Saturday, December 31, 2005

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Never fail to protest

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.

Elie Wiesel

ABC News: Syrian lawmakers demand ex-VP be tried for treason

ABC News: Syrian lawmakers demand ex-VP be tried for treason: "Dec 31, 2005 - DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian lawmakers called on Saturday for former Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam to be tried for treason and corruption after he publicly broke with President Bashar al-Assad.

Speaking from Paris, where he has lived since resigning as vice-president in June, Khaddam criticized the Syrian government for committing what he said were political blunders in Lebanon and failing to deliver economic and political reforms at home.

'I ask the Syrian leadership to try him - for humiliating 10 million Syrians when he said half of the Syrian people are eating from the garbage,' legislator Umeima Faddoul told a session of Syria parliament."

"I tell him, those who eat from the garbage are traitors like you … Treason is the darkest shade of black." ...
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True Belligerence or Belligerent Bluster?

True Belligerence or Belligerent Bluster? :: Alternative Press Review :: Your Guide Beyond the Mainstream: "In recent weeks the battle of words between Tel Aviv and Tehran has reached ever more heated levels. On December 8, 2005, the populist and fundamentalist president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, questioned the truth of the Nazi holocaust and suggested that Israel be moved to Europe. These comments were made in the wake of previous comments by Ahmadinejad that said Israel should be wiped off the map and 'all (Palestinian) refugees (should) return to their homes; [and] a democratic government (be) elected by the people.... (October 25, 2005 Islamic Republic News Agency-IRNA)' Those remarks were modified later, but the damage had been done and the fear level in Israel raised. In response to Ahmadjinejad's remarks on December 8th, Tel Aviv turned up its threats on Tehran. Israel's Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz was quoted on December 10th by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as saying that Israel needed to consider other non-diplomatic solutions to ending the Iranian nuclear program. Then, on December 11, 2005, The Sunday Times of Britain reported that Ariel Sharon had ordered the Israeli military to be ready to strike Iran by the end of March 2006. By the 12th of December, Sharon's remarks were being clarified by others in his government, but the threats remained essentially the same"...

The Iranian president appears to be using Israel as a diversion from Teheran's failure to address the needs and desires of the Iranian people. Instead of addressing the poverty that is a constant problem in Iran and the corruption that is apparently rampant on all levels of government, Tehran is instead magnifying the Israeli threat by issuing public remarks that most people find not only repulsive but are also historically inaccurate. Like governments everywhere, Tehran is choosing to create fear in order to prevent a goodly portion of its population from expressing a freedom it desires. Tel Aviv is attempting something similar by allowing Defense Minister Mofaz to issue not-so-vague threats against Tehran. Washington has its "war on terrorism," Tehran has Israel, and Israel has Tehran. The existence of an enemy, no matter how imaginary or real, is the perfect excuse to rule by fear and limit personal and political expression. Plus, it makes it much easier to divert governmental spending from social needs to the military.

And who benefits from that? Why, the government and its cohorts in the war industries. The scenario is the same in all three countries, albeit in different magnitudes. A small percentage of people benefit from the fear they create amongst a larger percentage of their countrymen. Unless calmer heads step in, the invasion and occupation of Iraq may turn out to be a mere sideshow to a greater war begun by Tel Aviv and Tehran.
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In Iraq, Rich in Oil, Higher Gasoline Prices Anger Many - New York Times

In Iraq, Rich in Oil, Higher Gasoline Prices Anger Many - New York Times: "BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 30 - A fuel crisis in Iraq deepened on Friday when the oil minister was suspended for objecting to steep government-imposed price increases for gasoline and cooking oil."

Angry drivers waited in quarter-mile lines at stations in Baghdad, brought by fears of more price increases and electricity failures, which have led them to siphon fuel for use in power generators.

There was also concern over problems with refineries, including a shutdown at a major refinery in Baiji, 130 miles north of Baghdad.

The oil minister, Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, had been outspoken in his opposition to the decision earlier this month to triple the price of the most common type of gasoline while raising prices for diesel ninefold. He said that while some increases were needed, such large ones would put far too heavy a burden on Iraqis.

But upon returning from vacation outside Iraq this week, Mr. Uloum learned that Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari had ordered him to give up his post for the next 30 days, according to an Oil Ministry spokesman.

"When he came back he was astonished to find that the prime minister issued a letter ordering Dr. Ibrahim to stay 30 more days on holiday because of his disagreement and his threats to resign from office," said the spokesman, Asim Jihad.

Mr. Uloum has been replaced by Ahmad Chalabi, the deputy prime minister and onetime White House favorite who served as interim oil minister earlier this year. An aide to Mr. Chalabi said it was not clear how long he would stay in the post or whether Mr. Uloum would return.

The scramble for gasoline in the capital was set off by several factors.

The ministry shut the refinery in Baiji last week after insurgents threatened to kill drivers who trucked gasoline and other products across Iraq. And the oil pipeline that feeds the Dora refinery in Baghdad was damaged recently by insurgents, Mr. Jihad said. He said he did not know when the two plants would operate at capacity again....

Though Iraq sits atop huge oil reserves, its refineries remain in poor shape, damaged by constant insurgent attacks and dilapidated from years of underinvestment.

The refineries can produce only a portion of the gasoline needed here, forcing Iraq to import more than $5 billion worth every year, a process that supports widespread smuggling. At the same time, Iraqi drivers are used to very inexpensive gasoline - roughly 6 cents a gallon under Saddam Hussein - because of heavy subsidies by the government.

Earlier this month the government raised the price of regular domestic gasoline to about 40 cents a gallon, and to about 70 cents for special imported gasoline. (By comparison, regular gasoline sells on the black market - which avoids gas lines - for almost $1 a gallon.) Diesel fuel and canisters of liquefied cooking gas also had large increases, enraging drivers and homeowners in a country where many families make less than $100 a month.

The increases were part of a deal Iraqi leaders struck with the International Monetary Fund to eventually wipe out the debts that Mr. Hussein accumulated. As much as 80 percent of $120 billion in debts could eventually be canceled, according to Western officials in Baghdad.

But for Iraqis that comes at a very steep price. The deal with the I.M.F. calls for Iraq to eventually increase fuel prices to levels in line with the rest of the Middle East, where the average price of gasoline is about 87 cents a gallon. Though that is below the true cost, Iraqis already furious over price increases this month face another doubling of prices in the next year or two.

[bth: this article fails to mention that there is amble trading of oil and gasoline with Iran which is probably a means of laundering cash out of Iraq for the political and religious elite of Iraq. Also it fails to mention a surge in the number of cars in Iraq which has contributed to the problem.

Iraq is about to run out of cash.
-- The U.S. reconstruction funds are spent.
-- Every time there is a governmental transition in Iraq it is discovered that the previous regime looted the treasury. The first we will hear of it is when Iraqi police and solidiers aren't paid. My guess is that Februarywill be when the shit hits the fan on this matter.
-- Note the recurrent emphasis now on invesment in refineries or lack there of and in a story out of London there is a report that two new refineries have had ground broken in the Kurdish areas. This means that the kurds are beginning to play the oil game for real as the Iraqi constitition allows private investment and regional governments to benefit from NEW oil investments as opposed to existing ones. Hence no one is going to invest in old wells or refineries but only in new ones.
-- IMF is forcing price increases in Iraq which is probably good as it will attempt to stabilize Iraq financially and also to take some of the profit out of smuggling gasoline (unless you are smuggling oil to the black market via Iran).
-- I expect Wolfowitz to step up to the plate next from the World Bank and offer his old friend Chalabi a chance to get financing to invest in the Iraq oil infrastructure provided Iraq accepts World Bank financial guidelines. You can always follow the money by watching Chalabi and you can always track the neocons by following Wolfowitz.]
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Steve Martin: Leap Second Lovers are Traitors Says Bill O'Reilly | The Huffington Post

"'This year's leap second is an assault on the American public,' says commentator Bill O'Reilly. 'The reason the leap second is even being proposed is because of America Haters, because of Iraqi hate mongers, and let's be honest, Shiites. Why would you add a second to the year unless you're an anti-American hate monger?"

