House Approves War Funding Bill

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The United States House of Representatives approved a war funding bill yesterday that contains no restrictions on the rapidly escalating Afghanistan War. The bill was passed by a vote 368-60. Only 51 Democrats voted against the bill, despite their frequent rhetorical opposition to the wars.

According to an analysis by the Associated Press, $84.5 billion of the $96.7 billion goes directly to military efforts. Only a paltry $10 billion is allotted for foreign aid. Instead, the bill focuses on the flawed military approach to fighting terrorism.

No amendments to the bill were allowed by the Democratic leadership in the House. This meant that Jim McGovern’s amendment requiring the Obama administration to develop an “exit strategy” for Afghanistan was not considered. In response, McGovern has introduced the measure as a standalone bill. It already has 74 cosponsors.

Before the vote, the measure was opposed by anti-war groups such as Code Pink, who said:

The supplemental, without an exit strategy, clearly recycles failed Bush administration policies. It will continue to fuel the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, increasing their numbers (as outlined by many military strategists and think tanks). It will also lead to more civilian deaths — a United Nations report released earlier this year found the Afghan civilian death toll nearly doubled in 2008 under U.S. presence, with the U.S. responsible for almost half the deaths. In addition, increased American troop presence to 68,000 by year’s end will further alienate Afghans who increasingly view the U.S. as an occupying force. The number of Afghan people who believe the U.S. has performed well dropped this year to 32 percent from 68 percent in 2005, military scholar Anthony Cordesman told a Congressional hearing.

Unfortunately, more liberal groups such as MoveOn.org that had for years opposed the Iraq War to varying degrees, said nothing about the supplemental–instead choosing to ignore the vote. While critiques are to be made about MoveOn and related groups when it comes to anti-war organizing, their unwillingness to challenge the Obama administration is contributing to the sense that the fight against the wars is over, despite the fact that daily events in Iraq and Afghanistan make it clear that anti-war organizing is very much needed.

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Headlines: Blackwater Still Operating in Iraq; Pelosi Briefed on Torture in 2002

Democracy Now Headlines: Blackwater Still Operating in Iraq; Pelosi Briefed on Torture in 2002

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Backtracking on Initial Claims, Pentagon Admits Afghan Civilians Killed by U.S. Bombs

The Pentagon has acknowledged for the first time Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. bombs earlier this week. The toll from Monday’s bombing in Farah province remains unknown, with estimates topping one hundred civilians, including many women and children. On Thursday, a Pentagon official admitted to the New York Times initial U.S. claims of Taliban grenades causing the deaths were “thinly sourced.” Local residents have said the damage was far too extensive for any Taliban weapon to cause. On Thursday, hundreds of Farah residents protested outside the provincial governor’s office demanding the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Three demonstrators were wounded after Afghan police officers opened fire.

Cost of Occupying Afghanistan to Exceed Iraq

The House Appropriations Committee meanwhile has approved a nearly $97 billion spending bill funding the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure was stripped of a more than $80 million dollar Obama administration request to close the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. For the first time, the cost of occupying Afghanistan will surpass the total spent on occupying Iraq next year. In addition to more than half a trillion for the Pentagon, the Obama administration is seeking $65 billion for occupying Afghanistan, compared to $61 billion for Iraq.

UN: 500,000 Flee Pakistan Fighting

In Pakistan, the UN is estimating some half a million civilians have now fled clashes between government forces and Taliban fighters in Swat valley. Both sides have declared an end to the three-month truce that allowed the Taliban to impose Islamic law. On Thursday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani announced a major offensive against Taliban fighters.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani: “After due deliberations and consultations with all concerned, the government has decided to take the following actions: In order to restore honour and dignity of our homeland and to protect the people, the armed forces have been called in to eliminate the militants and terrorists.”

Aid officials say the escalated fighting could bring about a major humanitarian crisis in Swat valley.

Ex-Soldier Convicted in Iraq Rape, Murder Case

A former U.S. soldier has been convicted for the 2006 rape and murder of an Iraqi teenager and the killing of her family. On Thursday, a federal jury found Steven Green guilty on all seventeen counts. Prosecutors say Green was the ringleader in raping and killing fourteen-year-old Abeer Kassem Hamza al-Janabi and killing her parents and five-year-old sister. Three soldiers have already been sentenced to life in prison in the case.

Blackwater Remains in Iraq Despite Contract’s Expiration

In Iraq, the Baghdad contract of the private military firm once known as Blackwater has officially expired. The company, now calling itself “Xe”, will continue to work elsewhere in Iraq. The firm Triple Canopy is taking over for Blackwater in Baghdad and is widely expected to rehire many of its guards. The Iraqi government refused to renew Blackwater’s license following the 2007 mass killing of seventeen Iraqis in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square. Five Blackwater guards face charges for the attack. In a new development in that case, two government informants are claiming Blackwater operatives gave their weapons to another contractor now charged with smuggling them out of Iraq. The informants say the Blackwater guards wanted to get rid of the weapons before they were investigated for the Nisoor massacre.

Fed: Bank Losses Could Approach $600B

The Federal Reserve has determined the nation’s top banks could lose nearly $600 billion by the end of next year. The warning came out of the government’s stress-test assessing the banks’ viability. The Fed has ordered ten banks to raise a combined $74.6 billion in capital to protect themselves against collapse. Of all the banks, the government says only GMAC–the financial arm of General Motors–is likely to need additional taxpayer aid.

Obama Budget Cuts 121 Programs

President Obama has unveiled a budget plan that would save $17 billion by cutting some 121 programs. Obama called the cuts a necessary step to avoid leaving crippling debt to future generations.

President Obama: “We came here today as part of President Obama’s commitment to use diplomacy, to use dialogue in order to try to see where we can move forward, where our interests overlap and to see where we can try to work together to bridge the differences.”

The Obama budget includes a four percent increase in military spending. The Pentagon would also see more cuts than any other department, totaling $8.8 billion from fourteen programs.

Despite Campaign Pledge, Obama Shuns Needle Exchange

Health advocates are criticizing a budget item that would reverse an Obama campaign pledge to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS by lifting the federal ban on needle exchange programs. The Obama budget includes language that bans any federal spending on needle exchange.

