12 months ago
Nine Circles of Hell!: Friday, September 30 Nine Circles of Hell!
The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – the nine most hellish news stories for Friday, September 30, 2011, are:
Most states want No Child Left Behind dropped
msnbc.com and NBC News
Majority of states lining up to ditch No Child Left Behind
States are lining up to drop out of No Child Left Behind, the education initiative that was promoted as a historic achievement of the Bush administration.
Since President Barack Obama announced last month that he would sign an executive order allowing states to request waivers from mandatory participation in the program, at least 27 have signaled that they will ask to opt out, and most others are reviewing their options.
Obama said states could seek waivers as long as they adopt higher standards than those mandated under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as No Child Left Behind is formally titled. The Education Department said most states had already done that, presumably making them eligible for waivers.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan — who himself had to follow No Child Left Behind when he was chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2008 — isn’t just offering the waivers. He’s actively encouraging education officials to apply for them, he said, because “No Child Left Behind is fundamentally broken.”
“It’s far too punitive, far too prescriptive,” Duncan said. The 2002 law “led to a narrowing of the curriculum. None of those things are good for children, for education or, ultimately, for our country.”
In a letter to state education officials, Duncan cited “innovations and reforms” at the state and local level that “were not anticipated when the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was enacted nearly a decade ago.”
That’s why, he said in an interview with NBC News, “I’m actually giving away the power. … We are giving the power to states and districts.”
Critics — including many educators — have long said No Child Left Behind locked states into inflexible standards focused solely on reading and math, neglecting subjects like social studies, the arts, health and physical education.
Government finds easy way to tamper with voting machines
Diebold voting machines vulnerable to remote tampering via man-in-the-middle attack
Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have demonstrated an electronic “man in the middle” attack that allows remote tampering with the Diebold AccuVote voting system. Argonne’s Vulnerability Assessment Team has previously exposed the same sort of vulnerability in Sequoia AVC machines in 2009, and believe the attack could be used against a wide range of voting machines.
The attack requires tampering with voting machine hardware, and allows for votes to be changed as the voter prepares to commit them. But the devices require no actual changes to the hardware—the hardware required to make the attacks can be attached and removed without leaving any evidence that it had ever been there. The electronics in the demonstrated attack are simply jacked in between two components on the Diebold’s printed circuit board using existing connectors.
VAT team leader Roger Johnston said in a video posted by Brad Friedman of the voting watchdog site The Brad Blog that the physical security measures taken to protect voting machines in many states are inadequate to protect them from pre-Election Day tampering. “They’re often kept a week or two before elections in a school or church basement,”Johnston said. And the modifications can be made without picking locks or breaking seals on the devices.
Diebold has a shaky security history. In 2004, Johns Hopkins University computer science professor Avi Rubin and a team of researchers revealed a broad set of cyber vulnerabilities in the AccuVote system. In the past, there have been suggestions that Diebold itself tampered with elections in Georgia in 2002.
But while cyber attacks would require a high level of sophistication, the electronic man-in-the-middle attack demonstrated by Argonne’s VAT team requires only basic electronics skills, and about $10.50 worth of hardware. “Anybody with an electronics workbench could put this together,” Argonne VAT team member John Warner said in the video.
Justice Thomas may have violated Supreme Court’s ethics code
Democrats ask for investigation into Clarence Thomas
Twenty House Democrats on Thursday asked for a federal investigation into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ failure to disclose his wife’s income, charging that he may have violated the court’s ethics rules.
In a letter to the arm of the court system responsible for overseeing judicial practices, the lawmakers called into question Thomas’ impartiality toward President Obama’s health care overhaul, just as the landmark legislation is headed to the top court.
Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York and her colleagues assert that Thomas has not complied with disclosure rules under the Ethics in Government Act and asks the Judicial Conference, a group comprised of judges that sets administrative policy for the courts, to refer the issue to the Justice Department for an investigation. The letter specifically charges Thomas failed to report nearly $700,000 of income earned by his wife, Virginia Thomas, for her work for the conservative Heritage Foundation from 2003 to 2007.
