Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Army chief: U.S. troops could be in Iraq for 10 years

Despite the agreement to bring them home by 2012, the Pentagon is prepared for things to change, Gen. George Casey says.

Who didn't see this coming?

The Associated Press report in the LA Times:
The Pentagon is prepared to leave fighting forces in Iraq for as long as a decade despite an agreement between the United States and Iraq that would bring all American troops home by 2012, the top U.S. Army officer said Tuesday.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, said the world remains dangerous, and the Pentagon must plan for extended U.S. combat and stability operations in two wars. "Global trends are pushing in the wrong direction," Casey said. "They fundamentally will change how the Army works."

He spoke at an invitation-only briefing to a dozen journalists and policy analysts from Washington-based think tanks. He said his planning envisions combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade as part of a U.S. commitment to fighting extremism in the Middle East.

Casey's calculations about force levels are related to his attempt to ease the brutal deployment calendar that he said would "bring the Army to its knees."

Casey said his comments were not meant to conflict with administration policies.

CBS News's version adds:
Casey would not specify how many combat units would be split between Iraq and Afghanistan. He said U.S. ground commander Gen. Ray Odierno is leading a study to determine how far U.S. forces could be cut back in Iraq and still be effective.

Back to the LA Times:
President Obama plans to bring U.S. combat forces home from Iraq in 2010, and the United States and Iraq have agreed that all American forces would leave by 2012.

This isn't exactly true.

To begin with, it's disingenuous to suggest the U.S. is ending the occupation of Iraq because troops remaining aren't combat troops.

All troops are trained combat troops.

The distinction relates to current assignment. Combat troops (tens of thousands of them) assigned to duty in Iraq, which will include training, advising, and protecting "U.S. interests in Iraq", including but not limited to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad (U.S. Marine Security Guards), a 104-acre compound where 5,500 people (non-diplomats, U.S. government personnel of all kinds, and who knows how many spooks) live/work/play in a city within a city (a de facto military base) as large as Vatican City, six times larger than the United Nations compound in New York, two-thirds the acreage of Washington’s National Mall. It has its own area code, power station, water wells, waste treatment facilities, apartment buildings, fire department, shopping mall, restaurants, cinema, country-club recreational center, and more. It is the largest (at least ten times the size of new U.S. embassies elsewhere) and most expensive U.S. embassy in the world ($736 million to build, $1.2 billion a year to operate).

The new United States Embassy rises above Baghdad.
[Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images.]
Several senior U.S. officials have suggested Iraq could request an extension, but the legal agreement that the two countries signed last year would have to be amended [for any significant U.S. presence to remain.

As recently as February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated the U.S. commitment to the agreement worked out with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"Under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011," Gates said during an address at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. "We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned."

The United States has about 139,000 troops in Iraq and 52,000 in Afghanistan.

Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war quickly and refocusing U.S. resources on what he called the more important fight in Afghanistan.

[That will not mean a major influx of U.S. fighting forces on the model of the Iraq "surge," however. Obama has agreed to send about 21,000 combat forces and trainers to Afghanistan this year. Combined with additional forces approved before former President George W. Bush left office,] the United States is expected to have about 68,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of this year. That's about double the total at the end of 2008, but Obama's top military and civilian advisors have indicated the number is unlikely to grow much beyond that.

CBS News's version continued with:
Casey said several times that he wasn't the person making policy, but the military was preparing to have a fighting force deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan for years to come. Casey said his planning envisions 10 combat brigades plus command and support forces committed to the two wars.

When asked whether the Army had any measurement for knowing how big it should be, Casey responded, "How about the reality scenario?"

This scenario, he said, must take into account that "we're going to have 10 Army and Marine units deployed for a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Casey stressed that the United States must be ready to take on sustained fights in the Middle East while meeting other commitments.

Casey reiterated statements made by civilian and military leaders that the situation in Afghanistan would get worse before it gets better. "There's going to be a big fight in the South," he said.

Casey added that training of local police and military in Afghanistan was at least a couple years behind the pace in Iraq, and it would be months before the U.S. deployed enough trainers. There's a steeper curve before training could be effective in Afghanistan, requiring three to five years before Afghanis could reach the "tipping point" of control.

He also said the U.S. had to be careful about what assets get deployed to Afghanistan. "Anything you put in there would be in there for a decade," he said.

As Army chief of staff, Casey is primarily responsible for assembling the manpower and determining assignments. He insisted the Army's 1.1-million size was sufficient even to handle the extended Mideast conflicts.

"We ought to build a pretty effective Army with 1.1 million strength," Casey said. He also noted that the Army's budget had grown to $220 billion from $68 billion before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He said the Army is two-thirds of the way through a complete overhaul from the Cold War-era force built around tanks and artillery to today's terrorist-driven realities. The Army has become more versatile and quicker by switching from division-led units to brigade-level command.

Casey said the Army has moved from 15-month battlefield deployments to 12 months. His goal is to move rotations by 2011 to one year in the battlefield and two years out for regular Army troops, and one year in the battlefield and three years out for reserves. He called the current one-year-in-one-year-out cycle "unsustainable."

So there you have it. A meme which will slowly seep sideways into the minds of Americans (journalists' minds, in particular), so that as we get closer to the target dates for withdrawal of troops, Americans will have adjusted to the United States's continued occupation of Iraq.

C'est la guerre.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A Coffee Stain Madonna?

Coffee stain Madonna
As newspapers across America close, one reporter finds comfort in a coffee stain as he packs up his desk.

I dunno. It looks more like Strawberry Shortcake to me.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Remember This?

ABCnews reports:
The Obama White House doesn’t seem inclined to share its new pictures of a Boeing 747 used as Air Force One buzzing the lower Manhattan skyline.

At a press briefing Tuesday, Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs dodged reporters’ questions about last week’s photo-op, which cost over $325,000 in taxpayer dollars and frightened a broad swath of lower Manhattan.

“I’ve watched CNN. . . I didn't notice a lack of archival material from that flight,” Gibbs cracked, an apparent reference to the prevalence of shaky video shot by witnesses on the ground.

The New York Post reported Tuesday morning that an unnamed White House official said the White House had “no plans” to release pictures from the event.

Gibbs said the White House anticipates completing a review of the incident this week, but did not answer questions about why it would not release the pictures or when it might do so.

The White House Military Office had reportedly organized the event, but made no arrangements to alert Manhattanites that a large plane would fly very close to their tall buildings. As a result, many fled the area at the sight of the plane, believing it could be another 9/11-style attack.

President Obama reportedly had not been told of the flyby, and was reportedly furious at the oversight. The Military Office head, Louis Caldera, apologized publicly. He is still on the job, despite calls for his dismissal.

A similar photo op scheduled for Washington, D.C. this week was reportedly cancelled.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Did Somebody Torture Condi?

What happened to Condoleeza Rice's face?

Condoleeza Rice on April 23, 2009:

Then on Sunday, May 3, 2009:

In this photograph provided by Rabinowitz-Dorf, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks to supporters of the Jewish Primary Day School in Washington. (AP Photo/Rabinowitz-Dorf, Ron Sachs)

Monday, April 27, 2009

New Evidence of Torture Prison in Poland

The control tower in Szymany, Poland. Journalist Mariusz Kowalweski with the newspaper Rzeczpospolita claims he is certain there was a CIA prison near the airport. The paper also reported that the Polish intelligence agency made 20 of its agents available to the CIA, something that a former CIA operative has confirmed to SPIEGEL.

Der Spiegel reports:
The current debate in the US on the "special interrogation methods" sanctioned by the Bush administration could soon reach Europe. It has long been clear that the CIA used the Szymany military airbase in Poland for extraordinary renditions. Now there is evidence of a secret prison nearby.

Only a smattering of clouds dotted the sky over Szymany on March 7, 2003, and visibility was good. A light breeze blew from the southeast as a plane approached the small military airfield in northeastern Poland, and the temperature outside was 2 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit). At around 4:00 p.m., the Gulfstream N379P -- known among investigators as the "torture taxi" -- touched down on the landing strip.

