Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rep. Alan Grayson Introduces the War Is Making You Poor Act (Video)

Rep. Alan Grayson Introduces the War Is Making You Poor Act (Video)

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US Has Told BP "It Can Do Whatever It Wants and Won’t Be Held Accountable"

Fmr. EPA Investigator Scott West: US Has Told BP "It Can Do Whatever It Wants and Won’t Be Held Accountable"

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JUAN GONZALEZ: It was a month ago today when a catastrophic explosion set fire to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killing eleven workers and triggering one of the nation’s largest oil spills. A month later, the BP oil spill is still growing and rapidly spreading in the Gulf of Mexico. Heavy black oil can now be seen in the sensitive marshlands of Louisiana. Parts of the oil slick have entered the Gulf loop current, which could carry the oil to the Florida Keys and even possibly up the Atlantic Coast.

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, a professor at Purdue University told lawmakers that the oil spill may be nineteen times larger than BP’s estimate. Steve Wereley estimated the spill is leaking 95,000 barrels of oil, or four million gallons, a day. BP has put the spill at 5,000 barrels a day.

Also on Wednesday, a group of Democratic lawmakers called on the Interior Department to shut down the Atlantis, BP’s second-largest oil and gas rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The Atlantis operates in 7,000 feet of water, 2,000 feet deeper than the Deepwater Horizon.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about BP, we’re joined by a former top investigator at the Environmental Protection Agency. Up until his retirement in 2008, Scott West was a special agent in charge for the Criminal Investigation Division at the EPA.

In 2006, Scott West led an investigation of BP following a major oil pipeline leak in Alaska’s North Slope that spilled 250,000 gallons of oil on the Alaskan tundra. Before West finished his investigation, the Bush Justice Department reached a settlement with BP, and the oil company agreed to pay $20 million. At the same time, BP managed to avoid prosecution for the Texas City refinery explosion that killed fifteen workers by paying a $50 million settlement.

Scott West joins us from Seattle, where he now works for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Thank you very much for joining us, Scott West. Lay out that previous investigation that was shut down by the Bush Justice Department that you did.

SCOTT WEST: Yes, good morning, Amy.

In August of 2005, I was introduced to Chuck Hamel, who spoke to me about employees and workers on the North Slope providing information that the transit lines were full of sludge and were likely to suffer catastrophic failure due to corrosion and that then there would be a tremendous loss of oil onto the slope. Chuck made these employees available to me, and I was able to get this information beforehand. I wanted to get in front of that upcoming spill and prevent the spill from occurring, but I found that the EPA and the federal government really had no controls over the operation of that pipeline. So we were in a wait pattern.

Finally, in March of '06, I got a phone call from the slope from one of these workers that I had spoken with telling me that indeed the anticipated rupture had occurred and that a tremendous amount of oil was out onto the frozen tundra. We were lucky that it was wintertime, because the lake that it got into was frozen solid and it made the cleanup a lot easier. Had it been summertime, there would have been a tremendous sheen of oil flowing into the Beaufort Sea. But anyway, knowing that these workers had information that the pipeline would rupture and had provided that to their management and senior management and nothing had been done, that made that a criminal negligence, at the very least. And so I dispatched criminal investigators from EPA CID and sent them to the North Slope to begin a criminal investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

SCOTT WEST: Well, as we dug into it, we realized that we had a very large issue going on and that information that we were preliminarily receiving indicated that high-level management within BP, not only in the United States, but across the ocean and into London, were aware of the policies on the North Slope to forgo maintenance in exchange for saving money and that there was awareness at very high levels that this particular transit line was in jeopardy. And so, that made the investigation become very complex and generated a lot of interest within the EPA and the Department of Justice of being able to get into very senior levels of the corporation and hold them accountable for their decisions, which led to the corrosion rupturing the pipeline.

As we built up our investigation, it became very difficult. BP is known by its workers to be extremely retaliatory. And these workers did not want to lose their jobs or be blacklisted from other work in the oil industry, and so they were reticent about speaking with the investigators directly, which caused us to have to impanel a grand jury and issue subpoenas for these individuals to testify. So, once ordered by the court to come in and testify, they were protected from retaliation. So they would come in. We would interview them through the unwieldy process of using the grand jury, which slowed the investigation down, but also netted us a significant amount of information. In addition, we issued subpoenas for documents. And then in the response to those documents, we were buried. We received the equivalent of about 62 million pages of documents that were going to require a great deal of time to sift through and develop the leads and the information from that information.


SCOTT WEST: So, by—yes, yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Scott West, in this particular situation, you had the perhaps unusual situation—or how unusual is it to have so many workers basically providing inside information on what was going on and the problems involved, but yet at the same time, as you say, they were afraid to publicly come forward because of possible retaliation? How frequently does that happen in these kinds of situations, especially with oil companies?

SCOTT WEST: Well, it's pretty common in the—in industry. Workers do not want to lose their livelihoods, and so they’re reluctant to discuss openly about what’s going on in their companies. I found, through my career as an environmental investigator, that it was often easier to get witnesses to give up information on friends, co-workers and spouses before they would give it up on their employer. But ultimately, most people come around and do the right thing and provide the information that they have about criminal activity. In this particular instance, though, the vindictiveness of BP, as understood by the employees and conveyed to the investigators, was extreme. And so, it made it much more difficult.

But in terms of where my investigation was going, by June of '07, we had several investigators working on the case. We had several prosecutors from the Department of Justice, both from the US attorney's office in Alaska and from the Environmental Crimes Section at main Justice. A tremendous amount of man hours were being devoted to this case. And, in fact, the director of CID had told about that time that the investigation that we had in Alaska was one of the top two criminal cases that EPA had at the time. So there was a lot of momentum, a lot of interest in this case.

But by August of '07, something had shifted dramatically, and we were told by the US attorney's office in Alaska that the case would settle out for corporate misdemeanor. And at the meeting that I attended there in late August, the question was asked, if we had to go to trial today, what could we prove? And I had to admit that a trial at that moment, the most we could prove was a corporate misdemeanor. And then I said, "But we’re not done with our investigation. We’ve only just begun. We need another couple of years to really vet this out." And they said, well, can I guarantee that I would be able to convict individuals. And I said, "Of course not. You can’t guarantee anything like that in the criminal investigative arena." And so, with that, they said, "Well, then we’re done." And I was in shock. It’s unheard of for a special agent in charge to be denied the opportunity to complete an investigation that was so far from nearing its end. And then—

AMY GOODMAN: So you have the EPA considering penalties of upwards of, what, 800—or $672 million, possibly felony charges against BP executives, and they end up settling for $20 million?

SCOTT WEST: Yes, they ended up settling for $20 million. And I was told there was a couple of reasons for that $20 million figure. One, we have to go back to the Olympic Pipe Line case. The Olympic pipeline ruptured in Bellingham, Washington in 1999, and the resulting spill of gasoline into a stream caught fire. Three individuals were burned to death, and a stream was destroyed. That case was investigated by EPA out of the Seattle office. In '99 and 2000, it was considered a very significant criminal case in the US attorney's office in Seattle, which was at that time under the Clinton administration.

When the Bush administration took over at the Department of Justice, and the US attorney came in, it was—became a bottom-of-the-barrel case and was ultimately settled out for a very low amount of money. And I have been talking with one of the investigators on that case, and he said the amount of money that was determined as the fine in that matched what the insurance companies were willing to pay. So Olympic Pipe Line essentially did not have to actually pay the fine, but it was covered by their insurance company. Now, that Olympic Pipe Line settlement became the benchmark, within the Bush Department of Justice, for environmental crime.

