Tuesday, February 9, 2010

We Must Lift the Veil on US Troops in Pakistan

Four weeks after earthquake--Haiti: hunger sparks growing protests

Haiti: hunger sparks growing protests

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On Sunday, Haiti saw one of its largest protests since the January 12 earthquake, as four weeks after the disaster, frustration with continuing hunger and homelessness mount.

Haiti  sceneA scene of the devastation in Haiti shortly after the earthquake

Thousands of demonstrators, most of them women, marched through the streets of Petionville, a Port-au-Prince suburb, denouncing the local mayor, Lydie Parent, for hoarding food for resale and not distributing it to the hungry.

A significant amount of food aid has been channeled into Haiti’s informal markets, sold at elevated prices and clearly yielding a profit for some officials who are in charge of its distribution.

Congregating in front of the local municipal building, the demonstrators chanted “if the police shoot at us, we will burn everything,” Reuters reported.

“I am hungry, I am dying of hunger,” one of the marchers told the news agency. “Lydie Parent keeps the rice and doesn’t give us anything. They never go distribute where we live.”

Petionville, up the mountain from the capital, has traditionally been the preserve of Haiti’s economic elite. Shanty towns sprung up around the walled mansions of the country’s businessmen and politicians, however. Since January 12, one of the principal watering holes of the well-heeled, the Petionville Club, has been transformed into the capital’s biggest homeless encampment, where more than 40,000 quake victims have sought refuge on the club’s nine-hole golf course.

Sent in to police this yawning social divide are 360 US combat troops from the 82nd Airborne Division, who have set up camp around the club’s swimming pool and restaurant.

Last Friday, former US President Bill Clinton was also met by protests upon his return to Haiti. Hundreds gathered outside the judicial police headquarters, the makeshift headquarters of the Haitian government, during Clinton’s visit there with the country’s President Réne Préval.

“Our children are burning in the sun. We have a right to tents. We have a right to shelter,” one of the protesters, Mentor Natacha, 30, a mother of two, told Agence France Presse.

Hundreds of others demonstrated outside the US embassy.

Clinton, who was named the United Nations special envoy to Haiti last May, was forced to acknowledge the failure of sufficient aid to reach the majority of the Haitian people nearly a month after the earthquake. “I’m sorry it’s taken this long,” he said. “I’m trying to get to what the bottlenecks are.”

Clinton also visited the Gheskio medical clinic in Port-au-Prince, announcing the donation of various supplies by his foundation. However, the clinic’s director, Jean William Pape, told AFP that the facility is overwhelmed and has not received adequate aid.

“It has been huge on us because in addition to providing the care to our HIV/AIDS patients, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, we have to take care of around 6,000 refugees,” said Pape. “We don’t have enough supplies. We don’t have tents for them and the rainy season is coming and we live in a flood area.”

According to press reports, barely 10,000 tents of the 200,000 requested by the Haitian government have arrived in the country. Clinton said that another 27,000 would come in the next week, still grossly inadequate to meet the massive need.

The ex-US president felt compelled to deny that he had been sent in as a de facto colonial governor of the devastated Caribbean nation. “What I don’t want to be is the governor of Haiti,” said Clinton. “I want to build the capacity of the country to chart its own course. They can trust me not to be a neocolonialist, I’m too old.”

Whatever Clinton’s personal role, his attempt at self-deprecating humor cannot hide the fact that Washington is playing precisely the role of a neocolonial power in Haiti. Within hours of the earthquake, the Pentagon launched an operation that has thus far seen the deployment of some 16,000 troops and the assumption of US military control over the country’s airports and port facilities. US naval warships and Coast Guard vessels have imposed a blockade off Haiti’s shores, ensuring that any of the earthquake’s victims seeking to escape to the US will be swiftly repatriated.

Colonel Gregory Kane, the operations officer for US Task Force Haiti, said that US troops would remain in Haiti as long as necessary. “We are in Haiti as long as needed and are welcomed by the government of Haiti,” he said.

Aid groups and government officials in Europe and Latin America have sharply questioned the US militarization of the response to the Haitian disaster. Many blame Washington’s making the deployment of US troops—rather than the provision of desperately needed aid—the top priority in the first critical days following the earthquake for increasing the death toll.

