Sunday, December 24, 2006

No 10 'in panic' as Yard extends 'cash for honours' inquiry

By Marie Woolf, Political Editor

Published: 24 December 2006

The UK's elections watchdog is to decide whether Labour has broken the law over cash for honours, and will advise police on whether a case should go to court.

The Electoral Commission will play a crucial role in the Scotland Yard inquiry and advise if there is enough evidence to prosecute Labour. Any file would then be presented to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Amid panic in Downing Street, police are understood to have widened their inquiry and to be examining several aspects of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) which the party is believed to have flouted. Sources close to the inquiry believe the case for a prosecution is getting stronger.

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that police are "taking very seriously" evidence that several parts of the Act may have been breached. Scotland Yard is specifically looking at whether, if loans were made on non-commercial terms, Labour failed to disclose the "benefit", besides other possible breaches.

The Electoral Commission has already met the police on several occasions to advise on the law over loans and donations to political parties. The commission is expected to be given the complete file of secret police evidence in late January and asked whether it thinks the case is strong enough to prosecute.

Experts say the allegation that honours were promised in return for cash is bolstered by Labour's apparent attempts to cover up the receipt of loans from millionaire donors who were proposed for honours by Tony Blair.

Labour failed to disclose the loans in its 2004 accounts, and kept its ruling body, the National Executive Committee, in the dark about them. The party's treasurer, Jack Dromey, and most of the Cabinet were also not informed in what is being seen as evidence of a deliberate attempt to keep the loans quiet. Sir Gulam Noon, who was proposed for a peerage by Mr Blair, was also told by Lord Levy to remove a reference to the loan in his nomination form to the House of Lords because it did not technically have to be included.

As leader of the Labour Party, Mr Blair could be culpable under the law, along with Matt Carter, the former general secretary and registered treasurer of the party. Penalties under the Act include prison terms of up to a year. Mr Blair's police interview focused on his decision to nominate four millionaire donors to the Labour Party for honours. The police wanted to know why he thought the millionaires, who also lent money to Labour, were suitable for positions in the Lords.

Under the 1925 Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act, the police are investigating allegations that millionaire Labour donors and lenders received peerages in return for huge donations and loans to the Labour Party in the months before.

Labour has begun to pay back the loans and last week repaid several hundred thousand pounds to Sir Christopher Evans, the biotechnology millionaire who lent Labour £1m and was subsequently arrested in the cash-for-honours affair. The repayment, the first in a number of instalments, included interest accumulated at 2 per cent above the Bank of England base rate.

Downing Street officials including Ruth Turner, John McTernan, director of political operations, and Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair's chief of staff, are expected to be reinterviewed by the police about gaps in evidence.

The police are considering whether the loans were given on commercial terms. If not, Labour should have publicly disclosed the "benefit" of receiving loans on favourable financial terms. Other political parties, including the Liberal Democrats, have disclosed the financial benefits of receiving loans on favourable terms.

Senior Republican Rep. Changes Mind On Iraq War

Souder reflects on turbulent winds of change
Revises opinions on Iraq war, GOP in the minority

Washington editor

WASHINGTON – Twelve years into his congressional career, Rep. Mark Souder, R-3rd, was the chairman of a subcommittee and claimed a close friendship with the speaker of the House. He was sometimes involved in developing the final contours of legislation presented to the House.

In the 13th year, he will lose all of that as Republicans face the realities of political life as the minority party.

At the end of each year since he entered Congress in 1995, Souder has talked with The Journal Gazette’s Washington editor, Sylvia Smith, to recap the legislative and political ups and downs of Washington. This is an edited transcript of this year’s conversation.

Journal Gazette: Iraq came to dominate the national consciousness. You voted for the war and said at the time that the rationale was protecting U.S. interests because of the likelihood of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and probably harboring terrorists – not setting up a democratic government. What is the evolution of your thinking this year?

Souder: My evolution this year was: In my opinion, it’s been a civil war. But the question of a civil war is: Is there a functioning central government that can win a civil war? … What’s not clear to me is if this government can ever be stable and that the civil war has gone from skirmishing and marginal fighting at the terrorist level and some Shiite militias to the dominant pattern. There’s no number of troops we can put on the ground to basically battle inside of a large-scale civil war without a functioning central government.

If we see that it’s developed that way, do we stay to 2008 or do we get out in 2007? At what point do you say we’ve gone across the line where there’s not a hope of stability or at least that it appears to be small?

What’s the answer to your own question?

