4th Amendment: "Los Angeles police officers face significant restrictions on when they can search people under a agreement announced . . . that settles a landmark homeless right case." 18 months ago a federal judge "found that the Los Angeles Police Department "was unconstitutionally searching homeless people in the skid row area as part of Chief William J. Bratton's crack-down on downtown crime." (LA Times) Civil rights restored.
Lying Us Into War: While in Iraq last week, Bush was interviewed by Martha Raddatz for ABC News. He defended invading Iraq by saying it was "where al-Qaeda said they were going to take their stand." Raddatz reminded him that al-Qaeda wasn't in Iraq until after we invaded. Bush replied: "Yeah, that's right. So what?" (ABC News) This reminds me of Martha Raddatz' interview of VP Cheney last March where she asked him about the polls that showed about two-thirds of Americans say the fight in Iraq is not worth it. Cheney replied, "So?" (TWW, VP Cheney, 3/29/08) Boy, these people don't give a damn, do they?
Torture: ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl interviewed VP Cheney and asked whether he approved of interrogation tactics used against a so-called "high value prisoner" at Gitmo. Cheney admitted to giving official sanctioning of torture. Regarding waterboarding he said, "I supported it." Karl asked him if he thought the tactics went too far. "I don't," he said. By the way, the "Society of Victims of the U.S. Occupation in Iraq," a Jordan-based Iraqi rights group, has filed "200 lawsuits against U.S. former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and American security firms for their alleged role in torturing Iraqis." (AFP)
The Supremes on Torture: The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. to review its January 2008 ruling that quashed a lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld and 10 senior military officers. 4 former British citizens held at Gitmo had brought suit claiming that they "were protected against torture by a U.S. constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. They also argued that their rights to practice their religion under the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act were violated at Guantanamo." The Supremes said that the case "should be reconsidered in light of its June 12 ruling that prisoners held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba had a right to challenge their detention in civilian courts." (AFP)
Releasing Prisoners: Bush, et al. has decided to abide by a federal judge's order last month to free 5 Algerians seized in Bosnia in 2001. The case is known as Boumediene v. Bush and it was a habeas corpus case. (TWW Habeas Corpus, 2/16/08 & Supreme Court, 6/14/08) They were picked up in 2001 -- suspected of participating in a plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo -- and have been held all this time without charges. The Defense Department flew 3 of them back to Bosnia-Herzegovina. "The Pentagon did not explain why only 3 of the 5 were transferred." The LA Times noted that Bush's "decision to abide by the judge's order could signal that the administration has acknowledged in its final days that its controversial detention and interrogation practices are doomed."
Thomas Tamm: This FBI agent, with a security clearance "a level above Top Secret," is a whistleblower. In 2004 he had been at the Justice Department "handling wiretaps of suspected terrorists and spies." It was here that he "stumbled upon the existence of a highly classified National Security Agency [NSA] program that seemed to be eavesdropping on U.S. citizens. The unit had special rules that appeared to be hiding the NSA activities from a panel of federal judges [the FISA Court] who are required to approve such surveillance. When Tamm started asking questions, his supervisors told him to drop the subject. He says one volunteered that 'the program' (as it was commonly called within the office) was 'probably illegal.'" The "lawlessness at the Justice Department angered him" and he eventually called The New York Times and blew the whistle. Michael Isikoff has this remarkable story which really explains a lot about what has been going on. (Newsweek)
NSLs: National Security Letters, which the Patriot Act transformed into "do what you want" licenses for law enforcement, have just been nailed by a U.S. Court of Appeals. The ACLU had filed suit challenging the Act's provision that recipients of NSLs were legally forbidden from speaking about them. NSLs are usually a demand for documents, or a notice that private records have been searched by government authorities. The ACLU said they were a cover-all for FBI abuses. "The appeals court invalidated parts of the statute that wrongly placed the burden on NSL recipients to initiate judicial review of gag orders, holding that the government has the burden to go to court and justify silencing NSL recipients. The appeals court also invalidated parts of the statute that narrowly limited judicial review of the gag orders -- provisions that required the courts to treat the government's claims about the need for secrecy as conclusive and required the courts to defer entirely to the executive branch." The feds will now have to go to court to justify individual gag orders. Remember, in September 2007 U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Oregon ruled that Patriot Act provisions that allowed the feds to obtain search warrants without probable cause were unconstitutional. (TWW, Patriot Act, 9/29/07)
Nuclear Proliferation: Remember when presidents were working to decrease the number of nukes in the world? Not our boy George. And he doesn't have much time left to do all the damage he's had on his list. Next is signing a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where Halliburton is now located. (TWW, Halliburton, 3/17/07) I suppose Halliburton will get the construction job. Now, to top it all off, we've listened to Bush, et al. scream for years about how we have to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. However, the UAE's largest trading partner is Iran and the UAE "has served in the past as a transshipment point for technology with military applications headed to Iran." (Wall Street Journal) Now, just like Iran, the UAE is claiming that it only wants the technology for energy and Bush says this agreement will give it to them and safeguard against nuclear weapons. Isn't this exactly what Iran wants?
