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'AIG disclosed on Sunday that European banks...were among the biggest beneficiaries of the taxpayer bailout...'

From Reuters -

AIG disclosed on Sunday that European banks including Deutsche Bank and France's Societe Generale were among the biggest beneficiaries of the taxpayer bailout of the insurer.

---

From Michael Parenti -

"...it should be the government making direct investments. The government should go directly into production. It should be the government that’s building housing. It should be the government that gives healthcare."
Sun, March 15, 2009 - 2:42 PM — permalink - 1 comments - add a comment

'Many of Bhutto's friends and backers have distanced themselves from the actions of the government, which in recent days has arrested opponents...'

From the LA Times -

Pakistani authorities today placed opposition leader Nawaz Sharif under house arrest, a day after putting the armed forces on alert amid an escalating power struggle with former allies.

U.S. diplomatic efforts to defuse the political crisis intensified as the Pakistani government pledged anew to block a massive opposition rally in the capital on Monday. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton separately telephoned President Asif Ali Zardari and Sharif on Saturday, urging both sides to show restraint, according to spokesmen for the two camps. Zardari's office said Clinton promised U.S. support for democracy in Pakistan.

Word of Sharif's house arrest came from a spokesman, Pervez Rashid, who said hundreds of police surrounded the party leader's residence at dawn, hours after he delivered a trademark fiery speech to supporters in Lahore. Pakistani television reports said Sharif's politician brother, Shahbaz, had also been confined in the city of Rawalpindi, adjacent to Islamabad.

In a sign of the disarray within Zardari's government, a key aide, Information Minister Sherry Rehman, was in seclusion after reports that she had tendered her resignation. Rehman was a close associate of Zardari's late wife, ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Many of Bhutto's friends and backers have distanced themselves from the actions of the government, which in recent days has arrested opponents and placed restrictions on political rallies.

The Obama administration is also keeping a wary eye on the seeming ascendancy of Sharif, who has less of a pro-Western bent than Zardari, as well as tighter links with Islamist parties.

An angry backlash against the Supreme Court ruling by supporters of the popular Sharif coincided with plans by a nationwide lawyers movement to stage protests demanding the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was fired by Musharraf. Now the two causes have in effect merged.

Most of the dozens of judges fired by Musharraf have been returned to the bench, and Zardari promised to reinstate the remainder but has not done so. The president is widely believed to fear that Chaudhry would reinstate corruption cases against him.

Zardari has also delayed giving up extraordinary powers that Musharraf accorded himself as president, including the ability to dissolve parliament.
Sun, March 15, 2009 - 10:25 AM — permalink - 1 comments - add a comment

'So why is the Middle East Policy Council any more intellectually corrupt than AEI or WINEP?'

From Ken Silverstein -

One of the most common charges hurled by the opponents of Charles Freeman Jr., who yesterday withdrew as chair of the Obama administration’s National Intelligence Council, was that he “headed a Saudi-funded Middle East advocacy group in Washington.” I’ve written about the influence of money on think tanks and think it’s a valid point of concern, but let’s put this assertion in perspective.

Freeman headed the Middle East Policy Council. I’m not sure how much Saudi money flows to the think tank, but it can’t be much. I checked the firm’s non-profit disclosure form for 2007 and its total receipts for the year were $731,000, and it had assets of $1.3 million. Freeman was paid $87,000 that year.

Compare that to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think tank that is overwhelmingly supportive of Israel and whose board includes Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig and Martin Peretz. Its receipts for 2007 came to $11.9 million, and it had $26.5 million in assets. Robert Satloff, the institute’s executive director, was paid $307,000. Dennis Ross, now the Obama administration’s special adviser on Iran, was paid $208,000 for duties as a “Distinguished Fellow.”

Then there’s the equally pro-Israel American Enterprise Institute, from where a number of prominent Bush Administration employees came. It had assets of $77 million in 2006 (the last year for which I could find its disclosure form at the Foundation Center), and receipts of $56 million.

