Friday, January 31, 2014

Repealing Obamacare Is More Important than Controlling NSA or Balancing the Budget

You may think that Obamacare has left the front page and is ticking along like a government watch - slow and ubable to do its job accurately. But Republican Senator Tom Coburn, who has announced that he will not seek another term as Oklahoma's Senator in order to concentrate on curing his cancer, revealed Tuesday that his Obamacare insurance plan does not cover his cancer specialist, forcing him to pay out of pocket. Just the latest reminder of complications with the health law. The Oklahoma Senator briefly discussed his personal situation in an interview Tuesday morning. "I'm doing well from a health standpoint, got great docs and fortunately, even though my new coverage won't cover my specialists, I'm going to have great care and I have a great prognosis," he said. Politico has reported that Coburn's office confirmed his coverage was cut and he lost coverage for his oncologist. However, Coburn reportedly will pay out of pocket in order to keep seeing the specialist. Like other congressional lawmakers, Coburn, 65, was required to go on the Obamacare exchanges. Coburn's case is one of many hanging over the President. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are not letting the Obamacare issue die. Coburn also was one of three GOP lawmakers who on Monday unveiled a sweeping alternative proposal to the Affordable Care Act which would gut the law's mandates and taxes while preserving some consumer protections. "Americans deserve a real alternative, and a way out," Coburn said. Other congresspeople are also drawing attention to how the health care law has impacted coverage. Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Obamacare critic, took as her guest to the President's State of the Union Address on Tuesday a woman with lupus whose plan was canceled because Obamacare. The woman says in a new ad (aired by the conservative Americans for Prosperity) that she lost her prior coverage and now faces medical costs rising by more than $6,000 a year : "I'm worried about losing access to the doctors who have cared for me. President Obama, you broke your promise, and people like me got hurt," she said in the ad late last year. Obama tried to assuage the concerns of those losing coverage by allowing insurance companies to re-offer canceled plans. But not all states and companies have done that because their 2014 tariffs have already been set after public hearings and comment periods. And while the Obama administration has worked to address widespread technical problems that impeded the launch of health care exchanges in October, lawmakers are still voicing concerns about the financial stability of the system. One of these lawmakers, retiring Democratic Representative Jim Moran, says that he's "afraid that the millenials ... are less likely to sign up." Insurance companies are depending on these young and healthy customers to buy health insurance, to offset the cost of taking on older and sicker customers -- as required under the law. ~~~~~ Dear readers, Obama defends the law, arguing that it provides vital consumer protections - like barring insurers from denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions. The administration also notes that enrollment has improved dramatically through the exchanges since the October launch. Yet Obama has given no indication of the age spread of these enrollees, however many they may be. And, for this reason, it is impossible to put a taxpayer price tag on Obamacare. It was estimated by rhe White House and Secretary Sebelius to add $900 million to federal health care costs. Given the major increase in enrollments already occurring in Medicaid, caused by Obamacare, some experts suggest that the real cost of Obamacare may approach $2.7 trillion. And public opinion polls continue to show that more than 60% of Americans oppose Obamacare, 90% of those who have used the website have had problems and 4.7 million Americans have had their coverage cancelled. In normal times prior to the Obama presidency, this catastrophe would not have happened. It is now the responsibility of Congress - Democrats and Republicans - to extricate America from this horror show that the amateur Barack Obama and his henchmen, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, got the country into. This is not politics as usual. It is critical for the future of all Americans.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Scarlett Johansson Left Nothing Lost in Translation with Oxfam

A movement to boycott goods produced in Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories has led to American actress Scarlett Johansson resigning from her role as a global goodwill ambassador for Oxfam International. Johansson's promotion of SodaStrean angered Oxfam. SodaStream operates in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967, along with the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians seek all three territories for a future state. Johansson will appear in a high profile ad for the company set to air during the Super Bowl Sunday. Oxfam says her dual role is incompatible with her Oxfam position. The charity first voiced unhappiness with her dual role last week. Oxfam believes SodaStream and other businesses operating in Israeli settlements in the West Bank contribute to the "denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support." The charity said it opposes all trade from the Israeli settlements, "which are illegal under international law." Johansson said she is resigning her Oxfam position because of a "fundamental difference of opinion." Pro-Palestinian activists who advocate consumer boycotts of goods produced in Jewish settlements have encouraged the public to shun SodaStream. The company's main plant is in an Israeli industrial zone next to the settlement of Maaleh Adumim in the West Bank. SodaStream makes machines and home beverage carbonation systems and hopes its Super Bowl TV ad featuring Johansson will increase its US market share, which lags far behind its market penetration in Europe. Oxfam expressed concern about Johansson's role last week after she had become a global brand representative for SodaStream, whose president Daniel Birnbaum, told the AP that the campaign to boycott products from Israeli settlements had not had any impact on SodaStream. We have not lost a single customer," he said. "If anything, it advances our awareness around the world, because people are talking about SodaStream." Birnbaum said his factory was "a model for peace....We're very proud to be here and contribute to the co-existence and hopefully the peace in this region," he told Reuters news agency. He said the company does not want to "sacrifice" the jobs of 500 Palestinians who work in the SodaStream factory "for some political cause" of activist groups. These jobs, Birnbaum added, support several tbousand members of our Palestinian employees' families. The World Jewish Congress issued a statement Thursday praising Johansson for her "forthright defense of economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians." The WJC said the actress was a "role model for others confronted with insidious anti-Israeli pressure." The office of the actress issued a statement : "Scarlett Johansson has respectfully decided to end her ambassador role with Oxfam after eight years. She and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. She is very proud of her accomplishments and fund-raising efforts during her tenure with Oxfam.....SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbours working alongside each other receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights." SodaStream operates one of the hundreds of factories constructed in some 20 Israeli-run industrial zones in the West Bank where Israelis and Palestinians work together. ~~~~~ Oxfam was founded in 1942 to provide famine relief in Greece and other countries affected by World War II. Though Oxfam's initial concern was to provide food to relieve famine, over the years the organisation has become a non-governmental organization with quasi-political strategies to combat the causes of famine. In 2005, the New Internationalist magazine described Oxfam as a "Big Internationa NGO (BINGO)", having a corporate-style, undemocratic internal structure, and addressing the symptoms rather than the causes of international poverty by acquiescing to neoliberal economics and even taking over roles conventionally filled by national governments. Oxfam's support of a controversial Tony Blair government financial transaction tax proposal is such an example. Oxfam also largely unsuccessfully attacked Dole in Central America and Starbucks in Ethiopia about its dealings with the government, which finally agreed to enter into what it saw as a positive long term deal with Starbucks to provide coffee beans. Oxfam and other NGOs were also accused of lying or withholding truth from people it was helping to feed during the Rwandan crisis.Criticisms have been voiced by Red Pepper magazine and Katherine Quarmby in the New Statesman, which detailed growing rifts between Oxfam and other organisations within the Make Poverty History movement. In an article for Columbia Journalism Review, journalist Karen Rothmyer accused NGOs in general and Oxfam in particular of being too influenced by the priorities of the media, of providing inaccurate information to the press ("stories featuring aid projects often rely on dubious numbers provided by the organisations") and of perpetuating negative stereotypes which "have the potential to influence policy." She drew on earlier work by journalist Lauren Gelfand, who had taken a year away from journalism to work for Oxfam : "A lot of what Oxfam does is to sustain Oxfam," a position Linda Polman, author of the Crisis Caravan, seemed to agree with : "Aid organisations are businesses dressed up like Mother Theresa." ~~~~~ Dear readers, the Israeli commercial projects in the West Bank settlements benefit Palestinians, providing jobs that are desperately lacking otherwise. These work sites where Israelis and Palestinians come together to work also provide opportunities for them to know each other in real world environments. The Palestinian Authority has not objected to them. The Palestinians who work for SodaStream and other West Bank companies, like most Palestinians who work in Israel, are able to help families and build bridges. There must be other affairs that would better occupy Oxfam. Bravo, Scarlett. You honor America and Israel.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