On board was the most important prisoner the US had been able to produce in the war on terror: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, also known as "the brains" behind al-Qaida. This was the man who had presented Osama bin Laden with plans to attack the US with commercial jets. He personally selected the pilots and supervised preparations for the attacks. Eighteen months later, on March 1, 2003, Sheikh Mohammed was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan by US Special Forces and brought to Afghanistan two days later. Now the CIA was flying him to a remote area in Poland's Masuria region. The prisoner slept during the flight from Kabul to Szymany, for the first time in days, as he later recounted:
"My eyes were covered with a cloth tied around my head. A cloth bag was then pulled over my head. … I fell asleep. ... I therefore don't know how long the journey lasted."

Jerry M., age 56 at the time, probably sat at the controls of the plane chartered by the CIA. The trained airplane and helicopter pilot had been hired by Aero Contractors, a company that transferred prisoners around the world for US intelligence agencies. According to documents from the European aviation safety agency Eurocontrol, Jerry M. had taken off from Kabul at 8:51 a.m. that morning. Only hours after landing in Poland, at 7:16 p.m., he took off again, headed for Washington.

A large number of Polish and American intelligence operatives have since gone on record that the CIA maintained a prison in northeastern Poland. Independent of these sources, Polish government officials from the Justice and Defense Ministry have also reported that the Americans had a secret base near Szymany airport. And so began on March 7, 2003 one of the darkest chapters of recent American -- and European -- history.

Obama Under Pressure

It was apparently here, just under an hour's drive from Szymany airport, that Sheikh Mohammed was tortured, exactly 183 times with waterboarding -- an interrogation technique that simulates the sensation of drowning -- in March, 2003 alone. That averages out to eight times a day. And all of this happened right here in Europe.

Over six years later, these acts of torture are putting the new US president, Barack Obama, under intense pressure. On the one hand, he released four memos in which his predecessor George W. Bush had legalized such interrogation methods. On the other hand, he decided not to prosecute the torturers. And he initially neglected to launch investigations into these "special interrogation methods."

It is the decision that has earned Obama the harshest criticism during the first 100 days of his presidency. Democrats from the Senate and the House of Representatives announced last week that they would form a truth commission, essentially putting them at odds with their own president. Obama quickly realized that he had apparently underestimated the volatile nature of the issue. So he had US Attorney General Eric Holder announce that no one stood above the law. Holder promised that an investigation would be conducted to find out who in the White House and the Justice Department had declared these methods legal.

What the CIA did back then to prisoners in the Polish military airbase of Stare Kiejkuty, north of Szymany, had been authorized by the president. According to witnesses, Stare Kiejkuty housed a secret CIA prison for "high value detainees" -- for the most prominent prisoners of the war on terror.

There is now no doubt that the Gulfstream N379P landed at least five times at Szymany between February and July, 2003. Flight routes were manipulated and falsified for this purpose and, with the knowledge of the Polish government, the European aviation safety agency Eurocontrol was deliberately deceived.

The public prosecutor's office in Warsaw has the statement of a witness who described how people wearing handcuffs and blindfolds were led from the aircraft at Szymany. He said that this happened far away from the control tower. According to the witness, it was always the same individuals and the same civilian vehicles that stood waiting on the landing field.

If we are to believe the statements of Sheikh Mohammed, a large number of those present at the small airfield wore ski masks. This is what he told a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross that questioned him in the US military prison at Guantanamo, Cuba in late 2006:

"On arrival the transfer from the airport to the next place of detention took about one hour. I was transported sitting on the floor of a vehicle. I could see at one point that there was snow on the ground. Everybody was wearing black, with masks and army boots, like Planet-X people."

Just under an hour's drive corresponds roughly to the distance from Szymany to the Stare Kiejkuty military base, known as a training camp for Polish intelligence agents. The route there passes for two kilometers through a fenced-off military zone, past dense pine forests, then heads northeast for 20 minutes, and finally leads over an unpaved road alongside a lake. The entrance to the base is at the end of this road.

'I Was Never Threatened with Death'

Sheikh Mohammed said that they cut the clothes from his body, photographed him naked and threw him in a three-by-four-meter (10 x 13 ft) cell with wooden walls. That was when the hardest phase of the interrogating began, he claims. According to Sheikh Mohammed, one of his interrogators told him that they had received the green light from Washington to give him a "hard time":

"They never used the word 'torture' and never referred to 'physical pressure,' only to 'a hard time.' I was never threatened with death, in fact I was told that they would not allow me to die, but that I would be brought to the 'verge of death and back again.'"

He says he was questioned roughly eight hours a day. He spent the first month naked and standing, with his hands chained to the ceiling of the cell, even at night. They led them into another room for questioning, he says. That's where the bed stood that he says he was strapped to for waterboarding. The mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks told members of the Red Cross that he eventually realized where he was being held:
"I think the country was Poland. I think this because on one occasion a water bottle was brought to me without the label removed. It had an e-mail address ending in '.pl'. The central-heating system was an old-style one that I would expect only to see in countries of the former communist system."
Thereafter, the al-Qaida operative described how he was strapped to a special bed and submitted to waterboarding:

"Cold water from a bottle that had been kept in the fridge was then poured onto the cloth by one of the guards so that I could not breathe. This obviously could only be done for one or two minutes at a time. The cloth was then removed and the bed put into a vertical position. The whole process was then repeated during about an hour. Injuries to my ankles and wrists also occurred during the waterboarding as I struggled in the panic of not being able to breathe."

Part 2: Investigations across Europe

For more than a year now, Warsaw public prosecutor Robert Majewski has been investigating former Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller's government on allegations of abuse of office. At issue is whether sovereignty over Polish territory was relinquished, and whether former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and his left-leaning Social Democratic government gave the CIA free reign over sections of the Stare Kiejkuty military base for the agency's extraterritorial torture interrogations.

Majewski has questioned a large number of witnesses who worked in the former government, and this year his team even plans to fly to Guantanamo. "No European country is so sincerely and vigorously investigating former members of the government as is currently the case in Poland," says Wolfgang Kaleck from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin, which supports the investigations.

The public prosecutor's office has also launched a probe to determine whether the Polish intelligence agency made 20 of its agents available to the CIA, as was recently reported by the conservative Polish daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita. A former CIA official confirmed this information to SPIEGEL. There was reportedly a document issued by the intelligence agency that mentioned both the 20 Polish agents and the transfer of the military base to the Americans. Two members of a parliamentary investigative committee in Warsaw had an opportunity to view this document in late 2005, but it has since disappeared.

The Missing Piece of Evidence

Journalist Mariusz Kowalewski at Rzeczpospolita and two colleagues have been searching for months now for proof of the existence of a secret CIA base in Poland. The journalists have discovered flight record books from Szymany that had been declared lost, and based on refueling receipts and currency exchange rates, they have reconstructed flights and routes, and spoken with informants. Over the past few weeks, their newspaper and the television network TVP Info have revealed new details on an almost daily basis.

Kowalewski has collected a wide range of documents on his white Apple laptop. He is convinced, though, that he only knows "a fraction of what actually happened." He is certain that there was a CIA base in the Masuria region, where high-ranking al-Qaida prisoners were brought. All that is missing is the final piece of evidence. There are rumors circulating that one of the most important interrogators of Sheikh Mohammed, an American named Deuce Martinez -- the man who didn't torture him, but rather had the task of gently coaxing information out of him -- was in Poland at the time. That is the proof that's still missing.