“Due to the simplicity of the disclosure requirements, along with Justice Thomas’s high level of legal training and experience, it is reasonable to infer that his failure to disclose his wife’s income for two decades was willful,” the lawmakers wrote.
In a press release accompanying the letter, Slaughter notes that the Heritage Foundation has been a staunch opponent of Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul.
Earlier this week, Mr. Obama’s Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to quickly take up consideration of an appeals court ruling that declared part of the health care law unconstitutional. The move indicates the administration is confident of the law’s legal soundness, but it almost ensures putting the controversial health care reforms back in the spotlight just as the 2012 elections ramp up.
Slaughter said in a statement that Thomas’ failure to disclose his wife’s income “is suspicious, and according to law, requires further investigation. To accept Justice Thomas’s explanation without doing the required due diligence would be irresponsible.”
Virginia Thomas has been the subject of scrutiny before, with some questioning whether her advocacy for conservative causes creates a conflict of interest for her husband.
Thomas isn’t the only judge who’s impartiality on health care reform has been called into question. Last year, during Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings, Republicans said they were concerned about her bias, since she served as the White House’s solicitor general when the reforms were crafted.
‘Bedrock principle of criminal law’ eroded by Congress
The Wall Street Journal
As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines
For centuries, a bedrock principle of criminal law has held that people must know they are doing something wrong before they can be found guilty. The concept is known as mens rea, Latin for a “guilty mind.”
This legal protection is now being eroded as the U.S. federal criminal code dramatically swells. In recent decades, Congress has repeatedly crafted laws that weaken or disregard the notion of criminal intent. Today not only are there thousands more criminal laws than before, but it is easier to fall afoul of them.
As a result, what once might have been considered simply a mistake is now sometimes punishable by jail time. When the police came to Wade Martin’s home in Sitka, Alaska, in 2003, he says he had no idea why. Under an exemption to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, coastal Native Alaskans such as Mr. Martin are allowed to trap and hunt species that others can’t. That included the 10 sea otters he had recently sold for $50 apiece.
Mr. Martin, 50 years old, readily admitted making the sale. “Then, they told me the buyer wasn’t a native,” he recalls.
The law requires that animals sold to non-Native Alaskans be converted into handicrafts. He knew the law, Mr. Martin said, and he had thought the buyer was Native Alaskan.
He pleaded guilty in 2008. The government didn’t have to prove he knew his conduct was illegal, his lawyer told him. They merely had to show he had made the sale.
“I was thinking, damn, my life’s over,” Mr. Martin says.
Federal magistrate Judge John Roberts gave him two years’ probation and a $1,000 fine. He told the trapper: “You’re responsible for the actions that you take.”
Mr. Martin now asks customers to prove their heritage and residency. “You get real smart after they come to your house and arrest you and make you feel like Charles Manson,” he says.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Alaska didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Back in 1790, the first federal criminal law passed by Congress listed fewer than 20 federal crimes. Today there are an estimated 4,500 crimes in federal statutes, plus thousands more embedded in federal regulations, many of which have been added to the penal code since the 1970s.
One controversial new law can hold animal-rights activists criminally responsible for protests that cause the target of their attention to be fearful, regardless of the protesters’ intentions. Congress passed the law in 2006 with only about a half-dozen of the 535 members voting on it.
Under English common law principles, most U.S. criminal statutes traditionally required prosecutors not only to prove that defendants committed a bad act, but also that they also had bad intentions. In a theft, don’t merely show that the accused took someone’s property, but also show that he or she knew it belonged to someone else.
Over time, lawmakers have devised a sliding scale for different crimes. For instance, a “willful” violation is among the toughest to prove.
