Saturday, August 29, 2009

Federal Reserve Board fights to keep its secrets

Federal Reserve Board fights to keep its secrets

Warns disclosing where money went would cause 'irreparable harm'

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The Federal Reserve Board, despite being ordered to disclose to whom it awarded roughly $2 trillion in discount "stimulus" loans, is fighting to keep the information under wraps as a protected "trade secret."

Earlier this week, a U.S. district court judge rejected the Fed's argument that the names of borrowers are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act and ordered the board to release the information by Monday, Aug. 31.

The Fed's board of governors, however, has now filed a motion asking the judge to delay enforcement of the order, seeking time to appeal and arguing that disclosing which banks borrowed the funds could lead to a backlash from the banks' customers and stockholders.

"The immediate release of these documents will destroy the board's claims of exemption and right of appellate review," the motion said. "The institutions whose names and information would be disclosed will also suffer irreparable harm."

Bloomberg LP, which sued the Fed on behalf of its Bloomberg News unit for not complying with a FOIA request last year, disagrees.

"Our argument is that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the banks' interest in secrecy," said Thomas Golden, a lawyer who represents Bloomberg.

"What has the Fed got to hide?" said Vermont's Sen. Bernie Sanders in an email reported by Bloomberg. "The time has come for the Fed to stop stonewalling and hand this information over to the public."

When the banking system threatened collapse last year, the Fed invoked its emergency lending powers to make discount loans to banks that now total into the trillions of dollars with the intent of stimulating the economy and preventing further financial meltdown. The names of the borrowing institutions were kept anonymous.

Bloomberg reporter Mark Pittman then filed a FOIA request in an attempt to get the Fed to disclose the borrowing banks and to identify the assets it accepted as collateral.

In return, Federal Reserve Board Secretary Jennifer Johnson sent Pittman a five-page response, telling him the Fed was withholding over 2,000 pages of information deemed protected against disclosure as "trade secrets" and "inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters."

On Nov. 7, 2008, Bloomberg filed a suit seeking full disclosure, and earlier this week, Judge Loretta A. Preska of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, ruled the Fed had until Monday to release the information.

The Fed's motion to delay enforcement of Preska's order argues the board's "ability to effectively manage the current, and any future, financial crisis" would be impaired by releasing the information and "significant harms" could befall the U.S. economy, as disclosure might unsettle shareholders and set off a run on the borrowing banks by worried depositors.

As WND has reported, a majority within the U.S. House called for greater transparency of the Fed by cosigning onto H.R. 1207, the Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2009. The Act demands an audit of the Fed, a private institution that virtually controls U.S. interest rates, money supply and other economic influences.


U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas

"To understand how unwise it is to have the Federal Reserve, one must first understand the magnitude of the privileges they have," wrote the bill's sponsor, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, in a recent Straight Talk commentary. "They have been given the power to create money, by the trillions, and to give it to their friends, under any terms they wish, with little or no meaningful oversight or accountability."

"The tremendous grass-roots and bipartisan support in Congress for H.R. 1207 is an indicator of how mainstream America is fed up with Fed secrecy," said Paul. "I look forward to this issue receiving greater public exposure."

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has also pushed in the Senate for greater transparency at the Fed.

"The Federal Reserve will create and disburse trillions of dollars in response to our current financial crisis," DeMint said. "Americans across the nation, regardless of their opinion on the bailout, want to know where the money has gone.

"Allowing the Fed to operate our nation's monetary system in almost complete secrecy leads to abuse, inflation and a lower quality of life," he said, according to Reuters.

DOJ May Skirt Court Order on Interrogation Documents

DOJ May Skirt Court Order on Interrogation Documents

In Response to ACLU Lawsuit, Federal Judge Ordered Files Released by Aug. 31

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The Obama administration may circumvent the spirit of a judge’s order to disclose hundreds of documents relating to the CIA’s Bush-era interrogation program, delivering instead generic descriptions of the documents and legal arguments for continued nondisclosure.

While the CIA inspector general’s 2004 report on torture was released Monday, a tranche of hundreds of supporting documents sought by an ongoing American Civil Liberties Union court case remain unseen. Those include 129 documents that provide some of the source material for the inspector general’s report; 138 other documents from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel about the interrogation program; and a Sept. 17, 2001 presidential order from George W. Bush authorizing the CIA to set up unacknowledged detention facilities around the world. The Justice Department released additional supporting documents earlier this week in addition to the inspector general’s report.

On July 20, Judge Allen Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that the government needed to complete a review of the documents for declassification in response to an ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by Monday, Aug. 31. “As to the remaining 318 remanded CIA documents, the Government shall complete its processing of those documents by August 31, 2009, such that, on or before that date, the Government shall produce to the plaintiffs any portions of those 318 documents that are appropriate for release under [the Freedom of Information Act],”Hellerstein wrote in an order filed the following day.

But after The Washington Independent reported on the forthcoming disclosure, an administration official who insisted on anonymity emailed to say the report was inaccurate. Asked if there would be any disclosures on Monday, the official responded, “Nope.”

Hellerstein, however, ordered in July that the government had the option of submitting a so-called “Vaughn declaration,” a FOIA term detailing, as Hellerstein wrote, legal reasons “setting forth the justification for withholding the information.” Neither the official nor the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York replied to queries about the reasons for the nondisclosure. Hellerstein’s office, which declined to comment on the record, said the judge’s ruling from July 21 was still in effect and the Justice Department had yet to file any motions to extend the deadline for disclosure.

The ACLU and the Obama administration tussled earlier this year over a date for releasing the documents, with the Justice Department requesting and receiving four delays. In July, the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York, arguing that it couldn’t prepare any documents for declassification before Aug. 31, mused about a compromise. “The OIG report would come out August 24th, and then the remaining documents would come out August 31st,” Sean Lane, a lawyer in the U.S. Attorney’s office, told Hellerstein on July 15.

Lane did not return an email seeking comment on Friday. A Justice Department official emailed to clarify that the agency had released a number of the documents alongside the CIA inspector general’s report on Aug. 24 on a DVD. According to the ACLU’s tally, it had received eight of 137 documents supporting the CIA inspector general’s review and 43 of 181 Office of Legal Counsel documents.

The ACLU said late on Friday afternoon that it expected to receive a Vaughn declaration on Monday and not the documents themselves. “This past week, the Obama administration released documents that shed some much-needed light on theCIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s national-security project. “Some of the most crucial documents, though, are still being withheld. The documents that the CIA is required to review for possible release by Monday would, if released, fill in some of the remaining gaps in the public record.”

Rachel Myers, a representative for the ACLU, said the organization expects to continue litigating to receive the still-withheld documents.

Obama's AfPak war intensifies on both sides of border

Obama’s AfPak war intensifies on both sides of border

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As low voter turnout in Afghanistan’s presidential election last week provided further evidence of broad hostility to the US-led occupation, the armed insurgency has continued to escalate. The number of US and NATO troops killed in the country during 2009 reached 301 yesterday—already the highest annual toll of the eight-year occupation.

The most recent reported deaths include an unnamed soldier killed on Friday by a roadside bomb and 18-year-old Matthew E. Wildes, from Hammond, Louisiana, who was killed on August 27 when an insurgent IED (improvised explosive device) hit his vehicle.

On August 26, 27-year-old Staff Sergeant Kurt R. Curtiss from Utah was shot dead during a raid by US and Afghan government forces to seize a wounded local Taliban leader being treated in a rural health clinic in Paktika province. A five-hour gun battle with militiamen only ended when US helicopter gunships fired missiles into the clinic, reducing much of it to rubble and killing at least 12 people, allegedly militants.

The anti-occupation insurgency is active in at least half the country, gaining support due to popular hatred for the presence of foreign troops as well as the corrupt and ineffectual puppet government in Kabul. An element in the mass electoral abstention last week was the Taliban’s call for a boycott, underscoring its growing influence. It is estimated that barely 30 to 35 percent of the population voted. In some areas, turn-out did not reach 5 percent.

On the eve of the August 20 election, the Taliban demonstrated its ability to strike targets in the centre of the capital, including a mortar strike on the presidential palace of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Insurgent attacks have also increased around the strategic northern city of Kunduz, which had been relatively stable until recent months.

Events this week testified to the worsening situation facing US and NATO forces. On Tuesday, a massive bomb loaded into a truck exploded close to the offices of a Japanese construction company in the southern city of Kandahar. At least 43 people were killed and 65 wounded. The following night, rockets struck the city centre near a branch of the Kabul Bank, causing a large fire. There were no casualties as the streets were virtually empty.

According to an Associated Press report, the Taliban has re-established a firm foothold in Kandahar, which was once the centre of its support in the ethnic Pashtun south. An Afghan employee of an aid agency anonymously stated: “The Taliban are inside the city. They are very active. They can do anything they want.” Since Thursday, nervous Afghan Army units, backed by Canadian and US forces on the outskirts of the city, have moved to take over street security from the local police.

The new US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is expected to advise the Obama administration over the next several weeks that thousands of additional troops will be needed to wrest back large areas of territory from the Taliban. General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, has warned of “tough fighting” ahead, though it is clear that any reportage in the US and international media will be highly censored.

A major offensive has been taking place for nearly two months in the southern province of Helmand, involving British troops and the US marine brigade that was sent by Obama to reinforce the occupation earlier this year. At least 29 of the 69 NATO deaths so far in August were in that province.

The main cause has been roadside bomb ambushes, suggesting that Taliban guerillas are active among the civilian population. There is no independent coverage, however, of the US and British counter-insurgency operations. News of the war is confined to occasional, sanitised and often propagandistic reports filed by embedded journalists. On McChrystal’s orders, casualty figures are no longer being released, even of the number of alleged Taliban being killed or detained.

During the surge of US troops in Iraq in 2007, McChrystal served under Petraeus and directed special forces and death-squad operations that killed thousands of men suspected of being connected to the Sunni-based insurgency or the anti-occupation Shiite Sadrist movement. He has been placed in command in Afghanistan to apply the same murderous counter-insurgency tactics.

Over the border in Pakistan, information is leaking out from the Swat Valley district of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) concerning the brutal methods that are being used there to crush support for the Taliban among the country’s Pashtun population.