Rebuilding Iraq: I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to summarize this article by James Glanz and T. Christian Miller. It's impossible. The total failure of the Bush administration in the rebuilding of Iraq cannot possibly be summarized. You just need to read this article. But, let me warn you, this is a story of a U.S. administration crippled by bureaucratic turf wars and ignorant of the basic elements of Iraqi society, resulting in a $100 billion failure.
Tasers: Those nasty little things, sold as a way to "stop" people without hurting them, have been responsible for killing more than 400 people since 2001. But guess who's made a fortune by pushing these things on police departments? Bernie Kerik, former New York City police commissioner who was Bush's pick to be the first head of the Department of Homeland Security. That appointment was nixed amid much scandal. (TWW, Bernie Kerik, 7/6/06) (NY Times) Bernie and his buddy, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican candidate for president, made millions from their association with Taser International. But the little diddies have proved so dangerous, that police departments across Canada are pulling them. (Arizona Republic)
Government Accounting: About 12 years ago the Government Accountability Office (GAO) began preparing consolidated financial statements. A GAO press release this week stated that, for all of these 12 years, they have been prevented "from expressing an opinion" because of "major impediments." What are these? "Those include serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense, the federal government's inability to adequately account for and reconcile intragovernmental activity and balances between federal agencies, and the federal government's ineffective process for preparing the consolidated financial statements." When you're talking about trillions and trillions of dollars, this is very scary.
Government Oversight: After 8 years of no legislative oversight of the White House, the Republicans have decided that this is the most important thing in the world. Rep. Darrel Issa (R, CA) is going to be the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He's making no bones that watching Obama is going to be his main activity. He's fired 14 of the 39 Republican committee staffers, including many senior aides. "Outgoing staffers said they were told the panel's minority will shift its focus away from legislation toward oversight of federal agencies. By bringing in aides with investigative backgrounds, committee Republicans believe they can increase their capacity to conduct independent investigations, despite lacking the majority's subpoena power." (Government Executive)
Secretary of State Conflict?: I wonder how Hillary Clinton is going to get around this. And I can't believe that the Obama team wasn't aware of it when they nominated her for Secretary of State. Bill Clinton finally released a list of the donors to his foundation. The Washington Post calculates that he's received between $75 million and $165 million from foreign govern-ments and state-sponsored agencies. The list of more than 200,000 patrons who have given almost $500 million included several that could raise a number of potential conflicts for Senator Clinton. Saudi Arabia and aid agencies in Australia and the Dominican Republic gave somewhere between $10 million and $25 million, while a number of other countries, including Brunei, Kuwait, Qatar, and Taiwan, gave more than $1 million each. (NY Times) Although most of his biggest contributors were already known, the amounts they donated have never been disclosed. If Hillary becomes Secretary of State, Bill will have to disclose any new donations once a year and would have to submit donations for review by ethics officials in the State Department. (LA Times)
Same-Sex Marriage: New York will now let "married same-sex couples list both their names on their children's birth certificates." (Fox) No matter how hard you try, you can't stop progress. It'll pop up somewhere.
Another New Rule: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) formally adopted the new "conscience rule" which permits "federally funded health care providers to decline to participate in services to which they object, such as abortion." (TWW, Contraception, 8/23/08 & More Rule Amendments, 11/22/08) It doesn't completely rewrite reproduc-tive laws, but it does fail to provide a clear, medically-accepted definition of abortion, expands the definition of health care providers protected by conscience regulations, and allows practitioners to deny women access to commonly used methods of birth control. Obama can overturn the rule through a 3 to 6 month notice and comment process or Congress could act to reject it. RHRealityCheck explains, "If the motion to disprove is passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President, the rule cannot be enforced or defended in court." Senators Hillary Clinton (D, NY) and Patty Murray (D, WA) have introduced legislation prohibiting HHS from implementing the new rule.
Overtime Pay: A new Justice Department report concluded that the FBI encouraged its agents posted in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 through 2007 to improperly claim overtime pay, resulting in $7.8 million in costs to taxpayers. Due to a "faulty" policy, agents billed work hours when they were "watching movies, exercising, and attending parties." (NY Times)
Endangered Species Act: A new report by the Department of the Interior Inspector General reveals that the Bush administration "corroded" decisions on protecting endangered species nationwide. He claims that former Interior official Julie MacDonald frequently bullied career scientists to reduce species protections. Rep. Nick Rahall (D, WV), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said: "The results of this investigation paint a picture of something akin to a secret society residing within the Interior Department that was colluding to undermine the protection of endangered wildlife and covering for one another's misdeeds." (McClatchy)
Clean Water: The House Oversight Committee has released a report showing that "hundreds of Clean Water Act violations have not been pursued with enforcement actions." Chair Henry Waxman (D, CA) said, "Our investigation reveals that the clean water program has been decimated as hundreds of enforcement cases have been dropped, downgraded, delayed, or never brought in the first place."
