Nine Circles of Hell!: Friday, February 17, 2012
Today’s Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – the nine most hellish news stories for Friday, February 17, 2012, are:
Are US taxpayers bailing out big banks again?
U.S. taxpayers may be on the hook to bail out big banks — again. The Financial Times is reporting that taxpayers will subsidize a large portion of the $25 billion mortgage settlement, which was broken down into two distinct pieces:
1. $5 billion in cash payments, of which $1.5 billion would go directly to approximately 750,000 borrowers who were wrongly or illegally foreclosed on between September 2008 and December 2011. This is the part where you have heard that borrowers who were wrongly foreclosed on could receive up to $2,000.
2. $20 billion in “credits” the banks will receive for principal write-downs and other aid to nearly 1 million homeowners at risk of default, up to $20,000 per loan.
It’s part two that’s coming under scrutiny. A clause in the provisional agreement allows the banks to use the government’s Home Affordable Modification Plan, or HAMP, to cover the principal reductions. Neil Barofsky, the former special inspector-general of the TARP, described the clause as “scandalous.” Says Barofsky: “It turns the notion that this is about justice and accountability on its head.”
A little refresher on the HAMP plan: Banks receive payments from the government when they negotiate with underwater homeowners to avoid default. The taxpayer reimbursement is used to help cover the banks’ costs to write down principal balances and keep homeowners in their homes. Last month, the Treasury department announced it was tripling the incentive payments to owners of mortgages who agree to reduce loan balances. The timing of the settlement is therefore perfect.
As the FT notes, “by reducing those balances under HAMP, investors — including the banks who agreed the settlement — now will receive cash payments of up to 63 cents on the dollar for every dollar of loan principal forgiven. They also will receive additional funds when borrowers keep current on their restructured mortgages.”
US to pay $4 billion per year for new Afghan army
The Washington Post with Foreign policy
Afghan army to cost U.S. billions of dollars after 2014 withdrawal
The U.S. military expects that sustaining the Afghan army and police forces after the planned withdrawal of American combat forces in 2014 will cost about $4 billion a year and that most of that money will have to come from the United States and other outside donors, said a senior military official Thursday.
The Obama administration plans to announce the enduring price tag for the Afghan troops at a NATO summit in May. The exact cost of paying, equipping and training the Afghan forces will depend on their size, which is the subject of debate in Kabul and Washington.
“If we are going to succeed in Afghanistan, we are going to have to make a commitment to sustaining the Afghan security forces, and my sense is that is recognized,” the senior military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations. “That is what we are driving toward, and that is what will be announced in May at the summit.”
In recent years, the United States has spent tens of billions of dollars on Afghan forces to increase their numbers and add infrastructure. This year, the Obama administration’s budget for Afghan forces is about $11.2 billion, about twice the planned budget of $5.7 billion in 2013.
The Afghan army and police force had been expected to grow to about 350,000 troops, up from 310,000 today, but Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta suggested this month that the goal could be scaled back to save money.
The Afghan government can afford to pay only about 12 percent of the expected $4 billion annual price tag of the Afghan forces beyond 2014, said the U.S. military official. The majority of the remaining costs would be borne by the U.S. government. U.S. officials also are counting on big contributions from NATO allies to fund the Afghan forces beyond 2014.
“I think that a 2-to-1 ratio is pretty reasonable in terms of financing,” the senior military official said regarding U.S. and European contributions.
Microsoft, GM, Pfizer, linked to group paying climate denial scientists
Climate science attack machine took donations from major corporations
A libertarian thinktank devoted to discrediting climate change received funds and other support from major corporations including some publicly committed to social responsibility, leaked documents reveal.
The inner workings of the Heartland Institute were laid bare on Tuesday night after an “insider” emailed confidential documents detailing its strategy and fundraising network to DeSmogBlog, which monitors industry efforts to discredit climate science.
