Thursday, November 11, 2010

10 Hard Truths About War for Veterans Day (and Every Other Day)

10 Hard Truths About War for Veterans Day (and Every Other Day)

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Veterans Day, which Americans celebrate on November 11, was originally called Armistice Day, to commemorate the cessation of fighting in the Great War of 1914-1918. In the United States, the idea that this was “the war to end all wars,” (a phrase coined by H.G. Wells in a pamphlet of that name and echoed by Woodrow Wilson with equal earnestness) was challenged by an outspoken and persecuted peace movement, including poor farmers and black Americans conscripted at disproportionate rates.

Most Americans may have accepted the justification at the war's start, but by the war's end, with a U.S. body count of 117,000 and double that in serious injuries (and 37 million casualties overall on both sides, 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded), the signing of the Armistice by Allies and Germans at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 was met with celebration that it might mean a true “end of war.” In 1919, a year later, Armistice Day was established to celebrate "the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed."

After World War II and the Korean War, and the start of a heated Cold War, it was clear to the government that an armistice and peace were not in sync with the times. In 1954, Congress changed the name of the November 11 holiday to Veterans Day, exchanging peace for celebrating patriotic valor, and the ultimate sacrifice of life, limb and health in battling for one's country.

Today's veterans are survivors of more than a half century of American wars—World War II, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, the 1991 Gulf War (which has never been officially declared over), and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As we celebrate our veterans this week, we would do well to remember the following realities that the public is barely aware of, but veterans know only too well:

1) It took almost 50 years for the government to acknowledge the suffering of more than 200,000 U.S. veterans exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, which the U.S. military used for a decade to defoliate forests and destroy food sources in Vietnam. Despite higher incidences of cancer, neurological, digestive, skin, lung and heart disorders along with miscarriages and birth defects, the DoD denied any linkage of exposure and disease, and disability claims, which veterans initiated in 1977 were mostly denied. By 1993 only 400 veterans exposed to Agent Orange had been granted some compensation.

Class action suits against companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemical settled out of court for small amounts. After much advocacy by veterans and their supporters, the 1991 Agent Orange Act was passed, allowing the VA to declare specific conditions "presumptive" to Agent Orange. This summer the list was expanded to include B cell leukemias, such as hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease. Still, after five decades, compensation is small with the vast majority of awards at 20 percent or $243 montly.

2) Almost a third of the 700,000 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War suffer from a profound physiological disorder called Gulf War Illness (formerly Gulf War Syndrome). For almost 20 years, the DoD and VA insisted that psychological stress alone was the cause of the fatigue, mood disorders, cognition and memory problems, and disorders of every physical system as well as birth defects of veterans' children. To date, some 11,000 veterans have died from the illness, and most survivors continue to suffer chronic symptoms. In 2008, the Gulf War Research Advisory Committee (RAC) reported what veterans have known too well—that wartime toxins, not stress, caused profound physical illness in almost 300,000 veterans of Desert Storm.

RAC identified in particular a class of neurotoxins found in experimental anti-nerve gas pills that troops were forced to take upon threat of court martial, pesticides and sarin gas, which plumed for hundreds of miles when Iraq munition storage facilities known to contain nerve gas were exploded. RAC did not rule out vaccines or depleted uranium, pioneered during the Gulf War for its ability to penetrate most anything. Yet the RAC report's recommendations for immediate interventions and programs have not been followed, but rather remain the subject of further study by the Institute of Medicine.

3) Veterans of ongoing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered a variety of physical traumas beyond the widespread maiming and loss of limbs. Last year, the DoD warned that as many as 20 percent of veterans (360,000) may have suffered traumatic brain injury from IED blasts. Blast injuries generally do not result in skull fractures or loss of consciousness, yet the Institute of Medicine has reported that these traumatic brain injuries may cause diffuse brain bleeding and result in PTSD and problems with mood, concentration, memory, pain, balance, hearing and vision.

In addition, veterans have suffered multiple toxic exposures, including contaminated water, and dioxin and other carcinogenic compounds from the widespread use of burn pits instead of incinerators in Iraq and Afghanistan. Everything from refrigerators to trucks to body parts has been reported burning in the vast pits, which spew black smoke for miles and cause the black phlegm known as “Iraq crud.” Several class action suits have been filed against contractors like KBR on behalf of veterans sickened by toxic exposure.

4) On any given night, more than 200,000 veterans are homeless, and 1.5 million veterans are considered at risk for homelessness. Because of lack of work, support networks and substandard housing, veterans without homes have served in every war with surviving populations--World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, the 1991 Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Vietnam veterans have long comprised the largest portion of the homeless veteran population, but veterans of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become homeless much sooner than veterans of the Vietnam War did. PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) can cause severe psychiatric symptoms from mood disorders to depression, aggressive and dangerous behaviors, substance abuse and alcoholism. In addition to psychiatric, neurological and physical injury, multiple deployments, the high cost of housing, reduced job opportunities, and low wages endanger family stability, employability and maintaining a steady residence.

5) The population of homeless women has skyrocketed from 5 to 20 percent over the last decade as more women are deployed into battle. Women veterans are two to four times more likely than non-veteran women to be homeless. Approximately 40 percent of homeless female veterans of today's wars report being sexually assaulted by male soldiers while in service, with sexual abuse being a major risk factor for homeless according to the VA Homeless Programs director. Fifty-six percent of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite being only 12.8 percent and 15.4 percent of the population, respectively.

6) Over a half million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are patients in the VA system. Thousands more wait as much as a year for VA treatment for serious ailments including traumatic brain injury. Forty-eight percent (243,685) are mental health patients and 28 percent (143,530) are being treated for PTSD. A recent internal VA memo revealed systematic gaming of the VA application process, whereby bureaucrats at facilities seek to improve access data by denying treatment.

7) Every day, five U.S. soldiers attempt suicide, a 500 percent increase since 2001. Every day 18 U.S. veterans attempt suicide, more than four times the national average. Of the 30,000 suicides each year in the U.S., 20 percent are committed by veterans, though veterans make up only 7.6 percent of the population. Female veteran suicide is rising at a rate higher than male veteran suicides.

8) The number of U.S. service men and women killed in Afghanistan has doubled in the first quarter of 2010, compared to the same quarter last year. In the first two months of 2010, injuries tripled.

9) Estimates of civilian deaths from violence in Iraq alone range from a conservative 105,000 (Iraq Body Count project) to over 1.2 million (UK pollster Opinion Research Business), with estimates by Johns Hopkins at 655,000. More than 125,000 civilians have been injured in Iraq and 4 million displaced, with civilian death and injury in 2010 rising each month. By most estimates, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed or injured since the 2001 invasion; over 200,00 have been internally displaced; and over two million have become refugees, with civilian deaths and injuries rising dramatically in 2010.

10) U.S. veterans live with these horrific realities daily. Many are acutely aware as they suffer, of the suffering they have inflicted on others.

White House rejects criminal charges in CIA destruction of torture videos

White House rejects criminal charges in CIA destruction of torture videos

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The five-year statute of limitations for criminally prosecuting the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials who destroyed videos depicting torture during interrogations expired Monday with no charges being filed. The lapsing of the case followed a nearly three-year-long investigation by a special prosecutor.

Before their destruction, government officials were ordered by courts to preserve all records of so-called “enhanced interrogations.” Both before and after the videos were destroyed, officials lied repeatedly about the recordings’ existence.

Monday’s non-action is the latest by the Obama administration to cover up Bush era war crimes. Previously, Attorney General Eric Holder invoked the “state secrets” privilege to quash a case brought by torture victims against the private contractor hired by the CIA to transport them abroad for torture, and to block a case brought against the National Security Agency for illegal wiretapping.

Holder’s lawyers also successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court order mandating the release of photos, which depict torture and abuse of inmates held at Abu Ghraib and other notorious Bush-era detention facilities. Although Obama pledged to close the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year of his inauguration, it still holds 240 prisoners, most having languished there for years without charges or trials of any sort.

The destroyed video recordings were made in 2002, while the CIA was interrogating and torturing two alleged high-level al Qaeda figures, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, at a secret Thailand prison. In addition to other so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Abu Zubayadah, for example, was water boarded at least 83 times, and deprived of sleep for more than 48 hours.

Aware that human rights abuses were taking place in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks—and in the run up to the illegal invasion of Iraq—the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a Freedom of Information Act case in 2003 to force disclosure of the government’s secret interrogation programs. The trial court issued an order the following year directing the US government to either turn over or preserve all documents that might respond to the lawsuit, which obviously encompassed the video recordings.