Labor: The Department of Labor has a new rule to make it easier for farming companies to hire foreign guest workers." They've also changed how wages are set. "[L]abor, farmworker and immigrant advocates . . . said they would worsen wages and working conditions for both U.S. agricultural workers and temporary guest workers." (San Francisco Chronicle)
Madoff & the SEC: The Madoff scandal (TWW, Bernard Madoff, 12/13/08) is the "latest black eye" for the Securities and Exchange Commission. (NY Times) The Washington Post explained that financial advisers have long been raising doubts about Madoff's practices and one letter sent to the SEC in 1999 accused him of running a Ponzi scheme. But despite all these red flags, the SEC conducted its first full examination of Madoff's investment business last week. (See Wall Street Journal for piece on how badly the SEC screwed up.) But the SEC isn't the only one who missed the scam. The Wall Street Journal has a detailed piece on it, saying that it's clear that banks and investment advisers who directed clients to Madoff should have known that something was wrong. Although his strategy made sense on its face, it would have been impossible to carry out with the amount of money he was managing. One obvious red flag was the trades Madoff claimed to be doing simply weren't showing up in the options market. Investors who asked were told the firm carried out trades "over the counter." What kept him going was that somehow he managed to make small gains each month for his clients. The SEC said it "received credible allegations about the scheme at least 9 years ago and will immediately open an internal investigation to examine why it had failed to pursue them aggressively." (NY Times)
Another Bail-Out: U.S. District Judge Louis L. Stanton ordered that Madoff's clients (see above) seek relief under a federal statute created to rescue cheated investors. Stanton also ordered that his business be liquidated under the jurisdiction of a bankruptcy court. He said they "need the protection of a special government reserve fund set up to help investors at failed brokerage firms." (AP) More money out the window.
Credit Cards: It looks like they're finally going to do something about the outrageous interest rates (usury, if you ask me) on credit cards as well as other practices. The Fed, the Office of Thrift Supervision, and the National credit Union Administration have adopted new rules, which don't take effect until July 2010, that forbid credit card companies from increasing interest rates on existing balances. They'll also require a 21-day grace period before late fees could be charged. For cardholders who have 2 different interest rates, usually one for purchases and another for cash withdrawals, payments more than the minimum are currently applied to the lowest interest rates. The new rules require that the over-payment be applied to the balance with the highest interest rate or spread proportionally to all balances. Some worry that these new rules could lead banks to tighten credit during a recession, but consumer advocates insist more regulation is needed to address the unfair and deceptive practices that have become increasingly common in the industry. (LA Times)
The Dollar: After a month of gains, the dollar suffered huge losses and fell to a 130-year low against the Japanese yen. Investors are fleeing from the dollar out of fear that it will be dropping in value due to the Fed's plans to print money in order to stimulate the economy. A plunge in the value of the dollar is good news for U.S. exporters but could make it more difficult for the economies of Europe and Japan to recover since their exports would be more expensive for American consumers. (Washington Post)
The Fed: The Federal Reserve cut its key interest rate to the lowest level on record and pledged to use "all available tools" to combat a severe financial crisis and prolonged recession. It reduced the federal funds rate, the interest that banks charge each other, to a range of 0% to 0.25%, down from the 1% target rate in effect since the last meeting in October. (NY Times) 0%? Are you kidding me? They're giving money away, and things still don't look good. "For the foreseeable future, interest rates are nearly meaningless as a tool of economic policy." (LA Times) Both papers say that the Fed has now entered a new era, whatever that means.
Housing: New housing starts are at the lowest level in half a century. It "represents a nearly 1% drop from the month before" and almost a 50% drop from a year ago." (Washington Post)
Consumer Prices: The consumer price index fell 1.7% in November, "the second consecutive record-setting monthly drop." A lot of this was driven by the decline in gas prices but everyone's afraid of the "D" word -- deflation. When you exclude energy and food, which are "particularly volatile," the "core inflation was flat, at 0%." (Washington Post)
Unemployment Benefits: 30 states' unemployment benefits funds will probably be insolvent in the next few months. Indiana and Michigan are already insolvent and both are borrowing from the federal government to make payments to the unemployed. (NY Times) Borrowing from where? We're putting out more money?
