Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Thousands Rally in New York for Showdown with Wall St.

Thousands Rally in New York for Showdown with Wall St.

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After a year of what seemed like nonstop Tea Party coverage, it's easy to forget that Americans ever protested in anything but solid ethnic blocs, or that Americans ever gathered to express coherent grievances grounded in reality.

Yesterday's AFL-CIO-led protest on Wall Street was an overdue reminder.

More than 5,000 union members and others delivered a crisp message with their march from City Hall to the Bowling Green Bull. In contrast to recent protests on the right, the event was noticeably lacking in loaded and ahistorical symbols like Gadsen flags, and refrained from vilifying individuals in favor of calling out institutions. Of hundreds of signs hoisted, only one was branded with the Obama logo. The signs were non-partisan and dealt with real problems -- namely, this country's rogue, unregulated finance sector. There was only one puppet, a fanged vampire squid meant to symbolize Goldman Sachs. The banners declared "Wall Street: Never Again" and "Less Audis, More Audits." Almost to a one, they echoed the clear policy demands of the day: regulatory reform, new taxes on banks and speculators, and a jobs bill.

The afternoon began with direct action protests in the lobbies of Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan Chase. Next came a series of speakers -- teachers, students, workers -- that put New York City faces on the nationwide hard times. Representing hundreds of labor, religious and community groups, they demanded Wall Street do its part to fix the mess it created. They railed against budget cuts in city housing, health and education, overseen by the city's billionaire mayor who opposes a financial transaction tax.

"The result of these cuts will be more homelessness, more joblessness and more hunger," said Sean Banks, a high school teacher in Brooklyn. The planned cuts will also result in bigger class sizes. Currently the New York state House and Senate are considering bills that would see New York lay off between 4,000 and 8,500 teachers.

Before leading the march to the Bowling Green Bull, the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka issued a direct three-part challenge to the banks: stop fighting reform and call off the lobbyists; stop speculating and start lending; and "take responsibility for the mess you made."

The demands resonated with a crowd thick with the unemployed and city workers facing layoffs in their departments and agencies. "These bankers have no shame," said Marie Mitchell, a city clerical worker. "I saw the Goldman Sachs guys on TV the other day, still refusing to apologize for anything. They should be sent to jail, like Madoff."

"Wall Street created this mess," said Brussard Alston, a train conductor with Transit Workers Local 100. "So let's tax them and their million dollar bonuses. Make them share. Why make everyone in the city suffer from cut services?" The MTA recently announced its plans to fire hundreds of bus drivers, station agents and train conductors, as well as reduce transit vouchers for students. "In effect, that's a tax of $1,000 dollars on the poor," said Alston. "Some kids just won't go to school. But Bloomberg is against a financial trade tax?"

Bruce Vari, an unemployed electrical worker with Local 3, agreed that some sort of Wall Street tax should go toward shoring up local budgets. But he worried that there wasn't enough pressure from below. "There should be more people here," he said. "This is a start, but we're hurting more than we're showing."

Ed Lonergan, another out-of-work electrician, argued that another jobs bill would pump-prime the economy quicker than any other measure. "There's no work and all this money was poured into Wall Street," he said. "When I work, I buy gas, I buy lunch. The money is real; it goes to real places. We should bring the soldiers home and put them to work building houses, bridges. Take it out of the fat cats' wallets and put it in the workingman's wallet. Ninety-seven percent of the population made three percent rich. Enough is enough."

Lonergan concluded by noting that he's never seen the economy this bad. "It used to be you could go on the road for work, now there's no work anywhere. I'm about to lose benefits. My Plan C is a bucket of change. My wife is terrified."

As the protest shuffled past Wall Street, the bankers who stopped to watch seemed more bemused than terrified. One man in a pin-striped suit walked up to the marchers and began chanting, "Astroturf!" Next to him, two young bankers snickered as they observed the scene. "These guys just want money," said one who only gave the first name of Mike, a copy of the Economist tucked under his arm. "They want to tax Wall Street, which would be a disaster for the economy, to fund their bullshit public sector union jobs. God, I hate the labor agenda."

The anger and purpose on display Thursday suggested that the labor agenda will increasingly make its voice heard. This, at least, was the hope of Marie Mitchell, the clerical worker. "My knees hurt like hell and I have to lean on this cane," she fumed in Caribbean-accented English. "But there's no way I was gonna miss this. I'll be there next time, too. This can't stop. We need to make them understand that we won't tolerate this anymore. We should be out here every week."

China May ‘Crash’ in Next 9 to 12 Months, Faber Says

China May ‘Crash’ in Next 9 to 12 Months, Faber Says

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Investor Marc Faber said China’s economy will slow and possibly “crash” within a year as declines in stock and commodity prices signal the nation’s property bubble is set to burst.

The Shanghai Composite Index has failed to regain its 2009 high while industrial commodities and shares of Australian resource exporters are acting “heavy,” Faber said. The opening of the World Expo in Shanghai last week is “not a particularly good omen,” he said, citing a property bust and depression that followed the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna.

“The market is telling you that something is not quite right,” Faber, the publisher of the Gloom, Boom & Doom report, said in a Bloomberg Television interview in Hong Kong today. “The Chinese economy is going to slow down regardless. It is more likely that we will even have a crash sometime in the next nine to 12 months.”

An index tracking Chinese stocks traded in Hong Kong dropped 1.8 percent today, the most in two weeks, after the central bank raised reserve requirements for the third time this year. The Shanghai Composite has slumped 12 percent this year, Asia’s worst performer, as policy makers seek to rein in a lending boom that’s spurred record gains in property prices. China’s markets are shut for a holiday today.

Copper touched a seven-week low and BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s biggest mining company, fell the most since February on concern spending in the world’s third-largest economy will slow and after Australia boosted taxes on commodities producers. Rio Tinto Ltd., the third-largest, slid as much as 6 percent.

Chanos, Rogoff

Faber joins hedge fund manager Jim Chanos and Harvard University’s Kenneth Rogoff in warning of a crash in China.

China is “on a treadmill to hell” because it’s hooked on property development for driving growth, Chanos said in an interview last month. As much as 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product relies on construction, he said. Rogoff said in February a debt-fueled bubble in China may trigger a regional recession within a decade.

The government has banned loans for third homes and raised mortgage rates and down-payment requirements for second-home purchases. Prices rose 11.7 percent across 70 cities in March from a year earlier, the most since data began in 2005.

The government has stopped short of raising interest rates to contain property prices. Within an hour of the central bank announcement on reserve ratios, Finance Minister Xie Xuren said that officials remained committed to expansionary policies to cement the nation’s recovery.

Stocks ‘Fully Priced’

The nation’s economy grew 11.9 percent in the first quarter, the fastest pace in almost three years. The government projects gross domestic product growth for the year of about 8 percent.

The clampdown on property speculation may prompt investors to turn to the nation’s stock market, Faber said. Still, shares are “fully priced” and Chinese investors may instead become “big buyers” of gold, he said.

BlackRock Inc. is among money managers reducing their holdings on Chinese stocks on expectations that economic growth has peaked. The BlackRock Emerging Markets Fund has widened its “underweight” position for China versus the MSCI Emerging Markets Index to about 7.5 percent from 4.6 percent at the end of March, the fund’s London-based co-manager Dan Tubbs said.

Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd., China Construction Bank Corp. and Bank of China Ltd, the nation’s three largest banks, are trading near their lowest valuations on record as rising profits are eclipsed by concern bad loans will increase.

Local Governments

Citigroup Inc. warned in March that in a “worst case scenario,” the non-performing loans of local-government investment vehicles, used to channel money to stimulus projects, could swell to 2.4 trillion yuan by 2011.

Housing prices nationwide may fall as much as 20 percent in the second half of the year on government measures to curb speculation, BNP Paribas said April 23. Under a stress test conducted by the Shanghai branch of the China Banking Regulatory Commission in February, local banks’ ratio of delinquent mortgages would triple should home prices in the country’s commercial center decline 10 percent.