Much of Heartland’s work to discredit climate change is funded by a single anonymous donor, the papers reveal. However, a 2012 fundraising plan also indicated that Heartland has in the past received funds from a host of major corporations for other projects – including companies that publicly support action on climate change.
Along with tobacco giants Altria and Reynolds America, and drug firms GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Eli Lilley, major corporations have given over $1.1m in the past two years to the institute, and are planning to give another $705,000 this year.
Some of the companies included on Heartland’s list of donors were surprising. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft Corporation, has vigorously promoted clean energy in a number of speeches, and his charitable foundation works on helping farmers in the developing world, who will be badly affected by climate change.
But Heartland claims in a fundraising document to have received $59,908 from Microsoft in 2011.
Microsoft said the donation to Heartland was confined to its global programme to provide free software licences to non-profits. “As part of that programme the organisation requested free software licenses, and Microsoft provided them, just like we do for thousands of other eligible non-profits every year,” Katie Stainer, a spokeswoman for Microsoft, said in a statement.
“Microsoft’s position on climate change remains unchanged. Microsoft believes climate change is a serious issue that demands immediate, worldwide attention and we are acting accordingly. We are pursuing strategies and taking actions that are consistent with a strong commitment to reducing our own impact as well as the impact of our products.
“In addition, Microsoft has adopted a broad policy statement on climate change that expresses support for government action to create market-based mechanisms to address climate change.”
A spokeswoman for GSK said the $50,000 the company donated in the last two years was for a healthcare initiative. She could not comment on whether GSK would be working with Heartland in the future.
She said: “GSK absolutely does not endorse or support the Heartland Institute’s views on the environment and climate change. We have in the past provided a small amount of funding to support the Institute’s healthcare newsletter and a meeting.”
General Motors Foundation, which is committed to social responsibility, has also made modest donations to Heartland, contributing $15,000 in 2010 and 2011, though for projects other than climate science.
There was no immediate response from the foundation, but GM itself defended its $30,000 donation. Greg Martin, GM’s director of policy and Washington communications, said: “We support a variety or organisations that give careful and considerate thought to complex policy issues and Heartland is one of them.”
He said GM’s cash was not donated for a specific programme.
Diageo, the drinks company which owns Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker and Baileys, said its funding of Heartland was now under review. It gave $10,000 over the last two years, according to the leaked papers, and was projected to give another $10,000 this year.
A spokeswoman said the money had been given for a project on excise duty and the company did not agree with Heartland’s views on climate change.
The leaked documents provide an intriguing view of the inner workings of an organisation that has been at the forefront of undermining climate change, and suggest Heartland is on the cusp of a fundraising blitz.
$6T “severe threat” to international finance security busted
Fake US bonds worth trillions seized
Italian prosecutors say they have broken up an organised crime ring that was hiding trillions of dollars of fake US bonds.
Worth $6 trillion, the bonds were found in three metal boxes in a warehouse in the Swiss city of Zurich.
Italian authorities have arrested eight people and are investigating them for fraud and other crimes.
Prosecutors are not sure what the gang was planning, but think they intended to sell the counterfeit bonds.
Investigators, based in Potenza in southern Italy, say the fraud posed “severe threats” to international financial security.
In cooperation with Swiss police, they tracked down three metal boxes to a warehouse in Zurich. The crates contained thousands of fake US bonds that gave the appearance they had been issued by the US Federal Reserve in 1934.
US officials confirmed that the bonds were counterfeit.
Fake US securities have been seized in Italy before and there were at least three cases in 2009.
But this case is on a different scale to previous investigations, as the fake bonds have a value equivalent to almost half of the entire US debt pile.
“Everything began with an investigation into mafia clans in the Vulture-Melfese area in the southern Basilicata region,” said Giovanni Colangelo, the head of the prosecutor’s office in Potenza.
International Herald Tribune
Robbing Greece of Its Pride
In another blow to Greek pride, as the country struggles to meet its European partners’ demands for a financial bailout, armed robbers broke into a museum at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics on Friday and made off with a haul of treasures.
