Monday, April 20, 2009

Predators starve as we plunder oceans

Predators starve as we plunder oceans

Marine giants go hungry as fleets scoop up their prey for our fish suppers.

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Starving sea life – from whales to puffins, tuna to seals – is being found all over the world's oceans, as the food on which it depends is being fished out, startling new evidence shows. And much of the depletion, ironically, is caused by raising captive fish – for the table.

New figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation show that the small fish on which birds and marine mammals feed have become the main target of fishing fleets since stocks of bigger fish have become exhausted. Four times as much of these "prey fish" are now brought to shore as half a century ago, and seven of the world's largest 10 fisheries now go after them.

More than four-fifths of this catch does not go directly to feed people, but is ground up into fish oil and fish meal and increasingly used to raise carnivorous species such as salmon in fish farms. A captive fish needs up to 11b of food to put on a single pound in weight. And, as a result, there is less and less left for its natural predators.

"We have caught most of the big fish and are now going after their food," says Margot Stiles, a marine scientist for Oceana, the leading international sea protection pressure group.

A new report by the group, Hungry Oceans, describes how "scrawny predators – dolphins, sea bass and even whales – have turned up on coastlines all over the world", adding that scientists are finding them and seabirds "emaciated from lack of food, vulnerable to disease and without enough energy to reproduce"

Members of Congress Working to Curtail Powers of Patriot Act

Members of Congress Working to Curtail Powers of Patriot Act

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THERE IS A BIPARTISAN EFFORT AFOOT to rein in federal law enforcement’s ability to abuse rules for snooping that were loosened following passage of the Patriot Act in 2001.

Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Jeff Flake (RAriz.) introduced the National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009 (H.R. 1800) in late March to curtail the subpoena power given to law enforcement as a result of National Security Letter (NSL) provisions in the Patriot Act. It immediately picked up 17 cosponsors.

NSLs involve subpoenas, which can be used to demand personal records from Internet companies, financial institutions, credit companies and libraries without prior court approval. Because they are issued in secrecy, do not require a court review and contain a gag order, targets never even know if they have been investigated. The American Civil Liberties Union says it worked with Congress to formulate legislation to reduce the FBI’s ability to snoop into Americans’ lives.

“To ensure that Americans’ privacy and free speech rights are protected, there must be clear oversight and strict guidelines tied to the use of NSLs,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Mr. Nadler and Mr. Flake should be applauded for taking this legislative step. Their bill will realign the current NSL authority with the Constitution. Congress must take this opportunity to rein in the power of the NSL.”

NSLs were supposed to be used only when obtaining information about suspected terrorists, but the Patriot Act expanded the statute to say that the subpoenas can now be used to obtain personal information about people who are identified as “relevant” to an investigation. As a result, the NSLs were wide open to abuse at the hands of federal agents.

Not surprisingly, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, which has been tasked with watching over its own agents, has admitted in a series of reports that there were “systemic misuse and abuse” of NSLs by FBI agents.

“It has become painfully clear that unchecked Patriot Act power inevitably leads to abuse, and National Security Letters are no exception,” said Michelle Richardson, ACLU legislative counsel. “Innocent Americans have been swept into investigations and recipients have been barred from speaking about it publicly.”

Tons of Released Drugs Taint US Water

Tons of released drugs taint US water

By JEFF DONN, MARTHA MENDOZA and JUSTIN PRITCHARD

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U.S. manufacturers, including major drugmakers, have legally released at least 271 million pounds of pharmaceuticals into waterways that often provide drinking water - contamination the federal government has consistently overlooked, according to an Associated Press investigation.

Hundreds of active pharmaceutical ingredients are used in a variety of manufacturing, including drugmaking: For example, lithium is used to make ceramics and treat bipolar disorder; nitroglycerin is a heart drug and also used in explosives; copper shows up in everything from pipes to contraceptives.

Federal and industry officials say they don't know the extent to which pharmaceuticals are released by U.S. manufacturers because no one tracks them - as drugs. But a close analysis of 20 years of federal records found that, in fact, the government unintentionally keeps data on a few, allowing a glimpse of the pharmaceuticals coming from factories.

As part of its ongoing PharmaWater investigation about trace concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, AP identified 22 compounds that show up on two lists: the EPA monitors them as industrial chemicals that are released into rivers, lakes and other bodies of water under federal pollution laws, while the Food and Drug Administration classifies them as active pharmaceutical ingredients.

The data don't show precisely how much of the 271 million pounds comes from drugmakers versus other manufacturers; also, the figure is a massive undercount because of the limited federal government tracking.

To date, drugmakers have dismissed the suggestion that their manufacturing contributes significantly to what's being found in water. Federal drug and water regulators agree.

But some researchers say the lack of required testing amounts to a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy about whether drugmakers are contributing to water pollution.

"It doesn't pass the straight-face test to say pharmaceutical manufacturers are not emitting any of the compounds they're creating," said Kyla Bennett, who spent 10 years as an EPA enforcement officer before becoming an ecologist and environmental attorney.

Pilot studies in the U.S. and abroad are now confirming those doubts.

Last year, the AP reported that trace amounts of a wide range of pharmaceuticals - including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones - have been found in American drinking water supplies. Including recent findings in Dallas, Cleveland and Maryland's Prince George's and Montgomery counties, pharmaceuticals have been detected in the drinking water of at least 51 million Americans.

Most cities and water providers still do not test. Some scientists say that wherever researchers look, they will find pharma-tainted water.

Consumers are considered the biggest contributors to the contamination. We consume drugs, then excrete what our bodies don't absorb. Other times, we flush unused drugs down toilets. The AP also found that an estimated 250 million pounds of pharmaceuticals and contaminated packaging are thrown away each year by hospitals and long-term care facilities.

Researchers have found that even extremely diluted concentrations of drugs harm fish, frogs and other aquatic species. Also, researchers report that human cells fail to grow normally in the laboratory when exposed to trace concentrations of certain drugs. Some scientists say they are increasingly concerned that the consumption of combinations of many drugs, even in small amounts, could harm humans over decades.

Utilities say the water is safe. Scientists, doctors and the EPA say there are no confirmed human risks associated with consuming minute concentrations of drugs. But those experts also agree that dangers cannot be ruled out, especially given the emerging research.

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Two common industrial chemicals that are also pharmaceuticals - the antiseptics phenol and hydrogen peroxide - account for 92 percent of the 271 million pounds identified as coming from drugmakers and other manufacturers. Both can be toxic and both are considered to be ubiquitous in the environment.

However, the list of 22 includes other troubling releases of chemicals that can be used to make drugs and other products: 8 million pounds of the skin bleaching cream hydroquinone, 3 million pounds of nicotine compounds that can be used in quit-smoking patches, 10,000 pounds of the antibiotic tetracycline hydrochloride. Others include treatments for head lice and worms.

Residues are often released into the environment when manufacturing equipment is cleaned.