Shanghai is projecting as many as 70 million visitors to the $44 billion World Expo, more than 10 times the number who traveled to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. More than 433,000 people visited the 5.3 square-kilometer (3.3 square-mile) park on its first weekend.

Greek Protests Over Financial Bailout Leave Three Dead, Buildings Burning

Greek Protests of Austerity Plan Leave 3 Dead

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Greek demonstrations against government austerity measures turned deadly when three people were killed after protesters set fire to a bank in central Athens in what Prime Minister George Papandreou called a “murderous act.”

“Greeks have a right to demonstrate, not a right to violence, especially violence which leads to murder,” Papandreou told parliament today. He said all Greek political parties were united in opposing violence.

The violence came during a general strike called after Papandreou announced a second set of wage cuts for public workers, a freeze on pensions and a second sales-tax increase to secure a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The measures, which aim to tame a budget deficit of almost 14 percent of economic output, were denounced as “savage” by union leaders.

The demonstrations began peacefully with police estimating 18,000 people marched through the streets of Athens to Parliament. Some demonstrators trying to approach the legislature clashed with helmeted riot police, throwing sticks and stones and chanting slogans before being repulsed. Police shot tear gas at other protesters who lobbed rocks and set trashcans on fire at the central bank building near the parliament.

Starting Fires

The violence escalated as small groups of self-styled anarchists, many with their heads wrapped in black scarves, broke off from the main demonstration and started attacking buildings and starting fires. Police, who had 1,700 officers on duty in Athens, arrested four people.

A worker who escaped the deadly blaze that broke out at a branch of Marfin Egnatia Bank SA said the fire spread very quickly and that it was hard to tell how it started. Three bodies were recovered from the building. Firefighters in Athens brought three other blazes set by protesters under control.

Marfin spokesman Serapheim Konstantinidis said that the bank was trying to identify the three victims and couldn’t confirm whether they were employees.

Yannis Sgouros, Athens prefect, an administrative official, was in the government building where he worked when it was set alight by a passing group of protesters.

Jumping to Balconies

“There were 15 of us in the building at the time, having a meeting and we got out by jumping to neighboring balconies,” Sgouros told state-run NET TV. He expressed his regret over the loss of life, saying “these sorts of situations just don’t solve the massive problems facing the country right now. ”

The news of the fatal turn in the Greek protests extended declines in stocks and bonds today. The country’s benchmark ASE Index declined 4 percent, bringing the year-to-date drop to 24 percent, the largest in the euro region. Opap SA, a national lottery company that will face new taxes in the austerity package, fell more than 7 percent. The yield premium investors demand to buy Greek 10-year bonds over comparable German debt, reached 719 basis points.

“The demonstrations in Athens are another factor that must be scaring off, turning the mood of credit markets even more against Athens,” Nobel prize-winning economist Edmund Phelps said in an interview on Bloomberg Television before the violence broke out.

Deficit Revision

Elected in October on pledges to raise wages for public workers and step up stimulus spending, Papandreou revised up the 2009 budget deficit to more than 12 percent of gross domestic product, four times the EU limit, and twice the previous government’s estimate. EU officials revised the deficit further on April 22, to 13.6 percent of GDP.

The surge in the budget gap as the economy contracted fueled investor concern about Greece’s ability to finance the deficit and sent borrowing costs to the highest since before the start of the euro in 1999. Papandreou has pledged to lower the shortfall to within the EU limit of 3 percent of GDP in 2014.

With reductions in wages and increases in taxes, the Greek economy is forecast to shrink 4 percent this year and 2.6 percent in 2011. Unemployment has risen to 11.3 percent, a six- year high.

Roubini Says U.S. Economy to Weaken in 2010 Second Half Amid Job Scarcity

Roubini Says U.S. Economy Will Weaken in Second Half

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Nouriel Roubini, the New York University professor who forecast the U.S. recession more than a year before it began, said the world’s largest economy will weaken in the second half of the year.

Roubini, who spoke at the Bloomberg Markets Hedge Fund Summit today in New York, predicted the unemployment rate will be 9.7 percent in a year.

“The job losses are going to stay with us for a very long period of time,” he said. “Unemployment is going to remain high.”

All-Volunteer Wars

Yawn…

How Many Times Have You Seen This Headline?

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After a week away, here’s my advice: in news terms, you can afford to take a vacation. When I came back last Sunday, New Orleans was bracing for tough times (again). BP, a drill-baby-drill oil company that made $6.1 billion in the first quarter of this year and lobbied against “new, stricter safety rules” for offshore drilling, had experienced an offshore disaster for which ordinary Americans are going to pay through the nose (again). News photographers were gearing up for the usual shots of oil-covered wildlife (again). A White House -- admittedly Democratic, not Republican -- had deferred to an energy company’s needs, accepted its PR and lies, and then moved too slowly when disaster struck (again).

Okay, it may not be an exact repeat. Think of it instead as history on cocaine. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, already the size of the state of Delaware, may end up larger than the disastrous Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, and could prove more devastating than Hurricane Katrina. Anyway, take my word for it, returning to our world from a few days offline and cell phone-less, I experienced an unsettling déjà-vu-all-over-again feeling. What had happened was startling and horrifying -- but also eerily expectable, if not predictable.

And, of course, when it came to our frontier wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- you remember them, don’t you? -- repetition has long been the name of the game, though few here seem to notice. With an immigration crisis, Tea Partying, that massive oil spill, and a crude, ineptly made car bomb in Times Square, there’s already enough to worry about. Isn’t there?

All-Volunteer Wars

Still, there was this headline awaiting my return: “Afghan lawmaker says relative killed after U.S. soldiers raided her home.” Sigh.

After nine years in which such stories have appeared with unceasing regularity, I could have written the rest of it myself while on vacation, more or less sight unseen. But here it is in a nutshell: there was a U.S. night raid somewhere near the Afghan city of Jalalabad. American forces (Special Operations forces, undoubtedly), supposedly searching for a “Taliban facilitator,” came across a man they claimed was armed in a country in which the unarmed man is evidently like the proverbial needle in a haystack. They shot him down. His name was Amanullah. He was a 30-year-old auto mechanic and the father of five. As it happened, he was also the brother-in-law of Safia Siddiqi, a sitting member of the Afghan Parliament. He had, as she explained, called her in a panic, thinking that brigands were attacking his home compound.

And here was the nice touch for those U.S. Special Operations guys, who seem to have learning abilities somewhat lower than those of a hungry mouse in a maze when it comes to hearts-and-minds-style counterinsurgency warfare. True, in this case they didn’t shoot two pregnant mothers and a teenage girl, dig the bullets out of the bodies, and claim they had stumbled across “honor killings,” as Special Operations troops did in a village near Gardez in eastern Afghanistan in March; nor did they handcuff seven schoolboys and a shepherd and execute them, as evidently happened in Kunar Province in late December 2009; nor had they shot a popular imam in his car with his seven-year-old son in the backseat, as a passing NATO convoy did in Kabul, the Afghan capital, back in January; nor had they shadowed a three-vehicle convoy by helicopter on a road near the city of Kandahar and killed 21 while wounding 13 via rocket fire, as U.S. Special Forces troops did in February. They didn’t wipe out a wedding party -- a common enough occurrence in our Afghan War -- or a funeral, or a baby-naming ceremony (as they did in Paktia Province, also in February), or shoot up any one of a number of cars, trucks, and buses loaded with innocent civilians at a checkpoint.

In this case, they killed only one man, who was unfortunately -- from their point of view -- reasonably well connected. Then, having shot him, they reportedly forced the 15 inhabitants in his family compound out, handcuffed and blindfolded them (including the women and children), and here was that nice touch: they sent in the dogs, animals considered unclean in Islamic society, undoubtedly to sniff out explosives. Brilliant! "They disgraced our pride and our religion by letting their dogs sniff the holy Koran, our food, and the kitchen," Ms. Siddiqi said angrily. And then, the American military began to lie about what had happened, which is par for the course. After the angry legislator let them have it (“...no one in Afghanistan is safe -- not even parliamentarians and the president himself”) and the locals began to protest, blocking the main road out of Jalalabad and chanting “Death to America!,” they finally launched an investigation. Yawn.