Pavlos Geroulanos, Greece’s culture minister, was reported to have offered his resignation immediately after learning of the heist, the second major art theft this year. In January, thieves fled the National Gallery in Athens with $6.5 million-worth of art, including paintings by Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian.
The latest theft was blamed by some on budget cuts that have been imposed on all aspects of Greek public life in an attempt to rein in the country’s runaway debt.
Friday’s raid targeted the Ancient Olympia museum in southern Greece where a ceremony is scheduled for May 10 to light the Olympic flame for this year’s Games in London …
The latest robbery will be seized on as another symbol of a breakdown of Greek society in the face of the draconian austerity measures being imposed on the country’s 11 million people.
Rioting in Athens at the weekend in response to a government decision to bow to the demands of the country’s European creditors has spurred a mood of national humiliation. Some commentators say the Greeks have only themselves to blame while others suggest they should tell the European Union to get lost.
Syria shelling Homs
Tanks shell Homs after UN vote
Syrian troops have shelled rebel-held neighbourhoods in the city of Homs, a day after the UN General Assembly condemned human rights violations by the regime.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said shells were slamming into the Homs neighbourhoods of Baba Amr, Bayadah, Khaldiyeh and Inshaat.
Syrian troops have been attacking the neighbourhoods on February 4. Amateur videos showed at least one tank shelling Baba Amr from a close distance.
Homs, a province in central Syria that stretches from the border with Lebanon in the west to the frontiers with Iraq and Jordan in the east, has been one of the key centres of the 11-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian rule.
The rebels have taken control of small parts of the province including neighbourhoods in the city of Homs and the nearby town of Rastan.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has accused the Syrian regime of committing “almost certain” crimes against humanity.
The UN General Assembly also overwhelmingly voted for a resolution that strongly condemns human rights violations by Assad’s government. According to the UN, more than 5,400 people have been killed since March in the regime’s bloody crackdown.
The 193-member UN General Assembly voted 137-12 on the Arab-sponsored resolution calling on Assad to hand power to his vice president and immediately stop the crackdown. There were 17 abstentions.
Though there are no vetoes in the General Assembly and its resolutions are non-binding, they do reflect world opinion on major issues. Russia and China, who recently vetoed a similar resolution in the UN Security Council, voted against the General Assembly measure along with North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and others who heeded Syria’s appeal against the measure.
The high number of “yes” votes was the strongest international condemnation so far of Assad.
The Palestinian Bobby Sands
Khader Adnan: The West Bank’s Bobby Sands
It was only after talking with lucidity and animation for an hour about her husband’s 61-day hunger strike that Randa Jihad Adnan’s eyes, visible though the opening of her nekab, filled with tears. Until then, this articulate 31-year-old graduate in sharia law from Al Najar University in Nablus, the pregnant mother of two young daughters aged four and one and half, had described with almost disconcerting poise the two months following the arrest of her husband, Khader Adnan, on 17 December.
He was seized at 3.30am by some of the scores of Israeli military and security personnel who surrounded the family home in a West Bank village south of Jenin, and is now being held in the Israeli Rebecca Ziv hospital in Safed. On Wednesday she was allowed to visit him with the children and her father-in-law.
There they found him, weak and extremely thin, his beard unkempt and his fingernails long. He was shackled by two legs and one arm to his bed, and was connected to a heart monitor. Though mentally alert, he could speak only with difficulty. “I was shocked,” she said yesterday. “I couldn’t speak for about three minutes, and it was the same for my daughters.”
Mrs Adnan is convinced that the Israeli authorities only allowed the visit because they wanted the family to put pressure on her husband to end his hunger strike. He had started this on 18 December in protest at his arrest, his treatment and the subsequent detention order served on him.
“My father-in-law said to him: ‘We want you to stay alive. You cannot defeat this state on your own.’ He told him he wanted him to end the strike. I told him I wished he would drink a cup of milk. But he said: ‘I did not expect this from you. I know you are with me all the time. Please stop it.” Mrs Adnan said yesterday: “I know my husband. He will not change his mind. I expect him to die.”
