Tuesday, April 19 Nine Circles of Hell!


The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – for Tuesday, April 19, 2011, are:

Despite denials, West met with Big Oil before Iraq war

As NATO admits limitations, Britain sends military advisers to Libya

Saudis help Bahrain’s minority Sunnis destroy Shia mosques

Since 1992, richest taxes dropped six times more than everyone else

Natural gas driller reveals more dangerous chemicals used in fracking

Frackers admit wastewater pollutes, state asks them to quit dumping

Poll shows more than half of Americans favor same-sex marriage

America moving to the right – and fast

Civil libertarians concerned over Obama’s plan for Internet IDs

Despite denials, West met with Big Oil before Iraq war
The Independent

Secret memos expose link between oil firms and invasion of Iraq

Plans to exploit Iraq’s oil reserves were discussed by government ministers and the world’s largest oil companies the year before Britain took a leading role in invading Iraq, government documents show.

The papers, revealed here for the first time, raise new questions over Britain’s involvement in the war, which had divided Tony Blair’s cabinet and was voted through only after his claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The minutes of a series of meetings between ministers and senior oil executives are at odds with the public denials of self-interest from oil companies and Western governments at the time.

The documents were not offered as evidence in the ongoing Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war. In March 2003, just before Britain went to war, Shell denounced reports that it had held talks with Downing Street about Iraqi oil as “highly inaccurate”. BP denied that it had any “strategic interest” in Iraq, while Tony Blair described “the oil conspiracy theory” as “the most absurd”.

But documents from October and November the previous year paint a very different picture.

Five months before the March 2003 invasion, Baroness Symons, then the Trade Minister, told BP that the Government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq’s enormous oil and gas reserves as a reward for Tony Blair’s military commitment to US plans for regime change.

The papers show that Lady Symons agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP’s behalf because the oil giant feared it was being “locked out” of deals that Washington was quietly striking with US, French and Russian governments and their energy firms.

Minutes of a meeting with BP, Shell and BG (formerly British Gas) on 31 October 2002 read: “Baroness Symons agreed that it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis.”

The minister then promised to “report back to the companies before Christmas” on her lobbying efforts.

The Foreign Office invited BP in on 6 November 2002 to talk about opportunities in Iraq “post regime change”. Its minutes state: “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity.”

After another meeting, this one in October 2002, the Foreign Office’s Middle East director at the time, Edward Chaplin, noted: “Shell and BP could not afford not to have a stake in [Iraq] for the sake of their long-term future… We were determined to get a fair slice of the action for UK companies in a post-Saddam Iraq.”

Whereas BP was insisting in public that it had “no strategic interest” in Iraq, in private it told the Foreign Office that Iraq was “more important than anything we’ve seen for a long time”.

BP was concerned that if Washington allowed TotalFinaElf’s existing contact with Saddam Hussein to stand after the invasion it would make the French conglomerate the world’s leading oil company. BP told the Government it was willing to take “big risks” to get a share of the Iraqi reserves, the second largest in the world.

Over 1,000 documents were obtained under Freedom of Information over five years by the oil campaigner (and past This is Hell! guest) Greg Muttitt. They reveal that at least five meetings were held between civil servants, ministers and BP and Shell in late 2002.

As NATO admits limitations, Britain sends military advisers to Libya
The Washington Post

Britain to send military advisers to aid Libyan rebels

Britain announced Tuesday it will dispatch experienced military advisers to aid Libyan rebels in organizing their forces, inching toward deeper Western involvement in the two-month-old rebellion against Moammar Gaddafi.

The British decision, announced by the Foreign Ministry in London, came as NATO warned that there are limits to the effectiveness of air power alone in defending the rebel-held city of Misurata, given alliance restrictions on bombing that could endanger the besieged civilian population and its rebel defenders.