President Obama - Out of Ideas, Out of Time, Out of Step

To put some perspective around President Obama's State of the Union Address to Congress and the American people last night -- it was third on most US national newscasts, after the icestorm and Super Bowl week. It was not reported on most European newscasts, but the Federal Reserve elmination of another $10 billion in QE III pump priming was. What should be clear is that, six years into his presidency, the shine is off the star. What did Mr. Obama propose last night? A rehash of already largely rejected ideas. **Obama announced that he had issued an executive order to raise the minimum wage paid by federal contractors to $10.10 - it will kick in in 2015 for new contracts only and can be seen as just another Obama unpaid-for expenditure. He also called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage for all workers to $10.10. But Obama asked Congress to raise the rate to $9 last year, and Congress has not taken that step. What makes the President think he can do better in a congressional election year? **The President, aggressively asserting that climate change is a fact, went on by his proposals to indicate his position that it is a reversible manmade fact. He announced that he will administratively promulgate a set of first-of-its-kind limits on power plants (destined to cripple the US coal industry), work with states and communities on climate change resiliency and cutting pollution, cut red tape to help states build factories that use natural gas, and propose new incentives for trucks that use alternative fuels like natural gas. But the crunch came when he urged Congress to end tax benefits for the oil industry and use revenues to invest in advanced vehicles that use cleaner fuels, not an idea that will be accepted by a Congress still smarting from Obama's costly and murky expenditures for solar panel technology that collapsed into bankruptcy, alleged misdoings and lost taxpayer dollars in a miniscule US solar panel market. And he uttered not a word about the Canadian-US oil pipeline the GOP and most Americans want. **Obama touted his decision to wind down the war in Afghanistan by removing most troops and completing the US mission by the end of this year. He mentioned his work to negotiate a security agreement with Afghanistan so a small force can remain to train Afghan forces and pursue al-Qaida, without mentioning that Afghan President Karzai is stonewalling the negotiation while the Taliban use Obama's loudly signaled withdrawal to retake the countryside, burying the sacrifices of American troops and taxpayer dollars. As for Iraq and Syria, Obama merely restated his platitude that he will work with all groups seeking democracy, while Senator John McCain, Congress's military guru, showed his contempt with a been-there-heard-that smile. **In a similar vein, Obama announced an overhaul of US NSA-led surveillance programs to restore public confidence, but with not so much as a nod to congressional resistance to tearing apart the post-9/11 security protections put in place to make Americans safer at home. **The President's renewed call for Congress to lift transfer restrictions so Guantanamo Bay prison can be closed were applauded by Democrats and stonefaced by Republicans, who are still waiting for a detailed Obama plan for what would replace Guantanamo. **In his best shot at cooperation, Obama asked Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul this year, but he included asking for a path to citizenship for about 11 million immigrants in the US illegally. Such legislation has passed the Democratic Senate, but the GOP House prefers a multi-law approach that addresses each area of immigration reform separately. House Republicans are meeting this week to outline their principles for such an overhaul. Again, Mr. Obama confronted the GOP House instead of offering to work with the entire Congress. **The Obamacare debacle was once more the occasion for bad jokes about its failed website and lies about its enrollment success and cost. **And not one word from Obama about the nation's $17 trillion national debt and the need to raise the ceiling yet again. ~~~~~ Dear readers, GOP House Speaker John Boehner summed up Obama's effort : "The authority he has doesn't add up to much for those without opportunity in this economy," adding that the President should refocus his priorities and "work with us on the things that we can achieve together to create jobs and promote greater opportunity." In this midterm election year, with control of Congress at stake, any Obama hope to gain the political initiative will be extremely difficult. So, in an unspoken acknowledgement that he will not and prefers not to work with the GOP House and Speaker Boehner, while Obama summoned lawmakers to create jobs, overhaul immigration laws, combat climate change and more, he threatened them by saying he would act unilaterally where possible if they won't compromise. Compromise? To Mr. Obama that means do it his way or not at all. Here are Obama's aggressive words : "America does not stand still, and neither will I. So whatever and wherever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do." From Boehner down, there was little evidence the GOP will roll over and play dead for the President : "The president's policies are making people's lives harder," Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, head of the GOP House Caucus, said in the Republicans' official response. And, while many may disagree with me on this, I was uncomfortable that there was only one sustained and spontaneous round of applause - for Army Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, grievously injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He acknowledged the cheers from his seat next to first lady Michelle Obama. My family has offered distinguished military service right down to my generation. And the one thing all military families share is quiet but profound patriotism and a sense of suppression of self for the good of all. My heart aches for Sergeant Remsburg and his family. All America knows it owes him and every soldier a debt that can never be repaid except by respect, a real effort to keep America on track, and a serious commitment to go to war only as a last resort. Last night's use of Sergeant Remsburg's terrible ordeal as an effort to validate Obama's own agenda was for me disrespectful, not only to Sergeant Remsburg but to all soldiers everywhere. ~~~~ Barack Obama - a President out of ideas, out of time and out of step.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Syrian Rebels Stand Tall in the Negotiating Fields of Geneva

The Syrian peace talks in Geneva have adjourned early as the opposition demands that the government address the question of a transition of power. Opposition spokesmen said they wanted the Syrian government to take time to come up with a proposal on the issue. The talks are stalled over the issue, especially over the future role of President Bashar al-Assad. UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi also said that there had been no breakthrough on getting aid to the city of Homs. Government and opposition delegates held a joint session with Brahimi on Tuesday morning. On previous days that has been followed be separate meetings with each delegation in the afternoon, but the opposition has said it will not meet today. Opposition delegate Rima Fleihan told the French AFP agency : "The regime is not co-operating on any subject, not on humanitarian issues and not on a transitional governing body." Another opposition delegate, Murhaf Jouejati, told AP the delay would give the government time "to come out with their own vision for a future Syria." At a news conference later today, Brahimi said : "We have not had any breakthrough but we are still at it and this is good enough as far as I am concerned." He said that he had cancelled the meeting "with no request or pressure from either side." Brahimi also said that a convoy bearing humanitarian aid was still waiting to enter Homs, reporting that the al-Assad government has not given permission. Concerning the evacuation of women and children from Homs, the al-Assad regime continues to say that they are always free to leave, adding that men may also leave, if their names are given to the government. The opposition calls this a ruse meant to arrest the men and bring retribution down upon their families. Some 2,500 people have been trapped in the Old City of Homs since June 2012, without access to food and medical supplies. On Tuesday, the governor of Homs province said a UN official was in contact with rebel fighters in besieged parts of the city concerning the evacuation of civilians, while the UN's World Food Program said it was ready to deliver a month of rations when it gets clearance from both sides. Opposition delegate in Geneva, Louay Safi, said that the rebel Free Syria Army was prepared to lift a siege on three shia villages in the north, allegedly being used as bases by the government from which to attack Aleppo, if this came as part of a wider deal to lift sieges across the country. Western diplomats are now warning that if an agreement on aid to Homs is not reached by next week, they will prepare a resolution for the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, fighting goes on in Syria. The opposition says al-Assad attacks and bombing are killing on average 100 people every day, to add to the 130,000 already dead and the 9.5 million displaced in the civil war that started in 2011. ~~~~~ Dear readers, are we surprised? No, but what does surprise me is the complete collapse of the al-Assad-Russia-Iran axis public face. The world has been fed a public relations tale that paints al-Assad as the reasonable leader of a nation filled with desperate, wild-eyed "terrorists" determined to bring down civilization in Syria. What we were also told was that the opposition is a barely organized amalgam of various factions who could not agree on anything, never mind negotiate. The reality on the negotiating grounds of Geneva? An al-Assad regime that has stonewalled - refused humanitarian aid to starving Syrians unless it receives a bloodlist of rebels - a refusal even to address transition, which was the basis for the Geneva I communique, by saying that the rebels should forget their dreams of a Syria without al-Assad. Match this with a serious, organized, flexible opposition that is trying to save lives, remove seiges, and feed starving Syrians. Are we surprised? Of course not. All the PR and soft words in the world cannot paper over the tyrannical, autocratic, inhuman bullies that make up the axis of al-Assad, Iran and Russia.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Holocaust Remembrance Day

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January, is the United Nations international memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust, the genocide that resulted in the annihilation of 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies (Roma and Sinti) and millions of others by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It was designated by United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on November 2005. On 27 January 1945, the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated by Soviet troops. This year, 60 members of the Israeli Knesset, including four ministers and four deputy ministers, are in Auschwitz-Birkenau to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Knesset delegation, as well as hundreds of Israelis and Jewish politicians from around the world, were in Poland early Monday morning for a joint Israeli-Polish ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The chairman of the Likud Coalition, Yariv Levin, and Labor opposition leader Isaac Herzog led the delegation. “Seven decades after millions of members of our nation were cruelly murdered by the Nazis, it is my privilege and responsibility to lead the largest delegation of the Knesset, the parliament of the independent Jewish state, to the valley of death of Auschwitz-Birkenau,” Levin said Sunday. “We will reach the gates of this horrible place with survivors who went through the inferno, in order to honor the memory of the victims and say clearly : " 'Am Yisrael Hai' [the people of Israel live].” Herzog added that “there are no words to describe the powerful feelings we have in expressing the spirit and opinions of our democracy. We are going to remember, to remind, to learn and teach, to light a candle in memory and say a prayer.” Other delegations include European Members of Parliament, the Israel Jewish Congress, the European Friends of Israel, a US delegation led by House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Canadian Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney. The event was created by Jonny Daniels, founder and executive-director of From The Depths (FTD), an organization whose mission is to bring lessons of the past to future generations by helping Holocaust survivors and preserving Jewish sites in Poland. The Israeli delegation will tour the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp on Monday, before participating in the Polish government’s annual ceremony in Auschwitz. Then the group will walk to Birkenau where the traditional kaddish and El Malei Rahamim Jewish prayers will be recited. Later, an inter-parliamentary gathering will take place in Krakow, led by Levin and Deputy Polish Parliamentary Speaker Cezary Grabarczyk and featuring one-minute speeches by lawmakers from Israel, Poland, the US, Canada and other countries. Afterward, the Israeli delegation, Polish lawmakers and most of the other visiting legislators will take part in a dinner sponsored by FTD and the World Zionist Organization, featuring performances by renowned opera singer Andrea Bocelli and Israeli singer Amir Benayoun, with the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Israeli conductor Rafi Bitton. Daniels said, “Members of the Knesset don’t yet realize how impactful this will be. Visiting Auschwitz is a life-changing experience and this is the first time for many of them. You can read [about the Holocaust], but being in Auschwitz with survivors is truly remarkable. It’s an historic event.” The FTD founder noted the subzero temperatures in Poland, saying one survivor called it “Auschwitz weather.” “If we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes for one second, I reached my goal. If we in our coats will be freezing, imagine how they felt in their pajamas,” Daniels added. Rudolf Steinbach, an Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner who spoke at today's ceremony, said : “The Nazis brought me here to Auschwitz on March 13, 1943. It was here that they tattooed prisoner number Z-2201 on me, and it was here that I lost my whole family. Of my entire family, I was the only one to emerge alive from this hell. I never even go to the cemetery, because the graves of my loved ones are not there. That is why I come here to Auschwitz, because just here, in this enormous cemetery, lie the remains of my parents and siblings. Together, we must take care to ensure that what happened here is never forgotten.” The Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Dr. Piotr sM.A. Cywiński, appealed for the memory of the victims to be honored in an individual way. “A great challenge stands before us all. We should not permit this period, this extermination, to continue to be so little known. Remembrance must find a point of reference for our own responsibility today, which is not exclusively an institutional responsibility.” In her remarks, Polish Minister Elżbieta Radziszewska warned that no representatives of any ethnic group in any country or territory should ever again do what was once done in Auschwitz, Birkenau, Majdanek, Bełżec, the Gypsy ghettos -- places where the Nazis carried out their exterminations. ~~~~~ Dear readers, the horrific events of the Holocaust are taught around the world through movies, history books, and compelling accounts, such as The Diary of Anne Frank. Here are some facts you can share to remember the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau and those elsewhere in eastern Europe in 1945. **The Holocaust began in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and ended in 1945 when the Nazis were defeated by the Allied powers. **The term "Holocaust," originally from the Greek word "holokauston" which means"sacrifice by fire," refers to the Nazi's persecution and planned slaughter of the Jewish people. **"Shoah," a Hebrew word which means "devastation, ruin, or waste," is also used for this genocide. **In addition to Jews, the Nazis sent to camps and often exterminated Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the disabled. Anyone who resisted the Nazis was sent to forced labor or murdered. **The term "Nazi" is an acronym for"Nationalsozialistishe Deutsche Arbeiterpartei" ("National Socialist German Worker's Party"). **The Nazis used the term "the Final Solution" to refer to their plan to murder the Jewish people. **It is estimated that 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust. Six million of these were Jews. The Nazis killed approximately two-thirds of all Jews living in Europe. **An estimated 1.1 million children were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. **But, think about this fact - when the Nazis attempted to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto on April 13, 1943, the remaining Jews, starved, wracked with disease and possessing armamentts far inferior to those of the Nazis, fought back in what has become known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Jewish resistance fighters held out against the entire Nazi regime for 28 days -- longer than many European countries had been able to withstand Nazi conquest. ~~~~~ And, while it iis useful to remind mankind of other massive, state-led slaughters - Armenia, the USSR, Cambodia, Rwanda, even Syria - there is one thing that makes the Holocaust unique. It was the most extreme expression of a deep-seated European anti-Semitism stretching from Russia to France across every page of European history. Anti-Semitism that all...all...European governments still monitor and suppress. The Jews are a fragile, peaceable people whose religion has singled them out -- God's "chosen people " -- and who have been envied and persecuted because of this role thrust upon them by God. Anti-Semitism. It is we, the world of non-Jews, who bear the real mark of the Holocaust. It is we who must learn the lesson. It is we who must cleanse ourselves of the taint. Ariel Sharon said it best : "The sad and horrible conclusion is that no one cared that Jews were being murdered...This is the Jewish lesson of the Holocaust and this is the lesson which Auschwitz taught us." Anti-Semitism. The Holocaust. Never Again.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The West and Putin's Russian Vision Meet in Ukraine