Ninety-two video recordings were removed from a safe in Thailand and destroyed over a three-and-a-half hour period on the morning of November 9, 2005 at the direction of Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr., the head of the CIA’s clandestine service.

According to an internal CIA email obtained by the ACLU earlier this year, “Jose raised with [CIA Chief Porter Goss]…and explained that he (Jose) felt it was extremely important to destroy the tapes and that if there was any heat he would take it. (PG [Porter Goss] laughed and said that actually, it would be he, PG, who would take the heat.) PG, however, agreed with the decision.

“As Jose said, the heat from destroying is nothing compared to what it would be if the tapes ever got into the public domain—he said that out of context, they would make us look terrible; it would be ‘devastating’ to us.”

The destruction of the videos followed on the heels of a November 2, 2005 Washington Post report disclosing the CIA interrogation program overseas. Subsequent articles detailed techniques used, and on November 18, ABC News reported for the first time the CIA interrogators used water-boarding—near drowning denounced as torture since the Spanish-American War.

As an additional explanation for the timing of the videos’ destruction, on November 3, 2005, United States District Judge Leonie Brinkema, then presiding over the conspiracy case against alleged 9/11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, asked government lawyers about recordings of interrogations of high level al Qaeda members. On November 14, the government responded that no recordings existed.

The New York Times first reported in December 2007 that the videos had been destroyed. The next month, a special prosecutor, John H. Durham, was appointed by Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey, to investigate potential obstruction of justice offenses. The Obama administration, through Attorney General Holder, took over supervision of Durham’s investigation a year later.

Despite much ballyhoo over the initiation of the investigation, it ended with the following statement, quoted here in its entirety, from Matthew Miller, the director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Public Affairs:

“In January 2008, Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed Assistant United States Attorney John Durham to investigate the destruction by CIA personnel of videotapes of detainee interrogations. Since that time, a team of prosecutors and FBI agents led by Mr. Durham has conducted an exhaustive investigation into the matter. As a result of that investigation, Mr. Durham has concluded that he will not pursue criminal charges for the destruction of the interrogation videotapes.”

The New York Times quotes Leon E. Panetta, Obama’s CIA director, as saying that his agency was “pleased with the decision” not to bring charges against agency officers involved in destroying the tapes.

Jose Rodriguez’ well-connected Washington lawyer, Robert Bennett, said the department made “the right decision because of the facts and the law,” calling Rodriguez “a true patriot who only wanted to protect his people and his country.”

Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU Executive Director, denounced the decision not to prosecute as “stunning,” adding, that “there is ample evidence of a cover up regarding the destruction of the tapes. The Bush administration was instructed by a court of law not to destroy evidence of torture, but that’s exactly what it did.”

Romero continued, “The issue is not just the destruction of the tapes but the acts of torture that they depicted, which evidence—including recent statements by former President Bush—shows were authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration. Water boarding is torture and torture is a crime.”

Chairmen of Obama deficit panel propose cuts in Social Security, Medicare

Chairmen of Obama deficit panel propose cuts in Social Security, Medicare

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The chairmen of the bipartisan commission appointed by President Obama to rein in US deficit spending on Wednesday released a proposal that would include new taxes on consumption and employee health care benefits and cuts to the federal old-age insurance programs, Social Security and Medicare, and to the jobs and pay of government workers. It would at the same time include massive tax cuts for the rich and for corporations.

The plan, worked out behind closed doors by the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton administration chief of staff Erskine Bowles, would go into effect starting in 2012 if it is approved by the 18-member commission and then by the US Congress during its December lame duck session.

The plan is significant less for the details, since it is unlikely to be enacted in the specific form presented, as for its political impact, in raising publicly the demand to cut spending on programs on which tens of millions of elderly people depend, as well as to abolish tax provisions relied on by large numbers of middle-class homeowners.

Public release of the proposal was intentionally timed to occur after the midterm elections so that candidates of both parties could avoid taking a position on what is in fact a bipartisan consensus in favor of making the working class foot the full bill for the crisis of US capitalism.

Whatever its fate, the publication of the Bowles-Simpson plan is the latest demonstration that the American state is a government of, by, and for the rich. With debt as a share of GDP at 62 percent—its highest level since the end of WWII—and on a steady spiral upward toward 100 percent and beyond, Washington’s creditors are demanding it rein in spending. The plan’s $3.8 trillion in expected savings by 2020 are to be achieved almost entirely through further and deeper attacks on the broad mass of the population, even as new giveaways are proposed for the financial and corporate elite.

The plan aims a blow at Social Security, one of the last vestiges of the reforms put in place during the Great Depression, and what was once known as the “third rail” in US politics because, the thinking went, it could not be touched.

Benefits to the majority of retirees would be cut by reducing cost-of-living adjustments currently calibrated to increase with inflation. The proposal would raise the retirement age to 69 by 2075. In a symbolic gesture designed to make these cuts more palatable, the plan proposes increasing the income on which Social Security payroll taxes are levied from the present $88,000 a year to $200,000 per year.

Simpson and Bowles present this assault on Social Security as an act of magnanimity designed to keep it solvent for the next 75 years. In fact, Social Security—a payroll tax imposed on current workers to support retired ones—is likely the only aspect of US government that is functionally solvent, with analysts predicting that the program could continue uninterrupted in its current form for 40 or 50 years, during which time simple measures could be put in place to ensure its longer-term viability.

Under the plan, Medicare would also see deeper cuts along with a bevy of other new measures that would deepen the Obama administration’s attack on health care. The plan further proposes increased patient co-pays for Medicaid (the health insurance program for the poor) and cutting $54 billion in funding for graduate medical education. Finally, it calls for “comprehensive tort reform”—this means making it more difficult for patients to bring medical malpractice lawsuits, a longtime objective of the Republican Party.

The plan also calls for reducing the size of the federal workforce by 10 percent by 2015. This would likely be the single largest workforce reduction in US history, the direct loss of over 200,000 jobs, under conditions in which economists anticipate that the official unemployment rate, currently 9.6 percent, will remain high for years to come.

One of the most provocative elements of the plan is its proposal to cut the highest-end federal income tax rate to 23 percent from its current 35 percent—to the primary benefit of those making above $373,000 per year. This goes far beyond the Bush administration tax cuts for the wealthy, which the lame duck session of Congress is about to discuss extending.

The corporate tax rate would also be sharply reduced, from 35 percent to 26 percent, and the commissioners would make permanent a research and development tax shelter for corporations.

Meanwhile, for lower income groups, income tax rates would be reduced by a much smaller percentage. Those now making under $8,375, the desperately poor, would see a tax rate reduction from 10 percent to 8 percent. Only three income tax brackets would exist: a “high end” rate of 23 percent, a second tier taxed at 14 percent, and the bottom rate of 8 percent.

The income tax cuts—which clearly have nothing to due with eliminating deficits—would be offset by imposing new taxes, including penalizing employee health care benefits as taxable cash income and by more than doubling the current federal tax on gasoline to about 30 cents per gallon and imposing new “user fees” on motorists. In this way the entire federal budget for transportation and highway spending would be offloaded onto the working class.

Obama created the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility last year, appointing 12 members of Congress—six Democrats and six Republicans—as well as six private citizens, including Bowles and Simpson. For its recommendations to be approved, 14 of the 18 panel members must support them.

Most commissioners, including the Republican members, have said that there are aspects of the Bowles-Simpson plan they could support, and others that they would oppose. The most likely scenario is that the proposed cuts will become part of a larger discussion in ruling circles over how far any attack on Social Security, Medicare and social spending should go.

The Bowles-Simpson plan is to be followed in short order by another bipartisan deficit-cutting proposal that reportedly goes even further in its recommendations. This commission, sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, is headed by former Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico and former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin.

White House spokesman Bill Burton released a statement withholding comment on the proposals issued by Obama’s own appointees. “The president will wait until the bipartisan fiscal commission finishes its work before commenting,” Burton said. “He respects the challenging task that the co-chairs and the commissioners are undertaking and wants to give them space to work on it.”

Bank of America Is in Deep Trouble and There May Be Financial Disaster on the Horizon

Bank of America Is in Deep Trouble, and There May Be Financial Disaster on the Horizon

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Will Bank of America be the first Wall Street giant to once again point a gun to its own head, telling us it'll crash and burn and take down the financial system if we don’t pony up for another massive bailout?

