Sunday, June 28, 2009

Strange Martial Law via Food Control: HR 2749

Strange Martial Law via Food Control: HR 2749

Not what the American people ordered – HR 2749, martial law and the enslavement of their farmers

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HR 2749 is a strange bill in many ways. While the other “food safety” bills have been around since winter, allowing for much public discussion on the internet, HR 2749 has only suddenly appeared. It is a mutant conglomeration of the worst of the other bills, with the addition of one very original part – martial law.

When it was a draft, it was Waxman’s bill. But once given a number, it became Dingel’s who already had a “food safety” bill, HR 759. So Waxman got none and Dingel got two. (Was this because Waxman, being Jewish, was a hideous choice to introduce a bill with Codex in it – designed by the Nazi pharmaceutical companies that funded Hitler, provided the gas for the gas chambers, experimented on prisoners with vaccines – and is expected to kill millions?)

* HR 2749 would give FDA the power to order a quarantine of a geographic area, including “prohibiting or restricting the movement of food or of any vehicle being used or that has been used to transport or hold such food within the geographic area.”

[This - "that has been used to transport or hold such food" - would mean all cars that have ever brought groceries home or any pickup someone has eaten take-out in, so this means ALL TRANSPORTATION can be shut down under this. This is using food as a cover for martial law.]

Under this provision, farmers markets and local food sources could be shut down, even if they are not the source of the contamination. The agency can halt all movement of all food in a geographic area.

[This is also a means of total control over the population under the cover of food, and at any time.] See this DailyKos entry.

The bill is unusual, too, because slow as it was to appear. The little bugger of bill has made up for it since. It got a number on June 10, went to committee on June 17, passed instantly, and is headed for a vote on the floor of the House.

The first Patriot Act was passed using fear of terrorism. This Patriot Act is more coy, hiding under a cloak of “food safety” and but also using fear – fear of food contamination. Evidently, Americans are supposed to be so frightened by the slightest possibility of a terrorist or of E-coli, they would trade away all their precious, hard fought freedoms for the promise of safety. Or at least, that is what the trade-off has become. “Terrorism” and “contamination” are great bugaboos used to open doors to an end to the US Constitution. That is exactly what we are left with after those who wrote HR 2749 are done.

Who did write these bills? It seems Monsanto had not only a hand, but a “defining” influence.

This redefining of reality is what seems to be underlying all the loss of freedom. Normal and free are disappearing into the maw of corporate definitions of reality. See this Yup Farming piece.

So, we begin with contaminated food from filthy corporate processors and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). And what do we end up with after that reality is ground up by corporate legal hands? Changes in the definition of risk so that natural things are treated as dangerous and toxic things are untouched, such that:

  • Healthy, normal farms are taken over by government as though they were run by criminals and contaminated corporate slaughterhouses are untouched;
  • The necessary freedom of individuals to live and grow food and be left alone are somehow suddenly destroyed, though they were never the source of any food contamination issue; and such that
  • The profit and control and power of corporations which were absolutely the source of the increasingly terrible food, is somehow suddenly vastly increased.

Thanks to corporate control over reality, our wanting to clean up corporate processors and feedlots and CAFOS and end up with farmers’ markets and local farms and organic food has become the industrialization and potential destruction of every healthy part of the food system and the triumph of the most contaminated and toxic part. And in the non-bargain, we lost all freedoms and they took all control. And “all” is not a hyperbole here, for one need only look at another provision of HR 2749 to feel how insane, how distant from all we ever wanted.

* HR 2749 would empower FDA to regulate how crops are raised and harvested. It puts the federal government right on the farm, dictating to our farmers.

[What is missing in pointing out this astounding control, is that it opens the door to CODEX and WTO "good farming practices" will include the elimination of organic farming by eliminating manure, mandating GMO animal feed, imposing animal drugs, and ordering applications of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers, thus, will be locked not only into the industrialization of once normal and organic farms but into the forced purchase of industry's products. They will be slaves on the land, doing the work they are ordered to do - against their own best wisdom - and paying out to industry against their will. There will be no way to be frugal, to grow one's own grain to feed the animals, to raise healthy animals without GMO grains or drugs, to work with nature at all. Grassfed cattle and poultry and hogs will be finished. So, it needs to be made clear where control will take us. And weren't these the "rumors on the internet" that were dismissed but are clearly the case?] See this DailyKos entry.

When we wanted not to get E-coli in processed meat, did we intend to put our farmers into corporate servitude? Did we plan to have our own lives straight-jacketed by a million new controls over our own gardens, our own desire to grow food, our own plans to start small businesses, our own dreams to have a small piece of land and farm ourselves? Who has the audacity to take our needs and grotesquely bastardize them in these ways, while giving the destruction and totalitarian control the sham name of “food safety”?

We wanted good food. We never wanted to trap our farmers into an industrial prison on their own land, afraid moment to moment of not fulfilling some monstrous set of instructions that never end – rules the farmers loathe, rules that have not only nothing to do with real farming but which are antithetical to it. Why have we ended up with HR 2749, an intense corporate nightmare around the most central and necessary aspects of a free country and of free human beings – farming and food?

USDA wiretap webAmerican farming needs to be relieved of the burdens it has been under, not finished off by its corporate competition. It needs freedom to flourish again. Obviously – and Congress people who would think to vote for such absurdities, take note – the imposition of surveillance, monitoring, warrantless entry, taking of all records, licensing, fees, Codex and NAIS, in addition to massive penalties and prison terms (all without judicial review over even appropriateness and validity), are not how one thanks American farmers for holding together the only working part of our food system. See Literal Enslavement by Linn Cohen-Cole.

HR 2749 is the most vicious and insane bill one could imagine. Who treats our farmers in this way? Who believes that such police measures can provide for the rebirth of farming and the return of healthy food? Who wrote this bill that trashes the freedom of all our lives? HR 2749 was not what we ordered and it should be sent back the bowels of hell it came from.

HR 2749 is both insane and cruel. And the deceptiveness of hiding a Patriot Act in it and the brutal rush to slip it through Congress are ANTI-democratic.

Protesters crash apartheid ‘beach party’

Protesters crash apartheid ‘beach party’

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A lone man sat on a bench in Central Park on the edge of a mock beach holding a sign reading, “When do we Jews notice that Israel is insane?” Police told him that he must leave, as that area of the public park belonged to Israel for the day. But more protesters came, and they refused to be silenced.

The Palestinian organization Al-Awda New York, organizers of the protest, stated: “On June 21st, Central Park is being handed over to Israel for the day to set up a ‘Tel-Aviv Beach.’ The Zionist Tourism Commissioner says the event is about the ‘fun and lightheartedness of Tel Aviv,’ but in reality it is a celebration of ethnic cleansing and genocide.”

The Israeli Tourism Commission promoted the day as a celebration of Tel Aviv’s 100 years of existence. The “beach” area was located in front of the Central Park Bandshell, site of many summertime concerts. A giant, double-sided billboard loomed with an enticing photo of Tel Aviv’s beach filled with sunbathers, hotels and sailboats.

On the stage a band played loud music, and below people danced. An enormous square sandbox was erected on the ground. Inside, adults and children played with beach balls, Frisbees and other beach toys. There were bikinis, beach chairs and umbrellas, banners and Israeli flags. And of course, literature tables advertising Tel Aviv’s beach resort: “Vacation in Israel!”

Everything was there—except the truth.

For instance, that Tel Aviv was created by the destruction and replacement of the Palestinian port city of Jaffa, along with the killing and expulsion of its people. It’s estimated that 95 percent of Jaffa’s residents were displaced. Today there are around 70,000 Palestinian refugees from Jaffa, according to Al-Awda.

The city of Jaffa goes back more than 6,000 years. Because of its vitality, the city was known as “the Bride of Palestine.” Jaffa was central to the Palestinian economy, culture and national identity before the 1948 Nakba (“catastrophe”) when the Zionist military arrived, backed by the U.S. and Britain.

Jaffa was finally shut down by the Israeli settler state in the 1950s.

“Tel Aviv was designated as a colonial space for white European colonizers planted in the heart of the native Arab population in Palestine—in much the same way as Europeans established themselves in apartheid South Africa,” noted Al-Awda

The day’s “beach party” was no more than a pep rally for Zionists. There was a major New York Police presence, in uniform and plainclothes. Protestors were corralled by barricades, and no protesters were permitted to leave the barricades with their signs in hand. Hecklers walked by, as well as people engaging in conversation and seeking more information.

Al-Awda’s protest of this “celebration of atrocity and expulsion” was joined by demonstrators from several organizations, including the International Action Center, Code Pink, Socialist Action, Palestinian Action Union Square East, the ANSWER Coalition, and others, including two Israelis students studying in the U.S.

