A Tortured Rationale

The President suggests Cheney is right.

Explaining his decision to put a stop to the CIA’s practice of “enhanced interrogations” of terrorist detainees, President Obama told a press conference Wednesday that “I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do — not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees that were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways.” Such as?

In his memoir, former CIA Director George Tenet recalls that “In his initial interrogation by CIA officers, [9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] was defiant. ‘I’ll talk to you guys,’ he said, ‘after I get to New York and see my lawyer.'” Mr. Obama must be under the impression that the CIA used waterboarding as a first resort.

The President also cited Winston Churchill, who, he said, refused to torture German detainees even when “London was being bombed to smithereens.” But Churchill did authorize the firebombing of Hamburg and other cities, the human toll of which numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Does Mr. Obama consider that a more ethical approach to our enemies?

Still, the President’s reference to Britain was unwittingly instructive, since the British treatment of IRA detainees during the “troubles” of Northern Ireland was one of the benchmarks the Bush Administration used in distinguishing between harsh treatment and actual torture. A 1978 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights found that “stress positions,” “hooding,” and sleep deprivation did not, in fact, constitute torture.

President Obama was then asked whether he had read the memos recently mentioned by former Vice President Dick Cheney as evidence of the effectiveness of enhanced interrogations. Yes he had, he said, immediately adding that “they haven’t been officially declassified and released, and so I don’t want to go into the details of them.” The fact that he didn’t rebut Mr. Cheney’s point about what the interrogations yielded suggests that the memos would prove the former Veep’s point. Mr. Obama should release all the memos and let Americans judge for themselves — though perhaps that’s precisely why he won’t release them.

The President wrapped up by saying “there have been no circumstances during the course of this first hundred days in which I have seen information that would make me second-guess the decision that I’ve made.” We sure hope he’ll be able to say the same about the next four years.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124113499670175211.html

Abu Ghraib Guards Say Memos Show They Were Scapegoats

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Charles Graner and Lynndie England posed a few years ago at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Both were sentenced to prison for their role in detainee abuse.

When the photos of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq surfaced in 2004, U.S. officials portrayed Army Private Charles A. Graner Jr. as the ringleader of a few low-ranking “bad apples” who illegally put naked Iraqi detainees in painful positions, shackled them to cell doors with women’s underwear on their heads and menaced them with military dogs.

Now, the recent release of Justice Department memos authorizing the use of harsh interrogation techniques has given Graner and other soldiers new reason to argue that they were made scapegoats for policies approved at high levels. They also contend that the government’s refusal to acknowledge those polices when Graner and others were tried undermined their legal defenses.

Graner remains locked up at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., about halfway through a 10-year prison sentence for detainee abuse, assault and dereliction of duty. His lawyer said this week that he is drafting appeals arguments centered largely on the revelations in the memos and a newly released congressional investigation into the interrogation practices.

President George W. Bush “was so disappointed in what happened, yet the whole time he knew what was going on,” said Graner, answering questions through his wife, Megan, who also worked at Abu Ghraib. He is the only one of about a dozen soldiers tried for abuses at the prison who remains incarcerated.

Graner and other defendants — including Lynndie R. England, who was photographed holding a naked detainee by a leash — were blocked by military judges from calling senior U.S. officials to the stand at their trials in 2004 and 2005. The government would not acknowledge any policy or procedure that could have led to what the world saw in the photographs.

Some of what the guards at Abu Ghraib did, such as throwing hooded detainees into walls, echoes tactics authorized in the Justice Department memos, such as “walling,” in which interrogators were allowed to push detainees in CIA custody into a flexible wall designed to make a loud noise.

But the Abu Ghraib photographs also depicted some actions, such as punching or stomping, that bear no relation to the techniques described in the memos, as well as others that were improvised by guards, such as forcing detainees to masturbate or to form human pyramids while naked.

Charles Gittins, a Virginia lawyer who represents Graner, said he has been fuming since reading the memos. He said he has long believed that there was no way Graner and the other Army reservists invented techniques such as stress positions, leashing and the use of dogs, and he says the documents confirmed his suspicions.

“Once the pictures came out, the senior officials involved in the decision-making, they knew. They knew they had to have a cover story,” Gittins said. ” ‘It was the bad apples led by Charles Graner.’ ”

Gittins said he hopes to convince the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces that top officials improperly influenced the court and kept evidence from the defense.

According to the memos and congressional documents, U.S. officials reverse-engineered techniques from U.S. survival training courses designed to teach troops how to endure capture and interrogation. Justice and Defense department officials approved the use of dogs, nudity, stress positions, sleep deprivation and other techniques.

Those tactics, according to the documents, were put into use at the facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in the CIA’s secret prisons, and eventually were adopted in Afghanistan and Iraq after then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s approval was forwarded from officials at Guantanamo to Capt. Carolyn Wood, a military intelligence officer. She told investigators that she then sought approvals in Afghanistan for the tactics and brought them with her to Iraq and Abu Ghraib. Senior officers in Iraq also approved the methods there.

Though considered illegal under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the tactics were put into official use in late 2003. They have since been banned in a new Army Field Manual on interrogations.

Janis L. Karpinski, a former Army Reserve general in charge of prisons in Iraq who was demoted and left the Army as a result of the Abu Ghraib scandal, said she was stunned silent by the administration memos.

“I could have cried,” Karpinski said. “I always had a sense of betrayal because it’s just disgusting. I’m sure those photos scared the hell out of them,” she added, referring to Bush administration officials. “Here, in living color, you have a photographic rendition of your memos. Is that what they wanted it to look like? Guess what, that is what it looks like.”

It is unclear whether low-level soldiers who were convicted of crimes can retrospectively use the Justice Department memos to their advantage. Gary Myers, a New Hampshire lawyer who represented Ivan L. “Chip” Frederick on abuse charges, said that unless the soldiers knew about the policies specifically, the memos might be irrelevant in a courtroom. Still, Myers said he is going to use the recent developments to try to get Frederick’s dishonorable discharge removed from his record.

“If what was suggested as license was itself illegal, relying on illegal documents or opinions is not in my mind a defense,” Myers said. “What we know now is we had at the time a rogue government that created an environment where this sort of conduct was condoned, if not encouraged. But it doesn’t do anything for you when you hold it up against the maltreatment statute of the [Uniform Code of Military Justice], which is law, passed by the Congress.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/30/AR2009043004077.html?hpid=topnews

Engines of Main Street

You Can’t Help Detroit if You Hurt the Dealers

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A customer at a Chrysler Jeep dealership in Doylestown, Pa.

My family has been in the automobile business since 1921, when my grandfather opened a Ford dealership in Hope, Ark. My father sold cars, I sold cars, and my sons are in the business. We’ve been fortunate to build our enterprise at home and overseas even as that original dealership in Hope is still going strong.

Not surprisingly, I am closely following the Obama administration’s plans for restructuring and renewing our nation’s auto industry. I have proudly served presidents of both parties, including as White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, and I think my family’s history gives me a somewhat different perspective from that of most Washington observers.

The auto industry needs a viable plan for long-term, durable success as the administration strives to revitalize our nation’s economy. The president’s task force has rightly focused on resetting the balance sheets of General Motors and Chrysler, and working with labor, management and retirees to make these iconic American companies more competitive globally. The task force aims to retool GM and Chrysler as quickly and cleanly as possible; there are no painless solutions, but it is trying hard to be fair.

I commend the progress being made. Success is possible if all stakeholders work together. I take issue with those who say bankruptcy may be necessary as the best option among bad choices. Bankruptcy should be our last resort, not our first.

The relationships between automobile manufacturers, suppliers and franchised dealers are more complex and interconnected than those of any other U.S. industry. No one knows what will happen if a shock like bankruptcy is imposed. Just the declaration of bankruptcy by a manufacturer could further damage the already dysfunctional credit markets. It could also wipe out the dealerships at the heart of many local communities and economies.

Remember, automotive dealers are automakers’ only customers. Dealers buy cars and trucks from manufacturers; consumers buy from dealers, who spend billions annually advertising the vehicles they sell, plus more than $300 million to train sales personnel — all at no cost to the automakers.

Auto dealers understand that the U.S. franchise network must be streamlined, consistent with the geographic characteristics of today’s marketplace. Yet without a strategic plan to ensure that the remaining dealerships can thrive, a rapid “rationalization” could wipe out dealers and further weaken manufacturers, with negative repercussions throughout the economy, especially in the Midwest.

Dealers rely on the credit markets to finance 95 percent of consumer auto sales. America’s dealers also need credit, known as floorplan vehicle inventory credit, to buy vehicles from manufacturers. Yet since the financial crisis began, dealers — especially those with domestic brands — have had a much harder time securing this financing.

Pushing GM or Chrysler into bankruptcy would worsen the situation. Lenders look to the manufacturers to buy back inventory if a dealer goes out of business. What banker would lend to a GM or Chrysler dealer if the manufacturer had declared bankruptcy? And if dealers no longer order vehicles, the result would be terrible for manufacturers. Dealers are already holding off on purchases for fear that customers won’t buy autos made by a bankrupt automaker.

A better approach would be for the task force to be as evenhanded and supportive of auto dealers as it has been of other stakeholders, such as by guaranteeing the $20 billion in inventory financing loans that dealers — and by extension, auto manufacturers — depend on to keep vehicles on sales floors. It would be bad, but manageable, if dealerships were forced to close. But if dealers were also stuck with millions of dollars’ worth of car inventory they couldn’t move, it could break them and cause further instability throughout the economy.

Making it impossible for automotive dealers to stay in business would have implications nationwide. Auto sales account for nearly 20 percent of all domestic retail sales. The franchised automobile dealer is one of America’s strongest engines of economic development. U.S. auto dealers have invested more than $200 billion in their businesses. They employ and train more than a million people in communities nationwide and pay billions in annual state and local taxes.

The vast majority of auto dealers are cornerstones of their communities — men and women who sponsor Little League teams, who lead and donate to civic organizations, who support the places they live and the people they employ. Who will fill the void if these hardworking, dedicated, locally focused entrepreneurs are obliged to shut down?

We need a careful approach to streamlining the dealer network, not abrupt, forced closures. Strong dealer networks are not a burden to the auto industry; they are its lifeline. Indeed, dealers and their employees are part of the solid foundation that President Obama spoke of recently — the rock upon which all Americans must work together to rebuild our economic future. An improvident resolution could jeopardize all that.

The writer is chairman of the RLJ-McLarty-Landers Automotive Group and president of the Washington-based international advisory firm McLarty Associates.

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/29/AR2009042904017.html

Photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/25/your-money/25money.html?scp=3&sq=Chrysler%20dealer&st=cse

The Surgeon and the Torture Memos

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Having trained medical students, I’ve come to recognize a familiar pattern of behavior when young doctors hold a scalpel for the very first time. Most people — actually anyone who has experienced even a paper cut — are hesitant to slice through flesh. Aspiring surgeons are no different. Their first efforts are tentative and almost always memorable.

“Really, me?” I asked, the first time I was handed the knife. I cupped my hand as if to accept a communion wafer but was taken aback by the scalpel’s weight, a sure sign in my mind of the instrument’s gravitas. Like doctors-in-training before and after me, I wrapped my fingers around the handle in a kind of death grip and winced as the belly of the blade touched the patient’s body. And as much as I’d like not to admit it, my hand shook, so great was my fear of pushing too hard and slicing too deep.

In the end, my first attempt at a surgical incision left barely a line on the patient’s skin. The mark was so tentative and so puny that even my cat wouldn’t have deigned to claim the scratch as her own.

These days I have to try hard to remember the surge of adrenaline and the extent of my fear that very first time. After years of training, cutting began to feel second nature to me, the scalpel merely an extension of my fingers. So when a friend earlier this week told me that she could never imagine cutting into another person and wondered how young doctors learn to do so, I had to stop and think before I could respond to her.

“Habituation,” I finally said. “You get used it.”

That response, and the idea of becoming habituated, has been haunting me ever since. Is it possible for all of us to become habituated to the horrific?

Two weeks ago, the Justice Department declassified four memos regarding the interrogation techniques approved by the Bush Administration and used by the C.I.A. with senior level Al Qaeda members. The details of these documents made my skin crawl; there are cool descriptions of dousing detainees with water at 41 degrees, forced nudity, slamming detainees into walls and waterboarding.

But my mind kept wandering back to one thing: the seemingly ordinary professionals who were responsible. These were lawyers, psychologists, physicians, judges, and military and C.I.A. personnel, not just a rogue group of marginalized military grunts. In fact some of these individuals seemed hardly different from, well, me. A few were even the kind of hometown denizens I might admire.

Take, for example, Jay Bybee, former assistant attorney general and now a judge on the United States Court of Appeals. In addition to his busy job, Mr. Bybee is a father to four children and has managed to serve as both a cubmaster for the Boy Scouts and an assistant coach for youth baseball and basketball. I am lucky if I can pack lunch for my two kids and get to work on time.

The reason I keep thinking about my response to my friend’s question is that I know it is possible for even sensitive souls to become habituated to a range of grisly tasks. I am someone who has learned — become habituated — to performing a whole host of unusual and, depending on your point-of-view, potentially gruesome undertakings: poking sharp objects into other people, removing organs and extremities, and switching parts between the dead and the living. And as I implied to my friend, even cutting the flesh of another human being can become just another part of your day job.

What renders a surgeon’s work different and humane, however, is not just the individual doctor’s desire to do the right thing by his or her patients (though I seriously wonder if Jay Bybee thought he was doing the right thing by his fellow Americans when he listed the 10 acceptable interrogation techniques, waterboarding among them). It is the surgeon’s commitment to and steadfast compliance with his profession’s code of ethical conduct. It is a constant awareness of the extraordinary trust that patients and the public place in their physicians, a trust that entails transparency and accountability in the patient-doctor relationship.

As I see it, the problem now with these documents is not that our trust in those accountable has been shattered. It is that the rest of us are beginning to show signs of becoming habituated to such transgressions.

Americans have been aware of brutal interrogation techniques for several years now: the first pictures from Abu Ghraib were shown five years ago this week, and the declassified documents in fact hold little new information. And while our current president speaks of moving forward, and not looking back at this chapter of our history, can we afford to turn away?

In doing so, we accept how we have become habituated. We risk seeing the brutality not as an atrocity but as part of who we are. We become the surgeon who might have shook when first taking the knife in hand but who now dares to cut with eyes closed.

PAULINE W. CHEN, M.D.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/30/health/30chen.html?hpw

Maine Senate Backs Same-Sex Marriage

Maine could be the next New England state to embrace same-sex marriage after the State Senate voted Thursday to legalize the practice.

The Democratic-controlled Senate voted 21 to 14 for a bill that would allow gay couples to marry starting later this year. The measure appears to have even broader support in the House of Representatives, which will take it up on Tuesday.

Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, used to oppose same-sex marriage. But since the bill was introduced in January, he has said he is keeping an open mind.

“He said at the beginning of this process that he was going to listen to debate on the question,” said David Farmer, Mr. Baldacci’s spokesman, “and make his final decision once the bill reaches his desk.”

The vote was the latest victory for gay rights groups in New England, which are campaigning to get same-sex marriage approved in all six of the region’s states by 2012. Massachusetts and Connecticut already allow same-sex marriage, and the Vermont Legislature approved it last month.

The New Hampshire legislature is likely to send a same-sex marriage bill to Gov. John Lynch in the coming weeks, though Mr. Lynch, a Democrat and an opponent, might veto it. A bill has been introduced in the Rhode Island legislature but is unlikely to be acted on this year.

If the Maine Legislature approves same-sex marriage, opponents will try to collect enough signatures to suspend the law until a public referendum can be held — probably in June 2010 — asking voters if they want to overturn it. But Mary Bonauto, the lawyer who argued the case that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, said gay rights groups would wage an exhaustive campaign against a so-called people’s veto.

“I think we have better than a fighting chance on that,” Ms. Bonauto said.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/01/us/01maine.html?hpw

With New Software, Iranians and Others Outwit Net Censors

The Iranian government, more than almost any other, censors what citizens can read online, using elaborate technology to block millions of Web sites offering news, commentary, videos, music and, until recently, Facebook and YouTube. Search for “women” in Persian and you’re told, “Dear Subscriber, access to this site is not possible.”

Last July, on popular sites that offer free downloads of various software, an escape hatch appeared. The computer program allowed Iranian Internet users to evade government censorship.

College students discovered the key first, then spread it through e-mail messages and file-sharing. By late autumn more than 400,000 Iranians were surfing the uncensored Web.

The software was created not by Iranians, but by Chinese computer experts volunteering for the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that has beem suppressed by the Chinese government since 1999. They maintain a series of computers in data centers around the world to route Web users’ requests around censors’ firewalls.

The Internet is no longer just an essential channel for commerce, entertainment and information. It has also become a stage for state control — and rebellion against it. Computers are becoming more crucial in global conflicts, not only in spying and military action, but also in determining what information reaches people around the globe.

More than 20 countries now use increasingly sophisticated blocking and filtering systems for Internet content, according to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group that encourages freedom of the press.

Although the most aggressive filtering systems have been erected by authoritarian governments like those in Iran, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria, some Western democracies are also beginning to filter some content, including child pornography and other sexually oriented material.

In response, a disparate alliance of political and religious activists, civil libertarians, Internet entrepreneurs, diplomats and even military officers and intelligence agents are now challenging growing Internet censorship.

The creators of the software seized upon by Iranians are members of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, based largely in the United States and closely affiliated with Falun Gong. The consortium is one of many small groups developing systems to make it possible for anyone to reach the open Internet. It is the modern equivalent of efforts by organizations like the Voice of America to reach the citizens of closed countries.

Separately, the Tor Project, a nonprofit group of anticensorship activists, freely offers software that can be used to send messages secretly or to reach blocked Web sites. Its software, first developed at the United States Naval Research Laboratories, is now used by more than 300,000 people globally, from the police to criminals, as well as diplomats and spies.

Political scientists at the University of Toronto have built yet another system, called Psiphon, that allows anyone to evade national Internet firewalls using only a Web browser. Sensing a business opportunity, they have created a company to profit by making it possible for media companies to deliver digital content to Web users behind national firewalls.

The danger in this quiet electronic war is driven home by a stark warning on the group’s Web site: “Bypassing censorship may violate law. Serious thought should be given to the risks involved and potential consequences.”

In this cat-and-mouse game, the cat is fighting back. The Chinese system, which opponents call the Great Firewall of China, is built in part with Western technologies. A study published in February by Rebecca MacKinnon, who teaches journalism at the University of Hong Kong, determined that much blog censorship is performed not by the government but by private Internet service providers, including companies like Yahoo China, Microsoft and MySpace. One-third to more than half of all postings made to three Chinese Internet service providers were not published or were censored, she reported.

When the Falun Gong tried to support its service with advertising several years ago, American companies backed out under pressure from the Chinese government, members said.

In addition, the Chinese government now employs more than 40,000 people as censors at dozens of regional centers, and hundreds of thousands of students are paid to flood the Internet with government messages and crowd out dissenters.

This is not to say that China blocks access to most Internet sites; most of the material on the global Internet is available to Chinese without censorship. The government’s censors mostly censor groups deemed to be state enemies, like the Falun Gong, making it harder for them to reach potential members.

Blocking such groups has become more insidious as Internet filtering technology has grown more sophisticated. As with George Orwell’s “Newspeak,” the language in “1984” that got smaller each year, governments can block particular words or phrases without users realizing their Internet searches are being censored.

Those who back the ragtag opponents of censorship criticize the government-run systems as the digital equivalent of the Berlin Wall.

They also see the anticensorship efforts as a powerful political lever. “What is our leverage toward a country like Iran? Very little,” said Michael Horowitz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute who advises the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. “Suppose we have the capacity to make it possible for the president of the United States at will to communicate with hundreds of thousands of Iranians at no risk or limited risk? It just changes the world.”

The United States government and the Voice of America have financed some circumvention technology efforts. But until now the Falun Gong has devoted the most resources, experts said, erecting a system that allows the largest number of Internet users open, uncensored access.

Each week, Chinese Internet users receive 10 million e-mail messages and 70 million instant messages from the consortium. But unlike spam that takes you to Nigerian banking scams or offers deals on drugs like Viagra, these messages offer software to bypass the elaborate government system that blocks access to the Web sites of opposition groups like the Falun Gong.

Shiyu Zhou, a computer scientist, is a founder of the Falun Gong’s consortium. His cyber-war with China began in Tiananmen Square in 1989. A college student and the son of a former general in the intelligence section of the People’s Liberation Army, he said he first understood the power of government-controlled media when overnight the nation’s student protesters were transformed from heroes to killers.

“I was so disappointed,” he said. “People believed the government, they didn’t believe us.”

He decided to leave China and study computer science in graduate school in the United States. In the late 1990s he turned to the study of Falun Gong and then joined with a small group of technically sophisticated members of the spiritual group intent on transmitting millions of e-mail messages to Chinese.

Both he and Peter Yuan Li, another early consortium volunteer, had attended Tsinghua University — China’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr. Li, the son of farmers, also came to the United States to study computer science, then joined Bell Laboratories before becoming a full-time volunteer.

The risks of building circumvention tools became clear in April 2006 when, Mr. Li later told law enforcement officials, four men invaded his home in suburban Atlanta, covered his head, beat him, searched his files and stole two laptop computers. The F.B.I. has made no arrests in the case and declined to comment. But Mr. Li thinks China sent the invaders.

Early on, the group of dissidents here had some financial backing from the International Broadcasting Bureau of the Voice of America for sending e-mail messages, but the group insists that most of its effort has been based on volunteer labor and contributions.

The consortium’s circumvention system works this way: Government censorship systems like the Great Firewall can block access to certain Internet Protocol addresses. The equivalent of phone numbers, these addresses are quartets of numbers like 209.85.171.100 that identify a Web site, in this case, google.com. By clicking on a link provided in the consortium’s e-mail message, someone in China or Iran trying to reach a forbidden Web site can download software that connects to a computer abroad that then redirects the request to the site’s forbidden address.

The technique works like a basketball bank shot — with the remote computer as the backboard and the desired Web site as the basket. But government systems hunt for and then shut off such alternative routes using a variety of increasingly sophisticated techniques. So the software keeps changing the Internet address of the remote computer — more than once a second. By the time the censors identify an address, the system has already changed it.

China acknowledges that it monitors content on the Internet, but claims to have an agenda much like that of any other country: policing for harmful material, pornography, treasonous propaganda, criminal activity, fraud. The government says Falun Gong is a dangerous cult that has ruined the lives of thousands of people.

Hoping to step up its circumvention efforts, the Falun Gong last year organized extensive lobbying in Congress, which approved $15 million for circumvention services.

But the money was awarded not to the Falun Gong consortium but to Internews, an international organization that supports local media groups.

This year, a broader coalition is organizing to push for more Congressional financing of anti-filtering efforts. Negotiations are under way to bring together dissidents of Vietnam, Iran, the Uighur minority of China, Tibet, Myanmar, Cuba, Cambodia, Laos, as well as the Falun Gong, to lobby Congress for the financing.

Mr. Horowitz argues that $25 million could expand peak usage to as many as 45 million daily Internet users, allowing the systems to reach as many as 10 percent of the Web users in both China and Iran.

Mr. Zhou says his group’s financing is money well spent. “The entire battle over the Internet has boiled down to a battle over resources,” he said. “For every dollar we spend, China has to spend a hundred, maybe hundreds of dollars.”

As for the Falun Gong software, it proved a little too popular among Iranians. By the end of last year the consortium’s computers were overwhelmed. On Jan. 1, the consortium had to do some blocking of its own: It shut down the service for all countries except China.

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Slipping Through the Net

Computers, indispensable in peace, are becoming ever more important in political conflicts and open warfare. This is the second article in a New York Times series on the growing use of computer power as a weapon.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/01/technology/01filter.html?hpw

The Chrysler Bankruptcy

When President Obama outlined his plan to restructure Chrysler under bankruptcy-court protection, we shared his view that keeping a company “afloat on an endless supply of tax dollars” was no solution to the cratering of even iconic American companies.

We also admired his supreme confidence that the Chrysler bankruptcy will be a quick, official and controlled process. We just wished we were as confident as the president.

If the process is prolonged, the costs and complexity would likely ensure that the company would never emerge from bankruptcy proceedings, with dire implications for employment and economic recovery.

For the administration, the Chrysler bankruptcy filing became inevitable when a holdout group of the carmaker’s lenders rejected the government’s final offer to settle their debts, for about 33 cents on the dollar. The United Auto Workers union had already agreed to concessions to help keep the company afloat, as had large banks who hold most all of the company’s debt. Chrysler and the Italian carmaker, Fiat, had also agreed to a partnership that would enable Chrysler to tap into Fiat’s technology, designs and management.

By pushing the matter into bankruptcy court, the administration is assuming that the judge will also reject the holdouts’ demands. That would allow for a quick restructuring while keeping intact the previous agreements with the union, the big bank lenders and Fiat. In short order — 30 to 60 days by the administration’s estimate — Chrysler would emerge from bankruptcy with all the pieces in place to become in Mr. Obama’s words, “stronger” and “more competitive.”

There are reasons to hope it will work out that way. In particular, a judge may be unwilling to favor the dissident bondholders when other significant stakeholders have been able to come to agreement outside of court.

But short “prepackaged” bankruptcies generally succeed when all of the difficult issues are resolved ahead of time, requiring only a judge’s official approval. The judge in the Chrysler case may not see the remaining issues in the same cut-and-dried way that the administration does. Quickie bankruptcies like the one the administration envisions for Chrysler have also never been attempted for a company as big and multifaceted as a carmaker. If the Chrysler bankruptcy case does not proceed apace, the administration will need a new plan — and fast — to avoid pouring taxpayer money into a restructuring that may never yield the desired result.

If the bankruptcy succeeds, there is no guarantee that the Chrysler and Fiat partnership will succeed. A recent report by Fortune magazine detailed the likelihood of culture clash in a Chrysler-Fiat combination, given the companies’ complexity and different national identities. Remember the disastrous Daimler-Chrysler marriage?

It will also take some time, probably at least a couple of years, before the Chrysler and Fiat partnership yields any new cars. In the meantime, Chrysler’s own brands like Dodge and Jeep have been badly damaged by the company’s failing fortunes.

The Chrysler bankruptcy filing is a bold move for the administration, a refusal to blink when confronted with what it perceived as unreasonable demands. The object of the game — a strong and competitive Chrysler — is far from achieved.

Editorial, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/01/opinion/01fri1.html/

Remains ID’d of vagabond poet Everett Ruess, who vanished in ’30s

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This image provided by National Geographic Adventure shows Everett Ruess photographed in 1933 by Dorthea Lange. Everett Ruess, a talented artist, poet and wanderer of the 1930s whose disappearance became the stuff of Western lore and Navajo legend.

Scientists at the University of Colorado have confirmed that a skeleton found in remote southeastern Utah was that of a young artist, poet and wanderer who disappeared in the 1930s.

The disappearance of Everett Ruess, a self-described vagabond from California, became part of Western legend, inspiring books, film documentaries and folk songs.

Ruess was just 20 when he set off for his final wilderness journey from the town of Escalante, Utah, in 1934. The skeleton was found 60 miles to the east at Comb Ridge.

University of Colorado geneticist Kenneth Krauter says DNA tests involving the explorer’s surviving relatives make it “irrefutable” that the bones were that of Ruess.

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Article and photo: http://www.adn.com/nation/story/779250.html

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See also:

A Mystery of the West Is Solved

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Everett Ruess with two donkeys in the Southwest in the 1930s

The gifted young idealist who slips the bonds of civilization and prevails against the wild, or fails in the trying, is a recurring theme of the American West — not to mention Hollywood.

Everett Ruess in many ways defined the template. A poet, painter and confidant to a leathery set of Western artists in the 1930s, including Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, the 20-year-old Mr. Ruess rode off into the desert of the Southwest in 1934 with two burros and a notebook full of dreams, never to be seen again. Over the next 75 years, the West became tamer, but Mr. Ruess and his legend did not, and the lingering mystery of his disappearance only added to the romantic aura of the time and fueled the periodic search for evidence of his fate.

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A photograph of Everett Ruess by Dorothea Lange, with photographic superimposition of skeletal remains found in southern Utah done by Paul Sandberg of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Now the circle has been closed with a tale that is gritty and grim — and scientifically gee-whiz at the same time.

Human remains were found last year about 60 miles from Escalante in southern Utah by a Navajo man who knew nothing of the Ruess story. The man has been searching for evidence of a killing that his grandfather had witnessed during the Depression. On Thursday, researchers at the University of Colorado connected the dots and said that DNA in the recovered bones matched that of living Ruess relatives. Citing the DNA evidence, as well as a forensic facial reconstruction that was compared with photographs of Mr. Ruess, the researchers concluded that the remains were those of the long-lost artist.

So it was that two family stories of secrets and mysteries became intertwined, and then resolved.

“Navajo oral tradition, the forensic analysis and now the DNA test,” said Dennis Van Gerven, a professor of anthropology at the university. “We can be certain that this is Ruess.”

But the story, pieced together in the April/May issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine and announced Thursday in a conference call, probably still leaves enough loose ends to keep Ruess flame-keepers at work.

The resonant sentences Mr. Ruess wrote in a letter to his family before heading out in November 1934 will probably live on as well. “As to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon, I think,” he wrote, as quoted in the book Sandstone Sunsets: In Search of Everett Ruess, by Mark A. Taylor (Gibbs Smith, 1997).