The Pakistani military launched a major assault during April and May in the Swat Valley, to crush the Pashtun Islamist movement, Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), which led a rebellion against the pro-US government and effectively took over the district. The assault was demanded by Washington, which feared that a truce signed earlier in the year between TNSM and Islamabad would lead to hundreds of militants crossing into Afghanistan to join the insurgency.

In the course of a month’s fighting, 1,800 TNSM fighters were allegedly killed and over 900 others captured. As many as two million civilians were forced to flee the district due to the ferocity and indiscriminate character of the military’s air strikes and ground bombardments. Hundreds of thousands have still not returned due to either the destruction of their homes or fear.

The Swat Valley remains occupied by some 50,000 soldiers and police. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan claims to have credible evidence that the security forces are carrying out extra-judicial killings of TNSM supporters. On August 11, it announced that it had information regarding two mass graves containing the corpses of alleged militants who had been executed by government troops. Sixty-five bodies were subsequently recovered from a site near the village of Kabal.

The corpses of men who had been detained by the security forces on suspicion of militant activity are now being dumped on the streets—blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs and shot through the head. Two corpses were discovered in the Mingora area on Wednesday, at least 15 others on Monday and 18 more last week.

The cousin of two men whose bodies were found on August 21 told the Associated Press: “More than a month ago, they were arrested on the charge of militancy involvement.” The men’s father had previously been killed and four brothers are still in the custody of the security forces. Their mother, Bakht Begum, said: “My sons had nothing to do [with TNSM]. They had no fight, they were innocent. Even my husband had no fault. They killed my husband and my two sons, and now they should release the others.”

General Petraeus has voiced support for the brutal campaign, hailing the “robust Pakistani military operations” that have “cleared militants” from Swat Valley and other areas of the NWFP.

The Obama administration is now pressuring the Pakistani government of President Asif Al Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to send tens of thousands of troops into South and North Waziristan. The autonomous tribal agencies are the strongholds of the Pakistani Tehrik-e-Taliban, an Islamist Pashtun movement that gives safe haven to Afghan insurgents fighting the US-NATO occupation over the border.

The US military is continuing its own illegal operations to assassinate insurgent leaders and terrorise the civilian population inside the Waziristans using Predator drone aircraft.

On Thursday, a drone fired two missiles into a housing compound in South Waziristan, killing eight people. The alleged target was Waliur Rehman, who announced in a joint phone conference on Tuesday with new Tehrik-e-Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, that he had assumed command of militants in the agency. On August 5, missiles fired by a Predator killed the former head of Tehrik-e-Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, as well as his young wife and 17 others. Since August last year, over 700 Pakistani civilians have been slaughtered by US air strikes.

The main impact of the killing of Baitullah Mehsud has been to intensify hatred in the tribal agencies toward US imperialism and the Pakistani government. On Wednesday, Hakimullah Mehsud told Agence France Presse: “We will take revenge and soon. We will give our reply to this drone attack to America.”

The same day, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a government checkpoint at the Khyber Pass crossing into Afghanistan, killing 22 border guards, while two trucks carrying fuel for NATO forces were set ablaze in the NWFP. One was attacked on the main Peshawar highway, the other near the border crossing into Afghanistan at Torkham.

The next several months, before the onset of the harsh winter in Afghanistan and North West Pakistan, are looming as the most violent and deadly in the eight years of the criminal US-led military occupation.

Cheney's 'Fodder'

Cheney's 'Fodder'

Cheney's torture claims debunked; will the media say so?

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The release of a 2004 CIA inspector general's report on the agency's "enhanced interrogation" techniques, along with two other previously classified memos, has thrown a harsh spotlight on former Vice President Dick Cheney's oft-repeated pro-torture arguments. But corporate media seem intent on deflecting much of that glare.

Earlier this year, Cheney spent weeks on the airwaves, explaining that these CIA memos would back up his argument that torture provided valuable intelligence that helped thwart attacks against the United States (FAIR Media Advisory, 5/29/09). But the heavily redacted documents don't appear to do that. Of the two that Cheney asserted would help his case, reporter Spencer Ackerman noted (Washington Independent, 8/24/09) they "actually suggest the opposite of Cheney's contention: that non-abusive techniques actually helped elicit some of the most important information the documents cite in defending the value of the CIA’s interrogations."

Some reporters managed to reach the opposite conclusion, though how they did so was unclear. On the CBS Evening News (8/25/09), reporter Bob Orr said: "The once-secret documents do support the claims of former Vice President Dick Cheney that harsh interrogations at times did work. Interviews with prisoners helped the U.S. capture other terror suspects and thwart potential attacks, including Al-Qaeda plots to attack the U.S. consulate in Karachi and fly an airplane into California's tallest building." The problem is, whatever one makes of the CIA's argument that their interrogations yielded valuable intelligence, there's nothing in the documents newly available to the public--and to CBS--that actually argues this intelligence was produced by the torture techniques like waterboarding that Cheney so publicly defended.

As Ackerman told CounterSpin (8/28/09): Cheney and his supporters' argument "depends a lot on conflating the difference between saying the documents show that valuable [intelligence] came from detainees in the program, and then saying that it came from the enhanced interrogation techniques themselves.... That's a conflation that has served the former vice president's purposes."

Many other accounts treated the release of these documents as another chance to play "he said/she said." An August 26 Los Angeles Times headline read, "CIA Interrogation Memos Provide Fodder for Both Sides." What sort of "fodder" they gave to Cheney's side wasn't evident in the story itself, which pointed out that the CIA documents "are at best inconclusive--attesting that captured terrorism suspects provided crucial intelligence on Al-Qaeda and its plans, but offering little to support the argument that harsh or abusive methods played a key role."

ABC reporter Brian Ross (8/25/09) managed to convey the lack of evidence for Cheney in the documents, but inexplicably still left things up in the air: "Nowhere in the reports, however, does the CIA ever draw a direct connection between the valuable information and the specific use of the harsh tactics. So, Charlie, there's just enough for both sides to argue about, while CIA officers in the field are left to figure out just what is expected of them."

NBC's Andrea Mitchell (8/25/09) sounded a similar note, explaining that "administration officials say there is no way to know whether the same information could have been obtained...without waterboarding" and airing a quote from an Amnesty International spokesperson pointing out that Al-Qaeda detainee Khalid Sheik Mohammed told the Red Cross that he lied "to mislead his interrogators and make them stop"--but then concluding: "An argument experts say that may never be resolved."

As FAIR noted in May, media's willingness to give Cheney a platform in the debate over torture shifted the discussion away from the central issue that torture is illegal under both U.S. and international law, and focused attention instead on torture's efficacy. The media allowed Cheney to push the discussion in this direction, in large part because Cheney assured that these secret documents would show that he was right. Now that it's clear they do not, will the media outlets that gave Cheney a platform continue to let him off the hook?

Taxpayers will foot bill to defend CIA interrogators

Taxpayers will foot bill to defend CIA interrogators

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Who’s paying to defend CIA employees alleged to have tortured detainees abroad?

You are.

According to a report Friday, CIA Director Leon Panetta — who has reportedly clashed vehemently with the Justice Department over a probe of the CIA’s harsh interrogation practices — has decided that the agency will foot the bill to defend CIA interrogators who are accused of torturing detainees.

In other words, taxpayers will pay.

“Panetta will do everything he can to ensure that anyone who needs legal representation has it, whether they have liability insurance or not,” a senior intelligence official quoted by the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus purportedly said. “It’s a question of fairness. People who did tough jobs for the country won’t be left by the side of the road.”

What’s more, the costs are likely to include more than defending a few agents.

“Officials said the number of CIA employees seeking legal representation could grow larger than the relatively small number of people directly engaged in contact with detainees as [the Justice Department prosecutor] gathers information, interviews agency employees and takes testimony in his expanded inquiry,” Pincus wrote.

“Several CIA officials already have private lawyers being paid by insurance companies, and others are having fees covered directly by the agency,” he adds. “At least one officer has a lawyer working without charge, according to individuals familiar with the situation.”

One private insurance company provides coverage for federal employees that covers “defense costs for federal government initiated administrative proceedings and investigations.” The premium — at $292 a year — pays up to $200,000 in legal bills.

“Most CIA officers don’t have much money and could go into debt to hire a good lawyer,” a lawyer was quoted as saying.

Bill Would Give President Emergency Control of Internet

Bill would give president emergency control of Internet

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Internet companies and civil liberties groups were alarmed this spring when a U.S. Senate bill proposed handing the White House the power to disconnect private-sector computers from the Internet.

They're not much happier about a revised version that aides to Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, have spent months drafting behind closed doors. CNET News has obtained a copy of the 55-page draft of S.773 (excerpt), which still appears to permit the president to seize temporary control of private-sector networks during a so-called cybersecurity emergency.

The new version would allow the president to "declare a cybersecurity emergency" relating to "non-governmental" computer networks and do what's necessary to respond to the threat. Other sections of the proposal include a federal certification program for "cybersecurity professionals," and a requirement that certain computer systems and networks in the private sector be managed by people who have been awarded that license.

"I think the redraft, while improved, remains troubling due to its vagueness," said Larry Clinton, president of the Internet Security Alliance, which counts representatives of Verizon, Verisign, Nortel, and Carnegie Mellon University on its board. "It is unclear what authority Sen. Rockefeller thinks is necessary over the private sector. Unless this is clarified, we cannot properly analyze, let alone support the bill."

Representatives of other large Internet and telecommunications companies expressed concerns about the bill in a teleconference with Rockefeller's aides this week, but were not immediately available for interviews on Thursday.

A spokesman for Rockefeller also declined to comment on the record Thursday, saying that many people were unavailable because of the summer recess. A Senate source familiar with the bill compared the president's power to take control of portions of the Internet to what President Bush did when grounding all aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001. The source said that one primary concern was the electrical grid, and what would happen if it were attacked from a broadband connection.

When Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Commerce committee, and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced the original bill in April, they claimed it was vital to protect national cybersecurity. "We must protect our critical infrastructure at all costs--from our water to our electricity, to banking, traffic lights and electronic health records," Rockefeller said.