So then we had the Texas City explosion by BP that resulted in a number of deaths and injuries caused by failure to maintain the same sort of corporate practices that I saw in Alaska. And that case got wrapped up at the same time that mine did, and the settlement there, based upon the Olympic Pipe Line precedent, was set at $50 million. So they said, well, then, my spill case in Alaska could not get anywhere near that amount, because that had fatalities, and so they settled it for $20 million.

Now, for BP, $20 million is a rounding error, when you look at the amount of profits they make on a daily basis. It made no impact into changing their practices. The only thing that could really change the practices had been if we had been able to pursue and hold individuals accountable for their decisions. As you well know, the corporations do not make decisions; the individuals within them do. And so, to hold those individuals accountable would have been the proper conclusion to the investigation.

Now, now we’re seeing the same sort of thing in the Gulf, in this catastrophe. And information is coming to light that corners were cut and that employees’ concerns were being ignored. It’s the exact same pattern that we saw with BP in Alaska and with BP in Texas City. And I understand a couple of—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to take a break, Scott West—


AMY GOODMAN: —and then come back to this discussion. Scott West, former special agent in charge—

SCOTT WEST: Certainly.

AMY GOODMAN: —of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaking to us from Seattle. And we’re going to also talk about how rare it is to pierce the corporate veil and go from fines on a multi-billion-dollar corporation to actually charging corporate executives.

This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, Scott West, former special agent in charge of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Environmental Protection Agency, he went after BP for criminal prosecution in the Alaska oil spill several years ago, was looking for criminal prosecution of the executives, but the Bush Justice Department ended up shutting down the investigation. As he was doing his investigation, the Texas City refinery, BP’s refinery, blew up, and fifteen workers were killed. Now, of course, recently in the latest oil explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, eleven workers were killed. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Scott West, you said you were shocked when the decision was made not to pursue criminal charges. What was your reaction subsequent to that, and has any retaliation or mistreatment occurred toward you afterwards?

SCOTT WEST: Well, my reaction was just shock. I had never seen that happen. It’s one thing to have thoroughly investigated a case, and you can have the lead investigator, who’s invested a lot of his or her personal energy and time into a case, and having concluded, looking under every rock and turning every stone, be frustrated with the fact that the evidence just isn’t there, even though that investigator is convinced that something should be done. But in those cases, you recognize, OK, we shut it down, and we move on. But in this particular instance, we had all of these documents that had not even been looked at and a whole list of individual witnesses that still needed to be interviewed.

And then you had the special agent in charge—at that time, I was the SAC in Seattle. And you had the special agent in charge going to the Department of Justice and asking for an extension of time. When they first said, "No, we’re going to settle this," I kept asking, you know, "Why the rush to settlement? I need at least a couple more years." And they said, "No, we’re not going to do that." And I said, "Well, give me a year." And they said, "No." And I said, "Six months." "No." "Three months." "No, it’s over." And I was incredulous, and I was making a lot of noise about that. And a very frustrating part was that my own management in Washington, DC failed to back me up. They fell right into lockstep with the Departments of Justice decision and accused me of being a zealot and all sorts of things and said that seventeen months was a perfectly adequate time to investigate a case like this, when they all know, from their own experience, that that’s a ridiculous statement.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott West, do you think if BP—

SCOTT WEST: So I was quite—yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think if BP executives were brought up on charges that we would see what we’re seeing in the Gulf of Mexico today?

SCOTT WEST: Well, I doubt we would be having this discussion and we’d be dealing with a catastrophe like this in the Gulf. What the government has done over the past several years is taught BP that it can do whatever it wants and will not be held accountable. So, decisions have been made, very poor decisions have been made, to increase profits and put workers at risk and been allowed and endorsed by the federal government. So, there’s been no—[no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: Lost him. Sorry, that was the satellite connection to Seattle, which is what we were afraid of. But that was Scott West, former special agent in charge of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Environmental Protection Agency. He now works with the group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Again, was the one who attempted to bring BP executives up on charges, criminal charges, which is extremely rare in these corporate cases, from BP to Massey Energy in West Virginia. And this is an issue we will continue to investigate.

Meth Used at Drilling Agency

IG report: Meth, porn use by drilling agency staff

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Staff members at an agency that oversees offshore drilling accepted tickets to sports events, lunches and other gifts from oil and gas companies and used government computers to view pornography, according to an Interior Department report alleging a culture of cronyism between regulators and the industry.

In at least one case, an inspector for the Minerals Management Service admitted using crystal methamphetamine and said he might have been under the influence of the drug the next day at work, according to the report by the acting inspector general of the Interior Department.

The report cites a variety of violations of federal regulations and ethics rules at the agency's Louisiana office. Previous inspector general investigations have focused on inappropriate behavior by the royalty-collection staff in the agency's Denver office.

The report adds to the climate of frustration and criticism facing the Obama administration in the monthlong oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, although it covers actions before the spill. Millions of gallons of oil are gushing into the Gulf, endangering wildlife and the livelihoods of fishermen, as scrutiny intensifies on a lax regulatory climate.

The report began as a routine investigation, the acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, said in a cover letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department includes the agency.

"Unfortunately, given the events of April 20 of this year, this report had become anything but routine, and I feel compelled to release it now," she wrote.

Her biggest concern is the ease with which minerals agency employees move between industry and government, Kendall said. While no specifics were included in the report, "we discovered that the individuals involved in the fraternizing and gift exchange — both government and industry — have often known one another since childhood," Kendall said.

Their relationships took precedence over their jobs, Kendall said.

The report follows a 2008 report by then-Inspector General Earl Devaney that decried a "culture of ethical failure" and conflicts of interest at the minerals agency.

Salazar called the latest report "deeply disturbing" and said it highlights the need for changes he has proposed, including a plan to abolish the minerals agency and replace it with three new entities.

The report "is further evidence of the cozy relationship between some elements of MMS and the oil and gas industry," Salazar said Tuesday. "I appreciate and fully support the inspector general's strong work to root out the bad apples in MMS."

Salazar said several employees cited in the report have resigned, were fired or were referred for prosecution. Actions may be taken against others as warranted, he said.

The report covers activities between 2000 and 2008. Salazar said he has asked Kendall to expand her investigation to look into agency actions since he took office in January 2009.

Salazar last week proposed eliminating the Minerals Management Service and replacing it with two bureaus and a revenue collection office. The name Minerals Management Service would no longer exist.

Members of Congress and President Barack Obama have criticized what they call the cozy relationship between regulators and oil companies and have vowed to reform MMS, which both regulates the industry and collects billions in royalties from it.

The report said that employees from the Lake Charles, La., MMS office had repeatedly accepted gifts, including hunting and fishing trips from the Island Operating Company, an oil and gas company working on oil platforms regulated by the Interior Department.

Taking such gifts "appears to have been a generally accepted practice," the report said.

Two employees at the Lake Charles office admitted using illegal drugs, and many inspectors had e-mails that contained inappropriate humor and pornography on their government computers, the report said.

Kendall recommended a series of steps to improve ethical standards, including a two-year waiting period for agency employees to join the oil or gas industry.

One MMS inspector conducted four inspections of Island Operating platforms while negotiating and later accepting employment with the company, the report said.

A spokeswoman for Island Operating Company could not be reached for comment. The Louisiana-based company says on it website that it has "an impeccable safety record" and cites Safety Awards for Excellence from the MMS in 1999 and 2002. The company was a finalist in other years.

"Island knows how to get the job done safely and compliantly," the website says.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the report "yet another black eye for the Minerals Management Service. Once again, MMS employees have been found culpable of performing shoddy oversight of offshore drilling. The report reveals an overly cozy culture between MMS regulators and the oil industry."

Feinstein, who chairs a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department, said she will hold a hearing next month on Salazar's plan to restructure the agency.