“I prefer the saddle to the streetcar, the star-sprinkled sky to a roof,” wrote Mr. Ruess, who painted, made woodcuts and filled volumes of notebooks, all while still in his teens.

In their analysis, the Colorado researchers said the preliminary evidence was circumstantial; the bones confirmed that the body was male, Caucasian, 19 to 22 years old, and about 5 feet 8 inches tall — all a match for Mr. Ruess. The jaw and eye sockets were largely intact, and so a facial reconstruction came next. It closely matched photographs of Mr. Ruess taken by Ms. Lange, a photographer probably best known for her images of migrant workers during the Depression.

Finally, DNA extracted from the bones showed a 25 percent match with nephews and nieces of Mr. Ruess, the exact amount that would be expected in that family relationship. The conclusion, said Kenneth Krauter, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Colorado, was “irrefutable.”

How the remains were found at all is an astonishing tale in its own right.

That story begins in the early 1970s, when Aneth Nez broke a 37-year silence to tell his family about being witness to a dark incident in the 1930s. He told them that while sitting on a ridge, he watched three Ute boys chase down and kill a young white man. After the killers took the victim’s two mules, Mr. Nez, out of respect, buried the body, he told his granddaughter, Daisy Johnson, but was too afraid to talk about it.

Last year, Ms. Johnson told the story to her younger brother, Denny Bellson, and together, on May 25, they went to the general area their grandfather had talked about. Mr. Bellson, speaking in the conference call, said he saw a saddle first— probably his grandfather’s, which, in the Navajo tradition, he would have disposed of because it had been contaminated by coming in contact with the blood of the dead. Then, Mr. Bellson said, he saw the bones, jammed down into a rock crevice.

“The skull was in pieces,” he said. But he said he also saw that it was indented, as though caved in, which fit with his grandfather’s tale.

One of Mr. Ruess’s nephews, Brian Ruess, said in a telephone interview that he had grown up with open-ended versions of his uncle’s story, with each family member drawn to speculate. Some wanted to think their uncle had fallen in love with a Navajo girl and intentionally disappeared into the desert. Brian Ruess said he had always imagined his uncle being swept away while crossing the Colorado River.

“But Everett’s story is more important than just his disappearance — his message wasn’t to go disappear,” added Brian Ruess, 44, who works in software sales in Portland, Ore. “I think the message to be found in his life and writing and art — that there’s beauty in the wilderness and beauty in adventure, and go seek adventure, go live your wanderlust.”

And what happened to Everett Ruess’s gear and notebook, and the bulky box camera that was being carried by one of his burros? Much is still unknown.

Was the campsite discovered in 1957 on a high plateau by geologists working on the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River — spoons and cups set on rocks as if someone had just stepped away, set around a fire ring and a box of razor blades from a Los Angeles drug store near the Ruess family home in Los Angeles — evidence of Mr. Ruess’s last night on earth, as some researchers have long believed?

It is a question the National Geographic article does not address. So it may be a piece of someone else’s desert mystery, still waiting to be solved.

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Full article and photos: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/01/us/01ruess.html?hp

Study bolsters hopes for prostate cancer vaccine rejected by FDA

The vaccine, Provenge, extended life an average of four months, nearly twice as long as the best available chemotherapy, researchers say.
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A controversial prostate cancer vaccine that previously had been rejected by the Food and Drug Administration improves survival of patients with the advanced form of the disease more than existing treatments and should be brought to market, researchers said Tuesday.

The therapeutic vaccine, called Provenge, extended average survival by four months compared with a placebo, nearly twice as long as the best available chemotherapy, and increased three-year survival by 38%, researchers said at a Chicago meeting of the American Urological Assn.

“This is going to change the way we treat . . . metastatic prostate cancer,” said Dr. David Penson, a urologist at USC’s Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Any patient who has this form of cancer, this is the drug they are going to want, and it is going to be first-line therapy.”

“This will be much easier for patients than going through chemotherapy because there are no side effects,” added Dr. Stanton Gerson, director of the University Hospitals Ireland Cancer Center in Cleveland. Prostate cancer patients “have never had cell therapy or a vaccine as an option before. Now they will.”

Dr. Jonathan W. Simons, president of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, said in an e-mailed statement, “The results validate 16 years of modern research to harness a patient’s own immune system to fight their prostate cancer.”

Both Penson and Gerson participated in the study, but neither has financial links to Dendreon Corp. of Seattle, which developed Provenge. The foundation provided support for some of the initial research on the vaccine.

As a therapeutic vaccine, Provenge is designed to treat the disease rather than prevent it. Physicians collect specialized immune cells called dendritic cells from the patient’s blood, mix them with proteins collected from the surface of tumor cells and inject them back into the patient in three doses at two-week intervals.

In a previous study released in 2007, Dendreon found that the vaccine increased survival in patients with metastatic disease by 18 weeks compared with patients given a placebo. After three years, 34% of those in the vaccine group survived, compared with 11% of those in the placebo group.

An FDA advisory committee recommended that the vaccine be approved for marketing, but the FDA disagreed, arguing that the study did not provide evidence the vaccine slowed progression of tumors.

The decisions provoked outrage among cancer patients. “Since 2007, I have watched men who could have been helped by Provenge suffer and die from prostate cancer,” Thomas A. Farrington, founder and president of the Prostate Health Education Network, said in a statement. “I urge FDA to move as quickly as possible now to make Provenge available to patients.”

The new double-blind study involved 512 patients with advanced prostate cancer. Two-thirds received Provenge, and the rest received a placebo. Dr. Paul Schellhammer of Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va., said that median survival in the Provenge group was 26 months, compared with 22 months in the placebo group.

That may seem like a short time, experts said, but drugs that provide shorter survival are routinely approved.

“The ability to boost survival for patients is the gold standard end point in prostate cancer clinical trials,” said Dr. Ira D. Sharlip, a urologist at UC San Francisco, a spokesman for the urology association.

The current treatment for such patients is Taxotere, known generically as docetaxel, which extends survival two to three months at most and has often-disabling side effects. Many men refuse to take it, Penson said. He has seen many patients taking it end up in a wheelchair from its side effects, which can include bone and muscle pain, allergic reactions, decreases in white and red blood cells, and neuropathy.

But with Provenge, “they might have a little fever, and the next day they are out playing golf,” Sharlip said.

Dendreon officials said they would reapply to the FDA sometime this year. They have not said how much the therapy might cost. An estimated 186,000 American men develop prostate cancer each year, and about 28,660 die of it.

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Full article: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-sci-prostate29-2009apr29,0,3194232.story

Spider sex violent but effective

A violent but evolutionarily effective mating strategy has been spotted in spiders from Israel.

Males of the aptly-named Harpactea sadistica species pierce the abdomen of females, fertilising their eggs directly in the ovaries.

The so-called traumatic insemination gives the first male to inseminate a reproductive advantage by bypassing structures in the females’ genitalia.

The findings are reported in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Insects including mites and bedbugs have been spotted using a similar strategy, but this is the first time that it has been seen in spiders.

Typically, spider males deliver their genetic package via sperm that is deposited into a small web and manually inserted using a pair of appendages on their undersides known as pedipalps.

The sperm are then held in a receptacle between the ovipore and ovary known as a spermatheca until an egg is released.

However, the spermatheca is a “last in, first out” structure, so that if any further males inseminate a female, the last mate’s sperm is the first in line to fertilise an egg.

Direct route

Milan Rezic, an entomologist at the Crop Research Institute in Prague, has spotted a spider circumventing this problem by delivering sperm directly to the ovaries via holes that the males bore directly in the females’ abdomens.

H sadistica male genitalia (M Rezac)

The male sports a pair of these emboli, optimised for piercing the females

Naming the species H. sadistica , Dr Rezac noted that the species has specialised sex organs at the ends of its pedipalps, with one part specialised for gripping and another, hypodermic needle-like structure for injecting sperm.

Like many spider mating rituals, H. sadistica ‘s approach follows an elaborate pattern, with the male tapping the female, subduing her, and wrapping himself around her to properly position the sex organs.

He then alternates between the two, piercing and injecting the sperm on one side, then the other, forming two neat rows of holes in her abdomen.

An analysis of the females of the species has shown that relative to other spiders, their spermathecae are atrophied, or shrunken.

In an apparent case of co-evolution, they seem to be slowly shrinking into nonexistence now that their purpose is being bypassed by the males’ more direct approach.

“In insects there is a co-evolutionary development of female physiological responses to the male sperm that gives her at least some control of fertilisation,” said William Eberhard, an expert in the mating habits of insects and spiders at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

“Something similar might occur here.”

Dr Rezac suggests equally that a means to avoid the injury caused by the males might drive the evolution of secondary genitalia nearer to the ovaries, which have been seen in some spiders and butterflies.

“The evolution of these features has been heretofore difficult to explain,” he said.

“Perhaps the secondary genital structures of butterflies and spiders could have originated via traumatic insemination.”

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Video:

Violent sex strategy of spiders

The ritual of traumatic insemination plays out.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8024846.stm

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Full article and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8023413.stm

Al-Qaeda ‘agent’ Ali al-Marri in US court plea

 

Ali al-Marri, file image
Mr Marri is said to have met top al-Qaeda leaders and attended camps

 A man accused of being a sleeper agent for al-Qaeda has pleaded guilty in the US to conspiring to provide material support for terrorism.

Ali al-Marri, a dual Saudi-Qatari national, was arrested two months after the attacks of 11 September 2001.

Prosecutors said he had met top al-Qaeda figures, who sent him to the US to help plan further attacks.

He was held for nearly six years as an “enemy combatant” in a military jail, before being charged in a civil court.

US Attorney General Eric Holder said that the case was “a grim reminder of the seriousness of the threat we as a nation still face”.

“But it also reflects what we can achieve when we have faith in our criminal justice system and are unwavering in our commitment to… the rule of law,” he said.

Training camps

Ali al-Marri, a married father of five, admitted the charge as part of a plea deal.

Prosecutors said he made contact with top al-Qaeda leaders in 1998 and then went on to attend training camps in Pakistan.

He entered the US on 10 September 2001 on a student visa.

While studying, he carried out research into poisons and the location of US dams, waterways and tunnels, prosecutors said.

He was arrested in December 2001 and charged with credit card fraud.

In 2003 the Bush administration labelled him an “enemy combatant” and held him in a military base in South Carolina.

In December 2008 the Supreme Court agreed to review the legality of his detention.

But two months later, after President Barack Obama took office, he was formally charged by a federal court with supporting a foreign terror group.

A second charge against him was dropped as part of the plea deal.

He faces up to 15 years imprisonment and will be sentenced on 30 June.

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Full article and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8028157.stm

Canada and Ontario to lend Chrysler $3.8-billion

Federal and Ontario governments secure 2% stake; car maker agrees to maintain 20% of output in Canada.

Canadian governments are providing a $3.8-billion lifeline to Chrysler LLC, one they say is crucial to securing a future for the auto sector in Canada.

The loans are part of a $15-billion (U.S.) bailout package announced on Thursday by the Obama administration in Washington and the federal and Ontario governments on this side of the border.

In return for the $3.8-billion (Canadian) in assistance here, the federal and Ontario governments will receive 2 per cent of the equity in Chrysler, one seat on its nine-member board and a pledge from the company to maintain at least 20 per cent of North American auto production in Canada.

The announcements came as Chrysler sought Chapter 11 protection in the United States from creditors Thursday and formed a new partnership with Italy’s Fiat SpA.

Mr. Harper said on Thursday that Canada had no choice but to participate in the restructuring once the former Bush administration in the United States got involved late last year. He and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty concluded that the only realistic option was to have Canada participate as well in the restructuring, he said.

“Otherwise, through a politically directed restructuring in the United States, we would stand a serious risk of the complete restructuring of the industry outside of this country,” he said at a news conference in Toronto.

Mr. Harper stressed that the loans from Ottawa and Ontario come with strings attached, including a requirement that Chrysler produce 20 per cent of the cars it makes in North America in Canada. If it falls below that threshold, both in auto production and investment, the company will be in default on the loans and the federal and Ontario governments can demand repayment.

“Let not anyone suggest that the money we are giving today is a gift,” Mr. Harper said. “We have insisted that the very difficult decisions that are necessary to ensure the viability of this company have been made.”

But the governments did not extract commitments from Chrysler on job quotas in Canada and Mr. Harper acknowledged that a smaller company will emerge out of the restructuring.

“Let’s be clear,” he said. “We’re choosing between a smaller company or if we had stayed out of this, simply allowing the collapse of the company.”

Premier Dalton McGuinty, who was at Mr. Harper’s side during the news conference, said Ontario is the No. 1 auto producer in North America and a collapse of Chrysler would have rippled through the economy.

“The auto sector exercises such a powerful and disproportionate influence on our economy,” he said.

Canadian Auto Workers president Ken Lewenza said maintaining the 20 per cent threshold was a crucial issue for the union. “From our perspective that was a deal breaker.”

Mr. Lewenza endorsed the proposed partnership between Chrysler and Fiat. He referred to his face-to-face meeting this week with Mr. Sergio Marchionne, Fiat’s CEO. “He is a talented, fair person, and I look forward to working with him. Canada has been very good to Chrysler over the years, and we will be very good to Fiat, too,” he said.

Mr. Lewenza commended the Canadian and Ontario governments for their efforts to safeguard Chrysler’s presence here. “By participating in the restructuring, and confirming Chrysler’s continuing footprint here, our governments are helping to ensure that Canadians capture a fair share of the benefits once the company turns around in the future.”

He said he expects Canadian Chrysler plants will be shut for most of the duration of the Chapter 11 proceedings, once they run out of parts.

“Our plants will run for as long as the supply base allows them to,” he said. “Once the supply chain exhausts its inventory, we will be down.” But it won’t take long to use up available parts, he said, because of the just-in-time inventory system.

Chrysler will have up to eight years to repay the Canadian loans, which will carry an interest rate of at least 7 per cent.

Ottawa is providing two-thirds of the funding, and Ontario the remaining one-third. The loans will be provided in three separate tranches:

– Interim loans of $1.21-billion, including $1-billion that has already been committed;

– A $1.45-billion contribution to the debtor-in-possession financing in the United States;

– A restructuring loan in the amount of $1.16-billion.

There are no plans for Chrysler Canada to seek bankruptcy protection in this country.

In comments Thursday, Mr. Lewenza also stressed the need to develop a broader national auto strategy to reinforce the industry’s underlying fundamentals in the future.

“It’s essential to help the industry survive the side-effects of the global financial crisis,” he said. “But we also need a long-term vision to build this industry well into the future, one that addresses key challenges like infrastructure, the environment, and trade imbalances.”

Mr. Lewenza called on the federal government to recommit to the work of the Canadian Automotive Partnership Council, the multi-stakeholder body which has been developing a long-run industrial policy for the automotive sector.