A small fraction of pharmaceuticals also leach out of landfills where they are dumped. Pharmaceuticals released onto land include the chemo agent fluorouracil, the epilepsy medicine phenytoin and the sedative pentobarbital sodium. The overall amount may be considerable, given the volume of what has been buried - 572 million pounds of the 22 monitored drugs since 1988.

In one case, government data shows that in Columbus, Ohio, pharmaceutical maker Boehringer Ingelheim Roxane Inc. discharged an estimated 2,285 pounds of lithium carbonate - which is considered slightly toxic to aquatic invertebrates and freshwater fish - to a local wastewater treatment plant between 1995 and 2006. Company spokeswoman Marybeth C. McGuire said the pharmaceutical plant, which uses lithium to make drugs for bipolar disorder, has violated no laws or regulations. McGuire said all the lithium discharged, an annual average of 190 pounds, was lost when residues stuck to mixing equipment were washed down the drain.

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Pharmaceutical company officials point out that active ingredients represent profits, so there's a huge incentive not to let any escape. They also say extremely strict manufacturing regulations - albeit aimed at other chemicals - help prevent leakage, and that whatever traces may get away are handled by onsite wastewater treatment.

"Manufacturers have to be in compliance with all relevant environmental laws," said Alan Goldhammer, a scientist and vice president at the industry trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Goldhammer conceded some drug residues could be released in wastewater, but stressed "it would not cause any environmental issues because it was not a toxic substance at the level that it was being released at."

Several big drugmakers were asked this simple question: Have you tested wastewater from your plants to find out whether any active pharmaceuticals are escaping, and if so what have you found?

No drugmaker answered directly.

"Based on research that we have reviewed from the past 20 years, pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities are not a significant source of pharmaceuticals that contribute to environmental risk," GlaxoSmithKline said in a statement.

AstraZeneca spokeswoman Kate Klemas said the company's manufacturing processes "are designed to avoid, or otherwise minimize the loss of product to the environment" and thus "ensure that any residual losses of pharmaceuticals to the environment that do occur are at levels that would be unlikely to pose a threat to human health or the environment."

One major manufacturer, Pfizer Inc., acknowledged that it tested some of its wastewater - but outside the United States.

The company's director of hazard communication and environmental toxicology, Frank Mastrocco, said Pfizer has sampled effluent from some of its foreign drug factories. Without disclosing details, he said the results left Pfizer "confident that the current controls and processes in place at these facilities are adequately protective of human health and the environment."

It's not just the industry that isn't testing.

FDA spokesman Christopher Kelly noted that his agency is not responsible for what comes out on the waste end of drug factories. At the EPA, acting assistant administrator for water Mike Shapiro - whose agency's Web site says pharmaceutical releases from manufacturing are "well defined and controlled" - did not mention factories as a source of pharmaceutical pollution when asked by the AP how drugs get into drinking water.

"Pharmaceuticals get into water in many ways," he said in a written statement. "It's commonly believed the majority come from human and animal excretion. A portion also comes from flushing unused drugs down the toilet or drain; a practice EPA generally discourages."

His position echoes that of a line of federal drug and water regulators as well as drugmakers, who concluded in the 1990s - before highly sensitive tests now used had been developed - that manufacturing is not a meaningful source of pharmaceuticals in the environment.

Pharmaceutical makers typically are excused from having to submit an environmental review for new products, and the FDA has never rejected a drug application based on potential environmental impact. Also at play are pressures not to delay potentially lifesaving drugs. What's more, because the EPA hasn't concluded at what level, if any, pharmaceuticals are bad for the environment or harmful to people, drugmakers almost never have to report the release of pharmaceuticals they produce.

"The government could get a national snapshot of the water if they chose to," said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "and it seems logical that we would want to find out what's coming out of these plants."

Ajit Ghorpade, an environmental engineer who worked for several major pharmaceutical companies before his current job helping run a wastewater treatment plant, said drugmakers have no impetus to take measurements that the government doesn't require.

"Obviously nobody wants to spend the time or their dime to prove this," he said. "It's like asking me why I don't drive a hybrid car? Why should I? It's not required."

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After contacting the nation's leading drugmakers and filing public records requests, the AP found two federal agencies that have tested.

Both the EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey have studies under way comparing sewage at treatment plants that receive wastewater from drugmaking factories against sewage at treatment plants that do not.

Preliminary USGS results, slated for publication later this year, show that treated wastewater from sewage plants serving drug factories had significantly more medicine residues. Data from the EPA study show a disproportionate concentration in wastewater of an antibiotic that a major Michigan factory was producing at the time the samples were taken.

Meanwhile, other researchers recorded concentrations of codeine in the southern reaches of the Delaware River that were at least 10 times higher than the rest of the river.

The scientists from the Delaware River Basin Commission won't have to look far when they try to track down potential sources later this year. One mile from the sampling site, just off shore of Pennsville, N.J., there's a pipe that spits out treated wastewater from a municipal plant. The plant accepts sewage from a pharmaceutical factory owned by Siegfried Ltd. The factory makes codeine.

"We have implemented programs to not only reduce the volume of waste materials generated but to minimize the amount of pharmaceutical ingredients in the water," said Siegfried spokeswoman Rita van Eck.

Another codeine plant, run by Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Noramco Inc., is about seven miles away. A Noramco spokesman acknowledged that the Wilmington, Del., factory had voluntarily tested its wastewater and found codeine in trace concentrations thousands of times greater than what was found in the Delaware River. "The amounts of codeine we measured in the wastewater, prior to releasing it to the City of Wilmington, are not considered to be hazardous to the environment," said a company spokesman.

In another instance, equipment-cleaning water sent down the drain of an Upsher-Smith Laboratories, Inc. factory in Denver consistently contains traces of warfarin, a blood thinner, according to results obtained under a public records act request. Officials at the company and the Denver Metro Wastewater Reclamation District said they believe the concentrations are safe.

Warfarin, which also is a common rat poison and pesticide, is so effective at inhibiting growth of aquatic plants and animals it's actually deliberately introduced to clean plants and tiny aquatic animals from ballast water of ships.

"With regard to wastewater management we are subject to a variety of federal, state and local regulation and oversight," said Joel Green, Upsher-Smith's vice president and general counsel. "And we work hard to maintain systems to promote compliance."

Baylor University professor Bryan Brooks, who has published more than a dozen studies related to pharmaceuticals in the environment, said assurances that drugmakers run clean shops are not enough.

"I have no reason to believe them or not believe them," he said. "We don't have peer-reviewed studies to support or not support their claims."

White House bars prosecution of Bush officials who authorized torture

More revelations from Bush torture memos

By Tom Eley

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The Bush administration memos released last Thursday by the US Justice Department demonstrate that Washington carried out a studied and systematic torture operation for years.

The documents, written by lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) counsel, make clear that the CIA was carrying out torture prior to, and during the time the memos were written in 2002 and 2005.

They also show that Bush administration officials were well aware that the methods discussed could be construed as torture. They therefore sought to develop an ex post facto and pseudo-legal rationale for specific acts of torture, in defiance of US and international laws.

