Letters From Exile

...Scott Bidstrup's Life And Living In Costa Rica

Sat, Dec 31 2005

Quiet New Year's Eve - For A Change

The dry season like weather has returned, and it has been sensationally sunny in Arenal the last two days. Other than the usual night-time showers, brief as they were, there has been essentially no rain, and for the most part, it has been bright and sunny. The temperature today made it to 80 today, after an overnight low of 69, and a high yesterday of a sunny 79. Today started off quite windy, but the wind gave up by noon and this afternoon was quite pleasant.

I spent the afternoon yesterday visiting with a local gringo couple, friends of mine since I have been in the country, discussing our various experiences here, and catching up on some of the local gossip, especially among the local gringos. We sat on the front porch, watching the tourists going by on the main highway, and enjoying the sunny, warm weather. My main reason for going to town didn't work out - I tried to get some oil added to the transfer case on my car, but when the gas station attendant noted that he didn't have the proper wrench and picked up a chisel to open the transfer case, I decided that it would be better to take the car to Tilaran. I am planning a trip there next week, and I'll just get the transfer case filled there at that time. But it meant cancelling my trip to the Venado Caverns tomorrow. Not a really big deal, though I had to give my neighbors the bad news that the trip was not going to be possible.

This afternoon was spent doing laundry, which I had been putting off, and so I had a huge pile to do. In between trips to the pila (laundry room), I was enjoying some brief sorties out into the garden to enjoy the spectacular weather. Several things in the garden have started to respond vigorously to the dry season weather - several more orchid species are in bloom, and there are new growth flushes on my little cacao tree. It has a tremendous growth flush happening - and I think it is finally established in its new home and doing well. It is about twice the size it was when I moved it there. The avocado tree I planted is doing well, too.

This evening has been quiet here in Arenal. Much quieter than I expected, and certainly more quiet than last New Year's Eve. Christmas was quiet too, without the wild partying that happened last year that kept me up till one AM. This is the big firecracker night. Private fireworks are illegal here, but that doesn't seem to stop many people who buy fireworks from street vendors in the side streets of all the bigger towns. Most are smuggled in from Nicaragua, where they are legal and common. But while they are quite illegal here, they are so much a part of the culture that few police would dare arrest anyone for them, so they go on, and every year, there are several fires around the country as a result. But Ticos like to party, and few are willing to give up this long-standing part of Tico New Years Eve party traditions. So the fireworks continue - as do the house fires and injuries.

The evening was so pleasant that I took a midnight walk up and down the street a bit, to enjoy the starlit night. It is about as clear a night as I can remember in Arenal, and the starry night is a delight to see. The Pleiades are passing almost directly overhead, and Orion is high in the Southern sky. Quite a display - or at least they would be, if it weren't for all the darned streetlights lighting up my front yard like a Wal-Mart parking lot.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Recent reports in the German media suggest that the United States may be preparing its allies for an imminent military strike against facilities that are part of Iran's suspected clandestine nuclear weapons program. German diplomats began speaking of the prospect two years ago -- long before the Bush administration decided to give the European Union more time to convince Iran to abandon its ambitions, or at the very least put its civilian nuclear program under international controls. But the growing likelihood of the military option is back in the headlines in Germany thanks to a slew of stories that have run in the national media here over the holidays. The most talked about story is a Dec. 23 piece by the German news agency DDP from journalist and intelligence expert Udo Ulfkotte. According to Ulfkotte's report, "western security sources" claim that during CIA Director Porter Goss' Dec. 12 visit to Ankara, he asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to provide support for a possibile 2006 air strike against Iranian nuclear and military facilities. More specifically, Goss is said to have asked Turkey to provide unfettered exchange of intelligence that could help with a mission. DDP also reported that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman and Pakistan have been informed in recent weeks of Washington's military plans. The countries, apparently, were told that air strikes were a "possible option," but they were given no specific timeframe for the operations.

The US justice department has launched an investigation into the leaking of George Bush's domestic spying program. Officials told Associated Press that the inquiry would concentrate on disclosures to the New York Times about the surveillance of US citizens without warrants conducted by the National Security Agency since the September 11 attacks. Smirkey's critics say he acted illegally, but he argues that the constitution gave him authority because the country is at war. The investigation was initiated after a request from the NSA. But Smirkey better be careful what he wishes for - it is not illegal to disclose the commission of an illegal act (in fact, some laws even require it), and if the courts rule that the program was illegal, he could find himself being sued for vexatious prosecution by the targets of the investigation.

The effort President Bush authorized shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, to fight al Qaeda has grown into the largest CIA covert action program since the height of the Cold War, expanding in size and ambition despite a growing outcry at home and abroad over its clandestine tactics, according to former and current intelligence officials and congressional and administration sources. The broad-based effort, known within the agency by the initials GST, is compartmentalized into dozens of highly classified individual programs, details of which are known mainly to those directly involved. GST includes programs allowing the CIA to capture al Qaeda suspects with help from foreign intelligence services, to maintain secret prisons abroad, to use interrogation techniques that some lawyers say violate international treaties, and to maintain a fleet of aircraft to move detainees around the globe. Other compartments within GST give the CIA enhanced ability to data-mine international financial records and eavesdrop on suspects anywhere in the world. Over the past two years, as aspects of this umbrella effort have burst into public view, the revelations have prompted protests and official investigations in countries that work with the United States, as well as condemnation by international human rights activists and criticism by members of Congress. Still, virtually all the programs continue to operate largely as they were set up, according to current and former officials. These sources say Bush's personal commitment to maintaining the GST program and his belief in its legality have been key to resisting any pressure to change course. "In the past, presidents set up buffers to distance themselves from covert action," said A. John Radsan, assistant general counsel at the CIA from 2002 to 2004. "But this president, who is breaking down the boundaries between covert action and conventional war, seems to relish the secret findings and the dirty details of operations." The administration's decisions to rely on a small circle of lawyers for legal interpretations that justify the CIA's covert programs and not to consult widely with Congress on them have also helped insulate the efforts from the growing furor, said several sources who have been involved.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has written Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in response, reported in this space Thursday, to the recent revelation that the Pentagon has not acted on presidential and congressional orders to stop doing business with companies that traffic in humans, The Chicago Tribune reports. The Tribune reported last week that lobbyists for Halliburton's KBR and other companies objected to language in the orders that required them to monitor sub-contractors for use of slavery or prostitution. In a letter expected to go to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Friday, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he is troubled by the Pentagon's inaction on human trafficking and called on Rumsfeld to take aggressive measures to protect human rights. "The time to act is now," Blagojevich told Rumsfeld, according to a copy of the letter provided by the governor's office. The letter also touts a new Illinois law, which takes effect Sunday, that Blagojevich says will create stiff new penalties for anyone engaged in trafficking. To date, no response has been received.

The White House said Friday its Web site will keep using Internet tracking technologies, deciding that they aren't prohibited after all under 2003 federal privacy guidelines. The White House's site uses what's known as a Web bug -- a tiny graphic image that's virtually invisible -- to anonymously keep track of who's visiting and when. The bug is sent by a server maintained by an outside contractor, WebTrends Inc., and lets the traffic-analysis company know that another person has visited a specific page on the site. Web bugs themselves are not prohibited. But under a directive from the White House's Office of Management and Budget, they are largely banned at government sites when linked to cookies, which are data files that let a site track Web visitors.

Stubborn opposition to provisions of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) will keep the pact from going into effect on the first of the year as planned by the Bush administration. The delay has enlivened efforts to undo the deal by groups who fear the pact could have a crippling effect on workers, small farmers and the economies of the nations involved. Many of the six smaller states – the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica – have failed to come into full compliance with CAFTA’s requirements on the treatment of foreign companies, customs laws, telecommunications services, public-health services and other matters. In addition, Costa Rica has yet to approve the deal. News of CAFTA’s troubles has sparked renewed hope among opponents that the deal could be significantly altered or ultimately fall apart. In a statement yesterday, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a US-based grassroots group that opposes free trade, joined with the Quixote Center, a nondenominational humanitarian organization, in heralding the delay in CAFTA’s launch.

President George W Bush and his advisers are reported to be planning a 2006 relaunch, emphasizing a newly cautious White House. With the critical annual state of the union address to Congress only weeks away, aides are already hammering out versions of what the president will say. The administration has been seeking the advice of Right-wing legislators, think-tank analysts and businessmen. White House insiders who have been briefing American reporters say that ideas were still being juggled. However, the speech is expected to contrast starkly with Mr Bush's 2005 state of the union address, which promised an extremely ambitious program of domestic reform. "The White House has realised it had too ambitious an agenda and is re-tooling as we speak," the Republican congressman Fred Upton told The Los Angeles Times. "They are looking at what is achievable, versus the grand big picture."

Governors in states that accepted Katrina evacuees are being urged to locate about 2,000 registered sex offenders who fled the Gulf region during the hurricane's mayhem and may have vanished from legally required tracking. "When sex offenders know they're being watched, when they know they're being monitored, they are less likely to offend again," said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Health and Human Services Department. "When they no longer believe they are being monitored or watched, they can be tempted to offend again." The Administration for Children and Families estimated that about 30 states are affected. In November, agency officials matched the names on sex offender registries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama with the names of evacuees who applied for disaster assistance.

Two 16-year-olds who were expelled from a Lutheran high school because they were suspected of being lesbians have sued the school for invasion of privacy and discrimination. The lawsuit, filed last week in Riverside County Superior Court, seeks the girls' re-enrollment at the small California Lutheran High School, unspecified damages and an injunction barring the school from excluding gays and lesbians. Kirk D. Hanson, an attorney for the girls, said the expulsion traumatized and humiliated them. The lawsuit alleges that the school's principal, Gregory Bork, called the girls into his office, grilled them on their sexual orientation and "coerced" one girl into saying she loved the other. Hanson said the 142-student school in Wildomar, Calif., must comply with state civil rights laws because it functions as a business by collecting tuition. "There's a lot of hypocrisy going on here," Hanson said. "The school is claiming the girls were expelled because their conduct wasn't within the Christian code. But at the same time, (the school) has students who aren't Christians and are even Jewish."

Swallowing his pride with the realization it was all he was going to get, Smirkey on Friday signed legislation extending key provisions of the USA Patriot Act until February 3, despite earlier objecting to anything short of a permanent renewal. Smirkey had initially threatened to veto legislation that contained that provision, but backed off after congressional votes showed overwhelming support for the amendment pushed by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was a former prisoner of war in the Vietnam conflict. On the Patriot Act, Smirkey had strongly pushed for a permanent renewal, but Congress passed a temporary extension to allow more time to consider civil liberties protections. "Our law enforcement community needs this, he's not satisfied with a one-month extension. But we've got to get that in place, and we've got to work with them to get it permanently re-extended," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. The debate over whether some of the provisions infringe too much on civil liberties became more heated after the revelation that Smirkey authorized the National Security Agency to conduct a domestic eavesdropping operation on Americans with suspected terrorism ties without seeking court approval.

A family of three Hurricane Katrina evacuees facing eviction were found dead Friday in their North Texas apartment in what police said appears to be a double murder-suicide. The discovery was made after police were called by the apartment complex to assist in the eviction, Grapevine police Sgt. Todd Dearing said. He didn't know how long the Louisiana family had not been paying rent. Found with gunshot wounds were a 40-year-old man, a 37-year-old woman and a 14-year-old boy. Dearing said police found a shotgun believed to be the weapon. Dearing said the scene inside the apartment "had the appearance" of a murder-suicide, but he couldn't say for certain. He said police were searching for a 16-year-old daughter who they believe was living away from the family. Identifications were withheld pending notification of relatives.

Sony Watch: Free music downloads and cash refunds could soon be offered to owners of Sony BMG CDs loaded with controversial anti-piracy software. The offers are part of a proposed settlement of lawsuits against Sony BMG over the use of software aimed at thwarting illegal copying of CDs. The programs used left consumers open to attack from viruses that hijacked the music maker's software. The proposed deal also forces Sony to stop using the controversial software. Millions of CDs are thought to have been sold that use the controversial programs. Sony BMG has released a list of the 52 discs that use XCP and the 34 that used MediaMax. All the affected CDs were only sold in North America. Consumers will be able to download from the Apple iTunes store. The publicity about the anti-piracy programs prompted class action lawsuits from aggrieved consumers. Now a month of negotiation between Sony BMG and lawyers representing all the consumers that filed cases has resulted in the proposed settlement. The document outlining the deal is due to be approved by a US judge on 6 January, but few expect it to be rejected. Owners of a CD with the XCP program are being offered a replacement disc free of anti-piracy software, $7.50 in cash and a free download of a Sony BMG album from an online music service. Consumers can forgo the cash and get three album downloads instead. Those owning CDs that use MediaMax only get downloads rather than cash. Significantly the deal also includes Apple's iTunes music store as previously Sony offered little help for consumers that wanted to put copy-protected music in their iPod. Consumers that bought CDs using early versions of the anti-piracy programs only get replacement discs.

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: There is a small but growing number of soldiers who have become disillusioned with the war in Iraq and are trying to get out of their required service. Increasing numbers of men and women in uniform are seeking honorable discharges as conscientious objectors. Others are suing the military, claiming their obligation has been wrongfully extended. Many have simply deserted, refusing to appear for duty. Some are more desperate: Last December, Army Spc. Marquise J. Roberts of Hinesville, Ga., persuaded a cousin to shoot him in the leg. The cousin was sent to jail, Roberts to the stockade. "You sign a contract and you're required to serve for whatever time period you've agreed to," said a Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke. "There are certain standards the enlistment contracts oblige soldiers to, and they are required to fulfill them." But Pentagon policies do have exceptions, and soldiers are increasingly challenging their mandatory service.

The leftist "dominos" are falling: Peru appears to be headed for the next leftist rebellion against American hegemony in the region. A former army officer who led a brief revolt against Peru's government in 2000 has officially registered to run in presidential elections next year. Recent opinion polls have shown growing support for Ollanta Humala, who has argued for a nationalist energy policy. Mr Humala was forced into exile and retirement after a revolt against former President Alberto Fujimori. Correspondents say he is similar to leftist Venezuelan head Hugo Chavez, who also led a failed military coup. Mr Humala has said he is outraged at the way some of Peru's traditional parties are exploiting a current debate over pardoning military officers blamed for human rights abuses in the fight against Shining Path guerrillas in the 1980s and 1990s. Mr Humala will lead the Peruvian Nationalist Party to the polls on 9 April next year. He has called for tighter central control over Peru's energy assets and has pledged to cut the presidential salary. The former army lieutenant colonel has also said he will introduce what he describes as a more participatory form of democracy and will limit investment in Peru by companies from Chile.

Habeas Corpus Death Watch: There are credible allegations that Guantanamo hunger strikers are being force-fed in a cruel manner, the UN special rapporteur on torture has said. Manfred Nowak's comments came after it emerged that the number of detainees refusing food at the prison camp had more than doubled since 25 December. Some 84 inmates are now refusing food, according to the US military. But a Pentagon official said there was no evidence that they had been treated in an inappropriate way. Mr Nowak has not been to Guantanamo, and turned down an invitation to the camp because the US refused to give him unrestricted access to the detainees. If these allegations are true then this definitely amounts to an additional cruel treatment. He told the BBC that he had received reports that some hunger strikers had had thick pipes inserted through the nose and forced down into the stomach. This was allegedly done roughly, sometimes by prison guards rather than doctors. As a result, some prisoners had reported bleeding and vomiting he said.

Free, Unregulated Markets Solve All Problems: A consumer advocacy group has found that more than a decade ago, medical-malpractice insurers reported inflated costs to state regulators, used those numbers to charge higher rates to doctors and hospitals, and then later reported costs far below the initial estimates. In a comprehensive analysis, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR) found that insurance companies reported loss expectations of nearly $40 billion to state insurance regulators from 1986 to 1994 but paid out less than $27 billion in claims for the period. Comprehensive data is unavailable for 1995 and later. "By inflating their estimated ‘losses’ as much as 66 percent, medical-malpractice insurance companies have misled regulators, lawmakers and the public and overcharged physicians and other healthcare providers," FTCR founder Harvey Rosenfield said in a statement announcing the study. "Because all insurance companies use the same flawed accounting practices, it is likely that the insurance industry is responsible for several billion dollars in premium overcharges over the last few years, a period during which premiums have soared." The FTCR study closely matches the findings of a Center for Justice and Democracy report released last summer showing that the nation’s largest insurers are taking in more than double what they did just five years ago while paying claims at or barely above the same level as 2000. That study, conducted by former Missouri Attorney General Jay Angoff using recent data reported to state insurance regulators, found that companies have been increasing premiums at rates far exceeding projected losses.

A major AIDS advocacy and treatment group asked drugmaker Pfizer Inc. Friday to pull advertisements encouraging use of the impotence pill Viagra on New Year's Eve, blasting the ads as recklessly encouraging recreational use of the drug. "What are you doing on New Year's Eve?" a smiling gray-haired man asks in a full-page advertisement that ran in the Wall Street Journal Thursday. The ad reads: "Fact: Viagra can help guys with all degrees of erectile dysfunction -- from mild to severe." The Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation criticized the latest print ads as promoting Viagra as a party drug and encouraging risky sexual behavior. "Not only does sending this reckless message contribute to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but it is also part of a pattern of irresponsible direct-to-consumer advertising by the drug industry," said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDs group, in a statement.

Governator Watch: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to propose a $1 increase in the state's minimum wage after vetoing similar legislature this year, a further indication that he is cultivating a more moderate image as he begins his re-election year. An aide to the governor said the proposal will be included in Schwarzenegger's State of the State speech on Thursday. Under the plan, the hourly wage would rise from $6.75 to $7.25 in September and to $7.75 in July 2007. Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill last September that would have provided the same wage increase but also mandated automatic hikes to keep pace with inflation. In his veto message, the governor said he believed it was time to raise the minimum wage but did not support the annual increase.

Republicans Believe In Responsible Fiscal Management: Treasury Secretary John Snow has warned that unless Congress raises the national debt limit, the US government will run out of cash to finance its daily work in two months. In a letter to Senate leaders Thursday, Snow said the statutory debt limit imposed by Congress of 8.184 trillion dollars would be reached in mid-February and the government would then lose its borrowing power. "At that time, unless the debt limit is raised or the Treasury Department takes authorized extraordinary actions, we will be unable to continue to finance government operations," said the letter, seen by AFP. Snow warned that even if the Treasury took "all available prudent and legal actions" to avoid breaching the ceiling, "we anticipate that we can finance government operations no longer than mid-March. Accordingly, I am writing to request that Congress raise the statutory debt limit as soon as possible." The Republican-led Congress last voted to increase the debt limit in mid-November 2004, despite opposition from Democrats who demanded the free-spending federal government tighten its belt instead.

Republicans Believe In Free Speech: Throughout the United States, people working for social change use public-access television to bypass corporate media and reach broad local viewerships. Constituents use public-access TV to discuss what they expect from politicians. Immigrants use it to share news from home. Small cities shadowed by big cities use it to report stories that never make it into the major-market newscasts. People from every background use public-access channels as training ground for media production skills. The funding for public-access stations usually comes though "franchise agreements" between local governments and cable companies. Through these contracts, cable companies pay fees for laying their wires under sidewalks and streets, or "public rights of way." Now, with a wash of telecommunications legislation wending its way through Congress, public-access television users may have to fight for its survival in 2006. As technology evolves, companies like Verizon and AT&T – which already use public rights of way to provide telephone and Internet services – want to offer TV and video services over their telephone wires. These companies are not currently regulated by local franchise agreements. In order to address this issue, lawmakers have introduced four bills in recent months that could dramatically alter, or even eliminate, the funding sources for local public-access channels. Two other Senate bills call to eliminate franchise fees entirely. John Ensign (R–Nevada) introduced the Broadband Consumer Choice Act in July, and Jim DeMint (R–South Carolina) introduced the Digital Age Communications Act on December 15. Presumably, legislative analysts say, control over public rights of way would shift to the Federal Communications Commission.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: An analysis by a progressive research organization predicts that soon to be enacted tax and budget cuts may further erode the standard of living for low- and middle-income people and leave the United States in worse economic shape. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a think tank focusing on the needs of low-income people, has found that the recently passed tax cuts and soon-to-be approved budget cuts will overwhelmingly benefit more affluent people and corporations. Meanwhile, the congressional economic policy is slated to feed a deficit that could top $150 billion in ten years. The CBPP report is based on an analysis of information provided by the centrist Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center. Topping the CBPP’s list of concerns are reductions in taxes enacted during the administration of George H.W. Bush that were aimed at alleviating the deficit. The cuts to those taxes were approved with the 2001 tax-cut package and go into effect at the beginning of 2006, alone carry a $27 billion price tag over the next five years. The cost of the cuts quintuples during the five years after that.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Tropical Storm Zeta formed in the eastern Atlantic Ocean on Friday, a month after the official end of a record busy hurricane season but forecasters said the straggler storm did not threaten land. Zeta was the 27th named storm of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially ended on November 30. At noon EDT (1700 GMT), Zeta was centered about 1,070 miles southwest of the Portuguese islands of the Azores and moving northwest near 8 mph (13 kph). Zeta closed out a record-setting year that forced forecasters to choose storm names from the Greek alphabet after exhausting their annual list of 21 names. The old record for most tropical storms was 21, set in 1933. Fourteen of this year's storms strengthened into hurricanes, breaking the old record of 12 set in 1969. The year also saw the most expensive hurricane on record when Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf coast in August, killing at least 1,300 people and causing more than $80 billion of damage.

Scandals R Us: More trouble for indicted Texas Republican congressman Tom DeLay: The U.S. Family Network, a public advocacy group that operated in the 1990s with close ties to Rep. Tom DeLay and claimed to be a nationwide grass-roots organization, was funded almost entirely by corporations linked to embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to tax records and former associates of the group. But the records show that the tiny U.S. Family Network, which never had more than one full-time staff member, spent comparatively little money on public advocacy or education projects. Although established as a nonprofit organization, it paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees to Buckham and his lobbying firm, Alexander Strategy Group. There is no evidence DeLay received a direct financial benefit, but Buckham's firm employed DeLay's wife, Christine, and paid her a salary of at least $3,200 each month for three of the years the group existed. Richard Cullen, DeLay's attorney, has said that the pay was compensation for lists Christine DeLay supplied to Buckham of lawmakers' favorite charities, and that it was appropriate under House rules and election law. During its five-year existence, the U.S. Family Network raised $2.5 million but kept its donor list secret. The list, obtained by The Washington Post, shows that $1 million of its revenue came in a single 1998 check from a now-defunct London law firm whose former partners would not identify the money's origins. Two former associates of Edwin A. Buckham, the congressman's former chief of staff and the organizer of the U.S. Family Network, said Buckham told them the funds came from Russian oil and gas executives. Abramoff had been working closely with two such Russian energy executives on their Washington agenda, and the lobbyist and Buckham had helped organize a 1997 Moscow visit by DeLay (R-Tex.).

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has offered to settle about 200 lawsuits from the pedophile priest scandal there, offering average payments of $75,000, lawyers for the accusers said on Friday. The payments are worth about half the $155,000 average payment made to more than 500 other area parishioners in a landmark 2003 settlement, the lawyers said. Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer representing 55 of the cases, called the offer "cold and callous." "As far as the church is concerned, the sexual abuse scandal has blown over," he said. The Archdiocese of Boston confirmed it is in talks to settle the cases but declined further comment. Claims of sexual abuse by priests surfaced in Boston in 2002, then spread to other U.S. parishes, prompting a drop in donations at churches across America. Squeezed by the cost of settlements, the Boston diocese has shut more than 60 churches and schools, triggering protests by churchgoers. It is not yet clear how many of the 200 plaintiffs would be entitled to awards, the lawyers said. The average payment would be $75,000, said Carmen Durso, who is representing 33 plaintiffs.

News Of The Weird: Good to the last dropping: Would you pay $175 for a pound of coffee beans which had passed through the backside of a furry mammal in Indonesia? Apparently, some coffee lovers wanting to treat themselves to something special are lapping it up. Kopi Luwak beans from Indonesia are rare and expensive, thanks to a unique taste and aroma enhanced by the digestive system of palm civets, nocturnal tree-climbing creatures about the size of a large house cat. "People like coffee. And when they want to treat themselves, they order the Kopi Luwak," said Isaac Jones, director of sales for Tastes of The World, an online supplier of gourmet coffee, tea and cocoa. Despite being carnivorous, civets eat ripe coffee cherries for treats. The coffee beans, which are found inside of the cherries, remain intact after passing through the animal. Civet droppings are found on the forest floor near coffee plantations. Once carefully cleaned and roasted, the beans are sold to specialty buyers. Jones said sales for Kopi Luwak rose three-fold just before the Christmas holiday compared with the first half of the year. The company started selling the rare coffee in February 2005. He expects to sell around 200 pounds of the coffee this year, with orders coming from North America and Europe. So far, most of the orders have been from California. Indonesia produces only about 500 kilograms, or roughly 1,100 pounds, of the coffee each year, making it extremely expensive and difficult to find. "It's the most expensive coffee that we know about in the world," said Jones.

After reviewing the number of hits top local stories at his newspaper's Web site got in 2005, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat concludes today, "As I look back at the year in news, it's clear I should have focused more on people having sex with horses." Indeed, four of the most-clicked stories on the Web site this year, including the No. 1 finisher ("by far"), had to do with the same incident: the man who died from a perforated colon while having sex with a horse in nearby Enumclaw. The farm was known on the Internet as a "destination site" for all kinds of sex with animals. Westneat says, referring to the most popular list, "It's not a survey of what news you say you read. It's what you actually read. "In fact, the No. 1 horse sex story may have been "the most widely read material this paper has published in its 109-year history. I don't know whether to ignore this alarming factoid or to embrace it." He added: "Or, maybe, some of us are not giving readers enough of what you really want."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:34:54 PM

Thu, Dec 29 2005

Maybe A Buyer - Or Just A Looker

The stormy weather of the last few days is over now, and this morning, after some rather heavy fog, it cleared off and warmed up. The cold front has passed and we're back to lovely warm weather today. Yesterday was chilly and rainy all day, never making it past 74 all day, and last night as the storm faded, it only dropped to 70. This afternoon, with bright sunny weather, the temperature climbed hesitantly to 79, and now, even at nine PM, it is still only down to 73.

We had a thunderstorm this afternoon, a rather brief if somewhat violent one, but the heavy rain was all over in only about 15 minutes. But there was enough lightning that I found it expedient to unplug things. As soon as it was over, however, the sun came out and it warmed back up nicely. First thunderstorm of any consequence in several months - unlike last year, when they were a daily occurrence.

There was an earthquake in Puriscal yesterday morning, a 5.1. Not a really big one, but it was just strong enough here to be a bit unsettling. Lasted about ten seconds, and was a slow rolling motion that just sort of faded away. There was some minor damage at the epicenter, but nothing here, didn't even knock so much as a book off the shelves.

I had another visitor this afternoon, a buyer looking at the house. The fellow just showed up with the real estate agent unannounced, not long before the thunderstorm. The fellow didn't seem to be overly interested, but that is the way the more crafty buyers are - they'll not tip their hand until an offer is submitted. But he did ask a lot of questions about the status of the title to the place - covenants, mortgages, etc., and how quickly he could get title. So I suspect that he is thinking about the place as an investment if he is considering it at all. He spent a good deal of time looking the place over, but did not do any haggling. He simply left with the real estate agent after having a good look around. We'll see if anything comes of it. Seems that most of the people who are buying in this town these days are investors, with just a comparative handful of people looking for retirement residences. I guess that is because this town has been pegged as the prime area to become the highlands answer to Manuel Antonio - the place for people to come, but when they are tired of the heat, humidity and bugs of the beach towns.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Smirkey's domestic snooping policy has failed to make a dent in the war against al Qaeda. U.S. law enforcement sources said that more than four years of surveillance by the National Security Agency has failed to capture any high-level al Qaeda operative in the United States. They said al Qaeda insurgents have long stopped using the phones and even computers to relay messages. Instead, they employ couriers. "They have been way ahead of us in communications security," a law enforcement source said. "At most, we have caught some riff-raff. But the heavies remain free and we believe some of them are in the United States." But despite the huge amount of raw material gathered under the legislation, the FBI has not captured one major al Qaeda operative in the United States. Instead, federal authorities have been allowed to use non-terrorist material obtained through the surveillance program for investigation and prosecution. Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union confirm that the FBI has monitored and infiltrated a range of Muslim and Arab groups peace groups and even environmental activists. In more than one case, the sources said, a surveillance target was prosecuted on non-terrorist charges from information obtained through wiretaps conducted without a court order. They said the FBI supported this policy in an attempt to pressure surveillance targets to cooperate. In several cases, the victims of the illegal prosecution are appealing to have their convictions overturned on the basis that the evidence against them was gathered illegally.

The National Security Agency's Internet site has been placing files on visitors' computers that can track their Web surfing activity despite strict federal rules banning most of them. These files, known as "cookies," disappeared after a privacy activist complained and The Associated Press made inquiries this week, and agency officials acknowledged Wednesday they had made a mistake. Nonetheless, the issue raises questions about privacy at a spy agency already on the defensive amid reports of a secretive eavesdropping program in the United States. A 2003 memo from the OMB prohibits persistent cookies for all but very limited circumstances.

Smirkey and other top officials in his administration used the National Security Agency to secretly wiretap the home and office telephones and monitor private email accounts of members of the United Nations Security Council in early 2003 to determine how foreign delegates would vote on a U.N. resolution that paved the way for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, NSA documents show. Two former NSA officials familiar with the agency's campaign to spy on U.N. members say then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice authorized the plan at the request of President Bush, who wanted to know how delegates were going to vote. Rice did not immediately return a call for comment.

The Israeli masters are demanding action from their American quislings: An Israeli politician warned Tuesday that if Iran's nuclear proliferation is not halted, the country will have a nuclear weapon ready within two years. The warning came from Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Yuval Steinitz, who said such a development would pose a threat not only to Israel's very existence, but the entire world, Ha'aretz reported. "Within one to two years, they will have a nuclear bomb, and then there will be a new Middle East - threatening, black and dangerous," he said. He called on the global community, under U.S. leadership, to take steps to monitor and thwart the Iranian program, the report said.

The US has imposed sanctions on nine foreign companies, six of them Chinese, for allegedly selling missile goods and chemical arms material to Iran. None of the sanctioned companies is a Halliburton affiliate, of course, which not only does business in Iran, but actually maintains an office in Tehran. A US State Department spokesman said the measures were based on "credible evidence" but gave no details. The US will not provide export licences to the firms involved, two of them Indian and one Austrian, and has banned the US government trading with them. China has in the past denied selling weapons-related material to Iran. The US and EU suspect Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons and are considering whether to refer it to the UN Security Council. Tehran says its nuclear program is for civilian energy use.

Government records show that the administration was encountering unprecedented second-guessing by the secret federal surveillance court when President Bush decided to bypass the panel and order surveillance of U.S.-based terror suspects without the court's approval. A review of Justice Department reports to Congress shows that the 26-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court modified more wiretap requests from the Bush administration than from the four previous presidential administrations combined. The court's repeated intervention in Bush administration wiretap requests may explain why the president decided to bypass the court nearly four years ago to launch secret National Security Agency spying on hundreds and possibly thousands of Americans and foreigners inside the United States, according to James Bamford, an acknowledged authority on the supersecret NSA, which intercepts telephone calls, e-mails, faxes and Internet communications. "They wanted to expand the number of people they were eavesdropping on, and they didn't think they could get the warrants they needed from the court to monitor those people," said Bamford, author of "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency" and "The Puzzle Palace: Inside America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization." "The FISA court has shown its displeasure by tinkering with these applications by the Bush administration."

Defense lawyers in some of the country's biggest terrorism cases say they plan to bring legal challenges to determine whether the National Security Agency used illegal wiretaps against several dozen Muslim men tied to Al Qaeda. The expected legal challenges, in cases from Florida, Ohio, Oregon and Virginia, add another dimension to the growing controversy over the agency's domestic surveillance program and could jeopardize some of the Bush administration's most important courtroom victories in terror cases, legal analysts say. The question of whether the N.S.A. program was used in criminal prosecutions and whether it improperly influenced them raises "fascinating and difficult questions," said Carl W. Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who has studied terrorism prosecutions. "It seems to me that it would be relevant to a person's case," Professor Tobias said. "I would expect the government to say that it is highly sensitive material, but we have legal mechanisms to balance the national security needs with the rights of defendants. I think judges are very conscientious about trying to sort out these issues and balance civil liberties and national security." The first challenge is likely to come in Florida, where lawyers for two men charged with Jose Padilla, who is jailed as an enemy combatant, plan to file a motion as early as next week to determine if the N.S.A. program was used to gain incriminating information on their clients and their suspected ties to Al Qaeda. Kenneth Swartz, one of the lawyers in the case, said, "I think they absolutely have an obligation to tell us" whether the agency was wiretapping the defendants.

A new group, discussed previously in this space, has been put together by the same P.R. company who put together the "Swiftboat Veterans" group, and it has begun to run ads designed to reverse Smirkey's credibility as a result of his WMD lies. The television commercials are attention-grabbing: They claim that "newly found Iraqi documents" show that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, including anthrax and mustard gas, and had "extensive ties" to al Qaeda. The "discoveries" are being covered up by those "willing to undermine support for the war on terrorism to selfishly advance their shameless political ambitions." The hard-hitting spots are part of a recent public-relations barrage aimed at reversing a decline in public support for President Bush's handling of Iraq. The group grew out of the successful 2003 Republican National Committee's P.R. effort to recall Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis. It was officially founded in 2004 by Mr. Russo, whose company provides office space for the organization; Melanie Morgan, a conservative San Francisco radio host; and Howard Kaloogian, a Republican former state assemblyman seeking the congressional seat of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who resigned recently after admitting to taking bribes from defense contractors. One of their early efforts was a campaign supporting John Bolton's contentious nomination as United Nations ambassador. Another involved backing U.S. detention policies at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by selling "I [Heart] Gitmo" bumper stickers.

Haiti's constitution is being violated by both the U.S.-backed interim government and by the candidacy of a Haitian American millionaire running strongly in the polls in a long delayed election, analysts say. "The government has not been paying much attention to the constitution," said Brian Concannon, a U.S. lawyer who worked in Haiti and helped prosecute military leaders accused of a peasant massacre. The first round of voting in the troubled Caribbean nation is scheduled for January 8 with a run-off, if needed, on February 15. But elections officials have said another delay seems likely. Dumarsais Simeus, the Haiti-born founder of a Texas food company, has been running second to former President Rene Preval, but the Provisional Electoral Council, which organizes elections, has twice said Simeus cannot run because he is an American citizen. Haiti's 1987 constitution, a point of pride when it was written in an impoverished nation struggling to recover from decades of dictatorship, requires presidential candidates to be Haitian citizens. It also says citizenship is lost by "naturalization in a foreign country."

Evo has Washington worried. Very worried. The socialist president-elect of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has said he will cut his salary by half when he takes office next month. Mr Morales said his cabinet would follow suit and that members of Bolivia's parliament would be expected to cut their allowances. He also reaffirmed his commitment to change Bolivia's economic system. Announcing the salary cut, he said that in a country as poor as Bolivia, the president and his cabinet should share the burden. The money saved will go on social programmes, particularly in the field of education. Mr Morales also confirmed that his government plans to introduce a new tax on the wealthy as soon as possible. His advisors say they are planning to revoke a decree from 1985 which switched Bolivia to the sort of free-market economy recommended by Washington.

Marriott International Inc.'s time-share division said yesterday that it is missing backup computer tapes containing credit card account information and the Social Security numbers of about 206,000 time-share owners and customers, as well as employees of the company. Officials at Marriott Vacation Club International said it is not clear whether the tapes, missing since mid-November, were stolen from the company's Orlando headquarters or whether they were simply lost. An internal investigation produced no clear answer. The company notified the Secret Service over the past two weeks, and has also told credit card companies and other financial institutions about the loss of the tapes. The company began sending letters to time-share owners and customers Saturday, and issued a press release about the loss yesterday. Company officials said they delayed making the matter public until they had researched what information was on the tapes and whom it affected, and determined the issue was sensitive enough to warrant a broad disclosure. "At this point, we are taking all things into consideration," company spokesman Ed Kinney said. "The tapes may have been taken, but they could have been misplaced. We're still investigating the situation." The Vacation Club has told time-share owners, customers and the division's employees to be on the alert for changes to their credit histories or accounts. So far no one has reported any misuse, Kinney said. Those affected have been offered free credit monitoring services.

School districts desperate to plug budget holes are turning their buses into billboards for soft drinks, credit unions and car dealerships. Advertisements have popped up on buses in Arizona and Massachusetts. New ones are set to appear in Michigan and Colorado. Dozens more districts from Florida to Pennsylvania may join them. "This will spread across the nation, because there's so much money that will come into schools as a result of doing this," says Daniel Shearer, director of transportation at the Scottsdale Unified School District. The Arizona city just outside Phoenix began displaying ads on the sides of its buses last December. Advertisers include real estate agencies, a local toy store and an ambulance company. The district anticipates the ads will bring in $300,000 this year and up to $900,000 in a few years.

They're America's flying enforcers, the federal air marshals - the last line of defense in the case of an attack on an airborne plane. But since two marshals shot and killed an unarmed mentally ill man earlier this month, problems within the small, secretive agency have again come to light. The Federal Air Marshal Service is beset by persistent challenges from morale to training to top-heavy management, sources say - so much so that the nation risks having too few marshals to protect commercial aviation. Although the exact number of air marshals is a closely guarded secret because of national-security concerns, two officials within the service provided estimates to the Christian Science Monitor out of concern that, as one of them put it, "the public is at risk." Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they risked sanctions by speaking openly. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which oversees the service, counters that the public, even during the heavily traveled holiday season, is adequately protected.

The Homeland Security Department, created in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has failed to fulfill 33 of its own pledges to better protect the nation, according to a report released Tuesday by House Democrats. The report concludes that gaps remain in federal efforts to secure an array of areas, including ports, borders and chemical plants. There also are still delays in the department's sharing terror alerts and other intelligence with state and local officials, the review said. Compiled for 13 Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee, the report analyzes public statements and congressional testimony on Bush administration security goals since 2002. Responding, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said the department is prioritizing resources and programs based on "today's greatest threats."

A prominent national Islamic civil rights and advocacy group today announced the filing of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all government records relating to a secret government program that monitored the radiation levels at more than 100 Muslim homes, businesses and mosques in the capital region and in other areas nationwide. According to an exclusive online article by U.S. News & World Report: "In search of a terrorist nuclear bomb, the federal government since 9/11 has run a far-reaching, top secret program to monitor radiation levels at over a hundred Muslim sites in the Washington, D.C., area, including mosques, homes, businesses, and warehouses, plus similar sites in at least five other cities, U.S. News has learned. In numerous cases, the monitoring required investigators to go on to the property under surveillance, although no search warrants or court orders were ever obtained, according to those with knowledge of the program. Some participants were threatened with loss of their jobs when they questioned the legality of the operation, according to these accounts...No dirty bombs or nuclear devices have ever been found—and that includes the post-9/11 program. 'There were a lot of false positives, and one or two were alarming,' says one source. 'But in the end we found nothing.'" The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed the FOIA request with the Department of Justice, including the FBI, and the Department of Energy.

A former coca farmer and street protester expects to be surrounded by Nobel laureates, presidents and social activists when he assumes Bolivia's highest office Jan. 22. President-elect Evo Morales is inviting three Nobel Peace Prize laureates - Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala and Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina - along with Nobel literature prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Morales' spokesman Alex Contreras said. The 46-year-old Aymara Indian, who promised during his campaign to be Washington's "worst nightmare," is planning two separate inaugurations - the official one at the Congress building, followed by one organized as a traditional Indian ritual. Morales has also drawn the attention of the American government with his pledges to halt the U.S.-backed campaign to end the growing of coca leaf, which is used to make cocaine. Morales has asked outgoing President Eduardo Rodriguez to also send inauguration invitations to the leaders of the Landless' Movement of Brazil, Indian movements of Ecuador and the leaders of the "piqueteros," a social protest movement of the jobless in Argentina, Contreras said. President-elect Evo Morales will reject U.S. economic and military aid if the United States requires continued coca-eradication efforts to get the money, a close aide to the former coca growers' leader said Tuesday. Morales also plans to withdraw Bolivia's military from anti-drug efforts and leave the job to police, said Juan Ramon Quintana, a member of the Morales' transition team.

The number of people indicted in a scheme that bilked thousands of dollars from a Red Cross fund designated for Hurricane Katrina victims has risen to 49, federal authorities said. At least 14 suspects worked at a Red Cross call center in Bakersfield, California and are accused of helping family and friends file false claims for aid money, said Mary Wenger, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott in Sacramento. Six have pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges since the first indictments were announced in October, she said Tuesday. The fake claims drained at least $200,000 from the fund, with an average payout of about $1,000, Red Cross spokeswoman Devorah Goldburg said. The total could rise as the investigation continues, she said. The Bakersfield site is the largest of three Red Cross centers set up to handle hurricane calls. Others are in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Falls Church, Va. Operators provided qualifying victims with a personal identification number they then presented to receive aid funds from Western Union, authorities said. The Red Cross contacted the FBI after it performed an audit of the call center and discovered an unusually high number of claims were being paid out at Western Union outlets in the Bakersfield area. "It was the Red Cross that found this problem," Jack McGuire, the national group's interim president, said Wednesday on NBC's "Today." "We put into effect these call centers to speed up delivery of support to people that needed it. As part of that, we put into place mechanisms to look for fraud up front and to find fraud after the fact." None of the indicted employees worked directly for the Red Cross. Officials of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Spherion, which operates the call center, have said the company didn't have time to run background checks on its 1,200 workers.

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito argued against asking the high court to quash a Black Panther lawsuit in the early 1980s when he was working as a government lawyer, documents released on Wednesday show. The Black Panther party had sued former officials in Democratic and Republican administrations for $100 million, alleging an illegal decade-long conspiracy to wipe out the militant black-liberation organization. Alito, who worked in the Justice Department's solicitor general's office, in a November 19, 1981 five-page memo argued on narrow technical grounds that the case would be better fought in lower courts.

The U.S. government reportedly plans to spend $500 million over five years to make the Sahara Desert a vast new front in its "war on terrorism". The operation is called the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative, begun in June to provide military expertise, equipment and development aid to nine Saharan countries. This is an area where lawless swaths of desert are considered fertile ground for militant Muslim groups, the San Francisco Chronicle said. Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia were listed as participants in the initiative. During the first phase of the program, dubbed Operation Flintlock, 700 U.S. Special Forces troops and 2,100 soldiers from nine North and West African nations led 3,000 ill-equipped Saharan troops in tactical exercises designed to better coordinate security along porous borders and beef up patrols in ungoverned territories.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: The Chicago Transit Authority is refusing an opportunity to alleviate commuting costs for hundreds of thousands in the Windy City's low-income neighborhoods. Instead of accepting deeply discounted fuel from the Venezuela-owned Citgo Petroleum Corporation, the city is instead raising fares to solve budget shortfalls. In an October meeting with representatives from the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), the city's Department of Energy and other city officials, Citgo unveiled a plan to provide the Chicago with low-cost diesel fuel. The company's stipulation, at the bidding of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was that the CTA, in turn, pass those savings on to poor residents in the form free or discounted fare cards. But two months later, despite claims of a looming budget crisis, the CTA president "has no intent or plan to accept the offer," according to CTA spokesperson Ibis Antongiorgi. She gave no explanation.

Habeas Corpus Death Watch: Lawyers for Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen held as an "enemy combatant" for nearly four years, want the Supreme Court to resolve how much power a president has while the nation is at "war." Lawyers Donna Newman and Andrew Patel told the high court in papers filed Tuesday that the justices must step in "to preserve the vital checks and balances" on the president. They cited the Bush administration's interpretation of the president's war powers to justify its decision to hold Padilla - until recently - without charges in a military brig in South Carolina. Padilla's lawyers also said President Bush abused his war powers authority by approving warrantless surveillance of conversations between people in the United States and abroad who had suspected terrorist ties.

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: The CIA's independent watchdog is investigating fewer than 10 cases where terror suspects may have been mistakenly swept away to foreign countries by the spy agency, a figure lower than published reports but enough to raise some concerns. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush gave the CIA authority to conduct the now-controversial operations, called "extraordinary renditions," and permitted the agency to act without case-by-case approval from the White House or other administration offices. Some 100 to 150 people have been snatched up since 9/11. Government officials say the action is reserved for those considered by the CIA to be the most serious terror suspects. The CIA's inspector general, John Helgerson, is looking into fewer than 10 cases of potentially "erroneous renditions," according to a current intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigations are classified. Others in the agency believe it to be much fewer, the official added. Said Tom Malinowski, Washington office director of Human Rights Watch: "I am glad the CIA is investigating the cases that they are aware of, but by definition you are not going to be aware of all such cases, when you have a process designed to avoid judicial safeguards." He said there is no guarantee that Egypt, Uzbekistan or Syria will release people handed over to them if they turn out to be innocent, and he distrusts promises the U.S. receives that the individuals will not be tortured.

Conservatives Fight Hard Against Slavery And Prositution: Three years after a 2002 Presidential Directive demanding an end to trafficking in humans for forced labor and prostitution by U.S. contractors, the Pentagon is still yet to actually bar the practice, The Chicago Tribune reports. Congress approved a similar ban one year later, which was reauthorized by the Senate just last week. The President and Congress have demanded that government agencies include anti-trafficking provisions (covering forced labor and prostitution) in all overseas company contracts. It also extended the ban to subcontractors. According to the Tribune, the concerns of five lobbying groups - including representatives of Halliburton subsidiary KBR and DynCorp - are stalling Pentagon action. These companies are specifically targeting provisions requiring companies to monitor their overseas contractors for violations. Both KBR and DynCorp have been linked to human trafficking cases in the past.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: Pilots at troubled US airline Delta have voted to approve a 14% pay cut to help the bankrupt carrier survive an expected cash crunch. Atlanta-based Delta, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September, said the interim measure would save $143m a year. This was the second double-digit salary cut Delta's 6,000 airline pilots have accepted in the last 13 months. Their average salary of about $170,000 a year will now fall to about $146,000.

News From Smirkey's Wars: It is not really going the way Smirkey has been claiming in his recent charm offensive. Political assassinations, party headquarters burned, abductions (all largely unreported by Western corporate media). A former prime minister, Iyad Allawi - widely known in Baghdad as "Saddam without a moustache" - saying on the record that human rights in President George W Bush's Iraq are worse than they were under Saddam. Current Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari's Da'wa Party accusing Allawi of defending the occupiers. Allawi accusing Jaafari's government of corruption. Former Pentagon asset Ahmad Chalabi's campaign posters with the inscription, "We liberated Iraq" (he didn't garner even one percent of the vote - see below) A network of secret torture prisons and charnel houses. Fear and loathing in militia hell. American military operations to "secure peaceful voting". All traffic circulation prohibited by the occupiers (to prevent increasingly frequent car bombings). The borders with both Syria and Jordan, as well as Baghdad's airport, all closed. That's the daily reality, so if you are inclined to think that things are getting better over there, think again.

Unexpectedly low support from overseas voters has left Ahmed Chalabi - the returned Iraqi exile and convicted bank fraudster once backed by the United States to lead Iraq - facing a shutout from power in this month's vote for the country's first full-term parliament since the 2003 invasion. Rebounding violence, which included bombings, assassination attempts and other attacks, claimed at least 19 lives in Iraq on Monday, including that of an American soldier. Eight members of a single Iraqi SWAT team were wiped out in what Iraqi authorities described as an hour-long shootout with better-armed insurgents. With 95 percent of a preliminary tally from the Dec. 15 vote now completed, Chalabi remained almost 8,000 votes short of the 40,000 minimum needed for him or his bloc to win a single seat in the 275-seat National Assembly, according to election officials. Without a seat in the assembly, Chalabi would presumably be unable to obtain a post in the resulting government. Chalabi's supporters here had hoped he would do well among exile voters who were allowed to cast ballots overseas. But results announced Monday showed he received just 0.89 percent of the "special vote,'' from Iraqi citizens in foreign countries, hospitals, the army and prisons. Kurdish politicians received the largest share of the special vote, with the backing of millions of Iraqi Kurdish exiles and members of the security forces, while the current governing coalition of Shiite religious parties has so far won the most votes overall.

A senior Iraqi official has said the government is incapable of managing prisons, hours after an attempted jail break left at least nine people dead. Deputy Justice Minister for Prisons Bhushu Ibrahim Ali said the authorities lacked the technical and financial capacities needed to supervise prisons. The failed Baghdad escape bid was the result of negligence, he told the BBC. He accused the government of asking the US to hand over control of Iraqi jails for domestic political purposes. The shootings in Baghdad come only days after the US said it would not hand over detainees to the Iraqi authorities until they raised levels of care in prison facilities. Yet as these allegations are being made, a former prisoner held by the United States military with senior officials of Saddam Hussein's ousted Iraqi regime charged on Wednesday that fellow detainees in U.S. custody had been tortured, some of them to death. Abdel Jabbar al-Kubaisi, a onetime opposition figure who rallied to Saddam's regime shortly before the 2003 invasion, said that during his 16 months in custody, three former Saddam officials had died under questioning, although he had not faced physical torture. US officials were not immediately available for comment.

Five days of interviews with Kurdish leaders and troops in the region suggest that U.S. plans to bring unity to Iraq before withdrawing American troops by training and equipping a national army aren't gaining traction. Instead, some troops that are formally under U.S. and Iraqi national command are preparing to protect territory and ethnic and religious interests in the event of Iraq's fragmentation, which many of them think is inevitable. The soldiers said that while they wore Iraqi army uniforms they still considered themselves members of the Peshmerga - the Kurdish militia - and were awaiting orders from Kurdish leaders to break ranks. Many said they wouldn't hesitate to kill their Iraqi army comrades, especially Arabs, if a fight for an independent Kurdistan erupted. "It doesn't matter if we have to fight the Arabs in our own battalion," said Gabriel Mohammed, a Kurdish soldier in the Iraqi army who was escorting a Knight Ridder reporter through Kirkuk. "Kirkuk will be ours." The Kurds have readied their troops not only because they've long yearned to establish an independent state but also because their leaders expect Iraq to disintegrate, senior leaders in the Peshmerga - literally, "those who face death" - told Knight Ridder. The Kurds are mostly secular Sunni Muslims, and are ethnically distinct from Arabs.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: The "American Family Association" is outraged. NBC is readying a winter replacement series that has Christian fundamentalists apoplectic. The AFA says on its web site: "NBC is touting the network's mid-season replacement series 'The Book of Daniel' with language that implies it is a serious drama about Christian people and Christian faith. The main character is Daniel Webster, a drug-addicted Episcopal priest whose wife depends heavily on her mid-day martinis. Webster regularly sees and talks with a very unconventional white-robed, bearded Jesus. The Webster family is rounded out by a 23-year-old homosexual Republican son, a 16-year-old daughter who is a drug dealer, and a 16-year-old adopted son who is having sex with the bishop's daughter. At the office, his lesbian secretary is sleeping with his sister-in-law. Network hype - and the mainstream media - call it 'edgy,' 'challenging' and 'courageous.' The hour-long limited drama series will debut January 6 with back-to-back episodes and will air on Friday nights. The writer for the series is a practicing homosexual. The homosexual son will be network prime-time's only regular male homosexual character in a drama series."

Good News: Former top Enron Corp. accountant Richard Causey pleaded guilty to securities fraud Wednesday and agreed to help pursue convictions against Enron founder Kenneth Lay and former CEO Jeffrey Skilling. Lay, Skilling and Causey were scheduled to be tried together Jan. 17 on conspiracy, fraud and other charges related to the scandal-ridden company's collapse more than four years ago. The deal leaves Lay and Skilling with another opponent rather than an ally who has been part of their united defense front since the trio was first indicted last year. Causey will serve seven years in prison and forfeit $1.25 million to the government, according to the plea deal. However, if the government is happy with his cooperation, prosecutors can ask that his sentence be reduced to five years. The maximum penalty for securities fraud is 10 years in prison, followed by three years of probation.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:32:27 PM

Tue, Dec 27 2005

A Dinner Invitation

Well, just as I was marvelling at what a wonderfully dry rainy season we were having here in Arenal, the weather changed - big time. The weather turned cold late last night as a weak cold front passed through the country, and temperatures here dropped to a rather chilly 66 degrees, and the wind whipped up to speeds I have not seen in quite a while. Today, the temperature rose to only 69, and with the steady drizzle, interrupted by occasional heavy rain, meant that the day was pretty grim.

During the day, one of my neighbors came by and asked if it would be possible for me to take him and his family up to the Venado Caverns, so we agreed on a time and date, and they will share the cost of the gas. It is one of the prime tourist attractions around here, though the road getting there is a bit rough - 15km of rather poor gravel, and it requires a 4WD, so I was targeted as the only owner of a suitable high-clearance 4WD vehicle. I agreed mostly because it is a tourist attraction I have been wanting to see.

I needed to take care of some business in town, and went to town to fill up the car, as there is a gasoline price increase pending. I wanted to get all I could at the currently lower price, and did that, but found the bank closed, so I could not take care of my other business. Unfortunately, they were apparently closed until the second of January. So I will have to shine that one on. I tried the pulperia (country store) for a paper, and no cigar on that one, either. Not too surprising - the whole country closes down between Christmas and New Years, so not being able to get a paper was not much of a surprise. Manana, I was told. Oh well...

Back at the house, I had a telephone call inviting me up to that same neighbor's house for Christmas tamales. That was an opportunity I was not about to pass up. In this country, tamales are very much a Christmas food, not like in the States, where they are not particularly seasonal. And instead of being wrapped in corn leaves, they are much larger and are wrapped in cooked banana leaves. No chile, either - here, they are rather bland, with the omnipresent cilantro as about the only seasoning. The prodigious size normally means that they are served one per guest, and that's a meal. And they are really good - usually filled with shredded beef or chicken, with boiled carrots or another vegetable, a hint of cilantro, then covered in corn masa about a half-inch thick, wrapped in the boiled banana leaf and tied in a bundle, then boiled until ready and served hot. Oh, how good they are! One of my favorite Costa Rican foods. We had a good time socializing until the rain let up, and then I beat a hasty retreat back to my house. I really appreciated the invite. And the hospitality. The Ticos really are a remarkable people, welcoming into their humble homes a stranger from a half a world away.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: President Bush has been summoning newspaper editors lately in an effort to prevent publication of stories he considers damaging to national security - mostly those related to his warrantless domestic spying. The efforts have failed, but the rare White House sessions with the executive editors of The Washington Post and New York Times are an indication of how seriously the president takes the recent reporting that has raised questions about the administration's anti-terror tactics. Leonard Downie Jr., The Post's executive editor, would not confirm the meeting with Bush before publishing reporter Dana Priest's Nov. 2 article disclosing the existence of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe used to interrogate terror suspects. Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, would not confirm that he, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman had an Oval Office sit-down with the president on Dec. 5, 11 days before reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed that Bush had authorized eavesdropping on Americans and others within the United States without court orders. But the meetings were confirmed by sources who have been briefed on them but are not authorized to comment because both sides had agreed to keep the sessions off the record. The White House had no comment. "When senior administration officials raised national security questions about details in Dana's story during her reporting, at their request we met with them on more than one occasion," Downie says. "The meetings were off the record for the purpose of discussing national security issues in her story." At least one of the meetings involved John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, and CIA Director Porter Goss, the sources said. "This was a matter of concern for intelligence officials, and they sought to address their concerns," an intelligence official said. Some liberals criticized The Post for withholding the location of the prisons at the administration's request.

Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has said that it would not have been "that hard" for President Bush to obtain warrants for eavesdropping on domestic telephone and Internet activity, but that he saw "nothing wrong" with the decision not to do so. "My own judgment is that it didn't seem to me, anyway, that it would have been that hard to go get the warrants," Mr. Powell said. "And even in the case of an emergency, you go and do it. The law provides for that." But Mr. Powell added that "for reasons that the president has discussed and the attorney general has spoken to, they chose not to do it that way. I see absolutely nothing wrong with the president authorizing these kinds of actions," he said.

Congressional officials said Saturday that they wanted to investigate the disclosure that the National Security Agency had gained access to some of the country's main telephone arteries to glean data on possible terrorists. "As far as Congressional investigations are concerned," said Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, "these new revelations can only multiply and intensify the growing list of questions and concerns about the warrantless surveillance of Americans." Members of the Judiciary Committee have already indicated that they intend to conduct oversight hearings into the president's legal authority to order domestic eavesdropping on terrorist suspects without a warrant. But Congressional officials said Saturday that they would probably seek to expand the review to include the disclosure that the security agency, using its access to giant phone "switches," had also traced and analyzed phone and Internet traffic in much larger volumes than what the Bush administration had acknowledged. Leading telecommunication companies have been saving information on calling patterns and passing it along to the government. "We want to look at the entire program, an in-depth review, and this new data-mining issue is certainly a part of the whole picture," said a Republican Congressional aide, who asked not to be identified because no decisions had been made on how hearings might be structured.

The admission by two columnists that they accepted payments from indicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff may be the tip of a large and rather dirty iceberg. Copley News Service last week dropped Doug Bandow -- who also resigned as a Cato Institute scholar -- after he acknowledged taking as much as $2,000 a pop from Abramoff for up to two dozen columns favorable to the lobbyist's clients. "I am fully responsible and I won't play victim," Bandow said in a statement after Business Week broke the story. "Obviously, I regret stupidly calling to question my record of activism and writing that extends over 20 years. . . . For that I deeply apologize." Peter Ferrara of the Institute for Policy Innovation has acknowledged taking payments years ago from a half-dozen lobbyists, including Abramoff. Two of his papers, the Washington Times and Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader, have now dropped him. But Ferrara is unapologetic, saying: "There is nothing unethical about taking money from someone and writing an article." Readers might disagree on grounds that they have no way of knowing about such undisclosed payments, which seem to be an increasingly common tactic for companies trying to influence public debate through ostensibly neutral third parties. When he was a Washington lawyer several years ago, says law professor Glenn Reynolds, a telecommunications carrier offered him a fat paycheck - up to $20,000, he believes - to write an opinion piece favorable to its position. He declined.

One of the most hated and feared symbols of Apartheid South Africa is back - this time in Iraq. Black South Africans gave them a slang term, recalls Les Switzer, naming them the "Saracens". They were large, ominous six-wheeled armor-covered trucks, designed to carry troops safely into a hostile environment. And when they were called in to break up a protest, he also remembers the terror they brought. "The mere presence of a Saracen struck fear in the people," said Switzer, a long-time journalism professor at the University of Houston in the U.S. state of Texas. "(They) were like an evil presence wandering through the township." Following the funeral of an anti-apartheid martyr in 1980, he says the Eastern Cape township had a short fuse, and an uprising would soon engulf it. "The South African government, not trusting the local police, had sent in armed troops and Saracens to monitor the proceedings, and the result was a foregone conclusion," he said. The Saracens, says Switzer, author of "South Africa's Alternative Press: Voices of Protest and Resistance, 1880s-1960s", are the huge and unmistakable armored trucks the South African government used to quell uprisings. Their official name was the "Buffel", which is Afrikaans for Buffalo. When he recently heard the U.S. military was implementing a heavily-armored truck very familiar to the Saracen, he wasn't surprised. At this moment, the Pentagon is rushing these U.S.-made trucks into battle. There are two types, and one is called the "Buffalo."