When former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson was handing out trillions to Wall Street, BofA collected $45 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to stabilize its balance sheet. It was spun as a success story -- a rebuke of those who urged the banks be put into receivership -- when the behemoth “paid back” the cash last December. But the bank’s stock price has fallen by more than 40 percent since mid-April, and the value of its outstanding stock is currently at around half of what it should be based on its “book value” -- what the company says its holdings are worth.

“The problem for anyone trying to analyze Bank of America’s $2.3 trillion balance sheet,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Weil, “is that it’s largely impenetrable.” Nobody really knows the true values of the assets these companies are holding, which has been the case ever since the collapse. But according to Weil, some of BofA’s financial statements “are so delusional that they invite laughter.”

Weil points to the firm’s accounting of its purchase of Countrywide Financial -- the criminal enterprise at the center of the sub-prime securitization market. Bank of America, Weil notes, hasn’t written off Countrywide’s entire value. “In its latest quarterly report with the SEC,” he wrote, “Bank of America said it had determined the asset wasn’t impaired. It might as well be telling the public not to believe any of the numbers on its financial statements.”

With investors valuing BofA at half the worth that the bank claims, it’s one titan of Wall Street that may be on the brink of collapse. But it’s not alone. “Everybody was doing this, this is not just something that Countrywide and Bank of America were doing," legendary investor Jim Rogers told CNBC. As a result, the banks’ balance sheets are "full of rotten stuff" that “is going to be a huge mess for a long time to come.”

And that “rotten stuff” will continue to be a drag on the brick-and-mortar economy until the mess gets cleaned up. Which, in turn, is a powerful argument for a second dip into the public trough.

When the financial crisis hit, those of us who view the free market as more than a hollow slogan urged the government to take over the ailing giants of Wall Street, wipe out their investors, send their parasitic management teams to the unemployment line and gradually unwind the huge pile of “toxic” assets that they’d amassed before selling them back, leaner and meaner, to the private sector.

It worked in the past -- it was Ronald Reagan’s response to the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s. But that was then, and today Reaganite policies are deemed to be “creeping socialism” -- thoroughly unacceptable. We were told the banks were too big to fail, and Bush saw eye-to-eye with Republicans and Blue Dogs in Congress and bailed the banks out without exacting a penalty in exchange for the taxpayers' largesse. They socialized the risk, but the financial industry went right back to its old tricks, paying its execs fat bonuses and playing fast and loose with its accounting.

Much of that toxic paper remains on their books -- somewhere. The assets are still impossible to price and now several Wall Street titans appear to be approaching a tipping point, poised to once again to extort a mountain of cash from our Treasury by claiming to be too big -- and interconnected -- to crash and burn as the principles of the free market would otherwise dictate.

But there’s a difference between then and now. At the time, most of us saw the crash as a result of hubris and greed run amok in an under-regulated financial sector. Now, we know the financial crisis was the result of unchecked criminality -- that fraud was perpetrated, in the words of University of Missouri scholar (and veteran regulator) William Black, “at every step in the home finance food chain.” As Black and economist L. Randall Wray wrote recently:

The appraisers were paid to overvalue real estate; mortgage brokers were paid to induce borrowers to accept loan terms they could not possibly afford; loan applications overstated the borrowers' incomes; speculators lied when they claimed that six different homes were their principal dwelling; mortgage securitizers made false [representations] and warranties about the quality of the packaged loans; credit ratings agencies were overpaid to overrate the securities sold on to investors; and investment banks stuffed collateralized debt obligations with toxic securities that were handpicked by hedge fund managers to ensure they would self destruct.

That homeowners would default on the nonprime mortgages was a foregone conclusion throughout the industry -- indeed, it was the desired outcome. This was something the lending side knew, but which few on the borrowing side could have realized.

And since the crash, they’ve committed widespread foreclosure fraud, dutifully whitewashed by the corporate media as nothing more than some “paperwork” problems resulting from a handful of “errors.”

It is anything but. As Yves Smith, author of Econned: How Unenlightened Self-Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism, wrote in the New York Times, “The major banks and their agents have for years taken shortcuts with their mortgage securitization documents — and not due to a momentary lack of attention, but as part of a systematic approach to save money and increase profits.”

Increasingly, homeowners being foreclosed on are correctly demanding that servicers prove that the trust that is trying to foreclose actually has the right to do so. Problems with the mishandling of the loans have been compounded by the Mortgage Electronic Registration System, an electronic lien-registry service that was set up by the banks. While a standardized, centralized database was a good idea in theory, MERS has been widely accused of sloppy practices and is increasingly facing legal challenges.

Judges are beginning to demand that the banks show their work -- prove they have the right to foreclose -- and in many instances they can’t, having sliced and diced those mortgages up into a thousand securities without bothering to verify the paperwork as most states require by law. This leaves what Smith calls a “cloud of uncertainty” hanging over trillions in mortgage-backed securities -- the largest class of assets in the world -- and preventing a real recovery of the housing market. In turn, that is holding back the economy at large; according to the International Monetary Fund, it’s the drag of the housing mess that’s causing the high and sustained levels of unemployment we see today.

Big financial firms have also been cooking their books in order to obscure how shaky their balance sheets really are because honest accounting would likely bring an end to those big bonuses that drive “the Street.” Yet a day of reckoning may be fast approaching.

If the worst-case scenario should come to pass, with the banks hit by thousands of lawsuits, unable to foreclose on properties in default and with investors running for the hills, expect to hear calls for TARP II. It’d be a very heavy political lift, but given Congress’s fealty to Wall Street it could plausibly be passed.

There are alternatives. As in 2008, the federal government could put failing financial institutions into receivership. But some experts are saying that if we want to get off the roller coaster of an economy moving from one financial bubble to the next, a bolder approach is necessary: permanent nationalization of banks that can’t survive without public dollars.

“Inevitably, American taxpayers are going to pick up much of the tab for the banks' failures,” wrote Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz last year. “The question facing us is, to what extent do we participate in the upside return?” Stiglitz argued that the government should take “over those banks that cannot assemble enough capital through private sources to survive without government assistance.”

To be sure, shareholders and bondholders will lose out, but their gains under the current regime come at the expense of taxpayers. In the good years, they were rewarded for their risk-taking. Ownership cannot be a one-sided bet.

Of course, most of the employees will remain, and even much of the management. What then is the difference? The difference is that now, the incentives of the banks can be aligned better with those of the country. And it is in the national interest that prudent lending be restarted.

Leo Panitch, a professor of comparative political economy at Canada’s York University, wrote that "the prospect of turning banking into a public utility might be seen as laying the groundwork for the democratization of the economy.”

Ellen Brown, author of Web of Debt, points to the success of the nation’s only government-owned bank, the Bank of North Dakota. “Last year,” she wrote, “North Dakota had the largest budget surplus it had ever had…and it was the only state that was actually adding jobs when others were losing them.”

North Dakota has an abundance of natural resources, including oil, but as Brown notes, other states that enjoy similar riches were deep in the red. “The sole truly distinguishing feature of North Dakota seems to be that it has managed to avoid the Wall Street credit freeze by owning and operating its own bank.” She adds that the bank serves the community, making “low-interest loans to students, farmers and businesses; underwrit[ing] municipal bonds; and serv[ing] as the state’s 'Mini Fed,' providing liquidity and clearing checks for more than 100 banks around the state.”

Several states have considered proposals to emulate North Dakota, but such a bold move would obviously be all but impossible in Washington. But it shouldn’t be off the table. Banks provide an “intermediary good” to the economy, creating no real value. But Big Finance’s speculation economy has caused great and real pain for the rest of us. As Joe Stiglitz put it, there’s no reason in the world the incentives of the banks shouldn’t be better aligned with the interests of the country and its citizens.

15 Reasons Why Barack Obama’s Debt Commission Is An Exercise In Futility

15 Reasons Why Barack Obama’s Debt Commission Is An Exercise In Futility – The U.S. Government Will Never Have A Balanced Budget Ever Again

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In a surprise move, the co-chairs of Barack Obama's national debt commission released their preliminary proposals to the media on Wednesday. The proposals are actually quite modest - they recommend that nothing be implemented until 2012 because of the weak economy, and their plan would not balance the federal budget until 2037 - but almost as soon as it was released Democrats and Republicans both started screaming bloody murder about how they would not support it. The truth is that virtually none of our politicians are willing to make the hard choices that would be necessary to get the national debt under control. Today, the U.S. national debt is rapidly approaching 14 trillion dollars and it is growing at an exponential rate. It is the single largest debt in the history of the world, and it has increased in size for 53 years in a row. It would be very difficult to understate the true horror of the debt that the U.S. federal government has accumulated. So what is the solution? As you will see below, there isn't one. In fact, it will be an absolute miracle if our leaders are able to even slow down the rate at which the debt is growing in the years ahead.

