Letters From Exile

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

Mon, Feb 27 2006

Power Failure At Home

The weather continues to confound definitions of whether the rainy season has ended in Arenal or not. A month later than last year's intense rainy season ended rather abruptly, this rainy season just seems to hang on. For several nights running, the low has been in the upper 60's - it was 69 yesterday morning, and only 67 today. And the afternoon high made it only to 76 today, with a couple of hours of sun, followed by several hours of rain, and rain most of the night. What is scary is that the satellite photos look like there is a strong cold front headed down through the Caribbean, which means even colder weather for us. Thank goodness that I now have access to all the cold weather clothes that I had in storage. I'd just like to know when I can put them away.

I had to get up early and set out the trash, as this morning was trash day. So I got up early and pulled on some shorts and a T-shirt and my flip-flops, and took the trash out and set it out on the edge of the street. On the way back in, my wet flip-flops on the polished concrete porch went out from under me and down I went, landing good and hard. My left leg splayed out at a mighty strange angle as I was going down, and I was scared to death I was going to break my left hip. But through some miracle, that didn't happen, just a bit of a strain in my hip that was barely noticeable through the day, and a stubbed toe. But it sure was a wake-up call to remind me that I am definitely not getting any younger.

Yesterday, we had a brief power failure during the night, and when I got up in the morning, the computer was shut down. The UPS was not running. Well, I disconnected the load and restarted it, and everything was fine when it came back up and I didn't think anything of it. Figured that a power glitch had shut it down in a protection mode of some sort.

Well, this afternoon, I was napping on the couch, and when I woke up, the stereo components were shut off. Another power failure during my nap, I figured. I turned them back on, and they came on, no problem. But when I went into the office, I discovered that the computer UPS was off, too. But this time, disconnecting the load and restarting it, would not bring it back on line. So I took it out of the system and opened it up to check the gel-cell. It didn't take long to note that while the battery voltage was fine, the battery simply had no storage capacity. That is why the UPS wouldn't start. Well, I knew it was totally hopeless to try to find a gel-cell of the right size here in Arenal, so noting that the gel-cell was a 12-volt battery, I figured I could replace it with a car battery and get back on line. So I headed over to the big, fancy new hardware store, and asked if they sell batteries. Turns out they do carry some basic car parts, including batteries, so I checked over the stock and found one that would replace the one in my car if I needed to use it for that. I followed the clerk out back to make sure it was properly filled, and being a Panasonic battery, it should hold up OK. Well, after some effort, the clerk produced a jug of electrolyte, and the battery was filled properly. It is in a translucent case, so it is easy to see what the electrolyte level is, and it has a built-in handle, making it easy to carry. Two obvious improvements that should have been put in batteries long ago. I got some wire and connectors to go with it, and came home.

After hooking up the battery (the acid from which left a minor stain on my polished concrete floor), I tried out the UPS, and it came back on, just fine. So I modified the case to accomodate the wires to the battery, put it all back together, and reinstalled the UPS in the system. I am writing this on UPS power - the UPS is back on line now and doing a terrific job. One of those little projects that is satisfying because it all went well, and the outcome was precisely as desired. And now, there is enough battery capacity that I don't have to worry about running over to the computer to get everything shut down in a hurry - I should be good for a half-hour or more of computing time. And if I were going to stay in this house, I'd be looking for some white light-emitting diodes for a 12-volt lighting system to have lights during the fairly frequent night-time power failures.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: The Dubai firm that won Bush administration backing to run six U.S. ports has at least two ties to the White House. One is Treasury Secretary John Snow, whose agency heads the federal panel that signed off on the $6.8 billion sale of an English company to government-owned Dubai Ports World - giving it control of Manhattan's cruise ship terminal and Newark's container port. Snow was chairman of the CSX rail firm that sold its own international port operations to DP World for $1.15 billion in 2004, the year after Snow left for President Bush's cabinet. The other connection is David Sanborn, who runs DP World's European and Latin American operations and was tapped by Bush last month to head the U.S. Maritime Administration. The ties raised more concerns about the decision to give port control to a company owned by a nation linked to the 9/11 hijackers.

A 12 year-old boy from Aurora, Illinois was charged with a felony for possessing a look-alike drug. The boy brought powdered sugar into school and asked his teacher if he could conduct an experiment using sugar, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. While the boy was in the bathroom, he joked to two of his classmates that it was cocaine, but then said, "just kidding." A janitor reported the boy to school officials after overhearing the boy's comments. East Aurora School District officials called police shortly after and the sixth grader was arrested by Aurora police. He was detained at the police station and then released to the custody of his parents that same afternoon. School district officials defended their actions saying the school handbook states that students can be suspended or expelled for carrying a look-alike drug. In a written statement, school district officals said, "The dangers of illegal drugs and controlled substances are clear. Look-alike drugs and substances can cause that same level of danger because staff and students are not equipped to differentiate between the two."

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: A decision two weeks ago by a U.S. consulate in India to refuse a visa to a prominent Indian scientist has triggered heated protests in that country and set off a major diplomatic flap on the eve of President Bush's first visit to India. The incident has also caused embarrassment at the highest reaches of the American scientific establishment, which has worked to get the State Department to issue a visa to Goverdhan Mehta, who said the U.S. consulate in the south Indian city of Chennai told him that his expertise in chemistry was deemed a threat. In the face of outrage in India, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi issued a highly unusual statement of regret, and yesterday the State Department said officials are reaching out to the scientist to resolve his case.

Colombian civil right advocate Piedad Cordoba urged US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to leave Latin American nations in peace because they are not willing to return to the colonial period. "We are not willing to become an Iraq, much less to return to the period of the colony," Cordoba said about Rice´s request for supporting a strike against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. She assured that Latin America was ready to strengthen a great bloc for regional development and against the US-proposed alternative of poverty and plunder. "They (the U.S.) are so shameless. They have done nothing but exploiting us and causing poverty; now they want us to join them against the only serious proposal of unity for progress," the civil right activist pointed out.

President George W. Bush, who five years ago acted on his first full day in office to deny U.S. aid to overseas groups that help women obtain abortions, is for the first time proposing sharp cuts in financing for international family planning programs that the White House had described as one of the best ways to prevent abortion. Since 2001, the administration had adhered to Bush's commitment to maintain the financing of such programs at $425 million, the same level as in the last year of the Clinton administration. But in the president's new budget proposal, financing would fall 18 percent, from $436 million this year to $357 million.

Habeas Corpus Death Watch: The Pentagon said it would release, in compliance with a federal court ruling, the identities of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of prisoners in the war on terror are being held. "The Department of Defense will comply with the judge's ruling in this matter," Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Commander Joe Carpenter told AFP Saturday. The departments of defense and justice "are coordinating to release unredacted versions of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which contain the names of detainees, by March 3," Carpenter said. The US District Court said Wednesday that the Pentagon had advised the court it would not appeal a January 25 order to release uncensored transcripts and related documents about the US military base in Cuba.

Republican Policies Build Respect For America Abroad: Tens of thousands of Mexicans filled an ancient square in this capital Sunday to hear leftist presidential front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pledge to distance himself from U.S. policies. While not naming the United States or the Bush administration, Lopez Obrador, a fiery former mayor of Mexico City, made it clear that he would return Mexico to its traditional foreign policy of non-intervention in the affairs of its neighbors. Conservative President Vicente Fox broke that tradition after taking office in 2000 when he joined the United States in condemning the lack of fundamental liberties in Cuba and elsewhere. Mexico's foreign policy under Fox sought to promote human rights and civil liberties abroad. That'll change, Lopez Obrador signaled to a crowd estimated between 70,000 and 120,000. Having led public opinion polls for two years, Lopez Obrador is on track to become Mexico's first president elected from a left-wing party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution.

About 5,000 personnel including snipers, commandos and U.S. marines using helicopters, bomb detectors and electronic jammers will protect President George W. Bush during his visit to India this week, officials said on Monday. The personnel would be part of a three-ring security cordon around the U.S. president and First Lady Laura Bush who are due to arrive in New Delhi for their maiden visit to the subcontinent on Wednesday, they said. "He is a much-threatened VVIP. We are fully geared," Manish Agarwal, a top Delhi police officer involved in security operations, told Reuters. His comments came as Delhi police arrested two suspected militants belonging to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group fighting Indian rule in disputed Kashmir, the Press Trust of India news agency said. A 'praja court' (public court) in Hyderabad Sunday held US President George W. Bush guilty of "perpetrating terrorism in the name of fighting terrorism and killing people including women and children". Bush, who is scheduled to visit the Andhra Pradesh capital March 3, the last day of his three-day visit to India, faced charges ranging from war mongering and mass killings to violation of all international charters and aggression against sovereign countries.

Venezuela could easily sell oil to markets other than the United States and is prepared to end exports to its No. 1 buyer if needed, the oil minister said in comments published Sunday. President Hugo Chavez's government has recently stepped up threats to cut off oil exports to the United States and sell Venezuelan-owned refineries there amid rising tensions with President George W. Bush's administration. "If our country, our process, our constitution are attacked by the Bush administration, we are not going to send any more oil," Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez told the Ultimas Noticias daily in an interview. "We'll see then which of the two governments is able to manage this type of a situation better."

Republicans Believe In A Level Playing Field: Sen. Rick "Sanctimonious" Santorum and his wife received a $500,000, five-year mortgage for their Leesburg, Va., home from a small, private Philadelphia bank run by a major campaign donor - even though its stated policy is to make loans only to its "affluent" investors, which the senator is not. Good-government experts said the mortgage from The Philadelphia Trust Co. raises serious questions about Santorum's conduct at a time when he is the Senate GOP's point man on ethics reform. They said it would be a violation of the Senate's ethics rules if Santorum received something a regular citizen could not get.

Republicans Believe In Fair, Honest and Transparent Elections: A long-standing public records request for the release of Election 2004 database files created by Diebold's voting system had been long delayed after several odd twists and turns, including the revelation of a contract with the state claiming the information to be a "company secret." But while it finally appeared as though the state had agreed to release the information (after reserving the right to "manipulate the data" in consultation with Diebold before releasing it), the state's top Security Official has now - at the last minute - stepped in to deny the request. The grounds for the denial: the release of the information poses a "security risk" to the state of Alaska. The state Democratic party has been attempting since December of last year to review the Diebold GEMS tabulator data files from the 2004 election in order to audit some of the strange results discovered in the state, including a reported voter turnout of more than 200% in some areas. "At this point," Democratic Party spokesperson Kay Brown told the Anchorage Daily News in January, "it's impossible to say whether the correct candidates were declared the winner in all Alaska races from 2004."

The Maryland State Board of Elections allowed Diebold Election Systems to operate its touch-screen voting machines during the state's 2002 gubernatorial election and the 2004 presidential primaries before the state agency actually certified the controversial machines, according to recently disclosed documents. That is a violation of state law, according to Linda Schade, executive director of TrueVoteMD.org, an election integrity group. Schade discovered the document among thousands of others she recently acquired through a lawsuit filed against the Maryland State Board of Elections in 2004. After almost two years of public records requests and attorney wrangling, she received four boxes filled with e-mail conversations, faxes and contracts between the elections office and Diebold. "So far, we've only gone through one box and have just started the second box," she said Wednesday. "We expect to find much more."

Republicans Believe In Upholding The Bill Of Rights: For Americans troubled by the prospect of federal agents eavesdropping on their phone conversations or combing through their Internet records, there is good news: A little-known board exists in the White House whose purpose is to ensure that privacy and civil liberties are protected in the fight against terrorism. Someday, it might actually meet. Initially proposed by the bipartisan commission that investigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was created by the intelligence overhaul that President Bush signed into law in December 2004. More than a year later, it exists only on paper. Foot-dragging, debate over its budget and powers, and concern over the qualifications of some of its members - one was treasurer of Bush's first campaign for Texas governor - has kept the board from doing a single day of work.

Republicans Believe In Accountability And The Rule Of Law: In an odd twist to the state hiring scandal, Gov. Ernie Fletcher appointed two special State Supreme Court justices on Friday to help decide whether a grand jury can continue issuing indictments against members of his administration. The appointees will fill in temporarily for two justices who recused themselves in December. Kentucky's Constitution says it is up to the governor to fill any vacancies on the seven-member court when two or more justices have declined to sit for a particular case. The grand jury, impaneled by Attorney General Greg D. Stumbo, a Democrat, has been investigating whether administration officials broke state law by basing personnel decisions on political considerations instead of candidates' qualifications. "It is unprecedented for the governor's office to choose the judges in its own case," Mr. Stumbo said in a statement. "All parties should disclose any prior contacts with the special justices."

The Army has decided to reimburse a Halliburton subsidiary for nearly all of its disputed costs on a $2.41 billion no-bid contract to deliver fuel and repair oil equipment in Iraq, even though the Pentagon's own auditors had identified more than $250 million in charges as potentially excessive or unjustified. The Army said in response to questions on Friday that questionable business practices by the subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root, had in some cases driven up the company's costs. But in the haste and peril of war, it had largely done as well as could be expected, the Army said, and aside from a few penalties, the government was compelled to reimburse the company for its costs.

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: 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.

Republicans Believe In Conserving America's National Resources: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency won't oppose the U.S. Department of Defense and DuPont Co.'s plan to dump a wastewater byproduct of a deadly nerve agent into the Delaware River. The agency said it's assured of a safe treatment for up to 4 million gallons of caustic wastewater created in the treatment for VX, a chemical weapon with a pinhead-size potency to kill a human. DuPont is treating VX for disposal at its Newport Chemical Depot in Indiana. The agent, once neutralized, would be shipped to DuPont's Chambers Works plant in Deepwater, N.J., for discharge into the river.

Republicans Believe In Helping Those Who Can't Help Themselves: President Bush wants to eliminate the Commodity Supplemental Food Program program, which provides nutritious box lunches for the elderly. It is one of 141 federal initiatives that Smirkey's proposed new budget would scrap or cut dramatically. He is proposing to shift people in the program over to food stamps. Defenders of the nutrition-in-a-box program say many elderly people are reluctant to sign up for food stamps, and, in any event, the commodity program often provides a more generous package. "It really does come under the category, in the most extreme way, of balancing the budget on the backs of those who are most needy. And in this case we're not even balancing the budget," said Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations agriculture subcommittee. "I call it misplaced priorities. How do you justify doing something like this, while at the same time giving people like Herb Kohl huge tax cuts?" said Kohl, himself a multimillionaire.

Republicans Believe In Free Speech: Red State, Meet Police State - A federal employee has been hassled by Homeland Security for antiwar stickers on his car. Is it a mistake, a new rule, or the part of a trend of the First Amendment being bullied out of existence? Dwight Scarbrough's idea of political dissent is one that rubs some people the wrong way. His ride is still hard to ignore. On the back, he tapes weekly updates of the number of U.S. soldiers killed and wounded in Iraq. Beneath that, on a large, white (and also taped-on) placard: "Support our returning troops and their families when they need help: Give them this number: GI RIGHTS HOTLINE: 1-800-394-9544." On both doors, in bold capital letters: "DEATH IN IRAQ IS NOT A CAREER OPPORTUNITY FOR YOUNG AMERICANS." Taking up nearly half of the back window: "Veterans for Peace Chapter 117, Idaho." On the driver's side wheel well, also in all caps: "PERHAPS GOD BLESSES EVERY NATION, NOT JUST THE USA." And interspersed between them all, he places a variety of purchased bumper stickers and magnetic ribbons reading, among other sentiments, "Support our Troops: Bring them Home Now," "Support Diversity" and "Honor Vets, Wage Peace." Scarbrough was told that he was in violation of the Code of Federal Regulations, the set of rules that govern all executive departments and agencies, and that he was in danger of being cited unless he came out to the parking lot or let the officer come up to his office. Scarbrough chose the first option, and took along a co-worker - also a veteran - and, being an experienced peace activist, a tape recorder. Downstairs, they found two armed officers with "Homeland Security" insignia patches on their shoulders, waiting for them in large white SUVs. Scarbrough informed the officers that he would record their conversation, and the link includes the transcript of that recording.

Liberal-Biased Media Watch: From Americablog: Earlier tonight, the Washington Post had a pretty blistering article on Bush's foreign policy speech today to the American Legion. There was no question from reading that piece that Bush really thinks things are going well with his foreign policy. And, it left no doubt that Bush's optimism is not widely shared. I started to write a post because I was struck by this passage: "Outlining what he called a 'forward strategy for freedom,' Bush painted a generally optimistic picture of events overseas that have led critics to charge that his foreign policy is built largely on geopolitical fantasy." I cut and pasted the paragraph above and started to write the post. But, when I went back to the Post to get the link, the article was gone. The link is now to another story that incorporates Bush's foreign policy speech today in to the Iraq debacle. So, where's the "geopolitical fantasy" article that was critical of Bush? It was there at 8:30 p.m. But now, it's nowhere to be found. Can't find that term using the Post's search engine...and it doesn't show up on Google. I'm not making this up. I cut and pasted that paragraph from the Post..and now, it's gone.

The New York Times declared on its website early Friday in a headline that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, had warned to U.S. was on the "precipice of full-scale civil war." Their headline? "U.S. Envoy in Baghdad Says Iraq Is on Brink of Civil War." Within an hour and without explanation, the Times yanked the headline in favor of "U.S. Envoy Says Sectarian Violence Threatens Iraq's Future." Originally, their lead paragraph had read: "The American ambassador to Iraq said Friday that the country was on the precipice of full-scale civil war, and that Iraqi leaders would have to come together and compromise if they wanted to save their homeland." An hour later, it read: "The American ambassador to Iraq said Friday that sectarian violence this week had endangered the future of Iraq, and that Iraqi leaders would have to come together and compromise if they wanted to save their homeland." Catherine Mathis, the New York Times Company's Vice President for Corporate Communications, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: Fox News' Bill O'Reilly has suggested that the United States "hand over everything to the Iraqis as fast as humanly possible" because "[t]here are so many nuts in the country - so many crazies - that we can't control them." As Media Matters for America has documented, during a November 30, 2005, appearance on NBC's Today, O'Reilly called those advocating immediate withdrawal from Iraq "pinheads" and compared them to Hitler appeasers.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: Orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods fell by the largest amount in 5.5 years in January as demand for commercial aircraft suffered the biggest setback in seven years, the government reported today. The Commerce Department said that orders for durable goods, everything from computers to cars, fell by 10.2 percent last month, a much bigger decline than had been expected. The weakness was led by a 68.2 percent drop in orders for commercial aircraft reflecting a falloff in sales at Boeing Corp. after two very strong months. Analysts said the overall decline overstated the weakness in manufacturing because it was so heavily influenced by the volatile aircraft sector.

Last week the Bureau of Labor Statistics re-benchmarked the payroll jobs data back to 2000. Thanks to Charles McMillion of MBG Information Services, I have the adjusted data from January 2001 through January 2006. If you are worried about terrorists, you don't know what worry is. Job growth over the last five years is the weakest on record. The US economy came up more than 7 million jobs short of keeping up with population growth. That’s one good reason for controlling immigration. An economy that cannot keep up with population growth should not be boosting population with heavy rates of legal and illegal immigration. Over the past five years the US economy experienced a net job loss in goods producing activities. The entire job growth was in service-providing activities - primarily credit intermediation, health care and social assistance, waiters, waitresses and bartenders, and state and local government.

Well, I'll Be! Neoconservatism has failed the United States and needs to be replaced by a more realistic foreign policy agenda, according to one of its prime architects. Francis Fukuyama, who wrote the best-selling book The End of History and was a member of the neoconservative project, now says that, both as a political symbol and a body of thought, it has "evolved into something I can no longer support". He says it should be discarded on to history's pile of discredited ideologies. In an extract from his forthcoming book, America at the Crossroads, Mr Fukuyama declares that the doctrine "is now in shambles" and that its failure has demonstrated "the danger of good intentions carried to extremes".

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: The world’s coral reefs could disappear within a few decades along with hundreds of species of plankton and shellfish, according to new studies into man’s impact on the oceans. Researchers have found that carbon dioxide, the gas already blamed for causing global warming, is also raising the acid levels in the sea. The shells of coral and other marine life dissolve in acid. The process is happening so fast that many such species, including coral, crabs, oysters and mussels, may become unable to build and repair their shells and will die out, say the researchers. "Increased carbon dioxide emissions are making the world’s oceans more acidic and could cause a mass extinction of marine life similar to the one that occurred on land when the dinosaurs disappeared," said Professor Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution’s global ecology department. When CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels dissolves in the ocean, it forms carbonic acid. A little of this can benefit marine life by providing carbonate ions - a vital constituent in the biochemical process by which sea creatures such as corals and molluscs build their shells.

Greenland's vast glaciers are dumping ice into the ocean three times faster than they did 10 years ago because of increasing temperatures, suggesting that sea level could rise even more quickly than current projections. The study, published today in the journal Science, found that the glaciers contributed 53 cubic miles of water to the Atlantic Ocean in 2005, resulting in about a 0.02-inch rise in sea level. "The models we had were not terribly alarming about Greenland," said Richard Alley, a glaciologist at Penn State University who was not involved in the research. "This paper is a real wake-up call."

News from Smirkey's Wars: Between October and December 1995, the U.S. Army's Depleted Uranium (DU) Project completed a series of training videos and manuals about depleted uranium munitions. This training regimen was developed as the result of recommendations made in the January 1993 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, "Army Not Adequately Prepared to Deal with Depleted Uranium Contamination." The training materials were intended to instruct servicemen and women about the use and hazards of depleted uranium munitions. In addition, the training regimen included instructions for soldiers who repair and recover vehicles contaminated by depleted uranium. Throughout 1996, these videos sat on a shelf, while U.S. soldiers continued to use and work with depleted uranium munitions. In June 1997, Bernard Rostker, The Department of Defense (DoD) principle spokesperson for their investigation of Gulf War hazardous exposures, stated that the depleted uranium safety training program would begin to be shared by a limited number of servicemen and women in July 1997. Still today the vast majority of servicemen and women in the U.S. military, and likely in the armed forces of other countries which are developing or have obtained depleted uranium munitions, are unaware of the use and dangers of depleted uranium munitions, or of the protective clothing and procedures which can minimize or prevent serious short-term exposures.

The disastrous social conditions that exist for the Iraqi people after decades of war and nearly three years of US occupation are being dramatically worsened as a result of International Monetary Fund (IMF)-dictated economic restructuring. In order to gain a $685 million IMF loan and the cancellation of some of Iraq’s $120 billion debt, the government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari secretly agreed in December to begin eliminating the subsidies that previously delivered the Iraqi people some of the lowest fuel costs in the world. On December 19 - just four days after the elections in which Jaafari’s United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) won more than 45 percent of the vote - the first cut in the fuel subsidy was implemented. The immediate impact was to increase the price of petrol, diesel, cooking gas and kerosene by an average of 500 percent. Petrol rose from just 3 US cents a litre to between 12 and 17 cents.

The winter meeting of the National Governors Association opened here Saturday with state executives determined to challenge the Bush administration over proposed Pentagon cuts in funding for the National Guard. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will meet privately with the governors Monday amid escalating concerns among the governors that the states have been shortchanged by long Guard deployments in Iraq and by what they see as disproportionate cuts in Guard funding.

Scandals Du Jour: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales brushed aside requests on Thursday that he remove himself from the investigation of Jack Abramoff and the lobbyist's ties to Bush administration officials and members of Congress. Gonzales, who was White House counsel for four years before taking over at the Justice Department, said the inquiry is being run by career prosecutors who are not influenced by politics. If you believe that, I have a bridge I'd like to talk to you about.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:38:16 PM

Sat, Feb 25 2006

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Secret Service agents guarding Vice President Dick Cheney when he shot Texas lawyer Harry Whittington on a hunting outing two weeks ago say Cheney was "clearly inebriated" at the time of the shooting. Agents observed several members of the hunting party, including the Vice President, consuming alcohol before and during the hunting expedition, the report notes, and Cheney exhibited "visible signs" of impairment,

including slurred speech and erratic actions. According to those who have talked with the agents and others present at the outing, Cheney was drunk when he gunned down his friend and the

day-and-a-half delay in allowing Texas law enforcement officials on the ranch where the shooting occurred gave all members of the hunting party time to sober up. Capital Hill Blue talked with a number of administration officials who are privy to inside information on the Vice President's shooting "accident" and all admit Secret Service agents and others say they saw Cheney consume far

more than the "one beer' he claimed he drank at lunch earlier that day. "This was a South Texas hunt," says one White House aide. "Of course there was drinking. There's always drinking. Lots of it." Secret Service officials also took possession of all tests on Whittington's blood at the hospitals where he was treated for his wounds. When asked if a blood alcohol test had been performed on Whittington, the doctors who treated him at Christus Spohn Hospital Memorial in Corpus Christi or the hospital in Kingsville refused to answer. One admits privately he was ordered by the Secret Service to "never discuss the case with the press." If Cheney was legally drunk at the time of the shooting, he could be guilty of a felony under Texas law and the shooting, ruled an accident by a compliant Kenedy County Sheriff, would be a prosecutable offense.

If the United States launches an attack on Iran, the Islamic republic will retaliate with a military strike on Israel's main nuclear facility. Dr. Abasi, an advisor to Iran's Revolutionary Guard, said Tehran would respond to an American attack with strikes on the Dimona nuclear reactor and other strategic Israeli sites such as the port city of Haifa and the Zakhariya area. Haifa is also home to a large concentration of chemical factories and oil refineries. Zakhariya, located in the Jerusalem hills is - according to foreign reports - home to Israel's Jericho missile base. Both Israeli and international media have published commercial satellite images of the Zakhariya and Dimona sites.

Under a secretive agreement with the Bush administration, The U.S. government chose not to impose routine restrictions on the sale of port facilities to Dubai Ports World. In approving the $6.8 billion purchase, the administration chose not to require state-owned Dubai Ports World to keep copies of its business records on U.S. soil, where they would be subject to orders by American courts. It also did not require the company to designate an American citizen to accommodate requests by the government. Outside legal experts said such obligations are routinely attached to U.S. approvals of foreign sales in other industries. Dubai Ports agreed to give up records on demand about "foreign operational direction" of its business at the U.S. ports, according to the documents. Those records broadly include details about the design, maintenance or operation of ports and equipment.

Just 17% of Americans believe Dubai Ports World should be allowed to purchase operating rights to several U.S. ports. A Rasmussen Reports survey found that 64% disagree and believe the sale should not be allowed. Just 39% of Americans know that the operating rights are currently owned by a foreign firm. Fifteen percent (15%) believe the operating rights are U.S. owned while 46% are not sure. From a political perspective, President Bush's national security credentials have clearly been tarnished due to the outcry over this issue. For the first time ever, Americans have a slight preference for Democrats in Congress over the President on national security issues. Forty-three percent (43%) say they trust the Democrats more on this issue today while 41% prefer the President.

D.P. World is poised to take over port terminal operations in 21 American ports, far more than the six widely reported. The Bush administration has approved the takeover of British-owned Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. to DP World, a deal set to go forward March 2 unless Congress intervenes.

Why did this deal happen? A sheik from the United Arab Emirates contributed at least $1 million to the Bush Library Foundation, which established the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University in College Station. The UAE owns Dubai Ports World, which is taking operations from London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which operates six U.S. ports. A political uproar has ensued over the deal, which the White House approved without congressional oversight. Dubai Ports World offered Thursday night to delay part of the takeover to give the Bush administration more time to convince lawmakers the deal poses no security risks. The donations were made in the early 1990s for the library, which houses the papers of former President George Bush, the current president's father. The list of donors names Sheik Zayed Bin Sultan al Nahyan and the people of the United Arab Emirates as one donor in the $1 million or more category.

Most U.S. workers say they feel rushed on the job, but they are getting less accomplished than a decade ago, according to newly released research. Workers completed two-thirds of their work in an average day last year, down from about three-quarters in a 1994 study, according to research conducted for Day-Timers Inc., an East Texas, Pennsylvania-based maker of organizational products. The biggest culprit is the technology that was supposed to make work quicker and easier, experts say. "Technology has sped everything up and, by speeding everything up, it's slowed everything down, paradoxically," said John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based outplacement consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. "We never concentrate on one task anymore. You take a little chip out of it, and then you're on to the next thing," Challenger said on Wednesday. "It's harder to feel like you're accomplishing something." Unlike a decade ago, U.S. workers are bombarded with e-mail, computer messages, cell phone calls, voice mails and the like, research showed. The average time spent on a computer at work was almost 16 hours a week last year, compared with 9.5 hours a decade ago, according to the Day-Timer research released this week.

A federal judge Friday refused to postpone the April 22 mayoral election in New Orleans, turning back arguments that too many black residents scattered by Hurricane Katrina will be unable to take part. The decision was issued by U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle, who had earlier pressured state officials to make sure the election was held by the end of April. "We're extremely disappointed," said Tracie Washington, one of the lawyers working with hurricane victim advocates who wanted to either delay the election or force the state to set up "satellite" voting operations out of state. Mayor Ray Nagin, who has been criticized in some quarters for his response to the hurricane, is running for re-election in New Orleans, which was a mostly black city of nearly half a million people before Katrina reduced it to well under 200,000 inhabitants. The city has not had a white mayor since 1978.

IRS exams found nearly three out of four churches, charities and other civic groups suspected of having violated restraints on political activity in the 2004 election actually did so, the agency said Friday. Most of the examinations that have concluded found only a single, isolated incidence of prohibited campaign activity. In three cases, however, the IRS uncovered violations egregious enough to recommend revoking the groups' tax-exempt status. The vast majority of charities and churches followed the law, but the examinations found a "disturbing" amount of political intervention in the 2004 elections, IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said.

Is It A Crime To Sell Oil On The Cheap To The Poor? Apparently the Republicans think so: Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas has launched an investigation into one of the world’s major oil companies. But he is not investigating whether any of the oil giants are engaging in price gouging at a time when gasoline and heating oil casts are skyrocketing to record levels. Instead Barton has set his sights on the only oil company that actually dared to lower its prices last year - at least for the poorest Americans. Last week Barton demanded the Venezuelan-owned company Citgo produce all records, minutes, logs, e-mails and even desk calendars related to the company’s novel program of supplying discounted heating oil to low-income communities in the United States. Joe Barton has received more money from oil companies than any other member of Congress, with the exception of Tom DeLay.

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: Singer Morrissey was quizzed by the FBI and British intelligence after speaking out against the American and British governments. The Brit is a famous critic of the US-led war in Iraq and has dubbed Smirkey a "terrorist" - but he was baffled to be hauled in by authorities. Morrissey explains, "The FBI and the Special Branch have investigated me and I've been interviewed and taped and so forth. "They were trying to determine if I was a threat to the government, and similarly in England. But it didn't take them very long to realise that I'm not. "I don't belong to any political groups, I don't really say anything unless I'm asked directly and I don't even demonstrate in public. I always assume that so-called authoritarian figures just assume that pop/rock music is slightly insane and an untouchable platform for the working classes to stand up and say something noticeable. "My view is that neither England or America are democratic societies. You can't really speak your mind and if you do you're investigated."

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: An appeal from the Catholic Church for New Zealanders to boycott an episode of South Park has resulted in a record audience there for the controversial cartoon. The "Bloody Mary" episode of South Park drew more than six times the normal audience, New Zealand broadcaster TV Works announced Thursday. The episode, which aired Wednesday night, was seen by 210,000 viewers, according to Rick Friesen, the broadcaster's chief operating officer. "I expected a bit of a rise, but not that much," he told the Associated Press. In the past month, he said, an average South Park episode typically draws about 32,500 viewers to the network's C4 youth channel. During Wednesday night's broadcast, however, more than 350 people protested outside the TV Works headquarters in Auckland. The protest centred on a statue of the Virgin Mary, with participants - clutching Bibles and religious icons - singing hymns, reciting the rosary and offering other prayers.

Scandals Du Jour: Lawyers for an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, who faces perjury charges, asked a judge on Thursday to throw out the case on the grounds that the prosecutor was appointed improperly. Since both Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and former Attorney General John Ashcroft removed themselves from the investigation because of their close ties to the White House, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald reports to David Margolis, a career Justice Department lawyer. Lawyers for Lewis "Scooter" Libby argued that because Fitzgerald does not report to the attorney general, he should not have been appointed by a deputy at the Justice Department.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 12:19:19 AM

Thu, Feb 23 2006

We Have A Winner - Almost

The weather has continued to be bright and sunny, with cool and pleasant temperatures. Overnight, the low was 69 and the high this afternoon was a severely sunny 79. Occasional sprinkles from passing clouds, but hey, this is Arenal, and that is normal here. Last night, we got a much needed downpour that freshened things up nicely, and it conveniently came late at night.

Well, I haven't made it out of the house at all today, other than to shoo away some birds that were starting to build a nest in the light fixture over the porch. Discouraging them was simple enough - just turn on the light. The heat and light from the incandescent bulb were enough to send them off to find a more suitable location. I did wander out into the garden long enough to notice that my avocado tree is coming along with a new growth flush. Looks like it has entered its dry-season growth phase. And a banana plant that blew down in the wind was was replanted by the gardener has taken off and is regrowing.

The Costa Rican election controversy just drags on and on. Late yesterday, the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones announced that they had completed the manual full recount of the million-plus votes cast in the elections on Sunday the fifth. They announced the result - Oscar Arias leads his challenger, Otton Solis, by 18,000 votes - a margin of 1.1 percent - 39.8% for Solis, 40.9 percent for Arias, just enough to avoid a runoff. By law, the candidates must be given the opportunity to challenge spoiled and blank ballots before the election results are made official, and Solis has done so. But I don't think it is going to help - there are simply not enough that even if all the questionable ballots were to be included in his tally, that he would win. Otton, give it up and accept your fate. Arias is the country's next president.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Is the Pentagon building U.S.-based prison camps for Muslim immigrants? To detain dissidents and political opponents? Evidence points to the possibility. Not that George W. Bush needs much encouragement, but Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales a new target for the administration's domestic operations - Fifth Columnists, supposedly disloyal Americans who sympathize and collaborate with the enemy. "The administration has not only the right, but the duty, in my opinion, to pursue Fifth Column movements," Graham, R-S.C., told Gonzales during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Feb. 6. "I stand by this president's ability, inherent to being commander in chief, to find out about Fifth Column movements, and I don't think you need a warrant to do that," Graham added, volunteering to work with the administration to draft guidelines for how best to neutralize this alleged threat. "Senator," a smiling Gonzales responded, "the president already said we'd be happy to listen to your ideas." In less paranoid times, Graham's comments might be viewed by many Americans as a Republican trying to have it both ways - ingratiating himself to an administration of his own party while seeking some credit from Washington centrists for suggesting Congress should have at least a tiny say in how Bush runs the War on Terror. But recent developments suggest that the Bush administration may already be contemplating what to do with Americans who are deemed insufficiently loyal or who disseminate information that may be considered helpful to the enemy. Top U.S. officials have cited the need to challenge news that undercuts Bush's actions as a key front in defeating the terrorists, who are aided by "news informers," in the words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Only a few independent journalists, such as Peter Dale Scott and Maureen Farrell, have pursued what the Bush administration might actually be thinking. Scott speculated that the "detention centers could be used to detain American citizens if the Bush administration were to declare martial law." He recalled that during the Reagan administration, National Security Council aide Oliver North organized Rex-84 "readiness exercise," which contemplated the Federal Emergency Management Agency rounding up and detaining 400,000 "refugees," in the event of "uncontrolled population movements" over the Mexican border into the United States.

Bush on Tuesday brushed aside objections by leaders in the Senate and House that the $6.8 billion sale of several east-coast ports could raise risks of terrorism. In a forceful defense of his administration's earlier approval of the deal, he pledged to veto any bill Congress might approve to block the agreement involving the sale to the Arab firm. Bush faces a rebellion from leaders of his own party, as well as from Democrats, about the deal that would put Dubai Ports in charge of major shipping operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia. The White House was taken by surprise when Mr. Frist and Mr. Hastert joined Democratic leaders in Congress and other prominent Republicans, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki of New York, in calling for the government to stop the deal from closing next week as scheduled.

Dubai is one of the region's most open banking centers and is the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates, one of three countries that maintained diplomatic relations with the Taliban until shortly after Sept. 11. Sitting at a strategic crossroad of the Persian Gulf, South Asia and Africa, Dubai has long been a financial hub for Islamic militant groups. Much of the $500,000 used to fund the Sept. 11 attacks came through Dubai, investigators believe. "All roads lead to Dubai when it comes to money. Everyone did business there," said Patrick Jost, who until last year was a senior financial enforcement officer in the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

The Old West lives in Michigan: As some states consider expanding the right to use deadly force in self-defense, a group of gun-control advocates yesterday asked Michigan lawmakers to defeat a bill that would eliminate people’s legal "duty" to avoid a threat to oneself by walking away or seeking refuge. Instead, people would be allowed to use lethal force against anyone they can later demonstrate they believed was threatening their life. Yesterday’s hearings on state senate Judiciary Committee, which heard testimony on SB 1046, came less than a week after a stray bullet from a gun fight killed an 8-year-old boy in Detroit. According to information provided by the National Rifle Association, the proposed law in Michigan is similar to one already enacted in Florida last year. Lawmakers in Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma and South Dakota are considering similar bills. Such laws are often referred to as "shoot first" or "shoot-to-kill" by gun-control groups, and as "stand-your-ground" or "castle doctrine" by proponents.

Now we know the truth: For months in 2002, when George W. Bush and his top lieutenants were publicly insisting on their adherence to the Geneva Conventions, they were privately torpedoing efforts by Alberto Mora, the Navy's courageous general counsel, to prevent, and establish accountability for, brutal treatment of detainees. Two years before the publication of the Abu Ghraib photos, Mora confronted the highest-level Pentagon officials over abuse of prisoners at Guantánamo and warned the Administration that its interrogation policies invited torture and cruelty. The New Yorker's Jane Mayer revealed Mora's lonely campaign just as Kofi Annan and a team of United Nations investigators declared Guantánamo a torture camp that should be closed and its prisoners either tried or released.

