Thursday, April 16, 2009

Teabagging: The Movie

The Barbary Wars, Continued

by William Rivers Pitt

photo    Where there is a sea, there are pirates.
    - Greek Proverb

    It's a very odd time to be alive in the United States today. Two wars, a staggering economy, domestic political upheaval, and now, what, pirates? America was still in short pants the last time piracy got this much attention around here. Back then, what came to be known as the Barbary Wars were waged against African piracy by presidents George Washington and James Madison. According to

    The four Barbary States of North Africa - Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli - had plundered seaborne commerce for centuries. Surviving by blackmail, they received great sums of money, ships, and arms yearly from foreign powers in return for allowing the foreigners to trade in African ports and sail unmolested through the Barbary waters. They demanded tribute money, seized ships, and held crews for ransom or sold them into slavery. American merchant ships, no longer covered by British protection, were seized by Barbary pirates in the years after United States independence, and American crews were enslaved. In 1799, the United States agreed to pay $18,000 a year in return for a promise that Tripoli-based corsairs would not molest American ships. Similar agreements were made at the time with the rulers of Morocco, Algiers, and Tunis.

    In 1805, Marines stormed the Barbary pirates' harbor fortress stronghold of Derna (Tripoli), commemorated in the Marine Corp Hymn invocation "To the Shores of Tripoli." Following the War of 1812, two naval squadrons under Commodores Decatur and Bainbridge returned to the Mediterranean. Diplomacy backed by resolute force soon brought the rulers of Barbary to terms and gained widespread respect for the new American nation. Decatur obtained treaties which eliminated the United States paying tribute. In the years immediately after the Napoleonic wars, which ended in 1815, the European powers forced an end to piracy and the payment of tribute in the Barbary states.

    Washington and Madison, meet Barack Obama, the newest American president forced to deal harshly with murder and mayhem on the high seas. Over the last week, virtually all news in America was dominated by an attack on the unarmed cargo ship Maersk-Alabama by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The crew managed to fight off the attack, but the pirates made off with the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, and were demanding $2 million for his release.

    Pirates attacking an American ship off the Horn of Africa, pirates repelled by the crew of that ship, pirates with an American hostage at gunpoint, well, that's just great theater. The TV news media broke out the banners and brass bands and bird-dogged the situation relentlessly. The conclusion, however, vaulted this crisis into a made-for-TV movie waiting to happen. According to The Washington Post:

    The operation to rescue Capt. Richard Phillips involved dozens of Navy SEALs, who parachuted from an aircraft into the scene near dark Saturday, landing in the ocean. The SEALs were part of a group of Special Operations forces involved in the effort, according to military officials. The SEALs set up operations on the USS Bainbridge, which had been communicating with the four pirates via radio and had used smaller boats to make deliveries of food and water to their lifeboat.

    US military observers thought that Phillips was about to be shot. SEAL snipers, who were positioned on a deck at the stern of the Bainbridge, an area known as the fantail, had the three pirates in their sights. The on-scene commander gave the snipers authority to fire. "As soon as the snipers had a clear shot at the guy who had the rifle, they shot him and the other two in the hatches," the senior military official said. A member of the Special Operations team slid down the tow line into the water and climbed aboard the lifeboat. Phillips was then put in a small craft and taken to the Bainbridge.

    Coming soon to a network near you, but really, you don't need to wait, because it's already there. Every news organization - with the unsurprising exception of Fox, which probably didn't want to be seen giving credit to President Obama for fear of outraging their already-anti-Obama audience - exploded into a journalistic version of the "USA! USA! USA!" chant most often heard at sporting events and NRA rallies.

    Make no mistake, there was much to celebrate here from the top right on down. President Obama gave authorization for the use of force if Captain Phillips' life was judged to be in immediate peril. Obama did not grandstand or wallow in the media spectacle - indeed, during the five days of the crisis, he was asked specifically by reporters about the situation and declined to comment - nor did he engage in the kind of hyper-violent military overreach that defined the previous administration.

    When the decision to use violence arrived, it was executed with unimaginable precision, and when it was all over, not one civilian was dead, injured, scratched, bruised or even lightly ruffled. The cool, calm, drama-free manner in which the rescue of Captain Phillips was undertaken is good news for America and the world, for it demonstrates, finally, that this nation is once again in the hands of responsible people. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that a man held prisoner at gunpoint, who was beaten by his captors repeatedly according to reports, was rescued and sent home to his family.

