Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bosnia Is Back on the Brink of Ethnic Conflict, Warns Hague

Bosnia is back on the brink of ethnic conflict, warns Hague

By Nigel Morris

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Shadow Foreign Secretary fears 'Europe's black hole' is slowly falling apart again

Bosnia is on the brink of collapsing back into chaos and violence as its ethnic tensions escalate, the shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague warned yesterday.

Fourteen years after the end of the war that tore apart the former Yugoslav republic, Mr Hague called for urgent action to prevent a new crisis gripping the Balkans. He warned that the situation risked turning Bosnia-Herzegovina into "Europe's black hole".

David Cameron's unofficial deputy said he was determined to cast a fresh spotlight on Bosnia, which is governed by a complex federation of Muslims, Serbs and Croats. He stressed that he was not forecasting a return to all-out war, but said violence was "not far below the surface" as the situation became "grimmer".

In an interview with The Independent he said he had been alarmed by a two-day visit last month to Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred in 1995. Meetings with community leaders had demonstrated to him that the country was being "pulled apart".

He said: "You would think you were going to a place where the people have moved on and communities have got together 14 years later. But actually the atmosphere is grim and it is very difficult for the refugees who lost all their menfolk to move back there – it's a rather unwelcoming atmosphere. Politically around them their country is sliding backwards and further apart."

Mr Hague, who also had extensive meetings with political leaders in a visit to Bosnia last autumn, said he feared the tensions could deteriorate into something worse. He said: "In some form [Bosnia] could break down – this is a country being slowly pulled apart."

He said he was alarmed that Bosnia's Serbian leadership was pressing for greater autonomy and eventual secession from the fledgling state, with Russian cash fuelling the renewed nationalism. It was also pressing for the closure of the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia, which oversees the peace agreement between its ethnic groupings.

He launched a scathing attack on the "weak and confused" European Union response to the "pressure to fragment the country". Mr Hague said: "It is moving slowly in the wrong direction and – despite all the efforts and all the bloodshed and all the sacrifices there – it's moving in the wrong direction without alarm bells sounding in most European capitals."

He added: "The evidence is they [only] get together in Bosnia when there is some strong outside pressure on them." The shadow Foreign Secretary denounced suggestions that EU peacekeepers could be pulled out of Bosnia, insisting: "There should be no talk of withdrawing European forces. A strong signal should be sent that Europe will not ignore this situation."

The stakes were raised further as the prospect of a crisis in Bosnia hampered efforts to expand EU membership to Croatia, Serbia and Turkey.

"If that doesn't work, there will be a hole in the heart of Europe of discontent, of people trafficking," he said. "People think the Balkans are what we debated in the 1990s and now we can forget about it. In fact, it's a crucial area in foreign policy in the next five to 10 years and will get a lot of emphasis in the next Conservative administration."

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Hague set out his foreign policy priorities if the Tories win the election expected in May. He said his first action as foreign secretary would be to order a fresh approach to Afghanistan.

A new National Security Council – a Cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister – would become the "real centre of decision-making" on the war. It would press Nato partners for an "acceleration of the building up of the Afghan army and police" but he made it clear that a Tory government would be likely to deploy more troops if Army chiefs thought it necessary.

Mr Hague conceded that the public was losing confidence in the war – as demonstrated by an opinion poll in The Independent this month – and promised to tackle that disillusionment by making the case for military action. MPs would also be given regular updates on its progress.

He accused the Government of being "complacent and slow" in examining accusations that Britain turned a blind eye to the torture of terror suspects abroad. He promised a "more thorough investigation than we have seen so far" of the allegations. Its form – possibly an independent inquiry – would be announced in the run-up to the election.

Mr Hague also said an incoming government "reserved the right" to change the terms of reference of the Iraq inquiry due to report late next year, as well as ordering more of its sessions to be held in public.

He was unrepentant over the Tories' membership of the anti-federalist grouping European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament. Mr Hague predicted: "I would be very surprised if other parties did not join it. It is good for diversity of opinion."

Another Soldier Refuses Afghanistan Deployment

Another Soldier Refuses Afghanistan Deployment

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Sgt. Travis Bishop, who served 14 months in Baghdad with the 3rd Signal Brigade, faces a court-martial this Friday for refusing to deploy to Afghanistan.

Bishop is the second soldier from Fort Hood in as may weeks to be tried by the military for his stand against an occupation he believes is "illegal." He insists that it would be unethical for him to deploy to support an occupation he opposes on both moral and legal grounds and he has filed for conscientious objector (CO) status.

Spc. Victor Agosto was court-martialed last week for his refusal to deploy to Afghanistan. Agosto's lawyer, James Branum, who is also Bishop's lawyer, is the legal adviser to the GI Rights Hotline of Oklahoma and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force. Branum told Truthout during a phone interview on July 10 that, contrary to mainstream opinion that believes Afghanistan to be a "justified" war, the invasion and ongoing occupation are actually in violation of the US Constitution and international law.

"Victor is approaching this from the standpoint of law and ethics," Branum explained, "It's his own personal ethics and principles of the Nuremberg Principles, that the war in Afghanistan does not meet the criteria for lawful war under the UN Charter, which says that member nations who joined the UN, as did the US, should give up war forever, aside from two exceptions: that the war is in self-defense and that the use of force was authorized by the UN Security Council. The nation of Afghanistan did not attack the United States. The Taliban may have, but the nation and people of Afghanistan did not. And under US law, the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution, any treaty enacted by the US is now the 'supreme law of the land.' So when the United States signed the UN Charter, we made that our law as well."

Bishop told Truthout he was inspired by Agosto's stand and had chosen to follow Specialist Agosto's example of refusal. Both his time in Iraq, the illegality of the occupation and a moral awakening led to his decision to refuse to deploy.

"I started to see a big difference between our reality there and what was in the news," Bishop explained to Truthout about his experience in Iraq, but went on to add that morality and religion played a role as well.

When he received orders to deploy to Afghanistan, Bishop said, "I started reading my Bible to get right with my creator before going. Through my reading I realized all this goes against what Jesus taught and what all true Christians should believe. I had a religious transformation, and realized that all war is wrong."

Bishop received his orders to deploy to Afghanistan in February, but at the time "didn't know there was a support network or a way out at all. I thought GI resistance was something archaic from Vietnam."

As his deployment date approached, he met with other soldiers at a GI resistance cafe, "Under the Hood", in Killeen, Texas.

"They told me not only do I have a choice, but I have a support network backing me up," Bishop explained, "I told them my thinking, and they said that I sounded like a CO. They put me in touch with (James) Branum and when I learned from him what a CO was, I knew I couldn't go."

Bishop went absent without leave (AWOL) for one week the day his unit deployed, "because I didn't have time to prepare to file for CO status. So while AWOL I prepared a statement and filled out my application for CO (status). Then I went back (to Fort Hood) with Branum and turned myself in. I never planned on staying AWOL. They gave me a barracks room and assigned me to a platoon and told me to show up to work the next day. That was it. They started the CO process, but they also started the Uniform Code of Military Justice process, and that's where it gets shifty."

Shortly thereafter, the military charged him with two counts of missing movement and disobeying a direct order.

Bishop, Agosto, and other resisters are not alone. In November 2007, the Pentagon revealed that between 2003 and 2007 there had been an 80 percent increase in overall desertion rates in the Army (desertion refers to soldiers who go AWOL and never intend to return to service), and Army AWOL rates from 2003 to 2006 were the highest since 1980. Between 2000 and 2006, more than 40,000 troops from all branches of the military deserted, more than half from the Army. Army desertion rates jumped by 42 percent from 2006 to 2007 alone.

Bishop informed Truthout that morale is low among his peers in the military, whether they are pro-war or opposed to the occupations.

"Hard Corps folks, as soon as they hear about my sentence being capped at a year, they are changing their minds already," he said, "There's a lot of soldiers that go just because they feel they have to go. They are driven by money and legal obligation, not patriotism. They go because they don't want to lose their job and get in trouble. A lot of the people I talk to that are in, they feel as I do, but they say things like 'I only have four more months, so I'll ride it out and hope not to get stop-lossed.'"

Spc. Michael Kern, an active duty veteran of the occupation of Iraq (where he served from March 2007 to March 2008), is also based at Fort Hood. He is currently getting treatment for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Kern turned against both occupations, as he told Truthout, "Once I realized it wasn't a war and was an occupation, and once I realized I was a terrorist to people in Iraq. It wasn't a hard decision. My whole unit feels as I do, but are afraid to speak out because they don't know there is support for those of us who speak out against the war."

Kern, like Bishop, says that troop morale is very low.

"I'd say it's at an all-time low - mostly because of Afghanistan now. Nobody knows why we are at either place, and I believe the troops need to know why they are there, or we should pull out, and this is a unanimous feeling, even for folks who are pro-war."