Sometimes it's the small abuses scurrying below radar that reveal how profoundly the Bush administration has changed America in the name of national security. Buried within the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 is a regulation that bars most public access to birth and death certificates for 70 to 100 years. In much of the country, these records have long been invaluable tools for activists, lawyers and reporters to uncover patterns of illness and pollution that officials miss or ignore. 'In These Times' has obtained a draft of the proposed regulations now causing widespread concern among state officials. It reveals plans to create a vast database of vital records to be centralized in Washington and details measures that states must implement -- and pay millions for -- before next year's scheduled implementation. The draft lays out how some 60,000 already strapped town and county offices must keep the birth and death records under lock and key and report all document requests to Washington. Individuals who show up in person will still be able to obtain their own birth certificates and, in some cases, the birth and death records of an immediate relative, and "legitimate" research institutions may be able to access files. But reporters and activists won't be allowed to fish through records, many family members looking for genetic clues will be out of luck, and people wanting to trace adoptions will dead-end. If you are homeless and need your own birth certificate, forget it: no address, no service.

Don't let 'em back and don't let 'em vote: Despite emergency orders and new legislation, elections turmoil in New Orleans is far from over. Two weeks ago, grassroots organizations and community leaders filed a federal lawsuit seeking broad ballot access for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Elections for mayor, city council and other positions are currently scheduled for April 22 and May 20. According to the lawsuit, state elections plans would essentially disenfranchise displaced city residents, the majority of them black. The suit was filed on February 9 by the Association for Community Reform Now (ACORN), the Advancement Project and two leaders of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Council. Official estimates put the city's current population at 156,000, about a third of pre-Katrina numbers. Before last summer's storms, the city was nearly 70 percent black. There are no reliable statistics concerning New Orleans' ethnic makeup since the New Orleanians scattered before and after Katrina struck. Nearly six months since Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters rampaged through the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the neighborhood's profile is still shocking. Some homes are flattened into splinters, as if stepped on by a giant. Others are semi-intact, but transported by the water far from their foundations. "My house is destroyed, and on the lot are two other houses - one from three blocks down and one mystery house," said resident Diane Smith. "The houses are unrecognizable; you literally have to search for your house." It is hard to imagine this area being inhabited again, but many Lower Ninth Ward residents are determined, despite obstacles imposed not only by nature's wrath, but by the government of the city they call home. For many, this was the only home they have known, and they cannot imagine themselves anywhere else. Lower Ninth resident Kerwin LaFrance said he was "taken care of and welcomed everywhere" after the hurricane. But, he said, "there ain't no place like home. I won't be satisfied until I come back here."

The Florida Board of Education unanimously approved Tuesday a plan that will grant bonuses to the state's top teachers, an assessment that will primarily be based on how their students perform on standardized tests and other measurements. The plan requires districts to award bonuses of 5 percent or more to at least the top 10 percent of their teachers - that's at least $2,000 for a teacher making $40,000 annually. Teachers who are in the top 10 percent one year and remain in the top 25 percent statewide the next would again receive a bonus. The rankings will be based on how students perform on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which covers subjects such as reading, writing, math and science, or special exams or measurements for classes and grades not covered by FCAT. Alternative assessment methods will be also devised for special education teachers, counselors and others whose performance would be difficult or impossible to grade through a test. Bonuses would be denied teachers if they have been disciplined.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: Its regional influence fortuitously boosted by the US invasion of Iraq and the advent of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, Iran's leadership is contemplating another unintended gift from Washington: the chance to become a power in Palestine. Last month's election victory by Hamas, which the US, EU and Israel deem a terrorist organisation, threw the Bush administration into confusion. Its response, backed by western partners, was to threaten diplomatic isolation and a funding freeze for the Palestinian Authority unless Hamas recognised Israel and renounced violence. Speaking in Tehran this week after meeting a senior Hamas representative, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, plunged into the fray, urging the movement not to bow to Israeli and western demands. "The only way to succeed is to continue resistance against the occupier regime," he said. Pledging Iranian help in making good any shortfall in foreign assistance, he urged all Muslims to chip in. "Such voluntary aid will create a psychological connection between Muslims and the Palestinian issue and will have a great effect on the world."

Islamic charities meeting in Doha, Qatar, yesterday accused the United States and other Gulf governments of meddling in their activities and preventing them from delivering aid to disaster-hit areas. Participants in the 'Second GCC Forum For Charitable Works' said restrictions imposed on Islamic charitable associations will not help root out those involved in funding terror activities and prompt more illegal activities. "Many Islamic charities are suspected of funding terrorism and denied funds without any evidence," said Ali Al Suwaidi, general manager of the Qatar-based Shaikh Eid Bin Mohammad Al Thani Charitable Association and the event organizer.

Yahoo! is banning the use of "allah" in email names - even if the letters are included within another name. This was uncovered by Register reader Ed Callahan whose mother Linda Callahan was trying to sign up for a Verizon email address. She could not get it to accept her surname. Enquiries to Verizon revealed that a partnership with Yahoo! was to blame. Yahoo! will not accept any identies which include the letters "allah". Nor will Yahoo! accept yahoo, osama or binladen. But it will accept god, messiah, jesus, jehova, buddah, satan and both priest and pedophile. Ed Callahan told us: "On one level this is just silliness. But we have a war on terrorism and it's migrating to be a war on Muslims - this just shows the confusion there is between the two and how pervasive this is." The Callahans are still waiting to hear back from Yahoo!

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: Newly declassified memos show the number of Canadian landings by planes tied to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency far exceeds previously known figures. Internal government briefing notes obtained Wednesday also reveal senior intelligence officials from six federal agencies, including Canada's spy service, met in late November to discuss the flights. The memos underscore the level of concern in government circles about public fears the CIA has been ferrying terrorist suspects through Canada to foreign prisons. One note, stamped secret, says 20 planes with alleged CIA ties have made 74 flights to Canada since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

British MPs will today chastise ministers over their stance on the US practice of "extraordinary rendition" amid the first official admission that 200 suspect CIA flights had used British airspace. In a report highly critical of the government's attitude towards human rights abuses, the Commons foreign affairs committee accuses ministers of failing in their duty to find out whether Britain has been complicit in the US policy of secretly transferring detainees to places where they risked being tortured. The British National Air Traffic Services (NATS) confirmed yesterday that two aircraft believed to have been chartered by the CIA made "around 200 journeys" through British airspace within the past five years.

The United States Of America, A Third-World Nation: Four men suspected of looting bones and body parts from more than 1,000 corpses in the New York area are to face criminal charges. Alleged ringleader Michael Mastromarino turned himself in on Wednesday but denied any guilt, his lawyer said. Prosecutors have been investigating the disappearance of body parts, including the bones of late BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke, since 2004. Formal charges are expected to be announced later on Thursday.

Habeas Corpus Death Watch: The military commander responsible for the American detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, confirmed Tuesday that officials there last month turned to more aggressive methods to deter prisoners who were carrying out long-term hunger strikes to protest their incarceration. The commander, Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, head of the United States Southern Command, said soldiers at Guantánamo began strapping some of the detainees into "restraint chairs" to force-feed them and isolate them from one another after finding that some were deliberately vomiting or siphoning out the liquid they had been fed. "It was causing problems because some of these hard-core guys were getting worse," General Craddock said at a breakfast meeting with reporters. Explaining the use of the restraint chairs, he added, "The way around that is you have to make sure that purging doesn't happen."

Republicans Believe The War On Drugs Is Effective: A record number of marijuana plants were seized last year in Washington state, making it the state's eighth biggest agricultural commodity, edging out cherries in value. The 135,323 plants were estimated to be worth $270m. "We're struck by the amount of work they put into it," said Rich Wiley, who heads the Washington state patrol narcotics program. "It's very labour intensive. They often run individual drip lines to each plant, and are out there fertilising them." It was the seventh year in a row that record numbers of marijuana plants had been seized and destroyed, the state patrol said.

Republicans Believe In Honest And Transparent Elections: The latest Diebold scandal: There are infrared data ports on the Diebold Diebold AccuVote TSx touch-screen voting machines, and no one is saying what they are used for. Since the software is (illegally) secret and proprietary, there is no way to find out, either. A few election watchdog groups, including some members of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) who works with the federal authorities on these matters, have issued warnings about the IrDA port and protocols on voting machines. However, little - if anything - seems to have been done to mitigate the rather obvious security threat posed, as far as we can tell.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: US consumer prices rose by 0.7% in January, fuelled by a sharp rise in energy costs. However, Department of Labor figures showed that when food and energy costs were excluded prices rose by just 0.2%. Over the past 12 months consumer prices rose 4.0%, the largest yearly increase since October 2005 and up on December's figure of 3.4%. Analysts said the higher-than-expected rise in prices during January would lead to pressure for more rate rises. "Clearly the rise of 0.7% is higher than most economists expected, so it's a disappointment," said Hugh Johnson, chief investment officer at Johnson Illington Advisors in New York. "The biggest reason for the increase was a 5% rise in energy prices. It's very clear that higher energy prices are now being passed along to consumers."

Average real family incomes before tax slipped 2.3 percent between 2001 and 2004 to $70,700, the Federal Reserve said on Thursday in a survey of family finances it releases every three years. Median household incomes, in contrast, rose 1.6 percent to $43,200, the central bank said. Households saw their median net worth climb 1.5 percent over the three-year period to $93,100 -- a much smaller gain than the 10.3 percent increase logged in the 1998-2001 period. The survey also showed consumers racked up more debt, bought fewer stocks and saw their home prices gain in value.

Over 25 million served: More than 25 million Americans turned to the nation's largest network of food banks, soup kitchens and shelters for meals last year, up 9 percent from 2001. Those seeking food included 9 million children and nearly 3 million senior citizens, says a report from America's Second Harvest. "The face of hunger doesn't have a particular color, and it doesn't come from a particular neighborhood," said Ertharin Cousin, executive vice president of the group. "They are your neighbors, they are working Americans, they are senior citizens who have worked their entire lives, and they are children." The organization said it interviewed 52,000 people at food banks, soup kitchens and shelters across the country last year. The network represents about 39,000 hunger-relief organizations, or about 80 percent of those in the United States. The vast majority are run locally by churches and private nonprofit groups. The surveys were done before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. After the hurricanes, demand for emergency food assistance tripled in Gulf Coast states, according to a separate report by the group.

Within a decade, an aging America will be spending one of every five dollars on health care, according to government analysts who see no end to increases in the cost of going to the doctor and taking medicine. The nation's total health care bill by 2015: more than $4 trillion. Consumers will foot about half the bill, the government the rest. The report, written by analysts with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, attributes rising costs to the aging of the baby-boom population and the changing nature of health insurance.

This year, the government may have another surprise in store for the growing underclass in the U.S. Tucked into the Bush administration’s 2007 budget plan is a proposal to eliminate the program that helps him and about half a million other Americans get enough to eat. Deemed redundant by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Agriculture’s food program may be scrapped because it supposedly overlaps with larger, parallel programs like food stamps. But supporters of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) argue that countless low-income participants rely on it for crucial aid they cannot obtain anywhere else.

"India's middle class is buying air-conditioners, kitchen appliances and washing machines, and a lot of them from American companies like GE and Whirlpool and Westinghouse. And that means their job base is growing here in the United States. Younger Indians are acquiring a taste for pizzas from Domino's, Pizza Hut," Smirkey said to laughs from the audience at a Washington hotel. "Today, India's consumers associate American brands with quality and value, and this trade is creating opportunity at home." But Henry Rowen, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, said economic growth doesn't exactly balance the drawbacks of outsourcing. "Certainly there's some positives and some negatives. The net is a little tricky," said Rowen, who co-edited an upcoming book titled "Making IT: The Rise of Asia in Information Technologies." "The consumer benefits from all of this, but there's an impact." Outsourcing is a delicate issue for the Bush administration. Its top economic adviser came under fire in 2004 for calling it "just a new way to do international trade," comments that Democrats often cited during the presidential campaign as evidence Bush didn't care about workers.

Recent statistics show that the fastest-growing jobs in the US also happen to be those with the lowest compensation. At the same time, the minimum wage is, in real dollar terms, the lowest it has been since its enactment in 1947. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) last month reported that the official unemployment rate had fallen to 4.7 percent (though most economists put the true figure at between 7 and 8.5 percent). Buried in the rosy economic scenario portrayed by recent BLS reports is the fact that few jobs in the fastest-growing categories pay well. According to the BLS January jobs report, food-service and service-provider jobs grew a combined 69,000 in January. The report was followed this month by the BLS annual Occupational Outlook Handbook, which projects continued rapid growth in demand for home-healthcare workers, medical assistants and personal-care aides, all service-related jobs that generally pay little more than the minimum wage. Though service-related employment categories do include managerial and non-supervisory positions that are better compensated, the majority of such jobs pay little more -- and in some cases, such as restaurant workers, less -- than the minimum wage, which is now less than a third of the average hourly wage, according to an analysis released by the Economic Policy Institute Friday. Of the 30 fastest-growing occupations, six do not require higher education and another eight demand just an associate’s degree.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: A new group in the United States, Christians United for Israel, will serve as an umbrella organization for Christian congregations that support Israel, and will lobby for Israel. Some 400 Christian community leaders met in San Antonio, Texas, two weeks ago to establish the group, which Christians United officials said represents about 30 million Americans. The organization's main goal is to create a rapid-response network "targeted to reach every senator and congressman" in the United States. It is led by evangelical leaders Dr. John C. Hagee and George Morrison; fundamentalist Baptist minister Jerry Falwell; and Gary Bauer, president of the American Values organization aimed at protecting marriage, family and faith.

South Dakota became the first U.S. state to pass a law banning abortion in virtually all cases, with the intention of forcing the Supreme Court to reconsider its 1973 decision legalizing the procedure. The law, which would punish doctors who perform the operation with a five-year prison term and a $5,000 fine, awaits the signature of Republican Gov. Michael Rounds and people on both sides of the issue say he is unlikely to veto it. "My understanding is we are the first state to truly defy Roe v. Wade," the 1973 high court ruling that granted a constitutional right to abortion, said Kate Looby of Planned Parenthood's South Dakota chapter.

The Federal Communications Commission will stick by its decision to slap CBS with a $550,000 fine for the Janet Jackson flash at the 2004 Super Bowl. They also plan new sanctions against Fox, NBC and CBS TV stations or affiliates for violating decency standards, according to people familiar with the matter. The two sources, who declined to be identified ahead of a public announcement, said one of the decisions involves an appearance by Nicole Richie on the 2003 Billboard Music Awards on Fox. During the broadcast, she uttered the "F" word and the expletive for excrement.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Afghanistan has huge problems and NATO forces will be there for "years and years", the commander of Canada's expeditionary forces, which have taken a lead role in the hostile south of the country, warned yesterday. More than 3,000 British troops will join the Canadians in southern Afghanistan over the coming months. It is the latest move in NATO's commitment to deploy troops throughout Afghanistan in what is widely regarded as a hugely risky test for the alliance. The build-up of NATO forces in the south of the country is the alliance's "biggest operational, and perhaps strategic, challenge in years, if not decades", Major General Michel Gauthier said in a telephone interview with the Guardian.

Nearly 100 prisoners have died in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since August 2002, the Human Rights First organization has said on BBC television. At least 98 deaths occurred, with at least 34 of them suspected or confirmed homicides -- deliberate or reckless killing - according to the group of US lawyers who will publish the report. Their dossier claims that 11 more deaths are deemed suspicious and that between eight and 12 prisoners were tortured to death. The number of deaths in custody discounts those due to fighting, mortar attacks or violence between detainees. They were directly attributable to their detention or interrogation in American custody, the BBC's Newsnight program said. The report alleged that one person was made to jump off a bridge into the Tigris river in Iraq and another was forced inside a sleeping bag and suffocated. The report's editor Deborah Pearlstein told Newsnight: "We're extremely comfortable with the veracity and the reliability of the facts here."

Scandals Du Jour: The federal investigation into the lobbying activities of Jack Abramoff has broadened to examine his dealings with the Russian government and a pair of high-profile Russian energy company executives, according to documents made available to the Globe. A subpoena in the case, issued this month to an Abramoff associate, says the US government is seeking information on Abramoff-related activities with "any department, ministry, or office holder or agent of the Russian government." The subpoena, which has not been made public, was given to the Globe by a person who is involved in the case. Abramoff's work on behalf of Indian tribes has been widely scrutinized, but his work for Russian interests has received far less public notice.

An extensive investigation of embattled Fannie Mae points to its former finance chief and controller as mainly responsible for the accounting failures at the mortgage giant now struggling to emerge from an $11 billion scandal, said a report released Thursday. The report by a team of investigators led by former Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire also found that former chairman and CEO Franklin Raines, while not sharing direct responsibility, contributed to a culture of arrogance at the government-sponsored company. The report comes about 17 months after the revelation that federal regulators had discovered violations of accounting rules and earnings manipulation by the company to meet Wall Street targets. The board of Fannie Mae, a congressionally chartered corporation which finances one of every five home-mortgage loans in the United States, hired Rudman as independent counsel to launch an investigation at the time of the stunning disclosures in September 2004.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:54:44 PM

Tue, Feb 21 2006

Paying My Taxes

The weather has been a delight the last couple of days, and it looks like, with any luck, we're finally settling into the dry season. Nice, warm, sunny days, clear nights and warm, but not hot temperatures. Quite a bit of wind, though, to spoil the weather that would be perfect otherwise. It was 81 today, and with a low overnight of 68. The weather has definitely been improving. The cold fronts headed this way seem to be falling apart before they get here, and that would indicate that the dry season really has begun.

My bookkeeper came by on Monday, and got me squared away with this year's taxes on my two corporations. Any corporation that owns assets in Costa Rica has to pay a "culture and education" tax, which doesn't amount to all that much. The sum of what I owed came to a grand total of 12,000 colones, about $24. Not a big deal, except that I couldn't just go to the bank and pay them. The bank whose branch is here in town is not accepting tax payments, so I had to drive to Tilaran to pay them at a bank there.

The drive over to Tilaran started out badly. I got behind an enormous tourist bus, which was not just slowing down for the potholes, it was outright stopping, and I was creeping along in low gear between them. Getting nowhere fast, I finally passed cars ahead of me until I was right behind it, and waited till it stopped for a pothole, and with no oncoming traffic, finally made it around the behemoth. I had no sooner gotten around the bus, than I found myself at a construction zone, where CONAVI, the road agency, was out, actually filling potholes. After a short wait, I was finally on my way - only to encounter another construction crew a couple of miles on. But at least the potholes are getting filled. For now. There will be a whole new crop at the end of the next rainy season, that's for sure, but at least we'll have a few months of smooth driving.

Business over in Tilaran, I stopped at the big grocery store in Tilaran for a few things I can't get in Arenal, and then headed home. I was amazed at the number of huge tourist buses I encountered on the way back - I counted fifteen of them in that 34km. stretch of road. I cannot recall ever seeing so many in one day - I rarely see more than one or two on that trip. The package tour business must really be flourishing. But this is the peak of the season for the tourists from the United States, and package tours seems to be what the Americans go for.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: One of DP World's senior executives, Dave Sanborn, has been nominated by US President George W. Bush to serve as Maritime Administrator a key transportation appointment reporting directly to Norman Mineta the Secretary of Transportation and Cabinet Member. The White House has issued a statement from Washington DC announcing the nomination. The confirmation process will begin in February. Mr Sanborn currently holds the position of Director of Operations for Europe and Latin America for the Dubai-based company. DP World said: "While we are sorry to lose such an experienced and capable executive, it is exactly those qualities that will make Dave an effective administrator for MarAd. We are proud of Dave’s selection and pleased that the Bush Administration found such a capable executive. We wish him all the best in his new role."

A company at the Port of Miami has sued to block the takeover of shipping operations there by a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates. It is the first American courtroom effort to capsize a $6.8 billion sale already embroiled in a national debate over security risks at six major U.S. ports affected by the deal. The Miami company, a subsidiary of Eller and Company Inc., presently is a business partner with London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which Dubai Ports World purchased last week. In a lawsuit in Florida circuit court, the Miami subsidiary said that under the sale it will become an "involuntary partner" with Dubai's government and it may seek more than $10 million in damages.

In a seven-year-old secret program at the National Archives, intelligence agencies have been removing from public access thousands of historical documents that were available for years, including some already published by the State Department and others photocopied years ago by private historians. The restoration of classified status to more than 55,000 previously declassified pages began in 1999, when the Central Intelligence Agency and five other agencies objected to what they saw as a hasty release of sensitive information after a 1995 declassification order signed by President Bill Clinton. It accelerated after the Bush administration took office and especially after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to archives records. But because the reclassification program is itself shrouded in secrecy - governed by a still-classified memorandum that prohibits the National Archives even from saying which agencies are involved - it continued virtually without outside notice until December. That was when an intelligence historian, Matthew M. Aid, noticed that dozens of documents he had copied years ago had been withdrawn from the archives' open shelves.

Samuel Alito will make his Supreme Court debut with a splash this week when the justices hear two cases that could determine the future of the Clean Water Act. The cases, both from Michigan and scheduled for hearing on Tuesday, could have an enormous impact. For property-rights advocates, an unfavorable ruling could spread the shadow of federal regulation over every tiny stream and rivulet in America, stifling development. Federal authority would extend to "virtually every body of water in the nation -- every brook and pond, every dry wash -- that has any connection with navigable waters, no matter how remote," warned a coalition of water suppliers, farmers and the states of Alaska and Utah in one of more than 50 briefs filed with the court. For environmentalists, a loss would strike at the heart of the nation's water resources. Federal agencies would be powerless to prevent "the discharge of sewage, toxic pollutants and fill into ... the large majority of our nation's rivers, streams and other waters," said clean-water agencies from two-thirds of the states, including California.

The Supreme Court opened the next chapter in its long-running confrontation with abortion today by agreeing to decide whether the first federal ban on a method of abortion is constitutional. The court accepted, for argument next fall, the Bush administration's appeal of a decision invalidating the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. The law makes it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion during which a portion of the fetus, either the "entire fetal head" or "any part of the fetal trunk past the navel," is outside the woman's uterus at the time the fetus is killed.

Caught lying again: Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that the Pentagon is reviewing its practice of paying to plant stories in the Iraqi news media, withdrawing his earlier claim that it had been stopped. Rumsfeld told reporters he was mistaken in the earlier assertion. "I don't have knowledge as to whether it's been stopped. I do have knowledge it was put under review. I was correctly informed. And I just misstated the facts," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news briefing. Rumsfeld had said in a speech in New York last Friday and in a television interview the same day that the controversial practice had been stopped.

Picture two steaks on a grocer's shelf, each hermetically sealed in clear plastic wrap. One is bright pink, rimmed with a crescent of pearly white fat. The other is brown, its fat the color of a smoker's teeth. Which do you reach for? The meat industry knows the answer, which is why it has quietly begun to spike meat packages with carbon monoxide. The gas, harmless to health at the levels being used, gives meat a bright pink color that lasts weeks. The hope is that it will save the industry much of the $1 billion it says it loses annually from having to discount or discard meat that is reasonably fresh and perfectly safe but no longer pretty. But the growing use of carbon monoxide as a "pigment fixative" is alarming consumer advocates and others who say it deceives shoppers who depend on color to help them avoid spoiled meat. Those critics are challenging the Food and Drug Administration and the nation's powerful meat industry, saying the agency violated its own rules by allowing the practice without a formal evaluation of its impact on consumer safety. "This meat stays red and stays red and stays red," said Don Berdahl, vice president and laboratory director at Kalsec Foods in Kalamazoo, Mich., a maker of natural food extracts that has petitioned the FDA to ban the practice. If nothing else, Berdahl and others say, carbon-monoxide-treated meat should be labeled so consumers will know not to trust their eyes. The legal offensive has the meat industry seeing red. Officials deny their foes' claim that carbon monoxide is a "colorant" - a category that would require a full FDA review -- saying it helps meat retain its naturally red color.

Britain could lose its ability to impose environmental taxes, restrictions and safeguards on airlines under a draft treaty between the EU and US which curtails the power of national governments. The draft treaty, meant to liberalise aviation, includes a little noticed clause requiring EU states to reach agreement with each other and with the US before taking measures to tackle noise or pollution from airlines. The text of the draft "open skies" treaty, obtained by the Guardian, is likely to alarm environmental activists who argue that the seemingly unstoppable growth in air travel is among the main contributory factors to global warming. Aviation emissions rose by 12% last year and now account for about 11% of Britain's total greenhouse gas emissions - the fastest growing sector. The government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, has described global warming as a bigger threat to the world than global terrorism.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: Radiation detectors in Britain recorded a fourfold increase in uranium levels in the atmosphere after the "shock and awe" bombing campaign against Iraq, according to a recent report. Environmental scientists who uncovered the figures through freedom of information laws say it is evidence that depleted uranium from the shells was carried by wind currents to Britain. Government officials, however, say the sharp rise in uranium detected by radiation monitors in Berkshire was a coincidence and probably came from local sources. The results from testing stations at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Aldermaston and four other stations within a 10-mile radius were obtained by Chris Busby, of Liverpool University’s department of human anatomy and cell biology. Each detector recorded a significant rise in uranium levels during the Gulf war bombing campaign in March 2003. The reading from a park in Reading was high enough for the Environment Agency to be alerted.

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: CIA jets suspected of flying terrorist suspects to secret prisons for torture have landed at commercial British airports and received help from UK air traffic control, the authorities have admitted for the first time. National Air Traffic Services (NATS) confirmed that three planes with CIA tail numbers have travelled through Britain "on a number of occasions".

The Belgian government is investigating claims a secret CIA flight carrying a detainee made a stopover at the Deurne Airport in Antwerp. Federal Transport Minister Renaat Landuyt announced the investigation following a report published in Dutch newspaper 'NRC Handelsblad'. The newspaper said a US flight landed at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam on 20 July 2002. Two months later, the same plane was used to transport terror detainee Maher Arar to a Syrian jail for questioning. Flemish Transport Minister Kris Peeters later confirmed the private jet also made a stopover at Antwerp on 20 July 2002.

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: A report issued by the UN's Human Rights Commission on Thursday called for the closing of the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay. When asked about the report, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that while he does not agree with everything in it, he supports its main conclusions. Mr. Annan said sooner or later there will be a need to close Guantanamo and it will be up to the U.S. government to do it "as soon as possible." U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indicated on Friday that the facility will not be closed, and he criticized the report for relying on false claims by terrorists. On a recent visit to the Guantanamo detention center, VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin found indications that the military has long-term plans for the facility. Most of Guantanamo's detainees are in open-air cells made of chain link fence with a metal roof, or simple barracks where up to 10 cooperative men are allowed to live together. But some are in a new, modern facility that cost more than $30 million to build, and looks like it is there for the long term. As in any maximum security facility, the outer steel door must be closed and locked before the inner steel door can be opened. Camp Five is a two-story building surrounded by high fences and barbed wire, with fenced exercise yards nearby. It can house up to 100 detainees. And perhaps more important, there is another similar building under construction right next to it that will be known as Camp Six. The large cranes, hard-hatted construction workers and piles of building material do not look like part of any facility that is going to be abandoned anytime soon.

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: U.S. President George W. Bush's domestic spying program should be overseen by a special court, the Senate Intelligence Committee's chairman said in an interview published on Saturday that revealed a split with the White House. Committee Chairman Pat Roberts told The New York Times he had concerns that the court, established under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, could not issue warrants quickly enough for the eavesdropping program. But he said he would like to see that obstacle worked out. "I think it should come before the FISA court, but I don't know how it works," Roberts, a Kansas Republican who has backed the administration on most intelligence issues, was quoted as saying. He said speed and agility were essential for the program.

News From Smirkey's Wars: The Navy's former general counsel warned Pentagon officials two years before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal that circumventing international agreements on torture and detainees' treatment would invite abuse, according to a published report. Legal theories granting the president the right to authorize abuse in spite of the Geneva Conventions were unlawful, dangerous and erroneous, Alberto J. Mora advised officials in a secret memo. The 22-page document was obtained by The New Yorker for a story in its Feb. 27 issue. A Pentagon spokeswoman said Sunday she had not read the magazine story. The memo from July 7, 2004, recounted Mora's 2 1/2-year effort to halt a policy that he feared would authorize cruelty toward suspected terrorists. It also indicates that some lawyers in the Justice and Defense departments objected to the legal course the administration undertook, according to the report.

Alberto J. Mora was informed of detainee abuse at Guantanamo back in December of 2002 by the head of the Naval Criminal Investigation Service, David Brant, who said that nobody else seemed to care, because after 9/11, the "gloves had to come off" and the United States "had to get tougher."

A New Zealand expert on physical and mental health has stood by findings that US detention camp Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, should be shut down. Professor Paul Hunt, of both the University of Waikato and the University of Essex, was part of a five-member team appointed by the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate conditions at the "war on terror" detention camp. The group also included Leila Zerrougui, an expert on arbitrary detention; Leandro Despouy, expert on judicial independence; Manfred Nowak, an expert on torture; and Asma Jahangir, an expert on freedom of religion.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Greenhouse gases are being released into the atmosphere 30 times faster than the time when the Earth experienced a previous episode of global warming. A study comparing the rate at which carbon dioxide and methane are being emitted now, compared to 55 million years ago when global warming also occurred, has found dramatic differences in the speed of release.

Scandals Du Jour: The Abramoff scandal just grows and grows. Now it is the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Monday that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff was paid $1.2 million to organize his 2002 meeting with President Bush, but denied the money came from the Malaysian government. Mahathir told reporters he was aware a payment was made to Abramoff, but he didn't know who made it. He said he had been persuaded by the U.S. think tank Heritage Foundation to meet with Bush at the time. "It is true that somebody paid but it was not the (Malaysian) government," Mahathir said. "I understood some people paid a sum of money to lobbyists in America but I do not know who these people were and it was not the Malaysian government." Mahathir said the Heritage Foundation believed he could help "influence (Bush) in some way regarding U.S. policies."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:49:52 PM

Sun, Feb 19 2006

Enjoying My Books And My Tea.

The weather is continuing its on-again, off-again pattern of an hour or two of cold, rainy, windy weather, interrupted by brief periods of bright sunshine and warm temperatures. I am hoping that this signals an end to the Arenal rains, which ended long ago in the rest of the country. The temperatures have been a bit on the chilly side, dropping to 68 last night, and rising to 76 today, but they have certainly been a lot worse than that. At least now they're tolerable, even though I did have to block a draft last night in the old windowframe in the living room, near the couch. It got downright chilly when the wind would blow that cold, damp air in on me as I was relaxing on the couch.

I was relaxing on the couch reading a book from my newly retrieved library. The book, "Rogue State," by Bill Blum is one I recommend highly. It's the book to which Osama Bin Laden recently made reference to in one of his infamous Al Jazeera videos. I had the book in my things, and have been wanting to read it since I been down here. But not having had access to my library, I have felt kinda out of the loop - until now. All the great books that had been sitting in storage boxes in a warehouse in San Jose are now on shelves in my office, and I am loving it - really loving it. I had forgotten how much I missed having ready access to some of my favorites. Just since Wednesday, when I got back with my things, I have already read one book, and have gotten half way through "Rogue State" as well.

And I can sit at my desk, in a comfortable office chair (instead of a kitchen chair) for a change, doing my work with a cup of good ol' Stash's Chai-spice tea at hand, in one of the big 16-ounce coffee mugs I had in my things. Oh, how I had forgotten how much I enjoy that tea! Best stuff in the world on a chilly morning - makes life worth living! I'm sure glad that I bought a bunch of it and put it in my things before I left the States. I wish I had bought more, and I am going to have to see if I can find a source for it down here for when I run out in a few months.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: A "beer or two" and a gun: Vice President Dick Cheney, who was forced to leave Yale University because his penchant for late-night beer drinking exceeded his devotion to his studies, and who is one of the small number of Americans who can count two drunk driving busts on his record, was doing more than hunting quail on the day that he shot a Texas lawyer in the face. The vice president has admitted that he was drinking on the afternoon of the incident. He claims it was only a beer, according to the transcript of an interview with Fox New Wednesday. But the whole discussion about how much drinking took place on the day of the fateful hunt has been evolving rapidly since Katherine Armstrong, the wealthy Republican lobbyist who is a member of the politically connected family that owns the ranch where Cheney blasted his hunting partner, initially claimed that no one was imbibing before the incident. Armstrong later acknowledged to a reporter from the NBC investigative unit that alcohol may have been served at a picnic Saturday afternoon on the dude ranch where Cheney shot Harry Whittington. According to the report, which appeared briefly Tuesday on MSNBC, Armstrong peddled the line that she did not believe that alcohol played a part in the shooting accident. But, she admitted, "There may be a beer or two in there, but remember not everyone in the party was shooting." The MSNBC story, which appeared only briefly before the website was scrubbed for reasons not yet explained, has been kept alive by the able web investigators at TheRawStory and other progressive blogs. And so it should be, as the prospect that alcohol may have been a factor in the shooting incident takes the story in a whole new direction, as does the revelation that the Secret Service kept the county sheriff from investigating until the next morning - when, of course, Cheney's blood alcohol count would have been back to zero. Cheney's admission that he was drinking, along with Armstrong's clumsy attempts to downplay the alcohol issue raises more questions than it answers about an incident involving a Vice President who, like Smirkey, was a heavy drinker in his youth, but who, unlike Bush, never swore off the bottle.

Google Inc. on Friday formally rejected the U.S. Justice Department's subpoena of data from the Web search leader, arguing the demand violated the privacy of users' Web searches and its own trade secrets. Responding to a motion by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Google also said in a filing in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California the government demand to disclose Web search data was impractical. The Bush administration is seeking to compel Google to hand over Web search data as part of a bid by the Justice Department to appeal a 2004 Supreme Court injunction of a law to penalize Web site operators who allow children to view pornography. Google is going it alone in opposing the U.S. government request. Rivals Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. are among the companies that have complied with the Justice Department demand for data to be used to make its case. Google's lawyers said the company shares the government's concern with materials harmful to minors but argued that the request for its data was irrelevant. They offered a series of technical arguments why this data was not useful.

Few adults in the United States are satisfied with the performance of the House of Representatives and the Senate, according to a poll by Harris Interactive. Only 25 per cent of respondents have a positive opinion of the current Congress, unchanged since January.

Waste and fraud marked the federal government's assistance programs for Hurricane Katrina victims, with 10,000 mobile homes going unused and scattered cases of evacuees spending emergency funds on nude dancing in Houston, tattoos, casino gambling and a diamond engagement ring, according to an audit released Monday. About 5,000 of the 11,000 people who got $2,000 debit cards from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, at Reliant Center and the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston and two other shelters in Texas, incorrectly got additional $2,000 credits after applying by telephone or the internet, according to government findings. But losses from misspent debit funds - the list of purchases also included alcoholic beverages, so-called adult erotica, condoms and a $1,300 pistol - were peanuts compared to the amount of money FEMA wasted on contracts and housing payments, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, Richard Skinner.

Under pressure from a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the Justice Department on February 10 conceded in federal court that it could begin releasing as early as March 3 the internal legal memos relied on by the Bush administration in setting up the controversial National Security Agency warrantless wiretapping program.

More bad news for Smirkey: the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows that Americans put more confidence in the United Nations to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons than they do the Bush administration. "How confident are you in the Bush administration’s ability to handle the situation in Iran?" - Very or Somewhat Likely: 45%, - Not Too Confident or Not At All Confident: 55%. "How confident are you in the United Nations’ ability to handle the situation in Iran?" - Very or Somewhat Likely: 47%, - Not Too Confident or Not At All Confident: 51%.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: The United States has asked the Palestinian Authority to return $50 million in U.S. aid because Washington does not want a Hamas-led government to have the funds, the State Department said on Friday. The money was demanded as part of a full review of all U.S. aid for the Palestinians that began soon after the militant group Hamas' surprise victory in elections last month. A Hamas-led parliament was set to be sworn in on Saturday but it could take several weeks for a Cabinet to be formed. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the caretaker government of President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to return the money, given last year for infrastructure projects after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. "In the interests of seeing that these funds not potentially make their way into the coffers of a future Palestinian government (made up of Hamas) ... we have asked for it to be returned and the Palestinian Authority has agreed," McCormack told reporters. A Palestinian official confirmed Washington had asked for $50 million in aid to be returned. "The Palestinian Authority promised to comply," the official said.

The United States and Israel are discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats. The intention is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement. The officials also argue that a close look at the election results shows that Hamas won a smaller mandate than previously understood. The officials and diplomats, who said this approach was being discussed at the highest levels of the State Department and the Israeli government, spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

Extraordinary Rendition Watch: The American military have been operating flights across Europe using a call sign assigned to a civilian airline that they have no legal right to use. Not only is the call sign bogus - according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) - so, it appears, are some of the aircraft details the Americans have filed with the air traffic control authorities. In at least one case, a plane identified with the CIA practice of "extraordinary rendition" - transporting terrorist suspects - left a US air base just after the arrival of an aircraft using the bogus call sign. The call sign Juliet Golf Oscar (JGO) followed by a flight number belongs, says the ICAO, to a now bankrupt Canadian low-cost airline called Jetsgo of Montreal. But for several years and as recently as last December it has been used selectively by both the American air force and army to cover the flights of aircraft to and from the Balkans. These range from Learjet 35 executive jets to C-130 transport planes and MC-130P Combat Shadows, which are specially adapted for clandestine missions in politically sensitive or hostile territory.

Republicans Support The Troops: Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) led a 10-Senator effort to increase the pay for service-members. Smirkey's budget specifies a 2.2% increase - the smallest pay raise for the military since 1994. "Our troops are sacrificing so much, in every corner of the world. Shortchanging them and the families who love them is a lousy way to say thanks," said Kerry, who authored the letter. "Our military deserves leadership that matches their service and patriotism. Getting our troops the pay raise they deserve is the very least we can do to show how much we value everything they do for us. I'm going to fight for a fair military pay raise until it becomes a reality, and I thank my colleagues who have joined me in doing so," added Kerry.