In Tripoli, the Gaddafi government strongly denounced European moves to send in troops, including a European Union proposal to send a force to the besieged Libyan city of Misurata to protect aid deliveries if asked to do so by the United Nations. The government vowed to fight any foreign troops that landed on its soil, even if they were supposedly there to escort humanitarian aid convoys. U.N. officials have said they want to explore civilian options first.

Rebels and residents of Misurata, facing an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation and regular bombardment by government forces, have been appealing for more than a week for NATO to send in ground troops to protect humanitarian relief deliveries through the port.

They say more than 300 people have been confirmed dead in the city’s hospitals, while hundreds more are thought to have died throughout the city, which lies 131 miles east of Tripoli, since the siege began in late February.

The developments in Europe suggested growing frustration in the NATO alliance with what is turning into a back-and-forth military standoff on the ground that Western airstrikes seem powerless to end quickly. Reflecting the impatience, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Paris that Western leaders had probably underestimated Gaddafi’s resolve and his military’s ability to adapt to the month-old coalition air campaign.

Juppe reiterated, however, that France would not send ground forces to Libya. Axel Poniatowski, who heads the French parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, had urged the government to assign 200 to 300 special forces to rebel units to act as advisers and forward spotters for NATO pilots as they seek to distinguish Libyan army targets from surrounding civilian areas.

Saudis help Bahrain’s minority Sunnis destroy Shia mosques
The Independent

Bahrain escapes censure by West as crackdown on protesters intensifies

Past This is Hell! guest Patrick Cockburn writes …

Bahraini government forces backed by Saudi Arabian troops are destroying mosques and places of worship of the Shia majority in the island kingdom in a move likely to exacerbate religious hatred across the Muslim world.

“So far they have destroyed seven Shia mosques and about 50 religious meeting houses,” said Ali al-Aswad, an MP in the Bahraini parliament.

He said Saudi soldiers, part of the 1,000-strong contingent that entered Bahrain last month, had been seen by witnesses helping demolish Shia mosques and shrines in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

Mohammed Sadiq, of the Justice for Bahrain organisation, said the most famous of the Shia shrines destroyed was that of a revered Bahraini Shia spiritual leader, Sheikh Abdul Amir al-Jamri, who died in 2006. A photograph taken by activists and seen by The Independent shows the golden dome of the shrine lying on the ground and later being taken away on the back of a lorry. On the walls of Shia mosques that have been desecrated, graffiti has been scrawled praising the Sunni King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and insulting the Shia.

The attack on Shia places of worship has provoked a furious reaction among the 250 million Shia community, particularly in Iran and Iraq, where Shia are in a majority, and in Lebanon where they are the largest single community.

The Shia were already angry at the ferocious repression by Bahraini security forces of the pro-democracy movement, which had sought to be non-sectarian. After the monarchy had rejected meaningful reform, the wholly Sunni army and security forces started to crush the largely Shia protests on 15 and 16 March.

The harshness of the government repression is provoking allegations of hypocrisy against Washington, London and Paris. Their mild response to human rights abuses and the Saudi Arabian armed intervention in Bahrain is in stark contrast to their vocal concern for civilians in Libya.

Since 1992, richest taxes dropped six times more than everyone else
The Associated Press

Super rich see federal taxes drop dramatically

As millions of procrastinators scramble to meet Monday’s tax filing deadline, ponder this: The super rich pay a lot less taxes than they did a couple of decades ago, and nearly half of U.S. households pay no income taxes at all.

The Internal Revenue Service tracks the tax returns with the 400 highest adjusted gross incomes each year. The average income on those returns in 2007, the latest year for IRS data, was nearly $345 million. Their average federal income tax rate was 17 percent, down from 26 percent in 1992.

Over the same period, the average federal income tax rate for all taxpayers declined to 9.3 percent from 9.9 percent.

The top income tax rate is 35 percent, so how can people who make so much pay so little in taxes? The nation’s tax laws are packed with breaks for people at every income level. There are breaks for having children, paying a mortgage, going to college, and even for paying other taxes. Plus, the top rate on capital gains is only 15 percent.