None of these groups list funders on their websites, nor are they required to list them on disclosure reports. (AEI says it doesn’t disclose donors; the Washington Institute’s press contact was out today.) The Israeli government doesn’t (as far as I know) back AEI or WINEP, but conservative foundations do and it’s hard to imagine that pro-Israeli organizations and individuals aren’t kicking in large sums as well.

So why is the Middle East Policy Council any more intellectually corrupt than AEI or WINEP? And why is employment at the former a bar to government employment, but a job at the last two is not?
Sun, March 15, 2009 - 10:21 AM — permalink - 1 comments - add a comment

'He promised to put nonprofit hospitals--which he insisted on referring to as "nontaxpaying" hospitals--out of business...'

From the Nation -

Rush Limbaugh offers Democrats an irresistible target as the de facto leader of the Republican Party, but for my money, Rick Scott is the man who best embodies the spirit of the current conservative opposition. The name may not exactly be a household word, or it may ring a faint bell, but Politico recently reported that the millionaire Republican would be heading up Conservatives for Patients' Rights (CPR), a new group that plans to spend around $20 million to kill President Obama's efforts at healthcare reform.

Having Scott lead the charge against healthcare reform is like tapping Bernie Madoff to campaign against tighter securities regulation. You see, the for-profit hospital chain Scott helped found--the one he ran and built his entire reputation on--was discovered to be in the habit of defrauding the government out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

This is the man who will be delivering what Politico called the "pro-free-market message."

A Texas lawyer who shared a business partner with George W. Bush, Scott started his health company, Columbia Hospital Corporation, in 1987. Its growth was meteoric, expanding from just a few hospitals to more than 1,000 facilities in thirty-eight states and three other countries in 1997. As his firm gobbled up chains, like the Frist family's Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), it became the largest for-profit hospital chain in the country. By 1994, Columbia/HCA was one of the forty largest corporations in America, and Scott had acquired a reputation as the Gordon Gecko of the healthcare world. "Whose patients are you stealing?" he would ask employees at his newly acquired hospitals.

He promised to put nonprofit hospitals--which he insisted on referring to as "nontaxpaying" hospitals--out of business and touted his company's single-minded pursuit of profit as a model for the nation's entire healthcare system. "What's happening in Washington is not healthcare reform," he told the New York Times in 1994. "Healthcare reform is happening in the marketplace."

The press portrayed Scott as a guru to be admired and feared, "a private capitalist dictator," in the words of one Princeton health economist.

"Other hospitals were intimidated," recalls John Schilling, who worked for Columbia/HCA in the 1990s. Scott was "like the bully that would come into town and if you didn't sell to him or partner with him, he would open up shop across the street from you and put you out of business."

Not long after joining the company in 1993 as the supervisor of reimbursement for the Fort Myers, Florida, office, Schilling noticed things weren't quite kosher. "They were looking for ways to maximize reimbursement...which ultimately would improve the bottom line."

One way they did this was to fudge the costs on their Medicare expense reports. They were "basically keeping two sets of books," says Schilling. The company would maintain an internal expense report, what it called a "reserve" report, which accurately tallied its expenses. "And then they would have a second report, which...they would file with the government, which was more aggressive." That report would "include inflated costs and expenses they knew weren't allowable or reimbursable. The one they filed with government might claim $5 million and the reserve would claim $4.5." Columbia/HCA would pocket the difference.

It wasn't just happening in Florida, and it wasn't just fraudulent Medicare expense reports. Around the country, dozens of whistle-blowers like Schilling stepped forward to file lawsuits under the False Claims Act, charging the company with sundry forms of chicanery: kickbacks to doctors in exchange for referrals, illegal deals with homecare agencies and filing false data about the use of hospital space.

By 1997 the FBI was investigating Columbia/HCA. Days after agents raided company facilities armed with search warrants, Scott was forced to resign. In 2000 the company pleaded guilty to fraud and agreed to pay the government $840 million. Other civil settlements would follow, ultimately totaling a staggering $1.7 billion, making it the largest fraud case in American history.

