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‘America is better than this’: paralysis at the top leaves voters desperate for change November 20, 2011

The US Congress achieved something last week. In the face of an attempt to make school lunches healthier, politicians fought against a plan to limit the serving of fast food. Instead, the red tomato sauce used to make pizzas will remain officially classified as a “vegetable”, so that they can still be served to the nation’s schoolchildren. The move followed intense – and successful – lobbying by the frozen food industry.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Washington weightier matters were not so straightforward. This Wednesday a “supercommittee” of Republicans and Democrats faces a deadline to come up with a deal to reduce America’s vast deficits. If it fails, a huge programme of government spending cuts totalling some $1.2tn will be triggered, slashing at the defence budget and devastating vital social programmes at a time of economic hardship and growing poverty.

Needless to say, the supercommittee is hopelessly deadlocked. So, while the political system responds to the needs of the frozen food industry, it cannot agree on something as important as deficit reduction: even in the face of the threat of mind-boggling cuts. “Pizza sauce is not a vegetable,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “But if they can’t get it right on pizza sauce, how can they do something on the deficit, or healthcare?”

To many Americans that feels typical of the current state of their political system. The country faces a spiralling deficit, unemployment stuck at 9%, a moribund economy and the inexorable rise of China. Yet America’s politicians seem more divided than ever before and neither side seems especially popular. For many Democrats, President Barack Obama is a profound disappointment. Among Republicans the likely 2012 frontrunner, Mitt Romney, is unpopular with conservatives. The rest of the Republican field has shocked many with its poor quality. Rick Perry’s failure to remember his own policies in a TV debate, ending his stumble with a now famous: “Oops!” And Herman Cain – also embroiled in a sex scandal – recently gave a spectacularly ill-informed answer to a question on Libya. In a response that has become an instant YouTube hit, the pizza magnate stammered, stalled and almost dried up altogether when asked if he backed Obama’s decision to support the Libyan rebels. He has also confused China with Iran. The gaffes have compounded a growing perception that US politics has become dangerously dysfunctional.

A flood of outside money, the corrupting influence of lobbyists and the endless shouting of TV news pundits has turned many people off the whole system. A poll last month put the approval rating of Congress at just 9%. To put that into context, during Watergate Richard Nixon’s approval rating was 24%. BP, during the Gulf oil spill, hit 16 %. This year Rasmussen pollsters asked Americans if they approved of the US going communist. A full 11% said they were OK with that; two points ahead of Congress.

America’s system of governance, designed by the founding fathers and then jiggled around with since, suddenly seems ill-equipped to deal with the nation’s problems. The checks and balances built into the constitution appear gridlocked, rather than promoting sensible governance. Nor is it just ordinary people who feel this way. America’s inability to get important things done has a global impact. This summer, when ratings agency Standard Poor’s handed out a first ever downgrade to the world superpower, it was clear why. “The downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges,” the agency said.

Glen Browder, 68, has a good view of how much politics has changed. The former Democratic congressman from Alabama served in the House of Representatives until 1997. He was a founder member of the Blue Dogs, a group on the party’s right, aimed at furthering links with the Republican left. Now he is a political scientist at Jacksonville State University, studying the job he left behind. He is blunt about how much it has changed and one reason why. “I don’t think I would get elected today. It costs so much money and I was never very good at raising it and I am not willing to do the things you have to do to get it. I would not be functional today as a politician.”

The influence of money and the development of a “permanent campaign” mentality have gone hand-in-hand. As campaigns stretched out, they required more money. It has to come from somewhere, and so in recent years the lobbying industry has ballooned. Nor is that money free. Special interests, whether a big oil company or union (or even a frozen pizza-maker) expect a return on their investment. The figures alone tell the story. In 2010 lobbyists spent $3.5bn on their activities, up from $1.4bn in 1998.

In the same year there were almost 13,000 official lobbyists in the capital, and thousands more unregistered. On key issues lobbyists are a plague. The healthcare industry alone employs six lobbyists for every elected politician. Campaign spending has exploded: in 2008 candidates spent $1.7bn in total. Obama spent £740m, which is more than the combined spending of George W Bush and his challenger, John Kerry, just four years earlier. The situation is getting worse. A recent supreme court ruling scrapped some existing campaign finance laws limiting the involvement of special interests, which triggered an unrelenting flood of new money into politics.

Yet despite the huge influence of money, and the power it brings to donors, even some business leaders are furious at the elite’s inability to get things done. Howard Schultz, the Starbucks chief executive, has vowed to stop giving money to campaigns and urged fellow business leaders to follow suit, until politicians take action on resolving the defici problemt. “We have a crisis of confidence in America,” Schultz told a TV interviewer: “America is better than this.” But Schultz’s efforts failed to halt the flood of money into politics. For every Schultz who stops donating, there are many eager to buy influence.

Yet that is not the entire problem. While some polling data suggests many ordinary Americans still inhabit the middle ground on most issues, the political parties rarely reflect that. Widespread gerrymandering of congressional districts, whereby borders are drawn to lump together specific social groups, has resulted in many seats becoming safe. That renders elections between Republicans and Democrats pointlessas one side is guaranteed to win. The real contest comes when party activists duke it out among hardcore supporters in primaries. The inevitable result: a drift to extremes. “There has been a hollowing of the political centre,” said Larry Haas, a former Clinton aide.

The phenomenon of the Tea Party has risen out of this. By exerting so much power over the Republican base, the party has swarmed through the primary system, either forcing incumbents to bend to its will or seeing them lose to Tea Party supporters. The result has been a party that has lurched to the right and become ideologically unmoveable on issues such as tax rises for the wealthy – that many Americans support.

Republicans agree the boundaries of debate have shifted. Mark McKinnon has been a top aide for both Bush and John McCain. But he left McCain’s campaign in 2008 stating he did not want to participate in the sort of negative attacks on Obama current politics would demand. Since then, things have got worse, he says. “The system is soaked in hyper-partisanship. It is really broken.”

No wonder some are looking for an alternative. American politics since the civil war has been stuck in a two-way fight between Republicans and Democrats. Third-party runs, whether from the right or left, have had little meaningful success. And, as fighting elections has become more expensive, the barriers to entry have reduced such efforts to wealthy individuals such as oil billionaire Ross Perot or publishing magnate Steve Forbes.

However, this year will be different. A remarkable online effort, called Americans Elect, has sprung up that appears certain to put a credible third option on the ballot, come next November. Set up by private donations, AE aims to collect enough signatures to qualify in all 50 states. They need 2.9m signatures, which sounds a tall order. But after three months AE already has more than 2m.

But who will the candidate and running mate be? That will be decided by an “online nominating convention” in which anyone can register to be a delegate and vote. The candidate chosen by delegates will have to agree to run, but they can be from any background. One rule: if they are a Democrat or Republican they must chose a running mate from a different party. Names discussed include Schultz, General David Petraeus and news anchor Tom Brokaw. “The situation is ripe for the idea that the people running on this ticket will be different. That is very attractive,” said Kahlil Byrd, AE’s chief executive. Such ideas please optimists who say the current economic and political crisis pales in comparison with the civil war or Great Depression, or even the travails of the civil rights era. “The problems of today have to be put into a historical perspective … I am not convinced that all is lost,” said Haas.

But some are less positive. After he left politics Browder wrote a book called The Future of American Democracy. It painted a bleak picture of a splintering society, divided upon itself and fracturing within a political system that could no longer cope and no longer worked.

That was in 2002. What does Browder think now? “We are just 10 years further on the course,” he said.

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Steven Chu to defend Solyndra loan before Congress panel November 17, 2011

TheUS Energy Department did its homework on a $535 million loan guarantee it gave to the now bankrupt solar panel maker Solyndra, the energy secretary, Steven Chu, plans to tell lawmakers at a hearing on Thursday.

