Monday, February 28 Nine Circles of Hell!


The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – for Monday, February 28, 2011, plus a bonus story on budget cuts and two more on the Oman protests, are:

Republican budget would put 700,000 more Americans out of work

US government experimented on prisoners, disabled

Native Americans fighting government over solar farm locations

Toxins from natural gas drilling could be in drinking water

Iraq, Afghan war contractors led to tens of billions in waste

Wikileaks shows how Saudi royals stole billions from citizens

Oman leadership latest to be challenged by protests

Israeli investigation exonerates killing of civilians

Canada calls inquiry into rights violations by cops at G20 protests

Republican budget would put 700,000 more Americans out of work
The Washington Post

GOP spending plan would cost 700,000 jobs, new report says

A Republican plan to sharply cut federal spending this year would destroy 700,000 jobs through 2012, according to an independent economic analysis set for release Monday.

The report, by Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, offers fresh ammunition to Democrats seeking block the Republican plan, which would terminate dozens of programs and slash federal appropriations by $61 billion over the next seven months.

Zandi, an architect of the 2009 stimulus package who has advised both political parties, predicts that the GOP package would reduce economic growth by 0.5 percentage points this year, and by 0.2 percentage points in 2012, resulting in 700,000 fewer jobs by the end of next year.

His report comes on the heels of a similar analysis last week by the investment bank Goldman Sachs, which predicted that the Republican spending cuts would cause even greater damage to the economy, slowing growth by as much as 2 percentage points in the second and third quarters of this year.

Zandi also had bad news for liberal Democrats who are resisting sharp spending cuts: Bringing deficits down to sustainable levels will require more than a growing economy. Even if the economy recovers as expected, he writes, lawmakers will have to cut about $400 billion a year through the rest of this decade to narrow the gap between spending and revenue, and stop adding significantly to the national debt.

“Significant government spending restraint is vital, but given the still halting economic recovery, it would be counterproductive for that restraint to begin until the economy is creating enough jobs to bring down the still very high unemployment rate,” Zandi writes. “Shutting the government down for any length of time would also be taking a big chance with the recovery, not only because of the disruption to government services, but also due to the potential hit to the fragile collective psyche.”

  • The CNN story, “New budget campaign asks ‘What would Jesus cut?’,” challenges the conservative mantra that Christ was a reactionary:
    A coalition of progressive Christian leaders has taken out a full-page ad that asks “What would Jesus cut?” in Monday’s edition of Politico, the opening salvo in what the leaders say will be a broader campaign to prevent cuts for the poor and international aid programs amid the budget battle raging in Washington.
    “They’re talking about cutting bed nets for malaria and leaving every piece of military spending untouched,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, who leads the Christian group Sojourners, referring to Republican spending proposals for the rest of this year.
    “Are we saying that every piece of military equipment is more important than bed nets, children’s health and nutrition for low-income families?” said Wallis, whose group paid for Monday’s ad. “If so they should be ashamed of themselves.”
    The ad and the broader campaign are aimed mostly at a spending measure passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives that cuts $61 billion from current spending levels, including cuts to Head Start, the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program and international aid programs …
    The faith leaders behind the “What would Jesus cut” campaign are also lobbying the Obama administration to forego proposed cuts to programs like college grants and heating assistance to low-income Americans in the 2012 federal budget.

US government experimented on prisoners, disabled
The Associated Press

Past medical testing on humans revealed

Shocking as it may seem, U.S. government doctors once thought it was fine to experiment on disabled people and prison inmates. Such experiments included giving hepatitis to mental patients in Connecticut, squirting a pandemic flu virus up the noses of prisoners in Maryland, and injecting cancer cells into chronically ill people at a New York hospital.

Much of this horrific history is 40 to 80 years old, but it is the backdrop for a meeting in Washington this week by a presidential bioethics commission. The meeting was triggered by the government’s apology last fall for federal doctors infecting prisoners and mental patients in Guatemala with syphilis 65 years ago.

U.S. officials also acknowledged there had been dozens of similar experiments in the United States — studies that often involved making healthy people sick.

An exhaustive review by The Associated Press of medical journal reports and decades-old press clippings found more than 40 such studies. At best, these were a search for lifesaving treatments; at worst, some amounted to curiosity-satisfying experiments that hurt people but provided no useful results.

