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Wednesday
Apr022008

ACLU: Military Skirting Law to Spy

The military is using the FBI to skirt legal restrictions on domestic surveillance to obtain private records of Americans' Internet service providers, financial institutions and telephone companies, the ACLU said Tuesday.

The American Civil Liberties Union based its conclusion on a review of more than 1,000 documents turned over by the Defense Department after it sued the agency last year for documents related to national security letters, or NSLs, investigative tools used to compel businesses to turn over customer information without a judge's order or grand jury subpoena.

"Newly unredacted documents released today reveal that the Department of Defense is using the FBI to circumvent legal limits on its own NSL power," said the ACLU, whose lawsuit was filed in Manhattan federal court.

ACLU lawyer Melissa Goodman said the documents the civil rights group studied "make us incredibly concerned." She said it would be understandable if the military relied on help from the FBI on joint investigations, but not when the FBI was not involved in a probe.

The FBI referred requests for comment Tuesday to the Defense Department. A department spokesman, Air Force Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, said in an e-mail that the department had made "focused, limited and judicious" use of the letters since Congress extended the capability to investigatory entities other than the FBI in 2001.

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Wednesday
Apr022008

Centers Tap Into Personal Databases

Intelligence centers run by states across the country have access to personal information about millions of Americans, including unlisted cellphone numbers, insurance claims, driver's license photographs and credit reports, according to a document obtained by The Washington Post.

One center also has access to top-secret data systems at the CIA, the document shows, though it's not clear what information those systems contain.

Dozens of the organizations known as fusion centers were created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to identify potential threats and improve the way information is shared. The centers use law enforcement analysts and sophisticated computer systems to compile, or fuse, disparate tips and clues and pass along the refined information to other agencies. They are expected to play important roles in national information-sharing networks that link local, state and federal authorities and enable them to automatically sift their storehouses of records for patterns and clues.

Though officials have publicly discussed the fusion centers' importance to national security, they have generally declined to elaborate on the centers' activities. But a document that lists resources used by the fusion centers shows how a dozen of the organizations in the northeastern United States rely far more on access to commercial and government databases than had previously been disclosed.

Those details have come to light at a time of debate about domestic intelligence efforts, including eavesdropping and data-aggregation programs at the National Security Agency, and whether the government has enough protections in place to prevent abuses.

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Wednesday
Apr022008

Prevent Digital Pickpocketing by Blocking Radio Frequencies

Stuck on the tarmac, flipping through a travel magazine, you're struck by the blurb for metal-lined wallets. Purpose: to prevent digital pickpocketing by blocking radio frequencies.

These handsome babies start at $79.99 and top out at the $225 Italian Leather Teju Lizard Embossed Travel Wallet.

Your reaction: Wow! Luxury accessories for paranoids!

But you would be wrong. Maybe.

Because, says electronic security expert Bruce Schneier, crystallizing the view of many: "As weird as it sounds, wrapping your passport in tinfoil helps. The tinfoil people, in this case, happen to be correct."

The issue is bigger than just the new style of passports, which contain chips that emit information that can be read by a scanner. We're also talking about your Metro SmarTrip card, your employee ID/building access card, your automatic highway toll pass, the newest wave of credit cards and gas purchasing cards, even digital drivers' licenses being developed in some states.

All of these nifty and oh-so-convenient bits of plastic employ versions of what's known as radio frequency identification technology, or RFID. That is, they toss out bits of data that are caught by receivers, with little or no contact, just through the air in some cases. The new credit cards, such as MasterCard's PayPass, don't have to be swiped through a machine. Swiping is so retro, and takes precious extra seconds. You need only lightly tap the PayPass on a terminal to register a purchase.

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Wednesday
Apr022008

Bernanke Offers Bleaker View on U.S. Economy

Also see: Bernanke warns of possible recession

Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, presented his bleakest assessment yet of the economy on Wednesday morning, warning a Congressional committee that economic growth was likely to stagnate — and perhaps even contract — over the first half of the year.

In his first public remarks since the Fed orchestrated an unprecedented bailout of the brokerage firm Bear Stearns, Mr. Bernanke acknowledged that while the Fed’s actions had “helped stabilize” the credit markets, banks and other financial institutions remained hesitant to lend, causing problems for the broader economy.

“Financial markets remain under considerable stress,” Mr. Bernanke said, in remarks prepared for delivery Wednesday morning to the Joint Economic Committee. “The capacity and willingness of some large institutions to extend new credit remains limited.”

Over all, Mr. Bernanke said, “It now appears likely that real gross domestic product will not grow much, if at all, over the first half of 2008 and could even contract slightly.”

While he said growth would likely recover in the second half of the year, and return to a “sustainable pace” in 2009, he warned that the current turbulence made the economic outlook difficult to predict.