One of the students, Naama, said she was there because “It’s important for Israel to be reminded of its crimes against the Palestinians. There is no happiness in this event, and the price paid by Palestinians and others must be mentioned. Israel’s behavior of 42 years is apartheid, and its liberal presentation of itself is a lie.”

Homeland Security and US Army Plan Invasion of States

Homeland Security and US Army Plan Invasion of States

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The Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security recently hosted a teleconference for law enforcement agencies and associations such as the National Association of Chiefs of Police to discuss the Obama Administration's interest in using the military during "emergencies."

Fortunately, had exclusive access to the discussion and the explanations by Homeland Security and Defense Departments officials.

Officials announced during the teleconference that the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate met with the Commander, US Northern Command, General Gene Renuart, to discuss "pre-disaster planning, response and recovery in support of the federal response to the 2009 hurricane season as well as wild fires, floods and other potential disasters."

The meeting reinforced the important relationship between the two organizations and focused on the operational role of US Northern Command and what resources and skills they bring to any major Federal effort related to all-hazards preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. It was also an opportunity to meet operational leaders who would fill key positions in those support efforts.

"NORTHCOM plays a vital role in disaster response in support of state and local officials," Fugate said. "I am impressed by their commitment to teamwork and interoperability. They are leaning forward and are solutions-oriented partners among the nation's emergency response team."

"We are committed to teaming with and supporting our civilian partners," added Renuart. "If our federal partners, state and local officials are successful in responding to contingency operations, then ultimately we are successful. We look forward to our continued collaboration and cooperation."

However, many law enforcement executives and organizations went on the record saying they did not appreciate the prospect of federal troops usurping the authority of local and state law enforcement agencies or the role of the National Guard unit currently under the control of governors.

"My initial reaction is: why are we allowing federal troops to basically invade the sovereignty of individual states when each state has its own law enforcement agencies and each state possesses an armed and trained National Guard and, in the case of some states such as New York, a trained militia?" according to New York police officer Edna Aquino.

"We have not used armed federal troops in New York since the Civil War when Union troops and Navy battleships attacked dissenters who opposed conscription by the Union Army," she added.

According to officials from the Homeland Security Department, FEMA and Northern Command share a common interest and a unified approach to disaster response and recovery.

"Both organizations also understand that the most effective plans to save lives and protect property begins with preparedness. This meeting was an important stepping stone to ensure mutual preparedness and effective planning in support of state and local officials," said one official.

Homeland Security Department officials offered these two rationales for their joint ventures with the Department of Defense:

"Emergency preparedness is everyone's responsibility. Everyone should have a personal response plan for a disaster, everyone should know who their first responders are at the local and state level, and everyone should be prepared to be self-sufficient for at least the first 72 hours.

"FEMA's mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards."

Political strategist Mike Baker is disturbed over this latest "emergency plan" designed to allow federal troops to operate freely within US borders.

"This is a constitutionally unsound development for our nation. While President Barack Obama and his ilk worry about how America's military is perceived by other nations and are concerned with how we treat enemies, they seem to be willing to use extreme measures against their own citizens.
Will we witness another Branch Davidian massacre in the name of 'emergency response' or other rationale? It's not a positive development for this nation," said Baker.

Northcom was established about a year after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and is responsible for an area of operations that includes the United States, Canada and Mexico. It serves as a "one-stop-shopping" point for military support in case of an attack on American soil. However, according to officials speaking during the teleconference, the Obama Administration is expanding that role to include natural disasters or emergencies that were once the domain of state and local authorities.

Over the years, according to Baker, the federal government has expanded its role and even included other nations in operational plans within the US. For example NORAD is a joint US-Canadian command established 51 years ago to defend against nuclear-armed Soviet aircraft entering North American airspace. Decades later, the command's mission has expanded to include early detection of threats via air, space, land and sea.

The sheer number of participants speaks to NORAD's level of preparation and coordination to operate within US borders. Teaming up to deal with emergencies are American and Canadian NORAD agents, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Transportation Security Administration, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, NAV Canada, the White House, U.S. Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

"This is not something we should be celebrating. This is something we as Americans should fear," states another NYPD officer.

"If states do not have the capability to respond on their own to a hurricane or earthquake, then perhaps they should increase their capabilities or change their leadership," said Det. Benny Cardoza.

"Using Hurricane Katrina as an excuse to increase federal authority in the affairs of individual states is a sorry excuse and one that should be shunned by citizens and local cops," states the decorated cop.

Palestinian Violence Overstated, Jewish Violence Understated

West Bank Settler Violence and the Path to Peace

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The American media in its 24/7 half-life tends to turn the surprises of history, large and small, into flood-tide events. They sweep over us, offering a kind of news satiation that leads quickly enough to forgetfulness -- as the media moves on. And then the subjects of the news are left to struggle, once again little attended to, with whatever everyday crisis may be at hand. Right now, Iran, of course, is that flood: both the news of a remarkable outpouring of dissatisfaction and dismay, youthful and otherwise, with the recent fraudulent election -- not the first time, by the way, that there have been fraud charges in an Iranian election, just not on such a grotesque scale -- as well as the bravery and determination of unarmed protestors in the face of angry, armed repression. And then, of course, there are all sorts of American fantasies about what's happening.

It's a wonderful, even a thrilling thing, when we're reminded that history surprises, that we human beings are less than predictable and sometimes act in concert and so much better, so much more movingly, than we have any right to expect. One can only hope for further surprises against the force of a well-armed state. While we're at it, however, we Americans should remind ourselves that we are not the good guys in this story, that it was American meddling that set in motion the whole grim train of events leading to this moment more than half a century ago.

In the meantime, in news terms, the rest of the world is largely obliterated. Israelis, Palestinians? Gone. That was another moment, another flood of news. Been there, done that. You know, Obama's speech in Cairo and all that (on which, by the way, David Bromwich has an interesting and optimistic take over at the New York Review of Books). And yet in that region, the everyday worst of things simply goes on being terrible. Gaza strangles. The West Bank settlements slowly expand. The Israeli government moves further to the right. And Hamas digs in.

On the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I undoubtedly qualify as a pessimist. I see little in the direction Israel has taken -- and Israel is the strong one in the "peace process," the party with at least the theoretical capacity to give something -- that might lead somewhere close to something resembling peace. Yet, here, too, I'm ready for the surprises of history. I welcome them whether in Iran, Israel, or the Gaza Strip. And I like it when someone like that all-around canny guy and TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus sees glimmers of hope for something new in the otherwise horrific tangle of bitterness, retribution, and hopelessness that the Israelis and Palestinians now represent. Tom

Palestinian Violence Overstated, Jewish Violence Understated

Time to Change the Story
By Ira Chernus

The Israel Project hired pollster Stanley Greenberg to test American opinion on the Middle East conflict -- and got a big surprise. In September 2008, 69% of Americans called themselves pro-Israel. Now, it's only 49%. In September, the same 69% wanted the U.S. to side with Israel; now, only 44%.

How to explain this dramatic shift? Greenberg himself suggested the answer years ago when he pointed out that, in politics, "a narrative is the key to everything." Last year the old narrative about the Middle East conflict was still dominant: Israel is an innocent victim, doing only what it must do to defend itself against the Palestinians. Today, that narrative is beginning to lose its grip on Americans.

Well, to be more precise, the first part of the old narrative is eroding. Nearly half the American public seems unsure that Israel is still the good guy in the Middle East showdown. But the popular image of the Palestinians as the violent bad guy is apparently as potent as ever. The number of Americans who say they support Palestine remains unchanged from last September, a mere 7%. And only 5% want the U.S. government to take such a position.

Those numbers reflect the narrative that President Obama recited in Cairo on June 4th. He chided the Israelis for a few things they are doing wrong -- like expanding settlements and blockading Gaza. To the other side, though, his message was far blunter: "Palestinians must abandon violence." Of Israeli violence he said not a word.

The president's speech implicitly sanctioned the most up-to-date tale that dominates the American mass media and public opinion today: The Israelis ought to be reined in a bit, but it's hard to criticize them too much because, hey, what would you do if you had suicide bombers and rockets coming at you all the time?

That view is a political winner here. In the latest Pew poll, 62% of Americans say Obama is striking the right balance between Israel and Palestine; of those who disagree, three-quarters want to see him tougher on the Palestinians, not the Israelis. A Rasmussen poll finds even stronger support for a pro-Israel tilt.

There are, however, two things wrong with his narrative. First, though it's somewhat less one-sided than the story that prevailed during the George W. Bush years, it is far from impartial, which means the U.S. still cannot act as an even-handed broker for peace in the region. Since no one else is available to play that role, it's hard to see how, under the present circumstances, any version of a peace process can move forward.