If I had a few bucks for every “investigation” the U.S. military launched in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years after some civilian or set of civilians died under questionable circumstances, I might be on vacation year around.

The U.S. military can, however, count on one crucial factor in its repetitive war-making: kill some pregnant mothers, kill some schoolboys, gun down a good Samaritan with two children in his car trying to transport Iraqis wounded in an Apache helicopter attack to a hospital, loose a whirlwind that results in hundreds of thousands of deaths -- and still Americans at home largely don’t care. After all, for all intents and purposes, it’s as if some other country were doing this on another planet entirely, and “for our safety” at that.

In that sense, the American public licenses its soldiers to kill civilians repetitively in distant frontier wars. As a people -- with the exception of relatively small numbers of Americans directly connected to the hundreds of thousands of American troops abroad -- we couldn’t be more detached from "our" wars. Repetition, schmepetition. The real news is that Conan O’Brien “got very depressed at times” after ceding “The Tonight Show” to Jay Leno (again) and that the interview drove CBS’s “60 Minutes” to a ratings success.

The creation of the All-Volunteer Army in the 1970s was a direct response to the way the draft and a citizen’s army undermined an imperial war in Vietnam. When it came to paying attention to or caring about such wars, it also turned out to mean an all-volunteer situation domestically (and that, too, carries a price, though it’s been a hard one for Americans to see).

“You’ll Never See It Coming”

I came back from vacation to several other headlines that I could have sworn I’d read before I left. Take, for instance, the Washington Post headline: “Amid outrage over civilian deaths in Pakistan, CIA turns to smaller missiles.” So here’s the “good” news, according to the Post piece: now we have a new missile weighing only 35 pounds, with the diameter of “a coffee cup,” and “no bigger than a violin” -- who thinks up these comparisons? -- charmingly named the Scorpion. It has been developed to arm our drone aircraft and so aid the CIA’s air war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Pakistani tribal borderlands. According to the advocates of our drone wars, the new missile has the enormous benefit of being so much more precise than the 100-pound Hellfire missile that preceded it. It will, that is, kill so much more precisely those we want killed, and so (theoretically) not spark the sort of anti-American anger that often makes our weaponry a rallying point for resistance.

Talk about repetitious. The idea that ever more efficient and “precise” wonder weapons will solve human problems, and perhaps even decisively bring our wars to an end, is older than... well, than I am anyway, and I’m almost 66. After six-and-a-half decades on this planet and a week on vacation, I know one thing, which I knew before I left town: there’s no learning curve here at all.

Oh, and however crucial our night raids, and nifty our new weaponry, and despite the fact that we’re now filling the skies with new aircraft on new missions in our undeclared war in Pakistan, I returned to this headline in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes: “Report: Still not enough troops for Afghanistan operations.” The Pentagon had just released its latest predictable assessment of the Afghan War, which included the information that, of the 121 districts in the country that the U.S. military identifies as critical to the war effort, NATO only has enough forces to operate in 48. (U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan has nonetheless risen by 56,000 since President Obama took office.) The news was grim: the Taliban remains on the rise, controlling ever larger swaths of the countryside, and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is increasingly unpopular. What you can already feel here is the rise of something else hideously predictable -- the “need” for, and lobbying for, more American troops -- even though the latest polling data indicate that Afghan anger and opposition may be rising in areas U.S. troops are moving into.

Or what about this headline in the British Guardian that a friend emailed me as I returned? “Afghanistan forces face four more years of combat, warns NATO official.” Four more years! Doesn’t that sound repetitiously familiar -- and not as a line for Obama’s reelection campaign either. Think of all this as a kind of predictable equation: more disastrous raids and offensives plus more precise weapons for more attacks = the need for more troops plus more time to bring the Afghan War to a “satisfactory” conclusion.

Oh, and let me mention one last repetitive moment. You may remember that, in March 2004, just a year after he launched the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush appeared at the annual black-tie dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association and narrated a jokey slide show. It showed him looking under White House furniture and around corners for those weapons of mass destruction that his administration had assured Americans would be found in Iraq in profusion, and which, of course, were nowhere to be seen. "Those weapons of mass destruction,” the president joked, “have got to be here somewhere."

Hard to imagine such a second such moment, certainly not from the joke writers of Barack Obama, who appeared at a White House Correspondents' Association dinner while I was gone, and garnered this positive headline at the wonk Washington political website Politico.com for his sharp one-liners: “Obama Tops Leno at WHCD.” The accompanying piece hailed the president for showing off “his comedic chops” and cited several of his quips to make the point. Here was one of them, quoted but not commented on (nor even considered worth a mention in the main Washington Post piece on his appearance, though it was noted in a Post blog): “The Jonas Brothers are here!... Sasha and Malia are huge fans but boys don't get any ideas. I have two words for you: Predator Drones. You'll never see it coming."

The audience at the correspondents’ dinner reportedly “laughed approvingly.” And why not? Assassinate the Jonas brothers by remote control if they touch his daughters? What father with access to drone killers wouldn’t be tempted to make such a joke? We’re talking, of course, about the weaponry now associated with what media pieces still laughably call the CIA’s “covert war" or “covert missions” in Pakistan. So covert that a quip about them openly slays the elite in Washington. Of course, you might (or might not) wonder just how funny such a one-liner might seem at a Pakistani media roast.

And I wonder as well just what possessed another American president to do it again? Okay, it’s not an oil spill off the coast of planet Earth or an actual air strike in some distant land, just a joke in a nation that loves stand-up, even from its presidents. Still, I think you'll have to admit that the repetition factor is eerie.

By the way, don’t mistake repetition for sameness. If you repeat without learning, assessing, and changing, then things don’t stay the same. They tend to get worse. The thought, for instance, that either a giant oil company or the Pentagon will solve our problems is certainly a repetitive one. So is the belief that, when they make a mess, they should be in charge of "investigating" themselves and then responding. While predictable, the results, however, do not simply leave us in the same situation.

And don’t say you didn’t read it here: If American wars continue to exist as if in a galaxy far, far away, and the repeats of the repeats pile up, things will get worse (and, in the most practical terms, life will be less safe). Once we’re all finally distracted from the possibility of the Gulf of Mexico being turned into a dead sea by the next 24/7 crisis, if nothing much changes, expect repeats. After all, what happens when, in the “tough oil” era, the BPs of this world hit the melting Arctic with their deep water rigs in really bad climates?

In such circumstances, repetition doesn’t mean sameness; it means a wrecked world. And here’s the worst of it: predictable as so much of this may be, the odds are you’ll never see it coming.

Fomenting Armageddon: Jerusalem's Colonization and Western Apathy

Fomenting Armageddon: Jerusalem's Colonization and Western Apathy

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The Israelis are instigating a Jewish holy war staged in Jerusalem; and they are playing a superb game of propaganda painting the Palestinians as the “real” fundamentalists, despite the fact that the Knesset has more active right-wing political parties than any state in the civilized world. It’s a strategy that has caught the West by surprise as they continue to react with template disappointment.

Successive governments have supported colonization for decades; yet Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s recent moves have all but dispelled the façade of a secular rationale. Unfettered, expedited settlement construction in Jerusalem, with images of soldiers traipsing through Islam’s third holiest site in army fatigues, mark a new low for the Israelis; yet equally indicate a new level of brazen physical and psychological aggression that will result in a new intifada.

Netanyahu and the extreme right feel it is time to goad Palestinian Christians and Muslims into reacting with force (which has happened with minor riots in the past few weeks). Much of the Arab and Islamic worlds are limited to flaccid objections, following in the footsteps of the United States and the European Union who similarly are not interested in punitive measures. The Bibi Plan, therefore, is for Palestinians to rebel, face overwhelming military might, and lose Jerusalem once and for all under the premise of security concerns.