Requiring the government to prove a willful violation is “a big protection for all of us,” says Andrew Weissmann, a New York attorney who for a time ran the Justice Department’s criminal investigation of Enron Corp. Generally speaking in criminal law, he says, willful means “you have the specific intent to violate the law.”
A lower threshold, attorneys say, involves proving that someone “knowingly” violated the law. It can be easier to fall afoul of the law under these terms.
90% of Americans say economy stinks
Three years after a financial crisis pushed the country deep into recession, an overwhelming number of Americans — 90% — say that economic conditions remain poor.
The number, reported Friday in a new CNN/ORC International Poll, is the highest of Barack Obama’s presidency and a significant increase from the 81% who said conditions were poor in June.
The persistent pessimism indicates that Americans are feeling a level of hardship in line with the official statistics. Unemployment stands at 9.1%, economic growth is barely above stall speed, and the housing market remains tied in knots.
For a White House now fully engaged in re-election efforts, there is one shred of good news: More than two and half years after inauguration day, Americans are still more likely to blame former President George W. Bush for current economic conditions.
Asked which administration is to blame, 52% of Americans blame the previous Republican regime, while only 32% point a finger at Obama and Democrats.
Shareholders sue Bank of America over Merrill Lynch purchase
The New York Times
A $50 Billion Claim of Havoc Looms for Bank of America
Bank of America’s potential liability for bad mortgages — in the tens of billions of dollars — is well known. But Bank of America is haunted by other demons from the financial crisis, the most significant one being a lawsuit arising from its troubled Merrill Lynch acquisition.
This lawsuit, brought by Bank of America shareholders, claims that Bank of America and its executives, including its former chief executive, Kenneth D. Lewis, failed to disclose what would be a $15.31 billion loss at Merrill in the days before and after the acquisition. The plaintiffs contend that this staggering loss was hidden to ensure that Bank of America shareholders did not vote against the transaction.
Bank of America disclosed this loss after Merrill was acquired. At the same time, Bank of America also disclosed a $20 billion bailout by the government. The bank’s stock fell by more than 60 percent in a two-week period, a market value loss of more than $50 billion.
This episode also spawned a lawsuit from the Securities and Exchange Commission that Bank of America, Mr. Lewis and Joseph Price, the former chief financial officer, settled for $150 million. Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the Federal District Court in Manhattan approved the deal but complained that it didn’t sufficiently penalize the individuals involved. The amount was paid by Bank of America with no liability for Mr. Lewis or Mr. Price. Judge Rakoff called the settlement “half-baked justice at best.”
Judge Rakoff may see his wish for greater penalties granted. The New York attorney general’s office has a lawsuit on the matter.
More significantly, a lawsuit seeking about $50 billion was brought by some of the largest class-action law firms and is quietly advancing in the Federal District Court in Manhattan.
The plaintiffs contend that Bank of America engaged in a deliberate effort to deceive the bank’s shareholders.
According to the plaintiffs, who include the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System and a Netherlands pension plan that is the second-largest in Europe, Bank of America’s senior management, including Mr. Lewis and Mr. Price, began to learn of large losses at Merrill Lynch in early November 2008, months before the deal closed.
Mr. Price met with the bank’s general counsel, Timothy J. Mayopoulos, to discuss whether to disclose the loss — at the time about $5 billion — to Bank of America shareholders. Mr. Mayopoulos testified to the New York attorney general’s office that while his initial reaction was that disclosure was warranted, he decided against it. Merrill had been losing $2.1 billion to $9.8 billion a quarter during the financial crisis, and so this loss would be expected by Merrill and Bank of America shareholders.
Plaintiffs in the private action and the New York attorney general’s complaint claim that after this meeting, Mr. Price and other senior executives at Bank of America sought to keep this loss quiet and that Mr. Price in particular misled Mr. Mayopoulos.
Mr. Mayopoulos has testified that on Dec. 3, 2008, Mr. Price told him that the estimated loss would be $7 billion.
