Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Swine flu, pigs and profits

Swine flu, pigs and profits

Fear of a swine flu pandemic is spreading much faster than the virus itself.

While it’s too soon to predict how widespread and deadly this new variation of influenza virus will be, information about the likely origin of the outbreak is starting to surface. A huge factory-farm pig operation owned by U.S. corporate giant Smithfield and operated by its Mexican subsidiary, Granjas Carroll de Mexico, may have spawned this new threat to public health.

Local residents from the towns of La Gloria and Perote in the Mexican state of Veracruz have been fighting the pork-breeding giant for years.

Producing close to a million hogs annually, the company maintains huge lagoons of hog manure as well as open-air dumps for rotting remains of hogs that die before being slaughtered. Fumes from the hog waste foul the air for miles and residents believe that their ground water may have also been contaminated. Swarms of flies that feed on the manure are in close reach of the towns.

It is well known that flies can spread avian flu by carrying material from infected bird droppings from place to place. It is possible that flies feeding on the hog manure may also be in contact with bird droppings and became the mechanism for mixing virus material from hogs, birds and humans, which is now causing the outbreak.

According to reports from the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, local residents tried to block the construction of the farm as early as 2005. A year ago, several activists were arrested by Veracruz authorities, who have worked closely with Granjas Carroll to suppress opposition to the huge hog operation.

Long before the swine flu outbreak made it into the international news, hundreds of La Gloria residents were complaining of severe respiratory infections, with many developing into pneumonia. Pneumonia is one of the severe complications of influenza infection. Veratect, a U.S. private company that monitors health outbreaks around the world for its subscribers, noticed the outbreak in Veracruz over a month ago and called the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). With its attention still on alleged—and non-existent—bioterrorism, the CDC ignored these calls for several weeks.

The first confirmed case of the new swine flu virus was that of a young boy in La Gloria, who has since recovered. The outbreak has spread to Mexico City and other Mexican areas as well as some cases in New York, California, Texas and other locations in the U.S., as well as around the world. At this writing at least 1,500 suspected cases in Mexico have resulted in over 150 deaths. While cases in the U.S. have so far been milder, one or two suspected deaths have already been recorded.

Health officials believe that the current strain of virus is a mix of genetic material from viruses that infect hogs and birds as well as humans. For almost a decade, world and U.S. health officials have focused on so-called avian or bird flu—labeled H5N1—which has spread around the world but has not “jumped” to human populations. Although some people contracted bird flu from close proximity to poultry and water foul, no human-to-human transmission has been reported.

This new swine flu is a variation of H1N1, which is much more common in human flu. It’s already clear that it is spreading by human-to-human transmission.

Because the largest number of cases have come from Mexico, some right-wing commentators on the Fox network have already tried to blame Mexican immigrants for bringing the virus across the border and may use the fear over swine flu to whip up even more immigrant bashing.

The fact that the U.S. cases seem to be among tourists from this country or those close to tourists has so far limited the attacks on immigrants. So far, however, relatively little attention in the big business mass media has been given to the Smithfield connection or the fact that similar huge and hazardous plants can be found in North Carolina, Utah and elsewhere.

An article in Rolling Stone magazine in 2006 estimated that Smithfield alone produced 26 million TONS of animal waste a year—the byproduct of over $11 billion in sales. So-called “free-trade” agreements like NAFTA have enabled corporate giants like Smithfield to set up their hazardous shops in Mexico with little or no regulation and at the expense of the local people.

Will the corporate criminals who have profited from this environmental and public health disaster be held responsible?

Spanish judge starts Guantanamo torture probe

Spanish judge starts Guantanamo torture probe

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A Spanish judge has started a criminal investigation into suspected torture of detainees in the base at Guantanamo and said he would target both US military personnel and those who issued their orders.

Judge Baltasar Garzon, who once tried to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, said he based his case on testimony in his court by four former Guantanamo detainees who complained of physical and mental abuse at the base in Cuba.

He called Guantanamo a legal "limbo" and as such fell under universal jurisdiction, allowing him to investigate what went on in the base which US President Barack Obama has promised to close.

Garzon became internationally famous for his pursuits of Pinochet and Argentine military officers, which set precedents for the principle that certain serious crimes can be prosecuted anywhere in the world.

Listing possible perpetrators of criminal acts, Garzon said: "members of the US army and military intelligence and all those who put into practice or designed a systematic plan of torture or abuse."

The judge said he would ask US authorities for copies of documents declassified by the Obama administration detailing practices such as waterboarding – which induces a sensation of drowning.

"They reveal what had previously been suspected: an authorised, systematic plan for the torture and maltreatment of people deprived of their liberty without charge and without the most basic rights granted to any detainee," said Garzon in the ruling.

Garzon detailed a list of abuses against the four men, including sexual assault, beatings, subjection to extreme heat and cold, continual interrogation at any time of day or night, sleep deprivation and long periods in handcuffs and shackles.

Human rights groups in the United States have called for US courts to investigate events at Guantanamo, and last week Obama left the door open to possible prosecutions of officials who laid the legal groundwork for torture.

Garzon's criminal investigation comes just weeks after Spain's most famous judge was forced to give up an attempt to initiate a probe into six former Bush administration officials, including ex-US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, over Guantanamo, after criticism from Spanish legal authorities.

But one of the human rights lawyers who had presented the criminal complaint against the six officials said that Garzon's latest ruling was far more than they had hoped for, as it went after not only the perpetrators of abuse but also their bosses.

"We asked for a cup of tea and he has given us a complete breakfast," lawyer Gonzalo Boye said.

Garzon was forced to surrender his earlier case against Gonzales and others after Spain's attorney general said it was not legally allowed.

US to Take Majority GM Stake

US set to take majority GM stake

By John Reed in London and Bernard Simon

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US taxpayers would take a majority shareholding in General Motors under a sweeping debt-for-equity restructuring proposal that the carmaker revealed on Monday in a bid to avoid bankruptcy.

Under the plan, GM said it would shut 13 of 47 plants by the end of next year, resulting in an additional 7,000 job losses. The latest job cuts would reduce GM’s US workforce from 61,000 last year to about 40,000 by the end of 2010.

The carmaker, which lost its crown as the world’s biggest carmaker to Toyota last year, said it would give up its 83-year-old Pontiac brand and cut its dealership network from 6,200 to 3,600 by the end of 2010.

Fritz Henderson, chief executive, said: “The objective here is not to survive. The objective is to develop an operating plan that allows us to win.”

The Obama administration has set a June 1 deadline for GM to produce a viable turnround plan in exchange for further government aid, or face bankruptcy. The carmaker has received $15.4bn in emergency loans and expects the total to rise to about $20bn by the end of next month.

GM warned in a letter to bondholders that if the debt-for-equity swap failed to go through by June 1 it would “expect to seek relief through the US bankruptcy code”. In such circumstances, GM said bondholders might receive no “consideration at all”. GM set a May 26 deadline for bondholders to respond.

Calling the proposal “neither reasonable nor adequate,” an ad hoc committee of GM bondholders said it believed “the offer to be a blatant disregard of fairness for the bondholders who have funded this company, and amounts to using taxpayer money to show political favouritism of one creditor over another”.

The Obama administration’s auto industry task force, which has pushed for more aggressive action by GM, said the revised plan reflected the carmaker’s work over the past month in charting “a new path to financial viability”.

Mr Henderson, who took the helm a month ago after the Treasury ousted his predecessor Rick Wagoner, told the FT that the task force is “pushing us hard”. But, he added: “They’re with us every step of the way as we redevelop this plan.”

Chrysler, GM’s smaller Detroit-based rival, has until Thursday to come up with a similar plan, whose conditions include completing an alliance with Italy’s Fiat.