Similar conclusions were reached by the second investigative report on CIA kidnappings in Europe, which was submitted two years ago by the special investigator of the Council of Europe, Dick Marty. (Eds: The Council of Europe is an international organization and watchdog for human rights in a total of 47 states in the European region.) According to Marty's report, members of the former Polish military intelligence and counterintelligence agency, WSI, were given positions with the border police, customs and airport administration to safeguard the activities of the CIA. "The latest revelations in Poland fully corroborate my evidence, which is based on testimony by insiders and documents that have been leaked to me," says the investigator today. Now, under the "dynamic force of the truth" that Obama has unleashed, Marty says that Europeans must finally reveal "which governments tolerated and supported the illegal practices of the CIA."

All that remains is the question of who in Poland at the time approved the collaboration with the CIA and gave the Americans unencumbered use of sections of Stare Kiejkuty.

"The order to give the CIA everything they needed came from the very top, from the president," a member of the Polish military intelligence agency told the Marty team in 2007. Kwasniewski denies this. He says that there was close intelligence corporation with the US, but no prisons on Polish soil. When asked to comment on the reports, former Prime Minister Miller said: "All of this is just another opportunity for me to say that I have nothing to say."

It's very possible that the debate on torture and responsibility which is currently being conducted in the US will soon also reach Europe. After all, Germany granted the US flyover rights and dropped its bid to extradite 13 CIA operatives in the case of Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen who claims he was abducted by the Americans. The Italian intelligence agency allegedly assisted the CIA with the kidnapping in Milan of the Islamic cleric Abu Omar. Britain's intelligence agency, MI6, reportedly delivered information directly to CIA agents who were conducting interrogations in Morocco. And there are also reports of a secret prison in Romania. Investigations have been launched into these allegations in nearly all of these countries.

Jerry M., the pilot who flew Sheikh Mohammed from Kabul to Szymany in March, 2003, now lives in Birmingham, Alabama, in a brick house with white shutters and box trees planted in front of the door. Two stone lions guard the path that leads to the entrance. For two years, Jerry M. only had a post box address, like everyone else who flew CIA prisoners around the world: P.O. Box 22 99 43, code name Jerry Allen Bostick.

It appears the 62-year-old would rather deny all knowledge of this period in his life. When the SPIEGEL asked him over the phone if he had ever been to Poland, he said, "I have no idea what you're talking about. Really no idea." When he was asked if he had ever worked for a company named Aero Contractors, the line suddenly went dead. Jerry M. had hung up.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Susan Boyle Gets A New Look

Susan Boyle, who's performance on television show Britain's Got Talent sparked global interest, outside her home in Blackburn, Scotland, revealing a new look after undergoing a makeover Friday April 24, 2009. (AP Photo / Andrew Milligan ,PA)

Hmmmm, where have we seen this look before?.....

I'd have just swapped out the handbag. [Purchase here, if you must.]

I don't know whether to laugh or to cry that Sarah Palin's influence has crossed 'the pond', and we can look forward to a chorus of "You betcha"s with Scottish brogues and other accents.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Art Imitates Life

I've got a neighbor like this bug; shows up at dinnertime to borrow something ["I was wondering if you had a screwdriver I could borrow?....Is that meatloaf I smell?"].

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Last & Only Word On The Teabaggers

The tax rates that they're objecting to are the George W. Bush tax rates:

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Palin To Go AWOL As Alaska Legislature Adjourns On Stimulus Spending Decisions reports:
With just one week left before the Alaska Legislature adjourns for the year, the conflict between Gov. Sarah Palin and lawmakers over taking federal economic stimulus money is the dominant issue left.

In fact, legislative leaders don't seem intent on doing a whole lot else this year.

Just nine of the 419 bills introduced have passed through the full Legislature so far, and while many more will pass in the frenzied final week, there is little desire to make major state policy changes in what Senate President Gary Stevens conceded is basically a session of preserving the status quo.
There's still a chance that bills will pass increasing the state minimum wage, requiring parental notification when a teenager gets an abortion, expanding Alaska children's health insurance for lower-income families and stopping the state, including the Permanent Fund, from investing in companies doing business in Sudan, the African country whose government has been blamed for genocidal killing in the Darfur region.

Legislators will also vote Thursday on approving the governor's appointees, including attorney general Wayne Anthony Ross, who has proven controversial but is still likely to be confirmed.

Palin herself will be leaving Alaska this week to attend the Vanderburgh County Right to Life dinner in Evansville, Ind. on Thursday, as well as an event for special-needs children. Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jay Ramras questioned her leaving town right at the end of the session, when critical decisions are being made.

"There are some concerns (in the Capitol) about the focus of our chief executive because she's taken a speaking engagement in Indiana for a 36-hour period with only 72 hours left in the legislative session," Ramras said.

Palin, who has barely left Alaska during the legislative session, is clearly irritated.

"I'll be gone for one day. I already have been on record with lawmakers on this. I told lawmakers, you know what, 'Please, don't make me feel that I have to ask you permission, lawmakers, to leave the capital city,' " Palin said.


Legislators say the biggest question left is what happens with the $930.7 million in federal economic stimulus money that Alaska state government is eligible to get. Both the House and Senate want to accept every penny of the money. But Palin, who will have the final say through vetoes, has balked at taking one-third of it, including money for schools, energy assistance and social services.

Palin now says she'll accept the federal money if the Legislature agrees to use some of it to replace state spending. For example, she wants to cut 93 million state dollars that would go to schools -- and then award the schools that same amount in federal stimulus money to make up the difference.

That could be a tough sell with legislators. School districts are pushing hard to get the stimulus money on top of what they'd otherwise get from the state -- not instead of.

There are questions about whether Palin's plan is legal under the federal stimulus law as well. Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan said using the dollars just to replace state spending goes against the purpose of Congress.

"The idea is putting more money into the economy," Doogan said.

Palin said she has philosophical objections to the stimulus, given the federal deficit. She also said the public will expect programs funded with stimulus dollars to continue after the federal money runs out -- and pressure the state to pay for them.

Palin said her plan to use stimulus money to replace state money is legal and will save money. "I'll feel better about it because then those dollars won't just be additional dollars, they'll be replacement dollars," the governor said.


The other main thing legislators must do before they leave town is work out differences on how much the state spends next year. That shouldn't be much of an issue, since there is general agreement on a basically status quo budget for state operations and minimal new state spending on construction projects. The bottom line is an expected draw of about $1.2 billion from savings to pay for next year's budget -- on top of taking a similar amount from reserves this year.

Legislators also plan to hash out what they can do to help with regulatory and right-of-way issues for the proposed in-state natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to Cook Inlet. And most lawmakers agree a bill letting the state revenue department lend money to the state student loan corporation needs to pass.

The student loan corporation normally sells bonds to finance college loans, but the poor financial markets have kept the bonds from selling. That's forced the state to stop processing student loan applications for the 2010 and 2011 school years.

Other than that, legislative leaders say there's not much they really need to do.

Members of the state Senate minority complain that it has been a very slow year in Juneau. "We're doing Marmot Day and license plates and naming bridges and naming the building next door and that sort of thing," said Anchorage Republican Sen. Con Bunde. "Not legislation of great consequence."

The Legislature is on a two-year schedule, though, so bills that don't pass in this 90-day session do not have to start over next year in the slow climb up through committees.

State House Speaker Mike Chenault, a Nikiski Republican, said the budget and stimulus have kept lawmakers busy and they shouldn't be judged on passing few bills.

"We don't have to pass bills. Usually bills take away people's rights in some form or fashion," he said.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Outrage of the Day: Goldman Sachs Hires Law Firm To Shut Blogger's Site

Goldman Sachs is attempting to shut down a dissident blogger who is extremely critical of the investment bank, its board members and its practices.

This is the same Goldman Sachs that took billions in bailout money and gave it all out (and more) in bonuses.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein

The Telegraph reports:
The bank has instructed Wall Street law firm Chadbourne & Parke to pursue blogger Mike Morgan, warning him in a recent cease-and-desist letter that he may face legal action if he does not close down his website.