Yet this time, the violence will take on a distinctly religious theme. Although Jewish notions of holy war have been in play since the 1960s, albeit ill-covered by the media, Netanyahu has made official, and partially public, the premise that Jerusalem is proprietary to Judaism; and the use of this territory by gentiles is a privilege and not a right. Extremist religious and nationalist groups that play roles as coalition partners are vocal about this view; but rarely has a ruling party been as emboldened in acting upon this view as the current Likud.

Netanyahu draws his strength from many right-wing Zioinist parties, such as Yisrael Beiteinu, Gush Emunim (Ne’emanei Eretz Yisrael), Tsomet, Shas, Morasha, Shinui Ometz, the Jewish National Front (Hayil), and the National Movement (Herut) among others. Some are defunct, such as Kach, Kahane Chai and Tehiya (Banai), though their members formed other groups with the usual aim of building Greater Israel.

The significance of current Likud policy is an official adoption of what the aforementioned parties already advocate – religiously-justified expropriation:

“According to the legal scholars (leda’at haposkim), any war to conquer sections of the Land of Israel for the purpose of keeping them in our hands (and certainly with the goal of keeping the sections of the Land in which we are already settled) is considered commanded war based on the commandment of the settling of the Land of Israel.” (1)

Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky who jointly authored Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel note for these religious groups “the blood of non-Jews has no intrinsic value; for Likud, it has limited value.” (2) In fact, fundamentalist beliefs pervade even military manuals. For example, the Central Region Command of the Israeli Army instructs:

“When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or in a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to Halakah [Jewish law] they may and even should be killed…. Under no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilized…. In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakah to kill even good civilians….” (3)

The justification for current Israeli strategy is beyond ethnicity, it is religious-cleansing: “[W]hat appears to be confiscation of Arab-owned land for subsequent settlement by Jews is in reality not an act of stealing but one of sanctification. From their perspective the land is redeemed by being transferred from the satanic to the [divine] sphere.” (4)

Since the 1960s, the religious colonial movement has concentrated itself around Jerusalem. It operates with negligible restraint, occupying not only fields and plots but even people’s homes, most recently in late 2009. In fact, official statistics indicate 2,000 homes have been pulled down with government support since 1967 while 15,000 “unauthorized” (without Israeli permits) await demolition.

The reality, then, is that the current Israeli government has no intention of seeking peace; but instead pays lip service to the ideals of equity while on the ground using any means necessary to render the Palestinians inconsequential, or at least attempt to do so. Where Jerusalem in particular is concerned, the official policy is to cripple normalcy for Palestinians while facilitating settler encroachment on all sectors of the city, as illustrated in Franz Elzenbaumer’s alternative travel guide, Decode Jerusalem.

Western governments are complicit in this strategy. Although we have witnessed numerous ministers, congressmen, mayors, governors and a slew of other officials criticize both Palestinians and Israeli actions these individuals are rarely decision-makers of policy. In fact, even high ranking officials seem averse to take on Israeli plans, perhaps for fear of committing political suicide if they attempt to do so.

Yet the current situation in Jerusalem requires a sea change in the thinking of Western Presidents, Prime Ministers and the fear-mongers who warn against confronting Israel. If action does not bolster words of principle, appeasement of the Israelis will result in what Jewish and Christian evangelical fundamentalists hope for – precursor battles to Armageddon.

Vice President Biden was only the latest in a long list of officials ignored or insulted by Israeli audacity; and America’s toothless indignation so far will only serve to embolden Netanyahu and his cohorts. Unless America and Europe muster the courage to act in the interests of justice and international law, holy war will take on a whole new meaning.

- Dr. Ahmed Yousef, the Deputy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & former Political Advisor to the Prime Minister. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

Notes:

(1) Rabbi Yitzhaq Kaufman’s opinion in his The Army According to Halakha: Laws of Army, quoted in Reuven Firestone’s “Holy War in Modern Judaism?” Journal of the American Academy of Religion December 2006, Vol. 74, No. 4, pp. 954 – 982.
(2) Shahak, Israel & Norton Mezvinsky. Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel. Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 1999, 168 pp., 11.
(3) wrmea.com/archives/october01/0110071.html
(4) Op cit. Shahak & Mezvinsky, 67.

Welcome to No Choice Democracy

Britain's Election: Welcome to No Choice Democracy

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British voters go to the polls on Thursday in a general election that promises to be historic – for all the wrong reasons.

Firstly, voter turnout threatens to hit a post-Second World War record low. Over the past six decades, the percentage of eligible Britons casting their vote has steadily fallen from 80-70 per cent to around 60 per cent. With public apathy and antipathy towards the three main political parties – the incumbent Labour government, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – running at all-time highs, there is a real prospect that the British general election of 2010 will see as many citizens forfeiting their democratic right as those turning out to vote.

Part of the collapse in democratic participation in Britain (as elsewhere) is due to growing public realization that the main parties are “out of touch” in terms of putting forward solutions to address the severe problems facing British society: mounting social misery, unemployment, poverty and debt, both individually and nationally. The budget deficit is estimated to be around £163 billion, which, some commentators say, puts Britain on a par with Greece in terms of its gravity.

This brings us to the second most notable characteristic of the 2010 British election: there is now patently no political choice on offer to voters. The putative essence of western-style parliamentary democracy is that “the people” exercise a choice in selecting a political party based on manifestos of differing ideas and policies.

From 1945-97, there was at least the semblance that the British Labour Party in particular represented the interests of the working and lower middle classes. But under the “reforming” leadership of Tony Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, “New Labour” has become indistinguishable from the other main parties in terms of slavishly fawning over big business and the wealthy elite. Prior to the 1997 election, which brought Labour to government, one senior Conservative smugly noted that, in terms of economic policy, there was “not a cigarette paper between” the Thatcherite Tory Party and Blair’s New Labour.

That election, by the way, marked the post-Second World War slump in British voter participation, which now looks set to slump even further.

The facts on the ground tend to corroborate this morphing of British politics into a mainstream mulch of nothingness for ordinary people. The gap between rich and poor has widened over the past 13 years of Labour government, even surpassing the notoriously pro-wealthy previous 19 years of Conservative government. A recent Rich List compiled by the British Sunday Times found that Britain’s 1,000 super-rich saw their wealth increase by one-third – or £77 billion – to a total £334 billion during 2009 alone. Evidently, the only thing that a large chunk Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s £1,000 billion stimulus package achieved was stimulating the assets of the already wealthy.

All three main political parties have said that economic austerity is the necessary tough medicine to cure Britain’s sick fiscal condition. Despite the outrageous aggrandizement of wealth by a tiny elite, the wider public is being told that they will have to pay for the economic crisis through higher taxes and massive cuts in public services.

In an advertently shocking admission of the stranglehold on Britain’s politics, a Financial Times (26 April) front page headline read: “Brutal choices over British deficit”. Its report went on to say: “The next government will have to cut public sector pay, freeze benefits, slash jobs, abolish a range of welfare entitlements and take the axe to programmes such as school building and road maintenance.” In other words: you can vote, but it won’t make a difference – this is how the economy is going to be run as dictated by capital.

Ruled out from the outset, it seems, are imminently sensible and workable options, such as taxing the super-rich whose combined wealth is more than twice than of Britain’s budget deficit, or immediately ending budget-draining criminal wars of foreign occupation.

This “no choice democracy” is being foisted on ordinary people everywhere, from North America to Europe. It is the other side of the prescription of “economic structural adjustment” that for decades was the “tough medicine” that international capital forced poverty-stricken nations to swallow. The “choice” it seems is: you can hold your nose while swallowing this, or you may not hold your nose. The British non-election of 2010 marks the nadir in western so-called liberal democracy in which “we the people” have pointedly no choice in how our societies are to be run. Because we are all Third Worlders now. Bankrupt politics in hand with bankrupt economics.

One indirect benefit, however, could the widening realization among ordinary people – whether in Britain, the US, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Latvia etc – that a solution to the crisis in the capitalist political economy cannot be found in the present dead-end framework of mainstream parties.

