5 days ago
Thursday, April 14 Nine Circles of Hell!
The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – for Thursday, April 14, 2011, are:
What budget cuts? Spending actually going up
The Washington Post
Budget deal: CBO analysis shows initial spending cuts less than expected
A budget compromise that was touted as cutting $38.5 billion from the federal budget would actually only cut $352 million in expected spending during this fiscal year, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis–news that is stirring conservative anger in the hours before a key vote.
The House is expected to vote Thursday afternoon on the budget compromise, which both parties agreed to late last Friday, just minutes before the government was supposed to shut down.
It is unclear if this analysis–showing that the actual reductions in current spending might just be 1 percent of the $38.5 billion–might derail the bill’s passage. Already, however, it has turned some conservatives against a compromise that had been hailed as an early victory for advocates of smaller government.
“The traditional laws of addition and subtraction must not apply in Washington,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R), a freshman from Kansas, said. “With 308 million people in the United States, that’s a savings of $1.14 per person, enough to buy one item at the dollar store.”
The Congressional Budget Office’s analysis shows that the compromise does cut nearly $38 billion in what’s called “budget authority.” That means that, in all, government agencies would have that much less permission to spend federal money.
But that is not the same as stopping spending right now. It appears much of that budget authority would not have been used until later years–if ever.
In fact, the analysis shows that when “emergency” funding–appropriated outside the regular budget process–is thrown in, spending actually goes up. Overall, it found, the government would spend $3.3 billion more than it was slated to this year.
One illustration of the feats of accounting involved in the budget compromise is the $8.6 billion that come from a maneuver called “rescissions.” In these instances, Congress eliminated funding that existed only on paper–and might never have been used at all.
What Congress did, in these instances, was cancel nearly 100 very large IOUs that it had issued to government agencies — but which those agencies had never used. Then, Congress totaled up the value of those IOUs and pronounced all that money “cut” from the budget.
A closer look shows that some of the IOUs were unlikely ever to be cashed in.
The Education Department, for instance, had an IOU for $560 million — for a program that no longer exists. The U.S. Capitol had one for $15 million, for a building that was already built. The Treasury Department had one for $490 million, which it had already volunteered to return.
Both political parties defended their budget maneuver this week, saying many of the IOUs would have been cashed eventually.
But outside experts said that their accounting means that the “cuts” might look bigger than they actually are.
“Some of that money, the odds are 90 percent, [it] would not have been spent,” said Steve Bell, a longtime Senate staffer who now is a senior director at the Bipartisan Policy Center in the District.
Still, under the federal government’s rules, “that’s not cheating,” he said.
African President-in-Residence Program offers dictators refuge
On April 11, in the early afternoon as the sun was peaking over Abidjan, Ivory Coast, troops loyal to the country’s president-elect, Alassane Ouattara, burst into the presidential palace where Laurent Gbagbo was hiding, after four months of refusing to step down after losing the election. For the last week, as a de facto civil war raged, the international community had engaged in furious negotiations to try to lure him out of the bunker where he and his wife remained guarded by about 1,000 troops. Rumors circulated that he might accept exile, perhaps in South Africa or Togo. But Gbagbo wasn’t having it; he’d received many such offers so far and had accepted none of them.
Perhaps the most intriguing offer of a “dignified exit” came from the White House. In early January, after a month of failed negotiations to get the outgoing Ivorian president to quit the stage, Barack Obama’s administration offered him another option — a post at a Boston University program created precisely for this purpose: to help answer the increasingly difficult question of where a former strongman finds a soft landing these days.
The man behind the program is Charles Stith, a former pastor turned diplomat, and now academic. While serving as the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania in the late 1990s, Stith noticed an interesting problem. African leaders across the continent, even those who appeared democratically inclined, seemed loath to step down. As he put it in a statement upon Gbagbo’s arrest, “Power is a seductive mistress, who once kissed is hard to walk away from.”
Stitch believed that part of the problem for African leaders was that the options for an honorable exit were slim. There were few places where they could be honored and pampered, or at least left alone to live out their days. After a series of public scandals over dictators’ property and assets in once popular destinations such as Paris or London, few strongmen now retire there. Amid the current unrest in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has seemed the only place willing to take fleeing leaders who would surely be prosecuted elsewhere.