“Phases of the Interrogation Process”

A memo dated May 10, 2005, describes the “enhanced interrogation.” It broadly corroborates findings of a recently leaked International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report that outlined various violations of international law committed by the Bush administration in the “war on terror.” (see, “Red Cross report details CIA war crimes” )

The memo, quoting a document referred to as a Background Paper, describes the abduction of prisoners and their shipment to black site prisons:

Before being flown to the site of interrogation, a detainee is given a medical examination. He then is ‘securely shackled and is deprived of sight and sound through the use of blindfolds, earmuffs, and hoods’ during the flight... Upon arrival at the site, the detainee ‘finds himself in complete control of Americans’ and is subjected to ‘precise quiet, and almost clinical’ procedures... His head and face are shaved; his physical condition is documented through photographs taken while he is nude....

From there, “three interrogation techniques are typically used” to initiate the inmate to torture by

‘demonstrating to the [detainee] that he has no control over basic human needs’ and helping to make him ‘perceive and value his personal welfare, comfort, and immediate needs more than the information he is protecting.’ The three techniques used to establish this ‘baseline’ are nudity, sleep deprivation (with shackling and, at least at times, with use of a diaper), and dietary manipulation.

The memo then proceeds to describe what it refers to as “a prototypical interrogation.” This begins with the threat of violence, an act specifically outlawed by US and international law.

“The interrogators remove the hood and explain that the detainee can improve his situation by cooperating and... that the interrogators ‘will do what it takes to get important information.’” It continues:

As soon as the detainee does anything inconsistent with the interrogators’ instructions, the interrogators use an insult slap or abdominal slap. They employ walling [slamming the prisoner into a hollow wall by a rope attached to his neck by a collar] if it becomes clear that the detainee is not cooperating...This sequence ‘may continue for several more iterations as the interrogators continue to measure the [detainee’s] resistance... The interrogators... then put the detainee into position for standing sleep deprivation, begin dietary manipulation... and keep the detainee nude (except for a diaper). The first interrogation session, which could have lasted from 30 minutes to several hours, would then be at an end.

The second session could begin in one hour, the memo explains. In this, the interrogators proceed more rapidly to beatings (“abdominal slaps” and “insult slaps”) and walling.

After this, the interrogators then increase the pressure on the detainee by using a hose to douse the detainee with water for several minutes. They stop and start the dousing as they continue the interrogation. They then end the session by placing the detainee into the same circumstances as at the end of the first session; the detainee is in the standing position for sleep deprivation [hands chained to the ceiling above him], is nude (except for a diaper), and subjected to dietary manipulation. Once again, the session could have lasted from 30 minutes to several hours.

This phase is followed by further sessions in which beating, walling, and water dousing would be considerably intensified. The process, the memo concludes, “may last 30 days [unless] additional time is required.”

The memos claim to set parameters for waterboarding, a long-time torture method by which agents pour water over the cloth-covered mouth of a supine individual, inducing suffocation and drowning. According to the memo, the method’s use should be limited to cases where the CIA believes the suspect to be aware of an imminent terrorist attack and “other interrogation methods have failed” to break the suspect.

Yet since the CIA interrogators alone determined these criteria, the potential use of the method was unlimited.

The two memos written in 2005 leave no doubt that the practice of waterboarding was much more widespread than the Bush administration admitted, and that it continued through at least 2005.

A threadbare legal defense

The first three memos signed by OLC lawyers Jay Bybee and Steven G. Bradbury—one was written on August 1, 2002, and two are dated May 10, 2005—deal primarily with the potential legal consequences of violating Section 2340A of title 18 of the United States Code, which defines torture and outlaws it.

The fourth memo, written on May 30, 2005, addresses the potential bearing of international law on the CIA’s methods—specifically Article 16 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment and Punishment (hereafter “UN Convention”), to which the US is a signatory, and the relationship of that law to the US Constitution.

Any objective analysis of Section 2340A would leave no doubt that the CIA’s methods violated US statutes. The law reads, in part,

‘torture’ means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering... upon another person within his custody or physical control; ‘severe mental pain or suffering’ means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from (A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering... (C) the threat of imminent death.

The memos analyze, in nauseating detail, each particular form of torture, and conclude time and again that these methods do not inflict suffering “severe” enough to meet the US Code’s definition of torture.

More astounding still, the memos claim that since it was not the specific intention of the torturers to inflict pain and suffering, but to gather intelligence, no interrogator has violated the law. Using this rationale, ripping out teeth, nails, or dismembering a body would also fall outside the scope of the law—so long as these forms of torture were means to an end, rather than an end in and of themselves.

The pseudo-legal claims attempting to free torturers from the constraints of international law and the Constitution are equally dubious.

The central argument of the fourth memo is that since the UN Convention applies to territories under US jurisdiction, it cannot apply to the US prison black sites where torture took place, as these were in the territory of other sovereign states such as Afghanistan, Poland, Morocco and Thailand. Therefore, according to the Bush administration, the laws agreed to by the US in the UN Convention have no bearing.

This is a lie. The secret US military prisons were entirely under the control of the US. However, the local ruling elites, by virtue of allowing the US to torture on their territories, are a party to the crime and should also face investigation.

In a parallel argument, the memo claims that as the “war on terror” is not a typical war, it is not covered by the prohibitions against torture spelled out in the Geneva Conventions.

In a second major argument, the fourth memo cites a US Senate reservation to the UN Convention that stipulated that for the US, the Convention’s prohibition on “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” would be defined by those actions prohibited by the 5th, 8th, and 14th amendments to the Constitution.

Unsurprisingly, Bradbury’s memo finds that none of these amendments prohibit any of the actions in question. In other words, neither international nor domestic law prohibiting torture applied to prisoners in “the war on terror.”

However, just to be safe, the memo notes that the CIA has “asked whether the interrogation techniques at issue would violate” the UN Convention if the sweeping claims made by the Justice Department failed to stand up to judicial scrutiny. Obligingly, the Justice Department attorney found, once again, that none of the specific instance of torture actually violate the UN Convention prohibiting torture.

Regarding the 5th Amendment, the Justice Department claimed that the methods deployed on terror suspects could not possibly “shock the conscience”—the traditional legal standard for determining violations of due process—as they were necessary to avert the potential of a terrorist attack.

Notwithstanding the fact that Washington has never provided a shred of credible evidence that its violations of law and human rights have prevented any terrorist attack, it should be noted that, in modern history, every regime that has ever carried out systematic torture—including Nazi Germany—has always claimed that it was necessary to do so for national security reasons.

The presence of medical personnel

The memos prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that CIA medical personnel were heavily involved in torture. This substantiates evidence from the ICRC report.

The ICRC noted “The role of the physician and any other health professional involved in the care of detainees is explicitly to protect them from such ill-treatment and there can be no exception of circumstances invoked to excuse this obligation.”