I remember liberals at a party saying, ‘let’s add a second to the year’ and I was the only one who spoke up against it. Why would they want to add a second to the year? Because it gives them a second longer to hate Bush.

“Look, look, look, look. A leap second is a denial of everything American, of everything good, of everything moral. They’re saying we need this seconds because the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the earth, well this is the no spin zone. So we don’t need a leap second. Though I would rather have a leap second than some of these hate-mongers who go around hating even their own ideas! They need to hate their own ideas so much that you have many liberals proposing the leap second, which is an idea that they hate, yet, they propose.

“I am so so so so upset with these people, who actually believe their ideas, yet, I have no hate in my heart. I am a simple guy, who only has my own true beliefs and a few products that are my cornerstone to fight against the leap second poobah. Let me say it aloud: Leap Second, leap second, leap second. Doesn’t it sound ugly?

“Please, don’t let these Darwinian leap-seconders, who believe that the planets revolve around the sun, who believe that rocks are sedimentary, igneous and stalactites, who are innocent dim-wit believers in a faith bordering on hating everything religious like trees and fruitcake, yet, who don’t believe in John 7:12:45:67:89, have their say.

“But you know what I love? Dialogue. Rational dialogue which allows me to say that aliens from a Iraqi loving planet want to abolish Christmas by adding a leap second to the Darwinian anti-God year. Dialogue is what keeps the American system God-loving and anti non-God. It also keeps the anti-God loving non-Iraqi loving insurgent deniers able to voice their hideous so-called opinions over the American loving tolerant airways. And now let’s take some calls.”
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U.S. Death Toll Reaches 841 With Newest Attacks; Fuel Crisis Emerges

FOXNews.com - U.S. & World - U.S. Death Toll Reaches 841 With Newest Attacks; Fuel Crisis Emerges: "BAGHDAD, Iraq - Two more U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq as the year wound down Friday, putting the American military death toll at 841 so far - just five short of 2004's lost lives despite political progress and dogged efforts to quash the insurgency. ..."

Army Stage-Managed Fall of Hussein Statue

Army Stage-Managed Fall of Hussein Statue: "The Army's internal study of the war in Iraq criticizes some efforts by its own psychological operations units, but one spur-of-the-moment effort last year produced the most memorable image of the invasion.

As the Iraqi regime was collapsing on April 9, 2003, Marines converged on Firdos Square in central Baghdad, site of an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein. It was a Marine colonel -not joyous Iraqi civilians, as was widely assumed from the TV images -who decided to topple the statue, the Army report said. And it was a quick-thinking Army psychological operations team that made it appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking.

After the colonel -who was not named in the report -selected the statue as a 'target of opportunity,' the psychological team used loudspeakers to encourage Iraqi civilians to assist, according to an account by a unit member.

But Marines had draped an American flag over the statue's face.
'God bless them, but we were thinking -that this was just bad news,' the member of the psychological unit said. 'We didn't want to look like an occupation force, and some of the Iraqis were saying, 'No, we want an Iraqi flag!' '

Someone produced an Iraqi flag, and a sergeant in the psychological operations unit quickly replaced the American flag.

Ultimately, a Marine recovery vehicle toppled the statue with a chain, but the effort appeared to be Iraqi-inspired because the psychological team had managed to pack the vehicle with cheering Iraqi children. "

[bth: I resurface this article because it now seems to fit inside a persistent pattern of disinformation out of Iraq that was generated by our DOD for US consumption.]
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White House Prevarications

White House Prevarications: "GIVEN ALL THE fuss about what government officials in Washington say off the record, it's surprising how little attention is paid to some of the things they say on the record. Take, for example, the subject of U.S. emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Earlier this month, we noted that the emissions figures cited by U.S. officials attending the international climate change conference in Montreal seemed dubious: Although the negotiators claimed U.S. emissions had fallen by 0.8 percent between 2000 and 2003, that drop actually reflected the recession of 2000-2001, not any substantive environmental policy change. In fact, as we noted, emissions had begun rising again in 2002 and 2003, and they looked set to rise again in 2004 -- to levels higher than they reached in 2000. ....

What, then, of Mr. Connaughton's other claim -- that the Bush administration has put in place "more than 60 mandatory, incentive-based and voluntary federal programs" to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases? An earlier version of that claim was examined two years ago by the Government Accountability Office. Its report, published in October 2003, noted that of the 30 elements of the administration's then-recently proclaimed agenda on greenhouse gases, only three were new programs -- as opposed to existing, repackaged programs -- that were actually intended to reduce future emissions in a measurable way. If it can't get its numbers right, why should we take seriously the White House's declared intention to forge a "constructive and effective approach" to climate change at all?
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Inside the First Amendment - Prying By The Press Exposes Spying On Americans

Inside the First Amendment - Prying By The Press Exposes Spying On Americans: "Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that since shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 the National Security Agency, whose mission is to monitor the communications of foreigners outside our borders, has been focusing its futuristic spy technology on Americans.

The electronic eavesdropping was conducted under orders from the president and without benefit of warrants from the special court set up to make sure such domestic spying is necessary and lawful.

Immediate reaction to the report proved its importance."

Political leaders from both parties condemned the warrantless surveillance. The president assailed the report on the radio and in a press conference. Congress delayed a vote on renewal of the Patriot Act. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said he would conduct a hearing. The Foreign Intelligence Service Act court that was circumvented in the NSA surveillance called for an immediate briefing by the administration; one member of the highly secretive court resigned.

And defense attorneys for some terrorism suspects announced that the disclosures could lead to legal challenges on behalf of their clients.

Not surprisingly, the Times also came under blistering attack - from the president and other political leaders, intelligence officials, pundits and bloggers, even competing news organizations. On one side, detractors claimed that the report had dangerously compromised national security; The New York Post headlined a Dec. 27 editorial with the suggestion that the Times was toying with treason. On the other side, critics complained that the story should have been published much sooner; a Los Angeles Times article suggested that the Times' motive for publishing had as much to do with a pending book deal as with news judgment.Administration officials had tried for more than a year to keep the newspaper from publishing the story. The president himself even summoned Times officials to the White House to persuade them not to go ahead with the report.

The newspaper agreed to withhold some information but not the story.At a press conference two days after publication, President Bush accused the Times of committing a "shameful act" and of "helping the enemy.

"It is a wonder that journalists dare bother. Yet they do. Here are just a few of the important issues brought to the public's attention in just the past few weeks:

-- The CIA has been dropping off terrorism suspects at secret prisons in Eastern European nations where interrogation can be conducted under less-stringent restrictions than our own policies allow.