But in Washington there's no such thing as permanent disgrace, and as the healthcare debate heats up, Scott has established himself as a go-to source for reporters looking to hear from the opposition. He's been quoted in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He's been on Fox, of course, railing against President Obama's efforts to control healthcare costs. He appeared on CNN, where (as Media Matters noted) host Jessica Yellin never saw fit to notify viewers that the man she introduced as running "a media campaign to limit government's role in the healthcare system" once ran a company that profited mightily from ripping off that government.
Sun, March 15, 2009 - 10:13 AM — permalink - 1 comments - add a comment

'...the commanders see little benefit from negotiations with the Taliban right now, despite Obama's support for such an overture.'

From Rajiv Chandrasekaran -

MAYWAND, Afghanistan -- Lt. Col. Daniel Hurlbut rolled into this dusty Taliban stronghold in September with a battalion of U.S. Army infantrymen and a detailed, year-long plan to combat the Taliban.

The first quarter was to be devoted to reconnaissance. The next three months would involve military operations to root out insurgents. By now, his unit should have been focusing on reconstruction and building up the local government.

But the battalion's efforts to pry information about the Taliban from the local population -- by conducting foot patrols, doling out money for mosques to buy new prayer rugs and offering agricultural assistance to subsistence farmers -- have been met with indifference, if not downright hostility.

The southern part of the country is now regarded by U.S. and NATO commanders as the central front in the Afghan war. It encompasses the nation's second-largest city, Kandahar, and six provinces where the Taliban has built a significant degree of popular support, in part through intimidation but also by delivering Afghans a degree of security against criminals that the local police and international forces have been unable to provide.

The new strategy here involves a major -- but controversial -- push to better coordinate the efforts of NATO troops deployed in the south, a new focus for counternarcotics operations and the allocation of more troops to train Afghan security forces. It also seeks to apply a fundamental tenet of the U.S. Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine: Deploy the troops to create zones of security around population centers instead of mounting in-and-out raids against the insurgents.

Unlike in eastern Afghanistan, where the U.S. military had been concentrating its troops since 2002, American units in the south will be forced to work far more closely with other NATO forces. The new U.S. troops will find themselves in a swath of the country that is the epicenter of opium poppy cultivation and where far fewer resources have been devoted to reconstruction and development. And they will be forced to deal with a deep-rooted, indigenous insurgency -- the Taliban got its start in the south -- that has mounted increasingly potent attacks on civilians and security forces.

What the new strategy does not seek to do, however, is to borrow a page from the U.S. playbook in Iraq by creating tribal militias to fend off the Taliban. Commanders here said that approach could create even more warlords and new intratribal feuds. And the commanders see little benefit from negotiations with the Taliban right now, despite Obama's support for such an overture.

Military officials regard the Taliban, composed largely of ethnic Pashtuns, as both too strong and too fragmented in the south to pursue an effective deal, although they remain open to the possibility in the east, where some tribal leaders who have supported the insurgency could be persuaded to switch sides.

When NATO forces were deployed to the south in 2006, the Canadians were assigned the province of Kandahar, the British got Helmand, and the Dutch were sent to Uruzgan. The three nations developed their own battle plans and agendas for development. They established provincial reconstruction teams that report to their capitals, not the NATO regional command at the Kandahar airport.

People at the regional command now joke that the three provinces should be renamed Canadahar, Helmandshire and Uruzdam.

"It's a totally dysfunctional way of fighting a war," said a U.S. officer in the south. "You've got each of these guys doing their own thing in their provinces with very little coordination."

The fractured approach is a result of demands imposed by NATO members as a condition of sending troops to Afghanistan. Each nation wanted its own chunk of the action so it could show off what it had accomplished.
Sun, March 15, 2009 - 9:55 AM — permalink - 1 comments - add a comment

'Until recently, the District's AIDS office lacked a fully staffed surveillance unit to collect, analyze and distribute data.'