The second problem is that the popular narrative just doesn't happen to match the facts. In reality, unjustified violence is initiated on both sides -- and if anyone insists on keeping score, Israel's violence, official and unofficial, outweighs the violence coming from the Palestinians.

Coming to Grips with Jewish Settler Violence

Israeli violence is often overlooked here because so much of it is done by official order of the state. Americans are quick to side with the man who wears the badge. Even when he lets loose the kind of violence that recently devastated parts of the Gaza Strip, the reigning assumption is that his gun is a force for law and order.

But what about the kind of violence Palestinians are so often accused of, the unauthorized civilian-on-civilian kind -- what the experts term "non-state-actor violence" and the rest of us simply call "terrorism"? Though you may not know this, much of it these days is done by Israeli Jews.

"Palestinian civilians bear brunt of settler violence," Agence France-Presse recently reported: "Nestled amid rolling hills and with an eagle eye's view to the Mediterranean coast, Nahla Ahmed's house has all the elements of Eden... if it weren't for the Molotov cocktail-throwing neighbours. 'We put bars on the windows after the first attack, three years ago,' says the 36-year-old mother of four. 'Now they come each week.'"

The attacks aren't always with Molotov cocktails; sometimes Jewish settlers throw tear gas canisters, simply spray a Star of David on a wall, or cut down trees owned by Palestinians. In other incidents, settlers have shot and killed a 16-year-old boy, fractured the skull of a 7-year-old girl with a rock, set a dog on a 12-year-old boy, and shot dead an Arab man but let his companion go when he identified himself as Jewish. These are not egregious, isolated cases of mayhem; they're just a few random examples of what's happening all too often on the West Bank. To see how depressingly common such violence is, just Google "West Bank settler violence" for yourself.

It's easy enough to see what the violence looks like too, since a lot of it has been captured on video. And this is just violence against people. The violence against property is far too common to begin to catalog.

Last December, Jewish settlers in Hebron went on a rampage, shooting at Palestinians, setting fire to homes, cars, and olive groves, defacing mosques and graves. Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister at the time, said he was "ashamed" of this "pogrom."

Yet few such settler crimes are seriously prosecuted by the Israeli authorities. The Israeli rights group Yesh Din has documented this in an extensive report, which, the group carefully notes, is merely one more in a long line of similar reports:

"Since the 1980's many reports have been published on law enforcement upon Israelis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. All of the reports... warned against the failure of the authorities to enforce the law effectively upon Israelis... who committed offenses against Palestinian civilians... Yet the problem of attacks against Palestinian people and property by Israelis has only grown worse, becoming a daily occurrence."

Assessing Hamas Violence

Jewish settlers who commit violence claim just what the Israeli government claims when it directs state-sponsored violence at Palestinian areas: Self-defense -- it was nothing but self-defense. And it's certainly true that there are incidents of individual Palestinians venting their frustration violently. After all, they've been living under an arbitrary, demeaning, and sometimes brutal occupation for 42 years.

According to the common Israeli and American narratives, however, the real culprit and chief roadblock to peace is the constant violence -- suicide bombings and rocket attacks -- planned and carried out by a well-organized political party, Hamas. Again, as it happens, this popular version of events is simply not borne out by the facts.

Consider suicide bombings. In 2003 Israel's premier newspaper, Ha'aretz, reportedJewish Virtual Library run by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (a source hardly sympathetic to Hamas). that Hamas had decided "to stop terror against Israeli civilians if Israel stops killing Palestinian civilians." Though it's not clear that Israel did stop its own killings, Hamas soon halted its devastating suicide attacks. There were two in 2004 and not a single one in the nearly five years since then, according to the

The same source counts no "major attacks" on Israeli civilians by any Palestinians since 2006. Though there have been other attacks since then, their frequency has dropped dramatically, and none have been carried out by Hamas itself.

Israelis generally know what most Americans still don't: Suicide bombing, supposedly the trademark of "Palestinian terrorism," has virtually ceased. As a result, Israel's chief complaint has switched to Hamas rocket attacks. How can we let them have the West Bank, the argument goes? Look what happened when we pulled all our settlements out of Gaza and got nothing in return but thousands of rockets. That's why we had no choice but launch our full-scale assault on Gaza in December 2008: to put an end to them.

In fact, though, Hamas rocket attacks had ended in July 2008, when Israel agreed to the ceasefire Hamas had been asking for. That agreement held for four months until Israeli troops killed six Hamas operatives -- shortly before Hamas and Fatah were scheduled to create a unified government. It's a familiar Israeli tactic: block Palestinian unity and then complain of "no partner for peace."

Hamas was also moved by the plight of its people in Gaza, growing increasingly short of food, medical supplies, and other basic goods due to an ever-tightening Israeli blockade.

Yet all this is lost in the story that most Israelis tell, and most Americans believe, about why Hamas began shooting rockets (which, compared to the massive Israeli onslaught in response, did relatively little damage). Equally lost is Hamas's return to its moratorium on firing rockets after the recent Gaza war, formally confirmed by the party's leader, Khaled Meshal, in the New York Times.

Occasional rockets do fly out of Gaza, provoking the usual Israeli demand that Palestinian authorities must prevent every single incident of violence before there can be any talk of peace. That's something like holding the U.S. government responsible for the recent shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington or the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

A Mirror Image?

Still, the Palestinian governments in both Gaza and the West Bank could do more to control the private violence of their people, just as the Israeli government could do more to control Jewish settler violence. Yet none of these governments act vigorously because they risk alienating a small but significant portion of their political support.

As the Times's Ethan Bronner recently wrote: "There are striking parallels between the hard-core opponents of a peace deal on each side. They are generally driven by a belief in a law higher than any created by human legislatures; they are exceptionally motivated; and they are very well organized... Many Israeli governments have fallen over the issue."

For the risk of offending hard-core groups, neither side sees obvious countervailing political gain. While a minority on both sides condemns the violence of its compatriots, the majority seems to accept it as an excessive, unfortunate, but understandable response to provocations initiated by the enemy. So neither Hamas, nor Fatah, nor the Israeli government see any clear advantage in bending over backwards to stop attacks by non-state groups.

What's more, as Uri Avnery, the grand old man of the Israeli peace movement, explains: "On both sides, the overwhelming majority want an end to the conflict but do not believe that peace is possible -- and each side blames the other." Each side blames the other because so many on each side believe that those who perpetrate the violence represent the entirety of the other side. We could have peace, the universal complaint goes, if only "the Palestinians" or "the Israelis" would stop their violence.

The tragedy is that, on both sides, those who inflict violence gain little of practical value from it. Indeed the motives that keep the conflict boiling may have little to do with any hope of practical gain from it. When researchers asked nearly 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians what it would take to make peace, few focused on tangible benefits like gaining more land or resources. Most on both sides wanted see "their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures." They agreed that they would be willing to make concessions, but only if "the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its sacred values." The violence done by non-state actors is perversely satisfying, even if ultimately useless, because it's the most visible way to win little symbolic victories.

A New Narrative

Palestinians can argue, with good reason, that treating the two sides as mirror images creates a false equivalence. After all, one side is the occupier, constantly inflicting symbolic defeats through the use of state-sponsored violence that dwarfs the violence of its private citizens, or sometimes even more powerfully just by using its ability to re-organize the landscape. The other side is the occupied, a people with virtually no tools of state violence to wield even if they want to, struggling every day just to survive. In the U.S. and around the world there is growing pressure to reverse the traditional narrative of these last decades and turn the Israelis into the bad guys.

Given the tiny fraction of Americans who identify as pro-Palestinian, it's fruitless to think that a majority of us would ever adopt such a reversed narrative -- nor would it be very helpful, regardless of the facts. If the Obama administration really intends to be an even-handed broker, forcing the two sides to move towards genuine compromise at the negotiating table, it needs to represent a nation that tells an even-handed story.

Old narratives don't die out simply because they fail to fit the facts. They die out when a more appealing story comes along. The eroding support for Israeli policies in this country signals a growing appetite for a new, more even-handed narrative, one that says this:

The crucial conflict is not between Israel and Palestine. It's between peace and violence. Violence comes from both sides. But there's also the possibility of fostering a strong push for peace on both sides. Here in the U.S., we should urge our government to stop taking sides in the blame game, condemn all the violence -- including, for the first time, Israeli violence -- and support all forces of peace that exist or arise.

It is hard for many of my fellow Jews to accept the painful truth that we are as capable of violence as the Palestinians, or anyone else. But this new narrative is gaining ground rapidly in the American Jewish community, where groups like J Street and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom are making well-organized efforts to promote it and act upon it.