The deficit reduction plan put forward by Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, and Alan Simpson, a former Republican Senator from Wyoming does not even have support from the rest of Barack Obama's national debt commission. There is no way that either most Democrats or most Republicans in Congress will ever accept it. But at least the Bowles-Simpson plan is making headlines around the world and has brought the national debt back to the center of the political debate in this country.

In some ways, the Bowles-Simpson plan is a complete and total fantasy. For example, it assumes that the U.S. economy is going to fully recover and will experience solid growth for many years to come. That simply is not going to happen. The prosperity of the last couple of decades has been fueled by the biggest debt bubble in the history of the world, and there is no way that is going to continue. At some point the U.S. economy is going to fall apart like a house of cards.

But even if the U.S. economy could magically meet the projections contained in the Bowles-Simpson plan, it still contains a whole host of "poison pills" which make it completely and totally unacceptable to both political parties....

*The plan calls for deep cuts to U.S. military spending. The Republicans will never go for that.

*The plan reduces Social Security benefits to most retirees in future decades. The Democrats will never go for that.

*The plan raises the Social Security payroll tax cap to $190,000. The Republicans will never go for that.

*The plan envisions a very slow rise in the retirement age from 67 to 68 by 2050 and finally to 69 by 2075. The Democrats will never go for that.

*The plan includes a "less generous" annual cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits. Considering the fact that Social Security benefits are already not going to see an increase this upcoming year, this proposal is likely to upset a large number of seniors.

*The plan calls for the federal tax on gasoline to approximately double by 2015. The Republicans would never go for that, and if that was ever implemented it would have a very serious negative impact on the economy.

*The plan would eliminate the deductibility of mortgage interest payments. Millions upon millions of homeowners would be absolutely furious.

*The plan would tax health benefits provided by employers. That would make millions of people very angry.

*The plan also calls for huge cuts in farm subsidies. There are a lot less farmers than there used to be, but that would still be extremely unpopular.

But the truth is that hard choices need to be made. The national debt is spinning wildly out of control. The U.S. government is essentially bankrupt.

Unfortunately, the majority of the federal budget is made up of entitlement programs. Entitlement programs are not subject to budget freezes or budget cuts - unless Congress changes the underlying laws. But any change to major entitlement programs would potentially upset millions of voters.

Not that there are not other areas that could be cut. Today, the average federal worker earns far more than the average private sector worker. In fact, wages for federal workers have been escalating at a frightening pace. In 2005, 7420 federal employees were making $150,000 or more per year. Today, 82,034 federal employees are making $150,000 or more per year. That is more than a tenfold increase in just five years.

But any major cuts to federal spending are going to really upset a lot of voters, and our politicians really, really like to get re-elected. The kinds of cuts that are really needed will never get through the Democrats in Congress and the Republicans in Congress and signed into law by Barack Obama. There are just way too many things that both major political parties consider to be "untouchable".

Meanwhile, the U.S. government debt continues to explode. The debt is already so big, interest on that debt is scheduled to escalate so dramatically, and we have made so many unsustainable promises regarding Social Security and Medicare that it is basically impossible to balance the federal budget at this point. If serious attempts were actually made to balance the budget in 2011, it would likely create a financial panic, and suddenly sucking over a trillion dollars in federal spending out of the system would crash the economy.

The following are 15 facts that reveal just how obscene the U.S. national debt has become, and why it is now basically impossible to balance the budget of the U.S. government at this point....

#1 On average, the U.S. government accumulates about 4 billion dollars more debt each day.

#2 In just the last 30 years the U.S. government has accumulated 12 trillion dollars more debt.

#3 According to a U.S. Treasury Department report to Congress, the U.S. national debt will climb to an estimated $19.6 trillion by 2015.

#4 The U.S. government has to borrow 41 cents of every dollar that it currently spends.

#5 If the U.S. government was forced to use GAAP accounting principles (like all publicly-traded corporations must), the annual U.S. government budget deficit would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 trillion to $5 trillion.

#6 The Congressional Budget Office projects that the health care bill recently passed by Congress will add an additional trillion dollars to our debt over the next ten years.

#7 Approximately 57 percent of Barack Obama's 3.8 trillion dollar budget for 2011 consists of direct payments to individual Americans or is money that is spent on their behalf. Any attempt to reduce those payments will make a lot of people very angry.

#8 According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2010 the Social Security system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes. That was not supposed to happen until at least 2016.

#9 Back in 1950, each retiree's Social Security benefit was paid for by approximately 16 workers. Today, each retiree's Social Security benefit is paid for by approximately 3.3 workers. By 2025 it is projected that there will be approximately two workers for each retiree.

#10 According to an official U.S. government report, rapidly growing interest costs on the U.S. national debt together with spending on major entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare will absorb approximately 92 cents of every dollar of federal revenue by the year 2019. That is before a single penny is spent on anything else.

#11 Right now, interest on the U.S. national debt and spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare falls somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of GDP each year. By 2080, they are projected to eat up approximately 50 percent of GDP.

#12 The present value of projected scheduled benefits exceeds earmarked revenues for entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare by about 46 trillion dollars over the next 75 years.

#13 After analyzing Congressional Budget Office data, Boston University economics professor Laurence J. Kotlikoff concluded that the U.S. government is facing a "fiscal gap" of $202 trillion dollars.

#14 At our current pace, the Congressional Budget Office is projecting that U.S. government public debt will hit 716 percent of GDP by the year 2080.

#15 Sometimes we forget just how big a trillion dollars is. If right this moment you went out and started spending one dollar every single second, it would take you more than 31,000 years to spend one trillion dollars. The U.S. national debt increased by more than a trillion dollars last year, it will increase by more than a trillion dollars this year and it is being projected to increase by more than a trillion dollars the following year.

We are literally drowning in debt. We have been living beyond our means for decades, and most Americans do not understand that eventually that is really, really going to start catching up with us.

Already, the United States is fading as an economic power. According to the Conference Board, China will surpass the United States and will become the biggest economy in the world by the year 2012.

That is just two years away.

So how did we get into such a mess? Well, it all goes back to the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. The Federal Reserve was created to enslave the United States government in an endlessly growing spiral of debt from which it would never be able to escape.

That is exactly what has happened. Our money is actually debt-based. That is why they are called "Federal Reserve notes". When the Federal Reserve creates more money for the U.S. government to borrow, it does not also create money for the interest to be paid on that debt. Eventually the U.S. government is forced to borrow even more money just to keep up with the game.

Today, if you gathered up all of the physical currency from every bank, every business and every individual in the United States, you would not even put much of a dent in the national debt. That is how bad things have gotten.

A lot of people got elected to Congress by promising to balance the federal budget and by promising to start reducing the U.S. national debt. But those ships have sailed. The U.S. government will always have a national debt under the Federal Reserve system, and things have gotten so bad financially for our government that it is now virtually impossible to even balance the budget for a single year.

In the 90s, the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress briefly balanced the federal budget by "borrowing" massive amounts of money from the Social Security surplus. Using GAAP accounting, the budget was not even close to balanced at that point, but many point to that time as a moment when the U.S. government was at least somewhat fiscally responsible.

Well, the Social Security surplus is gone forever. Now we have a Social Security deficit which is only going to explode in size in future years.

In addition, the financial condition of the U.S. government has deteriorated enormously over the past 10 years, and things only look worse the further you look into the future.

Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is falling to pieces all around us. We are experiencing our longest bout of serious long-term unemployment since the Great Depression, 42 million Americans are on food stamps and the United States is being deindustrialized at a pace that is mind blowing.

As America continues to get poorer, the U.S. government is going to really struggle to raise revenue. But interest payments and financial obligations are projected to escalate wildly. At this point it is really hard to envision a scenario that does not lead to the eventual financial collapse of the U.S. government.

Muslim Americans Foil Terror Threats

Muslim Americans Foil Terror Threats

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New York - A new report on violent extremists in the United States finds that terrorism plots by non-Muslims greatly outnumber those attempted by Muslims, and that Muslim-American communities helped foil close to a third of al Qaeda-related terror plots threatening the country since Sep. 11, 2001.

The report comes from the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a not-for-profit organisation advocating for the civil rights of American Muslims. It consists largely of MPAC's "Post-9/11 Terrorism Incident Database".

Reportedly the first of its kind by a Muslim-American organisation, the database tracks plots by Muslim and non- Muslim violent extremists against the United States.