Florida-based Mr Morgan began a blog entitled "Facts about Goldman Sachs" – the web address for which is – just a few weeks ago.
In that time Mr Morgan, a registered investment adviser, has added a number of posts to the site, including one entitled "Does Goldman Sachs run the world?". However, many of the posts relate to other Wall Street firms and issues.

According to Chadbourne & Parke's letter, dated April 8, the bank is rattled because the site "violates several of Goldman Sachs' intellectual property rights" and also "implies a relationship" with the bank itself.

Unsurprisingly for a man who has conjoined the bank's name with the Number of the Beast – although he jokingly points out that 666 was also the S&P500's bear-market bottom – Mr Morgan is unlikely to go down without a fight.

He claims he has followed all legal requirements to own and operate the website – and that the header of the site clearly states that the content has not been approved by the bank.

On a special section of his blog entitled "Goldman Sachs vs Mike Morgan" he predicts that the fight will probably end up in court.

"It's just another example of how a bully like Goldman Sachs tries to throw their weight around," he writes.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Mr Morgan explained how he went through a similar battle with US home-builder Lennar a few years ago after he set up a website to collect information on what he alleged was shoddy workmanship in its homes. The pair eventually settled out of court.

"Since I went through this with Lennar, I've had advice from some of the best intellectual property lawyers, and I know exactly what I can and can't do. We're not going to back down from this," he promises.

Mr Morgan adds that if Goldman manages to shut down his site, he has a number of other domain names registered.

• Speculation is mounting that Goldman Sachs is set to raise several billion dollars via a share sale, possibly next week, in order to pay down a $10bn (£6.8bn) US government loan, as revealed in The Sunday Telegraph last week.

Tuesday Is D(og)-Day

So says TMZ:
We have lots of exclusive details on the Portuguese Water Dog President Barack Obama and Michelle are getting for Sasha and Malia. The pooch will make its grand entrance on Tuesday, and it's coming from a prominent Texas kennel, with the help of Senator Ted Kennedy's family.
The black dog -- a male -- is approximately six months old. We've learned it was bred at the kennel and sold to someone who gave it back. The kennel is now "re-homing" the dog to the Obamas. The dog was named Charlie, but the Obamas will rename it.

Now here's where the Kennedys come into play. The kennel has sold the Kennedys three Portuguese Water Dogs in the past, all from the same lineage. The dog the Obamas will be getting is from the same lineage as the Kennedy dogs. The Kennedy family will be presenting the new dog to the Obamas, but it's really coming from the kennel.

The reason this all sounds so technical is that there are issues regarding gifts to the Prez. The fact that the pup is being re-homed makes it all kosher.

The dog pictured is a Portuguese Water Dog, but not the pup the Obamas are getting.
With all the news lately of Bush, Cheney and their merry band of crooks and thieves trying to muscle their way back into the spotlight and assert their version of the last eight years and vision of the world, there's not been one word about Barney, Bush's Scottish terrier. That's a shame, as Barney's the only character from that administration that I'd like to know about since leaving the White House and how he's faring, being that he's forced to spend 24/7 with Bush, and with no reporters to take his frustration out on.

UPDATE [4/12/09, 3:27 P.M. PDT]
Bo Obama, formerly known as Charlie
In this undated photo released by the White House, the Obama family's new dog, Bo, a 6-month-old Portuguese water dog, is shown at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/The White House, Pete Souza)
Bo? No jest.

The first family has settled on a first pet _ a 6-month-old Portuguese water dog that the Obama girls are naming Bo.

The selection was one of the White House's most tightly kept secrets.

President Barack Obama's daughters, 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha, picked a black and white pup, a White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity told The Associated Press Saturday night.

The dog is a gift from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who owns several Portuguese water dogs himself.

"We couldnt be happier to see the joy that Bo is bringing to Malia and Sasha," Kennedy said in a statement. "We love our Portuguese water dogs and know that the girls _ and their parents _ will love theirs, too."

The Washington Post reported in its online editions Saturday night that Obama's daughters chose the name Bo for the pup because first lady Michelle Obama's father was nicknamed Diddley. The name for the dog was an apparent reference to the singer "Bo" Diddley.

White House aides told the AP that the office of the first lady arranged an exclusive deal on the dog story with the Post. The officials, who demanded anonymity because of the deal with the Post on exclusive details, said the dog was not in the White House as of Saturday evening.

Throughout the day Saturday, celebrity Web sites and bloggers were abuzz with rumors of the first family's selection of a Portuguese water dog; one site even claimed it had pictures of the future first pet.

The president had embraced the frenzy: "Oh, man, now, that's top secret," Obama joked Friday to reporters.

Obama promised his daughters a puppy during the campaign.

"This is Washington. That was a campaign promise," Obama said when he appeared on Jay Leno's talk show last month, as the audience roared with laughter. "No, I'm teasing. The dog will be there shortly."

The president and first lady had said their choice was down to either a Portuguese water dog or a Labradoodle because they were considered good pets for children who have allergies, as Malia does.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Geithner's Stress Test "A Complete Sham," Former Federal Bank Regulator Says

According to Aaron Task:
The bank stress tests currently underway are “a complete sham,” says William Black, a former senior bank regulator and S&L prosecutor, and currently an Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. “It’s a Potemkin model. Built to fool people.” [see Bill Moyers interview with William Black on 'Bill Moyers Journal', April 3, 2009] Like many others, Black believes the “worst case scenario” used in the stress test don’t go far enough.

He detailed these and related concerns in a recent interview with Naked Capitalism. But Black, who was counsel to the Federal Home Loan Bank Board during the S&L Crisis, says the program's failings go way beyond such technical issues. “There is no real purpose [of the stress test] other than to fool us. To make us chumps,” Black says. Noting policymakers have long stated the problem is a lack of confidence, Black says Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is now essentially saying: “’If we lie and they believe us, all will be well.’ It’s Orwellian."

The former regulator is extremely critical of Geithner, calling him a “failed regulator” now “adding to failed policy” by not allowing “banks that really need desperately to be closed” to fail. (On Saturday, Geithner said on Face the Nation, if banks need "exceptional assistance" in the future "then we'll make sure that assistance comes with conditions," including potentially changing management and the board, but did not say they'd be shut down.)

Black says the stress test must also be viewed in the context of Geithner’s toxic debt plan, which he calls “an enormous taxpayer subsidy for people who caused the problem.” The fact bank stocks have been rising since Geithner unveiled his plan is “bad news for taxpayers,” he says. “It’s the subsidy of all history."

Mortgage Fraud Epidemic: How the FBI Blew It and Why There's No 'Perp Walks'

According to Aaron Task:
In the wake of the bursting of the housing bubble, you'd think there'd be a significant number of investigations into criminal wrongdoing and accounting fraud, similar to what occurred after the S&L crisis and bursting of the stock bubble in 2000.

But two years into the crisis the FBI "doesn't have a single major conviction or indictment of anyone," notes William Black, a former senior bank regulator and S&L prosecutor, and currently an Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. [see Bill Moyers interview with William Black on 'Bill Moyers Journal', April 3, 2009]

Black, who was counsel to the Federal Home Loan Bank Board during the S&L crisis of the 1980s and blew the whistle on the "Keating Five" in 1989, reiterated what he told us in November: Though the FBI warned of an "epidemic" of mortgage fraud in 2004, they subsequently made a "strategic alliance" with the Mortgage Bankers Association, which Black calls the "trade association of perps."

Indeed, as much as 80% of the fraud during the boom was "induced by the lenders," who either encouraged people to lie on loan applications or actively altered documents to make them more likely to be approved, says Black.

How extensive was the fraud?

"There was the appearance of fraud or misrepresentation in almost every file," Fitch Investors declared in late 2007 after reviewing nonperforming subprime MBS (the same stuff they, S&P and Moody's rated triple-A).

Black estimates there are as many as 500,000 cases of mortgage fraud that need to be investigated. Furthermore, such extensive mortgage fraud led to accounting fraud, which led to securities fraud at any/all publicly traded mortgage lenders. As with the FBI, the SEC was "completely ineffective" in stopping such crimes, much less investigating them now, he says.

