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Nine Circles of Hell!: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 Nine Circles of Hell!
Today’s Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – the nine most hellish news stories for Wednesday, February 8, 2012, are:
US politicians throw tax dollars at families
The Washington Post
Capitol Assets: Some legislators send millions to groups connected to their relatives
Some members of Congress send tax dollars to companies, colleges and community groups where their spouses, children and parents work as salaried employees, lobbyists or board members, according to an examination of federal disclosure forms and local public records by The Washington Post.
A U.S. senator from South Dakota helped add millions to a Pentagon program his wife evaluated as a contract employee. A Washington congressman boosted the budget of an environmental group that his son ran as executive director. A Texas congresswoman guided millions to a university where her husband served as a vice president.
Do you have any specific information about earmarks in which current members of Congress may have had a personal financial interest? Or do you have any tips on undisclosed financial conflicts that could help us create a more complete financial portrait of Congress?
Those three members are among 16 who have taken actions that aided entities connected to their immediate families. The findings stem from an examination by The Post of all 535 members of the House and Senate, comparing their financial disclosure forms with thousands of public records. The examination uncovered a broad range of connections between the public and private lives of the nation’s lawmakers.
Several of the cases have received previous media attention, raised by local newspapers or campaign opponents, but the practice has continued unabated, The Post found.
Lawmakers said in interviews that the actions they took were not intended to directly benefit their relatives or themselves. Instead, they say, the largesse was meant to assist corporations, educational programs and community organizations that employ, educate and help residents in their congressional districts.
In some cases, the lawmakers sought advice from congressional committees assigned to examine possible conflicts on Capitol Hill. The panels informed them that the practice of earmarking money to the workplaces of relatives is permissible, as long as tax dollars are not going directly to or solely benefitting their husbands, wives, sons or daughters. Several of the lawmakers also certified to congressional committees that neither they nor their immediate family members stood to benefit from the earmark in question.
Members of Congress have more leeway than executive branch officials or individuals in publicly held companies, who operate under stricter conflict-of-interest rules that generally prevent them from taking actions that might benefit businesses or institutions where their relatives work. The legislators set and enforce their own rules, giving themselves broad latitude to take steps that can end up directly benefiting their immediate family.
“The executive branch has far stricter ethics standards than Congress does — and Congress has set these standards,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a nonprofit government watchdog group. “The executive branch can’t steer contracts or work to businesses where family members work. They can’t even own stock in industries that they oversee, unlike Congress. It’s complete hypocrisy.”
Oil price rise threatens Pentagon spending cuts
Pentagon Oil Spending May Snarl Efforts to Trim $490 Billion
The U.S. military’s appetite for oil may snarl efforts to pare defense spending by about $490 billion in the next decade.
The Pentagon (USBODEFN), the world’s single largest consumer of energy excluding countries, spent $17.3 billion on petroleum in fiscal 2011, a 26 percent increase from $13.7 billion the previous year, according to Department of Defense data provided to Bloomberg Government.
World oil prices will average an estimated $145 a barrel in 2035 in 2010 dollars, up from between roughly $85 and $110, according to Energy Department statistics. Such an increase might force the military to dedicate more of its budget to fuel while still trying to cut total spending, said Russell Rumbaugh, a defense budget analyst.
“The oil prices will further exacerbate the defense spending cap,” said Rumbaugh, a co-director of the Stimson Center’s program on budgeting for foreign affairs and defense in Washington. “They’ll be in competition with other defense priorities, including procurement and paying soldiers.”
Rising oil prices accounted for the bulk of the Defense Department’s increased petroleum costs last year. The spending was the highest since at least fiscal 2005, the last year for which comparable data is available, according to the Pentagon. The costs represent about 2.5 percent of the department’s budget in fiscal 2011, which ended Sept. 30.
Egypt won’t stop crackdown despite threat of US aid pull-out
Egypt’s PM says US threats to cut aid won’t work
Egypt’s military-backed prime minister said today his country will not halt its crackdown on foreign-funded nonprofit groups despite what he called threats by Western and Arab countries to cut off aid, further deepening a bitter dispute that has strained ties with the United States.
Kamal el-Ganzouri also compared the current international pressure and the sharp decline in economic and social conditions in Egypt to the country’s disastrous defeat to Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, and for the first time accused Arab countries of not making good on pledges of aid to Egypt.