A federal judge on Thursday ruled that he does not have authority to order the release of two ethnic Uighur prisoners from China detained at Guantanamo Bay, even though the U.S. military declared they are no longer "enemy combatants." U.S. District Judge James Robertson said he finds that "a federal court has no relief to offer" Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu Al-Hakim, who are being held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba while the United States searches for a country to take them in. "An order requiring their release into the United States, even into some kind of parole 'bubble,' some legal-fictional status in which they would be here but would not be 'admitted,' would have national security and diplomatic implications beyond the competence or the authority of this court," Robertson said in a 12-page ruling. The two men have been detained since June 2002 at Guantanamo Bay, where the United States hold suspects in its war against terrorism launched after the attacks of September 11, 2001. A U.S. military tribunal ruled nine months ago that the Uighurs should "no longer be classified as enemy combatants." A lawyer working with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights had urged Robertson to order the men released while the government continues its search for a country that will grant them asylum.

Breathing while black: The government spent a decade creating risk scores to identify communities with potential health hazards from industrial air pollution, but many local officials didn't even know they existed. In a widely published story last week, The Associated Press mapped those scores to neighborhoods in a computer analysis that found the risks from industrial air pollution disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. The story has stirred both controversy and intrigue in communities across America. In Grand Rapids, Mich., the mayor has requested his local air pollution experts learn more about the risk scores, which were created by the Environmental Protection Agency in the Risk Screening Environmental Indicators project. "It caught me completely by surprise, which shouldn't be for a mayor," George Heartwell said of the AP report on the EPA health risk scores. AP obtained the scores for the entire country from EPA under a Freedom of Information Act request and then, working with agency scientists, mapped the scores from the square kilometer grids used by EPA to the Census neighborhoods used to count the population in 2000. EPA's public affairs office sent "talking points" to state regulators and regional EPA offices after the AP story ran, suggesting they refer questions to the news agency and insisting the federal agency didn't know how AP conducted its analysis. In fact, AP obtained the data directly from EPA and developed the methodology for its story through extensive consultation with agency scientists. Hassur said EPA should have known that "AP followed EPA's general guidance, both verbal and published" in conducting its analysis.

The president has, by executive order, changed the order of succession for Secretary of Defense. In the event of incapacitation, death or resignation of the Secretary, the new order of succession provides for acquisition, technology, logistics, policy, and intelligence posts edging out Army, Navy and Air Force. Intelligence comes in at number two - evidence of how much Smirkey is depending on military intelligence to maintain his authoritarian rule over the country.

Demand from local listeners returned syndicated talk host Rush Limbaugh to his midday time slot on WWL AM-870 in New Orleans last Wednesday, so imagine the reaction of all but his most fervid acolytes to his opening-day gut-punch to New Orleans. Limbaugh, the most listened-to radio talker in the land, introduced caller "Ray from New Orleans," where, said the host, "They're getting back to normal in the city." "Things are not returning to normal," said Ray. "I wish you would come down here to see for yourself." And thus began an extended segment, interrupted by a commercial break, in which Limbaugh, on his first day back on the air here after three months of local recovery talk, addressed New Orleans' problems both political and geophysical. Ray set the tone by criticizing President Bush's fabulously framed Jackson Square TV speech to the nation. "All lies," the caller said. "None of the things that he promised are happening."

Though Christopher Flickinger calls himself "dean" and poses in parodistic photos waving a small American flag and looking stern, he says he's never been more serious about eliminating what he claims is pervasive anti-conservatism on college campuses today. "When I was on campus, I had no help," the recent Ohio State University graduate told FOXNews.com. "I was harassed, intimidated, shouted down." Flickinger, schooled in broadcast journalism, said he wants to provide the support he never had as a lonely conservative in college. That's why in November he launched the Network of College Conservatives to act in part as "a link for these conservative students, to let them know they are not alone." Running the Web site solo from his Pittsburgh, Pa., home, Flickinger said he wants the network to be much more than a shoulder to cry on. Conservative students are still easy targets of liberal intimidation, he claims, but more than ever, they have a growing body of legal and activist support groups to turn to — and he wants his organization to be top among those resources. But not everyone believes that conservative students are as harassed or marginalized as they say they are or might have been in the past. Megan Fitzgerald is director of the Center for Campus Free Speech , described on its Web site as an organization "dedicated to preserving the marketplace of ideas on college campuses across the country." Fitzgerald said her center defends speech by liberals and conservatives alike, and her own experience at the University of Wisconsin found that conservatives were vocal, organized and enjoyed the same platform as any other ideological movement on campus. "I would say, my senior year, the student government, probably a majority of the members would have identified themselves as conservative," said the 2003 graduate. Other critics add that plenty of examples can be offered of anti-liberal attacks on campuses, most of them tacitly permitted by college administrators. "There is a real blind spot on the part of conservatives, where they think conservatives are the only ones being repressed," said John K. Wilson, a graduate student in Chicago and author of "The Myth of Political Correctness: the Conservative Attack on Higher Education." He noted several recent incidents of anti-Iraq war protesters being shut down and penalized across the country, including a group of Hampton College students who barely avoided expulsion this month for handing out "unapproved" fliers critical of the Bush administration. He also cited numerous examples of thwarted protests and students being manhandled by campus security for questioning the presence of military recruiters on campus.

A proposal to change long-standing federal policy and deny citizenship to babies born to illegal immigrants on U.S. soil ran aground this month in Congress, but it is sure to resurface - kindling bitter debate even if it fails to become law. At issue is "birthright citizenship" - provided for since the Constitution's 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. Section 1 of that amendment, drafted with freed slaves in mind, says: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States." Some conservatives in Congress, as well as advocacy groups seeking to crack down on illegal immigration, say the amendment has been misapplied over the years, that it was never intended to grant citizenship automatically to babies of illegal immigrants. Thus they contend that federal legislation, rather than a difficult-to-achieve constitutional amendment, would be sufficient to end birthright citizenship. With more than 70 co-sponsors, Georgia Republican Rep. Nathan Deal tried to include a revocation of birthright citizenship in an immigration bill passed by the House in mid-December. GOP House leaders did not let the proposal come to a vote.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: Federal appeals court judges across the United States have repeatedly excoriated immigration judges this year for what they call a pattern of biased and incoherent decisions in asylum cases. In one decision last month, Richard Posner, a prominent and relatively conservative federal appellate judge in Chicago, concluded that "the adjudication of these cases at the administrative level has fallen below the minimum standards of legal justice." Similarly, the federal appeals court in Philadelphia said in September that it had "time and time again" been forced to rebuke immigration judges for their "intemperate and humiliating."

A senior US senator has criticised the handling of the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, just before meeting the judge heading the court. Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the US Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was disappointed the court had allowed Saddam "to dominate the proceedings". Sen Specter said he would urge Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin to quell Saddam's outbursts by holding him in contempt. He said he would press the judge to use international and US law to hold Saddam in contempt or have him tried in his absence. The BBC's John Simpson in Baghdad says Judge Rizgar's refusal to respond with force to Saddam Hussein's outbursts is a sign of strength rather than failure. To treat the former Iraqi leader roughly would be to risk making him seem a martyr, the BBC correspondent says.

Prosecutors in the Philippines are set to file rape charges on Tuesday against four US marines over an alleged assault on a 22-year-old woman in November. Charges against two other marines have been dropped while the Filipino driver of the van in which the alleged attack took place also faces charges. Prosecutor Prudencio Jalandoni is seeking an arrest warrant and jurisdiction over the marines. The four, who are in the custody of the US embassy in Manila, deny the charges. Mr Jalandoni is due to file his charges at a court in the town of Olongapo, north-west of Manila, near where the alleged rape took place on 1 November. The Americans have denied participating in or witnessing the incident, which allegedly took place inside a van at Subic Bay free port, a former US naval base.

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: Barron's Magazine, normally a staunch supporter of conservative causes, has come out and editorialized strongly in favor of the impeachment of George W. Bush. Barron's writes: "Surely the 'strict constructionists' on the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary eventually will point out what a stretch this is. The most important presidential responsibility under Article II is that he must 'take care that the laws be faithfully executed.' That includes following the requirements of laws that limit executive power. There's not much fidelity in an executive who debates and lobbies Congress to shape a law to his liking and then goes beyond its writ. Willful disregard of a law is potentially an impeachable offense. It is at least as impeachable as having a sexual escapade under the Oval Office desk and lying about it later. The members of the House Judiciary Committee who staged the impeachment of President Clinton ought to be as outraged at this situation. They ought to investigate it, consider it carefully and report either a bill that would change the wiretap laws to suit the president or a bill of impeachment. It is important to be clear that an impeachment case, if it comes to that, would not be about wiretapping, or about a possible Constitutional right not to be wiretapped. It would be about the power of Congress to set wiretapping rules by law, and it is about the obligation of the president to follow the rules in the Acts that he and his predecessors signed into law."

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: After being caught in a bald-faced lie by the US ambassador to Britain about American renditions to Syria, the American embassy in Britain has issued a statement that stops just short of a confession. A US embassy spokeswoman contacted the BBC on Friday to say the ambassador "recognized that there had been a media report of a rendition to Syria but reiterated that the United States is not in a position to comment on specific allegations of intelligence activities that appear in the press". She "underscored that the president and secretary Rice have made clear that even in today's circumstances, where we are confronting a new kind of threat, the United States does not condone torture, its officials do not participate in such activities anywhere, and we do not hand over anyone in our custody to anywhere where we believe that they will be tortured. Full stop. We take our actions in the fight against terrorism with full respect for our international obligations and with full respect for the sovereignty of our partners." The embassy's statement is close to an admission of at least one flight to Syria as it would be unlikely to embarrass the ambassador by referring to a media report it considered inaccurate. Maher Arar, a Canadian software engineer of Syrian descent, says he was arrested in New York in 2002 and transferred to Jordan, then to Syria, where he said he was tortured. The US use of Syria for rendition sits uneasily with Washington's portrayal of the country as a pariah state.

Despite repetitive claims by the U.S. President George W. Bush and his National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice that America does not employ torture as a method of obtaining information from detainees. Vice President Dick Cheney went before Congress to try to exempt the CIA from proposed anti-torture legislation. And recently, the Human Rights Watch stated that eight men held at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, and five of whom were identified by name, have separately given their lawyers "consistent accounts" of being tortured at a secret prison, they called the "dark prison" or "prison of darkness," in Afghanistan at various periods from 2002 to 2004. The detainees said they were arrested in various countries, mostly in Asia and the Middle East, and some of them were taken to Afghanistan and then driven just a few minutes from the landing strip to the prison, which means that they were near Kabul. They were chained to walls, deprived of food and drinking water, and kept in total darkness with heavy metal music blaring for weeks at a time. Benyam Mohammad, an Ethiopian who grew up in the UK and one of the eight detainees who were subject to torture, told his lawyer that he was "hung up" in a lightless cell for days at a time, as his legs swelled and his hands and wrists became numb. Benyam also complained of loud music and "horrible ghost laughter" that was blasted into his cell at the prison. Other prisoners could be heard "knocking their heads against the walls and doors, screaming their heads off," he said. HRW says that "the prison may have been operated by personnel from the Central Intelligence Agency," as, according to the detainees’ accounts, Afghans and Americans in civilian clothes were responsible for the prison. Even American interrogators did not wear uniforms. The U.S. military declined to comment on HRW report. The New York Times said it was told by midlevel Afghan intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, that they were aware of several places where U.S. forces detain people, some named Camp Eggers, in Kabul, and the Ariana Hotel, which is close to the presidential palace that CIA officials have occupied in 2001.

Turns out that those extraordinary rendition teams that go around kidnapping people apparently live high on the hog while they're doing it: Italian prosecutors wrote in court papers that the CIA spent "enormous amounts of money" during the six weeks it took the agency to figure out how to grab a 39-year-old Muslim preacher called Abu Omar off the streets of Milan, throw him into a van and drive him to the airport. First to arrive in Milan was the surveillance team, and the hotels they chose were among the best Europe has to offer. Especially popular was the gilt-and-crystal Principe di Savoia, with acres of burnished wood paneling and plush carpets, where a single room costs $588 a night, a club sandwich goes for $28.75, and a Diet Coke adds another $9.35. According to hotel records later obtained by the Milan police investigating Abu Omar's disappearance, two CIA operatives managed to ring up more than $9,000 in room charges alone. The CIA's bill at the Principe for seven operatives came to $39,995, not counting meals, parking and other hotel services. Another group of seven operatives managed to spend $40,098 on room charges at the Westin Palace, a five-star hotel across the Piazza della Repubblica from the Principe, where a club sandwich is only $20. A former CIA officer who has worked undercover abroad said those prices were "way over" the CIA's allowed rates for foreign travel. "But you can get away with it if you claim you needed the hotel `to maintain your cover,'" he said. "They would have had to pose as high-flying businessmen." Judging from the photographs on the passports they displayed when checking into their hotels and the international driving licenses they used to rent cars, not many of the Milan operatives could have passed as "high-flying businessmen." In all, records show, the CIA paid 10 Milan hotels at least $158,000 in room charges. Although the Milan police obtained the hotel bills of 22 alleged CIA operatives, they say at least 59 cellphones were used in the weeks leading up to the abduction. Even allowing for the possibility that some operatives used more than one phone, prosecutors believe that a significant number of operatives remain unidentified. A senior U.S. official said the agency's deployment in Milan was "about usual for that kind of operation." But in December 2001, when the CIA arrived in frigid Stockholm to transport two suspected Islamic militants to Cairo, it sent eight rendition experts to do the job, according to a Swedish television documentary.

The US embassy in London has moved to clarify remarks made by its ambassador about the extraordinary rendition to other countries for interrogation. Robert Tuttle told the BBC there was no evidence of "extraordinary renditions" to Syria, which has been criticised by Washington for its human rights record. The US embassy later said Mr Tuttle recognised there had been a media report of a rendition to Syria. It did not condone torture, nor did US officials take part, it added. The embassy said it did not comment on specific cases. Canadian citizen Maher Arar was detained as a terrorist suspect in New York in 2002 and then flown to Jordan, before being transferred to Syria. He was released a year later following the intervention of the Canadian government. Mr. Arar claims he was tortured while in Syrian custody.

Free Markets Solve All Problems: In an unusually candid admission, the federal chief of AIDS research says he believes drug companies don't have an incentive to create a vaccine for the HIV and are likely to wait to profit from it after the government develops one. And that means the government has had to spend more time focusing on the processes that drug companies ordinarily follow in developing new medicines and bringing them to market. "We had to spend some time and energy paying attention to those aspects of development because the private side isn't picking it up," Dr. Edmund Tramont testified in a deposition in a recent employment lawsuit obtained by The Associated Press. Tramont is head of the AIDS research division of the National Institutes of Health, and he predicted in his testimony that the government will eventually create a vaccine. He testified in July in the whistleblower case of Dr. Jonathan Fishbein. "If we look at the vaccine, HIV vaccine, we're going to have an HIV vaccine. It's not going to be made by a company," Tramont said. "They're dropping out like flies because there's no real incentive for them to do it. We have to do it. They will eventually - if it works, they won't have to make that big investment. And they can make it and sell it and make a profit," he said.

Republicans Believe In Free And Fair Elections: In mid-August 2003, Walden W. O'Dell, the chief executive of Diebold Inc., sat down at his computer to compose a letter inviting 100 wealthy and politically inclined friends to a Republican Party fund-raiser, to be held at his home in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. ''I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year,'' wrote Mr. O'Dell, whose company is based in Canton, Ohio. That is hardly unusual for Mr. O'Dell. A longtime Republican, he is a member of President Bush's ''Rangers and Pioneers,'' an elite group of loyalists who have raised at least $100,000 each for the 2004 race. Well, he delivered on his promise. Even with the polls showing Smirkey trailing Kerry by two percentage points in Ohio, Republicans were so confident of victory that in the last two weeks running up to the election, that Smirkey didn't bother to put in an appearance. How could they have been so sure? Because they were massively rigging the elections, and they knew that their plan would succeed - which it did brilliantly. Now, whatreallyhappened.com has published a complete, careful analysis of how O'Dell and the Republican election officials in Ohio succeeded in pulling off one of the most massive election frauds in U.S. history. Using a wide variety of techniques, at least five, probably as much as six percent of the vote was fraudulent.

Amid questions about the reliability and security of electronic voting machines, elections officials in two states are taking strong measures against two of the nation’s largest e-voting machine manufacturers. Two weeks ago, elections commissioners in Florida’s Leon and Volusia counties voted to dump Diebold Electronics Systems due to security weaknesses in the company’s machines. In tests, elections officials and a computer-security expert determined that the machines could be easily hacked, opening the way for electoral manipulations, the Miami Herald reported. Last week, California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson warned Election Systems & Software that the state will decertify the company’s machines if it does not take immediate measures to correct certification and vote-counting problems found during a special election last November. That letter, which was obtained by the Associated Press, came as McPherson also placed Diebold’s certification in limbo, stating that federal officials would test the company’s memory cards, the Sacramento Bee reported. According to a Government Accountability Office report released in September, e-voting machines and the 2002 enactment of the Help America Vote Act have led to uneven results in counties throughout the nation. The report recommended that the Elections Assistance Commission, formed to help implement HAVA, create and maintain a system of standards, assessment and assistance for state and local elections officials. EAC commissioners agreed with the recommendation but have yet to implement it.

Republicans Believe In Accountability And Transparency In Government: A closer examination of documents released by the Pentagon which log all requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act shows that various individuals connected to the Republican party - including at least five former staff members for the National Republican Senatorial Committee - filed requests on Democratic congressmembers without identifying their employer. Democrats, on the other hand, were more likely to state their affiliation: the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee made eight requests of the Pentagon by name since 2000 as RAW STORY reported last week. Those familiar with "disguising" political Freedom of Information Act filings say that campaigns will sometimes have others sign off on the requests. Housemates or friends who are not employed by a political party at the time are sometimes called on to file. Such requestors often go on to become party officials.

Republicans Believe In Helping The Most Needy: Once the new Medicare prescription drug program goes live Jan. 1, some North Carolina Research Triangle employers will receive a federal, tax-free windfall - in most cases worth millions - for doing absolutely nothing. The largest local payment will go to the State Health Plan, which has applied for an estimated $63 million. The payment is a subsidy the federal government will pay in exchange for an organization maintaining its own drug program and not relying on Medicare. Among private employers, Duke University could receive as much as $1.8 million, GlaxoSmithKline $3.3 million, and IBM $6.6 million based on their number of Medicare-eligible retirees and the estimated $660 average annual payment per retiree. Some employers may opt to drop their retiree drug benefits altogether, in which case they would not receive a subsidy payment. It's not clear yet how many will go that route, but the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will release more detailed information in January. Meanwhile, in California, the US government magnanimously awarded a raise of $10/month to SSI recipients, and in California, Gov. Ahnold quickly deducted the same amount from the state's portion of the payment, even though the CA state treasury is now in the black. So these disabled people do not get their cost-of-living increase. About two weeks ago, MediCare notified its beneficiaries and pharmacies, but not physicians, that patients would have to cough up a co-pay for their drugs, and some would no longer be covered. This set off a panic among this population. Three days before Christmas, National Public Radio announced that as of January 1st, due to the MediCal cuts in the Federal budget- MediCal no longer will cover prescription drugs.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: Employers froze nearly one in 10 pension plans insured by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. in 2003, according to a study released Wednesday. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the federal agency that guarantees worker pension benefits, said 9.4 percent of the 29,000 plans it insures and for which it had data were "hard-frozen" in 2003, the most recent year for which numbers were available. Hard-frozen means employees can no longer accrue benefits under a pension plan. The study comes amid a steady stream of headlines about companies, including Sears Roebuck & Co., Motorola Inc. (MOT) and IBM Corp., freezing pensions to cut costs. Among the latest was Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ), which recently said it would freeze the pensions of 50,500 managers. The study, however, found that as of 2003 the frozen plans covered just 2.5 percent of all workers in insured plans. Most of the more than 2,700 plans hard-frozen in 2003 had fewer than 100 participants, it said. That finding comes on the heels of other studies that have suggested in the last year a steep uptick in the number of firms that are freezing - either fully or partially - employee pension plans. They include one conducted by the consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide that found that 71 of the nation's 1,000 largest companies last year either froze or terminated their pension plans, up from 45 in 2003. Nearly all were freezes.

Winter in America’s coldest climates may be idyllic and cozy in holiday movies and Christmas carols, but many of the nation’s poor weather the season in frigid and drafty homes, forced to make difficult choices between warmth and other necessities like food and health care. In previous years, emergency heating assistance has already fallen short, and this winter promises to be especially icy for those without means to pay for warmth. As applications for help increase to 5.6 million – the highest level in twelve years – at least eight states predict they will run out of funds in the coming weeks, including New York, Indiana, Maryland and North Carolina. In Wiscosin, if an application is accepted, their portion of the $93 million in state and federal heat assistance available to Wisconsin residents will likely only make a small dent in their bills. The program has about enough money to provide each person living in poverty with one $150 subsidy this year. That’s equal to the average November utility bill for a two-bedroom Wisconsin home – before frigid December temperatures dropped below freezing during the day and below zero at night.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: A Tennessee state lawmaker is warning business owners not to advertise in a weekly newspaper that reported he is dating a woman while waiting for his divorce to come through. Republican Sen. Jeff Miller, who has represented this town of about 38,000 people 20 miles from Chattanooga for 11 years, sent the warning in a letter Dec. 13. Some business owners said they resented the threatening tone of the letter, but Miller said he was trying to call attention to what he considers unfair treatment from the free Bradley News Weekly. In the letter, Miller wrote: "Myself and many others are going to be watching in the next several weeks to identify and remember those in this community that wish to subsidize the destructive nature of this type of publication in our community." In an interview, Miller did not dispute the newspaper's report about his girlfriend, but said he and his wife are working toward a divorce settlement and his "personal life should be left just that." The newspaper said Miller's personal life is fair game because the lawmaker had a "family values" platform. "Your platform is that of a guy who believes in the sanctity of marriage, and that marriage should be between one man and one woman. And your behavior doesn't support your platform. So, we report it," editor Barry Graham wrote in an open letter in the Dec. 21 issue.

News From Smirkey's Wars As American troops marked their third Christmas in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer said their number could decline in 2006 but that there is no specific target for withdrawals, and they could even rise. He cautioned that more troops could be needed to cope with insurgent activity. Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "We do not have a plan that specifically says we'll be down below 100,000 by the end of the year. What we have is a plan that allows us to keep what we have today for the foreseeable future and then off-ramps and on-ramps based on conditions on the ground." But, in a tacit acknowledgment that the U.S. military presence is still crucial to staving off insurgents, Pace said: "The enemy has a vote in this, and if they were to cause some kind of problems that required more troops, then we would do exactly what we've done in the past, which is give the commanders on the ground what they need. And in that case, you could see troop level go up a little bit to handle that problem." However, an opinion survey conducted in Iraq in October and November by ABC News and a pool of other US and foreign media outlets showed that despite some improvements in security and living standards, US military operations in the country were increasingly unpopular with Iraqis. Two-thirds of those polled said they opposed the presence of US and coalition forces in Iraq, up 14 points from a similar survey taken in February 2004. Nearly 60 percent disapproved of the way the United States has operated in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, with most of those expressing "strong disapproval," the poll found. When asked to suggest a timing for the US pullout, 26 percent said US and other coalition forces should "leave now," while 19 percent opted for a withdrawal after the Iraqis formed a new government based on the results on the December 15 election.

Thousands of Iraqis have staged a protest in Baghdad about results from the recent parliamentary elections, which they say were tainted by fraud. Demonstrators chanted slogans alleging the polls were rigged in favor of the governing Shia religious bloc. Some politicians have been calling for a campaign of civil disobedience if their complaints about the election are not properly investigated. Marchers carried banners supporting Sunni Arab and secular Shia candidates.

The Bush administration suggested Tuesday that prisons in Iraq where hundreds of detainees apparently were abused were only "nominally" under the control of the central government in Baghdad. While the central government, with U.S. help, is trying to take charge of these prisons the Interior ministry, which runs them may have its own way of doing things, suggested State Department spokesman Adam Ereli. "The problem has clearly not been solved and the problem is widespread," Ereli said. "We and the Iraqi government continue to have concern about the way prisoners are treated in Iraqi facilities and in facilities nominally under the control of the Iraqi government," the spokesman said. "And the United States, for its part, is going to do everything it can to ensure that the rights of Iraqi citizens are respected," Ereli added. The statement acknowledged weakness in the Iraqi government, but also credited it with trying to address a problem that undercuts the administration's case that reform is taking hold since the toppling of President Saddam Hussein.

A top Taliban commander said more than 200 rebel fighters were willing to become suicide attackers against U.S. forces and their allies - a claim dismissed as propaganda Monday by Afghanistan's government, which said the hardline militia was weakening. In an interview late Sunday with The Associated Press, the commander, Mullah Dadullah, ruled out any reconciliation with the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai and claimed the country's new parliament - its first in more than 30 years, inaugurated last week - was "obedient to America." Dadullah spoke to AP via satellite phone from an undisclosed location. He said he was inside Afghanistan. "More than 200 Taliban have registered themselves for suicide attacks with us which shows that a Muslim can even sacrifice his life for the well-being of his faith. Our suicide attackers will continue jihad (holy war) until Americans and all of their Muslim and non-Muslim allies are pulled out of the country," he said.

U.S. officials have blamed insurgent attacks, unchecked demand and the poor conditions of Iraq's power plants for hobbling the bid to restore electricity to Iraq, a program still woefully behind schedule. But interviews with dozens of U.S. and Iraqi officials reveal that poor decisions by the United States also played a significant role. Perhaps most serious was the decision to expand a program begun under Saddam Hussein to install dozens of natural-gas-fired electrical generators, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Iraq has such gas in abundance, but it uses only a fraction of it. The rest is burned off during oil production. The U.S. spent hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase and install natural-gas-fired generators in electricity plants throughout Iraq. But pipelines needed to transport the gas weren't built because Iraq's Oil Ministry, with U.S. encouragement, concentrated instead on boosting oil production to bring in hard currency for the nation's cash-starved economy. In at least one case, the U.S. paid San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. $69 million for a natural-gas-fired plant that was never built, according to State Department documents and U.S. officials. All told, of 26 natural gas turbines installed at seven plants in Iraq — ranging in cost from a few million dollars to more than $40 million — only seven are burning natural gas, reconstruction officials said. Faced with widespread power shortages, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State Department decided to reconfigure many of the generators to burn a different fuel, an expensive process that decreased generation capacity and increased maintenance. "You've got the wrong technology for the fuel we're burning, the wrong technology being gas turbines," said Bill Thompson, generation manager for the Project and Contracting Office, a Defense Department reconstruction agency. "But we're here and this is what we've got." In many cases, the fuel in question has been heavy fuel oil, a tarry byproduct of Iraq's primitive refineries that has wreaked havoc on the natural gas generators. One turbine installed by the U.S. at a cost of $40 million at the Baiji power complex in north-central Iraq already needs replacement.

Zionist Lobby Watch: The United States Congress approved Friday the transfer of $600 million in aid to Israel, according to media reports. The reports state that the money is to be used to fund joint security projects between Israel and the U.S. Of the $600 million, $133 million will be used to develop the Arrow missile program, a collaborative project between Israel Aircraft Industries and Boeing. Some $10 million will be invested in developing a missile capable of intercepting short-range missiles.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: Mississippi's only abortion clinic is waiting to hear whether it will be granted a new state certification to continue performing its full range of procedures. The requirement to meet higher standards came after an aggressive push by anti-abortion advocates, who are trying to shut down the clinic. The Jackson Women's Health Organization, which treats more than 3,000 women a year statewide, said a setback would not mean defeat and may only put the issue back in front of a judge. The clinic, which is still operating, risks having to scale back the kinds of abortion it can perform. "We have no intention of leaving and we intend to continue to provide the services that we're providing," said Susan Hill, president of the North Carolina-based National Women's Health Organization. "It won't be easy, but we're staying."

The Talibaptists have taken a new tack in their moral jihad to remake America in their own image. Rather than just boycotting films they don't like, they are now reviewing them. "Brokeback Mountain" has received overwhelming acclaim from mainstream critics, but elicited a different reaction from conservative Christian media: respectful and often laudatory, but finding biblical fault with the film's content. As the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops put it, "While the actions of Jack and Ennis" - the film's cowboy lovers - "cannot be endorsed, the universal themes of love and loss ring true." The office originally rated the movie "L," for limited, signaling that it was suitable for adults who can evaluate it from a Catholic moral perspective. But it changed the rating to "O," for offensive, so readers would not think the movie's treatment of homosexuality was "an acceptable Catholic moral position, which it is not," said Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, director of communications for the bishops' conference.

A conservative organization that touts itself as a supporter of traditional values blasted Sen. Rick "Sanctimonious" Santorum for his withdrawal of support for the Dover Area School District's unconstitutional intelligent design policy. "Senator Rick Santorum's agreement with Judge John Jones' decision ... is yet another example of why conservatives can no longer trust the senator," the American Family Association of Pennsylvania said in a news release Friday. The association's president, Diane Gramley, said Santorum - who is expected to face a tough re-election challenge next year from state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr. - should heed her organization's remarks.

News Of The Weird: Grape-munching bears have caused bunches of trouble in Northern California wine country. Some winery owners have summoned authorities to trap and shoot black bears - as well as wild pigs, deer, turkeys and mountain lions - that plundered their vineyards. The killings have sparked debate over the future of wildlife in the nation's most famous wine-growing region. "Certainly for areas like Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties, vineyards are our largest group that is requesting depredation permits," said Eric Larson, deputy regional manager for the California Department of Fish and Game. With premium Cabernet grapes that can be produced only in mountainous regions selling for $5,000 to $7,000 a ton, vineyards have sprouted on slopes and ridgetops where animals make their homes. The state is required to issue extermination permits if property owners show evidence of damage caused by wildlife, Larson said.

The cast: A Republican incumbent who alienated his base with a proposal to raise taxes. A chief justice who lost his job over his Ten Commandments stand. A former governor under indictment. A lieutenant governor who helped her ex-husband run for governor. The show: Alabama's gubernatorial primaries of 2006. In a state where George C. Wallace and James E. "Big Jim" Folsom made races for governor a must-watch event on the political stage, the current campaigns may be every bit as memorable. On the Republican side, ousted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, the Ten Commandments crusader, is challenging Gov. Bob Riley, who is trying to rally his business backers after a failed $1.2 billion tax plan his first year in office. "It will be a classic clash between the church factor of the Republican Party and the business factor of the Republican Party," said Jess Brown, a political scientist at Athens State University. On the Democratic side, the featured players are indicted former Gov. Don Siegelman and Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, who is trying to become Alabama's second female governor and the first elected in her own right. "She has the potential to siphon off some women who traditionally vote Republican," said Charles Bullock, an expert in Southern politics at the University of Georgia.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:46:08 AM

Sun, Dec 25 2005

A Delightful Christmas Dinner

I am beginning to conclude that this December is an unusual one - the rainy season which should normally be reaching its soggy climax in Arenal about now seems to have been long gone. Yesterday and today have both been outstanding for their warm, sunny weather, highs of 80 both days, and declining only to 69 overnight. I have had the fan running in the office during the afternoon both days, as the weather has been warm enough to demand it. Very little wind this year too - this is normally the windiest time of the year.

Well, the power went off this morning, about ten, and didn't come right back on, so after taking a fairly long nap, I decided to go for a walk to kill some time while waiting for the power to come back on. So I put on some long pants and shoes and headed out the door, walking slowly up the hill towards my neighbor's new house.

As I approached, I discovered that there were a lot of folks from town there, including several of the gringos in town, and as he saw me, my neighbor invited me over. They were just getting ready to sit down to a huge Christmas dinner, with his family and a lot of friends, and as everyone had brought some food, pot-luck style, they had enough to feed an army, so I was made very welcome. It was the first I had been in his new home since he moved in about a week ago, and it was a delight to see it completed - it really is a warm and cozy home. We all sat around chatting and getting to know each other, and watching the children playing with their new toys. One was a radio-controlled Tonka 4x4 truck, which the little boy was having a lot of fun running up and down over the remaining construction debris in the yard. Their little girl received a pedal car, which she was struggling to pedal around in the still-rough driveway, but most of the kids and her dad were helping her out with a push from time to time. It wasn't long before the ICE truck was seen roaring down the road on their way to the failed transformer, and within minutes the lights were back on. So soon, the stereo was on, with a pleasant selection of 70's pop music, much to my delight.

The food was indeed wonderful. Carne asada (marinated beef), pollo asada (marinated chicken), rice, several pasta salads, some beans and a fresco (juice drink) topped it all off. For desert, a delightful cake. All in all, it was a delightful meal with warm friends, and far more than I expected for this Christmas day. Ticos can certainly be wonderful friends and neighbors. I really am fortunate to have them. I am truly going to miss them when I am gone from here.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: The U.S. getting ready to go to war against Syria or Iran? CIA Director Porter Goss has asked Turkey to be ready for a possible US air operation against Iran and Syria. Goss, who came to Ankara just after FBI Director Robert Mueller’s visit, brought up Iran’s alleged attempts to develop nuclear weapons. It was said that Goss first told Ankara that Iran has nuclear weapons and this situation was creating a huge threat for both Turkey and other states in the region. Diplomatic sources say that Washington wants Turkey to coordinate its Iran policies with those of the U.S. The second dossier is about Iran’s stance on terrorism. The CIA argued that Iran was supporting terrorism, the Kurdish PKK rebels in Turkey and al-Qaeda. The third had to do with Iran’s alleged stance against Ankara. Goss said that Tehran sees Turkey as an enemy and would try to “export its regime.”

This news comes as the Federal Reserve has very suddenly, and without explanation, added hugely to monetary reserves - on Wednesday, December 21st and Thursday December 22nd, the Federal Reserve has conducted one of the largest two-day repo injections of money into the system since back in September 2001 - and we all remember what happened in September 2001. On Wednesday they added $18.0 billion in reserves and on Thursday they added another $20.0 billion - a colossal 30% increase in liquidity on an annualized basis, when included with other recent moves - a kind of sudden monetary expansion normally seen only in banana republics seeking to hugely devalue their currencies or prevent runs on their banks. All this has resulted in some turnover at the highest levels of the Federal Reserve - Fed President and Open Market Committee member Anthony Santomero has announced his resignation after only a brief year and a half tenure. Very unusual - hey, Fed presidents are treated like gods. They have enormous power, prestige, and presence, so why quit? But he is far from alone - over the past few years no less than six Federal Reserve Regional Bank Presidents have resigned, and two of the seven Board of Governors positions are currently open and have been for some time. This is highly unusual. And bear in mind that in troubled times, it is almost axiomatic that failing, unpopular national leaders turn first to war to divert their peoples' attention from their failures of leadership. Paranoid yet?

The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed vast volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former government officials. The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries, they said. As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said.

The chief of Russia's strategic forces attended the deployment of a new set of state-of-the art intercontinental ballistic missiles today, boasting of their capability to penetrate any prospective missile defence, news reports said. Colonel-General Nikolai Solovtsov, chief of the Strategic Missile Forces, took part in a ceremony that marked the commissioning of the latest set of Topol-M missiles at a missile base in Tatishchevo in the Volga River's Saratov region. Solovtsov said the new missile "is capable of penetrating any missile defence system", the RIA Novosti and Interfax news agencies reported. Russian officials have called prospective US missile defences destabilising and boasted repeatedly that Russia's new missiles could pierce any nation's missile shield.

The Polish Government has decided not to make public the results of an inquiry into the possible existence of United States CIA prisons on Polish soil. "The report should not be made public," Jan Dziedziczak said. Mr Dziedziczak, who has refused to give details, says the matter is considered closed by the authorities. "The Minister with responsibility for the intelligence services, Zbigniew Wassermann, submitted the results of the inquiry to the supervisory parliamentary commission," he said. "All the members of the commission said they were satisfied with his explanations and considered the matter closed." Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz promised last week that the results of the probe would be made known in a comprehensive fashion. "We must probe this affair to its very depths because it does not foster a situation of security in Poland," Mr Marcinkiewicz said at the time.

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito once argued that the country's top law enforcement official should be immune from legal action for authorising domestic wiretapping if it was done in the interest of national security, newly released documents show. In a 1984 memo written when he was an assistant to the solicitor general, Alito said: "I do not question that the attorney general should have this immunity." The memo was among scores of other documents released by the National Archives on Friday. It came to light as U.S. President George W. Bush faces criticism for secretly ordering eavesdropping on the international phone conversations and e-mail of Americans suspected of links to terrorists. A key Republican senator has asked Alito about Bush's domestic spying order and whether war gives the president a blank check when it comes to civil liberties. In a letter to Alito, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, who will preside at Alito's Senate confirmation hearing next month, also asked what approach he would use to assess Bush's authority.

US authorities have been secretly monitoring radiation levels at Muslim sites amid fears that terrorists might obtain nuclear weapons, it has emerged. Scores of mosques and private addresses have been checked for radiation, the US News and World Report says. A Justice Department spokesman said the program was necessary in the fight against al-Qaeda. Last week, President George W Bush admitted allowing the wiretapping of Americans with suspected terror links. Mr Bush has defended the covert program and vowed to continue the practice, saying it was vital to protect the country. According to US News and World Report, the nuclear surveillance program was set up after the attacks of 11 September 2001. It began in early 2002 and has been run by the FBI and the Department of Energy's Nuclear Emergency Support Team. The Associated Press news agency said federal law enforcement officials have confirmed the program's existence. The air monitoring targeted private US property in the Washington DC area, including Maryland and Virginia suburbs, and the cities of Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, New York and Seattle, the magazine said. At its peak, three vehicles in Washington monitored 120 sites a day. Nearly all of the targets were key Muslim sites. "In numerous cases, the monitoring required investigators to go on to the property under surveillance, although no search warrants or court orders were ever obtained, according to those with knowledge of the program," the publication said.

The federal government is responsible for issuing Social Security numbers, but it may not be doing enough to protect these critically personal pieces of information on its own Web sites. Acting on a tip, InformationWeek was able to access Web pages that include the names and Social Security numbers of people involved in Justice Department-related legal actions. It's a discomforting discovery at a time when identity theft and fraud are on the rise. One document on the Justice Department Executive Office for Immigration Review's site listed the name and Social Security number of a woman involved in a 2003 immigration-review case. Another document from 2002 listed the name and Social Security number of a man who was being prosecuted for committing insurance fraud. Other searches of the Justice Department's site yielded more Social Security numbers and identifying information.

Eliot Spitzer, the New York Attorney General, is taking on the music industry again, this time over the pricing of digital downloads. Warner Music Group disclosed Friday that it had received subpoenas from the New York attorney general as part of an industrywide probe into how much record companies charge for digital music. According to industry sources, who declined to be identified because the probe was continuing, Spitzer is reviewing whether the companies conspired to set wholesale prices. Wholesale digital music prices can range from 60 cents to nearly 90 cents a song, according to industry executives. Operations such as Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes, the most popular digital music source, then sell songs to users for 99 cents per download. Warner made the disclosure Friday in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that said it had received the subpoena Tuesday. "As part of an industrywide investigation concerning pricing of digital music downloads, we received a subpoena from Atty. Gen. Spitzer's office as disclosed in our public filings. We are cooperating fully with the inquiry," according to a statement released by Warner spokesman Will Tanous. A source at Sony BMG said the company also received a subpoena and said it was cooperating as well.

The UMass Dartmouth student who claimed to have been visited by Homeland Security agents over his request for "The Little Red Book" by Mao Zedong has admitted to making up the entire story. The 22-year-old student tearfully admitted he made the story up to his history professor, Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, and his parents, after being confronted with the inconsistencies in his account.

New Year's Day will bring the ninth straight year in which the federal minimum wage has remained frozen at $5.15 an hour, marking the second-longest period that the nation has had a stagnant minimum wage since the standard was established in 1938. Against that backdrop, Democrats are preparing ballot initiatives in states across the country to boost turnout of Democratic-leaning voters in 2006. Labor, religious, and community groups have launched efforts to place minimum-wage initiatives on ballots in Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Arkansas, and Montana next fall. Democrats say the minimum wage could be for them what the gay-marriage referendums were in key states for Republicans last year -- an easily understood issue that galvanizes their supporters to show up on Election Day. ''It's a fairness issue, and everybody gets the concept of fairness," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, a long-time proponent of a higher minimum wage. ''It's a moral issue. It's a value." Of the seven states that appear most likely to have a minimum wage increase on the ballot, five were decided by fewer than 10 percentage points in last year's presidential election, and all but Michigan supported President Bush. Republican senators in three of the states -- Ohio, Arizona, and Montana -- are high on Democrats' target lists, as they seek to pick up seats in Congress in the 2006 midterm elections.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has become the most popular member of the Bush administration and a potential candidate to succeed her boss in the White House, even as Americans lose confidence in the president she serves and patience with the Iraq war she helped launch. Entering her second year as the country's senior diplomat and foreign policy spokeswoman, Rice has improbably shed much of her image as the hawkish "warrior princess" at President Bush's side. The nickname was reportedly bestowed by her staff at the White House National Security Council, where Rice was an intimate member of Bush's first-term war council. Rice resolutely defends the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism and the expansive executive powers that Bush claims came with it. She has lately sounded more optimistic than Bush about the progress of the Iraq war and the future for that country.

Faux News Watch: As yesterday's revelation that a Fox network television affiliate promoted a white supremacist organization leads to greater scrutiny of the group, it has emerged that a Fox News host is also tied to the same organization. While perusing another site hosted by Stormfront.org, blogger IntoxiNation discovered material written by Fox News radio and television host Tony Snow. Snow, then a columnist for Detroit News, wrote a piece slamming Kwanzaa, which is currently hosted by a website dedicated to discrediting Martin Luther King, Jr. Other portions of the site tie King's efforts to communism, and equate the civil rights movement as a whole with support for Israel, presented in an arguably anti-semitic context by author and famed Klansman David Duke.

Republicans Are Compassionate Conservatives: Senators angry about losing the fight over Alaska oil drilling punished Northeastern colleagues by knocking out $2 billion that would have helped low-income families pay their winter heating bills. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., called the action "a legislative pout," and Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, fumed, "This gives new meaning to the Grinch who stole Christmas." Drilling advocates were unapologetic, saying Northeastern lawmakers had their chance to help the needy by supporting exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but they refused. Would they kindly explain their logic to me, please?

News From Smirkey's Wars: During world war two American troops away from home for Christmas were entertained by Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby and the Marx Brothers. Even in Vietnam Bob Hope was guaranteed to put in an appearance. But soldiers in Iraq are more likely to get a show from a Christian hip-hop group, a country singer you have probably never heard of and two cheerleaders for the Dallas Cowboys. Just as the seemingly intractable nature of the war has led to a growing recruitment crisis, so the United Services Organization, which has been putting on shows for the troops since the second world war, is struggling to get celebrities to sign up for even a short tour of duty. It is a far cry from the days following the September 11 2001 attacks, when some of the biggest names in show business, from Jennifer Lopez to Brad Pitt, rallied to the cause. "After 9/11 we couldn't have had enough airplanes for the people who were volunteering to go," Wayne Newton, the Las Vegas crooner who succeeded Bob Hope as head of USO's talent recruiting effort, told USA Today. "Now with 9/11 being as far removed as it is, the war being up one day and down the next, it becomes increasingly difficult to get people to go."

U.S. Army soldiers carried out raids in dusty Iraqi towns. Military doctors treated soldiers wounded by roadside bombs. Christmas in Iraq was just another day on the front lines for the U.S. military. Troops woke long before sunrise on a cold, rainy Christmas morning to raid an upscale neighborhood a few miles from their base. In honor of the day, they dubbed the target "Whoville," after the town in the Dr. Seuss book "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Commanders said they ordered the operation because they did not know the identities of the neighborhood's residents and several roadside bombs had recently been planted near the district, which isn't far from Forward Operating Base Summerall in Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad. U.S. patrols had never before ventured into the neighborhood, where the streets are lined with spacious homes. Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade knew they weren't going to be welcome when they arrived in the dead of night. It just made sense to nickname the target after the village raided by Seuss' Grinch on Christmas morning, they said.

Smirkey has authorized cuts in US troops levels in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said during a visit to the country. Speaking to troops in Falluja, Mr Rumsfeld did not specify a number but said the US force would be cut by two brigades - several thousand staff. Further reductions will be considered "at some point in 2006", he said. The move will take the number of US soldiers to below the 138,000 level, seen for most of this year. Two army brigades scheduled for deployment to Iraq - one currently in Kansas state, the other in Kuwait - will no longer go. But as Smirkey draws down the number of boots in the sand, commanders are attempting to replace their presence with air power. But that air power is coming at a high price. U.S. Marine airstrikes targeting insurgents sheltering in Iraqi residential neighborhoods are killing civilians as well as guerrillas along the Euphrates River in far western Iraq, according to Iraqi townspeople and officials and the U.S. military. Just how many civilians have been killed is strongly disputed by the Marines and, some critics say, too little investigated. But townspeople, tribal leaders, medical workers and accounts from witnesses at the sites of clashes, at hospitals and at graveyards indicated that scores of noncombatants were killed last month in fighting, including airstrikes, in the opening stages of a 17-day U.S.-Iraqi offensive in Anbar province. The accounts of U.S. Marines and Iraqi civilians of airstrikes often diverge sharply. On Oct. 16, for instance, a U.S. F-15 pilot caught a group of Ramadi-area insurgents planting explosives in a blast crater on a road used by U.S. forces, Denning said. The F-15 dropped a bomb on the group, and analysis of video footage shot by the plane showed only what appeared to be grown men where the bomb struck, Denning said. After the airstrike, he said, roadside bombs in the area "shut down to almost nothing. "That was a good strike, and we got some people who were killing a lot of people," Denning said. Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool, a spokesman for the 2nd Marines, said it was not possible that children were killed in that strike unless they were outside the range of the F-15's camera. Residents, however, said the strike killed civilians as well as insurgents, including 18 children. Afterward, at a traditional communal funeral, black banners bore the names of the dead, and grieving parents gave names, ages and detailed descriptions of the children they said had been killed, witnesses said. The bodies of three children and a woman lay unclaimed outside a hospital after the day's fighting.

An Iraqi court has ruled that some of the most prominent Sunni Muslims who were elected to parliament last week won't be allowed to serve because officials suspect that they were high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Knight Ridder has obtained a copy of the court ruling, which has yet to be circulated to the public. The ruling is likely to dampen Bush administration hopes that the election would bring more of the disaffected Sunni minority into Iraq's political process and undermine Sunni support for the insurgency. Instead, the decision is likely to stoke fears of widening sectarian divisions in a nation already in danger of descending into civil war. Adil al-Lami, the chief electoral official of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, told Knight Ridder that he would honor the court's decision and that none of the accused Sunnis would appear on the final list of parliament members. The commission is still counting ballots and said it would have the final list of winners sometime next month.

Scandals R Us: In a last-ditch effort to secure a speedy trial, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's attorneys asked Friday for the state's highest criminal court to dismiss charges against him or order a lower court to try him immediately. The money laundering and conspiracy case against the Republican congressman has been on hold while prosecutors appeal a judge's dismissal of some of the charges. DeLay attorney Dick DeGuerin took the case to the all-GOP Texas Court of Criminal Appeals a day after a lower appeals court denied his request that the case be sent back to the trial court or expedited through the appeals process. DeLay has been pressing for a quick resolution to his case so he can regain his post as majority leader before his colleagues call for new leadership elections next month.

As a small start-up company in Massachusetts sought to become a major player in the business of homeland security, it hired a lobbyist and attended a fundraiser for one of the most powerful members of Congress. The company was Reveal Imaging Technologies Inc. The congressman was Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers (R-Ky.). The fundraiser, held Oct. 22, 2003, brought in $14,000 from Reveal and was the beginning of a mutually beneficial association. As chairman of the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) holds enormous influence over the Department of Homeland Security. Since 2003, a hometown security institute and a consortium of colleges and universities he set up in his home state have received $34 million from the department for security projects. Reveal had just received a government grant to develop smaller, cheaper explosives-detection machines to scan baggage at the nation's airports. Rogers, who chairs the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, said he wanted the machines to improve security while saving taxpayers money. In the end, Reveal received a federal contract from the Transportation Security Administration worth up to $463 million. Rogers achieved his goal of launching the next generation of machines.The Washington Post has published an accounting of $122,111 worth of donations to a political action committee set up by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) from contributors connected to Reveal Imaging Technologies Inc., an explosives-detection company based in Bedford, Mass. The contributors include Reveal executives, board members and one spouse, along with lobbyists and a law firm that represented the company. The donations to Help America's Leaders PAC, also known as HALPAC, took place between July 2003 and September 2005. Each donation includes a link to records kept by the Federal Election Commission, which documents campaign contributions to politicians and PACS.

The GOP operative and conservative website owner who hired a onetime male prostitute to cover the White House has decided to run for the vice chairmanship of the Republican Party of Texas. Jeff Gannon, a $200-an-hour gay male escort, Jeff Gannon, resigned from Bobby Eberle’s Talon News last February after pictures and stories emerged which revealed that he once toiled as a gay male prostitute. Eberle shut down the news site shortly thereafter, although his satellite Website GOPUSA.com remains active. After "Propagannon" erupted, many Texas Republicans claimed that they never heard of Bobby Eberle even though he had a long history of activism for the party and many GOP operatives worked (or volunteered) alongside him at GOPUSA.com.

Plea negotiations between federal prosecutors and former Enron Corp. chief accounting officer Rick Causey are back on, and a deal may be reached as early as this week, according to a Dec. 25 report in the Houston Chronicle. The newspaper, citing sources familiar with the case, said specific terms have not been reached, and it is not clear if an agreement is possible. Causey has been in plea talks in the past. However, Causey's cooperation could be damaging to co-defendants Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling and make what is expected to be a lengthy, complex trial scheduled to begin Jan. 17 in Houston somewhat shorter, the newspaper said. Because of the intermittent nature of plea talks, an agreement with the government would not surprise anyone, the newspaper said, citing Kent Schaffer, a Houston defense attorney who has followed the case.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 12:22:51 AM

Fri, Dec 23 2005

The Town Is Getting Ready For Christmas

Weather has been trying to be seasonable, but not really making it. Yesterday it was sunny and bright all day, with a temperature reaching 79 in the afternoon. The overnight temperatures were warm enough that I had the ceiling fan on when I went to bed - and got up in the night to turn it off. The low at sunrise this morning was 68. Today, it was heavily overcast and raining hard when I got up, and was rainy most of the morning. But by mid day, it cleared off and got sunny, but by then the temperatures were low enough that it only made 76 by mid afternoon.

The gardener came today and cut and planted some of the bougainvillea overgrowth, replacing some of the cuttings that were planted earlier but didn't make it. It was raining hard, and I didn't go out there to assist, I just handed him the shovel and had him go to it. While he was cleaning up, I went to town to do my usual grocery run and to pay some bills. Unfortunately, the co-op bank's computer was down, so no bill-paying was possible - that will have to wait till after Christmas. But I did get a good load of groceries, and finally got a copy of the Times and La Nacion to bring home to read.

The town seems to be getting ready for Christmas. There were piles of toys in the grocery store, and a few of the shops had some Christmas decorations up. Tonight, there has been music from up in the town, probably one of the bars. Christmas means party time, and I am sure that there will be plenty of partying going on Sunday night. In the meantime, I'll just hunker down and try to avoid the fireworks. There's going to be plenty of nonsense going on Sunday. Being the old flaming atheist that I am, I don't do the Christmas thing, so I'll just try to stay out of the way.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: The Bush administration requested, and Congress specifically rejected, war-making authority "in the United States" in negotiations over the joint resolution passed days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to an opinion article by former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) in today's Washington Post. Daschle's disclosure challenges a central legal argument offered by the White House in defense of the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. It suggests that Congress refused explicitly to grant authority that the Bush administration now asserts is implicit in the resolution. The Justice Department acknowledged yesterday, in a letter to Congress, that the president's October 2001 eavesdropping order did not comply with "the 'procedures' of" the law that has regulated domestic espionage since 1978. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, established a secret intelligence court and made it a criminal offense to conduct electronic surveillance without a warrant from that court, "except as authorized by statute."

But while we should be asking what George Bush and his cabinet knew and failed to respond to before September 11, we should also be exploring another, related, question: what do they know now and yet still refuse to act upon? Another way of asking the question is this: whatever happened to the anthrax investigation? After five letters containing anthrax spores had been posted, in the autumn, to addresses in the United States, all to Democrats, the Federal Bureau of Investigation promised that it would examine "every bit of information [and] every bit of evidence". But now the investigation appears to have stalled. Microbiologists in the US are beginning to wonder aloud whether the FBI's problem is not that it knows too little, but that it knows too much.

Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito defended the right of government officials to order domestic wiretaps when he worked for the Reagan Justice Department, documents released Friday show. He advocated a step by step approach to strengthening the hand of officials in a 1984 memo to the solicitor general. The strategy is similar to the one that Alito espoused for rolling back abortion rights at the margins. The release of the memo by the National Archives comes when President Bush is under fire for secretly ordering domestic spying of suspected terrorists without a warrant. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has promised to question Alito about the administration's program.

It took 21 years longer than expected, but the future has finally arrived. And we don't like it. Not one bit. We are fighting a war with no end to create a peace with no defined victory. We occupy a foreign land that doesn't want us, while at home our civil liberties are discounted. We are told that it's better not to know what our government is doing in our name, for security purposes. Meanwhile, our government is becoming omnipresent, spying on us whenever it deems it necessary. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. George Orwell was right after all. In 1949, Orwell penned "1984," a dark, futuristic satire in which the totalitarian government used indoctrination, propaganda and fear to enforce order and conformity. His "Big Brother" - the face of this all-knowing regime - was never wrong, and to make sure of it, history was constantly being rewritten. Turns out the truth is no stranger than fiction. The Oakland Tribune thinks it's time for Congress to heed the warning of George Orwell. To that end, they're asking for your help: Mail or drop off your tattered copies of "1984." When they get 537 of them, they'll send them to every member of the House of Representatives and Senate and to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Feel free to inscribe the book with a note, reminding these fine people that we Americans take the threat to our liberties seriously. Remind Congress that it makes no sense to fight a war for democracy in a foreign land while allowing our democratic principles to erode at home. Remind President Bush that ours is a country of checks and balances, not unbridled power. Perhaps our nation's leaders can find some truth in this fiction and more carefully ponder the road we're traveling. Bring or mail your books to the Oakland Tribune, 401 13th St., Oakland CA 94612. Doors are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A Democratic filibuster, a handful of moderate Republicans and the Senate’s lone independent kept oil exploration in the protected Alaskan wild out of a mammoth defense spending bill passed in the Senate yesterday. The move earned praise from environmental groups. Amid five floor votes yesterday, the Senate approved a $53.5 billion defense spending bill without a proposed amendment opening a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The amendment, offered by Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens (R), would have allowed resource exploitation in a portion of the 19.6 million-acre Refuge, which has been protected from commercial exploitation for 25 years and is home to 45 different species of mammals, 180 bird species and 36 types of fish. However, less widely known is that millions of low-income families will face a bleak, cold winter because Congress failed to deliver home-heating funds, a provision which was stripped from the bill. "It was the wrong choice for the American people in this cold holiday season," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who led a Senate fight for fuel assistance. Home-heat advocates had been hopeful as late as Wednesday night that the Senate would approve two spending bills providing $4.1 billion in fuel assistance. But $2 billion in energy aid was stripped from a defense appropriations bill along with a GOP-backed provision to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. That left just $2.1 billion for this winter's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, slightly below last year's funding. "It looked like Congress was going to do the right thing, but it never happened," said Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which represents state agencies that distribute heat aid.

The Senate passed a six-month extension of the USA Patriot Act Wednesday night, hoping to avoid the expiration of law enforcement powers deemed vital to the war on terror. When the house acted on it, it was scaled back to one month, however. The agreement capped several days of backroom negotiation conducted against the backdrop of presidential attacks on critics of the legislation. The Patriot Act provisions will expire Dec. 31 if the House and Senate do not act. The extension gives critics who successfully filibustered a House-Senate compromise that would have made most of the law permanent more time to seek civil liberty safeguards in the law. Democrats and their allies had originally asked for a three-month extension, and the Senate's Republican majority had offered a one-year extension. The final deal split the difference, but was turned down by the house, and eventually both houses agreed to a one-month extension. The president has said he would not sign such a short extension, but he may not have much choice if he wants to see the Patriot Act extended at all, which he says is absolutely vital to his 'war on terror.'

The Washington Post has reported that judges of the secret court established under the foreign intelligence surveillance act (FISA) had demanded a briefing from Bush administration officials on why they believed it was legal to bypass their authority and eavesdrop on the telephone conversations and email of American citizens without a warrant. The Fisa court had been in charge of issuing such warrants until 2002 when President Bush signed orders enabling the National Security Agency to monitor domestic communications without court oversight. The judges reportedly now fear that the information thus obtained by the NSA was then being used improperly to obtain wiretap approvals from Fisa courts. Such challenges to the legal philosophy of an administration are exceedingly rare, and arrive at a time of intense debate on the White House contention that the war on terror justified an expansion of presidential power. Meanwhile, a judge has resigned from the court, reportedly over concerns about the secret program authorized by President Bush that bypasses the court and allows spying on people believed to be communicating with terror suspects abroad. United States District Judge James Robertson, one of 11 members of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, notified the chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, of his resignation on Monday, according to The Washington Post. It said Judge Robertson gave no reason.

Testifying before a Senate committee last April, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then head of the National Security Agency, emphasized how scrupulously the agency was protecting Americans from its electronic snooping. "We are, I would offer, the most aggressive agency in the intelligence community when it comes to protecting U.S. privacy," General Hayden said. "We just have to be that way." In fact, since 2002, authorized by a secret order from President Bush, the agency has intercepted the international phone calls and e-mail messages of hundreds, possibly thousands, of American citizens and others in the United States without obtaining court orders. The discrepancy between the public claims and the secret domestic eavesdropping disclosed last week have put the N.S.A., the nation's largest intelligence agency, and General Hayden, now principal deputy director of national intelligence, in an awkward position. "The image of N.S.A. has been muddied considerably by this revelation," said Matthew M. Aid, an intelligence historian who is writing a multiple-volume history of the agency. Mr. Aid said several agency employees he spoke with on Friday were disturbed to learn of the special program, which was known to only a small number of officials.

It’s still three years away, but there now is a firm date for the transition to all-digital television — the biggest change in the industry since color TV. Legislation passed by the Senate on Wednesday would require broadcasters to end their traditional analog transmissions by Feb. 17, 2009, and send their signals digitally. Such technology promises super-sharp pictures and better sound. The plan also would allocate as much as $1.5 billion for a “converter box” program to help people with older, analog TV sets that would lose their signal in the digital era. Consumer advocates say that is not enough money. Under the converter box program, consumers with analog sets would be able to request two $40 coupons to help buy the set-top boxes, which are expected to cost $50 to $60 each.

Democratic lawmakers and consumer groups say that the $1.5 billion would fall far short of helping pay for every set eligible for a converter box. “We think this is unfair, unworkable and unacceptable. It virtually ensures that on Feb. 18, 2009, tens of millions of televisions go black,” said Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. The group says the fund — after subtracting operating and other costs — would cover fewer than 17 million households. An estimated 21 million households do not get cable or satellite service and rely solely on free over-the-air TV. Consumers Union estimates an additional 20 million homes that have cable or satellite do not have all of their TV sets hooked up to the service and would need converter boxes. You can bet, however, that as the deadline approaches, the broadcast industry will push for a much larger converter box fund, rather than watch all those viewers go away.