Kern feels that the decisions of Agosto and Bishop to refuse to deploy to Afghanistan is worthy of admiration and support.

"I admire these guys," he told Truthout, "They are truly amazing. I wish I would have done that, but when I deployed I didn't know what I was getting into, or my options. I look up to these guys. They are standing up for what they believe in, and that's the greatest thing any of us can do, and they are doing it despite what the Army is doing to them."

Kern suggests that soldiers "do your research before you willingly follow orders, because this is an unjust war, and according to Army regulations, you are entitled to question an illegal order, such as deploying to an illegal war not sanctioned by the UN. And that there is a large community of support for those who are standing up. And it's all over the world, not just the US, wherever you are, there are people who feel the same way you do."

In England, Lance Cpl. Joe Glenton, from the Royal Logistics Corps, has become the first British soldier to speak out publicly against the war in Afghanistan.

Glenton delivered a letter to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on 30 July stating why he is refusing to return to Afghanistan.

Glenton wrote: "The war in Afghanistan is not reducing the terrorist risk, far from improving Afghan lives it is bringing death and devastation to their country. Britain has no business there. I do not believe that our cause in Afghanistan is just or right. I implore you, Sir, to bring our soldiers home."

Glenton, like Agosto, and soon for Bishop, began his court-martial proceedings on 3 August.

US commanders recently announced that US and NATO troop deaths from Afghan bombings spiked six-fold in July, compared to the same month last year. In July, resistance fighters detonated the highest number of bombs against occupation forces in the eight-year occupation, according to figures released Tuesday. More US troops were killed in July in Afghanistan than any other month of the entire occupation, and violence continues.

Meanwhile, Anthony Cordesman, a senior adviser to the US military commander in charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told The Times of London that an additional 45,000 US troops are needed in Afghanistan.

Bishop hopes his refusal to deploy will inspire soldiers to search their consciences.

"My hope is that people who feel like me, that they don't have a voice and are having doubts, I hope that this shows them that not only can you talk to someone about this, but that you actually have a choice," he said.

"Choice is the first thing they take away from you in the military," Bishop added, "You're taught that you don't have a choice. That's not true. And not wanting to kill someone or get killed does not make you a coward. I hope my actions show this to more people."

US corporations squeezing more output from workers & paying less

US corporations squeezing more output from workers and paying lower wages

By Patrick O’Connor

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US Labor Department data released yesterday showed productivity up 6.4 percent in the second quarter, the largest gain since 2003 and higher than economists’ forecasts of 5.5 percent. Over the same period, workers’ compensation fell sharply.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics explained that productivity—which measures hourly output per employee—increased “due to hours worked declining faster than output.”

In other words, big business is using the rise in unemployment to extract greater output from employed workers through speedup and other forms of intensified exploitation.

Nonfarm productivity rose 6.4 percent as a result of output declining by 1.7 percent and total hours worked plummeting 7.6 percent.

Data also showed that real hourly employee compensation fell by 1.1 percent in the second quarter, or by 2.2 percent on an annualized basis. The combined impact of declining wages and rising productivity brought unit labor costs down by a huge 5.8 percent in the three months from April to June.

In manufacturing, quarterly productivity rose 5.3 percent, a result of output falling by 9.9 percent and hours by 14.4 percent. In the durable manufacturing sub-category, the output and hours decline was even greater—16.5 percent and 19.6 percent respectively.

The recent productivity boost, unlike that seen in previous periods, has involved no developments in productive technique. Mark Vitner of Wells Fargo Bank told Dow Jones Newswire that the second quarter gain “is almost entirely the result of cost-cutting, not improved ways of producing goods and providing services.”

Several commentators frankly admitted that the productivity boost was the product of intensified pressure on the working class. In a comment for Dow Jones’ MarketWatch, Tom Bernis wrote: “Anybody lucky enough to hang onto his or her job in this recession is working flat out to keep it. That’s one take on the latest US productivity numbers...

“The severity of the recession has pushed the hours worked to levels not seen since the mid-1990s, even as units of output have risen nearly 40 percent. So, with the economy essentially in ‘idle,’ it takes far fewer workers to keep things moving than nearly a decade-and-a-half ago. That’s good news for profits, but not so good for the unemployed.”

Ian Shepherdson, chief domestic economist for High Frequency Economics, added: “These are spectacular numbers and help explain why so many recently reporting companies have beaten earnings estimates.”

Bloomberg News highlighted DuPont, the third-biggest US chemical company, which last month announced a better-than-anticipated $417 million second quarter profit. This was achieved after outlining a strategy to cut fixed costs by $1 billion, partly by laying off 2,500 permanent workers and 10,000 contractors. “Our aggressive actions to improve productivity and reduce costs across the company are paying off,” Chief Executive Officer Ellen Kullman declared.

According to Time magazine’s Justin Fox, a recent report by the Goldman Sachs portfolio strategy team compared current corporate profits with previous periods. In an extraordinary finding, the researchers concluded that if financial companies, auto producers and utilities are excluded, corporations in the S&P 500 index had higher profit margins during the worst of the current crisis than they did during any point of the mid-1980s economic boom.

This conclusion points to the class character of the Obama administration and the social interests being served by its policies.

The economic policies advanced by successive Democratic and Republican administrations over the last three decades produced significant productivity increases at the same time that average real wages stagnated or declined. This led to an unprecedented shift in national income distribution, away from wages towards corporate profits, massively increasing social inequality.

These tendencies are accelerating, with the Obama administration, on behalf of the major corporations and banks, advancing a sweeping economic restructuring agenda aimed at permanently driving down workers’ wages and conditions. Every aspect of the administration’s agenda—from the bailout of the banks, to mass layoffs and wage and benefit concessions in the auto industry, to sweeping cuts in health care for workers and retirees—is directed towards protecting the ruling elite’s wealth at the expense of the majority of the population.

Obama sent a clear signal to big business with the restructuring of the auto industry. The federally supervised bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler involved the destruction of large sections of each company’s productive capacity, the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs, and the imposition of wages and conditions equivalent to those last experienced in the industry in the 1930s. This set the stage for an economy-wide corporate offensive against jobs, wages, and conditions, the initial results of which are reflected in the latest productivity and labor cost data.

What is behind the opposition to the Obama healthcare plan?

What is behind the opposition to the Obama healthcare plan?



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President Obama’s proposed restructuring of the US healthcare system has come under ferocious attack over the past week. Right-wing activists, in many cases organized by groups affiliated with the Republican Party or financed by sections of the healthcare industry, turned out at town hall meetings to shout down Democratic congressmen or Obama aides. There have been death threats and some actual violence.

The right-wing attack combines hysterical distortion of the provisions of the Obama plan (frequently, and falsely, branded as “socialized medicine”) with an appeal to the concerns of wide layers of the American population who sense, quite correctly, that the healthcare restructuring being promoted in Washington will come at their expense and will benefit only the big corporate interests.

Chief among the distortions has been the claim, fostered most notably by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, that the Obama plan promotes euthanasia and that millions of elderly people will be hauled before a federal “death panel” to decide whether paying for their healthcare was warranted based on their “level of productivity in society.”

The actual provision, Section 1323 of one version of legislation that has passed one committee in the House of Representatives, merely states that Medicare will now reimburse doctors who hold end-of-life counseling sessions for beneficiaries who want to know their options on hospice care, living wills, and similar services.

Palin, who resigned as governor of Alaska July 26 in order to pursue a national career as spokeswoman for the fascistic wing of the Republican Party, is appealing to the same Christian fundamentalist elements who mobilized around the case of Terri Schiavo in 2005.

The popular disaffection with the Obama healthcare plan goes much further, however, than the fanatical right-to-life constituency. The Obama administration has based its program for healthcare restructuring entirely on the argument that healthcare costs are bankrupting the US economy and that controlling and reducing these costs is essential.

The logical conclusion of this policy—even if officially denied by the White House—is that somebody’s healthcare is too expensive and must be cut back or eliminated. Millions of people fear that that somebody is likely to be them and their families. One opinion poll published last week showed that 53 percent believed they would be worse off or no better than before under the Obama plan.

Obama and the congressional Democrats have sought to use the frenzied outpourings of his right-wing critics to discredit all opposition to the measures that the administration is pursuing to cut social benefit programs like Medicare and impose even greater burdens on American working people.

The crudest effort along these lines came in a column published in USAToday Monday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, which branded the opposition to Obama’s healthcare plan “un-American attacks.” They criticized the right-wing disruptions as an effort to suppress discussion, then pledged that the healthcare “reform” would mean higher-quality care, an end to insurance company abuses and “stability and peace of mind for the middle class.”

In his radio speech Saturday and at a carefully controlled town hall meeting in New Hampshire Tuesday, Obama sought to soothe popular concerns over the implication of the healthcare cost-cutting and put a “progressive” gloss on what is a fundamentally reactionary and pro-corporate policy.