Among the biggest mortgage lenders, IndyMac was put into FDIC receivership, Countrywide was acquired by Bank of America, Golden West was acquired by Wachovia, and WaMu was ultimately acquired by JPMorgan.

This is relevant because the government's current practice of keeping banks' senior management and boards intact (unlike, say GM's) is effectively prohibiting any investigation of possible (likely) wrongdoing at those firms.

It is for these reasons Black says the FBI's current level of 800 cases per year is "no longer symbolic prosecutions, it's shambolic prosecutions."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Syncopate, Syncopate, Dance To The Music

Paul Krugman writes, Despair over financial policy, CBO projections, and More on the bank plan, and the people respond:

The Rock Cookie Bottom, aka Jonathan Mann

Blah, blah, blah
[Tim Geithner, confirmation hearing, January 21, 2009]

Krugman writes:
The Geithner plan has now been leaked in detail. It’s exactly the plan that was widely analyzed — and found wanting — a couple of weeks ago. The zombie ideas have won.

The Obama administration is now completely wedded to the idea that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the financial system — that what we’re facing is the equivalent of a run on an essentially sound bank. As Tim Duy put it, there are no bad assets, only misunderstood assets. And if we get investors to understand that toxic waste is really, truly worth much more than anyone is willing to pay for it, all our problems will be solved.

To this end the plan proposes to create funds in which private investors put in a small amount of their own money, and in return get large, non-recourse loans from the taxpayer, with which to buy bad — I mean misunderstood — assets. This is supposed to lead to fair prices because the funds will engage in competitive bidding.

But it’s immediately obvious, if you think about it, that these funds will have skewed incentives. In effect, Treasury will be creating — deliberately! — the functional equivalent of Texas S&Ls in the 1980s: financial operations with very little capital but lots of government-guaranteed liabilities. For the private investors, this is an open invitation to play heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose. So sure, these investors will be ready to pay high prices for toxic waste. After all, the stuff might be worth something; and if it isn’t, that’s someone else’s problem.

Or to put it another way, Treasury has decided that what we have is nothing but a confidence problem, which it proposes to cure by creating massive moral hazard.

This plan will produce big gains for banks that didn’t actually need any help; it will, however, do little to reassure the public about banks that are seriously undercapitalized. And I fear that when the plan fails, as it almost surely will, the administration will have shot its bolt: it won’t be able to come back to Congress for a plan that might actually work.

What an awful mess.

You can say that again.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Brother Keith Explains It All

Keith references a report ("Sold Out: How Wall Street and Washington Betrayed America" [.pdf here, 3 MB]) by Los Angeles consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield's group, Wall Street Watch.

"Sold Out" details a dozen key steps to financial meltdown, revealing how industry pressure led to these deregulatory moves and their consequences:
  1. In 1999, Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which had prohibited the merger of commercial banking and investment banking.
  2. Regulatory rules permitted off-balance sheet accounting -- tricks that enabled banks to hide their liabilities.
  3. The Clinton administration blocked the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from regulating financial derivatives -- which became the basis for massive speculation.
  4. Congress in 2000 prohibited regulation of financial derivatives when it passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act.
  5. The Securities and Exchange Commission in 2004 adopted a voluntary regulation scheme for investment banks that enabled them to incur much higher levels of debt.
  6. Rules adopted by global regulators at the behest of the financial industry would enable commercial banks to determine their own capital reserve requirements, based on their internal "risk-assessment models."
  7. Federal regulators refused to block widespread predatory lending practices earlier in this decade, failing to either issue appropriate regulations or even enforce existing ones.
  8. Federal bank regulators claimed the power to supersede state consumer protection laws that could have diminished predatory lending and other abusive practices.
  9. Federal rules prevent victims of abusive loans from suing firms that bought their loans from the banks that issued the original loan.
  10. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac expanded beyond their traditional scope of business and entered the subprime market, ultimately costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.
  11. The abandonment of antitrust and related regulatory principles enabled the creation of too-big-to-fail megabanks, which engaged in much riskier practices than smaller banks.
  12. Beset by conflicts of interest, private credit rating companies incorrectly assessed the quality of mortgage-backed securities; a 2006 law handcuffed the SEC from properly regulating the firms.

Financial Sector Political Money and 3000 Lobbyists Dictated Washington Policy

During the period 1998-2008:
  • Commercial banks spent more than $154 million on campaign contributions, while investing $363 million in officially registered lobbying:
  • Accounting firms spent $68 million on campaign contributions and $115 million on lobbying;
  • Insurance companies donated more than $218 million and spent more than $1.1 billion on lobbying;
  • Securities firms invested more than $504 million in campaign contributions, and an additional $576 million in lobbying. Included in this total: private equity firms contributed $56 million to federal candidates and spent $33 million on lobbying; and hedge funds spent $32 million on campaign contributions (about half in the 2008 election cycle).
  • The betrayal was bipartisan: about 55 percent of the political donations went to Republicans and 45 percent to Democrats, primarily reflecting the balance of power over the decade. Democrats took just more than half of the financial sector's 2008 election cycle contributions.
  • The financial sector buttressed its political strength by placing Wall Street expatriates in top regulatory positions, including the post of Treasury Secretary held by two former Goldman Sachs chairs, Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson.
  • Financial firms employed a legion of lobbyists, maintaining nearly 3,000 separate lobbyists in 2007 alone.
  • These companies drew heavily from government in choosing their lobbyists. Surveying 20 leading financial firms, "Sold Out" finds 142 of the lobbyists they employed from 1998-2008 were previously high-ranking officials or employees in the Executive Branch or Congress.

What's the solution?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Obama's New Rescue Plan For Banks . . .

. . . is remarkably like the old rescue plan that failed

The NY Time reports:
After weeks of internal debate, the Obama administration has settled on a plan to inject billions of dollars in fresh capital into banks and entice investors to purchase their most troubled assets.

The new financial industry rescue plan, to be outlined in broad terms on Monday in a speech by the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, will not require banks to increase their lending. That is despite criticism that institutions that already received money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, either hoarded it or used the funds to acquire other banks.

I have just a few simple questions that deserve answers before any bailout decisions are made:

1. Why is Geithner and the senate trying to make decisions without a GAO audit of banks' balance sheets and their off-balance-sheet financial conditions?

2. Why are banks' executives not called in front of Geithner and Congress to testify about on and off balance sheets status? Why is there a different requirement for banks as opposed to auto companies?

3. Shouldn't Geithner and senators know the magnitude of the problems before asking taxpayers to fund?

4. Why are the problems NOT quantified; off-balance-sheet and toxic paper?

5. Why are the 'zombie banks', as Paul Krugman calls them, being saved without more information?

Good questions, eh?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Economic Disaster...

...Are You Next?

At The Agonist, Michael Collins writes:

The human costs of the U. S. financial crisis are coming into clear focus. Family members lose their jobs, then their homes, and the cascade of ruin begins in earnest. Health problems are ignored, anxiety and depression increase, and domestic violence is more common. Many are on the edge, anticipating their worst fears: losing their home or apartment then struggling to find the next meal. The biggest issues right now are about basic needs -- food and shelter.

There's a rational, reasonably immediate solution to a good part of the economic disaster. The banks won't like it but you will. But first the sad facts.

There were 2.3 million default notices to homeowners in 2008, up 80% over 2007. It will be worse in 2009 with Option ARMs coming due (those favorites of Alan Greenspan).
continue reading after the jump

Typically the nation's economic leader, California, saw foreclosures increase by 160% in 2008. As a result three percent of California homes, 240,000 in all, became bank properties. These are the same banks that slithered up to the bar and demanded a double shot of the new elixir for failed financial institutions, federal bailouts. Put it on the tab.

