crisis, the Failure of Capitalism, and the Case for Socialism” in Ann Arbor, Michigan, New York City, and Los Angeles, California. The purpose of these conferences is to examine the origins of the economic crisis and discuss the necessary program and perspective for a new socialist movement of the American and international working class.

We urge all those looking for an alternative to the profit system and the two parties of the financial aristocracy to attend these conferences.

To find out more about the conferences, click here.

Obama and the pirates: the glorification of state violence

Obama and the pirates: the glorification of state violence

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The four-day standoff between the Fifth Fleet and a handful of Somali pirates ended Easter Sunday with the shooting deaths of three of the Somalis and the release of Richard Phillips, the American captain of the Maersk Alabama.

On the scale of world events, the standoff was in and of itself a fairly minor episode—a hostage situation.

Every police department is trained to deal with such events. Manuals for how they should be handled universally stress that the objective is to resolve the incident peacefully, protect the lives of the hostages and the police, and, if possible, avoid the application of lethal force.

In this instance, the hostage-taking was transformed into a media-orchestrated drama and a high-stakes political test of President Barack Obama’s willingness to use armed force. The killing of the pirates became a political objective in its own right.

In the aftermath of the killings, the media exploited the American public’s understandable relief over Captain Phillips’ survival and turned it into a bloodthirsty celebration of executions by sniper fire. Totally lost in the media’s perverse satisfaction that the pirates—three Somali teenagers—were killed has been any questioning of whether the shootings were justified or, even within the framework of US foreign policy, advisable.

The official claim that the killings were necessary because the captain was in imminent danger is not convincing. Before the pirates were killed, a fourth member of their band, aged 16, had given himself up to the US Navy to get treatment for wounds suffered in the attempt to hijack the American cargo ship. His three associates, exhausted and thinking they were negotiating to secure their own lives in exchange for the release of the captain, had allowed themselves to be attached to the US warship Bainbridge with a tow line, which was then reeled to within 75 feet of the ship. This hardly indicates that the pirates were preparing for a desperate last stand. Moreover, for the military snipers, trained to hit targets at a distance of a mile or more, the killing of the pirates presented no serious challenge.

The decision to execute the pirates was taken for political reasons. It served to disarm Obama’s critics on the right and prove the president’s mettle to the military and the American ruling elite. This was made clear as the White House almost immediately issued an official statement crediting Obama with the authorization of deadly force. That Captain Phillips emerged alive from this situation was an accidental byproduct of a politically motivated decision.

The most telling indication of the nature of these killings is the reaction of the corporate media, which combined articles on how much of a political “win” the incident was for Obama with obscene bloodlust in relation to the dead Somalis.

It is hard to be shocked anymore by the media; its political servility, backwardness and appeals to the basest instincts have been part of the American political landscape for so long. But in this case, there was a savagery that seemed almost unhinged.

Most notable was the response of the Washington Post, which functions as a paper of record in the US capital. Two days after the rescue, it carried a banner headline on its front page: “Three pirates, three rounds, three dead bodies.”

The paper’s foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius penned a column entitled “In praise of snipers.” It read: “Just as the policy mavens were beginning to debate elaborate political-military strategies for dealing with the Somali pirates, we were reminded that the best solution is sometimes the simplest and most direct—in this case, a sniper’s rifle.” The column goes on to argue that the solution to the crisis in Somalia—and those elsewhere—is to be found in covert CIA and Special Forces killing squads moving “quickly and quietly to alter the balance of power on the ground.”

Finally, the Post published an article by Stephen Hunter, the paper’s former movie critic and author of pulp fiction, glorifying snipers. Hunter’s piece hails the sniper as “a kind of chivalric hero. He is the state, speaking in thunder, restoring order to the moral universe. Or he is civilization, informing the barbarians of the fecklessness of their plight.”

For those old enough to remember the role of the sniper in American history—the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King come to mind—the publication of this sort of fascist-minded filth in a major newspaper is especially disgusting.