GM’s restructuring plan would lower its debt by $44bn to an estimated $23bn, leaving the government and a healthcare trust managed by the United Auto Workers union with 89 per cent of the equity. The rest would be mainly in the hands of holders of $27bn of unsecured bonds, who are being asked to swap their holdings for shares and accrued interest. Existing shareholders would be left with a minuscule stake. Washington would swap half its loans for equity.

The task force said it had yet to decide on the future status of its investment. Mr Henderson left open the idea of government representation on the board. He said Kent Kresa, interim chairman, was working on a new board structure

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: “We strongly back an auto industry that we believe can and should be self-reliant. It is not our desire to either own or run one of the auto companies.”

Detainees Can Pursue Suit Against CIA

Suit by 5 ex-captives of CIA can proceed, appeals panel rules

The U.S. government cannot avoid trial by claiming the state secrets privilege in the lawsuit brought by ex-Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed and four others, who say they were tortured.

By Carol J. Williams

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Five men who claim to have been kidnapped and tortured at the direction of CIA agents are entitled to their day in court to expose alleged U.S. government abuse of terrorism suspects, a federal appeals panel ruled Tuesday.

Both former President George W. Bush and President Obama had invoked the state secrets privilege in urging courts to dismiss a lawsuit in which the prisoners described interrogations involving beatings, electric shocks and laceration by scalpel.

While acknowledging that some evidence might be classified and properly shielded from public scrutiny, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the president's powers to protect against intelligence disclosures "are not the only weighty constitutional values at stake."

The ruling sends back for trial the case of Mohamed vs. Jeppesen Dataplan Inc. -- a suit brought by five men subjected to "extraordinary rendition," in which terrorism suspects were snatched by U.S. and foreign agents and flown to secret CIA interrogation sites.

The U.S. government had intervened to halt the case on state secrets grounds. A Boeing Co. subsidiary, Jeppesen is accused of complicity for having arranged the men's clandestine transport.

Tuesday's ruling was the first to reject a presidential assertion of the state secrets privilege seeking to prevent post-Sept. 11 abuse allegations from going to trial.

"According to the government's theory, the judiciary should effectively cordon off all secret government actions from judicial scrutiny, immunizing the CIA and its partners from the demands and limits of the law," the unanimous opinion by the appeals panel reads.

Lawyers for the detainees hailed the panel's decision.

"Today's ruling demolishes once and for all the legal fiction, advanced by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration, that facts known throughout the world could be deemed 'secrets' in a court of law," said Ben Wizner, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the men's case.

Citing recent Supreme Court rulings on the rights of detained terrorism suspects, the appeals panel said national security depended not just on protecting intelligence but also "freedom from arbitrary and unlawful restraint" and from the "gross and notorious act of despotism" that is torture.

Allowing the government to thwart a trial because classified information is involved would "perversely encourage the president to classify politically embarrassing information simply to place it beyond the reach of judicial process," Judge Michael Daly Hawkins wrote.

The prisoners' lawyers had argued before the appeals court that the state secrets privilege was being invoked to cover up embarrassing abuses committed by the Bush administration.

"The 9th Circuit's decision recognizes that the state secrets privilege is not an immunity doctrine that can enable the executive branch to shield its conduct from any judicial review," said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel for the Constitution Project, an independent think tank that defends constitutional safeguards.

Justice Department lawyers were "reviewing the judges' order," said spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.

Binyam Mohamed, the lead plaintiff and a resident of Britain, was released from Guantanamo in late February after having spent more than six years in U.S. custody, first in the hands of Moroccan interrogators under CIA guidance and later at the intelligence agency's "black site" in Bagram, Afghanistan. In his "torture diary" compiled for the case, Mohamed alleges that agents cut his genitals with a scalpel in efforts to extract information he didn't have.

Bush administration lawyers successfully argued before a U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco that "the very subject matter" of the rendition victims' allegations was a state secret. In a move that surprised many human rights groups, the lawyers now under the Obama administration said they were taking exactly the same position when they appeared before the three-judge panel in February.

Unless Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. appeals the ruling, the case will go back to the district court for trial, with the government free to argue that specific evidence, but not the entire case, is secret.

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, said the panel's decision could prompt the Obama administration to rethink its position.

"I think there's a good chance they could reconsider their position and tailor it more toward what the plaintiffs have been saying" -- namely, that the Bush administration applied the state secrets privilege excessively, Tobias said.

Peter Margulies, a law professor at Roger Williams University, said he thought the 9th Circuit ruling was a case of "the pendulum swinging too far," but that it could be corrected through the appeals court's internal review mechanism, known as an en banc rehearing.

Washington’s concerns grow amid Iraqi anger over US raid

Washington’s concerns grow amid Iraqi anger over US raid

By James Cogan
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Protests in Iraq over Sunday’s US special forces raid in Kut, the capital of the predominantly Shiite Wasit province, will only add to the mounting concerns in the Obama administration and American military over the country’s ongoing instability.

The incident itself demonstrated the murderous methods that US forces in Iraq continue to use to suppress even the suggestion of organised resistance to the American occupation. As in thousands of previous cases, American troops, acting on vague and unsubstantiated suspicions, smashed their way into a house in the dead of night. The purported aim of the operation was to detain an alleged financier of a Shiite “special group”—an insurgent group allegedly armed and financed by the Iranian government. The home actually belonged to a local police captain and tribal leader, Muamar Abdul Munin.

Munin’s brother Khalid, also a police officer, rushed from an adjoining home, most likely fearing his sibling was in danger. As he approached the scene carrying a weapon, he was gunned down by American troops and died. His wife, who had accompanied him, was killed by a bullet to the head. Munin’s house was ransacked, personal items taken and Munin, together with another of his brothers, and four other men, was bound, hooded and flown by helicopter to a US-run detention facility. Munin told Reuters that an interrogator repeatedly demanded to know about his links with Iran.

The killings and detentions provoked outrage in Kut, which at one time was a major support base of the anti-occupation Shiite Sadrist movement but has been relatively quiescent since cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for an end to resistance. The opposition and resentment toward the US takeover of the country has not gone away, however.

Within hours of the raid, hundreds of relatives and friends of Munin’s family, including a number of police officers, held a demonstration outside the offices of the Wasit provincial government. They denounced the occupation and demanded the immediate release of the detained men. The recently re-elected Wasit governor, anxious to defuse a potential trigger for wider unrest, joined the condemnations and demanded that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki intervene.

Maliki, equally concerned to prevent a social explosion in one of the south’s major cities, made a public statement on national television on Sunday evening. He condemned the raid as a violation of the US-Iraq security agreement that came into effect on January 1 and which formally bars American forces from conducting operations without Iraqi approval. On the basis of the agreement, he demanded that the US military “hand over those responsible for this crime to the courts”.

Last November, Maliki claimed that the security agreement guaranteed that the occupation was coming to an end. “No detainees anymore, no detention centres anymore, or American prisons for Iraqis, no searches or raids of buildings or houses, until there is an Iraqi judicial warrant and is fully coordinated with the Iraqi government,” he said at the time.

In Sunday’s case, the US military apparently only obtained the approval of two local Iraqi military commanders but did not obtain a warrant or inform the Baghdad government about the raid. Iraqi police have since arrested the two officials who signed off on the American operation.

Following Maliki’s broadcast, Munin and the five other detainees were released and a press conference was held Sunday night during which US officers apologised for the killings. The apology has not abated the anger, however, or the demands that American troops be brought to trial.

Munin told Reuters: “We are a peaceful family and I’m still in shock at how they suddenly raided our house, vandalised everything and killed my brother and his wife. We have started pressing charges against the US forces. We want the guilty to be brought to justice.”

