Letters From Exile

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

Wed, May 31 2006

A Little Astronomy

Yesterday was a dry-season kind of day, with sunny skies most of the day and warm temperatures, and an incredibly clear night yesterday evening. But today it was back to more normal weather for this time of the year. Light, intermittent rains in the morning, a sunny midday, and rain this evening, at times heavy enough to blank out the satellite TV reception. High was 82, and low overnight was 71.

The weather was so clear last night that I got out the binoculars and had a peek at Jupiter in the southeastern sky, just as soon as it was dark. Being one of the clearest nights in some time, I figured it would be an opportune time to take up the suggestion of a recent article in Science Daily that suggested that the seeing of Jupiter is about as good as it gets these days, and the Great Red Spot is even visible with high powered binoculars. Well, mine aren't high powered, but I figured they are quite good quality, so it would be worth seeing what I could see with them. No Great Red Spot, in fact, my seven-power binoculars barely show Jupiter as a disk, but what I could clearly see was two of Jupiter's moons. The first time I had ever seen them with these binoculars.

I have been having some chest pains today, so I didn't get out and walk much, but did have a brief, slow cruise around the garden to see how things are doing. The petra vines that I planted from seed sometime back have finally established themselves and have really started to grow - one is finally taking off and starting to grow up a trellis. I hope it means I'll soon have some flowers from them. The bougainvillea cuttings planted last Friday are doing well, too, and have not wilted, so I suspect they may take. Sure hope so.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: The US Supreme court has limited the rights of government whistle-blowers by ruling that they are not protected under the First Amendment. The ruling, which was passed by a 5-4 vote, means employees are not protected by free speech laws when speaking out during the course of their duties. The decision will affect all of the nation's 20 million public employees. But it was criticised by civil rights groups, who said it would discourage employees from exposing misconduct. In practice, it will strengthen the government's ability to discipline public employees who make allegations of official misconduct. The decision was seen as a victory for the Bush administration, which has argued that the move will protect the government from cases filed by disgruntled workers posing as legitimate whistle-blowers. But critics predicted the impact would be widespread. "In an age of excessive government secrecy, the Supreme Court has made it easier to engage in a government cover-up by discouraging internal whistle-blowing," Steven Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told Reuters.

President Bush learned of reports that U.S. Marines killed two dozen unarmed Iraqi civilians only after reporters began asking questions, the White House said Tuesday. Asked when Bush was first briefed about the events in Haditha, an insurgent stronghold in western Iraq, White House press secretary Tony Snow replied Tuesday: "When a Time reporter first made the call." Bush was briefed on the incident and investigation by his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, Snow said. He would not detail Bush's personal involvement since. "I think anybody who's heard the story has a personal interest and it's impossible not to," he said. "But the president also is allowing the chain of command to do what it's supposed to do in the Department of Defense, which is to complete an investigation. The Marines are taking an active and aggressive role in this."

The United States, in a policy shift, is ready to directly join talks on Iran's nuclear program if Tehran suspends all uranium enrichment activities, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said. Rice made the offer of the first substantive talks with Iran since diplomatic relations were broken off 26 years ago on Wednesday as she prepared to leave for a crucial meeting of world powers in Vienna on Tehran's suspected nuclear arms program. "To underscore our commitment to a diplomatic solution and to enhance the prospects for success, as soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities, the United States will come to the table with our EU-3 colleagues and meet with Iran's representatives," she said in prepared remarks.

The Associated Press ran a story yesterday (byline John Solomon), reported here, attacking Senator Harry Reid for accepting tickets to a boxing match in Nevada as the guest of the Nevada state government (something that appears totally fine under Senate ethics rules). AP then comes under some rather severe criticism from bloggers, this blog included, because the article notes in its second paragraph that rather than doing the bidding of the Nevada boxing folks, Reid was in fact pushing legislation they didn't like - i.e., Reid was not in the pocket of the Nevada boxing folks. Today, Josh Marshall discovered that AP appears to have edited its story and deleted the sentence that makes clear that Harry Reid was pushing legislation the Nevada boxing folks didn't like. I.e., AP just happened to delete the key line of their story that proves that Harry Reid isn't dishonest. And AP happens to delete this line from their story right after we all criticize them, using the line as proof that AP's story doesn't hold water.

CNN reports that 1,500 troops are being moved from Kuwait into Iraq's Anbar province, the Sunni stronghold in the west. WaPo and NYT put it at either 3,500, or a full brigade. (The discrepancy, I think, is that CNN is reporting the troops that have already moved; NYT and WaPo are reporting the total number in Kuwait that will eventually be deployed.) This is a tremendously bad sign, and indicates that Anbar province, and likely the city of Ramadi in particular, are beyond out of control. There is no indication that the move is in response to any particular increase in numbers of fighters from other parts of Iraq or neighboring countries, meaning that the surge in violence is home-grown. Although the insurgent learning curve has thus far been surprisingly gradual, they're getting better at their deadly craft and we don't appear to have an answer. The articles also indicate a disturbing trend of Al Qa'ida recruitment successes among the indigenous Sunni population. As that occurs, huge swaths of western Iraq will become terrorist havens, camps, training areas, etc. If we can't control the cities, we're certainly not controlling the countryside.

President Bush reportedly will hold a Rose Garden press conference on June 5 to press Congress to enact the so-called Federal Marriage Amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, in spite of the fact that congressional Republicans are deeply divided on the issue. The conservative Weekly Standard reports that Bush will gather supporters of the amendment behind him as he makes his pitch. "President Bush is once again placating extremists and pushing discrimination when he should be finding solutions for the real challenges facing Americans," Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese told 365Gay.com. "It's despicable that he would use this opportunity and the spotlight of the Rose Garden not to unite the country, but to advocate discriminatory and divisive politics." June 5 is the same day that the proposed amendment will be debated in the Senate. While most Republicans were solidly behind the amendment in 2004, the party is deeply divided this time. Earlier this month First Lady Laura Bush said the marriage issue should not be used as an election tool. The Human Rights Campaign recently came under criticism for endorsing the re-election of Republican Rep. Mary Bono (Calif.). But the organization says Bono is illustrative of moderate Republicans who support LGBT issues. Bono voted against the marriage amendment in 2004 and has announced her opposition to reintroducing it. She also supported LGBT inclusion in hate crime law and worked to see its passage in the House, although the measure later died in the Senate.

A major figure in the Election Day phone-jamming scandal that embarrassed and nearly bankrupted the New Hampshire GOP is out of prison and back in the political game. Charles McGee, the former executive director of the state Republican Party, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and served seven months for his part in the scheme to have a telemarketer tie up Democratic and union phone lines in 2002. He's back at his old job with a Republican political marketing firm, Spectrum Monthly & Printing Inc., and will be helping out at the firm's "GOP campaign school" for candidates. Richard Pease, the firm's co-president, said McGee would be available to advise candidates at the two-day event, planned for next weekend in Manchester. McGee's role at the school was reported Thursday by the New Hampshire Union Leader. "Chuck will work with the candidates in any way they want," Pease said. "If they want his advice, if they want his... experience, it's there for them to take or leave." Pease said he had no problem with McGee, who is a vice president in the firm, returning to advise politicians. "He made a mistake. He admitted to it. He served his time," Pease said. "He's certainly not going to be standing there and advocating breaking the law," Pease said. He said McGee declined to comment about his role at the school. In court, McGee acknowledged that the phone-jamming of get-out-the-vote drives by Democrats and organized labor was his idea, inspired by a lesson he learned in the Marine Corps: cut off your opponent's communications. The calls had the desired effect for two hours the morning of Election Day, but then the scheme began to unravel. Two other people have been sentenced to prison in the phone jamming.

It was a weekend for sequels -- both at the movie box office (where X-Men 3 opened big), and on the political stump, where the GOP trotted out yet another haven't-we-seen-this-before installment of its election-year script, featuring lots of tough dialogue about fighting terrorism. The yawn-inducing preview was rolled out at the president's Memorial Day weekend speech at West Point. After his grudging concession last week that his brand of "tough talk" had "sent the wrong signal to people" he was right back at it again, reiterating his commitment to pre-emptive strikes and his post-9/11 dictum that there is "no distinction between the terrorists and the countries that harbor them." Aside from attempting to recast Bush as a 21st-century Harry Truman (see Marty Kaplan take a Ginzu knife to this comparison here), the president's entire address was cobbled together from bits of previous speeches -- a worn-out collection of his War on Terror Greatest Hits. He's becoming more and more like one of those aging rock bands that hasn't had a hit -- or a fresh idea -- in years but keeps on touring, playing all the same old songs. The political equivalent of Def Leppard or Motley Crue.

Traveler's privacy rights in Europe to be restored?: The EU's top court scrapped a decision forcing airlines to give data about European passengers to US authorities as part of their post-September 11, 2001 security crackdown. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that the decision to approve the data transfers, taken in May 2004 by EU governments and the European Commission, was "founded on an inappropriate legal basis." The Luxembourg-based ECJ gave the EU and the United States until September 30 to negotiate a new agreement. The so-called Passenger Name Record data transfers can continue until then. The agreement between Brussels and Washington, which was blasted by civil liberties groups, was forged as a stream of aircraft was stopped entering the United States over concerns that suspicious passengers were aboard. One high-profile case saw British singer-songwriter and peace activist Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, deported, apparently in error. But the ECJ based its ruling on a legal technicality and did not investigate whether anyone's rights were being infringed. In November, an EU judge rejected claims that the privacy of passengers had been violated. Under the deal, airlines had to provide the US authorities with more than 30 pieces of data on passengers and crew - including credit card information, addresses and telephone numbers - 15 minutes before a flight's departure. US and commission officials said they were confident a fresh agreement could be reached. Stewart Baker, the assistant secretary of state for the Department of Homeland Security, said he expected "a solution that will keep the data flowing and the planes flying".

Iran said on Tuesday it wanted to resume nuclear negotiations with the EU and could even talk to Washington if its arch-foe "changed behavior." Tehran also said it was willing to negotiate on the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges it uses for research, but stressed it would not stop running the devices entirely as the U.N. Security Council has called for. The mixture of conciliatory and defiant statements was unlikely to satisfy the United States and its allies, who suspect Iran could use even limited enrichment facilities to master the technology required to make atomic weapons.

A federal judge on Thursday ordered the Department of Defense to expedite a public information request seeking details on government monitoring of student antiwar protests at the University of California, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz. U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup ruled that plaintiffs demonstrated a "compelling need" for details about an issue of "significant importance to public policy and public protests." The ruling stems from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests submitted in February by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California seeking details on the Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) database. The request followed an NBC News report that TALON contained entries on dozens of nonviolent protests, including anti-recruiting events in April on the UC Berkeley and Santa Cruz campuses. Mark Schlosberg, police practices policy director of the ACLU of Northern California, said the government provided some of the documents they asked for but has yet to fully process the request. "It's important the public learn about what's going on with their government," Schlosberg said. The ruling gives no deadline for the information's release, but Schlosberg said it "guarantees the request will go to the front of the line."

Afghanistan's parliament approved a motion calling on the government to prosecute the U.S. soldiers responsible for a deadly road crash that sparked the worst riots in Kabul in years, officials said Wednesday. Meanwhile, hundreds of suspected Taliban fighters attacked and briefly occupied police headquarters in a remote central town Wednesday after driving out security forces, officials said. The assembly passed its nonbinding motion Tuesday, one day after a U.S. truck plowed into a line of cars, killing up to five Afghans and sparking anti-foreigner riots throughout the city, said Saleh Mohammed Saljuqi, an assistant to the parliamentary speaker. "Those responsible for the accident on Monday should be handed over to Afghan legal authorities," Saljuqi cited the motion as saying. A U.S. military spokeswoman, Lt. Tamara D. Lawrence, said she had not seen the motion and declined to comment. U.S. troops fired in self defense when a road accident in Kabul triggered a riot, the military said on Wednesday, as Afghan lawmakers demanded the prosecution of a soldier driving a runaway truck that killed at least five people. "Our initial investigation... shows fire came from the crowd, and our soldiers used their weapons to defend themselves," Colonel Tom Collins said, giving the fullest U.S. account so far of events on Monday that led to the worst anti-American riots in the city since the Taliban's ouster in 2001.

Al Gore's new movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," is running far and away number one in per-screen revenues at the box office, nearly three times as much as its nearest competitor - indicating that it is badly under-distributed. The web site Boxofficemojo.com, which tracks what films are doing well, rate it number 22 in overall revenues, but easily number one in per-screen revenue. So why is it being so absurdly under-distributed? Good question - maybe we should ask the cineplex managers why they're not showing this gold mine.

President Bush welcomed the new Iraqi ambassador to the United States at a White House credentialing ceremony Tuesday, saying, "The United States stands ready to help the Iraqi democracy succeed." But the ambassador took the opportunity to complain about what he believes is the murder of his cousin by U.S. troops. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer spoke later in the day with Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie about U.S. military investigations into alleged killings of Iraqi civilians in Haditha last year by U.S. Marines. BLITZER: What do you know about what happened at Haditha? SUMAIDAIE: Well, I heard the report very soon after the event in November from some relatives. And as it happened, my own security detail [man] comes from that neighborhood. And his home is hardly a hundred yards from the home which was hit. And he was in touch through the Internet with his folks and neighbors. And the situation which he reported to me was that it was a cold-blooded killing. BLITZER: By who? SUMAIDAIE: By the Marines, I believe. Now, at that time, I dismissed the initial reports as incredible. I found it unbelievable, frankly.

The number of Guantánamo Bay detainees participating in a hunger strike has ballooned from three to around 75, the U.S. military said Monday, revealing growing defiance among prisoners held for up to 4 -1/2 years with no end in sight. Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand called the hunger strike at the U.S. naval base in southeastern Cuba an "attention-getting" tactic to step up pressure for the inmates' release and said it might be related to a May 18 clash between detainees and guards that injured six prisoners. "The hunger-strike technique is consistent with al-Qaida practice and reflects detainee attempts to elicit media attention to bring international pressure on the United States to release them back to the battlefield," Durand said from Guantánamo Bay.

Why The Democrats Are Not An Option: To coincide with Israeli PM Olmert's visit, the Democratic Leadership Council published a statement celebrating "Zionism" and condemning Islam. If their publication had not come from a man who purports to be a leader of the political opposition to the deeply unpopular right-wing Republican regime one might be inclined to surmise that it had been issued by the so-called Israel Lobby. In what was meant to be a moving personal account of his fifth trip to Israel, Al From, the founding father and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), defined Zionism as, "a good idea filled with hope." On his journey, Mr. From visited the summit of Mount Hadar where he experienced a moving vision of Israeli 'hope' locked in conflict with Palestinian 'anger.' In order to succeed with his plan for the reform of the Democratic Party, Governor Dean faces the stalwart opposition of Mr. From and his neoconservative cronies at the DLC and many powerful Democratic office holders as well, who are still under their sway. These neoconservative Democrats include: Governor Tom Vilsack, Senator Evan Bayh, Senator Joe Biden and Senator Hillary Clinton. These Democrats are committed to the DLC vision of America's future as defined by Mr. From, most recently in his glowing account of Zionism and its Manichean conflict with Islam.

What Does This Tell You?: A Swiss investigation into an international nuclear smuggling network is being hampered by a lack of cooperation from the United States. Authorities in Bern say they asked US officials for judicial assistance a year ago but have yet to receive a reply. Washington's failure to respond to "multiple" Swiss appeals was revealed last week by former United Nations weapons inspector David Albright. He told a US hearing into the nuclear trafficking ring run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atom bomb, that he found the lack of cooperation by the US "frankly embarrassing". "It is difficult to understand the actions of the US government. Its lack of assistance needlessly complicates this important investigation," said Albright, who is president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. The Swiss Federal Prosecutor's Office said it still expected a response to its requests for assistance. "We are confident we will get an answer because it is in the best interests not only of Switzerland but also the United States that the criminal investigation led by the Swiss authorities in this difficult matter of nuclear proliferation can be carried out successfully," spokesman Hansjürg Mark Wiedmer told swissinfo.

Rearranging The Deck Chairs On The Hindenberg: President George W. Bush nominated Henry Paulson, a top Wall Street banker who has had extensive business dealings with China, to be the new US treasury secretary, in place of John Snow. The move comes amid a wholesale shakeup in the Bush administration in the face of weak approval ratings for the president. Recent surveys show that despite the robust growth of the US economy, many voters give poor marks to the administration for its economic management. Bush held a 33 percent approval rating, the lowest of any US president in 25 years, in a recent ABC News and Washington Post poll. Paulson has served as chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs Group since May 1999. Another former Goldman CEO, Robert Rubin, served as treasury chief under president Bill Clinton, from 1995 to 1999.

Liberal Biased Media Watch: Federal authorities are actively investigating dozens of American television stations for broadcasting items produced by the Bush administration and major corporations, and passing them off as normal news. Some of the fake news segments talked up success in the war in Iraq, or promoted the companies’ products. Investigators from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are seeking information about stations across the country after a report produced by a campaign group detailed the extraordinary extent of the use of such items. The report, by the non-profit group Centre for Media and Democracy, found that over a 10-month period at least 77 television stations were making use of the faux news broadcasts, known as Video News Releases (VNRs). Not one told viewers who had produced the items. The range of VNR is wide. Among items provided by the Bush administration to news stations was one in which an Iraqi-American in Kansas City was seen saying "Thank you Bush. Thank you USA" in response to the 2003 fall of Baghdad. The footage was actually produced by the State Department, one of 20 federal agencies that have produced and distributed such items.

Reporting the House's passage of a bill that would permit oil exploration in a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), May 26 articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Associated Press overstated the amount of oil that could be produced if the bill becomes law. The Times reported that "[b]ackers of the drilling" say "10.3 billion barrels of oil would lead to greater energy independence." The Post similarly reported that "proponents say... 10.4 billion barrels" would be added to "the nation's oil reserves." Both USA Today and the AP wrote that "federal geologists" estimate the land holds between 5.4 billion and 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil, with the AP adding that the land set aside for drilling is "likely to hold about 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil." But these estimates appear to be based on the amount of "technically recoverable" oil purportedly contained in the entire ANWR region, not the mean estimate for the smaller area addressed by the House bill. Moreover, the articles do not address economic factors that could further constrain oil production in the drilling area. A 1998 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assessment states: "The total quantity of technically recoverable oil within the entire [ANWR] assessment area is estimated to be between 5.7 and 16.0 billion barrels... with a mean value of 10.4 billion barrels." But the amount of technically recoverable oil in the ANWR 1002 area "is estimated to be between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels... with a mean value of 7.7 billion barrels."

Thou Shalt Never Speak Ill Of A Fellow Republican: U.S. Sen. John McCain on Tuesday canceled an appearance for a Republican congressional candidate who has attacked his opponent for supporting McCain's immigration bill. McCain, R-Ariz., was scheduled to speak Wednesday at a breakfast fundraiser for Brian Bilbray, who is in a close runoff race with Democrat Francine Busby to fill the seat left vacant by disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Cunningham was sentenced in March to more than eight years in prison for accepting bribes. The winner of the June 6 special election will fill the remaining seven months left in Cunningham's term. Bilbray, a former congressman who worked as a lobbyist for an anti-immigration group, has repeatedly attacked Busby for supporting the immigration bill passed last week in the Senate. McCain was a principal architect of the bill.

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: The Conference Board said its consumer confidence index fell to 103.2, down from the revised 109.8 in April. Still, May's reading was better than the 100.9 expected by analysts. The decline stalled a rebound seen since November in the aftermath of last year's Gulf of Mexico hurricanes, except for a sharp dip in February when short-lived pessimism over the job market hurt consumer sentiment. "Consumer confidence, which reached a four-year high in April, lost ground in May," said Lynn Franco, director of the New York-based Conference Board Consumer Research Center, in a statement. "Apprehension about the short-term outlook for the economy, the labor market and consumers' earning potential has driven the Expectations Index down to levels not seen since the aftermath of the hurricanes last summer." Still, Franco said, consumers rate current conditions favorably. The Expectations Index, which measures consumers' outlook over the next six months, fell to 83.7 in May, from 92.3 in April. The Present Situation Index, which measures how shoppers feel now about economic conditions, slipped to 132.5 from 136.2. Economists closely monitor consumer confidence because consumer spending accounts for two thirds of all U.S. economic activity.

Your President Would Never Lie To You: Bush’s spokesman tacitly admitted that Bush lied to the press about the timing of Treasury Secretary John Snow’s departure in order not to upset the markets. Think Progress: "On May 25th, President Bush said that Treasury Secretary John Snow had not given him any indication that he was leaving soon: BUSH: Secretary of Treasury Snow? Q: Has he given you any indication he intends to leave his job any time soon? BUSH: No, he has not talked to me about resignation. I think he's doing a fine job." In fact, not only had Snow indicated he was leaving, President Bush had already settled on his replacement.

Guilty Of Getting Caught: Several US Marines could face the death penalty after one of their number took horrific photographs of a massacre in Iraq on his mobile phone. The photographs, seized by the US Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), show many victims shot at close range in the head and chest, execution-style, according to sources who have seen them. One image shows a mother and young child bent over on the floor as if in prayer. Both have been shot dead. Similar photographs taken by a Marines intelligence team which arrived on the scene later show that soldiers "suffered a total breakdown in morality and leadership, with tragic results", according to a US official quoted by the Los Angeles Times yesterday. The killing of more than 20 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha last November, first reported in the IoS two months ago, has become an international scandal after evidence from two official investigations was shown to Congressmen in the past 10 days. Democrat John Murtha, a former Marines colonel who has retained close links to the military despite his denunciation of the Iraq occupation, said Marines "killed innocent civilians in cold blood". Lance Corporal Andrew Wright, 20, and Lance Corporal Roel Ryan Briones, 21, both members of the Marine unit based at Camp Pendleton, photographed the scene in the western Iraqi city of Haditha with personal cameras they happened to be carrying the day of the attack. Briones later had his camera confiscated by Navy investigators, his mother said, while Wright's parents said their son was co-operating with the Navy investigation, but declined to comment further.

Wounded U.S. soldiers are being patched up and returned to battle before they are healed. The wounds in this case are to the psyche, caused by the trauma and horror that are as integral to war as guns and death. In Iraq and Afghanistan, when "suck it up" fails to snap a soldier out of depression or panic, the Army turns to drugs. "Soldiers I talked to were receiving bags of antidepressants and sleeping meds in Iraq, but not the trauma care they needed," says Steve Robinson, a Defense Department intelligence analyst during the Clinton administration. Sometimes sleeping pills, antidepressants and tranquilizers are prescribed by qualified personnel. Sometimes not. Sgt. Georg Anderas Pogany told Salon that after he broke down in Iraq, his team sergeant told him "to pull himself together," gave him two Ambien, a prescription sleep aid, and ordered him to sleep. Other soldiers self-medicate. "We were so junked out on Valium, we had no emotions anymore," Iraq vet John Crawford told "Fresh Air" host Terry Gross. He and others in his unit in Iraq became addicted to Valium. The issues around mental health and medication are exacerbated for the more than 378,000 troops who have served multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) caused by a previous tour are cropping up in later ones.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: This is just plain sick. Many Christian activists complain, correctly, that the violence contained in the "Purpose-Driven Life" videogames could have a direct impact on American society. I guess killing people who are for a "separation of Church and state" is fair game. Will these be handed out at the next "Justice Sunday" event? Jonathan Hutson: "Imagine: you are a foot soldier in a paramilitary group whose purpose is to remake America as a Christian theocracy, and establish its worldly vision of the dominion of Christ over all aspects of life. You are issued high-tech military weaponry, and instructed to engage the infidel on the streets of New York City. You are on a mission - both a religious mission and a military mission -- to convert or kill Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, gays, and anyone who advocates the separation of church and state - especially moderate, mainstream Christians. Your mission is "to conduct physical and spiritual warfare"; all who resist must be taken out with extreme prejudice. You have never felt so powerful, so driven by a purpose: you are 13 years old. You are playing a real-time strategy video game whose creators are linked to the empire of mega-church pastor Rick Warren, best selling author of The Purpose Driven Life"

The South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families announced Tuesday that it had secured more than twice the number of signatures it needed to refer the abortion ban passed by the 2006 Legislature to a vote of the people this fall. At a press conference at the Downtown Holiday Inn, officials with the campaign said they had 37,846 signatures - more than double the 16,728 they needed to get. Those signatures still need to be validated. Supporters of the repeal said they had 1,200 volunteers from 138 communities circulate the petitions. None of the volunteers were paid, they said. The abortion ban passed by the 2006 Legislature "is the wrong approach to reducing unintended pregnancies," former South Dakota Attorney General Roger Tellinghuisen said Tuesday. Tellinghuisen was one of three opponents of the ban who participated in a teleconference before members of the group traveled to Pierre to file a petition to force the abortion law to a public vote. The group planned to file nearly 38,000 signatures with the secretary of state in Pierre early Tuesday afternoon. That’s about 20,000 more than required for a referral - the process by which citizens may veto actions of the Legislature.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Climate researchers at Purdue University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology separately reported new evidence yesterday supporting the idea that global warming is causing stronger hurricanes. That claim is the subject of a long-running scientific dispute. And while the new research supports one side, neither the authors nor other climate experts say it is conclusive. In one new paper, to appear in a coming issue of Geophysical Research Letters, Matthew Huber of the Purdue department of earth and atmospheric sciences and Ryan L. Sriver, a graduate student there, calculate the total damage that could be caused by storms worldwide, using data normally applied to reconciling weather forecast models with observed weather events. In the other new study, Dr. Emanuel and Michael E. Mann, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University, compared records of global sea surface temperatures with those of the tropical Atlantic and said the recent strengthening of hurricanes was attributable largely to the rise in ocean surface temperature.

Another reason to worry about global warming: more and itchier poison ivy. The noxious vine grows faster and bigger as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise, researchers report. And a CO2-driven vine also produces more of its rash-causing chemical, urushiol, conclude experiments conducted in a forest at Duke University where scientists increased carbon-dioxide levels to those expected in 2050. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas - a chemical that traps heat similar to the way a greenhouse does -- that's considered a major contributor to global warming. Greenhouse gases have been steadily increasing in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Poison ivy is common in woods around the country, making it a bane of hikers, campers, fighters of forest fires, even backyard gardeners. Its itchy, sometimes blistering rash is one of the most widely reported ailments to poison-control centers, with more than 350,000 reported cases a year.

The Dutch can expect wetter winters and a threatening rise in sea levels of up to 35 centimeters (14 inches) by 2050, said a report Tuesday by the national weather service. While many countries discuss global warming and greenhouse gas emissions as theories, the Dutch see climate change as a matter of survival demanding concrete action. "Sixty percent of our country lies beneath sea level, so the effect of a rise in the level of the oceans is very noticeable," said Melanie Schultz van Haegen, the secretary of transport and water, after receiving the report from the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute known by its Dutch acronym KNMI. But she said there was "no acute danger" to the country's sea defenses, which are among the best in the world.

Scandals Du Jour: Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) accepted free ringside tickets from the Nevada Athletic Commission to three professional boxing matches while that state agency was trying to influence him on federal regulation of boxing. Reid took the free seats for Las Vegas fights between 2003 and 2005 as he was pressing legislation to increase government oversight of the sport, including the creation of a federal boxing commission that Nevada's agency feared might usurp its authority. He defended the gifts, saying that they would never influence his position on the bill and he was simply trying to learn how his legislation might affect an important home state industry. "Anyone from Nevada would say I'm glad he is there taking care of the state's number one businesses," he said. "I love the fights anyways, so it wasn't like being punished," added the senator, a former boxer and boxing judge.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:25:37 AM

Mon, May 29 2006

Two Hurricanes This Year

Today has been more of the same early rainy-season weather, with cloudy mornings and afternoons, and bright, sunny weather in between. Fairly painless as rainy season weather goes, but it will get progressively rainier as the season progresses. And it will also get considerably rainier if we get any hurricane weather this year. Temperatures were moderate, with a low of 72 and a high of 80 today. The light rain the last couple of days has been just about perfect for bougainvillea planting that was done on Friday. Let's hope they take root and grow.

Thursday is the beginning of the official hurricane season in the United States, but that doesn't mean that much here. There is already a tropical storm swirling away in the Eastern Pacific, just south of the Pacific Mexican coast. It will probably move off to the Northwest, and won't likely either turn into much or threaten any land areas. Of course that is what was said about last year's first Pacific storm, and against all precedent, it came ashore in El Salvador and did a lot of damage and left a lot of people homeless.

The Meteorological Institute here has issued its forecast for this hurricane season and is predicting an active, but not severe hurricane season for Costa Rica. We should get the outer effects of two storms this year, but neither will hit us hard on. Costa Rica is just below the hurricane belt, and so we don't get hurricanes here but very rarely - the last to hit us directly was in 1964. So we're not holding our breath.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Smirkey and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have agreed on a timetable for American intervention to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability. Bush told Olmert that the plans for US intervention are congruent with the timetable put up by the later during their discussion, a media report said on Thursday. He assured the Israeli premier that Washington would not allow Iran to acquire nuclear capability, Ynetnews reported. According to Israeli intelligence assessment, Iran will acquire the necessary nuclear technology to build a nuclear weapon within a year, Olmert said during the talks. The prime minister also expressed concern over diplomatic foot-dragging at the United Nations, where the United States has faced Russian and Chinese opposition to push for tough sanctions against Iran. Despite the US assurance, officials in Washington have cast doubt over its ability to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear technology, the news portal said. "I am very, very, very satisfied," Olmert told Israeli reporters after talks with Bush.

Assigning staff to build a dictatorship: An aide to Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly has the job of seeing to it that new legislation would not infringe on presidential power. David Addington, Cheney's legal adviser and chief of staff, also is the Bush administration's chief architect on the "signing statements" procedure which the president has tacked onto more than 750 laws, the Boston Globe says. That designation says the president has the right to ignore those laws conflict with his interpretation of the Constitution. Such items as the option of bypassing a ban on torture and numerous requirements on providing certain information to Congress fall under that umbrella. Using signing statements, the administration has challenged more laws than all previous administrations combined.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller on Friday urged telecommunications officials to record their customers' Internet activities, CNET News.com has learned. In a private meeting with industry representatives, Gonzales, Mueller and other senior members of the Justice Department said Internet service providers should retain subscriber information and network data for two years, according to two sources familiar with the discussion who spoke on condition of anonymity. The closed-door meeting at the Justice Department, which Gonzales had requested, according to the sources, comes as the idea of legally mandated data retention has become popular on Capitol Hill and inside the Bush administration. Supporters of the idea say it will help prosecutions of child pornography because in many cases, logs are deleted during the routine course of business. In a speech last month at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Gonzales said that Internet providers must retain records for a "reasonable amount of time." "I will reach out personally to the CEOs of the leading service providers and to other industry leaders," Gonzales said. "Record retention by Internet service providers consistent with the legitimate privacy rights of Americans is an issue that must be addressed."

Internet users are being urged to stand up for online freedoms by backing a new campaign launched by human rights group Amnesty International. Amnesty is celebrating 45 years of activism by highlighting governments using the net to suppress dissent. The campaign will highlight abuses of rights the net is used for, and push for the release of those jailed for speaking out online. It will also name hi-tech firms aiding governments that limit online protests. Called Irrepressible.info, the campaign will revolve around a website with the same name. While the human rights group has run separate campaigns about web repression and the jailing of net dissidents before now, Irrepressible.info will bring them all together. It aims to throw light on the many different ways that the freedom to use the net is limited by governments. For instance, said a spokesman for Amnesty, around the globe net cafes are being closed down, home PCs are being confiscated, chat in discussion forums is being watched and blogs are being censored or removed.

The FBI is focusing on at least eight different suspected bribery schemes as part of its corruption probe of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), according to a federal affidavit and sources familiar with the investigation. A key part of the FBI probe has centered around Jefferson's dealings with a Louisville high-tech company, iGate Inc., that was marketing broadband technology for the Internet and cable television in Africa. But an affidavit used in last weekend's controversial search of Jefferson's Capitol Hill office stated that authorities are looking at "at least seven other" bribery schemes in which Jefferson "sought things of value in return for his performance of official acts." Some of those schemes may be beyond the statute of limitations but could help show a pattern, according to a person familiar with the investigation. The records and materials seized during the FBI raid could shed more light on these areas, according to the affidavit. Investigators are looking at a number of companies listed under the names of Jefferson, his wife or other relatives, according to court documents. Since January, two people, including iGate's owner, Vernon L. Jackson, have pleaded guilty to bribing him. Federal authorities have alleged in court documents that Jefferson took more than $500,000 in bribes in exchange for using his official position to promote iGate's technology in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon. The FBI said it videotaped Jefferson taking a $100,000 payoff on July 30, 2005.

The debate over immigration, which has filtered into almost every corner of American life in recent months, is now sweeping through the woods, and the implications could be immense for the coming wildfire season in the West. As many as half of the roughly 5,000 private firefighters based in the Pacific Northwest and contracted by state and federal governments to fight forest fires are immigrants, mostly from Mexico. And an untold number of them are working here illegally. A recent report by the inspector general for the United States Forest Service said illegal immigrants had been fighting fires for several years. The Forest Service said in response that it would work with immigration and customs enforcement officers and the Social Security Administration to improve the process of identifying violators. At the same time, the State of Oregon, which administers private fire contracts for the Forest Service, imposed tougher rules on companies that employ firefighters, including a requirement that firefighting crew leaders have a working command of English and a formal business location where crew members can assemble.

Cronies R Us: Smirkey is leaning toward having his old friend Donald Evans take over the Treasury Department, according to media reports. The New York Times on Saturday became the latest media outlet to report that the former Commerce Department secretary and long-time Bush friend from Texas was a leading contender to succeed John Snow, who has indicated he wishes to step down by early July. The Wall Street Journal online was first to report that Evans had emerged as the front-runner. A Republican with close ties to the White House also told Reuters on Friday that he believed Evans was the leading candidate. A barrage of media stories in the past two days have suggested that Snow may leave within a month and people with close ties to the administration have said they believe the White House is moving close to a decision on his successor. Two Republicans who speak regularly with the White House told Reuters that the administration had largely settled on a candidate but was not yet ready to make an announcement. Evans traveled with Bush on his trip to West Point, New York, on Saturday to address graduates at the U.S. Military Academy.

Smirkey has eaten a rare serving of humble pie: Junior admitted on Thursday that his bellicose "bring 'em on" taunt to Iraqi insurgents was a big mistake, as he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair carefully avoided setting a timetable for removing troops from Iraq. Meeting at a time when a new Iraqi unity government offers the promise of a way out of an unpopular war that has damaged their standings at home, Bush and Blair were remarkably reflective on some of the grievous mistakes that critics say has intensified anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. At a joint news conference with Blair, after three years of war that has killed more than 2,400 Americans and thousands of Iraqis, Bush was asked what mistake he most regretted. The Texan said that he regretted saying "bring 'em on" when responding in July 2003 to a question about the Iraqi insurgency. On Thursday, Bush said the remark was "kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong message to people." "I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner, you know. "Wanted, dead or alive"; that kind of talk. I think in certain parts of the world it was misinterpreted," he said.

Lawyers for AT&T accidentally released sensitive information while defending a lawsuit that accuses the company of facilitating a government wiretapping program. AT&T's attorneys this week filed a 25-page legal brief striped with thick black lines that were intended to obscure portions of three pages and render them unreadable (click here for PDF). But the obscured text nevertheless can be copied and pasted inside some PDF readers, including Preview under Apple Computer's OS X and the xpdf utility used with X11. The deleted portions of the legal brief seek to offer benign reasons why AT&T would allegedly have a secret room at its downtown San Francisco switching center that would be designed to monitor Internet and telephone traffic. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed the class-action lawsuit in January, alleges that the room is used by an unlawful National Security Agency surveillance program. "AT&T notes that the facts recited by plaintiffs are entirely consistent with any number of legitimate Internet monitoring systems, such as those used to detect viruses and stop hackers," the redacted pages say. Another section says: "Although the plaintiffs ominously refer to the equipment as the 'Surveillance Configuration,' the same physical equipment could be utilized exclusively for other surveillance in full compliance with" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The redacted portions of AT&T's court filing are not classified, and no information relating to actual operations of an NSA surveillance program was disclosed.

With hundreds of computerized sensors and components, today's average car has more computing power than the Apollo 11 lunar module that took Neil Armstrong to the moon. But as technology advances, those without specialized knowledge and tools are finding automobiles harder to repair. The result, according to consumer advocates, is that motor vehicle owners must increasingly rely on expensive dealerships to unlock manufacturer security codes and to identify and repair problems. A bill currently under consideration in Congress would establish consumers' prerogative to choose who repairs their vehicles by requiring auto manufacturers to release all of the information needed to diagnose and fix problems. The Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act would require automakers to provide the same information to the public that they grant to authorized dealers. Exceptions made to protect a company's "intellectual property" related to the design and manufacture of auto parts. The Act would also enjoin the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to establish regulations to govern manufacturers' to provision of the required information.

The deaths of five Kentucky mineworkers early last Saturday brought the total number of coal miners killed this year to 31 - the highest number since 2001 - and sparked renewed calls for fixes to the nation's mine-safety programs. In released statements and comments to the media, mine safety officials, the United Mine Workers, and the National Mining Association all called on lawmakers to push through legislation aimed at making the notoriously dangerous job safer. Initial reports show that three of the five men suffocated to death and the lone escapee was using the same model air pack that reportedly failed the Sago mineworkers killed at the start of the year, the Associated Press reported. According to Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) records, the Harlan County, Kentucky mine is operated by Kentucky Darby LLC and has been cited at least 264 times for over $27,000 since 2001, a number and amount characterized by the MSHA as normal, Knight-Ridder reported.

According to a county-by-county study published in Social Science Quarterly last week, the world’s largest retailer is "unequivocally" tied to rising family poverty rates during the 1990s. The study provides the first the first-ever peer-reviewed assessment of what critics have termed "The Wal-Mart Effect" may very well be real. About 20,000 families fell into poverty as Wal-Mart expanded between 1987 and 1998, the study authors wrote, and counties with a higher concentration of Wal-Mart stores saw faster rates of poverty growth. The group also found nearly double the rate of increased food-stamp program enrollments in counties with more Wal-Mart stores. In addition, Wal-Mart’s market pressure may do more than just force smaller stores to close; it could drive better-educated and more leadership-savvy people to flee suburban and rural areas for better opportunities in cities, the study said. "By displacing the local class of entrepreneurs, the Wal-Mart chain also destroys local leadership capacity," the study authors wrote.

The town of Hercules, California, has upscale aspirations and its vision of the good life rules out a Wal-Mart store. Similarly, three Maine towns are considering a "box-free" zone to prevent Wal-Mart from opening in an area of coastal New England known for its colonial charm, an idea mirroring wealthy and quaint Nantucket's recent ban on chain stores. The city council of the mixed-race bedroom community of 23,000 east of San Francisco voted this week to invoke eminent domain to block Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) from building a 99,000 square foot (9,200 sq meter) store near the town's waterfront. The area is the centerpiece of Hercules' redevelopment effort, which aims to create a destination on par with high-end Sausalito across the bay. That would complement Hercules' plan to market itself as an "anti-suburb" with new neighborhoods appealing to home buyers nostalgic for old-fashioned residential areas within cities. The unusual move stunned California's big-box retailers, who usually benefit from eminent domain, which allows government to take private property for its use or for use by third parties if their projects would benefit the public. "To use eminent domain is such an abuse of the process," said Rex Hime, president of the California Business Properties Association, which represents large retailers.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: A group of US volunteers that has been patrolling the frontier with Mexico to stop illegal immigrants has started building a fence along the border. The Minutemen group plans to erect a combination of barbed wire, razor wire and steel barriers along a 10-mile (16km) stretch of privately-owned land. Hundreds of volunteers gathered in Arizona for an inauguration ceremony. The Minutemen have long campaigned for a secure fence along the border. The group has now begun building its fence at the site where it conducted its first patrols in November 2002. "Many have talked of building a secure fence between Mexico and the United States," the group said on its website, adding that it is now "taking action" and "doing the job the federal government will not do." A spokeswoman for the group told the Associated Press news agency it would take three weeks to build the fence, costing an estimated $100,000. She said the group had already raised $380,000 to build more fences.

On the May 24 edition of Fox News' The Big Story, just days after unveiling his "Nitwit of the Week" award, host John Gibson asserted that there was no reason why Mexico should not be able to "support [its] own people" as well as Saudi Arabia since "Mexico is the second ... largest exporter of oil to the United States, outranking even Saudi Arabia." But Gibson's reasoning is contradicted by several inconvenient facts. Gibson added: "[H]ave you noticed how Saudis live? Why can't Mexicans live like that if you've got so much oil?" But Gibson's reasoning is contradicted by several facts. First, oil is a global commodity that can be sold to any country; second, Saudi Arabia's proved oil reserves are more than 20 times greater than those of Mexico, and, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, Mexico's estimated 2005 oil revenue was less than six times that of Saudi Arabia. Third, Mexico has a population nearly four times that of Saudi Arabia, meaning that benefits it receives from oil revenue must be dispersed among a significantly larger population. Attempting to assess blame for illegal immigration during his "My Word" segment, Gibson asserted that "[t]he guy most responsible for us having this problem [is] Vicente Fox, el presidente of Mexico." Mexico's proved oil reserves amount to approximately 13 billion barrels as opposed to Saudi Arabia's 264 billion barrels. As the EIA also noted, Saudi Arabia's estimated 2005 oil revenue rose to around $153 billion while Mexico's amounted to roughly $24 billion. Moreover, while Mexico's gross national product (GNP) is nearly three times that of Saudi Arabia when factoring purchasing power parity (a currency conversion statistic), Mexico's population is well over 100 million compared with Saudi Arabia's 27 million. As a result, Saudi Arabia's per capita GDP -- $12,900 -- is slightly higher than Mexico's -- $10,100.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Sunday bluntly accused the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia of trying to stir up military rebellion against his leftist ally Bolivian President Evo Morales. "The (U.S.) embassy in Bolivia is already whispering in the ears of the Bolivian military to turn them against the government of Evo Morales," said Chavez, wearing a traditional red poncho and bead necklace, at the sacred pre-Inca ruins of Tiwanaku high in Bolivia's Andean plateau. "There's a plan against Bolivia, and the U.S. ambassador in Bolivia is the head of this plan," he said during his weekly Venezuelan television show, broadcast from Tiwanaku in front of an audience of Bolivian indigenous leaders.

Liberal Biased Media Watch: In his Washington Times column, Donald Lambro repeated the oft-debunked claim that Democrats received money from Jack Abramoff and used months-old polling data to claim that a "plurality" of Americans view congressional ethics scandals as affecting both Democrats and Republicans equally. In fact, more recent polling indicates that the public views ethics scandals as more of a Republican problem than a bipartisan issue. Lambro cited a February 9 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and a March 10-13 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll to back up his claim that a "plurality" of Americans see corruption as bipartisan. However, Lambro ignored a more recent CBS News/New York Times poll, conducted May 4-8, that asked respondents: "Do you think the Republicans in Congress are more financially corrupt, or are the Democrats in Congress more financially corrupt?" According to the poll, 40 percent of respondents considered Republicans more corrupt (an eight-point increase from April), while 30 percent considered both parties equally corrupt (a seven-point decrease). Fifteen percent found Democrats more corrupt -- an increase of 2 percent since April.

The over-hyped false alarm of a construction drill that caused a mass panic over rumors of gunshots in the Rayburn Building on Friday and the way in which it was reported by the servile media was a means of indoctrinating Americans to the procedure of martial law lock down of a major city. Following reports of gunfire in the Rayburn Building, House members were ordered to stay inside and shut all the doors. Parts of the Capitol complex, including the Capitol itself, were locked down during the height of the search. Police went door to door inside the buildings as an FBI SWAT team ordered House members to put their hands on their heads and frog-marched them out of a committee room and through a metal detector. Two women reported a man with a gun inside a Rayburn gym as another panicked and had to be taken to hospital. The gunman turned out to be a plain clothed police officer and the source of the 'gunfire' was an air hammer or a pneumatic drill being used in construction work on nearby elevator. The construction drill created the perfect mandate for another type of drill, that of authoritarian martial law city shutdown. The opportunity to parade SWAT teams, sniffer dogs, police with assault weapons and armed FBI tactical units wearing flak jackets did not go to waste.Americans were told in no uncertain terms that in times of crisis, the men in black uniforms enforcing mandatory relocation and quarantines were here to help. Fox News was salivating over the non-incident to the same degree that they rubbed their hands over the Pentagon tape flop. After two and a half hours of continual coverage and with it becoming blindingly obvious that there was no shooting incident, Fox told its viewers that they were seeing "our government work and work the way it is supposed to do," despite the fact that the lurking enemy to which our omnipotent government was responding was nothing more than a work tool.

Republicans Don't Tolerate Spying Against America: The Bush administration promoted David Satterfield, an alleged informant for a former AIPAC lobbyist facing trial in a classified information case. The State Department last week announced Satterfield's promotion to senior adviser on Iraq to Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state. Satterfield was promoted from deputy ambassador to Baghdad. Satterfield is cited in the indictment against Steve Rosen, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's former foreign policy director, and Keith Weissman, its former Iran analyst, as one of three government officials who shared information with Rosen. Satterfield is described as meeting with Rosen in 2002, when Satterfield was second in command at the State Department's Near East desk. Prosecutors refuse to explain why Satterfield escaped prosecution for leaking information.

Republicans Know What Really Matters: Yesterday on Fox News Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) tried to argue that banning flag-burning and same-sex marriage are two of the nation's most pressing priorities, which is why he put them on the Senate agenda for June: HOST: "Are gay marriage and flag burning the most important issues the Senate can be addressing in June of 2006?" FRIST:"When you look at that flag and you tell me that right now people in this country are saying it’s okay to desecrate that flag and to burn it and to not pay respect to it, is that important to our values as a people when we’ve got 130,000 people fighting for our freedom and liberty today? That is important. It may not be important here in Washington where people say, well, it’s political posturing and all, but it’s important to the heart and soul of the American people. - Why marriage today? Marriage is for our society that union between a man and a woman, is the cornerstone of our society. It is under attack today."

Republican Policies Benefit the American People: As you're trying to figure out a way to pay down your credit card debt and make the payments on your second and third mortgages, try to imagine the dilemma of having so much cash in your bank account that you didn't know what to do with it. This is of course a pipe dream for the average American, but is now reality for the country's biggest corporations. The industrial companies that make up the Standard & Poor's 500 index - which excludes financial, transportation and utility companies - have a staggering $643 billion in cash and equivalents. Wall Street analysts remain unsure how companies will spend this record hoard. Even an unprecedented $500 billion of stock buybacks over the past six quarters have failed to stop companies from building lofty amounts of cash on hand. "We're in a time that is out of whack with all historical numbers," said Howard Silverblatt, equity market analyst at Standard & Poor's. "People are demanding why corporations need so much cash, [and want to know] what are they going to do with it. In spite of stock buybacks, dividends and acquisitions, this cash is still going to take a while to spend." Companies began propping up their reserves through 16 straight quarters of double-digit profit growth. The money tucked away in corporate coffers has now gotten to the point where it's having a major impact on quarterly earnings, with Standard and Poor's reporting that income earned on the interest rose 37.9 per cent in 2005 and is expected to increase another 64 per cent this year.

Republicans Believe In Honesty And Truthtelling: John Kerry starts by showing the entry in a log he kept from 1969: "Feb 12: 0800 run to Cambodia." He moves on to the photographs: his boat leaving the base at Ha Tien, Vietnam; the harbor; the mountains fading frame by frame as the boat heads north; the special operations team the boat was ferrying across the border; the men reading maps and setting off flares. "They gave me a hat," Mr. Kerry says. "I have the hat to this day," he declares, rising to pull it from his briefcase. "I have the hat." Three decades after the Vietnam War and nearly two years after Mr. Kerry's failed presidential bid, most Americans have probably forgotten why it ever mattered whether he went to Cambodia or that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accused him of making it all up, saying he was dishonest and lacked patriotism. But among those who were on the front lines of the 2004 campaign, the battle over Mr. Kerry's wartime service continues, out of the limelight but in some ways more heatedly - because unlike then, Mr. Kerry has fully engaged in the fight. Only those on Mr. Kerry's side, however, have gathered new evidence to support their case. The Swift boat group continues to spend money on Washington consultants, according to public records, and last fall it gave $100,000 to a group that promptly sued Mr. Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, for allegedly interfering with the release of a film that was critical of him. Some of the principals behind the Swift boat group continue to press their claims. John O'Neill, the co-author of the group's best-selling manifesto, "Unfit for Command," criticizes Mr. Kerry on television talk shows and solicits money for conservative causes and candidates. In a South Carolina newspaper, William Schachte recently reprised his allegation that he was aboard the small skimmer where Mr. Kerry received the injury that led to his first Purple Heart, and that Mr. Kerry actually wounded himself. Swift boat message boards and anti-Kerry Web sites still boil with accusations that Mr. Kerry fabricated the military reports that led to his military decorations.

Harvard University - Down with meritocracy, up with plutocracy: Blake Gottesman, aka "Peanut," Smirkey's personal aide, is stepping down in August to attend Harvard Business School, despite the fact that he never finished college - a requirement for HBS. Did the president, who purports to be against affirmative action, pull some strings at his alma mater?

Making Afghanistan Safe For Freedom And Liberty: Thousands marched angrily through Kabul on Monday after security forces opened fire on protesters, killing at least seven Afghans and wounding 40 in clashes sparked by a fatal traffic accident involving a U.S. military truck. The truck, part of a U.S. convoy, had careened out of control and crashed into a dozen vehicles, killing at least one person and injuring six. A furious crowd then hurled stones and smashed windows of the convoy vehicles, according to a U.S. military statement. One of the besieged U.S. vehicles appeared to fire in the air, according to the statement. Afghan police also opened fire when they came to the assistance of the U.S. troops, and it was unclear who was responsible for shooting into the angry crowd. Some eyewitnesses blamed the U.S. troops, others blamed the police and some blamed both. "There are indications that at least one coalition military vehicle fired warning shots over the crowd," a U.S. military statement said.

Making Iraq Safe For Freedom And Liberty: The coach of Iraq's tennis team and two players were shot dead in Baghdad on Thursday, said Iraqi Olympic officials. Coach Hussein Ahmed Rashid and players Nasser Ali Hatem and Wissam Adel Auda were killed in the al-Saidiya district of the capital. Witnesses said the three were dressed in shorts and were killed days after militants issued a warning forbidding the wearing of shorts. The coach was murdered along with two of his players, outside his home in the capital's southern al-Saidiyah neighborhood on Thursday, Olympic Committee chairperson Amr Jabar told Agence France-Presse. A witness, who asked not to be named, said the shorts-clad tennis players had just left some laundry at the cleaners, when gunmen stopped their car and asked them to step out of the vehicle. When two did so they were shot in the head. The third was then dragged from the car, thrown on the bodies of his teammates, and shot as he lay on the ground. The gunmen then kicked the corpses before stealing the car and making their escape, the witness said. He added that fundamentalists had been distributing leaflets recently warning residents of the area not to wear shorts.

The al-Qaeda organization has selected Abdulhadi al-Iraqi, an Iraqi national from northern Iraq, as the new commander of its global operations. The appointment comes following the seizure of Abu Faraj al-Libi by Pakistani forces in May. Al-Qaeda has a large following in Iraq particularly among Sunni Muslims. It operates through different organizations under various nomenclatures. But it first surfaced among Iraqi Kurds in the north where it operated from the inaccessible mountains east of Sulaimaniya and close to the borders with Iran. Known then as Ansar al-Islam, the militant group had destabilized most of the Kurdish north and was planning to control Sulaimaniya, the second largest Kurdish city. Fearing the onslaught, Kurdish leaders sought military assistance from their tormentor former leader Saddam Hussein who was reported to have supplied them with arms and men to contain the group. But the Ansar group expanded operations across Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s downfall and the occupation of Iraq by U.S. troops. The group has changed its name into Ansar al-Sunna and is currently, with other rebel groups, spearheading anti-U.S. operations in the country and the campaign of bombings directed against government troops and installations. The new Iraqi-born al-Qaeda leader is married and with children and is believed to be in his forties. His wife is said to accompany him during his travels across the country.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:25:22 AM

Sat, May 27 2006

Muddy Pond Water

Weather has been classic early rainy season. Rain in the early morning, clearing by midday, followed by clouding in the early afternoon and rain by nightfall. The one exception to this has been that it has been starkly clear tonight - as I write this a bit after nine, it is a brilliantly clear night, with stars shining through the rainy season haze. This has kept the temperatures down, with an overnight low of 71 and a high today of only 76. With my dieting keeping my metabolism at half speed, it seems like 76 is downright chilly to me. I have been wearing a heavy shirt all day.

The rain has washed a lot of the clay left behind in the street by the desagua (drainage ditch) cleaning, and has washed it into the pond, much as I had expected would happen. The street is still quite muddy, so there is a lot more that is going to end up in there before the street is finally clean. It will probably be a month before that happens, I suspect. The recent rains have raised the water level in the pond to the outlet level, so it is starting to drain again. But there have not been enough rains yet to start the springs along the eastern edge of my property line - it is those springs that provide much of the water for that pond.

My health has continued to mend. I am getting out and doing more all the time. When the gardener was here yesterday, we cut some bougainvillea branches and replaced some of the cuttings along the fence that didn't take root and get established. I went out there and helped with that a bit. The gardener also pitched right in and cleaned up some of the mess left behind by the road grader on Thursday at the new runout. He has got it all smoothed out and ready for the grass to grow in and make a nice, attractive spot there at the end of the pond. All and all, I am quite happy with how it is going to look once the grass grows back in.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Memorial Day carries special significance this year as U.S. soldiers continue to fight in Iraq. Foreign Policy magazine spoke to Jon Soltz of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America political action committee, which supports veterans running for U.S. Congress: FP: What are you hearing from soldiers in Iraq? JS: The best data are a recent Zogby poll, which showed that 75 percent of soldiers in Iraq don’t know of a clear strategy for victory there. I think tactically the soldiers have performed brilliantly - from adapting to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to dealing with sheiks - and trying to do a mission they haven't trained for in the last 25 to 30 years. Strategically, there are tremendous issues. The amount of military force required in Iraq has broken the Army, and specifically the National Guard and Reserves. FP: How would you rate the administration's policies relating to veterans? JS: The veteran who walks into the Department for Veterans Affairs (VA) today is drastically worse off than he or she was four or five years ago. They pay more for their prescription drugs. There is now a fee for them to enroll into the system. Iraq war veterans put a tremendous demand on the VA, specifically because we’ve deployed so many members of the Guard and Reserves. There's also a problem with diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A lot of people with PTSD get diagnosed with "adjustment disorder" primarily because there's not enough money in the VA budget to provide these heroes with the disability payments they should be given. FP: Why are so many Iraq war veterans in debt? JS: If you're making $80,000 a year in the civilian world and then you get called up and make $25,000 or $30,000 fighting in Iraq, you take a tremendous hit. There is some legislation supported by Sen. Evan Bayh to end the "patriot penalty." It would help families make up that difference. There's also the problem of insurance scams on military bases. [Insurance salespeople] try to get 19- or 20-year-old kids - who don't know a lot about finance - to buy life insurance and mutual funds that charge high fees. When soldiers come home, many of them have a lot of money from their deployment because they had nothing to spend it on, and they end up being targeted by loan sharks.

A security consultant working with a major telecommunications carrier has told Seymore Hersh that his client set up a top-secret high-speed circuit between its main computer complex and Quantico, Virginia, the site of a government-intelligence computer center. This link provided direct access to the carrier's network core-the critical area of its system, where all its data are stored. "What the companies are doing is worse than turning over records," the consultant said. "They're providing total access to all the data." "This is not about getting a cardboard box of monthly phone bills in alphabetical order," a former senior intelligence official said. The Administration's goal after September 11th was to find suspected terrorists and target them for capture or, in some cases, air strikes. "The N.S.A. is getting real-time actionable intelligence," the former official said. The N.S.A. also programmed computers to map the connections between telephone numbers in the United States and suspect numbers abroad, sometimes focussing on a geographic area, rather than on a specific person-for example, a region of Pakistan. Such calls often triggered a process, known as "chaining," in which subsequent calls to and from the American number were monitored and linked. The way it worked, one high-level Bush Administration intelligence official told me, was for the agency "to take the first number out to two, three, or more levels of separation, and see if one of them comes back"-if, say, someone down the chain was also calling the original, suspect number. As the chain grew longer, more and more Americans inevitably were drawn in.FISA requires the government to get a warrant from a special court if it wants to eavesdrop on calls made or received by Americans. (It is generally legal for the government to wiretap a call if it is purely foreign.) The legal implications of chaining are less clear. Two people who worked on the N.S.A. call-tracking program told me they believed that, in its early stages, it did not violate the law. "We were not listening to an individual's conversation," a defense contractor said. "We were gathering data on the incidence of calls made to and from his phone by people associated with him and others." Similarly, the Administration intelligence official said that no warrant was needed, because "there's no personal identifier involved, other than the metadata from a call being placed."