When Stith came back to the United States from his service abroad, he set about to create one such place: a visiting professorship for a former African head of state who steps down by choice. His creation, Boston University’s African President-in-Residence Program at the African Presidential Archives and Research Center has hosted six outgoing leaders, with one more — former Zanzibar President Amani Abeid Karume — having just arrived. “It gives them a kind of credibility at home because it gives them an international platform,” Stith explained in an interview. Even more importantly to policymakers, “entities like mine enable a broader conversation to take place when you’re trying to get these guys to understand [a democratic transition].”
The African President-in-Residence Program works like this: At a moment when a transition seems imminent or possible, offers of the position at Boston University (BU) are extended through diplomatic channels. If the outgoing president says yes, he is welcomed to the Boston campus for six months to study, lecture, and write. “They usually live pretty close to campus,” explained Kisha Wilson, attaché for the President-in-Residence Program. “They are really a part of BU.” With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and a close relationship with the U.S. State Department, the post offers a public pulpit for the ex-presidents, in the hopes that these outgoing leaders can become advocates for democracy in Africa. The first such resident, former Zambian President Kenneth David Kaunda, for example, left behind nearly three decades of consecutive rule, during which he created a one-party state. At BU, he recast himself as an evangelist for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, speaking and writing op-eds and papers about how Africa could overcome the crisis. He also started a foundation intended to promote conflict resolution.
In financial crisis, “there has been no effective punishment of elites”
The New York Times
In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures
It is a question asked repeatedly across America: why, in the aftermath of a financial mess that generated hundreds of billions in losses, have no high-profile participants in the disaster been prosecuted? …
Whether prosecutors and regulators have been aggressive enough in pursuing wrongdoing is likely to long be a subject of debate. All say they have done the best they could under difficult circumstances.
But several years after the financial crisis, which was caused in large part by reckless lending and excessive risk taking by major financial institutions, no senior executives have been charged or imprisoned, and a collective government effort has not emerged. This stands in stark contrast to the failure of many savings and loan institutions in the late 1980s. In the wake of that debacle, special government task forces referred 1,100 cases to prosecutors, resulting in more than 800 bank officials going to jail. Among the best-known: Charles H. Keating Jr., of Lincoln Savings and Loan in Arizona, and David Paul, of Centrust Bank in Florida.
Former prosecutors, lawyers, bankers and mortgage employees say that investigators and regulators ignored past lessons about how to crack financial fraud.
As the crisis was starting to deepen in the spring of 2008, the Federal Bureau of Investigation scaled back a plan to assign more field agents to investigate mortgage fraud. That summer, the Justice Department also rejected calls to create a task force devoted to mortgage-related investigations, leaving these complex cases understaffed and poorly funded, and only much later established a more general financial crimes task force.
Leading up to the financial crisis, many officials said in interviews, regulators failed in their crucial duty to compile the information that traditionally has helped build criminal cases. In effect, the same dynamic that helped enable the crisis — weak regulation — also made it harder to pursue fraud in its aftermath.
A more aggressive mind-set could have spurred far more prosecutions this time, officials involved in the S.&L. cleanup said.
“This is not some evil conspiracy of two guys sitting in a room saying we should let people create crony capitalism and steal with impunity,” said (past This is Hell! guest) William K. Black, a professor of law at University of Missouri, Kansas City, and the federal government’s director of litigation during the savings and loan crisis. “But their policies have created an exceptional criminogenic environment. There were no criminal referrals from the regulators. No fraud working groups. No national task force. There has been no effective punishment of the elites here.”
Even civil actions by the government have been limited. The Securities and Exchange Commission adopted a broad guideline in 2009 — distributed within the agency but never made public — to be cautious about pushing for hefty penalties from banks that had received bailout money. The agency was concerned about taxpayer money in effect being used to pay for settlements, according to four people briefed on the policy but who were not authorized to speak publicly about it.
To be sure, Wall Street’s role in the crisis is complex, and cases related to mortgage securities are immensely technical. Criminal intent in particular is difficult to prove, and banks defend their actions with documents they say show they operated properly.
But legal experts point to numerous questionable activities where criminal probes might have borne fruit and possibly still could.
Investigators, they argue, could look more deeply at the failure of executives to fully disclose the scope of the risks on their books during the mortgage mania, or the amounts of questionable loans they bundled into securities sold to investors that soured.
