Saturday, April 21, 2007

Freddie Mac-Fannie Mae to Blow Billions

Editor's note: I qm moving to post at the secondary blog (also see new articles below).
See stories at the
overflow blog
Freddie Mac to Refinance Loans

$20 Billion to Help Subprime Owners

By Dina ElBoghdady

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007; D01

Freddie Mac, one of the nation's largest mortgage investors, plans to buy about $20 billion worth of mortgages that would primarily refinance the loans of people in danger of losing their homes.

The McLean company is targeting the loans of subprime borrowers, who typically have blemished credit records or other factors that make them risky to lenders. Since the housing market softened, many such borrowers have missed payments and defaulted at record rates in parts of the country.

Freddie Mac's announcement followed the unveiling earlier this week of a similar campaign by its larger rival Fannie Mae, which plans to allow lenders to qualify more subprime borrowers for refinancing.

Richard F. Syron, Freddie Mac's chief executive, announced his company's plan at a Capitol Hill briefing yesterday. The goal is to buy fixed and adjustable-rate mortgages with more affordable terms, starting midsummer, he said.

The idea is that if more troubled borrowers could refinance their homes, they would not lose them, and if investors such as Freddie Mac are willing to buy these loans, lenders would be willing to make them.

Freddie Mac is allocating money to this troubled sector "because it's needed and because, quite honestly, it's a good business opportunity," Syron said in an interview. Considering that the average mortgage is $150,000, the $20 billion Freddie Mac has allocated would cover about 130,000 mortgages, he said.

Freddie Mac has not decided exactly what terms it will set for the loans it will buy. Fannie Mae's program, HomeStay, would allow lenders to refinance without having to wait until the borrowers clear unpaid bills on their credit reports. It also would stretch the loan term to a maximum of 40 years from the current 30-year limit. Fannie Mae has not placed a dollar amount on how many such loans it would buy.

Neither government-sponsored enterprise has gained approval for its plan from federal regulators.

The heightened activity comes as both companies face pressure to demonstrate that they perform a public service. The House Financial Services Committee, led by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), has passed a bill to tighten regulation of the companies and to require them to contribute to an affordable housing fund. Frank said the public has not received enough value in return for the commercial advantages Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac get from their government ties.

Individual lenders are also under pressure to stem foreclosures. Yesterday, big lender Washington Mutual said it will refinance up to $2 billion in subprime mortgages.

Freddie Mae and Fannie Mac, created to promote homeownership, do not lend money to borrowers. Rather, they invest in mortgages and usually package them into securities for sale to investors.

Neither company buys many subprime loans from lenders, but they are fairly active in investing in securities backed by such loans.

Freddie Mac plans to keep the loans affected by yesterday's announcement in its portfolio, Syron said. That way, it can launch the program quickly and alter loan terms if necessary, which is difficult to do if the loans are sold to investors.

The loans Freddie Mac buys under this program would not be limited to refinancing, though refinancing is the initial focus now that millions of people have adjustable-rate mortgages with low teaser rates that will soon spike.

Staff writer David S. Hilzenrath contributed to this report.


A Subprime Fix From Fannie and Freddie

By S.J. Caplan
April 18, 2007

Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM) and Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE) made progress on their recent word that they would offer new subprime products when top execs from each government-sponsored enterprise testified on Tuesday before the House Financial Services Committee.

Fannie discussed a new three-pronged initiative, dubbed "HomeStay." The program involves working with lender partners to help homeowners stave off immediate foreclosure through financial incentives and workout solutions, expanding lending options to help refinance subprime borrowers out of ARMs and into long-term fixed rate products, and counseling future homeowners about making appropriate mortgage choices.

Freddie spoke about restricting subprime investments, eliminating no-income, no-asset verification loans ("liar loans"), and urging subprime lenders to escrow borrower funds for taxes and insurance. The GSE also announced the midsummer introduction of more consumer-friendly subprime mortgages in the form of 30-year and possibly 40-year fixed-rate mortgages and ARMs with reduced margins and longer fixed-rate periods. Freddie also called upon regulation that ensures uniform and consistent consumer disclosures.

Going forward, a combination of increased consumer education and regulation restricting predatory practices is vital. Certainly, swapping out of an ARM and into a long-term fixed-rate mortgage makes sense for most subprime borrowers. But while these suggestions are commendable, they will not serve as a panacea for all existing subprime ills. With close to 2.4 million homeowners facing default on their subprime mortgages over the next several years, foreclosures will mount despite sensible refinancing options and increased financial awareness.

Nor should Fannie and Freddie be charged with curing the system. Given their blemished accounting records, the GSEs provide easy targets for retribution by politicians seeking to capitalize on public clamor for subprime reform. Fannie and Freddie should not bear this blame. In the same congressional testimony, Fannie counted less than 2.5% of its business as subprime, and Freddie reviewed a litany of unilateral, voluntary steps taken since 2000 to improve subprime practices.

As Congress continues to debate regulation of the mortgage finance giants, it would be wise to bear in mind that the missions of the GSEs is to enhance liquidity, stability, and affordability in the housing market. Fannie and Freddie demonstrate their commitment to that goal, and should not be regulated as a proxy for the irresponsible practices of certain subprime mortgage lenders. While internal housekeeping issues at Fannie and Freddie remain, one hopes that regulatory measures will not be imposed which will hamper their ability to responsibly and flexibly meet the needs of the market.

Hypocrisy: Thy Name Is Bush

A terrorist walks
Luis Posada Carriles has boasted of bombing Havana hotels, yet American justice lets him go free.


By Robert Parry (A Special Report)

George W. Bush likes to present the “war on terror” as a clear-cut moral crusade in which evildoers who kill innocent civilians must be brought harshly to justice, along with the leaders of countries that harbor terrorists. There are no grays, only blacks and whites.

But evenhanded justice is not the true core principle of the Bush Doctrine. The real consistency is hypocrisy: violence which Bush favors – no matter how wanton the slaughter of innocents – is justifiable, while violence that goes against Bush’s interests – even an insurgency against a foreign military occupation – must be punished without remorse as “terrorism.”

In other words, if Bush hates the perpetrators, they are locked up indefinitely without charge and, at his discretion, can be subjected to “alternative interrogation techniques,” what most of the world considers torture. The rule of law is out the window. Wild West hangin' justice is in. Even the ancient fair trial right of habeas corpus is discarded.

However, when the killers of civilians are on Bush’s side, they get the full panoply of legal protections – and every benefit of the doubt. Under this Bush double standard, therefore, right-wing Cuban terrorists Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, though implicated in a string of murderous attacks on civilians, get the see-no-evil treatment.

On April 19, the 79-year-old Posada was released on bail from federal custody for an immigration violation and allowed to fly to Miami where he will live at home while his case winds its way through the U.S. courts. Bosch, too, has been allowed to live out his golden years in south Florida with the help and protection of the Bush family.

But the evidence in U.S. government files is overwhelming that Posada and Bosch were the architects of the 1976 mid-air bombing of a civilian Cubana airliner, killing 73 people, including young members of the Cuban national fencing team.

Since the conspiracy was hatched in Caracas, Venezuela, where Posada worked as a Venezuelan intelligence officer, the Venezuelan government has sought Posada’s extradition. However, when a Posada friend testified at Posada’s immigration hearing that Venezuela practices torture, Bush administration lawyers let the unverified claim go unchallenged, leading the judge to forbid Posada’s deportation there.

So, the Bush administration, which has subjected its own terrorism suspects to such practices as painful stress positions and simulated drowning by “water-boarding,” wasn’t willing to take the chance that Posada might be abused in Venezuela, even though there was no real evidence that he would be.

Justifying Terrorism

The Bush administration also took no note a year ago when Bosch publicly justified the 1976 mid-air bombing. The stunning TV interview of Bosch by reporter Juan Manuel Cao on Miami’s Channel 41 was cited in articles on the Internet by José Pertierra, a lawyer for the Venezuelan government. But Bosch’s comments caused him no further difficulty. [For Pertierra’s story, see Counterpunch, April 11, 2006]

“Did you down that plane in 1976?” Cao asked Bosch.

