Friday, December 22, 2006

Rhetoric of confrontation

Friday December 22, 2006
The Guardian

Tony Blair waited until the final stop of his Middle East trip to deliver his big message about the state of the region. After visits to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories he declared in Dubai that Iran was at the heart of a "monumental struggle" between the forces of moderation and the forces of extremism. In the preceding days the prime minister had seen for himself the issues and conflicts he was drawing on for evidence of this dramatic claim: Turkey's troubled relationship with the EU; the barriers to democracy in Egypt; the deadly impasse between Israelis and Palestinians - including the danger of a Palestinian civil war; and of course the disaster in Iraq three years after he recklessly followed George Bush into a war that replaced Saddam Hussein's dictatorship with mayhem that has crippled the country, made it a magnet for jihadists and fuelled anti-western sentiment across the Muslim world.

Many of the prime minister's critics think he has done quite enough damage in the Middle East already, should now concentrate on limiting that, and have the humility to stop making sweeping pronouncements that might do even more. His thesis subsumes too many discrete issues under one roof, portraying a clash not of civilisations but of ideologies. This sounds dangerously like a substitute for the global confrontation of cold war days in which every international problem could be neatly explained by reference to a Manichean struggle of right against wrong, freedom versus tyranny, west versus east. Dubai represented a return to Mr Bush's "axis of evil" approach but this time with only one named member state - Iran.

Few analysts would disagree that the Islamic republic has been the main beneficiary of the war in Iraq, its influence and confidence boosted by the victory of its Shia allies. It is certainly promoting its interests in Iraq. It is doing the same by backing the Shia Hizbullah in Lebanon and (the Sunni) Hamas in Palestine. Its pursuit of nuclear energy - widely seen as a cover for acquiring nuclear weapons - threatens non-proliferation efforts, challenges Israel's hegemony and is preoccupying the UN security council in a search for sanctions. President Ahmadinejad's rhetoric about Israel is inflammatory; his hosting of the Holocaust denial conference in Tehran is not clowning.

The problem with blaming Iran for all the ills of the Middle East is the same problem as blaming the Soviet Union and its satellites for every cold war conflict. Moscow supported the ANC in its struggle against apartheid. PLO men were trained by East Germany's Stasi. Cuba backed left-wing guerrilla groups in Latin America. But just as those conflicts existed independently of external involvement so do those in which Iran is involved in the Middle East today. The Palestine issue is so hard to resolve because it has been left to fester for too long, not because Hamas leaders are welcome in Tehran. Hizbullah reflects changing internal Lebanese political realities as well as hostility to Israel.

Mr Blair's thesis also ignored the fact that the nervous Sunni kingdoms and republics he wants to form "an alliance of moderation" are hardly beacons of moderation themselves. Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi ideology did much to nurture jihadist thinking. Egyptian democracy would not have produced a fanatic like al-Qaida's Ayman al-Zawahiri. The prime minister's speech was disconcerting too because it so closely echoed Mr Bush's bellicosity and went against the idea in James Baker's Iraq Study Group report of reaching out to talk to Iran (and Syria). It dropped the sensible notion of using carrots and sticks at a time when there is some evidence that pragmatists may be gaining ground against the extremists in Tehran. If the US and Britain understood in the frozen depths of the cold war that they had to talk to their Soviet enemy, surely Iran is too a serious a player in today's Middle East to be addressed solely through the rhetoric of confrontation?


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Wosing the battle by Steve Bell

Ex-Officials: Article Wrongly Classifed

Friday December 22, 2006 6:01 PM


Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House demanded the excision of material for an article on Iranian-American relations for political - not security - reasons, two former government officials allege.

The debate centers on an opinion piece that former National Security Council official Flynt Leverett and former Foreign Service officer Hillary Mann sought to publish in The New York Times. Following long-standing rules for former CIA employees like Leverett, they submitted the article to the CIA's Publication Review Board to ensure it did not contain classified information.

Five of the article's 16 paragraphs came back with deletions, some of which were extensive. In a piece that ran above the redacted article in Friday's New York Times, Leverett and Mann said the information that was withheld - at the White House's request - has already appeared in a dozen news articles and official government press briefings.

CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said submissions by former employees are coordinated with other U.S. government offices that may have concerns about classification. That includes the White House.

``For former employees, the sole yardstick for prepublication review has been and remains the simple requirement that their writings contain no classified information,'' Mansfield said.

An intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about publication rules, said that material can appear in the press and still remain classified.

Yet Leverett and Mann believe their article, which argues for seeking a ``grand bargain'' with Iran, was the victim of politics. The White House has resisted even narrow engagement with the regime.

``In a democracy, transparency in government has to be honored and protected. To classify information for reasons other than the safety and security of the United States and its interests is a violation of these principles,'' Leverett and Mann wrote in Friday's piece, entitled ``What We Wanted to Tell You About Iran.''

They said they will continue to work toward the release of the material.

A message left for the White House's National Security Council seeking comment was not immediately returned.

Current and former CIA officials who want to publish articles or make speeches must clear their material with the CIA's Publication Review Board. That includes everyone from former CIA Director George Tenet, who is working on a book, to the most junior analyst or operative.

Exactly what material can appear is often a matter of discussion, but many officials know how to write articles in a way that won't trigger the CIA reviewers to black out the information. Leverett noted that he has submitted more than 20 articles for approval, without a single word changed.

FDA Lab Closure Plan Endangers Public, Watchdogs Say; USDA Stocks Organics Board with Business Reps


FDA Lab Closure Plan Endangers Public, Watchdogs Say
USDA Stocks Organics Board with Business Reps

Dec. 20 – Food-safety activists are protesting the government's attempt to stack an organic-food advisory board with representatives of corporate agribusiness and food commerce.

Earlier this month, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the appointment of four new members to the National Organic Standards Board. The Board assists the USDA in determining what substances officially qualify as organic.

The USDA tapped individuals who represent Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, Phillips Mushroom Farms, and Stahlbush Island Farms to join the fifteen-member panel.

According to its charter, the Board is to include up to seven business representatives and three environmentalists, three consumer advocates, and a scientist. However, while all of the new appointees come from the business world, three of them are designated to fill seats reserved for an environmentalist, a consumer advocate and a scientist.

Phillips Mushroom Farms is the largest grower of specialty mushrooms in the United States. Out of fifteen cultivated mushroom varieties sold by Phillips, five are listed as organic. Tina Ellor, the USDA's choice to fill an "environmentalist" slot on the Board, is the technical director at Phillips. Ellor will replace outgoing member Nancy M. Ostiguy, from the Department of Entomology at Penn State. Ostiguy did not have any listed ties to industry.

Stahlbush Island Farms is a 4,000-acre farm in Oregon. While the farm's website says it uses sustainable farming practices, these appear to include the use of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides in growing some crops. The site says, "If chemicals are necessary, we look to the organically approved chemical list first." Tracy Miedema, national sales and marketing manager of Stahlbush Farms, was appointed to represent consumer- and public-interest groups on the Board.

Both Campbell and General Mills manufacture food with genetically modified ingredients, though the companies also offer organic food. The USDA appointed Steve DeMuri, a senior manager at Campbell and technical expert of the company's organic production, to fill an organic food "handler/processor" position on the Board.

Meanwhile, Katrina Heinze, who manages global regulatory affairs for General Mills, was tapped as a scientist member of the Board. She holds a PhD in chemistry, but she will replace a scientist with no listed industry ties.

Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist with the Organic Consumers Association, said Americans should be concerned with the appointees' industry ties because the National Organic Standards Board is in a powerful position to help weaken or strengthen national organic standards. "A [National Organic Standards Board] that makes decisions in favor of big business will undoubtedly hurt organic family farmers and consumers as the organic standards are weakened by those that are simply profit motivated," Craig told The NewStandard.

With the new appointees, at least twelve of the Board's fifteen seats will be held by members with clear industry interests.

The Organic Consumers Association is urging Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns and members of Congress to intervene and "work with the USDA to remove inappropriate appointees and reopen the appointment process to unbiased and non-industry-related candidates," according to a press statement.

In a written statement, the USDA told TNS the appointees are "extremely well qualified" and "represent organic production in Eastern, Midwestern, and the Pacific regions of the United States."

According to a USDA press statement, the agency solicited more than 11,000 certified organic producers and handlers for board nominees.