Chair of N.Y. Fed Resigns over Sachs Shares

The chair of the New York Federal Reserve has resigned amidst scrutiny over his financial ties to the bailed-out firm Goldman Sachs. Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal revealed Stephen Friedman was given a waiver to hold shares in Goldman Sachs even after it became a regulated bank-holding firm. A former Goldman Sachs executive, Friedman was also found to have bought the shares even before he was granted the legal waiver. The shares are now estimated to be worth more than $2 million.

Documents Show Pelosi Briefed on Torture in 2002

Newly-released documents show House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was briefed on the Bush administration’s torture of foreign prisoners in September 2002. The disclosure apparently contradicts Pelosi’s claim she was never given details on what techniques were used. Intelligence records show Pelosi and then-House Intelligence Committee chair Porter Goss were briefed on the interrogation of suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded 83 times. Pelosi says she was never told the waterboarding was used.

Group Calls for Probe of APA’s Role in Torture

The group Physicians for Human Rights is calling for an independent investigation of the role of the American Psychological Association in the U.S. torture of foreign prisoners. The APA has come under wide scrutiny for allowing psychologists to oversee abusive and coercive interrogations of prisoners at Guantánamo and secret CIA black sites. Physician for Human Rights says newly-released documents show the APA’s ethics task force altered its policy to conform with Pentagon guidelines on interrogations.

Burmese Junta Arrests U.S. Citizen for Suu Kyi Visit

In Burma, the military junta has detained a U.S. citizen who apparently swam across a lake to reach the home of the confined pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta says John William Yeattaw spent two days in Suu Kyi’s home before he was captured as he made his way out. Suu Kyi has spent thirteen of the last nineteen years under house arrest.

Jailed Activist Lori Berenson Gives Birth in Peru

In Peru, the jailed American activist Lori Berenson has given birth to a baby boy. Berenson has spent nearly fourteen years in prison after hooded Peruvian military judges convicted her of collaborating with the rebel group MRTA. She’s eligible for conditional in release in November 2010.

U.S., Syrian Officials Hold Talks

Obama administration officials were in Syria Thursday for meetings with Syria’s Foreign Minister. Jeffery Feltman of the State Department said the U.S. is seeking to forge new diplomatic ties with Syria.

bq. Jeffery Feltman: “We came here today as part of President Obama’s commitment to use diplomacy, to use dialogue in order to try to see where we can move forward, where our interests overlap and to see where we can try to work together to bridge the differences.”

Pro-Independence Puerto Rico Activists Arrested for Capitol Protest

In Washington, D.C., six Puerto Rican activists were arrested Wednesday for staging a pro-independence demonstration inside the House. The group held up signs in the visitors area overlooking the House floor.

Study: 17% of U.S. Children Face Hunger Risk

A new report says more than seventeen percent of children younger than five are at risk of hunger in the United States. According to Feeding America, the figure means 3.5 million children could suffer cognitive and developmental damage resulting from not being properly fed.

N.Y. Activists Protest Treatment of Mentally-Ill Prisoners

Here in New York, a group of protesters rallied outside Governor David Patterson’s mid-town office Thursday to protest the treatment of mentally ill prisoners. Last week Rikers Island prisoner Clarence Mobley died after a physical altercation with prison guards. He had been awaiting psychiatric evaluation. The group Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities has likened the treatment of mentally ill prisoners to torture that has driven some to suicide and declining mental health.

Kerrey to End New School Tenure in 2011

And in campus news, the embattled New School president Bob Kerrey has announced he’ll step down when his contract expires in 2011. Kerrey has been the target of a series of student protests on issues ranging from his alleged involvement in war crimes as a soldier in Vietnam, his record as a Democratic Senator, and his running of the New School. Kerrey received a no-confidence vote from the New School faculty last year.

Headlines: Britain Ends “Combat Operations” in Iraq; Group: Don’t Scapegoat Mexicans in Swine Flu Coverage

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Justice Souter to Retire from Supreme Court

Justice David Souter is reportedly planning on retiring at the end of the Supreme Court’s term in June. Souter’s departure would grant President Obama his first opportunity to appoint a new Justice to the Supreme Court bench. Souter was appointed by President George H.W. Bush but ended up regularly voting with the court’s liberal members.

3 U.S. Troops Killed in Iraq

In Iraq, three U.S. troops have been killed in clashes near Baghdad. At least eighteen U.S. soldiers died in April, making it the deadliest month for the U.S. military this year.

Britain Ends Combat Operations in Iraq

In other Iraq news, British troops have formally ended combat operations after a more than six-year occupation. On Thursday, British forces handed control of Basra province to the U.S. military. Britain says it will withdraw most of its 3,700 troops by July, leaving about 400 behind to train Iraqi forces.

Marri Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy Charge

The only so-called “enemy combatant” jailed in the U.S. has pleaded guilty to conspiring with al-Qaeda. Ali al-Marri has been held in isolation without trial at a naval brig in South Carolina for more than five years. The Obama administration charged him in February to avoid a Supreme Court hearing challenging his indefinite jailing. On Thursday, al-Marri pleaded guilty to a single conspiracy charge carrying a maximum fifteen-year sentence. He could serve half that if he’s given credit for his seven and a half year imprisonment. As part of the agreement, al-Marri admitted to attending militant training camps and traveling to the U.S. under the direction of Al-Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

Gates Hints at Continued Indefinite Jailing of Gitmo Prisoners

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has indicated up to 100 foreign prisoners could end up jailed without trial in the U.S. once the Guantanamo Bay prison is closed. Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Gates: “What do we do with the 50 to 100 — probably in that ballpark — who we cannot release and cannot try?” Gates said he’s requested some $50 million in supplemental funding in case the Obama administration decides to quickly build a new jail.

61 Arrested Protesting Torture Outside White House

Gates’ comments came as sixty-one protesters were arrested outside the White House Thursday to call for the closure of Guantanamo and the prosecution of Bush administration officials who authorized torture there. The arrests followed a march of more than 150 people. Dozens wore black hoods and orange jumpsuits similar to those worn by Guantanamo prisoners. The protest was organized by Witness Against Torture and Amnesty International.

Chrysler Files for Bankruptcy Protection

The auto giant Chrysler has filed for federal bankruptcy protection under a government-brokered deal. Chrysler hopes to form a new company that would be owned by the US government, the Italian auto giant Fiat, and the company’s workers. On Thursday, President Obama said the bankruptcy filing would ensure Chrysler’s continued operation.

President Obama: “No one should be confused about what a bankruptcy process means. This is not a sign of weakness, but rather one more step on a clearly charted path to Chrysler’s revival. Because of the fact that the UAW and many of the banks, the biggest stakeholders in this whole process have already aligned, have already agreed, this process will be quick.”

Obama also criticized the role of some hedge funds who he said pushed Chrysler into bankruptcy.

Senate Defeats Measure to Aid Homeowners

On Capital Hill, the Senate has defeated a proposal that would have rescued hundreds of thousands of homeowners from foreclosure. A dozen Democrats joined Republicans in voting against the measure, which would have allowed bankruptcy judges to reduce mortgage payments for debt-strapped homeowners. President Obama had publicly supported the proposal but refused to actively lobby for its approval.

House Backs Credit Card Regulation

Meanwhile the House has approved a measure that would impose tighter regulation on the credit card industry. The Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights would limit practices including arbitrary interest rate hikes, premature late fees, and charging interest on paid-off debt.

House Broadens Hate Crime Laws

The House has also passed a measure expanding the scope of federal hate crime laws. The bill would broaden the definition of a hate crime to include attacks based on sexual orientation, gender identity and mental or physical disability. It now goes to the Senate.

Maine, New Hampshire Senates Vote to Legalize Gay Marriage

In Maine, the state Senate has voted to legalize same-sex marriage. The bill now goes to the Maine House, where it’s expected to pass next week. Democratic Governor John Baldacci formerly opposed gay marriage but isn’t expected to issue a veto. Meanwhile New Hampshire’s state Senate has also voted to legalize gay marriage. The measure now returns to the House, which has already approved a slightly different bill. New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, a Democrat, has opposed same-sex marriage but hasn’t indicated whether he’ll veto the measure.

U.S. Rules Out Closing Border With Mexico in Flu Crisis

Mexican health officials have raised their count of confirmed swine flu cases but say the number appears to be stabilizing. Three-hundred people have contracted swine flu in Mexico while another twelve people have died. The Obama administration is meanwhile rejecting calls to close the U.S. border with Mexico. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano addressed the issue Thursday in Washington.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano: “Closing the entire borders would have no benefit at this point because the virus is already present in the United States. The comparison is clear- it’s like closing the barn door well after the horse has left.”

There are more than 100 confirmed swine flu cases in the U.S., with one death so far. The White House has also announced a federal agent who recently traveled with President Obama contracted swine flu last month. The agent has since recovered and is back at work. The White House says he did not come within sufficient range of President Obama to expose him to possible infection.

Group: Don’t Scapegoat Mexicans in Swine Flu Coverage

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists meanwhile is urging media outlets not to scapegoat Mexican immigrants in coverage of the swine flu crisis. In a statement, the group said: “The temptation… will be to link Mexican immigrants with the spread of the disease to the United States. The consequence… will be even more anger – and perhaps even more violence – against a community no more responsible for the spread of this ailment than U.S. tourists returning from vacations.”

Iraq War Resister Jailed for 1 Year

A U.S. army soldier has been sentenced to a year in prison for fleeing to Canada to avoid serving in Iraq. Cliff Cornell spent four years living on a British Columbia island before the Canadian government denied his asylum request. He was jailed after re-entering the U.S. in February despite announcing plans to voluntarily return to his unit.

Informant: FBI Spied on Muslim Gym Members

In California, a former informant has revealed FBI agents routinely monitored local Orange County gyms to gather intelligence on members of local mosques. Craig Monteilh said he posed as a Muslim convert to lure mosque members to work out with him at the gyms. FBI agents would then press him to obtain information on his workout partners in the hopes of one day pressuring them to become informants. The disclosure is the latest in a series of exposed government surveillance efforts on California’s Muslim communities.

UN: International Pledges Yet to Reach Gaza

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, a top UN relief official says the Gaza Strip has yet to receive any of the $4.5 billion dollars in reconstruction aid pledged by international donors. John Ging, the head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, says Israeli restrictions on goods and the U.S.-led boycott of Hamas have prevented basic goods from reaching Gaza. Ging said: “Today the money is out there in pledges and the people of Gaza continue to subsist in the rubble of their former lives and the attention of the world has sadly moved on, which compounds the despair that people feel.”

Report Finds Scores of Abuses by Mexican Military

In Mexico, the Mexican military is being accused of enjoying virtual impunity to commit human rights abuses in the fight against the country’s drug cartels. In a new report, Human Rights Watch says the Mexican armed forces have committed rape, murder, torture, and other abuses against indigenous women, environmentalists, and other victims with no link to the drug war. Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said the crimes have routinely gone unpunished.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth: “The legal door is open, it is now import for the politicians to walk trough and to end impunity that has been so disastrous for efforts to prevent the military from committing abuse. And the rise in abuses, the rise in complaints of abuse, that we’ve seen over last two years is in part a function of military involvement in law enforcement.”

May Day Protests Held Worldwide

And today is May Day, the annual celebration of workers’ rights. Rallies are being held across the United States and around the world. As in years past, dozens of U.S. demonstrations will also focus on immigration rights. At least seven marches have been organized in Los Angeles, while thousands are expected to converge on New York’s Union Square.

Headlines: Deadliest Month in Iraq since March ’08; Swine Flu Outbreak Nears Pandemic Levels

Democracy Now Headlines: Deadliest Month in Iraq since March '08; Swine Flu Outbreak Nears Pandemic Levels

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Raising Alert Level, WHO Says Swine Flu Outbreak Nears Pandemic

The World Health Organization is warning the swine flu outbreak is at the imminent stages of becoming a global pandemic. On Tuesday, the WHO raised its alert level to five–the agency’s second-highest position. There are now at least 91 known cases in the United States, including six new states: Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Arizona, Indiana and Nevada. In Texas, where a toddler became the first U.S. resident to die from swine flu, Governor Rick Perry has declared a statewide disaster and closed several schools, including here in Fort Worth. Testifying on Capital Hill, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the Obama administration is handling the outbreak as if it’s a full pandemic.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano: “There is a lot about this virus that we do not know about this outbreak, but we have been preparing as if we are facing a true pandemic, even though we don’t know the ultimate scope of what will occur. We also have been preparing with the understanding that this will be a marathon and not a

sprint. We are going to be at this for a while.”

58 Iraqis Killed in Baghdad Attacks; April Deadliest Month Since March ’08

In Iraq, at least 58 people died Wednesday in a series of attacks around Baghdad. The deadliest came in Sadr City, where fifty-one people were killed and more than sixty wounded in successive car bombings. A witness criticized the Iraqi government, saying it’s failed to protect Iraqis.

Baghdad resident: “Is that what we deserve on top of the bombs-that they shoot at people! Is this Maliki’s government? Instead of helping us evacuate the wounded they start shooting at us. This is Maliki’s government. Can you hear the shooting, they’re shooting at people. People are lying underneath cars.”

April has been Baghdad’s deadliest month in more than a year, dating back to March 2008. The McClatchy news service reports more than 200 people have been killed in Baghdad, doubling last month’s toll.

Trial Begins for Alleged Ringleader in Iraq Rape, Murder Case

The trial of a former soldier accused in the 2006 rape and murder of an Iraqi teenager and the killing of her family has been begun. Steven Green is accused of being the ringleader in raping and killing fourteen-year-old Abeer Kassem Hamza al-Janabi and killing her parents and five-year-old sister. Green is being tried in a Kentucky civilian court. Three soldiers have already been sentenced to life in prison in the case.

Spanish Judge Opens Gitmo Probe

A Spanish judge has launched an investigation of “systematic” torture at the Guantanamo Bay prison. On Wednesday, Judge Baltasar Garzon said he would probe the “perpetrators, the instigators, the necessary collaborators and accomplices” to the torture of Guantanamo prisoners. Spanish law allows it to claim jurisdiction because five citizens or residents say they were tortured while imprisoned at Guantanamo. Garzon’s probe is unrelated to a separate investigation of six Bush administation lawyers who authorized the torture carried out at Guantanamo.

Leahy Invites Bybee to Testify on Torture Memos

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy meanwhile has invited federal Judge Jay Bybee to testify about his role in authoring two Bush administration memos that authorized the torture of foreign prisoners. As head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Bybee approved torture methods including waterboarding and slamming prisoners against a wall. The invite comes one day after Bybee spoke out on the memos for the first time since their release earlier this month. In a statement to the New York Times, Bybee said he believes the memos represent a “good-faith analysis of the law.” Bybee is one of three Bush administration lawyers currently under Justice Department investigation.

Lawyer Urges Release of Canadian Gitmo Prisoner

Meanwhile at Guantanamo, lawyers for the Canadian prisoner Omar Khadr are calling on the Obama administration to drop charges ahead of a looming deadline. Khadr’s military judge says he’ll resume court proceedings June 1st unless the Obama White House extends its freeze on Guantanamo cases or drops the charges. Khadr’s military attorney, Eric Montalvo, called for his immediate release.

Eric Montalvo: “He’s been incarcerated since he was approximately 16 years old. 16 years old he was taken off the streets of Afghanistan and thrown into cages and held there up until now and he’s still not adjudicated. So we want to get him out of a cage and put him back into a society with his family and rehabilitate him. That’s our effort at this point.”

Last week a Canadian court ordered Canada’s government to seek Khadr’s immediate return.

Report: Plea Deal Discussed in Marri Case

Meanwhile the Washington Post is reporting prosecutors and defense attorneys are negotiating a guilty plea for Ali al-Marri, who has been the only so-called ‘enemy combatant’ jailed in the United States. Marri has been held in isolation without trial at a naval brig in South Carolina for more than five years. The Obama administration charged him earlier this year to avoid a Supreme Court hearing challenging his indefinite jailing.

Under the proposed deal, Marri would plead guilty to a single conspiracy charge carrying a fifteen-year sentence.

Obama Hosts 100th Day News Conference

President Obama marked his 100th day in office Wednesday with a prime-time news conference from the White House. Obama said the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding is torture and that he is gravely concerned about internal unrest in Pakistan. Obama also said he has been confronted with a series of atypical challenges.

President Obama: “I didn’t anticipate the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and so you know the typical president has two or three big problems, we’ve got seven or eight big problems.”

Sebelius Sworn-in as Health Secretary

Former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius has been sworn-in as the new secretary of health and human services following her Senate confirmation. Sebelius will head the Obama administration’s response to the swine flu outbreak and guide its plans to overhaul the nation’s health care system. Republicans had managed to delay Sebelius’ confirmation vote over opposition to her support for abortion rights.

Economy Contracted 6.1% in 1st Quarter

New figures show the U.S. economy has suffered its largest contraction in fifty years. On Wednesday, the Commerce Department reported gross domestic product saw a first quarter drop of six point one percent. It was the first time GDP has fallen three straight quarters since 1975.

Obama Backs Lowering Mandatory Minimums in Crack Sentences

The Obama administration is backing calls to lower the mandatory minimum prison sentence for dealing crack cocaine to match the punishment for dealing powder cocaine. Under current law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine triggers the same mandatory minimum sentence as possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. The disparity has disproportionately punished African American drug offenders, who account for more than 80 percent of crack cocaine cases. Wednesday’s announcement marked the first time the White House has backed calls to lower minimum drug sentences.

Baltimore Sun Fires 60 Newsroom Staffers

And in media news, the Baltimore Sun has announced nearly sixty newsroom layoffs. The Sun’s owner, Tribune Corporation, is currently operating under bankruptcy protection.

New Study of Civilian Deaths in Iraq

Iraqi Civilian Deaths

Last week, a new analysis civilian casualties in Iraq was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study involved researchers from King’s College London and Royal Holloway, University of London in the UK who studied numbers provided by Iraq Body Count.

The study reviewed the deaths of 60,481 civilians in 14,196 events to determine which weapons were the most devastating to the Iraqi population.

The study reports that execution after abduction or capture was the most common cause of death in Iraq. Execution victims were 95% male and nearly a third showed evidence of being tortured.

Air attacks also claimed significant numbers of Iraqi lives and were particularly devastating for women and children. 49% of victims were women and 39% children. In air attacks, an average of 17 people were killed per attack.

Victims of mortar attacks–used by the Iraqi government, U.S. forces, and insurgent groups–were 42% children and 44% women.

The authors write that because of the large number of women and children killed by aerial and mortar attacks, the use these weapons should be more strictly regulated by international law and that they should not be directed at civilian areas.

Obama Administration Requests $83.4 Billion for Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

Obama's Supplemental War Funding Request

Last week, the administration of President Barack Obama requested an additional $83.4 billion for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama has made the request through an emergency funding procedure–known as supplemental requests–that he criticized repeatedly during the presidential campaign. According to his administration, this will be the last time the procedure is used. In future years, the administration will include the cost of the two occupations as part of its annual Pentagon budget.

The $83 billion comes on top of a previously allotted $67 billion. Depending on the numbers used, the Iraq War has cost between $613 billion and $1 trillion dollars. It has been estimated that the war could ultimately cost as much as $3 trillion dollars. Grand Rapids’ share of the cost is at least $343.5 million.

Anti-War Group Reacts

In response to the request, the anti-war group Code Pink issued a statement criticizing Obama for the supplemental request. Calling the funding an “outrageous request” for “ineffectual, destabilizing, immoral wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” the group said the request violated Obama’s campaign pledge to no longer use supplemental funding requests.

Code Pink writes:

“Despite Obama’s campaign promise never to ask for war funding as a supplemental bill as opposed to the regular budget, war officials say this supplemental is “necessary” to pay for wars through mid-year. This explanation for the rushed spending, strategically downplayed amid the start of a holiday weekend, reflects the same rush into war six years ago and recent rush into taxpayer bailouts for mismanaged corporations. It leaves no time for Congress to thoroughly analyze the true need for such funds and it ignores the fact that the United States — and the American people — cannot afford to spend $83 billion dollars on war at a time of sky-high unemployment and record deficits.

It also ignores widespread dissent in American and abroad against continuation of the wars, despite Defense Secretary Gates’ statement that he does not know anybody who believes “a sudden and precipitous withdrawal of the United States from both places” to be a good idea. A USA Today/Gallup Poll earlier this spring found 42 percent of Americans felt the Afghanistan war was “a mistake,” an increase of 30 percent earlier this year and 34 percent in August 2008. A March CBS poll found six in 10 Americans now say the U.S. did the wrong thing in entering Iraq.”

Instead of the wars, Code Pink is calling for a reallocation of war funds to serve people. It calls for using the money to pay for health care, education, green jobs, and infrastructure for all Americans.

Limited Democratic Opposition

Aside from Code Pink and grassroots anti-war activists, there has been little criticism of the request.

California Democrat Lynn Woolsey issued a statement saying:

“As proposed, this funding will do two things – it will prolong our occupation of Iraq through at least the end of 2011 and it will deepen and expand our military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely.

“I cannot support either of these scenarios. Instead of attempting to find military solutions to the problems we face in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama must fundamentally change the mission in both countries to focus on promoting reconciliation, economic development, humanitarian aid, and regional diplomatic efforts.”

However, other Democrats have been largely silent, while Republicans are indicating they support the request.

Headlines: Marine Acquitted for Killing Iraqi Despite Confession; Poll Shows Declining Support for Capitalism

Democracy Now Headlines: Marine Acquitted for Killing Iraqi Despite Confession; Poll Shows Declining Support for Capitalism

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

US Attack Kills 5 Afghan Civilians, Wounds Pregnant Mother

The US military has admitted to killing five Afghan civilians and wounding several others in an attack it initially said targeted militants. The shootings took place in the southeastern Khost province earlier this week. The dead included an infant boy. A nine-month pregnant woman was wounded and lost her baby.

Obama to Request $84.3B for War

President Obama is asking Congress for $83.4 billion in funding for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The request marks a complete reversal for Obama from two years ago, when he voted against war funding as a senator under former President George W. Bush. The request would bring the budgetary cost of the two occupations to nearly $1 trillion so far. Obama is also asking for $350 million for operations along the US-Mexico border and $400 million in counterinsurgency aid to Pakistan. Although the Democratic-led Congress is expected to approve the funding, some antiwar lawmakers are voicing opposition. Congress member Lynn Woolsey of California said, “Instead of attempting to find military solutions…President Obama must fundamentally change the mission in both countries to focus on promoting reconciliation, economic development, humanitarian aid, and regional diplomatic efforts.”

Iraqis Stage Massive Anti-US Protest

On the same day Obama requested millions more for war, tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied against the US occupation at a protest marking the six-year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. Hazem al-Araji of the Sadr movement said opposition to the occupation unites differing Iraqi factions.

Hazem al-Araji: “Those million people came from Iraq to express just one opinion that is calling for the US troops to withdraw from Iraq. They are Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis and Shia. They came after the call of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr to say ‘No! No to America.'”

CIA Head: Overseas Prisons Closed, Contractors Barred from Interrogations

The CIA says it’s complied with President Obama’s order to cease operating secret prisons overseas. On Thursday, CIA director Leon Panetta said the prisons and black sites are no longer in use and remaining sites will be decommissioned. Obama ordered the prisons’ closure in one of his first moves after taking office. Panetta says the CIA hasn’t detained anyone since he took over in February but reiterated the Obama administration still maintains the authority to do so. Panetta, meanwhile, also announced the CIA will no longer allow private contractors to interrogate prisoners. And he said the CIA has followed Obama’s orders to impose interrogation rules adhering to the Army Field Manual.

Marine Acquitted Despite Confessing to Killing Unarmed Iraqi

A military jury has acquitted a Marine sergeant of murdering an unarmed Iraqi prisoner, even though he confessed to the crime. Sergeant Ryan Weemer was accused of killing the prisoner during the US attack on Fallujah in November 2004. In a recorded interview with interrogators in 2006, Weemer said, “I grabbed a gun and took him to the back of the house. I shot him twice in the chest.” Weemer also said he was ordered to carry out the killing and was tormented by his actions. His attorneys argued he was coerced into making the confession.

Court OKs Apartheid Victims’ Suit Against US Companies

A US court has cleared the way for victims of the South African apartheid to sue major corporations for supporting human rights abuses. This week, a federal judge in New York said the foreign-based joint action can proceed in a US court. The suit accuses car makers General Motors, Ford and Daimler of knowingly supplying vehicles that were used to violently suppress protests. The suit also names IBM and Fujitsu for selling computer technology to the apartheid government.

Morales Stages Hunger Strike for Electoral Reform

In Bolivia, President Evo Morales has launched a hunger strike to pressure lawmakers to approve a law on electoral reform. The measure would increase representation for low-income rural areas. Morales urged support for the law on Thursday in La Paz.

Bolivian President President Evo Morales: “The people come first. The country comes first. Later come the interests of the regions and sectors. I send a true greeting to those comrades who are defending democracy, the people’s vote, the people’s vote from outside the country, and other demands of a structural nature through this effort they make, through this hunger strike.”

Thousands Protest Georgian President

In Georgia, tens of thousands of people marched the streets of the capital Tbilisi Thursday calling for the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili, a key US ally. Critics say Saakashvili has exerted increased authoritarian control and mistakenly led the country into war with Russia last summer.

Protesters Tell Summers “We Want Our Money Back”

Back in the United States, White House economic adviser Larry Summers was greeted with a hostile protest during a speaking appearance on Thursday. Earlier this week, the White House disclosed Summers received nearly $2.7 million in speaking fees last year from several of the financial companies that have received government bailouts. In addition, Summers earned over $5 million working one day a week at the D.E. Shaw hedge fund. As Summers addressed an audience at the Economic Club, two protesters stormed the stage with a sign saying “We want our money back.”

Larry Summers: “You know it’s hard enough to focus on the policy–focus on the policy choices that we have now without focusing–without focusing on–”

Protester #1: “Larry Summers is part of the problem. He’s a toxic mess.”

Protester #2: “And I’m out of work.”

Protester #1: “$135,000 from government bailed-out companies for one day? Your former companies paid you for that? We the people say no!”

Protester #2: “$5.2 million. $5.2 million this man made working one day a week in 2008 working for a hedge fund. We want our money back.”

Protester #1: “You’re part of the problem. You’re part of the problem.”

Protester #2: “Can we have our money back? Can we have our money back, please? Can I have some TARP to go with my stimulus?”

Protester #1: “I need a bailout for the peacekeepers. That’s right, Larry. You should resign. I am the people’s voice, sir. You should resign. Obama deserves a leader.”

Palestinian Doctor Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

A Palestinian doctor who lost three daughters to an Israeli bombing of his home during the attack on Gaza has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish’s voice was heard around the world after he recounted the killing of his daughters on live Israeli television moments after the attack. A well-known Gazan gynecologist, Aish has been a longtime advocate for peace between Israel and Palestinians.

Failed Nuclear Funding Measure Reinserted into Senate Budget Bill

On Capitol Hill, a controversial provision to fund nuclear power has re-emerged following its removal from the economic stimulus bill earlier this year. The so-called “low-carbon” energy provision would provide $50 billion over five years. Critics say the measure could lead to the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants. It was quietly accepted as an amendment to the Senate’s budget blueprint introduced last week. The same measure was removed from February’s economic stimulus bill following public protest.

Terrorism Charges Dropped Against RNC 8

In Minnesota, state prosecutors have dropped terrorism charges against eight activists involved in protests at the Republican National Convention last September. The RNC 8 were believed to be the first people ever charged under the 2002 Minnesota version of the federal PATRIOT Act. On Thursday, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said the terrorism charges were removed because they had become a “distraction.” But her office had faced widespread criticism following the disclosure the RNC 8 weren’t accused of committing the alleged offenses themselves, but were charged for actions carried out by others. The RNC 8 will still face conspiracy charges on rioting and damaging property.

Poll Shows Declining Support for Capitalism

A new poll has found more Americans are looking more favorably on the idea of socialism, while support for capitalism declines. According to Rasmussen Reports, just 53 percent of Americans believe capitalism is the best political-economic system. Twenty percent say they prefer the idea of “socialism.” A Rasmussen poll in December found 70 percent support the idea of a free market economy. The differing results could indicate many Americans don’t associate the state-reliant US financial system with one adhering to “free markets.”

CDC: US Food Safety Efforts Fail to Improve

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says efforts to improve food safety have stalled in the United States. On Thursday, the CDC called for speedier reforms to the nation’s food safety system to prevent a growing number of food-related illnesses.

Massive Cutbacks Proposed at Detroit Schools

And in Michigan, state officials have proposed massive cuts at the city of Detroit’s public schools. The plan would close twenty-three schools and lay off more than 600 teachers. Detroit is under a district-wide financial emergency with a projected $303 million deficit.

Headlines: Obama Visits Iraq; Vermont Legislature Overrides Gay Marriage Veto

Democracy Now Headlines: Obama Visits Iraq; Vermont Legislature Overrides Gay Marriage Veto

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Vermont Legislature Overrides Gay Marriage Veto

Gay rights advocates have won two major new victories. On Tuesday, the Vermont state legislature voted to override a veto from Governor Jim Douglas and legalize gay marriage. Vermont becomes the first state to recognize same-sex marriage through legislative action. At least nine other state legislatures are considering similar measures.

D.C. Votes to Recognize Same-Sex Marriages

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the city council voted to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. The vote sets up a showdown with Congress, which approves D.C.’s laws under Home Rule.

Obama Tells Iraqis to “Take Responsibility”

President Obama is back in the United States after stopping in Turkey and Iraq following his European trip. On Tuesday, Obama addressed troops at Camp Victory, a US base near the Baghdad airport.

President Obama: “This is going to be a critical period, these next eighteen months. I was just discussing this with your commander, but I think it’s something that all of you know. It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.”

Obama did not travel beyond the US military base. His visit came as nearly forty people were killed in a series of bombings around Baghdad. Earlier in the day, Obama wrapped up his visit to Turkey. Speaking before a town hall-style gathering of Turkish students in Istanbul, Obama was asked to explain his differences with the foreign policy of former President George W. Bush.

President Obama: “I opposed the war in Iraq. I thought it was a bad idea. Now that we’re there, I have a responsibility to make sure that as we bring troops out that we do so in a careful enough way that you don’t see a complete collapse into violence.”

Report: White House Warns Lawmakers on Israel Disputes

Obama was also asked about his stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, where he has yet to make any change from the US support of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

President Obama: “I will say this, that I believe that peace in the Middle East is possible. I think it will be based on two states, side by side, a Palestinian state and a Jewish state.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, meanwhile, reports the Obama administration has begun warning Democratic lawmakers of a looming confrontation with the new Israeli government on fulfilling its obligations. The White House has told Democrats to expect resistance from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on upholding the Israeli government’s pledge to freeze settlement activity and accepting the principle of a Palestinian state. Although Obama’s efforts would go further than the Bush administration’s, critics say they still fail to meet minimal Palestinian rights.

Sentence Reduced for Shoe-Throwing Iraqi Journalist

Back in Iraq, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at former President Bush has had his prison sentence reduced from three years to one. Muntadhar al-Zaidi drew worldwide attention when he hurled his shoes at Bush during a news conference in December. Zaidi was convicted of assaulting a foreign leader. An Iraqi court said Zaidi’s jail term was shortened because he had no prior criminal record.

Fujimori Sentenced to 25 Years

In Peru, former president Alberto Fujimori has been sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for overseeing a series of human rights abuses during the 1990s. On Tuesday, a three-judge panel found Fujimori guilty of “crimes against humanity,” including ordering massacres that killed twenty-five people and the kidnappings of two political opponents. The verdict marks the first time an elected head of state has been extradited back to their home country and convicted of human rights abuses.

Lawmakers Call for Cuba Talks

A group of Democratic lawmakers has wrapped up a visit to Cuba. The five-day trip included meetings with Cuban President Raul Castro and former president Fidel Castro. Congress member Barbara Lee of California said the Castros renewed calls for direct talks with the United States.

Rep. Barbara Lee: “All of us are convinced that President Castro would like normal relations with Cuba and would see normalization, ending the embargo, as beneficial to both countries. And we were very proud and humbled by the fact that we were one of the first United States delegations to meet with President Castro.”

The Obama administration is expected to announce plans to abolish limits on family travel and cash remittances to Cuba at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad later this month. The move would allow Cubans living in the United States to travel freely to the island, instead of once a year as at present. But Obama has still rejected calls to lift the embargo.

G20 Protester Died After Assault by Police

In Britain, newly released video shows a protester who died during last week’s G20 protests in London was shoved by police officers shortly before his death. Forty-seven-year-old Ian Tomlinson was on his way home and wasn’t apparently taking part in the protests. Video shows him standing alone away from a group of demonstrators when he is approached by police. An officer shoves Tomlinson from behind, sending him to the ground. Tomlinson suffered a fatal heart attack moments later. The video was released by The Guardian newspaper, which says it will hand the tape to British police.

Report: Treasury to Bail Out Life Insurance Companies

Back in the United States, the Wall Street Journal is reporting the taxpayer-funded bailout will soon extend to the life insurance industry. Treasury officials are set to announce plans to use money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. Only life insurance companies that own federally chartered banks will be eligible.

Quigley Wins Vacant Illinois Congressional Seat

In Illinois, Democratic Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley has won the race to fill White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s vacant congressional seat. Quigley won with 70 percent of the vote.

Franken Increases Lead in Minnesota Recount

In Minnesota, Democrat Al Franken has increased his lead over Republican Norm Coleman in the ongoing recount of their disputed Senate race. On Tuesday, Franken’s lead grew to 312 votes after the tallying of previously excluded absentee ballots. Franken’s lead is virtually insurmountable, but Coleman has promised continued legal challenges.

Judge Orders Probe of Stevens Prosecutors

And a federal judge has ordered a probe of six Justice Department lawyers involved in the prosecution of former Senator Ted Stevens. Stevens lost his seat in November just days after being convicted on federal ethics charges. But last week the Justice Department dropped the case after saying it had uncovered widespread prosecutorial misconduct. On Tuesday, US District Judge Emmet Sullivan said he will appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the attorneys.

March “Best Of”

In case you missed them, here’s what we think were the best articles on MediaMouse.org in March. As always, there is plenty here to get you outraged, frustrated, or upset about the state of the world.

However, while the news presented on this site is frequently “bad,” we encourage you to see it as an invitation to action–we cannot simply sit back while these things go on. Get involved with a group working to change the local community or the world or start your own project. With so much “bad” in the world, there are plenty of opportunities for each of us to use our own unique skills and talents to make something better.

The Economy

Media

Environment

Police, Prisons, and Brutality

Organizing

Afghanistan

Iraq

Book Reviews

Headlines: British Troops Begin Iraq Withdrawal; Global Economy in Worst Recession Since 1930s

Democracy Now Headlines: British Troops Begin Iraq Withdrawal; Global Economy in Worst Recession Since 1930s

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Thousands to Protest as G20 Summit Begins

Tens of thousands of protesters are gathering in London around the meeting of world leaders at the G20 summit. Thousands of British police have been deployed since demonstrations began over the weekend. Several large protests are expected today. President Obama arrived in London on Tuesday and held talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown earlier today.

12 Killed in U.S. Strike on Pakistan

In Pakistan, at least twelve people have been killed in a suspected U.S. missile attack near the Afghan border. The strike comes one day after Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud claimed responsibility for killing at least twelve people in an attack on a police academy in Lahore. Mehsud called the bombing a response to the U.S. attacks. More than 340 people have been killed in U.S. strikes inside Pakistan since last August.

Netanyahu Sworn-In as Israeli PM

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been sworn in following his formal approval by the Israeli parliament. On Tuesday, Netanyahu vowed to seek peace with Palestinians, but effectively ruled out negotiating the borders of a future Palestinian state. Israel seeks to retain control of vast swaths of the occupied West Bank for Jewish-only settlements.

7 Killed as British Troops Begin Iraq Withdrawal

In Iraq, at least seven people were killed and 38 wounded in a suicide bombing in the city of Mosul. The attack came as British forces formally began their withdrawal from Iraq and handed formal control of Basra province to the United States. Most of Britain’s 4,100 troops are expected to withdraw by the end of May.

U.S., Iran Officials Hold Informal Exchange

At the Hague, a summit on Afghanistan has yielded the first contact between the Obama administration and the Iranian government. On Tuesday, the U.S. envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, had a brief, unplanned meeting with Iran’s deputy foreign minister. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed the exchange.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “It did not focus on anything substantive. It was cordial, it was unplanned and they agreed to stay in touch. Separately at my direction a letter was delivered to the Iranians focusing on three U.S. citizens currently unable to return to the United States from Iran. The fact that they came today, that they intervened today, is a promising sign that there will be future cooperation.”

Iranian leaders have called on the U.S. to apologize for previous actions including the 1953 overthrow of the democratically-elected Iranian government.

Clinton: Truce With Low-Level Taliban Possible

Also at the Hague conference, Clinton expressed willingness to reach a truce with low-level Taliban fighters, saying those who abandon the Taliban should be granted an “honorable form of reconciliation.”

Afghan Law Legalizes Rape Within Marriage

The Afghan government meanwhile is coming under international pressure to drop a law that effectively legalizes rape within marriage and further restricts women’s rights. According to the Guardian of London, the law bans women from refusing to have sex with their husbands and says they can only seek work, education or medical care with their husbands’ permission. Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed the measure into law last month.

Chavez: Indict Bush, Israeli Leaders

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is calling for the indictment of President Bush and Israeli leaders on charges of war crimes. Addressing the Arab League summit in Doha, Chavez criticized the International Criminal Court indictment of Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir in light of U.S.-Israeli actions.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: “The genocide that was governed by the United States for eight years after Bush ordered the bombing of Iraq, where thousands and thousands of children were killed and entire families, innocent men and women. Why don’t they go after Bush? He truly committed genocide. Or the Israeli government which also commits genocide.”

Bashir is currently in Saudi Arabia in defiance of an international warrant for his arrest. In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, the former Jordanian Queen, Queen Noor, criticized Sudan’s actions in Darfur but said the U.S. is guilty of double standards in supporting Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip.

Queen Noor: “Were there not so many cases where western pressure has been brought to bear on Arabs, but Israel, for example, disproportionate killing of civilians in Gaza during the recent and also in Lebanon in 2006 during the crisis there. If those cases had not taken place with relatively little western outcry, you’ll find a different attitude with what’s taken place in Sudan.”

Obama Ends U.S. Boycott of UN Human Rights Council

The Obama administration has reversed the Bush administration policy of boycotting the U.N. Human Rights Council. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the U.S. will seek a seat on the council when three become available next month.

OECD: Global Economy in Worst Recession Since 1930s

A new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation says the global economy is in a worse decline than previously thought. The OECD says world trade will drop thirteen percent this year. Chief Economist Klaus Schmidt-Hibbel called the current crisis the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Klaus Schmidt-Hibbel: “The world economy is in the midst of its deepest and most synchronized recession in our lifetimes, certainly since the 1930s, caused by a global financial crisis and deepened by a collapse of world trade.”

Ex-Khmer Rouge Official Apologizes for Atrocities

A top official in Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime has apologized for his role in the mass killings that killed some 1.7 million people. Kaing Guek Eav ran a prison where an estimated 17,000 people were tortured and murdered. On Tuesday, Eav told a war crimes tribunal he apologizes for his crimes and said he’s full of “shame and regret.”

U.S., Russia to Discuss Nuke Deal

The Obama administration is set to open talks today on a new arms control deal with Russia. The New York Times reports U.S. and Russian negotiators will propose reducing their stockpiles down to around 1,500 warheads apiece, down from the 2200 agreed to under President George W. Bush. U.S. officials say they will resist efforts to include the warheads that will be used if the Obama administration goes ahead with Bush’s so-called missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Rather than defending against missiles, the plan is widely seen as a first-strike weapon against Iran.

Report: Bailout Cost at $12.8T

A new estimate from Bloomberg news says the cost of the financial bailout through direct spending, loans, and aid guarantees has reached $12.8 trillion dollars. The figure amounts to more than $42,000 for every person in the U.S. and approaches the nation’s entire economic output last year.

Dems Introduce Emissions Cut Bill

On Capitol Hill, Democratic Congressmembers Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts have introduced a measure to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gas. The measure exceeds President Obama’s proposals for emissions cuts, seeking a 20% reduction below 2005 levels by 2020, compared Obama’s fourteen percent. It would also impose stricter efficiency standards and require that the U.S. draw a quarter of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

Franken Wins Key Court Challenge

In Minnesota, the Democratic challenger Al Franken has won a key court victory in the ongoing legal wrangling over his 2008 Senate race against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman. On Tuesday, a three-judge panel ruled that only 400 absentee ballots are eligible for a review and recount. Coleman was seeking a far greater number to overcome Franken’s 225-vote lead. Coleman’s attorney says he’ll appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Rejects Philip Morris Appeal

The Supreme Court has rejected the tobacco giant Philip Morris’ challenge to a $150 million dollar judgment won by the widow of a long-time smoker. Mayola Williams of Oregon was awarded $80 million dollars in 1999. The sum has nearly doubled because of the interest accrued as Philip Morris, now known as Altria, challenged the ruling over the last decade.

Sun-Times Media Group Files for Bankruptcy

In media news, the parent company of the Chicago Sun-Times and fifty-eight other newspapers has filed for bankruptcy protection. The Sun-Times Media Group cited the current economic downturn and hundreds of millions in back taxes stemming from when it was controlled by the jailed media tycoon Conrad Black. The move makes Chicago the first U.S. city to have both major newspapers file for bankruptcy.

Report: Sharpton Received Donation After Backing Charter Schools

And here in New York, Democracy Now co-host Juan Gonzalez has revealed the Reverend Al Sharpton received a half-million dollar private donation last year at the same time as he launched a campaign to support charter schools. Writing in today’s New York Daily News, Gonzalez reports the money came from a private hedge fund managed by former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy. Sharpton launched the charter school initiative with the current chancellor, Joel Klein. He received the money in-indirectly at the same time as he began paying some $1 million dollars in back taxes.