Saturday, January 24, 2009

Maverick News: Small Expectations

This Week: Reading between the lines of Obama’a inaugural address, the torture issue, and first steps toward restoring basic rights. Global: a new survey of freedom around the world. Vermont: A casino gambling proposal. Plus, the Drug Report.

MIXED MESSAGES. Millions of people jammed into Washington, D.C., to see history being made this week, celebrating the start of what they hope will be new era. Yet a conflict between the hope Barack Obama has inspired and the realities of US politics ran through his inaugural address.

In describing the current economic crisis, for example, he said, "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." But the people suffering the most didn't "fail" to make "hard choices" about the greed and speculation on Wall Street. They didn’t get to choose at all. And they didn’t share in the gains that preceded the crash. Yet now they're being asked to take responsibility and sacrifice.

Millions of people probably would make some sacrifices – if the goals are things like a real national health care program. But so far all we’re mainly getting calls to be patient. Meanwhile, the second half of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout is expected to save some banks, but do nothing for the people in danger of losing their homes.

What about Obama's comments on foreign policy? He struck a different tone than Bush, offering the Muslim world "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Yet he was silent during Israel's assault on Gaza—carried out, by the way, with US-built F-16 jets and Apache helicopters, after a blockade that cut off food and medicine.

Obama said he would "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals"—a pointed criticism of the shredding of civil liberties under Bush. But he also claimed that "our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." This and other lines could have come from Bush's speechwriters.

Other troubling signs from Team Obama: calling for more US troops in Afghanistan without a clear explanation of what they’ll do there… giving a misleading impression about how soon and how many soldiers will be removed from Iraq by using the term "combat troops" – 100,000 mercenaries and up to 60,000 troops may remain… approving unspecified bailout amounts for unspecified purposes with unspecified oversight… picking a budget director who favors cutting Social Security for those under 60… picking an attorney general who supports continued immunity for illegal wiretapping and secret searches of library and bookstore data files… Plus, support for the war on drugs, the Patriot Act, and the death penalty.

On the other hand, Obama has issued a call to unite and work together to overcome adversity – to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." This is a time-honored call for American political leaders. But it’s also about actually doing something. And what people do in the coming months and years will be key in determining what kind of change this new era brings.

TORTURE LOGIC. This week Obama also announced that the US won’t torture prisoners anymore. Yet, one of the events not captured on TV during Inauguration day – the "Yes We Can Arrest Bush" rally, held along the route of the inaugural parade at the FBI building on Pennsylvania Avenue – raises a related question: How far will he go, and will he uphold his oath of office?

Related to that, Ralph Nader and Bruce Fein, a Justice Department attorney in the Nixon administration, sent a letter to Barack Obama on inauguration day. Here’s are some excerpts:

"The United States ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 1994. Article 12 of the CAT provides: 'Each State Party shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.'

"Former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Richard Cheney have both openly conceded that they authorized waterboarding on at least three Al Qaeda detainees. Among others, Attorney General-designate Eric Holder has characterized waterboarding as torture. ... "The federal criminal code punishes torture in accord with the CAT. See 18 U.S. C. 2340A. The United States recently prosecuted and punished the son of Liberia's Charles Taylor for torture perpetrated in Liberia.

"The public record clearly gives reasonable ground to believe Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and their subordinates are implicated in torture. Article 12 of the CAT thus requires that your administration conduct a 'prompt and impartial investigation' of the individuals and their superiors involved in waterboarding the Al Qaeda detainees and in interrogating Mohammed al-Qahtani. We urge that the investigation be conducted by a special prosecutor with a Republican Party affiliation appointed by the Attorney General to forestall charges of partisanship. If no investigation is forthcoming, you will have violated Article 12.

"During your presidential campaign, you assailed the unilateralism of your predecessor which flouted international obligations or responsibilities. You promised change. You should not ape former President Bush..."

FIRST STEPS. Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says that the Bush years have been a nightmare especially for those feeling the brunt of the administration's militaristic, inhuman, and illegal outrages. … The wars and killings in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza; the torture and detentions of thousands held at prisons in Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and secret sites; the implementation of a surveillance and spy state here at home with arrests on trumped-up terrorism charges; and the suppression of speech characterizing a terrible moment in all our lives.

"The country under Bush has moved well along on the road to a police state. ... The excitement of Obama's election can only take us so far. Bush's unconstitutional practices must be reversed. Constitutional rule must be reestablished.” As Ratner sees it, this means an end to:

* Perpetual detention without trial

* Torture and inhumane treatment of detainees

* Trials in kangaroo courts such as the military commissions

* Off-shore penal colonies and secret prisons

* Rendition of people to other countries for torture

* The surveillance state with its warrantless wiretapping, spying and suppression of speech

* Rule by presidential fiat

Constitutional rule means that those who violated fundamental rights be prosecuted. The question is: will the torture team be brought to justice?


THE STATE OF FREEDOM. Freedom House, an advocacy group founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt that fights tyranny around the world, says that freedom was in retreat in 2008. According to the group’s just released annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, this is the third year of decline in a row. Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union led the way down, while South Asia showed some improvement.

The report, "Freedom in the World 2009" examines the state of freedom in all 193 countries and 16 territories. It analyzes developments that occurred in 2008 and assigns each country a freedom status – "free", "partly free" or "not free." Overall, 34 countries registered declines in freedom and 14 registered improvements.