Let's take a tour of Eastern Europe. According to MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, the last leader of the Soviet Union who presided over its collapse, perestroika was the "conference of development of democracy, socialist self-government, encouragement of initiative and creative endeavor, improved order and discipline, more glasnost (openness) criticism and self-criticism in all spheres of our society. It is utmost respect for the individual and consideration for personal dignity." In 1988 when Gorbachev introduced glasnost, giving the Soviet people freedoms they had never known, including greater freedom of speech, the press became far less controlled, and thousands of political prisoners and dissidents were released. Gorbachev's goal in undertaking glasnost was to pressure conservatives within the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party who opposed his policies of economic restructuring, and to lead the Soviet people to support his reform initiatives through openness, debate and public participation, perhaps not realizing that at the same time, he opened himself and his reforms up for more public criticism. ~~~ In his presidency and premiership, VLADIMIR PUTIN has shown that Russia has no intention of establishing a copy of the American or British political system. Putin says he is interested in a system closer to Russia's own traditions and circumstances. Putin's administration has often been described as a "sovereign democracy." According to those who agree with that description, Putin's actions and policies are designed to gain popular support within Russia itself and not internationally. And in a speech before NATO in 2007, called the Munich speech, Putin called for upholding the principle that "security for everyone is security for all," while criticizing the policies of the United States and NATO, condemning the unipolar model of international relations as flawed and lacking moral basis, condemning the "hypocrisy" of countries trying to teach democracy to Russia, condemning the domination of hard power and enforcement by the US of Western norms and laws to other countries bypassing international law and substitution of the United Nations by NATO or the EU. Putin also called for a stop to the militarization of space and questioned the plans to deploy American missile defense in Europe as threatening strategic nuclear balance and spurring a new cold war. After the Munich speech, Washington came to regard Russia as obstructionist and a spoiler because of Syria, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. In turn, those nations began to look to Russia for protection against the US. And Europe, which needs Russian gas, but worries about Russian interference in the affairs of Eastern Europe, began to expand the EU eastward, which angered Russia. Central Asia sees Moscow as a former overlord too powerful to ignore. In Asia, India has moved from being a close ally of the Soviet Union to becoming a partner of the United States with strong nuclear and commercial ties. In East Asia, Japan and Russia remain estranged over the ownership of the Kurile islands, a dispute which has hindered cooperation for decades. And the Russia-China relationship has morphed constantly since the 1950s - from client state to antagonist to strategic resources partner. ~~~ The President of Ukraine elected during the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, was succeeded in 2010 by VIKTOR YANUKOVICH, which led to improved relations with Russia. Yanukovich is an ethnic Belarus-Polish-Russian, whose mothertongue is Russian and who learned to speak Ukrainian later. The President of Kyrgyzstan since 2009, Almazbek Atambayev, wants a "common future" with its neighbours and Russia. Despite existing or past tensions between Russia and most of the post-Soviet states, Putin has followed the policy of Eurasian integration. Putin endorsed the idea of a Eurasian Union in 2011, (the concept was proposed by the President of Kazakhstan in 1994). Putin is quoted as saying in 2010 at a European meeting that if Ukraine attempted to join the European Union, he would consider annexing eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, althougb Putin denies having said this. In 2011, the presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia signed an agreement setting a target of establishing the Eurasian Union by 2015. ~~~ In UKRAINE this weekend, as riots spread from Kiev to nearly half of the country, President Yanukovich promised to reshuffle his government and make other concessions - not enough for opposition leaders who say nothing short of his resignation will do. Hours after the president's comments Friday, fireballs lit the night sky over central Kiev and thick black smoke rose from burning tires at huge protester barricades. Angry demonstrators hurled firebombs, rocks and fireworks at officers as a protest leader said: "We will force the authorities to respect us,...Not they, but we will dictate the conditions of a truce." The fighting had stopped earlier this week as opposition leaders entered into face-to-face talks with Yanukovich. Vitali Klitschko, an opposition leader who is a former world heavyweight boxing champion, said the only way to end the street protests - known as the Maidan after the central Kiev square occupied by protesters - is for Yanukovich to resign. "Just a month ago, the Maidan would have gone home," Klitschko told reporters Friday night, according to the Interfax news agency. "Today, people are demanding the president's resignation." The more violent rallies broke out after Yanukovich scrapped a key treaty with the European Union in order to secure a bailout loan from Russia President Vladimir Putin, who has pressed hard to keep Ukraine in his nation's political and economic orbit, but more Ukrainians favor closer ties with the EU than any new alliance with Russia. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who spent several years backing the scrapped EU agreement with Ukraine, suggested that Yanukovich was losing control over the country. He posted a map of Ukraine on his Twitter account, where many regions were shown engulfed by protests : "If Kiev regime tries a military solution to this situation, it will be very bloody and it will fail." EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele flew to Kiev on Friday to meet with Yanukovich and the opposition and try to broker a solution. The West has been urging Yanukovich to compromise with the protesters, while threatening sanctions against his government. ~~~~~ Dear readers, these points in modern eastern European politics are related. Putin has now, according to sources, sent Cossack troops to help Yanukovich. It seems clear that the Putin vision of a renewed Russian hegemony includes not only the southern tier breakaway nations from Georgia to China, but also Ukraine. The view that Ukraine buffers Russia from western Europe is a thousand years old. The Putin view of modern Russia as the natural socialist leader of the space from Warsaw to Mongolia can be seen in Putin's efforts to consolidate power and influence through oil and gas diplomacy that supports his instinctive opposition to western democratic societies. Gorbachev was trying to save the USSR from internal economic collapse when he undertook the politically dangerous opening up of Soviet society. The unintended consequences of his gamble have made him a 'friend' of tbe West, but it was Gorbachev who said in 1985 : "Many of you see the solution to your problems in resorting to market mechanisms in place of direct planning. Some of you look at the market as a lifesaver for your economies. But comrades, you should not think about lifesavers but about the ship, and the ship is socialism." The efforts of EU leaders going to Kiev to coax Ukraine west would be better spent in talking to Vladimir Putin about a compromise that will call his Cossacks back home and stabilize gas deliveries into the EU. Then, the EU will be able to defend the protesters, who fear a return of Soviet-era Russian overlords. Perhaps a key to success is the little-known Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian politician, lawyer and business oligarch considered one of the most important post-Soviet Ukrainian politicians, less active now and operating out of public view. Currently Medvedchuk is chairman of the pro-Russian political organization Ukrainian Choice, and is considered 'the undisputed leader of Russia’s fifth column in Ukraine.' Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk's daughter Darina (born in 2004). Medvedchuk and his party now have marginal popular support in Ukraine, but, with President Yanukovich's son, a feared oligarch who yields huge business power in Ukraine, he may be able to convince Putin to save their, and thus Putin's, fortunes and power by helping Ukraine find a future acceptable to Russia and the West. Not at all easy. "The country is sliding towards dictatorship and we must stop that," says a 33-year-old protester."Molotov cocktails are louder than any empty words from politicians."