Republicans Believe In Free, Fair and Honest Elections: California Secretary of State McPherson seems to have a thing for making major announcements late on Fridays just before holidays. Following in what seems to be a pattern of his, he announced late this afternoon that he was certifying Diebold Optical Scan and AccuVote TSx (touch-screens), known to be easily hackable, for use in elections in the state. The re-certification (they had been originally decertified in California in 2004 when it was revealed Diebold had installed illegal software updates on the machines) is conditional on some items but not on the one thing point he had announced last December when he sent the system back to federal authorities for further testing. At that time he said he was sending the machine's memory cards to the federal Independent Testing Authority (ITA) Lab for reinspection in light of the news out of Leon County, Florida that the cards used "interpreted code" which is specifically banned by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). A "hack test" in that county revealed that an entire election could have its results flipped by a hacker exploiting that "interpreted code" - without a trace being left behind. McPherson made his announcement today without waiting to hear back from the ITA lab.

Republicans Maintain High Ethical Standards: The North Carolina Republican Party asked its members this week to send their church directories to the party, drawing furious protests from local and national religious leaders. "Such a request is completely beyond the pale of what is acceptable," said the Rev. Richard Land, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. During the 2004 presidential race, the Bush-Cheney campaign sent a similar request to Republican activists across the country. It asked churchgoers not only to furnish church directories to the campaign, but also to use their churches as a base for political organizing. The tactic was roundly condemned by religious leaders across the political spectrum, including conservative evangelical Christians. Ten professors of ethics at major seminaries and universities wrote a letter to President Bush in August 2004 asking him to "repudiate the actions of your re-election campaign," and calling on both parties to "respect the integrity of all houses of worship." Officials of the Republican National Committee maintained that the tactic did not violate federal tax laws that prohibit churches from endorsing or opposing candidates for office, and they never formally renounced it.

Republican Policies Are Good For America: The financial costs to the U.S. military for discharging and replacing gay service members under the nation's "don't ask, don't tell" policy are nearly twice what the government estimated last year, with taxpayers covering at least $364 million in associated funds over the policy's first decade, according to a University of California report scheduled for release today. Members of a UC-Santa Barbara group examining the cost of the policy found that a Government Accountability Office study last year underestimated the costs of firing approximately 9,500 service members between 1994 and 2003 for homosexuality. The GAO, which acknowledged difficulties in coming up with its number, estimated a cost of at least $190.5 million for the same time period. The new estimate is 91 percent higher. Although it did not take a stance on the effectiveness of the policy, the California "blue ribbon commission" - which included former defense secretary William J. Perry and 11 professors and defense experts - found that the military has put millions of dollars into recruiting and training new soldiers and officers to replace those who were removed from their jobs in the services because they were openly gay. The report also cites the costs of losing service members to premature discharge, because of the loss of training "investment."

Three senators want the Justice Department to investigate claims that the FBI retaliated against an Arab-American agent by passing him over for top counterterrorism jobs despite his expertise. Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, urged the Justice Department's inspector general to determine whether the FBI denied a promotion to agent Bassem Youssef after Youssef complained about FBI management to another member of Congress, Rep. Frank Wolf (news, bio, voting record), R-Va. Specter is the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Leahy is the panel's senior Democrat. In a joint letter this week to Inspector General Glenn Fine, the senators warned that "retaliation for such disclosures sends a chilling message to all employees and thus prevents both the (FBI) director and Congress from receiving valuable information necessary to run and oversee the bureau effectively." Fine's office said it was reviewing the senators' request.

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: Scott Tooley, a Republican, and former Congressional aide and law school graduate, educated at renowned Christian universities, has filed suit against the President, Vice President and relevant federal agencies for their illegal surveillance programs. According to the complaint, the Bush-Cheney Administration initiated numerous illegal and perpetual surveillance methods on Mr. Tooley and his family after he was incorrectly placed on the TSA's "selectee" or watch list. Mr. Tooley's case is unique because the suit alleges the Bush Administration has used additional illegal surveillance methods on him in addition to the illegal wiretapping. Mr. Tooley is also the first Republican to file suit with regard to the Bush Administration's surveillance programs. The suit alleges that RFID tags "that monitor their vehicle movements" were placed on his wife's car. Prior to filing suit, Mr. Tooley says he asked federal agencies for the removal of his name from the TSA's watch list and any documents relating to the matter. He says he was stonewalled and told that the agencies could neither confirm nor deny that his name was placed on multiple watch lists. The complaint was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Friday, February 17, 2006.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says those who call for the closure the detention center at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are "just flat wrong." Mr. Rumsfeld says the Guantanamo Bay detention Center is being run as well as possible and any allegations of torture or abuse of prisoners are being handled through appropriate military procedures.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Iraq has lost over $6 billion throughout 2005 due to sabotage operations against its oil sector facilities, a senior official told KUNA on Saturday. Issam Jihad, Spokesman for the Iraqi Oil Ministry said the ministry experts have estimated the loss at $6.25 billion, while 138 security and technical personnel lost their lives in a series of 186 sabotage operations carried in 2005. Operations to set oil fields ablaze cost the ministry about $400 million, while above $2.7 billion were lost in operations against crude oil pipelines. Destroying petrochemicals pipelines also cost over $3 billion, he concluded.

An Iranian group that claims its members are dedicated to becoming suicide bombers warned the United States and Britain on Saturday that they will strike coalition military bases in Iraq if Tehran's nuclear facilities are attacked. Mohammad Ali Samadi, spokesman for Esteshadion, or Martyrdom Seekers, boasted of having hundreds of potential bombers in his talk at a seminar on suicide-bombings tactics at Tehran's Khajeh Nasir University. "With more than 1,000 trained martyrdom-seekers, we are ready to attack the American and British sensitive points if they attack Iran's nuclear facilities," Samadi said. "If they strike, we have a lot of volunteers. Their (U.S. and British) sensitive places are quite close to Iranian borders," Samadi said.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: The state board that oversees pharmacies in Massachusetts voted Tuesday to require Wal-Mart to stock emergency contraception pills at its Massachusetts pharmacies, a spokeswoman at the Department of Public Health said. The unanimous decision by the Massachusetts Board of Pharmacy comes two weeks after three women sued Wal-Mart in state court for failing to carry the so called "morning after" pill in its Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores in the state. The women argue state policy requires pharmacies to provide all "commonly prescribed medicines." The board has sent a letter to Wal-Mart lawyers informing them of the decision, said health department spokeswoman Donna Rheaume. Wal-Mart has until Thursday to provide written compliance.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Greenland's glaciers are melting into the sea twice as fast as previously believed, the result of a warming trend that renders obsolete predictions of how quickly Earth's oceans will rise over the next century, scientists said yesterday. The new data come from satellite imagery and give fresh urgency to worries about the role of human activity in global warming. The Greenland data are mirrored by findings from Bolivia to the Himalayas, scientists said, noting that rising sea levels threaten widespread flooding and severe storm damage in low-lying areas worldwide. The scientists said they do not yet understand the precise mechanism causing glaciers to flow and melt more rapidly, but they said the changes in Greenland were unambiguous -- and accelerating: In 1996, the amount of water produced by melting ice in Greenland was about 90 times the amount consumed by Los Angeles in a year. Last year, the melted ice amounted to 225 times the volume of water that city uses annually.

Scandals Du Jour: The unmasking of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson by White House officials in 2003 caused significant damage to U.S. national security and its ability to counter nuclear proliferation abroad. According to current and former intelligence officials, Plame Wilson, who worked on the clandestine side of the CIA in the Directorate of Operations as a non-official cover (NOC) officer, was part of an operation tracking distribution and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction technology to and from Iran. Speaking under strict confidentiality, intelligence officials revealed heretofore unreported elements of Plame's work. Their accounts suggest that Plame's outing was more serious than has previously been reported and carries grave implications for U.S. national security and its ability to monitor Iran's burgeoning nuclear program.

When Tom DeLay was the most powerful man in the House of Representatives, Congress and the president devoted $500 million over 10 years for an oil and gas project lawmakers expected to go to a firm in DeLay's hometown. But just a month after the embattled former House majority leader announced he would not try to keep his leadership job, the Bush administration cut funding for the project from its 2007 budget, and announced in the fine print of its 1,220-page fiscal blueprint that it would seek legislation to kill the program outright. A Department of Energy spokesman said the decision this month merely reflects President Bush's desire to weed out ineffective programs. But in political circles, lawmakers and analysts saw the cut as a slap against a man who no longer has the political muscle to hit back.

News Of The Weird: The menu at Beijing's latest venue for its growing army of gourmets is eye-watering rather than mouth-watering. China's cuisine is renowned for being "in your face" - from the skinned dogs displayed at food markets to the kebabbed scorpions sold on street stalls - and there is no polite way of describing Guo-li-zhuang. Situated in an elegantly restored house beside Beijing's West Lake, it is China's first speciality penis restaurant. Here, businessmen and government officials can sample the organs of yaks, donkeys, oxen and even seals. In fact, they have to, since they form part of every dish - except for those containing testicles. "This is my third visit," said one customer, Liu Qiang. "Of course, there are other restaurants that serve the bian of individual animals. But this is the first that brings them all together."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:24:12 AM

Fri, Feb 17 2006

The Moon's Right - Time To Plant

The weather can't seem to make up its mind whether it is going to be cold, windy, rainy and just generally nasty, or warm, sunny and pleasant. Seems like the last few days has seen short periods of nasty weather with short periods of sunny weather in between. So the temperatures have been cooler than usual, lows about 68 and highs about 76, but the worst of it is the rain - one never seems to know whether it will rain or not when one goes out to do something.

The gardener came rather late today, and suggested that we plant the cashew tree seedlings that have been growing in the plastic bags in which I planted some cashews last spring. They're about eighteen inches high now, and so we decided that the time had come to get them in the ground. It's a good time to plant, he said, the moon is in just the right phase. OK, whatever.

We got those planted in the spots on the North Forty where I had been thinking they should go. They're in the ground now, and in very good soil, so they should do well. Once established, they should grow to a decent size rather quickly. I'm told they should be producing fruit in about two years.

I decided that since we were in a planting mood, we ought to go ahead and plant some flowering vines, the "petra" vines for which I had been given seed, and which were planted in nursery bags about the same time as the cashews. I found several locations, including an arbor near the house but far enough from it that the vines should not climb the walls and create a maintenance issue, and we got them in the ground in short order. I am eager to see how they do. Another was planted at the far end of the pond, where it will grow up into a madera negra (black wood) tree. Those trees produce a valuable wood, but they are open and rather lanky and not terribly attractive, and my idea is to allow the petra to grow up in it and cover the bare frame of the tree with the characteristic sky blue flowers. When the madera negra is in bloom, with its purple flowers, along with the blue flowers of the petra, it should all be quite a show. Too bad I am not likely to be in this house long enough to see it.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Civil liberties organizations expressed outrage yesterday after it was reported that the database of terrorist suspects kept by the US authorities now holds 325,000 names, a fourfold increase in two and a half years. The National Counterterrorism Center maintains a central repository of 325,000 names of international terrorism suspects or people who allegedly aid them, a number that has more than quadrupled since the fall of 2003, according to counterterrorism officials. The list kept by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) -- created in 2004 to be the primary U.S. terrorism intelligence agency -- contains a far greater number of international terrorism suspects and associated names in a single government database than has previously been disclosed. Because the same person may appear under different spellings or aliases, the true number of people is estimated to be more than 200,000, according to NCTC officials. U.S. citizens make up "only a very, very small fraction" of that number, said an administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his agency's policies. "The vast majority are non-U.S. persons and do not live in the U.S.," he added. An NCTC official refused to say how many on the list - put together from reports supplied by the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency (NSA) and other agencies - are U.S. citizens. The list, maintained by the National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC), includes different spellings of the same person's names as well as aliases, but the Washington Post quoted NCTC officials as saying that at least 200,000 individuals are on it. They said that "only a very, very small fraction" of that number were US citizens, but that insistence did little to defuse the reaction. Timothy Sparapani, an expert on privacy rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the ACLU's response was one of incredulity, and alarm that many people are likely to be on the list by mistake, with serious impact on their lives and few, if any, means of getting themselves off it. "The numbers continue to grow by leaps and bounds," Mr Sparapani said. He had no idea what methods were being used to add names to the database, but added: "I have to say we're probably adding names faster than we can figure out how to deal with them ... We worry greatly about the potential stain to anyone's life who ends up on this list." It is unclear how many of the names on the list were collected as a result of a domestic wiretapping programme by the National Security Agency, the existence of which only became known through a leak in December.

A former NSA employee said Tuesday there is another ongoing top-secret surveillance program that might have violated millions of Americans' Constitutional rights. Russell D. Tice told the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations he has concerns about a "special access" electronic surveillance program that he characterized as far more wide-ranging than the warrentless wiretapping recently exposed by the New York Times but he is forbidden from discussing the program with Congress. Tice said he believes it violates the Constitution's protection against unlawful search and seizures but has no way of sharing the information without breaking classification laws. He is not even allowed to tell the congressional intelligence committees - members or their staff - because they lack high enough clearance. Neither could he brief the inspector general of the NSA because that office is not cleared to hear the information, he said. Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said they believe a few members of the Armed Services Committee are cleared for the information, but they said believe their committee and the intelligence committees have jurisdiction to hear the allegations. "Congressman Kucinich wants Congressman Shays to hold a hearing (on the program)," said Doug Gordon, Kucinich's spokesman. "Obviously it would have to take place in some kind of a closed hearing. But Congress has a role to play in oversight. The (Bush) administration does not get to decide what Congress can and can not hear."

The public-relations gloss that has long wrapped the Bush administration is fast becoming a blemish on the White House, according to lawmakers who have uncovered some $1.6 billion in federal funds spent on promoting various administration-sponsored programs. A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress's research and auditing body, tracks more than 340 contracts negotiated between several government departments and PR, advertising and media firms from 2003 through the first part of 2005. The study, requested by the House of Representatives Democratic leadership, found that from 2003 to mid-2005, the administration racked up some $1.4 billion in contracts with advertising agencies to broadcast positive messages about its policies and initiatives. Another $200 million went to public-relations companies, and $15 million were spent building connections with media outlets. Individual members of the press received a total of $100,000 in promotional contracts.

The Bush administration made an emergency request to Congress yesterday for a seven-fold increase in funding to mount the biggest ever propaganda campaign against the Tehran government, in a further sign of the worsening crisis between Iran and the west. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said the $75m (£43m) in extra funds, on top of $10m already allocated for later this year, would be used to broadcast US radio and television programs into Iran, help pay for Iranians to study in America and support pro-democracy groups inside the country. Although US officials acknowledge the limitations of such a campaign, the state department is determined to press ahead with measures that include extending the government-run Voice of America's Farsi service from a few hours a day to round-the-clock coverage.

Veteran hunters and shooting experts said Thursday that they still did not understand how the vice president injured his fellow hunting partner so badly if he was actually 30 yards away as Cheney says. "It just doesn't add up," said John Kelly, a quail hunter from New York with more than 36 years of experience. "With a shotgun, the pellets spread out the further you get, and for that many pellets to hit such a small part of this man's body means Mr. Cheney was far closer" than the 27-meter distance cited.

The United States must close its detention facility at Guantanamo Bay because it is effectively a torture camp where prisoners have no access to justice, a U.N. report released Thursday concluded. The White House rejected the recommendation. The 54-page report summarizing an investigation by five U.N. experts accused the United States of practices that "amount to torture" and demanded detainees be allowed a fair trial or freed. The investigators did not visit the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "Those people should be released or brought before an independent court," Manfred Nowak, the U.N. investigator for torture, told The Associated Press. "That should not be done in Guantanamo Bay, but before ordinary U.S. courts, or courts in their countries of origin or perhaps an international tribunal." The United States should allow "a full and independent investigation" at Guantanamo and also give the United Nations access to other detention centers, including secret ones, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Nowak said by telephone from his office in Vienna, Austria. "We want to have all information about secret places of detention because whenever there is a secret place of detention, there is also a higher risk that people are subjected to torture," he said.

A high court judge in the UK yesterday delivered a stinging attack on America, saying its idea of what constituted torture was out of step with that of "most civilized nations." The criticism, directed at the Bush administration's approach to human rights, was made by Mr Justice Collins during a hearing over the refusal by ministers to request the release of three British residents held at Guantanamo Bay. The judge said: "America's idea of what is torture is not the same as ours and does not appear to coincide with that of most civilized nations." He made his comments, he said, after learning of the UN report that said Guantanamo should be shut down without delay because torture was still being carried out there.

Four years ago, Energy Department veteran Richard Levernier went public with details of what he said were serious security flaws at the nation’s nuclear weapons and research facilities, losing his security clearance as an apparent direct result. Last week, a federal investigation found that Levernier’s criticisms cast legitimate doubts "upon the agency’s confident expression of its readiness to defend the nuclear research facilities and nuclear assets within its custody." But the investigation, which was headed by a controversial Bush appointee, failed to make a final conclusion on the validity of Levernier’s claims or to address the propriety of his demotion. The US Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the agency tasked with investigating whistleblower complaints within the federal government, quietly released the findings of its investigation into the issue early this month. OSC said that while it could not determine the accuracy of the Energy Department’s official claims and responses addressing the security of the nation’s nuclear facilities, "when viewed against the widespread criticism, [those claims] do not seem to provide a complete and accurate picture of DoE’s security program."

The US is losing the propaganda war against al-Qaeda and other enemies, defense chief Donald Rumsfeld has said. It must modernize its methods to win the minds of Muslims in the "war on terror", as "enemies had skillfully adapted" to the media age, he said. Washington and the army must respond faster to events and learn to exploit the internet and satellite TV, he said. Separately, President Bush said the US should not be discouraged by setbacks in Iraq and must realize it is at war.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is one of the biggest dangers facing Latin America, Washington has said. US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said Mr. Chavez was trying to influence others away from democracy, and called for a united front against him. President Chavez responded by accusing the US of aggression, saying "world opinion is with Venezuela." The exchange would appear to undermine recent efforts to improve increasingly strained ties between the two states. Addressing a congressional hearing on Thursday, Ms. Rice accused Mr. Chavez of leading a "Latin brand of populism that has taken countries down the drain".She described Venezuela's close relationship with Cuba as "particularly dangerous".

US politicians have launched a fresh bid to stop overseas internet gambling sites reaching American users. The move comes in the shape of a new bill being introduced in the House of Representatives with support from both Republican and Democrat members. The bill aims to extend existing laws that ban interstate telephone gambling. It would, however, fall foul of a World Trade Organization ruling last August that the US must not block online gambling sites based overseas. The WTO made the ruling after backing a complaint made against the US by the Caribbean island of Antigua, which is home to a number of internet betting websites. Under the WTO ruling, the US was given until April of this year to bring its legislation into line or else face sanctions, such as fines or tariffs.

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: Congress appeared ready to launch an investigation into the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program last week, but an all-out White House lobbying campaign has dramatically slowed the effort and may kill it, key Republican and Democratic sources said yesterday. The Senate intelligence committee is scheduled to vote tomorrow on a Democratic-sponsored motion to start an inquiry into the recently revealed program in which the National Security Agency eavesdrops on an undisclosed number of phone calls and e-mails involving U.S. residents without obtaining warrants from a secret court. Two committee Democrats said the panel -- made up of eight Republicans and seven Democrats -- was clearly leaning in favor of the motion last week but now is closely divided and possibly inclined against it.

In a case of legislative deja vu, Sen. Russell Feingold launched another lonely filibuster against the USA Patriot Act, but sponsors predicted enough support to overcome the objection and extend parts of the law set to expire March 10. Feingold said protracted talks with the White House over the law's protections for civil liberties produced only a "fig leaf" to cover weaknesses that leave people vulnerable to government intrusion. Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he had the 60 votes required to overcome Feingold's filibuster, as soon as this week. He agreed, though, that any revisions to a House-Senate accord blocked last year were "...cosmetic. But sometimes cosmetics will make a beauty out of a beast and provide enough cover for senators to change their vote." Specter told reporters Wednesday. Indeed, the filibuster seemed doomed. No Democrats were expected to join Feingold, according to officials of both parties. Several senior senators of his party have said they would vote for the bill, including Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Richard Durbin of Illinois. Legislation to renew the USA Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism law passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, cleared a key procedural hurdle in the Senate today, easing the way for passage by Congress. The Senate voted 96-3 to limit debate on the measure, allowing the chamber to proceed to a final vote that's scheduled for March 1. Speaker Dennis Hastert said Feb. 10 that the House would pass the legislation if the Senate did.

The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility has opened an internal investigation into the department's role in approving the Bush administration's warrantless domestic eavesdropping program, officials said yesterday. In addition, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales signaled in an interview with The Washington Post yesterday that the administration will sharply limit the testimony of former attorney general John D. Ashcroft and former deputy attorney general James B. Comey, both of whom have been asked to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the program.

A federal judge ordered the Bush administration on Thursday to release documents about its warrantless surveillance program or spell out what it is withholding, a setback to efforts to keep the program under wraps. At the same time, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said he had worked out an agreement with the White House to consider legislation and provide more information to Congress on the eavesdropping program. The panel's top Democrat, who has requested a full-scale investigation, immediately objected to what he called an abdication of the committee's responsibilities. U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy ruled that a private group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, will suffer irreparable harm if the documents it has been seeking since December are not processed promptly under the Freedom of Information Act. He gave the Justice Department 20 days to respond to the group's request. Responding to several consolidated lawsuits in federal court last week, the Department of Justice indicated that it could begin releasing documents relating to the presidential order in early March. In a joint action last week, the nonprofit National Security Archives and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit alleging that the Justice Department violated the Freedom of Information Act by not providing them with documents about the program requested in separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filings last year. The plaintiffs subsequently requested that their suit be consolidated with two nearly identical ones filed recently by the Electronic Privacy Information Clearinghouse (EPIC). District Court Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. granted the request.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: An independent economic analysis released yesterday found that under the president’s proposed budget, states would have to pick up billions in Medicaid expenses, most likely forcing some to reduce services. The federal spending cuts would come on top of funding those already approved by Congress this month and after several states unexpectedly began picking up the tab for the program’s recently enacted prescription-drug benefit. The White House budget released earlier this month would hack more than $35 billion in federal Medicaid expenditures over the next ten years, about $30 billion of which would be transferred to the states, the progressive think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported yesterday. The analysis found that most of the cuts are regulatory and need no congressional approval. According to CBPP, the administration is seeking a net $5.1 billion in savings through legislation and another $30.4 billion by altering regulations utilizing executive branch powers. The newly proposed cuts top the ten-year, $26.5 billion cuts Congress just approved in its budget reconciliation package by a full $9 billion; if approved, would bring federal Medicaid cuts to $62 billion over the next decade.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Greenland's glaciers are sliding towards the sea much faster than previously believed, scientists have told a conference in St Louis, US. It was thought the entire Greenland ice sheet could melt in about 1,000 years, but the latest evidence suggests that could happen much sooner. It implies that sea levels will rise a great deal faster as well. Details of the study, by NASA and University of Kansas researchers, are also reported in the journal Science. The comprehensive analysis found that the amount of ice dumped into the Atlantic Ocean has doubled in the last five years. If the Greenland ice sheet melted completely, it would raise global sea levels by about 22 feet. Greenland's contribution to global sea level rise today is two to three times greater than it was in 1996. "We are concerned because we know that sea levels have been able to rise much faster in the past - 10 times faster. This is a big gorilla. If sea level rise is multiplied by 10 or more, I'm not sure we can deal with that," co-author Eric Rignot, from the US space agency's (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told the BBC News website.

Scandals Du Jour: Holy convenience, Batman! It's not Dick Cheney's hunting mishap that worries Republicans. It's his other scandal - the CIA leak case and the threat it poses to the embattled vice president. Republican activists acknowledge that the accidental shooting of Cheney's friend is the talk of mainstream America and has made the vice president the butt of jokes. But they do not expect political fallout from the shooting or the clumsy way in which it was disclosed.Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday accepted full blame for shooting a fellow hunter and defended his decision to not publicly disclose the accident until the following day. He called it "one of the worst days of my life." "It's hard to believe that anybody can make Dick Cheney a sympathetic figure," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "That's what the media has done." Republicans say they are pleasantly surprised that the intense media coverage of the hunting accident has shifted attention from the case of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff. Libby is accused of misleading investigators about who leaked the identify of a CIA official.

Nearly two years after the first pictures of naked and humiliated Iraqi detainees emerged from Abu Ghraib prison, the full extent of the abuse became known for the first time yesterday with a leaked report from the US army's internal investigation into the scandal. The catalogue of abuse, which was obtained by the online American magazine Salon, could not have arrived at a worse time for the Bush administration, coinciding with yesterday's United Nations report on abuse of detainees at Guantanamo, the release of a video showing British troops beating up Iraqi youths, and lingering anger in the Muslim world over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Bush administration officials had already been fending off a new wave of anger about the torture of detainees - following the airing of graphic images from Abu Ghraib on Australian television - when Salon posted a story on its website yesterday saying it had obtained what appears to be the fullest photographic record to date of the abuse.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:00:26 PM

Wed, Feb 15 2006

Buried In Boxes

The horrible cold, windy and rainy weather of the last few days has let up, and we're finally seeing some decent weather again. Tuesday morning was the coldest weather I have yet seen here in Arenal - it got down to 60 degrees by sunup. And the weather later in the day didn't improve all that much. It only made it to 68 all day long. To say I was freezing to death is a bit of an understatement.

I was glad to get out of that cold weather, even if it meant a big trip. I had a call from the bodega where my furniture had been stored, saying that they desperately needed the room and would exonerate my storage charges for the last two years if I would send a truck by to get my things. Well, that was a deal too good to pass up, so I hired a truck and went to San Jose yesterday to collect my goods. I had to do some looking to find a covered truck large enough for them, it was just a bit too much to fit in a standard cargo taxi, so I asked a neighbor what I could do, and he asked around for me. I got a good driver with a good two-ton truck with a neoprene cargo bed, no less, and we arranged for an early trip on Wednesday morning. Very early.

He arrived, as arranged, on the dot of five. It was still windy and blowing hard, with a drizzling rain, and, once out of the Arenal area, lots of fog as well. Miserable day for a trip. By the time we had made it as far as Fortuna, the fog had lifted to low clouds and the wind eased up, but it was still raining plenty hard enough. The ride was about what one would expect in a cargo truck - the seat was padded with about an inch and a half of foam, which flattened out pretty quickly, and that, with the bumpy roads, left me rather sore in the seat before we had even gotten as far as San Ramon. The driver took me on a somewhat circuitous route, which he said would get us to San Ramon faster than the usual route. He was right - we arrived in San Ramon about ten minutes ahead of when I had expected. Going over the divide at Los Angeles Sur, the weather just got worse and worse, until the wind was stiff enough, and the fog and drizzle thick enough, to make driving downright hazardous. The usual weather for there, and the reason why the place is called La Penitencia. But going down the hill into San Ramon, as usually happens there, we were quickly out of the fog and wind and drizzle into a bright sunny day. There was an inordinate number of traffic police enroute - I couldn't believe how many there were - every three or four miles, there was another, waiting to pull hapless motorists over, and write them up. That kept the speed down, and we were about a half hour late arriving in San Jose.

I called the bodega and gave the cell phone to my driver, so he could get the directions. Good thing I did, too, as the directions I had were not right. We got there directly, without getting lost, and I was astounded to see how big the operation really was - more than a city block long and wide. We found the foreman, and he detailed a crew to load the truck. In ten minutes, it was all loaded, and we were out of there.

The trip home was much more pleasant, even if the seat wasn't getting any softer. We stopped in San Ramon for a quick lunch at a roadside soda, and headed through San Ramon and back up over the divide at Los Angeles Sur. The weather hadn't moderated a bit, and I was glad that we had taken the time to pull the tarpaulin over the roof of the truck. Down the other side, the weather eased up, and by the time we had arrived at The Cataracts, the rain had stopped and the wind had let up. By Bajo Rodriguez, the bottom of the hill, the sun had come out and we had the windows down. There was no rain, and mostly sunny weather, all the way back to Arenal.

So now I am back in Arenal, swimming in a sea of boxes. It is going to be very nice to have my things, but I am not looking forward to having to pack it all back up again in a few months and move it to Nicaragua. But that's for the future, and a bridge I'll cross when I come to it.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: President Bush knew Saturday evening that Vice President Dick Cheney had accidentally shot a hunting companion, but the information wasn't made public until the next day by a private citizen, the White House acknowledged Monday. In a contentious media briefing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Cheney's staff was focused on making sure that the shooting victim, Texas attorney Harry Whittington, was receiving adequate medical care after the shooting on the private Armstrong Ranch in south Texas. Whittington and Cheney were hunting quail together. Cheney apparently did not see Whittington and the vice president accidentally hit him in the face, neck and chest with bird shot, according to accounts of the accident. The more than 18-hour delay in news emerging that the vice president of the United States had shot a man, sending him to an intensive care unit with his wounds, grew even more curious Monday with word from the White House that President Bush had been informed of the incident Saturday but not immediately about Dick Cheney's role. Earlier, the official confirmation of the shooting came about only after a local reporter in Corpus Christi, Texas, received a tip from the owner of the property where the shooting occurred and called Vice President Cheney's office for confirmation. The confirmation was made but it is not known for certain that Cheney's office, the White House, or anyone else intended to announce the shooting if the reporter, Jaime Powell of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, had not received word from the ranch owner. It turns out that Vice President Cheney had no license to kill - quail, that is. After the White House reluctantly conceded yesterday that it sat on the blockbuster news that Cheney shot a hunting buddy Saturday, the veep's office revealed he didn't even have the proper $7 stamp on his hunting license to shoot quail in Texas.

Recent research into the new Medicare Part D prescription-drug benefit program shows the pharmaceutical industry is poised to reap billions in taxpayer funds under the new plan. The data lends new fuel to the fight led by seniors and their advocates to overhaul the program, which took effect January 1. Under the design of the current scheme, private insurers - not the Medicare administration - provide coverage to enrollees, some of who previously received coverage under Medicaid and others who never had government-subsidized prescription drug coverage. According to a January report by the progressive think tank Center for Economic Policy Research, the program's cost to state and federal taxpayers - estimated at $776 billion for the next eight years - and its notorious complexity are predictable symptoms of the legislation. "Congress deliberately designed the bill in a way that would ensure that private insurance companies would provide the benefit instead of the Medicare administration or a single designated provider," wrote the report's author, Dean Baker. "This design both substantially increased the cost of drugs and administrative costs in addition to making the drug program much more complicated for beneficiaries," the report states.

Challenging what many in the gay community see as an onerous prohibition on their relationships, lawyers with two gay-rights organizations asked a federal appeals court yesterday to uphold a lower-court ruling that Nebraska’s five-year-old ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. The lawyers argued that the amendment to the state constitution presents an "extraordinary burden" to same-sex couples. But the Nebraska Attorney General’s office has a starkly different take on the issue, seeking to have the law restored after a district court struck it down last May. The amendment, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in November 2000, prevents the recognition of same-sex couples under any legal framework, including civil liberties and domestic partnerships. Nebraska already had laws on the books preventing the state from legally recognizing gay marriages. Calling the ban "the most extreme anti-gay family law in the nation," David Buckel, a lawyer with the gay-rights group Lambda Legal Defense said in a statement on Mondaythat the amendment "in effect put a sign on the door of the Nebraska legislature saying 'Same-Sex Couples Not Allowed'."

US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has strongly rejected criticism of his department's response to Hurricane Katrina last year. He conceded the "fog of war" had led to communications failures, but announced steps to overhaul the embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A leaked Congressional report - due to be released on Wednesday - singles out Mr Chertoff for criticism. It says the government response was marked by "fecklessness and flailing". The summary of the 600-page report - seen by the Associated Press news agency - is damning. "Our investigation revealed that Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare," it says.

Treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay constitutes torture in some cases and violates international law, a leaked UN draft report says. The document, seen by the Los Angeles Times, suggests that investigators will recommend the prison camp is shut down. It also questions the legal status of the camp and the classification of detainees as enemy combatants. US state department spokesman Sean McCormack criticised the draft report as "hearsay". The Los Angeles Times published the draft report on Monday and spoke to one of the authors, the UN special raporteur on torture, Manfred Novak. The report, compiled by five U.N. envoys who interviewed former prisoners, detainees' lawyers and families, and U.S. officials, is the product of an 18-month investigation ordered by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The team did not have access to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

The United States has spent more than a quarter of a trillion dollars during its three years in Iraq, and more than $50 billion of it has gone to private contractors hired to guard bases, drive trucks, feed and shelter the troops and rebuild the country. It is dangerous work, but much of the $50 billion, which is more than the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security, has been handed out to companies in Iraq with little or no oversight. Billions of dollars are unaccounted for, and there are widespread allegations of waste, fraud and war profiteering. So far only one case, the subject of a civil lawsuit that goes to trial this week, has been unsealed. It involves a company called Custer Battles, and as 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft reports, the lawsuit provides a window into the chaos of those early days in Iraq.

Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore told an audience in Saudi Arabia yesterday that the U.S. government committed "terrible abuses" against Arabs after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that most Americans did not support such treatment. Gore said Arabs had been "indiscriminately rounded up" and held in "unforgivable" conditions. He said the administration of President George W. Bush was playing into al-Qaida's hands by routinely blocking Saudi visa applications. "The thoughtless way in which visas are now handled, that is a mistake," Gore said during the Jidda Economic Forum. "The worst thing we can possibly do is to cut off the channels of friendship and mutual understanding between Saudi Arabia and the United States."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:09:04 PM

Mon, Feb 13 2006

Sunny And Warm Down Here - Not

I was all set to brag about the warm, sunny Costa Rican weather, and how the folks up there in the Great White North oughtta come down here and get warm if they can find a south-bound plane that isn't snowed in. But the weather here has sure changed. Gone is yesterday's bright and sunny 81-degree high. In its place is some truly awful weather. The overnight low dropped to 67, and this afternoon, it only made it to 70. And it had to struggle to get that high. And we had all of ten minutes of filtered sun this afternoon, before the hard, cold, wind-blown rains resumed. The wind blew hard all night, rattling the windows and roof sheets enough to keep me awake, and didn't let up all day. And with the driving rain, the weather was truly miserable indeed.

Not that it is this awful all over the country - down in the Guanacaste plains and out at the Nicoya beaches, it is not. In fact, the temperatures down there are just about perfect right now, and being on the Pacific side, there aren't any winds and driving rain, and there is abundant sun. So you can happily get aboard your Liberia-bound plane, confident that you'll be rewarded with weather much more pleasant than what you left. Just don't bother with Arenal for a few days.

As fate would have it, I had to go out in that miserable weather. I discovered to my dismay that I needed to send an urgent fax, which couldn't wait till tomorrow, and so I bundled up and headed out into it. The rain was relentless and being driven by the wind, I got well and truly soaked during my foray into town. Fax sent, I headed down the street from the post office to the grocery store all the way at the other end of the main drag. I have been without bread for several days and have used up everything I had in the freezer, and needed some for lunch. But no cigar. The bread truck didn't come Friday, and it hadn't come today by the time I was there. And as much as I like the German Bakery's bread, I am just not desperate enough to pay tourist prices for it, thank you very much. So the bread drought continues. I mentioned to the store manager that I hadn't seen any for a couple of weeks, and he said he'd make a call. After that donnybrook, I walked, mostly ran, back to the other end of the street and the car and drove through the driving rain to the bank, hoping to make it there before they closed for the day. No cigar there, either - they closed just before I arrived. Other than getting my fax sent, the trip was a bomb. So tomorrow, I'll do it all over again, heading for the bank and the grocery store. Let's just hope the weather improves.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Strategists at the Pentagon are drawing up plans for devastating bombing raids backed by submarine-launched ballistic missile attacks against Iran's nuclear sites as a "last resort" to block Teheran's efforts to develop an atomic bomb. Central Command and Strategic Command planners are identifying targets, assessing weapon-loads and working on logistics for an operation, the Sunday Telegraph has learned. They are reporting to the office of Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, as America updates plans for action if the diplomatic offensive fails to thwart the Islamic republic's nuclear bomb ambitions. Teheran claims that it is developing only a civilian energy program. "This is more than just the standard military contingency assessment," said a senior Pentagon adviser. "This has taken on much greater urgency in recent months." The prospect of military action could put Washington at odds with Britain which fears that an attack would spark violence across the Middle East, reprisals in the West and may not cripple Teheran's nuclear program. But the steady flow of disclosures about Iran's secret nuclear operations and the virulent anti-Israeli threats of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has prompted the fresh assessment of military options by Washington. The most likely strategy would involve aerial bombardment by long-distance B2 bombers, each armed with up to 40,000lb of precision weapons, including the latest bunker-busting devices. They would fly from bases in Missouri with mid-air refueling.

A major American attack on Iran's nuclear sites would kill up to 10,000 people and lead to war in the Middle East, a report says today. Hundreds of scientists and technicians would be targets in the opening salvos as the attacks focused on eliminating further nuclear development, the Oxford Research Group says in Iran: Consequences of a War. The research coincides with reports that strategists at the Pentagon are drawing up plans for "a last resort" strike if diplomacy fails. Plans for an assault have taken on "greater urgency" in recent months, The UK Sunday Telegraph said. Tacticians at central command and strategic command, who report to Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, have been identifying targets and the weapons needed to hit them. Precision bombing could put Iran's weapons program back five to 10 years but within a month the situation would become "an extremely dangerous conflict", says Prof Paul Rogers, the report's author. The attack would result in "a protracted military confrontation" involving Israel, Lebanon and some Gulf states.

A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit over Ohio's recount of the 2004 presidential election, leaving only one court challenge remaining from the state's role in the re-election of Smirkey. U.S. District Judge James Carr in Toledo threw out the suit filed by a voting rights group on behalf of the Green Party and Libertarian candidates. Tuesday's dismissal, barring an appeal, leaves active only a suit filed by the League of Women Voters of Ohio. The judge's ruling came in a challenge by the National Voting Rights Institute to the recount that showed Smirkey beat John Kerry by about 118,000 votes out of 5.5 million cast. The institute's initial lawsuit sought to force the state to begin the recount before the vote was certified Dec. 6, 2004. The institute complained that the recount would not be finished until after the Electoral College vote made Smirkey's election official Dec. 13 and thus violated federal law. The recount was completed Dec. 28. Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who was also serving as Smirkey's state campaign chairman at the time, sided against the institute, claiming that state law mandated the recount could not begin before certification.