Prosecutors also could pursue evidence that executives knowingly awarded bonuses to themselves and colleagues based on overly optimistic valuations of mortgage assets — in effect, creating illusory profits that were wiped out by subsequent losses on the same assets. And they might also investigate whether executives cashed in shares based on inside information, or misled regulators and their own boards about looming problems.
Merrill Lynch, for example, understated its risky mortgage holdings by hundreds of billions of dollars. And public comments made by Angelo R. Mozilo, the chief executive of Countrywide Financial, praising his mortgage company’s practices were at odds with derisive statements he made privately in e-mails as he sold shares; the stock subsequently fell sharply as the company’s losses became known.
Executives at Lehman Brothers assured investors in the summer of 2008 that the company’s financial position was sound, even though they appeared to have counted as assets certain holdings pledged by Lehman to other companies, according to a person briefed on that case. At Bear Stearns, the first major Wall Street player to collapse, a private litigant says evidence shows that the firm’s executives may have pocketed revenues that should have gone to investors to offset losses when complex mortgage securities soured.
But the Justice Department has decided not to pursue some of these matters — including possible criminal cases against Mr. Mozilo of Countrywide and Joseph J. Cassano, head of Financial Products at A.I.G., the business at the epicenter of that company’s collapse. Mr. Cassano’s lawyers said that documents they had given to prosecutors refuted accusations that he had misled investors or the company’s board. Mr. Mozilo’s lawyers have said he denies any wrongdoing.
Among the few exceptions so far in civil action against senior bankers is a lawsuit filed last month against top executives of Washington Mutual, the failed bank now owned by JPMorgan Chase. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation sued Kerry K. Killinger, the company’s former chief executive, and two other officials, accusing them of piling on risky loans to grow faster and increase their compensation. The S.E.C. also extracted a $550 million settlement from Goldman Sachs for a mortgage security the bank built, though the S.E.C. did not name executives in that case.
Representatives at the Justice Department and the S.E.C. say they are still pursuing financial crisis cases, but legal experts warn that they become more difficult as time passes.
“If you look at the last couple of years and say, ‘This is the big-ticket prosecution that came out of the crisis,’ you realize we haven’t gotten very much,” said David A. Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s consistent with what many people were worried about during the crisis, that different rules would be applied to different players. It goes to the whole perception that Wall Street was taken care of, and Main Street was not.”
Canadian judge’s medical marijuana ruling could make pot legal
Judge deems Canada’s pot rules unconstitutional
An Ontario Superior Court judge has ruled that Canada’s medical marijuana program is invalid and denies legal access to sick people who need the drug, according to news reports.
In a decision this week, Justice Donald Taliano found that ill people are forced to obtain marijuana through illegal means and is unconstitutional …
Taliano has suspended his ruling for three months to give the federal government time to fix the medical marijuana program. Otherwise, Ottawa could face the prospect of effectively legalizing possession and production of marijuana, reports say.
Western Hemisphere’s murder capital doesn’t investigate killings
Honduran police ignore rise in attacks on journalists, gays
In a nation with the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere, it’s perhaps not a surprise that someone armed with a 9 mm pistol opened fire last month on Franklin Melendez, wounding the radio journalist in the thigh.
What astonishes is what happened next: Police refused to go to the crime scene. Later in the evening, the three officers on duty also didn’t budge when the alleged assailant waved his gun out of a moving vehicle and threatened to shoot another reporter for the radio station …
That inaction underscores why gunmen in Honduras have gotten away with a string of attacks that have claimed the lives of at least 10 journalists, 60 lawyers, 155 women and 59 gays, lesbians or transgender people since 2008.
Those cases remain unprosecuted, a trend that’s alarmed international human rights advocates. In its annual human rights report last week, the U.S. State Department noted the upswing in “hate crimes” against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Honduras, including two transvestite leaders, one of whom was executed by gunmen on a motorcycle …
The number of murders committed in Honduras has soared, from 4,473 in 2008 and 5,265 to 2009 to 6,236 last year, a 39 percent increase in two years. One is five times more likely to be murdered in Honduras (population 8 million) than in Mexico (population 112 million), making Honduras the deadliest country in the hemisphere.
Experts say killings have risen because of a surge in narcotics trafficking, general crime and the chaos after the June 2009 coup, which monopolized Honduras’ attention for months. Of the 10 journalists killed, most died in the year after the coup.
