Letters From Exile

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

Mon, Jan 30 2006

Winning Friends And Influencing People

Nice warm day today. For a change. Last night about midnight, I got up and turned the ceiling fan on, as it was actually getting warmer as the night progressed. The overnight low only dropped to 71 well before sunrise, and it made it all the way to 82 this afternoon, even with a mostly overcast afternoon. But I am not going to be a silly boy again and say that the hot dry-season weather has begun. Oh no, not me. We'll wait and see what tomorrow brings. The satellite image didn't look good - like maybe yet another cold front is on its way.

Well, the electioneering here in Costa Rica continues. Full bore. With the elections only eight days away, the parties and their candidates are out there in force, doing whatever they can to drum up last minute support. Often as not, that means sound trucks. Technically illegal here, especially in residential areas. But that never stopped an ambitious politician, not in this country.

Today it was a two-bit provincial party I had never heard of. A sound truck drove around the streets of Arenal, more or less continuously all afternoon, blasting out the same political message for a group calling itself the Partido Guanacaste Ambiental, or Guanacaste Environmental Party. Not much of a message, just "Friends from Arenal, it is important to protect the environment in which we live, vote for the Partido Guanacaste Ambiental." Then a two-second blast of warbly music, and the message was then repeated. Again and again.

The guy drove up and down the streets of town without stopping, over and over again - and believe me, it doesn't take long to drive up and down all the streets in the town of Arenal, even idling in low gear. The lousy P.A. system he was using wasn't helping get his message across - one had to listen carefully to the badly muffled, rapid-fire Spanish to decipher just what the rather wobbly cassette player was spewing out. The message was short enough that one could hear it at least three times on every pass. After about the fifth pass, I kinda wanted to go out and break the sad news to the fellow that I am a gringo and can't vote here, so there's no point in blasting me with his message over and over. And even if I was a Tico, I'm not sure I'd be swayed by the highly sophisticated message that was totally devoid of any reason why the PGA has any particular environmental credentials. And the endless repetition at high decibel levels was hardly likely to win friends and influence people - on and on, all afternoon.

But the barrios throughout Costa Rica will suffer through more of this nonsense in the coming days, to be sure. Then, after two days of legally enforced sobriety leading up to election day - during which Costa Rica will temporarily become a "dry" nation - it will all be over, and I'm told that the partying will begin. Serious partying, making up for lost time - loud, noisy partying.

Gee, I can hardly wait.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: American officials in Iraq are in face-to-face talks with high-level Iraqi Sunni insurgents, NEWSWEEK has learned. Americans are sitting down with "senior members of the leadership" of the Iraqi insurgency, according to Americans and Iraqis with knowledge of the talks (who did not want to be identified when discussing a sensitive and ongoing matter). The talks are taking place at U.S. military bases in Anbar province, as well as in Jordan and Syria. "Now we have won over the Sunni political leadership," says U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. "The next step is to win over the insurgents." The groups include Baathist cells and religious Islamic factions, as well as former Special Republican Guards and intelligence agents, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the talks. Iraq's insurgent groups are reaching back. "We want things from the U.S. side, stopping misconduct by U.S. forces, preventing Iranian intervention," said one prominent insurgent leader from a group called the Army of the Mujahedin, who refused to be named because of the delicacy of the discussions. "We can't achieve that without actual meetings."

A White House leak revealing astonishing details of how Tony Blair and George Bush lied about the Iraq war is set to cause a worldwide political storm. Tony Blair knew that George Bush was only "going through the motions" of offering support for a second UN resolution in the run-up to the Iraq war, it was claimed last night. According to reports in The Mail on Sunday, the Prime Minister and the US President decided to go to war regardless of whether they obtained UN backing. The allegations will undermine claims that the final decision to go to war was not made until MPs voted in the Commons a day before military action. It will also bolster claims that the President and Mr Blair decided to go to war months before military action began. The book is expected to produce fresh evidence that President Bush only went through the motions of giving a wholehearted endorsement to Mr Blair's attempts to gain full UN approval for military action. The revelations make a nonsense of Mr Blair's claim that the final decision was not made until MPs voted in the Commons 24 hours before the war - and could revive the risk of him being charged with war crimes or impeached by Parliament itself.

As President Bush prepares for next week's State of the Union address, he faces widespread discontent over his job performance and the nation's direction that could threaten his party in the 2006 election, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found. In the survey, 43% of Americans said they approved of Bush's performance as president - his weakest showing ever in a Times poll. He received even lower marks for his handling of the economy, healthcare and Iraq - especially from women, who the poll found had turned against him on several fronts. And by a 2-1 ratio, those surveyed said the nation needed to change direction from the overall course Bush had set.

They fought a quiet battle to rein in the president's power in the war on terror. And they paid a price for it. One of those people, NEWSWEEK reports, was former assistant attorney general Jack Goldsmith. Goldsmith and other Justice Department lawyers, backed by their intrepid boss James Comey, had stood up to the hard-liners, centered in the office of the vice president, who wanted to give the president virtually unlimited powers in the war on terror. Demanding that the White House stop using what they saw as farfetched rationales for riding rough-shod over the law and the Constitution, Goldsmith and the others fought to bring government spying and interrogation methods within the law. They did so at their peril; ostracized, some were denied promotions, while others left for more comfortable climes in private law firms and academia. Some went so far as to line up private lawyers in 2004, anticipating that the president's eavesdropping program would draw scrutiny from Congress, if not prosecutors.

Surging oil and gas prices have helped Exxon Mobil to unveil the highest quarterly profits reported by a publicly-traded US company. Fourth-quarter earnings jumped to $10.7bn from $8.4bn in the same period last year. The results drove Exxon's annual profit to $36.13bn - 42% up on last year. In the past year, oil prices have soared on concerns about supplies prompted by tensions in oil producing countries and hurricanes in the US. Meanwhile, Exxon also got a boost from a one-off $390m payment to settle a lawsuit in the last three months of the financial year. Without the exceptional item, earnings for the quarter came in at $1.65 per share, still significantly better than analyst forecasts of $1.45. On Thursday Shell will top record-setting results with an estimated profit of $23 billion for 2005. This is up nearly a third from 2004, when its profits were $17.6 billion, at the time the biggest by a British company. BP is expected to continue the trend on February 7 by revealing full-year profits estimated at $21.7 billion. This contrasts with earnings of $16.4 billion in 2004. Oil-company profits, driven by the surging price of oil and gas, have drawn criticism as the cost of petrol remains high and domestic-heating bills soar. Meanwhile, the saber-rattling over Iran has caused oil prices to surge. Kona Haque, commodities editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said the worst case scenario of a shutdown of supplies from Iran would be 'absolutely devastating ... I wouldn't be surprised to see the price go over $90 a barrel'. She said fears about Iran are already adding a $10 risk premium to oil prices, which could remain in place for months as the crisis escalates. Davoud Danesh-Jafari, Iran's oil minister, has warned that the result of punitive action against his country would be 'the unleashing of a crisis in the oil sector'.

Despite protests from other countries, the United States is expanding a top-secret effort to kill suspected terrorists with drone-fired missiles as it pursues an increasingly decentralized al-Qaida, U.S. officials say. The CIA's failed attempt to assassinate al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri in Pakistan on Jan. 13 was the latest strike in the government's "targeted killing" program, a highly classified initiative that officials say has broadened as the terrorist network splintered into smaller cells and fled its haven in Afghanistan. A British technology company and a secretive air force base in Cambridgeshire are playing a key role in the CIA's use of robot Predator planes, deployed to assassinate suspected terrorists overseas,The Observer can reveal. A missile fired from a Predator killed more than 20 innocent people in Pakistan earlier this month in a botched US bid to kill Ayman al Zawahiri, the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, and similar attacks have been made in Iraq, Yemen and on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The attacks have been condemned by humanitarian organizations, which argue that extra-judicial killings break international law and have led to the deaths of innocent civilians. The revelation that Britain is involved in the Predator program is likely to prove controversial. Amnesty International and the Liberal Democrats said they would press the government to uncover the truth about the UK's role in the program and whether or not British firms should be allowed to supply components for the weapon. 'These kinds of targeted attacks - with air-to-surface missiles taking the place of judicial process - appear to be in breach of international law,' said Amnesty International's UK campaigns director, Stephen Bowen. 'That up to 22 civilians were also killed in a recent attack makes it all the more worrying.

Senior Iranian officials further raised tensions with the West yesterday, implicitly warning that Tehran would use missiles to strike Israel or Western forces stationed in the Gulf if attacked. The statements came as world leaders met at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, with the Middle East high on the agenda. The hardline Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has pressed ahead with a controversial nuclear program since his election last year. 'The world knows Iran has a ballistic missile power with a range of 2,000km (1,300 miles),' General Yahya Rahim Safavi said on state-run television. 'We have no intention to invade any country [but] we will take effective defence measures if attacked.' Meanwhile, despite persistent disillusionment with the war in Iraq, a majority of Americans supports taking military action against Iran if that country continues to produce material that can be used to develop nuclear weapons, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found. The poll, conducted Sunday through Wednesday, found that 57% of Americans favor military intervention if Iran's Islamic government pursues a program that could enable it to build nuclear arms.

The American space program's leading climate scientist has accused the White House of trying to gag him after he called last month for urgent cuts in the emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming. James Hansen, director of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is reported in today's New York Times as saying that officials at Nasa headquarters ordered staff to review his forthcoming lectures, papers and media interviews. He said he intended to ignore the restrictions. Dean Acosta, Nasa's deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, denied that there had been any specific effort to silence Hansen. The scientist said in an interview that officials at NASA headquarters had ordered the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists. Dr. Hansen said he would ignore the restrictions. "They feel their job is to be this censor of information going out to the public," he said. Dean Acosta, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at the space agency, said there was no effort to silence Dr. Hansen. "That's not the way we operate here at NASA," Mr. Acosta said. "We promote openness and we speak with the facts." He said scientists were free to discuss scientific findings, but that policy statements could be made only by official spokesmen.

For more than a decade, Osama bin Laden had few soldiers more devoted than Abdallah Tabarak. A former Moroccan transit worker, Tabarak served as a bodyguard for the al Qaeda leader, worked on his farm in Sudan and helped run a gemstone smuggling racket in Afghanistan, court records here show. During the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, when al Qaeda leaders were pinned down by U.S. forces, Tabarak sacrificed himself to engineer their escape. He headed toward the Pakistani border while making calls on Osama bin Laden's satellite phone as bin Laden and the others fled in the other direction. Tabarak was captured and taken to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was classified as such a high-value prisoner that the Pentagon repeatedly denied requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross to see him. Then, after spending almost three years at the base, he was suddenly released. Today, the al Qaeda loyalist known locally as the "emir" of Guantanamo walks the streets of his old neighborhood near Casablanca, more or less a free man. In a decision that neither the Pentagon nor Moroccan officials will explain publicly, Tabarak was transferred to Morocco in August 2004 and released from police custody four months later. His case also highlights mysteries of U.S. priorities in deciding who to keep and who to let go. As the Pentagon gears up to hold its first military tribunals at Guantanamo after four years of preparations, it has released a prisoner it called a key operative. At the same time, it retains under heavy guard men whose background and significance are never discussed.

The U.S. Army has forced about 50,000 soldiers to continue serving after their voluntary stints ended under a policy called "stop-loss," but while some dispute its fairness, court challenges have fallen flat. The policy applies to soldiers in units due to deploy for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Army said stop-loss is vital to maintain units that are cohesive and ready to fight. But some experts said it shows how badly the Army is stretched and could further complicate efforts to attract new recruits. "As the war in Iraq drags on, the Army is accumulating a collection of problems that cumulatively could call into question the viability of an all-volunteer force," said defence analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank. "When a service has to repeatedly resort to compelling the retention of people who want to leave, you're edging away from the whole notion of volunteerism." When soldiers enlist, they sign a contract to serve for a certain number of years, and know precisely when their service obligation ends so they can return to civilian life. But stop-loss allows the Army, mindful of having fully manned units, to keep soldiers on the verge of leaving the military.

So far, Iran's mullahs aren't feeling much pain from the Americans next door. In fact, officials at all levels of government here say they see the American presence as a source of strength for themselves as they face the Bush administration. In almost every conversation about Iran's nuclear showdown with the United States and Europe, they cite the Iraq war as a factor Iran can play to its own advantage. "America is extremely vulnerable right now," said Akbar Alami, a member of the Iran's Parliament often critical of the government but on this point hewing to the government line. "If the U.S. takes any unwise action" to punish Iran for pursuing its nuclear program, he said, "certainly the U.S. and other countries will share the harm." Iranians know that American forces, now stretched thin, are unlikely to invade Iran. And if the United States or Europe were to try a small-scale, targeted attack, the proximity of American forces makes them potential targets for retaliation. Iranians also know the fighting in Iraq has helped raise oil prices, and any attempt to impose sanctions could push prices higher.

Two FEMA disaster assistance employees working in New Orleans were arrested yesterday on federal bribery charges, accused of accepting $10,000 each in exchange for letting a contractor submit inflated reports on the number of meals it was serving at a Hurricane Katrina relief base camp there. The charges against Andrew Rose and Loyd Hollman, both of Colorado, came after they told a contractor hired on a $1 million deal to provide meals in Algiers, La., that he could submit falsified invoices for extra meals, a Justice Department statement said. The two were arrested hours after accepting envelopes containing $10,000 apiece. These were supposed to be down payments in what the two had said should be a $2,500 weekly bribe for each, officials said. "No one - whether citizen or public official - will be permitted to illegally profit at the expense of the communities and citizens who so desperately need FEMA funds and assistance in the wake of this region's terrible disaster," said Jim Letten, the United States attorney. Since the storm, dozens of would-be Hurricane Katrina victims who inappropriately applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been arrested on charges of making fraudulent claims. A group of contract workers at the American Red Cross in Bakersfield, Calif., were arrested late last year, accused of creating fictitious victims and then cashing benefits the group provided.

Army officials are investigating allegations that members of the celebrated 82nd Airborne Division appear on a gay pornography Web site, a spokeswoman said Friday. Authorities at Fort Bragg have begun an inquiry into whether the paratroopers' actions violated the military conduct code. Division spokeswoman Maj. Amy Hannah declined to say how many paratroopers are involved or identify their unit within the division. A defense official speaking on condition of anonymity said up to seven soldiers are involved. Hannah said soldiers questioned will be allowed to seek legal assistance, but she declined to say if any one had been charged. "Once the investigation is complete, the chain of command will take appropriate action," Hannah said. The military-themed Web site does not appear to make any direct reference to the 82nd Airborne or Fort Bragg. The registered owner of the Web site's domain name lists an address in Fayetteville, the city that adjoins Fort Bragg.

U.S. Jewish leaders are considering providing financial support to Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, two former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) employees on trial for espionage for their entanglement in a high-profile affair involving the possession and transfer of classified information. Former Pentagon official Larry Franklin was sentenced 10 days ago to 12 years in prison for providing classified information to AIPAC - via Rosen and Weissman - and to Israel via an Israeli Embassy employee in Washington. As a result of increasing concern over the possible outcome of Rosen and Weissman's trial, a number of U.S. Jewish leaders consulted via telephone this past week to formulate a response to the trial of the former AIPAC employees.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: President Bush's $15 billion effort to fight AIDS has handed out nearly one-quarter of its grants to religious groups, and officials are aggressively pursuing new church partners that often emphasize disease prevention through abstinence and fidelity over condom use. Award recipients include a Christian relief organization famous for its televised appeals to feed hungry children, a well-known Catholic charity and a group run by the son of evangelist Billy Graham, according to the State Department. The outreach to nontraditional AIDS players comes in the midst of a debate over how best to prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The debate has activated groups on both ends of the political spectrum and created a vast competition for money. Conservative Christian allies of the president are pressing the U.S. foreign aid agency to give fewer dollars to groups that distribute condoms or work with prostitutes. The Bush administration provided more than 560 million condoms abroad last year, compared with some 350 million in 2001. Secular organizations in Africa are raising concerns that new money to groups without AIDS experience may dilute the impact of Bush's historic three-year-old program.

Republicans Believe In Honest, Open, And Accountable Government: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) announced today that it has sued the US Department of Homeland Security for allegedly refusing to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request regarding FEMA's preparedness before Hurricane Katrina. On September 7, 2005, CREW filed a FOIA request for records and communication of FEMA. A request for expedited response was denied by DHS on September 20, 2005. CREW appealed the decision on October 24, 2005, and was again denied on December 21, 2005. According to a CREW release, they are requesting 1) Communications between the White House and FEMA regarding the preparation for and response to the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina; 2) Communications regarding offers by corporations and foreign governments to assist the victims of Katrina, and FEMA's response to such offers; 3) Information regarding the portion of the $3.1 billion 2005 DHS budget for emergency preparedness that was used to prepare for hurricanes on the Gulf Coast and for potential flooding in New Orleans; 4) Information regarding the amount of money that was diverted from natural disaster emergency preparedness to terrorism emergency preparedness and the rationale for any such diversion; and 5) Studies, assessments, presentations and scenarios created demonstrating the potential impact of a powerful hurricane on the Gulf Coast and proposed responses to such scenarios.

Fourth Amendment Death Watch: A program that was supposed to help the National Security Agency identify electronic data crucial to the nation's safety is not up and running more than six years and $1.2 billion after it was launched, according to current and former government officials. The classified project, code-named Trailblazer, was promoted as the NSA's state-of-the art tool for sifting through an ocean of modern-day digital communications and uncovering key nuggets to protect the nation against an ever-changing collection of enemies. Its main goal when it was launched in 1999 was to allow NSA analysts to connect the 2 million bits of data the agency collects every hour -- a task that has grown increasingly complex with the advent of the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging -- and enable them quickly to identify the most important information.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Rising concentrations of greenhouse gases may have more serious impacts than previously believed, a major scientific report has said. The report, published by the UK government, says there is only a small chance of greenhouse gas emissions being kept below "dangerous" levels. It fears the Greenland ice sheet is likely to melt, leading sea levels to rise by seven metres over 1,000 years. The poorest countries will be most vulnerable to these effects, it adds. The report, Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, collates evidence presented by scientists at a conference hosted by the UK Meteorological Office in February 2005. The conference set two principal objectives: to ask what level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was too much, and what the options were for avoiding such a level.

Scandals Du Jour: A California congressman who accepted campaign cash from disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and used his sports box for a fundraiser interceded on behalf of two American Indian tribes that were represented by Abramoff's firm, documents show. GOP Rep. John Doolittle (news, bio, voting record) wrote Interior Secretary Gale Norton in June 2003 criticizing the Bush administration's response to a tribal government dispute involving the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa. In October 2003, Doolittle appealed in a letter to the secretary for quicker action for a Massachusetts tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, that was seeking federal recognition. Both tribes signed on with Abramoff's lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig, that year. Sac & Fox hired the firm in May, the Wampanoags in November. Neither tribe appears tied to Doolittle's rural Northern California district, and Doolittle is not on the House committee that handles Indian issues.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: The staff of U.S. Rep Marty Meehan wiped out references to his broken term-limits pledge as well as information about his huge campaign war chest in an independent biography on a Web site that bills itself as the "world's largest encyclopedia." The Meehan alterations on Wikipedia.com represent just two of more than 1,000 changes made by congressional staffers at the U.S. House of Representatives in the past six months. Wikipedia is a global reference that relies on its Internet users to add credible information to entries on millions of topics. Matt Vogel, Meehan's chief of staff, said he authorized an intern in July to replace existing Wikipedia content with a staff-written biography of the lawmaker. The change deleted a reference to Meehan's campaign promise to surrender his seat after serving eight years, a pledge Meehan later eschewed. It also deleted a reference to the size of Meehan's campaign account, the largest of any House member at $4.8 million, according to the latest data available from the Federal Election Commission.

News Of The Weird: One registered Republican won't be able to vote in the next election unless he appears at a Berks County (PA) Elections Board to explain the signature on his registration form. The man is registered as Paul S. Sewell, but his form is signed "God." County Solicitor Alan S. Miller said Sewell claims his "God" signature is merely a legal mark like the "X" used by people who are illiterate. Sewell, 40, said he will be happy to explain. As the owner of a bail enforcement agency, he finds fugitives, he said. "Whenever I go to arrest somebody, they say, 'Oh, God, give me another chance. Oh, God, let me go. I'll turn myself in tomorrow,'" Sewell said. He said he thinks his designated mark is legal. "PennDOT accepted it on my driver's license. I have a credit card with it," he said. "It shouldn't be a problem."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:22:52 AM

Sat, Jan 28 2006

Election Fever

Whenever I get the idea that the Arenal rainy season is about to end, it comes back to let me know just what a silly boy I am. Yesterday there were periods of sun in the afternoon, but not many, and it was chilly and windy all day. Never made it out of the low 70's all day, getting up to only 74. Not terribly cold overnight, as it only dropped to 69, but the fog this morning was thick enough to cut with a knife, and the rain, wind and fog together made for a pretty miserable day all day. It was just too nasty to be outside, so today ended up being laundry and watch-TV day.

Other than editing today's blog entry, I didn't really get much of anything done. I had a serious arthritis flare up in my right ankle late yesterday, and that made getting around a bit difficult, so I wasn't up to a whole lot today, particularly anything that required a lot of walking around. Other than laundry, I did not get any work done around the place. Sat in front of the computer instead, and did a lot of research I had been putting off.

But yesterday, before the flare up had begun, I went into town on my weekly grocery run, and to the bank to have some cash to pay the gardener. He hadn't had a raise since he had been working for me, and with the depreciation in the colon since I hired him, I knew that he was overdue for one, and so I wasn't all that surprised when he brought that up yesterday, as he finished up his work. I had already given it some thought and told him what I had felt was fair, and he seemed quite satisfied with that. He told me about some of his other clients who had been really cheap - some had offered him only a 5% raise after nearly 30% depreciation in the colon. Needless to say, he had gotten a much better raise than that out of me.

While in town, I noted that the election flags and banners are everywhere, and every telephone pole and retaining wall is adequately covered in campaign posters. The elections are the first week in February, so the country is all geared up for it, but there doesn't seem much excitement about it. The election of former president Oscar Arias seems pretty much assured, as he is almost 20 points ahead in the polls, enough that he can likely avoid a runoff, and the campaign has been polite almost to the point of being perfunctory. So the usual election buzz that is a feature of Costa Rican life seems to be pretty much missing this time. Not to say that the usual party-flag draped sound trucks aren't making the rounds, making of nuisance of themselves, but there just doesn't seem to be much enthusiasm, cheering or otherwise. The elections will all be over in a bit more than a week, and it seems like everyone, Ticos and foreigners alike, will be glad.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: A majority of Americans said the presidency of George W. Bush has been a failure and that they would be more likely to vote for congressional candidates who oppose him, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. Fifty-two percent of adults said Bush's administration since 2001 has been a failure, down from 55 percent in October. Fifty- eight percent described his second term as a failure. At the same point in former President Bill Clinton's presidency, 70 percent of those surveyed by Gallup said they considered it a success and 20 percent a failure. In a poll conducted in January of 2002, after Bush was president for one year, 83 percent of those surveyed said his presidency was a success. In the new poll, conducted Jan. 20-22, fifty-one percent of those surveyed said they would be more likely to vote for congressional candidates who do not support Bush's policies. The percentage of Americans who called Bush "honest and trustworthy" fell 7 percentage points in the last year to 49 percent, the poll found. A strong bipartisan majority of the public believes Smirkey should disclose contacts between disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and White House staff members despite administration assertions that media requests for details about those contacts amount to a "fishing expedition," according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. The survey found that three in four -- 76 percent -- of Americans said Bush should release lists of all meetings between aides and Abramoff; 18 percent disagreed. Two in three Republicans joined with eight in 10 Democrats and political independents in favoring disclosure, according to the poll.

Bloggers beware: The US military's plan to make war on the internet (PDF) have been revealed. In a declassified but heavily redacted document recently released to the National Security Archive, the plan to censor the internet and fight against web sites and their owners it does not like, has been made public. As the world turns networked, the Pentagon is calculating the military opportunities that computer networks, wireless technologies and the modern media offer. From influencing public opinion through new media to designing "computer network attack" weapons, the US military is learning to fight an electronic war. The declassified document is called "Information Operations Roadmap". It was obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University using the Freedom of Information Act. Officials in the Pentagon wrote it in 2003. The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, signed it. An alarming amount of the "psyops" disinformation that it is already known to be creating, is making its way into American newspapers and onto American computer and television screens as "news" reports quoted uncritically by domestic news services in the U.S. The source of much of this news is picked up from the "TV Marti" propaganda operations directed at Cuba and the military information offices in Iraq as major sources. And, in a grand finale, the document recommends that the United States should seek the ability to "provide maximum control of the entire electromagnetic spectrum". US forces should be able to "disrupt or destroy the full spectrum of globally emerging communications systems, sensors, and weapons systems dependent on the electromagnetic spectrum". Consider that for a moment. The US military seeks the capability to knock out every telephone, every networked computer, every radar system on the planet.

The US may resolve its publicity problems with Guantanamo Naval Base, in a Cuban territory occupied against the will of the Cuban people, by turning it into death row. A revision of regulations for Ft. Lauderdale will now allow the US Army to execute people in its custody outside that detention center, extending the license-to-kill to all military detention centers. The news did not catch anyone by surprise, since torture and abuse of the over 500 prisoners from different countries illegally held there have earned international condemnation for a long time. The media and prominent politicians, like ex President Jimmy Carter and German Foreign Minister Angela Merkel, have urged for the immediate end of such gross human rights violations and closing of the base.

Frustrated by slow action in Congress, state legislatures are debating whether to increase border enforcement at their own expense, fine employers who use undocumented workers and get local police involved in deporting them. It's unclear how far the proposals would go because, like Congress, legislatures are divided on what to do about the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who provide a low-wage workforce in the USA. Federal law may limit state power on actions such as penalizing employers, says Ann Morse, an analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Related: City puts itself on immigration watch)

Ron Nehring, protege of conservative strategist Grover Norquist, Vice-Chairman of the California Republican Party and former colleague of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has introduced a proposal to convert all east San Diego County schools in the Grossmont Union High School District into charter schools. Some educators believe Grossmont is being used as a petri dish to test privatization of public education as part of a national GOP strategy. "Ron Nehring ... is an important piece on Norquist's chessboard," states a report titled Target San Diego: The Right Wing Assault on Urban Democracy and Smart Government. Prepared for the Center on Policy Initiatives, a progressive think tank, the report reveals how the National GOP has targeted San Diego as a "battleground" and model for an alleged agenda of radically cutting government funding, permanently weakening organized labor, and aggressively moving to privatize public services.

Democrats continued to warn that Alito's nomination would put individual rights and liberties in danger. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the only woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Alito will join justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia in the court's conservative wing and apply "originalist" interpretations to court decisions. "If an originalist analysis was applied to the Fourteenth Amendment, women would not be provided equal protection under the Constitution, interracial marriages could be outlawed, schools could still be segregated and the principle of one man, one vote would not govern the way we elect our representatives," Feinstein said. Even though Democrats like Landrieu and Ken Salazar of Colorado won't support a filibuster, that doesn't mean that liberals aren't working to get the largest vote against Alito possible. Twenty-nine senators - including Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln, Carl Levin, Daniel Inouye, Joesph Lieberman and Jeff Bingaman as well as independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont - have said they will vote against Alito. Twenty-two Democrats voted against conservative Chief Justice John Roberts last year. If the pattern continues, Alito may be on his way to the most partisan Senate victory for a Supreme Court nominee in years. The closest vote in modern history is Justice Clarence Thomas' 52-48 victory in 1991, when 11 Democrats broke with their party and voted for President George H.W. Bush's nominee.

Google will be called to task in Washington next month following a controversial decision by the internet search engine to launch a China-based version of its website that will censor results to avoid angering the country’s Communist government. The decision by Chris Smith, a Republican congressman from New Jersey who chairs a House subcommittee on Human Rights, to call for a February 16 hearing to examine the operating procedures of US internet companies in China, represents the first signs of what could become a serious backlash against Google and other internet companies in Washington that are perceived as capitulating to the Chinese government. Mr. Smith on Wednesday accused Google of "collaborating... with persecutors" who imprison and torture Chinese citizens "in the service of truth."

Porn-on-the-go - porn delivered to your cell phone - was the focus of a two-day Mobile Adult Content Congress that wrapped up in Miami on Thursday amid expectations, according to at least some participants, that it will soon catch on in the United States. Consumers already spend tens of millions of dollars a year on cell-phone-based adult content in Europe where companies such as mobile-phone giant Vodafone Group Plc (VOD.L) -- or "Vodafilth" as it was dubbed by one British newspaper -- are among the distributors. Leading American cellular carriers have been reluctant to jump onto the bandwagon, however, fearing a backlash from the conservatives and the religious right if they provide U.S. consumers easy access to hand-held X-rated theater. The Miami conference, aimed at allaying some of those concerns, was sponsored by Waat Media, a California-based company that represents some of the leading so-called late-night U.S. entertainment brands. Rather than focusing on steamy content or images, such as video footage featuring conference attendee Ron Jeremy -- a porn star who has licensed his name to RJ Mobile -- industry officials focused here on issues such as content rating and filtering devices or age verification mechanisms, meant to prevent underage consumers from buying adult content. It was all a bit staid and very business-like, but one speaker, an executive identified as James Walz of West Management, did seem to get worked up as he talked about features like "personalized strip teases" and unbridled U.S. market potential.

Crime may be down in New Orleans, but many of the city's bad guys seem to be turning up in Houston, which finds itself caught in the crosshairs of an apparent gang war between Hurricane Katrina evacuees from two rival housing projects. On Friday, Houston's newly formed Gang Murder Squad announced the arrest of eight men from New Orleans suspected in 11 murders in the Houston area over the past three months. "These guys are hooking up with friends and old rivalries are beginning again," Sgt. Brian Harris, a Gang Murder Squad investigator and the top detective on the case, told TIME. Unlike gangs in Houston, which are usually affiliated with the Bloods and the Crips and deal in crack, the New Orleans groups are strictly based on local fault lines, formed around housing projects, and deal mostly in heroin, he said.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: Smirkey continues the saber-rattling in Syria - he has told the son of murdered Lebanese ex-PM Rafik Hariri that he wants to see an end to "Syrian intimidation" in Lebanon. Mr Bush also told Saad Hariri during a visit to Washington that his father's assassins "need to be held to account". Saad Hariri led anti-Syrian parties to victory in Lebanese polls held after his father was killed in February 2005. International pressure and street protests followed the assassination, forcing Syria to withdraw troops it had stationed in Lebanon for more than a decade. There are persistent rumors and accusations that the assassination was a CIA false-flag operation designed to discredit Syria, and the UN investigation of it was stacked.