The day before the visit, a Red Cross delegation had gone to her home to warn her that her husband’s heart could fail “at any minute”. They told her that he was suffering from muscular atrophy, which was affecting his heart and stomach, that his pulse was weak, and that his life was now in extreme danger.
Physicians for Human Rights issued a medical report this week supporting a petition to the Supreme Court for his release. In it the group said that even though Mr Adnan had agreed to be treated with an infusion of liquids and salts, augmented by glucose and vitamins, he had refused to end his hunger strike and was in “immediate danger of death”. The report added that a fast “in excess of 70 days does not permit survival”.
The Supreme Court petition, for which no date has been set for a hearing, is the last judicial chance to save his life as Mr Adnan has said he will not end his fast until he is released from his four months of administrative detention. A military appeals court ruled this week that he must remain in detention until May.
Mr Adnan, 33, a mathematics graduate who runs a bakery in nearby Qabatya, has long been politically active. He has been convicted for being a spokesman of Islamic Jihad, one of the most militant Palestinian factions. And he has been arrested numerous times by Israel, and at least once by the Palestinian Authority, since leading a student demonstration in 1999 at Bir Zeit University against the visiting French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
But his family insists that he has never been involved in violence; nor has he been charged with it. Indeed, on this occasion, he has not been charged with any crime. His hunger strike has focused growing attention on the practice of administrative detention, in which Palestinians can be held without trial and on the basis of secret intelligence dossiers which are not shown to the defendant or his lawyers.
With international groups like Human Rights Watch demanding his release, and almost daily demonstrations in his support outside the Ofer military court near Ramallah, his case is fast taking on some of the political resonances of Bobby Sands, the most famous of the 10 IRA prisoners who died on hunger strike in prison in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. Sands, an elected MP, died after 66 days without food.
“Dangerous developments” in Congo
The Associated Press
Activists: Nuns, priests arrested in Congo protest
Rights groups are denouncing the arrests of nuns and priests and Congo’s violent suppression of religious protests against fraud-riddled elections.
Congo’s Voice of the Voiceless rights group said Friday that three priests and two nuns were jailed.
The U.S. Carter Center also reported Thursday that the government shut down three more radio and television stations including one run by the Catholic Church.
Catholic leaders had called on Christians and others to march Thursday to demand the truth about Nov. 28 presidential and legislative elections.
Soldiers and police fired tear gas into church compounds to prevent people from marching.
The Carter Center called these “dangerous developments” and urged the government to allow people their right to demonstrate.
Killing of Indian fishermen sparks international incident with Italy
Fishermen killings spark India-Italy row
A diplomatic row has erupted between India and Italy after two Indian fisherman were shot dead in a confrontation between an Italian oil tanker and their fishing boat in waters off the sourthern Indian coast.
Indian police have detained the entire crew, including Italian navy officers, over the killings, while Italy’s ambassador in New Delhi was summoned to the foreign office.
An Indian coast guard official said the naval guards aboard the Enrica Lexie appeared to have mistaken the fishermen for pirates.
“I think they have erred in their judgment. Innocent fisherman should not be fired at, even anywhere, there is no doubt,” said Surinder Pal Singh Basra, inspector general of India’s coast guard.
Basra said the Italian vessel violated international protocol by not sending any distress signal, which is considered standard procedure during pirate attacks.
He said the incident had occurred on Wednesday in waters off India’s southern state of Kerala, and said Indian coast guards had done their duty by bringing the Italian ship to port and detaining its captain and crew.
A murder case has been registered against the crew, said a senior official at a police station in Neendakara Coastal police station, where surviving fishermen sought help.
A foreign ministry official said Italy’s ambassador was asked to ensure the crew of the ship co-operated with Indian authorities.
The Italian navy in a statement said on Thursday that the fishing boat had behaved aggressively and had been warned on several occasions by the naval officers aboard the tanker.