--The Pentagon has been engaged in a massive initiative to collect, store and share data on thousands of American citizens involved in peaceful protests and demonstrations.--The FBI has been using national security letters to secretly access the personal records of thousands of U.S. citizens.

--Federal, state and local law enforcement has been conducting surveillance and collecting data on a number of organizations and anti-war protesters.

Keep in mind, this is information the White House and federal agencies actively work to hide from us and that our elected representatives and the courts have failed to reveal or uncover. Indeed, a formidable barrier of official secrecy has made it very difficult for the press to bring these issues to light.Americans will disagree over whether the press should report these highly sensitive matters. But all thinking citizens should agree that they need such news to participate fully and effectively in the public discourse that determines not only how their personal lives are affected but how their nation is defined.

We have learned the hard way that government power, no matter what individual, agency or party holds it, is abuse waiting to happen. That is why so many checks and balances have been built into the system. Ideally, each branch holds the others accountable. But the public must hold all of them accountable.

Obviously, in extraordinary times there will be assertions of extraordinary power for law enforcement and intelligence authorities. But when Congress and the courts are reluctant to exercise oversight, the people must step in. They are powerless to do that without the vital information that the press provides.More and more, Americans are being forced to navigate the tricky terrain between the needs of government officials trying to make the nation safer and the needs of individual citizens for personal privacy and the right to engage in even mundane First Amendment activities without worrying whether their most innocent of utterances or casual of contacts might look sinister in a government dossier or database.As government investigators peer and pry ever deeper into our private lives and terrorists fan our fears, essential elements of the democratic compact between a government and its citizenry become vulnerable. The rule of law fades. Security for speech and press freedom deteriorates.

When it ventures into areas so sensitive, the press should expect criticism, even attacks. Criticism of the press is one thing. But when government officials aggressively attempt to filter the news for the public, when the Pentagon pays for the publication of "news" in Iraqi newspapers, or when misinformation, disinformation and propaganda are actively pursued as antidotes for news, then the role of the press in a free society is in real danger.

Those who prefer to keep themselves and fellow Americans in the dark about these matters must confront at some point the possibility that ignorance is neither democratic nor American, neither security nor freedom.We should count ourselves fortunate that we have a press that labors to penetrate the fog of an undefined, unlimited and possibly unending war to bring us news that informs us not only of how the battle is going but how freedom is faring. 12-29-05

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: pmcmasters@fac.org.

Justice Dept. Probes Domestic Spying Leak

Justice Dept. Probes Domestic Spying Leak - Yahoo! News: ..."'It's pretty stunning that, rather than focus on whether the president broke his oath of office and broke federal law, they are going after the whistleblowers,' said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union."...
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NSA spied on its own employees, other U.S. intelligence personnel, journalists, and members of Congress

NSA spied on its own employees, other U.S. intelligence personnel, journalists, and members of Congress :: Alternative Press Review :: Your Guide Beyond the Mainstream: "NSA spied on its own employees, other U.S. intelligence personnel, and their journalist and congressional contacts. WMR has learned that the National Security Agency (NSA), on the orders of the Bush administration, eavesdropped on the private conversations and e-mail of its own employees, employees of other U.S. intelligence agencies -- including the CIA and DIA -- and their contacts in the media, Congress, and oversight agencies and offices.

The journalist surveillance program, code named 'Firstfruits,' was part of a Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) program that was maintained at least until October 2004 and was authorized by then-DCI Porter Goss. Firstfruits was authorized as part of a DCI 'Countering Denial and Deception' program responsible to an entity known as the Foreign Denial and Deception Committee (FDDC). Since the intelligence community's reorganization, the DCI has been replaced by the Director of National Intelligence headed by John Negroponte and his deputy, former NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden.

Firstfruits was a database that contained both the articles and the transcripts of telephone and other communications of particular Washington journalists known to report on sensitive U.S. intelligence activities, particularly those involving NSA. According to NSA sources, the targeted journalists included author James Bamford, the New York Times' James Risen, the Washington Post's Vernon Loeb, the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, the Washington Times' Bill Gertz, UPI's John C. K. Daly, and this editor [Wayne Madsen], who has written about NSA for The Village Voice, CAQ, Intelligence Online, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

In addition, beginning in 2001 but before the 9-11 attacks, NSA began to target anyone in the U.S. intelligence community who was deemed a "disgruntled employee." According to NSA sources, this surveillance was a violation of United States Signals Intelligence Directive (USSID) 18 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The surveillance of U.S. intelligence personnel by other intelligence personnel in the United States and abroad was conducted without any warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The targeted U.S. intelligence agency personnel included those who made contact with members of the media, including the journalists targeted by Firstfruits, as well as members of Congress, Inspectors General, and other oversight agencies. Those discovered to have spoken to journalists and oversight personnel were subjected to sudden clearance revocation and termination as "security risks."

In 2001, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court rejected a number of FISA wiretap applications from Michael Resnick, the FBI supervisor in charge of counter-terrorism surveillance. The court said that some 75 warrant requests from the FBI were erroneous and that the FBI, under Louis Freeh and Robert Mueller, had misled the court and misused the FISA law on dozens of occasions. In a May 17, 2002 opinion, the presiding FISA Judge, Royce C. Lamberth (a Texan appointed by Ronald Reagan), barred Resnick from ever appearing before the court again. The ruling, released by Lamberth's successor, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelley, stated in extremely strong terms, "In virtually every instance, the government's misstatements and omissions in FISA applications and violations of the Court's orders involved information sharing and unauthorized disseminations to criminal investigators and prosecutors . . . How these misrepresentations occurred remains unexplained to the court."

After the Justice Department appealed the FISC decision, the FISA Review court met for the first time in its history. The three-member review court, composed of Ralph Guy of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Edward Leavy of the 9th Circuit, and Laurence Silberman [of the Robb-Silberman Commission on 911 "intelligence failures"] of the D.C. Circuit, overturned the FISC decision on the Bush administration's wiretap requests.

Based on recent disclosures that the Bush administration has been using the NSA to conduct illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens, it is now becoming apparent what vexed the FISC to the point that it rejected, in an unprecedented manner, numerous wiretap requests and sanctioned Resnick.

******
Wayne Madsen is a Washington DC-based muckraking journalist and columnist. He was a communications security analyst with the National Security Agency in the 1980s, and an intelligence officer in the US Navy. His investigative reports regularly appear at his website: Wayne Madsen Report

Justice Dept. Investigating Leak of NSA Wiretapping

Justice Dept. Investigating Leak of NSA Wiretapping: "The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into recent disclosures about a controversial domestic eavesdropping program that was secretly authorized by President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said yesterday.

Federal prosecutors will focus their examination on who may have unlawfully disclosed classified information about the program to the New York Times, which reported two weeks ago that Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to monitor the international telephone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens and residents without court-approved warrants, officials said."...

[bth: so if the government prosecutes reporters for reporting on a secret NSA program that violated Americans' Fourth Amendment Rights, do you think NYT reporters would walk off the job or strike as the Chinese reporters did as noted in the article below? ... I doubt it.]
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The Next Hurrah: The Incredible Story of Mahdi Obeidi, Part One

The Next Hurrah: The Incredible Story of Mahdi Obeidi, Part One: "Summary: Mahdi Obeidi, the Iraqi nuclear scientist who dug up nuclear plans and prototypes from his rose garden, was one of the few successes of the post-war weapons hunt. But his story includes a number of suspicious details that suggest his story was every bit as manipulated as the rest of the WMD story. In this post, I use several versions to piece together what we know about Obeidi's experience after the war. In a future post, I will look more closely at some of the suspicious details.

