Sunday, July 29, 2007

Alaska's Hat-Trick of Corruption

PROGRESS REPORT - Alaska may be the second youngest state in the country, but it's also one of the most corrupt. The state's entire congressional delegation -- Sens. Ted Stevens (R) and Lisa Murkowski (R) and Rep. Don Young (R) -- is now embroiled in a series of scandals and criminal investigations that threaten to topple Alaska's oil industry-friendly political leadership. Much of the corruption involves Alaska's "largest oil-field engineering firm," Veco Corp., which is "entwined in a broad federal investigation that has led to the indictment of four current and former Alaska politicians and ensnared former Alaska Senate President Ben Stevens, son of Ted Stevens."

Ted Stevens is "the most senior Republican in the U.S. Senate and Alaska's most famous political figure." He's also the subject of investigations by the FBI and a federal grand jury over an "extensive remodeling project" done to his home in 2000. The contractors for this major project, which added a new floor to Stevens's house, happened to be hired by longtime Veco Corp. CEO Bill Allen. Allen and another company executive pleaded guilty in May to federal conspiracy, bribery and tax charges, and they are now cooperating with authorities. . .

The Wall Street Journal revealed this week that 18-term Alaska congressman Don Young is also under criminal investigation in the widening probe into "alleged influence-peddling and self-dealing in Congress," and Allen again plays a prominent role. For a decade, "Allen has held fund-raisers for Mr. Young in Anchorage every August, known as 'The Pig Roast.'" Veco employees and its PAC have contributed at least $157,000 to Young between 1996 and 2006, the last year the event was held. Young has often skated ethics rules closely. The self-proclaimed "little oinker" has arranged several highly-suspect pork projects, including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," and his former staffer was convicted as part of the Jack Abramoff corruption probe. Young has now "hired a criminal-defense team and has said his campaign committee has paid $262,000 in legal fees in the past three months."

Alaska's other senator, Lisa Murkowski, has come under fire in recent weeks for buying a prime riverfront lot on Alaska's Kenai River lot "at a cut-rate price from a major campaign contributor." Wealthy Alaskan real estate developer and political supporter Bob Penney sold a 1.27-acre waterfront lot for $179,000 to Murkowski's husband, Verne Martell. "Three days after the borough recorded the Murkowskis' purchase, the assessed value went up to $214,900. So right off the bat, it looks like she got a discount of 20 percent." But the discount was "probably far bigger. The online real estate listing service for Alaska has one Kenai riverfront lot. The parcel is only one acre -- a quarter of an acre less than Sen. Murkowski's -- but the asking price is $399,000. Per acre, that's almost three times what the senator paid for hers." Last month, the National Legal and Policy Center filed a 25-page ethics complaint against Murkowski with the Senate committee. Murkowski's deal factors into the other scandals -- Bob Penney, who sold her husband the lot, also testified last year before a grand jury "about his cozy relationship" with Stevens.

Most vote machines lose test to hackers

John Wildermuth, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, July 28, 2007

State-sanctioned teams of computer hackers were able to break through the security of virtually every model of California's voting machines and change results or take control of some of the systems' electronic functions, according to a University of California study released Friday.

The researchers "were able to bypass physical and software security in every machine they tested,'' said Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who authorized the "top to bottom review" of every voting system certified by the state.

Neither Bowen nor the investigators were willing to say exactly how vulnerable California elections are to computer hackers, especially because the team of computer experts from the UC system had top-of-the-line security information plus more time and better access to the voting machines than would-be vote thieves likely would have.

"All information available to the secretary of state was made available to the testers,'' including operating manuals, software and source codes usually kept secret by the voting machine companies, said Matt Bishop, UC Davis computer science professor who led the "red team" hacking effort, said in his summary of the results.

The review included voting equipment from every company approved for use in the state, including Sequoia, whose systems are used in Alameda, Napa and Santa Clara counties; Hart InterCivic, used in San Mateo and Sonoma Counties; and Diebold, used in Marin County.

Election Systems and Software, which supplied equipment to San Francisco, Contra Costa, Solano and Los Angeles counties in last November's election, missed the deadline for submitting the equipment, Bowen said. While their equipment will be reviewed, Bowen warned that she has "the legal authority to impose any condition'' on its use.

Bowen said in a telephone news conference Friday that the report is only one piece of information she will use to decide which voting systems are secure enough to use in next February's presidential primary election.

If she is going to decertify any of the machines, she must do it by Friday, six months before the Feb. 5 vote.

A day-long hearing in Sacramento on Monday will give the UC investigators a chance to present their finding and allow the various voting machine companies to present a response. The hearing also will be open for comments from the public.

The study was designed to discover vulnerabilities in the technology of voting systems used in the state. It did not deal with any physical security measures that counties might take and "made no assumptions about constraints on the attackers,'' Bishop said.

"The testers did not evaluate the likelihood of any attack being feasible,'' he added.

Some county elections officials in the state were among the most critical of the study, saying they worry that they could be forced to junk millions of dollars in voting machines if Bowen decertifies them for the February election.

Letting the hackers have the source codes, operating manuals and unlimited access to the voting machines "is like giving a burglar the keys to your house,'' said Steve Weir, clerk-recorder of Contra Costa County and head of the state Association of Clerks and Election Officials.

The study also determined that many voting systems have flaws that make it difficult for blind voters and those with other disabilities to cast ballots.

During her election campaign last year, Bowen made it clear she had little confidence in the security of electronic voting machines and vowed to review their use in the state.

"Voting systems are tools of our democracy,'' she said Friday. "We want to ensure that the voting systems used in the state are secure, accurate, reliable and accessible to all. This (study result) is not a big deal to me. It's a big deal for everyone in the country.''

Vendors and other advocates of electronic voting machines have suggested that because of Bowen's well-publicized concerns, she has her thumb on the scale when it comes to reviewing the systems. But the secretary of state said she purposely avoided the scientists doing the study.

Bowen admitted that she's "enough of a geek" that she would have enjoyed working closely with the study, but "I've stayed out of the way ... It's not my review,'' she said. "I didn't want (the researchers) to be influenced by my questions.''

Weir said the UC study "is only a hologram of what could be done technically without considering the real-world mitigation,'' the locks, access cards and other physical security measures typically used.

The study found "absolutely no evidence of any malicious source code anywhere,'' he added. "They found nothing that could cast doubt on the results of elections.''

Bishop, however, said he was surprised by the weakness of the security measures, both physical and electronic, protecting the voting systems. His team of hackers found ways to get into the systems not only through the high-tech equipment in election headquarters but also through the machines in the polling places.

If the testers had had more time, they would have found more flaws, he added.

"The vendors appeared to have designed systems that were not high assurance (of security)," said Bishop, a recognized expert on computer security. "The security seems like it was added on.''

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

New Evidence Clearly Indicates Pat Tillman Was Executed

Via PrisonPlanet

Army medical examiners concluded Tillman was shot three times in the head from just 10 yards away, no evidence of "friendly fire" damage at scene, Army attorneys congratulated each other on cover-up, Wesley Clark concludes "orders came from the very top" to murder pro-football star because he was about to become an anti-war political icon.

Astounding new details surrounding the death of Pat Tillman clearly indicate that top brass decided to execute the former pro football star in cold blood to prevent him from returning home and becoming an anti-war icon.

These same criminals then engaged in a sophisticated conspiracy to create a phony "friendly fire" cover story.

Shocking new facts emerged about the case last night but were bizarrely underplayed by the Associated Press under nondescript headlines like 'New Details on Tillman's Death' - a complete disservice to the horrific implications that the new evidence carries.
Army medical examiners were suspicious about the close proximity of the three bullet holes in Pat Tillman's forehead and tried without success to get authorities to investigate whether the former NFL player's death amounted to a crime, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

"The medical evidence did not match up with the, with the scenario as described," a doctor who examined Tillman's body after he was killed on the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2004 told investigators.

