Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Heretic for Our Times

By Jay Walljasper, Ode
Posted on January 21, 2006, Printed on January 21, 2006

Walking to the home of maverick scientist Rupert Sheldrake in Hampstead -- London's cozy but glamorous artistic village that's been home to John Keats, George Orwell, D.H. Lawrence and, more recently, novelist John LeCarre and actress Emma Thompson -- I am not surprised to find that his plain brick house looks out on Hampstead Heath. This famous (and still remarkably wild) expanse of grasslands and groves was the spot where Keats met William Wordsworth for long rambles, discussing the passions and ideas that would be immortalized in their Romantic poetry. Sheldrake, one of the world's leading spokesmen for a more holistic and democratic vision of science, might easily be grouped with the Romantics, except that his insights about the world are based on empirical research rather than poetic feelings.

Sheldrake's bold theories about how the universe works sparked controversy in 1981 with the publication of A New Science of Life. Actually it wasn't the book itself that brought Sheldrake's ideas to prominence but an incendiary editorial by the editor of the respected British journal Nature, Sir John Maddox, who fumed, "This infuriating tract…is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years." That was quite a lot of attention for a young scientist, especially one who at that time was working as a plant physiologist in India.

What so infuriated Maddox was Sheldrake's theory of "morphic resonance" -- a complicated framework of ideas proposing that nature relies upon its own set of memories, which are transmitted through time and space via "morphic fields". The theory holds that these fields, which operate much like electrical or magnetic fields, shape our entire world. A panda bear is a panda bear because it naturally tunes into morphic fields containing storehouses of information that define and govern panda bears. The same with pigeons, platinum atoms, and the oak trees on Hampstead Heath, not to mention human beings. This theory, if widely accepted, would turn our understanding of the universe inside out -- which is why Sheldrake has so often felt the wrath of orthodox scientists.

For the past 20 years, he has pursued further research on morphic fields even though no university or scientific institute would dare hire him. Much of his empirical explorations focus on unsolved phenomenon such as how pigeons and other animals find their way home from great distances, why people experience feelings in amputated limbs, why some people and animals can sense that someone is staring at them. He believes morphic resonance may offer answers to these questions.

His experimentation has been underwritten by freethinking funders like the late Lawrence Rockefeller and the Institute of Noetic Sciences, founded by Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell. Through the years Sheldrake has supported his family largely through lecture tours, which draw curious crowds around the world, and a series of books exploring various aspects of what is often called "New Science." He's written on ecological, spiritual, and philosophical themes, as well as a manifesto on how science could be democratized (Seven Experiments that Could Change the World) and a bestseller on animal behavior (Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home). His current research involves thousands of rigorously empirical tests probing the existence of telepathy. John Maddox nonetheless has continued to accuse him of "heresy," saying he should be "condemned in exactly the same language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo."

'Science is the last unreformed institution'

When Sheldrake answers the door, I find a tall, surprisingly youthful man in a golf shirt and Birkenstock sandals with socks who hardly seems a menacing troublemaker out to destroy civilization as we know it. He welcomes me into his home, which wonderfully fits my expectations of what a slightly bohemian biologist's house should look like: shells, antlers, giant pinecones, fossils and exotic-looking houseplants on display in comfy rooms also filled with books, art, musical instruments, oriental carpets and a few patches of peeling paint. Upstairs is his office, which overflows with scientific journals and papers, and a spacious library room crammed with books on every conceivable subject. A corner of the library houses a small laboratory, which was recently commandeered by his teenage sons as a computer center.

It's a gorgeous sunny morning and Sheldrake suggests we sit in the backyard, which looks to me like a mini-botanical garden. It turns out that I am visiting on a rather momentous occasion. His three-year appointment to an research post at Trinity College in Cambridge will be announced today. It marks a homecoming of sorts to the place where he studied as an undergraduate, earned a Ph.D. and was named a Fellow of Clare College for seven years, where he served as Director of Studies in Biochemistry and Cell Biology.

I ask if his appointment signals a growing tolerance of outspoken ideas in science. Not quite, he explains. It's a unique endowment created in the memory of Fredric Myers, a Fellow of Trinity College who was fascinated by psychic phenomena, although today it is generally awarded to researchers out to debunk the existence of such phenomena. "But it does mean I will be getting a salary for the first time in 25 years and money to do my research," he says with a sincere grin.. "But in the field of biology the holistic approach I advocate is more remote than ever. Funding drives most research toward biotech projects."

"Science is the last unreformed institution in the modern world today," he adds in a matter-of-fact rather than harsh tone. "It's like the church before the Reformation. All decisions are made by a small powerful group of people. They're authoritarian, entrenched, well-funded and see themselves as a priesthood."

Sheldrake's views are widely shared by many people -- indeed by so many that it's seen as a looming problem in Britain and Europe as the public increasingly looks upon science as a tool of corporations and big government, not an institution that benefits average citizens. Kids seem less inclined to pursue careers in the field and taxpayers are growing reluctant about financing research.

"If science were more responsive to democratic input, this would look different," he says. He points out that popular programs on television dealing with scientific themes focus primarily on four topics that interest people: 1) alternative medicine; 2) ecological issues; 3) animals; and 4) parapsychology. But very little scientific funding goes toward research in these areas. He wonders what would happen if people could participate in choosing the kind of research they fund with their tax money?

That's the idea behind Sheldrake's recent proposal to let the public vote on how to spend one percent of the overall science budget -- an idea greeted with even more horror than morphic resonance in some scientific circles. But other scientists are giving it serious consideration as a way to win back the public's trust.

More than a symbolic gesture, this would actually add up to quite a sum of money to initiate interesting new research that the scientific establishment won't sanction. Sheldrake notes that independent scientists, including Charles Darwin, have been responsible for many important breakthroughs because they probe for answers in ways quite different than their well-funded peers in universities, research institutes or corporations. But looking around Britain today the only other independent scientific researcher Sheldrake can think of is James Lovelock, who conceived the revolutionary Gaia Hypothesis, which posits that the earth is a living organism.

The power of public participation

Public participation is essential to Sheldrake's own research because otherwise he couldn't afford to do it. Right now he's enlisting people worldwide to study email telepathy ( the ability to know who's emailing before you get a message). His website ( offers all the details necessary to conduct your own telepathy experiments and to report the findings.

Eighty percent of the population reports experiences with telephone telepathy (email telepathy's older cousin), he explains. In the controlled experiments he's conducted, where subjects choose which of four close friends is phoning, they're right 42 percent of the time -- significantly higher than the 25 percent that would occur by random chance.

"I think we all have a capacity for telepathy," Sheldrake notes. "But it is really a function of close social bonds. It doesn't happen with total strangers. At least not in an experimental setting. And of course some people have a better sense of telepathy than others, just the same as with the sense of smell." He hopes the on-line experiments can identify individuals with particularly strong telepathic skills, who can then be studied further.

"What I am interested in are the mysteries of everyday life -- a lot of these simple things are not being investigated," Sheldrake says staring up at the sunny sky with that "lost-in-thought" look you typically associate with scientists. A few moments later he pulls his attention back in my direction, smiles apologetically and continues. "I prefer to explore things that people know in their lives or the lives of their friends. I am interested in science that is rooted in people's experience. Indeed, the word empirical means experience."

By now the two of us have been talking in his garden for several hours and Sheldrake picks up a garden hose to water several tall exotic-looking plants. I meanwhile silently marvel at the tenacity he's shown in keeping his research going all these years and the gentle spirit he possesses in the face of hostility toward his work. John Maddox has said he practices "magic instead of science" yet Sheldrake brings up Maddox with almost fondness -- perhaps because the scathing editorial in Nature turned The New Science of Life into a bestseller and launched Sheldrake's career as an independent scientist.