The number of countries judged as "free" in 2008 was 89 – 46 percent of the world’s population. Sixty-two countries were listed as "partly free,” 20 percent of humanity. And 42 countries were classified as "not free; that’s the remaining 34 percent. Eight countries received the survey's lowest possible ranking for both political rights and civil liberties: North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Burma, Libya, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Somalia. Two territories are in the same category: Tibet and Chechnya.

Eleven other countries and territories received scores that were only slightly better: Belarus, China, South Ossetia, Laos – all in Asia, Saudi Arabia and Syria in the Middle East, Cuba, and, in Africa – Zimbabwe, Chad, Eritrea, and Western Sahara.

The number of electoral democracies dropped by two and now stands at 119. Developments in Mauritania, Georgia, Venezuela and Central African Republic disqualified them from the electoral democracy list, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bangladesh became electoral democracies

In Sub-Saharan Africa, twelve countries and one territory—about one-fourth of the regional total — experienced setbacks. In addition to Senegal and Mauritania, declines were registered in Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Namibia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Somaliland.

The most significant progress occurred in South Asia, where several countries saw improvements linked to elections. In addition to improvements in Pakistan, Maldives and Bhutan, progress was also seen in Nepal, Kashmir, Malaysia and Thailand. Declines were registered in Afghanistan, Burma, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Singapore and Tibet. China increased repression instead of delivering the human rights reforms promised in connection with hosting the Summer Olympics.

In the Former Soviet Union/Central and Eastern Europe, non-Baltic countries continued their decade-long decline in freedom, now ranking below Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East on several survey indicators. Russia and Georgia, which went to war over South Ossetia, were among the notable declines, as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova. Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe remains strong, despite setbacks in Bulgaria and Macedonia.

After several years of modest gains, the Middle East and North Africa are experiencing trouble. Iraq was the only country to show improvement, mainly because of reductions in violence, political terror and government-sponsored Shia militias – although it’s still considered “Not Free.” Jordan, Bahrain, Iran, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli-Occupied Territories also declined, freedom-wise.

Latin America managed to maintain its democratic character despite economic problems, an increase in violent crime in some countries and the rise of populist demagogues. Paraguay and Cuba saw improvements, although the Castro government continues to be pretty repressive. Colombia, Nicaragua, Mexico and Venezuela were among the countries where freedom took a hit.

Western Europe and North America continued to get the highest scores. The election of Obama could lead to reforms of counterterrorism policies. But freedom did decline in two European countries: Italy and Greece. The survey also expressed concern about potential threats to freedom of expression in Canada and England.


CASINO TIME? Vermont's state auditor Tom Salmon says the state should consider putting a casino at Killington — or some other resort area — to raise money to repair the state's crumbling roads and bridges. But the suggestion is getting a cool reception at the Statehouse.

The state is facing a major budget gap, and lawmakers warn that drastic cuts to state spending are likely. With this is mind, Salmon wrote a letter to legislators, outlining 13 proposals to bulk up state government's depleted coffers. One of them was this: "Consider a state-owned casino in a resort area like Killington, with net profits directly to roads, bridges and infrastructure."

It isn't the first time casino gambling has been floated as a way to improve the state's finances. In 1995, a Las Vegas developer proposed a casino in Pownal. Bill Bauer, who owns The Summit lodge in Killington, thinks it's worth considering. “If we can fill the beds and the restaurants, that's all we're trying to get out of it,” he said. “We have the infrastructure: We have beds, we have restaurant seats, we have a wonderful ski resort, two championship golf courses right in town. A casino would just enhance the resort experience.”

Would a casino diminish Vermont’s allure? What about the possible side effects -- gambling addiction, crime? And what would it be called?

According to the Attorney General, lawmakers could approve casino gambling. But they’re apparently leery. Thus far the House Speaker hasn’t yet found one lawmaker ready to introduce a bill.


ZYPREXA PAY OFF. Eli Lilly will pay $1.42 billion to settle criminal and civil charges related to the marketing of its anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa. It’s the largest fine in a health care case, and the largest criminal fine for an individual corporation ever imposed in a US criminal prosecution of any kind. The pharmaceutical company admitted to promoting Zyprexa for unapproved, "off-label" uses between 1999 and 2001, including for treatment of dementia in elderly populations.

Zyprexa is approved for treatment of schizophrenia and various types of bipolar disorder. It has been Lilly's top-selling drug, bringing in more than $37 billion in world-wide sales since its US approval in 1996, according to the Wall Street Journal. In 2007, Eli Lilly tried to keep websites from posting copies of its Zyprexa marketing documents. Internal documents also show that the company downplayed Zyprexa's side effects, including an increased risk of diabetes.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA. In Minnesota, a bill to allow incurably ill patients to legally purchase marijuana is up for consideration in the Senate. The Medical Use of Marijuana bill is nearly identical to a bill that passed the Senate last year and almost passed the House. It has broad support, although last year Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he would veto such a bill so long as law enforcement opposed it. The bill would make it legal for patients to procure up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana from a state-regulated nonprofit.