House Republicans descended in force upon a Maryland Eastern Shore community for three days to ponder their political and policy future and ended up talking about "the Force." Hunkered down at a retreat intended to help them regain their footing after a corruption scandal and a leadership shake-up, about 180 lawmakers were treated to a film spoof that portrayed Republicans as the "Star Wars" heroes being pursued by the evil Democratic empire led by "Darth Nancy." That would be Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader. "After a decade of exile, the evil Democratic empire has created their most fearsome henchman to date, a mighty machine built to regain the majority once and for all," said the text that scrolled at the opening of the parody, which superimposed Ms. Pelosi's face on the movie villain. The short video, produced by the National Republican Congressional Committee, had the audience in stitches, according to those on hand. But it was also a tacit admission that House Republicans are in for an epic battle this November as they try to retain their majority in a midterm election cycle that has historically meant Congressional losses for the party in power.

Two employees of a private security company have been injected with RFID chips this week as part of a new requirement to access their company's datacenter. Cincinnati based surveillance company CityWatcher.com created the policy with the hopes of increasing security in the datacenter where video surveillance tapes are stored. In the past, employees accessed the room with an RFID tag which hung from their keychains, however under the new regulations an implantable, glass encapsulated RFID tag from VeriChip must be injected into the bicep to gain access, a release from spychips.com said on Thursday.

While the rest of the country has turned against smoking with great zeal, Congress has stubbornly - some would say proudly - refused to bend. Smoking is still allowed in numerous indoor spaces in the Capitol, most noticeably in the gilded reception area where lawmakers crowd together during the long yeas and nays. Standing ashtrays, usually partly filled with cigar and cigarette butts, are strategically placed in the corridors. In a time when the "smoke-filled room" is more metaphor than fixture, its literal incarnation in Congress can seem almost quaint. Members are uncharacteristically shy about discussing their smoking habits in a public domain where smoking is supposedly taboo. Not one smoker-lawmaker contacted for this article returned the call. Photographs of lawmakers smoking are virtually impossible to come by (as the blog Wonkette discovered last week when it put out a public call for photographs of Mr. Boehner smoking).

For a law enforcement agency that works hard to be invisible, the Federal Air Marshals have been generating a lot of attention lately. On Thursday, two of the agency's several thousand highly trained traveling armed guards were taken into custody in Houston. Although the US Attorney's office would not comment beyond acknowledging that the Air Marshals were arrested by agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General's office, Government sources tell TIME that the two Air Marshals, are allegedly involved with the possession or transportation of cocaine, and may have been paid several thousand dollars to move the drugs. The marshals, one of whom is a former agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration, will likely appear in court to face criminal charges next week, and will almost certainly be suspended. The incident comes only two months after two marshals shot and killed a man who claimed - falsely, as it turned out - to have a bomb while boarding an airplane in Miami. Although the official results of an investigation will not be complete until late spring, it is expected to conclude that the agents acted appropriately in their dealings with the passenger.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will announce wide-ranging changes to the nation's embattled disaster-response agency on the heels of a House report blaming government-wide ineptitude for mishandling Hurricane Katrina relief. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reforms that Chertoff will unveil Monday range from a full-time response force of 1,500 new employees to establishing a more reliable system to report on disasters as they unfold. They are the first steps to overhauling FEMA, which was overwhelmed by the Aug. 29 Gulf Coast storm. "We know there's considerable work to do," a senior Homeland Security official said Sunday on condition of anonymity because the changes had not been announced. Most of the changes are to be completed by the start of the 2006 hurricane season on June 1, the official said.

The U.S. Embassy in Bogota currently is looking to arrange a swift shipment of millions of machine-gun bullets and tracers to Colombia. The Embassy late last week began soliciting U.S.-based ammunition vendors for cost estimates on the delivery of 4 million 5.56 bullets oufitted with body-tearing "penetrators." The shipment of these 62-grain, high-energy projectiles -- known as full-metal jacket boat-tail bullets -- will be accompanied by an additional 3 million tracer bullets for use in M-249 machine guns. Rather than basing possible contracts on best value, the State Dept. will evaluate the awards on the contractor's ability to ensure "expedited and timely delivery," the solicitation says. The State Department has not commented on the intended recipients.

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: While violent crime has been at historic lows nationwide and in cities like New York, Miami and Los Angeles, it is rising sharply in Milwalkee and in many other places across the country. And while such crime in the 1990's was characterized by battles over gangs and drug turf, the police say the current rise in homicides has been set off by something more bewildering: petty disputes that hardly seem the stuff of fistfights, much less gunfire or stabbings. Suspects tell the police they killed someone who "disrespected" them or a family member, or someone who was "mean mugging" them, which the police loosely translate as giving a dirty look. And more weapons are on the streets, giving people a way to act on their anger. Police Chief Nannette H. Hegerty of Milwaukee calls it "the rage thing." "We're seeing a very angry population, and they don't go to fists anymore, they go right to guns," she said. "A police department can have an effect on drugs or gangs. But two people arguing in a home, how does the police department go in and stop that?"

In May 1997, a federal, state and local task force called Operation Alliance issued a confidential 57-page report, obtained by the Houston Chronicle, saying that Mexican gangs were already exploiting NAFTA to smuggle drugs. "This, in large part, is because of the excellent cover commercial trade activity provides," said the report, entitled "Drug Trafficking, Commercial Trade and NAFTA on the Southwest Border." It's no wonder, American agents say, that traffickers from the Pacific state of Sinaloa are trying to wrest Nuevo Laredo from a gang known as the Gulf Cartel. America's largest land port is just across the river. Customs officers in Laredo handle more trade than the ports of Southern California, New Mexico, Arizona and West Texas combined, according to the Laredo Development Foundation, a private economic development group. Laredo is the only border city strategically positioned between the industrial heart of northern Mexico and Interstate 35 and other major highways and rail lines.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's likely Republican Senate race challenger charged Monday that the New York Democrat's criticism of the Bush administration "aids and abets our enemies" in the battle against terrorism. John Spencer's comments to reporters came after a fiery speech to the state Conservative Party leadership in which, during a defense of the Patriot Act, he also attacked the administration of former President Bill Clinton. "I wish we had it before 9-11," said the former mayor of Yonkers. "And, I wish we had an administration in Washington that wasn't an appeasing, liberal, whining administration in the 90's that allowed the terrorists to build up the way they built up."

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: The CIA's top counter-terrorism official was fired last week because he opposed secret prisons abroad, sending suspects to other countries for interrogation and using forms of torture such as "water boarding," intelligence sources have claimed. Robert Grenier, head of the CIA counter-terrorism center, was relieved of his post after a year in the job. One intelligence official said he was "not quite as aggressive as he might have been" in pursuing Al-Qaeda leaders and networks. Vincent Cannistraro, a former head of counter-terrorism at the agency, said: "It is not that Grenier wasn’t aggressive enough, it is that he wasn't 'with the programme'. He expressed misgivings about the secret prisons in Europe and the rendition of terrorists. Grenier also opposed "excessive" interrogation techniques, such as strapping suspects to boards and dunking them in water, according to Cannistraro.

The United States is helping Morocco to build a new interrogation and detention facility for Al-Qaeda suspects near its capital, Rabat, according to western intelligence sources. The sources confirmed last week that building was under way at Ain Aouda, above a wooded gorge south of Rabat's diplomatic district. Locals said they had often seen American vehicles with diplomatic plates in the area. The construction of the new compound, run by the Direction de la Securite du Territoire (DST), the Moroccan secret police, adds to a substantial body of evidence that Morocco is one of America’s principal partners in the secret "rendition" program in which the CIA flies prisoners to third countries for interrogation. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups critical of the policy have compiled dossiers detailing the detention and apparent torture of radical Islamists at the DST’s current headquarters, at Temara, near Rabat.

Republican Policies Are Good For America: Continuing a four-year trend, the White House budget proposal for 2007 would cut 80 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s library budget, drastically reducing the amount of information available to government scientists and the public. The library cuts come on top of funding reductions for several other EPA programs that environmental groups maintain are vital to the global ecosystem and the national interest. The $7.3 billion proposed EPA budget would trim $2 million from the $2.5 million EPA library fund, which, according to the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), may cause many regional libraries to shut down. The pared-down library budget would de-fund the agency’s electronic catalog and pull $500,000 from the EPA headquarters library coordination network, according to EPA documents released by PEER. "Access to information is one of the best tools we have for protecting the environment," Ruch said. "Closing the Environmental Protection Agency libraries actually threatens to subtract from the sum total of human knowledge." Overall, the Bush administration’s budget proposal would cut EPA funding by nearly $400 million from last year.

The cuts come even as the president has called on the EPA to become more aggressive in researching and adopting cutting-edge technology, PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch noted. Ruch asked, "How are EPA scientists supposed to engage in cutting-edge research when they cannot find what the Agency has already done?" PEER is an advocacy organization representing local state and federal resource professionals

Republicans Believe In Free Speech And Academic Freedom: James E. Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who sparked an uproar last month by accusing the Bush administration of keeping scientific information from reaching the public, said Friday that officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are also muzzling researchers who study global warming. Hansen, speaking in a panel discussion about science and the environment before a packed audience at the New School university, said that while he hopes his own agency will soon adopt a more open policy, NOAA insists on having "a minder" monitor its scientists when they discuss their findings with journalists. "It seems more like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union than the United States," said Hansen, prompting a round of applause from the audience. He added that while NOAA officials said they maintain the policy for their scientists' protection, "if you buy that one please see me at the break, because there's a bridge down the street I'd like to sell you."

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: The government concluded its "Cyber Storm" wargame Friday, its biggest-ever exercise to test how it would respond to devastating attacks over the Internet from anti-globalization activists, underground hackers and bloggers. Bloggers? Yes. Participants confirmed parts of the worldwide simulation challenged government officials and industry executives to respond to "deliberate misinformation campaigns and activist calls" by Internet bloggers. In what may have been a precursor to US bloggers, the US military and government apparently were not offended (at least did not take any publicly disclosed action to free the blogger) when an Iraqi blogger was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned for the crime of reading comments on another blogger’s website at a public café: "Then finally I understood why I was there, after few hours. Security guards at the university had printed out all the websites I was reading while I was online there. They were accusing me of "reading terrorism sites" and "having communications with foreign terrorists".

A United Nations inquiry has called for the immediate closure of America's Guantanamo Bay detention center and the prosecution of officers and politicians "up to the highest level" who are accused of torturing detainees. The UN Human Rights Commission report, due to be published this week, concludes that Washington should put the 520 detainees on trial or release them. It calls for the United States to halt all "practices amounting to torture", including the force-feeding of inmates who go on hunger strike. The report wants the Bush administration to ensure that all allegations of torture are investigated by US criminal courts, and that "all perpetrators up to the highest level of military and political command are brought to justice". It does not specify who it means by "political command" but logically this would include Smirkey. The demands are contained in the final report of the commission's working group on arbitrary detention, which will be presented at its Geneva headquarters in the next few days.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) has asked Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson for a thorough inquiry of his agency's investigation into whether a V.A. nurse's letter to the editor criticizing the Bush administration amounted to "sedition." Merely opposing government policies and expressing a desire to change course "does not provide reason to believe that a person is involved in illegal subversive activity," he said. Bingaman said such investigations raise "a very real possibility of chilling legitimate political speech." Laura Berg, a clinical nurse specialist for 15 years, wrote a letter in September to a weekly Albuquerque newspaper criticizing how the administration handled Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq Wwr. She urged people to "act forcefully" by bringing criminal charges against top administration officials, including the president, to remove them from power because they played games of "vicious deceit." She added: "This country needs to get out of Iraq now and return to our original vision and priorities of caring for land and people and resources rather than killing for oil....Otherwise, many more of us will be facing living hell in these times." The agency seized her office computer and launched an investigation. Berg is not talking to the press, but reportedly fears losing her job.

Two key Democrats yesterday called the NSA domestic surveillance program necessary for fighting terrorism but questioned whether President Bush had the legal authority to order it done without getting congressional approval. Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) said Republicans are trying to create a political issue over Democrats' concern on the constitutional questions raised by the spying program. At the same time, the Republican chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees -- Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.) and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), who attended secret National Security Agency briefings -- said they supported Bush's right to undertake the program without new congressional authorization. They added that Democrats briefed on the program, who included Harman and Daschle, could have taken steps if they believed the program was illegal. All four appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Starving polar bears are presenting an unprecedented challenge to George Bush's refusal to take action over global warming - and may succeed where environmentalists and other governments have failed in getting him to curb pollution. Despite the President's obdurate stance on climate change, the US administration last week took the first steps towards officially listing the bear as an endangered species. The Arctic ice on which the iconic animal lives is melting away as the world heats up and, if the listing is finalised, the Bush administration will be obliged to modify its pollution policies to try to save the bear. The move comes as the President faces attack for the first time over global warming from some of his strongest allies. Evangelical Christian leaders last week took out TV ads urging action, while, in Britain, Tony Blair has warned that the world has less than seven years to get to grips with climate change.

News From Smirkey's Wars: A company in the United Arab Emirates is poised to take over significant operations at six American ports as part of a corporate sale, leaving a country with ties to the Sept. 11 hijackers with influence over a maritime industry considered vulnerable to terrorism. The Bush administration considers the UAE an important ally in the fight against terrorism since the suicide hijackings and is not objecting to Dubai Ports World's purchase of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. The $6.8 billion sale is expected to be approved Monday. The British company is the fourth largest ports company in the world and its sale would affect commercial U.S. port operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: Indiana women seeking an abortion would be told life begins at conception under a proposal that would give the state one of the furthest-reaching abortion consent laws in the country. Only one state -- South Dakota -- has gone so far in what it orders doctors to tell women before they can get abortions, and that law has been blocked by a court. Supporters say the legislation would provide women key information before making an irreversible decision, but critics argue it blurs the line between church and state and could infringe on doctors' First Amendment rights. "To put our religion or faithful beliefs into a statute that's going to be law, without being able to back it up scientifically, I have real hard questions about doing that," said Indiana Rep. John Ulmer, a Republican who voted against the bill. Only South Dakota has beginning-of-life language similar to Indiana's proposal, which would require women seeking an abortion to be informed in writing that "human life begins when a human ovum is fertilized by a human sperm."

Lawmakers in South Dakota overwhelmingly approved legislation Thursday that would prohibit almost all abortions in the state. House Bill 1215 passed 47-22, after representatives voted against inserting amendments that would exempt women impregnated as the result of rape or incest. The bill, which now goes to the state Senate, makes an exception if the women’s life is in danger. Citing controversial conclusions by the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion, the bill states that scientific studies and scientific advances show that life begins at conception, and "each human being is totally unique immediately at fertilization." The bill further says that in order "to fully protect the rights, interests, and health of the pregnant mother, the rights, interest, and life of her unborn child, and the mother's fundamental natural intrinsic right to a relationship with her child, abortions in South Dakota should be prohibited." Anti-abortion activists have long focused on South Dakota as a platform for their strategy to outlaw the practice nationally. According to a February 2004 story in the Boston Globe, anti-abortion activists from New Jersey, California and other states had traveled to South Dakota to support sympathetic lawmakers in their pursuit of abortion bans. While a number of states have laws restricting abortions rights or even banning abortion altogether, the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade prevents states from enforcing these laws. However, anti-abortion activists believe new state-level laws will force the issue through the courts, ultimately bringing the issue of reversing Roe before the Supreme Court. "What the public doesn't realize is that the building blocks are already in place to re-criminalize abortion if Roe is overturned," Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York, told the LA Times.

Scandals Du Jour: The disclosure that Vice President Dick Cheney may have authorized his former chief of staff to release classified information to justify the war in Iraq has political consequences for the White House, but the legal fallout may be muted. Mr. Cheney, in his role as second-in-command of the country, has significant leeway, albeit not as much as the president, to declassify information. The information I. Lewis Libby, the chief of staff, said he was authorized by his superiors to discuss with reporters was the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate titled Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction. "The classification system is rooted for the most part not in statute but in executive order. ...In the case of the NIE, the White House was free to declassify it at a moment's notice," said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, which favors increased public access to government information.

The White House on Sunday acknowledged the authenticity of the first photograph made public that shows President Bush and embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, while stressing it does not mean the two had a personal relationship. The photo, published by The New York Times and Time magazine, shows Bush shaking hands with an Abramoff client, chairman Raul Garza of the Kickapoo Indian tribe in Texas. Abramoff's bearded face appears in the background, small and slightly blurry. White House spokesman Allen Abney said the photo was taken in 2001, when the president dropped by a meeting of about two dozen state legislators to thank them for supporting tax relief. Originally, the White House said it had no record of Abramoff's attendance at the meeting.

With two branches of government embroiled in lobbying scandals, several lawmakers have floated proposals for ethics reform in Congress. But clean-government advocacy groups, while supporting the reform efforts, say the fixes currently on the congressional table barely scratch the surface of a system sullied by corporate money. Currently, several major reform bills are circulating in both chambers of Congress. In addition to legislation introduced by the House and Senate Democratic leaderships, legislators - including Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) and Representatives Marty Meehan (D-Massachusetts) and Christopher Shays (D-Connecticut) - have spearheaded their own proposals. The bills contain various provisions to limit communications and financial transactions between lobbyists and officials or high-level staff. Many of these initiatives align with reforms pitched by watchdog groups like Public Citizen and the state and national Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG), which have long tracked abuses in the current system. Yet they also reflect political limits on the ethics debate, as systemic reforms to cut money out of lobbying and elections have given way to more limited actions against unethical conduct.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:40:16 PM

Sat, Feb 11 2006

Water Service Outage

The beautiful dry-season weather continues, with bright, sunny days and moonlit nights, with temperatures that are nothing short of ideal. No rain for several days, and it is actually getting just a bit dry - something those of us who live in Arenal are definitely not used to. Maybe the dry season is actually here. Watching the satellite weather maps for the region have shown a series of cold fronts coming into the region, but all have fallen apart before they got here, or blew through in a few hours and were gone, with warm air moving in behind them. It is all enough to make one believe that the dry season is finally here.

No resolution yet on who is the next president of Costa Rica. The Tribuno Supremo de Eleciones is still doing its recount.

The gardener came yesterday, and got to work quite early, clearing the weeds off the North Forty. They were all cut by ten or so, and he then went to work on cutting the grass in the garden around the house. I hadn't asked him to, but it had been discussed last week without a determination as to whether it had to be done, but that didn't seem to stop him. It actually needed cutting, but not all that badly. It all amounted to a tremendous amount of work for him, and he brought in his wife to rake while he was cutting. That meant his two kids, one a kindergartener and the other his two-year old boy, were here too. He was making jokes about his growing "company." All in all, they were at it until two in the afternoon. He hit me up to get paid, a week early, as he needed to get some food. With his new raise in hand, he headed off to Tilaran with a fair amount of money in his pocket.

In the afternoon on Friday, the Improvement Association sent out a road grader to clean out the desaguas (drainage ditches), which, across the street from my house, at least, were in dire need of being cleaned. They didn't clean mine, because they didn't need it - all my recent work on them has got them to where they keep themselves relatively clean. The Association not only cleaned the desaguas, but also filled in some of the potholes on the street atop the hill that had been growing since the rains began last summer. Finally, I can drive the length of my street without either dodging the big rocks or potholes in the street. The price to be paid is that all this is new clayey dirt - and that means that the first big rain will send cascades of mud into my pond. But it is the price I will have to pay - until the street gets paved - if it ever does - I, or whoever ends up living in this house, will just have to put up with it.

During the process, the road grader managed to cut one of the laterals to the houses up on the hill. Water mains aren't buried terribly deep here, and this one was even more shallow than most. Water service to my house wasn't cut - it was a lateral off the main that I am connected to. It was the houses up on the hill that lost their service. The acueducto was called, and in minutes, they sent out a couple of guys on a motorcycle with a bag full of fittings and a can of PVC glue. They surveyed the situation, drove off the mains valve to cut off the water, and then came back and dug it out and capped off the lateral. Apparently, there is another lateral that also serves that neighborhood, so they weren't in any real need to fix this one. Capped off, they then drove back to the main valve, turned it back on and my water service was restored in less than an hour. It was the first non-scheduled outage in more than a year. There are advantages to being the lowest subscriber on the whole system.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Senior aides to Smirkey were informed on the day Hurricane Katrina hit that their "worst nightmare" had befallen New Orleans, a Senate investigation was told yesterday, contradicting assertions by the White House that they were not immediately aware of the scale of the disaster. The former chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, said the White House and the department of homeland security, which oversees FEMA, had been made aware early on that a breach in the levees had left 80% of the city under water. Mr Brown told a Senate committee investigating the response to Katrina that he had two conversations on the day of the hurricane, August 29 last year, with Smirkey's deputy chief of staff, Joe Hagen, who had accompanied the president to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he spent his summer holiday. "I think I told him that we were realising our worst nightmare, that everything we had planned about, worried about, that FEMA, frankly, had worried about for 10 years, was coming true." The FEMA chief had been given an eyewitness account by an official who had been flown over the city on a coast guard helicopter, and returned with descriptions and pictures of people clinging to roofs to avoid the rising floodwaters. Mr Brown said he had told the chief of staff, Andrew Card, and thought the president would be informed. "My obligation was to the White House and to make certain that the president understood what was going on and what the situation was, and I did that."

The CIA official in charge of intelligence on the Middle East until last year has accused the Bush administration of ignoring assessments that sanctions and weapons inspections were the best way to deal with Saddam Hussein, and that an invasion would have a "messy aftermath". In an article in the next edition of the bimonthly journal, Foreign Affairs, Paul Pillar, has become the highest-ranking CIA official from the prewar period to accuse the White House of manipulating the intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. The allegations contradict the findings of two official inquiries into the intelligence debacle, which have largely blamed the CIA and absolved the administration. They also emerged on the day it was reported that Lewis Libby, a former aide to Vice-President Dick Cheney, had told a grand jury that he had been "ordered" by "his superiors" to leak classified WMD information to the press to bolster the case for going to war. The White House made no direct response to Mr Pillar's claims. Mr Pillar said the White House had simply ignored intelligence that did not conform with its intention to invade. "It went to war without requesting - and evidently without being influenced by - any strategic-level intelligence assessments on any aspect of Iraq." The "broadly held" intelligence assessment, he said, was that the best way to deal with the weapons problem was through an aggressive inspections program to supplement the sanctions already in place.

Several U.S. intelligence officials are playing down the relative importance of an alleged al-Qaida plot to strike the West Coast after Sept. 11, 2001, cited by President Bush Thursday in defense of his campaign against terrorism. Bush, under pressure from Congress, offered for the first time a vivid account of what he said was the foiled plot to crash a hijacked commercial airliner into a Los Angeles skyscraper. Bush said four Southeast Asians who met with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in October 2001 were taught how to use shoe bombs to blow open a cockpit door and steer a plane into the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast. But Asian authorities captured the four first, he said. The intelligence officials, who declined to be identified because they did not want to criticize the White House publicly, said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the scheme to attack the 73-story building and whether it was ever much more than talk.

The federal government’s plan to implement an express-lane-like list for frequent and rich flyers has been grounded until at least this summer due to technological and security concerns, officials said yesterday. The decision to defer the programs came about as privacy-rights advocates stepped up questioning about the three programs’ information-security features, and a just-released government report revealed flaws in the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) plans to enact the program remain. In testimony to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation yesterday, TSA head Kip Hawley vowed to push forward with an array of controversial plans: Secure Flight, Registered Traveler and the Computer Assisted Pre-Screening Program (CAPPS). Pilot versions of all three programs have already been implemented in some airports. According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), of the three, Secure Flight is both the key to getting the frequent-flyer privilege in place and the main vulnerability. Secure Flight would require the TSA to create and monitor an up-to-date list of suspected terrorists who would not be allowed to board an airplane in the US or enter the US on a plane from another country.

While the world community scrutinizes Iran's nuclear plans, Latin America's biggest country is weeks away from taking a controversial step and firing up the region's first major uranium enrichment plant. That move will make Brazil the ninth country to produce large amounts of enriched uranium, which can be used to generate nuclear energy and, when highly enriched, to make nuclear weapons. Brazilians, who have long nurtured hopes of becoming a world superpower, are reacting with pride to the new facility in Resende, about 70 miles from Rio de Janeiro. Other countries enriching uranium on an industrial scale are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, China and Japan. The plant initially will produce 60 percent of the nuclear fuel used by the country's two nuclear reactors. A third reactor is in the planning stages. The government hopes to increase production eventually to meet all of the reactors' needs and still have enough to export, Brazilian officials said. "We want to build new power plants and grow our enrichment program to be self-sufficient," said Odair Dias Goncalves, the president of Brazil's National Nuclear Energy Commission. "In the whole world, there's a big reinvestment in this area. Countries are turning back to nuclear energy." The Resende plant's inauguration had been set for Jan. 20, but was delayed because construction wasn't completed, Dias Goncalves said. The plant may begin uranium enrichment without the hoopla later this month, officials said. Unlike Iran, Brazil is considered a good global citizen that isn't seeking nuclear weapons, although its military ran a secret program to develop a nuclear weapon as recently as the early 1990s.

Your phone company is spying on you and selling what it learns: Communications regulators said on Friday they will investigate whether tougher protections are needed to safeguard telephone customer information. The Federal Communications Commission voted to examine the security measures that telephone carriers have in place and "what kind of security measures may be warranted to better protect consumers' privacy." The move comes at the request of a privacy watchdog group amid pressure to clamp down on online data brokers that offer to obtain and sell telephone subscriber information. Some Internet sites have since stopped offering the service. The FCC, state attorneys general, lawmakers and the Federal Trade Commission are all investigating the practices of companies that offer to obtain and sell telephone subscriber information. The watchdog group, Electronic Privacy Information Center, last year asked the agency to consider adopting stricter rules. It also suggested some ideas, including consumer-set passwords, audit records, encryption, limiting retention of call data and notification to individuals and the FCC when a breach occurs. CTIA, the lobbying group for major wireless carriers, has in the past urged the FCC to avoid imposing new rules. The top U.S. wireless carriers have sought injunctions against some companies from trafficking in telephone subscriber data.

A leading US digital rights campaign group has warned against using Google software which lets people organise and find information on their computers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation said the latest version of Google Desktop posed a risk to privacy. This is because a feature in the software lets Google keep personal data on its servers for up to 30 days. Google says it plans to encrypt all data transferred from users' hard drives and restrict access. The new version of its desktop search software comes as Google is battling efforts by the US Department of Justice to force it to hand over data about what people are looking for. We think this will be a very useful tool, but you will have to give up some of your privacy Some of Google's main competitors have already complied with the request for details about people's search habits. "Unless you configure Google Desktop very carefully, and few people will, Google will have copies of your tax returns, love letters, business records, financial and medical files, and whatever other text-based documents the desktop software can index. "The government could then demand these personal files with only a subpoena rather than the search warrant it would need to seize the same things from your home or business," he said.

A photo of President Bush cupping the cheeks of Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar at last week's State of the Union address has been the gift that keeps on giving for Cuellar's chief rival for the Democratic nomination. The Washington Post picture of Cuellar beaming as the president holds his face is a boffo hit on the Internet, inspiring humorous-caption contests and accusations that Cuellar is a stealth Republican. Cuellar's Democratic rival, Ciro Rodriguez, has produced a leaflet centered around the photo. It reads: "George Bush thinks Henry Cuellar is "chulo" - Spanish slang for "pretty boy." Before the picture came out, Rodriguez, a former congressman trying to regain the House seat he lost in 2004 to Cuellar, had been low on money, momentum and a memorable message. But the Rodriguez campaign said the picture has generated more than $80,000 in contributions in little more than a week and given a major boost to his supporters a month before the Democratic primary. "The saying goes,'A picture tells you a thousand words,'" Rodriguez said. "Well, in this case, it's gone beyond a thousand, especially on the dollars." The photo flap became even richer when it was revealed that Cuellar listened to the State of the Union address while standing on the Republican side of the aisle. Cuellar also served briefly as Texas secretary of state under GOP Gov. Rick Perry.

Federal agents have interviewed officials at several of the country's law enforcement and national security agencies in a rapidly expanding criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding a New York Times article published in December that disclosed the existence of the warrantless, probably illegal, domestic spying program, according to government officials. The investigation, which appears to cover the case from 2004, when the newspaper began reporting the story, is being closely coordinated with criminal prosecutors at the Justice Department, the officials said. People who have been interviewed and others in the government who have been briefed on the interviews said the investigation seemed to lay the groundwork for a grand jury inquiry that could lead to criminal charges. The inquiry is progressing as a debate about the eavesdropping rages in Congress and elsewhere. President Bush has condemned the leak as a "shameful act." Others, like Porter J. Goss, the C.I.A. director, have expressed the hope that reporters will be summoned before a grand jury and asked to reveal the identities of those who provided them classified information. Mr. Goss, speaking at a Senate intelligence committee hearing on Feb. 2, said: "It is my aim and it is my hope that we will witness a grand jury investigation with reporters present being asked to reveal who is leaking this information. I believe the safety of this nation and the people of this country deserve nothing less."

The process for vetting workers at one of the most sensitive military sites in the country comes down to trust of contractors, subcontractors and "subcontractors of subcontractors," federal officials said Friday, a day after nine undocumented immigrants were arrested at Dugway Proving Ground. Contractors employing foreign nationals at the base are supposed to identify those individuals for additional background checks. But the discovery that nine undocumented workers were able to enter and move freely about parts of a base dedicated to research into biological and chemical weapons defenses revealed a troubling flaw to that system. If a contractor fails to identify workers as foreigners, Dugway spokeswoman Paula Nicholson said, no check is conducted. "I'm sure we are going to look at things, to investigate what to do to make sure this doesn't happen again," Nicholson said. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Adam Parks called the issue "troubling." "Just by saying you're working for a subcontractor, you can access one of the most highly top secret installations in the country, dealing with weapons of mass destruction," Parks said. "Once inside the perimeter, they had their identification and would go to work, not monitored. They didn't have an escort or anything like that."

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: They gotta be really annoyed in the White House: Rene Preval, the former close ally of President Aristide, the former president exiled in a CIA-sponsored coup two years ago, appeared to be heading for a convincing victory in the Haitian presidential elections. While counting continues in the election, which took place on Tuesday, officials and rival candidates agreed that Mr Preval was virtually certain to top the poll. Early returns indicated that Mr Preval, a former president and prime minister, was on 61% with his nearest rival, Leslie Manigat, on 15%. Charlito Baker, a rightwing businessman who has waged the most aggressively anti-Preval campaign, had around 5% of the vote. There are 32 candidates, and Mr Preval has to win more than 50% of the total votes in order to avoid a run-off on March 19. A clear result is expected at the weekend.

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: Milan prosecutors expect to launch procedures within a month that could put 22 CIA agents accused of kidnapping a Muslim cleric in Milan on trial in absentia, a senior judicial source said. The source, who asked not to be named, said prosecutors were growing tired of perceived foot-dragging by Washington and Rome over requests that would advance their investigation - one of several European probes into suspected U.S. covert operations. The United States has still not responded to a request in January by Italy for judicial assistance in the case, which could potentially allow Italian prosecutors to travel there to question suspects and gather evidence. Neither has Italy's government responded to a request in November from prosecutors to seek the extradition of the agents from the United States. If no helpful action has been taken by early March - as appears increasingly likely - then prosecutors will close their investigation, the well-placed source said.

CIA's torture flights embarrassing you? Then sweep it back under the rug: A key House of Representatives committee Wednesday put a quick stop to three resolutions to investigate the US government's tactical use and support of torture in the "war on terror." In a party line vote, the International Relations Committee turned back three proposals to demand information on extraordinary renditions and abusive treatment of detainees from the Executive Branch. The resolutions called for the Bush administration to release unspecified documents pertaining to the use of extraordinary rendition, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's December trip to Europe, and current US policy relating international law. In a group statement issued to members of the International Relations Committee last week, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, the US arm of Amnesty International, and Human Rights First urged committee members to adopt all three resolutions under consideration. The letter called into question the military's use of proxy countries - especially those known for human rights violations - for interrogating suspects. "There is still a strong perception in many parts of the world that the United States continues to facilitate or willfully ignore torture by rendering individuals to countries where they are likely to be tortured, and by holding detainees in secret locations closed to the International Committee of the Red Cross," the groups wrote. "This perception harms America's reputation and its ability to advance its interests abroad."

President Traian Basescu conceded yesterday that CIA flights may have passed through Romania but said authorities were not able to determine which American agency was piloting US planes. Planes belonging to the US government have landed at Mihail Kogalniceanu airport without it being possible for Romanian authorities to identify which agency they were from, Mr Basescu said on news channel Realitatea TV.

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: Congress took a step toward renewing the stalled Patriot Act, reaching a deal between the White House and dissident Senate Republicans who wanted greater assurances that the post-Sept. 11 anti-terror act would not undermine personal liberties. Sen. John Sununu (news, bio, voting record), R-N.H., a leader in the talks with the White House, said no one disputes the importance of subpoena powers and other tools the government needs to pursue terrorist activities. "But we want to make sure they are balanced by basic protections for civil liberties." Renewal of 16 provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act was held up late last year when Sununu and three other Republicans joined almost every Democrat in filibustering the legislation. With the agreement, supporters were close to the 60 votes needed to overcome another filibuster attempt, and it appeared that Democrats would not stand in the way of legislation that provides the government critical legal and investigative powers in the fight against terrorism. But Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., a leader in opposing the act, said he would continue to fight it. He said the deal did not provide meaningful judicial review of gag orders because such review can only take place after a year has passed and can only be successful if the recipient proves the government acted in bad faith. The deal also does not ensure that when government agents break into homes to do "sneak-and-peek" searches that they tell the owners of those homes in most circumstances within seven days, as courts have said they should, Feingold added.

Most Americans believe a president should not be allowed to suspend constitutional guarantees in order to fight terrorism, a poll released on Friday said. The poll, taken for the American Bar Association in the wake of the controversy generated by President Bush's domestic spying program, found the public divided over whether government eavesdropping on personal communications could ever be justified. "As our poll shows, and legal scholars agree, the awesome power of government to penetrate citizens' most private communications must not be held in one set of hands," Michael Greco, the group's president, told a news conference. "To prevent the very human temptation to abuse this power there must be checks and balances in the form of oversight by the courts and Congress," he said. "I personally reject the false choice that is being offered Americans that they must give up their liberties to have security. We must protect both, and we can protect both," he added. With the administration refusing to provide details of the eavesdropping program, which was a closely held secret until recently, the extent of any violations are unclear, Greco said. The program, authorized by Bush in 2001, allows the National Security Agency to monitor the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens to track people with suspected ties to al Qaeda and other militant groups.

Twice in the past four years, a top Justice Department lawyer warned the presiding judge of a secret surveillance court that information overheard in President Bush's eavesdropping program may have been improperly used to obtain wiretap warrants in the court, according to two sources with knowledge of those events. The revelations infuriated U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly -- who, like her predecessor, Royce C. Lamberth, had expressed serious doubts about whether the warrantless monitoring of phone calls and e-mails ordered by Bush was legal. Both judges had insisted that no information obtained this way be used to gain warrants from their court, according to government sources, and both had been assured by administration officials it would never happen.

The US government is developing a massive computer system that can collect huge amounts of data and, by linking far-flung information from blogs and e-mail to government records and intelligence reports, search for patterns of terrorist activity or political dissidents. Parts of the system are already operational. It is the federal government's latest attempt to use broad data-collection and powerful analysis in the fight against terrorism. But by delving deeply into the digital minutiae of American life, the program is also raising concerns that the government is intruding too deeply into citizens' privacy. "We don't realize that, as we live our lives and make little choices, like buying groceries, buying on Amazon, Googling, we're leaving traces everywhere," says Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "We have an attitude that no one will connect all those dots. But these programs are about connecting those dots - analyzing and aggregating them - in a way that we haven't thought about. It's one of the underlying fundamental issues we have yet to come to grips with." The core of this effort is a little-known system called Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement (ADVISE). Only a few public documents mention it. ADVISE is a research and development program within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), part of its three-year-old "Threat and Vulnerability, Testing and Assessment" portfolio. The TVTA received nearly $50 million in federal funding this year.

Republican Policies Strengthen America: The US trade deficit widened in December, pushing the shortfall for 2005 to record levels. In December, the deficit was $65.7bn compared with $64.7bn in November. The 2005 deficit was $725.8bn, almost 18% more than in 2004. While exports have climbed, they have struggled to keep up as record oil prices, strong consumer demand and cheap foreign goods boosted imports. Analysts have questioned how long this size of deficit can be sustained. In December, exports rose by 2.1% to $111.5bn, as imports increased by 1.9% to $177.2bn. The trade gap with China jumped by 25% to a record $201.6bn.

The Bush administration will unveil a proposal Friday to sell up to 200,000 acres of national forest land in "isolated parcels" ranging from a quarter of an acre to 200 acres, much of it in California. The sale is part of a National Forest Service plan to raise $800 million over the next five years to pay for rural schools in 41 states, offsetting shrinking revenues from sale of timber from national forests. The Bureau of Land Management also plans to sell federal lands to raise an estimated $182 million over five years. Environmentalists charge that the short-term gain would be more than offset by the loss of public land. Congress would have to approve the land sales, but it has rejected similar recent proposals. "I am outraged, and I don't think the public is going to stand for it for one minute," said Wilderness Society policy analyst Mike Anderson. "It's a scheme to raise money at the expense of the national forests, the wildlife, recreation and all the other values that Americans hold dear. It's the ultimate threat to the national forest."