Closing State Budget Gaps: New York's governor David Paterson is proposing a $4 billion package of taxes and fees on a bunch of stuff, like sugary soft drinks and luxury items like furs and boats. He's also proposing raising taxes on health insurers and eliminating the sales tax on clothing and footwear under $115. Department of Motor Vehicle fees and state park fees will be increased as will tuition at State University of New York and City University of New York. (NY Times) No increase in income taxes will be imposed.
TARP: On top of the clause that Bush, et al. slipped into this bill that made a legal change allowing financial institutions a windfall of up to $140 billion (TWW, The Bail-Out, 11/15/08), they also slipped one in that will make it more difficult for the government to enforce the contingency that companies that receive money adhere to limits on executive compensation. They changed one sentence that specified that only firms that received money through selling their toxic assets to the government would be subject to penalties for breaking the rules on executive compensation. So, the Treasury is giving them the money without taking the bad assets, so they can pay and give bonuses as they wish. (Washington Post)
Who Got the Money?: As I've reminded you, endlessly I'm sure, the Fed has loaned more than $2 trillion (and gave back-up support for trillions more) on top of the $700 billion TARP handouts. Bloomberg asked the Fed for the names of those firms that got the money. The Fed refused to turn it over. (TWW, Federal Reserve, 11/29/08) Even after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Fed wouldn't budge. "They’re worried about a negative sales effect, which could aggravate the existing situation and maybe cause a run on the banks." So, Bloomberg has filed a lawsuit. (Raw Story)
Auto Industry: On Wednesday, December 10th, about the same time that the House was passing the bill to help the auto industry, a memo was sent to Senate Republicans entitled: "Action Alert - Auto Bailout," which encouraged them to stand behind Senators John Ensign (R, NV), Richard Shelby (R, AL), Tom Coburn (R, OK), and Jim DeMint (R, SC) who were going to hold a press conference decrying the bill. The memo wanted other Senate Repubs to support them. It stated: "Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor." (MSNBC Countdown) Guess I was right. Wish I was wrong. The LA Times said that this was the first volley at what Republicans see as an up-coming fight against unions. "Handing a defeat to labor and its Democratic allies in Congress was also seen as a preemptive strike in what is expected to be a major battle for the new Congress in January: the unions' bid for a so-called card check law that would make it easier for them to organize workers, potentially reversing decades of declining power. The measure is strongly opposed by business groups."
Auto Bail-Out: On Friday Bush approved aid for the auto industry. He's going to provide $13 billion as a loan out of the $350 billion TARP funds already approved. Since Congress has been pissed about the use of the money by the financial institutions, they've been considering not authorizing any further release of money. Bush fixed this by saying that another $4 billion would go to the auto industry from the next $350 billion, if approved. The auto companies will have to demonstrate they've "attained financial viability" by March 31st or repay the loans immediately. "Viability" is defined as having a "positive net present value." There's a whole list of other conditions, none of which were placed on the financial institutions who've taken far more money, and you'll have to read the article for all of them, but they include accepting limits on executive compensation and eliminating perks such as corporate jets and not issuing new dividends. Then there are the conditions meant to destroy the middle-class wage earners: They must eliminate their "jobs bank," which pays idled workers, negotiated by the UAW in collective bargaining sessions. Let me remind you that the jobs bank program, while controversial, was negotiated in exchange for less wages and/or benefits. (Detroit News) And, finally, there's this nail-in-the-coffin condition. They must implement new work rules and wages by the end of 2009. (LA Times)
More Help: Canada has said that if the U.S. comes up with a plan to help the auto industry, it will pony up $2.8 billion to help the plants there. Mighty big of them. (National Post)
AIG: The U.S. will invest $40 billion in American International Group (AIG) and is going to provide credit lines that "could bring federal funding up to $144 billion. It's the largest subsidy that a U.S. corporation has ever received. In exchange, the U.S. gets nearly 80% of AIG stock. This puts the U.S. in a unique position to investigate the internal operations of a giant corporation with a reputation for using the offshore system for tax evasion." (IPS) [Emphasis added.]
EPA: Stephen Johnson has done it again. This time he issued a memo to regulators overseeing applications to build new coal-fired power plants. It said, when deciding whether to approve or not, the regulations "cannot consider their greenhouse gas output." "The current concerns over global climate change should not drive EPA into adopting an unworkable policy of requiring emission controls" in these cases. (NY Times)
Some Good News: The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said that, in the past decade, more than 1,000 species have been discovered in the rainforests of Southeast Asia's Greater Mekong region. They've found "a spider as big as a dinner plate," a "rat thought to have become extinct 11 million years ago," and "a cyanide-laced, shocking pink millipede." Stuart Chapman, WWF's director of the Greater Mekong Programme, said, "It doesn't get any better than this. We thought discoveries of this scale were confined to the history books." (AFP)