The president told his New Hampshire audience that charges that his program will cut Medicare benefits for the elderly were false. “It’s a myth that we’re going to be cutting your Medicare benefits,” he said. “We’re not.” He claimed that the only cut in Medicare would be $177 billion in subsidies to insurance companies that operate private Medicare Advantage plans. But all the plans moving through the House and Senate—with full backing by the White House—call for substantial reductions in Medicare reimbursement to hospitals and doctors, which will inevitably be translated into cutbacks in care for the elderly and disabled.

One of the first questions taken by Obama—no doubt prearranged by White House political operatives—was from a woman denied coverage by her insurance company because of a pre-existing condition. Expressing sympathy for her plight, Obama sought to use the exchange to present his program as a benefit for those whose healthcare benefits have been cut back or eliminated by profit-driven insurers.

The real relationship of Obama and the Democrats to the insurance industry was far more accurately described by BusinessWeek magazine in its current cover story on healthcare “reform,” headlined, “The Health Insurers Have Already Won.” The magazine details how UnitedHealthGroup, the largest US health insurer, has used its influence in Washington, particularly with conservative congressional Democrats in the “Blue Dog” caucus and Obama advisers like former senator Tom Daschle, to effectively dictate the parameters of the healthcare legislation moving through Congress.

“The industry has already accomplished its main goal of at least curbing, and maybe blocking altogether, any new publicly administered insurance program that could grab market share from the corporations that dominate the business,” BusinessWeek wrote approvingly. UnitedHealthCare, Aetna and Wellpoint have “also achieved a secondary aim of constraining the new benefits that will become available to tens of millions of people who are currently uninsured. That will make the new customers more lucrative to the industry.”

In other words, the corporate profiteers have a tight grip over the healthcare legislation. Their political servants in both the Republican and Democratic parties can be relied on to guarantee their financial interests are served by any healthcare restructuring, or to torpedo the bill outright if that proves necessary.

Over the past several weeks, there has been detailed press coverage of the enormous sums that the drug companies, the insurance companies, the for-profit hospital chains and other corporate interests have poured into “lobbying” and “campaign contributions”—the two Washington euphemisms for outright bribery. (See “US health care lobby pumps millions into Obama’s cost-cutting drive” and “The drug lobby demands, and gets, Obama pledge to protect health care profits”)

According to press reports Tuesday, the drug industry lobby PhRMA will launch a $150 million advertising blitz in support of Obama’s healthcare reform drive, after the White House reaffirmed its promise that it will limit the industry’s “contribution” to the cost of healthcare restructuring to the $80 billion agreed on in closed-door talks between Obama aides and PhRMA chief Billy Tauzin (a founding member of the “Blue Dogs” before he left Congress to become an open rather than concealed representative of the drug manufacturers).

Obama has repeatedly avowed his support for capitalist medicine, and the “right” of drug companies, the insurance companies, the medical equipment manufacturers, and a host of other parasites to profit from the sick. His differences with his Republican opponents are purely tactical, and largely concern which sections of corporate America will benefit the most from the current legislative undertaking.

Nothing that emerges from the machinations of big business politicians and corporate lobbyists in Washington can serve the needs of working people. Medical care must be made available to every American citizen and resident, provided for at state expense as a basic human right. This requires the nationalization of the insurance companies, the drug companies, and all the other healthcare profiteers, and the establishment of a system of socialized medicine provided free to all who need it.

9/11 Mind Swell: Scientific Evidence Refutes The Official Story

9/11 Mind Swell

Scientific evidence refutes the official story

As we approach the eighth anniversary of 9/11 consider this paradox. In the post 9-11 years the scientific evidence for disbelieving the official government story has mounted incredibly. And the number of highly respected and credentialed professionals challenging the official story has similarly expanded. Yet, to the considerable disappointment of the international 9/11 truth movement, the objective fact is that there are no widespread, loud demands for a new government-backed 9/11 investigation. The 9/11 truth movement is the epitome of a marginalized movement, one that never goes away despite not achieving truly meaningful results, which in this case means replacing official lies with official truth. What has gone wrong?

Akin to the definition of insanity, the hallmark of entrenched but marginalized movements is that they continue to pursue exactly the same strategy and tactics that have failed to produce solid results. They indulge themselves with self-delusion, defensive thinking and acting as if the world at large must surely and finally wake up, see the light and embrace the Truth. Years and, potentially, decades go by, but this quixotic status quo remains embedded, as if set in intellectual concrete. There is no brain tumor to blame. Nor any mass hypnosis of true believers to prove. There is just monumental disinterest among the dominant culture, political establishment and the broad public that is far more engaged with other issues, problems and movements.

The 9/11 truth movement, at best, gets meager public attention when it is derided and insulted, used as an example of persistent conspiratorial insanity.

Make no mistake; I concluded a few years back, after using my professional engineering and materials science background to study the evidence, that the official government story is a lie. As a former full professor of engineering, I firmly believe that elements of the US government were involved with contributing to (not just allowing) the 9/11 tragedy, but that does not necessarily eliminate the role of those terrorists publicly blamed for the events. Science, logic, evidence and critical thinking told me this.

Who should we blame for the failure of the 9/11 truth movement to fix the historical record and, better yet, identify those in the government who turned 9/11 into an excuse for going to war, getting them indicted, prosecuted, and punished for their murderous acts?

It is too easy to blame the mainstream media and political establishment for refusing to demand and pursue a truly comprehensive and credible independent scientific and engineering investigation. President Obama with his tenacious belief in looking forward, not backward, exemplifies a national mindset to avoid the painful search for truth and justice that could produce still more public disillusionment with government and feed the belief that American democracy is weak at best, and delusional at worst.

Marginalized movements always face competition for public attention. There are always countless national issues and problems that feed new movements and distract the public. There have been many since 9/11, not the least of which was the last presidential campaign and then the painful economic recession, and now the right wing attacks on health care reform. The 9/11 truth movement illustrates a total failure to compete successfully with other events and movements.

This can be explained in several ways. The 9/11 movement has not been able to articulate enough benefits to the public from disbelieving the official government story and pursuing a new investigation. What might ordinary Americans gain? Would proof-positive of government involvement make them feel better, more secure, and more patriotic? Apparently not. In fact, just the opposite. By its very nature, the 9/11 issue threatens many things by discovering the truth: still less confidence in the US political system, government and public officials. Still more reason to ponder the incredible loss of life and national wealth in pursuing the Iraq war. In other words, revealing 9/11 truth offers the specter of a huge national bummer. Conversely, it would show the world that American democracy has integrity.

The second explanation for failure is that the truth movement itself is greatly to blame. It has been filled with nerdish, ego-centric and self-serving activists (often most interested in pushing their pet theory) unable to pursue strategies designed to face and overcome ugly, challenging realities. The truth movement became a cottage industry providing income and meaning for many individuals and groups feeding the committed with endless websites, public talks, videos, books and paraphernalia. They habitually preach to the choir. Applause substitutes for solid results. In particular, it embraces the simplistic (and obviously ineffective) belief that by revealing technical, scientific and engineering facts and evidence the public and political establishment would be compelled to see the light. Darkness has prevailed.

Proof of this are the views expressed days ago on the truth movement by Ben Cohen on the Huffington Post: “I have done some research on the topic, but stopped fairly quickly into when it dawned on me that: 1. Any alternative to the official account of what happened is so absurd it simply cannot be true. 2. No reputable scientific journal has ever taken any of the 'science' of the conspiracy seriously. 3. The evidence supporting the official story is overwhelming, whereas the 9/11 Truthers have yet to produce a shred of concrete evidence that members of the U.S. government planned the attacks in New York and Washington .” Similarly, in the London Times James Bone recently said a “gruesome assortment of conspiracy theorists insists that the attacks on the US of September 11, 2001 were an inside job. It is easy to mock this deluded gang of ageing hippies, anarchists and anti-Semites.” Truthers continue to face a very steep uphill battle.

A common lie about the truth movement is that there have been no credible scientific articles in peer reviewed journals supporting it. But those opposing the truth movement will and do find ways to attack whatever scientific evidence is produced and published. It takes more than good science and facts for the movement to succeed.

Besides the movement having too many genuine crackpots (possibly trying to subvert it), a larger problem is what has been missing from it: effective political strategies. Besides pushing scientific results and more credible supporters, it did nothing successful to make a new 9/11 investigation a visible issue in the last presidential campaign. It did nothing effective to put pressure on a new, Democrat controlled congress to consider legislation providing the authorization and funding for a new, credible investigation. It seems that people who want to blame the government are often unable to also see the political path forward that requires the government to fund a new investigation.

To its credit, Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth does have a petition aimed at Congress, demanding a new investigation, but has fewer than 5,000 signers. The petition effort in New York City to get a new investigation is commendable, with just under 75,000 signers, but national action is needed. Pragmatically, both efforts are unimpressive compared to other campaigns seeking political action. To get both media attention and political support the movement needs a hundred times more documented supporters, willing to do a lot more than sign a petition.

