Thursday, June 3, 2010

White House seeks to contain popular anger over BP oil disaster

White House seeks to contain popular anger over BP oil disaster

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The Obama administration has been thrown into crisis by the BP oil eruption, the worst environmental disaster in US history. Seeking to contain mounting popular anger, it announced Tuesday a criminal probe into the April 20 oil rig explosion, which killed 11 workers.

Speaking in Louisiana, US attorney general Eric Holder gave few details, saying only that any law breaking would be punished. No subpoenas have been issued, and no time frame was given. Holder did not say who would be targeted, but Justice Department sources say that oil well owner BP and rig owner and operator Transocean have been ordered to preserve documents for possible investigation.

The Justice Department is reportedly weighing civil prosecution under several laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Criminal prosecution could also result from false statements and obstruction of justice, unnamed White House sources told the media.

The decision comes only after oil has been erupting from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for six weeks. The administration has insisted that BP—the presumed target of any criminal investigation—must remain in control of the response. As late as last week, Obama appeared at two media events, including a major press conference, where he made no mention of criminal investigations.

The administration was evidently hoping that BP's last attempt to stop the gushing oil—the “top kill”—would, despite all odds, work. When it failed, it became clear that the crisis would play out for months, at least through August. The result is not only a social and ecological catastrophe for the Gulf, but a political catastrophe for Obama.

Now, the administration is playing for time. The announcement of the investigation aims to contain mounting popular anger, as each passing day brings with it another million or more gallons of oil poisoning the Gulf.

On the other hand, any talk of indictments or culpability, no matter how symbolic, will be met with fierce resistance from the ruling class. On Tuesday the Financial Times warned the administration against “submitting to…incoherent and unfair” criticism. “The White House should leave impotent rage to editorial writers and television pundits,” it wrote. In other words, it should reject any talk of holding anyone accountable for the disaster.

The administration’s attempts to assuage popular anger, on the one side, and to protect the interests of the oil industry or the corporate elite on the other, explains the half-hearted and vague character of Holder’s announcement. "We are not in a position yet where I think we have in our own minds who should be ultimately held liable," Holder said.

In fact an abundance of evidence suggests that multiple laws and regulations were broken in the Deepwater Horizon’s planning, drilling and drill capping processes. Legally mandated steps were passed over or otherwise expedited, multiple warnings of impending disaster were ignored, and safety equipment failed, testimony and documents have made clear.

In his announcement, Holder reiterated the administration’s position that BP must remain in charge of the cleanup effort and the spill site. "It is in BP's interest to keep doing what they're doing,” offered the attorney general, passing over the obvious contradiction of leaving the potential subject of a criminal investigation in charge of the crime scene.

No confidence can be placed in an investigation carried out by the Obama administration, which is fully implicated in the disaster. At every step the federal government granted approval to BP’s plans and disregarded its abuses, with the Obama administration even excusing it from providing legally required environmental impact studies for the Deepwater Horizon site.

The administration remains committed to protecting the interests of the oil industry as a whole. Holder’s announcement of a potential criminal investigation coincided with Obama’s announcement of a commission whose primary purpose will be to give deep-sea oil drilling a clean bill of health. The commission will be headed by former Democratic governor of Florida, Bob Graham, and former Environmental Protection Agency head—and current board member of oil major ConocoPhillips—William K. Reilly.

Only after such an investigation “can we be assured that deepwater drilling can take place safely,” Obama said at a Tuesday media event, flanked by Graham and Reilly. “Only then we can we accept further development of these resources… Only then can we be confident that we’ve done what’s necessary to prevent history from repeating itself.”

The New York Times recounted the discussion among the three prior to Obama’s talk. “During the meeting in the Oval Office, the president was adamant that the government and the industry had to find a way to make offshore drilling safe because the nation needs the oil,” it reported.

It is revealing that such a seemingly routine step as a criminal investigation promotes such controversy in ruling circles.

The White House fears that a criminal investigation will only raise more persistently the question of why BP should continue to exist. Furthermore, a criminal investigation of BP threatens, by implication, the same corporate criminality and government-sponsored deregulation that characterize the entire US economy, and most notably its banking industry, whose reckless financial manipulation led to the worldwide economic crisis.

To acknowledge the obvious—the criminality of BP—threatens the delicate ideological framework of “free market capitalism” that has been promoted as an object of worship in the US for decades, and which the Obama administration unconditionally defends.

Israel’s massacre at sea

Israel’s massacre at sea

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The Israeli military’s killing of nine civilians and wounding of scores more on a ship carrying humanitarian supplies in international waters was an act of cold-blooded murder and a war crime.

For millions of people around the world, this military assault on an aid convoy carrying wheelchairs, cement, water purification systems, children’s toys and notebook paper to Gaza—all items barred by Israel’s blockade of the occupied territory—epitomizes the role played by Israel, as well as that of its US sponsor, in global affairs.

As always in the aftermath of such atrocities, the Israeli government has blamed its victims. In a televised speech Wednesday, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu described the aid convoy as a “flotilla of terror supporters” and praised the slaughter on the high seas as an act of self-defense by besieged Israeli commandos.

Those who engaged in self-defense were the passengers on the ship, and they had every right to do so. The fact that nine of them were killed, while the Israel Defense Force (IDF) commandos suffered not a single fatality, is evidence as to who was the aggressor.

This is a regular pattern. The massacre in the Mediterranean comes just a year and a half after Operation Cast Lead, the far greater slaughter that the Israeli regime unleashed against the suffering people of Gaza. Claiming then as now to act in “self defense,” in December 2008 and January 2009 Israel rained bombs, missiles and tank and automatic weapons fire upon Gaza, killing over 1,400 Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of them unarmed men, women and children. This one-sided war by one of the world’s most powerful military machines against a relatively defenseless civilian population claimed just 13 Israeli lives, all but three of them soldiers.

The aid convoy was a response to the barbaric blockade that has subjected an entire population of 1.5 million people in Gaza to hunger, disease and misery.

Since the tightening of the blockade in 2007, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the number of Gazan refugees living in abject poverty has tripled.

The UN reported at the end of 2009 that "insufficient food and medicine is reaching Gazans, producing a further deterioration of the mental and physical health of the entire civilian population since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against the territory." Among the starkest expressions of Israel’s deliberate starvation of an entire population was a finding by the Food and Agriculture Organization last year that 65 percent of babies between the ages of nine and 12 months suffer from anemia.

Israel is able to carry out this kind of medieval siege as well as piracy and murder not merely because of its own military might, but thanks to the unwavering patronage and funding of Washington. This latest mass killing has only underscored that—as with so much else—the advent of the Obama administration has effected no significant change in US policy.

While issuing a hypocritical expression of “deep regret at the loss of life,” the Obama administration is doing everything it can to assure that Israel bears neither blame nor consequences for these killings. It quashed any criticism of Israel’s action at the UN Security Council and has implicitly adopted the Zionist state’s justification for the massacre.

Israel’s criminality and Washington’s role as its unconditional enabler both have a long history. It is worth recalling another Israeli attack on a vessel in international waters that took place 43 years ago. In that attack, 34 sailors aboard the USS Liberty were killed by Israeli napalm, missiles and machine-gun fire, while another 171 while wounded—the worst casualties suffered by the US Navy in a hostile action since World War II.

An intelligence ship, the Liberty was attacked off the Sinai Peninsula on June 8, 1967 in the midst of the Six-Day War. While Israel called it a tragic “mistake,” ample evidence emerged that the Zionist state attacked the ship because it wanted to stop Washington from listening in to its communications. Intercepts flatly contradicted Tel Aviv’s claim that it was acting in self-defense and revealed that Israel wanted to conceal evidence of its aggressive intentions as it moved to seize Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, all of which remain under illegal occupation to this day.

Much of the criticism of this week’s attack on the aid convoy, including within Israel itself, has treated it as a “botched” operation, an excessive use of force and a public relations fiasco. But this is not a matter of a government losing its head. The Netanyahu regime’s policies are directed to a definite socio-political base, composed of religious extremists, right-wing settlers and the most politically reactionary layers within Israeli society. Its orientation is personified by the fascistic background and ideology of its foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Deeply reactionary and in deep political crisis, the Israeli government is driven more and more to act as a global pyromaniac, threatening renewed wars against Syria and Lebanon and, according to a report in the London Times this week, sending submarines armed with nuclear missiles to the waters off Iran.

The unconditional support and approximately $3 billion in annual aid to Israel bestowed by Washington—and continued under Obama—pose a mortal danger to people across the globe.

This is not a matter merely of a single outlaw regime, but of a general descent of world affairs into a state of criminality and the disintegration of any semblance of international law, with Israel’s main patron setting the pattern.

The Obama administration continues two wars of aggression initiated under Bush and has maintained intact a police state apparatus of unlawful detentions, rendition and torture. It has now earned the ignominious designation as the number one practitioner of “targeted killings”—assassinations—through CIA drone attacks that have killed “many hundreds of people” in Pakistan, according to a United Nations report released Wednesday. The report condemned Washington for claiming a “license to kill without accountability.”