TEENS & DRUGS. Cigarette and alcohol use among young people continued to decline in 2008. However, the decline in marijuana use among middle and high schoolers has slowed, and the perception that they’re harmful has decreased. That’s the conclusion of Monitoring the Future, an annual survey released this week by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The survey says that marijuana use among eighth, 10th and 12th graders, which showed a consistent decline since the mid-1990s, has leveled off. 10.9 percent of eighth graders, 23.9 percent of tenth graders, and 32.4 percent of twelfth graders say they smoked during the past year. In addition, the proportions of eighth graders who see smoking marijuana as harmful and disapprove of it have decreased.

Perhaps more troubling is the continuing high rate of prescription drug abuse among teens. There has been little change in the past six years. In 2008, 15.4 percent of 12th graders said they abused prescription drugs. Among those, nearly 10 percent reported nonmedical use of Vicodin, and 4.7 percent reported abusing Oxycontin. Seven of the top 10 drugs abused by 12th graders were either prescribed or purchased over-the-counter. The number of 12th graders who see use of LSD as harmful is also declining, as is the proportion of 8th graders who perceive inhalants as harmful.

Cigarette smoking is at the lowest rate in the history of the survey. There has also been a gradual decline in alcohol use in all grades, with a significant decline among tenth graders in binge drinking. And a gradual decline in the use of amphetamines, methamphetamine, cocaine, and crack. Nevertheless, close to 25 percent of seniors reported having five or more drinks in a row sometime in the two weeks prior to the survey.

The survey is in its 33rd year, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan. 46,348 students from 386 public and private schools in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades participated in this year's survey.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Maverick News: Inaugural Moments

This week: War with Iran – beyond the rumors, and the return of Manuel Noriega. National: W’s Deep Thoughts and notes on Inaugural speech-making. Vermont: Why Howard Dean is getting no respect, Plus, the Drug Report. Live Broadcast Friday, January 16, Noon EST, on The Howie Rose Show (WOMM), streamed on The Radiator.

THE PAST AS PROLOGUE. Most of the pageantry involved in the inauguration of a president has nothing to do with the Constitution. All it says is that president is supposed to take the oath of office. Even the idea of swearing on a bible is just a custom, and the oath doesn’t include “so help me, God.” Washington decided to add that at the last minute. One president, Franklin Pierce, actually refused to swear on the “Good Book.”

The inaugural speech is also just a custom. It started when Washington thought it might be a wise idea to say a few words. He wasn’t speaking to “the people,” by the way, he was talking to Congress. But giving a speech stuck as an idea, and eventually the show was taken outside – where for the next century most of the audience couldn’t hear a word the president was saying.

One president died as a result of giving an address. It was 1841, and William Henry Harrison, who was 68, wanted to prove he was fit and gave his speech on a bitterly cold day without wearing an overcoat. The speech took more than two hours – the longest on record – and Harrison caught a cold. A month later he died of pneumonia.

Aside from Lincoln, Kennedy, and Garfield, most inaugural speeches haven’t been very memorable. At times they’ve been downers. In 1857, for example, James Buchanan attacked abolitionists for making a big deal about slavery. Ulysses Grant complained about being slandered. Warren Harding and others were just plain boring.

There have been some good lines. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin Roosevelt. And Kennedy, with an assist from several others, came up with “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

George H.W. Bush compared freedom to a kite.

According to scholars who have analyzed the speeches, the form has evolved. In the old days, presidents talked a lot about the Constitution. Now we have more “rhetorical” presidencies, meaning that the chief executive bypasses the constitution – and congress – and appeals directly to the people. The problem, which was recognized by the founding fathers, is that this can lead to demagoguery – appeals to passion rather than reason. And since Nixon we’ve had several relatively anti-intellectual presidencies, with leaders who offer platitudes, emotional appeals, partisan attacks and human interest stories instead of evidence and arguments.

Since Nixon we’ve also had professional speechwriters, and an emphasis on getting as much applause as possible. Meanwhile, the reading level has dropped. The early speeches were written at the college level. Now we’re at the eighth grade level.

We don’t hear much about the presidency of James Garfield, who was elected in 1880. One of the reasons was that he was shot after only four months in office, and died about two months later. But before he was inaugurated, he read over all the previous addresses to decide what to say. He found Lincoln’s speech the best. Who could beat this closing:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Partway through his research, Garfield considered not giving a speech at all. But he pressed on, and boiled down the task to the following: first a brief introduction, followed by a summary of topics recently settled, then a section on what ought to be the focus of public attention, and finally, an appeal to stand by him in the independent and vigorous execution of the law. The speeches haven’t really changed much since then. Most serve to reunite people after the election, express some shared values, present some new policies, and promise that the president will stick to the job description.

In the end, Garfield’s speech didn’t match Lincoln’s. But it was fairly eloquent and remains relevant today. He started with history, noting that before the US was formed the world didn’t believe “that the supreme authority of government could be safely entrusted to the guardianship of the people themselves.” Moving through the first century of US history, he concluded that since the Civil War people had finally “determined to leave behind them all those bitter controversies concerning things which have been irrevocably settled, and the further discussion of which can only stir up strife and delay the onward march.” Among other things, he was talking about slavery.