The Rockefeller proposal plays out against a broader concern in Washington, D.C., about the government's role in cybersecurity. In May, President Obama acknowledged that the government is "not as prepared" as it should be to respond to disruptions and announced that a new cybersecurity coordinator position would be created inside the White House staff. Three months later, that post remains empty, one top cybersecurity aide has quit, and some wags have begun to wonder why a government that receives failing marks on cybersecurity should be trusted to instruct the private sector what to do.

Rockefeller's revised legislation seeks to reshuffle the way the federal government addresses the topic. It requires a "cybersecurity workforce plan" from every federal agency, a "dashboard" pilot project, measurements of hiring effectiveness, and the implementation of a "comprehensive national cybersecurity strategy" in six months--even though its mandatory legal review will take a year to complete.

The privacy implications of sweeping changes implemented before the legal review is finished worry Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "As soon as you're saying that the federal government is going to be exercising this kind of power over private networks, it's going to be a really big issue," he says.

Probably the most controversial language begins in Section 201, which permits the president to "direct the national response to the cyber threat" if necessary for "the national defense and security." The White House is supposed to engage in "periodic mapping" of private networks deemed to be critical, and those companies "shall share" requested information with the federal government. ("Cyber" is defined as anything having to do with the Internet, telecommunications, computers, or computer networks.)

"The language has changed but it doesn't contain any real additional limits," EFF's Tien says. "It simply switches the more direct and obvious language they had originally to the more ambiguous (version)...The designation of what is a critical infrastructure system or network as far as I can tell has no specific process. There's no provision for any administrative process or review. That's where the problems seem to start. And then you have the amorphous powers that go along with it."

Translation: If your company is deemed "critical," a new set of regulations kick in involving who you can hire, what information you must disclose, and when the government would exercise control over your computers or network.

The Internet Security Alliance's Clinton adds that his group is "supportive of increased federal involvement to enhance cyber security, but we believe that the wrong approach, as embodied in this bill as introduced, will be counterproductive both from an national economic and national secuity perspective."

Update at 3:14 p.m. PDT: I just talked to Jena Longo, deputy communications director for the Senate Commerce committee, on the phone. She sent me e-mail with this statement:

The president of the United States has always had the constitutional authority, and duty, to protect the American people and direct the national response to any emergency that threatens the security and safety of the United States. The Rockefeller-Snowe Cybersecurity bill makes it clear that the president's authority includes securing our national cyber infrastructure from attack. The section of the bill that addresses this issue, applies specifically to the national response to a severe attack or natural disaster. This particular legislative language is based on longstanding statutory authorities for wartime use of communications networks. To be very clear, the Rockefeller-Snowe bill will not empower a "government shutdown or takeover of the Internet" and any suggestion otherwise is misleading and false. The purpose of this language is to clarify how the president directs the public-private response to a crisis, secure our economy and safeguard our financial networks, protect the American people, their privacy and civil liberties, and coordinate the government's response.

Unfortunately, I'm still waiting for an on-the-record answer to these four questions that I asked her colleague on Wednesday. I'll let you know if and when I get a response.

US debt to hit $20 trillion by 2020

US debt to hit $20 trillion by 2020

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Forecasts published this week by the Obama administration and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate that the US national debt will nearly double over the next 10 years to about $20 trillion.

The White House anticipates that cumulative annual deficits will result in $9 trillion in additional debt, an increase of $2 trillion over an estimate it made in February, while the CBO predicts $7.1 trillion in new debt for the same period. The current national debt stands at over $11 trillion.

The Obama administration, politicians of both major parties and media commentators immediately seized on the forecasts to step up demands for major cuts in social spending, especially for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, while disregarding costly fiscal burdens such as the Pentagon budget, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, and the multi-trillion-dollar bailout of the finance industry.

As the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and CBO forecasts make clear, these policies have combined with the economic slump to trigger a grave fiscal crisis for the US.

This year’s deficit, $1.58 trillion, is 11.2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), the largest deficit as a proportion of GDP since 1945, the last year of World War II. For the fiscal year 2010, borrowing will have to provide 40 percent of all government revenue.

The economic crisis has reduced tax revenues by 17 percent, a sharper decline than any other year since 1932, the nadir of the Great Depression.

Income tax collections have been decimated by unemployment. In the same report, the OMB predicted unemployment will surpass 10 percent by year’s end and remain high. The CBO said the jobless rate will be close to 10 percent even at the end of 2010 and will still be at 8 percent at the close of 2011.

By 2019, the national debt will increase to nearly 70 percent of GDP, up from 48 percent this year, the White House predicts. The same year, the deficit will be equivalent to 5.1 percent of GDP. Economists consider deficits higher than 3 percent of GDP to be unsustainable. Not a single budget will hit that mark over the next decade, according to the forecasts.

The differences between the White House and CBO figures are based largely on the question of whether or not the tax cuts for the wealthy enacted under President George W. Bush will be rescinded. The CBO, which bases its estimates on existing legislation, assumes that the tax cuts will expire in 2011 as currently required by law. The Obama forecast presumes, on the other hand, that those tax cuts will remain largely in place—hence its higher budget deficit predictions.

If the CBO had taken into account the perpetuation of the Bush tax cuts—which Obama campaigned against in his run for the presidency—its deficit estimates would likely have been significantly higher than those of the Obama administration, according to analysts.

The White House forecast is based on the assumption that the economy will grow at a rate of 2 percent in 2010, achieve rapid growth of 3.8 percent in 2011, and rise to over 4 percent from 2012 through 2014, measured by GDP. If these rates are not realized—the latter figures are substantially higher than average annual growth since 1947—long-term budget deficits will become significantly worse.

The Obama administration and congressional leaders of both parties responded to the new data by proclaiming that they demonstrate the unsustainability of Medicare and Medicaid spending (the health insurance systems for the elderly and poor, respectively) and spending on Social Security, the payroll tax-funded government pension system enacted during the Great Depression.

Peter Orszag, Obama’s director of the OMB, pinned blame for the deficits on Medicare and Medicaid, calling them “the key driver of our long-term deficits.” Orszag called for “serious steps to put our nation back on a sustainable fiscal path.” The OMB also noted that Obama “is committed to addressing the shortfall in Social Security system.”

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, whom Obama renominated to head the US central banking system the same day as the budget forecasts came out, has in recent months stepped up his calls for major reductions in entitlement programs. In Congressional testimony in 2007, even before the financial crisis, Bernanke attributed the declining fiscal position of the US to social spending.

“Addressing the country’s fiscal problems will take persistence and a willingness to make difficult choices,” he said. “In the end, the fundamental decision that the Congress, the Administration, and the American people must confront is how large a share of the nation’s economic resources to devote to federal government programs, including transfer programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.”

Democrats joined with Republicans in proclaiming that the new data suggests that health care legislation will have to be less costly, with any vaguely palliative measures likely to be dumped.

“Both sides acknowledged... the debt projections will likely force Democrats to find new real savings in their health-care bills or risk defeat,” wrote the Wall Street Journal. Reuters reported congressional Democrats saying that “spending on retirement and health benefits must be put under control as millions of Baby Boomers retire.”

”Today’s budget numbers send a clear signal that the time for putting off tough choices is over and the time to act is now,” said Kent Conrad, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

The Obama administration, whose ten-year budget already takes into account $622 billion in funding cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, is promoting the false notion that social spending is primarily responsible for the deficits and the economic crisis, and that therefore working people must shoulder the burden of spending cuts.

In fact, of the $700 billion increase in spending for the current fiscal year over the previous year, the CBO estimates that about $424 billion was spent on the bailout of Wall Street through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the rescue of the mortgage lending giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, while only $115 billion came through Obama’s stimulus spending.

The total allocation to Wall Street is practically inestimable, but the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Plan (SIGTARP), Neil Barofsky, has said that among all of its financial stabilization programs, the federal government is on the line for as much as $23.7 trillion—$3.7 trillion more than the total national debt the White House is predicting for 2020.

The US spends far more funding its military, war, and spy operations than it does on Medicare and Medicaid. In 2009, for example, the federal government spent a combined $632 billion on Medicare and Medicaid, while it spent $822 billion on defense spending, “the war on terror,” and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US has spent almost $903 billion on the two wars since 2001.

Another expenditure that will eclipse spending on entitlements in the coming years is the interest the US must pay to service its debt. In 2008, the US paid $451 billion in interest on the national debt. A significant proportion of these interest payments find their way to the major banks that have been bailed out by US taxpayers over the past year.

In every respect, the Obama administration is carrying on a class war policy against workers. Obama has increased funding for the military and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has repeatedly promised he will do “whatever it takes” to cover the gambling debts of the Wall Street finance houses. These expenditures are taken for granted, and will continue, as will a tax regime that expands the personal fortunes of a thin layer of the extremely rich.

Obama’s efforts to resolve the budget crisis will overwhelmingly target spending that benefits the working class.

Even so, the long-term ability of the US government to finance its debts is subject to increasing doubt, placing pressure on the dollar and its status as the world reserve currency, which has helped the US to sustain enormous trade deficits.

The central banks of China, Japan, and a number of other nations buy US government-issued securities in order to sustain US purchasing power for their exports. At the end of June, China held over $776 billion in US Treasury securities; Japan over $711 billion.

While any shift away from the US dollar is fraught with incalculable dangers for its biggest foreign holders, the insolvency of the US state and, more fundamentally, American capitalism, is causing the subject to be mooted with increasing regularity.

On Wednesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy reiterated demands that a new global reserve currency be created. “The political and economic reality of a multi-polar world will eventually have to be transmitted on the monetary level,” Sarkozy said from Elysée Palace. Similar calls have been made by leaders representing China, Russia and Brazil, among other states.

The demands of foreign creditors and mounting pressure on the dollar are further propelling the US ruling class attack on health care, retirement, and other forms of social spending.

Obama reappoints Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chairman

Obama reappoints Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chairman

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US President Barack Obama announced Tuesday morning that he would reappoint Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chairman. The nomination is expected to receive the required Senate approval.

Obama, who made the announcement during his vacation in Massachusetts, praised Bernanke’s conduct of monetary policy. According to Obama, Bernanke “approached a financial system on the verge of collapse with calm and wisdom; with bold action and outside-the-box thinking that has helped put the brakes on our economic free fall.”

The position of Federal Reserve Chairman is arguably the most powerful economic position in the US. The “Fed chief” oversees the central banking system, and therefore exerts a degree of control over monetary policy, including the overall supply and availability of money, as well as money’s cost or interest rate.