Three chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union sued AT&T Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. in state court Friday to block the telecommunications companies from providing phone records to the federal government. Two complaints filed in San Francisco Superior Court claim the companies violated state law by helping the National Security Agency assemble the largest database in the world. The complaints name 17 individuals as plaintiffs, including a former congressman, a nationally syndicated journalist and a psychiatrist. The allegations, which a spokesman from Verizon denied, are based on a May 11 article from USA Today, which said AT&T, Verizon and other companies provided the NSA with records showing the calling patterns of millions of phone customers in the United States. Data included phone numbers of both parties, call time, date and length of call. "The fact of making the call needs to remain private," said ACLU lawyer Ann Brick. Verizon spokesman Bob Varettoni said the suit against his company was meritless. He declined to elaborate. In a written statement, Verizon denied news reports that it entered into an agreement with the NSA to provide data from its customers' domestic calls. AT&T issued a statement that said it does not provide caller records to law enforcement officials or government agencies without "legal authorization."

In a move more befitting, perhaps, the presidential Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires circa 1982, and not the Rose City of Portland circa 2006, the FBI has been accused by Portland Mayor Tom Potter of "trying to place an informant inside the offices of Portland's elected officials and employees, in order to inform on City Council and others." Since the end of the Age of Aquarius, when thousands of Californians began to migrate north to Oregon, Portland has never been particularly welcoming to the executive branch of the federal government - especially when said branch is in Republican control. Portland's two Representatives in Congress are Democrats, and Portland's county, Multnomah, voted for John Kerry over Bush in 2004 by nearly a 3-to-1 ratio. "Portlanders seem proud of their bluer-than-blue reputation, of the bumper stickers that proclaim 'Keep Portland Weird.' So maybe it was predictable that the city mocked as Little Beirut by conservatives is considering a symbolic declaration of independence." And tucked away in the Pacific Northwest, with no Jerry Garcia or Kurt Cobain to worship, Portland has made its commitment to progressive politics the city's calling card. Moreover, in April 2005, the City Council voted, along with the mayor - and with overwhelming support from the citizenry - to withdraw Portland's participation in the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force project. By state law, police officers in Oregon are barred from investigating citizens based solely on their political, religious or social leanings, and Portlanders will be quick to point out that it was the Feds, and not local cops, who erroneously arrested local attorney Brandon Mayfield in connection to the 3/11 Madrid train bombings in May 2004. After the bogus fingerprint evidence used to arrest him fell through, the only credible "reason" behind the police action turned out to be Mayfield's religion, which happened to be Islam. "In the absence of any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing," wrote Mayor Potter in an open letter to the city, "I believe the FBI's recent actions smack of 'Big Brother.' Spying on local government without justification or cause is not acceptable to me. I hope it is not acceptable to you, either."

A string of recent court filings in the CIA leak case provide new details of Vice President Cheney's role at the center of an administration effort to rebut an outspoken critic of the White House's rationale for the Iraq war in the summer of 2003. They include his repeated discussions of the issue with his top aide and his part in a counteroffensive that resulted in the unmasking of a CIA officer. Cheney -- who helped devise the White House argument that Iraq had an extensive program to build weapons of mass destruction before the war -- is described in the filings as upset by Wilson's criticism, which the vice president saw as a direct assault on his credibility. Fitzgerald does not describe Cheney's actions as illegal or even improper. But the filings make it clear that Cheney had a larger role in the effort to rebut Wilson than was previously known and that his actions could put him in an uncomfortable place: on the witness stand as a sitting vice president.

Of all the symbols and faiths recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Wicca and its emblem - a circle around a five-pointed star - are not among them. The department is reviewing a request to include the symbol, but when a decision will come is unclear. That has angered many. The state's top veterans official, Tim Tetz, said he was "diligently pursuing" the matter with Gov. Kenny Guinn, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev. "Sergeant Stewart and his family deserve recognition for their contributions to our country," said Tetz, executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services. "It's unfortunate the process is taking so long, but I am certain Sgt. Patrick will ultimately receive his marker with the Wiccan symbol," he said Thursday.

A Zogby Interactive poll finds that U.S. voters are more distrustful than ever of political and corporate leaders. Only 3 percent believe Congress is trustworthy; 7 percent think business leaders are; 24 percent say President George W. Bush can be trusted; and 29 percent trust the courts. The poll was commissioned by Jim Lichtman, an ethics specialist whose latest book is "What Do You Stand For?" Three out of four respondents said they trust politicians less than they did five years ago. Seventy-five percent of those polled said their friends, neighbors and co-workers are trustworthy, and an overwhelming majority -- 97 percent -- described themselves as trustworthy.

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson says he has leg-pressed 2,000 pounds, but some say he'd be in a pretty tough spot if he tried. The "700 Club" host's feat of strength is recounted on the Web site of his Christian Broadcasting Network, in a posting headlined "How Pat Robertson Leg Pressed 2,000 Pounds." According to the CBN Web site, Robertson worked his way up to lifting a ton with the help of his physician, who is not named. The posting does not say when the lift occurred, but a CBN spokeswoman released photos to The Associated Press that she said showed Robertson lifting 2,000 pounds in 2003, when Robertson was 73. He is now 76. The Web posting said two men loaded the leg-press machine with 2,000 pounds "and then let it down on Mr. Robertson, who pushed it up one rep and let it go back down again." The Web site said several people witnessed the event, and shows video of Robertson leg-pressing what appears to be 1,000 pounds. Clay Travis of CBS SportsLine.com called the 2,000-pound assertion impossible in a column this week, writing that the leg-press record for football players at Florida State University is 665 pounds less. "Where in the world did Robertson even find a machine that could hold 2,000 pounds at one time?" Travis asked. Andy Zucker, a strength-training coach at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, said leg presses of more than 1,000 pounds represent "a Herculean effort, and 2,000 pounds is a whole other story."

If it reaches his desk, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will veto legislation to require public school instructional materials to contain discussions about the contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, a spokesman said Thursday. The statement from the governor, who rarely takes positions on bills until they pass the Legislature, dooms the measure which also prohibits teaching or textbooks that reflect adversely on people because of their sexual orientation or identity. "The issue for the governor is he is not supportive of the Legislature micromanaging curriculum," said Adam Mendelsohn, the GOP governor's communications director. "California has an 18-member standards board that is a national model for looking at curriculum," Mendelsohn said. "The governor just believes it's not the Legislature's job to determine curriculum." Backers of the bill vowed to continue pushing it through the Legislature. The measure cleared the 40-member Senate two weeks ago on a 22-15 vote after a sometimes emotional debate.

"What happened to the Texas swagger?" asks Elisabeth Bumiller in a White House Memo article slated for the front page of Saturday's edition of The New York Times. "Maybe it went the way of his poll numbers," Bumiller writes. "Maybe this is a newly reflective President Bush. Or maybe the first lady had her say." "Whatever the case, when Bush said at a news conference on Thursday night that he regretted some personal mistakes, like declaring "bring 'em on" in 2003, he seemed a little like the chastened husband who finally admitted he had done something wrong," writes Bumiller. "Whether it worked or not depends on whom you ask." Laura Bush has had to "rein" in her husband in the past, Bumiller notes. "Bush has defended his Texas talk as the kind of plain-spoken language that Americans like to hear, but Laura Bush, for one, has at times tried to rein him in," writes Bumiller. "In a widely reported comment at the time, Laura Bush sidled up to her husband after he said he wanted bin Laden 'dead or alive' and asked, 'Bushie, are you gonna git 'im?'"

House leaders conceded Friday that FBI agents with a court-issued warrant can legally search a congressman's office, but they said they want procedures established after agents with a court warrant took over a lawmaker's office last week. "I want to know exactly what would happen if there is a similar sort of thing" in the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Friday, shortly after summoning Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to his office. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., concurred: "I am confident that in the next 45 days, the lawyers will figure out how to do it right." Gonzales was similarly optimistic. "We've been working hard already and we'll continue to do so pursuant to the president's order," he told The Associated Press. In an editorial page article in USA Today on Friday, Hastert said he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have directed House lawyers "to develop reasonable protocols and procedures that will make it possible for the FBI to go into congressional offices to constitutionally execute a search warrant." Until last Saturday night, no such warrant had ever been used to search a lawmaker's office in the 219-year history of the Congress. Without advance notice, FBI agents then arrived at a House building to conduct an overnight search at the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., an eight-term lawmaker accused of bribery.

House Minority Leader (D-CA) is facing a minor insurrection from members of the Black Caucus after asking Representative William Jefferson (D-LA) to step down from his post on the Ways and Means Committee, according to today's Roll Call. But hours after Pelosi sent her letter to Jefferson on Wednesday, a members-only CBC lunch meeting produced an emotional consensus that Pelosi had overreached, since Jefferson has not been charged with any crimes. One after another, CBC members rallied behind their colleague, arguing that he was being singled out. Some noted that another Democrat recently entangled in an ethics controversy, Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), was forced to step aside as the ranking member of the ethics committee but permitted to keep his coveted Appropriations Committee perch. "There’s no precedent for doing this to someone who has not been indicted," Rep. Al Wynn (Md.) said afterward. Said Clyburn, also a CBC member: "I would say that the people who spoke were very vehement in their opposition."

Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who at times seemed out of sync with President Bush, has informed the White House that he will resign in the coming days after three years as the nation's chief economic officer, a source close to Snow said yesterday. Snow asked the White House to announce his resignation in early June and said he plans to stay in the job no later than July 3 while a replacement is sought, the source said. The secretary's decision was intended to bring finality to a process that has played out awkwardly in public over months as Snow's job security has been a regular source of Washington speculation.

As the Pentagon faces an ever-growing manpower shortage, both officers and grunts, it continues to discharge some of its best and brightest simply for being who they are: A Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, said 726 service members were discharged under the policy during the 2005 budget year that ended last Sept. 30. That compares with 653 discharges the year before. She released the figures after a gay rights advocacy group said it had obtained the statistics on its own. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has represented military members who were forced out for being openly gay, says the Pentagon's policy deprives the military of qualified and experienced personnel in at a time when the Army and Marine Corps have struggled to meet their recruiting goals. As you see above, SLDN already had the figures, so the Pentagon's hand was forced on this one. It really is a position the government cannot defend with any logic at this point. (SLDN): "The rate of discharge has remained relatively consistent each year since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and represents a 40% decrease compared with years prior to the attacks. A total of 742 military personnel were discharged under the 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' ban on openly gay service members, up from 668 discharges among the services in FY2004." The San Antonio Express-News recently reported that the armed forces are facing a "major" officer shortage, including falling short by 2,500 captains and majors in the Army this year, with that number increasing to 3,300 in 2007. In an attempt to attract new recruits and fill the gap, Pentagon leaders have recently relaxed enlistment standards regarding age, physical fitness, education and criminal records. The discharge of lesbian and gay Americans, however, continues.

Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, a career military intelligence officer who has overseen some of the government's most secret and controversial surveillance programs, was confirmed by the Senate yesterday to head the CIA as it tries to regain some of its lost luster. Senators voted 78 to 15 to confirm Hayden to succeed Porter J. Goss, who steps down today after 18 stormy months.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: Venezuelan politicians have complained about a forthcoming "shoot-em-up" computer game that simulates an invasion of the South American nation. In production by Los Angeles-based Pandemic Studios, Mercenaries 2: World In Flames is based around the overthrow of an imaginary Venezuelan "tyrant". Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has long accused the US of planning to invade, something Washington denies. His supporters say the game aims to drum up support for a real invasion. Pandemic has insisted that the title - due to be released next year - is solely about entertainment. "Pandemic has no ties to the US government," Greg Richardson, the firm's vice president of commercial operations, told the Associated Press. "Pandemic Studios is a private company, focusing solely on the development of interactive entertainment." Yet Pandemic's publicist Chris Norris said its designers "always want to have a rip from the headlines." He added: "Although a conflict doesn't necessarily have to be happening, it's realistic enough to believe that it could eventually happen." However, on its website Pandemic lists a game called "Full Spectrum Warrior / Army Training", which it describes as a "squad-level, dismounted, light infantry training simulator created for use by the US Army".

As the United States prepares a team of 30 to defend its record on torture before a U.N. committee, Amnesty International has made public a report blasting the United States for failing to take appropriate steps to eradicate use of torture at U.S. detention sites around the world. U.S. compliance with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment will be the topic of May 5 and 8 U.N. hearings in Geneva. The United States last appeared before the Committee Against Torture in May, 2000. Amnesty claims that practices criticized by the Committee six years ago -- such as the use of electro-shock weapons and excessively harsh conditions in "super-maximum" security prisons -- have been used and exported by U.S. forces abroad. The Amnesty report (Beyond Abu Ghraib: detention and torture in Iraq) reviews several cases where U.S. detainees held in Afghanistan and Iraq have died as a result of torture. The group also lambasts U.S. use of electro-shock weapons, inhuman and degrading conditions of isolation in "super-max" security prisons and abuses against women in the prison system -- including sexual abuse by male guards, shackling while pregnant and even in labor.

Many illegal immigrants no longer hike. They bike. The 110-degree heat and rough terrain of the Arizona desert would exhaust the fittest of cyclists, but these migrants are often middle-aged housewives or farmers, riding battered second-hand bikes for 30 or 40 miles. The bikes also carry their supplies and belongings, so if rocks or cactus spines shred the tires, they get off and push. The prize? A chance at a low-wage job. "We've seen them going by on bicycles right by our offices ... in whole groups," said Mario Lopez, an agent for Mexico's Grupo Beta migrant aid agency, whose offices sit just a few hundred yards from the border. "They're usually old bikes because they're going to abandon them anyway." "They tie their water and their possessions on top of the bikes, and just push them till the rims are square," said Organ Pipe Cactus National Park ranger Viv Sartori.

Liberal-Biased Media Watch: On the May 24 edition of his CNN Headline News show, Glenn Beck appeared to question studies showing that global temperatures increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius during the 20th century by falsely claiming that annual temperatures in the United States have remained "pretty much flat." Beck claimed on the May 24 program that "if you look, the Earth has gotten warmer now by 0.6 degrees Celsius," but the rise in surface temperatures "is much higher in other parts of the world" than it has been in the United States, which is "one of the more accurate record keepers in the world." But several studies show comparable temperature changes in the United States and the world as a whole. A report released by the United States Global Change Program in 2000 documented a temperature change of 0.6 degrees Celsius in the United States in the 20th century, the same increase Beck cited as the global temperature change. The study added that "the coastal Northeast, the upper Midwest, the Southwest, and parts of Alaska have experienced increases in the annual average temperature approaching 4°F (2°C) in the 20th Century" and that "average warming in the US is projected to be somewhat greater than for the world as a whole over the 21st century."

In their reporting on the May 25 conviction of former Enron Corp. chairman Kenneth Lay and former president Jeffrey Skilling on fraud and conspiracy charges, the network news programs - ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer - all failed to mention the ties between the fallen corporation and President Bush. Further, the Los Angeles Times ran six separate articles on the Enron verdicts on May 26, but not a single one noted Bush's connection to Enron and, in particular, his close personal and political ties to Lay. Bush's efforts in recent years to distance himself from Lay -- whom he nicknamed "Kenny Boy" -- have been widely reported. However, the release in 2002 of numerous letters exchanged between the two during Bush's tenure as Texas governor provided concrete evidence of their "chummy" relationship.

Your Tax Dollars At Work: As rising energy costs squeeze communities from coast to coast, in rural America, high fuel prices top off a host of burdens weighing down family farms. But a Senate proposal to funnel about $1.5 billion in "energy assistance" to farms encapsulates what some say is a broken system of federal handouts, which wastes cash on agricultural behemoths while ignoring deeper problems looming over the country's farmlands. The energy assistance included in the Senate Appropriations Committee's proposed emergency funding legislation would boost by 30 percent the "fixed" direct subsidies that certain farms are already due to receive under existing federal policies. The measure is part of a $3.9 billion spending package to help farmers recover from natural disasters. The government projects that farmers' fuel and oil costs will rise by more than 12 percent this year, subsequently driving up the overall price of production, transportation, and fuel-based fertilizers. A typical farmer might spend about $20 per planted acre just on fuel, oil and electricity. "When diesel fuel and fertilizer costs skyrocket like they have in the last few months, people like the idea of supporting those farmers," said John Crabtree, with the agriculture-policy think tank Center for Rural Affairs. "But by doing it this way, ultimately, you just sort of undermine them - short-term help that ends up costing them in the long term."

There's a war being waged out West with poison, aerial guns and traps. The enemy: America's wildlife. Although the conflict has raged since ranchers first staked out land, constructed fences and declared native wildlife a nuisance, the campaign to exterminate native predators from ranching areas has increased both in scale and cost, with taxpayers footing part of the bill. Of the nearly $100 million the federal government spent on all "predator control" in 2005, $40 million was earmarked for safeguarding agriculture; $15 million of that went to specifically protect livestock from predators by hunting them from aircraft, poisoning them or slaying them in other ways. Farmers and ranchers have spent almost $200 million more on non-lethal predator controls. But while taxpayers shell out money for predator control, US Department of Agriculture records show that in 2005, coyotes, wolves, bears and other non-human predators accounted for the deaths of only 190,000, or about one-fifth of one percent of cattle, out of a total population of 104.5 million. Conversely, non-predator causes - aside from slaughter by humans - accounted for 3.86 million cattle lost during 2005. Respiratory problems were the leading cause of death, claiming over 1 million cattle, followed by digestive problems, which killed almost 650,000. Other causes of pre-slaughter losses include disease, illness, weather, theft and calving complications.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: The tropics - the globe's most torrid climate belt - have widened during the past 27 years, expanding toward the poles by an average of about 140 miles, according to new research. If the trend continues through the end of the century, it would drive rain-bearing storms toward higher latitudes, deprive heavily populated southern Europe of much-needed winter rain and snow, and expand the world's subtropical deserts, atmospheric scientists say. "It's a big deal," notes Thomas Reichler, a University of Utah atmospheric scientist and a member of the research team, which reported its results in Friday's issue of the journal Science. Some aspects of the results are consistent with global-warming projections, team members note. If the cause does prove to be global warming, these results would represent the first direct satellite evidence of its impact on worldwide atmospheric circulation, says team leader Qiang Fu, a researcher at the University of Washington.

Republicans Believe In The Rule Of Law: For the third year in a row, the Office of Vice President Dick Cheney has refused to disclose data on its classification and declassification activity, in an apparent violation of an executive order issued by President Bush. "The Office of the Vice President (OVP), the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), and the Homeland Security Council (HSC) failed to report their data to ISOO this year," the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) noted in its new 2005 Annual Report to the President. The Office of the Vice President has declined to report such data since 2002. Yet it is clear that disclosure is not optional. "Each agency that creates or handles classified information shall report annually to the Director of ISOO statistics related to its security classification program," according to ISOO Directive 1 (at section 2001.80). This and other ISOO directives "shall be binding upon the agencies," President Bush wrote in Executive Order 13292 (section 5.1). And an "agency" is not only a statutorily defined executive branch agency, but also includes "any other entity within the executive branch that comes into the possession of classified information." Despite this straightforward language, a spokeswoman for Vice President Cheney told the Chicago Tribune in April that his Office is "not under any duty" to provide the required information.

Civil liberties lawyers yesterday questioned the legal basis that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales used Tuesday to justify the constitutionality of collecting domestic telephone records as part of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism program. While not confirming a USA Today report May 11 saying the National Security Agency has been collecting phone-call records of millions of Americans, Gonzales said such an activity would not require a court warrant under a 1979 Supreme Court ruling because it involved obtaining "business records." Under the 27-year-old court ruling in Smith v. Maryland, "those kinds of records do not enjoy Fourth Amendment protection," Gonzales said. "There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in those kinds of records," he added. Noting that Congress in 1986 passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in reaction to the Smith v. Maryland ruling to require court orders before turning over call records to the government, G. Jack King Jr. of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said Gonzales is correct in saying "the administration isn't violating the Fourth Amendment" but "he's failing to acknowledge that it is breaking" the 1986 law, which requires a court order "with a few very narrow exceptions."

Republicans Believe In Protecting The Environment: Citing the public outcry over $3-a-gallon gasoline and America's heavy reliance on foreign oil, the House on Thursday voted to open an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling, knowing the prospects for Senate approval were slim. Drilling proponents argued that the refuge on Alaska's North Slope would provide 1 million barrels a day of additional domestic oil at peak production and reduce the need for imports. But opponents to developing what environmentalists argue is a pristine area where drilling will harm caribou, polar bears and migratory birds, said Congress should pursue conservation and alternative energy sources that would save more oil than would be tapped from the refuge. The House voted 225-201 to direct the Interior Department to open oil leases on the coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- an area of 1.5 million acres that is thought likely to hold about 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil. But the action may be little more than symbolic. Arctic refuge development, while approved by the House five times, repeatedly has been blocked in the Senate where drilling proponents have been unable to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: Is a basic decline in the value of the dollar behind the recent runup in commodity prices? It is a dubious notion that global economic growth has suddenly reached a point where worldwide demand has overwhelmingly and simultaneously outstripped worldwide supply of all these commodities. In 2005, real global economic growth slowed to about 3.2 percent from nearly four percent in 2004. Slower global economic growth was led by slower real economic growth in the United States, which decelerated to 3.5 percent in 2005 from 4.2 percent in 2004. Global demand for commodities was actually declining, as prices for these commodities began to gallop higher in 2005. The devaluation of the dollar against the world's major commodities is being driven by the exceptional growth in the world's supply of dollars during the past two years. Growth in the world's supply of dollars has come from two primary sources: rising international oil prices and the very large and growing U.S. trade deficit. Interestingly, the powerful surge in commodity prices in 2006 has been accompanied by an equally powerful decline in the prices for all dollar-denominated bonds, pushing bond yields steeply higher. As U.S. bond yields have risen, the value of the dollar against both the yen and the euro has declined, signaling that foreign capital flight from the U.S. may have already begun. The dollar has depreciated by about eight percent against the euro and about five percent against the yen between January 1 and May 22, 2006. The sale of dollar-denominated bonds by foreigners is shifting the global dollar bubble back into the U.S. money supply. This added liquidity undoubtedly helped to propel U.S. economic growth higher in the first quarter of 2006. It has also added to already growing inflationary pressures in the United States.

News From Smirkey's Wars: The bulk of the fighting in Afghanistan in the past week, which has claimed more than 300 lives among the Taliban, US-led forces, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and civilians, has taken place in the southern Pashtun heartland of the country. However, the Taliban's spring offensive is fast turning into a massive resistance against the foreign presence all over Afghanistan, and already some influential characters are jockeying for a post-spring role. And the indications are that the resistance could transcend a simple Taliban-led insurgency to evolve into a powerful Islamic movement. Thousands of Taliban have emerged in the provinces of Helmand, Ghazni, Urgzan, Kandahar, Kunar and Zabul, and in all of them the story is the same: where allied forces have taken on the Taliban, the ANA holds the "fort". In places beyond the access of allied forces, the Taliban are in control. In the less-populated Farah and Nimroze provinces, where the Taliban have a nominal presence, violent incidents against the ANA have begun. The same is true in western Herat province on the border with Iran.

Scandals Du Jour: A new liberal Senate advocacy group has filed a Federal Elections Commission criminal complaint against the New Hampshire Republican State Committee, who they allege may have illegally concealed the receipt and amount of a contribution from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians - a native American client of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The Senate Majority Project says the Choctaw's contribution helped finance the Republicans’ efforts to stymie get out the vote phone lines by illegally "jamming" calls. A lawyer for the Republican National Committee, who is representing those accused in the phone jamming case, recently revealed that the White House's role in the phone jamming was investigated by the Justice Department after it emerged that calls were placed by those involved to the White House on the day of the crime. Republicans say calls to the White House weren't regarding phone-jamming. Bloomberg News reported that the RNC "said they only paid the legal bills of James Tobin, 45, who was convicted in December of conspiracy to commit telephone harassment because the Republican National Committee's previous leadership had agreed to do that."

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: On September 29, 2003, three days after it became known that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate who leaked the name of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, columnist Robert Novak telephoned White House senior adviser Karl Rove to assure Rove that he would protect him from being harmed by the investigation, according to people with firsthand knowledge of the federal grand jury testimony of both men. Suspicious that Rove and Novak might have devised a cover story during that conversation to protect Rove, federal investigators briefed then-Attorney General John Ashcroft on the matter in the early stages of the investigation in fall 2003, according to officials with direct knowledge of those briefings. Rove testified to the grand jury that during his telephone call with Novak, the columnist said words to the effect: "You are not going to get burned" and "I don't give up my sources," according to people familiar with his testimony. Rove had been one of the "two senior administration" officials who had been sources for the July 14, 2003, column in which Novak outed Plame as an "agency operative." Rove and Novak had talked about Plame on July 9, five days before Novak's column was published. In Hardball's daily dish on the CIA leak trial Thursday, MSNBC's David Shuster said the latest filings raise new questions about Vice President Cheney's potential role in the outing of a CIA agent, and that sources close to Karl Rove confirm that Rove did have a followup conversation about his calling conservative columnist Robert Novak. A report in the National Journal today suggests Novak considered 'covering' for Rove in the case.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:31:48 AM

Thu, May 25 2006

Clean Ditches

Weather today was a dry season day - but with rainy season overtones. It was cool and cloudy when I got up, but quickly cleared off to a bright and sunny day - and remained that way nearly all day. Just before sunset, however, the clouds came back, and as soon as the sun went down, a light rain began. The overcast night kept the temperature overnight to 73, and the sun brought it up to an afternoon high of 85.

My health seems to be improving noticeably. The occasional twinges of angina are almost entirely gone, and when the do occur, they are barely noticable. And I am less prone to get winded than I was. So I was out today enjoying the fine weather, and had little problem with my heart when getting things done.

The municipality cleaned out the desaguas (roadside drainage ditches) alongside the street today. They do that here in town at the beginning and end of the rainy season, and the desaguas usually need it rather badly by the time it gets done. The road grader operator did a fine job and got all the tree saplings, growing clumbs of sod, and small boulders that had accumulated in the ditches cleaned out. I also had him cut a new runout down by the end of the pond, where the water empties into the pond, and he was happy to accomodate me. It is about thirty feet short of the old runout, and that means a larger area of unmaintained streetside area, but at least the sediment carried by the runoff won't accumulate and cause flooding of the street as it had been doing. The landform won't be as nicely shaped, but it will be better for the people who have to walk past there on rainy days - the road should drain much better there now.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: President George W. Bush has bestowed on his intelligence czar, John Negroponte, broad authority, in the name of national security, to excuse publicly traded companies from their usual accounting and securities-disclosure obligations. Notice of the development came in a brief entry in the Federal Register, dated May 5, 2006, that was opaque to the untrained eye. Unbeknownst to almost all of Washington and the financial world, Bush and every other President since Jimmy Carter have had the authority to exempt companies working on certain top-secret defense projects from portions of the 1934 Securities Exchange Act. Administration officials told BusinessWeek that they believe this is the first time a President has ever delegated the authority to someone outside the Oval Office. It couldn't be immediately determined whether any company has received a waiver under this provision.

The web should remain neutral and resist attempts to fragment it into different services, web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has said. Recent attempts in the US to allow ISPs to charge for different levels of online access web based on content were not "part of the internet model," he said in Edinburgh. He warned that if the US decided to go ahead with a two-tier internet, the network would enter "a dark period". Sir Tim was speaking at the start of a conference on the future of the web. "What's very important from my point of view is that there is one web," he said. "Anyone that tries to chop it into two will find that their piece looks very boring."

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, is under investigation by the FBI, which is seeking to determine his role in an ongoing public corruption probe into members of Congress, ABC News has learned from senior U.S. law enforcement officials. Federal officials say the information implicating Hastert was developed from convicted lobbyists who are now cooperating with the government. Part of the investigation involves a letter Hastert wrote three years ago, urging the Secretary of the Interior to block a casino on an Indian reservation that would have competed with other tribes.

But that isn't the half of the allegations against Hastert. Vanity Fair's September edition, now out in New York but yet to hit national newsstands, packs a punch with an article about Sibel Edmonds, the FBI translator who has been gagged by the Bush Administration from revealing information about conversations she translated surrounding a seemingly major corruption scandal involving Turkish nationals and U.S. lawmakers. From Vanity Fair: "Edmonds has given confidential testimony inside a secure Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility on several occasions: to congressional staffers, to investigators from the OIG, and to staff from the 9/11 commission," Rose continues. "Sources familiar with this testimony say that, in addition to her allegations about the Dickersons, she reported hearing Turkish wiretap targets boast that they had a covert relationship with a very senior Republican indeed - Dennis Hastert, Republican congressman from Illinois and Speaker of the House since 1999. The targets reportedly discussed giving Hastert tens of thousands of dollars in surreptitious payments in exchange for political favors and information. "The Dickersons," says one official familiar with the case, "are just the tip of the iceberg." "Some of the calls reportedly contained what sounded like references to large scale drug shipments and other crimes," writes Rose. "One name, however, apparently stood out - a man the Turkish callers often referred to by the nickname "Denny boy." It was the Republican congressman from Illinois and Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert. According to some of the wiretaps, the FBI's targets had arranged for thousands of dollars to be paid to Hastert's campaign funds in small checks. Under Federal Election Commission rules, donations of less than $200 are not required to be itemized in public filings.

In a move that will effectively publish social security numbers and other private information for anyone who wants to use it for identity theft, the Senate voted Tuesday to require employers to use a database open to any employer to look up Social Security numbers and other private information of prospective employees. The law would fine employers who hire illegal immigrants up to $20,000 for each unauthorized worker, providing teeth to a broad immigration bill before sending it to a final vote later this week. Employers would be required to enter the Social Security numbers or immigrant identification numbers of all new hires within 18 months, including citizens, into a computerized system that would be created by the Department of Homeland Security. "This is probably the single most important thing we can do in terms of reducing the inflow of undocumented workers, making sure we can enforce in a systematic way rules governing who gets hired," said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. The amendment passed 58-40. Opponents said the verification system would take years to implement and complained that workers deemed illegal could still hold onto jobs until their appeals are exhausted.

Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., voted to approve the amendment. Employers who don't use the new computerized system could be fined $200 to $600. The system would include information from three federal agencies. The program is intended to keep illegal immigrants from working in the United States and to discourage more from entering, but in nearly a decade of small-scale tests, it has had trouble distinguishing between those who are here legally and those who are not. Fixing it and rolling it out nationwide could cost more than $1 billion.

The war on terror is provoking more terror, Amnesty International secretary-general Irene Khan told IPS in an interview Tuesday at the launch of the human rights group's 2005 annual report. "The war on terror and the way it has unfolded actually is premised on the principle that by eroding human rights you can reinforce security," Khan said. "And that is why as part of the war on terror we see restrictions being placed on civil liberties around the world." That has led to the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp "where people that are considered to be dangerous by the U.S. Administration are being locked up without any charge, without any trial, indefinitely," Khan said. "That cannot be the best way in which you fight terrorism. Because it plays straight into the hands of those who would want to destroy human rights." Khan added: "The proof of what I am saying is that the world is not safer today. The number of attacks by armed groups has been going up according to research, and empirical evidence." Irene Khan had controversially spoken of Guantanamo Bay as the Gulag of today, referring to the infamous Soviet concentration camp. But that comparison now stands vindicated, Khan said. "Last year when we called for the closure of Guantanamo, there was a lot of negative reaction from the U.S. Administration, but today a year later you even have President Bush saying he would like to close Guantanamo."

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he will likely sign a bill that would make Florida one of the most restrictive states in the nation for college professors and students interested in traveling abroad. The bill bans travel to five countries identified as "terrorist states," including Cuba. Professors and students alike are angered by a proposal to ban scholarly travel to five countries. Cuba, Syria, Iran, North Korea and the Sudan would all be off-limits for college or university-sponsored research trips if Bush signs the bill passed by lawmakers earlier this month. Florida A & M University student Dominique Drake is a double major in business and Spanish. Drake thinks limiting research travel is shortsighted and narrow-minded. "Our economy is a global economy, and we can't just focus on what's going on in America," she said. "We need to know what's going on all over the world." Supporters of the bill said the issue is terrorism. They don't think taxpayers' money should be used to pay for research trips to countries that sanction terrorist activities.

The government has the legal authority to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said yesterday. "There are some statutes on the book which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility," Mr. Gonzales said on the ABC News program "This Week." "That’s a policy judgment by the Congress in passing that kind of legislation," he continued. "We have an obligation to enforce those laws. We have an obligation to ensure that our national security is protected." Of course, no one on the program asked him why, if Smirkey, under the theory of the "unitary executive" can decide for himself what laws are to be enforced, why there is an obligation to enforce that particular one.

The FBI failed to follow up on numerous warning signs that one of its most highly paid informants was a suspected Chinese spy and that she had a nearly 20-year affair with her FBI handler, the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general said on Wednesday. Inspector General Glenn Fine said that Katrina Leung, who was accused of being a double agent, had been paid more than $1.7 million by the FBI and that she had a longtime affair with her handler in Los Angeles, FBI agent James Smith. They were arrested in 2003. Smith, who retired in 2000, pleaded guilty in 2003 to making false statements to the FBI. Leung, a prominent businesswoman and well known in the Southern California Chinese-American community, pleaded guilty last year to lying to the government about the affair with Smith and filing a false tax return. They both received probation.

Democrats sought to get embattled Rep. William Jefferson (news, bio, voting record) to resign his seat on the House's most prestigious committee. "In the interest of upholding the high ethical standard of the House Democratic Caucus, I am writing to request your immediate resignation from the Ways and Means Committee," wrote House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi in the one-sentence correspondence. The Louisiana Democrat was defiant. "With respect, I decline to do so," he wrote back to Pelosi."I will not give up a committee assignment that is so vital to New Orleans at this crucial time for any uncertain, long-term political strategy." Earlier, House Speaker Dennis Hastert demanded that the FBI surrender documents it seized and remove agents involved in the weekend raid of Jefferson's office, under what lawmakers of both parties said were unconstitutional circumstances. "We think those materials ought to be returned," Hastert said, adding that the FBI agents involved "ought to be frozen out of that (case) just for the sake of the constitutional aspects of it."

In a small, mirror-paneled room guarded by a Secret Service agent and packed with some of New York City's wealthiest and most influential political donors, Mr. McCain got right to the point. "One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, 'Stop the bullshit,'" said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an invitee, and two other guests. The exclusive audience included R.N.C. finance chair Lewis Eisenberg, Blackstone Group co-founder Peter G. Peterson, former Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman and Gail Hilson, the politically influential socialite who has organized events for Mr. McCain in the past. Yes, senator, I am sure that would solve the problem.

Boeing Co. on Monday unveiled a line of small, lightweight bombs that the U.S. Air Force will use in urban combat situations like the war in Iraq. The small-diameter bombs weigh 250 pounds and can be used by all Air Force bombers, according to Boeing. By using the smaller bombs, planes can carry about four times as many of these weapons and fire them from farther away. A B-2 Stealth bomber can carry as many as 80 of the small-diameter bombs. At an unveiling ceremony Monday, Justice said Boeing's development of the bomb was one of the speediest and most successful weapons development in Air Force history. He said the bomb should be used in combat as early as this summer. Boeing, based in Chicago but whose defense operations are based in the St. Louis area, said it will make 24,000 small-diameter bombs for the Air Force, which has contracted to buy them through 2015.

The Lincoln Group has apparently logged more propaganda work in Iraq. It was reported previously that Rear Adm. Scott Van Buskirk's review of U.S. propaganda efforts in Iraq found that no regulations were violated by the "multipronged campaign" run by Lincoln. According to the New York Times, the three-page summary of the Pentagon review calls the military's covert authorship of Iraqi newspaper articles "appropriate," but suggests new guidelines to "determine when attribution may be appropriate." Without mentioning the Lincoln Group, the PR firm that planted the pro-U.S. stories, the review emphasizes the importance of "proper oversight" of contractors on propaganda programs. The review is critical of the U.S.-created Baghdad Press Club, saying the military's "direct oversight of an apparently independent news organization and remuneration for articles that are published will undoubtedly raise questions focused on 'truth and credibility,' that will be difficult to deflect." The New York Times reports, "Several Pentagon officials said the Lincoln Group and other contractors were still involved in placing propaganda messages in Iraqi publications and on television."

President Hugo Chavez said Wednesday that Venezuela will buy Russian jets because of a dispute over parts for U.S.-made aircraft, launching yet another verbal assault on President Bush. Chavez took sharp issue with Bush's remarks this week about an "erosion of democracy" in Venezuela, and also criticized a U.S. move to curtail arms sales after Washington said the South American nation was failing to cooperate in counterterrorism efforts. "The one that supports terrorism is the U.S. government," Chavez said, calling Bush the "biggest tyrant in history" and saying Venezuela is becoming more democratic - not less.

Is President Bush likely to see Al Gore's documentary about global warming? "Doubt it," Bush said coolly Monday. But Bush should watch it, Gore shot back. In fact, the former Democratic vice president offered to come to the White House any time, any day to show Bush either his documentary or a slide show on global warming that he's shown more than 1,000 times around the world. "The entire global scientific community has a consensus on the question that human beings are responsible for global warming and he has today again expressed personal doubt that that is true," Gore said in an Associated Press interview from France where he attended the Cannes Film Festival. Bush and Gore have had bitter disagreements about the environment and other issues. Bush defeated Gore in a disputed presidential election that was finally settled by the Supreme Court in 2000. Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," chronicles his efforts to bring greater attention to the dangers of climate change.

Fannie Mae, the giant mortgage buyer, is expected to pay more than $400 million today as part of a settlement to resolve claims that executives manipulated earnings in the 1990's so they could receive bigger bonuses, two people briefed on the situation said yesterday. A government official confirmed Fannie Mae's settlement with the Office of Federal Housing and Enterprise Oversight, the company's chief safety and soundness regulator and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which oversees its books. Neither person would agree to be identified because the settlement had not been formally announced. Officials from Fannie Mae, Ofheo and the S.E.C. declined to comment last night. An announcement of the settlement is expected at a news conference this afternoon. The settlement comes as Ofheo publicly releases a comprehensive and potentially damaging report that is expected to level scathing criticism at Fannie Mae's accounting practices and management culture. For Fannie Mae, the settlement is also a significant step in moving beyond an accounting scandal of almost $11 billion that resulted in a major management shake-up, including the abrupt departure of its chief financial officer and Franklin D. Raines, its former chairman and chief executive, who left in December 2004.

TV stations which fail to identify PR releases given them by business, as not being "news" when run in a newscast, are running afoul of FCC regulations and may find themselves being fined by the FCC. Bloomberg reports that, in direct response to CMD's groundbreaking exposé 'Fake TV News,' the "Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin ordered a probe of dozens of television stations. ... The April report by the non-profit Center for Media and Democracy found at least 77 stations, including 23 affiliates of Walt Disney Co.'s ABC network and seven Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. stations, ignored an FCC warning to disclose sponsors. The maximum fine for each violation is $32,500, rising to $325,000 for multiple infractions, said FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin. 'If the investigation leads to significant fines, the FCC could cause stations to put disclosures in place that make clearer the corporate role in local news,' said analyst Blair Levin of Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Washington. 'It depends how hard Martin wants to push it.'"

Bill O'Reilly asserted, during the May 23 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, that "[m]any Americans ages 18 to 24 have no idea what's going on," stating that they "get their news from [Comedy Central host] Jon Stewart and their point of view from bomb-throwing entertainers." In fact, studies have shown that viewers of Comedy Central's The Daily Show with John Stewart are consistently better informed about current events than consumers of other media, and Daily Show viewers are significantly better educated than viewers of The O'Reilly Factor. Further, consumers of Fox News in general have been found to be significantly more misinformed about current events than consumers of other mainstream media.

Why The Whole Islamic World Hates America: President Bush yesterday embraced Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's proposal to unilaterally redraw Israel's boundaries in the occupied West Bank. Olmert is in Washington for his first official visit since winning elections in March. Speaking after the talks, Bush described the Israeli plan as "bold." But he urged Israel to resume direct negotiations with the Palestinians and said a unilateral solution was a last resort. Olmert's proposal would remove around 60,000 Israelis from isolated settlements in the West Bank but would annex larger settlements which house some 200,000 Israelis, excluding East Jerusalem. Olmert said Israel reserves the right to impose final borders over Palestinian objections if peace talks remain stalled and reiterated he would not negotiate with a Palestinian government led by Hamas. The militant group won a sweeping victory in legislative elections in January. President Bush also condemned Hamas and said he believes a negotiated settlement could still be reached between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: A Pastor has come forward to blow the whistle on a nationwide FEMA program which is training Pastors and other religious representatives to become secret police enforcers who teach their congregations to "obey the government" in preparation for a declaration of martial law, property and firearm seizures, and forced relocation. In March of this year the Pastor, who we shall refer to as Pastor Revere, was invited to attend a meeting of his local FEMA chapter which circulated around preparedness for a potential bio-terrorist attack, any natural disaster or a nationally declared emergency. The FEMA directors told the Pastors that attended that it was their job to help implement FEMA and Homeland Security directives in anticipation of any of these eventualities. The first directive was for Pastors to preach to their congregations Romans 13, the often taken out of context bible passage that was used by Hitler to hoodwink Christians into supporting him, in order to teach them to "obey the government" when martial law is declared. It was related to the Pastors that quarantines, martial law and forced relocation were a problem for state authorities when enforcing federal mandates due to the "cowboy mentality" of citizens standing up for their property and second amendment rights as well as farmers defending their crops and livestock from seizure. It was stressed that the Pastors needed to preach subservience to the authorities ahead of time in preparation for the round-ups and to make it clear to the congregation that "this is for their own good."

Your Tax Dollars At Work: Two big and controversial corporate names you'll recognize - Halliburton and Bechtel - will benefit enormously from mammoth increases in federal spending on border security. Federal and state efforts to bolster porous border security include plans for increased security infrastructure, expanded use of technology, including radar. Other plans include construction of more prison beds, and additional law enforcement operations, security roads and improved employment verification systems and ports of entry. That will mean billions of dollars in border-related contract opportunities for defense, technology and other government contractors. A substantial number of border security contracts are going to major contractors - including big infrastructure, construction and contract management experts such as Halliburton Co. and Bechtel Corp. "It's the big boys that will benefit from this," said Congressman Ed Pastor, a Phoenix Democrat. "Most of the big contracts are going to go out to the Halliburtons and Bechtels."

News From Smirkey's Wars: The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has ordered an investigation into a US-led air strike on a southern village that killed at least 16 civilians early on Monday. In a statement, Mr Karzai expressed "concern at the coalition forces' decision to bomb civilian areas" during the attack on Azizi, where Taliban insurgents were sheltering inside a religious school. Mr Karzai, who is currently visiting the United Arab Emirates, said he would summon the US commander for a full explanation of the civilian casualties on his return to Kabul. His forceful comments reflect disquiet at heavy-handed coalition tactics against a wave of Taliban attacks. Afghan officials fear reports of mass civilian casualties will loosen Kabul's already tenuous grip on the volatile southern provinces, where a 7,000-strong Nato mission dominated by Britain, Canada and the Netherlands will be based.

Scandals Du Jour: A former Bush administration official lied to investigators in an attempt to hide the influence-peddling activities of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, federal prosecutors said on Wednesday. In opening statements at the first trial in connection with the Abramoff scandal, prosecutors tried to paint David Safavian as a liar while his lawyer denied the charges and accused the government of basing its case on "guilt by association." Justice Department lawyer Peter Zeidenberg said Safavian took advantage of his position to help his friend, a top Washington lobbyist with strong ties to leaders in Congress, particularly in the Republican Party. "He worked first and foremost to further the interest of one particular individual -- a rich and powerful lobbyist and personal friend of the defendant, Jack Abramoff," Zeidenberg told 12 jurors and two alternates.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: A story authored by a prominent US neo-conservative regarding new legislation in Iran allegedly requiring Jews and other religious minorities to wear distinctive colored badges circulated around the world last weekend before it was exposed as extremely dubious. The article by a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Iranian-American Amir Taheri, was initially published in last Friday's edition of Canada's National Post, which ran alongside the story a 1935 photograph of a Jewish businessman in Berlin with a yellow six-pointed star sewn on his overcoat, as required by Nazi legislation at the time. The Post subsequently noted denials of the story. Taheri's story, however, was reprinted by the New York Post, which is owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch, and picked up by the Jerusalem Post, which also featured a photo of a yellow star from the Nazi era over a photo of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Juan Cole, president of the US Middle East Studies Association (MESA), described the Taheri article and its appearance first in Canada's Post as "typical of black psychological operations campaigns", particularly in its origin in an "out-of-the-way newspaper that is then picked up by the mainstream press" - in this case, the Jerusalem Post and the New York Post. A former US intelligence official described the article's relatively obscure provenance as a "real sign of [a] disinformation operation".

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 02:20:16 PM

Tue, May 23 2006

Sold? Not So Fast

Today was a mix of rainy season and dry season weather. At dawn this morning, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and by nine AM, it was already up to 80 degrees, promising a hot, dry day. But it was not to be. By noon, a heavy overcast, featuring embedded thunderstorm cells, had closed in, bringing with it brief periods of rain and lots of thunder lasting most of the afternoon. The rain wasn't serious and didn't interrupt anything, but the clouds looked ominous enough. The temperature made it up to 84 this afternoon, after a low last night of 68, the coldest night in some time. It was great for sleeping, though, and I got one of the best nights' sleep in some time.

I had a visitor this morning - it was the "buyer" of the house who was here over the weekend and who promised to buy it. He had said he would be by today or tomorrow to put down a deposit, but that didn't happen - he decided not to put earnest money down until I have found a finance package for him, as there is no point in doing so if he can't buy it for lack of one. I wasn't surprised - I had more or less expected that, as it is what I would have done under the same circumstances.

Anyway, he came by to tell me of that decision, and have another look around the place. He still likes it, though he wasn't as raving as he was a few days ago. So I think that his initial enthusiasm has been cooled by a bit of time to think things over. Will he actually buy? I think he will if I can find a mortgage for him. And I may have done that - a friend who brokers loans here says he thinks he can get me one like the guy wants. We'll see. If so, I may be outta this place sooner rather than later.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: The Karl Rove indictment saga continues. Is Karl Rove turning state's evidence against Dick Cheney? It is possible - and if so, it is a delicious example of honor among thieves. From the "information sharing" post at truthout.org: truthout.org: "We know that we have now three independent sources confirming that attorneys for Karl Rove were handed an indictment either late in the night of May 12 or early in the morning of May 13. We know that each source was in a position to know what they were talking about. We know that the office of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald will not confirm, will not deny, will not comment on its investigation or on our report. We know that both Rove's attorney Robert Luskin and Rove's spokesman Mark Corallo have categorically denied all key facts we have set forth. We know we have information that directly contradicts Luskin and Corallo's denials. We know that there were two network news crews outside of the building in Washington, DC that houses the offices of Patton Boggs, the law firm that represents Karl Rove. We know that the 4th floor of that building (where the Patton Boggs offices are located) was locked down all day Friday and into Saturday night. We know that we have not received a request for a retraction from anyone. And we know that White House spokesman Tony Snow now refuses to discuss Karl Rove - at all... We believe that we hit a nerve with our report. When I get calls on my cell phone from Karl Rove's attorney and spokesman, I have to wonder what's up. "I" believe - but cannot confirm - that Mark Corallo, Karl Rove's spokesman gave Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post my phone number. I believe Howard Kurtz contacted me with the intention of writing a piece critical of our organization [truthout.org]. I know that Anne Marie Squeo of the Wall Street Journal attacked us and independent journalism as a whole in her piece titled, "Rove's Camp Takes Center of Web Storm / Bloggers Underscore How Net's Reporting, Dynamics Provide Grist for the Rumor Mill." We believe that rolling out that much conservative journalistic muscle to rebut this story is telling. And we believe that Rove's camp is making a concerted effort to discredit our story and our organization. Further - and again this is "What We Believe" - Rove may be turning state's evidence. We suspect that the scope of Fitzgerald's investigation may have broadened - clearly to Cheney - and according to one "off the record source" to individuals and events not directly related to the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. We believe that the indictment which does exist against Karl Rove is sealed. Finally, we believe that there is currently a great deal of activity in the Plame investigation."

From the Wall Street Journal regarding the above story: "On Saturday night, attorney Robert Luskin was trying to barbecue at his Washington home when the phone started ringing nonstop. A story posted on an Internet site Truthout.org reported that his client, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, had been indicted. Mr. Luskin says he issued an explicit denial to anyone who contacted him. But the story set off a fire storm, with reporters from newspapers, television and elsewhere seeking to check its veracity, and Web log writers seeking comment... But there is no evidence the Bush adviser was indicted last week. His lawyer says it is plain wrong. Mr. Fitzgerald hasn't commented, and he is expected in coming weeks to make a decision about whether to charge Mr. Rove for perjury or related wrongdoing in the matter... The denials set off a round of blogging. One site [this one] said Mr. Leopold was the victim of White House disinformation. Another cast doubt on whether Mr. Rove's attorney took his cat to the vet."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the U.S. would be delighted to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, but cannot until settling the fate of "hundreds of dangerous people" held there. "We cannot be in a situation in which we are just turning loose on helpless populations or unprotected populations people who have vowed to kill more Americans if they're released," Rice said today in an appearawnce on Fox News Sunday. About 460 men the Pentagon describes as suspected al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are detained at the U.S. Navy Base in southeast Cuba, most for more than four years; 10 have been charged with war crimes. "Obviously, we don't want to be the world's jailer. We will be delighted when we can close down Guantánamo," Rice told Fox TV.

Personal data on 26.5 million U.S. veterans was stolen from the residence of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee who was not authorized to take the material home, exposing them to possible identity theft, the department said on Monday. The data included names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth for the military veterans and some spouses, the department said, although there had as yet been no indication it had been used for identity theft. The electronic data related to everyone discharged from the military since 1975. "We are going to send out an individual notification letter to every veteran to the extent possible," warning them of the risk of identity theft, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson said. Nicholson said the theft of the data from the employee's home took place this month, but declined to identify the employee, the location of the burglary or how long the employee had the data at his home. The FBI said the theft occurred in the Maryland area and is being looked at by the FBI's Baltimore field office. Officials said equipment containing the data was stolen, but Nicholson would not say whether a government laptop computer was involved. Authorities waited almost three weeks to alert the public that personal data on more than 26 million U.S. veterans had fallen into the hands of thieves, a government source said Tuesday. The data were on a laptop and external drive stolen May 3 in an apparent random burglary from the Montgomery County, Maryland, home of a Department of Veterans Affairs computer analyst, said the government source, who has been briefed on the issue.

Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of guys: the FBI's storied workforce is being dismantled and reassembled as Director Robert S. Mueller III tries to overhaul the hidebound agency. The result is a culture war between old and new, and older agents are rebelling. Among the disaffected are hundreds of agents in field offices around the country who are suddenly facing forced transfers to FBI headquarters. Many, including Michael Clark, are leaving. For 23 years, Clark was a loyal FBI man, rising to supervise a squad of agents in Connecticut working corporate fraud and public corruption cases. He helped send a former governor to prison. But then the FBI told him he had to move to Washington, and he found out his loyalty ran only so deep. Now a casualty of an agency that has become a construction zone, Clark is working for Otis Elevator Co. The agents argue that the upheaval is counterproductive. They say they have spent years cultivating contacts and relationships with state and local officials, which are not easily replaced. Middle managers, such as squad leaders and desk supervisors, often form the institutional memory of the bureau's 56 field offices.

Colonel Tim Spicer is the future of warfare. Immaculately dressed, effortlessly charming, a keen Eric Clapton fan with tickets for most of Slowhand's gigs over the summer, he is also effectively in charge of the second largest military force in Iraq: the estimated 20,000 private security personnel who outnumber the British army by almost three to one. Spicer's company Aegis has a contract with the Pentagon worth almost $300m to oversee the 16 private security companies providing personnel, security, military training and reconstruction. As Bush's poll ratings fall, it looks as if these private soldiers will only increase. Estimates of their numbers vary and Spicer isn't convinced by the figure of 20,000. "I'd say there's no more than 8,000 if you define it as expat Brits or Americans," he says. "If you include Iraqi security companies and third country nationals like Gurkhas, Fijians and others, you could be getting up to 20,000. The oil protection force used to be run by a private security company and it had upwards of 10,000 people in it, but that's now been nationalised under the ministry of oil." No matter how many there are, the strategic advantage for the Pentagon in working so closely with the likes of Aegis is clear. Iraq's increasing unpopularity in America is mainly fuelled by rising troop casualties - now approaching 2,500 - while private security deaths go unrecorded. The American broadcaster PBS estimated that 18 "private warriors" were killed in two weeks last June, but there are no official figures. "The impact of casualties is much more significant if they're sovereign forces as opposed to contractors," Spicer says. "However, it is the sovereign forces that do the fighting. Aegis's casualty figures are incredibly light - we've lost three in two years; two to suicide bombs and one to a road accident. I couldn't tell you about the other companies."

FBI officers raided a House of Representatives office building on Saturday night, and NBC television said it had searched the offices of Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson. The Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed the unusual raid at the Rayburn House Office Building on Washington's Capitol Hill but would not say whose office was searched. "Agents of the FBI's Washington field office executed a search warrant this evening at Rayburn at approximately 7:15," Debbie Weierman, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington field office, said. Weierman said the search warrant was sealed and she could not confirm whose office was being searched. But two lawmakers under investigation in separate bribery scandals have offices in the Rayburn building - Jefferson and Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney. Calls to Jefferson's and Ney's offices were not answered. Jefferson was caught on videotape accepting $100,000 in $100 bills from an

FBI informant whose conversations with the lawmaker also were recorded, according to a court document released Sunday. Agents later found the cash hidden in his freezer. At one audiotaped meeting, Rep. William Jefferson (news, bio, voting record), D-La., chuckles about writing in code to keep secret what the government contends was his corrupt role in getting his children a cut of a communications company's deal for work in Africa. As Jefferson and the informant passed notes about what percentage the lawmaker's family might receive, the congressman "began laughing and said, 'All these damn notes we're writing to each other as if we're talking, as if the FBI is watching,'" according to the affidavit. Jefferson, who represents New Orleans, has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing. As for the $100,000, the government says Jefferson got the money in a leather briefcase last July 30 at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arlington. The plan was for the lawmaker to use the cash to bribe a high-ranking Nigerian official - the name is blacked out in the court document - to ensure the success of a business deal in that country, the affidavit said.

When some of the country's top political handicappers drew up their charts of vulnerable House incumbents at the beginning of this year, Rep. Thelma D. Drake (R-Va.) was not among them. Now she is. President Bush carried her district with 58 percent of the vote in 2004, but strategists say his travails are part of the reason the freshman lawmaker now has a fight on her hands. He swooped into town briefly Friday for a closed-door fundraiser for Drake but made no public appearances. Drake, who won with ease two years ago, is not alone. With approval ratings for Bush and congressional Republicans at a low ebb, GOP strategists see signs of weakness where they least expected it - including a conservative, military-dominated suburb such as Virginia Beach - and fear that their problems could grow worse unless the national mood brightens. Some veterans of the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress see worrisome parallels between then and now, in the way once-safe districts are turning into potential problems. Incumbents' poll numbers have softened. Margins against their Democratic opponents have narrowed. Republican voters appear disenchanted. The Bush effect now amounts to a drag of five percentage points or more in many districts.

Democratic activist groups that mounted an aggressive campaign against President George W. Bush in the 2004 election have a new target: Democrats who support his policies. A loose network of organizations, ranging from women's groups to Internet bloggers, is pressuring incumbents such as Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Representatives Jane Harman of California and Melissa Bean of Illinois, in some cases by backing insurgent candidates in primary elections. The groups charge that these and other Democrats have been too supportive of Bush on issues like Iraq and trade, and say they're trying to energize voters disillusioned with a party that has failed to draw clear distinctions with Republicans. With Democrats holding a wide advantage in public-opinion polls six months before the congressional elections, the party must define its identity, said David Sirota, a Democratic activist. "If Democrats are really about to get into power, now's the time to let them know what they need to be for," said Sirota, who wrote "Hostile Takeover," a book about political corruption. The organizations and Web logs that identify themselves as the party's progressive wing include MoveOn.org, a coalition of groups that raised $60 million and enlisted 100,000 volunteers in the 2004 elections; DailyKos, a blog that averages 20 million visitors a month; and Democracy for America, a political action committee with 500 affiliates. The issues they're promoting include setting a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, building environmental protections into U.S. trade agreements and cracking down on what they say is price-gouging by oil companies.