The U.S. Army in Iraq has at least twice seized and jailed the wives of suspected insurgents in hopes of "leveraging" their husbands into surrender, U.S. military documents show. In one case, a secretive task force locked up the young mother of a nursing baby, a U.S. intelligence officer reported. In the case of a second detainee, one American colonel suggested to another that they catch her husband by tacking a note to the family's door telling him "to come get his wife." The issue of female detentions in Iraq has taken on a higher profile since kidnappers seized American journalist Jill Carroll on Jan. 7 and threatened to kill her unless all Iraqi women detainees are freed. The U.S. military on Thursday freed five of what it said were 11 women among the 14,000 detainees currently held in the 2 1/2-year-old insurgency. All were accused of "aiding terrorists or planting explosives," but an Iraqi government commission found that evidence was lacking.

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: On Tuesday, Jan. 24, the Council of Europe announced the results of its long-awaited, months-long investigation into the possibility that torture victims have been shuttled around Europe to clandestine torture centers. The Council's investigations were led by Sen. Dick Marty of Switzerland, who, in the final report, excoriated European leaders for their complicity. Marty's findings also undermine U.S. denials that it does not practice torture overseas. Marty's report is a zinger. He finds that the CIA conducted illegal activities in Europe by transporting and detaining prisoners while European governments looked on: "What was shocking was the passivity with which we all, in Europe, have welcomed these things. Europeans should be less hypocritical and not turn a blind eye. There are those who do the dirty work abroad, but there are also those who know when they should close their eyes when that dirty work is being done."

Dick Cheney, the American vice-president, and Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, should be called to testify before the European Parliament on allegations of secret CIA prisons and torture of detainees, MEPs said yesterday. MEPs heading an investigation into the claims vowed to "name and shame" American and European leaders who declined invitations to appear before them. The committee was set up by the parliament to examine reports that CIA detainees were held in secret "black sites" in central and eastern Europe or flown through European Union airports on their way to countries where they may have faced torture. The panel has four months to complete its work and is backed by the European Commission and some member states but has no legal powers. Baroness Ludford, a Liberal Democrat MEP and one of its vice-chairmen, acknowledged that the committee could not force anyone to appear. But she said that Mr Cheney, Mr Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, should all be invited to testify.

Compassionate Conservatism Watch: Lives are being put at risk by the Deficit Reduction Act - it turns out that it puts a 36-month limit on the subsidies for supplimental oxygen supplies required by many respiratory patients. In other words, if you need oxygen for more than three years, they're pulling the plug on you. The Evil Ones, led by DOCTOR "First Do No Harm To Wealthy Contributors" Frist, are in the process of doing genuine - potentially fatal - harm to untold thousands of U.S. citizens suffering from emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis, and other chronic/degenerative respiratory diseases that require the use of portable oxygen tanks, oxygen concentrators, and tubing and other supplies. To wit: You get 36 months of oxygen therapy and if you're still alive after that, you're on your friggin' own.

Republican Policies Are Good For America: The economy slowed to a near crawl in the final quarter of 2005, a listless showing that was the worst in three years. Gross domestic product clocked in at an annual rate of just 1.1 percent from October through December. That marked a loss of speed compared with the third's quarter's brisk 4.1 percent pace, the Commerce Department reported Friday. Belt tightening by consumers, businesses and the government figured into the fourth-quarter's slowdown. GDP, which measures the value of all goods and services produced within the United States, is the best barometer of the economy's fitness. Experts said two main factors had driven the drop - a overall slowdown in consumer spending, from 4.1% to 1.1%, and a sharp 17.5% fall in spending on big-ticket goods, particularly cars. The fall marked the steepest drop in spending on so-called "durable goods" since the first quarter of 1987.

United Airlines' parent company made a $21bn loss last year due to charges arising from its bankruptcy. It suffered pre-tax losses of $16.6bn alone in the last quarter after it recognized many unsecured claims. But UAL Corp said its underlying losses had fallen and that it would emerge from bankruptcy protection next month with a "sound financial platform". United is one of several US carriers under bankruptcy protection due to soaring costs and flagging demand.

General Motors Corp., which is planning big job cuts and plant closings as it fights to avoid bankruptcy, said Thursday it lost $4.8 billion in the fourth quarter and $8.6 billion in all of 2005, dragged down by losses and charges in its North American division. It was the fifth-straight quarterly loss for the world's largest automaker and the worst annual loss since 1992. GM's North American operations alone posted adjusted losses of $1.5 billion for the quarter and $5.6 billion for the full year, as unit sales fell 3 percent in North America in 2005. The dismal results were far worse than Wall Street expected. GM's stock price, which had already fallen about 36 percent since July, slumped another 80 cents, or 3.4 percent, to close at $23.05 on the New York Stock Exchange. GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said 2005 "was one of the most difficult years in GM's history. Two significant fundamental weaknesses in our North American operations were fully exposed - our huge legacy cost burden and our inability to adjust structural costs in line with falling revenue," Wagoner said in a statement.

North Carolina legislature leaders on Wednesday began forming a study committee to attack the growing problem of home foreclosures in Charlotte and across the state. Their aim is to propose actions for the General Assembly to consider when it convenes this spring. Rep. Walter Church, who will chair the committee, says the effort was spurred by the Observer's series last week on the rising number of foreclosures in the Charlotte area. "We want to see what can be done to help save people's homes," said Church, a Burke County Democrat. The problem of foreclosures is racing out of control, he says. In almost two decades as head of a savings and loan in Valdese, Church said he foreclosed on only five or six loans. The Observer reported that on average, 11 Mecklenburg County homes are now sold in foreclosure auctions every business day.

Halliburton Co. swung to a profit in its fourth quarter on robust sales, and called last year the best in its 86-year history. The results, $1.03 per share excluding the gain, widely beat Wall Street's projections of 89 cents a share on revenue of $5.24 billion, according to Thomson Financial. Net income for the year 2005 was $2.4 billion, or $4.54 per share, compared to a loss of $1 billion, or $2.22 per share, from 2004. The 2004 loss included a $1.4 billion, or $3.09 per share, loss related to the settlement of asbestos and silica liabilities. Revenue for 2005 reached nearly $21 billion, a record that also beat analysts expectations of $20.4 billion.

The White House budget office is preventing the government from enrolling farmers in a program that pays them to be good stewards of their land, the leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee said on Friday. In a letter, the leaders said "unnecessary, bureaucratic" delays will frustrate farmers and ranchers while making it harder for Congress to assess the value of the Conservation Security Program (CSP). The letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns urged that enrollment be held during winter, when farmers plan their operations for the growing season. It was signed by chairman Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, and Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Democratic leader on the panel. They said an Agriculture Department agency "is ready to begin enrollment but is being prohibited by the Office of Management and Budget from doing so." It was the second letter to Johanns this month to urge a timely enrollment for CSP, created in 2002 and given $259 million for fiscal 2006.

Habeas Corpus Death Watch: Despite force feeding by the American military, several hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay may be close to death, according to lawyers acting for the detainees. The condition of two emaciated Yemeni hunger strikers who have been refusing solid food since August is causing particular concern. There are also fears for the life of a hospitalised Saudi prisoner. The wife of a British resident and hunger striker, Shaker Aamer, visited the Commons last week to appeal to MPs for help. Aamer’s wife, 31, who lives in London with her four children and has asked for her name to be withheld, said: "This is the time to do something. My husband is not going to last." Aamer has been on hunger strike since November 2. Although he has lost weight, he is stronger than some other prisoners taking part in the protest at their detention without trial. According to a report to be released tomorrow by the prisoners’ rights group Reprieve, the Yemenis, identified as Abu Bakah al-Shamrani and Abu Anas, are said by detainees to be gravely weak. Shamrani weighs only 70lb (5 stone). Reprieve claims Camp Echo, which is comprised of isolation cells, has been turned into a "force feeding institution" away from other prisoners and its gravel path paved with concrete so the hunger strikers can be moved around in wheelchairs.

Fourth Amendment Death Watch: The Bush administration rejected a 2002 Senate proposal that would have made it easier for FBI agents to obtain surveillance warrants in terrorism cases, concluding that the system was working well and that it would likely be unconstitutional to lower the legal standard. The proposed legislation by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) would have allowed the FBI to obtain surveillance warrants for non-U.S. citizens if they had a "reasonable suspicion" they were connected to terrorism - a lower standard than the "probable cause" requirement in the statute that governs the warrants. The administration has contended that it launched a secret program of warrantless domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency in part because of the time it takes to obtain such secret warrants from federal judges under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), in spite of the fact that under FISA, they are allowed to conduct surveillance first and go back for a warrant after the fact.

Legislation drafted by Justice Department lawyers in 2003 to strengthen the USA Patriot Act would have provided legal backing for several aspects of the administration's warrantless eavesdropping program. But officials said yesterday that was not the intent. Most lawmakers and the public were not aware at the time that President Bush had already issued a secret order allowing the National Security Agency to intercept international calls involving U.S. citizens and legal residents. Some critics of the NSA program said the draft legislation raises questions about recent administration claims that Bush had clear legal authority to order warrantless domestic spying in late 2001 and had no need to go to Congress for explicit approval. "It's rather damning to their current view that they didn't need legislation," said Timothy H. Edgar, a national security lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Clearly the lawyers at the Justice Department, or some of them, felt that legislation was needed to allow the government to do what it was doing."

Fourteenth Amendment Death Watch: The Alaska Legislature could soon be deliberating a proposed amendment to the state Constitution to nullify a court decision ordering the state to pay benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees. Senate Judiciary Chairman Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, told the Legislative Council Thursday evening he has a draft constitutional amendment that could be introduced by his committee as early as next week. A constitutional change would require approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate and approval by a majority of voters in November's election. The Alaska Supreme Court ruled in October that denying gay couples the same public employee benefits as married couples - life and health insurance, plus retirement and death benefits - violates the Alaska Constitution's equal-protection clause. The court noted that unmarried straight couples also are denied benefits, but they - unlike gay couples - have the option to legally marry. Following that ruling, Gov. Frank Murkowski and state Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, separately called for changing the state's Constitution to strike the ruling.

Liberal-Biased Media: A FoxNews.com columnist who repeatedly attacked scientists for linking smoking to disease was on the payroll of big tobacco, according to The New Republic. On March 9, 2001, he wrote a column for the website headlined "secondhand smokescreen." The piece attacked a study by researcher Stephen Hecht, who found that women living with smokers had higher levels of chemicals associated with risk of lung cancer. "If spin were science, Hecht would win a Nobel Prize," Milloy wrote. For good measure, he heaped scorn on a 1993 Environmental Protection Agency report that also linked health risks and secondhand smoke. Later that spring, he authored another smoking-related piece for FoxNews.com. You might chalk it up to Milloy's contrarian nature. Or to his libertarian tendencies. Except, all the while, he was on the payroll of big tobacco. According to Lisa Gonzalez, manager of external communications for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, Milloy was under contract there through the end of last year. "In 2000 and 2001, some of the work he did was to monitor studies, and then we would distribute this information within to our different companies," Gonzalez said. Although she couldn't comment on fees paid to Milloy, a January 2001 Philip Morris budget report lists Milloy as a consultant and shows that he was budgeted for $92,500 in fees and expenses in both 2000 and 2001. Asked about Milloy's tobacco ties, Paul Schur, director of media relations for Fox News, said, "Fox News is unaware of Milloy's connection with Philip Morris. Any affiliation he had should have been disclosed." Milloy could not be reached for comment.

Just in case you were wondering whether Robert Novak's departure from CNN for Fox was, you know, bitter, the cable network threw a big farewell for him last night at Charlie Palmer steakhouse in Washington, with the likes of Pat Buchanan, Donna Brazile, Kate O'Beirne and CNN Worldwide's president, Jim Walton, attending.

Maybe If We Ignore Global Warming, It Will Go Away: Global sea levels could rise by about 30cm during this century if current trends continue, and the rate of rise is accelerating, a new study warns. Australian researchers found that sea levels rose by 19.5cm between 1870 and 2004, with accelerated rates in the final 50 years of that period. The research, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, used data from tide gauges around the world. The findings fit within predictions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Scandals Du Jour: Two Senate Democrats called Thursday for the appointment of a special counsel to take over investigation of the corruption scandal spawned by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The switch "would ensure that the investigation and prosecution will proceed without fear or favor and provide the public with full confidence that no one in this country is above the law," Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Ken Salazar of Colorado wrote Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The two Democrats said that so far, the public integrity section of the Justice Department, which is in charge of the probe, has "pursued this case appropriately." Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said "there is no legal or ethical reason why the attorney general would need to recuse himself from this investigation as it continues to move forward successfully with a career prosecution team."

Four days after U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay's stunning indictment last September in Travis County, the political talk show "Fox News Sunday" trumpeted an exclusive interview with the combative Texas Republican. Unsaid, but revealed in documents DeLay later filed in the U.S. House, was that DeLay's Oct. 2 appearance cost Fox News $14,000. The money rented a private jet to ferry DeLay from a small airport near his Sugar Land home to Fox studios in Washington. The next day, after engaging in a give and take with host Chris Wallace, DeLay and his Capitol Police security detail were flown back to suburban Houston. It's a great way to travel - no security lines, no connecting flights and awesome legroom. And in the often pampered world of Congress, private jets are the ultimate status symbol - most commonly provided by corporations to curry favor and let ride-along lobbyists bend the ear of a captive, and in theory appreciative, audience. Three weeks after DeLay's Fox appearance, for example, the former House majority leader traveled to his mugshot-and-fingerprint appointment in Houston aboard an R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. jet - one of 100 trips DeLay has taken on corporate jets in the past six years, tops in Congress, The Associated Press has reported.

With Democrats comparing his ties to lobbyists with "organized crime," Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., yesterday swung back, saying the Democratic criticism amounted to libel and unequivocally denying that he helped shape the GOP's controversial "K Street Project." The problem with that is that there is video of him meeting with Norquist. The "K Street Project," which was led by conservative activist Grover Norquist and then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was an effort to press Washington's lobbying firms and trade associations to hire Republicans who share their agenda. It gets its name from the street where many of the firms are based. Democrat have criticized the project as an attempt to funnel millions of dollars in lobbying money to the GOP.

Lobbyist and confessed felon Jack Abramoff gave his client Tyco International an early warning in 2003 that the government was about to suspend Tyco's federal contracts - inside information he received from a General Services Administration official now under indictment, federal prosecutors alleged yesterday. David H. Safavian, who has been charged with obstructing the Abramoff corruption investigation, alerted Abramoff in November 2003 that the GSA was about to suspend the contracts of four Tyco subsidiaries, prosecutors said in court papers. Safavian provided "sensitive and confidential information" about internal GSA deliberations, as well as advice about how to get around the suspension, the prosecutors said. George Terwilliger, Tyco's attorney, said yesterday that Abramoff's tip was of substantial benefit to Tyco but was unsolicited. Tyco's senior lawyer, Timothy Flanigan, contacted the GSA and "asked for an opportunity to address the suspension issue on the merits," Tyco said in a statement yesterday.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: Deep in Rolling Stone's 7,000-word profile of Republican Sen. Sam Brownback , the conservative Kansan picked a startling bit of Scripture to explain his opposition to homosexuality. "You look at the social impact of the countries that have engaged in homosexual marriage," he said, citing the example of Sweden to writer Jeff Sharlet before adding: "You'll know 'em by their fruits." An awkward silence followed, in Sharlet's telling. It's a reference to Matthew 7:16 -- often interpreted to mean that one can judge a prophet's sincerity by his deeds - but, Sharlet noted, it kinda sounded like the senator was calling gay Swedes "fruits." A spokesman in Brownback's office said someone would return our calls to discuss this, but no one did yesterday.

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter, speaking at a traditionally black college, joked that Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens should be poisoned.Coulter had told the Philander Smith College audience Thursday that more conservative justices were needed on the Supreme Court to change the current law on abortion. Stevens is one of the court's most liberal members. "We need somebody to put rat poisoning in Justice Stevens' creme brulee," Coulter said. "That's just a joke, for you in the media." Coulter has made a career of writing and lecturing on her strongly conservative views. At one point during her address, which was part of a lecture series, some audience members booed when she cut off two questioners. "I'm not going to be lectured to," Coulter told one man in a raised voice. She drew more boos when she said the crack cocaine problem "has pretty much gone away."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:02:40 AM

Thu, Jan 26 2006

Coffee With My Neighbors

What a lovely day yesterday. Bright sun in the morning with just enough clouds to break the heat of the afternoon. The temperature hit a lovely 82 yesterday afternoon, and dropped to 69 overnight. And this afternoon, between brief but sometimes intense rains, the temperature rose to 79. But all that balminess was about to change. This afternoon, about four o'clock, a cold front came through, wind and rain began and as I write this, the temperature has dropped to 71 and is falling fast.

The neighbors with whom I spent the weekend invited me up for coffee this afternoon. And it being a pleasant day at the time, I accepted, and walked up to their house on the hill above mine, and enjoyed a pleasant chat about the issues of the day, and the arrangements for selling my house. I got an invite to go swimming with them in the lake on Sunday, which will be a delight if the weather is warm - the lake temperature of Arenal is cool, but not unpleasantly so. They have two sons, and a daughter, and the older son speaks English quite fluently, so that helps to ease the occasional awkward moment. And they're a delight to be around, the five of them. Their hospitality is exceptional and they are fun company. Makes me glad to have them for neighbors. I'm looking forward to Sunday.

We watched some television as the wife was preparing a snack and coffee. The snack proved to be stewed plantains with natilla (a very light sour cream unique to Costa Rica). It was delicious, and with coffee, just right for an afternoon snack.

As I was snacking on the plantains and coffee, a howling wind came up, it clouded over and began to rain, and the temperature dropped noticably. Walking back to the house, I was sure glad that I had taken my umbrella. The dry season isn't here. Not yet.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Construction on the vast network of Homeland Security internment camps, announced previously in this space as being planned, has now actually begun. Ominously called "Project Endgame" by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which planned the project, it is ostensibly being built to house as many as five million "illegal immigrants" and a contract to build it has just been announced, and of course, you'll never guess who got the work - Kellogg Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, announced Tuesday that the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) component has awarded KBR an Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contingency contract to support ICE facilities "in the event of an emergency." KBR is the engineering and construction subsidiary of Halliburton. With a maximum total value of $385 million over a five-year term, consisting of a one-year based period and four one-year options, the competitively awarded contract will be executed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District.

A bare majority of Americans now favor the impeachment of the president, according to a new Zogby poll. The word "impeachment" is popping up increasingly these days and not just off the lips of liberal activists spouting predictable bumper-sticker slogans. After the unfounded claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and recent news of domestic spying without warrants, mainstream politicians and ordinary voters are talking openly about the possibility that President Bush could be impeached. So is at least one powerful Republican senator, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. So far, it's just talk. And with Republicans controlling Congress - and memories still fresh of the bitter fight and national distraction inflamed by former President Clinton's 1998 impeachment - even the launching of an official inquiry is a very long shot. But a poll released last week by Zogby International showed 52 percent of American adults thought Congress should consider impeaching Bush if he wiretapped U.S. citizens without court approval (which Smirkey has admitted and is defending), including 59 percent of independents and 23 percent of Republicans. (The survey had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.)

The Bush administration has embarked on a concerted public defense of its warrantless domestic spying practices. It is focusing particularly on the electronic surveillance of Americans suspected of links to international terrorism. On Tuesday Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said eavesdropping on citizens' international calls without court approval was legal and necessary. President Bush is also expected to address this issue on Wednesday. The news that US intelligence agencies have been listening to the international communications of Americans without getting the usual permission from the courts to do so is creating some political turbulence for the Bush administration. Democrats in Congress, and some Republicans, have expressed anger at what they see as an infringement of civil liberties, and Congressional researchers have even debated the program's legality.

But the PR campaign is not going down well. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the Bush administration's domestic spying program Tuesday at Georgetown Law School and suggested that some critics and news reports have misled Americans about the breadth of the National Security Agency's surveillance. As he spoke, more than a dozen students stood silently with their backs turned to the attorney general. Outside the classroom where Gonzales was to speak, a pair of protesters held up a sheet that said, "Don't torture the Constitution."

Struggling to lay the groundwork for a disinformation campaign denying any connections between indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Smirkey, the White House has been desperately trying to round up all known photographs of the two together, as was reported previously in this space. Well, proving that there is no honor among thieves, Abramoff has been shopping around photos of himself and Smirkey. Over the weekend, Time magazine and the Washingtonian both reported on five photos of President Bush with Jack Abramoff, but neither publication revealed its source. Yesterday, ThinkProgress laid out the case for why the source for the photos was likely Abramoff himself. Last night, the hunch was confirmed. Appearing on MSNBC, Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff reported that it was indeed Abramoff who floated the photographs to Washingtonian.

A US Senate panel has voted to approve Smirkey's Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito. All 10 Republicans on the judiciary committee backed the conservative judge, while all eight Democrats opposed Mr. Alito. The nomination now goes to the Republican-led Senate, which is expected to confirm Mr. Alito.

A senior Iranian official threatened that Tehran may forcibly prevent oil export via the Straits of Hormuz if the UN imposed economic sanctions due to Iran's nuclear program, an Iranian news Web site said on Monday. This is the first time an Iranian official has made military threats in a public statement on Tehran's recent disagreements with the West. The news site, affiliated with the radical student movement in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was once a member, quoted Mohammed-Nabi Rudaki, deputy chairman of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission. 25% of the world's oil production passes through the Straits of Hormuz, which connect the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean. The meaning of Rudaki's threat is that not only will Tehran stop its oil production from reaching the West, it may also use force to prevent the other oil producers in the region (the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait) from exporting to the West.

If you're in the military and want to see "Brokeback Mountain" in the theater on-base, don't expect to see it anytime soon. "Brokeback Mountain," the movie about a gay cowboy love affair that recently won four Golden Globe awards and is expected to be in the Oscar hunt, will not play in any U.S. military theaters in Europe. And not because it’s a gay cowboy love story. The movie, which has received almost universally glowing reviews and was the nation’s top grossing film per theater last week, suffers from the same problem that kept many of last year’s Academy Award winners "The Aviator" and "Sideways" among them, out of AAFES theaters: It was released late in the year by a small, independent movie studio. Arrangements for first-run movies, shown on military bases within two weeks of their stateside openings, require that distributors send AAFES 11 prints of the film. But movies such as "Brokeback Mountain" which open on a relatively few screens, unlike blockbusters like "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," and hope to build momentum do not have an adequate number of copies.

IRS Commissioner Mark Everson ordered a review Tuesday of a tax fraud detection program criticized for freezing thousands of refunds without notifying taxpayers. Everson said the tax agency will soon announce new procedures to advise taxpayers when a refund has been frozen. The agency will also revise its fraud screening procedures so that it withholds fewer refunds owed to innocent taxpayers. "Honest taxpayers expecting a refund deserve to be treated fairly," Everson said. National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson criticized the program in her annual list of the worst problems facing taxpayers. Her office, which helps taxpayers resolve disputes with the IRS, handles more frozen refunds than any other issue. A study of those cases found no evidence of fraud in two out of three instances.

On Monday, the Bush administration's top mine safety official, David Dye, walked out of an appearance before a Senate subcommittee to explain the administration's response to the Sago coal mine disaster. Specifically, senators wanted to know why mine safety has been consistently underfunded under President Bush, and why regulations have been rolled back or weakly enforced. Unfortunately, David Dye has a busy schedule. After an hour of questioning, Dye announced he had "some really pressing matters" to attend to, and asked to leave the hearing. Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) urged him not to: "Your presence will be required here for at least one more hour." But Dye insisted: "We have been diverted, dealing with these matters. We were happy to prepare for the hearing, but we really need to get back and attend to all this. There's 15,000 mines in the United States, and we've got some really pressing matters." The New York Times describes what occurred next: "After Mr. Specter added, 'That's the committee's request, but you're not under subpoena,' Mr. Dye got up and walked out. 'I can't recollect it ever happening before,' Mr. Specter said of the departure. 'We'll find a way to take appropriate note of it.'"

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: South Korea's president lashed out today at hardliners in Washington, who he said appeared to be trying to force the collapse of North Korea's totalitarian regime. President Roh Moo-hyun spoke out following calls from US treasury officials for South Korea - a long-time US ally - to help prevent Pyongyang's alleged criminal activity. The US says the communist dictatorship is engaged in counterfeiting, money laundering and drug trafficking. The north today repeated its demands that the US lift the sanctions recently imposed over the claims of illegal activity. Pyongyang refuses to return to international talks about its nuclear ambitions until the sanctions are lifted.

Washington has warned India a landmark deal giving it US nuclear technology may fall through if Delhi does not back a UN motion against Iran. The deal could "die in Congress" if India does not vote against Iran at a meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog, US Ambassador David Mulford said. The US is pursuing action against Iran over its apparent nuclear ambitions. India says it rejects any attempt to tie its stance on Iran to its deal with the US on acquiring nuclear know-how.

Mexico's national human rights commission announced yesterday that it would give would-be migrants detailed maps of the Arizona desert, the most popular - but riskiest - clandestine immigration corridor into the United States. The plan comes at a time of increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in the US and the maps are unlikely to go down well among advocates of an American bill designed to toughen up control of the 2,000-mile border, due to be debated in the Senate next month. "We recognise the right of every country to define its migration policy, but at the same time nothing can be above basic human rights," said Mauricio Farah of the human rights commission, which is technically independent but government-funded. "Our intention is not to encourage migration but to save lives."

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: Europe's human rights watchdog accused Washington yesterday of using "gangster tactics" by flying in terrorist suspects to countries where they would face torture, and criticised European countries who appear to have done nothing to intervene. "If a country resorts to the tactics of gangsters I say no," Dick Marty, a Swiss senator, said at the Council of Europe's winter session in Strasbourg. "There are different elements that allow me to say that governments were aware of what was happening."

Republicans Believe In Honest, Transparent Government: A senior fraud investigator for the Pentagon who has crusaded against military contractor overcharges for seven years has been suspended for "insubordination," according to an article written by Eric Rosenberg for the Hearst News Service. Rosenberg's article, which went out to Hearst member papers, has not appeared in any of them, nor has any story been published by the mainstream press about his suspension, according to Google News. Kenneth Pedeleose, an industrial engineer for the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA), told Hearst that his 30-day suspension was "absolutely related" to his whistleblowing. In 2002, Pedeleose's 90-page report "Criminal Vulnerability and Fraud" which accused Lockheed Martin of "willfully" overcharging the Pentagon and defense officials of ignoring his warnings led Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (Rep-IA) to persuade DoD's Inspector's General offices to launch investigations.

Republican Policies Are Good For America: Spending and savings habits of US consumers would "have to change." Speaking at the traditional "update" on the global economy at the start of the World Economic Forum (WEF), AIG vice-chairman Jacob Frenkel said the dire predictions of a dollar slump had not materialised because the US economy was much more robust, flexible and competitive than many had assumed. A year ago, they agreed that the US dollar would come tumbling down, weakened by the massive current account deficit of the US economy. Big investors like Microsoft boss Bill Gates and legendary money manager Warren Buffett even bet huge sums on it. However, the dollar managed to climb back from its record low against the euro. Searching for explanations, Morgan Stanley chief economist Stephen Roach said the fact that the dollar had not declined for a third year did not mean the economic fundamentals had changed. But the panel could not agree on how far the US dollar had to fall. Laura Tyson, dean of the London Business School, said there was "a substantial dollar decline out there, maybe 30%", although it could come gradually. "2006 will see the end of the great American spending binge," Roach said

News From Smirkey's Wars: Since 2003, the United States has been pushing for rapid free-market reforms in Iraq. Such policies, U.S. officials say, are necessary to spur development and revive Iraq's moribund economy, which is still suffering from sanctions and decades of Baath Party mismanagement. But rapid economic liberalization here is taking a toll on ordinary Iraqis. They've seen prices skyrocket for everything from shampoo to vegetables to heating oil. Food rations meant to help the estimated 8 million Iraqis who live on less than $1 a day have been cut by 25 percent. Many changes implemented by the U.S. occupation in 2003, after Saddam Hussein's government fell, are still in effect as Iraqi politicians await election results that will lead to the formation of a permanent government. Tariffs on imports have been cut across the board, allowing cheap goods to pour in from China and driving Iraqi manufacturers out of business. A 2003 foreign investment law continues to anger Iraqi businessmen who say it is squeezing them out of the reconstruction boom.

The first official history of the $25 billion American reconstruction effort in Iraq depicts a program hobbled from the outset by gross understaffing, a lack of technical expertise, bureaucratic infighting, secrecy and constantly increasing security costs, according to a preliminary draft. The document, which begins with the secret prewar planning for reconstruction and touches on nearly every phase of the program through 2005, was assembled by the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and debated last month in a closed forum by roughly two dozen experts from outside the office. A person at the forum provided a copy of the document, dated December 2005, to The New York Times. The inspector general's office, whose agents and auditors have been examining and reporting on various aspects of the rebuilding since early 2004, declined to comment on the report other than to say it was highly preliminary.

Stretched by frequent troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become a "thin green line" that could snap unless relief comes soon, according to a study for the Pentagon. Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who wrote the report under a Pentagon contract, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency. He also suggested that the Pentagon's decision, announced in December, to begin reducing the force in Iraq this year was driven in part by a realization that the Army was overextended. As evidence, Krepinevich points to the Army's 2005 recruiting slump - missing its recruiting goal for the first time since 1999 - and its decision to offer much bigger enlistment bonuses and other incentives. "You really begin to wonder just how much stress and strain there is on the Army, how much longer it can continue," he said in an interview. He added that the Army is still a highly effective fighting force and is implementing a plan that will expand the number of combat brigades available for rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan. The 136-page report represents a more sobering picture of the Army's condition than military officials offer in public. While not released publicly, a copy of the report was provided in response to an Associated Press inquiry.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday disputed reports suggesting that the U.S. military is stretched thin and close to a snapping point from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, asserting "the force is not broken. This armed force is enormously capable," Rumsfeld told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. "In addition, it's battle hardened. It's not a peacetime force that has been in barracks or garrisons."

