Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Coming Mortgage Metldown, Pt. II

Editor's note: I have moved to post at the other blog(also see new articles below).
Mar 24, 2007
By Bonddad

Several months ago I finally broke down and got an online subscription to the Wall Street Journal and Barron's. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Barron's is a weekly financial publication that provides interviews, market analysis and editorials. This week they have a follow-up interview with Sy Jacobs, who first predicted the subprime mortgage problems in 2005. Below are excerpts from his interview (subscription required).

Some insist the problems in the subprime market are manageable.

The problems in subprime are not self-contained. It is a pinprick to a larger problem, and it needs to be looked at that way. The notion that subprime home-equity lending is somehow ring-fenced because it is only 12% of total mortgage loans outstanding and won't affect the rest of the mortgage and housing market is absurd. First of all, subprime lending was over 20% of 2006's volume. That tells you it was growing rapidly as a percentage of the mortgage business when it hit the wall.

The common argument coming from people against the subprime problem spreading is the subprime market is only "12% of the current market". Jacobs points out that in fact last year subprime mortgages were 20% of total mortgage underwriting. This means that a larger percentage of total mortgages sold last year were of lower quality. And this does not include the alt-A loans, which are above subprime quality but below prime credit quality. In other words, there are more problem loans out there than the 12% figure gives credit for.

How will the problems spread?

Mostly through housing. This year is going to be much worse than 2006 for mortgage and housing credit, and 2006 already laid the mortgage industry low. Nearly $700 billion of mortgages reset this year and nearly half of that is subprime. Remember 2004, when our esteemed former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, was exhorting us to take out adjustable-rate mortgages, the federal-funds rate was only 1% and had nowhere to go but up? Prime refinancing volume peaked in 2004, and the most popular loan product at that time was a 3/1 adjustable-rate mortgage, three years fixed and adjustable every year after that. Those are resetting this year after 17 quarter-point increases in the fed-funds rate. The subprime home-equity market peaked in 2005, and the most popular product from that year was a two-year-fixed, 28-year-floating mortgage. It resets this year, and now credit spreads are widening, Freddie Mac [ticker: FRE] is going to stop buying as much subprime, as are the capital markets in general, and a lot of capacity is exiting through bankruptcy courts.

First, I have seen to total amount of resetting mortgages this year at totals that range from $500 billion to a $1 trillion. That means we don't know how many are actually out there, but there are a ton of them that will reset this year.

Also notice that when people bought these loans, interest rates were incredibly low -- probably the lowest rates we'll see in out lifetime. Interest rates (The Fed Funds rate) have increased 4.25% since most of those loans were sold. That means a lot of borrowers are going to be in for some serious sticker shock.

Here is how the problem will spread through the housing market.

How bad is the credit crunch?

It is spilling into the secondary market in the sense that credit spreads in the secondary market have widened in the past few weeks. We're seeing a reversal in the appetite for risk that we've seen for the past several years. Credit will get more expensive across asset classes, and that's another way in which the subprime contagion will spread.

Let's back up through the eco-talk.

1.) "Credit spreads are increasing." OK -- here's what this mean. Interest rate products (bonds and loans) are measured against the US Treasury curve. Prices are quoted as "spread to the Treasury."

As the risk of a particular asset increases people sell that asset. Prices and yields move inversely; as prices drop, yields increase. To wrap this all up, as prices for mortgage-related products have dropped, their respective interest rates have increased. This means these products are now more expensive for borrowers because borrowing costs have increased.

Increasing interest rates obviously dries credit up because fewer people are willing to take out a loan at a higher interest rate.

2.) Credit standards are already tightening. That means the amount of subprime mortgage loans will decrease. While this is a good thing in the long run, it will act to decrease the number of potential buyers. This will act to lower home prices.

3.) As the number of subprime mortgage foreclosures increase housing inventory will increase. As I noted yesterday on my blog, the total number of existing homes in the for sale inventory has only decreased about 3% since last July. That means there are still a ton of homes on the market. And as foreclosures increase, the number of existing homes for sale will increase. This will add further downward pressure on prices.

So to sum up:

Tighter credit standards = fewer buyers = lower prices.

More foreclosures = more inventory = lower prices.

Update [2007-3-24 10:5:0 by bonddad]:: The Blog Calculated Risk has a great article on the housing supply and demand imbalance titled: "Housing: Supply Demand Imbalance". He explains the above points very well.

For economic commentary and analysis, go to the Bonddad Blog

The Rovian Theory

By Dan Froomkin

Special to
Friday, March 23, 2007; 1:50 PM

Why are President Bush's Democratic critics so focused on getting White House political guru Karl Rove's testimony regarding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys?

Because based on Rove's history, the whole thing may well have been his idea -- and may be even more complicated than it initially appeared.

Rovian theory suggests the following: The eight U.S. attorneys were fired not only to purge the Justice Department of some prosecutors who were insufficiently willing to use the power of their offices to attack Democrats and protect Republicans --- but also to install favored people who wouldn't have such scruples. And, thanks to a provision snuck into law by a Bush administration henchman (who has since been granted a job as -- you guessed it -- a U.S. attorney) there would be none of those pesky safeguards to prevent those jobs going to unqualified hacks.

Or, as White House Watch reader Charles Posner wrote to me in an e-mail yesterday: "Dan - I think everyone is looking at the Justice Dept. scandal form the wrong end - it's not the firing, but the hiring that's the crux of the issue. Rove has a plan and a list. The plan is to install partisans in the prosecutors' office in order to target Democratic congressmen. Of course, Rove can hand pick each prosecutor without Congress's involvement as allowed by the secret provisions of the Patriot Act. Now, where's his list?"

The Smoking Gun?

Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "Two months before Bud Cummins was fired as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, a protege of presidential adviser Karl Rove was maneuvering with the Justice Department to take his place. . . .

"Rove and Harriet Miers, then the White House counsel, were keenly interested in putting [Tim Griffin, a Rove aide and longtime GOP operative,] in the position, e-mails reveal. . . .

"Some of the thousands of pages of e-mails released this week underscore the extraordinary planning and effort, at the highest levels of the Justice Department and White House, to secure Griffin a job running one of the smaller U.S. attorney's offices in the country.

"The e-mails show how D. Kyle Sampson, then the attorney general's chief of staff, and other Justice officials prepared to use a change in federal law to bypass input from Arkansas' two Democratic senators, who had expressed doubts about placing a former Republican National Committee operative in charge of a U.S. attorney's office. The evidence runs contrary to assurances from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that no such move had been planned. . . .

"Griffin declined to comment yesterday but said in a previous interview that he was being unfairly maligned by Democrats. He has announced that he will not seek Senate confirmation to become Little Rock's chief federal prosecutor but will remain until a replacement is found."

The Cummins case also suggests that Bush himself, contrary to Tony Snow's insistence yesterday, may indeed have been a party at least to this one firing.

"By July 25, a White House aide wrote to Sampson to ask whether she could begin trying to win over [Arkansas Democratic Senator Mark] Pryor. 'Is that a problem since he has not yet been nominated for U.S. attorney?' the aide wrote, referring to Griffin.

"'If the president has already approved Griffin, then part of our "consultation" (to meet the "advice and consent" requirements of Constitution) would be to tell them we were going to start a BI on Griffin,' Sampson replied six minutes later, using shorthand for a background investigation. 'I assume this has already happened.'"

Eggen and Goldstein also note: "Cummins's dismissal differs from the firings of the seven other ousted federal prosecutors in several respects. Cummins was told he was being removed last June, and the rest were told on Dec. 7. Justice Department officials also have not publicly said Cummins's departure was related to his performance in office, as they have with the others. They acknowledged last month that he was fired simply to make room for Griffin.

"But documents show that Cummins was clearly a target of Sampson's two-year effort to fire a group of U.S. attorneys who did not qualify as what he called 'loyal Bushies.' He was recommended for removal as early as March 2005."

And as Richard A. Serrano wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week: "Still uncertain exactly why he was fired, former U.S. Atty. H.E. 'Bud' Cummins III wonders whether it had something to do with the probe he opened into alleged corruption by Republican officials in Missouri amid a Senate race there that was promising to be a nail-biter."