The doctors - whose names were blacked out - said that the bullet holes were so close together that it appeared the Army Ranger was cut down by an M-16 fired from a mere 10 yards or so away.

The report also states that "No evidence at all of enemy fire was found at the scene - no one was hit by enemy fire, nor was any government equipment struck."

The article also reveals that "Army attorneys sent each other congratulatory e-mails for keeping criminal investigators at bay as the Army conducted an internal friendly-fire investigation that resulted in administrative, or non-criminal, punishments."

So there was no evidence whatsoever of friendly fire, but the ballistics data clearly indicated that the three head shots had been fired from just 10 yards away and then the Army tried to concoct a hoax friendly fire story and sent gloating back-slapping e mails congratulating each other on their success while preventing the doctors from exploring the possibility of murder. How can any sane and rational individual weigh this evidence and not come to the conclusion that Tillman was deliberately gunned down in cold blood?

The evidence points directly to it and the motivation is clear - Tillman abandoned a lucrative career in pro-football immediately after 9/11 because he felt a rampaging patriotic urge to defend his country, and became a poster child for the war on terror as a result. But when he discovered that the invasion of Iraq was based on a mountain of lies and deceit and had nothing to do with defending America, he became infuriated and was ready to return home to become an anti-war hero.

As far back as March 2003, immediately after the invasion, Tillman famously told his comrade Spc. Russell Baer, "You know, this war is so fucking illegal," and urged his entire platoon to vote against Bush in the 2004 election. Far from the gung-ho gruff stereotype attributed to him, Tillman was actually a fiercely intellectual man with the courage of his convictions firmly in place.

Tillman had even begun to arrange meetings with anti-war icons like Noam Chomsky upon his return to America before his death cut short any aspirations of becoming a focal point for anti-war sentiment.

According to Daily Kos, Wesley Clark appeared on Keith Olbermann's Countdown last night and stated that "the orders came from the very top" to murder Tillman as he was a political symbol and his opposition to the war in Iraq would have rallied the population around supporting immediate withdrawal.

The notion that the U.S. government gave orders for Army top brass to execute Pat Tillman in cold blood is the most damaging indictment of the Iraq war since it began, trumping the lies about weapons of mass destruction tenfold, but if the establishment media continue to soft-peddle and steam-valve one of the biggest stories of the century its impact will be completely diluted.

It is up to us to make this story go viral because the implications are so dire that they could act as the final death knell for the blood-soaked and illegal occupation of Iraq and become the clarion call to bring our troops home.

Mr. Gonzales’s Never-Ending Story (Bullshit?)

President Bush often insists he has to be the decider — ignoring Congress and the public when it comes to the tough matters on war, terrorism and torture, even deciding whether an ordinary man in Florida should be allowed to let his wife die with dignity. Apparently that burden does not apply to the functioning of one of the most vital government agencies, the Justice Department.

Americans have been waiting months for Mr. Bush to fire Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who long ago proved that he was incompetent and more recently has proved that he can’t tell the truth. Mr. Bush refused to fire him after it was clear Mr. Gonzales lied about his role in the political purge of nine federal prosecutors. And he is still refusing to do so — even after testimony by the F.B.I. director, Robert Mueller, that suggests that Mr. Gonzales either lied to Congress about Mr. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping operation or at the very least twisted the truth so badly that it amounts to the same thing.

Mr. Gonzales has now told Congress twice that there was no dissent in the government about Mr. Bush’s decision to authorize the National Security Agency to spy on Americans’ international calls and e-mails without obtaining the legally required warrant. Mr. Mueller and James Comey, a former deputy attorney general, say that is not true. Not only was there disagreement, but they also say that they almost resigned over the dispute.

Both men say that in March 2004 — when Mr. Gonzales was still the White House counsel — the Justice Department refused to endorse a continuation of the wiretapping program because it was illegal. (Mr. Comey was running the department temporarily because Attorney General John Ashcroft had emergency surgery.) Unwilling to accept that conclusion, Vice President Dick Cheney sent Mr. Gonzales and another official to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital room to get him to approve the wiretapping.

Mr. Comey and Mr. Mueller intercepted the White House team, and they say they watched as a groggy Mr. Ashcroft refused to sign off on the wiretapping and told the White House officials to leave. Mr. Comey said the White House later modified the eavesdropping program enough for the Justice Department to sign off.

Last week, Mr. Gonzales denied that account. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee the dispute was not about the wiretapping operation but was over “other intelligence activities.” He declined to say what those were.

Lawmakers who have been briefed on the administration’s activities said the dispute was about the one eavesdropping program that has been disclosed. So did Mr. Comey. And so did Mr. Mueller, most recently on Thursday in a House hearing. He said he had kept notes.

That was plain enough. It confirmed what most people long ago concluded: that Mr. Gonzales is more concerned about doing political-damage control for Mr. Bush — in this case insisting that there was never a Justice Department objection to a clearly illegal program — than in doing his duty. But the White House continued to defend him.

As far as we can tell, there are three possible explanations for Mr. Gonzales’s talk about a dispute over other — unspecified — intelligence activities. One, he lied to Congress. Two, he used a bureaucratic dodge to mislead lawmakers and the public: the spying program was modified after Mr. Ashcroft refused to endorse it, which made it “different” from the one Mr. Bush has acknowledged. The third is that there was more wiretapping than has been disclosed, perhaps even purely domestic wiretapping, and Mr. Gonzales is helping Mr. Bush cover it up.

Democratic lawmakers are asking for a special prosecutor to look into Mr. Gonzales’s words and deeds. Solicitor General Paul Clement has a last chance to show that the Justice Department is still minimally functional by fulfilling that request.

If that does not happen, Congress should impeach Mr. Gonzales (emphasis mine-Pete).

The Pope Reopens a Portal to Eternity, via the 1950s

by Lawrence Downes


To a child in a Roman Catholic family, the rhythm of the Mass is absorbed into the body well before understanding reaches the brain. It becomes as lullingly familiar as a weekly drive to a relative’s house: opening prayers like quick turns though local streets, long freeway stretches of readings, homily and Eucharistic prayers, the quietude of communion and then — thanks be to God — the final blessing, a song and home to pancakes and the Sunday comics.

Last Sunday, I drove through a strange liturgical neighborhood. I attended a Tridentine Low Mass, the Latin rite that took hold in the 16th century, was abandoned in the 1960s for Mass in the local language and is poised for a revival now that Pope Benedict XVI has swept away the last bureaucratic obstacles to its use.

If you don’t remember L.B.J., you don’t remember the Latin Mass. At 42, I had never seen, heard or smelled one. Then a family trip took me to Chicago last weekend, and curiosity took me early Sunday morning to St. John Cantius, an old Polish parish on the Near West Side.

I went up the steps of the Renaissance-baroque church, through a stone doorway and back into my dimmest memories. Amid the grandeur of beeswax candles and golden statuary, the congregation was saying the rosary. I sat behind an older couple wearing scapulars as big as credit cards. I saw women with lace mantillas and a clutch of seminarians in the front rows, in black cassocks and crisp white surplices.

The sanctuary, behind a long communion rail, looked oddly barren because it lacked the modern altar on which a priest, facing the people, prepares the Eucharistic meal. The priest entered, led by altar boys. He wore a green and gold chasuble and a biretta, a black tufted hat, that he placed on a side table. His shaved head and stately movements gave the Mass a military bearing.

I couldn’t hear a thing.

I strained to listen, waited and, finally, in my dimness, realized that there was nothing to hear.