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Full article: http://business.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090430.wchryslercanada0430/BNStory/Business/home

Gettelfinger Motors

The mauling of GM’s bondholders reveals Treasury’s political hand.

President Obama insisted at his press conference last night that he doesn’t want to nationalize the auto industry (or the banks, or the mortgage market, or . . .). But if that’s true, why has he proposed a restructuring plan for General Motors that leaves the government with a majority stake in the car maker?

[Review & Outlook]

Ron Gettelfinger.

The feds have decided they should own a neat 50% of GM, yet that is not the natural outcome of the $16.2 billion that the Treasury has so far lent to the company. Nor is the 40% ownership of GM that the plan awards to the United Auto Workers a natural result of the company’s obligations to the union.

Yet Secretary Timothy Geithner and his auto task force, led by Steven Rattner, have somehow decided that Treasury and UAW chief Ron Gettelfinger will get to own a combined 90% of GM. If there’s a reason other than the political symbiosis among the Obama Administration, Michigan Democrats and the auto union, it’s hard to discern. From now on let’s call it Gettelfinger Motors, or perhaps simply the Obama Motor Company, though in the latter they’d have to change the nameplates.

The biggest losers here are GM’s bondholders. According the Treasury-GM debt-for-equity swap announced Monday, GM has $27.2 billion in unsecured bonds owned by the public. These are owned by mutual funds, pension funds, hedge funds and retail investors who bought them directly through their brokers. Under Monday’s offer, they would exchange their $27.2 billion in bonds for 10% of the stock of the restructured GM. This could amount to less than five cents on the dollar.

The Treasury, which is owed $16.2 billion, would receive 50% of the stock and $8.1 billion in debt — as much as 87 cents on the dollar. The union’s retiree health-care benefit trust would receive half of the $20 billion it is owed in stock, giving it 40% ownership of GM, plus another $10 billion in cash over time. That’s worth about 76 cents on the dollar, according to some estimates.

In a genuine Chapter 11 bankruptcy, these three groups of creditors would all be similarly situated — because all three are, for the most part, unsecured creditors of GM. And yet according to the formula presented Monday, those with the largest claim — the bondholders — get the smallest piece of the restructured company by a huge margin.

This seems to be by political design. GM CEO Fritz Henderson says Treasury insisted that bondholders receive, at most, 10% of the company. “We went to the maximum and offered 10%,” Mr. Henderson said. Mr. Rattner’s office did not return our calls, so we can’t say why Mr. Rattner wanted private risk capital cut out of the ownership of the new GM, but no one has contradicted Mr. Henderson.

Some Treasury officials have told the media that 50% government ownership is important to ensure that taxpayers get repaid for the $16.2 billion in Treasury loans. But this is false logic. Taxpayer-shareholders are likely to be far better off with a smaller stake in a truly private company that is better insulated from political meddling. Private owners are more likely than the Treasury or the unions to try to run the company for profit, and so increase its equity value over time. Treasury says it would be a hands-off owner, but that hardly seems plausible and in any case that would merely leave the UAW in control. At the next labor contract bargaining session, the union would sit on both sides of the table.

GM, the government and the bondholders all insist that a bankruptcy filing would be a disaster. GM’s SEC filing on the debt-equity swap also warns darkly that if the requisite 90% of bondholders don’t agree to these terms, they may recover little or nothing in bankruptcy court. But given the choice between a 10% stake in Gettelfinger Motors and the independent mercies of a bankruptcy judge, bondholders could be forgiven for taking their chances in court.

Certainly the bondholders deserve to take a haircut like everybody else. But squeezing them in such a blatant fashion has other consequences. Who would be crazy enough to lend GM money in the future? The Treasury also says it wants banks that do poorly in its “stress tests” to try to raise private capital before putting in more public money. The mauling of GM creditors tells investors not to invest in TARP banks because everything this Treasury touches turns to politics.

Monday’s offer is so devoid of economic logic or fairness that it confirms the fears of those who said the original bailout would lead to a nationalized GM run for political ends. This fiasco will in part go down on George W. Bush’s copybook, since he first decided GM was too big to fail.

But rather than use his early popularity to force hard decisions through the bankruptcy code, President Obama has decided in essence to have the feds run GM and Chrysler. This inevitably means running them for the benefit of the UAW that is so closely tied to the Democratic Party. Next up will be tax changes and regulations intended to coax, or coerce, Americans to buy Gettelfinger Motors cars. This tale of taxpayer woe is only beginning.

Opinion, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124105303238271343.html

100 Days: ‘Harry, I Have a Gift’

If opinion polls were real life, Barack Obama would be walking with the immortals. In polls taken as he headed to his 100th day, his numbers are high and heavenly, cruising on issue after issue at 70-plus percent.

One number in last weekend’s Washington Post/ABC poll, however, stands out. On whether he is “willing to listen to different points of view,” Mr. Obama elevates into hyperspace, hitting 90%. Just behind is “he understands the problems of people like you,” at 73%.

An argument made repeatedly during the campaign by converts to the Obama movement was that this guy simply “gets it.” If one pressed the argument deeper into the soil of, say, the high costs of green energy or of federalized health insurance, it seemed the details were beside the point. The remarkable ability to put people around him at ease with the feeling that he “gets it” has brought Mr. Obama to this place and into the high ethers of public approval. Even a doubter can marvel.

Permit a doubter, though, to offer a cautionary tale.

Early in the campaign, in January 2007, a New York Times reporter wrote a story about Mr. Obama’s time as president of the Harvard Law Review. It was there, the reporter noted, “he first became a political sensation.”

Here’s why: “Mr. Obama cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once.” Also: “People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Mr. Obama’s words.”

Harvard Law Prof. Charles Ogletree told how Mr. Obama spoke on one contentious issue at the law school, and each side thought he was endorsing their view. Mr. Ogletree said: “Everyone was nodding, Oh, he agrees with me.”

The reason I have never forgotten this article is its last sentence, in which Al Gore’s former chief of staff Ron Klain, also of Harvard Law, reflects on the Obama sensation: “The interesting caveat is that is a style of leadership more effective running a law review than running a country.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in a book out next week, tells of congratulating freshman Sen. Obama on a phenomenal speech. Without a hint of conceit, Mr. Obama replied, “Harry, I have a gift.”

He does. We know from tradition, though, that when the gods bestow magic on mortals, the gift can also imperil its possessor. The first hint of potential peril in Mr. Obama’s gift arrived last week with the confusion over where the president stood on the terrorist interrogation memos and prosecution of former Bush officials. Here, as 19 years ago, many on both sides of a contentious issue who heard him speak thought Mr. Obama agreed with them.

First, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Sunday morning there would be no prosecutions of the authors of the Bush interrogation memos. He said this emerged from the president’s decision-making process.

Then on Tuesday, Mr. Obama seemingly reversed Mr. Emanuel (as happened earlier to Larry Summers on bonuses) by saying the prosecution decision belonged to Attorney General Eric Holder. Now it may be true, as many concluded, that Mr. Obama decided to tack left to appease the anti-Bush obsessives, who screamed after the Emanuel remark. Most interesting, though, was an account in this paper of the White House’s efforts, “as aides struggled to gain control of the message.”

According to the Journal, “Aides said that Mr. Obama’s seemingly contradictory remarks were misinterpreted, and that the president’s view had been conveyed poorly.” Misinterpreted? Let’s look at what he said.

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The President’s Response

Q: I appreciate it. I want to ask you about the interrogation memos that you released last week; two questions. You were clear about not wanting to prosecute those who carried out the instructions under this legal advice. Can you be that clear about those who devised the policy? And then quickly on a second matter, how do you feel about investigations, whether special — a special commission or something of that nature on the Hill to go back and really look at the issue?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, the — look, as I said before, this has been a difficult chapter in our history, and one of the tougher decisions that I’ve had to make as President. On the one hand, we have very real enemies out there. And we rely on some very courageous people, not just in our military but also in the Central Intelligence Agency, to help protect the American people. And they have to make some very difficult decisions because, as I mentioned yesterday, they are confronted with an enemy that doesn’t have scruples, that isn’t constrained by constitutions, aren’t constrained by legal niceties.

Having said that, the OLC memos that were released reflected, in my view, us losing our moral bearings. That’s why I’ve discontinued those enhanced interrogation programs.

For those who carried out some of these operations within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance that had been provided from the White House, I do not think it’s appropriate for them to be prosecuted.

With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the Attorney General within the parameters of various laws, and I don’t want to prejudge that. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there.

As a general deal, I think that we should be looking forward and not backwards. I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively, and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations.

And so if and when there needs to be a further accounting of what took place during this period, I think for Congress to examine ways that it can be done in a bipartisan fashion, outside of the typical hearing process that can sometimes break down and break it entirely along party lines, to the extent that there are independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility, that would probably be a more sensible approach to take.

I’m not suggesting that that should be done, but I’m saying, if you’ve got a choice, I think it’s very important for the American people to feel as if this is not being dealt with to provide one side or another political advantage but rather is being done in order to learn some lessons so that we move forward in an effective way.

And the last point I just want to emphasize, as I said yesterday at the CIA when I visited, what makes America special in my view is not just our wealth and the dynamism of our economy and our extraordinary history and diversity. It’s that we are willing to uphold our ideals even when they’re hard. And sometimes we make mistakes because that’s the nature of human enterprise. But when we do make mistakes, then we are willing to go back and correct those mistakes and keep our eye on those ideals and values that have been passed on generation to generation.

And that is what has to continue to guide us as we move forward. And I’m confident that we will be able to move forward, protect the American people effectively, and live up to our values and ideals. And that’s not a matter of being naive about how dangerous this world is. As I said yesterday to some of the CIA officials that I met with, I wake up every day thinking about how to keep the American people safe. And I go to bed every night worrying about keeping the American people safe.

I’ve got a lot of other things on my plate. I’ve got a big banking crisis, and I’ve got unemployment numbers that are very high, and we’ve got an auto industry that needs work. There are a whole things — range of things that during the day occupy me, but the thing that I consider my most profound obligation is keeping the American people safe.

So I do not take these things lightly, and I am not in any way under illusion about how difficult the task is for those people who are on the front lines every day protecting the American people.

So I wanted to communicate a message yesterday to all those who overwhelmingly do so in a lawful, dedicated fashion that I have their back.

All right? Thank you, everybody.

Source: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-President-Obama-and-King-Abdullah-of-Jordan-in-joint-press-availability/

Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124105109915171147.html

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What follows is the Holder-will-decide part of the answer. By my reading, the first half of it is what the left wanted, and the second half is what conservatives believe. Even inside each side’s half, one finds caveats and self-protective hedges:

“With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the Attorney General within the parameters of various laws, and I don’t want to prejudge that. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there.

“As a general deal, I think that we should be looking forward and not backwards. I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively, and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations.”

The new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll suggests the public did its own translation: 61% oppose the prosecutions.

The Gift has been good for Mr. Obama. But in a still-dangerous world, in which one’s listeners now have names like Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, Putin, Hu Jintao, Netanyahu, Sarkozy and Merkel, the costs for the rest of us of being “misinterpreted” for a compulsive lack of clarity could be high.

As back in January 2007, the key question remains: Is this Hamlet-like style of leadership suited for conducting the presidency of the United States? More bluntly, is it leadership?

As he heads towards the next 1,300 days, Mr. Obama might consider trying a different gift that served an earlier Democratic president, Harry Truman, quite well once in office: Plain speaking.

Daniel Henniger, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124105013014171063.html

Young Saudi girl’s marriage ended

Saudi Arabian women in Riyadh (March 2009)
Saudi Arabia is ruled under an austere and patriarchal form of Sunni Islam

Media reports say an arranged marriage between a Saudi girl aged eight and a man in his 50s has been annulled, in a case attracting worldwide criticism.

The Saudi Gazette says the divorce was agreed in an out-of-court settlement after a judge rejected two attempts to grant the girl a divorce.

The case prompted Saudi officials to say it would start regulating the marriages of young girls.

Rights groups say some Saudi families marry off young daughters for money.

The judge who first heard the case in the town of Unaiza refused to end the marriage at the request of the girl’s mother , but he stipulated the groom could not have sex with the girl until she reached puberty.

The girl’s father is said to have married her off against her mother’s wishes to a close friend in order that he could pay off a debt.

A new judge was appointed to oversee the case, who issued the annulment after the husband finally gave up his insistence that the marriage had been legal, reports say.

Saudi Arabia implements an austere form of Sunni Islam that bans free association between the sexes and gives fathers the right to wed their children to whomever they deem fit.

Saudi commentators pointed out that the marriage took place in the central province of Qaseem – the heartland of Saudi Islamic fundamentalism.

Earlier this year, the country’s highest religious authority, the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Shaikh, said it was not against Islamic law to marry off girls who are 15 and younger.

On 15 April, after this case generated considerable negative publicity, Justice Minister Muhammad Issa said he wanted to put an end to the “arbitrary” way in which parents and guardians could marry off their young daughters.

However, he he did not say that the practice would be banned.

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Full article  and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8026545.stm

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Child marriage case in Onaiza ends in divorce

The arranged marriage of an 8-year-old girl to a 50-year-old man, who has two other wives, has been annulled in an out-of-court settlement, court sources said Wednesday.
The settlement, mediated by a new judge at the court, was not without lengthy negotiations between the girl’s lawyer and the husband who clung on to the legality of the marriage until the end of the working day, when he finally agreed to divorce the child wife.

The parties involved were tight-lipped about the settlement. The lawyer, who was hired by the girl’s mother, was not allowed to talk about the settlement to the media until an official announcement of the divorce.
The previous judge in the case, Sheikh Habib Al-Habib, had first refused to annul the marriage last year. But he later said he would reconsider the case upon the girl’s appeal on reaching the age of puberty or upon her mother’s appeal.

Earlier this month, Sheikh Al-Habib ruled for the second time that the girl’s marriage to a friend of her father’s was legal and binding. The father is said to have married off his girl to his close friend to pay off a debt.
The divorce settlement will hence annul Sheikh Al-Habib’s verdict on the case that is being reviewed by the Court of Cassations.

The case has attracted the attention of human rights bodies and the media.

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Full article: http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentID=2009043036561

Posted in Law

Study: Africans More Genetically Diverse Than Rest of World

Research Raises Questions About Accuracy of Ancestral Tracing for African Americans

Africans are more diverse genetically than the inhabitants of the rest of the world combined, according to a sweeping study that carried researchers into remote valleys and mountaintops to sample the bloodlines of more than 100 distinct populations.

The report, published today in the journal Science Express, suggests that, because of historical migrations and genetic mixing across the continent, it will be hard for African Americans to trace their ancestry in fine detail. African American genealogies are increasingly popular and commercialized, but the authors of the new study cast doubt on how precise such searches can be given the complexity of the genetic makeup of Africans.