“If I tell you that I was involved, I will be inculpating myself,” Bosch answered, “and if I tell you that I did not participate in that action, you would say that I am lying. I am therefore not going to answer one thing or the other.”

But when Cao asked Bosch to comment on the civilians who died when the plane crashed off the coast of Barbados, Bosch responded, “In a war such as us Cubans who love liberty wage against the tyrant [Fidel Castro], you have to down planes, you have to sink ships, you have to be prepared to attack anything that is within your reach.”

“But don’t you feel a little bit for those who were killed there, for their families?” Cao asked.

“Who was on board that plane?” Bosch responded. “Four members of the Communist Party, five North Koreans, five Guyanese.” [Officials tallies actually put the Guyanese dead at 11.]

Bosch added, “Four members of the Communist Party, chico! Who was there? Our enemies…”

“And the fencers?” Cao asked about Cuba’s amateur fencing team that had just won gold, silver and bronze medals at a youth fencing competition in Caracas. “The young people on board?”

Bosch replied, “I was in Caracas. I saw the young girls on television. There were six of them. After the end of the competition, the leader of the six dedicated their triumph to the tyrant. … She gave a speech filled with praise for the tyrant.

“We had already agreed in Santo Domingo, that everyone who comes from Cuba to glorify the tyrant had to run the same risks as those men and women that fight alongside the tyranny.” [The comment about Santo Domingo was an apparent reference to a strategy meeting by a right-wing terrorist organization, CORU, which took place in the Dominican Republic in 1976.]

“If you ran into the family members who were killed in that plane, wouldn’t you think it difficult?” Cao asked.

“No, because in the end those who were there had to know that they were cooperating with the tyranny in Cuba,” Bosch answered.

In an article about Bosch’s remarks, lawyer Pertierra said the answers “give us a glimpse into the mind of the kind of terrorist that the United States government harbors and protects in Miami; terrorists that for the last 47 years have waged a bloody and ruthless war against the Cuban people.”

CIA Files

Beyond Bosch’s incriminating statements, the evidence of his and Posada’s guilt is overwhelming. Declassified U.S. documents show that soon after the Cubana Airlines plane was blown out of the sky on Oct. 6, 1976, the CIA, then under the direction of George H.W. Bush, identified Posada and Bosch as the masterminds of the bombing.

But in fall 1976, Bush’s boss, President Gerald Ford, was in a tight election battle with Democrat Jimmy Carter and the Ford administration wanted to keep intelligence scandals out of the newspapers. So Bush and other officials kept the lid on the investigations. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Still, inside the U.S. government, the facts were known. According to a secret CIA cable dated Oct. 14, 1976, intelligence sources in Venezuela relayed information about the Cubana Airlines bombing that tied in anti-communist Cuban extremists Bosch, who had been visiting Venezuela, and Posada, who then served as a senior officer in Venezuela’s intelligence agency, DISIP.

The Oct. 14 cable said Bosch arrived in Venezuela in late September 1976 under the protection of Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez, a close Washington ally who assigned his intelligence adviser Orlando Garcia “to protect and assist Bosch during his stay in Venezuela.”

On his arrival, Bosch was met by Garcia and Posada, according to the report. Later, a fundraising dinner was held in Bosch’s honor during which Bosch requested cash from the Venezuelan government in exchange for assurances that Cuban exiles wouldn’t demonstrate during Andres Perez’s planned trip to the United Nations.

“A few days following the fund-raising dinner, Posada was overheard to say that, ‘we are going to hit a Cuban airplane,’ and that ‘Orlando has the details,’” the CIA report said.

“Following the 6 October Cubana Airline crash off the coast of Barbados, Bosch, Garcia and Posada agreed that it would be best for Bosch to leave Venezuela. Therefore, on 9 October, Posada and Garcia escorted Bosch to the Colombian border, where he crossed into Colombian territory.”

The CIA report was sent to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, as well as to the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies, according to markings on the cable.

In South America, police began rounding up suspects. Two Cuban exiles, Hernan Ricardo and Freddy Lugo, who got off the Cubana plane in Barbados, confessed that they had planted the bomb. They named Bosch and Posada as the architects of the attack.

A search of Posada’s apartment in Venezuela turned up Cubana Airlines timetables and other incriminating documents.

Posada and Bosch were charged in Venezuela for the Cubana Airlines bombing, but the men denied the accusations. The case soon became a political tug-of-war, since the suspects were in possession of sensitive Venezuelan government secrets that could embarrass President Andres Perez.

Lost Interest

After the Reagan-Bush administration took power in Washington in 1981, the momentum for fully unraveling the mysteries of anti-communist terrorist plots dissipated. The Cold War trumped any concern about right-wing terrorism.

In 1985, Posada escaped from a Venezuelan prison, reportedly with the help of Cuban exiles. In his autobiography, Posada thanked Miami-based Cuban activist Jorge Mas Canosa for providing the $25,000 that was used to bribe guards who allowed Posada to walk out of prison.

Another Cuban exile who aided Posada was former CIA officer Felix Rodriguez, who was close to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and who was overseeing secret supply shipments to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, a pet project of President Ronald Reagan.

After fleeing Venezuela, Posada joined Rodriguez in Central America and was assigned the job of paymaster for pilots in the White House-run contra-supply operation. When one of the contra-supply planes was shot down inside Nicaragua in October 1986, Posada was responsible for alerting U.S. officials to the crisis and then shutting down the operation’s safe houses in El Salvador.

Even after the exposure of Posada’s role in the contra-supply operation, the U.S. government made no effort to bring the accused terrorist to justice.

By the late 1980s, Orlando Bosch also was out of Venezuela’s jails and back in Miami. But Bosch, who had been implicated in about 30 violent attacks, was facing possible deportation by U.S. officials who warned that Washington couldn’t credibly lecture other countries about terrorism while protecting a terrorist like Bosch.

But Bosch got lucky. Jeb Bush, then an aspiring Florida politician, led a lobbying drive to prevent the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from expelling Bosch. In 1990, the lobbying paid dividends when Jeb's dad, President George H.W. Bush, blocked proceedings against Bosch, letting the unapologetic terrorist stay in the United States.

In 1992, also during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, the FBI interviewed Posada about the Iran-Contra scandal for 6 ½ hours at the U.S. Embassy in Honduras.

Posada filled in some blanks about the role of Bush’s vice presidential office in the secret contra operation. According to a 31-page summary of the FBI interview, Posada said Bush’s national security adviser, Donald Gregg, was in frequent contact with Felix Rodriguez.

“Posada … recalls that Rodriguez was always calling Gregg,” the FBI summary said. “Posada knows this because he’s the one who paid Rodriguez’ phone bill.” After the interview, the FBI agents let Posada walk out of the embassy to freedom. [For details, see Parry’s Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]

More Attacks

Posada soon returned to his anti-Castro plotting.

In 1994, Posada set out to kill Castro during a trip to Cartagena, Colombia. Posada and five cohorts reached Cartagena, but the plan flopped when security cordons prevented the would-be assassins from getting a clean shot at Castro, according to a Miami Herald account. [Miami Herald, June 7, 1998]

The Herald also described Posada’s role in a lethal 1997 bombing campaign against popular hotels and restaurants inside Cuba that killed an Italian tourist. The story cited documentary evidence that Posada arranged payments to conspirators from accounts in the United States.

“This afternoon you will receive via Western Union four transfers of $800 each … from New Jersey,” said one fax signed by SOLO, a Posada alias.

Posada landed back in jail in 2000 after Cuban intelligence uncovered a plot to assassinate Castro by planting a bomb at a meeting the Cuban leader planned with university students in Panama.

Panamanian authorities arrested Posada and other alleged co-conspirators in November 2000. In April 2004, they were sentenced to eight or nine years in prison for endangering public safety.

Four months after the sentencing, however, lame-duck Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso – who lives in Key Biscayne, Florida, and has close ties to the Cuban-American community and to George W. Bush’s administration – pardoned the convicts.