Mr. Mayopoulos concluded again that no disclosure was necessary. Plaintiffs contend that Mr. Price misled Mr. Mayopoulos as the forecasted loss at this time had now grown to more than $10 billion.
The Bank of America vote occurred on Dec. 5 without its shareholders knowing about this gigantic looming Merrill loss, which was now about $11 billion.
Mr. Mayopoulos has testified he was surprised at this higher number when he learned of it at a Dec. 9 board meeting. Mr. Mayopoulos sought to meet with Mr. Price about the new loss. The next day, Mr. Mayopoulos was fired and escorted out of the building.
The Merrill acquisition was completed on Jan. 1, 2009.
Two weeks later, Bank of America disclosed for the first time that Merrill had suffered an after-tax net loss of $15.31 billion.
US considering another border fence, this time with Canada
U.S. mulls Canadian border fence
The United States is looking at building fences along the border with Canada to help keep out terrorists and other criminals, according to a draft report by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency
The report proposes the use of “fencing and other barriers” on the 49th parallel to manage “trouble spots where passage of cross-border violators is difficult to control.”
But a spokesperson for U.S Customs and Border Protection said the government is not considering the fence option “at this time” and instead is looking at the environmental effects of putting more manpower, technology and infrastructure along the border.
The border service is also pondering options including a beefed-up technological presence through increased use of radar, sensors, cameras, drones and vehicle scanners. In addition, it might continue to improve or expand customs facilities at ports of entry.
The agency considered but ruled out the possibility of hiring “significantly more” U.S. Border Patrol agents to increase the rate of inspections, noting staffing has already risen in recent years.
Customs and Border Protection is inviting comment on the options and plans a series of public meetings in Washington and several U.S. border communities next month. It will then decide which ideas to pursue.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano noted last month the challenges of monitoring the vast, sparsely populated northern border region. She stressed manpower, but also a greater reliance on technology.
Ironically, the moves come as Canada and the U.S. try to finalize a perimeter security arrangement that would focus on continental defences while easing border congestion. It would be aimed at speeding passage of goods and people across the Canada-U.S. border, which has become something of a bottleneck since the 911 attacks.
Relatively speaking, Washington has focused more energy and resources on tightening security along the border with Mexico than at the sprawling one with Canada.
But that may be changing.
Putin’s party “an artificial project that discredits liberal democracy”
Russia’s former finance chief attacks Kremlin over fake democracy
Firing a parting shot at the Kremlin a day after he was unceremoniously forced out of his job for public dissent, Alexei Kudrin became the latest prominent insider to blow the whistle on Russia’s democracy as Vladimir Putin prepares to controversially assume the presidency for a third time next year. Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s third richest man, recently denounced the entire political system as a cynically state-managed sham, while former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has repeatedly warned that the country is heading for a revolution unless it undertakes serious reform.
Mr Kudrin has served as Russia’s finance minister with distinction since 2000 and analysts said his decision to speak out only reinforced the idea that battle lines are being drawn inside Russia’s elite among liberal reformers like Mr Kudrin and neo-Soviet hawks who want to maintain the status quo.
For now, it looks like the hawks are in the ascendancy. Mr Prokhorov, who is worth an estimated 11.5 billion pounds, said he thought the standoff between the two clans would lead to real changes. “We stand on the verge of very important changes,” he forecast on Tuesday.
Mr Kudrin’s statement is likely to make uncomfortable reading for the Kremlin. He said he had been asked to lead the Right Cause party, a supposedly liberal party set up by the Kremlin to create the illusion of real political competition, but had refused because it stuck in his craw.
He called the party “an artificial project that in fact discredits the idea of liberal democracy,” an opinion likely to be shared by Mr Prokhorov who briefly led the party before leaving what he called a “Kremlin puppet party” in disgust.
Musharraf asks US, “are we jungle people that you can do anything with?”
