COLUMNIST: Roger Cohen
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
THE HAGUE: The United States and Iran are talking to each other about the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. That is a good thing. On the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration, it shows there is nothing in the DNA of the two nations that precludes dialogue.
The discussions - often bruising but never to the point of a breakup - are proceeding within the framework of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. That's an unwieldy name for something the world should cheer.
The OPCW brings together 185 nations working in near total obscurity toward an April 29, 2012, deadline for the final elimination of the scourge that has brought death and agony from the fields of Flanders in World War I to the Tokyo subway in 1995.
Countries representing 98 percent of the global population have adhered to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force 11 years ago. More than 40 percent of the world's 71,000 metric tons of declared chemical agents, most of them in the United States and Russia, have been destroyed.
States including Albania and South Korea have already completed the destruction of their chemical weapons stockpiles. At American, Russian, Indian and other sites, work proceeds to ensure the likes of mustard gas, sarin gas and the lethal VX nerve agent are not only eliminated, but never again produced or used.
"We work by consensus, and Iran and the United States are very much key figures in that," Rogelio Pfirter, the Argentine director-general of the organization told me. "Through engagement, and despite robust exchanges, we are able to move forward on a central disarmament and nonproliferation issue."
The other day, at the OPCW's annual conference, I sat with Eric Javits, the widely respected U.S. ambassador, while Seyed Mohammad Ali Hosseini, an Iranian deputy foreign minister, spoke.
Referring to Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, in attacks that left more than 100,000 Iranian casualties, Hosseini said: "As the last victim of chemical weapons, the Islamic Republic of Iran strongly believes that promoting international peace and security is subject to the realization of a world free from the threat and existence of weapons of mass destruction."
Not so much as an eyebrow was raised by Javits, although Iranian centrifuges are widely believed to be spinning in the pursuit of fissionable material for a nuclear weapon.
Nor did the ambassador's composure show cracks when Hosseini referred to the "chemical and nuclear weapons" of the "Zionist regime" as the "most dangerous threat to regional and international peace."
Afterward, Javits described his approach to me. "I'm here to get everyone to feel like a partner," he said. Including the Iranians? "I am friendly with them, although negotiations are tough. They are committed to this organization because of what happened under Saddam."
And what of Iran's Israel bashing? "Look, we've gotten results here through patient diplomacy. I don't bring up things outside the purview of this organization. An enormous lesson here is that other nations want to feel they're treated by the big guys on an equal basis. This is an example of effective multilateralism. We've neglected how to put the multilateral tool to successful use."
Earlier this year, at the organization's second review conference, Javits played a decisive role in preventing a collapse. Tensions boiled over Iran's contention that the United States was trying to turn the OPCW into an antiterrorist organization focused more on chemical industry inspections aimed at ensuring nonproliferation than on destruction of existing weapons. At the 11th hour, a formula balancing the two objectives was found.
"Javits is a patient listener and this is very much appreciated," Ali Reza Hajizadeh, a counselor at the Iranian embassy, told me.
There are lessons here. The first is that listening is more productive than lecturing. Sure, chemical weapons are a far easier field for diplomacy than nuclear weapons because of their now limited military usefulness. But dialogue has reduced tensions and it can in the nuclear field, too.
The second is that dialogue will be very tough. Iran's focus on Israel's unacknowledged nuclear weapons may cause discomfort in Washington, where the subject tends to be taboo, but it's impossible to understand the psychology of the Iranians without taking the Israeli bomb into account.
Hearing their views directly is salutary. Obama's proposal to push for an Iranian dialogue is his single most important diplomatic proposal.
The Middle East has been the one area where the OPCW has had limited success precisely because of mistrust over weapons of mass destruction. Israel, Egypt and Syria have not joined the treaty.
"Israel says nothing is solved until everything is solved," Pfirter told me. "Egypt and Syria say they cannot join until the Middle East is free of weapons of mass destruction. But logic suggests that moving ahead with eliminating chemical weapons might advance peace overall and certainly benefit the people of the Middle East."
Pfirter is right. To make progress on these issues, they need to be aired. As Javits put it to me, "Consensus sometimes means equal disappointment, but it's no less valuable for that."
Readers are invited to comment at my blog: www.iht.com/passages
By Edward Jay Epstein
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
A year has passed since the release of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. In a stunning departure from all the previous estimates dating back to 1997 under Presidents Clinton and Bush, it declared: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."
It also judged, with modest confidence, that Iran had not resumed its quest for nuclear weapons. If correct, this new assessment meant that previous ones, such as the 2004 NIE that also judged with "high confidence" that Iran was expanding its nuclear weapons capabilities under the cover of a civilian energy program, were based on flawed intelligence.
But was this astonishing reversal correct?
The 2007 intelligence estimate proceeded from both a reorganization of the so-called intelligence community and a re-evaluation of information the CIA had gotten on a clandestine nuclear weapon design program code-named by Iran "Project 1-11." Even though Project 1-11 had been in operation since 1997, the CIA did not get wind of it until 2004, when it obtained a stolen Iranian laptop that had been smuggled into Turkey. The computer's hard drive contained thousands of pages of documents describing efforts to design a warhead that would fit in the nose cone of the Iranian Shahab 3 missile and detonate at an altitude of 600 meters (which is too high for any explosion but a nuclear one to be effective).
From the warhead's specifications, which included the kind of high-tension electric bridge wire used in implosion-type nuclear weapons, the CIA deduced that the payload was a nuclear bomb similar to Pakistan's early bomb. Its conclusion that Iran was going nuclear was repeated in all the NIEs through 2006.
By 2007, however, the CIA and reorganized intelligence community re-examined the issue and doubts began to emerge. It turned out that shortly after the stolen laptop compromised Project 1-11, satellite photographs showed that buildings involved in it had been bulldozed, and conversations intercepted by the U.S. indicated that the project was being dismantled. Then a high-level defector from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, General Ali-Reza Asgari, confirmed in his CIA debriefings that Project 1-11 had been terminated in 2003.
After a long review, and "scrubbing" the evidence for signs of deception, the CIA reached its new conclusion that Iran's 1-10 project really had ended by 2004. In the world of clandestine activities, it is hardly unexpected that a super-secret operation such as Project 1-11, once it was compromised, would be officially closed down, and the evidence seems convincing that it was shuttered.
The issue is why. One explanation is that Iran had abandoned its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Another is that Iran no longer needed Project 1-11 because Iran had solved the tricky problem of triggering a nuclear warhead through other means.
Three pieces of the puzzle uncovered by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency cast a surprising light on how Iran has advanced its capabilities independently of Project 11-1. First, there is the digital blueprint circulated by the network of A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb. IAEA investigators decoding and analyzing the massive computer files of this network found that it had clandestinely provided clients with a detailed design of a nuclear warhead of the version used by first China then Pakistan.
Since the IAEA knew that Iran had been dealing with the Khan network since at least 2003, and features of that digital blueprint matched those described in the Project 11-1 documents, it was suspected that Iran acquired the digital blueprint, along with other components, from the Khan network. If so, it shortened the task of Project 1-11.
Then, in late 2007, IAEA investigators uncovered a detailed Iranian narrative, written in Farsi, that described how a Russian scientist helped the Iranians conduct experiments to help Iranian scientists solve a complex design problem: Configuring high-tension electric bridge wire to detonate at different points less than a fraction of a nanosecond apart. In an implosion-type bomb, this is crucial for properly compressing the nuclear core. As Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's chief inspector explained at a closed-door briefing in February 2008, these Russian-led experiments were "not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon."
Finally, there is the Polonium 210 experiments that Iran conducted prior to 2004. Since Polonium 210 is used to initiate the chain reaction in early-generation nuclear bombs (and used in the Pakistan design), IAEA inspectors attempted up until 2008 to get access to the facility, or "box," in which the Polonium 210 was extracted from radioactive Bismuth.
Iran insisted that the Polonium 210 was only to be used for a civilian purpose - powering batteries on an Iranian spacecraft - and turned down these requests.
Iran had no known space program, but even if the extraction process was for civilian purposes, Iran's success with it meant that it could also produce Polonium 210 to trigger a nuclear bomb of the design furnished by the Khan network. So, even without further work by Project 1-11, it may have acquired all essential design elements for a nuclear weapon.
Design of course is only part of the equation. The other crucial part is obtaining a fissile fuel for the nuclear explosion, such as highly-enriched uranium.
In 1974, Pakistan, with the assistance of A.Q. Khan, had pioneered the path to nuclear proliferation by using centrifuges to enrich gasified uranium into weapon-grade uranium. In this process, the uranium cascades from one rapidly-spinning centrifuge to the next, each gradually increasing the proportion of the fissile isotope Uranium 235, until it becomes first low-enriched uranium for power plants, then, if continued, high-enriched uranium, for weapons. Iran built a similar facility in the massive underground caves at Natanz, able to house up to 50,000 centrifuges, which became operational in 2002.
Iran claimed this facility was intended for the production of low-enriched uranium for the Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr to generate electric power (a facility Russia had agreed to fully supply as long as it operated). But the plant also could be used to produce weapons-grade uranium.
According to the IAEA, which monitors Natanz, by 2008 Iran had 3,800 centrifuges in operation and is adding another 3,000. It has also upgraded many of the older centrifuges, giving it about quadruple the capacity it had in 2003. To date, it has produced and stockpiled 1,380 pounds of low-enriched uranium, which is enough, if further enriched to weapons grade, to build a nuclear bomb.
The 2007 NIE deftly ducked this escalation with a footnote stating it was excluding from its assessment "Iran's declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment," which meant Natanz. However, in light of all the developments in the past year, America's new president will have to confront the reality that Iran now has the capability to change the balance of power in the Gulf, if it so elects to do so, by building a nuclear weapon.
Edward Jay Epstein is an investigative writer and the author of 13 books, including "Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and CIA." He is currently writing a book on the 9/11 Commission.
By Caroline Brothers
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
CALAIS, France: Behind sealed metal doors in a tunnel far under the sea floor, tiny pellets of concrete were flying through the air Wednesday as workers blasted the walls with wet cement.
Amid constant noise and in temperatures cooled by the blast of artificial wind, 85 engineers are working in round-the-clock shifts to repair the walls in record times.
Three months since the tunnel, which links Britain to France, was consumed in an undersea inferno, there are theories but still no explanations of the cause. Thousands of travelers were stranded and delayed on both sides of the English Channel after the blaze on Sept. 11, with traffic still disrupted along one of Europe's most vital transport routes.
While awaiting the conclusions of several parallel investigations - a police inquiry took more than a year to deliver its initial report after a fire in the tunnel 12 years ago - officials at Eurotunnel, the tunnel operator, are already drawing conclusions about how matters could be handled differently next time.
All 32 passengers and crew escaped heat of 1,000 degrees Centigrade, or 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit, in the September blaze, but 21 of the freight train's 27 carriages were destroyed, along with 650 meters, or 2,100 feet, of tunnel. Traffic is not likely to return to normal before February, when the tunnel should reopen after repairs costing €60 million, or $88 million.
"We are not sure of the starting point, but the hypothesis is that the fire broke out 40 kilometers after entering the tunnel inside a cargo truck or in the cargo itself," Jacques Gounon, Eurotunnel's chief executive, said Wednesday during the first public visit to the tunnel since the disaster took place.
Eurotunnel said it also planned to enhance its training for staff to better handle panicking passengers, and to translate the safety instructions on board the train into nine foreign languages, rather than just English and French now.
"If you don't have good communications, panic sets in very quickly," Gounon said Wednesday. Truck drivers traveling in the cabin car smashed its windows with hammers, letting in smoke and fumes, rather than waiting a few seconds for the doors to open automatically once a special ventilation system had cleared the air outside .
"We have to manage the stress of the evacuees," Gounon said.
Also under consideration are methods to detect changes in temperature on board the moving train, and to find a fire-extinguishing system that would facilitate the firemen's work.
"My challenge is to try to prevent trucks from burning," Gounon added in an interview Wednesday amid scaffolding and forklift trucks parked on a road built over the tracks inside the tunnel. "We will strengthen measures at the entrance of the tunnel and facilitate the firemen's job of putting out the fire in the tunnel."
Eurotunnel defends its safety record on the world's longest undersea tunnel - it extends for 50 kilometers, or 31 miles. A total of 38 kilometers are under water.
"What is certain is when you have 14 million trucks passing through since the opening of the tunnel, one truck burning is unfortunately part of the statistics," Gounon said.
Eurotunnel also plans to re-examine the special ventilation system that blasts fresh air down the tunnel to clear away smoke and fumes. While it worked well this time to preserve human life, it oxygenated the flames that burned for 16 hours before firefighters could put them out.
But the company is not considering encasing the carriages in which the freight trucks travel to seal them off from any fire on logistical grounds, due to the width of the tunnel. And since it is one of the few tunnels in the world to have a parallel escape tunnel, it does not plan to revise its policy of not driving through to the other side if a fire is detected on board.
Though the damage is 50 percent more extensive than occurred after the criminally set fire in 1996, Gounon said that with better organization and machinery, the work should take about half the time.
In the first public visit to the site since the disaster, reporters could see parts of the ceiling still blackened after the fire raged through, turning walls of concrete to powder and destroying its metal supports. Paradoxically, workers sifting through the debris of the train that had been carrying machine parts, rolls of plastic and other goods found that a truckload of After-8 chocolates did not vaporize, but simply melted in the phenomenal heat.
Where once the rails stretched unhindered to England, workers have turned the tracks into an undersea road in order to bring in forklift trucks and concrete-blasting machinery, and lined it with three levels of scaffolding reaching right to the ceiling. A double metal door custom-built for the purpose seals off the tracks at the end of the work site so the engineers can work unhindered by the rush of wind from trains crossing over into the south tunnel.
And in the escape tunnel behind Cross Passage number 4898, where 32 people panicked but fled to safety when their freight train was consumed in an underwater fireball, workers have established a refectory area and work-site computer offices.
"It reminded me of 1996 - it was the same smell, the same heat, and exactly the same damage," said Frédéric Dudragne, 37, an engineer and the foreman on the work site, who worked on the same tunnel after the fire in 1996.
His colleague Faty Bansalem, 26, a civil engineer in charge of logistics, tools and materials, said the site looked like "the scene from a horror movie" when she walked into the blackened infrastructure for the first time.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
By Chris Buckley
Talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions failed to break an impasse over rules for probing its atomic activities, negotiators said on Wednesday, offering dim prospects of a breakthrough.
Having coaxed North Korea to partly disable its Yongbyon nuclear complex this year in a disarmament-for-aid deal, envoys from five states have been asking the reclusive fortress state to accept a protocol for checking its nuclear declaration.
Agreement on verification would be a welcome diplomatic trophy for outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush before he gives way to President-elect Barack Obama in January.
But the chief U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill, said there was no sign of agreement with Pyongyang after the third day of the latest negotiations. And he offered little prospect of a breakthrough in the talks, which could extend another day.
"It's not trending in the right direction," Hill said after what he said was a tough day of fruitless haggling over verification. "It's been a very difficult day, indeed a very difficult week ... We have not achieved our goal."
Hill said he had not heard from host country China whether the envoys would gather again on Thursday. Japan's negotiator, Akitaka Saiki, was quoted by Kyodo news agency as saying they would. But he too sounded downcast.
"We have not resolved (differences) in views over nuclear verification," he said, according to Kyodo.
The six-party talks, begun in 2003, bring together North and South Korea, host China, the United States, Japan and Russia. They took on fresh urgency after Pyongyang held its first nuclear test explosion in October 2006, but have made fitful progress in curtailing its atomic ambitions.
"North Korea is putting its own conditions on verification, because it hasn't made the fundamental choice to abandon nuclear weapons," said Zhang Liangui, a Chinese expert on the North at the Central Party School, a leading thinktank in Beijing.
"Until that changes, North Korea will always find reasons to stonewall."
NORTH KOREA IN NO RUSH
In the latest talks, North Korea has refused proposals to allow inspectors to take nuclear samples to test its declaration, said South Korea's envoy Kim Sook, Kyodo news agency reported.
Many analysts believe North Korea is in no hurry to make concessions, waiting to test Obama's intentions. A South Korean expert on North Korea said Pyongyang was unlikely to make real concessions on verification any time soon.
"North Korea will never allow sampling in the second-phase process because it is a bargaining chip it wants to hold on to until the last moment of the talks," said Koh Yu-hwan of Dongguk University.
In a sign of North Korea's combativeness, its official KCNA news agency on Wednesday trumpeted a U.S. military report that called it a nuclear arms state.
Regional powers refuse to officially designate the North as a nuclear power, and South Korea's foreign minister has said the U.S. report was mistaken and will be corrected. But Pyongyang has longed for the prestige that goes with such a designation.
Complicating the talks are sour relations between North and South Korea and a feud between Pyongyang and Tokyo over the kidnapping of Japanese nationals decades ago. The North has said it will not recognise Japan's role in the talks.
There is also mystery over the Communist state's leader, Kim Jong-il. U.S. and South Korean officials have said Kim suffered a stroke in August, raising questions about who was making decisions over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
If Kim is "seriously ill and is practically out of power, then the hard-line military would try to slow down the negotiation process and ask for even more," said Koh, the Dongguk University professor.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, Yoko Nishikawa in TOKYO and Kim Junghyn in SEOUL; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jerry Norton)
IW: Foreign relations 3.0 (2 U.S. presidential cycles): a paradigm shift between headline (high profile, low loss of life conflict) and macro killers (malaria/accidental child death/food poverty). If everyone you loved died, why would it - in these contexts - be important?
Me? Knee rage. Not good. How would this be if I was alone?
From canned goods to fresh, food banks adapt
By Katie Zezima
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
MADISON, Wisconsin: Vanessa Rosales comes to the St. Vincent DePaul Food Pantry here rather than others for one reason: She can choose what food she brings home, rather than being handed a bag filled with random groceries.
The pantry, which looks like a small grocery store, is indicative of broad changes going on at the nation's food banks and food pantries.
No longer simply the domain of canned corn and peanut butter, food banks are preparing ready-to-eat meals, opening their own farms and partnering with institutions as varied as local supermarkets and state prisons to help gather and process food. They are also handling much more fresh produce, which requires overhauling the way they store and distribute food.
Pantries, which distribute the food donated to food banks, are also acting as social service clearinghouses. Many are handing out information about screenings for breast and cervical cancer and sending volunteers out to sign up people for food stamps.
And as demand continues to rise, food banks are trying to feed more people with less food.
"It's not just handing out a box here or there anymore," said Peggy Grimes, executive director of the Montana Food Bank Network, which covers the state. "A lot of effort goes into thinking outside the box. It's becoming the focus of food banking." In Madison, thinking of new ways to dispense food was a necessity. The pantry used to pack and distribute food, only to find the bags of groceries discarded at a bus stop around the corner.
"It's not that they were ungrateful," said Ralph Middlecamp, the pantry's director. "They just knew they wouldn't eat it."
Many who left the food were recent immigrants who "don't relate to canned food," Middlecamp said.
The pantry now gives each person an allotted number of points, which they use to pick out items. Bread is free; eggs are three points, ham four, a giant tub of salsa six.
"We want to help accommodate the dignity and preferences of the people," Middlecamp said.
Rosales used some of her points on apples, meat and milk for her three children.
"I've been to pantries before where they give you things you don't need," said Rosales, who was recently laid off from her job as a preschool teacher. "This way you can pick what you're going to use, rather than saying, 'What am I going to do with this?' "
Years ago, food banks would ask the same question about large-scale donations of produce and meat, which would quickly spoil.
As consumers buy fewer canned products and more fresh vegetables, retailers have responded by meeting their needs. Consequently, the surplus product that stores donate to food banks switched to fresh food from canned, nonperishable items. Tighter inventory controls have also left some stores with less to donate.
Food banks and pantries are buying industrial-size freezers and refrigerated trucks to store food. Some have opened gleaming industrial kitchens where culinary students, volunteers or convicts in work-training programs prepare meals.
Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, located in Nashville, built a federally certified manufacturing facility, where it churns out 50-gallon drums of tomato sauce, along with stews, chili and other food. Most is pumped into heat-sealed plastic bags, cooled and frozen. The food bank distributes the packages to pantries around the country.
"All an agency needs to do is pop it into boiling water, and then warm it up, cut it open and serve it to a client," said Jaynee Day, executive director of the food bank.
At the Vermont Foodbank in Barre, a walk-in freezer holds hundreds of frozen meals like chicken à la king and French bread pizza that are made in an adjacent kitchen from produce gleaned from grocery stores and local farms. Many times ingredients are added to help increase certain types of nutrients, like broccoli for calcium.
Vermont recently joined a growing group of food banks with their own farms, distributing the produce they grow to clients in need or using it to make meals.
Grimes of the Montana Food Bank Network said, "We deal with so much more produce now."
She has become a partner with the Montana State Prison, where inmates can much of the donated and bought produce, meat and fish, as well as beans and pasta.
"It helps us by allowing us to accept product donations we might have had to pass up," Grimes said, "just because we didn't have ability to get them distributed throughout the state in the short lifespan that they had."
The vastness of Montana makes food banking even more difficult, as it can take days for a shipment to reach a rural pantry.
In some communities, the pantry is the only social service agency for hundreds of miles.
"We're really focused in two directions," Grimes said. "We feed people, but we look at ways to get people to a place where they don't need emergency food. You can't just keep feeding people without looking for ways to help make their life better."
In central Florida, teams with laptops and food stamp applications are going to food pantries and signing up people for the program. The teams are also notifying people that they may be eligible for an earned income tax credit and other government services.
"They're not applying for them," said Dave Krepcho, executive director of the Food Bank of Central Florida. "There's a lack of awareness and a lack of transportation. Access isn't easy."
Signing people up for benefits is more crucial than ever, as more working-class people are finding it difficult to make ends meet and are coming to food banks for help.
"I keep hearing that demand is up and up and up," said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America, which provides more than two billion pounds of food annually to food banks around the country. "I heard one person saying they're feeding schoolteachers. The needle is moving higher up the socioeconomic class, and people making more money are needing emergency food assistance."
Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said he had "never seen anything" like the current economic situation.
"I've had people call me personally who have been donors for years, and said 'Bill, I need help,' " Bolling said. "That's disquieting to get those calls."
Food banks are trying to adapt to such outside forces.
"We're trying to navigate what is a time of great change in the work we do, and we're riding a roller coaster," said Kate Maehr, director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, where need increased 33 percent this year from 2007. "We have to figure out a new model and do it under pressure. It's hard, but what choice do we have?"
Climate-change conference hampered by U.S. political change
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
POZNAN, Poland: As ministers from 189 countries gather here to hammer out a new climate change treaty, progress is sorely hampered by the absence of one delegation: the team that will forge Barack Obama's climate policy.
The U.S. president-elect has called climate change "a matter of urgency," but his administration-in-waiting has not sent representatives to Poznan, where the United States is represented by the Bush administration. That has left this critical meeting in a bit of limbo, with many delegates saying they were waiting to size up the next administration's environmental commitment before making bold moves of their own.
"It has affected the meeting in a fairly significant way," said Gus Silva-Chavez, a policy expert at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, who has been observing the closed negotiations. "A lot of people think: 'this is not the time to put our cards on the table. Let's wait for the new administration. Why agree to anything now?"'
This problem is exaggerated by the fact that the European Union is struggling to finalize its own climate package - hampered by the global economic downturn - and so its delegates have been unusually quiet. In practice, that has meant little progress on anything except the basic decisions needed to keep the dream of a climate treaty alive.
"We have a sense of urgency but you don't see any strong decisions being taking here," said Elenita Dano, a member of the delegation from the Philippines. "Political developments in the U.S. and the EU are holding us hostage, and we have no choice but to wait."
The negotiations are meant to culminate in a treaty in Copenhagen in December 2009, which will take effect in 2013 and replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol.
So far, Obama has outlined broad policies but provided few specifics or a timetable for implementing them. His team is hashing out various options.
His administration could propose a climate bill designed to quickly pass though the U.S. Congress with concrete short-term goals like improving energy efficiency and creating "green" jobs, or it could hold off a bit to craft a more comprehensive policy proposal with long-term emissions reductions charting a course decades into the future.
"The fear is this could become a Clinton health plan, trying to do too much too soon, and ending up with nothing," said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House staffer, now with the National Commission on Energy Policy.
Even at the highest levels, officials in Poznan are awaiting results: "Another climate treaty without the U.S. doesn't make a lot of sense," said Yvo de Boer, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the sponsor of the meeting.
Still, the conference has achieved some important goals.
The delegates have agreed on a method for essentially paying countries and communities to preserve forests, through a system of carbon credits.
The delegates also are nearing agreement on a fund, conceptualized a year ago, to help developing countries adapt to climate change.
Talk of a climate-change unheaval was muted, since the meeting in Poznan was meant to be a midpoint in talks that would lead to a new treaty next year.
"Expectations for this meeting were pretty low, but we're on track for a work plan covering the next year," said Angela Anderson, director of the International Global Warming Campaign of the Pew Environment Group. "If the pace picks up we could get an agreement by Copenhagen."
Delegates have been hammering out proposals for the past 10 days. On Thursday, various ministers arrive for two days of meetings to approve them.
Still, there were disturbing rumblings that industrialized nations were seeking to scale back emissions-reduction targets recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which suggested that rich countries should cut emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 2020 to avert disastrous warming. Countries like Italy have suggested that they might have a hard time meeting previous emissions-reduction goals in the current economic malaise.