Egypt’s campaign against pro-democracy and rights groups began late last year with raid by security forces on the organizations’ offices. On Sunday, Egyptian investigative judges referred 16 Americans and 27 others to trial on accusations they illegally used foreign funds to foment unrest in the country.
That immediately drew a sharp rebuke from Washington, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warning that failure to resolve the dispute may lead to the loss of some $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt. Some US legislators even said every aspect of the relationship with Egypt must be examined following the crackdown.
With the standoff deepening, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, is to travel to Egypt this week for talks with military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Dempsey’s spokesman, Col. Dave Lapan, said Wednesday the trip has long been planned, but that the nonprofit spat will come up if it hasn’t been resolved. He said Dempsey would talk with Egypt’s leaders about “choices and consequences,” but declined to elaborate.
Despite the warnings from Washington, el-Ganzouri struck a defiant tone Wednesday, telling reporters he was “saddened” by the pressure Egypt was facing but insisting authorities “can’t back down or won’t change course because of some aid.”
“Egypt used its legal right to face some violations by civil groups,” he said. “The lofty judiciary moved and discussed and investigated the case. … The West then turned against us because Egypt exercised its rights.”
El-Ganzouri also charged that aid pledged by Arab states has also stalled since the dispute began. He said he met in early December with Arab ambassadors “who promised that Egypt will receive a lot of money,” but two months later “none of these promises have come through.”
He hinted that the US and Arab allies are withholding aid money because Egypt has adopted more independent policies since the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Egypt’s net international reserves were down 50 percent year-on-year by the end of December as the country’s economy is reeling from the overall effect of the uprising and the turmoil that followed. The government is discussing with the International Monetary Fund a $3.2 billion loan.
In an attempt to rally public support, el-Ganzouri appealed to nationalist sentiment and urged Egyptians to unite in the of face tough times ahead. He argued that the current conditions in Egypt are worse than after the country’s crushing military defeat in 1967 when Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
Putin tells West on Syria, don’t act like “bull in a china shop”
The New York Times
Putin Warns of Growing ‘Cult of Violence’
Vladimir V. Putin, the prime minister of Russia, warned on Wednesday of a growing “cult of violence” around the world and expressed concern that upheavals in the Middle East could spread to his own country.
In an apparent reference to Western governments, Mr. Putin said he was alarmed by what he deemed to be interference in the affairs of sovereign nations, especially Libya and Syria.
“We, of course, condemn all violence, no matter its source,” Mr. Putin said in a meeting with religious leaders in Moscow. “But do not conduct yourself like a bull in a china shop. People need to be allowed to decide their fates independently.”
Unlike some Western leaders, Mr. Putin has viewed the events unfolding across the Middle East warily. His concerns have intensified in recent months because of the emergence of a sizeable protest movement in Russia opposed to his return to the presidency, which he is seeking in the election next month. Mr. Putin has blamed the United States, and in particular Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instigating the protests against him.
In his remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Putin referred to the continued disorder in Libya and warned of the “horrible consequences of interference.”
“In the last decade, unfortunately, a cult of violence has come to the fore in international affairs, and this cannot but cause worry,” he said. “We cannot allow anything like this to come to our country.”
Syria is also on Mr. Putin’s mind. His country faces mounting international pressure to end its support of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and back an Arab League plan to halt the increasingly deadly conflict there. Moscow drew strong condemnation from Western and Arab governments for joining China in vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution last weekend.
In the aftermath of the veto, Russia has been trying to broker a peace process of some kind between Mr. Assad’s government and opposition forces. The foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov, met with Mr. Assad in Damascus on Tuesday, and announced on Wednesday that Syria’s vice-president would seek to open talks with opposition forces in the country; he called on Western and Arab leaders to support Russia’s efforts.
“We consider this willingness to be an important factor to be taken into consideration, and hope that all who have some kind of influence over the opposition will urge them to begin such dialogue,” Mr. Lavrov said.
Deadly car bomb rocks Somali capital
Somalia: Al-Shabab bombs Mogadishu cafe
At least 10 people have been killed and more than 20 people injured when a car bomb exploded near a cafe in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, police say.
A police commander told the BBC it was a suicide attack.
The vehicle was parked close to the Hotel Muna, often frequented by Somali politicians and itself the target of an attack by militants in August 2010.