I think it’s intriguing that the president is looking at trying to put more troops on the ground like Sen. McCain has suggested all the way along. But my impression – and I haven’t been there since spring – is that we’ve passed that point. Even doubling the number of troops on the ground won’t do it. Instead of just having potentially a few thousand people that you’re trying to stabilize who are picking at random where to hit, or even 20,000, basically at this point the whole country’s engaged. Which means an increase in troop power isn’t going to stabilize it.

What’s been the most dramatic influence on your thinking about the war?

I’ve talked to a number of soldiers who’ve come back. I’ve seen a change in the attitude of the soldiers. They’re no longer saying the media isn’t reporting (the good news). They’re saying on the ground it’s different.

(Souder said he’s asked northeast Indiana soldiers whether they would volunteer to embed with a few other U.S. troops into an Iraqi force going to battle. They reply:) “No way.” They don’t think they’ll fight. (One said) there could be people inside the group that’ll kill you. This is not the commanders talking; these are actual soldiers talking. Those are not good signs.

Then (they say Iraqi soldiers are) crooked. What do you mean, they’re crooked? I assumed I would hear they’re taking supplies and selling them off. (But U.S. soldiers say) they either give information to Sunnis or give information to Shias about where we’re going and who we’re trying to raid. That’s actually a worse crookedness.

Those things suggest to me that if your troops are losing confidence and it’s consistent, if the police and military aren’t actually in Iraq taking control of the ground and the resistance is expanding, there’s no hope.

(Souder said he’s read a number of books, including Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial,” that contradicted information from the Bush administration, all of which also influenced his revised view. He said the soldiers’ feedback plus what he’s read helped reshape his thinking.)

Are you saying it’s time to withdraw from Iraq?

It’s the beginning of the end. The question now is how fast.

That is the question. What’s your opinion?

What is it going to look like if we all of a sudden immediately pulled out, pulled out in six months, 12 months or 18 months? Now we’re back to what’s in the interest of the United States and our world security picture, not trying to establish a government in Iraq. … I don’t have any confidence they have a plan. So maybe our troops have to stay there till ’08 till we get a plan of what’s a withdrawal look like. So I don’t know the answer to your question, but I know what variables I’m looking for.

If they can make a compelling case that more troops on the ground would give us a chance, I’m willing to listen. But I’m highly skeptical.

Would you say your disillusionment with the war has tracked the public’s?

I was willing to give more of a benefit of the doubt longer and held out hope they could stabilize the government longer than most of the general public. I’m probably still more willing to look at strategic variables. I think the general public has moved very rapidly to the faster the better. But I think the gap has closed.

In my opinion the American people have already closed the book on “are we willing to wait until they have established a free and democratic government that’s safe and secure in Iraq?” The answer is no – unless they can do it awful fast.

What was Congress’ biggest legislative accomplishment this year?

We did get a large number of the tax cuts extended, which was very important for economic growth. We had a whole series of health bills, including health savings accounts that were not only extended but expanded. Thirdly, in the veterans area, the best way to describe this: I had an interesting letter. This lady sent me (a note) and said her husband believes with the Democrats in control, they’ll do more for veterans. She said Republicans did more for veterans and what do I think will happen?

(Laughing) You’re an impartial commentator?

We were. What I said was the fact that veterans benefits have soared in the last few years, and we did another increase in this last stretch. But it’s because we have an aging of the veterans population, we’re at war and no matter who is in control they’re going to increase benefits. Since the Democrats are now in control, they’re going to do more even than we did. So the answer is both parties are doing more for veterans.

In the social issue area, we passed a number of things in the House, but not as much became law. We had some successes in pro-life initiatives and family initiatives.

We made a fair amount of progress on alternative energy, and I think you’ll see that increase.

What were Congress’ biggest legislative lapses?

I’ve been frustrated on the reform efforts as they related to earmarks. I felt we have been very slow in responding to the reform movement in the United States. Every reform we did we were dragged kicking and screaming, it seems like, as a party.

I don’t think we reacted fast enough on Foley. I don’t think you can just make presumptions about somebody because they were gay, but there were warning signs that they should have been more careful of. They didn’t act fast enough. That’s just part of this whole attitude of reform and enforcing rules. They didn’t react fast enough on Ney. They didn’t react fast enough on Cunningham or in reforming the system. (Rep. Mark Foley resigned after his inappropriate e-mails to teenage congressional pages came to light; Reps. Bob Ney and Randy Cunningham were sentenced to prison for accepting bribes.)