The behavior of the US and other governments as if they were the state incarnation of Murder Inc., acts of state terrorism and piracy like that committed by Israel this week, and the constant threats of new aggression have created a global climate that bears ever closer resemblance to the conditions that prevailed on the eve the Second World War.

These developments are driven by the mortal crisis of world capitalism and will not be reversed by either protests or pacifism. Only by uniting the working class, including both Jewish and Arab workers in the Middle East, in a common struggle to put an end to the profit system can a new global conflagration be prevented.

SWAT Raids Gone Wrong -- Paramilitary Policing Is Out of Control

SWAT Raids Gone Wrong -- Paramilitary Policing Is Out of Control

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As is periodically the case, law enforcement SWAT teams have once again come under the harsh gaze of a public outraged and puzzled by their excesses. First, it was the February SWAT raid on a Columbia, Missouri, home where police shot two dogs, killing one, as the suspect, his wife, and young son cowered. Police said they were looking for a dealer-sized stash of marijuana, but found only a pipe with residues. When police video of that raid hit the Internet and went viral this month, the public anger was palpable, especially in Columbia.

Then came a botched SWAT raid in Georgia -- not a forced entry, but otherwise highly aggressive, and directed at the wrong building -- that left a 76-year-old woman hospitalized with a heart attack.

And then came the tragedy in Detroit two weeks ago, where a member of a Detroit Police SWAT team killed seven-year-old Aiyana Jones as she slept on a living room couch. Allegedly, the officer had a tussle with the girl's grandmother as he charged through the door after a flash-bang grenade was thrown through the window, and the gun discharged accidentally, though the account has been disputed by the family's attorney. In this instance, police were not looking for drugs but for a murder suspect. He was later found in another apartment in the same house. Again, the public dismay and anger was palpable.

Botched (wrong address or wrong person) raids or raids where it appears excessive force has been used are certainly not a new phenomenon, as journalist Radley Balko documented in his 2006 study, "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America." But most raids gone bad do not get such wide public or media attention.

The victims often are poor, or non-white, or both. Or -- worse yet -- they are criminal suspects, who generally generate little sympathy, even when they are abused.

And while they were originally created to handle very special problems -- terrorist incidents, hostage situations, and the like -- there just aren't that many of those. As a result the use of SWAT has seen "mission creep," where SWAT teams are now routinely called out to serve search warrants, particularly in drug cases. In 1980, 2,884 SWAT deployments were recorded nationwide; the number today is estimated by experts at 50,000 annually or more.

The sheer normality of SWAT teams doing drug raids now, as well the status of their victims, has resulted in effective immunity and impunity for SWAT teams that commit errors or engage in unnecessary force. Most of the time when a raid goes bad, nothing happens.

It seems to take an especially outrageous incident, like Columbia or Detroit, to inspire public concern, and even then, it is the citizenry and perhaps part of elected officialdom against the powerful law enforcement establishment. Creating effective oversight over SWAT teams and their paramilitary raids is not easy -- but it can be done, or at least started.

The now infamous 2008 raid on the home of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, Mayor Cheye Calvo by a Prince Georges County Police SWAT team is a case in point. In that raid, police were tracking a package they knew contained marijuana, and once it was delivered to Calvo's house and taken inside, the SWAT team rushed in, manhandled Calvo and his mother-in-law and shot and killed Calvo's two dogs.

But further investigation showed the Calvos were doubly victimized, not criminals. They were victims of drug dealers who would send packages to unknowing addresses, then pick them up after they were left by the delivery man. And they were the victims of a SWAT team run amok.

But Prince Georges SWAT hit the wrong guy when it Calvo's house, and not just because Calvo and his mother-in-law and his dogs were innocent victims. Calvo was not just an upstanding member of the community -- he was the mayor of his town. And beyond that, his former day job with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) gave him both personal connections to legislators and the knowledge to work the system.

Prodded by Calvo and others, the Maryland legislature last year passed a bill making it the first state to make any attempt to rein in SWAT. That bill requires each agency with a SWAT team to file annual reports detailing their activities and the results of their raids. The effort was opposed by law enforcement, of course, but legislators were swayed by hours of gut-wrenching testimony from raid victims.

"It was the telling of the stories of a number of people who had suffered either botched or ill-advised raids," Calvo explained to Drug War Chronicle. "It happens so often, and the stories don't get told in a meaningful way, but my incident made such wide headlines that people called me reaching out, and once those circles developed, we were able to get some political momentum," he recalled.

"I happened to be in a unique position," he said. "Through my experience at NCSL, I knew a lot of legislators and worked with the Judiciary Committee in Maryland to get a bill drafted. When we had hearings, it wasn't just one or two stories, probably more like a dozen, including people we didn't know about, but who just showed up to tell their stories. There was a wrong house raid with a dog killed, there was a warrant served at a bad address, a mother whose house was raided after her son was caught with a gram of marijuana, there was a triple no-knock raid at three homes with the same name on all three, there was a former member of the judiciary committee whose mother's home was raided because police were looking for a relative. They kicked in her door and knocked her to the ground," Calvo recalled.

"Each story helped connect the dots," he explained. "Those stories made a powerful case. We were not saying the Assembly should micromanage the police, but we wanted to shine a light on what was happening. The first step was making people aware, and getting the SWAT data makes tangible and comprehensive what is otherwise anecdotal."

Although the first formal report on Maryland SWAT raids is not due until this fall, preliminary numbers from the first six months of reporting have already generated more stories in the press and kept the issue alive. And they provide grist for the reform mill.

"It's not just the number of raids, it's that 92% of them are for search warrants, not hostage situations or bank robberies or the like," said Calvo. "It's that two times out of three, they kick in the door. It's that in some jurisdictions -- Prince Georges, Anne Arundel, Annapolis -- the majority of deployments are for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies. Prince Georges had 105 raids against nonviolent offenders in six months, and that speaks to deeper policy problems. Baltimore County deployed only once for a nonviolent offense. That's more a model of professionalism."

Calvo said he plans to use the full year's worth of SWAT raid reporting due this fall to return to Annapolis to push for further reforms. "The legislature could impose training standards or other statewide protocols," he said. "It could impose more transparency. A full year of data will be helpful with that. Hopefully, the reporting requirement passed last year will end up being just the first step in a multi-step process to insert some better judgment into the process for when these paramilitary units are deployed."

The dog-killing SWAT raid in Columbia, Missouri, has also resulted in activism aimed at reining in SWAT, and it has already had an impact. Under withering public criticism, Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton quickly instituted changes in the SWAT team's command and control structure and when and how it could be used. He also came out for marijuana legalization, saying he believed many police would be happy to not have to enforce pot prohibition.

The activism is continuing, however. "There is a lot going on in response to that raid," said Columbia attorney Dan Viets, a member of the board of national NORML. "The ACLU and NORML are involved, but so are groups of citizens who have not been activists before. And our police chief has been pretty responsive -- he doesn't have that bunker mentality that so many cops do," Viets said.

"For us, it's not so much SWAT as the use of search warrants for nonviolent crimes. Whether they have SWAT on the back of their jackets or not, they still do the same brutal stuff," the defense attorney continued. "The execution of a search warrant is almost always a violent act, it's a home invasion. It isn't that they're SWAT that matters, it's the fact that they engage in violence in the execution of those search warrants," he said.

"We are trying to suggest that police not use search warrants for nonviolent crime," said Viets. "They can rely on the tried and true: Send in an informer to do a controlled buy, then get an arrest warrant. Even the chief has said that they would try to arrest people outside their homes."

Similar outrage and activism is occurring in Detroit, where anti-police sentiments were loudly voiced in the days after the killing of Aiyana Jones. Police brutality activists usually isolated in their complaining are being joined by everyday citizens. The Detroit City Council is investigating. The Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at Jones' funeral. But whether the uproar results in a reformed SWAT policy remains to be seen.

"The death of that girl in Detroit was an inevitable result of the broad use of these things," said Calvo. "When you're doing 50,000 or 75,000 SWAT raids a year, it will eventually happen."

"Whatever one thinks about using SWAT tactics when looking for a murder suspect, the results in Detroit show how dangerously volatile these tactics really are," said Dave Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who is also the moving force behind the Americans for SWAT Reform web site and campaign. "There is every reason to believe that conducting a late night raid and detonating flash bang grenades led to the physical contact between the woman and the officer in which the gun discharged, killing the girl. That's all the more reason to avoid those tactics wherever possible, certainly in routine drug search warrants."

"In Detroit, they were going after a murder suspect, but there are a whole lot of questions about their tactical intelligence," said criminologist David Klinger, a former LAPD and Redmond, Washington, police officer and author of "Into the Kill Zone: a Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force," who now works for the Police Executive Research Forum. "Did they know there were children present? Why didn't they just do a contain and call?" where police secure the perimeter and tell the suspect to come outside, he asked.