Despite press reports saying Moscoso had been in contact with U.S. officials about the pardons, the State Department denied that it pressured Moscoso to release the Cuban exiles. After the pardons and just two months before Election 2004, three of Posada’s co-conspirators – Guillermo Novo Sampol, Pedro Remon and Gaspar Jimenez – arrived in Miami to a hero’s welcome, flashing victory signs at their supporters.

While the terrorists celebrated, U.S. authorities watched the men – also implicated in bombings in New York, New Jersey and Florida – alight on U.S. soil. As Washington Post writer Marcela Sanchez noted in a September 2004 article about the Panamanian pardons, “there is something terribly wrong when the United States, after Sept. 11 (2001), fails to condemn the pardoning of terrorists and instead allows them to walk free on U.S. streets.” [Washington Post, Sept. 3, 2004]

Posada Arrives

Posada reportedly sneaked into the United States in early 2005 and his presence was an open secret in Miami for weeks before U.S. authorities did anything. The New York Times summed up Bush’s dilemma if Posada decided to seek U.S. asylum.

“A grant of asylum could invite charges that the Bush administration is compromising its principle that no nation should harbor suspected terrorists,” the Times wrote. “But to turn Mr. Posada away could provoke political wrath in the conservative Cuban-American communities of South Florida, deep sources of support and campaign money for President Bush and his brother, Jeb.” [NYT, May 9, 2005]

Only after Posada called a news conference to announce his presence was the Bush administration shamed into arresting him. But even then, the administration balked at sending Posada back to Venezuela where the government of Hugo Chavez – unlike some of its predecessors – was eager to prosecute.

At a U.S. immigration hearing in 2005, Posada’s defense attorney called as a witness a Posada friend who alleged that Venezuela’s government practices torture. Bush administration lawyers didn’t challenge the claim, leading the immigration judge to bar Posada’s deportation to Venezuela.

Venezuela’s Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez accused the Bush administration of applying “a cynical double standard” in the “war on terror.”

“The United States presents itself as a leader against terrorism, invades countries, restricts the civil rights of Americans in order to fight terrorism, but when it is about its own terrorists, it denies that they be tried,” Alvarez said.

As for the claim that Venezuela practices torture, Alvarez said, “There isn’t a shred of evidence that Posada would be tortured in Venezuela.” Alvarez added that the claim was particularly ironic given widespread press accounts that the Bush administration has abused prisoners at the U.S. military base in Guatanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Posada-Bosch cases point to one unavoidable and unpleasant conclusion: that the Bush family regards terrorism – defined as killing civilians for a political reason – as justified or at least tolerable in cases when their interests match those of the terrorists.

Terrorism is only a moral evil to the Bushes when the violence against civilians clashes with the Bush family’s interests.

This blatant hypocrisy often has been aided and abetted by the U.S. news media, which intuitively understands the double standard and acts accordingly. The U.S. press corps downplays or ignores cases in which terrorism has connections to U.S. government officials – and especially to the Bush family.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at



Key 'No Child' Initiative Probed
Reading First officials profited off materials toward which federal government steered states.
April 19, 2007

By Carolyn Baker

Once again, a horrific eruption of violence in the United States has been turned into a National Enquirer “blood and circuses” spectacle on every television network in the nation. Curiously, grotesque and ghastly as the carnage is, it seems that Americans are not impacted by bloodbaths until they occur in their own back yards. Juan Cole said it best yesterday when he stated, “the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech should give us a baseline for what the Iraqis are actually living through. They have two Virginia Tech-style attacks every single day”.

We seem incapable of coming to terms with violence: Either we distance ourselves from it as “something happening over there” or we voyeuristically wallow in it 24/7 with grisly images of a massacre or the incessant repetition of a video tape made by a perpetrator exuding psychotic rage from every pore. In neither case does America appear to be capable of asking the deeper, disturbing questions in relation to such incidents, but obsessively leaps to “the healing” which Gary Corseri so brilliantly slammed in his piece earlier this week, “Blacksburg: Let The Healing Not Begin.”

As I watched some of the coverage of the Virginia Tech incident this past week, I could not help but be reminded of another massacre that occurred thirty-seven years ago next month at Kent State University. On that day I was being pepper gassed as I marched in solidarity at Michigan State with my fallen comrades at Kent State who were massacred by a government which at that very moment was murdering thousands of Cambodians, dropping bombs it swore it wasn’t dropping and lying through its teeth to the American people in the throes of the Vietnam War. Today I teach with a colleague who on May 4, 1970 took a stray bullet at Kent State and became permanently disabled as a result.

But while Kent State and Virginia Tech are venues of physical assault on students, almost no one is aware of the myriad levels on which, in other venues and without the spilling of blood, students are being massacred. Another article this past week which escaped the notice of many but riveted my attention was Danny Schechter’s “A Student Crisis”. Writing, Schechter says, in the spirit of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly”, he reminds us of “the way student loans have become a noose around the necks of a whole generation of students making our colleges and universities likely sets for the next edition of one of those crime scene shows.” Furthermore, in recent weeks the corruption around student loans involving kickbacks, gifts, trips, and other perks to college and university officials involved in the lending process has been exposed and appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. California Congressman, George Miller, compares the corruption and abuse in the student loan industry to that of Halliburton. Moreover, Miller’s investigations have also revealed that as well as being deeply mired in corruption, the industry is also involved in datamining of students’ personal records, ostensibly to determine their eligibility for loans.

Meanwhile says Schecter:

Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest student loan company, announced yesterday that it would be bought by a group of private investors in a $25 billion deal that could reduce public scrutiny of the lender at a time when the student loan industry is under siege.

The enormous deal underscores the potential for profit that Wall Street sees in the $85 billion-a-year student loan industry, even as Congress considers slashing billions of dollars in federal loan subsidies and an expanding nationwide probe reveals fresh conflicts of interest in the student lending world.”

Schechter knows about these things as a result of his splendid documentary “In Debt We Trust” which illumines not only the student loan debacle but the seduction of financially unsophisticated college freshmen into the black hole of credit card debt—an average of $20,000 per college graduate.

To fully comprehend the economic plight of today’s college student/graduate, I strongly recommend Anya Kamenetz’s superb book Generation Debt and her article “Greed Aid” which was part of her 2004 “Generation Debt” series of articles in Village Voice. Kamenetz analyzes the student loan/debt issue and reveals the lifelong misery that it is inflicting on millions of students. Tragically, and God forbid, the seeds sown in this present economic assault on students could eventually produce the harvest of another literal massacre on some college or university campus somewhere in the future by some troubled graduate, buried in mid-life under a crushing mountain of debt.

But the economic warfare being waged on students is only one aspect of the massacre. Even more brutal, yet silent and seemingly benign, is the massacre of minds. Supposedly, students attend college and universities to get an education, and supposedly, even if they attend a community college, they are required to show up with basic skills. Yet anyone who has been teaching college students for the past twenty years knows that only a tiny segment of incoming freshmen are capable of writing an English sentence, and even more frightening is the reality that non-English speakers from other countries are often capable of doing so while students educated in the U.S. aren’t. Sadly, I’ve discovered that overall, college students do not like to read and have trouble concentrating on textbook or other reading assignments. It is not uncommon for them to purchase $150 textbooks and almost never open them. Faculty frequently report that they are only able to lecture 15 or 20 minutes and then must incorporate a Power Point presentation or utilize video or DVD material in order not to lose the attention of their students. In other words, the present generation of high school graduates often finds concepts without the dazzle of special effects, elusive and monotonous.

Increasingly, children in public schools are experiencing horrific levels of violence on a daily basis as they are forced to deal with physical or verbal bullying from other students and ineffectual school administrations with no funds to put bullies and their parents in programs that would adequately address the issue. Periodically, protracted bullying erupts in a Columbine or a Virginia Tech incident, perpetrated either by the bully or one of his victims. Then everyone rushes to “heal and move on”, never willing to explore the deeper roots of the violence.

