Thursday, May 14, 2009
Graphic photographs of alleged prisoner abuse, thought to be among up to 2,000 images Barack Obama is trying to prevent from being released, emerged yesterday.
By Alex Spillius in Washington
May 15, 2009 "The Telegraph" -- The shocking images of inmates in Iraq and Afghanistan were published just a day after the US president announced plans for a legal battle stop them ever being seen.
They risked provoking renewed hostility in the Middle East as Mr Obama attempts to build bridges with the Islamic world.
He is scheduled to make a major speech in Cairo on June 4 when he will launch his version of a plan to bring peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
One picture showed a prisoner hung up upside down while another showed a naked man smeared in excrement standing in a corridor with a guard standing menacingly in front of him. Another prisoner is handcuffed to the window frame of his cell with underpants pulled over his head.
Others yet to be released reportedly show military guards threatening to sexually assault a detainee with a broomstick and hooded prisoners on transport planes with Playboy magazines opened to pictures of nude women on their laps.
The images emerged from Australia yesterday where they were originally obtained by the channel SBS in 2006 in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal. They were not distributed around the world at the time but are now believed to be among those the president is trying to block.
Mr Obama previously committed to allowing thousands of images to be published but changed his mind after senior generals warned that their publication could place US troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in greater danger.
The president's change of heart brought bitter criticism from the left wingers and the American Civil Liberties Union, which had brought a freedom of information case against the US government applying to see the pictures.
Pledging to fight the case all the way to the Supreme Court, the ACLU accused him of betraying his principles of open government and "complicity in covering up" the "commission of torture by the Bush administration".
"It is true that these photos would be disturbing. The day we are no longer disturbed by such repugnant acts would be a sad one," said Anthony Romero, executive director.
Four months on from the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Palestinians have seen little of the money pledged for reconstruction.
RAMALLAH â€” Money, wrote the English philosopher Francis Bacon, is like manure: of very little use unless it is spread.
Since an international aid conference in March promised $5.2 billion to rebuild Gaza, the stink of un-spread money has been strong in the nostrils. That's particularly unpleasant for the people of Gaza, who also have to deal with a largely destroyed sewage system, thus giving them a double-helping of manure.
International diplomats, Israeli officials and leaders of the Palestinian Authority haven't been able to figure out how to rebuild Gaza while keeping the cash out of the hands of Hamas, which runs the narrow strip of land. Food aid can get in, but substantial reconstruction hasn't begun.
"The Sharm conference was just a big public relations stunt," says a diplomat who works in the development arm of a European government. "The money promised for Gaza is just not there."
Gaza's 1.5 million people have been in desperate straits since the war there at the turn of the year. Israeli ground and air forces attacked Hamas to halt the Islamic group's missile strikes on towns in southern Israel. About 1,300 people died.
At least 14,000 homes throughout the Gaza Strip were destroyed or badly damaged, according to the UN Development Program. Infrastructure, such as roads, water, sewage and electricity supply, were severely affected.
In early March, a wide range of international donors converged on the swanky Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Responding to public concern about the plight of ordinary Gazans, the donors dug deep. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised $900 million from the United States. Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion.
The total was put at $5.2 billion, though $700 million of that was made up of old pledges that hadn't ever been fulfilled (a perverse international aid equivalent of re-gifting). New pledges amounted to $4.4 billion. That's more than Germany received, in real terms, under the Marshall Plan after World War II. It ought to have been enough to rebuild a place as small as Gaza where, it's fair to say, the residents have low expectations for the luxuriousness of their habitat.
Motorola, Caterpillar, Veolia, the Tesco supermarket chain, and other companies across the world that do business with Israel are suffering losses due to a global boycott in support of Palestinian rights.
The protest, organised by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, is part of a drive to "Hang Up On Motorola" until it ends sales of communications and other products that support Israel's military occupation of Palestinian land.
Inside the meeting, the Presbyterian, United Methodist and other churches urged shareholders to support their resolution, which calls for corporate standards grounded in international law. Doing the right thing could also reduce the risk of "consumer boycotts, divestment campaigns and lawsuits".
Although Motorola executives deny it, such risks must have played a part in their decision to sell the department making bomb fuses shortly after Human Rights Watch teams found shrapnel with Motorola serial numbers at some of the civilian sites bombed by Israel in its December-January assault on Gaza.
