Senate Votes for Retroactive Immunity

The Senate voted today on the Dodd/Feingold amendment, which would have struck provisions providing immunity from civil liability to members of the telecom industry that participate in the government’s warrantless wiretapping program.

Despite the best efforts of Senator Chris Dodd, the Senate voted 67-31 against the bill; Hillary Clinton and Lindsey Graham did not vote. Dodd was quite disappointed with the outcome and claimed: “We’ve just sanctioned the single largest invasion of privacy in American history.”

telecom immunity

Death of a Dictator: Indonesia’s Suharto

Indonesia’s former president, General Suharto, has fallen ill and is not expected to survive. So I suppose now would be as good a time as any to reflect on the devastating effects of his more than 30 years of iron rule over the country of Indonesia.

SuhartoSuhartoIndonesiaIndonesia

Indonesia is a country that should not be poor; it is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas, agriculture, tin, copper, gold, and rubber. It was colonized by the Dutch in the 16th century and exploited by the West for hundreds of years. In 1945, the nationalist leader Sukarno declared Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch and became the country’s first president. Sukarno opposed imperialism and capitalism because he felt both had taken a devastating toll on the lives of the Indonesian people.

However, in the mid-sixties, General Suharto seized power from Sukarno, aided by the US and Britain due to his anti-communist sentiments. Suharto then presided over army-led massacres that killed an estimated 1 million people and wiped out the country’s only mass-based political party (the communist PKI). Ethnic Chinese and communist sympathizers were all rounded up and killed. A CIA report refers to Suharto’s atrocities as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century,” comparable to those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

Within the next few years, the economy of Indonesia was completely redesigned in the interests of foreign investors, giving the West access to vast mineral wealth, markets, and cheap labor…what President Nixon called “the greatest prize in Asia.” Suharto’s agents met with representatives of global capital (international banks, credit cards, big oil, tobacco, defense, technology, etc.) to design the legal infrastructure and conditions of their investment in Indonesia.

Suharto continued to maintain a “good investment climate” for foreign companies in Indonesia while compiling one of the world’s worst human rights records. His regime provided guarantees of cheap labor, the suppression of trade unions, torture, killings, limited environmental regulation, and privatization of resources to benefit Indonesian elites and foreign investors.

I’m not even going to get into his 1975 invasion of East Timor, which resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians and is known to be the “worst atrocity relative to population since the Holocaust.”

Nevertheless, the World Bank praised Suharto’s economic transformation as “a dynamic economic success” and called Indonesia “the model pupil of the global economy,” while Bill Clinton referred to Suharto as “our kind of guy.”

During the whole process, Suharto was soliciting development loans from the World Bank and other international banks. As you might have guessed, there was a bit of corruption and embezzlement involved. Much of the loan money disappeared while his cronies and family members were awarded control of public utilities, TV stations, taxis, or tollways.

Suharto was forced to step down under threat of an Indonesian revolution in 1998. The World Bank estimates that up to a third of the loans made to Suharto during his reign went to the pockets of his cronies, estimated at around 8-10 billion dollars.

The saddest part is that this insurmountable debt (now approximately $130 billion) was created in part by just a few spineless, Indonesian elites. But it is the poor citizens of the country that will bear the terrible burden of lifelong payment and suffering, never once having known the vast wealth of their resources.

 

For a good documentary on globalization and the exploitation of Indonesia, here is John Pilger’s The New Rulers of the World:

Senate Postpones Domestic Spying Bill

Thanks to the efforts of Senator Chris Dodd, the Senate has postponed a vote that could have permanently expanded the government’s ability to carry out domestic surveillance. The FISA bill would have given immunity to telecommunication companies that have assisted in the government’s illegal spying program. This ‘retroactive immunity’ caused Senator Dodd to threaten a filibuster, and after a day-long debate, Majority Leader Harry Reid tabled the bill.

This will postpone any vote until January. Dodd’s courageous efforts are a refreshing victory for American civil liberties, and he threatens to filibuster again next month if retroactive immunity is still included in the bill.

 

The Ford Pinto and the Price of Life

Back in the 1960’s, the Ford Motor Company faced strong competition in America’s small-car market. To fight the competition of Volkswagen and Japanese manufacturers, Ford rushed the development of its newest small car, the Ford Pinto.