Overwhelmingly, as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which Greg Palast has so appropriately named “No Child’s Behind Left”, students coming to college from a public school seem to excel in test-taking, but have virtually no critical thinking skills. In my experience, I find that students enjoy critically thinking once they have learned the skill, but they require training for it because it is a foreign concept.

NCLB is a gargantuan assault not only on the minds of public school and college students, but on the entire society. It is, in my opinion, the principal reason, besides skillfully-cultivated fear, that Americans could be lied into the Iraq War. When Colin Powell made his bogus case for war in front of the United Nations in 2003, a society of critical thinkers would have raised their eyebrows and asked more probing questions. As it was, a British news channel exposed his plagiarism of a graduate student’s essay as a fundamental piece of his presentation. (Students serve many purposes for the ruling elite, do they not?) When during that presentation Powell held up a vial of white powder, touting it as anthrax, critically thinking Americans should not have turned as white as the powder with fear, but rather demanded proof that the vial was not filled with baking soda. When Condoleeza Rice threatened that if we did not invade Iraq, a mushroom cloud would hang over America because Iraq was purportedly in the process of manufacturing a nuclear bomb, a country of critical thinkers would have unambiguously and boisterously insisted on proof beyond the whining, photo-op assertions of the former Chevron board member. But as one of my students naively asked later, “If it wasn’t true, why did they have it on CNN?”

My answer: Because CNN is corporate media whose job it is to act as stenographers for the regime and “sell” its agenda to a nation of citizens who are incapable of thinking analytically, and in 2003, the scam was successful beyond the wildest dreams of the necons who devised it.

Naturally, in my field I am constantly reminded of how trivial and irrelevant America’s public education system has rendered the study of history. Most college students have no sense of it and report enduring the mind-numbing boredom of high school history classes either by ditching, text-messaging, or falling asleep. Increasingly, as with art and music programs, funding for history is being slashed both in high schools and colleges and increased for engineering and computer technology programs.

Some years ago I heard John Judge remark that “a people who have no knowledge of their history are easily manipulated and dominated.” Deny students the ability to read, write, critically think, and study history, and you have a nation of sycophants who ask no questions and comply with virtually any directive in the name of patriotism or national security as they are almost certain to do when they are sold the regime’s propaganda regarding the National I.D. Act and the U.S. government’s plan to incorporate its provisions in 2009. After all, who among them is willing to have the privilege of obtaining or renewing a drivers license, opening a bank account, or boarding a plane denied?

So what is the destiny of this generation of students? Where will they end up besides unfathomably in debt? Sadly, they are facing a future hammered by global warming, global energy depletion, and global economic meltdown. They will go forth from the halls of academia, and if they are not well-connected, they will take the jobs they can get. They will graduate into a world of outsourced American jobs which will force them to accept mind and soul-numbing positions with insufficient pay, often with few or no benefits. Those in tech fields may fare better than those in other professions, I wouldn’t be willing to bet that in another decade they will be delirious with a sense of job satisfaction.

Many, wide-eyed with idealism, will enter the teaching profession, determined to teach differently than they were taught, but according to statistics from 2005, half of the teachers surveyed plan to be out of the profession by 2010. These hopeful education majors will vow to give students a genuine education, not just prepare pupils for NCLB tests, but unless they are teaching in private schools where NCLB is not incorporated and which also pay less than public schools, they will be discouraged and demoralized within less than a decade. In public schools they will soon discover that whether they like NCLB or not, their salaries will be tied to the test scores they produce, in which case, why not “teach to the test” instead of giving students an education? They may learn to live with a system that makes authentic teaching virtually impossible, in which case, they will become robotic moving parts in a nationwide dumbing-down mechanism, or choosing not to live with it, they will abandon the career for which they have trained in favor of remaining true to their calling as educators.

Increasingly, trade and tech schools will be the choice of many high school graduates, and a college education will ultimately become untenable financially for the middle-class student and impractical in terms of its value in securing lucrative employment. As the current housing bubble worsens and impacts the credit industry and interest rates, and as the Bush administration endeavors to eliminate the Mortgage Tax Credit, owning one’s home will not be in the future of many college graduates. And given the new bankruptcy laws of 2005, declaring bankruptcy in the face of grinding debt will not be an option, and this generation of graduates will never, ever get ahead financially.

So on the one hand, the carnage at Virginia Tech is equivalent to what innocent Iraqis and most U.S. combat troops experience at least twice a week, and therefore, brings home to our own soil the horrors of mass violence. But at the same time if we are among those critically thinking Americans to whom I alluded above, then we must also consider the full spectrum of assault being waged on today’s students which encompasses high schools, colleges, and universities across America, and we must consider the consequences of those assaults in terms of the misery, despair, and even violence that they are certain to evoke in the coming years.

In recent months I have been pleased to hear of a resurgence of chapters of SDS (Students For A Democratic Society) at U.S. colleges and universities. As well as protesting the Iraq War, some have been instrumental in organizing for wage increases and benefits for campus workers. Hopefully, they will also begin or have already begun to organize against the economic warfare being waged on students by the debt industry.


Quote of the Week

"I found the situation worse than I expected. I spent time with the children and I was struck by their sense of hopelessness and despair. I have been in other regions where the conflict has been terrible but the children were more resilient and playful. Here they were less so, particularly in the Palestinian refugee camps," she said. Some 1,045 children have been killed in the conflict since 2000, 927 of them Palestinian. -- UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict

Report On Haditha Condemns Marines

Signs of Misconduct Were Ignored, U.S. General Says

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 21, 2007; A01

The Marine Corps chain of command in Iraq ignored "obvious" signs of "serious misconduct" in the 2005 slayings of two dozen civilians in Haditha, and commanders fostered a climate that devalued the life of innocent Iraqis to the point that their deaths were considered an insignificant part of the war, according to an Army general's investigation.

Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell's 104-page report on Haditha is scathing in its criticism of the Marines' actions, from the enlisted men who were involved in the shootings on Nov. 19, 2005, to the two-star general who commanded the 2nd Marine Division in Iraq at the time. Bargewell's previously undisclosed report, obtained by The Washington Post, found that officers may have willfully ignored reports of the civilian deaths to protect themselves and their units from blame. Though Bargewell found no specific coverup, he concluded that there also was no interest at any level in investigating allegations of a massacre.

"All levels of command tended to view civilian casualties, even in significant numbers, as routine and as the natural and intended result of insurgent tactics," Bargewell wrote. He condemned that approach because it could desensitize Marines to the welfare of noncombatants. "Statements made by the chain of command during interviews for this investigation, taken as a whole, suggest that Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as U.S. lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business, and that the Marines need to get 'the job done' no matter what it takes."

Bargewell's sharp criticism of the Marine command appears to have been a contributing factor in subsequent efforts by top leaders to ensure that U.S. troops exercise appropriate restraint around civilians. Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, who was the top field commander in Iraq last year, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, now the top U.S. commander there, have emphasized the importance of protecting the civilian population in counterinsurgency operations and have ordered aggressive investigations of alleged wrongdoing.

Though Bargewell completed his secret report in June 2006, it has not been publicly released because of ongoing criminal investigations of three Marines on murder allegations and four Marine officers who allegedly failed to look into the case. Bargewell's report, now unclassified, focuses on the reporting of the incident and the training and command climate within the Marine Corps leadership; it does not address the actual incident in detail.

The investigation began in March 2006 after an initial inquiry concluded that the Marines did not intentionally kill civilians. Bargewell's team interviewed Marines in Asad in western Iraq and in the United States in April 2006. His final report was submitted to Chiarelli on June 15, 2006.

A Marine Corps spokesman declined to comment yesterday. Marine officials have generally not discussed the incident because it is under investigation.

In the Haditha incident, which has become one of the most notorious alleged atrocities of the Iraq war, Marines killed two dozen civilians after a huge roadside bomb ripped through a Humvee in their convoy, killing one Marine instantly and injuring two others. A Naval Criminal Investigative Service report found that the Marines then killed five unarmed civilians whom they ordered out of a car -- one Marine alleged that another got down on one knee and shot them one by one -- before storming several houses and killing women and children, some of them still in their pajamas and lying in bed.

