A major crisis for the Bolivian president
LA PAZ: President Evo Morales is facing the most acute crisis of his presidency as deaths from violence in rebellious northern Bolivia increased to almost 30 over the weekend. Supporters of Morales said that the death toll could rise with dozens of people caught up in the violence and still unaccounted for.
Relative calm returned to the northern department of Pando on Sunday after Morales declared martial law there and troops dispatched from La Paz seized the airport and other facilities in Cobija, the departmental capital. But the threat of unrest persists in other parts of Bolivia, and political leaders in the tropical lowlands bordering on Brazil said they would resume protests if killings in Pando continued.
Morales said that the violence was a massacre carried out partly by "Peruvian and Brazilian mercenaries" hired by the governor of Pando, Leopoldo Fernández, who went into hiding to avoid arrest. In comments to local radio, Fernández denied that accusation, asserting that the deaths resulted from clashes between anti-government protesters and the president's supporters.
On Sunday, Juan Ramón Quintana, a top aide to Morales, told a local radio station that Fernández had been arrested, The Associated Press reported.
The violence points to renewed tension over Morales's attempts to redistribute petroleum royalties and to overhaul the constitution to speed land reform and create a separate legal system for Bolivia's indigenous majority. Most of Bolivia's natural gas and food is produced in the eastern lowlands, and those departmental governments have chafed at the president's proposals.
The polarization of the country intensified in August after Morales won 67 percent approval in a nationwide referendum over his policies, reflecting intense support for him in the rural highlands and in large cities like La Paz and Cochabamba. But governors in the eastern departments who urge greater political and economic autonomy from Morales's government were reaffirmed in their posts with similar margins.
"You have a conflict between a constitutional national power and a de facto regional power that can only be resolved by constitutional force," said Heinz Dieterich, a political analyst base din Mexico who writes widely on leftist movements in Latin America. "If Evo does not use the judiciary and the military, there is no way he can govern."
Indonesian police suspect separatists in mine bombings
JAKARTA, Indonesia: Separatist rebels are being investigated in a string of bombings targeting a U.S. mining giant in Indonesia's restive eastern Papua province, police said Monday. No one was wounded in the blasts, which followed written demands that the company's gold mine be shut.
Two attacks were carried out late last week on a road leading to the massive mine operated by Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. and a third occurred late Sunday in an empty field near an international airport built by the New Orleans-based company.
"It is clear that an unidentified group wants to sabotage and terrorize vital (Freeport) installations in Papua," deputy police chief Prasetyo, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name, told reporters in the port town of Timika. "But they failed."
Papua, a desperately poor and heavily militarized province on Indonesia's easternmost tip, is home to separatist rebels who have long denounced PT Freeport Indonesia's mine as a symbol of Jakarta's rule over the region.
U.S. researchers battle a fish explosion
HAVANA, Illinois: With their open boat skipping like a silvery stone along the Illinois River, the fish experts scan the mocha waters for what they call "incoming." Bodies hunched in anticipation, they look left and right, front and behind; you never know, they say.
"If you put your guard down, you could easily get seriously injured," says Kevin Irons, one of the researchers, who once got hit in the head. A colleague, Matt O'Hara, nods in empathy from behind the mesh netting that protects the boat's driver from being knocked unconscious.
"I got hit in the back once," he says. "It left an imprint of a fish."
A first-time visitor to the river initially wonders whether O'Hara and Irons have spent too much time in the sun. Until their boat slows down, that is, and fish by the dozens explode out of the water as though shot from the cannons of an underwater armada.
The agitated fish, who perceive the boat as a predator, rocket like slimy torpedoes through the air, against the hull of the boat, into the netting, onto the floor. Your correspondent takes one in the leg and your photographer takes one in the midsection, but both fare better than the college biology major who had her lip split last week.
Though awesome and even unnerving to behold, the fishy fusillade is all too common on the Illinois River - and it is not good. These are Asian carp, a ravenous, rapidly multiplying invasive species that in the last decade has threatened the well-being of native fish, affected commercial fishing and transformed the typical workday for these researchers into a scene from "Apocalypse Now."
The Illinois, a working river that supports both churning coal barges and great blue herons, is one link in a chain of waterways connecting Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico. And the thought of Asian carp invading the Great Lakes haunts the dreams of environmentalists, business owners and government officials. That fishy downturned mouth; those unblinking, low-set eyes.
To prevent this nightmare from becoming reality, the Army Corps of Engineers is expanding an underwater electrical barrier it built a few years ago in Romeoville, about 170 miles, or 270 kilometers, northeast of here. The system, whose projected total cost is $36.5 million, emits electrical currents to dissuade the carp - and all other fish - from making their way to the lake. The project's name conveys its gravity: the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal Aquatic Nuisance Species Dispersal Barrier.
The back story to the invasion of the Asian carp reads like a horror-movie script. In the early 1970s, bighead carp and silver carp were imported from China and eastern Siberia to eat the algae clotting fish farms in the South. But a series of floods over the years helped them to escape their controlled environment. Cue the "Jaws" theme.
Meanwhile, in 1991, two young men with a strong interest in fish began working for the Illinois Natural History Survey at a field station in Havana, a small city in central Illinois. One was Kevin Irons, from near Toledo; the other, Matt O'Hara, from downriver in Beardstown.
They spent a lot of time on the placid Illinois, testing the water quality, tracking the abundance and diversity of fish. In retrospect those were halcyon days, O'Hara, now 38, said. "You didn't have to worry about duck and cover." Soon after they started, a commercial fisherman stopped at the field station to show them a strange fish he had caught: a bighead carp, with low-set eyes that all but said, What are you looking at?
Four years later, the men caught their own bighead. Then, in 1998, they came across a silver carp. After that, it was an Asian carp here, an Asian carp there - until 2003, when the silver carp population exploded, in and out of the water. "It was like popcorn," said Irons, 43.
Today this 80-mile stretch of the Illinois River may have the largest population of Asian carp in the world, said Greg Sass, the field station's director. "There's been an exponential increase in their numbers and biomass," he said.
In bio-speak: It's out of control.
Earlier in the morning, Sass had watched as Irons, O'Hara and a third employee, Matt Stroub, gathered their gear for a day on the river. "Keep your heads on a swivel," he had called out. "Hopefully you won't lose any teeth."
Now the researchers are cutting fast again through the murky waters in an aluminum "shock" boat, which has equipment that can electrify the water, paralyzing fish long enough for the researchers to scoop them up and identify and measure them before tossing them back. Along with anchored nets, this is how they conduct three six-week fish counts every year.
In 2006, the researchers caught around 500 silver carp. In 2007, around 10,000. So far this year, with only two-thirds of the sampling complete, they have caught nearly 80,000 silver carp that now compete in an eating contest with native fish for the river's algae and zooplankton. The carp often win.
This explains why the shock boat has been customized to ward off carp attacks that have bruised bodies and damaged equipment, including one brand-new depth finder. It has wings around the sides to "block the fish," Irons says, and netting fused to an aluminum frame to protect the driver.
Turtles sunbathe along the banks. Bald eagles glide above the treetops. And Asian carp cut rippling V patterns along the river's surface.
The boat slows to a stop near Towhead Island, with so many silver carp leaping in the wake that fish and foam seem to blend.
O'Hara turns a couple of knobs on the boat's control panel, sending electric currents into the water and silver carp into the air. Irons and Stroub scoop up the paralyzed fish with nets and dump them into a water-filled tank.
After 15 minutes of stunning and scooping, the researchers begin to count and record. White bass. Black crappie. Bigmouth buffalo. Common carp. Silver carp. Silver carp. Silver carp.
Someday, perhaps, someone will develop a lemonade-from-lemons plan for these fish - a commercially viable way to use them as fertilizer, or to export them to China and other countries, where they are a common food source. Irons says, by the way, that the carp are surprisingly tasty.
Until that day, these dedicated, bruised men dodge fish torpedoes in the name of science. Channel catfish. Long-nose gar. Silver carp. Silver carp. Silver carp.
OIL AND SECURITY
The rising danger of high oil prices
Henry A. Kissinger heads the consulting firm Kissinger & Associates. Martin Feldstein is a professor of economics at Harvard University and was President Ronald Reagan's chief economic adviser.
The tripling in the price of oil from $30 a barrel in 2001 to more than $100 today represents the largest transfer of wealth in human history. The 13 OPEC members alone are expected to earn more than $1 trillion.
Inevitably, this must bring with it major political consequences. Not the least significant aspect of this political and economic earthquake is that it is exacted from the world's most powerful nations by some of the world's weakest. Yet the victims stand by impotently as if the price of oil were some natural event determined by a competitive economic market that is uninfluenced and uninfluencable by political forces.
But the price of oil is not determined in a traditional competitive market. Major producers can and do raise or lower the price of oil by reducing or increasing their rate of production. And since today's oil price also reflects expectations of future supply and demand, these monopolistic suppliers are able to manipulate and compound the volatility of the market by statements about their future intentions.
The monopoly suppliers will continue to have strong market power until the consuming nations sharply reduce their dependence on imported oil and develop a political strategy to counter political manipulation of the oil market or the use of the vast OPEC surpluses to blackmail the economies or individual industries of the consuming nations. Failing such efforts, the high and rising price of oil will produce profound political and economic consequences:
In the advanced industrial countries, the high price of energy will reduce the standard of living, sustain an unfavorable balance of payments and lead to increasing inflationary pressures.
The impact of rising oil prices on the standard of living is even greater in developing countries. Because fuel and food costs are a larger part of households' spending, and food production requires inputs of oil in petrochemical fertilizer and for transportation, higher oil prices lead to political instability.
Even with the drop in oil prices to around $100 a barrel, the Middle East oil exporters will receive over $800 billion in 2008.
Much of that revenue goes to a handful of countries with small populations. For example, the Abu Dhabi Emirate, with a population of 850,000 but only about 400,000 citizens, has proven oil reserves of 92 billion barrels and financial wealth derived from previous energy sales of more than $1 trillion. This concentration of oil income and wealth makes these wealthy but strategically weak states targets of radical neighbors.
It also gives them a disproportionate political influence on world affairs, in two ways.
First, a portion of these vast oil revenues are passed on to radical groups throughout the Islamic world, such as Hezbollah, through public and private so-called foundations. The madrassas that preach jihad are largely financed by oil money.
Second, revenues from high oil prices are recycled into the rapidly growing sovereign wealth funds of the OPEC countries, which invest these surpluses in the economies of the developed countries. Abu Dhabi has more than $1 trillion of investable funds.
The explosive rise in oil prices has tempted more assertive policies. Resources are being shifted from passive investments in U.S. and European government bonds to corporate equities and to the outright purchase of American and European businesses. As these new investments multiply, they may tempt the creditors into a growing influence over Western economies.
This state of affairs is intolerable in the long run. The foreign policy of industrialized nations must not become a hostage to the oil producers. The industrial nations must find ways to discourage the creditors from threatening to sell, or actually to sell, large quantities of U.S. bonds, driving up long-term American interest rates to levels precipitating an economic downturn, or to target particular firms or industries by selling shares acquired by sovereign funds.
So long as consuming countries sit by passively or deal with the challenge on a largely national basis while hoping to benefit from the efforts of others, the present dangers will continue, if not increase.
Ultimately, all consumer nations are in the same boat. A global recession will respect no national frontiers. No single nation is able to establish a permanently preferred position among the producers. No single nation can alter the supply situation entirely by its own efforts.
The oil-consuming nations are in a position, however, to shape both the economic and political global balance provided they coordinate and, to some extent, pool their efforts.
America should play a major role in this effort. Rather than wait passively for the next blow to fall, the major consuming nations - the Group of 7, together with India, China and Brazil - should establish a coordinating group to shift the long-term trends of supply and demand in their favor and to end the blackmail of the strong by the weak. Russia should be invited to participate in this effort.
Coordinated actions could bring down the price of oil by reducing and, in the long term, eliminating the speculative pressures behind recent price rises and by establishing a coherent supply policy.
Many of the measures recommended to achieve this - such as conservation, the development of domestic oil supplies and alternative sources of renewable energy - will take some years to become effective. However, even before the balance of market power has been transformed, the expectation of change will reduce the price of oil.
A cooperative policy should also include emergency sharing arrangements to counter selective boycotts or interruption of supplies.
The 2008 price rise was driven by changes in the expected long-term demand for oil while supplies remained largely static. By the same token, actions that will cause a slower growth of future demand and a more rapid rise in supply will translate relatively quickly into a lower current price.
A change in U.S. national energy policies is essential. But that will be much more effective as part of a coordinated international effort.
In the United States, oil is used primarily as gasoline for vehicles. Outside the U.S., oil is primarily used for heating and electricity generation. Coordinated policies should therefore focus on reducing U.S. gasoline use, while foreign countries could contribute by shifting from oil to hydro, clean coal technology or nuclear power to generate electricity.
Increasing the supply of oil deserves high priority. American policies to increase supply by expanding drilling and by developing oil shale need to be matched by policies to increase supply abroad. That requires more investment by state-owned oil providers, the primary sources of oil today. The oil consumers are in a position to use diplomatic measures to establish a new balance between producers and consumers.
Some of the policies to reduce the price of oil would also reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil without eliminating it. The United States will remain an oil importer until gasoline for vehicles is replaced by batteries or hydrogen. At the same time, for an interim period, efforts to increase the supply of oil and of other carbon fuels may make it more difficult to reduce total carbon emissions.
But because of the profound political consequences of a high oil price, reducing the price of oil must be the immediate, paramount objective.
Global markets fall after Wall Street trauma
NEW YORK: Markets stumbled around the world Monday and continued falling Tuesday as nervous investors sought to make sense of the financial earthquake that shook Wall Street to its foundations this weekend with the bankruptcy filing of the investment bank Lehman Brothers, the takeover of Merrill Lynch and the plea for government help from the global insurance giant American International Group.