The Need Not to Know: The American Jewish Community and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Need Not to Know: The American Jewish Community and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Road Map to Nowhere: Israel/Palestine Since 2003
By Tanya Reinhart
Verso Books, 2006

Zionism’s drive to create a state for the Jewish people was designed to serve two purposes. The most fundamental of them was to provide a refuge that would ensure the well-being and security of the Jewish people, wherever they were endangered by the ever-recurring historical cycles of murderous global anti-Semitism—most recently, of course, the Holocaust. Beyond that, the Jewish state of Israel was to be a moral exemplar for all mankind, “a light unto the nations,” the model of the kind of state that a liberal, well educated, sophisticated, and morally sensitive people—“the people of the Book”—could create.

The Zionist dream is becoming a nightmare. There is no place in the world where the Jewish people are more insecure than in Israel, in part, of course, because of the continuation of anti-Semitism, especially in the Islamic world, but also because of the policies and behavior of the Jewish state. As for its role of moral exemplar, today defenders of Israel’s policies toward the Pales-tinians don’t even bother to claim a higher morality; rather, they wish Israel to be judged as an “ordinary” state and typically complain bitterly that the West has a double standard, condemning Israel’s human rights record but minimizing the even worse record of typical Arab autocracies. What a defense—it’s a long way from “a light unto the nations” to “better than Syria.”

Zionism’s “original sin” (in the language of many Is-raeli critics) was the political dispossession of the Arab peoples of Palestine, who had a more compelling historical case for political sovereignty over Palestine than did the Jews. True, Palestine had been the original Biblical homeland for the Jews, before the Romans had expelled them two thousand years earlier. But it hardly follows that this history gives the Jews an inherent right to the land in perpetuity, particularly in light of the uncontestable fact that for thirteen hundred consecutive years the area had been largely inhabited by Arabs, and also because religious and historical claims to the land by both Muslims and Christians are no less powerful than those made by Jews.

Thus, the religious argument for Jewish sovereignty over Palestine is unpersuasive, and the argument based on previous possession of the land is even more so.

There is no place on earth that hasn’t at one time or another “belonged” to a different people than its current inhabitants, and no place other than Palestine where it even occurs to anyone to argue that the passage of two thousand years is irrelevant to judging current land rights. Far worse, by blinding the Israelis—and their equally unseeing supporters among diaspora Jews, especially in the United States—to the reality of the conflict, these childish arguments have had devastating consequences for the Israelis and the Palestini-ans alike.

The tragedy is that these deeply flawed arguments for privileging Jewish claims to Palestine over those of its indigenous inhabitants were so unnecessary because by the early 1940s there was one incontestably good—and sufficient—argument. After the Holocaust, it was clear to people of good will everywhere that the creation of a Jewish state was now morally imperative, and that there was no practical place to put such a state other than in Palestine. True, this would create an injustice for the Pales-tinians, but one that could be mitigated by dividing the land of Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs. Tanya Reinhart puts it this way: “As an Israeli, I grew up believing that this primal sin our state was founded on might be forgiven one day, because the founders’ generation was driven by the faith that this was the only way to save the Jewish people from the danger of another holocaust. But it didn’t stop there.”

Everyone knows, of course, that the Palestinians—insisting on holding 100 percent of the land for themselves, regardless of the consequences for world Jewry—refused to accept the UN’s partition plan of 1947. What is not nearly so well known, however, is that Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, and most of the rest of the Zionist leadership also never truly accepted partition. Rather, they regarded their agreement to the UN plan as merely a tactical necessity, one that would later be reversed when Is-rael became militarily strong enough to resume its drive for Jewish sovereignty over all of the Biblical land of Palestine. And so they did, and so—as Tanya Reinhart argues—Israel continues to do today, in an only somewhat modified manner.

Thus, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a continuation of an historically unavoidableOriginalSin;rather,ithasbe-come an avoidable, ongoing, and ever-worsening sin. Avoidable because there was a reasonable chance that the conflict might have been resolved long ago, had the Israelis acknowledged the inevitable harms done to the Palestinians by the creation of Israel as well as the subsequent expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and villages, and resolved to do everything possible to make up for these injustices in any manner possible, short of abandoning the Jewish state in one part of the land of Palestine. Israel’s failure to acknowledge its responsibilities and moral obligations to the Palestinians has turned a tragedy into a crime.

Tanya Reinhart, a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University and a regular columnist in Israel’s biggest daily newspaper, Yediot Aharanot, has written two recent books of blistering, unsparing, and entirely persuasive criticism of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. The first, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948, covered the 1999–2002 period; her most recent book, The Road Map to Nowhere; Israel/Palestine Since 2003, updates her analysis through early 2006.

Reinhart argues that under the administrations of both Ariel Sharon and current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the real goal of Israeli policy has been, at a minimum, to unilaterally annex some 40 percent of the West Bank, including the most productive lands and most of the water resources of the area. Beyond that, Olmert is continuing the process of what Reinhart openly calls “ethnic cleansing” that began with the expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians in 1948. Reinhart contends that the brutality employed in the 1948 war is no longer feasible, if only because of the potential condemnation of the international community and the consequences it would have for Israel, so it is being replaced by the more indirect method of “slow and invisible transfer”—that is, making life so miserable for the Palestinians that they give up and move elsewhere.

The tactics used to achieve this goal include the killing of more than two thousand innocent Palestinians as the result of Israel’s indiscriminate attacks on “militants” or “terrorists” via bombs, missiles, artillery fire, and the like. Besides the killings, the Israeli government has imposed collective punishment and deliberate impoverishment of the entire Palestinian population by, as Reinhart describes, creating “a complex system of prisons...[pushing the Palestinians] into locked and sealed enclaves, fully the Israeli army.” This is done by the “Separation Wall” and other barriers, as well as by military roads, patrols, checkpoints, and roadblocks; the closing of Gazan trade and commerce with the outside world; and the repeated incursions of the Israel Defense Forces. Beyond even that, other measures seek to destroy the Palestinian economy and ordinary life, including the destruction of Gaza’s main electrical power plant; the severe restrictions placed on Palestinian drinking and agricultural water; the daily humiliations and often severe hardships imposed by draconic Israeli laws against the free movement of Palestinians throughout the West Bank; the disruption of the private and public health systems—and more.

Faced with this catastrophe, it is no wonder that the Palestinians have revolted; as Reinhart notes, international law and the Geneva Conventions “recognize the right of an occupied people to carry out armed struggle,” although not to resort to terrorism against civilians. Even noon-terrorist armed Palestinian resistance may not have been wise in practice, Reinhart concedes, but what alternatives did the Palestinians have? Many—including Tikkun—have proposed nonvio-lent strategies of resistance, but there is little reason to believe that approach would have been any more successful. Reinhart goes into great detail on the tactics the Israeli army, police, and intelligence services have used to suppress even nonviolent demonstrations—including the use of tear gas, stun guns, rubber bullets, and occasionally even live fire.

Reinhart focuses primarily on the Is-raeli treatment of the Palestinians. She might well have added that the Occupation and repression have had devastating direct and indirect effects on Israeli institutions, society, and quality of life. As regularly discussed by the Israeli news media and academicians, these include the following:

Israeli Democracy: All of Israel’s democratic institutions are in severe decline. The Knesset is widely regarded with contempt, as are politicians generally. The judiciary in general, and the Supreme Court in particular, have largely abandoned their imperative role of upholding law and human rights against widespread governmental abuses, so long as the government cites “security needs” as its justification. Not surprisingly, the power of the military and security services in Israel are greater than in any other Western democracy.

Democratic and Human Rights: There are many Israeli commentaries about the radical decline of values and ordinary moral norms and constraints. Among the consequences are the growth of (1) class and intra-Jewish ethnic and religious conflict; (2) organized and unorganized crime, including routine intra-Jewish violence; (3) anti-Arab sentiments and other forms of racism; and (4) the abuse of women, including white slavery. As academics like Aviad Klein-berg and journalists such as Tom Segev have concluded, “interest in human rights has never been so negligible,” and Israeli society, gripped by “moral and political paralysis,” is “gradually coming undone.”

Economic Injustice: Israel has completely abandoned its earlier goal of creating a democratic socialism in favor of “rampant capitalism.” Consequently, while some Israelis grow fabulously wealthy, other sectors of the society suffer through high unemployment rates, high inflation, and continuously widening income inequalities.

To add to the picture of this third-world style pathology, Reinhart notes that a 2005 World Bank report found Is-rael to be one of the most corrupt and least efficient Western states.

