Tuesday, December 7 Nine Circles of Hell!

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The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – for Tuesday, December 7, plus five bonus stories on Julian Assange’s arrest, and two extra stories on the battle over taxes, are:

Obama oil spill rep/Navy Secretary wants military eating Gulf seafood

Why hasn’t Justice made any big fraud busts from financial crisis?

Could Assange arrest set off Wikileaks’ “thermonuclear device”?

Yemen uses US ‘war on terror’ aid for their ‘war on rebels’

Netanyahu attacks Israeli rabbis‘ letter against renting to non-Jews

Democrats pissed about Obama’s tax cut concessions

Investigators can’t keep up with Chicago cop taser cases

Global food crisis, “is arriving even faster than climate change

Disney’s happiest subdivision on Earth not so happy lately

Obama oil spill rep/Navy Secretary wants military eating Gulf seafood
New Orleans Times Picayune
(12/7/10)

Armed services are urged to stock kitchens with Gulf seafood

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who doubles as President Barack Obama’s point man on Gulf Coast oil spill recovery, is pressing America’s armed services to consume as much Gulf seafood as possible.

Navy Capt. Beci Brenton said Monday that Mabus has talked with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the secretaries of the Air Force and Army, and his staff has talked to the Defense Commissary Agency, which operates a worldwide chain of stores for military personnel, making the point “that we should be buying Gulf Coast seafood.”

In a meeting Monday with Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, Mabus reaffirmed his commitment to using the tools at his disposal to help the Gulf seafood industry recover from the damage the BP oil spill has done in reality and perception. The board is gearing up for a large-scale national marketing campaign, with $30 million in BP money and millions more in federal dollars, to reassure restaurants and markets across the country that Gulf seafood is safe.

“He expressed what we wanted to hear: He is in favor of the federal government buying seafood from the Gulf,” said Smith, who said he would like to see Gulf seafood as the choice throughout the public domain, “whether it’s the military or prison systems or school systems.”

Why hasn’t Justice made any big fraud busts from financial crisis?
The New York Times
(12/6/10)

Pulling Back the Curtain on Fraud Inquiries

To hear Eric H. Holder Jr. tell it, the Justice Department is aggressively cracking down on financial fraud.

On Monday in Washington, Mr. Holder, the United States attorney general, announced with much fanfare the results of a new enforcement program: Operation Broken Trust. “With this operation, the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force is sending a strong message,” Mr. Holder declared, highlighting the Ponzi schemes, affinity frauds and investment scams his department had prosecuted.

In all, Mr. Holder said his new task force had brought cases against 343 criminal defendants and 189 civil defendants for fraud schemes that harmed more than 120,000 victims throughout the country, involving more than $8 billion in estimated losses.

It all sounded quite important, and the program’s slogan is pretty catchy. But after you get past the pandering sound bites, a question comes to mind: is anyone in the corner offices of Wall Street’s biggest firms or corporate America’s biggest companies paying any attention to Mr. Holder’s “strong message”? …

That’s because in the two years since the peak of the financial crisis, the government has not brought one criminal case against a big-time corporate official of any sort.

Instead, inexplicably, prosecutors are busy chasing small-timers: penny-stock frauds, a husband-and-wife team charged in an insider trading case and mini-Ponzi schemes.

“They will pick on minor misdemeanors by individual market participants,” said David Einhorn, the hedge fund manager who was among the Cassandras before the financial crisis. To Mr. Einhorn, the government is “not willing to take on significant misbehavior by sizable” firms. “But since there have been almost no big prosecutions, there’s very little evidence that it has stopped bad actors from behaving badly” …

But fraud at big corporations surely dwarfs by orders of magnitude the shareholders’ losses of $8 billion that Mr. Holder highlighted. If the government spent half the time trying to ferret out fraud at major companies that it does tracking pump-and-dump schemes, we might have been able to stop the financial crisis, or at least we’d have a fighting chance at stopping the next one …

At the moment, by the looks of the headlines, the government’s next big crackdown will be insider trading cases at hedge funds. The government is bringing to bear all its resources, including the F.B.I., which is using wiretaps and raiding offices. But when in recent years have you heard of such maneuvers used on the chief executive of a major corporation?

