Sunday, November 16, 2008

George W Bush could pardon spies involved in torture

By Tim Shipman in Washington

Senior intelligence officers are lobbying the outgoing president to look after the men and women who could face charges for following his orders in the war on terrorism.

Many fear that Barack Obama, who has pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and put an end to the policy of extraordinary rendition, could launch a legal witch hunt against those who oversaw the policies after he is sworn in on Jan 20.

Most vulnerable are US intelligence officers who took part in intensive interrogations against terrorist suspects, using techniques including water boarding, which many believe crossed the line into torture.

A former CIA officer familiar with the backstage lobbying for pardons, said: "These are the people President Bush asked to fight the war on terror for him. He gave them the green light to fight tough. The view of many in the intelligence community is that he should not leave them vulnerable to legal censure when he leaves.

"An effort is under way to get pre-emptive pardons. The White House has indicated that the matter is under consideration."

In addition to frontline CIA and military officers, others at risk could include David Addington, Dick Cheney's former counsel, and William Haynes, the former Pentagon general counsel who helped draw up the regulations governing enhanced interrogations.

Many in the Democratic party and human rights groups are calling on President-Elect Obama to tear up Mr Bush's executive orders licensing intensive interrogations on his first day in the Oval Office. They also want an immediate end to rendition, whereby suspects are flown to countries that practise torture.

But some in the intelligence community fear that an overhaul of the justice department could embolden those who would like a full-blown investigation of what went on at Guantanamo Bay, with charges to follow for those involved.

Presidents can issue pardons at their discretion and those granted the immunity of a pardon do not need to have been previously charged with a crime.

Granting pardons to spies who allegedly used torture would complicate the politics surrounding Mr Obama's moves to end aspects of the war on terror that are blamed for tarnishing America's international reputation.

In meetings over the last two weeks, Mr Obama has been briefed by US intelligence chiefs on the extreme danger posed by some terrorist suspects in the Guantanamo Bay camp. His advisers last week floated the idea that, while some will be released and some put on trial in normal courts, a third category of legal status may have to be created for the most dangerous - a move that met with howls of protest from civil liberties groups.

There are just 255 prisoners still held at the base on the island of Cuba, but they include the so-called "Dirty 30", bodyguards to Osama bin Laden captured during the early stages of the war in Afghanistan.

The ex-CIA official said: "The Bush people are trying to be helpful but this is the one thing that they are pushing hard on. They're saying, 'Don't rush into anything.' It's easy to say close the place, but what do you do with the detainees? There are some serious head cases in there."

Some conservatives argue that if Mr Bush were to issue pardons to protect those who took part in his administration's security regime, it would make it easier for the incoming administration to find out exactly what went on, the goal of many who want to prevent repetition of what they view as abuses.

The ex-CIA official said: "If you want people to tell the truth, the best way would be to give them legal guarantees. A pardon is not the only way you can do that, but if Bush does it, it will save Obama the political problem he would have if he offered people immunity later."

But critics say such a move would be a disgrace. James Ross, legal and policy director for Human Rights Watch, said: "It would be the first pre-emptive pardon in US history for war crimes. Such a pardon might seek to protect low-level government officials who relied on legally dubious Justice Department memos on interrogations.

"But it would also provide blanket immunity to senior administration officials who bear criminal responsibility for their role in drafting, orchestrating and implementing a US government torture programme."

Mr Bush has received around 3,000 requests for pardons and conservatives would like him to help Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. He was found guilty of obstruction of justice for his role in leaking the name of a CIA officer, Valerie Plame. Mr Bush has already commuted Mr Libby's sentence.

Presidential pardons are always controversial, though Mr Bush has granted fewer than 200 so far, less than half of those handed out by Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton issued 140 pardons on his last day in office alone. When Gerald Ford took over from Richard Nixon, he pardoned his predecessor, forgiving all federal crimes he may have committed during the Watergate scandal.

Andrew Johnson pardoned the soldiers of the Confederacy and Jimmy Carter did the same for Vietnam War draft dodgers.