It's time for me to go, and a taxi is honking in front of the house to take me to Paddington Station, but I must squeeze in one more question. "How do you refresh yourself, renew your creativity and stay calm in the face of so much criticism?" Sensing my anxiety about missing the train, he efficiently ticks off three answers in the methodical manner you'd expect from a former science whiz kid. "One. Playing the piano, usually Bach. Two. Meditating. Three. Taking walks, usually out on the heath."

After a hearty handshake I jump into to the cab and, watching Hampstead Heath disappear through the back window, decide that I sold Rupert Sheldrake short earlier today. Comparing him to fellow Heath hikers Keats and Wordsworth, I viewed Sheldrake as a cool and rational man of science while they were warm and passionate poets. But I can see now that, even as a dedicated scientist, Sheldrake possesses a poetic imagination in how he thinks about the world and how he lives his life.

Jay Walljasper is the executive editor of Ode magazine.

© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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DailyKos: The Internet Is Not Enough

By Conor Clarke,
Posted on January 18, 2006, Printed on January 21, 2006

"I hope you guys feel a lot of pressure." Thus spoke Markos Moulitsas, founder and editor of the mega-blog, to a group of 165 college students -- myself included -- assembled in the ballroom of the National Education Association's DC headquarters.

The gathering was organized by Young People For (YP4), a project of the People For the American Way Foundation, and was part of a three-day national summit designed to instruct and inspire the next generation of progressive leaders, and give them the organizational tools they need to succeed. "Kos" was the night's keynote speaker, but his message was hardly optimistic: He made no bones about the challenges young progressives will encounter, and was forthright about the obstacles that already exist. "We face a ruthless enemy," he said, "and we've got a long way to go."

Pessimism about progressive politics is nothing new, and Moulitsas' speech, a breezy and seemingly extemporaneous 10 minutes long, was nothing groundbreaking. (He disparaged the "corrupt system" that grips both parties, and urged students to remember their roots, stay attuned to change and work pragmatically.) But during the much longer (and much more interesting) question-and-answer session that followed, Moulitsas expressed pessimism of a different stripe--a doubtfulness that, coming from the kingpin of web-based progressive politics, I found a bit surprising: He was pessimistic about the Internet.

"It saddens me that Daily Kos is the largest progressive media outlet," Moulitsas mused, in response to a question about the effects the Internet will have on progressive politics in the years to come. "We can't just put it all on the blogs and MoveOn and hope that this is future, because if it is, we're in trouble." These were strange words to hear from a man who has made his name with a blog. But odd as it seemed to me at the time, Moulitsas is almost certainly right: Unstoppable and ever-expanding though the Internet appears, web-based progressivism is not a substitute for the traditional political infrastructure, nor will it be anytime soon.

Consider the numbers: Daily Kos gets about five million page views a week. That's not chump change, but Rush Limbaugh still gets somewhere between 14 and 20 million listeners in the same period of time. The contrast with cable news is equally striking: While Moulitsas gets about 700,000 page views a day, almost four times as many people tune into cable news stations during primetime alone, and more than twice as many watch Fox. Nine of the top 10 highest rated cable news programs are on Fox.

The bottom line--and it is a bottom line Moulitsas was manifestly aware of--is that blogs aren't reaching an audience anywhere near the same size as the traditional news outlets. 

This was even borne out at the speech: Right before Moulitsas took the stage, YP4 Director Iara Peng introduced him as the man you know "as the author and editor of," and then paused for applause. There were several seconds of awkward silence followed by a smattering of claps; few in the audience seemed to know what Daily Kos was. Ms. Peng herself realized this: "And if you don't know what Daily Kos is," she quickly added, "you should add it to your favorites as soon as you get home." When I spoke with fellow students afterwards, the lack of recognition was confirmed: "Honestly," one student told me, "I have no idea who he is." Those nearby nodded their heads in agreement.

Should it be troubling that a room full of smart, savvy, well-educated and well-dressed progressives could not, by and large, identify the biggest name in progressive blogging? It didn't appear to trouble Moulitsas: He repeatedly stressed the need for a more expansive, long-term infrastructure, the kind that "conservatives spent a long time building." This should no doubt include blogs, but should by no means be limited to them; after all, the broad-based conservative network -- embracing television, radio, religion and more--has paid off in spades.

In short, there are bigger things to worry about than blogs. A good place to start: of the 10 most influential think tanks in the country, six identify as either "conservative," "conservative/libertarian" or "center-right." Three identify as "centrist." And just one -- the lonely Economic Policy Institute -- identifies as "progressive."

If progressive politics are to find long-term success, that's the kind of statistic that needs to change. Onstage, Moulitsas joked that if any of the students in the audience became millionaires, they should consider forking over the hefty sums required to build a hefty infrastructure. And as the progressive leaders of tomorrow conclude a weekend of training with YP4, they would do well to heed his advice.

© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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Dems Drop the Ball Again

By Arianna Huffington,
Posted on January 21, 2006, Printed on January 21, 2006

So the Democrats have chosen Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to deliver the party's response to President Bush's State of the Union speech. Chalk up another one for the What the Hell Are They Thinking? file.

On the same day that Osama Bin Laden's chilling warnings make it Red Alert clear that Bush's obsession with Iraq has not made us safer here at home -- and, indeed, has caused us to take our eye off the real enemy -- the Dems decide that the charge against Bush shouldn't be led by someone who can forcefully articulate why the GOP is not the party that can best keep us safe, but by someone whose only claim to fame is that he carried a red state. Talk about clueless.

The Democrats don't seem to know what the Republicans do know: that the GOP is losing ground on its core issue of national security. That's why Bush is planning to shift his State of the Union focus away from Iraq and onto an attack on rising health care costs. And the re-emergence of the architect of 9/11 -- promising to bring further death and destruction to our door, and touting Iraq's help as an al-Qaeda recruiting tool -- can only further weaken Bush's national security standing.

So why don't the Democrats have the guts to aggressively go after Bush on the issue?

I know I've said this before and before, but the Democrats will never become the majority party until they can prove to the American people that they have a better plan for keeping us safe. And that means having someone like Jack Murtha give the State of the Union response -- someone with the authority to make the point that, on every level, Iraq is the wrong priority. And that the hundreds of billions already spent on Iraq (and the countless billions to come) would be better spent shoring up our ports, roadways, railways, securing our nuclear installations and chemical plants, and properly supporting our first responders.

Don't ask me why, but I actually watched Kaine's inaugural address on C-SPAN, and I was stunned to hear him dare compare the cause of Virginians like Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson to our cause in Iraq: "They stood here at a time, just as today, when Virginians serving freedom's cause sacrificed their lives so that democracy could prevail over tyranny."

Iraq as a war to ensure that democracy can prevail over tyranny is George Bush's talking point. God help us if it's also the talking point of the man the Democrats have chosen to respond to him after the State of the Union.

And during Kaine's run for Governor, he adopted another Bush talking point -- that it would send "a horrible message" to "cut and run" in Iraq. Could that be any further from Murtha's message that Iraq has become a civil war -- a civil war being inflamed by our continuing presence?

Maybe you are thinking -- at least those of you who have a life and missed his inaugural speech on C-SPAN -- that Kaine is a charismatic speaker who will really wow the American people. Well, he ain't. In fact, he scored so low on the scintillating speaker meter, that today's Note suggests Democrats make it a priority to get the Guv a speech tutor before the State of the Union.

I've got a better idea. Why don't the Democrats reconsider their choice and pick someone more able than Kaine to make the national security argument? They don't even have to make a big deal out of the switch. Kaine can simply come down with a really, really bad cold that night. Cough, cough… and Murtha is waiting in the wings.