It is noteworthy that this worship of the lone gunman appears as barely a week goes by in America without at least one mass killing by deranged and desperate individuals with guns. Is there any doubt that the fetid political environment in which armed force is propagated as the solution to complex problems contributes to this mayhem?

Almost entirely absent from the media is intelligent commentary on Somalia’s crisis and the repeated US military interventions that have contributed so decisively to its breakdown and to the growth of piracy. Much in the same way that the media eschewed any political explanation for the 9/11 attacks for fear of being accused of “justifying terrorism,” so the same rhetorical terrorism is used to silence any critical assessment of the US role in Somalia, which is branded as “defending piracy.”

There are obvious political motives for glorifying the sniper killings in the Indian Ocean. On the one hand, they serve as a useful distraction from the continuing plunge of the US and world economy into depression and the destruction of the jobs and living standards of millions.

On the other, following wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—begun by Bush and continued by Obama—characterized by setbacks and failures, here is an instance in which Washington can proclaim to the American people that military force really does work. For a US ruling class that rests heavily on its relative military superiority to advance its global interests, this is an ideological conception of key importance.

When Obama’s powerful backers within the US political establishment were putting his candidacy together, one of their arguments was that an African-American president would serve to improve relations with Africa, with its strategic energy and mineral resources coveted not only by Washington, but also by China and Europe.

The summary executions of three Somali teenagers will serve to inflame already powerful anti-American sentiments among the Somali people and discredit throughout the continent the notion that Obama means “change.”

The Consequences of 'Drill, Baby Drill': More Than 90 Oil Spills a Day in the U.S.

The Consequences of 'Drill, Baby Drill': More Than 90 Oil Spills a Day in the U.S.

By Kari Lydersen

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The 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska on March 24 got much attention, including reports that significant oil still pollutes the area and many fish and animal species and the Alaska Native economies that relied on them have still not recovered.

Meanwhile, the captain of the Cosco Busan oil tanker which slammed into San Francisco's Bay Bridge and caused a major spill in November 2007 is currently on trial.

Such dramatic tanker accidents are what normally come to mind when people think of oil spills. But oil spills and ongoing leaks from pipelines, platforms, storage tanks and other infrastructure are actually a daily occurrence in Alaska, the Gulf Coast, California and other parts of the U.S.

Companies are rarely punished for such occurrences, yet these sources of contamination create serious and ongoing public health and environmental problems that communities are often left to deal with on their own. These spills happen from rigs, pipelines and infrastructure both on land and offshore, with the most serious health and environmental consequences coming when oil and related contaminants pollute waterways or seep into groundwater.

The Coast Guard National Response Center, which tallies all reports of oil spills, logged more than 33,000 in 2008. Pipelines and platforms accounted for more than 1,300 each, and storage tanks suffered more than 2,400 spills.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, a reported spill should be any "Discharges that cause a sheen or discoloration on the surface of a body of water; discharges that violate applicable water-quality standards; and discharges that cause a sludge or emulsion to be deposited beneath the surface of the water or on adjoining shorelines."

A 2002 report by the National Academies found that an average 880,000 gallons of petroleum enter North American ocean waters because of oil drilling and exploration each year, mainly from leaks in the Gulf of Mexico and off Southern California, northern Alaska and eastern Canada. (The report noted that other human sources, including land-based runoff, boat and jet ski engines and aircraft jettisoning fuel are a much more significant source, introducing about 30 times more petroleum into the ocean each year.)

Worldwide, the report said, 210 million gallons of petroleum enter the sea annually from the extraction, transportation and consumption of crude oil and related products. Oil also seeps naturally from the ocean floor into the water, about 180 million gallons per year according to the National Academies.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is currently considering how to deal with 300 million seafloor acres of offshore-drilling leases President George W. Bush opened up in his final hours in office. President Barack Obama placed a moratorium on new outer continental shelf offshore-drilling leases and extended the public comment period on the leases through September 2009.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Minerals Management Service, part of the Department of the Interior that handles oil leases, has been holding regional public hearings around the country, including one scheduled for April 16 in San Francisco. Even though increased drilling doesn't seem to fit with Obama's stated focus on renewable energy, it appears likely the government will end up allowing increased offshore drilling, including along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, off Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of offshore leases on the table are those in Arctic waters, where climate change and the effects of increasing industrial development are already taking a huge toll on ecosystems and wildlife. New oil lease sales are being considered in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska, and in Alaska's Bristol Bay, the world's largest wild salmon fishery. Environmental groups sued to try to block a major February 2008 lease sale in the Chukchi Sea, arguing it would be devastating to walrus, polar bears and other creatures.