Ford Pinto

During production, Ford engineers discovered a major flaw in the car’s design. In rear-end crash tests, the Pinto’s fuel system would rupture extremely easily. Despite this hazardous defect, Ford officials decided to manufacture the car anyway.

Safety proved not to be a major concern in the development process. The development specifications for the Pinto were that it “was not to weigh an ounce over 2,000 pounds and not cost a cent over $2,000.” Studies of Pinto accident reports revealed:

if a Pinto being followed at over 30 miles per hour was hit by that following vehicle, the rear end of the car would buckle like an accordion, right up to the back seat. The tube leading to the gas-tank cap would be ripped away from the tank itself, and gas would immediately begin sloshing onto the road around the car.

The buckled gas tank would be jammed up against the differential housing (the large bulge in the middle of the rear axle), which contains four sharp, protruding bolts likely to gash holes in the tank and spill still more gas.

Now all that is needed is a spark from a cigarette, ignition, or scraping metal, and both cars would be engulfed in flames. If a Pinto was struck from behind at higher speed say, at 40 mph chances are very good that its doors would jam shut and its trapped passengers inside would burn to death.

The financial analysis that Ford conducted on the Pinto concluded that it was not cost-efficient to add an $11 per car cost in order to correct the flaw.

Benefits derived from spending this amount of money were estimated to be $49.5 million. This estimate assumed that each death, which could be avoided, would be worth $200,000, that each major burn injury that could be avoided would be worth $67,000 and that an average repair cost of $700 per car involved in a rear end accident would be avoided. It further assumed that there would be 2,100 burned vehicles, 180 serious burn injuries, and 180 burn deaths in making this calculation. When the unit cost was spread out over the number of cars and light trucks which would be affected by the design change, at a cost of $11 per vehicle, the cost was calculated to be $137 million, much greater then the $49.5 million benefit.

Of course, these figures were wholly inaccurate and based on many assumptions. Still, I believe Ford’s ‘cost-benefit analysis’ was the first time that a monetary value had been placed on human life.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began investigating the case shortly after the Pinto was produced. It discovered that “a large and growing number of corpses taken from burned cars involved in rear-end crashes contained no cuts, bruises or broken bones. They clearly would have survived the accident unharmed if the cars had not caught fire.”

By 1972, the NHTSA’s research had gone on for four years, in which time “nearly 9,000 people burned to death in flaming wrecks. Tens of thousands more were badly burned and scarred for life. And the four-year delay meant that well over 10 million new unsafe vehicles went on the road, vehicles that will be crashing, leaking fuel and incinerating people well into the 1980s.” It wasn’t until May of 1978 that Ford followed the NHTSA’s demand and agreed to recall 1.5 million Pintos for a “safety related defect.”

The Ford Pinto disaster is a chilling example of corporate unaccountability in action. Although they had foreknowledge of the hazardous flaw and anticipated the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians, they still decided that it simply was not profitable to make the cars more safe. This is a telling illustration of a corporation’s mindset; the public good is of little concern unless it coincides with profits.

Mid-week Roundup 12/12

Losing our minds over Illegal Immigration

NAFTA has the power to trump state laws!

The Historical Truth of Our Relations with Iran

Report shows Bush manipulated climate science, suppressed scientists.

Nigeria battles Pfizer in court for conducting an illegal, unauthorized drug trial on Nigerian children.

Bad News for Prescription Drugs: pharmaceutical sales reps may be given licenses.

Murdoch Ready to Makeover the Wall Street Journal

Did you know Venezuela is a Constiutional Democracy?

Taiwan and mainland China: conflicting amnesiacs

New Orleans Homes to be Demolished (with video)

Why Won’t the Candidates talk about Americans’ Economic Pain?

Nuclear Disarmament and Peace on Earth…what’s that?