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Obamacare Trainwreck Rolls On

A new Gallup poll report shows that America's uninsured rate dropped modestly this month as coverage expansion under President Barack Obama's health care law got underway, according to the closely watched survey released several days ago. in January, uninsured Americans dropped from 18% to 16.1%. The biggest change was for unemployed people, with a drop of 6.7%. The next largest drop was a 2.6% decline for nonwhites. Traditionally both groups are far more likely to be uninsured than the population as a whole. Americans in these low-cost potential Obamacare sign-up groups have been ambivalent about signing up so far. The uninsured rate dropped by 1.8% for women, well above the 0.6% drop for men. Uninsured rates also fell all along the income ladder, with those making $36,000-$89,999 seeing the greatest drop at 1.8%. Based on interviews with more than 9,000 people, the Gallup numbers could be the first evidence that core provisions of Obama's much-debated law have started to deliver health care access for vulnerable American groups. Virtually all Americans are now required to get coverage or risk fines. Insurers can no longer turn away people with health problems. New state-based markets are offering taxpayer-subsidized insurance to middle-class households. Medicaid sign-ups are also rising, partly because of a program expansion accepted by half the states and partly as a consequence of previously eligible but unenrolled people now forced to comply with the law's individual coverage mandate. Explaining the drop in the uninsured rate, Frank Newport, Gallup's editor-in-chief, said the drop was probably due to the new health care law : "That would be the most reasonable hypothesis." Nonetheless, Newport said it could take a calendar quarter to see a full trend. Other factors could also be behind the shift, including an improving economy. Newport explained : "The glass is half full for proponents of the Affordable Care Act because things are moving in the right direction. But the glass is half empty because things haven't moved much." The drop in uninsured unemployed people "comports with what the Affordable Care Act was intended to do," he added. But the Gallop findings of 2-3 million now covered under Obamacare are far below estimates of the Obama administration, which ranged as high as 9 million people benefiting by buying coverage in the new insurance exchanges. Gallup explained this wide discrepancy by the fact that administration figures include not only people buying coverage in the new insurance exchanges, but also Medicaid enrollees and young adults who can stay on a parent's plan until age 26. Some of those people may have been insured previously and either had to switch coverage because of the law or they joined a new plan because it turned out to be a better deal. The Obama administration has not clarified this. Glenn Kessler, author of the influential Fact Checker blog in The Washington Post warns us not to believe President Obama's claim that 6 million (9 million according to Gallup) people have signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Kessler told Newsmax TV that the figure is based on combining a figure of 2.1 million for people who have selected plans on state and federal exchanges, and 3.9 million for Medicaid. "The 3.9 million from Medicaid - that's essentially everyone who signed up for Medicaid in October and November,...But it turns out its two months of numbers have to do with everyone who ever signed up for Medicaid. It really doesn't tell you anything about how well the Affordable Care Act is doing. [It's] somewhat similar to saying you put something in your shopping cart at Amazon and that's what they're counting, all of the things that are in the shopping cart. They don't know how many people actually pushed the button and ordered the item." Another major problem Americans are facing under Obamacare is its provision that employers can opt out of Obamacare for part-time employees. While Obama said this would not happen, there is mounting evidence that Obamacare is stripping health care away from part-time employees. Target, a major retailer, has now Joined Home Depot, Walmart, and others in cutting health care for part-timers, citing Obamacare as the reason. Thus, Target has become the latest high-profile retailer to cut health benefits for part-time workers, citing both low employee participation and “health care reform” in a letter posted on its website. The Minnesota-based discount chain joins Home Depot, Trader Joe’s, Forever 21 and other large retailers in ending health insurance coverage for part-time staff as Obamacare comes into effect. Other companies like Walmart started cutting health care benefits for part-timers long before Obamacare’s January 1st start date. Walmart, the Arkansas-based low-price giant stopped health coverage for those working fewer than 24 hours a week in 2011. Walmart has replaced its health care coverage for all staff with coverage starting after certain periods of service Target explained early this week that fewer than 10% of the chain’s workers are currently enrolled in the company’s part-time health plan, which is available for employees working under 30 hours weekly : “The launch of Health Insurance Marketplaces provides new options for health care coverage that we believe our part-time team members may prefer,” according to Target, which said that each part-timer will be eligible for a $500 cash payment from Target. “In fact, by offering them insurance, we could actually disqualify many of them from being eligible for newly available subsidies that could reduce their overall health insurance expense.” However, workers’ rights advocates are taking issue with Target’s framing of its healthcare changes as an altruistic act : “Major employers like Target should not be looking to taxpayers to subsidize an employee benefit they can more than afford to pay,” said Carrie Gleason, executive director of the Retail Action Project, an activist group that has protested labor practices at Walmart among other companies. “Moreover, Target’s plan is part of an ongoing trend in the retail industry of capping workers’ hours to avoid the employer mandate for insurance,” she said. “The real issue at play here is that employers consistently don’t offer part-time employees health insurance.” Target assured employees there is no plan to cap workers’ hours, writing : “At any time, our team members can talk to their manager about their interest and availability to work more hours. In fact, during the holiday season we offered our year-round part time and full time team members the opportunity to take on additional hours or cross-train to work in other areas. ~~~~~ Dear readers, one thing we do know about Obamacare is that the federal enrollment website serving 26 states went down when it was launched October 1, and it took two months to make needed, but not all behind-the-screen, fixes. We also know that the company in which a friend of Michelle Obama is an executive vice president created the catastrophic website at costs estimated to be near $1 billion. And we know that this company has been fired and replaced by another company with no federal IT contract experience. And we know that both these contracts were entered into in non-bid procedures. Meanwhile, we know that at least 4.7 million people had their existing individual policies canceled because those plans, although preferred by those insured, didn't meet Obamacare's requirements. And, we know that insurers are still reporting glitches in the interfaces between the online enrollment data and insurance company IT systems, leaving many tbousands of Americans with no evidence that they are insured. This has led to individuals having to pay for doctor visits, procedures and prescription drugs. And we know that Americans familiarizing themselves with their new Obamacare health insurance plans are finding that some tightly restrict their choices of doctors and hospitals. And we also know that the bill for American taxpayers will far exceed any figure the Obama administration has nentioned. OBAMACARE - the word that stands for the destruction of the private American health care system. If the next Congress does not repeal it and handle uninsured and underinsured Americans separately, America will soon have government-controlled single-payer nationalized health care. And the best medical care system in the world will have disappeared forever.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Will the Gentle Giant Klitschko Be Able to Tame Yanukovich?

UPDATE UKRAINE : *KIEV - Demonstrations against pro-Russian President Yanukovich and his allies intensified outside the capital, Kiev, as protests grow increasingly violent this week. Opposition leaders have given Yanukovich a deadline of Thursday evening to make concessions or face renewed clashes. But protesters in Kiev, attempting a temporary ceasefire, put out the barricade fires that had filled the capital in black smoke and the president called for a special parliament session next week, telling the parliament speaker : "The situation demands an urgent settlement." But there was no indication that the move was an indication of a Yanukovich compromise, since the president's backers hold a majority of seats. The protests became violent this week after Yanukovich pushed through harsh anti-protest laws, rejecting protesters' demands that he resign and call new elections. *THE WESTERN UKRAINE. - Support for Yanukovich is almost non-existent and most residents want closer ties to the 28-nation EU. Thursday, hundreds of activists stormed the office of regional governor Oleh Salo, a Yanukovich appointee, shouting "Revolution!" and singing Christmas carols. They encircled Salo, demanded that he sign a letter of resignation, then ripped it out of Salo's hands and lifted it up while the crowd cheered. Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters smashed windows and doors and stormed the governor's office in Rivne, shouting "Down with the gang!" - a common reference to Yanukovich's government. Once inside, they sang the national anthem. Angry crowds also besieged government offices in other western cities. *REPRISALS - Anger spread after a video was released online that appears to show police abusing and humiliating a naked protester in what looked like a location close to the site of the Kiev protests. The man, wearing only socks, is forced to stand on the snow in freezing temperatures, while a policeman punches him in the head and others force him to pose for photos. Yanukovich apologized for the "impermissible actions of people wearing police uniforms" and launched an investigation into the incident. Two other protesters have been shot dead and another protester's body was found in a woods near Kiev, showing signs of torture. *PRIME MINISTER AZAROV - On Wednesday, riot police moved to dismantle barricades erected next to a nearby government district and two people were fatally shot in the ensuing clashes. Azarov said on Thursday that the two men's wounds were caused by hunting rifles, which the police do not possess. The Interior Ministry said they could have been killed in order to escalate the crisis. Azarov has maintained a tough stance, calling the protests an attempted coup d'état. Authorities reported that 73 protesters had been arrested, 52 of them charged with "mass riots" - a new criminal charge that carries a prison sentence of up to eight years. *INTERNATIONAL REACTION - EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Thursday that the situation in Ukraine must stabilize, otherwise, the EU "would assess possible consequences in its relationship." Barroso said Yanukovich has given him assurances that he does not see the need to impose a state of emergency. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said this is not the time to consider sanctions against the Ukrainian government but added that it must comply "with its obligations to secure fundamental democratic rights." Merkel said Germany is "appalled" by the way new laws are being "pushed through" that raise questions about fundamental freedoms. Russia, in turn, accused the West of meddling in Ukraine's affairs, according to President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. *NEGOTIATIONS - Protest leader Virali Klitschko was planning to hold talks with Yanukovich on Thursday. Klitschko urged both protesters and police in Kiev to withhold the use of force until he reports back. He has three main demands : a snap presidential election, the cancellation of the new anti-protest laws and the resignation of the government. Addressing protesters on Wednesday, Klitschko said the president could end the stand- off "without bloodshed." Otherwise," he added, "we will go on the attack." Azarov said opposition leaders should be "more humble" and "move away from the language of ultimatums." ~~~~~ Dear readers, the breaking news as I post this blog is that Vitali Klitschko has emerged from his meeting with President Yarukovich and told the crowd that he believes chances are "high" for a peaceful settlement of the Ukrainian protests. There are no details available, but Klitschko says talks will continue. We can only hope that the gentle giant of a boxer and the thuggish Ukrainian president can find the path out of the spreading civil unrest that threatens the future of Ukraine