Education and Culture: Religious messianism and fundamentalism are on the rise. This together with the secular but primitive nationalism of Sharon and his successors has created an environment in which academic freedom is under severe attack, Israel’s intellectuals are increasingly regarded with scorn, and the education system as a whole has radically declined, becoming increasingly government-controlled, politicized, and ineffective. As Adir Cohen, a chaired professor of education at Haifa University, recently wrote, the deterioration in the Israeli education system (as reported by a spate of recent studies) is accompanied by a national move in “an anti-cultural direction. The art institutions are being suffocated, the orchestras choked, the theaters closed down…. Public libraries are in a terrible state. For 2,000 years we were People of the Book. Now we’ve become the country bumpkins.”

Though it cannot be said that all of these problems are attributable only to the consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor that they would disappear if that conflict were settled, it is equally obvious that the conflict, the Occupation, and the repression of the Palestinians has played a major role in either creating or exacerbating them.

What Can the American Jewish Community Do?

Not only is its democracy and society at stake, but even its basic security. As Rein-hart puts it, Israel is a “small Jewish state...surrounded by two hundred million Arabs,” and it “is making itself the enemy of the whole Muslim world. There is no guarantee that such a state can survive. Saving the Palestinians also means saving Israel.” Sooner or later the most fanatical of the Islamic fundamentalists by one means or another are likely to acquire nuclear weapons—and they may very well use them against Israeli cities, regardless of the obvious consequences to the Muslim world from Israeli retaliation. And that will be the end of Israel, and much of the Middle East.

Only serious pressures by the American government, including making continued political, economic, and military support contingent on the end of the Is-raeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians, can stop the Israelis from marching over this looming cliff. Given the confluence of rightwing ideology and domestic political realities in the United States, however, it is hard to imagine any American government imposing such tough-love policies on Israel without strong support from the Ameri-can Jewish community.

Reinhart argues that “Part of the reason why the pro-Israeli lobbies [in the U.S.] have been so the massive lack of knowledge about what is really happening in Israel-Palestine.” However, matters are even worse: it is not so much innocent ignorance that accounts for the unwillingness of most of the American Jewish community to help save Israel from itself, for by now there has been considerable coverage—even in the super-cautious American news media—of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians and to its own best interests. Thus, the real issue is the willed ignorance—the psychological need not to know—of our community. The price—to the Palestinians, to the Israelis, and to American national security—is already unbearable, and it may well soon become apocalyptic.

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Court Cuts Valdez Judgment Against Exxon in Half

Dec 22, 1:19 PM EST

Court Cuts Valdez Judgment Against Exxon

AP Legal Affairs Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A federal appeals court on Friday cut in half a $5 billion jury award for punitive damages against Exxon Mobil Corp. in the 1989 Valdez oil spill that smeared black goo across roughly 1,500 miles of Alaskan coastline.

The case, one of the nation's longest-running, non-criminal legal disputes, stems from a 1994 decision by an Anchorage jury to award the punitive damages to 34,000 fishermen and other Alaskans. Their property and livelihoods were harmed when the Valdez oil tanker struck a charted reef, spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil.

It's the third time the appeals court ordered the Anchorage court to reduce the $5 billion award, the nation's largest at the time, saying it was unconstitutionally excessive in light of U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

This time, in its 2-1 decision, the court ordered a specific amount in damages, while its previous rulings demanded a lower court to come up with its own figures.

"It is time for this protracted litigation to end," the court said.

U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland of Anchorage begrudgingly complied in 2002, reducing damages to $4 billion. Irving, Texas-based Exxon again appealed.

The following year, the appeals court ordered Holland to revisit his decision, this time balancing it against a new 2003 Supreme Court ruling that said punitive damages usually could not be more than nine times general damages. The Anchorage jury awarded $287 million in general damages - and issued punitive damages that were 17 times that amount.

Holland, appointed by President Reagan in 1984, declared Exxon's conduct "reprehensible" and set the figure at $4.5 billion plus interest, ruling that the Supreme Court's precedent did not directly apply to the case.

Exxon again appealed, and argued that it should have to pay no more than $25 million in punitive damages, which are meant to punish a company for misconduct.

The company, whose $36.1 billion in earnings last year were the highest ever by any U.S. corporation, said it has spent more than $3 billion to settle federal and state lawsuits and to clean the Prince William Sound area. The company earned about $5 billion when the spill occurred.

In October, Exxon Mobil reported earnings of $10.49 billion in the third quarter, the second-largest quarterly profit ever recorded by a publicly traded U.S. company.

In 1994, a federal jury found recklessness by Exxon and the captain of the Valdez, Joseph Hazelwood, who caused the tanker to run aground. That finding of malfeasance made Exxon liable for punitive damages.

The plaintiffs alleged Hazelwood ran the ship into a reef while drunk and Exxon knew he had a drinking problem, but left him in command of tankers.

The case is Baker v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 04-35182.


Editors: David Kravets has been covering state and federal courts for more than a decade.

Judicial Watch Announces List of Washington's 'Ten Most Wanted Corrupt Politicians' for 2006

Contact: Jill Farrell, Judicial Watch, 202-646-5188

WASHINGTON, Dec. 22 /Standard Newswire/ -- Judicial Watch, the public interest group that investigates and prosecutes government corruption, today released its 2006 list of Washington's "Ten Most Wanted Corrupt Politicians." The list, in alphabetical order, includes:

  1. Jack Abramoff, Former Lobbyist – Abramoff is at the center of a massive public corruption investigation by the Department of Justice that, in the end, could involve as many as a dozen members of Congress. Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and a host of other charges on January 3, 2006, and was sent to prison in November to serve a five-year, 10-month sentence for defrauding banks of $23 million in Florida in 2000.
  1. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) – In January 2006, Hillary Clinton's fundraising operation was fined $35,000 by the Federal Election Commission for failing to accurately report more than $700,000 in contributions to Clinton's Senate 2000 campaign. New information also surfaced in 2006 raising more questions about Hillary and her brother Anthony Rodham's connection to the Clinton Pardongate scandal, where presidential pardons were allegedly traded in exchange for cash and other favors.
  1. Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) – In November 2005, Cunningham pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion. He was sentenced to 8 years, four months in prison and ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution in March 2006.
  1. Former Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX) – Tom DeLay, who was forced to step down from his position as House Majority Leader and then resign from Congress, decided in 2006 not to run for re-election. Congressman DeLay has been embroiled in a series of scandals from bribery to influence peddling, and was indicted twice by grand juries in Texas.
  1. Former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) – Foley left the House in disgrace after news broke that he had been sending predatory homosexual emails to a House page. A recent House Ethics Committee report indicated that Republican leaders knew about Foley's dangerous behavior, but failed to take action. Democrats, meanwhile, shopped the story to the press to influence the elections. Outrageously, the Committee recommended no punishment for those involved.
  1. Rep. Denny Hastert (R-IL) – In addition to mishandling the Foley scandal, outgoing House Speaker Dennis Hastert allowed House ethics process to ground to a halt on his watch. Gary Condit, Cynthia McKinney, William Jefferson, John Conyers, Tom Delay, Duke Cunningham, Jim McDermott, Patrick Kennedy are examples of alleged wrongdoers who faced little-to-no ethics enforcement in the House.
  1. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) – Hastings is one of only six federal judges to be removed from office through impeachment and has accumulated staggering liabilities ranging from $2,130,006 to $7,350,000. Hastings was "next in line" for Chairmanship of the House Select Committee on Intelligence until a wave of protest forced Nancy Pelosi to select another candidate. Nonetheless, Hastings is expected to continue to serve on the Intelligence Committee.
  1. Rep. William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson (D-LA) – Jefferson is alleged to have accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to help broker high-tech business deals in Nigeria. According to press reports, he was also caught on tape discussing the deals, while an FBI search of his home uncovered $90,000 in cash stuffed in his freezer.
  1. Former Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) – Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney resigned in early November 2006, three weeks after pleading guilty for accepting bribes from an Indian casino in exchange for legislative favors. Ney was the first congressman to be convicted of a crime in the web of scandals involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and is expected to serve a jail sentence.
  1. Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) – Senator Reid came under fire in 2006 for failing to properly report to Congress a $700,000 land deal. Reid also accepted more than $30,000 of Abramoff-tainted money allegedly in return for his ''cooperation'' in matters related Nevada Indian gaming.