A Sadrist parliamentary representative, Ahmed al-Masoudi, declared: “We must fulfill the articles of the pact by sending the personnel who committed this crime to Iraqi courts to prosecute them. The credibility of the US and Iraq’s so-called sovereignty are now facing a real test.”

Maliki’s intervention was aimed at containing popular anger against the occupation and shoring up his government. If the American forces are not punished, it will provide more fuel for his Shiite political opponents to condemn his government and the Da’wa Party as nothing more than US puppets. There is already fierce rivalry between competing Shiite parties in the south, which will only intensify in the lead-up to federal elections due in December.

In Washington, the potential for political instability in the Shiite south—which contains the bulk of Iraq’s oil reserves—can only be a source of concern. There is already a growing discussion that it was decidedly premature to conclude last year that the Bush administration’s “surge” in 2007 had been successful, allowing for a substantial reduction of US troops in the country.

In reality, the outcome of the surge was a tenuous political arrangement that left Iraq essentially partitioned into rival Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish spheres—each controlled by factions of the elite that derive wealth and power by cooperating with the US.

This house of cards is now crumbling. Sunni-based factions in western and central Iraq are threatening a revolt against the Maliki government over its refusal to grant them greater control over Sunni areas and its insistence that the Sunni Awakening Council militias disband and disarm. Large numbers of the Awakening fighters could rejoin the anti-US resistance if they are stripped of the minimal privileges they gained helping the US military to establish a shaky stability in these areas.

This month there has already been a series of sectarian bombings that could signal a return to the open Sunni-Shiite communal violence that cost tens of thousands of lives in 2006 and 2007.

In the north, tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdish nationalist parties who rule the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) are reaching a fever-pitch over the Kurdish bid to control the province of Kirkuk, the other main oil-producing region.

The UN has now formally recommended that a referendum should not be held in Kirkuk or other disputed areas claimed by the KRG as it could ignite a civil war between the majority Kurdish population and the large Arab and Turkomen minorities.

The April 25 editorial of the English-language Kurdish Globe denounced the UN as serving Arab nationalism and called on the Kurdish leadership to act unilaterally to ensure Kirkuk was brought under KRG rule. Government and Kurdish troops are already facing off in the province.

In an indication of the seriousness with which the US military takes the threat, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen held meetings with senior Kurdish leaders on Saturday—at the same time as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was meeting with Maliki in Baghdad.

The conclusion being drawn by the Obama administration and the Pentagon is that the timetable for the withdrawal of the bulk of the US forces in Iraq must be extended. The New York Times reported on April 27 that the June 30 deadline for troops to withdraw from Iraq’s cities is being circumvented by exempting major US bases that are on the outskirts of urban centres—such as the 20,000-strong garrison at the Camp Victory base in western Baghdad.

Operating from fortified bases, the American military will still be able to sally out to crush any outbreak of violence or unrest that threatens long-held US plans to exploit Iraq’s vast energy resources and transform it into a US base of operations in the broader region. The continued presence of large numbers of US troops and operations such as the Kut raid are the only means of suppressing the widespread popular opposition among Iraqis to these aims.

Contract betrayal will give UAW majority ownership in Chrysler

Contract betrayal will give UAW majority ownership in Chrysler

By Jerry White

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In the agreement worked out at Chrysler, the Obama administration has elevated the United Auto Workers to the position of chief cost cutter, tasking the UAW with the job of slashing jobs, reducing wages and benefits and imposing more brutal conditions of exploitation on the workers it claims to represent.

The Chrysler agreement will serve as the model for a similar betrayal of General Motors workers.

The White House will give the UAW majority control of Chrysler, with 55 percent of the company’s stock, and a 39 percent ownership stake in GM, making it the second biggest GM shareholder. The federal government will own more than half of GM stock.

This will complete the transformation of the UAW into a business which depends for its income on a share of the profits sweated out of the workers.

As BusinessWeek noted, “The union will in fact own more of GM and Chrysler than the Ford family owns of Ford Motor Co. It will own larger stakes in GM and Chrysler than billionaire financier Kirk Kerkorian was able to accumulate in his runs at both companies.”

The UAW, which is being advised by the Wall Street investment firm Lazard, will gain seats on the auto companies’ boards of directors and will play a major role in restructuring and downsizing the firms, from product selection and ensuring “competitive labor rates” at key suppliers, to reviewing the company’s global production plans.

Once thousands of jobs are cut and the workers are stripped of what remains of the gains won in past struggles, the share value of Chrysler and GM will rise, guaranteeing vast profits for Wall Street and its junior partner, the UAW.

The UAW is seeking to ram through the new contract with Chrysler in a ratification vote today—less than 24 hours after workers were given the UAW’s list of contract “highlights.” Even what the UAW executives have chosen to include in their handout to the workers—as always, a dishonest and self-serving document designed to conceal more than it reveals—demonstrates that the UAW is a “union” in name only.

Everything workers have traditionally associated with a trade union—the right to strike, higher wages and benefits than non-union workers, shop floor protections, a chance to retire with a secure pension and health care benefits—has been jettisoned.

There will no longer be even the pretense of collective bargaining and contract guarantees. Instead, according to the contract summary, wage and benefit rates “will be based on Chrysler maintaining an all-in hourly labor cost comparable to its US competitors, including transplant automotive manufacturers.”

In other words, UAW workers will be paid the same or less than non-union workers at the Japanese-owned factories in Mississippi, Alabama and other southern states—with one difference: They will still have to pay dues to the UAW.

Under the terms of the agreement, time-and-a-half pay for working more than eight hours or on weekends will be eliminated, with overtime calculated instead on a weekly basis, i.e., for hours worked over 40.

Break time will be reduced from 46 to 40 minutes each day.

Cost of living allowances—won after the 67-day strike by GM workers in 1970—will be eliminated, along with performance and Christmas bonuses.

Skilled trades will be consolidated into two classifications.

The two-day Easter holiday will be eliminated.

The UAW’s collaboration in offering up the next generation of auto workers as a source of cheap labor, without the slightest job security, continues. The agreement will extend the use of temporary part-time employees and the hiring of so-called “entry-level employees” who are paid half the wages of older workers and receive few benefits and no employer-paid pensions.

All workers at the Twinsburg, Ohio stamping plant will be forced to accept lower-tier wages, in order to keep the plant “viable.”

Supplemental unemployment benefits, which, along with state unemployment benefits, provided laid-off workers with 90 percent of their wages, will be sharply reduced, just as the company plans to carry out a major downsizing. Instead, workers will receive “transitional assistance,” which, along with state benefits, will pay only 50 percent of workers’ gross pay.

Perhaps the most brutal treatment is being meted out to retirees and their families. As part of the deal with the Obama administration, the UAW agreed to accept half of the $10 billion owed to its already underfunded Chrysler retiree health care trust (known as a Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association, or VEBA) in Chrysler stock, instead of cash. Previously, the UAW—which will oversee the provision of medical coverage to some 125,000 retirees and their dependents beginning January 1, 2010—said there would be no changes in benefits until 2012. It has now agreed to immediate “benefit adjustments.” These include sharply higher drug co-pays and the elimination of vision and dental care.

While the UAW claims that pension benefits for senior workers and retirees have been protected, it is widely reported that Chrysler intends to dump its pension obligations onto the government’s already underfunded Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. This would entail severe cuts in pension benefits.

The agreement essentially strips auto workers of the right to strike. The current contract, due to expire in 2011, will be extended to 2015 with any unresolved issues to be resolved through binding arbitration.