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ukraine Protests Explode in Kiev Violent Confrontations

The Reuters report from Kiev this evening is not promising. Reuters reports that Ukrainian opposition leaders emerged from crisis talks with President Viktor Yanukovich on Wednesday saying he had failed to give concrete answers to their demands, and they told their supporters on the streets to prepare for a police offensive. The spark for the latest ororests waw the new anti-protest laws, hastily passed by parliament last week take effect today, Wednesday to outlaw putting up tents in public areas and banning baklavas and masked protesters. The emotional language of the opposition leaders came after the deaths earlier in the day of at least three protesters - two of them from gunshot wounds. Ukrainian aurhorities sqy their security force is equipped only with rubber bullets. The three opposition leaders who met Yanukovich said they were ready to face police bullets. Vitaly Klitschko, former world heavyweight boxing champion, told the thousands of protesters gathered on Kiev's Independence Square, called Maidan by Urkainians, that during three hours of talks the president had given no clear response to their demands that the government be dismissed and sweeping anti-protest laws ditched. "Today they (the police) are preparing to clear us out of the 'Maidan'....We must do all we can to stop them clearing us out," he said. He urged people to stay overnight and defend the square in central Kiev, and drew a roar of support from protesters when he declared : "If I have to go (into the streets) under bullets, I shall go there under bullets....Tomorrow if the President does not respond...then we will go on the offensive," he said. Kater, Klutschko told CNN that by "going on the offensive," he meant a national strike, not violent confrontration. Former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, another opposition leader, agreed with Klitschko, referred to the overnight shooting deaths that the opposition blame on police, an allegation denied by police. A third man died after falling from the top of Dynamo football stadium while fighting with police. "I will not live in shame. Tomorrow we will go forward together. If there will be a bullet in the forehead, so be it. It will be honest, just and brave action," he said. The deaths were the first protest-related fatalities in the crisis that began last November after Yanukovich rejected a trade deal with the European Union in favor of financial aid from Soviet-era overlord Russia to prop up Ukraine's failing economy. The direct talks between Yanukovich and the opposition were the first move in attempting to negotiate an end to two months of civil unrest between hard-core radical protesters and police. The protesters, angered by news of the deaths, again on Wednesday confronted riot police, whom they have battled near the Ukrainian parliament since Sunday night. Repelled by occasional forays of baton-wielding riot police, the demonstrators returned to Maidan, burning tires that sent clouds of black smoke wafting into police lines. Fifty people were detained overnight and 29 of them were officially charged with taking part in mass unrest, police said, adding that a total of 167 police have been injured. Estimate put of the number of civilians injured at 200. Ahead of the talks with protest leaders Klitschko, Yatsenyuk and far-right nationalist Oleh Tyahnibok, President Yanukovich issued a statement deploring the overnight loss of life. Urging people not to heed the calls of "political radicals", Yanukovich said: "I am against bloodshed, against the use of force, against inciting enmity and violence." But his prime minister, Mykola Azarov, took a tough public line before flying off to the economic forum in Davos, denouncing the protesters as "terrorists" and "criminals." He blamed opposition leaders for inciting "criminal action" by backing the protests which he said had destabilized Ukraine, probably a reference to a smaller group of hardcore radicals who effectively hijacked the movement Wednesday by attacking police with petrol bombs, fireworks and cobblestones. Police responded with rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas. Underlining Washington's disapproval of the way Ukraine has handled the protests, the US Embassy in Kiev said it had revoked the visas of several Ukrainians linked to police violence against the demonstrators in November and December. It did not name the officials, but said it was considering further action. A State Department spokeswoman said the United States strongly condemned the violence, as well as "the targeted attacks against journalists and peaceful protesters," blaming tensions on the government's anti-democratic measures but also said the extreme-rightist group Pravy Sektor was inflaming the situation. "We urge all sides to immediately de-escalate the situation and refrain from violence," she said in a statement. The European Union called on Ukraine's government and opposition to "engage in a genuine dialogue." "I strongly condemn the violent escalation of events in Kiev overnight leading to casualties. The reported deaths of several protesters are a source of extreme worry," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement. European Commission President Jose Manue Barroso said the EU could also take action against Ukraine. Russiab Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has told European governments to stop meddling in Ukraine's political crisis and said events could be spinning out of control. BBC reported that Lavrov described violent clashes between anti-government protesters and police as "scary" and accused EU politicians of stirring up the situation, saying uninvited foreign leaders had participated in the demonstrations, an apparent reference to the EU's Ashton's and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle's visits to Kiev during December marches. The Ukraine media said opposition leaders denounced the participants in the melee as provocateurs and said they did not represent the aspirations of the peaceful protesters, but the leaders were also powerless to stop the fighting. By midnight on Wednesday, the streets were a scene of utter mayhem. Those fighting the police struck them with lengths of pipes and sticks, and hurled cobblestones the size of soccer balls into their midst. They sent fireworks whistling and sparking into their ranks, and threw what appeared to be firebombs, blossoming into flames when they struck. The police stumbled backward, patting at their clothes as fire burned their metal shields. ~~~~~ Dear readers, European media are describing the currenr situation in Ukraine as "chaos" on Europe's doorstep. Russia, on the eastern doorstep of Ukraine, has told Europe to stay out of Ukraine's internal affairs. As I said in my December 10, 2013, blog : "For Vladimir Putin, the last thing he wants is a democratic Ukraine spreading its ideas into the Russian region next door - from St. Petersburg to Moscow - where such ideas would find fertile ground." The Ukraine has had a troubled history with President Victor Yanukovich. He was rejected by the Ukraine in the 2004 Orange Revolution protests led by the iconic Yulia Timoshenko, now imprisoned by Yanukovich for corrruption, a charge that half of Ukrainians see as politically motivated. Yanukovich, elected in 2010, has the reputation of being a hardline Soviet-era autocrat. The people of Ukraine fear losing thier post-Soviet freedoms if they allow Yanukovich to align the Ukraine with the Russia of Vladimir Putin. Although Putin is now fully occupied with trying to provide a terrorist-free Winter Olympics, he is surely watching the Ukraine. Could the Ukraine buffer zone between Europe and Russia become a fullblown civil war? It is in everyone's interests to prevent that. The searing images coming out of Syria, reminiscent of the Holocaust, should warn us that civil war in Ukraine could plunge Europe into a confrontation with Russia that could spin out of control.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Al-Assad Has Butchered His Way Past Humanity's Red Line : It Is Time to Deal with Him

