Saturday, June 24, 2006

Political news of the week take 15

[See also: political news of the week takes 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Due to traveling for the past few weeks, I haven't posted a news of the week for a while. The first few of these articles come from the week of May 29; the rest come from the past weeks (June 12 & 19).

The children of Guantanamo Bay:
The notorious US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay has been hit by fresh allegations of human rights abuses, with claims that dozens of children were sent there - some as young as 14 years old.

Lawyers in London estimate that more than 60 detainees held at the terrorists' prison camp were boys under 18 when they were captured.

They include at least 10 detainees still held at the US base in Cuba who were 14 or 15 when they were seized - including child soldiers who were held in solitary confinement, repeatedly interrogated and allegedly tortured.


Because the detainees have been held in Cuba for four years, all the teenagers are now thought to have reached their 18th birthdays in Guantanamo Bay and some have since been released.

The latest figures emerged after the Department of Defense (DoD) in Washington was forced to release the first ever list of Guantanamo detainees earlier this month. Although lawyers say it is riddled with errors - getting numerous names and dates of birth wrong - they were able to confirm that 17 detainees on the list were under 18 when taken to the camp, and another seven were probably juveniles.

In addition, said Mr Stafford Smith, they had credible evidence from other detainees, lawyers and the International Red Cross that another 37 inmates were under 18 when they were seized. One detainee, an al-Jazeera journalist called Sami el Hajj, has identified 36 juveniles in Guantanamo.
Bush 'planted fake news stories on American TV':
Federal authorities are actively investigating dozens of American television stations for broadcasting items produced by the Bush administration and major corporations, and passing them off as normal news. Some of the fake news segments talked up success in the war in Iraq, or promoted the companies' products.


The report, by the non-profit group Centre for Media and Democracy, found that over a 10-month period at least 77 television stations were making use of the faux news broadcasts, known as Video News Releases (VNRs). Not one told viewers who had produced the items.

"We know we only had partial access to these VNRs and yet we found 77 stations using them," said Diana Farsetta, one of the group's researchers. ...


The range of VNR is wide. Among items provided by the Bush administration to news stations was one in which an Iraqi-American in Kansas City was seen saying "Thank you Bush. Thank you USA" in response to the 2003 fall of Baghdad. The footage was actually produced by the State Department, one of 20 federal agencies that have produced and distributed such items.
Corps' Levee Work Is Faulted:
A wide range of design and construction defects in levees around New Orleans raise serious doubts that the system can withstand the pounding of another hurricane the size of Katrina, even after $3.1 billion in repairs are completed, a team of independent investigators led by UC Berkeley's civil engineering school said Sunday.

The findings undermine assurances by the Bush administration and the Army Corps of Engineers that the federal levee repair program due to be completed in June will provide a higher level of protection to New Orleans, which sustained 1,293 deaths and more than $100 billion in property loss from Katrina.


The Berkeley team found that the defects that caused breaches during Katrina — including thin layers of soil with the consistency of jelly and sections of levees built with crushed seashells — had gone undetected and could be widespread.

The above posts were stored before my trip to Canada; the following ones are primarily from the past week:

Lawmaker: Hurricane aid spent on jewelry, erotica an 'affront':
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found at least $1 billion in disaster relief payments by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were improper and potentially fraudulent because the recipients provided incomplete or incorrect information when they registered for assistance. (GAO report)


In FEMA's defense, top official Donna Daniels testified the agency was simply overwhelmed by the scale of the disasters, forcing it to choose between providing help quickly or delaying aid until information could be verified.

"We just made the calculated decision that we were going to help as many people as we could, and that we would have to go back and identify those people who we either paid in error or that defrauded us, and deal with that," said Daniels, FEMA's acting director of recovery operations.

Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina, the House panel's ranking Democrat, said he appreciated FEMA and other relief agencies were under "tremendous pressure to register storm victims as quickly as possible."

"However, that is no excuse for the lack of preparation, the lack of internal controls and the lack of decisive and professional leadership," Etheridge said.