About three dozen protesters - students, faculty and concerned citizens - marched outside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center at Louisiana State University on Friday as spring graduates mingled with friends and family. The protesters, drawn by commencement speaker Vice President Dick Cheney, were careful to keep moving lest they be accused of loitering. A few ran afoul of the Secret Service by showing up with signs mounted on sticks, which could be used as weapons. With a rip of paper from wood, they were back in step. LSU linguistics Professor Lisi Oliver is somewhat of a veteran when it comes to protesting the university’s choice of commencement speakers. She demonstrated when President George W. Bush spoke at graduation two years ago. For Cheney's appearance, she wore a shirt that said "peace, love and noodles" and a mortarboard decorated with a peace sign. Oliver said she is fed up with the university booking graduation speakers tied to the Bush administration.

The two eastern European women in their 70s attracted little attention. Dependable members of their immigrant community, they helped their neighbours, played an active role in the local Hungarian church, and were always ready to lend a hand to the homeless. One had been in the estate agency business, while the other once ran a coffee shop. Last week Los Angeles police arrested the pair amid suspicions that they have collected millions of dollars in life insurance after befriending and murdering several homeless men. "Our first thought was ... they would leave the actual dirty work to someone else," an LAPD detective, Dennis Kilcoyne, told the Los Angeles Times. "We're not so sure about this anymore... This is pretty evil." Investigators allege that the women befriended Kenneth McDavid, 50, and Paul Vados, 73, and provided them with apartments and paid for their living expenses in return for the men taking out life insurance policies and naming the women as beneficiaries. They later turned up dead of other than natural causes.

A gunman has opened fire at a church in the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, killing four people and wounding one. The man then abducted his wife and one of his children and fled the church, police said. The woman was later found shot dead but the child was unharmed. The suspect, identified as Anthony Bell, 25, was later arrested. The incident happened during the morning church service. The motive of the shooting was not immediately known. At least two of the people shot dead in the church were the suspect's in-laws, police said. The shooting took place in the Jesus Christ Church in the northern part of the city, according to WDSU-TV. A local police official, Charles Armstrong, told the AFP news agency the attack was "one of the worst crimes we have seen in Baton Rouge for a long time". "It is the ultimate invasion when you invade the safety of a church," he said. Mr Bell fled the church in a car and was later captured at a nearby apartment complex, police said. His wife - whose name was not immediately released - was found shot dead there. The couple's two other children were found safe at home.

Prisons and jails added more than 1,000 inmates each week for a year, putting almost 2.2 million people, or one in every 136 U.S. residents, behind bars by last summer. The total on June 30, 2005, was 56,428 more than at the same time in 2004, the government reported Sunday. That 2.6 percent increase from mid-2004 to mid-2005 translates into a weekly rise of 1,085 inmates. Of particular note was the gain of 33,539 inmates in jails, the largest increase since 1997, researcher Allen J. Beck said. That was a 4.7 percent growth rate, compared with a 1.6 percent increase in people held in state and federal prisons.

Hispanic voters, many of whom responded favorably to President Bush’s campaign appeals emphasizing patriotism, family and religious values in Spanish-language media in 2004, are turning away from the administration on immigration and a host of other issues, according to a new survey. At the same time, separate polls show that conservative white Republicans are the voting group most hostile to the administration's support for policies that would move toward the legalization of many undocumented immigrants. Cumulatively, the data underscore the perils for Bush and his party in the immigration debate churning on Capitol Hill, one that threatens to bleed away support simultaneously from the Republican base and from Hispanic swing voters, whom Bush strategists had hoped to make an important new part of the GOP coalition.

Just how bad are things for Smirkey? Pretty bad, I'd say, if even uber-conservative Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas is worried about him. The other night at a Washington book party for the President's sister, Doro Bush Koch, the Supreme Court justice arrived with his wife, Ginny, on the tented roof of the Hay Adams Hotel, overlooking the White House, and made a beeline for the author. "We have to pray for your brother. He's in real trouble," Thomas told a wide-eyed Koch, whose older brother is, indeed, suffering from near-catastrophic public-opinion ratings. Koch - whose memoir of the first President Bush is "My Father, My President: A Personal Account of the Life of George H.W. Bush" - politely thanked Thomas and kept a stiff upper lip.

"I apologized for disrespecting the office of the President. But I don't feel that way anymore. I don't feel he is owed any respect whatsoever," Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines tells TIME's music critic Josh Tyrangiel, of her remark to a London audience in 2003: "Just so you know, we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." TIME's cover story, "Radical Chicks," hits newsstands Monday, May 22nd.

Swaggering around the world like a schoolyard bully ends up costing real money: Kyrgyzstan warned on Friday that the US risked eviction from its last military base in central Asia unless it agreed to a 100-fold increase in rental for aircraft landing and refuelling facilities at Manas outside the capital Bishkek. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the Kyrgyz president, said the US must pay $200 million a year, up from $2.7m, for the use of Manas, which was set up in 2001 as a launch pad for US-coalition forces operations to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. He said there would be "no room for haggling" in the next round of talks with the Pentagon opening in Bishkek next week.

Newly released e-mails allege U.S. government officials pressured a leading Internet authority into voting against creating a kind of red-light district for adult Web sites. The apparent involvement of the U.S. Department of Commerce, President Bush's chief political operative Karl Rove and others is significant. If true, it means the U.S. government violated terms of a complicated arrangement it has with ICANN, the Internet authority that voted 9-5 last week not to OK the .xxx proposal. What ICM Registry wants is permission to distribute Web addresses that end in .xxx to be used exclusively by adult entertainment sites. The proposal won support from the Wired Safety & Wired Kids, the Internet Content & Ratings Association and other child safety groups because of the way it's expected to make it easier for authorities and parents to police the Internet. Detractors say it just makes it that much easier to find porn. ICANN voted it down 9-5, after seemingly being on track to approve of the effort. Since the ICANN vote, ICM Registry has made public e-mails, here in PDF form, between members of the Department of Commerce, various other branches of the federal government and ICANN. The company had asked for the communications earlier under a Freedom of Information Act request. After discovering many of the emails had been redacted, ICM on May 19 asked a judge in Washington, D.C., to force the Department of Commerce to fill in the blanks.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: In an obviously ironic case of the pot calling the kettle black, Smirkey expressed Monday concern about erosion of democracy in Venezuela and Bolivia. In a clear reference to his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez, the ruler criticized interference in the polls of third countries. "Let me say it clearly: I am concerned about the erosion of democracy in the countries you mentioned," Bush answered to a participant in a rally of the Chicago's Restorers Association on the situation in Venezuela and Bolivia, AFP quoted. Apparently in reference to President Chávez, but without naming him, Bush warned against "intended meddling in the elections of other countries in the hemisphere," Efe reported. "I will recall the people that intervening in other countries elections to attain goals in the medium term is not in the interest of the neighborhood," Bush explained in clear reference to Chávez' support to Peruvian candidate Ollanta Humala and Nicaraguan Daniel Ortega.

Extraordinary Rendition Watch: A German man who says he was abducted and tortured by the CIA will consider taking his case to a higher court after a U.S. district judge dismissed it on national security grounds, his lawyer said on Friday. Judge T.S. Ellis, in a ruling on Thursday, agreed with U.S. government arguments that moving forward with Khaled el-Masri's case would risk national security by exposing state secrets about CIA activities vital to the U.S. war on terrorism. Masri's lawyer Manfred Gnjidic told Reuters his client was disappointed but added: "We don't give up that quickly." He would now examine if it was possible to take the case -- also under investigation by German prosecutors and members of the German and European Parliaments -- to a higher U.S. court or an international body such as the World Court in The Hague. In a case that has sparked fierce criticism of U.S. methods in the "war on terror", Masri says he was flown by the Central Intelligence Agency from Macedonia to Afghanistan in 2004 and jailed for months as a terrorist suspect before being freed without charge and dumped in Albania. Washington has declined to comment on his case, although it acknowledges it has secretly transferred some terrorist suspects between countries in a controversial practice known as "extraordinary rendition".

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: A new Business Week article may help explain how AT&T and BellSouth can say they didn't help the NSA, despite the spy agency having millions of their records showing the call details of Americans using their networks. The magazine reveals a hidden corner of the telecommunications world: a small group of companies who specialize in granting the government access to telecommunications records, conversations and real-time data on behalf of the telecom giants. That's right: the government now makes so many requests for wiretaps, phone records and call information that an industry has sprung up to handle the load. Rather than respond themselves to requests from the FBI and others, a telco can sign up with one of these companies, give them access to their call records and equipment, and let that third party do all the hard work. What are the benefits? One company, NeuStar, doesn't beat around the bush. In a pitch to service providers, it bills itself as a "scapegoat" for hire, presumably allowing phone companies to deny responsibility for or involvement in turning over their records to the government. Sound familiar?

The Wyoming Department of Family Services has funneled tens of thousands of dollars to a grant program administered by a private religious corporation that has funded churches, ministries and religiously oriented anti-abortion centers, an Associated Press investigation has found. Family Services Director Rodger McDaniel says the state payments to the company, Faith Initiatives of Wyoming, are entirely proper, despite arguments by some that the arrangement appears to violate the state constitution. "What we're buying is not religious services but social services," McDaniel said. The company's contract with the state, which was approved by the state attorney general's office, calls for it to assist existing faith-based and community organizations provide community services in such areas as "strengthening families" and "at-risk youth." Although the Bush Administration has encouraged the use of federal funds to pay for "faith-based" social services, a section of the Wyoming State Constitution reads: "No money of the state shall ever be given or appropriated to any sectarian or religious society or institution." Bruce DeBoskey, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League in Wyoming and Colorado, said his group has grave reservations about the DFS contract with Faith Initiatives. "What kind of restrictions are in place with the use of federal and state funds, which are required by federal and state law, to keep church and state separation intact?" DeBoskey said. "And by appearances, from what we can see, this law is potentially being ignored, violated and flouted."

Republicans Believe In Environmental Responsibility: On Wednesday, the Competitive Enterprise Institute - a front group funded by ExxonMobil and other big oil companies - launched two advertisements in response to Al Gore’s new movie about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. One of the advertisements attempts to show that the scientific evidence for global warming is in dispute, claiming a study found the "Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker, not thinner." The primary author of that study, Curt Davis, has issued a statement blasting CEI's use of his study, saying they are misrepresenting it in an effort to throw doubt on the reality of global warming.

Republicans Believe In Free And Competitive Markets: An investigation by U.S. antitrust authorities found no evidence that oil companies illegally manipulated gasoline prices or constrained oil refining operations last year, the Federal Trade Commission said on Monday. However, the FTC said it had found 15 examples in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that fit lawmakers' definition of price-gouging at the "refining, wholesale, or retail level." It said factors like regional and local market trends appeared to explain the pricing in nearly all the cases. The investigation found no evidence that refiners or pipeline companies manipulated prices or restricted capacity to boost prices, and no evidence that oil companies cut inventory to boost prices, the FTC said. The probe concluded that the spike in gasoline prices after Katrina hit in late August and Hurricane Rita in September, were in line with "standard supply-and-demand model of a market performing competitively," the FTC said.

News From Smirkey's Wars: U.S. officials are spinning the formation of Iraq's new government as a triumph of democracy and the first step toward stabilizing the civil war-ravaged country. But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet, sworn in Saturday after five months of bickering and brinkmanship has been greeted with a mixture of incredulity and skepticism by many Iraqis. "All that time spent in negotiations, and they couldn't fill the most important positions," says schoolteacher Salah Ubeidi, referring to three security-related posts that have been left vacant for now. "Why should we trust them to make the important decisions that need to be made?" U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, desperate for the creation of a "national unity" government that includes representatives of all the ethnic and sectarian groups, has declared Maliki's 37-member cabinet a giant leap forward. "With the political change that has taken place, with the emphasis on unity and reconciliation, with effective ministers, with associated activities, conditions are likely to move in the right direction and that would allow adjustments in terms of the size composition and mission of our forces," Khalilzad said. Expect that sentiment to be echoed by Bush Administration officials in Washington, where political progress is regarded as essential to allow a drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq. Reading from the same script, Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, America's staunchest ally in Iraq, said Saturday's ceremony "provides a good omen to our people that the government will achieve for them security, stability, peace and prosperity." But for many Iraqis, such optimism is hard to justify, especially since the new government includes several of the inept, corrupt and thoroughly discredited leaders who had made such a hash of the interim administration under the previous Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari. Indeed, the most discredited of them all, former Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, has received a promotion.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: A federal judge struck down a 2-year-old law that prohibits Oklahoma from recognizing adoptions by same-sex couples from other states and countries. U.S. District Judge Robin Cauthron ruled Friday the measure violated due process rights under the U.S. Constitution because it attempted to break up families without considering the parents’ fitness or the children’s best interests. Gay-rights organization Lambda Legal had challenged the law on behalf of three same-sex couples. "Gay and lesbian parents in Oklahoma can now breathe a collective sigh of relief because their relationships with their children are no longer threatened by the state of Oklahoma," said Ken Upton, an attorney in Lambda Legal's Dallas office.

Maybe If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, It Will Go Away: With some scientists saying global warming is causing an increasing frequency and strength of hurricanes, there is a call for a new category of storms. In fact, ABC News says there have already been hurricanes strong enough to qualify as Category 6 -- having sustained winds of more than 175 or 180 mph. The current scale defines storms with sustained winds between 74 and 95 mph as Category 1 hurricanes, Category 2 has sustained winds from 96 to 110 mph, Category 3 has sustained winds from 111 to 130 mph, Category 4 has sustained winds between 131 and 155 mph, and a Category 5 storm has sustained winds greater than 155 mph. A Category 6 storm would have wind speeds greater than 175 or 180 mph. U.S. government forecasters at the National Hurricane Forecast Center in Miami didn't well predict the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, partly because of their unfamiliarity with global warming. In May 2005, NOAA predicted the Atlantic would see 12 to 15 named tropical storms. There were 28. The experts forecast seven to nine storms would become hurricanes but 15 reached that level. The 2006 Atlantic hurricane season is predicted to be very active, with up to 10 hurricanes, although not as busy as record-breaking 2005, when Hurricane Katrina and several monster storms slammed into the United States, the U.S. government's top climate agency said on Monday. "For the 2006 North Atlantic hurricane season, NOAA is predicting 13 to 16 named storms, with eight to 10 becoming hurricanes, of which four to six could become 'major' hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher," said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Greenhouse gases are known to spur global warming, but scientists said on Monday that global warming in turn spurs greenhouse gas emissions - which means Earth could get hotter faster than climate models predict. Two scientific teams, one in Europe and another in California, reached the same basic conclusion: when Earth has warmed up in the past, due to the sun's natural cycles, more greenhouse gases have been spewed into the atmosphere. As greenhouse gas levels rose, so did Earth's temperature, the scientists reported. Earth has not endlessly warmed up, though, because these natural solar cycles ended, letting the planet cool down and prompting a corresponding drop in greenhouse gas emissions, the scientists reported. But these previous periods of heating and cooling were not influenced by the burning of fossil fuels, and the current resulting trend toward higher global average temperatures, according to Margaret Torn of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Current climate models predict temperature increases of 2.7 to 8.1 degrees F (1.5 to 4.5 degrees C), but Torn's team found that additional carbon dioxide caused by the natural solar cycle could push those estimates higher. Taking this into account could mean temperature increases of 2.9 to 11 degrees F (1.6 to 6 degrees C), the scientists said. The higher temperatures are more likely, they said in a statement. The European team estimated that global warming in the next century may be 15 percent to 78 percent higher than current estimates because these predictions fail to take into account the feedback mechanism involving carbon dioxide emissions. They conclude that current estimates of warming are too low, by anything up to 75%. Their conclusion is backed up by a new report from the Australian government.

Scandals Du Jour: Austin, Texas - Prosecutors in the case against U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay have asked the state's highest criminal court to reinstate an indictment accusing the former House majority leader of conspiring to violate election laws. The appeal filed with the Court of Criminal Appeals Friday had been expected and likely postpones a trial for DeLay on a separate money laundering charge. A Travis County grand jury indicted DeLay and political consultants John Colyandro and Jim Ellis last year on money laundering and conspiracy charges, stemming from a 2002 campaign finance transaction. Prosecutors accuse the three of funneling $190,000 in corporate money to the Republican National Committee, which then donated the same amount to Texas candidates. Under Texas law, corporate money can't be directly used for political campaigns. DeLay and his two associates deny the transaction was illegal.

The automated signature machine did it. Attorneys for Kenneth Lay suggested bank loan documents containing terms he allegedly violated actually were signed by an automatic signature device in the Enron Corp. founder's office and not by him. Lay went on trial Thursday on one count of bank fraud and three counts of making false statements regarding personal banking issues. The trial, expected to wrap up as early as Tuesday, got under way the day after jurors began deliberating the nearly four-month-long fraud and conspiracy case of Lay and former Enron Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling. Lay is charged with six counts in that case, Skilling with 28.

Early Warning: The world is now eating more food than farmers grow, pushing global grain stocks to their lowest level in 30 years. Rising population, water shortages, climate change, and the growing costs of fossil fuel-based fertilisers point to a calamitous shortfall in the world's grain supplies in the near future, according to Canada's National Farmers Union (NFU). Thirty years ago, the oceans were teeming with fish, but today more people rely on farmers to produce their food than ever before, says Stewart Wells, NFU's president. In five of the last six years, global population ate significantly more grains than farmers produced. And with the world's farmers unable to increase food production, policymakers must address the "massive challenges to the ability of humanity to continue to feed its growing numbers", Wells said in a statement. There isn't much land left on the planet that can be converted into new food-producing areas, notes Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington-based non-governmental organization. And what is left is of generally poor quality or likely to turn into dust bowls if heavily exploited, Brown told IPS. Unlike the Green Revolution in the 1960s, when improved strains of wheat, rice, maize and other cereals dramatically boosted global food production, there are no technological magic bullets waiting in the wings. "Biotechnology has made little difference so far," he said.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:18:44 AM

Sun, May 21 2006

Low Water In The Pond

A touch of dry season in the beginnings of this rainy season: today we enjoyed a bright and sunny day in Arenal for the most part, some rain in the morning, but by noon it had cleared off and the sun came out, with a nice warming of temperatures that had been a bit on the chilly side. Today we had a high of 82, and a low overnight of 71.

I have been pretty much cooped up in the house, between my health and the bad weather yesterday, I didn't get much done. Some kids came by and asked if they could fish in the pond. I said yes, and then they just took off, and never did come back to fish. I still haven't figured out what that was all about.

The warm, relatively dry weather has meant that the water in the pond has dropped below the outlet by about an inch, so the water level in the pond is as low as I have seen it - never before have I seen the water drop below the outlet level. There hasn't been any inflow to speak of for several weeks, and the springs that feed it have dried up, so the water level is dropping a bit. Not that it much matters; that's actually good for fishing as the water is not muddy at all, since there hasn't been any street runoff for weeks, and the fish can see and smell bait much better. I see a lot of jumpers out there in the water, and am surprised that I haven't had more requests for fishing.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: The National Security Agency developed a pilot program in the late 1990s that would have enabled it to gather and analyze massive amounts of communications data without running afoul of privacy laws. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, it shelved the project - not because it failed to work - but because of bureaucratic infighting and a sudden White House expansion of the agency's surveillance powers, according to several intelligence officials. The agency opted instead to adopt only one component of the program, which produced a far less capable and rigorous program. It remains the backbone of the NSA's warrantless surveillance efforts, tracking domestic and overseas communications from a vast databank of information, and monitoring selected calls. Four intelligence officials knowledgeable about the program agreed to discuss it with The Sun only if granted anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. The program the NSA rejected, called Thin Thread, was developed to handle greater volumes of information, partly in expectation of threats surrounding the millennium celebrations. Sources say it bundled together four cutting-edge surveillance tools. Thin Thread would have: * Used more sophisticated methods of sorting through massive phone and e-mail data to identify suspect communications. * Identified U.S. phone numbers and other communications data and encrypted them to ensure caller privacy. * Employed an automated auditing system to monitor how analysts handled the information, in order to prevent misuse and improve efficiency. * Analyzed the data to identify relationships between callers and chronicle their contacts. Only when evidence of a potential threat had been developed would analysts be able to request decryption of the records.

With security like this, who needs the Coast Guard? Under intense pressure from shipping companies concerned about costly delays, the Coast Guard is tipping off some large commercial ships about security searches that had been a surprise, high-ranking Coast Guard officials have said. The searches began after the Sept. 11 attacks as part of a major revamping of the Coast Guard and its new anti-terrorism mission. But shipping companies say the surprise boardings at sea cause unnecessary delays, costing up to $40,000 an hour. "We're trying to facilitate commerce and keep the port secure -- and sometimes the two conflict," said Capt. Paul E. Wiedenhoeft, who is in charge of the port complex here at Los Angeles and Long Beach. "When possible, we're trying to give shippers as much notice as we can." The practice has caused considerable confusion and debate within the Coast Guard. Commanders in some ports acknowledged in interviews that they provided up to 24-hour notice. Others said the practice undermined the inspections.

Gen. Michael V. Hayden, President Bush's choice to lead the CIA, strongly defended the administration's policies on domestic surveillance and the treatment of detainees during his confirmation hearing yesterday, and urged senators to suspend debate about CIA failures and give the agency a chance to rebound. "It's time to move past what seems to me to be an endless picking apart of the archaeology of every past intelligence success or failure," Hayden said. "CIA officers... deserve recognition of their efforts, and they also deserve not to have every action analyzed, second-guessed and criticized on the front pages of the morning paper." Although accountability is important, he said the "CIA needs to get out of the news as source or subject and focus on protecting the American people by acquiring secrets and providing high-quality all-source analysis."

The Pentagon's spending on secret programs has hit its highest point since the end of the Cold War, a Washington-based research group said in a report released this week. Classified programs appear to account for about $30.1 billion, or 19 percent, of the acquisition funds sought in the Defense Department budget for fiscal 2007, according to the report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. In real terms, the 2007 request was for more classified spending than in any defense budget since 1988, near the Cold War's end, when the Pentagon received an inflation-adjusted $29.4 billion for such projects, it said. Classifying Pentagon programs means they get less oversight by Congress, watchdog groups and the media. The record of such programs has been mixed, said Steven Kosiak, the report's author, noting that the F-117 "Stealth" fighter jet and the radar-evading B-2 bomber were among the successes. But reduced oversight has contributed to failures like the U.S. Navy's A-12 attack aircraft, canceled in 1991, Kosiak noted. Secret programs also have tended to spawn "fringe science" - like antimatter weapons, psychics and telepathy - because they were protected from outside scrutiny, said Sharon Weinberger, author of "Imaginary Weapons: A Journey through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld."

An interview with Smirkey, from MSNBC's Hardball: MSNBC: Let me ask you about your leadership. In the most recent survey, your disapproval rating is now one point lower than Richard Nixon’s before he resigned the presidency. [BUSH laughs] You're laughing... BUSH: I'm not laughing. MSNBC: Why do you think that is? BUSH: Because we're at war. And war unsettles people. Listen, we've got a great economy. We've added 5.2 million jobs in the last two-and-a-half years, but people are unsettled. They don't look at the economy and say, 'life is good.' They know we're at war. And I'm not surprised that people are unsettled because of war. The enemy's got a powerful tool - that is to get on your TV screen by killing innocent people. And my job is to continue to remind the people it's worth it. We're not going to retreat hastily. We're not going to pull out of there before the job's done and we've got a plan for victory. MSNBC: They're not just unsettled, sir. They disapprove of the job you're doing. BUSH: That's unsettled. MSNBC That's how you see it? BUSH: Yeah, I do. I see it as the war has, the war is, the war is difficult. And I understand that. I understand why people wonder whether we can win the war or not. But there's a big difference between some of us who believe we're doing the right thing and moving forward and a group of people who want to pull out before the jobs is done.

As they watch President Bush's approval ratings tumble, conservative activists are offering a sure-fire strategy for presidential recovery: Bush should move to the right and "rally his base." There's one problem with this approach: it could do the president's party far more harm than good, even within its own ranks. The conservative view ignores the roots of the president's difficulties in the disaffection of moderate voters who are more concerned with performance -- or the lack thereof - than ideology. In January 2005, Republicans who described themselves as conservative gave Bush an astonishing 94 percent approval rating. The new Washington Post-ABC survey, conducted May 11 to May 15, put Bush's approval rating among conservative Republicans at 76 percent, down 18 points. But the poll found that among moderate Republicans, the president's approval rating had declined 31 points, from 88 percent in January 2005 to 57 percent now. Recent surveys by Gallup and the Pew Research Center also point to losses among moderates. Bush has lost even more ground among moderate independents. The Pew surveys found Bush's approval rating in this group dropping from 48 percent in January 2005 to 22 percent last month.

Michael Graham, quoted at smirkingchimp.com: "My theory is that Commander Codpiece - insanely addicted to power - is so hung up on the fact that he was a coward back then that he is compensating for it now by forcing today's Guard to be heroes. That way he can be one retroactively - heroism by association. That may sound nutty, but the man is batshit nuts. And it is just a theory. But here is something that is provable. No one in journalism has picked up one aspect of Bush's past: He never was properly trained to be a second lieutenant [in the Air National Guard] in the first place! I'm talking about before flight school, entrance to which requires an officer's commission. Those of us in the real Air Force got commissioned in one of three ways: The Air Force Academy, ROTC, or - if already college graduates - the Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. If you saw the film An Officer and a Gentleman, depicting the Navy's version, you have a rough idea of what that training was like. It was goddamned hard. But young Georgie didn't have to go through it. If you examine his records, you will find that he was given a direct commission as a second lieutenant after completing enlisted basic training and nothing more! Bang: He went directly from Airman Third Class, which is the rank of someone just out of basic, to a second lieutenant with a few typewriter keystrokes. Then he went to flight school. Now I don't know if this was standard procedure for everyone in the Guard - I was too busy spying on Americans to pay attention. We always assumed that Guardsmen and Reservists who wore the same uniform and the same insignia of grade as we did had undergone same training we did. But some kind of favoritism certainly applied to the arrogant young punk who was to become Commander Codpiece - again, a psycho of the first magnitude who really and truly believes he is a war hero... And - just as a reminder - Bush got into the Guard itself corruptly. Helen Thomas told me he got in ahead of 1500 other young Texas guys who preceded him in line."

It's not just the way he's doing his job. Americans apparently don't like President Bush personally much anymore, either. A drop in his personal popularity, as measured by several public polls, has shadowed the decline in Bush's job-approval ratings and weakened his political armor when he and his party need it most. Losing that political protection - dubbed "Teflon" when Ronald Reagan had it - is costing Bush what the late political scientist Richard Neustadt called the "leeway" to survive hard times and maintain his grip on the nation's agenda. Without it, Bush is a more tempting target for political enemies. And members of his party in Congress are less inclined to stand with him. "When he loses likeability, the president loses the benefit of the doubt," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "That makes it much harder for him to steer." Aides in the president's circle say Bush still has it. They suggest that his likeability will serve as a get-out-of-trouble card no matter how mad people get about the war in Iraq or other woes. "The American people like this president," White House political guru Karl Rove said last week. "People like him. They respect him. He's somebody they feel a connection with. But they're just sour right now on the war. And that's the way it's going to be. And we will fight our way through." Rove said he based his confidence on a private poll done for the Republican National Committee that showed Bush's personal approval rating higher than 60 percent, far above his job approval. "The polls I believe are the polls that get run through the RNC," Rove said. "I look at the polls all the time." The Republican National Committee wouldn't release a copy of the poll. Spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said she couldn't explain why public polls show a decline in Bush's personal popularity except to say that, "you can ask a poll question four different ways and get four different answers." Six public polls in recent weeks showed the opposite of Rove's account - that Bush's personal approval ratings have dropped since he was re-elected in 2004:

Latest on the Karl Rove indictment story: From our source, Truthout.org: "On Saturday afternoon, May 13, 2006, TruthOut ran a story titled, "Karl Rove Indicted on Charges of Perjury, Lying to Investigators." The story stated in part that top Bush aide Karl Rove had earlier that day been indicted on the charges set forth in the story's title. The time has now come, however, to issue a partial apology to our readership for this story. While we paid very careful attention to the sourcing on this story, we erred in getting too far out in front of the news-cycle. In moving as quickly as we did, we caused more confusion than clarity. And that was a disservice to our readership and we regret it. As such, we will be taking the wait-and-see approach for the time being. We will keep you posted. Marc Ash, Executive Director - truthout.org."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said for the first time Wednesday that officials are at odds over whether a new Army manual should endorse different interrogation techniques for enemy insurgents than are allowed for regular prisoners of war. The debate hinges on whether suspected terrorists or other insurgents can be treated more severely than captured members of an enemy army. There are concerns such a distinction could fly in the face of a law enacted last year, pressed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that explicitly banned cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners by U.S. troops.

CNN just reported that President Bush's new job approval rating is at 36 percent, suggesting it was "a bounce for President Bush." But this isn't a bounce. Bush’s early May approval rating was 34 percent. Each poll has an error of +/-3 points, meaning Bush’s numbers haven’t changed at all. Is the media really this desperate for Bush's approval rating to rebound?

President George W. Bush has long opposed making English the country's national language, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said on Friday, a day after the Senate voted to do so, but the White House said later Gonzales had got caught in a "linguistic snare." The Senate vote came in an amendment to proposed legislation overhauling U.S. immigration law and directed the government to "preserve and enhance" the role of English. Opponents said it could affect the status of some multilingual services offered by government organizations. Adding to the confusion, the Senate also adopted a softer amendment calling English the "unifying language" of the United States. Senators take both versions into negotiations over a final bill with the U.S. House of Representatives. Gonzales did not directly address Bush's position on the controversial amendment because the Senate has not yet voted on the whole bill. But he said that Bush has in the past rejected such efforts. "The president has never supported making English the national language," Gonzales said after meeting with state and local officials in Texas to discuss cooperation on enforcement of immigration laws. He said Bush has instead long supported a concept called "English-Plus," believing that it was good to be proficient in more than one language. Later on Friday, the White House weighed in to clarify Gonzales' remarks, saying the president does not believe in English as an "official" language. "The attorney general got caught in a linguistic snare. He took 'national' language to mean what we describe as 'official' language.

Thursday's party-line vote in the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee, to report to the floor a bill for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, was a small victory. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the measure, which states, "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman." But its chances of passing the full Senate are slim. Democrats and opponents of the measure accused Republican leaders of pushing the amendment in an election year, purely for political reasons. "Coloradans are embarrassed that Sen. Allard along with Rep. Musgrave are champions of enshrining discrimination in our nation's most sacred document," said Michael Brewer, a Denver gay rights advocate. "The effort to pass a federal marriage amendment is a political ploy to catalyze the most conservative members of the Republican Party." Allard said he sponsored the amendment to prevent judges from defining marriage without input from the majority of Americans. "Truth is, the Constitution will be amended whether we pass this bill or not. The only question is whether it will be amended through the amendment process or by unelected, activist judges," Allard said. "The constitutional amendment process allows the people a voice in the debate."

Extra police patrols have been called in to keep an eye on Senator Rick "Sactimonious" Santorum's home in Penn Hills, PA. Rick Santorum's residency in the area and, in fact, his residency in Pennsylvania, has become an issue in this still young U.S. Senate campaign. KDKA’s Ralph Iannotti reports Santorum’s residency is no longer just only a political issue... it's now become a police matter, as well. "He doesn't live here," said Ed Vecchio of Penn Hills. "The house he's registered to vote out of, is vacant - no curtains, furniture, nothing in there. It's [been] abandoned for over a month. So, I feel it's my right to contest his vote." Those comments from the husband of the head of the Penn Hills Democratic Party led police to beef up patrols around the home of U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. The increased police presence began late Tuesday, after authorities in Washington D.C. contacted Penn Hills authorities. U.S. Capitol Police received a complaint from Karen Santorum. She was worried that someone was trespassing or prowling on their Penn Hills property. The Santorums are under fire from some Democrats who have long questioned their Penn Hills residency. They admit they spend most of their time at their home in Leesburg, Virginia.

Young people joining the National Guard in hopes of getting health insurance for themselves or their families are ending up disappointed. Many end up putting their lives on the line everyday, and everyday we get updates on our armed forces and their efforts securing Iraq. However, for many members of the National Guard, the real test comes after their duty overseas has ended, and they are stuck in the bureaucratic mess that is post-war care for guardsmen. "They told me and my family before I left they'd take care of me and my family. And they lied," said Staff Sgt. David Irwin, of the 193rd Special Operations Wing. Irwin is battling to support his wife and two daughters, despite an injury. He's lost 90 percent of the use of his arm because of an injury commonly known as tennis elbow, but it wasn't tennis, it was guard duty that left him disabled during Operation Iraqi Freedom. "The mission's still classified, to this day, they're still classified," said Irwin, who served as an aircraft mechanic. Irwin saw his air Guard unit demobilized, just as medical care became critical for his injury. Instead of prepping EC-130s for flight, he was prepping paperwork for the government's health insurance plan. Surgeries approved for his elbow were denied months later when the bills came. "Getting preauthorization takes months, just to get an MRI took two-and-a-half months," he said. Irwin feels if he were an active-duty service member, his care would've been better, instead of leaving he and his family bankrupt and without health care for 18 months. "We're required to do the same training, the same requirements as active duty, but we're not treated the same," he said.

The deal already looks suspiciously sweetened. On May 3, 2006, U.S. beverage firms announced an agreement with the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association gradually to pull most sweetened soft drinks from U.S. schools. Former President Bill Clinton led the press conference. But food policy expert Michele Simon says Clinton gave PR cover to the companies and coopted a more transparent public health-centered negotiation. Soda sales had already flattened. The beverage makers may have been looking to avoid a patchwork of state laws and to protect school vending machine slots for their other products--such as high calorie sports drinks, which were not part of the deal. Simon writes: "[T]his so-called agreement could undermine the massive public health effort currently underway in schools all across the nation."

Justice Antonin Scalia rebuked fellow conservatives on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying they have gone too far in trying to prevent the Supreme Court from using foreign law in its constitutional rulings. Scalia dissented vigorously from the court's recent decisions that invoked foreign law to help strike down the death penalty for juveniles and laws against consensual homosexual conduct. In Congress, conservative Republicans responded angrily to the rulings and introduced bills that would either condemn or ban the court's use of foreign legal authorities. But in his speech to a National Italian American Foundation luncheon attended by several House members, Scalia said, in effect, that he does not need any help. "It's none of your business," he said, referring to Congress. "No one is more opposed to the use of foreign law than I am, but I’m darned if I think it’s up to Congress to direct the court how to make its decisions."

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claims that Bush has never supported making English the national language, but White House Press Secretary Tony Snow just said the opposite. (And the Senate just voted to make it so.) ThinkProgress.com: "Today Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that President Bush 'has never supported making English the national language.' But earlier this morning, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said Bush supported efforts in the Senate to do just that: As you know, there were actually a couple of amendments that came up yesterday, an Inhofe amendment and also a Salazar amendment. And what has come out of that is a description of English as the national language. And I think - and we have supported both of these. - And I think both of these amendments are consistent with that stated presidential desire."

News From The "War On Terror": A draft investigative report by the House Judiciary Committee, obtained by ABC News, finds that terrorists could easily spot undercover federal air marshals because of airport boarding policies Homeland Security has "been oblivious to" or refused to change. "Any procedure that could potentially compromise the anonymity of a federal air marshal is a risk to national security," concludes the report to be made public next week. Current and former air marshals tell ABC News their own bosses are responsible for blowing their cover. "I would say that any well trained terrorist organization could identify every air marshal at ever airport in the country," former air marshal supervisor Don Strange told ABC News for a program to be broadcast tonight on 20/20. A three-month undercover investigation found five separate places at airports where air marshals are required to identify themselves in front of waiting passengers. The investigation also found air marshals are required to stay in the same hotels, which often advertise their presence. "Welcome Federal Air Marshals, Company of the Month" read the sign outside a Sheraton hotel in Florida. At a Holiday Inn, a list of the air marshals with their names and room numbers was kept in public view at the front desk. "Anybody who wants to do something bad to a plane and its passengers knows who they have to subdue first," Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told ABC News.

Republicans Demonstrate Their Understanding Of And Sympathy With The People: "I haven't heard anyone aroused about me speaking at the New School," John McCain said in April, defending his decision to address Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Nobody at all, except for virtually the entire crowd at the New School's Madison Square Garden graduation ceremony in New York City. At the beginning of the event, New School President, and former Senator, Bob Kerrey predicted a raucous affair. "Our founding purpose is proudly liberal," he said. "We began as an act of protest." The school's tradition of dissent carried on that day. Scores of New School students held orange signs, and a few banners, reading "McCain Does Not Speak For Me," and "Our Commencement Is Not Your Platform." What began as mild rumblings of disapproval before McCain's speech soon exploded into boos, catcalls and turned backs. The spark was provided by undergraduate keynote speaker Jean Sara Rohe, a composed, seemingly innocuous jazz musician and singer. After beginning with a short folk song (true to classic graduation speech form) Rohe quickly tossed aside her prepared remarks to directly address McCain. "This ceremony has become something other than the celebratory gathering it should be," Rohe said. "The Senator does not reflect the ideals on which this school was founded. This was a top-down decision in which the students played no part." The crowd erupted. The Senator spoke in a dull monotone, without his usual charisma or charm. He was noticeably deflated by the crowd's harsh reception towards him. Remarks such as "I supported the decision to go to war in Iraq," were met with loud boos. "I stand that ground because I believed, rightly or wrongly, that my country's interests and values required it." "Wrongly!" one student boomed from the back. Sitting directly behind us, Maureen Dowd and Adam Nagourney of the New York Times, chuckled.

Not since King George I expressed his astonishment at a grocery store scanner has a leading Republican politician shown less understanding of how the real people live: During a late session last night, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) made a stunning claim on the House floor: "Well, folks, if you earn $40,000 a year and have a family of two children, you don’t pay any taxes. So you probably, if you don’t pay any taxes, you are not going to get a very big tax cut. While someone with a $40,000 salary and a family of four paid little or no federal income taxes last year, Hastert ignores various other taxes paid by all Americans - payroll taxes, gas taxes, sales taxes, etc." (watch the video) Consider payroll taxes, which go to paying for Social Security and Medicare. Assuming their entire $40,000 in salary came from wages, this family paid $3,060 (7.65 percent of $40,000) in federal payroll taxes last year. (Note: The employer also contributes this amount, but most economists "believe that the portion of the payroll tax paid by the employer is borne by the worker.") Hastert, who earns a hefty $212,010 a year salary, doesn’t seem to understand that families across America are facing higher health care costs, mortgage payments, and gas prices. And yes, they also have to pay their taxes.

Extraordinary Rendition Watch: After 9-11, within the frame-work of the fight against terrorism, the violation of human and fundamental rights was not isolated, or an excessive measure confined to a short period of time, but rather a widespread regular practice by the CIA in which the majority of European countries are involved. Giovanni Claudio Fava, chief investigator for a European Parliament report on the CIA's "extraordinary renditions" in Europe - following three months of hearings, April 26 This is not a story about the CIA's secret prisons around the world, but rather a probe by the European Parliament that Congress's Republican leadership has refused to authorize here - into CIA "rendition" kidnappings throughout Europe of suspects sent to countries known for torturing prisoners. (A number of the victims testified at the European Parliament hearings.) One of the crimes committed by the CIA in these renditions is a violation of U.S. Code 2441, the War Crimes Act of 1996 condemning torture - and the international Covenant Against Torture. This European inquiry was started after the Washington Post's Dana Priest revealed last November that the CIA had secret prisons in Eastern Europe - a sequel to her many stories about the CIA's far from secret "renditions." She won a Pulitzer Prize for that November story - as well as an investigation of her and her sources by the Justice Department. There are CIA agents who have feared for a long time that these scabrous chickens would come home to roost. In December 2005, Michael Scheuer - who had recently left the CIA after having begun the "rendition" program under the Clinton administration - spoke openly about it on 60 Minutes. He supports the "renditions," but as for what happens to those kidnapped after they're sent by the CIA to Jordan or Syria or Egypt or Morocco, Scheuer said: "It's very convenient. It's finding someone else to do your dirty work... If you make a mistake [about whom you've kidnapped], you make a mistake." Scheuer was asked: "Doesn't that make the United States complicit in the torture?" The answer: "You'll have to ask the lawyers."

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: General Hayden's assertion, during his Senate confirmation hearings, that the NSA surveillance program would have prevented 9/11 by uncovering two of the alleged hijackers is a complete fallacy for two reasons. One - a global spying network to dwarf the domestic eavesdropping controversy that tracks all communications, Echelon, was in existence. Two - the alleged 9/11 hijackers were tracked and catalogued by the US government. During his confirmation hearing Hayden said that if the warrantless domestic surveillance program had been in place before 9/11, two of the alleged 9/11 hijackers (or US government agents), Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, would have been caught. "The NSA would have raised its hand and said, 'Hey, these guys are in San Diego,' " he said. Firstly, the Echelon program has collected information in violation of the 4th Amendment from American citizen's phone calls since the early 90's at least. In addition, a 2001 European Parliament report stated that "within Europe all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted" by the NSA. The fact that Echelon barely even merited a mention during the recent furore created by the USA Today piece goes to show how utterly useless our media are in recalling what has already been admitted and proven.

As part of a grand jury investigation that's still secret, the Justice Department asked a federal magistrate judge to approve monitoring of an unnamed person's e-mail correspondents. The request had a twist: Instead of asking to eavesdrop on the contents of the e-mail messages, which would require some evidence of wrongdoing, prosecutors instead requested the identities of the correspondents. Also included in the request was header information like date and time and Internet address - but not subject lines. The federal magistrate judge balked and asked the Justice Department to submit an additional brief to demonstrate that such a request would be legal. Instead, prosecutors asked Judge Hogan to step in. He reviewed the portion of federal law dealing with "pen register" and "trap and trace" devices--terms originating in the world of telephone wiretapping--and concluded it "unambiguously" authorizes the e-mail surveillance request. Though the language may be clumsy, Hogan said, the Patriot Act's amendments authorize that type of easily obtainable surveillance of e-mail. All that's required, he said, is that prosecutors claim the surveillance could conceivably be "relevant" to an investigation.

Republicans Believe In Freedom Of The Press: Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is filing a formal complaint with chamber officials regarding what he considers an "unethical" broadcast of an interview with him by a CNN reporter Tuesday. In an incident that could have repercussions for TV journalists’ access to the chamber, Stevens is furious with CNN correspondent Joe Johns for an interview conducted outside the weekly GOP policy luncheons, but far away from the usual bank of TV cameras set up for such interviews next to the storied Ohio Clock. "This was not a formal interview request. This was an ambush in the hallway," said Stevens spokeswoman Courtney Boone. "He was asked to go on camera and declined." The blow-up over the Johns report comes as TV journalists have launched a campaign to secure greater access to the second-floor hallways, which are regarded as top real estate for reporters because it's possible to get up-close face time with Senators there during votes and before and after key meetings.

Republicans Believe In Protecting The People: FDA testing has found the cancer-causing chemical benzene in some soft drinks but not at high enough levels to cause harm, U.S. regulators said on Friday. Five out of more than 100 beverages tested had benzene in amounts exceeding the limit set for U.S. drinking water - 5 parts per billion, the Food and Drug Administration said. The agency said it asked manufacturers to minimize or eliminate benzene levels in their products. All of the makers contacted have reformulated the drinks or are in the process of doing so, FDA officials said. The agency tested samples of soft drinks and other beverages from November 2005 through April 2006. The benzene amounts detected "do not pose a safety concern for consumers," the FDA said in a statement.

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: When President Bush signed legislation Wednesday to extend lower tax rates for capital gains and dividend income through 2010, he suggested that his tax cuts are behind a surge of new revenue into the Treasury, and implied that it's enough to offset the revenue lost by these reductions. At a ceremony on the White House lawn, Bush said his tax cuts had helped the economy grow, "which means more tax revenue for the federal Treasury." That's just not true. A host of studies, some of them written by economists who served in the Bush administration, have concluded that tax reductions mean less money for the Treasury. The cuts Bush extended Wednesday will cost the Treasury an estimated $70 billion over five years. They may help spur economic growth, but they still lose more revenue than they generate. And unless they're matched by lower federal spending, they worsen federal budget deficits. To be sure, tax revenues grew by $274 billion in 2005, a 15 percent increase over the previous year, and receipts are growing this year too. But does that mean the president's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts generated enough additional revenue to pay for themselves? "No," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin. He was the chief economist for Bush's Council of Economic Advisers in 2001 and 2002, then the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office until late last year. Holtz-Eakin said other factors were behind the surge in tax revenues. One is that revenues rise as the population and the economy grow. Revenues would have risen in the post-2001 economic recovery with or without tax reductions, just as they did in the '90s. Treasury Secretary John Snow conceded Tuesday that the much-touted tax cuts for capital gains and dividend income don't drive today's strong economy. Asked by Knight Ridder if the tax reductions paid for themselves, Snow acknowledged that they don't. He also acknowledged that economic growth and stock market gains were strong in the late 1990s, when the capital-gains tax stood at 20 percent and dividend income was taxed at rates as high as 38.6 percent.

Traders on the world's financial markets left for home Friday night counting their losses after a week of extreme turbulence that witnessed the biggest one-day fall in share prices in London and New York for three years. Fears that rising inflation might prompt central banks to keep raising the cost of borrowing triggered a sell-off which sloshed through all markets - putting the skids under the dollar, sending commodity prices on a rollercoaster ride and prompting cautious investors to seek out the traditional safe haven of gold. Metals prices slid in further bumpy trading yesterday with copper, nickel and aluminum slipping up to 10%. Oil prices also fell by more than $1 a barrel to around $68 a barrel while London stocks saw the biggest weekly fall for four years. Stephen Lewis, an economist with Insinger de Beaufort, said the past week had been one of those unusual periods when the price of equities, bonds and raw materials moved in the same direction. When that happens, he added, the markets have normally sensed change in the air - and that change is that the Bank of England, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the US Federal Reserve are going to make credit more expensive. At the center lies the US - the world's biggest economy and the fastest-growing country in the developed world for a decade or more. America has been living beyond its means at individual and national levels. Americans have been borrowing to consume, creating record levels of personal debt and a record trade deficit. Since one country's trade deficit is another's trade surplus, by definition there have to be countries where people are living well within their means and where exports exceed imports. Germany is one such country; China is another.

Watching Fox So You Don't Have To: Bill O'Reilly has threatened a boycott of Mexico if the country's foreign secretary, Luis Ernesto Derbez, makes good on a promise to sue if evidence emerges that the National Guard is directly helping to detain Mexican citizens trying to illegally enter the United States. O'Reilly warned Derbez, "If the Mexican government files one lawsuit in the U.S.A., one, pertaining to the National Guard, I will call for a total boycott of Mexican goods and no travel to your country." During the May 17 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, host Bill O'Reilly threatened a boycott of Mexico if the country's foreign secretary, Luis Ernesto Derbez, makes good on a promise to sue the United States if evidence emerges that the National Guard is directly helping to detain Mexican citizens trying to illegally enter the United States. O'Reilly warned Derbez, "If the Mexican government files one lawsuit in the U.S.A., one, pertaining to the National Guard, I will call for a total boycott of Mexican goods and no travel to your country." Continuing, O'Reilly suggested that Derbez "give the French ambassador a call" so he could "fill" Derbez "in" on the effects of an O'Reilly-sponsored boycott, a conversation that might not go as O'Reilly suggests.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Deaths run like water through the life of the Bahjat family. Four neighbors. A barber. Three grocers. Two men who ran a currency exchange shop. But when six armed men stormed into their sons' primary school this month, shot a guard dead, and left fliers ordering it to close, Assad Bahjat knew it was time to leave. "The main thing now is to just get out of Iraq," said Mr. Bahjat, standing in a room heaped with suitcases and bedroom furniture in eastern Baghdad. In the latest indication of the crushing hardships weighing on the lives of Iraqis, increasing portions of the middle class seem to be doing everything they can to leave the country. In the last 10 months, the state has issued new passports to 1.85 million Iraqis, 7 percent of the population and a quarter of the country's middle class.

Scandals Du Jour: The Washington Editor of Harper's magazine, Ken Silverstein, continues to allege that six members current and former members of Congress attended parties sponsored by Brent Wilkes, the man named as an unindicted conspirator in the case of Rep. Duke Cunningham, who was sentenced to eight years in jail for accepting bribes. These nebulous parties are said at the very least to have involved "occasional card games with friends" (according to the lawyer for recently resigned CIA #3 "Dusty Foggo," also implicated in the scandal) or at worst, were venues for prostitution and bribes. Formerly an editor for the Los Angeles Times, Silverstein has previously reported on intelligence, political corruption and ties between oil companies and repressive foreign regimes. He writes: "I double-checked with my sources regarding who attended Wilkes’s parties, and all of them repeated what they had said before: over the years, at least six former and current members of Congress were said to have been at events sponsored by Wilkes, and their names have apparently been provided to investigators in the Cunningham case. Also, it wasn't only congressmen who were at the parties; intelligence officials, businessmen, and assorted hangers-on also attended. (As we previously noted, some of the attendees may have simply dropped by for a drink.)"

It must be hard to put the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in a positive light, following recent detainee suicide attempts and the United Nations Committee Against Torture's recommendation that the camp be closed, but that's what the Pentagon is trying to do. According to US News & World Report, "Officials from the Joint Chiefs of Staff Detainee Affairs Section have worked up a new briefing and made presentations in recent months to some 3,000 people, including media representatives and members of Congress, stressing the strategic value of detainees at the prison camp." The briefing touts the camp's "decent food, healthcare, and literacy training for the inmates. Notwithstanding allegations of psychological and physical torture, officials say the biggest threats faced by many detainees are ... frequent sports injuries on Gitmo basketball courts." The briefing also says many detainees "help in identifying current al Qaeda operatives and supporters and in revealing favored bomb-making techniques."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:05:16 AM

Fri, May 19 2006

Sold! Again - Maybe

It's cold. Or so it seems after all that mid-80's weather. We have had a cold front come through - very unseasonable, but it has happened, and it has dropped the temperatures into the low 70's which is feeling downright chilly to me now. The high today was only 75, and the day's low is the current temperature - as I write this at a bit after six in the evening, it has dropped to 71 and going down fast. May drop into the 60's tonight for the first time in a long time. It is making me feel really chilly, too, with my dieting and all.

The gardener showed up this morning, cargo taxi in tow, with a load of wood fenceposts, freshly cut and trimmed, and all ready to set. Now I need to hire a peone to go do the hard work of getting them in the ground and getting the barbed wire moved onto them. They cost me 1500 colones apiece, a bit under three dollars each. So I am into them for a bit over $60 for the load of them - about half of what concrete fenceposts would have cost. And I can get this fencing project done and out of the way.

I needn't have bothered buying the fenceposts or worrying about the fence. That's because also in tow with the gardener this morning was a buyer for the house, a guy that my gardener's patron knows, who he figured might like the place. He's a gringo from Kentucky. Well, the guy looked over the yard and the house for about ten minutes, and then announced that he is inclined to buy it. He has a partner who will be coming into the country on Tuesday or Wednesday, and that guy will come by to look it over as well, but he told me to expect an earnest-money deposit. The catch is that I have to arrange for financing for a bit over half of the value, but I think I have that one covered. A friend of mine is dealing in mortgages here, and I talked to him about it this afternoon, and he thinks he can get a loan on the terms the buyer needs. The guy is offering me full price, and that suits me just fine, though he does not want to buy the car. I will have to sell that separately - but I may not want to sell it for awhile anyway, if I end up continuing to live in Costa Rica for a bit of time.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: As the Republicans begin to prepare to cede Congressional power to the Democrats, John Conyers, the likely new Speaker of the House has issued a statement on impeachment: "As Republicans have become increasingly nervous about whether they will be able to maintain control of the House in the midterm elections, they have resorted to the straw-man strategy of identifying a parade of horrors to come if Democrats gain the majority. Among these is the assertion that I, as the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, would immediately begin impeachment proceedings against President Bush. I will not do that. I readily admit that I have been quite vigorous, if not relentless, in questioning the administration. The allegations I have raised are grave, serious, well known, and based on reliable media reports and the accounts of former administration officials. But none of these allegations can be proved or disproved until the administration answers questions. For example, to know whether intelligence was mistaken or manipulated in the run-up to the Iraq war, we need to know what information was made available to -- and actually read by -- decision makers and how views contradicting the case for war were treated. We need to know the extent to which high-ranking officials approved of the use of torture and other cruel and inhumane treatment inflicted upon detainees. We need to know whether the leaking of the name of a covert CIA operative was deliberate or accidental, as well as the identity of those responsible."

If she was told, who else knew? In an ALTERNET exclusive Thursday, former New York Times reporter Judy Miller tells Rory O'Connor and William Scott Malone about the story she says claims she'll regret for the rest of her life - the fact that an anonymous White House source told her in July 2001 that an NSA intelligence report predicted a large al Qaeda attack, possibly on the continental United States. "I think everybody knew that an attack was coming - everyone who followed this. But you know you can only 'cry wolf' within a newspaper... before people start saying there he goes - or there she goes - again!" Miller says in an interview. "I remember the weekend before July 4, 2001 in particular, because for some reason the people who were worried about Al Qaeda believed that was the weekend that there was going to be an attack on the US or on major American target somewhere," Miller recounts. "It was going to be a large, well-coordinated attack." Two months later - on September 11 - ALTERNET.ORG says Miller and her editor at the Times, Stephen Engelberg, both remembered and regretted the story they "didn't do."

The quick fix may involve sending in the National Guard. But to really patch up the broken border, President Bush is preparing to turn to a familiar partner: the nation's giant military contractors. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, three of the largest, are among the companies that said they would submit bids within two weeks for a multibillion-dollar federal contract to build what the administration calls a "virtual fence" along the nation's land borders. Using some of the same high-priced, high-tech tools these companies have already put to work in Iraq and Afghanistan - like unmanned aerial vehicles, ground surveillance satellites and motion-detection video equipment - the military contractors are zeroing in on the rivers, deserts, mountains and settled areas that separate Mexico and Canada from the United States. It is a humbling acknowledgment that despite more than a decade of initiatives with macho-sounding names, like Operation Hold the Line in El Paso or Operation Gate Keeper in San Diego, the federal government has repeatedly failed on its own to gain control of the land borders.

President Bush and his wife, Laura, had assets valued between $7.2 million and $20.9 million last year, up from as much as $18.1 million a year earlier, annual disclosure forms released last night showed. Bush, who says his economic policies have helped Americans increase their wealth, is still making up ground from the start of his first term in 2001, when he and his wife reported assets of as much as $24 million. Vice President Cheney disclosed a portfolio worth as much as $94.6 million in 2005. Most of the Bushes' wealth was in real estate and a diversified trust, which combined were worth as much as $10 million, the 18-page statement showed. Much of the rest of their holdings were U.S. Treasury notes and certificates of deposit. The 1,583-acre Bush ranch near Crawford, Tex., was estimated to be worth between $1 million and $5 million, the same range given in last year's filing. Bush also disclosed a health savings account worth as much as $15,000 and a 401(k) retirement plan from his days as Texas governor valued at as much as $250,000.

Bill O'Reilly comes out as a white supremacist: During the May 16 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, host Bill O'Reilly claimed that The New York Times and "many far-left thinkers believe the white power structure that controls America is bad, so a drastic change is needed." O'Reilly continued: "According to the lefty zealots, the white Christians who hold power must be swept out by a new multicultural tide, a rainbow coalition, if you will." O'Reilly's comments came during a discussion of opposition by the Times and others to deploying the National Guard to help secure the border. As Media Matters for America has noted, O'Reilly has previously claimed to have exposed the "hidden agenda" behind the immigration movement, which he said was "the browning of America." O'Reilly also asserted, during the same April 12 edition of his nationally syndicated radio show, that "there is a movement in this country to wipe out 'white privilege.' " Video clip is available at the link.