There are times when, because I'm a woman, my eyes fill with tears. But, they are at times not tears of grief but, rather, tears of anger...of rage. ~~~~~ The "Syria Report," is a 31-page document commissioned by a London-based law firm for the government of Qatar, which has financed and armed rebel groups in Syria and repeatedly called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stand trial for war crimes. The report's authors are veterans of war crime prosecutions : Sir Desmond de Silva and David Crane argued war crimes cases related to the 1991 to 2002 civil war in Sierra Leone, while the third author, Sir Geoffrey Nice, led the prosecution of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague. The report is based on the evidence of a defected military police photographer, referred to only as 'Caesar', who along with others reportedly smuggled about 55,000 digital images of some 11,000 dead detainees out of Syria. Caesar said his job was to take photographs of corpses, both to allow a death certificate to be produced and to confirm that execution orders had been carried out. "There could be as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph which require 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse," he is quoted as saying. He did not claim to have witnessed killings or torture himself. The photographs cover the period from the start of the uprising in March 2011 until August 2013 and show evidence of massive starvation, with many bodies looking like Holocaust victims. Many had been beaten and strangled. Some had their eyes missing and others showed signs of electrocution. All but one were men. Thank God, there were no photos of children, although we know from earlier news reports that young children have been tortured and released, both dead and alive, to their families. The report charges that President Bashar al-Assad's regime is guilty of the "industrial scale" torture and killing of 11,000 detainees. The report was first released in The Guardian newspaper, CNN and Turkey's Anatolia news agency, and you can download it, including many photographs, in English or Arabic at or Syria has previously denied torturing detainees but the government had no immediate reaction to the Syria Report. The United Nations human rights office expressed horror Tuesday, saying the allegations must be investigated. "This report is extremely alarming, and the alleged scale of the deaths in detention, if verified, is truly horrifying," Rupert Colville, spokesman for UN rights chief Navi Pillay, told AFP in an email. "Allegations this serious cannot be ignored and further investigation is clearly necessary," he added. Both Pillay's office and an independent commission of inquiry on Syria, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2011, have already documented a number of cases of torture similar to those described in the report, but not on such a large scale. The four-member commission, which includes former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, has repeatedly accused the Syrian regime of crimes against humanity and war crimes. It has never gained access to Syria, but through more than 2,000 interviews in the surrounding region or by phone or Skype, it concluded that regime forces have applied torture, including electric shocks, cigarette burns, sleep deprivation and mock executions, Colville pointed out. The UN investigators, who found that reported deaths in Syrian custody rose markedly in 2013 have also accused the opposition of war crimes, and Pillay expressed deep concern last week that some anti-government armed groups were increasingly torturing and murdering people in their custody. The report released Tuesday "underlines the importance of independent monitors ... being allowed unfettered access immediately to Syria," Colville said. Fox News quoted British Foreign Secretary William Hague calling the report "further evidence of the systematic violence and brutality being visited upon the people of Syria by the Assad regime. We will continue to press for action on all human rights violations in Syria, and for accountability for those who perpetrate them." A leading human rights group accused the US and other world powers Tuesday of undermining efforts to bring Assad before the International Criminal Court. The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the US had focused too strongly on bringing the warring parties together for peace talks at the expense of putting "real pressure" on al-Assad's regime to end atrocities and hold those responsible to account. The group also accused Russia and China of shielding their ally Syria from concrete action at the United Nations, such as arms embargoes."We cannot afford to wait for the distant prospect of a peace accord before the killing of 5,000 civilians a month comes to an end," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told reporters at a press conference as he presented the group's annual report in Berlin : "The mass atrocities being committed in Syria should be a parallel focus of the peace process." The Guardian offered details of the photographing procedure : "The reason for photographing executed persons was twofold. First to permit a death certificate to be produced without families requiring to see the body, thereby avoiding the authorities having to give a truthful account of their deaths; second to confirm that orders to execute individuals had been carried out." The Guardian says that families were told that the cause of death was either a "heart attack" or "breathing problems"....The procedure for documentation was that when a detainee was killed each body was given a reference number which related to that branch of the security service responsible for his detention and death. When the corpse was taken to the military hospital it was given a further number so as to document, falsely, that death had occurred in the hospital. Once the bodies were photographed, they were taken for burial in a rural area." Three experienced forensic science experts examined and authenticated samples of 55,000 digital images comprising about 11,000 victims. "Overall there was evidence that a significant number of the deceased were emaciated and a significant minority had been bound and/or beaten with rod-like objects," the report says. One of the three authors, David Crane, said: "Now we have direct evidence of what was happening to people who had disappeared. This is the first provable, direct evidence of what has happened to at least 11,000 human beings who have been tortured and executed and apparently disposed of. This is amazing. This is the type of evidence a prosecutor looks for and hopes for. We have pictures, with numbers that marry up with papers with identical numbers - official government documents. We have the person who took those pictures. That's beyond-reasonable-doubt-type evidence." A US administration official told the Guardian on Monday: "We stand with the rest of the world in horror at these images which have come to light. We condemn in the strongest possible terms...." ~~~~~ Dear readers, we have listened for almost three years to Western leaders explain why nothing can be done to help the people of Syria. While Barack Obama drew and erased lines in the sand, and while the UN and Europe waited to see whether there was an actual line, al-Assad systematically tortured and killed 11,000 of his own citizens, while bombing and launching drone and chemical attacks to kill 100,000 and displace 2.5 million Syrians not consigned to the dungeons. That elusive Obama line in the sand provided a convenient background for al-Assad and his henchmen to torture, kill, bomb and invite Iran to join in the affair. And now, with the Syria Report and 55,000 photographs of dead torture victims, what are the UN and the US planning in response? They are asking for access to al-Assad's dungeons. Question : would the Allies have asked Hitler for access to the concentration camps?? What should we do? Blockade Syria. Boycott the Sochi Olympics to force Putin to stop the torture. Exclude China and Russia from all UN committees until they vote to sanction al-Assad at the Security Council. Stop exports of Iranian petroleum and swaps to both Russia and China. And in America, Congress must stand up for the Syrian people against the cynical indifference of Obama. We hear that we do not understand the religious and sectarian nature of Middle East wars. But we are human beings. We understand how other human beings must be treated. If we do not step up to our human obligations, we will become the Germans in the book, "Hitler's Willing Exrcutioners." There actually is a line in the sand, drawn by mankind. Al-Assad has butchered his way far past that red line. It is time to deal with him. "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." __from Meditation17 by John Donne.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Obama Is Weakening National Security the Way He Devastated Health Care

President Barack Obama's orders to change US surveillance practices carried out by the National Security Agency under legislation passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack have put the burden on Congress to deal with the national security controversy that has angered Americans and outraged foreign allies. Characteristically, President Obama avoided offering his own detailed proposals for major action on the practice of sweeping up billions of phone, email and text messages from across the globe. Instead, the President made broad suggestions and left the concrete actions to be worked out by Congress and the Department of Justice. He said the NSA program has worked well to keep America secure, but he added, rather illogically, that it now needs new limits on the way intelligence officials access phone records from hundreds of millions of Americans. The President suggested that he is moving toward eventually stripping the massive data collection from the government's hands, an idea strongly rejected by private internet and communications providers who say that the shift would require standardized collection and storage protocols that do not exist today if the data is to be searchable across providers. Their objections also include the cost of storing data indefinitely - it is now destroyed in one to two years up to ten years - and their demand for new legislation to require them to collect and store records for the government and to protect them from customer lawsuits if their data is eventually searched. Telephone executives also warn that building new technical infrastructure and adding staff to contend with records demands would cost far more than the $60 million federal estimate. There are also issues being raised by legal experts about the President's idea to hire a private business or create a new independent entity to store and oversee NSA phone records. It is not clear whether the government could easily do either. Hiring an outside private firm might continue public mistrust, in light of recent widespread hacking into Target and other companies, experts said. Choosing a private contractor could backfire if the process recreates the chaos of the government's health care website. And relying on a quasi-government agency might reduce even more public confidence, the factor at the heart of the effort to change NSA operations. Constitutional analysts also question the legal basis for Obama's commitment to form an advisory panel of privacy experts to intervene in some proceedings of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the NSA's data mining operations. Obama has asked Congress to set up such a panel, but senior federal judges already oppose the move, citing practical and legal problems. Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said : "I think we're going to see pretty quickly the lack of specificity behind some of the president's promises." Judges question how the office of the public advocate would be managed and also raise constitutional issues about whom the advocates would represent and how they would obtain secret clearances to look at some of the government's most sensitive classified documents. The notion received severe criticism from the federal judiciary. US District Judge John D. Bates, the administrative judge of the US court system and previously chief judge of the FISA court, said any outside advocate group could not effectively provide the court with independent factual investigations necessary for highly classified national security cases or create a truly adversarial process. And Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN's Candy Crowley Sunday that putting an uninformed outside advocate between the FISA court and an intelligence professional seeking a warrant to search NSA metadata would only slow down the process and make it likely that the judge would continue to rely on the intelligence pro. On the other side of the spectrum, privacy advocates called Obama's proposal a shell game - assigning the collection to a new, as yet undecided entity instead of ending it outright. They had even sharper criticism for the speech's minimal focus on the NSA intercepts of billions of overseas Internet messages and phone conversations from foreigners each day. The program, authorized under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the US government to read or listen to foreign messages and phone calls as long as they do not target American citizens who live overseas. But Obama did not spell out how or when any of his suggested changes would occur. Nor did Obama specify any sweeping changes to the so-called 702 program to protect foreigners' privacy, although he did broadly promise to order "the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas." He said that would include limiting the time that the US holds the foreign information it collects and restricting its use. Given the mass of foreign communications surveillance, the President offered just a "sliver" of respite from fears of US spying, according to Matt Simons, director of social and economic justice at Chicago-based software company ThoughtWorks, just one of a number of US tech firms seeking broad reforms to prevent clients from defecting to foreign firms that might offer more protection. And at a Brookings Institution forum after the Obama speech, intelligence experts debated the effects of Obama's orders on privacy, security and commerce. While the collection of Americans' phone records "is the molten core of the political debate," the surveillance of foreigners' communications is at the heart of NSA operations, senior fellow Benjamin Wittes said. He believes that massive changes likely will not be needed, because US intelligence officials generally don't eavesdrop on or read foreign communications they don't need. He called Obama's pledge to protect foreigners' privacy rights a significant step toward rebuilding US trust overseas, calling it a spiritual step that does not necessarily need to be followed by deeds. And finally, there is Congress itself. Obama has made it almost impossible for a reluctant Congress to avoid making some changes in the US phone surveillance it has supported for years. The decisions to be made are between how to protect privacy rights and how to protect the US from terror attacks - what officials have called the main purpose of the NSA programs. "We have to get it right, and that is not simple," Obama said. The President said his proposals "should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe." Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Rogers, who are chairmen of the congressional Intelligence Committees, said in a rebuff to the President : "We encourage the White House to send legislation with the president's proposed changes to Congress so they can be fully debated." ~~~~~ Dear readers, this is a complex set of issues and President Obama has not provided clarity. He has simply scrambled the existing NSA metadata sweep programs without giving any detailed replacement scenario beyond his familiar platitudes. As former NSA director Michael Haydn put it in a Newsmax interview : "The president made it very clear: We are doing this to give people more confidence that the metadata will not be abused in the future. 'Now, what's the price to pay by making these changes to give people more confidence about the future?' Hayden asked. 'What might we be giving up? This is all about making people more comfortable, so here’s the deal,' he concluded. 'You're going to be a lot more comfortable. You're going to be a lot less safe, but you’re going to be more comfortable.' " It is distressing to realize that America is trading security for comfort, if that is true, dear readers. To regress to a pre-9/11 surveillance position, as some have suggested Obama's new position will cause, at the very least deserves informed decisions by Congress and a real understanding of the tradeoffs by the American people. Today we have neither. But that is how Mr. Obama's presidency operates, isn't it.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Senate Benghazi Report - We Still Don't Know What Really Happened or Why