    But, of course, nothing is that simple. Even the word "piracy" itself is not entirely accurate, as Johann Hari explained in a January article for the UK Independent:

    As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

    Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury - you name it." Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply. When I asked Mr. Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: "Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention."

    At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation - and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka about 62 miles south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: "If nothing is done, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters."

    This is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a "tax" on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia - and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 percent "strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence".

At the White House, Joking about a Torture Investigation?

By David Corn

I was asked to go on Hardball on Tuesday night to discuss the news that Spanish prosecutors are likely to recommend a full investigation be conducted to determine if six former Bush administration officials—including ex-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales—ought to be indicted for having sanctioned torture at Guantanamo. So I thought I'd ask White House press secretary Robert Gibbs about the matter.

This could become a true headache for the White House—a high-profile case in which Spanish prosecutors bring charges against Gonzales; Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense; David Addington, former counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney; William Haynes, a former Pentagon lawyer; and John Yoo and Jay Bybee, two former Justice Department officials. Several steps must occur before any prosecution proceeds. If the prosecutors determine a full criminal investigation is warranted--as is expected--it will be up to a Spanish judge to open a full-fledged inquiry that could produce indictments. He could decide not to accept the recommendation. And, of course, it's possible that an investigation could end without indictments. The Spanish hook for the case is a simple one: Five Guantanamo detainees were either Spanish citizens or residents. And, by the way, Spanish courts claim jurisdiction that extends to other nations when it comes to torture and war crimes.

What would the Obama administration do, if the Spanish judge currently overseeing the Bush Six case, Baltasar Garzon (who is famous for pursuing terrorists and for having chased after Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet), greenlights the investigation? At the Tuesday afternoon White House daily briefing, I asked Gibbs if the administration would cooperate with any requests from the Spaniards for information and documents. He had a predictable response: "I don't want to get involved in hypotheticals." He quickly pivoted to point out that Obama has moved to prohibit torture at Gitmo and elsewhere.

I posed a follow-up: Have you spoken to the Spanish government about this case? He seized on my use of the word "you" and, with a broad smile, said, "I have not spoken with the Spanish." Reporters in the room laughed. I obviously did not mean him personally; the "you" had referred to the Obama administration. Nor did I mean, I added, Bill Burton, the deputy press secretary, or any of the other press aides in the room. The point was whether the administration had been in contact with the Spanish government about the Bush Six investigation. "The Justice Department?" I asked. Gibbs, though, essentially brushed off the question: "I would send you to Justice. Like I said, I've not spoken" to the Spanish government.

That, too, was to be expected. Often White House press secretaries say, take your query elsewhere. Yet moments later, when a reporter asked Gibbs if Obama had any reaction to the conservative groups organizing "tea parties" of protest on tax day, he replied, "I've never monitored them nor spoken with the Spanish about them." People in the room laughed. And when the questioning in the room turned to the all-important subject of the Obama's new Portuguese water dog, Gibbs continued the joke. Noting that the dog might be spotted on the White House lawn later in the day or that it might not, he added that "the dog has also not talked to the Spanish about impending torture cases." More laughter. But I wondered, had the press secretary just made a joke about a torture investigation? Gibbs, like other press secretaries, uses humor to disarm, deflect, or dodge. But was this untoward?

The president and his aides do not seem eager to investigate the alleged misdeeds of the Bush-Cheney administration. The political calculation is obvious and not without justification: There's a lot of hard stuff to get done these days and probing former Bush officials could be seen as a distraction and possibly undermine political support for the administration and Democrats in Congress. But such political figuring may not influence the independent Spanish judicial system and Judge Garzon (who has been asked by Spanish prosecutors not to continue handling the Bush Six case because he is already overseeing terrorist prosecutions against these ex-Gitmo detainees). If an investigation proceeds, Obama could well have to decide whether or not to comply with Spanish requests for US government documents--that is, to help or hinder the investigation. Later in the process, Obama could even conceivably have to contend with extradition requests. If any of this comes to pass, it won't then be a laughing matter.