Oil inspectors let companies fill in their own audits

Oil inspectors let companies fill in own audits, while one admitted getting high on meth, report says

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The agency in charge of overseeing the United States' oil reserves was plagued with gross mismanagement that in at least one case allowed the companies being inspected to fill in their own audit reports, an Inspector General's report will reportedly reveal this week.

Regulators overseeing oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico reportedly allowed oil company officials to fill in their own inspection reports. According to the internal probe being released this week, oil officials sketched out their answers in pencil and turned them over to federal oversight officials, who then traced their answers in pen.

And as if that wasn't enough, a Louisiana inspector from the Minerals Management Service purportedly admitted to investigators that he'd used crystal methamphetamine, and may have been high on the illegal stimulant during a drilling inspection.

The Inspector General's report was previewed Tuesday in the New York Times. The report is sure to set off a bombshell in Washington, where Congress is probing how a massive and still-growing oil leak was allowed to happen in the Gulf of Mexico. None of the reports findings directly address the lead-up to the spill from the sinking of Transocean's Deepwater Horizon rig in April, but they certainly draw a picture of a watchdog asleep -- or high -- at the wheel.

The report also found that during the tenure of President George W. Bush, from 2005 to 2007, "inspectors accepted meals, tickets to sporting events and gifts from at least one oil company while they were overseeing the industry," the Times said.

The paper added that "the investigation had been presented to the United States Attorney's Office for the Western District of Louisiana, which declined prosecution."

The official probe is said to have relied on confidential sources who tattle-taled on the troubled agency.

They "provided additional information pertaining to M.M.S. employees at the Lake Charles District Office, including acceptance of a trip to the 2005 Peach Bowl game that was paid for by an oil and gas company; illicit drug use; misuse of government computers; and inspection report falsification."

The latest inquiry into the Minerals Management Service is not the first hard-hitting report to reveal mismanagement by the agency. MMS is charged with overseeing the nation's oil resources and with collecting royalties from oil production firms. Critics of the agency have said that this dual role often puts the watchdog at a conflict of interest with its purpose of protecting taxpayers.

A 2008 probe found similarly troubling behavior by MMS workers. Citing what he called a "culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" by workers, the Interior's Department's inspector general found that employees had sex with and took drugs with energy company representatives. Workers also reportedly enjoyed gifts, ski trips and golf outings paid for by oil giants.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has proposed to split up the MMS into separate watchdog and royalties collection units.

Noted the AP earlier this month: "One agency would be charged with inspecting oil rigs, investigating oil companies and enforcing safety regulations, while the other would oversee leases for drilling and collection of billions of dollars in royalties.

"Currently, the Minerals Management Service, an arm of the Interior Department, is responsible for collecting more than $10 billion a year from oil and gas drilling and with enforcing laws and regulations that apply to drilling operations."

General Petraeus' Secret Ops

General Petraeus's Secret Ops

Book bares Israeli nuclear arms deals with apartheid regime

Book bares Israeli nuclear arms deals with apartheid regime

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Israel negotiated with South Africa for the sale of nuclear-armed missiles to the apartheid regime in the 1970s, according to a book published today. The revelation has surfaced at an inconvenient time for Washington as it campaigns for increased sanctions against Iran over Tehran’s own nuclear program.

The new book, “The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with apartheid South Africa,” was written by Sasha Polakow-Suransky, the senior editor at Foreign Affairs, a publication oriented to the American foreign policy establishment. It has provided the first documentary evidence of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. These documents also demonstrate that the Zionist state was prepared to sell these weapons to a pariah regime that had engaged in repeated military attacks on its neighbors, while oppressing and waging unceasing state violence against its own black majority population.

The British Guardian Monday published the documents declassified by the South African government at Polakow-Suransky’s request during his research on the book.

They include a formal request from the apartheid regime for nuclear equipped missiles and minutes of meetings held in 1975 in which then Israeli defense minister (now Israeli president) Shimon Peres bargained with his South African counterpart, P.W. Botha, over the terms of such a sale.

These minutes, signed by Peres, include his statements indicating that Israel was prepared to sell Pretoria its Jericho missiles and warheads that came in “three sizes,” meaning conventional, biological and nuclear.

The book states that South Africa wanted the nuclear missiles for possible strikes against neighboring African states—such as Angola and Mozambique—where the apartheid regime had repeatedly intervened.

“South Africa’s leaders yearned for a nuclear deterrent—which they believed would force the west to intervene on their behalf if Pretoria were ever seriously threatened—and the Israeli proposition put that goal within reach,” Polakow-Suransky writes in the book.

The publication of the documents provoked a blustering protest from the Israeli president’s office. It issued a statement saying that “there exists no basis in reality for the claims” published in the Guardian about the nuclear bargaining between the Zionist and apartheid regimes, despite the visible evidence to the contrary. It added that his office would send a “harsh letter” to the newspaper, demanding that it publish “the true facts.”

Polakow-Suransky has indicated that Israel attempted unsuccessfully to pressure the current government of South Africa not to declassify the documents, which had been declared secret at the time by both Tel Aviv and Pretoria.

While the 1975 deal was not consummated, Israel continued to serve as the apartheid regime’s principal arms dealer and intimately collaborated in nuclear arms programs, testing Jericho missiles in South Africa, providing nuclear weapons material and, apparently, conducting at least one joint test of a nuclear weapon in 1979 in the Indian Ocean, a flagrant violation of international treaties.

The Israeli government and its supporters have routinely branded anyone drawing attention to the obvious parallels between the conditions imposed upon Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and South Africa’s apartheid system as anti-Semitic. But, as the book elaborates, the similarities between the two regimes were evident to Israeli officials themselves, who cited them in defending the close ties between Tel Aviv and Pretoria.

Another document published in the book is a diplomatic message sent by Peres (a pivotal figure in both Israel’s foreign as well as nuclear policy over the past half century) to Pretoria following a secret visit to the South African capital in 1974. Proposing an alliance between the two regimes, Peres wrote that “this relationship is based not only on common interests and on the determination to resist equally our enemies, but also on the unshakeable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and our refusal to submit to it.”

What precisely was the “common hatred of injustice” that Israel shared with the white supremacist regime in South Africa, dominated as it was by avowed Nazi sympathizers (Prime Minister B.J. Vorster, welcomed to Jerusalem in 1976, had been jailed in World War II because of his support for Hitler)? Clearly it was shared hostility to the demands of the populations that they oppressed; the Palestinians on the one hand, and the black majority on the other.

Even more explicit are the statements of Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Likud Party supporter Eliahu Lankin. Polakow-Suransky cites a statement written by Lankin to Israel’s South African allies in 1987, just three years before the opening of negotiations between the government and the African National Congress: “What the ANC is demanding today is nothing less than ‘one man, one vote’… If the whites were to agree to this in present circumstances, they would be committing suicide, not only politically but physically as well.”

Speaking to an audience at Tel Aviv University, the Israeli army’s former chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, warned that South African blacks “want to gain control over the white majority just like the Arabs here want to gain control over us. And we, too, like the white minority in South Africa, must act to prevent them from taking us over.”

Israel has long held to a policy known as nuclear “ambiguity,” refusing to confirm or deny the existence of its nuclear weapons stockpile. It has also refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and rejected any international oversight of its Dimona reactor in the Negev desert.

In 1986, a technician at the Israeli nuclear plant, Mordechai Vanunu, leaked to the Sunday Times of London detailed information and photographs of secret operations at Dimona, confirming that Israel had amassed a considerable nuclear arsenal. Vanunu was subsequently kidnapped by the Mossad secret police, tried in secret and sentenced to 18 years in prison, a decade of it served in solitary confinement.

As the documents from Polakow-Suransky were published, it was reported from Israel that Vanunu had been thrown back into prison on charges that he had violated the terms of his parole.

“Shame on you Israel ... for putting me in prison after 24 years of speaking the truth,” Vanunu said after leaving the courthouse Sunday. “Shame on you all the world media ... for not protecting freedom of speech,” he added.