Researchers say Hurricane Katrina was a weaker storm than first thought when it slammed the Gulf Coast, with the strength of a Category 3 storm instead of a Category 4. New data shows that Katrina's top winds were about 125 mph at landfall, and that New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain were likely spared the storm's strongest winds, according to the National Hurricane Center. New Orleans' storm levees were believed to be able to protect the city from the flooding of a Category 3 storm. But portions of the levee system were either topped or failed, leaving up to 80 percent of the city under water. An investigation into why the system failed is under way. Jim Taylor, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the storm's category downgrade won't affected any proposed changes under debate.

Thought redlining was just a homeowner's issue? Think again if you own a car: In many parts of California, moving merely across the street could cause drivers’ car-insurance rates to go up. This is especially the case if the new address is in a zip code with an even slight increase in the percentage of black or Latino residents, a study released yesterday found. The report comes out just days before the State Insurance Commissioner is expected to propose new insurance-rate rules that take into account citizen complaints over discriminatory pricing. According to a Consumers Union analysis of three of California’s largest insurance carriers, insurers charge people with good driving records hundreds more per year in areas with predominantly Hispanic and black populations. The data reported are for State Farm, Allstate and Farmers auto coverage in 531 zip codes in 2002, and for 1838 zip codes covered by State Farm in 2004.

The H5N1 virus currently causing bird flu in humans appears to be developing resistance to the only drug that can so far combat the infection. Oxford University researchers report two cases of patients in Vietnam who died after failing to respond to treatment with the drug Tamiflu. Details are published in the New England Journal of Medicine. A previous paper in the journal Nature described a single case of drug resistance in a patient being treated for avian flu. However, in this case the patient had been given low doses of Tamiflu before becoming infected, as a family member had been stricken. Lead researcher Dr Jeremy Farrar described the latest findings as "very worrying" - but said they were not surprising. He said all microbes, whether parasites, bacteria or viruses, eventually started to develop drug resistance.

Ending a three-year investigation into allegations of illegally marketing an osteoporosis drug, Eli Lilly and Company has agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and pay a $36 million fine to settle charges brought by the Department of Justice. After sales of its post-menopause osteoporosis drug Evistra failed to garner the revenue expected, Eli Lilly began advertising the medication’s purported powers to prevent and reduce the risk of breast cancer, though the FDA had specifically rejected the claim, the Justice Department said in a statement announcing the deal. The company also developed plans to promote Evistra as able to reduce cardiovascular disease risk, again without FDA approval. As part of the settlement, Eli Lilly agreed to a permanent injunction on marketing Evistra for such "off-label" purposes. Additionally, the company pledged to hire an outside consultant to assess and monitor its compliance with the deal.

Diebold Watch: For those who have followed the recent yet storied history of Diebold in North Carolina, The BRAD BLOG has just received word that there has been yet one more late-breaking twist! We can now confirm that, in fact, Diebold is removing their company from contention for the lucrative election systems contracts in the state in light of a state law which requires Voting Machine Companies to submit their full source-code to the state for inspection. At least for now. Diebold, however, in the letter written by attorney Charles R. Owen, and apparently sent via Email on Diebold stationery, says that Diebold "is prepared to work closely with the North Carolina State Board of Elections ('SBE') in drafting a modification" to the law which they contend neither they nor other vendors can meet. It goes on to say that such a modification to the state law would be one "that meets the true intent of the legislature while at the same time imposing reasonable requirements on all vendors that are capable of being met." Owen adds, however, that they will be "unable to comply with the deadlines imposed by the SBE in addition to the requirements of state law."

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: A federal appeals court yesterday refused to authorize the transfer of "enemy combatant" Jose Padilla to face new criminal charges, issuing a strongly worded opinion rebuking the Bush administration and its handling of the high-profile terrorism case. The same court that had granted the administration wide latitude in holding Padilla without charges or a court appearance now is suggesting that the detention was a mistake. As a result, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said prosecutors could not take custody of Padilla from the military and take him to Miami, where he now faces indictment on terrorism charges. The court said the government's actions imply that Jose Padilla may have been detained by mistake. A federal appeals court yesterday backed the president's power to indefinitely detain a U.S. citizen captured on U.S. soil without any criminal charges, holding that such authority is vital during wartime to protect the nation from terrorist attacks. In issuing its denial, the court cited the government's changing rationale for Padilla's detention, questioning why it used one set of arguments before federal judges deciding whether it was legal for the military to hold Padilla and another set before the Miami grand jury.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: Mexico is trying to form a united front in Latin American against a US plan to build a fence along hundreds of miles of its southern border. Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez said he had spoken to other countries in the region and that they would work together against the proposal. The US House of Representatives passed an immigration bill last week, backing the 1,130-km (700-mile) fence.

Nigeria's government has told the United States to mind its own business over speculation that the president may stand for a third term. US State Department officials have warned that any constitutional amendment to allow this would undermine Nigeria's democratic advances. But Nigerian presidential spokesman Femi Fani-Kayode said Nigeria did not need lessons in democracy from abroad. He said President Olusegun Obasanjo believed in constitutional rule. "At no point in time has President Obasanjo said that he has any intention of not only staying on but also violating the constitution of Nigeria and neither would he do so," Mr Fani-Kayode told the BBC's Network Africa program.

An Italian court has issued Europe-wide arrest warrants for 22 suspected CIA agents accused of helping to kidnap a Muslim cleric in Milan in 2003. The suspects are accused of abducting Osama Mustafa Hassan, also known as Abu Omar, without Italian permission, and flying him to Egypt for interrogation. The new warrants allow for the suspects' detention anywhere in the 25-nation EU, a prosecutor said. The authorities had already issued arrest orders within Italy. The BBC's defence correspondent, Rob Watson, describes the case as one of the best documented alleged cases of the CIA's policy of extraordinary rendition. Italy says the alleged operation hindered Italian terrorism investigations.

Last week, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, David H. Wilkins, implicitly criticized Prime Minister Paul Martin for chastising the United States on trade and environmental issues as a campaign ploy that was jeopardizing relations. In the week since Mr. Wilkins spoke, he has said he did not mean to affect the elections. Regardless, his words have amplified the Canadian-American relations issue and given Mr. Martin a badly needed lift in the current election campaign. The speech has been viewed by liberal and conservative Canadians alike as an intervention in their politics, spurring some fiery exchanges among the four party leaders during a televised debate last Friday night. Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party leader who normally expresses views sympathetic to the Bush administration, said, "I don't think foreign ambassadors should be expressing their views or intervening in an election."

Santa Claus points a handgun at a masked terrorist on a Christmas card that John Michael Snyder, public affairs director of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, sends this year to a number of recipients. Named Dean of gun lobbyists by The Washington Post and The New York Times, Snyder includes the president and members of Congress as addressees. The card wishes recipients a Christmas of peace and joy and a New Year of triumph over terrorism. The card presents Santa guarding a group of small children from a bomb-harnessed suicide killer. The bomber appears ready to cast a stick of dynamite at an image of the Infant Jesus beneath a decorated Christmas tree.

The United States of America - A Third-World Nation: An investigation is under way in New York into allegations that the bones of the late broadcaster Alistair Cooke were stolen before his cremation. Cooke, known for the Letter from America he broadcast for the BBC, died almost two years ago, aged 95. According to the New York Daily News his bones were stolen by a criminal ring trading body parts. They were later sold by a biomedical tissue company now under investigation, the paper claims. When Cooke died of lung cancer that spread to his bones in March 2004, his body was taken to a funeral home in Manhattan. Two days later, relatives of the iconic broadcaster received his ashes, which were then scattered in New York's Central Park. Now they have been told that body snatchers allegedly surgically removed his bones and sold them for more than $7,000 (£4,000) to a company supplying parts for use in dental implants and various orthopedic procedures. The body parts, often from cancerous or over-aged decedants, represent a serious health threat to the recipients. The market in body tissue in the US is believed to be worth more than $500 million a year. While most people know about organ transplants, tissue is now much more widely used. Transplanted organs are governed by well-established laws. There is little evidence - in the developed world, at least - of trading in such organs. But the same does not necessarily apply to body parts that can be recovered from mortuaries, or from bodies donated for research. Heart valves are said to fetch up to $7,000 each in the US, and skin $1,000 per square foot. A body could be worth about $150,000, according to Art Caplan, Professor of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Several Illinois gas stations are being given a choice by the state attorney general's office: donate one-thousand dollars to the American Red Cross or risk being sued for price gouging after Hurricane Katrina. The options were spelled out in letters sent to 18 gas stations this week. Officials say gas prices at some stations rose as high as three-dollars-63 cents a gallon after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Deborah Hagan with the consumer protection division says in an emergency situation "retailers have the obligation not to increase their prices" over what wholesalers are charging. But one targeted owner says he did nothing wrong. Richard Schwarz says his price went up only the amount his wholesale costs increased: 46 cents.

Republicans Know How To Govern Effectively: Partly because politicians continue to dither, bicker and accuse, non-governmental organizations - "NGOs" ranging from large, non-profit agencies to church youth groups - are emerging as heroes of the recovery effort. Habitat for Humanity, whose Operation Home Delivery has been building houses across the nation for shipment to the Gulf Coast, received an 85% "positive" rating for its post-hurricane work in a national Harris Poll released in November. FEMA, in contrast, got a 72% "negative" rating. In New Orleans' devastated Lower 9th Ward, FEMA is so unpopular that its workers have been heckled and threatened. Some stopped wearing anything that identifies their agency. Past crises generally have established the limits of non-government action; private charity proved insufficient to cope with the Great Depression, for example. This crisis seems to have a different lesson: Volunteers, outsiders and amateurs can help fill a void created by what Amy Liu, an urban policy expert at the Brookings Institution, calls "a lack of leadership across all levels of government." "There's a general sense that the charitable sector has the touch needed, a better feel for the communities affected," says Paul Light, a New York University government analyst.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: US consumer spending rose by less than expected last month, reflecting the mixed holiday season picture for retailers, official data has shown. The overall spending figure was up 0.3% in November, lower than the 0.4% rise predicted by analysts. Excluding volatile food and energy costs, the core price index for consumer spending was up just 0.1%. "Spending was up, a little weaker than expected... Nevertheless, the trend has been upward and it looks like the consumer is still in the ballgame in terms of supporting economic growth," said Patrick Fearon, senior economist at AG Edwards & Sons.

Like most Americans, rank-and-file employees of Home Depot Inc. must reach into their own pockets to pay taxes, the Wall Street Journal begins on Thursday's page one. But not Robert Nardelli, the home-improvement retailer's chief executive. Under his employment contract, Home Depot picks up a big chunk of his federal and state income taxes. Specifically, the company is obliged to reimburse its CEO for taxes due on a slew of perks, including a high-end luxury car, his family's travel on Home Depot jets and forgiveness of a $10 million loan. Last year, these payments amounted to at least $3.3 million, topping Mr. Nardelli's $2 million base salary. Amid soaring CEO compensation, a number of companies are paying extra sums to cover executives' personal tax bills. Many companies are paying taxes due on core elements of executive pay, such as stock grants, signing bonuses and severance packages. Others are reimbursing taxes on corporate perquisites, which are treated as income by the Internal Revenue Service. They run the gamut from personal travel aboard corporate jets to country-club memberships and shopping excursions.

The world's largest retailer gets handed the world's largest lunch bill: Wal-Mart has been ordered to pay $172m in compensation to workers who were refused lunch breaks. A California court found Wal-Mart broke a state law requiring employers to give staff an unpaid 30-minute lunch break if they worked more than six hours. More than 100,000 Wal-Mart employees in California will be eligible for compensation. The company said in a statement that it would appeal against the decision. Wal-Mart faces similar lawsuits in 30 other states.

Ford has secured a deal with its main union that will help it save an annual $850m in healthcare costs. The vote by members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union was however close, with only 51% voting in favor. Under the change, both retired and current Ford workers will have to pay extra for healthcare provision. The Ford agreement was closely modeled on a similar deal achieved by rival General Motors. Fellow US car firm Chrysler is also seeking such a move.

First Amendment Death Watch: Undercover New York City police officers have conducted covert surveillance in the last 16 months of people protesting the Iraq war, bicycle riders taking part in mass rallies and even mourners at a street vigil for a cyclist killed in an accident, a series of videotapes show. In glimpses and in glaring detail, the videotape images reveal the robust presence of disguised officers or others working with them at seven public gatherings since August 2004. The officers hoist protest signs. They hold flowers with mourners. They ride in bicycle events. At the vigil for the cyclist, an officer in biking gear wore a button that said, "I am a shameless agitator." She also carried a camera and videotaped the roughly 15 people present. Beyond collecting information, some of the undercover officers or their associates are seen on the tape having influence on events. At a demonstration last year during the Republican National Convention, the sham arrest of a man secretly working with the police led to a bruising confrontation between officers in riot gear and bystanders. Until Sept. 11, the secret monitoring of events where people expressed their opinions was among the most tightly limited of police powers.

A contentious bill awaiting Ohio Governor Bob Taft’s signature would give state law-enforcement officials sweeping powers to question, detain and arrest people for no discernible reason. It would allow authorities to demand identification in a broad range of circumstances, and it asks local law enforcement agencies to begin enforcing federal immigration law. The bill also exempts businesses from telling the public about safety and security threats. Passed by both legislative bodies last week, the act is expected to be signed into law, though the Ohio arm of the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have been urging state residents to implore Taft not to sign the measure. In a letter sent to supporters last week, the ACLU said the bill "substantially infringes upon Ohioans’ First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights." They added that it "enshrines discrimination against aliens and immigrants" as well as "chills free speech and dissent."

The American Civil Liberties Union asked the state of California Wednesday to reveal whether law enforcement agents were gathering information on California activists, in light of revelations that the federal government monitored a conference on Iraq at Stanford University and an anti-war protest at UC Santa Cruz. The ACLU asked whether local and state law enforcement officials were providing information to the FBI about a variety of groups, including Greenpeace, United for Peace and Justice, Code Pink, UC Santa Cruz Students Against the War, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Three California affiliates of the ACLU filed their request with Attorney General Bill Lockyer, citing the state Public Records Act.

Fourth Amendment Death Watch: John Conyers, Jr., (D - MI) ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, and 26 other Congressmen today submitted a resolution of inquiry into warrantless wiretapping of citizens on U.S. soil. The resolution would demand that Attorney General Gonzales turn over documents believed to be in his possession authorizing the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance. It would also request documents detailing any legal recommendations regarding the order. Deadline for the hand-over would be 14 days.

The National Security Agency, in carrying out President Bush's order to intercept the international phone calls and e-mails of Americans suspected of links to al-Qaida, has probably been using computers to monitor all other Americans' international communications as well, according to specialists familiar with the workings of the NSA. The Bush administration formally defended its domestic spying program in a letter to Congress late Thursday, saying the nation's security outweighs privacy concerns of individuals who are monitored.

Habeas Corpus Death Watch: A US court of appeals has refused a Bush administration request to transfer terror suspect Jose Padilla from military to civilian custody. Mr Padilla, a US citizen, has been held as an enemy combatant for more than three years on suspicion of planning to explode a radioactive "dirty bomb". His indefinite detention is due to be reviewed by the US Supreme Court. The appeals court said moving him now made it appear as if the government was seeking to evade the judicial review. Mr Padilla was arrested in Chicago in May 2002 and is one of only two US citizens to be held as an enemy combatant. The 35-year-old was finally charged last month with planning to undertake "violent jihad". The indictment accuses him and four other people of conspiracy to kidnap, murder and maim US citizens overseas, but does not mention the allegation about the "dirty bomb".

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Pollution may be slowing global warming, researchers are reporting today, and a cleaner environment may soon speed it up. Writing in the journal Nature, an international scientific team provides evidence suggesting that a reduction in haze from human causes may accelerate warming of the earth's atmosphere. The researchers said pollutants had held down the rate of global warming by absorbing and scattering sunlight. "If people clean up the air, more warming will come blazing through," Jim Coakley, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Oregon State University in Corvallis, said yesterday in a telephone interview. Nature selected Dr. Coakley to write a commentary on the study.

News From Smirkey's War: The latest figures released by US Central Command show a dramatic rise in the number of air raids carried out in Iraq. Although receiving little coverage in the US media, the US air force, navy and marines have flown thousands of missions backing up US ground troops in Iraq this autumn. According to figures provided by Central Command Air Force's public affairs office, the monthly number of air missions, including refuelling and other support flights, grew from 1111 in September to 1492 in November 2005. The number of US air raids increased particularly in the weeks leading up to last Thursday's election, from a monthly average of about 35 last summer to more than 60 in September and 120 or more in October and November. News reports and the public have focused mainly on ground action by the army and marines, but a variety of US aircraft are carrying out attacks daily. They include frontline air force and navy fighters as well as marines attack planes. American and allied refuelling, transport and surveillance planes are also flying. It is likely that the increased air raid activity is an aspect of the attempt to withdraw ground troops to satisfy anti-war activism at home.

Iraqi politician, convicted bank fraudster and American quisling Ahmed Chalabi appears to have suffered a humiliating defeat at the recent Iraq polls, according to the uncertified preliminary results. The news comes just a month after Chalabi had conducted a tour of Washington in an effort to patch up his tattered image in America. Paperwork shows that in November Chalabi’s Washington representative hired a powerful D.C. lobbying firm. The election results in Iraq may present Chalabi’s ardent U.S. supporters with a quandary: Chalabi, as well as other losing candidates, is alleging fraud in the election, even though the Bush administration hailed the vote as a historic step for democracy in Iraq. During the election, Chalabi’s campaign posters proclaimed, "We Liberated Iraq," yet, out of almost 2.5 million voters in Baghdad, only 8,645 voted for Chalabi. In the Shiite city of Basra, the results indicate he had an equally dismal showing of 0.34 percent of the vote. In the violent Sunni province of Anbar, 113 people voted for him.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: Sen. Rick "Sanctimonious" Santorum on Thursday withdrew his affiliation from the Christian-rights law center that defended a school district's policy mandating the teaching of "intelligent design." Santorum, the Senate's No. 3 Republican who is facing a tough re-election challenge next year, earlier praised the Dover Area School District for "attempting to teach the controversy of evolution." But the day after a federal judge ruled the district's policy on intelligent design unconstitutional, Santorum told The Philadelphia Inquirer he was "troubled" by testimony indicating religion motivated some board members to adopt the policy. Santorum was on the advisory board of the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, which defended the district's policy. The law center describes its mission as defending the religious freedom of Christians.

On Friday, December 9, the 17-member South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion held its final meeting and made recommendations that encourage the state to restrict abortion further. Advocating for a total ban, but recognizing that it cannot yet be implemented, the task force offered 14 legislative proposals that it would like to see the state pass, including 1) an amendment to the state constitution that gives the "unborn child, from the moment of conception," the same protections "a child receives after birth," 2) a requirement that a pregnant woman receives counseling at a "pregnancy care center that does not perform abortions" before she is allowed to make an appointment at an abortion clinic, 3) a requirement that a pregnant woman be shown a "quality ultrasound image of her unborn child" before an abortion is performed. A majority of the task force members -- appointed by South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, the Speaker of the South Dakota House, and the South Dakota Senate President Pro Tempore -- were staunchly anti-choice. "My perception is that no one was appointed without the person appointing them knowing [what] their position [on abortion] was," says Maria Bell, MD, a member of the pro-choice minority in the task force who served as vice-chair. These proposed restrictions are on top of some of the most difficult restrictions already existent in the country. Already, a woman seeking an abortion in South Dakota must 4) wait 24 hours before she can get an abortion, 5) In March, South Dakota enacted restrictions that force doctors to read to women seeking abortions state-scripted information that is medically inaccurate and infused with ideology, 6) The law also requires women to sign the scripts to certify that they understand them. Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota (PPMNS) is currently challenging the law in court. 7) The law in South Dakota also requires minors to notify a parent before getting an abortion, and 8) Earlier this year, the state passed a "trigger bill," that will immediately ban all abortions, except to save the life of the woman, if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned.

Excerpts from judge's decision in the so-called "Scopes III" trial in Pennsylvania, which put 'Intelligent design' to its first major legal test, have been put on-line on the Scientific American website. And it makes for some very interesting reading. "The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy," the judge wrote. 'Noble lies' a la Leo Strauss?

Scandals R Us: Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is not expected to shut down his investigation into the leak of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson when he finishes his inquiry of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's role in the leak, lawyers close to the probe said. These sources indicated that if a grand jury returns an indictment against Rove it will include - at the very least - a charge that he made false statements to Justice Department and FBI investigators when he was first interviewed about his role in the case in October 2003. Individuals close to the probe say Fitzgerald is still investigating other unnamed White House officials. This part of the investigation, like that of Rove, is focusing on whether these officials committed perjury, obstruction of justice or lied to federal investigators during the early days of the investigation -- as opposed to violating an obscure law which makes it a crime to knowingly leak the name of an undercover CIA operative -- they say.

What began as a limited inquiry into $82 million of Indian casino lobbying by Mr. Abramoff and his closest partner, Michael Scanlon, has broadened into a far-reaching corruption investigation of more than sixty mainly Republican lawmakers and aides suspected of accepting favors in exchange for legislative work. Prominent party officials, including the former House majority leader, Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, are under scrutiny involving trips and other gifts from Mr. Abramoff and his clients. The case has shaken the Republican establishment, with the threat of testimony from Mr. Abramoff, once a ubiquitous and well-connected Republican star, sowing anxiety throughout the party ranks. The possibility that as many as sixty lawmakers, nearly all Republicans, has created more concern than even the Plamegate scandal.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: It's not spam because I say so: Florida's attorney general has spearheaded an aggressive campaign against unsolicited e-mails, or spam. But as a candidate for governor, he appears to be generating some unwanted Internet clutter himself. Charlie Crist was a staunch defender of a tough anti-spam law passed by the state legislature last year, under which violators can be fined up to $500 for every e-mail they send. But a report in Thursday's St. Petersburg Times said Crist, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, had annoyed some residents of the state by sending them unwanted e-mails promoting his candidacy and soliciting campaign donations. Joe Spooner, a 41-year-old investment adviser, told the newspaper he had no idea how the Crist campaign got his e-mail address but repeatedly tried to unsubscribe. After his fifth request to be removed, Spooner sent the Crist campaign an e-mail of his own. He accused Crist of hypocrisy because of the way he seemed to have forgotten all about his vocal crackdown on spammers. 'Do I need to file a complaint with the attorney general's office?" Spooner wrote. The newspaper quoted other people who had received unsolicited e-mails from Crist's campaign. Crist was not immediately available for comment. But Vivian Myrtetus, a spokeswoman for his gubernatorial campaign, denied that he was somehow holding himself to different standards than other e-mailers. "This is not spam. This is truthful, it's straight forward. We're honest. To be spam it has to be, under Florida law, defined as being deceptive," Myrtetus. "The attorney general does not consider this spam and is, as you know, at the forefront of protecting citizens against that."

News Of The Weird: A criminal suspect on the run ended up being mauled to death by a caged tiger, South African police say. The man took refuge in the Bengal tiger's cage at the Bloemfontein Zoo. A visitor to the zoo on Sunday noticed a body covered in bite marks in the cage. "The man was involved in a robbery and was chased by security guards," police spokeswoman Elsa Gerber told the South African Broadcasting Corporation. "He had nowhere else to go, so he jumped over the zoo fence," she added. The police said that the man had tried to escape after he had robbed a couple with a knife. The tiger had apparently not tried to eat the body. Nature conservation officials quoted by SABC said the tigers had been fed on Saturday afternoon and were therefore not hungry. A gorilla known as Max became a national hero in 1997, when he confronted a thief who jumped into his enclosure while being pursued by police. Max, who died in his sleep last year, bit the hapless intruder on the buttocks and kept him pinned to a wall, despite being hit by two bullets.

The niece of Osama Bin Laden has posed for provocative photographs for an American magazine. Wafah Dufour, an aspiring musician and model, is the daughter of the al-Qaeda leader's half-brother Yeslam. She appears stripped to ostrich feather lingerie, and in a bubble bath, in photos for American GQ magazine. US-born, she says she is an American, and distances herself from her uncle. "Everyone relates me to that man, and I have nothing to do with him," she says. Ms Dufour, 26, took her mother's maiden name after the events of 11 September 2001.

A British artist has outraged Roman Catholics around the world by advertising a statuette of the Virgin Mary enveloped in a condom in a respected Jesuit weekly. The artist, Steve Rosenthal, offered readers a chance to buy a "a stunning 22cm statue of the Virgin Mary standing atop a serpent, wearing a delicate veil of latex". It provided an email address at which prospective buyers could register interest. In a front-page article in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Vittorio Messori, a literary collaborator of the late pope John Paul, expressed horror at the way the sperm cup at the end of the condom had been arranged so as to sit on top of the Virgin's head, "like a grotesque cap replacing the royal crown of tradition". The Jesuit weekly, America, which calls itself the US "national Catholic weekly", apologised in its latest issue. A spokesman told the Guardian: "We made a terrible mistake by publishing this. We only saw the ad in black and white, so we didn't see how serious it was."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:04:11 PM

Wed, Dec 21 2005

Doing Battle With The Costa Rican Army

This, through the next month, is normally the coldest time of the year here in Costa Rica. And here in Arenal, it is usually the rainiest, too, but not this year. The sun continued most of the day yesterday, broken by occasional clouds and even very brief rains, and today rain through much of the morning, but by noon today it got back to the sunny weather more associated with March than December in these parts. The temperatures reflected that - it hit 83 yesterday, dropped to 69 overnight, and a breezy and relatively cool 78 today. I even ran the ceiling fan in the bedroom last night. Never did that in December last year.

I spent a bit more time in the garden having a look around. Wind has torn a limb off of one of the mango trees, and it came down right into a large patch of white ginger. I don't have enough strength to deal with it, so I will have to wait till the gardener gets here on Friday to have him work with me in getting it pulled down and removed.

While out in the garden yesterday, I found some kids out wading and swimming in the pond, and not just anywhere, but in the very deepest end of the pond, where the bank is steep and hard to climb up, and the water is more than ten feet deep. Since they didn't have permission to be there, I chased them out, and noted that they walked through the property and out my neighbor's property, rather than coming out into the street. I therefore suspect they are kids from one of the houses up the canyon.

While out there, I went and had a look at a zompopa (leaf-cutter ant) colony that I had noticed from the house - so it is already fairly good-sized. I discovered that it is already big enough that several vents and tunnels have appeared, along with two trails, so I immediately got some Mirex pellets and went to work on all the leaf trails they had created. They seemed to be quite eager to haul away the bait pellets, so I hope they pick up them all. I'll be checking in the morning to see if I have gotten them all. Never-ending war against the Costa Rican Army. It can be as devastating as Sherman's March To The Sea, so one must engage them in battle. You'll have no garden left if you don't.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: An impeachable offense? The law states that any person who violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is guilty of a felony. And authorizing the National Security Agency to do wire taps without a warrant, as Smirkey has done, is specifically prohibited. So has this happened before? James Banford, author of the Puzzle Palace, says "It's happened quite a bit before. Throughout the 1960s - actually, since the end of World War II, the NSA was doing illegal spying. One project was known as Project Shamrock, where they were getting illegal access to all the telegrams that came into the United States, went through the United States, or went out of the United States, every single day. They would go to New York, and Western Union would turn over all the telegrams to them. And that continued right up until the 1970s. And they were also doing a lot of targeting on communications on behalf of the C.I.A. and other agencies, telephone communications and so forth, and again, without any warrants. So that was why, after these revelations became public and during the Church Committee hearings in 1975, they created the FISA Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and then the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to act as sort of a buffer or a firewall between the whatever president happens to be in power and the American public, so there will be some neutral arbiter there to take a look at the request and decide whether the government should be able to do the eavesdropping or not." U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) today asked four presidential scholars for their opinion on former White House Counsel John Dean’s statement that President Bush admitted to an “impeachable offense” when he said he authorized the National Security Agency to spy on Americans without getting a warrant from a judge. Boxer said, “I take very seriously Mr. Dean’s comments, as I view him to be an expert on Presidential abuse of power. I am expecting a full airing of this matter by the Senate in the very near future.” The more rational voices in spy discussion (hint hint media, this is your job) might ask a simple question. If this spying is really all about terrorism then isn't it the President's constitutional responsibility to go to Congress and ask that laws - like FISA - be changed to protect America? (Wasn't that where the Patriot Act came from?)

The president was so desperate to kill The New York Times’ eavesdropping story, he summoned the paper’s editor and publisher to the Oval Office. But it wasn’t just out of concern about national security. On December 6, Smirkey summoned Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller to the Oval Office in a futile attempt to talk them out of running the story. The Times will not comment on the meeting, but one can only imagine the president’s desperation. Smirkey was desperate to keep the Times from running this important story - which the paper had already inexplicably held for a year - because he knew that it would reveal him as a law-breaker. He insists he had “legal authority derived from the Constitution and congressional resolution authorizing force.” But the Constitution explicitly requires the president to obey the law, which includes FISA. And the post 9/11 congressional resolution authorizing “all necessary force” in fighting terrorism was made in clear reference to military intervention, not snooping on Americans. It did not scrap the Constitution and allow the president to do whatever he pleased in any area in the name of fighting terrorism. The limited oral briefings provided by the White House to a handful of lawmakers about the domestic eavesdropping program may not have fulfilled a legal requirement under the National Security Act that calls for such reports to be in written form, congressional officials from both parties said on Tuesday, the New York Times will report Wednesday.

The surveillance program approved by Smirkey has captured what are purely domestic communications in some cases, despite a requirement by the White House that one end of the intercepted conversations take place on foreign soil, officials say. The officials say the National Security Agency's interception of a small number of communications between people within the United States was apparently accidental, and was caused by technical glitches at the National Security Agency in determining whether a communication was in fact "international." Telecommunications experts say the issue points up troubling logistical questions about the program. At a time when communications networks are increasingly globalized, it is sometimes difficult even for the N.S.A. to determine whether someone is inside or outside the United States when making a cellphone call or sending an e-mail message. As a result, people that the security agency may think are outside the United States are actually on American soil.

Several groups are criticizing the Pentagon after press reports claimed it has been spying on civilian groups, including student groups opposed to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual personnel. Last week Lisa Myers of NBC News reported Pentagon investigators had records citing a February protest at New York University, with the law school's LGBT advocacy group OUTlaw classified as "possibly violent" by the Pentagon. The news report also uncovered surveillance of military-ban protests at the State University of New York at Albany and William Patterson College in New Jersey during April. In addition, a "don't ask, don't tell" protest at the University of California at Santa Cruz that featured a gay kiss-in was labeled by the Pentagon as a "credible threat" of terrorism. "To suggest that a gay kiss-in is a 'credible threat' is absurd, homophobic and irrational," said C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). "The Pentagon is supposed to defend the Constitution, not turn it upside down." A group of Yukon high school students who attended a peace demonstration in Alaska last year have been labelled a threat by U.S. Homeland Security. The students and their teachers from Vanier Catholic Secondary School in Whitehorse, YK, were singled out when they crossed the border on their way to Fort Greely to protest the proliferation of missiles.

The Republican-controlled Senate passed legislation to cut social spending by $39.7 billion on Wednesday by the narrowest of margins, 51-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney, who flew home from South Asia to participate in this vote, casting the deciding vote. The measure, the product of a year's labors by the White House and the GOP in Congress, imposes huge cuts in federal benefit programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and student loans. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that the GOP was advancing "an ideologically driven, extreme, radical budget. It caters to lobbyists and an elite group of ultraconservative ideologues here in Washington, all at the expense of middle class Americans," he said.

Wanna Beat A Drug Rap? Donate To Republican Candidates: A Denver lawyer was pardoned Tuesday by President Bush for drug-related crimes she committed more than two decades ago. Wendy St. Charles, now 49, was among 11 people who received presidential pardons. In 1984, she was sentenced to four years in prison in Illinois for conspiracy to conduct a narcotics enterprise and distribution of cocaine, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. She was also put on four years of special parole and four years of probation, which were to run consecutively with her sentence. "It is wonderful news, and I'm grateful to the president," said St. Charles, who was told Tuesday morning about the pardon by a justice department official. St. Charles declined to discuss her case further and requested that her privacy be respected. Currently, she is a licensed attorney who works for MDC Holdings, Inc., the largest Denver-based home-building firm and one of the top 10 home builders in the U.S. Larry Mizel, chair of the MDC Holdings Inc., and his wife, Carol, are major supporters of the Republican Party and its candidates, donating thousands of dollars to their campaigns.

Smirkey's popularity appears to have received a significant boost from last week's Iraq elections. An opinion poll, carried out for ABC News and the Washington Post, shows his approval rating has risen to 47%, from an all-time low of 39% in November. High voter turnout in Iraq and growing public confidence in Mr Bush's handling of national security and the economy led to the rise, the poll suggests. It comes as Mr Bush faces mounting criticism over secret phone tapping. The latest opinion poll shows his approval rating on Iraq has risen by 10% since early November to 46%. On the economy, his rating has jumped 11 points, to 47%, the Washington Post reports.

Here we go again: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez praised his Colombian counterpart for telling him of a Colombia-based plot against the Venezuelan government which involved an official from the United States. In his weekly television and radio program on Sunday, Chavez said Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was "courageous" for admitting that Venezuelan army officials were plotting, alongside members of the Colombian military, in a military building in Bogota, the Colombian capital. Uribe told the Colombian media about the plot on Saturday, after a meeting with Chavez for several hours in Santa Marta, capital of Magdalena region, northern Colombia, where both had gone to lay wreaths at a statue of Simon Bolivar. In his Sunday broadcast, Chavez insisted that the meeting had taken place in a military building in Bogota, with an active Colombian colonel and a US official in attendance. Chavez said the plot involved Pedro Carmona who had ruled Venezuela for 72 hours in 2002, when he led a coup against Chavez which was swiftly crushed. Carmona is now in exile in Colombia. Chavez said that "traitorous retired officers," who had been part of the coup, were implicated in the Colombian conspiracy.

The forced-vaccination-without-liability-or-recourse bill discussed previously in this space is back: Charging that nearly half of the Senate is personally invested in drug corporations that stand to gain from a measure under consideration, a consumer organization yesterday called on lawmakers to nix a peculiar immunity clause from a "must-pass" defense spending bill up for consideration this week. Until the House of Representatives approved liability protections for the pharmaceutical industry as an amendment to the defense appropriations bill early Monday, opposition groups had been successful in beating it back. In a statement yesterday, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR) warned that the amendment’s "language is so broad that any product considered a ‘countermeasure,’ not just vaccines, could be protected." Seeking to re-stoke resistance to the measure, FTCR also pointed out that 42 Senators - 27 Republicans and 15 Democrats - collectively hold over $16 million in stock in the very companies that the bill would place under protection. The analysis includes immediate family members and is based on the most recent public finance reports.

Ranking House Judiciary Democrat Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has introduced a motion to censure President Bush and Vice President Cheney for providing misleading information to Congress in advance of the Iraq war, failing to respond to written questions and potential violations of international law. The resolutions were quietly introduced Sunday evening along with a third resolution (HR 635) to create a Select Committee to investigate the administration's intent to go to war prior to congressional authorization. The committee would also be charged with examining manipulation of pre-war intelligence, thwarting Congressional oversight and retaliatory attacks against critics. As part of this resolution, House Judiciary Democrats seek also to explore violations of international law as pertaining to detainee abuse and torture of prisoners of war.

India has been the focus of medical research since the time when sunburned men with pith helmets and degrees from prestigious European medical schools came to catalog tropical illnesses. The days of the Raj are long gone, but multinational drug companies are riding high on the trend toward globalization by taking advantage of India's educated work force and deep poverty to turn South Asia into the world's largest clinical-testing petri dish. The sudden influx of drug companies to India resembles the gold rush frontier, according to Sean Philpott, managing editor of The American Journal of Bioethics. "Not only are research costs low, but there is a skilled work force to conduct the trials," he said. In the rush to reap profits, Philpott cautions that drug companies may not be sensitive to how poverty can undermine the spirit of informed consent. "Individuals who participate in Indian clinical trials usually won't be educated. Offering $100 may be undue enticement; they may not even realize that they are being coerced," he said.

Kicking off a hurried weekend of last-minute lawmaking, the House of Representatives Friday passed a controversial bill aimed at tightening the nation's immigration laws. The legislation runs the gamut on border-tightening measures and does not open the way for the guest-worker program called for by President Bush. It would also criminalize aid workers who assist undocumented immigrants. Introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) at the beginning of the month and placed on the calendar just one day before the floor vote, the measure would make all immigration-related crimes federal, bar undocumented immigrants from gaining legal status, grant some sheriffs immigration-enforcement power, increase fines for employing undocumented workers, and fund a 700-mile fence along the US-Mexico border. The House voted 239-182 in favor of the bill. Opposition to Sensenbrenner’s bill spans much of the political spectrum, including civil rights organizations, immigration policy analysts, and many pro-business and conservative groups. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that religious humanitarian groups that save the lives of border-crossers navigating the southwestern badlands are concerned that their evangelical missionaries may be arrested for their work. Such prosecutions are uncommon under current law, though they do occur. Mexican President Vicente Fox has described the US proposal, included in the bill, to build a fence along their 3,200km (2,000 miles) border as "shameful". He said the proposal - which Mexican officials have compared to the Berlin Wall - was a "very bad signal" from a nation of immigrants.

North Korea has said it intends to resume building two nuclear reactors, to increase its energy capacity. The North said the move was necessary because the US had pulled out of a key deal to build it two new reactors. But some analysts fear the North wants the reactors completed so that it can produce more plutonium with which to manufacture atomic bombs. The North's statement will further strain its relations with the US, which have worsened since September talks. The North had mothballed work on all its nuclear facilities, including the two graphite-moderated reactors, after it struck a deal with the US in 1994.

A Senate vote on a deficit-reduction bill looks to be so tight that Vice President Dick Cheney was rushing home from an overseas diplomatic mission to be the tiebreaker for saving one of the Bush administration's top priorities. The showdown vote loomed on the bill, which would cut some federal benefits and trim budget deficits by $40 billion through the end of the decade. Cheney was in Pakistan Tuesday to check on U.S. aid to victims of an October earthquake that killed as estimated 75,000 people. He also met with President Pervez Musharraf. The budget vote is expected to be a close one - last month the bill squeaked through the Senate in a 52-47 tally. Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson (news, bio, voting record) was one of two Democrats to vote for the bill then, and is considered a swing vote this week.

The US Senate has narrowly blocked a Republican-led attempt to allow drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Supporters of the plan fell four votes short of the number needed to prevent opponents using a filibuster - or delaying tactic - to derail the vote. The Republicans had hoped to win Senate support by tacking the Alaska measure on to a major defence spending bill.

A poll conducted by Fox News December 13 - 14 shows dwindling support for Smirkey's Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. Overall support for Alito has dropped from 46% November 8 - 9 to just 35% among registered voters. This is significantly lower than the 51% support enjoyed by confirmed Bush nominee John Roberts. The drop in support is across with board, with just 57% of Republicans (down from 75%), 28% of Independents (down from 39%), and a mere 17% of Democrats (down from 26%) reporting that they would vote to confirm Alito, if given the opportunity.

More American women are having babies they didn't want, a survey indicates, but federal researchers say they don't know if that means attitudes about abortion are changing. U.S. women of childbearing age who were surveyed in 2002 revealed that 14 percent of their recent births were unwanted at the time of conception, federal researchers said Monday. In a similar 1995 survey, only 9 percent were unwanted at the time of conception. At least one anti-abortion group said the numbers reflect a national "pro-life shift," while others who research reproductive health issues suggested it might mean less access to abortion. The latest findings are consistent with the falling rate of abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based nonprofit group that researches reproductive health issues. In 1995, for every 100 pregnancies that ended in abortion or a birth, almost 26 ended in abortion. In 2002, 24 ended in abortion, according to Guttmacher data.

Customs agents have intercepted more than 50 shipments of counterfeit Tamiflu, the antiviral drug being stockpiled in anticipation of a bird flu pandemic, marking the first such seizures in the U.S., authorities said Sunday. The first package was intercepted Nov. 26 at an air mail facility near San Francisco International Airport, said Roxanne Hercules, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Since then, agents have seized 51 separate packages, each containing up to 50 counterfeit capsules labeled generic Tamiflu. The fake drugs had none of Tamiflu's active ingredients, and officials were running tests to determine what the capsules did contain. Initial tests indicated some vitamin C in the capsules, said David Elder, director of the Food and Drug Administration Office of Enforcement.

Evo Morales, the winner of Bolivia's presidential election, branded Smirkey a "terrorist", in an interview with Arabic satellite television on Tuesday. "The only terrorist in this world that I know of is Bush. His military intervention, such as the one in Iraq, that is state terrorism," he told Al Jazeera television. The leftist won slightly more than half the votes cast in Bolivia's election on Sunday and is set to become the country's first indigenous president. "There is a difference between people fighting for a cause and what terrorists do," he said in comments, which were translated into Arabic. "Today in Bolivia and Latin America, it's no longer people that are lifting their weapons against imperialism, but it's imperialism that is lifting its weapons against people through military intervention and military bases."

The secretive world of diamond dealing has been rocked by a bribery and corruption scandal that has shattered the authority of the Gemological Institute of America, the body responsible for grading and valuing the world’s most precious gemstones. The GIA, which values almost all diamonds on the market from the giant Hope Diamond to the quarter carats in a pair of earrings, was accused in a lawsuit of issuing false valuation reports for two stones bought for $15 million (£8.5 million) by a member of the Saudi royal family and an associate. After an investigation, the GIA found that at least two clients were paying bribes to four GIA staff members to issue false valuation reports on stones worth millions of dollars. The staff members have since been fired and the unnamed clients blacklisted.

Governator Watch: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has revoked from his hometown the right to use his name on a stadium, Spiegel Online reports. The move comes after groups proposed the venue instead be named after "Tookie" Williams, the ex-gang member and Nobel nominee executed by California last week. Arnold's refusal to grant Williams clemency prompted international outrage, particularly in his native Austria. Schwarzenegger is reportedly withdrawing rights to his name pre-emptively, to avoid further embarrassment should the groups succeed either in naming the stadium after Williams, or in simply removing Schwarzenegger's name.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: Canada has been described lately by a conservative U.S. television host as "a stalker" and a "retarded cousin." Another pundit recently asked if Canadians weren't getting "a little too big for their britches." There's been a spate of Canada-bashing by right-wing media commentators in the United States ever since Prime Minister Paul Martin's complaints about lumber penalties and U.S. policy on climate change. His remarks prompted an unusual rebuke last week from the American ambassador. The attacks on Canada have had web bloggers typing overtime and a non-profit group that's monitoring the trend, Media Matters for America, says it's disturbing. Last week, MSNBC host Tucker Carlson, a well-known conservative pundit, let loose with a string of anti-Canada rants. "Anybody with any ambition at all, or intelligence, has left Canada and is now living in New York," he said. "Canada is a sweet country. It is like your retarded cousin you see at Thanksgiving and sort of pat him on the head. You know, he's nice but you don't take him seriously. That's Canada."

Canadian Ambassador Frank McKenna demanded an apology and retraction from a United States senator who claimed yesterday that the terrorists who struck the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, entered the country from Canada. Montana Senator Conrad Burns, a Republican, made the charge during a news conference at which he said the "porous" stretch of border between Montana and Alberta is a prime route for drug runners and criminals travelling south from Calgary. "We have people who farm both sides of the border. So it's very porous," Mr. Burns said, just days after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to consider building fences along the Canadian border. "We've got to remember that the people who first hit us in 9/11 entered this country through Canada." The accusation brought a quick retort from officials at the Canadian Embassy, who have repeatedly tried to dispel the inaccurate claim that some of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 snuck into the U.S. from Canada. "We are in contact with the senator's office and will be seeking a retraction," said Bernard Etsinger, Mr. McKenna's spokesman.

Diebold Watch: California Sec. of State Bruce McPherson's office has sent a letter to Diebold Election Systems, Inc. Vice President David Bryd, informing him that the state is declining - for the time being - to re-certify Diebold AccuVote touch-screen machines in the state of California pending further testing and certification by Federal authorities. In the letter, on McPherson's letterhead, Caren Daniels-Meade, chief of the Elections Division writes that "Unresolved significant security concerns exist with respect to the memory card used to program and configure" the Accu-Vote operating system and touch-screen equipment. In a statement reported by AP, SoS spokeswoman Jennifer Kerns announced problems "discovered during routine testing...by state employees and independent consultants": She said each system approved for use in California must meet 10 security requirements, and the Diebold machines did not meet one of those standards. "This is a unique case in which we discovered that the source code had never, ever been reviewed," said Kerns. "There were potential security risks with it."

Republicans Encourage Everyone To Vote: The Georgia Licensing On Wheels bus was supposed to make it easier for elderly and poor people to get the photo identification they need to vote under a controversial new law. The idea was to bring photo IDs to the estimated 300,000 voting age people who don't have driver's licenses. When announced by Gov. Sonny Perdue's office in August, officials said the bus could issue up to 200 ID cards per day. But in three months of traveling the state, the aging bus has broken down three times and issued just 471 photo IDs. That's fewer than 11 per county visited. Critics say the low numbers show that one 15-year-old bus is a feeble response to concerns that the law will disenfranchise poor, elderly and minority voters. Perdue says the numbers show ID cards for voting are not in great demand. Either way, Georgians getting IDs from the bus are happy not to stand in long lines at driver's license service centers. The bus hit the road in September after the Legislature approved a law requiring Georgians to show a driver's license or another form of government-issued photo ID at the polls. Previously, Georgians could use several forms of nonphoto ID. Since the bus rolled, the program has drawn pointed criticism from opponents of the law. "The bus breaking down is a perfect metaphor," said Neil Bradley, associate director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "The bus has always been a public relations ploy and isn't an effective remedy for anything. And the numbers really establish that." Bradley is one of the lawyers arguing in court that requiring Georgians to show picture identification when voting violates the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Republicans Believe In Justice For All: More than three months after first warning the Navajo Nation of a potential budget shortfall, the Bureau of Indian Affairs last week said it does not have enough money to cover supplemental welfare assistance requests for members of the Nation. The news came about even as the BIA failed to make a separate $1.5 million payment to the Navajo Division of Social Services, forcing the delay of December public-assistance payments to eligible Navajo members, reported the Daily Times of Farmington, New Mexico. The BIA budget shortfall comes at a particularly bad time for members of the Navajo Nation. In a September message to the Navajo Nation Council, President Joe Shirley Jr. noted that the Nation’s funds available for the 2006 fiscal year were already projected to be less than in 2005. According to an analysis of the 2000 Census conducted by CivilRights.org, a coalition of 180 national civil rights advocacy groups, more than a quarter of the nation’s approximately 2.5 million indigenous peoples live in poverty, topping all other groups.

Republican Policies Strengthen America: Toyota has said it expects to boost output by 10% next year, a level which could see the company overtake General Motors as the world's biggest carmaker. Japan's leading car firm forecast that it would build a record 9.06 million vehicles in 2006, on the back of strong demand across the world for its cars. The prediction comes as US rivals GM and Ford struggle to reverse declining sales and profits. Toyota overtook Ford to become the second-biggest carmaker in 2003.

A the US grows richer as a nation each year, the number of people needing food and shelter likewise continues to grow. Despite claims of an improved economy, the number of hungry and homeless residents rose over the past year, according to the annual US Conference of Mayors report. The news affirms previous studies by a variety of groups and shows a trend documented by the annual study since its 1982 inception. The study, released yesterday, measured reports of emergency food and housing assistance in 24 cities and utilized supplemental information from the US Census and Department of Labor. The study reported that demand increased for many vital services and that most cities are unable to meet the needs of their worst-off residents.

After approving more tax cuts for the rich last week, the spending bill approved by the House early on Monday and awaiting a Senate vote could increase the out-of-pocket costs of many of the poor people who rely on the joint federal-state program for their health care. The legislation also tightens eligibility rules for long-term care. Medicaid pays for roughly half of nursing home bills. The mostly Republican backers of the bill say the changes are necessary to preserve a financially beleaguered social program that has not been updated to keep up with the changes in U.S. health care. Mostly Democratic critics say it shreds the health safety net for the most vulnerable Americans. The AARP is among the interest groups opposed to the health care legislation.

After last-minute negotiations with transportation officials failed, New York City's transportation workers followed through on their threat to strike this morning, shutting down the subway and bus systems prior to the morning rush hour and forcing millions of riders to find other routes to work and school. After working for two years without a contract, the job action is the first in 25 years for Local 100 of the Transportation Workers Union and comes about as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) sits on $1 billion surplus. The MTA sought pension and healthcare concessions form workers that union members found unacceptable.

Fear is keeping Pvt. Kyle Lawson awake at night - not of the enemy, but of his fellow soldiers. For weeks, the 19-year-old Tucson native has been sleeping on a cot in his drill sergeant's office to protect him from further attacks because he is gay. He's already had his nose broken - and says he also was threatened with a knife - after a friend let Lawson's secret slip at a party attended by members of the 309th Military Intelligence Battalion, a training unit at Fort Huachuca 75 miles southeast of Tucson. Lawson now feels he has no choice but to leave the military and has requested a discharge. He was training to be an Army interrogator, a high-demand job in the age of terrorism. "I can't keep living a lie. It's not safe for me here," said Lawson, who is described by friends and family as smart, moral and hardworking - qualities the Army says it values in soldiers. Critics of the Pentagon's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy say Lawson is one of hundreds of homosexuals harassed or assaulted each year, and say his story is a telling example of what's wrong with the ban on openly gay troops. Lawson was punched in the face by a fellow 309th soldier at the off-post party on Oct. 29, according to a police report of the incident. The soldier told police Lawson made sexually suggestive remarks. Sierra Vista police Officer Darryl Scott, who investigated and laid a charge of felony aggravated assault, said in an interview that "there was no provocation." The Army chose not to prosecute the charge, for reasons fort officials say they are not at liberty to explain. Don't Ask, Don't Tell promotes ill will by stigmatizing homosexuality, said Steve Ralls, spokesman for the Serviceman's Legal Defense Network. "When the military as an institution can discriminate against you, what message does that send to your co-workers about how they can treat you?" he asked.

First Amendment Death Watch: Counterterrorism agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation have conducted numerous surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations that involved, at least indirectly, groups active in causes as diverse as the environment, animal cruelty and poverty relief, newly disclosed agency records show. F.B.I. officials said Monday that their investigators had no interest in monitoring political or social activities and that any investigations that touched on advocacy groups were driven by evidence of criminal or violent activity at public protests and in other settings. An Akron-based group charged Monday that the Department of Defense spied on area residents at a peace rally March 19. The Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee said documents uncovered by NBC News in a Wednesday report revealed that information about the Akron gathering was included in the data. "This is chilling," the Quaker-affiliated group said in a press release. Department of Defense spokesman Maj. Paul Swiergosz said in an e-mail that "DoD policy for intelligence and counter-intelligence organizations prohibits the reporting, processing or storing of information on individuals or organizations not affiliated with the DoD, except in limited circumstances that are defined and codified by law." In May 2003, he said, the TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice) reporting system was established at the Defense Department. He added that the department uses counterintelligence and law-enforcement information properly collected by law-enforcement agencies. This is the third major recent revelation about domestic spying. Last week NBC News revealed the Pentagon has been monitoring peaceful anti-war protesters and the New York Times exposed how President Bush ordered the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without court-approved warrants. Ann Beeson, of the American Civil Liberties Union said "It's clear that this administration has engaged every possible agency, from the Pentagon to N.S.A. to the F.B.I., to engage in spying on Americans."

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Emissions of gases blamed for warming the atmosphere grew by 2 percent in the United States last year, the Energy Department reported Monday. The report came just nine days after a United Nations conference where the United States and China refused to join any talks for imposing binding limits on emissions of those gases. The so-called greenhouse gases, led by carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, rose to 7.12 million metric tons, up from 6.98 million metric tons in 2003, the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration said. That's 16 percent higher than in 1990, and an average annual increase of 1.1 percent. About 80 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases last year was carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels — coal, petroleum and natural gas — for electricity, transportation, manufacturing and other industrial processes.

Seven north-eastern US states have signed the country's first plan setting Kyoto-style legal limits on greenhouse gases from power stations. They agreed to take steps to curb CO2 emissions starting in 2009. The plan was endorsed by the governors of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. It is open to other states. Known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), it is seen as a break with the Bush administration.

Regions containing permafrost within the top 11 feet of soil could decrease by as much as 90% across the Arctic over the next century, based on simulations by the NCAR Community Climate System Model. Shown are areas with near-surface permafrost in the CCSM simulations for 1980-1999 (light blue) and 2080-2099 (dark blue). The latter projection is based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's A1B emissions scenario, often called the "business as usual" scenario. The study, using the NCAR-based Community Climate System Model (CCSM), is the first to examine the state of permafrost in a global model that includes interactions among the atmosphere, ocean, land, and sea ice as well as a soil model that depicts freezing and thawing. Results appear online in the December 17 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: "Intelligent design" cannot be mentioned in biology classes in a Pennsylvania public school district, a federal judge said Tuesday, ruling in one of the biggest courtroom clashes on evolution since the 1925 Scopes trial. Dover Area School Board members violated the Constitution when they ordered that its biology curriculum include the notion that life on Earth was produced by an unidentified intelligent cause, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III said. Several members repeatedly lied to cover their motives, he said. The ruling will not likely be appealed by the slate of new board members, who in the November election ousted the group that installed intelligent design, the new board president said Tuesday.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Sunni and secular political groups angrily claimed Tuesday that last week's Iraqi national election was rigged, demanded a new vote and threatened to leave a shambles the delicate plan to bring the country's wary factions together in a new government. Faced with preliminary vote counts that suggest a strong victory by the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite Muslim religious parties that dominates the outgoing government, political leaders of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority hinted that insurgent violence would be accelerated by the suspicions of fraud. Electoral commission members cautioned that the election results must be checked and cross-checked and that the allegations of ballot violations would be settled before the results were declared final. That process might last into January, said Farid Ayar, an elections official. Ayar said Tuesday that among the 1,000 complaints received so far, about 20, if valid, were serious enough to have affected the vote. The complaints included "some forgeries, fraud, and use of force and efforts to intimidate," he told reporters. "We will study all of these very carefully."

Scandals R Us: The Senate Republican campaign committee launched a website that ties Democrats to embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "Fair's fair in this fight, but remember that Abramoff himself was a true-blue (true-red?) Republican who personally only gave money to GOPers," Hotline On Call notes. "Millions worth, in fact. As we've noted, Abramoff encouraged his clients to give to both parties and specific Dem politicians when he felt a contribution would be appreciated. Clearly, the NRSC wants to spread the manure, as it were, over both parties, preventing the Dems from exploiting the Abramoff issue." But it's unclear if the attention they're drawing to Abramoff hurts Republicans more.

U.S. President George W. Bush calls indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff "an equal money dispenser" who helped politicians of both parties. But campaign donation records show Republicans were a lot more equal than Democrats. Between 2001 and 2004, Abramoff gave more than $127,000 to Republican candidates and committees and nothing to Democrats, federal records show. At the same time, his Indian clients were the only ones among the top 10 tribal donors in the U.S. to donate more money to Republicans than Democrats. Bush's comment about Abramoff in a Dec. 14 Fox News interview was aimed at countering Democratic accusations that Republicans have brought a "culture of corruption" to Washington. Even so, the numbers show that "Abramoff's big connections were with the Republicans," said Larry Noble, the former top lawyer for the Federal Election Commission, who directs the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.

As Tom DeLay became a king of campaign fundraising, he lived like one too. He visited cliff-top Caribbean resorts, golf courses designed by PGA champions and four-star restaurants - all courtesy of donors who bankrolled his political money empire. Over the past six years, the former House majority leader and his associates have visited places of luxury most Americans have never seen, often getting there aboard corporate jets arranged by lobbyists and other special interests. Public documents reviewed by The Associated Press tell the story: at least 48 visits to golf clubs and resorts; 100 flights aboard company planes; 200 stays at hotels, many world-class; and 500 meals at restaurants, some averaging nearly $200 for a dinner for two. Instead of his personal expense, the meals and trips for DeLay and his associates were paid with donations collected by the campaign committees, political action committees and children's charity the Texas Republican created during his rise to the top of Congress. His lawyer says the expenses are part of DeLay's effort to raise money from Republicans and to spread the GOP message. Put them together and a lifestyle emerges. "A life to enjoy. The excuse to escape," Palmas del Mar, an oceanside Puerto Rican resort visited by DeLay, promised in a summer ad on its Web site as a golf ball bounced into a hole and an image of a sunset appeared. Meanwhile, DeLay has filed to run for re-election. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, acknowledging the burden of his legal problems but saying he still has much work to do, filed Tuesday to seek a 12th term representing his suburban Houston district in Congress. "I've worked 21 years to put myself in this position to where we can accomplish some great things," he said. The Sugar Land Republican, facing trial on charges of money laundering in a campaign finance scheme, filed for re-election by petition with the Republican Party of Texas, delivering nearly 1,000 signatures from volunteers in his district. "We have people encouraging us to run and want to get out and do something and volunteer and help us do this," DeLay told The Associated Press. "I think it's a good thing to do to show what kind of support you have in the district."

As reporters barraged the White House last week with renewed questions on the CIA leak case, one of the Washington press corps’ own may have been holding on to a key part of the mystery. Bob Woodward, the Washington Post’s distinguished reporter and associate managing editor, has already faced scrutiny for his role in the disclosure of Valerie Plame’s undercover status at the CIA. But in a conversation at Harvard earlier this month, Woodward hinted that he knows the identity of yet another key player in the case: Robert D. Novak’s original source for his July 2003 column on Plame, which touched off the scandal in the first place. “His source was not in the White House, I don’t believe,” Woodward said of Novak over a private dinner at the Institute of Politics on Dec. 5. He did not indicate what information, if any, he had to corroborate the claim.

News Of The Weird: In the beginning was the word of God and God never said anything about brassieres or boxer shorts. Thus was born Natura, America’s first Christian nudist camp. After two years of biblical debate over Adam and Eve and their fig leaves and whether or not nudity is sinful, a 67-year-old Quaker grandfather is preparing to open a modern-day Garden of Eden 40 miles north of Tampa, Florida. Bill Martin’s ambitious plan for a 200-acre Christian- oriented Family Naturist Village has survived legal challenges, doctrinal disputes and a plague of internet prudes. Land is now being cleared for the opening next year of what may become the world’s only Christian community to feature nude volleyball. Despite howls of complaint from fundamentalists who have likened Martin to the Antichrist - and described his nudist plans as “graphic evidence of America’s moral collapse” - Natura intends to build 50 houses around a non-denominational church where clothing for services will be optional. He has fought with his neighbours over property rights, fallen out with other nudists over his promotional material and sparked a vigorous internet debate over whether the true path to godliness really involves getting naked.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:34:28 PM

Mon, Dec 19 2005

Summer Tanagers Outside My Office Window

The dry-season-like weather has continued, with truly spectacular sunshiny and warm days yesterday and today. Yesterday was quite warm - temperatures reached 84 yesterday afternoon, and dropped to 68 overnight, as there was little cloud cover to hold in the heat. But a steady breeze this afternoon kept the temperature to a moderate 79 this afternoon. The only rain was a brief but intense downpour for about ten minutes just after sunset yesterday - just enough to freshen things up, and a sprinkle just after sunrise this morning. Some rainy season.

I haven't been out in the garden much, still getting my strength back after the bout with what I believe was food poisoning late last week. The garden has been enticing, but the strength just wasn't there to entice me to spend much time wandering around. I am hoping to get out tomorrow if the weather holds, and it looks like it should. The weather maps seem to indicate the sunny, warm weather should continue for at least several days more. But I spent a good deal of the day today taking naps, trying to overcome some of the sleep debt I racked up during my illness.