Proposed budget cuts could cripple a nationwide system of Environmental Protection Agency libraries that government researchers and others depend on for hard-to-find technical information, library advocates say. The $2 million cut sought by the White House would reduce the 35-year-old EPA Library Network's budget by 80 percent and force many of its 10 regional libraries to close, according to the advocates and internal agency documents. That, in turn, would dramatically reduce access to certain EPA reports, guidance and technical documents that are used by the agency's scientific and enforcement staff as well as private businesses and citizens, they say. "They are moving ahead very quickly on very substantive cuts to their library program," said Patrice McDermott, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations. "They really don't have a good plan for continuing to provide access for the public, and even their own researchers and scientists, to the information." EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said it was "premature" to talk of mass closings among the regional libraries, although the one in Chicago already is shutting down. Wood said that 15 other EPA libraries, many of them attached to federal laboratories, will not be affected by the budget cuts. She said the agency plans to save money and operate more efficiently by making EPA materials in the regional libraries available electronically. Many documents that exist only on paper will continue to be available through interlibrary loans, Wood said.

A former U.N. biological weapons specialist is asserting that the prime ministers of Australia and Britain knew at the time that pre-war intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was false. Rod Barton, an Australian, worked as a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq for a decade. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on May 13 that Barton turned whistleblower over the machinations of American, British and Australian politicians distorting pre-war intelligence in order to justify the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. In March 2004, Barton and fellow Australian, foreign affairs disarmament specialist John Gee, resigned in protest from the Iraq Survey Group. Following the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the CIA and the U.S. Department of Defense established the Iraq Survey Group to locate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Following its efforts, the group issued a final report, usually referred to as the Duelfer Report, compiled by the ISG's 1,400-member international team. In his new book "The Weapons Detective," Barton goes into detail about his work for the Defense Intelligence Organization, which he joined in 1972 as a microbiologist. Baton asserts that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard both knew before the invasion that the intelligence on Iraqi WMDs was false.

Moving closer to being drowned in a bathtub: One of twelve units of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is contemplating outsourcing its communications office, reports O'Dwyer's. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality is collecting "proposals from PR firms that can handle its public affairs, publishing, research and web operations." The firm would replace the agency's Office of Communications and Knowledge Transfer, which employs 32 full-time staff. (Current staff would be offered the "'right of first refusal' to outsourced jobs for which they are qualified.") The agency's move follows Office of Management and Budget guidelines, which say "'commercial activities' performed by government workers should be subject to competition when possible." The agency carries out an annual report on healthcare quality in each U.S. state, and recently reported that alcohol abuse-related problems cost $2 billion a year in hospital costs.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday narrowly passed a fiscal 2007 "wartime" budget that would continue a string of large deficits and trigger an increase in government borrowing authority. By a vote of 218-210, the House passed the $2.7 trillion budget blueprint more than a month after Congress was supposed to have finished its work on the nonbinding measure. No Democrats voted for the Republican budget, which sets broad outlines for spending throughout the government. The House budget forecasts a $348 billion deficit next year and it could be higher since the measure sets aside only $50 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been running at about double that cost annually.

Why Iran wants the bomb: The US is considering a major U-turn in its approach to North Korea that would see a push for regime change replaced by peace talks, it was reported today. The softening of the US stance towards the communist country - which was included in George Bush's "axis of evil" - will take place even as efforts to dismantle its nuclear program are under way, US administration officials and Asian diplomats revealed. Aides told the New York Times Mr Bush was likely to approve the new approach as long as Pyongyang restarted multinational negotiations over its nuclear program. The talks stalled in September. Faced with plummeting approval ratings among US voters, the president has come under pressure to soften his approach towards the North. Earlier this week, the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post that "focusing on regime change as the road to denuclearisation confuses the issue." Although North Koreans have long demanded a peace treaty to replace the existing 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, it is unclear whether the country's leaders would take part in any new discussions.

Western diplomatic sources told the BBC the feedstock for Iran's recent uranium enrichment experiments probably came from materials supplied in 1991. That was before China joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and before it was bound by its export controls. Iran recently announced it had enriched uranium in its possession. This was despite calls from Western powers to suspend the program because of fears it could lead to the production of a nuclear weapon. Nuclear experts say Iran has had some problems with impurities in its own production of the feedstock - uranium hexafluoride gas. Iran used stocks of high-quality uranium gas from China to speed up a breakthrough in enrichment, diplomats say.

The Republicans could face a substantial electoral defeat later this year, leaving George Bush a lame-duck president, a poll published yesterday suggests. The poll, for the Washington Post and ABC television, confirmed a rapid slide in support for Mr Bush and raised hopes of a Democrat revival by putting the party ahead on all important indicators, from the economy to Iraq and immigration. Smirkey is now just hovering above lows reached only by presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Harry Truman and his father. He has been unable to reverse the slump, despite a series of initiatives that included reshuffling his White House team last month, making a televised address to the nation on Monday night on Mexican immigration, and talking up progress on a new government for Iraq. David Frum, who was responsible for writing Mr Bush's "axis of evil" speech, said yesterday: "It is not clear he has hit bottom yet. My view is that 2006 will not be a good year for Republicans." Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and strategist, echoed Mr Frum, who is now a resident fellow at the rightwing Washington thinktank the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). "This is not going to be a good year for parties in power, not just in America. There is an anxiety in western democracies right now that has led voters to oust parties in power. There is unease and frustration with the status quo and a desire for change." Mr Luntz said: "It is absolutely possible for the Democrats to take one or both [houses]. I was involved in 1994. It feels like a 1994-style election. Voters will come to the ballots for candidates they do not even know [to get the incumbent out]." Mr Frum was less pessimistic: "It is not impossible that Republicans could eke out a hold in both houses."

A senior House Democrat with close ties to the military claimed Wednesday that U.S. Marines wantonly killed innocent Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in an early morning raid last November, buttressing a March report by Time. "Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood," said Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania, a decorated Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam and is among the most influential Democratic voices on military matters. "This is going to be a very, very bad thing for the United States." Asked about his sources during a midday briefing on Iraq policy in the Capitol, Murtha confidently replied, "All the information I get, it comes from the commanders, it comes from people who know what they are talking about." Although Murtha said that he had not read any investigative reports by the military on the incident, he stressed, "It's much worse than reported in Time magazine."

On Wednesday afternoon in the U.S. Capitol, Distinguished Service Awards will be bestowed upon Vice President Dick Cheney and former CIA Director Porter Goss, two former House members selected by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL). "The Congressional Distinguished Service Award was established to honor former Members of the House who have performed their duties on behalf of their constituents and the American people with such extraordinary distinction and selfless dedication as to merit special recognition," reads an invitation to the ceremony. Porter Goss served as a Florida Congressman from 1989 until September of 2004, when he was tapped by President Bush to take over the CIA directorship. Cheney was formerly a member of the House for Wyoming.

The Gallup Poll reports today that "The percentage of Americans who say that most members of Congress are corrupt has increased significantly from the beginning of this year, and is now at the point at which slightly fewer than half of Americans believe most members are corrupt." This, interestingly, is similar to what Gallup found just prior to the 1994 elections, when Republicans swept Democrats out of power. However, there is a twist: Relatively few Americans think their own member is corrupt. But Gallup reports: "The American public is more likely to trust the Democrats in Congress - rather than the Republicans - to handle the issue of corruption, although the vast majority of Americans believe corruption in Washington involves both parties equally. The survey, taken two weeks ago, found that Americans are divided on whether most members of Congress are corrupt (47%) or not corrupt (46%). The percentage saying most members of Congress are corrupt is up significantly since January, when 38% said most members were corrupt and 55% said most were not.

Some choice comments from Buchanan this week: He depicted immigration on Scarborough's show as "an invasion" by "the whole world. He opined on The McLaughlin Group, " This is not Ellis Island! This is an invasion of this country." Buchanan joins the likes of Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Minutemen, and the nativist right in venomous immigrant-bashing that in all likelihood will provoke backlash at the polls--just as Governor Pete Wilson's Prop 187 sparked a backlash in California that threw Republicans out of statewide office for a decade. Already, the draconian House bill has mobilized a nascent political movement. Republican Sen. Mel Martinez noted, "This is the first issue that, in my mind, has absolutely galvanized the Latino community in America like no other." And whether the impact is felt at the polls in 2006 or years from now, militaristic language and actions that inflame anti-immigrant sentiments will result in Republican losses. According to the New York Times, Hispanics now represent one out of every eight US residents and about half of the nation's recent population growth. And younger Latinos--whose political allegiance is up for grabs--will soon be registering and voting in much greater numbers. Robert Suro, director of the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center, points out, "There is a big demographic wave of Hispanic kids who are native born who will be turning 18 in even greater numbers over the next three, four and five election cycles." So, if Pat Buchanan wishes to help the Democrats then he should keep right on trying to recapture the glory days of his three ill-fated presidential bids. But, if he wishes to actually contribute to a complex and emotional debate, then he should find a new way to remain relevant.

A Senate panel advanced a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on Thursday as the committee chairman shouted "good riddance" to a Democrat who walked out of the tense session. "If you want to leave, good riddance," Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter told Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold, who refused to participate because, he said, the meeting was not sufficiently open to the public. "I've enjoyed your lecture too. See you later, Mr. Chairman," Feingold told the Pennsylvania Republican before storming out. The testy exchange highlighted tensions over the proposal, which would amend the U.S. Constitution to prevent states from recognizing same-sex marriages. The measure passed 10-8 on a party-line vote in a brief session held in a small, private chamber just off the Senate floor. Specter said he voted for the amendment because he thought it should be taken up by the full Senate, even though he does not support it.

CNN is trying to bait 9/11 truth activists to appear as guests on its programs and attack Charlie Sheen. WTC survivor and truth activist William Rodriguez was contacted by the Anderson Cooper show and asked if he would go on record as saying the new Pentagon footage dispelled all 9/11 questions. They also requested that he attack Charlie Sheen's public stance on 9/11. After Rodriguez refused to take the bait and said he supports Sheen 100% CNN canceled his appearance even as the car to pick him up was on route. Lawyer Philip Berg and philanthropist Jimmy Walters were also approached by CNN and promised TV time if they agreed to debunk Charlie Sheen. Both refused.

A little girl blows away dandelion fluff as an announcer says, "Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution; we call it life," in an advertisement targeting global warming "alarmists," especially Al Gore. The television ads, screened for the press Wednesday and set to air in 14 U.S. cities starting Thursday, are part of a campaign by the Competitive Enterprise Institute to counter a media spotlight on threats posed by worldwide climate change. The spots are timed to precede next week's theatrical release of "An Inconvenient Truth," a documentary film on global warming that features Gore, the former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate. Against backdrops of a park, a beach and a forest, one celebrates the benefits of greenhouse gas-producing fuels. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a political front organization, funded primarily by oil companies.

Seven African-American members of the U.S. Congress were arrested on Tuesday at the Embassy of Sudan, where they were protesting atrocities in that country's Darfur region. The members of the Congressional Black Caucus held a news conference in front of the embassy property, then moved to block the entrance to deliberately prompt their arrests, said Christopher Johnson, spokesman for North Carolina Democratic Rep. Mel Watt. "It's time for the members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the world community to raise the ante on Sudan," Watt, the caucus chairman, said in a statement. Also arrested were Democratic Reps. John Lewis of Georgia, Barbara Lee of California, Eddie Bernice Johnson and Al Green of Texas, Gwen Moore of Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who has pushed a tough border security bill through the House, accused Smirkey on Wednesday of abandoning Sensenbrenner's immigration legislation after asking for many of its provisions. "He basically turned his back on provisions of the House-passed bill, a lot of which we were requested to put in the bill by the White House," Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., angrily told reporters in a conference call. "That was last fall when we were drafting the bill, and now the president appears not to be interested in it at all." Sensenbrenner chairs the House Judiciary Committee and would be the House's chief negotiator on any final immigration package for Bush's signature. He said it was the White House that had requested two controversial felony provisions in the bill the House passed last winter. "We worked very closely with White House in the fall in putting together the border security bill that the House passed," he said. "...What we heard in November and December, he seems to be going in the opposite direction in May. That is really at the crux of this irritation," he said of Bush.

Six months ago, Bush’s Homeland Security chief, Michael Chertoff, said this about stationing National Guard troops on the Mexico border: "I think it would be a horribly over-expensive and very difficult way to manage this problem."

The FDA said Bausch and Lomb failed to notify the FDA of 35 injury reports of Fusarium keratitis from Singapore's health minister in February 2006 that related to the company's ReNu MoistureLoc Multi-Purpose solution. The FDA also said Bausch & Lomb didn't notify the agency after it removed MoistureLoc from Singapore and Hong Kong markets in February. Bausch & Lomb pulled its MoistureLoc contact lens cleaning solution from worldwide markets Monday after it said the product's formulation combined with certain use patterns likely contributes to an increased risk of Fusarium keratitis, a fungal eye infection that can lead to blindness. The FDA made its comments in a report posted to its Web site Tuesday that detailed some of the violations found during the FDA's inspection of Bausch & Lomb's Greenville, S.C., plant. The FDA's report listed several "observations" or violations of the agency's manufacturing practices. However, a top FDA official said Monday the violations aren't linked to the eye infections. The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control started inspecting the Bausch & Lomb plant March 22. Reports of eye infections in the U.S. didn't become public until April. The inspection and investigation into the possible source of the infections lasted eight weeks.

Shortly after taking office, Vice President Dick Cheney fought to take over one of the national security adviser's key duties, claims an unnamed ex-official in the June issue of Vanity Fair. "At one point early in this Bush administration, a former official tells me, Cheney wanted to chair meetings of the National Security Council "principals"' the secretaries of state and defense, the C.I.A. director, and so on' in Bush's absence, co-opting the usual role of the national security adviser, then Condoleezza Rice," writes Vanity Fair national editor Todd Purdum in an advance copy provided by the magazine to RAW STORY. "He lost," Purdum adds within parenthesis. Although Cheney's alleged desire to chair principals meetings has been reported before, the results of a RAW STORY investigation suggest that the Vice President may have gotten what he wanted. Practically unnoticed, a National Security Presidential Directive issued Feb.13, 2001, and signed by President George W. Bush, formally gave the vice president that duty, albeit at the President's discretion.

On October 16, 2003, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a New York-based wire service that serves Jewish newspapers worldwide, launched a scorching four-part series on the Ford Foundation. Written by investigative reporter Edwin Black, the series, "Funding Hate," alleged that Ford had provided financial support to several Palestinian nongovernmental organizations accused of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic behavior at the United Nations World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in late summer 2001. A Ford spokesman denied the thrust of Black's allegations: "We have seen no indication that our grantees in Durban or elsewhere engaged in anti-Semitic speech or activities." One month later, after a political onslaught from members of Congress and some prominent Jewish organizations, Ford reversed itself. In a letter to Jerrold Nadler, a Democratic Congressman from Manhattan's Upper West Side, Susan Berresford, the president of Ford, declared that her institution was "disgusted by the vicious anti-Semitic activity seen at Durban" and that "having reassessed our own information on the Durban Conference...we now recognize that we did not have a complete picture of the activities, organizations and people involved.... We deeply regret that Foundation grantees may have taken part in unacceptable behavior." The government has encouraged grant-makers and nonprofits to regularly consult a series of computerized terror watch lists maintained by various federal and international agencies--watch lists that are full of dubious aliases, generic names and "false positive" matches. The vague, sweeping language surrounding these regulations and the ways they have put new burdens on charities and foundations have provoked considerable anxiety and confusion throughout the nonprofit sector.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: The US Senate has approved the construction of fencing along the southern border with Mexico. The move forms part of an immigration bill being discussed by senators, who also backed a plan to allow illegal migrants a chance at citizenship. Hundreds of campaigners gathered in Washington to lobby senators. Correspondents say the Senate vote largely follows the outlines of President Bush's speech on Monday, in which he proposed immigration reforms. Mr Bush sought to appease both conservatives and pro-immigrant campaigners, proposing the creation of a "path to citizenship" for illegal incomers, along with steps to bolster border security. The promise of a big increase in border patrols, as well as hi-tech fences using infra-red cameras and motion sensors by 2008, was intended to reassure conservatives who want concrete steps to stem the flow of illegal workers. As that need is "urgent," President Bush said he would deploy 6,000 troops from the National Guard to give immediate support to border patrols. The guard would assist by operating surveillance systems, analysing intelligence, installing fences and vehicle barriers, but "not in direct law enforcement," he said. The measures were quickly welcomed by some leading Republicans, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. "The decision to send troops is the shot in the arm we need to strengthen our borders and protect our families." What neither the president or his allies are mentioning is that in his budget reconciliation bill, signed earlier this year, Bush nixed the 10,000 new border patrol agents, and instead authorized fewer than three hundred.

Mexicans dismiss U.S. plans to send National Guard troops to the border as a futile effort that will only fuel the booming drug- and migrant-smuggling industry. And with heavily armed Mexican soldiers in this violent border city, some worry the U.S. troop buildup could spark confrontations in an area where it is often difficult to tell where Mexico ends and the United States begins. Gilberto Areola, who lives about 20 feet from the border in the Mexican city of Nogales, near Arizona, said he will feel uneasy with soldiers patrolling the other side. "It makes me a little scared," said Areola, 54, looking at the walled border as he stood in his doorway. "A stray bullet could affect us since we live so close to the line. I think this could cause more violence." Tensions in both countries have been rising over increased violence spawned by drug battles, the human-smuggling industry and recent border scuffles. Blanca Estela Aguilar, a 24-year-old party services saleswoman in Nuevo Laredo, said that with the introduction of National Guard troops she believes clashes between the two sides are likely.

Extraordinary Rendition Watch: A US court has dismissed a lawsuit brought by a German citizen who says he was kidnapped and beaten by the CIA. Khaled el-Masri aimed to sue former CIA chief George Tenet and other officials for their alleged role in the "extraordinary rendition" program. Mr el-Masri says he was picked up in Macedonia in 2003 and flown to Kabul, Afghanistan, where he alleges torture. The judge did not rule on the truth of the allegations, but said letting the case proceed might endanger security. Rights group the American Civil Liberties Union brought the case on behalf of Mr el-Masri - who was never charged with any terrorist offenses. Besides Mr Tenet, the case named 10 other CIA employees, as well as three other companies and their employees. "In times of war, our country must often take exceptional steps to thwart the enemy" said Judge T.S. Ellis However, the district court judge in Virginia rejected the challenge, saying Mr el-Masri's "private interests must give way to the national interest in preserving state secrets". Lebanese-born Mr el-Masri had demanded compensation and an apology from Mr Tenet and several other CIA figures.

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: A federal judge denied AT&T's request on Wednesday to force the Electronic Frontier Foundation to return documents the nonprofit organization received from a retired AT&T employee. The documents that former AT&T technician Mark Klein gave EFF earlier this year, and which the court has sealed, contain details of what EFF and Klein are alleging is a secret agreement between the telecommunications company and the National Security Agency to provide the government agency with illegal access to communications belonging to its customers. In a preface to the documents, Klein said he was motivated to blow the whistle in 2004 "when it became clear to me that AT&T, at the behest of the National Security Agency, had illegally installed secret computer gear designed to spy on Internet traffic."

CIA nominee Gen. Michael Hayden insisted on Thursday that the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program was legal and that it was designed to ensnare terrorists - not spy on ordinary people. "Clearly the privacy of American citizens is a concern constantly," the four-star Air Force general told the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearing. "We always balance privacy and security." Hayden was peppered by as many questions about the National Security Agency, the super-secret agency that he headed from 1999-2005, as about his visions for the CIA. Senators grilled him on the NSA's eavesdropping without warrants on conversations and e-mails believed by the government to involve terrorism suspects, and reports of the tracking of millions of phone calls made and received by ordinary Americans. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Smirkey decided that more anti-terrorism surveillance was necessary than the NSA had been doing, said Hayden. Hayden said he decided to go ahead with the then-covert surveillance program, which has been confirmed by Bush, believing it to be legal and necessary.

Two new films which expose unpleasant truths about Guantanamo and the battle for Iraq are coming under pressure from censors in the United States. The Motion Pictures Association of America has censored a poster advertising a film about the Tipton three, called The Road to Guantanamo, that showed a hooded and blindfolded man hanging by his shackled wrists. Also, the makers of Baghdad ER, a documentary about a US military combat hospital, told the Guardian yesterday that Francis Harvey, the secretary of the army, had demanded last-minute changes to the film. The Guantanamo film ran into difficulties with the MPAA last month when it submitted its advertising material for customary review. To the surprise of Howard Cohen, president of Roadside Attractions which is distributing the film in the US, the association demanded that the poster for the R-rated film be toned down. The makers of Baghdad ER say the senior leadership of the Pentagon has turned against their film, despite cooperation during its making in Baghdad and a positive reception at screenings at military bases. "Somebody wearing a tie and not a uniform seems to have a political agenda and is trying to influence this film," said the director, Jon Alpert.

Your Tax Dollars At Work: Tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims remain without homes. The environment is devastated. People are disenfranchised. Financial resources, desperate residents are told, are scarce. But at least New Orleans has a Wal-Mart parking lot serving as a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center with perhaps the tightest security of any parking lot in the world. That's thanks to the more than $30 million Washington has shelled out to the Blackwater USA security firm since its men deployed after Katrina hit. Under contract with the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Federal Protective Service, Blackwater's men are ostensibly protecting federal reconstruction projects for FEMA. Documents show that the government paid Blackwater $950 a day for each of its guards in the area. Interviewed by The Nation last September, several of the company's guards stationed in New Orleans said they were being paid $350 a day. That would have left Blackwater with $600 per man, per day to cover lodging, ammo, other overhead--and profits.

The U.S. Air Force's highest-ranking officer and his predecessor are the subjects of an FBI investigation into the handling of a $49.9 million dollar contract for the Thunderbirds, an air demonstration squadron, ABC News reported on Thursday. The network quoted law enforcement officials as saying the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating allegations that Gen. Michael Moseley and Gen. John Jumper helped to steer a Thunderbird contract to a friend, retired Air Force Gen. Hal Hornburg. The Air Force, responding to the report, said Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne had referred a protest involving the contract to the Defense Department's chief internal inspector. "Unfortunately, because of the ongoing litigation and investigation it is inappropriate to address specifics concerning the issue," an Air Force statement said. Spokesmen for Moseley did not return phone calls seeking comment and ABC said the three generals concerned denied any wrongdoing. As a matter of policy, the Defense Department would not confirm or deny whether such an investigation was under way, said Army Lt. Col. Brian Maka, a Pentagon spokesman.

Republican Policies Strengthen America: More than three out of four US consumers are curbing their spending because of the steep rising cost of gasoline, a new survey has found. The National Retail Federation said that even wealthier consumers were conceding that the price at the pump was taking its toll. A gallon of regular petrol currently costs an average of $2.98 in the US. A year ago it was $2.16. The survey said 76% of respondents were cutting back on spending over fuel. In its 2005 poll, only 67% were making the sacrifice. Almost half the 7,388 people surveyed in this year's study said they planned to drive less while 37% planned to cut back on holidays and travel. But less than a quarter said that high fuel prices would delay a major purchase such as a car or television. Customers were looking for more value for money and conditions favored discount stores and online retailers, said Tracey Mullin, the federation's president and CEO.

Declining building permits and a fall in manufacturing cut U.S. leading economic indicators slightly last month. The Conference Board said Thursday its index of such indicators was off 0.1 point to 138.9. "The positive contributors, beginning with the largest positive contributor, were vendor performance, stock prices and interest rate spread," the board said in a statement. "The negative contributors, beginning with the largest negative contributor, were building permits, manufacturers' new orders for non-defense capital goods, index of consumer expectations, average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance, real money supply and manufacturers' new orders for consumer goods and materials."

The US economy is remarkably strong and buoyant, but high energy prices and rising interest rates are starting to take a toll on consumers: * The pace of home-mortgage applications is down 15 percent, compared with this week a year ago, as "for sale" signs stay up longer in a slowing home market. * Half of Americans have changed their vacation plans to stay closer to home, according to an Associated Press/Ipsos poll this month. * Prices beyond the gas pump are also edging up. The "core" consumer price index (CPI), which excludes volatile food and energy costs, surprised analysts by jumping 0.3 percent last month, according to a government report Wednesday. These pocketbook pressures don't signal a return of "stagflation" - the harsh blend of recession and rapid inflation that surfaced three decades ago. But they do represent an economic climate less friendly to consumers - a gray zone where the pace of economic growth may be slowing even as the threat of inflation remains in the foreground. "It's finally caught up" to average Americans, says economist Michael Cosgrove, who publishes The Econoclast newsletter in Dallas. "The cost of credit has gotten to a level where it's starting to impact people's decisions negatively." This represents a reversal from just a few years ago, when gas was cheap, the interest on a fixed-rate mortgage was below 6 percent, and home prices hadn't yet soared to today's peaks. The new head winds also include a weakening dollar, which eats away at Americans' spending power for imported goods or foreign travel. In short, prices have gone up for several key items: credit, foreign currency, housing, and the fossil fuels that are a basic cost for virtually every home and business.

Venezuela has hinted it could price its oil exports in euros rather than US dollars, further weakening its links to the US. President Hugo Chavez said he was considering taking the step following a similar declaration by Iran. Earlier this month, Iranian authorities gave backing for the launch of an oil exchange that traded solely in euros. Some reports have suggested Iran's move may be part of a bid to undermine the importance of the dollar. But in an interview with Channel 4 News in London, Mr Chavez said the move was merely a matter of choice. "I think the European Union has made a large contribution with the euro," he said. "So what the president of Iran says... is recognizing the power of Europe - they have succeeded in integrating and have a single currency competing with the dollar, and Venezuela might also consider that - we are free to do that," he added. Experts have suggested that, should Iran demand payment for its exports in euros, central banks could opt to convert some of their dollar reserves to euros and therefore possibly trigger a further decline in the US currency.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Iraq is entering a critical phase in its political development that could make or break the U.S. mission to install democracy in the Middle East, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Monday. "Where we are right now is a truly precarious situation," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., before about 150 foreign policy experts at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Our entire focus is on a new government coming into being." So precarious are the efforts of Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki to form a cabinet before a crucial May 22 deadline, Warner said, that any public discussion of what the U.S. should do if Maliki fails could undermine Iraq’s fragile democracy. "We could lose it all," Warner said, avoiding several questions on his opinion about the wisest next steps in Iraq.

The U.S. military is deploying a laser device in Iraq that would temporarily blind drivers who fail to heed warnings at checkpoints, in an attempt to stem shootings of innocent Iraqis. The pilot project will equip thousands of M-4 rifles with the 10 1/2 -inch-long weapon, which projects an intense beam of green light to "dazzle" the vision of oncoming drivers. "I think this is going to make a huge difference in avoiding these confrontations," said Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the commander in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq. "I promise you no one - no one - will be able to ignore it." But so-called tactical laser devices have been controversial in the past. A protocol to the Geneva Convention bans the use of lasers that cause blindness, and human rights groups have protested previous U.S. attempts to employ such weapons. A decade ago, the experimental use of tactical laser devices by U.S. Marines in Somalia was curtailed at the last minute for "humane reasons," according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which called their use "repugnant to the public conscience" in a 1995 report. The Pentagon has canceled several programs for the stronger "blinding" lasers, in adherence to the Geneva protocol, according to Human Rights Watch. But the group has said that even less powerful "dazzling" lasers, similar to the one to be deployed in Iraq, can cause permanent damage. One Washington-based defense analyst said American troops and commanders should not underestimate how the laser could complicate relations with Iraqis. "If this 'safe' high-intensity laser damages retinas, we're in for a whole new type of [angry] Iraqi civilians," said Winslow T. Wheeler, who spent three decades as a Capitol Hill staffer and is now at the Center for Defense Information.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: The Black Jack, Missouri city council has rejected a measure allowing unmarried couples with multiple children to live together, and the mayor said those who fall into that category could soon face eviction. Olivia Shelltrack and Fondrey Loving were denied an occupancy permit after moving into a home in this St. Louis suburb because they have three children and are not married. The town's planning and zoning commission proposed a change in the law, but the measure was rejected Tuesday by the city council in a 5-3 vote.

The largest conservative Christian organization targeted at women has quietly introduced a grassroots "risk audit" program aimed at rolling back gay, lesbian and HIV programs in American schools. Concerned Women for America, a $10 million-a-year uber-Christian nonprofit and lobbying group, announced their "risk audit plan" in late April. The plan seeks to engage parents in a broad national effort to target schools which "promote" gay and lesbian activity by embracing non-discrimination policies and safe-sex curricula or harbor "objectionable" gay and lesbian novels aimed at children. "Every school district in America has an absolute responsibility to protect children while they are at school," the group writes in their 24-page audit plan. "There is no legitimate rationale for giving or implying endorsement of homosexual, bisexual or gender-variant behaviors among children of any age." "It is not a viewpoint," they write, "but a high-risk and often lethal behavior."

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Rising ocean temperatures look set to cause lasting devastation to coral reef systems, a study suggests. An international team of researchers looked at reefs in the Seychelles, where an ocean warming event in 1998 killed much of the live coral. The group found the oceanic reef had experienced fish extinctions, algal growth, and only limited recovery. Details have been published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The 1998 event saw Indian Ocean surface temperatures rise to unprecedented levels, killing off - or "bleaching" - more than 90% of the inner Seychelles coral. Coral bleaching has been described as a vivid demonstration of climate change in action. "[Bleaching events] are becoming more frequent and are predicted to become more severe in coming decades. They are directly linked to increases in sea surface temperatures," said lead author Nick Graham, of the University of Newcastle, UK.

Ain't no mountain high enough for climate change, suggests a new model that predicts that by 2100 the peaks of Alaska will have only 64 percent of the snow pack that existed in the year 2000. The new global climate model simulated snow cover on the world's mountain ranges from 1977 to 2100 and found that by the end of this century mountains in Europe and the U.S. will lose nearly half of their snow-bound water. The Andes in South America will suffer a similar fate and snowcapped peaks in New Zealand will vanish completely, the model predicts. Such declines in winter snow pack means that people who rely on the melting of snow for drinking, irrigation, and farming will greatly suffer, researchers said today. Hardest hit will be mountains in temperate zones, where temperatures remain below freezing only at increasingly higher elevations, said Steven J. Ghan, staff scientist at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The European Alps will have 61 percent of their 2000 snow pack and Scandinavia will keep 56 percent.

Scandals Du Jour: A former Republican National Committee official convicted in an Election Day phone-jamming plot against New Hampshire Democrats was sentenced to 10 months in prison at his sentencing on Wednesday. James Tobin of Bangor, Maine, was found guilty in December on two telephone harassment charges. U.S. District Judge Steven McAuliffe described the crime as "extremely serious" and a threat to the U.S. political tradition of free and fair elections. His lawyers have asked for a new trial, and on Monday, they filed a motion objecting to a sentencing document filed by prosecutors. Tobin, 45, stepped down as New England chairman of President Bush's re-election campaign in 2004 when Democrats accused him of playing a role in the jamming on Election Day 2002. That's when Republican John Sununu won a hotly contested U.S. Senate race against then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. At the time of the jamming, Tobin was serving as regional political director for the RNC and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, overseeing Senate campaigns in several states, including New Hampshire and Maine. The scheme jammed get-out-the-vote phone lines set up by the state Democratic Party and the Manchester firefighters' union for about an hour with more than 800 hang-up calls.

Former Enron boss Ken Lay has returned to court to begin a second trial, accused of lying to banks about his personal finances. The trial has begun in Houston as a jury deliberates separate charges against Mr Lay and Jeffrey Skilling - who ran Enron before it went bankrupt. In Mr Lay's personal trial, he is accused of obtaining $75m (£39.7m) in bank loans, then reneging on a deal not to use the money to buy shares. "This is a straightforward trial about lying to the banks," the court heard. Prosecutor Robb Adkins said that using more than 50% of a loan to buy shares was an offence under federal laws adopted after the 1929 stock market crash. He told the court that Mr Lay, 64, secured the loans from three banks and signed documents agreeing to the rules, but then used the money to buy shares "repeatedly time and time again, over a period of years".

The Dusty Foggo/CIA corruption plot thickens. "Sources close to the widening probe of official corruption in Washington tell ABC News that investigators are studying travel records of expensive trips to Hawaii and Europe taken by top CIA official Dusty Foggo and San Diego defense contractor Brent Wilkes," ABC News reports Wednesday. The Hawaiian vacation property was first reported by the San Diego Union Tribune. ABC News was the first to report that the property was part of the government's inquiry into an ever-widening Washington corruption scandal. ABC has also acquired the real estate photos of the site. The seven bedroom Honolulu property can accomodate 12 guests, according to the real estate listing.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: A federal judge rejected a $45.7-million settlement Thursday for 75 people who have filed sex abuse claims against the bankrupt Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams threw out the agreement during a telephone conference hearing, according to lawyers who took part. The judge urged the dozens of lawyers representing the diocese, victims, parishes and other parties to enter into mediation. The judge, noting that bankruptcy law calls for settlements to be "fair and equitable" to all parties, decided the deal favored the 75 people over other alleged victims, lawyers for both sides said. The deal, announced earlier this year, was controversial from the start because it covered only a fraction of those who had filed lawsuits contending they were abused by priests in Spokane. About 185 individual claims have been filed against the diocese, although Williams has said some are duplicates and others are invalid.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:17:37 PM

Wed, May 17 2006

Fenceposts Coming Tomorrow

It's back to rainy season weather today. It rained lightly during much of the night and remained very densely overcast, and as a result, we had the warmest night I can remember in some time - it dropped only to 75. But with the heavy overcast today, it warmed only to 83, and it rained lightly periodically through much of the day.

My recovery is coming along, and my diet is having its effect. I have lost four inches off my waist, though I suspect that most of that is the water loss associated with dieting, not the actual loss of fat - at the rate I am going, I should be losing a quarter pound a day. So I am figuring I am in this for the long haul - at the rate I am losing weight, I figure it will take about six months to rid myself of the weight I need to lose. Then I have to work out a maintenance diet.

I also looked up on the Internet the medicines I was given, so I know what I need to get from the farmacia, as I am getting low on some of them. Turns out I am on a medicine for the diabetes, though a rather low dose of it, as my case is barely clinical, as well as a beta blocker and blood pressure med, which I don't really understand, because my blood pressure was never a problem. I am also taking a very light daily dose of aspirin. That is to keep my blood thin and keep the clotting time up, and a stomach acid inhibitor to keep my reflux problem under control. So I need to plan a trip to the farmacia to see what it is going to take to get these meds - and how much they are going to cost. Medicines are not cheap here in Costa Rica, though not as bad as the States. I'll probably stock up on my next trip to Nicaragua - they're dirt cheap there.

Yesterday, with the weather as delightful as it was, I took a walk around the neighborhood, moving slowly to keep the angina down, but enough to get some exercise and enjoy the fine weather. With the walking stick and moving very slowly, I must have looked like a frail old man. I met one of my neighbors, a sweet, kindly old man who lives up on the hill. I hadn't seen him in a while, and he was surprised to learn of my heart attack. He has got to be the only person in town who hasn't heard - when I first went to town after my return from the hospital, everyone seemed to know already.

Had a phone call from my gardener yesterday. He says he has located some fenceposts for me, and will be by with them tomorrow. Great news. Now I can hire one of my neighbors to get my fence work done. They're madera negra wood, which means they'll sprout and grow unless aggressively trimmed. But at least they'll stay alive, so they won't rot, and won't have to be replaced anytime soon. If I had planned on keeping the house, I would simply begin replacing rotted fenceposts with cement ones, one at a time, but I don't see the need for that expense now.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: More on the Karl Rove indictment saga. From OpEdNews: "As editor of OpEdnews, I started wondering when Jason Leopold's news that Karl Rove was indicted, which we made our main headline, did not show up in the mainstream news. He's been superbly reliable and great and bringing news ahead of others. So I wrote to him: 'I'm getting emails asking why the mainstream media aren't reporting on Rove's indictment. And now, one of my trusted authors has written this article. Any word you can give me on what's up?' -Rob Kall. Jason replied, "I have now been turned into the story - again. Robert Luskin and Mark Corallo, Rove's attorney and spokesman, are liars. Damned liars. I have five sources on this. In the news business when you want to discredit a reporter and an explosive report you call the spokesman and get him to issue a denial. My reports have gone way beyond the spokesman and the lawyer to get to the truth. I am SHOCKED that the mainstream have followed this up by simply calling a spokesman [What did you expect, Jason? It's how the press buried the Florida 2000 voter scrub list scandal]. Best, Jason Leopold." I responded to Jason, "Can I post this on our site? Or, do you want to write something on this?" He replied, "You can add this: I am amazed that the blogosphere would lend credence to the statements of people who have consistently lied about Rove's role in this case. This is a White House that denied Rove's involvement in the leak. This is a White House that has lied and lied and lied. And yet the first question that people ask is 'why would Rove's spokesman lie?' Because they can, because they do, and because they have. This is an administration that has attacked and discredited their detractors. I am amazed that not a single reporter would actually do any real investigative work and get to the bottom of this story. Surely, their must be another intrepid reporter out there that has sources beyond a spokesman. Jason Leopold, Reporter, TruthOut.org. We also have word that Joe Wilson, Valerie Plame's husband, also heard the same report of Rove's indictment.

After years of secrecy, the Pentagon has disclosed the names, ages and home countries of everyone held at the isolated Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in southeastern Cuba as a suspect in the U.S.-led war on terror. None of the most notorious terrorist suspects was included in the list, raising questions about their whereabouts. The U.S. says it has held 759 males, ranging from teenagers to older than 70, from more than 40 countries, according to the list released late Monday in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The Associated Press. The list includes some 200 previously undisclosed names. They are of former Guantanamo detainees who were moved out before the military began hearings in the summer of 2004 to determine whether detainees were properly classified as "enemy combatants." While the list includes the 10 detainees who have been charged with crimes, it doesn't include alleged Sept. 11 plotters Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh - whose whereabouts remain secret. "There's still much more in darkness," said Priti Patel, a lawyer with New York-based Human Rights First who has monitored legal proceedings at Guantanamo.

He has a flowing white beard, can't hear or see very well and, according to his lawyer, uses a walker to hobble around the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Haji Nasrat Khan is the oldest prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, according to a newly released list of all those who have been held at the isolated prison. Khan, an Afghan who the military says is 71 but may be several years older, exemplifies the striking diversity of Guantanamo detainees past and present as identified by the list, which the Pentagon released Monday to The Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. "I met him one time and came out of there thinking, 'Why is this old man here?'" said Peter Ryan, a lawyer whose firm represents Khan and 14 other Afghans at Guantanamo.

More than a decade after U.S. troops withdrew from Somalia following a disastrous military intervention, officials of Somalia's interim government and some U.S. analysts of Africa policy say the United States has returned to the African country, secretly supporting secular warlords who have been waging fierce battles against Islamic groups for control of the capital, Mogadishu. The latest clashes, last week and over the weekend, were some of the most violent in Mogadishu since the end of the American intervention in 1994, and left 150 dead and hundreds more wounded. Leaders of the interim government blamed U.S. support of the militias for provoking the clashes. U.S. officials have declined to directly address on the record the question of backing Somali warlords, who have styled themselves as a counterterrorism coalition in an open bid for American support.

The U.S. is updating contingency plans for a "non-nuclear" strike to cripple Iran's atomic weapon program if international diplomacy fails, Pentagon sources have confirmed. Strategists are understood to have presented two options for pinpoint strikes using B2 bombers flying directly from bases in Missouri, Guam in the Pacific and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. RAF Fairford in Gloucester also has facilities for B2s but this has been ruled out because of the UK's opposition to military action against Tehran. The main plan calls for a rolling, five-day bombing campaign against 400 key targets in Iran, including 24 nuclear-related sites, 14 military airfields and radar installations, and Revolutionary Guard headquarters. At least 75 targets in underground complexes would be attacked with waves of bunker-buster bombs. Iranian radar networks and air defence bases would be struck by submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and then kept out of action by carrier aircraft flying from warships in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. The alternative to an all-out campaign is a demonstration strike against one or two high-profile targets such as the Natanz uranium enrichment facility or the hexafluoride gas plant at Isfahan. UK sources say contingency plans have also been drawn up to cope with the inevitable backlash against the Basra garrison in neighboring Iraq.

The Federal Communications Commission should investigate whether phone companies are violating federal communications law by providing calling records to the National Security Agency, an FCC commissioner said Monday. "There is no doubt that protecting the security of the American people is our government's No. 1 responsibility," Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, said in a statement. "But in a digital age where collecting, distributing and manipulating consumers' personal information is as easy as a click of a button, the privacy of our citizens must still matter."

The government won't be ready for another major disaster such as Hurricane Katrina unless the Pentagon takes a more aggressive role in the federal response, congressional investigators said Monday. Poor planning and confusion about the military's role contributed to problems after the storm struck on Aug. 29, 2005, and without immediate attention improvement is unlikely, the Government Accountability Office said. It urged the Defense Department to establish procedures to speed aircraft, troops and reconnaissance gear to hurricane-stricken areas when local and state officials are overwhelmed as well as beef up communications support to Homeland Security officials, who have the lead role in a disaster. "The devastation of Katrina and the issues it revealed serve as a warning that actions are needed," said the report by Congress' investigative arm. "Without urgent and detailed attention to improve planning, the military and federal government risk being unprepared."

Taxpayers have no right to challenge nearly $300 million in tax breaks that Ohio's elected officials used to entice DaimlerChrysler Corp. to build a new plant in Toledo, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday. By ruling that the taxpayers had no right to sue, the justices avoided deciding whether tax incentive programs are constitutional. The high court's decision could have had a significant impact nationally because nearly every state uses billions of dollars in tax breaks to attract companies. Two years ago, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Ohio's tax credit on new equipment, saying the practice hinders interstate commerce because the incentives are available only to businesses that invest in Ohio. In a 9-0 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said, "State taxpayers have no standing... to challenge state tax or spending decisions simply by virtue of their status as taxpayers."

Bush budget scraps 9,790 border patrol agents: Smirkey uses law's escape clause to drop funding for new homeland security forceBush's proposed 2006 budget, revealed Monday, funds only 210 new border agents. The shrunken increase reflects the lack of money for an army of border guards and the capacity to train them, officials said. Retired Adm. James Loy, acting head of the Department of Homeland Security until nominee Michael Chertoff takes over, said funding only 210 new agents was a "recognition that we need to balance those things as we go on down the road with other priorities." The White House referred questions about the border agents to the Homeland Security Department. The law signed by Bush had a caveat that went virtually unreported at the time. A summary, published by the Senate Government Affairs Committee, required the government to increase the number of border patrol agents by at least 2,000 per year, "subject to available appropriations." Democrats were unhappy that the proposed budget used the escape clause so soon after the president approved the huge boost in border agents. "We know we must do more to shore up security along our borders," said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, top Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. "The president's budget does not even attempt to meet this challenge." Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday that using 6,000 National Guard troops to help secure the U.S. border with Mexico will not detract from the troops' ability to perform other missions at home and abroad. He said it would sharpen their skills. The troops would be less than 2 percent of the National Guard's force of 400,000 and would mostly serve during their two- or three-week active duty training period, Rumsfeld told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee.

Public confidence in GOP governance has plunged to the lowest levels of the Bush presidency, with Americans saying by wide margins that they now trust Democrats more than Republicans to deal with Iraq, the economy, immigration and other issues, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll that underscores the GOP's fragile grip on power six months before the midterm elections. Dissatisfaction with the administration's policies in Iraq has overwhelmed other issues as the source of problems for President Bush and the Republicans. The survey suggests that pessimism about the direction of the country - 69 percent said the nation is now off track - and disaffection with Republicans have dramatically improved Democrats' chances to make gains in November.

A former diplomat from Arkansas, who said she resigned from the U.S. Foreign Service in part as a protest against the war in Iraq, says many people in the government believe the war is crazy, but are afraid to speak out. "In order to speak out, you have to resign from the government," Ann Wright said. Wright, who grew up in Bentonville, graduated from the University of Arkansas and joined the Army to get out of Arkansas - later joining the Foreign Service - returned to her home state Wednesday to speak at an anti-war gathering sponsored by Veterans for Peace. Also speaking at the meeting was Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville, Calif., the "peace mom" who last summer led protests outside President Bush's Texas ranch. Sheehan's son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, 24, was killed in Iraq in April 2004. Wright was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, when she resigned from the State Department in March 2003. She said many of her peers in the government thought the war was "the craziest thing" but no one wanted to speak against the administration's decision to start it. Wright said it was a bad idea to start the war without the support of the United Nations.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez brushed aside America's suspension of arms sales to his country Monday, saying "this doesn't matter to us at all." The Venezuelan leader, on a visit to London, also said his government would not respond with punitive measures such as travel restrictions. "It's the empire and it has a great capacity to do harm to the countries of the world," he said, referring to the U.S. as "an irrational empire." The United States imposed the ban because of what it claims is a lack of support by Chavez's leftist government for counterterrorism efforts, the State Department said. For nearly a year, there has been a nearly total lack of cooperation with anti-terrorism, State Department spokeswoman Darla Jordan said. As a result, U.S. sales and licensing for the export of defense articles and services to Venezuela, including the transfer of defense items, will not be permitted, she said.

Extraordinary Rendition Watch: The U.S. government has again invoked the "state secrets" privilege, arguing that a public trial of a lawsuit against a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for abducting and imprisoning a German citizen would lead to disclosure of information harmful to U.S. national security. Once rarely used, the "state secrets" privilege has over the past five years become a routine defence used by the George W. Bush administration to keep cases from being tried. The current case involves a suit brought by Khalid El-Masri. El-Masri was on vacation in Macedonia when he was kidnapped and transported to a CIA-run "black site" in Afghanistan. After several months of confinement in squalid conditions, he was abandoned on a hill in Albania with no explanation. He was never charged with a crime. El-Masri, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is seeking an apology and money damages from the CIA. The first - and perhaps the last - hearing on the case took place last week before a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. The lawsuit charges former CIA director George Tenet, other CIA officials and four U.S.-based aviation corporations with violations of U.S. and universal human rights laws. It claims El-Masri was "victimised by the CIA's policy of 'extraordinary rendition'."

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we (Brian Ross and Richard Esposito) call in an effort to root out confidential sources. "It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick," the source told us in an in-person conversation. ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls. Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation. One former official was asked to sign a document stating he was not a confidential source for New York Times reporter James Risen. The FBI acknowledged late Monday that it is increasingly seeking reporters' phone records in leak investigations. "It used to be very hard and complicated to do this, but it no longer is in the Bush administration," said a senior federal official. The acknowledgement followed our blotter item that ABC News reporters had been warned by a federal source that the government knew who we were calling. The official said our blotter item was wrong to suggest that ABC News phone calls were being "tracked." "Think of it more as backtracking," said a senior federal official. But FBI officials did not deny that phone records of ABC News, the New York Times and the Washington Post had been sought as part of a investigation of leaks at the CIA.

BellSouth Corp. said Monday its "thorough review" found no indication it gave telephone records to the National Security Agency as part of a federal warrantless surveillance program. A report last week by USA Today identified BellSouth, along with AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., as companies that had complied with an NSA request to turn over millions of customer phone records after the 2001 terror attacks. "Based on our review to date, we have confirmed no such contract exists and we have not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA," the Atlanta-based regional Bell said in a statement.

Russell Tice has something to say, but there is no one he can talk to. He explained as much at a mid-February hearing before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations. Tice is a 20-year veteran of the United States intelligence network, having worked for Naval Intelligence, the Department of Defense and, most recently, the National Security Agency, where he held the position of intelligence analyst and capabilities officer. He has intimate knowledge of the innermost workings of the intelligence community, and wants to tell Congress about an NSA program that, he says, is unconstitutional and possibly criminal. "What [the American people] know about is Hiroshima," he says. "What I'm going to tell you about is Nagasaki. I'm going to tell you about three Nagasakis." He is gagged, however, by the non-disclosure agreement he signed before becoming privy to top-secret government activities. "Anyone who comes forward is really made into a martyr," says Beth Daley, Senior Investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, who works with whistleblowers. "It discourages other people from coming forward."

Carol Fisher, a longtime peace activist and a volunteer at the local communist bookstore Revolution Books, has been found guilty. The 53-year-old, 5-foot-4, 130-pounder will be sentenced June 2 for the felonious assault of two Cleveland Heights police officers. But Fisher's attorney, Terry Gilbert, says a number of issues in the trial will come up when the decision is appealed. Fisher was hanging "World Can't Wait, Bush Step Down" posters on Lee Road telephone poles January 28 when the officers pointed out to her that the city has a law against that. But when they asked for the ID she didn't have, then grabbed her by the sleeve when she turned to pull down the illegal posters, the situation deteriorated to the point that two peace officers were holding the frightened woman on the sidewalk. The activist's supporters found the trial as outrageous as the arrest. "The judge [Timothy McGinty] would not allow any testimony except what the police were saying," says Lee Thompson, who watched the arguments. Gilbert says that during the trial, McGinty refused to instruct the jury about protocols for arrest in minor misdemeanor cases, like illegally hanging posters. "We repeatedly asked the judge to explain to the jury under what circumstances people can be arrested for minor misdemeanor. He wouldn't instruct them. He kept saying it's irrelevant. The prosecutor kept saying he had the right to arrest, and we said he didn't, and the judge could have cleared that up by reading the statute - which says that police can't arrest on minor misdemeanor without giving a citation, unless the person doesn't provide ID. They didn't give her a chance to provide ID." When the verdict was handed down last week, McGinty told Fisher he wanted her to see a psychiatrist. Gilbert observes that the verdict was handed down the same day that Tower City management cut the sound for the Tri-C JazzFest performance of the band Mifune because they were wearing politically charged T-shirts. "People in this country should be alarmed at what is going on," the attorney said. "It smacks of the kind of mentality we see in totalitarian regimes, when dissidents are sent to insane asylums."

News From Smirkey's Wars: The U.S. military has quietly acknowledged that insurgents - despite the growth of Iraqi security forces - have grown bolder in their attacks. U.S. officers said fighters aligned with Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein have been attacking military bases in the Sunni Triangle. They said the fighters plant bombs near the entrance of major bases and in one case entered a base and conducted a suicide strike. "They are bold and getting bolder," U.S. Maj. Mike Jason, adviser to the Iraq Army's 1st Battalion, said. Jason has been serving on a military transition team at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad and near the Tigris River. The camp has become the target of numerous improvised explosive devices attacks, some of them planted by unemployed Iraqis paid the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars.

Your Tax Dollars At Work: After decades of upgrades to a fleet of notoriously cramped Sikorsky VH-3 Sea Kings, the White House has tasked Lockheed Martin with a dramatic, $6.1 billion makeover of Marine One, the presidential helicopter, starting this summer. The goal: to fit a mobile Oval Office into the tight quarters of a chopper. The new fleet will consist of 23 VH-71 aircraft, each of which will have 200 square feet of cabin space, nearly double the Sea King’s 116. Aside from the legroom, the copter will incorporate major upgrades to the old defense and communications systems. Equally important is that the aircraft is flight-proven - the $110-million bird is derived from a European-built AgustaWestland EH101, currently doing military service for Canada and the U.K.

News Of The Weird: If diseases like AIDS and bird flu scare you, wait until you hear what's next. Doctors are trying to find out what is causing a bizarre and mysterious infection that's surfaced in South Texas. Morgellons disease is not yet known to kill, but if you were to get it, you might wish you were dead, as the symptoms are truly horrible. "These people will have like beads of sweat but it's black, black and tarry," said Ginger Savely, a nurse practioner in Austin who treats a majority of these patients. Patients get lesions that never heal. "Sometimes little black specks that come out of the lesions and sometimes little fibers," said Stephanie Bailey, Morgellons patient. Patients say that's the worst symptom - strange fibers that pop out of your skin in different colors. "He'd have attacks and fibers would come out of his hands and fingers, white, black and sometimes red. Very, very painful," said Lisa Wilson, whose son Travis had Morgellon's disease. While all of this is going on, it feels like bugs are crawling under your skin. So far more than 100 cases of Morgellons disease have been reported in South Texas. "It really has the makings of a horror movie in every way," Savely said.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:49:59 AM

Mon, May 15 2006

Inflation Leaves Its Mark

Hot, dry weather. A second day of hot, dry, severely sunny weather has held the new rainy season at bay. The humidity is still noticeably up, but the heat brought on by relentless sun all day brought the temperature to 86 after an overnight low of 72. I am sure glad I am not living in the Guanacaste Plains right now where the temperatures have got to be in the upper 90's.

I did some burning today, taking advantage of the hot, dry weather to get the last remaining pile of yard waste burned. Unfortunately, it didn't burn all that well, even in spite of my having put a lot of plastic grocery bags into the pile to encourage it a bit - usually a foolproof method of accelerating a fire around here. It seems that the recent weather has just gotten it wet enough inside that it burned, but not very fast or very thoroughly. I may have to look around for some waste oil and relight it to finish it off - if the weather cooperates.

The cost of living in Costa Rica is going up. Not that inflation is a serious problem yet, but the cost of mailing a letter in Costa Rica to a domestic address has just gone up from 130 colones, about 25 cents, to 175 colones, or 34 cents. That brings the costs to roughly the same as in the States. And Saturday, the price of gasoline went up too, to the highest in Central America. Costa Ricans are now paying the equivalent of $3.89 for a gallon of high-test gasoline. No surprise that I am seeing ever fewer cars, and ever more motorcycles (and even horses) on the streets these days. I can't help but wonder if the noticeable increase in inflation is related to the sagging fortunes of the U.S. dollar, to which the colon is pegged. Sure wish I had the last of my assets out of the States and in euros instead of dollars. It would sure help to maintain my standard of living.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Was the Karl Rove indictment story, quoted here in the previous blog entry - a White House/Karl Rove disinformation piece? This link, from a blog at TalkLeft's news archives, is a riveting account of a phone call, by the blogger, with Jason Leopold, author of the story, and provides some truly tantalizing details from Leopold himself about the give and take of sources concerning the "Rove Indictment" story over the weekend. Time will tell. Meanwhile, AP (Debbi Riechmann) has released its first commentary, without deigning to notice Leopold's scoop, as such, and merely putting their own spin (suprise!) that "Rove is Unfazed..." by allegations and charges. Leopold has said he will reveal the names of his anonymous sources at the White House if it should turn out they deceived him, or leaked false info.

After the Tehran administration conducted operations against the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) by crossing the Iraqi border, the US Army in Iraq is claimed to have increased the military build up of US troops on the Iranian border. Tehran local radio announced the US has stationed army units on the Iraqi border, increased reconnaissance flights in the region, and has trained anti-Iran militias in Iraq. Iranian Interior Ministry confirmed the information. Activity on the 450 kilometer long border is gradually increasing. Tehran radio also recorded that the US aircrafts reconnaissance flights could also be seen from villages along the border. According to reports on Turkish news channel CNN Turk, Acting Iranian Interior Minister Mohammed Bakir Zulkadir also confirmed the border activity and said they are closely monitoring the situation. The US administration, however, claimed they increased the troops stationed at the border as a security measure since the insurgent's smuggle stocks weapons into Iraq from Iran.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden's chances of winning Senate confirmation to head the CIA depend on how he explains his involvement in eavesdropping and data collection programs, two key senators said on Sunday. President George W. Bush's nominee for CIA director can expect tough questions this week about his role in the administration's controversial domestic spying program while he was head of the National Security Agency. "There's no question that his confirmation is going to depend upon the answers he gives regarding activities of NSA," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee whom Hayden will face on Thursday. Hagel, who has expressed support for the nomination, said Hayden's involvement in the NSA's eavesdropping and telephone records collection programs was still unclear. "One of the questions I want to ask is: who set that policy?" Hagel said on the ABC News program, "This Week."

American Bar Association President Michael S. Greco today called on the Senate Judiciary Committee to carry out "a thorough inquiry into the nature and extent of the warrantless domestic surveillance conducted by the administration," and called any legislative action "premature" until such an inquiry has taken place. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Greco emphasized the association’s deep concern about possible constitutional violations contained in various legislative proposals, and the danger of proceeding before those and other key questions about the nature and scope of the surveillance program are finally answered by the administration. "Like all our fellow citizens, the members of the American Bar Association want the government to have the powers it needs to effectively combat terrorists," Greco wrote. "However, we are deeply concerned about the electronic surveillance of Americans without the express authorization of the Congress and the independent oversight of the courts." Greco urged the committee to gather more information about the scope of the surveillance program before moving forward on any legislation. "Congress can responsibly legislate only once it knows what surveillance programs are in place, why they are necessary and why the current statute is insufficient to accommodate them," Greco wrote.