Republicans are expected to grill Chu on taxpayer-funded aid to Solyndra, using as evidence emails from government officials and investors that they say show the loan was rushed, poorly supervised and ill-advisedly restructured.

Chu’s prepared remarks for the House of Representatives energy and commerce committee show he plans to stand firm on the Obama administration‘s strategy of investing in clean energy.

“The loan guarantee to Solyndra was subject to proper, rigorous scrutiny and healthy debate during every phase of the process,” according to his testimony.

“When it comes to the clean energy race, America faces a simple choice: compete or accept defeat. I believe we can and must compete,” Chu said, urging Congress to continue to finance renewable energy projects.

In his remarks, he took ownership of final decisions on the aid to Solyndra and denied deciding anything about the loan guarantee “based on political considerations”.

Investigators have gathered more than 250,000 pages of documents about Solyndra and conducted hours of interviews over the past nine months. Chu is the most senior government official to appear before the House committee.

Democratic lawmakers plan to knock down the Republican arguments, according to a staff memo released on Wednesday that includes a third-party legal opinion confirming the loan restructuring was permissible.

The opinion was prepared by Mary Anne Sullivan of the law firm Hogan Lovells, who was the Energy Department’s general counsel during the Clinton administration.

Lawmakers have complained Solyndra talked of rosy financial forecasts just before it ran out of cash. The FBI raided Solyndra’s offices after it filed for bankruptcy, although little is known about that probe.

Last week, the Energy Department gave lawmakers a copy of a letter from a supplier who said Solyndra had sought to postpone payments to show “a higher-than-actual cash position to the US government,” according to the Democratic staff memo.

The memo did not include a copy of the letter but Democrats said “questions may be raised” whether the Energy Department responded appropriately.

Emails provided to Reuters show a loan programme official referred the fraud complaint to the Solyndra lawyer Ben Schwartz in March 2010, asking him to “just send us whatever you have from your end, and we’ll put it in the file … No further action required.”

The department official did not follow up on that request for seven months, until the company was running out of cash and sought to restructure its loan, emails showed.

“I don’t mean to be a pest but can you send us an email indicating the result of your internal investigation of whether subsequent to Nov 2009, Solyndra withheld payment to suppliers to improve its cash position,” the loan official asked.

Schwartz replied in a memo dated 4 November 2010, saying Solyndra officials found no evidence to support the complaint. Schwartz argued that even if the allegations were true, “such actions would not constitute fraudulent activity”.

Republicans have raised questions about whether decisions were made to help George Kaiser, a major investor in Solyndra and a fundraiser for the successful presidential election campaign of Barack Obama in 2008.

“I want to be clear: over the course of Solyndra’s loan guarantee, I did not make any decision based on political considerations,” Chu said in his prepared remarks.

Democratic lawmakers said key department officials were unaware of Kaiser’s connections and noted David Frantz, the director of the loan programme, told investigators he had never heard of Kaiser until media reports about Solyndra.

When Solyndra struggled with cash flow in October 2010 and Goldman Sachs failed to find new private funding to keep it going, Kaiser’s advisers were unsure whether plowing in more money was a good idea, emails provided by Republicans showed.

Solyndra wanted to announce some layoffs on28 October 2010, but postponed the bad news until after the 2 November congressional elections, according to emails from Argonaut Private Equity, which manages Kaiser’s investments.

“The DOE has requested a delay until after the election (without mentioning the election),” unidentified Argonaut officials wrote in one of three emails about the delay.

A Department of Energy spokesman dismissed the allegation, saying documents it provided show “decisions about this loan were made on the merits.”

In December 2010, the department suggested a restructuring plan that saw $75m from Argonaut and another private investors ranked ahead of the government in the event of bankruptcy, the new emails showed.

“I struggle to recommend making the additional investment,” Steve Mitchell, managing director of Argonaut, wrote to Kaiser, noting the deal would give Solyndra some time to see if it could improve sagging sales.

Chu said the plan gave taxpayers a chance to recover the loan, even though it meant some debt would be subordinated.

“The department faced a difficult decision: force the company into immediate bankruptcy or restructure the loan guarantee,” he said.

When the company ran out of money again, the department looked at options for support but decided more help “was not in the taxpayer’s best interests”, Chu said.

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Stop Sopa now | Dan Gillmor

America is fond of chiding other nations about freedom of speech in the internet age. Leaders including President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are constantly reminding their global counterparts, especially in places like China, that internet censorship is a detriment to open government and honest self-rule. Yet, the Obama administration has used tactics that smell of censorship, and Congress is making common cause with a corporate cartel that wants to turn the internet into little more than an enhanced form of cable television. In the name of protecting copyright holders, they would censor the internet and force entrepreneurs to get permission to innovate.

Hollywood and the music industry lead the copyright cartel. They have been at war with the internet – and all technology they can’t control – since they realised that digital technology was creating huge challenges to their way of doing business. They have allies, to varying degrees, in other industries that include book publishing, software and pharmaceuticals, all of which are seeing their markets change and, in some cases, erode.

They’d already persuaded the US Congress to enact copyright laws that are grossly unbalanced on the side of the copyright holders and against the rights of users. Now, they’re back at the trough, and this time, they want to eliminate one of the few provisions that has any balance whatever: the so-called “safe harbor” giving immunity to websites that host other people’s postings. (The people doing the posting have no immunity.) When notified of a violation, sites must take down that material until and unless the original poster challenges that takedown.

Without safe harbor and several related provisions, much of the internet as we know it could not exist, because forcing websites to pre-screen everything that comes from users is untenable. And that is one reason why the copyright cartel’s friends and puppets in Congress have introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa), a bill designed, among other things, as an end run around safe harbor.

Today, the House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on Sopa (pdf). It’s a sham, of course: a stacked-deck collection of proponents with little time granted to people who want to keep the internet open and free for innovation. But Sopa and a companion bill in the Senate are being fast-tracked by politicians who either don’t realise what they are doing or don’t care about the damage they would cause to speech and innovation.

What Sopa’s proponents say is simple: online infringement is so bad and so prevalent that extraordinary measures are now needed to slow it down. They say they only want to go after the most egregious violators of copyright. A movie industry association blogger wrote that it would “target foreign rogue sites that knowingly and deliberately engage in the illegal distribution of stolen content, including movies and television shows, for profit”.

This is a partial truth, concealing a huge lie. The legislation is vaguely written and over-broad – no doubt, deliberately – and it would give copyright holders weapons that would go far, far beyond the “foreign rogue sites” the industry claims are the target. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has ably explained much of the damage this bill could cause, but here are a few especially bad provisions.

For example, copyright holders could invite payment systems such as PayPal, Visa and Mastercard to cut off services to allegedly infringing operations – and the payment systems would be granted immunity from lawsuits, giving them an incentive to do Hollywood’s bidding with little recourse for the affected sites.

The bill would also enshrine the already dubious practice of ordering internet domain-name service providers (DNS) to essentially blacklist web addresses. So if you typed “atargetedsitename.com” into your browser, you would not be taken there, even if the site existed. This breaks a fundamental feature of the internet, and is slated to get worse.

It also could force software developers to put censorship tools into their products or face lawsuits or worse. Current copyright law – remember, it’s already balanced on the holders’ side – has been used to chill activities of people, including software developers and researchers, who were, by no stretch, engaged in infringement.

The damage Sopa would cause to existing services is bad enough. But the longer-range damage is literally incalculable, because the legislation is aimed at preventing innovation – and speech – that the cartel can’t control. If this law had been passed years ago, YouTube could not exist today in anything remotely like the form it has taken. The cost of serving Hollywood’s interest would have been too high, but the reality is that investors would have never gone near the project. They would have been persuaded that the risks were too high.