The US protests are part of a growing global movement that has taken international law into its own hands because governments have not. And, especially since the attacks on Gaza, the boycotts have been biting.
There are three reasons why.
First, boycotts enable ordinary citizens to take direct action. For instance, the New York group Adalah decided to target diamond merchant Lev Leviev, whose profits are plowed into colonising the West Bank.
During the Christmas season, they sing carols with the words creatively altered to urge shoppers to boycott his Madison Avenue store.
The British group Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine teamed up with Adalah and others to exert public pressure on the British government regarding Leviev. The British Embassy in Tel Aviv recently cancelled plans to rent premises from Leviev's company Africa-Israel.
There are other results. Activists in Britain have targeted the supermarket chain Tesco to stop the sales of Israeli goods produced in settlements.
In a video of one action â€” over 38,000 YouTube views to date â€” Welsh activists load up a trolley with settlement products and push it out of the shop without paying.
All the while, they calmly explain to the camera just what they are doing and why, as they pour red paint over the produce â€” and as British Bobbies quietly lead them away to a police van.
The result of such consumer boycotts? A fifth of Israeli producers have reported a drop in demand since the assault on Gaza, particularly in Britain and Scandinavia.
"We're in a complete mess and the consumer is smart enough to know it," says Davidowitz, whose firm does consulting for the retail industry. "If the consumer isn't petrified, he or she is a damn fool."
Davidowitz, who is nothing if not opinionated (and colorful), paints a very grim picture: "The worst is yet to come with consumers and banks," he says. "This country is going into a 10-year decline. Living standards will never be the same."
This outlook is based on the following main points:
- With the unemployment rate rising into double digits - and that's not counting the millions of "underemployed" Americans - consumers are hitting the breaks, which is having a huge impact, given consumer spending accounts for about 70% of economic activity.
- Rising unemployment and the $8 trillion negative wealth effect of housing mean more Americans will default on not just mortgages but student loans and auto loans and credit card debt.
- More consumer loan defaults will hit banks, which are also threatened by what Davidowitz calls a "depression" in commercial real estate, noting the recent bankruptcy of General Growth Properties and distressed sales by Developers Diversified and other REITs.
As for all the hullabaloo about the stress tests, he says they were a sham and part of a "con game to get private money to finance these institutions because [Treasury] can't get more money from Congress. It's the 'greater fool' theory."
"We're now in Barack Obama's world where money goes into the most inefficient parts of the economy and we're bailing everyone out," says Daviowitz, who opposes bailouts for financials and automakers alike. "The bailout money is in the sewer and gone."
A lawyer for US-born reporter Roxana Saberi, freed this week from a Tehran jail, said on Wednesday the spy charges she had faced arose after she obtained a classified report on the US war on Iraq.
"She had a report about the US attack on Iraq prepared by the strategic research centre at the (Iranian) presidency," Saleh Nikbakht told AFP.
"The research centre deemed the report as classified. But she had not used it at all."
Nikbakht did not say how Saberi had managed to gain access to the confidential report.
Saberi's other lawyer, Abdolsamad Khoramshahi, said Saberi received a suspended two-year jail term from the appeal court as that is the stipulated punishment for such a crime.
"She was accused of accessing secret documents. If these are used, there is a 10-year jail term, if not, then two years," he said.
Saberi was released on Monday after her original eight-year jail term was reduced to a suspended two-year term by the appeal court.
She walked free from Tehran's Evin prison where she was held following her arrest in January initially on charges of buying alcohol, an act prohibited in the Islamic republic.
Sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union and featuring noted travel writer and television host Rick Steves, "Marijuana: It's Time for a Conversation" begins a long-overdue public discussion about marijuana and marijuana prohibition.
During his campaign in the fall of 2008, President Obama made two promises to the American people: to make college more affordable for all students and to remove lobbyist influence and wasteful spending from Washington. He addresses both these promises in his new plan to invest in education.
Receiving a college education has now become more important than it has ever been in the past. Today, half of the fastest growing job industries in the United States require their applicants to have at least a Bachelor's degree to be even considered for a job position. And those who do not have a college degree are almost guaranteed that they will be unemployed, especially in our current economic situation.