Some of my time was spent poking around on my ham radio, monitoring conversations from the PSK (a type of digital communications) contest over the weekend. A lot of European and Asian stations on there, including some fairly rare ones, such as the Azore Islands, Guyana and other locations with an almost zero ham population. There were a lot of Cubans on there, too, and I have never quite figured out why PSK is so popular with them - they're far more common on that mode than on voice. All these on 40 meters, normally a band for close-in stations, evidence that the sunspot cycle continues to decline towards its minimum late next year. Makes me want to get a 40 meter antenna put up.

The last few days, I have noticed an increasing population of winter visitors to my garden, visitors of the avian kind. There have been several flocks of blue-grey and scarlet-rumped tanagers have come through, presumably on their way further south, and a lot of western tanagers as well, here for the winter. But the real delight has been a pair of summer tanagers in their bright breeding colors, who have built a nest in a fruit tree just outside my office window. The male is bright, scarlet red, and the female a canary-yellow color with an olive tinge. It is truly a delight to see such brightly colored birds flashing through that fruit tree just a few feet from my window. I certainly welcome having them in my garden and in my fruit trees. And they're welcome to all the fruit they want - the tree produces lots, and I don't eat anywhere near all of it.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Smirkey has again defended his decision to allow eavesdropping on Americans in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks. Speaking at a press conference, Mr Bush also repeated that he would continue to authorize the secret monitoring. He arrogantly said he had renewed the authority for the wiretapping more than three dozen times, and would do so again. He also urged Congress to renew the Patriot Act, the top US anti-terror law, saying it provided officials with the tools to protect Americans. "We cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment," he said. Smirkey also said demanded a "full investigation" into who leaked information about the wiretap program. "My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy," he said, without explaining how. The New York Times reported last Friday that Mr Bush had signed a secret presidential order following the 11 September 2001 attacks, allowing the National Security Agency to track the international telephone calls and e-mails of hundreds of people without referral to the courts.

When Smirkey authorized the NSA to spy on Americans, apparently, it was more than just the New York Times that found out about it. The National Security Agency's domestic collection activities are classified based on their stati as 'unacknowledged special access programs'. That status requires that the originating authority - in this case, the White House - notify the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate, as well as the chair and ranking members of the intelligence committee. So did House Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Ried know about the program? Pelosi admits she did but says in a statement today that she expressed concern about the program when she was briefed. Senator Ried released a statement: "I was advised of President Bush's decision to provide authority to the National Security Agency to conduct unspecified activities shortly after he made it and have been provided with updates on several occasions." Democrats and Republicans called separately Sunday for congressional investigations into President Bush's decision after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to allow domestic eavesdropping without court approval. "The president has, I think, made up a law that we never passed," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he intends to hold hearings. "They talk about constitutional authority," Specter said. "There are limits as to what the president can do." Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also called for an investigation, and House Democratic leaders asked Speaker Dennis Hastert to create a bipartisan panel to do the same. Smirkey may get the investigation he is demanding, but he better be careful what he wishes for - it may not produce the results he wants.

While Smirkey continued to claim a strategy for "victory" in Iraq in recent speeches, including his televised speech to the American people, his administration is quietly preparing a different way out than simply "staying the course." It has quietly renounced the goal of defeating the non-al-Qaeda, Sunni-armed organizations there. The administration is evidently preparing for serious negotiations with the Sunni insurgents, whom it has started referring to as "nationalists", emphasizing their opposition to al-Qaeda's objectives. The new policy has thus far gone unnoticed in the media, partly because it has only been articulated by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the spokesman for the US command in Baghdad. The White House clearly recognizes that the shift could cause serious political problems if and when it becomes widely understood. The Republican Party has just unveiled a new television ad attacking Democratic Party chair Howard Dean for suggesting that the war in Iraq cannot be won. Renouncing victory over the Sunni insurgents therefore undercuts the president's political strategy of portraying his policy as one of "staying the course" and attacking the Democrats for "cutting and running".

You can fool all the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time: After losing their vote on the reauthorization of the more extreme elements of the Patriot Act, the Republican leadership is starting to throw rocks at the New York Times. A Republican senator on Saturday accused The New York Times of endangering American security to sell a book by waiting until the day of the terror-fighting Patriot Act reauthorization to report that the government has eavesdropped on people without court-approved warrants. "At least two senators that I heard with my own ears cited this as a reason why they decided to vote to not allow a bipartisan majority to reauthorize the Patriot Act," said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. "Well, as it turns out the author of this article turned in a book three months ago and the paper, The New York Times, failed to reveal that the urgent story was tied to a book release and its sale by its author." In an unusual note, the Times said in its story that it held off publishing the 3,600-word article for a year after the newspaper's representatives met with White House officials. It said the White House had asked the paper not to publish the story at all, "arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny." Senate Democrats also managed to blocked passage Friday of Patriot Act II, decrying the measure as a threat to the constitutional liberties of innocent Americans. Republicans spurned calls for a short-term measure to prevent the year-end expiration of law enforcement powers first enacted in the anxious days after Sept. 11, 2001. "The president will not sign such an extension," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and lawmakers on each side of the issue blamed the other for congressional gridlock on the issue. The Senate voted 52-47 to advance a House-passed bill to a final vote, eight short of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster backed by nearly all Senate Democrats and a handful of the 55 Republicans.

US Vice-President Dick Cheney has made an unannounced visit to Iraq - his first since the 2003 US-led invasion. Mr Cheney praised the "tremendous" elections last Thursday and was described by the Iraqi president as a "hero for liberating Iraq", AP says. The visit was kept so secret that it is thought even the Iraqi prime minister was not told beforehand. The heavily secured visit is likely an attempt to convince the world that the security situation in Iraq is improving as a result of the successful elections recently held there - a major public relations objective for the White House at the moment.

Working through the night, the House early today voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling as part of a military measure and narrowly approved a $40 billion budget-cutting plan as bleary-eyed lawmakers concluded a marathon weekend session. The Pentagon spending bill, adopted on a 308-106 vote shortly after 5 a.m., also included a $29 billion hurricane recovery package for the Gulf Coast, a $3.8 billion proposal to prepare for a potential flu pandemic and a 1 percent across-the-board cut that shaved a total of about $8 billion from current federal spending. Democrats assailed majority Republicans for using the Pentagon bill to win approval of the drilling plan after objections by moderate Republicans led to it being eliminated from the budget measure. "A can't-pass measure has been added to a must-pass measure in order for the Republicans to give an early huge Christmas gift to the oil companies of the United States," said Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts.

A group of Yale Law School faculty and students has reviewed all of the 415 opinions written by Circuit Judge and Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. Their report can be categorized as generally critical of Alito's positions on key legal issues. "A number of Judge Alito's decisions are difficult to reconcile with the general direction of American law," said project participant Brian Deese in a release issued by the project, "except when viewed in light of the broad philosophical views Judge Alito expressed in his job application of November 1985." The release also quotes the report as blasting Alito's record on employment and discrimination. "Judge Alito consistently has used procedural and evidentiary standards to rule against female, minority, age, and disability claimants," it states. It places special focus on Alito's record of siding with employers, citing the fact that the Judge ruled in favor of unions and employees in only 1/7 of related cases.

Torture Watch: In a truly Orwellian turn of events, it turns out that the anti-torture law approved by the Senate and embraced by the White House on Friday contains a provision that will enable the U.S. government to retain individuals in detention solely on the basis of confessions already extracted from them by torture - essentially gutting the protections the new law was intended to provide, through the back door. The provision, which has been a subject of extensive bargaining with the Bush administration, could allow evidence that would not be permitted in civilian courts to be admissable in deciding whether to hold detainees at the American military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In recent days, the Congressional negotiators quietly eliminated an explicit ban on the use of such material in an earlier version of the legislation.

In another Orwellian twist, Donald Rumsfeld has said the arrangement has no implications for the Department of Defense because the military always has maintained the amendment's standards. The military has had rules requiring humane treatment of detainees "from the beginning," he said. In the few, but highly publicized, incidents in which those rules have been broken, the offenders have faced courts-martial and been punished, he said. "We have had requirements for humane treatment from the beginning," Rumsfeld said. "Any time there has been something other than humane treatment, there has been prosecution."

Better late than never: Human rights groups that praised the ban on mistreating terrorism suspects early in the week warned on Friday that another provision lawmakers inserted in a final defense bill could lead to abuse at the Guantanamo Bay prison, as was previously warned about in this space. But Sen. Lindsey Graham, chief sponsor of the provision affecting detainees held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, rejected that. He said interrogators who mistreat prisoners would not be granted immunity from prosecution for violating the ban. On Thursday, President Bush reluctantly signed off on a proposal to bar cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terror suspects in U.S. custody. Sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ban and accompanying provision would standardize interrogation tactics for U.S. troops.

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: U.S. Sen. Trent Lott said personal losses he suffered because of Hurricane Katrina will weigh on his decision whether to run for re-election in 2006. The Mississippi Republican lost his waterfront home in Pascagoula during the Aug. 29 storm. The former Senate majority leader said he has a $400,000 loss after the flood insurance. Lott told The Sun Herald newspaper that his family is divided over his running again. Another consideration, he said, is that he is "So disappointed with the [Bush] administration's response to this disaster that I'm almost embarrassed." Lott was elected to the Senate in 1988 after serving 16 years in the House. He lost his leadership post in 2002 after making racially tinged remarks at a 100th birthday party for one-time segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond. As he toured devastated portions of Mississippi, Smirkey famously said he looked forward to sitting on the porch of Lott's rebuilt home. I have to wonder if, after that remark, the president will still be interested in sitting on the good senator's somewhat more modest porch.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: For a Canadian prime minister who took office two years ago promising to repair Canada-US relations, Paul Martin seems to have rather enthusiastically thrown himself into a spat with his southern neighbor, as he campaigns for the 23 January election. The war of words between the two countries has suddenly made Canada-US relations a leading issue in a campaign previously dominated by differences of opinion over sales tax and finding ways to reform the public health system. The touch paper to the dispute was lit last Tuesday by the US ambassador to Canada, who in a clear reference to Mr. Martin and his Liberal Party, warned Canadian politicians against making his country a target during the campaign. Mr. Martin and his Liberal predecessor, Jean Chretien, have in fact been taking sideswipes at the Bush administration for some time. Mr. Chretien opposed the US-led war in Iraq and hit a diplomatic low when one of his senior advisers was overheard referring to President Bush as "a moron".

The UN General Assembly has adopted an anti-Nazi resolution, initiated by Russia. Some 114 countries supported the document, with 4 states against and 57 abstentions. The resolution expresses a serious concern about the growing activity of extremist, racist and xenophobic organizations in the world. The Russian Foreign Ministry is concerned that some countries including the US and Japan voted against the document, while many countries (all EU members) abstained. States such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia abstained as well, although these nations suffered a lot during World War II, the ministry's information and press department claimed.

Habeas Corpus Death Watch: It would be "wholly imprudent" for the Supreme Court to hear Jose Padilla's challenge to his military detention as an enemy combatant, the Bush administration told the court in urging the justices to dismiss Mr. Padilla's case as moot now that the government plans to try him on terrorism charges in a civilian court. In a brief filed late Friday, the administration argued that Mr. Padilla's indictment last month by a federal grand jury has given him the "very relief" he sought when he filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal court. Any Supreme Court decision now on his petition, which a federal appeals court rejected in September, "will have no practical effect" on Mr. Padilla, the brief said. Lawyers for Mr. Padilla, a United States citizen who was arrested at O'Hare airport in Chicago in May 2002 and transferred to military custody, filed his Supreme Court appeal in October. Ordinarily, the court would have acted by now, but the justices gave the government until Friday to file its response. Mr. Padilla's lawyers will now have a chance to respond to the administration's brief before the court decides early next year whether to hear the case. As the administration filed its Supreme Court brief, Mr. Padilla's five-member legal team filed a brief with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., asking that court to keep jurisdiction over Mr. Padilla's case long enough for the Supreme Court to act on it.

First Amendment Death Watch: A senior at University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called "The Little Red Book." Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library's interlibrary loan program. The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand's class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents' home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said. The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a "watch list," and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further. "I tell my students to go to the direct source, and so he asked for the official Peking version of the book," Professor Pontbriand said. "Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring inter-library loans, because that's what triggered the visit, as I understand it."

U.S. military officials in Iraq were fully aware that a Pentagon contractor regularly paid Iraqi newspapers to publish positive stories about the war, and made it clear that none of the stories should be traced to the United States, according to several current and former employees of Lincoln Group, the Washington-based contractor. In contrast to assertions by military officials in Baghdad and Washington, interviews and Lincoln Group documents show that the information campaign waged over the last year was designed to cloak any connection to the U.S. military. "In clandestine parlance, Lincoln Group was a 'cutout' — a third party — that would provide the military with plausible deniability," said a former Lincoln Group employee who worked on the operation. "To attribute products to [the military] would defeat the entire purpose. Hence, no product by Lincoln Group ever said 'Made in the U.S.A.' " A number of workers who carried out Lincoln Group's offensive, including a $20-million two-month contract to influence public opinion in Iraq's restive Al Anbar province, describe a campaign that was unnecessarily costly, poorly run and largely ineffective at improving America's image in Iraq. The current and former employees spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality restrictions.

Republicans Govern For The Benefit Of The People: Smirkey's corporate champions see the spoils of his administration in coal. And timber. And credit-card payments, Afghan electric lines, Japanese bank transfers and fake crab. America's business leaders supplied more than $75 million to return Mr. Bush to the White House last year -- and he has paid dividends. Bush administration policies, grand and obscure, have financially benefited companies or lobbying clients tied to at least 200 of the president's largest campaign fund-raisers, a Toledo Blade investigation has found. Dozens more stand to gain from Bush-backed initiatives that recently passed or await congressional approval. The investigation included targeted tax breaks, regulatory changes, pro-business legislation, high-profile salaried appointments, and federal contracts. Smirkey's policies often followed specific requests from his 548 "Pioneers" and "Rangers," who each raised at least $100,000 or $200,000 for his 2004 re-election. The help to business fund-raisers sometimes came at the expense of consumers or public health concerns.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Scientists have for the first time found evidence that polar bears are drowning because climate change is melting the Arctic ice shelf. The researchers were startled to find bears having to swim up to 60 miles across open sea to find food. They are being forced into the long voyages because the ice floes from which they feed are melting, becoming smaller and drifting farther apart. Although polar bears are strong swimmers, they are adapted for swimming close to the shore. Their sea journeys leave them them vulnerable to exhaustion, hypothermia or being swamped by waves. According to the new research, four bear carcases were found floating in one month in a single patch of sea off the north coast of Alaska, where average summer temperatures have increased by 2-3C degrees since 1950s. The scientists believe such drownings are becoming widespread across the Arctic, an inevitable consequence of the doubling in the past 20 years of the proportion of polar bears having to swim in open seas.

Scandals R Us: It seems that just about every politically sensitive trial in Washington D.C. these days ends up in the court of Reggie Walton. Randomly assigned of course, but somehow always mysteriously landing there. Plamegate. Judith Miller. And now, not one, but two trials of FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds. So why is Reggie so popular with the roll of the dice? No one knows, other than the fact that it is well known that he is a long-time Bush Administration insider, with links to the clan going back to King George I. Now it surfaces that Judge Walton's financial disclosure form, required of all federal judges, has been released under the FOIA, but it has been redacted. Completely. Every single line of it. But let’s not jump to conclusions. It’s probably all fine - just a safety precaution, as the following excerpt from a 2004 Government Accountability Office report explains: "The Ethics in Government Act requires judges and other federal officials to file financial disclosure reports as a check on conflicts of interest. However, given potential security risks to federal judges, Congress authorized redactions of information that could endanger them. This redaction authority is set to expire at the end of 2005." Stay tuned, folks. This one could get interesting.

A state district judge said Saturday he will not immediately consider separating two criminal charges against Rep. Tom DeLay to allow an early trial, another blow to the former House majority leader's hopes of regaining his post. Earlier this month, Senior Judge Pat Priest dismissed a conspiracy charge against DeLay but refused to throw out more serious allegations of money laundering. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle served notice Monday that he intends to ask an appeals court to reinstate the conspiracy charge. DeLay's attorneys had hoped Priest would separate the charges in an effort to move forward on the money laundering charge while waiting for the appeals court decision.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:43:37 PM

Sat, Dec 17 2005

On The Mend

The weather has been sensational, both yesterday and today, and I was glad for the warmer temperatures to help me get over my case of the galloping gambu. After a severely sunny afternoon yesterday of 83 degrees, the temperature dropped only to 70 overnight, and this afternoon reached 82. With few exceptions, it was cloudless most of the time. It was rather windy this morning, but the wind didn't last, and by noon, it was dead calm. Most of the night was cloudless, and it was interesting seeing the full moon - passing through the northern sky, and yesterday as close to the earth as it gets in its 18-year cycle, it was also as bright as it gets. It almost seemed like the pre-dawn light out there in the garden last night.

I got rather little sleep last night, as the gambu kept me running to the throne room all night, at least once every half hour. My appetite had returned yesterday, at least a little bit, and so I had two full meals yesterday, and that no doubt contributed to the restless night. By morning, I was pretty tired, and during a break in the excess of fluidity, I slept for a good two hours, the most rest I got all night. By ten, I was up and made my way to the farmacia for some relief. Apparently, the pharmacist, very sweet and attractive young lady, has been dispensing it with some frequency, because I noticed she keeps it right within arms' reach. A quick stop at the supermarket for a paper and a few groceries I was out of, the carniceria (butcher shop) for some ground beef, and it was back home.

Being pretty tired by the time I had read the paper, I went straight to bed, and slept from one in the afternoon to about four thirty. When I woke up, I was feeling a whole lot better. Good enough to enjoy the weather out in the garden. I went for a brief walk out in the garden and noticed that the tropical irises and a few other flowering shrubs are in bloom and putting on quite the show - especially the poinsettia, which is not only in bloom, but is more brightly scarlet red than any poinsettia I have ever seen. It is very slowly growing in my garden (the soil in that spot is rather poor), but I have never seen one looking so dramatically bright red. With the freshly mown lawn and weeded flowerbeds, the garden was quite a joy. Seeing the television images of the horrible blizzards up north, I am sure glad I am down here in the midst of summer.

Maybe by tomorrow, I'll be back to normal. Sure hope so. There is much I need to catch up on.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Smirkey secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials. Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications. The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval represents a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad. As a result, some officials familiar with the continuing operation have questioned whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed, constitutional limits on legal searches. "This is really a sea change," said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. "It's almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches." Smirkey on Saturday admitted he authorized secret monitoring of communications within the United States in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks.

Thirty-two percent (32%) of Americans believe that President George W. Bush should be impeached and removed from office. Fifty-eight percent (58%) take the opposite view. However, just 30% of Americans would be more likely to vote for a Congressional candidate who promised to work for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney. Fifty-two percent (52%) would be less likely to vote for such a candidate. The number who support impeachment is very similar to the 33% who believe it is impossible for the United States mission in Iraq to succeed. Thirty-five percent (35%) of Americans believe Vice President Cheney should be impeached and removed from office.

Smirkey embraced Sen. John McCain's proposal to ban cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terrorism suspects on Thursday, reversing months of opposition that included White House veto threats. Bowing to pressure from the Republican-run Congress and abroad, the White House signed off on the proposal after a fight that pitted the president against members of his own party and threatened to further tarnish a U.S. image already soiled by the abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. One of the final stumbling blocks in negotiations was removed when language was added allowing civilian interrogators the same legal protections as those afforded to military interrogators. Those rules say the accused can defend themselves by arguing it was reasonable for them to believe they were obeying a legal order. The government also would provide counsel for accused interrogators. That language was McCain's own counterproposal to the White House's early calls, pushed by Vice President Dick Cheney, for an exemption for CIA interrogators. The administration had also sought some protection from prosecution for such agents accused of violating the standards. The vote came after the New York Times published an article it said it had held for more than a year, alleging that Smirkey had authorized bugging of American citizens without a warrant. He insisted he has not compromised civil liberties. A storm of protest erupted after the New York Times said the National Security Agency (NSA) was allowed to eavesdrop on hundreds of people. Senators from both sides called for an explanation and investigation. Mr Bush refused to confirm or deny the claims, but said he always upheld the law and protected civil liberties. The president said he would not discuss ongoing intelligence operations.

After years of suffering disastrous economic results by doing what Washington demanded, Argentina some years ago rejected the "Washington Consensus" of free markets, privatization, and brutal desocialization of governmental policy, and has instead gone back to what has been shown to build strong economies. The result has been nothing short of miraculous, and now Argentina has announced that it will pay back the first of its IMF debts three years early, saving $1 billion in interest charges. The economy is growing at an impressive rate and, speaking after the president, new Economy Minister Felisa Miceli said exports were at a record high. Brazil, following a similar path, has previously announced it will pay back its IMF loans four years early.

Commentator Robert Novak, who hasn't been seen on CNN since swearing and storming off the set in August, will leave the network after 25 years and join Fox News Channel as a contributor next month. Novak, 74, said Friday he probably would have left CNN anyway when his contract expired this month even if it hadn't been for the incident. A Novak column in July 2003 identified Valerie Plame as a CIA agent eight days after her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, accused the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence before the Iraq war. Novak wrote that two administration officials were his sources, but he hasn't identified them and Plame's outing sparked a special prosecutor's investigation.

For $35 per person - $28 for children - a New Orleans company is offering bus tours of some of the city's most misery-stricken spots, including the Superdome, the Convention Center and neighborhoods ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Residents disagree over whether the tours are crass and morbid exploitation, or a good way to help people grasp the enormity of the disaster and keep public attention focused on New Orleans' plight. The three-hour tours, called "Hurricane Katrina - America's Worst Castastrophe," were announced last week by Gray Line New Orleans, with the first one set for Jan. 4.

U.S. Sen. Trent Lott is suing his insurance company over his beachfront Pascagoula home, which was leveled by Hurricane Katrina. The law office of Lott's brother-in-law, high-profile plaintiff's Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, filed the federal lawsuit Thursday on behalf of Lott and his wife against State Farm. The case is part of an ongoing wind-versus-water-damage showdown between insurance companies and thousands of storm victims. The issue is whether a wind-driven storm surge is the same as flooding. The companies contend they shouldn't have to pay for water damage for those who did not have flood policies. "Today I have joined in a lawsuit against my longtime insurance company because it will not honor my policy, nor those of thousands of other south Mississippians, for coverage against wind damage due to Hurricane Katrina," said Lott, R-Miss. "There is no credible argument that there was no wind damage to my home in Pascagoula." State Farm did not immediately respond to messages left by The Associated Press. Will Lott help other Americans who find themselves in a similar predicament? Don't hold your breath.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: Canada's Prime Minister, Paul Martin, has warned the US that he will "not be dictated to," saying Canadians expected him to stand up for their country. Mr Martin was responding to comments made by US Ambassador David Wilkins. On Tuesday, the diplomat urged Canadian politicians to watch what they said about the US while campaigning for January's general election. Mr Martin is fighting for re-election after his minority government was ousted in a no-confidence vote. Relations between the two neighbouring countries suffered after Canada refused to support the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Last week, Mr Martin lambasted Washington over its decision not to join the global effort to combat climate change.

With American prestige at an all-time low, trade ministers from around the world rebuffed American requests at the World Trade Organization conference in Hong Kong on Saturday as police battled rioting South Korean rice farmers outside with tear gas, smoke grenades and fire hoses. Ministers produced a draft agreement at the World Trade Organization conference that reflected some positions sought by the European Union and some favored by developing countries, while leaving many issues for future negotiations. Important provisions, including opening of African markets to American goods, sought by the United States were not included in the draft. The agreement did not set a clear date for an end to most subsidies for agricultural exports and did not require countries to lower their tariffs on farm goods. It also did very little to reduce tariffs on manufactured goods, and made few changes to rules covering service industries like insurance and express package delivery. Commenting that America was arrogantly demanding that it open its markets to American goods, while refusing to do anything about America's agricultural subsidies that effectively keep African agricultural exports out, the Zambian representative said it best: "What part of 'NO' don't you understand?" he demanded.

The European Parliament agreed on Thursday to set up a probe into allegations that the CIA used European states to illegally transport and detain terrorism suspects. The investigation comes in the wake of allegations that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was operating secret jails in Romania and Poland and covertly flying prisoners through airports in Italy, Germany and Romania. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that the United States respects the sovereignty of European countries in its fight against terrorism but she would not confirm or deny specific reports of CIA secret prisons in Europe. "The European Parliament is serious and determined about getting at the truth regarding extraordinary renditions through an investigating committee," British Liberal Democrat Baroness Sarah Ludford told Reuters. She said that "if necessary" the assembly would also launch the European Union's sanctions process against member states "which have gravely breached human rights."

Michael Toner, a former attorney for President Bush's election and the Republican National Committee, was chosen Thursday by fellow members of the Federal Election Commission to head the FEC in 2006. The commission was formed after the Watergate scandal to enforce the nation's campaign finance laws. The chairmanship rotates annually between Republicans and Democrats on the six-member commission. Toner, one of three Republicans on the FEC, will succeed current chairman Scott Thomas, a Democrat. Danny McDonald, one of the commission's other two Democratic members, will serve as vice chairman next year. Toner was general counsel of Bush's 2000 campaign and became the RNC's lead lawyer in 2001. Bush named him to the FEC in 2002, and the Senate confirmed him to the job the following year.

Diebold Watch: There's new evidence that computer hackers could change election results of Diebold touch-screen voting machines without anyone knowing about it, WESH Television News has reported. The supervisor of elections in Tallahassee tested voting machines several times over the last several months, and on Monday, his workers were able to hack into a voting machine and change the outcome. He said that same thing might have happened in Volusia County in 2000. The big controversy revolves around a little black computer card that is smaller than a floppy disk and bigger than a flash drive. The card is inserted into voting machines that scan paper ballots. The card serves as the machine's electronic brain. But when Ion Sancho, Leon County's Supervisor of Elections, tested the Diebold system and allowed experts to manipulate the card electronically, he could change the outcome of a mock election without leaving any kind of trail. In other words, someone could fix an election and no one would know. "The expert that we used simply programmed it on his laptop in his hotel room," Sancho said. Sancho began investigating the problem after watching the votes come in during the infamous 2000 presidential election. In Volusia County precinct 216, a memory card added more than 200 votes to George W. Bush's total and subtracted 16,000 votes from Al Gore. The mistake was later corrected during a hand count.

Diebold voting machines will soon be history in Volusia County, FL. After a nearly five-hour hearing, County Council members voted to replace its Diebold machines with an entirely new system manufactured by Election Systems and Software. The move, which will cost more than $2.5 million just for the equipment, was prompted by a federal mandate to buy at least one handicapped-accessible voting machine per precinct by Jan. 1. But the only such devices approved for use in Florida are ATM-like touch-screen machines that don't use paper ballots. But a majority of County Council members want devices that use paper. The agreement approved Friday on a 4-3 vote allows the county to trade in the paperless touch screens for an ES&S-supported ballot-marking device with an accessible touch-screen called AutoMark if it gets approved for use in Florida. That would cost an additional $150,000.

Trickle Down Trickling On You: General Motors Corp. is suspending contributions to its 401(k) retirement savings plan for salaried workers, a spokesman said on Thursday. "We continue to monitor the business in determining when to reinstate the matching contributions," GM spokesman Robert Herta said. The world's largest automaker was also dropping the requirement that up to 3 percent of worker's contributions and 100 percent of the automaker's contribution be invested in GM shares. This was done to give employees more flexibility to choose their stocks and mutual funds, Herta said, adding that the changes take effect January 1. GM now contributes 20 cents for each $1 that workers invest in the 401(k) plan up to 6 percent of an employee's base salary, Herta said. GM last year reduced its 401(k) match from 50 cents on the dollar to 20 cents.

After experiencing record demand for food immediately after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Gulf Coast food banks are now in danger of coming up short. Local food banks throughout the region are warning that many people in the area are already going hungry. Demand for food assistance in the worst-hit areas tripled and remains at unprecedented levels across the region, according to a study released yesterday by America’s Second Harvest (ASH), the nation’s largest network of food banks. In interviews with food-assistance recipients and center directors in Gulf Coast states, ASH found an increase in demand across areas with varying income levels, with even some wealthier areas experiencing a doubling of demand. Through the first two months after Hurricane Katrina hit, more than 70 percent of food bank users were first-time clients, ASH said. The number of newcomers remains high, about double pre-hurricane levels, the study found.

The Bush administration told several states earlier this week that they could not use the projected rise in home-heating costs to increase food-stamp benefits. The decision came as Congress prepares cuts to the program in a move that may leave an additional 250,000 needy people without food aid this year. At least five states filed amended requests for Food Stamp Program fund increases that reflect Department of Energy home-heating price-increase projections, the progressive economic think tank Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) announced yesterday. The states – South Carolina, Kansas, Maine, New York and Virginia – maintain that the updates are necessary to ensure that low-income families can afford both heat and food this winter. Such requests are routine, the CBPP said, but, in an apparent policy change, the US Department of Agriculture turned down all five states, stating that its budget remains based on last year’s figures. The decision is likely to affect people on fixed incomes, and the CBPP said low-income families "will face difficult choices between heating their homes and keeping up with their other expenses, like buying groceries, putting gasoline in their cars, and affording prescription drugs and other medical costs."

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: This year has been the warmest on record in the northern hemisphere, say scientists in Britain. It is the second warmest globally since the 1860s, when reliable records began, they say. After a record-breaking hurricane season, blistering heat waves, lingering drought and a crippling Northeast blizzard, 2005 is ending as a warm year in the United States. It will come close to the all-time high global annual average temperature, based on preliminary data gathered by scientists at the NOAA National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. Warmer-than-average 2005 for U.S. NOAA scientists report that the 2005 annual average temperature for the contiguous United States (based on preliminary data) will likely be 1.0 degrees F (0.6 degrees C) above the 1895-2004 mean, which will make 2005 one of the 20 warmest years on record for the country. Mean temperatures through the end of November were warmer than average in all but three states. No state was cooler than average. A July heat wave pushed temperatures soaring beyond 100 degrees, and broke more than 200 daily records established in six western states. A new record of seven consecutive days at — or above — 125 degrees F was established at Death Valley, Calif. The heat wave spread across the country during late July, scorching the East and prompted record electricity usage in New England and New York.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: The American Family Association says that Ford Motor Company reneged on some agreements reached in discussions with the automobile giant, and the organization is considering its next move. “We had an agreement with Ford, worked out in good faith. Unfortunately, some Ford Motor Company officials made the decision to violate the good faith agreement. We are now considering our response to the violation and expect to reach a decision very soon,” said Donald E. Wildmon, chairman of AFA. “All we wanted was for Ford to refrain from choosing sides in the cultural war, and supporting groups which promote same-sex marriage is not remaining neutral,” Wildmon stated.

News From Smirkey's Wars: The Iraqi Government admitted today that its security forces had captured Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the one-legged Jordanian terror chief whose picture is plastered all over the country, but let him go because nobody recognised him. Iraq's most-wanted man was arrested in the rebel stronghold of Fallujah last year with a group of other insurgents, but he was released after a "simple interrogation." The confession was made by Hussain Kamal, the deputy Interior Minister. "He was arrested more than one year ago in Fallujah by Iraqi police," Mr Kamal said. "It seems they did not recognize him, that’s why they released him."

News From The Department Of Torture: A detainee at the U.S. prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay pulled stitches out of his arm this week in what was at least his tenth suicide attempt, the Justice Department said. Juma'a Mohammed al-Dossary, a 32-year-old prisoner from Bahrain, was hospitalized Monday after pulling out his stitches for at least the second time, the Justice Department said in a letter released by al-Dossary's attorney Saturday. Al-Dossary also cut his bicep, the letter said, without specifying how.

Scandals R Us: Republican Sen. Conrad Burns (news, bio, voting record) is attempting to cut his ties to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, saying he will return about $150,000 in donations he received from Abramoff and the lobbyist's clients and associates.The decision was a reversal from earlier in the week, when a spokesman for Burns said the senator would not return the money because it had already been spent.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's AIDS charity paid nearly a half-million dollars in consulting fees to members of his political inner circle, according to tax returns providing the first financial accounting of the presidential hopeful's nonprofit. The returns for World of Hope Inc., obtained by The Associated Press, also show the charity raised the lion's share of its $4.4 million from just 18 sources. They gave between $97,950 and $267,735 each to help fund Frist's efforts to fight AIDS. The tax forms, filed nine months after they were first due, do not identify the 18 major donors by name. Frist's lawyer, Alex Vogel, said Friday that he would not give their names because tax law does not require their public disclosure.

Newly disclosed e-mail messages from lobbyist Jack Abramoff show that he told an Indian tribe client that he was being pressured by U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, for a contribution for a $25,000-a-table Republican fundraiser and that DeLay had personally phoned the lobbyist's office in search of the money. The three-year-old messages suggest that the request was passed on to the tribe for payment within hours. They offer no evidence that DeLay knew such a request for political money would be forwarded to Indian tribes and their gambling operations, and the messages from Abramoff's files suggest that he edited one e-mail to exaggerate any contact with the lawmaker. DeLay's lawyer said DeLay never made the telephone call. A New York businessman charged with fraud alongside prominent Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the purchase of a Florida casino cruise line pleaded guilty on Thursday to fraud and conspiracy charges. The case against Abramoff and former business partner Adam Kidan has gained wide attention in Washington because Abramoff, a Republican fund-raiser, has close ties to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and is a central figure in influence-buying investigations.

Rep. Tom DeLay's attorneys filed a subpoena Thursday seeking the testimony of grand jurors, including those who indicted the former House majority leader and those who rejected charges. DeLay's legal team wants to prove prosecutorial misconduct by District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who they say "shopped around" the campaign finance case against DeLay to three different grand juries before finding one that would indict DeLay on money laundering and conspiracy charges. State law prohibits prosecutors from attending grand jury deliberations, but the defense alleges that Earle unlawfully participated in the second grand jury's deliberations and tried to force those grand jurors to indict DeLay. Earle denies the allegations. Grand jury testimony is secret and Earle does not have to release transcripts unless he's ordered to by a court, so the defense has asked Senior Judge Pat Priest to allow the grand jurors to testify. DeLay's legal team points to a flurry of grand jury activity beginning with his initial indictment Sept. 28 on a charge of conspiring to violate state campaign finance laws in 2002. A second grand jury considered the case after questions were raised about whether the appropriate law was used to indict DeLay. That panel did not indict. Days later, a third grand jury indicted DeLay on more serious money laundering and conspiracy charges. That grand jury is still seated and is under oath not to discuss their proceedings.

A judge Friday refused to muzzle out-of-court statements related to the fraud and conspiracy case against Enron Corp. founder Kenneth Lay and former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling after Lay's speech Tuesday lambasting government tactics in pursuing him. U.S. District Judge Sim Lake denied prosecutors' request for a gag order at a hearing Friday that was scheduled before Lay spoke Tuesday to Houston business and academic leaders. Lay, Skilling and former top Enron accountant Richard Causey are scheduled for trial Jan. 17. Lake himself brought up the possibility of a gag order last month in anticipation of heavy publicity stemming from the blockbuster trial to emerge from the Justice Department's nearly 4-year-old investigation of Enron's 2001 collapse. But the judge decided against a gag order for the second time this month, saying Friday that Lay's speech was "a drop in the bucket" among news stories, books and movies spawned by the Enron scandal. Prosecutors had supported it, but the defense teams didn't. "If this were the only thing ever said about Enron in the media, this might be a concern," Lake said.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:41:46 PM

Thu, Dec 15 2005

Sick As A Dog

Weather yesterday continued its horrible streak, with no overnight low of 64, and daytime high yesterday of only 76. It was very windy and rained most of the day yesterday, but today I woke up to a gloriously sunny morning, and for the most part, the sunny weather continued all day, raising the temperature to a high of 80, a very pleasant change. And it was a good thing the weather was warm today too.

The gardener came today, needing to get his work done to accomodate a trip to Liberia he was planning to make tomorrow. That was fine with me, I saw no problem with that, and he got the grass mowed today and spread some of the fertilizer around that I bought at the Dos Pinos Co-op yesterday. I had gone to Tilaran to get my property taxes paid before the alcalderia (municipal offices) closed for the remainder of the year, which I had heard they were going to do. Well, I figured the place would be mobbed, but I was the only "customer" in there. Got the taxes paid, got my receipt and was on my way.

When I got up this morning, I was feeling a bit off, but not horribly so, but was too tired to help much with the gardening. The gardener got the fertilizer down on all the bougainvillea cuttings that are rooted, and were needing badly to be fertilized. And a brief, light rain this evening was perfect for watering it in. Now if the rain will just hold off for a few days...

About the time the gardener had finished up, I noticed myself shutting off the fan in the office, even though the temperature was 80 degrees in the room. That was a bad sign and I knew it. As soon as I got up, it hit me, and I knew I was sick with something. I went straight to bed. Headache, fatigue, a churning stomach and frequent trips to the throne room meant I was down for the count. I suspect food poisoning.

A bit later, one of my Tico neighbors came by, and when I told him I was not feeling well, I knew right away that his wife was going to come by to mother me a bit. They're a very caring couple, as Tico friends usually are, and sure enough, about eight o'clock tonight, there they were on my doorstep to check up on me. The couple, with their daughter's boyfriend, who is a gringo and speaks English very well, was there to make sure I was doing OK and see if I needed anything. I reported that I was no worse off than earlier in the afternoon, but I would know more in the morning, which will probably tell the story. They said they'd be by around ten in the morning, and again around three in the afternoon. I thanked them profusely for looking in on me. As a life-long bachelor, I am not used to this kind of attention.

So if this is the last blog entry for a few days, you'll know why. I'll get this one uploaded and then I am going to bed. Wish me luck. I am going to need it - it is apt to be a rough - and long - night.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Last month, Republican Congressional leaders filed into the Oval Office to meet with President George W. Bush and talk about renewing the controversial USA Patriot Act. Several provisions of the act, passed in the shell shocked period immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, caused enough anger that liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union had joined forces with prominent conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and Bob Barr to oppose renewal. GOP leaders told Bush that his hardcore push to renew the more onerous provisions of the act could further alienate conservatives still mad at the President from his botched attempt to nominate White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. “I don’t give a goddamn,” Bush retorted. “I’m the President and the Commander-in-Chief. Do it my way.” “Mr. President,” one aide in the meeting said. “There is a valid case that the provisions in this law undermine the Constitution.” “Stop throwing the Constitution in my face,” Bush screamed back. “It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!” I’ve talked to three people present for the meeting that day and they all confirm that the President of the United States called the Constitution “a goddamned piece of paper.” And, to the Bush Administration, the Constitution of the United States is little more than toilet paper stained from all the shit that this group of power-mad despots have dumped on the freedoms that “goddamned piece of paper” used to guarantee. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, while still White House counsel, wrote that the “Constitution is an outdated document.” Put aside, for a moment, political affiliation or personal beliefs. It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat, Republican or Independent. It doesn’t matter if you support the invasion or Iraq or not. Despite our differences, the Constitution has stood for two centuries as the defining document of our government, the final source to determine – in the end – if something is legal or right. Every federal official – including the President – who takes an oath of office swears to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States."

A year ago, at a Quaker Meeting House in Lake Worth, Fla., a small group of activists met to plan a protest of military recruiting at local high schools. What they didn't know was that their meeting had come to the attention of the U.S. military. A secret 400-page Defense Department document obtained by NBC News lists the Lake Worth meeting as a “threat” and one of more than 1,500 “suspicious incidents” across the country over a recent 10-month period. “This peaceful, educationally oriented group being a threat is incredible,” says Evy Grachow, a member of the Florida group called The Truth Project. “This is incredible,” adds group member Rich Hersh. “It's an example of paranoia by our government,” he says. “We're not doing anything illegal.” The Defense Department document is the first inside look at how the U.S. military has stepped up intelligence collection inside this country since 9/11, which now includes the monitoring of peaceful anti-war and counter-military recruitment groups. “I think Americans should be concerned that the military, in fact, has reached too far,” says NBC News military analyst Bill Arkin. The Department of Defense declined repeated requests by NBC News for an interview. A spokesman said that all domestic intelligence information is “properly collected” and involves “protection of Defense Department installations, interests and personnel.” The military has always had a legitimate “force protection” mission inside the U.S. to protect its personnel and facilities from potential violence. But the Pentagon now collects domestic intelligence that goes beyond legitimate concerns about terrorism or protecting U.S. military installations, say critics. The DOD database obtained by NBC News includes nearly four dozen anti-war meetings or protests, including some that have taken place far from any military installation, post or recruitment center. One “incident” included in the database is a large anti-war protest at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles last March that included effigies of President Bush and anti-war protest banners. Another incident mentions a planned protest against military recruiters last December in Boston and a planned protest last April at McDonald’s National Salute to America’s Heroes — a military air and sea show in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.The Fort Lauderdale protest was deemed not to be a credible threat and a column in the database concludes: “US group exercising constitutional rights.” Two-hundred and forty-three other incidents in the database were discounted because they had no connection to the Department of Defense — yet they all remained in the database.

Amid the Federal Bureau of Investigation documents recently released under public information requests is a memo mentioning changes in Justice Department policy that permit the FBI to ignore the office specifically tasked with providing oversight and advice to Department agencies. The memo mentions the changes only in passing and does not discuss when they were implemented or at whose direction. Exposed yesterday by the Electronic Privacy Rights Information Center, a nonprofit privacy rights advocate, the internal FBI Office of General Counsel memo discusses Bureau policies and activities related to "roving wiretaps" and other Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) tools expanded under the USA Patriot Act. It also notes that the Patriot Act’s easing of restrictions on surveillance "has benefited the FBI’s mission in general… as it has made considering and/or obtaining FISAs more possible under appropriate circumstances." Heavily redacted, stamped "Secret" and under the heading "New Standard for Business Records for FISA," the last line of the General Counsel memo reads: "…notes the process would appear to be greatly improved based on recent changes allowing FBIHQ/OGC [FBI Head Quarters/Office of General Counsel] to bypass OIPR [Office of Intelligence Policy and Review], but the benefits have not been fully realized yet." In a press conference called to oppose the Patriot Act reauthorization and discuss the newly obtained information, EPIC questioned how much the public really knows about Justice Department changes allowed under the Act.

The Environmental Protection Agency is nearing approval of long fought-over changes in the rules governing the use and testing of pesticides and other potential toxins on human subjects. The EPA has been temporarily barred from relying on the results of human tests since this summer, when Congress ordered the Agency develop new standards. Offered in September, the proposed rule provides clearer guidelines for human testing and would bar any government money from going directly to human testing. But the proposal leaves open the possibility for so-called "third parties," oftentimes the manufacturer, to use data gathered through "intentional-dosing human studies." Public-interest and consumer advocates have long attacked such studies because they are producer-controlled and sometimes dangerous to participants, who are often poor and are lured by the relatively small cash payments provided for taking part.

Eight Democratic senators asked the Justice Department on Wednesday to investigate whether any of the chief executives of five major oil companies lied or misled Congress during a recent hearing on industry profits. The issue involves a question by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., at the Nov. 9 hearing about whether any of the oil companies' representatives participated in Vice President Dick Cheney's 2001 energy task force activities. Testifying at the Senate hearing were the chief executives of Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, Shell Oil Co., and BP America Inc. Four of the executives said they were not aware of any such participation; a fifth said he did not know. In subsequent letters, seeking to clarify their responses, the executives reiterated that they believe they responded truthfully. Some also acknowledged that their companies had contacts with task force staff members and discussed energy priorities. "Many of these latter statements (by the oil executives) admitted participation in task force activities and raised greater concern about the accuracy of the hearing testimony," the senators wrote Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Wednesday to renew the USA Patriot Act, setting up a showdown with the Senate over a centerpiece of Smirkey's war on terrorism. On a 251-174 vote, the House approved the measure, with supporters saying it would properly balance civil liberties with the need to bolster national security. But a number of Democrats and Republicans vowed to oppose the legislation in the Senate. They charged that despite increased congressional and judicial oversight, it would still give the government too much power to pry into the lives of Americans, including their medical, gun ownership and library records. Opponents have threatened a Senate procedural roadblock known as a filibuster. It was unclear if they could prevent backers from mustering the needed 60 votes in the 100-member, Republican-led chamber to cut off such a tactic. A vote was set for Friday. A Senate Democratic leadership aide said opponents seemed to have from 40 to 46 votes to sustain a filibuster. Republicans said it was uncertain how many votes they would have. "It's going to be close," a Senate Republican aide said.

With no notice and little public discussion, a federal agency is refusing to release personnel information on a set of federal employees. A public-interest clearinghouse requested the data, which is of a nature that has been kept public for some 200 years, in order to make it available to journalists, researchers and advocacy organizations. In a statement released last week, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), an information and research project focused on the federal government, announced it had filed a lawsuit in a New York District Court. The suit challenges the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) failure to fully comply with the fourteen-month-old public records request. TRAC, which is affiliated with Syracuse University, estimates that, in a departure from previous practice, OPM is withholding information on about 900,000 members of the federal workforce.

People with disabilities and their advocates are questioning Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito’s commitment to upholding established law and protecting the hard-won rights of disabled people. A coalition of organizations defending the civil rights of people with disabilities has announced its opposition to the Third Circuit Court judge’s ascension to the nation’s highest court. The coalition says a number of Alito’s previous decisions show a pattern of disregard for the laws protecting disabled people from discrimination. Most threatening, according to information collected by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, are opinions Alito took on cases involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Fair Housing Amendments Act. Taken together, the three laws broadly cover community and employment discrimination and provide the backbone for many other federal, state and local laws protecting the rights of physically and mentally impaired people. Among decisions highlighted in the Bazelon report is a 2000 ruling that Congress lacked the power to implement the unpaid leave portion of the FMLA. Also noted are a 1999 finding that a disability-rights group lacked legal standing to sue the Department of Housing and Urban Development over failing to enforce its own regulations and a decision in 2002 that depression and sleep disorders are not covered by the ADA.

Yasir al-Qutaji is a 30-year-old lawyer from Mosul, Iraq. In March 2004, while exploring allegations that US troops were torturing Iraqis, Qutaji was arrested by American forces. News accounts describe how he was then subjected to the same kinds of punishment he was investigating. He was hooded, stripped naked and doused with cold water. He was beaten by American soldiers who wore gloves so as not to leave permanent marks. And he was left in a room soldiers blithely called The Disco, a place where Western music rang out so loud that his interrogators were, in Qutaji's words, forced to "talk to me via a loudspeaker that was placed next to my ears." Qutaji is hardly the only Iraqi to speak of loud music being blared at him, and the technique echoes far beyond Mosul. In Qaim, near the Syrian border, Newsweek found American soldiers blasting Metallica's "Enter Sandman" at detainees in a shipping crate while flashing lights in their eyes. Near Falluja, three Iraqi journalists working for Reuters were seized by the 82nd Airborne. They charged that "deafening music" was played directly into their ears while soldiers ordered them to dance. And back in Mosul, Haitham al-Mallah described being hooded, handcuffed and delivered to a location where soldiers boomed "extremely loud (and dirty) music" at him. Mallah said the site was "an unknown place which they call the disco." Disco isn't dead. It has gone to war.

One day before Iraq's historic parliamentary elections, Smirkey defended his decision to invade that country and reserved the right to preemptive war in the future. "In an age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, if we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long," he said in a speech aimed at shoring up flagging US support for the conflict. The president took responsibility for launching the March 2003 invasion based on intelligence that "turned out to be wrong" about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, none of which were found. "As president, I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq - and I'm also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities. And we're doing just that," he said. The US president, who embraced preemptive war as US strategy after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, did not name any potential targets, but said the Iraq vote would put pressure on the governments of Iran and Syria. "We are living through a watershed moment in the story of freedom," he said. Iraq "will be a model for the Middle East. Freedom in Iraq will inspire reformers from Damascus to Tehran."

Google being used to censor Chinese news? One week after the violent police suppression of a demonstration against the construction of a power plant in China that left as many as 20 people dead, the overwhelming majority of the Chinese public still knows nothing of the event. Following the biggest use of armed force against civilians since the massacre around Tiananmen Square in 1989, Chinese officials have used a blend of techniques, from barring most newspapers outside of the immediate region of the incident to report on it, to banning place names and other keywords associated with the event from major Internet search engines, such as Google, to prevent news of the deaths from spreading. Beijing's handling of the news, which was widely reported by international media, provides an unusually revealing picture of the government's ambitions to control the flow of information to its citizens, and of the increasingly sophisticated techniques - a combination of old-fashioned authoritarian methods and the latest Internet technologies - used to do so.

Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris USA doesn't have to pay a $10.1 billion damage award to smokers of "light" cigarettes who accused the company of misleading them about health risks, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled. Shares rose $4.45 to $78.18 or 6 percent at 10:49 a.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The Springfield, Illinois-based court reversed a decision by a lower court judge who said Philip Morris "intended to deceive consumers" into believing its Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights were safer than regular brands. The court found that Illinois law didn't permit the suit because the U.S. Federal Trade Commission had authorized cigarette makers to characterize their products as "light" or "low tar." The decision today removes an obstacle to Altria's plan to break up the company to make the company more valuable. It may doom similar suits in Illinois filed against Reynolds American Inc.'s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and other cigarette makers. Philip Morris, the world's biggest cigarette maker, called the 2003 verdict "staggering," saying it would bankrupt the company. Staggering? You bet it was staggering. But so was the irresponsibility it sought to remedy.

Saying that he had ''accomplished a great deal," Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney announced yesterday that he will not seek a second term, setting the stage for an expected campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. This led the state's most important newspaper to editorialize against him, saying "By thumbing his nose at Massachusetts after less than three-quarters of one term as its chief executive, Mitt Romney, yesterday surrendered his clout and squandered his legitimacy. If, as it appears, his heart and mind are no longer in Massachusetts, he should resign. Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey is inexperienced. But the state would be far better off in the hands of someone focused on state problems, rather than someone touring the country ridiculing the people he was elected to serve. Romney has joked in several states that, as a Republican here, he feels like 'a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention.'"

The United States Of America, A Third-World Nation: An estimated in one in 20 U.S. adults is not literate in English, which means 11 million people lack the skills to perform everyday tasks, a federal study shows. From 1992 to 2003, the nation's adults made no progress in their ability to read a newspaper, a book or any other prose arranged in sentences and paragraphs. They also showed no improvement in comprehending documents such as bus schedules and prescription labels. The adult population did make gains in handling quantitative tasks, such as calculating numbers found on tax forms or bank statements. But even in that area of literacy, the typical adult showed only basic skills, enough to perform simple daily activities. Perhaps most sobering: Adult literacy dropped or was flat across every level of education, from people with graduate degrees to those who dropped out of high school.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: A $300 million Pentagon psychological warfare operation includes plans for placing pro-American messages in foreign media outlets without disclosing the U.S. government as the source, one of the military officials in charge of the program says. Run by psychological warfare experts at the U.S. Special Operations Command, the media campaign is being designed to counter terrorist ideology and sway foreign audiences to support American policies. The military wants to fight the information war against al-Qaeda through newspapers, websites, radio, television and "novelty items" such as T-shirts and bumper stickers. The program will operate throughout the world, including in allied nations and in countries where the United States is not involved in armed conflict. The three companies handling the campaign include the Lincoln Group, the company being investigated by the Pentagon for paying Iraqi newspapers to run pro-U.S. stories. Military officials involved with the campaign say they're not planning to place false stories in foreign news outlets clandestinely. But the military won't always reveal its role in distributing pro-American messages. A distinction without a difference, perhaps?

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin escalated a war of words with the United States on Wednesday, telling Washington not to dictate to him what topics he can raise in the run-up to Canada's January 23 election. But U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins, who warned Canadian politicians on Tuesday not to bash the United States as part of their campaigning, denied on Wednesday he was trying to control the election debate. Martin -- who has regularly attacked the U.S. stance on a bilateral trade dispute over softwood lumber and also criticized Washington's approach to climate change -- took aim at Wilkins's warning for a second consecutive day. "When it comes to defending Canadian values, when it comes to standing up for Canadian interests, I'm going to call it like I see it," he told reporters in a lumber yard in Richmond, British Columbia. "I am not going to be dictated to as to the subjects I should raise."

The US has been ranked sixth with Burma in an annual list of countries that jail journalists, compiled by a New York-based media watchdog. The Committee to Protect Journalists listed China as the worst offender, for having jailed 32 journalists last year. Cuba was ranked second for imprisoning 24 reporters in 2005, followed by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uzbekistan. Acting against state interests was listed as the commonest allegation behind the imprisonment of reporters. Such accusations, including subversion and revealing state secrets, were linked to the cases of 78 out of the 125 journalists imprisoned around the world, according to the report, which was last updated on 1 December. "We're particularly troubled that the list of the worst abusers now includes Ethiopia and the United States," the Committee to Protect Journalists' executive director, Ann Cooper, said.

Cuba won't be allowed to send a team to next year's inaugural World Baseball Classic, the U.S. government told event organizers Wednesday. The decision by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control was conveyed to Major League Baseball on Wednesday, according to Pat Courtney, a spokesman for the commissioner's office. A permit from OFAC is necessary because of U.S. laws governing certain commercial transactions with Fidel Castro's communist island nation. Paul Archey, the senior vice president of Major League Baseball International, and Gene Orza, the chief operating officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association, issued a joint statement saying the organizers would try to have the decision reversed. The commissioner's office and the union have jointly organized the 16-team tournament, which runs from March 3-20 in the United States, Puerto Rico and Japan. "We are very disappointed with the government's decision to deny the participation of a team from Cuba in the World Baseball Classic," Archey and Orza said. "We will continue to work within appropriate channels in an attempt to address the government's concerns and will not announce a replacement unless and until that effort fails."

A government-ethics watchdog has been waiting for answers to questions about the federal government’s decision to decline disaster relief aid from several countries during this year’s particularly destructive hurricane season. First raised in a public-information request in September by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the information sought concerns why aid was turned down, who was behind the decisions and exactly what kind of help was offered remain unanswered more than three months later. In the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina, nations across the globe pledged relief assistance. From tiny, impoverished African and Southeast Asian states and oil-rich Middle Eastern countries to European allies, about half of the world offered the US some sort of aid, much of which was ultimately turned down. With waters rising in New Orleans, Fidel Castro’s Cuba offered specially trained mobile medical teams ready to seek out needy residents on foot. And, amid spiking gas prices and news of damaged oil-refining capacity, much-reviled Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez came forth with a pledge to provide low-cost fuel to soften the economic impact of the storms. Other nations much less well-off than the US came forward to lend a helping hand. The Bush administration reportedly ignored or rejected many of them outright. CREW says it would like to know why. Just a week after Hurricane Katrina hit, as offers piled up and it appeared the US was unprepared to deal with them, CREW filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking information and communications related to the aid offers and recovery efforts. According to papers filed by CREW in US District Court Tuesday, all three bodies have largely ignored the requests for information. "The American public is entitled to know which countries generously offered their assistance in the aftermath of Katrina and how the US government responded to those offers," CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said. "The State Department’s refusal to provide this information suggests that our government is still attempting to hide its ineffectual response to Katrina."

In a Nov. 15 interview with investigators, Army Corps of Engineers Col. Richard P. Wagenaar recounted an instance after Katrina hit when federal workers attempted to fill in the breached New Orleans' London Avenue canal and were told to stop. That led to a discussion of "who is in charge?" Wagenaar said. "I mean, where's the parish president? Where is the mayor? And then the state, well they work for DOTD," Wagenaar said in the interview, referring to the Louisiana's Department of Transportation and Development. "At some point, you know, you've got to make some stuff happen. Because this was a bad situation," he said. At Thursday's hearing by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, lawmakers questioned whether officials at all levels of government - federal, state, and local - should share in some blame. "All of you didn't do the job that you were supposed to be doing," said Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio.

Extraordinary Rendition Watch: CIA prisoners in Europe were apparently abducted and moved between countries illegally, possibly with the aid of national secret services who did not tell their governments, according to the first official report on the so-called "renditions" scandal. Dick Marty, a Swiss senator investigating allegations of secret CIA prisons for the Council of Europe, said that he did not think the US was still holding prisoners in Europe, but had probably moved them to north Africa last month. The Council of Europe has set its 46 members a three-month deadline to reveal what they know about the transfers. Mr Marty said that if it was proved that European governments knew the renditions process, involving flying terrorist suspects to secret interrogation centres, was going on, they "would stand accused of having seriously breached their human rights obligations to the Council of Europe".

MI6 officers interrogated a former UK student in Pakistan, Jack Straw, the U.K. Foreign Secretary, said yesterday. The man, a terrorist suspect, says MI6 handed him to the CIA for "extraordinary rendition" and torture. The allegations by Binyam Mohammed el-Habashi, 27, in which he details the abuse, sleep deprivation and torture inflicted on him, were previously uncorroborated, but Mr Straw admitted for the first time that at least part of his story was true. Reading from a brief, Mr Straw told MPs: "Mr Habashi was interviewed once in Karachi by the security services. The security services had no role in his capture or transfer from Pakistan. The security service officer did not observe any abuse and no incidents of abuse were reported to him by Mr Habashi."

Germany has denied any part in the alleged abduction of one of its citizens by CIA agents. As was reported in this space earlier, Khaled al-Masri says he was kidnapped in 2003 while on holiday in Macedonia and flown to Afghanistan, where he was held for five months and mistreated. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the authorities learned of the case only after Mr Masri contacted them following his release. Mr Masri is suing the CIA for wrongful imprisonment and abuse. Mr. Steinmeier told parliament he was "nauseated" by reports suggesting the Germans had helped the US to catch Mr Masri by providing information on him. "Let me make it clear: the government and [security services] did not aid and abet the abduction," he said. Mr Steinmeier said the government had alerted German prosecutors after learning of the case in June 2004, and had repeatedly asked the US for information.

Several civil liberties organizations joined with an anti-war veterans group Friday in filing papers seeking a review of a ruling last fall that shielded the government from having to release or even admit the existence of two documents relating to secret detention facilities and approved interrogation techniques. Plaintiffs believe that information made public recently warrants another look at a defunct lawsuit. The documents, which have not been made public, are widely-thought to exist, but the September District Court decision permitted the Central Intelligence Agency to sidestep acknowledgment of their existence. A year ago, the American Civil Liberties Union and four other organizations filed requests for two documents reportedly signed by President Bush. One purportedly authorized the CIA to set up secret detention facilities outside of US jurisdiction and the other listed approved interrogation methods, the ACLU said in a statement announcing its action yesterday. The organizations learned of the documents through news reports in USA Today and Newsweek, according to the August 2004 FOIA request.

The Natives Are Restless Down In The Colonies, Smirkey: The White House said on Wednesday it had put the State Department in charge of U.S. efforts to stabilize and rebuild nations roiled by war or civil upheaval, a move seen aimed at avoiding the inter-agency bickering that plagued the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. U.S. President George W. Bush signed the directive last week giving Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the lead in stabilization and reconstruction missions, a White House statement said. "(This will) empower the Secretary of State to improve coordination, planning and implementation for reconstruction and stabilization assistance for foreign states at risk of, in, or in transition from conflict or civil strife," it said.

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: As the USA Patriot Act headed toward passage in the House, its prospects in the Senate grew so uncertain Wednesday that Republican leaders considered an alternative to extend the current law a year rather than let parts of it expire Dec. 31 for lack of consensus, a senior Republican aide said.

Senate vote-counters trying to tally support and opposition for an agreement that would revise the 2001 anti-terror law were unable to precisely gauge it's prospects Wednesday. If the agreement to renew the act fails a crucial test of support, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was preparing to bring up his own legislation to extend the current Patriot Act for a year, according to a senior Frist aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision had not yet been made. Such a bill would effectively reject the White House-brokered House-Senate compromise to renew more than a dozen provisions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire at the end of the year and mark a victory for lawmakers of both parties who were lining up against the compromise.