Another Clue

Eric Lipton writes in the New York Times: "The ousted United States attorney in western Michigan said Thursday that she was told last November that she was being forced out to make way for another lawyer the Bush administration wanted to groom, not because of management problems.

"The federal prosecutor, Margaret M. Chiara, 63, speaking publicly for the first time since leaving office last Friday, said in an interview that a senior Justice Department official had told her that her resignation was necessary to create a slot for 'an individual they wanted to advance.' The identity of the likely replacement was not disclosed, she said.

"'Only after Justice Department officials attributed her firing to poor performance as a manager -- even though her 2005 evaluation praised her management skills -- did she decide to speak out, Ms. Chiara said.'"

Revolving Door Watch

Jennifer Talhelm writes for the Associated Press: "Two of the major players in the ouster of federal prosecutors last year were themselves considered for U.S. attorney jobs, according to documents and interviews.

"Kyle Sampson, who helped orchestrate the firing of eight prosecutors as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff, was the Bush administration's pick to fill Utah's vacant U.S. attorney post last spring.

"Pat Rogers, an Albuquerque, N.M., attorney who has represented the state Republican Party and party officials for several years, raised his concerns about his state's U.S. attorney, David Iglesias, with high-level Justice Department officials, among others.

"After Iglesias was fired late last year, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., recommended Rogers for the job, along with three others, in January. . . .

"Rogers said he didn't ask to be nominated for U.S. attorney, and he took himself out of the running after the Justice Department contacted him to set up an interview earlier this winter. . . .

"Sampson was the Bush administration's choice for Warner's replacement. But Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett backed former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer Brett Tolman.

"The contest resulted in a standoff of sorts. Bush ultimately picked Tolman last summer."

And who is Brett Tolman? None other than the staffer for Senator Arlen Specter who snuck that provision into the Patriot Act that allows Bush to appoint interim U.S. attorneys indefinitely -- thereby allowing him to circumvent the traditional process that calls for approval by home-state senators and requires Senate confirmation.

Rove's E-mails

Alexis Simendinger writes in a National Journal story (subscription required): "White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove may have forfeited potential claims of executive privilege over the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys-- if he communicated about the latter outside the White House e-mail system, using his Republican National Committee e-mail account or RNC equipment. Or at least that's a legal possibility posed by rapidly advancing electronic technology and the evolving work habits of busy White House officials. . . .

"According to one former White House official familiar with Rove's work habits, the president's top political adviser does 'about 95 percent' of his e-mailing using his RNC-based account. Many White House officials, including aides in the Political Affairs Office, use the RNC account as an alternative to their official government e-mail addresses to help keep their official and political duties separate. Although some White House officials use dual sets of electronic devices for that purpose,

Rove prefers to use his RNC-provided BlackBerry for convenience, the former official said. . . .

"Some White House officials, including Rove, use the RNC's e-mail domain (an abbreviation for George W. Bush 43). Communications originating from that RNC domain written by White House political affairs aide Scott Jennings to officials in the Justice Department appeared in the first batch of e-mails given to the House and Senate Judiciary committees last week. The Jennings e-mails stamped with the RNC domain, as well as e-mails from then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers and her deputy sent through the official White House system, were captured on Justice Department servers. . . .

"White House and RNC spokespeople did not respond to National Journal questions about Rove's use of the RNC e-mail system and the preservation of communications he created on its equipment."

Rove's Relationship to the Truth

Joe Conason writes in Salon: "The proposal to interview the president's chief political counselor without an oath or even a transcript is absurd for a simple and obvious reason. Yet the White House press corps, despite a long and sometimes testy series of exchanges with Snow, is too polite to mention that reason, so let me spell it out as rudely as necessary right here:

"Rove is a proven liar who cannot be trusted to tell the truth even when he is under oath, unless and until he is directly threatened with the prospect of prison time. Or has everyone suddenly forgotten his exceedingly narrow escape from criminal indictment for perjury and false statements in the Valerie Plame Wilson investigation? Only after four visits to the grand jury convened by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, and a stark warning from Fitzgerald to defense counsel of a possible indictment, did Rove suddenly remember his role in the exposure of Plame as a CIA agent.

"Not only did Rove lie, but he happily let others lie on his behalf, beginning in September 2003, when Scott McClellan, then the White House press secretary, publicly exonerated him of any blame in the outing of Plame. From that autumn until his fifth and final appearance before the grand jury in April 2006, the president's 'boy genius' concealed the facts about his leak of Plame's CIA identity to Time magazine correspondent Matt Cooper.

"There is no reason to believe that Rove would ever have told the truth if Fitzgerald had not forced Cooper to testify before the grand jury and surrender his incriminating notes, with a contempt citation and the threat of a long sojourn in jail. Indeed, there is no reason to think that even knowing Cooper had testified would have made Rove testify accurately. He failed to do so from July 2005 until April 2006, after all. But in December 2005, Fitzgerald impaneled a new grand jury and started to present evidence against him. . . .

"By now the porous brainpans of the Washington press corps not only seem to have excused Rove's leaking and lying about Plame's CIA position, but also to have erased that disgraceful episode from their memories. The president and all his flacks can stand before the public and act as if Rove should be treated like a truthful person whose words can be believed -- and not as someone who lies routinely even in the direst of circumstances. "

James C. Moore, co-author of "Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential," writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Whether Rove chats or testifies, Congress will surely be frustrated. Asking Rove questions is simply not an effective method of ascertaining facts. Reporters who, like me, have dogged the presidential advisor from Texas to Washington quickly learn how skilled he is at dancing around the periphery of issues. Any answers he does deliver can survive a thousand interpretations. Few intellects are as adept at framing, positioning and spinning ideas. That's a great talent for politics. But it's dangerous when dealing with the law. . . .

"If Rove winds up under oath before Congress, members will get a command performance by a man with masterful communications skills. They can expect to hear artful impressions, bits of information and a few stipulated facts.

"But they should not expect the truth."

Make Your Choice

And here's a priceless soundbite from press secretary Tony Snow's interview on ABC News yesterday morning:

Diane Sawyer: "Why not let Karl Rove go up there and show he has nothing to hide? Testify, under oath, and with a transcript? Let everyone see it?"

Tony Snow: "This is what I love, this Karl Rove obsession. Let's back off. First, the question is: Do you want Karl Rove on TV, or do you want the truth?"

Diane Sawyer: "Why can't you have both?"

Time to Deal?

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Congress called a timeout Thursday in its confrontation with the Bush administration after a Senate committee voted to authorize subpoenas to compel White House officials -- including political advisor Karl Rove -- to testify about why eight U.S. attorneys were fired last year. . . .

"[M]embers of Congress said they would not issue any subpoenas for at least a week, a move that allows time for negotiations in what had become a rapidly escalating constitutional showdown. . . .

"The cooling of rhetoric on both sides seemed to reflect a political calculation that each could be damaged if the confrontation were to proceed further and land in court. Courts have rarely intervened in such disputes between the legislative and executive branches of governments, and Democrats acknowledge that a legal battle could outlast the 22 months left in President Bush's term."

Reynolds also notes: "At the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, the administration's allies were unusually taciturn and eschewed taking a roll call vote that would have put them on the record as supporting the administration.

"One of them, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, actually voted with the Democrats in favor of subpoena power and made a point of noting his vote in the record."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes for the Associated Press: "The brokering has already begun. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania floated a compromise with Bush's counsel Fred Fielding... The White House said Fielding would pass the proposal to Bush."

Here's a letter from House Judiciary Committee Democrats to Fielding: "We write this because your proposal will not facilitate a full and fair inquiry. We believe the failure to permit any transcript of our interviews with White House officials is an invitation to confusion and will not permit us to obtain a straightforward and clear record. Also, limiting the questioning (and document production) to discussions by and between outside parties will further prevent our Members from learning the full picture concerning the reasons for the firings and related issues. As we are sure you are aware, limitations of this nature are completely unsupported by precedents applied to previous Administrations -- both Democratic and Republican."

To Review

USA Today summarizes what we know about each of the eight firings.