In seeking to push through its betrayal, the UAW is once again claiming that concessions are needed to “save” Chrysler and preserve jobs. The givebacks are necessary to guarantee continued federal assistance from the Obama administration and prevent bankruptcy, the UAW claims, as well as to attract Italian automaker Fiat to invest in the company. This, the UAW boasts, will provide up to 4,000 new jobs.

In fact, under the terms of the “viability plan” dictated by Obama’s auto task force and accepted by the UAW, Chrysler will cut far more than 4,000 jobs.

The UAW contract summary declares: “Recognizing the dire situation and realizing that failing to meet government requirements would surely mean the end of Chrysler, your UAW negotiators painstakingly put together modifications to the Agreement that both meet the government’s requirements and result in the least amount of pain to our members...In the face of adversity, we secured new product guarantees.”

Like everything else the UAW says, this is a lie. Every concessions contract the UAW has pushed over the last thirty years—since the 1980 Chrysler bailout—has been carried out in the name of “job security.” During that time, some three quarters of a million workers at GM, Ford and Chrysler have lost their jobs, and the demand for concessions has never stopped.

Even with the Fiat merger, Chrysler is expected to close at least seven plants and complete plans to eliminate 60 percent of its white-collar workforce. Under conditions of the worsening world economic crisis and the lowest car sales in a quarter century, the competition between global auto companies to slash jobs and labor costs will only intensify.

The new concessions at Chrysler establish a new and lower benchmark, which will unleash one demand after another for further wage and benefit concessions. Already Ford officials have indicated that they cannot accept a “competitive disadvantage” and expect UAW members at Ford to accept similar givebacks.

Moreover, the Obama administration has not ruled out bankruptcy in order to rapidly rid the company of unprofitable factories and assets and make it a more attractive investment for Fiat or other firms.

On Monday, GM issued a new job-cutting announcement, making it clear that the Obama administration and the UAW are conspiring to eliminate tens of thousands of additional jobs. GM will cut another 23,000 hourly jobs—one third of its blue collar workforce—and close up to 18 of its 47 US manufacturing facilities. In addition, it will eliminate the Pontiac brand and cut almost half of its dealerships, a move that will destroy tens of thousands of dealership jobs.

Obama’s auto task force, led by billionaire Wall Street investor Steven Rattner, immediately praised GM’s new plan as an “important step.” In its moves to restructure the auto industry, the Obama administration is functioning as a ruthless instrument of Wall Street.

The big investors have long been unsatisfied with the returns to be obtained from the auto makers, compared to the fortunes generated from financial speculation. The auto task force has insisted that the car companies provide an “adequate return on capital” for Wall Street under all circumstances, including economic slump.

The American ruling elite sees the impoverishment of auto workers—long the best paid industrial workers in the US—as a precedent for transforming class relations by unleashing a wave of wage-cutting attacks against the entire working class.

While the big investors, the auto bosses and the UAW will secure their interests, GM workers, like their counterparts at Chrysler, face disaster. This can be stopped only by rejecting the UAW concessions contracts and mobilizing rank-and-file workers to drive the right-wing, anti-labor UAW out of the factories.

Independent factory committees, made up of the most militant and class conscious workers, must be organized to mobilize Chrysler and GM workers against the government-UAW blackmail and unite with Ford workers as well as workers at the transplants. A special appeal must be made for joint action in defense of jobs and living standards with Canadian and Mexican auto workers and workers at GM’s Opel division in Europe.

Imagine a World Without Seafood for Supper -- It's Nearer Than You Think

Imagine a World Without Seafood for Supper -- It's Nearer Than You Think

By Andrew Purvis

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As I step off the train at Heysel, the vast art deco structure of the Palais du Centenaire rises like a cathedral. With its four soaring buttresses topped by statues, the Palais forms the centrepiece of the Parc des Expositions in Brussels, Belgium - a trade-fair complex built in the 1930s to commemorate a century of independence from the Netherlands. This is the temporary home of thousands of fish products from around the world as 23,000 delegates descend from 80 countries for the annual European Seafood Exposition - the world's largest seafood trade show and a grim reminder of man's dominion over the oceans.

"If I wanted people to understand the global fishing crisis, I would bring them here," says Sally Bailey, a marine program officer with the World Wide Fund for Nature, one of the more moderate NGOs combating the exploitation of the seas. Last year, one of the more militant groups - Greenpeace - managed to "close down" five exhibitors trading in critically endangered bluefin tuna, by deploying 80 activists to drape their stands in fishing nets, chain themselves to fixtures and put up banners that read: "Time and tuna are running out".

Their main target was the Mitsubishi Corporation, the Japanese car manufacturer that is also the world's largest tuna trader, controlling 60% of the market and accounting for 40% of all bluefin tuna imported into Japan from the Mediterranean. The other companies were Dongwon Industries (Korea), Moon Marine (Taiwan/ Singapore), Azzopardi Fisheries (Malta) and Ricardo Fuentes & Sons (Spain).

The day I am there, Greenpeace activists are stalking EU fisheries ministers and waiting for a chance to unfurl their banners - but the security guards thwart them. However, the gargantuan catch on display speaks for itself. At the stand run by the Sea Wealth Frozen Food Company of Thailand, the shelves are groaning with jauntily designed packets of frozen squid, surimi (minced fish) dumplings, spring rolls, samosas and deep-fried cones with shrimp tails poking out of them. In the next aisle, a frenetic chef is wok-frying prawns from Madagascar, dipping them in little square dishes of cumin, coriander, chilli powder, salt, cinnamon and garlic. At the Taiwan Pavilion, the cabinets are full of chilled and frozen tilapia, barramundi, sushi, eel and vacuum packs of tobiko - orange flying-fish roe, salty, crunchy as granola and served by a young woman in national dress who literally has not heard of sustainability. "All the boats are out there catching fish with roe," she tells me. "With so many after the same species, this is a very difficult business for us."

These halls take several hours to negotiate, and the stands seemingly go on forever - 1,650 businesses in all, together peddling most of the 147m tonnes of seafood produced globally every year. Of this, 100m tonnes is caught in the wild while the rest is farmed to satisfy an insatiable demand. Already, 1.2bn people depend on fish in their diet - and in Europe we each consume 20kg per year on average, compared to 5kg per person in India. However, as the emergent middle classes in Asia develop a taste, and a budget, for seafood - considered a luxury item until now - demand will rocket further.

What the organizers must know, but are keeping mum about, is that the oceans are in a parlous state. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 70% of the world's fisheries are now fully exploited (ie, fished to the point where they can only just replenish themselves), overexploited or depleted. The majority of fish populations have been reduced by 70-95%, depending on the species, compared to the level they would be at if there were no fishing at all. In other words, only five per cent of fish are left in some cases. In more practical terms, fishermen are catching one or two fish per 100 hooks, compared to 10 fish per 100 hooks where a stock is healthy and unexploited - a measure of sustainability once used by the Japanese fleet. In England and Wales, we are landing one fish for every 20 that we landed in 1889, when government records began, despite having larger vessels, more sophisticated technology and trawl nets so vast and all-consuming that they are capable of containing 12 Boeing 747 aircraft.

Where have all those other fish gone? In short, we have eaten them. "Tens of thousands of bluefin tuna used to be caught in the North Sea every year," says Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York. "Now, there are none. Once, there were millions of skate - huge common skate, white skate, long-nosed skate - being landed from seas around the UK. The common skate is virtually extinct, the angel shark has gone. We have lost our marine megafauna as a consequence of exploitation."

Then there are the devastating effects of bottom trawling around our coasts, which began with the advent of the steam trawler 130 years ago. "Sweeping backwards and forwards across the seabed, they removed a whole carpet of invertebrates," Professor Roberts says, "such as corals, sponges, sea fans and seaweeds. On one map, dating from 1883, there is a huge area of the North Sea roughly the size of Wales, marked 'Oyster beds'. The last oysters were fished there commercially in the 1930s; the last live oyster was taken in the 1970s. We have altered the marine environment in a spectacular way."