The Marines have told investigators that they believed they were taking small-arms fire from the houses and that they were following their rules of engagement when they threw grenades and then shot everyone inside.

Bargewell found that, though the Marines were trained correctly, some "did not follow proper house and room techniques" by not positively identifying their targets. Lt. William T. Kallop, the only officer on the scene at the time, ordered the attack on the houses and told investigators that he did not believe the Marines did anything wrong. Kallop received immunity this month and will probably testify at the hearings for the other Marines.

The report notes errors and oversights at all levels of the Marine command in Iraq. Bargewell says that Marines at the squad level came up with a false story; that Kilo Company officers and the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, passed along insufficient information to the regimental commander; and that regimental officers and officers at the 2nd Marine Division ignored signs of a problem and believed the incident to be insignificant. He also accuses the entire chain of failing to recognize the importance of civilian deaths.

Of particular concern to Bargewell was that nearly all Marines looked the other way when confronted with early reports that many civilians had been shot in fighting on the streets of Haditha after a roadside bomb killed a member of their unit. His investigation found that Marines and officers present that day immediately reported numerous civilian deaths to superiors but that the reports were "untimely, inaccurate and incomplete" -- failures he attributed to "inattention and negligence, in certain cases willful negligence."

Then, no one asked any further questions, Bargewell wrote, despite gruesome photographs circulating among junior Marines that showed that women and children had been killed in their beds. He cited several opportunities to investigate that were not taken, such as when more than $40,000 in condolence payments went to Iraqis after the killings.

"I found that the duty to inquire further was so obvious in this case that a reasonable person with knowledge of these events would have certainly made further inquiries," Bargewell wrote. "The most remarkable aspect of the follow-on action with regard to the civilian casualties from the 19 November 2005 Haditha incident was the absence of virtually any kind of inquiry at any level of command into the circumstances surrounding the deaths."

No one recommended an investigation until a Time magazine reporter began asking questions about the attack in January 2006. Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, the division commander, dismissed the allegations as insurgent propaganda, according to the report. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, also refused to investigate, saying, "My marines are not murderers," according to two of his top subordinates. Bargewell called this "an unwillingness, bordering on denial," to examine an incident that could be harmful to his unit.

Chessani's attorneys have denied that he did anything wrong and have said that he informed his commanders about the incident.

The regimental commander, Col. Stephen Davis, was also not interested in investigating, according to the report. "The RCT-2 Commander, however, expressed only mild concern over the potential negative ramifications of indiscriminate killing based on his stated view that the Iraqis and insurgents respect strength and power over righteousness," the report says.

None of Chessani's superiors has been charged with a crime, but in addition to the battalion commander, two captains and a lieutenant have been charged with failing to investigate or with impeding the investigation.

Bargewell found that Huck's division staff viewed the allegations of inappropriate killings as part of insurgent "information operations" and an attempt to make the Marines look bad. He also noted a proclivity among senior officers to look past such allegations even if there was a chance they could be accurate. Bargewell called that approach "myopic and overly simplistic" and said it produced a tendency to judge credibility based on the source of the information rather than on the facts.

Shattered illusions: Azmi Bishara

If the fall of Baghdad exposed the dangers of identifying the state solely in its leader, Iraq's past four years show the folly of those -- especially Arabs -- who thought democracy could be imposed by foreign force, writes Azmi Bishara

No amount of overstatement does justice to the significance of the fall of Baghdad. Yet stunned gasps at how easily the regime was toppled have little bearing on the subject. When you consider that the invasion was preceded by 10 years of war followed by 15 years of sanctions, the fall wasn't "easy" by any count. The importance of studying the fall of Baghdad resides in the insight it gives into how a regime that rested on a personality cult grew hollow. It sheds light on a type of regime that disengaged itself from the concerns, rights and interests of the people, that lumped its citizens into an amorphous body called "the masses", and that believed that slogans were enough to make this body move, as though it had a single head to process the information it was fed.

If the public can be spontaneously stirred to action by powerful emotions such as jubilation, pent up resentment or outrage, then the government's task would seem to be to create the agenda and institutions for channelling these energies. The kind of regime at hand, however, does not deal well with spontaneity. In fact, spontaneity is one of its greatest fears and it is very good at containing it and sapping it of its force. Such a regime cannot suddenly mobilise "the masses" behind a strategy for resistance, especially when those so-called masses realise that resistance is synonymous with defending the regime.

The people of the Soviet Union fought the Nazi occupation at a time when the Soviet order was at its most robust, in spite of Stalin's dictatorship. But even then, popular resistance alone could not have prevented the fall of Stalingrad and Leningrad. Those battles required the full and concerted strength of the entire army and the state. Contrary to the common impression, democracy doesn't come into it. Many dictatorships have emerged victorious from their wars, just as many democracies have lost theirs. What does come into it is an organised government, the loyalty of the army, current balances of power and the horizons of opportunity this offers. In the case of Iraq, the government and the army were in a disastrous condition.

Of course that regime appealed to the Arab people, who had spontaneously demonstrated their outrage at the invasion. However, as there was no alternative project to steer these energies towards the realisation of a political agenda, they quickly dissipated. In some instances, other regimes succeeded in co-opting these energies in the interest of reaping a quantity of popular kudos. In other cases, governments simply loosened the leash a bit to let their public vent itself in a direction that was not aimed at them.

In Iraq, the eruption of popular energies came after the collapse of the regime that had kept such a tight cap on them. The explosion took two trajectories: one directed inwards, as previously repressed conflicts between diverse social forces erupted; the other directed outwards, in the form of resistance against the occupation. Both trajectories influence and feed off each other, of course. Resistance under conditions of an intense and bloody domestic power struggle quickly descends to a conflict over the reading of the past and, hence, the definition of the future. This conflict, in turn, contributes to the deconstruction of existing identities and the reconstruction of new identities shaped by the current political struggle and by attendant images of the self as victim and the other as interloper or proxy of the interloper, all reinforced by the spiralling cycle of violence, vengeance and retribution. These volatile forces may inflict great moral and material damage on the occupation, as they are doing in Iraq, but they do not offer a viable national alternative to a united Iraq.

In like manner, today's sectarian conflict in Iraq has assumed the guise of a conflict between those with and those opposed to the occupation. Tomorrow, it may assume the shape of a race to oust the occupation and claim the laurels for liberating Iraq -- or for achieving the partition of Iraq, which appears to be the way the current dynamics are heading.

Perhaps the foregoing underscores why it is important to home in on the role and condition of the government and the army when studying the fall of Baghdad. After all, current social circumstances and the resistance have put paid to all studies and theories that preceded the war and that foresaw a victorious entrance of American troops, the clouds of dictatorship dispelled by the purifying forces of aerial and naval bombardment, and the rise of democracy from the devastation, like a phoenix from the ashes.

Democracy is not borne from chaos or from the destruction of a nation, that's for sure. Democracy in Germany and Japan did not emerge from the destruction of those countries, contrary to the ridiculous myth. Democracy is an expression of the sovereignty of a nation and a form of exercising this sovereignty -- the most ideal form of exercising sovereignty, according to advocates of democracy, because it reflects the will of the people. Democracy cannot come into effect by manacling the sovereignty of a nation and dismantling a country as is currently taking place in Iraq and as some mad theorists had envisioned.

It wasn't just Baghdad that fell, not even at first glance. What also came crashing to the ground was the fairytale that one could build democracy just by pointing some mighty barrels at a dictatorship. The commonly held impression is that society without government is civil society. The notion has become something of a fad. But it is an illusion and a dangerous one at that. Society without government is a society at war, a society in which everyone is at the throats of everyone else. With the collapse of the state in Iraq the fires from "society's hell" flared out of control. The dual collapse of the dictatorship of Baghdad and the myth of building democracy on the ruins gave rise to the current Iraqi nightmare.

