Sunday, August 23, 2009

Texas judge on trial for refusing to hear death row inmate's appeal

Texas judge on trial for refusing to hear death row inmate’s appeal

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Judge Sharon Keller is currently on trial facing five counts of judicial misconduct in the state of Texas. Keller is the presiding judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and a well-known figure to opponents of capital punishment.

The charges faced by Keller in the current trial originate with events surrounding the 2007 execution of Michael Wayne Richard. On September 25, the day of Richard’s execution, his attorneys sought to file a last-minute appeal with Keller’s office. Computer troubles had delayed completion of an appeal, and they called Keller’s office to inform them of the problem and asked if the office would remain open to receive the appeal upon its completion.

Keller had left her office earlier in the day in order to meet a repairman who had been scheduled to arrive at her home. At approximately 4:45 p.m., she received a phone call from general counsel Ed Marty, who had been informed of the situation by the office, telling her of their request. She responded, “We close at five.” Richard was executed three hours later.

The level of contempt exhibited by Keller’s behavior, both for human life and the system of appeals over which she presides, is truly appalling. The very fact that Keller had chosen to leave her office early is itself troubling considering the US Supreme Court had, that very morning, consented to hear an argument on the constitutionality of lethal injection, making an appeal from Richard’s attorneys all but guaranteed.

Keller’s conduct has drawn protests from anti-death penalty advocates, who have dubbed the judge “Sharon Killer,” as well as her own colleagues in the Texas criminal justice system. Judge Cheryl Johnson testified at Keller’s trial this week, telling the court she believed Keller had violated procedure. Johnson was on call the night of Richard’s execution, meaning she was available to hear appeals from his attorneys if necessary, but maintains she was not informed by Keller or her office about any attempt to appeal until four days after the execution had taken place. “[I] would have told them they could file,” she told the courtroom, “It’s an execution. They might be valid pleadings. I have no other way of knowing.”

As Keller’s trial has proceeded, she has continually denied any wrongdoing. She told the court on Wednesday that, given the opportunity to do things over, she would not change anything. Telling the court that the “no” she gave Ed Marty by phone was ultimately of no consequence, Keller stated, “the clerk’s office closed at five, regardless of what I said.” This testimony ignores statute 658.005 of Texas Government Code, which gives administrators of state agencies, in this case Keller, authorization to keep their agency operating after closing hours if necessary.

If Keller is found guilty of misconduct, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct has the option to either censure the judge or remove her from the bench altogether.

The case of Michael Richard is yet another nightmare scenario in the long history of capital punishment in the United States, and in Texas in particular. The US has carried out 1,173 executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Texas has presided over 439 of these, making it the leading state in executions. At the time of his death in 2007, Michael Richard was the 405th prisoner to be executed in that state.

At least nine inmates with mental retardation have been executed in Texas, all of them since 1990. No less than 13 inmates have been executed in Texas for crimes committed when they were juveniles. The capital punishment system in Texas, to say nothing of the system as a whole, has been shown time and again to be used disproportionately against African-American and Latino offenders. Victims of the death penalty are overwhelmingly poor and working class. Foreign nationals are routinely denied their consular rights and sent to their deaths.

For many, Sharon Keller has come to personify the ugliness of this barbaric practice, a practice defended by both Republicans and Democrats, including President Barack Obama.

US workplace suicides up by 28 percent

US workplace suicides up by 28 percent

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The number of workplace suicides reported in 2008 rose by 28 percent over the previous year, according to figures released Thursday by the US Labor Department.

There were 251 reported workplace suicides in 2008, up from 196 in 2007. Protective service workers, including police and firefighters, registered the highest increase in workplace suicides, with the figure rising from 14 to 25.

Overall workplace fatalities fell by 10 percent in 2008, according to the figures, in part because fewer people are working. The largest decrease in fatalities came from the construction sector, which contracted sharply after the housing bubble collapsed. Private-sector construction laborer deaths fell by 31 percent, but construction retained its status as the deadliest sector, with 969 reported fatalities.

A total of 5,071 workplace fatalities were reported last year, a decrease from 5,657 in 2007. The reported figures were preliminary and subject to revision, but this is the smallest total number of fatalities since the Labor Department began keeping records in 1992.

While “economic factors likely played a role” in reducing overall fatalities, the Labor Department noted that much of the drop-off may be attributable to underreporting due to state budget crises. The department noted that additional reports usually come in late, but since more than half of states are facing fiscal crises and cutting spending wherever they can, more late reports are expected than in previous years.

Workplace fatalities fell among white workers by 8 percent, 16 percent for blacks, and 18 percent for Hispanics. Bill Kojola, an industrial hygienist, told Bloomberg.com that the latter two groups are “the most vulnerable people in this economy.” These groups on average receive lower wages, have higher workplace injury rates, and are “highly likely unemployed” because of an economic downturn.

About 2.6 million jobs were eliminated in 2008, as the unemployment rate climbed from from 4.9 to 7.2 percent in 12 months. Even more dropped out of the workforce because they couldn’t find jobs, or were forced to work part-time involuntarily. Some 6.7 million jobs have been destroyed since the recession started in December 2007.

Gary Chaison, a labor relations professor at Clark University, told the Associated Press that deteriorating economic conditions were likely related to the upsurge in suicides.

“Those who are at places where there have been substantial layoffs are trying to cope with survivor’s guilt,” Chaison said. “I also think there’s tremendous anxiety in the American workplace. It’s not just being anxious, it’s being depressed.”

With some areas registering more than 25 percent unemployment, the pressure of keeping a job in the midst of hopeless economic prospects inevitably takes its toll.

With employers cutting back hours in addition to perpetuating layoffs, many of those who remain at work are forced to show up day in and day out while their houses slip into foreclosure and creditors keep calling. Many workers have been forced to take involuntary furloughs, with some expected to show up to work without pay.

The US suicide rate rose by 5 percent from 1999 to 2005, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There were 33,185 total suicides in the United States in 2007, according the the Centers for Disease control, but figures for 2008 are not yet available.

“There is a correlation between suicide and unemployment rates,” Dr. Paula Clayton, medical director at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Bloomberg.com. She said that the number of calls to suicide hotlines have increased in the recent period.

These figures make clear the devastating impact of the economic crisis on workers. While the unemployment rate fell slightly last month for the first time since the recession began, it is expected to reach 10 percent by the end of the year, and remain much higher than its previous rate for years to come. Credit card defaults and foreclosures are near record rates, while workers’ incomes are falling and social services are being cut back.

Competition Lacking Among Private Health Insurers

Competition lacking among private health insurers

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One of the most widely accepted arguments against a government medical plan for the middle class is that it would quash competition — just what private insurers seem to be doing themselves in many parts of the U.S.

Several studies show that in lots of places, one or two companies dominate the market. Critics say monopolistic conditions drive up premiums paid by employers and individuals.

For Democrats, the answer is a public plan that would compete with private insurers. Republicans see that as a government power grab. President Barack Obama looks to be trapped in the middle of an argument that could sink his effort to overhaul the health care system.

Even lawmakers opposed to a government plan have problems with the growing clout of the big private companies.

"There is a serious problem with the lack of competition among insurers," said Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the highest-cost states. "The impact on the consumer is significant."

Wellpoint Inc. accounted for 71 percent of the Maine market, while runner-up Aetna had a 12 percent share, according to a 2008 report by the American Medical Association.

Proponents of a government plan say it could restore a competitive balance and lead to lower costs. For one thing, it wouldn't have to turn a profit.

A study by the Urban Institute public policy center estimated that a public plan could save taxpayers from $224 billion to $400 billion over 10 years by lowering the cost of proposed subsidies for the uninsured, while preserving private coverage for most people.

"Right now, there's no incentive for insurers or big hospital groups to negotiate with each other, because they can pass higher payments on through premiums," said economist Linda Blumberg, co-author of the report. "A public plan would have the leverage to set lower payment rates and get providers to participate at those rates."

"The private plans would come back to the providers and say, 'If you don't negotiate with me, you're going to be left with only the public plan.'" Blumberg continued. "Suddenly, you have a very strong economic incentive for them to negotiate."

Insurers contend their industry is extremely competitive, and a public plan is unnecessary. About 1,300 carriers operate across the country, although many only have a small share of the market in their states.

"You can have a very competitive market and still have companies with a high market share," said Alissa Fox, a top Washington lobbyist for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

Fox points to the federal employee health program, which also covers members of Congress. It offers a total of more than 260 options and 10 nationwide plans. Despite all the choices, about 60 percent of federal workers pick a Blue Cross plan.