To understand the full extent of the economic collapse, consider this. The current official unemployment rate is 7.2%. This includes those out of a job who have actively sought employment in the past four weeks. But this figure understates the level of economic distress. There are 1.9 million unemployed "marginally attached" workers not counted and 8.0 million underemployed workers seeking full time employment.

The total unemployed and under employed figure is 21 million U.S. workers.

Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and South Carolina are facing hard times similar to those in California. Your state is next. It's a nationwide phenomenon.

Despite hundreds of billions in give aways to the banks, there are no reports of a single U.S. citizen or family receiving a bailout from Washington to help them stay in their home.

What happens when you're thrown out of your home or apartment and you have no job?

To begin with, you're poor.

You can live on the street, move in with relatives, or seek to rent a home or an apartment. After a foreclosure, your credit rating will probably disqualify you from most opportunities at the outset. If you're in a warmer climate, you can live in a tent city which began springing up across the country last September.

You can and will enter an entirely new world where you're exposed to a variety of risks that will make it very difficult to put your life back together again. Crime, infectious diseases, underpayment for work, and increasing social isolation are routine.

You can become a crime victim. In your new world, that of the poor, you will find that you're among the group with the majority of violent crime victims.

You can seek and receive occasional "subprime" medical care in hospital emergency rooms. But the days of serious attention to an ongoing condition, arthritis for example, are over for you.

You can watch your life melt away and your family suffer, all without the prospect of any real assistance. Homeless shelters are full in most places. Public health programs have been overflowing for years. The "welfare state" simply doesn't exist. You're screwed.

Wall Street welfare was supposed to save us from all of this according to the Bush-Cheney scam artists. Those two and their henchmen doubled the national debt in just a few short years of concentrated looting. Somehow, the most recent Wall Street donations were supposed to secure failed financial institutions and generate a stimulus for the economy. No deal.

To add insult to that injury, a $140 billion tax cut for banks was written "into law" by a Treasury Department bureaucrat, a move that everyone consulted said was clearly illegal. Nothing was done about it. In fact, a key congressional staffer explained it this way: "We're all nervous about saying that this was illegal because of our fears about the marketplace," Nov. 10, 2008

Crime pays. Deception pays.

But the money to pay working people isn't there thanks to the financial manipulations that made the very wealthy even wealthier and left the rest with little to nothing in return. There is no room at this inn for people who need a helping hand.
When do the People Collect?

California passed a law that cut into foreclosures by requiring that the banks actually give a reasonable notice of default prior to tossing families onto the street. This program had an impact for a few months but foreclosures bounced back and kept growing. .

Representative Marcy Kaptur, (D-OH), responded to the economic collapse of Toledo, Ohio (11% unemployment) with a sensible idea. Foreclosures and evictions are a commonplace event. Kaptur tells citizens to stay put, don't leave your home if a foreclosure notice is issued. "Produce the Paper" is the theme. Due to the complexity of many bad loans, it can be very difficult to figure out which bank actually holds the mortgage or to even find a true loan document. Without that information, there are legal challenges that can force banks to delay or forgo eviction.

Time for a Nationwide "Cramdown"

The easiest solution, the most immediate, is a cramdown. What's that?

In bankruptcy court, a judge can take the total amount of a mortgage and divide it into two parts. The appraised home value becomes the "secured claim" and "the amount over the current appraised home value" becomes the "unsecured claim." The unsecured amount is discarded. The secured amount, i.e., current appraised value, becomes the homeowner's only debt. This debt can be amortized over the life of the loan. Thus monthly payments go down, people have a much better chance of staying in their homes, and they have some disposable income for essentials.

Congressional Democrats and President Obama are arguing over legislation that would give bankruptcy judges greater options for "cramdowns." Both sides of the argument are out of touch with the accelerating harsh realities of the U.S. economy as experienced directly by the citizens.

There's no court that needs to hear this case. The nationwide cramdown should be negotiated directly by the Obama administration, in behalf of all citizens and the remaining banks. Obama's two financial system insiders, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and chief economic advisor Larry Summers, would all of sudden become the good cop - bad cop negotiators shoving the banks in a corner and forcing them so submit to the plan.

Cramdowns were mentioned in the campaign as one of several options to address the needs of homeowners. Obama can resist the idea and those in Congress can ignore the scope of action needed. But the people will bring them back to reality very soon, just as they did on the specific issue of having someone in the cabinet so rich and aloof that he forgets to pay $126,000 in income taxes.

Meeting the urgent need for people to have a home means less social and economic disruption. There would be an immediate stimulus with more money available to spend in the real economy. This stimulus program would put money back in the economy in months not years.

Now is the time.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Exxon Mobil 4th Quarter Profit Drops By A Third

Houston Chronicle reports:

Exxon Mobil again broke its own record for highest annual profits ever by a U.S. company, pulling in $45.2 billion in 2008, an 11 percent jump over 2007’s $40.6 billion.

But the Irving-based oil giant’s lower fourth-quartery profits reflected how lower demand and plummeting oil and gas prices in the last three months of 2008 amid the global recession have siphoned the industry’s record-breaking streak, which became almost routine as crude rose to all-time highs.

In the quarter, the company earned $7.8 billion, down 33 percent from $11.6 billion in the last three months of 2007 and barely half its all-time quarterly record of $14.8 billion in the third quarter last year, when oil prices were still in triple digits.

However, Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s chairman and chief executive, said capital spending rose 25 percent last year to $26.1 billion and the world’s largest publicly traded oil company will stay its disciplined course through the tough economic times.

“Exxon Mobil’s financial strength continued to support its disciplined capital investment approach in the midst of a growing global economic downturn,” Tillerson said in a statement. “Through these investments we continued to demonstrate our long-term focus throughout the business cycle.”

Chevron, which also unveiled financial results today, bucked the quarterly trend. The San Ramon, Calif.-based company’s annual income rose 28 percent to $23.9 billion from $18.7 billion in 2007, and its quarterly profit rose slightly to $4.89 billion from $4.87 billion. The quarterly increase stemmed from lower costs of raw materials used in refining that increased margins on sales of gasoline and other products, Chevron Chief Executive Officer Dave O’Reilly said.

Like Tillerson, O’Reilly emphasized the oil major’s muscle and discipline amid the recession.

“We enter 2009 with the financial strength to meet the challenges of a difficult economy and with a continued focus on cost management and capital stewardship,” he said.

Exxon’s annual results included a one-time gain of $1.6 billion from the sale of a natural gas transmission business in Germany and a charge of $460 million related to litigation stemming from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Excluding those items, the company still surpassed its record with annual earnings of $44 billion.

Exxon attributed its lower quarterly earnings to weaker crude prices, higher operating expenses, lower chemical volumes and impacts of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Ike prompted shutdowns and repairs at two of Exxon’s major refineries in Baytown—the nation’s largest—and Beaumont.

Per share, including the one-time items, Exxon earned $8.69 in 2008 compared to $7.28 in 2007. In the quarter, per-share income was $1.55, down 27 percent from $2.13 in the October-December period of 2007. Revenue for the year was $477.35 billion, up from $404.5 billion. In the quarter, revenue fell to $84.7 billion from $116.6 billion.

Exxon also continued its trend of lower production. In the quarter, production fell 3 percent, largely because of lower entitlement volumes, divestments and effects of cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Excluding those effects, production fell 1 percent. Increased oil production from projects in west Africa and the North Sea more than offset field declines, but natural gas production declines surpassed increased volumes and project additions in the North Sea, Qatar and Malaysia, the company said.

Exxon also said exploration and production income fell $2.6 billion to $5.6 billion in the quarter because of lower oil prices. Refining income suffered from hurricane-related repairs and higher operating costs, but higher margins increased earnings by $147 million to $2.4 billion.

Chevron’s production also fell in the quarter, to 2.54 million barrels of oil equivalent per day from 2.6 million barrels. The company said its decline largely stemmed from shutdowns and damage caused to production facilities by the hurricanes.