The author of the report, Alejandro J. Beutel, MPAC researcher and government liaison, told IPS, "This report demonstrates the validity of two of our guiding principles."

"The first of these is that the choice between our rights and liberties and national security is a false choice; we can have both," he said. "The second is that law enforcement will be much more successful if it treats the American Muslim community as partners, not as adversaries."

The report found "little evidence of a rise in ideological extremism". It concluded that those Muslims involved in 13 out of the 15 plots since Barack Obama's election as president were engaged in ideological extremism before the vote. Of the 15, 10 were engaged in ideological extremism since 2007.

It declares that al Qaeda does not appear to be making new ideological gains into the American Muslim community. Instead, the data is pointing toward greater numbers of longstanding ideological extremists turning to violence.

The report asserts that Muslim communities have helped foil almost one out of every three al Qaeda-related terror plots threatening the U.S. since 9/11/01. It says this highlights the importance of law enforcement partnering with citizens through community-oriented policing.

The report recommended that the government expand community- oriented policing initiatives; increase support for research on combating biased policing; expand investments in better human capital acquisitions; highlight citizen contributions to national security; and reform the fusion center process to increase coordination among law enforcement communities.

The report examined the challenges posed by violent extremists in two ways. The first was by examining the quantitative and qualitative nature of terrorism trials. Second, it looked at the number of actual and attempted attacks within the United States, including a comparative analysis of incidents involving Muslim and non-Muslim perpetrators.

The report appears amidst a resurgence of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. Some of this has been triggered by the proposed building of an Islamic community centre two blocks from "Ground Zero", the site where the World Trade Centre once stood.

A number of individual and community groups, including some families of 9/11 victims, have blasted the project as "a celebration of Islam". Supporters see it as a vehicle for bringing diverse faiths closer together.

In communities throughout the U.S., there have been "copycat" campaigns to thwart mosque planning or construction.

The recent midterm elections here have also provided some candidates with platforms from which to verbally attack Muslims, including Muslim-Americans. These candidates have largely been Republicans and members of the Tea Party, on the extreme right wing of the political spectrum. While a few Democrats attempted to debunk the "all Muslims are terrorists" mantra, most remained silent.

Several recent unsuccessful terrorist plots have also contributed to heightened public anxiety – and the search for scapegoats. The so-called Times Square bomber was a home-grown terrorist who admitted attending training school in Pakistan; the "underwear bomber" who attempted to bring a passenger plane down over Detriot last Christmas day was a Nigerian believed to have been trained in Yemen. Both men are Muslims.

And the successful interception of two parcel bombs shipped as cargo from Yemen further raised the public's level of apprehension that another terrorist attack was in the making.

The backlash takes a number of forms. For example, ordinary Muslims are experiencing renewed discrimination in the workplace. The New York Times reports that Muslim workers filed a record 803 such claims in the year ended Sep. 30, 2009. That was up 20 percent from the previous year and up nearly 60 percent from 2005, according to federal data.

The Times says the number of complaints filed since then will not be announced until January, "but Islamic groups say they have received a surge in complaints recently, suggesting that 2010's figure will set another record."

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed several lawsuits connected with anti-Muslim discrimination. It sued JBS Swift, a meatpacking company, on behalf of 160 Somali immigrants; it filed a case against Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothing retailer, for refusing to hire a Muslim who wore a head scarf; and it sued a Four Points by Sheraton hotel in Phoenix, charging that an Iraqi immigrant was called a "camel jockey".

Finally, MPAC and similar groups are angry and disappointed at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which has acknowledged placing "agent provocateurs" inside mosques in attempts to root out terrorists, terrorist plots, and terrorist cells.

"We feel betrayed," says Alejandro Beutel.

Key Findings

  • There were 72 total plots by domestic non-Muslim perpetrators against the United States since 9/11/01. In comparison, there have been 37 total plots by domestic and international Muslim perpetrators since that date.
  • There are at least five incidents of non-Muslim domestic extremists possessing or attempting to possess biological, chemical or radiological weapons. One of those occurred since Obama's election.
  • No such cases involving Muslim violent extremists have been reported since 9/11/01. Evidence clearly indicates a general rise in violent extremism across ideologies.
  • The report says that, using Obama's election as a base measurement, since Nov. 4, 2008 there have been 39 terror plots by non- Muslim domestic extremists.
  • By comparison, there have been 15 plots by Muslim domestic and international extremists. Each of these cases constitutes close to half of all violent extremism cases since 9/11/01.

Fed bailout to kill jobs, spur poverty & inflation

Fed bailout to kill jobs, spur poverty & inflation

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A recent decision by the Federal Reserve to provide the bankers another $600 billion in bailout funds demonstrates the government’s continuing failure, even under Democratic Party leadership, to provide any relief for working people and the oppressed.

This new handout has been condemned by some of the leading African, Asian and Latin American governments. In South Africa, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said, “Developing countries, including South Africa, will bear the brunt of the U.S. decision to open its flood gates without due consideration of the consequences for other nations.” (French Press Agency, Nov. 5)

Gordhan pointed out, “Most of the $600 billion that the Federal Reserve will pump into the U.S. economy will find its way into the financial markets of emerging market countries, where these dollar flows will have the effect of strengthening emerging market currencies.”

Artificially strengthening currencies in the developing states will decrease their exports and exacerbate their existing crises, already worsened by the world economic downturn.

Brazil, China and other states within the G-20 have complained about the move, which is taking place just ahead of a meeting of the body in Seoul, south Korea. In Seoul there was to have been a joint agreement on how to address the global financial crisis. The unilateral action by the U.S. financial sector illustrates ruling-class desperation to maintain the facade of an economic recovery amid continuing high unemployment and increasing poverty rates.

Wall Street met the $600 billion injection into the banking system with jubilation, though the Nov. 6 Financial Times noted in a headline, “Wall Street trades at its highest since Lehman’s fall, but can the rally last?”

In addition to the massive supply of liquidity to the U.S. banking system, the Obama administration’s treasury secretary announced other proposals to limit current account surpluses and deficits for all states involved in the G-20.

Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai of China responded: “We believe a discussion about a current account target misses the whole point. If you look at the global economy, there are many issues that merit more attention — for example, the question of quantitative easing.” (Financial Times, Nov. 5) “Quantitative easing” translates into a central bank allowing the government to increase the money supply — i.e., print more money — which usually inflates the currency.

Imperialist rivals of the U.S. also objected to this new round of U.S. financial policies coming ahead of the G-20 summit. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said: “With all due respect, U.S. policy is clueless. It’s not that the Americans haven’t pumped enough liquidity into the market. Now to say let’s pump more into the market is not going to solve their problems.” (Financial Times, Nov. 5)

Jobless recovery spells disaster for workers

Although the stock market has made significant gains in recent weeks and profits are up among the leading capitalist corporations and banks, this alleged economic recovery has led to few jobs. The October monthly jobless report claimed that more than 150,000 new positions were created, but there are still officially 15 million people out of work in the United States.

The 9.6 percent unemployment rate omits the 15 million to 20 million other workers who are “discouraged” or are working part-time because there is no full-time work available.

The New York Times wrote: “The jobless rate has not fallen substantially this year, largely because employers have barely added enough workers to absorb the people just entering the labor force. And even if the economy suddenly expands and starts adding 208,000 jobs a month — as it did in its best year this decade — it would still take 12 years to close the gap between the growing number of American workers and the total available jobs, according to the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project.” (Nov. 5)

The injection of $600 billion will lead to no significant job creation. Since 2007, central banks throughout the capitalist world have given more than $10 trillion to the banks and multinational corporations. This has only resulted in the loss of tens of millions of jobs in the U.S. and Europe and the further impoverishment of workers and oppressed all over the globe.

This failed policy of bailing out the banks has been most evident in the housing sector, where millions of people have been foreclosed and evicted despite the trillions handed to the financial institutions as workers’ wages decline.

In the U.S. tens of thousands of educators and public workers have been thrown out of work over the last three years as schools, academic programs and sports programs have closed.

The capitalist media in collaboration with the two ruling class parties rigged the midterm vote by avoiding the critical issues facing workers and the oppressed: jobs, income, health care, housing and quality education. The outcome of the elections does not indicate that workers in the U.S. are satisfied with the wars of occupation, high unemployment, underemployment, growing poverty, the loss of pensions and health care, and the increase in state repression.

The election results represent the lack of an effective political organization that genuinely represents the interests of the workers and the oppressed.