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 will come fast. The opportunity is making 9/11 an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign. The least delusional and defensive in the truth movement should think deeply and seriously on what needs to change to accomplish the prime goal: having an official investigation that compels most people and history to accept the truth, no matter how painful it is, including the possibility that it finds no compelling evidence for government involvement.

Reflections on "Health Reform" Under "The Unelected Dictatorship of Money"

Blue Cross and Blue Dog Democrats: Reflections on "Health Reform" Under "The Unelected Dictatorship of Money"

The United States' "representative democracy," crippled by "too much [corporate and military] representation and too little [actual popular] democracy" (Arundhati Roy) abounds with Kafka-esque, Orwellian, and Vonneguttian absurdity. Take, for one example among many, the determination of the United States Congress's fifty-two "Blue Dog Democrats" [1] to de-rail any sort of mildly robust public health insurance plan that might be able to remotely counter the nation's for-profit health insurance firms.

Along with Republicans, "Blue Dogs" insist that any "public option" to emerge from Barack Obama's health reform process NOT be sufficiently subsidized and otherwise structured to "undermine" (offer a meaningful alternative to) the private insurance firms that dominate our health system. "Blue Dogs" wouldn't want to do anything that might harm those glorious, vampire-like institutions, which are viewed as "honest and trustworthy" by 7 percent of the American people (Robert Weissman, "Business is Even More Unpopular Than You Think," Common Dreams, January 16, 2008). Each year these parasitic corporations saddle America's over-priced health care system with an unnecessary $400 billion of administrative and profit costs. The estimated annual death count of their regular efforts to deny needed health care to millions of Americans - efforts that include investing many billions of dollars in trying to influence and bribe politicians through campaign contributions and massive lobbying campaigns - runs well into the tens of thousands.

"Blue Dogs" will tell you that they are "deficit hawks." They are proud of their declared obsession with minimizing government expenditure. Since they also tend to be military hawks as well, however, their oft-proclaimed "fiscal conservatism" does not extend to the gigantic corporate-welfare scheme that is the Pentagon system - a gigantic taxpayer subsidy to high-tech "defense" firms like Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Rockwell-Collins, and Halliburton.

"Blue Dogs" recoil in horror at the specter of Obama's supposedly "leftist" "health reform" costing taxpayers $1trillion over ten years. They fret about how Medicare and Social Security trust funds are at risk, they say, of becoming "insolvent," therefore requiring benefit cutbacks and perhaps privatization.

They say nothing, of course, about how interesting fact that the federal government spends $1 trillion annually on the bloated U.S. "defense" (empire) budget, which accounts for nearly half the military spending on Earth and pays for more than 760 military bases spread across more than 130 countries. The notion of the military-industrial complex going bankrupt is of course preposterous; the Pentagon system enjoys an open-ended taxpayer commitment that is considered beyond serious question (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, "Riding the 'Green Wave' at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond," Electric Politics, July 22, 2009).

"Blue Dogs'" passion for saving dollars and avoiding insolvency does not extend to ordinary working Americans' health care expenditure. Untold millions of middle-, working-, and lower-class Americans have been driven to bankruptcy by the nation's for-profit health-care system. The shrinking percentage of Americans with insurance often find that their plan does not cover or fully cover the specific medical problems they have, the tests or drugs they require, or the sort of medical intervention they need. Ever-escalating premiums, exorbitant co-pays and more dig deeply into the battered savings accounts of the American people, the citizens who enjoy the fewest health-care benefits in the Western world - a singular accomplishment for the "world's greatest democracy."

Some liberal Democrats think that it would be better to call the Blue Dogs the "Blue Cross" or "Blue Cross and Blue Shield Democrats" to signify their captivity and service to the private health insurance industry. They have a point. As reigning New York Times liberal Frank Rich noted in his weekly column last Sunday, "the 52 conservative Blue Dog Democrats['campaign] ...cash intake from insurers and drug companies outpaces their Democratic peers by an average of 25 percent, according to the Washington Post." (Frank Rich, "Is Obama Punking Us?" New York Times, August 9, 2009, section 4, p.8).

But it isn't just the Blue Dogs who oppose the serious progressive health reform that is desired and required by most Americans. The "mainstream" Obama-Democratic plan that has the Blue Dogs and the Republicans so fearful and angry falls far short of what is required to meeting the health care and fiscal needs of the popular majority. It leaves the parasitic for-profit insurances and drug companies in essential control of the nation's health care future. As such, it guarantees that citizens will be stuck with overpriced, wasteful care, endless premium inflation, cringing dependence on the employer class for health care, mandated coverage without affordable care for many, the constant fear of losing coverage, and recurrent private and public battles with insurers and their tyrannical, costly, profit-protecting bureaucracies and outsized political influence for years to come.

As originally conceptualized and floated in 2008 and early 2009, the president's health scheme is a potential disaster for serious reform. The progressive left labor journalist and policy analyst Roger Bybee worries with reason that Obama's "plan, manacled to private insurers, may ultimately deepen public cynicism about the possibility any substantive help with their increasingly desperate health care situation" (R. Bybee, "Health Reform Via Guaranteed Choice," Z Magazine, December 2008). The plan has often seemed all-too fated to repeat the experience of "HillaryCare" during the 1990s, when the Clinton administration's sickeningly complex and market-driven, corporate-serving scheme for national coverage crashed and burned, discrediting the cause of reform for many years.

When Obama gave an uninspiring prime-time press conference in support of Democrat-led health reform last July, much of the public didn't follow his logic on why it should support his curiously corporate-captive version of "change." All too common was the reaction of Rowena Ventura, 44, an uninsured worker who had just moved her ailing mother into a house she shared with her disabled husband "You see," she said, gesturing at the president on her television, "he's saying he wants to continue private insurance, but then he says they're part of the problem. Well, which is it? It's just ridiculous." (K. Sack, "For Public, Obama Didn't Fill in Health Blanks," New York Times, July 23, 2009, A1).

It is true that eighty-five Democrats in the House technically support Rep. John Conyers' (D-MI) HR 676, a bill that would transcend corporate-managed health-care ridiculousness by introducing a basic single-payer health insurance system. Under the "Canadian" (and Australian and New Zealand-esque) single payer model, advanced in the U.S. Senate by Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the government (identical with the people in democratic theory, as Noam Chomsky says) would evict for-profit insurance companies from health care and guarantee high quality health care for all Americans regardless of wealth and income.

Sadly, however, many congresspersons in the "single-payer" category don't really mean it. They don't think "their" side can win. Unlike the Blue Cross Blue Dogs, they aren't willing to cast their votes against the mainstream Blue Cross Obama-Democratic plan. When push comes to shove, they'll cave and sign on with the hopelessly inadequate and strongly diluted Obama bill that gets rolled out and sold as a "progressive" effort (and absurdly denounced as "socialist" by the right wing noise and disruption machine)next fall. As the Washington-based journalist and leading single-payer activist Russell Mokhiber explains:

"Well, there are a group of 85 members of the House who support single-payer bill HR 676. They are all Democrats and unfortunately it's not a real serious effort. And it's not a real serious effort because, unlike the Blue Dogs - and this is why the Blue Dogs get all the attention - because the Blue Dogs, even they are a much smaller group - they say, unless you meet our demands, we're not going to vote for the Obama plan. And the single-payer advocates have never said that. The single-payer advocates say, 'We prefer single-payer, but it's not going to happen, therefore, we're going to go for a public plan.'"(Cyrano's Journal Online, August 9, 2009, read at http://www.bestcyrano.org/?p=3474)

All of which leads to reasonable suspicion what while "Blue Dog Democrats" are indeed "Blue Cross, Blue Shield Democrats," the latter category reaches far beyond the 52 representatives listed on the official Blue Dog roster. Consistent with that suspicion, the top six Democrats in the House when it comes to crafting "health reform" have collectively received $953, 398 from insurance industry political action committees (PACs) since the onset of the 2008 election cycle. Those strategically placed House Democrats include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA, $175,500 from insurance PACs), House Majority Leader Stenny Hoyer (D-MD, $ 356,000 courtesy of insurance PACs), House Majority Whip Sam Clyburn (D-SC, $107,098), House Ways and Means Committee Chair Charles Rangel (D-NY, $226,300). House Education and (single-payer co-sponsor) Labor Chair George Miller (D-CA, $62,000), and House Energy and Commerce chair Henry Waxman (D-CA, $26,500). Miller is technically a single-payer/HR 676 co-sponsor.