In recent days, the technology industry has become more outspoken about the danger (pdf), and public interest organisations are shouting their alarm (pdf). But the opposition has been late to recognise the threat, and is outmatched by the lobbying clout of Hollywood and the cartel overall.

Meanwhile, the major media have been essentially silent on the issue. I’m not surprised. Big Media is an ally and member of the copyright cartel – and there may be more than a few people in traditional news organisations who fear the internet more than they worry about stifling speech.

The anger over this legislation is mounting, thanks to grassroots opposition. Congressman Ron Paul, currently a Republican presidential candidate, is one of a growing number of representatives to oppose it. It may not be too late to stop the Great American Firewall.

Today, Wednesday, has been proclaimed “Web Censorship Day” by a coalition of people and organisations involved in this fight. They’re putting banners and popups on websites to demonstrate the danger of Sopa. Listen to what they are saying; this is your internet, not Hollywood’s, but it is in clear danger.

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US deficit cut talks ‘difficult’ November 13, 2011

The committee is assessing a number of options dear to both parties

Talks designed to cut the US deficit have reached a “difficult point”, but a deal is still possible, say members of a special super-committee.

With a deadline of 23 November fast approaching, Republican Patrick Toomey told Fox News, “the clock is running out, but it hasn’t run out yet”.

Democrat James Clyburn said he was hopeful a deal could be struck.

The committee has to find $1.5tn (£930bn) in savings over 10 years. But members are split on party lines.

Republicans are reluctant to concede tax rises unless Democrats agree to reduce social entitlements, correspondents say.

President Barack Obama plans to cut the US deficit by more than $3tn (£1.9tn) in the next decade.

His proposals – unveiled in September – include an overhaul of the tax code that would raise $1.5tn.

They also form part of the work of the congressional super-committee, which is not obliged to accept the president’s ideas.

Faced with an election next year, Mr Obama has had a battle in Congress over how to reduce the ballooning deficit while the economy remains stagnant.

Closing gap

“We still have time, but we have no time to waste,” Republican Senator Patrick Toomey said on Fox News on Sunday.

“It’s at a difficult point. I think we’ve got a ways to go, but I hope we can close that gap very quickly,” he said.

House of Representatives Democrat James Clyburn told Fox News: “I am not as certain as I was 10 days ago, but I think that we can.”

The US owes more than $14tn in debt and runs an annual budget deficit of more than $1.4tn.

The bipastisan super-committee was set up in August. Its plan is to be submitted to both houses of Congress for an up-or-down vote by the end of the year.

If the committee fails to issue a recommendation, a series of painful spending cuts will automatically occur, split evenly between defence and domestic programmes dear to Republicans and Democrats, respectively. Those automatic cuts are described as an enforcement mechanism to encourage bipartisan co-operation.

Polling has indicated most Americans see a mix of tax increases on the wealthy accompanied by some spending cuts as the best way to trim the US budget deficit.

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Health care law held constitutional in latest appeals court ruling November 8, 2011

Washington (CNN) — The sweeping health care reform law championed by President Barack Obama was upheld as constitutional by another federal appeals court Tuesday.

The decision is not part of a half-dozen other appeals pending at the Supreme Court. The justices could decide this week whether to take on one or more of those legal challenges to the law. Those suits were brought by more than a two dozen states and a coalition of private groups and individuals.

Tuesday’s 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is a victory for the administration and its congressional supporters, but only adds to the divide among a range of federal courts over whether the law should be tossed out or severely trimmed in its scope. Three appeals court have upheld the law, while one has ruled it unconstitutional.

The majority in this latest case concluded while the assertion of federal authority in the law is large, so too is the issue Congress and the president sought to tackle.

“The right to be free from federal regulation is not absolute, and yields to the imperative that Congress be free to forge national solutions to national problems, no matter how local — or seemingly passive — their individual origins,” wrote Judge Laurence Silberman.

It is unclear whether the high court will include this latest ruling with the other pending health care cases already on its docket. The justices have scheduled a closed-door conference Thursday to consider whether to accept one or more appeals. If they do, oral arguments would likely be held in March, with a ruling by June.

One of the other challenges involves a 26-state coalition opposing the law. A federal appeals court in Atlanta, considering that suit, had earlier found a key provision of the law to be unconstitutional.

The key issue is whether the “individual mandate” section — requiring nearly all Americans to buy health insurance by 2014 or face financial penalties — is an improper exercise of federal authority. The states also say that if that linchpin provision is unconstitutional, the entire law with its 450 or so sections must then be scrapped.

Virginia and Oklahoma have filed separate challenges, along with other groups and individuals opposed to the law.

The justices now have the discretion to either frame the case around the “severability” question — whether the individual mandate section can be separated from the rest of the law — or expand it to include other legal questions raised in the appeals.

Two other appeals have split on the individual mandate’s constitutionality, a “circuit split” that all but assures the Supreme Court will decide the matter ultimately.

The states say individuals cannot be forced to buy insurance, a “product” they may neither want nor need.

The Justice Department has countered the states’ argument by saying that since every American will need medical care at some point in their lives, individuals do not “choose” to participate in the health care market. Federal officials cite 2008 figures of $43 billion in uncompensated costs from the millions of uninsured people who receive health services, costs that are shifted to insurance companies and passed on to consumers.

Health care reform, a top Democratic priority since the Truman administration, was passed by the previous Congress in a series of virtually party-line votes. Obama signed the act into law in March 2010. The law is widely considered to be the signature legislative accomplishment of the president’s first two years in office.

Among other things, the measure was designed to help millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans receive adequate and affordable health care through a series of government-imposed mandates and subsidies. The federal government stated in court briefs that 45 million Americans last year were without health insurance, roughly 15% of the country’s population.

Critics have equated the measure to socialized medicine, fearing that a bloated government bureaucracy would result in higher taxes and diminished health care services.

Opponents derisively labeled the measure “Obamacare.” Republican leaders, who captured the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, have vowed to overturn or severely trim the law.

The case decided Tuesday is Seven-Sky v. Holder (11-5047).


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CIA, Other Spy Agencies Spent $54.6 Billion In Secret For 2011 October 31, 2011


October 30, 2011

by legitgov

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CIA, Other Spy Agencies Spent $54.6 Billion In Secret For 2011 28 Oct 2011 Congress appropriated a whopping $54.6 billion for classified intelligence operations in 2011, an increase over the previous two years. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — whose office was created after the 9/11 attacks to oversee the government’s 16 intelligence agencies — made the disclosure in a dry news release Friday. The top line number represents the aggregate amount of money lawmakers doled out for the National Intelligence Program’s black budget last year.

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Americans increasingly comparing Afghan war to Vietnam October 29, 2011

The latest deaths of 13 Americans in Afghanistan in an apparent suicide bomb attack in Kabul comes at a moment when the US public’s attitude to the long war is at an all-time low.

A poll late last week, by CNN and ORC International, revealed that only 34% of Americans now support the war, one percentage point down on the previous all-time low. It found that 63% of Americans are now opposed to the war. The deaths of yet more Americans in a conflict that has already cost the lives of more than 1,700 American soldiers is only likely to see support fall further. Indeed the poll showed that some 58% of Americans say that the conflict is now similar to the Vietnam war.

The war is now a serious problem in Obama’s strategy for the 2012 election. For a president who already faces discontent over accusations from the left of the Democratic party that he is too close to the Republicans, the Afghan war represents another area where he is out of step with many on his own side. The same poll showed that some six in ten Republicans still supporting the war, compared to just a quarter of Democrats.

Not that anyone thinks formulating strategy in Afghanistan is easy.

Obama’s current plan is focused on a gradual drawdown of the extra 33,000 “surge” troops he sent after overhauling Afghan policy in 2009. Those troops are set to leave by the end of 2012. Last week the Pentagon revealed an assessment saying that goal was “on track” even as it also acknowledged that civilian casualties – mostly caused by the Taliban – had reached record numbers this summer with 450 dying in July alone.