I just checked, and in none of those cases has Bush actually sent a nomination for a replacement to the Senate. All eight positions are currently filled with actings or interims.

Fitzgerald Stays Mum

Matt O'Connor writes for the Chicago Tribune: "U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald on Thursday carefully sidestepped the political firestorm over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys but conceded he's been the butt of ribbing from friends over a mediocre rating from the Justice Department.

"'Look, it really is not that big a deal to me,' Fitzgerald said at a news conference announcing the latest public corruption indictment under his leadership. 'I just do my job.' . . .

"James Comey, a close friend and a former deputy attorney general who appointed Fitzgerald special counsel in the leak probe, agreed that it has been 'the source of great merriment' among Fitzgerald's friends.

"'I called him when it came out, and he said "I'm just an average guy having an average day," Comey said. 'He just laughed about it. It doesn't require its own rebuttal. It's sort of like saying, "Derek Jeter is an average shortstop."'"

The Talking Point That Won't Die

David G. Savage writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Three weeks ago, Justice Department officials settled on a 'talking point' to rebut the chorus of Democratic accusations that the Bush administration had wrongly injected politics into law enforcement when it dismissed eight U.S. attorneys.

"Why not focus on the Clinton administration's having 'fired all 93 U.S. attorneys' when Janet Reno became attorney general in March 1993? The idea was introduced in a memo from a Justice Department spokeswoman.

"The message has been effective. What's followed has been a surge of complaints on blogs and talk radio that it was the Clinton administration that first politicized the Justice Department.

"The facts, it turns out, are more complicated."

No Oversight Role?

Press secretary Tony Snow repeatedly advanced a dubious talking point yesterday in his tour of the morning shows -- and again at his press briefing.

Think Progress has some quotes from the morning shows: "There's another principle, which is Congress doesn't have the legislative -- I mean oversight authority over the White House," Snow told CNN. "First, the White House is under no compulsion to do anything. The legislative branch doesn't have oversight," he told MSNBC. "Congress doesn't have any legitimate oversight and responsibilities to the White House," he told Fox News.

Here he is on ABC: "The executive branch is under no compulsion to testify to Congress, because Congress in fact doesn't have oversight ability. So what we've said is we're going to reach out to you -- we'll give you every communication between the White House, the Justice Department, the Congress, anybody on the outside, any kind of communication that would indicate any kind of activity outside, and at the same time, we'll make available to you any of the officials you want to talk to . . . knowing full well that anything they said is still subject to legal scrutiny, and the members of Congress know that."

And here he is a bit later, at yesterday's briefing, toning it down slightly:

"MR. SNOW: There are -- in this particular case, the Department of Justice -- the Congress does have legitimate oversight responsibility for the Department of Justice. It created the Department of Justice. It does not have constitutional oversight responsibility over the White House, which is why by our reaching out, we're doing something that we're not compelled to do by the Constitution, but we think common sense suggests that we ought to get the whole story out, which is what we're doing."

Guantanamo Watch

Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "In his first weeks as defense secretary, Robert M. Gates repeatedly argued that the detention facility at Guant?namo Bay, Cuba, had become so tainted abroad that legal proceedings at Guant?namo would be viewed as illegitimate, according to senior administration officials. He told President Bush and others that it should be shut down as quickly as possible. . . .

"Mr. Gates's arguments were rejected after Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and some other government lawyers expressed strong objections to moving detainees to the United States, a stance that was backed by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, administration officials said. . . .

"The outcome suggests that Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Gonzales remain committed to a detention plan that has become one of the most controversial elements of the administration's counterterrorism program. . . .

"Mr. Gates's challenge has sent a ripple through the White House, because it forced officials to confront the question of whether Mr. Bush was actually moving to fulfill his stated desire to close the detention facility. Officials who advocate shutting down Guant?namo, including some at the Pentagon and the State Department, said an underlying motivation of those who want to keep the center open is that closing it would be seen as a public admission of an incorrect policy -- something the Bush administration is loath to do."

Cover-Up Watch

Andrew Zajac blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales advised President Bush to approve security clearances for Justice Department lawyers in an internal investigation connected to the administration's controversial domestic spying program, but he was overruled by the president, who refused to grant the clearances, according to a DOJ letter to a leading congressional critic of the surveillance program.

"Bush's refusal to approve the clearances effectively idled the investigation.

"Gonzales' stance, while admirable, didn't go far enough, said Jeff Lieberson, spokesman for Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a New York Democrat who has been prodding the administration to investigate the legality of the eavesdropping operation.

"'Gonzales should have stood up to the president. He should have followed in Elliot Richardson's footsteps and resigned,' said Lieberson. Richardson, of course, was the attorney general who in the October 1973 'Saturday Night Massacre' quit rather than obey President Nixon's order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox."

Murray Waas wrote last week in the National Journal that Gonzales knew he would be a target of the inquiry at the time he counseled Bush.

In a letter to members of Congress, acting assistant attorney general Richard A. Hertling writes: "Within the Department of Justice, OPR [the Office of Professional Responsibility] sought assistance in obtaining security clearances to the Terrorist Surveillance Program to conduct its investigation. This request reached the Attorney General. The Attorney General was not told that he was a subject or target of the OPR investigation, nor did he believe himself to be. The Attorney General did not ask the President to shut down or otherwise impede the OPR investigation. The Attorney General recommended to the President that OPR be granted security clearances to the Terrorist Surveillance Program. The President made the decision not to grant the requested security clearances."

Farewell to a Dream?

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush's dream of leaving an enduring Republican majority as his political legacy is slipping from his grasp.

"His own popularity has plummeted as Americans have turned against his war in Iraq. Last November, he lost control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and with them he lost the power to control the capital's agenda and shield his administration from embarrassing investigations. The news media, too, have largely turned against him.

"Now, a new poll released Thursday confirms that the country's underlying political landscape has turned sharply against Bush's party and toward the Democrats on bellwether issues such as the use of military force, religion, affirmative action and homosexuality."

"'Over the past five years, the political landscape of the nation has shifted from one of partisan parity to a sizable Democratic advantage,' the Pew [Research Center] analysis said. 'But the change reflects Republican losses more than Democratic gains.'

"'That's due to dissatisfaction with the White House,' [center director Andrew] Kohut added in an interview."

FEC Watch

Matthew Mosk writes in The Washington Post: "The three Democrats on the Federal Election Commission revealed yesterday that they strongly believe President Bush exceeded legal spending limits during the 2004 presidential contest and that his campaign owes the government $40 million."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart finds a "transcript" of Tony Snow's deepest, darkest confessions.

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth on the specter of Nixon; Mike Luckovich on Bush's pleasure.

Bush's Peeps

Julie Mason blogs for the Houston Chronicle: "Finally, some good news for President Bush, and just in time for Easter. A candymaker survey of 800 Americans has declared him the public figure most in need of Peeps, the largely inedible marshmallow birdies polluting Easter baskets since 1953."

According to the poll results, Bush won in the category of "male public person or celebrity is most in need of Peeps" with 26 percent of the vote.

In the female category, Britney Spears won by an even larger margin.

Why the Facts of 9/11 Must Be Suppressed

Guns and Butter
Wednesday, March 21st, 2007
About this program:

"Why the Facts of 9/11 Must Be Suppressed: Understanding the Ruling Group Mind Behind the War Without End"

With Dr. John McMurtry, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, Ontario in a presentation at the International Citizens Inquiry Into 9/11 on May 30, 2004 in Toronto. McMurtry was one of the first academics to analyze 9/11 and the 9/11 wars. In response to the extreme pressure of forcing reality to conform to manufactured delusions, the group and its members become increasingly submerged within a pre-conscious field of hysteria, denials and projections. Their program is being played out in Iraq against heroic resistance, while elsewhere in the empire the "regulating group mind" demands complicity with its fundamental assumption - that 9/11 was an attack from the outside.

Play mp3 Stream

Israel to brand Arabs as peace spoilers

The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition

Israel is gearing up for a diplomatic campaign that will paint the Arab world as the recalcitrant party if it does not drop the article in the Arab peace initiative that calls for the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been saying for months that there were positive elements in the Saudi peace initiative, which preceded the Arab initiative by a month and did not include a clause calling for the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees. On Thursday, he reiterated that elements of the plan were acceptable to Israel. The proposal will be taken up at the Arab League summit scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday in Riyadh.