On June 25, 2003--just as Congress was beginning to make a stink about prewar intelligence and the day before Tenet testified to Congress about why there were no WMDs in Iraq--the incredible story of Mahdi Obeidi broke in the US press. Administration officials hailed the story of a top Iraqi nuclear scientist who had buried a nuclear centrifuge and blueprints under his rose bushes to preserve them for the time when Saddam would reconstitute his nuclear program.
Yes, rose bushes.

The fact that this scientist had hidden his tools for preservation proved, Administration officials said, that Saddam was waiting for the time when he could restart his nuclear program. And the hidden materials meant the nuclear threat was dire, American officials said, because Saddam could jump start his program with minimal financial or temporal investment.

The story is as close as the Administration ever came to proving their claims that Saddam was trying to reconstitute his nuclear program.
But there are some funky things about Obeidi's story. Or should I say stories."...

[bth: this is a fascinating account and worth a full and thorough read. Looks like the story of the Iraqi nuclear scientist with the centrifuges in his garden was more complicated and less threatening to the US than was presented to us. It also indicates that release of the story was timed to the day before CIA Director Tenet's presentation to congress on the lack of substance related to Iraq's nuclear program. .... This scientist tried to give himself up for weeks before it was interviewed. Then the DIA and CIA fight over him and leave him to hang in Iraq until a friend of his takes the story to the media in order to get him into a safe house in Kuwait and eventually into the US.]

Chinese Reporters Walk Off Job in Protest | MediaChannel.org

Chinese Reporters Walk Off Job in Protest MediaChannel.org: "Reporters at a Beijing newspaper known for covering sensitive topics walked off the job after an editor was removed this week amid efforts to tighten press controls, employees said Friday.

The informal strike at the Beijing News was highly unusual for China's entirely state-controlled media. It reflected tensions between communist leaders and media outlets, which have pushed the limits of official tolerance in recent years, sometimes drawing punishment for aggressive reporting on corruption and other politically charged issues.

Reporters stopped filing stories Thursday after the removal of editor Yang Bin, said employees contacted by phone. On Friday, the tabloid was 32 pages, compared with more than 80 on a normal day.

'Most of the 400 reporters and editors are unhappy about Yang Bin leaving,' said a reporter who asked not to be identified. 'We don't know how many high-level officials might leave their post.'"

Employees said they didn't know why Yang was removed. It wasn't clear how many reporters took part in the protest or how long it might last.

A spokesman for the Beijing News denied there was any protest. "Everything here is normal," said the spokesman, who would give only his surname, Luo.

The Beijing News is audacious even by the standards of a new wave of Chinese newspapers that compete for readers by reporting on scandals and other previously forbidden topics.

In June, it broke the story of an attack by armed men that killed six villagers who were protesting the seizure of land for a power plant near the northern city of Dingzhou. The government arrested more than 100 people and investigated two local Communist Party officials after the report was picked up by other Chinese outlets and foreign media.

[bth: when was the last time you heard about American reporters walking off a job? I can't. It may take such action to call attention to government overstepping its bounds in feeding fake news to the media and to put a stop to criminal investigations of journalists who report on illegal wiretapping and other actions by the US government on its own citizens.]

Friday, December 30, 2005

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Iraq replaces oil minister after price protests

Iraq replaces oil minister after price protests: "Iraq's deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi was put in charge of the vital oil ministry after the minister was relieved of his duties following vocal protests over fuel price hikes.

In Baghdad, at least five people were killed Friday in a double car bomb attack, the day after a suicide bombing in the capital that killed four policemen.

The government announced that Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum had been suspended for 30 days and Chalabi put in charge of the ministry.

'The decision was taken because of Mr Bahr al-Ulum's objections to the early introduction of higher petrol prices,' an official said on condition of anonymity.

The government earlier this month announced a tripling of petrol prices in a bid to reduce subsidies, a move that sparked angry protests across the country."...

[bth: a couple of things of note, first the rumor that Chalabi would head up the oil ministry turned out to be true. You can count on him to follow the money. Second no doubt there will be a financial scandal in the oil industry of Iraq later in 2006. Third, I expect a government financial crisis in Iraq in 2006 caused by persistent disruption of oil production by Sunnis, corruption, and a reduction in US forces and spending by them. It will become a crisis probably around March requiring US bailout by September (prior to our election). I believe this financial crisis is anticipated by the Iraqi government, the insurgents and the U.S. government.]
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Iraq's History Still Divides Children of Mesopotamia - Los Angeles Times

Iraq's History Still Divides Children of Mesopotamia - Los Angeles Times: "But the preliminary election results, which have trickled out through a series of haphazard leaks and news conferences and remain disputed by all parties, show a nation starkly fragmented into ethnic and religious cantons with different aims and visions.

Nine out of 10 Iraqis in the Shiite Muslim provinces of the south voted for religious Shiite parties, according to the early results from the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. Nine out of 10 Iraqis in Sunni Muslim Arab areas of central and western Iraq voted for Sunni parties. Nine out of 10 Iraqis in the Kurdish provinces of the north voted for Kurdish candidates. Nationwide, only about 9% voted for tickets that purported to represent all Iraqis.

The results were like a bracing splash of ice water for U.S. officials, who had predicted that a secular, centrist Iraqi government would emerge after the invasion that toppled President Saddam Hussein. Many longtime observers of Iraq had hoped this month's vote would foster national unity by bringing to power moderate politicians who might help draw down a minority Sunni Arab-led insurgency against a government now controlled by the country's majority Shiites, and stanch Kurds' secessionist tendencies.

Instead, more than 240 of the 275 legislators, who will decide the composition of the future government, will probably be Shiite Islamists, Sunni Arab sectarians or autonomy-minded Kurds. The Shiites, who make up about 60% of the nation's population, will hold by far the largest share.

'Iraq is still very much in a stage of identity politics,' a U.S. official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition he not be identified, acknowledged after the vote. 'Every community is very afraid of the other community."...

Regardless of the cause, the very idea of Iraq may be slowly fading, politicians and common Iraqis acknowledge, often sadly. Even the Iraqi flag seems to appear only in the posters of politicians bankrolled by U.S.-funded aid organizations. Government buildings such as the ministries of education and health are often festooned with posters of bearded and turbaned Shiite clerics instead of the red, white and black flag of Iraq.

In the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Dahuk, the Iraqi flag is nowhere in evidence, replaced by the red, white and green flag of the ill-fated Mahabad republic, the Kurdish state briefly established in northern Iran by rebellious Kurds aided by the Soviet army in the chaotic aftermath of World War II.

"There are very few Iraqis who still care about the Iraqi national flag," says Suha Azzawi, a women's rights activist and Sunni Arab nationalist. "Only in the west and in Baghdad do people really have patriotic feelings toward the flag."...

"You don't need to do much," he said. "You just talk to them and say, 'I am like you,' and you can get their votes.

"The pull of religion is a powerful one. Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni politician whose Arab nationalist ticket will probably win about 11 seats in the legislature, described the plight of his brother, Yassin, who went into the polling booth to vote for his sibling's bloc but had second thoughts and nearly voted for a Sunni coalition dominated by religious leaders.