A political program that advocates the creation of a WPA-style jobs program becomes even more significant in the coming period because the failure of the ruling-class parties to create employment exposes their incapacity to represent the millions of people who need immediate relief. There can be no real recovery without creating tens of millions of jobs with good wages and benefits.

In addition, there is the pressing need to stabilize the housing sector by imposing an immediate moratorium on foreclosures and evictions.

The Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shut-offs, based in the economically depressed state of Michigan, pointed out in a recent leaflet, “This bailout [of the banks] continues even in the face of massive foreclosure fraud by the largest banks, which forced JPMorgan Chase and GMAC to temporarily suspend foreclosures during October 2010.”

This leaflet continues, “Instead of the government bailing out the banks by paying off overvalued fraudulent loans, the government should allow people to stay in their homes with affordable payments based on the real value of property.”

The Privatization of War: Mercenaries, Private Military and Security Companies (PMSC)

The Privatization of War: Mercenaries, Private Military and Security Companies (PMSC)

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The United Nation Human Rights Council, under the Universal Periodic Review, started on 5 November 2010 in Geneva, reviewing the human rights record of the United States. The following is an edited version of the presentation given by Jose L. Gomez del Prado in Geneva on 3 November 2010 at a parallel meeting at the UN Palais des Nations on that occasion.

Private military and security companies (PMSC) are the modern reincarnation of a long lineage of private providers of physical force: corsairs, privateers and mercenaries. Mercenaries, which had practically disappeared during the XIXth and XXth centuries, reappeared in the 1960’s during the decolonization period operating mainly in Africa and Asia. Under the United Nations a convention was adopted which outlaws and criminalizes their activities. Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions also contains a definition of mercenary.

These non-state entities of the XXIst century operate in extremely blurred situations where the frontiers are difficult to separate. The new security industry of private companies moves large quantities of weapons and military equipment. It provides services for military operations recruiting former militaries as civilians to carry out passive or defensive security.

However, these individuals cannot be considered as civilians, given that they often carry and use weapons, interrogate prisoners, load bombs, drive military trucks and fulfill other essential military functions. Those who are armed can easily switch from a passive/defensive to an active/offensive role and can commit human rights violations and even destabilize governments. They cannot be considered soldiers or supporting militias under international humanitarian law either, since they are not part of the army or in the chain of command, and often belong to a large number of different nationalities.

PMSC personnel cannot usually be considered to be mercenaries for the definition of mercenaries as stipulated in the international conventions dealing with this issue does not generally apply to the personnel of PMSCs which are legally operating in foreign countries under contracts of legally registered companies.

Private military and security companies operate in a legal vacuum: they pose a threat to civilians and to international human rights law. The UN Human Rights Council has entrusted the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries, principally, with the mandate: “To monitor and study the effects of the activities of private companies offering military assistance, consultancy and security services on the international market on the enjoyment of human Rights (…) and to prepare draft international basic principles that encourage respect for human rights on the part of those companies in their activities”.

During the past five years, the Working Group has been studying emerging issues, manifestations and trends regarding private military and security companies. In our reports we have informed the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly about these issues. Of particular importance are the reports of the Working Group to the last session of the Human Rights Council, held in September 2010, on the Mission to the United States of America (20 July to 3 August 2009), Document A/HRC/15/25/Add.3; on the Mission to Afghanistan (4-9 April 2009), Document A/HRC/15/25/Add.2, and the general report of the Working Group containing the Draft of a possible Convention on Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) for consideration and action by the Human Rights Council, Document A/HRC/15/25.

In the course of our research, since 2006, we have collected ample information which indicate the negative impact of the activities of “private contractors”, “private soldiers” or “guns for hire”, whatever denomination we may choose to name the individuals employed by private military and security companies as civilians but in general heavily armed. In the cluster of human rights violations allegedly perpetrated by employees of these companies, which the Working Group has examined one can find: summary executions, acts of torture, cases of arbitrary detention; of trafficking of persons; serious health damages caused by their activities; as well as attempts against the right of self-determination. It also appears that PMSCs, in their search for profit, neglect security and do not provide their employees with their basic rights, and often put their staff in situations of danger and vulnerability.

Summary executions

On 16 September 2007 in Baghdad, employees of the US-based firm Blackwater[1] were involved in a shooting incident in Nisoor Square in which 17 civilians were killed and more than 20 other persons were wounded including women and children. Local eyewitness accounts indicate the use of arms from vehicles and rocket fire from a helicopter belonging to this company.

There are also concerns over the activities and approach of PMSC personnel, their convoys of armored vehicles and their conduct in traffic, in particular their use of lethal force. This particular incident was not the first of its kind, neither the first involving Blackwater.

According to a congressional report on the behaviour of Xe/Blackwater in Iraq, Xe/Blackwater guards were found to have been involved in nearly 200 escalation-of-force incidents that involved the firing of shots since 2005. Despite the terms of the contracts which provided that the company could engage only in defensive use of force, the company reported that in over 80 per cent of the shooting incidents, its forces fired the first shots.

In Najaf in April 2004 and on several other occasions, employees of this company took part in direct hostilities, as well as in May 2007, where another incident involving the same company reportedly occurred involving guards belonging to the company and forces belonging to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior allegedly exchanged gunfire in a sector of Baghdad.

Also in central Baghdad the shooting of employees of the PMSC, Unity Resources Group (URG)[2], protecting a convoy, left two Armenian women, Genevia Antranick and Mary Awanis dead on 9 October 2007 when their car came too close to a protected convoy. The family of Genevia Antranick was offered no compensation and has begun court proceedings against URG in the United States.

This company was also involved in the shooting of 72-year-old Australian Kays Juma. Professor Juma was shot in March 2006 as he approached an intersection being blockaded for a convoy URG was protecting. Professor Juma, a 25-year resident of Baghdad who drove through the city every day, allegedly sped up his vehicle as he approached the guards and did not heed warnings to stop, including hand signals, flares, warning shots into the body of his car and floodlights. The incident occurred at 10am[3].

Torture

Two United States-based corporations, CACI and L-3 Services (formerly Titan Corporation), were involved in the torture of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib. CACI and L-3 Services, contracted by the Government of the United States, were responsible for interrogation and translation services, respectively, at Abu Ghraib prison and other facilities in Iraq.

Seventy two Iraqi citizens who were formerly detained at military prisons in Iraq, have sued L-3 Services, Inc. (“L-3”), a military private contractor which provided civilian translators for United States military forces in Iraq and Adel Nakhla, a former employee of L-3 who served as one of its translators there under the Alien Tort Statute. They allege having been tortured and physically and mentally abused during their detention and that they should be held liable in damages for their actions. The plaintiffs assert 20 causes of action, among which: torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; assault and battery; intentional infliction of emotional distress[4].

Arbitrary detention

A number of reports indicate that private security guards have played central roles in some of the most sensitive activities of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) such as the arbitrary detention and clandestine raids against alleged insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan[5] and the involvement in CIA rendition flights[6] as well as joint covert operations[7]. Employees of PMSC would have been involved in the taking of detainees, from “pick up points” (such as Tuzla, Islamabad or Skopje) transporting them in rendition flights and delivering them to drop off points (such as Cairo, Rabat, Bucharest, Amman or Guantanamo) as well as in the construction, equipping and staffing of CIA’s “black sites”.

Within this context, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in May 2007 against Jeppesen DataPlan Inc. (a subsidiary company of Boeing) on behalf of five persons who were kidnapped by the CIA disappearing in overseas prisons kept by USA secret services. Jeppesen would have participated in the rendition by providing flight planning and logistical support. The five persons were tortured during their arbitrary detention[8].

Health

The 2009 annual report of DynCorp International refers to four lawsuits concerning the spraying of narcotic plant crops along the Colombian border adjacent to Ecuador on behalf of 3 Ecuadorian Providences and 3266 plaintiffs[9].

From 1991, the United States Department of State contracted the private company DynCorp to supply services for this air-spraying program against narcotics in the Andean region. In accordance with the subscribed contract of 30 January 1998, DynCorp provides the essential logistics to the anti-drug Office of activities of Colombia, in conformity with three main objectives: eradication of cultivations of illicit drugs, training of the army and of personnel of the country, and dismantling of illicit drug laboratories and illicit drug-trafficking networks.

An NGO report indicated the consequences of the spraying carried out within the Plan Colombia had on persons living in the frontier region[10]. One third of the 47 women in the study exposed to the spraying showed cells with some genetic damage. The study established the relationship of the air fumigations of the Plan Colombia with damages in the genetic material. The study demonstrates that when the population is subjected to fumigations “the risk of cellular damage can increase and that, once permanent, the cases of cancerous mutations and important embryonic alterations are increased that prompt among other possibilities the rise in abortions in the area.