Dishonorable Mentions include:

  1. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) – According to complaints released by the House Ethics Committee recently, aides to Representative John Conyers (D-MI) alleged their former boss repeatedly violated House ethics rules, forcing them to serve as his personal servants, valets, and as campaign staff while on the government payroll.
  1. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) – In May 2006, Kennedy crashed his car into a Capitol Hill barricade at nearly 3 a.m. in the morning. Kennedy blamed the incident on a reaction to prescription pills, but officers at the scene said he smelled of alcohol. Nonetheless, they escorted him home rather than arresting him.
  1. Former Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) – McKinney assaulted a Capitol Hill police officer in April after refusing to go through a metal detector. While McKinney was never forced to answer in a court of law for her behavior, she lost her bid for re-election in 2006.
  1. Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) – Iraq war critic John Murtha was incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's first choice for House Majority Leader despite the ethical skeletons in his closet. Murtha is an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1980 "Abscam" scandal, which included the arrest and convictions of a senator and six congressmen. Murtha, whose current ethics continue to be questioned, lost his bid for Majority Leader to Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer.
  1. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) – News reports surfaced in 2006 that Illinois Senator Barak Obama entered into an unusual land deal with a now-indicted political fundraiser, Tony Rezko. The complicated real estate transaction occurred when it was widely known that Rezko was under federal investigation in a political corruption scandal.
  1. David Safavian, Former Bush Administration Official – Safavian, the former White House Chief of Procurement and former Chief of Staff for the General Services Administration, was indicted on September 19, 2006 on five counts of lying about his dealings with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and obstructing a Senate investigation of his dealings. Safavian resigned from his White House position three days prior to his arrest.

"This list shows public corruption is endemic to our nation's capital and that the anti-corruption work of Judicial Watch is needed more than ever," stated Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. "The list could be much longer, as there are far too many politicians who abuse the public trust and place themselves above the law."

I.R.S. Is Spending Less Time Scrutinizing Big Businesses

December 21, 2006

The Internal Revenue Service has cut deeply the time that it spends auditing the nation’s largest corporations, according to data made public yesterday.

The figures, obtained by Syracuse University researchers, showed that the I.R.S. had reduced the time spent on each audit by 21 percent in the last five years, to 958 hours from 1,210 hours. At the same time, the number of actual audits, which had increased in the last two years, has fallen back to the level of 2002.


French troops had bin Laden in sights: Bush wouldn't pull trigger

French troops had bin Laden in sights: documentary

By Francois MurphyTue Dec 19, 1:55 PM ET

A documentary says French special forces had Osama bin Laden in their sights twice about three years ago but their U.S. superiors never ordered them to fire.

The French military, however, said that the incidents never happened and the report was "erroneous information."

The documentary, due to air next year and seen by Reuters on Tuesday, says the troops could have killed the al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan but the order to shoot never came, possibly because it took too long to request it.

"In 2003 and 2004 we had bin Laden in our sights. The sniper said 'I have bin Laden'," an anonymous French soldier is quoted as saying.

The documentary 'Bin Laden, the failings of a manhunt' is by journalists Emmanuel Razavi and Eric de Lavarene, who have worked for several major French media outlets in Afghanistan. A cable television channel plans to air the documentary in March.

Razavi said the soldier told them it took roughly two hours for the request to reach the U.S. officers who could authorize it but the anonymous man is also quoted in the documentary as saying: "There was a hesitation in command."

Razavi told Reuters several sources told them the sightings were six months apart and they declined to be more specific.

French armed forces spokesman Christophe Prazuck said "that never happened" when asked about the bin Laden sightings.

Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, is believed to be hiding in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

France has roughly 200 elite troops operating under U.S. command near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. Paris announced on Sunday it was withdrawing them at the start of 2007.

France is part of the 32,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, which took over command of a war against the Taliban from U.S.-led forces in October and has launched a series of military offensives.

Its special forces were deployed in 2003 to bolster Operation Enduring Freedom, a U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda in response to the September 11 attacks.

Afghans questioned in the documentary said they believed the United States was not interested in finding bin Laden, despite the $25 million price Washington has placed on his head.

The documentary stopped short of that conclusion but raised questions about the U.S. hunt for bin Laden, such as whether Washington is more concerned about preserving stability in Pakistan, where many support bin Laden, than in finding him.

In September, President Bush dismissed as an "urban myth" the idea his administration had become distracted from its effort to track down bin Laden.

Blair's Mideast Message Echoes Past Failure


Analysis by Trita Parsi*

WASHINGTON, Dec 22 (IPS) - British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been touring the Middle East with one clear message -- to make peace in the Middle East, Iran must be isolated.

The war of words between the West and Iran was heated by Blair's call for an "alliance of moderation" consisting of Arab dictatorships to quell the challenge posed by "extremists" supported by Tehran.

There is little new about Blair's strategy. Though it contradicts his initial support for the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group to open talks with Syria and Iran -- a position he quickly withdrew from after having been corrected by U.S. President George W. Bush -- it fits well with the approach of his predecessors when it comes to creating momentum for peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians.

In late 1991, a flood of articles surfaced in Israeli media depicting Iran as Israel's greatest strategic threat. The new Israeli perspective stood in stark contrast to Israel's traditional view of Iran as a strategic non-Arab ally -- a view that had survived both the Islamic Revolution and the end of the Iraq-Iran war.

Months before the ongoing discussions between Israeli and Palestinian on Oslo were revealed to the public in 1993, the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin began arguing that Iran's fundamentalist ideology had replaced communism as an ideological threat to the West. Iran was "fanning all the flames in the Middle East" and Israel's "struggle against murderous Islamic terror" was "meant to awaken the world which is lying in slumber" of the dangers of Shiite fundamentalism.

Like Tony Blair, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher adopted this rhetoric in Washington's efforts to advance the Oslo process. "Wherever you look," he told reporters in March 1995, "you find the evil hand of Iran in this region."

The emphasis on Iran's Shiite ideology served, among other things, to convince Sunni Arab monarchies that they faced a greater threat from Iran's political revisionism than from Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands. Consequently, the Arabs should opt for peace with Israel in order to combine their strength to push back Iran, the argument read.

Blair seems to follow the same blueprint today. In the mid-1990s, many were receptive to this message due to Iran's extensive support for Palestinian rejectionist groups using violence and terror against Israel (which incidentally began after the Oslo process.)

Today, President Ahmadinejad's excessive rhetoric, Iran's enrichment programme and the recent historical revisionism at Tehran's Holocaust conference is making the region more receptive to Blair's repeat of Rabin and Christopher's message.

But promoting Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking by building alliances to isolate Iran failed in the 1990s and is likely to fail again. Back then, Washington stood at the apex of its power. The Soviet Union had collapsed and in the "New World Order" that was forming, the U.S. was the world's sole superpower.

Diplomatically, Washington's stocks were equally high. Then-Secretary of State James Baker had compiled a broad coalition -- including numerous Arab states -- to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and he had kept its word that Arab cooperation against Iraq would lead to a push for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Iran, on the other hand, was weak. It was still recuperating from the Iraq-Iran war and its relations with the Arab states and Europe remained frosty. Still, isolating Iran proved far more difficult than Washington had envisioned. Despite its extensive efforts, the policy of containing Iran proved a huge failure.

Today, the tables have turned. Washington and London's credibility is at an all time low. The U.S. military is overextended in Iraq and the raging civil war there has removed any doubt that the neo-conservative experiment in the Middle East has been anything but an utter failure. Israel's war with Lebanon this past summer has done little to buy it new friends in the Arab world and the pro-Western Arab governments' impotence in influencing Washington has increased the rift between these regimes and their peoples.

Iran, on the other hand, is ascending. Forces allied with it are winning elections throughout the region, it has so far successfully defied U.S. and EU pressure to halt its enrichment programme, and the strength of its deterrent forces in Lebanon during the war with Israel surprised even the leadership in Tehran. In addition, the clerics in Tehran are swimming in record-high oil revenues.

Clearly, Iran may sooner or later overplay its hand. Its excessive rhetoric against Israel and the U.S. has already backfired to a certain extent. While it may have contributed to Iran's deterrence against the U.S. -- by signaling that the cost of any military intervention against Iran would be devastating and have major regional repercussions -- it has also served to increase anxiety among Iran's Arab neighbours and make them more inclined to seek Iran's isolation and containment.