The Dow Jones industrial average closed 504.48 points lower, or 4.4 percent, at 10,917.51. The broader Standard & Poor's 500-stock index fell 58.17 points, or 4.7 percent, to end at 1,193.53, and the Nasdaq composite index closed 81.36 points lower, or 3.6 percent, at 2,179.91. Lehman shares became essentially worthless in the first trading session after the firm filed for bankruptcy.
Examining the ripple effect of the Lehman bankruptcy
LONDON: The mood was somber in the packed auditorium at Lehman Brothers international headquarters at Canary Wharf. "It's over," said Christian Meissner, the co-head of Lehman's European and Middle Eastern operations, as he explained that bankruptcy administrators were in charge of the 158-year-old investment bank after desperate talks to work out a deal in New York failed over the weekend.
It certainly is over for Lehman's 25,000 employees, who have lost a large portion of their fortunes as the firm's stock has fallen and who are now frantically searching for work.
"Everybody is frozen here after Lehman," said one senior executive from a major financial institution who was paying visits this week to all the major sovereign funds in Asia and the Middle East. His voice was worn from hours spent in conference rooms trying to explain to clients why Lehman failed and who might be next. "Its just fear."
Meanwhile, the business of unwinding Lehman's operations in Europe has already begun. Tony Lomas, of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm, said the task could take years and is "larger and more complex" than Enron or MG Rover. PricewaterhouseCoopers was appointed Monday as administrator for Lehman Brothers' European operations.
U.S. presidential candidates take on financial crisis
WASHINGTON: The major-party presidential candidates reacted quickly and forcefully Monday to the turmoil in the financial markets. Senator Barack Obama called the problems "the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression," and Senator John McCain said the current system of regulation and oversight needed to be replaced.
Obama, a Democrat, passed no judgment on the failed government efforts to arrange a rescue of Lehman Brothers, but faulted "eight years of policies that have shredded consumer protections, loosened oversight and regulation, and encouraged outsized bonuses to CEOs while ignoring middle-class Americans."
McCain, his Republican rival, said that he would "replace the outdated and ineffective patchwork quilt of regulatory oversight in Washington and bring transparency and accountability to Wall Street." He offered no details on what sort of system he would propose.
McCain did say that he was "glad to see that the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have said no to using taxpayer money to bail out Lehman Brothers." Lehman's problems, he said, were "the latest reminder of ineffective regulation and management." That was in keeping with his past aversion to government bailouts.
Federal Reserve takes steps to aid AIG
The Federal Reserve has asked two investment banks, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, to put together $70 billion in loans to help prop up the American International Group, the giant insurance company, a person briefed on the matter said Monday.
More specific details of the plan could not be learned, but it appears that the Fed was seeking to create a bank-financed credit line for AIG as it sought to avoid a credit rating downgrade that could help trigger its demise.
With the big insurance group, regulators and potential lenders racing time on Monday, Governor David Paterson of New York also announced that the state would allow AIG to borrow $20 billion from its subsidiaries, to help bolster its capital in the face of potentially disastrous credit downgrades.
Paterson said he had authorized the state insurance superintendent, Eric Dinallo, to include the $20 billion asset transfer in a broader plan being worked out at the New York Fed on Monday.
AIG had sought a $40 billion bridge loan from the Fed after other efforts to raise capital crumbled. The rising amount of money needed showed how quickly AIG's fortunes were deteriorating. Just two months ago, the company was telling investors it believed it had adequate capital.
Little gloating in Europe over Wall Street's collapse
PARIS: Although Europeans have often viewed Wall Street with a mix of awe, envy and deep-seated skepticism, the kind of gloating that might have accompanied the collapse of a Wall Street titan like Lehman Brothers in the past has been replaced by fears of what it portends for Europe's own increasingly global financial institutions.
While European banks have generally withstood the maelstrom better than Wall Street has, they have suffered enough to know that they are unlikely to escape more pain.
"Europeans like to have a bit of schadenfreude about the U.S. but not too much, because when it gets serious, we're all in the same boat," said Nicolas Véron, a research fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based research center focusing on Europe's place in the global economy.
An institution like UBS, which once embodied the conservative virtues long espoused by Swiss bankers, has suffered tens of billions in losses because of its exposure to risky mortgage debt in the United States. Shares of UBS, based in Zurich, closed down 14.5 percent on Monday, nearing an 11-year low, amid fears that it would be forced to take billions more in write-downs.
Meanwhile, the Belgian bank Dexia announced it owns €500 million, or $709 million, in unsecured Lehman bonds, with additional exposure possible. Shares of Dexia fell 9.2 percent.
For all the pain they are likely to cause, the collapse of Lehman and the humbling of Merrill Lunch also confirm some of the darker suspicions many ordinary Europeans have long held about Wall Street and its outsized economic influence.
"A number of people will use it to say the U.S. model of capitalism isn't working," said Charles Wyplosz, director of the International Center for Money and Banking Studies in Geneva.
Within the world of banking itself, there have been longstanding differences between the European and American approaches.
While traditional "universal" banks like Deutsche Bank and UBS have long dominated the Continent, brash independent Wall Street investment banks like Lehman, Bear Stearns and Merrill muscled in on more profitable sectors like trading and underwriting in recent years, both in the United States and around the globe.
"I've heard people saying, 'I told you so,' arguing the European universal model is better," Wyplosz added. "I'm not sure I buy that."
Across Europe, bank accountants and securities analysts nervously crunched numbers all day Monday, trying to determine how much pain Lehman might cause on this side of the Atlantic.
"It's very difficult to see what the exposure is," said Pascal Decque, a banking analyst with Natixis in Paris.
"These are complex products and they can't do the pricing immediately. Some banks are still trying to figure out precisely what's on their balance sheet," he added.
Indeed, many European banks have made costly forays onto Wall Street in recent years, seeking to emulate the investment banking model, with UBS buying Dillon Read and Paine Webber and Deutsche acquiring Bankers Trust.
With the disappearance of Bear and Lehman, and the absorption of Merrill into Bank of America, it appears that the European model has triumphed for the time being.
In the end, the European experience with the subprime crisis may turn out to be a mixed bag, with highs and lows in unexpected places, analysts said.
This month, Commerzbank of Germany cemented a deal to buy Dresdner Bank from Allianz, an insurer that took its lumps in the financial crisis and decided to end a seven-year experiment in banking.
Commerzbank had modest losses from mortgage-linked investments, but its model of solid, reliable commercial banking for Germany's corporate sector put it in the position to execute its biggest-ever acquisition.
Commerzbank is promising shareholders that it will steer clear of the volatile proprietary trading that burned so many over the last year in favor of an emphasis on less glamorous retail banking and expansion into Eastern Europe.
"Those declared dead live the longest," Klaus-Peter Müller, Commerzbank's chairman, told Bloomberg News after the acquisition.
Deutsche Bank suffered about $11 billion in losses liked to financial market chaos, but hung on well enough to pay €2.8 billion for a major stake in Postbank, the last big listed German lender that is for sale.
Over all, though the somewhat stodgy financial sector in Europe's largest economy took its lumps, its basic recipe of cultivating long-term relationships with a big industrial sector and traditionally conservative retail clients paid off.
For many denizens of Wall Street, frayed nerves and worried calculations
Fear and greed are the stuff that Wall Street is made of. But inside the great banking houses, those high temples of capitalism, fear came to the fore this weekend.
As Lehman Brothers, one of oldest names on Wall Street, appeared to unravel on Sunday, anxiety over the bank's fate — and over what might happen next — gripped the U.S. financial industry. By late afternoon, Merrill Lynch, under mounting pressure, entered into talks to sell itself to Bank of America.
Dinner parties were canceled. Weekend getaways were postponed. All of Wall Street, it seemed, was on high alert.
In skyscrapers across New York, banking executives were holed up inside their headquarters, within cocoons of soft rugs and wood-paneled walls, desperately trying to assess their company's exposure to the stricken Lehman. It was, by all accounts, a day unlike anything Wall Street had ever seen.
In the financial district, bond traders, anxious about how the markets would react on Monday, sought refuge in ultrasafe Treasury bills. Greenwich, Connecticut, that leafy realm of hedge fund millionaires and corporate chieftains, felt like a ghost town. Greenwich Avenue, which usually bustles on Sundays, was eerily quiet.
A year into the financial crisis, few dreamed that the situation would spiral down so far, so fast. Only a week ago, the Bush administration took control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two largest U.S. mortgage finance companies. Then, before anyone could breathe a sigh of relief after that crisis, Lehman was on the brink.
As details of Lehman's plight began to trickle out on Sunday, the worries deepened that big financial companies might topple like dominoes. Bank of America began discussions to buy Merrill Lynch, the nation's largest brokerage and the next firm coming under pressure.
"I spent last weekend watching Fannie and Freddie die. This weekend it was Lehman," said one longtime Wall Street executive.
The rat-a-tat-tat of bad news has frayed nerves up and down Wall Street. "People are just weary," said another executive. And even more ill tidings loom. Thousands of employees at Lehman are likely to be laid off, casting them into one of the worst Wall Street job markets in years. Other banks are cutting back, too.
Even employees who manage to hold on are likely to make a lot less money this year. Bonuses are not only going to decrease; for many, they will evaporate completely.
While people were stunned by the near collapse of Bear Stearns in March, they were flabbergasted that Lehman, a respected firm with a 158-year history, could be brought to its knees. Many were equally shocked by the downfall of Richard S. Fuld Jr., Lehman's chairman and chief executive.
"Everyone thought Bear Stearns was a bunch of cowboys; it made sense what happened," said another executive. "But this is the great Dick Fuld. This is not supposed to happen to Lehman Brothers."
Many Wall Street executives struggled to draw parallels to the current crisis. The collapse of the junk bond powerhouse Drexel Burnham Lambert in 1991 seems small by comparison, as does the 1998 failure of the big hedge fund Long Term Capital Management.
On Sunday, as the heads of major Wall Street banks huddled for a third day of emergency meetings at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, many rank-and-file employees were at work in their offices.
"It's all hands on deck," said one senior banker.
At hedge funds, analysts worried that investors would rush to withdraw their money.
As a precaution, Wall Street banks have taken the extraordinary step of hiring advisers to assess the impact of the possible bankruptcies of other big financial institutions.
The mood could darken even further this week as several big Wall Street banks report what are expected to be grim quarterly results.
The problems the industry faces are myriad. Mortgage assets that both commercial and investment banks hold on their balance sheets continue to decline in value as potential buyers wait for prices to fall even further and sellers balk at prices being offered. At the same time, revenues from bread and butter Wall Street businesses like debt and equity underwriting and proprietary trading are sliding in a softening economy at home and abroad.
"I have not seen a quarter like this since 2001," said Meredith Whitney, analyst at Oppenheimer. "And the expense bases at the banks are still built for 2006-style revenues. So the clash of these two things is going to produce the kind of quarter we have not seen in some time."
The end of an era at Merrill
NEW YORK: It is the end of an era for Merrill Lynch, the brokerage firm that brought Wall Street to Main Street.
Merrill, which has lost more than $45 billion on its mortgage investments, agreed Monday to sell itself to Bank of America for $50.3 billion in stock, the Bank of America confirmed. It is a remarkable fall from grace for the 94-year-old Merrill, whose corporate logo - a bull - has long symbolized the fundamental optimism of Wall Street.
"It is an enormous shock," said Steve Fraser, a Wall Street historian and author of "Wall Street: America's Dream Palace."
"Merrill was a kind of bedrock institution whose stability and longevity was taken for granted and was reassuring to people," Fraser said. "Even in these very highly erratic and speculative marketplaces like we've been living through, you didn't think Merrill would be vulnerable."
The sale, if completed, would open a new chapter for Merrill, which was founded in 1914 and promoted the idea that anyone, not just the rich, should invest in markets. Merrill's brokers would be combined with Bank of America's smaller group of wealth advisers into an entity called Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, Bank of America said. Customers with brokerage accounts at Merrill are unlikely to be financially affected.
"A hundred guys flew this firm into a mountain," said a broker who works for Merrill in California and asked to remain anonymous because he did not have permission to speak with reporters. "It's really sad. Now we're going to be a bank like every one else."
Merrill purchase will realize Bank of America dream
NEW YORK: Bank of America's dream of dominating the brokerage business always seemed to elude it, even after it transformed itself from a regional bank into a consumer banking powerhouse through two decades of big acquisitions.
Now, that dream is on the verge of becoming reality.
With its plan to buy Merrill Lynch, Bank of America is adding the most recognized name on Wall Street - and Merrill's 17,000 brokers - to its empire.
Overnight, the merger will transform Bank of America into the largest U.S. player in wealth management. It already holds the country's biggest branch network and is its largest issuer of credit cards, home equity loans and auto loans.
Its $4 billion takeover in January of Countrywide Financial, the troubled lender that became a symbol of the excesses of the subprime loan crisis, gave Bank of America the largest mortgage lending and payment collection operation in the United States.
Kenneth Lewis, Bank of America's chairman, has burnished his reputation by gambling on bold acquisitions that turned what was once a regional institution into a national player. A decade ago, the company was known as NationsBank when it bought a much larger institution, the Bank of America, and took its name. In 2003, it took over FleetBoston Financial, widening its branch base. It snapped up the credit card giant MBNA two years later, creating the largest U.S. credit card business.
Lewis's poker face and flair for the dramatic appear to have paid off with Merrill Lynch. On Friday night, Bank of America had emerged as one of the leading contenders to rescue Lehman Brothers. Just 24 hours later, its interest faded.
Merrill Lynch put itself up for sale as the danger deepened that it could be the next big company to be crippled on Wall Street.