The Friday before the 2004 election, bin Laden re-emerged from another protracted silence and released another tape, dominating the news. But instead of aggressively making the point that his reappearance proved that Bush had failed to make America safer, Democratic strategists flinched and had Kerry focus on the economy instead. And we all remember how well that turned out.

The question is: Do the leaders of the Democratic Party remember?

Find more Arianna at the Huffington Post.

© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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Slavery Beneath the Golden Arches?

By Jordan Buckley and Katie Shepherd, WireTap
Posted on January 21, 2006, Printed on January 21, 2006

Exactly 50 years ago this weekend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. answered a startling phone call from Minneapolis Tribune journalist Carl T. Rowan. Rowan had come across a wire report that the Montgomery bus boycott -- then entering its sixth week -- had been resolved by city officials and local black ministers.

The announcement would, of course, prove to be a fabrication of local authorities, and the boycott would endure another 11 months, resulting in the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Alabama's bus segregation laws.

Today -- in the face of a recent revelation that McDonald's appears to buy its tomatoes through at least one convicted slaver -- the fast food giant has resorted to a similarly shameful tactic: taking token measures to avoid confronting the severe human rights abuses that may be hidden within its supply chain.

Since 1997, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) -- a community group from Southern Florida representing thousands of farmworkers -- has uncovered, investigated and helped to prosecute six separate slavery cases. In 2003, three CIW members were awarded the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their work in liberating over 1,100 individuals involuntarily held in agricultural work camps along the East Coast.

Last November, CIW called upon McDonald's to partner with them in confronting the violence and subpoverty wages of modern-day farm labor. McDonald's complicity in farmworker misery is not only emblematic of the industry as a whole, but its substantial clout as a fast-food monolith qualifies it as an apt candidate for working to end the extreme injustice.

Farm labor contractor Abel Cuello is just one of the slavers brought to justice by the CIW. In 1999, he was sentenced to only 33 months in prison for enslaving 27 people in trailers on his property. Due to a loophole in Florida law, a contractor is entitled to return to work just five years after being convicted for violating worker-protection laws. Accordingly, in October, Cuello legally returned to the fields.

In his contractor license application dated Oct. 8, 2004, Cuello stated that his job is to "recruit, supervise, [and] transport farm workers for Ag-Mart Farms." Although Ag-Mart claimed that Cuello has been banned from the company's premises, it employs E&B Harvesting and Trucking Inc., the company that Cuello launched just months after release from prison, and that his wife, Yolanda, presently serves as the sole owner.

Gregory Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth, Fla., who has spoken with scores of Ag-Mart farmworkers, insists that Cuello -- and not Yolanda -- works as E&B Harvesting's crew boss for Ag-Mart. "His wife has never been seen in the fields by the crew. He [Cuello] runs the operation," Schell said.

So who buys tomatoes from a man convicted of human enslavement? The answer seems to lie beneath the Golden Arches.

J.M. Procacci, chief operating officer of the company that owns Ag-Mart, told the New York Times last year that nationwide sales of grape tomatoes had increased by 25 percent since 2003, and that specifically "he attributes a significant part of the gain to McDonald's."

Yet, McDonald's -- despite the fact that last year Ag-Mart received notice of 457 pesticide violations from North Carolina and Florida agricultural officials (along with fines totaling $294,500) and was subject to state investigations after severe birth defects were found in three babies born to its farmworkers -- continues to buy tomatoes through Ag-Mart. Even the notoriously anti-labor Wal-Mart has reacted by terminating its tomato purchases from Ag-Mart.

But the point isn't that McDonald's should discontinue buying from Ag-Mart; the industry on the whole is similarly terrible. While slavery is the extreme of labor abuses in agriculture, sweatshop conditions are the norm. Farmworkers must pick two tons of tomatoes -- literally 4,000 pounds -- to earn just $50 in a day. They regularly work 10- to 12-hour days with no overtime pay, no right to organize, no sick days and no benefits whatsoever.

McDonald's could use its market power to work with farmworkers in ensuring fair and humane working conditions in the fields. Instead, it has thrown its support behind an initiative controlled by growers called Socially Accountable Farm Employers, deceptively abbreviated "SAFE."

Just as Montgomery city officials bluffed a resolution to bus segregation (due to the subsequent boycott) on Jan. 21, 1956, so too in 2006 has McDonald's sidestepped the appearance of a convicted slaver in their supply chain by proclaiming allegiance to SAFE.

Furthermore, a number of curious coincidences have led many to rightfully question McDonald's very involvement in the creation of SAFE.

First, SAFE hired CBR Public Relations to handle its media work -- a company that not only lists McDonald's as one of its major clients and garnered McDonald's nationally coveted Best Bets award in 2001 for excellence in press work, but also lists "activist response management" among its areas of expertise.

Second, SAFE has hired the auditing company Intertek to verify its companies' certification, interestingly the same firm already used by McDonald's for its own monitoring.

Third, according to SAFE spokesperson Ray Gilmer, of all the businesses that purchase tomatoes from Florida -- among them supermarkets and sit-down and fast-food restaurants -- McDonald's remains the lone company to publicly support the SAFE initiative.

Regardless of whether McDonald's worked to covertly concoct SAFE, its existence (as in the case of the false settlement in Montgomery) nonetheless enables the company to evade truly rectifying the grave realities demanding resolution -- the intolerably cruel system of farm labor that sustains its profit-making. It's an evasion tactic that failed in apartheid Alabama 50 years ago and will fail today.

If semi-centennials are honored with gold, then on the anniversary of the historic Montgomery bus boycott -- and white supremacist Southern officials' inability to suppress it -- it is incumbent upon the Golden Arches to embrace this golden opportunity to work with the CIW in abolishing the industry's horrific exploitation of farmworkers.

For more information please visit the website of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Katie Shepherd and Jordan Buckley are members of the Student/Farmworker Alliance in Austin, Texas.

© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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Never Mind the Truth...

The Alito hearings may not have revealed much about the new Supreme Court Associate Justice's constitutional views, but they did highlight the pro-Bush bias that continues to characterize most mainstream debate. CNN's Wolf Blitzer, as reliable a weather vane for conventional wisdom as can be found anywhere, continually skewed his coverage to reflect the Republican Party's talking points, announcing, "Some Democrats are delivering an early verdict on Alito's performance" without asking whether Republicans were doing the same. Blitzer also complained, "Are [Democrats] looking for answers, or for the Supreme Court nominee to stumble?" and inquired of Ted Kennedy whether he had already made up his mind without posing a similar question during his interview to Bill Frist, or noting the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee who had already declared themselves in Alito's favor.

Blitzer's coverage proved to be the norm. PBS's Gwen Ifill, giving no evidence, complained of "all of the demonization of this candidate" by liberal interest groups. MSNBC's coverage was dominated by pro-Alito guests, including nights of prime-time programming that allowed not a single dissenter.

The punditocracy's ignore-except-to-attack attitude toward liberals is a far greater impediment to our ability to mount an alternative to the ruinous rule of George W. Bush than the attitudes of Americans themselves, who in poll after poll disagree with the President on almost all significant issues. Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby gleefully announces that "attacking Bushonomics"--the policies of the party that controls the government and has abandoned even the pretense of fiscal responsibility--"is too easy, like shooting a lame duck." He prefers "to focus instead on Democrats' response."

read on

The Progressive Wedge

Bernie Horn is policy director at the Center for Policy Alternatives . CPA is the nation’s only nonpartisan organization working to strengthen the capacity of state legislators to lead and achieve progressive change. CPA empowers state legislators by providing values-based leadership development programs, distributing user-friendly policy tools on a wide variety of issues, and building a strong, coordinated network of legislators across the states.