This example is particularly important given that Plan Colombia has served as the model for the arrangements that the United States would apply later to Iraq and Afghanistan. Plan Colombia provides immunity to the employees of the PMSC contracted (DynCorp) the same as Order 14 of the Coalition Provisional Authority did in Iraq.

Self-determination

The 2004 attempted coup d’état, which was perpetrated in Equatorial Guinea is a clear example of the link between the phenomenon of mercenaries and PMSCs as a means of violating the sovereignty of States. In this particular case, the mercenaries involved were mostly former directors and personnel of Executive Outcomes, a PMSC that had become famous for its operations in Angola and Sierra Leone. The team of mercenaries also included security guards who were still employed by PMSCs as was the case of two employees of the company Meteoric Tactical Systems providing security to diplomats of Western Embassies in Baghdad-among which to the Ambassador of Switzerland. It also included a security guard who had previously worked for the PMSC “Steele Foundation” and had given protection to President Aristide of Haiti and conducted him to the plane who took him to exile[11].

Trafficking in persons

In 2005, 105 Chileans were providing/or undergoing military training in the former army base of Lepaterique in Honduras. The instruction consisted in anti‐guerrilla tactics such as possible ambushes and deactivation of explosives and mortars how to avoid them. The Chileans had entered Honduras as tourists and were illegally in Honduras. They used high‐caliber weapons such as M‐16 rifles or light machine guns. They had been contracted by a subsidiary of Triple Canopy.

They were part of a group, which included also 189 Hondurans recruited and trained in Honduras. Triple Canopy had been awarded a contract by the United States Department of State. The strong contingent left the country by air from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in several groups with a stopover in Iceland. Then reached the Middle East and were smuggled into Iraq[12].

The majority of the Chileans and Hondurans were engaged as security guards at fixed facilities in Iraq. They had been contracted by Your Solutions Honduras SRL, a local agent of Your Solutions Incorporated, registered in Illinois, United States of America, which in turn had been subcontracted by Triple Canopy, based in Chicago, United States of America. Some of the Chileans are presently working in Baghdad providing security to the Embassy of Australia under a contract by Unity Resources Group (URG).

Human rights violations committed by PMSC to their employees

PMSC often put the contracted private guards in situations of danger and vulnerability, such as the ‘private contractors’ of Blackwater, killed in Fallujah in 2004 allegedly due to the lack of the necessary safety means that Blackwater was supposed to provide in order to carry out the mission.

It should not be forgotten that this incident changed dramatically the course of the war and the occupation by the United States in Iraq. It may be considered as the turning point in the occupation of Iraq. This led to an abortive US operation to recapture control of the city and a successful recapture operation in the city in November 2004, called Operation Phantom Fury, which resulted in the death of over 1,350 insurgent fighters. Approximately 95 America troops were killed, and 560 wounded.

The U.S. military first denied that it has use white phosphorus as an anti-personnel weapon in Fallujah, but later retracted that denial, and admitted to using the incendiary in the city as an offensive weapon. Reports following the events of November 2004 have alleged war crimes, and a massacre by U.S. personnel, including indiscriminate violence against civilians and children.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallujah - cite_note-17 This point of view is presented in the 2005 documentary film, “Fallujah, the Hidden Massacre”. In 2010, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, a leading medical journal, published a study, which shows that the rates of cancer, infant mortality and leukemia exceed those reported in Hiroshima and Nagasaki[13].

The over 300 000 classified military documents made public by Wikileaks show that the “Use of Contractors Added to War’s Chaos in Iraq”, as has been widely reported by the international media recently.

The United States has relied and continues to rely heavily on private military and security contractors in conducting its military operations. The United States used private security contractors to conduct narcotics intervention operations in Colombia in the 1990s and recently signed a supplemental agreement that authorizes it to deploy troops and contractors in seven Colombian military bases. During the conflict in the Balkans, the United States used a private security contractor to train Croat troops to conduct operations against Serbian troops. Nowadays, it is in the context of its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular that the State is massively contracting out security functions to private firms.

In 2009, the Department of Defense employed 218,000 private contractors (all types) while there were 195,000 uniformed personnel. According to the figures, about 8 per cent of these contractors are armed security contractors, i.e. about 20,000 armed guards. If one includes other theatres of operations, the figure rises to 242,657, with 54,387 United States citizens, 94,260 third country nationals and 94,010 host-country nationals.

The State Department relies on about 2,000 private security contractors to provide United States personnel and facilities with personal protective and guard services in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Pakistan, and aviation services in Iraq. The contracts for protective services were awarded in 2005 to three PMSCs, namely, Triple Canopy, DynCorp International and the U.S. Training Center, part of the Xe (then Blackwater) group of companies. These three companies still hold the State Department protective services contracts today.

Lack of transparency

The information accessible to the public on the scope and type of contracts between the Government of the United States and PMSCs is scarce and opaque. The lack of transparency is particularly significant when companies subcontract to others. Often, the contracts with PMSCs are not disclosed to the public despite extensive freedom of information rules in the United States, either because they contain confidential commercial information or on the argument that non-disclosure is in the interest of national defense or foreign policy. The situation is particularly opaque when United States intelligence agencies contract PMSCs.

Lack of accountability

Despite the fact of their involvement in grave human rights violations, not a single PMSC or employee of these companies has been sanctioned.

In the course of litigation, several recurring legal arguments have been used in the defense of PMSCs and their personnel, including the Government contractor defense, the political question doctrine and derivative immunity arguments. PMSCs are using the Government contractor defense to argue that they were operating under the exclusive control of the Government of the United States when the alleged acts were committed and therefore cannot be held liable for their actions.

It looks as if when the acts are committed by agents of the government they are considered human rights violations but when these same acts are perpetrated by PMSC it is “business as usual”.

The human rights violation perpetrated by private military and security companies are indications of the threat posed to the foundations of democracy itself by the privatization of inherently public functions such as the monopoly of the legitimate use of force. In this connection I cannot help but to refer to the final speech of President Eisenhower.

In 1961, President Eisenhower warned the American public opinion against the growing danger of a military industrial complex stating: “(…) we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together”.

Fifty years later, on 8 September 2001, Donald Rumsfeld in his speech in the Department of Defence warned the militaries of the Pentagon against “an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America (…) Let's make no mistake: The modernization of the Department of Defense is (…) a matter of life and death, ultimately, every American's. (…) The adversary. (…) It's the Pentagon bureaucracy. (…)That's why we're here today challenging us all to wage an all-out campaign to shift Pentagon's resources from bureaucracy to the battlefield, from tail to the tooth. We know the adversary. We know the threat. And with the same firmness of purpose that any effort against a determined adversary demands, we must get at it and stay at it. Some might ask, how in the world could the Secretary of Defense attack the Pentagon in front of its people? To them I reply, I have no desire to attack the Pentagon; I want to liberate it. We need to save it from itself."

Rumsfeld should have said the shift from the Pentagon’s resources from bureaucracy to the private sector. Indeed, that shift had been accelerated by the Bush Administration: the number of persons employed by contract which had been outsourced (privatized) by the Pentagon was already four times more than at the Department of Defense.

It is not anymore a military industrial complex but as Noam Chomsky has indicated "it's just the industrial system operating under one or another pretext”.

The articles of the Washington Post “Top Secret America: A hidden world, growing beyond control”, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin (19 July 2010) show the extent that “The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work”.

The investigation's findings include that some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States; and that an estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances. A number of private military and security companies are among the security and intelligence agencies mentioned in the report of the Washington Post.

The Working Group received information from several sources that up to 70 per cent of the budget of United States intelligence is spent on contractors. These contracts are classified and very little information is available to the public on the nature of the activities carried out by these contractors.

The privatization of war has created a structural dynamic, which responds to a commercial logic of the industry.

A short look at the careers of the current managers of BAE Systems, as well as on their address-books, confirms we are not any longer dealing with a normal corporation, but with a cartel uniting high tech weaponry (BAE Systems, United Defence Industries, Lockheed Martin), with speculative financiers (Lazard Frères, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank), together with raw material cartels (British Petroleum, Shell Oil) with on the ground, private military and security companies[14].

The majority of the private military and security companies has been created or are managed by former militaries or ex-policemen for whom it is big business. Just to give an example MPRI (Military Professional Resources Incorporation) was created by four former generals of the United States Army when they were due for retirement[15]. The same is true for Blackwater and its affiliate companies or subsidiaries, which employ former directors of the C.I.A.[16]. Social Scientists refer to this phenomenon as the Rotating Door Syndrome.