Seeking an Exit Strategy for Guantánamo:
"I'd like to close Guantánamo," the president [Bush] told a press conference Tuesday, and acknowledged what even close allies like the British have argued for some time: "No question, Guantánamo sends a signal to some of our friends — provides an excuse, for example, to say the United States is not upholding the values that they're trying to encourage other countries to adhere to."

Yet Mr. Bush insisted that some Guantánamo prisoners are too dangerous to set free, and even the camp's fiercest critics admit that shutting Guantánamo and deciding what to do with the remaining 460 prisoners would not be easy. Still more problematic is deciding the fate of as many as three dozen so-called "high value" Al Qaeda prisoners held in overseas jails overseen by the Central Intelligence Agency.

In fact, the "end game" for detainees, as some in the government call it, requires grappling with problems posed by a war with no conventional enemy soldiers, no rules and no clear conclusion.

The challenges include gauging how dangerous it would be to set a particular Islamist radical free; devising trials that offer a measure of military justice but not the full protections of civilian courts, and deciding whether to transfer prisoners to countries that might free a hardened jihadist or torture a political dissident.

Whatever Happened to the Buck Stops Here? Brownie Email Says Bush Happy FEMA Head took Katrina Flak: A blog post by Rep. Conyers.
CNN caught an important email released by former FEMA Head Michael Brown the other day. According to the story, "The September 2005 e-mail reads: 'I did hear of one reference to you, at the Cabinet meeting yesterday. I wasn't there, but I heard someone commented that the press was sure beating up on Mike Brown, to which the president replied, 'I'd rather they beat up on him than me or Chertoff.' The sender adds, 'Congratulations on doing a great job of diverting hostile fire away from the leader.'"

Here Illegally, Working Hard and Paying Taxes:
... In contrast to the typical image of an illegal immigrant — paid in cash, working under the table for small-scale labor contractors on a California farm or a suburban construction site — a majority [of illegal immigrants] now work for mainstream companies, not fly-by-night operators, and are hired and paid like any other American worker.


More than half of the estimated seven million immigrants toiling illegally in the United States get a regular paycheck every week or two, experts say. At the end of the year they receive a W-2 form. Come April 15, many file income tax returns using special ID numbers issued by the Internal Revenue Service so foreigners can pay taxes. Some even get a refund check in the mail.

And they are now present in low-skilled jobs across the country. Illegal immigrants account for 12 percent of workers in food preparation occupations, for instance, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center. In total, they account for an estimated one in 20 workers in the United States.

The building maintenance industry — a highly competitive business where the company with the lowest labor costs tends to win the contract — has welcomed them with open arms. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more than a quarter of a million illegal immigrants are janitors, 350,000 are maids and housekeepers and 300,000 are groundskeepers.

Army Cancels Contract for Iraqi Prison:
The Army Corps of Engineers said Monday that it had canceled a $99.1 million contract with Parsons, one of the largest companies working in Iraq, to build a prison north of Baghdad after the firm fell more than two years behind schedule, threatened to go millions of dollars over budget and essentially abandoned the construction site.

The move is another harsh rebuke for Parsons, only weeks after the corps canceled more than $300 million of the company's contracts to build and refurbish hospitals and clinics across Iraq. A federal oversight office had found that some of the clinics were little more than empty shells and that only 20 of 150 called for in the contract would be completed without new financing.

But the prison, originally scheduled to be completed this month, appears to be the largest single rebuilding project canceled for failing to achieve its goals under the $45 billion American rebuilding program for Iraq. The corps said Parsons officials had recently estimated that it could not be completed before September 2008, and would cost an additional $13.5 million.


The corps says it intends to complete 3,700 rebuilding projects. But that number is much smaller than once planned and there is no independent overall assessment of their success. For example, among the water and sanitation projects, only 49 of the 136 projects originally envisioned are expected to be completed, according to Stuart W. Bowen Jr., who leads the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an independent federal oversight office.