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: In the late 20th Century, the northern hemisphere experienced its most widespread warmth for 1,200 years, according to the journal Science. The findings support evidence pointing to unprecedented recent warming of the climate linked to greenhouse emissions. University of East Anglia researchers measured changes in fossil shells, tree rings, ice cores and other past temperature records or "proxies". They also looked at people's diaries from the last 750 years. Timothy Osborn and Keith Briffa of UEA analysed instrument measurements of temperature from 1856 onwards to establish the geographic extent of recent warming. Then they compared this data with evidence dating back as far as AD 800. The analysis confirmed periods of significant warmth in the Northern Hemisphere from AD 890 - 1170 (the so-called "Medieval Warm Period") and for much colder periods from 1580 - 1850 (the "Little Ice Age").

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: One brave legislator who voted against freight-train legislation that would ban nearly all abortions in South Dakota said what others were undoubtedly thinking: Vote no and risk political wrath at the polls. Rep. Burt Elliott, a Democrat from Aberdeen, uttered the remark Thursday during tense debate of the legislation, which passed the House 47-22, unscathed by several attempts to temper the measure. "How you vote on this is going to be used in campaign fodder against you," Elliott remarked, drawing a rebuke from Rep. Larry Rhoden, a Union Center Republican rancher who leads the House GOP. "I'm offended that anybody on this floor would accuse us of being political on this issue," Rhoden said. "We're debating this based on our own personal beliefs."

An Indiana Senate committee has approved a bill that would create an In God We Trust license plate. The plates would be voluntary. The measure was sent to the full Senate for a vote with only one dissent, WISH-TV reported. Republican Rep. Woody Burton sees the law as an antidote to a recent court ruling that found that prayers at the beginning of state legislative sessions violated the First Amendment, because many of them are specifically Christian. But Lindsey Mintz of the Jewish Community Relations Council called the license plate bill concerning and a waste of time.

A woman in Benton County (AR) hung a sign on a neighbor's door warning people that the man who lived there was a sex offender. But there were two problems: she had the wrong house, and even if she had the right house, police say sex offender notifications can't be used to harass released convicts. "Don't play here. Child molester lives here," the sign said, according to a police report. Carolyn Hansen of Bella Vista also posted warnings in a nearby park. Those signs said, "There is a child molester here. Keep children out of the park." Hansen told sheriff's investigators she'd been told by her daughter that a sex offender who moved to the neighborhood lived in the house. The signs were collected, but a deputy saw Hansen posting the fliers again and stopped her. The names, addresses and photographs of all level 3 and 4 sex offenders are available on the Arkansas Crime Information Center Web site. A sex offender listed on the registry had moved near the park. The center's Web site notes that the information is provided to the public as a service, but "anyone who uses this information to commit a criminal act against another person is subject to criminal prosecution."

News From Smirkey's War: The American general in charge of training the new Iraqi military after Baghdad fell says the Bush administration's strategy to use those forces to replace departing U.S. soldiers was hobbled from its belated start by poor pre-war planning and insufficient staff and equipment. The account of Major General Paul Eaton, who retired on Jan. 1 after 33 years in the U.S. Army, suggests that commanders in Iraq might by now have been much closer to President George W. Bush's goal of withdrawing American forces if they had not lost much of the first year's chance to begin building a capable force. Eaton's views, drawn from an essay he is preparing for publication and from interviews in which he spoke out publicly for the first time, were broadly affirmed by Pentagon and other civilian officials involved at the time. They agreed that the mission also was slowed by conflicting visions from senior Pentagon and administration officials, civilian administrators in Baghdad and the former top commander of the military's Central Command, which carried out the invasion. While he criticized others for decisions that led to what he called a "false start," Eaton accepted responsibility for the most visible setback in the training, when a battalion of the new Iraqi Army dissolved in April 2004 as it was sent into its first major battle. After that embarrassment, which Eaton said he might have headed off, Pentagon officials sent Lieutenant General David Petraeus, who had commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion and the early occupation, to review the program and then to take over the training mission after Eaton completed his yearlong tour. "Paul Eaton and his team did an extraordinary amount for the Iraqi Security Force mission," said Petraeus, now commander of the army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. "They established a solid foundation on which we were able to build as the effort was expanded very substantially and resourced at a much higher level."

Scandals Du Jour: I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, will, in part, base his defense on the claim that Cheney instructed and encouraged Libby to share classified information with reporters, sources familiar with the case tell NBC News. Libby's attorneys discussed the matter with prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and the judge in the case in a recent conference call, the sources confirmed. An attorney for Libby flatly denied that version of events. Libby lawyer John D. Cline wrote to Fitzgerald, "As we discussed during our telephone conversation, Mr. Libby testified in the grand jury that he had contact with reporters in which he disclosed the content of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in the course of his interaction with reporters in June and July 2003. ... We also note that it is our understanding that Mr. Libby testified that he was authorized to disclose information about the NIE to the press by his superiors."

Three Republican members of Congress have been linked to efforts by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a former General Services Administration official to secure leases of government property for Abramoff's clients, according to court filings by federal prosecutors on Friday. Two of the elected officials referred to in Friday's filings have been identified in published reports as Reps. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, and Don Young, R-Alaska. According to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, the two representatives wrote to the GSA in September 2002, urging the agency to give preferential treatment to groups such as Indian tribes when evaluating development proposals for the Old Post Office. LaTourette maintains he did nothing improper by advocating special opportunities for certain small businesses in areas known as HUBzones, or Historically Underutilized Business zones. His spokeswoman, Deborah Setliff, said that the letter was reviewed by Young's chief of staff and counsel and that it did not advocate any particular business over another. A spokesman for Young did not return telephone calls. Friday's filings by prosecutors refer to a third member of Congress, Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.Va. Her name appears in e-mails that suggest she was trying to help Abramoff secure a GSA lease for land in Silver Spring for a religious school.

One of Jack Abramoff's ex-colleagues confirmed Friday he contacted Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid's office on behalf of the influential lobbyist but said he doesn't believe Abramoff's billing records accurately reflect the extent of his work. Ronald Platt, a lobbyist who worked with Abramoff at the Greenberg Traurig firm between 2001 and 2004, said he contacted Reid's office in 2001, as the billing records show, about the timing of minimum wage legislation affecting Abramoff's Northern Mariana Islands client. "When Abramoff first arrived at Greenberg Traurig, I did a new colleague a favor by simply asking Reid staffers about when the minimum wage legislation affecting the Mariana Islands would be voted upon by the Senate. I communicated this to Abramoff," Platt said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press.

New subpoenas issued by Travis County prosecutors on Thursday cast light on a campaign contribution made by Primedia Inc. in 2002 just two days before the State Board of Education cast a vote that could have affected the company's profits in Texas. Documents requested by the subpoenas show the New York publishing company gave $2,500 to Texans for a Republican Majority, the political action committee founded by U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, on Nov. 13, 2002. The money was solicited for TRMPAC by the husband of a board member, Dallas businessman Vance Miller, according to a document obtained by the Houston Chronicle. Two days after the contribution, the education panel was scheduled to vote on a nonbinding resolution by board member Judy Strickland urging school districts to cancel their contracts with Primedia's Channel One education service because it subjects children in the classroom to commercials. Channel One co-founder Jim Ritts flew in from New York to appear before the board in opposition to the resolution.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:58:50 PM

Thu, Feb 09 2006

Creating More Tico Drivers

The weather here in Arenal has been sensational the last couple of days, windy mornings but otherwise ideally sunny and about the right temperatures. Is the dry season finally here? I'm not going to suggest that it is; a check of the weather map this afternoon revealed a cold front making its way south through Honduras at the moment, and so even though we have enjoyed highs of 81 yesterday and today, and an overnight low of 69, there is clearly a change in the offing - if the cold front makes it this far.

That fine weather hasn't exactly speeded up the vote recount at the Tribuno Supremo de Eleciones, so I still can't report the results of the presidential vote from last Sunday, but the leaks coming out of the recount have it that Oscar Arias' razor-thin lead is widening, and if the trend holds, by the end of the recount, he will have won by about 10,000 votes, if the reports are to be believed. It would still end up being the closest election, percentage-wise, in Costa Rican history. I was pleased to note that my analysis of the election, from Tuesday's blog entry (still available; scan down below this entry) was widely quoted, and even picked up by some newspapers around the region.

The continuing warm, pleasant weather has led to my very friendly Tico neighbors to ask me for a big favor - they have just acquired a car, an ancient Ford Fiesta, but one that is in remarkably good shape in spite of its age. The wife bought it from her father, who had obtained another car, and so he sold this one to them. Well, fine, no problem, except neither knows how to drive. And even before they bought it, they had been bugging me to teach them to drive. I owed them some favors, and since it is their car, if they wrecked it learning to drive, it wasn't a loss to me. I figured that to get them off my case, I would go ahead and teach them to drive. Bad vibes about this project, but they have been relentless.

Since the car had both a current Marchamo (the equivalent of a registration), the inspection certificate and sticker, it was legal to drive it on the street, and I couldn't refuse them on that basis. I decided to teach them in the manner in which I was taught, with some classroom work first, teaching them the basic maintenance they needed to know, how the car worked, so why it was important not to burn the clutch, why it was important not to brake all the way down big hills, etc. Well, we went through about an hour of that, my being asked and answering a lot of questions, and pretty soon the wife was bugging me to take her sister home to another barrio not too far. I agreed. The husband got into the car too, and as soon as we dropped off the sister, and were headed to the gas station (fuel gauge broken, so making sure it had fuel was important), he started bugging me to let him drive it home. Well, he'd been shown how to shift, how to use the clutch and brakes, all the basics, along with all the warnings, so on the return trip, I decided to allow him to try. The road has very little traffic, and so there was not much of a reason not to, I figured. He was going to have to go through the process at some point anyway.

We pulled off the main drag onto the side street, and he started out, racing the engine a bit too much to avoid stalling the car when getting into first gear. Not good for the clutch, but at least he got the car moving. I told him I didn't want him to up-shift to second, as he needed to slowly get to get used to how the car handled, especially on the graveled street. Everything was fine, until we got to the top of a hill. I was nervous about allowing him to go down it, and asked him to pull over, but he insisted on navigating the hill. Well, I had bad vibes about it, but he insisted, and it was his car, so down the hill - about a block long - we went. There was a car coming up the hill, which passed us, so the coast was clear for the rest of it. Predictably, the car began to pick up speed, which apparently, he had not expected. He panicked. I told him to apply the brakes, but he was frozen at the wheel, and didn't respond. As we were picking up speed, his panic grew worse, and so I reached over and shut off the ignition. Apparently the car had slipped out of gear, and that didn't help, so the only option available to me was to pull the hand brake. What I didn't realize was that this particular model only brakes one rear wheel, not both, and the braking immediately threw the car out of control, gyrating it from side to side, and finally spinning it about 90 degrees, and off the road, into the ditch, coming to a stop when the front of the car crashed into the bank on the far side. Of course, the sound of all this immediately drew an audience out of the neighboring houses, and he was rather businesslike about getting out of there before the embarrassment grew to unacceptable levels.

There was no serious damage, it was only a crack to the plastic faring under the front bumper, and a broken fog lamp. Without a word, he got out, and I got into the driver's seat, and he pushed while I backed the car back up out of the ditch and onto the road. I drove him silently back to the house, where I was asked to put the car away in the carport, as a seam in the roof leaks and it can't be left in the rain.

His wife was very interested in what had happened. He 'fessed up without being prompted, and after being ribbed a bit, seems to be sufficiently humbled that he'll not insist next time on going beyond what I am wanting to do.

So there will be more lessons, in the future, but nothing scheduled immediately as I have some other obligations for the coming days. We'll see how it works out. I'll keep you all informed.

Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: The former U.N. weapons inspector who said Iraq disarmed long before the U.S. invasion in 2003 is warning Americans to prepare for a war with Iran. "We just don't know when, but it's going to happen," Scott Ritter said to a crowd of about 150 at the James A. Little Theater on Sunday night. Ritter described how the U.S. government might justify war with Iran in a scenario similar to the buildup to the Iraq invasion. He also argued that Iran wants a nuclear energy program, and not nuclear weapons. But the Bush administration, he said, refuses to believe Iran is telling the truth. He predicted the matter will wind up before the U.N. Security Council, which will determine there is no evidence of a weapons program. Then, he said, John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, "will deliver a speech that has already been written. It says America cannot allow Iran to threaten the United States and we must unilaterally defend ourselves." "How do I know this? I've talked to Bolton's speechwriter," Ritter said. Ritter also predicted the military strategy for war with Iran. First, American forces will bomb Iran. If Iranians don't overthrow the current government, as Bush hopes they will, Iran will probably attack Israel. Then, Ritter said, the United States will drop a nuclear bomb on Iran.

It is the option of last resort with consequences too hideous to contemplate. And yet, with diplomacy nearly exhausted, the use of military force to destroy Iran's nuclear program is being actively considered by those grappling with one of the world's most pressing security problems. For five years the West has rattled the saber over Iran to entice Iran into complying with strict conditions that would prevent its nuclear program being diverted to produce an atomic bomb. Those efforts, however, are now faltering. US leaders are openly discussing the looming conflict. A recent poll showed that 57 per cent of Americans favored military intervention to stop Iran building a bomb. Tehran scoffs at threats by the West, has pledged to press on with its nuclear program and defend itself if attacked. The military option may be the only means of halting a regime that has threatened to annihilate Israel from developing a bomb and triggering a regional nuclear arms race. Experts agree that America has the military capability to destroy Iran's dozen known atomic sites. US forces virtually surround Iran with military air bases to the west in Afghanistan, to the east in Iraq, Turkey and Qatar and the south in Oman and Diego Garcia. The US Navy also has a carrier group in the Gulf, armed with attack aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles. B2 stealth bombers flying from mainland America could also be used. The air campaign would not be easy. The Iranians have been preparing for an attack. Key sites are ringed with air defenses and buried underground. Sensitive parts of the Natanz facility are concealed 18 meters (60 ft.) underground and protected by reinforced concrete two meters thick. Similar protection has been built around the uranium conversion site at Esfahan.

If you read enough numbers, you never know what you'll find. Take President Bush and private Social Security accounts. Last year, even though Smirkey talked endlessly about the supposed joys of private accounts, he never proposed a specific plan to Congress and never put privatization costs in the budget. But this year, with no fanfare whatsoever, he stuck a big Social Security privatization plan in the federal budget proposal, which he sent to Congress on Monday. His plan would let people set up private accounts starting in 2010 and would divert more than $700 billion of Social Security tax revenues to pay for them over the first seven years. If this comes as a surprise to you, have no fear. You're not alone. Bush didn't pitch private Social Security accounts in his State of the Union message last week. First, he drew a mocking standing ovation from Democrats by saying that "Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security," even though, as I said, he'd never submitted specific legislation. Then he seemed to be kicking the Social Security problem a few years down the road in typical Washington fashion when he asked Congress "to join me in creating a commission to examine the full impact of baby boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid," adding that the commission would be bipartisan "and offer bipartisan solutions." But anyone who thought that Bush would wait for bipartisanship to deal with Social Security was wrong. Instead, he stuck his own privatization proposals into his proposed budget.

They served their time in the military in places like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most returned in good health. But an NBC investigation has found that for some soldiers, their service has meant a long and debilitating death sentence with mysterious diseases. "I have good days, I have bad days," said M. Sterry, of New Haven. "There were eight of us that served together. Six of my friends are dead." She looks healthy, but Sterry is a very sick woman who has no idea how much longer she will live. "I've had three heart attacks, two heart surgeries. I have chronic headaches, chronic upper respiratory infections. I get pneumonia two or three times a year," she said. "I have chronic fatigue, joint aches, muscle aches. I have a rash that migrates all over my body." Sterry figures the initial symptoms began in Saudi Arabia in September of 1991 while she was serving with the National Guard. Three years later, after completing her tour of duty and coming back home, the symptoms were still there, but much more severe. State Sen. Gayle Slossberg said one of the sources of the diseases may be "depleted" uranium. She was one of those who helped pass legislation last year setting up a health registry in Connecticut, strictly to keep records on our military personnel. "We'll know where they've served, what they've done, what the scope of the job was," she said. "We'll be able to identify to some extent what they've been exposed to and what their symptoms are." But it will come too late for David Leighton, of Naugatuck, a Marine who served in Saudi Arabia in Desert Storm. When he came home, the symptoms he had had for quite some time would not go away. His mother, Gail Leighton, said that for the next 15 years, she saw her once vital and vibrant son slowly dying before her eyes. "You would have had to have been there during the journey and see him in bed and sweating and in agony," she said.

A new and statistical report, authored and released by Seton Hall Law Professor Mark Denbeaux and attorney Joshua Denbeaux, counsel to two of the detainees at Guantanamo, contains the first objective analysis of the background of those held at Guantanamo. The report is based entirely on data supplied by the Defense Department, and is intended to provide "a more detailed picture of who the Guantanamo detainees are, how they ended up there, and the purported bases for their enemy combatant designation."The report, available here (pdf), finds that fewer than half of the 517 detainees whose histories were reviewed have been accused of hostile acts.

In an effort to head off possible impeachment hearings, Karl Rove has been strong-arming GOP senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as reported here Tuesday. The sources said the administration has been alarmed over the damage that could result from the Senate hearings, which began on Monday, Feb. 6. They said the defection of even a handful of Republican committee members could result in a determination that the president violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act with his campaign of warrantless snooping. Such a determination could lead to impeachment proceedings. The sources said the White House has offered to help loyalists with money and free publicity, such as appearances and photo-ops with the president. Those deemed disloyal to Mr. Rove would appear on his blacklist and would be snubbed in their re-election efforts. The sources said dozens of GOP members in the House and Senate are on that list. Yet so far, only a handful of GOP senators have questioned Mr. Rove's tactics. Some have raised doubts about Mr. Rove's strategy of painting the Democrats, who have opposed unwarranted surveillance, as being dismissive of the threat posed by al Qaeda terrorists. "Well, I didn't like what Mr. Rove said, because it frames terrorism and the issue of terrorism and everything that goes with it, whether it's the renewal of the Patriot Act or the NSA wiretapping, in a political context," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican.

Bush crony at NASA resigns: George C. Deutsch, the young presidential appointee at NASA who told public affairs workers to limit reporters' access to a top climate scientist and told a Web designer to add the word "theory" at every mention of the Big Bang, resigned yesterday, agency officials said. Mr. Deutsch's resignation came on the same day that officials at Texas A&M University confirmed that he did not graduate from there, as his résumé on file at the agency asserted. Officials at NASA headquarters declined to discuss the reason for the resignation. "Under NASA policy, it is inappropriate to discuss personnel matters," said Dean Acosta, the deputy assistant administrator for public affairs and Mr. Deutsch's boss. The resignation came as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was preparing to review its policies for communicating science to the public. The review was ordered Friday by Michael D. Griffin, the NASA administrator, after a week in which many agency scientists and midlevel public affairs officials described to The New York Times instances in which they said political pressure was applied to limit or flavor discussions of topics uncomfortable to the Bush administration, particularly global warming.

While Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez assures the U.S. Senate that the Bush Administration's domestic eavesdropping program is a vital "early warning system" for terrorists, another homeland security measure strikes at a local elementary school. The kindergarten class at Lakewood's Taft Elementary was planning a field trip to NASA Glenn Research Center. It's a popular trip because it's free, because the NASA staff already has age-appropriate tours that fit well with school curriculum, and, well, it's outer space, for Pete's sake. They've got rocket ships. And NASA works the education angle hard. According to the agency, "A major part of the NASA mission is ‘To inspire the next generation of explorers... as only NASA can.'" And of course they talk about math and science. NASA says about 400 school groups took tours last year. But school principal Margaret Seibel says this year's trip for Taft kindergarteners - we're talking 6-year-olds here - had to be canceled due to homeland security concerns. Since new security regulations went into effect in May 1, 2005, access to the Visitor Center is restricted to United State citizens. All others might be terrorists. No tourists from France, no exchange students from Tokyo and, no foreign national kindergarteners on field trips.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the feisty septuagenarian congressman who serves as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee will issue yet another missive to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales later this week calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate possible criminal misconduct in regard to the Bush Administration's march to war in Iraq. Just five other Democrats have signed Conyers' letter: Reps. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) Mike Honda (D-CA) and Jim McDermott (D-WA), Susan Davis (D-CA,) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) along with Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Conyers' move comes on the heels of yet another British memorandum showing that President Bush had conspired with Prime Minister Tony Blair to set a fixed date for war before even bringing Iraq to the United Nations. The memo also asserts that Bush had proposed a plan to paint a U.S. spyplane with UN markings and use it to attempt to lure Saddam Hussein into war.

"Democrats are heading into this year's election in a weaker position that they might have hoped, party leaders say, stirring concern that they are letting pass an opportunity to exploit what they see as widespread Republican vulnerabilities," the New York Times reported on page one Wednesday. The article outlines the outlook for the party in the 2006 Congressional elections. "Senior Democrats say they are hopeful about gains in congressional elections, but many expressed concern that Democrats were letting a crucial chance pass to transform this year's elections into a national referendum on the Republican Party," the Times adds.

The director of the CIA has launched a major internal probe into media leaks about covert operations. In an agencywide e-mail, Porter Goss blamed "a very small number of people" for leaks about secret CIA operations that, in his words, "do damage to the credibility of the agency." According to people familiar with the Goss e-mail, sent in late January and classified secret, the CIA director warned that any CIA officer deemed suspect by the agency's Office of Security and its Counter Intelligence Center (which handles internal affairs) could be subjected to an unscheduled lie detector test. CIA personnel are subjected to polygraphs at regular intervals in their careers, but one former intelligence officer called the new warning a "witch hunt." Others said Goss' e-mail was narrowly focused and did not suggest agencywide, random lie detector tests.

Judges appointed by President George W. Bush are the most conservative on record when it comes to civil rights and liberties, according to a new study by a political science professor at the University of Houston. Bush judicial appointees are significantly more conservative than even the very conservative voting record of jurists appointed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr. in the realm of civil rights and liberties, said Robert Carp, professor of political science at UH. When it comes to these decisions, the Bush team is a full 5 percentage points more conservative than even the trial judges appointed by Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. "Liberal" judges would generally seek in their rulings to extend the freedoms of abortion, gay rights, the rights of women and minorities and freedom of speech, Carp explained. "Conservative" jurists, by contrast, would prefer to limit such rights. In a previous study that was released in August 2004, Carp and his team of researchers predicted that if Bush was re-elected that year, the federal judiciary could take on an even sharper conservative slant. At the time, Bush's judicial appointees delivered liberal decisions 27.9 percent of the time in cases involving civil liberties and rights. For this latest study, researchers analyzed more data, and the figure has dropped to 27.2 percent.

The nuns of the Holy Name Monastery say they have been swept into the net cast by the nation's antiterrorism laws. The sisters say the monastery's main bank account was frozen without explanation in November, creating financial headaches and making the Benedictine nuns hopping mad. They were told the Patriot Act was the cause. "I think the Patriot Act is unwise, let's say, and that if it happened to us, it can happen to anybody," said Sister Jean Abbott, the monastery's business manager. "I think people need to know that nobody is safe from, in some cases, really ridiculous scrutiny." The nuns didn't know anything was amiss until Nov. 10, when their checks started bouncing without warning and the account wouldn't accept deposits, including paychecks from state agencies where some of the sisters hold jobs.

Alfonso Sosa, a house painter here who made about $20,000 last year, filed for bankruptcy the morning of Dec. 6, hoping to avoid the foreclosure on his family's mobile home scheduled for later that day. Judge Frank Monroe of Austin rejected the case 16 days later - with a bang. In his ruling, Monroe said the new federal bankruptcy law is full of traps for consumers, calling some of its provisions "inane," "absurd" and incomprehensible to "any rational human being." He stopped just short of accusing Congress of being bought and paid for, dryly noting, "Apparently, it is not the individual consumers of this country that make the donations to the members of Congress that allow them to be elected and re-elected and re-elected and re-elected." Ordinarily, a case such as the Sosas', which primarily concerns a mobile home and land valued at $32,840, would quietly disappear into court archives. But Monroe's order has caught fire in the world of bankruptcy and consumer law. It's being debated on law blogs and circulated across the country. Steve Jakubowski, a bankruptcy specialist in Chicago and creator of the Bankruptcy Litigation Blog, said Monroe's unusually strong language represents "the pot boiling over" in frustration at the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which took effect Oct. 17. "It's the kind of thing people know but that you don't write down."

The Los Angeles city Police Commission is no longer releasing the names of officers involved in shootings. The Police Commission made the change, overturning a 25-year-old policy, because officers' identities are protected under state law, said commission President John W. Mack. Police union officials had long argued that releasing officers' names could expose them to danger, and union official had indicated they were prepared to sue over the disclosures, said Hank Hernandez, the organization's general counsel. "This has nothing to do with whether or not the media should have access or the public should have access to this information," said Bob Baker, the LAPD union president. "There are people who could use (this information) for not legitimate purposes. And that's what our concern is."

The last time 1st Lt. William "Eddie" Rebrook IV saw his body armor, he was lying on a stretcher in Iraq, his arm shattered and covered in blood. A field medic tied a tourniquet around Rebrook’s right arm to stanch the bleeding from shrapnel wounds. Soldiers yanked off his blood-soaked body armor. He never saw it again. But last week, Rebrook was forced to pay $700 for that body armor, blown up by a roadside bomb more than a year ago. He was leaving the Army for good because of his injuries. He turned in his gear at his base in Fort Hood, Texas. He was informed there was no record that the body armor had been stripped from him in battle. He was told to pay nearly $700 or face not being discharged for weeks, perhaps months. Rebrook, 25, scrounged up the cash from his Army buddies and returned home to Charleston last Friday. "I last saw the [body armor] when it was pulled off my bleeding body while I was being evacuated in a helicopter," Rebrook said. "They took it off me and burned it." But no one documented that he lost his Kevlar body armor during battle, he said. No one wrote down that armor had apparently been incinerated as a biohazard.

Republicans easily defeated three resolutions seeking information about the Bush administration's policies on torture after a heated committee hearing. Rep. Henry Hyde (news, bio, voting record), R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said Democrats who submitted the resolutions should "at least silently confess to themselves that their actions pose real dangers to our country." Hyde accused Democrats of playing politics, with an eye on November's congressional elections, by offering the three resolutions demanding information on a practice that has been called extraordinary rendition, or sending suspects abroad to countries where they would allegedly be tortured for information, documents about U.S. policies regarding U.N. anti-torture conventions, and documents and records involving Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's December trip to Europe, during which she was dogged by reports of alleged secret European jails

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: Mexico and Cuba formally protested to the United States on Monday for demanding that the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel in Mexico City order a group of Cuban officials, who were meeting last week with representatives of American oil companies, to check out of the hotel and leave the premises. On Friday, the United States Treasury Department contacted the company that owns the Sheraton and warned them that they were violating federal laws against trading with Cuba by allowing the meeting to take place in their hotel. The hotel told the Cuban representatives to leave, and sent their room deposits to the Treasury Department. The meeting was moved to a hotel not owned by an American company. The American action has provoked a minor storm. Mayor Alejandro Encinas of Mexico City, a member of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution, said Monday morning that he would ask his prosecutors to find out if the hotel had broken local anti-discrimination laws and seek to shut it down if it had. Then, the Mexican foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, said the idea that a United States law was being enforced on Mexican soil was troubling. He said the government would take action against the hotel if it proved true. "There does not exist and neither should there exist the extra-territorial application of this law in our nation," he said. Various Mexican politicians, among them Felipe Calderón, the candidate for president from President Vicente Fox's National Action Party, joined the chorus of criticism. Ricardo Ruiz Suárez, a spokesman for the Mexico City government, said the hotel's owners could be prosecuted under several Mexican laws that ban discrimination based on national origin or ideology.

Less than a month after an assertively anti-American president took office in Bolivia, the Bush administration is planning to cut military aid to the country by 96 percent. The amount of money Bolivia normally receives is small; much of it is used to train Bolivian military officers in the United States. But the cut holds the potential to anger Bolivia's powerful military establishment, which has been responsible for a long history of coups. Evo Morales, a Socialist leader, became president on Jan. 22 and has promised to end American-financed programs to eradicate Bolivia's coca crop. Coca is the main ingredient in cocaine. United States officials say if Bolivia ends the programs, farmers in Peru and other coca-producing states could demand the same. That could lead to a flood of cheap cocaine in the Americas and Europe.

Republicans Believe In Free, Fair and Honest Elections: As legislatures in four states have passed laws requiring photographic identification at the polls, voting rights groups are alarmed at a trend they say appears to mark the resurgence of poll taxes and other voter-discouragement efforts, despite a lack of evidence that an ID fraud problem exists. Last week, Ohio Governor Robert Taft and Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue each signed laws mandating voters show government-issued photo IDs in order to cast their ballots. Groups like the NAACP and the League of Women Voters had asked the governors to veto the laws, saying that they unconstitutionally impede ballot access. Voting-rights groups worry that senior citizens and poor minorities - two groups that are less likely to have driver's licenses or birth certificates and other documentation required to obtain accepted identification, will be turned away at the polls.

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: Agents operating a controversial National Security Agency surveillance program may have "inadvertently" spied on the e-mails and phone calls of Americans with no ties to terrorists, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Monday. Gonzales claimed that the program is "narrowly focused" and that adequate steps are taken to protect privacy, though he said he was unable to describe such procedures because of, he claimed, the program's classified nature. The admissions came as part of the first of what will likely be several public hearings before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. A full slate of Democrats and Republicans rotated 10-minute stints questioning Gonzales, the day's sole witness, about the secret eavesdropping program. A CNET News.com survey published Monday lists which telecommunications companies say they are not cooperating with the NSA.

The legal controversy over the NSA surveillance program has obscured an intelligence issue that is at least as important to the nation's future: sheer competence. Do we have any idea what we're doing? One reason the NSA is listening in on so many domestic conversations fruitlessly - few of the thousands of tips panned out, according to The Washington Post - is that the agency barely has a clue as to who, or what, it is supposed to be monitoring. While soaking up the lion's share of the $40 billion annual intel budget, the NSA continues to preside over an antiquated cold-war apparatus, one designed to listen in on official communications pipelines in nation-states. Today it is overwhelmed by cell-phone and Internet traffic. While terror groups multiply, the NSA is still waiting for the next Soviet Union to arise (which many in the Pentagon see as China, say, 50 to 100 years from now). As a December 2002 report by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee noted, "Only a tiny fraction" of the NSA's 650 million daily intercepts worldwide "are actually ever reviewed by humans, and much of what is collected gets lost in the deluge of data."

A House Republican whose subcommittee oversees the National Security Agency broke ranks with the White House on Tuesday and called for a full Congressional inquiry into the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping program. Representative Heather A. Wilson, a House chairwoman, has broken ranks with the president. The lawmaker, Representative Heather A. Wilson of New Mexico, chairwoman of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, said in an interview that she had "serious concerns" about the surveillance program. By withholding information about its operations from many lawmakers, she said, the administration has deepened her apprehension about whom the agency is monitoring and why. Ms. Wilson, who was a National Security Council aide in the administration of President Bush's father, is the first Republican on either the House's Intelligence Committee or the Senate's to call for a full Congressional investigation into the program, in which the N.S.A. has been eavesdropping without warrants on the international communications of people inside the United States believed to have links with terrorists.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed the latest suit in California District Court Tuesday, charging that the telecommunications giant violated its customers' privacy rights by opening its records and systems to secret spying by the National Security Agency (NSA). In a statement announcing the legal action, EFF accused the NSA of recklessly snooping on US residents in contravention of existing laws. "The NSA program is apparently the biggest fishing expedition ever devised, scanning millions of ordinary Americans' phone calls and emails for 'suspicious' patterns, and it's the collaboration of US telecom companies like AT&T that makes it possible," EFF staff attorney Kevin Bankston said. Joining efforts to force the federal court system to consider the legality of the Bush administration's warrantless domestic phone taps, a leading privacy-rights group filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of AT&T customers earlier this week. Three other groups have filed lawsuits since the New York Times first exposed the clandestine program late last year.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday resisted bipartisan appeals for changes in a hotly disputed warrantless eavesdropping program, saying he believed "we have all the legal authority we need." In an interview on PBS' "Newshour," Cheney was asked whether President George W. Bush was willing to work with Congress to settle some of the legal questions about the spy program. "We believe ... that we have all the legal authority we need," Cheney said. He said Bush had indicated he was willing to listen to ideas from the U.S. Congress and that members of Congress certainly have the right to suggest changes.

Seven individuals from Witness Against Torture, a group protesting the denial of rights to prisoners at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were served papers by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) last week. The group of twenty-four U.S. Christians marched over 60 miles to the Naval Base in an attempt to practice the Christian act of prisoner visitation. The group camped and fasted for four days at the gate of the militarized zone while awaiting access to the base. Five hundred prisoners are currently detained by the U.S. government in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Human rights organizations and released detainees have documented torture and extreme prisoner abuse at the base, but the Bush administration asserts that Guantanamo is beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. and international courts of law. In a response sent through the Center for Constitutional Rights, Witness Against Torture refused to answer OFAC's questions, maintaining that the true crime is the torture and abuse of civilian prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Guantanamo, not the violation of the travel ban on Cuba. As the U.S. prohibits travel to Cuba, Witness Against Torture members risk a maximum of 10 years in prison or a $250,00 fine for their actions to bring attention to U.S. practices in Guantanamo.

A lawyer for detainees at Guantanamo Bay said Thursday that the military has used increasingly harsh methods, including strapping prisoners to a special chair, to force-feed those on hunger strike and persuade them to end their protest. Military personnel have strapped the striking detainees into a "restraint chair" to aggressively force-feed hunger strikers, Tom Wilner said. The attorney returned from the prison at the U.S. base in eastern Cuba last week and had his notes declassified by the government late Wednesday. The harsher methods, Wilner said, began in December and included the removal of so-called comfort items like blankets from the prisoners.

The American Family Association has this up on its web site: "The U.S. Senate will vote on the Marriage Protection Amendment (MPA) in early March. This constitutional amendment will make marriage between one man and one woman the only legal marriage." It is grinding up the federal Marriage Protection Act machine, e-blasting its sheeple. The AFA knows that it will be acted upon in March, and we don't? I looked at the Human Rights Campaign site. Nada. National Gay and Lesbian Task Force site - zip. I did a few searches for news on this; I pulled nothing up about a March vote. I posted on Melissa McEwan's January 29 Raw Story article, reporting that Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO), a co-sponsor of the joint resolution, indicated Senate Majority leader Bill Frist (R- TN) would bring it to a vote in 2006 -- but not with a date attached to that bit of information. So Wildmon is either blowing smoke or he's on the Frist bat-phone. You guess which is more likely.

Republican Policies Are Good For America: Smirkey, constrained by wars, hurricanes and exploding budget deficits, has sent Congress a 2007 spending plan that is garnering howls of pain from farmers, teachers, doctors and a wide array of other groups with special interests. Democrats, as expected, pronounced the Republican president's budget plan dead on arrival. But many Republicans were equally sharp in their reservations about the $2.77 trillion spending blueprint the administration unveiled on Monday. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., called Bush's proposed cuts in education and health "scandalous" while Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said she was "disappointed and even surprised" at the extent of the administration's proposed cuts in Medicaid and Medicare. Given the level of congressional frustration, administration witnesses, led by Treasury Secretary John Snow, were expected to face a tough sales job before various congressional committees on Tuesday. Smirkey is seeking a 6.9% hike in US military spending to $439.3bn, and a 3.3% rise in homeland security funds. To keep plans to cut the fiscal deficit on track, big cuts have been proposed in healthcare spending. While Democrats attacked the proposed cuts, Smirkey's Republican allies said they were a sign of "fiscal prudence." Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Mr Bush's budget was "filled with pages of giveaways to special interests and cuts to those who can least afford it". "If the Bush tax cut agenda is enabled, the revenue loss over 10 years is $1.8 trillion," said Representative John Spratt, the South Carolina Democrat, who serves as the ranking member of the Budget Committee. He noted that Mr. Bush had omitted almost all the cost of reversing the alternative minimum tax, a system created decades ago to make sure the richest Americans paid at least some tax and that now affects millions of new taxpayers each year. "This administration's budgets will only take us farther down the road of massive deficits and mounting debt," Mr. Spratt said.

US consumer borrowing is rising more slowly than at any time since 1992 as consumers feel the pinch from higher interest rates. US consumer debt totalled $2.162 trillion at the end of 2005, 3% higher than in December 2004. The rise was well down on the 4% increase seen in each of the past three years and the 7% increase in 2001. Commentators believe the figures reflect the fact that people are spending more on home loans and less on credit cards.

For the first time in more than 20 years, U.S. nuclear-weapons scientists are designing a new H-bomb, the first of probably several new nuclear explosives on the drawing boards. If they succeed, in perhaps 20 or 25 more years, the United States would have an entirely new nuclear arsenal, and a highly automated factory capable of turning out more warheads as needed, as well as new kinds of warheads. "We are on the verge of an exciting time," the nation's top nuclear weapons executive, Linton Brooks, said last week at Lawrence Livermore weapons design laboratory. Teams of roughly 20 scientists and engineers at the nation's two laboratories for nuclear-explosive design - Livermore and Los Alamos in New Mexico - are in a head-to-head competition to offer designs for the first of the new thermonuclear explosives, termed "reliable replacement warheads" or RRWs. Designers are aiming for bombs that will be simpler, easier to maintain over decades and, if they fell into terrorists' hands, able to be remotely destroyed or rendered useless. Once the designs are unveiled in September, the Bush administration and Congress could face a major choice in the future of the U.S. arsenal: Do they keep maintaining the existing, tested weapons or begin diverting money and manpower to developing the newly designed but untested weapons?

Despite massive budget shortfalls and a looming retirement date, NASA will not abandon its shuttle program and will keep its promise to finish building the International Space Station. To back up its pledge, the US has unveiled a spending plan that slightly increases the 2007 budget for NASA, even though most other non-military programs are being cut. The collective sigh of relief by Europe and NASA's other partners in the space station program, however, is being drowned out by the wails of scientists. To help pay for 16 shuttle missions to the space station, NASA plans to divert about $2bn from its science programs and another $1.5bn from its new lunar venture between now and 2010.