They also say the government bears some blame for the murders.
“This isn’t to say that the state commits the crimes, but by not investigating . . . it is complicit. It sends a message to the criminals, the paramilitaries and the hit men that they can do as they please,” said Osman Lopez, who heads the Committee for Free Expression, a news media advocacy group.
Homicides roiling the gay, lesbian and transgender community have earned Honduras comparisons to Uganda, the African nation that recently debated a proposed law that would make homosexuality subject to the death penalty in some instances.
In late December, two assailants kidnapped and stabbed a 45-year-old transgender leader in Honduras, Oscar Martinez Salgado, known as Lady Oscar, tied him to a chair and set him on fire.
Journalists have been gunned down primarily in parts of Honduras where landownership is in dispute or where drug-trafficking gangs proliferate.
Gaza war crime investigators slam pressured chairman for folding
The New York Times
3 U.N. Investigators Reject Goldstone’s Shift on Gaza War
Three members of the United Nations panel that investigated Israel’s Gaza war two years ago rejected on Thursday an essay written by the fourth, the former chairman Richard Goldstone, in which he retracted the panel’s key conclusions, especially that Israel had deliberately made civilians targets.
The three — Hina Jilani of Pakistan, Desmond Travers of Ireland and Christine Chinkin of Britain — issued a statement to The Guardian in London saying that any attempt to backtrack on their report amounted to yielding to outside pressure, and that doing so would deprive the victims of justice.
Although their statement did not refer directly to Mr. Goldstone’s commentary in The Washington Post or to the issue of whether armed force was used intentionally against civilians, it was nonetheless a firm rebuke of Mr. Goldstone, and of efforts to reconsider and even nullify the report the panel submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2009. The report is headed for the Security Council and General Assembly this year.
“In recent days some articles and comments appearing in the press with respect to the report of the United Nations (UN) fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict of 2008-2009 have misrepresented facts in an attempt to delegitimize the findings of this report and to cast doubts on its credibility,” their joint statement began. “Members of the mission, signatories to this statement, find it necessary to dispel any impression that subsequent developments have rendered any part of the mission’s report unsubstantiated, erroneous or inaccurate.”
Mr. Goldstone’s essay included this broad statement: “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document” …
“In addition, with regard to the issue of the policies guiding Operation Cast Lead, the committee states that there is ‘no indication that Israel has opened investigations into the actions of those who designed, planned, ordered and oversaw Operation Cast Lead.’ In other words, one of the most serious allegations about the conduct of Israel’s military operations remains completely unaddressed.”
The three conclude by saying that pressure had been applied to all members of the panel but that, unlike Mr. Goldstone, they had not yielded to it. They say: “Had we given in to pressures from any quarter to sanitize our conclusions, we would be doing a serious injustice to the hundreds of innocent civilians killed during the Gaza conflict, the thousands injured, and the hundreds of thousands whose lives continue to be deeply affected by the conflict and the blockade.
Berlusconi backs peace through stopping Gaza flotilla
Berlusconi says he’ll work to prevent upcoming flotilla
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Wednesday that he would work to prevent a flotilla bound for Gaza to sail in the coming weeks, Israel Radio reported. Berlusconi said his efforts were guided by the belief that the flotilla was not working to support peace in “our region.”
Berlusconi also said that a peaceful Middle East is farther from reality now than it ever has been before, adding that Israel has no viable peace partner. He reiterated that the only way to achieve peace would be through negotiations and offered to organize a peace conference in Sicily.
The Italian prime minister said that Israel is the only Middle Eastern country that the West can trust, and that Israel should join the European Union.
Document reveals Syria’s plans for attack on protesters
A Syrian plan to attack Protesters?
A document purportedly drafted by senior Syrian intelligence officials details a chilling plan to infiltrate the ranks of anti-regime protesters, arrest and assassinate their leaders, and link anti-regime demonstrations to the work of “Zionist” and other outside agitators.
The document was circulated by Syrian opposition figures Wednesday and cited by dissidents as fresh evidence of the brutality of the regime of President Bashar Assad. “It is very scary — this is the work of a Mafia state,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a prominent Syrian human rights activist and visiting scholar at George Washington University, who said he obtained the document from sources inside Syria on Tuesday night.