Meanwhile, among the nearly 10,000 service members expelled under the Pentagon's anti-gay "don't ask, don't tell" policy over a 10-year period, hundreds have been medical specialists and officers. According to data released on Wednesday by the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, 244 medical specialists were kicked out in the period spanning 1994 to 2003, the first 10 years the policy was in effect. The data were obtained from the Pentagon with the help of Rep. Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat who sits on the House Armed Services Committee. Aaron Belkin, director of the center and an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the discharges provide evidence that the ban is hampering military readiness. "The consequences of shortfalls in medical specialists during wartime are serious," he said. "When the military lacks the medical personnel it needs on the front lines, it compromises the well-being not only of its injured troops but of the overextended specialists who have to work longer tours to replace those who have been discharged." According to the new data, the 244 medical personnel discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" included physicians, nurses, biomedical laboratory technicians, and other highly trained medical specialists. The revelation comes at a time when the military has acknowledged it is struggling with significant shortfalls in recruitment and retention of medical personnel for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scandals Du Jour: At the historic swearing-in of John Roberts as the 17th chief justice of the United States last September, every member of the Supreme Court, except Antonin Scalia, was in attendance. ABC News has learned that Scalia instead was on the tennis court at one of the country's top resorts, the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Bachelor Gulch, Colo., during a trip to a legal seminar sponsored by the Federalist Society. Not only did Scalia's absence appear to be a snub of the new chief justice, but according to some legal ethics experts, it also raised questions about the propriety of what critics call judicial junkets. "It's unfortunate of course that what kept him from the swearing-in was an activity that is itself of dubious ethical propriety," said Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor, who is a recognized scholar on legal ethics. Scalia spent two nights at the luxury resort lecturing at the legal seminar where ABC News also found him on the tennis court, heading out for a fly-fishing expedition, and socializing with members of the Federalist Society, the conservative activist group that paid for the expenses of his trip. At a press conference, almost two weeks later, Scalia was not inclined to tell reporters his whereabouts during Roberts' swearing-in. "I was out of town with a commitment that I could not break, and that's what the public information office told you," he said. (The link above includes a link to video of him actually playing tennis at the resort while his new boss was being sworn in).

The number of Houston television stations planning to air a slightly sanitized version of an anti-Tom Delay ad has now reached three. NBC affiliate KPRC and CBS affiliate KHOU have decided to join Fox affiliate KRIV in airing the 30-second spot. ABC affiliate KTRK is still choosing not to air the spot. All four had declined to air a previous version of the commercial attacking the Republican congressman from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land. The new ad says DeLay "received" campaign money from disgraced super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The original said he "pocketed" the money. The original ad, paid for by two liberal groups, was supposed to start running on Houston stations last week. The DeLay campaign sent letters asking them not to run the ad, saying it was misleading. The new version says "Here's the ad Tom DeLay does not want you to see." Delay spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty says it's still "fraudulent."

For nearly 2 months after Mike Brown was forced to resign from FEMA for his incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, he continued to collect his full $148,000 salary as a "consultant." Why was Brown retained? According to a FEMA spokeswoman, it was so he could fully cooperate with the investigations into what went wrong: FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews confirmed that Brown is still on FEMA’s payroll as a consultant. She said he works from home, where he is "pulling all the documentation together" to aid in the investigations into the government’s response to Katrina. Now that Brown has cashed his checks, he is refusing to cooperate with the Senate investigation. While FEMA has been helpful, Mike Brown, the former FEMA director who resigned amid intense criticism of his agency’s response, has refused to answer even the simplest questions, according to Sen. Joe Lieberman. Brown continues to talk about the issue, but only for a fee. He recently keynoted a storm response conference and provided insight and perspective on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Senators investigating the issue could have attended for the low price of only $375.

In what has been denounced as an effort to undermine the prosecution in the Jack Abramoff scandal, Smirkey on Wednesday nominated one of the Justice Department's lead prosecutors in the Jack Abramoff corruption probe to a U.S. District Court seat. Noel Hillman, chief of the department's public integrity section, was nominated for the federal judgeship in New Jersey, where he served in the U.S. Attorney's office under Michael Chertoff, now secretary of Homeland Security. The White House was poised to nominate Hillman last summer, after New Jersey's two Democratic senators took the opportunity to weigh in on Hillman and other nominees in exchange for lifting their objections to another candidate Bush had nominated in 2003.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: Acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt's political action committee received its biggest contributions from the coffers of a "world class phone sex operator," according to today's edition of Roll Call. Seeing as he's an outspoken social conservative, some folks were surprised to find out that one of the largest contributors to Rep. Roy Blunt's (R-Mo.) political action committee last year was a businessman who made his fortune in the 1990s off the phone-sex business. Jeffrey Prosser, dubbed by the Columbia Journalism Review in a 1998 story "a world-class phone-sex operator," gave $5,000 to Blunt's Rely On Your Beliefs fund in 2005 and his wife, Dawn Prosser, gave another $5,000, making them the largest donor couple to Blunt??'s PAC. Blunt's ROYB Fund executive director, Keri Ann Hayes, said the Congressman had no clue that Prosser was a 1-900 kind of a guy. "Mr. Blunt was not aware of the colorful history of this individual contributor when his PAC accepted the donation," she said. Hayes said Blunt will not return the money because "the funds were given in a 100 percent legal and ethical fashion."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:27:54 AM

Tue, Jan 24 2006

Wind Damage And Chiggers

The weather has heated up substantially - maybe the Arenal dry season is finally here. I can certainly hope so. Last night I ran the ceiling fan in the bedroom for the first time in several months, because the overnight low only made it down to 72. And it made it to 79 today, in spite of being cloudy most of the day, and there has been only very sporadic rains lasting for only couple of minutes at a time. Sure looks like the dry season may have finally begun.

I haven't spent much time in the yard since getting back to town Sunday afternoon. It seems that the chigger season has started here in Arenal, and walking around in the yard in bare feet or even sandals, means that you're inviting some incredibly itchy insect bites. The little buggers are unbelievably annoying, as they create a bite that will itch intensely for two weeks before it heals. I really need to ask around and find out if my Tico neighbors know of a cure for the itching.

Looking out into the yard, I notice that while I was gone, the wind blew over a rather sizable banana plant, which crashed onto the lawn narrowly missing a small guanabana (soursop) tree that I planted last year on one side, and an avocado tree I had planted as well, on the other. It was a fortunate accident that it came down where it did. It didn't have a banano (banana bunch) on it yet, but it was clearly getting close to mature and probably would have fruited in a month or two, so that was a loss, but its proximity to the fruit trees has convinced me to not replant another banana there. Bad idea. I'll keep those banana plants over across the pond in the North Forty banana patch, where, when the wind blows them over, it is not going to cause other damage. I'll have the gardener move the hijos (rhizome starts) to the banana patch when he gets here on Friday.

The wind also broke my shortwave antenna, which I had to spend some time repairing. Made from ordinary iron wire, it had rusted to the extent that it had lost some of its strength. So I had to at least get it up off the ground for now, and back up high enough to listen to shortwave. I have decided not to put up anything sophisticated to replace it while I am still living here, as it would not look attractive to potential buyers of the property, and I would just have to haul it back down again when I move. And running around putting up antennas isn't going to be much fun as long as chigger season is on anyway. Sure, I could listen to great shortwave, but what would be point when I am constantly distracted by a whole lot of itching on my ankles?

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The United States: The Bush administration is bracing for impeachment hearings in Congress. "A coalition in Congress is being formed to support impeachment," an administration source said. Sources said a prelude to the impeachment process could begin with hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February. They said the hearings would focus on the secret electronic surveillance program and whether Mr. Bush violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Administration sources said the charges are expected to include false reports to Congress as well as Mr. Bush's authorization of the National Security Agency to engage in electronic surveillance inside the United States without a court warrant. This included the monitoring of overseas telephone calls and e-mail traffic to and from people living in the United States without requisite permission from a secret court. Sources said the probe to determine whether the president violated the law will include Republicans, but that they may not be aware they could be helping to lay the groundwork for a Democratic impeachment campaign against Mr. Bush. "Our arithmetic shows that a majority of the committee could vote against the president," the source said. "If we work hard, there could be a tie."

The International Atomic Energy Agency chief ruled out advancing a wide-ranging report on Iran's disputed nuclear work in time for a February 2 IAEA crisis meeting, dealing a setback to U.S.-EU efforts to crack down on Tehran. Iranian officials said they did not fear Western threats over their atomic energy drive and vowed to pursue uranium enrichment even if the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, referred Tehran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. But Tehran, which denies Western suspicions that it seeks to build atomic bombs, also urged more dialogue with the European Union to resolve a standoff that is jacking up world oil prices. Western powers want IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei to make a broad accounting of Tehran's nuclear project to the special IAEA meeting they called for February, rather than wait for a regularly scheduled March 6 session.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Monday there was strong international consensus against Iran's nuclear plans and time had run out for talking to Tehran. With Italy's foreign minister at her side, Rice said the next step must be to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council. The United States believes Iran is building a nuclear bomb but Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful, energy purposes. "The referral absolutely has to be made," Rice told reporters.

Meanwhile, Smirkey yesterday committed the US to the defense of Israel against threats from Iran, saying he would not allow the world to be "blackmailed" by an Iranian nuclear weapon. The US president's warning, issued in an exchange with students in Kansas, came at a tense time in relations with Iran, after Tehran vowed to restart nuclear research. The US is leading a diplomatic attempt to persuade other countries to refer Iran to the UN security council for failure to cooperate with United Nations inspectors. Tehran insists it is interested only in a civilian nuclear energy program, and has threatened to return to full-scale production of nuclear fuel if it is referred to the UN. He said "Israel's our ally. We're committed to the safety of Israel, and it's a commitment we will keep." This is fueling speculation in the financial community that Israel will be used as a proxy to launch an attack on Iran to forestall it opening a euro-based oil trading market in March, thereby undermining the dollar's reserve-currency status.

The Committee to Protect Journalists on Monday called for the U.S. military to free two journalists, one held without charge in Iraq and the other, the media rights group said, detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The New York-based group also demanded an explanation from the U.S. military for holding a Reuters TV cameraman for eight months without charges until his release on Sunday. Samir Mohammed Noor, a 30-year-old Iraqi freelancer, was freed from military custody after being held in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison and then at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. "Samir Mohammed Noor should not have been jailed for eight months without charge, explanation, or due process," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said in a statement. "The military owes an explanation for this open-ended and unsubstantiated detention," she said. "U.S. officials should also credibly explain the basis for the other detentions or release those journalists immediately," Cooper said. The CPJ said the military continued to hold without charge at least one journalist in Iraq and another at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, where the United States keeps foreign detainees captured in its war against terrorism. The military does not confirm the names of most of those detained at Guantanamo.

The Justice Department's voting section, a small and usually obscure unit that enforces the Voting Rights Act and other federal election laws, has been thrust into the center of a growing debate over recent departures and controversial decisions in the Civil Rights Division as a whole. Many current and former lawyers in the section charge that senior officials have exerted undue political influence in many of the sensitive voting-rights cases the unit handles. Most of the department's major voting-related actions over the past five years have been beneficial to the GOP, they say, including two in Georgia, one in Mississippi and a Texas redistricting plan orchestrated by Rep. Tom DeLay (R) in 2003. The section also has lost about a third of its three dozen lawyers over the past nine months. Those who remain have been barred from offering recommendations in major voting-rights cases and have little input in the section's decisions on hiring and policy.

The Supreme Court, ruling today in an important campaign finance case, opened the door to a new round of legal challenges to the limits Congress placed four years ago on election advertisements paid for by corporations and broadcast during the weeks before federal elections. The court's opinion was surprising, coming only six days after the argument. It was unsigned, barely two pages long, and unanimous. It may, however, have considerable impact, given that the court itself, two years ago, had appeared to foreclose further challenges to the "electioneering communications" portion of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. The Supreme Court at that time upheld the law, usually known as McCain-Feingold after the names of its Senate sponsors, in a 5-to-4 decision that considered multiple free-speech challenges to the statute "on its face" rather than in particular applications. The court ruled today that both the government and a special three-judge federal district court here had misinterpreted its earlier decision to foreclose future challenges to the advertising restrictions as they applied to particular advertisements or to particular corporate sponsors.

The Homeland Security Department was warned a day before Hurricane Katrina hit that the storm's surge could breach levees and leave New Orleans flooded for weeks or months, documents released Monday show. An Aug. 28 report by the department's National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center concluded that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane would cause severe damage in the city, including power outages and a direct economic hit of up to $10 billion for the first week. "Overall, the impacts described herein are conservative," stated the report, which was sent to Homeland Security's office for infrastructure protection. "Any storm rated Category 4 or greater ... will likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching, leaving the New Orleans metro area submerged for weeks or months," said the report, which was released by a Senate panel examining the government's breakdown in responding to Katrina.

Smirkey was stumped during the Q and A session of his speech today by a sophomore at Kansas State: Q: "My name is Tiffany Cooper. I’m a sophomore here at Kansas State and I was just wanting to get your comments about education. Recently 12.7 billion dollars was cut from education. I was just wondering how is that supposed to help our futures? [snip]" Smirkey: "Actually, I think what we did was reform the student loan program. We are not cutting money out of it." Smirkey was wrong and the student was right - $12.7 billion was, in fact, cut from the student loan program as reported here, with Vice President Cheney cutting short an overseas trip to return to cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate in favor of the cuts.

A Muslim man detained for months without charge after September 11 and then deported to Egypt gave a deposition in New York on Monday in a suit against the U.S. government for unlawful imprisonment and abuse. Yasser Ebrahim was one of four Muslim men who are being allowed to return to participate in the case under strict conditions including confinement to their hotel rooms for the duration of their stay. The men, who were cleared of any connection to terrorism, say they suffered inhumane and degrading treatment in a Brooklyn detention center, including solitary confinement, severe beatings, incessant verbal abuse and a total blackout on communications with their families and attorneys. Ebrahim's attorneys said the men will be deposed over the next two weeks in a class action suit against the government over the treatment of more than 1,200 Muslim and South Asian men rounded up after the September 11 attacks blamed on al Qaeda. The Center for Constitutional Rights -- a civil rights group handling the case -- said the conditions for their return to the United States include a ban on their speaking to anybody outside the case and confinement to their hotel room.

The city of Calabasas, Calif., has passed one of the nation's toughest antismoking laws, including restrictions on smoking in outdoor public spaces, the Los Angeles Times reported Jan. 21. The city has banned smoking in outdoor public spaces when other people are present. Nonsmokers who ask smokers to put out their cigarettes but are refused can file a complaint with the city attorney's office. "Everything is forbidden here," said Tal Genin, a smoker. "No skateboarding, no rollerblading; you can't swim in the lake. It's like 'The Truman Show': Everything looks really nice, but you can't live life." Mayor Barry Groveman defended the law, saying he hoped it would prompt restaurants, malls, and other businesses with outdoor public spaces to create separate outdoor smoking "outposts."

In a little-noticed move, the U.S. Army has issued new regulations governing the death penalty, raising speculation that the military might be preparing for its first execution since 1961. "This publication is a major revision," said the document issued January 17 and signed by Sandra Riley, administrative assistant to the secretary of the Army. "This regulation establishes responsibilities and updates policy and procedures for carrying out a sentence of death as imposed by general courts-martial or military tribunals," the document said. There are currently six men on military death row in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. One, Dwight Loving, is believed to be the leading candidate for execution. "We're worried these new regulations might be a sign they are getting ready for an execution," said David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: Governments across the European Union have "collaborated, tolerated or looked away" from the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine operations on their countries’ soil for the last two to three years. This is expected to be one of the main findings that will be revealed on Tuesday when a Council of Europe (COE) inquiry presents its interim report on the use of European territory for the practice of 'extraordinary rendition.' The preview was given by Swiss COE senator Dick Marty, tasked with heading a wide-sweeping investigation into allegations that member States have hosted CIA flight stopovers and detention centres linked to the highly controversial practice of 'extraordinary rendition.'

Habeas Corpus Death Watch: A federal judge made a final ruling on Monday requiring the Pentagon to release the names of detainees at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff ordered in favor of the Associated Press, which sued the Defense Department in April, 2005, seeking the names of detainees and transcripts of military hearings held to determine whether they were properly classified as enemy combatants. In his written ruling, the judge said the Pentagon must provide the Associated Press with unredacted copies of the transcripts by January 30, 2006. The government had asked Rakoff to reconsider his January 4 ruling, which stopped short of ordering the release of the transcripts but rejected the government's arguments. The government immediately asked the judge to reconsider saying the court had overlooked the privacy interests of detainees families and friends. But the judge said the government's motion to reconsider was based on "speculative assertions" and the "government had not remotely met its burden showing that either the detainees or their families, friends, or associates have a protectable privacy interest."

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: At a time when energy prices and industry profits are soaring, the federal government collected little more money last year than it did five years ago from the companies that extracted more than $60 billion in oil and gas from publicly owned lands and coastal waters. If royalty payments in fiscal 2005 for natural gas had risen in step with market prices, the government would have received about $700 million more than it actually did, a three-month investigation by The New York Times has found. But an often byzantine set of federal regulations, largely shaped and fiercely defended by the energy industry itself, allowed companies producing natural gas to provide the Interior Department with much lower sale prices - the crucial determinant for calculating government royalties - than they reported to their shareholders. As a result, the nation's taxpayers, collectively, the biggest owner of American oil and gas reserves, have missed much of the recent energy bonanza. The disparities in gas prices parallel those uncovered just five years ago in a wave of scandals involving royalty payments for oil. From 1998 to 2001, a dozen major companies, while admitting no wrongdoing, paid a total of $438 million to settle charges that they had fraudulently understated their sale prices for oil.

Republican Policies Are Making America A Better Nation: A pilot nation-by-nation study of environmental performance, jointly produced by Yale and Columbia Universities, ranked the United States 28th over all, behind most of Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Chile, but ahead of Russia and South Korea. The bottom half of the rankings is largely filled with the countries of Africa and Central and South Asia. Pakistan and India both rank among the 20 lowest-scoring countries, with overall success rates of 41.1 percent and 47.7 percent, respectively. The pilot study, called the 2006 Environmental Performance Index, has been reviewed by specialists both in the United States and internationally. Using a new variant of the methodology the two universities have applied in their Environmental Sustainability Index, produced in four previous years, the study was intended to focus more attention on how various governments have played the environmental hands they have been dealt, said Daniel C. Esty, the director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and an author of the report. Just six nations - led by New Zealand, followed by five from Northern Europe - have achieved 85 percent or better success in meeting a set of critical environmental goals ranging from clean drinking water and low ozone levels to sustainable fisheries and low greenhouse gas emissions.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: Smirkey told abortion opponents Monday that they are pursuing "a noble cause" and making a real difference in the campaign to recruit more Americans to stand on their side. "We're working to persuade more of our fellow Americans of the rightness of our cause," the president told abortion foes gathered at the foot of Capitol Hill on a chilly, rainy day. He spoke by telephone from Manhattan, Kansas, where he was to give a speech. "This is a cause that appeals to the conscience of our citizens and is rooted in America's deepest principle," the president said. "And history tells us that with such a cause we will prevail."

"Most commonly, they ingest a whole bottle of quinine pills, with castor oil. We try to get them to the ER before their cardiac rhythm is interrupted. Sometimes they douche with very caustic products like bleach. We had a patient, a teen, who burned herself so badly with bleach that we couldn't even examine her, her vaginal tissue was so painful... Our local hospital tells me they see 12-20 patients per year, who have already self-induced or had illegal abortions. Some make it, some don't. They are underage or poor women mostly, and a few daughters of pro-life families." If you assume the quotes above come from a veteran of the abortion rights movement, talking about the "bad old days" before Roe v. Wade, when desperate women suffered death and injuries because abortion was illegal, you'd be partly right. The speaker is a longtime worker in reproductive health, whose involvement with abortion started before Roe. But the situations she describes are occurring now. Indeed, in another eerie echo from the pre-Roe era, the increase in illegal abortion in the worker's area is so significant that a doctor from the hospital mentioned above contacted her. He asked for her help in setting up a special ward for the treatment of illegal abortions when Roe is overturned, because he knows the caseload will mushroom then. "He didn't say 'if' - he said 'when,'" she said. "Chills ran down my spine." The very policies that could reduce unwanted pregnancies - and thus abortions, legal and otherwise - are resisted at every turn by right-wing extremists and their allies in the Bush White House. Funds for family planning services are cut back while millions of dollars of federal funding are spent on totally ineffective "abstinence only" sex education.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's lawyers said Sunday they are seeking to file a case against President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. President of the Jordan Bar Association, Saleh Armouti, who recently joined Saddam's defense team, told journalists the attorneys will seek Saddam's approval this week to file a law suit against the American and British leaders in a European international court. The lawyers want to try them on charges of illegally invading and occupying a sovereign country. Armouti made his comments shortly before he and other members of Saddam's defense team left the Jordanian capital, Amman, to Baghdad before the former Iraqi leader's trial resumes Tuesday. He also said the lawyers will ask the Iraqi authorities to move Saddam's trial from Baghdad to Jordan or Qatar.

Iraq's top professionals - doctors, lawyers, professors - and businessmen - have been targeted by shadowy political groups for kidnapping and ransom, as well as murder, some of them say. So many have fled the country that Iraq is in danger of losing the core of skilled people it needs most just as it is trying to build a newly independent society. "It's creating a brain drain," said Amer Hassan Fayed, assistant dean of political science at Baghdad University. "We could end up with a society without knowledge. How can such a society make progress?" Professionals and businessmen with the means to escape are going to Jordan, Syria, Egypt or, if they have visas, to Western countries. Those left behind say they feel abandoned. Ahmed Meer Ali, a 27-year-old resident doctor, is left alone to man the private hospital where Kubasi's office is locked and shuttered. Most of the specialists who worked there, providing care to patients and guidance to Ali, have left. "They are the ones with specialties from England or the U.S.A. They were the ones teaching me," he said. "Now, some patients even go to Iran to get care. In the past, no one in Iraq would go to Iran." And many educated young Iraqis are hoping to follow.

A US officer who faced up to three years in jail for killing an Iraqi general being held in U.S. custody has been punished with a reprimand and a $6,000 fine. Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer Jr was convicted last week of the negligent homicide of Maj Gen Abed Hamed Mowhoush in 2003. Prosecutors said Gen Mowhoush was tied, placed headfirst in a sleeping bag and died with an officer sitting on him. Welshofer has thanked his military "family" for supporting his defense.

Scandals Du Jour: Lawyers for Scooter Libby on Monday made their first request to use classified evidence at his trial, launching a highly secretive court process that could bog down the case. In the filings made under seal in federal court, lawyers for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby put the judge and prosecutors on notice that they want a jury to hear evidence the government now says is classified. Their action puts the Libby case on a dual track, one public, the other secret, that often can delay criminal cases from going to trial. Although the specifics of Monday's filing remain secret, Libby's defense team hinted in a court document last Friday that they will want to disclose to a jury the nature of Plame's work as a CIA operative. Libby's lawyers said Plame's now-classified duties are among the "significant disagreements" they have with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, an issue they believe is "material" to the defense's case. Fights over classified information repeatedly delayed the case against acknowledged al-Qaida member Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Moussaoui, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, faces a trial next month in Alexandria, Va., where a jury will decide whether he should be executed. In Libby's case, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton will decide what will be presented to a jury and in what form. In such cases, compromises can be worked out where secret information is presented in summaries to a jury. In 1980, Congress passed the Classified Information Procedures Act, setting out a process for judges to weigh a defendant's right to a fair trial against the need to keep evidence secret to protect national security.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: A federal judge that President Bush nominated to the U.S. Circuit Court "apparently violated federal law repeatedly" by sitting on at least 18 cases involving corporations in which he owned stock, according to an article written by Will Evans for Salon.com. In 2001, President Bush appointed Judge James H. Payne as a federal district judge in Oklahoma, then in late September to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Salon reports that "Payne has been sitting inappropriately on at least one case at any given moment for nearly his entire federal judgeship." Payne's financial filings show holdings of up to $100,000 in SBC Communications stock, up to $50,000 in Wal-Mart stock and up to $15,000 in Pfizer stock, among others, while he presided over lawsuits involving the companies or their subsidiaries. In fact, it appears that since he was appointed by Bush in 2001 as a federal district judge in Oklahoma, Payne has been sitting inappropriately on at least one case at any given moment for nearly his entire federal judgeship.

In spite of recent negative attention brough on by his involvement in the Abramoff lobby scandal, Bob Ney (R-Ohio), hosted "dozens of financial services lobbyists" at a recent fundraiser in Vail, Colorado, Roll Call reports. It was Ney’s third year in a row attending The Lodge at Vail event, which, as in past years, was hosted by House Financial Services Chairman Mike Oxley (R-Ohio). (The chairman, and Reps. Ney, Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.), Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), all held separate fundraisers while they were there). One lobbyist who attended the event said Ney kept a lower profile that he did last year, but given the controversy, was a more conspicuous presence, especially given that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee coincidentally was holding a fundraiser in the same place. He noted that the DCCC was holding "ethics briefings" in a nearby room, where Ney could well have had to walk past. "That was the picture in my mind," the lobbyist said.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 12:21:30 PM

Sun, Jan 22 2006

A Cultural Adventure

I can't tell you what the weather was like yesterday and this morning in Arenal. I wasn't here. Instead, I had been hornswoggled into taking a neighbor to visit his sister near Guatuso, across the divine in Alajuela Province, and taking them all swimming in the Rio Celeste. So I can report instead that Guatuso is every bit as hot and muggy in the rainy season as I had heard. On the western edge of the Caribbean coastal plain, it is in direct Caribbean onshore influence, and has the expected resulting climate - unrelentingly muggy and hot weather. From the moment we dropped down from the continental divide, until late that night, I never did quit sweating profusely.

We arrived at his sister's finca about sundown. She proved to be a delightful, charming and very attractive young lady in her late 20's. Her husband, brother of a nearby finca owner, is a tall and strong man of similar age, and he is a very devoted father to their two children, a two year old rambunctious toddler, and a six-month old girl.

It seems we came at a bad time. Their patron (principal employer) had decided not to allow them to continue to have their electric meter in his name, and so without warning them, he simply called ICE and told them to come and get their meter. Which they had done the day before we arrived. So when we pulled in, the house had no electricity. Since the water is well water and was dependent on an electric pump, that meant it didn't have potable water either, and non-potable water had to be carried in to the house in buckets from a well about 50 feet away. Potable water was in two-liter soda bottles carried from a neighboring finca. Since they don't have a phone ("Real Soon Now"), there was no way to warn them that we were coming.

The wife seemed to be quite unperturbed by all this, taking it in stride as she cooked the evening meal by the light of candles and the two-burner gas hot plate, in between keeping the baby happy, the two-year-old occupied, and her guests entertained. We had brought some extra food, so we didn't totally clean out the rather sparsely supplied cupboard. By candle light, she fixed an evening meal of rice, shell pasta and tuna, with canned corn added. The drink served with the meal was avena mosh, a unique drink made from soaked, cold oatmeal and a bit of sugar. It was actually surprisingly tasty. After dinner entertainment was several hours of gin rummy.

The house was of recent construction, but it is recycled planks from packing crates, some of which still bore "made in USA" on them, and "this end up" and similar things. Being pine, I am concerned about how well it will hold up to termite attacks. There was a corrugated tin roof with no ceiling, and all the wiring was run around on the roof nailers. Even the window sills were made from packing crate frames as was the floor, made from pine 2x6's, which had been sanded and oiled to make it a bit more comfortable to walk on. There were only three rooms in the house, a bathroom, the kitchen, and the rest of the house, which was used as a dining room, bedroom and living room in a single large room. There was a fairly substantial dinette, but with only four chairs, and two very old and seriously worn sofas and an easy chair. The bedroom facilities consisted of a ancient crib with several missing slats, and a single bed with a well-used three-inch foam pad for a mattress.

In looking at the sleeping arrangement, I was curious as to what was going to be the arrangement, but before I knew what was happening, the bed had been moved into a corner behind one of the sofas, and the sheets changed, and I was told that was going to be my bed for the night. I was a bit concerned about this, as the wife had been using the bed to recline and nurse the baby, but my protestations were in vain - a high priority seemed to be making the gringo as comfortable as possible, and everything revolved around that priority to my considerable embarrassment. Before I knew what was happening, two double-bed-size three-inch foam pads had appeared, sheets put on them, and everyone was bedding down for the night. I had been warned to bring my own blanket, as they did not have enough bedding for everyone, so I put my comforter on the bed and went to sleep on top of it, as there was simply too much heat to justify even having a sheet over me. After some settling down, the kids were asleep and we all drifted off. At half past midnight, I awoke to a bit of a chill in the air, and pulled the comforter over me and slept surprisingly well the rest of the night, in spite of the slats poking me in the ribs through the rather thin foam pad.

In the morning, about sunrise, we were all up and about fairly early. The husband's brother has a farm about two kilometers up the road where they grow sugar cane, press the juice and boil it down into tapa dulce, sugar cane juice concentrated down to a heavy syrup. Selling the tapa dulce is how that family makes their primary living. The process was simple - a home-made press, with an appearance similar to the ringer from and old fashioned ringer-washing machine, hand cranked, was how the cane was pressed. First, the cane, about four feet long, was run through the press in one direction, and as it came out the other side, it was twisted, When the men cranking the press got to the end of the cane, they simply reversed the direction and ran the twisted cane through the other way, again twisting it as it came out. It was then run through again a third time, and the bagasse was then discarded on an ever growing pile. In this manner, a pile of cane about three feet high produced about ten gallons of juice, which has a pleasant, sweet, and very faintly grassy flavor. The ten gallons of juice were put in a huge calderon over a fire, which I was told will be boiled down for about five hours, and will yield about a gallon of syrup, which will sell for a few dollars in the market.

The huge pile of bagasse was a tempting target for critters. The family's pet parrot had found it, and was spending its time eating the pith of the discarded bagasse, while dodging the contributions to the pile. It was also attractive to a hive of bees, kept nearby to make honey from the remnant juice. The bees kept us busy dodging them, as they are africanized, and can be a bit dangerously aggressive.