The current situation in Iraq marks a historic juncture in the Arab world; a juncture that raises a big question mark over the future of the Arab nation state as it currently stands. Iraq has driven home as never before that if this collection of nation states does not develop a higher level of cooperation on the basis of their common Arab identity it will disintegrate into a morass of warring sectarian and tribal groupings and revert to the pre-state era. Globalisation, as opposed to Americanisation and marginalisation, is a process that the Arabs must not allow themselves or their common identity to abandon in its wake. The Arabic language and culture are inherent media of communication and Arab satellite networks, television stations, newspapers, books, coffeehouses and all other public venues offer easily accessible channels for drawing the Arabs together and unifying their agendas. Unless they take advantage of these instruments to develop closer political, economic, social and supranational bonds, globalisation will bring nothing but the fragmentation of each nation state into sectarian and tribal pawns in the political and economic agendas of others.

Iraq's isolation from the rest of the Arab world stemmed, firstly, from the nature of the decision- making process in Iraq, itself; secondly, from the ability of an American-led coalition to corner the country, subject it to a prolonged blockade and then to pound it militarily on pretexts that would not legitimise a war even if they were true; and, thirdly, from the mechanisms that elevated sectarian and tribal groupings into political blocs that recruit allegiance either to or against the occupation on the basis of their various organic affiliations. Building a nation ultimately rests on the creation of a sense of the overriding bonds of citizenship. Yet, prior to this, in both the pre- and post-independence phases, there must exist a sense of common cause -- generally referred to as the right of self-determination -- for it is this that affirms that overriding bond as the primary cornerstone for building the nation. The Arabs, however, have produced neither the type of national entities that can serve as a basis for generating a sense of identification with a common cause or a foundation of citizenship that may be smaller than the Arab world combined but larger than the Arabs within a single sub-regional national entity. What is left and what is now forcefully advancing itself as the intermediary between the individual and tyranny is political unity based on ethnic, religious and tribal affiliations.

Even in the non-civil national entities we have, these same organic bonds form the primary units of affiliation within the state and army, in view of the absence of democratic institutions and the government's distrust of the loyalty of the individual to it. For the individual, meanwhile, these same units serve as the shield between him and the state. The irony is that what protects the individual from the despotism of the state forms one of the primary underpinnings of that despotism. The despotic regime justifies its existence on the grounds that it preserves the unity of the state, but in fact it sustains itself through its perpetration of and juggling with a vast diversity of centrifugal forces. But when the state and its army are defeated, these disparate disintegrative forces pounce upon the inheritance, in the course of which they exercise their own brand of tyranny as they fight it out with one another. Perhaps for this reason, some yearn for just plain tyranny.

Clearly, then, the Arabs' task is to find the ways to forestall the emergence of a situation that opens the way to such phenomena as the blockade of Iraq and the military intervention in that country. Surely this is the lesson to be derived from that tragic experience. One hopes, therefore, to hear again the voices of those who had appealed for outside intervention in the name of slogans that quickly proved themselves hollow, if not extremist -- slogans, for example, that espoused bringing democracy on the back of American tanks. One might expect to hear some honest self-criticism instead of the pieties spouted by those who have shown themselves to have no real interest in democracy.

There are a good many neo-liberals who parade beneath the banner of democracy, in spite of their general disregard for democratic methods and civil liberties, and who trumpet the need to prevent dictatorship only to retroactively justify a war that was waged on patently false pretences. If we add this behaviour to the actual crime of the dismantlement of the Iraqi state, we know that there was nothing unwitting in their complicity. The innocent ones blanched, admitted their mistakes and, at the very least, recognised the folly of American policies. The others never say what they mean and never mean what they say, and may well resort to the same theoretical hocus-pocus somewhere else in the future. No Arab state, at present, is immune to the spectre of fragmentation if it is subjected to the type of pounding visited upon Iraq.

Proponents of privatisation are not necessarily economic neo-liberals. The system of patronage, sectarianism and tribalism, and the corruption that pervades it, does not form the foundation for neo- liberal capitalism. Nor are economic neo-liberals necessarily politically liberal. Under the shadow of American interventionism in the region there have emerged forces that have called for change, but in fact are thirsty for power and numb to the cause of civil rights and liberties. The current Arab condition breeds the type of people who propel themselves to the fore on liberal platforms and then quickly reveal themselves liberal only in the amount of economic and political influence they seek to lavish on themselves.

Baghdad has fallen, but so to have all the illusions that had been pinned upon its fall. Here precisely is where an intensive reassessment must begin.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Al-Ahram Weekly Online

Video: James Yee, Islam, Guantanamo and his Ordeal

Chaplain James Yee on Guantanamo

Jump to segments on his becoming a Muslim
and on Guantanamo and his arrest and solitary confinement.


April 20, 2007

Charles Jenks, Traprock Peace Center

"There are many female interrogators down at Guantanamo...there are very many who interrogate Muslim male prisoners after stripping all of their cloths off standing naked in front of these men."

Chaplain James Yee, former US Army Muslim Chaplain and Captain at Guantanamo, discusses how he became a Muslim and then goes into detail about psychological and physical at Guantanamo and his own arrest and solitary confinement while a US army chaplain.

He reveals Guantanamo's shocking interrogation technigues (such as sexual taunting from naked female interrogators), physical and psychological abuse, and desecration of the Koran by guards. He also discusses his own arrest, solitary confinement with sensory deprivation, and eventual total exoneration. All charges were dropped again him. He was returned to duty and given a commendation. He resigned his commission and received an honorable discharge.

Mr. Yee spoke on April 14, 2007 at the 3rd Annual Midwest Peace and Justice Summit held on the IUPUI campus in Indianapolis, IN.

Conference sponsors were: IUPUI Student Advocates for Global Equality; Indiana Peace & Justice Network; Plowshares Consortium of Peace Studies Programs; IUPUI Center for Service and Learning; Indianapolis Peace and Justice Center; and IUPUI Office of Campus and Community Life.

On Guantanamo and his arrest/solitary confinement

On his becoming a Muslim

Entire presentation at Google

Video recorded and edited by Charles Jenks; © 2007 Traprock Peace Center; all rights reserved.


Number Of White House Officials Allowed To Intervene In DoJ Cases Jumps By 10,325 Percent

April 20, 2007

WHITEHOUSE/GONZALES VIDEO: Number Of White House Officials Allowed To Intervene In DoJ Cases Jumps By 10,325 Percent
Submitted by Amanda Lang

Yesterday in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Comm, AG Alberto Gonzales said that it was important that the Justice Dept "be independent from" the WH. But as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) pointed out, the firewalls that had existed during the Clinton admin have been ripped down. In the Bush admin, the rules have been rewritten so that 417 WH officials and and 30 Justice Dept officials are eligible to have discussions

Iraqi doctor denied visit to U.S. conference: civilian deaths specialist

Iraqi doctor denied visit to U.S. conference
April 20, 2007
associated press

SEATTLE–An Iraqi doctor who concluded that more Iraqi civilians have died in the war than has been reported has been prevented from attending a medical conference at the University of Washington.

Riyadh Lafta had been scheduled to give a lecture this evening at the Seattle campus but his visa to the United States has not been approved.

The State Department cited miscommunication as the reason for the delay.

Lafta is an epidemiologist who teaches at Al-Mustansiriya University College of Medicine in Baghdad. He co-wrote an October 2006 article that concluded nearly 655,000 Iraqis have died since the war began in March 2003. The article appeared in the British medical journal, The Lancet.

The findings were 10 times greater than other studies, said Tim Takaro, an associate professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

"The magnitude of that has been lost on the American people. Both the British and U.S. governments have discounted these figures," said Takaro, who conducts research with Lafta.

The School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the UW asked Lafta to discuss the study, as well as elevated cancer levels in southern Iraq.

Last July, Lafta applied for a visa with the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan.

Officials there tried contacting the doctor twice by e-mail, but never received a response, State Department spokesman Steve Royster said. Incomplete visa applications can be held.

"This is a matter of a simple but unfortunate miscommunication," Royster said.