The Senate Intelligence Committee issued its long-awaited report last Monday, finding that the deadly September 11, 2012, attack by militants on US diplomatic posts in Benghazi, Libya, was preventable. The report blamed the State Department for inadequate security precautions in the months before the attacks on the American diplomatic post and CIA compound, and it definitely declared that individuals tied to al-Qaida groups were involved in the Benghazi attack, challenging recent claims that the terror network was not a factor. The findings released Monday came nearly one year after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, under congressional questioning over the nature of the attack, shouted at lawmakers : “What difference, at this point, does it make?” The Obama administration initially claimed the attack spontaneously developed out of a protest against an anti-Islam film, but has since given progressively more complicated assessments. But, even today, administration officials downplay al-Qaida involvement, recently seizing on a questionable New York Times report (see my blog of December 30, 2013) that supported those claims. While the Senate report does not implicate the al-Qaida “core” (groups located in Pakistan and along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border), it clearly blames some of the most influential al-Qaida branches, including al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The Senate report concludes that : “Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM, Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP, and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks.” The militant Ansar al-Sharia was, separately, labeled by the State Department as a terror group last week, in part over its alleged involvement in the Benghazi strike. The Senate report stressed its conclusion that the intelligence still suggests the attack was not “highly coordinated,” but rather “opportunistic” and possibly put in place in “short order” after protests over an anti-Islam film elsewhere in the region, especially Cairo : “It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attacks,” according to the report, which, however, reaffirmed that there was no protest in Benghazi before the attack. US intelligence agencies had issued numerous reports warning that security in eastern Libya was deteriorating and that US personnel and posts in Benghazi were at risk, according to a declassified report also released by the committee. But the committee said the State Department "failed to increase security enough to address the threat," even though the US diplomatic post in Benghazi had suffered two earlier, but less damaging, attacks during the previous six months. Four Americans, including Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya, were killed on September 11, 2012, when militants attacked the underprotected US diplomatic compound in Benghazi and a better-fortified CIA base nearby (the State Department hired the "February 17th Martyr’s Brigade" to defend the diplomatic mission, a group linked to lawless Libya militia and accused of having links to al-Qaida). The attack became a political flashpoint in Washington in the run-up to the 2012 election. Republicans argued that President Obama tried to play down its significance as he campaigned for a second term. GOP Senator Marco Rubio said : “Throughout this investigation, the Obama administration was more of a roadblock than a contributor to committee efforts to look into the root cause of these attacks....This is especially troubling given that no one at the State Department, which has direct responsibility for the safety of US diplomatic posts overseas, has been held accountable. Despite many promises of ensuring justice for those behind this attack, that has not happened. This complete absence of accountability is unacceptable, and it is my hope that this administration will finally commit the intelligence, diplomatic and military resources to bring those responsible for these attacks to justice.” Rubio and Senator Richard Burr called the Senate's report incomplete. "This bipartisan report is a step forward in our understanding of these events, but should not by any means be viewed as a final verdict," Senator Burr said. "To the extent this report is incomplete, it is not due to the Committee's unwillingness to investigate, but the State Department's intransigence. It is our obligation and duty to continue to ask probing questions and investigate all details as they continue to come to light - as they invariably will." The Senate report also said it found no evidence that US spy agencies or the State Department had received specific warnings pinpointing that exact day for an attack. However, it said the CIA and State Department had both sent "general warning notices to facilities worldwide" about possible attacks on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks on the United States. The report put heavy blame on the State Department and intelligence services : "Despite the clearly deteriorating security situation in Benghazi and requests for additional security resources, few significant improvements were made by the State Department" to the diplomatic compound where Stevens died, though the CIA base was better protected, the report said. The committee said murky intelligence reporting in the immediate aftermath of the attacks led to confused or erroneous public statements by "policymakers" who initially blamed the attack on a protest against an anti-Islamic video produced in the United States that had appeared on the Internet. The committee said US spy agencies "took too long to correct these erroneous reports." A CIA spokesman said the agency had cooperated with the investigation and will "examine the committee's recommendations pertaining to agency practices and procedures." A State Department official said, "The Department is focused on preventing another tragedy like this one." ~~~~~ Dear readers, this bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report represents the first time that congressional Democrats have joined Republicans in affirming that the Benghazi attack was led by al-Qaida, that the State Department could have prevented the death of four American diplomats in Benghazi if it had not ignored the intelligence reports and pleas for assistance from the diplomatic mission, and the report less directly blamed State Department "policymakers" for not providing leadership in protecting Benghazi diplomats and for refusing security measures they say could have prevented the deaths of the US ambassador and three other Americans - clearly a reference to Hillary Clinton, who was then Secretary of State. The Senate report stated that increased security was needed. Since the release of the Senate report, GOP Senator John McCain, a senior congressional military expert, has reiterated his conclusion that the attack was, indeed, planned because mortar fire such as that which hit the US facilities must be planned to be accurate. McCain says everyone in Congress and the US military knows this. Unfortunately, the Senate intelligence Committee Report also says that 15 people in Libya who have tried to help the FBI investigate the murders have been killed. Not a positive sign of improved security needed to achieve future cooperation with America in Libya and the Middle East. Benghazi has not been buried with this Senate report. Its reliance on Obama administration witnesses, largely uncorroborated by witnesses who were in Benghazi when the attack occurred because blocked from testifying by the State and Justice departments, cannot be the final word. Benghazi will not be over until Mr. Obama explains why he went to bed during the attack...until Mrs. Clinton explains why she refused to protect Ambassador Stevens and his group...until America has the conviction that it knows what really happened in Benghazi - and why.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Israeli and American Exceptionalism in Times of Crisis

I went to Mass this evening and the Reading from the Old Testament was First Samuel 8:4-7, 10-22. Now, bear with me. I'm not going to preach at you - this is a political story. So, let's start with the reading from the First Book of Samuel : "All the elders of Israel came in a body to Samuel at Ramahand said to him, 'Now that you are old, and your sons do not follow your example,appoint a king over us, as other nations have, to judge us.' Samuel was displeased when they asked for a king to judge them. He prayed to the LORD, however, who said in answer: 'Grant the people’s every request. It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king.' Samuel delivered the message of the LORD in full to those who were asking him for a king. He told them: 'The rights of the king who will rule you will be as follows: He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariot. He will also appoint from among them his commanders of groups of a thousand and of a hundred soldiers. He will set them to do his plowing and his harvesting, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will use your daughters as ointment makers, as cooks, and as bakers.He will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves,and give them to his officials. He will tithe your crops and your vineyards, and give the revenue to his eunuchs and his slaves. He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best oxen and your asses, and use them to do his work. He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves. When this takes place, you will complain against the king whom you have chosen,but on that day the LORD will not answer you.' The people, however, refused to listen to Samuel’s warning and said, 'Not so! There must be a king over us. We too must be like other nations, with a king to rule us and to lead us in warfare and fight our battles.' When Samuel had listened to all the people had to say, he repeated it to the LORD, who then said to him, 'Grant their request and appoint a king to rule them.' " ~~~~~ The background to this episode is that the Israelis believed that they were the people chosen by God and that they had received His laws so that they could be the example on Earth of His way for humanity. So, in asking Samuel for a king, the Israelis were rejecting the special reason for existence God had given them. ~~~~~ Now, let's shift to the 1770s in the American Colonies. The Americans were sure of their exceptionalism long before de Tocqueville coined the phrase. William Winthrop, a Puritan preacher and political leader, gave voice to the idea that America was "the city on the hill," a phrase held dear by Ronald Reagan and neoconsetvatives. But, in planning to break away from England and her king, the Founders often wrote of America's republicanism based on Christian religious principles but not bound to any one church or sect. Thomas Jefferson called America the world's great " Empire of Liberty" - that is the model for democracy and republicanism. He identified his nation as a beacon to the world, for, he said on departing the presidency in 1809, America was : "Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence." And in drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson did what Samuel had done thousands of years earlier. He listed the evils inherent in monarchy in a long passage that gets little attention today : "[The King] has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures. He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people....He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers. He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone,...He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures. He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power. He has combined with others [for the purpose of] cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world...imposing Taxes on us without our Consent...depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury...taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments....He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny." ~~~~~ Dear readers, in a political sense, the Israeli people who opposed Samuel and Americans could be considered the first and the latest manifestations of the idea that sometimes a people are selected by God to be an example of how human society should be organized and on what principles. The Israelis failed in the time of Samuel, rejecting the notion that they were "different" and were meant to serve as a guide for others. America, which for two hundred years has served as a guide, may be feeling the same rebellion against destiny as the Israelis did -- "we too must be like other nations" -- that is, we are tired of our burden and want a "nanny state" government to take care of us, for once. But, as the Israelis learned, so America must learn the lesson that there is no escape from an exceptional destiny. It is the reason for existing. Asking for a ticket out of exceptionalism is impossible unless the very term "American" is to be erased, along with the history and Declaration of Independence and Constitution that define what an American is. Think about this, America, the next time you want to leave Syria to al-Assad or say you want to opt out of Iraq or Afghanistan or decide to vote for someone whose siren song is "pull up the ladder so we can isolate ourselves from our destiny while I decide what's best for you." That candidate wants to be your King. Thomas Jefferson gave America life for another, special, reason. Don't squander the gift.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Another Budget Disaster - Will America Heed Paul Ryan before It's Too Late?

