The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – for Monday, September 20, 2010, including bonus stories on the Israeli settlements and on the charges against US soldiers, are:
Leak plugged, but massive fish kills keep Gulf residents “on our toes”
Despite final well kill, oil persists along coastal Louisiana
The final kill may have permanently plugged the broken well in the Gulf, but in Plaquemines Parish, the finality is hard to swallow.
“We sleep with one eye open, wondering if we’re going to have another leak,” said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. “So, that is great news, that we know, since that well has been stopped, now everyday we’re making progress. But, I tell you, we got to be on our toes.”
Lately, what is keeping the parish on its collective toes are fish kills: at least four major ones, within the last two weeks.
“Millions of fish, absolutely, millions,” said P.J. Hahn, the parish’s Coastal Zone Management Director.
Hahn has been documenting the fish kills, including one in Bayou Robinson on Sunday.
“We’re used to seeing fish kills out here at this time of year, but not at this number, mass number of fish that are dying, and not in the frequency that they are occurring now,” he said.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said the fish kills are due to low oxygen — and not related to the oil spill. However, parish leaders remain unconvinced. On Sunday, representatives of the district attorney’s office in Plaquemines, went out to one of the fish kill areas. They collected samples, which could end up being used in civil penalties case related to the oil spill.
“We’re just building our case,” said Christina Cossich DeYoung, a private attorney whose firm is assisting the district attorney’s office. “We’re coming to take samples of the fish, to take scrape the fish, to see if there is any oil in the fish.”
Beyond the uncertainty of the fish kill, though, is the certainty that no new oil will flow into the Gulf, now that the relief well is finished and sealed. Yet, the final kill of the well brings little comfort to people in places still getting hit by oil. In Bay Jimmy, oil is still washing ashore, even though the well was capped back in mid-July.
“We’re losing this marsh,” Hahn said, as he pointed at the oiled blades of marsh grass.
Just in the past week alone, clean-up crews in Plaquemines Parish collected more than 37,000 gallons of oily-water mix and another 8,700 bags of tar balls.
California’s medical marijuana growers are now Teamsters
The Associated Press
Medical marijuana growers join Teamsters union
As organized labor faces declining membership, one of the country’s most storied unions is looking to a new growth industry: marijuana.
The Teamsters added nearly 40 new members earlier this month by organizing the country’s first group of unionized marijuana growers. Such an arrangement is likely only possible in California, which has the nation’s loosest medical marijuana laws.
But it’s still unclear how the Teamsters will safeguard the rights of members who do work that’s considered a federal crime.
“I didn’t have this planned out when I became a Teamster 34 years ago, to organize marijuana workers,” said Lou Marchetti, who acted as a liaison between the growers and Oakland-based Teamsters Local 70. “This is a whole new ballgame.”
The new members work as gardeners, trimmers and cloners for Marjyn Investments LLC, an Oakland business that contracts with medical marijuana patients to grow their pot for them.
Their newly negotiated two-year contract provides them with a pension, paid vacation and health insurance. Their current wages of $18 per hour will increase to $25.75 an hour within 15 months, according to the union …
Michael Leong, assistant regional director for the Oakland office of the National Labor Relations Board, said he did not know of any case in which the federal government had been asked to mediate a dispute involving a business that was blatantly illegal under federal law.
He also said it wasn’t clear if the new Teamsters would count as farmworkers, which would put them outside the NLRB’s domain.
Michael Lee, general counsel for the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, said the growers probably would qualify as agricultural workers. Any conflict between workers and the union would likely fall under his board’s jurisdiction, but contract disputes between workers and management would have to be decided in state court.
Even within the state, marijuana cultivation has remained in the shadows as retail dispensaries have flourished because California’s medical marijuana law provides no clear rules for growing the plant.
The Oakland City Council sought to change that dynamic in July by making the city the nation’s first to authorize industrial pot cultivation. More than 260 potential applicants have expressed interest in competing later this year for four permits for large-scale growing operations, said Arturo Sanchez, an assistant to the Oakland city administrator who will ultimately issue the permits.