Upping the ante in what may be a high-stakes legal battle, an Upstate New York lawyer filed a $20 billion class-action lawsuit against Verizon last week, charging that the company violated customer confidentiality in cooperating with warrantless eavesdropping by a federal spy agency. The civil suit is the second to challenge corporations for helping the National Security Agency carry out a secret order by the president to spy on communications between people in the United States and parties overseas without first obtaining warrants. The New York Times first revealed the existence of the NSA surveillance program in December. The Bush administration continues to defend it as a necessary and permissible tool in the "war on terror," but most legal scholars who have addressed the matter disagree with the administration’s interpretation of executive privileges.

The White House said on Sunday it was considering sending National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border only in a supportive role as a stopgap measure, but the idea got a mixed reception on Capitol Hill. President George W. Bush will deliver a prime time address to the nation on immigration on Monday evening, and the White House said last week he may propose deploying more National Guard troops to the 2,000 mile border to stop illegal immigration. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said no final decision on sending the troops had been made, but that the idea was to "provide a bit of a stopgap as the Border Patrol build up their capacity to deal with this challenge. "This is something that's actually already being done. It's not about militarization of the border," Hadley said on CNN's "Late Edition." "It's about assisting the civilian border patrol in doing their job, providing intelligence, providing support, logistics support and training and these sorts of things," he said.

A long, slow slide in President George W. Bush's popularity ratings over the past year to a low of around 30 percent suggests there may be no quick fix for his political woes. Six weeks after Bush began a staff shakeup aimed at reinvigorating his presidency, his popularity has only fallen further. While a Newsweek poll released this weekend showed Bush's approval rating at 35 percent, three other surveys last week put it at between 29 and 31 percent. Political scientist Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania said Bush has lost an average of one percentage point in popularity each month since February 2005. "Barring some huge changes or demonstrations of success, it's hard to imagine this president pulling a rabbit out of a hat," Madonna said. Bush on Monday will address the nation on immigration reform and is expected to announce measures to tighten controls along the Mexican border, possibly by dispatching National Guard troops, a move long advocated by conservatives. But one speech alone is unlikely to turn things around. "There is no simple answer," said Ken Mayer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. "There is almost nothing a president can do in the short term to pump up his poll numbers."

First lady Laura Bush said on Sunday she does not believe opinion polls showing her husband's approval ratings at record low levels. Interviewed on Fox News Sunday, Laura Bush said she did not think people were losing confidence in Smirkey, despite a series of polls showing support for him at its lowest point in his five-year presidency and among the lowest for any president in the past 50 years. "I don't really believe those polls. I travel around the country. I see people, I see their responses to my husband. I see their response to me," she said. "As I travel around the United States, I see a lot of appreciation for him. A lot of people come up to me and say, 'Stay the course'."

Consumers concerned that the largest U.S. telephone companies may have let the government track call records might find few options for more privacy, despite increasing competition in the market, analysts said. USA Today reported on Thursday that the National Security Agency was compiling millions of call records from Verizon Communications, AT&T Inc and BellSouth Corp., to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist plots. President George W. Bush, in response to the report, said the intelligence activities he had authorized were lawful. But the idea of a spying agency amassing a vast database of call records has sparked a privacy debate, with members of Congress asking for an explanation and some consumers complaining in letters to newspapers. "We still don't know where Osama bin Laden is hiding, but I'm at peace now, knowing that our government knows how many times I called my grandma this week to see how she's doing since she fell last Saturday," said Minnesota resident Jerry Johnson in a protest letter to the New York Times.

Presidential adviser Karl Rove blamed the war in Iraq on Monday for dragging down President Bush's job approval ratings in public opinion polls. "People like this president," Rove said. "They're just sour right now on the war." Rove said that Bush's likeability ratings are far higher than his approval ratings. "There is a disconnect" because of the Iraq conflict, Rove told the American Enterprise Institute. "I think the war looms over everything. There's no doubt about it," Rove said during a question-and-answer session after a speech on the economy at the conservative think tank. Rove, who is deputy White House chief of staff and Bush's top political adviser, brushed aside a question on his own role in the federal CIA-leak investigation, saying he would not go beyond statements by his attorney. During the question and answer session, David Corn of the Nation Magazine asked him why he fed White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan misinformation about his involvement in leaking Valerie Plame’s identity. (Rove told McClellan that he was "not involved.") Rove refused to answer. "Nice try," Rove told Mr. Corn.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: Washington banned all U.S. arms sales to Venezuela on Monday, punishing President Hugo Chavez for his ties with Cuba and Iran and for what it believes is his inaction against guerrillas from neighboring Colombia. The sanctions escalate a crisis with the major U.S. oil supplier and come after years of antagonism between the two nations on issues ranging from trade to energy prices that have dragged ties to their worst state in decades. Despite Venezuela's repeated assertions that it works against terrorism, and particularly militants in the Andean region, the United States designated it on Monday as a country considered uncooperative in the U.S. war on terrorism. While the move is not as severe as adding a country to the U.S. blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, which includes Iran and Cuba, it does trigger sanctions and is likely to provoke an angry response from Chavez.

Desperate Men Take Desperate Measures: Facing disastrous poll numbers and collapsing support ahead of vital elections this year, Republican Party strategists have taken firm aim at a surprise voting bloc - black Americans. The White House and top Republican officials have launched a blitz to persuade black people that their future will be better served by shedding decades of loyalty to the Democratic Party and voting Republican instead. Prominent black Americans, including a Hall of Fame football star, are Republican candidates in several high-profile races for November's mid-term elections. The bare figures illustrate how tough the fight is going to be. In the last presidential election only 8 per cent of black people voted for George Bush. But, despite the odds, Republicans insist that they see grounds for optimism and, if they succeed, they say they will have prised apart one of the key foundations of Democratic electoral support. They hope that socially conservative ideas pushed by Bush on issues such as limiting abortion and opposing same-sex marriages will appeal to many traditional black voters. They are also hoping to capitalise on the aspirations of a growing black middle class with its concepts of an 'ownership society' breaking free from government help and handouts.

Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: A pivotal Republican is joining the congressional drive to eliminate the financial penalty for people who miss Monday's deadline for enrolling in the Medicare drug benefit, the latest sign of a growing rebellion against President Bush on the issue. Rep. Nancy Johnson said she has talked to enough colleagues to believe such a proposal would pass, probably in the fall, and plans to introduce legislation to waive the penalty. "The bottom line is this is a democracy, and the Congress responds to the people and shapes the program so it's good for them," said Johnson, who heads the House Ways and Means' subcommittee on health. "I think it's fair and reasonable to eliminate the penalty" for 2006, the Connecticut Republican told The Associated Press in an interview.

Some of President Bush's most influential conservative Christian allies are becoming openly critical of the White House and Republicans in Congress, warning that they will withhold their support in the midterm elections unless Congress does more to oppose same-sex marriage, obscenity and abortion. "There is a growing feeling among conservatives that the only way to cure the problem is for Republicans to lose the Congressional elections this fall," said Richard Viguerie, a conservative direct-mail pioneer. Mr. Viguerie also cited dissatisfaction with government spending, the war in Iraq and the immigration-policy debate, which Mr. Bush is scheduled to address in a televised speech on Monday night. "I can't tell you how much anger there is at the Republican leadership," Mr. Viguerie said. "I have never seen anything like it." In the last several weeks, Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and one of the most influential Christian conservatives, has publicly accused Republican leaders of betraying the social conservatives who helped elect them in 2004. He has also warned in private meetings with about a dozen of the top Republicans in Washington that he may turn critic this fall unless the party delivers on conservative goals.

Some election-year advice to Republicans from a high-ranking source who has the president's ear: Don't use a proposed constitutional amendment against gay marriage as a campaign tool. Just who is that political strategist? Laura Bush. The first lady told "Fox News Sunday" that she thinks the American people want a debate on the issue. But, she said, "I don't think it should be used as a campaign tool, obviously."

Winning Friends And Influencing The White House Press Corps.: New White House Press Secretary Tony Snow is starting off in a combative mode against the press by issuing detailed rebuttals to what he considers unfair coverage of Bush. "The New York Times continues to ignore America’s economic progress," blared the headline of an e-mail sent to reporters Wednesday by the White House press office. Minutes earlier, another e-mail blasted CBS News, which has had an unusually rocky relationship with the White House since 2004, when CBS aired what turned out to be forged documents in a failed effort to question the president’s military service. "CBS News misleadingly reports that only 8 million seniors have signed up for Medicare prescription drug coverage," Wednesday’s missive said. "But 37 million seniors have coverage." On Tuesday, the White House railed against "USA Today's misleading Medicare story." "USA Today claims 'poor, often minority' Medicare beneficiaries are not enrolling in Medicare drug coverage," the press office complained. "But by April, more than 70 percent of eligible African Americans, more than 70 percent of eligible Hispanics, and more than 75 percent of eligible Asian Americans are enrolled or have retiree drug coverage." White House sources said Snow, who started on the job Monday and has yet to give his first public press briefing, is determined to aggressively counter what the administration considers unfair assertions in both news and editorials about Bush. At the same time, he is eager to make the notoriously secretive administration more accessible to the press.

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: Greg Palast writes: I know you're shocked - SHOCKED! - that George Bush is listening in on all your phone calls. Without a warrant. That's nothing. And it's not news. This is: the snooping into your phone bill is just the snout of the pig of a strange, lucrative link-up between the Administration's Homeland Security spy network and private companies operating beyond the reach of the laws meant to protect us from our government. You can call it the privatization of the FBI -- though it is better described as the creation of a private KGB. The leader in the field of what is called "data mining," is a company called, "ChoicePoint, Inc," which has sucked up over a billion dollars in national security contracts. Worried about Dick Cheney listening in Sunday on your call to Mom? That ain't nothing. You should be more concerned that they are linking this info to your medical records, your bill purchases and your entire personal profile including, not incidentally, your voting registration. Five years ago, I discovered that ChoicePoint had already gathered 16 billion data files on Americans - and I know they've expanded their ops at an explosive rate. They are paid to keep an eye on you -- because the FBI can't. For the government to collect this stuff is against the law unless you're suspected of a crime. (The law in question is the Constitution.) But ChoicePoint can collect it for "commercial" purchases -- and under the Bush Administration's suspect reading of the Patriot Act -- our domestic spying apparatchiks can then BUY the info from ChoicePoint. Who ARE these guys selling George Bush a piece of you? ChoicePoint's board has more Republicans than a Palm Beach country club. It was funded, and its board stocked, by such Republican sugar daddies as billionaires Bernie Marcus and Ken Langone - even after Langone was charged by the Securities Exchange Commission with abuse of inside information. I first ran across these guys in 2000 in Florida when our Guardian/BBC team discovered the list of 94,000 "felons" that Katherine Harris had ordered removed from Florida's voter rolls before the election. Virtually every voter purged was innocent of any crime except, in most cases, Voting While Black. Who came up with this electoral hit list that gave Bush the White House? ChoicePoint, Inc. And now ChoicePoint and George Bush want your blood. Forget your phone bill. ChoicePoint, a sickened executive of the company told us in confidence, "hope[s] to build a database of DNA samples from every person in the United States... linked to all the other information held by CP [ChoicePoint]" from medical to voting records. And ChoicePoint lied about that too. The company publicly denied they gave DNA to the Feds - but then told our investigator, pretending to seek work, that ChoicePoint was "the number one" provider of DNA info to the FBI.

A majority of Americans disapprove of the massive NSA database containing the records of billions of phone calls made by ordinary citizens, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. About two-thirds are concerned that the program may signal other, not-yet-disclosed efforts to gather information on the general public. The survey of 809 adults Friday and Saturday shows a nation wrestling with the balance between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties. By 51%-43%, those polled disapprove of the program, disclosed Thursday in USA TODAY. The National Security Agency has been collecting phone records from three of the nation's largest telecommunication companies since soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Most of those who approve of the program say it violates some civil liberties but is acceptable because "investigating terrorism is the more important goal." "The combating-terrorism issue still has resonance with the American public," says political scientist Richard Eichenberg of Tufts University in Massachusetts. "But the public's tolerance for this sort of invasion of privacy may be topping out. It may be people are starting to say: 'When is the other shoe going to drop? What else are they doing?'" About two-thirds say they're concerned that the federal government might be gathering other information about the public, such as bank records and data on Internet use, or listening in on domestic phone conversations without obtaining a warrant. Two-thirds are concerned that the database will identify innocent Americans as possible terrorism suspects.

When he was asked about the National Security Agency's controversial domestic surveillance program last Monday, U.S. intelligence chief John D. Negroponte objected to the question and said the government was "absolutely not" monitoring domestic calls without warrants. "I wouldn't call it domestic spying," he told reporters. "This is about international terrorism and telephone calls between people thought to be working for international terrorism and people here in the United States." Three days later, USA Today divulged details of the NSA's effort to log a majority of the telephone calls made within the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - amassing the domestic call records of tens of millions of U.S. households and businesses in an attempt to sift them for clues about terrorist threats. To many lawmakers and civil liberties advocates, the revelation seemed to fly in the face of months of public statements and assurances from President Bush and his aides, who repeatedly sought to characterize the NSA's effort as a narrowly tailored "terrorist surveillance program" that had little impact on regular Americans. But, as illustrated by Negroponte's remarks last week, administration officials have been punctilious in discussing the NSA program over the past five months, parsing their words with care and limiting comments to the portion of the program that had been confirmed by the president in December.

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: The United States has again refused the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to terrorism suspects held in secret detention centers, the humanitarian agency said on Friday. The overnight statement was issued after talks in Washington between ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger and senior officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. "Mr. Kellenberger deplored the fact that the U.S. authorities had not moved closer to granting the ICRC access to persons held in undisclosed locations," the Geneva-based agency said. Kellenberger said: "No matter how legitimate the grounds for detention, there exists no right to conceal a person's whereabouts or to deny that he or she is being detained."

A senior CIA official, meeting with Senate staff in a secure room of the Capitol last June, promised repeatedly that the agency did not violate or seek to violate an international treaty that bars cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of detainees, during interrogations it conducted in the Middle East and elsewhere. But another CIA officer - the agency's deputy inspector general, who for the previous year had been probing allegations of criminal mistreatment by the CIA and its contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan - was startled to hear what she considered an outright falsehood, according to people familiar with her account. It came during the discussion of legislation that would constrain the CIA's interrogations. That CIA officer was Mary O. McCarthy, 61, who was fired on April 20 for allegedly sharing classified information with journalists, including Washington Post journalist Dana Priest. A CIA employee of two decades, McCarthy became convinced that "CIA people had lied" in that briefing, as one of her friends said later, not only because the agency had conducted abusive interrogations but also because its policies authorized treatment that she considered cruel, inhumane or degrading. Whether McCarthy's conviction that the CIA was hiding unpleasant truths provoked her to leak sensitive information is known only to her and the journalists she is alleged to have spoken with last year. But the picture of her that emerges from interviews with more than a dozen former colleagues is of an independent-minded analyst who became convinced that on multiple occasions the agency had not given accurate or complete information to its congressional overseers.

The government urged a federal judge on Friday to block a lawsuit filed by a German national who says he was illegally held in a CIA-run prison in Afghanistan for four months and tortured. U.S. Attorney R. Joseph Sher said government secrets could be exposed if Khaled al-Masri were allowed to proceed with his lawsuit. "Disclosure of information in the case would jeopardize national security," Sher said during a hearing in which he asked the judge to dismiss the case. Citing the harm he said public disclosure of any information regarding the case could do, Sher said, "We cannot and will not confirm or deny the allegations or diplomatic contact with foreign governments." U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis said he will issue a ruling as soon as possible on whether the case will proceed. The lawsuit was filed against former CIA Director George Tenet and 10 unidentified CIA employees. While the Central Intelligence Agency was not named as a defendant, the agency intervened to uphold its state secret privilege.

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: It looks as if last year's tough new reform law did not really stem the enormous flood of bankruptcies after all. The lull in bankruptcy filings may already be a thing of the past. Consumer bankruptcy cases plunged to a 20-year low in the first three months of 2006, reflecting the passage of a tough new bankruptcy law last year. But the pace of new filings is already on the rise. Courts now see an average of 2,000 new filings a day - four times the number that were filed in November 2005 after the bankruptcy law went into effect, according to Chris Lundquist, founder of Lundquist Consulting, which tracks bankruptcy trends. If filings continue to rise at anything like this rate - which is not a given, but certainly a possibility - we could see close to 1 million filings by the end of the year. That would still be significantly less than the record filing levels that drove passage of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. But it would be a pretty clear indication that the bankruptcy juggernaut was just stalled, not cured, by the new law.

Weakness in the US dollar has continued to overshadow global stock markets as investors offloaded exporters on fears that corporate earnings will decline. Commodity markets have also slumped, with traders beginning to ask if recent record prices were justified. London's main FTSE 100 index shed 1.2% to 5,841, led by the mining firms that have been the year's best performers. Germany's Dax ended down 1%, France's Cac slid 1.7%, Tokyo's Nikkei 225 fell 0.7%, and India's Sensex slumped 3.8%. In New York the Dow Jones was down for most of the day before finally ending up 0.42%. The Nasdaq lost 0.23% to close at 2,239. One stockbroker in Germany explained that: "Investors are extremely nervous and the sell-off is hectic as people are trying to minimise their losses." Banking giant HBOS added that: "Risky assets are under significant pressure across the board."

Republicans Reject Racism And Xenophobia: On the May 11 edition of Fox News' The Big Story, host John Gibson advised viewers during the "My Word" segment of his program to "[d]o your duty. Make more babies." He then cited a May 10 article, which reported that nearly half of all children under the age of five in the United States are minorities. Gibson added: "By far, the greatest number [of children under five] are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic." Gibson later claimed: "To put it bluntly, we need more babies." Then, referring to Russia's projected decline in population, Gibson claimed: "So far, we are doing our part here in America but Hispanics can't carry the whole load. The rest of you, get busy. Make babies, or put another way - a slogan for our times: 'procreation not recreation'." See the video here.

Republicans are focusing on fear of the opposition to motivate their base for the 2006 elections, contends a report Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The newspaper said with congressional elections just six months away, the GOP is turning up the volume on what might happen if Democrats take control of either the U.S. House or the Senate. Senate Republicans have sent out a campaign mailing that warns of "endless investigations, congressional censure and maybe even impeachment." Strategist Rich Galen, who is close to the White House, said last week that if Democrats capture either chamber in November, "they will issue subpoenas to anyone who ever worked at, attended a meeting in, or knew anyone who walked in front of the White House, in a concerted effort to mount impeachment charges." The Inquirer said there is broad concern among Democrats that swing voters will steer clear of the party if they become convinced that gridlock will reign for the next two years.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Despite a congressional order that the military assess the mental health of all deploying troops, fewer than 1 in 300 service members see a mental health professional before shipping out. Once at war, some unstable troops are kept on the front lines while on potent antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, with little or no counseling or medical monitoring. And some troops who developed post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq are being sent back to the war zone, increasing the risk to their mental health. These practices, which have received little public scrutiny and in some cases violate the military’s own policies, have helped to fuel an increase in the suicide rate among troops serving in Iraq, which reached an all-time high in 2005 when 22 soldiers killed themselves - accounting for nearly one in five of all Army non-combat deaths.

Iraq's Interior Ministry has taken its first steps to rein in the Facilities Protection Service, a unit of 4,000 building guards organized and trained by the U.S. that U.S. officials say has quietly burgeoned into the government's largest paramilitary force, with 145,000 armed men and no central command, oversight or paymaster. Last month, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr accused the Facilities Protection Service, known as the FPS, of carrying out some of the killings widely attributed to death squads operating inside his ministry's police forces. A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition that he not be identified further, said Saturday he believed that members of the FPS, along with private militias, were the chief culprits behind Iraq's death squads. L. Paul Bremer, then U.S. administrator of Iraq, signed an order establishing the Facilities Protection Service in 2003, aiming to free American troops from guarding Iraqi government property and preventing the kind of looting that erupted with the entry of U.S. forces and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: TV preacher Pat Robertson's bizarre attack on Americans United for Separation of Church and State is part of a troubling pattern of extremism, the Washington-based church-state watchdog group says. On his Christian Broadcasting Network today, Robertson launched into a tirade against Americans United and its executive director, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn. After a "700 Club" segment on AU's opposition to federal funding for prison ministries, the TV preacher said the American Civil Liberties Union and the Communist Internationale "pulled a secret takeover" of Americans United. Added Robertson, "Barry Lynn is so extreme, he has said that if a church is burning down, the city shouldn't bring the fire department and trucks to spray water on the church because that violates separation of church and state." AU's Lynn said Robertson is not just factually wrong, but increasingly shrill and paranoid. Americans United, he said, has not been taken over by the ACLU, the Communist Internationale or any other organization, and AU remains committed to broad-based religious liberty for everyone. "Americans United does not want to remove religion from the public square," said Lynn, who is a United Church of Christ minister. "All we want is for the government to stay out of religion and let Americans make their own decisions about matters of faith. We defend the religious liberty rights of all people, including Robertson."

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: A new report published by the charity Christian Aid estimates that up to 182 million people in sub-Saharan Africa could die of diseases directly attributable to climate change by the end of the century. Many millions more poor people throughout the world face death, disease and penury if nothing is done, due to climate-induced sea level rises, floods, famine, drought and conflict. The warmer and wetter conditions largely predicted for the tropics under climate change scenarios will make diseases such as malaria, dengue, cholera and Rift Valley fever more prevalent and could spread them to higher ground.

Mountain glaciers in equatorial Africa are on their way to disappearing within two decades, a team of British researchers reports. Located in the Rwenzori Mountains on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the glaciers will be gone within 20 years if current warming continues, the researchers report in this week's online edition of Geophysical Research Letters. The researchers blamed an increase in air temperatures in recent decades for contributing to the decline of the ice fields. "Recession of these tropical glaciers sends an unambiguous message of a changing climate in this region of the tropics," said lead researcher Richard Taylor of the University College of London, Department of Geography. A century ago the Rwenzori glaciers were surveyed at 2.5 square miles. The area covered by glaciers halved between 1987 and 2003 and is now down to about 0.4 square mile, the researchers said. They said the glaciers are expected to disappear within the next 20 years if present trends continue.

The government of Alaska has signed a $3 million contract with the Oregon-based PR firm Pac/ West Communications, for a campaign promoting oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Pac/West president and CEO Paul Phillips told PR Week that market research is currently being conducted on where "the issue sits with the American people, with all the other discussion about energy floating around these days." The Alaskan government also allocated $750,000 for lobbying, in addition to the efforts of the business lobby group, Arctic Power. Pac/West staff are busy on other campaigns, too. Former timber industry lobbyist and current Pac/West director Tim Wigley is the campaign director of the Save Our Species Alliance, which aims to weaken the provisions of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Scandals Du Jour: A major GOP fundraiser charged in a scandal over an Ohio state rare-coin investment asked to change his not guilty pleas Wednesday on separate federal charges that he illegally funneled donations to Smirkey's re-election campaign. Coin dealer Tom Noe's attorney and the U.S. attorney's office jointly filed a request Wednesday asking a federal judge to set a change of plea hearing as soon as possible. The filing did not indicate what the new plea will be. Noe had denied illegally funneling $45,400 in contributions to President Bush's re-election bid. He is accused of skirting the $2,000 limit on individual contributions by giving money directly or indirectly to 24 friends and associates, who then made the campaign contributions in their own names. Noe also has been charged in state court with stealing at least $1 million of an ill-fated $50 million investment in rare coins that he managed for Ohio's workers' compensation bureau. He has pleaded not guilty in that case. The investigation into the coin scandal had been a major embarrassment for Republicans, who dominate state politics. It prompted lame-duck Gov. Bob Taft and two former aides pleaded no contest to ethics charges. In the fundraising case, federal prosecutors allege that Noe arranged a contribution scheme to fulfill his pledge to raise $50,000 for a Bush fundraiser at a downtown Columbus hotel Oct. 30, 2003. Ohio proved to be the pivotal state in Bush's 2004 re-election. Noe wrote several checks just under the maximum allowable amount of $2,000 to avoid suspicion, the federal indictment said. All the checks were written in the eight days leading up to the fundraiser.

Federal agents yesterday searched the CIA offices and Northern Virginia home of Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, the spy agency's No. 3 official who was forced to resign this week amid a widening criminal investigation into allegations of government corruption and bribery. Officials inside CIA headquarters saw agents hauling away items from Foggo's seventh-floor suite, and neighbors outside his rented house in the Oakdale Park section of Vienna said officers, some wearing plastic gloves, placed materials in vans parked at the front and rear of the split-level brick home. Law enforcement officials executed search warrants Friday, May 12, 2006, on the house and office of CIA's outgoing executive director Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, the FBI said. Aside from well-publicized espionage cases, veteran intelligence officers said they could not recall another time when FBI agents picked through offices at the CIA's Langley headquarters. More than 30 agents from the FBI, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, the Internal Revenue Service and the CIA inspector general's office took part in the raids, according to Debbie Weierman, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington Field Office. Weierman said she could not comment further because affidavits describing the scope of the search were sealed.

It's official: Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) has announced he will resign from Congress June 9. A copy of his resignation letter was acquired by RAW STORY: Dear Mr. Speaker: It has been a great privilege, a high honor, and one of my most treasured personal pleasures to have served with you and our colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives for more than twenty-one years. You have been a stellar example for our nation of personal courage and steadfast conviction, and I thank you for your leadership of this great institution as well as for your personal friendship. As you are aware, I have recently made the decision to pursue new opportunities to engage in the important cultural and political battles of our day from an arena outside of the U.S. House of Representatives. As a result, I am informing you of my intention to formally resign as the representative of the 22nd Congressional District of Texas to be effective at the close of business on June 9, 2006. May God continue to bless you, the President, this great institution and its Members, and our nation. Sincerely, Tom DeLay, Member of Congress

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: Former Enron bosses and Smirkey protoges Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling stole from investors both to line their pockets and stroke their egos, their trial has heard. The comments came from prosecutors presenting their closing arguments at the court in Houston, Texas. Prosecuting lawyer Kathy Ruemmler said the case centered around "the lies these men told and the choices they made". Mr Lay and Mr Skilling are accused of trying to hide $32 billion of debts at the firm. They deny any wrongdoing. The one-time US energy giant collapsed in 2001 when the debts were revealed. Thousands of people lost their jobs and investments. Mr Lay and Mr Skilling both say that other staff were to blame and that they were kept in the dark. Ms Ruemmler told the court on Monday that for both men "Enron was their ego". "Make no mistake," she said. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting rich but you can't get rich by deception, by cheating." The defense will make its closing arguments on Tuesday, and the jury is expected to begin its deliberations on Wednesday.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:14:05 PM

Sat, May 13 2006

Fence Problems Becoming Urgent

An interruption of the new rainy season today - the whole day has been one of warm, sunny weather, and only slightly moderated temperatures - a high of 83 and a low of 72. Yesterday was rainy much of the day, with only a brief pause during the morning when the gardener happened to be here. A look at the satellite weather photo shows that the ITCZ has calmed down, and the tropical low that was over us has moved out into the Pacific where it has grown into a large area of storminess. I suspect that the Hurricane Center is watching it closely as it shows signs of growing into the first Pacific tropical storm of the new season.

I waited till today to go to town for groceries, as the vegetables are usually delivered on Friday afternoons, and I figured that I might find some veggies that would not be available if I went shopping Friday morning before the veggie truck came. And I was right to do so - I managed to score some nice tomatoes, but more importantly, a large head of nappa cabbage, so I can have some salads with dinner now for a while. Great news. I have been missing out on that.

I didn't do much else in town while there, except to stop at the ferreteria (hardware store) to check on the price of cement fenceposts. During the yard cleanup yesterday, my gardener pointed out a wood fencepost, which has been here for as long as the house, has rotted away, and now needs to be replaced. Well, actually, a lot of them need to be replaced. I walked the property line and counted up twenty that need to come out, some rather urgently. So when in town, I checked the price of eight-foot cement fenceposts, and they were 3,040 colones each - that's just about exactly $6 apiece. Well, since I am planning to sell the house, I figured I would check into some traditional living fenceposts, made out of madera negra wood, which require some maintenance (i.e., cutting back the branches), but at least won't set me back the hundred bucks plus to clean up the fencing problems. So I asked the gardener to look around for some, and he indicates that one of his clients has just removed a large madera negra tree, and it may have some suitable limbs that can be cut up for that. I'll sure be delighted if that is true. I have a neighbor that would be delighted for the work of setting the posts and putting up the barbed wire, and so the fence project, now assuming some importance, might be done sooner rather than later. Just in time for me to move out.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald spent more than half a day Friday at the offices of Patton Boggs, the law firm representing Karl Rove. During the course of that meeting, Fitzgerald served attorneys for former Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove with an indictment charging the embattled White House official with perjury and lying to investigators related to his role in the CIA leak case, and instructed one of the attorneys to tell Rove that he has 24 hours to get his affairs in order, high level sources with direct knowledge of the meeting said Saturday morning. Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney, did not return a call for comment. Sources said Fitzgerald was in Washington, DC, Friday and met with Luskin for about 15 hours to go over the charges against Rove, which include perjury and lying to investigators about how and when Rove discovered that Valerie Plame Wilson was a covert CIA operative and whether he shared that information with reporters, sources with direct knowledge of the meeting said. Within the last week, Karl Rove had told President Bush and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, as well as a few other high level administration officials, that he will be indicted in the CIA leak case and will immediately resign his White House job when the special counsel publicly announces the charges against him, according to sources. Details of Rove's discussions with the president and Bolten have spread through the corridors of the White House where low-level staffers and senior officials were trying to determine how the indictment would impact an administration that has been mired in a number of high-profile political scandals for nearly a year, said a half-dozen White House aides and two senior officials who work at the Republican National Committee.

Congress wants to abolish the Internet as we know it. This is news to most people because the major news media have not actively pursued this story. Yet both the House and Senate commerce committees are promoting new rules governing the manner by which most Americans receive the Web. Congressional passage of new rules is widely anticipated, as is President Bush's signature. Once this happens, the Internet will change before your eyes. The proposed House legislation, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE), offers no protections for "network neutrality." Currently, your Internet provider is prohibited from censoring the Web as it enters your home. This levels the playing field between the tiniest blog and the most popular Web site. Yet the big telecom companies want to alter this dynamic. AT&T and Verizon have publicly discussed their plans to divide the information superhighway into separate fast and slow lanes. Web sites and services willing to pay a toll will be channeled through the fast lane, while all others will be bottled up in the slower lanes. COPE, and similar telecom legislation offered in the Senate, does nothing to protect the consumer from this transformation of the Internet. They will be free to decide which Web sites get to your computer faster and which ones may take longer - or may not even show up at all. By giving the telecoms the ability to harness your Web surfing, the government will empower them to shake down the most profitable Web companies. These companies will sell access to you, to Amazon.com, Travelocity.com and even BaltimoreSun.com, etc. What if these companies elect not to pay? Then, when you type in "amazon.com," you might be redirected to barnesandnoble.com, or your lightning-quick DSL Internet service might suddenly move at horse-and-buggy speed. The proposed new rules have received surprisingly sparse media coverage. The new laws have economic, political and social ramifications. There are several explanations for the silence. The most probable is simply that because the laws have strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, they do not appear particularly newsworthy. COPE has been promoted vigorously in the House by both Texas Republican Joe L. Barton and Illinois Democrat Bobby L. Rush. While a few legislators are attempting to preserve net neutrality - most notably Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine - they are clearly outnumbered.

Smirkey's job approval rating has hit a new low, with 29 percent of the U.S. public saying he is doing an "excellent or pretty good job," down from 35 percent in April, according to a Harris Interactive poll in The Wall Street Journal Online. The poll of 1,003 U.S. adults said 71 percent of Americans said Bush was doing an "only fair or poor job," up from 63 percent in April. It said the survey was conducted May 5-8 and had a 3 percent margin of error.

Although Republicans have been losing ground in polls for some time, poll numbers for Democrats haven't been rising much at all - until now. Several recent polls show the president reaching new lows in national support, but there's one trend that shouldn't go overlooked: Americans actually like Democrats for the first time in a long while. For months, voters seemed to take a pox-on-both-your-houses attitude. The data consistently showed the public souring on the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress, but simultaneously reflect the fact that they weren't all that crazy about Dems either. Those days are over. Last month, an LA Times/Bloomberg poll asked Americans about their impressions of the parties in general - and Republicans were viewed negatively; Dems were viewed positively. Last week, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed similar results. And today, a New York Times/CBS News poll made the trend even more obvious. A CNN poll released Wednesday may continue the anxiety for the GOP, showing Democrats with a 14-point advantage over Republicans among registered voters asked their preferences in this year’s midterm elections. The poll, conducted for CNN by Opinion Research Corp., found that 52 percent of respondents who were registered voters said they were leaning toward voting for a Democrat, while 38 percent said they were leaning toward a Republican. Ten percent said they didn’t know how they would vote or candidate not from the two major parties.

Disaffection over spending and immigration have caused conservatives to take flight from President Bush and the Republican Congress at a rapid pace in recent weeks, sending Bush’s approval ratings to record lows and presenting a new threat to the GOP’s 12-year reign on Capitol Hill, according to White House officials, lawmakers and new polling data. Bush and Congress have suffered a decline in support from almost every part of the conservative coalition over the past year, a trend that has accelerated with alarming implications for Bush’s governing strategy. The Gallup polling organization recorded a 13-percentage-point drop in Republican support for Bush in the past couple weeks. These usually reliable voters are telling pollsters and lawmakers they are fed up with what they see as out-of-control spending by Washington and an abandonment of core conservative principles more generally.

Rather than defend Bush, Karl Rove will seek to rally the Republicans' conservative grassroots by painting Democrats as the party of tax increases, gay marriage, secularism and military weakness in the lead up to the November mid-term elections. That's where the national message money is going to be spent. The numbers explain the strategy. The president has a job-approval rating of 31 percent in the latest comprehensive poll, by the New York Times and CBS. His "favorable" rating, a more general measure of attitudes, is only 29 percent - barely above the levels enjoyed, if that is the word, by Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Bush can't hope to raise that number significantly by this November - no matter how many seniors sign up for the Medicare prescription drug plan or how many Sunnis join the new Iraqi government. So the White House will try to survive by driving down the ratings of the other side. Right now, an impressive 55 percent of voters say they have a favorable view of the Democrats, one of the party’s best ratings in years. But the "favorables" of leading national Democrats are weak: 34 percent for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton; 26 percent for Sen. John Kerry; 28 percent for former Vice President Al Gore. The bottom line: As long as the Democrats remain a generic, faceless alternative, they win; Rove’s aim is to paint his version of their portrait. You can see him busy with the brushes at his easel now, even as he waits to see whether Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is going to indict him for false testimony.

The Senate gave final approval Thursday to a $70 billion election-year package of tax cuts that will extend lower rates for investors and also save billions for families with above-average incomes. The Senate passed the measure by a 54-44 vote, clearing it for President Bush’s signature. The legislation provides a two-year extension of the reduced 15 percent tax rate for capital gains and dividends, currently set to expire at the end of 2008. The bill also will extend for two years provisions sought by small businesses to let them write off up to $100,000 in investments in equipment and other expenses. The debate followed partisan lines, with Republicans eagerly crediting the tax cuts, first enacted in 2003, with a surging economy, millions of new jobs and booming tax revenues. Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the bill, saying its tax cuts on capital gains and dividends will flow mostly to wealthy. Just three Republicans - Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and George Voinovich of Ohio - voted against the bill. Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida and Mark Pryor of Arkansas voted in favor.

After months of speculation and intrigue, a special grand jury investigating the state government's hiring practices indicted Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) on three misdemeanor charges of conspiracy, official misconduct and political discrimination. The foreman of the jury, which has been reviewing reams of documents and hearing hours of testimony for nearly a year, calmly read the charges to Franklin Circuit Court Judge William L. Graham shortly before 4:30 p.m. yesterday. Fletcher becomes the third sitting Kentucky governor to be indicted and the first since Flem Sampson was charged in 1929 with receiving improper gifts. In addition to Fletcher, the jury charged former chief state highway engineer Sam Beverage with perjury and submitted 14 more indictments under seal. Those could be made public once the Supreme Court rules on a related question: whether Fletcher’s pardoning of his administration staff in August also blocks future charges. Fletcher didn’t pardon himself, but still has that option.

The New York Times and Washington Post recently won Pulitzer Prizes for breaking through the Administration's secrecy to inform the American people about secret prisons and secret wiretapping. In response, the Administration directed its Attorney General to see if he might invoke a 1917 Espionage Act as a way to make the First Amendment disappear. By controlling what you know, they hope to control what you think. It is the solution to their Iraq dilemma. You don't have to mislead people, as the President did, if the American people simply do not know at all. That's what this assault on free speech is all about. The President and his Administration are doing everything possible to impose censorship. They know that secrecy is the fastest, most effective way to silence dissent. This is why the President called "shameful" the Pulitzer Prize winning journalism that reunited the American people with the truth about secret prisons and secret wiretapping ordered by this President and his Administration. In other words, the truth made it out into the open, and that was not part of their plan. The only way to account for it was to attack those responsible for telling us. It is the centerpiece of the Republican play book. Attack anyone who disagrees.

Ready for another Bush presidency? The current chief said Wednesday that younger brother Jeb would make a great one, too, and has asked him about making a run. The first President Bush likes the idea as well. Jeb Bush, the Republican governor of Florida, has one asset that his presidential brother doesn't right now - approval from most of his constituents. While George W. Bush's approval ratings are in the low 30s, some 55 percent of Florida voters surveyed last month by Quinnipiac University said Jeb was doing a good job. The governor has repeatedly said he won't be a candidate for president in 2008, but that doesn't stop his family from encouraging him to go for it some day.

The government has abruptly ended an inquiry into the warrantless eavesdropping program because the National Security Agency refused to grant Justice Department lawyers the necessary security clearance to probe the matter. The inquiry headed by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, or OPR, sent a fax to Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., on Wednesday saying they were closing their inquiry because without clearance their lawyers cannot examine Justice lawyers' role in the program. "We have been unable to make any meaningful progress in our investigation because OPR has been denied security clearances for access to information about the NSA program," OPR counsel H. Marshall Jarrett wrote to Hinchey. Hinchey's office shared the letter with The Associated Press. Jarrett wrote that beginning in January 2006, his office has made a series of requests for the necessary clearances. Those requests were denied Tuesday. "Without these clearances, we cannot investigate this matter and therefore have closed our investigation," wrote Jarrett.

Capitol Hill politicians reacted angrily on Thursday to a new report about how President Bush's eavesdropping program has secretly collected records of telephone calls made by tens of millions of Americans. In a sign that political opposition to surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency may be growing, a wide range of top Democrats took aim at the program throughout the day and called for immediate hearings to investigate the president's eavesdropping and data-mining efforts. Bush has repeatedly stressed that the NSA spy program is aimed only at intercepting phone conversations and e-mail messages where one party to the conversation was outside the United States. "We need to know what our government is doing in its activities that spy upon Americans," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. "The Republican-controlled Congress has failed in its oversight responsibilities to the American people." Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, vowed to force executives from AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth to show up at a hearing and answer questions about what data they quietly handed over to the NSA without court approval. USA Today reported on Thursday that those three companies had voluntarily opened their databases to the NSA, while Qwest refused.

Like many others, I was kind of hoping that self-loathing lesbian, Mary Cheney, had just crawled off into a hole somewhere. Somewhere reserved for The Good Germans. But, oh no, she's back with a vengeance - and a book deal. In a desperate attempt to gain enough attention to earn back her million dollar advance, Wednesday she called John Kerry a "son of a bitch" for mentioning her homosexuality during the 2004 debates. After all, she was just trying to keep a low-profile as Chief of Operations for her beloved father's campaign, just a cog in the machine pushing libelous swift-boat attacks, which called Kerry a child killer. But Kerry and John Edwards, in response to questions about gay rights, had the nerve to call the openly lesbian daughter of the VP, a lesbian. Son of a bitch. It seems that Mary shrewdly deduced that Kerry and Edwards were using her sexuality to play politics in, of all places, national political debates. And that outrages Mary, whose comments are coincidentally timed with the release of her book, which is coincidentally timed with the upcoming Senate vote on gay marriage. She was in the debate audience when Edwards famously praised her parents for speaking proudly of her, and claims she looked right at him and mouthed the words, "Go f*ck yourself."

The US Senate has reached a deal that could see the approval of a stalled bill that would grant millions of illegal immigrants the right to stay. But the deal gives Republicans the right to make amendments that could curtail eventual immigrant benefits. The bill would also need to be squared with laws passed in the House that call for criminalising illegal immigrants. Pro-immigrant pressure groups have announced another demonstration in Washington next Wednesday. One of the Senate bill's key provisions is the opening of a path to eventual citizenship for about 11 million illegal immigrants. Many Republicans in the House see the Senate bill as an amnesty to lawbreakers.

Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), a Vietnam veteran first elected in the anti-war fever of 1974, says American troops will be brought home from Iraq by 2007. Either President Bush will bow to public opinion or Democrats will have won control of the House of Representatives and increased pressure on the White House, Murtha said in an Associated Press interview Thursday. Most likely, there will be a "tidal wave" that propels Democrats into the majority, said Murtha. He predicts Democrats will gain 40-50 seats - well more than the 15 needed for the party to gain control. Murtha, 73, a retired Marine colonel who has generally been hawkish on war issues, shocked Washington in November when he said the war could not be won and it was time for troops to come home. He offered a plan that would keep troops in the region in case of a national security emergency.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: The United States has again refused the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to terrorism suspects held in secret detention centers, the humanitarian agency said on Friday. The overnight statement was issued after talks in Washington between ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger and senior officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross has criticised the US for refusing to let it visit secret detainees held in the "war on terror". Jakob Kellenberger said their names should not be concealed "no matter how legitimate the grounds for detention". The US has been accused of operating secret prisons and transporting some detainees to states which use torture. It admits some use of third countries, but says prisoners are never transferred for the purpose of torture. Both the UN and a European Parliament committee have been trying to probe some of the claims. In a strongly worded statement following the meeting, the ICRC said the US had moved no closer to permitting access to prisoners in undisclosed locations. "No matter how legitimate the grounds for detention, there exists no right to conceal a person's whereabouts or to deny that he or she is being detained," Mr Kellenberger said.

We are now witnessing one of the more bizarre chapters in the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. A final peace agreement - negotiated between Tel Aviv and Washington - is already in the process of being implemented. As a side show, the Palestinians are being told to shape up or starve in exchange for an invitation to negotiations that were concluded way back in October 2004. It's all a little like getting an invitation to attend your own funeral - a year after the burial. Two years ago, Dov Weisglass was assigned by Ariel Sharon to negotiate terms of a final settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Predictably, Sharon had no intention of including the Palestinians in these very secret and very historic meetings. But since all negotiations require partners, Tel Aviv came up with the brilliant idea of conducting direct negotiations with the Bush administration. It was the next best thing to having Sharon negotiate with Sharon. No one knows exactly what went on behind the closed doors - where Condoleezza Rice substituted for the absent and uninvited Palestinian partner. After all, these negotiations were not only secret but also undeclared. Once the major outlines of the "Rice/Weisglass Accord" were hammered out, Weisglass made the mistake of letting the cat out of the bag in an interview with Ha'aretz in October 2004. "It is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that's necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians. That is the significance of what we did. The significance is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian State, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely. And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress."

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: Newborns in the United States have the second lowest survival rate in the industrialized world, according to a report released this week.

Babies in their first month of life have the best odds in Japan, which boasts the lowest newborn mortality rate of 1.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to a report from the nonprofit group Save the Children. Latvia had the highest mortality rate among the 33 industrialized nations surveyed, at six newborn deaths per 1,000 live births. The U.S. ranked next to last and tied with Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia, which all averaged five deaths per 1,000 live births. The U.S. newborn mortality rate is nearly three times higher than that of Finland, Iceland, Norway and Japan, the study found.

U.S. import prices last month rose 2.1 percent, nearly double what had been expected, and export prices climbed for the fifth consecutive month. The Labor Department said April's jump in import prices was led by the largest rise in petroleum prices in more than a year, an 11.5-percent increase. Petroleum prices have risen 32.5 percent over the past 12 months. U.S. export prices, meanwhile, were up 0.6 percent.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Hill & Knowlton will head "a complex $3.8M PR effort" for the U.S. State Department, "targeting Afghan citizens and stakeholder groups to dissuade Afghan farmers from cultivating poppies and boosting global drug trade." Poppy production has soared since the 2001 U.S. invasion. Afghanistan provided 86 percent of the world's heroin in 2005, and "planting has significantly increased in 2006," according to a State Department official. Hill & Knowlton will "deploy communications through seven Afghan provinces" and "build capability" within the Agriculture, Interior and Counter-narcotics Ministries, by providing "communications professionals" and developing each ministry's own communications office. "Foreign and domestic media will be brought along" on poppy eradication missions, and "alternative livelihood efforts" will be promoted in the PR campaign. Current messages include, "Growing poppies is against Islam and harmful for the reputation of Afghanistan." Previous U.S.-funded PR work, by the Rendon Group and others, has been called costly and ineffective by Afghan officials.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: The House passed a $513 billion defense authorization bill yesterday that includes language intended to allow chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus at public military ceremonies, undercutting new Air Force and Navy guidelines on religion. The bill, which passed by a vote of 396 to 31, also contains significant adjustments to the Pentagon's original request, mainly by shifting hundreds of millions of dollars toward military personnel -- in the form of troop increases, protective gear and health-care benefits -- and away from new weapons systems. The measure includes $50 billion for next year's cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We're not a rubber stamp," House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Ike Skelton (Mo.) told reporters. Before the bill reached the House floor, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee added the provision on military chaplains. It says each chaplain "shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain's own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible." Air Force and Navy rules issued in recent months allow chaplains to pray as they wish in voluntary worship services. But the rules call for nonsectarian prayers, or a moment of silence, at public meetings or ceremonies, especially when attendance is mandatory for service members of all faiths. Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition and other evangelical Christian groups have lobbied vigorously against the Air Force and Navy rules, urging President Bush to issue an executive order guaranteeing the right of chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus under any circumstances. Because the White House has not acted, sympathetic members of Congress stepped in.

A Harvard study further confirms that abstinence pledges are basically bunk. More than half of the adolescents who make the signed public promises give up on their pledges within a year, according to the study released last week. The findings have raised the ire of Concerned Women for America, a prominent conservative organization that advocates adolescent sexual abstinence. Offering no evidence for her contention, "The Harvard report is wrong," said Janice Crouse, a fellow at a Concerned Women for America think tank. During the past decade, there has been a significant increase in the proportion of teenagers and young adults engaging in oral sex and, less commonly, having anal intercourse, according to data from STD clinics in Baltimore, Maryland. The finding is not all that surprising, Dr. Emily Erbelding from Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore told Reuters Health. She explained that "a few national surveys conducted recently have suggested that oral sex may be a behavior that teenagers are increasingly participating in. For example, in the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, most teenagers reported having oral sex and many had not had intercourse."

Scandals Du Jour: The Bush administration's top procurement official offered his assistance to now-disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff as his lobbying empire began to crumble, according to e-mails released Wednesday by the White House. "Let me know if there is anything I can do to help with damage control," David Safavian, who is now under indictment, messaged Abramoff on Feb. 22, 2004. At the time, Safavian was working at the White House Office of Management and Budget. He later became administrator of federal procurement policy at OMB. That morning, The Washington Post revealed how four of Abramoff's Indian tribal clients had paid $45 million, most of it to Abramoff partner Michael Scanlon. Since then, both Abramoff and Scanlon have pleaded guilty in an influence peddling probe that encompasses Capitol Hill, the Interior Department and the Safavian case. Safavian faces trial next month for allegedly making false statements and obstructing investigations into his dealings with Abramoff when Safavian was chief of staff to the head of the General Services Administration.Safavian left the GSA post to take a job at the White House in January 2004. His e-mail to Abramoff a month later about "damage control" was among dozens of e-mails released Wednesday by OMB. Safafavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, said the e-mails show "what we have always said, that these are two friends" who have known each other for more than a decade. A few days before Abramoff's operations were exposed by The Post, Safavian expressed a willingness to put an Abramoff lobbying partner on a government acquisition advisory panel.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: Republican extremist/hate-monger, Ann Coulter may be on the verge of being tossed from the Voter Rolls in Palm Beach County, Florida. The BRAD BLOG has also obtained exclusive official documents from the chain of events which has helped bring the GOP darling to a new place in her career: She has fallen completely silent. Coulter, who appears to have committed a third-degree felony by knowingly giving an incorrect address on her voter registration form in Palm Beach, Florida, and then knowingly voting at the incorrect polling place last March, could face up to $5,000 in fines and five years in prison if convicted. In April, The BRAD BLOG posted Coulter's fraudulent Voter Registration form in full. Today, we have more official and exclusive documents from the incident. In light of Coulter's apparent voter fraud felony, the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections, Dr. Arthur Anderson, had sent her a letter last March (posted in full below), giving her 30 days to explain her actions, before possibly referring the matter to the state attorney for prosecution. So far, Coulter has failed to reply at all. Officials now say she may be removed from the voter rolls. She may also be guilty of tax code fraud for taking a $25,000 'Homestead Exemption' if she doesn't actually live in Palm Beach.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:15:24 AM

Thu, May 11 2006

On The Mend

Well, the rainy season is here. No doubt about it now, the last three afternoons have been classic early rainy season weather - bright, sunny mid day, followed by thunderstorm build up and rain by sunset. The warm weather has continued, with 73 as an overnight low and 86 in the afternoon.

I am greeting the rainy season with mixed feelings. I am glad for some rain, enough to keep the garden wet and keep the lawn from burning up, but I am not real big on the idea of being couped up in the house. The first half of the rainy season is characterized by bright, sunny weather in the morning, clouding over by mid day, and rain by three or four in the afternoon, lasting much of the night, so at least in the mornings I can get out and get some exercise. The bad part of the rainy season, when the rains happen all times of the day, is still some time off, though. It usually happens around the end of the year, towards the end of the rainy season, when the rain gets more and more constant every day, becoming almost continuous, until one fine morning, it is all over and the sun comes out with the dry season's arrival.

At least that is how it usually is. This year, the dry season didn't really happen that way - the rain just got less and less until we found ourselves in the dry season. And it hung on a lot longer than normal, too. Something of a La Nina year this year, and that is the reason why, apparently. During La Nina events, we have heavier than normal rain, and during El Nino years, less than normal. During the Great El Nino of 1984, we had no rain here for nine months, and there were forest fires in our rain forests. Hope we don't see a repeat of that very soon. But the forecasts for global warming aren't that good - we're expected to have 40% dryer weather by the end of the century.

The last few days have seen some afternoon thunderstorm activity, too. This is the first real thunderstorm activity in nearly a year. Our rain is mostly the result of thunderstorm activity, but the rainy season last year saw darned few. And I have grown used to not having to shut everything down and pull the main disconnect to the house. But for the last three days running, we have had afternoon thunderstorms that have had me shutting everything down and pulling the power to the house. So I am going to have to get used to doing my computer work in the morning if this keeps up - there won't be power in the house in the afternoon because I have to pull the big switch to keep everything from getting zapped.

I was out in the garden a bit this morning, getting some broken palm fronds cut down from the coconut tree and hauled off to the yard waste pile. I was careful not to exert myself, but it felt truly wonderful to get out in the garden and get a few things done, even if it wasn't all that much. And the yard is looking better for it, a bit more tended than it had been. My energy level seems to be improving slowly, and I seem to be able to do a few things now without finding myself starting to get winded. So the recovery is continuing, and hopefully, I can resume most of my normal activities fairly soon. In spite of the suggestions of several readers, I have continued on my diet, and have lost about three notches on my belt - roughly three inches of waist size. I am really glad for that - it is a lot easier to tie my shoes and trim my toenails now. I just need to keep with it and get my weight down to where it is supposed to be. But I have a long way to go - I need to lose 20 kilos, and I have probably lost not much more than five.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: Smirkey's 31% approval rating in the latest New York Times/CBS poll (which echoes a USA Today/Gallup poll discussed here in the last entry) equals the low-water mark of his father's presidency, and is the third-lowest approval rating of any president in the last 50 years. Just 13 percent approved of Mr. Bush’s handling of rising gas prices. Only one-quarter said they approved of his handling of immigration, as Congressional Republicans struggle to come up with a compromise to deal with the influx of illegal immigrants into the country. The poll showed a continued decline in support for the war, the issue that has most eaten into Mr. Bush’s public support. The percentage of respondents who said going to war in Iraq was the correct decision slipped to a new low of 39 percent, down from 47 percent in January. Two-thirds said they have little or no confidence that Mr. Bush will be able to successfully end the war there.

Public ratings of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have followed Smirkey's ratings to new lows, a Gallup poll indicated Wednesday. Cheney's favorable rating among U.S. residents has fallen to 34 percent while Rumsfeld's has dropped to 37 percent. The declines closely follow Bush's fall to a 39 percent favorable rating, the Gallup News Service said of its April 28-30 poll of 1,011 residents for USA Today. At least 70 percent of Republicans gave Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld favorable ratings. However, fewer than 20 percent of Democrats and slightly more than 25 percent of independents rated the men favorably.

Commercial news media pays the price for sycophancy: Nielsen Media Research has reported that Fox News' overall prime-time lineup dropped 17% last month compared with a year ago (MSNBC grew 16% during the same period, while CNN plummeted by 38%). Late last week, a reliable television industry website, TVNewser.com, reported that in April, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly had his worst month in nearly five years among viewers age 25 to 54, the most coveted audience in TV news. Although the network still churns out ratings light-years ahead of competitors' and O'Reilly remains cable news' No. 1 host, Fox News' explosive growth appears to be, like the president's 90% approval rating in the days following Sept. 11, a relic from the first Bush term. As for CNN, its lineup showed far greater erosion last month than Fox's. "We're down because we had such a phenomenal year last year," Klein said. The one major growth story at CNN? Lou Dobbs, whose program seems to add viewers in direct proportion to its host's fiercely expressed views against illegal immigration. Fox News says CNN is merely trying to deflect attention from its own woes. "It's always amusing to watch Jon whistle past his graveyard of failures like Anderson Cooper and 'American Morning' as Fox trounces CNN in breaking news and ratings," Fox spokeswoman Irena Briganti wrote in an e-mail. "We suspect Dick Parsons isn't nearly as entertained." Parsons is the chief of Time Warner, CNN's parent.

The International Monetary Fund won new powers to police the world economy after its 184 member countries endorsed a new framework to monitor how the economic policies of one country affects others. The countries, represented by finance ministers or central bank governors, also agreed that some emerging economies needed more say in IMF decision-making that could lead to a proposal for ad hoc increases in their voting shares by the next IMF gathering in September. "We resolve to make the IMF more fit for purpose in a global economy and more able to address challenges that are quite different from those of 1945, when the IMF was created," Britain's finance minister, Gordon Brown, who also chairs the IMF's policy-setting committee, told a news conference.

Some 200,000 guns the US sent to Iraqi security forces may have been smuggled to terrorists, it was feared yesterday. The 99-tonne cache of AK47s was to have been secretly flown out from a US base in Bosnia. But the four planeloads of arms have vanished. Orders for the deal to go ahead were given by the US Department of Defense. But the work was contracted out via a complex web of private arms traders. And the Moldovan airline used to transport the shipment was blasted by the UN in 2003 for smuggling arms to Liberia, human rights group Amnesty International has discovered. It follows a separate probe claiming that thousands of guns meant for Iraq's police and army instead went to al-Qaeda. Amnesty chief spokesman Mike Blakemore said: "It's unbelievable that no one can account for 200,000 assault rifles. If these weapons have gone missing it's a terrifying prospect." American defence chiefs hired a US firm to take the guns, from the 90s Bosnian war, to Iraq.

For 27 years, the rhetorical swordplay between the US and Iran has been unrelenting. Iran portrays its latest thrust in the ongoing row with the West, an unprecedented letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush, as a "new diplomatic opening." Striking a tough and confident tone and with few conciliatory words, Mr. Ahmadinejad addressed a host of issues, but only touched on atomic energy and provided no new initiatives for ending the standoff over Iran's nuclear program. Experts say that rather than being any kind of step toward direct dialogue, the letter reveals just how far apart Washington and Tehran remain, with differences magnified by conservative leaderships on both sides that gain more from saber-rattling than peacemaking. The full text of the letter, translated into English, can be found here.