At a Low Mass, the priest prays unamplified or silently. The people do not speak or sing. They watch and read. All around me, people’s heads were buried in thick black missals. I flipped through my little red Latin-English paperback, trying to keep up. Had it been 50 years ago, I would have had every step memorized. But I didn’t know any of it.

I felt sheepish, particularly because I was surrounded by far more competent flock.

I also felt shaken and, irrationally, angry. Catholics are told that the church is the people of God, but from my silent pew, the people seemed irrelevant. This Mass belonged to Father and his altar boys, and it seemed that I could submit to that arrangement or leave. For the first time, I understood viscerally how some Catholics felt in the ’60s, when the Mass they loved went away.

I called Eugene Kennedy, professor, author and former priest, an old Chicagoan and eloquent critic of church matters. He is a scourge of the Catholic hierarchy, which he considers grasping and autocratic. But he spoke fondly of the old Mass, of the majesty to be unearthed by learning and praying it, like reading Proust in French. It contains a profound sense of mystery, he said, which is what religion is all about.

But he said he wouldn’t want it back. Priests aren’t ready; it takes years to learn. And forget about the laity, he said, which is accustomed to a half-century of liturgical participation and rudimentary parish democracy. He seemed certain that most Catholics would never go for it.

But St. John Cantius, once given up for dead, is thriving with an influx of new parishioners. In his homily, the pastor, the Rev. C. Frank Phillips, spoke proudly about the Latin Mass, which his parish was the first in Chicago to revive. He announced that it would soon be training priests in the old rite, which he vowed would restore the Catholic church to its place leading the world back to Christ.

Father Frank does not disparage the contemporary Mass, nor could he, lest he cast doubt on the legitimacy of the last 40 years of Catholic worship. But other traditionalists do not always share his tact. Their delight at the Latin revival can seem inseparable from their scorn for the Mass that eclipsed it, which they ridicule for its singing, handshaking and mushy modernity.

They’re right that Mass can be listless, with little solemnity and multiple sources of irritation: parents sedating children with Cheerios; priests preaching refrigerator-magnet truisms; amateur guitar strumming that was lame in 1973; teenagers slumping back after communion, hands in pockets, as if wishing they had been given gum instead.

Pope Benedict insists he is not taking the church on a nostalgia trip. He wants to re-energize it, and hopes that the Latin Mass, like an immense celestial object, will exert gravitational pull on the faithful.

Unless the church, which once had a problem with the law of gravity, can repeal inertia, too, then silent, submissive worship won’t go over well. Laypeople, women especially, have kept this battered institution going in a secular, distracted age. Reasserting the unchallenged authority of ordained men may fit the papal scheme for a purer church. But to hand its highest form of public worship entirely back to Father makes Latin illiterates like me irate.

It’s easy enough to see where this is going: same God, same church, but separate camps, each with an affinity for vernacular or Latin, John XXIII or Benedict XVI. Smart, devout, ambitious Catholics — ecclesial young Republicans, home-schoolers, seminarians and other shock troops of the faith — will have their Mass. The rest of us — a lumpy assortment of cafeteria Catholics, guilty parents, peace-’n’-justice lefties, stubborn Vatican II die-hards — will have ours. We’ll have to prod our snoozing pewmates when to sit and stand; they’ll have to rein in their zealots.

And we probably won’t see one another on Sunday mornings, if ever.

Handmade Alabama Quilts Find Fame and Controversy

Read and make up your own mind. I only have one quibble (that I'll voice). Folk Art and Outsider Art are two different things. Folk Art is art of a regional culture, while Outsider Art usually refers to art done by the insane or mentally impaired.--Pete


GEE’S BEND, Ala. — Until a decade ago, worn-out quilts made by generations of black women in this remote, rural loop of land were stuffed under mattresses or burned to keep mosquitoes away.

But then Bill Arnett, a white champion of self-taught black artists, began a rescue mission, buying dozens of the quilts and ultimately creating one of the biggest surprise hits in the art world’s recent memory. The Gee’s Bend quilts, pulsating with a sense of color and rhythm more akin to abstract painting, have since broken attendance records in the country’s most elite museums. They have been reproduced on calendars, scarves, Visa gift cards and first-class postage stamps.

If the quilts were a blockbuster, however, the sequel came this summer: two of the quilters, Loretta Pettway and Annie Mae Young, filed lawsuits against Mr. Arnett and his sons, saying they had been cheated out of thousands of dollars in proceeds from their work and copyrights.

The story line — poor, uneducated black women swindled by “scheming Atlanta businessmen,” as one newspaper article called the Arnetts — was juicy enough to be front-page news in the South. The reality, though, is more nuanced. The vast majority of the quilters remain satisfied with the Arnetts (there were works by 22 living quilters, including Ms. Pettway and Ms. Young, in the most recent museum exhibit).

Martin Luther King got us out of the cotton patch; the Arnetts got us out from under the bedsprings and onto the museum walls,” said Nettie Young, whose living room furniture is arranged around a rug patterned after one of her quilts. Of the plaintiffs, she said: “I don’t know what they sued for. They ain’t told me, and I ain’t asked them.”

From lawsuits to hexes, disputes are a time-honored tradition in the field variously called folk, outsider or visionary art — a field whose biggest stars include many isolated Southerners and whose biggest champions include art-world sophisticates like Mr. Arnett, who once dealt in high-end Asian and African pieces. But in Gee’s Bend, the Arnetts said they tried to avoid the usual pitfalls. They encouraged the women to set up a collective to sell the quilts themselves and a foundation to control money from royalties.

The Arnetts say that they take no cut from either kitty, only occasionally take commissions from gallery sales, and that they have poured hundreds of thousands of their own dollars into cataloging, promoting and licensing the quilts. What is more, they said, they bought hundreds of quilts of little artistic value just to help the women.

But even those measures did not forestall the inevitable.

“When you mix the old South, race, educational and class differences, the subjective value of art, the egos of the art elite and the good old greenback, you’ve got yourself a powder keg ready to blow,” said Andrew Dietz, the author of “The Last Folk Hero,” a book published last year about Mr. Arnett’s relationships with Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley and other notable black artists, many of whom also defend him.

The book portrays Mr. Arnett as disorganized to the point of dysfunction, passionate to the point of self-righteousness and wary to the point of paranoia, but it presents no evidence that he was anything but honest with artists.

As the lawsuits suggest, Gee’s Bend, a community of about 700 people, virtually all of them descendants of slaves, has not changed as much as might be expected since the quilters attained fame. The foundation was slow to obtain nonprofit status and only this month elected a board. And some of the largest licensing deals have yet to ramp up. Kathy Ireland, who licensed the quilts for a line of home décor products, said in a June 15 statement that her company had paid more to the quilters than it had earned.

When the Arnetts began visiting Gee’s Bend, laying out hundreds of dollars for old quilts, the women thought they were crazy. Since the exhibit, which originated at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 2002 and went on to the Whitney in New York and many other museums, the quilts have occasionally sold for more than $20,000. But the most valuable quilts, the ones in the original show, are owned by the Arnetts, who say they will not sell them on the open market.

Most of the rest do not bring such high amounts. The quilters’ collective, an informal group of about 40 members, pays $150 a month to rent a former day care center marked by a small, hand-painted sign, where one room is stacked floor to ceiling with quilts. Small quilts go for $200 to $1,000, while bed-sized ones are priced at $950 to $7,500.

When a sale is made, half the money goes to the quilter and half to the collective, which periodically disburses dividends to all members. Royalties from reproductions of the quilts go into the foundation, which now contains $147,000. The system was designed to forestall jealousy, protect elderly quilters who can no longer sew, and acknowledge the interdependent nature of the community, where many quilters are related and styles were handed down from mother to daughter.