Union membership will not be a requirement for receiving a permit, but labor standards are one of many factors that will be considered. The union organizing effort and contract negotiations went smoothly at Marjyn, which hopes to win one of the permits.
Justice calls FBI investigations of activists improper, “troubling”
The Washington Post
FBI probes were improper, Justice says
The FBI improperly opened and extended investigations of some U.S. activist groups and put members of an environmental advocacy organization on a terrorist watch list, even though they were planning nonviolent civil disobedience, the Justice Department said Monday.
A report by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine absolved the FBI of the most serious allegation against it: that agents targeted domestic groups based on their exercise of First Amendment rights. Civil liberties groups and congressional Democrats had suggested that the FBI employed such tactics during the George W. Bush administration, which triggered Fine’s review.
But the report cited what it called other “troubling” FBI practices in its monitoring of domestic groups in the years between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and 2006. In some cases, Fine said, agents began investigations of people affiliated with activist groups for “factually weak” reasons.
In others, the report said, the FBI extended probes “without adequate basis” and improperly kept information about activist groups in its files. Among the groups monitored were the Thomas Merton Center, a Pittsburgh peace group; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; and Greenpeace USA. Activists affiliated with Greenpeace were improperly put on a terrorist watch list, the report said.
FBI deputy director Timothy P. Murphy, in a response included with the report, said the FBI was “pleased” that Fine “concludes the FBI did not target any groups for investigation on the basis of their First Amendment activities.” He said the FBI inquiries were based on information about potential criminal activities.
Murphy’s boss, FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, is cited in the report for unintentionally providing inaccurate congressional testimony about one of the investigations. Relying on information from other FBI officials, Mueller testified in 2006 that the FBI had information that “certain persons of interest” in international terrorism probes were expected to be present at a 2002 antiwar event sponsored by the Merton Center, Fine’s office said.
An FBI agent from the Pittsburgh Field Division attended the rally and was told by his supervisor to look for terrorism suspects, but Fine’s investigators found no evidence that the FBI had information that any terrorism suspects would be there.
Murphy, in his response, said the FBI “regrets that inaccurate information was provided,” but he does not explain how that happened.
After a second killing, Juarez paper pleas for peace with drug cartel
The Associated Press
Mexico border newspaper seeks truce with cartels
The largest newspaper in Ciudad Juarez asked the border city’s warring drug cartels Sunday for a truce after the killing last week of its second journalist in less than two years.
In a front-page editorial, El Diario de Juarez asked the cartels what they want from the newspaper so it can continue its work without further death, injury or intimidation of its staff.
“Leaders of the different organizations that are fighting for control of Ciudad Juarez: The loss of two reporters from this publishing house in less than two years represents an irreparable breakdown for all of us who work here, and, in particular, for their families,” the editorial said.
“We ask you to explain what you want from us, what we should try to publish or not publish, so we know what to expect.”
It was the newspaper’s second front-page editorial since gunmen attacked two El Diario photographers Thursday — one a new employee and the other an intern. One died and the other was seriously wounded as they left for lunch in Mexico’s most dangerous city.
In 2008, a crime reporter for El Diario was slain outside his home as he was about to take his daughters to school.
The editorial Sunday said drug gangs in the city across from El Paso, Texas, are the de facto authorities, and criticized both the Chihuahua state government and President Felipe Calderon for their lack of protection for journalists.
“We don’t want to continue to be used as cannon fodder in this war because we’re tired,” Diario’s editor, Pedro Torres, told The Associated Press.
He said the staff felt great rage, helplessness and despair after burying new employee Luis Carlos Santiago, 21, on Saturday.
“Burying the body does not bury the impunity or pain,” Torres said. “There is a feeling of great anxiety and impotence surrounding this situation.”