As White House staff secretary, Brett M. Kavanaugh has a desk near the Oval Office, and he sees most letters and documents that go in there before President Bush does. But Kavanaugh, nominated by Bush to an appellate court judgeship, testified yesterday that he knew nothing about the administration's warrantless surveillance program, a now-rescinded memo on torture and White House visits by former lobbyist Jack Abramoff until they were in the newspapers. In a 3 1/2- hour hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kavanaugh frustrated Democrats' efforts to link him, even tangentially, to the administration's biggest controversies. As have many other judicial nominees, he declined to answer some questions, cited forgetfulness in sidestepping others, and gave little insight into his political and philosophical views. Democrats did manage a few concessions from Kavanaugh yesterday. He said Bush political adviser Karl Rove has been a regular participant in weekly meetings of about 15 administration officials who discuss which potential nominees should be pushed for the federal bench. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Rove's participation disproved Kavanaugh's earlier claims that political considerations play no role in judicial appointments. Kavanaugh also said that his previous boss and mentor - former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr - should have been confined to the Whitewater investigation and not headed subsequent investigations into Clinton administration scandals involving the White House travel office and intern Monica S. Lewinsky. The public came to see Starr as a permanent prosecutor of Bill Clinton, he said, and it "harmed the credibility of the investigation."

Former National Security Agency director Bobby Ray Inman lashed out at the Bush administration Monday night over its continued use of warrantless domestic wiretaps, making him one of the highest-ranking former intelligence officials to criticize the program in public, analysts say. "This activity is not authorized," Inman said, as part of a panel discussion on eavesdropping that was sponsored by The New York Public Library. The Bush administration "need(s) to get away from the idea that they can continue doing it." Since the NSA eavesdropping program was unveiled in December, Inman -- like other senior members of the intelligence community -- has been measured in the public statements he's made about the agency he headed under President Jimmy Carter. He maintained that his former colleagues "only act in accordance with law." When asked whether the president had the legal authority to order the surveillance, Inman replied in December, "Someone else would have to give you the good answer."

Newspaper circulation fell 2.6 percent in the six-month period ending in March, according to data released Monday, as more people turned to the Internet and other media outlets for news and information. The decline in average paid weekday circulation was about the same as the previous six-month reporting cycle for the period ending last September, according to the Newspaper Association of America, a trade group. Average paid circulation at Sunday newspapers fell 3.1 percent versus the same period a year ago, also a comparable decline with the last time circulation tallies were reported, the NAA said. The figures were based on NAA's analysis of circulation figures released Monday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, a separate group which reports figures on individual newspapers but not industrywide data.

After speeches by President Bush and Attorney General Gonzales, Deputy Director of National Intelligence and former NSA Director General Michael Hayden took another crack at the defense in a speech on Monday. He's not exactly the ideal choice to restore the administration's credibility. As Think Progress documented back in December, Hayden misled Congress. In his 10/17/02 testimony, he told a committee investigating the 9/11 attacks that any surveillance of persons in the United States was done consistent with FISA. At the time of his statements, Hayden was fully aware of the presidential order to conduct warrantless domestic spying issued the previous year. But Hayden didn’t feel as though he needed to share that with Congress. Apparently, Hayden believed that he had been legally authorized to conduct the surveillance, but told Congress that he had no authority to do exactly what he was doing. The Fraud and False Statements statute (18 U.S.C. 1001) make Hayden's misleading statements to Congress illegal.

The agency in charge of a domestic spying program has been secretly collecting phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, including calls made within the United States, USA Today reported on Thursday. It said the National Security Agency has been building up the database using records provided by three major phone companies - AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. - but that the program "does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations." USA Today said its sources for the story were "people with direct knowledge of the arrangement," but it did not give their names or describe their affiliation. The existence of an NSA eavesdropping program launched after the September 11 attacks was revealed in December. Smirkey did not confirm or deny a newspaper report Thursday that the National Security Agency was collecting records of tens of millions of ordinary Americans' phone calls. "Our intelligence activities strictly target al-Qaida and their known affiliates," Bush said. "We are not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans." USA Today, based on anonymous sources it said had direct knowledge of the arrangement, reported that AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., and BellSouth Corp. began turning over records of Americans' phone calls to the NSA shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bush said any domestic intelligence-gathering measures he's approved are "lawful," and he says "appropriate" members of Congress have been briefed. The disclosure could complicate Bush's bid to win confirmation of former NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden as CIA director. Congressional Republicans and Democrats demanded answers from the Bush administration Thursday about a government spy agency secretly collecting records of ordinary Americans' phone calls to build a database of every call made within the country. The top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said he was shocked by the revelation about the NSA.

Pvt. Scarano once called himself a "living symbol" of the failure of the Army's rehabilitation system. Now he's a dead symbol. Private First Class Matthew Scarano, all of 21-years-old, was killed sometime between 9 PM Saturday and 4:45 AM Sunday, March 19, 2006. But he wasn't killed by any insurgent force. He wasn't in Iraq or Afghanistan or even, despite his rank and year-plus of service, active in the United States Army. Matthew Scarano died in his bunk, in the barracks of Bravo Battery 95th, Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In 2005 he had injured his shoulder during basic training, and on March 1 of that year entered the netherworld of Fort Sill's Physical Training and Rehabilitation Program, or PTRP. It is estimated that 15 percent to 37 percent of men and 38 percent to 67 percent of women sustain at least one injury due to the rigors of basic training. Although Fort Sill's is believed to be the worst, the Army has PTRP units also at Fort Knox, Fort Jackson, Fort Leonard Wood and Fort Benning. More than a year after he entered PTRP, Scarano was still there, no closer to being healed but still subject to the restrictive rules and routine humiliations associated with basic training, still plagued by what he described in an email of March 7, 2006, as "chronic, piercing and sometimes debilitating pain." The Army considered PFC Scarano a trainee; he and the 39 other soldiers in PTRP at Fort Sill considered themselves prisoners. Shortly before Scarano's death, the inspector general at Fort Sill had been forced to undertake an internal investigation of the program for assault and abuse of soldiers, inadequate medical attention, command irresponsibility and overall incompetence. To that list (which I should note is unofficial) they may now add negligence and wrongful death. As of the end of March, the Army wouldn't comment on its investigation or on what killed Scarano, although I did receive a pro forma response saying the matter was "still under investigation." But in the week prior to his death, his comrades in the PTRP barracks say, Army doctors had doubled the dose of his pain medication, Fentanyl, an analgesic patch 80 times more potent than morphine, whose advertised possible side effects include difficulty breathing, severe weakness and unconsciousness.

Jared Guinther is 18. Tall and lanky, he will graduate from high school in June. Girls think he's cute, until they try to talk to him and he stammers or just stands there - silent. Diagnosed with autism at age 3, Jared is polite but won't talk to people unless they address him first. It's hard for him to make friends. He lives in his own private world. Jared didn't know there was a war raging in Iraq until his parents told him last fall - shortly after a military recruiter stopped him outside a Portland strip mall and complimented his black Converse All-Stars. "When Jared first started talking about joining the Army, I thought, 'Well, that isn't going to happen,'" said Paul Guinther, Jared's father. "I told my wife not to worry about it. They're not going to take anybody in the service who's autistic." But they did. Last month, Jared came home with papers showing that he had not only enlisted, but signed up for the Army's most dangerous job: cavalry scout. He is scheduled to leave for basic training Aug. 16.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Tuesday acknowledged a past disagreement with Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden but backed the nominee to head the CIA while ridiculing the notion of a Pentagon "power grab" over intelligence functions. President George W. Bush nominated Hayden to the post on Monday, picking an active-duty military officer to head the civilian Central Intelligence Agency to replace Porter Goss, who resigned last week under pressure. Bush's nomination for the new CIA head has set up a battle in Congress over Hayden's military background and his key role in Bush's domestic-spying program. Hayden made the rounds on Capitol Hill to meet lawmakers even as more members of Bush's own party, including House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert, voiced concern. "I don't think a military guy should be head of CIA, frankly," the Illinois Republican told reporters on Monday in his home state. The Senate, not the House, votes on the nomination.

The official team bus to be used by the United States during the World Cup will not bear a U.S. flag for security reasons. The 32 official buses were presented Thursday in Frankfurt and the other 31 buses have large national flags of the their teams painted on rear sides. German and U.S. security officials came to the conclusion to leave the flag off the U.S. team bus, an official of the German organizing committee said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the topic. The bus is predominantly blue in color.

How much do you think Osama bin Laden would pay to know exactly when and where the President was traveling, and who was with him? Turns out, he wouldn't have had to pay a dime. All he had to do was go through the trash early Tuesday morning. It appears to be a White House staff schedule for the President's trip to Florida Tuesday. And a sanitation worker was alarmed to find in the trash long hours before Mr. Bush left for his trip. It's the kind of thing you would expect would be shredded or burned, not thrown in the garbage. Randy Hopkins could not believe what he was seeing. There on the floor next to a big trash truck was a thick sheaf of papers with nearly every detail of the President's voyage. "I saw locations and names and places where the President was going to be. I knew it was important. And it shouldn't have been in a trash hole like this," he said. Hopkins works in sanitation. He's an ex-con, and he's worried about fallout from talking to us, so he's asked us not to say exactly where he's employed. But he also felt it was his civic duty to tell somebody about what he'd found. "We're going through a war, and if it would have fell into the wrong hands at the right time, it would have been something really messy for the President's sake," he said. The documents details the exact arrival and departure time for Air Force One, Marine One and the back up choppers, Nighthawk 2 and Three. It lists every passenger on board each aircraft, from the President to military attaché with nuclear football. It offers the order of vehicles in the President's motorcade.

When images of the Gulf Coast were broadcast around the country after Hurricane Katrina, it marked the beginning of a national discussion on the agency that governs emergency management, leaving many Americans with the notion that FEMA stands for Failed Emergency Management Agency. The most recent criticisms were contained in a bipartisan Senate committee report, "Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared." Led by Republican chair Susan Collins and ranking Democrat Joseph Lieberman, the committee called for the abolition of FEMA and the construction of a stronger emergency response authority. "After the hurricane, the White House continued to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the catastrophe," wrote Lieberman in the report's conclusion.

Details of horrific conditions endured by boys and girls held in a New Orleans jail during and after Hurricane Katrina are chronicled in a shocking new report by a group that advocates for criminalized youth. The report by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana blames longstanding "institutional failures" in the Orleans Parish juvenile-justice system for what incarcerated teenage hurricane survivors describe in interview after interview as intolerably hazardous circumstances of their detention. The report notes that authorities ignored a warning from the National Weather Service that Katrina would cause "human suffering incredible by modern standards," choosing to hold all of the nearly 150 children jailed at the time in the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) adult correctional facility in central New Orleans. Many if not most of the juvenile detainees were being held pending trial and had not been convicted of any crime. Like their adult counterparts, child detainees went up to five days without food, water or remotely sanitary conditions while trapped inside the OPP complex, and many report nearly drowning in their cells, before their eventual self-evacuation from the facility. The report says that no one interviewed was aware of any medical care offered or provided by guards or other authorities, and that guards ignored major injuries, pregnancies, chronic health problems and medicine shortages.

What are the odds that Bush would use almost the exact same words to nominate Porter Goss, as he would to nominate Gen. Hayden? Don't answer that. Just watch the video from the Goss nomination announcement and the Hayden nomination announcement. It was Jon Stuart on The Daily show who uncovered this embarrassing episode.

Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media mogul whose New York Post tabloid savaged Hillary Clinton's initial aspirations to become a US senator for New York, has agreed to host a political fundraiser for her re-election campaign. The decision underlines an incongruous thawing of relations between Mr Murdoch and Mrs Clinton, who in 1998 coined the phrase "vast right-wing conspiracy" to denounce critics of her husband, such as Fox News, the conservative cable channel owned by Mr Murdoch's News Corporation. Mr Murdoch will host the fundraiser, due to be held by July, on behalf of News Corp.

America's most notorious polygamous sect is being investigated as an organised-crime operation, it emerged yesterday, in one of several signs that the net is closing on the group's fugitive leader. Warren Jeffs, the self-declared prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, joined Osama bin Laden on the FBI's most-wanted list at the weekend, and the reward for information leading to his arrest was raised to $100,000 (£535,000). His case has featured on the high-profile television show America's Most Wanted, a Crimewatch-style program that has led to many successful arrests in the past. Mr Jeffs is wanted in Utah and Arizona on charges of sexual conduct with a minor and arranging bigamous marriages involving underage girls. The FBI describes him as "armed and dangerous". Utah's attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, said he believed Mr Jeffs ran his church and its business arm, the United Effort Plan - reportedly worth $110m, as "an organized crime-type setup. We just have to get the evidence to prove it." The church would be investigated for "double books, cooking books, offshore accounts and fraud", Mr Shurtleff told the Deseret Morning News, a Salt Lake City newspaper. The church is one of several splinter groups that believes the Mormons should not have abandoned polygamy in the 19th century, a change made primarily so that Utah could be admitted to US statehood. Estimates of the number of Americans in polygamous marriages range from 20,000 to 100,000; the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices puts the figure at 37,000.

Graffiti painted by Chicago gangs is showing up in Iraq. The Chicago Sun-Times reports the graffiti shows the increasing gang activity in the Army. Military leaders are concerned some soldiers may be supplying gangs at home. Some gangs encourage their members to join the Army to learn urban warfare techniques and teach other members. Chicago police have reportedly seen evidence of gangs getting help from soldiers, and the FBI visited Army bases to check into gang activity.

Executives at ChoicePoint Inc. - which bought the company whose list Florida officials used to prevent thousands from voting in the 2000 presidential election - were among the biggest contributors to U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's re-election campaign from January to March, records show. Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000 who often quips that he actually was elected despite the bitterly disputed Florida results, reported to the Federal Election Commission that over a two-week period in March he collected a total of $11,700 from 14 ChoicePoint officials, only one of whom resides in Connecticut.

While Minuteman civilian patrols are keeping an eye out for illegal border crossers, the U.S. Border Patrol is keeping an eye out for Minutemen - and telling the Mexican government where they are. According to three documents on the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations Web site, the U.S. Border Patrol is to notify the Mexican government as to the location of Minutemen and other civilian border patrol groups when they participate in apprehending illegal immigrants - and if and when violence is used against border crossers. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman confirmed the notification process, describing it as a standard procedure meant to reassure the Mexican government that migrants' rights are being observed. "It's not a secret where the Minuteman volunteers are going to be," Mario Martinez said Monday. "This... simply makes two basic statements - that we will not allow any lawlessness of any type, and that if an alien is encountered by a Minuteman or arrested by the Minuteman, then we will allow that government to interview the person."

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: Relations between the US and Russia sank to the lowest point in a decade yesterday when Vladimir Putin harshly rebuked Washington for its criticism last week and compared the US to a hungry wolf that "eats and listens to no one." Mr. Putin, stung by an attack from Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, used his annual state of the nation address to denounce US expansionism and military spending. He also questioned Washington's record on democratic rights. Although he refrained from mentioning the US by name, it was clear that the "wolf" in question referred to Washington. The deterioration in relations is risky for the US at a time when it is trying to persuade Russia to support a United Nations resolution against Iran over Tehran's nuclear program. The acrimony will also encourage senior US Republicans such as John McCain to renew calls for Mr Bush to boycott this year's meeting of the Group of Eight, the world's wealthiest countries, which is scheduled to be held in Russia for the first time. The war of words is a long way from the optimism with which George Bush said, after his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Putin in 2001, that he had looked into the Russian president's soul and liked what he saw. Mr Cheney, reflecting Washington's growing disenchantment, told a conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, last week that Russia was sending "mixed signals" over democracy, as well as using its energy resources to "intimidate and blackmail" neighbors.

The Pentagon's top weapons buyer has endorsed a controversial plan that could lead to a multibillion-dollar U.S. missile defense component in space and strain ties with China, Russia and other countries. At issue is what the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency calls a space-based "test bed." It would initially involve as few as one or two interceptor missiles designed to shoot down ballistic missiles possibly tipped with nuclear, chemical or germ warheads. "I'm supportive of creating a test bed," Kenneth Krieg, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday. "And then we'll see what we do with it afterwards." The Missile Defense Agency plans to seek $45 million in seed money to start building the experimentation center in the fiscal year that starts October 1, 2007. A top Kremlin aide said on Thursday that reported moves by the United States to equip some strategic rockets with non-nuclear warheads were "irresponsible" and "extraordinarily dangerous" for Russia. Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Sobyanin echoed comments made by President

Vladimir Putin in a keynote speech on Wednesday in which the Russian leader expressed disquiet at the Pentagon plans and suggested new disarmament talks. "Imagine a rocket that can be fired from a submarine. A nuclear state might not be able to react adequately to the firing of such a rocket. There is nothing written on it to say what sort of warhead it is -- whether it is conventional or nuclear," Sobyanin told reporters. "It seems to me to be an irresponsible decision... It is extraordinarily dangerous," he said. Referring directly to a Pentagon initiative to arm some U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles with conventional warheads, Putin said talk of an end to the arms race had proved "premature." "In fact, its fly wheel is today spinning even faster and it is moving by itself onto a new technological level (with) the appearance of a whole arsenal of so-called destabilizing types of weapons," Putin said.

Republicans Believe In Helping Those Who Can't Help Themselves: At a time when tens of millions of workers are struggling to pay for gas for their car, electricity for their home, and medical care for their families, the Republicans have stepped forward with a plan to help. They want to give another $20 to $30 billion in tax cuts to the rich. This temporary assistance to the needy rich (TANR) takes the form of a 2-year extension of a tax cut that made the maximum tax rate on stock dividends and capital gain income 15 percent. While tens of millions of ordinary workers pay income tax rates of 25 percent on their wages, the Republicans argue that Bill Gates and his billionaire friends shouldn't have to pay taxes at more than a 15 percent rate. Most of this tax break goes to the richest 1 percent of the population. This is because they hold most of the country's stock - and even when middle income people hold stock, it is usually in retirement accounts, which are not affected by this tax cut. The Republicans don't argue that rich people should pay lower tax rates just because they are rich. Republicans - and many Democrats - argue that rich people should pay lower tax rates because they get their income from owning stock instead of working for a living. They argue that taxing income from stock is morally wrong because it is "double taxation." They also argue that it is bad for the economy. Neither claim makes much sense.

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: US retail sales have risen by a slimmer margin than expected, after high fuel costs made consumers rein in spending. Sales rose 0.5% in April from a year earlier, the Commerce Department said. The effect of higher fuel costs - which act as an extra tax on consumers - could be seen in a 4.6% surge in sales at gasoline stations. Analysts said the performance was not a major concern, since it could persuade the Federal Reserve to halt its recent sequence of interest rate increases.

The US economy remains the most competitive in the world but faces being held back by its nation's debt and budget deficit, a new study says. The IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook ranks 61 countries and regions using more than 300 criteria. Its 2006 ranking indicates that more efficient Asian and socialist Nordic economies are closing the gap on the US. Elsewhere, it says China's and India's governments are struggling to keep up with their economies' rapid pace. Most Competitive Economies, 2006: 1. US (1), 2. Hong Kong (2), 3. Singapore (3), 4. Iceland (4), 5. Denmark(7), 6. Australia (9), 7. Canada (5), 8. Switzerland (8), 9. Luxembourg (10), 10. Finland (6). Figure in brackets denotes last year's ranking.

Republicans Believe In A Level Playing Field: Once the color barrier has been broken, minority contractors seeking government work may need to overcome the Bush barrier. That's the message U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson seemed to send during an April 28 talk in Dallas. Jackson, a former president and CEO of the Dallas Housing Authority, was among the featured speakers at a forum sponsored by the Real Estate Executive Council, a national minority real estate consortium. After discussing the huge strides the agency has made in doing business with minority-owned companies, Jackson closed with a cautionary tale, relaying a conversation he had with a prospective advertising contractor. "He had made every effort to get a contract with HUD for 10 years," Jackson said of the prospective contractor. "He made a heck of a proposal and was on the (General Services Administration) list, so we selected him. He came to see me and thank me for selecting him. Then he said something... he said, 'I have a problem with your president.' "I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I don't like President Bush.' I thought to myself, 'Brother, you have a disconnect - the president is elected, I was selected. You wouldn't be getting the contract unless I was sitting here. If you have a problem with the president, don't tell the secretary.' "He didn't get the contract," Jackson continued. "Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the contract. That's the way I believe." Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) called on President Bush to ask for the immediate resignation of the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson if a report about government contracts being awarded based on the contractor's opinion of President Bush are accurate.

Republican lawmakers, facing the prospect that their power to cut taxes may soon be curbed, plan to extend breaks that mostly benefit the wealthy and Wall Street at the expense of reductions for middle-income households. Six months before elections that may return a Democratic majority in at least one house of Congress, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois are focusing on extending the 15 percent rate on investments and repealing the estate tax. They won't push extensions of lower rates for all taxpayers and expanded breaks for married couples and families with children, which expire after 2010. "In politics, timing is everything; you do what you can when you can, and this is what's queued up right now," says Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, the No. 4 Republican in the Senate. Given the federal budget deficit, it would "be hard to generate public support overnight" for making permanent the other tax cuts, he says. Democrats say the Republicans are favoring tax breaks that do little for middle-income Americans; 50 percent of all U.S. households earn between $26,859 and $120,100, according to the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan research institution in Washington. "Even in an election year where they are losing popularity nationwide, they've chosen to pander to their base of rich donors and leave the middle class behind," says Representative Charles Rangel of New York, the senior Democrat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

Scandals Du Jour: Former FEMA director Michael "Heckuva Job" Brown told an aide he was "sitting in the chair, putting mousse in my hair," as he waited for a media interview to begin immediately following the Aug. 29 disaster. He also disputed that the levees broke - despite getting reports to that effect. The 928 pages of e-mails, obtained and released by the Center for Public Integrity, also portray Brown and the Federal Emergency Management Agency as obsessed with media coverage in the days leading up to and immediately following the Aug. 29, 2005, disaster. Later that morning, at 9:50 a.m., a FEMA staffer at the National Hurricane Center sent department brass an alert from a local TV station report that "a levee breach occurred along the industrial canal" near the city's low-income Ninth Ward.

While director of the National Security Agency, Gen. Michael V. Hayden contracted the services of a top executive at the company at the center of the Cunningham bribery scandal, according to two former employees of the company. Hayden, President Bush's pick to replace Porter Goss as head of the CIA, contracted with MZM Inc. for the services of Lt. Gen. James C. King, then a senior vice president of the company, the sources say. MZM was owned and operated by Mitchell Wade, who has admitted to bribing former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham with $1.4 million in money and gifts. Wade has also reportedly told investigators he helped arrange for prostitutes to entertain the disgraced lawmaker, and he continues to cooperate with a federal inquiry into the matter. King has not been implicated in the growing scandal around Wade's illegal activities. However, federal records show he contributed to some of Wade's favored lawmakers, including $6000 to Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) and $4000 to Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL). Before joining MZM in December 2001, King served under Hayden as the NSA's associate deputy director for operations, and as head of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. As an MZM employee, King was involved in a number of controversial projects. In 2002, he was a key adviser to the team creating CIFA, the Pentagon's domestic surveillance operation. In 2004, he was one of three MZM staffers who worked on the White House Robb-Silberman Commission, which recommended expanding CIFA's powers.

As Washington Monthly has reported, "Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) became the Senate's point man on K Street"- the corridor in Washington where corporate lobbyists have their offices. His efforts were widely known to be part of the "K Street Project," now at the center of a federal investigation. Santorum "held weekly meetings with top Republican lobbyists at which he discusses, among other matters, job openings at Washington lobbying firms," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. One of those attending the first ultra-exclusive meeting was none other than Jack Abramoff. The goal of the gatherings was to fill lobbying jobs with loyal Republicans, who then funneled corporate cash to the GOP come election time. For his trouble, Santorum "has received more money from lobbyists than any other congressional candidate so far in the 2006 election cycle," according to the Post-Gazette. Santorum denies it. "I had absolutely nothing to do - never met, never talked, never coordinated, never did anything - with... the quote K Street Project," he said. As for his connections to Abramoff, the senator's spokesman recently told local papers that Santorum "does not know him."

With recent attention focused on lobbying reform in Congress, two public interest groups today called for an investigation into how former Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., now head of the drug manufacturing companies' lobby in Washington, inserted language into the drug benefit bill to help big drug companies while he was negotiating to land a $2 million per year job as president of PhRMA. Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., who served with Rep. Tauzin on the Medicare Conference Committee, joined leaders from the two groups - the Campaign for American's Future and Americans United - on a conference call with reporters today to discuss a new report of scandals surrounding the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. The Campaign for America's Future released a report today that chronicles how Rep. Tauzin, R-La., former chair of the Congressional committee overseeing the passage of Part D, worked hard to prohibit Medicare from negotiating with drug companies to achieve lower prices for seniors. "The Republican leaders on the committee paid more attention to the pharmaceutical and insurance companies who contributed millions of dollars to their campaigns than the needs of our seniors," said Rep. Berry. "There were even times when these leaders shut my Democratic colleagues and I out of the room during critical moments in this debate."

News From Smirkey's Wars: The Salvador Option death squads in Iraq are busy little bees: A militia group with immense power in Iraq has issued names of 461 intellectuals which it says it has ordered its armed men to assassinate. The name list is distributed across the country and copies are not hard to obtain in Baghdad. Several Iraq-related websites have issued the names. The list includes some of the brightest Iraqi authors, journalists, doctors and scientists. Azzaman obtained the list from the Iraqi Writers Union which declined to reveal the name of the factional group calling for the killing of the 461 intellectuals, citing security concerns. Leaflets containing the names warn these intellectuals that "they are now (legitimate) targets for assassination." The union urged the government to take immediate measures to protect the intellectuals. "The authorities bear the responsibility for safeguarding the souls of this elite group of Iraqi intellectuals who are now a target for killing. The list is part of an organized, foreign-backed campaign to terrorize Iraqi brains," a source at the union said.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: The United Methodist Church's top court has refused to reconsider its ruling that a minister acted correctly when he refused church membership to a gay man, the church announced on Tuesday. The nine-member Judicial Council was split on the matter, however, reflecting the continued divisions within many churches on the treatment of homosexuals in matters ranging from same-sex marriages to roles in the clergy. The tribunal reaffirmed a decision made last October that the Rev. Edward Johnson of the South Hill, Virginia, United Methodist Church was within his rights for refusing to admit a homosexual man to church membership and should not have been suspended for doing so. The earlier ruling said Johnson followed church law that gives the pastor-in-charge the right to decide who can be received into membership. It said he should be reinstated and given back pay to July 1, 2005, when he had been removed by his bishop.

The wheels of history have a tendency to roll back over the same ground. For the past 33 years - since, as they see it, the wanton era of the 1960’s culminated in the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 - American social conservatives have been on an unyielding campaign against abortion. But recently, as the conservative tide has continued to swell, this campaign has taken on a broader scope. Its true beginning point may not be Roe but Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 case that had the effect of legalizing contraception. "We see a direct connection between the practice of contraception and the practice of abortion," says Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, an organization that has battled abortion for 27 years but that, like others, now has a larger mission. "The mind-set that invites a couple to use contraception is an antichild mind-set," she told me. "So when a baby is conceived accidentally, the couple already have this negative attitude toward the child. Therefore seeking an abortion is a natural outcome. We oppose all forms of contraception."

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Scientists say Goyder's Line in South Australia could be shifted south on maps because of climate change. The line was originally drawn on maps after the 1860s drought as a boundary to indicate where graziers to the north required government help. It is now thought of as a rainfall line indicating the areas suitable for cropping. Research by the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) and the CSIRO suggests higher temperatures and less rain will change the agricultural landscape, moving the line further south. SARDI spokesman Peter Hayman says the northern-most point of the line could shift from Orroroo to Jamestown or even Clare within 60 years or so. "For people in that region, that's a big change. Land values change enormously across that transect," he said.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:53:42 AM

Tue, May 09 2006

Meet The New Boss

Yesterday's weather was brutally sunny and hot, equalling the 87 degrees of the day before, but today, blessed relief has arrived in the form of a heavy overcast that has kept the temperature down to a pleasant 80 degrees after an overnight low of 74. A good hard rainstorm, too, which was badly needed.

Yesterday, I visited some friends in town, my first trip out for something other than groceries, and enjoyed my visit with them very much. It was a pleasant afternoon, catching up on all the local gossip.

Today is Costa Rica's first full day with its new president, don Oscar Arias Sanchez. He was sworn in yesterday at about half-past noon, and received the presidential sash, with all the pomp and ceremony one would expect. His inauguration speech was encouraging - and it almost certainly didn't warm the heart of Smirkey, as he said he intended to revitalize the reforms of don Pepe Figueres, whose social reforms made Costa Rica what it is today, for which Washington rewarded him with two assassination attempts and a coup plot, all unsuccessful. Showing up to represent Smirkey was Laura Bush, who popped in for a total of 19 hours, did the inauguration and twenty minutes at the reception afterwards, and then popped right back out, but not without causing several traffic jams with her entourage motorcade, which caused a delay in the inauguration proceedings in the process. Her only "civilian" appearance was a brief appearance at a primary school. The only other rep from the States was the U.S. ambassador.

President Arias signed three decrees right off the bat, as had been promised, but not the "stack" that everyone had been talking about. They were essentially technical matters that won't have much effect on the lives of ordinary Costa Ricans, and don't offer much of a clue as to what direction his administration will take. Guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: A $2.7 trillion budget plan pending before the House would raise the federal debt ceiling to nearly $10 trillion, less than two months after Congress last raised the federal government's borrowing limit. The provision - buried on page 121 of the 151-page budget blueprint -- serves as a backdrop to congressional action this week. House leaders hope to try once again to pass a budget plan for fiscal 2007, a month after a revolt by House Republican moderates and Appropriations Committee members forced leaders to pull the plan. Leaders also hope to pass a package of tax-cut extensions that would cost the Treasury $70 billion over the next five years. They would then turn Thursday to a $513 billion defense policy bill that would block President Bush's request to raise health-care fees and co-payments for service members and their families.

President Bush's approval rating has slumped to 31% in a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, the lowest of his presidency and a warning sign for Republicans in the November elections. The survey of 1,013 adults, taken Friday through Sunday, shows Bush's standing down by 3 percentage points in a single week. His disapproval rating also reached a record: 65%. The margin of error is +/- 3 percentage points. Bush's fall is being fueled by erosion among support from conservatives and Republicans. In the poll, 52% of conservatives and 68% of Republicans approved of the job he is doing. Both are record lows among those groups. Moderates gave him an approval rating of 28%, liberals of 7%. "You hear people say he has a hard core that will never desert him, and that has been the case for most of the administration," says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin who studies presidential approval ratings. "But for the last few months, we started to see that hard core seriously erode in support." Only four presidents have scored lower approval ratings since the Gallup Poll began regularly measuring it in the mid-1940s: Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and the first George Bush. When Nixon, Carter and the elder Bush sank below 35%, they never again registered above 40%.

An Oregon attorney may have the first concrete proof of Bush's domestic spying operation - which means the illegal program's days might be numbered. Former National Security Agency Director Lt. General William Odom dissected the strategic folly of the Iraq invasion and Bush Administration policies in a major policy speech - "America's Strategic Paralysis" - at Brown University for the Watson Institute. Thomas Nelson has been practicing administrative law for most of his professional life, but after September 11th he first began offering pro bono work for immigrants detained in broad FBI terrorism sweeps. He is currently leading a little-discussed case that may contain the first documented evidence of an illegal wiretap, and believes that as a result, he himself has been subjected to warrantless -- and therefore illegal -- wiretaps and physical searches, the kind of clandestine operation that Nixon referred to as "black bag jobs." And as a result of extreme carelessness by the FBI, Nelson may have his hands on the only solid evidence of these searches.

President George W Bush's attempt to restore order at the CIA has run into fierce opposition, with allies and enemies questioning his choice of a senior military officer to lead the civilian spy agency. Leading congressmen criticised today's expected nomination of Gen Michael Hayden, the deputy director of national intelligence, amid fears that it would place the military in charge of all the major intelligence agencies. Pete Hoekstra, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, led the charge yesterday, describing the general as "the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time". He told Fox News: "We should not have a military person leading a civilian agency at this time. Regardless of how good Mike is, putting a general in charge is going to send the wrong signal to the agency here in Washington and also to our agents in the field around the world."

"The Iraq War may turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in American history. In a mere 18 months we went from unprecedented levels of support after 9-11..to being one of the most hated countries. Turkey used to be one of strongest pro-US regimes, now we're so unpopular, there's a movie playing there- Metal Storm, about a war between US and Turkey. In addition to producing faulty intel and ties to Al Qaida, Bush made preposterous claim that toppling Saddam would open the way for liberal democracy in a very short time... Misunderstanding the character of American power, he dismissed the allies as a nuisance and failed to get the UN Security Council's sanction. We must reinforce international law, not reject and ridicule it."

Congressional committees prepared Wednesday to add billions of dollars in additional spending to a 2007 defense budget proposal that already is the largest in more than 50 years. The House Armed Services Committee worked into the night on its amendments to the $439 billion spending blueprint submitted by President Bush in February, adding more than $5 billion for new weapons and a pay increase for uniformed forces, among other programs. Similar efforts were under way in the Senate Armed Services Committee, which followed tradition by conducting its budget deliberations in private. The committee, led by Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., is expected to complete work today and - like its House counterpart - make only modest changes to the administration's proposal.

The president of the United States on George Washington: "That's George Washington, the first President, of course. The interesting thing about him is that I read three -- three or four books about him last year. Isn't that interesting? People say, so what? Well, here's the "so what." You never know what your history is going to be like until long after you're gone. If they're still analyzing the presidency of George Washington -- (laughter.)"

A group of House Republicans wants to do away with bilingual ballots and translation assistance at the polls, a reflection of how tensions over immigration are pervading other issues. As Congress readies to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the lawmakers are lobbying their colleagues to let the act's language assistance provisions expire. The 56 lawmakers support the act, but say the language assistance to voters - provided throughout much of California - undermines national unity, increases the risk of election fraud, and puts an undue burden on state and local governments. "We believe these ballot provisions encourage the linguistic division of our nation and contradict the 'melting pot' ideal that has made us the most successful multiethnic nation on Earth," the members said in a letter earlier this year. The group's effort is not likely to succeed, in part because of other Republicans' concerns that it could further offend Latino voters upset by the enforcement-only immigration legislation the House passed in December. Policy analysts said the focus on bilingual ballots illustrated a hardening of positions within the GOP as the debate on illegal immigration evolved. "It's reflective of the broader divide in the Republican Party on the immigration issue and related cultural questions," said Marshall Wittmann, a former GOP Senate aide who is a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "This division is now being reflected in collateral issues, like the Voting Rights Act," Wittmann added.

Republican National Chairman Kenneth Mehlman went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to warn the party's House and Senate campaign staffers of dire consequences unless Republicans break the current legislative deadlock. Mehlman emphasized the necessity to pass a budget resolution and an immigration reform bill, two issues that seriously concern the Republican base. Word circulated around Capitol Hill that Mehlman warned that 45 seats could be lost in the House on Nov. 7. He told me that he did not mention that figure and, in fact, thinks Republicans would retain control of the House if elections were held today. High-level party sources close to Mehlman estimate the GOP loss could be 25 seats under a worst-case scenario. A 15-seat gain would give the Democrats House control.

Despite a court victory over conservative fundamentalists, California's plunge into the highly publicized, relatively unexplored realm of stem-cell research still faces criticism, and not just from the religious right. Groups that support stem-cell research are warning that the state's massive research-funding plan is not immune to narrow interest groups that could undermine the potential public-health benefits. Critics caution the government against rushing to fund projects without first implementing strong protections for patients and consumers. "The thing that we're most interested in is making sure the public-benefit promises that were made actually are kept, and that just this doesn't end up being a way of dumping a lot of money in biotech’s pockets with no direct benefit for the people," said John Simpson of the consumer-advocacy group Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR). With $3 billion in taxpayer bonds earmarked for stem-cell research at its disposal, California is now poised to dole out an initial $300 million in funds under Proposition 71, a ballot initiative approved by voters in 2004. The agency charged with managing the initiative, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), is currently crafting policies to govern the distribution and use of the grant money over the next decade.

First there was Clinton-Gore. Could Clinton vs. Gore be next? For former Vice President Al Gore, a rash of favorable publicity surrounding this month's opening of his movie "An Inconvenient Truth," and the growing political resonance of its subject -- global warming -- are stoking the most serious speculation about a Gore political comeback since his loss in the 2000 U.S. presidential election. In 2008, that could mean a once-unimaginable battle for Democrats' nomination between Bill Clinton's former vice president and his wife, Hillary Clinton. To some pro-Gore Democrats, worried about Mrs. Clinton's electability, that is part of the appeal. "I appreciate that buzz, but he's not running for president," insists Michael Feldman, a former vice presidential adviser who is helping promote the film and Mr. Gore's new book on which it is based. "He has been spending a considerable amount of time trying to educate people about the issue of global warming," and won't talk about politics "right now," Mr. Feldman says.

On May 2, a U.S. Department of Agriculture speechwriter emailed 60 USDA staff that "the President has requested that all members of his cabinet and sub-cabinet incorporate message points on the Global War on Terror into speeches, including specific examples of what each agency is doing to aid the reconstruction of Iraq," reports Al Kamen. An email attachment listed "examples of GWOT messages within agriculture speeches," such as, "Several topics I'd like to talk about today -- Farm Bill, trade with Japan, WTO, avian flu ... but before I do, let me touch on a subject people always ask about ... progress in Iraq." The email said such language is "being used by [USDA] Secretary Johanns and deputy secretary Conner in all of their remarks," and urged recipients to "use these message points as often as possible" and report back when they do, for "a weekly account sent to the White House."

Sen. Russ Feingold, a potential anti-war candidate in the 2008 presidential field, urged fellow Democrats on Monday to show more backbone in challenging President Bush on Iraq. "We must get out of our political foxholes and be willing to clearly and specifically point out what a strategic error the Iraq invasion has been," Feingold, D-Wis., told a National Press Club audience. He said some Democrats in Congress gave in to "intimidation" by the Bush administration when they voted to authorize the war in 2002, and warned: "If we do not show both a practical and emotional readiness to lead in the fight against terrorism, we will lose in '06 and we will lose in '08, just like we did in '02 and '04." In March, Feingold called for the censure of Bush over the administration's warrantless surveillance program. So far, only two Democrats, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Barbara Boxer of California, have signed on as co-sponsors. Feingold, who also has proposed that U.S. troops leave Iraq by the end of the year, rejected criticism that such a move could lead to chaos.

A Yale University historian has uncovered a 1918 letter that seems to lend validity to the lore that Yale University's ultra-secret Skull and Bones society swiped the skull of American Indian leader Geronimo. The letter, written by one member of Skull and Bones to another, purports that the skull and some of the Indian leader's remains were spirited from his burial plot in Fort Sill, Okla., to a stone tomb in New Haven that serves as the club's headquarters. According to Skull and Bones legend, members - including Smirkey's grandfather, Prescott Bush - dug up Geronimo's grave when a group of Army volunteers from Yale were stationed at the fort during World War I. Geronimo died in 1909. "The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club... is now safe inside the (Tomb) together with his well worn femurs, bit & saddle horn," according to the letter, written by Winter Mead. Harlyn Geronimo, the great grandson of Geronimo, said he has been looking for a lawyer to sue the U.S. Army, which runs Fort Sill. Discovery of the letter could help, he said. "It's keeping it alive and now it makes me really want to confront the issue with my attorneys," said Geronimo, of Mescalero, N.M. "If we get the remains back... and find that, for instance, that bones are missing, you know who to blame."

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: Two London papers have speculated this weekend that complaints by President George W. Bush forced a British minister from his post because of his opposition to the use of nuclear force against Iran. The Independent suggests that a phone call from the U.S. president to British Prime Minister Tony Blair led to the removal of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw Friday. The newspaper reports that friends of Straw believe Mr. Bush was extremely upset when Straw pronounced any use of nuclear weapons against Iran "nuts." Both The Independent and the Guardian write that Straw's "fate was sealed" after a White House phone call to Blair.

The head of Syria's Commercial Bank slammed the U.S. Treasury's decision to ban it from dealing in U.S. currency as a "dangerous precedent." Speaking at a meeting Tuesday with Damascus-based commercial attaches representing Arab, Asian and European countries, Dureid Dergham rejected U.S. accusations that the bank was involved in money laundering and financing terrorism. "The U.S. Treasury decision against the bank was not based on any evidence or legal proofs with regard to the charges made against a bank which has been known for being strict in monitoring money transfers for many years," Dergham was quoted as saying by the official Syrian News Agency, SANA. "If the U.S. decision is accepted in the sense of barring the bank from dealing with the dollar, that will constitute a dangerous precedent that happened for the first time in the world," he added.

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: Americans on the lower rungs of the economic ladder have always been exposed to sudden ruin. But in recent years, with the soaring costs of housing and medical care and a decline in low-end wages and benefits, tens of millions are living on even shakier ground than before, according to studies of what some scholars call the "near poor. There's strong evidence that over the past five years, record numbers of lower-income Americans find themselves in a more precarious economic position than at any time in recent memory," said Mark R. Rank, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of "One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All." In a rare study of vulnerability to poverty, Mr. Rank and his colleagues found that the risk of a plummet of at least a year below the official poverty line rose sharply in the 1990's, compared with the two previous decades. By all signs, he said, such insecurity has continued to worsen. For all age groups except those 70 and older, the odds of a temporary spell of poverty doubled in the 1990's, Mr. Rank reported in a 2004 paper titled, "The Increase of Poverty Risk and Income Insecurity in the U.S. Since the 1970's," written with Daniel A. Sandoval and Thomas A. Hirschl, both of Cornell University. For example, during the 1980's, around 13 percent of Americans in their 40's spent at least one year below the poverty line; in the 1990's, 36 percent of people in their 40's did, according to the analysis. Comparable figures for this decade will not be available for several years, but other indicators - a climbing poverty rate and rising levels of family debt - suggest a deepening insecurity, poverty experts and economists say.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Iraq's interior minister said his police had arrested a general in the ministry on suspicion of involvement in kidnaps and death squads. Bayan Jabor, who is fighting to keep his job in a new government in the face of criticism that he has tolerated Shi'ite militias inside his ministry, made the announcement in an interview on Al Jazeera television. "We have arrested an officer, a major general. . . along with 17 people who kidnapped citizens and in some cases killed them. He is now in jail and under investigation," he said. "We also found a terror group in the 16th brigade that carries out killings of citizens," he added. It was not clear when the arrest was made or whether the case was related to arrests of army and police officers announced previously in the last few weeks. Jabor's Shi'ite Islamist Alliance bloc is pushing for him to keep his post in a new national unity government being formed under Alliance Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki, negotiators say. But minority Sunni Arabs enraged by sectarian killings, some conducted by men in uniform, are demanding Jabor's resignation.

More Iraqi civilians were killed in Baghdad during the first three months of this year than at any time since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime - at least 3,800, many of them found hogtied and shot execution-style. Others were strangled, electrocuted, stabbed, garroted or hanged. Some died in bombings. Many bore signs of torture such as bruises, drill holes, burn marks, gouged eyes or severed limbs. Every day, about 40 bodies arrive at the central Baghdad morgue, an official said. The numbers demonstrate a shift in the nature of the violence, which increasingly has targeted both sides of the country's Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide. In the previous three years, the killings were more random, impersonal. Violence came mostly in the form of bombs wielded by the Sunni Arab-led insurgency that primarily targeted the coalition forces and the Shiite majority: balls of fire and shrapnel tearing through the bodies of those riding the wrong bus, shopping at the wrong market or standing in the wrong line. Now the killings are systematic, personal. Masked gunmen storm into homes, and the victims - the majority of them Sunnis - are never again seen alive.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: Researchers organizing a federal panel on sexually transmitted diseases say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed a congressman to include two abstinence-only proponents, bypassing the scientific approval process. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who chairs the House subcommittee on drug policy, questioned the balance of the original panel, which focused on the failure of abstinence-until-marriage programs. In e-mail to Health and Human Services officials, his office asked whether the CDC was "clear about the controversial nature of this session and its obvious anti-abstinence objective." Last week the title of the panel was changed and two members were replaced. One of them was a Penn State student who was going to talk about how abstinence programs were tied to rising STD rates. The panel is to be held Tuesday at the National STD Prevention Conference in Jacksonville, Fla. "It was clear that there was not a scintilla of something positive about the abstinence education method," said Michelle Gress, counsel for Souder on the subcommittee. The congressman's office had asked for more balance, she said, but did not recommend specific speakers.

Lying about sex is as American as baseball and apple pie. A quick perusal of the culture of virginity fetishism will tell you that it's a system where there's a great deal of incentive to lie and not really much incentive to tell the truth. After all, if you pledge to stay a virgin, you get a lot of attention and some nice jewelry and if that pledge is a lie, it's not like anyone is going to finding out you're poking on the sly. But on top of that, a recent study shows that the main issue with virginity pledges is they are easily made but also easily broken. "Recanting virginity pledges: The analysis also found that 52 percent of adolescent virginity pledgers in the 1995 survey disavowed the virginity pledge at the next survey a year later. Additionally, 73 percent of virginity pledgers from the first survey who subsequently reported sexual intercourse denied in the second survey that they had ever pledged." Again, no big surprise. Virginity pledges are a front-loaded incentive campaign without any back end enforcement. Generally speaking, if you bait someone with a bunch of goodies, you have to be able to hold them accountable for their promise when they try to weasel out of it later. Like, you know, the way credit card companies work. But there's no real incentive to stick to the pledge once taken. Luckily, your average wingnut isn't weighed down with common sense or willingness to look at the facts. Janice Crouse of Concerned Women of America has looked at the facts and decided they're wrong because she have even better "facts." "This new finding by Harvard is misleading and deceptive." Ironically, this statement that the study is misleading and deceptive is in itself a misleading and deceptive statement. The study isn't deceptive nor is it misleading. It's just inconvenient, which is another ball game altogether.

Scandals Du Jour: The FBI is investigating whether the No. 3 official at the CIA improperly intervened in the award of contracts to a businessman who has been implicated in a congressional bribery scandal, a law enforcement official said Monday. CIA Executive Director Kyle "Dusty" Foggo already was under investigation by the agency's inspector general in connection with his relationship to San Diego businessman Brent Wilkes. The FBI recently opened its own probe of Foggo, a longtime and close friend of Wilkes, the official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because the investigation is under way. Foggo has decided to retire from the CIA following the resignation last Friday of CIA Director Porter Goss, an intelligence official said Monday, also speaking on condition of anonymity. The official noted that new CIA directors have traditionally chosen their own executive directors, who run the agency's day-to-day operations.

ABC News has learned that Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, the hand-picked executive director of the CIA under Porter Goss, has resigned - the same day as his boss's replacement was announced by the White House. ABC News' Christopher Isham reported today that a respected veteran CIA officer - Stephen Kappes - had already been asked to return to the agency as Hayden's right hand. Kappes had left the agency when Goss was appointed as its head. Insiders told ABC News that the news of Kappes' expected return is likely to be a huge boost to morale. Goss had refused to remove Foggo from his powerful post after Foggo came under investigation by the FBI and the CIA inspector general. A CIA official said Foggo's resignation would be "pretty normal" following the resignation of Goss as director. The choice of Foggo to run the agency's day-to-day activities has been cited as an example of Goss' mismanagement of the spy agency.

A former top aide to Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, pleaded guilty Monday in the Jack Abramoff influence peddling scandal, admitting he conspired to corrupt Ney, his staff and other members of Congress with trips, free tickets, meals, jobs for relatives and fundraising events. The criminal investigation of Abramoff's lobbying operation has now claimed Abramoff and three former congressional staffers: Neil Volz on Monday, as well as Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon, who both worked for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Abramoff and the three former congressional aides are now government witnesses whose prison terms may depend in part on how cooperative they are with federal prosecutors in the investigation involving lawmakers, their aides and members of the Bush administration. "They're singing for their supper," Ney lawyer Mark Tuohey said. The lawyer said many of the allegations regarding Ney are incorrect and that "the government has been sold a bill of goods by Mr. Abramoff."

Recently on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, MSNBC reporter David Shuster said he was "convinced that Karl Rove will, in fact, be indicted." He made three points to support his position: 1. Rove wouldn't have testified for the 5th time unless he believed it was the only way he could avoid indictment. At this point, according to Shuster, the burden is on Rove to stop it. 2. It’s been 13 days since Rove testified and he has not heard that he is clear. Lawyers Shuster talked to say that if Rove would have gotten himself out of the jam, he would have heard by now. 3. Rove is referred to in the Libby indictment as "Official A." According to Schuster, every time Fitzgerald has named somebody as "Official A," that person has been indicted. Shuster also says Rove’s lawyers expect a decision from Fitzgerald within the next two weeks.

Governor Jeb Bush says U-S Representative Katherine Harris has dropped so low in public opinion polls that she can't unseat Democratic U-S Senator Bill Nelson. Bush has made no secret that he hopes House Speaker Allan Bense will challenge Harris, who is expected to file papers today as qualifying for federal office opened. His wife says Bense has not yet made up his mind. The deadline for entering September's primary is Friday. Bush points out polls show Harris running about 30 points behind Nelson. She has been dogged by staff turnover and her acceptance of 32-thousand dollars in illegal campaign contributions. The says he doesn't know of any other Republicans considering the race. Harris plans to qualify in person today at the Florida Division of Elections in Tallahassee. It's an agency that she oversaw as Florida's secretary of state. She rose to national prominence in that position during the contentious presidential election recount in 2000. It resulted in governor's brother, George W- Bush, winning Florida and the presidency by only 537 votes.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: Rush Limbaugh has denied any comparison between his own prescription drug problems and those of Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who says he was under the influence of painkillers when he crashed his car into a security barrier on Capitol Hill on May 4. In fact, Limbaugh admitted abusing painkillers and sought treatment only after reports of his problems surfaced based on allegations from his housekeeper. On the May 5 edition of his nationally syndicated radio program, host Rush Limbaugh denied any comparison between his own prescription drug problems and those of Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy [D-RI], who says he was under the influence of painkillers when he crashed his car into a security barrier on Capitol Hill on May 4. Confronted by a caller over Limbaugh's acceptance of a deal in which he pleaded not guilty to one charge of illegally obtaining prescriptions drugs on April 28th, Limbaugh asked how the two cases could be compared: "Tell me ... where they're similar. I had a problem. I admitted it. I went and dealt with it. I have been clean from the painkillers for almost two years and eight months." In fact, Limbaugh admitted abusing painkillers and sought treatment only after reports of his problems surfaced based on allegations from his housekeeper.

Vaccine industry officials helped shape legislation behind the scenes that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist secretly amended into a bill to shield them from lawsuits, according to e-mails obtained by a public advocacy group. E-mails and documents written by a trade group for the vaccine-makers show the organization met privately with Frist's staff and the White House about measures that would give the industry protection from lawsuits filed by people hurt by the vaccines. The communications were made public in a report released this week by the group Public Citizen. Its study follows a February story in The Tennessean that Frist, along with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., ordered the vaccine liability language inserted in a defense spending bill in December without debate and in violation of usual Senate practice. The group, called the Biotechnology Industry Organization, wanted such language in the bill, the e-mails reflect. "At Senator Frist's staff's request, this morning, BIO (Tom and I) participated in a meeting with three other industry representatives (Sanofi and an outside counsel who works for both Pfizer and Roche, I believe), administration staff (HHS, DoJ and WH Leg Affairs), and Liz Hall to further discuss liability," BIO official Dave Boyer wrote in a November e-mail obtained by Public Citizen. In a written statement, Frist spokeswoman Amy Call stated that the senator had promised publicly to include the vaccine liability protection in the defense spending bill. She did not address the issue of the influence of industry lobbyists.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:09:29 AM

Sun, May 07 2006

Inaguration Day Tomorrow

Today was seriously warm, hot and dry and severely sunny - the warmest day so far this year, and yesterday wasn't much better. It was 87 this afternoon, after an overnight low of 72. I am sure glad I am up here in the mountains - I can imagine how hot it must be down on the Guanacaste Plains right now. Glad I don't live down there!

Well, everyone is battening down the hatches in preparation for the celebrations of Inauguration Day tomorrow. The four-year term of don Abel Pacheco is at an end, and he is being replaced by former president and Nobel Peace laureate, don Oscar Arias Sanchez, who was president back in the late 1980's and won his Nobel for brokering a peace agreement between the five Central American heads of state and the leaders of the mostly American-backed insurgencies. Arias didn't exactly win brownie-points with Ronnie Reagan for that one, but it did bring peace to the region - along with some fairly moderate right-wing elected governments. Well, after a controversial Supreme Court ruling, and an election campaign charactarized by the spending of lots of money, Arias will be back in the Casa Presidencial as of tomorrow afternoon, and Foggy Bottom can't be happy, as Arias has a well-deserved reputation for explaining to Foggy Bottom their need to place their priorities in an anatomical location not normally subject to solar illumination.

As a result, Smirkey isn't really happy with Arias and is making his displeasure known. He's sending Laura Bush and the U.S. Ambassador to represent him on the inauguration stand - compare that to Pacheco's inauguration four years ago, when a whole entourage of State Dept. and Congressional officials showed up to cheer on their newly-elected fair-haired boy. Well, I figure if Smirkey is snubbing him, he can't be all that bad.

Arias is said to have a whole stack of decrees ready to sign as soon as he is president, and the nation is waiting breathlessly to see what they are - we don't know yet; he hasn't said. But it will be our first clue as to what direction the new administration is actually going to take - sans campaign rhetoric. During the campaign, he pushed hard for fiscal reform - meaning a new tax law that apparently will tax us gringos for the first time - and for the CAFTA "free trade" agreement with the United States. He has said that he's planning on changing a lot of Pacheco's "wrong-headed" policies, but what that means on the ground, we'll have to wait and see. In his previous administration, a decade and a half ago, Arias left office as one of the most popular presidents in the country's history. But the country has changed, and so has Arias. How well he'll do this time, only time will tell.

Don Abel Pacheco, leaving office as one of the most unpopular Costa Rican presidents ever, is going to fade into the woodwork as all former presidents here do, but the fade will be particularly deep in his case, I suspect. There will be little that he will be remembered for, other than four years of very close ties to the most unpopular American administration here in many decades; his attempt to shut down most all the Protestant churches in the land; and his almost total inability to get his legislative priorities through the Assemblea as a result of the proposals' extreme unpopularity - including letting the roads go to pieces while holding them hostage to the passage of his very unpopular tax reform package (it was rejected by the Supreme Court). Pacheco famously said once that Costa Rica is in need of a good psychoanalysis. Well, if the drubbing suffered in the elections by his hand-picked successor is any indication (3.2%), maybe it is don Abel who needs the shrink. And he certainly ought to know. He is a psychiatrist by profession. Which, in my view, explains a lot.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: George W. Bush shows all the signs of being a paranoid schizophrenic, a leading psychiatrist claims. Prof. Justin Frank said the president is a danger to the world because he actually believes he is all-powerful and beyond the law. His book "Bush on the Couch," written after studying his medical records and behavior, argues that the US leader has a condition common in schizophrenics - megalomania. He thinks the condition could drive him to invent then destroy enemies to demonstrate his power. Prof Frank said: "The defining characteristic of megalomania is the need, driven by internal fear of persecution, to pinpoint then annihilate all persecutors perceived as outside threats." The psychiatrist at George Washington University in Washington DC said: "Behind Bush's affable exterior operates a powerful but obscure delusional system that drives his behavior." He blames his mental state on his untreated alcoholism as a youth, his fundamentalist religious beliefs and his love-hate relationship with his former president dad George Bush senior.

John W. Dean writes: If [another psychiatrist] Dr. Barber's work holds true for this president - as it has for others - the hiring and firing of subordinates will not touch the core problems that have plagued Bush's tenure. Barber, after analyzing all the presidents through Bush's father, George H. W. Bush, found repeating patterns of common elements relating to character, worldview, style, approach to dealing with power, and expectations. Based on these findings, Barber concluded that presidents fell into clusters of characteristics. He also found in this data Presidential work patterns which he described as "active" or "passive." For example, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were highly active; Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan were highly passive. Barber further analyzed the emotional relationship of presidents toward their work - dividing them into presidents who found their work an emotionally satisfying experience, and thus "positive," and those who found the job emotionally taxing, and thus "negative." Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan, for example, were presidents who enjoyed their work; Thomas Jefferson and Richard Nixon had "negative" feeling toward it. From these measurements, Barber developed four repeating categories into which he was able to place all presidents: those like FDR who actively pursued their work and had positive feelings about their efforts (active/positives); those like Nixon who actively pursued the job but had negative feelings about it (active/negatives); those like Reagan who were passive about the job but enjoyed it (passive/positives); and, finally, those who followed the pattern of Thomas Jefferson -- who both was passive and did not enjoy the work (passive/negatives). As the 2006 midterm elections approach, this active/negative president can be expected to take further risks. If anyone doubts that Bush, Cheney, Rove and their confidants are planning an "October Surprise" to prevent the Republicans from losing control of Congress, then he or she has not been observing this presidency very closely. What will that surprise be? It's the most closely held secret of the Administration. How risky will it be? Bush is a whatever-it-takes risk-taker, the consequences be damned. Bush may mount a unilateral attack on Iran's nuclear facilities - hoping to rev up his popularity. It's a risky strategy: A unilateral hit on Iran may both trigger devastating Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks in Iraq, with high death tolls, and increase international dislike of Bush as well as revitalize the anti-war activism in the States for his bypass of the U.N. But as an active/negative President, Bush hardly shies away from risk.