"Insurers need to be of a significant size to best serve their customers and make sure that people get the best value," Fox said.

Nonetheless, lawmakers are concerned. Big insurers are getting bigger. Small businesses in particular have fewer and fewer options for getting coverage.

Congressional investigators this year looked at insurers catering to small employers around the country. The Government Accountability Office found that the median _or midpoint — market share of the largest carrier increased to 47 percent in 2008 from 33 percent in 2002.

There's widespread recognition among lawmakers that a health care overhaul should foster more competition among insurers. The debate is over how far to go.

The basic framework lawmakers are looking at would encourage competition, even without a government plan. It calls for setting up a big insurance purchasing pool called an exchange. It would be open, at least initially, to individuals and small businesses. The government would offer subsidies to make premiums more affordable.

Consumers would find it much easier to shop for a plan through the exchange. For one thing, they would be able to readily compare benefits and premiums in different plans. Also, participating insurers would have to take all applicants and not charge higher premiums to those in poor health.

Offering the option of a public plan would supercharge the competition, supporters say.

Blumberg envisions a plan that pays medical providers more than Medicare, but less than private insurance. Her study estimated it could grow to 47 million members, leaving 161 million with private insurance. Even so, that would make the new public plan one of the largest insurers in the country, rivaling Medicare, Medicaid and big private companies such as Wellpoint and UnitedHealthcare.

It's a scenario that gives pause even to traditional adversaries of the insurance companies.

"The fear and concern is that the public plan could become the market-dominant plan," said Dr. James Rohack, president of the American Medical Association. "When you've got the federal government involved, it can infuse money into a plan to keep it solvent even if the premiums are lower than its actual costs."

Snowe, among the few Republican senators still trying to come up with a bipartisan compromise, wants to hold back on creating a public plan for now and give insurers one last chance to show if they can keep costs in check.

That's doesn't go far enough for liberals, who are loath to give the insurance industry tens of millions of new customers supported by taxpayer subsidies.

"It would give the industry a windfall without any countervailing force to require them to lower their costs," said Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for the advocacy group Health Care for America Now. "The insurance companies could continue to jack up premiums while getting a whole new market."

Dying for Affordable Health Care - the Uninsured Speak

Dying for affordable healthcare — the uninsured speak

In a week of claim and counter-claim about the merits of healthcare provision in the US and UK, Ed Pilkington travelled to Quindaro, Kansas, to see how the poorest survive

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In the furious debate gripping America over the future of its health system, one voice has been lost amid the shouting. It is that of a distinguished gynaecologist, aged 67, called Dr Joseph Manley.

For 35 years Manley had a thriving health clinic in Kansas. He lived in the most affluent neighbourhood of Kansas City and treated himself to a new Porsche every year. But this is not a story about doctors' remuneration and their lavish lifestyles.

In the late 1980s he began to have trouble with his own health. He had involuntary muscle movements and difficulty swallowing. Fellow doctors failed to diagnose him, some guessing wrongly that he had post-traumatic stress from having served in the airforce in Vietnam.

Eventually his lack of motor control interfered with his work to the degree that he was forced to give up his practice. He fell instantly into a catch 22 that he had earlier seen entrap many of his own patients: no work, no health insurance, no treatment.

He remained uninsured and largely untreated for his progressively severe condition for the following 11 years. Blood tests that could have diagnosed him correctly were not done because he couldn't afford the $200. Having lost his practice, he lost his mansion on the hill and now lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the suburbs. His Porsches have made way for bangers. Many times this erstwhile pillar of the medical establishment had to go without food in order to pay for basic medicines. In 2000 Manley finally found the help he needed, at a clinic in Kansas City that acts as a rare safety net for uninsured people. He was swiftly diagnosed with Huntington's disease, a degenerative genetic illness, and now receives regular medical attention through the clinic.

So how does he feel about the way the debate in the US has come to be dominated by Republican-inspired attacks on Britain's NHS and other "socialised" health services which give people the treatment they need even if they cannot afford to pay for it?

"I find that repulsive and an absolutely bone-headed way to go," he says. "When I started out practising I certainly didn't expect this would happen. I thought the system would take care of everybody."

Over the last month President Obama's attempts to live up to his election promise to extend healthcare to all Americans has stalled in the face of a sustained rightwing guerrilla attack. Opponents of Obama's reforms have succeeded in distracting attention from Manley and the 46 million other medically uninsured, swinging the focus instead on to the "evils" of publicly funded healthcare. The fear tactics were epitomised by Sarah Palin's wholly inaccurate claim that the reforms would set up "death panels" that would force euthanasia on to older people.

Such scaremongering has dismayed and infuriated Sharon Lee, the doctor who now treats Manley in Kansas City. "I'm very angry, very angry," she says. "Many of the people I treat have already been in front of a death panel and have lost – a death panel controlled by insurance companies. I see people dying at least monthly because we have been unable to get them what they needed."

Lee's clinic, Family Health Care, is a refuge of last resort. It picks up the pieces of lives left shattered by a health system that has failed them, and tries to glue them back together. It exists largely outside the parameters of formal health provision, raising funds through donations and paying all its 50 staff – Lee included – a flat rate of just $12 an hour.

Poverty line

Lee has just opened an outpost of her clinic in the outlying neighbourhood of Quindaro, an area of boarded-up houses and deserted factories where work is hard to find and crack plentiful and a per capita income is $11,025. A third of the population is below the federally defined poverty line.

And yet the local health department has decided the only health centre in the area will be closed by the end of this year and moved 30 blocks west to a much more prosperous part of the city where income levels are five times higher. Before long, one of the poorest areas of Kansas – of America – will be left without a single doctor, with only Lee's voluntary services to fall back on.

Even that is academic. Many of the residents of Quindaro were unable to see a doctor in any case – because they were uninsured. In Kansas, anyone who is able-bodied but unemployed is not eligible for government-backed health insurance as is anyone earning more than 39% of federal poverty levels. That leaves a huge army of jobless and low-income working families who are left in limbo. "It's the working poor who are most at disadvantage," Lee says.

As a result, she sees the same pattern repeating itself over and over. People with no insurance avoid seeking medical help for fear of the bills that follow, until it is too late. "When people come in they are already very, very sick. They have avoided seeing the doctor thinking that something may clear up, hoping they may be getting better."

Beth Gabaree, who came in to see Lee for the first time this morning, has experiences that sound extreme but are in fact quite typical. She has diabetes and a heart condition. Until two years ago they were controlled through ongoing treatment paid for by her husband's work-based health insurance. But he was in a motorbike crash that pulverised his right leg and put him out of work.

That Catch 22 again: no work, no insurance, no treatment. Except in this case it was Beth who went without treatment, in order to put her husband's dire needs first. He receives ongoing specialist care that costs them $500 a go, leaving nothing for her. So she stopped seeing a doctor, and effectively began self-medicating. She cut down from two different insulin drugs to regulate her diabetes to one, and restricted her heart drugs. "I do what I think I need to do to keep four steps out of hospital. I know that's not the right thing, but I can't justify seeing the doctor when my family's already in money trouble."

The problem is that she hasn't kept herself four steps out of hospital. Her health deteriorated and earlier this year she became bedridden. Even then, it took her family several days to persuade her to go to the emergency room because she didn't want to incur the hospital costs. "It was hard enough without that," she says.

After an initial consultation, Lee has now booked Gabaree for a new round of tests for her diabetes and is arranging for free medication. "It's wonderful," Gabaree says. "I'm so blessed. I didn't know you could get this sort of help."

That she sees basic healthcare as a blessing, not as a right, speaks volumes about attitudes among the mass of the working poor. Also revealing is the fact that Gabaree has absolutely no idea about the debate raging across America. She hasn't even heard of Obama's push for health reform, nor the Republican efforts to prevent it. "I don't watch much television," she says.

That provides Palin et al with a massive advantage: the 46 million people who would most benefit from Obama's plans are also among the least educated and informed, and thus the least able to make political waves. All of which leaves Lee fearful about the prospects for change. She has, after all, been here before – in 1993 when Hillary Clinton's pitch to overhaul the health system foundered. That attempt ended up doing more harm than good from Lee's perspective. Many of her most important donors stopped funding the centre because they assumed that the White House was fixing the problems. After the Clinton reforms crashed, brought down by the same rightwing assault that Obama is now enduring, it took many months for the centre's funds to regain their pre-1993 levels.

