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Monday, December 24, 2007

Free Internet Press Newsletter - Monday December 24 2007 - (813)

Monday December 24 2007 edition
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DOH! Billions In Aid To Pakistan Was Wasted
2007-12-24 01:22:57
After the United States has spent more than $5 billion in a largely failed effort to bolster the Pakistani military effort against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, some American officials now acknowledge that there were too few controls over the money. The strategy to improve the Pakistani military, they said, needs to be completely revamped.

In interviews in Islamabad and Washington, Bush administration and military officials said they believed that much of the American money was not making its way to frontline Pakistani units. Money has been diverted to help finance weapons systems designed to counter India, not al-Qaeda or the Taliban, said the officials, adding that the United States has paid tens of millions of dollars in inflated Pakistani reimbursement claims for fuel, ammunition and other costs.

“I personally believe there is exaggeration and inflation,” said a senior American military official who has reviewed the program, referring to Pakistani requests for reimbursement. “Then, I point back to the United States and say we didn’t have to give them money this way.”

Pakistani officials say they are incensed at what they see as American ingratitude for Pakistani counterterrorism efforts that have left about 1,000 Pakistani soldiers and police officers dead. They deny that any overcharging has occurred.

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Britain's Parliament Members Call For Investigation On Iraq Security Contractor Cover-Up
2007-12-24 01:22:20
U.K. security firm accused of failing to pass intelligence on to British Army in Basra.

Members of the Britain's Parliament called Sunday for a full parliamentary inquiry into the British security company ArmorGroup after allegations made about its operations in Iraq by former employees. Two Parliament members have issued the call in response to claims that an employee had been told to withhold intelligence from the British armed forces and that the company had exaggerated the numbers of its employees on the ground.

ArmorGroup vigorously contested the claims and said Sunday they were either too vague to be checked or were old and had already been dealt with. The company said it had the best ethical record of any security firm working in the field and had offered the Parliament members full cooperation in investigating their claims since they were first aired earlier this year.

The most serious allegations have been made by Colin Williamson, 44, a former member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now the Police Service of Northern Ireland) who joined ArmorGroup in December 2004.

He was in Iraq until summer 2005. As someone who had been used to liaising with the British army during his time with the RUC, he said he was shocked at the way the operation was run.

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U.S. Dollar's Fall Is Felt Around The Globe
2007-12-24 01:21:19
Weakening U.S. currency harms overseas markets.

The sharp decline of the U.S. dollar since 2000 is affecting a broad swath of the world's population, with its drop on global markets being blamed at least in part for misfortunes as diverse as labor strikes in the Middle East, lost jobs in Europe and the end of an era of globe-trotting rich Americans.

It marks a shift for Americans in the global economy. In times of strength, a mightier dollar allowed Americans to feed their insatiable appetite for foreign goods at cheap prices while providing Yankees abroad with virtually unrivaled economic clout. But now, as the United States struggles to fend off a recession, observers say the less lofty dollar is having both a tangible and intangible diminishing effect.

"The dollar was the dominant force in world economics for 100 years - we had no competition," said C. Fred Bergsten, an American economist and director of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics. "There was no other economy close to the size of the United States. But all that is now changing."

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Snowstorm In U.S. Midwest Blamed For 11 Deaths, Power Outages
2007-12-24 01:20:27
Highways were hazardous for holiday travelers Sunday and thousands of homes and businesses had no electricity in the Midwest as a storm blustered through the region with heavy snow and howling wind. At least 11 deaths had been blamed on the storm.

Winter storm warnings were posted for parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan on Sunday as the core of the storm headed north across the Great Lakes. Parts of Wisconsin already had a foot of snow, and up to a foot was forecast Sunday in northeastern Minnesota, said the National Weather Service.

Radar showed snow falling across much of Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota on Sunday and moving into parts of Michigan and Indiana.

"Everything is just an ice rink out there," said Sgt. Steve Selby with the sheriff's department in Rock County, Wisconsin.

The weather system also spread locally heavy rain on Sunday from the Southeast to the lower Great Lakes.

The storm rolled through Colorado and Wyoming on Friday, then spread snow and ice on Saturday from the Texas Panhandle to Minnesota. Multi-car pileups closed parts of several major highways Saturday in the Plains states.

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Israel's Olmert Rules Out Cease Fire As Strikes On Hamas Continue
2007-12-24 01:19:29
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Sunday ruled out ceasefire negotiations with the Islamist movement Hamas and said his military was fighting a "true war" against armed groups in Gaza.

He warned of further Israeli military strikes in the days ahead which he said were intended to prevent Palestinian militants from firing makeshift rockets into Israel.

"Counter-terrorist operations will continue as they have for months," Olmert told his weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "There is no other way to describe what is happening in the Gaza Strip except as a true war between the IDF [Israel Defense Force] and terrorist elements."

In the past week more than a dozen militants from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have been killed during Israeli strikes in Gaza.

In recent days there have been suggestions that Hamas, which won Palestinian elections early last year and then seized full control of Gaza in June, was seeking a ceasefire with Israel.

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How Queen Elizabeth Became Very Well Connected
2007-12-23 01:19:48
In a bid to appeal to the internet generation, Britain's royals launch their own YouTube channel.

The Queen has taken a bold stride into cyberspace by launching her own channel on the video-sharing website YouTube. The Royal Channel launches Sunday as Buckingham Palace seeks to promote Britain's monarch to a youthful global audience.

While aides were utterly convinced it was the way forward, the 81-year-old Queen - who only recently mastered emailing and had never used a personal computer until two years ago - was not immediately acquainted with the YouTube phenomenon. But after the concept was explained to her by, among others, her granddaughters Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie - both avid Facebook fans - she personally approved the channel's go-ahead after viewing its contents.

It is launched with rarely-seen silent newsreel footage of the 1923 wedding of the future George VI to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and historic, albeit grainy, footage from 1917 of Queen Alexandra visiting rose sellers in London's West End.

Three films made by the late Lord Wakehurst, a former governor of New South Wales and Northern Ireland, which have never before been publicly released, also feature, showing public reaction to the death of George VI, the Queen's accession and her coronation.

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Camel 'Plague' Puzzles Scientists
2007-12-23 01:19:20

An unprecedented number of camels across North Africa and the Middle East died last year, researchers have discovered. The several thousand deaths have baffled scientists who are probing toxins, antibiotic pollution, viruses and even climate change as possible causes.

In Saudi Arabia alone, between 2,000 and 5,000 perished inexplicably, it was revealed in the journal Science last week. The ships of the desert are being sunk in unusual, and worrying, numbers, the journal warned.

"The numbers of deaths we are seeing at present are unprecedented," said camel researcher Bernard Faye, who is based at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD). "A great many animals are dying and it is not at all obvious what is the cause. The problem is that there is a real lack of good epidemiological evidence, and until we can get that we will struggle to find the causes of these deaths and to find ways of stopping them."

There were several outbreaks of sudden deaths among camels - which are exploited for their milk and meat and as beasts of burden in North Africa and Asia - in many countries last year. However, the worst occurred in Saudi Arabia. At least 2,000 dromedaries perished in a region south of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Unofficial estimates put the death toll as closer to 5,000.

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Warnings Unheeded On Security Contractors In Iraq
2007-12-24 01:22:40

The U.S. government disregarded numerous warnings over the past two years about the risks of using Blackwater Worldwide and other private security firms in Iraq, expanding their presence even after a series of shooting incidents showed that the firms were operating with little regulation or oversight, according to government officials, private security firms and documents.

The warnings were conveyed in letters and memorandums from defense and legal experts and in high-level discussions between U.S. and Iraqi officials. They reflected growing concern about the lack of control over the tens of thousands of private guards in Iraq, the largest private security force ever employed by the United States in wartime.

Neither the Pentagon nor the State Department took substantive action to regulate private security companies until Blackwater guards opened fire Sept. 16 at a Baghdad traffic circle, killing 17 Iraqi civilians and provoking protests over the role of security contractors in Iraq.

"Why is it they couldn't see this coming?" said Christopher Beese, chief administrative officer for ArmorGroup International, a British security firm with extensive operations in Iraq. "That amazes me. Somebody - it could have been military officers, it could have been State - anybody could have waved a flag and said, 'Stop, this is not good news for us'."

Private security firms rushed into Iraq after the March 2003 invasion. The U.S. military, which entered the country with 130,000 troops, needed additional manpower to protect supply convoys, military installations and diplomats. Private security companies appeared "like mushrooms after a rainstorm," recalled Michael J. Arrighi, who has worked in private security in Iraq since 2004.

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Cheney Accused Of Blocking California Bid To Reduce Car Emissions
2007-12-24 01:21:54
U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney was behind a controversial decision to block California's attempt to impose tough emission limits on car manufacturers, according to insiders at the government Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Staff at the agency, which announced last week that California's proposed limits were redundant, said the agency's chief went against their expert advice after car executives met Cheney, and a Chrysler executive delivered a letter to the EPA saying why the state should not be allowed to regulate greenhouse gases.

EPA staff members told the Los Angeles Times that the agency's head, the Bush appointee Stephen Johnson, ignored their conclusions and shut himself off from consultation in the month before the announcement. He then informed them of his decision and instructed them to provide the legal rationale for it, they said.

"California met every criteria ... on the merits," an anonymous member of the EPA staff told the Times. "The same criteria we have used for the last 40 years ... We told him that. All the briefings we have given him laid out the facts."

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Editorial: Broken Polls
2007-12-24 01:20:56
Intellpuke: The following editorial appears in the New York Times edition for Monday, December 24, 2007.

Election officials hate to admit how vulnerable their voting systems are to errors and vote theft. The Ohio and Colorado secretaries of state, however, have recently spoken openly about the weaknesses of the voting machines used in their states - and are pushing to get them fixed. Election officials in other states, whose voting machines have similar vulnerabilities, should follow Ohio’s and Colorado’s lead.

Jennifer Brunner, Ohio’s new secretary of state, has been working to promote fair and honest elections, with particular attention to voting machines. She commissioned an expert study of the five kinds of voting systems used in Ohio. Her report, released on Dec. 14, revealed serious security flaws that could put the state’s elections in jeopardy.

Some are simple. For example, the locks used to secure machines and ballots can easily be picked. This is a problem critics of electronic voting have been pointing out for several years, but it has not been addressed. Other flaws are more technical, like the fact that the computer servers that tally the ballots are poorly guarded. An infiltrator could slip malicious computer software onto them, which could change the results of an election.

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Commentary: When The Powerful Can Live Beyond The Law, Corruption Is Not Far Away
2007-12-24 01:19:58
Intellpuke: The following commentary was written by Max Hastings and appears in the Guardian edition for Monday, December 24, 2007. Mr. Hastings writes: "In Russia, as elsewhere, a lack of transparency feeds a gangster culture that hamstrings social and economic progress." His commentary follows:

Some of us speculate occasionally, albeit without real cupidity, about what we would do if we suddenly found ourselves in possession of a billion pounds. Even after funding a big house with lots of staff, car with chauffeur, yacht, helicopter and suchlike, there would be enough left to live on the interest, with a few hundred million to spare.

I suppose one could entrust the money to Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot to give to deserving causes, but not many billionaires are enlightened enough to do that. Instead, there are today so many doggedly materialistic possessors of surplus wealth that a huge luxury goods industry exists to succor their plight.

In Paris recently, I heard of a restaurant frequented by Russian oligarchs, where woodcock features on the menu. In France it is illegal to sell this delicious little bird. The restaurant exploits its scarcity value by charging £220 ($440), and finds plenty of takers. Indeed, the place's average bill for lunch for two is over £600 ($1,200). This is a boon for those with more cash than they know what to do with.

Yet how could any human being, however devoted to consuming illegal woodcock, want £20 billion ($40 billion)? This was my first thought, on reading the Guardian's report last week about the alleged secret fortune of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. It is comprehensible that he should want to put away a little something, or even a big something, for his old age. But even if he buys an Airbus as a personal jet and bathes in Krug, he can hardly hope to make much of a dent in £20 billion.

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Thailand Election Could Herald Thaksin's Return
2007-12-24 01:19:10
The successor party of deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra claimed victory last night in the first election since the military coup 15 months ago, fuelling fears of further political uncertainty.

The Thai election authority's unofficial tally with most votes counted showed that the People Power party (PPP) won 228 seats, less than an outright majority in the 480-seat parliament, but well ahead of its key rival, the Democrat party, which was headed for just 166.

The electorate's damning verdict on the military coup, if borne out by the final results revealed Monday, is likely to provoke a protracted period of negotiation as the PPP seeks to form a coalition government.

The outcome heralds the strong possibility of Thaksin's return from his London exile as the PPP leadership pledged on the campaign trail that it would dissolve the agencies appointed by the junta to probe corruption charges against the billionaire tycoon who bought Manchester City football club in England.

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New Crisis To Hit Banks In 2008
2007-12-23 01:19:34
Banks may be forced to seek huge injections of fresh capital as the credit crunch shows no sign of abating, experts warned Saturday night.

Analysts are talking about the possibility of rights issues, which would involve banks asking shareholders to subscribe to new equity in order to provide cash to bolster balance sheets that have been crippled by the U.S. sub-prime debacle.

Rumors were circulating in New York and London on Friday that western banks face intense pain in the new year, with bad-debt provisions set to soar from $59 billion to more than $250 billion. "That would knock the banks' balance sheets for six," said one analyst.

Several brokers fear Merrill Lynch, in particular, could be hit further in 2008. Last week, it emerged that Merrill was seeking a $5 billion investment from Temasek, an arm of the Singaporean state. Citigroup has already secured cash from Abu Dhabi, the Gulf state.

Gerard Lyons, chief economist and head of global research at Standard Chartered, said: "Next year, we shall find out whether the crisis moves from being a liquidity squeeze to one about funding, with questions raised about whether banks are adequately capitalized."

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Commentary: Five Bright Ideas That Illuminated 2007
2007-12-23 01:19:01
Intellpuke: The following commentary was written by Will Hutton for The Observer. Mr. Hutton is a columnist for The Observer and chief executive of the Work Foundation, an independent, not for dividend research-based consultancy that is one of the most influential voices on work, workplace and employment issues in Britain. In his commentary he writes, "There's much to celebrate in the moves toward greater tolerance of others and understanding of ourselves and the world around us." His commentary follows:

It is a little embarrassing how late I saw the potential for environmental catastrophe. I recognized that sustainability would be helpful, and did my bit because it was a good cause, but it has only been over the last few years that I have begun to see it as a global imperative. Campaigners, scientists and intellectuals shifted my opinions and millions with me.

Ideas start deep below public consciousness. So what have been the ideas that have incubated in 2007? Here are my five ideas - not, I am the first to concede, the only five - that I believe will surely have an impact and, in the round, for the better.

Don't Trash Our Gods

If 2006 was the year of the rampant secularists, Richard Dawkins assailing religion as the source of much evil, 2007 has seen the case for faith begin to make a comeback. A life well lived for many is helped by a sense of higher moral purpose. Human beings still require a sense of the sacred.

The controversies over Islam should not blind us to the advantage of a belief in a God who rewards good and punishes bad. A master work by Professor Charles Taylor, "A Secular Age", argues that while faith today may be harder to achieve when so much is explicable by science, that does not mean that it is not worth the effort or that those who make the attempt should be mocked by the rationalist secularists.

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