Contractor gets Afghan reconstruction deals after fraud allegations
U.S. contractor accused of fraud still winning big Afghan projects
On July 31, 2006, an employee of the Louis Berger Group, a contractor handling some of the most important U.S. rebuilding projects in Afghanistan, handed federal investigators explosive evidence that the company was intentionally and systematically overbilling American taxpayers.
Neither the whistleblower’s computer disk full of incriminating documents nor a trail of allegations of waste, fraud and shoddy construction, however, prevented Louis Berger from continuing to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts.
In fact, two months after the government learned of the employee’s allegations, the U.S. Agency for International Development tapped Louis Berger to oversee another $1.4 billion in reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan.
The decision to brush aside the allegations and the evidence and keep doing business with Louis Berger, underscores a persistent dilemma for the Obama administration in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Cutting ties with suspect war-zone contractors in Afghanistan would threaten the administration’s effort to rebuild the country and begin withdrawing some of the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops there next July. However, as the recession, unemployment and budget deficits prompt belt-tightening at home, the billions the administration is spending to try to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq are receiving increasing scrutiny from Congress and the public.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a longtime critic of the U.S.’s handling of war zone contracting, said the Obama administration should do more to crack down on waste and fraud in Afghanistan.
“Fraudulent defense contractors need to be held accountable because they undermine our nation’s interests both abroad and at home,” he said.
Soldiers charged with randomly killing Afghans, cutting up corpses
The Washington Post
Members of Stryker Combat Brigade in Afghanistan accused of killing civilians for sport
The U.S. soldiers hatched a plan as simple as it was savage: to randomly target and kill an Afghan civilian, and to get away with it.
For weeks, according to Army charging documents, rogue members of a platoon from the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, floated the idea. Then, one day last winter, a solitary Afghan man approached them in the village of La Mohammed Kalay. The “kill team” activated the plan.
One soldier created a ruse that they were under attack, tossing a fragmentary grenade on the ground. Then others opened fire.
According to charging documents, the unprovoked, fatal attack on Jan. 15 was the start of a months-long shooting spree against Afghan civilians that resulted in some of the grisliest allegations against American soldiers since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Members of the platoon have been charged with dismembering and photographing corpses, as well as hoarding a skull and other human bones.
The subsequent investigation has raised accusations about whether the military ignored warnings that the out-of-control soldiers were committing atrocities. The father of one soldier said he repeatedly tried to alert the Army after his son told him about the first killing, only to be rebuffed.
Two more slayings would follow. Military documents allege that five members of the unit staged a total of three murders in Kandahar province between January and May. Seven other soldiers have been charged with crimes related to the case, including hashish use, attempts to impede the investigation and a retaliatory gang assault on a private who blew the whistle.
Army officials have not disclosed a motive for the killings and macabre behavior. Nor have they explained how the attacks could have persisted without attracting scrutiny. They declined to comment on the case beyond the charges that have been filed, citing the ongoing investigation.
But a review of military court documents and interviews with people familiar with the investigation suggest the killings were committed essentially for sport by soldiers who had a fondness for hashish and alcohol …
According to statements given to investigators, members of the unit – 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment – began talking about forming a “kill team” in December, shortly after the arrival of a new member, Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs, 25, of Billings, Mont.
Gibbs, whom some defendants have described as the ringleader, confided to his new mates that it had been easy for him to get away with “stuff” when he served in Iraq in 2004, according to the statements. It was his second tour in Afghanistan, having served there from January 2006 until May 2007.
The first opportunity presented itself Jan. 15 in the Maiwand district of Kandahar province. Members of the 3rd Platoon were providing perimeter security for a meeting between Army officers and tribal elders in the village of La Mohammed Kalay.
According to charging documents, an Afghan named Gul Mudin began walking toward the soldiers. As he approached, Cpl. Jeremy N. Morlock, 22, of Wasilla, Alaska, threw the grenade on the ground, records show, to create the illusion that the soldiers were under attack.