For those wondering why the government seems to have studiously avoided taking on big companies, I stumbled on a novel theory worth sharing.

Mr. Einhorn, who had his own run-ins with the government when he tried to reveal fraud at Allied Capital and wrote about them in his book, “Fooling Some of the People All of the Time,” says he believes the government consciously and strategically does not pursue cases against big companies and officers.

His theory is intriguing. Any case against a big company or officer, he says, inherently “penalizes the shareholders.” And the shareholders are the “little guys” whom the government is supposedly seeking to protect. Mr. Einhorn makes a good point. While the public lusts for the hanging of a corporate executive, the shareholders would also most likely take the big hit in the wallet.

To Mr. Einhorn, however, the government’s approach means shareholders look the other way instead of raising red flags themselves.

He said: “The problem with trying to give existing shareholders a free ride on whatever’s going on” — that’s what he argues the government is doing — “is that it takes away the incentive for existing shareholders to be worried when they see management misbehaving. It would be a much stronger, self-reinforcing, positive system if when shareholders saw management misbehaving, they were incentivized to call up management and say, ‘Please stop misbehaving or something bad is going to happen to my investment.’

“Instead, what they do, implicitly, is encourage the further misbehavior.”

Could Assange arrest set off Wikileaks’ “thermonuclear device”?
The Christian Science Monitor
(12/7/10)

Will WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, now arrested, take the ‘nuclear’ option?

Now that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been arrested, will he unleash his “thermonuclear device?”

He appeared to hint at the option last week, when he threatened that “key parts” of secret US government cables would be released if anything happened to him or WikiLeaks.

The “thermonuclear device,” so named by Mr. Assange’s lawyer, is believed to refer to a mysterious 1.4 GB file labeled “insurance” that was uploaded onto the WikiLeaks website in late July, just after the website published 77,000 Afghan war documents.

The file, believed to include the more than 251,000 US State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks, is seen as an insurance policy for the embattled WikiLeaks in case of potential attacks on its founder or its website before the full trove is made available to the public.

“… this is, I think, what they believe to be a thermonuclear device effectively in the electronic age,” Mr. Assange’s lawyer, Mark Stephens, said Sunday during an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

The encrypted file has since been downloaded by tens of thousands of supporters, according to The Sunday Times, though the 256-digit code believed to unlock it has not yet been released. The Times added that the cache was suspected to include unredacted documents on BP and the US-run Guantánamo Bay detention facility.

Assange appeared to refer to the file on Dec. 3 during a Q&A with the public on the Guardian’s website, but characterized it only as including the State Department cables.

“The Cable Gate archive has been spread, along with significant material from the US and other countries to over 100,000 people in encrypted form,” he said in the online forum. “If something happens to us, the key parts will be released automatically. Further, the Cable Gate archives is in the hands of multiple news organizations.”

“Cable Gate” is the title of WikiLeaks’ largest leak yet, though fewer than 1,000 of the more than 251,000 cables have been released to the public since the leak began on Nov. 28.