“It may be very challenging to trace back ancestry to particular tribes or ethnic groups,” said Sarah Tishkoff, a University of Pennsylvania geneticist who led the international research team.

The first anatomically modern human beings originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, and all human beings today are their direct descendants. The study points to an area along the Namibian-South African border, the homeland of the San people, as the starting point for a southwest-to-northeast migratory route through Africa and exiting the continent at about the midpoint of the Red Sea.

By offering a richer data-base than had previously been available for African genetic diversity, the new findings will help doctors and medical researchers tailor drug treatments for different groups of Africans rather than treating them as a homogenous population.

“I think this is an absolute landmark. It’s incredible,” said Alison Brooks, a professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University, who read the report and then plowed through more than 100 pages of supplemental material. “It’s the most comprehensive document ever published describing the very complex issue of African genetic variation.”

She added, “There’s been so much genetic analysis that’s been so Eurocentric.”

The report culminates nearly a decade of research by scientists in the United States, Europe and Africa, led by Tishkoff, who until last year was a professor at the University of Maryland. Tishkoff’s paper acknowledges the cooperation of indigenous people in Africa, many in remote places reachable only with long journeys through rugged terrain in 4-wheel drive vehicles.

“Some people had never seen a fair skinned person before,” Tishkoff said. “Many of these groups have been studied by linguists and anthropologists, and we’ve known nothing about their genetic history. Until now.”

She had to haul centrifuges, for processing blood samples, into villages without electricity, often running her devices by connecting them to her car battery. The biggest risk, she said, was automobile accidents (at one point her ’85 Land Rover collided on a mountain road with a descending bus, but no one was hurt).

One of her collaborators, Muntaser Ibrahim of the University of Khartoum, said that indigenous people were eager to help the research. “They would like to know about their past as much as everybody else,” he said. “The notion that people in remote areas are not interested in genetics is not true.”

Although the study’s main focus was on Africa, it also provides a glimpse of the complex heritage of African Americans. Tishkoff and her colleagues looked at 98 African Americans from four locations — North Carolina, Baltimore, Chicago and Pittsburgh. The researchers determined that, on average, they showed a 71 percent genetic background in the linguistic group Niger-Kordofanian, 13 percent European ancestry, 8 percent from other African regions and a smattering of genetic markers from around the globe.

But the percentages vary widely from individual to individual. In a conference call with reporters, Tishkoff said the 13 percent figure for European genetic markers may be a slight underestimate; other studies have found numbers closer to 20 percent.

Her findings provide a kind of caveat to the increasingly popular, and commercialized search for the ancestry of African Americans. A specific genetic marker might be found among disparate ethnic groups, hinting of many ancient migrations, invasions and ethnic mixing. And where one ethnic group lives today may not be where it lived thousands of years ago.

The situation is made rather more confusing, however, by the different techniques used for tracing ancestry. Tishkoff studied very short snippets of nuclear DNA; some commercial research companies use mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA. These latter techniques offer a kind of thread into the past to a single ancestor, rather than the broader contingent of ancestors.

“There is no relevance to what we do at African Ancestry,” said African Ancestry’s scientific director, Rick Kittles. “We do not use nuclear markers like Sarah did in this study. In fact we found out years ago that these types of markers will not be that informative for tracing ancestry of African Americans given their mixed African ancestry.”

Brooks said the report will help resolve academic debates among archeologists and linguists, while giving new texture to African history. The research makes all the more vivid the differences among the continent’s many ethnic groups, which include the Hadzu, the San, the Dinka, the Mbuti, the Nuer, the Fulani, the Beja, the Tuareg, and hundreds of other populations. The Tishkoff team looked at a total of 121 African population groups from about 2,000 such groups on the continent.

Said Brooks, “The study shows that single sources of data, whether from archaeology, oral history, genetics, or linguistic similarity are not sufficient to understand the complex history of an African region — one can be transmitted without the others, and each has a different story to tell about the past.”

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/30/AR2009043002485.html?hpid=topnews

Foot-in-Mouth Disease

The vice president isn’t helping calm an anxious public

PRESIDENT OBAMA sought to assure a nervous nation Wednesday night that the H1N1 virus, the new strain of swine flu racing around the world, is “cause for deep concern, but not panic.” His calming words were trampled the next morning by Vice President Biden.

In an interview on NBC’s “Today Show,” Matt Lauer asked Mr. Biden, “If a member of your family came to you . . . and said, ‘Look, I want to go on a commercial airliner to Mexico, and back within the next week,’ would you think it’s a good idea?” The vice president replied, “I would tell members of my family — and I have — I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now. . . . It’s not that it’s going to Mexico. It’s [that] you’re in a confined aircraft. When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft. That’s me.” He added, “So, from my perspective, what it relates to is mitigation. If you’re out in the middle of a field when someone sneezes, that’s one thing. If you’re in a closed aircraft or closed container or closed car or closed classroom, it’s a different thing.”

No doubt America’s airlines are at the front of the line of those eager to send the vice president back to his work on high-speed rail service or nuclear nonproliferation, or whatever he does when not issuing misguided public health advice. How misguided could be measured by the speed with which the White House issued a clarification. The common-sense course of action was reiterated by Mr. Obama at his news conference. Cover your cough or sneeze. Wash your hands frequently. And if you or your child are sick, stay home. Mr. Biden’s imprudent words could be taken as a green light for everyone to abandon the Metro, pull children out of school or not travel.

For reasons still unknown, the United States is not yet being affected as severely as Mexico. There have been more than 150 H1N1-related deaths there. Symptoms have been diagnosed in more than 2,500 people, and more than 1,300 of those have been hospitalized. The constantly changing numbers in the United States stand at 115 cases in 15 states, with one death in Texas, of a child who had traveled from Mexico to visit family. There are six possible cases in Maryland and one in the District.

Richard E. Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control, offered a useful reminder when he said that the flu is an annual occurrence. “We see it every season, every winter,” he said. “Unfortunately, I do expect to see more deaths.” But adding much-needed context, Dr. Besser pointed out there are “on average, 36,000 deaths from seasonal flu.” The advice we offered on Monday and that most Obama administration officials have correctly insisted still stands: Don’t panic.

Editorial, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/30/AR2009043002660.html?hpid=opinionsbox1

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Oh no, Joe! Biden backs off flu comment

Joe Biden said Thursday he advised his family to stay off airplanes and subways because of the swine flu, a remark that forced the vice president’s office to backtrack, the travel industry to cry foul and other government officials to try to massage Biden’s message.

“I would tell members of my family — and I have — that I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now,” Biden said on NBC’s “Today” show.

Biden, who has a reputation for off-the-cuff remarks, went beyond any precautions recommended by the federal government. In discussing his personal advice to his family, he said simply, “That’s me.”

Within two hours, Biden’s office issued a statement backing off the remarks and suggesting he was talking about travel to Mexico.

“On the ‘Today Show’ this morning, the vice president was asked what he would tell a family member who was considering air travel to Mexico this week,” said spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander. “The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico. If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways.”

Biden, who has three grown children and five grandchildren, was asked whether he would advise his own family against flying to Mexico on a commercial flight.

“It’s not just going to Mexico, if you’re in a confined aircraft and one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft,” Biden said on NBC. “That’s me. I would not be at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding nonessential travel to Mexico. But it isn’t recommending that people avoid other travel because of the swine flu.

The airline and travel industries were quick to criticize Biden’s remarks.

James May, president of the Air Transport Association, which represents airlines, sent Biden a letter expressing “extreme disappointment at your suggestion that people should avoid air travel.”

American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith declined to comment directly on the vice president’s remarks, but said, “To suggest that people not fly at this stage of things is a broad brush stroke bordering on fear mongering.”

U.S. Travel Association President Roger Dow urged the public to “heed the advice of medical experts” and gently chided the vice president without specifically mentioning him.

“Elected officials must strike a delicate balance of accurately and adequately informing citizens of health concerns without unduly discouraging travel and other important economic activity,” Dow said in a statement.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano offered to rewrite Biden’s words for him: “I think the vice president … if he could say that over again, he would say if they’re feeling sick, they should stay off of public transit or confined spaces because that is indeed the advice that we’re giving,” she said on MSNBC.

On Radio Iowa this morning, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was less forgiving, calling it “a very unfortunate statement by the vice president.”

During his decades as Delaware senator, Biden was a regular on Amtrak, riding the train from Wilmington to Washington.

Asked on NBC’s “Today” show whether the U.S. government should close the border with Mexico, Biden said health authorities advise that would be impractical and noted the new flu is already in the U.S. and several other nations.

Instead, Biden said, the focus should be on slowing the spread of the virus through groups of people in close quarters, such as airplanes, malls, stadiums and classrooms.

“Closing the classroom and closing the border are two fundamentally different things,” he said.

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Full article: http://www.suntimes.com/news/politics/obama/1552254,w-biden-swine-flu-planes-subways-obama-043009.article

The Berlusconisation of Italy

The Italian prime minister seems more strongly entrenched than ever

IF ANYBODY is having a good recession, it is the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Italy is certainly suffering: the IMF expects GDP to fall by 4.4% this year, a bigger drop than in Britain, France or Spain. But Mr Berlusconi remains significantly more popular than most other European leaders. His approval rating this month, measured by IPR Marketing for La Repubblica’s website, actually rose to 56%.

Part of the explanation is that, after more than a decade of underperformance relative to the European Union, Italians are used to economic distress. And since their banks were less enterprising (or reckless) than those in America and Britain, none has collapsed so far, sparing Mr Berlusconi the politically lethal fallout from using taxpayers’ money to save the hides of rich financiers. Yet his approval rating had been slipping—until the earthquake that hit L’Aquila on April 6th.

Mr Berlusconi’s response to the earthquake seems to explain the latest uptick. He spent almost a week in the disaster zone and even offered to accommodate some survivors in his own homes. On April 23rd he went a daring step further, saying he would switch the venue of the G8 rich-country summit in July to L’Aquila, partly so as to divert funds towards the city’s reconstruction. On the same day he announced a seemingly generous €8 billion ($10 billion) in aid for the earthquake zone (it has since emerged that this will be spread over no less than 22 years).

Mr Berlusconi’s response to the earthquake highlights another factor that his supporters claim explains his poll ratings. As one minister puts it, “this is the first government since the second world war to give Italians decisive leadership of a kind that is entirely normal in Europe.” That contrasts with his previous period in power in 2001-06, when he had to deal with repeated internal revolts. Many were caused by the centrist Union of Christian Democrats, which split from the centre-right coalition before the April 2008 election that returned the right to power.

Mr Berlusconi’s present government is far more homogenous. In March its two biggest components—his own Forza Italia and the National Alliance, which grew out of the neo-fascist movement—united in a single entity, the People of Freedom. Of the two other coalition parties, only the Northern League has the parliamentary clout to bring the government down.

To Mr Berlusconi’s critics, the explanation of his popularity is quite different. It is that he is reaping the benefit of a long-term influence on the views of his compatriots that no contemporary politician can rival. Every Italian under 30 has grown to political maturity in a country where Mr Berlusconi and his family control half the television output, one of four national newspapers, one of two news magazines and the biggest publishing house.

His hold on the media has changed attitudes and even the meaning of words. When he entered politics in 1994, few gave credence to his claim to be a victim of conniving communist judges; now it is widely believed. Fifteen years ago, an azzurro represented Italy in international sporting competitions and a moderato was a centrist. Today, an azzurro is somebody who represents Mr Berlusconi in parliament; a moderato anybody who votes for him.

The subtle Berlusconisation of Italy may help to explain a trend that has swept the country in the past 12 months. It is not only that the opposition has divided and the unions are split. It is that a conviction has gripped much of society that the prime minister will stay in power indefinitely. “I have to say that I see no alternative to Silvio Berlusconi,” declared Gabriele Muccino, a film director and one of several intellectuals and artists who have recently voiced similar opinions. This is ironic in a country whose politicians spent 15 years working towards a two-party system. It augurs ill for future economic reforms, in which Mr Berlusconi has shown little interest. And it is also troubling in any democracy, especially when seen in the context of the prime minister’s own words and actions.

His new party is as undemocratic in its form as Forza Italia was. He was acclaimed, not elected, leader at a founding congress last month that empowered him to appoint the executive. Mr Berlusconi routinely denigrates the judiciary and, since returning to power, has become increasingly dismissive of the legislature as well. His government’s use of procedural devices to cut short parliamentary debate has even been criticised by his ally, Gianfranco Fini, former leader of the National Alliance and now speaker of the lower-house Chamber of Deputies. Mr Berlusconi has sought to justify this by arguing that the myriad checks and balances in the system make Italy ungovernable. But, as President Giorgio Napolitano retorted recently, such views pointed to “authoritarian solutions”. After all, the system was put in place precisely to prevent the return of a dictator like Benito Mussolini.

Few believe that there is a serious risk of reverting to those dark days. But several recent books have highlighted the extent of Mr Berlusconi’s ascendancy and asked questions about how he intends to exploit it. Massimo Giannini, author of one, argues that his aim is “not a dictatorship in the classic sense, but…a modern form of post-ideological ‘totalitarianism’”.

The most powerful reason to worry comes in Mr Berlusconi’s own words. At his new party’s inaugural congress, he reminded the 6,000 or so delegates that “sovereignty belongs to the people”. But he also claimed that his was “the only party that defines the identity of our people”. In fact, he said, “we have to be a people even more than a party”. That smacks of pure populism.

Mr Berlusconi’s supporters dismiss all such misgivings, insisting that his sole long-term objective is the presidency (albeit, perhaps, after a constitutional reform to make it more powerful). On April 25th, the day when Italians mark the 1945 Allied liberation, the prime minister offered support for the view that he aspires to lead the nation, not just the right. He took part for the first time in the celebrations. Later he withdrew a controversial bill that would have given honours and pensions to Mussolini’s diehard militia.

But Mr Berlusconi also took the opportunity to suggest that the name of the holiday should be changed. It should not be the day of liberation but of freedom. As in, for example, the People of Freedom?

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/world/europe/displayStory.cfm?story_id=13576329&source=hptextfeature

Bringing Efficiency to the Infrastructure

road-map

ROAD MAP At an I.B.M. lab in Hawthorne, N.Y., Jay Murdock demonstrates a traffic-management system similar to those used in Stockholm, Amsterdam and Singapore.

IN the mid-1990s, the Internet took off because its technological time had come. Years of steady progress in developing more powerful and less expensive computers, Web software and faster communications links finally came together.

A similar pattern is emerging today, experts say, for what is being called smart infrastructure — more efficient and environmentally friendlier systems for managing, among other things, commuter traffic, food distribution, electric grids and waterways. This time, the crucial technological ingredients include low-cost sensors and clever software for analytics and visualization, as well as computing firepower.