The timing of the documents’ publication could hardly have been worse as far as Washington is concerned, coming at the opening of a nuclear non-proliferation conference at the United Nations, which US officials had hoped to utilize as a forum for ratcheting up pressure on Iran. This has taken the form of Washington portraying Iran, which has no nuclear weapons and claims to be involved only in the development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes, as an imminent threat.

The new documentary evidence not only confirms the open secret that Israel—with Washington’s protection—has amassed hundreds of nuclear weapons, but also was prepared to sell them to a criminal regime.

This only underscores the increasingly obvious fact that Washington’s anti-Iranian campaign is driven not by some abstract interest in containing nuclear proliferation, but rather by US interests in dominating the vast energy resources of the Persian Gulf and Central Asia and eliminating a regional rival.

Obama administration defends BP response to oil spill disaster

Obama administration defends BP response to oil spill disaster

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Amid growing popular anger over BP’s disastrous response to the gulf coast oil spill, the Obama administration came to the company’s defense on Monday, while again rejecting any federal takeover of the response.

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen defended BP’s actions at a White House press conference on Monday, calling them “rational.” Allen said that he could not see any reason why the federal government should take over the response to the oil spill.

Allen said that he was “satisfied with the coordination that is going on,” and that BP is “exhausting every technical response” to the leak. He added that “There’s no reason to make a change” to the official response to the oil spill. When asked to clarify whether BP or the US government was in charge of the cleanup, Allen said that the two were working in “partnership.”

Allen’s remarks served to clarify points made earlier Monday by state and federal officials in Louisiana, who made hollow threats against the company, but did not question its controlling role in the cleanup effort. Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, echoed the statement of Interior secretary Ken Salazar that the government will keep its “boot on the neck” of BP. “We are on them, watching them,” she said.

Democratic Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois threw in a sound bite as well, saying “BP in my mind no longer stands for British Petroleum—it stands for Beyond Patience.” But these words only served to distract from his support for leaving BP in control of the cleanup. “Excuses don’t count anymore,” he said to the company, “You caused this mess, now stop the damage and clean up the mess. It’s your responsibility.”

BP, meanwhile, continued spraying the highly-toxic Corexit 9500 dispersant onto the Gulf of Mexico, despite a government order instructing it to stop by Saturday. BP has refused to comply with a separate demand issued by the government that it turn over all scientific data regarding the spill in its possession.

“BP basically told the EPA ‘no’ in very certain terms,” said Rick Steiner, an oil spill expert and marine conservationist. Steiner said he found numerous inaccuracies in BP’s response to a government demand that it provide recommendations for alternative dispersants, including the omission of one chemical, JD-2000, which may be less toxic than all the others on the list.

When asked how the government will respond to BP’s defiance, Allen defended BP by saying its chosen dispersant is “an order of magnitude” less toxic than the oil itself.

“This bypasses the real issue, namely that dispersants actually make oil more toxic,” said Steiner. The higher toxicity of dispersed oil is backed up by numerous studies, including one that concluded unequivocally that “dispersed oils were more toxic than crude oils.”

“Despite everything, the Obama administration is saying: ‘You’re doing a heck of a job Brownie!’ It’s disgusting,” said Steiner, invoking the infamous praise given by George W. Bush to his Federal Emergency Management Agency head, Michael Brown, for the government’s catastrophic response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “This is no different than Bush’s response to Katrina.”

Allen also reiterated the claim, repeated continuously since the April 20 explosion, that regulators had no way to foresee the failure of the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer. This was, again, false, as demonstrated by a 2004 study by the Minerals Management Service, which found that most blowout preventers failed at deep-sea drill sites.

Meanwhile, BP announced that it is siphoning much less oil from the spill than it had previously announced. The company had previously said that it was removing 5,000 barrels of oil every day by means of a tube inserted into the broken marine riser pipe, but on Monday reduced its estimate down to 1,000 barrels per day.

BP said that its latest attempt to shut down the leak, called a “top kill,” would be delayed till Wednesday. The company plans to inject drilling mud into the blowout preventer in an attempt to clog it. If this fails, the company will try the same thing, except with shredded tires. At Monday’s press conference, Allen said that he puts the likelihood of success of these actions at between 60 and 70 percent.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs also insisted that the White House would not back down from its plans to promote offshore oil drilling. In response to reporters’ questions about Obama’s continued support for the program, Gibbs said only that that the White House has formed a panel to advise the president on ways to prevent future offshore drilling spills.

Despite the claims by the administration that it has put a moratorium on offshore oil drilling, the New York Times reported Monday that seven new permits for gulf drilling, as well as five environmental assessment waivers, have been issued since the moratorium supposedly went into effect. Minerals Management Service personnel told the Times that they had, in the newspaper’s words, “no intention of stopping all new oil and gas production in the gulf.”

Obama’s financial reform bill: Wall Street breathes a “sigh of relief”

Obama’s financial reform bill: Wall Street breathes a “sigh of relief”

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No facts actually “speak for themselves,” but some are certainly more eloquent than others. This item from the Associated Press May 21, for example: “Financial stocks climbed Friday, a day after the Senate’s passage of a financial reform bill lifted one cloud of uncertainty that had been hanging over the industry.”

The American public, or its less skeptical elements, in any case, might have been forgiven for believing, based on the media’s coverage, that something substantial had taken place with the passage of financial reform legislation in both houses of the US Congress. (A House-Senate panel will work out a final version of the bill over the next several weeks, no doubt further removing items Wall Street finds objectionable.)

Typical headlines read: “Facing down Wall Street,” “Ending Wall St.’s joyride,” “Fixing the financial flaws,” “Senate passes sweeping reform of big banks, credit ratings,” “Milestone reached in finance reform as Senate passes bill,” etc.

The pronouncements by Democratic Party politicians were equally grandiose, and hollow. Massachusetts Senator and former presidential candidate John Kerry declared last Thursday, “Greed on Wall Street left American taxpayers with jobs destroyed and life savings drained, and then to keep the economy from going off the cliff, the taxpayers were forced to bail out the big banks and big interests that made the mess. It was imperative to restore responsibility and accountability, and today’s vote is a critical step in that effort.”

What accountability is Kerry talking about? No firms will be broken up or taken over, no banking or Wall Street executives face the hint of a criminal investigation, much less jail time. When it comes to the billionaires whose thievery has driven the country into the ground, the watchword is “Let’s move on.”

Kerry is spouting nonsense he and other Democrats hope will placate an angry population. No one in Washington, or on Wall Street, believes it for a minute. The levelheaded men and women who trade in financial shares offered their verdict on Friday. As one commentator noted, “Many financial ETFs [Exchange-traded funds] saw their shares surge higher as news of the bill was announced.” These included iShares Dow Jones U.S. Financial Services Index Fund, Merrill Lynch Regional Bank HOLDRS, and iShares S&P Global Financials Sector Index Fund, all of which were up more than 2 percent.

AP provided further specifics, “JP Morgan Chase & Co. shares jumped $2.02, or 5.4 percent, to $39.85, in afternoon trading, while Bank of America Corp. rose 59 cents, or 3.8 percent, to $15.89. Citigroup Inc.’s stock added 12 cents, or 3.3 percent, to $3.75. Shares of former investment banks got a boost as well. Morgan Stanley shares rose $1.27, or 5 percent, to $26.91, and Goldman Sachs climbed $6.15, or 4.5 percent, to $142.25.”

If the big banks and financial institutions are on the verge of being “reined in,” no one is telling them about it. Naturally, Wall Street would prefer to have no regulations imposed on it at all. A close second best, however, is a set of toothless measures such as Obama’s, essentially amounting to more paperwork. Ingenious lawyers and financial experts are already figuring out the best means of navigating through and around the “tough” new regulations. We predict they will find the work relatively unchallenging.