After the cane pressing, with a two-quart bleach bottle filled with juice, we returned to the house where breakfast appeared, and while daddy kept the kids busy between bites of breakfast, mama and all the guests had a breakfast of cassava, and rice with natilla (a very light sour cream unique to Central America, and a common part of the diet) and fried liver. Well, I am not a liver fan, and in fact, have a really hard time even getting the stuff down, but managed by eating small chunks with a big mouth full of other food, and filled up on that. This couple was clearly not prosperous, and had moved heaven and earth to make us as comfortable as possible and feed us as well as they could with what little they had, so I could not bring myself to refuse the food they had sacrificed to prepare for us. I never cease to be amazed at the Ticos - how they so cheerfully and optimistically make do with so little, and are so cheerfully generous with what little they have. My hat is off to this couple - together three years and still as close as ever - the husband eagerly pitching in to help with the kids, and the wife bearing up under a huge, unexpected workload without ever a word of complaint or evidence of irritation or frustration. I suspect that it is their humble circumstances that keeps them working so well together. If poverty ever had an upside, that, I must say, is it.

The husband mentioned to me that he is interested in selling the finca - really a quinta, about three hectarias - and moving back to his parent's finca, where his help is needed. He was quite interested in my opinion of what the place is worth. Well, it is about 5 kilometers from pavement, and that reduces the value quite a bit, and if ICE keeps it promise, phones will also be available in a couple of months, but they are not in now. So in looking it over - it has two small houses, though neither is up to gringo standards, but it has facilities for three pigs, fifteen cattle, and it has two tilapia ponds, which could be converted to guapote without much effort. Nearly all the property is usable, and the ground appears to be quite fertile - there are laurel trees growing on it, and that is a pretty good indicator. So I suggested to him that all things considered, the place is probably worth about $30,000. He didn't say much, so I suspect he was a bit disappointed - I think he was looking at the prices that property in the Arenal area is getting, but I told him that he has two serious drawbacks - 5km of gravel road to get to the place, and it is at a low elevation, meaning the weather is always hot and muggy.

Breakfast over, we headed out to Rio Celeste, five miles away, and the primary object of this trip. This is one of the prime tourist attractions in the area - it is an almost pristine river that is a slightly milky-blue from the load of silica that it brings down from the slopes of Volcan Tenorio where it rises. Where the Upala highway north of Guatuso crosses it, three miles north of Guatuso, there are several absolutely stunning swimming holes, where everyone in the region goes to swim. Open to the public, no admission charge and no facilities, it is like the old down-at-the-river swimming holes from your youth. All the local teens were there, diving into the pools from about thirty feet up, and several families were there making a day outing of it, little kids splashing about in the water with their water wings. The river is full of small fish, a small silver-sided tetra that swims in large schools, jumps in formation like flying fish, and go into an absolute feeding frenzy when a bit of pineapple is tossed into the water. It appears to be the same species that is locally called "sardinas" (but unrelated to the actual sardine family), that are found in my pond.

We spent about two hours swimming in the swimming hole nearest the bridge, and when we were done, we headed back to the house for lunch. The liver was reheated, but some stew meat was also fried up, again with some rice and cassava, and some fruit punch with some added ice from a neighbor's freezer. After the vigorous swimming, we were all pretty hungry and thirsty, and were quite ready for lunch. When it was over, we said our good-byes, and it was back towards Arenal. But not without a stop at a nearby finca on the way, where my neighbor had worked as a peone for many years. An older couple, delightful people, and the typical older-generation Ticos - land rich and cash poor. They own about two hundred acres of pineapple, sugar cane and cassava. We were each given a pineapple to take home - very welcome, as the fresh pineapple here is wonderful - and after about an hour of front-porch conversation, it was back to Arenal. A very enjoyable trip, and I must say, quite a cultural experience. And now I am dog tired, and will get this blog entry proofread, uploaded and I am off to bed.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: It is not just Bush's use of the National Security Agency for illegal wiretapping and surveillance without warrants. The Pentagon has been doing it, too. While the White House defended domestic surveillance as a safeguard against terrorism, a Florida peace activist and several Democrats in Congress accused the Bush administration on Friday of spying on Americans who disagree with President Bush's policies. Richard Hersh, of Boca Raton, Fla., director of Truth Project Inc. of Palm Beach County, told an ad hoc panel of House Democrats that his group and others in South Florida have been infiltrated and spied upon despite having no connections to terrorists. "Agents rummaged through the trash, snooped into e-mails, packed Web sites and listened in on phone conversations," Hersh charged. "We know that address books and activist meeting lists have disappeared." The Truth Project gained national attention when NBC News reported last month that it was described as a "credible threat" in a database of suspicious activity compiled by the Pentagon's Talon program. The listing cited the group's gathering a year ago at a Quaker meeting house in Lake Worth, Fla., to talk about ways to counter military recruitment at high schools. Talon is separate from the controversial domestic-surveillance program conducted by the National Security Agency. Bush has acknowledged signing orders that allow the NSA to eavesdrop without the usual court warrants, prompting an outcry from many in Congress. In May 2003, Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy Defense secretary, authorized a fact-gathering operation code-named TALON - short for Threat and Local Observation Notice - that would collect "raw information" about "suspicious incidents." The data would be fed to CIFA to help the Pentagon's "terrorism threat warning process," according to an internal Pentagon memo.

House Democrats warned President Bush, top leaders of his administration and officials of the National Security Agency on Friday that if the political climate changes they could face criminal prosecution for ordering and carrying out warrantless domestic eavesdropping."These are clearly crimes and the statute of limitations extends beyond this president's term," which will end in January 2009, said Rep. Jerry Nadler D-N.Y., at an ad hoc hearing called by House Judiciary Committee's Democrats to assail Bush's contention that his order for warrantless domestic wiretaps on American citizens is legal. Another member, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, said, "I hope the administration ceases and desists, at least out of respect for their own liability." Democrats gathered in a basement meeting room of the Rayburn House Office Building because the House's Republican leaders wouldn't grant access to the Judiciary Committee's regular room. So far, the House committee hasn't scheduled any hearings into the domestic eavesdropping furor.

Israel's Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz warned the people of Iran on Saturday that their president would bring disaster and suffering upon them if he continued to call for the destruction of the Jewish state. He also said Israel was preparing to "protect itself" if international diplomatic efforts failed to convince Iran to give up its nuclear program. Speaking at the Herzliya conference, an annual gathering of politicians and academics, Iranian-born Mofaz said he knew a large portion of the Iranian people did not support President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's ideology. Mofaz addressed the Iranian people saying: "Ahmedinejad, his hallucinatory statements, his criminal actions and his extreme views will bring disaster upon you. Do what you understand needs to be done in order to prevent this."

As details poured out about the illegal and unseemly activities of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, White House officials sought to portray the scandal as a Capitol Hill affair with little relevance to them. Peppered for days with questions about Abramoff's visits to the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan said the now disgraced lobbyist had attended two huge holiday receptions and a few "staff-level meetings" that were not worth describing further. "The President does not know him, nor does the President recall ever meeting him," McClellan said. The President's memory may soon be unhappily refreshed. TIME has seen five photographs of Abramoff and the President that suggest a level of contact between them that Bush's aides have downplayed. While TIME's source refused to provide the pictures for publication, they are likely to see the light of day eventually because celebrity tabloids are on the prowl for them. And that has been a fear of the Bush team's for the past several months: that a picture of the President with the admitted felon could become the iconic image of direct presidential involvement in a burgeoning corruption scandal like the shots of President Bill Clinton at White House coffees for campaign contributors in the mid-1990s. In one shot that TIME saw, Bush appears with Abramoff, several unidentified people and Raul Garza Sr., a Texan Abramoff represented who was then chairman of the Kickapoo Indians, which owned a casino in southern Texas. Garza, who is wearing jeans and a bolo tie in the picture, told TIME that Bush greeted him as "Jefe," or "chief" in Spanish. Another photo shows Bush shaking hands with Abramoff in front of a window and a blue drape. The shot bears Bush's signature, perhaps made by a machine. Three other photos are of Bush, Abramoff and, in each view, one of the lobbyist's sons (three of his five children are boys). A sixth picture shows several Abramoff children with Bush and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who is now pushing to tighten lobbying laws after declining to do so last year when the scandal was in its early stages.

Americans hardly need a tape of Osama Bin Laden to remind them they are threatened by extremists, as the War on Terror has overshadowed their lives since 9/11. But the al-Qaeda leader's first message for more than a year will be a chilling and visceral reminder that he remains at large, waiting to strike again. Yet the most immediate political effect will probably be a boost in support for President George W Bush. The NeoCon use of Osama Bin Laden as a tool of fear and control is a tried and tested method whenever the going gets tough. It's predictable and it's tiresome, but the masses buy it every time and that's why he has reappeared once again. Just as the NSA spying tidal wave gathers increasing momentum, as the media demand more answers on rendition and torture and days after the bizarre air strike on innocent women and children in Pakistan, we all magically get a timely reminder of just why the government is spying on its own citizens and torturing and killing anyone it likes anywhere in the world. Just like Orwell's ubiquitous Emmanuel Goldstein, Bin Laden always seems to pop up right on cue so we can disengage our minds from reality and join in the two minutes hate. We are reliably informed by the mainstream media that this is because he is a very clever man and has an impeccable sense of timing. Yet if this is the case, why can he not work out that every time he has released a video or a tape it has helped Bush and the NeoCon agenda tenfold?

The United States has brought criminal charges against a 10th Guantanamo Bay prisoner, charging an Afghan man with conspiracy, aiding the enemy and attacking civilians, the Pentagon said on Friday. The case against Abdul Zahir means that 2 per cent of the roughly 500 foreign terrorism suspects held at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been charged with a crime. On Friday, prosecutors accused Zahir of working as a translator and money man for the former Taliban rulers of Afghanistan and the al-Qaida network, and implicated him in a 2002 grenade attack that injured three journalists. He was captured in July 2002.

Eight years in the White House is enough and it is right to limit presidents to a pair of four-year terms, first lady Laura Bush said on Friday. "I think that's plenty. Eight years is a long time," Smirkey's wife told the BBC in an interview, on the anniversary of Smirkey's second inauguration. A constitutional amendment ratified in 1951 limits U.S. presidents to two terms in office. Mrs. Bush also agreed with her interviewer it was dispiriting to see al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden resurface in an audiotape this week. She said she worried about her husband on his travels. "I worry about him, of course. I don‘t think there's anyone who's been married to a president that doesn‘t worry a little bit," she said.

Pakistan's president told a senior American official Saturday the United States must not repeat airstrikes like the one that apparently was aimed at al-Qaida but killed civilians in a remote village, as officials sought to soothe public outrage over the attack.

Army helicopters that have flown severe medical emergencies to Oahu, Hawaii hospitals for 32 years are being deployed to Iraq and will no longer be available as of April 1. The 12 Black Hawk helicopters equipped for medevac use will have to start training for the summer deployment to Iraq and will be unavailable until at least October of next year, Lt. Col. John Williams, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Pacific, said yesterday. Oahu's emergency medical service community has known that this day could come "from the day we went to war," Robert Pedro, a supervisor for the city's Emergency Medical Services, said yesterday. "They (the Army) has been telling us they could go anytime."

One of America's most experienced astronauts has denounced the space shuttle as a deathtrap and accused US space officials of stifling all concerns raised about its safety. The revelation comes as America prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. Seven astronauts were killed on 28 January 1986, when their shuttle exploded 73 seconds after take-off. Veteran astronaut Mike Mullane's outburst therefore comes at a deeply embarrassing time for the Nasa. Apart from dealing with the Challenger anniversary, it is now struggling to save its remaining space shuttles so they can complete the international space station. However, all three - Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour - are still grounded because engineers have not yet fixed insulation problems that doomed Challenger's sister craft, Columbia, in 2003. 'It's the most dangerous manned spacecraft ever flown,' said Mullane, who took part on three shuttle missions before retiring in 1990. 'It has no powered-flight escape system... Basically the bail-out system we have on the shuttle is the same bail-out system a B-17 bomber pilot had in World War II.' Draft legislation making the rounds in the U.S. Senate gives us a preview of the MPAA and RIAA's next target: your television and radio.

You say you want the power to time-shift and space-shift TV and radio? You say you want tomorrow's innovators to invent new TV and radio gizmos you haven't thought of yet, the same way the pioneers behind the VCR, TiVo, and the iPod did? Well, that's not what the entertainment industry has in mind. According to them, here's all tomorrow's innovators should be allowed to offer you "customary historic use of broadcast content by consumers to the extent such use is consistent with applicable law." Had that been the law in 1970, there would never have been a VCR. Had it been the law in 1990, no TiVo. In 2000, no iPod. Fair use has always been a forward-looking doctrine. It was meant to leave room for new uses, not merely "customary historic uses." Sony was entitled to build the VCR first, and resolve the fair use questions in court later. This arrangement has worked well for all involved -- consumers, media moguls, and high technology companies. Now the RIAA and MPAA want to betray that legacy by passing laws that will regulate new technologies in advance and freeze fair use forever. If it wasn't a "customary historic use," federal regulators will be empowered to ban the feature, prohibiting innovators from offering it. If the feature is banned, courts will never have an opportunity to pass on whether the activity is a fair use.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: Paul Wolfowitz, architect of America's failing foray into Iraq as Rumsfeld's former Deputy at the Pentagon, now heads the World Bank and finally seems like his true self is coming out of the closet. In recent months, picking up steam in recent weeks, there has been a massive exodus of top talent from the World Bank. According to reports, the senior Ethics Officer at the Bank has departed. Also on the exit roster are the Vice President for East Asia & Pacific, the Chief Legal Counsel, the Bank's top Managing Director, the Director of Institutional Integrity (which monitors internal and external corruption), the Vice President for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development, and the head of ISG (Information Solutions Group). According to one senior insider who feels as if Wolfowitz is gut-punching the most talented teams at the bank and indicated that morale is plummeting, "Wolfowitz just does not talk to his Vice Presidents. He speaks to a few close advisors -- Kevin Kellems, Robin Cleveland, Karl Jackson, some others -- but a lot of very good people are leaving." In addition, the senior Bank staff are bristling at the behavior and antics of Robin Cleveland, a long-time aide to Senator Mitch McConnell who was considered by this writer to be one of the few genuinely monstrous personalities among Congressional staff. She has been shaking World Bank staff and programs on governance and anti-corruption agendas "in her normal, predictable tirade-style" according to one senior World Bank official.

Free Markets Solve All Problems: OPEC producer Kuwait's oil reserves are only half those officially stated, according to internal Kuwaiti records seen by industry newsletter Petroleum Intelligence Weekly (PIW). "PIW learns from sources that Kuwait's actual oil reserves, which are officially stated at around 99 billion barrels, or close to 10 percent of the global total, are a good deal lower, according to internal Kuwaiti records," the weekly PIW reported on Friday. It said that according to data circulated in Kuwait Oil Co (KOC), the upstream arm of state Kuwait Petroleum Corp, Kuwait's remaining proven and non-proven oil reserves are about 48 billion barrels. Though the state of Iraq's oil reserves are still classified, the word going around is that, rather than the 112 billion barrels estimated before the war, they actually have only 46 billion barrels. And what about the mother of them all, Saudi Arabia? Matthew Simmons has warned for several years now that they don't have as much oil as they claim. In fact, he argues in an article in today's Independent that Saudi Arabia peaked at the end of 2004.

Diebold Watch: As the Leon County, FL supervisor of elections, Ion Sancho's job is to make sure voting is free of fraud. But the most brazen effort lately to manipulate election results in this Florida locality was carried out by Sancho himself. Four times over the past year Sancho told computer specialists to break in to his voting system. And on all four occasions they did, changing results with what the specialists described as relatively unsophisticated hacking techniques. To Sancho, the results showed the vulnerability of voting equipment manufactured by Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems, which is used by Leon County and many other jurisdictions around the country. Then, in a warehouse a few blocks from his office in downtown Tallahassee, Sancho and seven other people held a referendum. The question on the ballot: "Can the votes of this Diebold system be hacked using the memory card?" Two people marked yes on their ballots, and six no. The optical scan machine read the ballots, and the data were transmitted to a final tabulator. The result? Seven yes, one no. "Was it possible for a disgruntled employee to do this and not have the elections administrator find out?" Sancho asked. "The answer was yes."

Halliburton Watch: Troops and civilians at a U.S. military base in Iraq were exposed to contaminated water last year and employees for the responsible contractor, Halliburton, couldn't get their company to inform camp residents, according to interviews and internal company documents. Halliburton, the company formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, disputes the allegations about water problems at Camp Junction City, in Ramadi, even though they were made by its own employees and documented in company e-mails. "We exposed a base camp population (military and civilian) to a water source that was not treated," said a July 15, 2005, memo written by William Granger, the official for Halliburton's KBR subsidiary who was in charge of water quality in Iraq and Kuwait. "The level of contamination was roughly 2 times the normal contamination of untreated water from the Euphrates River," Granger wrote in one of several documents. The Associated Press obtained the documents from Senate Democrats who are holding a public inquiry into the allegations Monday. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who will chair the session, held a number of similar inquiries last year on contracting abuses in Iraq. He said Democrats were acting on their own because they had not been able to persuade Republican committee chairmen to investigate.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: Evidence is mounting that former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed Jr., along with a former leader of the Texas Christian Coalition, may have illegally lobbied Texas state officials on behalf of crooked federal lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients. Three Austin-based reform groups Common Cause Texas, Public Citizen Texas, and Texans For Public Justice, the latter of which employs the author of this article urged Travis County prosecutors last December to investigate whether Reed violated Texas’ lobby-registration laws four years ago. Correspondence between Abramoff and Reed the ex-Christian Coalition leader now running for lieutenant governor of Georgia suggests that Reed lobbied Texas officials on behalf of Abramoff’s Indian gambling clients without registering as a Texas lobbyist. The $5 million in gambling money that Abramoff reportedly paid Reed for his services would make it one of the largest lobby contracts ever made public in Texas.

Scandals Du Jour: US government investigators probing Washington's explosive Congressional bribery scandal centered on disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff recently visited Hong Kong, according to a witness interviewed by the authorities. The investigators reportedly are chasing convoluted money trails leading to Abramoff and government officials he sought to influence. Among the likely subjects of interest here is a previously unknown company called Rose Garden Holdings. In May 2002, Abramoff notified the US Senate that Rose Garden had hired him and Greenberg Traurig, his firm at the time, to represent Rose Garden's "interests before federal agencies and [the] US Congress." Abramoff recorded Rose Garden's address as a luxury flat in Tai Hang, above Causeway Bay, and its business as international trade. Over the next year and a half, the records show, Rose Garden paid Greenberg Traurig US$1.4 million for putting its case to the Senate, House of Representatives and US Department of Labor. Hong Kong's Companies Registry has no record of Rose Garden Holdings; nor does the telephone directory. The apartment listed by Abramoff as Rose Garden's premises has been owned since 1992 by Luen Thai Shipping and Trading, according to the Land Registry. Luen Thai Holdings and its controlling shareholders, the Tan family, were leading beneficiaries of Abramoff's Washington lobbying. Luen Thai officials and spokesmen referred queries about Abramoff and Rose Garden to chief executive Henry Tan, but Tan declined through his secretary to be interviewed, citing his travel schedule.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:22:25 PM

Fri, Jan 20 2006

While I Was Out

The weather seems to be in transition. Maybe the rainy season is ending early, I don't know. But I sure hope so. I am rather tired of the rain and cold, even with the break of a week and a half in Granada and its severely sunny weather. Yesterday was rainy all morning, with some brief sun in the afternoon, and an overnight low of 68. It was heavily overcast this morning when the gardener arrived, and started spraying for weeds before I realized he was here. I wasn't sure that spraying was such a red-hot idea with rain imminent, but there he was at it, and had almost finished by the time I went out and talked with him about it. Only an hour, he said, and the herbicide will set, and won't be a problem if it does rain. Well, it never did, and by mid morning, it had cleared off and gotten quite sunny, even if quite windy as well. But with the sun, it made it all the way to 79 this afternoon, which made me quite happy. There was no rain at all until after sunset, so the herbicide will be well set, and the weeds should be well and truly killed. Gotta love that Roundup. That stuff works great, even here, on our jungle-class weeds.

While the gardener was at work, I went to town for a much-needed grocery run and to get a paper. I also needed to get a photocopy of my passport with the new entry stamp so I don't have to carry my passport on my person all the time. Well, the libreria (stationery store) where I normally go, is now suddenly a shoe store. I went in and asked the clerk if she knew what happened to the copy machine in the libreria, and she responded that it was in a gift shop "in back of the bank" as she put it. So, grocery shopping complete, I headed over to the bank and had a look around the block but didn't spot it. I wound up going back and asking for a more detailed explanation, and she indicated it was across the street from the "parquito" - the small park and playground that is on the west side of the town plaza. So I went there, and finally found it - there is no sign out front, and the place just looks like an ordinary house. I guess it's a kind of a small-town Costa Rica thing - if you don't know where it is, you ain't from around these parts, so it doesn't matter. And it wasn't behind the bank, but instead, behind the tienda La Unica (a sort of dime-store kinda place). So now I have the photocopy I need in my wallet, and twenty colones (about five cents) lighter in the pocket change. At that rate, they're gonna have to sell a heck of a lot of photocopies to pay for that fancy new machine.

I noticed as I drove into town today that the ferreteria (hardware store) has completed an addition they had started just before I left. They're all moved into it, and now they have probably double the floor space. I am really glad to see that - with the competition of the other new ferreteria in town, we should be able to get about anything we need now for home projects. I am amazed at how fast the addition went up, too. It was begun just a few days before I left on the ninth, and they are all moved in now. Really amazing! Wish I could get projects around this place done that fast!

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: President George W. Bush has signed executive orders giving himself sole authority to impose martial law, suspend habeas corpus and ignore the Posse Comitatus Act that prohibits deployment of U.S. troops on American streets, and suspend the constitution. This would give him absolute dictatorial power over the government with no checks and balances. Bush discussed imposing martial law on American streets in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks by activating "national security initiatives" put in place by Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. These "national security initiatives," hatched in 1982 by controversial Marine Colonel Oliver North, later one of the key players in the Iran-Contra Scandal, charged the Federal Emergency Management Agency with administering executive orders that allowed suspension of the Constitution, implementation of martial law, establishment of internment camps, and the turning the government over to the President. John Brinkerhoff, deputy director of FEMA, developed the martial law implementation plan, following a template originally developed by former FEMA director Louis Guiffrida to battle a "national uprising of black militants." Gifuffrida’s implementation of martial law called for jailing at least 21 million African Americans in "relocation camps." Brinkerhoff later admitted in an interview with the Miami Herald that President Reagan signed off on the initiatives and they remained in place, dormant, until George W. Bush took office.The Department of Homeland Security established the "Northern Command for National Defense," a wide-ranging program that includes FEMA, the Pentagon, the FBI and the National Security Agency. Executive orders already signed by Bush allow the Northern Command to send troops into American streets, seize control of radio and television stations and networks and impose martial law "in times of national emergency." The authority to declare what is or is not a national emergency rests entirely with Bush who does not have to either consult or seek the approval of Congress for permission to assume absolute control over the government of the United States.

Israel is set to strike nuclear targets in Iran if the United Nations fails to take action against the rogue state, intelligence sources claim. Military chiefs have told the United States that they are ready and able to destroy Iran's nuclear weapons facilities - with an attack as early as March. The revelation comes as Iran faces growing isolation over its decision to restart its uranium enrichment program in defiance of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA). The UN-backed authority has warned that the country could be just three years away from building a nuclear weapon after it broke UN monitors' seals at its Natanz plant on Tuesday to restart work on its nuclear program.

In a detailed 42-page legal memorandum set for release, Smirkey's Justice Department is defending the President's warrantless wiretap program as legal. A copy of the document was leaked to RAW STORY. "The NSA activities are supported by the President's well-recognized inherent constitutional authority as Commander in Chief and sole organ for the Nation in foreign affairs to conduct warrantless surveillance of enemy forces for intelligence purposes to detect and disrupt armed attacks on the United States," Justice Department lawyers write, referring to the President's order to wiretap Americans' calls overseas. It adds, "The President has the chief responsibility under the Constitution to protect America from attack, and the Constitution gives the President the authority necessary to fulfill that solemn responsibility."

Embattled White House adviser Karl Rove vowed Friday to make the war on terrorism a central campaign issue in November and said Democratic senators looked "mean-spirited and small-minded" in questioning Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. "Republicans have a post-9/11 view of the world. And Democrats have a pre-9/11 view of the world," Rove told Republican activists. "That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong -- deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong." President Bush's top political lieutenant, making a rare public address while under investigation in the CIA leak case, joined Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman in warning GOP leaders against falling prey to the corrupting nature of power. "The GOP's progress during the last four decades is a stunning political achievement. But it is also a cautionary tale of what happens to a dominant party -- in this case, the Democrat Party -- when its thinking becomes ossified; when its energy begins to drain; when an entitlement mentality takes over; and when political power becomes an end in itself rather than a mean to achieve the common goal," Rove told Republican National Committee members ending a two-day meeting. "We need to learn from our successes," he said, "and from the failures of others." Not their own failures, such as Katrina, you might note, only the failures of others. Republicans don't make mistakes.

The disinformation campaign has begun, attempting to discredit a memo published by Narco News, describing corruption between drug traffickers and DEA agents in the Bogota, Colombia, field office of the DEA. Narco News published an exclusive story on Jan. 9 based on a leaked memo drafted by Department of Justice (DOJ) attorney Thomas M. Kent. In the memo, Kent alleges that DEA agents in Bogota are in league with narco-traffickers and are implicated in money laundering and murder. Kent's memo also alleges that investigations into the alleged corruption carried out by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and DEA's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) were derailed and whitewashed by officials within those watchdog agencies. (OIG has oversight over DEA’s OPR -- which is essentially the agency's Internal Affairs unit -- and the right of first refusal when it comes to investigating corruption cases within DEA.)

Michael Ledeen, reported here several months ago as the forger of the "Niger yellowcake" documents that led to the Valerie Plame scandal, and who occasionally consulted for the Bush Defense Department, has confirmed that he was a contributor to the Italian magazine Panorama, whose reporter first came across the forged documents which purported that Iraq was seeking to obtain uranium from Niger. The bogus documents became the basis for the infamous sixteen words in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address, in which he detailed his case for war. Their origin has been one of the most persistent mysteries in how American intelligence on Iraq was so wrong. In an email to RAW STORY, occasional Bush foreign affairs advisor Michael Ledeen confirmed that he was, "several years ago," a regular contributor to Panorama. Leeden would not provide more specificity.

The Bush administration appears to have violated the National Security Act by limiting its briefings about a warrantless domestic eavesdropping program to congressional leaders, according to a memo from Congress's research arm released yesterday. The Congressional Research Service opinion said that the amended 1947 law requires President Bush to keep all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees "fully and currently informed" of such intelligence activities as the domestic surveillance effort. The memo from national security specialist Alfred Cumming is the second report this month from CRS to question the legality of aspects of Bush's domestic spying program. A Jan. 6 report concluded that the administration's justifications for the program conflicted with current law.

The Pentagon's desperation to fill military ranks with new recruits is beginning to show: The U.S. Army, which missed its fiscal 2005 recruiting goal, said on Wednesday it has raised the maximum enlistment age for new soldiers by five years to 39, greatly expanding its pool of potential recruits, and is doubling signing up bonuses to a high of 40,000 dollars. Army officials said the move did not reflect desperation to reverse recruiting shortfalls, noting the Army had achieved seven straight monthly recruiting goals despite coming up 7,000 short of last year's target of 80,000 recruits. The Army has blamed recruiting shortfalls in part on reluctance by some potential recruits to serve in the Iraq war. Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman, said older recruits must meet the same physical standards as the younger ones and attend the same basic training. The new age ceiling applies to recruits without prior military service.

Holy convenience, Batman! Just when Smirkey needs to whip up some fear of terrorism to get the Patriot Act renewal pushed through a reluctant congress, a tape recording alleged to have been made by Osama Bin Laden surfaces, in which Bin Laden allegedly claims that preparations for a fresh wave of terror attacks on the US are under way. The speaker said al-Qaida was open to a truce with the US if it withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan and that the only reason there had been no attacks on US cities since 9/11 was because it had not attempted any.

Think that the problems with the public education system are limited to grades 12 and below? Think again - the problem is with university graduates, too. Nearing a diploma, most college students cannot handle many complex but common tasks, from understanding credit card offers to comparing the cost per ounce of food. Those are the sobering findings of a study of literacy on college campuses, the first to target the skills of students as they approach the start of their careers. More than 50 percent of students at four-year schools and more than 75 percent at two-year colleges lacked the skills to perform complex literacy tasks. That means they could not interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school. The results cut across three types of literacy: analyzing news stories and other prose, understanding documents and having math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips. "It is kind of disturbing that a lot of folks are graduating with a degree and they're not going to be able to do those things," said Stephane Baldi, the study's director at the American Institutes for Research, a behavioral and social science research organization.

Former U.S. Rep. James E. Rogan has resigned from the advisory board of a conservative UCLA alumni group after learning that the group's founder had offered students $100 payments to record professors' "non-pertinent ideological comments." Rogan, a Republican who represented Glendale and Pasadena for two terms and was a manager in the impeachment trial of President Clinton, said he did not want his name linked to the controversial effort to record professors in their classrooms. Rogan, now a lawyer in Irvine, on Wednesday sent an e-mail tendering his resignation to Andrew Jones, head of the Bruin Alumni Assn. and its one full-time employee. The year-old group, supported by donations, has no formal connection to UCLA. In his e-mail, Rogan wrote, "I am uncomfortable to say the least with this tactic. It places students in jeopardy of violating myriad regulations and laws." Jones had offered to pay UCLA students $100 for recordings and lecture notes of professors caught in "indoctrination, one-sided presentation of ideological controversies and unprofessional classroom behavior." Jones said one student, whom he declined to identify, had taken up the offer thus far.

More than 3,200 people remain listed as missing some five months after Hurricane Katrina struck the US' Gulf coast, officials have said. Some may have been traced without being removed from the list, while others may have chosen to vanish. But several hundred names are causing particular concern to the authorities. Of almost 11,500 people reported missing in aftermath of the storm, more than 8,000 have been accounted for, state and federal workers said. About 400 of those reported missing were from addresses in badly-flooded areas of the city of New Orleans, state medical examiner Dr Louis Cataldie was quoted as saying by the Associated Press news agency. He urged another thorough sweep of the rubble in the area.