Torture Watch: With Congress on the verge of passing the sweeping McCain amendment, Smirkey has taken its drive to permit torture to new depths. The basis of the McCain amendment is establishing the Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation as the uniform standard for interrogation. That manual explicitly prohibits the use of so-called “coercive interrogation techniques.” As former Army interrogator Peter Bauer has written, “the standard interrogation techniques found in the US Army Field Manual 34-52 were far more effective than such abusive behavior as stress positions, sensory deprivation, and humiliation. We obtained more information – and more reliable information – with our basic skills than we did with even days of harsh treatment.” Realizing this, the Pentagon has one-upped McCain, and simply rewritten the manual. According to the New York Times, the Army has approved a new, classified set of interrogation methods that may complicate negotiations over legislation proposed by Senator John McCain to bar cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees in American custody. The techniques are included in a 10-page classified addendum to a new Army field manual that was forwarded this week to Stephen A. Cambone, the under secretary of defense for intelligence policy, for final approval. The addendum provides dozens of examples and goes into exacting detail on what procedures may or may not be used, and in what circumstances. Army interrogators have never had a set of such specific guidelines that would help teach them how to walk right up to the line between legal and illegal interrogations.

Things are about to get a lot worse in Haiti: The U.S. State Dept. is reaching out to independent contractors to train other private contractors who will be deployed as “civilian police” - hired guns for so-called "peacekeeping" missions taking place in Haiti and other geopolitical hotspots. The senior adviser selected for the task “must oversee pre-deployment training currently being conducted” by Dyncorp International, Civilian Police International and Pacific Architects and Engineers/Homeland Security Corporation, according a recently released procurement document. The three companies currently work under the supervision of State’s Office of Civilian Police and Rule of Law (CIVPOL office) and the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). The INL CIVPOL contractors already have a presence in several “post-conflict locations throughout the world,” according to the document. However, Haiti appears to be a priority, evidenced by a prominently displayed notice on the PAE/HSC website currently announcing that the company is “soliciting applications specific to CIVPOL Officers fluent in French interested in a UN deployment to Haiti.” The senior advisor also will be responsible for “establishing a ready roster of rapidly deployable CIVPOL as well as building foreign capacity” to provide such contractor services, it says. Programs are currently underway “in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Haiti, Liberia, East Timor, Serbia & Montenegro and Sudan,” but the “number and location of programs are subject to change.” State facilitates the creation and deployment of these privately hired “police officers and law enforcement and criminal justice experts” because “the U.S. does not have a national police force from which to draw personnel.” An additional justification, according to the State document, is the CIVPOL office’s existing relationship with the above-mentioned private contractors, an arrangement which provides the U.S. government with ability to swiftly "recruit, select, train, equip, deploy and support the officers and experts” needed for such missions

Trickle-Down Trickling On You: Excluding food and energy costs, the so-called 'core' measure of US inflation rose in line with forecasts by 0.2% in November. Overall, US consumer prices fell 0.6% in November, marking the sharpest slide in 56 years, official figures show. The fall was driven by a record 8% drop in energy costs in the month, following a previous surge in oil prices in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Over the past year, US consumer prices have climbed by 3.5%, the US Labor Department reported. November's steep fall in consumer prices was fuelled by a 16% drop in the cost of gasoline - the sharpest monthly fall since records began in 1967. Fuel oil costs fell by 6.1%, while natural gas prices fell by 0.5%, the Labor Department said.

At least $20bn is due to be handed out this week, taking the annual pay of some individuals above $10m. Most 30-year-old traders can expect more than $500,000 extra in December's pay packet, according to insiders. "It's all very hush hush", says Rich Blake, senior editor of Trader Monthly. "But most guys are going to have the best year ever". Bonuses are an important part of the pay package on Wall Street. Basic salaries are usually a small part of what a trader or banker will earn. People are not going around crazily indiscriminately spending money like they did several years back in the nineties, but it's a very helpful infusion into the economy. Marty Shapiro, managing partner of Tribecca Grill. "A lot of your net worth is in your bonus, so people are really counting on them," according to Maggie Craddock who used to run a department managing a large investment portfolio. So... I just have to ask... Is your portfolio up?

Republican Policies Strengthen America: The U.S. trade deficit widened unexpectedly in October to a record $68.9 billion despite a drop in the cost of imported oil, as the deficits with China, Canada, the European Union, Mexico and OPEC all hit records, government data showed on Wednesday. Economists had expected the trade gap to shrink in October to $63.0 billion, and its surprising growth suggests fourth-quarter economic growth will likely be even weaker than first thought. "The trade deficit certainly came in worse than expected," said Bob Lynch, currency analyst at HSBC in New York. "It was largely energy influenced but I don't think that should detract from the overall deterioration of the external balance. The dollar was already on the defensive this week and this data only reinforces that bias." The dollar extended losses against the euro and yen, while U.S. Treasury debt prices remained higher after the report. The Commerce Department said the deficit widened 4.4 percent from September after growing 11.9 percent the previous month.

Republicans Believe In Free Markets: Here in Texas they call it white gold. The never-ending fields of fluff are said to have created more wealth, and more misery throughout history than almost any other legal crop. The ubiquitous fibre sustained slavery, triggered industrial revolution in Britain and civil war in America. Now cotton is at the center of a new war. This time it is between the richest and the poorest nations on earth, as US cotton subsidies become the symbol of global trade inequity and a key battleground at this week's world trade talks in Hong Kong. Mr Bearden gets up to 20% of his income - not from cotton - but in subsidies from the US government. It is part of a $4bn-a-year hand-out to his industry already partly ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization and now African countries at this week's talks want them cut further. On the front-line of the cotton war stands Rickey Bearden - a cotton grower surveying his family's 6,000 acre farm on a bright winter's day near Lubbock in northern Texas. Mr Bearden is worried. More than 20% of his income comes directly from cotton subsidies paid by the U.S. government. He says, "It would be devastating not only for cotton producers like me but for the whole economy here in Texas. So much is intertwined with cotton - the men who work for me, the men who work in the gins and their families would suffer." Yet half a world away in impoverished sub-Saharan West Africa, trade campaigners say 20 million small cotton farmers are suffering now. Trade campaigners say 20 million small cotton farmers are suffering in Africa. Although they work small plots with primitive equipment, ironically their handpicked cotton is better quality. Yet due to the subsidized US fibre swamping the world market they cannot get a good price. The aid charity Oxfam estimates they lose 26% of their potential income due to the subsidies. It claims in Benin alone 60,000 farmers have given up farming because they cannot compete against artificially low prices.

Republicans Do The Right Thing No Matter What: Sen. George Allen, R-Va., after coming under fire from some social conservatives for a 2004 vote, plans to reverse course next time and oppose making hate crimes against gay people a federal offense. "When it comes before the Senate again, he will vote against adding sexual orientation to federal hate-crimes statutes," Mike Thomas, Allen's state director, said yesterday. In 2004, Allen voted the opposite way on an amendment in the Senate. "I wouldn't define it as a flip-flop," Thomas added. Joe Glover, president of the Virginia-based Family Policy Network, was among those who pressed for a change. He told The Washington Times after Allen's 2004 vote that Allen "can count on us to expose him as a conservative fraud." Allen is preparing to seek re-election to the Senate next year and may run for president in 2008.

News From Smirkey's Wars: The Pentagon is in the early stages of drafting a wartime request for up to $100 billion more for Iraq and Afghanistan, lawmakers say, a figure that would push spending related to the wars toward a staggering half-trillion dollars. Reps. Bill Young, R-Fla., the chairman of the House appropriations defense panel, and John Murtha, D-Pa., the senior Democrat on that subcommittee, say the military has informally told them it wants $80 billion to $100 billion in a war-spending package that the White House is expected to send Congress next year. That would be in addition to $50 billion Congress is about to give the Pentagon before lawmakers adjourn for the year for operations in Iraq for the beginning of 2006. Military commanders expect that pot to last through May.

Iraq's interior minister on Wednesday denied a report by his own ministry that a tanker truck filled with forged ballot papers was seized a day earlier near Iraq's border with Iran. Sectarian tension is increasing before Thursday's all-important parliamentary elections in Iraq. A security guard, left, and US embassy security guards escorting journalists, stand watch outside a warehouse where ballots and election material are stored in Iraq. Security guards stand watch outside warehouse where ballots and election material are stored in Iraq. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr says his ministry received no reports of a tanker being seized by Iraqi border police in the town of Badra, east of Baghdad, after it crossed over from Iran. The New York Times newspaper reported the seized tanker contained several thousand partly completed ballots. The newspaper said the Iranian driver of the tanker told authorities that at least three other tankers, loaded with forged ballots, had recently entered Iraq from Iran at different border crossings.

Scandals R Us: Short of a last minute intervention by Rove’s attorney, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is expected to ask a grand jury investigating the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson to indict Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove for making false statements to the FBI and Justice Department investigators in October 2003, lawyers close to the case say. Rove failed to tell investigators at the time that he had spoken about Plame to Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and conservative columnist Robert Novak, both of whom later cooperated in the case. Novak outed Plame in a July 14, 2003 column. The Chicago prosecutor briefed the second grand jury investigating the outing last week for more than three hours. During that time, he brought them up to speed on the latest developments involving Rove and at least one other White House official, the sources said. The attorneys refused to identify the second person. As of Monday, neither Rove nor his attorney Robert Luskin has explained Rove’s misstatements to Fitzgerald’s satisfaction, those familiar with the case said. Eleventh-hour testimony from Time Magazine reporter Viveca Novak—who Rove’s attorney Robert Luskin fingered as a crucial witness in keeping his client out of court—does not appear to have been helpful in dodging an indictment, they added.

Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has come under fire from constituents for accepting nearly a quarter million dollars in campaign contributions from missile defense contractors over the past five years. Hunter has also drawn criticism for accepting $46,000 from un-indicted co-conspirators implicated in bribing Hunter’s friend and San Diego colleague, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who resigned from Congress after pleading guilty. But Hunter’s ties to the defense industry go even deeper. The Republican Congressman shares ownership in a Virginia cabin with Pete Geren – who served as Acting Secretary of the U.S. Air Force from August through early November. Hunter’s disclosure forms filed with the FEC indicate he built the cabin in 1996 along with Geren and a third partner, Al Tierney.

Capital Athletic Foundation, a charity run by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff now at the center of an influence-peddling investigation on Capitol Hill, told the IRS it gave away more than $330,000 in grants in 2002 to four other charities that say they never received the money. The largest grant the foundation listed in its 2002 tax filing was for $300,000 to P'TACH of New York, a nonprofit that helps Jewish children with learning disabilities. "We've never received a $300,000 gift, not in our 28 years," a surprised Rabbi Burton Jaffa, P'TACH's national director, told the Austin American-States- man. "It would have been gone by now. I guess I would have been able to pay some teachers on time." Federal investigators have not contacted P'TACH about the grant, Jaffa said. Representa- tives of three other nonprofits that supposedly received Capital Athletic money also said they have not been contacted. The grant-reporting discrepancy raises further questions about Abramoff's use of the foundation's finances as he built one of the most successful and well-connected lobbying practices in Washington. Abramoff's dealings already have led to the indictment of a Bush administration official, a subpoena for a GOP committee chairman and investigations by the Justice Department, Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Senate. The discrepancy also follows e-mails between Abramoff and members of his lobbying team that say then-House Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land wanted to raise money through Capital Athletic for an unspecified purpose. In one of those e-mails, Abramoff announced a $200,000 fundraising goal. DeLay does not recall making such a request, his lawyer, Richard Cullen, said Wednesday. Capital Athletic's tax return does not indicate whether Abramoff reached his $200,000 goal. But around the time Capital Athletic's tax form was filed in fall 2003, listing the $300,000 donation P'TACH says it didn't get, a DeLay-created charity called Celebrations for Children was begun with $300,000 in seed money.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: A rare heresy trial was held Tuesday for a Roman Catholic priest who joined a denomination that doesn't accept papal infallibility and has ordained women clergy. The Rev. Ned Reidy did not attend the one-day closed trial, which was conducted by three priests at the Diocese of San Bernardino. Reidy, 69, called the trial "medieval" and contends it has no authority because he stopped being a Roman Catholic in 1999. Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the diocese, said Reidy was automatically excommunicated when he went to another denomination, but under church law he remains a Roman Catholic priest until he is formally excommunicated and defrocked. The heresy trial would "officially clarify his status within the church," Lincoln said. The court's decision will be announced to Reidy at an unspecified future date. "I just think the discourtesy level is appalling," Reidy said of the trial. "I'm not a Roman Catholic priest. I used to be." Reidy was ordained in 1962 and was pastor of a parish in Palm Desert, near Palm Springs, before he resigned to join the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. He now is pastor of the 100-member Community of the Risen Christ church in Bermuda Dunes, a few miles from his old church.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:09:17 PM

Tue, Dec 13 2005

Tax Day

Weather has been perfectly awful the last two days. In other words, it has been seasonable for a change. A cold front came through late Sunday night, and it has been windy, rainy and rather chilly ever since. The overnight low was 64 degrees and it make it only up to 76 during the day - and that had me downright chilled out. I swear that if it ever makes it into the fifties, I'll likely go into an irreversible decline. All day long, it rained on and off, mostly on, with the rate ranging from a drizzle to the classic tropical downpour.

After a couple of days of trying to track down the man who is the local equivalent of a CPA, I finally managed to get his phone number and called him. He said he would be by "later" and discuss my situation. He asked me to have last year's forms ready. So I got out my box of papers and started looking. Nothing. Searched through them again, and still nothing. Searched the house. Nothing.

Then it dawned on me that they may still be in the car. I figured they may have gone into the glove box when I had been to the bank to pay the taxes and were never retrieved from there. So I got all the papers in the glove box, in the console, everywhere in the car, and brought them into the house, and started going through them. Eventually, I found what I was looking for - I had indeed put them in the glovebox after going to the bank to file them, and had never taken them out. I got them sorted out and put only the needed registration and inspection papers back in the car.

The process of searching had me sorting everything out, so I decided that it was best to get some carpetas (file folders) and file things away right, so I made a fast trip into town to get some from the one remaining libreria (stationery store) and got what they had. Unfortunately, all they carry is A4-sized, about an inch and a half longer than standard "letter" sized. So I got what I needed at about ten cents each, brought them home, and got out the scissors. Mark and snip, and in a few minutes, I had some letter-sized carpetas for all my records. Well, after having done that, I was finally ready.

I waited for the accountant all afternoon, but he never showed. Finally, a bit after five, I heard a motorcycle stop in front of the house, so I went out and looked, and it was him. He came in, we talked for a bit about my situation, and it was concluded that I won't have to file this year either. So that was good news. But I will have to file the return for the "culture and education" tax on my corporations early next year, but that is no big deal. Ten minutes filling out the forms and about 10,000 colones ($20) later at the bank, and I am done with that. More of a nuisance than a real burden. But that is for March. That is a tax whose forms are due in April. So I am good to go on my Costa Rican taxes for now. Just gotta start getting my stuff together for my tax return with Uncle Empire.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: It is no exaggeration to say that a law that will make democracy all but moot in Ohio is about to pass the state legislature and to be signed by its Republican governor. Despite massive corruption scandals besieging the Ohio GOP, any hope that the Democratic party could win this most crucial swing state in future presidential elections, or carry its pivotal U.S. Senate seat in 2006, are about to end. House Bill 3 has already passed the Ohio House of Representatives and is about to be approved by the Republican-dominated Senate, probably before the holiday recess. Republicans dominate the Ohio legislature thanks to a heavily gerrymandered crazy quilt of rigged districts, and to a moribund Ohio Democratic party. The GOP-drafted HB3 is designed to all but obliterate any possible future Democratic revival. Opposition from the Ohio Democratic Party, where it exists at all, is diffuse and ineffectual. HB3's most publicized provision will require positive identification before casting a vote. But it also opens voter registration activists to partisan prosecution, exempts electronic voting machines from public scrutiny, quintuples the cost of citizen-requested statewide recounts and makes it illegal to challenge a presidential vote count or, indeed, any federal election result in Ohio. When added to the recently passed HB1, which allows campaign financing to be dominated by the wealthy and by corporations, and along with a Rovian wish list of GOP attacks on the ballot box, democracy in Ohio could be all but over. The GOP is ramming similar bills through state legislatures around the U.S., starting with Georgia and Indiana. The ID requirements in particular have provoked widespread opposition from newspapers such as the New York Times. The Times, among others, argues that the ID requirements and the costs associated with them, constitute an unconstitutional discriminatory poll tax.

Former Republican Congressman and CIA official Bob Barr says that there is a danger recent developments describe a trend of America slipping into a totalitarian society and that the Bush administration are doing everything in their power to see that this happens. During a radio interview with host Alex Jones, Barr outlined where the country is heading. "Basically, as long as you smile when you demand to see somebody's ID at gunpoint sitting on a bus I guess it's OK for the government, that's sort of the way they operate. It can be a totalitarian type regime." "I think it's a real danger where we have the military becoming involved in all sorts of domestic matters and we have the government being able to seize very private personal records on people without any suspicion that they've done anything wrong. This is a dramatic turn of events that has accelerated greatly since 9/11." Barr made comments very similar to those of current Republican Congressman Ron Paul in stating that natural disasters could be used by the government as a pretext to abolish posse comitatus. "If we have the military involved whenever there's a windstorm, rain or tornado then what we are doing is that we are undermining the entire basis on what our constitutional representative democratic form of government was founded."

More information on the military's spying on U.S. citizens is starting to come out. An article in the Washington Post details the Talon System, part of a secretive DoD agency known as CIFA, or Counterintelligence Field Activity. The Talon system is part of the Defense Department's growing effort to gather intelligence within the United States, which officials argue is imperative as they work to detect and prevent potentially catastrophic terrorist assaults. The Talon reports -- how many are generated is classified, a Pentagon spokesman said -- are collected and analyzed by CIFA, an agency at the forefront of the Pentagon's counterterrorism program. The Pentagon's emphasis on domestic intelligence has raised concerns among some civil liberties advocates and intelligence officials. For some of them, the Talon system carries echoes of the 1960s, when the Pentagon collected information about anti-Vietnam War groups and peace activists that led to congressional hearings in the 1970s and limits on the types of information the Defense Department could gather and retain about U.S. citizens.

The American Civil Liberties Union has appealed a federal court's decision to allow the CIA to withhold documents allegedly signed by President Bush, authorizing the establishment of secret CIA prisons overseas and detailing what the administration would consider appropriate treatment of prisoners. To date, the CIA itself has refused to confirm or deny the existence of any such documents.

The European Union secretly allowed the United States to use transit facilities on European soil to transport "criminals" in 2003, according to a previously unpublished document. The revelation contradicts repeated EU denials that it knew of "rendition" flights by the CIA. The EU agreed to give America access to facilities - presumably airports - in confidential talks in Athens during which the war on terror was discussed, the original minutes show. But all references to the agreement were deleted from the record before it was published. The issue of "rendition" flights - in which terror suspects are flown to secret bases and third countries for interrogation - overshadowed last week's fence-mending visit to Europe by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State. Asked in Parliament last week about reports of 400 suspect flights passing through British airports, Tony Blair said: "In respect of airports, I don't know what you are referring to." The minutes of the Athens meeting on January 22, 2003, were written by the then Greek presidency of the EU after the talks with a US delegation headed by a justice department official. EU officials confirmed that a full account was circulated to all member governments, and would have been sent to the Home Office. Meanwhile, claims the CIA flew detainees to and from secret prisons in Europe are credible, an investigator has said. Swiss senator Dick Marty has submitted a report on the allegations, made in the media, to a meeting of the human rights body of the Council of Europe. 21 CIA agents remain under indictment in Italy on just such charges.

If you were a totally crooked neo-con former CIA financier Republican who hangs with the corrupt DeLay-Abramoff crowd, what would be the most unethical, diabolical way to funnel so much money to the Republican Party and neo-con schemes that you could take back the government from the Democrats? Easy! With your corrupt Republican buddies, form a slew of your own brand-new "defense contractor" companies, submit bids on things the Pentagon never even asked for to the DeLay-Cunningham network and bingo! -- those contributions to the GOP and K-Street P.R. firms will flow in like never before. You can then even give to presidential candidates like George W. Bush Junior. This is apparently what Brent Wilkes and Mitchell Wade have done through a whole series of sham companies. Wilkes' firms received millions of taxpayer dollars; Daniel Hopsicker puts the amount at $700 million, although mainstream journalists speak of a much lower figure. Regardless of the amount, sources agree that the Defense Department did not really like or need his document conversion services. And Wilkes' list of companies included obvious fakes. So which candidates got chunks of that taxpayer money earmarked for "defense?" Henry Bonilla, Roy Brown, Rick Clayburgh, Duke Cunningham (of course!), John T. Doolittle, Maria Guadalupe Garcia, George W. Gekas, Lindsay Graham, Duncan Hunter, Darrell Issa, Samuel Johnson, Thaddeus G. McCotter, Constance Morella, Devin Nune, Steve Pearce, Bill Van de Weghe Jr., Jerry Weller. All Republicans, of course. As the scandal unfolds, the pundits will try to convince us that "both sides do it." That simply is not true.

A group of seven House Democrats wrote President Bush this week, accusing the Pentagon of underreporting casualties in Iraq. It's a shocking charge. The letter writers argue that Pentagon casualty reports show only a sliver of the injuries, mostly physical ones from bombs or bullets. But war doesn't work like that, the Democrats declare, adding that the reports skip a horrible panoply of accidents, illness, disease and mental trauma. "We are concerned that that the figures that were released to the public by your administration do not accurately represent the true toll that this war has taken on the American people," the group wrote Bush on Dec. 7. The Dems are right. Pentagon casualty reports show 2,390 service members dead from Iraq and Afghanistan and over 16,000 wounded. By far the vast majority of the wounded and dead are from Iraq. But by Dec. 8, 2005, the military had evacuated another 25,289 service members from Iraq and Afghanistan for injuries or illnesses not caused directly by enemy bullets or bombs, according to the U.S. Transportation Command. That statistic includes everything from serious injuries in Humvee wrecks or other accidents to more routine illnesses that could be unrelated to field battles. Yet those service members are not included in the Pentagon's casualty reports.

In the most current issue of The New Yorker magazine, one article alleges that many of our military's most senior generals are deeply frustrated by the happenings in Iraq, but won't go public for fear they may jeopardize their career. Congressman John Murtha says he knows about these fears. The article quotes an unnamed former defense official saying the administration has "so terrified the generals that they know they won't go public." The article goes on to say that legislators were told in meetings with enlisted men, junior officers, and generals that things weren't up to par. But in a teleconference with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, those soldiers kept their criticisms to themselves. Congressman Murtha says incidents in Iraq are up around 350 percent from last year. He says just because they say there's progress, doesn't make it so.

A U.S. government report to be released next week raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the multibillion-dollar U.S. anti-drug campaign in Colombia, despite moves by the Bush administration to extend the program. The 52-page report by the Government Accountability Office, an advance copy of which has been obtained by The Chronicle, challenges administration conclusions that the drug interdiction effort known as Plan Colombia -- a five-year program that ends this year -- has reduced the amount of cocaine available in the United States. The report was skeptical of the statistics the government relied on for its upbeat assessments, calling its information on cocaine production and use problematic. It also said the Office of National Drug Control Policy had failed to fully address previous "recommendations for improving illicit drug data collection and analysis."

President George W. Bush's administration is drawing up plans to carry out the biggest overhaul of the US foreign aid apparatus in more than 40 years in an attempt to assert more political control over international assistance, according to officials and aid experts. The proposed reorganisation could lead to a takeover by the State Department of the independent US Agency for International Development. USAID was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, managing aid programmes, disaster relief and post-war reconstruction totalling billions of dollars each year. Critics in the aid community fear the reorganisation will lead to a politicisation of foreign assistance, where aid will become subordinated to the Bush administration's drive to promote democracy.

The waters have receded, but the mainly black, low-income citizens of New Orleans are now the victims of rising rents, forced evictions and plans that favor the better off. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans it was the city's poor - almost exclusively African Americans - who were left to fend for themselves as the city drowned in a lake of toxic sludge. Now, three months on, the same people have been abandoned once again by a reconstruction effort that seems determined to prevent them from returning. They are the victims of a devastating combination of forced evictions, a failure to reopen the city's public house projects, rent gouging and - as in the case of Mildred - a decision to write off whole neighborhoods. They are victims too of a reconstruction effort that, while its funding remains stalled in Congress, and lacking proper leadership, has been left to the care of the private sector with little interest in the city's poor. As a rapacious free market has come to dominate the rebuilding of the Louisiana city, it has seen spiralling prices and the influx of property speculators keen to cash in on the disaster. The result is one of the most shocking pieces of urban planning that black and poor America has seen: reconstruction as survival of the wealthiest. Sitting in the back of the pick-up truck of union activist Jim Prickett, Aaron is on fire with anger. A young black man in his twenties in dreadlocks and a Veterans for Peace T-shirt, he flares out at all around him. "My grandpa died at the airport [during the evacuation]. Now me and my mama can't get into our home. There is a notice on the door. If we try, we are looting. Do you understand how that must feel?" he shouts. "Do you understand? I live how I can. It has jumbled me up here," he points to his head. "It is genocide and ethnic cleansing. It's the return of Jim Crow."

As Democrats and Republicans spar over a potential filibuster by Democrats to block Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court, members of the Congressional Black Caucus say Alito snubbed their recent request for a meeting. “We never heard back from anyone in Alito’s office,” Myra Dandridge, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus, told BlackAmericaWeb.com Monday. And he wonders why the Democrats in the Senate are preparing to filibuster his nomination. Meanwhile, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia said Monday he doesn‘t expect Democrats to filibuster the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, but he still chastised Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for threatening to stop any such effort through a drastic parliamentary effort that has been dubbed the "nuclear option." "If the senator wants a fight, let him try it," said Byrd, the Senate‘s senior Democrat. "I‘m 88 years old, but I can still fight, and fight I will for freedom of speech. I haven‘t been here for 47 years to see that freedom of speech whittled away and undermined. " Byrd insisted that Democrats have not threatened to filibuster Alito, who was chosen by President Bush as the replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O‘Connor Sandra Day O‘Connor. In response, Frist read from a half-dozen news stories that quoted Democrats mentioning the option, looking back at Byrd after each item.

The governor of the US state of Maine, John Baldacci, has signed a multi-million dollar trade deal with Cuba's state-run food agency Alimport. Under the deal, Alimport will buy Maine products worth $20m (£11.3m) by July 2007, including seed potatoes, fish and dairy cattle. Mr Baldacci is due to meet Cuban President Fidel Castro later on Monday. Food sales on a cash basis to Cuba are legal under a federal law from 2000 - an exception to the US trade embargo. We are working within the existing framework, trying to show other states the ability to trade with Cuba. In 2001, Maine was the first US state to pass a resolution calling for a complete end to the trade and travel ban against the Caribbean nation. Mr Baldacci said that, during his trip, he hoped to see his country's relations with Cuba normalised step-by-step. "We are working within the existing framework, trying to show other states the ability to trade with Cuba," he told a news conference.

American activists camping out at a Cuban military checkpoint outside the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay started their first day of a water-only fast Monday to protest the treatment of suspected terrorists detained at the base. Members of the largely Christian group Witness Against Torture are demanding access to the prisoner camp to meet with inmates. The activists arrived late Sunday at the checkpoint, which is about five miles from the U.S. base, after a five-day march from the eastern Cuban city of Santiago. "We can see the windmills of the U.S. base, we can see some lights off in the distance," Frida Berrigan, 31, said on her cell phone. "We're not right next door, but we are closer to these prisoners than their family members have been since they were arrested."

California's Supreme Court has refused to grant a stay of execution for former gang leader Stanley "Tookie" Williams. Convicted of four murders, Williams, 51, will be executed on Tuesday unless Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger grants clemency or a federal appeal succeeds. Mr Schwarzenegger said earlier he was agonising over the clemency request. Williams, co-founder of the notorious Los Angeles Crips gang, denies the murders. He has received backing from a number of high-profile supporters. His supporters range from Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx and rap star Snoop Dogg (himself a former Crips member) to Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Opposing a state requirement that counties issue medical marijuana ID cards, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to file a federal lawsuit against California's medical marijuana law. Supervisors moved to sue the state after being threatened with a lawsuit from San Diego NORML for failing to implement the ID system. At first, the county considered suing against state law SB 420, which requires county health departments to issue ID cards for medical marijuana patients. The Supervisors had voted 3-2 to make San Diego the first county to refuse to implement the state card system, arguing that to do so would violate federal law. "In my eyes and in the eyes of the federal government, medical marijuana is against the law," declared Supervisor Diane Jacob. "The county will not roll over and allow the state to force us to break the law." San Diego NORML President Laurie Kallonakis replied,"In voting to defy the state, the county has rejected the will of the California people." She warned that refusal to implement the IDs "regrettably would force us to bring a class action lawsuit to compel compliance."

Soaring export levels have trebled China's trade surplus for the first 11 months of 2005 to $90.8 billion. China's Ministry of Commerce said that total foreign trade had risen by 23% this year, and was worth $1.2 trillion. The European Union is still China's main trading partner, trading goods and services worth $196.7bn so far in 2005. The surplus has been criticised in the US, with claims that it is boosted by the artificially low exchange rate of China's currency, the yuan.

In a study released today, the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at Georgetown University found that alcohol companies significantly increased their advertising activity on cable television. More importantly, the number of cable network alcohol ads that were more likely to be seen by underage youth than adults on a per capita basis rose 97 percent from 2001 to 2004. CAMY, which is supported by grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, conducted an analysis of more than one million television ads placed between 2001 and 2004 on broadcast, cable and local television and worth almost $3.5 billion. This analysis shows high levels of underage youth exposure to these ads despite the industry's self-regulation of its marketing and advertising practices and despite repeated public opinion poll findings that parents want their children exposed to less of this advertising.

Eat your veggies, and you're still malnourished: Imagine the surprise of going online and discovering that the vitamin and mineral content of vegetables has drastically dropped. That’s what happened to nutritionist, Alex Jack, when he went to check out the latest US Department of Agriculture food tables. The stunning revelation came after Jack compared recently published nutrient values with an old USDA handbook he had lying around. Some of the differences in vitamin and mineral content were enormous-a 50% drop in the amount of calcium in broccoli, for example. Watercress down 88% in iron content; cauliflower down 40% in vitamin C content-all since 1975. Jack took his findings to the USDA, hoping for a reasonable explanation. That was two years ago. He’s still waiting. So is Organic Gardening magazine, which published an open letter, seeking an explanation from Dan Glickman, Secretary of Agriculture. Glickman didn’t respond, but USDA employee, Phyllis E. Johnson did. Johnson (who is head of the Beltsville area office), suggested to Organic Gardening that the nutrient drain should be put in context. According to her, the 78% decrease in calcium content of corn is not significant because no one eats corn for calcium. She further explains that the problem may not even exist at all; that the apparent nutrient dips could be due to the testing procedures. For example, “changes in the public’s perception of what the edible portion is may determine what parts have been analyzed over time.” In other words, back when the old food tables were made up, people may have been eating the cob too, so they got more nutrients.

The Supreme Court said Monday it would consider the constitutionality of a Texas congressional map engineered by Rep. Tom DeLay that helped Republicans gain seats in Congress. The 2003 boundaries helped Republicans win 21 of the state's 32 seats in Congress in the last election_ up from 15. They were approved amid a nasty battle between Republican leaders and Democrats and minority groups in Texas. The contentiousness also reached Washington, where the Justice Department approved the plan although staff lawyers concluded that it diluted minority voting rights. Because of past discrimination against minority voters, Texas is required to get Justice Department approval for any voting changes to ensure they don't undercut minority voting. Justices will consider a constitutional challenge to the boundaries filed by various opponents. The court will hear two hours of arguments in four separate appeals. Lawyers have been told the case will be argued March 1, so the outcome could affect 2006 elections.

Florida, get ready for more election fraud: Gov. Jeb Bush turned to an old family friend and contributor Wednesday to succeed former Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood as Florida secretary of state. Sue Cobb, 68, a Coral Gables lawyer who served as U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica the past four years, will take over as the state's top elections official in January, Bush said. Cobb earlier worked with Bush as a member of his first transition team, helping set up the new administration following the 1998 election. She stayed on several months as interim director of the Florida Lottery. Cobb and her husband, Chuck Cobb, also are major Republican donors with ties to the Bush family that stretch back almost 20 years. "It sends a very bad message," Karen Thurman, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said of Cobb's appointment. "She has no experience with elections and her background is with the party. She's a political appointment."

For Seattle peace activist Bert Sacks, the monthly act of resistance adds up to only 59 cents. Symbolically, however, refusing to pay the "war tax" on his Qwest phone bill represents a pocketbook protest against what he sees as misuse of U.S. military power. "I object to the U.S. government policy of using famine and epidemic as tools against civilian populations. That's wrong," says the retired engineer, who has fought for a decade to get economic sanctions against Iraq lifted. Sacks is one of thousands of Americans believed to be refusing to pay the federal taxes attached to their monthly phone bills -- money that helps fund military operations overseas. Many are taking the step as a protest against the war in Iraq. And in many cases, the phone companies are helping them do it. "We oppose the policies of 'pre-emptive war' and an 'endless' war on terrorism, which led to the Iraq war, which violate human rights and international law, and which have cost us hundreds of billions of dollars while our states and cities face unprecedented deficits, and cutbacks of vital services and programs," reads the statement on a Web site called hanguponwar.org.

A brain mechanism that may link violent computer games with aggression has been discovered by researchers in the US. The work goes some way towards demonstrating a causal link between the two - rather than a simple association. Many studies have concluded that people who play violent video games are more aggressive, more likely to commit violent crimes, and less likely to help others. But critics argue these correlations merely prove that violent people gravitate towards violent games, not that games can change behavior. Now psychologist Bruce Bartholow from the University of Missouri-Columbia and colleagues have found that people who play violent video games show diminished brain responses to images of real-life violence, such as gun attacks, but not to other emotionally disturbing pictures, such as those of dead animals, or sick children. And the reduction in response is correlated with aggressive behavior.

Fox News Or Faux News? The media watchdog Accuracy in Media (AIM) is urging a full inquiry into a report that a Saudi billionaire caused the Fox News Channel (FNC) to dramatically alter its coverage of the Muslim riots in France after he called the network to complain. The Saudi billionaire, Al-waleed bin Talal, is a friend of News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch and controls an influential number of voting shares in the company. "This report underscores the danger of giving foreign interests a significant financial stake in U.S. media companies," declared Cliff Kincaid, editor of Accuracy in Media. The controversial comments came at an Arab media conference featuring representatives of Time magazine, USA Today, PBS, The Wall Street Journal, and other news organizations. The conference and the Saudi Prince's growing influence in News Corporation are among the subjects of a new December-A AIM Report that has just been posted at the AIM website (www.aim.org). The report raises the specter of Arab money influencing News Corporation and other U.S. media companies.

Republicans Believe In Darwinism: Republicans controlling the federal government practice Social Darwinism, a discredited philosophy that in economics and politics calls for survival of the fittest, according to a Democratic U.S. senator. Sen. Barak Obama of Illinois, a fast-rising Democratic star, told Florida party members that only a philosophy among Republicans of sink or swim explains why some Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans still live in cars while Republicans in Washington prepare next week to enact $70 billion in tax breaks. "It's called the 'Ownership society' in Washington. This isn't the first time this philosophy has appeared. It used to be called Social Darwinism," Obama said late Saturday at the Democrats meeting at Walt Disney World. "They have a philosophy they have implemented and that is doing exactly what it was designed to do. They basically don't believe in government. They have a different philosophy that says, 'We're going to dismantle government'," Obama said. Republicans running the federal government believe, "You are on your own to buy your own health care, to buy your own retirement security ... to buy your own roads and levees," Obama said, referring to flood barriers that gave way in New Orleans during Katrina last August. Obama, the only African American now in the U.S. Senate, gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of Florida Democrats.

Congress is once again working to alter how the government helps the poor, intensifying a welfare overhaul underway since the 1990s. The targets, once again, are single-parent families at the margins of the economy. The House of Representatives budget reconciliation bill, passed last month, would reauthorize the 1996 welfare-reform law by toughening Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the country’s primary public assistance program. The bill would simultaneously force parents to spend more time working and tighten access to subsidized child care and other resources. In its summary of the bill, the House Education and Workforce Committee commented that the goal of the heavier work requirements is "achieving independence through work." Disappointed with the current work-program participation rate of roughly 40 percent, the Committee called for "a policy of universal engagement." But critics of welfare reform say the bill deepens the unmet needs of struggling families. Joan Entmacher, with the policy group National Women’s Law Center, called the legislation "the ugliest set of recommendations inflicted on low-income women and their families that… we have seen."

Republican Policies Build Strong Economies: A look at Vietnam and Mexico exposes the myth of market liberalization. The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik is one trade sceptic. Take Mexico and Vietnam, he says. One has a long border with the richest country in the world and has had a free-trade agreement with its neighbour across the Rio Grande. It receives oodles of inward investment and sends its workers across the border in droves. It is fully plugged in to the global economy. The other was the subject of a US trade embargo until 1994 and suffered from trade restrictions for years after that. Unlike Mexico, Vietnam is not even a member of the WTO. So which of the two has the better recent economic record? The question should be a no-brainer if all the free-trade theories are right - Mexico should be light-years ahead of Vietnam. In fact, the opposite is true. Since Mexico signed the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) deal with the US and Canada in 1992, its annual per capita growth rate has barely been above 1%. Vietnam has grown by around 5% a year for the past two decades. Poverty in Vietnam has come down dramatically: real wages in Mexico have fallen. Rodrik doesn't buy the argument that the key to rapid development for poor countries is their willingness to liberalise trade. Nor, for that matter, does he think boosting aid makes much difference either. Looking around the world, he looks in vain for the success stories of three decades of neo-liberal orthodoxy: nations that have really made it after taking the advice - willingly or not - of the IMF and the World Bank. Rather, the countries that have achieved rapid economic take-off in the past 50 years have done so as a result of policies tailored to their own domestic needs. Vietnam shows that what you do at home is far more important than access to foreign markets. There is little evidence that trade barriers are an impediment to growth for those countries following the right domestic policies. Rodrik says: "Since the late 1970s, China also followed a highly unorthodox two-track strategy, violating practically every rule in the guidebook. Conversely, countries that adhered more strictly to the orthodox structural reform agenda - most notably Latin America - have fared less well. Since the mid-1980s, virtually all Latin American countries opened up their economies, privatised their public enterprises, allowed unrestricted access for foreign capital and deregulated their economies. Yet they have grown at a fraction of the pace of the heterodox reformers, while also being buffeted more strongly by macroeconomic instability."

A bankruptcy by General Motors Corp. is not "far-fetched" if present trends at the company persist, Standard & Poor's said on Monday, shortly after cutting GM's ratings deeper into junk territory. The downgrade and S&P's comments initially sent GM shares and bonds lower as investors fretted about the rising risk that the world's largest automaker will have trouble paying back all of its debt. "In the past we might have felt at different points that the concerns about bankruptcy risk were way overplayed," said Scott Sprinzen, speaking on a conference call with reporters and analysts. "At this juncture, it's our conclusion that this isn't a far-fetched possibility if the kind of deterioration in results we've seen over the last few quarters should continue," Sprinzen said. GM spokeswoman Gina Proia said the automaker has no strategy or intention to declare bankruptcy.

Retail sales in the US have risen, but details in the data leave doubt about the strength of consumer confidence. Commerce Department figures showed a rise in sales of 0.3% in November - but without motor vehicle sales, the number changed to a fall of 0.1%. Yet much of the weakness came from lower gasoline prices. Excluding gasoline sales, retail sales rose 1%. "This will fuel the debate about how strong consumer spending will be over the holiday season," said one analyst. The consensus among analysts was that sales would pick up towards the end of the year, as the lower price of driving combined with better job prospects to bring people back to the shops. Early reports from US retailers last weekend indicated that, with less than two weeks left before Christmas, stores were having to increase discounts to pull in shoppers.

Republicans Believe In Private Enterprise: For decades, the federal government has been the nation's only legal producer of marijuana for medical research. Working with growers at the University of Mississippi, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has controlled both the quality and distribution of the drug for the past 36 years. But for the first time the government's monopoly on research marijuana is under serious legal challenge. The effort is being spearheaded by a group that wants to produce medicines from currently illegal psychedelic drugs and by a professor at the University of Massachusetts who has agreed to grow marijuana for the group if the government lets him. In a hearing due to start today before an administrative law judge at the Drug Enforcement Administration, professor Lyle Craker and his supporters will argue for a DEA license to grow the research drugs. It is the climax of a decades-long effort to expand research into marijuana and controlled drugs and of Craker's almost five-year effort to become a competing marijuana grower. "Our work is focused on finding medicinal uses of plants, and marijuana is one with clear potential," said Craker, director of the medicinal plant program of the university's Department of Plant, Soil and Insect Sciences in Amherst, Mass., and editor of the Journal of Herbs, Spices and Medicinal Plants. "There's only one government-approved source of marijuana for scientific research in this country, and that just isn't adequate." The DEA, which has to license anyone who wants to grow marijuana, disagrees. The agency, as well as the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which formally runs the marijuana research program, argues that it is not in the public interest to have more than one source of marijuana, in part because it could lead to greater illicit use. What's more, they said in legal briefs, the Mississippi program supplies all the marijuana that researchers need. Agency officials declined to comment further.

Extraordinary Rendition Watch: On the one hand, there are no records of the US asking the UK for permission to use its airports to move CIA terror suspects, U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said. He was "as certain as can be" of that after detailed searches of records. Liberty has asked police to examine if terror suspects passed through the UK to places where they may face torture. Lib Dem Sir Menzies Campbell said the authorities "don't know" whether it is happening, adding the UK had a "moral responsibility" on the issue. Reports claim at least 210 CIA flights had landed in the UK since 9/11. On the other hand, The government line is that the 400+ CIA filghts that have are being reported have nothing to do with the rendition process. It's all been a terrible misunderstanding... So move along, move along, nothing to see here.

Republicans Believe In Social Justice: Firings, humiliation, intimidation, bribes -- all tactics outlawed by national labor laws yet long used by companies trying to dissuade workers from organizing a union. And, according to a new study, these obstacles have grown worse in recent years, contributing directly to the decline in union density nationwide. The report, Undermining the Right to Organize: Employer Behavior During Union Representation Campaigns, compiled by American Rights at Work, workers’ rights advocacy group backed by the AFL-CIO, examined 62 organizing campaigns in and around Chicago. Researchers arrived at startling conclusions about employer anti-union actions and the success of organizing drives, but led to what labor activists consider potential solutions.

On September 15, President Bush stood in Jackson Square in New Orleans and made a promise: "And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again." It hasn’t worked out that way. Here’s Washington Post reporter Mike Allen on Meet the Press on Sunday: "I’m going to tell you something to amaze you; it amazed me yesterday. The last time the president was in the hurricane region was October 11, two months ago. The president stood in New Orleans and said it was going to be one of the largest reconstruction efforts in the history of the world. You go to the White house home page, there’s Barney camp, there’s Social Security, there’s Renewing Iraq. Where’s renewing New Orleans? A presidential advisor told me that issue has fallen so far off the radar screen, you can’t find it."

News From Smirkey's Wars: An Iraqi government search of another detention center in Baghdad operated by Interior Ministry special commandos found 625 inmates were being held in "very overcrowded" conditions, and 13 prisoners who had suffered abuse serious enough to require medical treatment, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Sunday night. An Iraqi official with firsthand knowledge of the search said that at least 12 of the 13 prisoners had been subjected to "severe torture," including sessions of electric shock and episodes that left them with broken bones. "Two of them showed me their nails, and they were gone," the official said on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. A government spokesman, Laith Kubba, said Sunday night that any findings at the prison would be "subject to an investigation," but he declined to comment on the allegations. The site, which was searched Thursday, is the second Interior Ministry detention center where cases of prisoner abuse have been confirmed by U.S. and Iraqi officials.

They're learning from their masters: President Bush said Monday that Iraqi prisoners held in secret detention centers apparently were beaten and tortured. "This conduct is unacceptable," Bush said in a speech in Philadelphia. "Those who committed these crimes must be held to account." The president's remarks followed the discovery of a second detention center in Iraq containing hundreds of prisoners in cramped quarters and the apparent abuse of some of them. Bush said that various Iraqi groups were brutally oppressed under deposed President Saddam Hussein's regime. "For some," he said, "there is a temptation to take justice into their own hands." He said most of the prisoners that have been recently discovered were Sunni Arab men, some of whom "have appeared to have been beaten and tortured." State Department officials called for Iraqi officials to investigate the second known mistreatment of detainees in a center maintained by the Interior Ministry. But James Jeffrey, a seasoned American diplomat who assists Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Iraq policy, said Monday he did not think it would discourage Sunni Arabs from voting in legislative elections on Thursday. "We are looking into this one in more detail to find out what went on there, why these people were being detained there, why they were not turned over to the ministry of Justice and whether and to what degree they may have been mishandled," Jeffrey said at the Foreign Press Center.

With just four days to go until parliamentary elections, the Iraqi electoral commission said today that it had found irregularities in voter registration in the volatile northern oil city of Kirkuk. The discovery was the first instance of an election irregularity announced by the commission as the country prepared for the vote on Thursday. The commission said experts conducting an audit of voter lists found that there had been an unexpected surge in voter registration in the area. When the experts scrutinized the voter registration forms, the commission said in a written statement, they found that many had been filled out incorrectly. Some had missing signatures and others had more than one signature. In some cases, the same name appeared on several forms. Adel al-Lami, the director general of the Iraqi electoral commission, said in an interview that in his view the voter registration irregularities were technical errors and not politically motivated. "Please stay away from political conspiracies," he said. "There's no political reason for this."

A security assessment shortly after Iraq's Dec. 15 elections could include a recommendation that the U.S. reduce its troop strength in that country below 138,000, the Pentagon said Monday. Lawrence Di Rita, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, told reporters that the U.S. force could shrink fairly quickly, after Thursday's parliamentary elections, to what had been a baseline figure of 138,000 before an extra 22,000 or so troops were added to deal with heightened violence leading up to Iraq's parliamentary election. Rumsfeld has said he expects insurgent-driven violence to lessen somewhat after the election. Di Rita said he was not sure how long it would take to return to the 138,000 level, but the question in the meantime will be whether Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will recommend to Rumsfeld a timetable for going below 138,000.

Resurgent Taliban forces have forged an alliance with drug smugglers in the lawless Afghan province of Helmand, underscoring a worrying slide in security just months before thousands of British troops are due to take control in the spring. Community elders and police officials said the Taliban has flooded remote villages with "night letters" ordering farmers to grow poppies. The notices are pinned to mosque doors or shop windows, said community leader Haji Nazaraullah. "They say 'cultivate the poppy or we will come and kill you,'" he said in Khanishin, a remote village bordering a vast desert criss-crossed with smuggling tracks. "A lot of people are very scared." The intimidation suggests the Taliban, which had condemned opium as "unIslamic", has turned to the billion-pound drugs trade to earn money and undermine the fragile authority of President Hamid's Karzai's Kabul-based government.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Alaska's rapidly disintegrating Columbia Glacier, which has shrunk in length by 9 miles since 1980, has reached the mid-point of its projected retreat, according to a new University of Colorado at Boulder study. That's more than 8 feet per day for North America's largest glacier. The volume of the world's glaciers outside of Antarctica and the Greenland Ice Sheet continues to decline and the rate of ice loss continues to accelerate, according to a new study. Tad Pfeffer, associate director of CU-Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, said the glacier is now discharging nearly 2 cubic miles of ice annually into the Prince William Sound, the equivalent of 100,000 ships packed with ice, each 500 feet long. The tidewater glacier -- which has its terminus, or end, in the waters of the Prince William Sound -- is expected to retreat an additional 9 miles in the next 15 years to 20 years before reaching an equilibrium point in shallow water near sea level, he said.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: A lesbian woman will challenge an appeals court ruling that permitted two doctors to claim a religious defense in their refusal to artificially inseminate her. A California appeals court last week sided with the doctors, Christine Brody and Douglas Fenton, saying they can claim religious liberty in refusing to treat a patient who was gay because it was against their Christian beliefs. Guadalupe Benitez filed a sexual-orientation discrimination suit against the doctors at a San Diego women's clinic after they refused to artificially inseminate her in 2000. Benitez claims that on her first visit, Brody informed her that while her religious principles precluded her from performing the procedure on a gay woman, another doctor in the clinic would. Benitez says, however, that after 11 months of costly, painful tests and surgeries, when the time came for the insemination procedure, she was turned down and told that she "would not be treated fairly" or "get timely care" at the clinic because of Dr. Brody's and other staff members' religious beliefs.

Scandals R Us: The Washington Post has published a chart showing just who has received all that money from the Jack Abramoff lobbying firm, and just how much. The totals are interesting - 63% of the money went to Republicans, and 35% went to Democrats. In total, more than $5,355,000 was funneled to politicians between 1999 and 2004, with $1.7 million being spent to grease the skids in 2002 alone. About $4.7 million came from Indian tribes seeking legislation favoring their gambling interests, and most of the rest is claimed to have come from Abramoff and his team personally. The largest single recipient by far was Sen. Charles Conrad (R-MT), chairman of the Senate Interior appropriations subcommittee. Second largest was Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. He was almost 50% ahead of third-place.

Months before Karl Rove corrected his statements in the Valerie Plame investigation, his lawyer was told that Rove might have disclosed Plame's CIA status to a Time magazine reporter. Rove says he had forgotten the conversation he had on July 11, 2003, with Time's Matt Cooper. But the magazine reported Sunday that in the first half of 2004, as

President Bush's re-election campaign was heating up, Rove's lawyer got the word about a possible Rove-Cooper conversation from a second Time reporter, Viveca Novak. Novak described her conversation with the lawyer, Robert Luskin, in a first-person account released Sunday on Time's Web site. Six weeks ago, in a so-far successful effort to avert Rove's indictment, Luskin disclosed his conversation with Novak to the special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald. Rove remains under investigation. He forgot? Yeah, right.

Prosecutors asked a judge Monday not to let Rep. Tom DeLay's trial begin while they appeal the dismissal of one of the three campaign-finance charges against the former House majority leader. If Judge Pat Priest agrees to a delay, it could be another blow to DeLay's hopes of regaining his leadership post. The Texas Republican was forced to step down under House GOP rules after being charged earlier this year, and he cannot regain his post as long as he remains under indictment. For that reason, he has asked for a dismissal of the case, or else a prompt trial, in hopes of becoming majority leader again when Congress reconvenes in late January.

GOP media strategist Patrick Hynes has a scoop today about Republican internal polling numbers from House swing districts that show the Tom DeLay scandal and the Democratic drumbeat about a "culture of corruption" on Capitol Hill is having a very negative effect on the GOP candidates. According to the polling: "No fewer than four Republican members of Congress in 'vulnerable' seats have received recent internal polling data that shows 'a Tom DeLay effect' that appears to give 'any Democrat' on the ballot question an average of 10 percentage points against the incumbent."

A former top aide to U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who quit to work at the firm of indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff said Monday he is talking to Justice Department investigators as part of the agency's continuing probe of Abramoff's activities. Reached at his Bozeman office, Will Brooke, Burns' onetime chief of staff, said he has hired a lawyer in the matter. "I'm not concerned about anything," said Brooke, who is a lawyer. "I just wanted to make sure somebody was there to hear the interview." Brooke said he is participating in the investigation to provide information. He has not been told that he might be a subject of the investigation, he said. Burns is one of four lawmakers publicly linked to the ongoing Abramoff lobbying probe.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: If Palm Beach County prosecutors decide to charge Rush Limbaugh for his prescription drug use, they'll have to do it without questioning the conservative radio host's doctors about his medical condition, a judge ruled Monday. Prosecutors can subpoena Rush Limbaugh's doctors as part of an investigation into whether the conservative radio commentator illegally bought painkillers, a judge ruled Monday. Judge David F. Crow ruled that Florida laws do not prevent doctors from talking with prosecutors if the discussion is relevant to the prosecution of a crime. The decision gave prosecutors permission to subpoena doctors and their staff, but it also protected confidential material in Limbaugh's medical records. The judge noted that Florida law prohibits the discussion of a patient's medical condition and information disclosed by a patient during treatment.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:40:57 PM

Sun, Dec 11 2005

To Gamble Or Not To Gamble

The weather yesterday was a delight - sun from sunrise to sunset, with just a few periods of cloudiness and no rain - and delightful temperatures. It hit 82 yesterday, and dropped to 71 overnight. But as nightfall set in last night, the rain began, and was relentless through the day today. The lack of sun moderated the temperature a bit, and it only hit 76 by three in the afternoon. The rain has continued through the evening. Are we headed back into the last of the rainy season? This last two weeks of delightful weather has been too good to last.

Well, today was an inside day. Too much rain to want to get out, and I was feeling too tired to really want to. So I spend a good deal of the day on the computer, and took several long naps during the day. I seemed to need it.

Between naps today, I spent some time catching up on my reading, including this week's Tico Times. Hadn't seen an issue for a couple of weeks, as they are no longer being sold at the news stand. I have to go to one of the gringo hotels to get a copy now. I don't understand that, but I suppose someone has some indecipherable reason for it.

Anyway, this week's Times has an article about a big conference among the candidates for next year's presidential elections, and CANATUR, the tourism institute that promotes tourism, which is the major source of foreign exchange for the country, and the source of more than one fourth of all the jobs. The big controversy, apparently, is how to best promote tourism. On the one side, there are the gambling interests, who want to see large casinos and the associated mega-resorts, with the associated jobs, national income and the like, and on the other, there are those are concerned about mega-casinos attracting the vice, prostitution, drugs and "nefarious activities" that represent the worst side of a tourism industry. Notable for his absence at the conference was Oscar Arias, the former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who is standing for election and is 20 points ahead in the polls of his nearest rival. Not surprising to me was that the loudest, most adamant stands was from the smallest parties, who have the least to lose by taking a stand against moneyed interests. One thing everyone agreed on, is that the decaying infrastructure - read: roads - is hurting tourism and discouraging investment. So, in the end, there was no consensus. Will Costa Rica in a few years be sporting a handful of huge Cancun-style mega resorts, rather than the plethora of small, local mom-and-pop resorts across the country that supports most of its tourism now? Who knows. That decision will probably be made by Oscar Arias, and right now, he's conspicuous for his not talking.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: The Red Cross said on Friday it was pressing the United States to give it access to prisoners held in secret jails as part of the U.S. war on terror. "We have said that undisclosed detention is a major concern for us," Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told a news conference.

"We are already visiting very many detainees under U.S. authorities in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan … We continue to be in an intense dialogue with them with the aim of getting access to all people detained in the framework of the so-called war on terror," he said. Human rights groups accuse the CIA of running secret prisons in eastern Europe and covertly transporting detainees. They say incommunicado detention often involves torture. John Bellinger, the U.S. State Department's legal adviser, acknowledged to reporters in Geneva on Thursday that the ICRC does not have access to all detainees held by U.S. forces, but refused to discuss alleged secret detention centers. The ICRC has been pressing the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush for two years for information about and access to what the Red Cross calls "an unknown number of people captured as part of the so-called global war on terror and held in undisclosed locations."

A "terrorism" watchlist distributed by the US government to airlines for pre-flight checks is now 80,000 names long, a Swedish newspaper reported, citing European air industry sources. The classified list, which carried just 16 names before the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington had grown to 1,000 by the end of 2001, to 40,000 a year later and now stands at 80,000, Svenska Dagbladet reported. Airlines must check each passenger flying to a US destination against the list, and contact the US Department of Homeland Security for further investigation if there is a matching name. The list contains a strict "no fly" section, which requires airline staff to contact police, and a "selectee" section, which requires passengers to undergo further security checks.

Congressional Republican leaders will press for passage next week of a new Patriot Act to "combat terrorism," but a Senate filibuster looms on a measure that liberal and conservative critics alike say is a threat to individual liberties. "Just as the Senate did four years ago, we should unite in a bipartisan way to support the Patriot Act, to stand up for freedom and against terror," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Thursday as GOP negotiators from the House and Senate sealed their White House-backed compromise. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, issued a statement saying the measure would aid "in the detection, disruption and dismantling of terrorist cells before they strike." Unfortunately, the mainstream press is not telling the people what is actually in the proposed legislation, nor how that will combat terrorism.

Contrary to charges made by Smirkey that Clinton ignored the terrorism threat, and that no one could have anticipated the use of civilian aircraft for an attack on the Twin Towers, a declassified US cable made public two days ago shows that US officials warned Saudi counterparts more than three years before the September 11, 2001 attacks that Osama bin Laden might target civilian aircraft. The State Department cable was not mentioned by the special commission that investigated the attacks on New York and Washington, according to National Security Archives, the non-profit research group that made the cable public. The cable reports on a meeting between two US embassy officials in Riyadh with Saudi officials on June 16, 1998 to press for increased vigilance at the King Khalid International Airport. "We noted that while we have no specific information that indicates Bin Laden is targeting civilian aircraft, he made a threat during the June 11 ABC News interview against 'military passenger aircraft' in the next 'few weeks,"' the cable said.

Torture can never be an instrument to fight terror because it is an instrument of terror, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said, in his annual Human Rights Day message. He decried the recent trend of countries claiming exceptions to the international prohibition against the practice and called for all states to honour the legally established ban on torture and to vigorously combat the impunity of those who perpetrate it. He also urged all countries that have not yet done so to ratify the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The message also urges all states to give "independent access to detainees within their control," to the UN expert on torture.

An Ethiopian claims that his confession to al-Qaeda bomb plot was signed after beatings. An Ethiopian student who lived in London claims that he was brutally tortured with the involvement of British and US intelligence agencies. Binyam Mohammed, 27, says he spent nearly three years in the CIA's network of 'black sites'. In Morocco he claims he underwent the strappado torture of being hung for hours from his wrists, and scalpel cuts to his chest and penis and that a CIA officer was a regular interrogator. After his capture in Pakistan, Mohammed says British officials warned him that he would be sent to a country where torture was used. Moroccans also asked him detailed questions about his seven years in London, which his lawyers believe came from British sources. Western agencies believed that he was part of a plot to buy uranium in Asia, bring it to the US and build a 'dirty bomb' in league with Jose Padilla, a US citizen. Mohammed signed a confession but told his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, he had never met Padilla, or anyone in al-Qaeda. Padilla spent almost four years in American custody, accused of the plot. Last month, after allegations of the torture used against Mohammed emerged, the claims against Padilla were dropped. He now faces a civil charge of supporting al-Qaeda financially.

An Iraqi general formerly in charge of special forces said he witnessed horrific scenes of torture in Iraqi prisons and accused a Shiite militia (read: death squad) of being responsible. "It was horrific. Thousands of detainees, often teenagers, beaten, burned, receiving electric shocks, then the majority killed," Muntazar al-Samarrai, who fled Iraq for Jordan five months ago, told AFP. In video footage Samarrai said he filmed at one detention center, men show whip marks and acid burns. One of them has lost an eye. Another's legs are broken. Still another has nails driven into his body. The video also shows the mutilated corpses of three men who Samarrai said died as a result of torture. Samarrai, 45, a Sunni Arab with a long career in the military, left Iraq for Jordan in July after two attempts on his life, yet said he remained convinced he had to tell of the abuses he had witnessed in numerous clandestine prisons, which he had visited as part of his work. He said Iraq's Interior Minister Bayan Jabr Solagh had named as ministry policemen 17,000 fighters from the Badr organization, the disarmed militia of the pro-Iranian Shiite fundamentalist Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Last month, the US military said it dismantled one of Iraq's secret detention facilities in Baghdad, but Samarrai said nine other such facilities are lurking throughout the country. Three are located in the Iraqi capital, the largest of which holds 600 detainees, and at least three more are in largely Shiite regions of the country, he said. He also said there are two detention centers for women in Baghdad where "female prisoners are tortured and raped."