And further, “any interrogation process that requires a health professional to either pronounce on the subjects’ fitness to withstand such procedure, or which requires a health professional to monitor the actual procedure, must have inherent health risks. As such, the interrogation process is contrary to international law and the participation of health personnel in such a process is contrary to international standards of medical ethics.”

The second OLC torture memo notes, “Medical and psychological personnel are on-scene throughout (and, as detailed below, physically present or otherwise observing during the application of many techniques, including all techniques involving physical contact with detainees).”

The memos are replete with references to medical and psychological personnel. They leave no doubt that the primary purpose of these doctors, nurses, and healthcare professionals was not to provide medical assistance, but to gauge how much physical and mental duress the tortured could withstand in order to avoid death or total incapacitation.

The presence of the doctors at the torture black sites recalls nothing so much as the doctors and scientists at the Nazi concentration camps of WWII.

These CIA doctors and psychologists must be investigated, and their professional credentials should be stripped immediately by the governing professional associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association.

San Diego imposes drastic cuts on city workers

San Diego imposes drastic cuts on city workers

By Josué Olmos

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At the request of San Diego, California Mayor Jerry Sanders, late Tuesday night the City Council voted to declare an impasse in contract negotiations with two of the five labor unions representing 10,500 city workers. This declaration means that the city will be free to impose drastic pay and benefit cuts at will upon workers in the Police Officers Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 127.

In last minute negotiations, an impasse was averted with the three other unions: The San Diego Municipal Employees Association, San Diego City Firefighters Local 145 and the Deputy City Attorneys Association. The unions agreed to similar pay and benefit cuts as those that will be imposed on the Police Officers Association and AFSCME workers. Initial reports are that the Firefighters Local 145 has accepted $5.8 million in wage and benefit cuts; the details of the other contracts have not yet been reported.

Throughout the day, hundreds of workers from the five unions protested at City Hall against the unfair cuts and the breakdown in contract negotiations. Tuesday’s City Council meeting began with dozens of city workers testifying in front of the council, demanding a halt to cuts.

Local press described the City Council vote as “unexpected” because Democrats, who were backed by the labor unions in their elections, occupy six of the eight spots on the council. The unanimous vote to declare an impasse came at 10:25pm, after hours in a closed-door session by the City Council.

Union officials agreed in advance to the logic of Mayor Sanders, who formulated the process as a decision between job losses and wage and benefit cuts. Sanders is attempting to close a $60 million budget gap in the $3.01 billion Fiscal Year 2010 budget, in part by imposing over $30 million in cuts on city workers. He had asked that all five unions accept a 6 percent across the board pay cut in order to help resolve the budget deficit.

In testimony before the City Council, Sanders stated, “Reducing our workforce would not only adversely impact employees and their families, it would also erode public services through the closure of libraries and recreation centers and reduced public safety coverage. This is not acceptable to me and it is not acceptable to the public.”

This statement by Sanders shows that he is indifferent to the social crisis that is already ravaging San Diego workers and their families. Hundreds of millions have already been cut from local school budgets, unemployment has risen dramatically, and bankruptcies and foreclosures continue at record rates. (See “California’s new budget and the social crisis in San Diego”)

While the city reports that 874 positions have already been cut since Fiscal Year 2007, the current budget does not ensure that additional job losses will not occur in the future.

President of the AFSCME Local 127, Ann Smith, stated “Local 127 workers are more than willing to make sacrifices to help the city to get over this slump, but what the mayor is proposing amounts to ‘Draconian’ cuts for the city’s lowest-paid workers.”

While Smith declares these cuts ‘draconian’, this duplicitous comment highlights the fact that while the union bosses retain the rhetoric of defending workers, they remain complicit in organizing with the employers and government officials the slashing of their living standards. It is clear in the current economic climate that union bosses will do whatever they can to avoid open clashes between workers and employers, as this would create a situation in which the unions’ complicity would be completely exposed.

Sanders has employed the much repeated rhetoric of shared sacrifice and defending the public interest. However, he attempts to isolate the lowering of living standards in this particular case from the continued attack on workers by California Governor Schwarzenegger and the Democratic Party-controlled state legislature, as well as by the Obama Administration. These attacks on workers continue while trillions of dollars are being placed in the hands of the banks, and while the California state government increases tax cuts to big business.

Neither option being forced upon workers—wage and benefit cuts or job losses—are acceptable for those who are already struggling to meet the basic needs. The wage and benefit cuts should be seen the larger context of the social crisis affecting the working class.

The options being placed in front of San Diego city workers are not unlike those facing California residents in next month’s special election. Voters will be asked to decide on which social programs will take cuts in order to make up the state budget deficit. While the ‘choice’ between where the cuts will be made is given to the population, what is non-negotiable is the fact that the burden of the current economic crisis will be placed on their shoulders.

New NSA domestic spying exposed as Obama stonewalls court challenges

New NSA domestic spying exposed as Obama stonewalls court challenges

By Bill Van Auken

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The National Security Agency carried out “significant and systemic” spying on Americans in recent months, intercepting their private e-mail messages and phone calls, according to intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to the New York Times.

The NSA refers to the spying as “overcollection” of data from telephone and computer communications by Americans.

The exposure of renewed illegal domestic spying by the NSA, apparently carried out since the inauguration of President Barack Obama, comes as the Justice Department is waging a relentless effort to quash lawsuits seeking to hold former officials accountable for the illegal spying operations mounted by the Bush administration.

The Times account provides further information on domestic surveillance activities under Bush, including a report that the NSA attempted to bug telephone and email communications of a member of the US Congress after the legislator made a trip to the Middle East and spoke with someone the agency considered an “extremist.”

According to an official who spoke to the newspaper, the plan was ultimately scrapped because of concern among some NSA officials that spying on congressmen, without court approval and with no genuine justification could create political problems for the agency.

Also, in the context of a two-year-old Justice Department investigation into NSA spying, the Times reports, an FBI agent has come forward with charges of “significant misconduct” involving NSA eavesdropping on Americans.

In response to the Times report, various officials in Washington acknowledged there had been “mistakes” at the NSA, but insisted that they had been reported and corrected.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, for example, called the new domestic spying a matter of “inadvertent mistakes.” He claimed, “The number of these mistakes are very small in terms of our overall collection efforts, but each one is investigated, the Congress and the courts are notified, corrective measures are taken, and improvements are put in place to prevent reoccurrences.”

A spokesman for the Justice Department insisted that the problem had been uncovered during routine, twice-annual certification that the department together with the NSA must submit to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on the methods being employed in the agencies wiretapping activities.

“The Justice Department immediately notified the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and took comprehensive steps to correct the situation and bring the program into compliance,” said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd.

Meanwhile the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee issued a statement vowing to investigate. “These are serious allegations, and we will make sure we get the facts,” said Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, California). “The committee is looking into this, and we will hold a hearing on this subject within one month.”