The Islamist militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for the afternoon blast.
Wednesday’s attack is the latest of a series of suicide attacks staged by the Al-Qaeda-linked group in Mogadishu – after being pushed out last August by the Somali government and African Union troops.
The BBC’s Mohammed Dhore in Mogadishu says that seven people died at the scene, and three more after being taken to hospital.
Our correspondent says many of the injured have been hurt seriously.
He says people were drinking tea at a popular cafe in the heart of Mogadishu’s government district, when the bomb exploded.
“There was a heavy explosion, a car full of explosives was detonated,” MP Mohamed Iro told the AFP news agency.
The attack took place on the day of a visit to the city by the European Union’s new special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Alexander Rondos.
Last week, William Hague was also in Mogadishu, the first visit by a British foreign secretary in 20 years.
The UK government is holding a conference in London on 23 February to try to find a political solution, and tackle piracy and extremism.
Maldives explodes as president claims resignation at gunpoint
The New York Times
Amid Political Turmoil, Violent Clashes Continue in Maldives
The Maldives remained gripped by political turmoil on Wednesday, with violent clashes between the police and protesters in the capital of Male, as well as claims by the island nation’s former president that he was forced to resign this week at gunpoint.
The Maldives, an archipelago of more than 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean, is a fledgling democracy now reeling after weeks of demonstrations that culminated with Tuesday’s unexpected resignation of former President Mohamed Nasheed. He was elected in 2008 in the country’s first democratic presidential election.
His resignation has prompted claims and counterclaims about whether he was actually deposed in a coup. Mr. Nasheed told Agence France-Presse that a group of mutinous police and army officers forced his resignation at gunpoint. “They told me if I didn’t resign they would resort to use arms,” he said to the agency.
Moreover, Mr. Nasheed implicated his successor, Mohamed Waheed Hassan, who had been vice president before being sworn into office as president on Tuesday afternoon. “I am afraid he’s always entertained an idea to become the president,” Mr. Nasheed said. “He’s never been able to do that. When the opportunity was available to him, he took it.”
Mr. Hassan denied the existence of a coup during a news conference in Male on Wednesday in which he promised to form a multiparty unity government to lead the country. A day earlier, after being sworn in as president, Mr. Hassan vowed to uphold the country’s constitution and suggested that the change of power came as result of a popular rebellion against Mr. Nasheed.
“The nation witnessed difficult times in the recent past, but today the Maldivian people have made a momentous decision,” he said, according to the Maldives government Web site. The statement said that now, “at any cost, the rule of law must be upheld.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Nasheed held a mass meeting with members of his Maldivian Democratic Party before marching as a group to Republican Square in Male. Conflicting accounts emerged of the ensuing confrontation between officers and Mr. Nasheed’s supporters. A spokesperson for one opposition party blamed Mr. Nasheed and his supporters for rioting and wielding steel rods.
But two protesters interviewed by telephone blamed the police. They said about 2,000 people were participating in a peaceful march when security officers sprayed them with tear gas. One man said surrounding office buildings were locked down after the officers began using the tear gas, trapping people inside. An aide to Mr. Nasheed said the police began beating protesters, who scattered to protect themselves. The aide also heard reports that Mr. Nasheed had been taken into custody but was later released.
“The police were running behind him,” the aide said in a telephone interview. “They were beating everyone. Then I saw him run into a shop.”
Indian economic growth boom fizzles
The New York Times
As Growth Slows, India Awakens to Need for Foreign Investment
When India’s finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, flew to Chicago recently to address a group of American executives, it was to deliver an urgent message: India is still open for business.
Usually a cautious speaker who offers only vague promises, Mr. Mukherjee eagerly promoted specific new deals from New Delhi, where the national government has become alarmed by the sudden slowdown of India’s economy.
He listed pro-business policies his government recently approved or soon would: foreign individuals could invest directly in the Indian stock market; overseas specialty retailers like Gap could open wholly owned stores in the country, and bigger retailers like Walmart would soon be admitted. And though Mr. Mukherjee did not cite it, he could just as easily have mentioned a proposal the cabinet is considering to let foreign airlines buy as much as a 49 percent stake in India’s airlines.