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Lawmaker says AIG executive should resign after resort event

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A key Democratic lawmaker called Tuesday for the resignation of American International Group's CEO after the troubled insurer held a financial planners conference last week at a posh Arizona resort.

Edward Liddy, AIG chief executive, said the conference educated external financial planners.

Edward Liddy, AIG chief executive, said the conference educated external financial planners.

The company responded that the event cost AIG very little and was aimed at boosting income.

AIG had come under sharp criticism for sending executives on a lavish English partridge hunt and a weeklong retreat at a California resort after accepting an $85 billion bailout -- since grown to $150 billion -- from the federal government in September.

"These guys, they don't get it," Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, said on CNN's "American Morning."

"They came to us basically saying 'we are on the critical list, and we need a respirator,' and we bail them out, and the next thing we know, we turn around and they are going out partying and spending the taxpayers' dollars. And it's kind of -- it's very upsetting."

Cummings, a senior member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, called for the resignation of AIG CEO Edward Liddy, who joined the company only a few weeks ago as part of the bailout plan.

But Liddy told CNN's Larry King later Tuesday that the conference was legitimate, stressing it was an event not for AIG employees, but for 150 outside financial planners wanting to learn about AIG's products. And AIG has said that although the event cost $343,000, AIG had to pay only $23,000 of it.

"Ninety percent of [the conference] was paid for by the participants who were there and our partners at this conference," Liddy told King.

Liddy said AIG was "tightening the belt" and has cut more than 160 conferences or other events in the past seven weeks. But he said some training events for external financial planners are needed "so they understand the product, all of its features, and they know what to sell to whom."

"We don't want a variable annuity sold to a 85-year-old widow," Liddy said.

Liddy said the company will pay off the $150 billion government loan plus interest.

"We appreciate what the taxpayer and the federal government has done for us. ... We intend to pay back every penny we've borrowed," Liddy said.

Earlier, AIG spokesman Nicholas Ashooh also defended the conference, saying Cummings was "responding to an incomplete picture."

"This was a legit meeting. It was really for independent advisers at very little cost to AIG."

Ashooh also said AIG canceled a speech by former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw at the conference.

The conference, Ashooh said, was one "that any insurance company has to do" and not a "junket for AIG top executives."

Phoenix TV station KNXV, a CNN affiliate, reported that AIG tried to keep its connection to the 2008 Asset Management Conference a secret by ensuring that no AIG logos were on the property.

Undercover footage shot by KNXV shows top AIG executives, including Larry Roth, president and CEO of AIG Advisor Group, sitting poolside and drinking coffee while conference-goers attended meetings. Another executive -- Art Tambaro, head of AIG subsidiary Royal Alliance -- stayed in one of the resort's two-story villas.

The footage also shows a few executives being shuttled in a luxury Lincoln Town Car one night and enjoying dinner and drinks at a McCormick & Schmick's seafood restaurant, where they spent more than $400, KNXV reported.

Ashooh insisted that the conference was legitimate.

"We've certainly done some things in the past that have been worthy of criticism, but this one's really been mischaracterized," he said.

Ashooh said AIG indeed tried to keep the event low-profile "because everything has been subject to so much criticism."

"But it wasn't an effort to disguise it. It was an effort to minimize costs and to keep the profile down, because we don't even want to do anything that would even be perceived as expensive," he said.

The U.S. government agreed to an $85 billion loan in September to stave off AIG's immediate collapse. On Monday, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department modified the original loan into a $150 billion deal with a lower interest rate and used another $40 billion to buy preferred stock.

The dealings have left the federal government owning 80 percent of AIG.

But AIG ran into criticism almost from the start. There was a $440,000 retreat at St. Regis Resort in Monarch Beach, California, and an $86,000 partridge hunt at an English manor. Last week's conference was held at the Hilton Squaw Peak Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona.

Under an agreement with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the company agreed to freeze $19 million in payments to its former CEO, Martin Sullivan, and block distributions from a $600 million deferred compensation and bonus pool for the company's financial products subsidiary. The company also withheld a $10 million severance payment to its former chief financial officer.