New York Times minimizes Gulf oil spill

New York Times minimizes Gulf oil spill

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The April 20 blowout on a BP oil rig 50 miles off Louisiana’s coast, which claimed the lives of 11 workers, continues to gush millions of gallons of heavy crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico with no clear end in sight. The disaster has already led to major economic and environmental devastation, with the Gulf Coast’s multi-billion-dollar fishing industry suspended in high season.

With the calamity resulting from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon growing worse by the day, the New York Times, the leading publication of US liberalism and self-styled “newspaper of record,” declares in a Tuesday “news analysis” that the spill is really not so serious after all. The column, “Gulf Oil Spill Is Bad, but How Bad?” is a thoroughly dishonest piece whose clear aim is to chloroform mounting public anger against BP and the Obama administration.

The Times starts its column with a series of lies and half-truths. Dismissing “some experts” who “predict apocalypse,” authors John Broder and Tom Zeller declare that the “Deepwater Horizon blowout is not unprecedented, nor is it yet among the worst oil accidents in history.” In the Times’ estimation, whether or not it achieves historic status “will depend on a long list of interlinked variables.”

With millions of gallons of oil spilled near a densley populated and economically crucial area, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is already among the worst oil spills in history, the Times’ “long list of interlinked variables” notwithstanding.

What remains to be seen—and this depends ultimately on stopping the spill at its source one mile beneath the water’s surface—is where the BP spill will rank among the worst ecological catastrophes in human history. It is this extraordinary depth that does, indeed, make the the Deepwater Horizon spill “unprecedented”—and what makes stemming the gushing of oil near the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico’s Mississippi Canyon so difficult. This aspect of the spill is the direct consequence of the Obama and Bush administrations’ promotion of deep sea oil drilling.

The Times’ goal is not to clarify the origins and scope of the disaster, but to sedate and confuse its readership. This the article attempts to do by offering distorted comparisons to other spills.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, according to Broder and Zeller, “could flow for years and still not begin to approach the 36 billion gallons of oil spilled by retreating Iraqi forces when they left Kuwait in 1991” (emphasis added). This statistic is an out-and-out fabrication based on claims made during the first Gulf War that Iraqi soldiers—who US missiles killed by the thousands as they retreated from Kuwait—had first sabotaged Kuwaiti oil wells.

Questioned by the World Socialist Web Site, Broder said the statistic is located on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) web site. A search of the site reveals a 1991 report from the National Oceanic Service claiming that the Iraqi military had dumped 900,000,000 barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf. Both the story and the statistic have since been discredited as Broder, who refused further comment, is no doubt aware. According to a 1993 study, commissioned by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission at UNESCO and several Persian Gulf nations, about 330 million gallons spilled, resulting in “few unequivocal oil pollution effects attributable solely to the 1991 oil spills.” Later estimates put the figure between 40 million and 63 million gallons, about 1 percent of the Times’ claim.

The Times also complacently declares that Deepwater Horizon “will have to get much worse before it approaches the impact of the Exxon Valdez accident of 1989.” In fact, by many scientific estimates the current spill may have already surpassed the Valdez.

Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University, estimated that already by April 28, nearly 9 million gallons had been released. SkyTruth, a non-profit environmental analysis firm, put the figure at 12.2 million gallons by Sunday.

Broder and Zeller simply ignore these and other widely reported estimates. Yet even the low-end estimate put forth by the US Coast Guard of 210,000 gallons daily would mean that 3 million gallons have so far been dumped—with no indication that the hemmhoraging can be slowed before the disater approaches or surpasses the Valdez spill, which poured nearl 11 million gallons into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.

After minimizing the spill, the Times concludes on an incongruous note, arguing that the Gulf of Mexico is already polluted—so really, why worry about a few million more gallons of oil.

“The gulf is not a pristine environment and has survived both chronic and acute pollution problems before,” Broder and Zeller write. “Thousands of gallons of oil flow into the gulf from natural undersea well seeps every day, engineers say, and the scores of refineries and chemical plants that line the shore from Mexico to Mississippi pour untold volumes of pollutants into the water.” By the same logic, one might argue that because people produce carbon dioxide when they breathe, there is no point in worrying about atmospheric pollution!

The Times dresses up all of this obfuscation as objective journalism. According to Broder and Zeller, “No one, not even the oil industry’s most fervent apologists, is making light of this accident.” No one—except of course the New York Times!

Tuesday’s “news analysis” continues the Times’ miserable record on the Deepwater Horizon explosion and deep sea drilling more generally.

Scientists and environmentalists have warned for years that a blowout was likely on a deep sea oil rig—which would present enormous difficulties to stop. But the media failed to widely report these warnings.

Even after the April 20 explosion, the media, led by the Times, dutifully parroted assurances from BP and the Obama administration that there was no oil spill. Like Obama, the media has largely ignored the workers killed and the families left behind in the blast. While the Times of London managed an article listing the names of those killed, the Times of New York has not.

On the other hand, the New York Times sprang to the defense of deep sea oil drilling. The only real concern it raised in a April 23 editorial, “Explosion in the Gulf,” was that the accident could provide “new fodder” to drilling’s opponents. “The explosion occurred just weeks after President Obama decided to open parts of America’s coastal waters to exploratory drilling,” the Times wrote, referring to Obama’s call to lift moratoriums on drilling off the Atlantic Coast, Florida’s Gulf Coast, and northern Alaskan water. “This tragedy is not reason enough to reverse that decision.”

The newspaper’s first aim is to defend the Obama administration, whose indifference to the explosion and spill has generated widespread anger—and many comparisons to the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Behind this is a more fundamental concern. The BP oil spill is bringing millions of people face to face with the essence of capitalism—the subordination of everything, including the very survival of the planet—to the destructive profit drive of the corporate and financial elite. The New York Times, a long-serving organ of this elite, seeks to forestall this dawning awareness.

On eve of general strike: European, world markets plunge on Greek debt fears

European, world markets plunge on Greek debt fears

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World stock markets fell sharply on Tuesday, driven by fears that massive spending cuts in Greece will be insufficient to resolve the country’s debt crisis, which threatens to expand to other European countries.

A strike of civil servants Tuesday, to be followed by a general strike of public and private sector workers on Wednesday, underscores the clash of social interests playing out in Greece and throughout the continent. The financial elite in Europe and internationally, with the support of the PASOK government of Prime Minster George Papandreou in Greece, is demanding unprecedented austerity measures. The trade unions, aligned with Papandreou, are struggling to contain overwhelming popular opposition.

On Sunday, Papandreou laid out the “great sacrifices” demanded of the Greek working class in exchange for €110 billion in loans from European governments and the International Monetary Fund. These include sharp wage and benefit cuts for public sectors workers, the easing of restrictions on mass firings in the private sector, an increase in the retirement age, the privatization of transit and other government services, and increases in regressive sales taxes. Legislation containing the measures is due to be voted on by the Greek parliament on Thursday or Friday.

The spending cuts will provoke a sharp economic contraction, including an anticipated 4 percent decline in GDP this year. This will mean mass layoffs throughout the economy.

Government officials in Europe and Washington have endorsed the attack. On Sunday, US President Barack Obama—who spearheaded the global bailout of the financial system—told Papandreou that he welcomed the “ambitious” program of cuts. At the same time, German Economics Minister Rainer Bruederle warned that the loans would not cover all of Greece’s requirements over the next three years.

For its part, the European Central Bank issued a statement Sunday praising the “ambitious fiscal adjustment and comprehensive structural reforms,” while at the same time warning that “the Greek public authorities [must] stand ready to take any further measures that may become appropriate to achieve the objectives of the program”—that is, more cuts.

The turmoil in Greece sent stock markets down sharply in Europe and the US. Particularly hard hit were share values of banks, which own much of the debt of Greece and other countries. In Athens, the market fell 6.7 percent, in Spain 4.3 percent, and in Portugal 4 percent. Markets in Britain, Germany and France fell between 2.6 and 3.3 percent. The euro fell to a 13-month low.