The problem with all of these statements, however, is that they were only made after the new revelations of NSA domestic spying appeared in the pages of the New York Times. Until then, the matter was concealed from the American people, not only by the NSA itself, but by Obama’s Justice Department and, presumably, Senator Feinstein herself, who according to Blair’s account would have been briefed on the “mistakes” that she now says she will investigate.

Moreover, as damning as the account in the Times is, it provides few specifics on what was actually done by the NSA, much less how, as the various agencies have claimed, it has been corrected.

As the Times acknowledges, “It is not clear to what extent the agency may have actively listened in on conversations or read email messages of Americans without proper court authority.” It adds, “Officials are still trying to determine how many violations occurred.”

These violations likely number in the tens of millions. In offering an explanation for the “overcollection” at NSA, the Times article states, “[T]he issue appears focused in part on technical problems in the NSA’s ability at times to distinguish between communications inside the United States and those overseas as it uses its access to American telecommunications companies’ fiber-optic lines and its own spy satellites to intercept millions of calls and email messages.”

This method of sweeping up masses of data, the paper continues, “led the agency to inadvertently ‘target’ groups of Americans and collect their domestic communications without proper court authority.”

In other words, the NSA is continuing the illegal practices initiated secretly under the Bush administration: accessing—with the collaboration of the telecommunications companies—data on tens of millions of domestic phone calls and emails, providing the agency with the ability to conduct “data-mining” operations that yield extensive intelligence on large numbers of Americans.

According to the Times the NSA informed members of congressional intelligence committees recently that it was having “operational and legal problems in complying with the new wiretapping law” passed by Congress last summer.

Supported by both then President Bush and Senator Barack Obama—who interrupted his campaign last July to come back and vote on the measure—the FISA Amendment Act essentially provided congressional sanction for the secret and illegal warrantless wiretapping program initiated by the Bush administration in 2001. The legislation explicitly allowed the NSA to conduct dragnet surveillance of international communications by Americans. Given the wholesale character of this spying, it is hardly a surprise that domestic calls and emails are being subjected to warrantless surveillance as well.

The act, approved with the support of the entire Democratic leadership in the House and nearly half of the Democratic senators, overturned even the limited restraints on government spying that existed under the FISA law passed in 1978, in the wake of revelations of gross abuses of power by the White House and the intelligence agencies under the Nixon administration.

Now, rather than having to seek approval from the secret FISA court for wiretaps—which were almost invariably granted under the old law—the NSA obtains a generalized warrant to conduct surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and emails with the sole requirement that the agency “reasonably believed” that they involved international communications. Full discretion was given to the agency to determine whom it views as suspect, without any requirement to inform the FISA court whom it is spying on, much less show probable cause for its suspicions of criminal activity.

Supposedly, the court’s approval is required for spying on purely domestic communications. It would appear that it is this provision that presents the NSA with “operational and legal” difficulties. This is hardly a surprise, given the agency’s past practice of having the entire Internet traffic flowing through telecom operations centers diverted to the NSA, ostensibly in order to sift through it for terrorist communications.

The bill passed last summer with Obama’s support also granted retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies that collaborated in the warrantless wiretapping program, leading to the dismissal of scores of lawsuits charging them with illegal invasion of privacy. Thus, the legislation sought to prevent any accountability for the crimes that had already taken place, while essentially legalizing going forward what had been criminal acts.

At the time, Democratic supporters of the legislation offered assurances that the retroactive immunity for the telecoms would not preclude accountability, because individuals could still sue the government.

However, since Obama entered the White House, his Justice Department has sought to block just such suits. Using the same method as the Bush administration before it, federal attorneys are invoking the “state secrets” privilege for withholding information on the illegal spying and arguing that for a court to even hear the case would result in “grave harm to national security.”

In two cases—one involving the illegal wiretapping of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation in Oregon, and the other brought on behalf of millions of AT&T customers subjected to dragnet surveillance—the Obama Justice Department has insisted that the criminal activities of the NSA are so secret that not even a judge can review them.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department went into court over the dragnet surveillance suit—Jewel v. NSA, brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation—and advanced a claim of sweeping executive power not even claimed under Bush. It argued that the government enjoys “sovereign immunity,” meaning that no citizen can sue the government over the illegal domestic wiretapping.

Under the FISA act of 1978 as well as other legislation, Congress had specifically waived sovereign immunity in relation to unlawful surveillance, allowing those spied upon to sue. The Obama Justice Department, however, advanced the argument that the Patriot Act of 2001 had effectively reinstated the government’s immunity from such suits. This amounts to a claim that this reactionary legislation provided a legal cover for the government to carry out criminal acts.

The Obama administration’s uncompromising defense of illegal domestic spying under the Bush White House is not only an attempt to prevent anyone from being held accountable for these crimes and to bar the American people from learning the extent of the surveillance conducted against them. It is also a defense of the continuation of these same essential practices today, hidden behind a wall of secrecy.

While the Obama administration has jettisoned the “global war on terrorism” rhetoric of its predecessor, the attacks on fundamental democratic and constitutional rights carried out under the pretext of fighting terrorism continue. With the NSA spying, this includes an assault on freedom of speech and freedom from unreasonable searches, guaranteed in the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution.

With his defense of illegal domestic spying—as with his sanctioning of torture and extraordinary rendition—Obama acts as a front man for the massive US security agencies that are only increasing their power under his administration.

Head of Obama’s auto task force linked to investment fraud

Head of Obama’s auto task force linked to investment fraud

By Andre Damon

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Steven Rattner, the leader of the Obama administration’s auto task force, was one of the executives involved in an alleged kickback scheme with New York State’s pension fund, according to a source cited in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Quadrangle Group, the company Rattner co-founded, gave $1.1 million to an associate of the New York State Deputy Comptroller shortly before getting a large investment from the state’s $122 billion pension fund, according to a complaint filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC complaint alleges that in 2005 a “senior executive” at Rattner’s former private equity firm, Quandrangle Group, met with then-New York State Deputy Comptroller David Loglisci. The executive allegedly agreed to pay Loglisci’s associate, Hank Morris, $1.1 million as part of a kickback scheme to secure the pension fund investment. The pension fund’s investments are overseen by the office of the comptroller.

An unnamed source told the New York Times and Wall Street Journal that Rattner is the man the SEC alleges to have personally met with Loglisci, and agree on a “finders fee” for Morris. The SEC has not yet taken any action against Rattner or his company.

The accusations are related to a long-running investigation into the New York State Common Retirement fund under Alan Hevesi, the former New York State Comptroller. The SEC alleges that about 20 Wall Street firms made illegal payments to officials in order to receive investments from the fund.

In total, Rattner’s company paid $1.125 million in “finders’ fees” to an obscure Wall Street firm for negotiating the $100 million investment. 95 percent of those fees went to one individual, Morris.

Such “finders’ fees,” which pay a percentage of a major financial transaction to the party that negotiates it, are not strictly illegal. However, the SEC alleges that Loglisci used his position to steer the pension fund’s assets to whoever offered to pay his associates the most money.