I don’t think we impressed anybody with how we handled Iraq. I think we’ve improved some of the problems that we had with stovepiping of intelligence. But some of the things that we didn’t tackle – by the way, the Democrats already showed they aren’t going to tackle either – we didn’t streamline the (congressional) committee structure, which is where it starts.

I also think we let the deficit get too big. I’m not saying I don’t understand why and the tradeoffs. But it got too big too fast in the spending.

What was your biggest accomplishment this year?

The biggest single thing was that we got the ONDCP, the drug czar’s office, finally authorized for five years. (ONDCP is the Office of National Drug Control Policy.)

(Souder noted that the House passed the bill previously, but the Senate did not act until this year.) What really brought us together first off was the continued refusal of the drug czar’s office to recognize that meth was a problem. So Sen. Grassley finally realized the only way to force the (administration’s) hand was the two of us trying to work out – that bill has five and a half pages of meth strategy in it. I don’t believe you should write executive branch guidelines too rigidly, but since they aren’t doing it, we did. I spent a fair amount of time on various homeland security issues, on the vocational ed act. We had a number of things inside that. I view those as good, solid direct accomplishments. The biggest breakthrough, which hopefully will be finished next year, was getting the Veterans Hospital situation turned around from being a “close down” to a most likely a “keep the inpatient care in Fort Wayne.”

Any disappointments?

I thought we could make a little more progress in the national parks. (Souder is pushing a bill to increase funding for the national parks.) 2016 is the 100th birthday of the national parks. To be prepared and have them in great shape … you have to plan ahead. We’re looking, without major changes in funding and systems in the National Parks Service, at losing perhaps as many as maybe 50 percent of the rangers, of having major curtailings and shutdowns because of the cost of operating today.

I was also hoping we’d make more progress in alternative energy. I lost twice (on a bill to give lawsuit exemption to groups that set rules for amateur sports). I was frustrated that we didn’t do better on the military score card (a bill that would require the Pentagon to rate the pet projects of lawmakers included in the defense budget). In a number of our key pro-life things we were defeated – the unborn pain awareness, the Plan B. We got setbacks on intelligent design. A lot of the social issues it was a year we tried to make progress, we had the debates, but we lost.

The events of one day – Election Day – will radically change your job status next year and perhaps your approach to your job. How will your constituents notice that you are no longer a member of the House majority and that you do not chair a subcommittee or have ready access to the House speaker?

Part of the irony with this is in spite of – this is, by the way, perhaps the only compliment I’m going to directly pay to The Journal Gazette for a while – the efforts of you and The Journal Gazette to keep people informed on a day-to-day basis as much as possible of what we actually do in Congress, most people don’t pay attention.

I think it’ll have some substantive impact, but your question was: What will people notice? Nothing.

What about the substantive effect?

I’m not going to be in the room (where decisions are made) at the end of the day on certain bills. Quite frankly, I’m not sure with Nancy Pelosi being the speaker and the Democrats writing (legislation) I’d want to be in the room on those bills because they’ll be, in many cases, bills I wouldn’t agree with.

Ironically, in some things where I am a little more moderate, I’m going to now be able to get some of the things that I personally introduced that I couldn’t convince the Republicans to do, done.

Like what?

The national parks. In Head Start I wanted the parents to be on the council. Chairman Boehner (Rep. John Boehner, chairman of the Education Committee under the GOP House), opposed me. My support was mostly from the Democratic side. Now I have a pretty good chance of winning that point. The irony is some of my personal legislation I may be able to get done more under the Democrats, but on the big issues of the day, I don’t think there will be more tax cuts, I don’t think we’re going to get deficit reduction, I worry about certain abilities to track terrorists. On those bigger-picture things, where I stand ideologically is where the biggest differences will be.

As you and others have mentioned, members of the minority party can criticize and object without actually having to write legislation that will pass. How will you use that freedom?

I haven’t really decided. Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic chairmen coming in – how much will they show their true liberal colors, and how much will they be cautious in these two years? If they stay more cautions, then I’ll be more pragmatic. If they go farther left, then we’ll have more of a battle.

I think some Republicans are going to want to battle no matter what. But I think the bulk of us are watching carefully. If they show some olive branch, the majority of the Republican Party wants to try to work with them.

In what occasion this year did your faith help you the most?

Probably with about three weeks to go in the election (which he won against Democrat Tom Hayhurst). Because the election had drawn close, I didn’t have enough money, and I felt the attacks were very unfair. It was the first time I looked at it and said two things. One is, if I lose, am I happy with what I’ve done? And secondly, am I comfortable that if I do my best, this is in God’s hands?