A New York Times piece summed up the mood in the financial industry, “As Reform Takes Shape, Some Relief on Wall St.” The Times piece notes, “Wall Street’s initial verdict seems to be that it could have been much more draconian. ‘If you talk to anyone privately, there’s a sigh of relief,’ said one veteran investment banker who insisted on anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. ‘It’ll crimp the profit pool initially by 15 or 20 percent and increase oversight and compliance costs, but there’s no breakup of any institution or onerous new taxes.’”

The Times continued, “Big banks and brokerage firms, experts said, will adjust to the changes, creating new revenue streams to make up for reduced profits, and find ways to work around the new regulations. In other words, the industry’s landscape may not be facing an earthquake, after all.”

No one the slightest bit familiar with the American political landscape and the events since September 2008 will be shocked by this. The Obama administration, like its predecessor, has intervened in the economic crisis with one central goal in mind: protecting the profits and interests of the large banks and Wall Street firms. Trillions have been made available to the latter, even as millions of people saw their jobs disappear, their homes repossessed or plummet in value, and vital social programs eviscerated.

The politicians of both major parties rest comfortably inside the pockets of the great and not-so-great financial institutions. OpenSecrets.org explains, “Despite the sub-prime mortgage crisis and eventual Wall Street collapse that occurred during the 2008 election cycle, banks still managed to give federal candidates and parties more than $37 million in that period.” Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and US Senators Kerry, Christopher Dodd, Charles Schumer and Richard Shelby have been among the commercial banks’ most favored recipients of campaign contributions in recent years.

Only a very naïve individual, a political idiot, or an editor of the Nation magazine could imagine that, under these conditions, the American ruling elite would turn on its friends on Wall Street and do anything to impede their money-making, or their capacity to precipitate further and greater financial disasters.

More or less simultaneously with the passage of the “sweeping” financial reform bill came the news that Obama’s Justice Department has decided not to press charges against a former executive of American International Group Inc., whose dealings in mortgage-related securities nearly bankrupted the company and helped lead to a government bailout worth $180 billion.

Austerity for the population, which has been “living beyond its means,” which must “tighten its belt” … while the looters in expensive suits go about their business.

A growing sense of this reality is generating enormous public outrage against big business, which cannot find any expression in the current political set-up, owned and operated by the corporate-financial aristocracy. As Bloomberg noted recently, based on the results of its own polling, “Wall Street Despised in Poll Showing Most Want Regulation.” According to a recent Harris poll, only 8 percent of the population expressed “a great deal of confidence” in Wall Street, a degree of disaffection only matched by the population’s mistrust and dislike of Congress.

World Bank on the Nation of Ecuador. "The World Bank May Cause Ecuador's Ruin"

World Bank on the Nation of Ecuador. "The World Bank May Cause Ecuador's Ruin"

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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Comment la Banque mondiale risque de ruiner l'Équateur

Translated by Isabelle Metral

Is a Country Entitled to Effective Legal Sovereignty Over Its Natural Resources?

Seven hundred million dollars. That is the sum Ecuador, one of the smallest countries in Latin America [1] was sentenced to pay to the Texaco-Chevron multinational on March 30th. The amount is the equivalent of the compensation money imposed on Germany at the end of WWI [2] And seven other rulings are still pending in the files of ICSDI, the International centre for the settlement of disputes between governments and foreign investors, an arbitration organism under the authority of the World Bank, to which multinationals that have invested in Latin America appeal whenever their interests are damaged or simply under a threat (an important tax increase or the imposition of a minimum wage may be considered as "indirect expropriations").

The ruling may spell total ruin for Ecuador, whose public debt stands at 27% of the GDP already, and whose single crime is its determination to exert its legitimate sovereignty over its natural resources.

But Ecuador is not the only country concerned by those unfair settlement procedures. In the 1970s and 1980s, under economic and financial pressure, or under military pressure (vide the coups in Chile and Argentina), almost all of Latin America's governments have indeed turned simple industrial or commercial contracts with foreign investors into bilateral or multilateral treaties between sovereign States. [3] Today, there are as many as 2,300 treaties worldwide for the protection of foreign investors. At stake for multinationals is the protection of their interests, by excluding conflicts between a sovereign State and a foreign investor from the national jurisdiction of the country that received the investment.

The conclusion of such "international treaties", whereby the contract status (under commercial law) is changed into a treaty that falls under international public law, is that it makes it possible to maintain the agreement fifteen years after its denunciation by the country's government. And also to have conflicts settled by an organism "independent" of national States. Worse still, by virtue of the pro-market logic at work in the transformation of a contract into a treaty, the "independent" arbitration organism comes under the authority of no international court for the defence of human rights, nor of any regional international law court. It is under the authority of the World Bank, whose president is de jure president of its board of directors, and so - since the World Bank's role is to define the conditions under which funds may be granted to a country and so to protect foreign investors - it is, by virtue of this mission, both judge and judged. To cap it all, ICSID's rulings are immediately enforceable and cannot be appealed to any other jurisdiction.

The issue here is whether priority should be given to the multinationals' defence of private owners' interests, over the defence of the general interest by the government of the home country in the name of popular sovereignty.

Another issue is whether a government's legitimate action to ensure the defence of national natural resources and the right of all its citizens to good-quality food, health, and education can be pronounced illegitimate under the plea that it jeopardizes the "fair benefits" a multinational is entitled to expect from its investments in that country.

Still another issue is whether ownership rights should prevail over human rights as capitalist globalization would have it everywhere, thus making it essentially impossible for a Nation-State to attempt to regain control of its national economy and finance in the name of its people's sovereignty.

That is perfectly clear to all Latin American countries that, confronted as they are with the rise of their peoples' claims to the defence of national natural resources and their rights to education, health, and food, are trying to free themselves from the rule of capitalist globalization over their development. They resist and more often than not denounce those bilateral or multilateral treaties as well as the ICSID arbitration that were imposed upon them in the 1970s and 1980s. That was why, on July 2nd, 2009, Ecuador denounced the recourse to that organism's arbitration in the bilateral agreements that Ecuador had signed with the US or EU States, by reference to a new article of Ecuador's Constitution, voted by referendum on September 28th, 2008. This forbids it to sign agreements that would deprive the Ecuadorian State of its national sovereignty and to grant the right to settle conflicts between the sovereign State and individual persons or private legal entities to any external settlement organism.

But all true liberals are genuinely concerned by these issues. Those conflicts raise issues about the relations between international capital and sovereign States responsible to the people who elected them. Will it be possible to found international economic relations on a new basis — one that would not be either the invisible hand of free competition and the market — or the iron hand of pro-market globalization that threatens national sovereignty? This new international economic order would be a democratic alternative that enabled States both to defend themselves against speculative onslaughts as well as to defend their natural resources. basically an alternative mode of development and the promotion of all human rights, against private interests?

It is not just our support for Ecuador, Brazil and Bolivia that is needed, but we must endorse their struggle by making it our own — for human rights, ALL human rights, to become THE reference in matters of international public law.

[1] Ecuador has 14 million inhabitants; its area is half that of France.

[2] 700 million dollars means 50 dollars per inhabitant, whereas Ecuador's GDP per inhabitant is only 3,800 dollars, 9 times less than the French GDP per inhabitant.

[3] Brazil is the only Mercosur country not to have accepted ICSID arbitration. Out of the 232 rulings pronounced by ICSID, 230 were in favour of companies and against the States.

Spaceship Earth: Navigators Wanted

Spaceship Earth: Navigators Wanted

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Forty-one years ago, Buckminster Fuller published his "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth: A Bold Blueprint for Survival that Diagnoses the Causes of the Environmental Crisis." In it, he claimed humanity would not survive the 21st century if it continued to build an economy based on mass consumption, inequitable trade relations, short-sighted allocation of fossil based resources, and lack of consideration for holistic systems.