Inevitably, they will be compared to the well-known Tuskegee syphilis study. In that episode, U.S. health officials tracked 600 black men in Alabama who already had syphilis but didn’t give them adequate treatment even after penicillin became available.

These studies were worse in at least one respect — they violated the concept of “first do no harm,” a fundamental medical principle that stretches back centuries.

“When you give somebody a disease — even by the standards of their time — you really cross the key ethical norm of the profession,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics.

Some of these studies, mostly from the 1940s to the ’60s, apparently were never covered by news media. Others were reported at the time, but the focus was on the promise of enduring new cures, while glossing over how test subjects were treated.

Native Americans fighting government over solar farm locations
The Associated Press

Native American groups sue to stop solar projects

Native Americans are clashing with the federal government over plans to fast-track approval and construction of massive solar energy projects that the Indians fear will harm sacred and culturally significant sites in Western deserts.

Recent lawsuits by two native groups pose a threat to half dozen proposed solar developments that the Obama administration has identified as a high priority in its quest for more clean energy production. One suit already has halted work on a major solar farm in Southern California.

Land use and legal experts say the lawsuits mark a new phase in a historically troubled relationship between the federal Bureau of Land Management and American Indians, who in the past have gone to court to block oil, gas, mining and other energy projects on public lands managed by the agency.

“There is this sense that there is this rush to renewable energy that’s politically motivated and when tribes are consulted their concerns aren’t being taken seriously,” said Michelle Raheja, interim director of the California Center for Native Nations. “There’s no guarantee that once the project starts that they won’t harm something …

Dave Singleton with the California Native American Heritage Commission, which advises local, state and federal agencies on issues involving indigenous communities, said he’s heard from at least 10 tribes in the Colorado River area concerned about various renewable projects. The problem is in part cultural: while a site may not be registered as historic, some tribal leaders say they know it’s sacred because of oral history accounts.

“The tribes are saying you’ve consulted us, we’ve identified sites and you’re saying it doesn’t matter,” Singleton said. “There’s a rising anger that they’re being treated with disrespect.”

While the concept of using renewable sources of energy such as sunshine aligns with nature-based principles that have historically guided Native communities, members say the projects are simply in the wrong place. Some of 56,000 acres proposed for fast track solar projects in California are near abandoned villages, native drawings and other cultural landmarks.

Toxins from natural gas drilling could be in drinking water
The New York Times

Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers

Environmentalists say using natural gas will help slow climate change because it burns more cleanly than coal and oil. Lawmakers hail the gas as a source of jobs. They also see it as a way to wean the United States from its dependency on other countries for oil.

But the relatively new drilling method — known as high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking — carries significant environmental risks. It involves injecting huge amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, at high pressures to break up rock formations and release the gas.

With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.

While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.

The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.

Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.

The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.

But the E.P.A. has not intervened. In fact, federal and state regulators are allowing most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste not to test for radioactivity. And most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008.

In other words, there is no way of guaranteeing that the drinking water taken in by all these plants is safe.

Iraq, Afghan war contractors led to tens of billions in waste

Report: Billions lost on contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan

A new report blasts the U.S. government for wasting tens of billions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan by relying too much on contractors and doing too little to monitor their performance.

The interim report from the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan points out that contractors in the war zones sometimes have exceeded the number of military personnel. Numbering 200,000, contractors now roughly match the military force.

“Misspent dollars run into the tens of billions,” the report said. The 64-page report was released Thursday and will be followed up next week with a hearing on how to improve contractor accountability.

“War by its nature entails waste. But the scale of the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan also reflects the toxic interplay of huge sums of money pumped into relatively small economies and an unprecedented reliance on contractors,” the report said.

Sen. James Webb, D-Virginia, who helped establish the commission three years ago, said Friday that its latest proposals deserve attention from Congress and the Department of Defense and called for a hearing on the matter.

“The report’s specific recommendations to address the federal government’s overreliance on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan and failure to control the process underscore the importance of the Commission’s charter,” Webb said in a prepared statement.

The report repeatedly criticized the federal government for turning to contractors for too many purposes, including monitoring other contractors.

“The government has abdicated its contracting responsibilities — too often using contractors as the default mechanism, driven by considerations other than whether they provide the best solution, and without consideration for the resources needed to manage them,” the report said.