Across the Atlantic, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 224 points, or 2 percent, while the Nasdaq fell nearly 3 percent. A closely watched measure of market volatility rose 18 percent, indicating that investors anticipate more steep declines in the coming days and weeks.

Concerns about a spreading sovereign debt crisis beyond Greece—and demands for attacks on the working class—are currently centered on Portugal and Spain. Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the debt of both countries last week.

Socialist Party Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero was forced to issue a statement Tuesday calling fears that Spain would have to resort to an IMF loan “complete madness.” Zapatero has already introduced plans for massive spending cuts and has pledged to do “whatever it takes” to reduce the country’s budget deficit.

Similar measures are being planned and implemented throughout Europe and internationally. The bailout of the financial system has been followed by demands that the working class pay for the resulting surge in government debt.

The Financial Times worried in an editorial Monday that none of the major candidates competing in the May 6 elections in Britain has “tackled head-on the question of how to restore Britain’s public finances… The parties have not been straight with the public about the austerity that lies ahead.”

Central to the concerns of investors and governments demanding these cuts is the inevitable social reaction they will provoke. Jeremy Batstone-Carr, an analyst at Charles Stanley, warned that if Greece “fails to deliver the austerity measures in the face of widespread popular dissent then the International Monetary Fund will withdraw its support and the emergency aid will be withdrawn. This is the immediate crisis.”

The financial elite is relying on the social democratic Papandreou government to push through the cuts in Greece, and the government is in turn relying on the trade unions and middle class organizations to contain and demobilize opposition. However, there is broad concern that the situation might get out of hand.

Spyros Papaspyros, the head of public sector union ADEDY, worried in comments to the Financial Times that the austerity measures “have surpassed the tolerance threshold of the society and no one can foresee what will happen next.”

Papaspyros made clear to the newspaper of British finance capital that he well understood his role. The Times wrote, “But Mr Papaspyros said the unions would do their best to press their demands for a fairer distribution of the costs of the austerity measures but had no intention of helping speculators who bet against a Greek default.” In other words, the unions entirely accept the necessity for austerity measures and will do their best to help resolve the deficit crisis.

Greek strikers hit Athens streets

Greek strikers hit Athens streets

Greek public sector workers have stormed the Acropolis and scuffled with riot police after launching a 48-hour strike against austerity measures.

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Their action comes ahead of a nationwide general strike on Wednesday.

The austerity measures were outlined in a draft bill submitted to the Greek parliament and will be voted on by the end of the week.

They have been introduced in return for a 110bn euro (£95bn) international rescue package agreed for the country.

The measures include wage freezes, pension cuts and tax rises.

They aim to achieve fresh budget cuts of 30bn euros over three years, with the goal of cutting Greece's public deficit to less than 3% of GDP by 2014. It currently stands at 13.6%.

Union leaders say the cuts target low-income Greeks.

"There are other things the [government] can do, before taking money from a pensioner who earns 500 euros (£430) a month," Spyros Papaspyros, leader of the public servants' union ADEDY, told Greek private television.

Dozens of Communist protesters broke into the ancient Acropolis at dawn, draping giant banners on the Parthenon temple reading: "Peoples of Europe Rise Up."

"We want to send a message to the farthest reaches of Greece and Europe," Communist MP Nikos Papaconstantinou said.

"Similar measures that eliminate social security are taken across Europe. But popular anger will rattle imperialist organisations."

Silent parade

Several thousand teachers and students marched to parliament, carrying black flags and banners.

The demonstration was largely peaceful. Some protesters handed red roses to riot policemen. But some scuffles broke out near the parliament building, with demonstrators throwing stones at riot police, who responded with pepper spray.

In other signs of discontent, on Monday a group of teachers forced their way into the main state broadcaster's studios in Athens to protest about education cuts.

Also in Athens, some 150 members of the armed forces staged a silent parade to protest at having their bonuses cut.

The EU has agreed to provide 80bn euros (£69bn) in funding, while the rest will come from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The deal is designed to prevent Greece from defaulting on its massive debt.

However, it must first be approved by some parliaments in the 15 other eurozone countries.

Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said private banks were willing to chip in to to Germany's part of the deal, which is expected to be the largest individual contribution, at about 22m euros.

In return for the loans, Greece will make major austerity cuts which Prime Minister George Papandreou said involved "great sacrifices".

Measures include:

  • Scrapping bonus payments for public sector workers
  • Capping annual holiday bonuses and axing them for higher earners
  • Banning increases in public sector salaries and pensions for at least three years
  • Increasing VAT from 21% to 23%
  • Raising taxes on fuel, alcohol and tobacco by 10%
  • Taxing illegal construction

Joe Lieberman bill would strip citizenship

Lieberman bill would strip citizenship

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Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) thinks he’s found a work-around on the whole Miranda rights debate for U.S. citizens accused of terrorism: Strip their citizenship and ship them to Guantanamo.

Lieberman plans to introduce a bill that would amend a decades-old law aimed at yanking citizenship from U.S. citizens who fight for a foreign military.

“I’m now putting together legislation to amend that to [specify that] any individual American citizen who is found to be involved in a foreign terrorist organization, as defined by the Department of State, would be deprived of their citizenship rights,” Lieberman said Tuesday.

Such a law would potentially cover terror suspect Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-born American citizen charged in connection with the attempted car bombing in New York City’s Times Square. He was apprehended Monday night at the city’s John F. Kennedy airport after he boarded a flight to Dubai.

“If you have joined an enemy of the United States in attacking the United States and trying to kill Americans, I think you sacrifice your rights of citizenship,” Lieberman said.

There is one exception to the existing law: Americans are allowed to serve in the Israel Defense Forces without losing their citizenship.

At a press conference Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said Shahzad was questioned without a Miranda warning under the so-called public safety exception but was later read his rights and continued to speak with investigators.

In a civilian trial, a judge can toss out evidence taken from a suspect who has not been read Miranda rights.

The incident is the most serious terrorism attempt in this country since Christmas Day, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is accused of trying to detonate a bomb aboard a Northwest Airlines flight. Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian national, was read his Miranda rights, sparking an outcry from Republicans — who argued he should have been interrogated as an enemy combatant.

Lieberman said he believes the administration should have used the recently created High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group in those interrogations.

“My feeling is that if they [HIG] make a judgment that this was a terrorist act, the person should be turned over to the military,” Lieberman said.

That’s not allowed under current law if the suspect is an American citizen, because U.S. citizens cannot be tried in military commissions. The 2006 law that outlines guidelines for the commissions authorizes them only for “alien unprivileged enemy belligerent[s].”



That didn’t stop congressional Republicans from clamoring to know whether Shahzad was read his Miranda rights and questioning whether a civilian court is the appropriate venue.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said reading Shahzad his rights was a “serious mistake.”

“I certainly would not read this individual his Miranda rights. I would not do that,” he said.

“What I was talking about was that we don’t have to Mirandize someone immediately. You don’t — before you charge them, there’s time that elapses,” McCain later clarified to POLITICO.

New York Rep. Peter King, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, wants to know whether the Justice Department consulted with the intelligence community before it decided to hold his trial in civilian court.“I hope that Holder did discuss this with the intelligence community. If they believe they got enough from him, how much more should they get? Did they Mirandize him? I know he’s an American citizen, but still,” King told POLITICO.

“I hope that if they did read him his rights, and if they are going for an indictment as opposed to a tribunal, that he did discuss it with the director of national intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, all the component parts of the intelligence community,” King said.

King acknowledged that Shahzad’s case is different. “It is different from the Christmas Day bombing because, one, this guy is an American citizen; it appears that most of the work was carried out here in the United States as opposed to [with] Abdulmutallab, who was flying in,” King said. “That said, before there’s a rush to indict him, I think they should make an effort to figure out what is the best venue for him.”

Lieberman also pointed to the public safety exception that allowed officials to question Shahzad — though Holder and other national security officials would not say how long that portion of the interrogation lasted.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee and a key critic of the administration’s handling of the Abdulmutallab case, declined to criticize the Justice Department’s handling of the case.