U.S. officials told NBC News that they were reviewing the document and could not immediately authenticate it. NBC was also unable to independently verify the document. But one U.S. official said the initial view is that there is a “strong likelihood” that it is real. “It would not be surprising if the Syrians are plotting the use of dirty methods to discredit its opponents,” the official said …
Ziadeh said the initials of those attending the meeting indicate that the group included Muhammed Nasif Khaybrik, a top adviser to Assad and deputy vice president for security affairs, who serves as the chief Syrian government liaison to Iran. (The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Nasif and three other Syrian officials in 2007 for their role in fomenting violence in Lebanon in order to reassert Syrian control over that country.) Another whose initials indicate he attended the meeting was Maj. Gen. Ali Mamuk, the former chief of state security who serves as the top security adivser to Assad, Ziadeh said.
The purpose of the meeting, according to the document, was to make sure that the Assad government benefits “from the mistakes of the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes” as well as from its past experience in suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood —a reference to a brutal crackdown on the Brotherhood by Assad’s father in 1982. It outlines what it describes as a highly detailed three-pronged media, security and political plan to suppress the protests.
Among the key elements, according to the document:
* “Link the anti-regime demonstrations and protests to figures hated by the Syrian populace such as the usual Saudi and Lebanese figures, and connecting the lot of them to Zionism and to America.”
* Assign security agents to work “via Facebook” to “jam up” political opponents. In particular, it suggests that security agents using “pseudonyms” pose as political dissidents and then gather intelligence about the opposition as well as “slip in” messages that would tarnish the reputations of leading dissident figures. Opposition figures should also become the target of lawsuits designed to “smear their moral and religious reputations.”
* The locations of political protests should be blocked off and civilian-clothed security agents should infiltrate the protests “in an attempt to cause a state of chaos.” In order to further “deceive the enemy,” snipers should be concealed in the ranks of the protesters and be given the leeway to shoot some security agents or army officers, “which will further help the situation by provoking the animosity of the army against the protesters.”
* Any areas where the protests get out of control should be isolated, with the electricity and Internet links cut off. Then, the plan calls for the “arrest of key influential figures in that area, and if the situation is critical, to kill them.” But the plan cautions, when security forces and snipers enter protest areas, “the number of people killed must not exceed twenty each time, because it would let them be more easily noticed and exposed, which may lead to situations of foreign intervention.”
A photo provided by Syria’s official news agency Sana shows a funeral procession for a soldier in al-Salamiya city near Baniyas on Wednesday. The government said the soldier was one of nine officers gunned down by unidentified gunmen on Monday.
Ziadeh said the best evidence of the document’s authenticity is the continued reports about the regime’s suppression of the protests.
States seek to criminalize undercover farm animal abuse videos
The New York Times
States Look to Ban Efforts to Reveal Farm Abuse
Undercover videos showing grainy, sometimes shocking images of sick or injured livestock have become a favorite tool of animal rights organizations to expose what they consider illegal or inhumane treatment of animals.
Made by animal rights advocates posing as farm workers, such videos have prompted meat recalls, slaughterhouse closings, criminal convictions of employees and apologies from corporate executives assuring that the offending images are an aberration.
In Iowa, where agriculture is a dominant force both economically and politically, such undercover investigations could soon be illegal.
A bill before the Iowa legislature would make it a crime to produce, distribute or possess photos and video taken without permission at an agricultural facility. It would also criminalize lying on an application to work at an agriculture facility “with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner.”
Similar legislation is being considered in Florida and Minnesota, part of a broader effort by large agricultural companies to pre-emptively block the kind of investigations that have left their operations uncomfortably — and unpredictably — open to scrutiny.
Their opponents, including national groups that oppose industrial farming practices, say these undercover investigations have been invaluable for revealing problems and are a form of whistle-blowing that should be protected. They argue that the legislation, if passed, would essentially hide animal abuse and food safety violations.
Wayne Pacelle, the executive director of the Humane Society of the United States, noted that secretly recorded videos released last year revealed unsanitary conditions inside egg plants in Iowa. Months later, a different Iowa egg producer was responsible for the largest egg recall in United States history because of salmonella contamination.
“It’s because they don’t want you to see what’s going on that we’ve resorted to employee investigations,” Mr. Pacelle said.