  • The Daily Mail gives all the sordid details of the Wikileaks story sex angle in, “How two one-night stands sparked a worldwide hunt for Julian Assange”:
    Using a number of sources including leaked police interviews, we can begin to piece together the sequence of events which led to Assange’s liberty being threatened by Stockholm police rather than Washington, where already one U.S. politician has called on him to executed for ‘spying’.
    The story began on August 11 this year, when Assange arrived in Stockholm …
  • Just remember, Assange is not being held for rape, like many news outlets are reporting. AOL News reports, “‘Sex by Surprise’ at Heart of Assange Criminal Probe“:
    The international manhunt for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a sex-crime investigation in Sweden apparently stems from a condom malfunction.
    Assange’s London attorney, Mark Stephens, told AOL News today that Swedish prosecutors told him that Assange is wanted not for allegations of rape, as previously reported, but for something called “sex by surprise,” which he said involves a fine of 5,000 kronor or about $715.
  • The Guardian looked at the US legal attack on Julian Assange in, “US looks to prosecute Julian Assange”:
    International pressure on Julian Assange intensified tonight, as the US attorney general disclosed that he had authorised “significant” actions aimed at prosecuting the WikiLeaks founder over the release of thousands of diplomatic cables.
    Eric Holder, who did not specify what these actions might be, also said his justice department was examining ways to stem the flow of leaked cables.
    His comments came as a Swiss bank announced it had closed Assange’s account because he had given “false information”. Earlier the US-based commerce business PayPal also froze the WikiLeaks account. Assange has $61,000 (£38,000) in PayPal and $37,000 in the Swiss account, sources said …
    The Swiss bank that closed Assange’s account today, Swiss PostFinance, the banking arm of the Swiss post office, said: “The decision comes after it was revealed that Assange provided false information regarding his place of residence when opening the account.”
  • The Guardian lists more ways in which the US hopes to fuck the Wikileaks founder in, “Julian Assange to be questioned by British police“:
    Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is expected to appear in a UK court today after his lawyers said he would meet police to discuss a European arrest warrant from Sweden relating to alleged sexual assaults.
    As the legal net continued to close around the whistleblowers’ website and the US attorney general, Eric Holder, said he had authorised “a number of things to be done” to combat the organisation, Assange appeared to be reconciling himself to a lengthy personal court battle to avoid extradition to Sweden …
    MasterCard also said it would block payments to WikiLeaks, according to the CNET News website, a move that will dry up another source of funds for the website …
    In Assange’s homeland, however, Australian police are investigating whether he has broken any laws.
  • In case you forgot, The Guardian reminds us of earlier obstacles thrown in Wikileaks way in, “Julian Assange’s Swiss bank account closed“:
    PostFinance is the latest institution to sever its ties with Assange and WikiLeaks. Last week, Amazon.com withdrew its hosting of WikiLeaks’ cables site and the WikiLeaks.org domain was taken offline by Everydns.net. On Saturday, PayPal, which is owned by the auction website eBay, froze WikiLeaks’ account, saying it was being used for “illegal” activity.

Yemen uses US ‘war on terror’ aid for their ‘war on rebels’
The Christian Science Monitor
(12/6/10)

Yemen diverted US counterrorism aid meant to tackle Al Qaeda, WikiLeaks reveals

As the US weighs another possible increase in Yemen aid early next year, WikiLeaks has revealed that Yemen is diverting at least some US counterterrorism resources to tackle other domestic priorities – including President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s enemies.

According to a December 2009 cable from the US embassy in Sanaa, a counterterrorism unit (CTU) trained and funded by the Americans to hunt down Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives was deployed instead against militant Houthi rebels in the northern governorate of Saada during a surge in fighting last year.

“Increasingly desperate to defeat the Houthis, the [Yemeni government] continues to insist that fighting the Houthis is a legitimate component of CT [counterterrorism] operations, thus justifying the use of CTU forces in Saada,” reads the State Department cable. “Untrained to fight this type of conflict, the overstretched CTU has reportedly sustained significant casualties, missed training opportunities and been derailed from its principal mission: to combat AQAP.”

The cable underscores – and appears to at least partially validate – concerns that millions of dollars in US counterterrorism aid may be used not only to fight Al Qaeda, but to address other Yemeni priorities not shared by Washington.

Yemen’s weak government, an increasingly important partner in America’s effort to protect itself against terrorist attacks, is not only concerned about the reemergence of Al Qaeda activity in recent years. President Saleh, who governs the Arab world’s poorest country, also faces a southern secessionist movement, tribal tensions, and a resource crunch.

Some reports have warned that Yemen could become a failed state, leaving AQAP even freer to operate and launch attacks – including on Western targets. Perhaps sensing that the US has developed a stronger interest in preventing such an outcome, Yemen’s government has sought to leverage its unglamorous image in exchange for US aid.

“If you don’t help, this country will become worse than Somalia,” Mr. Saleh said to US Chief Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan, according to a cable from September 2009.