“The uncertainty attending this forecast is quite high and the risks remain to the downside,” he said.

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Wednesday
Apr022008

’03 U.S. Memo Approved Harsh Interrogations!

The Justice Department in 2003 gave military interrogators broad authority to use extreme methods in questioning detainees and argued that wartime powers largely exempted interrogators from laws banning harsh treatment, according to a memorandum publicly disclosed on Tuesday.

In a sweeping legal brief written in March 2003, when the Pentagon was struggling to determine the appropriate limits for its interrogators, the Justice Department gave the Pentagon much of the same authority it had provided to the Central Intelligence Agency in a memorandum months earlier. Both memorandums were later rescinded by the Justice Department.

The disclosure of the 2003 document, a detailed 81-page opinion written by John C. Yoo, who at the time was the second-ranking official at the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, is likely to fuel the already intense debate about legal boundaries in the face of a continuing terrorist threat.

Mr. Yoo’s memorandum is the latest document to illuminate the legal foundation that Bush administration lawyers used after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to give the White House broad powers to capture, detain and interrogate suspects around the globe.

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Tuesday
Apr012008

WHO: Gazans Die Due to Israeli Border Delays

Dozens of Gaza residents have died waiting for medical treatment because of delays in obtaining permits to enter Israel, combined with a crumbling health system in Gaza, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

The U.N. agency listed 32 cases since October in which Gaza residents, ranging from a 1-year-old child to a 77-year-old man, died because they could not obtain urgent medical treatment.

Six were waiting for Israeli authorities to issue a permit to enter, according to the WHO report. It said others were denied permits because they were considered a security risk to Israel — including a 65-year-old woman. A number of other patients had obtained a permit but died while making additional arrangements necessary to cross into Israel, such as getting permission for a Palestinian medical team to accompany them, the report said.

Some weren't able to leave because Israel lacked the necessary hospital beds while others died while waiting at the Erez crossing, which Gazans use to pass into Israel, it said. Israel frequently shuts down the crossing because Hamas militants fire rockets nearby, aiming for Israeli soldiers and nearby Israeli communities.

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Tuesday
Apr012008

Report: IMF Predicts U.S. Recession

The International Monetary Fund will next week forecast that the US economy will go into recession this year, a German newspaper reported Tuesday, citing an upcoming report.

The IMF believes the US will experience at least two successive quarters of negative growth -- the technical definition of a recession -- and will grow only half a percent over the whole of 2008, weekly Die Zeit reported.

Previously the IMF, which will release the report at its spring meeting together with the World Bank next week, had forecast US growth this year of around 1.5 percent, the newspaper said.

The IMF will also lower its forecast for world growth from the current 4.1 percent, Die Zeit said.

For Germany, Europe's biggest economy, the IMF will cut its growth forecast to 1.2 percent from 1.5 percent, government sources said.

The sources said though that the German government's forecast of 1.7 percent still stands.


Tuesday
Apr012008

Nordic-Style Nationalization of U.S. Banks

The Fed has been criticised for its rescue of Bear Stearns, which critics say has degenerated into a taxpayer gift to rich bankers.

A senior official at one of the Scandinavian central banks told The Daily Telegraph that Fed strategists had stepped up contacts to learn how Norway, Sweden and Finland managed their traumatic crisis from 1991 to 1993, which brought the region's economy to its knees.

It is understood that Fed vice-chairman Don Kohn remains very concerned by the depth of the US crisis and is eyeing the Nordic approach for contingency options.

Scandinavia's bank rescue proved successful and is now a model for central bankers, unlike Japan's drawn-out response, where ailing banks were propped up in a half-public limbo for years.

While the responses varied in each Nordic country, there a was major effort to avoid the sort of "moral hazard" that has bedevilled efforts by the Fed and the Bank of England in trying to stabilise their banking systems.

Norway ensured that shareholders of insolvent lenders received nothing and the senior management was entirely purged. Two of the country's top four banks - Christiania Bank and Fokus - were seized by force majeure.

"We were determined not to get caught in the game we've seen with Bear Stearns where shareholders make money out of the rescue," said one Norwegian adviser.

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Tuesday
Apr012008

Mukasey Admits Government Knew Of Call About 9/11, Before 9/11

During a speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Thursday, Attorney General Michael Mukasey tacitly admitted that the U.S. government intercepted a call about 9/11 - before 9/11.

Before the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said, "we knew that there had been a call from someplace that was known to be a safe house in Afghanistan and we knew that it came to the United States. We didn't know precisely where it went," reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

Mukasey is then reported to have "grimaced, swallowed hard, and seemed to tear up as he reflected on the weaknesses in America's anti-terrorism strategy prior to the 2001 attacks. "We got three thousand. . . . We've got three thousand people who went to work that day and didn't come home to show for that," he said, struggling to maintain his composure."