To win in 2006, progressives must frame the election as a choice between an equal opportunity economy and a trickle-down economy. “It’s the economy, stupid”—but unlike 1992, it’s not a matter of economic growth versus stagnation. This time it’s about fundamental fairness. While the rich are getting richer, for the rest of us, the American Dream is slipping from our grasp.

There are other issues that motivate voters, of course. The Bush administration and its right-wing enablers are making America less free and less secure. But voters are predisposed to give conservatives the benefit of the doubt on freedom and security. Equal opportunity is the American “value” most clearly owned by progressives.

So this year, progressives should focus on policies that are (1) principally about economics, (2) popular with a large majority of voters, and (3) framed in such a way that conservatives will have to oppose them. That’s the definition of a progressive wedge issue—a political position where we are strong and they are compelled by their corporate benefactors to side against the American public.

Where can progressives find wedge issues that yield proven results? In the states! State legislators have tested, debated and enacted a number of policies that promote equal opportunity and fundamental economic fairness. These issues would benefit any progressive candidate at the state or federal level:

Fair Share Health Care: Overriding a Republican governor’s veto, the Maryland legislature recently enacted the first Fair Share Health Care Act. Fair Share Health Care requires a state’s largest businesses to spend a minimum percentage of their payroll on workers’ health care costs, relieving taxpayers of that burden. Already, legislators in more than 30 states plan to introduce similar legislation. Nearly 80 percent of Maryland voters support Fair Share Health Care. In a campaign, this policy provides candidates with one response to spiraling health care costs, allows them to attack a politically-unpopular company (Wal-Mart), and offers an opportunity to decry corporate welfare and tout high-road economics.

Minimum Wage: Because the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour has not increased since 1997, its real, inflation-adjusted value is at its lowest point in 50 years. This minimum wage leaves working families far below the poverty line. So far, 18 states have responded by enacting a minimum wage higher than the federal rate. Because Americans believe in rewarding work, about 85 favor a higher minimum wage.  Referendums in Florida and Nevada have proven that the cause is politically potent even in "red" states. It is a superb campaign issue not only because of voter approval, but because opponents can’t successfully mischaracterize the measure—voters understand the minimum wage and know that Americans can’t live on $5.15 per hour.

Energy Efficiency: Energy efficiency legislation exploded across the states in 2005, propelled by outrageously high fuel prices. There are two popular measures that candidates can use in 2006: renewable energy standards, which require utility companies to increase their use of clean energy sources like wind and solar systems, and green building standards, which require new public buildings to conform to a set of environmental guidelines. Voters are naturally inclined to favor energy efficiency—it’s common sense. More important, efficiency reduces demand which, in turn, reduces price. That provides candidates with an opportunity to get red-faced about energy prices, which is obviously good politics.

Privacy and Identity Theft: Under this administration, everyone’s privacy is at risk. States have responded with two types of privacy legislation. The first is identity theft protection—requiring companies to notify individuals when a security breach makes them susceptible to identity theft and empowering consumers to place a security freeze on their credit reports. The second is financial privacy—requiring financial services companies to obtain affirmative permission before selling customers’ nonpublic account information. Voters almost unanimously side with progressives on these issues. Privacy and identity theft legislation allows candidates to champion individual privacy, attack sneaky corporate data-sharing tactics, and lead the fight against the fastest-growing type of crime in America.

Prescription Drugs: Medicare Part D began in January 2006 and it is quickly turning into a political disaster. By November, voters—especially seniors—will likely resent the profiteering pharmaceutical companies and welcome alternative policies. There are several good state prescription drug measures which encourage bulk purchasing plans, disclose unethical drug company gifts to doctors, and prohibit the practice of selling lists of prescriptions written by individual doctors to drug company marketers. Any prescription drug legislation that sets progressives against pharmaceutical companies and the conservatives who do their bidding will benefit our candidates in 2006.

A warning: Progressives must not get caught on the wrong side of the eminent domain debate! Americans strongly oppose the Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London . Progressives should follow the California legislature’s example and support a moratorium on takings of homes in the name of economic development. We can’t allow eminent domain to become a powerful wedge issue for conservatives.

Nationwide polls demonstrate that American voters strongly believe the right-wingers in Washington have steered our country onto the “wrong track.” Polls consistently show the popularity of progressive economic policies. And progressive leaders in state legislatures have given us a roadmap toward success.

The opportunity beckons. Let us elevate progressive wedge issues. Let us talk to persuadable voters about policies that they both understand and appreciate. Let us frame the 2006 election as a debate over an equal opportunity economy.


Wag the Osama

January 21, 2006


Isn't it a mighty big coincidence that Osama returns for a bizarre appearance just as Bush is on the ropes for illegal spying on Americans -- and as Karl Rove announces that he is going to use fear again to maintain one-party dictatorial control over America in the fall elections?

Not that we are skeptical or anything, but on top of that, the White House media echo chamber used the alleged and ludicrous "negotiate or I will attack" video to vilify Dems for being weak in the war on terror and "aiding" the "enemy."

Of course, it was Bush who said a few years ago, he would get Osama dead or alive -- and then after failing to do so said that Osama didn't matter. It wasn't long after that that he told NBC's Matt Lauer that he didn't think we could win the war on terror. (We're not sure if he was talking about the bad guys or his war of terrorizing Americans, but we think he meant the war against the bad guys.)

But the Republicans are all attack and no truth. Something the Democratic leadership just can't absorb, so the GOP junkyard dogs project George's short fallings (too numerous to count) on the dreaded "liberal enemy." This is called scape-goating.

It is the eternal tool of the demagogue. Ann Coulter is both the caricature and the real epitome of the strategy. In essence, it relies on making anyone who disagrees with our Il Duce as the enemy.

The Jews in Europe experienced this, and yes the comparison is appropriate. We don't apologize for it. Just read Mein Kampf. You make your opposition (or a "perceived" opposition) into something to be so dreaded that they pose a threat to the national interest and need to be suppressed.

Yes, the Jews in Germany thought, "It can't happen to us, not here in a civilized nation." But what is civilized about the gulag of torture centers that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have set up? It's a short leap from "them" being tortured to anyone who opposes the "supreme ruler."

So paid propagandists like Sean Hannity employ the Goebbels techniques of equating terrorism with Republican political opponents.  The very title of a recent Hannity propaganda tome reveals this strategy: "Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism."  Because evil, in the right wing extremist world, is both terrorism and liberalism.

As a blurb for "Deliver Us from Evil" claims, "he [Hannity] reveals why the Democrats imploded and the president prevailed-while urging Americans to stay the course and remain vigilant about the twin dangers of terrorism abroad and liberalism at home."

Hannity is employing the "mirroring" linguistic techniques that George Bush's handlers had him use to sell the Iraq War by placing the phrase "9/11" and Saddam Hussein together in as many sentences and contexts as possible.  In Hannity's case, the goal is to put terrorism and liberalism in the same category of evil.  Liberals are the enemy because they endanger America, he argues.

This is very dangerous territory, which the Democrats are intimidated by, just as the Weimar Republic fell to the bullying and emotional demagoguery of the brown shirts.  Liberals and Democrats who think that this is just some sort of passing lowbrow phenomena are making a critical error.  Liberals are being "mirrored" with terrorists as the source of "evil" in America.

You ignore such demagoguery at your peril.

That is what Bush was doing when he said that there are "appropriate forms" of debate on the war -- and "other" forms that aid the terrorists. The latter are any criticisms of his actions. If you say he is committing an illegal act, you are aiding the enemy.

And so it was time to roll out Osama again. To continue his march toward dictatorship, Bush requires Osama . They are, in a way, two adversaries who need each other for political survival among their constituents.