“The elevation of the negro race from slavery,” he said, “to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the constitution.” But the Black vote was still be suppressed, especially in the south. So he warned, “To violate the freedom and sanctity of the suffrage is more than an evil. It is a crime which, if persisted in, will destroy the government itself.”

With Barack Obama about to take the oath of office, we may be a bit safer from the danger Garfield described. And yet, there remain serious threats to the freedom and sanctity of the right to vote, and other dangers that could ultimately destroy this system of government – secrecy, abuse of power, impunity, abandonment of the rule of law. Perhaps Obama will provide some hint that he understands this, and help point the way forward.

Garfield also made another point worth repeating: No religious organization, he noted, can be “permitted to usurp in the smallest degree the functions and powers of the National Government.” At the time he was talking about the Mormon Church, which was exerting considerable influence out west. But there are contemporary parallels.

His concluding words about the end of slavery perhaps still resonate best. “We do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversies of the past generations, and fifty years hence our children will not be divided on their opinions concerning our controversies,” he said. “We may hasten or we may retard, but we can not prevent, the final reconciliation. Is it not possible for us now to make a truce with time by anticipating and accepting its inevitable verdict?

“Enterprises of the highest importance to our moral and material well-being unite us and offer ample employment of our best powers. Let all our people, leaving behind them the battlefields of dead issues, move forward and in their strength of liberty and the restored Union win the grander victories of peace.”

W’S DEEP THOUGHTS. As the Bush era comes to an end, rather than dwell on what could be the worst presidency in US history – the one that may have fatally damaged the era of US global dominance – let’s think of the good times. Having trouble? How about the President’s unique way of expressing himself? He gave us so many memorable moments after all. Here are some of the gems:

Speaking about education in 2000, Bush noted, "Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning?" The following year, he provided a revealing answer: "You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”

The president was equally concerned about employment. Here’s what he said to a divorced mother of three in Omaha, Nebraska in 2005: "You work three jobs? ... Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that." Truly a “family values” president. As he put it, "Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream." That concern may have been expressed best in 2004, when he articulated his dedication to the “culture of life” in Popular Bluff, Missouri."Too many good docs are getting out of the business,” he lamented. “Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country."

Of course, Bush’s greatest concern was protecting the US in his great crusade against terrorism. As he explained just days after 9/11, "The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him." Of cours, he did modify that a bit six months later."I don't know where bin Laden is,” he said in March, 2002. “I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority." The honesty was inspiring, wasn’t it? A month later, he clarified further, "This foreign policy stuff is a little frustrating," he explained.

He rarely “misunderestimated” the problems, through others often did so to him. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we,” he said in 2004. “They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." That was just his style. As he put it himself, "See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."

When we look back, we’ll also remember his deep concern about the environment."I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully," he once said. And, of course, his dedication to democracy. "If this were a dictatorship,” he noted in 2005, “it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."

He was nothing if not frank. Speaking at the Al Smith dinner in 2000, he put it well. "This is an impressive crowd – the haves and the have mores. Some people call you the elite – I call you my base."

But perhaps the best example of his wit and wisdom was this pithy comment, delivered in Nashville in September 2002. "There's an old saying in Tennessee,” he quipped, “that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can't get fooled again."

Yes, let’s hope not.


IRAN: THE NEXT WAR? Throughout 2007 and 2008, debate raged about a possible military attack on Iran. The reasons included its nuclear program and statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatening the existence of Israel. But there were concerns that such a move would unleash a regional conflict with the potential to become global. This led US officials to tell Israel that they wouldn’t endorse an attack. Now, The New York Times has confirmed all this, detailing Israel's bid and Washington rejection of permission to bomb Iran's plant at Natanz.

As David E. Sanger reports, following the late 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which said Iran had no nuclear weapons program, Israel asked the US for bunker busters, permission to fly over Iraqi air space, and refueling equipment. President Bush "was convinced by top administration officials, led by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, that any overt attack on Iran would probably prove ineffective, lead to the expulsion of international inspectors, and drive Iran's nuclear effort further out of view." Bush et al reportedly also "discussed the possibility that an airstrike could ignite a broad Middle East war" which would draw in US forces in Iraq. A spokesman for Gates said the Defense Secretary believed "a potential strike on the Iranian facilities is not something that we or anyone else should be pursuing at this time."

Among the pro-Iranian elements that might be activated in the event of an attack were Shi'ite communities, armed militias in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, plus Hezbollah and Hamas. Thus, if any Israeli move against Iran was tried, they’d have to figure out how to deal with Hamas first – not because it was a powerful military force, but because its role as leading opposition to Israeli intentions would ensure its mobilization.

Thus, the move against Hamas. The Israeli military assault repeated a strategy tried in 2006 against Hezbollah – wipe out a potential nuisance while preparing to target Iran. The outgoing US administration had rejected a new war against Iran, but Israel felt certain that there would be no serious objection to aggression against Hamas, at least if presented as a thing-in-itself.

The neocons, especially Vice President Cheney, see the Gaza war as preparation for a move against Iran. John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN, announced as much on December 31. “I don't think there's anything at this point standing between Iran and nuclear weapons other than the possibility of the use of military force possibly by the United States, possibly by Israel," he told Fox News. "So while our focus obviously is on Gaza now, this could turn out to be a much larger conflict. We're looking at potentially a multi-front war." The general consensus among neocons is that the Gaza war is a proxy war against Iran.