“We’re not trying to set up a socialized state,” Mr. Arnett said, “but we were doing something in between.” Ms. Pettway and Ms. Young acknowledge receiving multiple payments from the Arnetts ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, but say they have no accounting of the total or any list of the quilts bought or borrowed. They also say they received dividends from the collective even though they never placed quilts there to sell.

But Ms. Young and Ms. Pettway, whose quilts have been featured on the covers of two of the three books the Arnetts have produced, contend that they have not seen the full benefits of their success.

“I was just hearing them say, the quilts were worth more than that,” Ms. Young said. “The quilts were worth more than they was giving us.”

A third lawsuit, brought by Lucinda Pettway, a resident of Mobile, Ala., whose forebears lived in Gee’s Bend, accused the Arnetts of refusing to return two of the community’s oldest quilts, dating to slavery times. The Arnetts have since returned the quilts, but say an appraisal showed that they were not nearly that old and were worth less than $500.

To Loretta Pettway, a woman for whom indoor plumbing is a relatively recent luxury, big-city museums, glossy hardcover books and color postage stamps can look like a lot of money, even though they rarely produce profits.

“You’re making money,” she insisted, gesturing at an oversize book containing color reproductions of her quilts. “Because you ain’t going to be doing this if you’re not getting paid.”

Cheney: What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Posted on Jul 29, 2007

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sun Shines Again on Chez Vidal

Posted on Jul 28, 2007

Here’s lookin’ at you, DWP: When Vidal installed his solar system three months ago, he didn’t realize he was about to become an expert on the ins and outs of local municipal bureaucracy at L.A.’s Department of Water and Power.

By Kasia Anderson

Those readers who have followed the saga of Gore Vidal’s bid to harness the sun to power his house may be heartened to hear that the esteemed author has emerged victorious in his green-minded mission: Vidal’s solar system is back in working order.

According to the solar power specialists who oversaw the installation process at his Hollywood Hills home, Vidal indeed did his part to follow the rule book in installing the system, which was activated in April but unceremoniously shut down in June, when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power came to inspect his setup. Thus ensued several rounds of bureaucratic shenanigans which pushed Vidal fully back onto the grid and spurred him to wonder just who owns the sun—as well as to challenge The New York Times’ recent take on the American public’s current level of interest in this crucial and renewable energy source.

When his solar system was finally restored to full power in mid-July, Vidal had a few choice words regarding the aforementioned municipal utility: “I’m relieved to be back on solar power and no longer dependent on public utilities,” he said. “What funny words, as they’re about as private as you can get, and they like to think that they’re universal!” Vidal claimed that the DWP wreaked havoc on a perfectly functioning solar unit, which he pronounced to be “Wonderful! ... It’s the only time I ever felt free of a society which, I think, more and more people will want to feel free of. Once you’re no longer dependent on them for energy, you are free. So, it’s good for our spirits, it’s good for the environment.”

Regarding his less generous critics from previous posts, many of whom gestured at his advanced age in order to question his grasp of technology or to cast him as an incorrigible curmudgeon or a witless fuddy-duddy, Vidal cheerfully retorted: “I have been actually accused of senility. Well, let me tell you ... I am in the springtime of my senility—a vigorous springtime! Jonquils are growing in my path. Watch out!”

And after reading the New York Times piece downplaying the marketability of solar power, he composed the following response:

“If this is literally true, what is the cause? It is certainly not the public’s indifference you confess; our imagination has been captured, as you admit. I suspect this disingenuous attack on an important form of renewable energy is as one with your usual veneration for vast monopolies, environment-wrecking projects and the like. But it is not wise, ever, to falsify a science or technology [about which] many of your readers know more than you do and where your advice in these matters is suspect. So cool off—there’ll be plenty of ice on Judgment Day.”

Additional links:

Click here to read about Germany’s Renewable Energy Law.

Follow this link for information about Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Million Solar Roofs plan.

Theocrats Deny 'End Times' Theology Is Cause of Their Push for War With Iran

By Sarah Posner, AlterNet
Posted on July 23, 2007

Here's a news flash from the recent Christians United for Israel (CUFI) Summit in Washington: It really isn't about Armageddon.

Or at least that's what John Hagee, who runs CUFI, and CUFI's executive board tried to convince a group of reporters at a press conference this week. Journalists (including this one) had questions about Hagee's writings and sermons. Does his discussion of God's punishment of Jews suggest his own anti-Semitism? What about the Second Coming, when everyone will either accept Christ as their savior or perish? What, exactly, does Hagee think is going to happen at the end of days?

The reaction of Hagee and his board -- former Reagan administration official and Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, former Promise Keepers chair George Morrison, self-described "Christocrat" Rod Parsley, former Republican Senate candidate Bishop Keith Butler and Mac Hammond, a close friend of Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Fool for Christ) -- ranged from mock outrage to patronizing amusement. Hagee insisted that "our support of Israel has absolutely nothing to do with end times prophecy. It has absolutely nothing to do with eschatology." Hammond maintained that we were getting "distracted" by the discussion. Followup questions were cut off. They sighed in exasperation at questions about the end times, which they insist are near. When a reporter from the Associated Baptist Press asked the group if they considered themselves premillenial dispensationalists -- people who believe that we are fast approaching a final showdown between Christ and the Antichrist at Armageddon -- they smirked and looked at each other as if to say, "What was that big word?"

Their where-in-the-world-did-you-get-that-idea method of deflecting questions was straight from White House press flack Tony Snow's playbook.

They insisted that they came to Washington to talk politics, not eschatology. But when someone asked about CUFI's position on the proposal Bush had laid out the day before to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, they were stumped -- it turned out that they had not yet reviewed a major presidential announcement on their raison d'etre. A few hours later, Hagee told his minions that CUFI was "deeply disappointed" by Bush's speech, particularly by his use of the term "occupation." (Specifically, Bush said -- heretically to their cause -- that "Palestinians should not have to live in poverty and occupation.") Almost simultaneously with Hagee's announcement, Tony Snow played down Bush's statement, telling reporters, "even though I know I used the term 'conference' this morning, this is a meeting ... I think a lot of people are inclined to try to treat this as a big peace conference. It's not."

Just as it had been during Hagee's appearance at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last spring, every effort was made to whitewash his apocalyptic religious beliefs (which include enforced Christianity for his Jewish allies at the end) and present him as a good friend of Israel and Jews. But Hagee's most recent book, Jerusalem Countdown, reissued with new material earlier this year, is all about the end of days and how nuclear war with Iran will ignite it. Hagee frequently talks about how Jesus Christ will rule the world from a throne on the Temple Mount after the battle at Armageddon. Hagee admits he has "written extensively about why I believe that the generation that is alive today will see the mass ingathering of believers commonly called the Rapture." He has claimed that "when you see what's happening in America and the world it doesn't take long to realize that God is proclaiming through the voice of nature that we are approaching the coming of Jesus Christ in the clouds of heaven." In September Hagee preached that "World War III has begun" and released a sermon series that purported to "show the historical and Biblical foundations that explain the war we are in now and point us to Armageddon." In January he wrote about the Book of Revelation and its prediction that "Jesus Christ rules the world with a rod of iron from the city of Jerusalem." And in March, he sermonized about "the edge of time ... the final countdown has begun."

More at Alternet

A growing toll on battlefield brains

From Afghanistan to Iraq, bomb blasts are causing the U.S., British and Canadian troops who survive them a staggering number of brain injuries. Military doctors warn we've only just started to suffer the effects
July 28, 2007

Foreign Affairs Writer, Toronto Star

On a dusty road near Kandahar, a Canadian soldier crawls from his bomb-battered vehicle as his bleeding colleagues are carried away on stretchers. Dizzy, his ears ringing, he dusts himself off and shakes his head in amazement that he has escaped injury.