"When he went to vote, he heard the mosque's loudspeaker calling out in his head," Mutlak recalled in amazement. " 'You will go to hell. You will not see heaven if you vote don't vote for" the Iraqi Accordance Front, which is topped by Islamists.

Some Iraq experts compare the situation to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. In times of crisis, they say, people tend to seek out their own kind and stick close to them just as citizens of former communist countries sought refuge in religion and ethnicity, catalysts for wars in Chechnya, Yugoslavia and Tajikistan....

[bth: what is evident is that only 9% of the votes were pan-Iraqi. The rest were regional or ethnic. This is a clear indication that Iraq will break up. What -besides the Americans- is even holding it together? Why really should the Americans care if Iraq breaks up? As long as the governments that result don't oppress their people, that they have some peaceful (if not friendly) relations with their neighbors and perhaps have some non-hostile relationship with the U.S. we should call it a day and move on. We cannot leave ourselves in a position to fight their civil war.]
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Bush Team Rethinks Its Plan for Recovery

Bush Team Rethinks Its Plan for Recovery: "President Bush shifted his rhetoric on Iraq in recent weeks after an intense debate among advisers about how to pull out of his political free fall, with senior adviser Karl Rove urging a campaign-style attack on critics while younger aides pushed for more candor about setbacks in the war, according to Republican strategists.

The result was a hybrid of the two approaches as Bush lashed out at war opponents in Congress, then turned to a humbler assessment of events on the ground in Iraq that included admissions about how some of his expectations had been frustrated. The formula helped Bush regain his political footing as record-low poll numbers began to rebound. Now his team is rethinking its approach to his second term in hopes of salvaging it"

...It was not until Bush opened a fresh campaign to reassure the public on Iraq that he regained some traction.

The lessons drawn by a variety of Bush advisers inside and outside the White House as they map a road to recovery in 2006 include these: Overarching initiatives such as restructuring Social Security are unworkable in a time of war. The public wants a balanced appraisal of what is happening on the battlefield as well as pledges of victory. And Iraq trumps all.

"I don't think they realized that Iraq is the totality of their legacy until fairly recently," said former congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.), an outside adviser to the White House.

"There is not much of a market for other issues."...

... The same-old Bush was not enough, they said; he needed to be more detailed about his strategy in Iraq and, most of all, more open in admitting mistakes -- something that does not come easily to Bush.

Although Rove raised concerns about giving critics too much ground, the younger-generation aides prevailed. Bush agreed to try the approach so long as he did not come off sounding too negative. Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University specialist on wartime public opinion who now works at the White House, helped draft a 35-page public plan for victory in Iraq, a paper principally designed to prove that Bush had one.

Bush went into campaign mode, accusing Democrats of hypocrisy for voting to authorize the war and then turning against it. When Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) proposed pulling troops out of Iraq, the White House issued an unusually harsh and personal response comparing him to liberal filmmaker Michael Moore. The original draft, officials said, had been even tougher.

Within a few days, though, the president shifted tone. Writing off 30 percent or more of the public as adamantly against the war, his advisers focused on winning back a similar-size group that had soured on Iraq but, they believed, wanted to be convinced victory was possible.

The White House employed every bully pulpit the president has -- speeches to military, diplomatic and political audiences; interviews with key television anchors; Cheney's surprise trip to Iraq; private briefings for congressional centrists; a prime-time Oval Office address on Dec. 18 that reached 37 million people; and an East Room news conference.

The humility theme was woven into speeches, often in the first two minutes to keep viewers from turning away. Aides had noticed that anger at Bush after Hurricane Katrina subsided somewhat after he took responsibility for the response. The idea, one senior official said, was like fighting with a spouse: "You need to give voice to their concern. That doesn't necessarily solve the division and the difference, but it drains the disagreement of some of its animosity if you feel you've been heard."

Better yet, from the White House perspective, Democrats helped frame the choice when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) endorsed Murtha's withdrawal plan and party Chairman Howard Dean declared it impossible to win in Iraq. "For most of the year we were debating events," the senior official said. "Now we're debating Democrats."

The president received the results he wanted. His approval ratings rose eight percentage points in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, to 47 percent.

... "The lesson from this year," said Grover G. Norquist, a GOP activist close to Rove, "is you cannot do anything dramatic unless you have 60 votes" in the Senate, where Republicans are five shy of the count needed to break a filibuster.....

Bush's top aides are telling friends they are burned out. Andrew H. Card Jr., already the longest-serving White House chief of staff in a half-century, is among those thought to be looking to leave. Rove's fate is uncertain, as he appears likely to remain under investigation in the CIA leak case, people close to the inquiry said.

Some are concerned that although Bush has changed his approach, he has not changed himself. He has been reluctant to look outside his inner circle for advice, and even some closest to Bush call that a mistake because aides have given up trying to get him to do things they know he would reject.

As they end a difficult year, advisers said they know they cannot take the recent political progress for granted. "We view this as not mission accomplished," one top aide said. "It's going to need to be sustained."

[bth: kind of a shame that the public humility (set in the first two minutes of a public statement) was faked and part of a campaign program. Disheartening.]

ABC News: US reports surge in Guantanamo hunger strike

ABC News: US reports surge in Guantanamo hunger strike: "WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Guantanamo Bay prisoners taking part in a nearly 5-month-old hunger strike has surged to 84 since Christmas Day, the U.S. military said on Thursday.

Forty-six detainees at the prison for foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, joined the protest on the key Christian holiday last Sunday, said Army Lt. Col. Jeremy Martin, a military spokesman."

The prisoner population, which the Pentagon says numbers about 500, is believed to be uniformly Muslim. Only nine have been charged with any crime.

"There's been a significant increase in the number that have been added to the hunger strike," Martin said by telephone from Guantanamo.

Lawyers for some of the detainees call the strike a protest of the conditions in which the prisoners are being held and their lack of legal rights.

Medical personnel were force-feeding 32 of the hunger strikers with plastic tubes inserted into the stomach through through the nose, the military said. Asked the purpose of the force-feeding, Martin said, "Because our policy is to preserve life."

The military defines a hunger striker as a detainee who has refused nine straight meals. Military officials often refer to the hunger strike as a "voluntary fast" and the force-feeding as "enteral feeding."

The detainees launched the strike in early August after the military reneged on promises to bring the prison into compliance with the Geneva Conventions, lawyers representing them said. Detainees are willing to starve to death to demand humane treatment and a fair hearing on whether they must stay at the prison, the lawyers said.
Most of the detainees were captured in Afghanistan and have been held for nearly four years.

'MEDIA ATTENTION'

In a statement, the military said a hunger strike "is consistent with al Qaeda training and reflects detainee attempts to elicit media attention and bring pressure on the United States government to release them." ...

[bth: why have only 9 been charged with a crime?]
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Gunmen Open Fire at Conference in India, Killing Scientist

Gunmen Open Fire at Conference in India, Killing Scientist: "NEW DELHI, Dec. 29 -- Police set up roadblocks Thursday in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, seeking to apprehend gunmen who opened fire at an elite science institute and killed a retired professor.

The attack occurred late Wednesday as participants left an auditorium during an annual conference at the Indian Institute of Science, one of the country's leading research centers. A retired professor from New Delhi's Indian Institute of Technology, M.C. Puri, was killed and four other scientists were injured, police said."

Police said they suspected that Kashmiri militants were involved, and that they may have used the attack during the conference, attended by nearly 300 delegates from India and abroad, to obtain international publicity. Bangalore, a hub for India's technology sector, is home to more than 1,000 information technology companies, including several multinationals....