Worse still, after stripping our own seas bare, we have "exported fishing capacity to the waters of developing countries", Professor Roberts warns. Off Mauritania, Senegal and other West African countries, fleets from the rich industrial north are "fishing in a totally unsustainable way with minimal oversight by European countries". In return for plundering the oceans, which deprives local people of food, and artisanal fishermen of their livelihood, these vessels pay minimal fees that impoverished countries are happy to accept. "It is a mining operation," Professor Roberts says, "a rerun of the exploitation of terrestrial wealth that happened in colonial days. This is colonialism in a new guise, albeit with a respectable cloak in the form of access agreements."

Such is the human feeding frenzy, there may come a time when there are no fish left to catch. In 2006, a study in the US journal Science warned that every single species we exploit would have collapsed by 2048 if populations continued to decline as they had since the 1950s. By 2003, nearly a third of all species had collapsed, the study found - meaning their numbers were down 90% or more on historic maximum catch levels. Extrapolate that on a graph, and the downward curve reaches 100% just before 2050.

That prognosis - now disputed - was based on a four-year study of fish populations, catch records and ocean ecosystems. "We really see the end of the line now," said the author Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the time. "It will be in our lifetime. Our children will see a world without seafood, if we do not change things." Many imagined a world where there would be no fish protein left to eat apart from jellyfish and marine algae.

What the study did not make sufficiently clear was that some fish populations had bounced back as a result of drastic measures by the authorities. In countries such as Iceland, Norway, the United States, New Zealand and Australia, fisheries management has been strengthened by controls that limit fishing effort (the number of boats out there, the time they spend at sea and the areas where they are allowed to fish). Another management approach, especially in Europe, is to control output (the amount of fish landed) using Total Allowable Catch quotas, or TACs. These are designed to maintain a stock's biomass - the estimated weight of fish left in the sea after fishing and natural deaths are taken into account. It should never be allowed to fall so low that a species is unable to spawn a healthy generation the following year.

Drawn up by scientists and organisations such as Ices (the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea), these quotas are discussed by fisheries ministers and fishermen at forums such as the EU. Both have vested interests, whether political or commercial. "If you put the fox in charge of the henhouse," Professor Roberts says, "decisions will be based on short-term constraints, such as paying the mortgage on the boat. Politicians, too, make choices that are beneficial to them or their constituents in the short term."

In other words, such gatherings often ride roughshod over the scientists' recommendations - as happened at a meeting of ICCAT (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) in Luxembourg in 2007, where quotas were being thrashed out for bluefin tuna from the Mediterranean. Scientists recommended an annual catch of 15,000 tonnes a year, with a preference for 10,000 tonnes - but EU ministers agreed a quota of 29,000 tonnes, enough to guarantee the collapse of the species. (Last year, quotas for 2009 were again set far higher than scientists were advising.)

In fact, the real amount of bluefin landed was 61,000 tonnes - four times what scientists had recommended - due to illegal and unreported fishing. Last month, the European Commission implemented a two-year control and inspection programme for bluefin tuna fisheries in seven Mediterranean countries, to clamp down on things such as illegal spotter planes used to track down tuna schools. Globally, black-market fishing is worth US$25bn (£17bn) a year. In Europe, 50% of the cod we eat has been caught illegally.

Those figures, and the Luxembourg debacle, are recorded in The End of the Line - the documentary, based on Charles Clover's book of that name, to be screened in UK cinemas from 8 June. However, the blatant disregard for science it portrays is not an isolated case. "We have analysed the decision-making of European fisheries ministers over the past 20 years," says Professor Roberts, "and systematically, year on year, they have set quotas that are 25 to 35% higher than the levels recommended by scientists."

How can our politicians get away with it? "There is no obligation upon them to take scientific advice," Professor Roberts explains. "What they will tell you is that it is only one of the things they have to consider. While they might be protecting a fisherman's livelihood in the term of one or two years, short-term decision-making like that guarantees stock collapse. It is not just a possibility, it is a certainty. The only uncertainty is how long it will take."

According to Professor Roberts: "What politicians should be deciding is how the catch is allocated within different nations. That is politics. What they shouldn't be deciding is how big the catch should be in the first place. That is science."

In Norway and the US, "they respect the advice of scientists", he adds - the best example being New England, where stocks of ground fish were in serious decline in the mid-1990s, but enlightened management brought them back. "At Georges Bank, they created a closed area of 20,000 square kilometres that was off-limits to mobile fishing gear [such as trawl nets]," Professor Roberts explains. They also cut fishing effort by a draconian 50% - putting many fishermen out of business. In the past 10 years, however, there has been "a spectacular recovery" of key economic species, Roberts says. "The haddock has bounced back, the flounder has bounced back, the scallops have bounced back, so it has been a great success story."

What this demonstrates is that, where there is political will, the tide can be turned on overfishing. In the US, a piece of 1976 legislation called the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act has recently been reauthorised, requiring the industry to end overfishing in all federal waters by 2011. There is no such legislation in Europe. Under the existing Act, fisheries in Alaska and the North Pacific are already well managed - which is why wild Pacific salmon, Pacific cod and pollock from Alaska were prime candidates for certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the international NGO that created a standard for sustainable fisheries in the late 1990s and upholds it. Why do these US fisheries tick all the boxes?

"They have very progressive management under the North Pacific Fishery Management Council," Professor Roberts says, "with precautionary targets - so they go for a relatively low fraction of the fish population each year. They have closures to protect habitats and valued species such as Steller sea lions and sea otters [which can get caught in fishing gear] plus extensive areas that are closed to protect deep-water corals from destruction by bottom trawling."The authorities also impose quotas for bycatch - other species caught by mistake - to protect them from exploitation.

These are the kinds of issues the MSC is looking at when certifying fisheries. So far, 43 have been certified, including 10 in Britain, while more than 100 are under assessment - but what exactly does that mean? "Right from the start, the idea was that fisheries would be independently assessed by a third party," says James Simpson, communications officer at the MSC, "so although we set the standard, we don't carry out the assessments. That is important, because it means we don't have any influence over the results."

Instead, marine scientists from certifying bodies such as Food Certification International and Moody Marine do the work, delving into every aspect of sustainability and producing a report up to 900 pages long. "They look at stock levels, based on historical records," says Simpson, "at the impact fishing is having on the environment and at the management plan for the fishery."

A score of 80 or more must be achieved against each of these three criteria for a fishery to be certified.

The initial assessment is peer-reviewed by fellow scientists, stakeholders such as environmental groups have their say - and the fishery gets to carry the eco-label on its products. "To do that, you have to be able to trace the fish all the way through the supply chain," says Simpson, "because you don't want any non-certified species or illegally caught fish slipping into an MSC batch."

The science may be rigorous, but will the MSC label change the world?

With some species, the label is making a big difference: 42% of the world's wild salmon catch is MSC-certified, and 40% of its prime white fish catch. Altogether, five million tonnes of seafood are certified by the MSC every year.

However, that is just five per cent of the wild-caught seafood market, which is why Professor Roberts believes the label itself "can only change a small number of well-informed people who actually care". The big effect, he says, is that supermarkets "have taken on board what the MSC is saying and have developed better fish sourcing policies of their own. They are the ones who can buy or not buy from a particular supplier, so they have a lot of power."