It was the "Mission Accomplished" of George Bush's second term, and an announcement of that magnitude called for a suitably dramatic location. But what was the right backdrop for the infamous "We do not torture" declaration? With characteristic audacity, the Bush team settled on downtown Panama City. It was certainly bold. An hour and a half's drive from where Bush stood, the US military ran the notorious School of the Americas from 1946 to 1984, a sinister educational institution that, if it had a motto, might have been "We do torture". It is here in Panama, and later at the school's new location in Fort Benning, Georgia, where the roots of the current torture scandals can be found. According to declassified training manuals, SOA students - military and police officers from across the hemisphere - were instructed in many of the same "coercive interrogation" techniques that have since gone to Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib: early morning capture to maximise shock, immediate hooding and blindfolding, forced nudity, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, sleep and food "manipulation", humiliation, extreme temperatures, isolation, stress positions - and worse. In 1996 President Clinton's Intelligence Oversight Board admitted that US-produced training materials condoned "execution of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion and false imprisonment". Some Panama school graduates went on to commit the continent's greatest war crimes of the past half-century: the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador; the systematic theft of babies from Argentina's "disappeared" prisoners; the massacre of 900 civilians in El Mozote in El Salvador; and military coups too numerous to list here.

Three months after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, the fate of more than 1,300 children remains unknown. while investigators believe most of the missing are safe somewhere, the wrenching apart of their families is proving a gargantuan obstacle to overcome. In the evacuations after New Orleans flooded, families were scattered across 48 states. Those overseeing evacuations, in their rush to clear people from the city, often separated families as they pressed them onto buses, helicopters and planes, which then went in different directions. Documentation proving custody of children or other family ties was destroyed or lost. Access to phones and computers was minimal, creating gaps between the time families were separated and the time children were reported missing. Shelters had no coordinated system for feeding evacuees' names, birth dates and other information into a national database. On top of that, many families were severely splintered even before the hurricane. Many children had been in the care of aunts, grandparents, great-grandparents or unrelated guardians before the storm, and those caretakers often lacked information crucial to finding children, such as birth dates, names of the youngsters' friends, recent photographs and nicknames. "They're scattered physically, which doesn't help, but they're also scattered socially," said Burke. "When you have this sort of family structure, it's very difficult. When they scatter, they're just gone."

Most Americans carry cellphones, but many may not know that government agencies can track their movements through the signals emanating from the handset. In recent years, law enforcement officials have turned to cellular technology as a tool for easily and secretly monitoring the movements of suspects as they occur. But this kind of surveillance - which investigators have been able to conduct with easily obtained court orders - has now come under tougher legal scrutiny. In the last four months, three federal judges have denied prosecutors the right to get cellphone tracking information from wireless companies without first showing "probable cause" to believe that a crime has been or is being committed. That is the same standard applied to requests for search warrants. The rulings, issued by magistrate judges in New York, Texas and Maryland, underscore the growing debate over privacy rights and government surveillance in the digital age.

The United States is rapidly losing its influence in the Southeast Asia region to China, thanks to an overly narrow focus on terrorism and a propensity to place bilateral ties above multilateral relationships, according to US and Chinese analysts. "China makes a point of dealing with Southeast Asia as a region and has a very aggressive ASEAN policy," said Catharin Dalpino, an Asia specialist at Georgetown University who served in the Clinton administration. "This also helps its bilateral relationships with Southeast Asia quite a lot." ASEAN is the acronym for the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations that includes Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei. Against China's regional approach, the US is "notoriously bilateral, and almost gratuitously so in Southeast Asia," Dalpino said, adding that the fact that US officials won't be attending the first East Asia Summit, scheduled for December 14 in Kuala Lumpur, underscores US alienation from the region. Besides the ASEAN bloc, China, South Korea and Japan are members of the 16-nation summit - the world's newest grouping - with India, New Zealand and Australia attending as newly accepted members. By making Southeast Asia a "second front" in its global "war on terror", the Bush administration has signalled that "we care less about other areas of policy", Dalpino said, addressing a forum on China and Southeast Asia sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

Greg Kelly of Fox News, believe it or not, is pursuing a story no one else seems to want to touch. On Tuesday, he filed this report: "Twice last month in speeches to military audiences, the president attacked Democrats and fired back at their accusations that pre-war intelligence was manipulated by his administration... "The attacks against critics at military settings may have put troops in the awkward position of undermining their own regulations. A Department of Defense directive doesn't allow service members in uniform to attend 'partisan political events..." "Several members of the military told FOX News that Bush is inviting the troops to take sides in a partisan debate in his speeches. "This is a very bad sign," said retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, who led Central Command in the early 1990s and is an administration critic. "This is the sort of thing that you find in other countries where the military and political, certain political parties are aligned."

What an embarrassment: Five years after running as the vice-presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket and a year after his own presidential bid, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut has become an increasingly unwelcome figure within his party, with some Democrats seeing him more as a wayward son than a favorite son. In the last few days, the senator has riled Democratic activists and politicians here and in his home state with his vigorous defense of President Bush's handling of the Iraq war at a time some Democrats are pressuring the administration to begin a withdrawal. Joseph I. Lieberman has angered fellow Democrats, in one instance by reminding them that President Bush is commander in chief. Mr. Lieberman particularly infuriated his colleagues when he pointed out at a conference here that President Bush would be commander in chief for three more years and said that "it's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that." "We undermine the president's credibility at our nation's peril," Mr. Lieberman said.

While Utah vehemently resists being regarded as the nation's dumping ground for radioactive waste, it is one of four Western states apparently willing to serve the same purpose for California's air pollution. That's the message of a new report on coal-fired electric plants in the interior West. The report's authors calculate the amount of pollution spewed in the interior West, where coal plants supply about 20 percent of California's electricity. The plants - Intermountain Power Project in Utah, Four Corners and San Juan in New Mexico, Mohave and Reid Gardner in Nevada and the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona - emit 10 times more sulfur dioxide than all the plants in California, 10 times more smog-forming nitrogen oxide, 200 times the mercury and 67 million tons of carbon dioxide, which feeds global warming.

Frist to use the "nuclear option": Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Sunday he is prepared to strip Democrats of their to ability to filibuster if they try to stall Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court. "The answer is yes," Frist said when asked if he would act to change Senate procedures to restrict a Democratic filibuster. "Supreme Court justice nominees deserve an up-or-down vote, and it would be absolutely wrong to deny him that." A Democratic spokesman said Frist's words were "silly and unhelpful" and that Democrats want the Senate Judiciary Committee to act on Alito's nomination before they decide what they may do. In recent weeks, Senate Democrats have questioned whether Alito, a federal appeals court judge, has the proper judicial temperament and ideology to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Several Democrats have said that Alito's views on issues such as voting rights and abortion could provoke a filibuster unless he allays their concerns about his commitment to civil rights. Alito's confirmation hearings begin Jan. 9 before the committee.

Over Smirkey's Dead Body: A green Citgo tanker truck chugged up a hill with a grim view of tenement buildings, elevated subways and treeless sidewalks to deliver reduced-cost Venezuelan heating oil, a "humanitarian" gift from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Moments before the orange-gloved worker snaked the hose to a Bronx tenement, Eartha Ferguson, a manager and resident of a low-income building, said: "I call it a gift of survival. It comes at a good time, a very needed time."Chavez's gift, which arrived on Tuesday and is being distributed this week, may be nothing more than a chance to tweak the nose of the Bush administration, which has long opposed the South American leader. But few residents in the South Bronx, where 41 percent live on incomes below the federal poverty line, are inclined to worry about international politics. Citgo Petroleum Corp., which is controlled by the Venezuelan government, signed a deal with three Bronx housing nonprofits to sell 5 million gallons of heating oil at 45 percent below the market rate, an estimated savings of $4 million. The discounted oil will heat 75 Bronx apartment buildings, housing 8,000 low-income working poor and elderly tenants.

News From The Bush Crime Family: Why is the President's younger brother, Neil, touring with the leader of the Moonies? "Those who stray from the heavenly way," the owner of the flagship Republican newspaper the Washington Times admonished an audience in Taipei on Friday, "will be punished." This "heavenly way," the Rev. Sun Myung Moon explained, demands a 51-mile underwater highway spanning Alaska and Russia. Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the South Korean giant of the religious right who owns the Washington Times, is on a 100-city speaking tour to promote his $200 billion "Peace King Tunnel" dream, with help from the Arizona chairman of the GOP. As he describes it, the tunnel would be both a monument to his magnificence, and a totem to his prophecy of a unified Planet Earth. In this vision, the United Nations would be reinvented as an instrument of God's plan, and democracy and sexual freedom would crumble in the face of this faith-based glory. Neil also surfaced in an article last week from the Manila Times, which placed him at a dinner in Manila attended by Washington Times president Dong Moon Joo and respected Filipino House Speaker Jose de Venecia. (It's unclear if Bush attended an intermediate stop in the Solomon Islands.) According to the Manila Times piece, Venecia proposed Moon's idea for a trans-religious council to Smirkey in a 2003 meeting; Smirkey was said to have called it "a brilliant idea." Moon has frequently gone on the record against Western-style democracy and individualism, calling them results of the fall of Adam. "There are three guiding principles for the world to choose from: democracy, Communism and Godism," he said in a 1987 sermon. "It is clear that democracy as the United States knows and practices it cannot be the model for the world." Neil isn't the only Bush to attend Moon events. In 1996, his father, President George H.W. Bush, traveled to Buenos Aires with the Reverend in one of several such fundraising expeditions. "The 41st president, who told Argentine president Carlos Menem that he had joined Moon in Buenos Aires for the money, had actually known the Korean reasonably well for decades," writes former top GOP strategist Kevin Phillips in his book "American Dynasty." Reverend Moon is the latest in a line of unusual partners for Neil Bush in recent years, including the son of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and fugitive Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who has been promoting the younger Bush's educational software company, Ignite!, according to the Washington Post. Neil Bush was a central figure in the collapse of the Silverado Savings and Loan during the S & L crisis in the Reagan era, leaving taxpayers on the hook for about $2 billion. A messy divorce case in 2003 exposed his dalliances with prostitutes in Asia.

The United States Of America, A Third World Country: Rodent complaints and health department exterminations are at unprecedented highs in New York, and the little ruffians are everywhere — scampering through subway tunnels, rooting through trash, dashing across parks, burrowing into the walls of apartment buildings. They can transmit disease, start fires by gnawing on electrical cords, and sometimes bite, usually children and the elderly. "There's no question that we have a rat problem ... the city has put out traps and poison at record rates," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in September while outlining the city's yearly report card, which showed a dramatic increase in rat complaints. The dilemma is exacerbated by bureaucracy, because one infestation usually requires the attention of several municipal agencies.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: Bush-administration officials privately threatened organizers of the U.N. Climate Change Conference, telling them that any chance there might’ve been for the United States to sign on to the Kyoto global-warming protocol would be scuttled if they allowed Bill Clinton to speak at the gathering today in Montreal, according to a source involved with the negotiations who spoke to New York Magazine on condition of anonymity. The threat set in motion a flurry of frantic back-channel negotiations between conference organizers and aides to Bush and Clinton that lasted into the night on Thursday, and at one point Clinton flatly told his advisers that he was going to pull out and not deliver the speech, the source said. “It’s just astounding,” the source told New York Magazine. “It came through loud and clear from the Bush people—they wouldn’t sign the deal if Clinton were allowed to speak.” Clinton spokesman Jay Carson confirmed the dust-up took place and that the former president had decided not to go out of fear of harming the negotiations, but Carson declined to comment further. On Friday afternoon, Clinton did end up speaking at the conference. Ministers at the climate change conference in Montreal have made a series of breakthroughs in plans to combat global warming. On the conference's last day, Kyoto Protocol signatories agreed to extend the treaty on emissions reductions beyond its 2012 deadline. And a broader group of countries including the US agreed to non-binding talks on long-term measures.The US had refused to accept any deal leading to commitments to cuts. Earlier, former President Bill Clinton said the US approach was "flat wrong". After Mr Clinton's remarks - which were warmly received - the official US team appeared to shift its position.

De-Regulated Markets Solve All Problems: A top editor of The New England Journal of Medicine says that he was stunned to find out that data linking Vioxx to cardiovascular risk was deleted from a major study his journal published five years ago--and that it appears that Merck researchers may have deleted that data. "I was somewhere between surprised and stunned," Dr. Gregory Curfman, executive editor of The Journal, says. "They allowed us to publish an article that was just incomplete and inaccurate in some respects and was misleading and may have contributed to the detriment to the public health." The discovery comes as the company faces a flood of lawsuits following its decision to pull the drug from the market in September 2004. Merck recalled Vioxx after its own study linked long-term use of the drug to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. Now, the question is if that alarm should have been sounded much earlier.

Republicans Believe In Fiscal Responsibility: The House passed the last and biggest part of $95 billion in tax cuts for the rich on Thursday, a move that reflected the willingness to place tax cuts above the risk of higher deficits in years to come. Voting 234 to 197, almost purely along party lines, the House approved $56 billion in tax cuts over five years, one day after it passed other tax cuts totaling $39 billion over five years. The biggest provision would extend President Bush's 2001 tax cut for stock dividends and capital gains for two years at a cost of $20 billion. That was welcome news for a president whose tax plans looked all but dead a few weeks ago. All the maverick Republican conservatives in House, who had pushed party leaders to pass $51 billion in spending cuts, voted enthusiastically for tax cuts costing nearly twice as much. "Clearly, tax relief is part of the deficit solution, not part of the problem," said Representative Jeb Hensarling, Republican of Texas, in a remarkable example of Orwellian newspeak.

Republicans Believe In Free Speech: The names and license plate numbers of about 30 people who protested three years ago in Colorado Springs were put into FBI domestic-terrorism files, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Colorado said Thursday. The Denver-based ACLU obtained federal documents on a 2002 Colorado Springs protest and a 2003 anti-war rally under the Freedom of Information Act. ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein said the documents show the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force wastes resources generating files on “nonviolent protest.” “These documents confirm that the names and license plate numbers of several dozen peaceful protesters who committed no crime are now in a JTTF file marked ‘counterterrorism,’” he said. “This kind of surveillance of First Amendment activities has serious consequences. Law-abiding Americans may be reluctant to speak out when doing so means that their names will wind up in an FBI file.” FBI Special Agent Monique Kelso, the spokeswoman for the agency in Colorado, disputed the claim the task force wastes resources gathering information on protesters. “We do not open cases or monitor cases just based purely on protests,” she said Thursday. “It’s our job to protect American civil rights. We don’t surveil cases just to do that. We have credible information.” Yeah, right. If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn... I know whereof I speak.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: Mortgage delinquencies among homeowners with high-cost loans will rise by 10 to 15 percent in 2006, as borrowers struggle with higher interest rates, high debt levels and higher energy costs amid flattening home prices, a new report from investment analyst Fitch Ratings predicts. Consequently, overall mortgage delinquencies are likely to rise next year, as well, according to the report's authors. "We think borrowers will be under more stress and have more propensity to be delinquent," said Glenn Costello, managing director of Fitch, which follows the market for bonds backed by residential mortgages. Recently, prices of such bonds have been falling, particularly those with lower-credit-quality loans. Most high-rate mortgages, known as subprime loans, have adjustable interest rates, Fitch said. That means borrowers are more sensitive to fluctuations in rates, because rising rates mean their mortgages payments rise as well. About 19 percent of home loans nationwide are subprime, up from about 5 percent a decade ago, as homeowners take on heavy debt burdens. Many people have used the equity in their homes to pay off high-interest credit cards, reducing their monthly obligations, but those with poor credit have done so by shifting to subprime loans. Prime loans, those at the best rates, are given to only borrowers with good credit.

Home mortgage foreclosure filings are on the rise in gritty cities and leafy suburbs, according to a new report showing a 35 percent increase in Massachusetts statewide through October. Filings in suburban Reading more than tripled and there's been a 113 percent increase in Lawrence compared with the same period last year, according to Land Court filings tracked by Framingham-based ForeclosuresMass. "It spans the whole gamut of income levels," said Jeremy Shapiro, president of ForeclosuresMass. The number of foreclosures filed through Oct. 31 was 9,459, compared with 7,003 in the same 10-month period last year, the report said. Essex County had the largest increase, at 50 percent.

Americans increased their household debt at an annual rate of 11.6% in the third quarter, the fastest growth in 18 years, the Federal Reserve said Thursday in its quarterly flow of funds report. Total outstanding debt in the household sector rose to $11 trillion. Total debt in the economy increased at a 9.1% annual rate, one percentage point faster than in the second quarter, to $25.72 trillion. Net national savings fell by $120.5 billion at an annual rate. It was the first quarter that net savings had been negative since the Fed began tracking the data in 1952. And people aren’t saving at all. Economists define savings as the money left over after someone spends for their monthly expenses/items. The number has been negative for the last 7 months. In addition, contributions to retirement plans are very low. Of 401(k) plans, IRAs and defined benefit plans, only IRAs are growing over 1% of GDP for the last 4 years, and then the largest annual contribution is around 2%. In short, low-wage growth and low-interest rates are inflating an asset class’ value, increasing borrowing and provide a disincentive to saving. This is the today at the expense of tomorrow economy in action.

As one of more than two million Americans who rushed to a courthouse this year to file for bankruptcy before a tough new law took effect, Laura Fogle is glad for her chance at a fresh start. A nurse and single mother of two, she blames her use of credit cards after cancer surgery for falling into deep debt. Laura Fogle, a nurse who lives in Tacoma, Wash., filed for bankruptcy, but that hasn't stopped credit lenders from seeking her business. Ms. Fogle is broke, and may not seem to be the kind of person to whom banks would want to offer credit cards. But she said she had no sooner filed for bankruptcy, and sworn off plastic, than she was hit with a flurry of solicitations from major banks. "Every day, I get at least two or three new credit card offers - Citibank, MasterCard, you name it - they want to give me a credit card, at pretty high interest rates," said Ms. Fogle, who is 41 and lives here. "I've got a stack of these things on my table. It's tempting, but I've sworn them off." If it seems odd to Ms. Fogle that banks would want to lend money to the newly bankrupt, it is no mystery to the financial community, which charges some of the highest interest rates to these newly available customers. Under the new law, which the banking industry spent more than $100 million lobbying for, they may be even more attractive because it makes it harder for them to escape new credit card debt and extends to eight years from six the time before which they could liquidate their debts through bankruptcy again.

Republicans Believe In Free And Fair Elections: A former national Republican Party official played a key role in an Election Day 2002 phone jamming plot against New Hampshire Democrats, the prosecution said Tuesday during opening statements in his trial. James Tobin, Smirkey's onetime New England campaign chairman, is being tried on one federal count of conspiring against voters' rights and several counts involving telephone harassment. He could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. U.S. Attorney Andrew Levchuk said the state GOP's former executive director, Chuck McGee, had Tobin's blessing for the scheme as well as his help in the plot to disrupt Democratic get-out-the-vote phone banks and a nonpartisan ride-to-the-polls line. Tobin, 45, resigned as New England chairman of Bush's 2004 campaign in October 2004 when the phone jamming accusations became public. Tobin also has been political director of the Republican National Committee.

Republicans Believe In Equal Rights For All: The Justice Department has barred staff attorneys from offering recommendations in major Voting Rights Act cases, marking a significant change in the procedures meant to insulate such decisions from politics, congressional aides and current and former employees familiar with the issue said. Disclosure of the change comes amid growing public criticism of Justice Department decisions to approve Republican-engineered plans in Texas and Georgia that were found to hurt minority voters by career staff attorneys who analyzed the plans. Political appointees overruled staff findings in both cases. The policy was implemented in the Georgia case, said a Justice employee who, like others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation. A staff memo urged rejecting the state's plan to require photo identification at the polls because it would harm black voters. But under the new policy, the recommendation was stripped out of that document and was not forwarded to higher officials in the Civil Rights Division, several sources familiar with the incident said.

A well-heeled Hollywood, FL surgeon got FEMA money for Hurricane Wilma for a generator. A Plantation lawyer received $274 more from the agency than he paid for his generator. Yet, a Fort Lauderdale teen with serious medical problems had to insert catheters by candlelight when the Oct. 24 storm knocked out power. His family couldn't afford a generator. A FEMA program to reimburse applicants for generators and storm cleanup items has benefited middle- and upper-income Floridians the most and so far cost taxpayers more than $332 million for the past two hurricane seasons, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found in a continuing investigation of disaster aid. For Wilma alone, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had spent $84 million as of last Monday on generators for 101,028 people in 13 Florida counties, including Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade. Another $6 million paid for chain saws for 27,394 applicants. "I see people making $200,000 a year putting in for a rebate for a generator," Davie Fire Chief Don DiPetrillo said last month, as the town scrambled to open a shelter for people left homeless by Wilma. "This is just not a good use of public resources." By agreement with the state, which pays 25 percent of the cost, FEMA reimburses for generators, chain saws, dehumidifiers, air purifiers and wet/dry vacuums purchased for home use after a disaster.

Republicans Believe In Free Markets: Amtrak certainly knows how to lose money, but the railroad says it can lose less if only it can get out of the business of hauling cars of "premium" freight like perishables behind its cross-country trains. Instead, Congress has told Amtrak to increase sharply the number of carloads it hauls or forgo $8.3 million in additional federal money. The order, contained in the transportation bill signed by President Bush last month, was inserted late in the process by Representative Joe Knollenberg, an appropriations subcommittee chairman from Michigan. The Detroit businessman who owns the only company that supplies such rail cars happens to be a large donor to Mr. Knollenberg, a Republican, and other Michigan lawmakers. Mr. Knollenberg acknowledged that the order, known in Washington as an earmark, was likely to help the businessman, Anthony Soave, and his company, ExpressTrak.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Army researchers saw alcohol misuse rise from 13 percent among soldiers to 21 percent one year after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, underscoring the continuing stress of deployment for some troops. In post-deployment reassessment data completed in July, researchers also saw soldiers with anger and aggression issues increase from 11 percent to 22 percent after deployment. Those planning to divorce their spouse rose from 9 percent to 15 percent after time spent in the combat zone. And that’s just the start of the problems, according to military family support groups. “At the end of the day, wounded servicemembers have wounded families,” said Joyce Wessel Raezer, government relations director for the National Military Family Association. “More must be done to link servicemembers and families with the services they need and the information about PTSD and other mental health issues.”

More than a year before President Bush declared in his 2003 State of the Union speech that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear weapons material in Africa, the French spy service began repeatedly warning the CIA in secret communications that there was no evidence to support the allegation. The previously undisclosed exchanges between the U.S. and the French, described in interviews last week by the retired chief of the French counterintelligence service and a former CIA official, came on separate occasions in 2001 and 2002. The French conclusions were reached after extensive on-the-ground investigations in Niger and other former French colonies, where the uranium mines are controlled by French companies, said Alain Chouet, the French former official. He said the French investigated at the CIA's request.

Scandals R Us: A Texas judge has dismissed conspiracy charges against Republican politician Tom DeLay, while upholding charges of money-laundering. The judge said Mr DeLay's actions in the conspiracy charge were not a crime at the time that the alleged violations took place. However, Mr DeLay remains accused of laundering corporate contributions for use in Republican campaigns in Texas. The congressman has strongly denied both of the charges. Texas state law forbids the use of corporate money for political campaigns. The ruling presents only a partial victory for Mr DeLay, who had hoped to reclaim his role as majority leader in the House of Representatives, which he gave up when indicted.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:08:09 PM

Fri, Dec 09 2005

Officially For Sale

The cold front I was fearing from the north has finally arrived in Nuevo Arenal, and it sure chilled things off - for all of a day. Yesterday was windy, rainy and relatively chilly - not making it past 76, and cooling things off to a relatively cold 68 last night, but today, after a rather unpromising start, the weather cleared off nicely in mid-day and got up to a pleasant, if somewhat windy, 80 degrees. By one in the afternoon, the sky had cleared completely of the dark, threatening and sometimes intensely rainy clouds of the morning, and the afternoon was pleasant indeed.

The gardener was here and got some serious weeding done, in addition to cutting weeds on the North Forty. They didn't really need it all that much, but he really wanted to cut them, and I am sure the reason why is that he was looking to raise cash for Christmas, so I agreed anyway. He tells me that the gophers are back in the banana patch, with a vengeance, and have taken out just about everything there, which doesn't surprise me. I need to go over and check that out, and kill some zompopa (leafcutter ant) colonies that have grown large enough to see from the house.

Well, the house is officially for sale, now, albeit without a for-sale sign out front. I stopped at the realty office of the biggest real estate brokerage in town yesterday, and told them I was interested in selling. So he came out today with his assistant, and they took pictures of the place to put it up on their web page. It was before the gardener got here, so there was a week's worth of leaf-litter on the ground, but the guy didn't seem to think it would make much difference. He took pictures, got the details and left, without saying all that much - he didn't ask for an exclusive listing. I suspect he thinks my asking price is a bit much, but then it may well be - I am not really interested in selling unless I can get a good price, and that may mean it will be on the market for a while. But the season is just beginning, and already I am hearing that the three brokerages in town are almost out of inventory, so I suspect this will be another season of inventory shortages and rapid price inflation in this town. Suits me just fine. The more folks looking over my place with the fewer other properties to look at, the merrier, as far as I am concerned. Happy to take the money and run.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: At least one passenger aboard American Airlines Flight 924 maintains the federal air marshals were a little too quick on the draw when they shot and killed Rigoberto Alpizar as he frantically attempted to run off the airplane shortly before take-off. "I don't think they needed to use deadly force with the guy," says John McAlhany, a 44-year-old construction worker from Sebastian, Fla. "He was getting off the plane." McAlhany also maintains that Alpizar never mentioned having a bomb. "I never heard the word 'bomb' on the plane," McAlhany told TIME in a telephone interview. "I never heard the word bomb until the FBI asked me did you hear the word bomb. That is ridiculous." Even the authorities didn't come out and say bomb, McAlhany says. "They asked, 'Did you hear anything about the b-word?'" he says. "That's what they called it."

When the Iraqis complained that the Americans had known all along about the abuse of detainees in the Iraqi Interior Ministry detention facilities, apparently they weren't lying: The top U.S. general in Iraq was aware in June of reports that Iraqi security forces had abused prisoners in their custody, months before U.S. forces in November found a bunker filled with detainees badly beaten by Iraqi personnel, a memo obtained on Wednesday showed. "Over the past several months, I have received reports of serious physical abuse of detainees by ISF (Iraqi Security Forces)," Army Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said in a June 22 memo obtained by Reuters. "I have forwarded those reports to the Iraqi ministries of defense and interior for appropriate action," Casey added. The memo did not state the nature of the abuse, nor was there any evidence of followup.

The Pentagon has tentative plans to halt the scheduled deployment of two brigades to Iraq and instead send in smaller teams to support and train Iraqi forces in what could be an early step toward an eventual drawdown of U.S. forces, defense officials said Wednesday. The proposal comes amid growing pressure from Congress and the public to pull troops out of Iraq. Details are still under discussion, and it would largely depend on the military and political conditions there after the parliamentary elections next week, said the officials. The two officials, who did not want to be identified because the plans have not been finalized, said a third brigade, initially scheduled to go to Afghanistan, may also stay home. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is preparing to announce the plan after the Iraq election next Thursday, if all goes well, they said.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, today warned against an attack on Iran over allegations the nation is trying to develop an atomic bomb. "I don't believe there is a military solution to the problem" at this stage, ElBaradei told reporters in Oslo, where he will receive the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow. "A military solution could be counterproductive." ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, urged Iran to provide the IAEA with more details of its nuclear program. The U.S. claims Iran is trying to make a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear program is intended only for the production of electricity.

Lawmakers allied with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Thursday that authorities had foiled a plot by government opponents and the CIA to overthrow the government. The United States, of course, rejected the allegations. An undetermined number of active and former army officers, joined by civilians, planned to attack military bases and assassinate government officials last week as part of a plot to "destabilize" the country and force the suspension of congressional elections, National Assembly President Nicolas Maduro said. He said an attack that damaged a major oil pipeline on the eve of Sunday's elections had been part of the plan. Maduro did not provide further details. The government has said several people were detained in the pipeline blast, but has not provided their identities. "They wanted to suspend the elections, attack the president and kill key government leaders," Maduro said at a news conference. Cilia Flores, a lawmaker from Chavez's Fifth Republic party, said the CIA and staff from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas were involved in the plot. She did not elaborate.

American meddling in the Venezuelan congressional electoral process has backfired: The congressional elections in Venezuela have led to a seismic shift, with the country's new National Legislative Assembly now dominated by the left-wing bloc loyal to President Hugo Chavez. Final results have yet to be announced, but it is clear that the main opposition parties are facing much soul searching after a crushing defeat at the hands of "Chavismo", the populist left-wing movement named after Mr Chavez. Following suggestions by their American government mentors, most opposition candidates pulled out of the race in protest at what they saw as a biased electoral board and flawed vote counting practices. The European Union observers, however, declared the elections to be free, fair and transparent. "The opposition in Venezuela has committed suicide by boycotting the elections," said political scientist Margarita Lopez-Maya. "They only have themselves to blame for the disastrous blunder of pulling out of the race."

Scientists are warning about the risks posed by acetominophen after it emerged the painkiller has become the leading cause of liver failure in the US. The annual proportion of cases caused by acetaminophen (best known under the brand name Tylenol) had risen from 28% in 1998 to 51% in 2003, researchers said. The US team found just 20 pills a day - the recommended maximum is eight - was enough to kill, New Scientist reported. Experts said restrictions on sales had helped cut the number of UK cases. The US Acute Liver Failure Study Group, involving researchers from a host of US universities, analysed data on 662 patients treated for acute liver failure between 1998 and 2003. Among the 275 painkiller-related cases, 48% were unintentional, 44% were attempted suicide, with the rest being unknown. Over a quarter of the cases resulted in death. Those who had not meant to overdose tended to be taking several products containing the drug. The investigators found as little as 10g - the equivalent of 20 pills - could cause liver failure.

Conservative columnist Ann "hypocrisy is sooo cool!" Coulter gave up trying to finish a speech at the University of Connecticut on Wednesday night when boos and jeers from the audience became overwhelming. Coulter cut off the talk after 15 minutes and instead held a half-hour question-and-answer session. "I love to engage in repartee with people who are stupider than I am," Coulter told the 2,600 people at Jorgensen Auditorium. Coulter's appearance prompted protests from several groups, including Students Against Hate and the Puerto Rican/Latin American Cultural Center. They criticized her for spreading a message of hate and intolerance. Nearly 100 students gathered inside the Student Union for a rally against Coulter. About a half-dozen people held protest signs outside the auditorium. After a book signing following her appearance, Coulter called the audience's reaction "typical."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has questioned a policy that requires US military personnel who witness abuse of detainees in Iraqi custody to take "all reasonable actions" to prevent it, a spokesman said. Rumsfeld seemed taken aback last month when General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, told him at a news conference that all US military personnel had the responsibility to try to stop abuse that they witness. Since then, Rumsfeld has raised questions about the policy, said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. He indicated that a key question is what happens when a permanent, sovereign government is formed in Iraq following elections December 15. "Our forces are in a sovereign nation and the law enforcement of that nation is the responsibility of that country," Whitman said.

A seemingly hopeless divide within the Republican Party over oil drilling in a pristine wildlife refuge in Alaska is threatening to block unrelated budget cuts that are a central pillar of the GOP's plans for this year. The battle pits about two dozen pro-environment and newly empowered House Republicans against veteran GOP proponents of drilling who say the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may hold up to $500 billion worth of oil vital to the nation's energy needs. Neither side is budging. "The Senate won't take anything that doesn't have some sort of program for ANWR in it, and the House right now won't take anything that does," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas.

As expected, the U.S. House passed a $56.6 billion tax cut measure that extends past 2008 a 15 percent tax rate on dividends and most capital gains. The House voted 234-197 to extend for two years the 15 percent rate on dividend and capital-gains taxes that was slated to expire in 2008. Republicans credited President George W. Bush's 2003 tax reductions on investments with boosting the stock market and the economy. "These tax cuts have indeed done what the president said they would do," said Louisiana Representative Jim McCrery, a senior Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee. House Speaker Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, urged lawmakers to "keep the structure that's growing this economy in place." Republicans must now find a way to pass final legislation that combines the extension of investment tax breaks and a measure to spare 15 million Americans, most of whom earn between $100,000 and $500,000, from a $30 billion increase in the minimum tax next year. Enacting both provisions would add about $100 billion to the national debt over the next five years. A budget agreement passed in April authorizes only up to $70 billion. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, accused Republicans of preserving tax cuts for the richest 1 percent of American earners after reducing the growth of spending programs for low-income people such as food stamps and putting the alternative minimum tax legislation at risk. "The poor suffer, the rich benefit, and the middle class foot the bill," she said.

Hospitalization rates for pneumonia have increased substantially for U.S. adults 65 to 84 years of age, according to a study in the December 7 issue of JAMA. Pneumonia is among the top 10 causes of death in the United States and is a significant cause of outpatient visits and hospitalizations, according to background information in the article. Factors that increase the risk for pneumonia include the presence of underlying medical conditions, advanced age, functional disability, and residency in long-term care facilities. Alicia M. Fry, M.D., M.P.H., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, and colleagues conducted a study to determine if an increase in chronic underlying conditions might be contributing to greater hospitalization rates for pneumonia. The researchers used data from the National Hospital Discharge Survey (NHDS) to study trends according to age groups in hospitalization rates for pneumonia during a 15-year period (1988-2002) among U.S. residents aged 65 years or older. The characteristics, outcomes, and comorbid (co-existing illness) disease diagnoses of patients with a hospital discharge diagnosis of pneumonia were compared with those of patients with a hospital discharge diagnosis for other causes during the study period.

People living in the Arctic have filed a legal petition against the US government, saying its climate change policies violate human rights. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) claims the US is failing to control emissions of greenhouse gases, damaging livelihoods in the Arctic. Its petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights demands that the US limits its emissions. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising at about twice the global average. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a vast scientific study which took four years to compile, found that the region will warm by four to seven degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with summer sea ice disappearing within 60 years.

Most e-mail worms have an economic motive and are designed to ensnare infected machines in robot networks or "botnets" that allow attackers to control them for a variety of nefarious purposes, from password stealing to "distributed denial of service attacks" that render targeted Web sites unable to process legitimate traffic. Instead, the millions of computers sickened by Sober iterations released since Nov. 16 are intended to force infected PCs to blast out spam e-mails advocating neo-Nazi propaganda. The most recent versions of the Sober computer virus has masqueraded as e-mails from the FBI and the CIA, claiming that the government has discovered that the recipient has visited "illegal" Web sites. The text asks the user to open an attachment to answer some official questions. Recipients that open the attached file soon find their computer infected with malware that can disable security and firewall programs and blast out similar e-mails to any address book contacts.

Sony Does It Again: After taking a public-relations bruising over its XCP copy-protection spyware, Sony faces an entirely new spyware battle. Digital rights groups warned the music maker about vulnerabilities its MediaMax copy protection system created on users PCs. The same groups have now found that a patch Sony produced to close these holes is itself insecure and leaves users open to yet a separate attack. The MediaMax system has been used on more than 5.7 million CDS spread across 50 titles sold in the US and Canada. On December 6, Sony BMG and digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) issued a joint statement about the discovery of problems with the MediaMax anti-piracy system made by SunnComm. The statement warned that anyone putting a music CD bearing the MediaMax software in their PC introduced a vulnerability that malicious hackers could hijack to win control of a machine. Users were vulnerable to this loophole even if they did not install the copy protection system on the music CD on their home computer.

Sony BMG is rethinking its anti-piracy policy following weeks of criticism over the copy protection used on CDs. The head of Sony BMG's global digital business, Thomas Hesse, told the BBC that the company was "re-evaluating" its current methods. It follows widespread condemnation of the way anti-piracy software on some Sony CDs installs itself on computers. The admission came as Sony faced more censure over the security failings of one of its copy protection programs. The row began in November when software developer Mark Russinovich discovered that Sony BMG's XCP anti-piracy programs used virus-like techniques to hide itself on a PC.

The sheeple are being lulled back to sleep: The latest CBS poll offers good news and bad news for Smirkey. Americans have become more positive about the economy; more than half think the economy is in good shape, an 8-point increase since October. The President’s overall approval rating has risen from 35 percent in October to 40 percent now, and his ratings on handling the economy and the war in Iraq have also improved. But while this poll shows some improvement in Americans’ views about how the war in Iraq is going, most continue to say it is going badly. Americans remain firm in their desire for U.S. troops to at least start coming home, and would like to see a timetable for that process. Although Smirkey has said he will not do this, 58 percent of Americans want the United States to set a timetable for troop withdrawal.

A New York state appeals court Thursday threw out a ruling that would have allowed gay couples to marry in New York City, saying it is not the role of judges to redefine the terms "husband" and "wife." The state Supreme Court's Appellate Division ruled 4-1 that Justice Doris Ling-Cohan erred in February when she held that the state's domestic relations law is unconstitutional since it does not permit marriage between people of the same sex. The appeals court added: "We find it even more troubling that the court, upon determining the statute to be unconstitutional, proceeded to rewrite it and purportedly create a new constitutional right." The Supreme Court is New York's main trial-level court. It has its own appeals division.

Arsenic and mold dust: Most of the air, water and soil around New Orleans is as clean -- and in some cases cleaner -- than it was before Hurricane Katrina devastated the region, government officials said on Friday. But environmentalists presented a sharply different view and urged the government to begin immediately cleaning up toxic chemicals that floodwaters left behind in the soil. State and federal officials gave the "all-clear" to residents and tourists, saying recent alarming reports by environmentalists about toxic sediment are unfounded. In fact, the state's chief environmental officer said the deluge that covered 80 percent of the city was no more polluted than typical floodwater. "There was no toxic soup," Mike McDaniel, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said at a New Orleans news conference. "The water was unsanitary and contaminated with sewage, as is typical in floodwater situations. But we found no chemical contaminants that would cause a short-term or long-term threat of exposure." In fact, McDaniel said neighboring Lake Pontchartrain's water quality is now "about as good as we've seen them," and is fit for swimming and harvesting seafood. Air quality actually is better than normal because of reduced industrial and vehicular activity, he said. Environmentalists, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, have released their own testing they said shows potentially dangerous levels of several contaminants in the dried sediment left behind by floodwaters.

North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy is accusing Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean of overstepping his bounds, saying the former presidential candidate should not give up on the war in Iraq. On Monday, Dean likened the war in Iraq to Vietnam and said, "The idea that the United States is going to win the war in Iraq is just plain wrong." "My words to Howard Dean are simple - shut up," Pomeroy told WDAY Radio in North Dakota on Thursday.

Support the military-industrial-GOP-complex - buy a donut: The Carlyle Group is among the final bidders for the Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins restaurant chains, in what would be the first U.S. consumer retail investment for a company built around its expertise in defense, aerospace and telecommunications.Carlyle has been eyeing Dunkin' Brands Inc. since this summer and has joined with Thomas H. Lee Partners LP and Bain Capital LLC, both of Boston, to submit a bid for the French-owned food chains, according to two sources familiar with the bid who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bidding process is supposed to remain private.

Don't you believe it: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hosted Senator Joe Lieberman for a breakfast meeting today amid speculation that the arch-conservative Connecticut Democrat could be in line to succeed him. Lieberman, who has emerged as President Bush's staunchest Democratic defender on the Iraq war, has bucked his party as a vocal advocate for Bush's Iraq policies. He did not talk about the morning meeting with Rumsfeld and General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Senator Joe Lieberman said he had breakfast with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General Pace. Lieberman denied rumors that he has plans to replace Rumsfeld as the Secretary of Defense.

A senior lawyer for the US State Department has admitted that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) does not have access to all detainees held by the US. The ICRC wants access to all foreign terror suspects held by the country. John Bellinger said the group had access to "absolutely everybody" at the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. When asked by journalists if the organisation had access to everybody held in similar circumstances elsewhere, he said "No". Nato and EU foreign ministers met Ms Rice behind closed-doors on Wednesday evening, ahead of a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels.

Extraordinary Rendition Watch: Poland was the heart of the CIA's secret detention network in Europe, with bases there until recently holding a quarter of the 100 detainees estimated held in such camps worldwide, a human rights group said. Reports of the CIA operating secret jails in Poland and Romania as part of its war on terror have raised controversy on both sides of the Atlantic and dogged U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's European trip this week. "Poland was the main base for CIA interrogations in Europe, while Romania played more of a role in the transfer of detained prisoners," Marc Garlasco, a leading analyst at Human Rights Watch, was quoted by Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza on Friday as saying. Garlasco said the CIA had set up two detention centers in Poland, which were closed shortly after the Washington Post published an article about secret prisons last month. He said the allegations were based on information from CIA sources and other documents obtained by Human Rights Watch. "We have leads, circumstantial evidence to check but it's too early to reveal them," Garlasco said.

Washington has rebuked UN human rights commissioner Louise Arbour for criticising its anti-terror tactics as the alleged secret jails row goes on. Ms Arbour said reports the US was using secret overseas sites to interrogate suspects harmed its moral authority and she wanted to inspect any such centres. The US said it was inappropriate and illegitimate for her to question US conduct on the basis of media reports. The issue is dogging a European tour by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She will meet Nato foreign ministers on Thursday for formal talks but at a dinner on Wednesday the jails allegation reportedly already surfaced. "There were a number of frank interventions, always respectful of Condoleezza Rice as a person," a source briefed on the dinner was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan defended his high commissioner for human rights on Thursday after U.S. ambassador John Bolton rebuked her for criticizing the U.S. stance on torture, a U.N. spokesman said. Annan wants to take up the matter with Bolton as soon as possible, the spokesman said, revealing a rare public expression of displeasure with a U.N. ambassador. High Commissioner Louise Arbour on Wednesday said the U.S.-led war on terror undermined the global ban on torture, a criticism Bolton called "inappropriate and illegitimate". Arbour avoided directly naming the United States in her statement and press conference commemorating Human Rights Day. But she criticized two practices that applied to the United States: holding prisoners in secret detention centers and rendering suspects to third countries for forcible interrogation without independent oversight.

Top UN human rights official Louise Arbour on Friday has repeated accusations made earlier this week that the US and other countries are easing curbs on torture. Ms Arbour told the BBC that governments had to clarify if they were holding prisoners in secret jails, without the freedom to communicate or be visited. The US envoy to the UN has said Ms Arbour's comments are "inappropriate". Ms Arbour said she had a mandate to protect and defend human rights, and she would continue to do exactly that. She said she did not believe she needed to respond to US criticism of her comments. "I'm the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This is what I do," she told the BBC.

The Bush administration based a crucial prewar assertion about ties between Iraq and al-Qaida on detailed statements made by a prisoner in Egyptian custody who later said he had fabricated them to escape torture, according to current and former government officials. The officials said the captive, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, provided his most specific and elaborate accounts about ties between Iraq and al-Qaida only after he was secretly handed over to Egypt by the United States in January 2002, in a process known as rendition. The new disclosure provides the first public evidence that bad intelligence on Iraq may have resulted partly from the administration's heavy reliance on third countries to carry out interrogations of al-Qaida members and others detained as part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The Bush administration used Libi's accounts as the basis for its prewar claims, now discredited, that ties between Iraq and al-Qaida included training in explosives and chemical weapons.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: Companies in the United States fired nearly 100,000 people in November, a 22 percent jump over a month ago, marking the third consecutive month of rising layoffs. Led by the auto industry, government and nonprofit employers, the job dump puts the nation on track to experience the fifth year in a row in which layoffs top one million, Dow Jones’s MarketWatch website reported yesterday. November’s numbers, announced by the global outsourcing firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, are about 5 percent behind those from the same month a year ago. But, the business publication said, current trends indicate that the year-end total will beat 2004’s 1,039,735 slashed positions.

Natural gas prices rose to a new record Friday as a winter storm hit the northern United States, while crude and heating oil prices also gained amid expectations for strong demand. Natural gas for January on the New York Mercantile Exchange reached a new intraday high of $15.52 per 1,000 cubic feet in Asian trading before slipping back to $15.233 per 1,000 cubic feet, up nearly 24 cents. The contract had closed at $14.994 overnight, also a new record. Nymex crude was also higher. Light, sweet crude oil for January delivery gained 30 cents to $60.96 a barrel in afternoon electronic trading in Europe. Although more than $9 lower than its all-time high of $70.85 a barrel set Sept. 30, oil prices are more than 40 percent higher than a year ago. On London's ICE Futures, January Brent was up 33 cents at $59.00 a barrel. "The price rise is all based on forecasts of cold weather to hit large portions of the United States," said Victor Shum, a Singapore-based analyst at energy consultants Purvin & Gertz. "The weather affects natural gas, but the (trading) psychology also affects the oil market." In other Nymex trading, heating oil was up one and a half cents to $1.7986 a gallon, and gasoline rose just a bit less to $1.6410 a gallon.

Republican Policies Are Good For America: The government has plans to wipe out thousands of pounds of industrial pollution - on paper, anyway. The Environmental Protection Agency is advancing substantial rule changes aimed at freeing corporations from the "burden" of reporting toxic emissions. But environmentalists fear the new rules would saddle communities with more industrial waste by shielding polluters from public scrutiny. The proposal, now up for public comment, would shrink the main government pollution database, known as the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), by enabling companies to report less information, less frequently. Officials have promoted the reforms as a type of "relief" for small businesses that handle toxic materials. But according to the opposition, the proposed rules would undermine a major public resource for holding polluters accountable and safeguarding public health.

Before the war, we were promised by the Bush administration that Iraqi oil revenues would finance the bulk of their reconstruction. Here’s Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on 3/27/03: "The oil revenues of Iraq could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years…We’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon." Now we are being told that the oil revenues might not pay for any of the reconstruction – it’s completely up to the Iraqis. Scott McClellan, White House media pimp, today: QUESTION: Iraq’s reconstruction costs - how much of that should be paid for by Iraq with its oil revenues? MCCLELLAN: Well, Iraq’s oil revenues are for the Iraqi people. It is overseen by an Iraqi ministry and all those revenues go to help the Iraqi people. McClellan later instructs the reporter to look for the National Strategy for Victory In Iraq because it “talks about the oil sector and the progress that’s being made there.” Actually, that document acknowledges “oil production is slightly down from a year ago.”

Republicans Believe In The Rule Of Law: Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today announced that they were filing suit against the North Carolina Board of Elections and the North Carolina Office of Information Technology Services on behalf of voting integrity advocate Joyce McCloy, asking that the Superior Court void the recent illegal certification of three electronic voting systems. In a Media Release EFF attorney, Matt Zimmerman says, "This is about the rule of law. The Board of Elections has simply ignored its mandatory obligations under North Carolina election law. This statute was enacted to require election officials to investigate the quality and security of voting systems before approval, and only approve those that are safe and secure. By certifying without a full review of all relevant code, the Board of Elections has now opened the door for North Carolina counties to purchase untested and potentially insecure voting equipment."

Diebold Watch: Documents and comments provided by Company Insiders suggest Diebold could be the next Enron as legal troubles mount for the voting-machine manufacturer. The BradBlog has received exclusive detailed information about a developing potential class action securities litigation against Diebold, Inc. The class for the suit will involve shareholders who purchased or owned stock in the Ohio-based company any time from October 22, 2003 though September 21, 2005. Though we are not at liberty at this time to discuss the specifics of the potential litigation and the causes of action in the complaint being compiled, The BRAD BLOG has learned that the class action lawsuit, currently being drawn up, will involve securities fraud violations and other troubling matters for the controversial company, its CEO as well as current and former members of its Board of Directors. VelvetRevolution.us (an organization co-founded by BradBlog managing editor, Brad Friedman) is seeking additional individuals and groups who may qualify as plaintiffs in the specified class. Those who owned or purchased Diebold stock, or mutual funds which carried Diebold during the period mentioned, are asked to contact LawSuit@VelvetRevolution.us where information submitted may be turned over to attorneys for possible addition to the plaintiff class.

Halliburton Watch: While the United States spends billions on troop support in Iraq, the people serving the meals, scooping the ice cream, and washing the dishes make as little as 50 cents an hour. The U.S. military has paid Halliburton subsidiary KBR about $12 billion so far for so-called logistics support to U.S. military personnel in Iraq, the largest contract of its kind ever. Around 80,000 troops are served meals at dining facilities every day under the contract -- the other 60,000 or so fend for themselves in field kitchens or by eating military issue "Meals Ready to Eat." KBR in turn hires that work out entirely to subcontractors whose job it is to recruit, transport, house, feed and pay "third-country" nationals to stock, prepare, serve and clean up at the dining facilities at 43 bases across Iraq. Those workers are recruited from countries with already low wages, where jobs are scarce. And as pressure to keep the logistics contract cost down has increased, subcontractors have moved from country to country in search of cheaper labor markets. That is what brought around 770 workers from Sierra Leone, Africa, to Iraq in July to work for ESS Support Services Worldwide, A British-based food service company specializing, according to its Web site, in "remote site, defense and off-shore locations."

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: A lesbian teen who was expelled in April for kissing another girl is suing her private school to ensure other students never have to experience what she went through. Jessica Bradley and her father, Ronald Bradley, claim that Covenant Christian Academy in Loganville, Ga., breached its contract with them by expelling the ninth-grader for carrying on an "inappropriate relationship" in violation of the school's standard of conduct on "sexual immorality." The suit filed in Gwinnett Superior Court last Friday also claims the school invaded Jessica's privacy by airing details of her personal life and outing her to the community, even though her conduct was "private, protected behavior that did not have a direct and immediate effect on the discipline or general welfare of the school." In addition to asking for a pro-rated tuition refund plus $1 million in damages, the suit seeks an injunction on the "sexual immorality" clause in the school's code of conduct so that other students will not "suffer the unexpected harassment and humiliation that Jessica Bradley did."

What was envisioned as a broad coalition coming together to put a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage on the Colorado ballot next fall is divided over what exactly the measure should say. According to sources involved in the discussions, the influential Colorado Springs evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family is pressing for a measure that would ban not only gay marriage but also same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships. But other potential backers of an amendment - including the state's three Roman Catholic bishops - prefer a narrower, potentially less divisive ballot measure that would simply define marriage as between one man and one woman, sources said. Another key player, the Rev. Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said Thursday that he stands with the Catholic position. He said the institution of marriage deserves constitutional protection and that civil unions are a matter for the state legislature.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Absent any climate policy, scientists have found a 70 percent chance of shutting down the thermohaline circulation in the North Atlantic Ocean over the next 200 years, with a 45 percent probability of this occurring in this century. The likelihood decreases with mitigation, but even the most rigorous immediate climate policy would still leave a 25 percent chance of a thermohaline collapse. "This is a dangerous, human-induced climate change," said Michael Schlesinger, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "The shutdown of the thermohaline circulation has been characterized as a high-consequence, low-probability event. Our analysis, including the uncertainties in the problem, indicates it is a high-consequence, high-probability event."

Scandals Du Jour: The CIA leak investigation returned to a more active stage yesterday as a special prosecutor presented information to a grand jury for the first time in six weeks. Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's decision to enlist a new grand jury comes as he continues to investigate possible criminal charges against senior White House adviser Karl Rove. Rove faces possible legal consequences for not telling investigators for months that he had provided information about CIA operative Valerie Plame to Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper in July 2003.Rove disclosed the conversation only after Cooper was subpoenaed to testify about their discussions, said sources familiar with Rove's account. Rove maintains that he initially forgot about the contact, the sources said.

Two defense contractors at the center of ex-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's bribery case also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to curry favor with other influential lawmakers, records show. One contractor, Brent Wilkes, provided private jet flights to lawmakers, including Reps. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who is serving as majority leader while DeLay fights money-laundering charges in Texas. Wilkes also raised at least $100,000 for President Bush's 2004 re-election bid and donated more than $70,000 to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appointed him to two state boards.

Rep. Tom DeLay yesterday dismissed the notion that House Republicans would try to oust him permanently from leadership. Speaking shortly before a second potential candidate withdrew his name from consideration, DeLay said, “The conference knows what’s going on. There’s no leadership race.” He made his comments when asked by The Hill whether he would try to persuade members to hold off on a race to replace him. He told a small group of reporters in the Capitol basement, “You all know there is no leadership race. You all are creating a leadership race.” Just hours later, Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) told a group of supporters that he has no intention of mounting a leadership campaign in the near future. His announcement came a day after National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) circulated a letter to GOP colleagues stating that he would remain at the NRCC through next November’s midterm elections. Republican members did not discuss leadership elections during their Wednesday-morning conference meeting, but Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) did condemn former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), who pleaded guilty last week to accepting $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for legislative favors, and recommended that members refamiliarize themselves with the ethics rules after Cunningham’s plea.

More bad news for all the congressmen implicated in the Abramoff scandal - another partner of Abramoff has turned state's witness: New York businessman Adam Kidan is expected to plead guilty next week to federal conspiracy and wire fraud charges in connection with the purchase of the SunCruz gambling fleet from entrepreneur Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, according to sources close to the case. If the deal goes through, Kidan, who was looking at up to 30 years in prison, could now face a maximum of 10 years. That sentence could be reduced depending upon the extent of his cooperation as a witness, not only against his co-defendant - embattled super lobbyist Jack Abramoff - but also in the prosecution of three men charged in the Feb. 6, 2001, slaying of Boulis, the sources said.

A U.S. investigation into allegations that the American military is buying positive coverage in the Iraqi media has expanded to examine a press club founded and financed by the U.S. Army. The Baghdad Press Club was created last year by the U.S. military as a way to promote progress amid the violence and chaos of Iraq, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman. The Army acknowledges funding the club and offering "reporter compensation," but insists officers did not demand favorable coverage. "Members are not required nor asked to write favorably," said Lt. Col. Robert Whetstone. "They are simply invited to report on events." He said the military exercised no editorial control over the coverage. The U.S. military investigation, headed by Rear Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, will look into whether there were efforts to place U.S.-produced stories into the local press without identifying the United States as the source. Paying reporters directly to write positive stories might also violate ethical guidelines.

Concerned that the Orleans Parish Sheriff is prematurely repopulating the prison there, the American Civil Liberties yesterday sent letters to every member of the New Orleans City Council imploring them to examine the facility. The ACLU says that about 600 people are now locked in the Orleans Parish Prison without a proper emergency evacuation plan or fire-safety officer. "We are asking council members to fulfill their obligations by holding a public hearing on the re-opening of the Orleans Parish Prison and to do so before any more prisoners are returned there," Louisiana ACLU Executive Director Joe Cook said. "One of the first issues to address at the hearing should be whether an adequate evacuation plan exists for OPP."

California GOP rises in rebellion: With segments of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political base rising in revolt, directors of the California Republican Party have demanded a private meeting with the governor to complain about the hiring of a Democratic operative as his chief of staff. The request comes as Schwarzenegger faces a sustained wave of opposition from both moderate and conservative Republicans over the choice of Susan P. Kennedy. Before serving as a state public utility commissioner, Kennedy was Cabinet secretary to former Gov. Gray Davis. She also was an abortion-rights activist and former Democratic Party executive. In appointing Kennedy last week, the governor praised her as an effective administrator who could "implement my vision" and work cooperatively with Democrats who control the Legislature.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: A police officer in San Francisco has been suspended for making a video with racist, homophobic and sexist content. Up to 20 other officers also face disciplinary action for helping make the clips - apparently intended as a spoof on life in the US city's force. Andrew Cohen, the suspended officer, told ABC network's Good Morning America he had only made the film to boost morale. It appeared on his own website. San Francisco's mayor condemned it as shameful, offensive and sexist. The video - which Mr Cohen insists was never meant for public viewing - feature such scenes as a white officer running over a black homeless woman.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:56:27 AM

Wed, Dec 07 2005

A Tire Repair And No Christmas Card From The White House

The short little dry season we seem to have had the last couple of weeks seems to have come to an end, and the gloomy, rainy weather has me in a rather dour mood. Temperatures have been fine enough, 82 yesterday, 76 overnight and 79 by noon today as warm as it was to get. But in looking over the satellite images, there is a cold front coming this way, and it has a lot of cold-air cumulus clouds behind it, so that means that it's about to get a good deal colder.

Yesterday it occurred to me that, being December, it was time to get my car marchamo ("right to circulate" certificate - equivalent to a car registration) renewed, so I drove into town to the bank and got that taken care of. My 1988 Dodge Raider, worth probably $4,000 on the used car market, cost me 38,000 colones - including the mandatory liability insurance. That works out to about US$77. The paperwork and sticker should be ready on Friday. After taking care of that at the bank, I drove to the gasolinera to get a tire fixed. My left-front has had a slow leak for a really long time, but lately had been going down after a week, so I decided that the time had come to deal with it. Two hours of waiting while the attendant finally got to my car after endless fill-ups and two bus tires, all he did was locate the two offending nails, pull them, and insert two plugs. For that I was charged 2,000 colones - about $4. I was kind of annoyed about that, as what he did was what I could have easily done myself had I had a plug kit. Next time someone comes into the country, I think I'll have someone bring me one, since nails in tires are so very common here.

Well, here it is, a week into December already, and the White House Christmas cards have gone out, 1.4 million of them, from what I hear. But none of them have found their way into my mailbox, even though I am sure Smirkey has my address in his Watch List computer. I guess this means that he doesn't love me. Can't imagine why.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The United States: The new pre-emptive, first-use nuclear strike capability, known as the "Bush Doctrine" is now up and militarily ready. The U.S. Strategic Command announced Monday it had achieved an operational capability for rapidly striking targets around the globe using nuclear or conventional weapons, after last month testing its capacity for nuclear war against a fictional country believed to represent North Korea. In a press release yesterday, STRATCOM said a new Joint Functional Component Command for Space and Global Strike on Nov. 18 “met requirements necessary to declare an initial operational capability.” CONPLAN 8022 is “a new strike plan that includes [a] pre-emptive nuclear strike against weapons of mass destruction facilities anywhere in the world,” said Hans Kristensen, a consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Kristensen first published the STRATCOM press release on his Web site, nukestrat.com.

Condoleezza Rice's claim yesterday that European governments are always informed when an "extraordinary rendition" flight is about to pass through their territories has been quickly exposed as a lie, as has been her assertions that the U.S. "does not torture" and that the U.S. considers itself bound by the U.N. Convention on Torture. In March 2003, the Italian national anti-terrorism police received an urgent message from the CIA about a radical Islamic cleric who had mysteriously vanished from Milan a few weeks before. The CIA reported that it had reliable information that the cleric, the target of an Italian criminal investigation, had fled to an unknown location in the Balkans. In fact, according to Italian court documents and interviews with investigators, the CIA's tip was a deliberate lie, part of a ruse designed to stymie efforts by the Italian anti-terrorism police to track down the cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian refugee known as Abu Omar. The strategy worked for more than a year until Italian investigators learned that Nasr had not gone to the Balkans after all. Instead, prosecutors here have charged, he was abducted off a street in Milan by a team of CIA operatives who took him to two U.S. military bases in succession and then flew him to Egypt, where he was interrogated and allegedly tortured by Egyptian security agents before being released to house arrest. Condi's claim that the U.S. does not torture was also quickly disproven. A former Australian terror suspect says he was caught up in the controversial US policy of transferring detainees to foreign countries for interrogation. Mamdouh Habib claims he was tortured while held for a period in his native Egypt during his four years in custody. He told the BBC he was brain-washed, beaten and given electric shocks. Mr Habib told the BBC's World Service that, after his "kidnap" in Pakistan in 2001, he was moved between Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay until his release at the beginning of 2005. He spoke of being tortured while in detention in Egypt. "It is a place for torture. I was beaten, electric shock... no sleep, injections, brainwashed - unbelievable stuff," he said. He was made to feel like a baby, and forced into making a number of confessions, he said. "I just repeated what they wanted me to say," he told the BBC. He was released from Guananamo in January.