Musharraf: Why Haqqani terrorist group can help Pakistan
Pakistan’s interests are helped by the support of a feared terrorist group blamed for multiple attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan, former president Pervez Musharraf has suggested.
With the relationship between Washington and Islamabad deteriorating sharply, Adml Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has accused Pakistan’s intelligence services of aiding the Haqqanis during an attack on the American embassy in Kabul.
Mr Musharraf was interviewed at his central London apartment ahead of his plan to return home from exile next spring and re-enter politics. He spoke before Adm Mullen’s comments but after the issue had been raised by Western intelligence analysts.
Asked if Pakistan needed the support of the powerful insurgent family led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and linked to the Taliban, he said: “If I was in government I would certainly be thinking how best to defend Pakistan’s interests.
“Certainly if Afghanistan is being used by India to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan, we would like to prevent that.”
He said the Haqqani group was the source of a “terrible” lack of trust and confidence and added: “The United States must understand Pakistan has its own national interest. The United States must accept the compulsions of Pakistan and give assurances.”
He added: “When the coalition talk of leaving in 2014, Pakistan has to really think, what will be the environment and fend for itself against all the exterior pressures, all the exterior manoeuvrings and political manoeuvrings against Pakistan.”
Mr Musharraf said Pakistan must “talk straight” about “what their national interest is viz a viz, why are they not acting against Haqqani in North Waziristan [his stronghold], viz a viz was there any complicity in Osama bin Laden being found in Abbottabad.”
He said that surveys showed 70 per cent of people in Pakistan thought that the killing of bin Laden was a hoax.
Mr Musharraf said firmly that he did not believe in such conspiracy theories but admitted his own brother-in-law had told him: “I have my doubts.”
He dismissed suggestions that the Pakistani military had colluded in hiding bin Laden but said the incident was “most embarrassing and negligence of a shameful order.”
The former president said that if he was in power he believed the Americans would have told him about their plans in advance.
“I’m a straight talker and I accept straight talk and I do straight talk,” he said.
But the relationship between the United States and Pakistan is now “very poor” and suffers from “lack of trust and confidence” with “faults on both sides,” he said.
“The United States doesn’t understand the sensitivities of Pakistan – that the United States is in league with India, that Indians are allowed to do whatever they are doing in Afghanistan.”
He said the distrust was increased by drone attacks, the killing of Osama bin Laden and tensions over Raymond Davis, the CIA agent who shot dead two alleged robbers in Lahore earlier this year.
“Are we some jungle people that you can do anything with? This is the feeling of the people of Pakistan, are we some animal that they are treating us like this? We are a sovereign country and we have our own human rights.”
He said the relationship with Britain was “a little better but not good” adding that the Prime Minister’s comments about Pakistan’s failure to take on terrorism during a visit to India were “very, very negative.”
“Isn’t it naïve that if you are going to India and you are supposed to be a world power? …From India you are lecturing Pakistan that Pakistan needs to do more on terror. This is terrible, this is not good diplomacy at all. Britain we know to be very good diplomats but this is not good diplomacy.”
Mr Musharraf frankly admitted he had had an almost openly hostile relationship with Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
“As time passed I realised that president Hamid Karzai is playing more in the hands of Indians who were trying to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan,” he said.
“These were irritants that kept developing over the years and got converted into almost open hostility.”
Asked if he thought the Taliban would end up ruling Afghanistan again when Britain and the US pull out in three years’ time he offered two possible scenarios, one in which there was “total mayhem” and a “free for all” with “every ethnic group fighting each other.”
On the other hand, if the Taliban managed to unite under one leader, civil war could ensue, he added.
Instead, Mr Musharraf called for “ethnically representative, proportionally balanced, national government” that recognised the strength of the Pashtuns.
But he added that Mullar Omar, the leader of the Taliban, was beyond Pakistani control and described him as “absolutely obstinate and semi-literate and not aware of issues of the world, with very backward, sectarian views.”