Then there's the three Blue Cross Democrats sitting on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee to join three Republicans in an aristocratic committee trying to kill the "public [insurance] option" altogether. Recently the New York Times reported that the nation's health "reform" was being "carved out at a table of six" millionaire Senators seeking a "grand bargain" in the office of Senate Finance Committee chairman, Max Baucus. The big six, mainly from small population states are: Baucus (D-MT), Charles Grassley (R-IA), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), and Michael Enzi (R-WY). By the Times' account, Obama's so-called "public option" was falling to the finance committee's cutting floor along with the notion of taxing the wealthy to pay for universal extended coverage." "Already," the Times reported, "the group of six has tossed aside the idea of a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurers. They have also dismissed the House Democratic plan to pay for the bill's roughly $1 trillion, 10-year cost partly with an income surtax on high earners." (New York Times, July 28, 2009, A1)

Democrats Baucus, Conrad, and Bingaman have collectively received a remarkable $2.5 million from the insurance industry since the onset of the 2008 election cycle. The largest amount by far went to health "reform" point man Baucus, recipient of more than $950,000 in insurance PAC money since 2007.

For what its worth, Blue Cross, Blue Shield has given Baucus $125,200 during that time - his fifth largest contributor. The company gave more than $2.5 million to congressional candidates in 2007-08, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. For the current election cycle, its partisan donation balance has shifted in favor of the Democrats, reflecting the current congressional prevalence of that party (data from the Center for Responsive Politics' "Open Secrets" Web site).

There are no technical Blue Dog coalition members in the U.S. Senate, but there appear to be some strategically placed Blue Cross, Blue Shield Democrats in the nation's upper legislative body.

For his part, Obama received $2.25 million from the insurance industry and was Blue Cross, Blue Shield's top campaign cash recipient (to the tune of $148, 000) in the 2008 election. His militantly watered-down health reform agenda, which retains critical parasitic profits and related exaggerated costs for the private insurers, is consistent with that sponsorship and with the $19 million Obama has received from the health sector, many of whose key players (including drug industry CEOs) stand in incestuous and overlapping profit and board-membership relationships to the leading insurance firms.

Obama knows very well that you can't have meaningful progressive health reform without removing the for-profit insurance vampires from the equation. He said as much quite explicitly late in his career as a state legislator during a speech in downtown Chicago. The solution, he said, was an "everybody in, nobody out" single payer system, of which, he said, "I happen to be a proponent." The way to get it, he argued, was for the Democrats to take back Congress and then the presidency.

Well, the federal legislative and executive branches have been "taken back" by the Democratic Party. Sadly, however, the United States' corporate-managed "dollar democracy" and its narrow "one-and-a-half party system" (Sheldon Wolin) has yet to be taken back from concentrated wealth. Obama's single-payer speech (viewable on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpAyan1fXCE)
was delivered before the future president knew he had a serious shot at the White House. Once you enter the high-stakes, big business-coordinated arena of "in-it-to-win-it" and "winner-take-all" presidential politics, social-democratic principles go out the window. You become subject to what the left writers Edward Herman and David Peterson call the United States' "unelected dictatorship of money," which "vets the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, reducing the options available to U.S. citizens to two candidates, neither of whom can change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime" (Herman and Peterson, "Riding the 'Green Wave'"). If we want major and basic reforms like single-payer health insurance, like meaningful labor law reform, like a significant reduction in the military budget and like a serious government-enforced reduction in carbon emissions we have no choice but to challenge that dictatorship in a many-sided struggle for peoples' power over and against the Privileged Few.

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com)is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).

NOTE

1. For a useful description and history of the "Blue Dogs," see a recently updated Wikipedia entry: "The Democratic Blue Dog Coalition is a group of currently 52 moderate and conservative Democratic Party members of the United States House of Representatives, first formed in 1995.The Blue Dogs promote, among other things, fiscal conservatism and accountability. ...The Blue Dogs are the political descendants of a now defunct-in-name Southern Democratic group known as the Boll Weevils, who played a critical role in the early 1980s by supporting President Ronald Reagan's tax cut plan. The Boll Weevils, in turn, may be considered the descendants of the Dixiecrats and the 'states' rights' Democrats of the 1940s through '60s. 'Blue Dog Democrat' is derived from the term 'Yellow Dog Democrat.' Former Texas Democrat Rep. Pete Geren is credited for coining the term, explaining that the members had been "choked blue" by "extreme" Democrats from the left The Blue Dog Coalition was formed in 1994 during the 104th Congress to give more conservative members from the Democratic party a unified voice after the Democrats' loss of Congress...In 2005, the members of the Blue Dog Coalition voted 32 to 4 in favor of the bill to limit access to bankruptcy protection (S 256).In the summer of 2009, The Economist magazine said '[t]he debate over health care... may be the pinnacle of the group's power so far' and quoted Charlie Stenholm, a founding Blue Dog, as saying that 'this is the first year for the new kennel in which their votes are really going to make a difference.'"

White House proposal to track government website users stirs fears

White House proposal to track government website users stirs fears

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A White House proposal to end a long-standing policy forbidding government websites from tracking users could lead to "the mass collection of personal information of every user of a federal government website," says the ACLU.

Civil liberties groups like the ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center are lining up against a plan, proposed by the Obama administration, to end a policy that has been in place since 2000 preventing government websites from installing tracking cookies on users' computers.

“This is a sea change in government privacy policy,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, Acting Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, in a statement. “Without explaining this reversal of policy, the [White House Office of Management and Budget] is seeking to allow the mass collection of personal information of every user of a federal government website. Until the OMB answers the multitude of questions surrounding this policy shift, we will continue to raise our strenuous objections.”

Opponents of the proposal point out that tracking cookies can be used not only to keep track of what an individual has done or seen on the website in question, but also to track what other websites that person has visited, and what personal information they have handed over to the website. Thus, it is often possible to identify a computer user based on data stored in tracking cookies.

"It appears that these companies are forcing the government to lower the privacy protections that the government had promised the American people," Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Washington Post. "The government should be requiring companies to raise the level of privacy protection if they want government contracts."

According to the Post, the EFF and EPIC are pointing to "an unnamed federal government agency" that signed a contract with Google earlier this year that "carved out an exemption from the ban so that the agency could use Google's YouTube video player."

To many privacy watchdogs, that agreement is the thin end of the wedge that will allow the government to monitor ever more closely people's activities on government websites.

"EPIC strongly favors public access to new media and the government’s innovative use of new technology," the group said in a statement. "At the same time, we think it is unnecessary and shortsighted to allow government agencies to stalk citizens with persistent identifiers."

But supporters of the proposed change to government policy "say social networking and similar services, which often take advantage of the tracking technologies, have transformed how people communicate over the Internet, and Obama's aides say those services can make government more transparent and increase public involvement," the Post reports.

Whistleblower: Insurance firms ‘very much’ behind town hall disruptions

Whistleblower: Insurance firms ‘very much’ behind town hall disruptions

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Health insurance companies deserve “a great deal of the blame” for the sometimes violent disruptions to town hall meetings on health care, says a former health insurance company executive turned whistleblower.

Wendell Potter, a former executive with health insurer Cigna who now works as the senior fellow on health care at the Center for Media and Democracy, told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that health insurance companies “are very much behind the town hall disruptions that you see and a lot of the deception that’s going on in terms of disinformation that many Americans, apparently, are believing.”

On her show Monday night, Maddow cited statistics from the Securities and Exchange Commission showing that profits at the US’s ten largest health insurance companies skyrocketed more than 400 percent between 2000 and 2007, from $2.4 billion in 2000 to $12.7 billion in 2007.

“Apparently while they quadrupled their profits, the number of Americans without health insurance grew by 19 percent,” Maddow said.

And she also pointed out that the average total take-home pay for the CEOs of those health insurance companies was $11.9 million each, per year, “while the number of Americans without health insurance, for whom a burst appendix can mean bankruptcy, has gone through the roof.”

Asked why health care costs are going up, Potter told Maddow: “Since 1983 … the amount of money that insurance companies take in in premiums — less and less of that is going to pay medical claims.”

Potter said that the money health insurers spend on health care for their policy-holders has dropped from 95 percent of revenue to around 80 percent. Although Potter did not elaborate on why that is, presumably it has to do with higher bureaucratic costs, increased advertising budgets, other tangential activities not directly related to health care — and higher profit margins.

“Another thing is they kick people off the rolls when they do get sick or injured,” Potter said. “Also, they’re paying fewer claims.”

Potter suggested that health insurers’ fears of a public health alternative are unfounded, because they can still make money with a public plan in place.

“They could [turn a profit], absolutely. I’ve seen the health insurance industry change its business models many times. The insurance companies who operate now are very different from the companies that operated a few years ago and the one thing they know how to do is make money.”

This video is from MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, broadcast Aug. 10, 2009.

Lawyer: Bush torture ‘enablers’ chargeable as conspirators

Lawyer: Bush torture ‘enablers’ chargeable as conspirators

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Senior members of the Bush administration could be charged with conspiracy to commit torture, even if Attorney General Eric Holder tries to limit the scope of an impending investigation, says an international-law and human-rights lawyer.