Saturday’s deaths fit the pattern of violence described in the latest Pentagon analysis, as they were caused by an isolated attack, not a mass assault. But that will be of little help to policymakers who must seek to show that the drawdown is taking place against an improving security situation, rather than a worsening one.

But playing a double game seems a central part of US strategy in Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, last week testified to an increasingly restive Congress and reinforced the administration’s strategy of pursuing a twin track policy of both talking and fighting with the Taliban and other militant groups. That particularly holds true with the so-called Haqqani group, which was responsible for a recent attack on the US embassy in Kabul.

American officials admit they have pursued talks with the group at the same time as urging Pakistan to increase military pressure on the organisation. Clinton told Congress: “We want to fight, talk and build all at the same time. Part of the reason for that is to test whether these organisations have any willingness to negotiate in good faith. There’s evidence going both ways,” Clinton said.

In that context Saturday’s deaths in Kabul will make little difference to America’s Afghan strategy on the ground. The US will continue its seemingly contradictory policy of seeking to withdraw extra troops – even as civilian casualties rise – while also fighting and talking with its enemies at the same time. It is impossible to say definitively how effective that strategy will be. But as pure politics it is perhaps unsurprising that Clinton’s defence of the US role met with an increasingly sceptical Congressional reaction.

Nor have the actions of US allies helped. Last weekend Afghan president Hamid Karzai said that his country would back Pakistan if the US and its neighbour ever went to war. The statement was the latest in a series of Karzai remarks that have angered US officials, and they have not gone unnoticed by American politicians looking to score points against US policy. That includes senior Democrats as much as Republicans.

“Karzai’s insult to America tells me that it’s time for our country to stop pouring our limited taxpayer dollars and losing precious American lives in a country where we aren’t even welcome – and even worse, where they have the gall to threaten to side against us,” said Democrat Senator Joe Manchin. Clinton defended US policy robustly against that sort of argument in her testimony to Congress. But in the end it is likely that sort of political attitude – especially from within his own party — which is likely to shift Obama’s strategic thinking more than any deaths on the ground.

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President Obama Urges Congress to Act on Jobs Bill

President Barack Obama says a new report that says the rich are getting richer while the middle class struggles shows Republicans in Congress are not paying attention to the economic situation in the United States.

Obama said in his weekly address Saturday that while wealth and success are encouraged and celebrated, America is better off when not just the top income earners increase their personal wealth.

Obama says his jobs proposal asks people earning more than $1 million to pay more taxes while middle income earners and small businesses would pay less.

He said although Republicans backed a similar proposal in the past, they are now playing politics.

In the Republican weekly response, Congressman Bobby Schilling of Illinois said politics will not get the economy back on track.  He appealed to President Obama to urge Senate Democrats adopt a jobs proposal put forth by Republicans.

Schilling says the Republican’s “Plan for America’s Job Creation” generates jobs by cutting taxes.  He says it also changes the tax code, closes loopholes and helps pay down the country’s debt.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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Clinton: Al-Qaeda is ‘devastated’ October 27, 2011

Clinton said working with Pakistan was not always easy but maintaining the relationship was critical

Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has been devastated and its ability to operate is greatly diminished, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has testified.

Speaking before a key US Congress committee, she said partnership with Pakistan was key to this success.

But she insisted Pakistan should eliminate safe havens for terror groups around its border with Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was found and killed by US special forces in Pakistan earlier in 2011.

A long-running covert drone operation also targets al-Qaeda, Taliban and other insurgent figures in the mountainous tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

Speaking to the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Mrs Clinton said that the Obama administration was “meeting our commitments and progressing towards our goals” in the region.

She described a “three-track strategy of fight, talk, build”, and said the US would meet its 2014 deadline of handing over security control in Afghanistan.

Squeezing safe havens

Mrs Clinton recently returned from a trip that included visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where she said US officials emphasised the need for Pakistani leadership to “squeeze” the Haqqani network and shut down safe-havens.

Continue reading the main story

Start Quote

No-one who targets innocent civilians of any nationality should be tolerated or protected”

End Quote
Hillary Clinton
US Secretary of State

Mrs Clinton has blamed the Haqqani group, a network of insurgents with roots in Pakistani and Afghan territory, for a series of attacks against US interests in Afghanistan.

Islamabad has been accused of tolerating or even encouraging the activities of the Haqqani network, something Mrs Clinton said she had spoken out against during her visits to Kabul and Islamabad.

“I explained that trying to distinguish between so-called good terrorists and bad terrorists is ultimately self-defeating and dangerous.

“No one who targets innocent civilians of any nationality should be tolerated or protected,” she told the committee.

Mrs Clinton’s testimony echoed frustrations expressed in September by Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over Pakistan’s ties with the Haqqani group.

He told Congress that elements of the government of Pakistan were “very active” with the group, calling Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence a “veritable arm” of the network.

Pakistan denies association with the insurgent group.

Mrs Clinton said, however, that Pakistan “has a crucial role to play in this process and a big stake in its outcome” and that the US was committed to its relationship with Islamabad.

She said creating economic opportunity would be an important part of maintaining stability, and said a policy called the New Silk Road would help foster economic co-operation in the region.

A civilian presence in Afghanistan would continue after 2014, when the US intends to hand military security of the country back to Afghanistan.

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Weather satellite budget cuts a ‘disaster in the making’ October 25, 2011

America and Europe face a “disaster in the making” because of Congress budget cuts to a critical weather satellite, one of Barack Obama’s top science officials has warned.

The satellite crosses the Earth’s poles 14 times a day, monitoring the atmosphere, clouds, ice, vegetation, and oceans. It provides 90% of the information used by the National Weather Service, UK Met Office and other European agencies to predict severe storms up to seven days in advance.

But Republican budget-cutting measures would knock out that critical capacity by delaying the launch of the next generation of polar-orbiting satellites, said Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency.

“It is a disaster in the making. It’s an expression of the dysfunction in our system,” said Lubchenco, who was speaking at a dinner on the sidelines of the Society of Environmental Journalists meeting in Miami.

It would cost three to five times more to rebuild the project after a gap than to keep the funds flowing. “It’s insanity,” Lubchenco said.

2011 has set new records for extreme weather events in the US and around the world, bringing hurricanes, heatwaves, floods, tornadoes, blizzards, droughts and wildfires. Ten of those events, including last August’s devastating Hurricane Irene, inflicted damages of at least $1bn.

Climate change is expected to produce more extreme weather events in the future, making accurate long-range weather forecasts even more essential.

Forecasters say the information from the polar orbiters is critical to providing early notice of unusually powerful storms and tornadoes – buying time for governments and disaster responders in both the US and Europe.

Data from the satellite is shared equally between the US and the European satellite agency, EUmetsat, which passes the information on to the Met Office and other agencies.

But budget cuts could delay the launch of its successor by up to 18 months, essentially leaving US and European forecasters with a big blind spot starting in late 2016.

“It will be going backwards in 20 years’ time,” said Lubchenco.

A new polar-orbiting satellite is due for launch later this week. Its life expectancy is five years, which means Noaa needs to begin designing its replacement and preparing for its launch in this budget year, she said.

Noaa had originally asked for $1.06bn for its weather satellite programme, but Congress cut that sharply. It put some of the money back in the aftermath of last April’s tornadoes, which killed hundreds across the south-east and in the town of Joplin, Missouri.

Mitch Goldberg, the scientist on Noaa’s satellite programme, said the information and hi-resolution images from the polar orbiters were a big advance from earlier satellites.

During the 2010 Snowmageddon, information from the polar-orbiting satellite enabled Noaa scientists to accurately predict there would be 18-24in of snow up to a week before the storm, Goldberg said in a phone interview.

Forecasts without information from the polar-orbiting satellite predicted only 7-10in of snow, Goldberg said.