Israel chose the timing carefully. As a lame duck President, Bush could be counted on to say that Israel had every right to defend itself from Hamas's deadly rocket attacks. President-elect Obama wouldn’t denounce the Bush administration's policy as long as it was still officially in power. And any initiative by the European Union could be ignored.

Still, Israel may be seriously miscalculating. Hamas is not apt to give up. For its militant members, there’s no fear of dying in struggle. On the contrary, a fighter killed in the battle is a martyr. Israel’s leaders may also be mistaken if they think escalating the war will provoke Iran to enter the fray. Its response so far has been cautious.

Immediately after attacks began, demonstrations took place in Iran. But its leadership warned demonstrators not to attack or occupy diplomatic missions of foreign nations. On January 5, when about 70,000 Iranian students reportedly declared their readiness to go to Israel as suicide bombers, the regime said this isn’t the answer. Five days later, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying, "I thank the pious and devoted youth who have asked to go to Gaza ... but it must be noted that our hands are tied in this arena." Iran criticized Arab inaction, but that was about it.

In short, the Iranian leadership sees the trap being laid for them, and they are likely to lie low, bide their time and hope that the Palestinians can hold out until regime change in Washington is completed.

HILLARY’S CHOICE. What to do about former military strongman Manuel Noriega? That’s the issue winding its way through federal courts in Miami. But the big surprise is who will get to make the final call.

Twenty years ago Noriega was captured in Panama by US military forces. In September 2007 he completed his prison sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering. But he’s still in prison because the courts haven’t yet decided what to do with him.

Manny wants to return to Panama and has argued that the US is obligated to let him go under the Geneva Conventions. But the government has also been asked to send him to France, which wants to try him for money laundering. The US currently likes that idea. Noriega is 74, has survived prostate cancer and a stroke in jail, and says he has found God. But maybe God has found him.

Panama also wants to put Noriega on trial – for murder. In fact, he has already been convicted in absentia and sentenced to 60 more years in prison. But officials there say he will get a new trial, and anyway, any sentence could be served only under house arrest due to Noriega's age.

Noriega's lawyers argue that the Geneva Convention trumps extradition. In December 1989 Noriega surrendered to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which had a federal indictment waiting for him in Miami. The charge was that he’d turned Panama into a transit point for US-bound drugs. He was convicted in 1992. But after the trial, he was declared a POW, which set the stage for the current legal mess. The US is apparently worried about the implications of that for people serving in the armed forces who are accused of crimes.

Speaking to Larry King in 1996, Manny claimed that the Bush administration had a vendetta against him and that his relationship with the US went bad only when he refused to conduct bombings and sabotage against Nicaragua's Sandinistas. After the trial came the revelation – suspected all along – that he’d been a paid CIA asset for many years.

Now here’s the twist: Eventually, the courts will make a recommendation to the US Secretary of State, who can accept or reject the ruling. And that means Hillary Clinton will decide what to do with Manuel Noriega. Hillary office has declined to comment so far, and most people don’t see her as very sympathetic. But Noriega's defense team believes he has a chance.


DISSING DEAN. The conspicuous absence of Howard Dean from last week’s press conference announcing the appointment of Tim Kaine as Democratic National Committee chair was no accident, according to the Politico website, which contacted some Dean loyalists. Instead, it seems to reflect a lack of respect for the outgoing party chair by Team Obama. Despite leading the party in several winning election cycles, including Kaine’s 2005 election as Virginia governor, Dean has been almost invisible since Election Day. He’s also been passed over for a Cabinet position – his preferences were Health and Human Services, or Surgeon General – and apparently isn’t in line for an administration post.

When Obama introduced Kaine at party headquarters last week, Dean was 7000 miles away, doing party work in American Samoa. His allies weren't happy. "If he had been asked to go to that event, he would have been there," said Jim Dean, the chairman's brother.

A possible reason? The frosty relationship between Dean and Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff. The bad blood dates from their disagreement about Dean’s 50-state strategy for rebuilding Democratic Party power. There was apparently some yelling involved. In addition, Emanuel has been part of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that opposed Dean’s presidential run and DNC appointment.

Dean's reward for helping the party recapture the White House, House, Senate, and taking control of seven governor's mansions and eight state legislatures? So far, nothing.


JUST THE SCENT, MA’AM. China has started using dogs to sniff for drugs on flights to Beijing. Actually, two golden Labrador retrievers who wear uniforms and leather shoes. Evidently, people hiding drugs leave a distinct smell on their seats that can be detected for up to two hours. They dress up the dogs “to prevent their hair falling on the seats or the carpet.” The shoes “protect the seat covers and other objects from claw damage."

China used more than 200 explosive-sniffing dogs during the Beijing Olympics. They were also trained for anti-terrorist rescue missions.

EL PASO BACKS OFF. City Council members in the Texas border city have declined to revive their decision to ask the federal government to consider legalizing drugs as a way to help curb the Mexico drug cartel war. The council split 4-4 on a vote upholding Mayor John Cook’s veto of the resolution unanimously passed last week asking the federal government to consider a national dialogue on ending drug prohibition. The proposal was part of a resolution expressing the city’s solidarity with Ciudad Juarez, a violence-plagued border city across the Rio Grande. For at least three council members who initially supported the resolution, the issue was whether the city’s stance would cost state and federal funding.