As non-Jewish Americans become aware of that change, they are likely to feel freer to adopt the even-handed narrative as their own, too. When enough of them do, the political winds in this country will change. Then the White House will feel safe enough to tell Israel, as well as Palestine, to stop both state and non-state violence. That's a necessary first step for an even-handed broker who hopes to open a path to peace.

A Thoroughly Un-American Institution

A Thoroughly Un-American Institution

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Today, June 24, 2009, Congress will vote on an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act which would require the School of the Americas/WHINSEC to release to the public the names, ranks, countries of origin, courses taken and dates of attendance of all the students and instructors at the institute.

The School of the America's, renamed WHINSEC, is an organization founded with the explicit purpose of teaching its students the science of torture and interrogation techniques. Its records have been concealed, and for the most part its dealings shrouded in mystery.

Opened in 1946 at Fort Gulick in the former U.S. Panama Canal Zone, the School of the Americas (SOA) has, over its lifetime, trained more than 64,000 Latin American and Caribbean members of the uniformed armed forces in an extensive program of military operations. Its graduates have included ten different Latin American military officers who would later become some of the most notorious strongmen and dictators in the hemisphere, as well as hundreds of senior and mid-level officers who would later be revealed as gross human rights abusers, serial torturers, drug traffickers and confederates of organized crime.

Questionable Practices

Torture has been considered a logical and necessary component in the expansive arsenal of dirty practices which comprise the field of special operations (commando tactics, sophisticated counterinsurgency techniques, military intelligence, covert intelligence activities, psychological warfare, psychological operations or "PSYOPS", and other covert procedures), all initially honed by the British in Malaya and by the U.S. in the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, and more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, the 1963 CIA 'KUBARK' interrogation and torture documents and the early 1980s torture manuals authored by the U.S. Army for use at the SOA both document torture practices which have been central to the school's curricula. These were being taught to thousands of officers from eighteen Latin American countries for several decades. These materials specifically instructed their students on how to coerce prisoners into being cooperative through the use of fear, extortion, kidnapping, the administration of truth serums, beatings, rape, false imprisonment, torture of children in front of their parents and vice versa, beheadings, live burials, public execution and acts of massacre.

A 1,169 page U.S. Army "Foreign Intelligence Training Program" called "PROJECT X" was designed "to develop an exportable foreign intelligence training package" to provide counterinsurgency techniques learned in Vietnam to Latin American countries. Much of the material for "X" came from Army Field Manual FM 30-18, a classified intelligence operations manual. After being translated from English to Spanish, it was distributed to the military establishments of Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Peru. Its contents were also transmitted in one form or another to SOA students from Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela.

Examining the School's Record

The U.S. Army School of the Americas used training materials that condoned "executions of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion, and false imprisonment," asserted an Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) Report issued June 28, 1996, in Washington, DC. The IOB, a four-person, independent board created by President Clinton, was assigned the task of investigating excesses and abuses by the U.S. intelligence community.

In Latin America, the SOA was popularly dubbed the "School of Assassins" after a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission revealed there were 19 SOA graduates among the 26 Salvadoran officers implicated in the 1989 "execution style" massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in San Salvador. The U.N. Commission went on to report that three-quarters of the Salvadoran officers known to be responsible for seven other massacres during El Salvador's bloody civil war were trained by the SOA. Yet, "The school has never taught torture and never will," the SOA commandant at the time, Col. Glenn R. Weidner, told a November 1998 news conference. Meanwhile, Weidner referred to the at least 500 SOA graduates found to be directly implicated in the worst documented human rights abuses recorded throughout Latin America as "a few bad apples."

Further Examination

While that was the official line, others who were directly involved with the accused officers, revealed a quite different story. "When I was at the school, we routinely had Latin American students who were known human rights abusers, and it didn't make any difference to us," one former SOA instructor related. Another, with close personal knowledge of the inner workings of the school, tells a story that is even more revealing:

"The school was always a front for other special operations, covert operations. They would bring people from the streets into the base and the experts would train us on how to obtain information using torture. We were trained to torture human beings. They had a medical physician, a U.S. medical physician which I remember very well, who was dressed in green fatigues, who would teach the students … [about] the nerve endings of the body. He would show them where to torture, where and where not, where you wouldn't kill the individual."

Such training has been provided to Latin American militaries with the assumption that they would use these acquired skills to get the job done - to use repressive tactics to neutralize ideologies found to threaten the status quo throughout the region. In certain instances this meant the direct physical presence of American trainers alongside their Latin American 'students,' while the torture was in progress. Circumstantial evidence pointed to accounts given by blindfolded torture survivors who recall hearing men speaking English or broken Spanish with an American accent.

A Name Change Does Not Transform Reality

The notoriety which the School of the Americas earned came, in part, as a result of the bloody fruits of its academic record in Panama from 1946 through 1984. This is when the terms of the Panama Canal treaty were being implemented and it was necessary for the facility to relocate to Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. In December 2000, the SOA was allegedly closed in the wake of flaring negative publicity resulting from the disclosure of the torture manuals being used in the SOA curriculum, and massive protests and demonstrations outside the base's gates. This was just as the phalange of the institution's opponents, which now included outspoken members of Congress who were on the cusp of representing a legislative majority ready to dismantle the SOA.

In a surprise move, the Pentagon submitted a Defense Authorization Bill for the 2001 fiscal year that put forth a name change for the SOA. The facility was then reopened on January 17, 2001 with a new name - "The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" (WHINSEC). It was housed in the very same building at Fort Benning where the SOA was formerly headquartered. The late Georgia senator, Paul Coverdell, a fervent backer of the institution, told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer that the Pentagon name change proposal was "cosmetic." Further evidence of these cosmetic changes were evident in a statement issued on December 12, 2000 by Major Thomas Collins, a U.S. Army spokesman: "The new school is going to continue the same vital functions the School of the Americas did. We see a great need to continue the same military-to-military, country-to-country contact."

Responding to Injustice

As a result of the controversial role played by the SOA and its sibling, WHINSEC, five countries - Argentina, Bolivia Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Venezuela - have decided to completely withdraw their personnel from future training at WHINSEC. The sentiments of these nations felt toward the SOA/WHINSEC were summed up by former Uruguayan Defense Minister, Azuceni Berrutti, who observed, "we have absolutely no need for training at this kind of school." Several more nations, which have for years sent their military officers to the SOA/WHINSEC for advanced training, are now actively considering the termination of their involvement with the organization. In addition to the growing discontent with the SOA that has been brewing for years in Latin America, last year, a vote in the U.S. Congress to cut off funding for SOA/WHINSEC, lost by just six votes, demonstrating that support for the controversial institution is also waning in the U.S.

Regarding Torture

President Obama has come out strongly against torture: "I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm going to make sure that we don't torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world." Obama added: "[w]e'll reject torture - without exception or equivocation." It remains to be seen whether the new president's commitment will actually halt the practice of torture by the U.S. military and intelligence operators. Will this also mean that the U.S. will cease encouraging others to torture their citizens in order to safeguard and advance its own national interests? If concrete changes are the objective, then Washington must start its reforms with this repeatedly incriminated United States military institution, the SOA.

Thousands of innocent men, women, and children have been defiled, tortured, massacred, disappeared, and executed at the hands of graduates of this now nefarious institution. The values and principles which the United States is supposed to uphold and represent should not be permitted to be tarnished any longer by the shameful debauchery of this institution. Moreover, it is morally - as well as legally - unacceptable to argue that the national security of this country can either be justified or advanced by the repressive and anti-democratic activities which this institution has promoted through much of its history.

Self-determination, land reform, improved living wages, and better and more accessible health care availabilities were the simple, yet essential and popular aspirations of those who opposed the Washington-backed military juntas that held power in Latin America during the 1970's-1990's. This was often with the direct, or at least covert, encouragement of U.S. policymakers. During that period - at the height of the Cold War - the local militaries, in partnership with U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence agencies, routinely painted their socially-minded opponents as subversives and Communists, while depicting their own forces as patriots, despite their use of repressive military and intelligence apparatus that the Pentagon systematically implemented throughout Latin America. Washington's arrogant doctrine of exceptionalism and its blind faith in the supremacy of U.S. interests have reigned in the region for decades. But this is a new era, and hopefully the brutal practices of the past will be laid to rest in the dustbin of history.