'US wants Saudi peace plan amended'

"I am the one who said the Saudi initiative was interesting, and that there are elements that I would be willing to accept and that it could be a basis for contact between us and moderate Arab elements," Olmert said.

The Saudi initiative from February 2002 calls for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines in exchange for normalization of relations. The Arab peace initiative, launched in Beirut a month later, added the clause regarding the refugees.

"This government will not miss out on an opportunity to engage in talks with our enemies," Olmert said. "This includes making concessions. We will maneuver responsibly and with care." Israel was willing to make "sweeping, painful and tough concessions," he added.

In the last few weeks - through comments such as those by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in the Palestinian press about the need to amend the initiative to make it palatable to Israel, and through quiet diplomacy involving the US - there have been attempts to get the Arab League members to drop the refugee clause.

One senior government official said if the League refused to amend the plan, reconfirming it with the knowledge that it is something Israel could not accept, then Israel would embark on a campaign to cast them in the role of naysayers who once again missed an opportunity.

Arab diplomats said the US has quietly joined Israel in urging Arab leaders to reformulate the plan, even as key Arab diplomats - including Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa - have publicly come out against the idea.

Three Arab diplomats in different Arab capitals said Washington has been pressing for changes to place the offer in line with the road map peace plan. The road map does not deal much with the refugee issue, beyond calling for an "agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue." The road map also does not specify the borders - as the Arab peace initiative does - of a future Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's comments Thursday night in a Channel 1 interview that the release of kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Schalit was near were dismissed as meaningless by senior Israeli officials.

Abbas said a "framework" was agreed upon with Olmert and the Egyptians, and the process was moving along "quickly."

"I hope his release will come quickly," he said. "I believe now it is accepted and everybody is working toward that."

But Israeli government officials were extremely skeptical, with one senior source saying Abbas has been saying this for six months, and in his last meeting with Olmert earlier this month he said Schalit would be released before the establishment of a Palestinian unity government.

"Do me a favor," the source said. "He has no power to do it. Who is he trying to impress?"

The official said the Channel 1 interview was part of a campaign Abbas is waging "to show that he is still the good guy, that despite the new government he is still moderate."

Also on Thursday, Olmert faced an angry protester at a speech he gave in Tel Aviv to youth who are volunteering on kibbutzim before going into the army.

During the questions and answers following the speech, Danny Valla, from Kibbutz Yotvata near Eilat, shouted at Olmert, "What is with the three kidnapped soldiers? My son was almost with them. My youngest son will go into the army next year. I was a fighter who was left behind enemy lines. If you were prime minister I would still be there. What are you doing to return Gilad Schalit, Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser before the Pessah Seder?"

Olmert kept his composure and responded: "We know who is holding them. They are not in a place where Israel just pushes a button, and - presto - they appear smiling and thankful for all our efforts."

"There is not a single day we are not dealing with the subject," Olmert said. "We will explore any avenue. It usually takes years and we pay a high price to release prisoners. I hope this time will be different. I cannot elaborate on the subject."

US President George W. Bush, meanwhile, emphatically backed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's peacemaking efforts, on the eve of her visit here. She is scheduled to arrive on Sunday.

Bush, noting Rice's planned departure Friday for the region, said, "Peace in the Middle East is a priority for this administration." He stressed his "strong approval" for Rice's work to "move the process forward."

Bush called heads of state in the Middle East to help pave the way for progress, but acknowledged: "It's not easy to get all parties headed in the right direction." Still, he said, all the stakeholders - Israelis, Palestinians and their Arab neighbors - need "to work for a solution that will lead to peace, and that is a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace and security."

Bush made his remarks after a meeting he and Rice held with leaders of an American reconstruction team working in Iraq. His comments came at the end of a week in which differences emerged between the United States's and Israel's approach to dealing with the new Palestinian unity government.

Israel has said it will not hold "political horizon" talks with Abbas, while the US said it would continue to do so. Israel has also said it would have no contact with any of the ministers in the new PA government, while the US has expressed a willingness to meet with non-Hamas ministers.

Hilary Leila Krieger and AP contributed to this report.

Bush Pushed Attorneys With History Of Voter Suppression

Posted on Fri, Mar. 23, 2007
New U.S. attorneys seem to have partisan records

By Greg Gordon, Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON - Under President Bush, the Justice Department has backed laws that narrow minority voting rights and pressed U.S. attorneys to investigate voter fraud - policies that critics say have been intended to suppress Democratic votes.

Bush, his deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, and other Republican political advisers have highlighted voting rights issues and what Rove has called the "growing problem" of election fraud by Democrats since Bush took power in the tumultuous election of 2000, a race ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since 2005, McClatchy Newspapers has found, Bush has appointed at least three U.S. attorneys who had worked in the Justice Department's civil rights division when it was rolling back longstanding voting-rights policies aimed at protecting predominantly poor, minority voters.

Another newly installed U.S. attorney, Tim Griffin in Little Rock, Ark., was accused of participating in efforts to suppress Democratic votes in Florida during the 2004 presidential election while he was a research director for the Republican National Committee. He's denied any wrongdoing.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the four U.S. attorneys weren't chosen only because of their backgrounds in election issues, but "we would expect any U.S. attorney to prosecute voting fraud."

Taken together, critics say, the replacement of the U.S. attorneys, the voter-fraud campaign and the changes in Justice Department voting rights policies suggest that the Bush administration may have been using its law enforcement powers for partisan political purposes.

The Bush administration's emphasis on voter fraud is drawing scrutiny from the Democratic Congress, which has begun investigating the firings of eight U.S. attorneys - two of whom say that their ousters may have been prompted by the Bush administration's dissatisfaction with their investigations of alleged Democratic voter fraud.

Bush has said he's heard complaints from Republicans about some U.S. attorneys' "lack of vigorous prosecution of election fraud cases," and administration e-mails have shown that Rove and other White House officials were involved in the dismissals and in selecting a Rove aide to replace one of the U.S. attorneys. Nonetheless, Bush has refused to permit congressional investigators to question Rove and others under oath.

Last April, while the Justice Department and the White House were planning the firings, Rove gave a speech in Washington to the Republican National Lawyers Association. He ticked off 11 states that he said could be pivotal in the 2008 elections. Bush has appointed new U.S. attorneys in nine of them since 2005: Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico. U.S. attorneys in the latter four were among those fired.

Rove thanked the audience for "all that you are doing in those hot spots around the country to ensure that the integrity of the ballot is protected." He added, "A lot in American politics is up for grabs."

The department's civil rights division, for example, supported a Georgia voter identification law that a court later said discriminated against poor, minority voters. It also declined to oppose an unusual Texas redistricting plan that helped expand the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. That plan was partially reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Frank DiMarino, a former federal prosecutor who served six U.S. attorneys in Florida and Georgia during an 18-year Justice Department career, said that too much emphasis on voter fraud investigations "smacks of trying to use prosecutorial power to investigate and potentially indict political enemies."

Several former voting rights lawyers, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of antagonizing the administration, said the division's political appointees reversed the recommendations of career lawyers in key cases and transferred or drove out most of the unit's veteran attorneys.

Bradley Schlozman, who was the civil rights division's deputy chief, agreed in 2005 to reverse the career staff's recommendations to challenge a Georgia law that would have required voters to pay $20 for photo IDs and in some cases travel as far as 30 miles to obtain the ID card.

A federal judge threw out the Georgia law, calling it an unconstitutional, Jim Crow-era poll tax.

In an interview, Schlozman, who was named interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City in November 2005, said he merely affirmed a subordinate's decision to overturn the career staff's recommendations.

He said it was "absolutely not true" that he drove out career lawyers. "What I tried to do was to depoliticize the hiring process," Schlozman said. "We hired people across the political spectrum."

Former voting rights section chief Joseph Rich, however, said longtime career lawyers whose views differed from those of political appointees were routinely "reassigned or stripped of major responsibilities."