LONGER EYELASHES THROUGH CHEMISTRY. Allergan, the drug company that us Botox, has another beauty-enhancing breakthrough – an eyedrop that actually grows longer, thicker eyelashes. It could be the end of the mascara industry.

Latisse, the first FDA-approved prescription drug for eyelash lengthening, will launch at the end of the month. Like Botox, which was originally developed to deal with eyelid and neck spasms by paralyzing the muscles, the cosmetic potential of Latisse was an unintended side effect of a drug created to deal with glaucoma. Its active ingredient, bimatroprost, treats a condition known as hyptorichosis of the eyelashes, in which a sufferer doesn’t have enough of them.

A daily drop of Latisse on the base of the upper eyelash will bring on substantial eyelash growth. Once the treatment stops, the eyelashes will gradually return to their previous length and thickness. Side effects can include eye redness and itchiness, darkening of the eyelid skin and permanent browning of the iris.

The demand for longer eyelashes could mean $500 million in international sales for Latisse. How many women – and men – will spend $120 for a monthly supply of the eyedrop? Well, cosmetic treatments aren’t generally covered by medical insurance in the US, but on the other hand people spend around $5 billion a year on mascara, and sales of Botox were $600 million in 2007.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Maverick News: Less-Told Stories

This week: A crackdown on dissent in Nicaragua, the PR War over Gaza, Vanishing Iraq coverage, and a new freedom movement in China. National: the difference between recession and depression – and why the media didn’t warn us earlier, street tolls, and the worst corporations of 2008. Vermont: Start of the 2010 campaign for governor, and the end of an era in local journalism. Plus, the weekly Drug Report. Live Broadcast Friday, January 9, Noon EST, on The Howie Rose Show (WOMM), streamed on The Radiator.

NICARAGUA: THE REVOLUTION IS OVER. Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua and leader of the Sandinista movement that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship 30 years ago, is becoming a bit of tyrant himself. Since his most recent election in 2006, he’s been using bogus charges and lawsuits to go after those who criticize his regime. The targets include former allies such as priest and poet Ernesto Cardenel, now 83, convicted last summer on trumped up defamation charges, and women’s rights activists Sofia Montenegro, whose office was raided after she denounced Ortego for outlawing abortion. Political rivals have also been banned for accusing his government of corruption and repression.

The most prominent target is Carlos Chamorro, a noted journalist and member of one of the country’s leading political families. After Chamorro exposed a huge extortion scheme, armed police raided the office of his non-profit on suspicion of money laundering and confiscated all the computers. Chamorro may be the only figure left in the country with enough credibility and moral authority to hold Ortega accountable. But even though he might be able to get some US support, he doesn’t want it. His feeling is that any statement in his favor from the US will only allow Ortega to portray himself as the victim of a conspiracy. On the other hand, if Ortega succeeds in silencing his last major opponent, it will be a step toward a new authoritarianism in Latin America.

GAZA: THE PR WAR. As the crisis the Middle East continues, doubts are emerging about some of the coverage due to Israel’s aggressive PR campaign. To gain support, Israeli Foreign Minister (and candidate for Prime Minister) Tzipi Livni directed the Foreign Ministry to lead a PR blitz. This includes YouTube videos and Internet press conferences via Twitter. The Israeli military described one of its YouTube videos as a bomb attack on "a Hamas truck carrying dozens of Grad rockets." Yet human rights groups say the truck belonged to a local resident, who was moving equipment out of his workshop, after the house next to it was bombed. Ahmed Samur, the person who says the bombed vehicle was his, told the press, "These were not Hamas [who were killed], they were our children.

According to BBC, the incident shows “how an apparently definitive piece of video can turn into something much more doubtful." Doubts have also been raised about the Foreign Ministry's changing graph of the number of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. The apparent goal is to "justify the air attacks" and "show that there is no humanitarian calamity in Gaza."

IRAQ: THE VANISHING. One story not getting the attention it used to is Iraq. Reporting in the Columbia Journalism Review, Megan Garber notes that the war now regularly wins less than two percent of the weekly US news hole. The big shocker is that, after Iraq's cabinet approved a 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of all US troops – suggesting a resolution of the 'timetable' debate and a move toward ending the war – the agreement was all but ignored in the media. The problem, Garber says, is "partially logistical: on-the-ground reporting from the country is both exceptionally expensive ... and incredibly dangerous. For the sixth year in a row, Iraq has been named the deadliest country in the world for journalists." The story of Iraq, she concludes, “is, if not fading altogether from our collective consciousness, then at least fading generally from our collective conscience."

CHINA: A NEW FREEDOM MOVEMENT. In December thousands of Chinese citizens, including well-known dissidents and intellectuals, signed a public statement calling for major reform of the political system and the end of one-party rule. Called Charter 08, it calls for a reformed system based on human rights and democracy. It’s an inspiring statement, one that would resonate almost anywhere. The signers call for a new constitution, separation of powers, freedom of the press and association, fair and open elections, economic reform, social security, environmental protection, respect for all ethnic and religious groups, and more.