The White House is refusing to reveal details of tainted lobbyist Jack Abramoff's visits with

President Bush's staff. Abramoff had "a few staff-level meetings" at the Bush White House, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday. But he would not say with whom Abramoff met, which interests he was representing or how he got access to the White House. Since Abramoff pleaded guilty two weeks ago to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion charges in an influence-peddling scandal, McClellan has told reporters he was checking into Abramoff's meetings. "I'm making sure that I have a thorough report back to you on that," he said in his press briefing Jan. 5. "And I'll get that to you, hopefully very soon." Don't hold your breath, folks. Meanwhile, Smirkey's aides are scrambling to identify all the photos that may exist of the President and lobbyist Jack Abramoff together, TIME’s White House Correspondents Mike Allen and Matt Cooper report in Monday editions. Bracing for the worst, Administration officials obtained from the Secret Service a list of all the times Abramoff entered the White House complex, and they scrambled to determine the reason for each visit, TIME reports. Abramoff attended Hanukkah and holiday events at the White House, according to an aide who has seen the list. Press secretary Scott McClellan said Abramoff might have attended large gatherings with Bush but added, "The President does not know him, nor does the President recall ever meeting him."

More than 100 members of Congress visited Israel in 2005. In his summary to the Israeli Cabinet this week on relations with the United States, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said 23 U.S. senators and 80 members of the U.S. House of Representatives visited Israel last year, some multiple times. "The legislative branch has maintained its unique and long-standing status as a stronghold of support for Israel, transcending party lines and Congressional houses," he said.

Soldiers who are faced with going into battle with inadequate or no body armor supplied by the military are now apparently under orders NOT to use armor they purchase on their own, even though it is the same armor worn by their commanding generals. The soldiers, who are currently staging for combat operations from a secret location, reported that their commander told them if they were wearing Pinnacle Dragon Skin [body armor] and were killed their beneficiaries might not receive the death benefits from their $400,000 SGLI life insurance policies. The soldiers were ordered to leave their privately purchased body armor at home or face the possibility of both losing their life insurance benefit and facing disciplinary action. The soldier said the order came down Friday morning from Headquarters, United States Special Operations Command (HQ, USSOCOM), located at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. But evidently what's good for the goose (grunt) is not good for the gander (brass). Currently nine U.S. generals stationed in Afghanistan are reportedly wearing Pinnacle Dragon Skin body armor, according to company spokesman Paul Chopra. Chopra, a retired Army chief warrant officer and 20+-year pilot in the famed 160th "Nightstalkers" Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), said his company was merely told the generals wanted to "evaluate" the body armor in a combat environment.

Consumer groups in the US are suing cereal maker Kellogg's and children's TV network Nickelodeon in a bid to stop them showing adverts for sugary foods. They are demanding that both companies drop TV and website ads for so-called 'junk foods' aimed at youngsters. TV ads for sugary and fatty snacks have been criticised by pressure groups in the US, who argue they are helping to fuel soaring child obesity rates. But industry groups deny that food companies have acted irresponsibly. They say that manufacturers have no direct control over which foods are bought by consumers. The court action against Kellogg's and Nickelodeon-owner Viacom is being brought jointly by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI), the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and two Massachusetts parents. They point to a recent study by the US government-backed Institute of Medicine, which suggested that companies were using TV ads to encourage more children to eat unhealthy foods.

A Baltimore judge struck down a 33-year-old state law against gay marriage Friday, declaring it violates the Maryland Constitution's guarantee of equal rights. Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock immediately stayed her order to allow the state to file an appeal with Maryland's highest court, the Court of Appeals. The attorney's general office did so later in the day. Murdock ruled in favor of 19 gay men and women, rejecting a state argument that the traditional family is ideal for children. "Although tradition and societal values are important, they cannot be given so much weight that they alone will justify a discriminatory" law, she wrote. Massachusetts is the only state to allow gay marriage. "This is such an exciting moment," said Lisa Polyak, a plaintiff with partner Gita Deane. "Our participation in this lawsuit has always been about family protections for our children. Tonight, we will rest a little easier knowing that those protections are within reach."

The bungled transition of 6.4 million poor and vulnerable people from state Medicaid plans into Medicare bodes poorly for the up to 20 million other seniors expected to sign up for the federal program. Under the prescription drug plan, the low-income seniors were automatically enrolled in private health plans. The new coverage kicked in Jan. 1. Since then, many patients have left drugstores empty-handed because their names weren't in government databases. Pharmacies didn't know which drugs were covered. Druggists were unable to get through to the health plans' jammed phone lines. Some plans didn't comply with rules that they approve emergency supplies on the spot. Patients were overcharged for co-pays and deductibles they didn't owe. Twenty states, seeing a disaster in the making, rushed to pay for prescriptions and rescued the frailest of our citizens from the federal government's new "benefit." It's unknown whether anyone has died, but patient relapses and emergency hospitalizations abound, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: From Peru to the Philippines to Poland, U.S.-based conservative groups are increasingly engaged in abortion and family-planning debates overseas, emboldened by their ties with the Bush administration and eager to compete with more liberal rivals. The result is that U.S. advocacy groups are now waging their culture war skirmishes worldwide as they try to influence other countries' laws and wrangle over how U.S. aid money should be spent. "We don't expect to see the United Nations change, or Western Europe change," said Joseph d'Agostino of the Population Research Institute, a Virginia-based anti-abortion group. "But with the Bush administration, pro-lifers feel there's a real opportunity to stop the U.S. government from promoting abortion and sex education and population control in the Third World."

In September, domestic security officials promised to tighten control of the border with Mexico by swiftly deporting all illegal immigrants seized there, ending the practice of releasing thousands of illegal immigrants to the streets each year because of shortages of beds in detention centers. Despite the promise of nearly 2,000 more detention beds to ensure that illegal immigrants do not flee before being deported, thousands continue to be released with notices to appear in court. One morning in January, a month when, typically, relatively few illegal immigrants cross the river, no detention beds were available for women here and none for families, Border Patrol officials said. Nationally, 18,207 illegal immigrants, nearly 60 percent of the total apprehended, were released on their own recognizance in the first three months of this fiscal year.

Spain has said it will go ahead with the sale of 12 military planes to Venezuela despite US objections. However, the aircraft will be made with more expensive European parts because the US has blocked the use of its technology for Venezuela. The US says Venezuela's Socialist President Hugo Chavez could use the planes to destabilise the region. Both Madrid and Caracas have said the equipment - also including eight patrol boats - is for defensive purposes. Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said Spain "did not share" the US reasons for blocking the deal. She said the deal would create 1,000 Spanish jobs over the next few years.

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: In the face of rising gas prices, partisan sniping over Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, and a resumption of insurgent violence in Iraq, President Bush’s job approval rating has slipped into a post-holiday funk, again dipping below 40%, a new telephone poll by Zogby International shows. His approval rating almost mirrors the percentage of respondents (40%) who said the nation overall is headed in the right direction. The deterioration in the President's numbers appears to be the result of eroding support among the investor class and others who supported him in his 2004 re-election bid, said Pollster John Zogby, President and CEO of Zogby International. And the problem is the Iraq war just 34% of respondents said Mr. Bush was doing a good or excellent job managing the war, down from 38% approval in a Zogby poll taken in mid-October.

Crony Watch: Smirkey plans to nominate David L. Norquist, brother of long-time presidential adviser and neo-con extremist Grover Norquist, to be chief financial officer of the Homeland Security Department, the White House has announced. The department’s current CFO, Andy Maner, announced yesterday that he would resign, effective March 3. David Norquist now works as deputy undersecretary of Defense for budget and appropriations affairs. His brother, Grover, is famous for his comment that the goal of the administration should be to "shrink government to the size where it could be drowned in the bathtub."

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: The European Parliament has formally launched a probe into allegations of CIA secret prisons for torturing suspects. EU Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Elmar Brok said: "There must be no Guantanamo on European soil. We want to be clear to our people and to the rest of the world that we do not violate human rights." The decision to create a European Parliament committee to look into media and human rights group allegations of CIA detention centres in EU member and candidate countries was taken last week by political leaders in the assembly. The panel has been launched in Strasbourg and has no investigative powers and its mandate is to collect and analyse information on the allegations into the so-called 'black prisons'.

The British government is secretly trying to stifle attempts by MPs to find out what it knows about CIA "torture flights" and privately admits that people captured by British forces could have been sent illegally to interrogation centers, the Guardian can reveal. A hidden strategy aimed at suppressing a debate about rendition - the US practice of transporting detainees to secret centers where they are at risk of being tortured - is revealed in a briefing paper sent by the Foreign Office to No 10. The document shows that the government has been aware of secret interrogation centers, despite ministers' denials. It admits that the government has no idea whether individuals seized by British troops in Iraq or Afghanistan have been sent to the secret centers. Dated December 7 last year, the document is a note from Irfan Siddiq, of the foreign secretary's private office, to Grace Cassy in Tony Blair's office. It was obtained by the New Statesman magazine. It was drawn up in response to a Downing Street request for advice "on substance and handling" of the controversy over CIA rendition flights and allegations of Britain's connivance in the practice. Meanwhile, Britain believes the CIA's reported secret transfer of terrorism suspects to foreign countries for interrogation is illegal, according to a leaked government document published on Thursday. The Foreign Office memo says the practice, known as extraordinary rendition, "could never be legal" if the detainee is at risk of torture, according to extracts printed in the Guardian newspaper.

First Amendment Death Watch: The US Government is taking legal action to gain access to Google's vast database of internet searches in an historic clash over privacy. The Bush Administration has asked a federal judge to order the world's most popular internet search engine to hand over the records of all Google searches for any one-week period, as well as other closely guarded data. The California-based company is to fight the move. The immediate flashpoint is the Government's effort to revive an online child pornography law that was struck down by the Supreme Court two years ago. The US Justice Department requested access to Google's search records as part of its effort to prove the constitutionality of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act. The controversial law sought to curb minors' access to internet pornography by making it a crime to publish material that is "harmful to minors" on the web. The law was immediately challenged by civil liberties groups and never came into force. It was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it was unconstitutionally restrictive of free speech.

Fourth Amendment Death Watch: The National Security Agency advised President Bush in early 2001 that it had been eavesdropping on Americans during the course of its work monitoring suspected terrorists and foreigners believed to have ties to terrorist groups, according to a declassified document. The NSA's vast data-mining activities began shortly after Bush was sworn in as president and the document contradicts his assertion that the 9/11 attacks prompted him to take the unprecedented step of signing a secret executive order authorizing the NSA to monitor a select number of American citizens thought to have ties to terrorist groups.

Republicans Believe In Fiscal Responsibility: The White House acknowledged on Thursday that the budget deficit would climb back above $400 billion this year, erasing the brief improvement last year and complicating President Bush's vow to cut the deficit in half by 2009. Joel Kaplan, the White House deputy budget director, predicted that the government's shortfall would climb to more than $400 billion in 2006 from $319 billion in 2005, largely because of relief efforts tied to Hurricane Katrina. That shortfall would be equal to about 3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, a significantly higher share than last year and high for a country that is expected to experience its fifth straight year of economic growth. The new deficit forecast is about $60 billion bigger than what the administration had predicted in July, before Hurricane Katrina.

Republicans Believe In Playing By The Rules: Representative Louise Slaughter D-NY reveals that Tom DeLay and Bill Frist had daytraders working in their offices. The traders were making money on insider information of pending legislation. That's against the law, folks.

John Snow, the US Treasury Secretary, denied yesterday that China had America in an economic stranglehold as an announcement by Beijing that it will seek to diversify its vast currency reserves fuelled worries that the dollar will come under heavy pressure this year. The decision by China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (Safe) that it will explore a wider range of ways to invest the country’s $769 billion (£437 billion) of currency reserves — the bulk of which are in dollars — could add to a series of factors exerting downward pressure on the US currency, economists said. The dollar confounded widespread forecasts last year that it would succumb to a broad-based decline. But with the prospect of an early peak in US interest rates and a slowdown in the American economy already tipped by many to weigh on the currency, analysts said China’s move could only add to risks of a significant sell-off at some point this year.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: On December 1, 2005 The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued a study titled Analyzing the Economic and Budgetary Effects of a 10 percent Cut in Income Taxes. The paper's purpose is to illustrate more clearly how CBO estimates the economic effects of tax policies, this brief analyzes the economic and budgetary effects of a relatively simple tax proposal: a 10% reduction in person income tax. The conclusions are very interesting because they essentially rebuke any argument from die-hard laffer curve proponents. According to the study, the government would lose 75% of the 466 billion that it would lose as a result of the tax cuts. To put it another way, the best possible fiscal result from individual's behavioral change as a result of a 10% tax cut would still cause a the government to lose a substantial amount revenue. So, what can we learn from this study? Republican economic talking points are 100% wrong; supply-side tax-cuts do not cause a large enough change in behavior to offset the loss in government revenue as a result of supply-side tax cuts.

Ford Motor Co. will announce Monday a sweeping restructuring of its money-losing North American auto operations, a plan that will close at least 10 plants, including assembly plants in St. Louis and Atlanta, and trim 25,000 hourly jobs over the next four years. Once salaried jobs are calculated in, the job cuts will number close to 30,000. The plan will be unveiled at Monday morning after the automaker releases its fourth-quarter 2005 earnings. Ford has lost about $1.2 billion in North America through the first nine months of the year, even though its operations in other parts of the world are doing well.

The United States and Mexico agreed on Thursday to phase out American duties on Mexican cement imports, a move aimed at easing cement shortages caused by a building boom in Asia and rising demand for cement to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. The agreement would reduce duties on Mexican imports to $3 a metric ton, from $26, but limit imports to three million tons a year in the Southern states for the next three years, according to a statement from the Commerce Department. After that, all duties and quotas would be ended. The agreement ends a 16-year dispute that began after the United States imposed duties on Mexican cement imports, responding to cement producers in Southern states who argued that Mexican producers were selling cement in the United States for less than in Mexico.

News From Smirkey's Wars: After a year of arduous political spadework by Iraqis trying to establish a democracy, a major humanitarian watchdog group has said "the human rights situation in Iraq deteriorated significantly in 2005." Human Rights Watch made the assessment Wednesday in a report titled "Human Rights Watch World Report 2006," a global survey of the state of human rights. The U.S.-led coalition has touted a year of political progress in Iraq, as Iraqis numbering in the millions went to the polls to vote for a transitional parliament, a four-year parliament and a constitution. The United States has also touted its efforts to fight and arrest insurgents and train competent Iraqi security forces. One of the realities stemming from the report is that violence -- deadly, dramatic suicide bombings and daily insurgent ambushes and roadside bombings -- has taken a toll on living conditions, as well as claiming many lives. "Efforts to boost economic reconstruction and the rebuilding of Iraq's devastated infrastructure continue to be hampered by general instability in the country and the level of violence caused by insurgency and counter-insurgency attacks," the report said.

Scandals Du Jour: Barely one of every five of former House Majority Leader

Tom DeLay's constituents would vote for him if the election were held now, according to a newspaper poll released Saturday. The Republican congressman, who lost his leadership post because of felony money laundering charges against him, trailed Democratic rival and former congressman Nick Lampson in his southeastern Texas district, according to the poll of 560 registered voters conducted for the Houston Chronicle. In polling conducted Tuesday through Thursday, 22 percent of respondents said they would vote for DeLay, 30 percent chose Lampson and 11 percent favored Republican-turned-independent former congressman Steve Stockman. Lampson's campaign manager, Mike Malaise, said the poll suggests that "people in the district want a congressman who will make headlines for the right reasons."

Meanwhile, at least two Houston television stations have decided not to air ads targeting Tom DeLay. The ads are paid for by Campaign for America's Future and Public Campaign Action Fund. They address alleged links between DeLay and Republican House colleague Bob Ney of Ohio and a widespread congressional corruption probe of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The ads were to start Wednesday and run for one week. But DeLay campaign spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty said the campaign sent letters to the stations asking them not to run the ads because they're purposefully misleading. A statement issued Wednesday by KTRK-TV said the Houston ABC affiliate has decided to reject the ad in its current form. KRIV-TV also has decided not to air the spots, said Dartanian Bebel, vice president and general manager of the Fox affiliate.

There's been a great deal of speculation over the last several days, particularly in the light of Jack Abramoff's recent guilty pleas, concerning the connection of Congressman Bob Ney (R-OH) to Election Fraud in Ohio, vis a vis his stewardship and authoring of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) back in 2001 and 2002. The heavy-handed tactics he has taken since, in order to keep the flawed act from being changed in any way over the years, along with going to great lengths to keep the nation's eyes off of massive electile dysfunction in Ohio and elsewhere since 2004, may finally get the attention it all properly deserves. Both Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon have directly informed prosecutors of Ney's alleged wrong-doing in regard to money and gifts given to Ney, in apparent exchange for support on various legislation and even personal business deals. Ney, who chairs the important U.S. House Administration Committee, has been fingered, and now subpoenaed, for accepting illegal trips, gratuities and other apparent quid pro quo deals with Abramoff's former firms, partners, friends and groups who had paid both him and Scanlon as lobbyists.

After a comment by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) on Air America's Majority Report Wednesday evening, House Democrats are pushing the ethics committee to investigate allegations of congressional offices providing privleged information to Wall Street investors. On Air America, Slaughter alleged that "day traders" in the offices of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) had aided such investors. She mentioned as a specific example that individuals got advance notice that an asbestos bill was not going to emerge from the Senate. An article that ran below the radar in November revealed the "day trading" practice, in which little-known firms use sources in Congress to glean information relevant to publicly-traded stocks. As Washington turns its eyes to fallen conservative superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, new focus has come to other allegations of congressional wrongdoing.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: Utah congressman Chris Cannon loaned nearly $100,000 to the president of a Nebraska bank who extended at least $250,000 in credit the following year to the representative's business venture in the state, RAW STORY has found. Cannon's office confirmed that the congressman had extended a loan of between $50,000 and $100,000 to First National Bank of Gordon, Nebraska president Gary Ruse in September 1996. The following year, the Utah Republican's kosher beef-packing plant, Premium Beef, received a $250,000 to $500,000 loan from Ruse's bank. A person familiar with the transaction asserts that Cannon's personal loan to Ruse was intended to ensure that he received a loan for his troubled beef-packing plant. Cannon's office rejects the charge. A spokesman said that Ruse recused himself from the loan decision, and called any accusations of bribery "absurd." "It was a loan of a personal nature," Cannon spokesman Charles Isom said of the congressman's loan to Ruse. "It's absurd to think the insinuation there being that the loan was made as a bribe." Cannon's office declined to provide specific information about the amount of the loans beyond the congressman's personal campaign finance reports. Isom said Ruse made a payment on the loan in late 1996, though the amount outstanding has not changed since it was made, according to Cannon's latest reports. His office said the loan has not been repaid, though efforts had been made to collect it.

One day after a New York investment group raised $110,000 for Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis, the House passed a defense spending bill that preserved $160 million for a Navy project critical to the firm. The man who protected the Navy money? Lewis. The fundraiser, which took place July 7, 2003, and the subsequent vote illustrate the kind of relationship between congressman and contributor that's under increased scrutiny in the nation's capital. A fellow California Republican, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, resigned in November after admitting he helped steer Pentagon contracts to two of four businessmen who paid him more than $2.4 million in bribes. Former top GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty last month to using gifts and political donations in a conspiracy to bribe public officials. Both investigations continue.

U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, has vowed to seek re-election even if he is indicted in the federal lobbying probe on Capitol Hill. Saying he was elected by the constituents of Ohio's 18th District and not by state party officials, Nye told The Hill newspaper that he planned to run for a seventh term. Ney said he has received so many calls of support "I literally can't return" them all, since Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett told Fox News should Ney be indicted he would be asked to step down.

News Of The Weird: A slimy jellyfish weighing as much as a sumo wrestler has Japan's fishing industry in the grip of its poisonous tentacles. Vast numbers of Echizen kurage, or Nomura's jellyfish, have appeared around Japan's coast since July, clogging and ripping fishing nets and forcing fishermen to spend hours hacking them apart before bringing home their reduced catches. Representatives of fishing communities around the country gathered in Tokyo on Thursday, hoping to thrash out solutions to a pest that has spread from the Japan Sea to the Pacific coast. "It's a terrible problem. They're like aliens," Noriyuki Kani of the fisheries federation in Toyama, northwest of Tokyo, told Reuters ahead of the conference. Cutting up and disposing of the giants can turn a three-hour fishing trip into a 10-hour marathon, while valuable fish are poisoned or crushed under the weight of the unwanted catch. And what a catch. One Echizen kurage can be up to 2 meters (6 feet, 7 inches) in diameter and weigh up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds).

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:36:01 AM

Wed, Jan 18 2006

Back Online

It was a hectic two weeks, and somewhat adventurous, but I am now back online, and the blog will resume, as of today, per normal. I regret the inconvenience my unavoidable travels have caused my regular readers, and hope you'll all return to reading my blog on a regular basis.

I spent the last week and a half in Granada, Nicaragua, doing business as well as visiting old friends and making some new ones, and enjoying a break from Arenal's somewhat gloomy and rainy weather for this time of year. While Arenal was suffering rainy weather almost continuously in my absence (from what my friends here tell me), Granada was severely sunny nearly all the time, with temperatures in the mid to upper 80's most of it. Even at night, the temperature would drop only into the upper 70's, and so air conditioning was necessary for me to sleep. Back in Arenal, I arrived yesterday afternoon to upper 70's temperatures, and it was 76 and brightly sunny when I arrived. But it was the first sunny and warm day since I left, I was told. It clouded over during the night, and had dropped to 70 when I got up this morning, and began the usual intermittent rains. Oh well, the sun and warmth of Granada was nice while it lasted.

I arrived in Granada at about four in the afternoon on Monday the 9th, and took my usual room at the Hospedaje Italiano. Not fancy, by any means, but it has air conditioning (so I can sleep), and cable TV - and at $25 a night, it is good value. It is also within walking distances of some really good restaurants (gringo prices) and some decent, but cheap Nicaraguan-style restaurants (Nica prices), where the food is ample and good, but neither it nor the presentation is fancy. But imagine getting a full steak dinner for $1.80 - that is what I paid on Monday night, and the steak - a New York strip steak - was excellent, if a bit rare for my liking. There's no sign out front, so I can't tell you what the name of the place is, only that it is a block west of Hostal Central on Calle Calzada. But it was where all the Nicas were eating - I was the only gringo in the place, other than one huge, beefy gringo with a blonde ponytail, fading tatoos and a rather ratty tank top and plastic flip-flops. And I gather he is a regular in the place. There is another Nica diner, located across from the cinema, that is a great place for a hearty, huge lunch - Nica asada, either beef or chicken breast - very tasty, along with rice, plantains or beans, and a soda or beer, all for $2.50. The place is usually packed with Nicas, often celebrating a birthday or wedding in the family, it can be a bit of a cultural experience - I was invited to get up and dance with some birthday celebrants. For dessert, there is an ice cream parlor two blocks up from my hotel - a double-dipper cone or cup is sixty cents, and the ice cream is as good as any in the States, and better than most. Lemon with chocolate cake is my favorite.

Granada is really coming up in the world. When I first went there a bit over two years ago, there was hardly ever a gringo face to be seen, and the few extranjeros (foreigners) there were nearly all Europeans - a rather odd mixture of young backpacker tourists and the occasional businessman or charity worker. The town had a run-down appearance, the two-century-old colonial houses looking every bit their age. They gave the impression that no one cared. That has all changed. Where the freshly painted house-front in the colonial district was rare then, the run-down colonial house is the exception now. And everywhere you look, even in the side streets and back barrios where the poorer Nicas live, you see the old colonial houses being restored and freshly painted. Ugly window grates are being replaced with fancy colonial-style bay-window style rejas, usually complete with potted bougainvilleas, and fresh paint is everywhere. The municipality is engaged in a massive sewer installation project to help clean up Lake Nicaragua (Calle Calzada was all torn up, but only for five days - the sewer went in and the streets backfilled with amazing speed), and even the Catholic cathedral on the east side of the central plaza is being slowly restored to its former colonial glory. The central market district is continuing to expand, and the horse-drawn cargo cart, once predominant in town, is now relatively rare - nearly all have been replaced by hordes of old but proud pickup trucks. And the prosperity seems to be trickling down - there are still plenty of beggars and street kids, but not in anywhere near the numbers there was when I first visited two years ago. Even the street dogs were looking better fed than I remember.

It is not just Granada, either. The federal government has nearly completed a four-lane expressway from Managua through Masaya to Granada - all that remains to be completed is the stretch through Masaya itself, the routing having only recently been agreed to. And I can attest that it has cut the travel time for the 30-mile trip from an hour and a half of bumping and crashing on a potholed road to under 45 minutes of a smooth, pleasant ride - even by bus. I am sure that private cars can make it even faster than that. The work is being done right - roughly three inches of asphalt on compacted road base. It should last much longer than what I typically see in Costa Rica. I have also heard that a road is being built out to the Atlantic coast, which will make that part of Nicaragua accessible by road for the first time ever. On my trip to Managua, I passed two shopping malls under construction on the outskirts of Managua. No sign of an economic slowdown in Nicaragua - that country is really on the move. It is also incredibly welcoming to tourists and people intending to move there to live. When I went to the Tourism Institute to inquire about pensionado residency, I was hustled in to a cubicle of a very warm and friendly lady who introduced herself as my personal counselor - after asking about my situation and explaining the procedures to me, I was given her card, with her phone number and email address on it, and was urged to write or call at any time for help with the process of getting my documentation in order to apply for a residency. Here I was, in a federal government agency, and I was made to feel like I was genuinely wanted and appreciated, not just being merely tolerated. What a refreshing change!

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: John Yoo, an architect of Smirkey's torture policies, has publicly argued there is no law that could prevent the President from ordering the torture of a child of a suspect in custody including by crushing that child’s testicles in order to force the suspect to talk. This came out in response to a question in a December 1st debate in Chicago with Notre Dame professor and international human rights scholar Doug Cassel. What is particularly chilling and revealing about this is that John Yoo was a key architect post-9/11 Bush Administration legal policy. As a deputy assistant to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, John Yoo authored a number of legal memos arguing for unlimited presidential powers to order torture of captive suspects, and to declare war anytime, any where, and on anyone the President deemed a threat. It has now come out Yoo also had a hand in providing legal reasoning for the President to conduct unauthorized wiretaps of U.S. citizens. Georgetown Law Professor David Cole wrote, "Few lawyers have had more influence on President Bush’s legal policies in the 'war on terror’ than John Yoo."

Two leading civil rights groups plan to file lawsuits Tuesday against the Bush administration over its domestic spying program to determine whether the operation was used to monitor 10 defense lawyers, journalists, scholars, political activists and other Americans with ties to the Middle East. The two lawsuits, which are being filed separately by the American Civil Liberties Union in Federal District Court in Detroit and the Center for Constitutional Rights in Federal District Court in Manhattan, are the first major court challenges to the eavesdropping program. Both groups are seeking to have the courts order an immediate end to the program, which the groups say is illegal and unconstitutional. The Bush administration has strongly defended the legality and necessity of the surveillance program, and officials said the Justice Department would probably oppose the lawsuits on national security grounds. The British writer Christopher Hitchens, one of the most reliable allies of the US administration's conduct of the war on terror, has joined one of the lawsuits. In the ACLU suit, Hitchens joins other writers, Greenpeace and the Council on American-Islamic Relations in seeking an immediate end to the wiretaps, saying they violate constitutional rights to privacy and free speech. Perhaps Mr. Hitchens has finally figured out what the real agenda behind the "war on terrorism" really is.

Lawyers representing al-Jazeera yesterday demanded to see a Downing Street record of a conversation between Tony Blair and George Bush in which the US president said he wanted to bomb the Arabic satellite television station based in the Gulf state of Qatar. The document is said to be a transcript of a conversation between the two leaders in April 2004. "Any thought of bombing al-Jazeera ... would be both morally wicked and legally indefensible," said Mark Stephens, the TV station's lawyer. Downing Street has already said it has information "relevant" to the issue.

A jury verdict in Memphis late last year caused little stir among the general public, but it may have caught the attention of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and other high officials of the Bush administration. The jury found Colonel Nicolas Carranza, former Vice Minister of Defense of El Salvador and now a U.S. citizen living in Memphis, responsible for overseeing the torture and killing in that country 25 years ago. Could similar charges be brought against high U.S. officials for the actions of their subordinates in Abu Ghraib, Falluja, and Guantanamo? Carranza was sued by victims of armed forces under his control. The jury applied the principle of "command responsibility," which holds a superior legally responsible for human rights abuses by subordinates if the official knew or should have known about them and failed to prevent them or punish those who committed them. Intelligence agency whistleblowers recently leaked to ABC News a list of six "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" authorized for CIA agents in mid-March 2002. The agents, according to an ABC News report, did so "because the public needs to know the direction their agency has chosen."

A memo drafted by Department of Justice attorney Thomas M. Kent alleging major corruption in the Bogota, Colombia, office of the Drug Enforcement Administration has caused a bit of a stir in the mainstream media over the past few days. The internal Justice Department document, drafted in December 2004, alleges that DEA agents in Bogota are on the payroll of narco-traffickers, engaged in money laundering for right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia and also conspired to murder informants. The document also alleges that two government watchdog agencies the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General and DEA’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) whitewashed an internal investigation into the corruption charges. So as the mainstream pack journalism heats up in the wake of Narco News' exclusive report on the memo and corruption allegations, it seems appropriate to throw some more raw meat into the field for the hungry media wolves. The Associated Press followed Narco News' recent exclusive report of alleged corruption in the Bogota, Colombia, office of the Drug Enforcement Administration with an article headlined: "Probe of DEA Agents Finds No Wrongdoing." Although the AP story headline seems to imply that the corruption charges are a dead issue, at least one former high-ranking DEA official contends the allegations are, in fact, very credible. In addition, representatives of the two watchdog agencies charged with investigating the corruption, to date, don't seem to have their stories straight about the status of their investigations, based on comments made to Narco News.

The mayor of New Orleans, who excoriated the Bush administration for its indifference to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, was again involved in controversy yesterday when he said the disaster was a sign of God's wrath at America, and black Americans in particular. "Surely God is mad at America. He sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane, and it's destroyed and put stress on this country," the mayor, Ray Nagin, said in a speech to mark Martin Luther King Day. "Surely he doesn't approve of us being in Iraq under false pretences. But surely he is upset at black America also." On Sunday, January 8th, Reverend Jesse Jackson attacked Republican plans to buy up and eliminate African-American neighborhoods in New Orleans. In a press conference at the Sheraton Hotel in New York, Jackson decried what he considers a systematic program by the Washington Administration to turn "survivors" into a permanent Diaspora of refugees denied both their homes and the political power of their concentrated votes in the city. Citing the findings of investigative reporter Greg Palast, who joined Jackson on his national radio broadcast earlier that morning, the civil rights leader called for a "Right of Return" for Katrina survivors.