There are so many breaks that 45 percent of U.S. households will pay no federal income tax for 2010, according to estimates by the Tax Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

“It’s the fact that we are using the tax code both to collect revenue, which is its primary purpose, and to deliver these spending benefits that we run into the situation where so many people are paying no taxes,” said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the center, which generated the estimate of people who pay no income taxes.

The sheer volume of credits, deductions and exemptions has both Democrats and Republicans calling for tax laws to be overhauled. House Republicans want to eliminate breaks to pay for lower overall rates, reducing the top tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. Republicans oppose raising taxes, but they argue that a more efficient tax code would increase economic activity, generating additional tax revenue.

President Barack Obama said last week he wants to do away with tax breaks to lower the rates and to reduce government borrowing. Obama’s proposal would result in $1 trillion in tax increases over the next 12 years. Neither proposal included many details, putting off hard choices about which tax breaks to eliminate.

In all, the tax code is filled with a total of $1.1 trillion in credits, deductions and exemptions, an average of about $8,000 per taxpayer, according to an analysis by the National Taxpayer Advocate, an independent watchdog within the IRS.

More than half of the nation’s tax revenue came from the top 10 percent of earners in 2007. More than 44 percent came from the top 5 percent. Still, the wealthy have access to much more lucrative tax breaks than people with lower incomes.

Natural gas driller reveals more dangerous chemicals used in fracking
The Intelligencer

Chesapeake, Others Reveal More Chemicals in Process

More chemicals that may be harmful if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed are being used for fracking at natural gas drilling sites, according to Chesapeake Energy.

As Chesapeake continues drilling and fracking more wells in Ohio and Brooke counties, the driller is joining other firms to reveal more information about breaking the rock deep within the earth to release Marcellus Shale natural gas. Recently, company Chief Executive Officer Aubrey McClendon announced Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake’s participation in www.fracfocus.org, a website providing information on fracking chemicals, solutions and procedures …

If even 0.5 percent of the 5 million gallons of water, sand and chemical solution used to frack a typical Marcellus Shale well consists of chemicals, that means 25,000 gallons of chemicals are being pumped into the ground at pressure as high as 10,000 pounds per square inch.

Not every frack job requires the same solution of chemicals, so not all substances will be used for every well. Chesapeake officials previously acknowledged using these chemicals for frack jobs, most of which can be found in common household products such as laundry detergent, hair coloring solution and antifreeze: hydrochloric acid; ethylene glycol; isopropanol; glutaraldehyde; petroleum distillate; guar gum; ammonium persulfate; formamide; borate salts; citric acid; potassium chloride; and sodium or potassium carbonate.

Among the additional chemicals found on the website include a substance called tetramethyl ammonium chloride. According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration Material Safety Data Sheets, this chemical “may be fatal is swallowed, inhaled or absorbed.”

Acetaldehyde is listed as being harmful and a possible carcinogen. Thioglycolic acid is also harmful, according to the MSDS. Two-butoxy-ethanol is listed as a narcotic and respiratory irritant that may cause kidney or liver damage.

In addition to these materials, some of the 85 fracking chemicals listed by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protections are xylene, toluene and tetramethylammonium chloride – chemicals that can lead, with prolonged exposure, to liver damage in humans and can even be fatal.

Some residents remain concerned that fracking can lead to groundwater contamination, but industry leaders note there have been no confirmed cases of this.

Frackers admit wastewater pollutes, state asks them to quit dumping
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pa.: Marcellus wastewater shouldn’t go to treatment plants

Because of high levels of dissolved solids and bromide in rivers and streams used for public drinking water sources, the state Department of Environmental Protection has asked all Marcellus Shale operations to voluntarily stop disposal of drilling wastewater at 15 municipal sewage treatment plants.