Predictably, however, the government started intimidating and detaining the signers even before the statement was released. In a massive example of Irony Deficiency, the authorities didn’t notice that they were underlining the country’s failure to uphold the principles being advanced – free expression and freedom of association. Charter 08 says, “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.” Yet the government is putting people in prison for exactly that. It also calls for the rule of law – in a country that sends in the police in the middle of the night. Since mid-December, Chinese living outside the country have begun signing the statement, and the Dalai Lama has written a letter of support, calling on the government to release prisoners detained for exercising freedom of expression.


DEPRESSION: ARE WE THERE YET? How do we know if we’re having a Depression? The word has recently been popping up more often than at any time in the past 60 years. But what does it mean? To start, we have to distinguish it from a recession. The rule of thumb on that is two consecutive quarters of falling Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The National Bureau of Economic Research recently declared a recession based on various indicators. But there’s no accepted definition of depression.

How severe does a slump have to get before it warrants the "D" word? An Internet search suggests two main criteria for distinguishing a depression from a recession: a decline in real GDP that exceeds 10%, or one that lasts more than three years. America's Great Depression qualifies on both counts: GDP fell by around 30% between 1929 and 1933. Output also fell by 13% during 1937 and 1938. The Great Depression was America's deepest economic slump (excluding those related to wars). But at 43 months it wasn’t the longest: that honor goes to the one from 1873-79, which lasted 65 months. So, no. We’re not there yet.

WHY THE PRESS MISSED THE STORY. Depression talk raises the question of why we didn’t get an earlier warning that things were going south. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the British Guardian, thinks fear of libel lawsuits from big corporations may have contributed to the failure to adequately report on dangerous economic decisions. In an article for the New York Review of Books, he recounts his paper's recent serious brush with the British defamation laws when it was sued by Tesco, one of the largest public companies in Britain and the fourth-largest retailer in the world.

The case centered around a report he admits the newspaper got partly wrong. Tesco was using complex financial deals to avoid paying taxes, but its reporters misunderstood the specifics. The ensuing lawsuit consumed more than a million in legal fees before it was settled out of court. Very few reporters – and not even most investors – understand the complex financial dealings of big corporations or financial institutions. And cutbacks in newsrooms only make the situation worse. Few news organizations want to take the risk of getting it wrong. The result is that they tend to avoid complex stories.

Rusbridger concludes: “In years to come people may not question why newspapers got things wrong about such complicated matters as corporate tax structures and the behavior or investment banks; they may express wonder that they even tried.”

PAY FEE AND DRIVE. Following the lead of London, Stockholm and Singapore, San Francisco is considering a plan to ease traffic by charging drivers a fee for entering clogged sections of the city. Using $1 million in federal funds, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority is studying various "congestion-pricing" options. If approved, this would make San Francisco the first US city to charge cars a fee to enter certain neighborhoods at certain times. In 2003, London began charging drivers to enter the central part of the city. Singapore and Stockholm, Sweden, also have such fees. Last year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed charging drivers $8 to enter a heavily trafficked part of Manhattan, but the plan died in the state Assembly.

PHOTO OP. Last week Barack Obama met with the four living presidents – Carter, Clinton, Bush and Bush. Next week, the plan is to meet with several dead presidents. Lincoln is expected to warn him about the dangers of live theater, and Washington will provide advice on flossing and other aspects of dental care.


CANDIDATES, START YOUR SPINNING. The 2010 elections got underway this week with the announcement by Doug Racine that he’ll run for governor in two years. Racine ran against incumbent Jim Douglas in his first election six years ago, and has since returned to the state senate. Racine was Lt. Gov. for four years, and lost to Douglas by less than 6000 votes. He’s 56, and chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding and Secretary of State Deb Markowitz are also considering the race.

BURLINGTON: END OF AN ERA. Noted columnist Peter Freyne died early Wednesday morning after an extended illness. Freyne became ill several months ago, and was founded in his apartment with a strep infection that had reached his brain. He was best known for his column, Inside Track, which began running in the old Vanguard Press in the early 1980s.


And now, the 10 Worst Corporations of 2008, courtesy of Multinational Monitor. Actually, it would have been easy to restrict the awards this year to Wall Street firms. But the rest of the corporate world wasn’t on good behavior, so this Top Ten list includes only one financial company. And since it’s pretty hard to say who’s really the worst, it’s alphabetical. Here goes: AIG, Cargill, Chevron, Constellation Energy, Chinese National Petroleum Corporation, Dole, GE, Imperial Sugar, Philip Morris, and Roche. Highlights on some of the top offenders:

AIG. No one party is responsible for the global financial crisis. But if you had to pick a single corporation, there's a very strong case for American International Group (AIG), which has already sucked up more than $150 billion in taxpayer money. Through "credit default swaps," AIG basically collected insurance premiums while making the absurd assumption that it would never pay out on a failure – let alone a collapse of the entire market it was insuring.