Wireless sensors can now collect and transmit information from almost any object — for instance, roads, food crates, utility lines and water pipes. And the improved software helps interpret the huge flow of information, so raw data becomes useful knowledge to monitor and optimize transport and other complex systems. The efficiency payoff, experts say, should translate into big reductions in energy used, greenhouse gases emitted and natural resources consumed.

Smart infrastructure is a new horizon for computer technology. Computers have proven themselves powerful tools for calculation and communication. The next step, experts say, is for computers to become intelligent instruments of control, linking them to data-generating sensors throughout the planet’s infrastructure. “We are entering a new phase of computing, in which computers will be interacting with the physical world as never before,” said Edward Lazowska, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington.

Computer-enhanced infrastructure promises to be a lucrative market. And the outlook has seemingly improved in the economic downturn, as governments around the world embrace stimulus spending that relies heavily on public works projects, both high-tech and low.

A handful of big technology corporations, including I.B.M., Cisco and General Electric, have major initiatives under way — I.B.M. has even branded its campaign, “Smarter Planet.” Yet many other companies, both large and small, are also pursuing opportunities.

Just how large the market will be and how quickly it will develop remain uncertain. The early smart-infrastructure ventures often seem like applied science projects, encouraging but small scale. It is not clear whether they will work outside the laboratory, where they must turn a profit or justify higher taxes or user fees. Much of the early Internet investment, after all, came to grief.

The smart infrastructure wave, analysts warn, could bring a similar cycle of enthusiasm and disappointment. Yet, like the Internet, they say, the technology will prevail in the long run.

“There will be a lot of hype and a lot of things that don’t pan out,” said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. “But the direction is absolutely right. We’ve barely scratched the surface of how information technology can help control and conserve energy use.”

I.B.M., with its large research labs and technology services business, has the most experience in the widest range of digital infrastructure projects. Many of its most advanced projects are in Europe, where energy costs are higher than in the United States. But while Europe remains a few years ahead, there is growing interest and investment in America, said Sharon Nunes, a scientist who heads I.B.M.’s environmental innovations group.

membranes

LAB TIME Sharon Nunes, right, who heads I.B.M.’s environmental innovation group, watches Young-Hye Na demonstrate a project that makes inexpensive membranes for desalinization.

In the utility sector, I.B.M. has “smart grid” programs under way with several governments and companies, using sensors, software and computerized household meters to maintain power lines and reduce energy consumption. A Department of Energy demonstration project in Washington State, using I.B.M. technology, concluded that peak loads on utility grids could be trimmed by 15 percent. Nationally, such a reduction over a 20-year period would eliminate the need for the equivalent of 30 large coal-fired plants.

In the field of distribution, I.B.M. is working with food producers and retailers to begin reducing the $48 billion of food that is thrown away in the United States each year. In Norway, it has a project with the nation’s largest food supplier that uses radio frequency identification, or RFID, tags and tracking software over the Internet to optimize shipments from the farm to supermarket shelves, reducing spoilage.

In China, I.B.M. worked with the China Ocean Shipping Company, a big international shipper, using optimization and simulation models to consolidate 100 distribution centers into 40. The re-engineering of its distribution network cut the Chinese company’s operating costs by 23 percent and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 15 percent, I.B.M. said.

In water management, I.B.M. is collaborating with the Nature Conservancy on its Water for Tomorrow project, which is monitoring and creating computer modeling for large river basins in Brazil, China and the United States, to help guide land use and water policies.

The company used its computer chip factory in Burlington, Vt., as a test bed for improving the efficiency of industrial water use. Using sensors to calibrate water flows and temperatures, analytics software and optimizing models, I.B.M. reduced its water consumption at the plant by 27 percent, or 20 million gallons a year, even as manufacturing output increased 30 percent.

The plant saves $3 million a year, partly from reduced costs for water and treatment, I.B.M. said, and energy savings — less pumping, cooling and heating the water — account for 60 percent of the cost reduction.

“It started out as a water-saving program and then we really saw the energy savings,” Ms. Nunes said. “And that’s true in industrial, agricultural and household use, this incredible interplay between energy and water.”

Today, I.B.M. is building smart traffic systems in cities including London and Brisbane, Australia, but its standout success has been in Stockholm.

In 2006, Stockholm experimented with congestion pricing, charging cars up to $4 to enter the downtown area, depending on the time of day. The cars were monitored with RFID cards and webcams that photographed license plate numbers. Drivers had to pay within two weeks or faced penalties, but I.B.M. linked the driver data to 400 convenience stores in the city to make payment easier.

Within a few weeks, the impact in Stockholm was evident, and it has proved permanent. Car traffic in downtown Stockholm has been reduced by 20 percent, carbon dioxide emissions have dropped 12 percent, and the city’s public transport system has added 40,000 daily riders, I.B.M. said. The webcams accurately read license plates, even on snowy days, more than 95 percent of the time. So the RFID tags are no longer in use. After expenses, the smart traffic system generates $80 million a year for the city.

Stockholm is a city in a Scandinavian country with a long environmental tradition, in a socially democratic nation. Yet even in Stockholm, there were complaints initially. The city also took the risk of installing the entire system, calling it a trial, and then having residents vote on it seven months later, after the benefits were apparent.

“These systems can be pretty hard to implement politically,” observed Naveen Lamba, a transportation expert in I.B.M.’s global services unit.

In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg learned that lesson last year, when state legislators brushed off his plan for a smart traffic system in Manhattan. Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal to charge drivers $8 to enter a congestion zone south of 60th Street during peak hours was supported by civic, labor and environmental groups as a way to ease traffic and to finance improvements in mass transit. But many New Yorkers, especially those outside Manhattan, viewed the mayor’s plan as a tax on their ability to move around their own city.

In Amsterdam, which hopes to cut its carbon footprint 40 percent by 2025, the city is trying a different approach, by persuading commuters to stay put instead of taxing them when they come.

As part of a “smart city” project, Amsterdam is working with Cisco and other companies to set up remote, high-tech work centers. A pilot smart work center opened in September in Almere, whose residents routinely commute to Amsterdam. The center is equipped with high-speed, Internet-linked computer work stations, high-definition video conferencing and even child day care. The Dutch experiment, Cisco says, is being closely followed by dozens of cities.

In San Francisco, Cisco has experimented with enticing commuters to try public transportation by offering a bus that has wireless Internet access for passengers and on-board touch screens that are fed constantly updated information on connections and wait times. Reliable journey times, surveys show, are what commuters most value.

The hybrid-fuel bus — a pilot project that ended earlier this year — also had a “green gauge” feature that allowed passengers to calculate the carbon-emission savings on their trips. “Visibility is crucial,” said Rick Hutley, a Cisco consultant. “When people see the environmental impact and can measure it, they jump on board and participate.”

Even railroads, a 19th-century technology, are getting more high-tech intelligence. In a trial with one of the nation’s largest railroads, G.E. is using sensors on tracks, sidings and locomotives; sophisticated computer models; and optimization software to fine-tune the flow of traffic across the railway network.

As a result, trains wait less and travel at higher speeds, an increase of 2 miles per hour on average. That may seem small, but each mile per hour improvement translates into $100 million in efficiency gains including energy savings, G.E. said. And new locomotives amount to computers on rails, wirelessly downloading information on trips, traffic, terrain and loads, and making adjustments. Such automated cruise control delivers energy savings of up to 13 percent.

“Both the trains and the tracks are evolving and getting smarter and smarter,” said Christopher Johnson, an expert in computing and decision science at G.E.’s research labs.

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Full article and photos: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/30/business/energy-environment/30smart.html?hpw

Gates Hints That Guantanamo Detainees May Be Held on U.S. Soil

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested on Thursday that as many as 100 detainees at the prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba would end up housed on American soil.

At a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mr. Gates said that he has asked for $50 million in a supplemental request to this year’s Pentagon budget in case a new cell block needs to be built quickly for the detainees.

“We have put a plug in the budget for $50 million just as a hedge that would allow us to get started if some construction is needed to be able to accommodate those detainees,” Mr. Gates said.

Another government official, speaking about the task forces looking into how to close Guantanamo that are being coordinated at the Justice Department, said no final determinations have been made on where Guantanamo detainees might be housed — in civilian or military facilities, or some combination.

The official noted that a task force on detention policy is scheduled to provide a report to the President in July that makes recommendations dealing with this issue.

Mr. Gates said that discussions had started this week with the Justice Department about determining how many of the some 250 detainees at Guantánamo could not be sent to other countries or tried in courts. In January President Obama ordered the prison closed, but his administration is still working on what to do with the detainees.

“What do we do with the 50 to 100 — probably in that ballpark — who we cannot release and cannot try?” Mr. Gates said.

He said it was “still an open question” but that there would be widespread, if not unanimous, resistance in Congress. “I fully expect to have 535 pieces of legislation before this is over saying ‘not in my district, not in my state.’ ” Mr. Gates added: “We’ll just have to deal with that when the time comes.”

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/01/us/politics/01gitmo.html?hp

Birds show off their dance moves

Some birds have a remarkable talent for dancing, two studies published in Current Biology suggest.

Footage revealed that some parrots have a near-perfect sense of rhythm; swaying their bodies, bobbing their heads and tapping their feet in time to a beat.

Previously, it was thought that only humans had the ability to groove.

The researchers believe the findings could help shed light on how our relationship with music and the capacity to dance came about.

One bird, Snowball, a sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita eleanora ), came to the researchers’ attention after YouTube footage suggested he might have a certain prowess for dance – especially when listening to Everybody by the Backstreet Boys.

Snowball (Current Bology)
This is a capacity that everyone thought was uniquely human, but we’ve found evidence that some animals can keep a beat
Adena Schachner, Harvard University

Dr Aniruddh Patel, from The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, said: “We found out that the previous owner usually listened to easy listening music, but he did have this one album, and he noticed Snowball bobbing his head to the Backstreet Boys.”

To test Snowball’s skill, the scientists filmed him as they played his favourite song at various tempos.

Dr Patel told the BBC: “We analysed these videos frame by frame, and we found he did synchronise – he did slow down and speed up in time with the music.

“It was really surprising that he had this flexibility.”

Another group, led by Adena Schachner, from Harvard University, also looked at Snowball, as well as another bird, Alex, an African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus ).

Dr Schachner said: “We brought some novel music that we knew Alex had never heard before – so there was no way he had been trained to dance to this music.

“We set up the camera and hit play, and we were shocked to see that Alex started dancing to the beat. He started to bob his head up and down.”

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Videos:

Cockatoo shows off dancing moves

Snowball dances in time to his favourite Backstreet Boys song played at three different tempos

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8027379.stm

Parrot moves in time to the beat

Alex is not as good a dancer as Snowball, but he was able to dance to songs he had not heard before

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8027417.stm

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See also:

Spontaneous Motor Entrainment to Music in Multiple Vocal Mimicking Species

http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(09)00915-4

Experimental Evidence for Synchronization to a Musical Beat in a Nonhuman Animal

http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(09)00890-2

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Full article and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8026592.stm

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See also:

Humans do it, and birds do it, too.

Thrashing his mohawk up and down and kicking his feet in time to a rock anthem, Snowball the headbanging cockatoo is turning the notion of what’s human on its head.

Scientists have long wondered whether the ability to dance to a beat is uniquely human — and why it evolved in the first place. Now, a pair of unusual scientific studies that relied on YouTube videos of dancing animals, the musical stylings of the boy band the Backstreet Boys, and two grooving parrots, have furnished proof that people aren’t the only ones able to boogie and two-step.

A painstaking analysis of hundreds of videos revealed that 14 species of parrot got rhythm.

“When I was first starting this work, I was very skeptical. There are all kinds of ways these birds could be faking or cheating,” said Adena Schachner, a Harvard University psychology graduate student and lead author of a study published today in the journal Current Biology. But the more she watched YouTube videos of dancing parrots, the more she began to wonder: “How can we make sure this phenomenon is real?”

The finding that parrots can dance to an external beat supports an emerging theory on the origins of dance, which suggests that dancing might be a byproduct of another skill parrots share with humans — the capacity to mimic sounds.

To test that, Schachner and her adviser, psychologist Marc Hauser, teamed up with Irene Pepperberg, a Brandeis University psychology professor who for three decades studied an African grey parrot called Alex with remarkable language abilities. They played riffs of drum beats for Alex that he had never heard before, and everyone in the room stayed perfectly still.

To Schachner’s surprise, Alex (who’s since died) started dancing, ducking, and bobbing his head in time to the music.

A careful frame-by-frame analysis of his movements found that his head bobs were in sync with the beat. The random chance of bobbing in time to the music was calculated at less than 1 in 100 million.

Next up was Snowball, a sulphur-crested cocaktoo from Indiana who has become a YouTube celebrity for his ability to rock out to everything from Queen to Stevie Nicks.

Using the same frame-by-frame analysis, researchers watched Snowball kick his feet in the air and bob his head in time to music with many tempos and found that, like Alex, he had rhythm.

A second study published in the same journal today tested his ability to follow a variety of beats, by speeding up and slowing down the tempo of his favorite song, “Everybody,” by the Backstreet Boys. The researchers, based at the nonprofit Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, found that Snowball was actually able to synchronize his movements to a rhythm and wasn’t just bopping up and down arbitrarily.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist at Columbia University and the author of “Musicophilia,” said that his initial interest in music started years ago when he first noticed that Parkinson’s disease patients who could not control their movement or speech could move or sing with the aid of music. Snowball first came to his attention when readers of his book argued with his contention that the ability to synchrnoize movement to a rhythm was a unique human ability, by sending him videos of the cockatoo.

“Clearly, moving in synchrony is an essential and universal part of human cutlure,” Sacks said. “My own suspicion is [dancing] may become selected and reinforced in our species, because it’s a biological advantage to bond people. … It may be this thing which arose as a side effect of our speech.”

To test whether the ability to dance had something to do with animals’ ability to mimic sounds, the Harvard researchers then subjected nine cotton-top tamarin monkeys to the same experiment they did on Alex. The monkeys, which are not vocal mimics, but are more closely related to humans, were wallflowers.

Finally, they took their theory to the Web, systematically searching for animal dancing videos on YouTube. Fifteen species seemed to have the ability to dance, and all were capable of vocal mimicry — 14 species of parrot, and the Asian elephant. Meanwhile, dogs, ferrets, horses, sea lions, cats, squirrels, and fish depicted as “dancing” in videos all failed to dance in time to an external beat.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/news/health/blog/2009/04/humans_do_it_an.html

From Obama, Presidential Prose

Mario Cuomo once observed that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. That truth was on display at tonight’s prime-time press conference, in which a president renowned for his soaring rhetoric found himself instead mired in the prosaic. He instructed Americans to wash their hands, cover their mouths when they cough and keep their sick kids home from school. That assignment accomplished, President Obama moved on to the auto companies, asserting that “GM has a lot of good product there,” although, as he acknowledged toward the close of the hour, “I’m not an auto engineer. I don’t know how to create an affordable, well-designed, plug-in hybrid.”