How did that questioning work out?

It calms you down, enables you to cope. And then we went out and raised a lot of money and fought back.

The key thing with being a Christian is it isn’t like it takes away all problems. It’s just that you get a peace about the problems. Sometimes you get pictures of these Christians who wander around with a smile on their face saying, “Hit me again.” No, I didn’t want to be hit again. It’s just that you have peace and that you’re doing your best and that whatever’s going to happen will happen.

Yes, You Are the Person of the Year! : FRANK RICH - Fleeing Reality

The New York Times

Yes, You Are the Person of the Year!

Published: December 24, 2006

This was the year Americans escaped as often as they could into their private pleasure pods.

TIME’S choice for 2006 Person of the Year — “You” — was a bountiful gift of mirth to America, second only to the championship Donald Trump-Rosie O’Donnell bout as a comic kickoff to the holiday season. The magazine’s cover stunt, a computer screen of Mylar reflecting the reader’s own image, was so hokey that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert merely had to display it on camera to score laughs. The magazine’s disingenuous rationale for bestowing its yearly honor on its readers was like a big wet kiss from a distant relative who creeps you out.

According to Time, “You” deserve to be Person of the Year because you — “yes, you,” as the cover puts it — “control the Information Age” and spend a lot of time watching YouTube and blogging instead of, well, reading dead-tree media like Time. The pronouncements ginned up to inflate this theme include the observation that “Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger” (which presumably makes the Old Testament in effect the first Facebook). The desperation of Time to appear relevant and hip — “fantastically cutting-edge and New Media,” as Nora Ephron put it in a hilarious essay for The Huffington Post — was embarrassing in its nakedness.

And sad.


Residents blame U.S. for deadly attack in Baquba

Story Highlights
•No one has claimed responsibility for the Baquba rocket attack, official says
•U.S. makes no comment, investigates incident
•13 people still captive after Baghdad kidnapping, Iraqi Red Crescent says

BAQUBA, Iraq (CNN) -- Residents in Baquba blamed U.S. troops for a rocket attack that killed six people and wounded six others, including women and children, a Baquba joint coordination center official said Saturday.

Rockets landed on a residential neighborhood Friday, leveling one of the houses and partially damaging several others.

It was not known who attacked the town 37 miles northeast of Baghdad, and no one has claimed responsibility.

The U.S. military declined to comment Saturday but said it was investigating the incident.

Baquba, the provincial capital of ethnically mixed Diyala province, is a hotspot for insurgent strongholds.

In the city of Diwaniya, police found the bullet-riddled body of an Iraqi military intelligence officer a day after he had been kidnapped.

Police identified him as Hussein Jabr Hadwan, who was previously employed to protect Iraq's former interim defense minister Hazem al-Shaalan.

The bullet-riddled body of a member of the government's facilities protection force was also found, police said.

Diwaniya, located in Iraq's Qadisiya province, was the scene of fierce clashes between Shiite militias and the U.S. Army in October.

In Ramadi, coalition forces killed a terrorist and arrested nine insurgents in a raid targeting individuals linked with al Qaeda in Iraq Saturday, the U.S. military announced.

U.S. and Iraqi troops have been fighting insurgents for many months in Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province.

Red Crescent Society: 13 still in captivity

Nearly a third of the 41 people abducted at or near an Iraqi Red Crescent Society office in Baghdad early this week remain in captivity, an Iraqi Red Crescent Society official said Saturday.

Police said the people had been abducted by gunmen dressed in camouflage Iraqi commando uniforms.

The 13 hostages were among employees, cleaners, visitors and two Dutch Embassy security guards seized on Sunday, said Mazin Abdullah, secretary general of the group.

Twenty-eight people have been released during the past week and found in different areas of Baghdad.

The remaining hostages have been identified as 12 Red Crescent employees and a Dutch Embassy guard.

Armed gunmen dressed in camouflage Iraqi commando uniforms were behind the kidnapping, police said.

The Iraqi Red Crescent has suspended its operation in Baghdad in light of the incident and is calling on the kidnappers to release the remaining hostages.

The group has 40 offices in Baghdad with about 400 employees. There are 1,000 employees in Iraq and thousands of volunteers.