Recession

Lee fears history could be repeating itself. This time round there is the recession more unemployed equals more uninsured people who come knocking on the door of Family Health Care. Last year Lee and one other doctor between them dealt with 14,000 visits, and the numbers are rising daily. All of which leaves Lee part despairing, part determined to fight even harder for the bare minimum of human dignity. The frustration is that every day she must beg and plead with other health providers for simple treatments for her patients. "It drives me crazy with frustration," she says.

She rattles off a litany of horror stories. There was the man who walked into the clinic with a brain tumour. It took Lee three months to get him an MRI scan and another two to get an appointment with a neurosurgeon. Or the patient whose nerves in his neck were pushed against his spinal cord so that he lost use of both arms; by the time Lee found a way of getting him an MRI he was so sick he had to be operated on immediately. Or the woman who had such heavy periods she would wind up in ER every three months requiring a blood transfusion. What she really needed was a hysterectomy. "It took us almost a year to beg hospitals until she finally did get a hysterectomy," Lee says.

These are the stories, the broken lives, that have been obscured by the fury generated by the Republican rump. Unless Obama finds a way to regain the political initiative, to remind Americans that only nine months ago they voted overwhelmingly for change, then the future of millions appears bleak.

"Here's what I'd like to ask Palin," Lee says. "People without health insurance are dying, here in America, right now. So I'd like to ask her: how does that fit into your vision of good and evil, Sarah Palin?"

Obama's plan: health of the nation

What is Obama trying to do?

The goal is to increase access to healthcare by regulating costs. His plan would guarantee all citizens eligibility for care, but the government is not proposing a "single-payer system", like the NHS. Instead, private health insurers would continue to operate under new rules that would lower premiums and remove loopholes that allow them to avoid paying for treatment when it is most needed. Per person, healthcare costs are higher in the US than in any other country, and have been rising faster than the level of inflation. The quality of care is less of an issue — although citizens with solid insurance may be frustrated by the paperwork and costs associated with the current system, they have fewer complaints about their doctors and hospitals.

Who's opposing Obama's plan?

Those who fear the government would introduce congressional "death panels" to make end-of-life decisions for the elderly. The insurance industry is worried about their bottom lines. Members of Congress and voters on the left and right are concerned about the future tax burden. Many Americans also object to any increase in government involvement in their personal lives.

How can healthcare costs get so out of hand?

Many insurance plans do not cover "pre-existing conditions", so it can be difficult for people who have a chronic ailment to secure cover. Loopholes allow insurers to refuse reimbursement even if the policyholder did not know they had a particular condition when they took out insurance. "Lifetime caps" allow insurers to set a maximum amount of cover.

Who are the uninsured?

Up to 46 million Americans are uninsured, because they are unemployed, or their employer does not provide cover, or because they do not qualify for existing government-funded healthcare. People 65 and older can qualify for Medicare, the poor can qualify for Medicaid, veterans and members of the military can qualify for Veterans Health Administration and Tricare and children can be covered under a programme called SCHIP. Those overlooked by the system include the young just entering the workforce, the self-employed, the unemployed and people who work for small businesses.

Showdown with Russia and China: US Advances First Strike Global Missile Shield System

Showdown with Russia and China: U.S. Advances First Strike Global Missile Shield System

On August 13th the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and Chicago-based Boeing International announced a test of their joint Airborne Laser (ABL) missile defense system, which "successfully tracked and hit the mark earlier this month during its first in-flight test against an instrumented target missile." [1]

Employing a modified Boeing 747-400F prototype airplane, on August 10 the Missile Defense Agency had the adapted commercial airliner use infrared sensors against a missile launched from San Nicolas Island, California and "found, tracked, engaged and simulated an intercept with a missile seconds after liftoff. It was the first time the Agency used an 'instrumented' missile to confirm the laser works as expected. Next up this fall will be the first live attempt to bring down a ballistic missile...." [2]

A newspaper from Alabama, the state where the MDA headquarters is based, mentioned that "The news came today [August 13], just a few days before the 12th annual Space and Missile Defense Conference opens next week in Huntsville." [3]

The Wall Street Journal waxed enthusiastic about the advanced missile interceptor test, stating that "Along with space-based weapons, the Airborne Laser is the next defense frontier. The modified Boeing 747 is supposed to send an intense beam of light over hundreds of miles to destroy missiles in the 'boost phase,' before they can release decoys and at a point in their trajectory when they would fall back down on enemy territory....The laser complements the sea- and ground-based missile defenses that keep proving themselves in tests.

"Never has Ronald Reagan's dream of layered missile defenses - Star Wars, for short - been as....close, at least technologically, to becoming realized." [4]

The Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet was launched as a civilian airliner in 1970 and versions of the plane are in use throughout the world, especially in the Middle East. There is no technical reason why 747 commercial airliners cannot be similarly configured to carry Airborne Laser weapons and track and destroy ballistic missiles while camouflaged as strictly civilian passenger planes.

The MDA has revealed that it plans to upgrade Airborne Laser weapons for use against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) during their boost phase, thereby giving them a strategic character.

As an increasingly vital component of U.S. and allied worldwide, integrated missile interceptor systems, which as will be seen may advance to more than intercepting other nation's missiles and be capable of destroying them in their silos and launching pads before being fired, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said of its latest Airborne Laser operation that "this test marks the third successful ABL missile engagement in just over two months and the first time laser performance data was collected at the target missile. Plans call for ABL to engage progressively more difficult targets in coming months, culminating with a lethal demonstration against a boosting threat-representative ballistic missile target later this year." [5]

The ABL is slated to play a progressively more important role in an expanding network of international 21st Century Star Wars and space war projects and deployments which includes short- to medium-range, theater missile defense of the Patriot variety, with the latter recently upgraded to the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) Missile.

Last October the German Air Force conducted a PAC-3 Missile test at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and a news report at the time contained this description of the low-end range of U.S. and allied nations' layered interceptor missile plans: "The Patriot air defence system is a long-range, high to medium altitude missile system and Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on the PAC-3 Missile Segment upgrade. The PAC-3 Missile will increase the Patriot’s firepower from an output of four to 16." [6]

This February U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed Washington's plans to deploy a Patriot missile battery in Poland, not far from Russia's Kaliningrad enclave, with a garrison of at least 100 troops to man it in addition to plans to base 10 interceptor missiles in the country.

On August 17 Japan announced that it was going to station American Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air interceptor missiles at all six of its anti-aircraft facilities. Patriots were deployed to Israel on the eve of the Operation Desert Storm war against Iraq in 1991 and again, with NATO invoking its Article 5 military assistance provision, to Turkey in 2003 before the Operation Iraqi Freedom invasion. They are intended to prevent retaliation against aggressive military operations.

The global and more than global - exoatmospheric, space - system also includes Ground Based Interceptor (GBI), Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD), Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), Aegis combat system (destroyers carrying interceptor radar and missiles) and Forward Based X-Band Radars (FBXB) components.

Disarmament advocates and top Russian officials alike have warned for years that the missile interceptor and related space war programs are not, as claimed by the Pentagon and its military allies in Europe and the Asia Pacific, aimed at so-called rogue states but have a far more dangerous purpose.

In June Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao announced that their two nations were drafting a joint treaty to ban the deployment of weapons in outer space and to present it to the United Nations General Assembly.

Regarding the true intent of missile interceptor plans both on earth and in space, a recent news item detailed that "The White House says the plan is aimed at countering what it terms as 'threats' from countries such as Iran, which has no existing or planned missiles which can reach the US. The Kremlin, meanwhile, believes that the real aim of the system is to neutralize Russia's nuclear deterrent and therefore sees it as a threat to Russia's national security." [7]

An influential Russian news source stated: "[T]he strategic importance of these interceptor missiles would increase were the U.S. to deliver a
first nuclear strike against Russia.

"In this scenario, interceptor missiles would have to take on the limited number of missiles surviving the first strike, which would allow the U.S. to hope for success and, for the first time since the 1950s, for a victory in a nuclear war." [8]

Lest this perspective be seen as a uniquely Russia concern, in the March/April 2006 edition of Foreign Affairs, a publication of the American Council on Foreign Relations, authors Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press contributed a study called "The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy" which stated, inter alia, that "It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike.

"The U.S. Air Force has finished equipping its B-52 bombers with nuclear-armed cruise missiles, which are probably invisible to Russian and Chinese air-defense radar. And the air force has also enhanced the avionics on its B-2 stealth bombers to permit them to fly at extremely low altitudes in order to avoid even the most sophisticated radar." [9]

Deploying short-, medium- and long-range interceptor missile batteries, sophisticated and mobile missile radar stations, long-range super-stealth nuclear bombers, Aegis-class destroyers equipped to sail the world's seas to hunt down and neutralize conventional and nuclear missiles, and surveillance satellites and weapons in space is hardly designed to target non-existent intercontinental ballistic missile threats from Iran or Syria, or even from North Korea, but to blackmail Russia and China and prepare the groundwork for surviving and "triumphing" in a first strike nuclear war.