After a series of conversations with Merrill's chief, John Thain, during emergency meetings over the weekend that were meant to try to salvage Lehman, Lewis swooped in as one of the few willing, and able, buyers for Merrill.
If Lewis has long clamored for the respect of the banking industry's more established leaders, he appears to have emerged from the deal as one of Wall Street's white knights.
"Ken Lewis with this transaction just got that much more powerful in the global financial structure," said Meredith Whitney, a financial services analyst. "This is a deal that gets all the things he aspires to acquire - brand, scale and best-in-class businesses."
Only a year ago, Bank of America appeared, after enduring a string of large losses, to have given up on investment banking. Lewis had spent more than $625 million to expand it, only to see all of its trading businesses swamped in red ink.
He cut thousands of jobs in the investment banking operations, reined in trading activities and ousted close lieutenants who had been in charge of the division.
When he was asked by an analyst if he had a desire to pursue a deal with Bear Stearns, Lewis shot back: "I've had all the fun I can stand in investment banking."
Whether he can make the Merrill Lynch deal work is still an open question. While Bank of America is financially strong, huge losses tied to credit cards, home equity loans and troubled mortgages from the Countrywide deal could erode its financial position. Many analysts say that it will need to shore up its balance sheet with additional capital. [IW: My emphasis]
Lewis, who already has his hands full with Countrywide, will also need to manage the absorption of one of Wall Street's strongest cultures. Bank of America has traditionally been an acquisition machine, imposing its will and cost discipline on the companies it swallows.
Merrill Lynch, with its thousands of brokers, has long prided itself on its tradition of being a standalone brokerage. Most analysts expect thousands of layoffs.
If it works, the deal could be a major coup for Lewis. Bank of America will get a stronger equities division and Merrill's 45 percent stake in BlackRock, the global asset manager, along with the opportunity to offer Merrill's products in its branches.
Merrill could be a crucial source of earnings for Bank of America as it brushes up against a cap on deposits. That has become increasingly important for Bank of America, which needs to find opportunities outside traditional consumer banking.
No golden parachutes for former chiefs of mortgage giants
WASHINGTON: The U.S. government will not pay the ousted chief executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac exit packages totaling as much as $24 million.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency notified the former Fannie Mae chief executive, Daniel Mudd, and the former Freddie Mac chief executive, Richard Syron, that such "golden parachute" payments would not be paid. The housing agency, which took control of the companies earlier this month, made the announcement Sunday.
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, said later: "It would have been unconscionable to award these inflated salaries, particularly when the leadership of Fannie and Freddie can hardly be given good grades."
Mudd could have received $8.4 million, and Syron could have received $15.5 million, according to calculations by David Schmidt, a senior consultant at an executive compensation consulting firm, James F. Reda & Associates.
Lehman and Merrill memorabilia a hit on eBay
NEW YORK: Lehman Brothers Holdings and Merrill Lynch may be about to disappear from the Wall Street landscape, but their memorabilia commanded a premium Monday.
Lehman coffee mugs and Merill-logo golf balls were among several dozen items up for sale on eBay after Lehman filed for bankruptcy protection and Merrill agreed to a $50 billion takeover by Bank of America.
A classic black-and-white Merrill T-shirt was getting bids of $20, while a gold-toned blazer button with the company's bull logo was offered for $13.
Lehman coffee mugs fetched as much as $40 per cup, with more than 20 bids in, while the firm's minimalist green and white duffel bag was on offer for $150.
Enterprising merchants bought rights to related Internet domain names, like lehmanbankruptcy.com, and offered to sell them for as much as $5,000.
IMF chief says fallout from financial crisis not over
CAIRO: Fallout from the global credit crisis is not over and more consolidation is likely in the financial sector, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said on Monday.
However, Strauss-Khan said the causes of the crisis that led to the failure of Wall Street giants such Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers had largely passed. He reiterated his forecast that the global economy would recover in 2009.
"What we see today in Lehman Brothers is something that started months ago," Strauss-Khan told a news conference in Cairo. "So the consequences for the financial sector are not over and we are going to see more of that."
Central banks mobilised worldwide on Monday as stocks sank after the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers and sale of Merrill Lynch, another big U.S. investment bank once deemed too big to fail.
The IMF chief said the financial sector was likely to be smaller after the crisis as a result of more consolidation among big banks.
Paul Krugman: Financial Russian roulette
Will the U.S. financial system collapse today, or maybe over the next few days? I don't think so - but I'm nowhere near certain. You see, Lehman Brothers, a major investment bank, is apparently about to go under. And nobody knows what will happen next.
To understand the problem, you need to know that the old world of banking, in which institutions housed in big marble buildings accepted deposits and lent the money out to long-term clients, has largely vanished, replaced by what is widely called the "shadow banking system." Depository banks, the guys in the marble buildings, now play only a minor role in channeling funds from savers to borrowers; most of the business of finance is carried out through complex deals arranged by "non-depository" institutions, institutions like the late lamented Bear, Stearns - and Lehman.
The new system was supposed to do a better job of spreading and reducing risk. But in the aftermath of the housing bust and the resulting mortgage crisis, it seems apparent that risk wasn't so much reduced as hidden: All too many investors had no idea how exposed they were.
And as the unknown unknowns have turned into known unknowns, the system has been experiencing postmodern bank runs. These don't look like the old-fashioned version: With few exceptions, we're not talking about mobs of distraught depositors pounding on closed bank doors.
Instead, we're talking about frantic phone calls and mouse clicks, as financial players pull credit lines and try to unwind counterparty risk. But the economic effects - a freezing up of credit, a downward spiral in asset values - are the same as those of the great bank runs of the 1930s.
And here's the thing: The defenses set up to prevent a return of those bank runs, mainly deposit insurance and access to credit lines with the Federal Reserve, only protect the guys in the marble buildings, who aren't at the heart of the current crisis. That creates the real possibility that 2008 could be 1931 revisited.
Now, policy makers are aware of the risks - before he was given responsibility for saving the world, Ben Bernanke was one of our leading experts on the economics of the Great Depression. So over the past year the Fed and the Treasury have orchestrated a series of ad hoc rescue plans. Special credit lines with unpronounceable acronyms were made available to nondepository institutions. The Fed and the Treasury brokered a deal that protected Bear's counterparties - those on the other side of its deals - though not its stockholders. And just last week the Treasury seized control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant government-sponsored mortgage lenders.
But the consequences of those rescues are making officials nervous.
For one thing, they're taking big risks with taxpayer money. For example, today much of the Fed's portfolio is tied up in loans backed by dubious collateral. Also, officials are worried that their rescue efforts will encourage even more risky behavior in the future. After all, it's starting to look as if the rule is heads you win, tails the taxpayers lose.
Which brings us to Lehman, which has suffered large real-estate-related losses, and faces a crisis of confidence. Like many financial institutions, Lehman has a huge balance sheet - it owes vast sums, and is owed vast sums in return. Trying to liquidate that balance sheet quickly could lead to panic across the financial system.
That's why government officials and private bankers have spent the weekend huddled at the New York Fed, trying to put together a deal that would save Lehman, or at least let it fail more slowly.
But Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary, was adamant that he wouldn't sweeten the deal by putting more public funds on the line.
Many people thought he was bluffing. I was all ready to start today's column, "When life hands you Lehman, make Lehman aid." But there was no aid, and apparently no deal. Paulson seems to be betting that the financial system - bolstered, it must be said, by those special credit lines - can handle the shock of a Lehman failure. We'll find out soon whether he was brave or foolish.
The real answer to the current problem would, of course, have been to take preventive action before we reached this point. Even leaving aside the obvious need to regulate the shadow banking system - if institutions need to be rescued like banks, they should be regulated like banks - why were we so unprepared for this latest shock? When Bear went under, many people talked about the need for a mechanism for "orderly liquidation" of failing investment banks. Well, that was six months ago. Where's the mechanism?
And so here we are, with Paulson apparently feeling that playing Russian roulette with the U.S. financial system was his best option.
NATO can't be cowed by Kremlin, U.S. says
TBILISI, Georgia: Georgia's border disputes with the Russian-backed breakaway enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia should not be used as an excuse by the West to keep Georgia out of NATO, the U.S. ambassador to the alliance said Monday.
The NATO charter stipulates that potential members must resolve outstanding border issues before joining, and that would effectively block Georgia's aspirations. But the American ambassador, Kurt Volker, said in an interview that if Russian attempts to exert influence over the enclaves were used to keep Georgia out of the Atlantic community, then the West would be "giving Russia a veto over Georgia's future."
At a two-day meeting here, the NATO secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and ambassadors from all 26 members inaugurated a new NATO-Georgia commission, which Georgia hopes will help clear a path for its eventual membership in the alliance.
The world cannot afford a new Cold War
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is the president of the Republic of Indonesia.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the world had enormous expectations that it would finally harvest peace dividends from the ruins of the Cold War.
Indeed, despite the turbulent transition of the international system, we saw some progress. Relations between the major powers improved significantly and the UN Security Council began to function again. The threat of World War III and nuclear holocaust fizzled and the arms race was halted. Strategic rapprochement - especially among United States, China, Russia - occurred and tensions became manageable. Democracy and open society spread across the globe.
In much of Asia, the guns have been relatively silent - including my country, where peace now reigns in Aceh. The number of conflicts in the world has declined; the majority of them are now within states rather than between states. Indeed, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, for four straight years, between 2003 and 2007, no inter-state conflicts were recorded.
The last thing that we need now is a new chill in the international system. Yet that new chill is being felt with loose talk of a "new Cold War" between Russia and the West following the recent clash between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
This geostrategic tension, which was fueled earlier by the row over Kosovo's independence, remains fluid, with potential for expanded confrontation. That chill is also being felt in the UN Security Council.
It is not likely that the world will go back to the ideological divide of the 20th century. The real danger lies in the fact that this chill, if it persists and reverberates throughout the international system, could divert attention and resources from the critical issues of the day.
Already, we are seeing disconcerting signs. Military spending by the United States, Russia and China are at their peak, and, except for Russia, higher than at the end of the Cold War.
Total world military spending has increased rapidly in recent years. Strategic contentions over arms and missiles are resurfacing. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is in jeopardy. There is an evident build-up of mistrust, which makes the risk of geopolitical confrontation more likely.
The international community cannot afford to lose time and focus on defusing the real ticking time bombs: energy, food and climate change. These are the ultimate security threats of our time, and from where we stand now, we are barely scratching the surface.
We need to find a proper balance between oil supply and demand, end our addiction to oil and develop cheaper, low carbon alternative energy sources, so that we can end the skyrocketing oil prices now strangulating the world economy.
On food security, we need to achieve a second green revolution - this time more environment friendly - to boost worldwide food supply to prevent potential socioeconomic and political crises in 33 countries, while helping the 100 million people worldwide from sliding back into poverty.
On climate change, we need to urgently come up with an ambitious post-2012 global scheme so that we can slow and stop global warming to within two degrees Celsius in the next decades. Meanwhile, countries, particularly major emitters, must begin to ambitiously reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
We also need to push harder so that the global Millennium Development Goal targets can be achieved on schedule by 2015.
These are all momentous challenges. They transcend East-West and North-South relations. These hard issues will not be resolved by hard power. They can only be resolved by a collective long-term response, coupled with adequate political will and enormous resources.
The foundations of our security and survival in the 21st century rest upon our success in meeting these challenges.
And certainly none of these challenges can be achieved unless the major powers work together, and demonstrate the leadership that the world expects of them.
The all-powerful forces of globalization do not make geopolitics irrelevant. But the world cannot afford to slip back into the geopolitics of domination, conquest and confrontation of the past.
Instead, what we need is a new geopolitics of cooperation. This new geopolitics must be driven by the imperative to address common challenges. It would focus on strategic cooperation, not confrontation; on building bridges, not divisions; on the spread of soft - not hard - power; and on mutually assured benefits, not mutually assured destruction.
This new geopolitics is not Utopia. We are already seeing it in practice in many instances: in the admirable global response to the tsunami crisis of 2004; in the global struggle against terrorism; in the six-party talks on North Korea, and in the hard-won success of the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali last December.
Let us stay on course and complete that journey.
Former Bosnian Muslim leader is convicted of cruelty
THE HAGUE: The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal convicted a former commander of the Bosnian Muslim army Monday of cruelty toward Bosnian Serb prisoners, who were forced to kiss the severed head of a fellow prisoner. But the court acquitted him of murder.
General Rasim Delic was sentenced to three years in prison for responsibility for Islamic volunteers under his command who abused captured Bosnian Serbs in the summer of 1995.
Delic, a former commander of the main staff of the Bosnian Army, is the most senior Bosnian Muslim officer convicted by the court in its 15-year history. The vast majority of the 161 indictments handed down by prosecutors have been against Serbs.
Both Croats and Serbs in Bosnia denounced the verdict.
The Bosnian Serb president, Rajko Kuzmanovic, called it a "flagrant violation of international law and an example of double standards in judiciary."
"A verdict like this harms confidence in the activities and neutrality of the tribunal," Kuzmanovic said.
The Croat Democratic Union of Bosnia said in a statement it was "unpleasantly surprised" at the verdict and called Delic's sentence "a shamefully mild punishment."
The judges ruled that Delic was the commander of a detachment of foreign Islamic fighters who in mid-1995 imprisoned 12 Bosnian Serbs at a makeshift camp in central Bosnia.
The captured soldiers were subjected to beatings, electric shocks and other forms of maltreatment, the court said. In one gruesome incident, "the head of Gojko Vujicic was severed and placed on his stomach. Later on, the detainees were forced to kiss the severed head."
Sentencing Delic, the presiding judge, Bakone Moloto, said the trial chamber "recalled the appallingly brutal nature of the acts of mistreatment against the 12 soldiers," but also took into account the fact that Delic was found to have had only "imputed knowledge of these crimes as opposed to actual knowledge." Nonetheless, he had failed to prevent the abuse or punish those who had committed it.