The countdown to a massive aerial bombing of Iran, possibly using bunker busting nuclear weapons, has begun. In strict adherence to a script written jointly by the British and US foreign offices and exposed by The Times of London some two months ago, the US, Britain and, surprisingly, France are pushing the UN Security Council towards passing a resolution condemning Iran’s refusal to stop uranium enrichment under chapter 7 of the UN charter. This, as Nicholas Burns of the US State Department reminded reporters, will "make the Security Council’s resolutions mandatory under international law" and justify the imposition of a variety of sanctions. Although Burns did not say so explicitly, reporters were left in no doubt that such a resolution would be a prelude to a surgical strike against Iran. A chapter 7 resolution would provide the fig leaf the US has been looking for. Such a strike would most probably not be confined to a few key nuclear and missile installations. Pentagon planners made it clear to Seymour Hersh that its purpose would be to prevent Iran from launching any retaliatory strike against international shipping in the straits of Hormuz or other American allies and assets in the Gulf. It would aim at destroying all its airfields, ports, naval installations, submarine depots, missile bases and support facilities. According to one estimate, it would involve strikes on more than a thousand targets. Worst of all, since the Natanz uranium enrichment facility is more than 75 feet underground, the Pentagon has already warned the White House that it will have to use a nuclear weapon to destroy it.

Intelligence experts warn that a proposal to merge two Pentagon intelligence units could create an ominous new agency. A threatened turf grab by a controversial Pentagon intelligence unit is causing concern among both privacy experts and some of the Defense Department's own personnel. An informal panel of senior Pentagon officials has been holding a series of unannounced private meetings during the past several weeks about how to proceed with a possible merger between the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), a post-9/11 Pentagon creation that has been accused of domestic spying, and the Defense Security Service (DSS), a well-established older agency responsible for inspecting the security arrangements of defense contractors. DSS also maintains millions of confidential files containing the results of background investigations on defense contractors’ employees. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission also suggested that the Pentagon could "disestablish" CIFA and DSS and "consolidate their components into the Department of Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency." Pentagon officials began discussions about merging the two after the commission issued its recommendations. An initial round of meetings about the merger, however, failed to come up with a plan. In the meantime, CIFA, a mysterious and secretive unit created in 2002 and charged with making Defense counterintelligence efforts more effective, became the subject of two public controversies.

Bradblog.com has now been able to gather a great deal of additional information concerning details about the story they first posted yesterday on the official Pennsylvania state warning issued about the new "security vulnerability" discovered in all Diebold touch-screen electronic voting machines. That warning, which has now brought a lock-down on all Diebold systems in PA, where early absentee (non-machine) voting is about to begin prior to their upcoming May 16th primary election, was reported by the Morning Call yesterday. The warning says the serious security vulnerability could allow ''unauthorized software to be loaded on to the system." Public details about the warning are still sketchy as those in the know have acknowledged that the problem is so serious, they are hoping to keep the info under wraps until mitigation steps can be taken to safeguard systems. The BRAD BLOG has been told on the record, however, by one person involved in the matter, that the vulnerability is a "major national security risk." We've been speaking to many sources today, and we've been able to get several first hand comments on the problem from top officials and analysts directly involved in both state and federal certification of the Diebold systems, as well as from those involved in the initial discovery of the problem. What's clear is that Morning Call's reporting that it was Diebold who found the "glitch" are flat wrong. The discovery of the "glitch" (which is anything but) emanated from the examination of Diebold AccuVote TSx (touch-screen) machines recently in Emery County, UT. A source has told The BRAD BLOG that Diebold was "cornered" into admitting to the problem, a far cry from them having "found" it, as the Morning Call characterized it. What's also clear is that neither Diebold themselves, nor federal officials at the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) have been notifying states about the serious problem which apparently affects all Diebold AccuVote touch-screen systems, including both their newer TSx models, and the older TS and TS6 models. The Diebold TSx models, with the security vulnerability still intact, were apparently used in the primary election last Tuesday in Ohio.

The Bush administration's efforts to plead innocence to charges of using torture before a key United Nations committee have been complicated by a new report from an influential human rights group suggesting otherwise. The United States continues to use torture against prisoners in and outside the country, Amnesty International, a London-based human rights group has charged. In a new report released Wednesday, the group blasted the U.S. government for abusing prisoners and said it is creating a "climate of torture." Amnesty International has sent its report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which is due to meet in Geneva later this week to see whether the U.S. government is in violation of the Convention Against Torture, which prohibits torture in all circumstances. "The U.S. government is not only failing to take steps to eradicate torture, it is actually creating a climate in which torture and other ill-treatment can flourish," said Curt Goering of Amnesty International's U.S. chapter. The group asserts that measures taken by the U.S. government in response to widespread torture and ill-treatment of terror suspects held in U.S. military custody "has been far from adequate." A federal appeals court heard arguments Wednesday from nonprofit groups who claim Indiana's do-not-call list law violates constitutional free-speech rights.

If his presidency ended now, US President George W. Bush would go down in history as a failure, according to a majority of US college history and political science professors surveyed across America. And, 67 per cent of the 744 professors responding to the survey conducted by Siena College's Research Institute said they doubted Mr Bush "has a realistic chance of improving his rating" during his remaining time in office. The results of the survey were made public by the Albany-area research institute. "While time is needed to fairly and accurately gauge how well any president ranks with his predecessors, George W. Bush starts with a ranking that could hardly be lower," said Thomas Kelly, professor emeritus of American studies at Siena, in the Albany suburbs. Of those professors responding to the survey, which was sent in February to history and political science departments at 2800 colleges and universities, 58 per cent said that if the Bush presidency were to end now, it would rate a failure while 24 per cent said it would rate "below average." Two per cent said it would rate as "great" while another five per cent said "near great." Eleven per cent said the Bush presidency would rate "average."

Democratic leaders, increasingly confident they will seize control of the House in November, are laying plans for a legislative blitz during their first week in power. They say they would raise the minimum wage, roll back parts of the Republican prescription-drug law, implement homeland-security measures and reinstate lapsed budget-deficit controls. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in an interview last week that a Democratic House also would launch a series of investigations of the Bush administration, but she denied Republican allegations that Democrats would move quickly to impeach President Bush. But, she said of the planned investigations, "You never know where it leads to." Democratic confidence has been buoyed in recent days by a series of polls indicating that not only is Bush growing increasingly unpopular, but so are Republicans in Congress. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Friday found that 33 percent of the public approves of Bush's job performance, the lowest rating of his presidency. And only 25 percent approves of the job Congress is doing, a figure comparable to congressional ratings before the 1994 elections that swept Republicans to power.

On Feb. 1, congressional Democrats led by Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin introduced a bill that, if approved, would end viable third-party competition in races for the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill, H.R. 4694, ironically known as the "Let the People Decide Clean Campaign Act," would give public funds to candidates for the House and would forbid candidates from taking private funds such as contributions from individual donors. The bill provides funds only for candidates of the two major parties and would essentially ruin the campaign efforts of independent candidates and those from the smaller parties. For third-party candidates to be eligible for the same funds that Republicans and Democrats would receive, they would have to obtain petition signatures from a huge number of voters - a number equal to 20 percent of the votes cast in the prior election in their district. Some candidates could collect that many signatures, assuming they could hire help. However, under the proposed legislation, third-party and independent candidates would not be allowed to pay petitioners to collect signatures - meaning that all such candidates would be forced either to collect all of the signatures themselves or to raise enough volunteers to help with the job. It's likely that many hopeful candidates would be unable to fund their campaigns under this legislation. "The Republican and Democratic parties exist to maintain power for their own benefit," said Shane Cory, chief of staff for the national Libertarian Party. "American voters are waking up to this reality, and as they do, the two parties are trying everything within their power to shut us down."

Sources have told ABC News that National Intelligence Director John Negroponte told CIA director Porter Goss it was time to go. "As my friend for almost 50 years," Negroponte said in a statement after Goss's announcement, "I will miss Porter's day-to-day counsel. I salute his service to our country, and I want to thank him for his outstanding work on behalf of the men and women of our nation's intelligence community." But sources tell ABC News that Negroponte told Goss just last week that it was time for him to resign. A senior CIA source said that the two men had at least three management disputes - including Negroponte's desire to move personnel out of the CIA Counterterrorism Center into the new National Counterterrorism Center, and Negroponte's perceived micromanaging in which he wanted a say over CIA station chiefs. The same source said that some of Negroponte's senior staff were ex-CIA workers and had a grudge against Goss.

As soaring prices prompt huge increases in gas and oil drilling on public land, an ad hoc posse of state governments, Indian tribes and individual "bounty hunters" is charging that big energy companies are shortchanging taxpayers by billions of dollars. They say drilling companies and pipeline operators are understating the amount and the quality of the natural gas they pump on public land, and are paying far less in royalties than required by law. State and tribal governments rely on Washington -- specifically, the Minerals Management Service in the Department of the Interior -- to determine what royalties are owed and to collect the money. States and tribes then receive their shares from the federal government. Two organizations -- the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, representing 57 tribes in the nation and Canada, and the State and Tribal Royalty Audit Committee, representing 11 state governments and eight tribes, mainly in the West -- are pressuring the Minerals Management Service and the gas companies for stricter accounting and higher royalty payments. "With the current operation in Washington, you just get the feeling that the companies can report any production number they want to, and the government is not going to check," said Dennis Roller, an auditor with the state of North Dakota who serves as vice chairman of the royalty audit committee.

"Reporters will be embedded with the government during natural disasters, according to a plan outlined by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention," writes John Eggerton. Chertoff assured the audience, "We're not going to be censoring information," since the program wouldn't involve battleground situations. Eggerton notes that during the crisis around Hurricane Katrina, "reporters seemed to know more about what was happening on the ground than the administration did." So, the new embed program might benefit government officials more than reporters -- or affected communities.

The National Coalition of Prayer and other groups are asking the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago to overturn a ruling by a judge in Indianapolis who last year upheld the phone privacy law. The charities argue in a brief filed with the appeals court that the state law, regarded as one of the toughest in the nation, discriminates on the basis of content and allows exemptions for certain commercial calls, such as newspaper subscriptions. Indiana's law allows charities to solicit over the phone if they use employees or volunteers to call. Professional fundraisers are barred from calling numbers registered on the list. The charities that sued used professional telemarketers to solicit donations.

A man accused of infecting PCs with spyware has been fined $4 million. The US Federal Trade Commission has ordered Sanford Wallace to hand over the money he made by putting the unwanted software on computers. The FTC imposed fines because Mr Wallace did not get permission from users to install the software that bombarded them with pop-up adverts. Mr Wallace has said he has done nothing wrong and is being persecuted for his former involvement with junk mail.

They sometimes have been called the most self-important generation in American history. Now, as their leading edge begins to enter retirement, we may start to find out whether the baby boomers' role in the economy is as outsized as their ranks. If a new Federal Reserve report is correct, the lost labor of the 77 million baby boomers will be so hard to replace that over the next decade the national economy will grow at a significantly slower pace than it has in the past 10 years. How much slower? The lost growth, by one estimate, will come to $1,322 per person by 2015 - or $13 billion. That's a lot of money for what sounds like a small change: an average growth rate in the next 10 years that's 0.3 percent slower than it would be without the boomer exodus. "If it is true, it changes everything," said Ian Morris, chief U.S. economist at HSBC Securities USA in New York.

Tucked away in a corner of the U.S. Forest Service Web site are plans and documents which could lead to the closure of hundreds of campground water systems and ultimately, hundreds of campgrounds themselves throughout the national forest system. The time-hallowed practice of fetching water from a hand pump - for preparing meals, washing dishes or washing dirty kids - may become a thing of the past. Like a small-town post office, where people meet and talk, the campground hand pump is where campers meet and talk, forming friendships that can last a weekend or a lifetime. That could all disappear in a few years, said primitive recreation advocate Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness in Bend, Ore. What would replace those basic water systems and campgrounds? According to Silver, they’d be replaced by fewer, but bigger developed campgrounds, featuring more expensive and complicated water systems, operated by for-profit concessionaires. "It is all there on the Internet," said Silver, referring to the "Recreation Site Facility Master Planning" Internet page that details the information.

The Bush administration has ordered America's national parks to show that they can function at 80 percent or less of their operating budgets, which is forcing some parks to cut services for visitors as summer approaches. National Park Service officials said the initiative was an effort to cope with the rising costs of salaries, utilities and other management expenses without harming the parks' "core" missions of protecting the nation's natural treasures and enabling visitors to enjoy them. The Park Service has more than 270 million visitors annually. But park officials in the field said the initiative was forcing "gut-wrenching" decisions that visitors will notice. At many parks, volunteers will take on larger roles, and there will be fewer interpretive ranger programs, the officials said. At Glacier National Park in Montana, three campgrounds no longer will have potable water or trash service. "We have high ideals here," said Stephanie Dubois, deputy superintendent of Glacier. "We know how to provide top-quality service. It's a very difficult decision every time you take a step backward from what you've been doing."

Although President George W. Bush was scheduled to meet with fellows at the Hoover Institution on Friday, the presence of more than 1,000 protestors forced him to change his plans and meet with advisers and faculty members at the residence of former Secretary of State and Hoover Fellow George Shultz on the outskirts of the Stanford campus. More than 100 armed law enforcement and Secret Service officers lined the streets outside of Encina Commons, as students, parents, faculty members and local residents protested Bush’s anticipated arrival on east campus. While the protest was peaceful, three Stanford students - seniors Claire Wagenseil, Diogo Pereira and Caroline Martin - were arrested as police pushed the crowd out of Serra Street.

President Bush and U.S. policy-makers are receiving more intelligence from open sources such as Internet blogs and foreign newspapers than they previously did, senior intelligence officials said. The new Open Source Center (OSC) at CIA headquarters recently stepped up data collection and analysis based on bloggers worldwide and is developing new methods to gauge the reliability of the content, said OSC Director Douglas J. Naquin. "A lot of blogs now have become very big on the Internet, and we're getting a lot of rich information on blogs that are telling us a lot about social perspectives and everything from what the general feeling is to ... people putting information on there that doesn't exist anywhere else," Mr. Naquin told The Washington Times.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: U.S. President George W. Bush told a German newspaper his best moment in more than five years in office was catching a big perch in his own lake. "You know, I've experienced many great moments and it's hard to name the best," Bush told weekly Bild am Sonntag when asked about his high point since becoming president in January 2001. "I would say the best moment of all was when I caught a 7.5 pound (3.402 kilos) perch in my lake," he told the newspaper in an interview published on Sunday. Bush said the worst moment was September 11 when hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

The leader of a U.N.-backed transitional government that is trying to assert control over Somalia said Wednesday he believes the United States is funding an alliance of warlords fighting radical Islamic militias in his country and should be working directly with his administration instead. The United States has said only that American officials have met with a wide variety of Somali leaders to try to fight international terrorists in the country. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed told The Associated Press during a two-day visit to Stockholm that he believes Washington is supporting the warlords-turned-politicians as a way of fighting several top al-Qaida operatives who are being protected by radical clerics. "They really think they can capture al-Qaida members in Somalia," he said. "But the Americans should tell the warlords they should support the government, and cooperate with the government... We are the legitimate government, and we will help you fight terrorism." State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he did not know "the origin of these remarks in terms of what he has in mind."

US President George W. Bush said the September 11 revolt of passengers against their hijackers on board Flight 93 had struck the first blow of "World War III." In an interview with the financial news network CNBC, Bush said he had yet to see the recently released film of the uprising, a dramatic portrayal of events on the United Airlines plane before it crashed in a Pennsylvania field. But he said he agreed with the description of David Beamer, whose son Todd died in the crash, who in a Wall Street Journal commentary last month called it "our first successful counter-attack in our homeland in this new global war -- World War III". Bush said: "I believe that. I believe that it was the first counter-attack to World War III. "It was, it was unbelievably heroic of those folks on the airplane to recognize the danger and save lives," he said.

More Rats Deserting The U.S.S. Bush: The lawyer for former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby said on Friday he would argue that his client revealed intelligence on Iraq after Vice President Dick Cheney authorized it and President George W. Bush declassified the information. At a hearing on what documents the prosecution must turn over to the defense, lawyer Theodore Wells also said he believed there may be testimony or statements by Bush and Cheney that the disclosure of the intelligence was authorized. Wells said he was entitled to any such information from the special prosecutor investigating who in the Bush administration leaked the identity of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, to the news media. US District Judge Reggie Walton ruled that prosecutors must turn over information about how the intelligence was declassified because it was important to Libby's defense. Prosecutors disclosed last month that Libby had testified he had been authorized to disclose the intelligence to reporters in the summer of 2003, to counter criticism of Bush's Iraq policy from Plame's husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson. Bush has acknowledged declassifying the information, prompting charges of hypocrisy from Democrats who say he has denounced some leaks while encouraging others.

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: A U.S.News inquiry has found that federal officials have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into once discredited state and local police intelligence operations. Millions more have gone into building up regional law enforcement databases to unprecedented levels. In dozens of interviews, officials across the nation have stressed that the enhanced intelligence work is vital to the nation's security, but even its biggest boosters worry about a lack of training and standards. "This is going to be the challenge," says Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, "to ensure that while getting bin Laden we don't transgress over the law. We've been burned so badly in the past - we can't do that again." Chief Bratton is referring to the infamous city "Red Squads" that targeted civil rights and antiwar groups in the 1960s and 1970s (Page 48). Veteran police officers say no one in law enforcement wants a return to the bad old days of domestic spying. But civil liberties watchdogs warn that with so many cops looking for terrorists, real and imagined, abuses may be inevitable. "The restrictions on police spying are being removed," says attorney Richard Gutman, who led a 1974 class action lawsuit against the Chicago police that obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of intelligence files. "And I don't think you can rely on the police to regulate themselves."

Last week, new accounts describing in detail the role that telecommunications giant AT&T has played in providing the government with warrantless information gathered on average citizens. Former technician Mark Klein has come out in support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit, which is summed up by the EFF here: "The evidence that we are filing supports our claim that AT&T is diverting Internet traffic into the hands of the NSA wholesale, in violation of federal wiretapping laws and the Fourth Amendment," said EFF Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston. "More than just threatening individuals' privacy, AT&T's apparent choice to give the government secret, direct access to millions of ordinary Americans' Internet communications is a threat to the Constitution itself. We are asking the Court to put a stop to it now." Klein details what he saw in a statement, the full text of which is available at Wired. Here's an excerpt: "One of the documents listed the equipment installed in the secret room, and this list included a Narus STA 6400, which is a "Semantic Traffic Analyzer". The Narus STA technology is known to be used particularly by government intelligence agencies because of its ability to sift through large amounts of data looking for preprogrammed targets. The company's advertising boasts that its technology "captures comprehensive customer usage data ... and transforms it into actionable information.... (It) provides complete visibility for all internet applications."

Republicans Support The Troops: A Senate measure to fund the war in Iraq would chop money for troops' night vision equipment and new battle vehicles but add $230 million for the Osprey program that has already cost $18 billion and is still facing safety questions, and has been the subject of several 60-Minutes reports. President Bush's request for the emergency appropriations to cover costs of the continuing war and Hurricane Katrina recovery operations included no money for the troubled V-22 Osprey, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like a plane. The Marine Corps, however, followed up with a letter to lawmakers endorsing additional V-22s, noting that it is the only active production line capable of replacing four Vietnam War-era CH-46 choppers lost since Sept. 11, 2001. Critics maintain that it's still a curious choice to be funded in a bill whose defining purpose is to replace equipment worn out or destroyed in Iraq. The Osprey, manufactured by Bell Helicopter, a subsidiary of Textron Inc., has been in development since the 1980s and has cost the government $18 billion so far. It has suffered numerous setbacks over the years, including two crashes in 2000 that killed 23 people.

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: For several months a lively debate has been developing within international financial circles: is the dollar so overvalued as to be at risk of a brutal collapse, on the order of 15 to 40% depending on the commentator? The controversy is kept alive by a disputed rumour whereby some oil contracts might be on the verge of being converted from dollars into euros. This, in turn, would spawn a depreciation of the US currency. Until now, official statements on this issue seemed to belong to the realm of psychological warfare between rival powers. As such, they were subject to question. But suddenly, on March 28th, 2006, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) chose to put its credibility at stake among its members by issuing a memo advising them to be ready for a collapse of the dollar. In the same note, the ADB specifies that there is a certain degree of uncertainty as to whether this might happen or not, but that the immediate consequences would be severe if it were to happen. The ADB is already in the process of working on the creation of a regional alternative to the dollar - the ACU, a basket of currencies modelled on the principles of the European ECU. Presently, the USA is bogged down in Iraq and is incapable of financing its military occupation there. The only way it can pay its suppliers is to keep the printing press running. The announcement, late in March 2006, that the publication of the M-3 indicator would be suspended, together with all the sub-indicators which could have made feasible its reconstruction by aggregates, means that the actual volume of dollars in circulation has become a secret that cannot be divulged. It is no longer possible to precisely evaluate the currency’s real value. A European think-tank has likened the cessation of M3 publication to Richard Nixons unilateral decision to suspend the convertibility of the dollar into gold in 1971. "In 1971, the dollar became a currency solely based on the rest of the world's confidence. But this confidence mostly relied on the general feeling that US economy and its currency were managed transparently. With the end of M3 publication, this transparency disappears completely. The US now wants the world to trust their word, even in the field of their currency's value. In a world where the confidence in US has never been so low since 1945, the dollar is thus turned into the central player of the beginning global systemic crisis,"according to E2020 - European Political Anticipation. "A falling dollar is the greatest threat to the world economy,"says Pradip Shah, who heads private equity firm IndAsia. Through a cascading effect, the US are also concealing the costs of their presence in Iraq in order to hide the size of the fraud they are committing. Refusing to cover up for an escapist monetary policy which sooner or later is bound to lead to a catastrophe comparable to 1929, several senior officials of the Fed, the US Federal Reserve, have tendered their resignations.

Apartment rents are headed up in 2006. After a few years of little movement, residential rents are expected to climb substantially, even as home prices may finally be plateauing. "This will be a good year for landlords," says Greg Willett, vice president for research and analysis at M/PF YieldStar, a consulting firm serving the multi-housing industry. "There will be rent growth as vacancy rates come down. Landlords feel comfortable enough now to start raising rents again." According to Willett, whose firm tracks 57 markets, rents will likely rise between 5 percent and 6 percent in 2006. Several factors are contributing to landlord optimism, but what they all boil down to is that more Americans are being driven into the apartment market due to the increased expense of home ownership. Home prices appreciated at an average of nearly 9 percent a year from 2001 to 2005, far surpassing increases in rents, which averaged only 2 or 3 percent a year. The soft rental market coincided with the housing boom, which drew millions of Americans into home ownership, reducing the demand for apartments. But the hot home market is cooling off this year. David Lereah of the National Association of Realtors is predicting home price increases around 5% for 2006 - about the same amount that rents will rise.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton called a press conference to claim our long nightmare of wetlands loss had finally come to an end due to unprecedented gains since 1997. However, she then admitted much of that gain has been in artificially created ponds, such as golf course water hazards and farm impoundments. The sporting community - from Ducks Unlimited to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership - reacted quickly, and not favorably. Researchers long ago established that natural wetlands such as marshes, swamps and prairie potholes are far more productive than even the best-designed artificial wetlands. And sharp-edged water bodies like water hazards, farm ponds, and even reservoirs offer very little for wildlife. Putting man-made ponds in the same class as natural wetlands is like ranking pen-raised quail with wild coveys.

Republicans Believe In Free, Fair, Honest And Transparent Elections: After locking out all media observers and declaring a Level 10 Homeland Security Alert, the Republican-dominated Warren County, Ohio reported the vote tally in the wee hours of the morning on November 3, 2004 - and gave George W. Bush a surprising 14,000 vote boost. Two election workers told the Free Press that the ballots had been diverted to an unauthorized warehouse where they had been possibly stuffed. That is, punched for Bush only. Maps were supplied to the Free Press showing the locations of the warehouse and the Board of Elections. Warren County officials refused to allow the Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism to handle the ballots, but they did allow us to photograph a few. Richard Hayes Phillips, Ph.D., has analyzed the ballots for the Free Press and concluded that there is evidence of fraud in Warren County. The ballots as photographed with Dr. Phillips' commentary below each ballot are included here for the first time. The Free Press predicted early on that the ballots would be found punched only for Bush in Warren County. The Moss v. Bush lawsuit pointed to Warren, Butler and Clermont Counties as the three counties that provided more than Bush's entire margin in the Buckeye State: Bush won Ohio by 118,000, and 132,000 votes were supplied in these three southwestern Republican counties. Now, for the first time, the Free Press is releasing images of the obvious election fraud in Warren County. The Free Press will continue its ongoing investigation in Ohio despite stonewalling by Republican state officials.

Republicans Believe In Environmental Responsibility: A Bush Administration proposal to roll back Americans' right to know about chemical hazards in their neighborhoods would let California industries handle almost 1.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals a year without telling the public, according to an investigation of federal data by Environmental Working Group (EWG). Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program requires industrial facilities to report annually the release, disposal, incineration, treatment or recycling of 500 pounds or more of 650 chemicals covered by the law. But last fall the EPA proposed sharply raising the reporting threshhold so that only releases of 5,000 pounds or more would be reported, and reports would only be required every other year. "The right to know what hazardous chemicals are coming out of the smokestack across the street from your child's school is essential," said EWG Vice President Bill Walker. "The Administration's proposal makes it easier for industries to pollute our communities with hazardous chemicals - in secret." EWG's report, "Stolen Inventory," lists all facilities in California that would be allowed to stop or cut back on reporting chemical releases, broken down by county, city and chemical. It is available at www.ewg.org.

If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, Maybe It Will Go Away: Global warming is rapidly melting the ice-bound roof of the world, and turning it into desert, leading scientists have revealed. The Chinese Academy of Sciences - the country's top scientific body - has announced that the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau are vanishing so fast that they will be reduced by 50 per cent every decade. Each year enough water permanently melts from them to fill the entire Yellow River. They added that the vast environmental changes brought about by the process will increase droughts and sandstorms over the rest of the country, and devastate many of the world's greatest rivers, in what experts warn will be an "ecological catastrophe". The plateau, says the academy, has a staggering 46,298 glaciers, covering almost 60,000 square miles. At an average height of 13,000 feet above sea level, they make up the largest area of ice outside the polar regions, nearly a sixth of the world's total.

The record Atlantic hurricane season last year can be attributed to global warming, several top experts, including a leading U.S. government storm researcher, said on Monday. "The hurricanes we are seeing are indeed a direct result of climate change and it's no longer something we'll see in the future, it's happening now," said Greg Holland, a division director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Holland told a packed hall at the American Meteorological Society's 27th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology that the wind and warmer water conditions that fuel storms that form in the Caribbean are "increasingly due to greenhouse gases. There seems to be no other conclusion you can logically draw." His conclusion will be debated throughout the week-long conference, as other researchers present opposing papers that say changing wind and temperature conditions in the tropics are due to natural events, not the accumulation of carbon dioxide emissions clouding the Earth.

News From Smirkey's Wars: Human rights groups have condemned the "barbaric" murder of a 14-year-old boy, who, according to witnesses, was shot on his doorstep by Iraqi police for the apparent crime of being gay. Ahmed Khalil was shot at point-blank range after being accosted by men in police uniforms, according to his neighbours in the al-Dura area of Baghdad. Campaign groups have warned of a surge in homophobic killings by state security services and religious militias following an anti-gay and anti-lesbian fatwa issued by Iraq's most prominent Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Ali Hili, the co-ordinator of a group of exiled Iraqi gay men who monitor homophobic attacks inside Iraq, said the fatwa had instigated a "witch-hunt of lesbian and gay Iraqis, including violent beatings, kidnappings and assassinations". "Young Ahmed was a victim of poverty," he said. "He was summarily executed, apparently by fundamentalist elements in the Iraqi police." Neighbours in al-Dura district say Ahmed's father was arrested and interrogated two days before his son's murder by police who demanded to know about Ahmed's sexual activities. It is believed Ahmed slept with men for money to support his poverty-stricken family, who have fled the area fearing further reprisals. The killing of Ahmed is one of a series of alleged homophobic murders. There is mounting evidence that fundamentalists have infiltrated government security forces to commit homophobic murders while wearing police uniforms.

Coalition officials call it the "measles chart" -- a map of Iraq showing all the planned, in-progress and completed infrastructure projects that makes the country look like it has developed a case of the measles. Green is good on the chart. That indicates completed projects, and most of the dots, triangles, squares and diamonds on the map are green. Yellow means the projects are started, and there is a scattering of those around the country. Red means "planned - not started," and there are some of those - mostly in Anbar province and in eastern and western Baghdad. "Since March 2003, 11,600 construction projects have been started and 9,340 projects valued at $9.3 billion have been completed," said Kathye A. Johnson, director of reconstruction for the Gulf Region Division of the Army Corps of Engineers. "Rebuilding the infrastructure is helping the emergence of democracy and establishing the foundation for a strong economy."

The al-Qaida terrorist network is training Arab militants in southern and southeastern Afghanistan in the use of roadside explosives and in ambush tactics, a senior Afghan general said Thursday. Lt. Gen. Sher Karimi, chief of operations for the Afghan National Army, said in a videoteleconference with reporters at the Pentagon that elements of al-Qaida also are working with Taliban militants and aiding narcotics smugglers. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers had used Afghanistan as a sanctuary from which to plan and direct terrorist attacks. They were protected by the radical Taliban government, which was ousted when U.S. forces invaded in October 2001. Almost five years later, both the Taliban and al-Qaida remain a threat there.

Scandals Du Jour: The Air Force is investigating whether a two-star general violated military regulations by urging fellow Air Force Academy graduates to make campaign contributions to a Republican candidate for Congress in Colorado, Pentagon officials said yesterday. Maj. Gen. Jack J. Catton Jr., who is on active duty at Langley Air Force Base, sent the fundraising appeal on Thursday from his official e-mail account to more than 200 fellow members of the academy's class of 1976, many of whom are also on active duty. "We are certainly in need of Christian men with integrity and military experience in Congress," Catton wrote. Defense Department rules prohibit active-duty officers from using their position to solicit campaign contributions or seek votes for a particular candidate. An Air Force spokesman said yesterday that "appropriate officials are inquiring into the facts surrounding these e-mails."

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: A pre-trial motion filed by federal prosecutors in the case of indicted former Bush Administration official David Safavian contends that his share of the costs in a trip to play golf in Scotland and England arranged by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff should have been nearly five times more than what he paid. Perhaps more significantly, however, it also provides the first formal evidence that powerful Ohio Republican Bob Ney - then chairman of the House Administration Committee - provided false figures for the cost of his own trip to Scotland. Ney has been under fire for his role in allegedly helping Abramoff aid his clients in violation of House ethics rules and possibly federal laws. Ney was referenced as "Congressman #1" in a plea agreement Abramoff made in January, in which he admitted to bribing members of Congress and their staffs. David Safavian, chief of staff of the United States General Services Administration (GSA) at the time, paid Abramoff $3,100 for a trip that prosecutors say "was in excess of $130,000." According to The Washington Post, tax records show that a non-profit owned by Abramoff, the Capital Athletic Foundation, doled out $150,225 for the trip.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:03:24 AM

Fri, May 05 2006

Ear Of The Monkey

The late dry season weather continues, but there is clearly a change in the works. Overnight, the sky was heavily overcast for the first time in some days, and the temperature never dropped much either, getting down to a fairly warm 73 - I ran the ceiling fan in the bedroom at high speed all night. It has also been very humid - a sure sign that the rainy season is approaching. It was a thin overcast all day that kept the temperature to 84 - it doubtless would have gotten much higher if there had been no overcast. The satellite photo revealed that the clouds were indeed the edge of the ITCZ - the permanent feature of tropical weather whose northward movement in the northern summer gives us our rainy season.

Well, I went to town today to get some cash to pay the gardener, and get the papers and my week's supply of groceries. Since I drove myself, I was careful and slow, and mostly idled along in low gear. After the bank, my next stop was the farmacia to replenish my supply of heart meds, a couple of which I was getting low on. And fortunately, the grocery store was not particularly busy, so I was in and out fairly quickly.

Back at the house, the gardener had pretty much finished cutting the grass by the time I returned. After raking up, he got out some cuttings of a flowering vine he had brought for me, and we went out an planted them near the trees on the fence line at the west end of the lake. Two of the cuttings from the previous planting of cuttings there had taken root and were growing, but had not much more than grown up out of the weeds. If the new cuttings take root, they should be quite attractive, growing up into the trees and out over the pond, hanging down over the water with their pendulous branches constantly bearing blue flowers. He has promised me some cuttings from a yellow-flowered vine if he can secure them from one of his clients. He says they are spectacular, too.

He pointed out that I will have a mango crop this year, for the first time since I have lived here. At least one of my mango trees has a good supply of fruit growing on at least one limb, and it should keep me in mangos once they are ripe in about two months. The other mango trees are in flower, and some have set fruit, so if the rainy season holds off a little while longer, I should be swimming in mangos come August.

On the way back to the house, the gardener found and showed me the fruit of a guanacaste tree. The national tree of Costa Rica, the guanacaste, also gives this province its name. It grows into an enormous tree with delicate, tiny green leaves and a broad crown that can reach more than a hundred feet across. The tree's name is from the Nauhatl language, the language of the local indigenous peoples. It means "ear of the monkey," and that is a good name to describe it. The reference is to the shape of the fruit, a legume pod that curls into a round, cupped shape about three inches across, resembling the ear of a monkey. I have three of these trees on my property, but none large enough to fruit, so I have no idea where the ear of the monkey came from. But now I have seen the fruit and I know what the ear of the monkey looks like.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: CIA chief Porter Goss, assigned to rebuild the U.S. spy agency after huge intelligence lapses over the September 11 attacks and Iraq, abruptly quit on Friday after less than two years on the job. Bush is pursuing a shakeup of his staff in a bid to put a new face on his team and rebound from sagging poll numbers. He now faces the difficult task of finding a high-profile candidate to take over the agency. The CIA lost some of its clout when it fell under a newly created director of national intelligence as part of reforms enacted after intelligence failures over the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Some bureaucratic wrangling resulted as the new intelligence arm sought to assert itself over the CIA and met some opposition from the veteran spy agency. The announcement on Goss was made at a hastily arranged event in the Oval Office attended by Goss and John Negroponte, director of national intelligence. A senior official said the resignation was based on a "mutual understanding" with Goss. "Thank God," was the reaction of one former senior spy who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's gotten so bad there, it's just a charade at the moment. There's no senior leadership. The only people still there who are eligible to retire and have not are people with kids in college who have to stay to make tuition payments."

Ken Silverstein reports at Harper's blog on the spreading Cunningham-Wade-Wilkes prostitute scandal. He says more lawmakers, past and present, are being investigated. Sounds like he thinks House Intel Chair-turned-CIA Director Porter Goss is one of them: "I've learned from a highly-connected source that those under intense scrutiny by the FBI are current and former lawmakers on Defense and Intelligence comittees -- including one person who now holds a powerful intelligence post." Yowzah! Actually, make that a double-yowzah: The CIA inspector general has opened an investigation into the spy agency's executive director, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, and his connections to two defense contractors accused of bribing a member of Congress and Pentagon officials. Remember that Goss is the one who plucked one of Wilkes' old San Diego friends, the unusual and colorful Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, out of CIA middle-management obscurity to be his #3 at the agency. At the time of Foggo's appointment, no one could figure out where he came from, or how Goss knew him. Muckracker.com called the CIA this morning to get their reaction to Ken Silverstein's piece in Harper's that seems to put Goss in the poker-and-more parties thrown by Brent Wilkes. The parties were held in the Watergate and Westin Grand hotels - and a third hotel, which hasn't been reported yet - as well as at the house of Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, a longtime friend of Wilkes' who is now #3 at the CIA. After a long series of off-the-record phone calls with CIA spokespeople, I was finally given an on-the-record comment - about Goss. Speaking on behalf of the director, CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise Dyck said, "This is horribly irresponsible. He hasn't even been to the Watergate in decades."

Already under fire from some retired military brass who want him to resign, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was greeted at a speech in Atlanta by unusually hostile anti-war protesters. "This man needs to be in prison for war crimes," shouted Gloria Tatum, 63, of nearby Decatur, Ga., before being hauled away by security officials. Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and noted critic of the war in Iraq, waited patiently in line to question Rumsfeld, then let loose. "Why did you lie to get us into a war that caused these kind of casualties and was not necessary?" McGovern said. "I did not lie," shot back a feisty Rumsfeld, who waved off security guards ready to remove McGovern from the hall at the Southern Center for International Studies. With support for the war in Iraq low, it is not unusual for top Bush administration officials to encounter protests and hostile questions. But the outbursts Rumsfeld confronted Thursday seemed tougher than usual.

A former Middle East specialist of the US Central Intelligence Agency has condemned what he called an organized campaign of manipulation by the Bush administration to justify the Iraq war. Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst specializing in counter-terrorism in the Middle East and Asia, said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais that the United States had particularly wanted to prove a link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. "That was not the case," he was quoted as saying. "I suppose by some definitions that could be called a lie." "There was an organized campaign of manipulation," El Pais also quoted Pillar as saying. "That would be the proper way to define it." The decision to invade Iraq was taken as early as the beginning of 2002, a year before hostilities began, Pillar said. It was decided "for other reasons and did not depend on weapons of mass destruction or the results of United Nations inspections," he said, according to the interview published in Spanish. "As far as weapons of mass destruction were concerned, there was a generally false perception in the American, British and other intelligence services that Iraq possessed these. We were wrong."

The year 2005 will remain the deadliest in ten years for journalists. The account published Wednesday, May 3, by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on the occasion of the sixteenth annual International Press Freedom Day, hardly makes one optimistic. According to that organization, 63 journalists and 5 media collaborators were killed in 2005. They also count 807 interpellations and 1,300 aggressions or threats to which reporters around the world were victim. RSF, which is publishing an album of photos devoted to Gilles Caron's work (152 pages, 8,90 euros), also deems that "close to a third of the world's population lives in a country where freedom of the press does not exist." The beginning of the year 2005 was marked by the kidnapping of Florence Aubenas and Hussein Hanoun. Libération's special envoy and her associate were released in June, after five months of detention. Since the beginning of the war in Iraq in March 2003, 88 media professionals have been killed there, including 24 in 2005. Twelve reporters or guides have been killed since the beginning of this year, like Koussai Kahdban, an Iraqi journalist killed April 22. Three are presently being held hostage.

The question puzzles and enrages a city: how is it that the Americans cannot keep the electricity running in Baghdad for more than a couple of hours a day, yet still manage to build themselves the biggest embassy on Earth? Irritation grows as residents deprived of air-conditioning and running water three years after the US-led invasion watch the massive US Embassy they call "George W's palace" rising from the banks of the Tigris. In the pavement cafés, people moan that the structure is bigger than anything Saddam Hussein built. They are not impressed by the architects' claims that the diplomatic outpost will be visible from space and cover an area that is larger than the Vatican city and big enough to accommodate four Millennium Domes. They are more interested in knowing whether the US State Department paid for the prime real estate or simply took it. While families in the capital suffer electricity cuts, queue all day to fuel their cars and wait for water pipes to be connected, the US mission due to open in June next year will have its own power and water plants to cater for a population the size of a small town. Officially, the design of the compound is supposed to be a secret, but you cannot hide the giant construction cranes and the concrete contours of the 21 buildings that are taking shape. Looming over the skyline, the embassy has the distinction of being the only big US building project in Iraq that is on time and within budget. In a week when Washington revealed a startling list of missed deadlines and overspending on building projects, Congress was told that the bill for the embassy was $592 million (£312 million). The heavily guarded 42-hectare (104-acre) site - which will have a 15ft thick perimeter wall - has hundreds of workers swarming on scaffolding. Local residents are bitter that the Kuwaiti contractor has employed only foreign staff and is busing them in from a temporary camp nearby. After roughing it in Saddam's abandoned palaces, diplomats should have every comfort in their new home. There will be impressive residences for the Ambassador and his deputy, six apartments for senior officials, and two huge office blocks for 8,000 staff to work in. There will be what is rumoured to be the biggest swimming pool in Iraq, a state-of-the-art gymnasium, a cinema, restaurants offering delicacies from favourite US food chains, tennis courts and a swish American Club for evening functions.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Tuesday that a Republican proposal in Congress to set up a watchdog over the federal courts is a "really scary idea." Ginsburg told a gathering of the American Bar Association that lawyers should stick up for judges when they are criticized by congressional leaders. "My sense now is that the judiciary is under assault in a way that I haven't seen before," she said. As an example, she mentioned proposals by senior Republicans who want an inspector general to police judges' acceptance of free trips or their possible financial interests with groups that could appear before them. "It sounds to me very much like the Soviet Union was .... That's a really scary idea," said Ginsburg, who was put on the court by President Clinton and is one of its liberal members. Ginsburg said her confirmation hearings in 1993, and those the following year for Justice Stephen Breyer, were long but friendly. "That bipartisan spirit has broken down," she said.

House Democrats will not publicly call on Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) to leave office, despite a guilty plea in federal court on Tuesday by Vernon Jackson, a Kentucky businessman who allegedly paid Jefferson and his family more than $450,000 in bribes. Behind the scenes, Democratic insiders said that everyone from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on down would love to see Jefferson resign from Congress, although they won’t make an open declaration about Jefferson because of internal party politics.

USA Today founder Al Neuharth, once known for his generally Republican views, appears to have seen enough of President Bush. In his column today for USA Today, he once again hits the Iraq war (he is one of the few mainstream journalists to favor a quick withdrawal), then notes the presient's approval rating having plunged from 71% to 34% in the Gallup poll since 2003. "How low can Bush's approval rating go? My hunch is it's at or near the bottom," he suggests. "That 34% represents mostly unshakeable far-right wingers. Like Bush, Vice President Cheney and company, they are in denial. As were the 24% in the polls who still approved of President Richard Nixon before he resigned in disgrace. "What happened to the 37% who have switched from pro-Bush to anti-Bush? They finally realized they were suckered by Bush and his buddies back then about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, his tie to terrorists and his threat to the USA." Neuharth, a decorated war veteran, concludes: "President Abraham Lincoln was right when he said: 'You may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.'" Neuharth's analyis may not be correct, though. It appears that angry conservatives are driving the approval ratings of President Bush and the GOP-led Congress to dismal new lows, according to an AP-Ipsos poll that underscores why Republicans fear an Election Day massacre. Six months out, the intensity of opposition to Bush and Congress has risen sharply, along with the percentage of Americans who believe the nation is on the wrong track. The AP-Ipsos poll also suggests that Democratic voters are far more motivated than Republicans. Elections in the middle of a president’s term traditionally favor the party whose core supporters are the most energized.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) has admitted continuing problems with addiction, and pledged to re-enter the Mayo Clinic for help. Kennedy blamed prescription drugs for being unable to remember the events of Thursday morning, when Kennedy ran his car into a barricade on Capitol Hill. The Congressman said that he could not recall getting out of bed, driving his car, or being cited for three traffic violations. "I do know enough to know that I need help," Kennedy concluded.

A Nassau County legislator filed a lawsuit Thursday claiming Google Inc. generates "billions of dollars from the pornography trade and illicit profiteers." The lawsuit by four-term legislator Jeffrey Toback (D-Oceanside) calls the Internet search engine the world's largest distributor of child pornography, claiming that child porn is part of the company's business model. Google "continues to put its economic gains ahead of the interests and well-being of America's children," the lawsuit, filed in Nassau State Supreme Court alleges. Google spokesman Steve Langdon said in a statement: "Child pornography is illegal, and Google prohibits it in our products. When we find or are made aware of any child pornography, we remove it from our products, including our search engine. We also report it to the appropriate law enforcement officials and fully cooperate with the law enforcement community to combat child pornography. "In addition, Google offers a service called SafeSearch for our search engine that works to filter out adult content." Though Google provides a filter called SafeSearch, it doesn't eliminate all adult material, and nothing prevents children from turning it off. Toback, self-described as "not the most computer-literate guy," said he learned of the filter three days ago. He said he didn't know if the computers in his home have commercial filtering software that blocks pornography and other material unsuitable for children.

Does President Bush owe his controversial win in 2000 to Fox cable television news? Yes, suggest data collected by two economists who found that the growth of the Fox cable news network in the late 1990s may have significantly boosted the Republican Party's share of the vote in the 2000 election and delivered Florida to Bush. "Our estimates imply that Fox News convinced 3 to 8 percent of its audience to shift its voting behavior towards the Republican Party, a sizable media persuasion effect," said Stefano DellaVigna of the University of California at Berkely and Ethan Kaplan of Stockholm University. In Florida alone, they estimate, the Fox effect may have produced more than 10,000 additional votes for Bush -- clearly a decisive factor in a state he carried by fewer than 600 votes. Fox cable news debuted in 1996 as a competitor to CNN and four years later was available to about one in five Americans. That allowed DellaVigna and Kaplan to compare changes in the Republican vote shar efrom 1996 to 2000 in 9,256 cities and towns where Fox News was introduced. They also examined election data from 2004. They found clear evidence of a Fox effect among non-Republicans in the presidential and senate races, even after controlling for other factors including vote trends in similar nearby towns without access to Fox. "While this vote shift is small... it is still likely to have been decisive in the close presidential 2000 elections," they concluded.

Department Of The Big Egyptian River: The United States on Friday defended its treatment of foreign terrorism suspects held abroad, telling a U.N. committee it backed a ban on torture and stressing there had been "relatively few actual cases of abuse." John Bellinger, the U.S. State Department's top legal adviser, said Washington was "absolutely committed to uphold its national and international obligations to eradicate torture." Human rights groups this week accused the United States of mistreating detainees through cruel interrogation methods including "water-boarding," a form of mock drowning. Bellinger, who heads the American delegation to the U.N. Committee Against Torture, said allegations of U.S. abuse had been greatly exaggerated. "This committee should not lose sight of the fact that these incidents are not systemic," he told the 10-member panel at the start of a two-day review of U.S. compliance with the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. "Relatively few actual cases of abuse and wrongdoing have occurred in the context of U.S. armed conflict with al Qaeda," he said.

Wednesday at the White House press briefing, Scott McClellan, the outgoing press secretary, denied reports that the U.S. is employing terrorist groups for special operations in Iran. When asked if U.S. policy has been changed with respect to three different terrorist organizations that have reportedly been active recently against Iran "based on the notion that an enemy of our enemy is our friend," McClellan insisted that it hadn't. "Our policies haven't changed on those organizations," said McClellan. "They remain the same." "And you're bringing up organizations that we view as terrorist organizations," McClellan added. The reporter cited three different terror group activities: "PKK going over the border into Iraq, the MEK southern border of Iraq into Iran, and also certain operations from Balochistan involving also the Pakistanis." In April, RAW STORY's Larisa Alexandrovna reported (link) that "[o]ne of the operational assets being used by the Defense Department is a right-wing terrorist organization known as Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), which is being "run" in two southern regional areas of Iran." An intelligence source told Alexandrovna that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld crafted a plan to "convert" MEK members by urging them to resign from the terrorist organization and "swear an oath to Democracy."

The legal advisor to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed as "absurd" allegations that the CIA had illegally transferred thousands of prisoners to third countries, where some of them might risk torture. "These allegations that there have been thousands of flights with the implication that they all have got detainees on them ... is simply absurd," the legal advisor, John Bellinger, told reporters in Brussels. "The suggestion that these flights ... are even up to anything that is improper is also, I think, a dangerous suggestion," he said. Last week, Italian MEP Claudio Fava said that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had carried out more than 1,000 secret flights in Europe since 2001 without any EU governments raising questions.

Three years into the war that has come to define the legacy of the Bush administration Dick Cheney, the vice-president, has said he has no regrets about the decision to invade Iraq. Mr Cheney's refusal to admit to doubts about going to war highlights his isolation from an administration which has demonstrated a degree of candour about Iraq, as well as the rest of the country where only 37% approve of the White House's handling of the conflict. Mr Cheney has even less support; his approval ratings have dipped below 20%. But in an interview to appear in June's Vanity Fair magazine, he remained a picture of certitude.

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: A U.S. appeals panel sharply challenged the Bush administration Friday over new rules making it easier for police and the FBI to wiretap Internet phone calls. A judge said the government's courtroom arguments were "gobbledygook." The skepticism expressed so openly toward the administration's case encouraged civil liberties and education groups that argued that the U.S. is improperly applying telephone-era rules to a new generation of Internet services. "Your argument makes no sense," U.S. Circuit Judge Harry T. Edwards told the lawyer for the Federal Communications Commission, Jacob Lewis. "When you go back to the office, have a big chuckle. I'm not missing this. This is ridiculous, Counsel!" At another point in the hearing, Edwards told the FCC's lawyer that his arguments were "gobbledygook" and "nonsense." The court's decision was expected within several months. Edwards appeared especially skeptical over the FCC's decision to require that providers of Internet phone service and broadband services must ensure their equipment can accommodate police wiretaps under the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, known as CALEA. The new rules go into effect in May 2007. The 1994 law was originally aimed at ensuring court-ordered wiretaps could be placed on wireless phones. The Justice Department, which has lobbied aggressively on the subject, warned in court papers that failure to expand the wiretap requirements to the fast-growing Internet phone industry "could effectively provide a surveillance safe haven for criminals and terrorists who make use of new communications services." Critics said the new FCC rules are too broad and inconsistent with the intent of Congress when it passed the 1994 surveillance law, which excluded categories of companies described as information services. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted yesterday to preserve its May 14, 2007, deadline for some high-speed Internet broadband services to comply with laws that require access for law enforcement officials to conduct authorized surveillance.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has released documents today which show years of FBI surveillance of the School of Americas Watch and it's affiliate network of faith-base organizations around the country. School of the Americas Watch, which follows the activites of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly called the U.S. Army School of the Americas), has called for the closing of the school which trans soldiers from Latin America. The training program is funded entirely by the United States Government. Founded by Father Roy Bourgeois, School of the Americas Watch has been in operation since 1990.

A 10-year-old Coral Springs, Florida girl won't be allowed to sing a controversial President Bush-bashing ballad at her school talent show after her principal deemed it inappropriate and too political. The song, "Dear Mr. President," performed and co-written by the singer Pink, criticizes the president for the war in Iraq and other policies, including his stance on gay rights.

Republicans Believe In Justice For All: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour won't grant a posthumous pardon to a black Korean War veteran who was wrongfully convicted in segregationist Mississippi after he tried to enroll in an all-white university. Clyde Kennard was convicted of purchasing $25 worth of chicken feed he knew to be stolen in 1960 and sentenced to seven years in prison, but the only witness against him has recanted his testimony. Kennard died in 1963, after being released early because he had intestinal cancer. Barbour agrees Kennard was wronged but says he won't grant a pardon, despite calls for him to clear the man's name.

Republicans Believe In Fiscal Responsibility: The US senate has ignored a warning from President George W Bush and backed an emergency spending bill which he has threatened to veto. The Senate voted 77-21 to pass the $108.9bn bill. They had tacked about $14.4bn more spending on to the bill than Mr Bush said he would accept. The White House repeated Mr Bush's vow to employ his veto for the first time. Mr Bush had originally requested $92bn extra to spend on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on hurricane aid. But senators have the power to add extra spending amendments, and they did so. The new commitments include $4bn in aid to farmers, $2.3bn to fight bird flu, and $2.5bn to boost security at US borders and ports. Mr Bush initially accepted some $3bn of the additional commitments. But the bill's price tag had grown to $106bn by the time Mr Bush issued his veto threat last week, and has ballooned almost another $3bn since then. "The president has made it very clear he would veto legislation that goes above and beyond what he called for," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan after the Senate vote.

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: The US economy created 138,000 jobs in April, far fewer than expected, as the official unemployment rate stayed steady at 4.7%, the Labor Department has said. The gain was the smallest since last October, when job growth was dented by 2005's devastating hurricane season. The financial sector, health care and manufacturing industries made most gains, but these were offset by a fall of 36,000 jobs in retailing. The total number of jobless people was largely unchanged at 7.1 million. Analysts had expected 200,000 jobs would be created in April. The department also reduced the number of jobs that had been created in February and March to around 200,000 each month, from its initial estimates of 225,000 and 211,000 respectively.

Allegations that CIA flights through Europe carried people bound for ill-treatment are damaging transatlantic intelligence cooperation, a lawyer acting for the State Department said on Thursday. Speaking before heading the defense of U.S. practices at the U.N. Committee against Torture in Geneva, John Bellinger reiterated Washington's position that it does not outsource torture or transfer people it suspects of being involved in terrorism to places where it can expect them to be tortured. Bellinger was responding to a European Parliament probe which, while producing no firm evidence, concluded last month that more than 1,000 CIA flights had transited the EU and that the CIA had been responsible on several occasions for kidnapping and illegally detaining people on EU soil. "The suggestion that intelligence flights are somehow engaged in illegal activity really undermines the cooperation between the United States and Europe," he told a news briefing. EU lawmakers are due in Washington next week to probe allegations of secret detention centers and flights in Europe for terrorism suspects. Bellinger is among those they will meet.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: An American football team from the bible belt has been prevented from spreading the word of God during a game tomorrow. The Birmingham Steeldogs, based in Alabama, had been planning to carry biblical texts on the back of their jerseys for their home game against Louisville Fire, a first in US sports history. The Steeldogs' name would be replaced on the jerseys by the Old Testament strongman Samson, the name of a book in the bible would replace the player's name and the number would refer to the chapter and the text. Jersey number 12 would become James, chapter 1, verse 2: "I consider it pure joy, my brother, whenever you face trials of many kinds." But league officials, based in New York, invoked a rule preventing teams from making arbitrary changes and threatened a $1,000 (about £540) fine per jersey, and a further $50,000 for conduct detrimental to the game. The jerseys have been made by the Christian Throwback Jersey Company, which says it "specialises in outfitting today's Christian with a wide array of religious sports and athletic attire".

South Dakota touched off a national tempest with its strict new abortion ban, but the law also fomented a local grassroots movement and opened a schism in the state's dominant Republican Party. In a state with only one abortion clinic staffed by a doctor who visits from Minnesota, the issue now is poised to dominate this year's state elections, in which the governor's office and all 35 state Senate seats and 70 House seats are on the ballot. Opponents are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to overturn the law. Republican legislators who voted for South Dakota's ban are attracting both Democratic and Republican campaign challengers. And Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, who signed the bill on March 6, has seen his support drop 20 percent, according to state polls. If the ballot initiative fails and the law takes effect, the tribal president of the Oglala Sioux Indian Nation in South Dakota--territory that would be immune to the state law--already has vowed to build an abortion clinic on the reservation for all women in the state. Planned Parenthood is poised to file suit in federal district court if the law is not overturned.

"I am calling upon TVC supporters to contact their local CBS affiliates to ask that they refuse to air any public service announcements by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) next week during ‘As The World Turns,’" Traditional Values Coalition Executive Director Andrea Lafferty begins in a press release today. Lafferty is responding to news that CBS has joined with GLAAD to place a PSA in "As The World Turns" to reinforce the message in the show about a boy who tells his parents he’s a homosexual. The PSA, part of GLAAD's "Be an Ally and a Friend" public service campaign, will air at the end of an episode in which the teenage Luke (Hansis) comes out to his parents, Lily (Byrne) and Holden (actor Jon Hensley). The spot urges viewers to take a stand against the discrimination and prejudice faced by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, and directs them to GLAAD.org where they can find resources for parents, youth, families and friends.