CHEVRON. In 2001, Chevron swallowed up Texaco. It was happy to absorb the revenue streams. It has been less willing to take responsibility for Texaco's ecological and human rights abuses. In 1993, 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians filed a class action suit, alleging that Texaco had poisoned the land and waterways, allowing billions of gallons of oil to spill and leaving hundreds of waste pits unlined and uncovered. Chevron had the case thrown out of US courts, on the grounds that it should be litigated in Ecuador. But now the case is going badly for Chevron in Ecuador -- Chevron may be liable for more than $7 billion. So, the company is lobbying the Office of the US Trade Representative to impose trade sanctions on Ecuador if the Ecuadorian government doesn’t make the case go away. Here’s what a Chevron lobbyist told Newsweek about the case: "We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this -- companies that have made big investments around the world." (Chevron subsequently stated that the comments were not approved.)

CONSTELLATION ENERGY. Although too dangerous, expensive and centralized to make sense as an energy source, nuclear power won't go away. Constellation Energy Group, operator of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland -- a company involved in a scheme to price gouge Maryland consumers -- plans to build a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs, potentially the first new reactor built in the US since the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. The plan: to take advantage of US government-guaranteed loans for new nuclear construction, available under the 2005 Energy Act. The company acknowledges it couldn’t go ahead without the government guarantee.

CHINESE NATIONAL PETROLEUM CORPORATION. Sudan has been able to laugh off existing and threatened sanctions for the slaughter it has perpetrated in Darfur because of the huge support it receives from China, channeled largely through the Sudanese relationship with the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation. According to Human Rights First, "Not only is CNPC the largest investor in the Sudanese oil sector, but Sudan is CNPC's largest market for overseas investment." Oil money has fueled violence in Darfur. "The profitability of Sudan's oil sector has developed in close chronological step with the violence in Darfur."

IMPERIAL SUGAR. On February 7, an explosion rocked the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, near Savannah. 14 People died, and dozens were badly burned and injured. As with most industrial disasters, the tragedy was preventable. The cause was accumulated sugar dust, which is highly combustible. A month after the explosion, Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors investigated another Imperial Sugar plant, in Louisiana. They found 1/4- to 2-inch accumulations of dust on electrical wiring and machinery, and as much as 48-inch accumulations on workroom floors. Imperial obviously knew of the conditions in its plants. In fact, it had taken some steps to clean up operations before the explosion. But it wasn't enough. A new vice president brought in to handle the clean up told a Congressional committee that top-level management told him to tone down his demands for immediate action.

ROCHE. The Swiss company Roche makes a range of HIV-related drugs. One of them is enfuvirtid, sold under the brand-name Fuzeon. Fuzeon brought in $266 million to Roche in 2007, though sales are declining. Roche charges $25,000 a year for Fuzeon and doesn’t offer a discount for developing countries.

Like most industrialized countries, Korea maintains a form of price controls -- the national health insurance program sets prices for medicines. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs listed Fuzeon at $18,000 a year. Korea's per capita income is roughly half that of the US. But instead of providing Fuzeon at Korea's listed level, Roche refuses to make the drug available in Korea. Korean activists say that the head of Roche Korea told them, "We are not in business to save lives, but to make money. Saving lives is not our business."

For the full story, visit Multinational Monitor.


The El Paso City Council came up with a new strategy to deal with the bloody drug war that last year claimed 1,600 lives in Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. A resolution passed unanimously asked the US government to "open, honest, national dialogue on ending the prohibition of narcotics." In other words, they asked the government consider legalizing drugs. But Mayor John Cook vetoed the resolution hours after it was approved.

Beto O'Rourke, an El Paso city councilman, argued that, "We think it should at least be on the table.” The Mayor called the idea unrealistic. The nonbinding resolution suggested that legalizing drugs in the US could help reduce violence. But it would be a tough sell to Congress.

Speaking of violence, gunmen threw a grenade and opened fire outside a Mexican TV station during its evening broadcast on Tuesday and left a message warning journalists from reporting on drug war violence. The note left on a car bumper near the studio read: "Stop reporting just on us. Report on the narco's political leaders," a reference to the Mexican government.

Violence is spiraling in Mexico between warring drug gangs and the army. This war killed about 5,700 people last year. Attacks on the media have increased since President Felipe Calderon launched his assault on cartels at the end of 2006. Since then, 15 journalists have been killed, making Mexico one of the world's most dangerous countries for the media, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Meanwhile…In Massachusetts, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized by a referendum, but police departments across the state don’t even bother to ticket people they see smoking grass. According to Mark Laverdure, chief of police in Clinton, a Central Massachusetts town, the law was so poorly written that it can’t be enforced. And the police chief in Auburn, Andrew Sluckis, says his officers won’t issue $100 citations for possession of an ounce or less, as required under the ballot initiative. “As it stands now we're not going to be issuing civil citations," he said. If an officer spots someone smoking marijuana, "We will confiscate it and the person will be sent on their way."

Finally, from Alaska… politics may have delayed the arrest of Sherry Johnston, mother of Levi Johnston – the fiancĂ© of Sarah Palin’s daughter -- until after the November election. Johnston was arrested in December on six felony drugs counts. She's accused of illegally selling Oxycontin, and pled not guilty last Monday.Johnston's son Levi and Palin's daughter Bristol recently announced the birth of their son, Tripp.

The Anchorage Daily News says that investigator Kyle Young sent an e-mail to the Public Safety Employees Association saying the case against Johnston "was not allowed to progres in normal fashion" and the search warrant was delayed "because of the pending election." Alaska's Public Safety Commissioner insists the case was handled fairly.