On August 11 the commander of the Russian Air Force, Col. Gen. Alexander Zelin, warned that "By 2030...foreign countries, particularly the United States, will be able to deliver coordinated high-precision strikes from air and space against any target on the whole territory of Russia," adding "That is why the main goal of the development of the Russian Air Force until 2020 is to create a new branch of the Armed Forces, which would form the core of the country's air and space defenses to provide a reliable deterrent during peacetime, and repel any military aggression with the use of conventional and nuclear arsenals in a time of war" [10] and "We are building new missiles that will be capable of defending not only against air-defense systems but space-based systems." [11]

The following day Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament in Geneva "Outer space is now facing the looming danger of weaponization. Credible and effective multilateral measures must be taken to forestall the weaponization and arms race in outer space."

Yang demanded that "Countries should neither develop missile defense systems that undermine global strategic stability nor deploy weapons in outer space." [12]

The Western news report in which the quotes appeared added "China and Russia have been vocal advocates of a global treaty against space-based weapons and argue for this to be included in future Conference of Disarmament negotiations," but that "United States has dismissed the criticism as designed to block its plans for a missile interceptor system...." [13]

Undeterred by Chinese and Russian concerns, the U. S. is forging ahead with expanding its Star Wars and space wars dyad in both depth and breadth.

Two days ago the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency commenced its 12th annual Space and Missile Defense Conference in Huntsville, Alabama where its headquarters is situated, and which includes a new Von Braun Center named after the father of Nazi Germany's missile project and one of the creators of the US ICBM program who with several German colleagues was sent to Huntsville in 1950 (Operation Paperclip) to work on the first live nuclear ballistic missile tests conducted by the Pentagon.

This year the Von Braun Center hosts over 2,000 participants and 230 exhibitors and speakers including Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., Army Lt. Gen. Kevin Campbell, commanding general of the Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, and Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly.

"The conference also includes receptions and special events sponsored by a number of the exhibitors, which include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman...." [14]

As was seen earlier, the Pentagon's most advanced Airborne Laser missile interception test to date was conducted in advance of the conference.

The MDA is also accelerating the pace of full spectrum air, sea, land, cyber and space missile shield developments in addition to laser weapons.

On August 1 it announced it had completed a successful sea-based missile interception from Hawaii. A ballistic missile was fired from the island of Kauai and "shot down by a three-stage interceptor missile from the USS Hopper." [15]

A report that appeared before the interception quoted the MDA as saying that "The test, conducted by the Navy and the Department of Defense's Missile Defense Agency, will mark the 23rd firing by ships equipped with the Aegis ballistic missile defense system. There have been 18 successes, including the shooting down of a dead U.S. spy satellite from space last year.

"While the Hopper fires and guides an SM-3 Block IA missile to intercept the target missile in the upper atmosphere, the USS O'Kane will simulate engagement and the USS Lake Erie will detect and track the target...." [16]

"USS Lake Erie's recently installed Aegis upgrade will enable it to engage increasingly longer range, more sophisticated ballistic missiles, according to the Missile Defense Agency." [17]

The disabled satellite mentioned above, the USA-193 spy satellite, was shot down in space in February of 2008 by the same USS Lake Erie, an Aegis-class Guided Missile Cruiser, that participated in the above-described test.

At the time of the satellite's destruction China registered a complaint and "Russia's Defense Ministry said the U.S. plan could be used as a cover to test a new space weapon." [18]

In fact Russian State Duma deputy Andrei Kokoshin, former Secretary of the Russian Security Council, said at the time that "The US-193 spy satellite shooting by a U.S. missile may result in a new stage in space
militarization."

"[T]he satellite was shot down as an act of political demonstration of America's capacities and confirmation of the American 'free hand' policy of the use of force in outer-space and the development of anti-satellite weaponry." [19]

Last month the Pentagon announced plans to integrate its latest generation drone, the Reaper - "one of several projects aimed at monitoring enemy missiles just after launch" [20] - into the global missile shield system.

In the words of a Defense Department official, "It gives you a great capability from hundreds and hundreds of kilometers away to be able to view a missile launch and actually track it and provide data to our shooters to intercept."

According to the new head of the Missile Defense Agency, Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, "By studying the missile in its early stage of flight, the drones could provide data that would allow the incoming weapon to be destroyed." [21]

Also in July it was reported in a news story called "Tomahawk Being Re-tooled as Ship-killer" that "Raytheon Missile Systems wants to turn its land-attack Tomahawk missile into a ship killer that can do something never done before: Hit a cruising warship from a thousand miles away," with one of the intended targets being China.

"The Chinese...began producing a lot of mobile ballistic missile launchers about a decade ago....[T]hese tactical missiles are deployed in bunkers close enough to the coast to be destroyed by a longer-range, more powerful Tomahawk. U.S. Navy missile that cruises hundreds of miles over land to blow up buildings is being redesigned in Tucson to chase down moving targets." [22]

On July 22 Israel tested its Arrow II interceptor missile, jointly developed with the U.S., off the coast of California and "In a test involving three U.S. missile interceptors, Arrow tracked a target missile dropped from a C-17 aircraft." [23]

The various stages of the layered interceptor missile system depend upon radar and surveillance facilities and satellites on earth and in space. Missile shield deployments - missiles and radar - already exist in Alaska and its Aleutian Islands, Greenland, Britain, Norway, Japan, South Korea and Australia and are planned for Poland (missiles) and the Czech republic (radar).

But those sites only represent the beginning phases of a far most ambitious grid around the world as well as in space.

Last September the U.S. Senate allocated $89 million for "the activation and deployment of the AN/TPY-2 forward-based X-band radar [the same type to be deployed in the Czech Republic] to a classified location."

A Russian news source commented on this move:

"The 'classified location' is not a complete secret.

"Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, [then] director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), has said more than once that Turkey, Georgia and even Ukraine could be future locations for ballistic missile defense systems.

"[T]he Pentagon will most likely choose Turkey or, some Western analysts say, Israel or Japan.

"Russia has told Washington more than once that no fence of antimissiles near its border would save the United States from a retaliatory strike by missiles capable of evading ABM as well as by air and naval systems." [24]

Washington has in fact chosen all of the above-named nations and others as well.

Last March Pentagon chief Robert Gates visited Turkey to hold consultations on missile shield plans. A Turkish report on the meeting stated "A powerful, 'forward based' X-band radar station could go in southeastern Europe, possibly in Turkey, the Caucasus or the Caspian Sea region, Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, head of Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, told a defense conference in Washington on Feb. 12." [25]

Two months later it was revealed that "the United States may deploy a high-frequency X-band radar in Georgia." [26]

In 2008 the U.S. also substantially boosted its interceptor plans for Japan and it was announced that "Japan and the United States are erecting the world's most complex ballistic missile defense shield, a project that is changing the security balance in Asia and has deep implications for Washington's efforts to pursue a similar strategy in Europe...." [27]

The Pentagon and the Japanese military are working on an early warning system "of the kind provided by the Joint Tactical Ground Station, or JTAG [which the U.S. also operates in Germany, Qatar and South Korea], and another state-of-the-art X-band radar station recently deployed" to Japan. [28]

The preceding month, December of 2007, Japan became the first nation after the U.S. to shoot a missile out of the air with an Aegis-linked Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) in a test off Hawaii.

In June of 2008 the U.S. Strategic Command completed a study on the deployment of Forward-Based X-band Radars.

A U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command spokesman said of the study that it would “coordinate and recommend to [Office of the Secretary of Defense-policy] a strategy for AN/TPY-2 radar employment, supporting worldwide ballistic missile defense capabilities in the period 2008-2012.” [29]

In 2006 the U.S. deployed Forward-Based X-band [FBX] radar to a Japanese Air Self-Defense Force base northeast of Tokyo and as of last year additionally planned to "deploy an FBX radar to Europe" and Juneau, Alaska and is "working to integrate tracks from the FBX radar into the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system...."

"All Ballistic Missile Defense System radars - including the upgraded early warning radars at Beale Air Force Base, CA, Fylingdales Royal Air Base in the United Kingdom, Thule Air Base in Greenland and the Cobra Dane radars in Alaska - the Sea-Based X-band radar, and all AN/TPY-2 radars (both forward-based and THAAD Fire Units) will now be managed under one program office." [30]

The Pentagon is also still planning to modify its X-band radar on the
Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific and relocate it to the Czech Republic in conjunction with the deployment of ten interceptor missiles in Poland.