Sullivan was replaced in June by Robert Willumstad, who in turn was replaced by Liddy as part of the bailout. Willumstad voluntarily gave up a $22 million severance package.

AIG reported a $24.5 billion loss in the third quarter.

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Election spurs 'hundreds' of race threats, crimes

Cross burnings. Schoolchildren chanting "Assassinate Obama." Black figures hung from nooses. Racial epithets scrawled on homes and cars.

Incidents around the country referring to President-elect Barack Obama are dampening the postelection glow of racial progress and harmony, highlighting the stubborn racism that remains in America.

From California to Maine, police have documented a range of alleged crimes, from vandalism and vague threats to at least one physical attack. Insults and taunts have been delivered by adults, college students and second-graders.

There have been "hundreds" of incidents since the election, many more than usual, said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes.

One was in Snellville, Ga., where Denene Millner said a boy on the school bus told her 9-year-old daughter the day after the election: "I hope Obama gets assassinated." That night, someone trashed her sister-in-law's front lawn, mangled the Obama lawn signs, and left two pizza boxes filled with human feces outside the front door, Millner said.

She described her emotions as a combination of anger and fear.

"I can't say that every white person in Snellville is evil and anti-Obama and willing to desecrate my property because one or two idiots did it," said Millner, who is black. "But it definitely makes you look a little different at the people who you live with, and makes you wonder what they're capable of and what they're really thinking."

Potok, who is white, said he believes there is "a large subset of white people in this country who feel that they are losing everything they know, that the country their forefathers built has somehow been stolen from them."

Grant Griffin, a 46-year-old white Georgia native, expressed similar sentiments: "I believe our nation is ruined and has been for several decades and the election of Obama is merely the culmination of the change.

"If you had real change it would involve all the members of (Obama's) church being deported," he said.

Change in whatever form does not come easy, and a black president is "the most profound change in the field of race this country has experienced since the Civil War," said William Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. "It's shaking the foundations on which the country has existed for centuries."

"Someone once said racism is like cancer," Ferris said. "It's never totally wiped out, it's in remission."

If so, America's remission lasted until the morning of Nov. 5.

The day after the vote hailed as a sign of a nation changed, black high school student Barbara Tyler of Marietta, Ga., said she heard hateful Obama comments from white students, and that teachers cut off discussion about Obama's victory.

Tyler spoke at a press conference by the Georgia chapter of the NAACP calling for a town hall meeting to address complaints from across the state about hostility and resentment. Another student, from a Covington middle school, said he was suspended for wearing an Obama shirt to school Nov. 5 after the principal told students not to wear political paraphernalia.

The student's mother, Eshe Riviears, said the principal told her: "Whether you like it or not, we're in the South, and there are a lot of people who are not happy with this decision."

Other incidents include:

_Four North Carolina State University students admitted writing anti-Obama comments in a tunnel designated for free speech expression, including one that said: "Let's shoot that (N-word) in the head." Obama has received more threats than any other president-elect, authorities say.

_At Standish, Maine, a sign inside the Oak Hill General Store read: "Osama Obama Shotgun Pool." Customers could sign up to bet $1 on a date when Obama would be killed. "Stabbing, shooting, roadside bombs, they all count," the sign said. At the bottom of the marker board was written "Let's hope someone wins."

_Racist graffiti was found in places including New York's Long Island, where two dozen cars were spray-painted; Kilgore, Texas, where the local high school and skate park were defaced; and the Los Angeles area, where swastikas, racial slurs and "Go Back To Africa" were spray painted on sidewalks, houses and cars.

_Second- and third-grade students on a school bus in Rexburg, Idaho, chanted "assassinate Obama," a district official said.

_University of Alabama professor Marsha L. Houston said a poster of the Obama family was ripped off her office door. A replacement poster was defaced with a death threat and a racial slur. "It seems the election brought the racist rats out of the woodwork," Houston said.