If Bush didn't have Osama, Rove would have invented him.

You can do a lot of things to create great videotape "B" roll, just watch the movie "Wag the Dog."

It's the Bush game plan in a nutshell.

Just repeat after us: Fear, Distraction, Fear, Distraction, Fear, Distraction...

Yes, there's a terrorist threat to our way of life. But there's also a more immediate threat to our Constitution, our democracy and our liberties coming from the White House. In the name of preventing the terrorists from attacking us for our freedoms, Bush is taking them away from us one by one. He is letting the terrorists win. He is betraying America.

Osama has checkmated him.

The real enablers of helping the terrorists achieve their goals of bringing democracy to its knees are in the White House.

And, although memory in a time of 6-hour news cycles is fleeting, it might be worth a little jog of the brain to remember that an alleged Osama tape showed up the Friday before the 2000 presidential election, widely credited with helping George W. Bush gain votes based on the subconscious "fear factor."

Such coincidences have a way of continuing to occur at vitally important moments for the Bush Administration, don't they?

Either Osama wants Bush to stay in power -- and, therefore, Bush is the real choice of the terrorists -- Osama is working in cahoots with the Bush Administration in a sort of a wink and a nod "understanding between enemies" sort of way, or the video was fabricated. 

It's one of the three folks, because Osama is not dumb -- and he knows that the release of any video or audiotape at such times only strengthens Bush's hand to clamp down on freedom and the Constitution domestically (a goal of Al Qaeda according to Bush himself), strengthen the consolidation of Imperial presidential powers, and continue the war in Iraq and the torturing and killing of anyone Bush's crew considers a "non-combatant threat."

And this videotape will be used by the Busheviks to try and bolster their right to illegally wiretap Americans -- and then use that precedent to further break the law and violate the Constitution.

So why would Osama release videos and tape-recordings at moments that only help Bush when he is in political need?

Ah, now you understand.

Time to upend the (un) patriot Act

A Patriotic Challenge


[from the February 6, 2006 issue]

Despite all the rhetoric from President Bush about his great belief in "freedom," his Administration is doing more than any in recent history to undermine our basic constitutional rights. The recent revelation that the President has overseen a secret domestic spying program is only the latest example of the Administration's willingness to disregard our core democratic principles. It is exactly the kind of abuse that we must rein in by reforming the USA Patriot Act.

Written at a time when our nation was reeling from the horrific attacks of September 11, the Patriot Act received little scrutiny and even less opposition when it initially passed. Only one senator and sixty-six House members (myself included) voted against it. But four years later a broad spectrum of Americans has rightly concluded that many provisions of this law endanger the core freedoms that define us as Americans.

The desire for change was demonstrated this past June when the House approved my amendment to revise one of the most controversial sections of the Patriot Act--Section 215, often called the library provision. The amendment prevented the government from gaining access to Americans' reading records in libraries and bookstores without a traditional search warrant. Put forward as part of a spending bill, the amendment was intended to prevent these searches for one year. More important, the vote demonstrated the need for real reform during the act's reauthorization, which was scheduled to come up just a few weeks later.

Faced with overwhelming support for reform, the Republican leadership used every procedural tool at their disposal to prevent the House from voting on amendments that reformed the act--including the same Section 215 amendment that had recently passed. We were left with a reauthorization bill that made very few meaningful changes. Despite this abuse of power, the Republican leadership couldn't silence the coalition of progressives and conservatives in Congress committed to protecting civil liberties. In December these members refused to pass the Republican leadership's bill in the Senate.

When Congress reconvenes, our coalition will fight for a new reauthorization bill that includes essential reforms. Among them is a revision to Section 215 that would require the FBI to show evidence linking a citizen to terrorism before obtaining his or her reading records. We will also push to have this standard applied to national security letters, another Patriot Act mechanism for obtaining citizens' library, bookstore, medical and business records.

Regardless of the outcome in Congress, the fight to restore Americans' core freedoms will continue across the country. In Connecticut librarians have gone to court to challenge a gag order preventing them from discussing the government's use of national security letters to dig up the library records of their patrons. The Electronic Privacy Information Center recently won a lawsuit that forced the FBI to disclose records of clandestine domestic surveillance.

It is critical that these challenges to the unconstitutional provisions of the Patriot Act continue. It's up to us to make sure that the freedoms on which our nation was founded are not subject to the whim of an Administration whose term has been defined by repeated abuses of power.

More Attacks and Meetings on a Program Under Fire

WASHINGTON, Jan. 20 - Vice President Dick Cheney gave Congressional leaders a closed-door briefing at the White House Friday on the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program, as Democrats escalated their attacks on President Bush over the operation by drawing comparisons to British tyrants and Nazi Germany.

With the White House under increasing attack over the program, the administration also announced that President Bush, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the former head of the agency, will each give talks next week in support of the program.

The day's events showed the White House's increasingly forceful effort to build public support for the program, as it seeks to demonstrate that Mr. Bush acted within constitutional authority in ordering the agency to monitor international e-mail and phone calls linked to Al Qaeda without seeking warrants.

While the White House usually says it pays no attention to public opinion polls, Scott McClellan, the press secretary, said at a briefing Friday that recent surveys "overwhelmingly show that the American people want us to do everything within our power to protect them."

But several opinion polls this month showed a clear divide over the issue. One poll, conducted two weeks ago by CNN/USA Today, found that 50 percent of those surveyed thought it was right for the president to order wiretaps without warrants and that 46 percent said it was wrong.

With some leading lawmakers voicing increasing unease over the program, Mr. Cheney met at the White House situation room for about an hour Friday morning to discuss it with Congressional leaders.

While officials would not discuss the substance of the briefing, Democratic Congressional leaders were thought to have expressed complaints about the limited nature of the briefings. A nonpartisan Congressional study earlier this week said that the limited briefings might have violated Congressional oversight law, and Democrats are asking that future briefings be opened to all members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

While Mr. McClellan would not discuss Mr. Cheney's briefing, he said: "We have briefed Congressional leaders more than a dozen times. We continue to brief members of Congress in an appropriate manner."

Meanwhile, House Democrats, frustrated that Republican leaders had refused to hold hearings on the matter, held an unusual unofficial hearing of their own on Friday.

The eight Democratic lawmakers at the event were unrelenting in their criticism of a program that they said would open the way to unlimited presidential powers. Some questioned whether Mr. Bush's authorization of it was an impeachable offense.

Several lawmakers and witnesses compared the administration to a British monarchy, casting Mr. Bush as George III. Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, even compared the president's powers to those the Nazis used early to cement their power.

Mr. Nadler said that as he read the broad presidential power claimed by Mr. Bush, "if he were in Germany in 1933, he would not have required the Enabling Act to pass the Reichstag to claim the power," a reference to the law that gave Hitler broad power to run the country.

When asked about the remark, Mr. Nadler's spokesman, Reid Cherlin, said: "He's not comparing Bush to Hitler. He's saying that Nazi Germany is our most extreme example of the rapid expansion of executive power and even there, there was legislative approval of an emergency package."

In a later statement, Mr. Cherlin said Mr. Nadler had "picked an example that he shouldn't have" in illustrating his point.

The White House declined to send anyone to testify at the Democratic event. Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who leads the House Judiciary Committee and who has declined to schedule hearings on the eavesdropping program, said the event did not meet Congressional standards because of a "completely one-sided list of witnesses."

While several witnesses brought reputations as liberal critics of the administration, one witness, Bruce Fein, had been a senior Justice Department official under President Ronald Reagan and was critical of the program's legal underpinnings.

Mr. Fein suggested that he would have resigned rather than acquiesce in such a program.