Or has he?

"Everyone knows that traumatic brain injury is the leading cause of death and disability in both civilian and military trauma," says Canadian military trauma surgeon Homer Tien. "It takes a huge toll."

Since the days of World War II and Vietnam, protective body armour and medical treatment received by Western troops have brought a quantum leap in survival rates of wounded soldiers.

But researchers have found that even those who walk away from an explosion may be suffering from traumatic brain injury, which has been tagged "a silent epidemic" in the United States.

Military doctors have found that mild or serious brain injury is afflicting substantial numbers of soldiers who survive the ever more powerful bombs, or "improvised explosive devices," planted by militants in Afghanistan and Iraq .

This week, a presidential panel charged that the military health care system was no longer able to meet the demands of the contemporary battlefield — including the mounting number of traumatic brain injuries.

It recommended sweeping changes to upgrade treatment and benefits of affected veterans.

So concerned is the U.S. Congress that it has authorized $450 million for care and research into head injuries, whose treatment may cost millions more over the next few decades.

Up to January 2007, more than 2,000 brain injuries were recorded by the U.S. military. But doctors treating veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan say figures are several times higher.

Canada, which is just beginning to focus on the seriousness of the problem, is no exception.

In Afghanistan, among Canadians killed between February and July 2006, brain injury and bleeding were leading causes of death, according to a study by Tien and two Canadian forces colleagues.

But those who die, or suffer severe head injury, are easier to classify as brain-damaged than soldiers who walk away from the blasts.

"People who have experienced a mild head injury might not know at first, because of medical or tactical considerations," says Col. Jonathan Jaffin, acting commander for U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. "It is important for commanders to be aware of (those injuries) because it can have great bearing on a soldier's readiness to go back to active duty."

According to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., which routinely evaluates combat casualties for brain injury, 59 per cent of those exposed to a blast are diagnosed with traumatic brain injury – 56 per cent moderate to severe, and 44 per cent mild.

As the bombs used to attack the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan pack bigger explosive punches, those numbers could escalate.

"A blast creates a sudden increase in air pressure by heating and accelerating air molecules, and immediately thereafter, a sudden decrease in pressure that produces intense wind," writes American physician Susan Okie in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Rapid pressure shifts can injure the brain, without any visible head wound. They can also cause fatal or damaging brain swelling, or drive fragments of metal through the skull. Specialists in battlefield medicine say it's the "invisible" or closed head injuries that are the most difficult to treat.

Brain swelling that results from car crash or sports injuries responds well to medication and surgical techniques. But the damage caused by explosions is a special challenge.

"When the sound wave moves through the brain it seems to cause little gas bubbles to form," neurologist P. Stephen Macedo told the Washington Post. "When they pop, it leaves a cavity. So you are littering people's brains with these little holes."

And, says Sunil Ram, an Ontario-based international security and defence analyst, "everyone in the blast zone is a potential casualty. When you look at Canadian casualties in Afghanistan, more than half of those who die are killed by IEDs. But depending on the munition and the environment, the blast wave is catching everyone within a 200- to 500-metre range."

Advanced body armour saves lives by protecting soldiers' bodies, says Dr. Ronald Glasser, author of Wounded: Vietnam to Iraq, in an essay in the Washington Post.

But he says, "neurologists worry ... at least 30 per cent of the troops who've engaged in active combat for four months or longer in Iraq and Afghanistan ... risk potentially disabling neurological disorders from the blast waves of IEDs and mortars, all without suffering a scratch."

Those who are worst hit may lose consciousness, or suffer seizures and convulsions. Moderately affected troops may experience vomiting, numbness in the arms and legs, and nausea.

But mild brain injuries can cause memory loss, sleep disturbances, confusion, dizziness and blurred vision – symptoms that zealous soldiers or their superiors might shrug off as unimportant. They may also be classified as psychological.

"Events that cause head injury are the same ones that cause post-traumatic stress disorder. And some people have components of both," says Jaffin.

Most mild brain injuries get better without treatment, he adds. But as with sports injuries, those who go back to their activities too soon risk more serious problems.

Victims of worse brain injuries need careful long-term care, which is costly and requires close monitoring and treatment of blast victims. In moderate as well as severe cases, the brain's attempts to heal itself can cause epilepsy, as it "miswires" neural circuits. In other cases, victims suffer personality changes that make them unable to lead a normal life.

Glasser, who treated soldiers wounded in Vietnam, contends that the real toll of war now goes far beyond the death count.

"The real risk to our troops is no longer the numbers of dead but the numbers ending up on orthopedic wards and neurosurgical units."

Even for those with milder head injuries, long term monitoring is crucial, says Tien. So is research on the effects of the trauma.

"The challenge is to find out about those who are further from the centre of the explosion," he says. "A blast wave hits and a soldier may be knocked unconscious for two seconds. Then he gets up and says `I feel great.' Even a CAT scan may be negative. But the question is, will he develop a problem in the future?"

The First Victims of America’s Mega-Embassy

Posted on Jul 27, 2007

Friday, July 27, 2007

Progressive Coalition Targets Fox Advertisers

They asked for it. Pressuring JetBlue to withdraw as a sponsor of the Yearly Kos convention was low, despicable and mean-spirited. We can marshal our mean spirits as well. We certainly have 'em!--Pete

Posted on Jul 27, 2007

A group of progressive organizations and blogs is planning to hit Fox News where it hurts: the bank account., Brave New Films, DailyKos and others are working to compile a list of local advertisers as part of a larger pressure campaign. Fox News may have brought this on itself by successfully pressuring JetBlue to pull out as a major sponsor of the YearlyKos convention.


At least 5,000 people nationwide have signed up to compile logs on who is running commercials on Fox, [Jim] Gilliam said. The groups want to first concentrate on businesses running local ads, as opposed to national commercials.

“It’s a lot more effective for Sam’s Diner to get calls from 10 people in his town than going to the consumer complaint department of some pharmaceutical company,” Gilliam said.

Some of videos produced by Gilliam’s company compile statements made by Fox anchors and guests that the activists consider misleading, such as those that question global warming.

Read more

Bogus Media-Generated "Scandal" Undermines Democracy in Ecuador

By Mark Weisbrot, The Guardian
Posted on July 26, 2007

This article originally appeared in The Guardian's Comment is Free.

In his recent book, The Assault on Reason, former Vice-President Al Gore describes how "the potential for manipulating mass opinions and feelings initially discovered by commercial advertisers is now being even more aggressively exploited by a new generation of media Machiavellis." The concentration of broadcast media ownership is indeed a real threat to democracy, as we learned the hard way when more than 70 percent of Americans were convinced, falsely, that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks of September 11 - thus enabling the launch of a disastrous and unnecessary war in Iraq.

The problem is even worse in Latin America, where monopolized TV media is a much larger share of the news that people receive, and is even more shamelessly manipulated for political purposes. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa, an economist with a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, was elected last November with a broad mandate for economic reform, pro-growth development policies, and poverty alleviation. One of his government's first acts was to double the monthly stipend for single mothers, the disabled and elderly that are poor.

Although Corrrea ran without a political party or candidates for the Congress, his mandate was strongly reinforced when the government won a referendum to draw up a new constitution by an even larger margin of 82% percent. As in a number of other countries in the region, which has seen a record economic failure over the last 25 years, voters endorsed the sweeping institutional and political changes they saw as necessary to enfranchise the majority.

But on May 21 the opposition TV media launched an assault on President Correa's finance minister, Ricardo Patiño. In a seven minute grainy video clip from a hidden camera, they showed the minister meeting on February 12 with two representatives of a New York investment firm, as well as a former finance minister. Patiño talks about "scaring the markets," in what looks like a plot to manipulate the country's bond market. The clip, taken out of context, was shown repeatedly for days on the TV news, spliced with gratuitous, unrelated images of faceless people counting large amounts of cash.