He said information from the satellite was also crucial to monitoring crops and wildfires, algae blooms and red tides.

But the accuracy of those forecasts were heavily dependent on maintaining a constant flow of data.

“It’s all about the continuity,” Goldberg said.

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U.S. rating likely to be downgraded again: Merrill


October 23, 2011

by legitgov

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U.S. rating likely to be downgraded again: Merrill 23 Oct 2011 The United States will likely suffer the loss of its triple-A credit rating from another major rating agency by the end of this year due to concerns over the deficit, Bank of America Merrill Lynch forecasts. The trigger would be a likely failure by Congress to agree on a credible long-term plan to cut the U.S. deficit, the bank said in a research note published on Friday. A second downgrade — either from Moody’s or Fitch — would follow Standard Poor’s downgrade in August.

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Obama’s ‘We Can’t Wait’ jobs campaign aims to spur Congress into action October 24, 2011

Barack Obama is to announce over the coming weeks a series of measures that will bypass Congress in an effort to kickstart the economy, create new jobs and seize the political initiative.

Obama announced a new move to help the struggling housing market during a visit to Nevada, one of the worst-hit states in the country, with unemployment around 13%.

The White House communications director, Dan Pffeifer told reporters during a conference call that Obama’s three-day trip to the west – which will also take in California and Colorado – will highlight moves that the White House can take on its own, without Congress.

The new campaign, dubbed by the White House ‘We Can’t Wait’, is aimed at putting pressure on Congress, in particular congressional Republicans, to pass all or part of Obama’s $447bn bill aimed at creating new jobs.

Pffeifer said that while the White House can embark on various initiatives through executive orders, these are not a substitute for Congress passing the American Jobs Act.

Unemployment, which is stuck at 9%, is likely to be the pivotal issue in the 2012 White House campaign. Republicans are opposing Obama’s jobs legislation and are intent on blocking any increases in spending, citing the failure of the previous economic stimulus plan to make a signficant dent in the unemployment figures.

The housing initiative, aimed at helping people unable to refinance because their mortgages are worth less than their homes, is to be followed on Wednesday with an announcement by Obama in Colorado to help students repay loans.

Further initiatives are to be announced in the coming weeks.

Obama is trying to make the next election a choice between his jobs plan and Republican obstructionism. Republicans counter that job creation can best be left to the private sector, helped by low taxation and removal of federal regulations.

As well as highlighting his job proposals, Obama has a number of fundraising events lined up as he seeks to be the first candidate to have $1bn in election donations.

He is also to reach out to Latinos disgruntled over his failure to bring in promised immigration reforms. Nevada and Colorado are swing states and Latino voters, mainly Democratic supporters, could prove decisive.

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United States tipped to lose another AAA credit rating

The United States will probably suffer the loss of its triple-A credit rating from another rating agency by the end of this year because of concerns over the deficit, Bank of America Merrill Lynch is forecasting.

The trigger would be a likely failure by Congress to agree on a credible long-term plan to cut the deficit.

A second downgrade – either from Moody’s or Fitch – would follow Standard Poor’s downgrade in August and represent an additional blow to the sluggish US economy, Merrill said.

“The credit rating agencies have strongly suggested that further rating cuts are likely if Congress does not come up with a credible long-run plan to cut the deficit,” Merrill’s North American economist, Ethan Harris, said. “We expect at least one credit downgrade in late November or early December when the super committee crashes.”

The bipartisan congressional committee formed to address the deficit (known as the “super committee”) needs to break an impasse between Republicans and Democrats in order to reach a deal to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2tn (£0.75tn) by 23 November.

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Regions and territories: Puerto Rico October 23, 2011





Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean and North American influences meld in Puerto Rico, a self-governing commonwealth that belongs to the United States.

The subtropical Caribbean territory is urbanised, industrialised and relatively prosperous.


Overview

  • Overview
  • Facts
  • Leaders
  • Media

The US invaded and occupied Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War of 1898, ending centuries of rule from Spain. The US saw the island as a strategic asset and ran it as a colonial protectorate.

Under American administration Puerto Rico saw growth and development. But nationalist sentiment sometimes spilled over into violence, notably in the 1930s and 1940s. Nationalists staged an armed attack in the US Congress in 1954.

A series of bombings and killings in the 1970s and 1980s were blamed on a pro-independence group, the Macheteros, or Cane Cutters. The group’s fugitive leader was killed by federal agents in 2005.

Puerto Rican voters, who elect a governor for the island, have tended to favour parties that support the union with the US. Puerto Ricans do not pay US income tax, and the island receives federal funds.

There is an established cycle of migration between Puerto Rico and the US; hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have lived and worked in New York and other cities.

The once substantial US military presence has been scaled down with the closures of a major naval base and a bombing range. Rancour over the latter grew after a civilian employee was killed by a stray bomb.

Explorer Christopher Columbus claimed Puerto Rico for Spain in 1493, heralding an influx of Spanish settlers. The newcomers, and the diseases they brought with them, decimated the territory’s Taino indian population.

The main settlement, San Juan, became an important Spanish outpost. Slaves were brought to the island in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Puerto Rico’s landscape is varied, and includes rainforests in the north-east. The territory is prone to hurricanes.

Tourism is an important money-earner; the island receives up to two million visitors each year and is a port-of-call for cruise liners.



Facts

  • Overview
  • Facts
  • Leaders
  • Media



Leaders

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  • Leaders
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Head of state: President Barack Obama

Governor: Luis Guillermo Fortuno

Luis Fortuno of the New Progressive Party began his term in January 2009, and is the ninth governor of Puerto Rico. His party, which favours full integration of Puerto Rico as the 51st US state, also won the November 2008 elections to Puerto Rico’s legislative assembly.

He succeeded Anibal Acevedo Vila of the Popular Democratic Party, who served from 2004-2008. Mr Acevedo Vila had initially favoured maintaining Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status, but later called on the USA to let it decide its own future.

Puerto Ricans elect their governor for a four-year term. The constitution, modelled on that of the US, provides for a Senate and House of Representatives. However, voters in a referendum in 2005 backed the idea of replacing the bodies with a one-house legislature.

Residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote in US presidential elections. But they do elect a non-voting delegate to the US Congress.

Since taking office, Mr Fortuno has launched a major programme of public spending cuts. In May 2009 tens of thousands of workers marched through the streets of San Juan in protest at possible major layoffs.



Media

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  • Media

Broadcasting is regulated by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Home-grown comedies, talk shows and Spanish-language soaps are staple fare on local TV stations. The multichannel offerings of cable TV are widely available.

News and talk and Spanish-language pop music are among the most popular radio formats.

The press

Television

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  • WAPA (channel 4) – commercial
  • Univision (channel 11) – commercial
  • TUTV (channel 6) – public

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Judge dismisses lawsuit by ten members of Congress over Libya ‘mission’ October 21, 2011


October 20, 2011

by legitgov

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Judge dismisses lawsuit by ten members of Congress over Libya ‘mission’ 20 Oct 2011 A federal court on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit ten members of Congress filed in June challenging Obama’s right to keep U.S. military forces in the NATO campaign that contributed to the fall of Qadhafi’s government and his ultimate demise. In a 23-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Walton ruled that the lawmakers lacked standing to challenge the military campaign in large part because they had and have the opportunity through legislative action to shut down the Libya operation. “They have not demonstrated that they are without a legislative remedy,” Walton wrote.

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Foes of South Korea Free Trade Deal Struggle to Be Heard October 19, 2011

There is also a new threat on the horizon. A proposed free trade agreement with South Korea, which the House and Senate are scheduled to consider this week, would open the American market to a manufacturing powerhouse that has its own high-technology textile industry.