Amy Hagopian, a UW acting assistant professor who is conducting research with Lafta, believes the reason is more political.

"My hypothesis is the Bush administration was extremely threatened by The Lancet study," Hagopian said.

Hagopian said both Lafta and UW officials tried contacting federal officials when they hadn't heard anything about his visa. The university was assisted by staff from the offices of both U.S. Representative Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who visited Iraq in 2002, and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)

"They were stonewalling us," she said. "Any comments to the contrary are obfuscation."

Lafta was invited to deliver his lecture today at Simon Fraser University so it could be broadcast by video to the UW. However, the British government this week denied him a four-hour transit visa for a stopover between the Middle East and Canada.

Les Roberts of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, who worked with Lafta on the Iraqi death estimates, was scheduled to speak in his place at the UW.

CRIMINAL Probe Opened in Pet Food Scare: YOUR Food Affected

Friday, 20 April 2007

Keep An Eye on Pet Food Recall Stories

UPDATE: "Criminal Probe Opened in Pet Food Scare: FDA Says Charges Possible; Tainted Pork Confirmed in Calif.," Washington Post, April 22: "The Food and Drug Administration has opened a criminal investigation in the widening pet food contamination scandal, officials said yesterday, as it was confirmed that tainted pork might have made its way onto human dinner plates in California." (I'm feeling prescient. This is just the TIP of the iceberg since labs still haven't gotten to the bottom of what's sickening pets and could sicken people. I suspect the Chinese add melamine (and more?) to cheaply boost protein numbers in glutens, and also that their factories are filthy cesspools of cross-contamination.)

ORIGINAL: Even if you don't have a pet, you'll be concerned by growing evidence that human foods could be contaminated. Further, the FDA is being barred by the Chinese government from investigating the Chinese plants that produced the tainted wheat gluten. This is KEY because the same Chinese plant that sold tainted wheat gluten (an additive in countless processed foods) also exports "carrots, garlic, ginger, corn protein powder, vegetables and feed." And now we've learned that rice and corn glutens are contaminated. Here's more new information:

Federal officials confirmed Thursday they are investigating whether pork products intended for humans are contaminated with the same industrial chemical that prompted a massive pet food recall and sickened cats and dogs nationwide. Researchers also have identified three other contaminants in the urine and kidneys of animals sickened or killed after eating the recalled foods, including cyanuric acid, a chemical commonly used in pool chlorination, three researchers told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Cyanuric acid is what most likely sickened pets, one researcher said.

Melamine previously was found in the recalled pet food and two ingredients -- wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate -- as well as in the urine, blood, kidneys and tissues of infected animals. [...]

The Trib learned yesterday that melamine-contaminated feed was fed to hogs.The FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Food and Agriculture are investigating. [...]

[Some hogs] were slaughtered and sold as food before authorities learned their feed had been contaminated. ...

[T]he urine of some pigs at the 1,500-animal American Hog Farm in Ceres, Calif., tested positive for melamine, ...

The contaminated feed was bought April 3 and 13 as salvage pet food from Diamond Pet Foods Inc., which received contaminated rice protein concentrate. ...

Diamond Pet Foods Inc. is a large mass-producer of pet foods like Menu Foods. Diamond makes the Kirkland family of pet foods sold to Costco.

Melamine has been "found in South African Royal Canin products containing corn gluten from Chinese source." Via Itchmo blog, from about the 30 pet deaths reported so far in South Africa:

An independent pathologist, Professor Fred Reyers said the outbreak may not be an isolated incident. He believed there was sufficient evidence to suggest a link between this outbreak and a similar one in Cape Town as well as one in the United States.

Itchmo blog's Ben adds:

We were tracking cases of the South African pet deaths before and have heard rumors of corn gluten contamination.

At this point, we believe that all corn gluten should be considered at risk for contamination and should be tested by every pet food manufacturer and the FDA.

The FDA "has yet to test corn gluten after South Africa’s findings of melamine in corn gluten from China," agency representatives conceded at yesterday's press conference.

The specific product recalls -- with more daily -- are too numerous to list here. The best thing to do is check Itchmo's site frequently because Ben has reliably and quickly posted all significant news. You can also sign up for Ben's safety alerts.

Howl911 is also doing a great job tracking recall news, and its staff has created a list of recalled products that is more accurate, and easier to follow, than the FDA's.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review also has this report on the recalcitrance of the Chinese, "Chinese criticized in pet food probe."

The Chinese government and the company that supplied a contaminated ingredient are slowing the federal investigation into the nationwide recall of pet food, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration official said Tuesday.


Michael Rogers, director of the FDA's field investigations division, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the agency has asked the Chinese government for help investigating the gluten and the supplier, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd., based in Jiangsu province.

The FDA is disappointed with slow and incomplete Chinese responses, Rogers said.

"I usually don't speak in terms of cooperative or not cooperative," he said.

Federal investigators haven't determined whether Xuzhou Anying shipped other food products to the United States, or what other Chinese companies it sold wheat gluten to that, in turn, might have been shipped here, Rogers said.

Xuzhou Anying's Web site said it also exports carrots, garlic, ginger, corn protein powder, vegetables and feed. Rogers said Chinese officials have not responded to the U.S. government's question about whether any products other than wheat gluten were shipped here.

"We're certainly reviewing all products from this source," he said. Since the recall, the company has shipped only wheat gluten to the United States, but U.S. officials still are unsure what might have been shipped prior to the recall, Rogers said.

"From an operational standpoint, we still have questions about this company," he said.

The FDA is screening all wheat gluten imported from China and the Netherlands at U.S. ports and seizing all wheat gluten from Xuzhou Anying.


The FDA, Cornell and other researchers found melamine in high concentrations in the gluten -- up to 6.6 percent of the product.

Even so, they do not believe the melamine made the animals sick, although they said it is a marker for tracking the outbreak, because the crystal found in the melamine and in animals' urine and tissue is distinctive to this outbreak.

In other words, nobody knows yet what is killing cats and dogs, or may be harming humans.

The best advice I've seen, from reading many articles and blog posts, is to buy locally and organically.

Even reading labels isn't a guarantee because there is little oversight over what companies list in their labels.

Sen. Dick Durbin has been a leader in calling for greater oversight by the FDA over imported foods. From his Web site:

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) met with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach on Wednesday, April 18, 2007 in Durbin's Capitol office to discuss the latest recall of pet food, this time caused by contaminated rice protein imported from China.

In his press release on the meeting, Durbin says:

In the meeting, Durbin and DeLauro learned that the Chinese Government has blocked requests from the FDA to send personnel to China to inspect the facilities suspected of producing the contaminated products. The FDA first contacted the Chinese Government on April 4, 2007, but have not been granted permission to send food inspectors into the country. In response, Durbin and DeLauro sent a letter to the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzong, urging the Chinese Government to issue visas to U.S. food inspectors as quickly as possible.

"It is unacceptable that the Chinese government is blocking our food safety inspectors from entering their country and examining facilities that are suspected of providing contaminated pet food to American consumers," said Durbin. "We have asked for two things in our letter today -- that the Chinese government allow our inspectors in and that the Chinese ambassador to the United States meet with Congresswoman DeLauro and me to discuss the larger issue of contaminated food being sent to the U.S. These are reasonable requests and we hope that we can find a level of cooperation with the Chinese."

"At time when China is exporting more foods into the U.S., the Chinese are refusing to allow our inspectors in to the country to investigate the source of the pet food contamination. The FDA needs to be allowed to investigate this so we can better protect our pets and identify the source of the source of the problem. While we have a significant trade relationship with the Chinese, the investigation of the contaminated product comes first," said DeLauro.

Durbin calls for a single agency to oversee food safety:

Durbin and DeLauro have been actively engaged on food safety issues for over a decade. This Congress they introduced legislation that calls for the development of a single food safety agency and the implementation of a food safety program to standardize American food safety activities (The Safe Food Act - S. 654 and H.R. 1148 in the Senate and House respectively). The Illinois senator said legislation he has introduced to consolidate all federal food safety responsibilities into a single, independent agency has taken on new urgency because of a possibly heightened need to respond quickly and effectively to any acts of bioterrorism or agroterrorism. Currently, there are at least 12 different federal agencies and 35 different laws governing food safety. With overlapping jurisdictions, federal agencies often lack accountability on food safety-related issues.