With two high-profile AQAP terrorism attempts against America in the past year – the 2009 Christmas Day bomber and the October cargo plane bomb plot – Washington has only become more anxious to shut down the Al Qaeda franchise, and thus potentially more open to Yemen’s overtures.

Critics of the Saleh government have long claimed that the fight against Al Qaeda has been beneficial to Yemen’s government so it can garner financial and military aid for its own domestic agenda.

This was the case during the last round of fighting against the Houthi rebels when the government not only made use of the US-trained counterterrorism squad, but also US-provided armored vehicles and humvees.

US diplomats admitted in cables that Saleh intentionally tailors his discussions with American officials in order to “elicit the necessary level of political, economic, and military assistance,” and that the US “has repeatedly questioned [the Yemeni government’s] use of US military equipment and US-trained forces intended to combat AQAP in the war against the Houthi rebels.”

Yet American counterterrorism aid to Yemen more than doubled in 2010 …

The State Department has sought to employ a comprehensive strategy to tackle Yemen’s Al Qaeda threat that includes addressing issues of good governance and socio-economic development in poverty-stricken Yemen. But reports that Washington is considering other options, including elite “hunter-killer” units operating under the CIA’s auspices, suggest disagreement within the Obama administration about the best way to accomplish US goals in the country.

The Yemeni government, for its part, has continued to deny that America is involved in direct military action in Yemen. The WikiLeaks cables were inaccurate, it maintains. They “have not conveyed truly what has occurred in such meetings,” said a statement released by the official Saba news agency.

Netanyahu attacks Israeli rabbis‘ letter against renting to non-Jews
CNN
(12/7/10)

Rabbis in Israel warn Jews not to rent or sell property to non-Jews

A letter signed by 50 state-appointed rabbis telling Jews not to rent or sell property to non-Jews prompted widespread condemnation Tuesday from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and human rights groups.

The letter warned that those who defied the religious ruling should be “ostracized.”

“In answer to many questions, we reply that it is prohibited by the Torah to sell a house or field in Israel to a gentile,” the letter reads.

The letter is to be published in religious newspapers and distributed in synagogues across the country later this week, according to the Israeli news website Ynet.

It contends that “those who sell or rent out in an area which Jews live cause great damage to his neighbors. … For their way of life is different to Jews.

“It is known that due to selling or renting one apartment, all the apartments of the neighbors devaluate even if the buyers or renters are nice at first … and the one that sells and rents first causes his neighbors a loss and causes others to rent and sell after him and leave the place.”

Netanyahu blasted the letter’s contents Tuesday evening.

“The citizens of this country are Jews and also non-Jews,” he said. “How would we feel if someone was to say not to sell an apartment to Jews? We would be enraged by this. … Things like this must not be said — not about Jews and not about Arabs. They must not be said in any democratic country and especially not in the Jewish democratic state that respects the morals of the Jewish heritage and the Bible.”

Democrats pissed about Obama’s tax cut concessions
The Daily Caller
(12/7/10)

Obama announces press conference in attempt to head off growing Democratic anger over tax cut deal

President Obama hastily scheduled an afternoon press conference at the White House Tuesday, seeking to head off growing anger in his own party over compromises to Republicans in a tax cut deal announced Monday.

The press conference was announced less than two hours in advance as House Democratic leaders presented a united front in opposition to the deal as it currently stands, and anger among the Senate Democrat rank and file became more evident.

Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, attended the weekly lunch for Senate Democrats, seeking to call on the relationships he built during a 36-year career in the Senate to build support for the deal.

A noon statement by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the tax deal, nearly 24 hours after she was briefed on it at the White House Monday afternoon, expressed clear dissatisfaction with the preliminary deal between Obama and congressional Republicans.

Most specifically, Pelosi voiced the anger of many on the left about extending the current tax rates for those making more than $250,000 and for allowing the estate tax to move from its current one-year level of zero percent to 35 percent instead of 55 percent, as it is scheduled to do.