The South Korea deal, and companion pacts with Colombia and Panama, are sailing toward approval. Both political parties are eager to show they are doing something to revive the ailing economy, and there is a broad consensus among the Obama administration, Republican leaders in Congress and many moderate Democrats that the deals will reduce costs for American consumers and increase foreign purchases of American goods and services.

That has left opponents of trade deals, like the textile industry, struggling to be heard. They say past trade agreements, which removed tariffs and other protections for domestic manufacturers, have eroded the nation’s industrial strength. The new round of deals will repeat that pattern, they say, allowing companies in South Korea, the world’s 14th-largest economy, just ahead of Australia, to flood the domestic market without creating significant export opportunities for American manufacturers.

“We are very much in favor of global trade, but we’re just not about having agreements that are unfair to the U.S. textile industry,” said Allen E. Gant Jr., president and chief executive of Glen Raven, a family-owned company that employs 1,500 people in the United States. “The U.S. needs every single job that we can get.”

The Obama administration renegotiated some elements of the deals — first written by the Bush administration — to address concerns raised by trade unions and industries. The agreements are a centerpiece of its strategy to increase exports as a driver of faster economic growth, and the White House is pushing to seal the deals in time for a state visit to Washington this week by President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea. Votes in both chambers of Congress could come as soon as Wednesday, during Mr. Lee’s scheduled visit.

“These agreements will support tens of thousands of jobs across the country for workers making products stamped with three proud words: Made in America,” President Obama said in a statement last week when he submitted the deals to Congress.

Economists generally predict that free trade agreements benefit all participating countries by creating a larger market for goods and services. But that benefit derives in part from the movement of some activities to the lower-cost countries. In other words, even if the deal is good for the United States as a whole, it is likely to create clear losers.

The government estimated in a series of 2007 studies that the deals would increase annual economic output by up to $14.4 billion, or about one-tenth of 1 percent. Most of that demand would come from South Korea, which would join a short list of developed nations that have free trade pacts with the United States, including Australia, Canada, Israel and Singapore.

But the studies by the United States International Trade Commission found that the deals would cost jobs in some industries, especially the textile industry.

Highland Industries, a Greensboro, N.C., company that employs 680 people at two factories, manufactures a kind of fabric that is used to reinforce the roof coverings on commercial buildings like big-box stores. The massive rolls of fabric can be 12 feet wide and 5,000 yards long.

South Korean companies sell similar material at prices 15 to 20 percent below Highland’s. Bret Kelley, a Highland executive, said the company was able to compete on speed and customer service, but he said that could change if the trade agreement passed because the tariff reductions would allow South Korean companies to lower prices by another 10 percent.

“We’re quick and nimble, and we forge strong relationships, but what we’re selling is a commoditized product,” Mr. Kelley said. “Those companies will start looking away for savings of 25 and 30 percent.”

Textile industry executives are particularly incensed that for some products the deal requires the United States to end tariffs more quickly than South Korea.

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Occupy Wall Street live: one month on October 18, 2011

6.30pm: Adam again here – it’s pretty quiet down at Zuccotti Park this afternoon, the usual throng of tourists meandering through and taking photos while occupiers work on various aspects of camp life – some preparing food, some creating signs, others engaged in working group meetings while some sleep.

I was interested to see the British sitcom Father Ted referenced this afternoon – Fathers Ted and Dougal are famous for the zealousness of their protesting in the UK – the bearer of this sign saying he was a “big fan” of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews’ work.



Father Ted appreciation at Occupy Wall Street Photograph: Adam Gabbatt for the Guardian

Just arrived at the protest, and queueing at the outreach stall, was Monica Straniero, who had travelled from Rome after being disappointed when protests there turned violent.

“Rome was a failure,” Straniero said. “It was supposed to be peaceful, but a bunch of people turned it violent.”

Straniero, who works in cinematography, had booked a one way ticket to New York to get involved with Occupy Wall Street instead, arriving on Sunday.

Although looking forward to getting involved, she said she “expected a larger square, with more people”.

“There seem to be more people who have a real life other than this,” Straniero said. “I was expecting people who had left their jobs to be here.”

She did acknowledge, however, that after the large scale events of the weekend people may be taking time to relax today, perhaps impacting numbers.

“I’m planning to stay until January,” she said. “I’m just trying to figure out how I can help people.”

That’s it for today, thank for reading. Check back for more on the occupy movement tomorrow.

5.43pm: My colleague Karen McVeigh reports that a formal investigation has been launched into another NYPD officer over conduct at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration. Here’s the opening to her report:


A second senior New York police officer is being formally investigated over allegations that he assaulted an Occupy Wall Street protester, raising fresh questions over the NYPD’s deployment of supervisors on the front line in volatile public order situations.

The officer, who has been named in news reports as deputy inspector Johnny Cardona, was filmed on Friday grabbing the protester from behind, spinning him round and appearing to punch him in the face so hard that he fell to the ground.

The New York Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent mayoral agency that deals with allegations of excessive or unnecessary force against police, is now investigating the incident, along with a number of other complaints over policing of the protests.

5.39pm: While we wait for Adam to file from Zuccotti, this is Matt Wells taking over with some more OWS updates, including news from the Gothamist website on the hipster cop who’s found some fame in the past few days.



New York ‘hipster cop’ on duty at the Occupy Wall Street march.
Photograph: @mtracey

The website reports that community affairs detective Rick Lee rides a bike, approves of bike lanes, but doesn’t ride fixed gear. He eats organic food, and is far from the typical coffee-and-donut NYPD officer.

3.10pm: Bit of a break while I head down to Zuccotti Park – will file more from the scene.

2.23pm: Some 67 of New Yorkers agree with the views of Occupy Wall Street protesters, according to a poll by Quinnipiac University.

The study shows strongly contrasting views between Democrat and Republican voters:

Agreeing with the protesters views are Democrats 81 – 11 percent and independent voters 58 – 30 percent, while Republicans disagree 58 – 35 percent, the independent Quinnipiac University poll finds. Even Republicans, however, agree 73 – 23 percent with the protesters right to be there.

Of the 1,068 registered New York voters polled, 72 percent say they understand the protesters’ views “very well” or “fairly well,” with 17 percent who say “not too well” and 10 percent who say “not well at all”, perhaps at odds with early news coverage which suggested the protesters were struggling to get a coherent message out.

More from Quinnipiac:

Voters split 46 – 45 percent in their approval of the way police are handling the Wall Street protest, but approve 61 – 33 percent of how the police are doing their job overall.

“It’s a free country. Let them keep on protesting as long as they obey the law, New Yorkers say overwhelmingly,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Critics complain that no one can figure out what the protesters are protesting. But seven out of 10 New Yorkers say they understand and most agree with the anti-Wall Street views of the protesters.

“For a while, the critics focused on the cops’ use of pepper spray at the protests. Voters are divided on how police are handling the protesters, but they say almost 2-to-1 that police are doing a good job overall.”

Asked who is to blame for the current state of the nation’s economy;

• 37 percent of New York City voters blame the administration of former President George W. Bush;
• 21 percent blame Wall Street and financial institutions;
• 18 percent blame Congress;
• 11 percent blame President Barack Obama.

1.36pm: News of a must have download for occupy demonstrators everywhere – the “I’m getting arrested app”.

From cnet:

I’m Getting Arrested is a creative Android app that, according to developer Quadrant 2, was inspired by a real-life “Occupy Wall Street” incident. It lets you quickly notify your family, friends, and crack legal team (if you have one) of your situation with a single tap of your finger. Just initially enter a custom message and some SMS-ready numbers to contact in the event of your arrest. Then, as you’re about to be corralled into the back of a squad car, fire the app up and long-press the bull’s-eye for 2 seconds. From there, you can rest assured that your message will be sent to the appropriate contacts.