The militarization of aid and obsession with security remain clearly in evidence nearly a month after the earthquake. This was reflected in a report by the AFP on food distributions over the weekend. “Surrounded by dozens of heavily-armed US soldiers, old ladies and even young men struggled under the burning tropical sun to carry away sacks of rice,” the news agency reported. “In another part of the city a detachment of around a dozen Argentine troops, some enclosed in an armored personnel carrier equipped with a turret gun, escorted a small flat-bed truck laden with food to its destination.”

For its part, the Haitian government has appeared largely powerless and has grown increasingly unpopular with the Haitian people. Graffiti reading “Down with Préval,” the Haitian president, has begun appearing with increasing frequency on walls in the capital.

President Préval, who has been virtually unseen by the population since the quake hit, announced over the weekend, while meeting with officials from the neighboring Dominican Republic, that the estimate of the number of people killed in the earthquake has risen to a quarter of a million, while 250,000 homes have been destroyed and more than a million people are facing an urgent need for temporary shelter with the rainy season fast approaching.

Speaking with the media on Saturday, he urged the Haitian population to remain calm. “We understand the difficulties faced by the people who sleep outside, homeless, we understand the frustration about food and water distribution being difficult,” he said. “But it is in discipline, in solidarity, in patience that we will be able to solve the problems that confront us.”

The real class position of the Haitian regime was evident in an interview given by the country’s Prime Minister to the Colombian daily País. “The ones who lost the most in Haiti on January 12 weren’t the poor, it was what was left of the middle class,” he said. “Because the poor didn’t have houses before, and they still don’t have houses. The middle class, which had stayed in Haiti, which had made some effort to build a house, a small business, lost everything.”

The fact that the poor “didn’t have houses” has been cited by relief organizations as a significant factor in the present crisis, in that they have no means of rebuilding and nowhere to go. According to the Catholic relief group Caritas International, 70 percent of those displaced by the earthquake in the capital did not own their own homes before the disaster struck.

More than half a million of these people have left Port-au-Prince, with the encouragement of the government, to return to rural areas from which many of the capital’s poorer layers had migrated and where they still have relatives.

The reason that people had migrated to the capital in the first place, however, was that they could not sustain themselves through agriculture. Now these areas have seen a massive influx of hungry people for which there is little or no food. Relief supplies have yet to arrive in the rural areas, and there is growing fear that farmers will begin using their seed supplies for food, endangering next year’s harvest and leaving even greater hunger.

Meanwhile, the Miami Herald reported Saturday that there is a new crisis with the emergency medical flights that bring severely injured Haitian children to US hospitals for treatment, and that once again it is costing lives.

Last month, the military suspended the flights after Florida Governor Charlie Crist sent a letter to the Obama administration questioning whether the federal government would assume responsibility for the costs being incurred at the state’s hospitals, where most of the young Haitian victims had been brought.

After a growing public outcry over the suspension, the Obama administration agreed to foot the bill through the US Department of Health and Human Services.

But now, the department has imposed such stringent eligibility requirements for the medical flights that few patients qualify, and those who don’t are dying in Haiti.

“They want paperwork. We don’t have paperwork,” Miami Children’s Hospital Dr. William Muinos, who heads the pediatric unit of a field hospital in Port-au-Prince told the Herald. “They don’t have passports. They don’t have IDs. They don’t have homes. They don’t have anything.”

The paper cited the case of a 15-year-old girl, Whitney Constant, who was told she would be taken to Florida for treatment, but then was stopped by the government requirements. Three days after she was to have been flown out, she contracted gangrene, forcing doctors to amputate the lower half of one leg and the foot of the other.

Another 14-year-old child died of a pulmonary embolism last Tuesday. Doctors said she would have survived had she been evacuated. “She was told she would leave,” said Dr. Muinos. “Within 24 hours, that promise was denied.”

“The Department of Health and Human Services lifted the embargo on flights but made the criteria so strict that you can’t get anybody in,” said Elizabeth Grieg, director of the field hospital. She told the Herald that since the flights resumed only nine of the hospitals’ patients have been accepted, six of whom had been scheduled to go out before the military suspended them last month.

Tensions worsen between Israel and Syria

Tensions worsen between Israel and Syria

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Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister from the far-right Israel Beiteinu, last week directly threatened President Bashar Assad that in the event of war Syria would be defeated and his regime would collapse.

Lieberman, speaking last week at a business conference at Bar-Ilan University, said, “Assad should know that if he attacks, he will not only lose the war. Neither he nor his family will remain in power.” He continued, “Our message should be that if Assad’s father lost a war but remained in power, the son should know that an attack would cost him his regime.”