Sainsbury's - the largest retailer of MSC-certified seafood in the UK - has pledged that, by the end of 2010, it will source 80% of its seafood from MSC-certified fisheries or from the "green list" of species approved by the Marine Conservation Society. Marks & Spencer has promised that, by 2012, all its seafood will be either MSC-certified or from other independently certified fisheries. In May, it will launch a new range of prepared meals for outdoor eating and barbecues, based around gurnard, John Dory and black bream. Caught in season in British waters, these are a more sustainable choice than the "Big Five" overfished species - the cod, haddock, prawns, tuna and plaice that account for 80% of all seafood sold in Britain. If we take the pressure off these overexploited stocks, they will hopefully recover.

However, the MSC programme is about far more than shopping. In Europe, the growing number of certified fisheries has transformed the mood of EU fishing negotiations. The Dutch based Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association (PFA) was the first North Sea herring fishery to be MSC-certified in May 2006, and the Swedish, Danish and Scottish herring fleets followed. Their representatives meet regularly in Brussels to talk about fisheries management. "All the major herring players in Europe are MSC-certified or under assessment," says Gerard van Balsfoort, president of the PFA, "and this has led to a certain kind of behaviour in the advisory process. From the point of view of stocks, you can't just ask for a higher quota if it isn't scientifically based. You can't just shout for what you want. "

In the seas around South Georgia - a remote Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom 1,300km from the Falkland Islands - the Patagonian toothfish fishery was required by MSC certifiers to initiate research that would locate deep-coral areas vulnerable to damage by trawl gear. If such areas were found, efforts to protect them "should be considered", the certifiers said. In fact, the fishery went further. It identified three deep-coral areas that needed protecting and closed them to fishing vessels entirely. That way, fish and fragile habitats would have a chance to recover.

In South Africa and New Zealand, too, MSC-certified fisheries (for hake and hoki respectively) have helped create Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) where trawling is banned, either by funding research or by lobbying the government. In New Zealand, 30% of the Exclusive Economic Zone - an area extending 220 miles out to sea over which it has rights - has been closed with fishing industry approval.

Such closures could provide the answer to the fishing crisis, allowing our children and our grandchildren to eat fish with a clear conscience. In Iceland, Canada and the US, the creation of MPAs "has brought real increases in fish populations and real recovery of seabed habitats", Professor Roberts reports. "Populations of exploited species have increased five-, 10- or even 20-fold within five, 10 or 20 years," he says. "What you see is the flourishing of life."

Over time, this explosion of fecundity spreads to other parts of the ocean. "The benefits of protection flow to the surrounding fishing grounds through the emigration of animals from protected areas, and the export of their offspring on ocean currents," Professor Roberts says. "The eggs and larvae of these protected animals are transported to fishing grounds and can replenish them."

In his view, 30% of the world's oceans should be protected "to set the clock back 200 years" and reverse the fishing crisis. After that, responsible fisheries management "in the North Pacific mould" could avert the 2048 scenario. The trouble is, only 0.8% of the oceans are currently closed to fishing - despite the efforts of former President George W Bush, who "single-handedly created MPAs, dotted throughout the Pacific Ocean, which now constitute 31% of all MPAs worldwide", Professor Roberts says.

In Britain, too, MPAs are seen as part of the solution. The Marine Bill is grinding its way through Parliament, with a provision to create MPAs in territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles from our coast. Britain and Europe have pledged to create networks of MPAs by 2012.

Far from campaigning for a total ban on fishing, Professor Roberts believes it should be allowed. If properly regulated, it will increase global fish production rather than decimate it. "Fisheries science suggests that a species is healthiest when you reduce its population size by 50%," he says. "That way, you remove the larger, older, slower-growing animals and the population becomes dominated by smaller, faster-growing fish. For them, the availability of food increases and they thrive. That gives you a boost in population growth rate, which gives you a higher rate of production to exploit."

Perversely, fishing could swamp the world with fish protein rather than starve it - but it has to be done differently. "We should abandon quotas," Professor Roberts believes, limiting fishing effort rather than output. "If you're not out there catching fish, they're not going to die." At present, EU vessels that exceed their quota have to dump fish overboard dead, rather than land it illegally. "You've got one or two times as many fish being killed and discarded, sometimes, as are being landed," Professor Roberts says. "That is no way to manage a fishery; that is not sensible at all. You have to land all your catch."

Reforms such as this will require "a major change of political direction on this side of the Atlantic", Professor Roberts warns - "but if we have that, we can turn back the clock within 20 years, to the point where a lot of species are in a far more productive state. None of this is rocket science. Perhaps we need good old George W Bush back... the world's greatest marine conservationist!"

Obama's 100 Days -- The Mad Men Did Well

Obama's 100 Days -- The Mad Men Did Well

John Pilger

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The BBC's American television soap Mad Men offers a rare glimpse of the power of corporate advertising. The promotion of smoking half a century ago by the "smart" people of Madison Avenue, who knew the truth, led to countless deaths. Advertising and its twin, public relations, became a way of deceiving dreamt up by those who had read Freud and applied mass psychology to anything from cigarettes to politics. Just as Marlboro Man was virility itself, so politicians could be branded, packaged and sold.

It is more than 100 days since Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. The "Obama brand" has been named "Advertising Age's marketer of the year for 2008", easily beating Apple computers. David Fenton of MoveOn.org describes Obama's election campaign as "an institutionalised mass-level automated technological community organising that has never existed before and is a very, very powerful force". Deploying the internet and a slogan plagiarised from the Latino union organiser César Chávez - "Sí, se puede!" or "Yes, we can" - the mass-level automated technological community marketed its brand to victory in a country desperate to be rid of George W Bush.

No one knew what the new brand actually stood for. So accomplished was the advertising (a record $75m was spent on television commercials alone) that many Americans actually believed Obama shared their opposition to Bush's wars. In fact, he had repeatedly backed Bush's warmongering and its congressional funding. Many Americans also believed he was the heir to Martin Luther King's legacy of anti-colonialism. Yet if Obama had a theme at all, apart from the vacuous "Change you can believe in", it was the renewal of America as a dominant, avaricious bully. "We will be the most powerful," he often declared.

Perhaps the Obama brand's most effective advertising was supplied free of charge by those journalists who, as courtiers of a rapacious system, promote shining knights. They depoliticised him, spinning his platitudinous speeches as "adroit literary creations, rich, like those Doric columns, with allusion . . ." (Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian). The San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford wrote: "Many spiritually advanced people I know . . . identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who . . . can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet."

In his first 100 days, Obama has excused torture, opposed habeas corpus and demanded more secret government. He has kept Bush's gulag intact and at least 17,000 prisoners beyond the reach of justice. On 24 April, his lawyers won an appeal that ruled Guantanamo Bay prisoners were not "persons", and therefore had no right not to be tortured. His national intelligence director, Admiral Dennis Blair, says he believes torture works. One of his senior US intelligence officials in Latin America is accused of covering up the torture of an American nun in Guatemala in 1989; another is a Pinochet apologist. As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, the US experienced a military coup under Bush, whose secretary of "defence", Robert Gates, along with the same warmaking officials, has been retained by Obama.

All over the world, America's violent assault on innocent people, directly or by agents, has been stepped up. During the recent massacre in Gaza, reports Seymour Hersh, "the Obama team let it be known that it would not object to the planned resupply of 'smart bombs' and other hi-tech ordnance that was already flowing to Israel" and being used to slaughter mostly women and children. In Pakistan, the number of civilians killed by US missiles called drones has more than doubled since Obama took office.

In Afghanistan, the US "strategy" of killing Pashtun tribespeople (the "Taliban") has been extended by Obama to give the Pentagon time to build a series of permanent bases right across the devastated country where, says Secretary Gates, the US military will remain indefinitely. Obama's policy, one unchanged since the Cold War, is to intimidate Russia and China, now an imperial rival. He is proceeding with Bush's provocation of placing missiles on Russia's western border, justifying it as a counter to Iran, which he accuses, absurdly, of posing "a real threat" to Europe and the US. On 5 April in Prague, he made a speech reported as "anti-nuclear". It was nothing of the kind. Under the Pentagon's Reliable Replacement Warhead programme, the US is building new "tactical" nuclear weapons designed to blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war.