Bernanke was first appointed Federal Reserve Chairman by President George H.W. Bush in February 2006, a term set to expire next year. He had previously served as chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, and before that, as a Federal Reserve Board governor.

There is little doubt that the Senate will approve Bernanke. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd was quick to issue a supportive statement. “While I have had serious differences with the Federal Reserve over the past few years, I think reappointing Chairman Bernanke is probably the right choice,” he said.

Bernanke’s term expires on January 31, but Obama took the unconventional step of reappointing him five months early.

“I was surprised at the timing,” said James L. Butkiewicz, professor of economics at the University of Delaware. “Presidents typically make such appointments closer to the fall; I was expecting something around September or October.”

Pleasing the market appears to have motivated the early decision. “There’s been a lot of speculation out there, and the president wanted to put it to rest,” White House spokesman Bill Burton said.

Commentators observed that Obama’s appointment aimed to assure Wall Street that the Fed’s policy of vast dispensation to the big finance houses will continue. “Uncertainty is the enemy of markets,” noted one economist.

Underscoring the power that the finance industry exerts over government, the Wall Street Journal wrote that Treasury Secretary Geithner “polled visiting chief executives about Mr. Bernanke, and heard mostly favorable comments.”

“It’s fair to say that Wall Street likes the decision,” commented Francesco Guerrera in the Financial Times’ Daily View. “The Wall Street Bankers I spoke to... feel that they can do business with a Federal Reserve headed by Ben Bernanke.” Guerrera noted that Bernanke has “gained the trust of Wall Street,” and that “the Financial Services industry feels that he has done a good job... mostly because he bailed them out with... billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.”

Noting that “Bernanke has widespread support on Wall Street,” the Journal reported that 42 out of 43 economists it surveyed—many working for banks and consultancies—favored his reappointment.

Bernanke is well liked on Wall Street for good reason. Working together with his Treasury Department counterparts Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner, Bernanke facilitated the allocation of trillions of dollars in government bailout funds to the US banking system. He oversaw the taxpayer-funded bailout of Bear Stearns, American International Group (AIG), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and assisted in setting up the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program and toxic asset buy up scheme.

On Monday, a US District Judge ordered that the Federal Reserve must identify the firms it has loaned hundreds of billions of dollars since the onset of the financial crisis last autumn using 11 separate lending programs. Bernanke and the Fed have refused on the grounds that revelation of the recipients’ names would damage their market credibility, and in some cases initiate bank runs. The order was in response to a Freedom of Information Act suit filed by Bloomberg News. Bernanke will appeal the decision.

The major US stock indexes signaled their approval of Bernanke’s appointment by closing up Tuesday, despite the fact that the US government announced a significant increase in the long-term federal deficit.

That a figure like Bernanke is reappointed and hailed as a steward of the economy demonstrates the bankruptcy of economic “policy making.”

In fact, Bernanke bears a high degree of personal responsibility for the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. He was a governor of the Federal Reserve Board during the later tenure of Alan Greenspan, his predecessor. He supported Greenspan’s lowering of interest rates through 2003 and 2004, which inflated asset prices for the benefit of Wall Street. Nor did Bernanke call for any change of course while he was chair of the National Economic Council during the height of the speculative frenzy of 2005, when banks were placing borrowed bets on securities based on worthless subprime mortgages.

A column published Wednesday in the Financial Times by Stephen Roach offered a more sober assessment of Bernanke’s tenure. Roach wrote that, “in retrospect, the Fed’s injection of excess liquidity in 2001-2003, which Mr Bernanke endorsed with fervour, played a key role in setting the stage for the lethal mix of property and credit bubbles” which erupted in the present crisis.

“Mr Bernanke is cut from the same market libertarian cloth that got the Fed into this mess,” Roach wrote. “Steeped in the Greenspan credo that markets know better than regulators, Mr Bernanke was aligned with the prevailing Fed mindset that abrogated its regulatory authority in the era of excess. The derivatives’ explosion, extreme leverage of regulated and shadow banks and excesses of mortgage lending were all flagrant abuses that both Mr Bernanke and Mr Greenspan could have said no to. But they did not. As a result, a complex and unstable system veered dangerously out of control.”

Bernanke justified all of these processes as positive. In 2007, months before the full onset of the financial crisis, he infamously declared that “the dispersion of risk more broadly across the financial system has, thus far, increased the resilience of the system and the economy to shocks.”

Bernanke’s response to the crisis has been an immense escalation of Greenspan’s policies, transforming them from recklessness to sheer robbery. Whereas Greenspan merely provided favorable credit conditions to the banks, Bernanke has funneled trillions of dollars directly into their coffers.

Obama’s speech condemned for form’s sake the very policies Bernanke represents. “We have already seen how lax enforcement and weak regulation can lead to enormous wealth for a few and enormous pain for everyone else,” he said. “And that’s why even though there is some resistance on Wall Street from those who prefer things the way they are, we will pass the reforms necessary to protect consumers, investors, and the entire financial system.”

Speaking from Martha’s Vineyard, where he may be paying as much as $30,000 a week to vacation, Obama declared, “we need Ben to continue the work he’s doing, and that is why I’ve said that we cannot go back to an economy based on overleveraged banks, inflated profits, and maxed-out credit cards.”

In fact, Bernanke’s reappointment represents the exact opposite of any move to reign in the speculative excess of the financial system. It signals that there will be no regulation on specific financial instruments, including credit default swaps and derivatives.

Above all else, the reappointment is an indication that the Obama administration will continue the policy of allocating unlimited resources to the banks.

CIA probe shields architects of US torture regime

CIA probe shields architects of US torture regime

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The Obama administration’s release of a 2004 internal CIA report on torture and the announcement by the Justice Department of an extremely limited investigation into actions by individual interrogators is part of an elaborate attempt to cover up the scale of the crimes carried out under the Bush administration, while shielding its top figures from prosecution.

While compelled by court order to release the CIA inspector general’s report in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Obama administration substantially censored the document, blacking out 36 pages entirely and heavily redacting another 30 pages on the grounds of “national security.”

According to “a former senior intelligence official” cited by ABC News Wednesday, a substantial amount of the material concealed from public view deals with the deaths of three detainees and the disappearance of several others.

Two of the deaths occurred in Iraq and a third in Afghanistan. They appear to be similar in nature to a fourth death, details of which were left in the released document. That was the case of Manadel al-Jamadi, which became famous by images of grinning American military guards crouching over his corpse at the Abu Ghraib prison.

In that case, the detainee died after suffering a severe beating and being subjected to a stress position that CIA interrogators referred to as the “Palestinian hanging,” in which the subject is suspended by his hands which are manacled behind his back. In a 2005 article by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, al-Jamadi’s CIA interrogator was identified as Mark Swanner. While army investigators classified the death as a homicide, to date no charges have been brought against Swanner. Only a handful of junior enlisted reservists photographed with the corpse—who had nothing to do with the murder—were prosecuted.

The censoring of information on similar torture deaths means that the Obama administration is acting to ensure that those who planned, ordered and executed the torture program under Bush are literally allowed to get away with murder.

Nor is this a matter restricted to the three deaths concealed in the report released Monday. Human rights groups have unearthed information on at least 100 detainee deaths during interrogations, and, given the cover-ups carried out by the military and the CIA, there is ample reason to believe that there are many more.

An indication of the widespread character of such fatal abuse was given by retired US Army General Barry Richard McCaffrey during an interview on MSNBC television news last April, following President Obama’s speech to CIA employees at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

“We should never, as a policy, maltreat people under our control, detainees,” said McCaffrey, who made repeated inspection tours of US-occupied Iraq on behalf of the military’s Central Command. “We tortured people unmercifully,” he added. “We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the CIA.”

It is not as if the crimes detailed in the un-redacted sections of the CIA report are not heinous enough. CIA interrogators, according to the report, carried out mock executions, placed guns to detainees’ heads and threatened to kill them, menaced them with power drills and threatened to rape their wives and kill their children.

Physical abuse included: subjecting detainees to induced drowning or waterboarding, soaking them with water and placing them in cold rooms to induce hypothermia (the cause of at least one documented death), beating them with rifle butts, banging their heads against the wall and hanging them in so-called “stress positions” that tore shoulders from sockets and—in the case of al-Jamadi—apparently resulted in death by asphyxiation.

In Abu Ghraib, Bagram in Afghanistan and at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, those subjected to these barbaric methods were never convicted of any crime and, in the great majority of cases, there was no substantive evidence linking them to any act of terror.

All of this amounts to criminal and systemic torture, carried out under the orders and close supervision of the highest levels of the US government. Whether some of the detainee deaths resulted from interrogations that went beyond the methods spelled out in the “torture memos” issued by the Bush administration Justice Department, clearly many others resulted from interrogators following the CIA’s standard operating procedures.

The sharply circumscribed investigation announced by Attorney General Eric Holder Monday is designed to assure that none of those responsible for these killings is ever prosecuted.

In announcing the appointment of federal prosecutor John Durham to investigate the CIA interrogations, Holder said he would be conducting only a “preliminary review” to determine whether the torture sessions violated US laws.

Holder offered assurances that no CIA interrogator who carried out torture according to the guidelines laid down by the Justice Department memos would face any penalty.

Durham has not been named as an independent prosecutor, which would have given him broad powers to pursue an investigation, but rather is being kept under a tight leash by Holder. The attorney general, while claiming to be following the mandate of the law, is in fact tailoring the probe to the oft-stated determination of the Obama White House to “look forward and not backward” and avoid holding any senior officials responsible for the crimes carried out under the Bush administration.

At most, the investigation initiated by Holder is aimed at uncovering a few “bad apples” among the CIA interrogators, thereby repeating the scenario that played out following the exposure of the horrors at Abu Ghraib, with the prosecution of a handful of low-ranking enlisted personnel.

As in that case the effect would be the scapegoating of a few CIA interrogators—who no doubt did carry out torture and even murder—for the far more serious crimes committed by Bush, Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet and others in adopting torture as a state policy and directing it from the White House.

In any case, most legal experts have expressed extreme skepticism in the Justice Department’s ability to mount a criminal prosecution against individual interrogators.