“We will continue discussions with the President and our Caucus in the days ahead,” said Pelosi, California Democrat …

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. John Larson of Connecticut said Obama’s plan would be “difficult” to sell to the caucus and that he is open to ideas from his party on altering the plan.

And Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat and member of party leadership who represented the House Democrats in the tax cut negotiations, said on Bloomberg Television that he had “serious reservations” about the package.

“There are components that the Republicans got that probably should not have been in this package,” Van Hollen said, listing the estate tax rate as the most objectionable issue.

In the Senate, reports grew that Democrats were angry over the numerous concessions made to the GOP, and over the fact that Obama negotiated so directly with Republicans without keeping his own party in the loop …

The outcry from the liberal grassroots continued Tuesday as well, as speculation among some on leading blogs moved to what Obama will do on Social Security in the coming months …

John Podesta, president and CEO of the liberal Center for American Progress, said that while the concessions Obama made were “a steep price” to pay, the compromise was necessary.

  • Here’s the best part! While Republicans oppose taxes even on zillionaires, Republican states get the most federal money per capita! Read it in Slate’s, “Smart Republicans, Stupid Democrats: If Democrats are the big spenders, why do Republican states get the money?”:
    It isn’t surprising that the more Republican a state leans, the more likely it is to be furious about government spending. But what is surprising is that states with the highest anti-spending sentiment appear to be the largest beneficiaries of government spending. Not only do red states swallow the lion’s share of government spending, but Richardson found a linear relationship between the extent of GOP support in a state—and, by implication, the fervor of its anti-government sentiment—and the amount of federal largesse the state receives.
  • The Washington Post seems to be telling us that the only way for President Obama to get ratification of the US-Russia nuclear arms pact is if he buckles on tax cuts in, “US-Russia nuclear treaty could hinge on tax cuts”:
    A U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control treaty, President Barack Obama’s top foreign policy priority, may now hinge on the fate of his top domestic goal, winning approval of a contentious tax cut plan.
    If Obama persuades reluctant congressional Democrats to quickly endorse the tax cuts he negotiated with Republicans, that would clear the way for the Senate to consider the New START agreement cutting U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
    But if the Senate gets bogged down in a tax debate, there won’t be time to consider the treaty before the year ends and Congress goes out of session. With fewer Democrats in the Senate next year, prospects for passage dim.

Investigators can’t keep up with Chicago cop taser cases
WGN News
(12/7/10)

Chicago police expand use of Tasers

A new report shows that Chicago police used Tasers to subdue nearly 700 offenders over 12 recent months, a dramatic increase that reflects the department’s decision earlier this year to expand its use of the weapons.

In a wide-ranging annual report issued today, the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates serious accusations of police misconduct, said the increased use of the sometimes-controversial electrical devices has not generated many complaints, however.

As a result, the agency said it has decided against investigating every time an officer uses a Taser, saying the hundreds of incidents were “overwhelming” its resources. Instead, it will do so only if allegations of misconduct are made, serious injury or death resulted, or a minor or senior citizen was targeted.

According to the report, officers used Tasers on 683 occasions in the year ended Sept. 30, up sharply from 197 in 2009 and 163 in 2008.

But that’s not surprising since the department in March more than doubled the number of available Tasers — to 660, up from 280 — and put them in the hands of patrol officers for the first time. Previously, only sergeants and field training officers were allowed to carry them, but now all squad cars and special-deployment teams are equipped with the weapons …

In 2005, the department temporarily halted plans to buy more of the weapons after two high-profile incidents, including the death of a 54-year-old man shot with a Taser after he tried to bite an officer. A teen also had gone into cardiac arrest after being stunned with the weapon.

In its report, the review agency said its caseload continues to grow — up to 2,168 from 1,981 a year ago — despite its efforts to deal with the problem. The agency blamed vacancies among its 53 investigator positions for the growing backlog.

“The results of this shortage of investigators has been significant,” said the report, noting that the agency did not want to compromise on “fairness and thoroughness.”

The agency, created by city ordinance in the wake of several police scandals, was given stronger investigative tools than its predecessor, with a goal to restore the public’s trust that police misconduct would be quickly investigated.