He also said that Damascus could forget any hope of regaining the Golan Heights, which Israel took in the 1976 war, adding, “Whoever thinks territorial concessions will disconnect Syria from the axis of evil is mistaken…. We must make Syria recognize that just as it relinquished its dream of a greater Syria that controls Lebanon ... that it will have to relinquish its ultimate demand regarding the Golan Heights.”

Lieberman’s belligerent statements are of a piece with his previous declarations that Israeli-Arab legislators who meet Palestinian militants should be executed and that the president of Egypt could “go to hell.” His remarks follow weeks of escalating tensions between Israel, Lebanon and Syria and in direct response to Assad stating that Israel was pushing the Middle East toward a new war.

Last Tuesday, Israeli Premier Binyamin Netanyahu accused Lebanon of allowing Hezbollah to increase its stockpile of weapons from 14,000 rockets in 2006 to some 40,000 capable of reaching towns and cities in southern Israel in violation of UN Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the 33-day war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006. Anti-Israel demonstrations are expected in Lebanon to mark the second anniversary of the death of Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh, widely assumed to have been assassinated by Israel.

Last month, Yossi Peled, an Israeli minister without portfolio and a reserve army general, warned that Israel was heading towards a new war with Hezbollah. “We are heading toward a new confrontation in the north, but I don’t know when it will happen, just as we did not know when the second Lebanon war would erupt,” Peled told Israeli radio.

Israeli troops have been deployed along Israel’s northern border, with hints of a military operation in Lebanon in May.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, no friend of Hezbollah, has voiced his fear of another “Israeli intervention” and strengthened relations with Syria, his erstwhile foe. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the next war would “change the face of the region.”

Syria has indicated that a conflict in south Lebanon could lead to war with Syria, saying that Damascus considered any threat to Lebanon’s security and stability as a threat to its own security and that it would respond if Lebanon were attacked. On Wednesday, Walid Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, speaking at a press conference in Damascus with the Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, said that Israel “was planting the seeds of the war atmosphere” by threatening attacks on Iran, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. “I tell them [Israel], stop acting like thugs.”

Moallem went further, saying, “Do not test the resolve of Syria. You Israelis, you know that war at this time will reach your cities. If such a war breaks out ... it will indeed be total war, whether it begins in south Lebanon or Syria.”

Assad accused Israel of pushing the Middle East into a new war, saying, “All the facts point that Israel is driving the region toward war, not peace. Israel is not serious about wanting peace.”

Lieberman’s response marks a significant shift from the official Israeli position that it will return the Golan Heights in return for a full peace treaty with Syria. In effect, he ruled out the possibility of any lasting peace with Syria. His comments also broke with the defence establishment’s convention of saying nothing to either annoy or humiliate Assad.

The US State Department is keen for Israel to reach some kind of a deal with Syria, as part of its wider project of isolating Tehran in order to secure its own domination in the region. To this end, Washington and Tel Aviv have exerted constant pressure on Damascus, which has long been on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror.

Syria is equally anxious to break out of its diplomatic and economic isolation and secure new markets and investment from Turkey and Europe, and has received an unprecedented number of diplomatic visits from the US, Europe, Turkey and Lebanon. Assad has now agreed to renew intelligence assistance to the US and Britain. He has also jailed two Syrians for attempting to smuggle arms into Iraq, stepped up security along the long border with Iraq and arrested hundreds of alleged insurgents in an attempt to placate Washington.

George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East who is on his third visit to Syria, said that Syria and Lebanon were key to achieving peace in the Middle East. “Syria certainly has an important role to play in all these efforts, as do the US and international community,” he said after a meeting with Assad.

The Obama administration has just appointed a new ambassador to Damascus, after a break of five years following the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri, which Washington blamed on Syria. The New York Times went so far as to place Damascus seventh in its list of recommended tourist sites for 2010 and speculated over whether it would become the “new Marrakesh.”

While Netanyahu has been noticeably cool on reaching a deal with Syria, he was forced to step in and say that he was willing to talk to Damascus “without preconditions.” He instructed Zvi Hauser, the cabinet secretary, to phone all the ministers and request that they refrain from commenting on Syria in the media in an effort to calm the situation.

Two days earlier, Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, who has been pushing for a peace deal with Syria, addressed a group of senior Israeli officers and called for a resumption of talks with Damascus because war was likely to break out otherwise. He then said, “Immediately after such a war, we’ll sit down to negotiate and discuss exactly the same things we’ve been discussing with the Syrians for 15 years already.”