In testimony to a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing this week, Rich said that 20 of the 35 attorneys in the voting rights section have been transferred to other jobs or have left their jobs since April 2005 and a staff of 26 civil rights analysts who reviewed state laws for discrimination has been slashed to 10.

He said he has yet to see evidence of voter fraud on a scale that warrants voter ID laws, which he said are "without exception ... supported and pushed by Republicans and objected to by Democrats. I believe it is clear that this kind of law tends to suppress the vote of lower-income and minority voters."

Other former voting-rights section lawyers said that during the tenure of Alex Acosta, who served as the division chief from the fall of 2003 until he was named interim U.S. attorney in Miami in the summer of 2005, the department didn't file a single suit alleging that local or state laws or election rules diluted the votes of African-Americans. In a similar time period, the Clinton administration filed six such cases.

Those kinds of cases, Rich said, are "the guts of the Voting Rights Act."

During this week's House judiciary subcommittee hearing, critics recounted lapses in the division's enforcement. A Citizens Commission on Civil Rights study found that "the enforcement record of the voting section during the Bush administration indicates this traditional priority has been downgraded significantly, if not effectively ignored."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who chaired the hearing, said, "The more stringent requirements you put on voting in order to get rid of alleged voter fraud, the more you're cutting down on legitimate people voting."

Acosta, the first Hispanic to head the civil rights division, said he emphasized helping non-English speaking voters cast ballots. In 2005, he told a House committee that he made an unprecedented effort to monitor balloting in 2004 to watch for discrimination against minorities.

Justice spokesman Roehrkasse said Acosta "has an impressive legal background, including extensive experience in government and the private sector" and as a federal appeals court clerk.

A third former civil rights division employee, Matt Dummermuth, 33, was nominated to be U.S. attorney in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last December. Before his appointment, he was counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights. He was a special assistant to the civil rights chief from 2002 to 2004.

Details of his involvement in reviewing voter rights couldn't be determined, and Dummermuth, a Harvard Law School graduate, didn't return calls seeking comment.

Bush administration officials have said that no single reason led to the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys. But two of those who were forced to resign said they thought they might have been punished for failing to prosecute Democrats prior to the 2006 congressional elections or for not vigorously pursuing Republican allegations of voter irregularities in Washington state and New Mexico.

Former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico has said he thought that "the voter fraud issue was the foundation" for his firing and that complaints about his failure to pursue corruption matters involving Democrats were "the icing on the cake."

John McKay, the ousted U.S. attorney for western Washington state, looked into allegations of voter fraud against Democrats during the hotly contested governor's race in 2004. He said that later, when top Bush aides interviewed him for a federal judgeship, he was asked to respond to criticism of his inquiry in which no charges were brought. He didn't get the judgeship.

Rove talked about the Northwest region in his speech last spring to the Republican lawyers and voiced concern about the trend toward mail-in ballots and online voting. He also questioned the legitimacy of voter rolls in Philadelphia and Milwaukee.

One audience member asked Rove whether he'd "thought about using the bully pulpit of the White House to talk about election reform and an election integrity agenda that would put the Democrats back on the defensive."

"Yes, it's an interesting idea," Rove responded.

Despite the GOP concerns, Bud Cummins, the Republican-appointed U.S. attorney in Arkansas who was fired, said he had "serious doubts" that any U.S. attorney was failing to aggressively pursue voter fraud.

"What they're responding to is party chairmen and activists who from the beginning of time go around paranoid that the other party is stealing the election," Cummins said. "It sounds like to me that they were merely responding to a lot of general carping from the party, who had higher expectations once the Republican appointees filled these posts that there would be a lot of voting fraud investigations. Their expectations were unrealistic."

Griffin, the interim U.S. attorney in Arkansas who's replaced Cummins, was a Rove protege and a former Republican National Committee research director. He was accused of being part of an attempt to wipe likely Democratic voters off the rolls in Florida in 2004 if they were homeless or military personnel.

Griffin couldn't be reached for comment.

Ed Gillespie, then the RNC chairman, said the Republican Party was following election laws and trying to investigate voter fraud by sending out mailers to addresses of registered voters. If the notices came back, he said, the names were entered into a database and checked to see if the voters were listing actual residences.

"The Republican National Committee does not engage in voter suppression," he said. "The fact that someone was trying to prevent voter fraud should not disqualify someone from being U.S. attorney."

McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Tish Wells and Ron Hutcheson contributed to this report.

Valdez spill judge 'had Exxon Mobil ties'

Watchdog: Like Oil and Water, Judge and Exxon Mobil Shouldn't Mix

March 23, 2007 11:49 AM

Anna Schecter Reports:

Exxon_valdez_nrA federal judge, who served on the appellate court panel that ruled Exxon Mobil's penalty for the Valdez oil spill should be reduced, had taken trips with an organization that is sponsored in part by the oil company.

Watchdog groups are calling for Judge Andrew Kleinfeld to cut his ties with the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University, a non-profit group that gets funding from Exxon Mobil and other large corporations and has hosted the judge on trips for conferences in Washington, Connecticut and California. The LEC paid for travel, lodging, meals and drinks.

Exxon Mobil has donated $215,000 to the LEC since 1998, according to Exxon Mobil annual reports.

Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, a judicial watchdog group, calls for Kleinfeld to resign from the LEC.

"The people, the fishermen, who lost their livelihood from the Exxon Valdez spill -- it just looks awful to them that one of the judges who's on their case is affiliated with an organization that gets money from Exxon," said Kendall.

Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage.

Kleinfeld was one of three appeals court judges who voted to reduce Exxon Mobil's punitive damages from $4.5 billion to $2.5 billion last December.

The judge declined to comment on the ongoing Exxon Mobil appellate case.

Kendall says no matter the legal justification for the court's ruling, the appearance of a conflict of interest by the judge undercuts the integrity of the courts.

Dan Polsby, Dean of George Mason Law School, says the LEC is in compliance with all of the rules of legal ethics.

Exxon Mobil says it gives funds to a variety of judicial educational institutions.

The company released a statement saying it deeply regrets the Valdez oil spill and has already paid $3.5 billion in compensation for it. A spokesperson said the company believes the Valdez case does not warrant any punitive damages be paid.

Click here for Brian Ross & Investigative Team's Homepage

March 23, 2007 | Permalink | User Comments (6)

"The Surge of Baghdad Should Become the Surge on Washington" - Fmr. UN Iraq Mission Chief

Friday, March 23rd, 2007
"The Surge of Baghdad Should Become the Surge on Washington" - Fmr. UN Iraq Mission Chief Hans Von Sponeck

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Hans Von Sponeck - the former coordinator of the United Nations Humanitarian Mission in Iraq - joins us in our firehouse studio to talk about the troop surge in Baghdad, House and Senate bills on war funding, the 13-year sanction regime in Iraq and more. Von Sponeck is author of "A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq." [includes rush transcript]
On Capitol Hill, a Senate committee has approved a one hundred twenty two billion-dollar war spending bill that calls for President Bush to pull combat troops out of Iraq by next spring. The House plans to vote on a similar bill later today. Bush has threatened to veto both bills if they contain a deadline for withdrawal. The legislation comes as the United States enters its fifth year of the occupation of Iraq.

Yesterday, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon made a surprise visit to Baghdad. During a joint news conference with Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, the UN chief said he might boost the United Nations" presence in Iraq because of improved security. Moments later the news conference was interrupted by a rocket that exploded just fifty yards away from the meeting. The blast shook the building and sent Ban Ki Moon ducking for cover behind a podium. The UN chief had earlier arrived on his first visit to Baghdad since he took office in January this year.

Today we are joined by a former UN official who lived in Iraq before the US invasion. Hans Von Sponeck has been a fierce critic of the war. In the late 1990s, he was the coordinator of the United Nations Humanitarian Mission in Iraq. He resigned in protest over the UN sanctions regime. He is also a former Assistant Secretary General of the UN. Hans Von Sponeck has new book is out titled "A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq."

  • Hans Von Sponeck, a former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. In the late 1990s, he was the coordinator of the United Nations Humanitarian Mission in Iraq. His new book is titled "A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq."


AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re joined by a former U.N. Official who lived in Iraq before the U.S. invasion. Hans Von Sponeck has been a fierce critic of the war. In the late 1990's he was the coordinator of the United Nations humanitarian mission in Iraq. He resigned in protest over the U.N. Sanctions Regime. He’s also Former Assistant Secretary General of the U.N. and has written a new book, it is called A Different Kind of War: The U.N. Sanctions Regime in Iraq. Welcome to Democracy Now!

HANS VON SPONECK: Good morning Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First, the situation. You just saw--heard the explosion as the new U.N. Secretary General was announcing there seems to be increased stability, and maybe that a larger U.N. mission may come into Iraq.

HANS VON SPONECK: It gave him a first hand opportunity to understand how volatile the situation is in Iraq, and I hope it leads him to the conviction that less violence and more peace initiatives on the part of the United Nations might be the answer, rather than a surge in troop levels. I very strongly feel there should be a surge in the willingness in the U.S. Congress to insist that the United Nations, the role of the international community should be strengthened and the troops should come home with respect and honor, if that is still possible, as soon as possible.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What is the role of the U.N. right now in Iraq. Given, obviously it has to be very limited, anything can do, but what are U.N. personnel doing, if anything there?

HANS VON SPONECK: The United Nations staff, 55 of them, that’s all, are confined to the Green Zone and to Amman. From a distance they look at an Iraq that is crumbling. They can do very little. They do human-rights reporting. They have a small number of projects, but essentially they are confined to that limited space for reasons of security. In fact, most of the staff that Ban Ki-moon has allowed to be in Iraq is security-related staff. So it’s a holding operation. The U.N. Flag can fly, but it flies very timidly.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course the U.N. mission there was blown up. What was the effect of that?

HANS VON SPONECK: It was a massive demoralization for the United Nations, and Mr. Kofi Annan was right in taking the staff out, as painful as this is.

AMY GOODMAN: Sergio De Millo, the head of the mission killed.

HANS VON SPONECK: He was killed in my office. This is the office I occupied from the time I served in Baghdad. So I know the environment very well. It didn’t come as a surprise. It was the weak, the soft underbelly of the United Nations building area in Baghdad. And it’s a tragedy it happened, but out of that should be a United Nations that is more and more determined to encourage dialogue, rather than support an ill-fated attempt to solve problems in Iraq with military muscle.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In your book, A Different Kind of War, you actually get into the entire period of the sanctions in Iraq, and you document quite a bit of information, that I don’t think--certainly most Americans are not aware of. But I was especially interested -- we were talking before the show about the United Nations Compensation Committee, a commission that was set up to--after the Persian Gulf War. And you had quite a few examples there of what appear at least on the surface to be of questionable awards that were given out, plus it was a huge amount of money that was involved. Can you talk about that whole Compensation Commission?

HANS VON SPONECK: Well you know I don’t want to come across here as a vindictive person. The intention of this book was to shed light on a very dark chapter of United Nations by honestly identifying facts. And among these dramatic facts is one which is hardly known, certainly very little known in the U.S., and that is at a time when an increasing number of people were dying, particularly children, the United Nations agreed to pay out $18 billion U.S. dollars. That’s a lot of money. The total value of what came into Iraq during the entire Oil For Food Program, in terms of supplies, $28 billion. So, if you withhold $18 billion, that is a lot, that could have saved a lot of lives. That is bad enough.

What is worse is that many of these compensation claims were fraudulent. The U.N. discovered some, others were overlooked and paid out. There was a claim from the government of Jordan for having helped transiting guest workers to go home for $8.2 billion U.S. dollars, 8.2. The U.N. in the end awarded $79 million, less than a percent of what was asked for. The Iraqi money was like a cow that one could milk eternally in order to please governments that need the money while Iraqis back home were dying in large numbers. There are others examples, but maybe this would go to far on this occasion.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very relevant to look at the Sanctions Regime against Iraq, given what is being proposed for Iran right now. Major powers have readied a draft resolution, to slap new punitive sanctions on Iran with the U.N. Security Council vote expected on Saturday, as Tehran remains defiant over its nuclear program. According to Agence France-Presse, a western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said the draft was expected to receive overwhelming support. Talk about the Regime of Sanctions and what it meant. I mean, people see what is happening in Iraq right now as horrific. You describe a very bad situation before the bombing of George Bush of 2003.

HANS VON SPONECK: You know, the sanction cheese in Iraq had many holes. The sanction cheese for Iran has bigger holes. It may look interesting on paper, but in terms of the reality for implementation, we are living today in a totally different situation. The world is more polarized than it ever was in the days of the sanctions against Iraq, but let me just pause here and say -- the comprehensive economic sanctions that Iraq endured isn’t what is proposed for Iran. It’s more a political—a political threat to the Iranians rather than a direct punishment of the people, as it was the case in Iraq.

Moreover, we must remember, the world of 2007 is not the world of the Iraq sanction time. There are new constellations, new organizations are springing up in protest over what I would call, as a friend of the U.S., I would call it the “Western One-way Street”, while in fact it is mainly an American highway on which we have traveled that the world is no longer to accept.

So the sanction package against Iran -- it may be a small -- I don’t think it is -- political victory for the U.S. to get a sanction resolution through the Security Council, but in terms of the implications for Iran as a whole, it will have limited, limited value.

AMY GOODMAN: You, in talking about Iraq today, are clearly saying that the U.N. is involved in supporting violent solutions. What exactly are you saying?

HANS VON SPONECK: The United Nations is painful for me as a person who believes in the U.N., who has served 32 years in that organization, was indeed an ally of bilateral policies that initially meant containing the country, and later in the last years of the Clinton Administration and very much since then, was a policy of punishment; punishing a people for enduring a dictator. A very strange logic here, but we could have in Baghdad, done whenever we wanted to do.

The government could have cooperated with the Security Council. It would have made no difference because the key word in this equation was regime change. So, as long as Saddam Hussein and his government were in power, no chance to do something else--Mr. Negroponte in a hearing in the U.S. Congress some time ago said, our first concern were weapons of mass destruction. We were interested with the peoples’ of welfare, but that was clearly a second priority.

That was the approach and the U.N. went along with this. And why am I mentioning it? Because I think it is very relevant in the debate about the kind of United Nations that we want to have, that we need, that the U.S. needs, as much as my country, Germany, or anyone else around the world, in these 192 member countries.

We need to take into account what happened in Iraq in debating the U.N. reform needs of today and tomorrow. And if we do this, then we do justice to the demand of political accountability. This is not looking to the future. Yes, we must look to the future. That’s demand from European politicians and American politicians is important, but not without looking back to understand what happened and to hold those on both sides of the fence. You have, I don’t want to talk too long here, but I want to say you have in Iraq a very strange reality. You have two perpetrators. You have Saddam Hussein, who has committed crimes against his people, but you also have, tragically enough, you have a United Nations that has equally become the perpetrator in harming, punishing, because of a faulty, I am afraid to say, U.S.-led, British-led, Spanish, Italian-led policy in the Security Council.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I am curious, in the period before you stepped down from your post, what kind of conversations you may have had with other leaders of the United Nations, or Kofi Annan directly about the concerns about the U.N.'s role and what their response was. Obviously they were aware that--of the negative role that the United States and Great Britain and some of the other great powers are playing. What kind of conversations did you have?

HANS VON SPONECK: Mr. Kofi Annan at all times has the heart in the right place, but he didn’t have enough muscle to succeed in convincing the Security Council that the rhetoric in the council that was always pro-people, that always recognized the plight of the Iraqi people, should translate and be provided equipped with the political will to bring about changes that would be more focused on the perpetrators, in this case the government of Iraq, rather than on innocent civilians. He knew that. Mr. Kofi Annan at no time forgot that. But, a multi-lateral diplomat is impotent vis-à-vis the powers of the day, if they have a different design. And the tragedy is that it is a 15-country security council that was overwhelmingly dominated by the United Kingdom and the United States, and the international community allowed this to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: You are here in United States. You return to Germany tomorrow. You have been here at a genocide conference at Columbia University in New York. As you watch the coverage of what happened—what is happening today, there is going to be a vote in congress for supplemental money, more than $100 billion, to--for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Your thoughts?

