Thursday, February 17 Nine Circles of Hell!


The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – for Thursday, February 17, 2011, plus a bonus story on Curveball and an extra link on the Iraq protests, are:

Tunisia, Egypt uprisings inspire Puerto Rican students to strike

Tenet lies when he says he didn’t know about Curveball doubts

Iraq wants compensation for US destruction of Baghdad

Iraq government protests turn deadly, spread to Kurdish border

Bahrain “made the people feel safe, then they killed them”

Is Morocco next?

Global food price hikes, “threaten tens of millions of poor people”

Nuclear rod maker fears “substantial safety hazard” at plants

Justice Thomas’s impartiality questioned after Tea Party meeting

Tunisia, Egypt uprisings inspire Puerto Rican students to strike
New York Daily News

Student strike at University of Puerto Rico rocks island and sparks political crisis

A student strike at the University of Puerto Rico has forced the resignation of its president and sparked the second political crisis in a year for the island’s rulers.

José Ramón de la Torre, head of the 60,000-student system, resigned Friday after a series of violent clashes between students and riot police.

Some 200 people have been arrested and scores of students injured, prompting professors and university workers to walk out for two days last week in sympathy with the students.

On Monday, conservative Gov. Luis Fortuño finally relented and pulled back the hundreds of riot police that had been occupying the system’s 11 campuses for weeks.

It was the first police occupation of the university in more than 30 years.

Students began boycotting classes in early December to protest a special $800 annual fee Fortuño imposed this semester to reduce a huge government deficit.

That fee – equal to more than 50% of annual tuition – stunned the university community, given that more than 60% of UPR students have family incomes of less than $20,000 a year.

Student leaders persuaded the trustees to reject similar tuition hikes Fortuño proposed last spring. They did so by conducting massive sit-ins and barricading themselves in buildings on all the campuses for two months, and by running a sophisticated Internet and media campaign that garnered much public support.

Fortuño’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party, which controls both houses of the Puerto Rico legislature, responded by packing the board of trustees with new appointees, guaranteeing him complete control this time around.

Local courts cooperated by banning student protests on university grounds.

Most experts expected the students would be too exhausted from last spring to challenge the governor again.

Those experts were wrong.

Inspired by the youth revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, the students refused to simply go home.

Tenet lies when he says he didn’t know about Curveball doubts

Curveball doubts were shared with CIA, says ex-German foreign minister

Germany’s former foreign minister Joschka Fischer has accused the former head of the CIA George Tenet of lying about the handling of the Curveball case by the US.

On Wednesday Tenet, the director of central intelligence between 1997 and 2004, issued a statement on his website saying he discovered “too damn late” that Curveball – the Iraqi defector who became a key source for the CIA and the German secret service (BND) – might be a fabricator.

Reprinting an extract from his autobiography, Tenet claimed he only found out in 2005, two years after the Iraq invasion, that the BND had doubts about Curveball’s claims to have witnessed first-hand Saddam Hussein’s bio-weapons programme.

Asked by the Guardian whether Tenet’s claims were plausible, Fischer said: “No. I don’t think so.”

Fischer said the BND realised some time before the war that Curveball was not a watertight source, and passed on his testimony to the CIA with warnings attached.

“Our position was always: [Curveball] might be right, but he might not be right. He could be a liar but he could be telling the truth,” said Fischer at a press conference in Berlin to promote his memoir about the Iraq war.

Fischer said Germany was put in a “very difficult position” when the CIA asked whether they could “have” Curveball, or at least use his evidence to justify a war in Iraq. Germany’s official position was that it would not join the coalition of the willing. Fischer himself famously told Donald Rumsfeld in February 2003 that he was “not convinced” about the case for war.