Damascus interpreted that as an ultimatum.

There are pronounced divisions within Israeli ruling circles about what course of action to take regarding Syria.

Barak and the defence establishment calculate that a deal with Syria would drive a wedge between Syria and its allies—Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza—which would make the return of the Golan Heights, now home to 20,000 Israelis living in 30 agricultural towns and settlements, a price worth paying.

Alternatively, with its military supremacy—Syria does not really have an air force, its artillery and armoured corps are outdated and its air defence systems ineffective as Israel’s strike in September 2007 demonstrated—should war break out Israel would be able to inflict major damage on Syria, including both its military, public and political infrastructure. This would, as Lieberman said, mean the end of the Assad presidency.

Barak also believes that the chances of reaching a deal with Syria are fairly high. Moratinos said he thought that Assad was serious about wanting peace and was willing to disengage his country from Iran and Hezbollah, and offered to mediate between Israel and Turkey so that Ankara could resume its role of peace broker between Tel Aviv and Damascus. Turkey acted as mediator in the four back-channel talks with Damascus conducted by Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister.

While Barak is presented as the voice of reason in contrast to Lieberman, Netanyahu uses the two in tandem as a good cop-bad cop team to browbeat Syria into submission on Israel’s terms, backed up with the threat of military force.

Bank executives get multimillion-dollar bonuses

Bank executives get multimillion-dollar bonuses

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Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, the largest Wall Street banks, announced multi-million-dollar year-end payouts for their chief executives on Friday.

Lloyd Blankfein, head of Goldman Sachs, received a $9 million bonus, while Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co, received $16 million. Blankfein and Dimon received their bonus payments in stock instead of cash.

Both Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan posted record-breaking profits in 2009, following unprecedented government interventions that injected $35 billion directly into the banks, and provided tens of billions in additional assistance.

The compensation figures, which are lower than the nearly $100 million the two men together received in 2007, have been presented in the media as a bow to popular opposition. The amount of money given to Blankfein and Dimon, however, is huge; their combined bonus is equivalent to the incomes of 500 US families earning median income, or 1,500 at the poverty level.

Other executives got bonuses even larger than that of Blankfein. John G. Stumpf, head of Wells Fargo, received $18.4 million. James P. Gorman, the chief executive of Morgan Stanley, received $11 million in stock and cash bonuses.

While Blankfein and Dimon managed to make less money this year than in 2007, thousands of their fellow executives, traders and speculators will get more money than ever. The top Wall Street firms are set to pay employees a record $145 billion in compensation, according to a preliminary study by the Wall Street Journal.

Steve Black, the former co-head of investment banking at Morgan Stanley, received $11 million, while Jes Stanley, his successor, is set to receive $10 million.

Kenneth Feinberg, Obama’s “Pay Tsar” told Bloomberg TV that he had been in discussions with Goldman Sachs about how much to pay Blankfein, and that “To a large extent, I think he has succeeded in adopting the prescriptions we laid out.” With that, the Obama administration essentially threw its support behind Blankfein’s payout.

This development repudiates all of the White House’s rhetoric against the banks; in the end, the Obama Administration fully supports and approves these multi-million dollar payouts given to the people who did more than anyone else to precipitate the economic crisis.

As Blankfein and Dimon were laying the groundwork for the financial crisis, they paid themselves immense bonuses as their companies posted year after year of record profits. In 2007, Blankfein took home $67.9 million, the biggest pay package of any Wall Street executive in history. Since 2000, Blankfein has received $181.5 million in salary and bonuses. Dimon received a $27.8 million bonus in 2007.

JP Morgan doubled its profits in 2009, reaching $11.7 billion. The average payout per employee at the company increased by nearly a quarter last year over 2008, and the average payout for employees in the investment banking division hit $380,000.

The four men immediately below Blankfein—David Viniar, the chief financial officer; Gary Cohn, the president; and vice chairmen J. Michael Evans and John Weinberg—received $9 million bonus payouts.

The Wall Street Journal, commenting on Blankfein’s reduced payout, said that the figure of $9 million was “PR [Public Relations] Genius,” because it would allow officials to claim success at lowering banker pay while still handing out huge sums.

“$9 million seems perfectly calibrated: Not large enough to be dubbed a ‘double digit’ bonus. But not so small as to seem that Blankfein capitulated completely to political pressures,” the Journal wrote.