Perhaps the biggest lie - the equivalent of smoking is good for you - is Obama's announcement that the US is leaving Iraq, the country it has reduced to a river of blood. According to unabashed US army planners, as many as 70,000 troops will remain "for the next 15 to 20 years". On 25 April, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, alluded to this. It is not surprising that the polls are showing that a growing number of Americans believe they have been suckered - especially as the nation's economy has been entrusted to the same fraudsters who destroyed it. Lawrence Summers, Obama's principal economic adviser, is throwing $3trn at the same banks that paid him more than $8m last year, including $135,000 for one speech. Change you can believe in.

Much of the American establishment loathed Bush and Cheney for exposing, and threatening, the onward march of America's "grand design", as Henry Kissinger, war criminal and now Obama adviser, calls it. In advertising terms, Bush was a "brand collapse" whereas Obama, with his toothpaste advertisement smile and righteous clichés, is a godsend. At a stroke, he has seen off serious domestic dissent to war, and he brings tears to the eyes, from Washington to Whitehall. He is the BBC's man, and CNN's man, and Murdoch's man, and Wall Street's man, and the CIA's man. The Madmen did well.

Waterboarding the Rule of Law

Waterboarding the Rule of Law

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Asked what he thought of Western civilization, the nonviolent Mahatma Gandhi famously replied, "I think it would be a good idea." Unless millions of Americans now demand better, we can say the same of "the rule of law." What a good idea it would have been, but - like the tooth fairy - it will not exist, not when competing priorities get in the way. The balancing - and trimming - is well on its way.

Should a special prosecutor hold Bush, Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld accountable for violating the law against torture when they specifically authorized waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions and sexual humiliation of detainees? "No one is above the law," President Obama repeatedly tells us. But, prosecuting Bush & Co. would tear the country apart, the Republican chorus chimes in. And it would create a precedent for prosecuting future presidents whose policies we might not like, just as in a banana republic.

Should Congress or a truth commission investigate torture and other war crimes so they will never happen again? Better not, the White House tells us. The country needs to look ahead and not to the past, and the administration needs to focus on fixing the economy and creating a universal health care system.

Should Congress impeach former Deputy Attorney General Jay Bybee, now a federal appeals court judge, for giving his superiors the legal arguments they wanted to justify the torture they had already decided upon? Absolutely not, his defenders insist. Lawyers must feel free to give officials their best legal advice, and officials must feel free to get the legal advice they need.

None of these alternative priorities are trivial. America should never criminalize differences over lawful policies. Obama and his administration should focus on ending the economic crisis and fulfilling his campaign promises. And senior officials should feel free to consult with government lawyers. But all these priorities must remain within legal limits, and none of them justify giving a pass to those who commit criminal acts, no matter how high their office. Either we uphold the rule of law or we make political priorities paramount. We cannot have it both ways, and we should stop pretending that we can.

The stakes here go far beyond whether or not we torture our enemies, our suspected enemies and then our own people, though these are obviously life-and-death concerns. What should scare us even more is whether or not we maintain even the façade of democracy.

In overriding the Geneva Conventions, other treaty obligations and American laws banning torture, the Bush administration explicitly claimed that the president could do whatever he thought necessary to full his constitutional obligation to defend the country. He was the decider in chief, and neither Congress nor the courts could overrule his decision. As Jay Bybee's torture memo put it, "the President enjoys complete discretion in the exercise of his Commander-in-Chief authority and in conducting operations against hostile forces."

Right-wing legal ideologues call this view of sweeping and unchecked presidential power "a strong unified presidency." Those who believe in it would turn our chief executive into an elected monarch, and some proponents would even grant him or her the right to call off elections in time of crisis, real or contrived. Following this grandiose view, President Bush usurped powers that the Constitution does not permit, and his administration used those powers to commit other crimes, from torture to invading Iraq on a pack of lies. Do we prosecute Bush's power grab as a criminal violation of the Constitution? Or, do we accept a crime bordering on treason as just another policy decision with which we may or may not disagree?

Either way, we set a precedent. Prosecute Bush, Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld and we confirm that every future leader must operate within the rule of law. Give them a pass and their successors will feel free to rule as they will. The choice is clear, if only Americans have the courage to pursue it. My guess is that we do not, and that we will soon come to rue it.


The criminalization of journalism

The criminalization of journalism

The U.S. prohibited an overflight by an Air France airliner because journalist Calvo Ospina was on board

By Hernando Calvo Ospina

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Air France Flight 438, from Paris, was to land at Mexico City at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 18. Five hours before landing, the captain's voice announced that U.S. authorities had prohibited the plane from flying over U.S. territory. The explanation: among the passengers aboard was a person who was not welcome in the United States for reasons of national security.

A few minutes later, the same voice told the startled passengers that the plane was heading for Fort-de-France, Martinique, because the detour the plan needed to take to reach its destination was too long and the fuel was insufficient.

The stopover in that French territory in the Caribbean would be only to refuel the plane. Exhaustion was becoming an issue among the passengers. But the central question, spoken in undertones, was the identity of the "terrorist" passenger, because if the "gringos" say it, "it must be because he must be a terrorist."

Looking at those of us sitting in the back of the plane, two passengers said no terrorist could be there because "nobody there looks like a Muslim."

Again in the air, and preparing for another four hours of travel, a man who identified himself as the copilot came to me. Trying to look discreet, he asked if I was "Mr. Calvo Ospina." I told him yes.

"The captain wants to sleep, that's why I came here," he said, and he invited me to accompany him to the back of the plane. There, he told me that I was the person "responsible" for the detour. I was astonished.

My first reaction was to ask him: "Do you think I'm a terrorist?" He said no, that's the reason I'm telling you this. He also assured me that it was strange that this was the first time it happened on an Air France plane. Shortly before we landed in Martinique, a stewardess had told me that, in her 11-year career, nothing like that had ever happened to her.

Finally, the copilot asked me not to tell anybody, including the rest of the crew. I assured him that I hadn't the slightest intention of doing so.

I returned to my seat. Perhaps through nervousness, I began to notice that the members of the crew walked by me more frequently, looking at me with curiosity.

After landing, before the plane even reached the airport building, a woman's voice asked for "Mr. Calvo Ospina" to meet with a member of the crew as soon as the plane stopped. I did so. The young man picked up a phone and called someone. After hanging up, he told me I was no longer needed and could debark. He told me he knew about my problem and wished me luck.

In an instant, on two pieces of paper I ripped from a newspaper, I wrote the telephone number of my home and gave them to two passengers with whom I had chatted, telling them I was "the problem guy." They assured me they would phone my home, but didn't -- or they couldn't read my numbers.

A few yards from the plane, at the entrance to the terminal, we were awaited by several civilians who asked for our documents. My throat was drying up, due to nerves. I submitted my passport and was allowed to enter. While I waited on line at the immigration desk, I saw several men looking for someone. They stood behind a glass partition, a few steps away from the immigration agents but at a higher level.

The line moved slowly. I was moving, without any choice, to where I felt the worst might happen. But what could I do? The scandal of a man designated as "a terrorist" by the United States could not gain me any supporters. I had to go on. Nothing weighed on my conscience; nothing weighs still.

Then I saw that the three or four men behind the glass partition had identified me. They looked at a computer screen and then at me. I feigned indifference. The man who looked like (and was) the leader, went down to the main floor to talk to the immigration agents. He pretended not to assume that I was "the culprit" but clearly he thought so. And the immigration agents looked into my eyes, unable to conceal that they knew I was the man they were waiting for.