“On the one hand we didn’t want to withhold from the US any bit of relevant information we had about possible WMD in Iraq. On the other hand, we did not want to take part in any propagandistic exploitation of material, which was far from proven, to justify a war,” Fischer writes in his new autobiography, I Am Not Convinced …

He said the then head of the BND, August Henning, wrote a letter to the CIA outlining the possible problems with Curveball. Fischer also pointed out that it was common practice in security circles – then, as now – to not rely on a single source, but to get at least three independent sources that corroborate each other.

Asked what he thought about Colin Powell demanding an inquiry into why the CIA and its military arm, the DIA, never told him about Curveball possibly being a liar, Fischer said he couldn’t comment.

  • That’s right. Colin Powell wants an investigation into the CIA’s mishandling of intelligence that got the US into war with Iraq. Read what the CNN story, “Powell questions handling of Iraqi defector,” has to report:
    Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday that U.S. intelligence officials should be questioned over their handling of “Curveball,” an Iraqi defector whose now discredited claims on weapons of mass destruction helped fuel the Bush administration’s drive to war in 2003.
    It has become clear over the years that “the source called Curveball was totally unreliable,” Powell said in a statement to CNN.
    “The question should be put to the CIA and the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) as to why this wasn’t known before the false information was put into (a key intelligence estimate) sent to Congress, the president’s State of the Union address and my February 5 presentation to the U.N.”

Iraq wants compensation for US destruction of Baghdad

Baghdad wants U.S. to pay $1 billion for damage to city

Iraq’s capital wants the United States to apologize and pay $1 billion for the damage done to the city not by bombs but by blast walls and Humvees since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

The city’s government issued its demands in a statement on Wednesday that said Baghdad’s infrastructure and aesthetics have been seriously damaged by the American military.

“The U.S. forces changed this beautiful city to a camp in an ugly and destructive way, which reflected deliberate ignorance and carelessness about the simplest forms of public taste,” the statement said.

“Due to the huge damage, leading to a loss the Baghdad municipality cannot afford…we demand the American side apologize to Baghdad’s people and pay back these expenses.”

The statement made no mention of damage caused by bombing.

Baghdad’s neighborhoods have been sealed off by miles of concrete blast walls, transforming the city into a tangled maze that contributes to massive traffic jams. Despite a sharp reduction in overall violence in recent years only 5 percent of the walls have been removed, officials said.

The heavy blast walls have damaged sewer and water systems, pavement and parks, said Hakeem Abdul Zahra, the city spokesman.

U.S. military Humvees, driven on street medians and through gardens, have also caused major damage, he said.

“The city of Baghdad feels these violations, which have taken place for years, have caused economic and moral damage,” he said.

Iraq government protests turn deadly, spread to Kurdish border
The New York Times

New Protest in Iraqi City After Clashes With Police

About 1,000 protesters took to the streets of the eastern Iraqi city of Kut on Thursday demanding the release of 45 people arrested a day earlier after clashes with security forces that left 3 dead …

The protesters, who are part of a group called Youth of Kut, have called on the province’s governor, Latif Hamad al-Tarfa, to resign over accusations that he stole money from the government and failed to improve the economy and electric supply. A donkey with the word “the governor” scrawled on its side stood with demonstrators in front of the headquarters on Thursday …

“We will stay here in the street until the governor walks out,” said Mahdi al-Yasiry, 37-year old engineer who is unemployed, as he stood with other protesters outside the government headquarters on Thursday. “Everything in this province is bad. No gas. No electricity. No jobs. No nothing.”

Kut, a mostly Shiite city of about 850,000, is about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad and is one of the poorest cities in Iraq.

In Hilla, a city about 75 miles from Kut, the authorities placed more security forces at government offices and the homes of local officials.

After Wednesday’s violence in Kut, security forces imposed a curfew in the city …

In the northern city of Kirkuk about 400 people protested in front of a government building, calling for better services for widow and orphans.

The protesters there shouted: “We want justice. Where are our rights? Protect the orphans from the thieves. We are hungry in a country of oil.”