While sending in the SWAT team in Detroit may be justified, said Klinger, the use of SWAT for small-time drug raids is not. "If you're sending in a SWAT team for a small amount of marijuana, that doesn't make sense," said Klinger. "There are some domestic agencies that don't understand that they should be utilizing some sort of threat assessment. That's one of the big issues regardless of who has oversight. A lot of it is a training issue about when SWAT should be utilized."

There are different pressure points where reformers can attempt to get some control over SWAT deployments. They range from the departmental level, to city hall or the county government, to the state house, and to Congress.

"The first level of oversight should be within the agency, whether it's the chief or some other officer with oversight over SWAT," said Klinger. "You need to make sure they have appropriate command and control and supervision, appropriate surveillance, tactical intelligence, and evidence of something out of the usual as opposed to just 'there's drugs there.' There needs to be a threat matrix done -- are there unusual fortifications, is there a history of violence, are weapons present other than for self protection?"

Neill Franklin is a former Maryland police officer with SWAT experience. He is also the incoming head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). For Franklin, SWAT has limited legitimate uses, but aggressive, paramilitarized policing has gone too far. He blames the war on drugs.

"Back in the 1970s and 1980s, we didn't use SWAT teams to conduct search warrants unless it was a truly documented violent organization," he said. "As the drug war escalated, we started using SWAT to execute drug-related warrants. When I first started as an undercover officer, the narcotics team executed the warrant, along with two or three uniformed officers, but not with the high-powered weapons and force we use today. The drug war is the reason for using these teams and the driving force behind them," said the former narc.

"Because police have become accustomed to serving so many warrants, they've also become accustomed to using SWAT for every warrant," said Franklin. "In the past, they were more selective. You had to provide the proper intel and articulate why a SWAT team was needed, what was the history of violence, what was the prospect of violence. Some departments now are very strict -- you have to ID the house and the people you're after, you have to photograph the house and the door you're going to go through, you have to know who should be in that house, what special circumstances may be involved, and whether there are children or animals in the house -- but now, I think a lot of departments aren't doing the proper intel."

"You need a threat matrix that talks about unusual weapons," said Klinger. "Does some guy have an automatic shotgun? Is he a major dealer? That's when you might want to send in SWAT, but it's not a good idea to routinely use SWAT."

In addition to doing surveillance and gathering intelligence, police need to ensure they are using the right personnel for SWAT teams, said Franklin, alluding to the fact that such teams are often accused of having a "cowboy" mentality. "These guys are self-selected and handpicked," he said. "You need people in good physical shape, but you have to have a process for selecting the right people with the right personalities."

Franklin also pointed a finger at judges. "I think a lot of the time, judges give warrants out too easily," he said. "A lot of them are just boilerplate, already typed up; you just fill in the blanks and a little detail. They are too easy to draft and get approved by a judge. The judges need to be a bit more strict and ask some questions to ensure a no-knock warrant is justified."

But departmental policies are where to begin, Franklin said. "Policy is the critical point," said Franklin, "policy is the key. And maybe judges need to be involved in asking those policy questions. Are there kids in the home? Dogs? Special circumstances? Do you have photos? I don't think judges are asking enough questions, and there is too much rubber-stamping of warrants. The judges are too loose on this; they need to tighten up."

The next levels of oversight -- and opportunities for intervention -- are the local and state governments, said Klinger. "It generally stops with the mayor and city council, but now Maryland has a law where they have to report, and I don't have a problem with that. We are a representative republic, and the power of the police is very strong. The government operates by the consent of the governed, and the governed need to have information about what their police are doing. Why not?"

There is plenty of work that could be done at the state level, said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (CJPF). "You could amend a state criminal procedure statute to require that a specialized kind of warrant would be needed to use a SWAT team. You could spell out particular things that had to be established, you might require additional verification of informant information beyond an ordinary search warrant, or specific evidence about possession of weapons and evidence about their connection to criminal activity, you could require higher degrees of confirmation about the address, you could require specific findings regarding the presence of children or the elderly, that a buy be done not by an informant but by a member of the law enforcement agency, that there be continuous surveillance of the property for some period before the raid takes place to verify who is present," Sterling said, ticking off a list of possibilities.

As Missouri attorney Viets noted above, it's not just SWAT, it is aggressive tactics like dynamic entry and no-knock raids that are also under scrutiny, whether done by SWAT or by other police units. It is those situations that are most dangerous for police and citizens, with the breaking down of doors, the yelling of commands, the flash-bangs, the confusion. And even the cops are talking about it.

"There is a big debate going on in the SWAT community," said Klinger. "Do you do a dynamic entry, or do you do something less? Some agencies will do a breach and hold, where they get through the front door, but stop there until they make contact with people inside. Another version is the 'contain and call-out', where they announce their presence and ask the people to come outside. Then, officers can carefully, slowly go through the place, and you know that if someone has a gun, he's after you. Sometimes we need to be aggressive, and there's nothing wrong with a dynamic entry, but you want to make sure you're using SWAT in the appropriate circumstances. We want to be minimally aggressive."

"It's those no-knock warrants, whether it's SWAT or not, where people tend to get hurt, where their animals are slaughtered," said Franklin. "That seems to be the norm now. You hear SWAT personnel joking about this all the time. If you know there's an animal in the house, why don't you just have Animal Control along? Unless that dog is so aggressive he's actually ripping people apart, he could be secured. Mostly they are just doing what they are supposed to do: barking and holding their ground."

[Ed: In many cases including the raid in Columbia, a warrant has nominally been served as a knock-and-announce, but the waiting is so short that it effectively equivalent to a no-knock. The term "dynamic entry" roughly applies to both kinds of situations, and "no-knock" is often used to refer to both kinds.]

"I don't know why they're shooting dogs," Klinger said with a hint of exasperation. "Unless they were being aggressive and attacking, you need to rethink what you're doing if you're shooting dogs. Just take a fire extinguisher with you and zap the dog with it. Shooting dogs unnecessarily suggests a lack of training about how to discern what is and is not a threat."

As long as the war on drugs continues, so will the issues around SWAT, no-knock raids, and search warrants. "The vast majority of these warrants are drug related," said Franklin. "The ultimate solution is ending prohibition. That would resolve so many issues."

Somewhat surprisingly, Klinger agreed. "We should just legalize drugs and call off the hounds, but if we're going to have drug prohibition, we have to be able to enforce it," he said. "If the rest of the polity says no to legalization, we can't have a regime where dopers just sit in their homes and do what they want. But if we are going to have the prohibition model, we need appropriate oversight over policing it."

Sterling pointed out some other pressure points for SWAT reform until we get to that day when drug prohibition is just a bad memory. "A private way of thinking about this is to use the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. to include in accrediting criterion better control or management of the way in which SWAT teams are used," said Sterling.

There are also reform possibilities at the federal level, Sterling said. "If you want to set national standards, Congress arguably has the power under the 14th Amendment in terms of equal protection to enforce the Fourth Amendment," he said. "You could provide that SWAT activity carried out outside the limits of such a special warrant could result in civil liability, denial of federal funds to the agency, or potential criminal penalties. There are examples of this in the wiretap law. It's very, very strict in its requirements about what law enforcement agencies have to do and it has very strict reporting requirements. There is certainly precedent in national law for how we regulate highly invasive, specialized law enforcement activities."

Sterling, a Maryland resident himself, said the Maryland SWAT reporting law passed after the Calvo raid shows political space can be created to support reform, but that it isn't easy. "It took raiding the mayor and killing his dogs and their being completely innocent white people to get relatively minor legislative action," he said. "The record keeping requirement is clearly a baby step toward challenging SWAT, and there was very decided knee-jerk law enforcement opposition to it."

It's going to take some organizing, he said. "You have to have a collection of groups deciding to make this an issue the way they made addressing the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity an issue. I'm not aware that this has developed yet, and perhaps this is something the drug reform community should be doing. We could take the lead in trying to raise this with more powerful political actors."

America's Complicity in Evil

America's Complicity in Evil

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As I write at 5pm on Monday, May 31, all day has passed since the early morning reports of the Israeli commando attack on the unarmed ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, and there has been no response from President Obama except to say that he needed to learn "all the facts about this morning's tragic events" and that Israeli prime minister Netanyahu had canceled his plans to meet with him at the White House.

Thus has Obama made America complicit once again in Israel's barbaric war crimes. Just as the US Congress voted to deep-six Judge Goldstone's report on Israel's war crimes committed in Israel's January 2009 invasion of Gaza, Obama has deep-sixed Israel's latest act of barbarism by pretending that he doesn't know what has happened.

No one in the world will believe that Israel attacked ships in international waters carrying Israeli citizens, a Nobel Laureate, elected politicians, and noted humanitarians bringing medicines and building materials to Palestinians in Gaza, who have been living in the rubble of their homes without repairs or medicines since January 2009, without first clearing the crime with its American protector. Without America's protection, Israel, a totally artificial state, could not exist.

No one in the world will believe that America's spy apparatus did not detect the movement of the Israeli attack force toward the aid ships in international waters in an act of piracy, killing 20, wounding 50, and kidnapping the rest.