End the US-Cuba embargo

Urge the US government to engage constructively with Cuba and lift the embargo. We'll sail a giant banner past the Summit of the Americas this weekend to deliver our message:

Sign the petition!
On Monday, Barack Obama announced a welcome and long-overdue shift in US policy on Cuba, lifting restrictions on family members visiting and sending financial support to relatives on the island.

This week, the U.S. administration is watching for the world's reactions -- as it decides whether to move further. A strong international response now can send a signal to American politicians that we welcome these first steps -- but that much more is needed. It is time to bring an end to the failed and divisive US policy that has punished ordinary Cubans for almost five decades.

We have a unique chance to let be heard at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago this weekend, where Obama will for the first time discuss Cuba with all of his counterparts from throughout the region. Sign the petition calling for US-Cuba engagement now -- Avaaz members will sail a boat in the harbor near the summit and the number of petition signatures will be painted on the boat's sail, for reporters and leaders from across the Americas to see:

When the United States put its first embargo on Cuba in 1960, the policy's supporters claimed it would accelerate democracy and human rights. A half-century later, the claim has proven hollow, and has caused immeasurable economic harm to ordinary Cubans, blocking agricultural and medical supplies, new technology, information and ideas.

Some argue that as long as the embargo exists, the Cuban government can blame it instead of being forced to address its own systemic failures and serious breaches of freedom of speech, association and dissension.

Today there is more hope than ever that Cuban - US relations can change, with implications for the whole region. Across Latin America leaders are calling on President Obama to initiate a new beginning. In the US, recent surveys find that three quarters of US citizens want their government to shift away from the policy of isolation, and even previously hard-line Cuban exile groups are calling for change.

At this moment, as the United States and the region responds to Obama's tentative first steps, our voices have a critical role to play. If we remain silent, we risk ceding the debate to polarizing forces in the US and in Latin America who fear a reconciliation.

Sign the petition now, send this message to friends, and watch for the Avaaz sailboat in Trinidad on Saturday:

Let's send a massive message to President Obama and all the regional leaders gathered in Trinidad that a new beginning in relations is possible -- if they are ready to move past the failed policies of the past and embrace the opportunities of the present.

With hope,

Luis, Alice, Paula, Graziela, Ben, Raj, Iain, Ricken, Brett, Paul, Margaret, Pascal, Taren and the rest of the Avaaz team.


Obama Lifts Broad Set Of Sanctions Against Cuba, Washington Post, Tuesday, April 14, 2009:

A new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll showing that three-quarters of Americans surveyed think the US should end its five-decade estrangement with Cuba:

Leading organization for Cuban exiles calling on the White House to expand relations with Cuba's government:

Human Rights Watch report "Families Torn Apart: The High Cost of U.S. and Cuban Travel Restrictions", includes recommendation to the the U.S. government to terminate the economic embargo on Cuba:

ABOUT AVAAZ is an independent, not-for-profit global campaigning organization that works to ensure that the views and values of the world's people inform global decision-making. (Avaaz means "voice" in many languages.) Avaaz receives no money from governments or corporations, and is staffed by a global team based in Ottawa, London, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Buenos Aires, and Geneva. Call us at: +1 888 922 8229 or +55 21 2509 0368 Click here to learn more about our largest campaigns. Don't forget to check out our Facebook and Myspace and Bebo pages!

Rethink Afghanistan

We bring you "Cost of War," part three of our Rethink Afghanistan documentary, which delves into the financial costs of this broadening military conflict. Do we really want to spend over $1 trillion on a war that could last a decade or more, while millions of Americans are losing their jobs and their homes? The Obama administration has taken some smart steps to counter this economic crisis with its budget request, but that effort will be wasted by expanding military demands.
Watch Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and journalists, military and foreign policy experts, leading economists, and many more explain just how much the war in Afghanistan will cost us over how many years.
The trailer
Part 3

Lowering the bar

by Jamison Foser

Marc Ambinder, writing "In Defense Of The Tax-Day Tea Parties":

Their origins -- organic, programmatic, accidental or otherwise -- don't matter much anymore. If -- and we'll have to see the numbers at the end of the day -- 100,000 Americans show up to protest their taxes, the onus to dismiss them as a nascent political force shifts to the Democrats.