Scott Horton, who is also a contributing editor to Harper’s magazine, told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann Monday night that “a rigorous special prosecutor” who “takes his job seriously” would also have to look at the conduct of the government officials who sanctioned torture.

A report in the Los Angeles Times this past weekend says that Holder, according to sources, “is poised to appoint a criminal prosecutor to investigate alleged CIA abuses committed during the interrogation of terrorism suspects.” But the article notes that the special prosecutor will be instructed to look at only cases of torture which went beyond the practices sanctioned by the administration.

Opponents of an investigation argue that it would set a bad precedent for a new administration to charge officials of the previous one with crimes, as it could lead to politically-motivated prosecutions.

But proponents of an investigation say Holder’s strategy doesn’t go far enough, and amounts to sanctioning torture. Some say it is worse than no prosecution at all, because it would mean courts would have to recognize the validity of some torture practices.

But on MSNBC’s Countdown Monday night, Horton told host Keith Olbermann that Holder may not be able to prevent a wider investigation of torture under a special prosecutor.

“As Congress enacted the anti-torture statute, it’s chargeable as a conspiracy,” Horton said. “So it’s not just the people in the room who would be the subject of the investigation, it would include the enablers, and that’s going to include a large number of senior people at the Department of Justice, as well as the National Security Council.”

Horton was evidently referring to US Criminal Code statue 2340A, which states, essentially, that people who conspired to enable torture can be charged with the same crimes as the people who actually carried out the torture.

Horton added that it “really would not be appropriate” to limit the special prosecutor’s investigation, because generally that’s not how special prosecutors operate.

“The regulations here say the attorney general will appoint a special prosecutor and will describe the essential facts of an underlying crime. The special prosecutor is supposed to investigate that crime, not specific people.”

Added Horton: “If we’re dealing with a situation where the appointment of a special prosecutor is appropriate, Eric Holder should get out of the way, the special prosecutor should study the crime and follow the factual trail wherever it goes.

“And all these efforts to put blinders on what the special prosecutor does are really unfortunate and inappropriate.”

This video is from MSNBC’s Countdown, broadcast Aug. 10, 2009.



Bankrolling Blackwater

US Still Paying Blackwater Millions

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Just days before two former Blackwater employees alleged in sworn statements filed in federal court that the company's owner, Erik Prince, "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe," the Obama administration extended a contract with Blackwater for more than $20 million for "security services" in Iraq, according to federal contract data obtained by The Nation. The State Department contract is scheduled to run through September 3. In May, the State Department announced it was not renewing Blackwater's Iraq contract, and the Iraqi government has refused to issue the company an operating license.

"They are still there, but we are transitioning them out," a State Department official told The Nation. According to the State Department, the $20 million represents an increase on an aviation contract that predates the Obama administration.

Despite its scandal-plagued track record, Blackwater (which has rebranded itself as Xe) continues to have a presence in Iraq, trains Afghan forces on US contracts and provides government-funded training for military and law enforcement inside the United States. The company is also actively bidding on other government contracts, including in Afghanistan, where the number of private contractors is swelling. According to federal contracting records reviewed by The Nation, since President Barack Obama took office in January the State Department has contracted with Blackwater for more than $174 million in "security services" alone in Iraq and Afghanistan and tens of millions more in "aviation services." Much of this money stems from existing contracts from the Bush era that have been continued by the Obama administration. While Obama certainly inherited a mess when it came to Blackwater's entrenchment in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has continued the widespread use of armed private contractors in both countries. Blackwater's role may be slowly shrinking, but its work is continuing through companies such as DynCorp and Triple Canopy.

"These contracts with Blackwater need to stop," says Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat and a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. "There's already enough evidence of gross misconduct and serious additional allegations against the company and its owner to negate any possibility that this company should have a presence in Iraq, Afghanistan or any conflict zone--or any contract with the US government."

On July 24 the Army signed an $8.9 million contract with Blackwater's aviation wing, Presidential Airways, for aviation services at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Bagram, home to a massive--and expanding--US-run prison, has been the subject of intense criticism from the ACLU and human rights groups for holdings hundreds of prisoners without charges and denying them habeas corpus and access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Blackwater aviation contract for Afghanistan is described as "Air Charter for Things" and "Nonscheduled Chartered Passenger Air Transportation." The military signed an additional $1.4 million contract that day for "Nonscheduled" passenger transportation in Afghanistan. These payments are part of aviation contracts dating back to the Bush era, and continued under Obama, that have brought Blackwater tens of millions of dollars in Afghanistan since January. In May, Blackwater operatives on contract with the Department of Defense allegedly killed an unarmed Afghan civilian and wounded two others. Moreover, Presidential Airways is being sued by the families of US soldiers killed in a suspicious crash in Afghanistan in November 2004.

The sworn affidavits from the former Blackwater employees, first reported by The Nation on August 3, have sparked renewed calls on Capitol Hill for the Obama administration to cancel all business with Blackwater. "I believe that the behavior of Xe, its leadership, and many of its employees, puts our government and military personnel, as well as our military and diplomatic objectives, at serious risk," Schakowsky wrote in an August 6 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Given this company's history of abuse and in light of recent allegations, I urge you not to award further contracts to Xe and its affiliates and to review all existing contracts with this company." Schakowsky sent a similar letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Meanwhile, VoteVets.org, a leading veterans' organization, has called on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to investigate the allegations contained in the sworn declarations submitted in the Eastern District of Virginia on August 3. VoteVets.org, which has more than 100,000 members, also appealed to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to "immediately hold hearings, and make recommendations on a new legal structure" to hold private military contractors accountable for alleged crimes.

"Given the charges made against Xe and Erik Prince in these sworn statements, which include smuggling and use of illegal arms inside of Iraq, as well as the encouraged murder of innocent Iraqis, it is essential that these loopholes be closed, retroactively, so that Xe, Prince, and his employees cannot escape proper prosecution in the United States now or in the future," wrote the group's chair Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran, in a letter to Senator John Kerry and other lawmakers. "It is absolutely crucial that we show Iraqis and the rest of the world that no matter who you are or how big your company is, you will be held accountable for your conduct--especially when in a war zone. Failure to do so only emboldens our enemy, and gives them yet another tool to recruit more insurgents and terrorists that target our men and women in harm's way."

For its part, Blackwater/Xe issued a statement responding to the sworn statements of two of its former employees. The company called the allegations "unsubstantiated and offensive assertions." It said the lawyers representing alleged Iraqi victims of Blackwater "have chosen to slander Mr. Prince rather than raise legal arguments or actual facts that will be considered by a court of law. We are happy to engage them there."

What Blackwater/Xe's statement did not flatly say is that the allegations are untrue. "I would have expected a crisp denial," says military law expert Scott Horton, who has followed this case closely. "The statement had the look of a denial to it, without actually refuting the specific allegations. I can understand why from the perspective of a corporate public affairs officer--just repeating the allegations would be harmful and would add to their credibility."

Blackwater also claims that the accusations "hold no water" because, even though the two former employees said that they had already provided similar information to federal prosecutors, no further Blackwater operatives or officials have been indicted. The company claims that according to the US attorney, the indictment of five Blackwater employees for the September 2007 Nisour Square shootings is "very narrow in its allegation" and does not charge "the entire Blackwater organization in Baghdad."

But, as Blackwater certainly knows, there are multiple prosecutors looking into its activities on a wide range of issues, and more than one grand jury can be seated at any given time. Simply because indictments were not announced regarding other actions when the Nisour Square charges were brought by the Justice Department does not mean Prince, Blackwater and its management are in the clear.

"We know that the federal criminal investigation is still ongoing, so this prosecutor's statement was not really anything definitive," says Horton. "Second, the presumption in US law is that, with fairly rare exceptions, crimes are committed by natural persons, not by legal entities like corporations. A corporation might be fined, for instance, but if it's deeply entangled in criminal dealings, it's the officers who would be prosecuted. Among other things, of course, it's impossible to put a corporation in the slammer. So saying that Blackwater wasn't charged with any crime really doesn't mean much."

Blackwater says it will formally respond to the allegations against Prince and Blackwater in a legal motion on August 17 in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia, where Prince and the company are being sued for war crimes and other alleged crimes by Susan Burke and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

On August 5, Blackwater's lawyers filed a motion with the court reiterating their request for a gag order to be placed on the plaintiffs and their lawyers. That motion largely consisted of quotes from two recent Nation magazine articles covering the case, including one about the allegations against Prince. Despite the fact that the affidavits of "John Doe #1" and "John Doe #2" were public, Blackwater accused the lawyers of "providing this information" to the media. Blackwater's lawyers charged that the plaintiffs' attorneys comments to The Nation were intended "to fuel this one-sided media coverage and to taint the jury pool against [Erik Prince and Blackwater]," adding that The Nation articles and the "coordinated media campaign" of the lawyers "demonstrate a clear need for an Order restraining extrajudicial commentary by the parties and their counsel." On August 7, Judge T.S. Ellis III, a Reagan appointee, denied Blackwater's motion.