Obama's pretense at ignorance confirms his complicity.

Once again the US government has permitted the Israeli state to murder good people known for their moral conscience. The Israeli state has declared that anyone with a moral conscience is an enemy of Israel, and every American president except Eisenhower and Carter has agreed.

Obama's 12-hour silence in the face of extreme barbarity is his signal to the controlled corporate media to remain on the sidelines until Israeli propaganda sets the story.

The Israeli story, preposterous as always, is that the humanitarians on one of the ships took two pistols from Israeli commandos, highly trained troops armed with automatic weapons, and fired on the attack force. The Israeli government claims that the commandos' response (70 casualties at last reporting) was justified self-defense. Israel was innocent. Israel did not do anything except drop commandos aboard from helicopters in order to intercept an arms shipment to Gazans being brought in by ships manned by terrorists.

Many Christian evangelicals, brainwashed by their pastors that it is God's will for Americans to protect Israel, will believe the Israeli story, especially when it is unlikely they will ever hear any other. Conservative Americans, especially on Memorial Day when they are celebrating feats of American arms, will admire Israel for its toughness.Here in north Georgia where I am at the moment, I have heard several say, admiringly, "Them, Israelis, they don't put up with nuthin."

Conservative Americans want the US to be like Israel. They do not understand why the US doesn't stop pissing around after nine years and just go ahead and defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. They don't understand why the US didn't defeat whoever was opposing American forces in Iraq. Conservatives are incensed that America had to "win" the war by buying off the Iraqis and putting them on the US payroll.

Israel murders people and then blames its victims. This appeals to American conservatives, who want the US to do the same.

It is likely that Americans will accept Israeli propagandist Mark Regev's story that Israelis were met by deadly fire when they tried to intercept an arms shipment to Palestinian terrorists from IHH, a radical Turkish Islamist organization hiding under the cover of humanitarian aid. This explanation is crafted to allow Americans to sink back into their stupor.

Americans will never hear from the US media that Turkey's prime minister Erdogan declared that the aid ships were carefully inspected before departure from Turkey and that there were no terrorists or arms aboard:

"I want to say to the world, to the heads of state and the governments, that these boats that left from Turkey and other countries were checked in a strict way under the framework of the rules of international navigation and were only loaded with humanitarian aid."

Turkey is a US ally, a member of NATO. Turkey's cooperation is important to American's plan for world hegemony. Turkey now realizes that the Israeli state is comprised of total evil. Erdogan must wonder about the morality of Israel's American protector. According to a report in antiwar.com, the Turkish government declared that "future aid ships will be dispatched with a military escort so as to prevent future Israeli attacks."

Will the CIA assassinate Erdogan or pay the Turkish military to overthrow him?

Murat Mercan, head of Turkey's foreign relations committee, said that Israel's claim that there were terrorists aboard the aid ships was Israel's way of covering up its crime. Mercan declared:"Any allegation that the members of this ship is attached to al-Qaeda is a big lie because there are Israeli civilians, Israeli authorities, Israeli parliamentarians on board the ship."

The criminal Israeli state does not deny its act of piracy. Israeli military spokeswoman, Avital Leibovich, confirmed that the attack took place in international waters: "This happened in waters outside of Israeli territory, but we have the right to defend ourselves."

Americans, and their Western European puppet states and the puppet state in Canada, will be persuaded by the servile media to buy the story fabricated by Israeli propaganda that the humanitarian aid ships were manned by terrorists bringing weapons to the Palestinians in Gaza, and that the terrorists posing as humanitarians attacked the force of Israeli commandos with two pistols, clubs, and knives.

The ignorant Americans will swallow this story without a hiccup.

Children fed contaminated beef at public schools

Dirty, contaminated beef fed to children through school lunch programs

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The USDA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently issued a shocking report (http://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/246...) about the condition of the nation's industrial meat supply. It turns out that a lot of the U.S. meat supply is tainted with veterinary drugs, pesticides and heavy metals.

According to the report, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, continues to fail at properly monitoring the safety of the nation's meat supply. So tainted meat is regularly being approved for sale, much of which ends up in school lunch rooms where it is fed to -- guess who? -- our children!

What's truly disturbing about this is that the USDA knows why meat it getting tainted but it's doing nothing about it. In fact, the agency regularly allows toxic meat to make its way to store shelves without even trying to stop it.

We're not talking about microbial pathogens here; we're talking about chemical contaminants that cattle are eating and then passing on to consumers. These contaminants are not cooked off like pathogens are, and they can actually intensify when cooked and become more harmful.

Pathogens vs. Chemical Contaminants

It is important to make this distinction between pathogens like E. coli versus chemical residues like pharmaceutical drugs and heavy metals. The public usually thinks about food contamination in terms of pathogens but often doesn't consider the chemical contamination.

The types of contaminants that are ending up in meat are things like veterinary drugs and antibiotics that industrial agriculture uses to keep animals from dying before slaughter. You see, industrial farming is so filthy and unnatural that animals raised there wouldn't stand a chance without a steady stream of drugs to keep them alive.

The irony about the excess use of drugs and antibiotics is that these things actually end up causing the diseases they are meant to treat and prevent. But the conditions in which these animals live are typically so horrendous that they probably wouldn't make it to the slaughter without these toxic chemical interventions.

Why aren't the regulatory agencies doing their job?

This is the same question being asked by OIG in its audit report. The FSIS is tasked with heading up the national residue program with the help of the FDA and EPA, but none of these agencies are actually doing their jobs.

These agencies are supposed to work together to establish tolerance levels for various pesticides, drugs and toxins in an effort to minimize their presence in the food. But according to the report, the agencies have not even established thresholds for many of the dangerous substances being found in meat, let alone test for them.

The agencies did jointly establish a Surveillance Advisory Team (SAT) and an Interagency Residue Control Group (IRCG) to help them accomplish program goals, but since none of them have actually committed to realistically achieving these goals, the whole program has basically gone nowhere.

If it's broken, blame someone else

So which agency is actually at fault for the meat safety failures? Well, it depends on which agency you ask. They all blame each other.

Every year, the SAT is supposed to bring together the FDA, EPA and FSIS to establish which residues they will test for that year. But each year, no matter what has been agreed upon, the FSIS continues to test for only one type of pesticide.

According to the EPA, the FSIS is refusing its requests to test for more pesticides. The FSIS, however, claims that the EPA has not established tolerances for many of those pesticides, so it can't test for them (while also insisting that it just doesn't have enough resources to do the testing).

For items that do get tested, the FSIS relies on the FDA to approve proper testing methods. However the FDA only wants to use testing methods that are old and outdated. When newer, better methods are recommended, the FDA is often unwilling or unable to use them.

The methods of these various agencies often conflict with one another, which is why the SAT was established in the first place. It was meant to be the coordinator of the three agencies to help them communicate and get the job done. But instead of coordinating, it seems to exist more as a formality while the three blame each other for not getting anything done.

The agencies are generally run so poorly and corruptly that it is surprising they get anything done at all. The only things they seem to have time to do is harass supplement makers and shut down raw milk producers, all while turning a blind eye to the industry players that are really causing most of the problems.

Dirty secrets of the meat industry

According to the report, meat plant violations are not a big deal to the FSIS. The agency routinely allows plants that are in violation to continue operating.

In 2008, one meat plant had over 200 violations, but the FSIS still classified the violations as "not reasonably likely to occur" and allowed the plant to continue operating as usual -- business as usual in the meat industry, eh?

The meat industry gets away with a lot, and the things it gets away with are no small matter. Take, for instance, the practice of cow "recycling". When a cow gets too old or sick to produce milk, she is handed over to a slaughter facility to be turned into meat. (The industry term for these animals is "spent" dairy cows).

Why is this a problem? According to the report, the plants that process spent dairy cows represent over 90 percent of the residue violations discovered in a 2008 investigation.

These same plants also process "bob" veal, or male calves that are born to dairy cows. Dairy cows are given large amounts of antibiotics after they birth calves in order to treat birth-related infections. Since dairy producers are required to wait a certain amount of time after administering the drugs before using their milk for human consumption, they just go ahead and feed the tainted milk to the bob veal calves in order not to "waste" it.

Since the drugs never got a chance to clear out of the system, it eventually ends up in the veal meat at the store. So when you eat veal meat, you're essentially eating bovine antibiotics.

And if the calves' mothers don't recovery quickly enough with the antibiotics, the producer may sell them off to be slaughtered before they die. That way they will at least make some money off those cows. Unfortunately, this results in even more antibiotics going into the beef food chain.

Ethanol waste being used as food

Hold on to your (cowboy) hats... it doesn't stop there. Farmers are now actually feeding livestock the industrial waste that is left over after corn is turned into ethanol fuel. It's not enough that industrial producers are recycling old, sick animals for human consumption, but now they are feeding them toxic bio-sludge as well.

Of course they've given the sludge a politically-correct name, "distillers' grains", but it doesn't change the fact that it is a waste byproduct that is harmful to animals forced to eat it.