Still, a strategy that failed under far more favourable circumstances is unlikely to succeed under the current more challenging conditions. Instead, rather than increasing stability in the region, many believe that pursuing this course risks bringing the confrontation between the West and Iran to a climax, with a regional war as its ultimate outcome. Disturbingly, some elements in Saudi Arabia seem to prefer such a confrontation to the acceptance of an Iraqi democracy with Shiites at its helm.

So far, President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have resisted the one policy that could both avoid regional war and help stabilise Iraq -- a holistic approach that would give all regional states a stake in the region's future and stability. Confrontation and balance of power politics still seems to be preferred over consensus building.

But it remains to be seen who will lose the most -- and who can afford to lose the most -- in the lose-lose situation that the continuation of this policy would likely lead to. Though no side is immune to miscalculation, some would argue that so far, Bush and Blair far outdo their competitors in this field.

*Dr. Trita Parsi is the author of "Treacherous Triangle -- The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States"

Iraqi Hopes Dim Through Worst Year of Occupation

CHALLENGES 2006-2007:

Dahr Jamail and Ali Al-Fadhily

BAGHDAD, Dec. 22 (IPS) - Despite promises from Iraqi and U.S. leaders that 2006 would bring improvement, Iraqis have suffered through the worst year in living memory, facing violence, fragmentation and a disintegrated economy.

A year back Iraqis were promised that 2006 would be the fresh beginning of a, prosperous, democratic and unified Iraq. Through an elected parliament and a unity government, they would find peace, and start rebuilding a country torn apart by the U.S.-backed UN sanctions and then the U.S.-led invasion and occupation.

But everyone agrees that the situation now is worse than ever. Leaders in Iraq disagree only to the extent they blame one another for the collapse in security that has led to worsened services and living conditions.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, along with many other Shia leaders in the Iraqi government, blames al-Qaeda and "Saddamists" for the degrading situation. Echoing statements by U.S. President George W. Bush, al-Maliki told reporters recently: "Those terrorists hate democracy because that makes them lose power, and all they are doing is killing Iraqi people in order to recapture what they lost after the liberation of Iraq."

Whatever leaders say, people are simply looking back on a hellish year, and fearful of another to come.

"I wish I could flee to any third world country and work in garbage collection rather than stay here and live like a frightened rat," Adel Mohammed Aziz, a teacher from Baghdad told IPS. "We are all living in fear for our lives; death chases us all around.."

The displacement of Iraqis from Iraq is currently the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis, according to the Washington-based group Refugees International which works towards providing humanitarian assistance and protection for displaced people.

The United Nations estimates that at least 2.3 million Iraqis have fled the growing violence in their country. They estimate that 1.8 million Iraqis have fled to surrounding countries, while another half million have vacated their homes for safer areas within Iraq. An estimated 40,000 people are leaving Iraq every month for Syria alone, according to the UN.

Cases of sectarian killings had been reported before this year, with targeted victims such as former military people or scientists. But this year sectarian-based death squads became a threat to all Iraqis, particularly Sunni Muslims, whose beliefs differ in ways from those of Shia Muslims. The body count has increased to a minimum of 100 a day, with most killed after monstrous torture.

"We cannot go to work, cannot go to pray in our mosques, and cannot send our children to schools," young mother Um Rheem from the Shaab quarter in Baghdad told IPS. "Many Sunni men have been killed by Shia death squads who have the full support of the government and Americans."

Such fears are common in many areas in Baghdad where the Sunnis are a minority. Other areas have other problems to live with.

"In areas where Sunnis are a majority, death squads attack in hundreds, taking advantage of curfews and using government police cars," Mahmood Abdulla from the predominantly Sunni Jihad quarter of Baghdad told IPS. "When we defend ourselves and our homes, they shell us with mortars and Kaytousha missiles. All of this takes place under the eyes of Americans and Iraqi government officials."

Shia Iraqis complain that they cannot go to Sunni dominated areas for work, and they cannot travel on the highway that leads to Syria and Jordan for fear of Sunni militias looking for revenge.

"Sunnis who lost family members would kill any Shia they find, and so we cannot go through their areas," Sa'arat Hassan, a vegetable merchant at the Jameela wholesale vegetable market in Baghdad told IPS.

According to a survey conducted by U.S. and Iraqi doctors for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, published in the British Lancet Medical Journal Oct. 11 this year, 654,965 Iraqis, or 2.5 percent of the entire population of the country, have died as a result of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation.

The survey found that "of post-invasion deaths, 601,027àwere due to violence, the most common cause being gunfire."

The two months following publication of the survey have been Iraq's bloodiest to date.

The streets of Baghdad, once packed with cars and open businesses, look deserted most of the day now.

"We cannot open our shops for more than three to four hours a day," a carpet seller on the volatile Rasheed Street told IPS. "Many of my colleagues have been abducted for ransom or killed for sectarian reasons on the way to work. We expect death every minute."

The economic disaster is now an emergency. More than five million Iraqis are living below the poverty line, close to half of them in desperate conditions, according to a government study.

Iraqi officials and NGOs estimate the unemployment rate at more than 60 percent.

The cost of basic necessities soared during 2006, compounding the unemployment crisis. A report by Iraq's central office for statistics cited by the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) suggests 70 percent inflation from July 2005 to July 2006.

The World Food Programme said in a report 'Food Security and Vulnerability in Iraq' last May that if the situation in Iraq was not controlled, 8.3 million more people (31 percent of the population) would be rendered "food insecure" if they were not provided their monthly food rations. The rations were introduced under the Oil for Food Programme set up during the sanctions period in the 1990s.

Sectarian violence increased in Iraq after the bombing last February of an important Shia shrine located in Samarra, 60 km north of Baghdad. Shia death squads started appearing in massive numbers afterwards to carry out mass killings of Sunnis, and setting fire to their mosques. U.S. forces failed to provide protection for civilians on either side.

Meanwhile, armed Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation increased rapidly during 2006.

"Resistance fighters are Iraqis who are trying to put an end to this vicious occupation," a senior political analyst at Baghdad University told IPS on condition of anonymity. "The Americans ignited sectarian war so that they reduce the action of national resistance, but the result came to be the opposite, and they are being hit harder and more often."

The Sunni-dominated areas of Baghdad and western Iraq faced the worst U.S. military operations during 2006. The policy of siege, raids and large-scale detentions led to massive killing of civilians in cities like Haditha, Karma and Ramadi.

"Those Americans take us all for terrorists," the manager of a human rights NGO in Ramadi to the west of Baghdad told IPS.

Speaking on condition that he and his organisation remain unnamed for fear of U.S. military reprisals, he added: "Their (U.S. military's) crimes in Fallujah in 2004 were exposed, but they have committed a lot more crimes in 2006, and the world is silent about them. There is moaning in every house in the western and northern parts of the city (Ramadi) for losing members of their families."

A poll conducted by the well-respected group World Public Opinion last month showed that 61 percent of Iraqis support attacks against U.S. forces. The poll found that 83 percent of Iraqis surveyed want the U.S. to withdraw completely next year.

U.S. casualties increased dramatically during the last three months of the year. This year saw at least 812 coalition soldier deaths in Iraq, with December looking to be one of the deadliest months for them, according to the website Iraq Coalition Casualties.

So far, at least 3,193 occupation troops have been killed in Iraq, 2,946 of them from the United States, according to the website. In addition, there have been 46,880 U.S. non-mortal casualties, including non-hostile and medical evacuations.

With no drastic changes imminent to the failed U.S. policy in Iraq, coupled with an Iraqi government that grows more impotent by the day, Iraqis have dim hopes of improvement in 2007.

New York State Controller pleads guilty to charge, resigns from office

Hevesi pleads guilty to charge, resigns from office


State Controller Alan Hevesi has said he committed a mistake in judgment, not a criminal offense.

Earlier story: Hev road ends in mug shot
ALBANY, N.Y. — State Comptroller Alan Hevesi's 35-year career in public service ended in disgrace Friday when he resigned and agreed to plead guilty to a minor felony for using state employees as drivers and companions for his wife.

The plea ends an investigation by Albany County District Attorney David Soares, who had been presenting evidence against the Queens Democrat to a grand jury. Hevesi will serve no jail time, but will pay a $5,000 fine and agreed not to file any appeal. He also agreed not to take office on Jan. 1. Friday's agreement also heads off a process that could have ended in the Legislature removing Hevesi from office.