Wikileaks shows how Saudi royals stole billions from citizens

Special Report: U.S. cables detail Saudi royal welfare program

When Saudi King Abdullah arrived home last week, he came bearing gifts: handouts worth $37 billion, apparently intended to placate Saudis of modest means and insulate the world’s biggest oil exporter from the wave of protest sweeping the Arab world.

But some of the biggest handouts over the past two decades have gone to his own extended family, according to unpublished American diplomatic cables dating back to 1996.

The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and reviewed by Reuters, provide remarkable insight into how much the vast royal welfare program has cost the country — not just financially but in terms of undermining social cohesion.

Besides the huge monthly stipends that every Saudi royal receives, the cables detail various money-making schemes some royals have used to finance their lavish lifestyles over the years. Among them: siphoning off money from “off-budget” programs controlled by senior princes, sponsoring expatriate workers who then pay a small monthly fee to their royal patron and, simply, “borrowing from the banks, and not paying them back.”

As long ago as 1996, U.S. officials noted that such unrestrained behavior could fuel a backlash against the Saudi elite. In the assessment of the U.S. embassy in Riyadh in a cable from that year, “of the priority issues the country faces, getting a grip on royal family excesses is at the top.”

Oman leadership latest to be challenged by protests

Oman protests spread, road to port blocked

Demonstrators blocked roads to a main port in northern Oman and looted a nearby supermarket on Monday, part of protests to demand more jobs and political reform that have spread to the sultanate’s capital.

A doctor said six people had been killed in clashes between stone-throwing protesters and police on Sunday in the northern industrial town of Sohar. Oman’s health minister said only one person had been killed and 20 wounded.

Hundreds of protesters blocked access to an industrial area that includes the port, a refinery and aluminum factory. A port spokeswoman said exports of refined oil products that typically amount to 160,000 barrels per day from the port were unaffected.

“We want to see the benefit of our oil wealth distributed evenly to the population,” one protester yelled over a loudhailer near the port. “We want to see a scale-down of expatriates in Oman so more jobs can be created for Omanis.”

Peaceful protests also spread to other cities, with hundreds of people demonstrating outside a government ministerial complex in Muscat and at another site in the capital.

The unrest in Sohar, Oman’s main industrial center, was a rare outbreak of discontent in the normally sleepy sultanate ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said for four decades, and follows a wave of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world.

The sultan, trying to calm tensions, promised on Sunday to create more jobs, give unemployment benefits and study widening the authority of a quasi-parliamentary advisory council.

  • The Al Jazeera story, “Protesters defy crackdown in Oman,” reveals protesters demands and their loyalty to Sultan Qaboos, but not his underlings:
    Basma al-Rajhi, an Omani political activist, told Al Jazeera that “Omanis are calling for [the government to] combat corruption and fight the rising cost of living, in addition to many other issues, [such as] raising salaries and [greater] media freedoms.”
    She said that protesters had not been satisfied with government decrees, announced earlier this week, aimed at tackling these issues.
    The demonstrators in Oman, as with other protesters in the region, have emphasised their loyalty to their ruler (Omar sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said), while voicing their dissatisfaction with his officials.
    Qaboos deposed his father in a 1970 palace coup to end the country’s isolation and use its oil revenue for modernisation. He appoints the cabinet, but in 1992 introduced the elected advisory Shura Council.
  • The Guardian article, “Could Africa’s lost billions end poverty at a stroke?,” wonders exactly how much has been stolen and how much that contributes to the region’s poverty:
    There are myriad policies western governments could adopt to help Africa and other poor regions finance development. They just happen to be slightly more costly to us and/or run up against more powerful vested interests.
    The current spotlight on north African despots points to one of these alternatives. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president, has apparently managed to accumulate $70bn over the years. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi has something of that order as well, which makes Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali the region’s presidential pauper with a feeble $3.5bn to his name.
    Since Mubarak assumed the presidency in 1981, Egypt has received $53.6bn in official development aid (about $80bn in today’s money), according to figures from the World Bank’s world development indicators. In other words, for every dollar Egypt has received in aid, Mubarak has managed to acrue roughly a dollar for himself, give or take a luxury yacht or two.
    We are yet to find out the details of the Mubarak family fortune, how much it was in reality, and how it was acquired. We probably never will. It is fair to assume that much of it came from what one expert (Amaney Jamal, a political science professor at Princeton University) describes as “stifling of public resources for personal gain”, including using exclusive access to investment deals generating hefty profits.
    There are various ways to interpret this. You could say that, given the fungibility of money (ie the ease with which it can be moved within budget lines and bank accounts), donor countries have contributed indirectly to the Mubarak family’s multi-billion dollar fortune. Alternatively, you might argue that the money would have been stifled anyway and that Egypt would therefore have been even worse off without foreign aid.
    Of course, the primary purpose of aid to Egypt wasn’t really for development, but to bolster a president playing what was seen as an important stabilising role in the region – so in that sense, aid worked and Mubarak’s personal fortune was not a primary concern.
    Whatever your take, the futility of seeing so much money siphoned out to offshore accounts (or onshore in the case of London and Switzerland) must give the development finance community pause for thought. We have so far only looked at one family’s wealth; what about all the other officials in Egypt taking their piece of the pie?
    Clearly, countries like Mali have vastly fewer resources than Egypt but on some estimates, African political elites hold between $700-800bn outside Africa. The fact that it is outside Africa is key. If they stole it and reinvested it in their own countries, while the impact on accountability and governance would still be severe, the economic consequences would be less so – it would still contribute to growth and capital formation.
    Government corruption is by no means the largest source of capital flight from Africa. Tens of billions of dollars (at least) are lost every year through fake and mispriced trade transactions. Global Financial Integrity, the organisation leading the fight against capital flight, estimates that up to 60% of African trade transactions are intentionally mispriced by an average of 11%.
    These figures demonstrate a problem that should have the international community in a frenzy of initiatives and conferences. But in reality there is very little action taking place. Thankfully, more and more officials are waking up to the scale of the problem. A report on good financial governance in Africa, written by the African Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions, the African Tax Administration Forum and the Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative, places stemming capital flight from corruption and transfer mispricing at the top of the agenda for the next few years.