An Israeli daily newspaper recently reported that the U.S. and the Israeli Defense Forces will hold a joint missile defense exercise in October, Juniper Cobra, "during which the American-made Aegis and THAAD defense systems will deploy in Israel for the first time." [31]

Earlier exercises were held at the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

"Israel received the advanced X-Band radar in October as a farewell gift from the Bush administration to beef up Israeli defenses....The radar is deployed in southern Israel near the Nevatim Air Force Base and is reportedly capable of tracking small targets from thousands of kilometers away." [32]

Thousands of kilometers away means surveillance of not only Syria and Iran but a large swathe of southern Russia.

This January the U.S. Air Force established a provisional Global Strike Command which was fully activated on August 7. It has subsumed the Air Combat Command and the Air Force Space Command and in the words of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz it will "organize, train and equip America's ICBMs and nuclear-capable bombers...."

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said the new command will "bring together the Air Force bomber force and intercontinental ballistic missiles under a single commander." [33]

Reacting to this consolidation, streamlining and upgrading of American global nuclear strike potential, on August 11 the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force, the same Alexander Zelin cited earlier on the threat of U.S. strikes from space on all of his nation, said that the "Russian Air Force is preparing to meet the threats resulting from the creation of the Global Strike Command in the U.S. Air Force" and that Russia is developing "appropriate systems to meet the threats that may arise." [34]

A change in the American White House, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s and the mounting costs in both dollars and lives of the war in Afghanistan have not slowed down the U.S.'s plans for military domination of the planet and in outer space; nor have they lessened the threat of an unprecedented catastrophe resulting from the designs by the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia to establish an impenetrable international missile shield that would leave two of the world's nuclear powers, Russia and China, targets for coercion and first strike conventional and nuclear attacks.

Notes

1) Alabama.com, August 13, 2009
2) Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2009
3) Alabama.com, August 13, 2009
4) Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2009
5) Ibid
6) The Engineer (Britain), October 17, 2008
7) Press TV, August 15, 2009
8) Russian Information Agency Novosti, November 10, 2008
9) Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006
10) Russian Information Agency Novosti, August 11, 2009
11) Agence France-Presse, August 11, 2009
12) Associated Press, August 12, 2009
13) Ibid
14) Huntsville Times, August 17, 2009
15) Associated Press, July 30, 2009
16) Ibid
17) Honolulu Advertiser, July 29, 2009
18) Reuters, February 17, 2008
19) Interfax, February 21, 2008
20) Global Security Network, July 17, 2009
21) Ibid
22) Arizona Daily Star, July 17, 2009
23) Reuters, July 22, 2009
24) Russian Information Agency Novosti, September 12, 2008
25) Turkish Daily News, March 12, 2008
26) Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 14, 2008
27) Associated Press, January 28, 2008
28) Ibid
29) Inside Defense, June 18, 2008
30) Ibid
31) Jerusalem Post, July 23, 2009
32) Ibid
33) U.S. Department of Defense, American Forces Press Service,
August 7, 2009
34) Interfax-Military, August 11, 2009

US military disclosing list of secret prisoners

US military disclosing list of secret detainees

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The Pentagon plans to give the Red Cross access to a list of terror suspects held in secret prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, US military officials say.

In another shift of policy made by the US President Barack Obama, the Pentagon will give the Red Cross access to dozens of suspected terrorists and militants held in what it calls the Special Operations camps, The New York Times reported on Saturday, citing three unidentified military officials.

Besides the ominous Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba, the US military continues to hold detainees in the Special Operations camps, in Iraq's Balad, and Afghanistan's Bagram bases.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) voiced concern over the US military's refusal to provide the names and nationalities of about 600 detainees held at the Bagram base, just north of Kabul.

The military had been insisting that disclosing such details would jeopardize counter-terrorism missions.

The Red Cross has been given access to most of the US military's overseas prisons and battlefield detention sites except for the Special Operations camps.

A Spokesman for the Department of Defense, Bryan Whitman, on Saturday declined to comment on the secret Special Operations camps. "There are no hidden or unaccounted for detainees held by the department," he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

"We make every effort to register detainees with the ICRC as soon as practicable after capture ... and that normally occurs within a two-week time," Whitman said.

Lebanese man is target of first rendition under Obama

Lebanese man is target of first rendition under Obama

Contractor Raymond Azar is arrested in Afghanistan, hooded, stripped and flown to the U.S. His alleged crime? Bribery. A human rights activist calls the case 'bizarre.'

By Bob Drogin

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A Lebanese citizen being held in a detention center here was hooded, stripped naked for photographs and bundled onto an executive jet by FBI agents in Afghanistan in April, making him the first known target of a rendition during the Obama administration.

Unlike terrorism suspects who were secretly snatched by the CIA and harshly interrogated and imprisoned overseas during the George W. Bush administration, Raymond Azar was flown to this Washington suburb for a case involving inflated invoices.

Azar, 45, pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy to commit bribery, the only charge against him. He faces a maximum of five years in prison, but a sentence of 2 1/2 years or less is likely under federal guidelines.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors declined to comment on the case Friday.

But Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counter-terrorism director at Human Rights Watch, called the case "bizarre."

"He was treated like a high-security terrorist instead of someone accused of a relatively minor white-collar crime," she said.

Justice Department lawyers have denied any misconduct in the case.

"The FBI followed standard operating procedures when transporting prisoners to the United States," Gina Talamona, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said Friday. She said restraints "were used with the sole purpose of ensuring the safety of the defendants and the agents."

As the Obama administration steps up efforts to curb fraud at military facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior Army official said Azar's case "should serve as a warning" to other contractors.

In court papers, Azar said he was denied his eyeglasses, not given food for 30 hours and put in a freezing room after his arrest by "more than 10 men wearing flak jackets and carrying military style assault rifles."

Azar also said he was shackled and forced to wear a blindfold, dark hood and earphones for up to 18 hours on a Gulfstream V jet that flew him from Bagram air base, outside Kabul, to Virginia.

Before the hood was put on, he said, one of his captors waved a photo of Azar's wife and four children and warned Azar that he would "never see them again" unless he confessed.

"Frightened for his immediate safety . . . and under the belief he would end up in the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib to be tortured," Azar signed a paper he did not understand, his lawyers told the court.

Prosecutors, however, said that Azar was "treated professionally," kept in a heated room, offered food and water repeatedly and "provided with comfortable chairs to sit in."

They said he was photographed naked and subjected to a cavity search to ensure that he did not carry hidden weapons and was fit for travel. Court records confirmed that Azar was shackled at the ankles, waist and wrists and made to wear a blindfold, hood and earphones aboard the plane.

Prosecutors also said that FBI agents read Azar his rights against self-incrimination on three occasions, and that he "voluntarily" waived them.

The FBI agent in charge, Perry J. Goerish, denied in an affidavit that Azar was "told he would never see his family again unless he confessed."

Arrested along with Azar was Dinorah Cobos, 52, a naturalized American from Honduras. Cobos, who did not make the same claims of abuse, this week pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bribery.

Their case is different from the widely criticized "extraordinary renditions" carried out after the Sept. 11 attacks. In those cases, CIA teams snatched suspected Al Qaeda members and other alleged terrorists overseas and flew them, shackled and hooded, to prisons outside the United States without any arrest warrants or other judicial proceedings.

The FBI arrested Azar and Cobos with warrants signed by a federal magistrate. And the State Department, Talamona said, asked the government of Afghanistan "for its consent in advance to take these two individuals into custody and return them to the United States to stand trial. They consented to our request."

Azar and Cobos worked for a Lebanese construction company, Sima Salazar Group, which was awarded more than $50 million in Pentagon contracts for reconstruction and supply work in Afghanistan. In December, according to the indictment, the pair offered to pay kickbacks to an Army Corps of Engineers officer in Kabul. In exchange, he agreed to approve $13 million in outstanding bills from Sima Salazar.

Over the next four months, according to the charges, more than $106,000 was wired to the officer's bank account in Manassas. But the case was an FBI sting, and Azar and Cobos were arrested at Camp Eggers, a U.S. military base in Kabul, after being lured to a meeting April 7.

Sima Salazar Group is also under indictment.

On Wednesday, Cobos' sister, Gloria Martinez, 61, pleaded guilty in federal court in New Orleans to conspiracy and two counts of bribery in a related case. Prosecutors said Martinez, a senior Army Corps of Engineers official, accepted $425,000 in cash, jewelry and other gifts for herself and Cobos from companies seeking military contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a candidate last year, President Obama vowed to end "the practice of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries."