Despite Mukasey using the example to justify warrantless wiretapping of Americans by claiming the government was unable to intercept the call, the fact is that no law would have prevented the government from listening in on the call. Existing FISA provisions would have covered the interception of the call.

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Tuesday
Apr012008

Embarrassed U.S. Starts to Disown Basra Operation

As it became clear last week that the Operation Knights Assault in Basra was in serious trouble, the George W. Bush administration began to claim in off-the-record statements to journalists that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had launched the operation without consulting Washington.

The effort to disclaim U.S. responsibility for the operation is an indication that it was viewed as a major embarrassment just as top commander Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are about to testify before Congress.

Behind this furious backpedaling is a major Bush administration miscalculation about Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, which the administration believed was no longer capable of a coordinated military operation. It is now apparent that Sadr and the Mahdi Army were holding back because they were still in the process of retraining and reorganization, not because Sadr had given up the military option or had lost control of the Mahdi Army.

The process of the administration distancing itself from the Basra operation began on March 27, when the Washington Post reported that administration officials, speaking anonymously, said that al-Maliki had "decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies." One official claimed, "[W]e can't quite decipher" what is going on, adding that it was a question of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why Maliki acted when he did.

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Tuesday
Apr012008

Beyond the Numbers

Was that a twinkle in the old men’s eyes? They stared down from framed oil portraits at the Fifth Regiment Armory the other day, and their names were Zollinger and Burgwyn, and Gelston and Warfield and others, all lined around a big, murky second-floor room. And maybe the old ghosts were pleased at what they beheld.

For here at the armory were more than a dozen Maryland National Guard members, home from the fighting in Iraq, and they were telling Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Gov. Martin O’Malley about the troubles re-entering civilian life: The psychological shifts, the troubles slowing down, the inability to reconnect with families, the stuff that never makes headlines because we’re too busy counting the dead or confronting the politics of the moment.

Does anybody understand?

“A grateful nation,” Mikulski told them, “never forgets.”

“We’re grateful to you,” O’Malley said, “and we want to do right by you.”

They were talking about increasing mental health funding and cutting through bureaucratic walls. They were hearing about post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related illnesses — and how, inexplicably, the federal government doesn’t provide the same help to National Guard members as it does to active-duty enlisted personnel.

“Thank you for what you did for America,” Mikulski said. “Now America wants to stand up for you.”

That’s when you noticed the old paintings on the walls.

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Tuesday
Apr012008

USA 2008: The Great Depression

We knew things were bad on Wall Street, but on Main Street it may be worse. Startling official statistics show that as a new economic recession stalks the United States, a record number of Americans will shortly be depending on food stamps just to feed themselves and their families.

Dismal projections by the Congressional Budget Office in Washington suggest that in the fiscal year starting in October, 28 million people in the US will be using government food stamps to buy essential groceries, the highest level since the food assistance programme was introduced in the 1960s.

The increase – from 26.5 million in 2007 – is due partly to recent efforts to increase public awareness of the programme and also a switch from paper coupons to electronic debit cards. But above all it is the pressures being exerted on ordinary Americans by an economy that is suddenly beset by troubles. Housing foreclosures, accelerating jobs losses and fast-rising prices all add to the squeeze.

Emblematic of the downturn until now has been the parades of houses seized in foreclosure all across the country, and myriad families separated from their homes. But now the crisis is starting to hit the country in its gut. Getting food on the table is a challenge many Americans are finding harder to meet. As a barometer of the country's economic health, food stamp usage may not be perfect, but can certainly tell a story.

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Tuesday
Apr012008

Opposition To Treasury's Blueprint Gains Steam

Senior Treasury officials identified three immediate targets yesterday for their plan to overhaul the nation's financial regulatory structure, including streamlining the approval process for securities that contributed to the crisis now roiling Wall Street. But their hopes for a few quick changes are running into mounting opposition from interest groups and officials elsewhere in the Bush administration.

In formally releasing the blueprint yesterday, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. said he also plans to ask Congress this year to set up a new agency to oversee mortgage lending and take action to enhance his department's role as the chief regulator of financial markets.

The Treasury's initiatives seek to sweep away the current patchwork of regulation over the coming decade in favor of three more powerful agencies to oversee banking, market stability, and consumer and investor protection. The plan's authors have argued that such changes are needed because government oversight has not kept up with the pace of financial innovation.

Paulson acknowledged that the recommendations would not prevent future crises but said that they would make government more nimble in addressing them. "We should and can have a structure that is designed for the world we live in," he said in a speech at the Treasury. "Few, if any, will defend our current balkanized system."

Critics said the Treasury's plan is almost too big to succeed. Longtime Washington institutions would undergo wholesale changes or shut down altogether. Few leaders of these agencies -- and the associations that work with them -- welcomed such radical transformation.

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