Friday, February 15, 2008

Senate limits CIA interrogation

By BBC News - Thursday, 14 February 2008
The US Senate has voted to bar the CIA from using harsh interrogation techniques such as simulated drowning, widely known as water-boarding.
The ban was contained in a broader intelligence bill that passed 51-45.

The Senate vote follows a similar move by the House of Representatives in December, despite a threat by President George W Bush to veto such legislation.

A senior justice department official is set to testify later in the day that water-boarding is now not legal.

"The set of interrogation methods authorised for current use is narrower than before, and it does not today include water-boarding," says Steven Bradbury, the acting head of the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel.

His remarks, obtained by the Associated Press, were prepared for an appearance before the House Judiciary Constitution subcommittee later on Thursday.

He goes on: "There has been no determination by the justice department that the use of water-boarding, under any circumstances, would be lawful under the current law."

Water-boarding, condemned as torture by rights groups and many governments, is an interrogation method that puts the detainee in fear of drowning.

Army manual

In a vote that split largely along party lines, the Democratic-led Congress on Wednesday passed a bill that would restrict the CIA to using the 19 interrogation techniques outlined by the US Army field manual.

The legislation would ban the CIA from using not only water-boarding but sensory deprivation and other harsh coercive methods on prisoners.

"There must be no doubt in the world that this great nation does not torture," said Senator Chuck Hagel, one of the bill's main sponsors.

Senator John McCain, who is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination and who has previously brought anti-torture legislation, voted against the overall bill.

"I made it very clear that I think that water-boarding is torture and illegal, but I will not restrict the CIA to only the Army field manual," he said.

Crucial information

Last week, the CIA publicly admitted for the first time using water-boarding on terror suspects.

The CIA director, General Michael Hayden, told the House Intelligence Committee the technique had only been used on three people, including high-profile al-Qaeda detainee Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and not for the past five years.

He said that water-boarding may no longer be legal given changes in US legislation and that the CIA would respect limits passed by Congress even if it meant failing to get crucial information.

Gen Hayden has argued that the CIA has different interrogation needs than the army and requires more latitude to be effective.

The Senate vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto, which Mr Bush has threatened to use.

"Part of this bill are inconsistent with the effective conduct of intelligence gathering," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.

- Water boarding: prisoner bound to a board with feet raised, and cellophane wrapped round his head. Water is poured onto his face and is said to produce a fear of drowning
- Cold cell: prisoner made to stand naked in a cold, though not freezing, cell and doused with water
- Standing: Prisoners stand for 40 hours and more, shackled to the floor
- Belly slap: a hard slap to the stomach with an open hand. This is designed to be painful but not to cause injury
Source: Described to ABC News by un-named CIA agents in 2005

Read more on BBC News

US annual trade deficit narrows

By BBC News - Thursday, 14 February 2008
The US trade deficit narrowed in 2007, official figures show, as a rise in exports offset the country's large growth in oil imports.
The deficit reached $711.6bn (£361.1bn) last year, down from $758.5bn in 2006, the Commerce Department said.

Strong demand for oil from overseas had seen the trade gap set records for five consecutive years.

December's trade deficit fell to $58.8bn from $63.1bn in November - a bigger decline than expected.

China gap widens

The decline in the dollar helped to spur exports, analysts said, as this made US products cheaper abroad and therefore more competitive.

President George W Bush's administration has said that its free trade policies have also bolstered sales overseas.

However, critics point to a deficit that is almost double the level of 2001 when President Bush came office.

As analysts had expected, the trade deficit with China grew in 2007 despite the string of recalls of Chinese-made products during the year.

The trade gap with China jumped by 10.2% to $256.3bn - the biggest the US has had with a single country.

The next largest deficits were with the European Union at $107.4bn, and Japan at $82.8bn.

Commerce Department figures showed that exports, which were helped by farm products and car and vehicle parts, totalled $1.62 trillion, while imports, led by oil, rose to $2.33 trillion.

Read more in BBC News

Sharp jump in China trade surplus

By BBC News - Friday, 15 February 2008China's trade surplus soared 19.5% in January as the economy continued to boom despite efforts to cool the rate of growth, official figures have shown.
The surplus - the gap between what China exports and what it imports - grew to $22.7bn (£11.5bn) last month, compared with $15.9bn a year earlier.

China's exports in January increased 26.7% to $109.7bn, the biggest year-on-year rise in six months.

Imports rose 27.6% to $90.2bn, the biggest increase in almost two years.

Yuan dispute

The latest trade surplus figure was bigger than market estimates and is likely to renew criticism from the US and European Union, who have accused China of undervaluing the yuan to make its exports artificially cheap.

While Beijing still does not allow the yuan to float freely against other currencies, it counters that the currency's value has increased by 13% since 2005.

The Chinese government also argues that it cannot move any faster on liberalising the yuan for fear it could destabilise the country's export-led economic boom.

China has instead moved to cool both exports and its overall breakneck economic growth through policies such as increased taxation, interest rate rises and limits on how much money banks can lend to businesses.

Analysts said it would now be interesting to see how China's exports were affected by continuing recession fears in the US.

"The first point is that we haven't really seen any significant softening of the growth numbers in terms of both exports and imports," said Yiping Huang, chief China economist with Citigroup in Hong Kong.

"The trade surplus figure is a bit lower than in the previous months, but still very strong."

The International Monetary Fund said on Friday that the Chinese economy is likely to grow by 10% this year, down slightly from 11.4% in 2007.
Read more in BBC NEWS

Bush, House Democrats Face Off on Wiretapping Bill

By David Welna and Melissa Block - NPR - All Things Considered, February 14, 2008

President Bush says the House needs to finish a bill governing U.S. eavesdropping on the phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists. The current law, the Protect America Act, expires this weekend, and the president says he won't approve another extension of it.

The president is insisting that Congress send him legislation expanding wiretapping powers before the temporary law expires Saturday.

The Senate passed such legislation this week that's at odds with what the House passed three months ago, and House Democrats now want three more weeks to settle those differences.

At the White House on Thursday, President Bush said no to that:
"I urge congressional leaders to let the will of the House and the American people prevail and vote on the Senate bill before adjourning for their recess. Failure to act would harm our ability to monitor new terrorist activities and could reopen dangerous gaps in our intelligence. Failure to act would also make the private sector less willing to help us protect the country, and this is unacceptable."

Bush, Congress in Spy Bill Standoff
By The Associated Press - WASHINGTON -February 15, 2008
With a deadline looming, President Bush and congressional Democrats are locked in a standoff over the government's authority to spy on foreign phone calls and e-mails that pass through the United States.

A temporary law that makes it easier to carry out that spying expires Saturday night at midnight, and Bush and his top intelligence officials say the consequences are dire. Al-Qaida, Bush says, is "thinking about hurting the American people again," and would be helped if U.S. eavesdropping is hampered.

The Democrats are equally adamant. Bush has all the authority he needs to intercept terrorist communications, even if the law expires, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday. The congressional majority is simply trying to balance concerns about civil liberties against the government's spy powers, and needs time to do it, she said.

So who's right?
A quirk in the temporary eavesdropping law adopted by Congress last August complicates the answer. The law allows the government to initiate wiretaps for up to one year against a wide range of targets. It also explicitly compels telecommunications companies to comply with the orders, and protects them from civil lawsuits that may be filed against them for doing so.

But while the wiretap orders can go on for a year from the time they started, the compliance orders and the liability protections go away when the law expires, says Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell.

"There is no longer a way to compel the private sector to help us," he said Thursday in an Associated Press interview.

That is not exactly true. Even if the law expires, the government can get an order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to compel their cooperation. That court was created 30 years ago for just such a purpose.

But McConnell rejects that option. He says the process of getting a court order ties intelligence agents up in red tape.

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires court permission to tap wires inside the United States. Changes in technology since then mean much of the world's computer and phone traffic passes through the United States, much of it on fiber-optic cable. Successive court cases say court orders are needed to listen in on any of them, McConnell said.

To get a court order, intelligence agents have to prove they have "probable cause" to believe a target is foreign agent or terrorist before being allowed to tap a line inside the United States, even if the communication originates and ends in a foreign country. "If it touches a wire in the U.S. you have to have a warrant," he said.

It is difficult for intelligence agents piecing together shreds of information to get enough to merit probable cause, he said. By the time they can amass enough information to do that, the phone number they wanted to track might already be obsolete, McConnell said.

"Terrorists change their name, change their means of communicating all the time. Every time that changes you've got to stay with it. We have to be very dynamic. More than likely we would miss the very information we need to prevent some horrendous act from taking place in the United States,"
he said.

The FISA law does make provisions for fleeting targets when there is not time to fill out the paperwork. Within a few days, though, the paperwork must be completed and probable cause proved to get an order approved.

The easy solution, say Democratic congressional leaders, is to extend the current law long enough to allow the House and Senate to work out the differences in their respective surveillance bills. The House finished its version in October, but the Senate did not finish until this week, pushing Congress hard up against the deadline.

The law had been set to expire on Feb. 1. The White House reluctantly agreed to a 15-day extension but refuses to approve any more, and has appealed to House leaders to simply approve the version approved by the Senate, which includes the legal immunity for telecom companies the president wants.

The immunity provision protects phone companies that helped the government in its warrantless wiretapping program conducted outside the authority of the FISA court, a feature the House intentionally left out.

Unable to muster the votes to extend the current law, House leaders say they'd rather let it lapse and operate under the old FISA rules than be pressured by the White House into accepting the Senate bill. House Republicans protested with a walkout Thursday.

House Democratic leaders say they're reluctant to grant legal immunity to the phone companies without knowing what they did, and have asked for more information, most of it classified. They say the administration is balking.

McConnell acknowledged that the White House's refusal to extend the current law is meant to force Congress to adopt the Senate bill. "If anybody agrees to 21-day extension, in 21 days we're going to have the same discussion again," he said.

However, Pelosi predicted the House and Senate versions could be reconciled in three weeks.

McConnell believes retroactive telecom immunity is critical to national security. Failure to provide it could result in telecommunications companies challenging FISA court orders as a way to further insulate themselves from future lawsuits, he argued.

Already, he says the roughly 40 lawsuits filed against telecom companies nationwide has chilled the private sector's willingness to help the intelligence agencies in ways unrelated to electronic surveillance. Exactly how is classified, and he won't elaborate.

"I'm talking about the things they've done to help us track terrorists," said McConnell. "They did lawful things at the request of the government under the conditions they've done it for 50 years."

But that help has waned over the last two years, he said.

"Your country is at risk if we can't get the private sector to help us, and that is atrophying all the time," he said.

House Republicans stage a walkout on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008, as Democrats considered a resolution that would hold some of President Bush's former aides in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions before the House Judiciary Committee.

Read more in NPR

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Nancy Pelosi Speaks On the Contempt Resolution of the Congress for Josh Bolton and Harriet Meirs

DOJ Requires Clear Channel To Divest In Four Markets To Complete Buyout

By Radio Ink - Feb. 13, 2008

WASHINGTON -- February 13, 2008: The Department of Justice says it will require Clear Channel to divest radio stations in Cincinnati, Houston, Las Vegas, and San Francisco in order for the company to proceed with a buyout led by private equity groups Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners.

Additionally, the DOJ's Antitrust Division has filed suit in Washington, DC, to block the acquisition, and at the same time has filed a proposed settlement that, if the U.S. District Court in Washington approves it, will resolve the lawsuit and the DOJ's competitive concerns.

The divestitures will be required, the DOJ said, because "the transaction, as originally proposed, likely would have resulted in higher prices to purchasers of radio advertising in Cincinnati, Houston, Las Vegas, and San Francisco because [buyers] Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners already have substantial ownership interests in two firms that compete with Clear Channel in those cities. Bain and THL have ownership interests in Cumulus Media Partners LLC (Cumulus), a large nationwide operator of radio stations, and THL also has an ownership interest in Univision Communications Inc. (Univision), a large nationwide operator of radio stations that broadcast primarily in Spanish."

According to the complaint filed by the Antitrust Division, radio stations owned by Clear Channel and Cumulus compete head-to-head in Cincinnati and Houston, while Clear Channel and Univision own competing Spanish-language radio stations in Houston, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. The division must approve the buyers of the divested Clear Channel stations.

"Without the divestitures obtained by the department, advertisers that rely on radio advertising in the affected cities likely would have faced higher prices," said Thomas O. Barnett, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division. "The divestitures will ensure that advertisers will continue to receive the benefits of competition."

Read more on Radio Ink

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Water Conservation Key Issue for Railroad Commission Candidate Dale Henry

By Sandra Cason - The Marshall News Messenger - Friday, February 08, 2008

It's all about water, said Dale Henry, Democratic candidate for Texas Railroad Commission.

"My campaign is important for one reason," Henry said, "and that is because the state of Texas is running out of water. It is an abused natural resource and the Railroad Commission has done nothing about it for the past 106 years."

If he is elected in this, his third bid for the seat, Henry said he will be the first commissioner with hands-on experience in oil and gas exploration, the industry for which the commission provides oversight.

Henry faces Art Hall and Mark Thompson in the March 4 Democratic Primary. If he is the party nominee, Henry will face Republican incumbent Michael Williams in the November general election.

A resident of Lampasas, 50 miles west of Austin, and a graduate of University of Texas, Henry is a retired employee of Schlumber J company, having worked in the oil fields of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

"I spent a number of years in research and development and I hold several fracturing patents," Henry said.

"I've been out there and seen it all," he added.

While many people may not stop to think about it that way, Henry pointed out that oil and gas drilling operations have a tremendous impact on ground water.

"Oil and gas activity inherently produces a lot of water," Henry said. "Water is what is used to bring it to the surface, but on its way, the water accumulates contaminated materials."

A common disposal method for the liquid is "to put it back in the ground."

Henry said he learned of a DeBerry preacher whose church hasn't had water in a number of years. "One well was drilled too close to his church and all the wells in the area are contaminated with salt water. You can drill a hundred good ones, but it takes just one bad well to create a whole bunch of problems," Henry said.

Good drilling practices are particularly important at this point in time because so many production companies are now using a horizontal approach.

"There's an area called the Barnett Shale," Henry said. "It is a very thick layer of stone and breaking through it has never made the effort worthwhile until horizontal drilling. That's the key."

In this method, the pipeline goes down for a distance, "turns a corner," and goes under the stone, Henry explained.

This type of drilling uses "millions of gallons of water per day. Sometimes it will be as much as 275,000 gallons," Henry added.

With such large quantities to be disposed of, Henry said it is more important than ever that the Railroad Commission check all drilling permit applications thoroughly, a practice he claims is not currently followed.

"This rubber-stamping has to stop," he said.

Use of environmentally safe drilling practices are especially important to this area because of Caddo Lake, Henry said.

"I've done hands-on work for the Railroad Commission in Caddo — the plugging of abandoned wells. Ninety percent of those I plugged had not be plugged by Railroad Commission rules and regulations the first time around.

"I will make protecting our water a priority for the Texas Railroad Commission," Henry said in a promotional brochure.

"In dry West Texas, the ranchers have to work hard at salvaging water to grow grass with which to feed cattle and produce beef. At the ranch my wife and I have operated for years, we cut the number of production acres needed per cow and calf from 25 acres to 2.5 acres by getting our water to the right place.

"Water's my passion. I know how to do it," Henry said.

"I'm not a politician and I shouldn't have to be involved in this, but the oil and gas companies are polluting our water, soil, and air, and the Railroad Commission simply turns its back and lets it happen.

"Instead of regulating these industries, the three commissioners are raking in campaign contributions from their executives and political action committees and are burying their heads in the sand.

"It's time for change," Henry said. "I need to bring the knowledge I have back to the people, if they'd like me to share it.

"I can do the job. I want the job.

"The petroleum industry is a great benefit to our state's economy, but that should not come at the expense of our environment or our fresh water supply," he said.

Read more in the Marshall News Messenger

Tx RR Commission Candidate - Dale Henry: Protecting State's Water a Priority

By RANDY ROSS - Longview News-Journal - Friday, February 08, 2008

Protecting the waters of Texas is a priority for Dale Henry.

The 76-year-old Democratic candidate for the Texas Railroad Commission said the production of oil and gas in Texas does not matter if the industry destroys Texas' natural water sources.

"We have to stop wasting and contaminating our water," Henry said.

Henry faces Art Hall of San Antonio and Mark Thompson of Hamilton in the Democratic primary election on March 4.

Henry has more than 40 years of experience working in the oil and natural gas fields in the United States and abroad, according to his campaign Web site. He has a bachelor of science degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.

"I've been hands-on from the top to the bottom," Henry said. "I more or less speak the language of the oilfield."

The Railroad Commission is the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, gas utilities, pipeline safety, safety in the liquefied petroleum gas industry and the surface mining of coal. Established by the Legislature in 1891, the commission is the state's oldest regulatory agency, according to the agency's Web site.

The self-described environmentalist from Lampasas is a former city manager and county commissioner. He also founded 4 Arrows, the first cementing service company contracted by the railroad commission.

Henry said his experience in the oil and gas industry make him an ideal candidate for the commission. He said he knows the commission's rules and regulations from working as a contractor, and he would be able to begin working on his first day.

The oil and gas industry has a strong economic impact on the state, he said. That impact has come at a cost to the public, he said.

Henry said the commission has for many years considered the economics of the industry more important than public safety. He said that philosophy has changed in recent years, but it needs to continue to change. He said the commission must consider what is in the public's best interest.

"Environmentally, we have a problem," Henry said.

He said companies often cut corners when installing casing in wells to save money. As time erodes sealing and concrete shifts, water begins flowing and drawing out contaminants.

By forcing companies to install casing properly, Henry said companies would save more money in the long-term by avoiding remedial and repair work.

"These are serious matters," Henry said.

Attempts to reach Republican incumbent Michael Williams for comment were unsuccessful Thursday.

Read more in the Longview News-Journal

Monday, February 11, 2008

Consumer issues likely to play large role in Texas Railroad Commission race

By R.A. DYER - Star-Telegram Staff Writer - Mon, Feb. 11, 2008
AUSTIN -- With North Texas residents feeling the economic pinch -- and home energy prices on the rise -- consumer issues could take center stage in the race for the Texas Railroad Commission.

Agency Chairman Michael Williams, 54, a Republican, is seeking re-election. Three Democrats are also running in their party's March 4 primary: former San Antonio Councilman Art Hall, 37; retired chemical engineer Dale Henry, 76; and Mark Thompson, 48, a mobility specialist for the blind. Thompson lives in Hamilton.

Set against the backdrop of the race are several home heating rate increases authorized by the commission. In at least two major North Texas cases, Williams joined with other commissioners in setting rates higher than the agency's own panel of experts had recommended.

Williams said that while he sometimes disagrees with those experts -- they're administrative law judges, and they conduct hearings and consider evidence in rate proceedings -- he nonetheless strives to reject unwarranted requests by utilities.

"But we can have a difference of opinion with regards to policy questions," he said.

The three Democratic candidates say the commission and Williams are too close to the industry they regulate. Each Democrat lambasted the panel for not doing enough to protect consumers.

"Citizens need to get upset -- they need to write the Texas Railroad Commission and talk to them," Thompson said.

The Texas Railroad Commission, an agency little-understood by the public, regulates the oil and gas industry and is charged with ensuring pipeline safety. It also makes environmental decisions regarding oil wells and authorizes cost-of-service rates for natural gas utilities.

Each of the Democrats gave the commission poor marks when it came to protecting ratepayers.

But it's also clear that not all the Democrats are well-versed on commission responsibilities.

For instance, Thompson has claimed that the agency lacks authority to set municipal rates. "When you think about it, they don't control rates in the cities," he said.

Actually, the commission has great authority over cost-of-service rates charged within cities.

Likewise, Hall stated at one time on his Web site that he would make railroad safety an issue in the race. Despite its name, the Texas Railroad Commission has no authority over railroads.

But Hall also said he has received an earful of complaints from North Texas residents about high utility rates. He described the commission as a "rubber stamp" for industry.

"I think it'll definitely be an issue during the general election," he said.

Henry, the retired petroleum engineer, said, "The Railroad Commission of Texas should not sit idly by as energy companies stick bills for hotel rooms and cases of wine to their ratepayers through cost-of-service rate increases" -- a reference to various luxury items put in a recent rate case by Atmos Energy.

The North Texas utility removed the items after reports appeared in the Star-Telegram.

Henry also said the commissioner has not done enough to ensure that Texans pay only the appropriate commodity price of natural gas and has "not done a credible job in reviewing and approving cost-of-service rate increases for natural gas companies."

A recent analysis by the Star-Telegram found that annual home heating bills are about the same now as they were in 2005, even though the commodity price of natural gas has come down dramatically since two hurricanes disrupted supplies that year.

The reason that bills remain high is related, in part, to repeated cost-of-service increases authorized by the commission.

"They need to keep down rates so that they're more reasonable," Thompson said.
Read more in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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