The request — specifically not a departmental “order” that carries legal weight — asks drillers to halt a wastewater disposal practice that had been criticized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups but that the DEP had allowed at the select facilities despite tighter water discharge standards passed in December.

The DEP requested, with Gov. Tom Corbett’s approval, that drillers stop taking Marcellus Shale drilling wastewater to municipal “grandfathered” treatment facilities after May 19 …

At about the same time the DEP made its request Tuesday morning, the Marcellus Shale Coalition said for the first time that drilling wastewater discharges into rivers and streams were partly responsible for higher levels of certain pollutants that have been measured in public waterways in Western Pennsylvania.

“Research by Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority experts suggests that the natural gas industry is a contributing factor to elevated levels of bromide in the Allegheny and Beaver Rivers,” said Kathryn Klaber, president and executive director of the coalition of Marcellus Shale drilling industry companies. “We are committed to leading efforts, and working alongside DEP and other stakeholders, to address these issues quickly and straightforwardly, and support the appropriate action taken by DEP today” …

The drilling wastewater contains high concentrations of dissolved solids, including bromides, a non-toxic salt compound that reacts with disinfectants used by municipal treatment plants to create brominated trihalomethanes, also known as THMs. Studies show a link between ingestion of and exposure to THMs and several types of cancer and birth defects …

The number of municipal facilities that were allowed to take drilling wastewater has dropped from 27 to 15 over the last year, the DEP said, as some drilling operations recycled increasing amounts of water and some treatment facilities voluntarily decided to stop accepting it.

The DEP said recent surface water sampling found elevated levels of bromide in Western Pennsylvania’s rivers.

Poll shows more than half of Americans favor same-sex marriage

Poll: More Americans favor same-sex marriage

Support for same-sex marriage has received a boost, according to a new CNN/Opinion Research survey released Tuesday.

The poll indicates that more than half of all Americans believe that marriages between gay or lesbian couples should be legally valid. With 51 percent of respondents saying that same-sex marriages should be legal, it is the first time that a CNN poll has found majority support for same-sex marriage.

Although more Americans agree on this issue, a generation-and gender-gap still remains. Sixty percent of Americans under 50 support same-sex marriage, but only four in ten of those over 50 feel the same. More than half of men are against legalizing marriage between gay or lesbian couples, but 57 percent of women are in favor of it.

There’s also a partisan divide on the issue. “More than six in 10 Democrats support same sex marriage, joined by more than half of independents, but seven in 10 Republicans are against it,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

The poll comes out just after Speaker of the House John Boehner moved to hire a conservative lawyer to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in a pending lawsuit. The Obama administration said it believed that DOMA to be unconstitutional and would no longer have the Justice Department defend it in federal courts.

America moving to the right – and fast
The Associated Press

Republican legislative gains tug nation to right

In state after state, Republicans are moving swiftly past blunted Democratic opposition to turn a conservative wish-list into law.

Their successes, spurred by big election gains in November, go well beyond the spending cuts forced on states by the fiscal crunch and tea party agitation. Republican governors and state legislators are bringing abortion restrictions into effect from Virginia to Arizona, expanding gun rights north and south, pushing polling-station photo ID laws that are anathema to Democrats and taking on public sector unions anywhere they can …

A tug to the right was in the cards ever since voters put the GOP in charge of 25 legislatures and 29 governors’ offices in the 2010 elections. That is turning out to be every bit as key to shaping the nation’s ideological direction as anything happening in Washington.

A close-up review of the first wave of legislative action by Associated Press statehouse reporters shows the striking degree to which the GOP has been able to break through gridlock and achieve improbable ends. The historic and wildly contentious curbs on public sector bargaining in Wisconsin, quickly followed by similar action in Ohio, were but a signal that the status quo is being challenged on multiple fronts in many places.