From the Washington Post -

At least 3 percent of District (Washington D.C.) residents have HIV or AIDS, a total that far surpasses the 1 percent threshold that constitutes a "generalized and severe" epidemic, according to a report scheduled to be released by health officials tomorrow.

That translates into 2,984 residents per every 100,000 over the age of 12 -- or 15,120 -- according to the 2008 epidemiology report by the District's HIV/AIDS office.

"Our rates are higher than West Africa," said Shannon L. Hader, director of the District's HIV/AIDS Administration, who once led the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's work in Zimbabwe. "They're on par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya."

In addition to the epidemiology report, the city is also releasing a study on heterosexual behavior tomorrow. That report, funded by the CDC, was conducted by the George Washington University School of Health and Health Services.

Among its findings: Almost half of those who had connections to the parts of the city with the highest AIDS prevalence and poverty rates said they had overlapping sexual partners within the past 12 months, three in five said they were aware of their own HIV status, and three in 10 said they had used a condom the last time they had sex.

So urgent is the concern that the HIV/AIDS Administration took the relatively rare step of couching the city's infections in a percentage, harkening to 1992, when San Francisco, around the height of its epidemic, announced that 4 percent of its population was HIV positive. But the report also cautions that "we know that the true number of residents currently infected and living with HIV is certainly higher."

The District's report found a 22 percent increase in HIV and AIDS cases from the 12,428 reported at the end of 2006, touching every race and sex across population and neighborhoods, with an epidemic level in all but one of the eight wards. Black men, with an infection rate of nearly 7 percent, carry the weight of the disease, according to the report, which also underscores that the District's HIV and AIDS population is aging. Almost 1 in 10 residents between the ages of 40 and 49 has the virus.

The report notes that "this growing population will have significant implications on the District's health care system" as residents face chronic medical problems associated with aging and fighting a disease that compromises the immune system.

Until recently, the District's AIDS office lacked a fully staffed surveillance unit to collect, analyze and distribute data. Inevitably, the office lost credibility, and although it has received millions in federal and local funds -- $95 million this year -- some care providers questioned whether resources were being properly allocated.

Critics also say congressional control over the District had restricted the AIDS office's ability to combat the virus among drug injection users by banning the use of local tax dollars for a needle exchange program. After almost a decade, the ban was lifted last year.

Heterosexual sex was the principal mode of transmission for blacks with the disease, 33 percent. Men having sex with men was the chief mode of transmission for white residents, 78 percent; and Latinos, 49 percent. Black women represent more than a quarter of HIV cases in the District, and most, about 58 percent, were infected through heterosexual sex. About a quarter of black women were infected through drug use.

There is good news in the AIDS office's report: More people are getting HIV diagnoses early, while they are still healthy, as a result of a policy of routine testing implemented by the city in mid-2006. Publicly supported HIV testing expanded by 70 percent.
Sun, March 15, 2009 - 9:47 AM — permalink - 1 comments - add a comment

'Private ownership is so concentrated in some areas that a single electricity company from Spain, Endesa, has bought up 80 percent of the water rights...'

From the New York Times -

QUILLAGUA, Chile — During the past four decades here in Quillagua, a town in the record books as the driest place on earth, residents have sometimes seen glimpses of raindrops above the foothills in the distance. They never reach the ground, evaporating like a mirage while still in the air.

What the town did have was a river, feeding an oasis in the Atacama desert. But mining companies have polluted and bought up so much of the water, residents say, that for months each year the river is little more than a trickle — and an unusable one at that.

Quillagua is among many small towns that are being swallowed up in the country’s intensifying water wars. Nowhere is the system for buying and selling water more permissive than here in Chile, experts say, where water rights are private property, not a public resource, and can be traded like commodities with little government oversight or safeguards for the environment.