“Law enforcement and intelligence authorities continue to follow up on a number of ongoing leads,” Collins said in a statement Tuesday. “This attempted attack reminds us once again that terrorists are unrelenting in their desire to kill Americans. We cannot let down our guard and must meet this ongoing threat to our security with strength and resiliency.”

Secret Recording of Blackwater CEO Erik Prince Reveals Previously Undisclosed Blackwater Operations

Secret Recording of Blackwater CEO Erik Prince Reveals Previously Undisclosed Blackwater Operations

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Democracy Now! Co-host Sharif Abdel Kouddous: Erik Prince doesn’t like being in the media spotlight. The reclusive owner of the private military firm known as Blackwater is scheduled to give the keynote address tomorrow at the Tulip Time Festival in his hometown of Holland, Michigan. True to form, Prince told the event’s organizers no news reporting could be done on his speech and they consented to the ban. But journalists and media associations in Michigan protested the move and on Monday, the organizers reversed their position and said the media would be allowed to attend with one caveat: no video or audio recording devices are allowed inside. Despite Prince’s attempts to shield his speeches from public scrutiny, investigative journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill obtained a rare audio recording of a recent, private speech delivered by Prince to a friendly audience in January. The speech, which Prince attempted to keep from public consumption provides a stunning glimpse into his views and future plans and reveals details of previously undisclosed activities of Blackwater.

Amy Goodman: Jeremy Scahill joins us here in our Democracy Now! studio. He is an award winning independent journalist, Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation Institute, and the author of the international bestseller “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.”Jeremy is also scheduled to speak [on Wednesday] in Holland, Michigan, just hours after Erik Prince, at a separate event organized by the Interfaith Congregation of Holland. ... So, talk about this tape. How’d you get it?

Scahill: Well, Erik Prince has been in the media at times because he has had to respond when its forces killed 17 innocent Iraqis in Nisour Square, he made the rounds on CNN and 60 Minutes and other places. And he generally goes into a very controlled environment. He doesn’t often give speeches, he doesn’t lecture on the university circuit, and when he does give talks, he makes it very clear to the event organizers that there are to be no recording devices and journalists are not allowed.

And so I had contact with someone who had the opportunity to go to this private event that was hosted by the Young Presidents Organization and Erik Prince was giving a speech in front of all these entrepreneurs. It was a private gathering. And they had ROTC cadets from the University of Michigan- the commanders of ROTC there. And in fact, at one point during his speech, Erik Prince stops after he had been bashing some NATO countries and saying that some of the U.S. allies in Afghanistan should pack up their bags and get out of the country, he singled-out about Canada as a positive example of a force that was doing a good job in Afghanistan, he stopped and he said, “I just want to make it clear everything I’m saying here is off the record in case any journalists slipped into the room.

Let’s remember this is a man whose company does ninety percent of its business with the federal government. Taxpayers fund this man’s corporation. We have a right to know what he’s up to. We have a right to know, when you can’t get documents on Blackwater, what the owner of this company is saying. So I revealed the details of this tape in the interest of the first amendment freedom of the press, but also because I believe the American people have a right. So someone contacted me, said they weren’t going to be going to this and I asked that individual, "Do you think you could record it?” And so what happened was that this person went into the event and clandestinely recorded Erik Prince speaking. And what he said was really incredible.

There are a number of key points to focus on. One is that Erik Prince said that the United States should send armed mercenaries, he doesn’t use the term, but that’s what they are, armed mercenaries, into Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria. With the exception of Nigeria, he talked about Yemen and Somalia and Saudi Arabia facing Iranian threats and the Iranians were, as he put it, at the dead center of badness in the world. And he said that by sending in private contractors, armed contractors, instead of the military, you solve the political problems of sending a large U.S. force, and said that the private sector can do this in a much smaller footprint way and it also would be politically expedient because there would essentially be plausible deniability on the part of the government. In the case of Nigeria, of course we’ve seen an increase in resistance movements and indigenous movements that are protesting against multinational oil corporations polluting, doing what they perceive to be stealing of Nigeria’s most valuable resources, oil-rich African nation.

Erik Prince talked about these Nigerian groups as stealing oil from the multi-national oil corporations and suggested without providing any evidence whatsoever that revenue from this theft, by Nigerian groups, of the oil was being used to fund terrorist operations. I talked to some military sources that I have that have extensive experience with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan, and what they found most disturbing about what Prince said was that Prince told a story of July 2009 where his narcotics interdiction unit, a 200-person strike force in Afghanistan that I had never heard of this force before, they actually were operating near the Pakistan border, they came across with a said was a massive hashish and heroin operation and Blackwater forces actually called-in air strikes that then came in and destroyed this facility. The idea that a private company is individually calling-in air strikes raises serious questions about the chain of command issue in Afghanistan. How is it that a private force is able to simply can get on the phone and within moments call-in air strikes that take out anything?

The other story that disturbs military folks that I’ve talked to is that Erik Prince tells a story of how his Blackwater forces resupply a U.S. military unit with ammunition when they’re running low. And he says that the reason that Blackwater did it is because there was too much lawyering involved with the official military doing it. So Blackwater was contacted he said, by this military unit, and they brought in the resupply, the ammunition. Again, chain of command issues. How is it that Blackwater is able to just unilaterally work with individual units fo the U.S. military? Or, in the case of the so-called drug bust that they’re actually calling-in air strikes. Prince, Amy, also said that Blackwater took down Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes the President Bush and Prince called the Secret Service “flatfooted.” And said that he’s going to be publishing a book in the fall, Erik Prince is. It’s going to be like, you know, “Chicken Soup for the Mercenary Soul.” And he said he’s going to publish a photo of the Blackwater guy taking down the man that Prince called the “Iraqi shoe bomber.” I’ve never heard an allegation there was a bomb there but- when Erik Prince is speaking in front of the media, you get one version of the story. When he’s talking in front of business leaders and the military, you hear a very different side of things and I think it’s very revealing.

The Pentagon should be asking serious questions right now of Erik Prince about what exactly his forces are doing in Afghanistan. He also said he controls four forward operating bases inside of Afghanistan and including one at the base of the mountains of Tora Bora, which is the closest U.S. base and it’s operated, in Erik Prince’s terms, by Blackwater, to the Pakistan border. But he described having these in different strategic locations around Afghanistan. This was not a speech by a man who seems like he’s concerned that he’s going out of business anytime soon. He seems to be doing quite well and very much of the center of things in Afghanistan.

Kouddous: Well, Jeremy we want to go to one of those clips. This has never before been broadcast. It’s difficult to hear. We have the transcript up for our television viewers. But for our radio audience, why don’t you set up this clip. This is about the Geneva Conventions.

Scahill: Right, this was recorded by someone who had to do it secretly, so it was recorded from a seat in the audience with the room ambiance, so it’s a bit hard to make out. But what Erik Prince, he says that people have come up to him and said, aren’t you concerned when you operate in the likes of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan–interesting because Blackwater has denied it works in Pakistan, but here’s Erik Prince mentioning his work in Pakistan–aren’t you concerned when you work in these places you don’t have protection under the Geneva Convention? You know, there’s a debate about this, that they could be classified as ‘unlawful combatants’ because they’re essentially mercenaries, it’s arguable under international law definitions. And Prince said, absolutely not because the people that we’re fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are ‘barbarians who crawled out of the sewer.’ He said that they have a 1200 AD mentality. And that they don’t know where Geneva is, let alone there was a convention there. It’s interesting that he misuses the term convention there because it wasn’t a convention in the sense of a meeting, but a convention in the sense of an international agreement that was brokered that governs now, international affairs. So here’s Erik Prince expressing disdain over the debate about the status of his forces in the Geneva Conventions.

Kouddous: So let’s go to that clip. Listen carefully. This is Eric Prince speaking in January. Never before been broadcast.