It turns out that the video was authorized by Patiño himself, an odd thing to do if one is meeting to plan a crime. Patiño claims that the purpose of the meeting and the taping of it was to investigate corruption. And indeed the rest of the video - not shown on TV but presented in a transcript published in Ecuador's major newspapers - supports his explanation. In the rest of the meeting, Patiño is probing for information on corrupt activities - including past market manipulations. He allows the others to present and explain the possibilities in detail, never agreeing to go along with anything - just as one would expect in an investigation of this sort. In fact he states that it would be wrong to manipulate the market. The meeting ends with one of the investors stating that nothing would be done regarding the current debt payment - which was due three days after the videotaped meeting -- but that they could think about what to do in the future.

But the TV media's repeated, propagandistic images - playing on people's cynicism from decades of corrupt government -- had the most influence. This emboldened the opposition to make more wild allegations of secret deals with foreign banks, and vote to censure Patiño in the Congress - which they control. All of this has been done without anyone presenting evidence that the finance minister was involved in any wrongdoing.

If all this seems Orwellian, it is. Ecuador currently has the most honest government it has ever had - that is why it has had so much support from the beginning. Yet the impression that is coming across in the media - both Ecuadorian and now spilling over into the international press - is one of corruption.

Correa remains immensely popular, and he has defended Patiño, who has now taken another cabinet position. The government will survive this assault, and move forward with its agenda. But the opposition, led by the traditional elite and corrupt politicians, will use this "scandal" - with the help of the media - to undermine the government and the reforms that the voters have chosen.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, DC.

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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Iraq news that you won't see on FOX (or CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, or CBS)

US Firms in Iraq Still Using Indentured Workers Despite Crackdown David Phinney: Charges of heinous abuses of workers have long dogged the reconstruction effort.

In Iraq, Women Increasingly Targeted for Violence IraqSlogger: One of the bright spots of Saddam Hussein's brutal rule was the full recognition of women's rights. Those days are long gone.

Amid Tensions with US, Iran's Presence in Iraq Grows Sam Dagher: Economic and political ties between Iran and Iraq are growing despite US criticism of Tehran's "meddling."

In Iraq's Kurdish Zone, The Children of Arab Refugees Face Tough Times Najeeba Mohammad: In Iraqi Kurdistan, the children of Arabs who've fled violence in the rest of the country struggle to settle in their new home.

Kirkuk Vote Could Touch Off New Civil War in Iraq Ben Lando: A historic vote in Iraq's northern territories could right past wrongs, but it might also spark a new front in the country's many-sided civil conflict.

And the Next Hypocrite Republican Outed By the DC Madam Is...

Posted on July 26, 2007

This post, written by Howie Klein, originally appeared on Down With Tyranny!

The Buckeye State Blog has revealed that the next member of Congress who will be revealed as a client of the DC Madam's, the way David Diapers Vitter (R-LA) was, will be a Republican member of the Ohio congressional delegation.

If you remove Senator DeWine, freshman Jim Jordan, and the 2 women-- Mean Jean Schmidt and Deborah Pryce-- from consideration, that leaves 8 possible perps: Steve Chabot, Michael Turner, Paul Gillmor, Dave Hobson (too old), John Boehner, Pat Tiberi, Steven LaTourette, and Ralph Regula (way too old).

Most people Every single person we've contacted so far says it's Boehner.

Howie Klein was president of his freshman class, drove to Afghanistan and Nepal, became the president of Reprise Records and started a blog called Down With Tyranny. He's always hated tyrants.

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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Bush Treats Bob Woodruff Like Crap

This would be unbelievable if we took the fact that it is alleged to have been stated by George W Bush out of the equation. Since we can't, it is then, sadly, entirely believable.--Pete

Posted on July 26, 2007

This post, written by Richard Blair, originally appeared on The All Spin Zone

George Bush is a contemptuous, spoiled little prick. Even when he's receiving the recommendations of a committee he set up to investigate poor veteran's health care at Walter Reed hospital, he just has to show how much of a smarmy little man he really is by upstaging a guy who had half his head blown off.

You know how it is when you hear something on the radio that perks up your ears, but you just can't be sure exactly what was said? This one is kind of hard to believe, but completely in keeping with the character of George W. Bush.

Yesterday, Bush held a quick news conference after accepting the Walter Reed Commission report, and ABC newsie Bob Woodruff was in the press gallery. In prepared remarks, Bush recognized Woodruff's personal journey back from near-fatal injuries that he suffered in Iraq:

I also want to recognize Bob Woodruff here. He is a -- he himself was wounded, severely wounded, and went through the system, to a certain extent. And we welcome you back, and we're glad you're with us. And we would hope that any wounded soldier, any person in uniform would receive the kind of care and the ability to return to work, just like you have done. And so we're glad you're with us, Bob. Congratulations on the will to recover...

Nice, huh? Compassionate, huh? But wait a moment. There's more to the story. Here's what the prepared remarks didn't capture. After the brief remarks, Woodruff asked Bush a question. CNN paraphrased the question thusly (an exact transcript of the exchange isn't yet available):

When Woodruff asked Bush whether the government was moving fast enough to help families, the president declined to answer.

Back to the story that I heard on the radio. David Greene, the NPR reporter who was at the ceremony, described the project and Bush's tepid acceptance of the report this morning. And according to Greene, this was Bush's response in declining Woodruff's question (this is what you didn't read or hear in the CNN report):

"Just because I recognized you, Bob, doesn't mean I'm going to answer your questions here."

In other words: "Thanks for being here as a prop for me, Bob, now shut the fuck up."

Richard Blair is the founder and blogmaster of the All Spin Zone.

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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Al Qaeda: Mothers of Invention

By Matt Hutaff
Jul 24, 2007

It's been a rough year for Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

He's been shot at, captured, and executed. His corpse has been dragged in front of Iraqi-run television cameras. And that's not even the worst of it; he's also been declared non-existent by the United States military.

That's got to sting, don't you think?

Al-Baghdadi was the voice behind Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group running loose in Iraq. Since October, he's launched manifestos on the West via the Internet and galvanized insurgents against American troops. Except he hasn't, because he doesn't exist and never did. Instead, the entire organization was a ruse initiated by Khaled Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani to entice Iraqis to join al-Qaeda in general, and Osama bin Laden in specific.

Curious. If al-Qaeda already has a legitimate foothold in Iraq (President Bush said on July 17 "the same people that attacked us on September the 11th is the crowd that is now bombing people" there), why the need to craft another one? For the competition? Is it for reasons mentioned above or about putting a face to a largely faceless movement?

Was al-Baghdadi the Emmanuel Goldstein for the Middle East wars?

"In [al-Mashhadani's] words, the Islamic State of Iraq is a front organization that masks the foreign influence and leadership within al-Qaeda in Iraq in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq," said U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner.

No kidding! It's not the first time something like this has happened, either. In fall of 2002, the Palestinian Authority captured Mossad agents attempting to set up a fake al-Qaeda terror cell in Gaza. They are, to this date, the only "al-Qaeda" to be detained. Similarly, Adam "Azzam the American" Gadahn, the English-speaking "face" of al-Qaeda treasonous enough to make the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list, is more commonly known to friends as Adam Pearlman, a California native whose grandfather was a member of the board of directors of the Anti-Defamation League.

In fact, since 2001 investigations have exposed British (who have a history of false-flag operations), American, Israeli, and Egyptian agents posing as al-Qaeda, but no actual al-Qaeda. Is the organization even real, or is it a "front organization masking foreign influences" sanctioned by various intelligence agencies? I have to admit, a network of terror cells that targets the West just when they need to crack down on security is mighty handy.