Details of the subversion by the U.S. of Venezuela's congressional elections last Sunday are starting to come out. An explosion on an oil pipline, caused by the use of C4 plastic explosives in three places. The state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., said Monday that the blast on Saturday night had not forced any reduction in output because the refinery has enough crude on hand to continue operations while the pipeline is being fixed and the oil field has capacity to store pumped crude. Chavez has stated that it is part of a destabilization campaign aimed ultimately at removing him from power. Additionally, state television has shown photos of the leader of the "Sumate" opposition group meeting with Smirkey, and has also released details of Sumate's funding of $31,000 by the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. government agency frequently used in various countries to funnel large amounts of cash to political parties that the United States would like to see win elections. It was Sumate that organized the boycott of the elections when it became clear that Chavez' popularity among the poor and lower class was so high that few opposition candidates were likely to win. In an unusual statement, Sumate urged all Venezuelans to go to church or another house of worship at noon on election day. Maria Corina Machado, the leader of Sumate, insists there is no ulterior motive, and it was simply a call for all citizens to reflect on "values that unite Venezuelans." The Organization of American States and European Union together had 220 observers on hand. No credible allegations of vote rigging have yet been raised.

The propaganda effort at buying newspaper articles in the Iraqi media has not been shut down even after it was exposed, and is itself becoming something of an object of a propaganda effort. On Sunday’s ABC This Week, Stephen Hadley, Smirkey's national security advisor, acknowledged that President Bush has not yet ordered the shut-down of the Pentagon’s propaganda campaign in Iraq. STEPHANOPOULOS: "Has he ordered the program shut down?" HADLEY: "He’s asked Secretary Rumsfeld to look at it. It’s clear from the comments that have been made so far, that the issue is whether that program is something that’s inconsistent with the policy guidance. And if it is inconsistent with policy guidance it will be shut down." STEPHANOPOULOS: "Well, it would be inconsistent to secretly pay Iraqi journalists, wouldn’t it?" HADLEY: "Look, we want a free media. We want truth. That’s the whole point of this. We need to get the story about what’s happening out. The truthful story about what’s happening to Iraq to Iraqis, to the American people. That’s what we ought to be doing. This kind of practices is inconsistent with that. It’s not the kind of policy that the, that the Americans want to pursue."

FEMA realized its response to Hurricane Katrina was "broken" and braced for rioting over woefully low supplies in Mississippi in the days just after the storm, according to new documents released Monday. The correspondence among Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, provided by a special House committee investigating the government response to the storm, follows the release last week of more than 100,000 documents by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Taken together, the details from both states provide evidence that FEMA was unable to provide fast help at disaster sites — even when the needs were obvious.

Connecticut homeland security officials were left in the dark for more than two hours Friday after a series of bomb threats forced the evacuation and shutdown of the state's 45 courthouses, authorities acknowledged Monday. Neither police nor Gov. M. Jodi Rell's office - which received one of the bomb threats at 10 a.m. - had informed the security agency by noon, leaving top officials to learn about the first-of-its-kind evacuation from reporters. "We know we have to work very closely together and we're hoping the situation we experienced Friday won't be replicated," said James Thomas, commissioner of the Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. Public Safety Commissioner Leonard Boyle said the threat fell between the cracks because it was more than a routine scare but did not rise to level of a statewide emergency.

Hours after New Orleans officials announced Tuesday that they would deploy a city-owned, wireless Internet network in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, regional phone giant BellSouth Corp. withdrew an offer to donate one of its damaged buildings that would have housed new police headquarters, city officials said yesterday. According to the officials, the head of BellSouth's Louisiana operations, Bill Oliver, angrily rescinded the offer of the building in a conversation with New Orleans homeland security director Terry Ebbert, who oversees the roughly 1,650-member police force. City officials said BellSouth was upset about the plan to bring high-speed Internet access for free to homes and businesses to help stimulate resettlement and relocation to the devastated city. Around the country, large telephone companies have aggressively lobbied against localities launching their own Internet networks, arguing that they amount to taxpayer-funded competition. Some states have laws prohibiting them.

Canada has won the latest round in its long-running dispute with the United States over the tariffs imposed by the United States on the importation of softwood lumber products. A WTO panel rejected a US appeal against an earlier ruling that it had failed to comply with WTO findings in 2003 and 2004. It had found that duties imposed on Canadian lumber imports violated the WTO's rules and should be changed. The case is one of several related to timber between Canada and the US. Canada has long called for the US to remove its import tariffs, but the US has insisted they remain. Meanwhile, the US accuses Canada of unfairly subsidising its lumber industry.

Al-Jazeera television has broadcast a video said to be from Iraqi insurgents purporting to show a kidnapped United States security consultant. The footage showed a blond man with his hands behind his back. It also showed a US passport and bank account card with the name Ronald Schulz. Al-Jazeera said it could not verify the authenticity of the tape, which bore the logo of the Islamic Army in Iraq. There have been no reports of a US security consultant being seized. More than 200 foreigners and thousands of Iraqis have been abducted since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. If the video is authentic, the man would be the second American abducted in the last two weeks. Al-Jazeera said the hostage-takers demanded freedom for all prisoners in Iraq and compensation for Anbar province, where US troops have launched major offences since last year, or they would kill the hostage.

Hundreds of people arrested for minor crimes just before Hurricane Katrina washed away New Orleans' court system remain behind bars more than three months later. A team of volunteer defense lawyers has filed motions to have the arrestees set free. Some have never had a court appearance or been assigned a lawyer, said Rachel Jones, one of the volunteers. More than 8,000 inmates were evacuated from southeast Louisiana jails before and after Katrina struck Aug. 29, the majority from the New Orleans jail, which was severely flooded. Many of those prisoners had been convicted and belong behind bars, but defense lawyer Julie Kilborn said roughly 30 percent were incarcerated for misdemeanors and should have been released long ago. Others were sentenced to drug rehabilitation programs, but New Orleans' rehab operations have been out of commission since the storm, so they remain behind bars, she said.

Some Good News For A Change: While Congress wallows in the ethical swamp where money and politics meet, one more state just found a way out. Voters there will pay for campaigns, which might be the bargain of the century. They'll save countless dollars doled from public coffers to the favor seekers who fund campaigns now. Connecticut's Legislature voted last week to create a public financing option for candidates who run for state office. Seven other states and two cities have done the same over the past decade - a movement that hasn't been spotted on the national radar but might auger a seismic shift in attitudes. In Connecticut, an embarrassing run of state and local scandals, including the jailing of a corrupt governor and several others, finally forced action. But the experience of states like Maine and Arizona that pioneered the "clean money" alternative should encourage others to do the same. The idea is simple: Candidates for the Connecticut Legislature or a statewide office who raise a modest amount of seed money from small donors to prove their legitimacy can qualify for public funds, which range from $25,000 for a state House race to $3 million for a gubernatorial campaign. In return, they must pledge to spurn private donations.

In a stinging defeat for prosecutors, a former Florida professor accused of helping lead a terrorist group that has carried out suicide bombings against Israel was acquitted on nearly half the charges against him Tuesday, and the jury deadlocked on the rest. The case against Sami Al-Arian, 47, had been seen as one of the biggest courtroom tests yet of the Patriot Act's expanded search-and-surveillance powers. After a five-month trial and 13 days of deliberations, the jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight of the 17 counts against him, including a key charge of conspiring to maim and murder people overseas. The jurors deadlocked on the others, including charges he aided terrorists. Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida computer engineering professor, wept after the verdicts, and his attorney, Linda Moreno hugged him. He will return to jail until prosecutors decide whether to retry him on the deadlocked charges.

Republicans are having some second thoughts about signing on to the Talibaptist jihad against Roe vs. Wade. As Republicans push a Supreme Court nominee who plotted to overturn Roe v. Wade, the long quest to end the constitutional right to abortion could become a social reality. Rep. Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who in 2002 helped expand his party's majority in the House, spoke to this point. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, he said recently, "you're going to have a lot of very nervous suburban candidates.'' He was talking about Republican candidates. "I wouldn't want to be a Republican politician the day suburban mothers learn there's no legal way to end their 16-year-old daughter's unwanted pregnancy." Republicans err in assuming that, on this subject, mothers in the old suburbs differ greatly from mothers in the new exurbs. The Republican party's increasing hostility toward abortion rights has already cost it the posh and formerly Republican suburbs near New York, Seattle, Philadelphia and other big cities. And these are people who did royally well with the Bush tax cuts. Even super-rich Greenwich, Conn. - home of Prescott Bush, the president's grandfather and a U.S. senator - gave Bush only 55 percent of its vote. The rest of wealthy Fairfield County supported Kerry by a wide margin. Ask people there why they deserted the Republican Party, and they will cite its abortion policy as one of the chief irritants. Bring up such specifics as Bush's executive order denying federal funds to international family-planning groups that offer abortion, and they turn purple with apoplexy. Small wonder that Christopher Shays, the moderate Republican representing Fairfield County, hails Roe as "an extraordinarily important document."

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: Almost a quarter of the US Senate has written to President George Bush urging him to join UN talks on climate change currently taking place in Canada. Among the 24 senators to sign the open letter were Democrat Hilary Clinton and leading Republican John McCain. It comes at a key stage of the Montreal conference, where the US delegation has been blocking proposals to start formal talks on how to tackle global warming. The current targets within the Kyoto Protocol will expire in 2012. The US - the world's biggest emitter of green house gases - withdrew its signature from Kyoto in 2001, saying it was flawed and costly to introduce.

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: A victim of the CIA's alleged secret prisons is suing its former chief over torture claims. Khaled al-Masri says he was kidnapped in 2003 while on holiday in Macedonia, flown to Afghanistan and mistreated. A US rights group has filed a lawsuit against ex-CIA head George Tenet and other officials on behalf of Mr Masri, a Lebanese-born German citizen. It is the first legal challenge to the US policy of "extraordinary rendition" - flying suspects to third countries. The US maintains that all such operations are conducted within the law. But "Our government has acted as if it is above the law," says Anthony D Romero, ACLU executive director. The landmark lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a district court in Alexandria, Virginia. It claims that Mr Tenet and other CIA officials violated US and universal human rights laws when they authorised agents to kidnap Mr Masri. The lawsuit says Mr Masri suffered "prolonged arbitrary detention, torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment".

Most Americans and a majority of people in Britain, France and South Korea say torturing terrorism suspects is justified at least in rare instances, according to AP-Ipsos polling. The polling, in the United States and eight of its closest allies, found that in Canada, Mexico and Germany people are divided on whether torture is ever justified. Most people opposed torture under any circumstances in Spain and Italy. "I don't think we should go out and string everybody up by their thumbs until somebody talks. But if there is definitely a good reason to get an answer, we should do whatever it takes," said Billy Adams, a retiree from Tomball, Texas. In America, 61 percent of those surveyed agreed torture is justified at least on rare occasions. Almost nine in 10 in South Korea and just over half in France and Britain felt that way.

Michael Schiavo wants to make sure voters don't forget Terri Schiavo. The husband of the Florida woman who became the focus of a national end-of-life controversy has started a political action committee to keep the heat on politicians who tried to intervene in the case and fight his efforts to remove her feeding tube. "The easiest thing would be to move on and let the headlines fade," Schiavo said in a statement. "But my experience with our political leaders has opened my eyes to just how easily the private wishes of normal Americans like me and Terri can be cast aside in the destructive game of political pandering. The best way to hold them accountable is to make sure voters know where the candidates stand when they come looking for votes next November." Terri Schiavo died on March 31 after a 15-year legal battle over whether she should be kept alive on feeding tubes. Most doctors said she was in a persistent vegetative state, but her parents wanted to keep her alive in hopes she would recover. Michael insisted she did not want to be kept alive in such a condition.

Habeas Corpus Death Watch: America, a sanctuary for torturers? Thousands of well-meaning people are mobilizing to pressure Congress to pass legislation banning torture. But the Bush Administration is maneuvering to turn it into legislation that would instead protect the torturers by eliminating a basic legal right of torture victims. To stop them, torture opponents will need to be not just as innocent as doves but also as cunning as foxes. When Congress returns to Washington on Monday, a campaign will unfold in support of Senator John McCain's legislation banning torture, which is attached to a defense bill. But McCain's amendment is accompanied by one from Senator Lindsey Graham that bans the appeals that prisoners at Guantanamo have used to take their cases to civilian courts. Deviously, the Graham amendment has been packaged with McCain's anti-torture amendment. But the package will make things worse, not better, for Guantanamo captives unless Graham's amendment banning habeas corpus is removed. As Bill Goodman points out, while the pair of amendments "profess to ban torture," without the right to judicial oversight, they are "defanged." They are "a right without a remedy and, as such, meaningless."

Privatization Is Good For You: According to the most recent data from the Department of Health and Human Services, about 16 percent of the population is uninsured. Hispanics are disproportionately represented among the subset, making up a full 30 percent of those lacking health coverage, despite making up around 14 percent of the overall US population. But official government estimates of the number of United States residents without health insurance may be severely understated, according to a report released yesterday by the Iowa Policy Project, a nonprofit research group. The new information shows that those in the now-substantial employment margins are less likely to be insured than society as a whole, adding to a mountain of evidence that current economic policies have worsened the lot for those already suffering from economic inequality. Though the report did not estimate how many uncounted uninsured people there are in the nation, it maintained that throughout the year as many as 80 million or more go without insurance for a period of time.

Republican Policies Are Good For America: A sustained decline will hit the U.S. housing market next year, costing the nation as many as 800,000 jobs, according to a new economic report released Wednesday. The slowdown is likely to last several years, with as many as 500,000 construction jobs and 300,000 financial sector positions lost, the quarterly Anderson Forecast predicted. "We expect housing to start slowing the economy this quarter or the next," said Edward Leamer, director of the study done at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Some jobs in manufacturing might well disappear as a result of weakness in housing, but this may be offset by jobs brought home or not lost to foreign competition," he wrote. The forecast said eight of the last 10 economic recessions were started by housing market slowdowns. Though the coming cooldown will cause a drag on the nation's economy, it will fall short of triggering a recession, the forecast said.

Microsoft Corp. plans to invest $1.7 billion in India and add 3,000 jobs in the country over the next four years, nearly doubling the world's largest software company's work force here, Chairman Bill Gates said Wednesday. Microsoft has long viewed India, a country of 1 billion people with a robust economy, as a potentially huge market, and the investment would be one of the single largest by an information technology company in India. Much of the money would go toward improving the software giant's research and development capabilities, including the creation of a new facility in the southern city of Bangalore, India's technology hub, Microsoft said in a statement. "We are keen to grow Microsoft activities in India," Gates told reporters.

Smirkey's prescription drug plan has apparently become a magnet for scamsters. As if the Medicare prescription drug plan wasn't tough enough on seniors, they now are being warned about con artists looking to take advantage of them. The Medicare Part D benefit provides pharmaceutical discounts to seniors, but the process requires comparisons of dozens of plans. And it's proven confusing and complex for many seniors as well as their families. On Monday, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said con artists may be waiting to take advantage of that complexity to hoodwink seniors. Some are posing as insurance agents, or as representatives of government agencies to get seniors to hand over their personal information, he said. Some are pushing unnecessary coverage to get money. "We want to make seniors aware of this," Bauer said. "Seniors are more vulnerable than the average person." Since enrollment began Nov. 15, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has logged about 100 complaints, said Gary Karr, director of media affairs. Most involve door-to-door solicitations, offering cash payments to enroll, saying they work for Social Security or CMS, or misrepresenting the plan in some way.

Republicans Believe In Open, Honest and Transparent Government: Amid growing charges that various federal agencies are acting illegally, the office responsible for investigating many such allegations made by government employees released its 2004 report a year late and with no public announcement. According to the 2004 report of the United States Office of Special Counsel, only a handful of the nearly 1,200 employee reports of waste, fraud and abuse on the Office’s schedule at the start of 2004 were deemed worthy of further investigation. Of those investigated, the office found only eight to have merit. In a statement released yesterday, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) alleged that Scott Bloch, the office’s head and a political appointee of the Bush administration, has been sweeping serious complaints under the rug at the behest of White House officials. For more than a year, PEER has been attacking Bloch over similar concerns, including charges that he conducted a purge of Special Counsel workers for whistle-blowing activities of their own. "With Scott Bloch at the helm, the Office of Special Counsel is acting as a plumber’s unit for the Bush administration, plugging leaks, blocking investigations and discrediting sources," PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in the statement. "Under Bloch, political appointees, not civil servants, decide which cases go forward and which cases are round filed."

Republicans Believe In Taxation Without Representation: A Republican lawmaker on Tuesday proposed changing the U.S. Constitution to exclude non-citizens from the Census for the purpose of drawing congressional districts, a move that effectively would deny them a voice in U.S. politics. Under the present system, as determined by the 14th amendment to the Constitution, the Census Bureau counts all individuals living in the country once every 10 years. This data is used when drawing up the 435 congressional districts and when determining each state's vote in the Electoral College that decides presidential elections. Michigan Rep. Candice Miller wants to change that so that both legal and illegal aliens would be excluded.

News From Smirkey's War: The US army has dropped all charges against an officer accused of murder while in command of a platoon in Iraq. The officer, 2nd Lt Erick Anderson, 26, was charged in 2004 after two soldiers under his command alleged he gave permission to kill Iraqi civilians. One has since refused to testify and the other has changed his story. The charges against Lt Anderson were brought after four platoon members were convicted of killing Iraqis in the Sadr City area of Baghdad. Investigating officers said that all charges against Lt Anderson had been dismissed and no further inquiries would be carried out. "Today's a pretty good day," Lt Anderson told the Associated Press. "Right now, shock and awe is pretty much still in effect." Isn't "shock and awe" just another phrase for state-sponsored terror?

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: A professor whose planned course on creationism and intelligent design was canceled was hospitalized Monday after what appeared to be a roadside beating. University of Kansas religious studies professor Paul Mirecki said that the two men who beat him made references to the class that was to be offered for the first time this spring. Originally called "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies," the course was canceled last week at Mirecki's request. The class was added after the Kansas State Board of Education decided to include more criticism of evolution in science standards for elementary and secondary students. "I didn't know them," Mirecki said of his assailants, "but I'm sure they knew me." One recent e-mail from Mirecki to members of a student organization referred to religious conservatives as "fundies," and said a course describing intelligent design as mythology would be a "nice slap in their big fat face." Mirecki has apologized for those comments. Lt. Kari Wempe, a spokeswoman for the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, said a deputy was dispatched to Lawrence Memorial Hospital after receiving a call around 7 a.m. regarding a battery. She said Mirecki reported he was attacked around 6:40 a.m. in rural Douglas County south of Lawrence. Mirecki told the Lawrence Journal-World that he was driving to breakfast when he noticed the men tailgating him in a pickup truck.

The anti-gay group Focus on the Family has closed all its Wells Fargo accounts because the San Francisco bank contributed to a gay rights group that promised to use the funds to "fight ... the anti-gay industry." A Focus on the Family official would not disclose how much money the organization kept with Wells Fargo, its primary bank, but said the nonprofit group's income was $146 million last year. "We don't expect corporate America to do our bidding on the issues, but when they use the proceeds from our business and give them to others who clobber us over the head, we say enough is enough," said Tom Minnery, who oversees public policy for the organization.

A state appellate court ruled that two fertility doctors had the right to refuse to artificially inseminate a lesbian on the grounds that it would have violated their religious beliefs. The ruling Friday by California's 4th District Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision that had said Dr. Christine Brody and Dr. Douglas Fenton could not use religion as a defense against a lawsuit filed by Guadalupe Benitez. Instead, the panel found that the doctors were within their rights because they based their decision on Benitez's unmarried status and that discrimination based on marital status is not prohibited by California law. An attorney for a gay rights group said the decision would be appealed to the California Supreme Court.

Author and activist Wayne Besen is reporting that the American Family Association is continuing to use the story of Michael Johnston, a so-called ex-gay, in their propaganda campaign against gay and lesbian Americans. "When I first saw the video featuring Johnston on the AFA website, I was shocked. How could an organization like the AFA keep on using an HIV positive, failed ex-gay, as the centerpiece of their efforts?" Besen told PageOneQ. Johnston had claimed his change from being gay to being straight was with the "power of Jesus Christ" and is still featured in a videotape being sold by the American Family Association. Two years ago, however, he was allegedly continuing to engage in unsafe gay sex. Amid these allegations of continued encounters - arranged via the Internet - Johnston stepped down from his role as spokesman for the ex-gay movement. According to Besen, the sources making claims about Johnston's behavior are credible. Besen, citing AFA spokesman Buddy Smith, confirmed reports that the American Family Association was aware of Johnston's activities, calling them a moral failure. "There's more denial at these right wing organizations than one can imagine," Besen said, "Yet, they continue to use the stories of those who have failed in their campaign of deception." “The American Family Association is blatantly committing fraud by suggesting that Johnston has gone from gay to straight. If they have a shred of decency and morality, they will immediately stop selling the tape and apologize for their disgraceful behavior.”

It's over. Ford lied. For days Ford Motor Company has been saying this is just about a few ads. For days Ford has been saying they didn't agree to anything. And for days Ford has been saying Volvo will continue marketing to the gay community. Not true. We now find out that Ford has agreed to stop supporting gay events. We now find out that Ford's Volvo ads will continue in gay publications, but the ads will no longer target the gay community - meaning, they'll use generic ads that they're using elsewhere. Ford didn't just lie, they caved to the gay-baiting American Family Association big time. A major US corporation is no longer supporting gay and lesbian organizations - something it did to a large degree in the past - because an extremist gay-hating hate group threatened them. According to WardsAuto.com, a leading auto industry online-PR publisher, "Ford Motor Co.'s decision to cease advertising in gay publications for its Jaguar and Land Rover luxury brands is part of a truce between the auto maker and the American Family Assn. (AFA) to avert a threatened boycott by the right-wing Christian conservative group, Ward's learns... As part of the latest agreement hammered out Nov. 29, sources confirm Volvo Cars will continue to advertise in the publications but will use generic ads not tailored to the gay community. In addition, Ford has agreed not to sponsor any future gay and lesbian events but will continue to maintain its employee policies, such as same-sex partner benefits."

What's missing from the White House Christmas card? Christmas. This month, as in every December since he took office, President Bush sent out cards with a generic end-of-the-year message, wishing 1.4 million of his close friends and supporters a happy "holiday season." Many people are thrilled to get a White House Christmas card, no matter what the greeting inside. But some conservative Christians are reacting as if Bush stuck coal in their stockings. "This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Bush "claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn't act like one," said Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.com. "I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it." Religious conservatives are miffed because they have been pressuring stores to advertise Christmas sales rather than "holiday specials" and urging schools to let students out for Christmas vacation rather than for "winter break." They celebrated when House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) insisted that the sparkling spectacle on the Capitol lawn should be called the Capitol Christmas Tree, not a holiday spruce. Then along comes a generic season's greeting from the White House, paid for by the Republican National Committee. The cover art is also secular, if not humanist: It shows the presidential pets -- two dogs and a cat -- frolicking on a snowy White House lawn.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Scientists studying the effects of carbon on climate warming are very likely underestimating, by a vast amount, how much soil carbon is available in the high Arctic to be released into the atmosphere, new University of Washington research shows. The earlier work, reported in 1992, estimated nearly 1 billion metric tons of organic carbon was contained in the soil of the polar semidesert, a 623,000-square-mile treeless Arctic region that is 20 percent to 80 percent covered by grasses, shrubs and other small plants. That research also estimated about 17 million metric tons of carbon was sequestered in the soil of the adjacent polar desert, a 525,000-square-mile area where only 10 percent or less of the landscape is plant covered. Horwath dug substantially deeper, in some instances more than 3 feet down, and found significantly more carbon. She concluded that the polar semidesert contains more than 8.7 billion metric tons of carbon, and the polar desert contains more than 2.1 billion metric tons. "In the polar semidesert, I found nearly nine times more carbon than was previously reported," she said. "In the polar desert, I'm finding 125 times more carbon."

Growing a forest might sound like a good idea to combat global warming, since trees draw carbon dioxide from the air and release cool water from their leaves. But they also absorb sunlight, warming the air in the process. According to a new study from the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, planting forests at certain latitudes could make the Earth warmer. Carnegie’s Ken Caldeira will present the work at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco on December 7, 2005. The researchers used complex climate modeling software to simulate changes in forest cover and then examined the effects on global climate. Their results were surprising. “We were hoping to find that growing forests in the United States would help slow global warming,” Caldeira said. “But if we are not careful, growing forests could make global warming even worse.” The researchers found that while tropical forests help keep Earth cool by evaporating a great deal of water, northern forests tend to warm the Earth because they absorb a lot of sunlight without losing much moisture. In one simulation, the researchers covered much of the northern hemisphere (above 20° latitude) with forests and saw a jump in surface air temperature of more than 6° F. Covering the entire planet’s land mass with trees led to a more modest increase of about 2° F.

Scandals Du Jour: Federal investigators in San Diego have made it clear that while just-resigned Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham pled guilty last week to taking bribes from defense contractors, their public corruption probe will not stop at Cunningham. Numerous current and retired CIA officials say they will not be surprised if the investigation touches the CIA in general, and its third-ranking official in particular. "Though everyone has been talking about what Cunningham did for contractors from his position on [the House] Defense Appropriations [subcommittee], you also have to remember that he had a seat on [the Permanent Select Committee on] Intelligence too, which is also a good position to help contractors from, particularly if they want to do business with the CIA," says a veteran CIA officer. "But the real question I think is, if those contractors were doing business with the CIA, did they need Cunningham? And even if they didn't, the question is, even if he didn't do anything, did one the highest-ranking agency officials have any idea what his friends were up to?" According to past and present CIA officials interviewed over the past month, CIA executive director Kyle "Dusty" Foggo--whose career duties have encompassed letting CIA contracts--has had a long, close personal relationship with two contractors identified (though not explicitly named) in court papers as bribing Cunningham: Brent Wilkes of the Wilkes Corp., whose subsidiaries include defense contractor ADCS; and former ADCS consultant Mitchell Wade, until recently president of defense contractor MZM, Inc. It is a relationship, the CIA officials say (with some putting a particular emphasis on Wilkes), that has increasingly been of concern.

A Texas judge declined to dismiss money-laundering charges against Representative Tom DeLay, paving the way for a criminal trial and preventing the lawmaker from reclaiming his post as U.S. House majority leader for now. Judge Pat Priest rejected motions by DeLay's lawyers to drop all the charges. He dismissed allegations of conspiracy to violate the election code, saying that crime wasn't yet illegal. A spokesman for DeLay, his lawyer Dick DeGuerin and prosecutor Ronnie Earle weren't immediately available for comment. Today's ruling may mean the end of DeLay's tenure as the No. 2 House Republican. Some lawmakers have called for leadership elections in January if DeLay can't return to his post by then. The judge's decision to go to trial makes it unlikely the lawmaker could be acquitted of the charges in time. "Justice has got to take its course," said Ron Talley, a spokesman for the Republican Main Street Partnership, which describes itself as a "centrist" group of Republicans. "With the trial and everything going on, it doesn't appear as if he'll be returning as majority leader any time soon."

As Members from both sides of the aisle distance themselves from the excesses of the lobbying industry, their camps continue to quietly pass their hats with the usual vigor. One GOP lobbyist who does a substantial amount of fundraising and campaign giving said that as the Justice Department has signaled a potential lowering of the threshold for making bribery accusations, Members of Congress have not publicly defended the system with sufficient fervor. Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), the new chairman of the House Conservatives Fund, which is holding a fundraiser on Dec. 8, said he and his group are unapologetic about asking for money from lobbyists or any like-minded individuals. “I actually agreed to take on leadership of the House Conservatives Fund and never gave the scandals even a brief thought,” he said. “The bottom line is if you’ve been doing it right, it shouldn’t be a concern at all. It’s always been illegal to accept money for a specific quid pro quo.” He added, “Money is an important part of free speech.” Meaning, of course, that if you have it, you have free speech and if you don't, you don't.

Meanwhile, a huge backlash against conservative anti-democracy corruption is beginning to build. The release of a treasure trove of documentation on the Abramoff investigation to the Internet by Senator John McCain, chair of the Senate's Indian Affairs Committee, makes it clear that Abramoff and his colleagues had no interest in the finer points of morality when they were transferring huge sums of cash from the tribes to the accounts of such allegedly high-minded heavyweight pro-Republican outfits as Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. "This town has become very corrupt, there's no doubt about it,'' McCain said Sunday on Meet the Press, adding that he expects "lots" of indictments and that there is "strong evidence" of "significant wrongdoing" by some legislators. Reading the documents, in fact, is a horrifying look at democracy for sale. For example, an Abramoff e-mail to uber-Christian lobbyist and Georgia Lt. Gov. candidate Ralph Reed about a conversation the lobbyist had with Nell Rogers, a Choctaw representative: "Spoke with Nell. They have a budget issue. They want to know if we can get through to October on $1 million. Can we? If not, let me know." In response, Reed lays out what it costs, in very precise amounts, to kill legislation on Capitol Hill to favor of a wealthy entity: "I believe [$1 million will be enough]. If we can kill it in the House[,] definitely. If it goes to the Senate, the worst case scenario is what the pro-family groups spent to defeat video poker and the lottery--each about $1.3 million... We will be doing all we can to raise money from national anti-gambling groups, Christian CEOs and national pro-family groups."

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: The recently resigned and convicted Duke Cunningham may be about to enjoy prison life more than anyone suspected - apparently, he is a closet queen. What you won’t read about in these mainstream press accounts about his bribery conviction and subsequent resignation is the other double life led by the closet case, Duke, the anti-gay conservative. Cunningham, who is married with grown children, has admitted to romantic, loving relationships with men, both during his Vietnam military service and as a civilian. That was the remarkable story that this publication reported two years ago, when Elizabeth Birch, the former Human Rights Campaign leader, inadvertently outed Cunningham at a gay rights forum. Birch never mentioned Cunningham’s name, but she talked about a rabidly anti-gay congressman who asked to meet privately with her in the midst of a controversy over his use in a speech on the floor of the House the term “homos” to describe gays who have served in the military. A few Google searches later, the Washington Blade reported that it had to be Cunningham, whose career was pockmarked with bizarre gay pronouncements, including a reference to the rectal treatment he received for prostate cancer, something he told an audience “was just not natural, unless maybe you’re Barney Frank.” There’s every reason to believe Birch’s inadvertent outing, even as Cunningham denied it through a spokesperson.

Speaking of anti-gay Republican closet queens, Spokane Mayor James E. West was recalled from office yesterday in a special election over allegations he offered jobs and perks to young men he met in a gay Internet chat room. West, 54, became the city's first elected chief executive to be ousted before his term expired. With just over half of the 110,000 mail-in ballots counted, 38,718, or 65 percent, voted to recall West, while 20,681, or 35 percent, voted to retain him. The campaign to recall West began last spring after the Spokesman-Review newspaper reported that West was a closeted homosexual who visited gay chat rooms using his city-owned laptop computer and offered internships and other favors to young men with whom he hoped to have sex. West, a former Boy Scout executive and sheriff's deputy, was elected mayor in 2003 after serving more than two decades as a Republican in the state Legislature, where he voted against gay-friendly bills. The recall petition contended West used his political office for personal benefit by offering a city internship to someone he thought was an 18-year-old man he had met in a gay online chat room and with whom he had sexually explicit chats.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:17:43 PM

Mon, Dec 05 2005

Meeting My New Neighbor To Be

Back to the dry season today. All day long it has been severely sunny, hardly a cloud in the sky, as it was for at least a part of yesterday afternoon. The high today reached 84, after an overnight low of 69 at sunrise this morning, unheard of for this time of the year, which is normally the rainiest and coldest part of the year in Arenal. It was simply delightful sunny weather. Couldn't have been more summerlike, and given that it is December, and every day's news broadcasts brings film clips of horrible blizzards up north, it sure makes me glad I am here.

The bougainvilleas have begun to respond to the warm, dry weather and are beginning to bloom a bit more intensely than they have in the past few months. Not much sign of the wild orchids yet, which normally bloom at the onset of the dry season; maybe they know something I don't, and aren't being taken in by all this lovely weather. But in any event, I am sure delighted with the weather - it is just the kind of weather that the Tourism Institute likes to brag about.

I decided to take a bit of a walk this afternoon, in spite of my not feeling very terrific, and so I took a long, slow walk up the road to the new marina, to check on the construction of the new house being built up there, past the terrific views of the lake and the volcano, which was not visible today - clouded in as usual. The house is coming along - the owner, a Tico was there and I got to meet him. Seems like a very nice man. His two sons, early twenties, were there, working on the house with him. He showed me the plans - and it is a truly lovely design. Very Tico, very rustic, country sort of place. It is not going to be big, but it will be very attractive, and a very worthwhile addition to the neighborhood.

Walking the other direction, I walked up along my property line and noted some fence work I need to get done. Up at the other new house in the neighborhood, next to my North Forty, my neighbor there has not yet moved in, but he has the construction debris cleaned up in the yard, and all the wood piled out on the street. It hasn't disappeared yet, because there has not been any weather cold enough to encourage people to heat their homes. But that will change. The really cold weather hasn't hit yet, and when it does, all that construction scrap wood will disappear in a flash. Along with everything else around that is burnable. Guaranteed.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Smirkey's counter-offensive against his critics shows little sign of reversing his flagging job approval ratings. His rating on the new TIME Poll - 41% approve - 53% disapprove - is little changed from September following Hurricane Katrina (42%-52%). The public is split on whether Bush can recover lost ground with half (46%) saying he is likely to recover and half (49%) saying he is unlikely to recover. Three-quarters (76%) of those who disapprove of the job Bush is doing say they are “unlikely to change their mind.” Looking forward to the 2008 election, three-in-five (60%) surveyed by TIME say they would like the next President to be “completely different” from George W. Bush (36% would like someone similar). If the presidential election were being held today between Bush and John Kerry, it would be a dead heat again (47% Bush, 48% Kerry). Red state residents are split on whether they will be more likely to vote for a Republican (42%) or Democratic (42%) candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in their districts next year. Blue states are more in favor of the Democratic candidate (55% Democratic vs. 30% Republican).

The History News Network at George Mason University has just polled historians informally on the Bush record. Four hundred and fifteen, about a third of those contacted, answered, making the project as unofficial as it was interesting. These were the results: 338 said they believed Bush was failing, while 77 said he was succeeding. Fifty said they thought he was the worst president ever. Worse than Buchanan, widely regarded by historians as the worst president ever in American history. Quite an indictment. It is, of course, too early to evaluate a president. That, historically, takes decades, and views change over times as results and impact become more obvious. Besides, many of the historians note that however bad Bush seems, they have indeed since worse men around the White House. Some say Buchanan. Many say Vice President Dick Cheney.

Broken, worn-out and living hand to mouth: the four-star generals in the U.S. Army are in revolt. The immense significance of Rep John Murtha's November 17 speech calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq is that it signals a full-blown mutiny of loyalty in the US senior officer corps, seeing the institution they lead as "broken, worn out" and "living hand to mouth", to use the biting words of their spokesman, John Murtha, as he reiterated on December his denunciation of Bush's destruction of the Army. The four-star generals picked Murtha to make this speech because he has maximum credibility. Even in the US Senate there's no one with quite Murtha's standing to deliver the message, except maybe for Byrd, but the venerable senator from West Virginia was a vehement opponent of the war from the outset , whereas Murtha voted for it and only recently has turned around. So the Four-Star Generals briefed Murtha and gave him the state-of-the-art data which made his speech so deadly, stinging the White House into panic-stricken and foolish denunciations of Murtha as a clone of Michael Moore. Murtha responded to Cheney's comment that he wasn't going to take that from a five-time draft dodger. Cheney quickly backed down.

Plame-gate scandal special prosecutor Patrick Fiztgerald is about to get a new boss: Paul McNulty has been nominated for the number-two job at the Justice Department. What will be the result? I suspect the short answer is nothing good. McNulty, U.S. Attorney for the very high-profile eastern district of Virginia, is the substitute for Tim Flanigan, the Abramoff-tainted nominee who withdrew his name earlier this month. Like Flanigan - and unlike Fitzgerald - McNulty is a Republican loyalist. Before Bush appointed him to the eastern Va. post (he took office three days after 9/11) McNulty was one of John Ashcroft's political flunkies at DoJ. Before that he headed the Bush transition team for the department. Before that he was chief counsel for Dick Armey, the former GOP House Majority Leader. Before that he was chief counsel and "communications director" for the House Judiciary Committee. While in this position -- according to an alumni profile from his alma mater Grove City College - he also "directed house Republican media relations for the Clinton impeachment process." Other than that, of course, his impartiality is beyond question.

Four years after the 11 September attacks, the US has failed to protect itself against terrorism, say former members of the 11 September commission. The members, now a pressure group, say the US is still vulnerable because it has failed to implement vital reforms. "While the terrorists are learning and adapting, our government is still moving at a crawl," chairman Thomas Kean told reporters. The commission made a number of urgent recommendations in the 9/11 report in 2004. It urged sweeping changes to the intelligence services, after finding that the government had "failed to protect American people" before the 2001 attacks. The commission was disbanded after the report was published, but since then the same commissioners have run a pressure group called the 9/11 Public Discourse Project. White House counselor Dan Bartlett is responding to the report from former members of the 9/11 commission. The panel said the government deserves "more F's than A's" in adopting the commission's recommendations to better guard the country. Bartlett said that lawmakers on Capitol Hill spend homeland security money "based on old models, pre- 9/11 models." Apparently, the post- 9/11 model is to abolish the Bill of Rights.

Slouching towards genocide: Despite pretty words about democracy and freedom, George W. Bush’s “victory” plan in Iraq is starting to look increasingly like an invitation to genocide, the systematic destruction of the Sunni minority for resisting its U.S.-induced transformation from the nation’s ruling elite into second-class citizenship, according to Robert Perry, writing for The Consortium for Independent Journalism. The Sunnis, an Islamic sect that makes up about 35 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people, are being confronted with a stark choice, either accept subordination to the less-educated Shiite majority or face the devastation of Sunni neighborhoods, the imprisonment of many Sunni males and the deaths of large numbers of the Sunni population. U.S. officials also acknowledge that hard-line Shiite militiamen, who have penetrated the government’s security forces, are operating “death squads” to terrorize Sunnis. The killings and disappearances are reminiscent of the bloodshed in Central America in the 1980s when right-wing regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador unleashed security forces to round up, torture and kill suspected leftists.

Concern is mounting that the US government is using antiterror laws - namely, the Patriot Act - to revive a now-discredited practice common during the cold war: the prevention of foreign intellectuals who are critical of administration policies from entering the country and sharing their views with Americans. The practice, called ideological exclusion, became illegal in 1990. But a recent lawsuit - brought by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the PEN American Center under the Freedom of Information Act - is asking the Bush administration to explain its decisions to revoke or deny visas to several foreign scholars, and why they don't violate free-speech protections. "This is about free speech, the purpose of colleges and universities," says Donna Euben, counsel for the AAUP in Washington. "We're not challenging the [USA Patriot Act] itself. We're just asking for information about its application to these particular scholars where there is no evidence that they have supported terrorism in any way."

A Vietnamese doctor who has treated dozens of victims of avian flu claims the drug being stockpiled around the world to combat a pandemic is “useless” against the virus. Dr Nguyen Tuong Van runs the intensive care unit at the Center for Tropical Diseases in Hanoi and has treated 41 victims of H5N1. Van followed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines and gave her patients Tamiflu, but concluded it had no effect. “We place no importance on using this drug on our patients,” she said. “Tamiflu is really only meant for treating ordinary type A flu. It was not designed to combat H5N1... (Tamiflu) is useless.”

A deadly bacterial illness commonly seen in people on antibiotics appears to be growing more common even in patients not taking such drugs, according to a report published Thursday in a federal health journal. In another article in the New England Journal of Medicine, health officials said samples of the same bacterium taken from eight U.S. hospitals show it is mutating to become even more resistant to antibiotics. "I don't want to scare people away from using antibiotics. … But it's concerning, and we need to respond," said Dr. L. Clifford McDonald, an author of both articles and an epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Hospitals need to be conducting surveillance and implementing control measures. And all of us need to realize the risk of antibiotic use may be increasing" as the bacteria continue to mutate, McDonald said. The bacterium is Clostridium difficile, also known as C-diff. The germ is becoming a regular menace in hospitals and nursing homes, and last year it was blamed for 100 deaths over 18 months at a hospital in Quebec, Canada.

Enough plutonium to make dozens of nuclear bombs hasn't been accounted for at the University of California-run Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and may be missing, an activist group says in a new report. There is no evidence that the weapons-grade plutonium has been stolen or diverted for illegal purposes, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research said. However, the amount of unaccounted-for plutonium -- more than 600 pounds, and possibly several times that -- is so great that it raises "a vast security issue," the group said in a report to be made public today. The institute, which is based in Takoma Park, Md., says it compared data from five publicly available reports and documents issued by the U.S. Energy Department and Los Alamos from 1996 to 2004 and found inconsistencies in them. It says the records aren't clear on what the lab did with the plutonium, a byproduct of nuclear bomb research at Los Alamos. A spokesman for UC, which manages the national laboratories at Los Alamos and Livermore for the Energy Department, did not address the report's specifics but said the New Mexico lab tracks nuclear material "to a minute quantity." The report says there are several possible explanations for what happened to the plutonium.

Al Qaeda leader assassination claims in doubt: Pakistani tribesmen on Sunday displayed parts of a U.S.-marked missile they said hit a house and killed two boys, evidence at odds with the government which says an explosion there killed a top al Qaeda commander. Whatever the cause of the blast, the death of Abu Hamza Rabia would be a coup for Pakistan and the United States which describe him as al Qaeda's chief of international operations. But his body has not been found. Sat amid the ruins of his mud and concrete-walled home in the restive North Waziristan tribal agency, Haji Mohammad Siddiq told Reuters his 17-year old son and an eight-year-old nephew were killed in a missile attack, but denied there were any militants present.

Would you believe that a federal prosecutor and a bumbling, keystone cop Homeland Security Agency have been protecting a federal narcotics informant who ran a horror house wherein scores of people were tortured to death by a Mexican drug and terror ring? Would you believe that while this informant was on the Homeland Security payroll he may have personally arranged for as many as thirty horrific deaths by himself? Would you believe that the US government-sponsored house of death and torture only came to an end when this government-salaried-and-protected informant targeted an undercover DEA agent and his family stationed in Mexico, and that the agent, his wife and children were saved from their horrible fate at the last moment by the actions of his fellow DEA agents working against Homeland Security and the prosecutor? It's all true, and more. Much more. It is being detailed in a new series of documentaries, called The House Of Death, running currently on Pacifica Radio affiliate WBAI in New York City. A summary of the case, and links to the documentation, are to be found here.

The Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) is reporting that a new bill in Congress would override and weaken state anti-predatory lending laws that protect homeowners. Congressmen Ney (R-Ohio) and Kanjorski (D-Pennsylvania) have introduced legislation that would roll back state protections for homeowners seeking home financing. Promoting uniformity among the states is a good reason to introduce federal legislation. Such legislation can ensure that states don't "race to the bottom." But the Ney-Kanjorski bill pins states to the bottom. Forcing all states to the lowest common denominator smacks of blatant interest group pandering.

Legislation to renew a U.S. government insurance backstop to cover terrorism losses will be reviewed by a second House of Representatives committee, a panel spokesman said, unsettling insurers who worried on Thursday that any further delay could keep the bill from passing this year. The legislation would extend for two years the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA), the federal program that guarantees the government will cover some losses from terrorist attacks. Insurers and property owners say the program is critical to the U.S. economy, but it is set to expire December 31 unless extended. "Time is short, and anything that impedes progress of the legislation on the way to the president's desk is unsettling," said Julie Rochman, spokeswoman for the American Insurance Association.

Don't just blame the victim, prosecute her: If you are raped in Oregon, make sure that the case against your attacker is airtight before you file a complaint, because otherwise you could be prosecuted for filing a false police report. If the detectives don't think your story adds up, you may find yourself prosecuted, as this woman found out. And apparently she is not alone. Many women are finding that when they offer accounts of their rapes to the police, they are often simply not believed.

Overly-celebrated conservative columnist Ann "hypocrisy is soooo cool!" Coulter's lecture at the University of Connecticut next Wednesday has spawned an alternative event called "Stop the Hate." The UConn College Republicans said Coulter's appearance will prompt debate. But the Daily Campus's editor-in-chief calls her a hate promoter. Also at issue is the lecturer's $16,000 price tag. But the College Republicans said that's not out of line. They point out that war-critic Cindy Sheehan has been offered $10,000 to come to the Storrs campus Monday. Coulter is a frequent guest on "Hannity & Colmes" and "The O'Reilly Factor."

Six Western governors and a growing number of senators say they fear a plan in a budget bill allowing the sale of millions of acres of public lands could do permanent harm to their states. "It's got implications for hunters, sportsmen, people who use lands for grazing and basically anybody who uses public lands," said Angela de Rocha, a spokeswoman for Wayne Allard of Colorado, one of a handful of Western GOP senators who say they are concerned about the proposal. House lawmakers added the provision, which ends an 11-year congressional ban on new applications to buy public land for mining, to their budget bill on the Friday before Thanksgiving. Supporters say it would help struggling communities recover after mines close. But opponents argue it amounts to a fire sale on federal lands, including wilderness study areas and national parks. The Interior Department says the plan could affect up to 20 million acres, while environmentalists say it could allow the government to sell 350 million acres.

Sen. Hillary Clinton was interrupted several times during a speech at Roosevelt University Saturday morning by young adults protesting the Iraq war. The Democratic New York Senator was the keynote speaker during the American Democracy Institute's First Leadership Development Summit. She was there to give a speech about the power young people have in affecting policy in their communities. Clinton did address the protesters, but she never stopped her speech. First, a group in the balcony chanted and held signs that together read "Out of Iraq." They were silenced after a minute or so while someone else held up a sign nearby. Then a group elsewhere in the auditorium starting chanting. Some of it was inaudible, but they could be heard at one point saying "Troops Out Now." Clinton addressed them, saying she appreciates their passion and intensity, and that she would address their concerns at the end of her speech, but that she didn't believe the audience wanted to hear from them at the moment, receiving applause from the audience. Flyers were also thrown down from the balcony, accusing Democrats and Republicans of being alike when it comes to Iraq policy...and condemning Senator Clinton for voting for Iraq invasion in 2002.

Researchers who work for Congress say the Environmental Protection Agency skewed its analysis of air pollution legislation to favor Smirkey's plan. EPA's analysis "works in favor of" Bush's plan by overstating some costs of competing bills, said a report Friday by the Congressional Research Service. The 2002 Bush plan, dubbed "Clear Skies," remains stalled in Congress. "Although it represents a step toward understanding the impacts of the legislative options, EPA's analysis is not as useful as one could hope," the report concludes. It took three years for EPA to provide comparisons of Bush's plan with competing versions by Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and James Jeffords, I-Vt. When it did in October, the EPA said its analysis showed the superiority of the Bush proposal, which relies on market forces to cut pollution from the nation's 600 coal-burning power plants but does not address global warming. EPA officials dismissed any notion of playing favorites.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency pulled all its workers out of New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward yesterday after claiming they were the objects of threats of violence, and planned to request additional police or National Guard support, a FEMA spokeswoman said. A spokeswoman for Mayor C. Ray Nagin said the police commander for the district knew of no incidents or threat complaints. The Lower Ninth Ward was reopened Thursday; it was the last neighborhood in the city to remain closed as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Residents, who had been limited to bus tours, were allowed to reenter homes, inspect damage and retrieve items but not stay in the area, which still lacks electricity. But U.S. Army Corps of Engineers workers near levees and FEMA workers -- who were on hand to help remove debris, set up disaster service centers and coordinate relief -- received numerous threats, said FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews . About 20 FEMA workers were withdrawn from the area, Andrews said.

More than three months into the post-hurricane recovery effort in Louisiana, environmental health advocates say the government still can’t get it right. By downplaying environmental threats and failing to provide protective equipment, they say, government authorities are risking public health. In the wake of the Gulf Coast hurricanes, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have distributed informational materials and issued public service announcements to returning residents and workers, encouraging people to beware of contaminants in indoor and outdoor environments, including mold spores, industrial spills and chemically hazardous wreckage. But watchdog groups fear the message is reaching too few. Anne Rolfes, executive director of the environmental group Louisiana Bucket Brigade and New Orleans resident, said that she is aware of little public outreach aside from "fact sheets that I saw wadded up in the corner of a Walgreens."

Better late than never: The FBI has reopened an inquiry into one of the most intriguing aspects of the pre-Iraq war intelligence fiasco: how the Bush administration came to rely on forged documents linking Iraq to nuclear weapons materials as part of its justification for the invasion. The documents inspired intense U.S. interest in the buildup to the war — and they led the CIA to send a former ambassador to the African nation of Niger to investigate whether Iraq had sought the materials there. The ambassador, Joseph C. Wilson IV, found little evidence to support such a claim, and the documents were later found to have been forged.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid intended to help small New York downtown businesses that were reeling from the 9/11 attacks often went instead to huge international corporations, companies with little attachment to the stricken area and businesses that were never in jeopardy. The beneficiaries included a stock brokerage firm that had closed more than a month before the terrorists hit, a giant real estate firm that repeatedly said it wasn't hurt by the attacks, scores of wealthy self-employed floor traders and a Gramercy Park messenger service with a tiny satellite office downtown, a Daily News investigation of 9/11 disaster recovery aid shows.

Allegations published Friday in a Rolling Stone magazine article raise new questions about a possible cover-up of critical information about the 1997 slaying of rapper Notorious B.I.G. and the possible role of Rampart scandal figure Rafael Perez and another former LAPD officer. While the articles raise many of the same previously published questions about the officers' links to the unsolved slayings of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur - who died in Las Vegas on Sept. 13, 1996, days after being shot - it is their more strongly drawn connection to Rampart and reams of documents ordered released by U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper that could change the complexion of the family's complaint, which is expected to be amended for a new trial. A mistrial was declared last summer when an LAPD officer acknowledged that investigative records had been withheld from the plaintiffs.

Widening corruption scandals in Washington are heightening Republican sentiments for a GOP leadership shake-up early next year that would permanently replace former majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), according to House members and GOP leadership sources. Many Republicans say they are troubled that DeLay's political money-laundering trial in Texas could drag on for months, leaving the question of leadership in limbo. And they are increasingly anxious that DeLay may be implicated in the bribery and corruption investigations of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.). But with few members willing to publicly challenge DeLay's return, leadership aides still give the lawmaker a strong shot at a comeback, provided a Texas court exonerates him of charges that he illegally funneled corporate campaign contributions to state legislative candidates. Much will depend on whether DeLay can get the case thrown out or win acquittal by the time Congress convenes Jan. 30 for President Bush's State of the Union address, some GOP lawmakers and aides say.

The House ethics committee, the panel responsible for upholding the chamber's ethics code, has been virtually moribund for the past year, handling only routine business despite a wave of federal investigations into close and potentially illegal relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists. With a California congressman headed to prison for accepting bribes and several others under investigation for accepting lavish gifts and money from former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, one might expect the House committee to have a lot of work to do. But the committee's five Republican and five Democratic members have not opened a new case or launched an investigation in the past 12 months. It took months just to hire a new chief of staff, and he still is not in place. Nor has the panel hired a full complement of investigators.

Racial profiling at Wal-Mart: GAF Materials Corp. of Tampa, Florida, is handing out gift cards from Target as a reward to select employees this holiday season. That's because Wal-Mart, the discount store that held the business for years, last week called sheriff's deputies to apprehend a GAF manager on a bogus bad check rap while he was trying to buy this year's gift card supply. "I keep going over and over the incident in my mind," said Reginald Pitts, the 34-year-old human resources manager for the roof material manufacturer's Tampa distribution center. "I cannot come up with any possible reason why I was treated like this except that I am black."

Media Matters, a non-profit progressive-leaning media watchdog organization, has launched a campaign today on their website calling on CNN to stop giving Republican author and talking head Ann Coulter airtime on the cable network. Citing 10 appearances on CNN since early 2004, the group, founded by one-time Conservative author turned Progressive David Brock, is asking why the cable news channel continues to host her on the air, giving her a continuing international outlet to spread her threatening hate speech, irresponsible smears, character assassinations and otherwise wholly incorrect information. Media Matters has tracked false and misleading statements by media personalities such as Coulter, Bill O'Reilly and scores of others, along with news outlets such as all three broadcast networks, all three cable news channels along with dozens of other mainstream newspapers, organizations and journalists.

A poem in a school textbook has been removed by embarrassed education officials in Pakistan after it was found that the first letters of each line spelt out "President George W. Bush". The 20-line anonymous poem, The Leader, lists the qualities of "a man who will do what he must", and bears a passing resemblance to Rudyard Kipling's "If." "Ever assuring he'll stand by his word/Wanting the world to join his firm stand/Bracing for war, but praying for peace/Using his power so evil will cease," run typical lines. An education spokesman said officials had no idea who wrote the poem, nor how it found its way into A Textbook of English for 16-year-olds last year. The acrostic is embarrassing for President Pervez Musharraf, who is already under fire at home for being allegedly pro-American and supporting the US war on terrorism.

Republican Policies Are Strengthening America: Troubled U.S. automakers and their allies on Capitol Hill are seeking billions of dollars in aid from the federal government ranging from health coverage for their workers to extra tax write-offs for themselves. They're also asking for one rhetorical favor: Please don't call the requests a bailout. "I don't view it as a bailout," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said. "We're not looking for a bailout," agreed William C. Ford Jr., chairman of Ford Motor Co. The "B" word has been taboo ever since Chrysler Corp., faced with impending insolvency, sought and narrowly won $1.5 billion in loan guarantees from Washington in 1979 and 1980. The company eventually borrowed $1.2 billion and repaid the loans in 1983, seven years earlier than was required. Nonetheless, the notion of the American taxpayer saving a company with a large and quick fix has pretty much gone out of style and has not been repeated since, with the exception of loan guarantees to airlines after 9/11. Even though General Motors Corp. and its rival Ford Motor now face serious financial straits, both are studiously avoiding public condemnation by spreading their aid requests widely among many types of government policies. Taken together, however, the components of their wish list would cost tens of billions -- far more than Chrysler ever dared to seek.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. plans to close more than eight North American assembly and parts plants in a drive to revive faltering operations on the continent, industry paper Automotive News reported on Monday. Citing a "key company insider," the paper said the number-two U.S. carmaker was likely to close at least five vehicle assembly plants: in Atlanta; St. Louis; St. Paul, Minnesota; Wixom, Michigan; and Cuautitlan, Mexico. Several powertrain and stamping plants will also close, it cited the unidentified source as saying based on his knowledge of a turnaround plan Ford is preparing and the group's overcapacity problems.

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. has said it plans to have nearly one-third of its investment banking back office and support staff offshore by the end of 2007 and would achieve this by doubling its headcount in India. The U.S. banking group said it hopes to hire 4,500 graduates in India over the next two years, mostly in Bangalore. J.P. Morgan already has about the same number of front-office and support staff in its retail, corporate and investment banking operations in Mumbai. The company said the hirings, which will double its work force in India, would be an add-on to head count rather than a replacement of staff elsewhere. A spokesman declined to detail the size of the investment. The firm is hiring between 300 and 400 graduates a month and plans to have a total work force of 9,000 in India by the end of 2007.

The Business Roundtable's education task force, led by Joseph M. Tucci, president and chief executive of Hopkinton's EMC Corp., released a statement in August calling on the national business community to speak with one voice on the need to improve US competitiveness in science, technology, engineering, and math education. The business group's proposals have been sent to US governors, members of Congress, and Bush administration officials. Behind these moves lurks the fear that many young Americans are abandoning math and science at a time when students in emerging countries like China and India are mastering the subjects. China graduated 500,000 engineers last year, and India 200,000, compared with 70,000 in the United States, according to the National Academy of Sciences study. ''Our kids are the first generation of Americans that are growing up less technologically proficient than their parents," Kamen warned. ''It's the wrong time for America to be taking its eye off the ball. This is the first generation that will compete in a global economy." But a Raytheon-commissioned survey found the majority of US middle schoolers would prefer to clean their rooms, eat their vegetables, and take out the garbage than do their math homework. ''They really don't see the linkage yet between math and what it can do for your career," said William H. Swanson, Raytheon's chairman and chief executive. ''The term engineer has more of a positive connotation in Asia and Europe than it does in the United States." Hardly surprising, when getting an engineering degree will put a student in debt for most of his life, and graduation will mean unemployment, while companies with engineering jobs hire engineers from India on H-1B visas, and pay them less than the American students made in their part-time menial jobs while attending school.

More of the whooshing sound of jobs being sucked overseas: Intel, the world's largest chipmaker, plans to invest $1 billion in India over the next five years. The firm will spend $800m on boosting its research and development operation, with the rest of the cash being used to finance investment in firms. Intel has an R&D centre in Bangalore that produces software to drive its microchips, computers and networks. Firms like Intel are expanding in India as the wages of software engineers are fraction of what they cost in the US, and there are tax incentives as well for them to relocate abroad.

The radio industry could find itself at the kids' table in the media banquet hall, as new technology threatens the business, advertising executives said this week at the Reuters Media and Advertising Summit. Satellite radio, digital music players and the Internet are slowly encroaching on traditional radio's stronghold on local entertainment and advertising. Plus, radio ads themselves are less memorable and creative, these executives said. "Radio is at the center of a perfect storm of technological threats," said David Verklin, chief executive of media buying agency Carat Americas. "It has to reinvent itself." He noted that Apple Computer's iPod and other music players like it have given listeners the ability to listen to what they want when they want. Satellite radio services such as XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio are offering more channels, many commercial free, for a monthly subscription. Finally, the third threat he saw was over-commercialization. "To some listeners, radio is a little bit of content in a sea of ads."

Privatization Is Good For You: Wireless Philadelphia is a project that has been in development for several years, but which will not be finished until late 2006. It seems such an agreeable proposition to everybody involved - cheap wi-fi for an entire city. "A citizen will pay a base fee of $10 or $20 depending upon their income status, for access to the network," explained the city's chief information officer, Dianah Neff. However, the project has stirred up a bees' nest, and has implications for the whole of America. Currently there are just hot zones around Philadelphia offering free wi-fi service, acting as test areas. "There is a question here about whether the competition is fair when the government has advantages of borrowing money, owning and perhaps giving away real estate access, regulating and taxing us," complains Eric Rabe of Verizon. His company is leading the opposition to Wireless Philadelphia. It was alarmed that the government of America's fifth largest city was getting involved in wi-fi at all, and that the fees would be a fraction of the cost of a private fast internet connection, typically around $45-60 per month when bundled with a mandatory landline telephone service. Verizon has yet to explain how it would provide service to people who could afford $10 per month from the city, but cannot afford $60 from Verizon, or how the public interest is better served by paying $60 per month than $10 for essentially the same service.