12.53pm: President Barack Obama will seek to tap into public anger at Wall Street excess, Reuters reported today. Obama previously said he understood the frustration of protesters, but his spokesman has gone further today, using the ’99 percent’ terminology of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

From Reuters:

“The president will continue to acknowledge the frustration that he himself shares about the need for Washington to do more to support our economic recovery and to ensure that the interest of the 99 percent of Americans is well-represented,” spokesman Josh Earnest said when asked whether Obama would offer a message for Wall Street protesters on his trip south.

The Democratic president wants to step up the pressure on Republicans as he tries to push through his jobs package piece by piece, starting this week after his full plan went down to defeat in Congress last week.

With election races looming, Obama’s strategy is to force Republicans to give ground or be painted as obstructionists more interested in shielding “millionaires and billionaires” – “the 1 percent” – from paying their fair share of taxes.

Republicans say Obama’s original package was laden with wasteful spending and job-killing tax hikes for wealthy Americans. They have accused him of demonizing them and promoting “class warfare” instead of working with them to find areas of agreement.
In the Republicans’ weekend radio address, Representative Kevin McCarthy urged Obama to “come off the campaign trail and get to work.”

The deadlock over the jobs bill has raised concerns that political dysfunction in Washington will prevent any major steps to spur hiring before the November 2012 elections.

12.34pm: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said he understands the occupy movement, according to an Associated Press report:

Ban told reporters during a visit to Switzerland that the finance chiefs from the Group of 20 rich and developing nations should listen to the people and come up with “actionable plans” to fix the problems.

“Business as usual, or just looking at their own internal economic issues, will not give any answers to a very serious international economic crisis,” Ban said, as G-20 talks were being held in Paris.

“That is what you are seeing all around the world, starting from Wall Street, people are showing their frustrations, are trying to send a very clear and unambiguous message around the world,” he said.

12.10pm: The Washington Post reports that Occupy Wall Street has raised some $300,000 in cash through website donations and visitors to the park.

The movement has an account at Amalgamated Bank, which bills itself as “the only 100 percent union-owned bank in the United States.”

Donated goods ranging from blankets and sleeping bags to cans of food and medical and hygienic supplies are being stored in a cavernous space donated by the United Federation of Teachers, which has offices in the building a block from Wall Street near the private park protesters occupy.

Among the items are 20 pairs of swimming goggles (to shield protesters from pepper-spray attacks). Supporters are shipping about 300 boxes a day, many with notes and letters, Strekal said.

“Some are heartwrenching, beautiful,” and come from people who have lost jobs and houses, he said. “So they send what they can, even if it’s small.”

Strekal said donated goods, stored for a “long-term occupation,” have been used to create “Jail Support” kits consisting of a blanket, a granola bar and sanitary wipes for arrested protesters to receive when they are freed.

11.44am: This map from the website map.15october.net shows how widely demonstrations spread across the world on 15 October.



United for #globalchange map of all 15 October action Photograph: United for #globalchange

It was compiled by gathering details of occupations and protests from people tweeting #event15oct. Impressive.

11.19am: Some 175 people were arrested in Chicago at the weekend after attempting to expand their occupation from the city’s financial district to Grant Park. Undeterred, however, demonstrators are planning a march in the city today.

ABC News reports:

A permit is required for staying overnight in the park, and organizers admitted to not seeking a permit. The demonstrators say they refused repeated orders from police to leave.

Those arrested were held in police custody overnight but were released a few hours later.

“The Chicago Police Department handled it in a very professional manner. They were courteous. We were given multiple warnings of what was going to take place,” said Andrew Smith, who was arrested.

Many of those arrested are returned Sunday night for another march and rally. Once again, they repeated their message against corporate greed in the face of high unemployment and home foreclosures.

The news channel said the Occupy Chicago movement has since spread to other parts of Illinois, including Peoria and Springfield, where “hundreds chanted and marched through downtown streets”.

Occupy Chicago’s home base continues to be Chicago’s financial district. Meanwhile, organizers say they will start a daily meeting in Grant Park.

The Chicago Tribune said police used the attempted occupation as “a trial run” for dealing with the two international summits, and the expected protests around them, which are coming to Chicago next year. Unlike some of the policing in New York, however, it seems the demonstration on Saturday night was quelled in a peaceful manner:

It also would set a bad precedent for dealing with thousands of demonstrators expected to converge on Chicago from around the world during the G-8 and NATO summits that will be held simultaneously in May, the source said.

The arrests were a stark contrast to the clash that occurred in New York two weeks ago when nearly 700 protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Chicago police maintained open lines of communication with the group throughout the protest and extended ample time and opportunity for the group to leave the park, said Lt. Maureen Biggane, a police spokeswoman. The group largely complied, she said.

10.51am: Karen McVeigh writes that a bid is underway to help those arrested for their involvement in OWS prostests avoid prosecutions:


Lawyers representing hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters arrested over the last few weeks are demanding that prosecutors drop the charges. They say if not, they will insist on going to trial, putting pressure on Manhattan’s busy criminal courts.

Members of the rights group, the National Lawyers Guild, plan to meet with prosecutors from Manhattan’s District Attorney’s office today to set out their position.

Defence lawyer Martin Stolar told the Daily News: “I’d like to suggests to the DA’s office the appropriate way to deal with these cases is outright dismissal.”

First-time offenders on minor crimes are generally offered an “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal”, where charges are dismissed after six months if the offender is not re-arrested.

10.30am: Today marks the one month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. The initial group occupied Zuccotti Park on 17 September, and since then the demonstrators marches and near-removal have kept them in the public eye.

Saturday marked Occupy Wall Street’s biggest day of action so far, with up to 20,000 gathering in Times Square at 5pm. Streets were blocked off and protesters contained behind barriers as they chanted anti-corporate messages, while police deployed officers on horseback and arrested 70 people during the day.

The action later spread to Washington Square Park, some 30 blocks south of Times Square, where a spontaneous occupation was discussed, decided upon and then dispersed by police, who arrested around 10 would-be occupiers.

From the Guardian’s story yesterday:

Protests inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and the “Indignants” in Spain have spread to cities around the world.

Tens of thousands went on the march in New York, London, Frankfurt, Madrid, Rome, Sydney and Hong Kong as organisers aimed to “initiate global change” against capitalism and austerity measures.

There were extraordinary scenes in New York where at least 10,000 protesters took their message from the outpost of Zuccotti Park into the heart of the city, thronging into Times Square.

Only 36 hours earlier, police were preparing to evict the protest from Zuccotti Park. On Saturday they escorted thousands of marchers all day as they made their way uptown through Manhattan, and looked on as they held a rally at a New York landmark.

We’ll have the latest news and developments on Occupy Wall Street and other occupations around the world, as protesters celebrate having spent one month in Zuccotti Park. Have your say by leaving a comment below or tweeting me @AdamGabbatt

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Obama sends 100 troops to combat LRA in Uganda October 15, 2011

President Barack Obama said Friday he is dispatching roughly 100 US troops to central Africa to help battle the Lord’s Resistance Army, which the administration accuses of a campaign of murder, rape and kidnapping children that spans two decades.

In a letter to Congress, Obama said the troops will act as advisers in efforts to hunt down rebel leader Joseph Kony but will not engage in combat except in self-defence. Pentagon officials said the bulk of the US contingent will be special operations troops, who will provide security and combat training to African units.

The White House said the first troops arrived in Uganda on Wednesday. Ultimately, they will also deploy in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Congo.

Long considered one of Africa’s most brutal rebel groups, the Lord’s Resistance Army began its attacks in Uganda more than 20 years ago but has been pushing westward.

The administration and human rights groups say its atrocities have left thousands dead and have put as many as 300,000 Africans to flight. They have charged the group with seizing children to bolster its ranks of soldiers and sometimes forcing them to become sex slaves.

Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court under a 2005 warrant for crimes against humanity in his native Uganda.