A Decent Article by Sean Penn calling on Americans to do what’s right

Meet a Millionaire with a Lower Tax Rate than You! (with video)

Blackwater Worldwide

Blackwater Logo

The private security firm Blackwater is attempting to reconstruct its image, re-branding themselves Blackwater Worldwide this October. The US State Department’s largest security contractor had its operating license revoked by the Iraqi government this September after its involvement in the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians. Yet they continue to operate there and are expanding operations even further. I’ll leave it to Jeremy Scahill to fill you in on the details:

Blackwater Bu$ine$$ (from The Nation)

Gunning down seventeen Iraqi civilians in an incident the military has labeled “criminal.” Multiple Congressional investigations. A federal grand jury. Allegations of illegal arms smuggling. Wrongful death lawsuits brought by families of dead employees and US soldiers. A federal lawsuit alleging war crimes. Charges of steroid use by trigger-happy mercenaries. Allegations of “significant tax evasion.” The US-installed government in Iraq labeling its forces “murderers.” With a new scandal breaking practically every day, one would think Blackwater security would be on the ropes, facing a corporate meltdown or even a total wipeout. But it seems that business for the company has never been better, as it continues to pull in major federal contracts. And its public demeanor grows bolder and cockier by the day.

Rather than hiding out and hoping for the scandals to fade, the Bush Administration’s preferred mercenary company has launched a major rebranding campaign, changing its name to Blackwater Worldwide and softening its logo: once a bear paw in the site of a sniper scope, it’s now a bear claw wrapped in two half ovals–sort of like the outline of a globe with a United Nations feel. Its website boasts of a corporate vision “guided by integrity, innovation, and a desire for a safer world.” Blackwater mercenaries are now referred to as “global stabilization professionals.” Blackwater’s 38-year-old owner, Erik Prince, was No. 11 in Details magazine’s “Power 50,” the men “who control your viewing patterns, your buying habits, your anxieties, your lust…. the people who have taken over the space in your head.”

In one of the company’s most bizarre recent actions, on December 1 Blackwater paratroopers staged a dramatic aerial landing, complete with Blackwater flags and parachutes–not in Baghdad or Kabul but in San Diego at Qualcomm Stadium during the halftime show at the San Diego State/BYU football game. The location was interesting, given that Blackwater is fighting fierce local opposition to its attempt to open a new camp–Blackwater West–on 824 acres in the small rural community of Potrero, just outside San Diego. Blackwater’s parachute squad plans to land at the Armed Forces Bowl in Texas this month and the Virginia Gold Cup in May. The company recently sponsored a NASCAR racer, and it has teamed up with gun manufacturer Sig Sauer to create a Blackwater Special Edition full-sized 9-millimeter pistol with the company logo on the grip. It comes with a Limited Lifetime Warranty. For $18, parents can purchase infant onesies with the company logo.

In recent weeks, Blackwater has indicated it might quit Iraq. “We see the security market diminishing,” Prince told the Wall Street Journal in October. Yet on December 3 Blackwater posted job listings for “security specialists” and snipers as a result of its State Department diplomatic security “contract expansion.” While its name may be mud in the human rights world, Blackwater has not only made big money in Iraq (about $1 billion in State Department contracts); it has secured a reputation as a company that keeps US officials alive by any means necessary. The dirty open secret in Washington is that Blackwater has done its job in Iraq, even if it has done so by valuing the lives of Iraqis much lower than those of US VIPs. That badass image will serve it well as it expands globally.

Prince promises that Blackwater “is going to be more of a full spectrum” operation. Amid the cornucopia of scandals, Blackwater is bidding for a share of a five-year, $15 billion contract with the Pentagon to “fight terrorists with drug-trade ties.” Perhaps the firm will join the mercenary giant DynCorp in Colombia or Bolivia or be sent into Mexico on a “training” mission. This “war on drugs” contract would put Blackwater in the arena with the godfathers of the war business, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.

In addition to its robust business in law enforcement, military and homeland security training, Blackwater is branching out. Here are some of its current projects and initiatives:

§ Blackwater affiliate Greystone Ltd., registered offshore in Barbados, is an old-fashioned mercenary operation offering “personnel from the best militaries throughout the world” for hire by governments and private organizations. It also boasts of a “multi-national peacekeeping program,” with forces “specializing in crowd control and less than lethal techniques and military personnel for the less stable areas of operation.”

§ Prince’s Total Intelligence Solutions, headed by three CIA veterans (among them Blackwater’s number two, Cofer Black), puts CIA-type services on the open market for hire by corporations or governments.