    Erik Prince: They are there to kill us. They don’t understand- you know, people ask me that all the time, ’Aren’t you concerned that you folks aren’t covered under the Geneva Convention in dealing in the likes of Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan?’ And I say, ‘Absolutely not,’ because these people, they crawled out of the sewer and they have a 1200 AD mentality. They’re barbarians. They don’t even know where Geneva is, let alone that there was a convention there. [LAUGHTER]


Kouddous: That was Erik Prince. Again, it was difficult to understand, you can go to our website at democracynow.org for a transcript, it’s up on the screen, of what he’s saying. We’re going to another clip right now, Jeremy. This is him talking about Yemen, about Saudi Arabia, about the Middle East, and specifically about the influence he thinks of Iran.

Scahill: Yeah, as he put it, as Erik Prince put it, as I said, you know Iran is of the dead center of badness in the world. And he painted this picture where Iran is fomenting a Shi’ite revolt in the region and he talked about how they’re stirring-up this revolt in Yemen and doing cross-border raids into Saudi Arabia. He talked about the Iranian influence in Somalia and other countries and talked about the Iranians providing support for improvised explosive devices in Iraq and he said, that in the case of Yemen and Saudi Arabia an Somalia, that the Iranians have had a very sinister hand in these places. So, Erik Prince proposed that the U.S. send in forces, small forces of U.S. mercenaries because he said that you’re not going to solve the problem by putting a lot of uniformed soldiers in these countries. It’s way too politically sensitive, he said. The private sector can operate there with a very, very, very small, very light footprint.

Kouddous: Again, let’s go to that tape. This is Erik Prince.

    Erik Prince: So, the Iranians are stirring it up in Yemen first, they’re trying to stir it up in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. The Iranians have had a very, very big hand in Iraq certainly and there’s a lot of evidence that they’re supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan as well. We’ve seen more and more sophisticated IEDs, the Improvised Explosive Devices, that are blowing up our troops on the road, even some evidence of surface-to-air missiles being moved in. So the Iranians have a very sinister hand in these places. You’re not going to solve it by putting a lot of uniformed soldiers in all these countries. It’s way too politically sensitive. The private sector can operate there with a very, very, very small, very light footprint.


Kouddous: Again, that was Erik Prince speaking in January. Difficult to hear. Jeremy, your article really goes through all of what he says throughout this speech. Talk about- well, go ahead.

Goodman: And interestingly, he’s speaking at the University of Michigan where President Obama just gave the commencement address yesterday.

Scahill: Right, exactly and where he will be speaking on Wednesday is Holland, Michigan is at the DeVos Fieldhouse which is owned by the DeVos family, the owners of the Orlando Magic basketball team. The biggest bank rollers of the rise of the radical religious right. His sister, Betsy, is married to Dick DeVos, the heir to that fortune. And it’s interesting because he almost always speaks of some kind of a venue there that is controlled by either his family or his extended family. The last part of what Prince said in that clip, though, is very significant. He talked about the issue of the very small footprint. That is in his line for a long time. That the U.S. government has very expensive military operations and that if you take a high-end team of special forces operators like those that work for Blackwater, former SEALS, Delta Force, JSOC guys, joint special operations command guys, that you can send in less of them and that they can inflict much more damage. So he’s suggesting this will be something that can be done right now, send them into these countries to take out ‘the bad guys,’ as he called it, he constantly uses that term, ‘the bad guys.’

Kouddous: And other things that Prince talks about, about training Afghan forces and also about Hurricane Katrina and Blackwater’s presence there in the aftermath.

Scahill: Right, he said that Blackwater trains somewhere in the ballpark of 1,500 Afghans every six weeks. Blackwater is currently competing for this massive training contract to train the Afghan police and there are some other companies doing it, too, but Blackwater right now, has a large part of the market cornered, and so they spend a lot of time with these Afghan forces. But he also sort of spoke disparagingly in a way that sort of was cultural imperialism about Afghans. He said that the Afghans that come to us, you know, they’ve never been a part of something professional and something that works and he said that, you know, they don’t know how to use toilets- and the first thing we have to do is teach them intro to toilet use. He also talks about women that are working with Blackwater, and he says, you know, they come to work in their burkas and then they put on their cammies, their camouflage, and he said, you know, they really like the baton work and they get carried away with the handcuffs, wanting to handcuff men all the time. He was sort of speaking disparagingly of them. And the at the same time turns around and says, ‘but in six weeks we turn these individuals into what U.S. generals have told me is the most effective fighting force in Afghanistan.

You know, I wonder what General McChrystal thinks about that, given his Army Ranger history, that Afghans who spend six weeks with Eric Prince’s force are somehow the most effective fighting force in Afghanistan. And then finally, Sharif, as you mentioned, he- Erik Prince brags that Blackwater saved 128 people during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I was down there and- we were all down there, Amy, and we saw the Blackwater guys, we talked to some of them. They said that they were there to confront criminals and stop looters. But what Prince says that I think would be offensive to, Louisiana, is he says that Blackwater forces beat the Louisiana National Guard to the scene of the hurricane zone. He says, we jumped from five states over and beat the Louisiana National Guard.

He doesn’t mention that thirty-five to forty percent of the Louisiana National Guard was deployed in Iraq along with massive amounts of equipment that could of been used in recovery operations, that could have been used in humanitarian operations there. So to say Blackwater beat the Louisiana National Guard without mentioning that part of the reason there wasn’t an effective Louisiana National Guard response was because so many of them were in Iraq and deployed abroad. And they expressed anger.

I remember seeing some of them coming back into Louisiana livid with President Bush, saying, ‘He cares more about Iraq than he does about Louisiana and we should have been here.’ And so, he uses that then to launch off, Amy, and say he participated, Prince is a SEAL, in the invasion, he called it, of Haiti in 1994. And then he said that he had wanted to create a humanitarian barge like this massive vessel that could respond to natural disasters around the world, that could be supported by large pharmaceutical companies and Archer Daniels Midland, but that because of political attacks from the Left, because of his tens of millions of dollars in legal bills, he had to cancel it. And he says, you know, ‘a ship like that sure could come in handy right now in Haiti as it deals with the earthquake.

Goodman: He also talked about the CIA bombing in Khost.

Scahill: Yeah. he did although he didn’t mention the fact that Blackwater was guarding the CIA individuals that were blown up that day. You remember there was a Jordanian double agent that managed to penetrate Forward Operating Base Chapman. He killed eight CIA personnel including two Blackwater operatives. I have learned from a very well-informed intelligence source within the U.S. government that the Blackwater men were doing security that day. So, in a way, you could say Blackwater operatives failed to protect the CIA individuals that were there that day. But Prince talked about it being a necessary cost of doing business and that’s when he segued into his disdain for the Geneva Convention, was when he started saying that the people we’re fighting are barbarians that crawled out of the sewer, but he doesn’t mention that Blackwater had personnel killed there. He also compares themselves to Valerie Plame and says that he was a victim of ‘outing’ and that the government depends on Americans who are not working officially with the government, but are contractors, for the entire intelligence apparatus. And it was unprecedented for someone like him, running a sensitive program which was essentially a CIA assassination program, to be outed publicly and compared themselves to Valerie Plame.

Goodman: Jeremy, you’re going to Holland, Michigan [this Wednesday]. You’re going to be speaking hours after Erik Prince.

Scahill: Right, I mean, an interfaith congregation in Holland, Michigan, when they learned that Erik Prince was going to be speaking, initially it was going to be completely closed-off to any public scrutiny- I mean, what’s the difference between closing of the public and not allowing journalists to record it in audio or video? And they said, you know, we as residents of the city are offended that this man is going to be speaking at what is supposed to be a sort of cultural celebration of the heritage of people there and that they’re going to shut it down, essentially, from any kind of coverage. So we want someone to come in and give the other side of the story, because the organizers of the festival said that Prince was going to be talking about the value-based lessons of his childhood. Well, what about the values that Erik Prince’s forces have shown in Iraq when they’ve shot innocent civilians, and stolen childhoods, like Ali Kinani, the 9-year-old boy who was the youngest victim of Blackwater at Nisour Square? We reported on that at Democracy Now!. My intent is to go there and tell the other side of the story, the one that Erik Prince certainly won’t be discussing inside the DeVos Fieldhouse.