3.4% jump in U.S. inflation biggest increase in five years

Record prices for gasoline and other fuels sent U.S. inflation rising in 2005 at the fastest pace in five years, and hopes for a slower increase this year could be dashed if energy costs keep surging.

Consumer prices rose by 3.4 per cent in 2005, with 40 per cent of the increase blamed on the biggest jump in energy costs since 1990. Energy was up 17.1 per cent this past year, reflecting gasoline prices that for a time soared above $3 (U.S.) a gallon and crude oil prices that topped $70 per barrel.

There has been hope that overall inflation will slow to around 2.5 per cent in 2006. But that is based on a belief that after two years of big increases, energy prices will calm down, something that has not yet occurred.

Earlier this week, crude oil prices surged to 3½-month highs, reflecting worries about a standoff with Iran over its nuclear program and supply disruptions owing to violence in Nigeria.

More good news for the Oil Serpents, of all nations. 
More bad news for damn near everyone else.

GOP to Use Terror As Campaign Issue according to Rove

Rove: GOP to Use Terror As Campaign Issue

By RON FOURNIER, AP Political WriterFri Jan 20, 10:25 PM ET

Embattled White House adviser Karl Rove vowed Friday to make the war on terrorism a central campaign issue in November. He also said Democratic senators looked "mean-spirited and small-minded" in questioning Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.

"Republicans have a post-9/11 view of the world. And Democrats have a pre-9/11 view of the world," Rove told Republican activists. "That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong — deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."

Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean denounced Rove's remarks and renewed his call for the deputy White House chief of staff to be fired for his role in leaking a CIA official's name. "That is both unpatriotic and wrong," Dean said.

Rove, making a rare public address while under investigation in the CIA leak case, joined Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman in warning GOP leaders against falling prey to the corrupting nature of power.

"The GOP's progress during the last four decades is a stunning political achievement. But it is also a cautionary tale of what happens to a dominant party — in this case, the Democrat Party — when its thinking becomes ossified; when its energy begins to drain; when an entitlement mentality takes over; and when political power becomes an end in itself rather than a mean to achieve the common goal," Rove told Republican National Committee members ending a two-day meeting.

"We need to learn from our successes," he said, "and from the failures of others."

The admonition reflects growing concerns among senior Republicans that ethics scandals in the Republican-led Congress could hurt the party in November, even among staunch GOP voters who may begin to blame corruption for Congress' runaway spending habits.

Mehlman couldn't have been more blunt: "One of the oldest lessons of history is that power corrupts," he said, telling RNC members that any Republicans guilty of illegal behavior should be punished.

The investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff threatens to ensnare at least a half dozen members of Congress of both parties and Bush administration officials. His ties to GOP congressional leaders and the White House pose a particular problem for Republicans. Abramoff, who has admitted to conspiring to defraud his Indian tribe clients, has pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges and is cooperating with prosecutors.

In an unrelated scandal, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is expected to stand trial in the CIA leak case this summer, just ahead of the midterm elections.

The special prosecutor's inquiry is still under way, leaving the fate of other senior White House officials, notably Rove, in doubt.

Bush's political guru opened his remarks with a joking reference to the unwanted attention the case has brought him. "Anybody want to get their picture in the paper? Come on up here," he said.

In 2002, Rove caused a stir among Democrats when he told RNC members to make the war on terrorism an issue in the midterm elections. "We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America," he said at the time.

Rove made the same case Friday, though his words were a bit more measured. Reading from a prepared text, he began with a call for election-year civility — "Our opponents are our fellow citizens, not our enemies" — and quickly turned to portraying Democrats as weak on defense.

"The United States faces a ruthless enemy — and we need a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity that American finds itself in," Rove said. "President Bush and the Republican Party do. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Democrats."

He said some Democrats want to abandon Iraq too soon, which would cause enemies to "laugh at our failed resolve." Rove added: "To retreat before victory would be a reckless act — and this president and our party will not allow it. This is worthy of a public debate."

Rove also criticized Democrats for opposing extension of the USA Patriot Act and warrantless eavesdropping, before turning to Alito, newly minted Chief Justice John Roberts and their Democratic opponents on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Every effort to smear the name of these good men blew up in the face of those making the malicious charges. Some committee members came across as mean-spirited and small-minded — and it left a searing impression," Rove said. He specifically accused Sen. Edward Kennedy (news, bio, voting record), D-Mass., of creating "an ugly display" during Alito's hearing.

Before the RNC members returned to their home states, they approved an immigration resolution supported by the White House. A competing measure backed by hard-line conservatives opposed to Bush's guest worker program was withdrawn under pressure from White House allies.

So, it's the old "Wet your pants and vote for us," campaign scam, again.....
Can the American people, or at least a large swath of them, really be stupid enough to fall for that, again?
If so, we might as well give up on our country  because the body politic is too dumb to live, literally.

U.S. Anti-Terror Efforts Hurting Ethnic, Religious Minorities Worldwide: Watchdog

Published on Friday, January 20, 2006 by
U.S. Anti-Terror Efforts Hurting Ethnic, Religious Minorities Worldwide: Watchdog
by Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS - The Bush administration's self-styled ''war on terror'' is undermining the rights of minority ethnic groups at home and abroad, according to a new assessment from a watchdog and advocacy group specializing in the rights of marginalized communities.

''The war on terror has produced areas of grave concern,'' Mark Lattimer, executive director of Minorities Rights Group International, told reporters Thursday at a news conference to launch the organization's ''State of the World Minorities 2006'' report.

The 215-page study, described as the first of its kind, says legislation to counter terrorism in the United States and Canada has had a negative impact on people of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage.

It follows on the heels of Human Rights Watch's latest annual world report, in which the prominent watchdog warns that torture and mistreatment of prisoners have been deliberate parts of U.S. antiterrorism strategy and have undermined human rights worldwide.

According to Human Rights Watch's report, released Wednesday, the tactics are illegal and are ''fueling terrorist recruitment, discouraging public assistance of counterterrorism efforts, and creating a pool of unprosecutable detainees.''

The minority rights report says controversial legislation such as the USA Patriot Act, which allows ''indefinite detentions'' for terrorism suspects, has forced many Arab and Muslim families to leave North America for their home countries.

Additionally, the existing material witness law has deprived these communities of their civil rights, the group says. The law is based on the notion that if a court believes a witness's information to be 'material' to a criminal case, the witness can be locked up, but only for the time necessary for deposition.

However, according to the group's researchers, since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Department of Justice has ''manipulated'' this law by securing indefinite detentions of people whom the government wanted to investigate as possible terrorist suspects.

As a result, the document says, the U.S. government has imprisoned at least 70 men--all but one Muslim, at least three-quarters U.S. citizens, and 64 of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent.

The study suggests that the U.S.-led global war on terror also is being used to suppress minorities in places like Afghanistan and Russia's northern Caucasus. It details how state authorities in many other regions are abusing the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

''Around the world, civilians from minority communities are being prosecuted, tortured, and killed,'' Lattimer told reporters.

''Outrageously, some governments justify these practices as their contribution to the war on terror,'' he said.

The study places Iraq on top of the list of 15 countries where people from minority communities face the acute threat of persecution, discrimination, and mass killings.

In addition to continued tensions between Muslims from the Shia and Sunni sects, it notes that both the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad and rebel groups fighting the occupying forces continue to inflict harm on smaller communities.

''Following a flawed constitutional process and violence that has continued throughout December's elections, Iraqi Shia, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, were found to be under greatest threat when assessed against indicators relating to political violence, group division, democracy, and governance,'' the report says.

It names Sudan as the place where minorities have the greatest reason to fear violence and persecution.