A decade later, Jimmy Carter gave his "Crisis of Confidence" speech during which he famously said, "We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure."

Right this very moment, scientists and citizens who recognize that we are quite a ways down the path that leads to failure - failure of our society to find common ground and to care for that ground - are in the midst of a teachable moment. And we are bungling it.

Right this moment, we have tangible, irrefutable evidence of Western society's overwhelmingly destructive impact on our planet in the form of a hemorrhage of crude oil gushing into the sea, destroying lives, livelihoods and vital ecosystems far beyond that which can be seen with the naked eye. You don't need scientific evidence to know that all of the oceans are interconnected (we all agreed to trust the cartographers long ago). We can try to convince ourselves that the stuff can be contained, that the mess can be cleaned up - but in our heart of hearts we know that there's been a terrible accident. This is the dreaded ring you hear at 3:00 AM - I am calling to inform you that it's not going to be all right.

Unless we change course ...

Scientists, I need to have a word with you. You need to know that when you say "climate change," many cannot hear you. Demanding that your data is real and that those who doubt are ignorant is only serving to further alienate those you'd hoped to convince. But that's not to say the situation is hopeless. The issue simply needs to be examined from a different angle. Give us something we don't need to take on faith, or have a degree in science to truly understand. Cut straight to the bottom line: it is pollution that is the problem, not global warming. Pollution may be the cause of global warming, but it is the harmful effect of pollution that we can all see and feel and understand with our own bodies, hearts and minds. We can all understand with no data whatsoever that breathing chemical dust and car exhaust is harmful to our health. We know without being told that we all share one planet and that, in order to successfully coexist, in order for our children to live healthy lives, we must learn ways to be better stewards of it. There's no more time to waste trying to convince us that our actions are responsible for destroying the planet at some arguable rate, when it would be so much more efficient to make the case that our actions are very quickly destroying ourselves. For proof, just turn on the TV. Look out the window. Instead of reiterating the problems, assuage people's fears by offering solutions - most importantly, that we can and must build a new foundation for our economy based on that which benefits society as a whole and not based solely on what's best for corporations.

What Can We Do to Make a Difference?

  1. Don't give up. James Lovelock, famed progenitor of the "Gaia Hypothesis," which described planet Earth's biosphere as one enormous, organism-like system that stayed in delicate balance via an infinite number of intricately connected feedback loops, claims that we are past the point of no return - planet Earth will not be able to support human life for much longer. By giving up hope, we also relinquish any modicum of contentment and peace that may come from striving for that which we know is right. When hope is gone, humanity is lost.

  2. Understand the true cost of resources and be willing to pay for them. A few simple shifts would go a long way toward encouraging an overall reduction in resource consumption. Imagine a system (common in many European countries) whereby the less one uses, the less one pays, rather than the other way around. Our current model encourages waste and instills a false sense of value by rewarding the biggest consumers with a discounted price per kilowatt or gallon and by penalizing those who use the least with higher cost per unit.

  3. Take it personally. We are all complicit in environmental catastrophe until each and every one of us takes responsibility for our actions. We can't wait for the perfect legislation or the cheapest, most efficient "green" technology. We must strive everyday to be conscious of how our actions impact our own health and that of our communities and society.

  4. Work together. The problems of our society and our environment do not belong solely to the government or to the corporations - we are the government and the corporations. By taking matters into our own hands and pooling our knowledge and expertise, enormous change is possible. The time is now. Every child in every classroom across America, every engineer, plumber, doctor, artist, cook, cashier, carpenter - even those out of work - it's time for us to unleash our "comprehensive propensities" (as Buckminster Fuller called the human inclination toward creative innovation). We're going to need all hands on deck to get our little Spaceship Earth back on course.

Whistleblowers Speak: Who's Protecting Them and Who's Listening?

Whistleblowers Speak: Who's Protecting Them and Who's Listening?

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Over the past few decades, whistleblowers have changed the course of history.

Press play to listen to Your Call with Rose Aguilar: "Whistleblowers Speak: Who's Protecting Them and Who's Listening?":

One of the country’s most famous corporate whistleblowers was tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand. Thanks to his leaks in 1995 to CBS’s "60 Minutes," Big Tobacco CEOs were exposed on Capitol Hill, their companies were successfully sued by the states, and the government began regulating tobacco advertising.

In 2002, Time Magazine honored whistle-blowers Cynthia Cooper of Worldcom, Sherron Watkins of Enron, and Colleen Rowley of the FBI as its “Person’s of the Year.”

In 2004, Army specialist Joseph Darby leaked thousands of photos showing widespread abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

One of the most famous government whistleblowers of our time is Daniel Ellsberg. In 1971, Ellsberg, a military analyst at the time, leaked thousands of top secret documents to the press, now known as the Pentagon Papers. They revealed lies about Vietnam. In addition to causing a national outcry, they led to the eventual downfall of the Nixon administration and the end of the Vietnam war.

For his actions, Ellsberg faced a criminal trial and 100 years in prison. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger told his staff that Ellsberg was “the most dangerous man in America.”

That is the title of the Oscar-nominated documentary profiling Ellsberg and the whistle-blowing years of the Pentagon Papers.

Has anything changed since Ellsberg exposed the truth? Who's protecting whistleblowers? And who's listening?

Just yesterday, Kenneth Abbott, a former BP document controls subcontractor, and the consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch, filed a lawsuit to force the federal government to halt operations of BP’s massive Atlantis oil drilling platform until critical safety documents are produced. The Atlantis platform is also in the Gulf of Mexico and the lawsuit alleges another catastrophic explosion could “dwarf” the company’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Kenneth Abbot is no longer giving interviews because of the lawsuit, but we are joined by two long-time outspoken critics of the oil industry.

Dan Lawn is an environmental engineer who worked on design and construction of the Valdez Marine Terminal and then joined the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation as one of the first inspectors of terminal and tanker operations. He was the first regulator notified the night the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef. For over 10 years before the spill, Lawn documented the failures of the oil industry to follow-through on their commitments to prevent spills and to adequately prepare for clean-ups, and warned the state about the potential for a major disaster in Prince William Sound. He says he was harassed, intimidated, and wrongfully demoted by the state. Dan Lawn now works as a consultant for the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility.

Scott West recently retired early from the Environmental Protection Agency's criminal investigations department after the federal government pulled the plug on his investigation into negligence by BP in Alaska in 2006. He says if he had been allowed to complete his investigation, the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico might not have happened. Scott West currently works for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a non-profit that works to end the destruction of habitat and the slaughter of wildlife in the world's oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species. Sea Shepherd just announced a Gulf Rescue plan.

Israel's Ongoing War Against the Press

Israel's Ongoing War Against the Press

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The recent arrest of an Israeli journalist who allegedly leaked materials to a reporter, and the gag order that followed, is just the latest in a long string of Israel's systematic attacks on press freedom.

Today in Israel, a nation so often hailed by Western commentators as the lone shining beacon of freedom and democracy in the Middle East, sits Anat Kamm. Kamm is a 23-year-old muzzled female journalist, under house arrest for her role in exposing a secret Israeli assassination plot by leaking government documents to Ha’aretz, one of Israel's most prominent dailies. She faces the possibility of life in prison. Uri Blau, a reporter for Ha'aretz who covered the covert plot, has fled to London, fearing for his safety and freedom.

Kamm's story has been difficult to piece together, since there was a gag order that kept anyone from covering her arrest and surrounding events until April 8. Violating the gag order can carry harsh punishments, including shutting down a publication. We do know from recent reports that Kamm’s house was vandalized by Israeli settlers, and that Blau will be returning leaked documents to the government. But the details are foggy. Israel essentially made a journalist - and her story - disappear.