Really?  100,000 people showing up for nationwide protests doesn't seem all that impressive.  It's 2,000 people per state.

If that's the turnout for these protests, I don't see how there's any onus on anyone to say anything other than "Meh."  Or, perhaps, to offer a Nelson Muntz-style "Ha-ha" while pointing at Fox News.

Transplants help Type 1 diabetics skip insulin

CHICAGO (Reuters) - People with type 1 diabetes who got stem cell transplants were able to go as long as four years without needing insulin treatments, U.S. researchers said on Tuesday.

They said the process, which involves injecting people with stem cells made from their bone marrow cells, appears to have a lasting effect.

The study involved patients with Type 1 diabetes, formerly called juvenile diabetes, which occurs when the immune system goes haywire and starts attacking itself, destroying insulin-producing cells in the pancreas needed to control blood sugar.

These patients typically need daily insulin therapy to control their diabetes.

Dr. Richard Burt of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and colleagues first reported on the short-term success of the procedure, known as autologous non-myeloablative hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation, in 2007 but have since looked at how long it persisted.

Writing in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association they said 20 of 23 patients "became insulin free -- 12 continuously and eight transiently -- for periods as long as four years." The transient group of eight had to restart insulin at reduced levels.

The patients ranged in age from 13 to 31.

To find out if the change was lasting the research team said they measured levels of C-peptides, which show how well the body is producing insulin. They found those levels increased "up to 24 months after transplantation and were maintained until at least 36 months," their report said.

Conservative Tea Party

A Mad Tea-Party

Bernie Horn's pictureBy Bernie Horn

"Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!" says the White Rabbit who looks remarkably like Fox News bloviator Glenn Beck.

Beck and his fellow Fox partisans Sean Hannity, Neil Cavuto, and Greta Van Susteren are hurrying to publicize and legitimize the so-called "Tax Day Tea Party" tomorrow. But the multi-city event makes as much sense as a caterpillar smoking a hookah.

Organizers claim that "Tea Party" refers to the Boston Tea Party—which was a protest against taxation by the British Parliament without representation from America. But you don't hear them crying out "no taxation without representation" or calling for D.C. statehood.

Also, unlike the 1773 protest in Boston, this is hardly a grassroots affair. It's actually being organized by corporate front groups, including Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, and literally sponsored by Fox News.

So it must be inspired by some other kind of tea party…


Yes, the right wingers have fallen Down the Rabbit-Hole into a Wonderland where the absurd becomes entirely routine.

First the riddle, what is the Tax Day Tea Party about? What do the participants want?

"Have you guessed the riddle yet?" the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
"No, I give it up," Alice replied: "what's the answer?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," said the Hatter.
"Nor I," said the March Hare.

Look at the wild comments on their website. Like Alice's tea, it's not about anything. No doubt there will be participants who don't like paying taxes. But that's hardly newsworthy. The Mad Haters' cacophony of complaints fall into three categories.

The loudest howls are about the $700 billion TARP bailout of Wall Street. Which is fine. Except Congress authorized that six months ago—at the insistence of President George W. Bush. If they're fuming about TARP, isn't this party a little late? And how do they explain all the anti-Obama signs?

"Curiouser and curiouser!"

Okay, their second biggest complaint is about the $787 billion economic recovery act, enacted by Congress to create or preserve 3.5 million jobs. At least this one is Obama's responsibility. But you've got to wonder, what do these people have against jobs? Every intellectually honest economist in the nation told us that Congress had to enact a stimulus package this year and many experts believe we will need another one before the year is over. The choice was between economic stimulus and something like a global depression.

The folks coming to a Tax Day Tea Party are either cynically dishonest or woefully ignorant. Either way, they are certainly mad…steaming, boiling mad.

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."

Of course, the corporate organizers of the Tax Day Tea Party are neither ignorant nor mad. They have an agenda, but you have to dig a little to find it. Look at their Resources page. It takes you to "The Tool Kit for Tea Parties," which is a few PDFs on a website called "American Solutions."

And what are the principal solutions? Cut tax rates for the rich. Cut the corporate tax rate. Abolish the capital gains tax. Abolish the estate tax. Oh, and oppose the Employee Free Choice Act.