President George W. Bush's fiscal year 2007 budget quietly omits a table included in previous years which lays out the impact of the Administration's proposed policies on the deficit, RAW STORY has learned. The missing table was first discovered by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Its omission -- a single table among thousands and thousands of pages that follow a standard format each year -- likely signals that the Administration is trying to keep the focus off the massive deficits which the United States will incur after 2010. Bloomberg News notes that under the 2007 budget, the federal deficit would decline until 2010 and then start rising at a remarkable rate. "If Congress makes Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent, most of the impact won't be felt until after 2011, long after the president has left office," the financial news service writes. "Some of the tax reductions are due to expire at the end of 2008 and the rest in 2010." The loss of revenue between 2012 and 2016 is projected at $1.2 trillion.

The legal protections that allow a reporter, musician, small business or just about anyone else to mention a registered brand name in a creative work would be dramatically altered under a bill currently moving through the US Senate. In anticipation of committee hearings slated for next week, a broad coalition of groups has requested that the Senate Judiciary Committee members consider the adverse effects the measure may have on creative expression. Last Friday, privacy and free speech advocates Public Citizen, Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation joined with trade associations representing librarians, photographers and video sellers in calling for "two minor changes" to the bill. The proposed amendments to the Trademark Dilution Revision Act of 2005, described in a letter to lawmakers, are intended to preserve an existing safeguard a longstanding precedent. Known as "fair-use," the long-honored provision permits the use of brand names for educational and non-commercial purposes.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last week announced that it had elevated an official long criticized for his attempts to remove Florida panthers from the Endangered Species List. The promotion came even as FWS admitted earlier this week that the panthers are being crowded out by development. Friday, the agency announced it was awarding James "Jay" Slack, the previous field supervisor for the FWS in Southern Florida, to the deputy director’s post of a mid-Western regional office. Slack has worked for the FWS for fourteen years, eight of which he spent as the head of the Southern Florida office. During his tenure there, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and other environmental groups sought to derail his efforts to open more protected habitats to developers. The FWS South Florida Ecological Service Field Office in Vero Beach, Florida pushed to "de-list" the Florida panthers under Slack’s leadership, arguing that they were well on their way to recovery and that the available habitat was ripe for the species to expand. PEER and FWS scientist Andrew Eller Jr. filed a complaint over the matter with the Department of the Interior in March 2004.

A proposed fund to compensate people suffering from asbestos-related diseases would have at least a $150 billion shortfall, according to an analysis by Senate Budget Committee Democrats made public on Wednesday. The committee's ranking Democrat, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, said he feared taxpayers would have to pay the shortfall if the legislation to create the fund, now pending in the Senate, is passed. The bill calls for collecting $140 billion from asbestos defendant companies and their insurers for the proposed trust fund. But the Budget Committee's Democratic analysis said that the amount of asbestos injury claims and cost to run the fund would far exceed that amount, Conrad told reporters.

Hey, GI - wanna get out of Iraq, out of the Army and go home to your life? It's easy. Just put up a personal ad on a gay web site where the Pentagon snoops are sure to find it. Though the U.S. military continues to struggle to meet recruitment goals - and has lowered "moral standards" such that more than 20,000 men and women recruited in 2005 received waivers from standard Army requirements - gay and lesbian soldiers continue to be pushed out of the armed forces. Even soldiers serving on the frontlines in Iraq have been discharged under the policy. And these discharges are only one part of the story, as some personnel opt against reenlistment because of the weight of the secret they are forced to bear.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: The Bush administration is promoting individual, tax-free savings accounts as a strategy to make health care "affordable and accessible." As a response to climbing medical costs for privately insured Americans, health savings accounts (HSAs) are designed to encourage households to buy into health plans that might cost more out-of-pocket in exchange for tax breaks. But consumer advocates are concerned that HSAs will merely provide another tax shelter for the wealthy, favor healthier segments of the population, and shrink healthcare access for people in relatively poor health or with fewer financial resources. Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a healthcare reform group, told The New Standard, "This is going to be very disappointing for those people who think this is going to save our nation money in health care, [and] it certainly is going to hurt the people who need health care the most." HSA critics also reject the premise of using these accounts to encourage healthcare consumers to "save," arguing the policy discourages people from taking care of themselves. A major concern is that consumers will be sold on HSAs by private insurance companies without fully understanding the consequences of high out-of-pocket costs.

While the economy appears to be expanding, the job-growth rate - a key indicator of long-term fiscal health - is lagging behind the 2.8 percent growth rate posted in the 1990s. Other potentially ominous economic indicators include hours worked, which have not risen above 33.8 per week, EPI said, and drops in information-services employment and retail trade, factors which may portend a "weakening in consumer demand." Additionally, the unemployment rates for the nation's largest minority groups remained well above the national average, with 8.9 percent of blacks and 5.8 percent of Hispanics reported out of work, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Further compounding the recovery data is the fact that, though hourly wages are increasing, real earnings continue to fall when measured against inflation, EPI found in a separate analysis released early last week. The economic think tank also found that health care and associated benefit costs are growing at a slower rate than usual, due in large part to falling employer commitment to providing such benefits. The problem with these numbers, however, is that they apparently increasingly overstate employment and hide unemployment. The Labor Department may be regularly understating the number of unemployed people due to the way it collects data, according to a new study. The progressive Center for Economic Policy Research said yesterday that because growing numbers of people decline to participate in surveys each year, the Department's statistics bureau's data-gathering techniques are outdated. CEPR said this leads the Department to miss 3 million or more people when compiling information for a key employment and income indicator. Pointing to evidence in government and other reports that poor people, blacks, Hispanics, women and younger adults are less likely to respond to self-report surveys, CEPR counseled the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to change the way it collects information for the Current Population Survey (CPS).

The United States will always rely on foreign imports of oil to feed its energy needs and should stop trying to become energy independent, a top Exxon Mobil Corp. executive said on Tuesday. "Realistically, it is simply not feasible in any time period relevant to our discussion today," Exxon Mobil Senior Vice President Stuart McGill said, referring to what he called the "misperception" that the United States can achieve energy independence. The comments, in a speech at an energy conference in Houston, come a few days after U.S. President George W. Bush declared America was addicted to Middle Eastern oil and promised to help the country kick the habit.

If President Bush gets his way, the venerable $255 Social Security death benefit will fade into history. And 16- and 17-year-old high school dropouts will lose their monthly survivor payments. Not, however, if Democrats get their way. "The Republican Congress has given a whole new meaning to the term 'women and children first,'" Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee, said Tuesday. "There they go again," said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who heads the part budget that Bush submitted to Congress on Tuesday and estimated to trim costs by $3.4 billion over the next decade. "Children who have lost a parent need every assistance and encouragement we can provide, and everything the federal government can do to encourage them to stay in school and get an education makes it that much more likely that they can succeed," said Scott Milburn, a spokesman at the Office of Management and Budget. "Linking benefits to school attendance provides that encouragement and is, in fact, currently the rule for 19-year-olds. We think more children can be helped by lowering that age to 16," he said.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Recording the warmest January on record allowed Americans to save on their heating. The country's average temperature for the month was 39.5 degrees Fahrenheit, 8.5 degrees above average for January, the National Climatic Data Center said Tuesday. The old record for January warmth was 37.3 degrees set in 1953. The records go back to 1895 when detailed climate records began being collected. During January, none of the 48 contiguous states had below-average temperatures _ and 15 states in the northern Plains, Great Lakes and Midwest had record high temperatures for the month. More than 74 percent of the country was classified as "much above normal" when compared to the 1961-1990 climate normal. The Climate Data Center said that only twice since 1895 has more than 74 percent of the nation had a much above-normal temperature _ March 1910 and November 1999.

News From Smirkey's Wars: U.S. forces are accelerating efforts to build a strong, professional police force in Iraq but it will take time to instill democratic values in the ranks, the top American general here said Wednesday. Gen. George Casey Jr., said the command has declared 2006 as the "year of the police," a tacit acknowledgment that the more than 80,000-strong Iraqi force has been hobbled by incompetence, corruption, sectarianism and low morale. The U.S. military wants more than 130,000 police operating by 2007 as part of the strategy to shift security responsibility to the Iraqis so that American and other international troops can begin to head home.

Two U.S. army deserters were unfairly denied asylum in Canada partly because the refugee board would not consider the legality of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, their lawyer said on Wednesday. The soldiers want the Federal Court of Canada to overturn an immigration board decision last March that denied them refugee status in Canada. A decision on this round of the judicial process is not expected for several months, and it could take years to exhaust all legal appeals. Army privates Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey sought asylum in Canada in 2004, saying the war in Iraq was illegal and they feared committing atrocities if sent there. They also said they may be persecuted if returned to the United States.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: The Bush administration's support for Iran's proposal to bar two gay rights groups from a voice at the United Nations sparked a demand from U.S. legislators on Tuesday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repudiate the action. The January 23 vote denying "consultative status" at the world body to the Belgium-based International Gay and Lesbian Association and the Danish National Association for Gays and Lesbians was a "drastic reversal" of Washington's previous stand on the issue, the U.S. House of Representatives members wrote. Nearly 3,000 nongovernmental organizations have such status, which enables them to distribute documents and speak at meetings of some U.N. bodies and conferences. In voting for Iran's proposal, "the United States joined some of the world's most oppressive regimes, among them China, Cuba, Sudan and Zimbabwe" and demonstrated "a reprehensible inconsistency" in the protection of rights based on sexual orientation, the lawmakers said.

Scandals Du Jour: In testimony before the Rules Committee hearing on lobby reform, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) detailed suspicious lobbyist events attended by members of Congress and their staffs. Feingold listed a number of "fact finding missions" his staff had been invited to by lobbyists, which seemed to have little or nothing to do with actual research. Among them were, "A 'legislative issues seminar' on St. Michael's Island, sponsored by MCI World Com, with dinner at the Inn at Perry Cabin. A trip to Silicon Valley sponsored by the Information Technology Industry Council, with dinner sponsored by the Wine Institute," and most curiously, "a 'congressional field trip' sponsored by GTE to Tampa and Clearwater Beach." Feingold testified that the event invitation read: "To take advantage of the terrific location beside Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, we'll demonstrate that you can place a cellular call over water, either while dining aboard a boat or fishing for that night's dinner." Feingold went on to call for a full ban on lobbyist gifts, (including meals) and corporate jet use. "If Members of Congress can't justify spending taxpayer money to do a fact-finding trip, they shouldn't go and neither should their staffs," he concluded.

Indicted Rep. Tom DeLay, forced to step down as the No. 2 Republican in the House, scored a soft landing Wednesday as GOP leaders rewarded him with a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee. DeLay, R-Texas, also claimed a seat on the subcommittee overseeing the Justice Department, which is currently investigating an influence-peddling scandal involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his dealings with lawmakers. The subcommittee also has responsibility over NASA - a top priority for DeLay, since the Johnson Space Center is located in his Houston-area district. "Allowing Tom DeLay to sit on a committee in charge of giving out money is like putting Michael Brown back in charge of FEMA - Republicans in Congress just can't seem to resist standing by their man," said Bill Burton, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: Who knows whether Cardinal Edward Egan is sleeping soundly these days. But as head of the New York archdiocese - as the top Roman Catholic prelate in the state - he'd have every reason to be restless after the recent advent of a little-noticed lawsuit. The suit, now pending in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, was filed on December 13 by Bob Hoatson - a 53-year-old New Jersey priest considered a stalwart ally among survivors of sexual abuse by clergy. Hoatson, the now-suspended chaplain for Catholic Charities in Newark, is suing Egan and nine other Catholic officials and institutions, claiming a pattern of "retaliation and harassment" that began after Hoatson alleged a cover-up of clergy abuse in New York and started helping victims. But that's not all his lawsuit claims. Halfway through the 44-page complaint, the priest-turned-advocate drops a bomb on the cardinal: He alleges that Egan is "actively homosexual," and that he has "personal knowledge of this." His suit names two other top Catholic clerics in the region as actively gay - Albany bishop Howard Hubbard and Newark archbishop John Myers. What Hoatson claims is that, as leaders of a church requiring celibacy and condemning homosexuality, actively gay bishops are too afraid of being exposed themselves to turn in pedophile priests. The bishops' closeted homosexuality, as the lawsuit states, "has compromised defendants' ability to supervise and control predators, and has served as a reason for the retaliation."

An uneventful day in the Senate quickly turned unruly Monday afternoon when Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) lashed out at Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), accusing Reid of violating Senate conduct rules and slander, following Reid’s assertion that corporate dollars had bought asbestos legislation access to the chamber floor, ROLL CALL reports Tuesday. During a floor speech Monday afternoon, Reid vowed to defeat the asbestos legislation and, in an effort to tie it to the current lobbying and ethics scandals, argued that the Senate was considering the bill only because 13 "companies spent $144.5 million in two years lobbying to get it here."

News From Smirkey's Wars: Iraq is treating seven people for suspected bird flu in the country, where a possible third fatality indicates the lethal virus may have spread to the south. A 13-year-old boy from the southern Omara area, who developed symptoms of avian influenza on Feb. 1, was hospitalized with severe pneumonia on Feb. 5 and died the same day, the World Health Organization said in a statement yesterday. Previous cases in Iraq were found in the northern Sulaimaniyah area. "Although no poultry deaths have been reported in the area, pet birds kept by the family are said to have died near the time of symptom onset," the WHO statement said. Samples from the boy have been taken and Iraqi health authorities will visit the Omara area today to investigate, it said.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: A group of more than 80 powerful evangelical leaders have defied the Bush White House and called for federal legislation to curb global warming. The statement marks the first time that leading evangelicals have taken up the green issue. And it has caused splits within the religious right. They have embraced the environment in recent years, most notably with a "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign against sports utility vehicles. The statement - signed by mega-church pastors like Rick Warren, author of the bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life, heads of Christian colleges and missionary organisations - puts saving "God's green earth" on a par with traditional evangelical concerns like abortion and gay marriage.

Four Illinois pharmacists are suing Walgreens after the drug-store chain punished them for refusing to comply with Illinois law governing access to emergency contraception. The move comes as a cultural and political battle rages over the conflict between women’s access to emergency reproductive services and medical professionals’ religious convictions. According to the lawsuit filed on his behalf by the groups Americans United for Life and the American Center for Law and Justice, plaintiff John Menges holds religious, moral and ethical beliefs, which prevent him, as a matter of conscience, from dispensing contraceptives.

Scandals Du Jour: Scooter Libby has told a federal grand jury that his superiors authorized him to give secret information to reporters as part of the Bush administration's defense of intelligence used to justify invading Iraq, according to court papers. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said in documents filed last month that he plans to introduce evidence that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, disclosed to reporters the contents of a classified National Intelligence Estimate in the summer of 2003. The NIE is a report prepared by the head of the nation's intelligence operations for high-level government officials, up to and including the president. Portions of NIEs are sometimes declassified and made public. It is unclear whether that happened in this instance. In a Jan. 23 letter to Libby's lawyers, Fitzgerald said Libby also testified before the grand jury that he caused at least one other government official to discuss an intelligence estimate with reporters in July 2003. "We also note that it is our understanding that Mr. Libby testified that he was authorized to disclose information about the NIE to the press by his superiors," Fitzgerald wrote. White House spokesman Scott McClellan refused to comment. "Our policy is that we are not going to discuss this when it's an ongoing legal proceeding," he said.

News Of The Weird: Six gay penguins at a German zoo are still refusing to mate with females of the species flown in from Sweden in 2005, the zoo said. The problem was that the female Humboldt penguins have proven too shy in their advances, the director of the zoo in the northern port city of Bremerhaven said. "The Swedes will not make the first move," Heike Kueck said. The females were flown in last year in a bid to bring the males to mate and help save the Humboldt species from extinction. Kueck said last year she was optimistic the initiative would be successful because zoo keepers had noticed that at one point a female penguin had managed to cause a couple of males to "separate".

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:53:17 PM

Tue, Feb 07 2006

Nearly An Earthquake

The results of Sunday's presidential elections in Costa Rica could hardly have been more dramatic. Oscar Arias Sanchez, the center-right candidate running on the National Liberation Party ticket has apparently won as predicted, but just barely. He is currently ahead in the vote count, but by a whisker-thin 0.3 percent of the vote - just three votes out of each thousand. The Tribuno Supremo de Eleciones, the judicial organ that organizes and supervises the elections in Costa Rica, has ordered a manual, ballot-by-ballot recount of the entire million-plus presidential vote. The final result, and who may become the next president of Costa Rica, may not be known for certain for as long as two weeks, while the ballots are being recounted. Since Costa Rica uses paper ballots throughout the country, a complete physical recount is possible and will be done.

The big news is that Oscar Arias' main rival, Otton Solis, a center-left candidate running for the Citizens' Action Party, pulled out from way behind - just two weeks ago, he was polling 20 points behind Arias - and now has apparently come within a whisker of winning the election outright, no runoff required. Everyone is astounded at the result - no one, not even Solis' own pollsters, had any inkling it would be this close. The sudden, abrupt, and dramatic shift to the left in Costa Rican politics has caught everyone by surprise.

What caused it? When looking at how the country polled versus how it actually voted, the one thing that really stands out is the cantones (counties) in the rural parts of the country where large, mostly family-owned farms currently growing commodity crops, such as rice, corn, beans and wheat, as well as export crops such as bananas and pineapples, as well as some tree plantations, all voted hugely differently from how they had polled. I had an inkling this might happen (and said so to my friends) when I visited Guatuso - in the heart of rice and pineapple country - two weeks ago and saw Solis banners everywhere and not an Arias banner anywhere in sight - in fact, I saw only one on the entire trip. I listened in on one political discussion between my neighbor who was with me (an ardent Arias supporter), and his acquaintence, and the principal topic of discussion was corruption. The Guatusan said that Solis was a better candidate because he was the more sincere and less tainted by chorizo (literally "sausage" but a word that has come to be synonymous with corruption). But I suspect that the real reason he voted for Solis, as did his neighbors throughout rural Alajuela and Heredia provinces, is because he voted his wallet - Solis was the only candidate of the four major parties to come out firmly against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and so those Costa Ricans for whom opposition was a deciding factor had no choice but to vote for Solis. This is an issue in these regions because a free trade agreement would put those large farmers in direct competition with huge agribusiness farms in the United States, and likely throw many of them out of business, as a result of American farm subsidies that depress commodity prices to artificially low levels. Most of the farmers I have talked to say that they would have no fear of a free-trade agreement if those subsidies did not exist - they're certain that their lower labor costs and longer growing seasons would allow them to more than compete. But the fact is the subsidies do exist, and they are not likely to go away anytime soon, even under CAFTA mandate, as the experience of the Mexican farmers under NAFTA has demonstrated.

The national legislature in Costa Rica, the Assemblea Legislativa, consists of a single chamber composed of 57 diputados, its members coming from two sources - half are picked directly by the voters, who vote for them individually from their districts. The other half are "party list" candidates, selected by the party, and portioned out according to the percent of the vote that party garners in the presidential vote, with the tie-breaking vote coming from the president's party list. To get a single list-member into the Assemblea, the party has to poll at least 4% of the total presidential vote. The presumed winner, Arias, got by far the largest number of seats - 26, both list and local candidates. That was, of course, not quite a majority. Otton Solis, his nemesis, got 17, and the Libertarian party, Foggy Bottom's favorite, got 6. The incumbent party, the Social Christians, whose candidate, Ricardo Toledo, polled a measly 3.6 percent of the vote, got only five seats, all local candidates, as it didn't get enough presidential votes for a single list member, and the minor parties got the remaining three seats, all local candidates. This means that if Solis should happen to win the recount, he will face governing from a minority position within the Assemblea. That could make governing somewhat difficult without a lot of patient negotiating. Fortunately, both Arias' party and Solis' party are fairly closely aligned politically. This should make getting the ten votes he would need a lot easier. For Arias, building a majority vote in the Assemblea should not be difficult except on the most contentious issues.

Analysis of the U.S. meddling: With the incumbent Social Christians being the local equivalent of the Republican Party and being strongly supported by both the Catholic Church (the incumbent president is widely believed to be an Opus Dei member) and the hard core conservatives, you might have thought that the Boys from Foggy Bottom would have dumped a ton of money into it, trying to get it re-elected, as they so frequently do here in Latin America. But the problem was that this party faced a huge backlash from the extremely unpopular programs that President Pacheco has tried to push through in the last four years, as well as his perceived limitations as an administrator, negotiator and diplomat. His party has suffered greatly as a result. Starting from a 21% rating in the polls at the beginning of the campaign, it gradually and steadily declined to where the polls were predicting a 5% result, but it didn't even make that much - it barely pulled in 3.6%, not enough to qualify it for a single list-member diputado representative in the Assemblea. Rather than whipping a dead horse, Foggy Bottom's choice was to support Otto Guevara, running on the Libertarian Movement ticket. The rumors are that a huge amount of money had been dumped into that party's campaign, funnelled through the ultra-conservative think-tanks in the U.S., such as the American Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institute and others. Their money has made up a huge proportion of the Libertarian budget since its founding, and may have done so in this election campaign. But it not only didn't help, it actually seemed to hurt - once questions about their funding began to be asked openly, their support dropped like a rock. Two months ago, it was in the high 20's, and going into the election, they were still polling in the low teens. But they barely pulled out 8% of the actual vote. The difference seems to have gone primarily to Solis.

All of this confirms that the leftward trend in Latin American politics generally is happening here in Central America as well, and the trend is most pronounced in countries where public education is strongest. There is little doubt in my mind that his open support for CAFTA cost Oscar Arias at least five percent in the polls, and opposition to CAFTA gave Otton Solis at least a ten percent boost, if not more. People have grown wary about the grand pronouncements from Washington about what is in their best interests, and Washington - especially since the advent of George W. Bush - is increasingly seen as self-serving and pursuing an economic empire at the expense of local interests. Latinos, given their improving access to the Internet, are becoming better informed and educated every day. And that is costing Washington dearly in terms of prestige, support and tolerance of its increasingly radical and nakedly self-interested agenda. As a result, Latinos are turning to the one portion of the political spectrum that consistently opposes Washington's hegemony - and that is the left.

Where do we go from here? My bets are that the shift to the left will continue in Costa Rica. Oscar Arias' party, the National Liberation Party (PLN) is pretty much a spent force - as it has shifted to the right, its major political stars, all center-left, have bailed out and moved to Otton Solis' party, the center-left Citizens' Action Party (PAC) which is now where all the stars are. The PLN ran Arias, a national hero, but already a past-president, basically because they no longer have anyone else - and Solis is not only popular, but is seen as clean of corruption issues, and so is likely to remain popular. The incumbent far right Social Christians (PUSC), embroiled in numerous corruption scandals (two of their past presidents are on trial for taking "fees"), have essentially no support remaining. And so, if Solis does not become president in May, at this point, I expect he will four years hence.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: A license to kill? Going far beyond having a license to snoop at will on Americans, an administration official now contends that the president has a license to kill - even within the United States. In the latest twist in the debate over presidential powers, a Justice Department official suggested that in certain circumstances, the president might have the power to order the killing of terrorist suspects inside the United States. Steven Bradbury, acting head of the department's Office of Legal Counsel, went to a closed-door Senate intelligence committee meeting last week to defend President George W. Bush's surveillance program. During the briefing, said administration and Capitol Hill officials (who declined to be identified because the session was private), California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Bradbury questions about the extent of presidential powers to fight Al Qaeda; could Bush, for instance, order the killing of a Qaeda suspect known to be on U.S. soil? Bradbury replied that he believed Bush could indeed do this, at least "in certain circumstances." Whatever that means.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the United States does not rule out using military force against Iran to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. "All options, including the military one, are on the table," Rumsfeld said in an interview with Monday's edition of German financial newspaper Handelsblatt. "Today, biological, chemical and radiological weapons are available which could kill tens of thousands of people," Rumsfeld said, in comments in German. "There is a genuine possibility that these weapons could fall into the hands of people who behead innocent people and blow up children."The people of the free world must realize that they have been warned."

A new counter-terrorism strategy devised by the Pentagon will measure and review military operations to determine whether or not more terrorists are being stopped or "created," according to a New York Times article slated for Sunday's edition. The Times obtained an unclassified version of the plan that "for the first time orders the military to focus on nine areas identified as necessary for any terrorist network to operate." According to an unnamed Pentagon official quoted in the article, since September 11, 2001 more than thirty new Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organizations have emerged. Dated Feb. 1, signed by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and endorsed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the strategy document orders the Defense Department to undertake a broad campaign to find and attack or neutralize terrorist leaders, their havens, financial networks, methods of communication and ability to move around the globe. It also orders the military to focus on terrorist information-gathering systems, personnel and ideology. The document orders the military to defeat terrorists, specifying that doing so requires "continuous military operations to develop the situation and generate the intelligence that allows us to attack global terrorist organizations."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says President George W. Bush's warrantless surveillance program appears to be illegal. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Specter called the administration's legal reasoning "strained and unrealistic" and said the program appears to be "in flat violation" of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Hearings into the surveillance program are scheduled to begin Monday on Capitol Hill. Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency, defended the surveillance on ABC's "This Week" and the Fox News Network, the International Herald Tribune reported. "It's about speed," General Hayden said in his ABC appearance. "It's about hot pursuit of al-Qaida communications." The Bush administration says the surveillance has been carefully monitored and targeted at individuals with known or strongly suspected terrorist ties. But officials have also given different estimates of the amount of monitoring.

You'll be really proud of what your new House Majority Leader has said about Iraq: It is the "best gift we could give our grandchildren." Yeah, he actually said that! Does he mean the finance costs of the $400-plus billion in debt that the war has racked up so far, or the long-term hatred of the U.S. and the terrorism being spawned in the most strategically important part of the world? We're not sure yet, but we'll keep you informed as to what the good Mr. Boehner has to say.

The Republican strategy for the 2006 midterm elections is revealed in how they are reacting to Hillary Clinton. It is a tried-and-true strategy of branding anyone they don't like as a far-left extremist. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, offered a broad attack on Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York today, describing her as a Democrat brimming with anger and a representative of the far-left wing of her party. Mr. Mehlman disputed the suggestion that Mrs. Clinton had moved to the center of her party. And while he declined to say, in response to a question, if he thought Mrs. Clinton, a former first lady, would be the Republicans' "dream candidate or the Democrat you must dread," he left little doubt that Republicans had settled on new lines of attack on one of the party's leading contenders for the 2008 presidential nomination. "I don't think the American people, if you look historically, elect angry candidates," he told George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" on ABC. But the question remains: How can she be considered far-left when she always has, and continues, to support the war in Iraq?

Big Internet firms are going to try to stop spammers by charging to deliver e-mail messages. AOL and Yahoo plan to charge fees of up to one cent (US) per message to those that sign up for the service. Paying the fees means that messages will not go through spam filters, are guaranteed to arrive and will bear a stamp of authenticity. Both AOL and Yahoo said they would start offering the service within the next few months. Prediction: it won't work. Spammers will simply figure out how to spoof the system and will use it themselves to facilitate their own spamming.

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: The British government will today publicly defy the United States by giving money for safe abortion services in developing countries to organisations that have been cut off from American funding. Nearly 70,000 women and girls died last year because they went to back-street abortionists. Hundreds of thousands of others suffered serious injuries. Critics of America's aid policy say some might have lived if the US had not withdrawn funding from clinics that provide safe services - or that simply tell women where to find them. The "global gag" rule, as it has become known, was imposed by President George Bush in 2001. It requires any organisation applying for US funds to sign an undertaking not to counsel women on abortion - other than advising against it - or provide abortion services. The UK will today become the founder donor of a fund set up specifically to attempt to replace the lost dollars and increase safe abortion services. The Department for International Development will contribute £3m over two years. DFID and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) - whose clinics across the world have suffered badly - hope that others, particularly the Scandinavians, Dutch and Canadians, will be emboldened to put money in too. "I think the UK is being very brave and very progressive in making this commitment," said Steven Sinding, director general of the IPPF. "We're deeply grateful for this gesture not only financially but also politically.

Republican Policies Are Strengthening America: Shortcomings in aid from the U.S. government are making New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin look to other nations for help in rebuilding his hurricane-damaged city. Nagin, who has hosted a steady stream of foreign dignitaries since Hurricane Katrina hit in late August, says he may seek international assistance because U.S. aid has not been sufficient to get the city back on its feet. "I know we had a little disappointment earlier with some signals we're getting from Washington but the international community may be able to fill the gap," Nagin said when a delegation of French government and business officials passed through on Friday to explore potential business partnerships. Jordan's King Abdullah also visited New Orleans on Friday and Nagin said he would encourage foreign interests to help redevelop some of the areas hardest hit by the storm. "France can take Treme. The king of Jordan can take the Lower Ninth Ward," he said, referring to two of the city's neighborhoods.

Oil prices surged on Monday after Iran resumed uranium enrichment and ended United Nations checks of its nuclear sites in response to being reported to the Security Council over concerns it is building nuclear weapons. Despite past assurances from Tehran that it will not use oil as a political weapon, dealers fear that deteriorating relations and intensified rhetoric on both sides could lead to a disruption in supplies from the world's fourth-largest exporter. U.S. light crude jumped as much as $1.25 a barrel in early trade and was last trading up 99 cents, or 1.5 percent, at $66.36. London Brent crude gained $1.11 to $64.50. "While (Iran) said last week it would separate nuclear and oil as issues, it was only last year it said oil could be used as a weapon to get its own way on nuclear," said David Thurtell, commodity strategist at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. "This all adds fuel to the fire for those concerned about oil supply."

The Bush administration on Monday again asked Congress to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), but almost tripled its estimate for the amount of money that would be collected in leasing fees from energy companies. In its proposed budget for the 2007 spending year, the White House said it assumed the initial tracts in the refuge could be leased in 2008 and bring in $7 billion in new revenues, half of which would be shared with the state of Alaska. That is almost triple the $2.4 billion the administration said in last year's budget it thought could be raised from the first round of ANWR leasing. The administration has not accounted for their vastly increased estimate.

The U.S. Senate will vote on Tuesday on whether to consider a bill to halt asbestos lawsuits and pay victims from a $140 billion privately financed fund, Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist said on Monday. Dr. Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said he wanted the Senate to debate the bill, but there had been an objection from Senate Democrats. Under Senate rules, such an objection triggers a procedural vote, and at least 60 votes are needed to go ahead with debate. The vote was set for Tuesday at 6 p.m. EST, Dr. Frist said.

News From Smirkey's Wars: The chief lawyer for deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein says he has been denied access to his client for the first time in more than a year. Khalil Dulaimi says the US military authorities turned down his request without giving any reason. There was no immediate response from the US officials in Baghdad. Defence lawyers walked out of court hearings last week after accusing the new Kurdish chief judge, Raouf Abdul Rahman, of being biased. Mr Rahman decided to press ahead with the case, asking court-appointed lawyers to take over the defence. "We were notified by the Americans today that neither I nor the rest of the defence counsel can meet the president or our other clients," Mr Dulaimi told Reuters news agency in Amman on Sunday.

Human rights group Amnesty has renewed calls for long-term British residents detained in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to be released. It claims nine detainees have been UK residents, although no UK nationals are now held at the US naval base. The British government has said it cannot represent people who choose not to seek British citizenship. But Amnesty, highlighting the case of a Brighton man held since 2002, said the reluctance to act was shameful. The charity's UK director Kate Allen said: "These men have become forgotten prisoners. "After four years, Guantanamo has become a byword for abuse and an indictment of the US government's failure to uphold human rights in the war on terror."

The reality of the "New Afghanistan": As British troops prepare to tackle the Taliban's remnants, hundreds of thousands of jobless Afghan refugees who returned home to start a new life are queueing up to leave again. 'I wish I hadn't come back home from Iran after the Taliban left. I had a better life there, I had occasional work at least, so I am going back.' Zahair Mohammad stands in the line trying, with hundreds of others, to get an Iranian visa. 'I was thinking positively for a long time about rebuilding a life here in Kabul, where I was born, but I was wrong, very wrong. It's time to go. I need to work abroad, like most, as a cheap labourer and send money home. What we're hearing on the radio about a new Afghanistan is nothing but a dream.' He gestures at the kilometre-long queue. 'I was a refugee before and now I'm choosing to become one again. I'm not alone.'

Scandals Du Jour: Newly released court papers could put holes in the defense of Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, in the Valerie Plame leak case. Lawyers for Libby, and White House allies, have repeatedly questioned whether Plame, the wife of White House critic Joe Wilson, really had covert status when she was outed to the media in July 2003. But special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald found that Plame had indeed done "covert work overseas" on counterproliferation matters in the past five years, and the CIA "was making specific efforts to conceal" her identity, according to newly released portions of a judge's opinion. (A CIA spokesman at the time is quoted as saying Plame was "unlikely" to take further trips overseas, though.) Fitzgerald concluded he could not charge Libby for violating a 1982 law banning the outing of a covert CIA agent; apparently he lacked proof Libby was aware of her covert status when he talked about her three times with New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Fitzgerald did consider charging Libby with violating the so-called Espionage Act, which prohibits the disclosure of "national defense information," the papers show; he ended up indicting Libby for lying about when and from whom he learned about Plame.

Halliburton's KBR subsidiary pays $5 to $16 a day in wages to third world laborers in Iraq, but bills U.S. taxpayers between $50 and $80 a day for each laborer, military requisitions obtained by HalliburtonWatch reveal. The requisitions contain KBR's per diem labor costs submitted to the military for approval. "We pay our locals [in Iraq] $5 to $16 dollars a day and you can see where [KBR] put it down [on the military requisition] as $60 a day," a KBR employee who wished to remain anonymous because of concern about company retaliation, remarked to HalliburtonWatch. For example, an invoice from KBR subcontractor, Ranj Company, shows "washer folders" (laundry workers) are paid $7 a day, but the requisition shows the military is billed between $60 and $70 a day for this work, a roughly ten-fold markup for KBR. Security guards are paid $16 a day even though the military reimburses KBR at a daily rate of $60 for this work. Company spokesperson, Melissa Norcross, did not dispute the authenticity of the documents obtained by HalliburtonWatch, but explained that the overall labor cost billed to the military includes more than simply the wages paid. "The amount KBR pays its subcontractors is not based on what each individual worker earns," Norcross said. "The total amount paid to the subcontractor [and billed to the U.S. military] includes labor, overhead, material, equipment and other direct costs that go into the total cost of the work performance. It is this amount that KBR then bills to the government after each invoice is reviewed, verified and audited."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 12:39:31 PM

Sun, Feb 05 2006

Election Day In Costa Rica

It is election day in Costa Rica, and the weatherman cooperated - for the most part. Both yesterday and today have been outstandingly sunny and warm, though the start of the day this morning wasn't too promising. A cold front blew through early, leaving behind some somewhat cooler temperatures, but it didn't last long. By midday, the low of 68 degrees had changed to a perfect 80.

And in watching the returns on television, it appears that the weather has cooperated most everywhere. Even along the Caribbean coast, which is normally humid and rainy at this time of the year, there is a heavy overcast, but no rain. Just what is needed to stimulate turnout in this lackluster election.

The turnout, as of this writing, appears to be heavier than expected, and this will favor the center-left candidate, Otton Solis, of the Citizens' Action Party. Nevertheless, Oscar Arias, of the center-left National Liberation Party is expected to win, by a margin great enough to avoid a runoff election. If he wins as expected, he will take office on May ninth. Solis has been increasing in the polls lately, campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, and against the Internet sports books and casinos which have become a big industry in this country. He claims, with some justification, that they have been a source of corruption, and that many of the illegal aliens here from the U.S. (yes, there are a surprising number of them) are working in that industry without work permits. He promises to crack down.

The elections seem to be going quite well so far. Well organized, they are accomodating the handicapped and even shut-ins, of whom more than 400 of the latter have so far voted, with four hours remaining in the election. They apparently having election officials visit the homes of those shut-ins, who then cast their votes in sealed ballots, which are then taken back to the polling station, and deposited in the ballot boxes. This is the second election in which the shut-ins have been able to cast votes in this manner.

Being Latin American, the whole election-day thing here takes on something of a carnival atmosphere, as Latinos typically never miss an excuse to party. The TV news had a live shot just outside one of the main polling stations in Canas, the second largest city in Guanacaste. There were small bands playing (mostly sponsored by candidates' parties), each in turn, crowds dressed in the colors of their party, shouting and chanting for their candidates, even the ubiquitous street vendors selling pipas (coconuts with a straw inserted into the center from which to drink the milk), cut fresh fruit, and fast food from their hot-dog and ice cream push carts. Street performers dressed in mime and other costumes busking out there in the scorching mid-day sun. It is a big celebration of democracy in action, all very Latino. And I love every minute of it.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Britain is laying secret plans to maintain a permanent military presence in Iraq. Ministers and military officials are in negotiations with their American counterparts over the British contribution to the long-term effort to maintain peace and stability in post-Saddam Iraq once the country is handed over to its newly elected government. The scale of the commitment is yet to be formally agreed, but defence sources confirmed that it could see the UK maintaining a military base in south Iraq, near Basra, which it currently controls, for years to come. The news of the potential extended military posting in one of the world's most dangerous trouble spots came as a commander admitted that British soldiers preparing to deploy to lawless southern Afghanistan were "apprehensive" about the threats they will face. The Americans, who have yet to formally admit to concrete plans for long-term military bases in Iraq once the new government has been established, are expected to maintain at least one, much larger, facility near Baghdad. Critics claim the negotiations are part of a long-term plan to maintain US control over Iraq and its oil reserves, and to establish a valuable permanent presence in the Middle East. Details of the behind-the-scenes planning for the next phase of the Iraq operation emerged amid escalating speculation that Coalition forces were on the verge of a significant reduction in the thousands of troops currently occupying Iraq.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Saturday night that the United States must be prepared to take military action against Iran if nonviolent means don't deter the country from building nuclear weapons. Iran has said it wants to enrich uranium only to make nuclear fuel for generating electricity. But concerns that it might misuse the technology led the International Atomic Energy Agency on Saturday to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council. The United States has long advocated Security Council action against Iran, including possible political and economic sanctions, which have not yet occurred. Asked whether Congress had the political will to use military force against Iran if necessary, First said: "The answer is yes, absolutely." "We cannot allow Iran to become a nuclear nation," Frist told reporters at the Missouri GOP's annual Lincoln Days conference. "We need to use diplomatic sanctions. If that doesn't work, economic sanctions, and if that doesn't work, the potential for military use has to be on the table."