Global food crisis, “is arriving even faster than climate change”
New Zealand Herald
(12/4/10)

Earth’s gravest challenge: Not enough food to go round

If the world doesn’t act now, it faces a catastrophic global food shortage by mid-century.

As negotiators sat down this week for another hard round of bargaining at the climate change summit in Cancun, Mexico, new warnings emerged of potential catastrophe ahead.

Researchers reported in Science magazine that almost every part of the world’s oceans have been damaged by human activity, magnified by a significant rise in water temperatures and predicted more would come.

Another study, by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, warned of a potential mass extinction as the number of ocean dead zones – waters starved of oxygen – increase at an accelerating pace.

Yet another, released at Cancun by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, pointed to the increasing likelihood of frightening changes to rainfall, water supplies, weather systems, sea levels and crop harvests by the end of the century.

In Canberra, Professor Julian Cribb, one of Australia’s most distinguished science writers, warns that the dangers facing humankind extend beyond the already-alarming projections of climate scientists, threatening the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

“The world has ignored the ominous constellation of factors that now make feeding humanity sustainably our most pressing task – even in times of economic and climatic crisis,” Cribb writes in a disturbing new analysis of the state of the planet.

Cribb’s book, The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It, identifies a complex and interconnected confluence of factors driving the world towards a global emergency that experts predict will peak by the middle of this century.

“It is arriving even faster than climate change,” he writes.

Disney’s happiest subdivision on Earth not so happy lately
The New York Times
(12/3/10)

A Killing (a First) in a Town Produced by Disney

Here in a community built 14 years ago by the Walt Disney Company as the happiest subdivision on earth — and which, to be fair, has been largely free from urban strife — two major crimes in the span of less than a week have made even the fake snow that blankets the town square every evening hour on the hour seem a little less cheery.

Late into Thursday night, sheriff’s deputies barricaded several blocks in this neo-traditional town of 10,000 people and miles of white rail fencing, trying to talk a despondent and armed 52-year-old man out of his home. After more than 14 hours, sheriff’s deputies entered his home early Friday and found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Earlier, the schoolhouse near the town square was locked down. Buzzing helicopters interrupted horse-and-carriage rides. Even the holiday cocktail party at the golf course was canceled.

The situation, which a sheriff’s deputy described as a domestic dispute involving a father who had lost a job and his marriage, was a tragic ending to a week that saw another violent death in Celebration.Sometime over Thanksgiving weekend, Matteo Patrick Giovanditto, 58, was murdered, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office said. It was the first murder in Celebration history. Concerned neighbors who had not heard from him went into his first-floor condo, one block from the artificial ice rink on the town square. He was on the floor covered with a blanket, according to the police.

Officers later located his black Corvette in a nearby town, but have yet to make an arrest. Residents were assured that there was nothing to fear …

Of course, there have been other indications here that the ride might be over. Smaller crimes are not unheard of. In 1998, a robber who said he had a gun threatened a family and robbed them in their home. It was the town’s first reported violent crime.

The economy has taken some of the shine from the streets, too. On Thanksgiving Day, the movie theater, which proudly showed its share of Disney films, went out of business. And there is no one who has not been hoping that home prices stop dropping. At their peak, homes sold for an average of $1 million. Now, they might go for half that.

Glenn Williams, who was watching the sheriff’s deputies block the roads, said the price of his house had fallen to about $360,000 now from $825,000 two years ago.

Like others, he was sad for the families involved in the standoff and the murder.

“But I’m surprised it’s been this long before something happened,” Mr. Williams said.

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Tuesday, December 7
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  • Cian

    I’m pretty sure that “Sex by Surprise” is Swedish jock slang for rape – a way of implying that it wasn’t really rape.

    I’d agree that there’s a lot that sounds dodgy about the Swedish case, but if the facts are correct then it was rape in Swedish law. Swedish law (quite rightly in my opinion) has a much tougher standard of rape than the US, and I think this is confusing a lot of commentators. There’s also a lot of disinformation out there.