The judges also said they had taken into account the fact that Delic helped negotiate several peace deals, including the Dayton accord, which ended the Bosnian war.
The decision to convict Delic was split 2 to 1, with Moloto voting for acquittal on all counts, arguing that Delic never effectively controlled the foreign Islamic fighters.
Foreign Muslims - many of them veterans of the 1979-89 war against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan - bolstered the Bosnian Army in its fight against Serb and Croat forces. Serbs are accused of perpetrating the majority of war crimes in Bosnia, including the deadly siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica.
Prosecutors had sought a 15-year sentence. The defense asked for an acquittal, arguing that Delic was not in effective control of the volunteers.
The court said one of the most serious allegations - the summary execution of about 24 captured Bosnian Croats in June 1993 - had taken place just before Delic was promoted to commander.
He also was acquitted of charges of cruel treatment and murder linked to the killing of an elderly Serb man and 52 Bosnian Serb soldiers, and the abuse of 10 others. Judges ruled that Delic did not know the crimes had been committed.
When prosecutors finished presenting their case in February the three-judge tribunal acquitted Delic of rape, saying there was insufficient evidence to support the charge.
Alleged U.S. raid into Pakistan is denied by officials
PESHAWAR, Pakistan: Confusion swirled over a possible incursion by United States forces into Pakistani territory in South Waziristan on Monday.
Local residents and a Pakistani government official said two American helicopters were repulsed when Pakistani soldiers fired at them, but Pakistani and U.S. officers denied any such incident. A Pakistani intelligence official said that a U.S. helicopter had mistakenly crossed the border briefly, leading Pakistani ground forces to fire into the air.
The Pakistani government official, who deals with the tribal areas and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said U.S. troops had tried to land in South Waziristan at a town called Angoor Adda, in a mountainous region with thick forest on the Afghan border.
"Two Chinooks tried to land last night between 12:30 a.m. and 1 a.m.," the official said. They were fired upon by Pakistani troops, forcing the helicopters to return to the Afghan side of the border, the official said. He said local residents, incensed at American incursions, also fired at the helicopters. "Our forces fired at them and seeing this, the local people also came out and started shooting," the official said.
One local resident, who gave his name as Mohammad Yaar, said that two helicopters crossed into Pakistan and were forced to turn back when they came under fire from the Pakistani forces. He said that two Pakistani jet fighters later flew into the area.
Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, said no U.S. helicopters or other forces were involved in any such incident.
Major Murad Khan, a military spokesman in Rawalpindi, said, "There has been no border violation and we have not fired on the Americans."
Ron Suskind's "The Way of the World"
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.
The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism
By Ron Suskind
415 pages. $27.95. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers.
'How real is this nuclear terrorism thing?" That is the oddly glib question, according to a top American intelligence official, posed by George W. Bush during a 2006 White House briefing. That the president was still unsure of its answer, fully five years after Sept. 11, is more than a little unsettling.
That's because, in Ron Suskind's account, the threat is very real, but our understanding of it is dangerously limited. "The Way of the World" has commanded headlines with its explosive (and controversial) charges of extreme Bush administration malfeasance, including still more misuse of prewar intelligence and an alleged forgery scheme that Suskind calls possible grounds for impeachment. But these are increasingly matters for the historical record.
At the heart of Suskind's story is a potentially existential threat to the United States in the here and now. It is "what may be humanity's last great race," as he puts it - one between civilized governments and radical terrorists, with the prize being a mushroom cloud in an American city, or its merciful absence.
Suskind approaches this terrible theme in distinctly human terms. The rare writer who combines excellent reporting with a knack for novelistic writing about real people, he skillfully traces several inter-woven stories of cultural clashes and cross-pollination, all of them pursuing the question of whether the United States and the Muslim world can ever look past their differences and find understanding.
Toward that end, we follow the story of a troubled Afghan exchange student in Colorado who reels at the sight of buxom cheerleaders and people cohabiting with dogs, which he was raised to consider vermin. We meet an idealistic Pakistani émigré, living in Washington, whose admiration for the United States is cruelly tested after a misunderstanding involving the presidential motorcade leads to his bruising detention and a sneering interrogation by the Secret Service.
There is the dogged American lawyer who represents a Libyan imprisoned at Guantánamo on the basis of evidence first dismissed as feeble and then reclassified, without explanation, as grounds for confinement. And we follow Benazir Bhutto through the final months leading to her assassination in December, as she pleads in vain with the Bush administration to provide her with more support in her fight for democracy in Pakistan.
Each story speaks to the crosswinds of culture and politics that will determine the course of history and the role of the United States in the world. But none gives the book quite as much urgency as Suskind's portrait of Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA case officer and senior Department of Energy official who monitors the global black market in nuclear materials that terrorists might use to fashion a crude device capable of killing tens of thousands. Mowatt-Larssen's tale of government inaction on this score is nothing short of chilling. He's the one who recounts Bush's clueless question about "this nuclear terrorism thing," as well as another White House meeting so unproductive that this grizzled spook left in a state of nausea.
Having concluded that only a shock to the national psyche can force real action, Mowatt-Larssen dreams up the "Armageddon Test," a scheme to dispatch undercover teams around the world to purchase enough black-market nuclear material for a working bomb. The teams would then smuggle their terrible bounty onto American soil and unveil it, thereby demonstrating just how real the threat is. (The project never gets off the ground, thanks in part to bureaucratic inertia that leads Mowatt-Larssen to contemplate outsourcing the mission to private contractors.)
Much like Suskind's previous books about the Bush administration, "The Price of Loyalty" and "The One Percent Doctrine," "The Way of the World" is a reportorial feat, particularly when it comes to chronicling the internal machinations of the administration's national security team.
More startling are Suskind's revelations about the Iraq war and the handling of prewar intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction. In one instance, Suskind says that denials by the foreign minister of Iraq, Naji Sabri, that his country possessed WMD were simply rewritten - "almost certainly altered under pressure from Washington," Suskind writes - into a false assertion that Sabri had substantiated suspicions about active Iraqi biological and nuclear programs.
Even more disturbing is the story of a former Iraqi intelligence chief named Tahir Jalil Habbush. Suskind describes secret meetings between Habbush and British intelligence in January and February of 2003.
Habbush insisted that Saddam Hussein had abandoned his weapons programs but would not publicly admit it, so as to maintain a facade of deterrence against regional rivals like Iran. Not only did the White House dismiss Habbush's statements, Suskind writes, but an irritated Bush even asked whether the Iraqi could be asked for "something we can use to help us make our case." A subsequent $5 million CIA payment to Habbush, disclosed by Suskind, has the smell of hush money.
Then comes what may be the ultimate bombshell: that the White House instructed the CIA to forge a letter, backdated to July 2001, stating that the 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had trained in Iraq and, furthermore, that Iraq had received suspicious shipments (presumably of yellowcake) from Niger with Al Qaeda's help. The letter was to be written and signed by Habbush on Iraqi government stationery and addressed to Hussein himself. This preposterously convenient summary of what a perfect case for war might look like almost resembled some wry gag from The Onion. But at the end of 2003 the letter did, in fact, turn up in a British newspaper, before seeping into the American media.
Suskind does not establish who dreamed up this pernicious document. But he says one of his sources, a former senior CIA operative named Robert Richer, recalls being ordered directly by George Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, to have Habbush transcribe it himself from a draft produced by the White House.
Since the book's release, however, Tenet, Richer and another key source have adamantly denied that such a thing occurred. (Tenet also denies that Habbush's prewar claims were muffled.) Even in the context of the past seven years, the stupid brazenness of a forged letter drafted on White House stationery does test credulity. But any claims made by Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and a Pulitzer Prize winner, should not be casually dismissed. That no credible challenges have been made to numerous other scoops in his book suggests an attempted covering of exposed derrières. Still, his release of partial transcripts from recorded interviews with Richer has not definitively affirmed his reporting.
Suskind's point isn't about proving liability. Rather, the Habbush episodes, if accurate, illustrate a creeping amorality in the way the United States has managed its war on terror. As our moral standing suffers, so does our ability to shame other nations into cracking down on their nuclear black markets. And so does our battle for the hearts and minds of people like the Afghan exchange student, the Pakistani émigré, the possibly innocent Guantánamo detainee and the followers of Benazir Bhutto. Their conclusions about the United States may determine whether Rolf Mowatt-Larssen will have the pleasure of being remembered as a Chicken Little, or will experience the horror of becoming a prophet of atomic disaster.
IAEA says Iran has improved its nuclear centrifuges
PARIS: Iran has substantially improved the efficiency of the centrifuges it has constructed to produce enriched uranium, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Monday, an indication that it has overcome some of the technical challenges that had plagued its enrichment program.
In a six-page report, the agency also charged the Iranians with continuing to stonewall about its suspected past research into designing a nuclear weapon, acknowledging that the agency had failed "to make any substantial progress" in its investigation.
"We seem to be at a dead end," said a senior official with links to the agency. He added, "We would describe it as a gridlock."
In another revelation, the agency said for the first time that a foreign expert or group of experts may have helped Iran with experiments on a detonator that could be used in the implosion of a nuclear weapon.
The report referred only to "foreign expertise" and the official linked to the agency said a foreign government was not involved. He also ruled out the involvement of Libya and remnants of the network run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani metallurgist who built a black market operation in nuclear technology. He declined to specify the origin of the expertise.
A senior Western official said that North Korea, which the United States says helped Syria build a nuclear reactor, was not involved.
Iran has denied in the past that such activities took place and has been asked for an explanation. The experiments first came to light in one of 18 secretly obtained documents in the agency's possession that were presented to Iran last spring, suggesting that Tehran was interested in designing a nuclear weapon.
The agency also criticized Iran for continuing to expand its program to produce enriched uranium in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions. Iran is now running about 3,800 centrifuges, an increase of several hundred in the past four months.
More significant, it has increased the efficiency of its centrifuges from about 50 percent to almost 80 percent, according to calculations based on the report's figures. That means the machines are being fed with more material, crashing less and running closer to their stated capacity, though at the moment those advances do not seem to substantially shorten the time in which Iran can produce enough fuel to make a weapon.
Iran says that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes, like generating electricity.
The report by the nuclear monitoring agency in Vienna will be used by the United States, France and Britain in their push at the Security Council this autumn for new sanctions against Iran.
Russia, however, which has signed big trade deals and enhanced its diplomatic relationship with Tehran, will probably resist new sanctions.
Tensions between Russia and the West over Russia's attack on Georgia and the lack of focus by the Bush administration in its final months in office also have complicated efforts by the world powers to forge a common strategy toward Iran.
The failure of the International Atomic Energy Agency to nudge the Iranians into fulfilling its demands raises questions about whether its current strategy has run its course.
Under the terms of an agency "work plan" concluded in the summer of 2007, Iran agreed to meet a series of deadlines to resolve all unanswered questions about suspicious nuclear activities dating back two decades. The agency had hoped to have all the answers by last December.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the agency's director general, defended the plan at the time, saying that its clear deadlines proved the plan was "not an open-ended invitation to dallying with the agency or a ruse to prolong negotiations and avoid sanctions."
Although Iran has made considerable progress in answering many of the agency's questions, the agency has accused it of a willful lack of cooperation, particularly in answering allegations that its program may be intended more for military use than energy generation.
The report faulted Tehran for refusing to provide access to specific documents, experts and information demanded by agency inspectors to clear up questions about suspicious past activities and to allow them to visit workshops and research facilities where enrichment activities are going on.
The impasse in the agency's efforts to wring cooperation out of Iran parallels setbacks on another diplomatic track.
An initiative by the six world powers - the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany - to coax Iran into suspending its enrichment of uranium in exchange for a basket of political, economic and technological incentives has gone nowhere. Tehran wants to keep talking with the six governments and has said it will never give up its nuclear enrichment activities.
The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism
By Andrew J. Bacevich
206 pp. $24. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company.
Jonathan Tepperman is an assistant managing editor of Newsweek International.
Andrew J. Bacevich thinks the U.S. political system is busted. In "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism," he argues that the country's founding principle - freedom - has become confused with appetite, turning America's traditional quest for liberty into an obsession with consumption, the never-ending search for more.
To accommodate this hunger, pandering politicians have created an informal empire of supply, maintaining it through constant brush-fire wars. Yet the foreign policy apparatus meant to manage that empire has grown hideously bloated and has led the nation into one disaster after another. The latest is Iraq: in Bacevich's mind, the crystallization of all that's gone wrong with the American system.
In the dog days of the George W. Bush era, as the fighting drags on in Afghanistan and Iraq and global food, energy and economic crises mount, this argument has huge intuitive appeal, and indeed Bacevich's book has climbed the best-seller lists. The United States does seem to be in serious trouble. Figuring out how it got that way is important, and a root-and-branch rethink may be necessary to set things right.
That's just what Bacevich aims to provide. Hailing from what might be called the ultratraditionalist school of U.S. foreign policy, Bacevich, who teaches history and international relations at Boston University, sees himself as a modern Jeremiah, railing at a fat and self-indulgent country that has lost its way. By his reckoning, things started going sideways at the end of World War II, when the United States first emerged as "the strongest, the richest and ... the freest nation in all the world." As American power expanded abroad, liberty grew at home. But the country's expectations soon exceeded its ability to satisfy them. At that point, Americans faced a choice: "curb their appetites and learn to live within their means, or deploy ... United States power in hopes of obliging others to accommodate" them.
You can guess which one Bacevich thinks Americans went for.