The SEC alleges that this transaction was set up at a meeting between Loglisci and a high-level executive at Quadrangle, supposedly about acquiring the rights to an independent film, entitled “Chooch,” which Loglisci had co-produced. The SEC’s complaint claims that once a deal on the film had been arranged, “Loglisci approved the proposed deal with the investment management firm” on the finders’ fee.

Last month, both Loglisci and Morris were arrested on more than 100 counts, including “money-laundering, enterprise-corruption, and bribery charges,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Their boss at the time, former New York State comptroller Alan Hevesi, was barred from office after pleading guilty to a charge of defrauding the government in 2006.

The SEC claims that Morris and Loglisci were working together to earn millions of dollars in payments in exchange for directing the pension fund’s investments to the highest bidder. The two were involved in a “web of corrupt actions for both political and personal gain,” according to New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Rattner’s former company manages, among others, the fortune of billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Rattner is Bloomberg’s personal friend, and the mayor’s strong endorsement helped him obtain his post as head of the auto task force.

Rattner’s wife, Maureen White, previously served as finance chair of the Democratic National Committee. Rattner has been a central figure in Democratic politics and a leading fundraiser for Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The Obama administration quickly came to Rattner’s defense on Friday. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that the Administration has “full confidence” in Rattner. “He’s not accused of doing any wrongdoing,” said Gibbs. “And he’s not likely to face any criminal or civil charges as it relates to this,” he added.

Gibbs also admitted that the administration knew about the scandal prior to appointing Rattner. “The pending investigation was something that Steve brought up to us,” Gibbs said.

Obama has surrounded himself with people such as Rattner: Wall Street speculators, hedge fund managers, and the like. Rattner, as head of Obama’s auto task force, has led the drive to dismantle the US auto industry and to demand even more concessions from workers by means of state-mediated bankruptcy.

In Steven Rattner is manifest the peculiar concoction of immense wealth, bought-and-paid-for politics, semi-official corruption and complete hostility to the working class that pervades the whole of Obama’s auto task force. (See “Obama's auto task force: a collection of Wall Street investors and asset strippers”)

These are people who grew unfathomably wealthy over the past few decades, in whose activity business and criminality are all but indistinguishable, who inhabit a world where money can come out of nowhere and all rules can be broken. And they are being brought in to “fix” the American auto industry.

Torture memos reveal brutality of US imperialism

Torture memos reveal brutality of US imperialism

By Tom Eley

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On Thursday, the US Justice Department released four legal memos crafted during the Bush administration that authorized agents of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to commit specific acts of torture against prisoners swept up in the “war on terror.” The Obama administration faced a Thursday deadline to release the memos after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The release of the legal opinions, written by lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 2002 and 2005, adds to an overwhelming body of evidence that proves the Bush administration carried out a large-scale and systematic torture operation in flagrant violation of domestic and international law. The public record already included accounts from victims, a recently leaked International Committee of the Red Cross report documenting various instances of torture, and numerous media accounts that include quotes from interrogators and Bush administration officials endorsing torture.

Yet in multiple statements by President Obama, CIA chief Leon Panetta, and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, the White House has announced that it will neither investigate nor prosecute those who carried out torture. Panetta has also declared that the CIA will provide legal counsel to any agent that might become subject to investigations into torture.

The memos, released in redacted form to protect the identity of CIA interrogators, describe acts of torture in clinical detail, always associating these with a threadbare legal defense. Among the forms of torture endorsed by the memos are:

*Walling. “The interrogator pulls the individual forward and then quickly and firmly pushes the individual into the wall... During this motion, the head and neck are supported with a rolled hood or towel... to help prevent whiplash.”

*Water dousing. “Cold water is poured on the detainee either from a container or from a hose without a nozzle... The maximum period of time that a detainee may be permitted to remain wet has been set at two-thirds the time at which, based on the extensive medical literature and experience, hypothermia could be expected to develop... For water temperature at 41 [degrees Fahrenheit] total duration of exposure may not exceed 20 minutes...”

*Facial Slap. “The purpose of the facial slap is to induce shock, surprise, and/or humiliation.”

*Cramped Confinement. “The confined space is usually dark... For the larger confined space, the individual can stand up or sit down; the smaller space is large enough for the subject to sit down. Confinement in the larger space can last up to eighteen hours; for the smaller space... no more than two hours.”

*Stress positions. “A variety of stress positions may be used... they are designed to produce physical discomfort associated with muscle fatigue... In wall standing, it will be holding a position in which all of the individual’s body weight is placed on his finger tips.”

*Nudity. “This technique is used to cause psychological discomfort, particularly if a detainee for cultural or other reasons, is especially modest.”

*Sleep deprivation. “The primary method of sleep deprivation involves the use of shackling to keep the detainees awake. In this method, the detainee is standing and is handcuffed, and the handcuffs are attached by a length of chain to the ceiling... a detainee undergoing sleep deprivation is generally fed by hand by CIA personnel so that he need not be unshackled. If the detainee is clothed, he wears an adult diaper under his pants. Detainees subject to sleep deprivation who are also subject to nudity... will at times be nude and wearing a diaper. The maximum allowable duration is 180 hours...”

*Use of insects. A memo authorizes agents to place an insect in the “cramped confinement box” of a prisoner who interrogators noticed had “a fear of insects.”

*Waterboarding. “In this procedure, the individual is bound securely to an inclined bench...Water is then applied to a cloth [that] is lowered until it covers both the nose and mouth... This causes an increase in carbon dioxide level in the individuals’ blood [which] stimulates increased effort to breathe. This effort plus the cloth produces the perception of ‘suffocation and incipient panic,’ i.e., the perception of drowning... The procedure may then be repeated... [A] medical expert... will be present throughout...”

Based on language in the memos, it is clear that they were the outcome of extensive discussions among the CIA, Justice Department, and likely high-ranking Bush administration officials. For example, the memos refer frequently to face-to-face meetings between Justice Department lawyers and CIA interrogators that had already taken place.

The memos’ evident purpose was to provide legal assurances to CIA interrogators that they would not face criminal prosecution for torture. The first memo, written by OLC counsel Jay Bybee in August of 2002 and addressed to John A. Rizzo, a deputy counsel to the CIA, considers several specific examples of torture, and concludes, case by case, that none of the methods proposed by the CIA violate Section 2340 of the US Code, which prohibits interrogation methods by those “acting under the color of law” that inflict physical or mental pain and suffering.

Bybee also suggested interrogators lacked the “specific intent” to inflict pain and suffering, and therefore any suffering that resulted was not torture.

The other three memos were penned by OLC attorney Steven G. Bradbury to Rizzo. A 2005 memo he wrote determined that the combined use of the methods outlined in the 2002 memo would not violate USC 2340.