The USDA has known since 2008 that animals who eat distillers' grains are more likely to harbor dangerous pathogens like E. coli, but has stated that it would not regulate the use of distillers' grains as cattle feed.

Since the ethanol fermentation process requires a lot of antibiotics to control it, antibiotic residues are plentiful in distillers' grains. And not only that, distillers' grains are loaded with mycotoxins linked to an oxidative imbalance in pigs called Mulberry Heart Disease (MHD) that can cause them to die suddenly.

No wonder pigs are sicker than ever; they're being fed toxic waste as food! But large hog producers don't really care because it saves them money, and the USDA doesn't care because, well, they basically represent the interests of the animal slaughter industry (the pork, beef and chicken industries).

As long as the ethanol producers are happy, the hog producers are happy, and enough organizations continue to sing the praises of distillers' grains, then there's no need to protect the public from the dangers of the tainted end result, it seems. Nobody will notice, right?

These are just a few of the many violations that the FSIS, FDA and EPA seem unconcerned about. And this isn't merely my personal opinion: These things are stated in the report itself as fact.

Nothing to see here, folks, just move along

The casual way in which the USDA report highlights the failures and gives lip service to fixing them would be humorous if it didn't have such disastrous consequences. For example, much of this meat ends up in the public schools.

The tainted meat usually comes from low-grade providers, so schools are quick to snatch it up and feed it to children because it's dirt cheap. And fortunately, it's labeled, "Suitable for human consumption."

Millions of American children, who are still in their developmental stages, are eating cheeseburgers filled with antibiotics, pharmaceutical drugs and toxic chemicals -- all thanks to the greed of powerful industries and the inexcusable depth of corruption within agricultural regulatory agencies.

This tainted meat also makes its way to grocery stores, big-box warehouses and even restaurants. Anywhere you're buying hamburger meat (or just hamburgers), you're likely to be chowing down on meat laced with toxic chemicals, antibiotics and other pharmaceutical drugs.

Yet, amazingly, these issues are never addressed publicly. The general public has no idea that industrial meat contains a cocktail of dangerous toxins. They have no clue that the regulatory agencies that are supposed to be protecting them can't even properly communicate with each other, let alone protect the public. Most people have no idea just how bad things really are.

Whenever there is a recall, nobody talks about why the meat got tainted or how it managed to pass by regulators without being stopped. There is never a discussion about the underlying flaws in the meat system itself that encourage contamination. Instead, regulators unleash a chorus of whining over how underfunded they are and how everything would be fixed if the entire food supply was simply irradiated before hitting store shelves.

Except irradiation doesn't destroy heavy metals and pharmaceuticals. It only makes the meat appear to be safe in the short term because it doesn't make anybody sick the very next day.

Food "safety" laws will only make things worse

The response to food contamination has been to devise food "safety" bills that experts claim will solve the problems of the food system. But a closer look reveals that the bills actually do more to eliminate the good guys than to punish the bad guys.

Just last summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2749, the "Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009" and a Senate version of the bill is likely to be voted on this summer.

But these food safety bills don't actually make food any safer.

Basically these bills will give more power to agencies like the FDA (who are already failing at their current tasks) while greatly increasing the regulatory burdens on small growers and ranchers who produce high-quality, safe food. Such bills completely avoid addressing the root causes of food contamination and instead create larger bureaucracies with more unchecked power that will only be unleashed against small operators rather than agro-industry giants.

The idea is utterly insane, but as long as it claims to deal with "food safety", most people will blindly accept it as something good. After all, the politicians and the corporations that sponsor them wouldn't lie to us, would they? (Chuckle...)

So how can food really be made safer?

The entire food system itself will have to be radically reformed in order to truly make food safe. Mass-produced food that's factory-made by corporate conglomerates will never be the kind of thing we truly wish to feed our children. Government subsidies for cash crops must end. Policies that favor Big Agribusiness while destroying smaller growers and ranchers must be reversed.

It's important for us all to oppose any and all food "safety" bills that threaten to eliminate the very operations that produce safe food. Protections for local and family farms must be present in any legislation, otherwise they will be forced out of business. The Cornucopia Institute is doing a lot of great work in this area, so be sure to check their website for regular updates: www.Cornucopia.org

Conscious consumers must also start seeking alternative sources of food that are not produced out of the current corrupt system. Local farms, food cooperatives and community supported agriculture (CSA) are great sources of safe food, and they offer the opportunity to develop a relationship with the people who raise the food.

You can also choose to grow your own food at home. Whether urban or rural, there are workable solutions to raising your own food at home, regardless of your situation. Even those who don't have any yard space can grow sprouts on a kitchen counter. (That's food, too!)

Knowing the source of your food and how it has been raised is crucial to ensuring food safety for yourself and your family. And remember: You vote with your dollars. It's up to you to choose food products from small, local growers rather than the corporate agro-giants that would much prefer to just shove their dirty, contaminated beef down your throat at every meal.

Fluoridation of water supply violates U.S. law

Why the fluoridation of public water supplies is illegal

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Municipalities all across America are currently dripping fluoride chemicals into their public water supply, dosing over a hundred million Americans with a chemical that they claim "prevents cavities."

What's interesting here is that this biological effect of "preventing cavities" is a medical claim, according to the FDA. And as such, making this claim instantly and automatically transforms fluoride into a "drug" under currently FDA regulations.

This means that cities and towns all across America are now practicing medicine without a license by dripping liquid medication into the public water supply without the consent of those who are swallowing the medication.

If you or I did this, we would be arrested and tried as either terrorists (because contaminating the water supply is an act of terrorism) or felons practicing medicine without a license. So what allows cities and towns to get away with these very same crimes?

Cities openly violate state and federal law

Keep in mind that a medication can only be legally prescribed to someone after they have been diagnosed with a medical need. In other words, a doctor can't legally prescribe you some pharmaceutical unless he examines you and determines you actually need it. But fluoride is medicating everyone whether they need it or not, without any medical diagnosis whatsoever.

And that means those children or adults who already have high exposure to fluoride (from swallowing toothpaste or drinking fluoridated bottled water, for example) may now be exposed to too much fluoride from the added amounts in the tap water. Excess fluoride can cause serious health problems such as bone fractures and dark spots appearing on your teeth (dental fluorosis).

This does not appear to concern the proponents of fluoride -- people who believe they alone have the right to practice mass medicine without a license by dripping an unapproved drug chemical into the public water supply without the knowledge or consent of those who are being medicated by that chemical.

Every city and town in America currently engaged in fluoridation of the water supply is committing felony crimes. Town leaders who approve of water fluoridation are criminals operating in clear violation of FDA regulations, state medical laws and federal laws.

How to fight back

If you happen to see one of these town leaders at a town meeting, make a citizens' arrest and put them in handcuffs, then turn them over to the local sheriff.

You may also wish to write a strong letter to your state medical board and complain that your city or town officials are "practicing medicine without a license" by dosing your city residents with an unapproved drug.

If they insist fluoride is not a drug, tell them to read the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). (http://www.fda.gov/regulatoryinform...)

There, you will find that the Act states:

The term "drug" means... articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals.

Now, I don't personally agree with this definition of a "drug" but this is what the FDA claims it to be, and it clearly states that any item intended to "affect the structure" of the body is a drug.

Fluoride is intended to affect the structure of the teeth. That's the whole claimed purpose of dumping it into the water supply. Therefore, fluoride is a drug.

Furthermore, since it is a drug, it is ILLEGAL to dump it into the water supply, even if it were approved by the FDA to treat cavities (which it isn't).

Thus, every employee of every city or town that is currently dumping this chemical drug into the water supply is guilty of a felony crime and should be immediately arrested and prosecuted for contamination of the public water supplies as well as practicing medicine without a license.

Call your local police department and report these crimes. It's time to arrest these fluoro-terrorists who are illegally contaminating our public water supply with illegal drugs. Stop the fluoride madness.

"I am appalled at the prospect of using water as a vehicle for drugs. Fluoride is a corrosive poison that will produce serious effects on a long range basis. Any attempt to use water this way is deplorable." - Dr. Charles Gordon Heyd, Past President of the American Medical Association.

Other resources to check out:
Fluoride Action Network
www.FluorideAlert.org

Citizens for Safe Drinking Water
www.NoFluoride.com

IAOMT (dentists opposing mercury)
www.iaomt.org

US public transit systems cutting service and raising fares

US public transit systems cutting service and raising fares

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The deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression is having a devastating impact on mass public transit systems throughout the US. State tax revenues have suffered their worst decline in more than half a century, and more is still to come. Since state and local governments are legally required to balance their budgets, legislatures and governors are taking a sledgehammer to spending on everything from libraries to state parks to health, education and transit. Far from making up for these shortfalls, the austerity policies backed by the Obama administration and both parties are making matters worse.

Among the most dramatic examples of these cuts in terms of their broad impact are the slashes in service and increased fares for subway and bus transportation in cities around the country. Tens of millions of people are facing the immediate impact of these cuts, even as hundreds of thousands of transit workers face unprecedented attacks on their jobs, wages and benefits.