Consistent with the Cold War mentality and the simple-minded anti-communist policies of the post-World War II political landscape, the SOA and its successor, WHINSEC, today operate on the premise of George W. Bush's credo: "If you're not with us, you're against us." But today there is hope for change as a conscious, organic resistance has been prompted by the notion that the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean yearn for self-determination, and better living conditions. Last year, a bill in Congress completely terminating the near-$20 million in annual funding of the SOA/WHINSEC nearly passed, being defeated by just six votes. This year, with a new level of public awareness about the practices of torture that we now know have been sanctioned by U.S. authorities, there is a distinct possibility that this time the bill might pass, inaugurating what could turn out to be a different Latin America.

Rejection of California budget sets stage for even larger spending cuts

Rejection of California budget sets stage for even larger spending cuts

By Kevin Martinez and Joe Kishore

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The California legislature failed to get the two-thirds vote needed to pass a Democratic Party proposal to address the state’s $24 billion budget deficit. Democrats will now enter closed-door negotiations with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on a compromise that will include even more massive cuts in social services.

Discussions between the two parties have been ongoing for the last several weeks, much of it in secret and with no public input. Both sides have already agreed that draconian cuts in basic social programs are necessary.

To offset some cuts, however, Democrats had proposed a variety of mainly regressive tax increases, which require the support of a two-thirds majority in the legislature. This proposal failed as expected on Wednesday, largely along party lines. The Democrats control both houses of the state legislature, but do not have a two-thirds majority.

A proposal advanced by Schwarzenegger calls for $16 billion in budget cuts. These include eliminating the state welfare program; shutting down Healthy Families, the health insurance program for 930,000 children; closing 220 state parks; and ending Cal-Grants, which provides aid to poorer students to attend college. Schwarzenegger is also proposing a 5 percent pay cut for state workers, in addition to a 10 percent pay cut already announced.

Public education will be singled out for a large share of the budget cuts. About $5.3 billion would be taken from K-12 education and community colleges over next year, on top of the billions in cuts that have already been enacted.

The so-called “alternative” proposed by the Democrats was a slightly less severe program of $11 billion in budget cuts. The Democrats propose cutting $4.5 billion from K-12 education, $2.8 billion from higher education, and $2.6 billion from health and human services.

Democrats also proposed $2.2 billion in tax increases, including a 9.9 percent levy on oil extracted in California, a $1.50 per pack cigarette tax and a $15 registration fee for vehicles. In an accounting move designed to save $1 billion, Democrats have proposed pushing state workers’ paychecks back one day from June 30 to July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, told the Pasadena Star News, “We present a budget where everybody feels some pain; every part of the safety net takes a cut.”

In fact, both Democrats and Republicans are determined to make the working class pay for the crisis. No matter what compromise is now reached, either through a combination of borrowing from local governments, accounting maneuvering, tax levies, or selling off state assets, a massive attack on the social infrastructure of California is underway.

The Democratic Party accepts the argument that the only way to fix California’s budget deficit is to strangle what remains of public education and the social safety net. Senator Gloria Romero, a Democrat, told The Los Angeles Times, “When someone tells us ‘No new cuts,’ I say, ‘Look, don’t tell me that.’...There is the sense that we must do what we must do to keep California solvent.”

Indeed, the proposed tax increases were largely for show. Even before the vote, Democrats acknowledged that they would not pass. Last week Schwarzenegger responded to a question about what kind of fight he expected over the tax increases by responding, “Well, what is being said and what is being done, as you know, are sometimes two different things.”

The Mercury News commented: “Schwarzenegger was suggesting that Democrats were posturing on their $2.1 billion in tax proposals, putting on what he calls Kabuki theater for their constituents before he expected them to relent to the reality that Republicans will never agree to taxes as part of the solutions lawmakers must find to close the $24.3 billion deficit.”

The budget crisis takes place against the backdrop of the economic collapse of California, the most populous state in the US and, if measured as an independent country, the eight largest economy in the world.

According to government officials, the state will be insolvent by July 28, which has prompted Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to threaten to bring the government to a “grinding halt” and stop borrowing to cover the state’s expenses.

The state comptroller, John Chiang, has warned that without a new budget the state will begin issuing “IOUs” in place of cash to social service agencies, private contractors and state vendors. The state’s cash crunch, Chiang said, is unlike anything “seen since the Great Depression.”

Recent figures point to a continued deterioration of the state economy. Unemployment in California soared to 11.5 percent for May, the highest level since World War II. The April unemployment figure was 11.1 percent, compared to 6.8 percent in May 2008. A more complete measure of unemployment, including those forced to work only part time, shows that more than one in five Californians is unemployed or underemployed.

California, accounted for one out of every five jobs lost last month. Out of a population of 37 million people, 2.1 million Californians are officially unemployed, 885,000 more than last year.

The state has been hit particularly hard by the collapse of housing prices, which have wreaked havoc on the real estate market, construction, and other financial related industries. With several major ports on the Pacific Ocean, California is also heavily dependent on world trade, which is falling rapidly.

California saw a decline of 33.8 percent of personal income tax receipts in May. The decline in revenue will mean a new round of austerity measures to balance the state budget, since the state collects half of its revenue from personal income taxes.

The state is under intense pressure from Wall Street to impose concessions. Moody’s Investor Service has threatened California’s general obligation debt with a “multi-notch” downgrading if the state legislature failed to produce a balanced budget before going bankrupt. The state is currently at an A2 credit rating, which are just five notches above speculative status.

A downgrade will mean that the state will face sharply higher interest rates for borrowing, if it is able to gain credit at all.

The Obama administration has responded to the economic meltdown of California by repeatedly refusing federal assistance. Instead, the administration, speaking on behalf of the most powerful sections of the financial elite, is making California an example for other states to follow as they enact austerity budgets.

By abandoning the richest and most populous state to its own devices, the Obama administration has directly contributed to the crisis now unfolding. Trillions are handed out to private banks, but when it comes to the world’s eight largest economy on the verge of bankruptcy, no money is available.

As California collapses, executives at Goldman Sachs and other banks are anticipating record bonuses, returning to business as usual. No faction of the political establishment so much as suggests that those who are responsible for the economic crisis—the wealthy corporate and financial elite—should be made to pay for it.

On the contrary, the budget crisis in California is being used a template to enact cuts to social services all across the country. The ruling class is determined to seize on the economic crisis to restructure class relations in the United States.

State budget crises trigger layoffs, cuts in social programs

State budget crises trigger layoffs, cuts in social programs

By Tom Eley

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State governments are facing unprecedented budget shortfalls as the fiscal year draws near its June 30 close. In response, governors and state legislatures are slashing social programs and laying-off state workers.

Collectively, the states confront a fiscal deficit of $121 billion for the coming year. Last year the states weathered a $104.2 billion deficit, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. The two-year states’ deficit is upwards of $225 billion, $81 billion more than what President Obama’s stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, allocated to all municipalities and the 50 states for the next two years.

Several factors are causing sharp declines in state and local tax revenue. Most important among these is the unemployment crisis, which is without parallel since the Great Depression. New statistics from the Labor Department reveal that the unemployment rate increased in 48 of 50 states from April to May. Increasing unemployment further complicates state budgets by straining aspects of the already woefully inadequate social safety net, such as unemployment insurance, welfare programs and Medicaid.

According to a recently released analysis by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, state-level income tax collections fell a staggering 26 percent in the first quarter of 2009 compared to the previous year. At the same time, 23 of the 30 most populous states have seen a significant increase in their welfare caseloads, a Wall Street Journal and National Conference of State Legislatures report reveals. Use of the Food Stamp Program, a more sensitive barometer of worsening social conditions, is at an all-time high. And states are now responsible for more than $6.5 billion in monthly unemployment checks, “siphoning so much money from states’ trust funds that all but a few have borrowed money from the federal government already or will soon need to,” notes.

Unemployment and declining wages continue to propel forward all the elements of the housing crisis—foreclosures, declining property values, and reductions in sales and housing starts—which in turn diminishes state and local revenue arising from property taxes and fees on home sales. For the same reasons, consumers are spending less, meaning that those states that depend on sales taxes for their budgets are seeing less revenue. Finally, a fall-off in business activity is lessening corporate tax receipts. According to a survey by the National Governors Association, sales tax revenue has fallen 3.2 percent from the previous year—the sharpest ever decline— and corporate income tax has tumbled by 15.2 percent.

Budget crises have triggered sharp political tensions in state capitals, the New York Times notes. In Illinois, Democratic legislators are rebelling against Democratic Governor Patrick Quinn and his call for a modest increase in personal income taxes. In Massachusetts, the Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, is threatening to veto a proposed sales tax increase authored by the Democratic-controlled legislature. In Arizona, Republican Governor Jan Brewer is suing the Republican-controlled legislature before the Arizona Supreme Court in an attempt to compel it to submit a budget—so that she can veto it. In Minnesota, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty has declared he will act unilaterally to enact cuts totaling $2.7 billion from nearly all government agencies and social programs after failing to reach a compromise with the Democratic-controlled legislature.