Several human rights groups have responded to Holder’s announcement by condemning the deliberately narrow focus of the investigation.

The American Civil Liberties Union, whose Freedom of Information Act suit forced the release of the CIA IG report, demanded a “full investigation into torture of prisoners and those who authorized it.”

In an opinion piece published in USA Today, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said that there is ample evidence that “the Bush administration’s torture program was widespread, systemic and authorized at the highest levels of government.”

“Given all the evidence,” Romero continued, “it is troubling that the attorney general is still clinging to a ‘bad apples’ approach and resisting a thorough criminal investigation of not only those who committed torture, but also those who authorized and legally condoned it.”

“Any investigation that focused only on so-called ‘rogue’ interrogators who acted outside of official authorization, but no senior officials with overall responsibility for the CIA program, would lack credibility,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

And the Center for Constitutional Rights condemned any probe that would be limited to a “few low-level operatives.” It insisted, “Some agents in the field may have gone further than the limits so ghoulishly laid out by the lawyers who twisted the law to create legal cover for the program, but it is the lawyers and the officials who ... must be investigated.”

Meanwhile, both Obama’s own appointee as CIA director and the Republican right have voiced strong opposition to even a limited investigation.

In a memo to CIA personnel written Monday, the agency’s director Leon Panetta called the continuing revelations on torture “an old story” and vowed he would “stand up for those officers who did what their country asked and who followed the legal guidance they were given.”

The Republicans, meanwhile, warned that any investigation into CIA torture would result in another 9/11.

The announcement of the probe constituted “a reminder, if any were needed, of why so many Americans have doubts about this administration’s ability to be responsible for our nation’s security,” declared former Vice President Cheney, a vocal proponent of waterboarding.

And in a letter to Holder, six Republican senators, including Jon Kyl, the Senate minority whip, and Kit Bond, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, warned, “We fear that the true cost of this endeavor will ultimately be borne by the American people, who rely on the intelligence community, operating without distraction, to protect them from the many threats, known and unknown, that our country faces in this post-9/11 world.”

This pressure from the right and from within the military and intelligence apparatus, which acts as a virtual state within a state in Washington, will ensure that Obama and Holder maintain tight control over the announced probe.

The Democratic administration itself has no interest in a genuine investigation into the crimes of the Bush administration because it is continuing many of these same practices—from rendition, to the imprisonment of detainees without charges, to domestic spying, not to mention the two wars of aggression launched under the previous administration.

Under conditions of the worldwide crisis of capitalism and unprecedented levels of social misery and inequality within the US, there is a real threat that these same methods of state terror will be brought “home” and used to suppress opposition by the American working class to the policies of the ruling financial elite.

Holding accountable the real architects of the policies of torture, assassination and aggressive war is essential for the defense of basic democratic rights and for the clearing of the political, and indeed moral, atmosphere in the United States. This vital task can be realized only as part of the independent political mobilization of working people against the profit system and the state that defends it.

Seeing Israel’s prisons through Palestinian eyes

Seeing Israel’s prisons through Palestinian eyes

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The Gaza Strip, populated by 1.5 million Palestinians, is virtually an open-air prison—a place of punishment and exile for Palestinians. No one can officially get in or out of Gaza unless given permission at border checkpoints that are opened at the whim of Israel and Egypt. If your name is not on a pre-existing list, you can’t get into Gaza or leave it.

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Mothers in Gaza show pictures of their
imprisoned sons.
WW photo: Judy Greenspan

At the end of the recent Viva Palestina U.S. convoy, a Palestinian man with a U.S. passport tried to bring his family out of Gaza so they could travel back to the U.S. Although his spouse and children have U.S. passports, Egyptian border guards refused to allow the bus through the checkpoint with them aboard.

Convoy delegates tried to carry the children across the border, but security guards refused to allow this and held the bus up for over an hour. Only those who had been on the bus when it entered Gaza were allowed to return. The Palestinian delegate had to leave his family behind when he returned to Egypt.

Prisons in Israel

In addition to the open-air prison of the Gaza Strip, more than 11,000 Palestinian women, men and children are incarcerated in Israeli maximum security facilities like Nufha, Haderim, Jalamy, and Ashkalon, among others.

In Gaza City, a group of Palestinian women with family members languishing in Israeli prisons described for convoy visitors the horrific conditions in these concentration camps.

Muhammad Hassamand, the spouse of one of the women, has spent 23 years in prison. His sons, one 12 and another 15, cannot see their father. His spouse said, “We didn’t go to them. The Israelis came to our land. We are the indigenous people. There are more than 11,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails [compared to] one Israeli soldier.”

Another elderly woman told of losing her eyesight since her son went to prison 10 years ago. “I lost my eyes from crying all day and night for my son. My son has been sentenced for the rest of his life. He has spent more than 20 years in prison. For more than 10 years, I didn’t see him in my eyes, and now I can’t. I want to see my son. We want our efforts and your efforts to help release him.”

Another woman said, “My husband has been held in an Israeli prison for 22 years, and I have never been allowed to visit.” She thinks her son is also incarcerated in Israel, but she doesn’t know if he is alive or dead.

Since 1967, over 700,000 Palestinians—20 percent of the total population in the occupied territories–have been arrested. The vast majority are men—approximately 40 percent of the total male Palestinian population.

Since the second Intifada began in 2000, more than 70,000 Palestinians, including at least 850 women, have been arrested by Israel, according to Abdullah al-Zeghari, director of the Bethlehem branch of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society.

Many believe that imprisonment and torture are a core element of the Israeli occupation’s strategy of collective containment and punishment of the Palestinian people.

Anyone who the Israelis think will resist the occupation is in danger of being imprisoned. This includes nonmilitary political activists, community organizers, paramedics, doctors, journalists, teachers and students as well as resistance fighters.

Torture and death in Israeli jails

According to the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B’Tselem, more than 85 percent of Palestinians detained since 1967 have been subjected to torture, and at least 197 have died in prison. Medical negligence was the cause of 50 deaths. The rest were from torture or executions.

Until 1999 nearly all Palestinian prisoners were tortured for information based on the Landau Ministerial Committee (1987) policy that allowed “moderate physical and psychological pressure.” This was after an Israeli High Court of Justice ruling prohibited the use of several forms of torture.

The police and army, however, continue to use prohibited methods, similar to the treatment prisoners have been subjected to at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay prison.

Forms of torture used include beatings, kicking, strip searches, sleep deprivation, verbal abuse and psychological threats, including those against family members. Prisoners have been bound to chairs in painful positions or forced to crouch in a frog-like position.

Prisoners have been kept in solitary confinement or held in tents in the desert in extreme temperatures. Prisoners’ food has been placed next to the holes used as toilets. Inmates have been denied access to hot water or change of clothing.

All these conditions are against United Nations’ basic human rights standards.

Medical negligence

More than 1,600 prisoners suffer from chronic diseases but are denied care. The prison administration refuses to give permission for surgery for such life-threatening conditions as cancers and kidney transplants. It also refuses to allow medicine from families, physicians or the Red Cross.

Administrative detention, where a person can be held for extended periods of time with no trial or formal charges, is a violation of international and human rights law, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Administrative detention in Israel was originally based on the British Mandate Defense (Emergency) Regulation of 1945. It allowed police to hold a prisoner based on confidential information that the detainee and her/his lawyer are not allowed to see. While a detainee is allowed an appeal, the confidential nature of the “evidence” makes a fair trial impossible.

This practice is still in effect in Israel. According to Israel Prisons Service, as of May 31 there were at least 449 Palestinian administrative detainees. This number was as high as 849 in November 2007. Palestinian detainees have been held under administrative detention orders from six months to eight years.

Women and children

Presently 63 women political prisoners are held in Hasharon and Damoon prisons. Some are as young as 14. They are subjected to humiliating treatment, including strip searches, sometimes in the presence of men.

Pregnant women are forced to deliver their babies in prison cells where these infants continue to live with their mothers for years. Since 1967 the Israeli army has captured more than 10,000 Palestinian women. Eight hundred were kidnapped during the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000.

The Israeli Defense Forces have kidnapped a total of 7,600 children, male and female, since 2000. Some were as young as 12 years old. According to IPS February 2009 reports, there were 374 Palestinian children in jail; 50 were under 16 years old.

The Israeli army considers children age 16 to be adults. This is in violation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is a signer.

These children are also subjected to torture and forced confession. Many are held in jails with adult prisoners and subjected to sexual and physical violence. They may be denied family visits, deprived of medical care, and suffer from theft of personal belongings. They are also deprived of education, recreation facilities and culture, and are tortured during attempts to coerce them to collaborate with Israel.

Like Black and Latino/a prisoners in the U.S., most incarcerated Palestinians are held in jails far from their homes. Since Hamas was elected in 2006, Israel has outlawed family visits to prisoners.

Also like the U.S., Israel has enacted a new status called “unlawful combatant.” This legalizes the detention of Lebanese and Arab prisoners even when there is no evidence for trial. This law is now applied to the people of Gaza.

Palestinians in Gaza hold one Israeli soldier prisoner. They have offered to exchange him for those held by Israel. While using this prisoner as an excuse for its wars on the people of Gaza, Israel has refused to negotiate any prisoner exchange.

Palestinian prisoners have a long history of resistance in Israeli jails. They have organized hunger strikes to protest violent attacks on prisoners and denial of visits and medical care. In some cases thousands of prisoners have participated. The Israeli police and security forces have responded with great brutality.

The prisoners demonstrated their solidarity with the rest of Gaza during the July 2006 war on Lebanon and during the Israeli war and massacre in Gaza that began in December 2008.

The Palestinian people are requesting that the international community call protests and launch long-term campaigns to end the incarceration of Palestinians in Israeli prisons as part of full liberation for the people of Palestine.

US government list of "problem banks" tops 400

US government list of “problem banks” tops 400

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Figures released Thursday by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) show that the banking crisis continues to deepen in the US. At the same time, a handful of mega-banks have increased their control over the financial system and are posting rising profits, due to the policies of the Obama administration.

The number of firms on the FDIC’s “problem list” grew to 416 this quarter, up by 111 since March. A total of 81 institutions have failed so far this year. The list of banks in danger of failing now amounts to 5 percent of all banks in the US.