Pfc. Andrew H. Holmes, a 19-year-old from Boise, Idaho, saw the grenade and fired his weapon at Mudin, according to charging documents. The grenade exploded, prompting other soldiers to open fire on the villager as well, killing him.
In statements to investigators, the soldiers involved have given conflicting details. In one statement that his attorney has subsequently tried to suppress, Morlock said that Gibbs had given him the grenade and that others were also aware of the ruse beforehand. But Holmes and his attorney said he was in the dark and opened fire only because Morlock ordered him to do so.
“He was unwittingly used as the cover story,” said Daniel Conway, a civilian defense attorney for Holmes. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Morlock, Holmes and Gibbs have each been charged with murder in the shooting. Attorneys for Morlock and Gibbs did not return phone calls seeking comment.
- The New York Times story, “5 U.S. Soldiers Accused of Killing Afghan Civilians,” reports:
The father of one of the soldiers said in an interview that he had repeatedly tried to alert military officials that his son had told him through Facebook in February that one murder had already been committed by members of his unit and that others could happen in the future.
If Israel ends settlement moratorium, peace talks will end, too
Agence France Presse
Abbas won’t negotiate if Israel ends settlement curbs
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said on Monday he will not take part in US-backed peace talks “for a single day” if Israel does not extend a freeze on settlement building at the month’s end.
“The negotiations will continue as long as the settlement (construction) remains frozen, but I am not prepared to negotiate an agreement for a single day more,” Abbas told AFP …
But so far Israel has stubbornly refused to extend the partial 10-month ban on new construction, and the Palestinians have vowed to pull out of the talks if building resumes.
Speaking en route to New York on Monday, Abbas stressed he was “not opposed to a settlement freeze for a month or two” and that it was possible “to conclude a peace deal on all final status issues if the settlement freeze is extended.”
“If Israel stops the settlement and shows goodwill, then we can reach an agreement on borders and security, and agreement on other matters like the status of Jerusalem, water and settlements will follow” in due course, he told AFP.
The Palestinian leader’s comments came a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers the settlement moratorium will end as planned.
“Last week, I held political talks in (the Red Sea resort of) Sharm el-Sheikh and Jerusalem. I can’t give any detail about the content of the talks because of its sensitivity. What I can say is that regarding the freeze, there has been no change in our position,” Netanyahu said.
The two rounds of talks, which brought together Abbas, Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, failed to break the impasse.
- The Guardian story, “Phone app monitors Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories,” says there’s an app for that:
Campaigners against Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories have launched a new web and iPhone application that uses powerful mapping technologies to publicise data that was previously hidden away, inaccessible, or simply too costly to distribute …
Information about settlements is notoriously hard to collate and analyse because Israel makes a distinction between the West Bank and East Jerusalem – though both are occupied territory under international law – and because different government departments and other agencies can approve construction. Building and sales are private-sector activities.
New documentary reveals India’s Hindu temple prostitutes
Prostitutes of god
Former Independent journalist Sarah Harris has made a documentary about India’s temple prostitutes – Devadasi are young girls who are dedicated to a Hindu deity at a young age and support their families as sex workers.
The first instalment of the four-part exclusively online documentary ‘Prostitutes of God’ goes live today on VBS.tv.
Harris talked The Independent Online about making the film:
I first went to India after I left The Independent three years ago. I wanted to run away and do something really different, so I went to volunteer with a charity in southern India which rescues victims of sex trafficking.
On my very first day there I stumbled into a meeting of Devadasi prostitutes. I was told that they were temple prostitutes, but didn’t have any understanding of what that meant …
When you approach a Devadasi girl for interview the response varies hugely. There’s a huge spectrum of women. A really wealthy brothel madam in Mumbai would be quite proud to talk about what she does. But in very poor rural communities, like in Karnatakar, they’re much more difficult to talk to. These young women are ostracised and exploited and they’re ashamed of what they do. They wish they could get married, but they can’t and are in this dreadful prison.