A Rancid Deal with Big Pharma?

A Rancid Deal with Big Pharma

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So now we know why the president wants everyone to make nice in the healthcare debate. His White House has cut a deal with Big Pharma that smells like the same old rotten politics that candidate Obama regularly denounced and promised to end. The drug industry agrees to deliver $80 billion in future savings and the president promises the government will not use its awesome purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices.

Wow. This is roughly the same deal that George W. Bush cut with the drug makers when he was legislating Medicare's new coverage of drug purchases. It is the same bargain that Democrats in Congress universally condemned as wasteful and corrupt. The deal does not smell any better now that a Democratic president is embracing it.

In effect, Obama wants to give away one of the principal objectives of strong reform. The details were spelled out in today's New York Times and revealed by Big Pharma's top-dog lobbyist, Billy Tauzin, a former Republican congressman who leads the industry association. Tauzin called it a "rock-solid deal," and the White House did not dispute as much. But that is not the last word.

People who believe in real healthcare reform should not be nice about this. They must rise up and rebel against our popular new president's outrageous concession. They must demand that Congress declare the private deal-making null and void. If Congress lacks the nerve to do this, then this exercise in reform begins to look more and more like previous attempts that were eviscerated by the clout of the corporate interests.

The fate of healthcare reform may depend not on the Senate or the White House but on Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. What prompted Billy Tauzin to spill the beans on his deal-making with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was the House measure that specifies government's right to bargain for lower prices. No, no, no! Tauzin said. We've got a deal with the president, who says that won't be allowed.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi simply responds that the House is not bound by any deals made with the Senate or the White House. Her caucus must back up her words. They should pass the House bill, which will allow the government to do what any major customer would do in the same circumstances--use its leverage to demand lower prices.

If House Democrats stand their ground, then they will force a debate they can win with the American public. President Obama will have to choose between standing with the drug manufacturers or defending the original purpose of healthcare reform.

A Scary Reality

A Scary Reality

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Last week was a pretty good one for President Obama. Bill Clinton helped out big time when he returned from North Korea with the American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Sonia Sotomayor was elevated to the Supreme Court. And Friday’s unemployment report registered a tiny downward tick in the jobless rate.

But for American workers peering anxiously through their family portholes, the economic ship is still sinking. You can put whatever kind of gloss you want on last week’s jobs numbers, but the truth is that while they may have been a bit better than most economists were expecting, they were still bad, bad, bad.

Some 247,000 jobs were lost in July, a number that under ordinary circumstances would send a shudder through the country. It was the smallest monthly loss of jobs since last summer. And for that reason, it was seen as a hopeful sign. The official monthly unemployment rate ticked down from 9.5 percent to 9.4 percent.

But behind the official numbers is a scary story that illustrates the single biggest challenge facing the United States today. The American economy does not seem able to provide enough jobs — and nowhere near enough good jobs — to maintain the standard of living that most Americans have come to expect.

The country has lost a crippling 6.7 million jobs since the Great Recession began in December 2007. No one is predicting a recovery in the foreseeable future powerful enough to replace the millions of jobs that have vanished in this historic downturn.

Analysts at the Economic Policy Institute noted that the economy has fewer jobs now than it had in 2000, “even though the labor force has grown by around 12 million workers since then.”

Two issues that absolutely undermine any rosy assessment of last week’s employment report are the swelling ranks of the long-term unemployed and the crushing levels of joblessness among young Americans. More than five million workers — about a third of the unemployed — have been jobless for more than six months. That’s the highest number recorded since accurate records have been kept.

For those concerned with the economic viability of the American family going forward, the plight of young workers, especially young men, is particularly frightening. The percentage of young American men who are actually working is the lowest it has been in the 61 years of record-keeping, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

Only 65 of every 100 men aged 20 through 24 years old were working on any given day in the first six months of this year. In the age group 25 through 34 years old, traditionally a prime age range for getting married and starting a family, just 81 of 100 men were employed.

For male teenagers, the numbers were disastrous: only 28 of every 100 males were employed in the 16- through 19-year-old age group. For minority teenagers, forget about it. The numbers are beyond scary; they’re catastrophic.

This should be the biggest story in the United States. When joblessness reaches these kinds of extremes, it doesn’t just damage individual families; it corrodes entire communities, fosters a sense of hopelessness and leads to disorder.

The unemployment that has wrought such devastation in black communities for decades is now being experienced by a much wider swath of the population. We’ve been in deep denial about this. Way back in March 2007, when the official unemployment rate was a wildly deceptive 4.5 percent and the Bush crowd was crowing about the alleged strength of the economy, I wrote:

“People can howl all they want about how well the economy is doing. The simple truth is that millions of ordinary American workers are in an employment bind. Steady jobs with good benefits are going the way of Ozzie and Harriet. Young workers, especially, are hurting, which diminishes the prospects for the American family. And blacks, particularly black males, are in a deep danger zone.”

The official jobless rate is now more than twice as high — 9.4 percent — and even more wildly deceptive. It ticked down by 0.1 percent last month not because more people found jobs, but because 450,000 people withdrew from the labor market. They stopped looking, so they weren’t counted as unemployed.

A truer picture of the employment crisis emerges when you combine the number of people who are officially counted as jobless with those who are working part time because they can’t find full-time work and those in the so-called labor market reserve — people who are not actively looking for work (because they have become discouraged, for example) but would take a job if one became available.

The tally from those three categories is a mind-boggling 30 million Americans — 19 percent of the overall work force.

This is, by far, the nation’s biggest problem and should be its No. 1 priority.

Latin Leaders Ask Colombia to Clarify U.S. Accord

Latin Leaders Ask Colombia to Clarify U.S. Accord

By Helen Murphy and Matthe Walter

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Latin American presidents from Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela asked Colombia to clarify a plan to allow the U.S. military to use Colombian bases.

Speaking today at a meeting of the Union of South American Nations, known as UNASUR, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez said Colombia’s agreement with the U.S. posed a threat to the region’s stability. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa called any U.S. presence a “provocation,” while Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said the controversy should be resolved in talks.

“UNASUR could invite the U.S. government to a detailed discussion regarding its relations with South America,” Lula said at the meeting in Quito, Ecuador. “This will be resolved through a lot of conversation, much debate, the speaking of truths. People will have to hear things they don’t like.”

The union of 12 South American nations is trying to resolve growing diplomatic tension between Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, while seeking a solution in Honduras after the military helped oust President Manuel Zelaya from office on June 28.

South America faces “unacceptable belligerence,” Fernandez said today.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who declined to attend today’s session, traveled the region last week seeking to allay fears of leaders, including Lula and Fernandez, that the bases are a threat.

Ministers’ Meeting

Colombia’s Vice Foreign Minister Clemencia Forero said Defense Minister Gabriel Silva will attend a meeting of defense ministers from UNASUR countries later this month to discuss the plan, which would let the U.S. military operate from seven bases to help curb drug trafficking.

Argentina’s Fernandez proposed that South American heads of state meet in Buenos Aires after the defense ministers’ summit to further discuss the issue.

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro said that “Yankee forces could promote a dirty war like they did in Nicaragua, even using soldiers from other nationalities trained by them,” in comments posted on the state Web site Cubadebate.cu.

Ecuador last year notified the U.S. that it wouldn’t renew its 10-year military lease at the Manta Airfield. The leaders are also in Quito to attend Correa’s inauguration to a second four-year term.

“There have been none, nor will there be any foreign military bases in Colombia,” Forero said. “The bases continue to be Colombian, entirely under Colombian jurisdiction and sovereignty.”

‘Worrisome’

Uribe has said the U.S. troops and civilian contractors in the country won’t surpass 1,400, the current cap under Plan Colombia, the U.S. program that has provided $6 billion in mostly military aid to the country since 2000.

The Manta accord permitted 475 U.S. troops. The U.S. military also has agreements with Aruba, Curacao, El Salvador, Honduras and Peru, and occupies a base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“This is worrisome,” Chavez said at today’s UNASUR meeting. “Venezuela is preparing itself, because they have their sights on us. This could generate a war in South America.”

So far, regional leaders have been publicly silent on accusations from Colombia that Chavez has funded the biggest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and supplied them with weapons. The leaders also haven’t voiced concern, or sought an investigation, into whether the rebels helped fund Correa’s presidential campaign, as alleged by Colombia.

Ecuador broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia last year after Uribe ordered troops to bomb a guerrilla camp across the border, killing the FARC’s second in command and setting off a regional tensions that continues today.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said UNASUR won’t recognize the results of any elections in Honduras carried out by the de facto regime now in power. “The crisis in Honduras is the latest reminder that democracy in the region isn’t fully consolidated,” Bachelet said.