Wow! Who in the world is American Solutions? Why it's Newt Gingrich's organization. (Click here for a fine picture of Newt grinning like a Cheshire Cat.) The whole tea party scam is designed to push people toward the maddest, craziest, most irresponsible right-wing corporate agenda Gingrich could imagine. And—once again—the lower-income, right wing rank-and-file are just being played as suckers by the rich.

How to Puff Up Earnings, Goldman Sachs Style

By Barry Ritholtz

Leave it to the clever boys at Goldman Sachs to turn dross into gold: They have come up with a way to hide massive losses so clever, it requires special comment: The Orphan Month.

Yesterday, we noted that the bulk of their profits had come from AIG transfer payments - the theft from taxpayers AIG 100% payouts funded via bailout monies that saw Goldie as one of the largest recipients. Floyd Norris notes that most of the AIG effect was in December. "For the first quarter, the total A.I.G. effect on earnings was, in round numbers, zero."

How is it possible that this occurred? Isn't GS on a December to February calendar? Well, there is a small asterisk about that. It seems that GS is moving from a December to a quarterly calendar. Meaning their latest Q is January thru March.

But what of December, with all the AIG monies and the comparison to the strong December 2007 and all?

In a word, Orphaned:

    Goldman's 2008 fiscal year ended Nov. 30. This year the company is switching to a calendar year. The leaves December as an orphan month, one that will be largely ignored. In Goldman's news release, and in most of the news reports, the quarter ended March 31 is compared to the quarter last year that ending in February.
The orphan month featured - surprise - lots of writeoffs. The pre-tax loss was $1.3 billion, and the after-tax loss was $780 million. 

Would the firm have had a profit if it stuck to its old calendar, and had to include December and exclude March?

Truly astounding . . . the word Chutzpah simply does not do it justice . . .

We have taken your Captain hostage!

Legalizing pot debated in Mexico

Mexico's Congress opened a three-day debate Monday on the merits of legalizing marijuana for personal use, a policy backed by three former Latin American presidents who warned that a crackdown on drug cartels is not working.

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's Congress opened a three-day debate Monday on the merits of legalizing marijuana for personal use, a policy backed by three former Latin American presidents who warned that a crackdown on drug cartels is not working.

Although President Felipe Calderón has opposed the idea, the unprecedented forum shows legalizing marijuana is gaining support in Mexico amid brutal drug violence.

Such a measure would be sure to strain relations with the United States at a time when the two countries are stepping up cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking. The congressional debate — open to academics, experts and government officials — ends a day before President Obama arrives in Mexico for talks on the drug war.

In Mexico, Obama to offer solidarity in drug war

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Confronting a security threat on America's doorstep, President Barack Obama is venturing into the heart of Mexico. His swift diplomatic mission is meant to show solidarity with a neighbor - and to prove that the U.S. is serious about halting the deadly flow of drugs and weapons.

During his stop in Mexico City on Thursday, Obama will emphasize cross-border cooperation and probably put a focus on clean energy, but the economic crisis and the bloody drug trade have set the tone.

Among the other touchy points are disagreement over a lapsed U.S. assault weapons ban, a standoff over cross-border trucking and immigration.

The escalating drug war in Mexico is spilling into the United States and onto Obama's lap as a foreign crisis much closer than North Korea or Afghanistan. Mexico is the main hub for cocaine and other drugs entering the U.S.; the United States is the primary source of guns used in Mexico's drug-related killings.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon's aggressive stand against drug cartels has won him the aid of the United States and the prominent political backing of Obama - never as evident as on Thursday, when the popular U.S. president is sure to stand with Calderon on his own turf and note his courage.

In an interview Wednesday with CNN en Espanol, Obama, indeed, contended that Calderon is doing "an outstanding and heroic job in dealing with what is a big problem right now along the borders with the drug cartels."

As for the U.S. role, Obama said, "We are going to be dealing not only with drug interdiction coming north, but also working on helping to curb the flow of cash and guns going south."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, meantime, said that consultations with Mexico on the drug problem are "not about pointing fingers, it's about solving a problem. What can we do to prevent the flow of guns and cash south that fuel these cartels."