Per share for the year, Chevron earned $11.67, up from $8.77. In the quarter, per-share earnings were $2.44, up from $2.32. Revenue for the year rose to $273 billion from $220.9 billion, but quarterly revenue fell to $45.2 billion from $61.4 billion.

Chevron’s exploration and production income fell to $3.15 billion from $4.8 billion, while refining and marketing earnings rose to $2 billion from $204 million in the quarter, the company said.

Her Mother's Daughter, Her Father's Inspiration?

At, Zac Frank writes, "What a 1988 college thesis by the former vice president's daughter tells us about the Bush presidency":

When I worked at the library at Colorado College, I quickly discovered the job had few perks. The free book loans on demand were little better than subprime mortgages when you realized anyone could get them. The only "exclusive" benefit was the chance to keep manuscripts the library threw out. Usually, I had a limited selection of titles, like Proceedings From the Third Workshop on Genetics of Bark Beetles and Associated Micro-Organisms. But occasionally I stumbled across a gem. Rummaging through a bin of discarded books one day, I saw an unusual spine: "CHENEY The Evolution of Presidential War Powers 1988."

In 1988, while Dick Cheney was Wyoming's sole representative in the House of Representatives, his daughter's senior thesis was quietly published in Colorado Springs. The 125-page treatise argued that, constitutionally and historically, presidents have virtually unchecked powers in war. Thirteen years before her father became vice president, she had symbolically authored the first legal memorandum of the Bush administration, laying out the same arguments that would eventually justify Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition, wiretapping of American citizens, and, broadly, the unitary theory of the executive that shaped the Bush presidency.

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building may be bereft of Dick Cheney, but his steadfast efforts to consolidate power around the president have left the scales of power tipped toward the executive. Then there is the force of Cheney's grim, blunt personality, felt even as he attended the inauguration in a wheelchair: His name will stand for the ideas he promoted well into the future, and his daughter's thesis offers an eerily prescient image of the presidency as Cheney believed it should be.

Though less known to the public than her sister, Mary, arguably the most prominent gay Republican, Elizabeth is the elder daughter of Dick and Lynne Cheney. After graduating from Colorado College, she took a job in the State Department before going to law school, and was eventually appointed as one of the chief diplomats for the Middle East in 2002.

Elizabeth Cheney begins her survey at the Constitutional Convention. Contrary to today's middle-school mythology, she tells us, fear of enabling a tyrannical monarch was not foremost in the Founding Fathers' minds. Rather, they did not want to repeat the failure of the Continental Congress' attempts to manage the war for independence. Our constitutional architects, she argues, believed they could not "foresee every possible future use of American armed forces" and, as a result, wanted a commander in chief endowed with great latitude in wartime.

For Cheney, Thomas Jefferson established the path presidents would and should take when dealing with Congress. In engaging American warships against Barbary pirates, Jefferson "chose to inform Congress of his actions at his own convenience." When he did, he fabricated an attack on an American ship to secure their support.

Cheney sides with the president whenever he clashes with Congress over war powers. Following an escalation in the Vietnam War ordered by Lyndon Johnson, she notes, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, based on questionable information, to provide cover for the president. Nevertheless, both he and Richard Nixon after him believed that the resolution provided no "legal basis for their action because they presumed all the authorization they needed was in the Commander and Chief [sic] clause."

Time and again, Cheney contends that in times of war, presidents since Washington have justifiably redefined their authority to preserve the country, and she is scornful of any who challenge that authority. As Congress challenged presidential authority toward the end of Vietnam, she casts them as scapegoating the executive. "As public support dwindled so did congressional willingness to accept responsibility," she writes, "Congress set about to blame the only two men who couldn't escape responsibility." For someone who has vested so much faith in executive wisdom, she is surprisingly unwilling to hold it accountable.

From beginning to end, it's clear that Cheney looks upon the model of the powerful executive approvingly. Her most forceful conclusion is that the Founders "certainly did not intend, nor does history substantiate, the idea that Congress should legislate specific limits on the President's power." To ensure American security, it needs to recognize that the "nature of military and foreign policy demand the 'unity of a singular Executive.'"

One cannot help but see echoes of this conclusion in the administration in which her father was so influential. The Bush White House repeatedly embraced the philosophy of acting first and asking for approval later, especially on issues that involved the power of the purse. They embraced a position that Cheney found repeatedly in history: "The president's duty to protect national security sometimes come before his responsibility to keep Congress informed."

This crusade against oversight was not new to Dick Cheney. In November of 1987, just six months before Elizabeth submitted her thesis, a report he commissioned following the Iran-Contra affair argued that "[c]ongressional actions to limit the president in this area therefore should be reviewed with a considerable degree of skepticism."

For Cheney, apparently, the Constitution and rule of law are no more of a check on this unitary power than Congress. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus and imposition of military tribunals present no legal dilemma to her. "To assert that the Constitution is a shield of protection 'for all classes of men, at all times and under all circumstances,' " she writes, "is to deny the nation the right of self-preservation. There have been and will be times in the experience of the country when constitutional provisions will of necessity be suspended to guarantee the survival of our democracy." The Supreme Court's chief justice was wrong in declaring his actions illegal in Ex Parte Merryman because his power "was actually an assertion of the power of the people."* How he divined that will of the people, Cheney does not explain.

On the first page of her paper, above a neat signature in blue ink, she attests, "On my honor I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this thesis." Her father may not have written her thesis, but before and after its publication, he held unwaveringly to its ideas. As a report on an exit interview the outgoing vice president gave with CBS notes:

While Cheney could not say whether any action by a president in wartime should be considered "legal," he pointed to historic precedents for presidents taking extra-legal measures in order, he said, to protect the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

That statement could well have been printed on the cover of his daughter's thesis.

Correction, Jan. 30, 2009: This article originally referred to Ex Parte Merryman as a Supreme Court case. It was a circuit court order written by Roger Taney, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who was sitting on the circuit court at the time. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

It's National Pie Day!

According to the American Pie Council:
Pie has been around since the ancient Egyptians. The first pies were made by early Romans who may have learned about it through the Greeks. These pies were sometimes made in "reeds" which were used for the sole purpose of holding the filling and not for eating with the filling.

The Romans must have spread the word about pies around Europe as the Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word pie was a popular word in the 14th century. The first pie recipe was published by the Romans and was for a rye-crusted goat cheese and honey pie.

The early pies were predominately meat pies. Pyes (pies) originally appeared in England as early as the twelfth century. The crust of the pie was referred to as "coffyn". There was actually more crust than filling. Often these pies were made using fowl and the legs were left to hang over the side of the dish and used as handles. Fruit pies or tarts (pasties) where probably first made in the 1500s. English tradition credits making the first cherry pie to Queen Elizabeth I.

Pie came to America with the first English settlers. The early colonists cooked their pies in long narrow pans calling them "coffins" like the crust in England. As in the Roman times, the early American pie crusts often were not eaten, but simply designed to hold the filling during baking. It was during the American Revolution that the term crust was used instead of coffyn.

Over the years, pie has evolved to become what it is today "the most traditional American dessert". Pie has become so much a part of American culture throughout the years, that we now commonly use the term "as American as apple pie."

Who makes the best pies in America? They do, so says the American Pie Council.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Obama's Mighty Lean For All The Bread He's Been Breaking Lately

The secret dinner with Obama you haven't heard about

At a quiet dinner meeting late last week in Washington's Ronald Reagan Building, President-elect Obama reached out to outside foreign-policy experts, trying to resist the presidential bubble that is rapidly closing around him.

Late afternoon last Thursday Jan.8, scholars and staff at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars noticed an unusual upgrade in the security of the top floors of their building, which also houses USAID, the EPA, a public food court, and some foreign television stations. The Wilson Center hosts high-level people all the time, but this security detail was of a different order, sources said.

And indeed, some suspected that Obama was coming to dine in the 8th-floor offices of Lee Hamilton, the quasi-governmental think tank's president -- a hunch they confirmed the next day.