Other countries said to be the most serious violators of minority rights include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

The study also names Afghanistan, Burma, Indonesia, Russia, and the Philippines as places where ethnic and religious minorities suffer acutely from persecution and violence at the hands of state authorities and politically dominant groups.

As for Europe, the study finds that ''Muslim minorities have experienced an increase in police profiling and police violence since September 2001.''

Noting violations in South America, the authors say the term ''terrorist'' has in many places replaced ''communist'' as a label to justify suppression of the basic rights of indigenous people, and to avoid dialogue over issues such as land and resources, which communities native to the region have been demanding of settler-dominated national governments.

Some senior United Nations officials welcomed the London-based minority rights group's report, describing it as a major new contribution to the world body's knowledge about violations of minorities' rights.

''From the Americas to Europe to Asia to Africa, we can see the degradation in the rights of minorities threatens the security of whole societies,'' said Gay McDougall, the U.N. independent expert on minority issues.

''The prompt prevention of genocide or other mass violations require us to be much more aware of the ongoing situation faced by minorities,'' Juan Mendez, special advisor to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, wrote in the study's preface.

Mendez said the world body is seeking comprehensive approaches to minority issues while serving the cause of justice and democracy for whole societies.

Mendez and other U.N. officials are exploring whether a new international treaty could prove useful in protecting the rights of minorities globally.

Copyright © 2006

Groups Worried About New US Aid Czar

Published on Friday, January 20, 2006
by Emad Mekay

WASHINGTON -The United States has unveiled a new plan for how it spends foreign aid dollars that links U.S. security to democracy and development overseas.

But development activists fear the new overhaul could be ideologically motivated and criticised the appointment of a new aid director who they say had performed poorly in his previous position.

"In today's world, America's security is linked to the capacity of foreign states to govern justly and effectively," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday as she announced the plan. "Our foreign assistance must help people get results."

The new re-structuring plan unifies U.S. aid agencies, aid accounts and individual programmes under one director. President George W. Bush said he will appoint Randall Tobias, who now heads the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the U.S. global AIDS programme.

Tobias will also be the new administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and will oversee all U.S. foreign aid work. He will also carry the title of Deputy Secretary for Development.

Around 80 percent of all U.S. assistance goes through USAID and the State Department.

Tobias takes over USAID, which works in more than 100 countries with a 14-billion-dollar annual budget, from outgoing administer Andrew S. Natsios, whose resignation was announced last month.

He previously served as chairman, president and chief executive officer of the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company. Officials from the State Department say the new changes will involve a sharper focus on the spread of democracy and the push not to have "failed states" without U.S. intervention.

Under the overhauled programme, Rice said, State Department officials and those from USAID, which has been independent since its founding in 1961, will have to exchange experiences and work. Diplomats will now get training in "complicated foreign assistance programmes", she said.

Rice said she will also initiate talks with Congress soon as to how the U.S. can better use its foreign assistance.

The State Department says that U.S. money should be used to empower developing countries to strengthen security, to consolidate democracy and to increase trade.

Rice also said that Washington should further link its aid to defeat terrorist threats. In her speech Thursday, she invoked the attacks of 9/11 and noted that the terrorists used the previously failed state of Afghanistan to launch their attacks.

"In the final analysis, we must now use our foreign assistance to help prevent future Afghanistans -- and to make America and the world safer," she said.

Rice named terrorism, weapons proliferation, diseases, and trafficking in persons and drugs as global threats that require the U.S. to develop new diplomatic strategies. She said that without the new changes, U.S. foreign assistance may be ineffective.

"The current structure of America's foreign assistance risks incoherent policies and ineffective programmes and perhaps even wasted resources. We can do better and we must do better," Rice warned Thursday.

But some civil society groups criticised the appointment of Tobias, citing his record in the fight against AIDS.

"Under his direction, HIV prevention programmes have shifted from being based in public health science to being dictated by the abstinence-only-until-marriage ideology of the Bush administration," said James Wagoner, president of the Washington-based Advocates for Youth.

Activists fear that too much ideology in the foreign aid system may derail other important programmes like family planning and population management.

"As head of USAID, Ambassador Tobias will not only be responsible for AIDS funding, but also in charge of population and family planning programmes," concluded Wagoner. "How will his anti-science ideology impact programmes vital to protecting the health of women and young people around the world?"

Tobias' record in the fight against AIDS has also been marred by accusations of favouring drug corporations by displaying a preference for using more expensive, brand-name drugs instead of cheaper, safe generic versions that could have reached many more people in impoverished countries.

"An administrator of USAID should be committed to the most cost-effective and far-reaching response to such international challenges, rather than championing corporate interests and profits," said Ann-Louise Colgan, director for policy analysis and communications at Africa Action.

Advocacy groups have also expressed concerns that sensitive aid programmes will now be run by a pharmaceutical company executive with no experience in development work.

"We feel that these concernsà must raise serious questions about Mr. Tobias' qualifications to run the U.S. Agency for International Development," said Colgan.

The new aid strategy announced by Rice is also part of an overarching restructuring of the State Department that Rice has called "transformational diplomacy". This means U.S. diplomats will have to work directly with foreign citizens to help them "build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system".

Under the plan, areas previously not at the top of development priorities, like the Middle East and Islamic nations, where the U.S. claims it wants to spread democracy, will apparently take precedence.

The secretary said that the new front lines of U.S. diplomacy are in the transitional countries of Africa, Latin America and the Middle East and emerging regional leaders like India, China, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia and South Africa.

Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service


U.S. Obtains Internet Users' Search Records

Published on Friday, January 20, 2006 by the Los Angeles Times

Yahoo and others reveal queries from millions of people; Google refuses. Identities aren't included, but the data trove stirs privacy fears.
by Joseph Menn and Chris Gaither

SAN FRANCISCO — Federal investigators have obtained potentially billions of Internet search requests made by users of major websites run by Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and America Online Inc., raising concerns about how the massive data trove will be used.

The information turned over to Justice Department lawyers reveals a week's worth of online queries from millions of Americans — the Internet Age equivalent of eavesdropping on their inner monologues. The subpoenaed data could, for example, include how many times people searched online for "apple pie recipes," "movie tickets 90012" or even "bomb instructions."

The Internet companies said Thursday that the information did not violate their users' privacy because the data did not include names or computer addresses. The disclosure nonetheless alarmed civil liberties advocates, who fear that the government could seek more detailed information later.

A Justice Department spokesman said the government was not interested in ferreting out names — only in search trends as part of its efforts to regulate online pornography. But the search-engine subpoenas come amid broader concerns over how much information the government collects and how the data are used.

Congress is debating an extension of the Patriot Act, which dramatically expanded the government's ability to obtain private data. And congressional hearings are expected soon on the legality of a National Security Agency program to track communications by U.S. citizens without prior court approval.

Privacy advocates said the opportunity to peruse search queries provided an unprecedented glimpse into people's private thoughts and habits. Virtually unknown a decade ago, search engines rapidly have become an integral part of daily life.

Search engines maintain "a massive database that reaches into the most intimate details of your life: what you search for, what you read, what worries you, what you enjoy," said Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's critical to protect the privacy of this information so people feel free to use modern tools to find information without the fear of Big Brother looking over their shoulder."

The issue came to light this week only when Google Inc., the most-used Internet search engine, fought its subpoena. AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo also had been subpoenaed. Government lawyers filed a brief in U.S. District Court in San Jose seeking to force Google to comply.

Google's refusal was first reported by the San Jose Mercury News.

Search engines and e-mail providers are asked for information on specific people in hundreds of cases yearly, both by law enforcement and in civil lawsuits. They generally comply, and their privacy policies warn users that data can be turned over to authorities.