Private ownership is so concentrated in some areas that a single electricity company from Spain, Endesa, has bought up 80 percent of the water rights in a huge region in the south, causing an uproar. In the north, agricultural producers are competing with mining companies to siphon off rivers and tap scarce water supplies, leaving towns like this one bone dry and withering.

Some economists have hailed Chile’s water rights trading system, which was established in 1981 during the military dictatorship, as a model of free-market efficiency that allocates water to its highest economic use.

But other academics and environmentalists argue that Chile’s system is unsustainable because it promotes speculation, endangers the environment and allows smaller interests to be muscled out by powerful forces, like Chile’s mining industry.

Codelco, the world’s largest copper miner, rejects any responsibility. Pablo Orozco, a company spokesman, said that the river water had been bad for years, and that heavy rains around the time of the contamination episodes had briefly swelled it, sweeping sediments and other substances into the water.

But the debate is largely academic, because without suitable water to raise crops, many residents saw no reason to continue resisting outside offers to buy the water rights in their town. One mining company, Soquimich, or S.Q.M., ended up buying about 75 percent of the rights in Quillagua. Most residents moved away; those who remain average around 50 years old.

“Quillagua cannot resist much longer,” said Alejandro Sanchez, 77, pointing a cane at a parched, grassless field where he once grew corn and alfalfa.

In 2007, the national water agency started investigating claims that Soquimich was extracting even more water from the Loa River than it was due. The inquiry is still pending, officials said, though the company says it has never taken more water than it owns rights to.

But early last year, the regional water authority started satellite monitoring along the Loa. After recording no water at all in the summer of 2007, Quillagua suddenly received small amounts last year, and again this January.

That has made water authorities suspicious that companies had been draining more water than permitted, according to Claudio Lam, a regional director for the Chilean water agency.

Even so, the water arriving in the summer is still not enough to produce crops, said Victor Palape, the chief of the Aymara Indians in Quillagua.

In a cruel twist, the town survives only because of daily water trucks that are partly financed by Codelco and Soquimich, the two companies that residents blame most for their troubles.
Sun, March 15, 2009 - 9:39 AM — permalink - 1 comments - add a comment

'The American Bar Association declared that such signing statements were “contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers”...

From Charlie Savage -

But Mr. Obama also signaled that he intended to use signing statements himself if Congress sent him legislation with provisions he decided were unconstitutional.

Mr. Bush’s use of signing statements led to fierce controversy. He frequently used them to declare that provisions in the bills he was signing were unconstitutional constraints on executive power, and that the laws did not need to be enforced or obeyed as written. The laws he challenged included a ban on torture and requirements that Congress be given detailed reports about how the Justice Department was using the counterterrorism powers in the USA Patriot Act.

Since the 19th century, presidents have occasionally signed a bill while declaring that one or more provisions were unconstitutional. The practice became more frequent with the Reagan administration, but it initially drew little attention.

That changed under Mr. Bush, who broke all records, using signing statements to challenge about 1,200 sections of bills over his eight years in office, about twice the number challenged by all previous presidents combined, according to data compiled by Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio.

Many of Mr. Bush’s challenges were based on an expansive view of the president’s power, as commander in chief, to take actions he believes necessary, regardless of what Congress says in legislation.

The American Bar Association declared that such signing statements were “contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers,” and called on Mr. Bush and future presidents to stop using them and to return to a system of either signing a bill and then enforcing all of it, or vetoing the bill and giving Congress a chance to override that veto.

The Obama administration portrayed its approach as a major departure from that of Mr. Bush. But Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, disagreed, saying Mr. Obama was “wrong” to embrace the view that signing statements can be constitutionally legitimate.

“I think the Constitution is explicit as to how you handle these situations, and if the president thinks something is unconstitutional, then he ought to veto it,” said Mr. Specter, an outspoken critic of Mr. Bush’s signing statements.

He called the practice a “dodge” and “a disregard for the separation of powers and co-equal branches of government.”
Sun, March 15, 2009 - 9:34 AM — permalink - 1 comments - add a comment
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