After taking office, he ordered the CIA to close its network of "black site" prisons and promised to shutter the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Justice Department has seized and transported foreign drug lords, terrorists and other high-profile fugitives to U.S. courtrooms when normal extradition was not considered possible. The Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that such renditions, as the transfers are known, are permissible.

In 1997, for example, FBI agents in Pakistan captured Mir Aimal Kasi, who was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, and returned him to Washington to stand trial. Kasi was convicted of murder in the killing of two CIA employees and was executed in Virginia in 2002.

Azar is hardly in the same league, but Talamona pointed out that "we take very seriously criminal fraud against the United States government."

Gov’t programs not helping homeowners, renters

Gov’t programs not helping homeowners, renters

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On Aug. 4 the U.S. Department of Treasury released its “servicer performance report” detailing the number of homeowners who have benefited from the federal Making Home Affordable Modification Program—also known as the Home Affordable Modification Program or HAMP — launched in March.

The HAMP, initiated by the Treasury pursuant to the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (the federal bank-bailout bill), is the primary federal program aimed at helping homeowners facing foreclosures. It provides for loan modifications so that a homeowner’s mortgage payments, including taxes and insurance, are set at 31 percent of gross income for five years, with interest rates reduced to as low as 2 percent based on a 40-year amortization of the loan.

The Treasury reported that thus far only 235,247 trial loan modifications have been offered under the program. The report noted that this constituted 9 percent of eligible homeowners. However, the financialstability.gov Web site actually states that 7 to 9 million homeowners should be benefiting from the program, so the actual percentage of those helped constitutes a paltry 2.6 percent.

Under federal law the Treasury announcement should have caused an immediate moratorium on foreclosures. Title IV of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, signed into law on May 20, includes a foreclosure moratorium provision. It states there should be a moratorium on foreclosures until the HAMP is implemented and declared operational by the secretaries of the Treasury and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But rather than invoking a moratorium based on the lenders’ sabotage of the HAMP, the report cites a July 4 letter from Secretary Timothy Geithner to the loan executives and a July 28 meeting of Geithner and the lenders in which the Treasury secretary discussed the importance of compliance. Geithner made no demands on the bankers and lenders to comport with the terms of the HAMP or face consequences. There were no mandates or penalties threatened and there was certainly no mention of a moratorium as the law requires.

Currently all Fannie Mae- and Freddie Mac-backed loans are covered under the HAMP. About 40 mortgage lenders and servicers, including most of the major banks, have signed contracts with the federal government to evaluate all mortgage loans in their portfolios for modifications under the program. The Treasury estimates that 85 percent of all mortgage loans should be covered. The banks and servicers receive enormous sums from the federal government—on top of the $700 billion in bailout funds they received last fall and winter—for signing these contracts: $2.8 billion for Wells Fargo, $2.8 billion for Citi, $2.6 billion for Bank of America (including Countrywide), and $2 billion for JP Morgan Chase, for example.

Moratorium must be enforced by struggle

A July 30 article in the New York Times discussed how loan servicers are not implementing the HAMP because of the profits they make by charging enormous fees for delinquent home loans. As a home moves toward foreclosure, the servicers charge for title searches, insurance policies, appraisals and legal filings, and typically funnel these orders to companies they own or with whom they share revenues. The National Consumer Law Center noted recently that Countrywide made $400,000,000 just from late fees in a one-year period.

In addition, the lenders and servicers are not set up to carry out millions of loan modifications. They are in the business of collecting debts, not helping consumers. Borrowers who call the banks to discuss a loan modification are frustrated by their inability to find someone with knowledge of the HAMP. Oftentimes modification documents sent in by homeowners are misplaced or “lost.”

Borrowers who are eligible for loan modifications are summarily denied. The government has no mechanism set up to enforce its own program. Calls to Treasury result in borrowers being told to contact the same lenders who are frustrating them every day.

The Making Home Affordable Program is not the only federal program that is being violated continuously. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both government owned, have initiated programs to protect renters in foreclosed properties. Under the Fannie Mae program, a renter who is not an immediate relative of the foreclosed owner is entitled to continue staying in the property as a renter or receive $4,500 in relocation funds.

Under the Freddie Mac program, the rental option and relocation funds are available to any residents of foreclosed homes. These programs are not being enforced because the private property management companies hired by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac find it too bothersome to inform residents of their rights, and instead carry out illegal summary evictions.

Similarly, any resident of a Federal Housing Authority-insured home is entitled to an occupied conveyance and continued occupancy (a rental lease until HUD sells the home) after foreclosure. But these options are routinely denied renters and homeowners. In Detroit, for example, where there are thousands of FHA-insured homes, only a couple of residents have been offered this option and in both cases only after lawsuits were filed. Not only are residents deprived of the right to stay in their homes, but the homes end up being sold for a fraction of their values as the emptied-out and vacant houses are stripped and vandalized. In the meantime, the lender is being paid full value for the mortgage.

The unwillingness and inability of the federal government to enforce the few programs it has initiated to help homeowners and renters speak to the need for independent, militant, direct action by victims of banks and lenders—supported by their communities—to defend their homes.

In the 1930s the unemployed councils led by communists and socialists stopped tens of thousands of evictions and foreclosures by preventing bailiffs from carrying them out, or moving families and their possessions back into their homes after evictions. Moratoriums on foreclosures and evictions were implemented through direct action, and then laws were passed in 25 states and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court ratifying the foreclosure moratorium. History teaches that justice for the workers and poor and defense of their legal rights will be won through militant action, not government reliance.

Israel closes case against offending settlers

Israel closes case against offending settlers

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Israeli police drop a case against the masked settlers who were captured on a widely broadcast videotape beating Palestinian shepherds in the occupied West Bank.

Israel announced the decision on Friday, citing lack of evidence as the reason. "The file was closed because it turned out to be impossible to identify the attackers," AFP quoted a police spokesman as saying.

The case was lodged against the club-wielding masked men who brutally attacked a 70-year-old Palestinian shepherd and his wife in June 2008 in the south of the occupied West Bank near the Susia settlement.

Thamam al-Nawaja, 58, said her arm was broken and her left cheek was fractured in the attack.

Human rights groups blame Israeli law enforcement agencies for their lack of interest in prosecuting such offenders.

Cover-Up: A Film's Travesty Of Omissions

Cover-Up: A Film's Travesty Of Omissions

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On 30 August it will be a decade since the people of East Timor defied the genocidal occupiers of their country to take part in a United Nations referendum, voting for their freedom and independence. A "scorched earth" campaign by the Indonesian dictatorship followed, adding to a toll of carnage that had begun 24 years earlier when Indonesia invaded tiny East Timor with the secret support of Australia, Britain and the United States. According to a committee of the Australian parliament, "at least 200,000" died under the occupation, a third of the population.

Filming undercover in 1993, I found crosses almost everywhere: great black crosses etched against the sky, crosses on peaks, crosses in tiers on the hillsides, crosses beside the road. They littered the earth and crowded the eye. A holocaust happened in East Timor, telling us more about rapacious Western power, its propaganda and true aims, than even current colonial adventures. The historical record is unambiguous that the US, Britain and Australia conspired to accept such a scale of bloodshed as the price of securing Southeast Asia's "greatest prize" with its "hoard of natural resources". Philip Liechty, the senior CIA operations officer in Jakarta at the time of the invasion, told me, "I saw the intelligence. There were people being herded into school buildings by Indonesian soldiers and the buildings set on fire. The place was a free fire zone... We sent them everything that you need to fight a major war against somebody who doesn't have any guns. None of that got out... [The Indonesian dictator] Suharto was given the green light to do what he did."

Britain supplied Suharto with machine guns and Hawk fighter-bombers which, regardless of fake "assurances", were used against defenceless East Timorese villages. The critical role was played by Australia. This was Australia's region. During the second world war, the people of East Timor had fought heroically to stop a Japanese invasion of Australia. Their betrayal was spelt out in a series of leaked cables sent by the Australian ambassador in Jakarta, Richard Woolcott, prior to and during the Indonesian invasion in 1975. Echoing Henry Kissinger, he urged "a pragmatic rather than a principled stand", reminding his government that it would "more readily" exploit the oil and gas wealth beneath the Timor Sea with Indonesia than with its rightful owners, the East Timorese. "What Indonesia now looks to from Australia," he wrote as Suharto's special forces slaughtered their way across East Timor, "is some understanding of their attitude and possible action to assist public understanding in Australia".