There is, however, broad agreement among all factions of the state-level political elite that it is the working class that must foot the bill for the economic crisis, either through regressive forms of taxation or through cuts to social services and education, or both. There is no evidence from any of the 50 states that governors and legislatures are contemplating large-scale tax increases on the extremely wealthy or seizing the assets of the major banks that precipitated the economic crisis.

A survey by the National Governors Association found that, nationwide, governors are proposing measures that would result in $24 billion in increased revenue. These monies would come through sales tax increases, “sin taxes” on tobacco and alcohol, user’s fees on public services, taxes realized through the promotion of gambling, and increases in income taxes, which at the state-level often come in the form of the regressive “flat tax”—a system where all earners pay the same tax rate, regardless of income.

But $24 billion in increased revenue, even should it be realized, will still leave a combined deficit of about $100 billion, which the governors declare can be resolved only by slashing spending. While under normal conditions state spending tends to increase by about 6 percent nationally, in fiscal year 2009 it fell by 2.2 percent, and will fall by at least 2.5 percent in 2010. This will be the first time that state spending declined for two consecutive years in the 32-year history of the National Governors Association survey of state budgets. These spending reductions will cut directly against whatever economic stimulus comes out of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

States are taking up a number of measures to meet the deficit—all targeting the living conditions of the working class. The most widespread will be funding cuts to welfare, public education, and state colleges. Layoffs, wage cuts, and wage freezes for state workers will be nearly ubiquitous, as well. Many states are resorting to mandatory furloughs of state workers and cuts in contributions to retired workers’ healthcare and pension plans.

State governments are also passing their budget crises along to cities and towns. Already 18 states have reported slashing local aid, “and we think that’s going to grow,” Scott D. Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, told the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, the US Conference of Mayors has complained to the Obama administration that federal money from the stimulus package is not being equitably distributed to big cities. Citing one example, the Washington Post notes that even though Cleveland and Cincinnati account for 40 percent of Ohio’s economy, they have so far taken less than 5 percent of the total transportation stimulus money allocated for the state.

The worst is yet to come. Even in the best-case scenario—if recessionary business conditions end next year, as some economists predict—“the outlook for states is bleak,” notes. “The year after a recession ends is typically when state budgets are hit hardest, because by then, Medicaid rolls have swelled with the higher numbers of the unemployed who have lost their health insurance,” the non-profit publication writes. “Many state leaders also predict serious budget trouble when the flood of federal stimulus money ends in two years.”

The following sampling of measures aimed at reducing deficits offers a glimpse of the looming social impact to be shouldered by the working class:

California, the nation’s most populous state with a population roughly equivalent to that of Spain, confronts the largest budget shortfall, at $24 billion. The state’s budget-cutting proposals are likely to be the most ruthless. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed booting 500,000 poor and working class families off welfare, ending state-assisted health insurance for about a million children, and eliminating 220 state parks. California has already laid-off 10,000 workers, with indications it will lay off another 5,000 by month’s end. Wisconsin is preparing to shut down a number of state parks as well.

• In Ohio, the Democratic governor, Rod Strickland, has announced a plan to cut $2.7 billion, targeting nearly all government agencies and social programs, and has promised major layoffs. “I will not sugarcoat what this will mean,” Strickland said. “We will see further staff reductions.” The balance of the state’s $3.2 billion deficit will be made up, Strickland hopes, by introducing slot machines to horse racing tracks.

Illinois will cut its contributions to foster parents by 50 percent. A foster parent of three children wrote to the Chicago Sun Times, “We love our children and have no intention of ever giving them up. However, we know that if these payments are cut, foster parents will begin to bring children in their care back to the agencies serving these children.” “We get $392 per month to help our three-year-old,” she wrote. “What will 50 percent of that take care of?” Illinois will also suspend about $15 million in annual payments to provide approximately 10,000 funerals for the indigent. Media accounts did not make clear what will become of the dead bodies of the poor.

Kentucky has for the first time introduced sales tax on its famed bourbon whiskey, and like Ohio, will introduce slot machines at its horse racing tracks. Kentucky will also begin to charge its sales tax on cell phone ring tones and other electronic downloads.

Oklahoma is reducing hours at its historical sites and museums.

Washington is going forward with plans to lay off thousands of teachers, and will force electricians and plumbers to pay more for their licenses. The state is increasing tuition at state schools, as are Kansas and a number of other states. Washington and Vermont will also begin to charge taxes on electronic downloads, such as music.

New Hampshire has announced plans to sell 27 state parks. “The list includes oceanside beaches, massive tracts of park land and mountains, as well as small wayside parks,” the Union Leader reports. Their most likely buyers are extremely wealthy individuals who will convert them into private estates.

• State employees in Hawaii will be required to take three-day furloughs every month for two years. This is the equivalent of a 14 percent pay cut.

Nevada is attempting to save $333 million by ordering one-day mandatory furloughs for state workers, and will start to charge users’ fees for its court system, as will Minnesota, Utah, and Iowa.

Louisiana is proposing to eliminate 15,000 state jobs over the next three years.

Florida and Georgia plan to cut public assistance for the elderly. Florida will slap another one dollar in taxes on a pack of cigarettes, as will Rhode Island.

New Mexico intends to force state workers to make larger personal contributions to their retirement funds.

Record bonuses at bailed-out US banks

Record bonuses at bailed-out US banks

By Andre Damon

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Executives at Goldman Sachs were told last week that they could expect to receive their highest ever bonuses this year, according to an article published Sunday in London's Observer newspaper. The first half of this year has seen a spectacular rebound for Goldman, and the company's London staff were told they would receive corresponding end-of-year bonuses if, as expected, the bank sets a new profit record.

These bonuses will be paid for by the American people. Besides receiving over $10 billion in cash from the US government last year, Goldman Sachs was the largest beneficiary of the government bailout of American International Group (AIG), receiving $12.9 billion to cover funds owed to it by the failed insurance giant.

Goldman Sachs is by no means alone. The Financial Times reported Monday that other banks, including Merrill Lynch, UBS and Citigroup, have sharply increased compensation for top traders. The article noted that the typical salary for managing directors has jumped from $250,000 to $400,000 in just the past few months. This does not count bonuses.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Citigroup, which has received $45 billion in government cash and guarantees on over $300 billion of its assets, is increasing base salaries by up to 50 percent and plans to award millions of new stock options. The Times said that Bank of America, another beneficiary of multiple taxpayer handouts, and Morgan Stanley were also raising salaries.

There is an element of provocation in the brazen manner in which the Wall Street elite, whose manic pursuit of personal wealth played a major role in precipitating the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, uses taxpayer subsidies to further enrich itself. Like the aristocracies of old, the American financial oligarchy insists on flaunting its power and prerogatives. Mere mortals must “tighten their belts” and accept layoffs and wage cuts, but the “free market” entitles the bankers to use the crisis to make themselves richer than ever.

Nothing could more clearly expose the reality of class relations in America, as well as the role of the Obama administration. Obama has systematically worked to defend the wealth of the financial aristocracy. He has opened up the Treasury to pay off the gambling debts of Wall Street, dollar for dollar.

Last month, Goldman announced that it will pay half of its $1.2 billion first-quarter profit to its staff, mostly in the form of bonuses. In 2008, amid the economic meltdown, the firm paid nearly a thousand top bankers over $1 million each in compensation. Stockholders have also done very well. Warren Buffet, who invested $5 billion in Goldman Sachs six months ago, has already reaped $1 billion in profits.

Goldman repaid its $10 billion TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) cash to the US government last week, along with several other large banks. All of the banks, however, continue to benefit from trillions of dollars in government aid in one form or another. Having paid back the TARP loans, the banks are now exempt from the token restrictions on compensation and speculative practices that came with the government handouts.

Goldman and other mega-banks are getting a further boost from the government’s policy of encouraging a further consolidation of the banking industry. The disappearance of independent firms such as Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual and other banks has given Goldman, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and Citigroup a bigger share of the market than ever.

The strongest of these, such as Goldman and JPMorgan, are making a fortune in the bond markets from the massive increase in government borrowing, most of which is due to the government rescue of Wall Street. The banks are charging lucrative fees on government handouts to themselves.

David Williams, an investment banking analyst at Fox Pitt Kelton, told the Observer, "This year is shaping up to be the best year ever for investment banks, or at least those that have emerged relatively unscathed from the credit crisis.... These banks are intermediaries in the bond markets where governments and companies are raising billions of pounds of new money. There is also a lack of competition that means they can charge huge sums for doing business."