[bth: interesting to note the use of terrorism to disrupt economic progress in areas adjacent to militant Islamic hotbeds -- Bali, Thailand, Marriotts in Philippines and Indonesia, refineries in Iraq, hotels in Egypt, and now Bangalore. What is the core motivation?]
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General Changes Position on Rumsfeld Rift - New York Times

General Changes Position on Rumsfeld Rift - New York Times: "....Pentagon officials, seeking to play down any hint of a rift between the secretary and his top military adviser over the treatment of detainees, said shortly afterward that aides were going back over the policy and would possibly clarify it.
When General Pace was asked again on Thursday by reporters in Bahrain about the exchange, he said for the first time that he and Mr. Rumsfeld had not really disagreed at all. General Pace said he was talking about the obligations of American soldiers in a war zone like Iraq or Afghanistan; Mr. Rumsfeld, he said, was talking about the obligations of Americans in a nonhostile setting like, say, Tokyo.

'When I discussed it with him after the fact, it seemed to me he was talking about global conditions, and I knew that I was talking specifically about conditions in Iraq,' General Pace said in an interview later aboard his plane as he continued a weeklong troop visit in the Middle East.

But a transcript of the November news conference shows that Mr. Rumsfeld was asked specifically about the suspected abuses by Iraqi Interior Ministry forces and the United States' obligations to address and prevent them.
"Iraq knows of certain knowledge that they need the support of the international community, and a good way to lose it is to make a practice of something that’s inconsistent with the values of the international community," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
General Pace then responded to a follow-up question about what guidance he had for American military commanders in Iraq who witnessed mistreatment, the reply with which Mr. Rumsfeld took issue.

But a transcript of the November news conference shows that Mr. Rumsfeld was asked specifically about the suspected abuses by Iraqi Interior Ministry forces and the United States' obligations to address and prevent them.

'Iraq knows of certain knowledge that they need the support of the international community, and a good way to lose it is to make a practice of something that's inconsistent with the values of the international community,' Mr. Rumsfeld said.

General Pace then responded to a follow-up question about what guidance he had for American military commanders in Iraq who witnessed mistreatment, the reply with which Mr. Rumsfeld took issue. "

[bth: a shame really. I had hoped that Gen. Pace was able and willing to stand up to Rumsfeld on issues like torture. I guess not.]

Iraqi defense officials deny influence of Kurdish militia leaders

KRT Wire 12/29/2005 Iraqi defense officials deny influence of Kurdish militia leaders: "BAGHDAD, Iraq - The Iraqi defense ministry, reacting to a Knight Ridder report this week, said Thursday that Kurdish troops in the Iraqi army take their orders from the central government in Baghdad, not from Kurdish militia leaders.

Knight Ridder this week reported on interviews with Iraqi soldiers and officers in northern Iraq who said that they were ready, if necessary, to follow the commands of Kurdish militia leaders to secure the borders of an independent Kurdistan.On Wednesday, staff members of the Iraqi army's chief of staff, Gen. Babaker al-Zebari, asked a Knight Ridder reporter for the names of every Iraqi soldier and Kurdish political official who was interviewed for the story or facilitated the reporter's visits to Iraqi military bases. Al-Zebari is a Kurd. The reporter refused.

On Thursday, al-Zebari's office released a statement saying that the quotes in the story weren't representative of the defense ministry and charging that they 'are false and created by followers of the ex-regime to frustrate the Iraqi brave army's will.'It wasn't clear whether the ministry was accusing Kurdish soldiers - almost all staunch opponents of the former regime of Saddam Hussein - or the Knight Ridder reporter of ties to the former regime.Such accusations are serious in a nation where militia death squads have been accused of murdering former regime officials and sympathizers.'

Al-Zebari expressed astonishment for such statements at a time the elected Iraqi government has achieved important steps in building up a united Iraqi Army working under the leadership of both ministries of Defense and the Central Iraqi Government,' the statement said....

[bth: Knight-Ridder has been one of the only consistently accurate wire services reporting out of Iraq. There is no reason to believe that this story is inaccurate given Lassetters previous track record. What is so surprising about this story? Not much except the Iraqi central governments denial of its truth. Come to think of it that isn't surprising either.]

Death threats cut Iraq oil flow

BBC NEWS World Middle East Death threats cut Iraq oil flow: "Iraq's largest oil refinery has been shut down following death threats to tanker drivers, jeopardising supplies of electricity across northern Iraq.

The threats followed a steep rise in the price of petrol earlier this month, ordered by the government.

The oil ministry said the shutdown at Baiji was costing $20m a day.

the levels maintained before the US-led invasion of Iraq. ...
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U.S. to Restrict Iraqi Police - Los Angeles Times

U.S. to Restrict Iraqi Police - Los Angeles Times: "After a series of prison abuse scandals that have inflamed sectarian tensions, U.S. officials announced plans Thursday to rein in Iraqi special police forces, increasing the number of American troops assigned to work with them and requiring consultations before the Iraqis mount raids in Baghdad.

The decision to impose more day-to-day oversight suggests a recognition within the U.S. military that the heavy-handed tactics of some Iraqi units, which are to increasingly take on the role of fighting insurgents, have aggravated the sectarian strife that helps fuel the insurgency."

More than 2 1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion and 1 1/2 years after the formal end of the occupation, it also illustrates that Americans still have the final word on security matters....

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recently described 2006 as "the year of the police" in Iraq.This year, retired Army Col. Andrew F. Krepinevich prepared a brief for Khalilzad, arguing that the police were more important than the army in fighting the insurgency.Speaking to reporters last week in Baghdad, Khalilzad said interior minister would be one of the key posts to fill in the new government."The police force has to be credible with the communities of Iraq," he said. "It has to have the confidence of all the people of Iraq. That's why the selection of the minister of interior will be very important. It will send a message. You can't have someone who is regarded as sectarian. You have to have someone who has the confidence of all communities."...

Pace: U.S. to Launch Phased Iraq Pullout

Pace: U.S. to Launch Phased Iraq Pullout: "The U.S. will carry out planned withdrawals of American troops in Iraq only from regions where Iraqi forces can maintain security against the insurgents, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff said Thursday.

Gen. Peter Pace said the current force of 160,000 would drop to below 138,000 by March, then U.S. commanders on the ground would work with the Iraqi government to determine the pace of future pullbacks in areas that have been secured by local security forces.

'The bottom line will be that the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police will gain in competence, that they will be able to take on more and more of the territory, whether or not there are still insurgents in that area,' he said in an interview with a small group of reporters, including The Associated Press, aboard a military plane en route to the United Arab Emirates.

Amid congressional pressure and growing public opposition to the war, the Bush administration last week announced plans to reduce U.S. combat troops in Iraq to below the 138,000 level that prevailed most of this year.

The number of American forces in Iraq was raised to about 160,000 to provide extra security during the October referendum and December parliamentary elections, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said those extra troops would be leaving soon.

The exact size of the additional troops cuts has not been announced, but senior Pentagon officials have said the number of American troops in Iraq could drop to about 100,000 by next fall."....

Thursday, December 29, 2005

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Those wanting to improve democracy in their countries should not wait for permission.