Not exactly “we are the change that we seek” lyricism.

Running for president is about sketching a vision; being president is about executing — not just the plans you and your advisers had in mind but, as George W. Bush learned the hard way, with Hurricane Katrina, also the tasks that fate throws your way. The past few weeks have reminded me of the old Monty Python line “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” Floods in Fargo, piracy off the Somali coast, swine — sorry, H1N1 — flu; nobody prepared position papers on these during the campaign. Nor on the Spanish Inquisition, for that matter.

As to the items that were part of the campaign — well, prosaic politics dictates a certain realism there as well. So Candidate Obama was happy to say that he supported the Freedom of Choice Act, to guarantee a federal right to abortion; President Obama was blunt about where that proposal stands: “Not my highest legislative priority.”

And as to his real priorities, there, too, the president displayed a certain — and, to some extent, self-serving — world-weariness as his 100th day drew to a close. Asked what he had found humbling about the job, Obama offered, “…There are a lot of different power centers. And so I can’t just press a button and suddenly have the bankers do exactly what I want or, you know, turn on a switch and suddenly, you know, Congress falls in line.” Something he probably knew before, back in the good old poetry days.

Ruth Marcus, Washington Post

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Full article: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/

Milk the Drama, Obama

one-hundred

President Barack Obama walks away from Marine One after touching down on the south lawn. He has returned from a trip to St. Louis, Missouri.

There must have been 50 ways to celebrate the 100 days.

Hop on the plane, Barack Hussein.

Let the words flow, Joe.

Go out and be glib, Gibbs.

Get yourself on TV.

Try some oratory, Harry.

No need to be fancy, Nancy.

Just do MSNBC, Valerie.

The airtime is free.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had it right when he said the inevitable observance of President Obama’s first 100 days in office would be a “Hallmark holiday.” But that doesn’t mean the White House was discouraging anybody from buying cards and flowers to mark the occasion.

The president went to Missouri yesterday to celebrate his 100th day, then returned to the White House for a prime-time news conference. Vice President Biden hosted a 100-day teleconference for reporters, while a full ensemble of administration officials — Rahm Emanuel, Gibbs, Valerie Jarrett, Tom Vilsack, Christina Romer, Austan Goolsbee and others — broadcast their 100-day thoughts.

And why not? With cable news going wall-to-wall with 100-days coverage, and at least one daily newspaper (we won’t name names) printing a special 100-days section, it was a publicity bonanza for the young administration. And there was clearly no need to be coy, Roy.

“You kind of shrugged off the 100 days as a media creation,” Reuters’s Caren Bohan reminded Gibbs aboard Air Force One as the president flew to his 100-days commemoration in Arnold, Mo. “But despite your view that it’s an artificial day, you are marking it with a town hall and a trip and a news conference tonight.”

“We’re playing along with the game,” Gibbs replied.

“You’re not trying to drive the game?”

“You guys create the wave, and we’ll try to surf it a little bit.”

Gibbs alluded to the Hallmark holiday’s origins with the 32nd president. “I wonder what people did on the 100th day before [Franklin] Roosevelt’s 100th day,” the press secretary mused.

“One president died before that day,” a reporter pointed out.

“Well, it was probably less of a cheery day, I guess, in that administration.”

The 44th president, however, was quite cheerful about his Hallmark holiday. He began his celebration at the White House in the morning with party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter. “In these 100 days we’ve begun to move this nation in the right direction,” Obama intoned.

In Missouri, he expanded on the theme: “Today marks 100 days since I took the oath of office to be your president. [APPLAUSE.] One hundred days — that’s a good thing. [APPLAUSE.] Thank you, thank you, thank you.” At 8 p.m., he stood in the East Room for a news conference extolling “the steps we’ve taken over the last 100 days to move this economy from recession to recovery.”

TV anchors chided the White House for, as NBC’s Matt Lauer put it, “taking full advantage” of the 100-day hoopla after dismissing it as “a fake holiday.” But the networks and cable did much the same, for the same reason: Even Hallmark holidays are good for ratings.

“This whole 100-day thing to me is sometimes just absolutely nuts!” lamented Roland Martin on CNN — which, as of 3 p.m., had broadcast the phrase “100 days” no fewer than 76 times.

MSNBC was only slightly behind, at 57 mentions. “Has it been a great, good, average 100 days for President Obama?” asked anchor Ed Schultz as part of the station’s “special coverage” of the day. “What’s your call?”

“I think it’s been a very good 100 days,” replied Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

Even Fox News had tallied up 41 grudging mentions of Obama’s 100 days by 3 p.m. “I think the second 100 days are going to be more relevant,” proposed Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

With cable news setting the pace, the entire political-industrial complex was mobilized. Brookings and the National Journal held 100-day briefings. White House photographer Pete Souza posted an “Official White House Photostream” on Flickr with a few hundred photographs of Obama. CNBC’s John Harwood asked fiery White House Chief of Staff Emanuel, “What’s the angriest you’ve gotten in the first 100 days?”

“I don’t have, in my view, a volatile temper,” a sweet and mild Emanuel replied.

Some Republicans were classy (“I think he’s demonstrated leadership,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa). Others were less so (“This is no time for Democrats in Washington to do a victory lap,” growled House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio).

Administration officials and their allies, meanwhile, issued their own report cards. “In the first 100 days, USDA has moved quickly,” Agriculture Secretary Vilsack said in a conference call. “I would definitely give the president an A,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a news conference.

And Obama’s 100 days brought to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s mind Winston Churchill in 1942. “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning,” Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement.

MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough even devised a special greeting. “Happy 100th day,” he told Obama adviser Jarrett.

“Well, thank you,” Jarrett replied.

“Arlen Specter certainly delivered a very festive 100-day birthday present to you all.”

But such festivities can be tiring, and officials were weary as they marked the administration’s 100-day birthday. Goolsbee, of the Council of Economic Advisers, likened the 100 days to “20 dog years.” And Jarrett, on Fox News, was asked if it felt as if 100 days had passed. “At least a thousand,” she replied.

A thousand days? Now that one should really be a blowout.

Dana Milbank, Washington Post

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Full article and photo: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/29/AR2009042904150.html?hpid=opinionsbox1

As Detroit Is Remade, the U.A.W. Stands to Gain

uaw02-650

The union’s Local 7 hall in Detroit, where voting on a Chrysler deal was taking place Wednesday. The United Automobile Workers represents nearly all workers at Detroit automakers.

In the devastating slump that has forced two of Detroit’s automakers to the brink of bankruptcy, the United Automobile Workers union stands to become one of the industry’s few winners.

According to restructuring plans proposed this week, the union will have more than half the stock in Chrysler and a third of General Motors, meaning it will have tremendous influence, with the government, in determining the future of the companies.

The United Automobile Workers union said Wednesday that its members ratified a cost-cutting deal with Chrysler by a 4-to-1 margin.

“Our members have responded by accepting an agreement that is painful for our active and retired workers, but which helps preserve U.S. manufacturing jobs and gives Chrysler a chance to survive,” Ron Gettelfinger, the union’s president, said in a statement.

The prospect of a big ownership stake for the U.A.W. in G.M. has angered holders of billions of dollars in bonds, who stand to get only a fraction of the restructured company. As for Chrysler, the banks, hedge funds and others that lent it money have been promised only cash, not stock.

“We believe the offer to be a blatant disregard of fairness for the bondholders who have funded this company and amounts to using taxpayer money to show political favoritism of one creditor over another,” a group of G.M. bondholders said in a statement this week.

The U.A.W. members at both automakers stand to lose some of their pay and benefits, but the cuts are not as deep as those faced by airline and steel workers when their companies went bankrupt. Under proposed deals devised by the Treasury Department, U.A.W. pensions and retiree health care benefits would largely be protected.

The U.A.W. has derived its leverage in part from the support of a Democratic president and Congress. But it also results from a long-term strategy to build support in Washington that stretches back more than 60 years.

“We have to fight both in the economic and political fields, because what you win on the picket lines, they take away in Washington if you don’t fight on that front,” Walter P. Reuther, the union’s best known president, said in 1947.

Mr. Reuther and every succeeding U.A.W. president invested significant amounts of time and money to pursue that goal.

In the last 20 years, the U.A.W. has donated more than $25.4 million to federal candidates, 99 percent of it to Democrats, according to OpenSecrets.org, a site that tracks campaign contributions.

The union ranks No. 16 on the group’s list of top 100 political donors, known as “heavy hitters.” The U.A.W. was well ahead of G.M., which gave $10 million in that period, ranking it 73rd. Chrysler and Ford Motor did not make the list.

Mr. Gettelfinger, the current president, has also been an effective, steel-nerved leader, and has managed to maintain the union’s importance in recent negotiations, even though the U.A.W. has lost nearly 200,000 members since he took office in 2003.

Mr. Gettelfinger’s influence stems in part from the fact that the U.A.W. represents nearly all the auto workers at the Detroit companies. (Workers at a few plants are represented by the I.U.E.) By contrast, airline workers are represented by multiple unions.

“The U.A.W. is so overwhelmingly dominant,” said Duane Woerth, former president of the Air Line Pilots Association. “You’re only talking to one union and that gives them more power.”

Mr. Woerth, whose union was involved in 22 bankruptcy cases involving big and small airlines during his tenure as its president, said the pressure that bondholders and other investors might put on the U.A.W. has been mitigated by Democrats’ support.

For example, the union has yet to complete a deal with G.M., which laid out an offer to its bondholders this week that would pay them about 41 cents on the dollar. In order for the deal to succeed, 90 percent must accept it, which analysts say is unlikely given bondholders’ criticism of the offer.

Only this week did the U.A.W. come to terms at Chrysler, facing a Thursday deadline set by the administration.

The tactics have won admiration from others in the labor movement, even those forced to grant concessions to bankrupt companies.

Robert Roach Jr., a general vice president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said a successful outcome for the U.A.W. and the auto companies would benefit the economy, and in the process help his 650,000 members at major airlines, aircraft makers and other companies.

“We’re all in this,” Mr. Roach said. “The corporations, the federal government, the taxpayer, the cities and the states. If we are able to save these auto companies, that will be good for everybody.”

But many of the U.A.W. members who voted Wednesday on the Chrysler proposal were struggling to see the benefits of the cuts they were agreeing to.

The deal suspends cost-of-living pay increases, limits overtime pay and reduces paid time off. It also eliminates dental and vision benefits for retirees.

It also provides for Fiat to begin building cars in at least one Chrysler plant.

“Either you vote for it or it’s bankruptcy,” said Bruce Clary, 58, who was an electrician at a Detroit engine plant until being laid off in January. “And it may be bankruptcy anyway.”

At Chrysler’s Jefferson North assembly plant nearby, the oldest auto plant still operating in Detroit, workers said the consequences of rejecting the deal would be far worse than the concessions that it would force.

“This was the best deal we could get,” said John Davis, who has worked at Chrysler for 33 years. “We did our part, and now the banks need to do their part.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/30/business/30uaw.html?hp

Chrysler Bankruptcy Plan Is Announced

chrysler-bankr

President Obama spoke on Thursday about Chrysler seeking bankruptcy protection and its alliance with the Italian automaker Fiat.

Chrysler, the third-largest American auto company, will seek bankruptcy protection and enter an alliance with the Italian automaker Fiat, the White House announced Thursday.

The bankruptcy case, which officials envisioned as a swift, “surgical” process, was set to be filed in United States Bankruptcy Court in New York. It marks the first time a major American car company has tried to restructure under bankruptcy protection since Studebaker in 1933.

President Obama announced the plan, including the Fiat alliance, in televised remarks shortly after noon. He said the outcome was a much better outcome than seemed likely only a month ago.

A senior White House official said that the bankruptcy case would begin immediately, and that the government would provide debtor-in-possession financing in a range of $3 billion to $3.5 billion, so the company can continue to operate normally.

Once Chrysler restructures, the company would receive $4.5 billion in financing to restart its operations, for total American government support through the bankruptcy process and afterwards of up to $8 billion.

That is $2 billion more than Mr. Obama initially said the company would receive if it successfully reached a deal with Fiat.

Chrysler has already received $4.5 billion from the government, under a bailout plan put into effect by the Bush administration in late December, after Congress rejected legislation that would have provided federal aid.

The Canadian government also is expected to provide $1 for every $3 in American support, the official said, meaning Chrysler could receive another $2.6 billion.

Government officials estimated that the case could be as short as 30 to 60 days, although bankruptcy cases normally take much longer. The end result would be a new version of Chrysler that would emerge from bankruptcy without liabilities, such as debt and legal obligations, faced by the company now.

At the same time, Chrysler and Fiat signed an agreement that calls for Fiat to take part in running Chrysler. The Italian automaker will provide technical operations, and build at least one vehicle in a Chrysler plant. Fiat did not put up any financing as part of the agreement.

A new board will be appointed to run Chrysler that is expected to include representatives from both companies and the United Automobile Workers union. Chrysler’s chief executive, Robert L. Nardelli, is expected to leave the carmaker.

The bankruptcy filing could serve as a preview of what a filing by General Motors might look like. G.M., which like Chrysler received federal assistance last year, faces a June 1 deadline for its own restructuring.

President Obama had set a Thursday deadline for Chrysler to conclude a deal with Fiat, and to resolve issues with the United Automobile Workers union and its creditors.

On Wednesday, union members approved contract changes with Chrysler that will mean pay and benefit cuts, and their contract is expected to remain in effect during the bankruptcy. “No judge is going to override that kind of support,” the administration official said.

But Chrysler and the Treasury were unable to reach agreements with all the holders of $6.9 billion in company bonds. A number of investment funds balked at a government offer to pay $2.25 billion in cash for the debt, an offer that was sweetened after four major banks agreed to an earlier offer of $2 billion.

White House officials said the failure to reach agreement with lenders was the reason why President Obama decided Chrysler should go through the bankruptcy process.

However, dealing with the leaner Chrysler will also benefit Fiat.

White House officials said some of Chrysler’s 3,600 dealers in the United States are expected to close, and Chrysler Financial, the company’s lending arm, will cease providing loans for new Chrysler cars and trucks. Instead, GMAC, the financing arm partially owned by General Motors, will take over lending to Chrysler dealers.

The administration said it did not expect significant white or blue-collar job cuts as a result of the bankruptcy. Chrysler suppliers also can expect their contracts will be honored, although the company would have the right under bankruptcy protection to cancel them.

Last-minute efforts by the Treasury Department to win over recalcitrant Chrysler debtholders failed Wednesday night.

An administration official said the government had the “full support of Chrysler’s key stakeholders” in its efforts to restructure the company and expressed confidence about Chrysler’s prospects for emerging stronger. But the official, who declined to speak for attribution ahead of President Obama’s announcement, made it clear that the administration was frustrated with the holdout creditors.