According to a report issued by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a lobbying and advocacy group consisting largely of transit agencies themselves, 84 percent of major transit systems have either cut service and raised fares in the last 18 months, or are considering such measures. Out of a total of 151 agencies surveyed, 59 percent have already cut service or raised fares, 69 percent have projected budget shortfalls, and 47 percent have either laid off employees or plan to do so.

The report covers systems that carry more than 80 percent of the nation’s passengers, including 19 of the top 25 systems in terms of ridership. Ninety percent of these agencies have faced flat or declining local and state aid.

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the largest of these systems, faces an operating budget deficit of $800 million for the current fiscal year. The MTA, which operates the buses and subways in New York as well as commuter rail systems that serve the New York suburbs, is facing huge cuts in state aid and a sharp decline in tax revenue earmarked for transit. In addition, the prolonged economic downturn has led to a drop in the number of fare-paying passengers in New York City of about 2.7 percent in the last year.

New York’s transit fare was increased in 2009, and the MTA is expected to demand another fare hike of at least 7.5 percent next year. The base fare has increased by 44 percent since 2002, translating into major hardship for workers, whose wages have not kept up, not to mention the 10 percent of the work force that is currently unemployed.

Earlier this year, the MTA adopted cutbacks that are scheduled to go into effect on June 27. These include the elimination of two train lines as well as 34 bus routes. Layoff notices have recently gone out to 266 New York subway station agents, and the MTA is planning to lay off another 900 unionized workers, while cutting 600 administrative jobs.

The agency has postponed until June 23 a decision on whether to follow through on its provocative threat, made earlier this year, to eliminate free subway and bus passes for more than 500,000 elementary and high school students. The Long Island Rail Road, run by the MTA, reduced service on several of its lines as of May 17.

On top of its operating deficit, the MTA faces a massive and growing long-term debt incurred to finance the repair and reconstruction of the city’s mass transit system. The New York State Comptroller reports that this debt, now about $30 billion, has increased 54 percent in the past five years. Debt service by 2013 is projected at $2.2 billion, compared to $1.4 billion last year. The escalating debt is strangling the transit system, forcing a choice under the present system between allowing the decay of the transit infrastructure or even greater fare increases and service cuts.

New York’s is by no means the only system facing fiscal disaster. In the third largest US city, the Chicago Transit Authority, facing a $95.6 million deficit, laid off almost 1,100 workers, about 10 percent of the workforce in February. At the same time, bus service was cut back 20 percent and rail service 10 percent. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley demanded the transit workers give up a scheduled 3.5 percent pay increase and accept furlough days as well.

In Boston, which has the oldest system in the country, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority increased its fare for a single train ride about three years ago, from $1.25 to $2.00, and from $.90 to $1.25 on the buses. In Washington, DC, the Metro plans an increase of 15 percent for rail fares and 20 percent on buses as of July 1. It is also considering the layoff of 300 unionized workers.

The Atlanta, Georgia, transit system raised its daily fares from $1.75 to $2.00 and its monthly pass from $52 to $60, along with cuts in service and in health care benefits for its employees. Up to 1,500 out of 5,200 workers may be laid off to close a $120 million gap in its $400 million operating budget.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority recently cut 14 of its 90 routes and laid off 130 of its 2,400 employees. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has proposed a two-year budget that includes 10 percent cuts in its Muni transit system, and a reduction of 584 jobs, including more than 280 layoffs.

Another factor that is deepening the crisis of the New York transit system as well as others is their involvement in interest-rate swaps, a derivative that these public agencies have used to gamble taxpayer and passenger revenues on Wall Street. The MTA in New York would have benefited financially if interest rates had increased, but of course the opposite has taken place in the last several years. The MTA has outstanding swaps of about $4.3 billion. The counterparties for these swaps include giant financial institutions like Citigroup, AIG, Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan and UBS.

Therefore, in addition to the deficits caused by declining state aid and fewer passengers, the MTA and other agencies have to find millions of dollars for Goldman Sachs and other giant financial institutions that have already received massive federal bailouts.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), which runs the transit network in the Philadelphia area, is involved in these derivatives to the tune of $340 million, and now owes millions to Merrill Lynch and Citibank. SEPTA has announced a 6 percent fare increase to help close a $110 million deficit in its operating budget.

New Jersey Transit is reportedly paying $1 million per month to Goldman Sachs as a result of a previous interest rate swap deal. NJ Transit’s board of directors recently voted to increase fares by 10 to 25 percent. The increases went into effect on May 1, and ridership declined almost immediately by 2.6 percent.

The Los Angeles Metro has also become indebted to Goldman Sachs and other counterparties. Facing an operating budget deficit of $204 million, the LA system is increasing fares once again on July 1, with the one-way fare going from $1.25 to $1.50, and a day pass from $5 to $6.

Everywhere the unions representing transit workers have either agreed to concessions without complaint, or made their own proposals for cuts. In New York, for instance, according to the local civil service paper The Chief, newly-elected Transport Workers Union Local 100 president John Samuelsen offered one-year’s worth of concessions equivalent to the amount the MTA would save with its projected layoffs of hundreds of transit workers. The layoffs are proceeding, however, because the transit officials insist on permanent concessions.

Samuelsen was elected late last year as an “opposition” candidate, running against a candidate backed by outgoing President Roger Toussaint, who was himself elected as a “militant” some 10 years ago. In fact, none of these officials differ on the essential issues. They all accept the dictates of the profit system and are tied to the big business politicians of the Democratic Party. When confronted by representatives of the ruling establishment who claim there is no money for transit, and that workers and the riding public must pay, their only response is to scramble to find some slightly less onerous way to impose these attacks.

The dismantling of whole sections of existing mass transit in the US together with layoffs and fare hikes is emblematic of a system that is totally incompatible with the fundamental needs of modern society, including efficient, safe and affordable public transportation.

The fight against these cutbacks cannot be waged under union leaders and organizations that subordinate the interests of working people to the demands of this system and to their alliances with the Democratic Party. It requires a political struggle, beginning with a break from the Democrats, and a fight to unite every section of the working class behind a socialist program that begins from the social needs of the population and not the profit interests of the super-rich.

New York City to shutter 50 senior centers

New York City to shutter 50 senior centers

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Last month, New York City’s Department for the Aging announced that at least 50 senior centers are to be closed across the city by July 1. According to the Department’s commissioner, another 25 centers may also be closed if the city is unable to secure additional funding from the state government in Albany. There are over 300 senior centers across New York City’s five boroughs, out of which up to a quarter may be forced to close.

City officials have placed responsibility for the pending closures on the ongoing budget crisis in Albany. The planned closures are a result of Governor David Paterson’s proposal to redirect $25 million of federal funds reserved for senior centers to other state programs. In total, the governor’s proposal would cut funding for the city’s senior centers by almost 30 percent. “The threatened state cut would come on top of city budget actions that could cost the city’s Department for the Aging more than $63 million in funding,” according to the New York Daily News.

On May 6, the city released a list of the 50 centers that are to be closed by July 1. Manhattan will lose 16 of its senior centers, seven of them in Harlem alone. Nine senior centers are to be closed in the Bronx. Brooklyn residents will see 11 of their senior centers closed, while Queens will lose 10 of its centers. Staten Island, which already has the fewest senior centers, is set to lose four of its centers.

According to the New York Times, “The administration picked the 50 centers largely on the basis of three criteria: the fewest meals served, the fewest hours open and the most maintenance or management problems.” However, the closings will severely impact many of the city’s elderly residents who rely on the variety of services provided by the centers. The cuts will affect several programs offered through the centers including meals, rent assistance, transportation and home health care assistance. The closures are expected to affect over 6,000 elderly residents of the city.

The Bloomberg administration has been keen on reducing costs related to the senior centers for years. According to the New York Times, “Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, questioned the motives of the administration, noting that Mr. Bloomberg tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to overhaul the city’s senior centers two years ago with a proposal to streamline operations and evaluate centers based on performance measures.”

According to the commissioner of the Department for the Aging, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, approximately 30,000 New Yorkers visit senior centers each day. The centers provide free meals, social services, and companionship. For many of the city’s low-income elderly residents, food they receive at the center is their only meal of the day.

“It’s not just about a meal,” said Jessica Lappin, city councilwoman and chairwoman of the Committee on Aging. “These centers are second homes to isolated seniors. Many of these seniors sit at the same table, with the same friends, and there’s a lasting bond that develops that can’t be measured.”

The announcement of the closures generated anxiety among seniors who rely on the centers even before it was known which centers would be closed. Many people at Drew Hamilton Community Services Center in Harlem expressed their concern about the closures and emphasized how the meals and social services offered at the centers serve as lifelines.

“This is expected, excuse me for saying,” said Julia Smith, who was formerly employed as a paraprofessional for the city’s Board of Education. “I’m 80 years old, and I’ve seen how money works in this community. The first thing they do is target senior citizen centers. Ever since Bloomberg was re-elected, we have heard rumors about this place closing.”