HANS VON SPONECK: I want to tell you that we are very carefully watching in Europe what is being debated in Washington. And we cannot fully comprehend why this courageous woman, Nancy Pelosi, isn’t making more progress among her colleagues on both sides of the fence. Why there are still republicans who can argue that it is a betrayal of the U.S. troops. I sympathize with these poor male and female G.I.s that have to serve in Iraq, but it is incomprehensible to me that there are still voices that insist that the way to go forward is to increase the troop levels, to maintain a policy that will leave in Afghanistan and in Iraq, to total disaster. This is not winnable. You cannot do what is intended to be done. Democracy and human rights and progress and development cannot be parachuted over Kabul or Iraq. And why is it? I don’t have an answer. Why is it that so many members of the U.S. Congress still maintain that the old policies can remain intact and should be implemented?

AMY GOODMAN: If the U.S. troops pulled out today?

HANS VON SPONECK: Can there be more chaos in Iraq than there is already? I am—I have links to people who have links to the resistance. The resistance says the Americans should talk to us. But if Ambassador Khalilzad in Baghdad talks to resistance people, the real resistance leaders start laughing. Because they say you are not talking to the right people. So, Condoleezza Rice should have her way. Mr. Cheney should not have his way. She should succeed in convincing her cabinet colleagues that the moment is to talk to each other. The moment is to talk to the resistance.

The moment is -- you mentioned the PKK sometime, a moment ago. And Hezbollah, Fatah, Hamas. They all belong around the table. You can no longer discuss an element of the Middle East crisis in isolation. It has to be -- I call it a strategy of a whole. Everybody belongs around the table and needs to be taken into account. We don’t recognize this, we will continue to waste money -- your money, our money, our good will, your people's lives, and I think that is a tragedy. And I hope that Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues will make headway in convincing republicans also to finally give up an un-winnable approach in dealing with the middle east.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned how in Europe people are watching very carefully what is happening here in the U.S. Congress. Obviously European governments -- several of them have gone through major changes since the start of the Iraq war. To what degree are the European nations doing what they should be doing in terms of standing up sufficiently? Clearly in Italy and Spain the climate has changed dramatically, but what can Europe do in terms of having an impact on American policy?

HANS VON SPONECK: The first order of priority in the European Union, of 27 countries, is to get our own act together, because we are very fragmented. There are many shades of opinion with regard to the Middle East situation, and there is no integrated foreign policy. And that plays into the very hands in the U.S. that should keep the hands off the political debate. The neoconservatives are trying hard to maintain this level of division in Europe, and the sooner our leaders in Europe recognize that, that they will play no role, that they will have a marginal impact at best, is--until they get their act together.

My own country in Germany, Mrs. Merkel, our chancellor is trying to repair the transatlantic damage. She tries very hard. But the fear that some of us have is that she tries at the expense of doing what needs to be done now and tell the friend across the Atlantic, tell Washington, as a friend, that the track, the road on which the U.S. Administration is traveling is leading to further disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: Hans Von Sponeck, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, was the Chief of the U.N. Humanitarian Mission in Iraq, quit over the Sanctions Regime. And has now written a book now translated into English, A Different Kind of War: The U.S. Sanctions Regime in Iraq.

Israeli soldiers morally troubled by Occupation duties

March 23, 2007 at 12:52 am ·
Uriel Simon, Still Fighting for Justice After All These Years
idf guard points gun at palestinianIDF soldier intimidates at Nablus checkpoint (credit: Rina Castelnuovo/NYT)

Steven Erlanger today writes a fine portrait of a Breaking the Silence event in Israel. The group has compiled 400 oral histories of IDF soldiers morally troubled by their Occupation duties. The most telling portion of the article comes near the end when Erlanger records a note of discord from an audience member who lashes out at the Breaking the Silence speaker:

While criticism of the army is quite acceptable in Israel’s democracy, and not just on the left, Breaking the Silence left some raw feelings here.

At the recent talk and discussion session, one man stood and said Mr. Manekin and his friends were hurting Israel, especially its image abroad, in order to salve their own consciences. Many in the audience nodded in agreement. Tall and dignified, about 45, the man said that he, too, had served in the West Bank, “and I’m proud of what I did there to defend Israelis.”

It is crucial to intimidate people at checkpoints to keep them cowed, he said, his voice shaking a little, “because we are so few there, and they are so many.”

Then he said: “These people are not like us! They come up to our faces and they lie to us!”

These are certainly telling words, though not in the way the speaker meant them. They tell us how when you become the occupier you become lonely and frightened and learn how to justify to yourself the oppression you invoke on others.

The next portion of the article chronicles the response of retired Hebrew University professor Uri Simon to the speaker. The reason Simon is so important to this post concerns a little anecdote from my past.

When I was 17 in 1968, I attended a wonderful Camp Ramah summer seminar at which I enjoyed an independent study course with Rabbi Joe Lukinsky on the Israeli-Arab conflict. He helped me choose the books. I read them. I wrote a paper about the Brit Shalom movement founded by Judah Magnes, Martin Buber and Ernst Simon. I'd never studied this conflict before in such depth. It was my first introduction to an issue that would occupy the rest of my life.

After writing the paper, Joe encouraged me in that wonderful way he has, to send it to Uri Simon, Ernst Simon's son, who was then a professor of Bible at the Hebrew University (later of Bar Ilan). I did send it to him and he replied in that nice, kindly way the humane professors do when they're really thinking: "this kid has a lot to learn," but don't want to let on to their true feelings. I remember Simon felt I was being uncharitable in comparing Israel's Occupation to apartheid South Africa. But he said so in the nicest way possible. Only a 17 year old can write with such certitude on such issues.

Lukinsky and I studied again together when I spent my junior year abroad at the University in 1972-73. He encouraged me to look Prof. Simon up and I never did. How foolish of me. I regret it even more when I read the wonderful prophetic wisdom from him here:

That was enough for Uriel Simon, 77 years old, a professor emeritus of biblical studies at Bar-Ilan University and a noted religious dove.

“As for liars,” Mr. Simon said, then paused. “My father was a liar. My grandfather was a liar. How else did we cross lines to get to this country? We stayed alive by lying. We lied to the Russians, we lied to the Germans, we lied to the British! We lie for survival! Jacob the Liar was my father!” he said.

As for the Palestinians, he said: “Of course they lie! Everyone lies at a checkpoint! We lied at checkpoints, too.”

Everyone is afraid of mirrors, Mr. Simon said, readjusting the knitted skullcap on his nimbus of white hair. “We hate the mirror. We don’t want to look at ourselves. We don’t like photographs of us — we say, ‘Oh, that’s not a very good likeness.’ We want to be much nicer than we are. But here there are also prophets who are mirrors, who are not afraid of kings and generals. The prophet says, ‘You are ugly,’ and we don’t want to hear it, but we have to look at the mirror honestly, without fear.”

Later, Mr. Simon tried to describe the ambivalence and even confusion, as he saw it, in the room.

The army is central to Israel, and the problems so complicated, he said. At the beginning of the summer war, as in the beginning of any war, including the war in Iraq, “there’s a euphoria that derives from an almost irrational belief in power and force, that the sword can cut through all the slow processes.” It is more enthralling if, like Israel, “you have so much power that you can’t use, and suddenly you can.”

But the euphoria is always short-lived, he said, because no army is as efficient as advertised, and power rarely delivers the clean outcome it seems to promise.

“We bomb southern Lebanon like mad, and still they continue to send missiles at us,” he said.

The frustration is even more intense “for a people like Israel forced to live on its sword, for who will save this little state?” he asked. “The United Nations? The good will of America? We’d be overrun 10 times before America awakes, even if it wants to awake. So every 10-year-old knows the sheer importance of the Israeli Army, and the more you need it the more you expect from it.”

At the end of the evening, Mr. Simon said, he went to talk to the tall man who had been so upset. “He said to me, ‘You won’t believe me, but I agree with 90 percent of what you said.’ ” Mr. Simon laughed softly. “It just showed how confused he was.”

Prof. Simon, what a wonderful life you have lived. What a wonderful example you have set. May the Lord bless and keep you (Yevarechecha v'yishmarecha).