Record bank bonuses are the inevitable and desired outcome of Obama's policy. The administration has repeatedly rejected caps on executive pay and has done everything in its power to ensure that the major banks are made “whole.” Coming one week after Obama unveiled his new bank regulation plan, the promise of bigger-than-ever bonuses reveals the reality behind the administration’s rhetoric: nothing will be done to rein in the financial elite.

Of all the banking giants, Goldman Sachs is perhaps the most closely tied to the White House and federal regulators. The list of former Goldman Sachs employees holding top positions in the Obama administration includes:

• Mark Patterson, a former Goldman Sachs lobbyist, who is the chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (himself the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York).

• Reuben Jeffery III, former managing partner at Goldman Sachs, who holds the post of undersecretary of state for economic, business, and agricultural affairs.

• Neel Kashkari, former Goldman Sachs vice president, who is the assistant secretary of the treasury for financial stability, responsible for administering the TARP funds.

• Dianna Farrell, former financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, who serves as deputy director of the National Economic Council.

Henry Paulson, the Bush administration’s treasury secretary, who authored the TARP program and oversaw the AIG bailout, was the CEO of Goldman before taking the Treasury post. Between Paulson and Robert Rubin, who served under Clinton, the office of treasury secretary has been occupied by a former Goldman Sachs executive more than half the time since 1995.

The record bonuses come at a time when conditions of life for ordinary people are worse than at any time since the Great Depression. The official unemployment rate hit 9.4 percent last month, and the real unemployment rate—including those involuntarily working part-time and those who have given up looking for a job—is 16.4 percent. The number of mass layoffs in May was the highest on record.

Those who remain employed have seen their wages fall precipitously. One survey of company executives found that half planned to cut or freeze workers’ pay. USA Today reported June 12 that pay cuts, reduced hours, furloughs and involuntary part-time work have driven the working class back to conditions not seen since the 1930s.

These two policies are linked: The money gained by impoverishing the working class helps swell the fortunes of the Wall Street bankers.

There can be no solution to the social crisis confronting millions of people in the US and internationally that does not begin with the transformation of the banking giants into democratically-controlled public utilities. The massive resources controlled by the financial oligarchy for individual gain must be recovered and directed toward the satisfaction of social needs.

Big Business Aiding the Internet Crackdown in Iran,China - Will US Be Next?

Big Business Is Aiding the Internet Crackdown in Iran and China -- Will the Technology Be Used on Americans Next?

By Amy Goodman

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Tools of mass communication that were once the province of governments and corporations now fit in your pocket. Cell phones can capture video and send it wirelessly to the Internet. People can send eyewitness accounts, photos and videos, with a few keystrokes, to thousands or even millions via social networking sites. As these technologies have developed, so too has the ability to monitor, filter, censor and block them.

A Wall Street Journal report this week claimed that the "Iranian regime has developed, with the assistance of European telecommunications companies, one of the world's most sophisticated mechanisms for controlling and censoring the Internet, allowing it to examine the content of individual online communications on a massive scale." The article named Nokia Siemens Networks as the provider of equipment capable of "deep packet inspection." DPI, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, "enables Internet Service Providers to intercept virtually all of their customers' Internet activity, including Web surfing data, e-mail and peer-to-peer downloads."

Nokia Siemens has refuted the allegation, saying in a press release that the company "has provided Lawful Intercept capability solely for the monitoring of local voice calls in Iran." It is this issue, of what is legal, that must be addressed. "Lawful intercept" means that people can be monitored, located and censored. Global standards need to be adopted that protect the freedom to communicate, to dissent.

China has very sophisticated Internet monitoring and censoring capabilities, referred to as "the Great Firewall of China," which attracted increased attention prior to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. A document leaked before a U.S. Senate human rights hearing implicated Cisco, a California-based maker of Internet routers, in marketing to the Chinese government to accommodate monitoring and censorship goals. The Chinese government now requires any computer sold there after July 1, 2009, to include software called "Green Dam," which critics say will further empower the government to monitor Internet use.

Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, a media policy group, says the actions of Iran and China should alert us to domestic surveillance issues in the U.S. He told me: "This technology that monitors everything that goes through the Internet is something that works, it's readily available, and there's no legislation in the United States that prevents the U.S. government from employing it. ... It's widely known that the major carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon, were being asked by the NSA [National Security Agency], by the Bush administration ... to deploy off-the-shelf technology made by some of these companies like Cisco." The equipment formed the backbone of the "warrantless wiretapping" program.

Thomas Tamm was the Justice Department lawyer who blew the whistle on that program. In 2004, he called The New York Times from a subway pay phone and told reporter Eric Lichtblau about the existence of a secret domestic surveillance program. In 2007, the FBI raided his home and seized three computers and personal files. He still faces possible prosecution.

Tamm told me: "I think I put my country first ... our government is still violating the law. I'm convinced ... that a lot more Americans have been illegally wiretapped than we know."

The warrantless wiretapping program was widely considered illegal. After abruptly switching his position in midcampaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama voted along with most in Congress to grant telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon retroactive immunity from prosecution. The New York Times recently reported that the NSA maintains a database called Pinwale, with millions of intercepted e-mail, including some from former President Bill Clinton.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was recently asked by Sen. Russ Feingold if he felt that the original warrantless wiretap program was illegal:

Feingold: "[I]s there any doubt in your mind that the warrantless wiretapping program was illegal?"

Holder: "Well, I think that the warrantless wiretapping program, as it existed at that point, was certainly unwise, in that it was put together without the approval of Congress."

Feingold: "But I asked you, Mr. Attorney General, not whether it was unwise, but whether you consider it to have been illegal."

Holder: "The policy was an unwise one."

Dissenters in Iran and China persist despite repression that is enabled in part by equipment from U.S. and European companies. In the U.S., the Obama administration is following a dangerous path with Bush-era spy programs that should be suspended and prosecuted, not extended and defended.

Why the Energy Bill May End Up a Boon for Our Dirtiest Industries

Creating a 'Pollution Casino': Why the Energy Bill May End Up a Boon for Our Dirtiest Industries

By Dara Colwell

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As the states move to establish quotas for renewable-energy production, the federal government -- for once -- hasn't lagged far behind.

At the end of May, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed "The American Clean Energy and Security Act," also known as the Waxman-Markey bill, which seeks to create a cap-and-trade system to forcibly lower carbon-dioxide emissions. The goal: to ease global warming and avert catastrophic climate change.

But Waxman-Markey, backed by big polluting industries such as Shell Oil and Duke Energy, hasn't garnered full support from environmental groups. Many oppose the bill, citing its incentives are too diluted to be effective and will actually sacrifice billions in revenue that should be invested in clean energy, while others critically support it, urging Congress, as it attempts a historic first by directly addressing climate change, to toughen it.

"There are serious flaws with this bill. The political process is pushing for expediency over strengthening the context, and we think that climate change is too important to get it wrong," says Tyson Slocum, research director at Public Citizen's energy program, from Capitol Hill. Public Citizen is a national nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.

The current drive to get the bill signed into law is twofold: First, the Environmental Protection Agency's March ruling that carbon dioxide threatens the public's health has put pressure on Congress to act, and second, the U.N. plans to hold a Climate Change Conference in December in Copenhagen, which many consider a last chance to create a global plan of action before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

"This bill is possibly the most hamfisted, complicated, expensive way for lowering emissions that could ever be imagined," Ronald Bailey, Reason magazine's science correspondent and adjunct scholar at Cato, says of the onerous 946-page bill. "If you understand cap-and-trade, it's theoretically brilliant -- but that's not reality."

To understand the bill's flaws, first a quick 101 on how cap-and-trade works. The government imposes a limit, or cap, on industrial emissions, requiring major polluters to buy permits from the government or other companies to pollute -- hence the 'trade.' But this also works as an incentive, because companies that reduce their emissions by investing, say, in renewable energy, can sell their excess permits on the open market and make a profit.

But as it stands, the bill distributes 85 percent of those permits to favored industries for free. "If you create a new legal right to pollute and then give it away, that's not an effective strategy," says Slocum, adding this helps fatten polluter's profits without making a dent curbing actual emissions. "The only rationale for this is that special interest has flexed its political muscle."

Indeed, this is politicking as usual. Many permits were given away to woo lawmakers in regions rich with coal, not to mention the industries themselves, which haven't been regulated in the past and lobby heavily for their interests.

The bill would give a large number of permits to coal-fired electric utilities until 2025 to help them make the transition to clearer fuels. But some environmentalists insist all permits should be auctioned off and the money invested in renewable energy.