On May 12, hundreds of seniors held a protest at City Hall against the slated closures. Protestors carried signs that read “Save our Senior Centers” and “We Need 1 Good Meal a Day.”

One protester, Rose Tamari, 84, has been visiting the Jasa West Side Senior Center for the last 20 years. She says the center has been a lifeline for her over the years and worries about what will happen if it is closed. “Since my husband passed away, I live alone,” she told WNYC radio, “and, honey, I come here to be with people so I feel that I’m alive.”

The closures will negatively affect some of the most vulnerable members of society. While elderly poverty has declined since the 1960s, the economic crisis is taking its toll on senior citizens in New York and around the country. A report released last month by AARP Public Policy Institute shed light on the difficult circumstances facing millions of elderly people around the country. The report, “Older Americans in Poverty: A Snapshot,” found that nearly 4 million older adults in the US are unable to meet their basic living expenses each day. Another 10 million adults over the age of 65 in the US are classified as “low income,” meaning their income is less than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, which grossly underestimates the cost of living.

According to John Rother, AARP executive vice president for policy and strategy, “Poverty is widespread across the nation and it has been persistent even in a growing economy. Even with Social Security and other important federal benefits, there are too many older Americans today who are struggling to afford life’s basic necessities.”

The report also noted that among the elderly, women and minorities are the most affected by poverty. Twenty percent of older adults who are African-American or Hispanic are living in poverty. For the majority of older adults in poverty, Social Security accounts for most if not all of their family income. Moreover, many impoverished adults over the age of 65 find it difficult if not impossible to meet their basic health care expenses. The study found that 48.8 percent of poor and low-income older adults were burdened with health expenses that exceeded 20 percent of their family income. Older adults below the poverty line are twice as likely to report being in poor health than the general elderly population.

The economic crisis and the anti-working class policies of the ruling elite will further degrade the living standards of older adults. Even before the announced closures, New York City’s senior centers have been continuously plagued by underfunding. According to the Council of Senior Centers and Service of New York City (CSCS), the lack of funding “severely hampers the functioning of senior centers.” A report by the CSCS stated that many centers have difficulty providing popular services like computer classes and fitness programs due to limited resources, equipment, or trained staff.

According to the New York Times, each senior center costs only about $100,000 per year to run. In comparison, New York City first deputy mayor and close aid of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Patricia E. Harris, received a $400,000 bonus for less than two months of “work” on the mayor’s recent re-election campaign. Bloomberg himself is the richest man in the city with a personal fortune estimated at $18 billion.

Faced with ballooning budget deficits, the city, state, and federal governments are seeking to make working people pay for the economic crisis generated by the financial aristocracy. Currently, 700 elders are on the waiting list in need of critical services, another vital program that was set to be cut on June 1, the deadline for the city’s budget. Last month, Mayor Bloomberg announced that, apart from shutting down the senior centers, 31 early childhood classrooms, 16 child-care centers, and adult literacy programs will be closed.

Reporters for the World Socialist Web Site spoke to seniors at the Cathedral Towers senior center which is sponsored by Citizens Care Committee, Inc. Located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the center is set to be closed by July 1. Workers and retirees were outraged by the announcement that the center was to be closed. They were in the process of collecting signatures for a petition to keep the center open.

CarolCarol Willis

Carol Willis, 67, voiced her concerns about the closure. “It’s very sad,” she said. “We need the centers. Many people here can’t cook their own meals because of disabilities. I don’t know what people are going to do if they shut down all the centers.”

She was also worried about no longer being able to socialize with her friends. “We all know each other here. I brought snacks for everyone on Mother’s Day,” she said. The financial impact of the center’s shutdown will be harsh, Carol warned. “If the centers shut down, people will have to go to restaurants which cost a lot more money. All I have to live on is my pension and my Social Security benefits.”

G. Estrada, 70, was worried about what would happen to the staff if the center was shut down. “The people who run this place are really nice, and I’m worried about what will happen to them if they lose their jobs,” he said. Mr. Estrada, a former truck driver, has been visiting the center for several years. “I’m really angry and depressed that it’s going to close,” he said. “The people who run this city just don’t care. I’m a diabetic, and this center has been able to meet my needs.”

Amantina, 72, said that it was unfair to close down the center. “It’s terrible that it’s closing,” she said. “The people who come here are really nice, and I really like the woman who runs this place. Many of us seniors around here need this place. People deserve at least one decent meal each day. It’s just not fair that they’re going to close this center and so many other senior centers.” When asked what she thought about Mayor Bloomberg, she replied, “I don’t like Bloomberg, he’s not a good man.”

Effie and JoelEffie Stroud and her grandson, Joel Browne

Effie Stroud, 93, has been visiting the center regularly ever since it opened over 20 years ago. “It’s very bad that it’s closing,” she said. “The people are nice here, and the food is good. It’s a home away from home. I think all the centers should stay open.” Effie also works part time at the center for which she receives a stipend. A former church worker, Effie receives no pension or retirement benefits and relies on her Social Security benefits alone to survive. When asked how she felt about the economic crisis, she replied, “I’ve never experienced a crisis like this.”

Her grandson, Joel Browne, added, “It would cost a fraction of what they gave to the banks to keep these places open. They care about banks, but not about people. They are closing down all the parks too; it’s messed up.”

US Congress cuts unemployment benefits

As Congress allows extended unemployment benefits to expire

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Hewlett-Packard will cut 9,000 jobs from its customer service sector and plans to spend up to $1 billion to increase automation of those services in order to remain competitive with IBM. This is the latest wave of job cuts at Hewlett-Packard since Mark Hurd became the company’s CEO in 2005. Since assuming that post, Hurd has announced plans to eliminate more than 48,000 jobs. While Hurd claims his company cannot afford these workers if it is to remain competitive, he himself continues to rake in tens of millions of dollars as CEO. Hurd’s total pay in 2009 alone was $24,201,448.

The thousands of workers laid off from Hewlett-Packard and other companies will now face greater difficulty in keeping their heads above water thanks to the expiration of extended unemployment benefits June 1.

While the House of Representatives passed a bill May 28 to continue the program, the Senate left for a week-long vacation without taking any action on the legislation. This is the third time Congress has left unemployed workers in the lurch this year.

Workers on extended benefits will have to wait until at least the week of June 7, when the Senate resumes session, and there is no certainty that extended benefits will be restored, let alone made retroactive for the week already lost.

Under the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program, there is a four-tier system put in place to regulate the payment of emergency benefits. The first tier provides workers who have run out of ordinary unemployment benefits with emergency payments for up to 20 weeks. A recipient of emergency benefits cannot move to the next tier under the program until he or she has exhausted all the emergency funds from the previous tier.

Because the Senate took no action on the House bill that voted to extend EUC funding, the program will expire this week, leaving hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers who have run out of funds and were awaiting transfer to the next tier with no income until the Senate returns from its vacation and votes on the bill.

While the jobs bill passed by the House will extend emergency unemployment benefits through November, it also eliminates essential programs aimed at relieving the financial burden on unemployed workers.

In preparing the bill for a vote, House leaders dropped an extension of subsidies for COBRA, the federal plan that assists newly unemployed workers in retaining the health insurance plans provided by their employers for several months after the loss of a job. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 reduced the premiums workers must pay under COBRA, offering 65 percent subsidies to aid newly unemployed workers in retaining health insurance benefits. That subsidy has been eliminated under the new bill.

No worker laid off after May 31 will now be eligible for assistance with COBRA insurance payments. Without these subsidies, many will lose their health insurance because they can no longer afford their premiums.

House leaders also removed from the bill a proposed $24 billion increase in federal subsidies to state Medicaid programs, a decision that will have a devastating impact on the ability of low-income families in the US to access quality health care.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat from California, claimed that the House would return to COBRA and the aid to state governments when Congress returns from its current recess. In the light of sharp opposition within the Democratic Party from so-called “Blue Dog” right-wingers to both measures, there is no reason to have confidence in Pelosi’s assurances.

These cuts come at a time when there is no halt to joblessness, with layoffs continuing to mount and millions of workers finding themselves in need of assistance. According to the Labor Department, 6.7 million workers in the US are suffering long-term unemployment, meaning they have been out of work for six months or longer. The official unemployment rate in the US as a whole stands at 9.9 percent; there are some 27 million people unemployed or underemployed.

A recent report on mass layoffs from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that “Employers took 1,856 mass layoff actions in April that resulted in the separation of 200,870 workers, seasonally adjusted, as measured by new filings for unemployment insurance benefits during the month.”

Rather than expanding benefits available to workers, Congress is imposing austerity measures. While the bill cuts significantly the funds that would assist unemployed workers in obtaining access to health care, it is generous in providing tax breaks to big business. The bill sets aside $28.5 billion in subsidies and tax breaks for corporations and other special interest groups. Workers won’t receive COBRA benefits, but NASCAR racetrack owners stand to receive nearly $40 million in tax write-offs.