The leaders also discussed plans for testing a regional currency in October.

Guns OK Outside Obama Town Hall; Kerry Pins Brought Arrest At Bush Rally

Men with guns -- outside town hall

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Outside the event where President Obama will conduct his town hall, there is an anti-Obama protestor with a gun -- a pistol strapped to his lower leg.

The local police chief said it's legal for the man to have a registered handgun -- as long as it is not concealed. What's more, he is on private property, a church yard, which has given him permission to be there.

*** UPDATE *** More on the man with the gun... William Kostric is a married man in his mid 30S who works in sales. He says he moved here to New Hampshire from Arizona about a year ago, because it's a "live free or die" state -- and he thought Arizona was becoming too restrictive with its gun laws.

He's passing out a bookmark that says, "Join the Second Amendment Revolution, the most exciting pro-liberty movement in over 200 years."

He's a Ron Paul supporter, who opposes just about everything Obama, including health care reform.

The local police say he is within his rights to carry a handgun openly under state law. He was carrying a 9-mm Smith and Wesson strapped to his lower leg.

Police say he's OK on a public sidewalk. Kostric says he has permission from a church just down the street from the high school to be on its private property.

He says he was approached by a "detective," possibly a Secret Service Agent, who told him he could be arrested within 1,000 feet of a school with a weapon under a federal law. Kostric moved back to private property.

When Obama arrived, the police had Kostric under surveillance. A local police captain said the Secret Service has been "in the loop."

Kostric has been about 50 to 75 yards from the entrance to the high school, since about 11:00 am ET, doing interviews and carrying a sign and his gun and police have had their eye on him. But as long as he's been "cooperative," they have watched, but let him be.


Arrested Bush dissenters look to the courts


7/23/2006 7:29 AM ET
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When school was canceled to accommodate a campaign visit by President Bush, the two 55-year-old teachers reckoned the time was ripe to voice their simmering discontent with the administration's policies.

Christine Nelson showed up at the Cedar Rapids rally with a Kerry-Edwards button pinned on her T-shirt; Alice McCabe clutched a small, paper sign stating "No More War." What could be more American, they thought, than mixing a little dissent with the bunting and buzz of a get-out-the-vote rally headlined by the president?

Their reward: a pair of handcuffs and a strip search at the county jail.

Authorities say they were arrested because they refused to obey reasonable security restrictions, but the women disagree: "Because I had a dissenting opinion, they did what they needed to do to get me out of the way," said Nelson, who teaches history and government at one of this city's middle schools.

"I tell my students all the time about how people came to this country for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, that those rights and others are sacred. And all along I've been thinking to myself, 'not at least during this administration.'"

Their experience is hardly unique.

In the months before the 2004 election, dozens of people across the nation were banished from or arrested at Bush political rallies, some for heckling the president, others simply for holding signs or wearing clothing that expressed opposition to the war and administration policies.

Similar things have happened at official, taxpayer-funded, presidential visits, before and after the election. Some targeted by security have been escorted from events, while others have been arrested and charged with misdemeanors that were later dropped by local prosecutors.

Now, in federal courthouses from Charleston, W.Va., to Denver, federal officials and state and local authorities are being forced to defend themselves against lawsuits challenging the arrests and security policies.

While the circumstances differ, the cases share the same fundamental themes. Generally, they accuse federal officials of developing security measures to identify, segregate, deny entry or expel dissenters.

Jeff Rank and his wife, Nicole, filed a lawsuit after being handcuffed and booted from a July 4, 2004, appearance by the president at the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston. The Ranks, who now live in Corpus Christi, Texas, had free tickets to see the president speak, but contend they were arrested and charged with trespassing for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts.

"It's nothing more than an attempt by the president and his staff to suppress free speech," said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of West Virginia, which is providing legal services for the Ranks.

"What happened to the Ranks, and so many others across the country, was clearly an incident of viewpoint discrimination. And the lawsuit is an attempt to make the administration accountable for what we believe were illegal actions," Schneider said.

In Cedar Rapids, McCabe and Nelson are suing three unnamed Secret Service agents, the Iowa State Patrol and two county sheriff deputies who took part in their arrest. Nelson and McCabe, who now lives in Memphis, accuse law enforcement of violating their right to free speech, assembly and equal protection.

The two women say they were political novices, inexperienced at protest and unprepared for what happened on Sept. 3, 2004.

Soon after arriving at Noelridge Park, a sprawling urban playground dotted with softball diamonds and a public pool, McCabe and Nelson were approached by Secret Service agents in polo shirts and Bermuda shorts. They were told that the Republicans had rented the park and they would have to move because the sidewalk was now considered private property.

McCabe and Nelson say they complied, but moments later were again told to move, this time across the street. After being told to move a third time, Nelson asked why she was being singled out while so many others nearby, including those holding buckets for campaign donations, were ignored. In response, she says, they were arrested.

They were charged with criminal trespass, but the charges were later dropped.

A spokesman for the Secret Service declined to comment on pending litigation or answer questions on security policy for presidential events. White House spokesman Alex Conant also declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

But Justice Department lawyers, in documents filed recently in federal court in Cedar Rapids, outline security at the rally and defend the Secret Service agents' actions.

They contend the GOP obtained exclusive rights to use the park and that donation takers were ignored because they were an authorized part of the event. They also say McCabe and Nelson were disobedient, repeatedly refusing agents' orders to move.

"At no time did any political message expressed by the two women play any role in how (the agents) treated them," they wrote. "All individuals ... subject to security restrictions either complied with the security restrictions or were arrested for refusing to comply."

Defenders say stricter policies are a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a small price for ensuring the safety of a world leader in an era of heightened suspicion and uncertainty.

But Leslie Weise says law enforcers are violating citizens' rights to voice objections within earshot of the president.

Last year, in Denver, Weise and two friends were evicted from a Bush town hall meeting on Social Security reform.

Weise, a 40-year-old environmental lawyer who is now a stay-at-home mother, opposes the war in Iraq and the administration's energy policies. Like friends Alex Young and Karen Bauer, Weise did some volunteer work for the Kerry campaign.

In the days before Bush's March 2005 town hall meeting, the trio toyed briefly with the notion of actively protesting the visit. But they said they decided against it because they had heard of arrests at Bush appearances in North Dakota and Arizona.

After parking Weise's car, the three, dressed in professional attire and holding tickets obtained from their local congressman, arrived at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum. Young cleared security, but Weise and Bauer were briefly detained and told by staff they had been "identified" and would be arrested if they tried "any funny stuff," according to court records.

After finding their seats, they were approached again by staff and removed before Bush began speaking. Days later, Weise learned from Secret Service in Denver that a bumper sticker on her green Saab hatchback — "No More Blood for Oil" — caught the attention of security.

"I had every reason to attend that event, just as anyone else in the room had that day," said Weise. "If we raised security to a higher level just because we had an opinion different from the administration, I think that goes far beyond what is appropriate for this country."

Lawsuits by protesters are not always embraced by the courts. In Pennsylvania, a federal judge dismissed a suit challenging the arrests of six men who stripped down to thongs and formed a pyramid to protest the Abu Ghraib scandal when Bush paid a visit to Lancaster.

The judge ruled the authorities acted with probable cause and are entitled to qualified immunity, shielding them from liability. The ruling is on appeal.

Such efforts to segregate or diminish dissent are hardly new to American politics.

The ACLU has sued several presidents over attempts to silence opposition, as in 1997, when President Clinton tried to prevent protesters from lining his inaugural parade route. And during the tumultuous 1960s, it was not uncommon for hecklers and protesters to be whisked away or managed at a distance from rallies and events.

"In my mind, it all started with Nixon. He was the first presidential candidate to really make an effort to control their image and disrupt public interruption at events," said Cary Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

But political experts say the 2004 Bush campaign rewrote the playbook for organizing campaign rallies.

At the Republican National Convention in New York City and at other campaign stops, security segregated protesters in designated "free speech zones" set up at a significant distance from each rally. To get into events headlined by Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney, supporters were required to obtain tickets through GOP channels or sign loyalty oaths.

Political experts agree Bush 2004 went to greater lengths than Kerry officials — or any past campaign — to choreograph a seamless, partisan rally free of the embarrassing moments that attract media attention.

Gone are the days of candidates facing down hecklers or reacting to distractions like, the man who donned a chicken costume and pestered George H.W. Bush in 1991 after he balked at Bill Clinton's invitations to debate.

Anthony Corrado, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, said ticket-only events are an effective tool for rewarding legions of volunteers who work the phone banks, raise money and build support.

"In my view, the Republicans did a much better job of linking field volunteers with their schedule and events," Corrado said. "I had never seen it done to the extent it was on 2004 on the Republican side. And my guess is we'll probably see a lot more of it all."