Debate also continues over the prospect of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There is no effective way to clean up oil spills in ice-clogged waters of the north, according to environmental and watchdog groups. That means oil spilled in the Arctic is often just left there.

The famous Prudhoe Bay oil field of Alaska's North Slope -- where would-be vice presidential husband Todd Palin worked -- suffers more than one oil spill every day on average, according to an analysis of spills from 1996 to 2008 recently compiled by the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. The period includes only two years with fewer than 400 spills.

The trans-Alaskan pipeline that carries oil from the North Slope to the southern port of Valdez is also vulnerable to spills and sabotage.

"It adds up," said Pam Miller, Arctic coordinator for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. "Because of the remoteness of these fields and the lack of state personnel and motivation to do inspections and monitoring, the number of spills aren't declining. The upward trend has been pretty constant. It shows that oil by its nature, no matter how well done, is a dirty business."

The North Slope analysis includes on- and offshore accidents caused by corroded pipes and other problems. The federal government recently filed a lawsuit against BP over two oil spills from corroded pipeline totaling more than 200,000 gallons in March and August 2006. The state of Alaska is also suing BP, alleging negligence caused these spills and resulted in greatly reduced oil royalties to the state after operations were temporarily shut down. BP had already been fined $20 million for the spills after pleading guilty to federal misdemeanor criminal charges.

The Wall Street Journal reported the Justice Department had essentially backed down with this settlement, after initially considering felony charges that could have cost the company more than $600 million.

Any kind of settlement or payment is an exception. Normally, as long as a company reports a spill and is operating within its permit requirements, they are not fined or otherwise punished. "Sometimes they'll get a notice of violation, and they're given time to clean up their act, sometimes for a decade they're out of compliance," said Miller. "And there are very few (inspection) personnel in the field -- there's only one inspector for an oil field area larger than the state of Rhode Island. It's pretty much self-reporting by industry."

On the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and neighboring states, residents have learned they must do their own environmental monitoring to protect themselves from the effects of frequent spills and leaks from the extensive local oil industry. Coastal waters, marshes, rivers, agricultural fields and groundwater are regularly contaminated by accidents in the oil industry which release oil, diesel, other petroleum products and chemicals used in the refining process.

When a compressor blows, contaminants can be blasted into people's homes and gardens. In many cases, groundwater that provides drinking water to towns, subdivisions or trailer parks is contaminated. Usually this means the well will be plugged and the town connected to another water source.

Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist who works with community groups to do their own testing, said the source of the contamination is rarely investigated, and no company is held responsible.

Meanwhile, people who live in rural areas with their own wells, or in private subdivisions with a communal well, must often do their own testing and find alternate water sources. Sometimes the responsible company or the state provides bottled water, other times citizens are on their own and community groups step in to help, Subra said.

Spills, leaks and other accidents causing contamination are a regular occurrence along the Gulf Coast, even in normal conditions. But when hurricanes hit, the consequences are devastating. Oil platforms and storage tanks are uprooted or damaged, drums of chemicals or petroleum products are tossed asunder and pipelines are damaged. Waste pits or lagoons storing petroleum waste are overwhelmed by storm surges, washing the toxic brew into communities, rivers and fields.

About 9 million gallons of oil were spilled during hurricanes Rita and Katrina, with 113 offshore oil rigs destroyed, and much of that contamination still has not been cleaned up.

The town of Meraux, near New Orleans, was practically submerged by floodwaters mixed with oil from Murphy Oil's nearby refinery, eventually resulting in a $330 million class-action settlement. Then in 2008, hurricanes Ike and Gustav spilled more than half a million gallons of oil, destroying 52 oil rigs and damaging 32 out of the 3,800 in the Gulf.