The memos’ clinical and legalistic descriptions of torture fail to convey the horror experienced by those worked over by the CIA. Reading the memos in conjunction with the International Committee of the Red Cross report gives a much fuller sense of what these methods meant when put into practice on human bodies. (See "Red Cross report details CIA war crimes")

The media generally joined Obama in studiously avoiding use of the term “torture” in describing the CIA’s methods. The New York TimesWashington Post ran an editorial hailing as wise and courageous Obama’s decision to protect “government agents who may have committed heinous acts they were told were legal.” referred to the acts of torture as “brutal interrogation techniques.” For its part, the

This “just-following-orders” defense is also commonly referred to as the “Nuremberg Defense,” as it was so commonly used by Nazi defendants in the war crimes trials after World War Two. The American and British officials who set up the Nuremberg trials established the vulnerability of this defense through Principle IV, which states, “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”

That is not the only precedent from WWII with a bearing on current developments. As the Times notes, “the United States prosecuted some Japanese interrogators at war crimes trials after World War Two for waterboarding and other methods detailed in the memos.”

In the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, or the Tokyo War Crimes Trials from 1946-1948, several Japanese soldiers were convicted of carrying out waterboarding, then commonly called “the water cure,” on US and other allied prisoners.

An American GI’s description of the experience could have just as well been uttered to describe the CIA’s method. “They laid me out on a stretcher and strapped me on. The stretcher was then stood on end with my head almost touching the floor and my feet in the air. ...They then began pouring water over my face and at times it was almost impossible for me to breathe without sucking in water.”

The Obama administration is attempting to squelch any serious public inquiry into the criminal practices of its predecessor in the name of “moving on.” According to Obama, “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

In a statement, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department.”

This is nonsense. The heinous actions carried out on CIA “terror suspects” had nothing to do with protecting America. Torture, extraordinary rendition, secret “black site” prisons—these were all part and parcel of American capitalism’s striving to offset its decline at the expense of the peoples of the Middle East—and the American working class.

In his confirmation hearings, Holder unambiguously labeled waterboarding as torture. Holder has not attempted to square this definition with his refusal to carry out his constitutional and legal duty to enforce domestic law and US treaty obligations by prosecuting the torturers.

Obama’s “forgiveness” of Bush is reminiscent of President Gerald Ford’s pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon, for his crimes against his political opponents that came to light in the Watergate scandal of 1972. Presidents can rely on their successors to forgive their major political crimes, and so trample over laws with increasing impunity.

The ruling elite’s clemency toward those who have committed the heinous crime of torture stands in sharp contrast to its enthusiastic prosecution of those filling up the American prison system—by far the largest in the developed world. Millions have been jailed for committing petty offenses against property or various drug-related crimes.

The media and leading politicians have joined hands in agreeing that there should be no investigation or criminal indictments of CIA officials or those in the Bush administration who gave orders to torture. Responding to the memos’ release, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont reiterated his call for a toothless “truth commission” that would take as a quid pro quo the forgiveness of all criminal acts in “the war on terror.”

The Obama administration wishes to avoid an investigation and public discussion of the torture memos because they serve as an indictment not only of the Bush administration, but the entire American ruling class. Leading Congressional Democrats were briefed on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Those CIA agents who carried out torture must face investigation and trial. But it is significant that the media fails to enunciate the names of those who planned, authorized, and ultimately bear responsiblity for torture—Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials. These war criminals must face justice.

China buys less U.S. debt as reserve growth slows

China buys less U.S. debt as reserve growth slows

China bought more than $4.6 billion worth of U.S. Treasury securities in February, despite fears that the United States' top foreign lender may be growing nervous about its massive holdings of U.S. government debt.

"I don't think there's any real evidence of a turn away from U.S. securities, certainly no evidence of a turn away from Treasuries," says Brad Setser, a former Treasury Department economist now with the Council on Foreign Relations.

China is buying fewer U.S. government securities than in earlier years and has shifted away from long-term bonds and securities issued by troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But analysts said the reduced overall purchases are because China's foreign exchange reserves are growing more slowly. The past six months, China's reserves grew by a monthly average of $8 billion vs. $38 billion in 2007, according to Nicholas Lardy of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

One reason for the reserve slump: China has been stepping up purchases of foreign companies and natural resources. That reduces the amount of foreign currency Beijing must recycle into Treasuries.

Chinese purchases of U.S. debt help fund the U.S. government's budget deficit. Last month, Premier Wen Jiabao worried publicly about the "safety" of those investments. If China were to sell its massive Treasury holdings, U.S. interest rates could soar. But domestic investors buy more than half of all Treasuries, and few think a major Chinese shift is likely.

"There's no way they're going to go out and dump them. … It's a symbiotic relationship; we need each other," says Win Thin, a senior currency strategist at Brown Bros. Harriman in New York.

Meanwhile, a separate Treasury Department report said no trading partner, including China, was guilty of "manipulating" its currency to gain unfair trade advantages.

The statement comes after Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told the Senate Finance Committee Jan. 21 that "President Obama — backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists — believes that China is manipulating its currency."

Wednesday, Geithner repeated that the yuan is undervalued. But he credited China with moving toward a more flexible currency and for its major stimulus program to fight the global recession. Scott Paul, who heads the Alliance for American Manufacturing, which is critical of Chinese trade practices, called the Treasury turnabout "perplexing."

The Real Story Behind "Tent City" -- and How the Media Get It Wrong

"People Shouldn't Have to Live Like This": The Real Story Behind "Tent City" -- and How the Media Get It Wrong

By Rose Aguilar

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Over the past few months, reporters from around the world have flocked to the now-famous tent city in Sacramento, Calif. When they find out that 55-year-old John Kraintz has been living in a tent for almost seven years, they turn around and walk away.

"They don't want to talk to me," he says. "They're searching for people who just lost their homes. It's kinda tough to lose a home when you've never owned one. Sorry, but most of the people here have been homeless for a long time."

A tall and lanky man with a long beard tied in a ponytail, Kraintz is one of 100-200 people who have been told to leave the homeless camp between Sacramento's Blue Diamond Almond factory and the American River.

Kraintz and so many other homeless people like him have been living in scattered Sacramento encampments for years, but they've been largely ignored and hidden from public view. That is, until Lisa Ling, a reporter with the Oprah show, came to town in late February to focus on what Oprah Winfrey called the "new faces" of homelessness.

The show reported -- inaccurately -- that an estimated 1,200 people in Sacramento are living in tent cities after losing their jobs and homes. According to Loaves & Fishes, a privately funded group that has been feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless in Sacramento for 25 years, 1,226 people live on the streets of the city. Between 100 and 200 temporarily call tent city home.

Like Oprah, several national and international articles and TV pieces have falsely portrayed everyone in tent city as once-middle-class people driven to homelessness because of the economic meltdown.

"The credit crunch tent city which has returned to haunt America" is the headline of a March 6 piece in the London-based Mail Online. On March 20, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece called "In Sacramento's tent city, a torn economic fabric."

Joan Burke, Loaves & Fishes' advocacy director, says those headlines are misleading. The majority of Sacramento's homeless population suffer from physical disabilities, mental illness and drug and alcohol addictions.