“Problem” banks—those deemed to be at high risk of insolvency—held nearly $300 billion in assets at the end of June, up from $80 billion in 2008. Institutions whose deposits are insured by the FDIC lost $3.7 billion in the second quarter, mostly because banks wrote off $48.9 billion in bad loans and set aside $66.9 billion to cover potential future losses. The $48.9 billion in loan write-offs was nearly double the figure for the second quarter of 2008.

Delinquencies on business loans doubled from a year earlier, and the total percentage of all loans and leases that were delinquent hit a new record of 4.35 percent, up from 3.75 percent in the first quarter.

The FDIC report showed how the “toxic asset” crisis has spread beyond residential mortgages. In the second quarter, defaults on commercial and industrial loans more than doubled from the previous year. Write-downs on credit card loans increased by 84.5 percent, as a record 9.95 percent of all credit card debt became delinquent.

Banks are holding $332 billion in loans that are more than 90 days past due and therefore at high risk of default. That is up by $41 billion since the end of March and the highest level since the FDIC began collecting data 26 years ago.

The FDIC report noted that its deposit insurance fund, which protects the bank deposits of consumers, fell to its lowest level since 1993. Deducting funds earmarked by the FDIC for institutions likely to fail, the total deposit insurance fund fell to $10.4 billion, down from $45.2 billion in 2008. The fund guarantees $6.2 trillion in consumers’ deposits.

Gerard Cassidy, a bank analyst at RBC Capital Markets, told the Wall Street Journal in an article published Friday, “We think there are hundreds of failures to come.”

The state of the banks underscores the fragility of the economic situation. Not only are job losses mounting and the wages and benefits of working people falling, there is a real possibility of a new financial implosion.

As banks have set aside more funds to cover potential defaults, their available lending pools have declined, and the banks have cut back their lending to consumers and businesses.

In response to rising default rates, banks have compensated by sharply increasing interest rates and fees on loans to consumers and small businesses. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that banks in the second quarter collected $22 billion in service charges and other fees, more than double the first quarter. These predatory practices are exacerbating the economic difficulties of millions of indebted Americans.

Despite the worsening of the economic situation for the banking sector as a whole, many of the largest banks are continuing to post profits and expect to pay out record bonuses. While the crisis is weeding out smaller and weaker banks, the larger institutions are flourishing amid a plentiful supply of cheap government credit and implicit assurances that they are “too big to fail.”

Banks with $100 billion or more in assets are borrowing money at interest rates on average 0.34 percentage points lower than their smaller rivals, according to the Wall Street Journal. That advantage was only 0.08 percent in 2007.

An article Friday in the Washington Post (“Banks ‘Too Big to Fail’ Have Grown Even Bigger”) noted: “The crisis may be turning out very well for many of the behemoths that dominate US finance. A series of federally arranged mergers safely landed troubled banks on the decks of more stable firms. And it allowed the survivors to emerge from the turmoil with strengthened market positions, giving them even greater control over consumer lending and more potential to profit.”

The newspaper reported that JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America now each hold more than 10 percent of all deposits in the country. These banks, plus Citigroup, issue half of all mortgages and two-thirds of all credit card loans. In the past year alone, the ten largest banks have increased their share of bank deposits from 40.6 percent to 48.2 percent.

The large banks are taking advantage of their monopolistic control over the market to drive up fees. The Post noted that in the past quarter these banks raised their deposit fees by an average of 8 percent, while the smaller banks lowered their fees by 12 percent.

In 2008, during the height of the crisis, the government mediated a large number of high-profile bank mergers and takeovers, ostensibly in the interest of preventing a crisis of confidence. These mergers violated the government’s own rules and regulations.

The Post reports: “JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo were each allowed to hold more than 10 percent of the nation’s deposits, despite a rule barring such a practice. In several metropolitan regions, these banks were permitted to take market share beyond what the Department of Justice’s anti-trust guidelines typically allow, Federal Reserve documents show.”

Since these mergers, the Obama administration has, through a number of schemes, made available trillions of dollars in cash and cheap credit to ensure that these banks are “made whole.”

“The oligopoly has tightened,” Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy.com told the Post. “There’s been a significant consolidation among the big banks, and it’s kind of hollowing out the banking system,” he added.

The Wall Street Journal quoted Ed Najarian, head of bank research at International Strategy & Investment Group Inc., as saying that major banks which received billions of dollars in government bailout funds are “chomping at the bit” to buy failed banks from the FDIC. Referring to the FDIC’s dire report on the state of the banking system as a whole, he said the big banks were “looking at it as more opportunity to acquire banks.”

This restructuring of the banking system, in which unprecedented economic power is concentrated in the hands of a few mega-banks, is the result of a deliberate policy by both the Bush and Obama administrations. The crisis precipitated by the speculation and profiteering of Wall Street is being exploited to increase the dominance of the most powerful sections of finance capital. Those overseeing the process, such as former New York Federal Reserve President and current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, were themselves deeply involved in the practices that led to the deepest slump since the Great Depression.

The term “financial oligarchy” used here to describe the nature of American society acquires a very concrete meaning. With the active collaboration of the federal government, the largest banks are consolidating their grip on the financial system and on society as a whole.

FDIC: Number of troubled banks rises to 416

FDIC: Number of troubled banks rises to 416

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The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said Thursday that the number of troubled banks rose to 416 at the end of June from 305 at the end of March. FDIC said this is the largest number of banks on its "problem list" since June 30, 1994, when 434 banks were on the list. Assets at troubled banks totaled $299.8 billion, the highest level since Dec. 31, 1993, the agency said. Banks insured by the FDIC swung to a total quarterly loss of $3.7 billion from last year when they reported a total profit of $4.8 billion. Total reserves of the Deposit Insurance Fund stood at $42 billion, with the contingent loss reserve falling to $10.4 billion from $13 billion over the second quarter.

1,000 Banks to Fail In Next Two Years: Bank CEO

1,000 Banks to Fail In Next Two Years: Bank CEO

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The US banking system will lose some 1,000 institutions over the next two years, said John Kanas, whose private equity firm bought BankUnited of Florida in May.

“We’ve already lost 81 this year,” Kanas told CNBC. “The numbers are climbing every day. Many of these institutions nobody’s ever heard of. They're smaller companies.”

Failed banks tend to be smaller and private, which exacerbates the problem for small business borrowers, said Kanas, who became CEO of BankUnited when his firm bought the bank and is the former chairman and CEO of North Fork bank.

“Government money has propped up the very large institutions as a result of the stimulus package,” he said. “There’s really very little lifeline available for the small institutions that are suffering.”

This comes at a time when the FDIC has established new rules on bank sales. Private equity, for instance, would have to hold double the capital of their competitors in order to buy such an institution, said Kanas.

“This will have somewhat of a chilling effect on our participation,” he said. “As a result of having to keep higher capital levels, we’ll see lower prices coming from that sector.”

Of the 81 failed banks this year, two have been successfully acquired by private equity, he said. Kanas’ private equity firm bought UnitedBank, the failed Florida-based bank, from the FDIC in May. Regulators also allowed the sale of IndyMac Bank of California earlier this year.

“We are seeing more people step up and lobby bids in this situation,” he said. “We’re seeing more players mostly as a result of being attracted to the sector. I’m not so sure that will continue now that the rules have been ratchet it up.”

Meanwhile, much of the commercial realty problem resides in the regional and small community banks, said Kanas, because larger banks haven’t fueled that sector in the past.

“The market is expecting about the way we were expecting,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re not seeing any evidence of a recovery in the real estate market in the southern Florida market,” he said.

The Secret Government

The Secret Government

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It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of "fair play" must be reconsidered.


Though these words echo his famous endorsement of working "the dark side" in order to triumph in the "war on terror," they were not, in fact, written by Dick Cheney. They come from the Doolittle Report, which was commissioned by President Eisenhower in 1954 to craft an intelligence strategy for winning the cold war. From a strategic perspective, the threat posed by global communism, headquartered in a massive, nuclear-armed superpower with almost 6 million men under arms, and Al Qaeda, a networked, globally distributed group of thousands of nonstate actors, could not be more different. But the national security state's understanding of each as an existential threat was, and continues to be, nearly identical. The enemy is ingenious, relentless and unencumbered by the procedural and moral niceties that hamstring the bureaucrats of a liberal democracy. Victory--indeed, survival--requires us to become more like them.

And so: the CIA contracted a Mafia boss to murder Fidel Castro, sent biotoxins to the Republic of Congo with orders to poison Patrice Lumumba and tested LSD on unsuspecting citizens (one of whom jumped out of a window to his death). It fomented coups and bloodshed against democratically elected governments, while the National Security Agency, in coordination with the major telegram companies, read every single telegram coming in or going out of the country for three decades. The FBI infiltrated peaceful antiwar groups, breaking up marriages of activists with forged evidence of infidelity, while surveilling civil rights leaders with an assortment of bugs and break-ins. It even attempted to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into committing suicide, shipping him tapes of him midcoitus with a mistress and a note that said, "There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation."

We know all this (and much more) thanks to the work of the Church Committee. Chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church in 1975-76, the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities labored for sixteen months to produce a 5,000-page report that is a canonical history of the secret government. Over the past three decades the Church Committee has faded into relative obscurity. (I was somewhat surprised to discover how few people my age had heard of it.) But in the wake of further disclosures of crimes and abuses committed by the Bush administration and the escalating war of words between the CIA and Congress over just how much Congress knew about (and approved) these activities, the specter of the committee has begun to haunt Capitol Hill.

Mostly, the Church Committee is invoked by conservatives as a cautionary tale, a case of liberal overreach that handicapped the nation's intelligence operations for decades. Dick Cheney bemoaned the fact that his time as President Ford's chief of staff was "the low point" of presidential authority, thanks to a feckless Congress "all too often swayed by the public opinion of the moment."

But a growing chorus of voices, some of whom served on the original committee and some of whom currently occupy oversight positions in Congress, have begun to refer to the Church Committee as a model for the kind of sustained inquiry needed today. Congressman Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, has served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence since 2003. When I met him recently, his office had a table full of books and papers about intelligence oversight and the Church Committee's legacy. "The intelligence community has not undergone comprehensive examination since then," he said, "and it needs it."