The realignment in Florida has produced a law imposing more accountability on teachers, along with 18 proposed abortion restrictions, some bound to become law. Immigration controls are motivating lawmakers far from borders, constitutional amendments against gay marriage are picking up steam, Michigan and Missouri shortened the period people can get jobless benefits and Indiana may soon have the broadest school voucher program in the U.S.

At least 20 states are going after public-sector benefits, pay or bargaining rights.

In Virginia, Republicans used a deft legislative maneuver to enact a law that could close many of the state’s 21 abortion clinics. In Missouri, a presidential swing state where Republicans are at their strongest numbers in decades, a tax cut sought by business for 10 years has been given final legislative approval and Democrats are putting up little resistance to Republican priorities they once tied in knots …

In North Carolina, where Republicans won control of both legislative levers for the first time since 1870, the party has secured approval in both chambers for charter school expansion and a bill that would create separate crimes for the death or injury of a fetus at any stage of development, not including legal abortions. Republicans have made unexpected progress in giving gun owners more rights to carry concealed pistols.

North Carolina is also among nearly a dozen states where an initiative to require photo IDs at polls is getting traction. Democrats and civil libertarians worry photo ID rules would suppress minority and legal immigrant voting.

Civil libertarians concerned over Obama’s plan for Internet IDs
Cnet News

Obama moves forward with Internet ID plan

The Obama administration said today that it’s moving ahead with a plan for broad adoption of Internet IDs despite concerns about identity centralization, and hopes to fund pilot projects next year.

At an event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., administration officials downplayed privacy and civil liberties concerns about their proposal, which they said would be led by the private sector and not be required for Americans who use the Internet.

There’s “no reliable way to verify identity online” at the moment, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said, citing the rising tide of security threats including malware and identity theft that have grown increasingly prevalent over the last few years. “Passwords just won’t cut it here.”

A 55-page document (PDF) released by the White House today adds a few more details to the proposal, which still remains mostly hazy and inchoate.

It offers examples of what the White House views as an “identity ecosystem,” including obtaining a digital ID from an Internet service provider that could be used to view your personal health information, or obtaining an ID linked to your cell phone that would let you log into IRS.gov to view payments and file taxes. The idea is to have multiple identity providers that are part of the same system.

Administration officials plan to convene a series of workshops between June and September of this year that would bring together companies and advocacy groups and move closer to an actual specification for what’s being called the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, or NSTIC.

Left unsaid was that the series of workshops, which will be open to the public, will give the proposal’s backers a chance to downplay concerns that it could become the virtual equivalent of a national ID card …

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who also spoke today at the Chamber event, seemed to veer a bit off-message–and instead of touting anonymity, she stressed the importance of aiding law enforcement.

Protecting civil liberties is important, Mikulski said. “But the first civil liberty is to be able to have a job, lead a life, and be able to buy what you want in the way we now buy it, which is through credit cards.”

“We’re going to support the FBI,” said Mikulski, who heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees the FBI’s funding. “We’re going to support the growth of the FBI.”

The Obama administration’s record on digital identification and authentication is mixed.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, President Obama told CNET that “I do not support the Real ID program.” But after being elected, Obama has not called for its repeal and his administration said last month that it’s working “very closely with the states to assist with implementation.”

Another cautionary note comes from a previous public-private partnership that also sought to improve identity-related authentication. The largest company participating in the TSA’s registered traveler identification program, Verified Identity Pass’ CLEAR, shut down in 2009. Its assets were sold to the highest bidder.

Another concern: Although the White House is describing the NSTIC plan as “voluntary,” federal agencies could begin to require it for IRS e-filing, applying for Social Security or veterans’ benefits, renewing passports online, requesting federal licenses (including ham radio and pilot’s licenses), and so on. Then obtaining one of these ID would become all but mandatory for most Americans.

“For end-users, online identification has become increasingly cumbersome and complex,” says Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “But it remains unclear whether the White House proposal will solve this problem or create new problems. There is the real risk that consolidated identity schemes will lead to ‘hyper’ identity theft.”