The use of security contractors is expected to grow as American forces shrink. A July report by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, a panel established by Congress, estimated that the State Department alone would need more than double the number of contractors it had protecting the American Embassy and consulates in Iraq.

“Without contractors: (1) the military engagement would have had to be smaller--a strategically problematic alternative; (2) the United States would have had to deploy its finite number of active personnel for even longer tours of duty -a politically dicey and short-sighted option; (3) the United States would have had to consider a civilian draft or boost retention and recruitment by raising military pay significantly--two politically untenable options; or (4) the need for greater commitments from other nations would have arisen and with it, the United States would have had to make more concessions to build and sustain a truly multinational effort. Thus, the tangible differences in the type of war waged, the effect on military personnel, and the need for coalition partners are greatly magnified when the government has the option to supplement its troops with contractors”[17].

The military cannot do without them. There are more contractors over all than actual members of the military serving in the worsening war in Afghanistan.

CONCLUSIONS OF THE SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE impact of Private Security Contracting on U.S. Goals in Afghanistan[18]

Conclusion I: The proliferation of private security personnel in Afghanistan is inconsistent with the counterinsurgency strategy. In May 2010 the U.S. Central Command's Armed Contractor Oversight Directorate reported that there were more than 26,000 private security contractor personnel operating in Afghanistan. Many of those private security personnel are associated with armed groups that operate outside government control.

Conclusion 2: Afghan warlords and strongmen operating as force providers to private security contractors have acted against U.S. and Afghan government interests. Warlords and strongmen associated with U.S.-funded security contractors have been linked to anti Coalition activities, murder, bribery, and kidnapping. The Committee's examination of the U.S. funded security contract with ArmorGroup at Shindand Airbase in Afghanistan revealed that ArmorGroup relied on a series of warlords to provide armed men to act as security, guards at the Airbase.

Open-ended intergovernmental working group established by the HR Council

Because of their impact in the enjoyment of human rights the Working Group on mercenaries in its 2010 reports to the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly has recommended a legally binding instrument regulating and monitoring their activities at the national and international level.

The motion to create an open ended intergovernmental working group has been the object of lengthy negotiations, in the Human Rights Council, led by South Africa in order to accommodate the concerns of the Western Group, but primarily those of the United States and the United Kingdom and of a lot a pressure exerted in the capitals of African countries supporting the draft resolution. The text of the resolution was weakened in order to pass the resolution by consensus. But even so the position of the Western States has been a “fin de non recevoir”.

The resolution was adopted by a majority of 32 in favour, 12 against and 3 abstentions. Among the supporters of this initiative are four out of the five members of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa) in addition to the African Group, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab Group.

The adoption of this resolution opens an interesting process in the UN Human Rights Council where civil society can participate in the elaboration of an international framework on the regulation, monitoring and oversight of the activities of private military and security companies. The new open ended intergovernmental working group will be the forum for all stakeholders to receive inputs, not only the draft text of a possible convention and the elements elaborated by the UN Working Group on mercenaries but also of other initiatives such as the proposal submitted to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Montreux Document and the international code of conduct being elaborated under the Swiss Initiative.

However, the negative vote of the delegations of the Western Group indicates that the interests of the new staggering security industry – its annual market revenue is estimated to be over USD one hundred billion – have been quite well defended as was the case in a number of other occasions. It also shows that Western governments will be absent from the start in a full in-depth discussion of the issues raised by the activities of PMSC.

We urge all States to support the process initiated by the Council by designating their representatives to the new open-ended intergovernmental working group, which will hold its first session in 2011, and to continue a process of discussions regarding a legally binding instrument.

The participation of the UK and USA main exporters of these activities (it is estimated at 70% the industry of security in these two countries) as well as other Western countries where the new industry is expanding is of particular importance.

The Working Group also urges the United States Government to implement the recommendations we made, in particular, to:

support the Congress Stop Outsourcing Security (SOS) Act, which clearly defines the functions which are inherently governmental and that cannot be outsourced to the private sector;

rescind immunity to contractors carrying out activities in other countries under bilateral agreements;

carry out prompt and effective investigation of human rights violations committed by PMSCs and prosecute alleged perpetrators;

ensure that the oversight of private military and security contractors is not outsourced to PMSCs;
establish a specific system of federal licensing of PMSCs for their activities abroad;

set up a vetting procedure for awarding contracts to PMSCs;

ensure that United States criminal jurisdiction applies to private military and security companies contracted by the Government to carry out activities abroad; and

respond to pending communications from the Working Group.


Notes


[1] Blackwater Worldwide abandoned its tarnished brand name in order to shake its reputation battered by its criticized work in Iraq, renaming its family of two-dozen businesses under the name Xe’, see Mike Baker, ‘Blackwater dumps tarnished brand name’, AP News Break, 13 February 2009.

[2] URG, an Australian private military and security company, uses a number of ex military Chileans to provide security to the Australian Embassy in Baghdad. Recently one of those “private guards” shot himself, ABC News, reported by La Tercera, Chile, 16 September 2010.

[3]J.Mendes & S Mitchell, “Who is Unity Resources Group?”, ABC News Australia, 16 September 2010.

[4] Case 8:08-cv-01696-PJM, Document 103, Filed 07/29/10. Defendants have filed Motions to Dismiss on a number of grounds. They argue, among others, that the suit must be dismissed in its entirety because they are immune under the laws of war, because the suit raises non-justiciable political questions, and because they possess derivative sovereign immunity. They seek dismissal of the state law claims on the basis of government contractor immunity, premised on the notion that Plaintiffs cannot proceed on state law claims, which arise out of combatant activities of the military. The United States District Court for the district of Maryland Greenbelt Division has decided to proceed with the case against L-3 Services, Inc. It has not accepted the motions to dismiss allowing the case to go forward.

[5] Mission to the United States of America, Report of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries, United Nations document, A/HRC/15/25/Add.3, paragraphs 22.

[6] James Risen and Mark Mazzetti, “Blackwater guards tied to secret C.I.A. raids ”, New York Times, 10

December 2009.

[7] Adam Ciralsky, “Tycoon, contractor, soldier, spy”, Vanity Fair, January 2010. See also Claim No. HQ08X02800 in the High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, Binyam Mohamed v. Jeppesen UK Ltd, report of James Gavin Simpson, 26 May 2009.

[8]ACLU Press Release, UN Report Underscores Lack of Accountability and Oversight for Military and Security Contractors, New York, 14 September 2010.

[9] The reports also indicates that the Revenues of DynCorp for 2006 were of USD 1 966 993 and for 2009 USD 3 101 093

[10] Mission to Ecuador, Report of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries, United Nations document, A/HRC/4/42/Add.2

[11] A number of the persons involved in the attempted coup were arrested in Zimbabwe, other in Equatorial Guinea itself the place where the coup was intended to take place to overthrow the government and put another in its place in order to get the rich resources in oil. In 2004 and 2008 the trials took place in Equatorial Guinea of those arrested in connection with this coup attempt, including of the British citizen Simon Mann and the South African Nick du Toit. The President of Equatorial Guinea pardoned all foreigners linked to this coup attempt in November 2009 by. A number of reports indicated that trials failed to comply with international human rights standards and that some of the accused had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment. The government of Equatorial Guinea has three ongoing trials in the United Kingdom, Spain and Lebanon against the persons who were behind the attempted coup.
[12]
Report of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries, Mission to Honduras, United Nations document A/HRC/4/42/Add.1.
[13] Wikipedia
[14]
Mercenaries without borders by Karel Vereycken, Friday Sep 21st, 2007
[15] Among which General Carl E. Vuono, Chief of the Army during the Gulf War and the invasion of Panama; General Crosbie E. Saint, former Commander in Chief of the USA Army in Europe and General Ron Griffith. The President of MPRI is General Bantant J. Craddock.
[16] Such as Cofer Black, former Chief of the Counter Terrorism Center; Enrique Prado, former Chief of Operations and Rof Richter, second in command of the Clandestine Services of the Company
[17] Article published in the Spring 2010 issue of the University of Chicago Law Review, titled "Privatization's Pretensions" by Jon D. Michaels, Acting Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law
[18] INQUIRY INTO THE ROLE AND OVERSIGHT OF PRIVATE SECURITY CONTRACTORS IN AFGHANISTAN, R E P O R T TOGETHER WITH ADDITIONAL VIEWS OF THE COMMITTEE ON ARMED SERVICES UNITED STATES SENATE, 28 September 2010