The non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) has been unequivocal in its recommendation for consolidation of federal food safety programs. In February of this year, the GAO deemed federal oversight of food safety as "high risk" to the economy and public health and safety. Over the past two decades, GAO has also issued numerous reports on topics such as food recalls, food safety inspections and the transport of animal feeds. Each of these reports highlights the current fragmentation and inconsistent organization of the various agencies involved in food safety oversight.

Defining the enemy

Arab-Palestinian Knesset member Azmi Bishara explains to Amira Howeid the motives behind the Israeli media's campaign against him and how it affects the Arab community

Israel, it seems, is at war with one man. The Israeli media and politicians from across the political spectrum are up in arms against him, the Shabak (intelligence) is said to be preparing a file on him and his fate could have an impact on 1.3 million Arabs living in Israel.

This might be the kind of attention someone as high-profile as Azmi Bishara expects when faced with accusations of treason. Then again, it might not. Bishara is, after all, not just an outspoken Arab-Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament the Knesset but an embodiment of Israel's paradoxes and its complex relationship with itself and its Arab-Palestinian community.

Over the past 11 years this Christian Arab- Palestinian politician, intellectual, novelist, philosopher and citizen of Israel has struggled to redefine the status and identity of the Palestinians whose lands, towns and villages were occupied by the Jewish state between 1948 and 1949 and who later became Israeli citizens. While Israel sought to assimilate them and "Israelise" their collective identity, Bishara and his National Arab Alliance party begged to differ.

Their vision, which has gained momentum within the Arab community (known as the 1948 Arabs) insists that Israel should be a state for all its citizens and not -- as it now perceives itself -- a Jewish state. A Jewish state, they argue, defies the logics of democracy because it does not equate between its Jewish and non-Jewish populations. Even more alarming for Israeli nationalists is the fact that such a position could represent the nucleus of a bi-national secular state.

Three weeks ago Bishara left Israel for an Arab tour. Given recent developments it is now unclear when, or if, he will be returning. A week after his departure, the Israeli press began a campaign of incitement against him, the opening shot being the publication of news reports that he will resign from the Knesset while in Qatar. This was followed by leaks to the media concerning a criminal investigation against him. But with a court-imposed gag on the nature of the investigation it is not clear what is actually being investigated though the Israeli press has hinted at charges involving "contact with the enemy during wartime".

Although Bishara is no stranger to prosecution based on similar allegations -- in the past he has always been found innocent - he now believes that "the rules of the game have changed" and that the target is not just him but the entire Palestinian-Arab community living in Israel.

"There is a decision to end our political stream and the unprecedented challenge it represents for them," he told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview from Doha. "The message is: Palestinian-Arabs who support us will be regarded as people working against Israel. And to do that they are targeting the head of the movement. They cannot tolerate an Arab Knesset member who refutes their claims of democratic practice and argues that Zionism defeats the notion of democracy."

By presenting Bishara's case as one with security dimensions, "Israel will have more tools to fight us with," he said, "and it is evident that they've been preparing a huge file for over a year now which involved monitoring all my moves and recording all my telephone conversations without a court order. It makes me wonder what parliamentary immunity means in practice."

It is rumoured that the secret police have records of phone conversations Bishara conducted with "hostile" Arab figures, including Hizbullah members, during Israel's war against Lebanon last summer.

Such "security fabrications", in Bishara's words, could affect international solid5arity with him since the suggestion being propagated "translates into providing the enemy with information which ultimately transforms me from a political, cultural and intellectual figure to an agent for a hostile state or terrorist organisation as they call it".

"This changes the logic of things because I have my political views, I publish articles, I give interviews and I talk on the phone but I do not enjoy a security position or have access to security information in the first place in order to deliver it. In fact, it is clear that these hostile states or organisations like Hizbullah and Hamas are more informed about Israel's security than we are. We are men of thought, culture and literature."

Bishara denies all the rumoured charges against him and says they "disgust" him. And because he realises the rules of the game have changed he has yet to decide if he will play by the new rules.

"It is out of the question that someone like myself should sit with prosecutors and answer their questions about my phone calls, what I say to my friends, what did I mean by this word or in this article with all the humiliation it involves."

The active involvement of the Israeli left alongside the extreme right in teaming up against Bishara in the current media campaign against him comes as no surprise. "The Israeli left and right stood together during the first weeks of the war on Lebanon last summer and the same scenario is repeating itself with me. They're all united against the path that we chose which rejects Zionism and the Zionist nature [of Israel], our emphasis on Arab identity, extending our cultural and civilisational roots to the Arab world and our emphasis on the fact that there are two nations and that we are not merely a minority."

A leading Palestinian intellectual, Bishara's popularity extends across the Arab world. Not only did his movement contribute to breaking many of the political taboos imposed on the 1948 Palestinian community, his eloquence and staunch pan-Arab stands helped redefine the term "Israeli-Arab" which for decades was treated with suspicion across the Arab world.

This might be good news for the Arabs, but why would Israel tolerate a vocal Arab- Palestinian who supports resistance?

"Israel has a problem of course," says Bishara, "and [its leaders] are not trying to redefine the borders and prevent us from expressing such views. But we do not ask anything of Israel in this regard. We are against the Israeli aggression on Lebanon and we support people's right in resisting occupation. We do not support a specific form of resistance and we oppose the targeting of civilians in this context. But in the context of citizenship and activism within a political framework we have to distinguish between people like us, Palestinians and Arabs, whose lands were occupied, and our right to express ourselves about resisting occupation and actually being directly involved in resistance. There is a difference between our liaisons as democratic Palestinians and Arabs with the rest of the Arab world and making our position known and being part of the resistance... Of course Israel cannot tolerate resistance but then freedom [fighters] do not want Israel's tolerance in the first place."

Israel, says Bishara, suffers from an identity crisis. "But then I have one too," he admits. "I have a problem tolerating them just as they have a problem tolerating me. In the past five years I feel I have grown 50 years older as a result of the conflicts and having to go to the Knesset every day and actually sit with people I regard as war criminals. I did it out of responsibility for my people even though it exhausted and drained me. But I'm not talking about predicaments here, I'm talking about equilibrium. They now want to change that equilibrium so that we no longer take the stands that we do."

When Bishara took what he considered a democratic stand following Israel's war on Lebanon last year by visiting Beirut's southern suburb Al-Dahia -- Hizbullah's stronghold, Israelis went berserk. "It's ABC political work for a Palestinian democrat like myself who exists as part of the political entity that launched the aggression to show solidarity with the victims of this aggression... [The Israelis] in turn decided this is participating in resistance. I reject that completely."

During a war, he said, people talk to each other on the phone and they talk about the war. "But if we talk about the war this could be contact with the enemy. Turning every triviality between human beings who are Arabs -- and are naturally connected -- into transferring information to the enemy is simply an attempt to quash us. There is a big cultural misunderstanding here, a huge gap in understanding who we are."

Israel, says Bishara, perceives its Arabs as a minority who immigrated to Israel, requested an Israeli card and became Israelis. "And therefore when we communicate with other Arabs we are in contact with the enemy. We have a different perception. We are Arabs and our brothers and sisters in the Arab world are Arab, and we were Arab long before Israel was created [in 1948] and imposed its identity on us. Now it wants to impose its enemies as our enemies. They're not."

According to Bishara, his decision to resign from the Knesset was taken a year ago but his party wanted him to postpone it for a while. But now he has to decide whether or not he will resign and have his immunity lifted, "or if I should throw this immunity at them anyway". He will "eventually" return to Israel and the occupied territories, he says, but only after he has decided how to handle the campaign against him and the 1948 Arab-Palestinian community.

C a p t i o n : Azmi Bishara

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly Online