In addition, a group of developing countries called the G-77 complained that their proposals for help fell on deaf ears. "We got no support from developed countries, whether in technology transfer or finances," said Tasneem Essop, of the WWF South Africa.
Such hopes and frustrations underscore the pressure the new U.S. administration is likely to feel. Jake Schmidt of the National Resources Defense Council said, "Clearly one of the major stumbling blocks has been a lack of leadership at the U.S. level, and that's about to change."
Where the world dumps its garbage
By William Pentland Forbes.com
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
The largest garbage dump in the world is roughly twice the size of the continental U.S. In Pictures: Inside the world's superdumps
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a continent-sized constellation of discarded shoes, bottles, bags, pacifiers, plastic wrappers, toothbrushes and every other type of trash imaginable, floating in the Pacific Ocean about halfway between Hawaii and San Francisco. The ocean's swirling currents have pushed the piles of debris, accumulated detritus of sea vessels and decades of under-the-radar ocean dumping, together in loose configurations just below the water's surface.
While nobody knows for sure where it came from or how to clean it up, the sheer size of the Garbage Patch has attracted attention to the world's seldom-discussed renegade waste problem. The remains of daily life are becoming a colossal problem with increasingly global implications. Some places are running out of space to put it, and others haven't even figured out how to pick it up in the first place. From toxic trash on the streets of Guiya to the mountain-sized municipal landfills in Michigan, the world is awash in waste - but not always in the places you'd expect.
Take, for example, the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizer and pesticide use by farmers in the Midwest and Great Plains states has gradually raised nutrient levels in the Mississippi's muddy waters to levels so high that algal blooms have appeared in the river drainage delta. These algal blooms deplete oxygen levels in the water to the point where it can no longer sustain fish, plants and microscopic species. Ergo, the "dead zone," an area that covers nearly 7,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico.
Everybody knows chemicals dumped in the wild can cause serious problems, and keeping them stored is not necessarily much safer. For decades, Africa was a major dumping grounds for toxic wastes. Since at least the early 1970s, there have been multiple cases of illicit toxic waste disposal deals between Western companies and African countries.
In 1987, for example, two Italian waste brokers, Gianfranco Raffaeli and Renato Pent, paid a Nigerian businessman, Sunday Nana, about $100 a month to store 18,000 drums of hazardous waste on his property in Nigeria. Nigerian officials discovered a cache of the illegal toxic waste, which contained high levels of PCB and dioxins, stored at the port of Koko.
Regardless of how they got there, mountains of obsolete pesticides like DDT, aldrin and chlordane remain stockpiled in poorly maintained storage facilities across much of Africa. Mali and Botswana have reported especially large stockpiles of industrial chemicals discarded as long as 40 years ago.
While some countries address legacy problems like abandoned pesticides, other countries are busy creating new ones for future generations. China and India are no exceptions.
Guiyu is a cluster of interconnected villages located about an hour's drive away from the South China Sea in the northern province of Guangdong. In the past decade, Guiyu has grown from a rice farming community to an enormous hub for recycling and disposal of electronic waste, including everything from defunct hard drives to broken television sets. The amount of e-waste that flows through the "recycling" plants of Guiya in a single year could create an acre-wide pile taller than the Statue of Liberty, according to an investigative report by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the Basel Action Network.
Truckloads of printers, fax machines, hard drives and all kinds of defunct electronics arrive daily in Guiyu from warehouses in the port of Nanhai, where the imported waste comes ashore in sea-going containers. Roughly half these computers and electronic components are recycled; the rest are dumped. Nobody knows for sure, but evidence suggests most of the discarded components are dumped locally, despite the substantial risk that the waste, laden with toxic lead, mercury and cadmium, will contaminate local soil and water supplies.
Although Chinese officials have recently stepped up efforts to enforce a longstanding ban on e-waste imports, there has likely been more than enough damage inflicted to last generations.
The city of Alang, which sits on the western coast of Gulf of Cambay in western India, is the largest ship-scrapping yard in the world. A ship that would cost millions to demolish in North America is worth millions in a place like Alang. The Alang shipyards dismantle hundreds of massive vessels from all over the world every year. Old ships are run ashore during high tide on a roughly six-mile-long stretch of beach; later, when the tide recedes, thousands of low-wage workers descend on them and use crude tools to strip them apart. The industry provides 30,000 jobs in Alang and produces millions of tons of recycled steel every year.
But that isn't all it produces. Old ships are, more often than not, chock full of toxic chemicals, like insulation with asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls in hoses, foam insulation and paint. In addition, most ships contain huge quantities of heavy metals like lead, mercury and cadmium. If ships are not properly dismantled, they contaminate the area where they are broken down.
Although India has wrestled the shipbreaking business from yards in Europe and North America by effectively eliminating high-priced environmental safeguards, Bangladesh is now capturing more of India's business by lowering environmental standards even more dramatically.
These kinds of competing regulatory systems have reinforced a race-to-the-bottom dynamic in the waste trade, which all too often champions disposal sites with poor environmental practices. The global trade in trash rose from 2 million tons to more than 8.5 million tons between 1993 and 2001, according to data collected by the Basel Convention. And not all of those sites are outside U.S. borders. In Pictures: Inside the world's superdumps
For example, two mega-sized landfills in Michigan - Carleton Farms in New Boston and Pine Tree Acres, slightly north of Detroit - have cornered the the waste disposal market in the Canadian province of Ontario. Michigan requires operators to maintain landfills for 30 years after they close, while Canada requires operators to monitor landfills for at least a century, and in a few cases, forever. The result: In 2006, it cost roughly $100 (U.S.) to dispose of a ton of trash in Ontario, but only $10 to dispose of the same ton of trash across the border in the U.S. Michigan landfills receive enough Canadian garbage annually to fill a football stadium.
"We love Canadian garbage," Norm Folson, site manager at the Pine Tree Acres Landfill in northeast Detroit, told a reporter from Canadian Architect recently. "Tipping fees pay our salaries and pave our roads. To us, Canadian garbage is like gold."
Asia goes on a bargain hunt for resources
By Miyoung Kim and Joseph ChaneyReuters
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
SEOUL: A collapse in commodity prices as a result of the global financial turmoil is a blessing for Asia, whose huge appetite for natural resources has prompted cash-rich companies to go bargain hunting.
Analysts say Asia's hunger for resource assets, despite the financial crisis, shows that companies are prepared to risk further commodity price downside to secure raw material supplies to power economic growth that is still significantly faster than in the United States and Western Europe.
Shares in Santos, an Australian oil and natural gas company, jumped Monday after a report that China National Petroleum Corp., the parent of the top Asian oil and natural gas producer, PetroChina, might team up with a foreign partner to buy Santos.
On Tuesday, people with direct knowledge of the situation said Oz Minerals, a leading zinc miner, was attracting the interest of Chinese metals companies, including Citic Resources, Minmetals and Aluminum Corp. of China, which is also known as Chinalco.
"There are a number of companies that are distressed and that will have to sell assets," said Patrick Loftus-Hills, managing director of UBS Investment Bank and joint head of the Asia industrials group.
"From the Asian perspective, in Japan, Korea, China and India, there is still money available for those that want to do deals," he said. "Matching companies with balance sheet issues with those that have money is how many of us are spending the majority of our days."
The Japanese trading house Itochu, for example, said in October that it and six Asian steel makers would spend more than $3 billion to acquire a 40 percent stake in the Brazilian iron ore miner Namisa as they sought a stable supply of raw materials.
A month later, South Korea, which is poor in natural resources, offered $1 billion of financing to the Brazilian iron ore minor Vale do Rio Doce to bolster its interest in overseas mining projects.
While the Asian appetite for resource assets will grow, some analysts say tight credit markets and sellers' reluctance to part with assets at low prices may trim the number of huge deals and longer negotiations.
The recent abandonment by BHP, the world's top miner, of its hostile $66 billion bid for Rio Tinto highlights the increased risk of buying a highly indebted firm in a market downturn as well as a tendency for predators to be more selective.
Sharply reduced valuations - BHP's all-share offer slumped by two-thirds from its $193 billion peak - indicate that buyers and sellers will find it tough to narrow the price gap in volatile market conditions.
"China Inc. is cashed up in dollars," said Clarke Wilkins, an analyst with Citigroup, "and like many investors appears unwilling to catch a falling knife."
Some bankers predict that China, which has seen stakes in the private equity firm Blackstone Group and Morgan Stanley slump in value, is encouraging state-backed companies to wait until markets cool in 2009.
In Japan, whose trading companies are leading an overseas push, major companies like Mitsubishi are turning cautious and reviewing investment plans as they worry about a large appraisal loss as a result of a tumble in the value of resource investments.
Despite the risks, some aggressive bettors continue to increase their investments.
Chinalco said it would increase its stake in Rio Tinto to at least 14.99 percent, and the South Korean steel maker Posco raised its stake in the Australian iron ore miner Murchison Metals to above 12 percent as Murchison's shares dropped to below 1 Australian dollar, or 65 cents, from nearly 5 dollars in May.
Other companies see themselves as "saving" assets from strugglers, despite the difficulties faced in pricing a deal.
Last month, Sumitomo, the Japanese trading company, agreed to buy Apex Silver Mines's interest in a Bolivian zinc, copper and lead mine for $22.5 million. Apex shares have slumped to 60 cents from the close last year of $15.24.
"The Japanese will be very active," said Loftus-Hills, the UBS executive.
"The difference between the Japanese and Chinese is that the Japanese have been doing this for a long time. You'd never know it, but they have stakes in major assets all over the world. For the Chinese, the question is: Do we do it like the Japanese, or do we want control?"
Thomas L. Friedman: While Detroit slept
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
As I think about the U.S. government bailing out Detroit, I can't help but reflect on what, in my view, is the most important rule of business in today's integrated and digitized global market, where knowledge and innovation tools are so widely distributed.
It's this: Whatever can be done, will be done. The only question is will it be done by you or to you. Just don't think it won't be done. If you have an idea in Detroit or Tennessee, promise me that you'll pursue it, because someone in Denmark or Tel Aviv will do so a second later.
Why do I bring this up? Because someone in the mobility business in Denmark and Tel Aviv is already developing a real-world alternative to Detroit's business model. I don't know if this alternative to gasoline-powered cars will work, but I do know that it can be done - and Detroit isn't doing it. And therefore it will be done, and eventually, I bet, it will be done profitably.
And when it is, America's bailout of Detroit will be remembered as the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into the CD music business on the eve of the birth of the iPod and iTunes. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into a book-store chain on the eve of the birth of Amazon.com and the Kindle. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into improving typewriters on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet.
What business model am I talking about? It is Shai Agassi's electric car network company, called Better Place. Just last week, the company, based in Palo Alto, California, announced a partnership with the state of Hawaii to road test its business plan there after already inking similar deals with Israel, Australia, the San Francisco Bay area and, yes, Denmark.
The Better Place electric car charging system involves generating electrons from as much renewable energy - such as wind and solar - as possible and then feeding those clean electrons into a national electric car charging infrastructure. This consists of electricity charging spots with plug-in outlets - the first pilots were opened in Israel this week - plus battery-exchange stations all over the respective country. The whole system is then coordinated by a service control center that integrates and does the billing.
Under the Better Place model, consumers can either buy or lease an electric car from the French automaker Renault or Japanese companies like Nissan (General Motors snubbed Agassi) and then buy miles on their electric car batteries from Better Place the way you now buy an Apple cellphone and the minutes from another telecommunications operator . That way Better Place, or any car company that partners with it, benefits from each mile you drive. GM sells cars. Better Place is selling mobility miles.
The first Renault and Nissan electric cars are scheduled to hit Denmark and Israel in 2011, when the whole system should be up and running. On Tuesday, Japan's Ministry of Environment invited Better Place to join the first government-led electric car project along with Honda, Mitsubishi and Subaru. Better Place was the only foreign company invited to participate, working with Japan's leading auto companies, to build a battery swap station for electric cars in Yokohama, the Detroit of Japan.
What I find exciting about Better Place is that it is building a car company off the new industrial platform of the 21st century, not the one from the 20th - the exact same way that Steve Jobs did to overturn the music business.
What did Apple understand first? One, that today's technology platform would allow anyone with a computer to record music. Two, that the Internet and MP3 players would allow anyone to transfer music in digital form to anyone else. You wouldn't need CDs or record companies anymore. Apple simply took all those innovations and integrated them into a single music-generating, purchasing and listening system that completely disrupted the music business.
What Agassi, the founder of Better Place, is saying is that there is a new way to generate mobility, not just music, using the same platform. It just takes the right kind of auto battery - the iPod in this story - and the right kind of national plug-in network - the iTunes store - to make the business model work for electric cars at six cents a mile. The average American is paying today around 12 cents a mile for gasoline transportation, which also adds to global warming and strengthens petro-dictators.
Do not expect this innovation to come out of Detroit. Remember, in 1908, the Ford Model-T got better mileage - 25 miles per gallon - than many Ford, GM and Chrysler models made in 2008. But don't be surprised when it comes out of somewhere else. It can be done. It will be done.
If we Americans miss the chance to win the race for Car 2.0 because we keep mindlessly bailing out Car 1.0, there will be no one to blame more than Detroit's new shareholders: we the taxpayers.
RWE takes stake in planned UK carbon capture project
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
LONDON: Germany's RWE has taken a controlling stake in a British carbon capture and storage (CCS) project, its local subsidiary said on Wednesday.
RWE npower bought a 75 percent stake in Peel Energy CCS, a joint venture between Peel Energy and Denmark's Dong Energy, which plans to develop a CCS plant of up to 400 megawatt if it wins British government support to build such a facility.
The plant should be up and running by 2014.
RWE npower did not disclose how much it was to pay for the stake, or the investment required for the CCS project.
Last month, a PWC report found RWE was the top overall emitter of planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2007 among Europe's electricity producers.
"Clean coal generation is vital...to reconcile the often conflicting interests of security, environment and affordability, given the impending closure of many of our older power stations," RWE npower CEO Andrew Duff said.
"If carbon capture and storage can be proven at an industrial scale it would have major benefits, not just in the UK but also abroad...and may create opportunities for UK industry in the export of this technology, globally," he said.
Peel Energy is a unit of Peel Holdings, a leading UK real estate, transport and infrastructure investment company.
RWE npower has already commissioned a separate CCS test facility at its Didcot coal-fired power station in Oxfordshire.
It is also due to begin construction of a CCS pilot plant at its Aberthaw coal-fired station in Wales next year. The plant, due to be completed in 2010 would be the first to capture CO2 direct from a commercially operating power station in the UK.
(Reporting by Nao Nakanishi)
U.S. gasoline use to decline most since 1979-80
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
WASHINGTON: U.S. gasoline demand is expected to decline more sharply this year and next than in any other two-year period since 1979-1980, the federal Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday.
Hit by high pump prices in the first half of 2008 and the weak economy, America's gasoline consumption will decline this year by 320,000 barrels per day, or 3.4 percent, and another 50,000 barrels per day, or 0.6 percent, in 2009, the Energy Department's analytical arm estimated.
In its weekly review of the oil market, the EIA said although the U.S. economy grew in 1979 and 2007, the number of vehicle miles travelled declined in both those years in response to huge increases in fuel prices.
The jump in gasoline costs also contributed to the economic slowdowns that followed each period, the agency said.
In 1980, gasoline demand fell by the largest volume ever, 455,000 barrels per day, and by the biggest proportion, down 6.5 percent, the agency said.
An economic recession then followed during the 1981-82 period, according to the EIA.
(Reporting by Tom Doggett; Editing by David Gregorio)
Kouchner admits to clash between rights and policy
By Steven Erlanger
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
PARIS: The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, made his reputation as a fierce proponent of human rights, founding Médecins Sans Frontières and famously helping to carry rice up the beach in Mogadishu, Somalia, in the middle of intense civil warfare in 1992.
Kouchner, a Socialist, shocked many supporters when he agreed to join the center-right cabinet of President Nicolas Sarkozy. But he shocked them again Wednesday when he admitted in an interview that "there is permanent contradiction between human rights and the foreign policy of a state, even in France."
Speaking to the newspaper Le Parisien on Wednesday for the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Kouchner said that "one cannot decide the foreign policy of a country only as a function of human rights. To lead a country obviously distances one from a certain utopianism" - in French, "angélisme."
Kouchner, 69, who is known for his frankness and his emotional politics, also said that he had made a mistake in asking Sarkozy to name a minister of state for human rights in the Foreign Ministry. Sarkozy granted that request, and Rama Yade, 32, a Senegal-born French lawyer, was given the job.
But it was all a mistake, Kouchner said. "I think I was wrong to ask for a secretary of state for human rights," he said. The contradiction between human rights and foreign policy can be productive, he said, "but was it necessary to give it a governmental character by creating a secretary of state?" He answered: "I no longer believe so and it was an error on my part to propose it to the president." Yade, he said, "has done, with talent, as well as she could."
Yade said later that she was not naïve enough to think that foreign policy "is constructed simply on the values" of human rights, but she said that "France has not renounced its role as the country of human rights" and that the French people "know that human rights serve a purpose."
Others were quick to defend the job, including the leader of the party's deputies in the National Assembly, Jean-François Copé, who said the job was useful.
Hélène Flautre, a Green European legislator who heads that Parliament's human rights commission, blasted Kouchner, calling his remarks "intolerable" and "scandalous."
Despite arrests, doubts persist on Pakistan's resolve
By Jane Perlez
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
ISLAMABAD: In the wake of efforts to curb militants like Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group suspected of conducting the Mumbai attacks, questions remained about how far the Pakistani government would go to rein in these groups.
Details of exactly what the government has actually done are unclear. Some of the groups have functioned as an arm of Pakistan's military and intelligence services for two decades.
This week, the authorities raided some of the militants' properties and arrested about 20 members, security officials said.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said Wednesday that Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of another militant group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, had been arrested.
Bush administration officials publicly praised the steps, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, demanded during their visits to the region last week.
The Indian police on Wednesday identified the key trainers of the 10 gunmen in the Mumbai attacks as Zaki ur-Rahman Lakhvi, Abu Hamza and a man known only as Khafa. All three are leading members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, said Rakesh Maria, the Mumbai joint police commissioner.
Lakhvi, who has been mentioned as a key figure in the plot, "planned out this whole thing," and was present throughout the men's training, Maria said.
Abu Hamza provided maritime training, along with lessons in explosives and weapons, and Khafa was a mentor, who worked closely with the gunmen and helped familiarize them with their targets, Maria said.
During their training, the 10 men also got a motivational talk from Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, the Lashkar founder, Maria said, and there were more than three people involved in training them. But Lakhvi appears to have been the key figure throughout the preparations for the assault.
He traveled with the gunmen to the Pakistani coast before they left for Mumbai and "bid farewell to them as they left Karachi," Maria said.
The Pakistani prime minister said Lakhvi and another militant, Zarrar Shah, had been arrested, Reuters reported. "They have been detained for investigation," Gilani said at a news conference in Punjab Province.
American counterterrorism officials in Washington have struck a skeptical tone, saying that they wanted to see proof that Lakhvi was actually in custody and that the arrests and raids actually represented a firm commitment by the government to crack down on the groups. The officials spoke before the prime minister's comments on Wednesday.
"In the past when they've promised to move against these guys, they'd pick up one or two of them and then several months later, they'd release them," said a senior U.S. official who has dealt with the Pakistani authorities for several years.
"Based on past patterns, we shouldn't expect much of this," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the case.
Administration officials said they were watching India's reaction to Pakistan's words and deeds to gauge whether the raids and arrests would ease tensions between the countries.
"There's a practical part of this - will these arrests lead to preventing further attacks and bringing people to justice," one senior administration official said, "and there's a political dimension - to what extent does this lower tensions between the two countries."
Pakistani officials have indicated in the past few days that there were no plans for a large-scale crackdown on Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group founded in the 1980s by the Pakistani Army to fight a proxy war against India in Kashmir.
The group's name means army of the pure.
Such a crackdown would run counter to popular sentiment and would appear to be at the behest of India and the United States, a politically unpalatable perception for Pakistan's government.
The Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, said Tuesday that those detained so far would not be extradited to India. "They are Pakistani citizens and will be dealt with according to the law of the land," he said.
Qureshi said Pakistan had offered India the chance to carry out a joint investigation of the terrorist attacks but had not yet received a reply.
Under pressure from the United States, Pakistan banned Lashkar in 2002 after it was accused of orchestrating an attack against the Indian Parliament.
But the Pakistani Army and its premier spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, has kept the group alive, regarding Lashkar fighters as reservists who could be called on according to need, the diplomats said.
It would be difficult, they said, for the army, the most powerful institution in Pakistan, to quickly abandon its policy of nurturing militants, even after the embarrassment of the Mumbai siege.
"The agenda of the establishment is to find a way out of this morass with the least damage to the institutions of the army and the ISI," a Pakistani politician said on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. Zardari, the politician said, had a different agenda of "pleasing the Americans."
The United States has said that it cannot discern the involvement of the Pakistani military in the planning and operation of the Mumbai attacks.
Rather, it appeared that the assaults presented a predicament for Pakistan's military because they showed that a group that had been protected had gotten out of control, said a Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity according to diplomatic custom.
"Pakistan needs to make a profound change in its attitude to Lashkar-e-Taiba, and that doesn't seem to have happened yet," the Western diplomat said.
An important sign of whether Pakistan was serious in shutting down Lashkar would be if the group were demobilized by the government, and its fighters given alternative employment, experts on jihadist groups said.
After the ban in 2002, the United States and Britain tried to persuade Pakistan to demobilize the fighters but failed to do so, the experts said. Instead thousands of members were rounded up and then quietly released.
The groups were then offered a trade-off, the diplomats said. They were directed to slow down their militant activities against the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir but were allowed to transfer their assets to Pakistan's tribal areas. There, some Lashkar members have worked alongside the Pakistani Taliban, the diplomats said.
Since the start of the current roundup of Lashkar members, the group's founder, Saeed, has not been arrested. He remains at his headquarters in Lahore, where he gave the sermon at Friday prayers last week.
Saeed, a firebrand speaker who laces his speeches with anti-Semitic and anti-Indian statements, now calls himself the leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charity that is Lashkar's parent.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Robert F. Worth from Mumbai.
Pakistan arrests met with Indian mistrust
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
By Simon Cameron-Moore
Pakistan confirmed on Wednesday the arrest of two men named by India as planners of the militant attack on Mumbai, but a senior Indian official described Pakistani actions so far as "eyewash."
Two operations commanders with the Lashkar-e-Taiba jihadi group, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Zarrar Shah were being held, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told journalists in Multan city.
"They have been detained for investigation," he said, providing the first official confirmation since Lakhvi's arrest in a raid on a Lashkar camp in Pakistani Kashmir Sunday.
India has put the official death toll in the Mumbai attack at 179, and public anger with Pakistan is running high.
The United States has engaged in intensive diplomacy to stop tensions mounting between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan and keep Islamabad focussed on fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda threat on its border with Afghanistan.
While other media have reported up to 40 people had been arrested, Pakistani intelligence officials told Reuters only around a dozen people have been detained, mostly in the raid on a camp outside Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir.
Pakistan military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said an operation against banned militant organizations remained underway, and was being carried out in several places.
The prime minister said he had no up-to-date information on whether Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammad militant group, was also detained, as some media have reported.
Pakistan has been advised by the United States to take swift, transparent action to cooperate with India in the investigation into the slaughter in India's financial capital.
Islamabad, however, has said anyone arrested and accused of involvement in the Mumbai attack will be tried in Pakistan.
Scepticism abounds in India over the sincerity of Pakistan's actions because of alleged past ties between the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and groups like Lashkar and Jaish that had fought Indian rule in Kashmir.
"This is an eyewash. We want action that meets our concern," a senior Indian government official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters.
"There is no modicum of doubt about the complicity of elements of Pakistan, including the ISI," the official said.
America's top military office, Adm. Mike Mullen, called the arrests a positive step but urged Pakistan to do more to address the militant threat from its soil.
"We measure by deeds," Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon. "It remains very important that the government of Pakistan take not just the steps they've taken but the steps that they need to continue to take to root this out so it doesn't happen again."
A Pakistani daily, The News, reported Tuesday there were also arrests made and records seized during raids on offices of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) charity in the Mansehra and Chakdra districts of North West Frontier Province.
The charity, which has thousands of followers, is widely regarded as a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba.
MORE SUICIDE SQUADS OUT THERE?
Having interrogated one gunman caught alive, Indian police have released names and photographs of the nine shot dead in the three-day assault, and revealed where they came from in Pakistan.
They were part of a group of 30 trained for suicide missions, a top police officer said.
"The other 20 were trained to carry out other missions. They did not come to India, they must have gone elsewhere," Deven Bharti, a deputy police commissioner, told Reuters on Wednesday.
Investigations into possible links with home-grown Indian Islamist militants have focussed on five suspects.
Police were following up leads related to two Indian Muslims caught in northern India in February. One had maps of Mumbai that highlighted several city landmarks hit in the attack.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said there was no doubt the militants behind the attack operated from Pakistan.
Neither Azhar nor his Jaish group have been mentioned as suspects in the attack on Mumbai.
But Azhar is one of the most-wanted men in India, and was on a list of 20 militants and criminals New Delhi asked Pakistan to hand over in the wake of the attacks to show its cooperation.