Roughly 13 million people, or about one-fifth of the nation's Medicaid beneficiaries, will face new or increased co-payments and premiums for doctors visits, non-emergency hospital visits and prescription drugs under soon-to-be-enacted budget cuts. Those payments and premiums will be set by individual states. Nine million of these beneficiaries -- about half of them children exempt from such charges under current law -- would face cost-sharing burdens for the first time under the $39 billion package of cuts passed by the House on Wednesday and now awaiting President Bush's signature. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2015, the new charges will drive 65,000 people off of the Medicaid program for the poor, either because they will forego care rather than pay premiums for co-payments or get dropped for failing to pay their share of Medicaid bills.

The Bush administration is rebuffing requests from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee for its classified legal opinions on President Bush's domestic spying program, setting up a confrontation in advance of a hearing scheduled for next week, administration and Congressional officials said Wednesday. The Justice Department is balking at the request so far, administration officials said, arguing that the legal opinions would add little to the public debate because the administration has already laid out its legal defense at length in several public settings. But the legality of the program is known to have produced serious concerns within the Justice Department in 2004, at a time when one of the legal opinions was drafted. Democrats say they want to review the internal opinions to assess how legal thinking on the program evolved and whether lawyers in the department saw any concrete limits to the president's powers in fighting terrorism.

The number of US House Representatives who have signed on to H. Res 635 - supporting a probe looking into the grounds for impeaching Bush - has jumped to fourteen (14), including US Rep. John Conyers who initially sponsored the bill, Atlanta Progressive News has learned. The total number of Members of US Congress who want Bush's impeachment, a congressional inquiry which would recommend impeachment, or Bush's resignation is actually seventeen (17), including 14 co-sponsors of H. Res 635, plus US Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) who called for Bush’s impeachment over wiretapping, and US Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) and Bobby Rush (D-IL) who have called for Bush to step down. The 14 members who have signed on to H. Res. 635 are Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA), Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-MO), Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Rep. Major Owens (D-NY), Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ), Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Rep. Fortney Pete Stark (D-CA), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), according to Thomas.loc.gov.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts said Friday the Bush administration's domestic spying is within the president's inherent power under the Constitution, and he rejected criticism that Congress was kept in the dark about it. The program is "legal, necessary and reasonable," the Kansas Republican wrote in a 19-page letter, taking a particularly expansive view of the president's authority for the warrantless surveillance. "Congress, by statute, cannot extinguish a core constitutional authority of the president," Roberts wrote. Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush have intercepted communications to ascertain enemy threats to national security, Roberts told the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Roberts' letter came just three days before that panel was to question Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the surveillance.

We now have the name of Mr. Autism: It's been a mystery in Washington for weeks. Just before President Bush signed the homeland security bill into law an unknown member of Congress inserted a provision into the legislation that blocks lawsuits against the maker of a controversial vaccine preservative called "thimerosal," used in vaccines that are given to children. Drug giant Eli Lilly and Company makes thimerosal. It's the mercury in the preservative widely used in vaccines, and which is increasingly implicated in the dramatic rise in autism in recent decades in the United States. "I did it and I'm proud of it," says Armey, R-Texas. "It's a matter of national security," Armey says. "We need their vaccines if the country is attacked with germ weapons." Of course, he's not explaining why alternative methods of preserving vaccines are not suitable. And Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., isn't buying it. The grandfather of an autistic child, Burton says Armey slipped the provision in at the last minute, too late for debate. "And I said, 'Who told you to put it in?'" He said, 'No, they asked me to do it at the White House.'" Critics say the Bush family and the administration have too many ties to Eli Lilly. There's President Bush's father, who sat on the company's board in the 1970's; White House budget director Mitch Daniels, once an Eli Lilly executive; and Eli Lilly CEO Sidney Taurel, who serves on the president's homeland security advisory council.

One day after President Bush vowed to reduce America's dependence on Middle East oil by cutting imports from there 75 percent by 2025, his energy secretary and national economic adviser said Wednesday that the president didn't mean it literally. What the president meant, they said in a conference call with reporters, was that alternative fuels could displace an amount of oil imports equivalent to most of what America is expected to import from the Middle East in 2025. But America still would import oil from the Middle East, because that's where the greatest oil supplies are. The president's State of the Union reference to Mideast oil made headlines nationwide Wednesday because of his assertion that "America is addicted to oil" and his call to "break this addiction." Bush vowed to fund research into better batteries for hybrid vehicles and more production of the alternative fuel ethanol, setting a lofty goal of replacing "more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025." He pledged to "move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past." Not exactly, though, it turns out.

The White House said Thursday that it plans to ask Congress for an additional $70 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, driving the cost of military operations in the two countries to $120 billion this year, the highest ever. Most of the new money would pay for the war in Iraq, which has cost an estimated $250 billion since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. The additional spending, along with other war funding the Bush administration will seek separately in its regular budget next week, would push the price tag for combat and nation-building since Sept. 11, 2001, to nearly a half-trillion dollars, approaching the inflation-adjusted cost of the 13-year Vietnam War.

Changes passed in the 2006 Defense Authorization Act allows the Pentagon, rather than the State Department, to take a greater role in foreign military financing, including security assistance programs, training and equipment sales. The change, Pentagon officials said, would ease the flow of money and resources to the places it’s needed most. Foreign military financing allows the U.S. government to give or loan money to allies for military articles, services and training to help them bolster their defense against mutual threats including terrorism, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the agency that helps manage the program. In the Pacific and Asia, the largest recipients are the countries with the strongest alliances to the U.S. military, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. But the program has armed other, less-friendly countries in their fight against terrorism, State Department officials have said, including the Philippines and, since November, Indonesia.

The troops on patrol in this city west of Baghdad are Iraqi, part of the U.S. strategy to hand over more responsibility to the new Iraqi military. But the ammo in their weapons and the fuel in their vehicles were delivered by the Americans. U.S. commanders have identified the lack of an effective supply chain as a major weakness of Iraq's military, and until one is in place, the United States and its coalition partners cannot fully hand over security responsibilities. "The biggest weakness that the Iraqi army has right now is logistics - where to get the stuff, how to get it. They just don't have it yet," said Marine Maj. Ted Wong of San Francisco, who helps train Iraqi soldiers in this sector 50 miles from Baghdad. For example, the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Iraqi Division recently took over security responsibilities from American forces in most of this Sunni Arab city in volatile Anbar province. But most of the supplies still come from a nearby American base - delivered by American convoys. Trucks that ferry Iraqi soldiers refuel at the U.S. base. Food for the Iraqi soldiers is provided by Western contractors - whose local offices are protected within the American compound. Ammunition for the Iraqis comes from U.S. stocks, said Marine Col. Daniel Newell, who heads a team of advisers working with Iraqi soldiers.

The Pentagon, readying for what it calls a "long war," yesterday laid out a new 20-year defense strategy that envisions U.S. troops deployed, often clandestinely, in dozens of countries at once to fight terrorism and other nontraditional threats. Major initiatives include a 15 percent boost in the number of elite U.S. troops known as Special Operations Forces, a near-doubling of the capacity of unmanned aerial drones to gather intelligence, a $1.5 billion investment to counter a biological attack, and the creation of special teams to find, track and defuse nuclear bombs and other catastrophic weapons.

The U.S. Congress gets Wikied: Last week, Wikipedia temporarily blocked certain Capitol Hill Web addresses from altering any entries in the otherwise wide-open forum. Wikipedia is a vast, growing information database written and maintained solely by volunteers. In December, the database received 4.7 million edits from viewers, of which a relatively small number -- "a couple of thousand," according to founder Jimmy Wales -- constituted vandalism. As the site becomes one of the most heavily visited spots on the Internet, it's testing the limits of collective smarts and integrity. But when it comes to Washington, where intrigue and passions run high, keeping such a public record is a particular challenge. Not only is there the obvious temptation to tinker with an opponent's bio, there's the whole subjective nature of political truth itself. When the Wikipedia entry for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) noted that he had criticized the president, for example, someone modified it to say that Reid had "rightfully" criticized the president. Someone also recast the state legislative record of Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), changing a passage reading, "one of her final, failed bills would have made it much more difficult for same-sex parents to see their children in the hospital during an emergency" to the less inflammatory, "Musgrave spent much of her time on social issues, particularly authoring bills to protect children and the traditional definition of marriage, as well as gun owner's rights."

Next month the Senate will consider a hardline immigration measure passed by House Republicans in December. In this week's state of the union address, George Bush strengthened his call for a "rational and humane guest worker programme", while stressing his rejection of any amnesty for undocumented workers already in the US. "There is a hysteria around the border and terrorism that has nothing to do with agriculture and people who want to earn a good living," says Mr Vessey. "The idea of spending millions building a fence from the Gulf of Mexico to San Diego is ridiculous. Shouldn't we be building bridges rather than walls? If you have a free trade agreement, you should have open borders," he says. "But that would never fly." Faced with an exodus of labor to the construction industry as well as to the leisure and retail sectors, farmers are struggling to get their crops in. Ten percent of the cauliflower and broccoli harvest has been left to rot this year, and some estimates put the likely loss of the winter harvest as high as 50%.

The Bush administration has said it is planning to spend $120bn on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars this year, bringing their total cost so far to $440bn. The spending request, which will soon be presented to Congress, marks a 20% increase over last year, despite plans to draw down US troop levels in both war zones in the coming months. The administration also plans to ask for a downpayment of $50bn on war costs next year. The requests are expected to pass easily. The spending on the Iraq conflict alone is now approaching the cost of the Korean war, about $330bn in today's dollars. Meanwhile the cost of the overall "war on terror" - relabelled The Long War in the Pentagon - is already close to half a trillion dollars, and will soon equal that of the 13-year Vietnam war. "There is some reason to be surprised that it's this much," said Steven Kosiak, a military spending analyst at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "The Congressional Budget Office had estimated the defence department would need $85bn and that was with no drawdown in troops."

The FBI is probing an effort by two former employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to disclose classified information to the New York Times. This appears to have been part of an effort to cultivate Times reporters in order to selectively leak classified Iran WMD documents. Larry Franklin, a former Iran desk officer at the Pentagon, recently pleaded guilty to trading classified papers with Israeli intelligence officers and employees at AIPAC. Two AIPAC employees accused of working with Franklin are now being tried in federal court in Alexandria, VA. This prosecution follows the much publicized scandal involving ex-NYT reporter, Judy Miller, as the conduit of false information about Iraq WMD. The Times buried this story at the bottom of its on-line National page.

Florida Governor and Smirkey's brother Jeb Bush is lobbying to end federal court oversight of the state's Everglades cleanup, a move that would take the $1.1 billion project out of the hands of a judge who has accused Florida of violating its promises, according to a government official and others familiar with the case. If the Justice Department and other federal agencies agree, Bush's intervention could lead to the end of the landmark 14-year-old court order that required Florida to begin cleansing the Everglades. The state also would have to persuade the judge. And it is seeking the cooperation of the Miccosukee Indians, the state's most aggressive opponent in an array of Everglades pollution cases. Bush's efforts, including a Jan. 27 meeting with federal leaders next door to the White House, have alarmed environmentalists, who don't trust the state to finish the project without supervision. Congressional budget leaders also have warned the governor's brother, President Bush, that "backsliding" on the cleanup would jeopardize federal spending on a larger $10.5 billion Everglades restoration.

A U.S. District Court judge temporarily blocked the federal government from transferring an American citizen to the custody of the Iraqi government, noting Friday that the move could place the prisoner at risk of torture and indefinite confinement. American forces arrested Shawqi Omar, a naturalized U.S. citizen, on Oct. 29, 2004, at his apartment in Baghdad. Since then, he has been held at the U.S.-run Camp Bucca in southern Iraq and at Abu Ghraib and Camp Cropper in Baghdad. The United States military has not charged Omar with a crime, nor has it let him talk with his U.S. lawyers, who now number about half a dozen. The attempt to transfer Omar to Iraqi custody came after defense attorneys filed legal papers on his behalf.

"I thought I would be in jail," Charlotte Bystrom said. "I could order a dress from Canada or shoes from Canada. I could order nearly everything I wanted from Canada - except drugs. I felt like the drug companies are [calling] the shots here," she added. "They're controlling our government. I felt violated, like something was stolen from me." was expecting a package of six medications in mid-January. Instead, the 69-year-old got a letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection telling her the $600 shipment had been "intercepted." The letter gave her two options: She could voluntarily "abandon" the drugs and waive any rights to the property; or she could request that they be sent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for testing and disposal. Either way, she wasn't getting her medications back. The Minnesota Senior Federation, which operates its own drug importation program, says it has seen a marked increase in drug seizures. At least 25 people have reported having their medications seized in the past three weeks, compared with five or so a month before that. The number of recent seizures could be considerably higher, possibly more than 100. "I'm afraid this is a much bigger program and we're just hearing about a portion of it," said Lee Graczyk, issues director for the federation.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: The world-famous Welsh soprano Charlotte Church has recently slammed Smirkey by calling him a "twat". She revealed that when she met George W. Bush - a graduate of Yale University - he asked her what state Wales was in. She called him "sulky" and said, "I thought, 'You twat.'" When I've met President Clinton and other world leaders, as you do, they've all made me feel like they wanted to have a chat. But Bush was like a sulking child, he looked like he couldn't be bothered."

The White House said Saturday it will hold Syria responsible for the burning of Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus, saying such violence does not occur there without the host government's approval. In a statement released at Smirkey's ranch in central Texas, the United States strongly condemned the fires at the two embassies in the Syrian capital, which also damaged the Chilean and Swedish embassies. The condemnation is the latest chapter in declining U.S.-Syrian relations.

Republican Policies Are Strengthening America: Foreclosure activity in California was up 15.6 percent in the last three months of 2005, according to a report released on Thursday. Lending institutions sent 14,999 default notices to California homeowners during the October-to-December period, according to Dataquick Information Systems. That was up 19 percent from the third quarter, and up 15.6 percent from 2004's fourth quarter. All regions of the state saw an increase in foreclosure activity, ranging from 10.5 percent in the Bay Area to 19.6 percent in Southern California.

The Commerce Department reported Monday that the savings rate fell into negative territory at minus 0.5 percent, meaning that Americans not only spent all of their after-tax income last year but had to dip into previous savings or increase borrowing. The savings rate has been negative for an entire year only twice before - in 1932 and 1933 - two years when the country was struggling to cope with the Great Depression, a time of massive business failures and job layoffs.

Chevron Corp. on Friday reported the highest quarterly and annual profits in its 126-year history, refocusing attention on the high fuel prices that have enriched the oil company's shareholders and exasperated consumers paying more to fill their gasoline tanks and heat their homes. The San Ramon, Calif.-based company's fourth-quarter earnings rose 20 percent to $4.14 billion, the most it has made in any three-month period since its inception in 1879. The performance topped the $4.13 billion earned during the second quarter of 2004 — the early stages of a two-year boom. Chevron's profit of $14.1 billion for the full year also was a company record. It now has posted record annual profits in each of the last two years, earning a combined $27.4 billion.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. That's the message from two of the world's most successful investors on the topic of high oil prices. One of them, Hermitage Capital's Bill Browder, has outlined six scenarios that could take oil up to a downright terrifying $262 a barrel. The other, billionaire investor George Soros, wouldn't make any specific predictions about prices. But as a legendary commodities player, it's worth paying heed to the words of the man who once took on the Bank of England -- and won. "I'm very worried about the supply-demand balance, which is very tight," Soros says. "U.S. power and influence has declined precipitously because of Iraq and the war on terror and that creates an incentive for anyone who wants to make trouble to go ahead and make it." As an example, Soros pointed to the regime in Iran, which is heading towards a confrontation with the West over its nuclear power program and doesn't show any signs of compromising. "Iran is on a collision course and I have a difficulty seeing how such a collision can be avoided," he says.

Domestic priorities like federal aid to schools and health research are squeezed under President Bush's proposed budget for next year, but funding for the Pentagon, the war in Iraq and "anti-terrorism" efforts get impressive increases. Monday's budget tome will have a price tag of more than $2.7 trillion. The departments of Education, Commerce, Interior and Energy - will see their budgets, on average, frozen or cut slightly below today's already austere levels. The outline of the budget has emerged from a series of interviews with people familiar with various aspects of the proposal.

Computer maker Dell Inc. said Monday it planned to add 5,000 jobs in India over the next two years, bringing its work force in the country to 15,000. Dell is also looking to set up a manufacturing center in India, a move that could help boost the sale of Dell computers here, President and CEO Kevin Rollins told reporters after a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Round Rock, Texas-based company will hire 700 to 1,000 workers for a new call center in Gurgaon, a satellite town of the capital, New Delhi, Rollins said. The new call center, the company's fourth in India, will open in April, he said.

The United States Of America, A Third-World Nation: The government has incomplete data about lead in the country's drinking water, and that problem and others may be undermining public health, congressional investigators say. A Government Accountability Office study released Thursday looked at implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency's 1991 Lead and Copper Rule. The rule requires water systems to test tap water at certain high-risk locations. If elevated levels are found, the water systems must notify customers and in some cases take action to lessen corrosion. According to EPA data, the number of water systems exceeding the lead action level dropped by nearly 75 percent over about a decade beginning in the early 1990s. But GAO investigators found that recent test results from over 30 percent of water systems were missing from EPA data, apparently because states were not reporting them.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Iraqi and American officials say they are seeing a troubling pattern of government corruption enabling the flow of oil money and other funds to the insurgency and threatening to undermine Iraq's struggling economy. In Iraq, which depends almost exclusively on oil for its revenues, the officials say that any diversion of money to an insurgency that is killing its citizens and tearing apart its infrastructure adds a new and menacing element to the challenge of holding the country together. In one example, a sitting member of the Iraqi National Assembly has been indicted in the theft of millions of dollars meant for protecting a critical oil pipeline against attacks and is suspected of funneling some of that money to the insurgency, said Radhi Hamza al-Radhi, the chairman of Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity. The indictment has not been made public.

A labyrinth of arcane and incompatible accounting systems has in recent years led the Defense Department to pay the wrong amounts to troops, civilian workers and contractors; to lose track of its equipment, even hard-to-misplace planes and tanks; and to improperly document trillions of dollars in transactions that leave tax dollars vulnerable to abuse, according to government reports. A long-elusive "clean audit" sought by the Department of Defense -- for years pegged for 2007 -- is nowhere on the horizon. The agency's books are such a mess that its accountants have stopped wasting money trying to audit them. "We don't know how badly managed it is," said Winslow T. Wheeler, director of a military reform project at the Center for Defense Information. "It's not that DOD flunks audits, it's that DOD's books cannot be audited. DOD aspires for the position where it flunks an audit. If this were a public company, it would have gone belly-up before World War II." The accounting problems would cost taxpayers $13 billion in 2005, Gregory D. Kutz, a managing director for the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, told lawmakers last summer.

News Of The Talibaptist Jihad: Adding insult to injury, Westboro Baptist Church, led by anti-gay extremist Fred Phelps, is planning a protest at Coretta Scott King's funeral at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church on Tuesday, February 7 at 12 noon. WBC said "for more than 10 years that by endorsing the homosexual agenda she was brining down the wrath of God upon herself, her family and the black civil rights movement. She is an ingrate-unthankful and unholy." Ironically King’s funeral will take place at mega church pastor Bishop Eddie Long’s New Birth Baptist Missionary Church. Long is an outspoken critic of gays and led a march to Dr. King’s grave denouncing gay rights in 2004 with King’s youngest daughter Bernice.

The National Association of Evangelicals said yesterday that it has been unable to reach a consensus on global climate change and will not take a stand on the issue, disappointing environmentalists who had hoped that evangelical Christians would prod the Bush administration to soften its position on global warming. Over the past four years a growing number of evangelical groups have embraced environmental causes, urging Christians to engage in "Creation care" and campaigning against gas-guzzling SUVs with advertisements asking, "What would Jesus drive?" In October 2004 the leadership of the NAE, which says it has 30 million members and is the nation's largest evangelical organization, declared that mankind has "a sacred responsibility to steward the Earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part." At about the same time, the umbrella group's president, the Rev. Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, called the environment "a values issue."

Scandals Du Jour: The special prosecutor in the CIA leak case alleged that Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff "Scooter" Libby, was engaged in a broader web of deception than was previously known and repeatedly lied to conceal that he had been a key source for reporters about undercover operative Valerie Plame, according to court records released yesterday. The records also show that by August 2004, early in his investigation of the disclosure of Plame's identity, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald had concluded that he did not have much of a case against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby for illegally leaking classified information. Instead, Fitzgerald was focused on charging Cheney's top aide with perjury and making false statements, and knew he needed to question reporters to prove it.

Prosecutors investigating former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on felony conspiracy and money laundering charges are seeking bank records for the Texas Republican Party. District Attorney Ronnie Earle issued a subpoena Thursday ordering Frost Bank to produce monthly statements and signature cards from August 2002 to January 2003 for accounts connected to the party or the Texas Republican Congressional Committee. DeLay attorney Dick DeGuerin said the subpoenas are not enforceable because the charges are still under appeal. "There's no setting, no trial, nothing that can be enforced," DeGuerin said. "Whoever gets (the subpoena), they can wad it up and throw them in the trash can."

On May 9, 2001, five of lobbyist Jack Abramoff's clients met with the President at the White House. Grover Norquist, the President of Americans for Tax Reform, had invited them to a White House reception on behalf his organization. Telling his clients they had to be event "sponsors" to attend, Mr. Abramoff convinced at least two clients to write $25,000 checks to Americans For Tax Reform (ATR). Four other of Abramoff's tribal clients also attended. "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.

News Of The Weird: They are the Pentagon's new "rules of engagement" - the diamond ring kind. U.S. Army chaplains are trying to teach troops how to pick the right spouse, through a program called "How To Avoid Marrying a Jerk." The matchmaking advice comes as military family life is being stressed by two tough wars. Defense Department records show more than 56,000 in the Army - active, National Guard and Reserve - have divorced since the campaign in Afghanistan started in 2001. Officials partly blame long and repeated deployments which started after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and stretched the service thin. Troops also are coming home with life-altering injuries. Many come back better people, others worse-off - but either way, very changed from who they were when they wed. "Being in the military certainly raises the stakes when you choose a mate," said Lt. Col. Peter Frederich, head of family issues in the Pentagon's chaplain office. The "no jerks" program is also called "P.I.C.K. a Partner," for Premarital Interpersonal Choices and Knowledge.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:20:24 AM

Fri, Feb 03 2006

A Snake And A Dry Blackout

The pleasant weather has continued, even though it was overcast most of the day. After an overnight low of 71, today's high was only 79, but that was just about perfect. So there are no complaints here. Yesterday was bright and sunny all day, and had a high of 81.

The gardener came early today, while I was still asleep, in fact. By the time I was up and about, he had already harvested a couple of bananos (bunch of bananas), and pretty much had the yard raked up. I skipped taking a shower and had a quick breakfast, and went out to discuss with him what was up.

While he was watering the flower boxes, he encountered the recently shed skin of a rather large snake. The owner was nowhere in sight, thank goodness, but the skin was impressive - about four feet long. Looking it over, the gardener told me it was from a Mussurana, a type of snake that is a nice one to have around - it eats other snakes, and specializes in venomous ones. They are one of Costa Rica's largest snakes, and can move with amazing speed when startled, but they are not very dangerous to humans. While venomous, their fangs are in the back of the mouth, and they have a very difficult time envenomating humans. He says the shed skins are usually found high in trees - his patron (principal employer) had once found a shed skin six feet long thirty feet up in a tree.

The country is in a blackout period at the moment. For 48 hours before the presidential elections, which happen on Sunday, Costa Rica's many vote-hungry politicians are not allowed to harangue the voters with their propaganda, as the voters are supposed to be soberly pondering their choices. Soberly, because the sale of booze is outlawed until the elections are over, too - bad news for all those gringos wanting to party seriously on Superbowl Sunday down at the local gringo watering holes. The relief from the country's population from the constant political barrage is almost palpable. The endless TV ads, sound trucks, flyers handed out on the streets, they're all history now, at least for this election. And everyone in the country - with the possible exception of the politicians and TV stations' sales managers - are glad of it.

On Sunday, the voters will go to the polls, and cast their ballots. Oscar Arias is the leading candidate. He is Costa Rica's Nobel Peace Prize winner and a national hero, who got that award for his role in ending Ollie North's Contra War in Nicaragua and John Negroponte's war in El Salvador against the campesinos there two decades ago. He is running for president again, and is far ahead in the polls. It is widely expected he will poll enough votes to avoid a runoff election, which would happen if receives 40 percent of the vote on Sunday. The newspaper reports that he should just squeak past that, but his numbers have been dropping in the last week, so he may face a runoff. If elected, he will take office on May 9. Meanwhile, the current president is a lame duck - incumbents are prevented by the constitution from running again and his chosen successor is so far behind in the polls, that there is a chance he may not even have any representation in the next Assembly, much less find himself occupying the Presidential House. The bureaucracy is essentially ignoring their politically appointed managers - knowing that there isn't much chance they'll still be in office in mid May, and it would take longer than that to get them fired. So not much is happening in the country, except for the usual political patronage that happens this late in a presidential term. The sausage-making has already begun, knowing that the voters have thoroughly rejected the president's party, even before the vote, so the corruption won't much affect the outcome. It's all chorizo of the political kind. Big contracts to friends, juicy patronage jobs to relatives and donors, and the prez didn't even have the decency to wait till the elections were over. But at least it isn't on the scale of what goes on Up North - and when it happens here, at least news of it still comes out in the paper.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: China has the "greatest potential to compete militarily" with America in the future, but the US is also increasingly worried about Russian arms sales, the Pentagon said in major review of military priorities. Underscoring mounting concerns about the rise of China, the highly anticipated quadrennial defense review [QDR] focuses on the potential future threat from a Chinese military build-up that "already puts regional military balances at risk." The report says Russia is "unlikely to pose a military threat to the US or its allies on the same scale or intensity as the Soviet Union during the Cold War". But the Pentagon warns on Russian sales of "disruptive weapons" and actions that "compromise the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of other states." A senior defense official told the Financial Times that the Pentagon was concerned about the "apparent drift towards authoritarianism" in Russia.

Minutes before the President of the United States would tell the Congress how much he appreciates "responsible criticism and counsel," the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq was dragged from a gallery overlooking the House chamber where Bush would speak, handcuffed and arrested for the "crime" of wearing a T-shirt that read: "2245 Dead. How many more?" Cindy Sheehan, who had been invited to attend George Bush's State of the Union address by Representative Lynn Woolsey, the California Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, did not put the "dangerous" shirt on for the event. The woman whose protest last summer outside the President's ranchette in Crawford, Texas, drew international attention to the antiwar movement, had been wearing it at events earlier in the day. Indeed, as Sheehan, who had passed through Capitol security monitors without incident, noted, "I knew that I couldn't disrupt the address because Lynn had given me the ticket and I didn't want to be disruptive out of respect for her." No one has suggested that Sheehan was in any way disruptive. The Capitol Police, who on Wednesday dropped the charges against Sheehan, have acknowledged in an official statement that: "While officers acted in a manner consistent with the rules of decorum enforced by the department in the House Gallery for years, neither Mrs. Sheehan's manner of dress or initial conduct warranted law enforcement intervention." What they have not acknowledged, and what is truly troubling, is the evidence that Sheehan was singled out for rough justice. Beverly Young, the wife of Representative C.W. Bill Young, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, showed for the State of the Union address up sporting a T-shirt that read, "Support the Troops--Defending Our Freedom." When Capitol Police asked her to leave the gallery because she was wearing clothing that featured a political message, Mrs. Young says, she argued loudly with officers and called one of them "an idiot." But Mrs. Young was not handcuffed. She was not dragged from the Capitol. She was not arrested. She was not jailed.

The US Congress has backed a brief extension of the law known as the Patriot Act for the second time. Provisions set to expire on Friday were extended until 10 March, to give negotiators more time to reach a deal to make the anti-terror act permanent. Democrats, and some Republicans, want greater protection of civil liberties.

A footnote in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's 42-page legal memo defending President Bush's domestic spying program appears to argue that the administration does not need Congress to extend the USA Patriot Act in order to keep using the law's investigative powers against terror suspects. The memo states that Congress gave Bush the power to investigate terror suspects using whatever tactics he deemed necessary when it authorized him to use force against Al Qaeda. When Congress later passed the Patriot Act, Bush already had the power to use enhanced surveillance techniques against Al Qaeda, according to the footnote. Thus, legal specialists say, the administration is asserting that Bush would be able to keep using the powers outlined in the Patriot Act for Al Qaeda investigations, regardless of whether Congress reauthorizes the law. "It turns out they didn't need the Patriot Act for dealing with Al Qaeda after all," said Martin Lederman, a former Justice Department lawyer in the Clinton administration who now teaches law at Georgetown University.

The Washington Post, usually happy to echo the official party line, is actually weighing in on how truthful Smirkey was in his SOTU speech the other night. In his State of the Union address, Smirkey waded right in the middle of the debate over his warrantless domestic eavesdropping program, making a number of assertions that have been subject to intense debate. For instance, Bush strongly suggested that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks could have been prevented if the phone calls of two hijackers had been monitored under the program. This echoes an assertion made earlier this year by Vice President Cheney. But the Sept. 11 commission and congressional investigators said the government had compiled significant information on the two suspects before the attacks and that bureaucratic problems -- not a lack of information -- were the main reasons for the security breakdown. The FBI did not even know where the two suspects lived and missed numerous opportunities to track them down in the 20 months before the attacks. Bush also asserted that "previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have." But the most recent example cited by the administration -- involving actions by President Bill Clinton -- is hotly disputed by Democrats who say the current and past situations are not comparable. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which required the executive branch to get approval from a secret court before conducting wiretaps within the United States, was silent on warrantless physical searches of suspected spies or terrorists. So the Clinton administration asserted that it had the authority to conduct such "black bag" jobs, including searches of CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames's house, which turned up evidence of his spying for Russia.

George W. Bush runs the risk of alienating the world’s biggest source of oil with his plan to end America’s "oil addiction," Opec delegates, oil ministers, energy experts and even some environmentalists said yesterday. The president’s plan to cut US consumption of Middle East oil by 75 per cent by 2025 was neither achievable nor prudent and could make investment in the industry more difficult, they said. Investment was the most critical factor in deciding whether there would be enough oil to meet future demand.

The White House and Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff failed to provide decisive action when Hurricane Katrina struck, congressional investigators said Wednesday in a stinging assessment of slow federal relief efforts. The White House had no clear chain of command in place, investigators with the Government Accountability Office said, laying much of the blame on President Bush for not designating a single official to coordinate federal decision-making for the Aug. 29 storm. Bush has accepted responsibility for the government's halting response, but for the most part then-FEMA Director Michael Brown, who quit days after the hurricane hit, has been the public face of the failures. "That's up to the president of the United States,'' GAO Comptroller General David M. Walker told reporters after being asked whether Chertoff should have been the lead official during the emergency. "It could have been Secretary Chertoff" or someone on the White House staff, Walker added. "That's up to the president." The report, which the congressional agency said was preliminary, also singled out Chertoff for several shortcomings. Chertoff has largely escaped direct criticism for the government's poor preparations and slow rescue efforts.

After receiving an internal e-mail indicating an extreme state of unrest at the Social Security Administration, Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) has written Speaker Hastert regarding the situation. Currently, nearly 50 million Americans rely on Social Security. Waxman claims that other internal documents indicate a "hemorrhaging" at Social Security call centers, and a flood of inaccurate information to seniors regarding the prescription drug plan. Attached to Waxman's letter was, in its entirety, a message sent from Deputy Commissioner of Operations Linda McMahon to all Social Security Administration Operations employees. The document paints a very dire picture of conditions at the agency.

The 9/11 coverup could be about to blow up in Smirkey's face: Attorneys for al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui have subpoenaed Pennsylvania Congressman Curt Weldon to testify at a trial that will determine whether Moussaoui should be executed. The defense is seeking Weldon's testimony to try and show that the government knew more about the September 11, 2001, attacks than Moussaoui did. It's a key point the jury will be asked to address at the death penalty trial that begins next week with jury selection. Weldon, a Republican, received the subpoena last week. It seeks testimony about issues related to Able Danger, a secret pre-9/11 intelligence operation conducted by the Department of Defense. What did U.S. know? Weldon, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, contends that Able Danger mined computer data to identify four of the 19 hijackers, including leader Mohammed Atta, as al Qaeda operatives a year and a half before the September 11 attacks, and knew that the plan was to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings. The 9/11 commission, which rewrote the public's understanding of the attacks and revealed numerous missed law enforcement opportunities to intercept the hijackers, did not include Able Danger in its final report, even though it was known at the time.

Your government exempting itself from its laws yet again: The US government has asked a federal judge to hold off from a possible shutdown of the Blackberry service. Canadian firm Research in Motion (RIM) is embroiled in a patent row with a US firm, NTP, which is demanding the portable e-mail service be turned off. But the system's popularity among government employees means the Justice Department wants guarantees that government users can be made exempt.

They're starting to campaign on an impeachment platform: Declaring that President George W. Bush "has repeatedly lied to our Congress and Americans, broke our laws and abused his executive authority with impunity," U.S. Senate candidate in Providence, Rhode Island, Carl Sheeler, called for Bush’s impeachment at a Statehouse news conference Wednesday. On Friday, Sheeler plans to have a billboard posted off Exit 18 of Route 95 at the Thurbers Avenue curve that says "Be Patriotic, Impeach Bush." Calling the Bush administration, "a partisan machine of fear and empty promises," Sheeler said, "It’s time we as ordinary citizens stop talking and start acting to bring the change we want to see in our America."

The nation's largest telephone and cable companies are crafting an alarming set of strategies that would transform the free, open and nondiscriminatory Internet of today to a privately run and branded service that would charge a fee for virtually everything we do online. Verizon, Comcast, Bell South and other communications giants are developing strategies that would track and store information on our every move in cyberspace in a vast data-collection and marketing system, the scope of which could rival the National Security Agency. According to white papers now being circulated in the cable, telephone and telecommunications industries, those with the deepest pockets--corporations, special-interest groups and major advertisers--would get preferred treatment. Content from these providers would have first priority on our computer and television screens, while information seen as undesirable, such as peer-to-peer communications, could be relegated to a slow lane or simply shut out. Under the plans they are considering, all of us - from content providers to individual users - would pay more to surf online, stream videos or even send e-mail. Industry planners are mulling new subscription plans that would further limit the online experience, establishing "platinum," "gold" and "silver" levels of Internet access that would set limits on the number of downloads, media streams or even e-mail messages that could be sent or received.

A seventh-grader who wrote an essay saying his perfect day would involve doing violence to President George W. Bush is being investigated by the Secret Service. The unidentified boy from West Warwick turned in the essay on Tuesday, and his teacher alerted school officials. The assignment was to write about what he would do on a perfect day. Thomas M. Powers, Secret Service resident agent in charge in Providence, said the investigation is ongoing but the essay may have been a "cry for help." Threatening the president is a felony, he said. The one-page essay also said the student wanted to kill Oprah Winfrey, hurt executives at Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart and attack a Walgreens pharmacy, police and school officials told The Providence Journal. "His perfect day would be to see the destruction of these people," Schools Superintendent David Raiche said.

George Bush considered provoking a war with Saddam Hussein's regime by flying a United States spyplane over Iraq bearing UN colours, enticing the Iraqis to take a shot at it, according to a leaked memo of a meeting between the US President and Tony Blair. The two leaders were worried by the lack of hard evidence that Saddam Hussein had broken UN resolutions, though privately they were convinced that he had. According to the memorandum, Mr Bush said: "The US was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours. If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach."

The final vote is looming on a budget bill slated to dramatically chop funding for services to society's neediest. With the US House of Representatives set to cast a decisive ballot on the legislation as early as today, advocacy groups are racing to secure enough votes to defeat the measure. The 2006 budget reconciliation bill, if passed into law, would cut the federal Medicaid and Medicare budgets by $11.2 billion over five years. It would also raise the work requirements for parents on welfare and decrease funding for student loans. The Bush administration and conservative lawmakers tout the measure as necessary for reigning in the federal deficit and have dubbed the bill the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. But advocacy groups for the poor, seniors and people with disabilities have launched a furious campaign over the last month to beat back the cuts, which they say will disproportionately and negatively affect the standard of living for the nation's most economically vulnerable. "We will let the country and Congress know that this bill hurts children, seniors, struggling families, students and people with disabilities," wrote the Coalition for Human Needs in an appeal to supporters. "It sacrifices opportunity and security for all - only to pour billions of dollars into tax cuts for the few."

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin called for all coal companies in West Virginia to shut down for safety checks after two more mine workers were killed Wednesday in separate accidents. While Manchin's call was voluntary, he also ordered mine inspections speeded up so that all 544 of the state's surface and underground mines are examined by regulators as soon as possible. "We're going to check for unsafe conditions, and we're going to correct any unsafe conditions before we mine another lump of coal," Manchin said.

Civil rights activist and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond delivered a blistering partisan speech at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina last night, equating the Republican Party with the Nazi Party and characterizing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her predecessor, Colin Powell, as "tokens." "The Republican Party would have the American flag and the swastika flying side by side," he charged. Calling President Bush a liar, Bond told the audience at the historically black institution that this White House's lies are more serious than the lies of his predecessor's because Clinton's lies didn't kill people.