Dov Alfon, the editor-in-chief of Ha'aretz, acknowledged his paper is challenging the gag order and standing by their reporter, telling the UK Guardian that, “Israel is still a democracy and therefore we intend to continue to publish whatever public interest demands and our reporters can reveal."

Alfon is absolutely right to make the connection between freedom of the press and democracy. One cannot truly exist without the other, and this point is often made by staunch defenders of Israel when they attack nations such as Iran for lacking press freedom. This is precisely why this incident should be so troubling to Americans. In the US, it is often taken for granted that Israel, which receives more than $3 billion annually from the US in aid, is a true democracy, despite its harsh treatment of Arab citizens in Israel and in the Occupied Territories. President Obama has claimed that the US-Israel relationship is "mutually beneficial" as both countries "share common values, histories, and a dedication to democracy." But clearly the values are not identical. Unlike Israel, in the US freedom of press is seen as essential to a functioning democracy.

As stunning as the Kamm affair may seem, it is far from an isolated incident. Over the years, Israel, known for its restrictive military censorship laws, has become notorious for thwarting journalism in various ways: they have repeatedly barred journalists from covering certain issues, prohibited reporters from entering Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, engaged in violent attacks against foreign journalists, bombed and attacked media outlets, and jailed reporters on numerous occasions. These abuses show that, in addition to the crimes committed as part of its occupation of Palestine, Israel has shown contempt to the basic rights of Israelis as well. Worse, it lessens the ability for people all over the world to understand the important issues and events taking place in the Middle East.

Systematic Censorship: Israeli Censors in Action

Despite its glowing reputation as a strong democracy, Israel has a systematic, institutionalized system of censorship. While the country's Supreme Court has "affirmed that freedom of expression is an essential component of human dignity," according to Freedom House's annual report on press freedom, "the country’s basic law does not specifically address the issue."

All news articles are subject to censorship by the Israeli Military Censor, and while not all articles are screened, those about especially sensitive military issues, such as nuclear weapons or military actions, are watched very closely. In 1982, the New York Times published an article titled "Censorship by Israel: How It's Carried Out." It reported that Israeli military censorship "applies to foreign newspaper and wire service dispatches transmitted from Israel during both war and peacetime on military and security issues," and noted that articles on sensitive issues "are to be submitted to the censor before they are sent abroad.

This censorship has been used very recently, not only in the Kamm arrest, but also in Operation Orchard, when Israel bombed an alleged nuclear reactor site in Syria. In 2005 a BBC reporter was banned from the country for not showing the nation's censor video footage of an interview he did with nuclear whistleblower, Mordechai Vanunu.

Perhaps no issue has been as heavily censored as Israel's nuclear program. Israel is widely known to have a large stockpile of nuclear weapons, but refuses to allow any international oversight, or even admit to having them. This is rather ironic, given Israel's regular refutations of Iran for not cooperating enough with international inspectors with its nuclear program. Aluf Benn, writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, observed the Orwellian nature in which Israel is "censoring the past," engaging in what he calls, “an offensive … aimed at trying to conceal the country’s nuclear history, much of which has already seen the light of day." He described how Israeli officials arrested various authors who published books about sensitive issues, such as Avner Cohen, author of ”Israel and the Bomb.” Benn asks: "Is it illegal even to ask questions about nuclear matters? Do former officials have to die with their lips sealed? Is there no time limit on old secrets?" These questions reveal the extent of Israel's insistence on keeping the public from understanding the reality of its policies.

The Gaza Blackout and Restricting the Foreign Press

Israel's infringement of the press extends beyond Israeli journalists. Since Israel controls access to the Occupied Territories, it can exert a great deal of control over the ability of foreign journalists to enter the territories, and for Palestinian journalists to leave. This control over freedom of movement is one crucial way that Israel attempts to keep its actions hidden from the public.

Israel's refusal to let Western journalists enter Gaza during the 2008-09 invasion was especially disturbing, as it enabled numerous war crimes to take place with minimal press oversight. The decision was condemned by news outlets and press freedom groups all over the world, and prompted Freedom House to downgrade its status from "free" to "partly free." Not even The New York Times had a reporter in Gaza during the invasion.

The policy had the desired effect. "An Israeli official told me they were delighted at a BBC TV correspondent broadcasting from Ashkelon in a flak jacket," wrote Chris McGreal in the UK Guardian, “reinforcing the impression that the Israeli city is a war zone when there is more chance of being hit by a car than a rocket."

What the journalists did miss was the collective punishment of the "people of Gaza as a whole," concluded the Goldstone Report, a fact-finding mission of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Goldstone Report called the war an effort to "humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability."

A small sample of the carnage that most media members were unable to cover (but were chronicled by the Goldstone Report and other human rights organizations) include: the bombing of the Al-Maqadmah mosque while hundreds of people were praying inside that killed 15 people; the killing of 21 members of the al-Samouni family, including children, who were located in a house by the orders of the Israel Defense Forces; and the use of white phosphorous in attacks on two hospitals filled with filled ailing civilians. Israel also bombed the United Nations-run Al-Fakhura school, killing 35 people.

Speaking on this issue, Danny Seaman, Israel's press officer, openly expressed pleasure about how the absence off the foreign press - who he called a "fig leaf" for Hamas - greatly benefited Israel." Take the UN school [where 42 people were killed by an Israeli shell] for example," he told McGreal. "There's a lot of questions as to what actually happened. If the foreign media had been there, it would have had much more of an impact on the conflict than it has at the moment. For the first time, when Israel raised questions, journalists had to address these issues and not get caught in feeding frenzy of reporting the story."

Another example of Israel's infringing on foreign journalists was on display earlier this year when, in January, Jared Malsin, a young Yale graduate attempted to fly back to the West Bank , where he worked as an editor for Ma’an, a Palestinian agency that covers the occupation, after a trip with his girlfriend outside the country. While at Ben Gurion International Airport, he was held and interrogated for eight hours by Israeli officials, before being jailed for a week and then deported out of the country.

Malsin was guilty of merely doing his job. He was, as he described his job as the English editor of the paper, giving "voice to people who don't have a voice,” by telling stories that would otherwise go untold. Israel officials gave no real explanation for the detention and deportation, other than to acknowledge that Malsin was "criticizing the State of Israel," from “inside the (Occupied) Territories.” But few doubt the motives were political. His jailing sends a stern message to other journalists who might consider covering the plight of the Palestinians.

The move was sharply condemned by press groups throughout the world. "We condemn this intolerable violation of press freedom," said Aidan White, the head of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a global union of media professionals. "The ban of entry in this case appears to be as a reprisal measure for the journalist's independent reporting and that is unacceptable ... This kind of interference has no place in a democracy." Similar condemnations were made by many other groups including Reporters without Borders, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate and the International Press Institute, which made the astute observation that Israeli "authorities should recognize that the right of press freedom applies to all journalists, not just to reporters who write favorably about Israeli government policy."

The health of Israel's democratic values have also been called further into question light of Israel's refusal to allow the entry of iconic academic and critic of US and Israeli policy, Noam Chomsky, to the West Bank from Jordan last weekend. This comes on the heels of rejecting the entrance of others who are well known for expressing critical views of Israeli policy, such as Norman Finkelstein and Richard Falk. The meaning of blacklisting critical voices and what it means for Israeli democracy is not lost on many Israeli commentators. "The decision to shut up Professor Chomsky is a decision to shut down freedom in the state of Israel," wrote Boaz Okun, Yedioth Ahronot's legal affairs commentator and a retired Israeli judge, of Israel's decision to reject Chomsky from entering the West Bank.

Violence Against the Media

Even worse than jailings and deportations, other media organizations and journalists have been violently attacked and intimidated.