Representatives of the Azhar family and intelligence officials told Reuters Tuesday that media reports the jihadi leader was under house arrest were incorrect.
Confusion over his status was sown by Pakistan's Defence Minister Chaudhry Mukhtar Ahmed in comments to the Indian news channel CNN-IBN, and a report in The News daily.
Chaudhry told Reuters he had not been confirming anyone's arrest, but merely repeating names already in the media.
(Additional reporting by Asim Tanveer in Multan, Augustine Anthony in Islamabad, Rina Chandran in Mumbai, Alistair Scrutton in New Delhi; Editing by Jerry Norton)
Mother in India claims to be oldest
The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
An Indian woman who says she is about 70 years old has given birth to her first child, her doctor said Tuesday. The woman, Rajo Devi, delivered a girl by Caesarean section last month, said Dr. Anurag Bishnoi of the National Fertility Center in northern Haryana State. The girl, conceived through in vitro fertilization, was born Nov. 28 and was in good condition, the doctor said. It is impossible to verify whether Devi is the world's oldest woman to give birth as she has no birth certificate.
Devi, from a village north of New Delhi, says she is about 70 and her husband, a farmer, around 72. She said that after being childless during 55 years of marriage, they received in vitro treatment in April. "I'm happy," Devi said in a telephone interview. "The baby is doing well."
U.S. forces kill Afghan policemen and civilian in error
By Kirk Semple
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
KABUL: American forces killed six Afghan police officers and one civilian Wednesday during an assault on the hideout of a suspected Taliban commander, the authorities said, in what a senior U.S. military spokesman called a "tragic case of mistaken identity."
Thirteen Afghan security officers were also wounded in the incident.
A statement issued jointly by the U.S. and Afghan military commands said a contingent of police officers had fired on U.S. soldiers after the Americans had successfully overrun the hideout, killing the suspected Taliban commander and detaining another man.
The statement said the Americans had already entered the hideout, a building in Qalat District in Zabul Province, when they came under attack by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades from "a compound nearby."
"Multiple attempts to deter the engagement were unsuccessful," the statement said.
The Americans, concerned about women and children hiding in the building, decided to return fire using small arms and aircraft, the statement said, offering no further details about the level of force the Americans had employed.
After the firefight, the Americans discovered they had been shooting at Afghan police officers, the statement said.
But the deputy police chief of Qalat District said the police officers had been in a police station when they came under fire, which destroyed the building.
The official, Jailoni Khan Farahi, also said that the firing against the Americans had not originated from the police station but from a nearby building.
He said he did not know who was occupying the building at the time.
"Coalition forces deeply regret the incident of mistaken fire," said Colonel Jerry O'Hara, an American military spokesman. "Initial reports indicate this was a tragic case of mistaken identity on both parts."
Zabul's governor, Delbar Jan Arman, said a joint Afghan and U.S. delegation of military and civilian officials was going to the scene to conduct an investigation.
Khalid Fazly contributed reporting.
Indian bus fire kills 63 Hindu pilgrims
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
LUCKNOW: Sixty-three people were burnt alive when a bus packed with Hindu pilgrims caught fire in northern India, police said on Wednesday.
The bus was travelling on Tuesday evening on a national highway near Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal.
The victims, including 17 children, were returning from a Hindu pilgrimage in the town of Mathura.
"The bus was carrying more than 90 passengers of which 61 were inside," Agra deputy inspector general of police N.P.Srivastava told Reuters by telephone.
"The rest had perched themselves on the roof-top , when the bus suddenly went ablaze. While the ones on the rooftop managed to jump off and save their lives, those inside lost their lives." Police said the fire was caused by a mechanical fault.
(Editing by Alistair Scrutton)
The Arab world's dirty secret
By Mona Eltahawy
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
NEW YORK: I was on my way home on the Cairo Metro, lost in thought as I listened to music when I noticed a young Egyptian taunting a Sudanese girl. She reached out and tried to grab the girl's nose and laughed when the girl tried to brush her hand away.
The Sudanese girl looked to be Dinka, from southern Sudan and not the northern Sudanese who "look like us." She was obviously in distress.
I removed my headphones and asked the Egyptian woman "Why are you treating her like that?"
She exploded into a tornado of yelling, demanding to know why it was my business. I told her it was my business because as an Egyptian and as a Muslim who was riding the Metro, her behavior was wrong and I would not stay silent about it. I knew she was Muslim because she wore a scarf.
I told her that the way she was treating the Sudanese girl made the scarf on her head meaningless. Her mother asked me why I didn't cover my hair and I replied that I didn't want to be a hypocrite like her and her daughter.
As distressing as I found that young woman's behavior, I was even more distressed that the other women in the Metro car watched and said nothing. They made no attempt to defend the Sudanese girl nor to defend me when I confronted the Egyptian woman.
After the Egyptian woman got off at her station, I asked the other women why they didn't do anything. One woman said she stayed silent because the racist woman would've yelled at her. So what, I asked? If enough of the women had confronted her, she would have been outnumbered.
I apologized to the Sudanese girl for the Egyptian woman's behavior and she thanked me and told me "Egyptians are bad." I could only imagine other times she'd been abused publicly.
We are a racist people in Egypt and we are in deep denial about it. On my Facebook page, I blamed racism for my argument and an Egyptian man wrote to deny that we are racists and used as his proof a program on Egyptian Radio featuring Sudanese songs and poetry!
Our silence over racism not only destroys the warmth and hospitality we are proud of as Egyptians, it has deadly consequences.
What else but racism on Dec. 30, 2005, allowed hundreds of riot policemen to storm through a makeshift camp in central Cairo to clear it of 2,500 Sudanese refugees, trampling or beating to death 28 people, among them women and children?
What else but racism lies behind the bloody statistics at the Egyptian border with Israel where, since 2007, Egyptian guards have killed at least 33 migrants, many from Sudan's Darfur region, including a pregnant woman and a 7-year-old girl?
The racism I saw on the Cairo Metro has an echo in the Arab world at large, where the suffering in Darfur goes ignored because its victims are black and because those who are creating the misery in Darfur are not Americans or Israelis and we only pay attention when America and Israel behave badly.
We love to cry "Islamophobia" when we talk about the way Muslim minorities are treated in the West and yet we never stop to consider how we treat minorities and the most vulnerable among us.
The U.S. television network ABC recently staged a scenario in which an actor worked in a bakery in Texas and refused to serve an actress dressed as a Muslim woman in a headscarf. The scene was an experiment to see if other customers would help the Muslim woman.
Thirteen customers defended her by yelling at the clerk, asking for the manager or walking out in disgust. Six customers supported the bigoted clerk and 22 looked away and did absolutely nothing.
I wonder now which Egyptian television channel would dare to stage such an experiment? And which Arab television channel would dare to stage a program that so boldly confronts us with the question "what would you do?"
For those of us who move between different worlds - where one day we are a majority as I am as a Sunni Muslim in Egypt and another we are a minority as I am as a Muslim in America - it is clear that to defend the rights of a Sudanese girl on the Cairo Metro means to defend my right on the New York Subway.
We live in a world that is connected in unprecedented ways. And that connection now extends to rights. If we want our rights to be respected we must do the right thing, everywhere.
Mona Eltahawy is a columnist for Egypt's Al Masry Al Youm and Qatar's Al Arab. She is based in New York.
Inspired by Obama, black Iraqis run for office
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
By Mohammed Abbas
Barack Obama's election in the United States has already had an impact in Iraq, inspiring some black Iraqis to run in a forthcoming election in the hope of ending what they call centuries of discrimination.
"Obama's win gave us moral strength," said Jalal Chijeel, secretary of the Free Iraqi Movement.
He said the group would be the first to field black candidates in any Iraqi poll when it joins provincial elections scheduled for January 31.
President-elect Obama's ascendancy in the United States has coincided with increased public support for their cause: "When he became a candidate, so did we," Chijeel told Reuters.
He argues Iraqis of African origin are not represented in top office, suffer disproportionately from poverty and illiteracy and are commonly referred to in derisive terms.
Other Iraqis see no discrimination against Iraqis of African-origin, whose number is unclear given a lack of statistics. Chijeel said there were some 300,000 in the southern city of Basra alone.
This January's provincial election will be the first to be organized by Iraq and held under Iraqi laws since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 overthrew Saddam Hussein, and will be followed by national elections later in 2009.
As such it could be a crucial step to reconciling the country's sectarian and ethnic groups after years of bloodshed.
Black people in Iraq suffer discrimination partly because of their colour, and also partly because they do not belong to a tribe, Chijeel said. Tribal family networks and ancestry are important in Iraq and much of the Middle East.
The movement's eight candidates could suffer a backlash from their lighter-skinned countrymen, who respond with indignation to charges of racism and say blacks are treated with respect. They argue electioneering based on race is divisive.
Even fellow blacks in Basra's largely black district of Zubayr, where young men stood chatting and a boy herded sheep across the road, voiced reservations.
"There's no discrimination," said black shop worker Mohammed Nezal, sharing a view echoed mostly by older men, as they sat fingering worry-beads. "There's so many blacks that have done well in Iraq. There's respect."
THE "A" WORD
Chijeel argues that blacks in Iraq are subordinated, partly by a history of slavery.
"To this day blacks are not given their rights," he said. "We don't see blacks in local councils, in parliament or cabinet or as ambassadors ... We have educated people, doctors, graduates, but to our great regret we still have no importance."
In Zubayr -- dusty and poor, like most Basra neighbourhoods -- Salim Hussein stood chatting in the street with friends: "The people here don't treat us any differently. But look with your own eyes. Do you see a single black person with a decent job?"
During a five-day visit to Basra, Reuters mostly saw black people working as domestic help and car cleaners.
The Free Iraqi Movement's electoral candidates are teachers, engineers and office workers. They insist they are not a special interest group and want to tackle problems faced by all, such as unemployment.
For a brief period, long ago, blacks once controlled Iraq's south: there was a revolt in 869 AD by East Africans brought by landowners in Basra to work as slaves, draining marshes in the hot and humid south.
The rebels eventually took Basra and even parts of Iran. But by 883 AD the uprising was crushed, its leader's head delivered to the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad.
"From that time till now, the black has had no senior role in society," Chijeel said. "They suffered as slaves or servants, and worse. They did the most despised jobs."
As is often the case, language is a core of the problem.
The word "abd" is Arabic for slave, and even though slavery was abolished in Iraq in 1924, it persisted for many years and many people continue to use "abd" to describe a black person.
Those who use the word say they mean no insult and use it only as a descriptive term.
Muddying the debate is the fact that some Iraqis are as dark-skinned as those of African origin. For some for whom colour is irrelevant, ancestry and tribe is paramount and unknown lineage or having a slave ancestor is unacceptable.
"I would never allow my daughters to marry an 'abd' ... Who's their tribe? Do they know who their forefathers are?" said one dark-skinned Iraqi man who declined to be named.
The Free Iraqi Movement wants the word "abd" to be banned.
The group also wants blacks to be a considered a minority, a status which gives some benefit to Iraq's Christians, Turkmen, Yazidis and Shabaks, who by their similar physical appearance to the Iraqi majority are less obviously different than blacks.
"Our fundamental demands are to be considered a minority, to have a paragraph in the constitution protecting black people and punish those who use the word 'abd' as defamation, and we want an apology for the crimes of the past," Chijeel said.
While these demands are unlikely to be achievable at the local level, wins for the Free Iraqi Movement in the January provincial polls could give momentum for a later parliamentary vote.
Younger blacks in Zubayr voiced support for the movement, some citing Obama's success.
"The racism is not obvious, but you feel it. I have a qualification, my Arab friend has the same qualification. He gets the job and I don't," said Mohened Omran.
Lighter-skinned Iraqis interviewed on Basra's streets saw the Free Iraqi Movement and its demands as introducing discrimination into a colour-blind society.
"The blacks are our friends and are Iraqis. There's no difference between us. This movement is in fact racist," said Farhan al-Hajaj, an engineer out shopping.
Basra University history professor Hamid Hamdan told Reuters intermarriage is common, as are highly educated blacks in top jobs. The Free Iraqi Movement is simply jumping on the bandwagon of sectarianism and ethnic fracture engendered by years of war.
"This is opportunism ... Now that there's sectarianism and ethnic differentiation, some people think they can use this to achieve a specific aim," he said, adding that though slang, "abd" is used by most Iraqis to simply mean black person.
Chijeel said you would have to be black to understand.
"This word describes a person as a slave, someone with no free will, no dignity, no humanity. There's no worse word ... Black people feel this. Others do not."
(Editing by Catherine Bosley and Sara Ledwith)
Fugitive Sunni leader thought to have been captured or killed in Syria
By Graham Bowley and Souad Mekhennet
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
The fugitive leader of a Sunni extremist group who led a prolonged standoff against the Lebanese Army last year at a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, Lebanon, may have been killed or captured in Syria, according to a statement posted by the group on militant Web sites.
During the summer of 2007, the Lebanese Army battled fighters from the militant group, Fatah al-Islam, which claims to have allegiances with Al Qaeda in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp.
While the army routed the group and nearly leveled the camp, the group's leader, Shaker al-Absi, was never caught. In the statement, posted on Web sites on Dec. 8, the group said that Absi had fled to Syria, where he tried to rebuild his organization, but that he and two companions were ambushed by what it called Syrian security agents as they were traveling to meet supporters. Absi may have died in the resulting firefight, the Fatah al-Islam statement said.
The group named Abu Muhammad Awad as his successor, the statement said.
"Up to this moment, we have no knowledge, even though we are inclined to think they died," said the statement, which was provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that monitors militant Web sites. "Yet, we have no evidence that proves this matter to us."
The authenticity of the statement could not immediately be verified. A senior Syrian security official could not confirm Absi's death or capture.
After the standoff in the camp, Lebanese officials said they believed Absi had died in the final hours of the 15-week battle, but DNA testing of the body thought to be Absi's proved negative, and a captured member of his group told officials he had escaped the night before the army's final assault.
Tensions have lingered in Tripoli since the battle at the camp, and many in the city believe a series of attacks on the Lebanese Army this year were meant to avenge the Fatah al Islam militants killed in the 2007 fighting. In August, a bomb hidden in a briefcase tore through a bus packed with soldiers on their way to work, killing 15 people, including nine soldiers, and in September, a remotely detonated car bomb exploded near another bus carrying army troops, killing four soldiers and a civilian.
A bombing in September in the Syrian capital Damascus, which killed 17 people and was the deadliest attack in Syria since the 1980s, was blamed by the Syrian government on Fatah al Islam. Syrian state television showed what it said were 12 members of the group, including Absi's daughter, confessing that they had helped plan the attack.
Absi was convicted and sentenced to death in Jordan for helping to organize the 2002 assassination of an American diplomat, Laurence Foley. Court papers show that he worked with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who was killed in June 2006 in a bombing by United States forces in Iraq.
Absi established his group in Lebanon in 2006 with as many as 50 militants from other Arab countries who had fought American troops in Iraq.
In interviews in 2007 with The New York Times, Absi acknowledged being an associate of Zarqawi, and cast himself as a new face of Al Qaeda, saying he shared its goals of global jihad against the United States.
After fleeing the camp last year, according to the statement, Absi suffered a broken leg and he and other members of the militant group spent "about two months in a small room where they saw no sun and breathed no air from outside it" until traveling to Syria.
Graham Bowley reported from New York, and Souad Mekhennet from Frankfurt. Robert F. Worth contributed reporting from Mumbai.
Winner of Nobel Peace Prize urges action on Middle East peace
By Walter Gibbs
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
OSLO: President-elect Barack Obama should move quickly to try to resolve conflicts in the Middle East, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate for this year said Wednesday after accepting a gold medal and $1.2 million in prize money.
"The credibility of the whole international community is at stake," said Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland and a veteran United Nations mediator. "We cannot go on, year after year, simply pretending to do something to help the situation in the Middle East. We must also get results."
He urged Obama to give the region high priority in his first year in office.
"The European Union, Russia and the UN must also be seriously committed so that a solution can be found to the crises stretching from Israel and Palestine to Iraq and Iran," he said. "If we want to achieve lasting results, we must look at the whole region."
The Middle East is one of few parts of the world where Ahtisaari has not been a major player in conflict resolution, though this year he brought dozens of Iraqi Sunni and Shiite leaders to Helsinki for dialogue with "facilitators" from Northern Ireland and South Africa, where reconciliation has been partly successful.
Although he failed last year to bring Serbs and ethnic Albanians to agreement over the final status of Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia, his final recommendation to the UN Security Council became the basis for the Kosovo Assembly's unilateral declaration of independence in February.
Perhaps his greatest achievement came in the wake of a tsunami that claimed the lives of an estimated 170,000 people in the Indonesian province of Aceh on Dec. 26, 2004. Ahtisaari used the Helsinki offices of his organization, Crisis Management Initiative, to hammer out a peace deal in which the Free Aceh Movement gave up violent secessionism and accepted limited autonomy for the province.
From 1977 to 1990, Ahtisaari helped engineer Namibian independence from South Africa, and became an honorary Namibian citizen in the process."Many boys in Namibia are named Martti," said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, the outgoing chairman of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee. "That must be at least as great an honor as being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize."Katri Merikallio, the author of a book about Ahtisaari and a journalist for the Finnish newspaper Suomen Kuvalehti, said the former president embodies a stoic toughness that Finns see as their national trait."In Finnish, we have a word, 'sisu,' which could be translated as having guts or stamina," she said in Oslo. "Once you decide something, you don't give in. We define ourselves quite a lot with this term, and it applies very much to him."In his acceptance speech, Ahtisaari said that resolving the Middle East conflicts would require determination and a willingness to reach out to all parties. He proposed harnessing the religious impulses that until now have driven groups apart, and noted that religion could play a role "in peace-building."
Accidents kill 830,000 children each year
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
By Michael Kahn
Car crashes, drownings and other accidents kill 830,000 children worldwide each year, a surprisingly large figure that marks a growing but often ignored problem, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday.
The report, compiled using information from 200 experts around the world, is the first to assess the global scale of the problem and seeks to spur public health and development groups into action, officials said.
"We were surprised at how big the problem was at a global level," Etienne Krug, the WHO official who put together the report, told a news conference. "There is ignorance about the magnitude and the potential for prevention."
Africa has the highest rate overall for accidental deaths. The incidence there is 10 times higher than in high-income countries such as Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and Britain, which have the lowest rates of child injury, according to the report.
Around 95 percent of the deaths occurred in the developing world, mostly in Africa, but the problem is acute in richer nations as well where deaths from accidents disproportionately affect the poor.
In the United States, accidents involving motor vehicles killed the most children -- about 8,000 deaths each year, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said in a separate report.
It found that drowning was the leading cause of accidental death for children aged one to four.
The global report listed road crashes as the leading cause of accidental death, killing 260,000 children each year and injuring 10 million. Drowning, burns, falls and unintended poisoning round out the top five list.
About half of these deaths could be prevented by expanding the use of car seats, covering wells and pools of water in areas where children play, erecting barriers to keep young people from road construction and other proven measures, the joint report from the WHO and the United Nation's Children's Fund found.
"Poorer children have not shared in all the gains of children of wealthier nations," said Elizabeth Towner, a child health expert at the University of the West of England in Bristol, who contributed to the report. "Childhood injury is a cause of social injustice that needs to be addressed."
The WHO's Krug called on governments and health officials to tackle the problem as they would any other development issue, saying that death and disability from accidents plunge poor families further into debt and deepen a cycle of poverty.
"Every child lost to injury or severely disabled will cost the future economy of that country," the report said.
"(Reducing child injury) will reduce costs in the healthcare system, improve the capacity to make further reductions in injury rates and will most importantly protect children."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Maggie Fox)
Zimbabwe cholera toll jumps
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
By MacDonald Dzirutwe
The death toll from Zimbabwe's cholera outbreak soared to nearly 800 on Wednesday and a court ordered police to find a missing rights activist, piling more pressure on President Robert Mugabe's government.
The spreading cholera, coupled with chronic food shortages, has highlighted the economic collapse of the southern African nation and prompted calls for Mugabe's resignation from Western leaders and some within Africa.
The World Health Organisation said 774 Zimbabweans had died from cholera and over 15,000 were likely infected, casting doubt on official assertions it was under control. In Mozambique, officials said four people had died of cholera in a border area near Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe's government accuses foes abroad of using the epidemic to try to oust Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, and blames Western sanctions for ruining the once relatively prosperous southern African country.
Mugabe's critics say his policies have wrecked Zimbabwe.
There is little hope of recovery while deadlock remains between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai over implementing a power-sharing deal. Recent abductions of government critics have added to doubts over the agreement.
The Zimbabwe High Court on Tuesday ordered police to find Jestina Mukoko, a former journalist and head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, taken away at gunpoint in Harare on December 3.
"We got an order from the High Court instructing police to search for her," said Otto Saki of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), which filed the court petition.
Police have said Mukoko is in not in their custody.
About 50 lawyers and rights activists marched in central Harare on Tuesday and handed a position to the speaker of parliament expressing concern at "the continued violation of human rights by the government of Zimbabwe, and its refusal to address the country's long standing human rights concerns."
Scores of opposition activists were abducted and killed in the run-up to a June presidential run-off election. MDC leader Tsvangirai boycotted the vote after the attacks, allowing Mugabe to win the one-candidate poll.
International outrage over the election spurred a round of power-sharing talks that led to a September 15 agreement to establish a unity government. That move has ground to a halt because of disagreement over control of key ministries.
MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti said the opposition would continue to negotiate with Mugabe's ZANU-PF despite attacks. He said about 30 MDC supporters and officials have been abducted in recent weeks.
"We cannot fold our hands and walk away from the agreement, given the collapse of the state and the suffering of the people. But it is extremely hard to be found on the negotiating table when our supporters are unaccounted for," Biti said.
"We will not walk away, we will look the dictator in the eye. He knows he's got a game on his hands."
ZANU-PF and the MDC are due to meet again later this month.
Tsvangirai told CNN that the cholera crisis highlighted the need for Mugabe to be more accommodating in the talks.
A unity government is widely seen as Zimbabwe's best hope of recovering. Prices double every 24 hours, the currency is worthless and much of the population has been pushed to the brink of famine.
U.S. President George W. Bush, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu are among those who have called for Mugabe to go in the past week. The African Union, however, has resisted the calls for tougher action.
(Additional reporting by Robert Evans in Geneva; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)
Sharif back in Mogadishu as death toll hits 16,210
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
By Abdi Sheikh
Somalia's moderate Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed returned to Mogadishu for the first time in two years on Wednesday and a local rights group said fighting had killed 16,210 civilians since then.
Security was tightened in the capital as Sharif, who is in talks with the country's Western-backed interim government, was rushed to a hotel in a northern district of the city surrounded by government troops and Islamist militiamen.
The U.N. special envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said Sharif's return was "most welcome," while the sight of gunmen who used to shoot at each other now working side by side cheered many of the capital's war-weary residents.
"His enemies have welcomed him as a friend today ... Sharif's presence will minimise the violence, even if it doesn't end it completely," said 44-year-old local Hassan Garaad.
"Islamists wearing turbans and soldiers with uniforms together in one place is a peaceful sign for Mogadishu."
Sharif was one of two main leaders of a sharia courts group driven from the capital by government soldiers and their Ethiopian military allies at the start of last year.
Sharif's return brought a rare ray of hope to some Somalis. But experts say he has little influence over Islamist hardliners who have steadily gained ground to control most of the south, and are camped on the outskirts of Mogadishu.
Exposing splits in the Islamist ranks, the latest battle between two rebel factions killed at least four people days ahead of a planned Ethiopian military withdrawal that could leave the capital open for an insurgent assault.
Witnesses said hardline al Shabaab fighters clashed with more moderate Islamic Courts militia on Tuesday in El Garas, 50 km (30 miles) southeast of the central town of Dusamareb. Both sides fired heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Spokesman from neither side were immediately available.
Addis Ababa has become increasingly frustrated by the financial cost, by feuding between its leaders, and the absence of a serious, international effort to pacify Somalia.
Now Ethiopia says it will pull out its troops by the end of December, leaving a probable power vacuum and more bloodshed.
The Mogadishu-based Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation has been tracking the casualties since Islamist insurgents launched a rebellion against Somalia's interim government and its Ethiopian military allies early in 2007.
Elman said 7,574 civilians had been killed so far in 2008, adding to 8,636 killed the year before. In a report, it said nearly 29,000 people had been wounded over that two-year period.
The Islamists' main weakness is the rift between hardliners such as Shabaab -- which the United States accuses of having links to al Qaeda -- and the more moderate elements such as Sharif's.
Presidential spokesman Hussein Mohamed Mohamud told Reuters Sharif was a peace-loving leader who would change the situation in the country for the better. "He will also tell the truth to Somalis who were confused and disturbed by al Shabaab," he said.
(Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Louise Ireland)
Haj nears end as pilgrims stone devil
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
By Inal Ersan
More than two million Muslims performing the haj pilgrimage entered the final stage of the rituals Wednesday, visiting the Grand Mosque in Mecca and stoning walls representing the devil one more time.
For a third day pilgrims threw stones at the Jamarat Bridge in the valley of Mena outside the Islamic holy city of Mecca, which has been the scene of numerous stampedes in past years, including one which killed 362 in 2006.
The haj also has been marred in previous years by deadly fires, hotel building collapses and police clashes with protesters. More stringent security and crowd control this year appeared to have paid dividends, though there were still lapses.