Other developments

  • Two U.S. soldiers were killed Saturday in separate roadside blasts near Baghdad, The Associated Press reported, citing the U.S. military. One bomb exploded southeast of the capital near a patrol searching for "suspected terrorists," it said. That blast also wounded four other U.S. soldiers. The other bomb exploded southwest of Baghdad, near a patrol delivering supplies to units in the area
  • President Bush heard Saturday from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who just returned from Iraq with a positive impression of Iraqi leaders' plans to address sectarian violence. Gates met with Iraqi leaders, U.S. commanders and soldiers in the field. ( Full story)
  • Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reportedly withheld support Saturday for a U.S.-backed plan to build a coalition across sectarian lines. The move jeopardized hopes that such a show of political unity could help stem the country's deadly violence. (Full story)

    CNN's Sam Dagher contributed to this report

U.S. says U.N. Iran resolution not enough


WASHINGTON - The United States cheered the U.N. Security Council's adoption of sanctions on Saturday aimed at pressuring Iran to halt uranium enrichment work, but called on Russia, China and others to take tougher measures on their own.

In a statement, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice urged Iran to "suspend its sensitive nuclear activities and accept the negotiations path that the United States and its Security Council partners offered six months ago."

All nations should "take immediate action" to comply with the sanctions resolution, Rice said.

Earlier in the day, Undersecretary Nicholas Burns said the Bush administration will try to persuade Russia, China, Japan and the European Union to take more vigorous action, including cutting off lending to Iran.

"We don't think this resolution is enough in itself. And we're certainly not going to put all our eggs in a U.N. basket," said Burns in a teleconference with reporters.

"We'd like to see countries stop doing business as usual with Iran."

Burns said the idea was to drive up Iran's costs so long as it continues research on uranium enrichment, which can produce fuel for nuclear power plants as well as bombs, and research and development that might lead to the production or delivery of atomic weapons.

Ethiopia attacks Somalia

Ethiopia attacks Somalia Islamic council

By MOHAMED OLAD HASSAN, Associated Press Writer 22 minutes ago

Ethiopia launched an attack Sunday on Somalia's powerful Islamic movement, sending fighter jets across the border and bombarding several towns in a major escalation of the violence that threatens to engulf the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopia confirmed the attacks, the first time it has acknowledged that its troops were fighting in Somalia, though witnesses have reported their presence for weeks.

"After too much patience, the Ethiopian government has taken a self-defensive measure and has begun counterattacking the aggressive extremist forces of the (Islamic council) and foreign terrorist groups," said Ethiopia's foreign affairs spokesman, Solomon Abebe.

The Council of Islamic Courts has vowed to drive out troops from neighboring Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation that is providing military support to Somalia's U.N.-backed government.

"They are cowards," said Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley, an official with Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts. "They are afraid of the face-to-face war and resorted to airstrikes. I hope God will help us shoot down their planes."

But Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf said his forces have gained the upper hand.

"I think they have met a resistance they have never dreamt of before," Yusuf said in brief remarks from Baidoa — the only town the government controls — as the battles began to die down Sunday afternoon.

Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into chaos. The Islamic courts have been steadily gaining power since June, raising concerns about an emerging Taliban-style regime. The United States accuses the group of having ties to al-Qaida, which it denies.

As Sunday's fighting wore on, the Islamic leadership in the capital, Mogadishu, began broadcasting patriotic songs about Somalia's 1977 war with Ethiopia. Abdi Mohamed Osman, who owns a shop in the capital, said businessman were closing their shops to go and fight.

"We are going to support our brothers on the front line," he said.

The Ethiopian airstrikes were the first against Somalia's Islamic movement. Ethiopia and Somalia have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years. Islamic court leaders have repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said his government has a legal and moral obligation to support and defend Somalia's internationally recognized government. He has repeatedly accused the Islamic courts of backing ethnic Somali rebels fighting for independence from Ethiopia and has called such support an act of war.

The militants, who want to govern Somalia according to Islamic law, invited foreign Muslims on Saturday to join their holy war against Ethiopian troops.

The clashes could mean a major conflict in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, which has one of the largest armies in the region, and its bitter rival, Eritrea, could use Somalia as the ground for a proxy war. Eritrea backs the Islamists.

In Kismayo, a strategic seaport captured from the government by Islamic militia in September, residents saw several foreign Arab fighters disembarking from ships this week.

Thousands of Somalis have fled their homes as troops loyal to the two-year-old interim administration fought Islamic fighters who had advanced on Baidoa, about 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu. Islamic militiamen control Mogadishu along with most of southern Somalia.

Government officials said more than 600 Islamic fighters had been killed during four days of clashes. Islamic militiamen said they killed around 400 Ethiopians and government fighters. Neither claim could be independently confirmed.


Associated Press writers Salad Duhul and Mohamed Sheik Nor contributed to this report.