"I want to apologize to the people of New York state who have given me the opportunity to serve them," Hevesi said after a morning court appearance. "I want to apologize to the 2,400 professionals who work in the comptroller's office and I want to apologize to my family who have been so strong and loving during this process."

Hevesi, 66, was first elected state comptroller in 2002 and was re-elected in November by a wide margin despite several investigations into his use of four employees to cater to his ailing wife from 2003 to mid-2006.

In October, with Hevesi coasting to a re-election win, the state Ethics Commission said the driving arrangements violated state law. Most of that driving was done by Nicholas Acquafredda, who also was a companion for Carol Hevesi and even helped with physical therapy. Three others also shared the duties early on, a subsequent investigation by the state attorney general's office found. Hevesi claimed the drivers were needed to provide security for his wife, but the bipartisan Ethics Commission said state police found no threat that justified the arrangement.

Further, the panel said Hevesi apparently had no intention of repaying the state for the drivers' service until his Republican challenger, J. Christopher Callaghan, went public with a complaint this year.

Hevesi immediately apologized for what he called the serious error of providing a "belated" reimbursement and quickly paid the state more than $82,000, but forcefully insisted he did not break the law. While the investigations dragged on, he continued to vow not to leave office and vigorously fight any attempt to throw him out.

The office of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a one-time Hevesi ally who was elected governor in November, ordered Hevesi to pay back another $90,000 and then tacked on another $33,000 to bring the total for the scandal to $206,293.79. Hevesi and his wife last year earned more than $335,000 from his comptroller's salary and their public pensions. Still, he said he had to remortgage his Queens home to pay off the debt.

In justifying the use of the driver, Hevesi said his wife has been ill for decades, undergoing numerous back surgeries, heart surgery and attempting suicide in the 1990s.

Earlier story: Hev road ends in mug shot

Controller becomes a felon today as
he pleads guilty after chauffeur scandal


ALBANY - He will arrive some time in the morning, escorted to a police booking room where he will have his mug shot taken.

He will press his hand into damp ink to create a fingerprint card.

And by the time his day is done, State Controller Alan Hevesi will be a felon - his political career finished.

At 11 a.m. today, Hevesi is slated to plead guilty to a Class E felony charge of defrauding the government and resign his post, according to sources familiar with the plea negotiations.

The guilty plea stems from a grand jury probe into Hevesi's use of a state worker as his wife's chauffeur.

Courthouse sources said Hevesi's team of lawyers had pressed to get their client off with a misdemeanor.

But sources familiar with the talks said Albany County District Attorney David Soares was reluctant to accept that, since Hevesi could have faced a higher-grade felony under the law.

And although sources confirmed Hevesi won't have to do any time behind bars, he will still be treated like a criminal this morning.

After his mug shot is taken, he will then fill out a questionnaire asking for his place of birth, his religion, his marital status and even his Social Security number, law enforcement officials said.

Hevesi, 66, will even have to open his mouth as a deputy inserts a Baccal swab, resembling a Q-tip, in order to swipe saliva for a DNA sample that will enter a crime-solving databank of genetic information.

"He'll get the same treatment here that everyone else gets," said one official, who asked not to be named.

Hevesi spokesman David Neustadt declined to comment on the scheduled arraignment of his boss and would not say where the controller spent the day yesterday.

"He's not in Albany and he's not in New York City," he said.

Hevesi insisted during the recent campaign season that he broke no laws when he assigned the driver for his wife, but admitted he made a "mistake" in not repaying the money to the state earlier.

He has since agreed to pay more than $200,000 for the more than three years his ailing wife, Carol Hevesi, had a state driver - but insisted that his overwhelming reelection last month showed that voters believed he should stay in office.

The driver, Nicholas Acquafredda, admitted running errands for Hevesi's wife, including making her bed and picking up her dry cleaning.

The Legislature is expected to choose a successor for Hevesi after it returns to the Capitol next month.

The Rev. Al Sharpton told The News he is following the Hevesi succession developments closely and wants Spitzer and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to ensure that the replacement is committed to hiring more blacks, Hispanics and Asians as pension fund managers.

"Lack of diversity there has been a concern," he said.

Until a permanent successor is named, sources said the interim boss is expected to be Jack Chartier, who also had his own chauffeur issue.

The controller's office has acknowledged Chartier allowed "Mod Squad" actress Peggy Lipton to get free rides in Manhattan from one of his drivers.

Changing his tune

State Controller Alan Hevesi has steadfastly maintained that his use of a state worker to chauffeur his wife around was a mistake in judgment - not a criminal offense. A sampling of his denials:

Dec. 12: "I do not admit the [attorney general's] findings and, in fact, I deny many of them."

Nov. 7: "Now that the elections are over, I hope fair-minded people will see that mistake was just that."

Nov. 3: "Honest concern for my wife, Carol, led me to make a stupid mistake. I'm truly sorry. Now, unfairly, some politicians want to stampede me out of office. ... I'm human. I'm a good controller who did a dumb thing."

Oct. 30: "I don't think impeachment proceedings would be fair."

Oct. 27: "Even controllers who've been in the office for a long time ... can make mistakes."

Oct. 25: "I have no reason to resign. My record is a remarkable record."

Oct. 20: "I am going to have to reestablish with people my credibility, based on nearly 40 years of performance. This is the aberration."

Sept. 28: "I'm taking a pounding, and it's well-deserved. It was irresponsible of me."

Originally published on December 22, 2006

Jewish group condemns Rep. Virgil Goode's anti-Muslim remarks

I am no fan of ADL, but in this case they are right.

December 21, 2006

Representative Virgil Goode, Jr
U.S, House of Representatives
Washington, DC

Dear Representative Goode:

We are writing to express strong concerns about reports that you sent a letter to constituents assailing immigration to the United States by Muslims and the use of the Koran to swear in an elected Member of Congress.

Your letter demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of the fundamental religious guarantees enshrined in the US Constitution. Article VI, Clause 3 states that, "no religious Test shall ever be required" to hold public office in America. Members of Congress, like all Americans, should be free to observe their own religious practices without government interference or coercion.

As you must know from personal experience, no Member of Congress is officially sworn in with a Bible. Under House rules, the official swearing-in ceremony is done in the House chambers, with the Speaker of the House administering the oath of office en masse. No Bibles or other holy books are used at all.

You assert that only adoption of "the Virgil Goode position on immigration" can "preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America." While we would note that Representative-elect Ellison is not an immigrant, we must take issue with your view that immigration to the US by Muslims or members of any other faith is somehow not in concert with American values and traditions. Quite the contrary. A fundamental hallmark of America is in how we as a nation have embraced immigrants of all faiths and national origins.

Your letter states your "fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States." To suggest Muslims should be viewed with fear, based solely on their faith, demonizes millions of people living in our communities. This is of special concern at a time when the stereotyping and disparate treatment of communities as part of debates over immigration or counterterrorism policy impacts those people in very tangible ways, including making them more vulnerable to bias-motivated violence.

Reasonable people can and will disagree on the best course for our nation's immigration policy. It is clear, however, that there is a direct connection between the tone of the national policy debate and the atmosphere surrounding the daily lives of immigrants - legal and illegal. Politicians and civic leaders have a responsibility not to engage in divisive appeals based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion.

It is both ironic and troubling that the sentiments expressed come from an elected leader from the Commonwealth of Virginia, a state that is often referred to as the birthplace of religious freedom in America. Many of the principles of religious freedom that were inscribed in our Constitution were proposed, of course, by Virginia's own Thomas Jefferson.

What truly unifies all Americans, Rep. Goode, is a value system built on religious freedom, respect for differences, and democratic pluralism. We urge you to rethink your ill-conceived remarks about Muslims in America.


David C. Friedman
ADL Washington DC Regional Director

Krugman -- Flat-Out WRONG

Dec 22, 2006

By Bonddad

Today's Paul Krugman writes an essay in the NY Times arguing that the Democrats should not try and fix the deficit. While is argument is clear and cogent, it is also 100% wrong. Below I will explain why.

Here is a link to the editorial

Now that the Democrats have regained some power, they have to decide what to do. One of the biggest questions is whether the party should return to Rubinomics — the doctrine, associated with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, that placed a very high priority on reducing the budget deficit.

The answer, I believe, is no. Mr. Rubin was one of the ablest Treasury secretaries in American history. But it’s now clear that while Rubinomics made sense in terms of pure economics, it failed to take account of the ugly realities of contemporary American politics.