The House and Senate, along with the Obama administration, have collectively demonstrated a callous indifference toward the fate of the unemployed. With layoffs already at record numbers and still increasing, relief is nowhere to be found.

As of the 2008 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, there were 238 millionaires in Congress, more than 44 percent of the total. US Senators serving in 2008 had a median reportable worth of $1.79 million.

Obama signals no end to deep-sea oil drilling

Obama signals no end to deep-sea oil drilling

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The US will resume issuing new permits for deep-sea oil drilling after a six-month moratorium expires, President Obama signaled at a White House press event Tuesday.

A new federal commission tasked with investigating the Deepwater Horizon spill, which has dumped tens of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, will seek to create “safe” conditions for the continuance of oil exploration and production on the outer continental shelf, Obama declared.

“Only then can we be assured that deepwater drilling can take place safely,” Obama said. “Only then we can we accept further development of these resources.... Only then can we be confident that we’ve done what’s necessary to prevent history from repeating itself.”

With these three sentences Obama concluded the brief media event. He did not take questions.

In fact, the moratorium currently in place only applies to the issuance of new permits for deep-sea sites. A number of deep-sea rigs—some operating in deeper waters than the Deepwater Horizon—continue to operate, as do thousands of shallow-water rigs.

Obama was flanked in the Rose Garden by commission heads Bob Graham, the former Democratic governor of Florida, and William K. Reilly, the former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief under George H.W. Bush. Both are establishment political figures in good standing. Graham was a long-time member of the New Democrats, a right-wing grouping that pushed for deregulation in various sectors of the economy, and Reilly has intimate ties to the oil and chemical industries, sitting on the board of directors of both ConocoPhillips and chemical giant Du Pont.

Obama has yet to fill out the rest of the seven-member commission, but there are indications that the oil industry will have representation beyond just Reilly.

As Obama’s closing sentences made clear, the commission’s central purpose will be to give the oil industry a clean bill of health for deep-sea oil drilling. It will therefore likely focus on several “mistakes” that made the Deepwater Horizon disaster possible. Once these are discovered, drilling on the outer continental shelf will again be declared safe.

The World Socialist Web Site spoke with scientists and environmentalist groups that questioned whether deep-sea drilling could be declared safe after such a review.

“The reality is that when you’re trying to seal holes that can be 20,000 to 30,000 feet below the surface, there’s simply no proven technology for doing this,” said Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, which also opposes shallow-water drilling. “This is not the first major spill in the Gulf and it won’t be the last if they continue to drill,” Suckling added.

Suckling said that any commission that includes members with prominent ties to the oil industry could not possibly produce an objective analysis of the disaster. He called it “very disturbing” that Reilly was tapped to chair the commission. “It’s a foregone conclusion that the commission will call for modest reforms and ultimately approve issuing new permits,” Suckling concluded.

Carl Safina, a biologist with the Blue Ocean Institute, agreed. “I don’t think it can ever be done completely safely,” he said. “But they’ve apparently made it much more unsafe by cutting corners and hurrying up.”

Reidar Hindrum, a scientist and oil cleanup expert who works for Norway’s Directorate for Nature Management, said that spills occur even in the more highly regulated Norwegian oil industry, which mines the relatively shallow waters of the North Sea. “They say there’s more security in Norway than in the Mexican Gulf,” Hindrum said. “But you can never guarantee that it can be 100 percent safe. You can look at it as an unlucky situation, but it’s part of the industry. It can happen everywhere.”

Once again, Obama refrained from criticizing BP, whose determination to cover up the size of the spill and efforts to protect its revenue have greatly exacerbated the catastrophe. If anything, Obama’s indication that deep-sea drilling would resume represented a lifeline to BP, whose share values tumbled by about 13 percent on Tuesday, the first trading day after its latest efforts to stanch the gushing of oil, the so-called “top kill” and “junk shot,” failed.

While the administration carries on its overriding concern—the protection of the interests of Big Oil—it took steps on Tuesday to disassociate itself from BP. Since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, which took the lives of 11 workers, the federal government has functioned as little more than an adjunct of the London-based oil giant, generating growing popular hostility in the process.

Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday visited the Gulf Coast for the first time since the incident, where he held discussions with state attorneys general from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Holder said that a criminal probe was under way related to possible “malfeasance” in the lead-up to the disaster, although he did not mention BP or rig owner and operator Transocean by name.

There has been an enormous amount of testimony and scores of documents that reveal that BP, Transocean, and perhaps cement contractor Halliburton and blowout preventer manufacturer Cameron International, are criminally negligent for the disaster. Among other revelations, it has become clear that numerous steps in the drilling process were bypassed, warnings of impending disaster were disregarded, and safety equipment did not function.

Yet the administration’s reluctance to pursue an investigation of BP and allied concerns is due in no small part to the government’s own criminally negligent role in the disaster. The explosion and resulting oil slick are the products of a total regulatory breakdown involving several federal agencies that played out over years, continuing into the Obama White House. At every step the federal government granted approval to BP’s plans and disregarded its abuses, with the Obama administration even excusing it from providing legally required environmental impact studies for the Deepwater Horizon site.

This was underscored by a new Wall Street Journal report, also published Tuesday, which found that in the week before the disaster BP requested—and received—regulatory approval to make three changes in its drilling plans within the space of 24 hours. One of these was approved by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) within five minutes of submission. All three requests had to do with BP using a single pipe casing, presumably to save time, rather than the industry “gold standard” of double casing, according to experts quoted by the Journal. The changes very likely contributed to the disaster.

The administration on Tuesday also ended the practice of joint news conferences with BP executives, which “have not always bolstered the government’s stature as the commanding authority in the crisis,” as the Washington Post put it. Government officials have acted as BP employees in the conferences, especially chief Coast Guard spokesperson Mary Landry, who since late April often appeared at the side of BP’s chief operating officer Doug Settles at Unified Area Command headquarters in Louisiana, offering rosy interpretations of the disaster and glowing accounts of BP’s efforts. On Tuesday, Landry was reassigned elsewhere.

With the failure of its top kill procedure, which aimed to plug the hole by firing hundreds of thousands of gallons of heavy mud at it, BP on Tuesday launched an attempt to cut the well’s riser near the ocean floor in order to place a dome above the rig’s blowout preventer. The dome—smaller than the one that failed last month when frozen natural gas hydrates clogged it—would be connected by a new riser leading up to ships on the water’s surface. Antifreeze agents would be pumped down to avoid clogging.

The experimental procedure will take days and, in the short term, will actually increase the rate of the spill by 20 percent or more. By cutting the riser, BP will eliminate all kinks in the piping that, like an uncoiled garden hose, are currently restricting flow. In the best-case scenario the method will only capture a share of the oil, experts agree.

“We’re all concerned about it,” an anonymous technician working on the project told the New York Times. “We simply do not have the data about the internal geometry of the blowout preventer,” he admitted, defying a BP gag order on speaking to the media.

Full closure of the gushing oil must wait until at least August, when it is anticipated that two relief wells now being drilled may reach the Deepwater Horizon site. However, a number of experts have warned that this procedure may well take much longer.

“The probability of them hitting it on the very first shot is virtually nil,” said David Rensink, president-elect of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. “If they get it on the first three or four shots they’d be very lucky.” In the event of heavy storms or hurricanes, the effort will have to be suspended, as will any oil siphoning taking place via the new containment dome. Climatologists anticipate a particularly active hurricane season, which officially began on Tuesday.

“Will hurricanes trump the capping procedures or even the whole operation?” questioned Donald Van Nieuwenhuise, a University of Houston petroleum geosciences professor, quoted in the Times. “That’s the wild card.”

Meanwhile, a growing number of experts are warning that the Gulf of Mexico may be irreparably harmed by the spill with untold consequences for the people of the region. On Tuesday, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) extended its ban on commercial and sport fishing to nearly one third of the Gulf’s US waters, or 76,000 square miles, an area about the size of Great Britain. The fishing industry, which directly employs tens of thousands in the Gulf, is already devastated.

Yet BP continues to minimize and cover up the dimensions of the spill, with CEO Tony Hayward this weekend declaring that the massive plumes of hydrocarbons discovered by multiple teams of scientists were nonexistent. He provided no evidence, but said that government scientists agree with him. There are no plumes, Hayward said, because oil has a “specific density” less than water and therefore must rise to the surface.

This brought sharps responses from scientists and environmentalist groups. Suckling told the WSWS he found Hayward’s position “shocking.” “He apparently is not aware of the intended effect these highly toxic dispersants have on the oil,” Suckling said. “The whole purpose of that dispersant is to distribute the oil in the water. The fact that he doesn’t seem to understand that is very disturbing.”

Dr. Safina said the plumes were the logical result of the dispersant fired at the oil as it escapes the riser at the ocean floor. “I would certainly not take BP’s word over the scientists,” he added.

Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, was more colorful in his response to Hayward, as quoted by the Associated Press. “We ought to take him offshore and dunk him 10 feet underwater and pull him up and ask him ‘What’s that all over your face?’” Nungesser said.