Under a section of the Patriot Act expanding the use of so-called national security letters, companies such as Google can be asked to turn over potentially useful data — even about people who aren't suspected of wrongdoing — while being barred from disclosing those requests.

But no previous case is known to have involved such a wide range of data.

"Their demand for information overreaches," said Nicole Wong, Google's associate general counsel. "We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this but were not able to, and we intend to resist their motion vigorously."

The other search engines disclosed the information after narrowing the government's original request for two months' worth of searches to one week's worth. The week was not specified.

"We are rigorous defenders of our users' privacy," Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako said. "We did not provide any personal information in response to the Department of Justice's subpoena. In our opinion, this is not a privacy issue."

A Microsoft spokeswoman said the company complied with the request "in a way that ensured we also protected the privacy of our customers. We were able to share aggregated query data … that did not include any personally identifiable information."

AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said the Time Warner Inc. subsidiary initially rebuffed the Justice Department's requests and eventually provided "an aggregated and anonymous list of search terms…. What we gave them was something that was extremely limited, didn't have any privacy implications and is fairly common data."

Beth Givens, director of the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, said those companies should have fought.

"Google and the other search engines," she said, "represent a very appealing honey pot for government investigators."

In some ways, Google's action echoes Verizon Communications Inc.'s fight against the record industry two years ago. The record labels used a provision of a digital copyright law to demand the names of subscribers to Verizon's Internet service who were suspected of swapping music files illegally. Verizon resisted, and a federal appeals court eventually agreed that the labels would have to sue individuals before forcing Verizon to turn over information on them. The Supreme Court declined to intervene in the case.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the government wanted an overview of what people look for online as part of its effort to restore an anti-pornography law that was struck down by the Supreme Court.

The Child Online Protection Act was adopted in 1998 after a similar law, the Communications Decency Act, was struck down on constitutional grounds. The Child Online Protection Act establishes fines and jail terms for businesses that publish sexually oriented material on the Web that is obscene or offensive, unless they weed out minors by demanding a credit card or other proof of age.

In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld an injunction against the law but sent the case back to a lower court in Pennsylvania. A majority of the high court wrote that the government could save the measure if it showed that the rules were more effective than Internet content filters at balancing the need to keep pornography from children against the free-speech rights of website operators.

Philip Stark, a UC Berkeley statistics professor working for the government, wrote in the San Jose court filing that the queries, along with a list of available websites, would help show what users were looking for and how often they found material that the government deemed harmful to minors.

The Justice Department also asked the Internet companies for the addresses to every website in their search-engine indexes, a request that was negotiated down to 1 million randomly chosen addresses. Government lawyers said they wanted that information to gauge the prevalence of websites that were harmful to minors and to measure the effectiveness of filtering software on those sites.

"We're not seeking any individual information regarding anybody who entered the query terms," Miller said.

He did not respond to other questions, including whether the department would rule out seeking such information in the future and how the existing data would be used.

Google said, though, that the words in a single text query could lead the government to a searcher's identity.

"One can envision scenarios where queries alone could reveal identifying information," the company wrote in a letter objecting to the demand.

Users often search for information about themselves.

More broadly, the company wrote, "Google's acceding to the request would suggest that it is willing to reveal information about those who use its services. This is not a perception that Google can accept."

Google has tried to cast itself as an enlightened company, going so far as to tell investors that it planned to do business under a simple rule: "Don't be evil."

But as Google has collected increasing amounts of information about its users, some observers have expressed concern that the company could break that rule by letting the data fall into the wrong hands or simply by complying with government demands.

"Google could help protect its users … by limiting the information that is kept and how long it is stored," said the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Opsahl. "The easiest way to respond to a subpoena is by saying, "We don't have it.' "

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times

Activists Vow to Shut Down Army Recruiting Sites

Published on Friday, January 20, 2006
by Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - A leading coalition of peace groups in the United States is planning to stage nationwide protests against the U.S. war in Iraq on Mar. 19, the day when U.S.-led military forces invaded that country three years ago.

The group, which has organised a series of massive anti-war rallies in the past, says its renewed campaign will be focused on blocking U.S. military recruiting centres in hundreds of cities and towns across the country.

"This anniversary of the war is a provocation for us," Larry Holmes of the International Action Centre told a gathering of antiwar activists here this week.

"At this anniversary, we will start shutting down the military's recruiting centres," he added.

Last October, several anti-war protesters, including 18 grandmothers of U.S. soldiers, were arrested after they attempted to block the way into U.S. Army recruiting centres.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, up to 100,000 Iraqi civilians are believed to have been killed. And according to official accounts, more than 2,100 U.S. soldiers have died and more than 16,000 been injured.

Organisers say in addition to targeting the U.S. presence in Iraq, this year's protests will also warn Washington against a possible military action against Iran.

"We are threatening Iran when we have more nuclear weapons than anyone else," Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney-general and founder of the International Action Centre, who is helping represent former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, told activists.

"We kill, we murder, we torture, we assassinate, we can't go on like this," he said, adding that any U.S. military action in Iran would bring "nothing but more misery" for millions of people in the region.

The U.S. and other Western powers accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran denies that charge and asserts that its nuclear programme is aimed at generating electricity in accordance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Though not ruling out a possible military action against Iran, the former chief prosecutor of the United States said he believed that at the moment, the U.S. did not have the "military capacity to go into Iran".

Currently, more than 140,000 U.S. troops are based in Iraq, and the U.S. military's drive to recruit new soldiers at home is apparently failing to get a desirable response.

"Closing down recruiting centres is getting important," Clark said, "because that's the way you can force your government to slash the military budget."

Washington's current annual military spending exceeds 400 billion dollars -- about half of what the entire world allocates for its defence-related activities.

In addition to massive loss of human life in Iraq, the ever-increasing cost of the war is another issue that seems to have added fuel to growing impatience in the U.S. with the George W. Bush administration.

A new study released this month suggests that the real cost of the U.S. war in Iraq is likely to be between one and two trillion dollars, an amount 10 times more than previously thought.

Written by Joseph Stiglitz, a Columbia University professor who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2001, and Linda Bilmes, a Harvard budget expert, the report concludes that the U.S. government is continuing to underestimate the cost of the war.

The authors say their research is based on traditional estimates that include costs such as lifetime disability and healthcare for troops wounded in the conflict, as well as the impact on the U.S. economy.

During the early days of the war, the White House appeared certain that the cost would remain far less. In 2003, Larry Lindsey, a White House economic advisor, estimated the cost at around 200 billion dollars, which prompted the then-deputy chief of the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz, to say that Iraq could finance its own reconstruction.

The Republican-dominated U.S. Congress has allocated 251 billion dollars for military operations, and its budget office now estimates that the Iraq war may cost another 230 billion dollars in the next 10 years.

Stiglitz and Bilmes say the Congressional estimates did not include some substantial future costs. For instance, they say the cost of lifetime care for the thousands of troops who have suffered brain injuries in the battlefield alone could run to 35 billion dollars.

And taking into account the spending on disability payments and demobilisation, the economists say it is likely that the budgetary cost alone could reach one trillion dollars. They said their research did not include the cost of the war to the U.S. allies and Iraq.

Activists say the enormous cost of war is not only adding to the burden of U.S. taxpayers, but making life harsher than ever before for millions of Iraqis as well.

"The Bush administration's war is coming back to the U.S. cities," said the IAC's Sara Flounders. "There are cuts in social programmes here. There is increased repression and domestic surveillance here."

And in Iraq, she adds, "half of the population has no access to potable water. The price of fuel in that oil-rich nation has increased six-fold and the electricity is available for two hours at best."

"The anger against the Bush administration is growing every where in the world," she said. "We will turn this anger into a massive movement to demand 'bring the troops home now.'"

Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service.