Even the Grand Poobah of terror, Osama bin Laden, is suspect. It's well known that prior to commanding his shadow army from the caves of Pakistan, bin Laden was an asset of the CIA; he helped American interests by fighting off Soviet forces during their invasion of Afghanistan. He was also a friend to the wealthy and powerful, including the Bush family. While there's no arguing his hatred of western diplomacy and Israel-coddling, he repeatedly denied having any involvement in September 11. Yet he, too, becomes available the moment the administration needs to amp up some fear and intimidation.

In any event, recent video tapes of bin Laden may show his participantion is as reluctant as al-Baghdadi's. New footage can be dismissed as material filmed just after 9/11, and other video of him over the years is a fascinating study in re-casting, since several people play the role. Many feel bin Laden died of renal failure years ago (he was using dialysis equipment in 2001, difficult machinery to transport over rough terrain), including Fox News and the Bush administration.

"Bin Laden's voice was detected regularly until two weeks ago by intelligence operatives monitoring radio transmissions in Tora Bora, according to the Pentagon," the Telegraph wrote in December, 2001. "Since then, nothing has been heard from the al-Qaeda leader and President Bush has hinted in private that bin Laden's silence could mean he has been killed." Bush confirmed these feelings in 2002 when he noted in a press conference he was not worried about bin Laden.

Why drag him into the spotlight, then? Why not celebrate the death of of the mastermind of September 11? If he's not dead, why not triumph at his media silence? What's the benefit of propping up one's nemesis?

In the wake of al-Baghdadi's unmasking, reporters asked that of White House Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend. Her reply was to ignore the question and end the press conference.

"Terror is the most dreaded weapon in modern age," bin Laden himself said in 2001, "and the Western media is mercilessly using it against its own people. It can add fear and helplessness in the psyche of the people of Europe and the United States. It means that what the enemies of the United States cannot do, its media is doing that."

Al-Qaeda may be little more than an on-going psychological operation against the world. It is easier, after all, to panic a populace by revealing an organization with a defined hierarchy. Giving someone a face to hate or a name to fear is easy, and we can identify with that. People aren't difficult to dupe; life bears that assessment out on a daily basis.

But take a look at the evidence. Al-Qaeda has consistently been observed as a playground for Western intelligence, and it serves the needs of those who want to dominate the Middle East. Who benefits from that arrangement? If al-Qaeda was looking for legitimacy, wouldn't they stage some raids that don't benefit their enemies?

The American people have been fed a steady stream of lies for many years. As we consider what we've been told about war with Iraq and September 11, so is it time to examine everything, even the evidence surrounding al-Qaeda. As you've read, it could be as real as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

Copyright © 1998-2006
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FBI Planning Stasi-Style Spy Network

ABC NEWS BLOTTER - The FBI is taking cues from the CIA to recruit thousands of covert informants in the United States as part of a sprawling effort to boost its intelligence capabilities. According to a recent unclassified report to Congress, the FBI expects its informants to provide secrets about possible terrorists and foreign spies, although some may also be expected to aid with criminal investigations, in the tradition of law enforcement confidential informants. The FBI did not respond to requests for comment on this story. . .

The aggressive push for more secret informants appears to be part of a new effort to grow its intelligence and counterterrorism efforts. Other recent proposals include expanding its collection and analysis of data on U.S. persons, retaining years' worth of Americans' phone records and even increasing so-called "black bag" secret entry operations.

To handle the increase in so-called human sources, the FBI also plans to overhaul its database system, so it can manage records and verify the accuracy of information from "more than 15,000" informants, according to the document. While many of the recruited informants will apparently be U.S. residents, some informants may be overseas, recruited by FBI agents in foreign offices, the report indicates.

The Case For Free Transit

David Olsen, The Tyee

The time has come to stop making people pay to take public transit.

Why do we have any barriers to using buses, trolleys, SkyTrain? The threat of global warming is no longer in doubt. The hue and cry of the traffic jammed driver grows louder every commute. Yet since 2000, TransLink has hiked fares 50 per cent, and its board has just agreed to follow the staff’s recommendation to raise them higher still.

That kind of thinking is so last century. Just ask the mayor of San Francisco, a city similar in size to Vancouver, who ordered his staff to seriously explore the cost efficiency of no longer charging people to ride public transit.

Listen to Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, who recently voiced to a reporter his top dream: "I would have mass transit be given away for nothing and charge an awful lot for bringing an automobile into the city."

Consider this sampling of communities providing free rides on trolleys, buses, trams, and ferries: Staten Island, NY; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Vail, Colorado; Logan and Cache Valley, Utah; Clemson, South Carolina; Commerce, California; Châteauroux, Vitré, and Compiègne, France; Hasselt, Belgium; Lubben, Germany; Mariehamn, Finland; Nova Gorica, Slovenia; Türi, Estonia; Övertorneå, Sweden.

Or speak, as I have, with transit officials in locales of Washington State and Belgium, where Fare-Free Transit has hummed along smoothly now for years.

It's time B.C. joined the trend because forcing people to pay ever higher fares is not just tough on the planet and people with tight budgets, it's bad economics and self-defeating public policy, as I will explain in this five part series funded by a Tyee Fellowship for Solutions-oriented Reporting.

Tough sell?

Over the course of the next few days, I'll be doing my best to explain why taking the fare box out of our buses -- wherever you live in B.C. and beyond -- makes both dollars and sense.

Believe me, I know that's a tough sell for skeptics.

Just seven years ago TransLink stated that their "market research" indicated that people wanted to pay when boarding the bus. But as Tania Wegwitz, senior transit planner in the Municipal Systems Program for BC Transit recently wrote: "Prepaid fares are better than cash fares, I don't think there is anyone -- passengers, municipalities, transit staff -- who would disagree with you."

Well, fare-free transit is simply the ultimate implementation of prepaid fares. We would prepay for all public transit through taxes, and then we'd ride for "free."

Why Fare-Free Transit?

Perhaps the skeptic in you is saying: without fares, public transit would run out of money and break down. Or you worry that a free ride would attract riff-raff threatening other passengers' safety and comfort. Or you doubt that sober, number crunching officials would ever take the idea seriously.

By the time you are done reading this series, I will have shared real life examples and expert findings to counter all those concerns.

Fare-free transit brings many benefits, some of which include:

  1. a barrier-free transportation option to every member of the community (no more worries about exact change, expiring transfers, or embarrassment about how to pay)
  2. eliminating a "toll" from a mode of transportation that we as a society want to be used (transit is often the only way of getting around that charges a toll)
  3. reducing the inequity between the subsidies given to private motorized vehicle users and public transport users
  4. reducing, and in some cases eliminating, the need for private motorized vehicle parking
  5. reducing greenhouse gas emissions, other air pollutants, noise pollution (especially with electric trolleys), and run-off of toxic chemicals into fresh water supplies and ocean environments
  6. reducing overall consumption of oil and gasoline
  7. eliminating the perceived need to spend billions on roads and highways (now up to $7 billion for the proposed Gateway Project in Vancouver)
  8. eliminating the perceived need to spend billions on bigger car-carrying ferries ($2.5 billion for BC Ferries' new super-sized boats and ramps)
  9. contributing significantly to the local economy by keeping our money in our communities
  10. reducing litter (in Vancouver, the newer transfers/receipts have overtaken fast food packaging for most common garbage found on our streets)
  11. saving trees by eliminating the need to print transfers and tickets
  12. allowing all bus doors to be used to load passengers, making service faster and more efficient
  13. allowing operators (drivers) to focus on driving safely
  14. giving operators more time to answer questions
  15. providing operators a safer work environment since fare disputes are eliminated
  16. eliminating fare evasion and the criminalization of transit-using citizens
  17. fostering more public pride in shared, community resources

Pampered cars

If it's hard economic arguments you prefer, bear in mind that making use of free public transit eliminates the significant costs of fare collection and combating fare evasion (more on this later in the series). It also cuts costs associated with global warming, air and noise pollution, litter collection and garbage removal.