Hamilton, the longtime House member from Indiana who cochaired the Iraq Study Group, the 9/11 Commission, and numerous others over the years, has become a kind of wise-man mentor to Obama. Last Thursday, the Wilson Center president assembled a small collection of scholars on the Middle East and South Asia for a meeting that stretched through dinner for hours into the night.

Among those who attended the off-the-record dinner: Iran scholar Haleh Esfandiari; Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid (who had flown in from Lahore); Obama friend and foreign-policy advisor Samantha Power of Harvard University (who accompanied PEOTUS to the meeting); incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel; and a few others. Obama told the group, none of whom reached would discuss the details, that he already felt in the bubble and was trying his best to meet with independent experts.

Scholars at the center noted the group leaned toward experts on the Middle East and South Asia. "They talked mostly about what was going on in the world, from Gaza to the financial crisis and its implications," one source summarized.

"It's clear from the nine or 10 people included that the meeting was mostly focused on Middle East issues," said one scholar who witnessed the security goings-on but did not attend the meeting. "It's part of the process that I think Obama wants to do to connect" given the demise of his Blackberry. "It was held here [at the Wilson Center], but from now on, I suspect such things will be held at the White House."

Contacted about the meeting, Wilson Center Middle East scholar Aaron David Miller declined to comment, saying he couldn't help on this one. Esfandiari, who was imprisoned last year by the Iranian regime, directed questions about the meeting to the Wilson Center's press officer. An executive assistant to Hamilton said her boss was getting on a plane in California to fly back to Washington, and couldn't be reached today.

A source close to Hamilton explained that he had a long relationship with Obama, and noted that many former Hamilton staffers had gone on to be key staffers and foreign policy advisors to Obama.

Among them: Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes, who wrote speeches and was a policy advisor for Hamilton for several years; Obama's top foreign-policy advisor Denis McDonough; who worked for Hamilton on the staff of the House International Relations Committee, Obama Mideast advisor Daniel Shapiro, who worked for Hamilton as his professional staff member on the Middle East when Hamilton was chairman of the then-House Foreign Affairs Committee in the 103rd Congress (1993-94); Dan Restrepo, a top Obama Latin America advisor now with the Center for American Progress who worked for Hamilton on the Hill; and Mara Rudman, who worked for Hamilton on the Hill and is now a member of the formal Obama transition team.

"Ben Rhodes (the [President-Elect's] national security speechwriter) and I both are very close to Lee," McDonough said in an e-mail. "Ben wrote for Lee for a couple years, through the 9-11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group. Lee has been an indispensable ally to the P-E, offering wise counsel and hosting the P-E for discussions and a couple speeches during the campaign. He is a frequent sounding board for the P-E and the team."

"From what I understand, the president-elect wants to be able to have access to different ideas and opinions," said one Wilson Center associate. "What better person than Lee [Hamilton]? ... Lee was always tasked whenever there was anything to do with ethics. For instance, Iran-contra" [Hamilton was one of congressional chairs of Iran contra investigation]. "They went to Lee because he has the ability to transcend party lines. ... He's very congenial, very decent, he's willing to listen to everybody, ... he treats everybody with dignity and respect. And that comes through. He listens. He assesses. And that is what Hamilton said he likes about Senator Obama. Obama listens. He goes around the table. Lee has been in numerous meetings with him, and Obama listens to what people have to say. Hamilton has a great deal of respect for him."

The source said that Obama and Hamilton have met several times and that Hamilton's former law partner in Chicago early on introduced the Wilson Center president to this "amazing" young Obama years ago, long before Obama entered national politics.

Noting that Hamilton was the longtime chair in the 1990s of the House International Relations committee, one Hill source said, "Hamilton had access to the 'best and the brightest.' It's not a surprise that Obama is drawing on people from that staff.

"The more interesting point to me," the Hill source added, "Is that it shows that since Obama came onto the national scene in 2004, Obama seeks out these older, moderate members of the establishment. And seeks to curry their favor. It's been documented how he's done so with [Sen. Richard] Lugar [R-Indiana]. He seems to have done the same thing with Hamilton."

Also of note: the significance of Obama bringing Samantha Power along to the meeting. A veteran Washington foreign-policy hand says Power is likely to get a job in the Obama administration, probably in the NSC, but would not divulge what position. (Power's husband Cass Sunstein was named last week to be administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget.) Power did not respond to an e-mail query.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"If we told you (where the bailout money is going)..."

"...they would stop taking the bailout money."

Fed Vice Chair Donald Kohn testified before the Financial Services Committee today, along with John Bovenzi of the FDIC. The Fed's balance sheet has expanded by $1.2 trillion since September 1. Where did the money go? Kohn wouldn't say.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Greening of Restaurants

On this week of getting back to work after a holiday season of heavy eating on the heels of a campaign of unprecedent nervous eating that packed on the pounds (even the Food Channel is cooking light and healthy this week), it seems fitting that I get with the program, too, and ease into changing eating habits.

From the Associated Press:
The vibe at Germany's first carbon-neutral restaurant is more hip than hippie.

Minimalism is the mantra at Foodorama, with its cobalt-gray walls, soft lighting and single stem daisies perched atop gleaming blond maple tables, all nestled among the boutiques and stately balconies in Berlin's fashionable west Kreuzberg district.

Corporations such as Dell and Google have embraced the carbon-neutral ethos, but not many restaurants have followed suit.

Foodorama was dreamed up by German branding agency Lab One to sell environmentalism to foodies.
For every ton of carbon dioxide produced by the all-organic cafe, its owners say they will buy carbon certificates for a Kyoto-standard wind park in Karnataka, India.

The restaurant, which opened in September and seats 100 inside (and another 120 outside) marks a departure from Lab One's typical projects, which entail creating promotional material for clients such as rock bands and movie studios.

Agency director Ozan Sinan says Lab One is composed of "hedonistic people who asked each other what can we do besides our core business? We are afraid of what's happening in the world. We want to start something ourselves."

The menu is a combined effort to be both pure and break the rules, says Sinan, resulting in selections such as yakitori schnitzel and a gourmet version of the Berlin classic currywurst, with herb mayonnaise and homemade ketchup.

Though Sinan's childhood meals bore little resemblance to Foodorama's posh cuisine, his mother's economical and seasonal cooking neverless shares much philosophical ground with Foodorama's offerings.

"Many of the things we try to do here -- conserve energy, eat local, reduce waste -- are the things that I learned from my parents," he says. "I was raised with a natural sense for conservation precisely because it wasn't a luxury environment."

Lab One worked with Climate Partner, a Munich-based environmental consulting firm, to devise a checklist of eco-friendly measures in creating Foodorama. These included using bio gas, derived from agricultural byproducts and produced in gas plants outside Berlin, and zero-emission electricity, created from renewable energy sources.

In both cases, Foodorama pays extra for the green alternatives. Other strategies, such as insisting employees bike or take public transportation to work, and investing in state-of-the-art insulation, also shrank emission estimates.

Climate Partner project manager Kai Gilhorn said he and his colleagues even calculated the amount of emissions required to produce each dish on the menu, and considered putting the figures on the menus.

"But that might make people feel guilty for ordering beef instead of vegetables, which may not be what the restaurant wants," he says.

Despite the global financial crisis, Sinan believes the restaurant still can make a profit, even after the emission certificates are purchased at as much as $3,000 a year.

Though some organic French wines run around $120, most items on the Foodorama menu cost about $16, considered steep for the neighborhood but a bargain relative to many gourmet eateries.

Bernd Mueller, 64, munching on a salad, gave a more measured response, calling the food good but not exceptional -- and said he was largely attracted to the restaurant by its organic guarantee.

"Organic tastes different. I cook about 90 percent organic at home, and there aren't that many other organic restaurants in Berlin," said the retired lawyer who lives around the corner and already has become a regular.

I'm going to be dealing with 'green-eating' more in the coming weeks, but for now, it's time for a glass of carrot juice.