As its citizens were growing soft, the U.S. government was mutating as well. Responding to the shocks of the Communist revolution in China, the Soviets' atom bomb and the onset of the Korean War, Washington created a vast new permanent security apparatus, consisting of the Pentagon, the FBI, the CIA (along with the smaller intelligence agencies) and the National Security Council. These bodies, and a compliant Congress, enabled a huge expansion in executive power. The vast bureaucracy quickly proved more hindrance than help; individual agencies put their interests above the nation's; the generals just looked out for themselves and their particular services.
Frustrated presidents from John Kennedy on turned to informal kitchen cabinets for advice, shutting out the newly established security system. And things quickly fell apart. In relatively short order we got the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, the '70s oil crisis, Lebanon, Star Wars, the Gulf war of 1991, Somalia, Kosovo and then, after 9/11, the "Long War" on terror, which has made conflict a "permanent condition." Then came Iraq: proof, for Bacevich, of our political, economic and military rot.
As a story this all sounds plausible, but it unravels slightly on closer inspection. First, while Bacevich no doubt would describe himself as a realist, his nostalgia for the enlightened republic Americans supposedly enjoyed before World War II involves a large dose of myth-making. Excess consumption is hardly a postwar phenomenon.
Another sticking point is Bacevich's rhetoric. This short, punchy book is clearly meant as a polemic, and that's not necessarily bad. The problem is that certain of Bacevich's verbal tics, like his annoying references to America's supposed "emperor-president," sound paranoid and ring false. They make it hard to take the argument seriously.
Which is a pity, for many of his points are well taken, including his critique of the hypocrisy inherent in Americans' talk of their supposedly universal values. The same goes for his emphasis on the similarities between the policies of recent presidents. Bacevich's awareness of the continuities in U.S. foreign policy is especially useful today, when Obamamania has convinced so many that everything will be different come November. According to Bacevich, it won't be, and he's probably right - especially if the United States remains dependent on foreign oil, cheap Chinese goods and infinite credit.
Unfortunately, Bacevich is not very good at offering suggestions. The alternatives he comes up with are surprisingly small-bore: the United States should live within its means, pursue a more modest foreign policy, act to abolish nuclear weapons and combat global warming - all sensible ideas but hardly the sort of grand transformation he says the country needs. Perhaps Bacevich doesn't feel he has to provide detailed answers because he sees himself more as a prophet than as a policy maker.
But surely what we require today, more than broad condemnations of U.S. consumerism, are very specific solutions to very specific problems.
A bad report card on blocking terrorists
We could not agree more strongly with President Bush that this country must do everything it can to keep weapons of mass destruction out of terrorists' hands.
If this truly reflects his thinking, - and he has said it often - why does the U.S. government get only a "C" grade from a respected, bipartisan group of national security experts for its efforts to prevent nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism?
The new report says the Bush administration has failed to demonstrate sufficient urgency, focus or follow-through.
In 2005, a group headed by the chairmen of the 9/11 Commission, former Representative Lee Hamilton and former Governor Thomas Kean of New Jersey, gave the government a "D" for its efforts to prevent the spread of weapons and protect the homeland. Now, a successor group headed by Hamilton, Kean and former Senator Warren Rudman finds the country's efforts still dangerously weak.
The report says there is no comprehensive strategy that links all programs intended to stop the spread of such weapons and sets priorities for funding. The authors warn that the administration's mistrust of international institutions and treaties has seriously harmed its ability to work with other countries to curb such threats.
Efforts to prevent biological terrorism get the lowest rating - "C-minus." Even inside the United States, authorities do not know the number and location of an expanding array of laboratories doing research with potentially dangerous viruses. Clearly, an accurate census of such facilities is imperative.
On nuclear weapons, the report gives the government a "C." Washington has done much to improve security at Russian nuclear sites, but there is still no overall government plan to secure all dangerous nuclear material around the world.
The report gives the highest marks - "B-minus" - for efforts to combat chemical weapons, noting that effective controls for chemical warfare agents have been put in place. But Washington must speed destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile and improve security at chemical plants.
The administration is credited with some important successes, notably persuading Libya to abandon its weapons programs and ensuring that 90 percent of all ship cargo is now screened before it enters the country. But seven years after 9/11, we hoped that the government would earn more than a "C" on its ability to protect Americans from potentially catastrophic attacks. The next president will have to do better.
Afghanistan frees Qaeda suspect's young son
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: The 12-year-old son of a woman suspected of links to al-Qaida and facing charges in New York was freed Monday by Afghanistan and sent to his family in Pakistan, two months after he was detained with his mother.
Officials say the boy, Ali Hassan, and his mother, Aafia Siddiqui, were detained outside the governor's house in Afghanistan's Ghazni province in July. The American-educated Pakistani woman was then handed over to U.S. custody and flown to New York where she was accused of trying to kill U.S. personnel.
The U.S. indictment alleges that during Siddiqui's interrogation in Ghazni, the 36-year-old picked up a soldier's rifle, announced her "desire to kill Americans" and fired at U.S. soldiers and FBI agents. She was wounded by return fire.
American prosecutors say that when taken into custody in Afghanistan, she was carrying handwritten notes referring to a "mass casualty attack" and listing the Empire State Building and other New York landmarks. However, the indictment contains no charges of terrorism.
Ali was with his mother at the time of her arrest and had been in Afghan custody ever since, officials said.
A spokesman for Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry, Sultan Ahmed Baheen, said Ali had spent the previous 10 days in a "guest house" of Afghanistan's intelligence service. Before that, he was in the custody of a prosecutor who deals with minors, the ministry said.
Baheen said Ali is a dual American-Pakistani citizen because he was born in the United States.
Elaine Whitfield Sharp, who represents the family of Aafia Siddiqui, said the boy's release was "wonderful news."
"I'm just so happy for them. Finally, something good has happened for the family," Whitfield Sharp said by telephone from Massachusetts.
She added that she had spoken briefly with Aafia and described her client as "excited" to hear her son had been released.
Afghan authorities handed him over to Pakistani diplomats, who flew him to Islamabad on Monday evening. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry said he had been handed over to relatives of his mother.
Whitfield Sharp said the son was apparently now at the home of an uncle in Islamabad.
Pakistan's Express News television channel showed footage of Ali, a round-faced boy with dark hair, smiling shyly beneath a white prayer cap as an aunt kissed and embraced him at a house in the capital, Islamabad.
Fauzia Siddiqui told reporters her nephew was "very traumatized."
"He is like a dead body. They fed him and tried to make him look healthy, but he is disturbed," she said. "Thank God he is grown. He is a big boy now."
She said Ali told his relatives Monday that his name had been changed several times and that each change was followed by a change of location. But she did not elaborate.
Aafia Siddiqui came to the United States in 1990 and studied at the University of Houston and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she got a bachelor's degree in biology in 1995. She later studied neuroscience as a graduate student at Brandeis University.
She vanished in Pakistan in 2003.
In 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller III identified Siddiqui as one of seven people the FBI wanted to question about suspected ties to al-Qaida. Her family has vehemently denied any link.
Fauzia Siddiqui said she didn't want to blame anyone for Ali's ordeal and expressed hope that the embrace of his relatives would allow her nephew to forget.
She dodged a question about the circumstances of her sister and nephew's detentions in Afghanistan.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters the U.S. was following the latest developments closely.
Aafia Siddiqui's lawyers claim that before she was arrested and brought to New York, she was kidnapped by U.S. operatives and kept in secret captivity in Pakistan. The ordeal, they said, left her with severe physical and mental problems.
Last week, a warden at a federal prison in Brooklyn notified a judge that Siddiqui is suffering from major depression.
U.S. officials deny she was ever in their captivity before she surfaced in Afghanistan in July.
Baheen said Ali was adopted by Siddiqui after his parents were killed in an earthquake that struck Kashmir in 2005. However, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Sadiq said DNA tests done by U.S. authorities showed that the boy was Siddiqui's biological son.
6 found guilty of plotting attacks in Australia
SYDNEY: A jury in Australia's largest ever terrorism trial has found six men guilty of plotting attacks on public facilities.
The 6 were part of a group of 12 men who had been accused of planning terrorist attacks on major sites around their home city of Melbourne, including Melbourne Cricket Ground during the 2005 final of the Australian Football League, when over 90,000 people would have been in attendance, and the Australian Formula One Grand Prix.
The men never carried out any of the attacks the prosecution said they had planned.
Four men were acquitted and the jury is still considering a verdict on two others.
The sentences for those found guilty will be decided at a later date.
During the 115-day trial, prosecutors accused the group, led by the Muslim cleric Abdul Benbrika, of plotting to use weapons and explosives to attack critical sites, including the cricket stadium and railway stations, with the intention of causing large-scale casualties.
Benbrika, born in Algeria, was found guilty of leading the terror cell, knowingly being part of a terrorist group and of "possessing a thing, namely a compact disc, connected with preparation of a terrorist act, knowing of that connection."
Prosecutors said the group was bent on waging violent jihad, and in court they played secretly recorded tapes of Benbrika talking to another of the accused, Abdullah Merhi, in which Benbrika says they are planning "something big" that would involve more than "one, or two or three" deaths.
The prosecution also said that Benbrika, 48, had told his followers that Osama bin Laden was a "great man" and that it was permissible to kill men, women and the aged. He said it would take at least 1,000 deaths to persuade the Australian government to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The defense argued that the men were poorly organized, incompetent and prone to exaggeration.
"You may form the view Mr. Benbrika could not lead ants to sugar, couldn't organize a booze-up in a brewery, let alone organize a terrorist organization," Benbrika's attorney, James Montgomery, told the jury in his summation. Montgomery also tried to discredit a key government witness, Izzydeen Atik, who said he had heard the accused discussing the plan to blow up the Melbourne stadium. Atik has a history of severe psychiatric illness, had problems with gambling and had faced charges of credit card fraud in 2002.
Even the judge, Bernard Bongiorno, advised the jurors not to put too much weight on Atik's testimony, given his record as a "con man, liar, fraudster."
Benbrika's lawyer said he was unsure if his client would appeal the verdict.
The jury, which took four weeks to reach a conclusion, will now try to reach agreement on the charges facing the remaining two men.
Australia has never been the victim of a modern terrorist attack, but 88 Australians were killed when Islamic extremists bombed a bar and a nightclub popular with tourists on the Indonesian island Bali in October 2002.
Bombs kill 34 in Iraq as Gates visits Baghdad
BAGHDAD: Three bomb attacks killed 34 people and wounded dozens more in Iraq on Monday, underscoring the security challenges facing the next U.S. military commander in the country.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who earlier arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit, said Lieutenant-General Ray Odierno must find ways to keep improving security while American troop levels are falling.
Gates will preside over a ceremony on Tuesday to hand command of U.S.-led forces in Iraq to Odierno from General David Petraeus, whose term was marked by a "surge" of 30,000 extra U.S. troops and big falls in violence.
In the deadliest attack on Monday, a female suicide bomber killed 22 people and wounded 33 at a dinner celebration attended by police officers in Diyala province, police said.
Police said the officers were breaking the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Balad Ruz, 90 km (55 miles) northeast of Baghdad. The dead included the town's police chief Lieutenant-Colonel Mohammed Ashraf and ten other policemen.
And in the capital, two car bombs exploded in quick succession, killing 12 people and wounding 37.
Despite an increase in deadly attacks in the past few days, overall levels of violence in Iraq are at four-year lows.
Gates said the areas in which U.S. forces would be engaged in Iraq would continue to narrow.
"The challenge, I think, for General Odierno is: How do we work with the Iraqis to preserve the gains that have already been achieved, expand upon them, even as the numbers of U.S. forces are shrinking?" Gates told reporters on his plane.
Search for safety revives Baghdad housing market
BAGHDAD: A dramatic fall in violence has breathed life into Baghdad's once moribund property market, although the hunt for homes in Sunni and Shi'ite enclaves bodes ill for sectarian reconciliation in the Iraqi capital.
Real estate prices have doubled in some parts of Baghdad in recent months and many properties sell or are leased as soon as they hit the market, say the city's realtors, who as recently as last year were jobless as sectarian killings raged in the city.
"Last year there was lots of real estate to sell and no buyers. Now it's the opposite. There's not enough for sale. If you put something up for sale, it's immediately sold," said Abdullah Jasim of the al-Noor real estate agency.
The government has urged millions of Iraqis to return home, sometimes even sponsoring flights to bring them back, following a drop in violence to four-year lows in recent months.
But the motives behind many real estate deals cast a shadow over efforts to reconcile Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs, whose desire to live in exclusive sectarian enclaves is a major driver behind the resurgent property market, realtors say.
"Districts are now reserved for each sect ... everyone knows that if you go to this area, you're this sect, and if you go to that area, you're that sect," said realtor Mahmoud al-Mokhtar.
There are 2.8 million people displaced in Iraq. Most are from Baghdad, and fled a wave of violence that followed the bombing of a revered Shi'ite shrine in 2006.
At the height of the chaos, sectarian death squads killed dozens of people each day, dumping their bodies in the streets.
Now, for example, Shi'ites who fled the Baghdad district of Karkh want to live with their co-religionists in Rusafa, one realtor said. Given that Rusafa is roughly half the size of Karkh, property prices there have risen with demand.
But even in Karkh, site of once-notorious al Qaeda hotspot Haifa Street, prices have doubled in the last six months, said real estate investor Monawar al-Zubaidi.
A "deluxe" three-bedroom 150 square metre apartment there now costs $130,000, he said.
Alongside the sectarian impetus, the few mixed districts where sectarian violence was minimal command some of the highest prices.
"I'm looking for a mixed area that is not considered Sunni or Shi'ite ... where people are educated and do not think of sect and violence," said 22-year-old legal student Omar al-Dulaimi, who has returned to Iraq after living in Syria.
"I'm shocked at how high the prices are, but I'm willing to pay more for security," he added.
Iraqis returning from self-imposed exile abroad make up about 20 percent of demand for Baghdad homes, Zubaidi said. But Mokhtar added the sharp jump in prices has surprised them.