As our own premier trumpets a green agenda, more people are taking a hard look at just how many of their tax dollars subsidize the private car versus less polluting buses and trains. You have to figure in roads, parking and other infrastructure, tax breaks for car and fuel companies, as well as subsidies for car ferries throughout the province and federal income tax reductions and write-offs for companies that use motor vehicles.

Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute has estimated that in 2000 the government subsidy to each private vehicle owner was about $5,378 in Canadian dollars.

In that year, the average cost of providing each trip taken by transit in Vancouver was approximately $5. The equivalent subsidy for transit users would have been 1,075 free trips. Few of us could even use that many.

In fact, if the subsidy given private car owners were simply handed over to each car-free transit user, bus riders would make money for taking transit!

Why raising fares impoverishes the system

Big or small, most transit systems are scraping by or on the brink of financial collapse, paradoxically because of their reliance on the fare box. Revenue for any system drops when ridership dips or when fares are increased. Yes, when fares are increased. This is so well proven it has a name: the Simpson-Curtain rule. Most often the dip in ridership is caused by the hike in fares.

To understand this cycle better, let's imagine that you are in charge of a transit system. You feel pressure to increase service or to maintain service despite increasing costs. You need to raise more money. Politically and practically, for most systems, the easiest way is to raise fares. But soon after, ridership goes down. It drops 3.8 per cent for every 10 per cent increase in fares, researchers have found (Cervero, R., 1994). Which means you either haven't gained much new revenue, or worse, you've started spiraling downward.

In 1955 and 1959, fare increases helped send Vancouver's transit system into an 11-year tailspin, reducing ridership from 109 million trips in 1954 to less than 63 million in 1966, a decrease of 42 per cent!

Further fare increases in 1970, 1978, and 1987 were followed by a decrease of 9 million, 7 million, and 13 million trips, respectively (even with the new SkyTrain line!).

More recently, in a context of explosive population growth and rapidly rising fuel prices, TransLink's first two of three recent fare increases (with another to come in 2008!) in 2000 and 2002 resulted in 400,000 fewer riders in 2002 compared to 2000.

Meanwhile, Toronto's transit system went into a 12-year downward spiral throughout the 1990s after a series of fare increases and resultant service cutbacks.

The Transit Cooperative Research Program creates expert panels (appointed by the Transportation Research Board in Washington, DC) to solve operating problems, to adapt appropriate new technologies from other industries, and to introduce innovations into the transit industry. In their 2004 publication, Traveler Response to Transportation System Changes, the chapter on Transit Pricing and Fares clearly documents how fare increases always result in lower ridership.

Reality check

What the trends above tell us is that if you want a strong public transit system, then we need to figure out how to slash or eliminate the fares riders pay.

That said, let's make a few important guiding principles clear:

Taking the farebox out of any bus without a plan is just a recipe for disaster. That's why we'll be looking at operations like Island Transit on Whidbey Island that have proven beyond doubt that fare-free systems can be safe, clean and very friendly.

Making transit free of charge won't in itself allow huge numbers of people to abandon their cars. We'll need more public transit vehicles, running more frequently, too. The decade-old experience in Hasselt, Belgium, has shown that investing in the service prior to the removal of the fare boxes not only makes the transition smoother, it will get people on the bus and out of their cars.

We need to pay, one way or another. There isn't a transit system on the planet that pays for itself solely through the fare box. If we want a transit system that is adequate, reliable, and gets those lonely drivers out of their cars, we need to find funding formulas that are adequate and reliable.

From Aukland, New Zealand's Residents Action Movement to Scotland's Socialist Party and Vancouver's own Bus Riders Union, advocates are putting cheap and abundant public transit on politicians' agendas.

To sample the utopia they imagine, I took a trip by bus and public transit to Whidbey Island, Washington and visited Island Transit, fare-free since 1987.

More on that tomorrow.

Related Tyee stories:

Global Markets Tumble as Credit Worries Deepen (NYT)

Stock prices tumbled on Wall Street and across much of the rest of the world yesterday. They were driven sharply lower by worries over slowing economic growth in the United States and worsening borrowing conditions that could make everything from huge corporate buyouts to buying a new home more difficult.

Major stock market gauges — including the Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index — were down more than 2 percent.

It was the worst one-day decline on Wall Street since markets plunged worldwide in late February after an investing scare in Shanghai, and it occurred amid the biggest volume of trading on the New York Stock Exchange in five years. Losses were comparable throughout Europe, and larger in many developing countries.

“The preconditions for a shock are in place,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s “Until very recently investors were very nonchalant about risks.”

Entire NYT Article

U.S. City Issues IDs To Illegal Immigrants

New Haven, CT is the first city in the nation to offer ID cards to illegal immigrants, thus granting them privileges such as library cards and bank accounts. What do you think?

Young Man

Carl Richmond,
First Aid Instructor
"But I have always been told that immigrants have no identity."

Old Man

Waylon Helstrom,
"Oh, great. Now the library waiting list for The Secret will be months."

Old Woman

Patty Walker,
"It's bad enough they're taking the jobs I don't want, but now they're getting the services I don't use!"

US Relations with Venezuela Take Center Stage in the US Presidential Campaign

Will North Meet South? Obama Said Yes, Clinton Said No, Edwards said sorta, and It's a Whole New Ballgame in the US Presidential Campaign.

Of course, the only viable answer was "Yes!", but this is overtly media-saturated politics, and reality doesn't seem to figure in anywhere.

read more | digg story

If we ever "stabilize" Iraq, will anyone still live there?

From BBC:

An international conference in Jordan on the more than two million Iraqi refugees uprooted by war has pledged to help them with their difficulties.

But it insisted the solution to the problem lay in their return home and that the Iraqi government was directly responsible for its displaced citizens.

The UN refugee agency, Unrwa, said some 50,000 more Iraqis were escaping the violence in their homeland each month.

Most are ending up in Jordan and Syria, which want help to ease the burden.

Unrwa said the wave of displacement sparked by the war in Iraq was the biggest in the Middle East since 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled the newly created Israel.

A final statement at the end of the conference, which was attended by Iraq's neighbours, as well as the UN, US and UK, called on the international community to provide all possible support to the Iraqi people.

It also insisted countries hosting refugees were given assistance "so that they can continue to provide an adequate level of services to Iraqi nationals", particularly in health and education.

The host countries should have the authority to regulate the entry and residence of Iraqi nationals "in line with their law and considerations", the statement added.

But the conference stopped short of addressing calls by Jordan and Syria earlier in the day for rich western nations to take in greater numbers of refugees.

The Iraqi government said it would make available a promised $25m for those straining under the load of the burgeoning numbers of refugees.

'Real humanitarian crisis'

Earlier, the secretary-general of the Iraqi foreign ministry, Muhammad Hajj Hamoud, said the refugee problem should not be underestimated.

He added that efforts to stem the flow of refugees by Iraq's neighbours - who now impose tougher entry restrictions - resulted in cases of mistreatment at border crossings.

One refugee in Jordan, Najla Abda Karim Saleh, fled with her son and daughter. Another daughter was killed in sectarian violence.

She told the BBC she wanted help from the UN to bring her four grandchildren to safety in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

"We have lost [our] house, we are lost, my daughter is lost, my son [is] lost... help this family please," she wept.

Read the entire article