A group of Chrysler’s secured lenders fired back, saying that the administration was skirting bankruptcy laws by forcing them to take a larger loss on their debt than other stakeholders in the company. They said their proposals to restructure Chrysler had been ignored by the government.

“The fact is, in this process and in its earnest effort to ensure the survival of Chrysler and the well-being of the company’s employees, the government has risked overturning the rule of law and practices that have governed our world-leading bankruptcy code for decades,” the group, which calls itself the Committee of Non-TARP Lenders, said in a statement.

Members of the committee include units of Oppenheimer Funds, Perella Weinberg Partners’ Xerion Capital Fund and Stairway Capital Management. The funds emphasized that their investors are major pension funds, teachers’ unions and school endowments.

The lenders said they have been forced to negotiate through a group of big banks that have accepted government bailout money and are reticent to push back against the government’s proposal. They are particularly upset that the United Auto Workers will receive more for their debt even though the secured lenders should legally be paid before the union.

Many of the holdout lenders, primarily distressed-debt hedge funds who bought portions of Chrysler’s $6.9 billion of bank debt at a discount, are likely to argue that they have the first claim to the carmaker’s assets that were pledged for those loans, according to people briefed on the matter.

They argue that they would see greater recovery in a liquidation of the car giant, which they contend would yield about 65 cents on the dollar. The most recent plan proposed Wednesday by the Treasury Department and Chrysler’s four main bank lenders — JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs — would have given the creditors about 33 cents on the dollar.

The four big banks own 70 percent of Chrysler’s secured debt.

As the talks with Fiat and the lenders entered the final hours, members of the United Automobile Workers union approved a historic deal in which the union would take a 55 percent stake in Chrysler. The stake would finance half of a new trust to administer retiree health care costs.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/01/business/01auto.html?hp

Israeli Arabs held on ‘bomb plot’

Rubble of a factory in Gaza

The offensive in Gaza caused massive destruction

Israeli police have arrested seven Arab Israelis suspected of planning to carry out bomb attacks and kidnap soldiers.

Police said the men wanted revenge for Israel’s offensive in Gaza earlier this year, which left an estimated 1,400 Palestinians dead.

The men were detained earlier this month but details have only just been released for security reasons.

Police who searched the suspects’ homes found explosives, the Israeli Haaretz newspaper reported.

Police officials say the group had intended to kidnap soldiers from the Israeli Defense Force.

Police superintendent Avid Agarissi told Israel Radio the suspects were charged with contacting “terror groups in Gaza” to train to kidnap civilians and build explosive devices.

Israel’s Arabs comprise about 20% of the country’s population.

Although they have full citizenship rights in law, many often say they suffer discrimination.

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Full article and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8027288.stm

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See also:

5 Israeli Arabs charged in terror plot

israel-arabs

Members of the alleged Arab Israeli terror cell in court, Thursday

The state on Sunday charged five Israeli Arabs, including one Bedouin, with belonging to a terrorist organization which planned to kidnap Israeli soldiers and detonate bombs, according to an indictment filed in Haifa District Court.

The gang was uncovered by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the police, who also arrested two minors, aged 17, who were also allegedly part of the gang. The minors have already been indicted, according to Dep.-Cmdr Avi Algarisi, head of the Central Unit of the Valleys police sub-district. Their names have not been released for publication.

The adult members of the gang include its leader, Abdullah Haruva, of Maghar, and Suheib, Kuteiba, Muhammad and Ahmed Kabha, from the Israeli part of the village of Barta’a, which straddles the Green Line.

The charges against them include conspiracy to help the enemy in wartime, membership in an unlawful association, contact with a foreign agent and weapons offenses. The penalty for assisting the enemy in wartime is the death penalty or life imprisonment.

According to the indictment, Haruva began corresponding with a Palestinian from Gaza nicknamed Abu Kassem in November 2008. After the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, Kassem told Haruva he must take revenge against Israel for its military operations  in Gaza.

Haruva told his interrogators he had the impression Abu Kassem belonged to the Islamic Jihad because the Palestinian’s views seemed to be more extreme than those of Hamas.

Haruva began to learn how to prepare different kinds of explosive devices from instructions compiled by various terrorist groups including the Fatah’s Al Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade. He prepared a makeshift bomb and two makeshift pistols which were later discovered in his home.

According to Israel Radio, eight other bombs were discovered in Barta’a.
Haruva also made Internet contact with Suheib Kabha and enlisted him in the conspiracy. They allegedly discussed the need to get hold of explosives and weapons and on the type of operations they could carry out, including exploding a bomb in order to kidnap a soldier and hold him as a bargaining chip to obtain the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Suheib Kabha also conducted an internet correspondence with Abu Kassem and enlisted Kuteiba, Muhammad and Ahmed Kabha in the terrorist group. Kuteiba Kabha purchased two explosive devices from a Palestinian relative.

According to Algarisi, Haruva, the first of the suspects to be detained, was arrested on Wednesday, April 8, the night of the Pessah Seder.

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Full article and photo: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1239710826256&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

Invisibility cloak edges closer

Invisibility cloak

Tiny holes all over the cloak bend the light around the bump

Scientists have rendered objects invisible to near-infrared light.

Unlike previous such “cloaks”, the new work does not employ metals, which introduce losses of light and result in imperfect cloaking.

Because the approach can be scaled down further in size, researchers say this is a major step towards a cloak that would work for visible light.

One of the research teams describes its miniature “carpet cloak” in the journal Nature Materials.

This “carpet” design was based on a theory first described by John Pendry, from Imperial College London, in 2008.

Michal Lipson and her team at Cornell University demonstrated a cloak based on the concept.

Xiang Zhang, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, led the other team.

“Essentially, we are transforming a straight line of light into a curved line around the cloak, so you don’t perceive any change in its pathway,” he explained.

This is not the first time an invisibility cloak has been made, but previous designs have used metals, whereas the carpet cloak is built using a dielectric – or insulating material – which absorbs far less light.

“Metals introduce a lot of loss, or reduce the light intensity,” said Professor Zhang. This loss can leave a darkened spot in the place of the cloaked object.

So using silicon, a material that absorbs very little light, is a “big step forward,” he says.

Transforming light

The cloak’s design cancels out the distortion produced by the bulge of the object underneath, bending light around it – like water around a rock – and giving the illusion of a flattened surface.

Professor Zhang explained that the cloak “changes the local density” of the object it is covering.

“When light passes from air into water it will be bent, because the optical density, or refraction index, of the glass is different to air,” he told BBC News.

“So by manipulating the optical density of an object, you can transform the light path from a straight line to to any path you want.”

The new material does this via a series of minuscule holes – which are strategically “drilled” into a sheet of silicon.

Proving Professor Pendry’s theory, Professor Zhang’s team was able to “decide the profile” of the cloaked object – altering the optical density with the holes.

“In some areas we drill lots of very densely packed holes, and in others they are much sparser. Where the holes are more dense, there is more air than silicon, so the optical density of the object is reduced,” Professor Zhang explained.

“Each hole is much smaller than the wavelength of the light. So optical light doesn’t see a hole – it just sees a sort of air-silicon mixture. So as far as the light is concerned, we have adjusted the density of the object.”

He pointed out that his demonstration cloak is very tiny – just a few thousandths of a millimetre across.

But there are applications even for a cloak of this size.

Such a device could be used, for example, in the electronics industry, to hide flaws on the intricate stencils or ‘masks’ that are used to cast processor chips.

“This could save the industry millions of dollars,” he said. “It would allow them to fix flaws rather than produce an entirely new mask.”

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Full article and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8025886.stm

South Korea ex-president Roh Moo-hyun in bribe probe

South Koreans in Seoul watch a TV apology by former President Roh Moo-hyun

Mr Roh made a public apology for the corruption scandal

South Korea’s former president is being questioned over allegations that he took millions of dollars in bribes from a wealthy businessman.

Prosecutors have to decide whether to charge Roh Moo-hyun, who came to power in 2003 promising his administration would be free from foul play.

Before leaving his rural hometown for Seoul, he apologised for the scandal.

“I feel ashamed before my fellow citizens. I am sorry for disappointing you,” he said in a televised statement.

Mr Roh was taken by police escort to the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office in the capital.

Questioning is expected to last late into Thursday or even early Friday.

Excesses

The former president, who left office last year, faces accusations that he took millions of dollars in bribes from the wealthy head of a shoe manufacturing company.

At one point a bag containing the equivalent of $1m (£670,000) in cash is said to have been delivered to the presidential office.

In a statement posted on his website earlier this month, Mr Roh admitted that his wife received a substantial sum of money from the businessman, but suggested it was not a bribe, but a payment to help her settle a debt.

The BBC’s John Sudworth in Seoul says that for the South Korean public, the allegations are a reminder of an era many hoped had passed, in which former presidents found themselves embroiled in corruption scandals, and sometimes convicted and jailed for their excesses.

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Full article and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8026140.stm

Courting Mr. Chávez

The Obama administration seeks to please a strongman by ignoring his crackdown on domestic opposition.

ONE OF Venezuela’s most important politicians was granted asylum in Peru this week. Manuel Rosales, a former state governor who challenged Hugo Chávez in the 2006 presidential election and won election as mayor of Maracaibo last fall, fled the country to avoid imprisonment. He was being prosecuted on dubious corruption charges; the investigation began only after Mr. Chávez shouted on television that “I’m going to put you in jail, Rosales!” Mr. Rosales is one of at least seven major Chávez opponents, including three of the five opposition state governors, who have been imprisoned or subjected to criminal or tax investigations during the past two months.

It is reasonable to ask how the Obama administration is reacting to this major new campaign against what remains of Venezuela’s democracy, especially given the president’s friendly handshake with Mr. Chávez at the Summit of the Americas two weeks ago. The answer: It isn’t. The administration has maintained a deliberate silence about the persecution of the elected politicians, a dissident former defense minister and a leading journalist. Meanwhile, the State Department is lauding what it calls the “positive development” in U.S.-Venezuelan relations: Mr. Chávez’s offer to exchange ambassadors. “We buy a lot of their oil,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. “Let’s see if we can begin to turn that relationship.”

Ms. Clinton seems to believe that Mr. Chávez’s escalating domestic repression shouldn’t be an impediment to better relations with the United States — an attitude in keeping with her already-stated views about such nations as China, Egypt and Turkey. She pointed out in her congressional testimony that Venezuela has been developing close relations with Iran, and that “it’s a serious matter if any country in our hemisphere falls under the sway of Iran or someone else who is inimicable to our interests.”

“Let’s try to see whether there is any opportunity to move President Chávez away from the influences” of Iran and others, she proposed.

That’s certainly a worthy goal — and we have no objection to Mr. Obama’s handshake with Mr. Chávez. The administration’s strategy — to open up a constructive dialogue with Venezuela and avoid being cast as Mr. Chávez’s Yanqui foil — is reasonable; it is also the same strategy as was tried, unsuccessfully, by the previous two administrations. What doesn’t make sense is to deliberately ignore steps by Mr. Chávez to consolidate an autocracy. In so doing, the administration encourages Latin American governments that have shrunk from confronting the Venezuelan strongman to continue in their own silence. It sends pro-Chávez governments in countries such as Bolivia and Nicaragua the message that they can persecute their own domestic opponents with impunity. And it makes it more rather than less likely that Venezuela, with the help of Iran and Russia, will become a threat to the United States.

Peru’s democratic government is to be congratulated for its decision to offer Mr. Rosales asylum. It is shameful that the Obama administration won’t say so.

Editorial, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/29/AR2009042904419.html

Specter the Defector

It’s been more than four decades since Arlen Specter, senator from Pennsylvania, earned the nickname “Specter the Defector.” With his decision this week to leave the Republican Party, he confirmed that it is indeed an accurate description of his political character.

I was a kid reporter for the New York Times back in 1965, when Specter’s flip-flopping first attracted attention, and the report I filed recounts the circumstances that led to his unflattering nickname.

Specter, then a Democrat, had been an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, and he harbored an ambition to run against his lackluster boss, James Crumlish. The Democratic bosses of Philadelphia were not encouraging Specter because, as one of them told me, “We don’t want another young Tom Dewey,” the reform-minded New York prosecutor who launched himself into the governorship and two presidential nominations by sending a string of prominent officeholders of both parties off to jail.

So Specter, with the encouragement of such prominent Pennsylvania Republicans as Sen. Hugh Scott and Gov. William Scranton, said he would run against Crumlish on the GOP ticket. To hedge his bets, and to help himself gain Democratic votes, he waited until he won the race to change his party registration.

Over the decades since, Specter has become one of the senior Republican senators and the best Republican vote-getter in Pennsylvania. But his frequent defections from GOP orthodoxy, not just on abortion but also on labor issues, taxes and spending, have made him vulnerable to challenge in the state’s Republican primary.

Former representative Pat Toomey, a right-wing ideologue, came close to upsetting Specter in the 2004 primary, and next year, Toomey looked to be a better-than-even-money bet to knock off the incumbent.

On one level, Specter’s decision is symptomatic of the narrowing of the GOP spectrum, a sign of the increasing dominance of that shrunken party by its most conservative, Southern-accented members. There are no Republican House members left in New England. A traditionally Republican House seat in Upstate New York has flipped to the Democrats, and both coasts, the Southwest and the upper Midwest are increasingly voting for Democrats.

That is why Republicans have lost their majority and their veto power over legislation in the House and why they may soon lose the ability to filibuster and delay Democratic measures in the Senate, after Specter’s switch and once Al Franken finally claims the Minnesota seat.

But much as Specter’s decision reflects an increasingly serious weakness in the Republican Party, there is no escaping the fact that it is also an opportunistic move by one of the most opportunistic politicians of modern times.

The one consistency in the history of Arlen Specter has been his willingness to do whatever will best protect and advance the career of Arlen Specter.

In 2004, when some in the GOP caucus challenged his elevation to the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter assured them that he would not use the post to block any of President Bush’s Supreme Court nominees. And despite his sometimes liberal record, he voted for both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Just a few weeks ago, when he was still calculating how he might survive a Republican primary against Toomey, he announced that — despite his friendship with labor — he would not support the so-called card check legislation that is the No. 1 priority of the unions.

This is the man who now has the strongest claim upon the Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania.

Specter has been welcomed to the Democratic Party by President Obama and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, the most influential Democrat in Harrisburg. That makes it unlikely that Specter will face any serious challenge in next year’s Senate primary. And, if his health holds up, he will be a strong favorite against Toomey in the November election.

So, once again, Specter is likely to reap political rewards from his maneuvering. But the Democrats should be open-eyed about what they are gaining from his return to his original political home.

Specter’s history shouts the lesson that he will stick with you only as long as it serves his own interests — and not a day longer.

David S. Broder, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/29/AR2009042904016.html?nav=hcmoduletmv