These are difficult times for students as well as their families all over America as we are struggling to keep up with the ever increasing cost of higher education. Although Maryland has instituted a tuition freeze for in-state students, around the country the cost of tuition at private colleges has more than doubled and at private universities, it has nearly tripled. Families can barely keep up with the increasing tuition costs because on average, the cost of tuition has grown ten times faster than a typical family's income.
In order to address this crisis, President Obama has made college affordability and accessibility a priority for his administration. By increasing the availability of Pell Grants and making it possible for working families to be eligible for a $2,500 tax credit, college has become more affordable for 7 million students around the country. Currently, in order to pay for high tuition prices students have had the option of taking out a loan. One type of loan has been the Direct Loan, which allows money to go directly from the federal government to students. The other type of loan usually used by students is the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL), which goes through lenders. Under the FFEL program lenders get a large subsidy from the government, which wastes approximately $5 billion a year of taxpayer money. In order to eliminate this wastage, President Obama has taken the initiative to end the FFEL program and to direct this money into the Direct Loan program. The Obama administration has determined that these initiatives will save 4.9 million families $9 billion.
Earlier this year, President Obama stated his goal before a joint session of Congress that by 2020 the United States will have the highest college graduation rate in the world. He believes the first step to accomplishing this goal is to create savings by changing the way loans are offered and given to students.
Over the next decade the government can save tens of billions of dollars simply by eliminating the FFEL program and cutting out banks as middlemen. The money that is saved can instead be invested in expanding Pell Grants, offering tuition tax credits, and launching college completion programs for any student who needs it.
However, it is unlikely that lenders, who make large profits from our current lending system, will go down without a fight. Already, bankers and lenders who are completely opposed to President Obama's initiative are hiring lobbyists as they strategically plan to fight back against the Obama administration.
"What the Hell's Going On?" It's a simple yet completely fair question given all that's happened over the last nine years. But still, there is almost no unified consensus to this question in the U.S. Try asking friends and family. Feel free to present it as a party game.
They'll probably respond with something like, "What's going on with what? Heidi and Spencer? American Idol? LeBron?" This will take you to phase two of the question "With the whole country." At this point answers like "Everyone's corrupt" or "Stupid republicans" or "Damn liberals" will kick in. Give them three points and another roll of the dice or push of the pop-a-matic for this answer. Too often we don't give enough credit to these answers in that at least they acknowledge something is wrong. They are broad and sometimes pointed at the wrong target but the level of anger and sense of things being broken is dead on. At least these people aren't on the Clueless Square right before "Go," "Baltic Avenue" and "America is Number One!"
A more dispiriting and just as common answer is the faux big-picture amateur historian perspective of "things go in cycles" or "things were worse a hundred years ago." Both points are true but ultimately play up a powerlessness which is great news for those in power who are in fact F'n things up. I would also argue that the engine of "cycles" as it pertains to law, government, economics and war is human action and choice. We don't give the guys who manage our baseball teams the "cycles" out so why do we give it to our representatives and money managers. One point and loss of turn.
"They're all a bunch of crooks" is another common answer. And it's just as powerless as the "things go in cycles" response. It usually leads to not voting and not looking for reliable sources of information and news because after all, "they're all a bunch of crooks." How come when we are robbed by an actual bunch of crooks at gun point we don't say, "What are you gonna do? They'll all a bunch of crooks." No, we call the police and demand swift action, and then we call A and E and shoot a true crime show.
This excuse is also music to the ears of the ineffective and privileged, who by all rights should have a mob outside their house or at least be hissed at every time they go out to dinner. (By the way, what happened to hissing? I haven't seen it since the end of Dangerous Liaisons. It works, and people like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Yoo should get a wave of it every time they enter a restaurant. That's borderline civic duty type of stuff.)
As tricky as it seems, the answer to "What's going on?" is, I would argue, actually pretty simple. And here it is:
Since FDR's New Deal, corporations and wealthy families have been non-stop finding new ways to get tax breaks, deregulation and entitlements from the government. The crush of lobbyists on Washington and purchase of the media by corporations has created a big business-run government and a worthless press leaving Americans screwed and ill-informed. The end.