Conservatives cannot be proud of the $1.1 trillion bipartisan budget bill passed by the House of Representatives yesterday. It violates spending levels imposed by sequestration and permits the US to keep spending money it does not have. "It's just another example of bipartisanship spending more money and putting us further in debt," Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, told Newsmax. "It's 1,582 pages. I'd be willing to make a bet that not one of the 435 of them actually read it.... [It is a] return to spending more now and growing the size of government putting us further in debt - and promising to behave better later, but not now," he said. Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, told Newsmax that the bill signaled "a substantial retreat on the part of Republican leadership and a broken promise on what they said they would do in 2010. It's very frustrating." By a vote of 359 to 67, the House passed the huge spending bill based almost line-for-line on the compromise brokered in December by Republican Representative Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Democratic Senator Patty Murray, who heads the Senate Budget Committee. Three House Democrats joined with 64 Republicans to oppose the measure, which finances the government through this year and makes the possibility of a federal government shutdown unlikely in a congressional election year. The legislation delays another $20 billion in Pentagon cuts imposed under the 2011 sequestration bill, on top of the $34 million in reductions imposed last year. The bill is expected to be approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate later this week. The bill allows both parties to claim victory. House Speaker John Boehner said the vote was a strong example of bipartisanship : "The House came together to keep the government open while further reining in its out-of-control spending," Boehner said in a statement. "I am particularly pleased that this measure contains no earmarks, which were once a pervasive symbol of a broken Washington. Also of note is that we are not providing any new or additional funding for the president’s healthcare law," Boehner added. The GOP-controlled House has voted numerous times to repeal the embattled Obamacare law. "Of course, there is always more work to be done to deal with Washington’s spending problem, an effort Republicans will continue to lead as part of our focus on growing the economy and preserving the American Dream," Boehner said. Republicans who voted against the budget bill called it a continued example of fiscal irresponsibility by Congress. "Voting for a trillion-dollar-plus spending bill without more time to find ways on how we could reform and downsize government was something I could not support," Representative Matt Salmon said. "This bill also fails to incorporate strategic opportunities to implement solid fiscal reform. If we are not willing to make tough choices now, then how can we expect future Congresses to make the bold and difficult choices we are unwilling to make ourselves?" Salmon asked. Representative Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has said all along that he would oppose the budget : “The American people are worried, and rightly so, about the state of our economy and the threat posed by our nation’s ever-increasing, spending-driven debt,....The American people expect their elected officials to work to address the crisis that is coming if we don’t get our fiscal house in order. Unfortunately, the appropriations bill passed by the House today doesn’t come close to meeting the expectations of the American people or the responsibility we have to future generations." But Americans for Tax Reform was more cautious in speaking to Newsmax about Wednesday's vote. The omnibus bill "falls short of many conservative ideals," said Mattie Duppler, the taxpayer advocacy group's director of budget and regulatory affairs, but she noted that the $1.1 trillion total represented the fourth straight year that spending had declined from the previous year. Funding for Obamacare also was cut, as well as $500 million cut from the Internal Revenue Service, accused of political harassment, and $440 million that would have gone to implement President Obama's healthcare law, Duppler noted. "The omnibus leaves many things to be desired," she told Newsmax, "But it does demonstrate slow progress in a time where many, at one point, believed the fight for smaller government was all but lost." The budget plan also was opposed by Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation. What was perhaps most troubling to budget critics, however, was that the size of the budget bill - 1,582 pages. "Nobody knows what they’re doing," Chocola said. "Literally, they do not know what they’re voting on. No one could. They posted this bill on Monday night - and here we are, on Wednesday, they're voting on it. Unfortuately, we have to pass it to see what's in it - and it's become business as usual," he added. "The result is we have more debt and we put our children further in the hole and diminished their future standard of living, because we can't do the hard things now." Kibbe also attacked the notion that the bill demonstrated effective bipartisanship in the House. "That's great for Washington, but the American people are looking for some semblance of fiscal responsibility," he told Newsmax. "Bipartisanship that funds all of the Democratic priorities and all of the Republican priorities does nothing for the American people....They’re using Washington math. They’re talking about spending reductions from an inflated baseline, when the fact of the matter is that spending goes up based on the kind of math that families would use around the kitchen table." "Everything's relative," Chocola said. "When people talk about the deficit coming down - well,...this is not reform." In addition, the budget bill also would earmark $92 billion for U.S. military operations abroad, mostly in Afghanistan, slightly less than last year, as well as $7 billion for disasters and other emergencies. "It's interesting," Kibbe observed on the military allocations. "If you're going to deal with our national security, you have to deal with the fact that we're borrowing so many trillions of dollars....It undermines our position in the world and it squeezes those very functions in our national defense that are so important....You can't continue to spend money you don't have to fund defense if at the same time you're bankrupting the country....if we're going to get off the road to fiscal ruin." The budget was drafted by GOP Representative Hal Rogers, the House Appropriations Committee chairman, and his Senate counterpart, Senator Barbara Mikulski, who said of criticism, "That's the nature of compromise." ~~~~~ Dear readers, it seems that with a weak but visible recovery underway in the US, tax receipts are increasing and, combined with the small but visible reductions in annual spending, are producing a smaller annual budget deficit. Conservatives have pushed for using the federal tax collections of the more normal economy to bring down federal spending as the private sector steps up its spending on job creation, as well as to begin to tackle the entitlements dilemma and reduce the national debt. If this new budget, on full analysis, can be used to hold to the income - spending patterns set out by Paul Ryan in his multi-year budget analysis, called The Path to Prosperity, then we may see both reduced federal spending and reductions to the national debt. But even Ryan's major overhaul of the US budget requires congressional determination because it will be 2021 before mandatory and discretionary spending is reduced from 12% of GDP in 2010 to about 6% in 2021. Ryan's budget plan is the only one that actually creates budget surpluses - but not until 2040. However, Congress cannot find the courage to follow Ryan. Even the GOP fears public backlash if Medicare becomes a voucher system. There is little alternative. Take the Ryan high ground to fiscal health or slog along with growing expenditures and deficits and national debt until America collapses under the weight of its own mindless, greedy need for welfare-state government handouts.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Obama Brand of Crony Capitalism and Political Harassment

The attorney appointed by the Obama administration to head the internal investigation into potential unfair targeting and harassment of conservative political groups by the IRS turns out to be a frequent and significant donor to both the Democratic National Committee and President Obama, Representative Darrell Issa reveals, in what he calls a "startling conflict of interest" that jeopardizes the investigation. Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, recently sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder revealing new information that reached the committee on who is conducting the internal investigations at the IRS regarding the inappropriate targeting of the conservative groups. Issa is asking Holder for an explanation as to why the FBI has been unresponsive to committee requests for information, noting that current and former IRS officials revealed that Barbara Bosserman, a trial attorney within the IRS's Civil Rights Commission, is leading the internal investigation. Bosserman's leadership raises serious questions about the investigation's fairness. Issa told Holder that his investigations revealed that she has been a loyal financial backer of the Democratic National Committee since 2004 and has donated multiple times personally to President Obama's two campaigns. Her personal donation total reaches $6,750 to both the party and President Obama. Choosing someone so openly and obviously partisan to lead an investigation into partisan targeting of opposition groups is "unbelievable" and "highly inappropriate," Representative Issa asserts, and demands that the Attorney General take immediate action to both remove Bosserman from leading the investigation and remedy any damage that may have occurred due to her involvement. The White House has been carefully and completely silent despite its apparent involvement in unfairly targeting 501(c)(4)s and other political civic action committees aligned with the Tea Party for more thorough investigations into whether their political advocacy was proper. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the targeting a " phony scandal" when questioned about it, and the White House has attempted to argue that progressive political groups also found themselves in the IRS's crosshairs. However, more than 80% of the 162 groups targeted in one case investigating inappropriate political "propaganda" were Tea Party-affiliated or otherwise anti- Obama groups. ~~~~~ As if that were not enough, in a tacit admission of its error in the non-bid naming of Michelle Obama's friend's company to a key Obamacare IT job, the Obama administration is dropping CGI Federal, the contractor responsible for building the glitch-laden website that has been a major source of the problems in Obamacare when open enrollment began in October, a source has told the Washington Post. Federal officials will sign a new contract with consulting firm Accenture for a 12-month period worth about $90 million to fix the problems that continue to plague the government-run site, the source said. The CGI contract was to expire at the end of February. Accenture is a large consulting firm that has done work for states but has never done major work for the federal government. It was the firm behind California's state-run health exchange website. The consulting firm refused to comment on any potential contracts it currently has in the works. "We are in discussions with potential clients all the time but it is not appropriate to discuss with the media contracts we may or may not be discussing," Joanne Veto, Accenture spokeswoman, told The Post. Government officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversees, would not confirm either. "We continually evaluate our needs and remain focused on ensuring consumers have access to affordable, quality coverage," said CMS spokesman Aaron Albright. While the front-end of the website was largely fixed by November 30, 2013, there are still major problems with the back-end that is supposed to communicate with insurers, making it difficult to complete the enrollment process and leaving many people without insurance even though they thought they had signed up. Because of these continuing problems, the government decision to end the contract with CGI is not a surprise. The sources that spoke with the Post said the decision was made by CMS because of frustration with the quality and pace of the work from CGI. According to a report released by Bloomberg Government analyst Peter Gosselin, CGI was paid more than $1 billion for the deeply flawed website. IT experts who analyzed the website have said it shouldn't have cost more than $10 million to build ~~~~~ So, dear readers, we can see the Obama White House and administration at work. Appoint unqualified friends to very lucrative contract jobs, pay them well for failing, then replace them with someone to clean up the mess. And when conservative and Republican groups try to register as political committees, harass and delay their applications until Obama could be re-elected without the opposition that might have revealed his crony capitalism and illegal campaign practices. Just another day in the life of Barack Obama.