Just how willing are industries like coal to protect their interests? According to "The Climate Change Lobby," a study conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, last year more than 770 companies and interest groups spent $90 million funding climate-change lobbyists in Washington -- of which The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity spent $10.5 million alone. So it's no surprise that with Waxman-Markey on the table, and where billions of federal dollars are at stake, vested interests are lining up eager to tailor climate policy in their favor.

Criticism is also levied at the bill's allowance for $2 billion in carbon offsets, $1.5 billion of which would be international. Carbon offsets are the market-based solution for consumers and corporations alike to reduce or negate pollution through cost-effective alternatives, such as planting trees in India to negate emitting carbon at home. Offsets are a seductive sales pitch to trade or buy pollution back, but it doesn't work.

In Europe, the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme kicked off five years ago, but the market was flooded with permits, making it cheap to pollute -- compare $38 per ton of carbon dioxide, which now trades at $12 per ton.

"The problem with Europe is that each country got to set its own emission allocations, and the temptation to cheat was overwhelming -- in fact, all of them cheated," says Bailey, noting ETS has yet to deliver any greenhouse-gas reductions. According to the Wall Street Journal, European emissions have actually risen by 1 percent per year since 2005.

"Offsets literally provide massive incentives for polluters. Rather than transforming their business practices, they can simply write a small check to an Indonesian farmer, whose activities may not offset their industrial emissions," says Slocum, who also warns that carbon markets are new, unregulated and far from transparent. "This legislation relies on the good graces of Wall Street to behave itself in a brand-new trillion-dollar derivatives market. Wall Street does not have the public interest in mind. It will turn this market into a massive pollution casino that will enrich investment banks at the expense of an accurate price signal."

Or solid action -- like cutting emissions. Today.

"There's a big disconnect between what Washington is producing and what science demands," says Nick Berning, spokesman for environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, which does not support the bill due to its "unambitious short-term targets." While the international community is calling for cuts in carbon emissions 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, Waxman-Markey aims for a mere 4 percent. "Global warming cannot be reversed -- it's not the type of issue you can take one shot at it with a weak bill. The time to act is now, but this bill undermines emission reductions by giving bailouts to polluters."

Particularly worrying, says Berning, is the coal industry's support for this bill, "a sign there are significant problems." The bill focuses on investing in a renewable energy standard that requires 6 percent of electricity to come from renewable fuels by 2012, and includes carbon capture and storage incentives, also known as CCS, which seek to curb fossil-fuel emissions by storing CO2 underground.

Many environmentalists contend coal should not be considered a source of renewable energy. Coal emits 40 percent of America's carbon dioxide emissions -- roughly the same emissions from cars, trucks, busses, trains, planes and boats combined, according to the "Coal is Dirty" Web site, a project managed by Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace USA.

Coal (and CCS) figure largely in the bill because coal is a plentiful, cheap form of energy that currently fuels half of America's power grid. If we stopped burning coal tomorrow, the economy would simply collapse. But not just America is dependent on coal -- the world is. Coal accounts for roughly 70 percent of China's energy supply, and China is now producing coal-fired power plants like Detroit once produced cars to meet its burgeoning energy needs.

Coal may be cheap, but it's also the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet. "Clean coal is like a healthy cigarette," says attorney Blan Holman on's Web site, a project of the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, among others. Coal burning is a leading source of mercury contamination, and its combustion releases dioxide, hydrochloric and sulfuric acid, ammonia, arsenic and lead, for starters, killing 24,000 people prematurely a year, according to the American Lung Association. Then there's the extensive damage mining does to landscapes, water supplies and ecosystems.

One of coal's byproducts is coal ash, of which roughly 130 millions tons is produced each year. Coal ash is so toxic, the Department of Homeland Security considers it a security risk and won't allow Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate's Environment and Public Works committee, to reveal 44 dump sites the Environmental Protection Agency deems highly hazardous. (For a longer look at coal ash, this month's GQ contains an article about Tennessee's Kinston power plant, which experienced a spill last December 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez's.)

In February, NASA climatologist James Hansen was quoted in the U.K. Guardian, saying, "The dirtiest trick governments play on their citizens in the pretense that they are working on 'clean coal.' ... The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired plants are factories of death."

Only, coal isn't going away. The government, backed by the coal industry, which insists coal is a reliable, long-term energy solution, is charging ahead funding so-called clean coal projects.

On June 12, the Obama administration kick-started FutureGen, an ill-fated project scrapped by the Bush administration for being too expensive, to construct the country's first so-called clean coal power project to the tune of $1 billion. Much focus will be on CCS, or sequestering carbon, which is still largely a theoretical approach to capturing and storing CO2.

"Coal is carbon that is already sequestered -- let's find a way to leave it in the ground," says Berning.

"CCS is not a real solution It's not deployable and keeps reliance on the dirtiest fuel known to man," says Daniel Kessler, spokesman for Greenpeace, who likens CCS to an old model of dealing with pollution -- sticking it in a hole in the ground. "We are facing unprecedented crisis, and all our resources need to be marshaled to finding real solutions."

According to Jeff Brehm, marketing communications leader at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit that researches issues of interest to the electric power industry, CCS research "is just getting started" when it comes to putting carbon underground. CCS has been done before, he says, but it hasn't been done long-term, nor on a large scale, and employing CCS technology involves further issues, such as capturing and compressing carbon, which requires an increased energy load -- up to 30 percent more. This means burning more coal.

Or there's storage. CCS works by injecting carbon into underground geological formations, but according to Brehm, geological studies show that California, for example, doesn't have the right geological features for storage. That means having to ship captured carbon to another state, which then creates multistate jurisdictional issues, such as who is liable if the gas leaks?

Currently, says Brehm, CCS technology creates big questions such as, "How do you deal with corrosion? How do you transport the carbon? Some groups suggest a pipeline system to handle the volume, which requires a huge investment in infrastructure. Who's going to fund it?"

Jan Jarett, president of PennFuture, an environmental advocacy organization based in Pennsylvania, the fourth-biggest coal-producing state, and, she says, "ground zero for the clean coal debate," believes there's no real hope of banning coal mining and burning at the moment.

"We're just too reliant on it. Coal creates environmental and public-health problems almost every step of the way -- it would be nice if we could leave it in the ground -- but nothing tells me we're able to stop using it. Nothing," she says. "We have to get our fingers in as many pies as possible and vigorously pursue carbon capture and get the technology perfected. We need to pursue a whole buffet of options simultaneously, because we're well past the place where there are any easy choices."

Still others argue that coal extracts too high a price and instead, we should be focusing our money and time on renewables like solar and wind.

"If we made the coal industry pay the full price of the damage it's imposing on its neighbors and the globe -- such as destroying wildlife and making people sick -- and folded all those costs into the price of electricity, it would be roughly double what it has been," says Ernie Nieme, senior policy analyst at EcoNorthwest, an independent economic consultancy service. "If the price were double, society would soon find cheaper alternatives and begin investing in increased efficiency. Right now, we're paying for their garbage."

This is more or less what critics of the Waxman-Markey bill argue, suggesting that introducing a straight carbon tax -- rather than a complicated cap-and-trade scheme -- will wean us off coal and spur an entrepreneurial "green rush."

"If we put a price on carbon, it will make everything open and transparent and get the entrepreneurial juices going," says Reason's Bailey, who envisions a process mirroring Silicon Valley, where smart people, in pursuit of a market with large returns, would work hard to develop new, renewable technology.

It's already happening. Google, for example, established its "Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal" program in 2007, and is pumping $45 million into clean-energy companies to develop renewable-energy technologies. "Even producing unlimited energy from renewable sources won't make a difference, unless we can find a way to make it cheaper than coal," says Google spokeswoman Niki Fenwick, who says Google aims to do this "in years, not decades."

In lieu of federal money going to bail out polluters with free permits, or funding "clean coal" projects like FutureGen, environmentalists would like to see money invested in increasing energy efficiency, such as weatherizing homes, creating fuel-efficient autos, propping up solar and wind technologies and developing infrastructure, such as connecting wind power energy grids together to create a national grid -- all of which could help create green jobs.

According to the National Resources Defense Council Web site, a recent economic analysis shows that investing $100 billion in clean energy would create 2 million new jobs nationwide over two years -- four times as many as the same investment in traditional fuels.

"Our economic capacity and technology is such that we can transition to clean energy, strengthen the economy and create green jobs. There's no reason to be depressed, unless you look at politics and the extent to which polluting industry holds political sway," says Friends of the Earth's Berning. "If we start addressing the problem immediately, our existing technology is perfectly adequate."

But if we don't, the world's population is expected to grow 36 percent by 2030, and its electricity needs are expected to grow 110 percent. Add more coal and CO2 emissions to the mix, and the tipping point is depressingly near.