Sen. Hillary Clinton on Monday blasted the Bush administration as "one of the worst" in U.S. history and compared the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to a plantation where dissenting voices are squelched. Speaking during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event, Clinton also offered an apology to a group of Hurricane Katrina survivors "on behalf of a government that left you behind, that turned its back on you." Her remarks were met with thunderous applause by a mostly black audience at the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. The House "has been run like a plantation, and you know what I'm talking about," said Clinton, D-N.Y. "It has been run in a way so that nobody with a contrary view has had a chance to present legislation, to make an argument, to be heard." The White House charged Sen. Clinton was "out of bounds" when she said Monday that the Bush administration was "one of the worst" in U.S. history and compared the Republican House to "a plantation."

South Korean cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk, a science superstar disgraced when his pioneering stem cell research was unmasked as a hoax, has a new job offer from a UFO cult that says it has produced six human clones. Clonaid, a company linked to a group that believes humans were cloned from prehistoric alien visitors to Earth, said it had offered him a post in one of its laboratories. When it announced that its sixth cloned baby had been born in Sydney in 2004, Australian Health Minister Tony Abbott called the announcement "the medical equivalent of a UFO story."

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: The U.S. State Dept. is coordinating the deployment of a nationwide electronic-surveillance system in Mexico, a project that will enable the Agencia Federal de Investigaciones (AFI) to intercept phone conversations and online messages from every telecommunications network within Mexico. According to documents obtained via the Federal Business Opportunities contracting database, this new system will enable the mass collection and analysis of communications and information, thereby helping to prevent acts of major federal crimes in Mexico that include narcotics trafficking and terrorism. The statement of work guiding this planning stage of this project makes clear that all U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies are slated to become indirect beneficiaries of this monitoring system. The motivation behind the communications-intercept system is to strengthen the ability of both governments to disseminate timely and accurate information to one another's federal, state, local, private, and international partners," it says. Provision of this data will ensure that the Mexican Government will have information to expeditiously thwart and confront criminal and terrorist activity. The project involves construction of a surveillance command center within AFI’s headquarters, which eventually will be linked to phone company and Internet service provider (ISP) networks nationwide. Government technicians staffing the center will be capable of programming and tapping into targeted phone numbers without the prior assistance of phone service providers or ISPs, the documents show. The techs also will be able to transfer monitored calls made to cellular or fixed phones, to an agent located on the field, it says.

First Amendment Death Watch: The American Civil Liberties Union has denounced a provision contained within legislation created to reauthorize the Patriot Act that would make major changes to the criminal statutes administered by the Secret Service and could seriously damage the free speech rights of all Americans. The controversial provision has not had any Congressional review or hearings. According to Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, "If this provision is adopted, our precious First Amendment would be significantly curtailed. The Secret Service already has broad authority to stifle dissent at events where high-ranking public officials appear. This little-noticed provision, contained in legislation meant to reauthorize the Patriot Act, would give the Secret Service effective power to enact 'exclusion zones' even without the attendance of the president or other Secret Service protectee. Imagine, in the future, a pro-choice president is set to speak at a conference, which the Secret Service declares as an 'event of national significance.' If the bill passes, the Secret Service could shut down areas throughout the conference and arrest any pro-life protester who violates the zone for a felony. This could happen even at times when the president is not speaking. Congress has not had ample time to consider this attack on the First Amendment. While there remains much to do on the Patriot Act powers themselves, lawmakers must reject this assault on the right to dissent."

No Child Left Behind: Every 8-year-old public school student in the state of New York will be taking a test in the next few days. It's part of George Bush's No Child Left Behind program. The losers will be left behind to repeat the third grade. The problem with the test is that it is blatantly, shockingly class-biased in favor of the upper classes - kids whose parents live in the Hamptons or Forest Hills, or the Long Island North Shore. Kids in Bed-Stuy or Harlem have hardly a chance. See why by taking the test yourself. Why does No Child create such blatant class bias? It has been suggested that it is in no small part intended to deliberately create failure - and force children into military careers as their only option. The No Child act makes sure that military recruiters have easy access to high schools across the nation.

Fourth Amendment Death Watch: In the anxious months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Security Agency began sending a steady stream of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and names to the F.B.I. in search of terrorists. The stream soon became a flood, requiring hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips a month. But virtually all of them, current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans. F.B.I. officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators. The spy agency was collecting much of the data by eavesdropping on some Americans' international communications and conducting computer searches of phone and Internet traffic. Some F.B.I. officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans' privacy. As the bureau was running down those leads, its director, Robert S. Mueller III, raised concerns about the legal rationale for a program of eavesdropping without warrants, one government official said. Mr. Mueller asked senior administration officials about "whether the program had a proper legal foundation," but deferred to Justice Department legal opinions, the official said. President Bush has characterized the eavesdropping program as a "vital tool" against terrorism; Vice President Dick Cheney has said, without providing any evidence whatever to back his wild assertion, that it has saved "thousands of lives." About as believable as his "insurgency is in its last throes" remark last year.

Former Vice President Al Gore, charging that President Bush's record on civil liberties posed a "grave danger" to America's constitutional freedoms, on Monday urged the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Bush's authorization of warrantless domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency. In a detailed and impassioned speech sponsored by liberal and conservative groups, Gore said that although much remained unknown about the spying program, "what we do know … virtually compels the conclusion that the president of the United States has been breaking the law, repeatedly and insistently." Here is the text of Gore's speech. Asked by ABC News after his speech whether President Bush's domestic spying program constituted an impeachable offense, Gore said it might and pointed to one of the three Articles of Impeachment that the House Judiciary Committee approved against President Nixon on July 27, 1974. "That's a legal determination for Congress to make," Gore told ABC News. "But Article II of the impeachment charges against President Nixon was warrantless wiretapping, which the president said was 'necessary' for national security." It can be an impeachable offense, Gore added.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: A University of Alberta scientist is part of an international research team proving, for the first time, that global warming is behind an infectious disease epidemic wiping out entire frog populations and forcing many species to extinction. "There is absolutely a linkage between global warming and this disease - they go hand-in-hand," said Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa, a professor in the U of A's Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and co-author of a research paper appearing in the current edition of the prestigious journal Nature. Sanchez-Azofeifa worked with an international research team led by Dr. Alan Pounds from Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve and Tropical Science Centre. Accounting for such things as deforestation, the scientists investigated how the Monteverde harlequin frog vanished along with the golden toad 17 years ago from the mountains of Costa Rica. The researcher say about 67 per cent of the 110 species of the harlequin frog, which only existed in the American tropics, have met the same fate due to a pathogenic fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis.

News From Smirkey's Wars: An official assessment drawn up by the US foreign aid agency depicts the security situation in Iraq as dire, amounting to a "social breakdown" in which criminals have "almost free rein". The "conflict assessment" is an attachment to an invitation to contractors to bid on a project rehabilitating Iraqi cities published earlier this month by the US Agency for International Development (USAid). The picture it paints is not only darker than the optimistic accounts from the White House and the Pentagon, it also gives a more complex profile of the insurgency than the straightforward "rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists" described by Smirkey. The USAid analysis talks of an "internecine conflict" involving religious, ethnic, criminal and tribal groups. "It is increasingly common for tribesmen to 'turn in' to the authorities enemies as insurgents - this as a form of tribal revenge," the paper says, casting doubt on the efficacy of counter-insurgent sweeps by coalition and Iraqi forces.

Italian prosecutors investigating the killing of an Italian secret service agent at a checkpoint in Iraq plan to charge a U.S. soldier with murder and attempted murder, Italian media reported Tuesday. U.S. gunfire killed Nicola Calipari near the checkpoint on March 4, as the agent was heading to Baghdad airport in a car with an Italian journalist who had just been released after being held hostage by militants. The ANSA and Apcom news agencies reported Tuesday that prosecutors planned to charge the soldier with murdering Calipari and attempting to murder the agent driving the car as well as the journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, who were both wounded during the incident. State TV news Tg1, and private SKY TG 24 television news also carried the report.

Scandals Du Jour: More than 18 months after the Pentagon disbanded the Coalition Provisional Authority that ran Iraq, neither the Justice Department nor a special inspector general has moved to recover large sums suspected of disappearing through fraud and price gouging in reconstruction. Earlier audits by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction -- a post Congress created in late 2004 -- found that oversight of contractors by the Authority was so lax that widespread abuse was likely. An audit in April 2005, for example, found "significant deficiencies in contract administration," which meant that "there was no assurance that fraud, waste, and abuse did not occur in the management and administration of contracts" the U.S. awarded with Iraqi oil money administered by the United Nations. Nevertheless, there hasn't been a concerted effort to trace what happened to the money and make recipients pay back any ill-gotten gains. The inspector general's office said it doesn't plan to ask the Justice Department to file lawsuits or to conduct widespread audits of individual contracts to look for fraud. Instead, it says, it is using its limited resources to pursue higher priorities, including investigating charges of bribery to win some Iraqi work and auditing current controls on the spending of redevelopment aid.

Attempting to staunch the hemorrhaging of political capital as a result of the Abramoff affair, House Speaker Dennis Hastert urged new restrictions on gifts from lobbyists Tuesday, responding to a scandal that already has claimed two Republican leaders and raised GOP fears about this year's elections. Hastert, confronting a political crisis spawned by the Jack Abramoff scandal, promoted legislation that would end the practices of lobbyists footing the bill for lunches or arranging lavish "fact-finding" trips for members of Congress to warm-weather resorts. Lawmakers-turned-lobbyists would be banned from the House gym and from access to the House floor, where they have been known to make deals in hopes of changing votes.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: A critical aspect of the corruption and bribery mega-scandal swirling around conservative lobbyist Jack Abramoff and shaking Capitol Hill-which hasn't gotten much mass media attention - is how so much dough from slush funds that he controlled went to leading homophobes from the religious right. Abramoff did more than simply hire anti-gay luminaries - the Reverend Lou Sheldon, who heads up the Traditional Values Coalition, and Ralph Reed, former chief of the Christian Coalition, key among them - with money from his clients and front groups to lobby on behalf of special interests. Abramoff also funded an anti-gay group with close ties to his best buddy and biggest water-carrier, former House Majority Leader Tom Delay - the U.S. Family Network - with laundered money that has been traced to Russian oil interests. Grover Norquist, dubbed "The Lenin of the Right," as head of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) - a hard-right lobbying group - convenes and presides over a weekly meeting of the leaders of more than 100 conservative organizations. It was at these meetings that the successful anti-gay strategy targeting same-sex marriage was hatched and refined as critical to Republican victory in 2004. Norquist allowed Abramoff to launder money through ATR to help an Abramoff client - who wanted to sell state lottery tickets online - whip up opposition to an anti-gambling bill that would have put that client out of business. But the most bizarre and Byzantine Abramoff scam was the laundromat called the U.S. Family Network, established in 1996 by DeLay's former chief of staff, Edwin Buckham. The group, which promoted DeLay's economic and family values agenda, spent money on radio ads that targeted Democratic members of Congress for their alleged fealty to "the homosexual agenda." Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition received at least $25,000 from an Abramoff client, eLottery - an online gambling outfit - as part of the $2 million the company spent to defeat an anti-gambling bill. The Washington Post reported that Abramoff referred to Sheldon as "Lucky Louie." What makes this all the juicier is that the Traditional Values Coalition has long proclaimed its hostility to gambling and crusaded against it.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:59:57 AM

Fri, Jan 06 2006

On Hiatus

The weather has suddenly turned seasonable - and cold. The National Meteorological Institute said it would happen today, and it has - the "dry season" has finally shifted into its normal seasonal pattern, which here in Arenal, means "cold" weather, wind and lots and lots of rain. So far, the rain hasn't started yet, but that's just a matter of time. Probably tomorrow. But what started out as a pleasant day with an overnight low of 70, sure changed. By mid afternoon, the wind had picked up, the sky clouded over and the temperature has begun to drop - as I write this, it is 69 and the temperature is still falling. It's only 76 in the house, and is usually 80 this time of night. And it is only eight in the evening. Time to go put on some long pants and a long-sleeve shirt.

Yesterday, I made a hurried trip to San Jose to pick up my mail, which had been accumulating for some time. I needed to make sure there was nothing urgent in it that I didn't know about, and there wasn't. The trip began as a sunny, pleasant ride through the Guanacaste countryside, enjoying the fragrance of the many flowers in bloom, including the cortesa trees and the many bougainvilleas and hibiscus. Making good speed up the Esparza grade for a change, we arrived in San Jose at just a bit after 11, and I had the bus driver to drop me off just two blocks from my destination. So I not only got my business taken care of, but was able, for a change, to have a leisurely lunch before getting on the bus for the return trip.

The return trip wasn't so much fun. The bus was packed to the gills - by the time it made its last San Jose stop in Barrio La Uruca, there wasn't even any standing room left. This meant that stops were going to be time-consuming as people would have to work their way through the crowd to get off the bus. And when we got to the Esparza grade, we found ourselves at the end of a traffic jam at least a mile long. As often happens on that dangerous ten-mile stretch of steep hills and blind curves, a semi had collided with another vehicle in a blind curve, and the resulting overturn completely blocked traffic. We were held up for more than half an hour, as a wrecker cleared the blockage. And no sooner did we start moving again, when a woman who appeared to be about five months embarazado, began to suffer serious pains and contractions, and we had to stop and wait at a roadside restaurant while she was helped into the bathroom to see if it progressed. It didn't, and the pain subsided. And after 20 minutes or so, she was gingerly helped back on the bus and our journey resumed. We ended up back in Tilaran just as the sun was setting - about an hour and a half late. But things could have been worse - far worse - one of the strap hangers in the aisle next to me, a lanky, cheerful and friendly young man of about eighteen, had to stand up for the entire trip - from when the bus left at 12:45, right to the bitter end at a bit after 5:30 - without a single break or opportunity to sit on a bus too crowded to even lean against a seat. How he survived it, I'll never understand. My heart goes out to that poor kid.

This will be the last blog entry for awhile. I am going to be on hiatus for an indefinite period - I am traveling, won't have access to my computer during that time, and don't know at all when I will be back - best case, about a week and a half, worst case, possibly several months. Just don't know - details when I return. My suggestion, if you have an RSS reader, is to subscribe to the RSS feed (orange icon link is in the upper right), and you'll be informed automatically as soon as I return. I am very sorry for the interruption, but it is unavoidable, and I assure you that the blog will resume as soon as I have returned and am able to resume researching and editing it for you. I appreciate the loyalty of all my readers, and apologize profusely for this unavoidable inconvenience.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: The National Security Agency, the top-secret spy shop that has been secretly eavesdropping on Americans under a plan authorized by President Bush four years ago, destroyed the names of thousands of Americans and US companies it collected on its own volition following 9/11, because the agency feared it would be taken to task by lawmakers for conducting unlawful surveillance on United States citizens without authorization from a court, according to a little known report published in October 2001 and intelligence officials familiar with the NSA's operations. NSA lawyers advised the agency to immediately destroy the names of thousands of American citizens and businesses it collected shortly after 9/11 in its quest to target terrorists in this country. NSA lawyers told the agency that the surveillance was illegal and that it could not share the data it collected with the CIA or other intelligence agencies. The lawyers said the surveillance could result in numerous lawsuits from people identified in the surveillance reports, two former US officials told the Houston Chronicle in an October 27, 2001, report, and was illegal despite any terrorist threat that existed in the days following 9/11. But there are reasons to suspect that the illegal eavesdropping, and the related program of illegal detentions of U.S. citizens as well as foreign nationals, began earlier. Both may be part of what Vice President Dick Cheney has called the Bush administration's restoration of "the legitimate authority of the presidency" -- practices exercised by Nixon that were outlawed after Watergate. In the 1980s Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld discussed just such emergency surveillance and detention powers in a super-secret program that planned for what was euphemistically called "Continuity of Government" (COG) in the event of a nuclear disaster.

Who Killed Pat Tillman? Remember him? He was the star National Football League defensive back who, after the 9/11 attacks, walked away from his $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist as an elite U.S. Army Ranger and go off to Afghanistan to whip some terrorist ass. No matter what your opinion on the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, or your theory on who was ultimately responsible for the 9/11 attacks, Tillman was clearly acting as a selfless hero in the traditional sense of the word. The media sang only one song at the time-dirtbags in Afghanistan did this to us-and "deterrence" through violent retribution was the only discussable response. Both Tillman and his brother Kevin, like most every American, bought into the program-but they actually volunteered to fight. As both wars droned on, Tillman, the picture perfect poster boy, evolved into something of a wild card. With a Noam Chomsky meeting on the horizon there existed a very real possibility that Tillman, in the weeks leading up to the 2004 presidential election, might go public with his anti-war, anti-Bush views, dealing a critical blow to the very foundation of the Bush administration's propaganda pyramid. That day never came, however. On April 22, 2004, Tillman was killed while on patrol in Afghanistan by three American bullets to the head. Immediately, evidence surrounding the killing began to disappear. One day after his death someone burned his body armor. Two days later someone burned his uniform. At some point his journal, which he religiously wrote in, went missing. With that journal disappeared Tillman's voice. Meanwhile the Bush administration's professional liars began spinning one of their tallest tales, with their cohorts in the Pentagon explaining how the hero Tillman was killed by enemy fire. Bush himself chimed in to announce that Tillman was "an inspiration on and off the football field, as with all who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror." The Army issued Tillman a postmortem Silver Star for bravery, explaining in the process how, "through the firing Tillman's voice was heard issuing fire commands to take the fight to the enemy on the dominating hill ground." And this is the story the media reported to the world. But files obtained by Tillman's mother, from three Army investigations into the killing, document a different set of last words. According to testimony issued by a fellow Ranger, who was at Tillman's side when he was killed, the last words Tillman shouted before being shot were, "Cease fire, friendlies, I am Pat Fucking Tillman, dammit!" According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Ranger commanders received a report the day after his death stating that Tillman died in a suspected act of fratricide, the crime of killing members of your own group. But the more they were confronted with the truth of what happened, the harder Army officials stuck to the official lies. By all accounts, Tillman was popular and loved by the troops with whom he served-supporting the theory that his death was in fact a tragic accident. One of the Army investigations, however, suggested leveling charges of criminal intent against the killer or killers, prompting Tillman's mother to ask, "I want to know what kind of criminal intent there was." But all she has been able to glean from over 2,000 pages of official reports are contradictions, continuously changing stories, and countless blacked out lines.

When President Bush last week signed the bill outlawing the torture of detainees, he quietly reserved the right to bypass the law under his powers as commander in chief. After approving the bill last Friday, Bush issued a ''signing statement" -- an official document in which a president lays out his interpretation of a new law -- declaring that he will view the interrogation limits in the context of his broader powers to protect national security. This means Bush believes he can waive the restrictions, the White House and legal specialists said. ''The executive branch shall construe [the law] in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President... as Commander in Chief," Bush wrote, adding that this approach ''will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President . . . of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks."

If a terrorist ever sets off a "dirty bomb" nuke in your city, don't expect the results to be cleaned up very well: A terrorist attack using a crude nuclear device or a "dirty bomb" could leave anywhere from a building to many square miles contaminated -- perhaps even uninhabitable. Now the government has issued cleanup guidelines that some critics maintain would expose people returning to such a site to high cancer risk. The guidelines issued Tuesday by the Homeland Security Department would allow cleanup standards that in some cases would be far less stringent than what is required for Superfund sites, commercial nuclear power plants and nuclear waste dumps.

It has been revealed that the Sago mine in West Virginia that was the site of last week's tragic mine disaster, has a safety record much worse than average for the industry. Federal inspectors spent 744 hours at the Sago Mine last year, compared with 405 hours in 2004, MSHA's McKinney said. "An 84% increase in on-site hours shows that our folks were concerned and actually walked the walk," McKinney said. Federal authorities issued 21 citations last year for a build-up of combustible materials at the West Virginia mine where 12 men died, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. After sections were closed, the mine operators had to correct problems before they could reopen those areas of the mine, he said. In all, the Sago Mine received 276 violations in 2004 and 2005, including 120 that were considered "significant and substantial." During that time, the government sought $33,600 in fines. Of that, the companies paid $23,986. Compared with three other similar-sized mines in West Virginia, the Sago Mine had far more violations during that period, a USA TODAY analysis found. The Argus Energy Deep Mine No. 8 in Wayne County, for instance, had 156 violations, 120 fewer than Sago. The three other mines also had fewer accidents, according to MHSA data. Sago had 40 accidents in 2005. The most at any of the other mines was 12, records show. The United Mine Workers union contends that the federal government has lessened its enforcement of mining safety regulations in recent years. And despite problems at the mine, the highest proposed fine issued by the government last year was $440 for one of the ventilation violations. Many of the violations prompted $60 fines. "If I go down the street in Washington, D.C., at 10 mph over the speed limit, I'm going to get much higher fine than that," union official Baker said. Labor groups have criticized the Bush administration for cutting staff at the Mine Safety and Health Administration – the federal agency in charge of inspecting and enforcing mine safety. Bush appointees have also eliminated regulations designed to protect miners. For instance, David Lauriski, a former mining-company official who was appointed to head the MSHA in 2001, altered a rule requiring mines to have at least two separate exit paths. The regulation is one of seventeen aimed at making mining less dangerous that the MSHA has undone since 2001, according to the government watchdog OMB Watch.

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee has told Smirkey that the White House broke the law by withholding information from the full congressional oversight committees about a new domestic surveillance program. In a letter to Bush, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., said the National Security Act requires the heads of the various intelligence agencies to keep the entire House and Senate intelligence committees "fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States." Only in the case of a highly classified covert action can the president choose to inform a narrower group of Congress members about his decision, Harman said. That action is defined in the law as an operation to influence political, economic or military conditions of another country. "The NSA program does not qualify as a 'covert action,'" Harman wrote.

New allegations indicate that American civilian military leadership may have used an off-book quasi-military team to address political issues, placing those concerns above securing peace in the region. Three U.S. intelligence sources and a source close to the United Nations Security Council say that the Pentagon civilian leadership under the guidance of Stephen Cambone, appointed to lead Defense Department intelligence in March 2003, dispatched a series of “off book” missions out of the ultra-secretive Office of Special Plans (OSP). The team was tasked to secure the following in order of priority: fallen Navy pilot Scott Speicher, WMD and Saddam Hussein. While it is known that an authorized special operations unit was dispatched before the invasion of Iraq with similar objectives, sources say another team also operated on the ground in Iraq, primarily from the summer until the fall of 2003. This team appears to have been composed of 4-5 men.

No one denied that the murder of the three little girls by their father was a tragedy, but a dispute over whether the government shared responsibility for the killings has rippled all the way from a small Colorado town to an international tribunal. Shortly after her daughters’ deaths in 1999, Jessica Gonzales filed a lawsuit against the town of Castle Rock, Colorado, contending that police had not responded adequately when her husband, Simon Gonzales, abducted the children as they played outside their home. In kidnapping the children, the father violated a court order permitting him only limited visiting time with the children. According to Jessica Gonzales’s legal petition before a US district court, local police repeatedly ignored her requests that they enforce the court order and return her children. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in June that a family has no explicit constitutional right to police enforcement of protection orders under the due-process clause. The court dismissed arguments from women’s rights groups that law enforcement agents violate due process of law when ignoring or downplaying domestic violence threats. The majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, said that a "well-established tradition of police discretion has long coexisted with apparently mandatory arrest statutes." Frustrated with the court’s ruling, the ACLU filed a petition on Gonzales’s behalf on December 27 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a tribunal that handles human rights issues in the Americas. The petition cites the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, adopted by the United States in 1948, which provides "rights to dignity and humane treatment" as well as "the protection of privacy, the family, and the home." The complaint alleges that the Castle Rock police "shirked their responsibility under international human-rights law to provide special protections to women and children, especially those who are victims of domestic violence." If the ICHR rules against the city of Castle Rock, will their judgement be enforced? Don't hold your breath.

19-year old Army Private Kyle Lawson, recently beaten by fellow Private Zacharias Pierre after Pierre learned Lawson is gay, has been discharged from the Army. According to Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, officials have refused to reveal if any action has been taken against Pierre, who has not been discharged. Private Lawson's nose was broken and he was later threatened with a knife after a friend revealed during a Battalion party in October that Lawson is gay. While Private Pierre was originally charged with aggravated assault by civilian police, Fort Huachuca officials have decided not to prosecute the case "for reason fort officials say they are not at liberty to explain," according to press reports. Lawson says the solider used an anti-gay slur during the attack.

A consumer-advocacy organization is threatening to sue Frito-Lay over the snack company’s marketing of chips containing the fat substitute olestra. The group wants the Pepsi Co subsidiary to reinstate prominent warnings on the packaging telling consumers about possible diarrhea, stomach cramping and other digestive problems associated with faux fat. In leveling the demand, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), threatened to sue Frito-Lay on behalf of a woman who claims to have experienced severe digestive discomfort after consuming potato chips carried under the company’s "Light" line of salty snacks.

The seriousness of a recently discovered bug in Windows has made Microsoft release a patch for the loophole early. Originally Microsoft was due to release the patch on 10 January as part of its regular monthly security updates. But the number of malicious hackers preparing to exploit the bug has led the software giant to speed up the release. Before Microsoft produced its patch, users had been relying on unofficial fixes to protect themselves. The fix now available closes a loophole found in the way that many versions of Windows handle certain types of images. By putting exploit code in webpages or e-mail attachments, the loophole could be used to take over a Windows PC or install spyware that could be used to gather confidential information. Vulnerable versions of Windows include include ME, 2000, XP and Server 2003.

The governor of the state of Virginia has ordered a DNA test to establish the guilt or innocence of a man executed for murder in 1992. Roger Keith Coleman was convicted of raping and murdering his sister-in-law, but always maintained his innocence right up to his execution. The US is not thought to have used DNA tests to clear someone after execution. Democrat Governor Mark Warner said new techniques in DNA testing could provide a definitive verdict not available at the time of the trial. Mr Warner, who has been tipped as a possible presidential candidate for the 2008 election, is due to leave office on 14 January. "This is an extraordinarily unique circumstance, where technology has advanced significantly and can be applied in the case of someone who consistently maintained his innocence until execution," he said. "I believe we must always follow the available facts to a more complete picture of guilt or innocence."

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: A U.S.-based human rights group said Wednesday it suspects the CIA had a secret prison in a third European country and it plans to investigate. Human Rights Watch did not identify the third country but said it was one of the 25 members of the European Union. Previously, the group identified Poland and Romania as sites of possible secret detention centers run by the United States. "We do have one other individual allegation of a country, a country that is a member of the European Union," Lotte Leicht, director of the group's Brussels-based office, told the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights on Wednesday. "We are trying to conduct a surprise visit there." Leicht refused to give more details, fearing it would compromise the investigation. But she told The Associated Press the New York-based human rights watchdog considered its source "very credible." "We have lots of information from intelligence sources that are so far not willing to go public. We know that if they do, they will ... lose their jobs," Leicht told the committee.

The Financial Times is reporting the US government is planning the construction of a high-security prison in Afghanistan to hold detainees. The planned site for the jail is Pol-e-Charki, a rundown prison near Kabul that dates back to the Soviet era. The jail would be phased in as an alternative to the US military prison at Guatanamo Bay, Cuba, where the US is currently holding more than 500 people. Another 500 prisoners are under US detention at military facilities and secret locations across Afghanistan.

Governator Watch: Realizing that he can't ignore the plight of voters if he wants their votes, California state governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a $223bn public works program to improve schools and infrastructure. In his address to the state, the governor said he wanted to recreate a 1960s-style era of prosperity. A series of bond issues would fund the plans, which must be approved by both the state legislature and voters. Mr Schwarzenegger suffered a blow last November when he failed to win public backing for a package of reforms. His new proposals would see a 10-year public building scheme to improve ports, main roads, water supplies and schools.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: - President Bush and leaders of his economic team fanned out to trumpet encouraging signs in the economy but were confronted Friday with disappointing news about weaker-than-expected job growth. Friday's marquee event was Bush's trip to Chicago, where the president was to appear at the Chicago Board of Trade and deliver a speech on the economy before the Chicago Economic Club. The day was also to see Vice President Dick Cheney touring a Harley-Davidson factory and making remarks in Kansas City, Mo.; Treasury Secretary John Snow at the New York Stock Exchange; Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez in Louisville, Ky.; Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in Baltimore; and Energy Secretary Sam Bodman in Pittsburgh. Their appearances came on the heels of the government's release of its employment report for December, which showed that job growth slowed from a big hiring spurt in November. There was a gain of just 108,000 jobs in December, about half of what economists were expecting. That compared with 305,000 jobs created in November, according to revised figures. "These are strong numbers," White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy said. He said the November and December figures signaled the economy was adding more than 200,000 jobs a month. "It's very healthy job creation." Analysts said the payroll growth figure was below what is needed to absorb new labor market entrants.

The downward pressure on the dollar's buying power continues: China indicated on Thursday it could begin to diversify its rapidly growing foreign exchange reserves away from the US dollar and government bonds - a potential shift with significant implications for global financial and commodity markets. Economists estimate that more that 70 per cent of the reserves are invested in US dollar assets, which has helped to sustain the recent large US deficits. If China were to stop acquiring such a large proportion of dollars with its reserves - currently accumulating at about $15bn (EU12.4bn) a month - it could put heavy downward pressure on the greenback. In a brief statement on its website, the government's foreign exchange regulator said one of its targets for 2006 was to "improve the operation and management of foreign exchange reserves and to actively explore more effective ways to utilise reserve assets". It went on: "[The objective is] to improve the currency structure and asset structure of our foreign exchange reserves, and to continue to expand the investment area of reserves.