The pay packages of Dimon and Blankfein specify restrictions that will not allow them to receive their compensation if they leave their companies early, or if the boards of directors decide to take back their compensation. These are obviously token measures, and no one seriously expects that the directors of Goldman Sachs will threaten the pay of the executives, lest they themselves suffer the same fate.

These bonuses are funded by the American people. The banks, whose greed and speculation caused the crisis, have consistently refused to expand lending. With the help of government-financed bailouts, they have consolidated their firms, using their strengthened positions to increase fees on credit cards and checking accounts.

As the wages of ordinary workers are driven down, social programs slashed and millions of jobs wiped out, the “masters of the universe” are positioning themselves for even more lavish payouts in the coming years.

The "Other Reason" Why the U.S. is Not Regulating Wall Street

The "Other Reason" Why the U.S. is Not Regulating Wall Street

Financial Giants Overshadow Governments

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Sure, American politicians have been bought and paid for by the Wall Street giants. See this, this and this.

And everyone knows that the White House and Congress - while talking about cracking down on Wall Street with strict regulation - have actually watered down some of the most important protections that were in place.

For example, Senator Cantwell says that the new derivatives legislation is weaker than the old regulation. And leading credit default swap expert Satyajit Das says that the new credit default swap regulations not only won't help stabilize the economy, they might actually help to destabilize it.

But the U.S. is not being sold out in a vacuum.

On March 1, 1999, countries accounting for more than 90 per cent of the global financial services market signed onto the World Trade Organization's Financial Services Agreement (FSA). By signing the FSA, they committed to deregulate their financial markets.

For example, by signing the FSA, the U.S. agreed not to break up too big to fails. The U.S. also promised to repeal Glass-Steagall, and did so 8 months after signing the FSA.

Indeed, in signing the FSA and other WTO agreements, the U.S. has legally bound itself as follows:

• No new regulation: The United States agreed to a “standstill provision” that requires that we not create new regulations (or reverse liberalization) for the list of financial services bound to comply with WTO rules. Given that the United States has made broad WTO financial services commitments – and thus is forbidden by this provision from imposing new regulations in these many areas – this provision seriously limits the policy [options] available to address the current crisis.

• Removal of regulation: The United States even agreed to try to even eliminate domestic financial service regulatory policies that meet GATS [i.e. General Agreement on Trade in Services] rules, but that may still “adversely affect the ability of financial service suppliers of any other (WTO) Member to operate, compete, or enter” the market.

• No bans on new financial service “products”: The United States is also bound to ensure that foreign financial service suppliers are permitted “to offer in its territory any new financial service,” a direct conflict with the various proposals to limit various risky investment instruments, such as certain types of derivatives.

• Certain forms of regulation banned outright: The United States agreed that it would not set limits on the size, corporate form or other characteristics of foreign firms in the broad array of financial services it signed up to WTO strictures ...

• Treating foreign and domestic firms alike is not sufficient: The GATS market-access limits on U.S. domestic regulation apply in absolute terms; that is to say, even if a policy applies to domestic and foreign firms alike, if it goes beyond what WTO rules permit, it is forbidden. And, forms of regulation not outright banned by the market-access requirements must not inadvertently “modify the conditions of competition in favor of services or service suppliers” of the United States, even if they apply identically to foreign and domestic firms.

In other words, the problem isn't just that Congress and the White House have sold out to the Wall Street giants.

The problem is also that the U.S. has signed WTO agreements that have given the keys to the too big to fail, and have neutered their regulators. Even if some politicians tried to stand up to Wall Street - or even if we "through out all of the bums" currently in political roles - the U.S. would still be locked into the WTO's scheme for helping the financial giants to grow ever bigger and to take ever-bigger and ever-riskier gambles.

Indeed, the financial giants are pushing hard for further deregulation, demanding that the WTO's "Doha round" of agreements be signed.

On the other hand, if the American people stood up for our sovereignty and demanded that the financial giants be reined in, it would be easy to fix the WTO agreements which the U.S. has already signed. Public Citizen notes, "as a legal matter, these problems are easy to remedy ..."

Will the American people stand up and demand that the WTO deregulatory scheme be rolled back?

Or will we continue to let the financial giants destroy our country through buying and selling politicians (with the help of the Supreme Court) and forcing us into more and more draconian WTO treaties which destroy our sovereignty altogether?

Many people assume that they just have to hang in there until things improve. But the powers-that-be are grabbing more and more power and - unless we stand up to them - they will take it all.