Those hurricanes also stirred up contaminated sediment from past storms and mixed it with water or washed it onto land. Subra noted that cleanup efforts of the past year have been hindered by red tape, like the fact that certain funds are allocated specifically for contamination from one hurricane season or another.

"This just added onto what still hadn't been addressed from Katrina," said Subra. "They were finally getting around to looking at (Katrina's effects on) water bodies with FEMA funds. But then when the debris was added by Gustav and Ike, they were saying we don't have authority to use the money for that. How do you tell which hurricane it came from?"

Since many residents of Louisiana's coast -- including significant Native American, Vietnamese and African American populations -- practice subsistence farming, hunting and fishing, the contamination from oil spills during hurricanes (and otherwise) has serious health and economic consequences.

"It smothered and killed a lot of organisms -- wildlife, fish, benthic organisms -- and people in coastal areas survive on organisms they can hunt and catch, so there have been a lot of illnesses," said Subra, whose Subra Co. works with groups nationwide to do environmental testing and push for government involvement.

People are at risk of ingesting oil-related contaminants through food and water and also breathing them in or coming in contact when the contaminants attach to soil and dust particles.

People working in fields, fishing or just going about their daily lives have suffered acute respiratory and skin problems. Longer-term respiratory diseases like chronic bronchitis are being seen, locals think, as a result of contamination.

And in the long run, a cancer spike is possible, since many of the chemicals from the oil industry are carcinogens. Spills typically include volatile organic compounds like benzene; PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which stay in the environment for many years; and toxic heavy metals like arsenic and mercury.

Now, Gulf Coast oil platforms, waste storage areas and other facilities are being built higher to protect them from storm surges. But efforts are voluntary, as there have been few regulatory changes affecting the powerful oil industry.

Subra and her colleagues have helped communities acquire the reports of spills or excess discharges, which companies are required to file with various state and local agencies. In many cases, residents end up notifying government agencies of spills before the companies do, she said. Community groups have taken to working directly with companies to persuade them to do a better job protecting against spills and leaks, an approach Subra said has had considerable success.

Many storage tanks for oil and related industries were built during the World War II era, when metal was being conserved for the war effort. Storage tanks often had no bottoms or tops, with oil or waste directly exposed to the earth beneath it. Many of those tanks are still in use today, and much of the resulting contamination has still not been dealt with.

New offshore-drilling leases would likely lead to more petroleum pollution along the Gulf Coast, local environmental groups say.

Meanwhile, even if the Department of the Interior does not open up significant new offshore drilling leases, companies already hold up to 70 million acres of leases on which they are not yet drilling, the majority in the Gulf of Mexico. Much of this area, far offshore, is expensive to explore and drill; hence, companies were holding out for more attractive leases closer to shore.

With oil prices currently low, interest in offshore drilling has also flagged. But unless the U.S. and major developing countries swiftly transition to cleaner fuel sources, higher oil prices and more pressure for increased drilling are only a matter of time. That will mean more drilling and likely more spills in on- and offshore facilities, not to mention the increased exploitation of Canada's oil sands, known for significant contamination of groundwater and rivers.

Chad Nelsen, environmental director of the Surfrider Foundation, said oil spills are just one reason of many for the U.S. to switch away from a petroleum-based energy economy.

"The 'drill baby, drill' crowd, with this whole 'drill here, drill now, pay less' slogan has really sold a pack of lies," he said. "New drilling off the coasts is not going to affect gas prices dramatically. They tried to capitalize on the $5 (per gallon) gas last summer, now it's down to $2, and there wasn't any new drilling."

He said the oil industry has perpetuated the myth that the country can "drill our way out of our need for foreign oil," along with the myth that technology has made oil a "safe" industry. He thinks companies are doing the best they can in terms of preventing spills, but the nature of the industry makes ongoing small and occasional catastrophic spills inevitable.

"It is true the oil industry has improved their safety record, it's true they're spilling less oil than before, but they're still spilling oil," he said. "The answer is to get off the stuff."