"The Iraqis coming from abroad are no good. When I show them some houses, they don't believe the costs and ask me how I can expect them to pay such prices. They tell me 'I could get a villa in Tunisia for that'," Mokhtar said.
The security improvements in Baghdad are dramatic, so investing in property in the city could be a good long-term bet.
At the end of the working week, thousands of families flock to Abu Nawas street, a tree-lined avenue on the banks of the Tigris River with a newly renovated park to relax. In July, the foundation stone was set for new luxury hotel in Baghdad.
At the moment, however, realtors say betting that the Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs who once lived together will not do so again is proving a sound investment strategy.
"There are Sunnis buying all Shi'ite homes in Sunni areas and vice versa, as an investment, knowing Sunnis want to live with Sunnis and Shi'ites with Shi'ites," Zubaidi said.
Some families have tried to return to their original homes, only to find them occupied by squatters. Last week, the government launched a campaign to evict the squatters, and released figures for the number of families they had helped return home.
Not everyone is benefiting. Continued instability in Sunni-dominated Hay al-Jami'a, formerly one of Baghdad's wealthiest districts, continues to depress prices.
"Last week, a Shi'ite family returned to Hay al-Jami'a. They received a note telling them they had 72 hours to leave. The army can't really control it," said Mokhtar, referring to a once-common practice by militants of forcing families from a different sect out of a neighbourhood.
Ambush by militants kills soldiers in Mauritania
NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania: Suspected al-Qaida militants killed 12 Mauritanian soldiers Monday, two senior officials said. The attack, which came after the terror group promised to avenge the country's recent coup, was the worst suffered by the military in three years.
Assailants ambushed an army unit patrolling the desert in Tourine, about 530 miles north of Nouakchott, a lieutenant-colonel told The Associated Press. The same account also was given by a senior official in the presidency. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
About two dozen soldiers in four vehicles were on a routine patrol when their convoy was raked with machine gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades, the lieutenant-colonel said. Three of the vehicles were destroyed, and a fourth managed to return to base with 10 soldiers aboard. Among the dead was the captain who had led the patrol.
Defense officials have not commented on the record and there was no word on casualties among the attackers.
Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa had called for a holy war to avenge the Aug. 6 overthrow by the military of President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, Mauritania's first freely elected president.
Monday's attack marked the highest death toll incurred against the army in a single attack since 2005, when fighters linked to Algeria's former Salafist Group for Call and Combat killed 15 soldiers in an assault on a desert outpost in Mgheiti, which is in the same area, near Mauritania's borders with Mali and Algeria.
The Group for Call and Combat later recast itself as a branch of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network operating in northern Africa.
The United States had sent dozens of troops to train Mauritania's military in the far northern deserts, hoping the country could act as a bulwark against the southward encroachment of al-Qaida-linked militants in North Africa. But the U.S. suspended those programs along with more than $20 million in aid after the August coup.
William Kristol: Both sides now
And so we had the spectacle last week of ABC's Charlie Gibson, one of the most civil of the media bigwigs, unable to help himself from condescending to Palin as if he were a senior professor forced to waste time administering a Ph.D. exam to a particularly unpromising graduate student.
As for real university professors, especially the academic-feminist establishment, they're even more upset. Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago's Divinity School wrote last Tuesday of Palin: "Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman. The Republican Party's cynical calculation that because she has a womb and makes lots and lots of babies ... she speaks for the women of America and will capture their hearts and their votes has driven thousands of real women to take to their computers in outrage. She does not speak for women."
Doniger might have been further discombobulated to read a report the next day by McClatchy's Erika Bolstad about a McCain-Palin rally: "For most women attending the event - many waited two hours in line to get into a field house at Franklin & Marshall College - Palin was a bigger draw than McCain.... Women wore pink "Hot Chicks Vote Republican" buttons; one hoisted a McCain placard bearing a hand-scrawled message: "Guns, God, Lipstick."'
Guns, God, Lipstick? This is what feminism has come to? One can only imagine how many feminist comp lit professors are walking around campus, muttering to themselves the lines from T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."
The politically correct wing of the academic establishment suffered a jolt last week as well, when McCain and Obama, at a national service forum at Columbia, both urged Columbia to invite the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) back to its campus.
Is 2008 just a strange year, or is something big happening? Are we seeing one of America's periodic political and cultural awakenings, one of our occasional, almost-convulsive democratic reactions to what is felt to be too great a distance between the people and their "establishments"?
Such awakenings can be sudden and can come at once from different directions. They often have a theme in common, which is an indignant popular demand: "Stop speaking for us and start listening to us."
It's past time for such an anti-establishment awakening. If it goes too far, though, I of course reserve the right to become an antidisestablishmentarian again.
Coping with the empty nest
Chris Bohjalian is novelist and author of "Midwives," "The Double Bind," and "Skeletons at the Feast."
This summer a pair of barn swallows lived up to their name and nested on a crossbeam in my family's barn. Other than spiders and mice and stray cats, they were the first animals to call that barn home since the Eisenhower administration.
These days, the barn serves largely as my family's personal Superfund environmental clean-up site: Everything goes there that is either too big to transport to the nearby landfill in a station wagon or too toxic to keep in the house.
In any case, throughout June and July I savored those birds. I watched the adults sculpt their cup-shaped nest, and then the mother's patience as she sat on the eggs and, eventually, fed the four yawning yellow chasms that passed for mouths.
At the end of July when the swallows flew away, I placed what I thought was an innocuous status message on my public Facebook Web page. Facebook, for those of you who have lives, is a popular networking site on the Web and an absolute black hole when it comes to time.
I wrote: "Chris understands why they call it an empty nest."
The result? Dozens of sympathy e-mails from people around the United States who presumed this was my poetic way of announcing to the world that my wife's and my only child had just left for boarding school.
People who I will never meet but have read a book or two of mine were offering me lengthy treatises on how to cope with the fact that my beloved 14-year-old daughter had left home.
At the time, my teenager was still very much with me, and I was convinced these kind souls were overreacting. I was going to be fine!
Consequently, I corrected my Facebook status: "Chris wants people to know that when he mentioned an empty nest, he really was referring to birds."
A little over two weeks ago, my daughter did leave home. My wife and I drove her from our house with that toxic waste dump of a barn in northern Vermont to the school in Concord, Massachusetts, where she is now a 10th grader.
I realized quickly that my Facebook status messages, the both of them, were wholly inaccurate bravado. When my wife and I returned that night after dropping our daughter off, I found myself hovering in her empty bedroom.
Here, of course, is a difference between swallows and teen girls. When swallows fly away, they leave nothing behind in the nest. Not so teen girls.
Technically my daughter's bedroom was empty, but to work my way from the doorway to the window seat, I had to traverse a minefield of high heels, hoodies, coat hangers, earrings, tap shoes, glossy magazines, blue jeans, blouses, dresses, DVDs, and the snakelike cords for broken iPods and old cellphones. Somewhere underneath it all was her rug, but there was no sign of it beneath the chaos she had left behind when she packed.
She took a lot, but she left a lot more behind. And everything came with a memory.
Now, I am not a man who cries easily. I am one of those uptight, freakishly repressed males who grow uncomfortable when other men cry, and I don't care if their eyes are welling up at church or at Fenway Park. When my mother passed away, I didn't shed a tear - and we had a lovely relationship, thank you very much.
But for half an hour I sat on the window seat in my daughter's bedroom and studied the collage of magazine images that covers her ceiling and surveyed the remnants of her childhood. The old Brownie badges, the toddler's ballet tutus, the delicate glass horse from Disney World.
Suddenly, I was weeping. Pathetically. Wretchedly. With complete and total abandon.
It was brief, but it was one heck of an emotional hurricane.
When I was done, I felt almost catatonically sad. It wasn't because I suddenly felt middle-aged or I was pining for my youth. Good heavens, I've been middle-aged as long as Madonna. No, I was pining for my daughter and for the definition of family I have known for 14 years.
I was pining because, finally, I was experiencing the reality of an empty nest.
Glaxo's pazopanib shows promise in ovarian cancer
LONDON: GlaxoSmithKline's experimental drug pazopanib appears to be effective in fighting ovarian cancer, based on measurements of a biological marker used to predict tumour recurrence, researchers said on Monday.
Given the promising results, the world's second largest drugmaker said it planned to push ahead with a final-stage Phase III clinical trial of the once-daily pill in ovarian cancer.
Pazopanib, like Genentech and Roche's blockbuster injection Avastin, works by inhibiting the formation of new blood vessels that feed tumours.
Results of a small Phase II study, involving 35 patients, showed that 31 percent of ovarian cancer patients had a greater than 50 percent decrease in blood levels of a protein called CA-125 when given the drug.
Because CA-125 levels rise when tumours are growing, the protein is used to predict the risk of tumours recurring and to test patients' response to chemotherapy.
One is killed as ferry sinks off Turkish port
ISTANBUL: A ferry leaving the northwestern port city of Bandirma for Istanbul sank on Sunday, killing at least one person and leaving some 20 others unaccounted for, the local governor said.
The governor, Selahattin Hatipoglu, told a television station, NTV, that of the approximately 100 people on board, 67 had been rescued as an intensive search continued late Sunday.
About a dozen others were taken to nearby hospitals in Bandirma, news reports said.
Relatively rough seas "might have caused loss of balance on the ferry," Hatipoglu told NTV.
There were 73 trucks and 2 taxis aboard the ferry, which was run by 27 crew members, local authorities said.
"It completely sank in about half an hour," Bulent Gun, a guide captain at the Bandirma Public Transportation Agency, told the private CNN Turk network.
The ferry, operated by Orion Asya Istanbul Shipping Company, was right off Bandirma harbor as it sank, the state-run Anatolian Agency said.
Local coast guards, rescue teams, divers from nearby towns and local fishermen were mobilized, Hatipoglu said.
The crossing between Bandirma and Istanbul, through the Sea of Marmara, is a popular ferry route.
More babies sickened by milk in China
BEIJING: The Ministry of Health announced Monday that two babies had died in recent months and that 1,253 had been sickened by contaminated milk powder in a rapidly expanding national food safety scandal that became public only last week. More than 340 infants remain hospitalized, including 53 in serious condition.
Meanwhile, inspection teams are now visiting dairy farms and processing centers in China's four main milk-producing provinces to ensure that producers are not violating safety standards. The authorities have confirmed that the bad milk powder was laced with melamine, a chemical additive sometimes used to make plastics. Last year, contaminated pet food in the United States was traced to Chinese animal feed that had been blended with melamine.
The tainted milk powder has been traced to the Sanlu Group, which last week ordered a belated recall even though Chinese state media have reported that some parents had been complaining of problems since March. More than 10,000 tons of baby powder have been seized or recalled, the Health Ministry said, and the authorities also have ordered the company to halt production.
Sickened infants have suffered from kidney stones and investigators are trying to determine how the formula became contaminated and whether Sanlu intentionally covered up the problem before announcing the recall.
Sanlu is one of China's biggest dairy producers and is known for low-cost baby formula. It is unclear how much of Sanlu's recent production is contaminated or how many children may have been exposed.
A Sanlu vice president, Zhang Zhenling, read a formal apology at a news briefing Monday in the city of Shijiazhuang, where the corporation is based.
"The serious safety accident of the Sanlu formula milk powder for infants has caused severe harm to many sickened babies and their families," Zhang said, the state news agency Xinhua reported. "We feel very sad about this. Sanlu Group expresses its most sincere apology to you."
At least 21 dead in Indonesia alms trampling
JAKARTA: At least 21 Indonesians died in a small town in East Java as nearly 10,000 people gathered outside the gates of a wealthy family's house on Monday, vying for small handouts that are an Islamic tradition during the holy month of Ramadan.
Massing under a blazing sun, some people died of heat exhaustion, while others were trampled during a chaotic push toward the front gate, hospital officials said.
Wealthy Muslim families are required to give the handouts, called Zakat, before the end of Ramadan. Crowds commonly gather at the gates of private homes and government offices in the hope of receiving the aid, and often become unruly. Local hospital officials from the town of Pasuruan said they had received 21 bodies and were treating dozens of people for injuries, all of them women. No security personnel were on hand as the handouts — about $4 — unraveled. Local television footage showed elderly women, some of them carrying crying children, being shoved into the iron gate, their hands outstretched.
The owner of the house was being questioned by local police.
In California train crash, riders had destinations and death in common
SIMI VALLEY, California: In life they shared little else but the place they called home, and in their diverse stories, they defined it.
Of the 25 people who were killed when a Metrolink commuter train collided with a freight locomotive on Friday afternoon in the Chatsworth area northwest of downtown Los Angeles, at least eight were from Simi Valley, a quiet community a few miles west of the wreck site known for its horse ranches and the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum.
There were the 59-year-old mechanic on his regular commute and the immigrant from Cambodia who had taken a rare train trip into Los Angeles for an eye appointment. There was the police officer who specialized in catching drug suspects and had once shaved her hair to donate to cancer patients, and there was a tower manager from the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.
There were the reclusive mail clerk who grew animated around his tiny nieces and nephews, and the gregarious pre-med student who took the train home from college to please his mother. Normally she picked him up in Los Angeles; on Friday, he wanted to save her the trip.
The stories and photographs of the dead from Simi Valley and the surrounding Ventura County towns reflect the diversity and expansiveness of Southern California, a stretch of coastal land that on Sunday was dotted with grief and shock.
"It has affected everyone," Pat McCoy, a pastor at the Cornerstone Church, said about the crash in which 135 passengers were injured, 40 of them critically, in one of the nation's worst-ever commuter rail crashes. "We take community seriously here."
A Cornerstone parishioner, Walter Fuller, died in the crash, and an exchange student from Africa who had often helped with the church's musical worship suffered a brain injury and is in a coma, McCoy said.