As highly-regarded economist Michael Hudson, Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, who has advised the U.S., Canadian, Mexican and Latvian governments as well as the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, and who is a former Wall Street economist at Chase Manhattan Bank who helped establish the world’s first sovereign debt fund) said:

"You have to realize that what they’re trying to do is to roll back the Enlightenment, roll back the moral philosophy and social values of classical political economy and its culmination in Progressive Era legislation, as well as the New Deal institutions. They’re not trying to make the economy more equal, and they’re not trying to share power. Their greed is (as Aristotle noted) infinite. So what you find to be a violation of traditional values is a re-assertion of pre-industrial, feudal values. The economy is being set back on the road to debt peonage. The Road to Serfdom is not government sponsorship of economic progress and rising living standards, it’s the dismantling of government, the dissolution of regulatory agencies, to create a new feudal-type elite."

And Foreign Policy magazine ran an article entitled "The Next Big Thing: Neomedievalism", arguing that the power of nations is declining, and being replaced by corporations, wealthy individuals, the sovereign wealth funds of monarchs, and city-regions.

We either stand up, or we slip back into a darker age.

The Terror-Industrial Complex

The Terror-Industrial Complex

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The conviction of the Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui in New York last week of trying to kill American military officers and FBI agents illustrates that the greatest danger to our security comes not from al-Qaida but the thousands of shadowy mercenaries, kidnappers, killers and torturers our government employs around the globe.

The bizarre story surrounding Siddiqui, 37, who received an undergraduate degree from MIT and a doctorate in neuroscience from Brandeis University, often defies belief. Siddiqui, who could spend 50 years in prison on seven charges when she is sentenced in May, was by her own account abducted in 2003 from her hometown of Karachi, Pakistan, with her three children—two of whom remain missing—and spirited to a secret U.S. prison where she was allegedly tortured and mistreated for five years. The American government has no comment, either about the alleged clandestine detention or the missing children.

Siddiqui was discovered in 2008 disoriented and apparently aggressive and hostile, in Ghazni, Afghanistan, with her oldest son. She allegedly was carrying plans to make explosives, lists of New York landmarks and notes referring to “mass-casualty attacks.” But despite these claims the government prosecutors chose not to charge her with terrorism or links to al-Qaida—the reason for her original appearance on the FBI’s most-wanted list six years ago. Her supporters suggest that the papers she allegedly had in her possession when she was found in Afghanistan, rather than detail coherent plans for terrorist attacks, expose her severe mental deterioration, perhaps the result of years of imprisonment and abuse. This argument was bolstered by some of the pages of the documents shown briefly to the court, including a crude sketch of a gun that was described as a “match gun” that operates by lighting a match.

“Justice was not served,” Tina Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network and the spokesperson for Aafia Siddiqui’s family, told me. “The U.S. government made a decision to label this woman a terrorist, but instead of putting her on trial for the alleged terrorist activity she was put on trial for something else. They tried to convict her of that something else, not with evidence, but because she was a terrorist. She was selectively prosecuted for something that would allow them to only tell their side of the story.”

The government built its entire case instead around disputed events in the 300-square-foot room of the Ghazni police station. It insisted that on July 18, 2008, the diminutive Siddiqui, who had been arrested by local Afghan police the day before, seized an M4 assault rifle that was left unattended and fired at American military and FBI agents. None of the Americans were injured. Siddiqui, however, was gravely wounded, shot twice in the stomach.

No one, other than Siddiqui, has attempted to explain where she was for five years after she vanished in 2003. No one seems to be able to explain why a disoriented Pakistani woman and her son, an American citizen, neither of whom spoke Dari, were discovered by local residents wandering in a public square in Ghazni, where an eyewitness told Harpers Magazine the distraught Siddiqui “was attacking everyone who got close to her.” Had Siddiqui, after years of imprisonment and torture, perhaps been at the U.S. detention center in Bagram and then dumped with one of her three children in Ghazi? And where are the other two children, one of whom also is an American citizen?

Her arrest in Ghazi saw, according to the official complaint, a U.S. Army captain and a warrant officer, two FBI agents and two military interpreters arrive to question Siddiqui at the police headquarters. The Americans and their interpreters were shown to a meeting room that was partitioned by a yellow curtain. “None of the United States personnel were aware,” the complaint states, “that Siddiqui was being held, unsecured, behind the curtain.” The group sat down to talk and “the Warrant Officer placed his United States Army M-4 rifle on the floor to his right next to the curtain, near his right foot.” Siddiqui allegedly reached from behind the curtain and pulled the three-foot rifle to her side. She unlatched the safety. She pulled the curtain “slightly back” and pointed the gun directly at the head of the captain. One of the interpreters saw her. He lunged for the gun. Siddiqui shouted, “Get the fuck out of here!” and fired twice. She hit no one. As the interpreter wrestled her to the ground, the warrant officer drew his sidearm and fired “approximately two rounds” into Siddiqui’s abdomen. She collapsed, still struggling, and then fell unconscious.