Obama’s announcement came in low-key fashion — a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, in which he said the deployment “furthers U.S. national security interests and foreign policy and will be a significant contribution toward counter-LRA efforts in central Africa.”

The deployment drew support from Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican who has visited the region.

“I have witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by the LRA, and this will help end Kony’s heinous acts that have created a human rights crisis in Africa,” he said in a statement. “I have been fervently involved in trying to prevent further abductions and murders of Ugandan children, and today’s action offers hope that the end of the LRA is in sight.”

But Obama’s letter stressed the limited nature of the deployment.

“Our forces will provide information, advice and assistance to select partner nation forces,” it said. “Although the US forces are combat-equipped, they will … not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defense.”

Most of the troops will deploy to regional capitals to work with government officials and military commanders on countering the rebels and protecting civilians, Pentagon officials said.

State Department officials portrayed the deployment as part of a larger strategy to combat the group that dates to the Bush administration but also includes legislation passed by Congress this year.

Victoria Nuland, a department spokeswoman, said the US troops will aid in “pursuing the LRA and seeking to bring top commanders to justice.” The broader effort includes encouraging rebel fighters to defect, disarm and return to their homes, she said.

The administration briefed human rights activists ahead of the announcement, and their officials were encouraged.

“These advisers can make a positive difference on the ground by keeping civilians safe and improving military operations to apprehend the LRA’s top commanders,” said Paul Ronan, director of the group Advocacy at Resolve.

Col. Felix Kulayigye, Uganda’s military spokesman, said of the troops: “We are aware that they are coming. We are happy about it. We look forward to working with them and eliminating Kony and his fighters.”

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Foreign Aid Set to Take Hit in U.S. Budget Crisis October 11, 2011

As lawmakers scramble to trim the swelling national debt, both the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate have proposed slashing financing for the State Department and its related aid agencies at a time of desperate humanitarian crises and uncertain political developments. The proposals have raised the specter of deep cuts in food and medicine for Africa, in relief for disaster-affected places like Pakistan and Japan, in political and economic assistance for the new democracies of the Middle East, and even for the Peace Corps.

The financial crunch threatens to undermine a foreign policy described as “smart power” by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one that emphasizes diplomacy and development as a complement to American military power. It also would begin to reverse the increase in foreign aid that President George W. Bush supported after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as part of an effort to combat the roots of extremism and anti-American sentiment, especially in the most troubled countries.

Given the relatively small foreign aid budget — it accounts for 1 percent of federal spending over all — the effect of the cuts could be disproportional.

The State Department already has scaled back plans to open more consulates in Iraq, for example. The spending trend has also constrained support for Tunisia and Egypt, where autocratic leaders were overthrown in popular uprisings. While many have called for giving aid to these countries on the scale of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild European democracies after World War II, the administration has been able to propose only relatively modest investments and loans, and even those have stalled in Congress.

“There is a democratic awakening in places that have never dreamed of democracy,” Mrs. Clinton said on Friday. “And it is unfortunate that it’s happening at a historic time when our own government is facing so many serious economic challenges, because there’s no way to have a Marshall Plan for the Middle East and North Africa.”

With the administration and Congress facing a deadline for still deeper cuts in spending, government programs across the board face the ax, from public education to the military, but proposed cuts to the State Department and foreign aid come on top of an $8 billion reduction in April, the single largest cut to any one department under the deal that kept the government from shutting down.

Representative Kay Granger, a Republican from Texas and chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee overseeing foreign affairs, said that the budget crisis was forcing “a fundamental change” in how foreign aid is spent. Lawmakers and officials, she said, needed to prioritize spending according to American national security interests and justify those decisions to Americans who are generally skeptical of foreign aid.

She recalled a State Department envoy’s informing her of $250 million in relief to Pakistan after last year’s devastating floods. “I said I think that’s bad policy and bad politics,” she said in an interview at her office on Capitol Hill. “What are you going to say to people in the United States who are having flooding?”

Spending on international affairs, including foreign aid and the State Department’s operating budget, reached $55 billion in the 2010 fiscal year, Mr. Obama’s first full year in office, but declined by the end of the 2011 budget to $49 billion.

The administration proposed spending $59 billion in the fiscal year that began on Saturday, including $8.7 billion in a newly created contingency account for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those operations will expand significantly when the State Department takes over more tasks as American troops withdraw from Iraq at the end of the year and prepare for a drawdown in Afghanistan beginning next summer.

While the final budget for the year remains uncertain given the politics surrounding the special Congressional committee charged with finding more than $1 trillion in cuts over all, it is clear that foreign aid will decline for a second year.

“We’re going to have to do more with less — or less with less, depending on how you look at it,” said Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides, who oversees the department’s budget and operations.

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In Debt Talks, All Tax Breaks Are Not Alike October 10, 2011

WASHINGTON — Plenty of lawmakers are against tax breaks and so-called loopholes. Unless, of course, they personally helped create them.

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, for instance, says he is open to ending tax breaks for special interests. But when it comes to a tax break he secured in 2008 for the owners of thoroughbred racehorses, he argues that the measure is essential for the protection of jobs in his home state of Kentucky.

Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, says he too wants to eliminate such breaks, except when it comes to beer. He is one of the main supporters of a proposal that would cut taxes for small beer makers like the Samuel Adams Brewery in Boston.

And Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who leads the House Budget Committee, has privately assured one beer industry group that he would support a second proposed tax break for brewers, even as he has distanced himself publicly from the measure, the beer group’s chief operating officer said in an interview.

The disconnect between the lawmakers’ words and deeds reflects the political hurdles that Congress and the White House face as they look to cut at least $1.2 trillion from the national debt.

Talk of cutting tax breaks to raise money and reduce the debt has become a mantra in Washington, but it threatens sacred ground: such breaks are a favorite tool among both Republicans and Democrats to reward supporters and economic interests in their home states.

The 71,000-page tax code has become loaded with dozens of obscure but economically valuable tax breaks. Nascar racetrack operators can speed up their write-offs for improvements to their facilities; makers of toy wooden arrows pay no excise tax; and Eskimo whaling captains get a charitable deduction of up to $10,000 for hunting blubber.

Multibillion-dollar operations like oil refineries, Hollywood productions and hedge funds have all profited. And there is little sign that the lawmakers who helped write the breaks into the tax code are willing to back away from them.

Whether any of them are scrubbed from the books may ultimately prove how serious Congress is about reducing the debt, and how adept powerful lobbies are at guarding their benefits, political analysts and tax experts say.

”These special interests are getting carve-outs from Congress, and both sides — Republicans and Democrats — are guilty of picking their favorite interests to support,” said Jason J. Fichtner, an economist who studies tax policy at George Mason University.

Tax breaks for industries both large and small add up to an estimated $123 billion a year — money that opponents see as lost revenue in austere times.

One of the few members of Congress willing to talk about specific breaks that could be abolished is Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma.

He released a 626-page report in June that included a section on what he considered to be dozens of needless tax breaks that were ”little more than corporate welfare,” like vacation home deductions and special deals for the makers of fishing tackle boxes. He also ridiculed a bevy of loose guidelines that have allowed business deductions for cat food, toupees and breast implants for exotic dancers.

In contrast, President Obama has focused on a handful of tax breaks that are considered symbolically powerful, including credits for oil production and an accelerated depreciation for corporate jets.

”Do we keep tax loopholes for oil companies, or do we put teachers back to work?” Mr. Obama asked in a speech in the White House Rose Garden in September.

But members of Mr. Obama’s own party have backed many of the breaks. Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York was a leading proponent of the Nascar benefit, which helped a track in upstate New York; Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon helped push through the break for toy wooden arrow makers, which also benefited a manufacturer back home; and Mr. Kerry, who serves on the special Congressional committee that is trying to reduce the debt, has been a main driver behind the beer bill.

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