"The media are trying to capture a very complex situation in a sound bite," she says. "We've had homelessness in this country for decades. Each person has his or her own circumstance, and you have to tease that out if you're going to address this problem. Why do we care so much for people who suffer for a short time versus those who suffer for a long time? What is that about?"

Over the past few months, Burke has been bombarded with media requests from as far away as Colombia, Hungary, Australia and the Philippines.

On one of the days I was there, I saw a German radio team, reporters from a French magazine and several local TV trucks. The majority of the people I met at tent city say reporters aren't asking the right questions.

"The other day, I heard a German reporter ask if this is happening because of the recent economic collapse," says Kraintz. "This has been happening for 30 years, but the powers that be have been able to pretend it doesn't exist. Why aren't reporters asking about flat wages, jobs being shipped overseas and the lack of affordable housing?"

Burke agrees, saying one of the many issues ignored in most articles about tent city and homelessness is the fact that poor people cannot afford housing, especially in an expensive state like California.

"People who are poor end up homeless through no fault of their own, but because people higher up on the food chain have made affordable housing a very scarce commodity," she says. "If we had sound housing policies and programs that helped people when they have a run of bad luck, we would not have a tent city."

Kraintz says he knew the system would finally blow up. It was just a matter of time. The question, according to him, is this: Do the powers that be have the political will to create a fairer, more just economic system?

"I listen to NPR all day. I know what's going on at AIG," he says. "If you're working class, you can't achieve the American Dream. I tried, and look where I am."

Seven years ago, Kraintz had a hard time finding enough construction work to make ends meet. He lost his apartment and has been living in encampments ever since.

Today, he serves on Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's homelessness task force. At emergency city meetings, he urges officials to make this area a permanent tent city for people who are tired of being forced to move from place to place: "It may look like anarchy out here, but it's peaceful and organic," he says.

The people living in tent city have created what they call self-governed communities.

"Everybody shares the same problems. We are homeless," says 50-year old Frederick Williams. "We live in a field together, so you build camaraderie. As you can see, we've built clusters. Everybody out here knows everyone else. They know a stranger right off the bat."

When I met Williams, he was throwing trash in a dumpster donated by Atlas Dumpster. He stopped what he was doing to show me the GPS bracelet around his ankle. After serving 84 days in jail for drug possession, he says his parole officer dropped him off at tent city because he had nowhere to go.

After an hour of discussing everything from the prison industrial complex and poverty to U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Haiti, I asked him why he doesn't spend more time fighting for the issues he's clearly so passionate about. He's had construction and welding jobs over the years, but says he makes bad choices.

"Believe me. I would raise hell, but addiction is a motherfucker."

While we were chatting, his girlfriend walked over with a plate of hot potatoes, rice, bread and a can of nuts donated by local volunteers. Local groups and individuals stop by throughout the day to donate meals, clothing, basic camping gear, firewood and toiletries.

In the afternoon, Tracy, a 33-year-old who was just laid off from her job as a gourmet food product designer, pulled up in a white Saturn SUV with her 18-month-old baby in the back seat. She got out of the car to hand out two bags of aloe vera gel, sunscreen, lotion, shampoo and conditioner.

"This is disgusting," she says. "People shouldn't have to live like this."

Tracy makes frequent trips to foreclosed homes to pick up items families no longer want. She finds them through Craig's List. She sells what she picks up and uses the money for toiletries. She also picks up donated toothbrushes and toothpaste from dental offices.

"So little goes so far," she says. "I just lost my job. If I can do it, anyone can."

As Tracy drives off, Williams says: "We live in one of the most charitable countries in the world and one of the coldest."

He says tent city would be fully operational if it had a water truck and Porta Potties: "I'd feel a whole lot better and a whole lot more human if I didn't have to go shit in the trees," he says.

Because tent city has no running water or portable toilets, most people walk a mile or so to Loaves & Fishes for a hot shower, a bathroom and a sit-down meal. Along the way, they pass people sleeping on the streets and in abandoned parking lots.

Two volunteers from a local ministry who regularly hand out donated clothing and basic necessities to the area's homeless population say the city should turn this area into a KOA-like campground with running water, toilets and a centralized kitchen. They didn't want to give their names because they don't trust the media.

"The media treat these people like they're packs of wolves. They're people. Just like you and me. If you want to take photos, please ask first. We've seen reporters shove their cameras in tents without asking. I know Oprah had good in her heart, but she's created a problem. Because of the exposure, the city will shut this down. These people have no home. Look at this guy. He's building a community."

They were referring to Baldy, a 38-year-old wearing blue-and-white plaid flannel pajama bottoms and a blue sweatshirt. His medium-sized tent sits behind a thin metal fence he built shortly after arriving six months ago. Since then, he's compiled everything from a welcome rug to a new spice rack.

"We share everything and look out for each other," he says. A recovering drug addict, Baldy says he's trying to find a job, but without a phone number or an address, it's close to impossible. "They [potential employers] say, 'Don't contact us. We'll contact you.' How are they going to contact me? After trying and trying and getting shot down, you just want to lay in bed. Then you get depressed. Then you turn to drugs. I try to keep myself motivated. My plan is to get out, but I need a job first."

The majority of the people I met say they're trying to find work. Brian, a fortysomething with a baby on the way, says when he and his wife set up their tent last year, they had three neighbors. Now they have about 30.

"We need jobs. I like to work. I can't get a job because I have a record. I want to get out of this. It's hard. They just turn me down. I'm always riding on that bike like I got a job."

Jan Hair, who served in the Air Force from 1981 to 1984, says if she could make tent city her temporary home, she's certain she would find a job and save enough for an apartment.

"I'm tired of being forced to move from place to place," she says. "When you're forced to move, you lose all of your possessions and your identification. You can't get a job without an ID card."

This week, Hair has no choice but to move again. If she and the others refuse, they could face arrest.

Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mayor Johnson approved an $880,000 plan to provide both immediate and longer-term shelter. They're adding beds to Sacramento's shelters, which are currently filled to capacity and have lengthy waiting lists. City officials say over the next few months they will also offer rental apartments to approximately 40 people.

"I give Mayor Johnson great credit for being willing to tackle a situation that is difficult," says Joan Burke. "They have come up with some partial solutions, but most of them are short term. We need solutions not just for the 200 or so in tent city, but for everyone."

Once tent city is cleared out, Burke fears that the media will move on. Hoping to keep the story on the radar screen, Loaves & Fishes is holding a Safe Ground Rally on the Capitol Steps on April 21 to call for a self-governed location where the homeless can camp legally with access to basic needs such as running water, toilets, and trash cans.

Advocates say Portland, Ore.'s Dignity Village proves the plan would work. Dignity Village is a nonprofit city-sanctioned homeless encampment in Northeast Portland. Most of the 60 or so residents live in small homes built on decks.

"Everybody deserves a simple, safe home of their own," says Burke. "That's what we really need."