But in an article written by Petra Bartosiewicz in the November 2009 Harper’s Magazine, authorities in Afghanistan described a series of events at odds with the official version. The governor of Ghazni province, Usman Usmani, told a local reporter who was hired by Bartosiewicz that the U.S. team had “demanded to take over custody” of Siddiqui. The governor refused. He could not release Siddiqui, he explained, until officials from the counterterrorism department in Kabul arrived to investigate. He proposed a compromise: The U.S. team could interview Siddiqui, but she would remain at the station. In a Reuters interview, however, a “senior Ghazni police officer” suggested that the compromise did not hold. The U.S. team arrived at the police station, he said, and demanded custody of Siddiqui. The Afghan officers refused, and the U.S. team proceeded to disarm them. Then, for reasons unexplained, Siddiqui herself somehow entered the scene. The U.S. team, “thinking that she had explosives and would attack them as a suicide bomber, shot her and took her.”

Siddiqui told a delegation of Pakistani senators who went to Texas to visit her in prison a few months after her arrest that she never touched anyone’s gun, nor did she shout at anyone or make any threats. She simply stood up to see who was on the other side of the curtain and startled the soldiers. One of them shouted, “She is loose,” and then someone shot her. When she regained consciousness she heard someone else say, “We could lose our jobs.”

Siddiqui’s defense team pointed out that there was an absence of bullets, casings or residue from the M4, all of which suggested it had not been fired. They played a video to show that two holes in a wall supposedly caused by the M4 had been there before July 18. They also highlighted inconsistencies in the testimony from the nine government witnesses, who at times gave conflicting accounts of how many people were in the room, where they were sitting or standing and how many shots were fired.

Siddiqui, who took the stand during the trial against the advice of her defense team, called the report that she had fired the unattended M4 assault rifle at the Americans “the biggest lie.” She said she had been trying to flee the police station because she feared being tortured. Siddiqui, whose mental stability often appeared to be in question during the trial, was ejected several times from the Manhattan courtroom for erratic behavior and outbursts.

“It is difficult to get a fair trial in this country if the government wants to accuse you of terrorism,” said Foster. “It is difficult to get a fair trial on any types of charges. The government is allowed to tell the jury you are a terrorist before you have to put on any evidence. The fear factor that has emerged since 9/11 has permeated into the U.S. court system in a profoundly disturbing way. It embraces the idea that we can compromise core principles, for example the presumption of innocence, based on perceived threats that may or may not come to light. We, as a society, have chosen to cave on fear.”

I spent more than a year covering al-Qaida for The New York Times in Europe and the Middle East. The threat posed by Islamic extremists, while real, is also wildly overblown, used to foster a climate of fear and political passivity, as well as pump billions of dollars into the hands of the military, private contractors, intelligence agencies and repressive client governments including that of Pakistan. The leader of one FBI counterterrorism squad told The New York Times that of the 5,500 terrorism-related leads its 21 agents had pursued over the past five years, just 5 percent were credible and not one had foiled an actual terrorist plot. These statistics strike me as emblematic of the entire war on terror.

Terrorism, however, is a very good business. The number of extremists who are planning to carry out terrorist attacks is minuscule, but there are vast departments and legions of ambitious intelligence and military officers who desperately need to strike a tangible blow against terrorism, real or imagined, to promote their careers as well as justify obscene expenditures and a flagrant abuse of power. All this will not make us safer. It will not protect us from terrorist strikes. The more we dispatch brutal forms of power to the Islamic world the more enraged Muslims and terrorists we propel into the ranks of those who oppose us. The same perverted logic saw the Argentine military, when I lived in Buenos Aires, “disappear” 30,000 of the nation’s citizens, the vast majority of whom were innocent. Such logic also fed the drive to root out terrorists in El Salvador, where, when I arrived in 1983, the death squads were killing between 800 and 1,000 people a month. Once you build secret archipelagos of prisons, once you commit huge sums of money and invest your political capital in a ruthless war against subversion, once you empower a network of clandestine killers, operatives and torturers, you fuel the very insecurity and violence you seek to contain.