§ Blackwater is launching an armored vehicle called the Grizzly, which the company characterizes as the most versatile in history. Blackwater intends to modify it to be legal for use on US highways.

§ Blackwater’s aviation division has some forty aircraft, including turboprop planes that can be used for unorthodox landings. It has ordered a Super Tucano paramilitary plane from Brazil, which can be used in counterinsurgency operations. In August the aviation division won a $92 million contract with the Pentagon to operate flights in Central Asia.

§ It recently flight-tested the unmanned Polar 400 airship, which may be marketed to the Department of Homeland Security for use in monitoring the US-Mexico border and to “military, law enforcement, and non-government customers.”

§ A fast-growing maritime division has a new, 184-foot vessel that has been fitted for potential paramilitary use.

Meanwhile, Blackwater is deep in the camp of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Cofer Black is Romney’s senior adviser on counterterrorism. At the recent CNN/YouTube debate, when Romney refused to call waterboarding torture, he said, “I’m not going to specify the specific means of what is and what is not torture so that the people that we capture will know what things we’re able to do and what things we’re not able to do. And I get that advice from Cofer Black, who is a person who was responsible for counterterrorism in the CIA for some thirty-five years.” That was an exaggeration of Black’s career at the CIA (he was there twenty-eight years and head of counterterrorism for only three), but a Romney presidency could make Blackwater’s business under Bush look like a church bake sale.

In short, Blackwater is moving ahead at full steam. Individual scandals clearly aren’t enough to slow it down. The company’s critics in the Democratic-controlled Congress must confront the root of the problem: the government is in the midst of its most radical privatization in history, and companies like Blackwater are becoming ever more deeply embedded in the war apparatus. Until this system is brought down, the world’s the limit for Blackwater Worldwide–and as its rebranding campaign shows, Blackwater knows it.

Halliburton/KBR Gang Rape Victim

From ABC News:

A Houston woman says she was gang-raped by Halliburton/KBR coworkers in Baghdad, and the company and the US government are covering up the incident.

Jamie Leigh Jones, now 22, says that after she was raped by multiple men at a KBR camp in the Green Zone, the company put her under guard in a shipping container with a bed and warned her that if she left Iraq for medical treatment, she’d be out of a job.

“Don’t plan on working back in Iraq. There won’t be a position here, and there won’t be a position in Houston,” Jones says she was told.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court against Halliburton/KBR, Jones says she was held in the shipping container for at least 24 hours without food or water by KBR, which posted armed security guards outside her door, who would not let her leave.

“It felt like prison,” says Jones, who told her story to ABC News as part of an upcoming “20/20” investigation. “I was upset; I was curled up in a ball on the bed; I just could not believe what had happened.”

Finally, Jones says, she convinced a sympathetic guard to loan her a cell phone so she could call her father in Texas, who then called his congressman. Rep. Ted Poe contacted the State Department, which dispatched agents from the Baghdad embassy to rescue Jones from the container.

According to her lawsuit, Jones was raped by “several attackers who first drugged her, then repeatedly raped and injured her, both physically and emotionally.” An examination by Army doctors showed she had been raped “both vaginally and anally,” but the rape kit disappeared after it was handed over to KBR security officers.

Over two years later, the Justice Department has brought no criminal charges in the matter and it has not been confirmed whether any federal agency was investigating the case.

Legal experts say Jones’ alleged assailants will likely never face a judge and jury, due to an enormous loophole that has effectively left contractors in Iraq beyond the reach of United States law.

Mid-week Roundup 12/5

Here are some headlines rounded up from this week:

Is “Save Darfur” a PR Scam?

Drug giant Pfizer will boost outsourcing to Asia; also their Celebrex expert testifies in court without a license.

Private Contractors look to profit from domestic spying.

Hillary is quite tied up with Big Oil and defense contractors.

Guiliani’s ties to a terror shiek

Virginia primaries will demand oath of loyalty from Republican voters.

Bush Justice Department is okay with kidnapping.

100 Students walk out on former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Guantanamo heading to the Supreme Court.

The human costs of the Iraq Occupation.

Join the military, go to college… The Pentagon’s education recruitment pitch is a scam?

Iraq Vet is punished for seeking help.

US War Vets to speak publicly about war crimes this March.

Bush and Maliki agree to long-term US troop presence in Iraq.

Also, John Pilger has a new book called ‘Freedom Next Time,’ and here is a speech he gave in Chicago concerning media journalism…if you have 45 minutes to spare.

Health Care for All

One of the most critical issues for the vast majority of Americans is the rising cost of health care coverage in our country. Forty-seven million Americans have no health care coverage at all.

For those fortunate enough to receive coverage, many have inadequate, bare-bones policies that fail to cover them when they need it most. Others are dropped from their plans when they become problematic.

The main problem is the health insurance industry, which is composed of large corporations whose only concern is to maximize profits. They learned very early on that the less health care they provide, the more money they make. So they screen people and deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions and illnesses. One third of every dollar spent on private health insurance goes to the administrative costs and profits of the industry.

As a field canvasser fighting for state-wide health care in Washington, I’ve heard personal horror stories about the costs of health care. One lady was forced to sell her house to pay for her open-heart surgery after her insurance company dropped her coverage plan. Another could not get coverage at all because the insurance provider considered her pregnancy to be a pre-existing condition.

Many rely on their large employer to cover their health care costs. But what protection do they have when the employer moves abroad in search of higher profits? And what of the self-employed people and the small-business owners who get crushed by covering health care costs for their employees? Half of all bankruptcies in our country are caused by medical bills.

Each year in our great country, approximately 18,000 people die because they lack access to health care. That’s six times as many as were killed on 9/11. In the meantime, the health care and pharmaceutical industries spend billions each year lobbying the US government. How is it that we live in the wealthiest country in the world, yet nearly a third of our citizens have insubstantial health-care coverage?

The issue of health care was hardly mentioned at all in the 2004 Presidential debates. Fortunately, this year it is actually on the lips of our projected leaders. The Republicans speak of ‘tax deductions‘ and ‘free-market solutions‘ to solve the problems of American health care costs, while warning of the evils of ‘socialized medicine‘. And the Democratic front-runners all boast about ‘universal health care coverage‘.

But the fact is that there is only one candidate running with the proper solution to save America from its enormous medical costs and failures. He usually doesn’t receive questions about the issue during presidential debates, so in the most recent Democratic forum, Dennis Kucinich took the opportunity to ask himself a question:

That’s right; Dennis Kucinich is the ONLY candidate running with a single-payer, not-for-profit health-care plan. There is overwhelming public support for this system, yet the plans of all the other Democratic candidates still rely on the for-profit health insurance industry.

Did you notice the smug Hillary Clinton laughing it up? She happens to be the largest acceptor of donations from the private health care industry. Check here for an analysis of the health-care plans of the Democratic front-runners.

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Bolivia: Bechtel and the fight for public water

Back in 1999, the private construction contractor Bechtel took over control of the public water system in Bolivia’s third largest city, Cochabamba. The corporation then held a monopoly over this very basic human necessity and proceeded to raise rates by as much as 200 percent, far beyond what families could afford. The law even said that people had to obtain a permit to collect rainwater! (that means even rainwater was privatized!)

This is a country where indigenous farming communities previously had their own water rights, but their water sources were converted into property to be bought and sold by international corporations. When the company refused to lower rates, the people began to rise up and revolt against this injustice; they confronted Bechtel during five months of mobilization and managed to defeat them, breach the contract and change the law.

A 17-year-old boy named Victor Hugo Daza was killed in the protests along with four indigenous people from El Alto, while hundreds were injured. It was this popular uprising in Cochabamba that led to the election of their new president Evo Morales, the first ever indigenous head of state in Bolivia.

So Bechtel was thrown out of Bolivia, but months later they moved to do the exact same thing in Ecuador‘s largest city of Guayaquil. And in November 2001, they filed a lawsuit against Bolivia demanding $50 million, an amount which is just short of what the corporation makes in a day. The case will be decided behind closed doors in a secret trade court at the World Bank headquarters in Washington; it will tell whether the people of South America’s poorest country will have to pay $50 million to one of the world’s most wealthy corporations.

Recent Update: In 2006, Bechtel dropped their case against Bolivia.