Israeli investigation exonerates killing of civilians

‘Israel’s 2002 hit of Hamas leader was justified, despite civilian casualties’

Israeli military and political officials should not be forced to assume personal responsibility for the 2002 Gaza assassination of a Hamas strongman which resulted in the death of 13 innocent Palestinians, a panel probing the incident said in its report on Sunday.

On July 22, 2002 an Israeli plane dropped a 1-ton bomb on a house in Gaza City in which Hamas military wing commander Salah Shehadeh was staying. In addition to Shehadeh and his aide, 13 civilians, including eight children were killed in the incident.

A committee was appointed by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 to investigate the incident, following a High Court appeal by left-wing activist and member of Yesh Gvul, Yoav Hass.

In their appeal, Hass and other Yesh Gvul members insisted that criminal investigations be initiated against then Israel Air Force chief Dan Halutz, then Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, then Defense Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In the report culminating the panel’s probe submitted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, committee members justified the strike, saying that the “targeted killing against Shehadeh was imperative because of the increase and escalation in terrorist attacks since 2000, in a manner which led to a situation of actual war, classified as an ‘armed conflict.’”

Canada calls inquiry into rights violations by cops at G20 protests
The Canadian Press

G20 rights abuses need public inquiry: report

A full-scale public inquiry is needed in light of the widespread and violent trampling of civil rights by police at last summer’s $1-billion G20 summit in Toronto, a new report concludes.

The call for an inquiry is among recommendations in the report — by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and National Union of Public and General Employees — which is aimed at holding governments accountable and avoiding a recurrence.

“The many violations of civil liberties that occurred during the summit, such as illegal detentions and searches and excessive uses of force, cannot have simply been the actions of a few bad apples,” the report states.

“Rather, given the scope and severity of the violations of rights that occurred during the G20, it is difficult to view this situation as anything other than a failure of policy and training.”

The 59-page report — slated for release Monday — is the result of three days of public hearings in Toronto and Montreal in November.

Dozens of people caught up in the weekend mayhem last June — 1,105 people were arrested — spoke up, as did lawyers and academics. Police refused to take part.

“Much of the testimony we heard was shocking and appalling,” said union president James Clancy.

“Over and over again, witnesses recounted their experiences involving the excessive violent dispersal of peaceful demonstrators by police and the dehumanizing treatment of many of those who were detained.”

Speakers included Natalie Gray, 20, who alleges she was hit by police-fired rubber bullets while she and 150 others protested peacefully.

Among the photographs in the report is one of Revenue Canada worker, John Pruyn, 58, who had his artificial leg yanked off by police who arrested him as he sat on the grass at the legislature.