Filed under Mideast Peace, Jews & Judaism

breaking the silence shovrim shtika uri simon israeli professor peace activist


Fooled Again

March 24, 2007

by Gordon Prather

Past and present Congresspersons from across the political spectrum insist that if they had known then, what they know now, they would never have allowed President Bush to use the conditional authority they had provided him to launch a pre-emptive war against Iraq.

Of course, they should have known when they gave him that authority in October, 2002 that their basic presumption

"Iraq both poses a continuing threat to the national security of the United States and international peace and security in the Persian Gulf region and remains in material and unacceptable breach of its international obligations by, among other things, continuing to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability, actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability, and supporting and harboring terrorist organizations"

was false.

Should have known, because in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, the International Atomic Energy Agency Action Team on Iraq was established by UN Security Council Resolution 687 and was charged with overseeing the destruction [or removal from Iraq] of all nuclear-weapons-usable materials, components and subsystems, plus any and all related research, development, support or manufacturing facilities.

In what amounted to his final report as Director-General, Hans Blix concluded way back in 1997 that;

"Most of the IAEA activities involving the destruction, removal and rendering harmless of the components of Iraq's nuclear weapons programme, which to date have been revealed and destroyed, were completed by the end of 1992."

Of course, when Bush got Congress to give him that conditional authority to use force, he assured them he was committed to seeking a diplomatic solution. He got the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 1441, which required Iraq to provide the IAEA and other UN inspectors "immediate, unimpeded, unconditional and unrestricted access" to any and all "areas, facilities, buildings, equipment, records and means of transport," as well as "private access" to all pertinent officials.

Consequently, IAEA Director-General was able to report to the Security Council on March 7, 2003 that

"Since the resumption of inspection a little over three months ago, and particularly during the three weeks since my last ordered report to the council, the IAEA has made important progress in identifying what nuclear-related capabilities remain in Iraq and in its assessment of whether Iraq has made any effort to revive its past nuclear program during the intervening four years since inspections were brought to a halt.

"At this stage, the following can be stated:

"One, there is no indication of resumed nuclear activities in those buildings that were identified through the use of satellite imagery as being reconstructed or newly erected since 1998, nor any indication of nuclear-related prohibited activities at any inspected sites.

"Second, there is no indication that Iraq has attempted to import uranium since 1990.

"Three, there is no indication that Iraq has attempted to import aluminum tubes for use in centrifuge enrichment."

Hans Blix, since 1998 the Chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, gave a similar, although less conclusive, null report about Iraq's chemical, biological and ballistic missile activities.

In other words, the Congressional presumptions of October 2002 and the Cheney Cabal allegations of 2002 and 2003 about Iraq's weapons programs were all wrong! Saddam Hussein was not a threat even to his neighbors, much less to the United States.

Well, we all certainly had a close call. If Congresspersons hadn't made their authorization conditional, namely –

"In connection with the exercise of the authority … to use force, the President shall … make available to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate his determination that … reliance … on further diplomatic or other peaceful means alone will not adequately protect the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq,"

then Bush could have ignored the null reports of ElBaradei and Blix, could have defied the UN Security Council and the UN Charter, could have launched a pre-emptive war of aggression against Iraq.

But Congress had made his authority conditional, and the Congressional conditions had clearly not been met. Hence, Bush hadn't been authorized by Congress to use US Armed Forces against Iraq.

So, where has Congress been since March 20, 2003?

Why haven't they impeached Bush? And Cheney?

If not immediately, in 2003, then why not in the years since, as the gravity of their crime has become more and more apparent?

Or, at a minimum, have hearings on how Bush was allowed to "exercise authority" he didn't have?

But Congress didn't even do that. So, is that why their baffled and betrayed constituents threw many of those Congresspersons out of office last November?

Did they intend to elect a Congress that would truly provide "oversight" on the President and his vigilante posse?

Were they truly alarmed about the resolutions Congress passed last year about Iran that read almost verbatim like the resolutions Congress passed in the years immediately preceding Bush's pre-emptive war of aggression against Iraq?

Did they expect House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid to place enforceable conditions on Bush's authority to launch a pre-emptive war of aggression on Iran?

Well, if they did, then they've been fooled again.

According to the Associated Press, Pelosi and "other members of the leadership" decided to remove from a "major military spending bill" a requirement that the President get prior approval from Congress before launching a pre-emptive attack on Iran.


Well, for one thing, after putting the requirement in, Pelosi was reportedly loudly "booed" when she appeared before an American Israel Public Affairs Committee hoohah.

AIPAC Silences Soros

Soros Drops Out of AIPAC Counter-Lobby Project

March 23, 2007 at 12:09 am ·

George Soros, after writing a blistering NY Review of Books essay slamming AIPAC's pernicious influence on U.S. Mideast policy, disappointed liberal Jews by announcing he would not fund a project simmering over the past six months to create a Jewish counter-lobby to AIPAC:

Billionaire George Soros has no plans to put his money where his mouth is, a spokesman said Tuesday — two days after the philanthropist and political advocate assailed the pro-Israel lobby as a threat to Israeli and U.S. interests.

Rumors, rife since last October, that Soros would fund a dovish alternative to the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, quickened when Soros published a blistering attack on the lobby in the New York Review of Books this week. But Soros spokesman Michael Vachon rebutted the notion he would bankroll such an effort.

“He considered it,” said Vachon. “Many people wanted him to fund the effort. In the end he decided he should not be involved.

“On the other hand,” Vachon added, “Who can predict the future?”

That last statement is impossibly coy for me. I say, if you're in get in; if you're out, get out. Don't do a Mario Cuomo Hamlet soliloquy. There's already more than enough vacillation among key players in this conflict. We don't need more of the same from Soros.

I can't say that I'm surprised since on the day Soros' NYRB essay was published I asked an inside DC source what role the essay played in his strategy regarding the counter-lobby project. The reply came back: "He's out."

Soros' supposed reasoning for dropping out also isn't fully convincing:

Vachon cited Soros’ lack of prior involvement in Jewish life as the prime reason for his decision. The 76-year-old Jewish hedge fund manager and prominent donor to liberal and Democratic causes has not been a major player in Jewish affairs over his long career, he said.

“He feels he would not have the necessary standing in the community,” said Vachon. “Some people might even be put off by his involvement in such an effort.”

It is certainly true that Martin Peretz will use this argument against Soros and others as well. But since when do we act according to what our enemies say? Since when do they determine the agenda? I'm guessing that Soros himself doesn't feel the personal commitment to getting as deeply involved in internal Jewish communal politics as he would have to in order to really make the kind of impact that is necessary to take on AIPAC. I can't say as I fully blame him. How many times can one bear being called a Hitler sympathizer because at the age of 12 you pretended to be a Christian and were sheltered by a government official who confiscated Jewish property?

But still, Soros' withdrawal is terribly unfortunate. Many of us have that commitment but not the wherewithal to back it up. That's what Soros would've brought to the table.

All I can say is that I somehow hope the initiative continues and proves viable and that somehow Soros is persuaded that it is the right thing to do and that he gets on board. "Ride on the peace train," George.

I find Larry Cohler Esses' work in Jewish Week to be impeccably incisive and lacking in the cant one can find in Jewish media outlets like JTA. But this passage, which followed his list of liberal writers who'd recently attacked AIPAC seemed oddly snarky and churlish:

Still, the cottage industry of criticism in the public square by these writers raises oxymoronic questions about their claims of suppression.

Besides the imprecise use of the term oxymoronic without clearly noting what he was referring to, he seems to say that the plethora of criticism of AIPAC gives the lie to the liberal complaint that the Israel lobby suppresses speech it views as anti-Israel. What this ignores is the clear evidence of multiple recent incidents of intimidation to silence or punish Israel critics chronicled here at this blog (Judt, Beinin, Kushner, Khalidi, Massad, Cole, etc.) and elsewhere online. It also neglects the possible explanation that perhaps liberal writers and those media which publish them are becoming less intimidated by the lobby's reach and are showing some willingness to buck their wrath.

Filed under Mideast Peace, Politics & Society

israel lobby jewish week larry cohler esses soros withdraws from project opposing aipac