In a recent interview with the Washington Independent, former Senator Gary Hart, who served on the Church Committee, said there are "sufficient parallels" between the abuses of the cold war and those revealed in the past few years to "warrant a kind of sweeping investigation." Senators Pat Leahy and Russ Feingold have expressed support for a commission of inquiry. Even former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who previously criticized the post-Church intelligence community's risk-averse ways, is on board. "In a democracy with Congressional oversight...when you've had this period where there appears to have been excesses, [where] there appears to have been illegality," he told me, "you need a comprehensive checkup."

The original Church Committee ushered in an era of reforms that we've come to take for granted: the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts and executive orders banning assassinations. But it's hard to survey the legal and moral wreckage of the "war on terror" and conclude that those reforms have stood the test of time. When the country faced another "implacable" enemy, the reforms of the Church Committee were subverted, circumvented, rolled back and outpaced.

To take just the most recent examples, press reports indicate that the CIA may have been training agents to conduct assassinations of Al Qaeda leaders during the first six months of the Obama administration, before either CIA director Leon Panetta or Congress was notified. What's more, according to reports in the New York Times and this magazine, the CIA outsourced parts of an assassination program to the private security firm Blackwater. As this article goes to press, Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed a special prosecutor, John Durham, to determine if a criminal investigation should go forward against CIA agents and contractors for torturing detainees. Durham's narrowly defined inquiry targets fewer than a dozen cases and falls far short of the "sweeping investigation" called for by Hart, Clarke and others.

Once again, it seems a comprehensive accounting is long overdue.

On December 22, 1974, the New York Times published an explosive front-page story by Seymour Hersh. Drawn from leaked portions of a 704-page internal CIA review of covert activities, known within the agency as "the family jewels," the article detailed the activities of a massive domestic spying program called Operation Chaos. "Huge CIA Operation Reported Against Antiwar Forces and Other Dissidents During the Nixon Years," read the headline.

The article created an uproar. In the wake of Watergate and the revelations of Nixon's recklessly lawless executive branch, the public was primed to think the worst. Church, a liberal, saw an opportunity to ferret out abuses, rein in an out-of-control intelligence apparatus and give himself a prime platform from which to run for president. He advocated for a special committee to investigate the activities of the various intelligence agencies. Senate Republicans objected, and the White House sought to cut off momentum by establishing its own commission of inquiry, chaired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. But the press didn't let up. Hersh published more startling revelations, and CBS's Daniel Schorr began airing reports of the CIA's involvement in international assassinations. For a nation that had suffered the traumatic deaths of JFK, RFK and MLK in the past dozen years, this was the last straw. "Murder," playwright Lillian Hellman wrote in a New York Times op-ed. "We didn't think of ourselves that way once upon a time."

On January 27, 1975, the Senate voted to create the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities. (The committee also had a House counterpart, chaired by Otis Pike.) Each of its eleven members, six Democrats and five Republicans, appointed a staff liaison. The committee was given broad latitude, subpoena power and, crucially, a staff of 150. "We were in a huge auditorium in the new Senate office building," recalls Barbara Banoff, who joined the staff of the committee as a young attorney from New York. "They were just little cubicles with office dividers; if somebody was yelling at one place in the auditorium, everyone else could hear them."

The staff was impressive. Chief counsel Frederick "Fritz" A.O. Schwarz was a top-flight litigator at a white-shoe New York firm. Other positions were filled by career intelligence officers, attorneys and academics. "I thought the committee was outstanding," says Loch Johnson, who served as Church's special assistant on the committee and now edits the journal Intelligence and National Security. "I was kind of amazed by that.... Usually in committees you get a hodgepodge.... Look at the résumés of the people: a lot of great attorneys and social scientists with well-regarded credentials."

Immediately, Schwarz says, it became apparent that the magnitude of the task before them was overwhelming. "We had to pick a few subjects and look at the subjects in real depth because if we didn't do that...there were so many things that were coming in as tips that we could never get any of them well."

The committee broke its staff up into task forces, each focusing on a discrete area, such as the CIA, assassinations and the FBI's domestic spying. Sensing the particularly acute outrage over revelations of the CIA's assassination plots, the committee worked hard to produce an interim report on the matter, which it released on November 20, 1975. It contained many of the more lurid examples of CIA high jinks--including plans to kill Castro with poisoned cigars--that would come to define the agency's image for an entire generation of Americans.

As the staff dug deeper, they came to realize that something was very rotten indeed at the heart of the national security state. "I think we were all shocked at the extent of the abuses of power by these agencies," says Johnson. "We had, of course, read Sy Hersh's piece. Cointelpro--that was not a part of Sy Hersh's article, and that was simply shocking. Not only did it involve domestic surveillance but domestic covert action. There were a number of things that were really eye-opening."

The committee's investigations had a radicalizing effect on even the top staffers like Schwarz and minority counsel Curtis Smothers. "As they were reading our reports," says Banoff, "we'd hear from Fritz, who had just read some draft report on some particularly outrageous misdeed: 'Goddamn it!' And he'd pound the desk. And then from Curtis: 'Those bastards!' Pound the desk. It was like a counterpuntal hymn."

Contrary to right-wing caricature, the committee was not staffed with crusading liberals. Indeed, almost every former staff member I interviewed made a point of emphasizing that the staff was not particularly ideological and operated without fear or favor. "The best thing they did," says Banoff, was "they didn't have separate majority and minority staff. I never got asked what party I belonged to, at all. That wasn't what Fritz was looking for. The staffs were integrated; we all worked together. We really did. We didn't have any obstructionism from a senator or a senator's designee."

Bill Bader, a former CIA analyst and naval intelligence officer chosen to run the committee's CIA task force, doesn't quite agree. "John Tower and Barry Goldwater [Republican senators on the committee] didn't think there should be anything at all," says Bader. "That was their whole view of the whole thing, and they made Church and [fellow committee member Walter] Mondale's life kind of miserable." That said, at the staff level Bader says his relationships inside the CIA helped a great deal. "But most of the analytical world was very happy for me to have that role because they knew me, because they knew I was fair, serious and I didn't have an ax to grind."

Particularly crucial was the reluctant compliance of CIA director William Colby. Colby's predecessor, Richard Helms, was of the old school: blatantly contemptuous of oversight of any kind. According to Bader, Helms felt that "this investigation was traitorous, pure and simple; you don't do things like that." Colby, on the other hand, was committed to reforming the agency and, some say, privately feared that if he fought Congress, there was a possibility it would try to get rid of the agency altogether.

Colby's attitude proved crucial to the committee's success. Though endowed with subpoena power, it had no enforcement capability to compel the Ford administration to turn over relevant documents, and at first the administration stonewalled. But the Church Committee benefited greatly from playing good cop to the House Pike Committee's bad cop, which quickly became embroiled in an escalating series of showdowns over testimony and disclosure, which Henry Kissinger also tried to stonewall. The Church Committee emerged as a kind of middle path--the sober, responsible investigators the administration could work with. "One of the reasons that the Senate committee got along well [with the White House]," says staff member Richard Betts, now a professor of political science at Columbia University, "is because [White House officials] were really pissed off at the Pike Committee, which they considered partisan and more flaky."

Committee investigators ultimately read through thousands of previously unreleased files. Without this access, the Church Committee couldn't have exposed what it did. Which prompts the question: were Congress to undertake a similar inquiry today, would the White House cooperate?

So far, the White House's record on disclosure has been disappointing. With the notable and admirable exception of its decision to release the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel's (OLC) memos authorizing torture, the Obama administration has largely continued to fight against disclosure of everything from photos of detainee abuse to even the most basic facts about the US detention center at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. It has invoked the state secrets privilege in federal court to keep hidden details about the Bush administration's wiretapping program and what exactly happened to detainees at Guantánamo. (Full disclosure: my wife works in the White House counsel's office.)

In these and other cases, however, the White House is fighting outside groups like the ACLU, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which it can try to stonewall in the courts with relatively little press attention. In the case of Congressional subpoenas, it would be impossible to replicate that strategy without provoking a serious political outcry. Indeed, the partisan incentives in such a scenario may work in favor of disclosure. As unlikely as it may seem, Republicans on such a committee might find themselves zealously pursuing more disclosure. When the White House released the notorious OLC torture memos, Dick Cheney responded with an uncharacteristic push for more disclosure, arguing that releasing other documents would show the effectiveness of torture in foiling terror plots.

There was a somewhat similar dynamic in effect with the Church Committee, one that helped create momentum for greater levels of transparency. Since the committee began in the wake of Nixon's resignation and revelations about his deceptions, abuses and sociopathic pursuit of grudges, Church and many Democrats had every reason to believe they would be chiefly unmasking the full depths of Nixon's perfidy. Quickly, however, it became clear that Nixon was a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. Kennedy and Johnson had, with J. Edgar Hoover, put in place many of the illegal policies and programs. Secret documents obtained by the committee even revealed that the sainted FDR had ordered IRS audits of his political enemies. Republicans on the committee, then, had as much incentive to dig up the truth as did their Democratic counterparts.

As historian Kathy Olmsted argues in her book Challenging the Secret Government, Church was never quite able to part with this conception of good Democrats/bad Republicans. Confronted with misdeeds under Kennedy and Johnson, he chose to view the CIA as a rogue agency, as opposed to one executing the president's wishes. This characterization became the fulcrum of debate within the committee. At one point Church referred to the CIA as a "rogue elephant," causing a media firestorm. But the final committee report shows that to the degree the agency and other parts of the secret government were operating with limited control from the White House, it was by design. Walter Mondale came around to the view that the problem wasn't the agencies themselves but the accretion of secret executive power: "the grant of powers to the CIA and to these other agencies," he said during a committee hearing, "is, above all, a grant of power to the president."

A contemporary Church Committee would do well to follow Mondale's approach and not Church's. It must comprehensively evaluate the secret government, its activities and its relationship to Congress stretching back through several decades of Democratic and Republican administrations. Such a broad scope would insulate the committee from charges that it was simply pursuing a partisan vendetta against a discredited Republican administration, but it is also necessary to understand the systemic problems and necessary reforms.

Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit and author of several books sharply critical of Bush's management of the "war on terror," says he would be "happy" to testify before such a committee to explain the rendition program he designed and supervised under Clinton. That program allowed the United States to capture wanted terrorists and send them back to other countries to face prosecution and, in some cases, likely torture and mistreatment. It was this program that would come to serve as the foundation for the Bush policy of "extraordinary rendition," which amounted to the extralegal disappearing of suspected terrorists around the world.

We don't know much about what other secret programs Clinton and other former presidents implemented, but it's possible that under sustained scrutiny the sharp division between the Bush administration and its predecessors will begin to blur.

The Church Committee's final report was released on April 26, 1976, in six books. Its recommendations laid the groundwork for a series of reforms that more or less constitute the current architecture of intelligence oversight. Before the Church Committee, there was no stand-alone intelligence committee overseeing the executive. Whatever communication there was between the two branches of government was decidedly one-way. "[CIA director] Allen Dulles would come up himself to the Hill," Bill Bader told me, "not to a committee room. And he would sit down with [lawmakers] out in the Congressional corridors and whisper things into their ears and say, Can't tell anyone about them. And then he would go back up to the CIA."

In 1976 the Senate created the Select Committee on Intelligence, and the House followed suit with its own Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence a year later. Also in 1976 President Ford signed Executive Order 11905, which flatly stated, "No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination." Two years later, Congress passed and President Carter signed FISA, which provided clear procedures for covert action, surveillance and oversight. The law created the special FISA court, which grants warrants for wiretapping and surveillance of anyone on American soil as well as Americans abroad. The Church Committee's revelations also had a profound effect on the bureaucratic culture of the CIA, NSA and FBI. At all three agencies, internal legal controls were put in place requiring layers of attorneys to sign off on any possibly questionable activities.

But for all these needed reforms, it's impossible to look at the past eight years and conclude they were sufficient. If cold war presidents were surreptitious and/or cavalier about the lawlessness of their actions, the Bush administration perfected a kind of perverse legalism, using sympathetic lawyers to decree legal that which was manifestly illegal. It was an ingeniously devious approach. By relying on John Yoo, a loyal ideologue inside the OLC, Cheney et al. were able to perform an end run around the extensive legal checks and restraints created precisely as a response to the Church Committee's findings. Indeed, the reason the infamous OLC memos are so garishly specific is that CIA lawyers, still operating with a memory of the Church Committee, were insistent on obtaining explicit sign-off for every action and technique that they (quite rightly) believed to be of dubious legality.

Similarly, Congressional oversight proved no match for a determined executive. Many critics from across the ideological spectrum, from Clarke to Scheuer, note that this is at least partly because Congress often would rather not know what is going on behind the curtain. But the controversy over just what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knew about the CIA's use of torture, and when she knew it, underscores how dysfunctional the notification system has become. Created as part of the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980, the so-called Gang of Eight system allows a president, under emergency circumstances, to restrict briefings on covert activities to the leader of each party in both houses and the top member of each party of the House and Senate intelligence committees. What was intended as a limited briefing to be given only temporarily during crises has emerged, instead, as the standard.

Clarke explained its shortcomings to me this way: "Essentially what happens, you're a member of the Gang of Eight. You get a phone call: 'We have to come and brief you.' They ask you to go to the vault. They brief you. You can't take notes, you can't have your staff there and you can't tell anybody." In addition, each member is briefed separately and individually, so they can't even discuss the briefing and ask questions in a group setting. "That's oversight?" Clarke asks. "That's a pretense at oversight. That's a box check. The law required us to do that, and we did this."

That "box check" allowed the Bush administration to claim that Democrats in Congress signed off on many of the most obviously illegal programs, from warrantless wiretapping to torture. Democrats can counter that they were barred by law from acting on whatever they knew. In other words, both sides can claim they fulfilled their legal duties.

"One of the things that would be interesting for a modern version of the Church Committee," says Robert Borosage, who worked at the Center for National Security Studies to help publicize the original committee's findings, "was that they'd be forced to confront the fact that a lot of the reforms passed after the first one have failed. So the question becomes, What do we do now?"

While many of the legal and institutional reforms ushered in by the Church Committee have been degraded and evaded, I believe it would be a mistake to argue that the committee failed. Its most enduring legacy is the political and cultural understanding of the relationship between secrecy and abuse; it narrated a moral fable about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Public debates over intelligence are qualitatively different from other policy discussions. In a debate over whether, say, the economic stimulus has been effective, there is a presumption that all participants are working from a common set of data--GDP growth, unemployment, government spending, etc.--but with different interpretations and emphases. Such is not the case when the issue is the effectiveness of intelligence programs or the scope of covert activities. Those debates are conducted on fundamentally unequal footing. Critics may charge that torture is counterproductive and produces bad intelligence, but defenders of the secret government can wave away such concerns by saying, more or less, You don't know what we know.

What the Church Committee did was to eliminate this inequality by wrenching an entire segment of the state into the light of day. It created a universally accepted set of facts, a canonical public record that turned the secret conversations of the powerful and initiated into the material for a broad debate. It brought the world of intelligence into the public sphere, the place where self-governance ought to take place.

Selling a contemporary inquiry modeled on the Church Committee won't be easy. Since the mid-1970s the right wing has crafted a deeply distorted but potent fable about its impact and legacy. The tale goes like this: the inquisition pursued by the Church Committee subjected intelligence agencies to scorn and burned the agents and analysts. "In the years that followed, it was extremely difficult to get FBI agents to volunteer for counterterrorism assignments," argued two ex-FBI officials in a March op-ed in the Washington Times. "The risk-avoidance culture and excessive restrictions on gathering intelligence that resulted from the Church hearings and other congressional attacks on the intelligence community were major factors in our failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.... [A] new Church Committee-like public inquiry might easily have a similar chilling effect on our ability to recruit good people for future counterterrorism activities."

It's not hard to find lots of people within the intelligence community who will give you more or less the same line. Richard Clarke has little patience for it. "What bothers me," he says, "is the CIA's tendency whenever they're criticized to say, If you do your job, if you do oversight seriously--which Congress almost never does--then we'll pout. Some of us, many, will not just pout; we'll retire early. Our morale will be hurt." And if morale is hurt and the agencies are gutted, they argue, the country will be exposed to attack. In other words: "If you, Congress, do oversight, then we'll all die. Can you imagine FEMA or the agricultural department saying we're all going to retire if you conduct oversight?" Clarke asks in disbelief.

The principle of oversight aside, the right-wing story about the committee ruining intelligence capabilities for a generation posits a golden age of über-competent intelligence-gathering that simply never existed. The activities described in the committee report, more often than not, have a kind of Keystone Kops flavor to them. "From its beginning," says Clarke, "when [the CIA] does covert action as opposed to clandestine activity...it regularly fucks up. I remember sitting with [Defense Secretary] Bob Gates when he was deputy national security adviser, and he said, I don't think CIA should do covert action; CIA ought to be an intelligence collection and analysis [agency]."

At the peak of its cold war powers, the American security apparatus was able to attain all kinds of information about the Russians (secret information that KGB files have subsequently shown the Russians knew we knew) but was unable to learn the most basic facts about "the enemy." We failed to anticipate the invasion of Afghanistan and routinely overestimated the strength of the Soviet economy. Indeed, the failure to understand and foresee the internal pressures on the Soviet Union may be the greatest failure of US cold war intelligence, one that had absolutely nothing to do with the Church Committee and its aftermath.

In his insightful 1998 book Secrecy, neocon patron saint Daniel Patrick Moynihan argues that by cordoning off discrete pieces of information, secrecy actually impedes intelligence-gathering rather than facilitates it. "Secrecy is for losers," Moynihan concludes. "For people who don't know how important information really is. The Soviet Union realized this too late.... It is time to dismantle government secrecy, this most pervasive of Cold War-era regulations."

It's hard to imagine that the White House would be enthusiastic about such an undertaking. Obama has insisted, routinely, unwaveringly, that he is "more interested in looking forward than...in looking backwards." At one level this seems a shocking abrogation of the executive branch's chief constitutional responsibility, to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." But presumably the thinking goes something like this: the president has a limited amount of political capital, and he can spend it on major, once-in-a-generation reforms of the American social contract--universal healthcare and cap and trade--or he can spend it pursuing justice for the perpetrators of the previous administration's crimes. As morally worthy as the latter might be, it won't get anyone healthcare or stop the planet from melting; it won't provide a new foundation for progressive governance.

But as self-consciously pragmatic as this posture is, it's proving wildly impractical to implement. The reason is that the White House has limited control over when and what is revealed about crimes and misdeeds of the Bush years, and every time a new revelation hits the papers, such as the recent disclosures of Blackwater's involvement with the CIA assassination unit and interrogators' use of "mock executions," it dominates the news cycle. Since the White House itself has defined such revelations as a "distraction," every time they are in the news it is, by its own definition, distracted.

The benefit of a new Church Committee would be that it would corral these "distractions" into a coherent undertaking, initiated in Congress, within a fixed time period. It would also provide a framework for systematic investigation of the policies rather than selective prosecutions of those at the bottom of the hierarchy who carried them out.

"Because try as Obama [may] to avoid investigations and looking backwards, he's being dragged into it over and over again," says Clarke. "It would be better for him if Congress just said, You know, Barack, we're just gonna provide these wise men, give them subpoena authority. It's not on you, Barack. There was this excess and that excess and a pattern of excesses, and you know, it clears the air.... Now you have the impression that there's a bunch of stinking turds under the rug."

Perhaps the greatest argument for such an undertaking is the simplest: citizens have a right to know what crimes have been committed in their names. Many of the relevant and damning facts have already been conclusively established. We know we waterboarded Abu Zubaydah, a borderline mentally ill member of the Al Qaeda entourage, eighty-three times in one month. We know the NSA spied on an untold number of Americans without warrants. We know that the CIA sent captured detainees to the custody of regimes with abysmal human rights records, with the explicit understanding they would be tortured.

The Church Committee came at a time when the public was in the midst of a wrenching (and necessary) loss of innocence. But in our age, secret government crimes and plots are almost a cliché. Polling shows trust in government has returned roughly to its mid-'70s nadir. The danger now isn't naïveté but cynicism--that we just come to accept that the government will commit crimes in our name under the cover of secrecy and that such activities are more or less business as usual, about which nothing can be done. But something can be done. Something must be done. And Congress should do it.