  • A later New York Times article, “Protests Spread to More Iraqi Cities,” reports even more protests than the earlier story:
    Unrest continued to spread in Iraq on Thursday, with new protests erupting in several cities and reports from law enforcement officials that private security guards in a city in Kurdistan fired on a group of protesters who tried to storm the political offices of the region’s leader.
    Early reports from law enforcement officials said that five people had been killed and dozens injured in that city, Sulaimaniya. But the head of the health department there later said that only one person had died.
    Protesters have been calling for better government services, including more electricity, and in some cases, for local government officials to resign.
    The demonstrations, although over long-festering grievances that neither the American military nor successive Iraqi governments solved, appear to have been inspired by unrest elsewhere in the Middle East.

Bahrain “made the people feel safe, then they killed them”
The New York Times

5 killed in Bahrain crackdown

The Bahrain military, backed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers, took control of most of this capital on Thursday, hours after hundreds of heavily armed riot police officers fired shotguns, tear gas and concussion grenades to break up a pro-democracy camp inspired by the tumult swirling across the Middle East.

Soldiers took up positions on foot, controlled traffic and told demonstrators that any further protests would be banned. The intervention came after police, without warning, rushed into Pearl Square in the early hours of the morning, in a crackdown on demonstrators who were sleeping there as part of a widening protest against the nation’s absolute monarchy.

At least five people died, some of them reportedly killed in their sleep with scores of shotgun pellets to the face and chest, according to a witness and three doctors who received the dead and at least 200 wounded at a hospital here …

In response, the Shiite-led opposition called on Thursday for the current government to resign. A spokesman for the Pentagon, which maintains a strategic naval base here, said the American military was “closely watching developments” and urged “all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence,” Reuters reported …

The government has shifted its approach to the protests repeatedly, possibly reflecting a split on how much leeway should be allowed. After two people were killed in the first two days of marches, the king and his interior minister apologised and, under American pressure, the authorities ordered the police to withdraw from the central square. But the leadership’s newfound tolerance for dissent was a mirage.

The abrupt crackdown on what had been a carnival-like protest injected a new anger into demonstrations calling on King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa for reforms. “Death to Khalifa, death to Khalifa,” hundreds of protesters chanted on Thursday outside a hospital as women ran screaming through wards and corridors seeking lost children.

“They made the people feel safe,” said a nurse, Fatima Ali, referring to what had initially seemed to be official tolerance of the huge protest in Pearl Square, emulating an uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. “Then they killed them.”

Is Morocco next?

Morocco fears Algeria may stir Western Sahara unrest

Morocco said Algeria and the Polisario Front, which wants independence for Western Sahara, may use political upheavals sweeping some countries in the Arab world to stir unrest in the disputed desert region.

Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri also urged Algeria, Morocco’s neighbour and the Polisario Front’s biggest supporter, to turn the page on past disputes and focus on greater economic cooperation.

Morocco annexed the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony in 1975, sparking an armed conflict with the Polisario.

A U.N.-brokered ceasefire was reached in 1991 on the promise that a referendum would be held to decide the fate of the territory, but differences between the two sides about who is eligible to vote sabotaged it.

Morocco has offered limited autonomy to Western Sahara, a thinly populated region that has rich fishing waters and phosphate deposits, and may also have oil and gas reserves.

Polisario and its ally Algeria reject this and say they want a referendum, with independence for Western Sahara as one of the options.

In unprecedented violence in November, about a dozen people, mostly Moroccan security force members, were killed after they broke up a protest camp near the territory’s main city Laayoune.

Global food price hikes, “threaten tens of millions of poor people”
BBC News

Food prices at dangerous levels, says World Bank

The World Bank says food prices are at “dangerous levels” and have pushed 44 million more people into poverty since last June.

According to the latest edition of its Food Price Watch, prices rose by 15% in the four months between October 2010 and January this year.

Food price inflation is felt disproportionately by the poor, who spend over half their income on food.