And the lesson of the last six years is that the Democrats shouldn’t spend political capital trying to bring the deficit down. They should refrain from actions that make the deficit worse. But given a choice between cutting the deficit and spending more on good things like health care reform, they should choose the spending.


But the realities of American politics ensured that it was all for naught. The second President Bush quickly squandered the surplus on tax cuts that heavily favored the wealthy, then plunged the budget deep into deficit by cutting taxes on dividends and capital gains even as he took the country into a disastrous war. And you can even argue that Mr. Rubin’s surplus was a bad thing, because it greased the rails for Mr. Bush’s irresponsibility.

As Brad DeLong, a Berkeley economist who served in the Clinton administration, recently wrote on his influential blog: "Rubin and us spearcarriers moved heaven and earth to restore fiscal balance to the American government in order to raise the rate of economic growth. But what we turned out to have done, in the end, was to enable George W. Bush


With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that conservatives who claimed to care about deficits when Democrats were in power never meant it. Let’s not forget how Alan Greenspan, who posed as the high priest of fiscal rectitude as long as Bill Clinton was in the White House, became an apologist for tax cuts — even in the face of budget deficits — once a Republican took up residence.

I understand what Krugman is saying -- by actually balancing the budget the Democrats would allow another Bush to come in and screw things up.

While I am sympathetic to that argument from a political perspective, I am completely opposed to it from a policy perspective for several reasons.

1.) The dollar is approaching multi-year years. While there are several reasons for this, the lack of fiscal discipline in Washington is one reason. Restoring fiscal discipline to Washington will help to bolster the dollar. Here is a recent chart of the dollar to illustrate what I am talking about.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

2.) According to the Bureau of Public Debt, the US has issued over $550 billion dollars of net new debt each year for the last 4 years. The debt/GDP ratio now stands at over 60% of GDP. Simply maintaining that pace under a "do not harm" governing strategy will increase the burden on future generations. In addition, if we don't start addressing this issue now, it could spiral out of control and get to the point where it addresses us.

3.) It would increase the market's confidence. Corporations have a ton of cash on their balance sheet right now. However, they aren't spending it. That leads to the question of why? One of the reasons is the uncertainty to the current economic situation. Businesses look to the Federal government and see a mess. They know that eventually someone will have to clean it up. And that means tax increases and spending cuts. As a result, businesses are shoring up their balance sheets for that possibility. Balancing the budget will free up these balance sheets for more domestic investment.

4.) The end of crowding out. In line with 2 and 3 above, the net new issuance of debt means there is over $550 billion in money invested in government bonds that could be invested in the domestic economy. The US economy desperately needs this money.

Update [2006-12-22 9:37:19 by bonddad]:: I wrote the preceding in a fit of pique, so I left a few things out.

5.) Krugman wrote that Dems should spend on things like health care, etc... That's a good idea. But -- where is the money for that going to come from? Thanks to Bush's policies we are in debt. There ain't any money there.

6.) As the chart below indicates, the US is more and more obligated to foreign holders of US debt. Some of this is the result of the trade deficit. However, thanks to the budget deficit, the US is floating lots of debt as well.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

7.) The entire US system is currently based on a "rentier" system. Because the US floats all this debt, it has to create a tax system that promotes debt. Hence -- the need to cut capital gains taxes and income taxes on upper-income individuals. After these taxes get cut, the US is more able to promote the "borrow and squander" theory of budgeting. Until we dry up the supply of debt, politicians will be more likely to promote the current system.

While I respect Krugman's intellect and ability, here he is simply wrong.

For market and quick hit economic commentary, go to the Bonddad Blog

Remember Do’a, martyred by the Occupation on her way from school

Latest News, Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, December 21st, 2006

Fara’on - Do’a Abdel Khader Naser, a 13 year old girl from Izbet Naser close to Fara’on village south of Tulkarem, was killed yesterday by bullets from the Israeli occupation. Do’a was shot in the chest and hand as she walked past the Apartheid Wall north of Fara’on.

The people of the village witnessed the Israeli occupiers firing a torrent of bullets toward Do’a and her ten year old friend Rasha as they walked by the Wall on their way back from school. When ambulances and doctors rushed to the scene they were prevented from entering by the occupation forces and while Rasha escaped physically unharmed, Do’a was left, untreated, to bleed to death.

Doa’s coffin was carried through the streets of Tulkarem district yesterday afternoon as hundreds of people marched behind it in anger. Joining in the march were Doa’s friends and students from many other schools in Tulkarem. Doa was laid to rest in Tulkarem graveyard.

During the march, people called for national unity and asked for Palestinian political parties to stop fighting each other and to unite in fighting the Occupation. Do’a’s father is one of more than 10 000 Palestinians jailed in Israeli prisons and was prevented by the occupation from seeing his daughter for the last time.

Fara’on, encircled from three sides by the Apartheid Wall, has had much of its land isolated or destroyed by the Wall or stolen and polluted by the Israeli chemical factory Gheshuri.

  • Search for more about Tulkarem on this site.
  • US, China square off over SE Asia

    Washington is losing its sway over Southeast Asia as its chief competitor China emerges as a global power with a diplomatically attractive no-strings-attached policy on aid and investment. As US hegemony gradually comes to an end, so too it seems will the region's short-lived experiments with democracy and financial liberalism.

    US, China square off
    By Shawn W Crispin

    BANGKOK - Of all the factors that contributed to Thailand's mid-December decision to impose restrictive controls on short-term capital flows, which subsequently flattened the stock market and sparked howls of discontent from foreign investors, Thai authorities' primary motivation for the fateful policy was left unnamed, but clearly it was China rather than the US.

    The rapid appreciation of the free-floating Thai baht against the fixed-rate Chinese yuan rather than the US dollar had in recent months severely eroded Thailand's overall export competitiveness, particularly in the crucial electronics sector, which accounts for about 35% of Thai exports. If the baht-yuan gap had widened further, Thai central bank authorities feared that a stronger baht would have bankrupted its exporters and severely crimped economic growth.

    It's not the first time that China's rigid exchange-rate policy has sent ripples of financial instability through Southeast Asia. In retrospect, some economists believe that Beijing's decision in 1994 to peg the yuan to the US dollar at the artificially low rate of 8.2 per greenback was a crucial determining factor in the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, which devastated the region's currencies, bourses, banks and broad economies.

    The move to a pegged rate facilitated China's emergence as a global economic powerhouse, in many respects at the expense of Southeast Asia's financially crippled export-driven economies. Then, Beijing extended a symbolic US$1 billion to the region's suddenly debt-ridden governments. Since, Beijing has launched an economic charm offensive across the region, facilitating trade and investment linkages for regional countries to share in the Middle Kingdom's explosive growth.

    China has firmly emerged as an important new destination for the region's natural-resource exports, a supplier of cheap goods and services and, increasingly, a source of badly needed foreign direct investment. Southeast Asia's growing economic reorientation toward China is expected to accelerate into 2007, as the United States' appetite for the region's exports tapers off because of slowing economic growth.

    Geographical pull means Southeast Asia will increasingly look toward its giant northern neighbor for new trade and investment opportunities, a trend that should accelerate as regional business seeks ways to make up for lost sales to the US. That's already happening: Sino-Southeast Asia trade surged to $130 billion in 2005 and is on pace to grow even faster this year. The two sides are now negotiating a free-trade agreement that would potentially form the world's largest free-trade area in the world by 2010.

    Double-edged sword
    But China's economic advance into Southeast Asia has not been a strictly benign phenomenon, as frequently characterized by Chinese officials upon the announcement of "mutually beneficial" trade, investment and aid pacts. Thailand's recent drastic reaction to China's pegged exchange rate tells a significantly different story, one that threatens to undermine the region's broad post-1997 trend toward more financial openness, particularly in export-oriented economies in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines that, like Thailand, are seeing their exports squeezed by an appreciating exchange rate vis-a-vis the Chinese yuan.

    Moreover, Chinese aid and investment, while stimulating much-needed economic growth, has also helped to prop up some of the region's more authoritarian regimes, including those in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. With China's rise, Southeast Asian governments are increasingly able to pick and choose between economic engagement with either the US or China, and many are opting to open their economies to Beijing because Chinese capital comes without the political baggage of US finger-wagging about the need to move towards more democracy and universal economic openness.