“I urge you to seize this moment and contribute to our collective prosperity in the times to come,” Mr. Mukherjee told his audience, the World Affairs Council of Chicago.
The flurry of activity by the Indian government has helped push Indian stock indexes up by 15 percent this year, and the rupee has climbed 8 percent against the dollar
Skeptics wonder, though, whether Indian politics will really allow Mr. Mukherjee and his boss, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to force significant change on the nation’s hidebound protectionism. But there is no question that after years of taking rapid economic growth for granted, the government is finally awakening to the need for new policies and greater foreign investment.
The change is occurring as analysts and India’s central bank conclude that growth — which was at 8.4 percent or higher for much of the last decade — will fall sharply to 7 percent in the current fiscal year and remain sluggish in the next one, which begins in April.
The signs of new salesmanship from Mr. Mukherjee are a notable departure from his demeanor, and that of other Indian officials, for much of 2011, even as their economy was slowing and inflation was gathering steam. Preoccupied by a big anticorruption protest movement and internal bickering among politicians, officials tended to dismiss the gloomy data as unimportant or as temporary setbacks.
But this year, Indian leaders have begun publicly acknowledging the nation’s economic problems.
“The growth slowdown was a nice wake-up call for us,” Kaushik Basu, the chief economic adviser to the Finance Ministry, said in an interview.
US nuke agency struggled in Fukushima’s immediate aftermath
The Washington Post
Messages show conflict within NRC after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami
In the confusion following the earthquake and tsunami that damaged Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex last March, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it was standing by to help.
But a trove of e-mails posted on the NRC’s Web site shows an agency struggling to figure out how to respond and how to deal with the American public while cutting through what one official called “the fog of information” coming out of Japan.
“THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” said an e-mail from the NRC operations center early on March 11, hours after the quake. “This may get really ugly in the next few days,” said one NRC official later in the day after a report that Tokyo Electric Power Co. was venting gas from a containment building.
Three days later, another official said, “It’s frustrating, but we have very little factual info as an agency.”
Now, as the first anniversary of the Fukushima catastrophe approaches, the initial response by regulators still holds lessons for the nuclear industry and policymakers.
The NRC e-mails reveal disagreement about how to advise the Japanese. The NRC staff chafed at some unorthodox advice coming from an ad hoc group of scientists assembled by Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Famed physicist Richard Garwin, one of Chu’s group, proposed setting off a controlled “shaped” explosion to break through the concrete shield around the primary steel containment structure to allow cooling water to be applied from the outside. One NRC scientist called the idea “madness.”
Plaintiff Orca, “the next frontier of civil rights
The Associated Press
‘We’re talking about hell unleashed’: whales sue Sea World
A federal judge for the first time in US history heard arguments in a case that could determine whether animals enjoy the same constitutional protection against slavery as human beings.
US District Judge Jeffrey Miller called the hearing in San Diego after Sea World asked the court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that names five orcas as plaintiffs in the case.
PETA claims the captured killer whales are treated like slaves for being forced to live in tanks and perform daily at its parks in San Diego and Orlando, Fla.
Orca Tilikum watches SeaWorld trainers take a break during a training session at theentertainment group’s Orlando theme park. Photo: AP
“This case is on the next frontier of civil rights,” said PETA’s attorney Jeffrey Kerr, representing the five orcas.
Sea World’s attorney Theodore Shaw called the lawsuit a waste of the court’s time and resources. He said it defies common sense and goes against 125 years of case law applied to the Constitution’s 13th amendment that prohibits slavery between humans.
“With all due respect, the court does not have the authority to even consider this question,” Shaw said, adding later: “Neither orcas nor any other animal were included in the ‘We the people’ … when the Constitution was adopted.”
Miller listened to both sides for an hour before announcing that he would take the case under advisement and issue his ruling at a later date. The judge raised doubts a court can allow animals to be plaintiffs in a lawsuit, and he questioned how far the implications of a favorable ruling could reach, pointing out the military’s use of dolphins and scientists’ experiments on whales in the wild.
Kerr acknowledged PETA faces an uphill battle but he said he was hopeful after Monday’s hearing.
“This is an historic day,” Kerr said. “For the first time in our nation’s history, a federal court heard arguments as to whether living, breathing, feeling beings have rights and can be enslaved simply because they happen to not have been born human. By any definition these orcas have been enslaved here.”