Bulent Ecevit
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Covert CIA Program Withstands New Furor

Covert CIA Program Withstands New Furor: "The effort President Bush authorized shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, to fight al Qaeda has grown into the largest CIA covert action program since the height of the Cold War, expanding in size and ambition despite a growing outcry at home and abroad over its clandestine tactics, according to former and current intelligence officials and congressional and administration sources.

The broad-based effort, known within the agency by the initials GST, is compartmentalized into dozens of highly classified individual programs, details of which are known mainly to those directly involved.

GST includes programs allowing the CIA to capture al Qaeda suspects with help from foreign intelligence services, to maintain secret prisons abroad, to use interrogation techniques that some lawyers say violate international treaties, and to maintain a fleet of aircraft to move detainees around the globe. Other compartments within GST give the CIA enhanced ability to mine international financial records and eavesdrop on suspects anywhere in the world.

Over the past two years, as aspects of this umbrella effort have burst into public view, the revelations have prompted protests and official investigations in countries that work with the United States, as well as condemnation by international human rights activists and criticism by members of Congress.
Still, virtually all the programs continue to operate largely as they were set up, according to current and former officials. These sources say Bush's personal commitment to maintaining the GST program and his belief in its legality have been key to resisting any pressure to change course."...

U.S. to Probe Contractor's Web Tracking - Yahoo! News

"NEW YORK - Unbeknownst to the Bush administration, an outside contractor has been using Internet tracking technologies that may be prohibited to analyze usage and traffic patterns at the White House's Web site, an official said Thursday. "...
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NSA inadvertently uses banned 'cookies' - Dec 29, 2005

"NEW YORK (AP) -- The National Security Agency's Internet site has been placing files on visitors' computers that can track their Web surfing activity despite strict federal rules banning most of them.

These files, known as 'cookies,' disappeared after a privacy activist complained and The Associated Press made inquiries this week, and agency officials acknowledged Wednesday they had made a mistake.

Nonetheless, the issue raises questions about privacy at a spy agency already on the defensive amid reports of a secretive eavesdropping program in the United States. (Watch how cookies can track where you surf -- 1:47)

'Considering the surveillance power the NSA has, cookies are not exactly a major concern,' said Ari Schwartz, associate director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy advocacy group in Washington, D.C. 'But it does show a general lack of understanding about privacy rules when they are not even following the government's very basic rules for Web privacy.'"...

[bth: mistake my ass]

CIA couple outed by 5-year-old son

"HOUSTON (Reuters) - The Washington couple at the heart of the CIA leak investigation had their cover blown by their small son as they tried to sneak away on vacation on Thursday.

'My daddy's famous, my mommy's a secret spy,' declared the 5-year-old of his parents, former diplomat Joe Wilson and retired CIA operative Valerie Plame."...
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Revolts

General rebellions and revolts of a whole people never were encouraged now or at any time. They are always provoked.

Edmund Burke
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The Victory of Spin - Center for Media and Democracy

bth: Here is an excellent article summarizing the propaganda war being waged on the American people from the Pentagon. It is worth reading in full.

Unfortunately in the military's attempt to control the news it has lost the public trust. That is my conclusion.

Pentagon Calls Its Pro-U.S. Websites Legal - Los Angeles Times

"WASHINGTON - U.S. military websites that pay journalists to write articles and commentary supporting military activities in Europe and Africa do not violate U.S. law or Pentagon policies, a review by the Pentagon's chief investigator has concluded. But a senior Defense Department official said this week that the websites could still be shut down to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

The Pentagon inspector general's inquiry concludes that two websites targeting audiences in the Balkans and in the Maghreb region of northern Africa are consistent with U.S. laws prohibiting covert propaganda, are properly identified as U.S.-government products and are maintained in close coordination with U.S. embassies abroad, according to a previously undisclosed summary of the report's findings. "...

[bth: I'll bet New Iraq Chronicle was a Lincoln Group front company for the Pentagon. It shut down within days of the Lincoln scandal breaking and incredibly all reference to it has been being expunged from the internet including disappearing reference even in Google cached files. It was slick, in English and full of pro Chalabi and American news. I thought it at the time too polished for an Iraqi based website and too pro-American. The fact that it was in English is also a strong indication that the audience was not Iraqi.]
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Nato facing a critical test of its resolve from resurgent Taleban

"As Britain prepares to take command, there is cause for concern in allies' timidity

OPENING the sliding door of our rickety minibus, the cheerful Italian soldier who had been our escort for the day had a surprise for us.

"You have time for some shopping" he said, motioning towards the little makeshift market set up on the dusty perimeter of the Nato air base near Herat in western Afghanistan, 200 mountainous miles from Kabul.

There had been no retail activity scheduled for our brief visit to this teeming city of more than a million people, 30 miles from the Iranian border, so evidently something was wrong. By now we should have been on a military plane headed back to our base at Kabul.

“There is no plane,” the soldier said, anticipating our question with a smile intended to be apologetic yet authoritative.

As we strolled in the gathering dusk among Afghan traders and small boys eagerly offering us best prices on carpets, Afghan pakol hats and chess sets, the full story emerged.

Our group, a mixed bunch of “opinion leaders” from think-tanks and media organisations, had spent three days with Nato forces in the country. That morning we had flown from Kabul in a Danish C130 military transport aircraft that had been hit by debris, sustained propeller damage and returned to Kabul to be repaired.

Another plane, a German transport, had been assigned to fly to Herat to collect us. But like almost all Nato forces, the Germans serve in Afghanistan under rules called “caveats”, decided by each nation, which impose tight restrictions on what they may and may not do. These caveats are infuriating for the Nato commanders but are imposed by political leaders terrified that the slender public support for the operation in Afghanistan might be shattered completely by serious military reverses.

In our case we had fallen foul of a caveat that stated that German military planes were not to fly at night. That’s right. Germany, the second richest member of Nato, a country whose government expresses full commitment to the War on Terror, says that it can take part only in daylight hours.

...But the incident captured the challenges Nato faces at what may be a crucial moment in the war in Afghanistan.

As Britain prepares to take over command next year of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the 9,000-strong Nato force in Afghanistan, the noble struggle to build a free and stable country from the husk of a ruined nation is at its most critical phase since the US invaded the country after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

...In the south and east of the country, where mainly US forces are deployed, there is widening daily combat against Taleban and al-Qaeda forces. More than 200 American soldiers have died in Operation Enduring Freedom this year, making 2005 the bloodiest since 2001.

Islamic extremists have been making gains through intimidation of the population. Shortly before Christmas a teacher was taken from his classroom in Ghazni and shot in front of his students for the anti-Islamic crime of teaching girls.

Meanwhile the drugs trade goes on largely unmolested, indeed often, it seems, abetted by a fledgeling Afghan national police force, in which corruption is rife and recruits on $70 a month are easy prey to the more lucrative appeals of the traffickers.

In all this, the biggest risk to this fragile operation may be the seriousness of the commitment that Nato governments bring to the fight.

“We’re not going to win this war militarily any time soon,” Ronald Newman, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, said. “If we throttle back the effort, we face trouble.”

Real progress has been made since Nato took military responsibility for peacekeeping here two years ago. It is clear that in much of the country the presence of Nato troops is a welcome relief from three decades of war. Half the eligible population turned out to vote in September in a remarkably successful election. President Karzai enjoys genuinely widespread support.

But there is steadily rising frustration among the population with the deteriorating security. “They’ve heard a lot of words. They want some results,” Barbara Stapleton, of the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief, said. “Just saying we are here to support the Afghan Government doesn’t have a lot of purchase with the people right now.”