A new study by two leading academic experts suggests that the costs of the Iraq war will be substantially higher than previously reckoned. In a paper presented to this week’s Allied Social Sciences Association annual meeting in Boston MA., Harvard budget expert Linda Bilmes and Columbia University Professor and Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz calculate that the war is likely to cost the United States a minimum of nearly one trillion dollars and potentially over $2 trillion. The study expands on traditional budgetary estimates by including costs such as lifetime disability and health care for the over16,000 injured, one fifth of whom have serious brain or spinal injuries. It then goes on to analyze the costs to the economy, including the economic value of lives lost and the impact of factors such as higher oil prices that can be partly attributed to the conflict in Iraq. The paper also calculates the impact on the economy if a proportion of the money spent on the Iraq war were spent in other ways, including on investments in the United States

The movie industry - latest American industry to move offshore: The new Merchant-Ivory production is the first Western film to be made entirely in the People's Republic. Meanwhile, Chinese stars such as Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li are becoming global household names in Hollywood. Despite its British and American cast, The White Countess, just released in American cinemas and due to open in the UK in March, is a Merchant-Ivory production with an Oriental twist. Set among the nightclubs and teeming streets of a city engulfed in political conspiracy and consumed by its own flamboyant decadence, where Chinese nationalists and White Russian aristocrats mingle with Jewish refugees and Japanese spies, it is the first Western film to be made entirely in China. And, as the cast began shooting in a Fifties-era film studio in Shanghai's old city, the Chinese crew manning lights and cameras could have been forgiven for smiling. Until recently, they were mostly consigned to working on soap operas. Now, thanks to a recovery in which the Chinese film industry has blossomed into the third-largest in the world, they are back in serious work.

U.S. sales at Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. rose to record highs for 2005, while their American rivals continued to struggle due to poor performances of their sport utility vehicles, according to a research firm. The U.S. market share of all Japanese carmakers rose to 32.2 percent, up 1.8 percentage points from 2004, as consumers apparently chose fuel-efficient vehicles in the face of high gasoline prices, Autodata Corp. said Wednesday. Toyota Motor Corp., which is threatening to overtake General Motors Corp. as the world's largest carmaker by output, saw sales advance 9.7 percent from the previous year to 2.26 million units, lagging behind DaimlerChrysler Corp. by only about 40,000 units. It is expected that Japan's largest carmaker will overtake the American arm of DaimlerChrysler AG of Germany in U.S. sales this year.

Wal-Mart Does It Again: Wal-Mart is ringing in the new year with a pair of snafus. The retail giant apologized Thursday after its Web site directed buyers of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Planet of the Apes" DVDs to consider DVDs with African American themes. Wal-Mart said in a statement it was "heartsick" over the offensive combinations and that its retail Web site was linking "seemingly random combinations of titles." The company said it would shut down its cross-selling system until the problem was resolved. It said the system was also referring buyers of movies such as "Home Alone" and "Power Puff Girls" to African American-themed DVDs. Wal-Mart's apology came less than a week after the company played a spoof song about its disappointing holiday season on a recorded company phone message.

Habeas Corpus Death Watch: The Supreme Court has agreed to let the military transfer accused "enemy combatant" Jose Padilla to Miami to face criminal charges in at least a temporary victory for the Bush administration. The justices overruled a lower court, which had attempted to block the transfer as part of a rebuke to the White House. The high court said it would decide later whether to consider the inmate's argument that President Bush overstepped his authority by ordering Padilla's indefinite detention in 2002. It granted the Bush administration's request for a transfer in a one-page order and said Padilla's broader appeal would be considered "in due course." "That's fine. It's great," said Donna Newman, one of Padilla's lawyers. "Both things are good. I don't think it's a bad day for us." Padilla's jailing as an enemy combatant for the past 3 1/2 years has been the subject of multiple court rulings and criticism by civil rights groups.

A federal judge, ruling on a lawsuit filed by The Associated Press, came a step closer Wednesday to forcing the government to reveal the names of hundreds of Guantanamo Bay detainees by rejecting its contention that identifying them would violate their privacy. The some 500 prisoners at the U.S. prison camp in eastern Cuba have been held for several years without being charged or publicly identified, which has troubled human rights groups. U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff said in his ruling that the government had not backed up its claim that prisoners faced retaliation by terrorist groups if their identities became known. "The Department of Defense has failed to come forward on this motion with anything but thin and conclusory speculation to support its claims of possible retaliation," Rakoff wrote. The AP filed its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Defense to have government documents related to military hearings for Guantanamo Bay detainees made public. Dave Tomlin, the AP's general counsel, applauded the judge's decision. "Many of these detainees are begging for the world to know where they are," Tomlin said. "The court was right to reject the government's pose as guardian of privacy rights when what it's really guarding is its own secrecy." The judge's ruling means the world is closer to knowing the identities of those held in the detention center, said David A. Schulz, an attorney who is pursuing the AP's lawsuit. Many of the detainees were captured in Afghanistan. The detainees are from Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Russia and a host of other countries.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Sediment cores collected from the seafloor off Southern California reveal that plankton populations in the Northeastern Pacific changed significantly in response to a general warming trend that started in the early 1900s. Foraminifera (forams) are small, amoeba-like organisms that live inside shells ("tests") such as those shown here. These forams were collected from the waters overlying the Santa Barbara Basin. As ocean temperatures increased, subtropical and tropical species of small marine organisms called foraminifera (forams) became more abundant. Forams that live in cooler waters decreased, especially after the mid-1970s. These changes are unlike anything seen during the previous 1,400 years. Oceanographer David Field discovered these dramatic changes during his Ph.D. work at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. He currently works as a postdoctoral fellow at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Field and his co-authors describe their findings in the current issue of Science magazine. However, it has been unclear whether the ecosystem changes at this time were associated with anthropogenic warming. Field's sediment cores show that tropical and subtropical species of forams became even more abundant during this period while forams that prefer cooler waters decreased. The resulting foram community was unlike anything seen during the last 1,400 years. These long-term data indicate that the ecosystem changes since the mid-1970s are best explained by anthropogenic warming.

New research produced by scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, helps illustrate how global warming caused by greenhouse gases can quickly disrupt ocean processes and lead to drastic climatological, biological and other important changes around the world. Although the events described in the research unfolded millions of years ago and spanned thousands of years, the researchers say the findings provide clues to help better understand the long-term impacts of today's human-influenced climate warming. The results revealed that deep-ocean circulation abruptly switched from "overturning"—a conveyor belt-like process in which cold and salty water exchanges with warm surface water—in the Southern Hemisphere, where it virtually shut down, and became active in the Northern Hemisphere. The researchers believe this shift drove unusually warm water to the deep sea, likely releasing stores of methane gas that led to further global warming and a massive die off in deep sea marine life.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: A Republican lawmaker has filed a bill to make abortion illegal in Indiana, saying if it became law, it could ultimately be a vehicle to get the U.S. Supreme Court with new members to overturn abortion rights. But Gov. Mitch Daniels said Thursday that his sense was "it would have a very limited prospect of ultimate success." The bill by Rep. Troy Woodruff of Vincennes would change Indiana's feticide law to make it a Class C felony, punishable with a two- to eight-year prison sentence, to perform an abortion. The only exception would be when carrying a pregnancy to term would pose a "substantial permanent impairment of the life or physical health of the pregnant woman." Woodruff said he filed the bill Wednesday in part because there will be a new U.S. Supreme Court and a state must pass a law and then appeal it to the highest court to see if the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling would stand. "Also the people have never had an opportunity (through their lawmakers) to vote on the matter," Woodruff said.

Pat Robertson does it again: The White House has been unusually sharply critical of one of the president's most prominent supporters, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. Mr Robertson suggested Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine punishment for the withdrawal of Israeli settlers in Gaza. A White House spokesman described the broadcaster's remarks as "wholly inappropriate and offensive". The remarks were also immediately attacked by the Democrats and American Jewish groups. Evangelical Christians are an important part of the president's core support and generally the White House avoids attacking them, even when Mr Bush does not agree with what they say. But Mr Robertson is too big a figure in American politics to be ignored.

After abortion is made illegal, the focus will shift to contraception: While not a big news story in 2005, this battle will again heat up as the Congressional elections draw near. However, the focus will probably change from abortion, per se, to the "C" word -- contraception. Public sentiment about abortion has not changed much over the past 30 years. Gallup Polls conducted in both 1975 and 2005 found that only 22 percent of respondents believed that abortion should be "illegal under all circumstances." In 2005, what began to change was the focus of the debate on reproductive rights. On January 24, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton implored all sides of the reproductive-rights issue to seek "common ground." Clinton asserted that no one in American politics is "for" abortion. Many Democratic politicians have since adopted her perspective -- abortion is a tragedy. Clinton's stance served two tactical purposes: One was to scuttle the notion that Dems favor "abortion on demand." The other was to shift the locus of the debate from abortion to reproductive rights, in general. To re-emphasize the right of a woman to choose her own medical care and to freely obtain contraception. Despite the efforts of the Democrats, for most of 2005 the White House was silent on the "C" word. Democratic members of Congress repeatedly wrote the president asking him to clarify his position on contraception. In an October 25 White House briefing, press secretary Scott McClellan responded: "The focus has been from this administration on promoting abstinence programs; that ought to be on the same level as the education funding for teen contraception programs." There are several examples of the Bush administration's preventing information about contraception from reaching the public. Besides the administration's unusual handling - and denial - of the Plan B approval application, on Dec. 20, 2005, the ACLU issued a press briefing noting that the U.S. Department of Justice had sent the "National Sexual Assault Protocol to police agencies throughout America." Unfortunately, the first-ever national protocol for treating victims of sexual assault failed to mention emergency contraception. The ACLU observed, "If emergency facilities routinely provide emergency contraception to rape victims, up to 22,000 of the 25,000 pregnancies that result from rape each year could be prevented."

News From Smirkey's Wars: Eleven US troops were killed in a series of attacks throughout Iraq on Thursday, the US military has said. The number of American fatalities was the highest in a single day since the same number were killed on 1 December. In a wave of violence, two suicide bombers killed more than 120 people in the central Iraqi cities of Karbala and Ramadi on Thursday. The deaths came just one day after US President George Bush said the US plan in Iraq was succeeding.

Scandals R Us: A onetime member of Jack Abramoff's lobbying team who romanced Congress and opinion leaders for lobbying accounts valued at more than $11 million and shuttled members of Congress to the Northern Marianas Islands remains an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Labor. Patrick Pizzella, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Administration and Management, worked with Abramoff to lobby on behalf of dozens of clients—among them the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, eLottery and the Saginaw Chippewa. Lobbying work Abramoff did on these accounts is under investigation by a Senate Committee, the IRS and the Department of Justice. Pizzella is the sole member of Abramoff's lobbying retinue remaining in the Bush Administration at the level of congressional confirmation. David Safavian, a onetime gambling lobbyist and Abramoff colleague, resigned and was arrested in September for obstructing justice in connection with the investigations. Abramoff pled guilty to counts of bribery and fraud Tuesday and faces a decade in prison. On Wednesday, Abramoff, in the second guilty plea in as many days, admitted in U.S. District Court in Miami that he engaged in fraud and conspiracy in his purchase of a fleet of SunCruz casino boats in 2000, when he presented lenders with a counterfeit document showing that he and a partner had put $23 million into the deal. In fact, Abramoff and partner Adam Kidan put virtually no money into the purchase, and the cruise line went bankrupt the following year.

Tyco International, whose former CEO became a symbol of corporate corruption, acknowledged Thursday it is the Jack Abramoff client referred to as ''Company A'' in court documents describing the lobbyist's scheme to funnel millions of dollars in lobbying fees to himself. Tyco hired Abramoff in 2003 to lobby for it on a tax issue, said company spokeswoman Sheri Woodruff. She declined to comment further on the New Jersey-based company's relationship with Abramoff or on the lobbyist's activities. Abramoff pleaded guilty this week in Washington to mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion in connection with his lobbying activities and in Miami to conspiracy and wire fraud in a 2000 business deal in which he and a partner purchased the SunCruz Casinos fleet of gambling boats.

Two former Enron bosses have asked to have their upcoming fraud trials moved from Houston because they say potential jurors are biased against them. Lawyers acting for Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling said a majority of prospective jurors questioned held negative views about the men. One respondent described Mr Lay as "a snake in the grass", while another called Mr Skilling a "crook."

Anyone who doubts the political power of Microsoft and Bill Gates' efforts to use it for the benefit of his company, need look no further than the Jack Abramoff scandal. Turns out that Bill Gates' father, William H. Gates Sr., is a partner in the Preston, Gates and Ellis LLP law firm, formed in 1990, when his company merged with Preston in 1990. The later old line Seattle firm started when Harold Preston located in Seattle from Iowa in 1883 and began practicing law. Jim Ellis joined Preston in 1949. By getting William Gates Sr. together with Preston, Microsoft suddenly had an organization that looked like a law firm and not the legal department of Microsoft. The Seattle firm also had a small office in Washington, D.C. which helped Microsoft and the Business Software Alliance reach out and affect government policy. The company hired Jack Abramoff to work with them in their lobbying efforts on behalf of Microsoft. But Preston, Gates and Ellis needed to show some lobbying fees and clients other than Microsoft and the BSA. Adding Abramoff did just that. Additionally, he had his own clients and did not have to work on any Microsoft or BSA business. Adding Abramoff accomplished the goal of diversifying Preston, Gates & Ellis revenue and client base. But, Jack Abramoff didn't fit the culture. While most lobbyists seem happy with a six figure salary, Jack made millions annually. He also could be considered a maverick. Now, the partners of Preston Gates must deal with the consequences of discovering their firm is listed on the invoice for Tom DeLay's plane fare to Scotland. They may also have to consider how deep and far the probe of their firm may go. For example, both Preston Gates and the Business Software Alliance are listed as contributors to the campaign of Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Chairman of the Senate Judicial committee that ruled on the Government's settlement with Microsoft.

Yesterday, MSNBC.com published a transcript of Andrea Mitchell's interview with author James Risen about the CIA's domestic spying program. In it, Mitchell asked Risen if he had uncovered evidence that CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour was eavesdropped upon. It was a specific and pointed question that led AMERICAblog to ask if the veteran journalist had been spied on by the Bush administration. This afternoon, MSNBC.com removed the portion of the transcript that referred to Amanpour. In a statement to TVNewser, NBC explained why: "Unfortunately this transcript was released prematurely. It was a topic on which we had not completed our reporting, and it was not broadcast on 'NBC Nightly News' nor on any other NBC News program. We removed that section of the transcript so that we may further continue our inquiry." Here is what the reference said: MITCHELL: Do you have any information about reporters being swept up in this net? RISEN: No, I don't. It's not clear to me. That's one of the questions we'll have to look into the future. Were there abuses of this program or not? I don't know the answer to that. MITCHELL: You don't have any information, for instance, that a very prominent journalist, Christiane Amanpour, might have been eavesdropped upon? RISEN: No, no I hadn't heard that... The edited interview can be found here.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: An executive committee member of the Southern Baptist Convention was arrested on a lewdness charge for propositioning a plainclothes policeman outside a hotel, police said. Lonnie Latham, senior pastor at South Tulsa Baptist Church, was booked into Oklahoma County Jail Tuesday night on a misdemeanor charge of offering to engage in an act of lewdness, police Capt. Jeffrey Becker said. Latham was released on $500 bail Wednesday afternoon. Latham, who has spoken out against homosexuality, asked the officer to join him in his hotel room for oral sex. Latham was arrested and his 2005 Mercedes automobile was impounded, Becker said. Calls to Latham at his church were not immediately returned Wednesday. The arrest took place in the parking lot of the Habana Inn, which is in an area where the public has complained about male prostitutes flagging down cars, Becker said. The plainclothes officers was investigating these complaints. The lewdness charge carries a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

News Of The Weird: If this doesn't start the revolution, nothing will: Under a "warm beer" bill proposed by Missouri state senator Bill Alter, grocery and convenience stores in that state would risk losing their liquor licenses if they sold beer colder than 60 degrees. The intent is to cut down on drunken driving by making it less tempting to pop open a beer after leaving the store. “The only reason why beer would need to be cold is so that it can be consumed right away,” Alter, who has been a police offer for more than 20 years, said Thursday. He said the idea came from a fifth-grade student in Jefferson County who was participating in a program to teach elementary students about state government. He sought their suggestions for new laws and chose the cold beer ban from a list of the top three ideas. “I thought it had the best chance at getting legislative attention,” said Alter, R-High Ridge. “Plus, I think it's a good idea whether or not other people do.”

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:48:51 AM

Wed, Jan 04 2006

The Ticos Get Creative Again

I've been enjoying this dry season weather in the supposedly rainiest part of the Arenal rainy season. Bright and sunny most of the day again today, and it was brilliant and warm yesterday as well. The warm temperatures yesterday brought the temperature to 80 during the day, with a low of 69 last night. But occasional brief showers this afternoon, interspersed with bright sun, meant that the temperature only made it to 78 today. Warm enough, however, that I was quite delighted with it.

I had business in the provincial capital of Liberia yesterday, and so I took off early, knowing that I was going to have to stop in Tilaran to get some oil put into my car's transfer case. I needed to stop at the cooperativa (credit union) too, before I left town, to try to get some money deposited in my bill-paying account - the balance was low, and I wanted to make sure that they would continue to pay my bills. I got a call from ICE again, reminding me that the phone bill had not yet been paid, and I wanted to make sure they had the money to pay it.

Well, I got up early, and got on the road by half past eight. The bank informed me that their computer system was still down, and they couldn't accept a deposit. So I headed out for Tilaran. When I got there, and got to the oil-change place, I was fortunate in not finding anyone in line ahead of me, so I drove right up onto the ramp. The man checked and filled the transmission and transfer case, and I was on my way, my wallet about 1600 colones ($3.50) lighter.

I enjoyed the trip to Libera, as I always do this early in the dry season. Many of the trees, including the brilliant yellow cortesa trees were at the peak of their flowering, and many are fragrant. The many bougainvilleas in the yards of the Guanacastecos are always a delight, with their pink, purple, white and even yellow blossoms - shades never seen in the States. The road was in rough shape, as the potholes from the rainy season have not all been fixed yet, but the CONSEVI is hard at work on filling holes in the InterAmerican Highway between Canas and Liberia, and several times I had to wait for construction crews. Several kilometers of the highway have entirely new, fresh pavement. In some places, they're doing it right - digging up six inches of crumbling pavement, the bottom layers dating back to the 1940's, and putting down entirely fresh asphalt. I arrived in Liberia just before noon, got my business taken care of, and returned home in time for a late lunch around one thirty.

Today, I made another stab at getting the deposit taken care of at the cooperativa. The computer network was still down, but this time they got creative for me. They took my money, and then called another branch where the computers were working. They had them make the deposit entry in the computer, print out the receipt and then fax the receipt back to the Arenal office. The clerk then stamped it, and handed to me, and I walked out happy as a clam. Business goes on, even with a failed computer network.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Jack Abramoff, the once-powerful lobbyist at the center of a wide-ranging public corruption investigation, pleaded guilty yesterday to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials in a deal that requires him to provide evidence about members of Congress. The plea deal could have enormous legal and political consequences for the lawmakers on whom Abramoff lavished luxury trips, skybox fundraisers, campaign contributions, jobs for their spouses, and meals at Signatures, the lobbyist's upscale restaurant. Besides being linked to nearly every Republican in Congress, Jack Abramoff is now linked to the 9/11 terrorists: SunCruz Casinos, a cruise line purchased by Abramoff in 2000, has turned over photographs and other documents to FBI investigators after employees said they recognized some of the men suspected in the terrorist attacks as customers. Michael Hlavsa, chairman of the gambling cruise company, said two or three men linked to the Sept. 11 hijackings may have been customers on a ship that sailed from Madeira Beach on Florida's gulf coast. The cruise line also is turning over to the FBI video from a Port Canaveral cruise ship of a man that an employee says also resembled one of the suspected terrorists. The FBI has not confirmed the men's identities and the cruise line is declining to specifically identify the men being investigated. An FBI spokeswoman declined comment. Hlavsa said it was observant employees who made the matches in the days after the attack. One name on the passenger list from a Sept. 5 cruise is the same as one of the suspected terrorists', Hlavsa said. A cash advance was taken out on that passenger's credit card, he said. It turns out that, according to TheRawStory.com (and a few other sources), the woman who answers the phones for Karl Rove also used to screen all the calls for Mr. Abramoff. Additionally, according to an article that will appear in next week's Newsweek edition, the reason they're doing this is to "pressure Abramoff to cooperate in a broader, D.C.-based probe that could touch members of Congress and Bush administration officials." And, a key suspect in Mr. Boulis' murder (the guy that was shot to death in 2001), according to another news story, is Tony Ferrari - who has ties to convicted crime boss John Gotti. Not to mention the fact that Adam Kidan, one of the others indicted in this case, has ties to the Gambino crime family. To top it off, according to an Associated Press story, Mohammed Atta (the pilot of the first plane to hit the WTC) and company had hopped aboard a SunCruz casino ship on September 5, 2001 - just six days before the 9/11 attacks.

Jack Abramoff agreed yesterday to give evidence against top politicians whom he allegedly bribed, in what analysts predict may prove to be the biggest congressional scandal in American history. Jack Abramoff is set to sing, and his long list of former buddies in Congress and the Bush Administration are quaking in anticipation of possible indictments stemming from the consummate Beltway hustler's crass reign as the king of K Street. "Casino Jack," a former head of the College Republicans and a "Pioneer"-grade fundraiser for the Bush 2000 campaign, pleaded guilty to three felony counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion in DC Tuesday and is set to appear in Florida today to plead guilty to fraud and conspiracy on separate charges. Abramoff and other defendants also must repay over $25 million to defrauded clients and $1.7 million to the IRS. But most important for the nation is that Abramoff is now detailing the massive web of corruption he spun inside the Beltway which has already snared a top Bush official, procurement chief David H. Safavian, on charges of lying and obstructing a criminal investigation, and reportedly threatens dozens of other DC players. "When this is all over, this will be bigger than any [government scandal] in the last 50 years, both in the amount of people involved and the breadth to it," Stan Brand, a former US House counsel who specializes in representing public officials accused of wrongdoing, told Bloomberg News. "It will include high-ranking members of Congress and executive branch officials."

The United States is to spend nearly $2 billion (that's BILLION, with a "B") on an embassy in Baghdad "more secure than the Pentagon". Plans for the hi-tech complex are being kept secret because of the terrorist threat in Iraq. The exact location is not being released until later this year but it is likely to be built in the heavily fortified Green Zone area where the Iraqi government and US military command is based. The embassy will be guarded by 15ft blast walls and ground-to-air missiles and the main building will have bunkers for use during air offensives. The grounds will include as many as 300 houses for consular and military officials. And a large-scale barracks will be built for Marines who will protect what will be Washington's biggest and most secure overseas building. A US source in the Middle East said last night: "Plans for the embassy building are being kept behind closed doors because of the terrorist threat. It will be more secure than The Pentagon because it will be under constant threat from attack." The Green Zone is the safest part of Baghdad, surrounded by concrete blast walls and checkpoints. The US also wants to build four massive military superbases around Iraq's capital. The plans will fuel speculation they want to keep a firm foothold in Iraq for many years. An Iraqi security source said last night: "The plans for the embassy building will make it the largest and best protected diplomatic building overseas for the US. "You may as well move the Pentagon to Iraq. It will be amazingly secure but it also flies in the face of claims American is preparing to leave Iraq to be policed and governed by Iraqis.

Families of 11 US miners found dead have expressed anger and disbelief at communications failings which led them to believe their loved ones were alive. Relatives were celebrating a "miracle" before they were told only one of the 12 West Virginia miners had survived, and he is reported to be in critical condition. A 13th miner was found dead earlier. "There was no apology. There was no nothing," said Nick Helms, son of dead miner Terry Helms. As workers were struggling to reach thirteen mine workers trapped by the explosion, their employer’s poor safety record and the government’s failure to protect them was coming to light. Companies are mandated by law to place ventilators and other breathing accessories at intervals throughout their mines, though the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) recently cited the company running Sago for not providing enough of the proper equipment to workers. Safety problems escalated at the Sago mine in 2005. At least sixteen workers – two of them contract employees – were injured at the site last year, double the number reported for the mine in 2004, according to the most recent MSHA data available. In addition, MSHA records show a marked increase in citations against Sago over the past year. Many of the infractions were related to air-quality and ventilation regulations. The mine was cited for fourteen separate violations in December alone – including fire-safety and blocked-pathway infractions. Overall, MSHA issued 208 citations to Sago mine in 2005, according to MSHA records reviewed by The NewStandard.The state Office of Miners' Health Safety& Trainingissued 144 of its own the same year, the Office's administrator, Terry Farley, told the Associated Press. The numbers show a marked increase in infractions over the previous year, when MSHA cited the mine just 68 times and the state agency reported 70 violations.

The Bush administration is facing new charges over its handling of pre-war intelligence, with a book alleging that the CIA ignored a mass of evidence gleaned from Iraqi weapons scientists, months before the 2003 invasion, that Saddam Hussein had abandoned his WMD programs. According to the book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Sawsan alHaddad, sister of an Iraqi nuclear scientist, was one of 30 foreign-based Iraqis who agreed to contact relatives supposedly working on weapons development. Every one reported that the programmes did not exist. "Don't they know there is no nuclear program?," her brother told her. The nuclear program had been dead since 1991. "We don't have enough spare parts for our conventional military, we can't even shoot down an airplane, we don't have anything left," she reported him saying. A month later the national intelligence estimate on Iraq's alleged WMD was issued, stating that Iraq was "reconstituting its nuclear program".

In a clumsy effort to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, the CIA in 2004 intentionally handed Tehran some top-secret bomb designs laced with a hidden flaw that U.S. officials hoped would doom any weapon made from them, according to a new book about the U.S. intelligence agency. But the Iranians were tipped to the scheme by the Russian defector hired by the CIA to deliver the plans and may have gleaned scientific information useful for designing a bomb, writes New York Times reporter James Risen in "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration." The clandestine CIA effort was just one of many alleged intelligence failures during the Bush administration, according to the book.

A Democratic state legislator in Maine announced Tuesday she has quit the party, leaving the Maine House evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Rep. Barbara Merrill's defection will give the two major parties 73 seats each when the 2006 session opens on Wednesday. Merrill becomes one of four unenrolled or independent members. One Green Party member also serves in the 151-seat chamber. The Democrats have held a majority in the Maine House for three decades, except for a brief period in 1996 when the Republicans gained the edge. The Democrats maintain control of the state Senate, with 19 of the 35 seats.

About half of U.S. adults believe most members of Congress are corrupt, a poll released Tuesday suggests. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 49 percent of respondents said most members of Congress are corrupt. Although 46 percent of respondents said most aren't, the margin of sampling error -- plus or minus 4.5 percent -- makes it clear that the perception of congressional politicians is largely negative. Congress' image could emerge as an election topic, with 55 percent of respondents saying corruption will be "the most important" or a "very important" issue to consider when voting in November, when all 435 House seats, and 33 Senate seats, will be decided.

Psychotropic drug prescriptions for teenagers skyrocketed 250 percent between 1994 and 2001, rising particularly sharply after 1999, when the federal government allowed direct-to-consumer advertising and looser promotion of off-label use of prescription drugs, according to a new Brandeis University study in the journal Psychiatric Services. This dramatic increase in adolescent visits to health care professionals which resulted in a prescription for a psychotropic drug occurred despite the fact that few psychotropic drugs, typically prescribed for ADHD, depression and other mood disorders, are approved for use in children under 18. The study is one of the first to focus on prescriptions to adolescents, rather than children in general. The study shows that by 2001, one in every ten of all office visits by teenage boys led to a prescription for a psychotropic drug. Other findings in the study show that a diagnosis of ADHD was given in about one-third of office visits during the study period. Also, between 14 and 26 percent of visits in which psychotropic medications were prescribed did not have an associated mental health diagnosis, said lead author Professor Cindy Parks Thomas, an expert on prescription drug trends, at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

Mountains of debris, collapsing houses, a weather-ravaged stadium: It's yours for $35 a person — $28 for kids. Gray Line New Orleans began a bus tour Wednesday of the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, and demand was high enough that the company added a third tour on the first day. Some New Orleans residents have questioned whether such tours are morbid exploitation, or a good way to help people grasp the enormity of the disaster. Even some of those on the first tour Wednesday morning had mixed emotions. "I felt guilty about going out and looking, but it's something we had to do," said Toni Stone of Harrisonburg, Va., who took the tour with her husband.

While Americans are divided on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court of the United States, 70% would oppose his confirmation if he were to vote to make abortion illegal, the Wall Street Journal reports today. Almost equal thirds of all adults believe that Judge Alito should be confirmed (34%), should not be confirmed (31%) or say they aren't sure (34%), according to the poll. A majority of Republicans (65% vs. 9%) favor his confirmation, the polls shows, while a plurality of Democrats (48% vs. 14%) oppose it, and Independents are split (34% for confirmation; 38% against). However, nearly 70% of those surveyed in the online poll of 1,961 adults would oppose Judge Alito's confirmation if they thought he would vote to make abortion illegal. That percentage rises among Democrats (86%) and Independents (74%), compared with 22% of Republicans. More than half of Republicans polled say they would support his confirmation if they thought he would vote to make abortion illegal, compared with 14% of Democrats.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: The death of a Mexican man shot by U.S. authorities while trying to sneak into California proves that extending border walls will not curb illegal immigration, President Vicente Fox's office said Monday. Guillermo Martinez died Saturday in a Tijuana hospital, a day after he was shot by a U.S. Border Patrol agent near a metal wall separating that city from San Diego, according to prosecutors in Baja California state. Authorities said Martinez was on the Mexican side of the border at the time, but may have picked up rocks and made motions as if to throw them at the U.S. agent. Baja California Gov. Eugenio Elorduy said in a statement that U.S. officials were investigating the shooting. But U.S. authorities on Monday could not confirm that. At his briefing with reporters in Mexico City, Fox spokesman Ruben Aguilar said the government "laments and condemns" Martinez's death, and is demanding an investigation. "This occurrence does no more than provide evidence that only a law that guarantees legal entry and is respectful of human rights can resolve the migratory problem both countries face," Aguilar said.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: The US manufacturing sector grew at a slower pace in December than in the previous month on expectations that US interest rates will rise again. The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) said its manufacturing index stood at 52.2 in December, down from November's 58.1. Economists had expected a smaller decline to 57.0 in December. However, both orders and production were at levels that supported economic growth, the survey said. A reading above 50 indicates economic expansion, while a reading below 50 shows that manufacturing activity is shrinking.