I do not know whether Siddiqui is innocent or guilty. But I do know that permitting jailers, spies, kidnappers and assassins to operate outside of the rule of law contaminates us with our own bile. Siddiqui is one victim. There are thousands more we do not see. These abuses, justified by the war on terror, have created a system of internal and external state terrorism that is far more dangerous to our security and democracy than the threat posed by Islamic radicals.

Anthem Blue Cross asked to justify controversial rate hikes

Obama official 'very disturbed' by Anthem Blue Cross rate hikes

The insurer should give a 'detailed justification' for its plan to raise premiums on individual policies by as much as 39%, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says.

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California insurance regulators asked Anthem Blue Cross to delay controversial rate increases of as much as 39% for individual policies, hikes that have triggered widespread criticism from subscribers and brokers -- and now from the federal government.

In a rare step, the Obama administration called on California's largest for-profit insurer to justify its rate hikes, saying the increases were alarming at a time when subscribers face skyrocketing healthcare costs.

In a letter to Anthem's president, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius voiced serious concern over the higher premiums, which go into effect March 1 for many of the insurer's estimated 800,000 individual policyholders.

"With so many families already affected by rising costs, I was very disturbed to learn through media accounts that Anthem Blue Cross plans to raise premiums for its California customers by as much as 39%," Sebelius wrote to company President Leslie Margolin.

"These extraordinary increases are up to 15 times faster than inflation and threaten to make healthcare unaffordable for hundreds of thousands of Californians, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet in a difficult economy."

Woodland Hills-based Anthem said it would respond to Sebelius' request as soon as possible.

California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner asked Anthem's parent company, Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc., to delay its rate increases until May 1 while an independent actuary, appointed by the state, could review them.

Poizner said in his letter to WellPoint's chief executive and chairman that he would stop Anthem's rate increases if the actuary determines that the insurer spends less than 70% of its premiums on benefits, as required by state law.

"The premium increases Anthem proposes for critically needed individual health insurance could have a devastating financial impact on hundreds of thousands of its policyholders in California," Poizner wrote. "The Department [of Insurance] has received numerous complaints from irate Californians describing how Anthem's proposed rate increases would cripple them financially."

A WellPoint spokeswoman said she couldn't immediately respond to questions about the company's reaction to Poizner's request.

An Anthem spokeswoman said the company was reviewing Poizner's letter and did not have a reply Monday.

Anthem said its costs have been driven up in part because the weak economy has led many people in good health to forgo coverage, leaving those with greater medical needs in its pool of customers.

"We regret the impact this has on our members," it said of its rate hikes. "It highlights why we need sustainable healthcare reform to manage the steadily rising costs of hospitals, drugs and doctors. As such, it is important to go back to the beginning and get healthcare reform done right."

Anthem has declined to say how high it would raise rates or how many people would be affected. But brokers who sell these policies said the increases were many and large. They said they were fielding numerous calls from customers angry over premium increases of 30% to 39%, after similar ones just last year.

Many policyholders say the rate hikes are the largest they can remember. Some speculated that the company was moving to raise rates ahead of possible national healthcare reform, pending in Congress. Reform could require insurers to take all comers in the individual market, not only those they choose -- a step the industry has said would drive up costs.

Anthem members applauded state and federal officials for reviewing the matter.

"I think all this is driven by money," said Los Angeles graphic designer Keith Knueven, whose rates will jump 37%, to $393 a month from $287. "It's hard for to me to understand how anyone can raise rates now when so many people don't have jobs."

Sebelius said Anthem's "strong financial position" made the increases "even more difficult to understand." She cited recent profit reported by its parent, WellPoint. Last month Wellpoint announced an eightfold increase in profit for the last three months of 2009, a surge attributed largely to the sale of subsidiaries.

"I believe Anthem Blue Cross has a responsibility to provide a detailed justification for these rate increases to the public," Sebelius wrote. "Additionally, you should make public information on the percent of your individual market premiums that is used for medical care versus the percent that is used for administrative costs."

She continued: "Policyholders in the individual market deserve to know if their premium increases would be invested in better medical care or insurance company overhead costs like salaries, profits, and advertising. I am aware that the state of California is investigating this matter, and urge Anthem Blue Cross to cooperate fully. In the meantime, I will be closely monitoring the situation.

"At a time when healthcare costs are a critical threat to families as well as the nation's economy, I hope you appreciate the urgent nature of this request. I look forward to your prompt reply."