Two months earlier, Indonesian troops had murdered five newsmen from Australian TV near the East Timorese town of Balibo. On the day the capital, Dili, was seized, they shot dead a sixth journalist, Roger East, throwing his body into the sea. Australian intelligence had known 12 hours in advance that the journalists in Balibo faced imminent death, and the government did nothing. Intercepted at the spy base, Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) near Darwin, which supplies US and British intelligence, the warning was suppressed so that it would not expose western governments' part in the conspiracy to invade and the official lie that the journalists had been killed in "crossfire". The secretary of the Australian Defence Department, Arthur Tange, a notorious cold warrior, demanded that the government not even inform the journalists' families of their murders. No minister protested to the Indonesians. This criminal connivance is documented in Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra, by Desmond Ball, a renowned intelligence specialist, and Hamish McDonald.

The Australian government's complicity in the journalists' murder and, above all, in a bloodbath greater proportionally than that perpetrated by Pol Pot in Cambodia has been cut almost entirely from a major new film, Balibo, which has begun its international release in Australia. Claiming to be a "true story", it is a travesty of omissions. In eight of sixteen drafts of his screenplay, David Williamson, the distinguished Australian playwright, graphically depicted the chain of true events that began with the original radio intercepts by Australian intelligence and went all the way to prime minister Gough Whitlam, who believed East Timor should be "integrated" into Indonesia. This is reduced in the film to a fleeting image of Whitlam and Suharto in a newspaper wrapped around fish and chips. Williamson's original script described the effect of the cover up on the families of the murdered journalists and their anger and frustration at being denied information and despair at Canberra's scandalous decision to have the journalists' ashes buried in Jakarta with ambassador Woolcott, the arch apologist, reading the oration. What the government feared if the ashes came home was public outrage directed at the West's client in Jakarta. All this was cut.

The "true story" is largely fictitious. Finely dramatised, acted and located, the film is reminiscent of the genre of Vietnam movies, such as The Deer Hunter, which artistically airbrushed the truth of that atrocious war from popular history. Not surprisingly, it has been lauded in the Australian media, which took minimal interest in East Timor's suffering during the long years of Indonesian occupation. So enamoured of General Suharto was the country's only national daily, The Australian, owned by Rupert Murdoch, that its editor-in-chief, Paul Kelly, led Australia's principal newspaper editors to Jakarta to shake the tyrant's hand. There is a photograph of one of them bowing.

I asked Balibo's director, Robert Connolly, why he had cut the original Williamson script and omitted all government complicity. He replied that the film had "generated huge discussion in the media and the Australian government" and in that way "Australia would be best held accountable". Milan Kundera's truism comes to mind: "The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

Common Sense 2009

Common Sense 2009

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The American government -- which we once called our government -- has been taken over by Wall Street, the mega-corporations and the super-rich. They are the ones who decide our fate. It is this group of powerful elites, the people President Franklin D. Roosevelt called "economic royalists," who choose our elected officials -- indeed, our very form of government. Both Democrats and Republicans dance to the tune of their corporate masters. In America, corporations do not control the government. In America, corporations are the government.

This was never more obvious than with the Wall Street bailout, whereby the very corporations that caused the collapse of our economy were rewarded with taxpayer dollars. So arrogant, so smug were they that, without a moment's hesitation, they took our money -- yours and mine -- to pay their executives multimillion-dollar bonuses, something they continue doing to this very day. They have no shame. They don't care what you and I think about them. Henry Kissinger refers to us as "useless eaters."

But, you say, we have elected a candidate of change. To which I respond: Do these words of President Obama sound like change?

"A culture of irresponsibility took root, from Wall Street to Washington to Main Street."
There it is. Right there. We are Main Street. We must, according to our president, share the blame. He went on to say: "And a regulatory regime basically crafted in the wake of a 20th-century economic crisis -- the Great Depression -- was overwhelmed by the speed, scope and sophistication of a 21st-century global economy."

This is nonsense.

The reason Wall Street was able to game the system the way it did -- knowing that they would become rich at the expense of the American people (oh, yes, they most certainly knew that) -- was because the financial elite had bribed our legislators to roll back the protections enacted after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Congress gutted the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial lending banks from investment banks, and passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which allowed for self-regulation with no oversight. The Securities and Exchange Commission subsequently revised its rules to allow for even less oversight -- and we've all seen how well that worked out. To date, no serious legislation has been offered by the Obama administration to correct these problems.

Instead, Obama wants to increase the oversight power of the Federal Reserve. Never mind that it already had significant oversight power before our most recent economic meltdown, yet failed to take action. Never mind that the Fed is not a government agency but a cartel of private bankers that cannot be held accountable by Washington. Whatever the Fed does with these supposed new oversight powers will be behind closed doors.

Obama's failure to act sends one message loud and clear: He cannot stand up to the powerful Wall Street interests that supplied the bulk of his campaign money for the 2008 election. Nor, for that matter, can Congress, for much the same reason.

Consider what multibillionaire banker David Rockefeller wrote in his 2002 memoirs:

"Some even believe we are part of a secret cabal working against the best interests of the United States, characterizing my family and me as 'internationalists' and of conspiring with others around the world to build a more integrated global political and economic structure -- one world, if you will. If that's the charge, I stand guilty, and I am proud of it."

Read Rockefeller's words again. He actually admits to working against the "best interests of the United States."


Need more? Here's what Rockefeller said in 1994 at a U.N. dinner: "We are on the verge of a global transformation. All we need is the right major crisis, and the nations will accept the New World Order." They're gaming us. Our country has been stolen from us.

Journalist Matt Taibbi, writing in Rolling Stone, notes that esteemed economist John Kenneth Galbraith laid the 1929 crash at the feet of banking giant Goldman Sachs. Taibbi goes on to say that Goldman Sachs has been behind every other economic downturn as well, including the most recent one. As if that wasn't enough, Goldman Sachs even had a hand in pushing gas prices up to $4 a gallon.

The problem with bankers is longstanding. Here's what one of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, had to say about them:

"If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issuance of their currency, first by inflation, and then by deflation, the banks and the corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their father's conquered."

We all know that the first American Revolution officially began in 1776, with the Declaration of Independence. Less well known is that the single strongest motivating factor for revolution was the colonists' attempt to free themselves from the Bank of England. But how many of you know about the second revolution, referred to by historians as Shays' Rebellion? It took place in 1786-87, and once again the banks were the cause. This time they were putting the screws to America's farmers.

Daniel Shays was a farmer in western Massachusetts. Like many other farmers of the day, he was being driven into bankruptcy by the banks' predatory lending practices. (Sound familiar?) Rallying other farmers to his side, Shays led his rebels in an attack on the courts and the local armory. The rebellion itself failed, but a message had been sent: The bankers (and the politicians who supported them) ultimately backed off. As Thomas Jefferson famously quipped in regard to the insurrection: "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Perhaps it's time to consider that option once again.

I'm calling for a national strike, one designed to close the country down for a day. The intent? Real campaign-finance reform and strong restrictions on lobbying. Because nothing will change until we take corporate money out of politics. Nothing will improve until our politicians are once again answerable to their constituents, not the rich and powerful.

Let's set a date. No one goes to work. No one buys anything. And if that isn't effective -- if the politicians ignore us -- we do it again. And again. And again.

The real war is not between the left and the right. It is between the average American and the ruling class. If we come together on this single issue, everything else will resolve itself. It's time we took back our government from those who would make us their slaves.

Millions face shrinking Social Security payments

Millions face shrinking Social Security payments

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Millions of older people face shrinking Social Security checks next year, the first time in a generation that payments would not rise. The trustees who oversee Social Security are projecting there won't be a cost of living adjustment (COLA) for the next two years. That hasn't happened since automatic increases were adopted in 1975.

By law, Social Security benefits cannot go down. Nevertheless, monthly payments would drop for millions of people in the Medicare prescription drug program because the premiums, which often are deducted from Social Security payments, are scheduled to go up slightly.

"I will promise you, they count on that COLA," said Barbara Kennelly, a former Democratic congresswoman from Connecticut who now heads the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "To some people, it might not be a big deal. But to seniors, especially with their health care costs, it is a big deal."

Cost of living adjustments are pegged to inflation, which has been negative this year, largely because energy prices are below 2008 levels.

Advocates say older people still face higher prices because they spend a disproportionate amount of their income on health care, where costs rise faster than inflation. Many also have suffered from declining home values and shrinking stock portfolios just as they are relying on those assets for income.