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: In May 2004, the White House dispatched the U.S. ambassador in Germany to pay an unusual visit to that country's interior minister. Ambassador Daniel R. Coats carried instructions from the State Department transmitted via the CIA's Berlin station because they were too sensitive and highly classified for regular diplomatic channels, according to several people with knowledge of the conversation. Coats informed the German minister that the CIA had wrongfully imprisoned one of its citizens, Khaled Masri, for five months, and would soon release him, the sources said. There was also a request: that the German government not disclose what it had been told even if Masri went public. The U.S. officials feared exposure of a covert action program designed to capture terrorism suspects abroad and transfer them among countries, and possible legal challenges to the CIA from Masri and others with similar allegations. The program is called "Extraordinary Rendition" - in which at least 3,000 people have been caught up and "rendered" to overseas locations for interrogation under torture. The CIA inspector general is investigating a growing number of what it calls "erroneous renditions," according to several former and current intelligence officials. One official said about three dozen names fall in that category; others believe it is fewer. The list includes several people whose identities were offered by al Qaeda figures during CIA interrogations, officials said. One turned out to be an innocent college professor who had given the al Qaeda member a bad grade, one official said. Masri's story, one of the very few to come out of the "rendition" process, makes for some interesting reading.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been granted "full access" to Britain's military airfields to transport terrorist suspects and operates "unchecked," the UK paper, the Mail on Sunday, has reported. The newspaper published photographs taken by aircraft enthusiasts apparently showing three US aircraft at three Scottish airports - Edinburgh, Prestwick and Glasgow - on June 20, 2004, November 13, 2004 and September 16 this year. "Our investigation has found proof that a series of aircraft linked to the CIA's 'extraordinary rendition' programme have been flying in and out of Britain unchecked by the authorities," it claimed. The Mail on Sunday said one of the planes - a Casa turboprop - had also been photographed at Kabul airport, Afghanistan, and was suspected by human rights groups to have been used to move terror suspects for interrogation. Another - an unmarked civilian Hercules C-130 - is also at the centre of a European Union probe about the alleged illegal use of EU airspace, it added.

The German government reportedly has a list of at least 437 flights operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency in German airspace. The number includes both movements by planes of the CIA spy agency in German airspace and landings at German airports, it says. "Such planes could be used to transfer presumed terrorists and place them in secret locations," the German magazine Der Spiegel writes. The report comes on the eve of a visit to Germany by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The list was handed over by the national air navigation security agency at the request of the Left Party. A German government spokesman said confirmed the government had received the list, but said it allowed only to know "how many times which planes of which companies flew in German airspace or landed at German airports."

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended the unlimited detention of suspected terrorists saying, in an interview published on Tuesday, that it benefitted the United States and the entire world. “You can’t allow somebody to commit the crime before you detain them, because if they commit the crime, thousands of innocent people die,” she told the USA Today daily. “We have never fought a war like this before,” she said referring to the global war on terrorism. Rice, however, neither confirmed or denied the existence of secret CIA prisons abroad, the newspaper said referring to a report by the Washington Post last month that touched off investigations in several countries. A senior European diplomat could not have been clearer: “You don’t talk about torture in the morning and then say in the afternoon: ‘Democratise yourself’.” His comments, on the contrast between the Bush administration’s use of intensive interrogation techniques abroad and its public message about worldwide democratisation, underlined how Iraq-war tensions have found an echo in the controversy over the CIA’s alleged “secret prisons”. A copy of her statement, in response to official inquiries from the European Union human rights commissioner, is now online.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: The US knew well in advance of and explicitly approved Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975, newly declassified documents say. Released this week by the independent Washington-based National Security Archive (NSA), the documents showed US officials were aware of the invasion plans nearly a year in advance. They adopted a "policy of silence" and even sought to suppress news and discussions on East Timor, including credible reports of Indonesia's massacres of Timorese civilians, according to the documents. East Timor is today an independent nation. The people of East Timor voted in favour of breaking away from Indonesia in a UN-sponsored ballot in August 1999 before gaining full independence in May 2002 after more than two years of UN stewardship. But the path to independence was exceedingly bloody. Indonesia's military, during its years of occupation, massacred more than 200,000 people - as much as a third of East Timor's population.

The State Department has been using political litmus tests to screen private American citizens before they can be sent overseas to represent the United States, weeding out critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, according to department officials and internal e-mails. In one recent case, a leading expert on conflict resolution who's a former senior State Department adviser was scheduled to participate in a U.S. Embassy-sponsored videoconference in Jerusalem last month, but at the last minute he was told that his participation no longer was required. State Department officials explained the cancellation as a scheduling matter. But internal department e-mails show that officials in Washington pressed to have other scholars replace the expert, David L. Phillips, who wrote a book, "Losing Iraq," that's critical of President Bush's handling of Iraqi reconstruction. "I was told by a senior U.S. official that the State Department was conducting a screening process on intellectuals, and those who were against the Bush administration's Iraq policy were not welcomed to participate in U.S. government-sponsored programs," Phillips said. "The ability of the United States to promote democracy effectively abroad is curtailed when we curtail free speech at home, which is essential to a free society," he said.

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: The U.S. general who used to head the National Security Agency says the only way to stabilize the Middle East is to leave Iraq. Retired three star Lt. Gen. William Odom, writing for NiemanWatchdog.org, wrote that while President George W. Bush wants to bring democracy and stability to the Middle East, the only way to achieve that goal is for the U.S. armed forces to get out of Iraq now.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: Democratic lawmakers in Alabama are pressing for a uniform Bible literacy class in Alabama's public schools. At a news conference today, the legislators plan to announce they will push in the Legislature early next year a bill that would allow local school boards to offer "Bible literacy" classes as elective high school courses. House Majority Leader Ken Guin, D-Carbon Hill, and Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, were expected to make the announcement. Opponents say the Democrats' bill sanctions one religion; Republicans say Democrats are stealing their ideas. The course will center on "The Bible and Its Influence," a book published by the Bible Literacy Project, a Virginia group that promotes knowledge of the Bible. "It's very needed and there's a loss of Bible literacy," said Sheila Weber, spokeswoman for the Bible Literacy Project. "From our perspective, this is an educational gap in public education." Weber said students need to be familiar with the Bible to understand American and British literature, and arts and music. But the books will also be useful in a religious context, she said. "We have written the textbook so it preserves the ability of the churches and parents to teach their view of the Bible."

A radio ad by a third-party group will celebrate the 'Judeo-Christian faith' of the United States while concurrently promoting Judge Samuel Alito, President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court. Today, Fidelis.org launched the first phase of an advertising campaign that celebrates America's Judeo-Christian faith traditions and defends Judge Samuel Alito. Fidelis President Joseph Cella stated: "This season is a special time when many Americans commemorate our Judeo-Christian roots. So while we prepare for our celebrations and give thanks for our treasured religious freedom, we unfortunately have to prepare for those freedoms to be attacked by the ACLU and their allies. These same allies are fighting to topple the nomination of Judge Alito." The initial phase of the campaign is a web-based commercial and advertisements with a planned radio phase to follow.

Scandals Du Jour: With a federal corruption case intensifying, prosecutors investigating Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist, are examining whether he brokered lucrative jobs for Congressional aides at powerful lobbying firms in exchange for legislative favors, people involved in the case have said. The attention paid to how the aides obtained jobs occurs as Mr. Abramoff is under mounting pressure to cooperate with prosecutors as they consider a case against lawmakers. Participants in the case, who insisted on anonymity because the investigation is secret, said he could try to reach a deal in the next six weeks. Many forces are bearing down on Mr. Abramoff. Last week, his closest business partner, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty to conspiracy in exchange for cooperating in the inquiry, being run by an interagency group, into whether money and gifts were used in an influence-peddling scandal that involved lawmakers.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: A conservative Indiana University law professor who was denied tenure, became a cause celebre for Bill O'Reilly and David Horowitz, who claimed he was a victim of a left-wing witchhunt because of his conservatism and his support for the war. Well, it turns out that the "left-wingers" were right. The man was a phony. William C. Bradford, 39, maintained that two "left-leaning" professors were leading the charge for political reasons. They disliked him because he was an Army veteran who supported the war, he said. One of Bradford's allies, Professor Henry C. Karlson, pointed out that Bradford was the real deal -- awarded the Silver Star and a major in the Special Forces. Bradford said he was in the infantry and military intelligence. He fought in Desert Storm and Bosnia, he said. Army Lt. Col. Keith R. Donnelly, a recent law school graduate, West Point graduate and Gulf War veteran had long been suspicious of Bradford's background. What really piqued his attention was the Silver Star claim -- "it is a pretty high award for valor, and not many were awarded in Desert Storm." Donnelly requested Bradford's service record from the Army. It showed he was in the Army Reserve from Sept. 30, 1995, to Oct 23, 2001. He was discharged as a second lieutenant. He had no active duty. He was in military intelligence, not infantry. He received no awards. Then The Chronicle for Higher Education, in a long article, reported that Bradford said he received no military decorations, in spite of the fact that he was often seen on campus wearing a Silver Star lapel pin, and his bragging in online campus postings that he had been given the Silver Star. He maintained that he was a major, however. Meanwhile, law school bloggers hammered away at Bradford's credibility. Bradford, formerly a vigorous participant, finally shut up. His resignation ultimately came as no surprise.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:24:06 AM

Sat, Dec 03 2005

Settling In To Christmas Month

The weather has been good but not really outstanding the last two days. Yesterday was overcast most of the day, and windy from time to time, but not really chilly at all, and we enjoyed a high of 79 degrees here in Arenal. There was a little rain overnight, and the temperature dropped to 69 degrees about sunrise, but climbed to 79 again this afternoon, with a few hours of sunshine. It was a wonderful day, but I was not feeling up to much, so didn't get out in it at all.

The ants in the kitchen are back, and so tonight, I'm setting out the bait. Hope I am up to moving the fridge tomorrow, because I suspect they are hanging out somewhere under the sink and that will mean having to move the fridge to get to them with the bug bomb.

Today was spent inside, mostly on my computer today, and playing around with my ham radio a bit, listening around the bands to the digital "PSK" signals. The sunspot cycle is close to its minimum, with very little solar activity, so band conditions are terrible, with a few weak signals, and on only the lowest frequency bands. And there are two more years of this at least before conditions improve much. But at least there are some DX (long distance) stations occasionally showing up to make life interesting. There were some Europeans on the 40 meter band this morning - a rare occurence, especially at this part of the sunspot cycle. But my terrible antenna didn't offer any realistic hope of talking to them, so I didn't bother. Instead, I spent a good deal of time with my antenna software simulation program, and have worked out what antenna would be best to build for these horrible band conditions, if I end up staying here.

Not much going on in town these days. This is the first week in December, which is the beginning of Christmas month. In Costa Rica, that means a month of partying, shopping and generally not getting much done until the new year. It is the second biggest party season of the year, second only to Semana Santa, or Easter Week. By law, every Costa Rican worker is given an aguinaldo (bonus equal to a month's pay), so with all that extra cash in their pockets, Santa's hiding some gifts for the kids, and mom and dad are spending a lot of time out partying with friends. Forget trying to get any projects done, any approvals through the bureaucracy, finding someone, especially a peone (unskilled laborer), to do some work on the place. Everyone is unavailable. Even the Nicaraguans, a fourth of this country's population, are going home for the holidays, which means you can forget getting a seat on a bus headed north - something like a third of them will head home. And in the first week in January, the migration will reverse itself. The whole thing is an interesting process to watch. The whole spectacle runs like clockwork, as it is a well-practiced process, but trying to run a business through it all can be a bit frustrating. Glad I am not trying to do it.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Military autopsy reports provide indisputable proof that detainees are being tortured to death while in US military custody, as has been reported previously in this space. Yet the US corporate media are covering it with all the seriousness of a garage sale at the local Baptist Church. A press release on these deaths by torture was issued by the ACLU on October 25, 2005 and was immediately picked up by Associated Press and United Press International wire services, making the story available to US corporate media nationwide. A thorough check of Nexus-Lexus and Proquest electronic data bases, using the keywords "ACLU and autopsy," showed that at least 95 percent of the daily papers in the US didn't bother to pick up the story. The Los Angeles Times covered the story on page A-4 with a 635-word report headlined "Autopsies Support Abuse Allegations." Fewer than a dozen other daily newspapers including: Bangor Daily News, Maine, page 8; Telegraph-Herald, Dubuque Iowa, page 6; Charleston Gazette, page 5; Advocate, Baton Rouge, page 11; and a half dozen others actually covered the story. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Seattle Times buried the story inside general Iraq news articles. USA Today posted the story on their website. MSNBC posted the story to their website, but apparently did not consider it newsworthy enough to air on television. What little attention the news of the US torturing prisoners to death did get has completely disappeared as context for the torture stories now appearing in corporate media. A Nexus-Lexus search November 30, 2005 of the major papers in the US using the word torture turned up over 1,000 stories in the last 30 days. None of these included the ACLU report as supporting documentation on the issue.

The days of free speech on the Internet are almost over: A senior telecommunications executive said Thursday that Internet service providers should be allowed to strike deals to give certain Web sites or services priority in reaching computer users, a controversial system that would significantly change how the Internet operates. William L. Smith, chief technology officer for Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., told reporters and analysts that an Internet service provider such as his firm should be able, for example, to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc. Or, Smith said, his company should be allowed to charge a rival voice-over-Internet firm so that its service can operate with the same quality as BellSouth's offering. Network operators can identify the digital "packets" of content moving through their wires from sites and services and can block some or put others at the head of the stream. But Smith was quick to say that Internet service providers should not be able to block or discriminate against Web content or services by degrading their performance. Rather, he said, a pay-for-performance marketplace should be allowed to develop on top of a baseline service level that all content providers would enjoy - an argument that sounds to this engineer like a distinction without a difference. This proposal is very similar to the so-called "walled garden" vision of the Internet that has been floated around for about ten years by the major ISPs who dream of a second revenue stream: forcing content providers to pay for the privilege of accessibility from an ISP's user base. And due to recent FCC decisions legalizing monopolization of local residential broadband, Internet users in the U.S. may soon have little choice but to live behind their ISP's walls. And there would be nothing to stop a monopoly ISP from degrading the performance of sites it finds politically distasteful, either.

The White House has gone into damage control mode following reports in the US media of secret payments to get Iraqi newspapers to print pro-American articles. The Los Angeles Times quoted Iraqi defence officials as saying that US troops are writing articles with positive messages about the US occupation and paying Iraqi newspapers to print them. "We're very concerned about the reports," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday. Virginia Republican Senator John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has asked Pentagon officials to respond to the allegations today. He said : "I am concerned about any actions that may undermine the credibility of the United States as we help the Iraqi people stand up a democracy. "Further, a free and independent press is critical to the functioning of a democracy and I am concerned about any actions which may erode the independence of the Iraqi media." Meanwhile, military officials in Baghdad for the first time Friday admitted to what they had been doing, and described a Pentagon program that pays to plant stories in the Iraqi media, an effort the top U.S. military commander said was part of an effort to "get the truth out" there. The U.S. officials in Iraq said articles had been offered and published in Iraqi newspapers "as a function of buying advertising and opinion/editorial space, as is customary in Iraq."

Smirkey has reaffirmed his support for the death penalty, following the 1,000th execution since it was reintroduced in 1976. Killer Kenneth Boyd was put to death in North Carolina on Friday. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Mr Bush "strongly supports" the death penalty because "ultimately it helps save innocent lives". Although a majority of Americans back the death penalty, polls show that public support is decreasing. Texas accounts for 355 of the 1,000 executions carried out since a 10-year ban on capital punishment was overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1976. During his six years in office as governor of Texas, Mr Bush commuted one death sentence and allowed 152 to go ahead.

Department of Spite: Each day, operators at the Department of Homeland Security's Law Enforcement Support Center hear stories that could be straight out of television drama: broken marriages that lead one spouse to report the other's illegal immigration status; disputes that lead one neighbor to report information about another; business owners reporting that their rivals are employing illegal immigrants. Scott Blackman, the center's unit chief, says it's unclear whether information received here and directed to law enforcement agencies across the nation has led to the arrest of a terrorism suspect. However, during the 2004 budget year, the center - which besides operating the hotline runs an immigration database for law enforcement agencies - reported identifying more than 6,000 illegal immigrants who were wanted by police. Blackman estimates that about half the calls to the hotline contain false information that law enforcement agencies nevertheless have to check out. He says that's a reasonable cost for getting leads that local law enforcement can use. "Roughly half the information will be used in some way," Blackman says. "A marriage-fraud tip may end up as a piece of a larger puzzle. We don't want to turn anybody away. If we have to put up with the occasional frustrating call, it's worth it to get the other 50%" with good information. However, some civil liberties activists and immigrant advocacy groups are expressing concern that the hotline and others like it have merely awakened a nation of busybodies motivated by revenge, ethnic bias or worse. "The whole question of what the DHS and the government is permitted to do with this information becomes a very big concern," says Kate Martin, director for the Center for National Security Studies. The center, based in Washington, D.C., has cited privacy concerns in calling for limits to the investigative powers of the FBI and CIA.

What's the newest security threat lurking on your PC? It's not the spam sitting in your inbox luring you to fake Web sites. Or the keystroke-logging malware recording your passwords. It's holes in the software designed to protect you from all that. It's true: Hackers, bored with attacking Microsoft (NasdaqNM:MSFT - News), are going after Symantec Corp. (NasdaqNM:SYMC - News), whose Norton products are the first line of defense on 50 million PCs worldwide. Says Ralph R. Echemendia, an info-tech security instructor at Vigilar's Intense School, a Ft. Lauderdale security training institute: "They've become a new target." Symantec's ubiquity - a 64% share of the consumer antivirus market - has made it a prime target. By contrast, rival McAfee Inc., with just 15.7% of the market, according to IDC Research Inc., is experiencing fewer attacks. At the same time, hackers are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Exhibit A: Golden Hacker Defender Forever, Web-based software that promises to cloak any malicious code so that it won't be found by leading antivirus packages. For an extra $125, hackers can even buy "antivirus support," regular updates to the cloaking code designed to stay one step ahead of similar hacker-fighting updates put out by Symantec and others.

A federal judge ruled on Friday that police had a constitutional right to randomly search passengers' bags on the New York City subway to deter terrorist attacks. U.S. District Judge Richard Berman ruled the searches were an effective and appropriate means to fight terrorism, and constituted only a "minimal intrusion" of privacy. "The risk to public safety of a terrorist bombing of New York City's subway system is substantial and real," Berman wrote in his opinion. "The need for implementing counter-terrorism measures is indisputable, pressing, ongoing and evolving." Random bag searches began on July 22 after a second set of bomb attacks on London's transit system. In a statement, Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the ruling, calling bag searches a "reasonable precaution" that police would continue to take. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which had sued to stop the searches, plans to appeal, Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. She said the "unprecedented" bag search program violated a basic freedom. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits searches without probable cause.

More than four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies still are failing to share information while Congress battles over security funding, a panel that investigated the terrorist hijackings will conclude in a new report. In interviews Friday, members of the former Sept. 11 commission said the government should receive a dismal grade for its lack of urgency in enacting strong security measures to prevent terror attacks. The 10-member, bipartisan commission disbanded after issuing 41 recommendations to bolster the nation's security in July 2004. The members have reconstituted themselves, using private funds, as the 9/11 Public Discourse Project and will release a new report Monday assessing the extent their directives have been followed. Overall, the government has performed "not very well," said former commission chairman Thomas Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey. "Before 9-11, both the Clinton and Bush administrations said they had identified Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida as problems that have to be dealt with, and were working on it," Kean said. "But they just were not very high on their priority list. And again it seems that the safety of the American people is not very high on Washington's priority list."

Your government is running candidates of its own for its own purposes: Thomas Esposito's campaign for the West Virginia Legislature seemed to be following the usual pattern. The longtime Democratic mayor issued press releases, raised money and bought newspaper ads. Signs bearing his name popped up in yards around rural Logan County. But less than a month before the May 2004 primary election, Esposito dropped out, saying he had to withdraw because of his ailing mother-in-law. The real reason surfaced only later: The FBI had planted Esposito among the field of candidates to help find evidence of vote-buying in southern West Virginia. Federal prosecutors say the gambit worked. They allege Esposito gave $2,000 in government-supplied money to a resident who had offered to bribe voters on his behalf. They also credit the undercover sting operation for last year's guilty pleas by the sheriff of Logan County and the police chief in the coal-mining city of Logan, who both admitted to election violations. The chief judge of West Virginia's southern federal court district condoned the tactic Thursday in an election fraud case against Perry French Harvey Jr., the man who allegedly accepted the $2,000. Esposito's name remained on the ballot, and he came in in last place, with just over 2,000 votes.

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to give allies in Europe a response next week to their pressure over Washington's treatment of terrorism suspects held in secret overseas jails: Back off. For almost a month, the United States has been on the defensive, refusing to deny or confirm media reports the United States has held prisoners in secret in Eastern Europe and transported detainees incommunicado across the continent. The European Union has demanded that Washington address the allegations to allay fears of illegal U.S. practices. The concerns are rampant in among the European public and parliaments, already critical of U.S. prisoner-abuse scandals in Iraq and Guantanamo, Cuba. But Rice will shift to offense when she visits Europe next week, in a strategy that has emerged in recent days and been tested by her spokesman in public and in her private meetings with European visitors. She will remind allies they themselves have been cooperating in U.S. operations and tell them to do more to win over their publics as a way to deflect criticism directed at the United States, diplomats and U.S. officials said. "It's very clear they want European governments to stop pushing on this," said a European diplomat, who had contact with U.S. officials over the handling of the scandals. "They were stuck on the defensive for weeks, but suddenly the line has toughened up incredibly," the diplomat said.

Meanwhile, two flights chartered by the CIA made stopovers in France in 2002 and 2005, French newspaper Le Figaro said Friday, adding to likely questions facing U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she visits Europe next week. A French Foreign Ministry official said authorities were checking with civil aviation authorities whether the flights, first mentioned Thursday in the New York Times and Britain's Guardian newspaper, did indeed take place. "It is perfectly possible there were flights," said spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei. The ministry had previously said it had no knowledge of any CIA flights in France. Le Figaro said the first flight identified took place on March 31, 2002. The Learjet private plane stopped in the northwestern town of Brest on its way from Iceland to Turkey, with a planned stop in Rome, the newspaper said.

Human Rights Watch has accused the United States on Wednesday of holding and possibly torturing at least 26 ‘ghost detainees’ in secret overseas locations. The prisoners, suspected of involvement in such terrorist acts as the September 11, 2001, attacks, the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali, Indonesia, are being held indefinitely and incommunicado, Human Rights Watch alleged. They have been denied basic legal rights and access to counsel, the New York-based rights monitor said, publishing the names of 26 people it said were being detained outside the United States. According to Human Rights Watch, US government officials, speaking anonymously to journalists, have suggested that some of the detainees have been tortured or otherwise seriously mistreated in custody.

A US civil rights groups says it is taking the CIA to court to stop the transportation of terror suspects to countries outside US legal authority. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says the intelligence agency has broken both US and international law. It is acting for a man allegedly flown to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan. "The lawsuit will charge that CIA officials at the highest level violated US and universal human rights laws when they authorised agents to abduct an innocent man, detain him incommunicado, beat him, drug and transport him to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan," the ACLU said in a news release.

Republican Policies Are Good For America: Outgoing Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned Friday that America's exploding budget deficit and a protectionist backlash against soaring trade deficits could disrupt the global economy. On a day when he was being honored in London for his nearly two decades in the world's highest profile economic job, Greenspan restated some familiar worries. Greenspan repeated his belief that the country's record trade deficits can be addressed through market forces without any harm to the economy. But he said this benign outcome would be jeopardized if the United States and other nations did not get their budget deficits under control and if they made the mistake of making their economies less flexible by erecting trade barriers. "If, however, the pernicious drift toward fiscal instability in the United States and elsewhere is not arrested and is compounded by a protectionist reversal of globalization, the adjustment process could be quite painful for the world economy," Greenspan said in a second speech, which he delivered to a conference in London. In contrast to Greenspan's worries about future threats to the economy. Smirkey on Friday went to the White House Rose Garden to highlight a new report showing that the labor market was rebounding strongly from the impact of recent hurricanes, creating 215,000 jobs last month.

Oil prices are on the up again as an upcoming US cold snap heightens demand. The rise, to more than $59 a barrel in the US, comes despite a promise by oil cartel Opec to keep pumping petroleum at maximum capacity. The expected arctic weather has pushed the cost of heating oil - the source of winter warmth for most US homes - close to record levels. Signs of a strengthening US economy on the back of solid job news also helped underpin oil prices. The combination of the rise in job creation and the oil hike helped trigger a decline on Wall Street, as the Dow Jones index finished the day down 0.32%. Oil prices are well below the peak of $70.85 reached in late August. But with the cold weather set to continue they remain 40% above the level seen at the start of 2005.

Gold spiked to a 23-year high and silver rose to its highest for 18 years on Friday in a volatile bull market driven by fund managers, who are seen pushing the market further higher, dealers said. Gold, used as jewelry and investment, as well as a safe harbor in uncertain times, has been on the rise as investors diversify their portfolios on worries about economic growth and inflation. Gold rose to as high as $506.50 an ounce, its highest level since February 1983, and looked likely to rise further as fund buying resurfaced despite fears of year-end liquidation. "There is a lot of money that just buys it because there is an uptrend," said Robin Edwards, president of UK-based Saber Fund Management. "The investment money sees an environment where gold is an interesting alternative investment. Diversification is the key these days. The fundamentals are very good on gold."

Republicans Believe In Free And Fair Elections: A California summit on voting equipment, where many of the speakers had apparent conflicts of interests, barred entry to consumer groups calling for election reform. A nonpartisan coalition representing 25 California election integrity groups held a press conference Monday outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Sacramento, where the "Voting Systems Testing Summit" was convened by Republican California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson. The State appears to have skewed presentations in favor of electronic voting, with advocates far outnumbering critics. Some panels contain exclusively vendors of electronic voting equipment and representatives of testing labs chosen by these vendors. "This smacks of Dick Cheney meeting with the energy companies and locking out opposing interests of environmental groups," Sherry Healy, a member of the California Election Protection Network steering committee, told RAW STORY. "Diebold and other vendors selling electronic voting equipment have been invited to attend, along with all 400 members of the California Association of Election Officials," she said. "It costs one hundred and seventy five dollars a ticket and will be picked up by the state."

Republicans Believe In Working Closely With Other Nations: The United States stood alone Friday in calling for an interim U.N. budget, at odds with Europe and the entire developing world, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched urgent talks to try to bridge the divide. The fight over the U.N. budget, which runs out on Dec. 31, has become entwined with battle over implementing the broad reforms that world leaders agreed to at a U.N. summit in September. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton wants reform to drive the budget process "not the other way around" and has called for the United Nations to approve a budget for three or four months rather than the usual two-year budget so the 191 U.N. member states would have time to consider management reforms expected early in the year. "Our priority is we do not want to miss the opportunity for reform. We do not want to adopt a two-year budget that makes it, as a practical matter, impossible to implement reforms for another two years," Bolton said.

Republicans Believe In Honest, Open, Responsible And Transparent Government: By creating a federal agency shielded from public scrutiny, some lawmakers think they can speed the development and testing of new drugs and vaccines needed to respond to a bioterrorist attack or super-flu pandemic. The proposed Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency, or BARDA, would be exempt from long-standing open records and meetings laws that apply to most government departments, according to legislation approved Oct. 18 by the Senate health committee. Drugs and vaccines produced by the agency could be administered to Americans by force if necessary, and any damage they do would be state secrets, and victims would have to prove willful intent to sue, something that would be almost impossible to do, since the evidence itself would be state secrets not subject to disclosure, as reported previously in this space. Proponents claim those exemptions would streamline the development process, safeguard national security and protect the proprietary interests of drug companies, say Republican backers of the bill. The legislation also proposes giving manufacturers immunity from liability in exchange for their participation in the public-private effort. "We must ensure the federal government acts as a partner with the private sector, providing the incentives and protections necessary to bring more and better drugs and vaccines to market faster,'' Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said when the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions approved the bill.

Justice Department lawyers concluded that the landmark Texas congressional redistricting plan spearheaded by Rep. Tom DeLay (R) violated the Voting Rights Act, according to a previously undisclosed memo obtained by The Washington Post. But senior officials overruled them and approved the plan. The memo, unanimously endorsed by six lawyers and two analysts in the department's voting section, said the redistricting plan illegally diluted black and Hispanic voting power in two congressional districts. It also said the plan eliminated several other districts in which minorities had a substantial, though not necessarily decisive, influence in elections. "The State of Texas has not met its burden in showing that the proposed congressional redistricting plan does not have a discriminatory effect," the memo concluded. The memo also found that Republican lawmakers and state officials who helped craft the proposal were aware it posed a high risk of being ruled discriminatory compared with other options. But the Texas legislature proceeded with the new map anyway because it would maximize the number of Republican federal lawmakers in the state, the memo said. The redistricting was approved in 2003, and Texas Republicans gained five seats in the U.S. House in the 2004 elections, solidifying GOP control of Congress.

Diebold Watch: After failing to put its software in escrow as required by state law, North Carolina has invited Diebold to sell voting machines to the counties in North Carolina anyway. The State Board of Elections has approved three companies to sell voting machines to all 100 counties in time for next year's elections, including Diebold, which complained earlier it couldn't comply with all the rules for computer software. Diebold Election Systems, Election Systems & Software and Sequoia Voting Systems all met minimum technical and administrative standards to sell in North Carolina, as determined by a panel of computer and election experts. The standards were developed under a state law approved this year after more than 4,400 electronic ballots were lost in Carteret County during the November 2004 election. The lost votes threw at least one close statewide race into uncertainty for more than two months. Although Sequoia must wait for approval from a special procurement board due to a clerical delay, all three will be allowed to sell both optical ballot scanning and electronic recording machines to county election boards, which administer elections in North Carolina.

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: Two of America's allies in Iraq are withdrawing forces this month and a half-dozen others are debating possible pullouts or reductions, increasing pressure on Washington as calls mount to bring home U.S. troops. Bulgaria and Ukraine will begin withdrawing their combined 1,250 troops by mid-December. If Australia, Britain, Italy, Japan, Poland and South Korea reduce or recall their personnel, more than half of the non-American forces in Iraq could be gone by next summer. Japan and South Korea help with reconstruction, but Britain and Australia provide substantial support forces and Italy and Poland train Iraqi troops and police. Their exodus would deal a blow to American efforts to prepare Iraqis to take over the most dangerous peacekeeping tasks and craft an eventual U.S. exit strategy. "The vibrations of unease from within the United States clearly have an impact on public opinion elsewhere," said Terence Taylor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. "Public opinion in many of these countries is heavily divided."

Scandals Du Jour: The top Senate Democrat investigating Jack Abramoff's Indian lobbying met several times with the lobbyist's team and clients, held a fundraiser in Abramoff's arena skybox and arranged congressional help for one of the tribes, records show. Sen. Byron Dorgan (news, bio, voting record), D-N.D., acknowledges he got Congress in fall 2003 to press government regulators to decide, after decades of delay, whether the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts deserved federal recognition. Dorgan met with the tribe's representatives and collected at least $11,500 in political donations from Abramoff partner Michael D. Smith, who was representing the Mashpee, around the time he helped craft the legislation, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press. The senator didn't reimburse the Mississippi Choctaw for the use of Abramoff's skybox in 2001, when the tribe threw him a fundraiser there, instead treating it as a tribal contribution. He only recently reimbursed the tribe for the box, four years later, after determining it was connected to Abramoff.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: Ralph "baby face" Reed, the former chairman of the Christian Coalition, and now Republican lobbyist, has gotten himself all mixed up in the Abramoff scandal. Texans for Public Justice, Common Cause Texas and Public Citizen today petitioned Travis County Attorney David Escamilla to investigate the Texas lobby activities of Reed. According to state records, Reed did not register as a Texas lobbyist in 2001 or 2002, when he reportedly received $4.2 million to lobby Texas state officials to shut down two Indian casinos in Texas. Embattled gambling lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon-working for a tribe that operated a competing casino in Louisiana-reportedly paid Reed to pressure Texas officials to close the Texas casinos. The watchdog groups contend that available evidence, including Reed's own electronic correspondence, indicates that Reed was engaged in lobbying activities that would have required him to register as a Texas lobbyist. With Abramoff's aid, Reed helped convert the remains of televangelist Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign into the fundamentalist Christian Coalition. Nine years later, Reed started his own lobby firm in Georgia called Century Strategies. A U.S. Senate probe into Abramoff's Indian gambling activities has documented that Abramoff hired Reed in 2001 to kill a 2001 Texas bill (HB 514) that sought to keep the El Paso-based Tigua tribe's Speaking Rock Casino open and ensure that then-Attorney General John Cornyn shut down Speaking Rock (in part by generating support for such a policy).

If the grandfather and grandson walking together in Sen. Rick "sanctimonious" Santorum's Internet ad look familiar, it could be because the same two actors are in a television ad that a third-party group is running in support of Santorum. A spokeswoman for Santorum, R-Pa., has repeatedly denied any connection between Santorum and the group, Americans for Job Security. The campaign for Bob Casey Jr. - the leading Democratic challenger in his 2006 Senate race - said Friday the coincidence is too much to be ignored. "I think it raises a lot of questions," said Larry Smar, a spokesman for Casey, the Pennsylvania treasurer who is leading in polls against Santorum. "Someone isn't shooting straight." Michael Dubke, president of the Republican-leaning third-party group, and John Brabender, Santorum's media consultant, each denied that the two sides had collaborated in any way. They each said it was a coincidence they used the same stock footage in their respective ads. Third-party advertising on behalf of a specific candidate must be reported as a campaign contribution to that candidate's funds under federal election laws.

Blogosphere Quote Of The Day: Referring to Smirkey in the White House: "When you're driving down a country road and you come across a fence post with a turtle balanced on top, that's a Post Turtle. You know he didn't get there by himself, he doesn't belong there, he can't get anything done while he's up there, and you just want to help the poor dumb bastard get down."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:07:33 PM

Thu, Dec 01 2005

First Plantain Harvest From The Starts I Planted

Well, the paradise-like weather couldn't last, and it didn't. It ended today at about three in the afternoon, when a cold front finally made it down here, and chilled things off. After yesterday's 80-degree high, and today's 78, as soon as the front passed, the temperature dropped five degrees, the wind came up, and that awful winter chill - which to me has come to represent 73 degrees in the breeze - prompted me to put on some long pants.

Not that I would trade this for what I see on those news pictures from up north - swirling snow blinding motorists haplessly trying to make it home in the storm, trucks stranded on freeways, and all my memories of living through Idaho and Utah winters - chipping ice off my windshield before I could fire up the car and go to work in the morning and home at night. Somehow, I'll keep my 73 degrees and chill in the breeze, thank you very much.

Yesterday, I decided to do a bit of gardening, and so I got some weeding done that has been neglected. The ferns in the flowerboxes in front of the house were also getting away from me, and needed to be pruned, so I did that too. In the process of the gardening work, I noticed that one of the plantains in the banano (bunch) growing in my side yard was yellow. I cut down the banano and brought it in, and hung it up yesterday. This morning, I cut off the first plantain and sliced it open for breakfast, frying it up in the bacon grease and thoroughly enjoying eating it. It's a good variety, and I am glad I went to all the trouble. I am now enjoying the first plantains from the plants I planted here a year and a half ago. When they were planted, my gardener said I could expect the first fruits in about 18 months. He was just about right on the money. This morning, I noticed that I have another plantain raceme sprouting on the next plant over. So I will soon have another banano hanging up in the kitchen to ripen. Great news. I grew addicted to fried plantains for breakfast when living in Africa. Now I can have plenty.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Smirkey has put forward for the first time a public version of what the White House calls a "comprehensive strategy for victory" in Iraq. In an effort to begin extricating American forces next year, military officials said Tuesday that they would seek billions of additional dollars to better train Iraqis to defend the country. The military officials in Iraq said they had requested $3.9 billion for next year to help train and equip Iraqi troops, build new police stations and outfit Iraqi soldiers with new uniforms, in addition to the $10 billion already squandered largely on Halliburton no-bid contracts, in the effort. The White House said that the strategy to be outlined Wednesday was not new, but that it had never been assembled into a single unclassified document. As the 27-page booklet was described by administration officials, much of it sounded like a list of goals for Iraq's military, political and economic development rather than new prescriptions on how to accomplish the job. The Pentagon now spends $6 billion a month to sustain the American military presence in Iraq. A senior administration official said Mr. Bush's ultimate goal, to which he assigned no schedule, is to move to a "smaller, more lethal" American force that "can be just as successful." Smirkey refused to set an "artificial deadline" to withdraw US troops, saying it was "not a plan for victory". This comes as criticism from Iraqis about how the occupation is being conducted, becomes increasingly strident and impatient.

Meanwhile, the National Guard is planning to cut the number of its troops in Iraq by 75 per cent over the next year in a dramatic change of approach by the American military. The substantial reduction in part-time troops - from eight combat brigades to two - follows growing evidence that the National Guard’s supply of equipment is becoming exhausted, leaving it unable to cope with domestic emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina. There has also been speculation that the force is simply running out of troops for deployment and that recruitment is suffering as a result of high casualty rates and unexpectedly long tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The role of Vice President Dick Cheney as the administration's point man in security policy appears over, according to administration sources. Over the last two months Mr. Cheney has been granted decreasing access to the Oval Office, the sources said on the condition of anonymity. The two men still meet, but the close staff work between the president and vice president has ended. "Cheney's influence has waned not only because of bad chemistry, but because the White House no longer formulates policy," another source said. "There's nothing to input into. Cheney is smart and knowledgeable, but he as well as Bush are ducking all the time to avoid the bullets." The sources said the indictment and resignation of Lewis "Scooter" Libby marked the final straw in the deterioration of relations between President Bush and Mr. Cheney. They said Bush aides expect that any trial of Mr. Libby, Mr. Cheney's long-time chief of staff, would open a closet of skeletons regarding such issues as Iraq, the CIA and the conduct of White House aides. "There's a lack of trust that the president has in Cheney and it's connected with Iraq," a source said. The sources said Mr. Bush has privately blamed Mr. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the U.S.-led war in Iraq. They said the president has told his senior aides that the vice president and defense secretary provided misleading assessments on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, as well as the capabilities of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Wednesday endorsed Rep. John Murtha’s (D-CA) recent call to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq as soon as possible. Pelosi, at a press conference with reporters, said Murtha - her closest confidant on defense matters - has “changed the debate” in the country on the war, has won her support and will win the backing of the “majority of House Democrats.” Murtha, a former Marine who initially supported the war, announced two weeks ago that he no longer supported the conflict in Iraq and called for a rapid withdrawal of American troops from the region. “He knows of what he speaks,” Pelosi said of Murtha. “I believe the plan he has put forth makes America safer, our military stronger and Iraq more secure.” Pelosi added that the Bush administration has “used poor judgment” and has yet to lay out a clear course to conclude U.S. involvement in Iraq. “There is a better way to do it,” the Minority Leader said... and at the very least the nation should “have a debate on the subject.”

TIME reporter says Smirkey lied: Yesterday, Smirkey claimed that Iraqi security forces “primarily led” the assault on the city of Tal Afar. Bush highlighted it as an “especially clear” sign of the progress Iraq security forces were making in Iraq. "The progress of the Iraqi forces is especially clear when the recent anti-terrorist operations in Tal Afar are compared with last year’s assault in Fallujah. In Fallujah, the assault was led by nine coalition battalions made up primarily of United States Marines and Army - with six Iraqi battalions supporting them…This year in Tal Afar, it was a very different story. The assault was primarily led by Iraqi security forces - 11 Iraqi battalions, backed by five coalition battalions providing support." TIME Magazine reporter Michael Ware, who is embedded with the U.S. troops in Iraq who participated in the Tal Afar battle, appeared on Anderson Cooper yesterday. He said Smirkey’s description was completely untrue: "I was in that battle from the very beginning to the very end. I was with Iraqi units right there on the front line as they were battling with al Qaeda. They were not leading. They were being led by the U.S. green beret special forces with them."

France is the latest nation to grow impatient with the biased quality of U.S. dominated international television news: France has announced it is to launch its long-awaited global French-language satellite TV news channel by the end of next year, the government said in Paris. Communication Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres said leading private and public TV channels signed a contract on the creation of the new channel. It will be called French International News Network (CFII), but has already been nicknamed "CNN a la francaise". A government spokesman said CFII would begin "before the end of 2006".

More disturbing revelations about Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito: In 1985 Princeton graduate and conservative Republican Alito sought to impress his colleagues in the Reagan Administration, where he was applying to become deputy assistant attorney general, by touting his membership in an organization called Concerned Alumni of Princeton. Launched in 1972, the year Alito graduated, CAP had an innocuous-sounding name that disguised a less benign agenda, which included preventing women and minorities from entering an institution that had long been a bastion of white male privilege. In a 1973 article in Prospect, a magazine CAP published, Shelby Cullom Davis, one of its founders, harked back to the days when a gathering of Princeton alumni consisted of "a body of men, relatively homogeneous in interests and backgrounds." Lamented Cullom Davis: "I cannot envisage a similar happening in the future with an undergraduate student population of approximately 40 percent women and minorities, such as the Administration has proposed." Another article published that same year bemoaned the fact that "the makeup of the Princeton student body has changed drastically for the worse" in recent years - Princeton had begun admitting women in 1969 - and wondered aloud what might happen if the university adopted a "sex-blind" policy "removing limits on the number of women." As a Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration, Alito helped devise a legal strategy to persuade the high court to restrict and eventually overturn Roe v. Wade, the historic decision legalizing abortion. In a memo disclosed yesterday that he wrote in 1985 as an assistant to the solicitor general, Alito recommended that the administration submit a brief to the Supreme Court, asking it to uphold a Pennsylvania law that imposed a variety of abortion restrictions and "make clear that we disagree with Roe v. Wade." Alito argued in the 17-page document that stepping into the case, Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists , would be a more effective strategy for President Ronald Reagan than a "frontal assault" on the landmark case and would not "even tacitly concede Roe 's legitimacy." Disagreeing with the administration's position, the court struck down the Pennsylvania law the following year.

The transatlantic row over the secret transfer of terror suspects by the Bush administration took a new twist yesterday when it emerged that more than 300 flights operated by the CIA had landed at European airports. According to flight logs seen by the Guardian, Britain was second only to Germany as a transit hub for the CIA, which stands accused of operating a covert network of interrogation centers in eastern Europe. Several European governments have launched urgent investigations into whether clandestine CIA flights were used in the aftermath of September 11 to transfer Islamist prisoners to third countries where they could be interrogated beyond the reach of international law. The allegations have provoked a furor in Europe. On Tuesday the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, acting on behalf of the EU, asked the US to clarify whether planes containing terror suspects - known as "rendition" flights - had stopped off in Europe. He also raised the allegations made by Human Rights Watch earlier this month about covert interrogation centers. The US has so far refused to confirm or deny the reports. But on Tuesday the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, told Germany's new foreign minister, Franz-Walter Steinmeier, the administration would respond. Ms Rice is likely to come under further pressure when she visits Europe next week. The Guardian's survey of flight logs taken from 26 CIA planes reveals a far higher level of activity than previously known. The CIA visited Germany 96 times. Britain was second with more than 80 flights by CIA-owned planes, although when charter flights are added the figure rises to more than 200. France was visited just twice and neutral Austria not at all, according to the logs, which also reveal regular trips to eastern Europe, including 15 visits to the Czech capital Prague.

Wal-Mart is in trouble. The retailing giant once viewed favorably almost universally, is seeing an anti-Wal-Mart backlash from a wide variety of groups, ranging from turkey growers to community activists. The result is that the percentage of Americans who view the retailer favorably has declined by 20 percentage points in just this year alone, and now 28 percent say that they no longer intend to shop there. The Wake Up Wal-Mart figures came from two national telephone surveys of about 1,000 adults in January and November. The January 15-20 poll by Lake, Snell & Perry had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, and the November poll by Zogby had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points. The number of people who said they viewed Wal-Mart very favorably or somewhat favorably fell 18 percentage points to 58 percent while the number who answered that their view was very or somewhat unfavorable increased by the same amount to 38 percent. The group said attitudes were starting to change shopping practices. Asked how often they plan to shop at Wal-Mart in the next month, the number who said they would not go at all rose 8 percentage points to 28 percent. The largest group, those who planned to shop there once or twice, fell 7 points to 32 percent.

Mexico says it opposes a US plan to build more fences along the border in order to control illegal immigration. Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez said his country "does not believe physical barriers are the solution". President George W Bush announced the construction of more fences in the 3,200km (2,000 miles) border while touring US states earlier this week.

Despite increasing spending on tobacco-use prevention measures, state expenditures on efforts to prevent and diminish the use of the cancer-causing cash crop remain far below levels recommended by the federal government and health experts, according to a report released yesterday by several leading health organizations and the anti-smoking group, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The report found that tobacco companies spend $28 in marketing for every $1 states spend on prevention.

The lower ninth ward of New Orleans was opened to returning residents today. It was the last section the city to reopen, because of the maze of destruction wrought by the storm and floods after the London Avenue Canal levee breach. Residents were allowed in for the day to collect what belongings they could before leaving. Until now, people had been able to view the destruction only on bus tours. A long line of cars waited to pass a checkpoint at a school where the Red Cross was handing out water and snacks and providing mental health counselors to those who wanted them. Police officers and firefighters warned those entering that there was still dangerous debris and buildings on the verge of collapse.

Public Servants Or Public Masters: There are new restrictions for private pilots flying in the D.C. area, and they aren't at all happy about it. The Federal Aviation Administration has imposed flight restrictions over Dick Cheney's new Maryland home, angering private pilots who say they can't fly overhead even when the vice president isn't around. Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association spokesman Chris Dancy said Tuesday the FAA only imposes restrictions at Cheney's Jackson Hole, Wyo., home when he's there. He questioned the need to have the restrictions in place at all times over a home in Maryland, which has much more air traffic. Cheney's new home is on the Chesapeake Bay in St. Michaels, Md., about 30 miles east of Washington. The restricted airspace has a radius of one nautical mile and was established Nov. 22. Airspace restrictions are an inconvenience for private pilots. If they stray into restricted space, they could have their pilot's license taken away, be escorted away by fighter jets or, in a worst-case scenario, be shot down.

Two months ago, Deborah Davis, a 50-year-old mother of four, was reading a book while riding to work on Denver RTD's Route 100. When the bus rolled up to the gates of the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, a guard climbed on and demanded Davis, as well as everyone else on board, produce identification. Davis, who had gone through this drill before, decided to pass. "I told him that I did have identification, but I wasn't going to show it to him," Davis explains. "I knew that I wasn't required by law to show ID and that's why I decided I wasn't going to. The whole thing seemed to be more about compliance than security." According to Davis, the guard proceeded to call on federal cops, who then dragged Davis off a public bus, handcuffed her, shoved her into the back seat of a police car and drove off to a police station within the Federal Center. While I was unable to reach anyone at the Department of Homeland Security on Friday to comment on Davis' case, the offense/incident report corroborates her basic story. Though, it should be noted that, according to the arresting officer, Davis became "argumentative" before she "was physically removed from the bus and placed under arrest." Gail Johnson, a volunteer ACLU lawyer who practices at a prominent Colorado criminal defense firm, will defend Davis without charge. She expects the government to arraign Davis on two federal criminal misdemeanors, if not more. "She was a passenger on a public bus," explains Johnson, who believes this case is about the fundamental right to travel. "She got on the bus outside of the federal area and she wanted to get off the bus outside the federal area. It's not her fault buses run along this route."

Diebold Watch: Diebold would rather lose all of its voting machine business in North Carolina than open its source code to state election officials as required by law, the Associated Press reports. Due to irregularities in the 2004 election traced to touch screen terminals, North Carolina has taken the very reasonable precaution of requiring vendors of electronic voting gizmos to place all of the source code in escrow. Diebold has objected to the possibility of criminal sanctions if they fail to comply, and argued for an exemption before Wake County Superior Court Judge Narley Cashwell. The judge declined to issue an exemption, and Diebold has concluded that it has no choice but withdraw from the state, claiming that Windows source code is proprietary to Microsoft and is not available. If Diebold genuinely wished to offer transparently honest voting machines, it could simply use Linux instead of Windows, and there would be no corporate license conflict, as Linux is an open-source operating system widely used for embedded applications similar to their machines. Linux source code is available for free on the web.

Governator Watch: Shaking up his administration after a resounding special-election failure, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday appointed a longtime Democratic activist and a former top aide to the man he kicked out of office as his new chief of staff. The move to replace Patricia Clarey had been widely expected since voters defeated all four of the governor's "year of reform" measures Nov. 8. But the announcement of California Public Utilities Commissioner Susan Kennedy as Clarey's replacement caught many Republicans and Democrats off guard. "This makes Schwarzenegger a man without a country," said GOP strategist Dave Gilliard, who helped run the campaign to recall Davis. "The Democrats will never accept him or embrace him, and now he's breaking with his base. I don't understand it." Even some leading Democrats appeared puzzled by the appointment. "Any move by the governor to embrace Democratic values is good news for the state," said Steve Maviglio, spokesman for Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. "However, it leaves many Democrats, as well as Republicans, wondering if he has any core values at all."

Republicans Promote Freedom And Democracy Abroad: The L.A. Times reports today that the U.S. military has been paying journalists in Iraq to run stories they write, as if they were unbiased, uncensored news items. The military's effort to disseminate propaganda in the Iraqi media is taking place even as U.S. officials are pledging to promote democratic principles, political transparency and freedom of speech in a country emerging from decades of dictatorship and corruption. It comes as the State Department is training Iraqi reporters in basic journalism skills and Western media ethics, including one workshop titled "The Role of Press in a Democratic Society." Standards vary widely at Iraqi newspapers, many of which are shoestring operations. The operation is designed to mask any connection with the U.S. military. The Pentagon has a contract with a small Washington-based firm called Lincoln Group, which helps translate and place the stories. The Lincoln Group's Iraqi staff, or its subcontractors, sometimes pose as freelance reporters or advertising executives when they deliver the stories to Baghdad media outlets.

Further evidence is emerging that the United States is planning to start an insurgency against the Hugo Chavez regime in Venezuela. The U.S. State Dept. has asked for bids on 3,000 smoke grenades and 13,000 M-16 cleaning kits, to be delivered to Columbia. This comes on the heels of previous bid requests for jungle warfare equipment, such as camoflage fatigues, that were solicited several months ago and reported in this space. That it was the State Department asking for these bids indicates that this is not part of the drug effort; the fact that it is going to Colombia suggests that apparently there is going to be an attempt to start an insurgency there, draw Venezuelan forces across the border, and thereby create a conflict between Colombia and Venezuela.

Republicans Believe In Free Speech: Students at Hampton University took part in the November 2nd launch of a movement to drive out the Bush regime. In the course of organizing, they were followed by campus police, targeted by video surveillance, and forced to turn over their ID’s for the simple act of distributing literature. That these students were targeted for the content of their activities is clearly demonstrated by the fact that other students routinely post unauthorized flyers (often with scantily clad women advertising parties) without any harassment. On Friday, November 18th, weeks after November 2nd, 3 student organizers were issued summons for a hearing over possible expulsion the following Monday morning, giving them no time during the work week to contact lawyers, parents, or campus administrators. After hundreds of phone-calls from around the country to the Dean’s Office, their hearing was postponed. Days later, 3 more students were issued summons and campus police shut down an interview being filmed by the local media, attempting to prevent their story from getting out. Hampton University is a historically black college with a mostly Republican administration.

Republicans Believe In Enforcing Human Rights: The top U.S. military officer contradicts his civilian boss: The nation's top military man, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, said American troops in Iraq have a duty to intercede and stop abuse of prisoners by Iraqi security personnel. When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld contradicted Pace, the general stood firm. Rumsfeld told the general he believed Pace meant to say the U.S. soldiers had to report the abuse, not stop it. Pace stuck to his original statement. The unusual exchange occurred during a discussion at a news conference about the relationship between U.S. forces in Iraq and an Iraqi government considered sovereign by the United States.

Republicans Believe In Government Of, By and For The People: They used to call it "influence peddling": Utah Republicans are at odds over a new fundraising scheme that allows lobbyists to pay to meet state house members in what's being called a "speed date." Speed dating is a concept in which people pay to spend a five minutes apiece chatting one at a time with a series of people. The Salt Lake Tribune reports the Utah House Republican Caucus has organized a similar event on Jan. 5, but featuring Republican state representatives and lobbyists. Rep. Kory Holdaway called the event "absurd" and said "payment for access" isn't the right way to go about raising cash.

Republican Policies Are Good For America: While competitors continue to gain market share, American makers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are still reporting declining sales, in spite of falling gasoline prices, The Wall Street Journal is reporting. The November results are another bitter pill for GM, which announced last week a plan to cut 30,000 jobs and close 12 facilities around the country to get its production in line with falling U.S. demand. GM's U.S. market share fell to 26.2% in the first 10 months of this year compared to 33% a decade ago, the result of increasing competition from Asian rivals. Ford's sales fell 15% last month, as sales of its cars declined 7.4% to 63,482 and sales of its trucks slumped 18% to 138,229. The No. 2 U.S. auto maker, which is struggling to turn a profit and plans to announce a restructuring plan next month, sold a total of 201,711 vehicles for the month. Year-to-date, the Dearborn, Mich., company's sales totaled 2.9 million.

Liberal-Biased Media Watch: Chairman and chief executive of media juggernaut Time Warner Richard Parsons, who barred a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia from being on the record, cut a massive $25,000 check to the Republican National Committee in 2004, and according to Newsmeat.com has given $119,750 to Republican candidates and just $12,000 to Democrats. Parsons tried to impose a "gag order" on a public interview of Scalia conducted by Norman Pearlstein, Time's editor in chief, Nov. 21. Time Magazine is the publication's flagship national newsweekly.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: Trying to preserve their electronic pulpits, the nation's religious broadcasters find themselves in the unusual position of fighting an effort by anti-indecency groups to thwart channels offering racy programming. The issue involves a debate over whether cable companies should continue offering subscribers mainstream and niche channels in bundles, or let them buy what they want on an a la carte basis. Consumer groups are pushing to let people choose their channels rather than pay for ones they don't watch. One Federal Communications Commission study showed people on average regularly watch only 17 of the more than 100 cable channels they typically receive. But what started largely as a consumer issue has now morphed into a larger controversy involving whether cable operators should be required to continue exposing subscribers to niche channels, including religious ones, that people might not order on their own. "We don't just want to preach to the choir; we want to reach the unchurched," said Paul Crouch Jr. of Trinity Broadcast Network in Santa Ana. "The bottom line is that we want to be everywhere on cable."

After twenty years of preaching that AIDS is God's judgment of gays, evangelical Christians have discovered that viruses are no respecters of persons, and are turning attention to the disease - and one of the nation's largest and best-known megachurches is leading the way. Nearly 2,000 pastors have traveled to Orange County's Saddleback Church for a national conference that coincides with World AIDS Day on Thursday. On the agenda: How to start local AIDS ministries and free HIV testing in churches. The "Disturbing Voices" initiative, led by best-selling author and megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay Warren, represents a shift among evangelicals. Many sidestepped the U.S. health crisis because of its association with homosexuality even as they made AIDS part of their missions in Africa and other places where the disease disproportionately affects women and children. "The evangelical church has pretty much had fingers in our ears, hands over our eyes and mouths shut completely," said Kay Warren, whose interest in HIV/AIDS led her husband to sponsor the conference. "We're not comfortable talking about sex in general and certainly not comfortable about talking about homosexuality - and you can't talk about HIV without talking about both of those things."

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Changes to ocean currents in the Atlantic may cool European weather within a few decades, scientists say. Researchers from the UK's National Oceanography Centre say currents derived from the Gulf Stream are weakening, bringing less heat north. Their conclusions, reported in the scientific journal Nature, are based on 50 years of Atlantic observations. They say that European political leaders need to plan for a future which may be cooler rather than warmer. The findings come from a British research project called Rapid, which aims to gather evidence relating to potentially fast climatic change in Europe. The Gulf Stream has weakened by a third in the last 12 years alone, leading, ironically, to fears of a possible new European ice age as the rest of the planet warms substantially.

The US has dismissed a suggestion from UK Prime Minister Tony Blair that it may be prepared to sign up to binding targets to tackle climate change. Speaking at UN climate talks in Canada, the US chief negotiator said his nation would not enter talks about fixed curbs on emissions of greenhouse gases. Mr Blair told UK business leaders on Tuesday that he believed all major nations would support new targets. The Kyoto Protocol, the current global climate agreement, will expire in 2012. "We would certainly not agree to the United States being part of legally binding targets and timetable agreement post-2012," Dr. Harlan Watson, the head of the US delegation, told reporters at the climate conference in Montreal.

News From Smirkey's War: Iraq's government missed a two-week deadline Wednesday to complete an investigation into torture allegations at an Interior Ministry lockup, a probe which Amnesty International warned may show a pattern of abuse of prisoners by government forces. The Shiite-led government has insisted the claims are exaggerated; nevertheless, the charges are discrediting U.S. efforts to restore human rights in the country after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. A Sunni Arab politician, Mohammed al-Mishehdani of the Sunni-led National Council for National Dialogue, said simple cases of torture reported in the past were never solved so he had few expectations for this investigation, especially since a general election is due in two weeks. "We think that the government is not serious in this matter because it does not want to be dragged into controversy while the elections are looming," he said. The probe was launched after Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, disclosed on Nov. 15 that up to 173 detainees - malnourished and some showing signs of torture - had been found in an Interior Ministry building seized by U.S. troops two days earlier.

A U.S. Army officer who served with the U.S. governing administration in Iraq was arrested on charges involving bribery, money laundering and a fraud scheme, the U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Michael Wheeler, 47, was arrested on Wednesday and was being held in Wisconsin, the department said in a statement. He is the third person charged in the past few weeks in connection with the scheme. The Justice Department said Wheeler was on active duty for the U.S. Army in 2003 and 2004 and was responsible for developing contract solicitations and ordering contracts for reconstruction efforts for the Coalition Provisional Authority South Central Region. According to court papers, Wheeler and his co-conspirators accepted money and gifts to rig contract bids. Wheeler is also accused of stealing and laundering funds from the CPA. An affidavit filed in the U.S. District Court says Wheeler transported $100,000 back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He spent about $58,000 of that money for a "variety of high-end tools." Wheeler also faces numerous firearms charges, including conspiring to embezzle and possess pistols, automatic machine guns and grenade launchers bought with CPA funds. Wheeler is charged along with his co-conspirators of using the CPA funds to buy dozens of firearms and related military-grade hardware in North Carolina for their own use.

Scandals Du Jour: A San Diego businessman under investigation in the bribery case of former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham is a well-known GOP fundraiser whose generosity to key members of Congress came at the same time his company saw large increases in its government contracts, public records show. Brent Wilkes, the founder of defense contractor ADCS Inc., gave more than $840,000 in contributions to 32 House members or candidates, campaign-finance records show. He flew Republican lawmakers on his private jet and hired lobbyists with close ties to those lawmakers. Wilkes' charitable foundation, which aids sick children and military families, honored congressmen at black-tie banquets and donated to their favorite causes. Wilkes was also a "Pioneer" for President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, meaning he raised at least $100,000. With help from two committee chairmen, ADCS got more than $90 million in government contracts since its founding in 1995, helping propel Wilkes from an obscure businessman to a millionaire prominent in Republican circles.

News Of The Weird: Cows belching and breaking wind cause methane pollution but British scientists say they have developed a diet to make pastures smell like roses - almost. "In some experiments we get a 70 percent decrease (in methane emissions), which is quite staggering," biochemist John Wallace told Reuters in a telephone interview. Wallace, leader of the microbial biochemistry group at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, said the secret to sweeter-smelling cows is a food additive based on fumaric acid, a naturally occurring chemical essential to respiration of animal and vegetable tissues. A 12-month commercial and scientific evaluation of the additive has just begun, but he said if it proves successful it could be a boon to cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions. "In total around 14 percent of global methane comes from the guts of farm animals. It is worth doing something about," Wallace said. Other big sources of methane are landfills, coalmines, rice paddies and bogs.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 03:19:25 PM
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