By late Saturday afternoon 35 parishioners had descended on Fuller's home to comfort his widow, Jenny. "They were there to pray with her, to be with her, to love on her," he said. "She is remarkably strong and has a lot of faith. She knows her husband is in heaven now and that gives her some comfort."
At house after house in this area, ashen-faced family members answered doors, still unable to comprehend that the mundane choice of the northbound 111 Train on Friday afternoon had proved deadly. Many victims were in the train's first car.
"He was a loving father and grandfather," said Kong Chao, 38, remembering his father, Yi Chao, 71, who was on his way home from an appointment with an eye doctor. The family emigrated from Cambodia in 1982, Chao said, "and he took care of me when my mom was not around during my life here in the U.S." His father dreamed of traveling back to Cambodia and China, and passed his mornings in a nearby park, walking.
After the wreck, Chao built an altar in his home next to a picture of his father, with small chili peppers and sweets and burning candles. "He missed Cambodia," he said.
A few miles away, a steady line of cars pulled up to the Vyas residence. Women in saris and men with their faces twisted in grief came to visit with the family of Atul Vyas, 20, pre-med student in Los Angeles. As a high school valedictorian, family joker and lover of video games and basketball, "his choices were endless," said his cousin, Ruchi Agarwal. He chose Claremont McKenna College, Agarwal said, in large part to be near to his family.
"I think he wanted to pursue something where he would help others," Agarwal said of Vyas, the younger of two sons, who had begun to peruse his many medical school offers. His coming home for the weekend gave his parents pleasure, and his younger cousin, Sameer Gupta, 12, would come from San Jose to be with him. "He was extremely warm," Agarwal said, "kind of jovial, brilliant of course. He could light up the room."
Michael Hammersley, 45, lived in the house where he grew up with four siblings, keeping his mother company. He worked as a mail clerk at City Hall and spent most of his time steeped in his collection of science fiction movies and books, said his sister, Beth Tellefsen. "He loved his nieces and nephews," she said. "He was a totally different person around them."
Spree Desha, 35, was a Los Angeles police officer, recently assigned to the Office of Operations at the department's headquarters downtown from her beat in Hollywood. Desha was known to seize the initiative, organizing a cancer fund-raiser in the office, for which she and other officers shaved their heads for donations, a department spokeswoman, Karen Smith, said.
A high school English teacher and assistant pastor at a church in nearby Moorpark, Paul Long, 56, was known to many in Simi Valley. He found himself on the train after a long flight from South Carolina, where he had attended his mother's funeral. "He and his wife, Karen, tried for 16 years to have children," said Tony Amatangelo, the family's pastor. "They finally had Devin, and Devin and Karen were everything to Paul."
An occasional speaker at church, Long often used running, a hobby, as a metaphor for life lessons.
"Devin was there, talking with doctors and making decisions," to take Long off life support on Saturday, Amatangelo said. "He was calm while other people there who had lost loved ones were hysterical. I was so impressed to watch him. He took the lessons Paul taught, Paul's model, and carried it with him."
Maria Elena Villalobos, 18, was living her dream in Moorpark. She was a student at a fashion design school in downtown Los Angeles, and was carrying her design of a blouse to surprise a friend, Carol Becker.
"Thinking about that makes me happy," Becker said. "She was always so thoughtful."
Villalobos' father, Gonzalo Villalobos Cedillo, described Maria, the second of his three children as "very dedicated and focused."
"She would get up at 5 a.m. and take the train from Moorpark to Los Angeles," he said. "That takes a lot of dedication."
Standing in front of his home greeting family members who had come to offer their condolences, Villalobos said out loud to himself in Spanish, "Her car is still at the train station, just parked there."
Christopher Aiken, who lived in nearby Thousand Oaks, worked at a food service company in Glendale, and rode Metrolink daily to and from work. On Friday, he took an earlier-than-usual train home.
Michele Clark, a neighbor and friend of Aiken's for 18 years, said he had recently remarried, to a woman with twin daughters, both 15. "He had taken them on as his own," Clark said.
Clark said Aiken, who was 38, played volleyball often with his stepdaughters and enjoyed "game night" with friends in Thousand Oaks, weekly gatherings at which they played Scrabble or other board games. He also made a habit of going on picnics with his wife and daughters.
"What's hard for me is that Sharon's daughters won't have a father figure anymore," Clark said. "It was a good, solid family. To have him taken away with this accident is unbelievable. They were solid."
Rescuers comb wreckage for hurricane survivors in Texas
Jones did not have information on whether anyone had died on the island, mainly because his team still did not know how many people stayed through the storm that struck early Saturday.
Of particular concern, he said, was a resident who collects exotic animals. He was holed up in a Baptist church with his pet lion. "We're not going in there," Jones said. Referring to the lion, he added, "We know where he is on the food chain."
Two days after Ike battered Houston and forced thousands into shelters, the death toll was put at 30 in eight states, many of them far to the north of the Gulf Coast as the storm slogged across the nation's midsection, leaving a trail of flooding and destruction.
Thousands flee heavy Darfur fighting
KHARTOUM: Thousands of villagers have been forced to flee their homes after more than a week of heavy clashes between Sudanese forces and rebels in North Darfur, aid sources said on Monday.
Entire villages have been abandoned after residents took shelter in surrounding mountains and open land, cut off from food aid and clinics, humanitarian officers said.
The fighting has further undermined hopes for peace at a time the government is trying to challenge an attempt by the International Criminal Court's prosecutor to try President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes in the western region.
A U.N. investigator said on Monday that the human rights situation was grim in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan.
Darfur rebel groups said Sudanese soldiers and allied militias launched a string of heavy ground and air attacks on their positions in north Darfur throughout last week and over the weekend. One rebel leader said fighting continued on Monday.
A spokesman for Sudan's armed forces last week said soldiers had entered some of the areas mentioned by the rebels. But he said troops were securing roads against bandit attacks and did not mention any clashes. There was no comment on Monday.
"The areas have emptied out," said one aid source, speaking on condition of anonymity. "People are moving, but at the moment it is unclear whether they are going to other villages, to the mountains, to the camps.
Another source said thousands of people were affected.
The reports of clashes came at a time of year when food supplies are lowest before the harvest.
The United Nations' most senior humanitarian official in Sudan, Ameerah Haq, told reporters late on Sunday that U.N. officers had not been able to access remote areas.
"We are very worried about what impact these operations is having on the civilian population ... With the government attacks there is obviously displacement of civilian populations. But we don't have reliable numbers," she said.
Frankfurt-based aid group Partner Aid International said eyewitnesses had told staff its clinic in Khazan Tunjur and four surrounding villages southwest of Tawila had been burned to the ground during the violence on Sunday morning.
"Large groups of the remaining population are fleeing the area," it added in a statement.
The undermanned joint U.N./African Union UNAMID peacekeeping force in Darfur last week said government forces had barred it from entering areas reportedly hit by the fighting and added it did not have helicopters needed to fly over the affected region.
More than five years of fighting in Darfur has left 200,000 people dead and driven more than 2.5 million from their homes, say international experts. Khartoum says 10,000 have died.
U.N. investigator Sima Samar, in a report for the U.N. Human Rights Council, said breaches of humanitarian law were being committed not only in Darfur but in other parts of Sudan, including the south.
"Despite some steps by the government of Sudan, principally in the area of law reform, the human rights situation on the ground remains grim, with many interlocutors even reporting an overall deterioration," she wrote.
Samar said government forces had attacked civilians in Darfur and other serious incidents had occurred in fighting between Darfuri rebel groups. She said serious violations also occurred during a rebel attack near the capital in May.
She also reported violations in fighting between government forces and troops of the government of semi-autonomous south Sudan as well as between south Sudanese forces and villagers in the Eastern Equatorial region.
Witchcraft rumor sparks riot at Congo soccer game
KINSHASA, Congo: Accusations that a soccer player was using witchcraft during a match in eastern Congo sparked a riot that killed 13 people, a U.N.-funded radio station reported Monday.
Most of the victims were between the ages of 11 and 16, Radio Okapi said. They were suffocated as panicked crowds ran for the exits during the mayhem Sunday in Butembo in eastern Congo's North Kivu province.
Radio Okapi said police tried to control the violence at Matokeo stadium by firing into the air to protect their commander, who was hit in the head and wounded by fans.
The two local clubs involved were Socozaki and Nyuki System, the radio said.
Dozens of teenagers marched through Butembo's dirt streets Monday in protest, and the regional governor, Julien Mpaluku, paid a visit to the hospital.
Mpaluku said the government was investigating.
Flight attendants brave the unfriendly skies
By Michelle Higgins
It is a typical day for the flight attendants aboard American Airlines Flight 710, a 737-800 headed from Dallas to New York with a scheduled departure time of 9:05 a.m.
As Debbie Nicks, 56, works in the first-class galley, brewing coffee and hanging up passengers' jackets, she glances down the jetway and notices a crush of people at the gate. An earlier flight to New York has been canceled, and people from that flight are desperate to get on this one. It is a familiar scene these days, what with many planes flying at near capacity, and so Debbie just continues her regular routine, making the announcement to passengers onboard that they should make sure all carry-on luggage is stored either in the overhead bin or below the seat in front of them.
Back in coach, Anna Wallace McCrummen, 45, organizes the cart of drinks and food for sale that would later be pushed down the narrow aisle, then takes a blue rubber mallet to whack a bag of ice cubes that had frozen into a solid block. She hits it over and over again, perhaps a little too keenly, as the sound — thwop, thwop, thwop — echoes off the walls of the small galley.
Meanwhile, in the main cabin, Jane Marshall, 50, walks down the aisle, checking to make sure people are finding their correct seats, keeping an eye out for passengers who have sneaked on luggage that she knows won't fit in the overhead space and trying to defuse any tense situations before they escalate into crises. But perhaps it is already too late. Two women who have been double-booked stand sulking in the aisle, wheelie bags firmly planted by their sides, signaling that they are not about to budge.
"What a mess," mutters Jane once the double-booked women have been found seats and the line of stand-by passengers is turned away from the gate. Only then, after every seat is taken, overhead bins shut, electronic devices stored and seatbelt sign on, do the three women finally settle in to their jump seats for one of the few moments of respite during their workday.
Over the next 11 hours, they will fly from Dallas to New York and back again, a routine that is clearly second nature to them. In all, the three represent nearly 70 years of flight attendant experience.
And today I am one of them.
In a behind-the-scenes look at the other side of air travel, I donned a navy suit and starched white shirt earlier this summer and became a flight attendant for two days. With the cooperation of American Airlines, I first went to flight attendant training school at the company's Flagship University in Fort Worth, Texas, where I learned what to do in an onboard emergency, from how to open an emergency exit window on a 777 aircraft (it's heavier than you may think) to operating a defibrillator (there are pictures to help you get the pads in the right place). I then flew three legs in two days: a round-trip journey between Dallas and New York, and then back to New York the next day.
And though the other flight attendants knew I was a ringer, the passengers did not. Thus I got a crash course in what airline personnel have to put up with these days — and, after just one day on the job, began to wonder why the phrase "air rage" is only applied to passengers. Believe me, there were a few people along the way, like the demanding guy in first class who kept barking out drink orders as the flight progressed (until he finally passed out), whom I would have been more than happy to show to the exit, particularly when we were 35,000 feet in the air.
What's it like to be a flight attendant these days? That's what I've often found myself wondering as I sit in my seat, waiting impatiently as yet another flight is delayed and my connection threatened, while around me are passengers fighting with each other over the lack of space in the shared bin, or complaining about having been bumped from an earlier flight, or swearing "never again" to fly this specific airline because they have been stuck in a middle seat even though they booked their ticket six months ago.
Is there a less-enviable, more-stressful occupation these days than that of a flight attendant? Just the look on their faces as they walk down the aisle — telling passengers that no matter how many times they try to squeeze them in, their suitcases are not going to fit into the overhead bin, or explaining yet again that they will not get a single morsel of decent food on this three-hour flight — tells you all you need to know of their misery.
It was a feeling that was reinforced when I glanced at an Internet chat board for flight attendants, airlinecrew.net, and came across postings like this: "I've been a flight attendant for 6yrs now, and I can tell you this much - if I'm still a flight attendant in 20yrs, I'll be a raging b*tch!"
It wasn't always this way, of course. Back in 1967, the best-selling book "Coffee, Tea or Me?" (subtitled "The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses") portrayed life in the air as a nonstop party, one to which the authors felt privileged to be invited. Another 60s artifact, the play "Boeing, Boeing," recently revived on Broadway in a Tony Award-winning production, also pictured the life of stewardesses (as they were called then) as a glamorous romp, with suitors in every port. Most recently, the fictional ad executives on "Mad Men" were thrilled when they were asked to compete for an airline account, not only because of the business it would bring in but also because they would be in on the casting sessions for the stewardesses and would get to fly free. Oh, such fun!
It's a fair bet that nothing about air travel today would inspire such rapture.
In fact, the flight attendants I spent time with on my three flights took a grimly realistic view of their jobs, aware that temper flare-ups. "People just get nasty," said Jane Marshall are in some ways an understandable reaction to the process that passengers themselves have to endure in trying to get from one place to another. "After they've been harassed by security, we're the ones they see," said Debbie Nicks, explaining why a minor inconvenience, like being told that there are no more headsets, might send someone into a fit. "Your shining personality only goes so far," added Jane.
Certainly the one lesson I learned quickly along with how to cross-check the doors and that Dansko clogs are the footwear of choice among experienced flight attendants was how to say "no" politely. No to the young Indian man who asked for a blanket for his mother who was shivering in her sari next to him. (There were none left.) No to the hungry passenger who wanted to purchase a cookie. (We had already sold the only two stocked for the flight.) No to the guy who, like many of his fellow passengers, was concerned he wouldn't make his connecting flight because of our late departure and pleaded, "Can you call and find out?" (Sorry, but here's the customer service number you can try when we land.)