"For many elderly, they don't feel that inflation is low because their expenses are still going up," said David Certner, legislative policy director for AARP. "Anyone who has savings and investments has seen some serious losses."

About 50 million retired and disabled Americans receive Social Security benefits. The average monthly benefit for retirees is $1,153 this year. All beneficiaries received a 5.8 percent increase in January, the largest since 1982.

More than 32 million people are in the Medicare prescription drug program. Average monthly premiums are set to go from $28 this year to $30 next year, though they vary by plan. About 6 million people in the program have premiums deducted from their monthly Social Security payments, according to the Social Security Administration.

Millions of people with Medicare Part B coverage for doctors' visits also have their premiums deducted from Social Security payments. Part B premiums are expected to rise as well. But under the law, the increase cannot be larger than the increase in Social Security benefits for most recipients.

There is no such hold-harmless provision for drug premiums.

Kennelly's group wants Congress to increase Social Security benefits next year, even though the formula doesn't call for it. She would like to see either a 1 percent increase in monthly payments or a one-time payment of $150.

The cost of a one-time payment, a little less than $8 billion, could be covered by increasing the amount of income subjected to Social Security taxes, Kennelly said. Workers only pay Social Security taxes on the first $106,800 of income, a limit that rises each year with the average national wage.

But the limit only increases if monthly benefits increase.

Critics argue that Social Security recipients shouldn't get an increase when inflation is negative. They note that recipients got a big increase in January — after energy prices had started to fall. They also note that Social Security recipients received one-time $250 payments in the spring as part of the government's economic stimulus package.

Consumer prices are down from 2008 levels, giving Social Security recipients more purchasing power, even if their benefits stay the same, said Andrew G. Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

"Seniors may perceive that they are being hurt because there is no COLA, but they are in fact not getting hurt," Biggs said. "Congress has to be able to tell people they are not getting everything they want."

Social Security is also facing long-term financial problems. The retirement program is projected to start paying out more money than it receives in 2016. Without changes, the retirement fund will be depleted in 2037, according to the Social Security trustees' annual report this year.

President Barack Obama has said he would like tackle Social Security next year, after Congress finishes work on health care, climate change and new financial regulations.

Lawmakers are preoccupied by health care, making it difficult to address other tough issues. Advocates for older people hope their efforts will get a boost in October, when the Social Security Administration officially announces that there will not be an increase in benefits next year.

"I think a lot of seniors do not know what's coming down the pike, and I believe that when they hear that, they're going to be upset," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who is working on a proposal for one-time payments for Social Security recipients.

"It is my view that seniors are going to need help this year, and it would not be acceptable for Congress to simply turn its back," he said.

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On the Net:

Social Security Administration: http://www.ssa.gov/

National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare: http://www.ncpssm.org

Lieberman says many health care changes can wait

Lieberman says many health care changes can wait

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An independent senator counted on by Democrats in the health care debate showed signs of wavering Sunday when he urged President Barack Obama to postpone many of his initiatives because of the economic downturn.

"I'm afraid we've got to think about putting a lot of that off until the economy's out of recession," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. "There's no reason we have to do it all now, but we do have to get started. And I think the place to start is cost health delivery reform and insurance market reforms."

The Senate requires 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and advance a measure to an up-or-down vote. Senators from both parties said that Democrats might use a voting tactic to overcome GOP opposition, abandoning the White House's goal of bipartisan support for its chief domestic priority.

Democrats control 60 votes, including those of two independents, but illness has sidelined Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. The party's leaders also cannot be assured that their moderate members will support every health care proposal.

"I think it's a real mistake to try to jam through the total health insurance reform, health care reform plan that the public is either opposed to or of very, very passionate mixed minds about," Lieberman said.

Talk about resorting to this maneuver comes as Republicans dig in against the idea of a government-run insurance program as an option for consumers and a requirement that employers provide health insurance to their workers.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans would like to start over "with a genuine bipartisan approach."

"The American people will be very troubled by a single political party's 'my way or the highway' attitude to overhauling their health care, especially when it means government-run health care, new taxes on small businesses, and Medicare cuts for seniors," McConnell, R-Ky., said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats would consider the voting tactic, known as reconciliation, if necessary to pass a bill by year's end if Republicans won't work toward a bipartisan solution.

To Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, "that would be an abuse of the process."

Even Sen. Kent Conrad, the Senate Budget Committee chairman, acknowledged that "it's an option, but it's not a very good one." He has warned that nonbudget items in health care legislation would be challenged under the rules allowing reconciliation.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., also suggested that a fresh start was needed.

"Bringing up of the health care situation in the midst of recession, the unemployment problems ... was a mistake," Lugar said. "For the moment, let's clear the deck and try it again next year or in subsequent times."

Kennedy, one of the major proponents of health care reform, has missed most of the recent debate because of cancer. Both Hatch and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Kennedy's absence has taken a toll on the process.

"He had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions, which really are the essence of successful negotiations," McCain said.

Lieberman and Lugar appeared on CNN's "State of the Union" while Hatch and Schumer appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press." Conrad spoke on CBS' "Face the Nation" and McCain on ABC's "This Week."

Is Blackwater Too Big to Fail?

Is Blackwater Too Big to Fail?

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Erik Prince's security enterprise has a division for pretty much everything. Need planes or choppers? See Aviation Worldwide or Presidential Airways. A compliment of Colombian mercs? Greystone at your service. For-hire spooks? Total Intelligence Solutions—emphasis on total—is standing by. And for the super-double-secret covert work—the kind that the CIA keeps even Congress in the dark about—Prince has a division for that too. According to the New York Times, it's called Blackwater Select.

Building on its scoop that the company played a role in the CIA's abandoned program to assassinate Al Qaeda operatives, the Times reports today that this secret division also plays a part in the agency's predator drone program.

The division’s operations are carried out at hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company’s contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency. They also provide security at the covert bases, the officials said.

The role of the company in the Predator program highlights the degree to which the C.I.A. now depends on outside contractors to perform some of the agency’s most important assignments. And it illustrates the resilience of Blackwater, now known as Xe (pronounced Zee) Services, though most people in and outside the company still refer to it as Blackwater. It has grown through government work, even as it attracted criticism and allegations of brutality in Iraq.

You'd think that after repeated controversies Prince's government clients would tire of the enduring PR nightmare and cut their ties. But they won't, because they can't. By many, the company is viewed as indispensable. This didn't happen by accident. It's long been Prince's business model. "Make yourself indispensable to the client, and you'll always have work," Prince is quoted as saying in Suzanne Simons' new book, Master of War.

Certainly the company didn't rise up from its modest origins to become a contracting behemoth without a lot of help. That is, if the company is indispensable, that's largely because we made it that way. The more jobs the government contracts out to Blackwater (and other industry players), the more the government loses the internal capacity to do them itself. Think of it this way: Blackwater operators were originally trained by the government to carry out the drone work. If the government decides it wants to assume this role again one day, will its personnel need to be trained by Blackwater?

It's not just about outsourcing—it's the kind of jobs that are being outsourced to Blackwater that raise questions. Writing in Time, ex-CIA officer Robert Baer points out:

It's one thing, albeit often misguided, for the agency to outsource certain tasks to contractors. It's quite another to involve a company like Blackwater in even the planning and training of targeted killings, akin to the CIA going to the mafia to draw up a plan to kill Castro.

I suspect that if the agreements are ever really looked into — rather than a formal contract, the CIA reportedly brokered individual deals with top company brass — we will find out that Blackwater's assassination work was more about bilking the U.S. taxpayer than it was killing Osama bin Laden or other al-Qaeda leaders. More than a few senior CIA officers retired from the CIA and went to work at Blackwater, the controversial private security shop now known as Xe Services. Not only did those officers presumably take their CIA Rolodexes with them out the door, but many probably didn't choose to leave until they had a lucrative new contract lined up. But more to the point, Blackwater stood no better chance of placing operatives in Pakistan's tribal areas, where the al-Qaeda leadership was hiding in 2004, than the CIA or the U.S. military did.

Still, whether by virtue of Blackwater's revolving door relationship with the CIA, or the agency's own manpower shortages, the company has now been entrusted with some of the intelligence community's most senstive work. Thanks to the Times, we now know more details about Blackwater's CIA work, but this likely represents a fraction of the covert contracts (or handshake agreements, as the case may be) the company and its affiliates have undertaken for the agency. Add in the many non-secret jobs these companies perform for the government, and it becomes hard to imagine the Obama administration extricating itself from its inherited relationship with Prince's companies even if it wanted to. In some ways, Prince's operation is the military world version of AIG—too big to fail.