"God makes things easy. The expansions have reduced crowding a little," said Mohammad Mousa, an Egyptian teacher and father of two pushing a twin pram by a pilgrim bus.
"Praise be to God -- things are smooth, we've not heard of any incident. The flow of pilgrims is moving very well," said Saudi preacher Ali Hussein Sawadi Mashour.
Saudi Arabia, Islam's birthplace and home to its holiest sites, has erected a massive four-level building with several platforms for throwing the stones at three walls in an ancient rite marking chapters of the story of the prophet Ibrahim -- the biblical Abraham -- in Mecca and the rejection of temptation.
The unfinished bridge is now a huge air-conditioned building the size of an airport terminal. Expansions also have been made to the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Authorities have appealed to pilgrims to throw their stones at any time of day rather than only in the afternoon, as Saudi clerics often insisted in the past.
The sidewalks were filled with pilgrims who were praying, sleeping, eating, brushing their teeth or chattering ahead of the stoning ritual in the afternoon.
"I'm not scared of the crowds. I went to finish early before sunset, to leave room for other pilgrims," said Ramadan al-Habisi from Egypt.
Some people managed to enter the area to perform haj without official permits and set up makeshift camps on the road which have been a cause of overcrowding before.
"Sleeping on pavements is banned. Brothers, fathers, pilgrims -- please take a bus or walk to the tents," policemen repeatedly urged pilgrims through a loudspeaker.
One woman protested, pressing a reporter to intervene.
"Tell them to let us sleep here. It will be only a night or two, no harm done," said Sabiha, sitting on a pavement next to her son, an Egyptian who lives in Saudi Arabia and was performing haj without a permit.
At least 2.4 million worshippers from all over the world came to Mecca this year, including a record 1.72 million pilgrims from abroad, Saudi media reported.
Saudi Arabia grants haj visas to countries according to strict quotas but has increased the numbers after the expansions. Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can afford the trip must perform the haj at least once in a lifetime, which means numbers are likely to grow further in coming years.
Haj, one of the largest manifestations of religious devotion in the world, retraces the path of Prophet Mohammad 14 centuries ago after he defeated pagan forces in Mecca. Islam is now embraced by more than one billion people worldwide.
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)
Nobel laureates at U.N. hit Muslim states on rights
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
By Robert Evans
Nobel laureates from Iran and Nigeria used a United Nations forum on Wednesday to condemn hardliners in power in some Muslim countries, and rulers of the world's last communist states, as gross abusers of human rights.
The two, Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi and Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, also insisted that human rights as set out in the 1948 U.N. Declaration, were universal and could not be limited on the basis of culture or religion.
"Some people believe that the Declaration's principles are based on Western standards and are not compatible with national or religious culture. Most non-democratic Islamic governments use this reasoning," declared Ebadi.
In the Muslim world today, said Soyinka, "the fanatical, absolutist truth enforcers of our time" were responsible for bloodshed among different Islamic groups and suppression of ideas not in line with their own.
The two were delivering keynote addresses in a series of lectures marking the 60th anniversary of the 1948 declaration, whose principles many critics say are being undermined by an Islamic, African and communist bloc in the U.N. system.
The informal alliance -- joined by Russia -- is in effective control of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, where it has ensured that African and Islamic states, as well as Russia and communist-run Cuba and China, largely escape criticism.
The grouping -- which also operates in the U.N. General Assembly in New York -- has pushed through resolutions calling on states to ban "defamation of religion," which Western countries say are aimed at limiting freedom of expression.
U.S. ALSO CRITICISED
Ebadi and Soyinka also criticised the United States' reaction to the September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, saying the Bush administration had used them to violate rights by invoking national security.
But -- to a degree that surprised many diplomats and rights activists used to more cautious and bland speeches from U.N. platforms -- they each focussed separately on Islamic countries and on practices in some Muslim communities elsewhere.
"I was flabbergasted. I never expected to hear such forthright talk here," said one representative of a non- governmental organisation who has been active at the U.N. in Geneva for 30 years.
Soyinka, Nobel Literature laureate in 1986, said the "cultural relativism" many argue has become dominant in the U.N. meant that non-Muslims "are asked to accept such barbarities as honour killings as justified by tradition."
This stance -- which critics say many governments in the West are adopting to avoid upsetting vocal religious and especially Muslim minorities -- is evoked "to undermine or dismiss the universal nature of human rights," he said.
Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for promoting the rights of women and children in Iran and is at odds with its government, said Muslim dictatorships used religion to underpin their own power.
The views of "enlightened Muslims" were dismissed, and any criticism of human rights violations and oppression of the people "is treated as criticism of religion itself and human rights defenders are accused of heresy," she said.
"They say: 'Our culture does not permit the exercise of dissent, or of other views -- end of discussion," said Soyinka. "'Our culture, they tell the world, is different and our traditions sacrosanct'."
Both said the rulers of officially atheist societies -- like China and Cuba -- abused that belief system too to perpetuate their power. "Atheism and belief in god are both used as an excuse for the oppression of people," said Ebadi.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)
House passes auto rescue plan
By David M. Herszenhorn and David E. Sanger
Thursday, December 11, 2008
WASHINGTON: The House voted on Wednesday to approve a $14 billion government rescue of the American automobile industry, but the bailout plan, which would provide emergency loans to General Motors and Chrysler, was in jeopardy because of strong Republican opposition in the Senate.
The House approved the rescue plan by 237 to 170, mostly along party lines, with 32 Republicans mainly from states heavily dependent on the auto industry joining 205 Democrats in supporting the measure. Voting against were 150 Republicans and 20 Democrats.
The White House so far has failed to generate support among Senate Republicans, who have the power to kill the bill.
General Motors and Chrysler have said they cannot survive much longer without the federal aid, while Ford Motor Company, which is in better shape than its competitors, has said it will not seek the emergency loans.
As an amendment to the auto rescue plan, the House approved a measure that would require banks receiving assistance from the Treasury's $700 billion economic stabilization program to detail new lending activity each quarter.
The White House chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, attended a lunch at the Capitol with Republican senators to persuade them to back the auto rescue plan but met stiff resistance.
Some Republican senators said the automakers should be allowed to fail. Others said the proposed oversight of the rescue by a so-called car czar was too weak. Senator George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican who is one of the few outspoken Republican supporters of a taxpayer-backed rescue, emerged from the lunch sounding deeply pessimistic. Voinovich said that Senate Republicans had refused to participate in negotiations with the White House because of general opposition to an auto bailout.
"The leadership did not want to participate because they felt whatever came out of the negotiations, they probably wouldn't support," Voinovich said. He said he still intended to vote for the plan.
The Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was noncommittal. The Republicans had a "spirited" discussion about the auto rescue plan, he said, but it was too soon to take a stand because they had just received a final draft of the bill.
"Everybody's still kind of poring through it, trying to figure out exactly what it does," McConnell said. "At this particular juncture, I couldn't handicap for you the level of support that may exist in our conference. But we did begin a conferencewide learning process during the course of the last hour."
Even some auto-state lawmakers were unhappy with the bailout plan the White House helped to design. "While I am fighting to save Missouri auto jobs," said Senator Christopher Bond, Republican of Missouri, "Congress is just putting off the inevitable unless we force the companies to reform fundamentally, which this latest plan fails to do and is why I am offering changes to make it work."
A number of other Senate Republicans said they had every intention of scuttling a taxpayer-financed rescue for General Motors and Chrysler.
Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the banking committee, called the proposal "a travesty" and said that he would filibuster the bill. "This is an installment on a huge bailout that will come later," he said.
Others, while critical of the legislation, suggested there was hope of a compromise.
Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, who was working to draft alternative legislation, said the proposal put forward by the White House and congressional Democrats provided only weak authority for the car czar, who would supervise the sweeping reorganization plans that the automakers have agreed to carry out.
"I have a banking staffer who can carry out the responsibilities of this so-called czar," Corker said. "I mean it's a liaison. This person has no power."
Corker said the bill put forward by the Bush administration and Democrats and approved by the House would entangle the U.S. government in the operations of the auto companies for too long. Without substantial changes, he said, the legislation was unlikely to win passage in the Senate.
"I didn't see anybody in the group who is willing to blink," he told reporters. An aide to the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said the Democrats were trying to negotiate a deal with McConnell under which there would be several votes on measures intended to aid the auto industry including, perhaps, alternative proposals by Corker or other Republicans.
Some congressional Democrats speculated that if Senate Republicans were kill the rescue plan, the Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, Jr., would have no choice but to keep GM and Chrysler afloat, at least until the new Congress begins early next month and wider Democratic majorities are sworn into office.
In the compromise measure that emerged from negotiations with the White House, House Democrats agreed to drop a provision to force the automakers to end their legal challenges to state emissions standards, including a lawsuit in California.
In the broadest sense, the House and Senate bills provide an identical government rescue of the two most imperiled automakers, GM and Chrysler, in the form of $14 billion in emergency loans. In exchange for the loans, the auto manufacturers would have to submit to strict government oversight and carry out sweeping reorganization plans.
GM has not said how it will respond if the federal loans are not forthcoming. It is spending more than $2 billion in cash each month, and is close to falling below the minimum level of cash needed to operate.
Without immediate U.S. government assistance, GM would be in danger of not paying its suppliers, employees and creditors, and could miss interest payments on its outstanding debt. Failure to pay creditors, for example, could result in legal actions leading to a forced bankruptcy filing.
"I wouldn't like to speculate what would unfold, but suffice it to say the survival of the company as we know it would be highly questionable if we don't get some bridge loan," GM's vice chairman, Robert Lutz, said in an interview on Monday.
The bill would also give the government warrants to take an equity stake in the automakers. It would limit executive pay, bar golden-parachute severance packages and prohibit the paying of shareholder dividends while the emergency government loans were outstanding.
The bill would require the companies and their stakeholders, including creditors, labor unions and dealers to agree on sweeping reorganization plans that would lead to long-term financial viability. If they failed to agree, the auto czar would be able to impose a plan, and could also force the companies into bankruptcy if they failed to meet requirements.
The plan seeks to save the auto industry from what one senior White House official called "30 years of slow suicide."
The bill sets a March 31 deadline for the automakers to produce long-term viability plans, but it is not certain how the auto czar would determine viability. Joel Kaplan, the deputy White House chief of staff, said that "simply stated, it's that the firm will have a positive value going forward when you take into account all of its costs."
Those costs include health care, pensions, salaries and research and development on new technologies, and depending on how they are accounted for, the companies — or the auto czar — could potentially tinker with the meaning of "viable." Kaplan said the White House goal was "a bridge to either fundamental restructuring, or bankruptcy."
The bill would require the automakers to seek permission from the auto czar for any business transaction of $100 million or more. congressional Democrats said that provision was intended specifically to prevent the companies from taking any steps that would result in American manufacturing jobs moving overseas.
But with overseas markets presenting better profit opportunities for the automakers these days, the Democrats' political goal of preserving jobs, and the overarching goal of the rescue legislation — to return the automakers to profitability — could be at odds, with the companies discouraged from seeking the most profitable markets.
The House-approved auto bailout measure would also grant federal judges a cost-of-living increase and would provide U.S. government guarantees for financial deals that some major transit agencies are in danger of defaulting on in part because of the credit crisis.
73 an hour: Adding it up
By David Leonhardt
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Seventy-three dollars an hour.
That figure — repeated on television and in newspapers as the average pay of a Big Three autoworker — has become a big symbol in the fight over what should happen to Detroit. To critics, it is a neat encapsulation of everything that's wrong with bloated car companies and their entitled workers.
To the Big Three's defenders, meanwhile, the number has become proof positive that autoworkers are being unfairly blamed for Detroit's decline. "We've heard this garbage about 73 bucks an hour," Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said last week. "It's a total lie. I think some people have perpetrated that deliberately, in a calculated way, to mislead the American people about what we're doing here."
So what is the reality behind the number? Detroit's defenders are right that the number is basically wrong. Big Three workers aren't making anything close to $73 an hour (which would translate to about $150,000 a year).
But the defenders are not right to suggest, as many have, that Detroit has solved its wage problem. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler workers make significantly more than their counterparts at Toyota, Honda and Nissan plants in this country. Last year's concessions by the United Automobile Workers, which mostly apply to new workers, will not change that anytime soon.
And yet the main problem facing Detroit, overwhelmingly, is not the pay gap. That's unfortunate because fixing the pay gap would be fairly straightforward.
The real problem is that many people don't want to buy the cars that Detroit makes. Fixing this problem won't be nearly so easy.
The success of any bailout is probably going to come down to Washington's willingness to acknowledge as much.
Let's start with the numbers. The $73-an-hour figure comes from the car companies themselves. As part of their public relations strategy during labor negotiations, the companies put out various charts and reports explaining what they paid their workers. Wall Street analysts have done similar calculations.
The calculations show, accurately enough, that for every hour a unionized worker puts in, one of the Big Three really does spend about $73 on compensation. So the number isn't made up. But it is the combination of three very different categories.
The first category is simply cash payments, which is what many people imagine when they hear the word "compensation." It includes wages, overtime and vacation pay, and comes to about $40 an hour. (The numbers vary a bit by company and year. That's why $73 is sometimes $70 or $77.)
The second category is fringe benefits, like health insurance and pensions. These benefits have real value, even if they don't show up on a weekly paycheck. At the Big Three, the benefits amount to $15 an hour or so.
Add the two together, and you get the true hourly compensation of Detroit's unionized work force: roughly $55 an hour. It's a little more than twice as much as the typical American worker makes, benefits included. The more relevant comparison, though, is probably to Honda's or Toyota's (nonunionized) workers. They make in the neighborhood of $45 an hour, and most of the gap stems from their less generous benefits.
The third category — the one that makes $70 misleading — is the cost of benefits for the Big Three's current retirees. These are essentially fixed costs that have no relation to how many vehicles the companies make. But they are a real cost, so the companies add them into the mix — dividing those costs by the total hours of the current work force, to get a figure of $15 or so — and end up at roughly $70 an hour.
The crucial point, though, is this $15 isn't mainly a reflection of how generous the retiree benefits are. It's a reflection of how many retirees there are. The Big Three built up a huge pool of retirees long before Honda and Toyota opened plants in this country. You'd never know this by looking at the graphic behind Wolf Blitzer on CNN last week, contrasting the "$73/hour" pay of Detroit's workers with the "up to $48/hour" pay of workers at the Japanese companies.
These retirees make up arguably Detroit's best case for a bailout. The Big Three and the UAW had the bad luck of helping to create the middle class in a country where individual companies — as opposed to all of society — must shoulder much of the burden of paying for retirement.
So here's a little experiment. Imagine that a congressional bailout effectively pays for $10 an hour of the retiree benefits. That's roughly the gap between the Big Three's retiree costs and those of the Japanese-owned plants in this country. Imagine, also, that the UAW agrees to reduce pay and benefits for current workers to $45 an hour — the same as at Honda and Toyota.
Do you know how much that would reduce the cost of producing a Big Three vehicle? Only about $800.
That's because labor costs, for all the attention they have been receiving, make up only about 10 percent of the cost of making a vehicle. An extra $800 per vehicle would certainly help Detroit, but the Big Three already often sell their cars for about $2,500 less than equivalent cars from Japanese companies, analysts at the International Motor Vehicle Program say. Even so, many Americans no longer want to own the cars being made by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
My family's story isn't especially unusual. For decades, my grandparents bought American and only American. In their apartment, they still have a framed photo of the 1933 Oldsmobile that my grandfather's family drove when he was a teenager.
By the 1970s, though, my grandfather became so sick of the problems with his American cars that he vowed never to buy another one. He hasn't.
Detroit's defenders, from top executives on down, insist that they have finally learned their lesson. They say a comeback is just around the corner. But they said the same thing at the start of this decade — and the start of the last one and the one before that. All the while, their market share has kept on falling.
There is good reason to keep GM and Chrysler from collapsing in 2009. (Ford is in slightly better shape.) The economy is in the worst recession in a generation. You can think of the Detroit bailout as a relatively cost-effective form of stimulus. It's often cheaper to keep workers in their jobs than to create new jobs.
But Congress and the Obama administration shouldn't fool themselves into thinking that they can preserve the Big Three in anything like their current form. Very soon, they need to shrink to a size that reflects the American public's collective judgment about the quality of their products.
It's a sad story, in many ways. But it can't really be undone at this point. If we had wanted to preserve the Big Three, we would have bought more of their cars.
EU considers spending €1 billion for satellite broadband technology
Economic pain hits China as exports fell last month
By Andrew Jacobs
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
BEIJING: China's exports fell for the first time in seven years, the government reported Wednesday, sliding 2.2 percent in November and providing stark evidence that the global financial crisis had arrived here in earnest. In October, by contrast, exports had surged 19.2 percent.
Imports also plunged sharply last month, falling 17.9 percent and widening the trade surplus to $40 billion from $35.2 billion in October.
Taken together, the trade figures will be bracing to those who have viewed China as a potential savior for the slumping economies of the United States, Europe and Japan.
"We were expecting a slowdown but the magnitude is a bit shocking," said Wang Tao, an analyst at UBS Securities.
The figures, together with further signs of a sagging economy in Japan, paint a picture of economic gloom spreading across Asia - even if much of the region will experience a less severe downturn than in the United States and Europe.
The worrisome developments will put added pressure on the Chinese government, which only last month announced a 4 trillion yuan, or $586 billion at the time, stimulus package aimed at cushioning the effects of the global slowdown. In recent weeks, the government has lowered interest rates and announced other measures aimed at lifting domestic consumption.
In a report broadcast on China National Radio after the trade figures were released, the government vowed to expand spending and cut taxes next year in an effort to spur job creation and bolster agriculture, social security, education and small and midsize enterprises.
Beijing will also seek to ensure "healthy and stable" growth of property markets, which has slowed sharply in recent months.
In another batch of sobering news, the government said that direct foreign investment fell 36.5 percent from a year earlier and the producer price index, a measure of inflation at the factory level, had fallen to its lowest rate in two years. That figure, 2 percent in November, had stood at 6.6 percent a month earlier. In August, when that number hit 10.1 percent, the government was focused on stemming the threat of inflation.
Exports are a mainstay of China's economy; by one measure they make up 40 percent of the gross domestic product. While some experts dispute that figure, analysts say the slumping demand for Chinese goods is likely to pull down the nation's growth rate, which was 9 percent in the third quarter, close to or even below the 7 percent figure that many Chinese economists contend is the minimum for maintaining social stability.
In recent months, evaporating export demand has led thousands of factories to close in the Pearl River Delta of southern China. Tens of thousands of jobs have disappeared, spurring protests by unemployed workers demanding back pay.
Late last month, President Hu Jintao warned that the global financial crisis was threatening to undermine three decades of head-spinning expansion.
Qu Hongbin, the chief China economist at HSBC, said he expected things to get worse in the coming months as the global recession further sapped the demand for Chinese goods. He suggested that exports could fall as much as 19 percent in the first quarter of 2009.
"Combined with cooling property markets, this points to the rising risk of a hard landing," he said in a statement. "It's official: as the world's workshop, China will suffer as the global downturn deepens."
Since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, China's exports have quadrupled, helping transform it into the world's fourth-largest economy after the United States, Japan and Germany. In a survey of more than a dozen analysts last month, no one predicted that imports would decline. The drop in exports spanned all major trade groups, including electronics and machinery, with steel leading the downward spiral.
Exports to all of China's trading partners suffered, with those to the United States down 6.1 percent. Just last month, they were up 12.4 percent.
Bettina Wassener contributed reporting from Hong Kong.
House questions spending of bailout money
By Diana B. Henriques
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
A congressional hearing delivered a short "to-do" list on Wednesday morning to the Treasury department about its handling of the nation's financial rescue plan: First, follow the money. Second, fight more aggressively against the rising tide of home foreclosures.
Specifically, the lawmakers insisted that the Treasury do more to monitor what banks do with U.S. money that they receive, and tie more strings to that capital to make sure it is used to provide needed credit to homeowners, small businesses and consumers. And they demanded that Treasury pay more attention to developing a plan to prevent foreclosures that can be applied broadly and quickly.
Those instructions were common themes in an often contentious hearing by the House Financial Services Committee, called by Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts and the committee's chairman, to weigh how well the financial rescue plan is being managed and monitored.
Lawmakers focused on warnings in a report last week from the Government Accountability Office, represented at the hearing by Gene Dodaro, the acting comptroller general. In that report, Dodaro's office urged that Treasury tighten the contracts under which it provides support to banks to ensure that the money was used to increase lending, and to monitor the use of it more carefully.
But lawmakers also repeatedly cited their concern that not enough was being done to prevent foreclosures.
"You have done nothing," said Representative Maxine Waters, a Democrat of California. "What is your resistance to helping homeowners stay in their homes?"
This criticism fell largely on Neel Kashkari, the Treasury's interim assistant secretary for financial stability, who came under the fiercest questioning.
Kashkari, always polite, nevertheless stoutly defended the work the department had done so far to stabilize the financial system, noting that the nation had avoided a major bank failure and credit markets had shown some improvements.
"We are in an unprecedented period and market events are moving rapidly and unpredictably," he told the panel. "People often ask, How do we know our program is working? First, we did not allow the financial system to collapse. That is the most direct, important information. Second, the system is fundamentally more stable than it was."
While he said Treasury was working with bank regulators to address foreclosures, he noted that the preservation of financial stability was not an unrelated achievement.
"Imagine how many foreclosures we would have had if we'd allowed the financial system to collapse," he said.
It was not clear, despite all the questioning, whether Treasury opposed various suggestions that it more tightly control and monitor the use of the capital it injects into financial institutions.
Kashkari agreed that it was appropriate for Treasury to insist that banks use U.S. government money to foster the goals of the financial rescue plan, but he also said that Treasury should not be too restrictive in its investments, because the ultimate goal was to secure the stability of the banks themselves.
That questioning was interrupted to allow Representative Jeb Hensarling, Republican of Texas, to take the witness's chair to testify about the work of the congressional oversight panel, whose initial report was delivered on Wednesday without Hensarling's endorsement.
Hensarling said that he did not vote for the report because he was not sure the new oversight panel was working as he thought it should, although he commended it for its efforts.
"The report being issued today included many good points and questions that I agree need to be asked of Treasury," he said. He questioned whether "every panel member has the resources and rights necessary to conduct effective oversight."
He also disputed language in the report that he said "could be interpreted as a panel expectation that Treasury should make credit more expensive and less available for Americans and could delay the recovery of our housing market at exactly the wrong time in our nation's economic history."
The topics in the report range from the general, like Treasury's overall strategy, to the practical, like the method it is using to decide which institutions get bailed out. But they all pose detailed questions that the panel says have not yet been answered by the administration.
Several questions are aimed at assessing the bailout program's success so far in reducing foreclosures, stabilizing markets and helping American families. It specifically challenged Treasury to explain publicly why it did not support a foreclosure reduction plan proposed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. It also asks the Treasury to outline its approach to bring down foreclosure rates.
In a particularly pointed criticism, the report said private investors seemed to receive much better terms on their investments in troubled financial institutions than the government had.
For example, the Treasury Department worked out a complex blend of taxpayer investments and loan guarantees from U.S. bank regulators to aid the troubled Citigroup.
But, as the report said, Warren Buffett invested in Goldman Sachs in September, getting a future equity stake and an immediate issue of preferred shares that pay a 10 percent dividend and can be redeemed only at a 10 percent premium. Those terms were roughly similar to a deal under which a Mitsubishi unit invested $9 billion in Morgan Stanley in October.
And the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority invested $7.5 billion in Citigroup itself in November, obtaining equity units paying an 11 percent dividend that can be converted into common stock in the future.
In comparison, the report said, the Treasury received a future equity stake in Citigroup and an immediate issue of preferred shares that pay an annual dividend of 5 percent for five years and 9 percent thereafter — less than the privately negotiated deals. Unlike the Goldman Sachs shares issued to Buffett, those shares are redeemable at face value, not at a premium, after three years.
The panel said it intended to work with the Treasury, the Government Accountability Office and the congressional Budget Office to determine how these and other capital investments were negotiated by the Treasury and whether taxpayers were adequately rewarded and protected by those arrangements.
The panel also questioned a Treasury and Federal Reserve initiative to support consumer credit by providing $20 billion in credit protection to the secondary market for car loans, credit card balances, student loans and loans to small businesses.
While increased consumer spending is important for economic recovery, financing that spending by increases in consumer debt will only add to the financial stress American families are experiencing, the report said.
It also questioned whether Treasury was demanding enough of the institutions that received its help, particularly those engaged in consumer lending.
For instance, the British government has ordered credit card companies there to "work with consumers," in some cases providing a 60-day moratorium on payments, as a condition of getting public money.
It called on the Treasury to use its leverage as rescuer in chief to demand the kind of corporate reforms and improved business plans among financial institutions that Congress was considering imposing on the auto industry as a condition of its bailout plan.
It is not clear yet whether the squabble surrounding the panel's first vote will deter its effort to provide Congress with a clearer road map for monitoring the bailout effort. More Articles in Business »
Investors buy U.S. debt at zero yield
By Vikas Bajaj and Michael M. Grynbaum
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
When was the last time you invested in something that you knew wouldn't make money?
In the market equivalent of shoveling cash under the mattress, hordes of buyers were so eager on Tuesday to park money in the world's safest investment, United States government debt, that they agreed to accept a zero percent rate of return.