I also got a crash course in stress management.
My return flight out of La Guardia was as packed as the morning one out of Dallas, and the passengers were even crankier. The plane was supposed to take off at 4:25 p.m., but at 5, passengers were still boarding, with many already anxious about whether they would make their connecting flights.
Meanwhile, two commuting flight attendants came aboard to ride in the jump seats. Jennifer Villavicencio, 35, a mother of two from Maryland, had been up since 5 a.m. working a four-leg trip New York to Chicago, Chicago to St. Louis, St. Louis to Chicago, Chicago to New York. As a newer flight attendant on "reserve," she largely works on call. She spends days at a time away from her children, sometimes leaving them with her mother in Dallas, while she works out of New York. In between shifts, Jennifer shares a four-bedroom crash pad in Queens with other flight attendants. She sleeps in a so-called hot bed, bringing her own sheets and grabbing whichever of the 26 bunks is available when she arrives.
"I like the top bunk," she said, "because you can sit up all the way."
Our chat was interrupted by some news from the gate agent: The plane might be shifted to another runway. "Oh, good, more drama," said Anna, explaining to me what was about to happen. "When it's midsummer and it's hot, and the runways are short, you can't have a certain heaviness or you can't take off. Because we're switching runways they're going to put a weight restriction on and they're going to pull people off because of the weight."
Jennifer sprang to attention. As a commuter, she knew her seat would be among the first to go if the flight was deemed too heavy for the new runway. She began counting the number of children onboard, a factor that could immediately minimize the weight issue, if there were enough of them. Thankfully, there were 11 enough to save other passengers from being taken off.
At 5:49 p.m., the plane finally took off, more than an hour late.
I had been told that working first class was harder than coach, and so I joined Debbie at the front of the plane. When I arrived, Debbie had already taken down the passengers' drink orders, her neat handwriting listing 3A - BMary, B - RW, E -Vodka tonic, etc., on a pink cheat sheet posted on a cabinet. She warned me that Passenger 4B, a heavy-set young man with an iPod, was already proving to be a handful. He had taken some sort of painkiller for a bandaged wrist when he boarded, immediately followed by a Jack and Coke, followed by a Heineken, and now wanted a glass of wine, not in one of those standard-issue wine glasses, but in a fat cocktail glass instead.
I recalled what one flight attendant had told me when I asked about what they do when it looks like a passenger is having too much to drink: Water it down. In coach, where travelers mix the drinks themselves, some attendants invent their own rules. "I can only sell you one drink an hour."
First class was intimidating. And I, frankly, wasn't much help, finding all I was really qualified to do was hand out and collect the hot towels. Debbie, however, performed a series of in-flight culinary maneuvers so demanding it inspired a challenge on the Bravo television series "Top Chef": Prepare an edible, multicourse meal, mid-air, in a narrow hallway, between two ovens at 275 degrees and a hot coffee maker.
As the flight wore on, Passenger 4B finally dozed off; dessert was served and the flight attendants became weary. Jennifer, who wasn't even on duty, had taken pity on a mother with a screaming child and was walking him up and down the aisle on her hip. Later, she would occupy a toddler by letting him hold the other end of the trash bag as she collected garbage from passengers.
The flight arrived in Dallas at 8:02 p.m., 52 minutes late. Debbie, Jane and Anna would be paid for the actual flight time of roughly eight hours for the two legs of the round-trip journey. They would also receive a per diem of $1.50 for every hour they were away on the trip. (For certain delays, American said its flight attendants receive an extra $15 per hour, pro-rated to the actual time, minus a 30-minute grace period.)
Flight attendants' schedules are often wrecked by delays and as the airline industry went into its steep downturn after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, many airline workers took significant pay cuts and reduced benefits in order to help the carriers stay in business.
There are roughly 100,000 flight attendants in the United States, according to the Association of Flight Attendants, down from about 125,000 in 2000. Depending on the airline, attendants earn between 7 and 20 percent less today than before 9/11, according to the association. The average flight attendant salary today is around $33,500 a year.
There are already fewer attendants working each flight. Most carriers now go by the minimum number required by the Federal Aviation Administration one flight attendant per every 50 passengers. And though the benefits, like free flights for your entire family, still exist on paper, they are hard to claim as airlines continue to pack planes full of paying passengers. In other words, it's not much fun anymore.
Certainly, it's a far cry from the "Coffee, Tea or Me" years.
"Who would have thought, after 30 years, that we'd be a flying 7-Eleven," Becky Gilbert, a three-decade veteran of the industry told me during a break in our training session in Fort Worth. "You know, I mean we used to serve omelets and crepes for breakfast, and now it's 'Would you like to buy stackable chips or a big chocolate chip cookie for $3?' "
When Anna, Jane and Debbie became flight attendants more than 20 years ago, tedious chores, like collecting passenger trash, were offset by the perks and quasi-celebrity status that came with the job. "When you walked down the terminal, all the people would look at you," said Jane, between bites of pizza on a lunch break at La Guardia, her back turned to a group of travelers paying no mind to her navy blue suit, her gold wings or the black roller bag by her side.
"People used to," continued Debbie, a well-groomed flight attendant with cropped gray hair and gold accessories who can finish Jane's sentences after 23 years of flying together. "What girl didn't want to be a stewardess?"
"It was the layover in the old days that made it glamorous," Anna explained. "You worked one leg to San Diego and you were sitting on a beach, margarita in your hand, and you were going, 'I'm getting paid to sit here.' That was the old days. Now, we're like crawling into bed thinking, 'I hope my alarm goes off.' "
Luckily, the next morning at 4, mine did. Running on no more than five hours of sleep and no coffee, as the hotel takeout stand had yet to open, I caught the five o'clock hotel shuttle to the airport. After stumbling through security I arrived at the gate, an hour before departure, as required bleary-eyed and beat. When I met the crew I would be working with, a jovial bunch who often fly together, I warned them that I might be useless.
They could empathize. David Macdonald, 51, an American flight attendant for 28 years, was on his fourth straight day of flying. Elaine Sweeney, 55, who has worked for American for 30 years, was on her third day. And Tim Rankin, 56, a 32-year veteran, was on his third flight in 24 hours.
Standing in the aisle of the cramped MD-80, Elaine assured me that the passengers, mostly business travelers, would be relatively well-behaved. "It's so early on this one," she said, "that usually half of them go to sleep."
As with the flight attendants I worked with earlier, my new companions described their job as being one where they constantly had to calibrate the mood of the passengers. "Over a typical month," said Tim, "I will be a teacher, I will be a pastor, I will be a counselor, I will be a mediator." As he slid his 5-foot-11-inch frame into the sliver of space between the cockpit and the first-class bathroom, he slumped into the jump seat and let out a barely audible sigh. "I'll have to tell people that a two-and-a-half-foot-deep bag will not fit in a one-and-a-half-foot hole," he said.
"People need to understand that the rules of social order do not go away when you get on an airplane," Tim added, his Texan twang kicking up a notch as he laid down his commandments. "You cannot have sex on an airplane. When you purchase a ticket, that does not give you the privilege of yelling at me. It does not give you the privilege of sitting anywhere you want to sit. They assign you a seat. I do not have an extra airplane in my pocket if my flight's delayed."
Elaine chimed in, "We joke that people check their brain when they board."
When we landed in New York at 11:04 a.m., I was wiped. Standing for the majority of the flight, which included a brief bout of turbulence, had unsettled my stomach and caused me to lose my appetite. My feet hurt. I had lost all feeling in my pinkie toes.
Before we disembarked, Tim, in a touching gesture, ceremoniously gave me his gold wings. I then dragged myself through the terminal, past a throng of restless passengers gathered around the gate, anxiously waiting to board the plane.
I was glad I was heading home.
Brandon Sykes, a resident who has a generator, was unconcerned.
"I don't really need the city's help and I don't need their instructions," Sykes said as he carried a window fan down Denver Drive back to his house.
Since many of the 20,000 homes on the island are old, many lack devices that automatically cut off the flow of natural gas if a pilot light goes off or there is a leak. Explosions are a concern if houses are not inspected before gas is restored, but there are less than 100 teams checking for such leaks, city officials said.
"The toxic soup is also a serious issue," said Brandon Wade, the deputy city manager who is overseeing the logistics of restoring power and water, as he described the flood waters that fill many residents' basements and garages.
Household chemicals, stored lead-based paints, gasoline, sewage and construction debris — sometimes with asbestos — have created a dangerous mixture, he said. The water table and drinking water is at risk of being contaminated. And when the sludge dries, the film on the walls and in floors as well as the dust in the air could lead to serious respiratory concerns.
The pools of standing water were creating breeding zones for mosquitoes, which were beginning to fill the air, and city officials asked the county to begin spraying to kill the larvae. One man was found on the street with more than 1,000 mosquito bites, Cahill said. He was airlifted to the hospital.
RIO DE JANEIRO: When Antonio Soares da Silva was still in the womb, a spirit-worshipper looked into his future and saw a drug dealer. His mother saw a man of God. Both turned out to be right.
Da Silva snorted his first cocaine at 13, ran packets of the drug at "funk" parties in Rio de Janeiro slums, and soon was hooked on drugs, women, and the gangster life.
Now, at 29, he is Pastor Ezequiel -- a charismatic preacher whose exorcisms and fiery sermons boom through Vidigal, a shantytown perched high above one of Rio's most beautiful beaches.
His journey from cocaine to Christ is no longer an unusual one in Rio's slums, where Brazil's growing evangelical Protestant churches are on the front line of the city's drug wars.
With intense competition for souls among hundreds of evangelical denominations and a belief that anyone can be "saved," pastors have reached out to the traffickers.
"There was a trafficker in the community who killed people, chopped them up and ate them -- drank their blood. Now he is a man of God," the powerfully built pastor Ezequiel, wearing a cream-colored suit over a turquoise shirt, said before a recent sermon.
"What is behind the men who kill and take drugs is the Devil -- the Devil is imprisoning them. Vidigal can't be known as place of traffic; it must be known as a place of God."
Pastors have been known to preach on stage at the wild funk parties in slums that are financed by drug gangs.
One pastor, known as Marcos, says he has rescued several hundred traffickers from imminent execution after trials by "tribunals" run by drug gangs, and helped them find God.
And once a drug trafficker goes to prison, he is ripe for conversion: evangelical prisoners are often housed in separate wings that are the envy of other inmates for their cleanliness and strict order -- with parallels to the appeal of Islam in U.S. prisons.
For drug bosses, good relations with the local pastor make the community easier to control. Sometimes, the two can even find themselves unlikely allies, such as when they defend their community from perceived police abuses.
The pastors and the drug traffickers have become so close in some places that there is a growing unease over the relationship.
"As traffickers have become stronger, they have started to try to have more control over religion in different slums," said Maria das Dores Campos Machado, a professor at Rio's Federal University who has studied evangelicals. "At the same time, as churches have grown, they have less control over pastors."
One result has been that traffickers in some slums get tattoos of the Christian cross on their arms and stop taking drugs themselves -- but continue to sell them to others and to kill their rivals.
"I think it's quite dangerous for the evangelicals to have this kind of connection, because it brings them more prejudice from society," Campos Machado added.
BENEFITS OF FAITH
But slum dwellers have few other options, with many left behind by the economic gains enjoyed by the rest of the country under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and feeling abandoned by a Catholic church they see as out of touch.
With about 70 percent of the population, or 125 million members, the Catholic church can still claim Brazil as its biggest global stronghold.
But Protestant churches, with a personalized brand of salvation and financial self-improvement that is particularly attractive to the poor, account for 15 percent, triple the number of members in 1980.
"The preachers come from there and they don't deny the people's reality," said Vera Malaguti, a sociologist at the Rio Institute of Criminology.
Politicians on both the right and left had abandoned the slums, she said. "The traffickers are dying every day. The pastors built an option for them; we didn't."
As in many slums, there are only two real powers in Vidigal -- the dominant drug gang and religion. The presence of the authorities is felt only during a police raid.
More than 20 evangelical churches, most of them in ramshackle buildings little bigger than people's homes, vie for the faithful representing denominations such as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and The Assembly of God.
As the Thursday night service warms up, Pastor Ezequiel begins the evening's exorcisms, sending several women spinning to the floor where they lie for minutes, crying, heaving, and trembling, but finally free of the Devil.
From his wheelchair, Felipe Quintino Nunes joins in by raising his arms and hugging his fellow worshipers in between shouts of "Glory to God!"
Later, they carry him in his wheelchair out of the church and back down the slum's steep, narrow alleyways that would otherwise be impossible for him to access.
Shot in the back and paralyzed during a shootout with a rival drug gang, Nunes found Christ when evangelicals came to visit him in hospital. They took him to a rehabilitation centre on the outskirts of Rio, where for two years he prayed and studied the Bible with other ex-traffickers.
"God saved me. God has done marvellous things with my life," the 26-year-old said. "Most of my friends are still in the traffic, people I grew up with. I tell them there is no future -- you can just die, go to jail or end up on the streets."
Brown fired Barry Gardiner as his representative on forestry, a day after he joined a dozen other Labour members of Parliament in challenging Brown's leadership.
Brown had already dismissed two other dissidents from junior government posts after they called for a leadership contest, saying Labour needed a debate on its direction after 11 years in power.
The OKAY designers are typical. The only Briton among them is Marigold. The others stayed in London after graduating from the Royal College because they wanted to stay, except for Shiratori, who also has a studio in her native Japan. "There's so much going on here that every other city feels like a village in comparison, even Paris and Berlin," said the Israeli-born Alkalay. "Everyone in the design world comes to London, and you really feel that if you do something good, people will notice."
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