The Nato operation in Afghanistan was an historic step for European countries. Even now, its success should not be understated; and on the ground the professionalism and hard work are impressive. In Herat, one of the more prosperous Afghan cities, Nato forces are greeted with thumbs-up signs, applause and smiles.

But the contradictions are evident. At the headquarters of the local provincial reconstruction team, Italian soldiers spend much of their day working to rebuild schools, hospitals and bridges.

Meanwhile just outside town, local warlords, including the infamous Mujahidin leader Ismael Khan, who is a member of the national Government in Kabul, carry on a struggle linked to the region’s rich opium poppy crop.

Nato, however, is largely excluded from the effort to counter narcotics, leaving it to the Afghan Government. And it is clear that it is not working.

Soldiers are doing development work here, when what is urgently needed is security,” Ms Stapleton said.

At the presidential palace in Kabul, Amrullah Saleh, the Afghan intelligence chief, said that while the Government had been successful in reducing poppy-growing areas, the small reduction had been outpaced by increased production from the remaining fields.

“The yield went down less than the total area devoted to poppy,” he said, his dry arithmetic masking the devastating nature of the challenge.

“We are at a turning point in Afghanistan,” a senior military commander there said.

The challenges will get much more serious next year. In spring the US, already stretched with more than 18,000 troops in the country in addition to the 136,000 in Iraq, is to hand over command of a key area around Kandahar, the old Taleban headquarters, to Nato, at about the same time as Britain takes over national command. But the plan has run into trouble. The Dutch Government, which is supposed to lead the Stage II mission, has raised humanitarian concerns about the Afghan Government; critics say that it is looking for an excuse to pull out of a commitment.

“My fear is that governments may have signed up to a mission and are only now thinking through the implications
,” a senior diplomat in Kabul said.
The obvious danger is that an increasingly emboldened insurgency will see the weakly supported new Nato deployment as an opportunity to strike a critical blow. Too many European governments are already nervous about political support in their countries for what they are doing. What might happen if one of them suffers a violent setback?

“Does Nato as an institution understand the mission which they’re going to have to do?” Mr Newman said.

The coming year may provide the answer to his question.

Pro-Syrian group threatens to kill UN official

"A pro-Syrian group that purportedly killed a top Lebanese editor has threatened to kill the next head of the UN commission investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a newspaper reported Wednesday.

An-Nahar newspaper said it had received a statement signed by 'The Strugglers for the Unity and Freedom in al-Sham,' the group that claimed to have killed the paper's general manager Gibran Tueni with a car bomb on Dec. 12. Al-Sham is the Arabic term for the historical region that encompassed Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The statement said Detlev Mehlis, who stepped down this month as chairman of the UN commission, was lucky to escape death. Mehlis had concluded that Syria was involved in the killing of Hariri, who was slain by a massive truck bomb in Beirut in February. Syria denies the charge.

'Mehlis was able to slip out of our hands a moment before it was too late when he chose to resign because he understood the message and realized that if he did not do that, his end would be wretched like the end of all traitors who betray Arabs and Islam,' the statement said."....

Madrassas refuse to expel pupils

"Pakistan's religious schools have refused to meet a 31 December deadline set by the president for the expulsion of foreign students.
The governing body of 12,000 madrassas said the order was 'illegal, discriminatory and un-Islamic'.

President Pervez Musharraf ordered the expulsion in July after at least one of the London suicide bombers was shown to have visited a Pakistani madrassa. "...
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Many Iraqi soldiers see a civil war on the horizon

"KIRKUK, Iraq - Passions run deep for the Arab and Kurdish soldiers who wear the Iraqi army uniform.

Kirkuk lies just a few miles from one of the nation's largest oil fields, worth billions of dollars.

Arabs figure that the city's oil wealth should belong to Iraq, while ethnic Kurds see it as part of a future nation of Kurdistan.

'If the Kurds want to separate from Iraq it's OK, as long as they keep their present boundaries,' said Sgt. Hazim Aziz, an Arab soldier who was stubbing out a cigarette in a barracks room.

'But there can be no conversation about them taking Kirkuk. ... If it becomes a matter of fighting, then we will join any force that fights to keep Kirkuk. We will die to keep it.'

Kurdish soldiers in the room seethed at the words. 'These soldiers do not know anything about Kirkuk,' Capt. Ismail Mahmoud, a former member of the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, said as he got up angrily and walked out of the room. 'There is no other choice. If Kirkuk does not become part of Kurdistan peacefully we will fight for 100 years to take it.'

Five days spent interviewing Iraqi army soldiers in northern Iraq - who are overwhelmingly Kurdish - made clear that many soldiers think that a civil war is coming.

'I see Iraq gradually becoming three regions that will one day become independent,' said Jafar Mustafir, a close adviser to Iraq's Kurdish interim president, Jalal Talabani, and the deputy head of Peshmerga for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two major Kurdish parties.

'I see us moving toward the end of Iraq.'

Achieving independence is a matter of life and death for Mahmoud, as with most other Kurdish soldiers interviewed.

His father, a Peshmerga, was killed by Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein's troops in 1991 during fighting in Kirku"
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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Torture jails force ouster of Iraq chief

"LONDON -- Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, whose ministry is accused of operating clandestine prisons where some detainees were tortured, will vacate his job shortly, security and political sources in Baghdad said yesterday.

Mr. Jabr has been under pressure to step down since a Nov. 15 raid by U.S. forces of a secret prison in the Baghdad neighborhood of Jadriyah, where 166 prisoners were discovered, most of them Sunni Muslims and some showing signs of torture.

The minister also had been criticized amid widespread though largely unproven charges of abuses, including hit squads operating within the Interior Ministry, which is dominated by Shi'ite Muslims.

Multiple sources contacted by telephone from London agreed that Mr. Jabr would not retain his position. Most said he was being forced out, although one said he would resign of his own volition because he found the pressure unbearable. "....

Chalabi to take over Iraq Oil Ministry?

..."Meanwhile, Iraqi oil officials quoted by Dow Jones said yesterday that the deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi would take over the oil ministry, replacing Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, who has taken a month's leave.

Mr Bahr al-Ulum is reported to be disgruntled with the current government and earlier this month threatened to resign over a rise in oil prices."
The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.

Edmund Burke
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Scientists recruit wasps for war on terror

"Scientists at a Georgia laboratory have developed what could be a low-tech, low-cost weapon in the war on terrorism: trained wasps."

Lewis and others at the University of Georgia-Tifton Campus developed a handheld "Wasp Hound" to contain the wasps while they sniff out chemicals and other substances.

Lewis and his partner, University of Georgia biological engineer Glen Rains, say their device is ready for pilot tests and could be available for commercial use in five to 10 years.

Rains says the wasps could one day be used instead of dogs to check for explosives in cargo containers coming in to the nation's seaports, in vehicles crossing at border checkpoints, at airports and anywhere else where security should be tight.

"It's real easy to learn how to work with them," he says about the wasps. "You could show somebody what to do in 30 to 40 minutes. And they're very specific in what they learn."

This new method comes as the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on high-tech equipment and training since 9/11 to secure the nation from another terrorist attack.

Bomb-sniffing dogs cost thousands of dollars and take months to train. High-tech equipment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit and often has spotty performance.

"We don't have portable, flexible systems," Lewis says....

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