The news sent a sobering signal: in these troubled economic times, when people have lost vast amounts on stocks, bonds and real estate, making an investment that offers security but no gain is tantamount to coming out ahead. This extremely cautious approach reflects concerns that a global recession could deepen next year, and continue to jeopardize all types of investments.
While this will lower the cost of borrowing for the United States government, economists worry that a widespread hunkering-down could have broader implications that could slow an economic recovery. If investors remain reluctant to put money into stocks and corporate bonds, that could choke off funds that businesses need to keep financing their day-to-day operations.
Investors accepted the zero percent rate in the government's auction Tuesday of $30 billion worth of short-term securities that mature in four weeks. Demand was so great even for no return that the government could have sold four times as much.
In addition, for a brief moment, investors were willing to take a small loss for holding another ultra-safe security, the already-issued three-month Treasury bill.
In these times, it seems, the abnormal has now become acceptable. As America's debt and deficit spiral from a parade of billion dollar bailouts and stimulus packages, fund managers, foreign governments and big retail investors reckon they will get more peace of mind by stashing their cash, rather than putting it toward any of the higher-yielding risk that is entailed in stocks, corporate bonds and consumer debt.
The rapid decline in Treasury yields — which since summer have headed toward lows not seen since the end of the World War II — also renders the Federal Reserve less effective, as investors and banks stuff the money that the central bank is pumping into the financial system into Treasuries, rather than fanning it out across the broader economy.
"The last time this happened was the Great Depression, when people are willing to accept no return on their money, or possibly even a negative return," said Edward Yardeni, an independent analyst. "If people are so busy during the day just protecting the cash they have, it's not a good sign."
Stocks fell sharply as investors digested the implications. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 242.85 points, or 2.72 percent, to 8,691.33, and the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index declined 2.31 percent, to 888.67. The Nasdaq composite index lost 1.55 percent, to 1,547.34.
If there is a silver lining to the Treasury market's gyrations, it is that the United States can borrow money more cheaply from investors, whether they be the governments of China or Japan, or big fund managers. That could help Washington finance various programs intended to revive the ailing economy.
Borrowing by the Treasury has already ballooned since Congress approved the $700 billion financial rescue plan, and policy makers expect the federal budget deficit to swell further next year as the Big Three automakers and other industries look for support.
"That sucking sound is all the world's capital going into the U.S. Treasury market," Yardeni said, "which means the Treasury and the Fed can tap into that liquidity pool to finance TARP and offer mortgages at 4.5 percent."
While that may offset some of the expense of the bailouts, economists say the fact that the United States must borrow so much to prop up large parts of the economy is a big cause for concern.
There are several explanations for the flight to safety in the bond market. The world of short-term money market funds, for instance, is still reeling from troubles at the Reserve Primary Fund, a money market fund frozen in September after it lost money on investments in Lehman Brothers. Since then, individual and large investors have put more than $200 billion into money funds that only invest in safe Treasury bills, according to iMoneyNet, a financial data publisher. At the same time, investors have withdrawn nearly $400 billion from prime funds.
That has forced portfolio managers to buy Treasury bills, driving down yields. "That group of investors has to invest in something," said Max Bublitz, chief strategist at SCM Advisors. "They don't have the luxury of saying, 'I will stick it in the mattress.' "
Yields for longer term Treasury securities have also slumped, with the 10-year now yielding 2.64 percent, down from 2.7 percent Monday and 3.75 percent a month earlier. That decline appears to reflect several other forces. Many investors are seeking safety because they believe that the economy is in its worst recession since the Depression. Rather than inflation, which was a worry for some a few months ago, many are now worried about deflation, or falling prices.
Thomas Atteberry, a bond fund manager, said at current prices the market is predicting that the United States will suffer the kind of "lost decade" that Japan suffered in the 1990s.
"I have a hard time justifying that," said Atteberry, a partner at First Pacific Advisors. "The Fed seems much more upfront about boosting its balance sheet by creating money."
Another reason, analysts say, that Treasury yields may be falling is that foreign investors are using American government securities to protect themselves against the falling value of their own currencies. Many investors are also pulling money out of mutual funds and hedge funds, forcing portfolio managers to sell more risky assets and hold Treasuries, which are easier to sell.
And some fund managers are simply looking to dress up their portfolios before the year ends.
"There is no doubt that there is potentially some hoarding of cash in anticipation of potential redemptions," said David Kovacs, a strategist at Turner Investment Partners. "People want to own it to show that they played it safe by year-end."
Fannie is faulted for an 'orgy' of subprime loans
By Lynnley Browning
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac engaged in "an orgy of junk mortgage development" that turned the two mortgage-finance giants into vast repositories of subprime and similarly risky loans, a former Fannie executive testified on Tuesday.
The development, which began in 2005 and lasted until at least last year, happened as senior executives at the two government-sponsored enterprises ignored repeated warnings from internal risk officers that they were delving too deeply into dangerous territory, according to internal documents released at a congressional hearing in Washington.
Edward Pinto, a former chief credit officer at Fannie Mae, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the mortgage giants, which have been taken over by the government, now guarantee or hold 10.5 million nonprime loans worth $1.6 trillion — one in three of all subprime loans, and nearly two in three of all so-called Alt-A loans, often called "liar loans."
Such loans now make up 34 percent of the total single-family mortgage portfolios at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a level that will link them to eight million, or one in six, foreclosures in coming years, Pinto said. The nonprime loans, the riskiest made in 2007, "have turned the American dream of homeownership into the American nightmare of foreclosure," he said.
The hearing was the latest by Congress on the collapse of Fannie and Freddie, which guarantee half of all mortgages nationwide and are the engine of the housing market. The former chief executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Daniel Mudd and Richard Syron, and their predecessors, Franklin Raines and Leland Brendsel, faced pointed questioning from lawmakers.
But the oral and written testimony of Pinto, who was Fannie's chief credit officer in the late 1980s and has studied the company's financial statements, and other private analysts shed new light on the role of the housing giants in the current subprime crisis.
The extent of that role has not been fully recognized, in part because many subprime and Alt-A loans show up in databases as prime loans, a system that has allowed the mortgage giants to assert over the years that their role in nonprime lending has been minimal.
Arnold Kling, an economist and former Freddie Mac officer, testified that a high-risk loan could be "laundered," as he put it, by Wall Street and come back into the banking system as a triple-A rated security for sale to investors, obscuring its true risks. Charles Calomiris, a finance professor at Columbia, testified that nobody saw the crisis coming because the two mortgage giants "adopted accounting practices that masked their subprime and Alt-A lending," but did not elaborate.
Professor Calomiris added that the giants were "not only market players but standard setters, and should have known better."
The former executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were grilled on why they did not see the collapse in housing prices coming and why they ignored warnings from their risk officers about ramping up purchases of nonprime loans.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have long insisted that their involvement with subprime and other nonprime loans has been minimal. Asked about the ramp up, Mudd insisted that "Alt-A loans were essentially a subset of overall A loans," and not subprime.
But internal e-mail obtained by the committee told a different story.
A June 2005 presentation made by Mudd described the crossroads faced by the company, which at the time was focused on prime loans amid a burgeoning subprime market. "We face two stark choices: one, stay the course, or two, meet the market where the market is," Mudd wrote. Another 2005 Fannie document referred to "underground efforts to develop a subprime infrastructure and modeling for alternative markets."
And in March 2006, Enrico Dallavecchia, Fannie Mae's chief risk officer, wrote to Mudd to say that "Dan, I have a serious problem with the control process around subprime limits."Despite the concerns, Fannie Mae further increased its purchase of subprime loans, according to a January 2007 internal presentation.
Freddie Mac's senior executives ignored similar warnings. Donald Bisenius, a senior vice president, wrote in April 2004 to a colleague that "we did no-doc lending before, took inordinate losses and generated significant fraud cases. I'm not sure what makes us think we're so much smarter this time around."
Housing analysts say that the former heads of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ramped up their nonprime business because they felt pressure from the government and advocacy groups to meet affordable housing goals as well as pressure to compete with Wall Street.
But one in five Alt-A loans in recent years were made to investors, not to first-time home buyers, Pinto said.
Another lever was what Representative Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, said was more than $175 million in lobbying fees spent by the mortgage giants over 10 years, in part to counter attempts at stronger oversight.
New City jobs at lowest level since crisis struck
Thursday, December 11, 2008
LONDON: Vacancies in London's financial industry, known as the City, fell to their lowest number by far since the start of the credit crisis in August 2007, a report showed on Thursday.
The City had 3,780 unfilled financial jobs in November, a decrease of 59 percent from a year ago, and fewer than the previous low in the current crisis of 5,166 openings recorded in December last year, said recruitment firm Morgan McKinley.
Competition for jobs also peaked, with twice as many candidates as positions.
London is heaving with thousands of jobless financial professionals as banks slashed headcounts and freeze hiring.
"Where possible, financial services professionals are staying in their current positions rather than voluntarily venturing out into what is an extremely tough jobs market," said Robert Thesiger, who heads Morgan McKinley's parent company Imprint.
He added that hiring will drop further over Christmas and New Year beyond the usual seasonal slowdown.
The average City salary stood at 46,516 pounds, down 2 percent from November last year.
Morgan McKinley, which hires mainly for investment banks, hedge funds and asset managers, based the figures on records of new candidates registering with the firm in November. It worked out statistics for the full market using its market share.
(Reporting by Olesya Dmitracova; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)
Goldman may axe 200 staff in London
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
LONDON: Goldman Sachs Group is laying off some 200 staff in London this week as part of a 10 percent cut in global headcount first reported in October, two people familiar with the situation said on Wednesday.
Goldman, which had a record 32,569 employees in August, declined to confirm the actual number of job losses and did not say how many employees it had in London.
"This is part of the 10 percent headcout reduction previously announced," a Goldman Sachs spokesman said.
Sources familiar with the situation said the overall 10 percent cut includes a 5 percent reduction in its global workforce undertaken each year.
More than 240,000 jobs have been lost in the financial industry since August 2007 and Goldman has not been able to avoid a global slowdown in investment banking activity.
Goldman Sachs and rival Morgan Stanley recently became bank holding companies, and analysts expect the regulatory cost will be high.
Analysts say their new regulator, the Federal Reserve, is more demanding than the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and commercial banks have to report to the Fed, the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the New York State Bank authorities at the same time.
Last week brought fresh announcements of job cuts from Japan's Nomura Holdings Swiss bank Credit Suisse and middle-market investment bank Jefferies Group Inc..
(Reporting by Daisy Ku; editing by Elaine Hardcastle)
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Citigroup's Egg fined over insurance sales
As prices wallow, steel industry could consolidate
AIG tries to quarantine another $10 billion in credit default swaps
Pound hits record low vs euro
FTSE slips as bank losses offset mining gains
Ireland reportedly holds off extending bank plan
Ideal Shopping sees trading loss as shares tumble
Rio Tinto to cut 14,000 jobs as demand wanes
World stocks rise on bailout hopes
Economic gloom grows
Dire forecast for the global economy and world trade
Chase offers $400,000 in factory sit-in
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
By Andrew Stern
JPMorgan Chase offered $400,000 (271,000 pounds) on Wednesday to help pay severance to laid-off workers occupying a Chicago factory, whose protest symbolises resentment over the federal bailout of big banks while workers suffer.
JPMorgan Chase's offer, announced by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who has been mediating the dispute, follows on Bank of America's pledge to make an unspecified, limited loan to Republic Windows & Doors on behalf of the 250 workers.
Both banks are creditors of Republic, a family-owned window and door manufacturer that fell victim to the housing downturn and shut down on Friday.
The workers, who were given three days' notice of the closure, have occupied the shuttered plant since then, demanding a legally mandated 60 days' pay for severance, and accrued vacation pay.
JPMorgan Chase's $400,000 pledge was described by Gutierrez as capital, and how the transfer would be structured was still to be worked out, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Democrat said.
Bank of America said its additional loan to Republic would have to be negotiated, as its previous line of credit to the company had "maxed out."
Several hundred supporters of the workers marched on Bank of America's Chicago offices, where negotiations among the parties were set to resume for a third day.
The worker sit-in that began on Friday has become a symbol of Main Street resentment of the federal bailout of Wall Street banks, which Bank of America has tapped for $15 billion and JPMorgan for $25 billion.
President-elect Barack Obama and other politicians have voiced support for the workers' cause, arguing that the Wall Street bailout was not serving its purpose to loosen credit for Main Street businesses.
Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, on the day before he was charged with corruption in office, had said he was ordering a withdrawal of state business from Bank of America. A spokeswoman for the governor said it was "premature" to discuss what actions were being taken, since there were promising signs that the factory dispute was nearer a resolution.
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)
Breakingviews.com: Today, a more sophisticated species of thug
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Now all the United States needs is Prohibition. The disastrous ban on alcohol during the boom and bust that heralded the Great Depression is one thing that distinguishes that crisis from the current one. Severe economic downturn? Check. Thousands losing their homes? Check. State governor accused of trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat while strong-arming a leading newspaper and the country's largest bank? Wait - it didn't get that bad even in the 1930s.
True, crime flourished during the Depression. But most of the tommy-gun-wielding thugs of that era spent their days unimaginatively robbing banks or peddling illegal booze. Those accused of headline-grabbing crimes today have apparently set their sights higher.
Take the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who according to federal investigators tried to sell the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. Prosecutors say they recorded Blagojevich, who has the power to appoint someone to serve the rest of Obama's term, on an expletive-laced telephone call saying the seat is a "valuable thing, you don't give it away for nothing."
Blagojevich has also been charged with threatening to withhold state assistance from the owner of The Chicago Tribune if it did not fire writers who had criticized him.
This is the same guy who made recent headlines by threatening to cut off the state's business with Bank of America if the lender did not reinstate a credit facility for a troubled Chicago-based building supply company. While not illegal, the decision to pick a fight with the country's biggest bank while under investigation for fraud shows that Blagojevich does not lack brio.
That story happens to coincide with news of a prominent New York lawyer, Marc Dreier, charged with selling bogus securities to hedge funds. That's another allegation which, if true, reflects moxie worthy of John Dillinger - without the violence, of course.
Today's financial crimes may fall well short of the deeds perpetrated by the armed robbers who regularly muscled in on business in the early 1930s. But it's a reminder that money, and the loss of it, will always have a seamy side. - Dwight Cass
Frugality an everyday companion as recession hits Japan
By Isabel ReynoldsReuters
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
TOKYO: Japanese homemakers have made an art of living frugally in one of the world's most expensive countries, and they are now pruning their spending further as the economy plunges into what could be a long recession.
For many of the 17 million homemakers in Japan, it is already a struggle to manage household finances on their husband's monthly salary, which averages about ¥270,000, or $2,900.
As layoffs spread, consumer confidence has nose-dived. Household spending, which makes up more than half the economy, dropped 3.8 percent in October from a year earlier.
Asuka Suzuki, 27, who lives with her husband on the northern island of Hokkaido, says keeping monthly food spending to ¥19,000 a month, about a third of the national average for two people, requires meticulous planning and discipline.
"I do sometimes feel a bit down because I can't buy clothes, go traveling or take up any expensive hobbies," Suzuki wrote in an e-mail exchange. "But I have a goal, which is to buy a house some day, so I just keep on trying."
Before going food shopping, she searches the Internet for bargains at all the local supermarkets, makes an inventory of the contents of her refrigerator and puts together a weekly menu.
Only then does she tuck the minimum necessary cash into her wallet - no credit cards - and, weather permitting, rides her bicycle to the supermarket.
Suzuki is just one of the hundreds of housewives featured in "Sutekina Okusan," or "Lovely Wife," a monthly magazine offering recipes and tips for the budget-conscious, from switching off the television to save electricity, to re-using water after rinsing rice.
Other suggestions include using old clothes to make cushion covers and making children's playhouses out of cardboard boxes.
Food is the biggest expense for many Japanese households, and even the thriftiest housewives often pride themselves on serving something different every night.
"At first I was astonished," Satoko Sugiki, an editor at the magazine, said of her first encounters with the women who revealed their spending habits in the magazine.
"But now it seems quite normal for someone to spend only ¥10,000 a month on food, even though it's amazing when you think about it."
As shoppers have turned their backs on high-priced goods, sales at department stores have fallen. They dropped nearly 7 percent in October compared with the period a year earlier, the eighth consecutive month of declines.
Instead, shoppers hit bargain stores. The discount clothing chain Uniqlo saw a rise in sales of more than 30 percent in November.
"People are shopping at places that offer good value for money. But there are very few companies benefiting," said Dairo Murata, a retailing analyst at Credit Suisse in Tokyo.
Bookstores display notebooks for recording household accounts for the new breed of careful consumer.
Despite the savings made by these thrifty homemakers, some experts say many housewives may have to seek work outside the home as families increasingly struggle to cover their expenses on a single income.
"Even if it only pays ¥50,000 or ¥60,000 a month, it will help ease the pressure on the household budget," said Haruko Ogiwara, a financial journalist who has written several books on budgeting and saving.
"When it comes down to it, there are actually quite a lot of people in Japan who don't have much money," Ogiwara said.
Full-time housewives, she said, were a luxury Japan could no longer afford. "Even if that means people can't keep detailed household accounts, they will still be better off."
Finding a job, though, will be difficult as the economy slumps.
Suzuki said she would like to work part time if she could find a job within walking distance of home. But for now, fear of what the downturn may bring is spurring new levels of frugality.
"I worry about whether my husband's company might go bankrupt," Suzuki wrote, referring to the food manufacturer where her husband works. "We don't have children now, but will we be able to have them and bring them up? Will we have an old age without worries?"
At the end of each month, she analyzes her receipts to try to spot weak points, but Suzuki acknowledged she still had a way to go before catching up with some champions of thrift.
The couple have cut back on leisure trips. Suzuki tries to cook as much as possible. Her repertoire includes vegetable soup and tofu dishes that cost under ¥100.
"My husband is very cooperative, so we have fun saving money," she said. "I'm not that good at cooking, but he tells me what I serve is better than a restaurant, which helps me carry on."
In hard times, going bottom up on the wine menu
By Eric Asimov
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
NEW YORK: Forget about hard times. With so many sharp reminders all around, I know that isn't easy, but what I want to say is true regardless of the state of the economy.
Far too often, restaurant wine lists are judged from the top down. Many wine lists that are widely considered to be great are practically keeling over with luxurious selections of the world's great wines. The best are replete with copious older vintages as well. These bottles can cost thousands of dollars each and are no doubt wonderful treats for those who can afford them.
But what about the rest of us? Most people, even in the best of times, can no more afford these grand cru Burgundies, 20-year-old Barolos and first-growth Bordeaux than they can seats on a private jet. While wine lists like these can nourish a fantasy life, they mean little to the workaday reality that most wine lovers inhabit.
A wine list requires a reverse-angle analysis. It should be judged not from the top down but from the bottom up. It should offer thoughtful and possibly even exciting choices at every level. At the very least a good list needs to give bottom dwellers something to enjoy, that will make them feel welcomed, not just tolerated.
Lower-priced bottles signify the nature and identity of a restaurant as surely as the top of the list. No matter how good the food, budget-conscious wine lovers will take generic low-end choices as a sign of a mediocre restaurant. Conversely, while an imaginative list at all price ranges will not excuse culinary sinning, it may well earn the benefit of the doubt.
Good sommeliers understand this and will take as much if not more pride in their budget choices as in the higher end. They know that the more expensive precincts of the list must be filled dutifully, but the lower end is their opportunity for personal expression.
At Spigolo, for example, a good neighborhood trattoria on the Upper East Side, the whites are mostly about $30 to $60, and the reds $35 to $100, with a handful above that for the big spenders. This is about right for a restaurant that is not cheap, but is reasonably priced.
At a recent dinner I decided to order from the very bottom of the list. This is not always where the best values reside, but at Spigolo the choices were certainly decent. For a white, I ordered a Tuscan vermentino, a crisp and refreshing 2007 Casamatta from Bibi Graetz, a wine that if not exciting went perfectly with antipasti like baby octopus with preserved lemon and fennel. It would be hard to do better for $24.
For the red, I paid $21 for a 2007 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from Pasqua, a lively wine with flavors of fruit and earth that was just right with the gutsy cuisine. It was not a wine for contemplation, but it was gratifying nonetheless.
Should I have expected more than gusto from the bottom end of the list? Well, on most wine lists you can expect to pay roughly two to two-and-a-half times the retail price of a wine. So for these prices I was buying bottles that cost about $10 in a wine shop. When I think of the oceans of dull, generic wine available at that price - and sold in restaurants for twice that or more - cherchez le gusto!
Like those wines, the ones on Spigolo's list are satisfying, but not inspiring. I found more excitement in SoHo, at Blue Ribbon, the venerable chef's hangout that seems packed at all hours. I could have had a decent but routine Rheingau riesling for $30 on this list, but for $10 or $15 more the values seemed better. A 2007 Kremser Freiheit grüner veltliner from Nigl, one of the better Austrian producers, was $42. It was served too cold, but as it warmed up its juicy, icy minerality began to shine through. For the red, a 2002 Chinon Picasses from Olga Raffault, overflowing with cherry and herbal flavors, was a great choice at $44.
Good low-end choices were easier among the whites than the reds, which had a heavy proportion of wines well above $100. This may reflect the usual SoHo clientele, but at least I found a comfortable refuge.
An eclectic menu like Blue Ribbon's offers an opportunity for creative cherry-picking around the wine world in a way that is not available to typical French or Italian restaurants, which express their regionality through their wines. Blue Ribbon does not take full advantage of this freedom, but Fatty Crab in the West Village, with a menu inspired by southeast Asian street food, does an exceptional job with this.
I've mentioned Fatty Crab's wine list before, and it continues to be a shining example of an imaginative list of wines that pair beautifully with a cuisine assumed to be unfriendly toward wine, with great choices in the $30 to $60 range.
Fatty Crab is a casual place. What about some fancier, more expensive restaurants? Thalassa in TriBeCa, a Greek restaurant where ultrafresh fish sold by the pound can get diabolically expensive, has a wine list to match. You can spend hundreds on white Burgundies, which is fine if your limo is idling outside, and yes, you can order a vertical of first-growth Bordeaux if so inclined.
But on a recent visit, with oysters and a grilled dorade royale, I had a 2006 Santorini assyrtiko, from Spyros Hatziyiannis, for $44, and I could not have been happier. The assyrtiko grape can produce wines with intense mineral flavors, and this wine, with a slight touch of sweetness, was delicious. (By the way, the fish cost more than the wine.)
Danny Meyer's restaurants have always done a good job at all ends of the wine list. Recently at Union Square Cafe I had a 2007 Soave Classico from Prà for $40, not the cheapest white on the menu but rewardingly Chablis-like in its austerity. We splurged on a $55 bottle of Chianti Classico riserva from Castello di Cacchiano. Like the Soave, it wasn't the cheapest choice, but with its classic dusty dried cherry flavors it might have been the best deal.
Even the budget-oriented get ambitious. Wine lovers of every income would love a pilgrimage to a restaurant like Cru, which offers one of the world's great wine lists.
Predictably, one can spend hundreds - no, thousands - of dollars on legendary bottles. If you've always wanted to experience Henri Jayer's 1985 Cros Parantoux, Cru offers it for $5,500. In a just universe, we all would have our chance, but what can one have when reality sets in?
At Cru, one can still have a memorable wine experience. At a recent dinner there I set a limit of $95 a bottle. By any reckoning that is expensive. But there are times when one can't stint.
I could have spent a lot less. Cru has a 2004 Bourgogne blanc from Roulot, a terrific producer, for $50. It's a lovely wine, but I don't need to go to Cru for that. For $95, though, I got a 2001 smaragd Wachstum Bodenstein from Prager, an Austrian riesling that is as brilliant to drink as it is difficult to say. It was richly textured yet taut and spring-coiled, with generous honeysuckle aromas yet as minerally as a mouthful of rocks. Did I say brilliant?
For the red, I could have spent $50 on a 2005 Oregon pinot noir from Patricia Green. A good wine, but again, not the stuff of which a pilgrimage is made. For $45 I could have had a 2000 Houillon Pupillin from the Arbois, a wine that I adore. But frankly, I have this bottle at home. No, I spent $85 for a bottle I had never seen before, a 2000 red Bourgogne from Jean-François Coche-Dury, a producer known worldwide for magnificent white Burgundies, but whose reds are little-known. I'd had his 2004 Volnay premier cru, though, and knew how good his reds could be. This wine was ethereal, wonderfully floral, delicate and pure. For good measure we added a 2000 Volnay from Michel Lafarge for $90, one of my favorite Volnay producers, and it was a gorgeous contrast, earthy and sensuous. Not cheap wines by any means. But unmatchable values, unforgettable at any price.
Harvard unit halting faculty searches
By Tracy JanThe Boston Globe
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
BOSTON: Harvard University officials said they would postpone nearly all searches for tenure-track professors in the school's largest academic body, in a sobering indication of how the economic crisis has hit the world's wealthiest university.
The move by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which also plans to freeze salaries for its 720-member faculty, followed an immediate freeze on the hiring of nonfaculty staff announced last month, dramatic signals of a university scrambling to right itself after its once ballooning $36.9 billion endowment plummeted 22 percent over the past four months. The cuts announced Tuesday will take effect next school year and continue for an undetermined period until the budget picture improves.
The halt in filling most faculty openings, which many consider the pinnacle of academia, could stymie the dreams of professors around the world who are looking to cap their careers at Harvard. It also could cause a ripple effect across the higher-education landscape if other elite U.S. schools take their cue from Harvard.
A Harvard official familiar with its financial picture said the scenario could worsen. On top of the salary and hiring freezes, the university is considering significant personnel cuts, along with program reductions, the official said.
On Monday, Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and other deans sent a letter to department heads describing the latest plans to cut costs. He presented the plans to faculty during a standing-room only meeting.
Of the 50 faculty searches under way, only 15 of the most essential will continue, said Bob Mitchell, spokesman for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Smith told faculty Tuesday that the financial shortfall "could take multiple years, definitely this year and next year" to be resolved, Mitchell said.
The salary freeze applies to faculty and all nonunion staff members.
While some faculty said in interviews that they were willing to forgo raises, others expressed dismay that their departments would have to hold off on most tenure-track and tenured-faculty searches. "It's just distressing," said Andrew Gordon, a history professor who serves on the faculty council. "It's not as if these faculty are unnecessary to do what we ought to do or want to do." Other professors said they had braced themselves for the inevitable cuts. "Everybody just sort of left a little glum, but understanding that the gravy train is over," Ingrid Monson, a professor of music and African and African-American studies who also serves on the faculty council, said after the meeting. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences is expected to slash $105 million to $125 million from its current $1.2 billion operating budget in response to the university's plunging endowment, which has lost about $8 billion since July and is projected to fall by 30 percent by the end of the fiscal year. "The need for cuts is absolutely legitimate, and it's incumbent upon all of us to find room," said James Stock, chairman of the economics department. "I have no problem with a salary freeze. I think that there are many people being affected by this downturn in the economy who are far less fortunate than the Harvard faculty, and I think it's important to keep some perspective."
Across the United States, universities have taken steps to deal with the bleak financial picture, including delaying or halting capital projects and freezing hiring and travel. On Monday, Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, asked professors to voluntarily take a 1 percent salary cut to avoid layoffs.
But Harvard, which unlike most colleges and universities relies heavily on its endowment revenue, has gone the furthest in the Ivy League by imposing the mandatory wage freeze, said John Walda, president and chief executive of the National Association of College and University Business Officers in Washington. Given the uncertain economic picture, Walda said he expects other elite universities to take similar steps, because so much of their wealth is tied to the markets.
"Harvard's problems are exacerbated by the fact that their revenue model is different," said Walda. "It's unusual to be imposing a salary freeze on faculty, but there will be more institutions that will have to consider it, since salaries are such a big part of the operating budget."
A decade ago, distributions from Harvard's endowment accounted for just 35 percent of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences operating budget, compared with 56 percent today. The faculty's dependence on the endowment has grown over time because the endowment grew at a faster rate than other income sources. Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education in Washington, said Harvard's actions are prudent in light of the downturn. "I dare say that students at Harvard probably won't notice much in their academic programs as a result of the cuts," Hartle said. "In the long history of Harvard, this will be no more than a bump in a very long road."
Book reviews: 'The Thin Blue Line' and 'The Responsibility to Protect'
By Scott Malcomson
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
The Thin Blue Line How Humanitarianism Went to War By Conor Foley 266 pages. Verso. $26.95. The Responsibility to Protect Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All By Gareth Evans 349 pages. Brookings Institution Press. $29.95.
It is hard to date exactly when humanitarianism got decisively bound up with making war, although many would point to Colin Powell's 2001 endorsement of relief workers in Afghanistan as a "force multiplier for us ... an important part of our combat team." In these two very different books, Conor Foley, an experienced relief worker, laments the transformation of humanitarianism into an aspect of politics, while Gareth Evans, a doughty Australian politician and head of the International Crisis Group, argues for something like its institutionalization. Both books are poised to influence debate as we make the turn into a post-Bush world.
As Foley notes in "The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War," human rights and humanitarianism became powerful movements in the 1980s and '90s, and by now Amnesty International UK "has over a quarter of a million members, overtaking ... the British Labor Party." This shift from class politics to values politics occurred across the Western political spectrum, particularly in the prosperous '90s. Nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, proliferated; governments integrated human-rights advocacy into their budgets and their diplomacy; the United Nations bureaucracy likewise seized the opportunity to promote human rights as central to the organization's mission. Soon enough, a transnational "common culture," in Foley's phrase, of human rights and humanitarianism had taken hold among a surprisingly large number of people.
And soon after that, as Foley shows, frustration set in. If humanitarian values were now universal (or universal enough), then why did they seem so threatened in the Balkans, Central Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere?
Foley says his fellow humanitarians looked to achieve their goals in two places: law and politics, not least armed politics. The legal route led in part through the United Nations, with its treaties and human-rights machinery, but the humanitarians' most fervent investment was in the International Criminal Court, whose efforts got under way in 2003.
It's much too early to give up on the court, but Foley's disappointment is pretty thorough. Anticipating that the court will change "from an instrument of justice to one of diplomacy," he concludes: "The ICC could become a useful mechanism for dealing with mid-level thugs and warlords, or retired dictators, where in-country prosecutions are considered too contentious. But it will not be the instrument of impartial, universal justice that its supporters claim. And for aid workers, this could make it as much of a problem as a solution in humanitarian crises."
Foley's treatment of the court's legal issues is informed and direct. He rightly draws attention to the coming debate on how the ICC will define the crime of aggression, a question that was deferred by the drafters of the court's treaty. This debate cuts very close to the privileges of powerful states, and Foley implies that for that reason, the identification of the crime of aggression will effectively be left to the great powers themselves. We shall see.
His discussion of the humanitarians' use of politics to further their ends benefits not only from his legal training but also from his insider's experience. Foley seems to have been in almost every geopolitical mess from Kosovo to Afghanistan. He has watched as the nongovernmental organizations began to endorse the use of force for humanitarian purposes. And he has watched as "the integration of humanitarian assistance into military interventions" has led to "a steady increase in the number of attacks on aid workers over the last decade, partly because an increasing number of armed parties no longer respect the 'humanitarian space' within which aid workers operate." One reason for that, of course, is that aid workers have often accepted the militarization of their work.
Foley concludes: "The only international principles that potentially fit all the situations in which humanitarians work are those of independence, impartiality and neutrality by which the movement has traditionally defined itself. The shift away from these principles in recent years has caused more problems than it has solved."
In many ways, the crucial flaw in the legal and political avenues is that they both lead back to the United Nations Security Council, which has been captive to the veto power of its five permanent members: Britain, Russia, China, France and the United States. There have been many proposals for changing or evading this. But Evans is probably right to say that "any concession that there are some circumstances that justify the Security Council being bypassed ... seriously undermines the whole concept of a rules-based international order. That order depends upon the Security Council ... being the only source of legal authority for nonconsensual military interventions."
Evans cuts a fascinating figure on the world stage. Always informed, sometimes alarming, never dull, he has a diplomat's ability to listen and reflect, and a politician's will to dominate a room. He is also an able and prolific writer. His achievements as foreign minister of Australia in the late 1980s and early '90s were out of proportion to the influence of his country. And as the head of a nongovernmental organization, he took the International Crisis Group from being a modest advisory council to its current status as a global foreign policy, investigative, analytical and advocacy organization, with considerable influence on governments and the general public. His purpose in writing "The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All" is to advance the doctrine known by the Spielbergian acronym R2P, for which Evans, in his capacity as political entrepreneur, has been a crucial spokesman.
Evans was extremely active on the international commissions that issued the reports in 2001 and 2004 that defined the doctrine of the responsibility to protect. And his reluctant acceptance of the centrality of the Security Council is of a piece with his general approach: that what matters in politics is the channeling of power toward humanitarian ends. He is seeking, with his advocacy of the responsibility to protect, to institutionalize the idea that all states have an obligation to shield their own citizens from mass atrocities, and that if a state fails to do so, it falls to other states to take on that obligation. His encyclopedic knowledge of the international system enables him to make many specific proposals.
Evans goes to heroic lengths, here and in the commission reports he helped write, to show that this doctrine is intended to be preventive first, meliorative second and invasive only as a last resort. In short, the international community should be oriented toward preventing atrocities before they get under way by helping the state in question, and only in extreme cases by using military force. The responsibility to protect is, in a sense, the reverse of its immediate doctrinal ancestor, the "right of humanitarian intervention," which began its life as a direct challenge to state sovereignty. The R2P approach is to stress the duties of the sovereign state, rather than the power of the international community to trump that sovereignty.
Evans readily acknowledges that the nature of the Security Council-based system means no R2P-based military action is ever likely to be taken against any of the permanent Council members. Unfortunately, it's easy to see where this can lead. "If all this talk about responsibility to protect . . . is going to be used only to initiate some pathetic debate in the United Nations and elsewhere, then we believe this is wrong," Sergey v. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told the Council on Foreign Relations not long ago. "So we exercised the human security maxim, we exercised the responsibility to protect." He was referring to Russia's protecting South Ossetia from Georgia. Neither author spends much time on Russia or China. But a values-based international system will not succeed without them.
Foley and Evans both end their books with rather unexpected salvoes of anti-Bush feeling, which I take to be backhanded adieus to a man who, by enabling the international community to unite against Washington, has provided it with a coherence it might not otherwise have had. It will be fascinating to see what the community does when it no longer has George W. Bush to kick around - or to hold it together.
Scott Malcomson, a former adviser to the UN high commissioner for human rights, is an editor at The Times Magazine. His most recent book is "One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race."
Mexican congress approves widening police powers
The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
MEXICO CITY: Mexico's Congress on Tuesday voted to broaden police powers, allowing law enforcement agencies to use undercover agents and taped conversations as evidence in a bid to help them fight increasingly bloody drug cartels.
The reforms, which were approved earlier by the Senate, are backed by President Felipe Calderon and come as Mexico is shaken by organized-crime violence that has claimed almost 5,400 lives so far this year, more than double the death toll from the same period of 2007.
They allow taped conversations to be used in court if submitted as evidence by one of the parties in the conversation, and let police request search warrants by e-mail or by telephone calls to judges rather than exclusively in writing, according to a Congressional statement.
The changes also permit undercover agents.
Many Mexican detectives currently operate in plain clothes, but the new measure would let them keep their identities secret in legal proceedings and be identified by a numerical code known only to superiors.
Drug gangs have increasingly targeted police officials for assassination in recent years.
The reforms include some safeguards meant to prevent police from abusing their powers, including one requiring that officers quickly register all detentions. Under current law, they have up to two days to present a suspect before a judge.
In the past, some police have been accused of using that period to threaten, pressure or torture suspects into confessing.
The bill also tightens the definition of catching a suspect "in the act," to mean just a few moments from the commission of a crime. Previously, police could detain suspects hours or even days after a crime and claim they had been caught in the act.
Also Tuesday, the Senate voted to create a registry of cell phone owners to combat kidnappings and extortions in which gangs often use untraceable mobile phones to make ransom demands.
Telecoms would be required to ask purchasers of cell phones or phone memory chips for their names, addresses and fingerprints, and to turn that information over to investigators if requested.
At present, unregulated vendors sell phones and chips for cash from streetside stands. It is unclear how such vendors would be made to comply with the new law.
The Senate also approved a bill previously passed by the lower house to standardize police training, vetting and operational procedures.
The law would create a national security council headed by the president and the governors of Mexico's 31 states to improve coordination among a disparate array of state, local and federal police.
The bill will return to the lower house for final approval after senators detected errors in its wording.
By Katharine Q. Seelye
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
When the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black force of elite pilots, emerged from combat in World War II, they faced as much discrimination as they had before the war. It was not until six decades later that their valor was recognized and they received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can give.
Now, the roughly 330 pilots and members of the ground crew who are left from about 16,000 who served are receiving another honor that has surpassed their dreams: They are being invited to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama as the country's first black president.
"I didn't believe I'd live long enough to see something like this," said Lieutenant Colonel Charles Lane Jr., 83, of Omaha, Nebraska, a retired Tuskegee fighter pilot who flew missions over Italy.
"I would love to be there; I would love to be able to see it with my own eyes," he said, chuckling on the phone as he heard about the invitation. But, he said, he had a "physical limitation" and was not sure he would be able to attend.
Thousands of people who participated in the fight for civil rights over several decades helped pave the way for Obama's triumph. But the Tuskegee Airmen have a special place in history. Their bravery during the war - on behalf of a country that actively discriminated against them - helped persuade President Harry Truman to desegregate the military in 1948.
"The election of Barack Obama was like a culmination of a struggle that we were going through, wanting to be pilots," said William Wheeler, 85, a retired Tuskegee combat fighter pilot who lives in Hempstead, New York. He tried to become a commercial pilot after the war but was offered a job cleaning planes instead.
Obama has acknowledged his debt to the airmen, issuing a statement in 2007, when they received the Congressional Gold Medal. It said in part: "My career in public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trail-blazed."
The invitation to his swearing-in was extended on Tuesday by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
Tickets to the Jan. 20 inauguration are the most sought-after commodity, with more than 1.5 million people expected in Washington.
Of the 240,000 tickets, the airmen would have seats among the 30,000 on the terrace below the podium, along with former members of Congress and others.
For logistical reasons, the actual invitation ended up with Robert Rose, a retired Air Force captain in Bellevue, Nebraska, who was not a Tuskegee airman but is the first vice president of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., an association of the original airmen and their supporters.
The association will extend the invitation to the airmen, who must respond by Dec. 19. Each can bring one guest. The tickets are not transferable.
"We'll have a lot of happy fellows and ladies," said Rose, who predicted that many would try to attend.
He said that before the invitation was made on Tuesday, he had already been trying to get word to higher-ups that the airmen would like to be invited. "I thought if the name 'Tuskegee' surfaced at a high enough level, someone would recognize it and it would make sense to invite them," he said.
There is no firm handle on how many of the airmen are still alive. More than 300 came forward in March 2007 to collect their bronze replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony at the Capitol. The Gold Medal itself was given to the Smithsonian Institution.
In all, 994 pilots and about 15,000 ground personnel collectively known as the Tuskegee Airmen were trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama from 1942 to 1946.
About 119 pilots and 211 ground personnel are still alive, according to Tuskegee Airmen Inc. They are in their 80s and 90s, many are frail, and it is unclear how many will be able to make the trip to Washington. And those who make it will face various challenges: they will most likely have to walk some distance, the weather could be harsh, the crowds will be huge and accommodations are scarce.
Still, these are some of the airmen who flew more than 150,000 sorties over Europe and North Africa during World War II, escorting Allied bombers and destroying hundreds of enemy aircraft. Some were taken prisoner. And most faced fierce discrimination during and after the war.
"Even the Nazis asked why they would fight for a country that treated them unfairly," President Bush said in awarding the medals.
Rose said he saw a direct connection between the Tuskegee experience and Obama's election.
If the airmen "hadn't helped generate a climate of tolerance by integration of the military, we might not have progressed through the civil rights era," he said. "We would have seen a different civil rights movement, if we would have seen one at all."
The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
BRUSSELS, Belgium: The main pilots' federation called for a ban on the public release of cockpit voice recordings from deadly crashes, saying Wednesday the final moments of accident victims should not be used for "public entertainment."
The London-based International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations also denounced the publication in Vanity Fair magazine of audio clips of an executive jet and a Boeing 737 involved in a deadly collision over Brazil two years ago.
The association said in a statement it was "outraged to learn that once again the cockpit voice recordings of aircraft involved in a fatal accident have been leaked and are being used by a media provider for public entertainment."
Vanity Fair released the complete audio recordings from the two jets involved in the mid-air crash over Brazil that killed 154 people in its January 2009 issue and on the magazine's Web site. They were attached to an article about the 2006 accident, "The Devil at 37,000 Feet."
The site also includes an interview with the author of the article, with snippets of audio from the actual accident sliced in. The pilots of the executive jet are heard saying "What happened?" while sounds from the 737 cockpit are obscured by the din of cockpit alarms.
Vanity Fair spokeswoman Beth Kseniak said in an e-mail that the magazine chose to make the recordings available "because they are newsworthy and serve as documentation to (the) article."
The cockpit voice recorder is one of two "black box" flight recorders carried by all civilian airliners. It records conversations on the flight deck and any radio instructions pilots receive via their headsets and is intended to help investigators in case of an accident.
Pilot groups do not object to the release of transcripts of the recordings. But they say it is disrespectful to the people in the cockpits and to their families to have their final moments replayed in the media.
Gideon Ewers of the international pilots group described it as morally and ethically wrong to use "actual recordings for anything other than accident investigation."
"They should never be used ... as a means to provide what can only be described as voyeuristic entertainment to the public at large," he said.
In the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board is legally banned from releasing the actual tapes. In most other countries, however, the legal requirements regarding the level of protection are less strict.
The collision of an Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet, flown by two American pilots, with a Boeing 737 belonging to Brazil's GOL airlines over the Amazon jungle spotlighted problems within Brazil's air transport system. The Boeing crashed into the Amazon jungle, killing all onboard, but the business jet landed safely.
On Tuesday, a federal judge in Sao Paolo threw out negligence charges against the two New York pilots accused of contributing to the crash, but refused to dismiss charges similar to involuntary manslaughter. The judge also dismissed some of the charges against four Brazilian air traffic controllers.
By Sarah Lyall
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
SARK, Channel Islands: No one ever claimed it was normal to have a feudal government run by a bunch of unelected landowners whose legislative sessions began with rousing recitations of the Lord's Prayer in French. But the community always seemed to work, in its strange way.
"It's the kind of place where you'd never be left in your house dead for four or five days," said Peter Gabriel-Byrne, a singer-songwriter and sometime construction worker here.
Maybe not anymore. An angry dispute has poisoned relations among the 600 residents of this tiny island in the English Channel not far from the coast of Normandy as it prepares for its first democratic election, on Wednesday. The fight, over two different visions of Sark's future, has ripped families apart and turned lifelong friends into implacable enemies.
The mood is "vicious," said Amanda de Carteret, whose husband is descended from Helier de Carteret, Sark's first hereditary ruler, or seigneur, who received the island as a feudal landholding from Queen Elizabeth I in 1565. "Everyone's falling out with each other."
All the Channel Islands are peculiar in their own ways, but Sark is particularly peculiar. Considered a crown dependency, though by and large independent of Britain, Sark has no cars, income tax, unemployment or social security.
There is one jail cell, rarely occupied. The only way to get here is by boat, weather permitting. People travel on the alternately dusty and muddy roads by bicycle and in horse-drawn carts, goods are transported by tractor, and every year the seigneur pays the queen a sum equal to one-twentieth of a knight's service fee: £1.79, or about $2.65.
Until now, the legislature, known as Chief Pleas, has been made up mostly of the owners of the island's 40 plots of land, called tenements (pronounced tai-ne-MONT, in a vaguely Norman French way). This year, however, the legislature voted to replace itself with a fully elected 28-seat body. Wednesday's election will decide its makeup.
But the happy shift to democracy has been marred by extraordinary amounts of bad blood and ill will, reflected in the candidates running for Chief Pleas. On one side are the people who feel that Sark, in all its sleepy friendliness, should be left to make its own decisions as it always has, albeit now with democracy. The other side supports the development plans of a pair of reclusive identical-twin British billionaires who have bought up more than one-fifth of Sark in the last few years and feel its future should include paved roads, cars and a helicopter landing pad.
The pair, David and Frederick Barclay, also own the Ritz Hotel in London and The Daily Telegraph newspaper, among other things. In 1993, they bought Brecqhou, a 200-acre island next to Sark, from Sark for a reported £2.33 million, or about $3.5 million. (They had to pay a 13th of the price, known as a treizième, to the seigneur, a practice they found irksome; the custom has since been abolished.)
The Barclays built an enormous turreted gothic castle on Brecqhou and live there, traveling by helicopter. Though they rarely visit Sark, they are its largest investors. If things go their way, said Kevin Delaney, their estate manager here, they plan to invest some £5 million a year, or about $7.4 million, in Sark.
According to ancient Norman law, people here who believe their rights are being violated can halt the offending action by dropping to their knees, raising one hand and crying out in front of witnesses "Haro, Haro, Haro!" followed by a French phrase meaning, roughly, "I have been done wrong." Many of the old-timers appear to wish they could invoke something similar when confronted with the Barclays.
They say that the Barclays' attitude toward Sark is like that of a woman who professes to love a man and then, after marrying him, proceeds to try to change everything about him.
The critics say that the brothers have run roughshod over a once peaceful community, throwing their money around and then threatening to withdraw it, lobbing continual antigovernment lawsuits and ad hominem attacks at the old feudal rulers and trying to push through an un-Sarkian view of the future.
"We're in danger of going from feudalism to dictatorship," said Diane Baker, a member of Chief Pleas who is running in Wednesday's election. Speaking of the literature put out by the pro-Barclay camp, she added, "They called my husband a feudal Taliban, just because he was on the committee that refused permission to let them build a helipad."
On the contrary, Delaney said, the Barclays had all but saved a crumbling community, providing year-round employment, buying up neglected properties and restoring the boarded-up stores on one side of the Avenue, Sark's main (and only) shopping street.
"What is at stake is the economy, the economy, the economy," said Delaney, who is running for a seat in Wednesday's election, "and the tourist industry is the engine that drives the economy."
Despite the sudden onslaught of democracy, he said, the island is still operating the way it always has, as a feudal state, with shadowy decisions based on favoritism and patronage being made behind closed doors.
"I haven't come to ring the doorbell and ask that feudalism come down," he said. "I've come to smash the door down."
Jacqueline Squires, a 60-year-old housekeeper at the Aval du Creux, a hotel on Sark that is owned by the Barclays, said the old guard was missing the point, which is that the Barclays had been a financial boon to the island. "They're having their cages rattled, and they don't like it," she said of the critics.
But Charles Maitland, a candidate who wears a button with a photograph of a helicopter and the words "No Thanks," compared the Barclays' move into Sark to the invasion of Iraq.
"I think the Barclays came in thinking that everyone would be thrilled to get rid of the old tyranny," he said. "But a lot of old-timers liked the old system."
Speaking of the Barclays, his wife, Wendy, added, "They should have gone for hearts and minds, but instead they went for shock and awe."
By Richard Pérez-Peña
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
NEW YORK: The bankruptcy filing of Tribune this week is just the latest, largest evidence that the U.S. newspaper industry is suffering a hangover from an immense buying spree in 2006 and 2007 at what turned out to be the worst possible time for the buyers, just as the business was about to enter a drastic decline.
Newspapers would be in trouble either way. The steady leak of advertising and readers from print to the Web has become a torrent in this recession year. Most newspapers remain profitable, but the margins are dropping fast, with the industry losing about 15 percent of its ad revenue this year.
And that is not just in the United States. ZenithOptimedia this week projected ad spending in major media to decline 1 percent in Western Europe and global spending to be down slightly in 2009, by about $1 billion, or 0.2 percent, to $490.5 billion.
In Europe, newspapers have encountered similar trends as in the United States, especially in France, where the two leading French national dailies, Le Figaro and Le Monde, have each recently made deep cuts in their staffs. The two main French business papers, Les Échos and La Tribune, were recently sold.
In the United States, the companies in the weakest condition are there largely because they borrowed a lot of money to buy papers, often at inflated prices, and the biggest of those deals were struck in 2006 and early 2007. Tribune's was the biggest of those, $8.2 billion to take private a company whose assets include The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and 23 television stations. The transaction almost tripled the company's debt.
In the year before that takeover was announced, McClatchy bought Knight Ridder, including papers like The Miami Herald and The Kansas City Star; the MediaNews Group bought several papers, including The San Jose Mercury News and The Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minnesota; investors in Philadelphia bought The Inquirer and The Daily News; a private equity firm, Avista Capital Partners, bought The Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Smaller companies like GateHouse Media bought dozens of local papers.
Even if those deals could be unwound, "the business would still be in pretty difficult shape," said John Puchalla, a senior analyst for Moody's Investors Service.
"It wouldn't have changed the downturn," he said. "But it sure would have changed the vulnerability to the downturn. Ten to 15 years ago, most newspapers were carrying a pretty low amount of debt. But companies have levered up over time, and in the last couple of years, some companies pushed it too far."
Most newspapers still have earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization that are equal to 10 percent to 20 percent of their revenue. That is down from 20 percent to 30 percent in the middle of this decade, but tolerable - if not for the burden of debt payments.
McClatchy and MediaNews have paid down their debts to more manageable levels, but they also had to negotiate new terms this year with their creditors. Freedom Communications, which publishes The Orange County Register, warned recently that it might not be in compliance with the cash-flow requirements in its debt covenants.
Credit ratings for nearly every newspaper company judged by the major ratings agencies have been downgraded well below investment grade.
Some newspaper companies would like to merge with others in the same region but have been barred from doing so by media ownership regulations.
Putting papers up for sale, as several troubled companies have done, will not solve the industry's problems, said David Joyce, a media analyst at Miller Tabak, a small investment banking firm.
"Selling assets also means selling off cash flow, and they need that cash flow to service the debt," he said. "And any sales would be fairly close to fire-sale prices, because people aren't buying assets, especially in the newspaper business."
There are some exceptions to this story, including Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the United States.
By Garrison Keillor
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
The Christmas tree in Rice Park in St. Paul, Minnesota, is taller than the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York, 90 feet compared to 72, but New York's is the Tree de la Tree, the Tree Iconic, the one that we'll see on national TV, just as the Tonys get the attention even though there's better theater out in the hinterlands than most of the gilded schlock on Broadway. And it's The New York Times whose imprimatur you want on your book, movie, CD, TV show, dill pickles, your child's science project, the sweater you knit for your sister, and so forth. It is the National Good Taste Stamp of Quality, issued by wizened gnomes on Eighth Avenue.
We who live out in the frozen cornfields of the Midwest understand this very well and we don't mind. We are a modest people with much to be modest about, self-effacing, anxious to efface ourselves and not wait for others to do the job. We could, if we chose to, despise New York, especially if we thought about former Mayor Giuliani's curled-lip, bared-teeth speech at the 2008 Republican convention, sneering at Barack Obama as a city slicker. But we do not think about that. We admire New Yorkers for many, many things, for their excellent transit system that gives you close encounters with interesting individuals, their handy street-corner hot dogs, and also their ability to express personal preference, which we dirt farmers lost a long time ago. It was frowned out of us when we were children.
It seems so simple - say what you want, say what you think - but we gave up the ability in order to be unselfish and sociable and not be monsters, and so if we're asked what we want to do, we say, "Hey. Whatever you want. Makes no difference. Suit yourself." And having suppressed our likes and dislikes for so long, we are not sure what we want, or even who we are.
What I want is to be in New York in December, so here I am. The people I know in this city are whole-hearted people who tell you what they prefer, the noodles in garlic sauce or General Tso's Seven Joys of Meat Loaf. If you step on their toes, they don't smile and step back and then brood about it for six months, they say something terse and meaningful and let that be the end of it.
If they feel like crying, they do that. It's O.K. to cry in New York. You can sit on the subway, tears running down your cheeks, and no one will think less of you. Try this sometime. People may offer you some of their medication, or tell you about something going on in their life that's even worse. You could suddenly find yourself with three or four new best friends.
Our jolly old Santa Claus was a New York invention. The Dutch brought over a gaunt, stern-faced Santa who looked over your activities with a hairy eye and maybe gave you a box of chocolates or maybe a kick in the pants. The Santa of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" is a New York version, fat and his belly jiggles when he laughs. He opens up his big bag and pours out the goods.
We the people of the tundra feel that if we asked for something - say, a peppermint stick - that would mean we'd never taste peppermint again. "A peppermint stick! Who do you think you are?" Santa would yell. "Greedy little wretch. Go back to your stool in the corner and finish your gruel."
Christmas is a New York type of holiday. It's pure Christian entrepreneurship. Pure muscle. The early church fathers intended to give the faithful a big feast day very close to the pagan feast day of Saturnalia, sort of like one chain putting up a store next to a competitor. It worked. Paganism went belly up, and it was all Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, 24/7 coast to coast. Dickens shilled for it, Irving Berlin, and it's all about pleasure, food, bright lights, high spirits, glittering trinkets, razzmatazz. It is pure Broadway.
The Puritans didn't think much of it, and neither did my father. And I have my own problems with it. The great unspoken question of Christmas is, "What do you want? What would make you happy?" I don't know. Just give me some of what those people over there are having. They look happy. I'll have what they're having.
Garrison Keillor is the author of a new Lake Wobegon novel, "Liberty." Distributed by Tribune Media Services.
By Susan Saulny, Monica Daveyand Jack Healy
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
CHICAGO: Little in Governor Rod Blagojevich's background prepared the people of Illinois for the man who was revealed in the criminal complaint that has dropped like a bombshell here. Delusional, narcissistic, vengeful and profane, Blagojevich as portrayed by federal prosecutors shocked even his most ardent detractors.
"I almost fell over," said Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and a frequent critic of the governor. "I was speechless and sickened."
President-elect Barack Obama said Wednesday that Blagojevich should resign, adding his voice to a long list of Illinois political leaders who have urged the governor to step down after his arrest on accusations of putting Obama's former U.S. Senate seat up for sale. Several Illinois politicians hoped to strip Blagojevich of his appointment authority or even to impeach him.
"Under the current circumstances, it is difficult for the governor to effectively do his job and serve the people of Illinois," said Robert Gibbs, an Obama spokesman.
Legislators will reconvene Monday to address the political fallout from Blagojevich's arrest and are expected to draft a bill that would call for a special election to fill Obama's Senate seat, an approach Obama's spokesman endorsed Wednesday.
A bill could pass as soon as Tuesday. But Blagojevich could veto or delay it, taking no action at all for as long as 60 days. More than 50 lawmakers have signed a draft bill to pursue possible impeachment.
Some went further. Mike Jacobs, a Democratic state senator and former friend of the governor, suggested that Blagojevich may have lost his grip on reality. "I'm not sure he's playing with a full deck anymore," Jacobs said. "He's so gifted, but so flawed in a number of fundamental areas."
Drama and suspicion have long surrounded Blagojevich, a 52-year-old Democrat known for his quirky love of Elvis and a big black signature hairstyle. Though he ran for office as a reformer, he has been embroiled for years in a federal fraud investigation.
More recently, his reputation was badly damaged after the corruption trial of the political fund-raiser Antoin Rezko, who was convicted in June of fraud and bribery. Blagojevich's name surfaced repeatedly during the trial, and the governor's approval rating, according to The Chicago Tribune, has sunk to 13 percent.
Yet, despite what looked like his lead role over many years in a political theater of the absurdly corrupt, Blagojevich, the seemingly earnest son of a Serbian steelworker, was not charged with any wrongdoing.
Tuesday changed that. It was not simply the extortion and venality with which he was charged that left mouths gaping, but the ruthlessness and grandiosity revealed in the federal wiretap transcripts.
The language he used was more suited to Chicago's old stockyards than to a government office, according to the affidavit, and the quid pro quo he seemed to suggest between his power to appoint and the payoff he expected in return was crassly put. "I've got this thing," Blagojevich said, "and it's [expletive] golden. And I'm just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing. I'm not going to do it. And I can always use it. I can parachute me there."
The U.S. attorney in Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald, said that "Governor Blagojevich and others were working furiously to get as much money from contractors, shaking them down, 'pay to play,' before the end of the year," when new ethics laws take effect.
Canary, the reform advocate, said that such actions were not part of the classic style of Chicago corruption.
"He was raised in the old Chicago ward system where the most important principle is loyalty," she said. "It's about protecting one another, spreading perks, and earning personal power. It's not about huge personal enrichment." But that, according to the 76-page criminal complaint, seems to be exactly what Blagojevich was after.
He came into office with a very different persona. As a young congressman, Blagojevich was pegged as a rising star with a populist touch. With proven likability, he seemed hellbent on pushing reform and cleaning house in a state with an embarrassingly overt culture of political corruption.
He swept into the governor's office in 2002 mainly on promises that he would restore integrity after the previous chief executive, George Ryan, was sent to federal prison for racketeering and fraud.
Blagojevich's big dreams were no secret. The federal complaint suggested that he had his eyes trained on the presidency in 2016, despite the well-known investigation under way.
A lawyer for the governor said he has denied any wrongdoing.
Blagojevich's arrest stunned a state that thought it had seen every brand of corruption, creating doubt over how or when Obama's successor in the Senate might be selected; it left many wondering who else might yet be implicated in the governor's brash negotiations.
Obama, who Fitzgerald said was not implicated, said Tuesday that he did not discuss his Senate seat with Blagojevich. "I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so we were not - I was not aware of what was happening," Obama said.
Obama has long adroitly straddled the state's bruising politics, but he had long been estranged from the governor, even though some in his political circle have had relationships with both of them, including Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff.
In conversations with advisers that were recorded by the FBI, the governor seemed alternately boastful, flippant and spiteful about the Senate appointment, a federal affidavit showed. At times, he even spoke of appointing himself to the job.
Blagojevich was released from custody Tuesday on a $4,500 recognizance bond. A hearing in federal court will be held in January to determine whether there is probable cause to go forward.
According to the affidavit, Blagojevich considered numerous ways that he might personally and politically gain from the various unnamed Senate candidates.
Blagojevich was recorded telling an adviser on Oct. 31, before the election, that he was giving greater consideration to one candidate (described only as Senate Candidate 5) after an approach by "an associate" of that candidate who offered to raise $500,000 for Blagojevich.
Several people whose names have been suggested publicly as Senate possibilities did not respond to requests for interviews. Others, including Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., son of the famed civil-rights leader, issued statements expressing shock over the accusations but did not answer requests for interviews.
Jackson met with Blagojevich for 90 minutes on Monday to discuss the Senate opening. ABC News quoted unnamed sources on Wednesday as saying that Jackson was Senate Candidate 5 and federal authorities confirmed the report.
Jackson told ABC that he did not know whether he was the anonymous Candidate 5, adding that federal prosecutors in Chicago advised him he was not a target of the criminal inquiry. But he said they had asked him to submit to questions about the selection process by Blagojevich to fill the seat.
In November, Blagojevich asserted to an adviser, the affidavit says, that he knew whom Obama wanted named as his successor - described in the affidavit as Senate Candidate 1, a reference apparently to Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama - but cursed him in apparent frustration that "they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation." Jarrett later took her name out of consideration for the post.
Jack Healy, Steven Greenhouse, Jeff Zeleny, Carl Hulse and David Johnston contributed reporting.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
We have seen a lot of political hubris, scratch-my-back politics and sheer stupidity over the years. But nothing could prepare us for the charges brought Tuesday against Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois.
The governor's administration was already under investigation into whether it has been selling appointments to state boards and commissions and awarding contracts and jobs in exchange for financial benefits and campaign contributions.
So what does the FBI claim Blagojevich was up to while the feds were watching him? According to an FBI affidavit, in recent weeks the governor plotted to sell off the U.S. Senate seat just vacated by President-elect Barack Obama to the highest bidder.
In exchange, the authorities said Blagojevich was looking for a substantial salary for himself at a foundation or an organization affiliated with labor unions, a highly paid position for his wife on corporate boards, a cabinet post or ambassadorship for himself or promises of future campaign funds.
The affidavit also claims that the governor weighed the option of appointing himself should no financially lucrative offer materialize.
All this was recorded on court-authorized wiretaps that any target of an investigation would have to assume were in place.
The U.S. attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, was clear that the complaint makes no allegations against Obama. Indeed, it quotes Blagojevich cursing the president-elect and his team "because they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation."
Blagojevich, a Democrat, was elected in 2002 after pledging to restore honor to the Illinois governor's office. His predecessor, Republican George Ryan, was convicted on federal fraud and racketeering charges and is now in prison. Blagojevich has urged President George W. Bush to reduce Ryan's sentence to time served as an act of compassion. It makes one wonder if the governor sensed that, somewhere down the line, he might need some of that compassion himself.
Blagojevich must be deemed innocent until proved guilty. But surely the recorded conversations, full of expletive-laced schemes, render him unfit to appoint anyone, least of all himself, to the vacant Senate seat.
If he refuses to step aside, the Illinois Legislature should move to bypass him by removing his appointment power, impeaching him or scheduling a special election. Certainly no self-respecting candidate should accept an appointment by Blagojevich.
By Timothy Egan
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
For some time now, the most unpopular governor in the United States, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, has been treated like a flu virus at a nursing home.
"He's kryptonite," one state representative called him in a Chicago Magazine profile last February. "Nobody wants to get near him."
But it wasn't until Tuesday, and the filing of a 76-page criminal complaint centered around the auctioning of a Senate seat, that we got a full X-ray of politics at its sickest.
Putting aside the peculiar dialect of desperation that made the governor sound like a John Malkovich character in a David Mamet play, the complaint showed a man trolling the depths of darkness.
The beloved Cubs, the sainted Warren Buffett, editorial writers from the Chicago Tribune, even financing for a children's hospital - all were targets or leverage points for a shakedown. The surprise is that he didn't offer to sell out exclusive rights to deep-dish pizza.
If the world was roused by the sight from Chicago barely one month ago, hundreds of thousands of people streaming into Grant Park to celebrate the triumph of possibility over tainted history, the arrest of Blagojevich on a dark and drizzly Chicago dawn was quite the opposite image.
Abe Lincoln may have rolled over once in pleasant surprise at the election of Barack Obama, and another time in revulsion at Blagojevich's arrest, as prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said. More likely, Abe did a triple Lutz in his grave on Tuesday.
If nothing else, Blagojevich did Obama the favor of a non-endorsement quote for the ages. According to the federal transcript, the governor showed disgust, barely a week after Obama's election, that he could not get anything in return for offering the Senate seat to an ally of the president-elect. "They're not willing to give me anything except appreciation," the governor says, as outlined in the criminal complaint.
It would be comforting if there were a larger lesson here, or a map out of the banality of evil. But there is no trend or modern twist, no evidence of a greater criminal web, no overarching moral. Like a kid who beats up old ladies just because he knows no other way, the allegations against Blagojevich amount to what Fitzgerald called a crime spree, of the political variety.
The prosecutor's narrative of plotting bad intentions and narcissism - Blago actually thought he was a viable candidate for president in 2016 - is a particularly graphic example of why some men see things as they are and ask: What's in it for me?
Fitzgerald, who prosecuted Scooter Libby under the pressure of a White House not used to getting questioned by anyone, is the son of a Manhattan doorman and the product of Catholic schools at their finest. It's unlikely that his dad ever heard anything to match the conversations captured by federal wiretaps in Illinois.
Like all damaged politicians, the Blagojevich in the complaint knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
What's a Senate seat worth? "Golden," and the governor vowed that he would not give it up for nothing.
How about help for the Tribune Co.'s attempt to sell Wrigley Field and the Cubs? That would require getting rid of editorial writers who had called for his resignation. Fire them all, Blagojevich is quoted as having said, adding, "And get us some editorial support."
Aid for a children's hospital? That would require a contribution of at least $50,000.
On and on it goes, trash talk of the want-to-be-rich-and-infamous. Even by Illinois standards, where the path from the Statehouse to the jailhouse holds the footprints of numerous governors, Tuesday's arrest and complaint was breathtaking.
"If it isn't the most corrupt state in the United States," said Robert Grant, a FBI special agent, "it's one hell of a competitor."
On Monday, the eve of his arrest, Blagojevich showed that he could include hubris among his many flirtations with disaster. At a rally of out-of-work factory hands soiled by his presence, he all but asked to be followed and recorded.
"I should say if anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead," he said. "I can tell you whatever I say is always lawful."
Then, like Huey Long at his most egregious, he cast himself as the person who has nothing to sell but an honest day's labor. If you were to tape him, he added, you would hear a governor "who tirelessly and endlessly figures out ways to help average, ordinary working people."
Substitute one word - himself - for working people, and you have the essence of Blagojevich.
Timothy Egan writes Outposts, a column at nytimes.com.
By Monica Davey
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
CHICAGO: Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., long seen here as someone who was willing, even happy, to clash with this city's old power structure, found himself tangled up on Wednesday in the fallout from the arrest of Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois — now a symbol of that old, unseemly political way.
Jackson was described in an affidavit filed in Blagojevich's arrest as one of at least six people being considered by the governor to fill President-elect Barack Obama's unfinished term in the United States Senate in exchange for money or a new job.
Specifically, federal authorities said, Jackson is "Senate Candidate 5," associates of whom, the governor said in a wire-tapped conversation, were willing to raise money for Blagojevich in exchange for the seat.
Jackson, an ambitious Democrat elected to Congress 13 years ago and the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader, made a defiant appearance before reporters in Washington on Wednesday, denying unequivocally that he had offered Blagojevich anything in exchange for the Senate seat or had sanctioned any offer by an intermediary, as Blagojevich seemed to suggest in recordings.
"I did not initiate or authorize anyone at any time to promise anything to Governor Blagojevich on my behalf," Jackson said. "I never sent a message or an emissary to the governor to make an offer, to plead my case or to propose a deal about a U.S. Senate seat, period."
It was an awkward moment for Jackson, who has successfully portrayed himself as an outsider, a reformer willing to buck the wishes of Mayor Richard Daley, Blagojevich and others on matters like his support for a third Chicago airport.
Jackson's sparring with the political establishment had become so well understood that when Jackson and Daley hugged at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, others in the Illinois delegation said they were astonished, and Jackson, apparently overwhelmed by the unlikely moment, welled up with tears.
Jackson, 43, represents the South Side of Chicago, where he grew up, and a swath of southern suburbs. He has long benefited, political experts said, from his father's name and fame, winning a seat in Congress at the age of 30 after working as a national field organizer for his father's organization, Rainbow PUSH.
But Jackson has also worked to distance himself from his father's image and define his own style and agenda, the experts said. He worked to create a center to eliminate health disparities, pushed to bring clean drinking water to a community in his district and supported the financing of preparatory school programs for more young people.
Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former city alderman, described Jackson as "probably the strongest African-American politician in Illinois at the moment."
Jackson's relationship with Obama has been warm. Jackson, whose sister Santita went to high school with Michelle Obama, served as a national co-chairman of Obama's presidential campaign and as a co-chairman of his Senate race in 2004. That year, Obama approached Jackson about whether he was considering a run for the Senate before Obama decided to pursue it. ( Jackson said he had decided against it and gave Obama his blessing.)
This year, when a microphone he thought was turned off caught Jackson's father making crude, critical remarks about Obama, accusing him of "talking down to black people," Jackson publicly criticized the comments. "I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric," he said of his father's comments.
In the past month, Jackson, who is not seen as having as strong support statewide as he has in Chicago, made clear his interest in being appointed to replace Obama. His aides even commissioned a poll, not long after the election, showing Jackson as having the strongest support among the names that were being talked about.
"Jesse has wanted to be Obama's heir apparent ever since Obama won the Senate seat," said Al Kindle, a South Side political consultant who helped Obama in the 2004 race. Since then, he said, Jackson "has tried to reposition himself to appeal to a broader audience."
Since Blagojevich's arrest on Tuesday, prosecutors have cautioned against presuming any wrongdoing on the part of the long list of characters named in the federal affidavit as "Advisor," "Individual," "Senate Candidate," "President-Elect advisor" or "Contributor." Unclear from the affidavit is whether the alleged efforts Blagojevich discussed to secure money or a high-paying job for himself or his wife in exchange for the Senate job were entirely in his own imagination, firm agreements with others, or something in between.
Of those alluded to, the affidavit's implications seemed especially troubling for Jackson, or Senate Candidate Five. According to the document, Blagojevich told advisers last Thursday that he was giving Jackson "greater consideration" to replace Obama because Jackson would raise money for him, "upfront, maybe."
"We were approached, pay to play," Blagojevich was recorded telling his advisers. "That, you know, he would raise me 500 grand. An emissary came. Then the other guy would raise a million, if I made him a senator."
And Blagojevich told one of his fund-raisers to pursue a potential financial donor who Blagojevich believed was a supporter of Jackson by saying that if the governor selected Jackson for the Senate, "some of this stuff's got to start happening now — right now — and we've got to see it. You understand?"
Jackson said he had spoken with federal prosecutors on Tuesday and was assured that he was not a target of the inquiry or accused of misconduct. He said he intended to offer his cooperation. He had met with Blagojevich for 90 minutes on Monday, the day before the arrest. It was, Jackson said, the first time the two had met in four years.
"I thought, mistakenly, that the process was fair, above board and on the merits," Jackson said Wednesday. "I thought, mistakenly, that the governor was evaluating me and other Senate hopefuls based upon our credentials and qualifications."
By Mike Mcintire and Jeff Zeleny
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
In a sequence of events that neatly captures the contradictions of Barack Obama's rise through Illinois politics, a phone call he made three months ago to urge passage of a state ethics bill indirectly contributed to the downfall of a fellow Democrat he twice supported, Governor Rod Blagojevich.
Obama placed the call to his political mentor, Emil Jones Jr., president of the Illinois Senate. Jones was a critic of the legislation, which sought to curb the influence of money in politics, as was Blagojevich, who had vetoed it. But after the call from Obama, the Senate overrode the veto, prompting the governor to press state contractors for campaign contributions before the law's restrictions could take effect on Jan. 1, prosecutors say.
Tipped off to Blagojevich's efforts, federal agents obtained wiretaps for his phones and eventually overheard what they say was scheming by the governor to profit from his appointment of a successor to the United States Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Obama. One official whose name has long been mentioned in Chicago political circles as a potential successor is Jones, a machine politician who was viewed as a roadblock to ethics reform but is friendly with Obama.
Beyond the irony of its outcome, Obama's unusual decision to inject himself into a statewide issue during the height of his presidential campaign was a reminder that despite his historic ascendancy to the White House, he has never quite escaped the murky and insular world of Illinois politics. It is a world he has long navigated, to the consternation of his critics, by engaging in a kind of realpolitik, Chicago-style, which allowed him to draw strength from his relationships with important players without becoming compromised by their many weaknesses.
By the time Obama intervened on the ethics measure, his relationship with Blagojevich, always defined more by political proximity than by personal chemistry, had cooled as the governor became increasingly engulfed in legal troubles. There is nothing in the criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday to indicate that Obama knew anything about plans to seek money and favors in exchange for his Senate seat; he has never been implicated in any other "pay to play" cases that have emerged from the long-running investigation of the Blagojevich administration.
But like those previous cases, this latest one features political characters who figure in various stages of Obama's climb from little-known state senator to presidential candidate, and who have since become politically radioactive because of corruption scandals. Some of those relationships posed a threat to Obama during the presidential campaign, forcing him to return tens of thousands of dollars in tainted campaign contributions and providing fodder for attack ads by rival candidates.
Though extreme examples, they were emblematic of the path cut by Obama through Chicago politics, where he became known for making alliances of convenience with personalities that seemed antithetical to his self-image of a progressive reformer. His political roots were in the left-leaning neighborhood of Hyde Park, but at key moments in his career he did not hesitate to form relationships with politicians who were fixtures of the Democratic machine.
When he ran for the United States Senate in 2004, he aggressively courted Jones, a sewer inspector turned legislator who had clawed his way up through ward politics and was viewed as something of a kingmaker in the Illinois Democratic Party. He also formed a good working relationship with Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, a symbol of establishment politics with whom Obama had never been close.
Obama was an adviser to Blagojevich's first campaign for governor, in 2002, and endorsed him again in 2006, even though by that time questions had been raised about the possible selling of state jobs. Obama has also credited one of Blagojevich's closest confidants, Antoin Rezko, a businessman who was convicted of corruption charges this year, with helping him get his own start in politics.
Rezko was among the first to contribute to Obama's earliest State Senate race, in 1995, and later became a major fund-raiser for his campaign for the United States Senate. Rezko was known around Chicago as a collector of politicians, and he did not hesitate to make the most of his high-level contacts. The New York Times reported last year that when he was entertaining Middle Eastern financiers at a Four Seasons hotel in Chicago, he arranged for Blagojevich and Obama to drop by, separately and on different occasions, to impress his guests.
Rezko derived his political influence mainly from his close relationship with Blagojevich, who relied on him to recommend loyal campaign contributors for state appointments to boards and commissions, according to the complaint unsealed on Tuesday. But as Rezko's legal troubles escalated, Illinois politicians who had previously found him useful, including Obama, disavowed him and started returning his campaign donations.
Obama's relationship with Blagojevich was not much better when he made the decision to call Jones in September about the stalled ethics bill. For Obama, the move marked an unusual return to Illinois politics, turf from which he had studiously worked to distance himself throughout the presidential race. At the time, one week before the first presidential debate of the general election campaign, Republicans were trying to tarnish him in the eyes of voters by attempting to link him to Chicago's history of corrupt politics.
Obama used leverage that he had seldom employed — publicly, anyway — and strongly urged Jones to bypass Blagojevich and approve the ethics law that would ban the so-called pay-for-play system of influence peddling in Illinois. When asked at the time how Obama had come to be involved, Jones replied, "He's a friend."
When the Illinois Senate passed the measure by 55 to 0 on Sept. 22, with Jones reversing his position, Obama praised the move as one creating "a tougher ethics law that will reduce the influence of money over our state's political process." Obama's intervention deepened a rift between him and Blagojevich that had been growing for some time.
When Blagojevich left Congress in 2002, he talked openly about the notion of running for president one day. After he was elected governor, and after Senator John Kerry lost the presidential race in 2004, he began eyeing a potential run in 2008.
It was short-lived. The federal corruption investigation that eventually led to Rezko's indictment, and Tuesday's charges against Blagojevich, had already begun to taint the governor's administration. And by 2006, Obama had eclipsed the governor as a plausible national candidate, dashing his presidential aspirations.
The criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday underscored the acrimony between the two men. Recorded telephone calls showed Blagojevich being far less than respectful when discussing the president-elect and voicing frustration at his inability to advance beyond the governor's office.
"If I don't get what I want and I'm not satisfied with it, then I'll just take the Senate seat myself," the governor said, according to the criminal complaint. Later, he said the Senate seat was "a valuable thing — you just don't give it away for nothing."
Meanwhile, Blagojevich was busily trying to shake loose up to $2.5 million in campaign donations, much of it from contributors with business before the state, according to federal prosecutors. The governor's goal was to bring in the money before the end of the year, the complaint said, "before a new state ethics law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2009."
By Andrew Jacobs
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
BEIJING: China marked international Human Rights Day on Wednesday with newspaper editorials and television commentaries hailing the country's "unremitting efforts" and "nonstop progress" in promoting free speech and individual rights.
It was also a busy day for public security officials, who were dispatched to quell a protest of about 40 people who rallied outside the gated headquarters of the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. After calling for free elections and demanding a crackdown on corruption for about 30 minutes, the demonstrators were herded onto buses and taken away.
For Liu Xiaobo, one of the most high-profile dissidents in China, Wednesday also marked the third day of detention for what friends and relatives say was his role in drafting a bold public letter that demands political, legal and constitutional reform. The document, published on the Internet and signed by 303 Chinese academics, artists, farmers and lawyers, was released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a product of the United Nations and a foundation for human rights laws around the world.
In recent days, the Chinese police have also detained several other signers, including Zhang Zuhua, a rights activist who was told the letter was a serious affront to the governing Communist Party. After 12 hours of questioning, Zhang was sent home, although the authorities kept his passport, four computers, some books and money.
"I told them this is just a civilian proposal and there's nothing to be afraid of," he said in a telephone interview shortly after his release. "But they said senior officials attach great importance to it. I don't think this is the end of it yet."
Human rights advocates said they were especially worried about the fate of Liu, who may be facing more serious charges of "inciting subversion of state power," a crime that carries a three-year prison sentence. It would not be Liu's first experience in the Chinese penal system. In 1989, he began 20 months in jail for his role in the pro-democracy protests near Tiananmen Square. In 1996, he was sentenced to three years of hard labor for criticizing the Communist Party.
Such experiences have done little to quiet Liu, 53, a former philosophy professor who directs the Independent Chinese PEN Center, an association of writers who advocate broader free speech.
The charter that Liu and others put together does not mince words. It describes the current system as "disastrous" and blames the government for "stripping people of their rights, destroying their dignity and corrupting normal human interaction." Among the charter's 19 recommendations are a new constitution, legislative democracy, freedom of religion and an independent judiciary.
"Authoritarianism is in general decline throughout the world," the document says. "In China, too, the era of emperors and overlords is on the way out. The time is arriving everywhere for citizens to be masters of states."
Pu Zhiqiang, a noted free speech lawyer and one of the signers, said the authorities should embrace the charter as a set of suggestions to help them reach the goals that have been annunciated in its own laws and directives.
"We're not saying anything new here," Pu said. "This is not some plot to overthrow the Communist Party."
He acknowledged, however, that the charter was making a big splash, and with the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown six months away, the authorities are wary of any kind of public agitation.
"This only shows they lack confidence in their rule and are afraid to confront history," he said.
Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said he feared the prosecution of Liu would signal that the government is taking a harder line against political dissidents. In recent years, he noted, public security officials have largely tolerated Liu's advocacy work but the charter, whose signers included economists, journalists and labor organizers, may have crossed a line.
"It cuts across social classes and brings together people from all over the country," he said. "This kind of thing traditionally rings alarm bells in police headquarters."
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the charter or Liu's detention, saying he did not know about either of them. The state-run China Daily marked Human Rights Day with a sprawling opinion piece by Wang Chen, minister of the State Council Information Office.
The full-page article documents China's long pursuit of human rights, noting that the country has 229 laws and 600 administrative decrees that protect individual rights. In 2004, Wang wrote, China added "respecting and protecting human rights" into the Constitution.
"I firmly believe that so long as we unswervingly implement the constitutional principle of respecting and protecting human rights, constantly improve democracy and the rule of law, our society will become more harmonious and people will live a still better life," he wrote.
But he ended his essay with a warning that pushing China on the issue would poison international relations and harm the growth of human rights.
"All people of all countries should enjoy freedom and equality," he wrote. "But restrained by economic development level, cultural traditions and social systems, people have different understandings and demands with regard to human rights."
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
By Ben Blanchard
The use of torture in the restless Chinese region of Tibet is widespread and routine and officials regularly ignore legal safeguards supposed to be in place to prevent it, a new report said Wednesday.
Even when detainees are released, they may die of their injuries, be scarred for life mentally or physically and not be able to afford medical treatment or be denied it completely, the Free Tibet group said.
"Despite claims by the Chinese government that there are 'extremely few cases of torture', the evidence tells a different story," Free Tibet director Stephanie Brigden said. "There is no doubt that the Chinese government is permitting the use of torture as a weapon to suppress the Tibetan people."
China's Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment and calls to the spokesman's office of the Chinese-run Tibetan government in Lhasa went unanswered.
Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950 and the region's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959 after a failed uprising against Beijing's rule.
Mountainous and remote Tibet was rocked by anti-Chinese protests earlier this year, which China blamed on the Dalai Lama, whom it brands a separatist. He has repeatedly denied the claims.
Free Tibet said it had profiled numerous cases of torture carried out against people detained following the demonstrations, which spilt over into other ethnically Tibetan parts of China such as Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces.
It said that one monk at the Labrang monastery in Gansu, Jigme Gyatso, had to be hospitalised for almost a month after his injuries received in detention.
"They would hang me up for several hours with my hands tied to a rope ... hanging from the ceiling and my feet above the ground. Then they would beat me on my face, chest, and back, with the full force of their fists," he said in the report.
"Finally, on one occasion, I lost consciousness and was taken to hospital. After I regained consciousness at the hospital, I was once again taken back to prison where they continued the practice of hanging me from the ceiling and beating me."
China has vowed to stamp out torture in its judicial system, described as widespread by some critics, in the face of international and domestic pressure.
Last month, the U.N. Committee Against Torture, in a rare public review of China's record, expressed dissatisfaction with a "very serious information gap" about abuses in the country where criminal justice information is often considered a state secret. Free Tibet, in the report issued to coincide with International Human Rights Day, said Chinese laws aimed at protecting detainees were regularly ignored in Tibet.
"The international community can no longer hide behind sound bites condemning China's human rights track record in Tibet and must now take specific actions to reverse the worsening crisis in Tibet," Brigden added.
China and envoys of the Dalai Lama have been meeting on and off for the past few years, but with little to show for their talks.
Beijing has rejected the Dalai Lama's calls for greater autonomy as being part of a plot for covert independence.
Wednesday, the semi-official China News Service quoted Si Ta, a deputy head of the United Front Work Department which handles relations with non-Communists and ethnic and religious minorities, as repeating that the door to talks was always open.
"The Party still has expectations of the Dalai Lama and plenty of patience, but 'Tibet independence', 'half independence' or 'covert independence' are unacceptable," it paraphrased him as saying in Washington.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
By James Vicini
Supreme Court justices voiced concern on Wednesday about including top U.S. government officials in a lawsuit by a Pakistani man claiming abuse while imprisoned in New York after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
They questioned whether Javaid Iqbal, who was held more than a year after the attacks, can proceed with his lawsuit against former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller without more evidence to support his claims.
"I don't know on what basis any of these allegations against the high-level officials are made," Justice Antonin Scalia told Alexander Reinert, the attorney arguing for Iqbal.
The Bush administration's top courtroom lawyer, Solicitor General Gregory Garre, argued that Ashcroft and Mueller have immunity, that they cannot be held personally liable and that the lawsuit against them must be dismissed.
The issue before the Supreme Court involved only whether the lawsuit against Ashcroft and Mueller can continue and did not address the claims of mistreatment by other current and former government officials.
Garre said the policy the two top law enforcement officials adopted after the September 11 attacks was to hold the suspects until cleared by the FBI. He denied Iqbal's claim that Ashcroft and Mueller approved of discriminatory acts or misconduct by lower-level officials.
Iqbal, a Muslim, said in the lawsuit he was subjected to verbal and physical abuse and to unlawful ethnic and religious discrimination.
Chief Justice John Roberts expressed doubt to Reinert that the lawsuit against Ashcroft and Mueller can go forward.
"What you have to allege are some facts showing that they knew of a policy that was discriminatory based on ethnicity and country of origin," Roberts said.
Besides Ashcroft and Mueller, Iqbal sued about 30 other current or former U.S. government officials, including the warden at the detention facility and the director of the federal Bureau of Prisons. He seeks unspecified damages.
Justice John Paul Stevens asked whether the lawsuit against the lower-level officials could go forward, that Mueller and Ashcroft could be dismissed as defendants for now and added later if evidence turned up against them.
In the weeks after the September 11 attacks, U.S. authorities detained 762 noncitizens, almost all Muslims or Arabs. Many of those held at the federal prison in Brooklyn suffered verbal and physical abuse, the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general found.
Justice Stephen Breyer said the U.S. government takes the position that those detained came from the same region of the world as the September 11 hijackers and the detention policy was adopted with the purpose of preventing further attacks.
He questioned Reinert on whether the lawsuit should be allowed to drag on for years and take up the time of Ashcroft and Mueller.
Iqbal was arrested for having false Social Security papers. He pleaded guilty in 2002, was released in 2003 and deported to Pakistan. The lawsuit was filed in 2004.
The U.S. government paid $300,000 to settle with Iqbal's co-plaintiff and fellow detainee Ehab Elmaghraby, an Egyptian.
A Supreme Court ruling in the case is expected by June.
(Editing by David Wiessler)
The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
BUENOS AIRES: Inside a once secret detention center where political dissidents were tortured and killed during Argentina's dictatorship 25 years ago, forensic anthropologists have discovered a pit containing 10,000 bone fragments.
The discovery, the first of human remains in a detention center, supports the testimony of hundreds of survivors who have said for years that the authorities tortured and killed political opponents and burned their bodies.
"This scientifically confirms the testimonies of the detained," said Luis Fondebrider, a forensic anthropologist who helped uncover the remains in the former detention center in La Plata known as Arana.
The bone fragments were unearthed between February and September, and Fondebrider and his team announced Tuesday that the remains were human. Now, months of laboratory work is needed to determine even the minimum number of bodies that were destroyed in the pit.
But the evidence already shows that bodies were thrown into the pit, covered with fuel and burned along with tires, to mask the smell of burning flesh. More than 200 bullet marks were found along an adjacent wall.
The bones were not completely reduced to ash, allowing for genetic analysis to identify the dead. But Fondebrider cautioned that it would not be possible to identify many of the victims, because prolonged exposure to fire destroys most DNA.
"This is the first time there is proof that Arana wasn't only a detention and torture center, but also a center of elimination," said Marta Vedio, legal chairwoman for the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights La Plata.
Some backers of the military dictatorship have denied that detainees were tortured or killed, despite the well-documented toll from the so-called dirty war, a crackdown in which political opponents of the junta disappeared with their spouses, children and other innocent people whose names were in their address books.
Official records put the number who disappeared at 13,000. Human rights groups say 30,000 were killed.
By Meraiah Foley
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
SYDNEY: The Australian government plans to test a nationwide Web filter that would require Internet service providers to block access to thousands of sites containing illegal content.
The proposed filter is part of a 125.8 million Australian dollar, or $82 million, "cyber-safety plan" begun in May with the goals of protecting children and stopping adults from downloading content whose possession is illegal in Australia, like child pornography or terrorist materials.
But the plan has sparked opposition from online advocacy groups and industry experts who say it would slow browsing speeds and do little to block undesirable content.
Last month, the minister of communications, Stephen Conroy, invited Internet service providers, or ISPs, and mobile phone operators to participate in a live trial of the program, which is set to begin this year.
The proposed system consists of two tiers. Under the first, all Australian service providers would be required to block access to around 10,000 Web sites on a list maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the federal monitor that oversees film classifications.
The second tier would require service providers to offer an optional filter that individuals could apply to block material deemed unsuitable for children.
The government says the list, which is not available to the public, includes only illegal content, mostly child pornography. But critics worry that the filter could be used to block sites focused on what some consider controversial topics, like gambling or euthanasia.
"Even if the scheme is introduced with the best of intentions, there will be enormous political pressure on the government to expand the list," said Colin Jacobs, the vice chairman of Electronic Frontiers Australia, a technology advocacy firm. "We worry that the scope of the list would expand at a very rapid rate."
The proposal has sparked a flurry of anxious chatter on social networking sites like Facebook, where thousands of users said they planned to attend protests Saturday.
More than 85,000 users have also signed an online petition created by GetUp, an advocacy group that calls the mandatory filter "a serious threat to our democratic values."
Some industry experts have also criticized the plan.
Mark White, the chief operating officer at iiNet, one of the largest Australian ISPs, said the filter would have a limited impact because it would not monitor illegal activity on peer-to-peer or file-sharing networks, where most child pornography and other illicit content is exchanged. The filter would also slow Internet browsing speeds for all regardless of whether they were trying to access forbidden sites, he said. iiNet has agreed to take part in the trial.
This concern has been affirmed by the government's own research. A July report by the communications authority found that lab tests of six unidentified Internet filtering programs showed mixed results: The best filter slowed browsing speeds by 2 percent; the other five made the Internet run between 22 percent and 87 percent slower.
The study found that filtering programs were effective at blocking illicit material around 92 percent of the time, but that around 3 percent of legitimate sites were mistakenly caught up in the filters.
The country's largest service provider, Telstra, has also expressed doubts about the plan. The firm's chief operating, Greg Winn, said last week that using service-provider filters to stop illicit content was "like trying to boil the ocean." As soon as the filter was applied, he said, someone would find a way to break it.
Winn's reasoning about the plan was flawed, said Clive Hamilton, a senior ethics professor at the Australian National University, who supports the idea of banishing some sites over content.
"The laws that mandate upper speed limits do not stop people from speeding," he said. "Does that mean that we should not have those laws?
Meanwhile, Conroy says he and the government are open to feedback from Internet industry groups and the public as it presses forward with the plan.
On Tuesday, the minister introduced a blog seeking comment on the country's digital future.
In an e-mail message, Conroy said the government was taking note of the industry's concerns about the technical limitations of the proposed filter. He added that the trial would provide "an invaluable opportunity for ISPs to inform the government's approach."
By Rachel Donadio and Anthee Carassava
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
ATHENS: The Greek government on Wednesday defended its response to the crisis that has gripped the country since a teenager was fatally shot in a clash with the police last weekend, saying that leaders in Athens had chosen not to crack down on a violent minority in an effort to avoid further bloodshed.
Even as new clashes erupted during a general strike that disrupted transportation, schools and services throughout Greece, a government spokesman said he expected the crisis to tail off in due course.
"I think it's going to fade out," said Panos Livadas, general secretary of the Information Ministry. "I think reason will prevail. I also think we will keep on doing our best not to have a future risk of innocent life. No more innocent blood. It's O.K. if we have to wait a day or two."
The statement coincided with an offer by Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis to compensate shopkeepers whose premises have been damaged in the riots that have swept Greece since Saturday, when the teenager, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 15, was shot and killed by the police.
Tensions remained high on Wednesday in Athens and other major cities. Clashes erupted outside the Parliament building, where several thousand demonstrators had gathered to mark the general strike, and also outside the main Athens courthouse, where two police officers involved in the shooting that sparked the riots were testifying behind closed doors. The riot police reacted by firing tear gas as youths hurled rocks and gasoline bombs.
Meanwhile, the policemen's lawyer, Alexis Cougias, told reporters that a ballistics examination showed that Grigoropoulos was killed by a ricochet and not a direct shot, The Associated Press reported. One of the officers had said that he had fired warning shots and did not shoot directly at the boy.
There was no comment from prosecutors, who do not make public statements on pending cases.
The general strike on Wednesday was a new blow to the government after four days of violent protests.
Airports were severely affected by the strike as air traffic controllers walked out. Scores of international and local flights were grounded, the state news media reported. Railways, subway and bus lines were virtually halted, as were intercity bus services.
But while labor unions went ahead with the national strike, they called off a planned protest to help limit the disorder that has unfurled through the country. Dozens of people have been arrested in the past four days as rioters have fought with the police and rampaged in Athens and other cities.
The general strike was originally called to press economic demands for increased pay and to protest belt-tightening measures put forward by the government.
But the antigovernment movement acquired new impetus after the shooting on Saturday.
While clashes between the police and students have been common in Greece for decades, the ferocity of the reaction to the boy's death took the nation — and its government — by surprise. Outrage over the death was widespread, fueled by what experts say is a growing frustration with unemployment and corruption in one of the European Union's consistently underperforming economies, worsened by global recession.
But it was expressed in violence in the streets by student anarchists. They had been quiet for several years but seemed revived by the crisis. Karamanlis, hanging on to power in Parliament by only one vote, has seemed frozen, his government, once popular but now scandal-ridden, increasingly under pressure.
"He's seriously troubled" about the riots, said Nicholas Karahalios, a strategy adviser to the prime minister. "Whereas before we were dealing with a political and economic crisis, now there's a third dimension attached to it: a security crisis which exacerbates the situation."
More demonstrations were expected in the national strike Wednesday.
On Tuesday, bands of militant youths threw gasoline bombs and smashed shop windows in central Athens, as rioters battled with the police here in the capital and in Salonika, Greece's second largest city. In the port city of Patras, residents tried to protect their shops from rioters, while other rioters blocked the police station, the authorities said.
While widespread and violent, the protests on Tuesday were seen as slightly smaller than those the day before, when after dark hundreds of professed anarchists broke the windows of upscale shops, banks and hotels in central Athens and burned a large Christmas tree in the plaza in front of Parliament.
At the Athens police headquarters, a spokesman said 12 police officers had been wounded in fighting with demonstrators that flared at 10 major locations around the Greek capital on Monday night. He said 87 protesters had been arrested and 176 people briefly detained because of the confrontations.
In the shattered city center on Tuesday, street-cleaning trucks tackled the mess. Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis advised Athenians not to drive into the area and asked them to keep their trash indoors; rioters burned 160 big garbage containers in the streets on Monday night.
On Tuesday, the opposition leader, George Papandreou, a Socialist, renewed his call for early elections. Yet it remained unclear whether the riots would cause the government to fall or whether the current stalemate would continue.
"What I foresee is a prolonged political crisis with no immediate results for two or three years," said George Kirtsos, a political commentator and the publisher of City Press, an independent newspaper. "In that time, the country will be going from bad to worse."
On Tuesday, as youths scuffled with the police outside Parliament, Prime Minister Karamanlis met with his cabinet council and opposition leaders in an effort to get their backing for security operations. But he seemed uncertain exactly how to contain the disturbances. The authorities seem to fear that cracking down on the demonstrators may lead to other unintended deaths, provoking more rioting.
Asked why the riots had not been contained, a spokesman for the national police, Panayiotis Stathis, said, "Violence cannot be fought with violence."
But in a news conference, Karamanlis issued warnings somewhat stronger than his actions, saying there would be no leniency for rioters.
"No one has the right to use this tragic incident as an alibi for actions of raw violence, for actions against innocent people, their property and society as a whole, and against democracy," Karamanlis said after an emergency meeting with President Karolos Papoulias.
Karamanlis faced criticism for not acting with a stronger hand earlier, with some suggesting that this gave credibility to the rioters' anger.
"They chose to show tolerance, which backfired," said Nikos Kostandaras, the editor of Kathimerini, a daily newspaper. The riots, he added, "were radicalizing every sector of the population."
On Tuesday, schools and universities were closed, and thousands of teachers and students joined generally peaceful protests through Athens.
George Dimitriou, 22, a member of the agriculture students' union, said the teenager's death was an opportunity to protest other issues. "Our generation is facing a tougher future than our parents," Dimitriou said as he stood outside Athens University. "This is unheard of, because normally things get better."
Demonstrations, even occasionally violent ones, are nothing new in Greece, which has a long history of political protest and has been relatively tolerant of the professed anarchist groups that routinely hold antigovernment demonstrations.
To many Greeks, scarred by the memories of military rule in the 1970s, the police remain a hostile remnant of the military junta.
While Greece has a comparatively high ratio of more than 45,000 police officers for 10.7 million people, in the popular imagination, they are seen as ineffective and corrupt, so many Greeks view the police as a fair target for regular demonstrations.
The 15-year-old whose death is at the heart of the disturbances was shot on Saturday night while carousing with friends in the Athens neighborhood of Exarchia, where youths routinely battle the police. The police have said he died when officers clashed with a mob of some 30 youths.
One police officer has been charged with premeditated manslaughter in the case and another as an accomplice.
By John F. Burns
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
LONDON: Britain's remaining troops in Iraq will begin withdrawing from the country in March on a timetable that will aim to leave only a small training force of 300 to 400 by June, according to Defense Ministry officials quoted by the BBC and several of Britain's major newspapers on Wednesday.
The long-expected drawdown of the British force next year from its current level of 4,100 troops will bring an effective end to Britain's role as the principal partner of the United States in the occupation of Iraq. In the invasion in March 2003, a British force of more than 46,000 troops participated in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
In July, Prime Minister Gordon Brown already outlined a tentative plan for withdrawing most of Britain's remaining troops early in 2009 but gave no fixed timetable and left open the number of troops who would be returning home. The Defense Ministry issued a statement after the flurry of news reports about the withdrawal that did not deny their accuracy. Although the ministry did not confirm that March would mark the beginning of the drawdown, it confirmed that the ministry was "expecting to see a fundamental change of mission in early 2009."
As for the timetable involved in the withdrawal, the statement added, "Our position remains that we will judge it on military advice at the time."
The leaking of the British withdrawal plan appeared to have been prompted, at least in part, by President-elect Barack Obama's triumph in the presidential election last month, and his plans to draw up a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
Brown's determination to withdraw Britain's Iraq contingent ahead of a general election that must be held here by June 2010 has led to months of edgy negotiations with the Bush administration.
American military commanders have contingency plans for American troops to replace the departing British units at their base outside Basra, the principal city in southern Iraq, and the British news reports on Wednesday said that was now a firm plan. But there has been no announcement of the shift from the Pentagon, possibly because the planning process there is now caught up with the Bush-Obama transition that will not be complete until Obama's inauguration in January.
Britain's plans - and its talks with Washington - have been complicated by pressure from the Bush Administration on the Brown government to couple the British drawdown in Iraq with an increase of British troop strength in Afghanistan. It is a demand that is not likely to relent under Obama, who has said that he plans to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan as he refocuses the American military effort to make Afghanistan the focus of the American war on terrorism.
In recent months, British officials have been unwilling to commit to increase British troop strength in Afghanistan, though there have been signs that their position may ease after Obama takes office. A force of 7,800 British soldiers - proportional to populations of Britain and the United States, a commitment similar in size to the 33,000 American troops in Afghanistan - has been engaged in fierce combat with the Taliban in the southwestern province of Helmand. The British force is second only in size to the American force among more than 30 nations that have troops in Afghanistan.
British commanders have said that they need to get their troops out of Iraq without immediately recommitting them to Afghanistan as part of a broader plan to lower the "operational tempo" of Britain's military commitments, which have placed severe strains on Britain's armed forces. They have also said they are reluctant to commit more British troops to Afghanistan unless other NATO nations, including France and Germany, agree to step up their troop levels, and to share combat strains that have hitherto rested mainly on American, British and Canadian troops.
Meanwhile, the need to replace the departing British troops in Basra will place new strains on American commanders in Iraq. Since 2003, they have relied on British troops to maintain stability in southern Iraq and guard the vital overland supply route from Kuwait, past Basra and on into central Iraq, where most of the 130,000 American troops are based. Now, if the British reports are confirmed, they will have to detach an American force of brigade strength to the south, just as they begin drawing down their own troop levels further north.
The news reports, in The Times and The Guardian, among other British publications, quoted senior officials at the Defense Ministry as saying that the British force would be replaced by a brigade of 4,000 to 5,000 American troops, under a two-star American general, who would take over the base at Basra airport that has served as Britain's headquarters throughout the conflict.
All but a few hundred of the British troops remaining in Iraq are based at the airport, after withdrawing from outposts in the city of Basra last year. Like the departing British troops, the American force taking over at Basra would combine the task of protecting the supply route to the north with the role of a strategic reserve to Iraqi troops in Basra and elsewhere in southern Iraq, including the troublesome city of Amarah, northeast of Basra, the British reports said.
The British withdrawal will include the special forces troops, mainly from the Special Air Service, who have been partnered with American special forces at a base outside Baghdad, the British news reports said. Special forces operations have played a vital role in the Iraq conflict, and American commanders have said in the past that the role of the British contingent, involving a few hundred men, has been central to the special forces' success.
According to The Guardian and The Times, the 300 to 400 British service personnel who will remain after the drawdown will include a small force at the coalition forces' headquarters in Baghdad, where a British three-star general has until now served as deputy commander to the four-star American general in overall command of coalition forces in Iraq, currently General Raymond Odierno.
The remaining British contingent will mainly be assigned to tasks in the training of Iraq's armed forces, including the development of the country's fledgling navy, based at the port of Umm Qasr south of Basra, and officer training for the Iraqi army at colleges in Basra and Baghdad, the British newspaper reports said. Since early in the occupation, Iraq's main officer training academy outside Baghdad has been mainly a British responsibility.
Prime Minister Brown and other senior officials have been saying for months that British forces have largely fulfilled the mission of stabilizing the situation in Basra and the neighboring provinces in southern Iraq, and mentoring the Iraqi forces that have taken over day-to-day responsibility for security in the region. Their goal now, they have said, is to transit to a military relationship with Iraq similar to the ones Britain has with many other developing countries, centering on training local forces.
The withdrawal plan outlined in the British news reports appeared to have preempted a formal statement on its plans for Iraq that the government has promised to make in the parliament. The delay in making the statement appears to have reflected the delicate negotiations in recent months with Washington, and the need, since Obama's election, to reach agreement with the incoming administration, a process likely to have been eased, at least to some extent, by Obama's decision to retain Robert Gates, President George W. Bush's defense secretary, in the post.
By using a background briefing by senior defense officials to leak details of its plans to pull most of its troops out of the country in the next six months, instead of waiting for a formal statement in the House of Commons, the Brown government may have been hoping to send a political signal to opponents of the Iraq war in Britain, where opposition to the Iraq war has been intense, without appearing to jump the gun on its talks with Washington.
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