Music retailers suffered their steepest sales decline in three years during 2005. Compared with 2004 - which, in a tic of the calendar, had a 53-week retail year - the market for CDs plunged more than 10%. Based on a 52-week year, sales were down nearly 8%. This crash -- the worst since 2002, which witnessed a plummet of 10.7% -- was all the more dizzying for retailers because the business appeared to be rebounding in 2004, when sales rose a modest but encouraging 3.8%. Sadly, the writing was on the wall throughout the fourth quarter this year. In what is traditionally the critical period for stores, a parade of new titles experienced immediate and sharp sales spikes. Album sales were buoyed at year's end by some long-running titles, greatest-hits compilations and a new entry in the perennially best-selling "Now" series.

Construction spending hit an all-time high in November as government spending to build schools, highways and sewer systems offset a slight dip in home building. The Commerce Department reported that total building activity rose to a record $1.146 trillion at an annual rate in November, up 0.2 percent from the October pace. Through the first 11 months of 2005, construction spending is 9 percent above the pace set in 2004 as a boom in housing helped to push construction activity to record levels. However, home building by the private sector was essentially unchanged in November, which could be a harbinger of the expected slowdown in this sector as rising mortgage rates cool housing activity.

The US Federal Reserve's long-running policy of rate increases could be nearing its end, minutes of the central bank's December meeting have shown. Though more near-term rate rises may be needed to keep inflation in check, steps required would not be too drastic, the bank indicated. Hopes for an end to the current cycle of rate rises came as figures showed a fresh slowdown in US factory growth. A reduction in rates could have a very negative effect on the value of the dollar in foreign exchange markets.

Habeas Corpus Death Watch: The Justice Department will seek dismissal of lawsuits from more than 300 Guantanamo Bay detainees fighting the legality of their confinement, using a new law that the Bush administration says sharply limits existing challenges. Advocates for detainees quickly registered their opposition Tuesday. The measure, part of the Defense Appropriations Act that President Bush signed last week, was intended to allow detainees at the U.S. naval base in Cuba to appeal their detention status and punishments to a federal appeals court in Washington. That avenue replaces the one tool the Supreme Court gave detainees in 2004 to fight the legality of their detentions _ the right to file habeas corpus lawsuits, which demand that the government justify someone's continued imprisonment, in any federal court. The new provision won broad support only after its chief Democratic sponsor, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, said it had been altered so it would not apply to pending cases.

Justice For All: Despite a handful of high-profile cases in recent years, a new report finds that criminal prosecution against companies has been declining steadily for four years. Corporations are more often opting to help prosecute individual company officials or meet other requirements in exchange for deferred prosecution and dropped charges. Prosecutors made twice as many non- or deferred-prosecution pacts with companies between 2002 and 2005 as they did throughout the entire 1990s, according to the report compiled by Corporate Crime Reporter, a newsletter specializing in legal issues related to white-collar crime. The publication openly advocates punishing corporations for wrongdoing. The report, Crime Without Conviction, details 34 cases of deferred and non-prosecution deals made with the nation’s largest companies, including Sears, Merrill Lynch, AOL and Monsanto. Under a deferred-prosecution deal, the government agrees to drop charges against a corporation in exchange for penalties such as fines.

With less than two weeks left in Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner's term, time is running out for him to arrange DNA testing that could determine whether Virginia sent an innocent man to the electric chair in 1992. If the tests show Roger Keith Coleman did not rape and murder his sister-in-law in 1981, it will mark the first time in the United States an executed person has been scientifically proved innocent, say death penalty opponents, who are keenly aware that such a result could have a powerful effect on public opinion. "I think it would be the final straw for a lot of people who are on the fence on the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Warner -- a potential Democratic presidential contender for 2008 -- hopes to complete negotiations over how the test would be conducted before his term ends January 14, said spokesman Kevin Hall. Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of 19-year-old Wanda McCoy, his wife's sister, who was found raped, stabbed and nearly beheaded in her home in the coal mining town of Grundy.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: The much-maligned school policy of presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution in the schools of Dover, PA, was officially relegated to the history books Tuesday night. On a voice vote, and with no discussion beforehand, the newly elected Dover Area School Board unanimously rescinded the policy. Two weeks earlier, a judge ruled the policy unconstitutional. "This is it," new school board president Bernadette Reinking said Tuesday, indicating the vote was final and the case was closed. A different group of school board members had been in control when the policy was approved in October 2004. The policy required that a statement be read to Dover public school students about "intelligent design" before ninth-grade biology class lessons on evolution. The statement said Darwin's theory is "not a fact" and has inexplicable "gaps." It also referred students to an "intelligent-design" book, "Of Pandas and People," a book shown by court testimony to have been biblically based. Eight families sued, and on Dec. 20, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III sided with their argument that the concept of "intelligent design" - which attributes the existence of complex organisms to an unidentified intelligent cause - is religious, not scientific. The judge said that violated the establishment clause in the First Amendment.

Gay rights lawyers filed on Tuesday a lawsuit to stop a proposed ballot measure aimed at overturning a court decision that made Massachusetts the first and only U.S. state to legalize gay marriage. The lawsuit by the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) said the state's attorney general erred when he ruled in September that Massachusetts voters could decide in a 2008 poll to redefine marriage as the union of one man and one woman. They said the decision by Thomas Reilly, a Democrat who is likely to run for governor this year, was unconstitutional because ballot initiatives cannot reverse judicial decisions under the state's Constitution. "The attorney general simply got it wrong," Gary Buseck, GLAD's legal director, said in a statement. Reilly's office said his decision was legally sound, adding that Reilly does not personally favor banning same-sex marriage.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Iraq's oil exports hit their lowest level since the war, according to figures released on Monday, heightening a sense of crisis as fuel supplies grow scarce and political leaders struggle to form a government. Iraq exported 1.1 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil in December, a senior official said -- less than any month since exports resumed in mid-2003 after the U.S. invasion and about half the level seen during sanctions under Saddam Hussein. Sabotage is damaging plants and blocking investment, keeping exports at a fraction of targets officials say should be met if Iraq's vast reserves are to provide its people with the prosperity that might draw the sting of civil conflict. The oil official was speaking after Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum announced his resignation in opposition to fuel price rises imposed last month as part of an aid deal with the International Monetary Fund that demands big cuts in subsidies. The price rises have been unpopular among Iraqis, already struggling with poor basic public services and appalling violence on their streets.

Between six and 14 members of an Iraqi family were reported dead yesterday after US warplanes obliterated a house in the northern oil town of Baiji. Enraged local officials described the attack as unjustified and said it had killed an innocent family, including one member who worked for the Iraqi police. "I absolutely confirm there were no terrorists in this house," police chief Colonel Sufyan Mustafa told Reuters. "Even if there had been, why didn't they surround the area and detain the terrorists instead?" People at the scene of the blast said seven bodies were recovered from the rubble, including at least two children. A police official in the regional capital, Tikrit, said six people were killed and three wounded, although an official at the Joint Coordination Centre, which liaises between US and Iraqi forces in Salahaddin province, said 14 died. Officials named the householder as Ghadhban Nahi Hussein.

The prosecutor in the Texas money laundering case against Rep. Tom DeLay issued subpoenas today looking for links between Jack Abramoff and fundraising by the former majority leader. District Attorney Ronnie Earle issued the subpoenas in Austin the same day that Abramoff pleaded guilty in Washington to federal charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud. Abramoff's plea came in a wide-ranging corruption investigation that is believed to be focusing on as many as 20 members of Congress and congressional aides, including DeLay and one of his former aides. Investigators allege Abramoff and his ex-partner Michael Scanlon defrauded several Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars in a lobbying scheme that also involved bribery of public officials. In the Texas case, Earle sought records from Abramoff's former employers, legal firms Greenberg Traurig LLP and Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, LLP. He also subpoenaed records from a lawyer for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a former Abramoff client, and from a representative for the Barona Band of Mission Indians, a California tribe.

A defense bill approved by Congress would allow open competition for a multibillion-dollar contract to supply refueling tankers for the Air Force. Smirkey is expected to sign the measure, squelching an earlier House-approved bill that would have helped The Boeing Co. by keeping the Pentagon from buying military equipment from the parent company of European jet maker Airbus SAS. Boeing lost the lucrative tanker contract in 2004 amid an ethics scandal. Chicago-based Boeing lost the tanker deal in 2004, after revelations that it had hired a top Air Force acquisitions official who later admitted giving the company preferential treatment.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:18:37 PM

Mon, Jan 02 2006

Holidays Over, Tourist Season Begins In Earnest

The summer-like weather has been continuing, with lots of sun, no rain to speak of, and delightful, warm and pleasant temperatures. A bit of wind, normal for this time of year, has moderated what would have otherwise been some rather warm weather. 80-degree weather has been continuing, with an overnight low of 69.

As a result of my rather poor health, I spent much of the day asleep today, even though I got to bed early last night, and slept through most of the night. So even though the weather was splendid, I didn't get out to enjoy it much. Other than a rather spectacular sunset, I didn't see the spectacular weather outside much at all.

It has been a quiet couple of days, these last two days in Arenal. Some fireworks during the New Years celebration the night before last, but I didn't stay up for it. And I didn't try to get anything done in town today, as it is a holiday, and I knew that not much would be open, but I was surprised to get emails from some people with whom I have been doing business locally. So there are a few people out and around - just not me.

But the holidays are over now. I have been seeing a few more tourists - gringos, mostly - wandering around the area and getting lost in front of my house as usual. I see a lot more Europeans in this town than gringos, it is the gringos that get lost in this barrio in which I live, and end up getting handed a map. The season has been off to a slow start, but I am seeing an increasing number these days, and that is a good sign. They're expecting 1.7 million tourists in the country this year. Even though consumer spending is down in the States, people are still traveling. And that is needed here, badly. So the tourists are a welcome sight. The "High Season" has begun.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Big Brother demands your loyalty: Students in Washington State public high schools are now being given a "patriotism" test that has nothing to do with the subject matter in the classes in which it is being given. The test, an "agree-disagree" test, includes ten questions. They are (with the "correct" answers in parentheses): 1. It is never right to kill another person (A), 2. Political leaders usually act in the best interests of their countries (A), 3. If a political leader has done something wrong, it is alright to get rid of him by whatever means is necessary (D), 4. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely (A), 5. In certain situations, it may be justified for a political leader to bend or break the law for the good of the country (A), 6. People should never compromise their ideals or beliefs (D), 7. "My Country Right Or Wrong" is not just a slogan; it is every citizen's patriotic duty (A), 8. No cause, political or otherwise, is worth dying for (D), 9. "Cowards die many times before their deaths, but the valiant taste of death but once." (A), 10. "The evil that men do lives after them, the good [is often] buried with their bones" (D). There is no indication being given the students as to who authored the test or why it is being administered.

The White House claimed overnight it had no role in the Justice Department's decision to investigate the leaking of classified information indicating that Smirkey authorized a secret government wiretap program. "The Justice Department undertook this action on its own, which is the way it should be," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said in Crawford, Texas, where the President was enjoying a year-end vacation on his ranch. But he added: "The White House was informed of the decision, as was the president." Mr Duffy stressed that "the leaking of classified information is a serious issue." And he defended the use of wiretaps, warning that "Al-Qaeda's playbook is not printed on page one, and when America's is, it has serious ramifications." Hey, if you believe that claim, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I would like to discuss with you. This claim has Karl Rove's fingerprints all over it. Meanwhile, Smirkey has strongly defended his domestic spying program. Mr Bush, speaking on a visit to San Antonio, Texas, said the program was vital and necessary to protect the US. But you can add Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) to the list of conservative senators - which already includes Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) - who have expressed serious concerns about Bush’s secret domestic spying program.

All this is coming at a significant financial cost, and not just to government. Tolerance is wearing thin in Florida business circles for domestic security policies that some say inhibit international trade, tourism and global exchange among students, researchers and business leaders. In an unusually candid document, Florida TaxWatch last week released a report, "Termites in Florida's Basement: The Economic Impact of National Security Policy on Florida's Economy." The business-backed research group chronicled how changes in immigration and national security policies since Sept. 11, 2001, have put a chilling effect on business development, tourism and even foreign student enrollment in Florida. Expect it to be the beginning of a newfound push in the new year by Miami-Dade and state business leaders to get federal officials to ease up on restrictive visa policies. They will urge Congress to better fund offices around the world to eliminate delays in visa applications, and to put pressure on the agency to streamline its operations, said Tony Villamil, chairman of Enterprise Florida's Global Commerce Committee, the international branch of the state's economic development arm. ''We're the gateway to the Americas and if we put impediment to the flow of people, that has an impact on everybody,'' he said. For example, a reduction in the number of non-immigrant visas granted each year has significantly reduced the number of business people who can travel back and forth to Miami to do business, Villamil said. Multinational corporations can't get visas for their executives to travel to South Florida. Trade shows can't get visas for vendors and buyers. The World Trade Center in Miami had to relocate a trade show to Panama City, Panama, so buyers could get to it.

Not that business has any complaints about Smirkey's Supreme Court nominees: Business couldn't do any better than Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court. The prospect of the two on the Supreme Court signals to manufacturers and businesses that they will have allies in high places, say academics and business experts. One represented corporate interests as a private attorney; the other often sided with employers in lawsuits filed by workers. Beyond their decisions in individual cases, the Roberts court also has the potential to craft a consistent philosophy on business issues, something that several academics argue has been lacking in recent years since the departure of Lewis Powell in 1987. A former corporate lawyer, Powell built a reputation as business' friend during his 15 years on the Supreme Court. The court's highly selective docket for the current term will give Roberts and Alito, assuming the latter is confirmed, ample opportunity to shape the court. Among the critical issues for companies are the Supreme Court's decisions in antitrust cases, government regulation of land development and the commerce clause. Certain to catch any court watcher's attention is how the new justices decide on whether to limit punitive damages in lawsuits against corporations. "Both of them come out of a tradition of reading statutes narrowly. Both of them come out of a tradition of confining congressional power to the proper sphere," said Nathaniel Persily, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "In contrast to the more liberal members ... I see them more in favor of business."

In the wake of congressional hearings that exposed the breathtaking failures of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration is retooling its disaster plan to react more quickly to the next catastrophe. Michael Brown, now the ex-chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, became the public face of Katrina's failure. But the administration is reviewing how other leaders also failed last August to execute a playbook approved just eight months earlier to handle such a disaster. For example, Brown's boss - Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff - did not invoke special powers in the National Response Plan that would have rushed federal aid to New Orleans when state and local officials said they were swamped. The department rejected the authority, concluding that it should be invoked only for sudden catastrophic events that offer no time for preparation and not for slow-approaching hurricanes. That will not happen next time, according to officials who described to The Associated Press some of the changes in the administration's evolving disaster response plan. Those of us who have experience in emergency management, however, view the new plans as being woefully inadequate and inflexible, too little, too late. There is no resource inventorying, little caching and no discernible incident command structure, for example.

More than 80 lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides are listed as having accepted entertainment from lobbyists for BellSouth Corp. at levels that appear to exceed congressional gift limits, according to a document produced by the company's Washington office. The document, which was obtained from an employee of the telecommunications firm who said she was disturbed by the pattern, sheds light on one of the capital's worst-kept secrets: Congressional gift restrictions are frequently ignored. The BellSouth records show that the firm's lobbyists were regularly out on the town hosting people they are paid to influence with drinks and dinner at Washington's priciest restaurants -- from Charlie Palmer Steak to the Capital Grille. Some of the guests feasted so often and so well that they apparently toted up bills several times as large as they are allowed to accept.

President Bush today mounted his third defense in two weeks of his secret domestic spying program, calling his order authorizing warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens a limited, legal program that Americans understand is protecting their security. Taking questions from reporters after a brief stop at an Army hospital in San Antonio to visit wounded troops, the president acknowledged concerns that monitoring overseas telephone calls and e-mails of citizens with suspected ties to terrorism may violate civil liberties.

The Bush administration plan for wiretapping without warrants was so sensitive that the "Lawyers' Group," an organization of government attorneys in the National Security Council, was bypassed. Instead, the legal vetting was given to Alberto Gonzales, the then White House counsel 'Time' magazine quoted administration officials as saying. Senator Tom Daschle, who was then the Senate Democratic majority leader, told the magazine that he, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Dick Gephardt, then House minority leader, were briefed in early 2002 by Vice President Dick Cheney. There was a second briefing in 2004. "A couple of us expressed our concerns," Daschle says. "But the information we were given was more technical and less substantive. We were told we were being informed and not consulted." Even though the administration emphasizes that congressional leaders were briefed about the new program from the start, some object that they were told about it under ground rules that made it impossible for them to mount any opposition, the magazine says.

At the Justice Department, it was a former prosecutor, James Comey, who forced the White House to back away from the so-called Torture Memo, which appeared to give intelligence agencies a license to use any interrogation method that did not cause the extreme pain associated with organ failure, as was reported here Saturday. Comey was the No. 2 man at the department at the time. Although the details are unclear, it appears that Comey's objections were also key to slowing the warrantless-eavesdropping program in 2004 for a time. According to several officials who would not be identified talking about still-classified matters, Comey (among other government lawyers) argued that the authority for the program—the 2001 "use of force" resolution—had grown stale. It was time to audit the program before proceeding in any case, Comey said. But in March 2004, White House chief of staff Card and White House Counsel Gonzales visited Ashcroft, the seriously ill attorney general, to try to get him to overrule Comey, who was officially acting as A.G. while Ashcroft was incapacitated. Ashcroft refused, and a battle over what to do broke out in the Justice Department and at the White House. Finally, sometime in the summer of 2004, a compromise was reached, with Comey onboard: according to an account in The New York Times, Justice and the NSA refined a checklist to follow in deciding whether "probable cause" existed to start monitoring someone's conversations.

It's not unusual for state legislatures, like the U.S. Congress, to start the day with an official non-denominational prayer. On the Hill, the House and Senate have chaplains to cover this, while many states invite local religious leaders to handle the invocation. Yes, this is all legal -- the Supreme Court cleared the way for these prayers in 1983, ruling that a legislature could hold nonsectarian invocations, in part because they reflect "elements of the American civil religion." The fight over invocations in Indiana's legislature, however, is anything but civil. For years, pastors have been brought in to lead state lawmakers in prayer at the start of their work day with increasingly evangelistic language. Matters came to a head in April when the Rev. Clarence Brown delivered an invocation that included thanks to God "for our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who died that we might have the right to come together in love." He said he had been thinking about the separation of church and state, but decided to ignore it because "I have to do what Jesus Christ says for me to do as a witness." Once his prayer was complete, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma (R) announced that Brown would "bless us with a song," leading to an energetic rendition of "Just a Little Talk With Jesus." It was the tipping point. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed suit in the name of four people -- a retired Methodist minister, two Roman Catholics, and a state lobbyist for a Quaker group -- arguing that the practice of legislative invocations had crossed the line from nonsectarian civil religion to state-sponsored promotion of Christianity.

Grassroots pressure is mounting for a recount of a critical vote that ratified changes in the United Auto Workers' labor pacts with struggling automakers Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. Several union members employed by Ford said last week they intend to ask the union to release the detailed results of the recent vote, in which the contract passed by a narrow 51 percent to 49 percent margin. The spillover from the controversy at Ford also could raise questions about the changes to contract changes that are scheduled to alter health-care benefits for blue-collar workers and retirees at General Motors in 2006. Disgruntled workers are also planning to circulate a petition inside Ford plants calling on the union to submit the contract changes to a second vote, said Steve Fisher, a Ford employee from Sandusky, Ohio, who is currently serving as a spokesman for the workers critical of the contract vote. "Ideally, we'd like a revote," Fisher said. "The numbers just don't add up." Fisher noted that even partial returns from Ford plants show the contract changes being rejected by wide margins in places such as Louisville, Kentucky, and the truck assembly plant in Ford's historic Rouge Manufacturing Complex in Detroit.

Oh, No, Not Again: It's almost as if Sen. John Kerry never stopped running for president. He still jets across the country, raising millions of dollars and rallying Democrats. He still stalks the TV news show circuit, scolding President Bush at every turn. His campaign Web site boasts of an online army of 3 million supporters. The Massachusetts Democrat, defeated by Bush in 2004, insists it is far too early to talk about the 2008 race, but some analysts assume he has already positioning himself for another shot at the White House. "Obviously, Kerry has all but said he wants another crack at the thing," said Neal Thigpen, a political science professor at South Carolina's Francis Marion University. "He's going to make a second try." While most losing presidential nominees quickly fade into the political landscape, Kerry has worked hard at maintaining a high public profile. "He's continuing the fight he began in 2004," said Kerry spokesman David Wade. "He wants to make it very clear he's a fighter who is going to continue to fight for his agenda." Borrowing a page from Republican Sen. John McCain's 2000 post-election playbook, Kerry has kept much of his presidential political organization intact. He has also used his fundraising prowess to aid Democrats across the country, collecting chits that could be called if he seeks the party's White House nomination.

Conservatives Believe In Freedom Of Religion: A retreat for young Muslims was moved to a secret location after Internet bloggers alleged a scheduled speaker had terrorist ties, prompting death threats. The three-day event was to be held this weekend at the rural Presbyterian Cedarkirk Camp and Conference Center to teach youth leadership skills and core religious studies to about 50 young adults, ages 18 and up. However, reports began to appear on Internet blogs that Mazen Mokhtar, a New Jersey man scheduled to speak, had ties to al-Qaida. "Nothing rings in the new year like bringing your kids to hang out with a bunch of terrorists," one blogger wrote on a site called Ace of Trump. Another posted an obviously doctored photo showing a masked person standing in front of the Cedarkirk sign. Federal agents searched Mokhtar's New Jersey home in 2004, after a man in London was arrested for using a Web site to fund terrorist groups. An identical Web site was registered under Mokhtar's name, but he was never arrested. On Friday, Mokhtar, a computer programmer, said he ran a business selling server space to host Web sites. He said never knew what the site in question contained. "It is not my position now, nor has it ever been my position, that a Muslim should ever attack an innocent person," he said.

Police Watch: St. Louis police officers often say they feel as if people are looking over their shoulders. That feeling isn't likely to let up this year. The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, a frequent critic of the city police, says it plans to arm residents of the city's north side with video cameras to record officers' dealings with the public. The activist group says the department often mistreats and unfairly targets blacks and said it hopes the presence of cameras will act as a deterrent to police abuse and result in smoother dealings between residents and police. The group said the cameras will start rolling in the summer, after a series of workshops near Fairground Park where blacks can learn about how to protect their rights during dealings with police. The program is called the Racial Justice Initiative.

Fourth Amendment Death Watch: Information captured by the National Security Agency's secret eavesdropping on communications between the United States and overseas has been passed on to other government agencies, which cross-check the information with tips and information collected in other databases, current and former administration officials said. The NSA has turned such information over to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and to other government entities, said three current and former senior administration officials, although it could not be determined which agencies received what types of information. Information from intercepts -- which typically includes records of telephone or e-mail communications -- would be made available by request to agencies that are allowed to have it, including the FBI, DIA, CIA and Department of Homeland Security, one former official said. At least one of those organizations, the DIA, has used NSA information as the basis for carrying out surveillance of people in the country suspected of posing a threat, according to two sources. A DIA spokesman claimed the agency does not conduct such domestic surveillance but would not comment further. Spokesmen for the FBI, the CIA and the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, declined to comment on the use of NSA data.

A top Justice Department official objected in 2004 to aspects of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program and refused to sign on to its continued use amid concerns about its legality and oversight, according to officials with knowledge of the tense internal debate. The concerns appear to have played a part in the temporary suspension of the secret program. The concerns prompted two of President Bush's most senior aides - Andrew H. Card Jr., his chief of staff, and Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel and now attorney general - to make an emergency visit to a Washington hospital in March 2004 to discuss the program's future and try to win the needed approval from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was hospitalized for gallbladder surgery, the officials said. The unusual meeting was prompted because Mr. Ashcroft's top deputy, James B. Comey, who was acting as attorney general in his absence, had indicated he was unwilling to give his approval to certifying central aspects of the program, as required under the White House procedures set up to oversee it. With Mr. Comey unwilling to sign off on the program, the White House went to Mr. Ashcroft - who had been in the intensive care unit at George Washington University Hospital with pancreatitis and was housed under unusually tight security - because "they needed him for certification," according to an official briefed on the episode. The official, like others who discussed the issue, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the program.

You Can't Sell Something To Someone Who Has No Money: Wal-Mart is finding out the hard way that an economy that booms on paper, but not in peoples' wallets doesn't do anything for sales. Wal-Mart, which made a big push this holiday season to woo customers with aggressive discounts and marketing, estimated that its December sales will meet only the low end of its forecast. The world's largest retailer said Saturday that sales at stores open for at least a year, known as same-store sales, are expected to be up 2.2 percent in December. The forecast was for a 2 percent to 4 percent gain. Same-store sales are considered the best indicator of a retailers' health. Wal-Mart, which stumbled during the holiday 2004 shopping season, came out with a holiday campaign two weeks earlier than last year. The retailer had a solid start to the season, but like many merchants, struggled with shoppers delaying their purchases longer than last year.

News From Smirkey's Wars: British troops set to deploy to southern Afghanistan this spring could sustain losses on a scale not seen since the Falklands war, military intelligence officers have warned. They say insurgent forces in the south are preparing for a large offensive by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, backed by sophisticated weapons and training from Iran. The warnings follow an increase in fighting in southern Afghanistan over the past year. Several thousand people, including about 100 US soldiers, have been killed. The insurgents regard the withdrawal of 2,000 US troops as a key victory and are expected to press home their advantage against the British-led Nato force.

Iraq's oil exports hit their lowest level since the war, according to figures released on Monday, heightening a sense of crisis as fuel supplies grow scarce and political leaders struggle to form a government. Iraq exported 1.1 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil in December, a senior official said -- less than any month since exports resumed in mid-2003 after the U.S. invasion and about half the level seen during sanctions under Saddam Hussein. Sabotage is damaging plants and blocking investment, keeping exports at a fraction of targets officials say should be met if Iraq's vast reserves are to provide its people with the prosperity that might draw the sting of civil conflict. The oil official was speaking after Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum announced his resignation in opposition to fuel price rises imposed last month as part of an aid deal with the International Monetary Fund that demands big cuts in subsidies. The price rises have been unpopular among Iraqis, already struggling with poor basic public services and appalling violence on their streets.

A Pentagon contractor that paid Iraqi newspapers to print positive articles written by American soldiers has also been compensating Sunni religious scholars in Iraq in return for assistance with its propaganda work, according to current and former employees. The Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public relations company, was told early in 2005 by the Pentagon to identify religious leaders who could help produce messages that would persuade Sunnis in violence-ridden Anbar Province to participate in national elections and reject the insurgency, according to a former employee.

The Bush administration does not intend to seek any new funds for Iraq reconstruction in the budget request going before Congress in February, officials say. The decision signals the winding down of an $18.4 billion U.S. rebuilding effort in which roughly half of the money was eaten away by the insurgency, a buildup of Iraq's criminal justice system and the investigation and trial of Saddam Hussein. Just under 20 percent of the reconstruction package remains unallocated. When the last of the $18.4 billion is spent, U.S. officials in Baghdad have made clear, other foreign donors and the fledgling Iraqi government will have to take up what authorities say is tens of billions of dollars of work yet to be done merely to bring reliable electricity, water and other services to Iraq's 26 million people.

Iraq's oil minister said Monday he resigned after the government last week gave him a forced vacation and replaced him with convicted bank swindler and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi following criticism about fuel price increases. Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum said he quit because the government raised fuel prices by nine times on Dec. 19, a decision he had strongly criticized. Petrol, also used for heating is rationed and tensions are mounting in Iraq over recent price hikes. Officials at Iraq's largest oil refinery re-opened the flow of fuel about two weeks after shutting down because of a deteriorating security situation and threats against drivers of fuel trucks. The shutdown forced stations around the country to ration gas, creating long lines at stations. "This decision will not serve the benefit of the government and the people. This decision brings an extra burden on the shoulders of citizens and caused an increase in the prices of all essential materials. It also caused a reaction on the Iraqi streets," al-Uloum said.

Afghan police have released three Aljazeera employees in Kabul after holding them for hours, following their arrest by US forces earlier. Wali Allah Shahin, Aljazeera's correspondent in Kabul, along with driver Mahmood Agha and cameraman Nasir Hashimi, were released on Sunday. US forces had earlier apprehended the three, confiscated their equipment and handed them over to the Afghan police. The US military said the trio were taking pictures of places marked as security zones around the coalition forces' headquarters. Lieutenant Mike Cody, a US military spokesman, said security forces on contract with US-led forces detained the trio, took control of their equipment and passed them on to the Afghan police.

As hundreds of soldiers overseas have started keeping Internet journals about the heat, the homesickness, the bloodshed, word speeds from the battlefront faster than ever. More and more, though, U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan are clamping down on these military Web logs, known as milblogs. After all, digital photos of blown-up tanks and gritty comments on urban warfare don't just interest mom and dad. The enemy, too, has a laptop and satellite link. Nowadays, milbloggers "get shut down almost as fast as they're set up," said New York Army National Guard Spc. Jason Christopher Hartley, 31, of upstate New Paltz, who believes something is lost as the grunt's-eye take on Tikrit or Kabul is silenced or sanitized. Hartley last January was among the first active-duty combat troops demoted and fined for security violations on his blog, justanothersoldier.com. Throughout last year, the Army, Marines, Air Force and Navy tightened control on bloggers by requiring them to register through the chain of command and by creating special security squads to monitor milblogs. "The ones that stay up are completely patriotic and innocuous, and they're fine if you want to read the flag-waving and how everything's peachy keen in Iraq," said Hartley, who is back in New Paltz after two years stationed in Iraq.

Scandals R Us: Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff consulted briefly Friday with a federal judge in Miami as they put the finishing touches on a plea deal that could be announced as early as Tuesday, according to sources familiar with the negotiations. The plea agreement would secure the lobbyist's testimony against several members of Congress who received favors from him or his clients. Abramoff and a former partner were indicted in Miami in August on charges of conspiracy and fraud for allegedly lying about their assets to help secure financing to purchase a fleet of gambling boats. For the past two weeks, pressure has been intensifying on Abramoff to strike a deal with prosecutors since his former business partner, Adam Kidan, pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy in connection with the 2000 SunCruz deal. Abramoff's cooperation would be a boon to an ongoing Justice Department investigation of congressional corruption, possibly helping prosecutors build criminal cases against up to 20 lawmakers and their staff members.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:58:39 AM
Copyright © 2003 Scott Bidstrup. All rights reserved.