My turn came. I greeted the man politely and he responded in like manner. He looked at the computer, wrote something and told me to wait a minute, said he needed to "verify" something in my passport. He asked me to follow him. I did. He led me to a room next to the glass-enclosed one. A uniformed agent was sitting next to the door, writing something. As soon as I put down my two valises, I told him I needed to go to the bathroom. He pointed me in its direction. I walked through two large semi dark rooms; I saw two people sleeping on the floor, on mats. The bathroom lights didn't work. I urinated without worrying if I hit the toilet seat or not. I couldn't see a thing.

I returned and sat down. I fumbled for a book, displaying tranquility, but my throat remained dry. A few minutes later, the same man who watched me from the glass enclosure returned and politely asked me to follow him. We walked into the glass-enclosed room, he sat behind a desk and asked me to sit in one of two chairs. As I did, I noticed that a man was standing behind me, to my left. A woman checked a computer and documents, paying no attention to us.

The first thing the man told me was that I shouldn't worry, that they only wanted to verify a few things. He said that "five information sources" in data bases had shown some information about me. He said they "simply" needed to make a "summary." He showed me a package that contained about 200 sheets of paper, stapled together in five booklets.

I calmed down, forgot about my dry throat and told him: "Ask whatever you want. I have nothing to hide." He repeated that it was a simple, brief matter and that I could leave later. Knowing the police, I had my doubts.

I asked him if those many sheets of paper said that I was guilty of something. The man who was standing answered that I was there at the request of U.S. authorities. He said I should know that, after Sept. 11, 2001, the Americans had stepped up their "cooperation" work.

Then I asked them: "So, am I to blame for the plane's rerouting?" They said no, they understood it had been a mere technical stopover. I told them they knew it wasn't so, that the plane's captain had told everyone that the stopover was due to a passenger. They smiled, looked at each other, and resumed the questions. They asked me for my name, date of birth, residence, etc. Nothing special, nothing that wasn't already in my documents. The seated officer kept repeating that I could leave without any problem in a few minutes. The standing officer posed the more "remarkable" questions.

"Are you a Catholic?" he asked. I answered no, but I am not a Muslim either, knowing how "dangerous" this religious belief has become to certain policemen.

"Do you know how to handle firearms?" I told him that the only time I held one I was very young; it was a shotgun and I was knocked down by the recoil. I never even went through military service, I said. In fact, I added, "my only weapon is my writing, especially to denounce the American government, whom I consider terrorist."

They looked at each other, and the seated man said something I already knew: "That weapon sometimes is worse than rifles and bombs."

They asked me why I was traveling to Nicaragua the following day, and I explained that I had to write a story for Le Monde Diplomatique. They asked me for my personal address, as well as the home phone and cell phone numbers, which I gave them without hesitation. They asked me if I had children. A girl and a boy, I answered. The standing man, who by then had sat down next to me, said calmly: "How nice that you have a boy-and-girl couple. That's nice." He sounded almost sincere.

That was basically the interrogation, which seemed more like a chat. The notes made by the seated man did not fill a page. The notes made by the other man did not fill a notepad page. It seemed to me that the latter worked for a more specialized intelligence agency. At no time did either official speak aggressively or threateningly. They were very courteous and proper.

Finally, they returned my identification papers after photocopying them. And we parted with a handshake. It was almost 2 a.m., Sunday, April 19, 2009. At 10:30 a.m. I boarded a plane for Managua without any difficulty. But I still think that it was a dream bordering on a nightmare. I still don't believe that I was "guilty of detouring an Air France 747 because of the 'fears' of U.S. authorities."

How much did it all cost? Only Air France knows. It had to pay for hotel rooms and food for at least half the passengers, who missed their connections. I witnessed the other passengers' exhaustion, especially the children, some of whom began to vomit, fearing that among them was a "terrorist." I also saw the tranquility of the crew members in my presence. Later I learned that all of them were aware of the situation, but it didn't seem to me that they believed I was guilty of a crime.

How far will the U.S. authorities' paranoia go? And why do Air France and the French authorities continue to keep silent about it all?


Involuntary quarantine an option if swine flu explodes into epidemic

Quarantine decision will be left to the locals

Involuntary isolation an option if swine flu explodes into major epidemic

By Linda Carroll

Go To Original

Quarantine may seem the stuff of mediocre melodramas, but if the swine flu explodes into an epidemic, involuntary isolation could become a reality for more than a few unlucky Americans.

So far the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed the death of a 23-month-old child in Texas and 68 documented cases of swine flu in the United States, with at least seven people hospitalized. In New York, Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden announced that "many hundreds" of New York City schoolchildren are sick with suspected cases of swine flu. Across the country, in Los Angeles, the coroner's office is investigating two possible deaths.

But states say they are ready to protect the public if the infection intensifies.

Many states adopted new legislation to deal with emerging health emergencies in the wake of Sept. 11, says James Hodge, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and executive director of the Centers for Law and the Public’s Health. Hodge and others at the center drafted a model for this kind of legislation that’s been adopted in whole or in part by 35 states.

Although the federal government can declare a state of emergency, that only serves to free up resources — such as its stockpiled medicines — for use by the states, Hodge explains.

The next steps, including the power to isolate or quarantine citizens, rests in the hands of the states, or in some cases, local governments. Most can choose to do so on a case-by-case basis.

Virginia and Florida, for instance, keep all the power at the state level, but other states such as Oregon share that authority with county and city governments, Hodge says.

Under ordinary circumstances, states and municipalities have to get a court order to isolate a person suspected of harboring a dangerous infection or to quarantine someone exposed to a deadly disease. But things get really streamlined once a state declares the situation to be an emergency.

Then due process can be overridden, at least temporarily, Hodge explains. In a health emergency, people can be forced into isolation or quarantine without the government getting a court order first.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, the state has the authority to quarantine whole areas of a city, if it's determined that that's the most efficient and practical way to protect the public, says Holli, deputy press secretary of the of health department.

Still, there usually are protections for civil liberties built into the emergency laws, experts say. And while the state or certain designated municipalities can isolate or quarantine people for the protection of the public without a court order in Pennsylvania, the government is required to argue its case before a judge within 24 hours. Then the court has 72 hours to render its judgment. So isolation without the supervision of a court won’t go on without end, Senior says.

In general the laws usually provide health care for those who are to be isolated or quarantined, says Hodge. “The point of isolation isn’t just to protect everyone else, it’s also to provide care to those who are infected,” he adds.

Governments usually don’t need to get so heavy handed, says Dr. Andrew Garrett, director for planning and response at The National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

“Most people will voluntarily stay at home if they’re asked nicely,” Garrett says. “We saw that with SARS.”

People may think that quarantine and isolation are new concepts, but they’re not, says Garrett. “The word ‘quarantine’ comes from the Italian for ‘40 days’ and it came into use during the black plague,” he explains. “So the term has been around for a long time.”

While the original term dictated 40 days, a quarantine can last for as little as 40 minutes, Garrett says, pointing to the example of exposure to anthrax. In that case, people just needed to be decontaminated and then released.

And keep in mind, Garrett says, quarantines don’t have to be followed perfectly to be effective. In general, you assume that 10 percent of the quarantined population won’t follow the rules, he adds.

In a computer simulation of a smallpox epidemic, even a compliance rate of 50 percent was enough to beat back the disease, Garrett says.

“A quarantine isn’t going to stop all transmission, but it can slow the disease down enough to interfere with its natural history so that it fizzles out on its own or it can give you time to get medication — like antivirals — to people who need them.”