On July 13, 2006, just a day into Israel's 34-day long devastating invasion of southern Lebanon, Israel bombed Al-Manar, the Beirut-based television station of Hezbollah. Even though Israel was fighting with Hezbollah, this bombing was a clear violation of international law. As Human Rights Watch noted when condemning the attack, "It is unlawful to attack facilities that merely shape civilian opinion; neither directly contributes to military operations."

Much like Israel's (along with the US) isolation compared with international consensus on solutions to the peace process, they were once again at odds with most of free world on the issue of targeting press outlets in combat.

"The bombing of Al-Manar is a clear demonstration that Israel has a policy of using violence to silence media it does not agree with,” said White, the General Secretary of the IFJ. “This action means media can become routine targets in every conflict. It is a strategy that spells catastrophe for press freedom and should never be endorsed by a government that calls itself democratic.”

Israel was so irked by White's statement they threatened to leave the organization, according to the Jerusalem Post. This is consistent with Israel's contempt for international institutions that attempt to hold Israel up to reasonable standards of transparency.

Violence against smaller groups of journalists has also been a frequent issue of late. In late January, Israeli forces attacked Rami Swidan, a photographer for Ma’an News Agency, Ashraf Abu Shawish, a cameraman for Palmedia, and Reuters photographers Abdel Rahim al-Qusini and Hassan Titi. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Swiden said, "Israeli soldiers told the journalists they were not allowed to take pictures because the area was a closed military zone. When the journalists refused to stop, soldiers hit them and attempted to take their cameras before throwing teargas canisters and stun grenades."

The incident came just months after two other journalists were assaulted "while covering clashes between settlers and Burin’s residents,” CPJ reported. Just recently, CPJ has documented seven cases of attacks or harassment of journalists, and asked Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in a letter to please "take decisive action to end the harassment of journalists and bring the IDF’s practices in line with international standards of press freedom, allowing journalists to conduct their work safely and without deliberate interference."

Why This Matters to Americans

Israel is not the only country to crack down on press coverage they don't agree with. But given its reputation as a democracy, which is often hailed as a major reason they are the largest recipient of US foreign aid in the world, Israel’s long record of harassment, censorship and violence against reporters is especially unfortunate.

It is crucial that journalists from other countries such as the US, which are often able to say what Israeli reporters are not, bring attention to suppressed issues in the region. Ideally, the US government would also apply pressure by threatening to withdraw military aid if it does not reform its press policies, though this seems unlikely given the US refusal to take similar measures to end settlements.

A major reason for Israel's crackdown on media is that it allows the occupation of Palestine to continue with minimal scrutiny. American taxpayers who subsidize the Israel military, and all citizens of the world who wish to expose the suffering of those on the receiving end of state violence, should fight hard to enable the truth to come to light in such an important part of the world.

U.S. Involved in Under-the-Radar Negotiations for Draconian Internet Law

U.S. Involved in Under-the-Radar Negotiations for Draconian Internet Law

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It didn’t make much news on this side of the pond, but one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the digital era was passed in the United Kingdom just prior to the recent national election. It is called the Digital Economy Act, pushed by a powerful coalition of media interests. It is a sweeping piece of legislation. Notably, its odious provisions are headed for America and the world.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently noted:

The Digital Economy Bill has been the subject of heavy entertainment industry lobbying and widespread concern amongst U.K. citizens and telecommunications companies because it included provisions that would allow the U.K. government to censor websites considered “likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright,” and disconnect the Internet connection of any household in the U.K. with an IP address alleged to have engaged in copyright infringement.

That means YOU, Wikileaks.

Other powers granted by the new law include:

* Although proof is required before disconnection, the evidence does not have to relate to you: you can be punished for the actions of a friend or even a neighbour who has used your Internet connection.
* Rights holders could have the power to demand that sites they believe to contravene copyright law be blocked by ISPs.Right now, we don’t know what the govrnment will propose, as they have yet to draft their new proposal.
* As it is not the perpetrator that is punished, as you might expect, but the owner of the connection, and others using it, cafés and bars may have to stop providing wifi.

You could go to your local coffeeshop tea room and use their WiFi. Some other user at that shop is using BitTorrent or some other P2P software to download music or a movie. Under the DEA, that WiFi network can be disconnected from the internet. Permanently. More ominously, if a right holder, such as News Corp. or Halliburton believes that certain websites are likely to be used to publish copywritten materials, that website can be blocked from the internet. Whoa. Not an actual incident of copyright infringement, but the likeliness of it happening allows the holder of that copyright to request that website’s ISP block it.

For more analysis of the law and its implications, read this.

Similar provisions included in the DEA are being negotiated, in secret, by a consortium of nations in a new trade agreement called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. The United States is part of the negotiations which recently concluded their eighth round in New Zealand. Thanks to pressure from civil society and privacy activists, the first public draft of the new law is available.The draft provisions look remarkably like the DEA:

In civil judicial proceedings concerning the enforcement of [copyright or related rights and trademarks] [intellectual property rights], each Party shall provide that its judicial authorities shall have the authority [subject to any statutory limitations under its domestic law] to issue [against the infringer an injunction aimed at prohibiting the continuation of the] [an order to a party to desist from an] infringement, including an order to prevent infringing goods from entering into the channels of commerce [and to prevent their exportation].

[2. The Parties [may] shall also ensure that right holders are in a position to apply for an injunction against [infringing] intermediaries whose services are used by a third party to infringe an intellectual property right.8]9

What this legalese means is every party to the trade agreement must adopt policies that give “judicial authorities” the authority to not only go after the person who infringes on the copyright at the behest of the right holder, but also against “intermediaries.” That could mean ISPs. That could mean your unsecured WiFi network. That could mean sites that act as publishing platforms for the general public.

And then there is this:

[X. Each Party shall provide that its judicial authorities shall have the authority, at the request of the applicant, to issue an interlocutory injunction intended to prevent any imminent infringement of an intellectual property right [copyright or related rights or trademark]. An interlocutory injunction may also be issued, under the same conditions, against an [infringing] intermediary whose services are being used by a third party to infringe an intellectual property right.Each Party shall also provide that provisional measures may be issued, even before the commencement of proceedings on the merits, to preserve relevant evidence in respect of the alleged infringement. Such measures may include inter alia the detailed description, the taking of samples or the physical seizure of documents or of the infringing goods.]

  1. Each Party shall [provide][ensure] that its judicial authorities [shall ]act [expeditiously][ on requests] forprovisional measures inaudita altera parte, and shall endeavor to make a decision[ on such requests] without undue delay, except in exceptional cases.

Emphasis mine. Now, it seems reasonable to me that courts should have the power to issue injunctions to prevent imminent infringement by a copyright abuser. But to also grant the power to disconnect intermediaries, seize evidence inter alia of said intermediaries, and to do it all ex parte is beyond odious. This is all being done in the name of ending online software and content piracy, which is certainly a reasonable goal. This response, however, is draconian. Since it is expensive to go after each and every person who downloads a music file for free, the media conglomerates must slowdown or shutdown any network where it is or might possibly take place. This will have the effect of forcing ISPs to police what their users are doing and that is where the Internet experience start to feel like watching cable: lots of stuff on but nothing worth seeing.

The EFF strongly opposes ACTA much as it opposed the awful Digital Economy Act in Britian. Liberal Democrat leader, now Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg promised to repeal it if elected. However, the new Conservative minister responsible for the law has made it clear it is here to stay.

You can take action against ACTA by first fighting for sunlight.

Oh…almost forgot:

Because ACTA is being negotiated as anExecutive Agreement, it will not be subject to the Congressional oversight mechanisms that have applied to recent bilateral free trade agreements, even though it appears likely to have a far greater impact on the global knowledge economy than any of those.