A South Carolina state lawmaker wants to ban the sale of sex toys. Republican Representative Ralph Davenport of Boiling Springs proposed the bill that would add sex toys to the state's obscenity laws. Davenport's bill would make it a felony to sell devices used primarily for sexual stimulation. The proposal also would allow law enforcement to seize sex toys as contraband. Davenport wouldn't talk to The Associated Press Friday about his bill. Davenport's home county of Spartanburg has been aggressive in recent months in pursuing charges against owners of adult-oriented businesses. Police there say, however, they are uncertain how Davenport's proposal would help their investigations.

The Florida Senate, by a 28-10 vote, approved and sent to the governor Thursday a bill that would exempt an Orlando religious theme park from property taxes. If the measure becomes law, it should settle the dispute between The Holy Land Experience and Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan, who says the park owes $1 million in taxes.

News Of The Weird: Irish rail officials have lashed out at the "gross stupidity" of truck drivers who can't seem to stop ramming into low bridges. Trucks have rammed -- and become lodged beneath -- bridges 52 times so far this year. One bridge had been struck 70 times in the past five years, The Independent reported. Authorities have run advertising campaigns on television -- and even distributed maps to trucking companies -- showing where the low bridges are, but apparently to no avail. Irish rail spokesman Barry Kenny expressed frustration after the most recent bridge-slamming in Dublin. "It's gross stupidity not being aware of the height of the bridge," he said. "Another bridge that is regularly struck is 10-feet-6-inches. It's absolutely insane that somebody could be stupid enough to hit that bridge." Jimmy Quinn of the Irish Road Haulers' Association agrees. "Anybody who's driving round in a vehicle and doesn't know its height is stupid," said Quinn. "That's a bald fact and only an idiot would try to defend that."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:46:04 PM

Wed, May 03 2006

Another Early Rainy Season Day

It appears that the rainy season is truly approaching - today we had another day that is so typical of early rainy season weather. It was heavily overcast all day, and most all day there was a light drizzle, even in the early afternoon when such weather usually abates for a few hours. Not so today. The heavy overcast meant it never cooled off much last night - only got down to 72, and this afternoon, the temperature only rose to 77. So there wasn't much variation across the day. A check of the satellite photo shows that this drizzle is part of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, a weather phenomenon that produces our rainy season, and not just a small, local area such as a tropical wave. So, like it or not, the rainy season is here, though it may still be a bit hesitant.

All the drizzle meant that I can't burn yard waste this week, as I had hoped, and it also isn't providing enough moisture to get the garden truly watered, either. So it is being just a bit of a nuisance, I am afraid. If the rainy season sets in for earnest, that will mean not burning for the rest of this year. Should have burned when I had the chance, but too late now. Several palm fronds came down during the wind last night and this morning, and I just haven't felt up to getting them put on the yard waste pile. Not sure I want to try, until the weather is a bit drier, and I won't risk slipping and falling on the wet grass - something that could prove fatal.

I am feeling fairly good today, and managed to get up and get a ladder out to fix a loose ceiling tile in the dining room that has been bugging me for a while now. But that was about all I managed to get done. Two neighbors were by today, one inviting me up to his place, but I just had to beg off, because it is too far for me to feel comfortable about walking in my current condition. I am sure I could manage to do it, but as it is at the top of a hill, it would accelerate my heart far more than I should. Well, just give me time, and I'll be back visiting the neighbors, but for now, I have to stick to very short walks around the yard.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: The Veep, we learn tonight, is nothing short of a paranoid nutcase! In a fairly explosive profile of Dick Cheney in the new Vanity Fair, written by Todd Purdum, he reports that Cheney travels with a chemical-biological suit at all times. When he gave his friend Robin West and his twin children a ride to the White House a couple of years ago, West commented on the fact that Cheney's motorcade varied its daily path. "And he said, 'Yeah, we take different routes so that "The Jackal" can't get me," West tells Purdum. "And then there was this big duffel bag in the middle of the backseat, and I said, 'What's that? It's not very roomy in here.' And [Cheney] said, 'No, because it's a chemical-biological suit,' and he looked at it and said, 'Robin, there's only one. You lose.'" The Jackal? Really! This is the man who sent us into Iraq, and now wants us to nuke Iran. Scary, huh?

It wasn't the reaction of President Bush that interested Alex Jones, nor the meanderings of Fox News. The way in which the media received Stephen Colbert's act during the White House Correspondents Dinner should set alarm bells ringing about the real state of the union. The attending press whores were frightened to laugh at Colbert because they didn't want to upset their boss, George W. Bush. Anyone with half a brain could see that Colbert's routine (watch the video) was funnier than the Bush lookalike 'dumb and dumber' skit, an over scripted painful bore that nevertheless garnered loud guffaws from the audience. But Colbert's expertly honed Neo-Con Bush worshipping performance was met with guarded silence at many points during the keynote address. Colbert himself made reference to this on the Monday edition of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report (video here), noting the mute response to his quip that the administration were re-arranging deck chairs on the Hindenburg. "The crowd were ready to carry me out on their shoulders, even though I wasn't actually ready to leave," joked Colbert. Subsequent reports on the dinner almost completely omitted Colbert's 30 minute speech, focusing instead on the 5 minute tedious Two Bushes act, despite the fact that Colbert's performance was one of the most biting and revelatory satirical masterpieces in years, and Colbert had the guts to pull it all off right in front of Bush's face, an action described as "Ballsalicious" by Colbert's cohort Jon Stewart. In the aftermath of the dinner reports are emerging that Bush is on the warpath. "He's got that look that he's ready to blow," one aide told US News and World Report. Those familiar with Bush's tantrums and swearing fits will not be shocked to hear that the 'Commander in Chief' has once again reverted to the behavior of a 6-year-old in the face of criticism and lack of fealty. But if Bush is the 6-year-old with a temper problem then the media is the younger kid that he bullies. The yellow streak witnessed at Saturday's dinner mirrors the standard of journalistic integrity these whores uphold. Prostrate and kneeling before their imperial master, they once again fall in line to sell another war without end. When a satirical routine that mocks the President is treated with hushed tones and darting glares from the very supposed guardians of free speech, it spells danger for the ability to dissent in America without being castigated as a misbehaving gadfly.

Five major civil rights organizations and six business leaders announced their support for a suit filed against President Bush to stop the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretap program today. Last year, it became known that the NSA has been intercepting the phone and e-mail communications of Americans without first obtaining judicial approval. This is a clear violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The American Civil Liberties Union also contends the program violates consitutional free speech and privacy rights under the 4th Amendment. The group has filed suit in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan, seeking a declaration that the NSA spying is illegal, and an immediate and permanent halt to the program. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, United for Peace and Justice, and the Japanese Americans Citizens League linked warrantless spying with past surveillance of similar groups. A congressional investigation in the 1970s exposed widespread civil rights era abuse.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) threw down the gauntlet just a few days ago, introducing the Network Neutrality Act of 2006 [full text HERE], which "[offers a] choice between favoring the broadband designs of a small handful of very large companies, and safeguarding the dreams of thousands of inventors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses. This legislation is designed to save the Internet and thwart those who seek to fundamentally and detrimentally alter the Internet as we know it." In an unequivocal editorial today, the NY Times put it this way: "Cable and telephone companies that provide Internet service are talking about creating a two-tiered Internet, in which Web sites that pay them large fees would get priority over everything else." The Times goes on to note that if the cable and telephone companies got their way, "[it] would be a financial windfall for Internet service providers, but a disaster for users, who could find their Web browsing influenced by whichever sites paid their service provider the most money."

Former Homeland Security Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin says he was confronted personally by then Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge "to intimidate me, to stare me down, to force me to back off, to not look into these areas that would be controversial, not to issue critical reports." Ervin appeared on ABC News' Nightline in advance of the publication of his memoirs, "Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack." Ervin says Ridge and his top aides saw him as "a traitor and a turncoat" because of a series of reports his office delivered to Congress detailing failures by the Department of Homeland Security. Ervin says he believes another 9/ll hijack attack could be carried out. "I am quite confident that it could be done again," he tells ABC News. He says Ridge and others in the Bush Administration urged him to tone down his report. "Rather than acknowledging the vulnerability, efforts were made to deride us and to dismiss our criticism," Ervin says. Ervin was not re-appointed as Inspector General in January, 2005 when his initial term expired.

Smirkey's popular approval rating hit record lows in two polls published Tuesday, with data showing 33 or 34 percent support. A CBS News poll of 719 voters nationwide conducted April 28-30 showed an all-time low of 33 percent approval. Some 58 percent said they actively disapprove of the president. Bush also appears to be losing support in his own party, with his approval rating among Republicans falling to 68 percent in the poll, which had a 4-percentage point margin of error. A USA Today/Gallup poll taken Friday through Sunday found Bush's approval rating at 34 percent, 2 points below his previous low. The poll also showed Democrats leading 54 percent-39 percent among registered voters who were asked which party they would prefer in this November's congressional race. A spokesman for the House Republicans' campaign committee, Carl Forti, said unhappiness with Bush doesn't doom the GOP's 29-seat House majority because "President Bush is not on the ballot." Forti also noted that the poll showed 59% of respondents said their own representative deserves to be re-elected. However, poll data show that's the lowest percentage since 1994, when Republicans won control of Congress from the Democrats. Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said voters are linking Bush's problems to his GOP colleagues: "The American people want change." Since 1950, there have been six times when presidents had Gallup approval ratings below 50% in the spring as their party sought to keep control of Congress. The president's party lost House seats in all six years, ranging from five in 1968 to 54 in 1994.

Even a weak hurricane can overwhelm the leaky and crumbling dike around Florida's massive Lake Okeechobee, putting more than 40,000 people in "imminent danger," state officials said Tuesday. With hurricane season less than a month away, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to speed restoration of the dike, while the state scrambles to protect against what the governor said was a one-in-six chance the dike would fail in a direct hit from a hurricane. "The first thing that needs to be done is get a commitment to fortify the dike," Bush said at a news conference. "Secondly, we need to adjust our evacuation plans for the region." He ordered state emergency managers to put together an evacuation plan for inland residents living near the south rim of Lake Okeechobee -- the second-largest freshwater body in the United States after Lake Michigan. The lake covers 730 square miles and its waters are held back by the Herbert Hoover Dike, a 140-mile earthen structure built in stages by the U.S. Corps of Engineers beginning in 1932. Age and recent hurricanes have taken a toll, according a report released Tuesday by the South Florida Water Management District. "The current condition of Herbert Hoover Dike poses a grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of south Florida," the report said.

The U.S. State Department has developed the secret formula to dismantle the armed groups of Colombia's war. Or so it believes. It is believed that the demobilization of 28,000 members of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) was the result of threatening its leaders - notably Salvadore Mancuso and Don Berna - with extradition to the US. Fear of extradition, accompanied by promises of amnesty, convinced large numbers of paramilitaries to lay down their arms, confess their crimes, and put their faith in the government to restore order in Colombia. Now, the same strategy is being tried on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an insurgency born in Colombia's civil conflict ("La Violencia") and greatly influenced by the Cuban revolution. The FARC has grown over the decades, despite concerted efforts by the Colombian and US governments to destroy it, including the use of death squads, forced displacement of its supporters, and the most modern technologies of surveillance and counter-terrorism. On March 29, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the indictment in the US of the top 50 leaders of the FARC on drug charges. According to the indictment, the FARC not only taxes Colombian coca growers, but also operates cocaine processing laboratories, and enforces a monopoly on the purchase of the drug in areas it controls. According to Gonzales, and to Department of Justice press releases, the FARC is responsible for 50% of the world's cocaine, worth more than US $25 billion. The indictment is said to be the largest in US history. This staggering figure cannot represent the true income of the FARC, however. The FARC has an estimated 18,000 fighters - this would be more than one million dollars per guerrilla. That's a lot of money for people who live in the jungle, sleep in hammocks, and live on a diet of yuca, rice and chicharón. (pork fat)

Iran threatened on Tuesday to attack Israel in response to any "evil" act by the United States and said it had enriched uranium to a level close to the maximum compatible with civilian use in power stations. The defiant statements were issued shortly before world powers meet in Paris to discuss the next steps after Tehran rejected a U.N. call to halt uranium enrichment. Senior officials from the U.N. Security Council's permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- plus Germany were to discuss how to curb an Iranian program that Western nations say conceals a drive for atomic warheads. Iran denies the charge and refuses to back down from what it calls its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Driving home that message, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, said his country had now succeeded in purifying uranium to 4.8 percent, at the top end of the 3 to 5 percent range for fuel used in nuclear power plants. "Enrichment above 5 percent is not on Iran's agenda," Aghazadeh told the students' ISNA news agency.

Two public-advocacy groups have exposed the names of eighteen ultra-rich families driving a deceitful campaign to repeal the federal estate tax. The report, published last week by Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy (UFE), documents the strategy of a group of elites, together worth approximately $185.5 billion, to permanently repeal the estate tax using a marketing campaign that appeals to constituents unaffected by the tax: farmers, small businesses and the middle-income families. The watchdog groups found the families they name in the report - including the owners of Campbell’s Soup, Gallo Wine, Mars, and Wal-Mart - through public-record searches. Both Public Citizen and UFE say the list is not comprehensive, but includes only the names of families they were able to uncover. Towering above most of the country financially, opponents of the estate tax have a lot at stake in repealing it; the report estimates that if the tax were cancelled, the families listed in the report would collectively avoid paying a staggering $71.6 billion from the estates of deceased members. The estate tax is a tax levied on the transfer of large amounts of wealth upon death, less any portion of the estate that is transferred to a spouse or a charitable organization.

Three leading Democratic senators blasted President Bush Monday for having claimed he has the authority to defy more than 750 statutes enacted since he took office, saying that the president's legal theories are wrong and that he must obey the law, the BOSTON GLOBE reported in Tuesday editions. "We're a government of laws, not men," Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said in a statement. "It is not for George W. Bush to disregard the Constitution and decide that he is above the law." Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, accused Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney of attempting to concentrate ever more government power in their own hands. "The Bush-Cheney administration has cultivated an insidious brand of unilateralism that regularly crosses into an arrogance of power," Leahy said in a statement. "The scope of the administration's assertions of power is stunning, and it is chilling."

Ten states, including California and New York, plan to file suit this week to force the Bush administration to toughen mileage regulations for sport utility vehicles and other trucks, the New York Times reported on Tuesday's page one. The suit, which the states will announce on Tuesday, contends that the administration did not do a rigorous enough analysis of the environmental benefits of fuel economy regulations, as required by law, before issuing new rules for SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans last month. The suit will also claim that the government did not consider the impact of gasoline consumption on climate change when devising the new rules. While the states have initiated a number of suits over Washington's environmental policies, the new suit is the first to take aim at federal fuel economy regulations. With gasoline returning to $3 a gallon in many parts of the country, there has been a broad outcry for action but little consensus on what to do.

The nation of Qatar plans to announce today roughly $60 million in grants to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina, including $17.5 million to Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically black Catholic university in the United States. Part of the Tulane campus in New Orleans was submerged by floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina. Tulane will get $10 million from Qatar. Other beneficiaries are Tulane University, Children's Hospital in New Orleans, Habitat for Humanity, Louisiana State University and the March of Dimes. Nasser Bin Hamad M. al-Khalifa, Qatar's ambassador to the United States, said the remainder of the $100 million his country had pledged would be assigned in the coming months. "Hurricane Katrina was so devastating that everyone in Qatar and the rest of the world felt a responsibility to really act," Mr. Khalifa said. More than 50 countries donated money, expertise and materials, according to a tally by Foreign Policy, a magazine published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

President Bush and congressional Republicans agreed yesterday on a $70 billion package of tax-cut extensions that they hope will help halt the deterioration of their political fortunes. The package would extend the 2003 cuts to the tax rates on dividends and capital gains, continue tax breaks for small-business investment and the overseas operations of financial service companies, and slow the expansion of the alternative minimum tax, a parallel income tax system that was enacted to target the rich but is increasingly snaring the middle class. But the agreement cannot come to a vote until House and Senate negotiators agree on a second piece of legislation containing many of the proposed tax breaks left out of the compromise, according to legislative aides. And the compromise is sure to spark a new round of recriminations from Democrats, who say the Republican Party continues to favor wealthy investors over lower- and middle-income workers, without regard to a budget deficit that is expected to reach $370 billion this year. For the Republicans, the tax cuts may have to substitute for other measures proposed last week to help consumers cope with gasoline prices. Proposals including a federal gas tax holiday and a $100 rebate have run into a buzz saw of opposition from businesses and oil interests as well as consumers. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) dismissed the Senate Republicans' proposed $100 rebate as "insulting," adding that his own constituents considered it "stupid."

Senate Republicans on Monday hurriedly abandoned a broad tax proposal opposed by the oil industry and business leaders, another sign of their struggle to come up with an acceptable political and legislative answer to high gasoline prices. Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, said he had decided to jettison the provision, which would have generated billions of dollars by changing the way businesses treat inventories for tax purposes. Instead, he said the Senate Finance Committee would hold hearings on the plan "later this year, so the pluses and minuses of the provision can become well known." The retreat came after a torrent of objections from business leaders and their advocates, who typically view Republicans in Congress as allies. They said they had been blindsided by the inclusion of the proposal as a central element of the Republican leadership's energy package late last week. The centerpiece of the leadership proposal, a $100 rebate check to compensate taxpayers for higher gasoline prices, continued to receive a rough reception. Members of the public have telephoned and written to ridicule the idea, and even Republican lawmakers are finding fault. "Political anxiety in an election year is to blame for a lot of the bad bills Congress passes," said Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, who on Monday called the rebate a "knee-jerk populist idea" that voters would see through.

The White House said Tuesday the list the Secret Service has been ordered to release concerning convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff's contacts with the Bush administration will be incomplete. But spokesman Scott McClellan declined to say what is wrong with the Secret Service list, why it is inaccurate and whether it includes far fewer meetings than took place. "I don't know exactly what they'll be providing, but they only have certain records and so I just wouldn't view it as a complete historical record," McClellan said.

The chairman of the House Armed Services committee is reviving a controversial proposal to allow members of the military to hunt deer and elk on a national park island off California. Opponents fear the plan could limit public access to Channel Islands National Park and threaten native species. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., backed off his plan to allow military hunting on 53,000-acre Santa Rosa Island after objections from senators last year. But a major defense bill his committee will take up Wednesday may revive the proposal, according to bill language circulated Monday.

In the latest State Department report last Friday, one item went unnoticed by the press, until now: the US doesn't classify the Taliban as terrorists - and haven't for the last six years. The find was made by CSMonitor.com's Tom Regan. The US does classify other groups on the US hit list as terrorists -- such as Hezbollah, al Qaeda and Hamas. "In an article entitled 'Terrorism's Dubious "A" List,' the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) reports that the religious extremist organization has never been listed as a terrorist group by the US, Britain, the EU, Canada, Australia, or any of the coalition partners, despite the fact that during its six year rule in Afghanistan, it provided save haven for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and currently is staging terrorist attacks against coalition forces and waging a national campaign of intimidation and fear," Regan notes. "In a CFR Q&A on the Taliban, Chistopher Langdon, a defense expert at the Institute for International Strategic Studies, describes the group as "an insurgent organization that will periodically use terrorism to carry out its operations," he adds.

36 US House Representatives have signed on as sponsors or co-sponsors of H. Res 635, which would create a Select Committee to look into the grounds for recommending President Bush’s impeachment, Atlanta Progressive News has learned. The two latest co-sponsors, as of Friday, were US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) and US Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA). "For the House to impeach and the Senate to convict a President, the public must be fully informed and convinced by credible information that a President deserves impeachment. That means gathering the facts. Rep. Conyers' bill calls for setting up a select committee to gather information to see if there is any basis for impeachment - i.e., a violation of the Constitution - or if impeachment should even be considered. With that understanding I support H. Res. 635," Congressman Jackson said in a statement released to Atlanta Progressive News.

Asked to name the news source they most trusted, without any prompting, 59 percent of Egyptians said Al Jazeera, 52 percent of Brazilians said Rede Globo, 32 percent of Britons said the BBC, 22 percent of Germans said ARD and 11 percent of Americans said Fox News, each leading their respective nations. The most trusted news brands globally were the BBC, Britain's publicly funded broadcaster, and CNN, which is owned by the world's biggest media conglomerate, Time Warner Inc. Three Internet portals - Google, Yahoo and Microsoft/MSN - received the next highest trust ratings across the 10 countries, when respondents were prompted with 16 different brand names. Although trust in media has grown in most countries over the past four years, the survey found, 28 percent of people across the 10 countries either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement: "In the past year I have stopped using a specific media source because it lost my trust."

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: US President George W Bush reportedly doesn't want to meet with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Norway also seems to have lost an influential role within NATO, apparently, some say, because of Norway's lack of enthusiasm for the war in Iraq. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg reportedly isn't welcome at the White House. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Tuesday that Bush's staff had turned down a request from Stoltenberg's office for a meeting between the two at the White House. Bush, according to the report, was too busy to make room for Stoltenberg in the foreseeable future. NRK reported that Bush's staff wouldn't set up the meeting because of the Norwegian left-center coalition government's criticism of the war in Iraq, and Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen's support for a boycott of Israeli products. Jan Petersen, who was Norway's foreign minister in the last center-right government, told NRK that he feared a phone conversation Stoltenberg had with Bush shortly after last fall's election put a damper on relations between the US and Norway. In the conversation, Stoltenberg told Bush that Norwegian officers would be pulled out of Iraq.

Your Tax Dollars At Work: On a little-noticed inside page of the House Resources Committee website, the Republican majority staff have prepared a folio celebrating Earth Day. The focus of the site is aimed at dispelling the "'sky is falling' sensationalism of environmental activists [that] lead people to falsely believe that our environment is getting worse when it's actually getting better." The site is cleanly designed and professional, conveying the "soft" aesthetic that has become a hallmark of the environmental movement. It begins in a nonpartisan fashion: "Earth Day is an opportunity for all Americans to educate themselves on the state of our environment, and to pitch-in in their local communities to make them better." But from there it becomes clearly partisan, lauding America's environmental achievements and attacking those who would have Americans believe anything is wrong with the environment in the United States. There is no mention of global warming or climate change anywhere on the site. A section titled "big business" - which some might mistakenly imagine detailing the role of big business in environmental change, or even praising big business' role in helping the environment - is instead dedicated to detailing the budgets of the largest environmental organizations and accusing them of spending money on themselves rather than on the environment.

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: The high price of diesel fuel for school buses meant children in one Tennessee school system got a holiday Monday - their second in a row. Some 3,800 youngsters got Friday and Monday off because of the action taken by Dallas Smith, superintendent of Rhea County schools in east Tennessee, to ease transportation spending. "That kind of situation is probably the most extreme I have heard," said Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, based in Albany, N.Y., and a spokesman for the Washington-based School Bus Information Council. Martin described the price of diesel, which has risen above $2.80 in the East and to more than $3 a gallon on the West Coast, as a "huge problem for not only public sector but private sector operators as well."

World crude oil prices are expected to stay high through 2007 because of strong petroleum demand, limited surplus oil production and refining capacity and concerns about supply disruptions due to geopolitical risks in countries like Iran, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Wednesday. The EIA said none of these "forces that contribute to current high crude oil prices will ease significantly in the near future, so our best forecast is that crude oil prices will remain elevated through 2007." The Energy Department's analytical arm also said in its weekly review of the oil market, "Strong growth in the world economy, and particularly in China and the United States, has fueled the need for more oil, thus putting upward pressure on prices." U.S. oil prices have stayed above $70 a barrel also due to fear among traders that the West's dispute with Iran over its restarted nuclear program could disrupt that country's oil exports and a large part of Nigeria's oil exports remains halted because of militant violence.

Scandals Du Jour: Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) legal defense fund burned through $312,000 in expenses in the first quarter of the year, paying out fees to four different law firms representing the former House Majority Leader on two different legal fronts. When combined with the $110,000 DeLay paid out of his campaign committee to a firm in January, the new filings show he spent more than $400,000 in the first three months of the year on legal fees and expenses connected to raising money for the defense fund. DeLay, who is facing a trial on campaign finance charges in Texas and under scrutiny by a Justice Department task force probing the affairs of ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has now shelled out $1.3 million in legal fees in less than two years, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission and the House ethics committee.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: Common Cause, a nonprofit government watchdog group, filed a criminal complaint with the Department of Justice against Rep. Katherine Harris Monday. The group's complaint alleges that Harris was bribed by a defense contractor who has already pled guilty to bribing former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA). It alleges that Harris broke the law when the contractor paid $2,800 for a fundraising dinner the congresswoman held. Cunningham was recently sentenced to eight years in prison. Asked about the complaint Sunday by the Orlando Sentinel, a Harris spokesman declined comment. He suggested the charges were politically motivated. The group's letter to the Justice Department follows. The complaint is also available on their web site. Common Cause was founded in 1970 "as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest."

After the administration's early denials of any connection with Jack Abramoff, the Secret Service has agreed to turn over White House visitor logs that will show how often convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff met with Bush administration officials - and with whom he met. U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn last Tuesday approved an agreement between the Secret Service and Judicial Watch, a public interest group, that requires the agency to produce records of Abramoff's visits from Jan. 1, 2001, to the present. Judicial Watch filed suit in February after the Secret Service failed to respond to its request under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Administration officials have refused to say how many times Abramoff, who raised at least $100,000 for President Bush's re-election, has been to the White House. Bush has said he doesn't know Abramoff. Chris Farrell, Judicial Watch's director of investigations, said, "The documents will speak loud and clear on what Abramoff was doing in and out of the White House." The visitor logs are to be delivered to Judicial Watch by May 10.

Maybe If We Ignore Global Warming Long Enough, It Will Go Away: A government study released yesterday undermines one of the key arguments of climate change skeptics, concluding there is no statistically significant conflict between measures of global warming on the earth's surface and in the atmosphere. For years some global warming critics had pointed to the fact that satellite measurements had recorded very little warming in the lower atmosphere, while surface temperature readings indicated that the earth is heating up. Now the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, an interagency body, has concluded the two data sets actually match. "This significant discrepancy no longer exists because errors in the satellite and radiosonde data have been identified and corrected," researchers said in the first of 21 assessment reports planned by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. The findings show clear evidence of human influences on climate due to changes in greenhouse gases, aerosols and stratospheric ozone. There has been increasing concern about global climate change being caused by human activity, in particular the release of gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by automobiles and industrial activity. But while temperature readings at the surface showed this increase, readings in the atmosphere taken by satellites and radiosondes -- instruments carried by weather balloons -- had shown little or no warming. There are still some questions about the rate of atmospheric warming in the tropics, but overall the issue has been settled, said Thomas R. Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center.

Glaciers covering China's Qinghai-Tibet plateau are shrinking by 7 percent a year due to global warming and the environmental consequences may be dire, Xinhua news agency reported on Tuesday. Rising temperatures that have accelerated the melting of glaciers across the "roof of the world" will eventually turn tundra that spans Tibet and surrounding high country into desert, the agency quoted Professor Dong Guangrong with the Chinese Academy of Sciences as saying. Dong warned the deterioration of the plateau may trigger more droughts and increase sandstorms that lash western and northern China. He reached his conclusions after analysing four decades of data from China's 681 weather stations.

U.S. scientists say they are the first to show human activity is altering the circulation of the tropical atmosphere and ocean through global warming. The study found the principal loop of winds that drives climate and ocean behavior across the tropical Pacific is slowing, allowing the climate to drift towards a more El Niño-like state. Lead author Gabriel Vecchi of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory said researchers identified a 3.5 percent weakening that has occurred since the mid-1800s in the air system known as the Walker circulation. They also cite evidence it might weaken another 10 percent by 2100. The study sends mixed signals on the future of El Niño/La Niña. "While we can't predict with certainty how the frequency or intensity of El Niño-related weather events will respond to global warming, our study does suggest the climate as a whole is slowly moving towards a more El Niño-like state," said co-author Brian Soden of the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

News From Smirkey's Wars: US forces are switching tactics in Iraq to take a less confrontational approach to civilians in response to criticism from British military commanders that they have been too tough. American commanders are ordering marines and soldiers manning checkpoints or travelling in convoys to be less trigger-happy. Instead of firing into the air or at civilians to warn them off as they approach checkpoints or convoys in cars, troops nervous about suicide bombers are being encouraged to use strobe lights and other means to signal that they should slow down or back off. Troops are also being told to be less rough during searches. Lieutenant-General Peter Chiarelli, commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, has sent his commanders articles from the British press that criticised US forces for being unnecessarily tough. A spokeswoman for the US-led coalition forces in Baghdad yesterday refused to confirm the new approach was being adopted: "This falls under rules of engagement and is completely classified."

The British and the Americans are guarding Iraq's Persian Gulf oil platforms -- the troubled country's only real sources of revenue -- like crown jewels. But Iraqi oil is flowing sluggishly at best, while hoped-for investments haven't materialized and the Iraqi oil industry is on the verge of collapse -- both technical and political. The HMS Bulwark, Her Majesty Elizabeth II's most state-of-the-art warship, has been bobbing at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab River for days. With its crew of more than 600 men, the amphibious ship, outfitted with landing craft and the latest technology, has a mission in fragile spots in the Persian Gulf -- but nothing happens.

O'Dwyers PR Daily reports that Bill Dixon and Laurie Adler, who handled PR for the Lincoln Group which gained notoriety for using Pentagon funds to plant news articles in Iraqi newspapers, have jumped ship. Dixon only started with the company in January while Adler served as the company's main spokesman. In the Columbia Journalism Review Daniel Schulman reports that a U.S. army officer, who helped select the company for contracts in Iraq, was scathing in his assessment of their work. "They were sending guys over there that had absolutely no knowledge of Iraqis whatsoever. It was a scheme written up on a cocktail napkin in D.C. They were just completely inept," the officer said.

Scandals Du Jour: Rep. Robert W. Ney, an Ohio Republican under suspicion for his dealings with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff as well as his involvement in the Republican governor's "coingate" scandal, scored an easy primary victory Tuesday night amid a fight to avoid indictment and keep his job on Capitol Hill. Sen. Mike DeWine (R), also implicated in scandals, and Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) skated to victories in their Senate primaries, officially setting up a race that could be among the most competitive and expensive of the year.

Have you ever wondered how a man who owns a $1,500,000 house in DC, a $1,000,000+ house in Florida and a $48,000 cottage in Texas manages to survive on $161,000 a year federal salary? It's odd. Would it raise questions that same man had sold a property to a shell company controlled by his former business partners and that man made between $250,000 and $750,000 profit? Maybe it would raise further questions if those former business partners that bought the property were raking in millions of political dollars from the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign, the RNC and multiple other Republican candidates? Would that just be a coincidence? Well, those are a string of coincidences that happened to Karl Rove. What you first must know is that Karl used to run a successful fundraising, mailing list sales and political services company called Karl Rove & Co. Rove did work for many candidates, national, state and local, ranging from Congress to various state supreme court candidates. When George Bush tapped Rove in 1999 to work on the Presidential, Bush wanted his undivided attention, and reportedly required Rove to sell his company, reportedly at a financial loss to Rove. Keep in mind, if Bush were to win, Karl Rove & Co would be in for some big dollars.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:23:52 PM

Mon, May 01 2006

Labor Day Protests

The lovely dry season weather continues. Not a hint of rain for several days, and things are getting rather dry around here. I am hoping to see a bit of rain soon, because I am not in much of a condition to go out and water the place, which it is beginning to need. It has been brutally sunny all day yesterday and today - with an overnight low of 70 and a high today of 85.

I'm feeling a bit better today, a bit less dizzy than yesterday, and able to get around a bit better. The minor chest pains I had been having have been less, and the tiredness as well, and my alertness has improved. I enjoyed a visit yesterday evening from one of my blog readers, a fellow who has visited me several times before, and who came this time with a friend of his. We enjoyed a long visit as we walked around the garden.

Today, May first, is Labor Day everywhere in the world except the United States. Here in Costa Rica, as in much of Latin America, it is also traditionally a day of protest, and several were planned for downtown San Jose. I don't even have to check the paper to tell you what they are: 1) anti-CAFTA and 2) anti-privatization. These trends are very controversial here, and all have been the subject of numerous protests in the past. And I suspect they will for some time to come. What is new is that the incoming president, due to be inaugurated in about a week and a half, is a man whose sympathies generally lie with the protesters. Although he has come out in favor of CAFTA, he has also sent his anti-CAFTA rival to Washington to try to renegotiate some of the more onerous provisions of the treaty. We're all wishing him luck and success. Personally, I am all in favor of the anti-privatization agenda. While all the gringos like to carp about the service that they get from the government monopolies here, the reality is that the service is pretty darned good by Latin American standards, and it is pretty darned cheap at the same time. While Panamanians are paying more than 16 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity, here I am paying a bit over seven cents. While Nicaraguans are paying 19 cents a minute for local telephone calls, more than they pay for a call to the States, here I pay less than a cent - and both power and telephone service are much more widely available here, and every bit as reliable than in either Panama or Nicaragua. So the Ticos, with their "socialized" economy, have it pretty good compared to their neighbors. And they know that. That's why the protests against IMF, World Bank and U.S. efforts to force Costa Rica to sell off the family silver for pennies on the dollar.

More Reasons Why I Am Glad I Am Out Of The States: It didn't take long for the idea of forcing Internet providers to retain records of their users' activities to gain traction in the U.S. Congress. Last week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a Republican, gave a speech saying that data retention by Internet service providers is an "issue that must be addressed." Child pornography investigations have been "hampered" because data may be routinely deleted, Gonzales warned. Now, in a demonstration of bipartisan unity, a Democratic member of the Congressional Internet Caucus is preparing to introduce an amendment--perhaps during a U.S. House of Representatives floor vote next week--that would make such data deletion illegal. Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette's proposal (click for PDF) says that any Internet service that "enables users to access content" must permanently retain records that would permit police to identify each user. The records could not be discarded until at least one year after the user's account was closed. It's not clear whether that requirement would be limited only to e-mail providers and Internet providers such as DSL (digital subscriber line) or cable modem services. An expansive reading of DeGette's measure would require every Web site to retain those records. (Details would be left to the Federal Communications Commission.)

The Bush administration formally said Friday that it will try to halt a lawsuit that accuses AT&T of helping the National Security Agency spy on Americans illegally. In an 8-page document (PDF) filed with a federal court in the northern district of California, the U.S. Justice Department said it will intervene in the lawsuit and try to have it tossed out of court. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group based in San Francisco, filed the class action lawsuit against the federal government in January. The suit claims AT&T's alleged cooperation violates free speech and privacy rights found in the U.S. Constitution and also contravenes federal wiretapping law, which prohibits electronic surveillance "except as authorized by statute." A Los Angeles Times article dated Dec. 26 quoted an unnamed source as saying the NSA has a "direct hookup" into an AT&T database that stores information about all domestic phone calls, including how long they lasted. In addition, EFF said earlier this month that it has unearthed possibly-confidential documents describing a "dragnet" scheme in use by AT&T. (AT&T, which has repeatedly declined to comment, has asked that the documents be returned.) The Justice Department said in its filing that the "United States intends to assert the military and state secrets privilege" and have the case dismissed.

An Iraqi vice president warned the United States on Friday against attacking Iran. Adel Abdul Mahdi, the Shia member of the three-man Presidency Council, was asked about speculation US forces might strike to prevent Iran developing nuclear technology: "We will not allow anyone to attack anyone," he said after a meeting in the holy city of Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s senior Shia cleric. "We think that the use of force is not appropriate for solving any problem." The leaders of Iraq’s Shia majority, including Mahdi’s SCIRI party, have close ties to their fellow Shia Islamists ruling neighbouring Iran, where many of them sought refuge from the Sunni-dominated administration of Saddam Hussein. Another leading Iraqi Shia politician, cleric and militia leader Moqtada alAl Sadr, recently pledged the support of his Mehdi Army fighters to Iran if US forces attacked.

Turkey does not intend to allow the United States to launch an attack against Iran from the Inchirlik military base, Turkish news agencies reported Sunday. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told the Dubai-based al-Bayan that he doubted the US would ultimately choose to take military action, as "Iran has its own strategic advantages." Gul said that facilitating an attack against a neighboring country was "not an option," despite the US offer to build Turkey a nuclear reactor as a counterbalance to Iran's expanding nuclear facilities.

As the U.S. military struggles against persistent sectarian violence in Iraq, military officers and security experts find themselves in a vigorous debate over an idea that just months ago was largely dismissed as a fringe thought: that the surest - and perhaps now the only - way to bring stability to Iraq is to divide the country into three pieces. Those who see the partitioning of Iraq as increasingly attractive argue that separating the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds may be the only solution to the violence that many experts believe verges on civil war. Others contend that it would simply lead to new and dangerous challenges for the United States, not least the possibility that al-Qaida would find it easier to build a new base of operations in a partitioned Iraq. One specialist on the Iraqi insurgency, Ahmed Hashim, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College who has served two tours in Iraq as a reservist, contends in a new book that the U.S. government's options in Iraq are closing to just two: Let a civil war occur, or avoid that wrenching outcome through some sort of partition. Such a division of the country "is the option that can allow us to leave with honor intact," he concludes in "Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq."

A former top CIA spy says the United States deliberately turned down several opportunities to kill terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Mike Scheuer headed the CIA's bin Laden unit for six years before resigning in 2004. He has told the ABC's Four Corners program the Bush administration had Zarqawi in its sights almost every day for a year. He says a plan to destroy Zarqawi's training camp in Kurdistan was abandoned for diplomatic reasons. "The reasons the intelligence service got for not shooting Zarqawi was simply that the President and the National Security Council decided it was more important not to give the Europeans the impression we were gunslingers," he said. "Mr Bush had Mr Zarqawi in his sights for almost every day for a year before the invasion of Iraq and he didn't shoot because they were wining and dining the French in an effort to get them to assist us in the invasion of Iraq."

President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution. Among the laws Bush said he can ignore are military rules and regulations, affirmative-action provisions, requirements that Congress be told about immigration services problems, "whistle-blower" protections for nuclear regulatory officials, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.

The FBI issued thousands of subpoenas to banks, phone companies and Internet providers last year, aggressively using a power enhanced under the Patriot Act to monitor the activities of U.S. citizens, Justice Department data released late Friday showed. According to the new report, the FBI issued 9,254 national security letters in 2005, covering 3,501 U.S. citizens and legal foreign residents. The report given to members of Congress was the first to detail the government's use of a controversial form of administrative subpoena that has drawn fire because it can be issued by investigators without court oversight. The Justice Department report also disclosed that its use of electronic surveillance and search warrants in national security investigations jumped 15% in 2005. The data show that U.S. authorities are in some cases escalating their use of anti-terrorism statutes. Civil liberties groups said they found the new information worrisome. They said it raised concerns about whether investigators were being sensitive to the rights of citizens caught in terrorism-related probes. The report includes the first look at the use of what are known as national security letters, which let the FBI obtain phone logs, Internet traffic records, and bank and credit information about individuals without a court order. The Bush administration had fought the release of the information on grounds that it could imperil national security. But Congress ordered the release when it reauthorized portions of the Patriot Act this year.

Smirkey said Friday that taxing enormous oil industry profits is not the way to calm Americans' anxieties about pain at the gas pump, and that his "inclination and instincts" are that major oil companies are not intentionally overcharging drivers. Bush's remarks suggested the former Texas oilman is unlikely to take harsh action against oil companies despite public anger about the rising cost of fuel. Gasoline is averaging $2.92 a gallon across the country, up 69 cents from a year ago, according to AAA's daily fuel gauge report. With politicians concerned the issue could tilt what are expected to be close midterm elections this fall, the president and many in Congress have been rushing to offer solutions, most of which would offer little immediate relief. Some Democrats have viewed this week's announcement by major oil companies of huge first-quarter profits as a chance to renew their push for a windfall profits tax. But though a few Republicans, including Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, have said the idea ought to be examined, Bush and most GOP lawmakers strongly oppose it.

The Senate Republican plan to mail $100 checks to voters to ease the burden of high gasoline prices is eliciting more scorn than gratitude from the very people it was intended to help. Aides for several Republican senators reported a surge of calls and e-mail messages from constituents ridiculing the rebate as a paltry and transparent effort to pander to voters before the midterm elections in November. "The conservatives think it is socialist bunk, and the liberals think it is conservative trickery," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, pointing out that the criticism was coming from across the ideological spectrum. Angry constituents have asked, "Do you think we are prostitutes? Do you think you can buy us?" said another Republican senator's aide, who was granted anonymity to openly discuss the feedback because the senator had supported the plan. Conservative talk radio hosts have been particularly vocal. "What kind of insult is this?" Rush Limbaugh asked on his radio program on Friday. "Instead of buying us off and treating us like we're a bunch of whores, just solve the problem." In commentary on Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume called the idea "silly."

Chevron has seen its first quarter profit jump 49% to $4 billion, making it the latest oil company to cash in on soaring world energy prices. Its revenues rose 32% on last year, also boosted by sales from Unocal, the oil firm it bought in 2005. Combined with rivals ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil, three of America's oil giants have earned a combined $15.7 billion during the first quarter of 2006. Meanwhile, US drivers have seen gasoline prices rise 16% in the last month.

A US congressional inspection team set up to monitor reconstruction in Iraq today publishes a scathing report of failures by contractors, mainly from the US, to carry out projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In one case, the inspection team found that three years after the invasion only six of 150 health centers proposed for Iraq had been completed by a US contractor, in spite of 75% of the $186m allocated having been spent. The report says: "Fourteen more will be completed by the contractor, and the remaining facilities, which are partially constructed, will have to be completed by other means." The inspectors blame the failure in this instance on management problems and security concerns. The danger facing foreigners in Iraq was highlighted yesterday when a roadside bomb 30 miles south of Baghdad killed three private security firm staff and wounded two others. One of the wounded is British, the Foreign Office said. The detailed and lengthy report on work projects in Iraq has been drawn up by Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction (Sigir). Mr Bowen's office was set up after Congress expressed concern about the slow rate of reconstruction and the misuse of funds on a massive scale. The report says Mr Bowen's inspection team is investigating 72 cases of alleged fraud and corruption, and is pursuing leads not only in the US but in Europe and the Middle East. The Iraq war has already cost the United States $320 billion, according to an another authoritative new report, and even if a troop withdrawal begins this year, the conflict is set to be more expensive in real terms than the Vietnam War, a generation ago. The estimate, circulated this week by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS), can only increase unease over the US presence in Iraq, whose direct costs now run at some $6 billion a month, or $200 million a day, with no end in sight.

What have the taxpayers gotten for all that money? The U.S. State Department's annual report on global terrorism says that the number of reported terrorist incidents and deaths has increased exponentially in the years since the US invaded Iraq, largely because of Iraq itself. The report, released on Friday, said that while the US has made some gains in fighting terrorism, al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups remain a grave threat to national security at home and abroad. Of potentially greater concern is mounting evidence that small, autonomous cells and individuals are becoming more active. Such "micro-actors" are said to be engaging in more suicide bombings, and using increasingly sophisticated technologies to communicate, organise and plot their attacks.

The CIA has imposed new and tighter restrictions on former employees remain contractors with it. The restrictions will apply to books, articles, and opinion pieces published by them, National Journal reported Friday. According to several former CIA officials affected by the new policy, the rules are intended to suppress criticism of the Bush administration and of the CIA. The officials say the restrictions amount to an unprecedented political "appropriateness" test at odds with earlier CIA policies on outside publishing. The move is a significant departure from the CIA's longtime practice of allowing ex-employees to take critical or contrary positions in public, particularly when they are contractors paid to advise the CIA on important topics and to publish their assessments, National Journal said.

Mexican President Vicente Fox has hired a lobbying firm to sweeten political sentiment in the US towards Mexicans and the immigration issue. The same PR expert and GOP political consultant helped George W. Bush defeat Ann Richards for the governorship of Texas in 1994 and worked on both Bush's presidential campaigns. Rob Allyn of Rob Allyn & Co. secretly engineered Fox's 2000 presidential victory and is closely tied with George W. Bush. There can be no doubt that a foreign government is working in tandem with the government of the United States and a powerful, politically-connected public relations firm to manufacture consent and to hold back a growing grassroots movement to defend America's sovereignty. The LA Times reported that Vicente Fox hired Allyn & Co. when the rumblings of immigration reform began to be heard in Congress. The firm was hired to create a mechanism to sway public opinion in favor of Mexico and Mexican immigrants into the U.S. at the same moment public concern over border security was beginning to reach a fever pitch. The timing is impeccable. The legislation that Fox found so "shameful" is the very same that is being protested so vehemently by hundreds of thousands around the country. The mainstream media's massive protest coverage kept coming back to a few central themes: the protesters are against "criminalizing" the illegal crossing of U.S. borders and they are seeking a blanket amnesty for undocumented immigrants currently residing in the country. Fox turned to Allyn & Co. to push this very agenda.

Why I Am Embarrassed To Present My Passport: US exports to Europe have been hit with a further $9.1 million (£4.9m; 7.2m euros) in tariffs from the European Union for breaking World Trade Organisation rules. The move comes as the US continues to benefit from the Byrd amendment, which lets US firms raise a levy from competitors' goods which it deems to be too cheap. The amendment was ruled illegal over a year ago and repealed in February, but US firms are expected to benefit from it for a further two years. This latest penalty brings the total extra tariffs imposed upon the US to $36.9 million. Peter Mandelson - the EU trade commissioner - has said that while the trade dispute has been resolved, US firms are still receiving payments. The US was given until the end of 2003 to comply with a 2002 ruling by the WTO which ruled the Byrd amendment illegal. But the US failed to comply with the rule, allowing the EU as well as seven other countries - Brazil, Canada, Chile, India, Japan, Korea and Mexico - to fine the US. The levy has forced European consumers to pay a higher price for US clothing, textile, machinery, paper goods and sweetcorn than for non-US goods. Since the Byrd amendment was passed in 2000, manufacturers in the metals and food businesses among others, have been the recipients of billions of dollars in payments.

President Bush praised Azerbaijan's president Friday despite human-rights problems documented by the State Department, and he said the country has a "very important role to play" in meeting global energy needs. Bush met in the Oval Office with President Ilham Aliev, who succeeded his father 2 ½ years ago in a ballot that the State Department said suffered from "numerous, serious irregularities." With Aliev sitting in an armchair next to him, Bush held out Azerbaijan as "a modern Muslim country that is able to provide for its citizens, that understands that democracy is the wave of the future." The meeting demonstrated the difficulty the administration faces as it seeks to maintain U.S. access to oil and gas supplies from countries that may be unstable or unreliable, often because of corruption or human-rights abuses. A year ago, the country celebrated the opening of a 1,100-mile pipeline from its capital, Baku, on the Caspian Sea, through Georgia and on to a Mediterranean port in Turkey. The event was important enough to the U.S. that Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman attended.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone has lashed out at US diplomats for refusing to pay a vehicle levy in the capital after figures revealed the American embassy was the worst fine dodger in the past six months. It racked up 271,000 pounds in fines over that period, according to data released under freedom of information laws. The US embassy decided in July last year it would not pay the levy, arguing it was a local tax and therefore did not apply to foreign diplomats. This move triggered an angry row with Livingstone, who insists all embassies should pay the eight-pounds-a-day charge. "It really is remarkable that the richest country in the world topped the congestion charge non-payers' league over the last six months," Livingstone said on Monday. "The British government has clearly told the embassy that the congestion charge is not a tax, it is a charge for a service - reduced congestion - from which US diplomats benefit. "British diplomats respect American law in the USA, United States diplomats should do the same in this country. By refusing to do so, they bring their entire government into disrepute." In the list of biggest fine dodgers over the past six months, the US embassy was followed by Nigeria with 202,150 pounds in penalties; Angola at 127,150 pounds and Sudan at 94,250 pounds.

"Extraordinary Rendition" Watch: European Union investigators, probing the alleged CIA abduction of a Kuwaiti-born German, on Saturday visited a hotel where he stayed in Macedonia in 2004. "Why was he here for 23 days? And was he here voluntarily, or detained?" asked Claudio Fava, who heads the committee in the European parliament investigating allegations of secret prisoner transfers and illegal detentions by the CIA in Europe. Human rights groups cite the case of Khaled el-Masri as an example of U.S. "extraordinary rendition" - or secret transfers of terrorist suspects to third countries where they face abuse or torture. The hotel visit ended a three-day trip to Macedonia by the investigative team of the European parliament. Fava told Reuters the investigators wanted to know who had paid Masri's bill at the hotel, where he said for the first 23 days of 2004. "Somebody paid the bill," Fava said in the foyer of the Skopski Merak hotel in a leafy district of the capital, Skopje. "But this is my question: Who paid?"

Bill Of Rights Death Watch: The federal government intends to invoke the rarely used "State Secrets Privilege" -- the legal equivalent of a nuclear bomb -- in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's class action lawsuit against AT&T that alleges the telecom collaborated with the government's secret spying on American citizens. The State Secrets Privilege is a vestige from English common law that lets the executive branch step into a civil lawsuit and have it dismissed if the case might reveal information that puts national security at risk. Today's assertion severely darkens the prospects of the EFF's lawsuit, which the organization had hoped would shine light on the extent of the Bush Administration's admitted warrantless spying on Americans. The government is not admitting, however, that AT&T aided the National Security Agency in spying on American's phone calls and internet communications. "[T]he fact that the United States will assert the state secrets privilege should not be construed as a confirmation or denial of any of Plaintiffs¿ allegations, either about AT&T or the alleged surveillance activities," the filing reads. "When allegations are made about purported classified government activities or relationships, regardless of whether those allegations are accurate, the existence or non-existence of the activity or relationship is potentially a state secret."

Republican Policies Build A Strong America: The dollar has embarked on a big decline that will see it fall against all leading currencies, according to analysts. The plunge is being prompted by America's $800 billion (£438 billion) current-account deficit, they say. The dollar has been under pressure following last weekend's meeting of G7 finance ministers and central bankers, which emphasised "global imbalances" and said currencies should reflect economic fundamentals. Then China raised its key interest rate to 5.85%, its first hike for months, and Ben Bernanke, the new Federal Reserve chairman, hinted that American rates would pause at 5% after a rise in May. Analysts say that without interest-rate support, the dollar will be weighed down heavily by America's imbalances. "I think this is it," said Tony Norfield, global head of currency strategy at ABN Amro. "The dollar has been supported by high yields but markets are saying that is no longer enough. The question for policymakers is going to be how to manage the dollar's decline. It won’t be a one-way street but the fall is likely to be biggest against Asian currencies." The euro has already risen to an 11-month high of more than $1.26, while the dollar is at a three-month low of 113.70 against the yen. The Canadian dollar, known by traders as the "loonie," rose to a 28-year high on Friday, boosted by a hike in Canadian interest rates. Sterling climbed back above $1.80, closing above $1.82 in New York on Friday.

Republicans Believe In Honest, Transparent Government: As the Bush administration has dramatically accelerated the classification of information as "top secret" or "confidential," one office is refusing to report on its annual activity in classifying documents: the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. A standing executive order, strengthened by President Bush in 2003, requires all agencies and "any other entity within the executive branch" to provide an annual accounting of their classification of documents. More than 80 agencies have collectively reported to the National Archives that they made 15.6 million decisions in 2004 to classify information, nearly double the number in 2001, but Cheney insists he is exempt. Explaining why the vice president has withheld even a tally of his office's secrecy when offices such as the National Security Council routinely report theirs, a spokeswoman said Cheney is "not under any duty" to provide it.

Republicans Avoid Even The Appearance Of Wrongdoing: A report by the Congressional Research Service undermines Vice President Dick Cheney's denial of a continuing relationship with Halliburton Co., the energy company he once led and which is continuing to receive numerous no-bid contracts under Cheney's guidance, Sen. Frank Lautenberg said Thursday. The report says a public official's unexercised stock options and deferred salary fall within the definition of "retained ties" to his former company. Cheney said Sunday on NBC that since becoming vice president, "I've severed all my ties with the company, gotten rid of all my financial interest. I have no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind and haven't had, now, for over three years." Democrats pointed out that Cheney receives deferred compensation from Halliburton under an arrangement he made in 1998, and also retains stock options. He has pledged to give after-tax proceeds of the stock options to charity. Cheney's aides defended the assertion on NBC, saying the financial arrangements do not constitute a tie to the company's business performance. They pointed out that Cheney took out a $15,000 insurance policy so he would collect the deferred payments over five years whether or not Halliburton remains in business.

News From The Talibaptist Jihad: According to a recent Planned Parenthood email, a 17-year-old girl mistakenly walked into a "crisis pregnancy center" thinking it was Planned Parenthood, which was next door. "The group took down the girl's confidential personal information and told her to come back for her appointment, which they said would be in their 'other office' (the real Planned Parenthood office nearby)." When she showed up for her nonexistent appointment, she was met by the police, who had been erroneously tipped that a minor was being forced to abort. The crisis pregnancy center staff followed up this harassment by staking out the girl's house, phoning her father at work, and even talking to her classmates about her pregnancy, urging them to harass her. I contacted Jennifer Jorczak of Planned Parenthood of Indiana to verify this story, and while she was unable to provide details out of respect for the patient's privacy, she confirmed that everything in the initial action alert email was true. This humiliating and frustrating experience seems, by all accounts, to await more American women in the near future. And the best part? It's funded by your tax dollars. These tactics are even more troubling in light of the growing legislative support to direct taxpayer money towards crisis pregnancy centers and away from places that provide actual reproductive services to low-income women. Texas, as usual, stands at the forefront of conservative innovation in the art of draining public funding while reducing services. In the latest round of cuts, $25 million was sliced from the state budget for family planning services and $5 million of that money was set aside in a rider from Republican Sen. Tommy Williams to fund crisis pregnancy centers.

The Justice Department plans to set aside cellblocks at up to half a dozen federal prisons for an ambitious pilot program to prepare inmates for release. But it has produced an outcry by saying that it wants a private group to counsel the prisoners according to a single religious faith. The plans do not specify what that faith must be, but they appear to rule out secular counseling or programs that offer inmates guidance in a variety of faiths. The Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State charged in a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that the Justice Department's Bureau of Prisons has tailored its bidding requirements to fit one particular program: an immersion in evangelical Christianity offered by Charles W. Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries. Outlining 10 ways in which the Bureau of Prisons' request for proposals from private contractors dovetails with Prison Fellowship's "InnerChange" program, Americans United contended that the plan is unconstitutional and urged Gonzales to withdraw it. Gonzales has not responded to the April 19 letter, Americans United said.

Scandals Du Jour: A Washington watchdog group called on the Justice Department today to begin an official investigation into whether Texas Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) received bribes from a San Fransisco defense firm in exchange for supporting earmarks that benefited the company. A call and email placed for comment were not immediately returned. Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington filed the complaint Wednesday. The group has "filed" repeated ethics complaints before -- but the complaint against sessions was filed with the Justice Department, instead of simply being announced publicly. Ethics complaints must be filed by a member of Congress; Justice Department complaints can be made by anyone. The group's complaint also alleges that Rep. Sessions had substantive ties with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

We Conservatives Are More Moral Than You: A GOP telemarketing firm implicated in two criminal prosecutions involving election dirty tricks got its startup money from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, financial records show. Barbour's investment company arranged a quarter-million-dollar loan to GOP Marketplace in 2000 and also gave a promotional plug to the telemarketer several months later, according to Virginia corporation records and other documents. A spokesman for the governor said Barbour had no idea the company would engage in criminal activity. The lawyer for the now-defunct company's convicted president said Barbour was not consulted about its operations. "None of the creditors had any role in the management or activities of the company. In fact, the loan was not fully repaid," gubernatorial spokesman Buddy Bynum said. "There has never been any claim that Governor Barbour or any of the other creditors knew of any illegal conduct or did anything improper." Barbour, who became Mississippi governor in 2003, gushed over the prospects of GOP Marketplace in a company press release in 2000. He predicted it would be profitable and "give Republicans an edge" by using the Internet to buy and sell telemarketing services.

Rush Limbaugh must submit to random drug tests under an agreement filed Monday that will dismiss a prescription fraud charge against the conservative commentator after 18 months if he complies with the terms. He also must continue treatment for his acknowledged addiction to painkillers and he cannot own a gun. The agreement did not call for Limbaugh to admit guilt to the charge that he sought a prescription from a physician in 2003 without revealing that he had received medications from another practitioner within 30 days. He pleaded not guilty Friday. "This is a common sense resolution and the appropriate way the state should treat people who have admitted an addiction to prescription pain medication and voluntarily sought treatment," Limbaugh's attorney, Roy Black, said in a statement Monday to The Associated Press. Prosecutors launched their investigation in 2003 after Limbaugh's housekeeper alleged he abused OxyContin and other painkillers. He entered a five-week rehabilitation program that year and blamed his addiction on severe back pain.

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