The Bank called on this week’s G20 meeting to address the problem.

The World Bank’s president, Robert Zoellick, said in a statement: “Global food prices are rising to dangerous levels and threaten tens of millions of poor people around the world.”

He also said that rising food prices were an aggravating factor of the unrest in the Middle East, although not its primary cause.

Rapid food price inflation in 2008 sparked riots in a number of countries. At that time, the World Bank estimated 125 million people were in extreme poverty.

The World Bank says prices are not quite back at those levels – just 3% below – although they are 27% higher than a year ago.

Nuclear rod maker fears “substantial safety hazard” at plants
The Associated Press

Possible fuel rod hazard seen at some nuke plants

A major manufacturer in the nuclear industry is reporting a potential “substantial safety hazard” with control rods at Vermont Yankee and more than two dozen other reactors around the country, according to a report made public Wednesday by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy said it had discovered extensive cracking and “material distortion,” and likely would recommend that the boiling water reactors using its Marathon control rod blades replace them more frequently than they had been told to previously.

“The design life if not revised, could result in significant control blade cracking and could, if not corrected, create a substantial safety hazard and is considered a reportable condition,” the company said in its report to the NRC.

Both David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry engineer who now frequently consults with groups critical of the industry, said the faulty blades could make affected control rods inoperable.

“It could either slow down or stop the control rod from inserting” when plant operators were trying to reduce power or shut a plant down, Lochbaum said.

Gundersen said control rods “are like the brakes on a nuclear reactor. It’s almost like they have a 100,000 mile warranty on them and they need to be changed out at 40,000.”

He added that the reactors also have an emergency brake: an “explosive valve” to be used in emergencies when operators are unable to gain control of the reaction by inserting control rods. The valve forces water containing high levels of boron, which slows and eventually stops the reaction by absorbing neutrons.

After using that measure, Gundersen said, “it takes months to clean up” while the plant is shut down. In their training reactor operators are “taught it’s there, but you pray you never have to use it.”

Signs of cracking in the blades would include increased levels of boron and tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, in the water used to cool the reactor, said Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman.

Justice Thomas’s impartiality questioned after Tea Party meeting
The New York Times

Common Cause Asks Court About Thomas Speech

Discrepancies in reports about an appearance by Justice Clarence Thomas at a political retreat for wealthy conservatives three years ago have prompted new questions to the Supreme Court from a group that advocates changing campaign finance laws.

When questions were first raised about the retreat last month, a court spokeswoman said Justice Thomas had made a “brief drop-by” at the event in Palm Springs, Calif., in January 2008 and had given a talk.

In his financial disclosure report for that year, however, Justice Thomas reported that the Federalist Society, a prominent conservative legal group, had reimbursed him an undisclosed amount for four days of “transportation, meals and accommodations” over the weekend of the retreat. The event is organized by Charles and David Koch, brothers who have used millions of dollars from the energy conglomerate they run in Wichita, Kan., to finance conservative causes.

Arn Pearson, a vice president at the advocacy group Common Cause, said the two statements appeared at odds. His group sent a letter to the Supreme Court on Monday asking for “further clarification” as to whether the justice spent four days at the retreat for the entire event or was there only briefly.

“I don’t think the explanation they’ve given is credible,” Mr. Pearson said in an interview. He said that if Justice Thomas’s visit was a “four-day, all-expenses paid trip in sunny Palm Springs,” it should have been reported as a gift under federal law.

The Supreme Court had no comment on the issue Monday. Nor did officials at the Federalist Society or at Koch Industries.

Common Cause maintains that Justice Thomas should have disqualified himself from last year’s landmark campaign finance ruling in the Citizens United case, partly because of his ties to the Koch brothers.

In a petition filed with the Justice Department last month, the advocacy group said past appearances at the Koch brothers’ retreat by Justice Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia, along with the conservative political work of Justice Thomas’s wife, had created a possible perception of bias in hearing the case.