The only thing that has changed since the Devadasi practise was made illegal in 1988 is that the ceremonies have been driven underground. It’s still very common in some parts of India. A Westerner wouldn’t know to look at the girls that they are Devadasi, but Indians know on sight who they are and what they do. Really it comes down to caste …
The film shows how much the tradition has deteriorated over the centuries. Specifically in the 19th Century when the Christian missionaries came, the Devadasi became less well thought of. These days it’s very much a low caste tradition. Girls from the Madiga caste, otherwise known as the “untouchable caste,” have really limited prospects. They can be agricultural labourers, sewage collectors or prostitutes, essentially. As prostitution is the most lucrative, a lot of Madiga women get into sex work …
It’s very difficult for girls to leave the profession. You see groups of former Devadasi becoming social activists and campaigners against the tradition. That’s one way out. Another is to become an educator or a social worker. There is a huge movement to try and stop dedications happening, and the impetus for that is coming from the grass roots. The former Devadasi women.
Things don’t look good for the unemployed who are over 50
The New York Times
For the Unemployed Over 50, Fears of Never Working Again
Since the economic collapse, there are not enough jobs being created for the population as a whole, much less for those in the twilight of their careers.
Of the 14.9 million unemployed, more than 2.2 million are 55 or older. Nearly half of them have been unemployed six months or longer, according to the Labor Department. The unemployment rate in the group — 7.3 percent — is at a record, more than double what it was at the beginning of the latest recession.
After other recent downturns, older people who lost jobs fretted about how long it would take to return to the work force and worried that they might never recover their former incomes. But today, because it will take years to absorb the giant pool of unemployed at the economy’s recent pace, many of these older people may simply age out of the labor force before their luck changes …
Being unemployed at any age can be crushing. But older workers suspect their résumés often get shoved aside in favor of those from younger workers. Others discover that their job-seeking skills — as well as some technical skills sought by employers — are rusty after years of working for the same company.
Many had in fact anticipated working past conventional retirement ages to gird themselves financially for longer life spans, expensive health care and reduced pension guarantees.
The most recent recession has increased the need to extend working life. Home values, often a family’s most important asset, have been battered. Stock portfolios are only now starting to recover. According to a Gallup poll in April, more than a third of people not yet retired plan to work beyond age 65, compared with just 12 percent in 1995.
Older workers who lose their jobs could pose a policy problem if they lose their ability to be self-sufficient. “That’s what we should be worrying about,” said Carl E. Van Horn, professor of public policy and director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, “what it means to this class of the new unemployables, people who have been cast adrift at a very vulnerable part of their career and their life.”
Forced early retirement imposes an intense financial strain, particularly for those at lower incomes. The recession and its aftermath have already pushed down some older workers. In figures released last week by the Census Bureau, the poverty rate among those 55 to 64 increased to 9.4 percent in 2009, from 8.6 percent in 2007.
But even middle-class people who might skate by on savings or a spouse’s income are jarred by an abrupt end to working life and to a secure retirement …
Older people who lose their jobs take longer to find work. In August, the average time unemployed for those 55 and older was slightly more than 39 weeks, according to the Labor Department, the longest of any age group. That is much worse than in August 1983, also after a deep recession, when someone unemployed in that age group spent an average of 27.5 weeks finding work.
At this year’s pace of an average of 82,000 new jobs a month, it will take at least eight more years to create the 8 million positions lost during the recession. And that does not even allow for population growth.
Advocates for the elderly worry that younger people are more likely to fill the new jobs as well.
“I do think the longer someone is out of work, the more employers are going to question why it is that someone hasn’t been able to find work,” said Sara Rix, senior strategic policy adviser at AARP, the lobbying group for seniors. “Their skills have atrophied for one thing, and technology changes so rapidly that even if nothing happened to the skills that you have, they may become increasingly less relevant to the jobs that are becoming available.”