Holy convenience, Batman! A letter from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to the I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby defense team reveals that some White House e-mails from 2003 weren't archived as they should have been. The year 2003 is significant in the CIA leak investigation. It's the year that CIA operative Valerie Plame's name was allegedly leaked to reporters to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for his failure to buttress administration claims of yellowcake uranium found in Niger, uranium the administration said was earmarked for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, based on forged documents obtained by the Bush White House.

A motion to hold new elections for every House leadership position failed this morning, Roll Call reports. The vote, however, was surprisingly close, reflecting dissatisfaction in GOP ranks with the leadership. Thursday, Republicans will proceed with plans to elect a new Speaker. The motion, which garnered 85 yes votes but 107 no votes, was introduced by GOP Reps. Dan Lungren (Calif.) and John Sweeney (N.Y.) near the start of the Conference meeting. Afterward, the two sponsors expressed disappointment at the result but said the motion had still brought much-needed attention to their concerns about the direction of the Conference.

Iran's foreign minister yesterday threatened immediate retaliation over a move to refer its nuclear weapons activities to the United Nations security council in comments which deepen his country's confrontation with the international community. In an interview with the Guardian - his first with western media - Manouchehr Mottaki accused the US of manufacturing the crisis and insisted there was still time to avoid a collision. But he warned that any military action by the US or Israel against Iran would have "severe consequences" and would be countered "by all means" at Iran's disposal. Reflecting a hardening Iranian position, he threatened to end snap UN inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities and all other voluntary cooperation with the UN nuclear watchdog, if Iran is referred to the UN today or tomorrow.

In the chaos that followed the worst natural disaster in American history, a forensic investigation has been taking place to find out what went wrong and why. The BBC's Horizon programme has spoken to the scientists who are now confronting the real possibility that New Orleans may be the first of many cities worldwide to face extinction. Modern day New Orleans was a city that defied the odds. Built on a mosquito-infested swamp squashed between two vast bodies of water in what is essentially a bowl, its very existence seemed proof of the triumph of engineering over nature. But on the 29 August 2005 New Orleans took a hit from Hurricane Katrina and overnight was turned into a Venice from hell. If you want New Orleans back you have to do some very fundamental things. The delicate flood system in New Orleans, which so many relied on to protect them was actually, year on year, adding to the risk of a catastrophe in the city. Coastal Geologist Shea Penland from the University of New Orleans knows every inlet, every cove and every stretch of marsh that surrounds New Orleans. He also knew that what had been thought of as wasteland for years were critical to the survival of the city. "The first line of defense isn't the levee in your backyard, the first line of defence is that marsh in your backyard and we're learning what that means."

Why I Am Embarrassed To Show My Passport: In the two years since oil reservoirs were discovered off Cuba's coast, Canadian, Chinese, Indian and Norwegian companies have lined up to explore the potentially lucrative Caribbean waters. U.S. corporations have watched the activity less than 60 miles south of Florida's coastline with their hands tied. U.S. oil exploration in Cuban waters - along with most U.S. trade - is prohibited under a 45-year-old U.S. embargo designed to undermine Fidel Castro's communist government. "Right on our own border, there is going to be substantial activity in what is probably the last unexplored deposits in the world," said Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association. This week, American energy executives meet their Cuban counterparts in the first private-sector oil summit between the two countries. Cubans hope to inform the businessmen of their country's oil potential while undermining the embargo, which has often frustrated American corporations.

John Bolton, Washington's feisty U.N. ambassador, tried to open his first meeting as head of the Security Council at 10 a.m. sharp on Thursday -- and was irked to find no other diplomats showed up. "I brought the gavel down at 10. I was the only one in the room," Bolton said. The United States has just assumed the rotating presidency of the 15-nation council for the month of February. "I believe in discipline. I think daily briefings constitute a form of intellectual discipline. Starting on time is a form of discipline," Bolton told reporters. "I failed today."

In a surprising reversal, the United States voted with Iran and other anti-gay countries at the United Nations to deny observer status to two gay rights groups at the world body. The UN Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations of the United Nations Economic and Social Council voted January 23, 10-5 with three abstentions to deny the International Lesbian and Gay Association of Brussels and the Danish National Association for Gays and Lesbians of Denmark consultive status at the UN. Such status, which is enjoyed by over 3,000 NGOs around the world, allows access to UN proceedings, presence at conferences, and the right to propose agenda items.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says he is expelling a US official accused of spying with Venezuelan officers. The naval attache at the US embassy, John Correa, would be forced to "leave immediately", Mr Chavez said in a speech to mark seven years in power. US officials said the charges were baseless and Captain Correa had left for medical treatment and a holiday. Mr Chavez has repeatedly accused the US of supporting attempts to overthrow him, a charge Washington denies.

The task order for a stealth global propaganda campaign ordered by the U.S. Special Operations Command and carried out by a Washington-based defense contractor with scant experience reveals that the Defense Department has pursued a more aggressive international "information" campaign than previously realized. The contract awarded to the Lincoln Group - the firm which planted false news stories in the Iraqi media - was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by activist blogger Michael Petrelis (Petrelis Files) and provided to RAW STORY. While the program has been reported on before, the contract has never been made public before today. Perhaps the most striking element of the contract is the emphasis on psychological operations and its open-ended scope. Valued at up to $100 million, the five-year Lincoln Group contract allows the U.S. military to deploy strategic messages - not bound by truth - in any non-combat theater across the globe. When a Pentagon official was asked about the program late last year, he remarked, "While the product may not carry the label, 'Made in the USA,' we will respond truthfully if asked." The Lincoln Group deal is one of three made with U.S. firms to assist Special Forces in psychological operations worldwide, according to previous media reports. The Special Forces' solicitation for proposals outlines the complex calculus required of the contractor to manipulate the opinion of "foreign audiences" to "garner support for US Government (sic) policies and objectives."

Habeas Corpus Death Watch: At least 46 people held at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba detention camp joined a disputed number of fellow detainees already refusing food in protest of their indefinite detention last week, the Department of Defense said in a statement yesterday. The announcement puts the official number of prisoners still fasting at 84. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and other humanitarian groups maintain that the real number of detainees refusing food could be much higher, a contention that is impossible to verify because the prison facility is closed to nearly all visitors. Two months after the hunger strike began, CCR and other detainee lawyers put the number who have been involved in the fast at over 200. But the military told The NewStandard that the number topped off at 131 and had dropped to about 26 in October. In a recent statement released by the Southern Command, the military said the number of participants fluctuated with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks and with the arrival of detainee lawyers, possibly accounting for the discrepancies between the two sides.

First Amendment Death Watch: A Tom Toles editorial cartoon published in The Washington Post on Monday and on its Web site has drawn a very rare and very strong protest letter to the editors from all six members of The Joint Chiefs of Staff. The letter, not yet published by the Post, charges that the six military leaders "believe you and Mr. Toles have done a disservice to your readers and your paper's reputation by using such a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation, and as a result, have suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds. As the Joint Chiefs, it is rare that we all put our hand to one letter, but we cannot let this reprehensible cartoon go unanswered." A Pentagon spokeswoman confirmed the contents of the letter to Editor And Publisher late this afternoon. That the newspaper had received such a letter was reported on the popular AmericaBlog site, which is run by John Aravosis, this morning.

Fourth Amendment Death Watch: "Contrary to popular belief, there is no absolute ban on [military] intelligence components collecting U.S. person information," the U.S.Army’s top intelligence officer said in a 2001 memo that surfaced Tuesday. Not only that, military intelligence agencies are permitted to "receive" domestic intelligence information, even though they cannot legally "collect" it - according to the Nov. 5, 2001, memo issued by Lt. Gen. Robert W. Noonan Jr., the deputy chief of staff for intelligence. "MI [military intelligence] may receive information from anyone, anytime," Noonan wrote in the memo, obtained by Secrecy News, a newsletter from the non-profit Federation of American Scientists in Washington. Defense Department and Army regulations "allow collection about U.S. persons reasonably believed to be engaged, or about to engage, in international terrorist activities," Noonan continued. "Remember, merely receiving information does not constitute 'collection' under AR [Army Regulation] 381-10; collection entails receiving 'for use,' he added. (Army Regulation 381-10, "U.S. Army Intelligence Activities," was reissued on Nov. 22, 2005, but had not previously been disclosed publicly.) "Army intelligence may always receive information, if only to determine its intelligence value and whether it can be collected, retained, or disseminated in accordance with governing policy"

Larry Diamond, a Democrat and a Hoover Institution senior fellow,w ent to Baghdad in 2004 as a consultant for the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority, believing strongly in the Bush administration's goal of building a democracy there. While critical of many aspects of the Iraq war, he has, he says, wholeheartedly supported President Bush's aggressive approach to the war on terror. Grover Norquist is one of the most influential conservative Republicans in Washington. His weekly "Wednesday Meeting" at his L Street office is a must for conservative strategists, and he has been called the "managing director of the hard-core right" by the liberal Nation magazine. Perhaps the country's leading anti-tax enthusiast, he is, like Diamond, a hawk in the war on terror. Despite coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, they agree on one other major issue: that the Bush administration's program of domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency without obtaining court warrants has less to do with the war on terror than with threats to the nation's civil liberties. Last Tuesday, the ACLU and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights filed separate lawsuits in federal courts seeking to stop the administration from the eavesdropping without obtaining warrants. Joining the ACLU suit were a mix of supporters and opponents of the Bush administration, including Diamond, James Bamford, who has written several books on the NSA, and Christopher Hitchens, a columnist who vocally supported the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and has written extensively about the threat posed by "Islamo-fascism," the term he uses to characterize the ideology of al Qaeda. Diamond and the others who have signed on to the ACLU suit say they suspect that some of their overseas communications might have been intercepted. Norquist said, ironically, he was particularly concerned about the problem because the Democrats appeared to be so weak. "For 40 years we always assumed the left would take care of our civil liberties," he said. "If there were problems, the Democrats were the ones who would push back. But now with a Republican Congress and a Republican in the White House, the ACLU can't get their calls returned."

Republican Policies Are Good For America: 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.

The US's five-year productivity boom ground to a halt at the end of 2005, as annual productivity growth slowed. For the final three months of last year, productivity - a measure of output per employee - fell 0.6%, the first such slide since early 2001. Productivity has been a key driver behind solid US economic growth. But economists said the decline could be less a change of direction than the result of one-off factors such as the effect of Hurricane Katrina. "There was some slacking off in the fourth quarter, but I didn't think it would affect the whole country," said Patrick Fearon, senior economist at AG Edwards and Sons in St Louis. The slowdown in productivity - for an annual figure of 2.7%, the lowest level in four years - meant the cost of labour rose 3.5% in the fourth quarter.

President Bush defended the huge profits of Exxon Mobil Corp. on Wednesday, saying they are simply the result of the marketplace and that consumers socked with soaring energy costs should not expect price breaks. In an interview with The Associated Press, Bush also addressed oil's future, offering a more ambitious hope than in his State of the Union speech for cutting imports from the volatile Mideast. Bush, a former Texas oilman, said of oil costs, "I think that basically the price is determined by the marketplace and that's the way it should be."

President George W. Bush on Thursday called on Congress to raise the cap on the so-called H-1B visas that allow companies to fill high tech jobs with foreign workers. "The problem is, is that Congress has limited the number of H-1B visas," Bush said in a speech. "I think it's a mistake not to encourage more really bright folks who can fill the jobs that are having trouble being filled in America, to limit their number. So I call upon Congress to be realistic and reasonable to raise that cap," he said. High-tech businesses have pushed Congress to increase the number of such visas, currently capped at 65,000 per year. Workers are allowed to stay in the United States for six years. Most labor groups have opposed an expansion of the program, saying it takes away high-tech, well paid jobs from Americans and gives them to foreign-trained engineers who often earn little more than the minimum wage.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: The US economy generated 193,000 new jobs in January, fewer than economists had been expecting for the month. However, the US unemployment rate unexpectedly dropped to a four-and-a-half year low of 4.7%, the Department of Labor reported. Analysts had forecast that 240,000 jobs would be created in January, although they expected the US jobless rate to remain unchanged at 4.9%. Separately, a key guide of US consumer sentiment dipped slightly in January. The much-watched University of Michigan consumer sentiment indicator for January fell to 91.2 from 91.5.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Now, the Pentagon is preparing for The Long War. In the 2007 budget due out next week and a soon-to-be-released long-range plan for reshaping the military, the Defense Department talks about the military's future in terms of its ability to fight a new kind of war. It is one that cannot be won in days or weeks, and will be fought on many fronts and against a vast array of enemies. Administration officials seem to refer to the "long war" more frequently these days. President Bush mentioned it during his State of the Union address this week. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the term is a way of telling people the truth about the fight against terrorism. "Just as the Cold War lasted a long time, this war is something that is not going to go away," Rumsfeld said. He said this does not mean U.S. troops will be in Iraq indefinitely, but rather that the U.S. will be fighting violent extremists for many years to come. "The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war," the defense review document says. "Currently the struggle is centered in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we will need to be prepared and arranged to successfully defend our nation and its interests around the globe for years to come."

The Bush administration said Thursday it will ask Congress for $120 billion more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and $18 billion more this year for hurricane relief. If approved by Congress, the war money would push spending related to the wars toward a staggering half-trillion dollars. Details of the requests are not final, but the 2007 budget proposal that President Bush will submit next week will reflect the totals for planning purposes. The president also will ask Congress to devote an additional $2.3 billion this year for prepare for a bird flu epidemic. About $70 billion of the new war money will be requested for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan this year, bringing total spending on the two campaigns to $120 billion for the current budget year. The other $50 billion in new war money will be set aside in the 2007 budget for the first few months of the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. More money will likely be needed in 2007.

In the first US corruption conviction relating to the occupation of Iraq, a former official pleaded guilty yesterday to stealing more than $2m of reconstruction funds and taking more than $1m worth of contract kickbacks under a deal with an American businessman. Robert Stein, 50, a contractor working for the now disbanded Coalition Provisional Authority, had a criminal record for fraud. He acknowledged his role in the scam in a statement to a federal court in Washington.

Nearly 20 combatants have been killed in a battle between Afghan troops and Taleban fighters in the southern province of Helmand, officials say. Helmand's deputy governor told the BBC that at one point, he and 100 soldiers were surrounded by 200 Taleban. He said 16 Taleban and three soldiers had been killed, with 13 more wounded. The BBC's Paul Wood in Kandahar said it is the most serious fighting between government forces and the Taleban for two years. Taleban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf denied reports of Taleban deaths, saying only two fighters had been wounded.

Faith Based Initiatives Watch: A rehabilitation program at a church is facing allegations it forced people to work as telemarketers for 28 cents an hour under the threat they could go back to jail. The state Department of Human Services, which investigated the program, notified the House of Refuge on Thursday that it had 10 days to explain itself before its license would be revoked and the program shut down. The men were sent to the program by judges or state agencies for substance abuse rehabilitation. A department report said they were paid about 28 cents an hour, but even those wages were withheld and donated to the church. Most of the men in the program have since been pulled out, officials said. It was unclear if anyone remained in it Friday. "They've already found other placements or have gone back home or have been pulled out by their probation officers," said Ken Stettler, director of licensing at the Department of Human Services. "I don't think they've got too many left, but they wouldn't let us in today." Steve Sandlin, one of the pastors at Central Christ Church, said he was preparing a response and did not have an immediate comment.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: Highlighting the growing national rift between religious extremists and rights groups, the Washington State Senate last week passed a bill protecting gay, lesbian and transgendered people from discrimination. Even before the bill was signed into law, a prominent ballot-initiative-financier began an effort to repeal it. Last Friday, the Washington State Senate narrowly approved a measure adding sexual orientation to the list of groups protected from discrimination on the part of employers and public servants. The bill bans discrimination in housing, employment, insurance and other areas under state jurisdiction. Governor Chris Gregoire signed the bill yesterday, making Washington the seventeenth state to host a law explicitly prohibiting acts of prejudice against homosexuals and other-gendered people. But, even as queer-rights groups were announcing and celebrating their triumph, state anti-tax activist Tim Eyman filed papers starting the process of legally opposing the changes. Eyman’s protest took the form of a referendum and a ballot initiative, both filed Monday. They would effectively repeal the new protections afforded under the bill. Reportedly, Eyman sent an e-mail statement to area reporters announcing his action and accusing state politicians of caving to "special interest group pressure and their own reelection calculations" in passing the measure. "The voters have watched this disgusting display of arrogance and selfishness for weeks," he added.

Backed by abortion rights groups, three Massachusetts women sued Wal-Mart on Wednesday, accusing the retail giant of violating a state regulation by failing to stock emergency contraception pills in its pharmacies. The lawsuit, filed in state court, seeks to force the company to carry the morning-after pill in its 44 Wal-Marts and four Sam Club stores in Massachusetts. The plaintiffs argued that state policy requires pharmacies to provide all "commonly prescribed medicines." Wal-Mart carries the morning-after pill in Illinois only, where it is required under state law, said Dan Fogleman, a spokesman for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart. Fogleman said the company "chooses not to carry many products for business reasons." He would not elaborate. But in a letter to a lawyer for the plaintiffs, a Wal-Mart attorney said the store chain does not regard the drug as "commonly prescribed." CVS, the state's largest pharmacy chain, stocks the pill at all of its drugstores.

The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday restricted efforts by Kansas' Attorney General to subpoena the medical records of women who have abortions in the state, requiring that their identities be protected. In a case closely watched by both sides of the national debate over abortion rights, the court ruled that medical files subpoenaed by Attorney General Phill Kline must first be redacted to remove all identifying information about the women who had the abortions. "We see today's decision as a significant victory for women's privacy," said Peter Brownlie, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. "We don't mind being investigated. What we've said throughout this is that he doesn't have the right to investigate our patients."

Scandals Du Jour: Jeb Bush is doing what embassies do when there is an army coming - he's shredding documents. A source inside the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation told Insider magazine that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has ordered the shredding of documents and public records, a clear violation of Florida law. The department has oversight and approval of state gaming licensees, slot machines, dog and horse tracks, and jai-alai games. The source, who asked to remain anonymous, said the governor also has brought in personnel from Texas to replace key members of his staff in Tallahassee. The Texans are overseeing the destruction of state documents, according to the source. A source in the FBI confirmed that public records are being destroyed on orders of Jeb Bush. The source said the governor may have taken that action in response to the continuing criminal probe of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the federal investigation of the 2001 gangland murder in Miami of Gus Boulis, owner of the Sun Cruz casino boat.

Vice President Cheney and his then-Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby were personally informed in June 2003 that the CIA no longer considered credible the allegations that Saddam Hussein had attempted to procure uranium from the African nation of Niger, according to government records and interviews with current and former officials. The new CIA assessment came just as Libby and other senior administration officials were embarking on an effort to discredit an administration critic who had also been saying that the allegations were untrue. The campaign against Joseph Wilson continued even after the CIA concluded that Iraq had not tried to buy uranium from the African nation of Niger. CIA analysts wrote then-CIA Director George Tenet in a highly classified memo on June 17, 2003, "We no longer believe there is sufficient" credible information to "conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad."

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: Gambling might not rank as high as homosexuality or abortion on the list of social evils monitored by Focus on the Family found er James Dobson, but its growth has provided many occasions for his jeremiads. The indictment of Indian casino lobbyist and influential GOP activist Jack Abramoff was one such occasion. In a January 6 press release issued three days after Abramoff's indictment, Dobson declared, "If the nation's politicians don't fix this national disaster, then the oceans of gambling money with which Jack Abramoff tried to buy influence on Capitol Hill will only be the beginning of the corruption we'll see." He concluded with a denunciation of vice: "Gambling - all types of gambling - is driven by greed and subsists on greed." What Dobson neglected to mention - and has yet to discuss publicly - is his own pivotal role in one of Abramoff's schemes. In 2002 Dobson joined a coterie of Christian-right activists, including Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, to spearhead Abramoff's campaigns against the establishment of several Louisiana casinos that infringed on the turf of Abramoff's tribal clients. Dobson and his allies recorded messages for phone banking, lobbied high-level Bush Administration officials and took to the airwaves.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 12:03:20 AM

Wed, Feb 01 2006

Pineapple Drought Is On

The weather has improved a bit - for now. The Meteorological Institute tells us not to get our hopes up, though, so I am certainly not going to proclaim the start of the Arenal dry season. But yesterday afternoon was a delight, and today was spectacularly sunny all day. Yesterday we had a high of 79, this morning a low of 69, and the high this afternoon was 80. Nice weather, just about perfect, in fact. When I see those folks up north slogging through yet another blizzard, I feel sorry for them. Well, actually I don't, because they would be here getting winter tans out at Playa Coco or Manuel Antonio with the rest of the tourists if they had any sense. But apparently they don't. As also indicated by the fact that George W. Bush is still the president up there.

I went to town today, for the second time in as many days to send a fax at the post office (yeah, they do that here, and it is handy when you don't have a fax machine yourself). And on the way, I noticed that a house under construction on top of the hill is not only finished, but the family has turfed the yard and moved in. They were out cleaning up the last of the construction debris today. I think the place set an all time record for speedy construction in Costa Rica - they began construction around Thanksgiving, and given the fact that most of the work was done during the holiday season, it went up with remarkable speed.

There weren't any sound trucks going through the neighborhood today, barking out commands to vote for this guy or that party. I did hear one up in a distant barrio early in the afternoon, but he never came here. Thank goodness. The only people coming through wanting something from me were a couple of vendors selling cantaloupes out of the back of their truck. I bought a bag as I haven't had any in awhile, and was glad to get them. Sorry, no pineapples today. Darned. You know when you are living in the tropics when pineapples go from an expensive, infrequent luxury to a staple in your diet that you really miss when you can't get any. And that is the situation I am in. I've eaten the one I was given in Guatuso last week, and there weren't any yellow pineapples in the store today. The vendor didn't have any. So the pineapple drought is on. I am going into pineapple withdrawal.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Jesse Jackson has denounced Smirkey's "State of the Union" speech as a mere exercise in deception: "Bush is deceptive on the economy. He says he wants the economy to continue to grow by giving tax cuts to the top 1% of Americans and hope that it trickles down to the other 99%. The real state of the economy is generating slow economic growth (1.1% in the 4th quarter of 2005), historically-low job growth (4.2% unemployment when he came into office, now it's 4.9%, a 17% increase), historically-high budget deficits (he inherited a $281 billion surplus now he's running a $400 billion deficit), workers who are experiencing declining wages, more Americans in poverty, and the worst deterioration of America's fiscal situation in history (the national debt is now up 44% to $8.2 trillion from $5.7 trillion when he assumed office). Bush is deceptive on health care. All he had to offer was more privatization schemes. The real state of health care is that we spend more money than any other industrialized nation in the world ($1.7 trillion, nearly 16% of our GDP), yet rank 37th in the world with regard to the health of our citizens. An additional 6.2 million Americans are without health insurance (out of a total of 46 million) since George Bush assumed office (or more people than 24 states and Washington, DC combined). And the Bush administration's new Medicare prescription drug plan is confusing, costly, and an unworkable disaster. Yesterday the American College of Physicians said America's primary care system is on the verge of collapsing. Bush is deceptive on Iraq. He continues to argue that we're making progress - even as journalists Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt lay wounded in a hospital, another journalist, Jill Carroll, is being held captive and crying out in anguish on national television, along with over 16,000 Americans wounded, nearly 2,400 dead, plus thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians dead and wounded. The truth on Iraq is that President Bush took us to war on deception and lies, continues to be less than candid on the costs of the war (materially, morally and diplomatically), and has arrogantly mismanaged it.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows just 28% of Americans support maintaining existing troop levels in Iraq. Yet Smirkey's lower personal ratings since the start of his second term suggest he will have a hard time controlling the debate in the face of opposition from congressional Democrats and some Republicans seeking an independent course. Asked who should take the lead in settling national policy, just 25% say Mr. Bush, while 49% prefer Congress to take charge. The poll of 1,011 adults, conducted Jan. 26-29, has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. Mr. Bush's overall job-approval rating remains at 39%, down from 50% immediately following his 2004 re-election. The proportion of Americans who credit the president with being "honest and straightforward" has fallen to 38% from 50% in January 2005; the proportion that gives him high marks for "strong leadership qualities" is 42%, down from 52%.

A new poll has found that nearly half of Iraqis approve of attacks on U.S.-led forces, and most favor setting a timetable for American troops to leave. The poll also found that 80 percent of Iraqis think the United States plans to maintain permanent bases in the country even if the newly elected Iraqi government asks American forces to leave. Researchers found a link between support for attacks and the belief among Iraqis that the United States intends to keep a permanent military presence in the country. At the same time, the poll found that many Iraqis think that some outside military forces are required to keep Iraq stable until the new government can field adequate security forces on its own. Only 39 percent of Iraqis surveyed thought that Iraqi police and army forces were strong enough to deal with the security challenges on their own, while 59 percent thought Iraq still needed the help of military forces from other countries. Seventy percent of Iraqis favor setting a timetable for U.S. forces to withdraw, with half of those favoring a withdrawal within six months and the other half favoring a withdrawal over two years. "Iraqis are demanding a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, and most believe that the U.S. has no plans to leave even if the new government asks them to," said Steven Kull, the director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, which conducted the poll. "This appears to be leading some to even support attacks on U.S.-led troops, even though many feel they also continue to need the presence of U.S. troops awhile longer."

Official figures for the number of UK troops injured in Iraq may have to be corrected, the Defence Secretary admitted yesterday. John Reid conceded that the previously published statistic of 230 soldiers injured in action did not reflect the true scale of British casualties and that there may have been many more. Monday, The Scotsman revealed the Ministry of Defence had seriously underestimated the number of soldiers injured since the start of the war by only counting admissions to one field hospital. The true figure is believed to be closer to 800.

A new provision tucked into the Patriot Act bill now before Congress would allow authorities to haul demonstrators at any "special event of national significance" away to jail on felony charges if they are caught breaching a security perimeter. Sen. Arlen Specter , R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sponsored the measure, which would extend the authority of the Secret Service to allow agents to arrest people who willingly or knowingly enter a restricted area at an event, even if the president or other official normally protected by the Secret Service isn't in attendance at the time. The measure has civil libertarians protesting what they say is yet another power grab for the executive branch and one more loss for free speech. "It's definitely problematic and chilling," said Lisa Graves, senior counsel for legislative strategy at the American Civil Liberties Union , which has written letters to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, pointing out that the provision wasn't subject to hearings or open debate. Some conservatives say they too are troubled by the measure. "It concerns me greatly," said Bob Barr, former U.S. prosecutor and Republican representative from Georgia. "It clearly raises serious concerns about First Amendment rights."

Millions of low-income people would have to pay more for health care under a budget bill worked out by Congress. Some of them would forgo care or drop out of Medicaid because of the higher co-payments and premiums, the Congressional Budget Office says in a new report. The Senate has approved the measure, the first major effort to rein in federal benefit programs in eight years, and the House is expected to vote Wednesday, clearing the bill for President Bush. In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Bush plans to recommend steps to help people obtain health insurance and cope with rising health costs. But the budget bill written by Congress in the past year, with support from the White House, could reduce coverage and increase the number of uninsured, the budget office said.

Primary care - the basic medical care that people get when they visit their doctors for routine physicals and minor problems - could fall apart in the United States without immediate reforms, the American College of Physicians said on Monday. "Primary care is on the verge of collapse," said the organization, a professional group which certifies internists, in a statement. "Very few young physicians are going into primary care and those already in practice are under such stress that they are looking for an exit strategy." Dropping incomes coupled with difficulties in juggling patients, soaring bills and policies from insurers that encourage rushed office visits all mean that more primary care doctors are retiring than are graduating from medical school, the ACP said in its report. The group has proposed a solution -- calling on federal policymakers to approve new ways of paying doctors that would put primary care doctors in charge of organizing a patient's care and giving patients more responsibility for monitoring their own health and scheduling regular visits. U.S. doctors have long complained that reimbursement policies of both Medicare and private insurers reward a "just-in-time" approach, instead of preventive care that would save money and keep patients healthier. "Medicare will pay tens of thousands of dollars... for a limb amputation on a diabetic patient, but virtually nothing to the primary care physician for keeping the patient's diabetes under control," said Bob Doherty, senior vice president for the ACP.

A videotape released Tuesday shows a San Bernardino County (CA) sheriff's deputy shooting an unarmed Air Force policeman who recently returned from Iraq as he appeared to obey an order to get up off the ground. KTLA-TV broadcast a 40-second clip it said came from a Chino resident who videotaped Sunday night's shooting, which followed a 100 mph car chase. Senior Airman Elio Carrion, 21, was listed in good condition at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton. He was shot three times in the chest, ribs and leg, his father-in-law, Ernesto Paz, told KTLA-TV. Carrion was a passenger in a Corvette that crashed into a wall following the brief chase, authorities said. The dark, grainy videotape shows Carrion lying on the ground next to the car, talking to a silhouetted officer who is pointing a gun at him. Carrion supports himself on one arm and his face is brightly lit by the officer's flashlight. Carrion is heard telling the officer he is unarmed and is in the military. At one point, a voice is heard saying several times: "Get up." Carrion says: "I'm gonna get up." As he rose, at least four shots were fired and Carrion collapsed. Investigators from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department took the original tape, refusing to release it to the public or describe what it shows. The deputy, whose name was not released, was placed on paid administrative leave, a routine procedure in officer-involved shootings.

Democratic Sen. John Kerry, the party's unsuccessful 2004 presidential nominee, raised $5.6 million last year and has nearly $10 million if he decides to make another run for the White House. Most of Kerry's cash is left over from the 2004 campaign, $9.1 million in his presidential campaign account and almost $800,000 in his political action committee account and his Senate election account. The leftover money from his presidential campaign proved to be a sore point with many Democrats, who questioned why he didn't spend it all to unseat President Bush. The Massachusetts senator has given millions to his party and other candidates, a typical party-building move from someone weighing another presidential bid. Kerry also has more than $5 million in a legal fund from the campaign, though that total could change as his 2004 campaign accounts are closed out. Kerry's fundraising, while solid, hasn't quite kept pace with the woman considered the Democratic front-runner for the presidential nomination - New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton raised $5.3 million through the first three quarters of 2005 and had $13.8 million in the bank. She was expected to release her latest fundraising totals on Tuesday, the final reporting day.

Senator Clinton told a largely friendly audience here Saturday night that the slow pace of government-sponsored reconstruction following Hurricane Katrina was the result of a deliberate decision by the Bush administration and may have been motivated by a desire to discourage Democratic voters from returning to the devastated region. "I think that basically we are now watching a deliberate policy of neglect take root," Mrs. Clinton said during an appearance at a fund-raiser for legal services charities. "It is deeply troubling for any American to believe that your government would abandon such a huge part of our country and such an important part of our history."

Attempts to eradicate Afghanistan's opium crop have abjectly failed and British soldiers who take part in such operations may face legal action, an international think-tank has said. Britain is sending a task force of almost 6,000 troops to Afghanistan to fight the resurgent al-Qa'ida and Taliban and also take part in tackling the country's poppy crops. These supply 90 per cent of heroin to this country and the UK is planning to spend £20m a year on eradication. American officials are pressing for aerial crop-spraying. But aid agencies and human rights groups point out that poppy fields are often adjacent to ones growing vegetables and wheat. British officials are against spraying. But a report by the Senlis Council, the think-tank, showed yesterday that the US administration was advertising for aerial spraying jobs in Afghanistan.

Put a group of people together at a party and observe how they behave. Differently than when they are alone? Differently than when they are with family? What if they're in a stadium instead of at a party? What if they're all men? The field of social psychology has long been focused on how social environments affect the way people behave. But social psychologists are people, too, and as the United States has become increasingly politically polarized, they have grown increasingly interested in examining what drives these sharp divides: red states vs. blue states; pro-Iraq war vs. anti-Iraq war; pro-same-sex marriage vs. anti-same-sex marriage. And they have begun to study political behavior using such specialized tools as sophisticated psychological tests and brain scans. For their study, Nosek, Banaji and social psychologist Erik Thompson culled self-acknowledged views about blacks from nearly 130,000 whites, who volunteered online to participate in a widely used test of racial bias that measures the speed of people's associations between black or white faces and positive or negative words. The researchers examined correlations between explicit and implicit attitudes and voting behavior in all 435 congressional districts. The analysis found that substantial majorities of Americans, liberals and conservatives, found it more difficult to associate black faces with positive concepts than white faces - evidence of implicit bias. But districts that registered higher levels of bias systematically produced more votes for Bush."Obviously, such research does not speak at all to the question of the prejudice level of the president," said Banaji, "but it does show that George W. Bush is appealing as a leader to those Americans who harbor greater anti-black prejudice."

Two federal appeals courts on opposite sides of the country declared the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act unconstitutional Tuesday, saying the measure lacks an exception for cases in which a woman's health is at stake. The first ruling came from a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Hours later, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan issued a similar decision in a 2-1 ruling. The California court said the law was vague and so broad that no other remedy was possible except to throw it out. "We are reluctant to invalidate an entire statute," Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote. "However, after considering all of the obstacles to our devising a narrower remedy, we conclude that such is our obligation." A federal judge in Nebraska also has ruled the ban unconstitutional. The Nebraska ruling was upheld in July by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Tuesday's decisions were also expected to be appealed to the high court.

Former Wal-Mart VP Thomas Coughlin pleaded guilty today to fraud and tax evasion charges today, according to the Wall Street Journal. Coughlin has admitted to stealing everything from money to gift cards and merchandise from the retail giant. Thomas Coughlin, 57 years old, faces a maximum of 28 years in prison after pleading guilty to five counts of wire fraud and one count of filing a false tax return. He also could be fined $1.35 million. The judge ordered a presentencing report that will take up 10-14 weeks to prepare. Wal-Mart lawyers referred Mr. Coughlin, once a protege of Wal Mart founder Sam Walton, to federal prosecutors after discovering Mr. Coughlin had embezzled money from the company and used expense vouchers to buy products as varied as snakeskin boots, hunting trips and Bloody Mary mix. They estimated losses at up to $500,000. Besides giving the case to federal prosecutors, Wal-Mart sued Mr. Coughlin last year to end his retirement agreement and to recover money that Mr. Coughlin is accused of misusing. However, that suit was dismissed this week by an Arkansas judge who said both sides had signed a pledge as part of that retirement deal not to pursue any claims against each other for any reasons.

Fourth Amendment Death Watch: An e-mail threat that prompted the evacuation of more than a dozen Brandeis University buildings on January 18 led to an unusual standoff in a public library in Newton, Mass., a few miles from the Brandeis campus. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents tried to seize 30 of the library's computers without a warrant, saying someone had used the library's Internet connection to send the threat to Brandeis. But the library director, Kathy Glick-Weil, told the agents they could not take the machines unless they got a warrant first. Newton's mayor, David Cohen, backed Ms. Glick-Weil up. After a brief standoff, FBI officials relented and sought a warrant from a judge. Meanwhile, Ms. Glick-Weil allowed an FBI computer-forensics examiner to work with information-technology specialists at the library to narrow down which computers might have been used to send the threatening message. They determined that three computers were implicated in the alleged crime.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) charged yesterday that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales misled the Senate during his confirmation hearing a year ago when he appeared to try to avoid answering a question about whether the president could authorize warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens. In a letter to the attorney general yesterday, Feingold demanded to know why Gonzales dismissed the senator's question about warrantless eavesdropping as a "hypothetical situation" during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in January 2005. At the hearing, Feingold asked Gonzales where the president's authority ends and whether Gonzales believed the president could, for example, act in contravention of existing criminal laws and spy on U.S. citizens without a warrant. The president traditionally selects a cabinet secretary to be kept in an undisclosed location during the State of the Union address, in order to assure continuity in government in the event of an attack on the U.S. Capitol. Gonzales said that it was impossible to answer such a hypothetical question but that it was "not the policy or the agenda of this president" to authorize actions that conflict with existing law. He added that he would hope to alert Congress if the president ever chose to authorize warrantless surveillance, according to a transcript of the hearing.

Trickle-Down Economics Trickling On You: Wages and benefits paid to civilian workers rose last year by the smallest amount in nine years, the government reported Tuesday. The Labor Department said that employee compensation was up 3.1 percent in 2005, an increase that was slower than the 3.7 percent rise in 2004. The slowdown reflected a big drop in benefit costs - items such as health insurance and pensions - which rose by 4.5 percent last year after jumping by 6.9 percent in 2004. Total compensation rose by 0.8 percent from October through December, matching the increase in the July-September period. The increase in benefits slowed to a rise of 1.1 percent, compared to a 1.3 percent increase in the third quarter. Last year's increase was not enough to keep up with inflation. When inflation is considered, overall compensation fell by 0.3 percent, the first time there has been a decline since 1996, when total compensation after adjusting for inflation was down by 0.4 percent.

Officials from six major oil companies have refused to testify this week at a Senate hearing looking into whether oil industry mergers in recent years have made gasoline more expensive at the pump. With oil companies reporting record profits from higher energy prices, consumer groups have complained that mergers in the industry have stifled competition. Exxon Mobil said on Monday it earned $10.7 billion in the fourth quarter of last year and $36.1 billion for all of 2005 - bigger than the economies of 125 countries. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which is holding the hearing on Wednesday morning, said it asked representatives from Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Valero Energy and the U.S. units of BP and Royal Dutch Shell to tell their side of the story. "All declined the invitation to testify," the committee said in a statement on Monday, without providing details.

The Republican Leadership Are Loyal Americans: The second part of the Senate investigation into bungled pre-war Iraq intelligence is still being held up by an internal Pentagon investigation of Douglas Feith, one of the war's leading architects. As previously reported by Raw Story, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) inquiry - titled Phase II - is waiting on a report from the Pentagon inspector general as to Feith's alleged role in manipulating pre-war intelligence to support a case for war. Feith, who is also being probed by the FBI for his role in an Israeli spy case, resigned in January 2005. More broadly, a RAW STORY investigation has found that Feith's access to classified information and his alleged wrongdoing can likely be laid at the feet of more senior officials in the Bush Administration -- namely Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- who would have had to have overruled Pentagon background checks to reissue Feith's clearances after he was booted from the National Security Council for allegations of espionage in the mid 1980s.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:48:06 AM
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