Police bypass subpoenas to get Americans' phone records:
Federal and local police across the country -- as well as some of the nation's best-known companies -- have been gathering Americans' phone records from private data brokers without subpoenas or warrants.

These brokers, many of whom market aggressively across the Internet, have broken into customer accounts online, tricked phone companies into revealing information and sometimes acknowledged that their practices violate laws, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Legal experts and privacy advocates said police reliance on private vendors who commit such acts raises civil liberties questions.

Those using data brokers include agencies of the Homeland Security and Justice departments -- including the FBI and U.S. Marshals Service -- and municipal police departments in California, Florida, Georgia and Utah. Experts believe hundreds of other departments frequently use such services.

Bid to increase minimum wage nixed
The Republican-controlled Senate refused Wednesday to raise the minimum wage, rejecting an election-year proposal from Democrats for the first increase in nearly a decade.

The vote was 52-46, eight short of the 60 needed.

"I don't think the Republicans get it," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, who backed a proposal for a three-step increase in the current wage floor to $7.25 an hour. The federal minimum wage has been fixed at $5.15 an hour since 1997.


Underscoring the political context of the debate, he said if Democrats win the Senate this November, a minimum wage increase will be one of the first pieces of legislation to be considered.

Cheney Assails Press on Report on Bank Data:
Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday vigorously defended a secret program that examines banking records of Americans and others in a vast international database, and harshly criticized the news media for disclosing an operation he said was legal and "absolutely essential" to fighting terrorism.


The financial tracking program was disclosed Thursday by The New York Times and other news organizations. American officials had expressed concerns that the Brussels banking consortium that provides access to the database might withdraw from the program if its role were disclosed, particularly in light of anti-American sentiment in some parts of Europe.


The program, run out of the Central Intelligence Agency and overseen by the Treasury Department, has allowed counterterrorism authorities to gain access to millions of records of transactions routed through Swift from individual banks and financial institutions around the world. The data is obtained using broad administrative subpoenas, not court warrants.

Investigators have used the data to do "at least tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of searches" of people and institutions suspected of having ties to terrorists, Stuart Levey, an under secretary at the Treasury Department, told reporters at a briefing on Friday. Officials say the program has proven valuable in a number of foreign and domestic terrorism investigations, and led to the 2003 capture of the most wanted Qaeda fugitive in Southeast Asia, known as Hambali.

F.B.I. Killed Plot in Talking Stage, a Top Aide Says:
A plot to topple the Sears Tower in Chicago and attack the F.B.I. headquarters in Miami was "more aspirational than operational," a top bureau official said Friday, a day after seven Florida men were arrested on terrorism charges.

The official, John S. Pistole, deputy director of the F.B.I., and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said at a news conference that authorities chose to head off the would-be plot, involving scouting potential targets in Florida, when it was largely at the discussion stage.

Mr. Gonzales acknowledged that the men, who had neither weapons nor explosives, posed "no immediate threat." But he added, "they did take sufficient steps that we believe does support this prosecution."

No end in sight for Africa's suffering masses - A CNN article by Jeff Koinange
And just when it seemed things couldn't get more depressing on a continent where misery and hardship are an every day occurrence, I landed in a refugee camp in the town of Bukavu in eastern Congo. I walked into a hospital filled with victims of rape and mutilation and broke down.

The women here had been forced to flee their villages by marauding soldiers who weren't satisfied with just raping them -- they wanted to annihilate a generation of newborns -- mutilating their mothers by inserting knives, machetes and even pistols and rifles into their private parts after gang-raping them for days.

I have never seen such inhumanity in all my years as a reporter. And to add insult to injury, when some of these women returned to their villages, they were either shunned by their families for "allowing" themselves to be violated, or they were gang-raped again by some of the same men in uniform.

If I've ever felt helpless as a reporter, it was in Bukavu -- for these women had nowhere to run, nowhere to call home, and a bleak future that will deprive them of the ability to feel like women again.

In all of my journalistic travels, I can't help but see the images of Africa's helpless and hopeless, and I can't help but think about what is it that drives man's inhumanity.

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