    China's fast rise and the United States' slow fade from Southeast Asia is unmistakably undermining the region's often tumultuous but at the same time highly important experiments with democracy, economic openness and financial liberalism. This represents a significant course shift, one that threatens to undermine the region's once bold, now fading, democratic aspirations.

    During the Cold War, when the US, Europe and Japan fueled the region's rapid economic growth through free trade and manufacturing-oriented investments, the economic privileges were often predicated on a loose understanding that recipient countries would move toward more liberal democracy and economic openness - a policy that in retrospect worked to varying degrees of success.

    When the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis broke out, the US-influenced International Monetary Fund predicated its multibillion-dollar bailout packages on a commitment to more, not less, economic and financial openness. That strings-attached counsel included the abandonment of the region's fixed-exchange-rate regimes for free-floating ones, and the subsequent market-driven devaluations helped to spark the region's exports and economic recoveries.

    At the same time, Washington often scolded and in some egregious cases even imposed sanctions on Southeast Asian countries for their poor rights records, including an arms embargo on longtime ally Indonesia over military-related abuses in East Timor, and full-blown trade and investment sanctions against oil-and-gas-rich Myanmar related to its long-standing abysmal rights record.

    Bygone moral era
    Those demands and sanctions, however, hark to an arguably bygone era when the US was widely perceived in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in Asia as a moral force for democratic change. The George W Bush administration's recent policy emphasis on regional cooperation for its counter-terrorism campaign, and its attendant restrictions on civil liberties, including the implementation of anti-terror codes allowing for detention without trial, policies the US previously scolded in the region, has badly eroded the United States' stature here.

    Moreover, Beijing's mix of political repression and economic success has sent a bold new message to the region's leaders that democracy and financial openness are not necessarily preconditions for economic prosperity. China's various anti-democratic policies, from its brutal crackdowns on free speech and political dissent, to its sophisticated control and censorship of the Internet, to its outrageous official land grabs from urban squatters and rural peasants, are gaining currency across Southeast Asian countries that increasingly see China as a development role model.

    Worryingly, that trend is taking hold not only in Southeast Asia's underdeveloped but emerging economies, but is also prompting anti-liberal backtracking in the region's more established economies, including Thailand and the Philippines.

    Consider the US-versus-China contest now under way for influence in Cambodia. In recent years, Phnom Penh has relied heavily on Western donors for its economic sustenance, including aid that accounted for more than 60% of the government's annual budget. To sustain that Western aid, the Cambodian government was required to move toward more democracy and economic openness - a policy that was arguably successful by half.

    When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen jailed a journalist in 2005 for his critical reporting, the authoritarian premier was forced to back down and release the scribe by US and Western pressure. Hun Sen was also apparently persuaded by the US and European countries to amend Cambodia's criminal-defamation codes and eliminated jail terms as a possible penalty for libel.

    Enter China into the mix: in April, Beijing extended $600 million worth of no-strings-attached foreign aid, on par with the Western-led Consultative Group's contingency-laden $601 million. Since, Hun Sen's government has resumed jailing critical journalists on so-called "disinformation" charges, a popular tactic Beijing uses against Chinese journalists. And there are growing indications that the government is trying to wiggle out of its commitment to a United Nations-backed tribunal for former Khmer Rouge leaders which promises to unearth details of China's past support for the murderous Maoist regime.

    Myanmar represents another case in point. Myanmar's ruling junta for years teetered on the brink of financial collapse under US-led economic and investment sanctions, imposed for the military regime's abysmal rights record. Beijing sometimes provided a helping hand when finances were particularly tight, including in the wake of the 1997-98 regional financial crisis, but Myanmar's sorry financial state then reflected the still-tentative state of China's own national finances.

    Now, Myanmar's generals are swimming in cash and politically secure as an economically empowered China invests heavily in the country's untapped oil, gas and hydropower resources. China provided crucial funds to finance the junta's bizarre and expensive 2005 move of the national capital from coastal Yangon to inland Naypyidaw, a move apparently motivated by the junta's peculiar fears of a possible US-led preemptive invasion.

    Abandoned high ground
    As China gains more economic and political influence in Southeast Asia's less developed peripheral states, the US is increasingly abandoning the democratic high ground and subordinating its regional diplomacy to plain economic and strategic interests - that is, the US is contesting the region on China's terms, not its own.

    That was plain in the recent trade deal the US brokered with Vietnam - a country that both Washington and Beijing are bidding to sway into their diplomatic orbit. Earlier, the US had pushed Hanoi to improve its abysmal religious- and human-rights record substantially before the US would back its bid to accede to the World Trade Organization. In November, Bush blatantly backtracked on that requirement and endorsed Vietnam's membership to the world trade body even as the communist regime brutally cracked down on the country's nascent pro-democracy movement, including while Bush was attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting held in Hanoi.

    Even where US interests are firmly entrenched, China's growing influence is altering the United States' diplomatic calculus, prompting it to drop democracy promotion from its policy priorities toward the region.

    In November 2005, the US dropped an arms embargo it had maintained against the Indonesian military after it went on a death and destruction rampage in the wake of East Timor's 1999 vote for independence. The flip-flop came soon after China extended $300 million in credits for Indonesian infrastructure projects and more than $10 billion more in private-sector investments. The policy U-turn also notably came at a time the Indonesian military was coming under new fire from international rights groups for alleged human-rights abuses in Papua province - where the Indonesian government tellingly bans foreigners from traveling.

    Similarly, Washington repealed about $14 million in military aid to Thailand in the wake of the September 19 military coup that abolished the progressive 1997 constitution and ousted democratically elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - who coincidentally was viewed in Washington as moving its erstwhile strategic ally in the region closer to China.

    Tellingly, in the wake of the coup the US quietly maintained aid earmarked for Thai-US anti-terrorism cooperation, including funds for the Bangkok-based Central Intelligence Agency-led Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Center, which apparently played a role in establishing the secret prison Thailand hosted for the US to interrogate regional terror suspects, as first reported in the Washington Post.

    Concerned that the US might lose a step to China - which significantly remained mum on the military coup - US Ambassador to Thailand Skip Boyce in a meeting directly after the coup reassured the country's new military leaders that Washington was obliged by law to sanction the military intervention and that bilateral relations would stay on track despite the Thai junta's suspension of civil liberties, according to a senior Thai official.

    Even in the Philippines, where the US has now stationed troops to help the Philippine armed forces flush out Muslim insurgent groups that Washington believes have links to international terror groups, China is making distinct economic inroads. In September, China announced its intention to extend $2 billion in loans to the Philippines, a generous offer that dwarfed the $200 million the US-influenced World Bank and Asian Development Bank tabled. Moreover, Beijing's backing to a an official Code of Conduct for the South China Sea helped to ease Philippine concerns about the two countries' longtime competing claims to the Spratly Islands.

    Shifting strategic calculus
    China's economic diplomacy is in effect easing Southeast Asia's historical skittishness about Beijing's long-term intentions toward the contiguous region. In turn, that's slowly but surely starting to erode the United States' rationale for maintaining and expanding a strong strategic position in the region, and is in effect undermining Washington's apparent designs to fragment the region into competitive pro-US and pro-China camps. To be sure, certain regional countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia remain wary of China's growing strategic clout and still favor a counterbalancing US presence.

    Yet the US is tellingly having a tougher time selling new strategic regional overtures, because of a growing number of countries' concerns that overtly siding with the US could irk China, which has long feared US strategic designs of encircling its porous southern periphery. In July, landlocked and impoverished Laos rebuffed a US offer to send military engineers to help build schools, clinics and roads. Laotian Defense Minister Major-General Duangchay Phichit said his country would welcome US funds, but not US troops on Laotian soil.

    More significant, Vietnam, which fought a border war with China in 1979, has reacted coolly to recent US overtures to gain access to military port and airport facilities at Cam Ranh Bay because of its concerns about how China might react. And strategic analysts say Indonesia's recent decision to purchase as much as $3 billion worth of Russian rather than US armaments was partially made to allay Beijing's concerns about US-Indonesian military interoperability during a potential US-China conflict where the US might attempt to block the nearby Malacca Strait, through which about 80% of China's imported oil currently flows.

    All this means that the US has lost a significant step to China - economically, politically, and strategically - in Southeast Asia's increasingly important strategic theater. All indications are that the region is moving toward more Chinese and less US influence, and as US hegemony gradually comes to an end, so too it seems are Southeast Asia's short-lived experiments with democracy and financial liberalism.

    Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia editor.

    Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd.