China's Debut: Did you see the opening of the Olympics? It was China's Coming Out Party. Anyway who saw it now has no doubt that China is going to rule the world.
New Surveillance Program: With everyone's attention on the political party conventions and the Olympics, Bush has launched a new surveillance program. "The Comprehensive National Cyber Security Initiative (CNCI), established by National Security Presidential Directive 51 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 23 in January, is intended to improve the government's ability to defend against cybersecurity attacks." What is this about? No one knows. Bush has classified almost every single detail. $115 million has been allocated for the program, just for this year. One big secret: Who are the contractors being hired for this program? (Raw Story)
Reducing Urban Crime: Senator John McCain (R, AZ) has proposed a solution to inner city crime. Speaking at the National Urban League, McCain "suggested that military strategies currently employed by U.S. troops in Iraq could be applied to high crime neighborhoods here in the U.S." McCain called them tactics. "You go into neighborhoods, you clamp down, you provide a secure environment for the people that live there, and you make sure that the known criminals are kept under control. And you provide them with a stable environment and then they cooperate with law enforcement." [Emphasis added.] (ABC News)
Salim Hamdan: The 6-member military panel found Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former driver, guilty of "providing material support for terrorism." (TWW, Salim Hamdan, 5/24/08, Salim Ahmed Hamdan & Why Salim?, 7/26/08) He was acquitted of a related conspiracy charge. (NY Times) Does anybody remember if we prosecuted Hitler's or Mussolini's drivers? Prosecutors argued he should be sentenced to at least 30 years in prison but he was sentenced to just 5 1/2 years. The Wall Street Journal called it "an embarrassing blow to the Bush administration's first war-crimes prosecution." The judge had said he would credit him with at least 5 years and 1 month of the time he has already served, so Hamdan could be released in 5 months. But no one knows what will actually happen, as the Bush administration has made it clear that it holds the right to keep enemy combatants imprisoned indefinitely.
Medellin: Texas executed José E. Medellín "in defiance of an international court ruling and despite pleas from the Bush administration for a new hearing." (TWW, The Supremes, 3/29/08) (NY Times)
Blackwater & DEA: A California medical marijuana dispensary was raided last week by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and local police. The Los Angeles Times ran the story, accompanied by a set of photographs. The photographs have since been removed. But one of the photos "shows a long-haired man, wearing a Blackwater t-shirt and with a pistol at his belt, passing a box marked 'DEA Evidence' to other agents participating in the raid." (Raw Story) Given McCain's call for urban tactics (above), it seems reasonable that Blackwater, sucking up billions of taxpayer dollars in federal contracts, would be hired to assist in domestic drug enforcement.
Linking 9/11 to Iraq: A new book from investigative journalist Ron Suskind says that Bush "ordered the CIA to forge a hand-written letter from the head of Iraq's intelligence service to Saddam Hussein that purported to link the Iraqi dictator to the ringleader of the hijackers who toppled the Twin Towers on 9/11." (Politico) However, Suskind said "his sources are under 'enormous pressure' to change their stories." One of his sources, former CIA official Robert Richer, in a statement released by the White House on Richer's behalf, said: "I never received direction from George Tenet or anyone else in my chain of command to fabricate a document from Habbush as outlined in Mr. Suskind's book." Richer also quoted Suskind's other source, former CIA officer John Maguire, as saying, "I have no knowledge to the origins of the letter." (Washington Post) Suskind told NBC's Meredith Vieira "It's interesting. . . Rob Richer talked to me, and actually other reporters too, yesterday morning. He was fine, he'd gotten the book Monday night, read it. And then something happened yesterday afternoon." Suskind said he's not con-cerned. "I've spent a lot of time with them. Their interviews are taped. . . They talked to me at length, hour after hour . . . and all of that is on the record." (Raw Story) Indeed, later one of the tapes was released which confirmed Richer's statements. It also revealed that Richer believed the order came from VP Cheney. (Raw Story) An interesting note, Suskind's book also reveals that Bush's White House has its own interrogation room. (The Plank)
Anthrax & Iraq: Did Bush use the anthrax attack to push for his attack on Iraq? Blogger Glenn Greenwald said: "By design, those attacks put the American population into a state of intense fear of Islamic terrorism, far more than the 9/11 attacks alone could have accomplished." The first connection between anthrax and Iraq came from the Guardian on October 14, 2001. "American investigators probing anthrax outbreaks in Florida and New York believe they have all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack - and have named Iraq as prime suspect as the source of the deadly spores. Their inquiries are adding to what U.S. hawks say is a growing mass of evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved, possibly indirectly, with the 11 September hijackers. If investigators' fears are confirmed - and sceptics fear American hawks could be publicising the claim to press their case for strikes against Iraq - the pressure now building among senior Pentagon and White House officials in Washington for an attack may become irresistible." Then, on October 18, 2001, John McCain was on the David Letterman show and said, "The second phase is Iraq. There is some indication, and I don't have the conclusions, but some of this anthrax may -- and I empha-size may -- have come from Iraq." (See video) On October 26, 2001, ABC News reported that government tests had shown the anthrax contained bentonite, an additive used only by Iraq, a claim later proved false but which, at the time, played an important role in spreading the idea of an Iraq-anthrax link. And the march to Baghdad was on.
Iran: The U.S. pushed for increases to the U.N. sanctions against Iran, because it has ignored "demands that it halt sensitive nuclear activities." The demand was issued the day after the "informal" deadline "lapsed for Iran to respond to an offer from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia for talks on its disputed nuclear program." (Reuters) (See Iran's Nuclear Program) Later in the week the U.S. and Britain said they had agreed to more sanctions "but Russia said there was no firm deal. . . U.S. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said after the conference call: 'The P5+1 (major powers) are discussing next steps in the U.N. Security Council and beginning to consider possible outlines of another sanctions resolution.'" (Reuters)
Iraq Spending: A new report from the GAO says that, from 2005 through 2007, the Iraqi government generated an es-timated $96 billion in cumulative revenues, of which crude oil export sales accounted for 94%. They spent about $67 billion on operating and investment activities, 90% of which was for operating expenses and the remaining 10% on investments, such as structures and vehicles. The Iraqi government spent only 1% to maintain Iraq- and U.S.-funded investments such as buildings, water and electricity installations, and weapons. While total expenditures were growing, Iraq didn't spend all of its budgeted funds. In 2007, it spent only 80% of its $29 billion operating budget and 28% of its $12 billion investment budget. "Since fiscal year 2003, the United States appropriated about $48 billion for stabilization and reconstruc-tion efforts in Iraq; it had obligated about $42 billion of that amount as of June 2008. U.S. agencies spent about $23.2 billion on the critical security, oil, electricity, and water sectors. From 2005 through April 2008, Iraq spent about $3.9 billion on these sectors."
National Guard: More than a half-dozen state legislatures will be considering bills barring their National Guard units from being sent to Iraq. (Rutland Herald)
VA Guinea Pigs: The Inspector General of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released a report citing the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System in Little Rock, Arkansas for "rampant violations in its human experiments program." They found that researchers failed to report "serious adverse events" during the experiments, including the deaths of 105 veterans." They also found that "entire consent forms were missing, signatures were missing from consent forms, HIV testing was conducted without documented consent, and research officials failed to obtain witness signatures in a study involving patients with dementia." The Inspector General recommended that the VA "determine whether human subject research should continue at the hospital." Ya think? (Washington Times)
Electronic Voting: All these years Congress hasn't done a thing. Now, with less than 3 months until the election, they've decided to address the issue. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D, CA) and Robert Bennett (R, UT) have introduced a bill "that would make things worse in the name of reform." The bill would "permit states to verify electronic voting machines' results using electronic records rather than paper. Verifying by electronic records -- having one piece of software attest that another piece of software is honest -- is not verifying at all." And guess what. The states' wouldn't have to do anything to verify the results until 2014. (NY Times)
KBR & Mobile Phones: Halliburton's KBR has ordered its employees in Iraq to turn in their mobile phones, citing "a safety and security concern." They warned they would impose "disciplinary action, including termination, for noncompliance." Apparently KBR has its own communication system, but some-times it fails. Some employees are refusing to give them up. One said that no reason was given for the order, that he wasn't aware of any security breaches, and that they pay for the phones with their own funds. (CNN) Maybe this has something to do with KBR employee Jamie Leigh Jones who was kidnapped by KBR co-workers, held in a shipping container with armed security guards outside her door, drugged, and gang raped. She finally got her hands on a mobile phone and called for help and the whole incident became public knowledge. (My Favorite News) (See also CBS News about other rape cases.)
Comcast: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in a 3-2 vote (Republican Chair Kevin Martin joined with Democratic commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps), ruled that Comcast violated federal policy when it blocked Internet traffic for some subscribers. They didn't levy a fine, but ordered the company to stop cutting off transfers of large data files among customers who use a special type of "file-sharing" software. (AP)
Walmart: Its executives are terrified that Barack Obama will win the presidency and, along with Democratic gains in the Senate, "spell doom for their anti-union business model." In the past it responded to attempts to unionize by eliminating departments or shutting down stores. Walmart opposes the Employee Free Choice Act which would make it easier for workers to unionize by signing a card rather than holding a vote. Walmart denies it told employees how to vote, but it said that if Democrats and Obama win, the Act will pass and they won't have a vote on whether they want a union. The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) said that Walmart is walking a fine legal line.
Corporate Bennies: You probably know that if you use your personal car for your corporate employer's business, you get a tax deduction of 58.5 cents per mile. But, did you know that if you use your personal car for volunteer service to a charity, you can only get a deduction of 14 cents per mile? Senators John Ensign (R, NV), Charles Schumer (D, NY), Russ Feingold (D, WI), and Christopher Dodd (D, CT) are proposing that the charitable mileage deduction be raised to 70% of the corporate deduction. (NY Times) Why not make it the same?
Gender Pay Equity: The House passed a bill, 247-178, that "would treat gender discrimination involving pay the same as race, disability and age discrimination. The bill would allow for compensatory and punitive damages, ban employers from retaliating against workers who share their salary with colleagues, and force employers to prove that paying a woman less than a man is job-related and necessary." (AP) I'll lay dollars to donuts this'll never get through the Senate.
Energy Legislation: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D, IL.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV) on Monday offered Republicans votes on 4 amendments that would promote offshore drilling, oil shale production, nuclear power, and a wide-ranging GOP energy bill. (Roll Call) Sounds like it's most of what they wanted, doesn't it? It did include some things the Dems wanted, too, like "the redirection of billions of dollars of tax breaks for oil companies into alternative energy research." Not good enough. Republicans rejected the offer. They want the whole enchilada.
Strategic Petroleum Reserve: The SPR was created in the 1970s after the OPEC oil embargo "to provide a buffer against future disruptions. . . Since 2001, the Bush administration has poured 70,000 barrels a day into the reserve, with the intention of expanding it to its full capacity of 727 million barrels, and possibly expanding the reserve to 1.5 billion barrels. But, if Bush sold some of it at a discount price to the refineries it would lower the price of oil to less than $100 a barrel very quickly. Fadel Gheit, a senior energy analyst for Oppenheimer, said that "prior releases from the SPR . . . during the 1990s were 'knock-out punches' that caused oil prices to drop dramatically." (CNN Money)
Wanna Save Some Gas?: Jake Topper, blogging at ABC News, said experts have told him that if everyone inflated their tires properly and got tune-ups for their cars we would save about 800,000 barrels a day. Drilling offshore would get us about 1.25 million barrels a day. AAA says that 2.8 billion gallons of gas is wasted by U.S. drivers each year by riding on under-inflated tires. The AP said: "The Department of Energy estimates that keeping tires properly inflated can help improve gas mileage by about 3.3%. It's one step the agency recommends to reduce fuel costs, along with removing items from the trunk, replacing clogged air filters, and getting regular tuneups." NASCAR concurs: "With escalating fuel prices, the time is now for drivers to focus on simple things like proper tire pressure to maximize tire performance and increase fuel economy." Also concurring is National Highway Safety Administration and Car Care.
Bush & Energy Policy: Bush hasn't done much to help the energy crisis. In fact, over his years in office, several policy decisions have helped out the oil and gas companies and depleted U.S. revenues. One big give-away is the royalty program. Royalties are amounts that companies pay to the federal government in exchange for the leases to explore on federally-owned land or water. In 2004, after oil and gas prices had risen substantially, Interior Secretary Gale Norton extended royalty incentives to shallow-water producers by raising the threshold prices by which companies would need to begin paying royalties. (CorpWatch) In 2005, the Republican Energy Policy Act was passed. It included a variety of provisions to provide royalty relief to oil and gas companies, handing over "billions in taxpayer dollars to America’s worst polluting industries while shortchanging renewable energy and energy efficiency -- proven solutions that reduce our dependence on oil." (Friends of the Earth) In 2006 insiders from the Minerals Management Service (MMS) alerted the news media and Congress to the fact that they were being discouraged from collecting on unpaid royalties revealed by audits. Written testimony from the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) pointed out that audit collections had declined since 2000 and that MMS had cut back on its number of auditors. This was confirmed by a Department of Interior Inspector General report. A pilot program was initiated in 2000 to take oil and gas royalties-in-kind (RIK), meaning the industry gives the government a portion of the oil and gas it takes from federal lands rather than paying royalties in cash. Over the next 5 years Bush significantly expanded the program. Much of the oil taken under this program has been used to fill the federal government’s SPR. (See above.) The program almost consistently lost money for the government but, though they should have been analyzing the costs, the GAO concluded that MMS was unable to determine whether it was losing revenue through its RIK pilot programs. "The oil industry has been tireless in coming up with new schemes to avoid paying royalties for drilling for oil on public lands. What's really shameful, is that the government is sitting back and letting it happen." [Emphasis added.] And don't forget that one of the first things Bush did was to pass a new Energy Bill, which gave $33.5 billion in energy-related tax reductions over the next 10 years, almost half of which goes to oil, gas, and coal com-panies. (Citizens for Tax Justice) In 2003 he pushed through an economic stimulus plan that offered a $100,000 tax credit for business owners who purchased any vehicle weighing 6,000 pounds or more when fully loaded, while phasing out the small $2,000 tax deduction to people who purchased fuel-efficient hybrid cars. (ABC News) Millions of people bought SUVs and trucks to get the tax savings. These vehicles are so gas inefficient that they'll pass anything on the road except a gas station. You think the extra use of gas was an accident? (Sorry for the rant, but I couldn't sit back and not get this in again this week.)
Medicare & Medicaid: According to a new GAO report, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are "putting millions of Medicare dollars at risk by authorizing fictitious sellers of wheelchairs, prosthetics and other medical supplies to submit reimbursement claims with only limited review." Since 2005, "Roughly $1 billion of the $10 billion in annual Medicare payments the government makes for medical equipment [have been] deemed improper." The CMS made promises since "at least 2005" to fix the problems with "only limited success." (AP)
Sick Immigrants: Hospitals and nursing homes are shipping uninsured illegal immigrants back to their place of birth because there's no one to pay for their health care. (NY Times)
Freddie Mac: Freddie Mac's Chair and CEO, Richard F. Syron, was warned by his former chief risk officer, David Andrukonis, in mid-2004 that the firm was buying bad loans that "would likely pose an enormous financial and reputational risk to the company and the country." Syron refused to consider options for reducing the risks and Andrukonis left in 2005. Over the next 3 years Freddie Mac continued to buy risky, and riskier yet, loans. "More than 2 dozen current and former high-ranking executives at Freddie Mac, analysts, shareholders and regula-tors said in interviews that Syron had ignored recommendations that could have helped avoid the current crisis." Syron has collected more than $38 million in compensation since 2003. Syron, and Fannie Mae's CEO, Daniel H. Mudd, defended their actions, saying they hold so many bad loans because of pressure from shareholders and from Congress and that Congress leaned on them for years to buy mortgages from low-income borrowers to encourage affordable housing. Andrukonis said, "The thinking was that if something really bad happened to the housing market, then the government would need Freddie and Fannie more than ever, and would have to rescue them. Everybody understood that at some level the company was putting taxpayers at risk. (NY Times) Privatize the profits; socialize the losses. This week Freddie Mac posted its 4th straight quarterly loss. For the 2nd quarter of the year it lost $821 million. It lost $151 million in the first quarter. Over the past 4 quarters it has lost more than $4.6 billion. (Reuters)
Mortgage Crisis: The "first wave" of home defaults, those with subprime loans, appears to have peaked. But things aren't getting any better. "Homeowners with good credit are falling behind on their payments in growing numbers." (NY Times)
Utility Service: Utilities are being shut off for customers behind on their utility bills, "reaching 50% or more in some hard-hit areas." The increase is the result of an "economic double whammy of high gasoline prices and rising utility bills" in a "sagging economy." (LA Times)
Planned Lay-Offs: Planned layoffs at U.S. companies were up 26% from June to July, which is an indication of "further deterioration in the labor market." In July, planned layoffs totaled 103,312, compared to 81,755 in June. "From January to July, planned layoffs totaled 579,260, up 33% from the same period a year ago." (Reuters)
Inflation: Consumer spending increased 0.6% in June, "but only because the things they bought cost more." Inflation in June was 0.8% over the rate in May. (NY Times)
Health Credit Report: Health and life insurance companies are accessing databases containing prescription drug records to get a "health credit report" to determine if they should be covered. (Washington Post) They used to get records from physicians' offices. I guess they're afraid they'll miss something.
Prostate Cancer: Guidelines published in the Annals of Internal Medicine recommend that doctors stop screening men 75 and older for prostate cancer. "Most oncologists already argue against treating most men in that age group for prostate cancer because they are more likely to die from some other cause than from their tumor." The guidelines also suggest that doctors shouldn't bother to test patients either, saying "why test if the patient is unlikely to be treated?" Some experts believe the recommendations could lead to insurance companies refusing to pay for the test. One described it as "a form of ageism." (LA Times)
The Oceans: Jellyfish are becoming the "canaries in the coal mine" of the oceans. "From Spain to New York, to Australia, Japan and Hawaii, jellyfish are becoming more numerous and more widespread, and they are showing up in places where they have rarely been seen before." Dr. Joseph-María Gili, a leading jellyfish expert, who has studied them at the Institute of Marine Sciences of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona for more than 20 years, says that the jellyfish are a signal of the declining health of the world’s oceans. "These jellyfish near shore are a message the sea is sending us saying, ‘Look how badly you are treating me.'" The population explosion "reflects a combination of severe overfishing of natural predators, like tuna, sharks and swordfish; rising sea temperatures caused in part by global warming; and pollution that has depleted oxygen levels in coastal shallows." (NY Times)
Radioactive Water: The USS Houston, a nuclear-powered submarine, leaked radioactive water as it traveled around the Pacific to ports in Guam, Japan, and Hawaii. "Navy officials said the amount of radiation leaked into the water was virtually undetectable." But it couldn't be quantified. Japan had agreed to allow U.S. nuclear-powered ships in Japanese ports, but the decision wasn't real popular. I'm sure this won't help. (CNN)