_Black figures were hanged by nooses from trees on Mount Desert Island, Maine, the Bangor Daily News reported. The president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas said a rope found hanging from a campus tree was apparently an abandoned swing and not a noose.

_Crosses were burned in yards of Obama supporters in Hardwick, N.J., and Apolacan Township, Pa.

_A black teenager in New York City said he was attacked with a bat on election night by four white men who shouted 'Obama.'

_In the Pittsburgh suburb of Forest Hills, a black man said he found a note with a racial slur on his car windshield, saying "now that you voted for Obama, just watch out for your house."

Emotions are often raw after a hard-fought political campaign, but now those on the losing side have an easy target for their anger.

"The principle is very simple," said BJ Gallagher, a sociologist and co-author of the diversity book "A Peacock in the Land of Penguins." "If I can't hurt the person I'm angry at, then I'll vent my anger on a substitute, i.e., someone of the same race."

"We saw the same thing happen after the 9-11 attacks, as a wave of anti-Muslim violence swept the country. We saw it happen after the Rodney King verdict, when Los Angeles blacks erupted in rage at the injustice perpetrated by 'the white man.'"

"It's as stupid and ineffectual as kicking your dog when you've had a bad day at the office," Gallagher said. "But it happens a lot."

Associated Press writers Errin Haines, Jerry Harkavy, Jay Reeves, Johnny Taylor and researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.

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Legal battle over forest is victory for Paraguayan Indians

By Arthur Brice

(CNN) -- A small tribe of Indians in Paraguay who have had virtually no contact with the outside world won a legal battle this week when rights groups stopped a Brazilian company from continuing to bulldoze the forest to clear land for cattle ranches.

About 2,000 members of the Ayoreo ethnic group live in 13 settlements in Bolivia and Paraguay.

About 2,000 members of the Ayoreo ethnic group live in 13 settlements in Bolivia and Paraguay.

The Totobiegosode tribe, said to number no more than 300, is the last group of uncontacted Indians in South America outside the Amazon River basin, indigenous rights groups say.

The Totobiegosode, who are part of the larger Ayoreo ethnic group, are nomadic Indians who hunt and fish, as well as gather fruit and honey and cultivate small temporary plots during the rainy season. They live communally, four to six families to a dwelling, in the dense forests of northwestern Paraguay.

Two Brazilian companies have been rapidly clearing land the Totobiegosode live on, and the tribe has lost nearly 15,000 acres (about 6,000 hectares) this year, according to British-based Survival International, an advocacy organization for the rights of tribal people.

A ruling Thursday by Paraguay's secretary of the environment canceled a special permit for one of the companies, Yaguarete Pora S.A., to clear the land.

The legal battle is being waged by local groups such as GAT, an acronym in Spanish for People, Environment and Territory. The activist groups have undertaken the fight without the knowledge of the Totobiegosode.

Indian rights proponents see Thursday's ruling as an important victory.

"This sends a very significant signal," said Jonathan Mazower, campaign coordinator for Survival International. "Until now, the ranchers and the landowners have really had it all their own way. They are very politically powerful and well-funded. ... This may be a sign that the government is starting to get a grip on the situation."

As their territory has been gobbled up, some Totobiegosode have been spotted by other Indians retreating deeper into the vanishing jungle: a group of eight or nine men on one occasion, a smaller group several days earlier, Survival International reported in a release Friday.

The problems for the larger Ayoreo ethnic group, who share a common language and culture and can be found in Bolivia and Paraguay, started about 50 years ago. Between 1959 and 1987, most Ayoreos were forced off their ancestral land, according to the World Rainforest Movement, which describes itself as international network of citizens' groups involved in efforts to defend the world's rainforests.

About 2,000 Ayoreos live in 13 settlements: 10 in Bolivia and three in Paraguay, the rainforest group says.

Only the Totobiegosode tribe still lives in the forest, without contact with other Ayoreos or foreigners, in an area known as Amotocodie.

Although no one has any direct contact with the Totobiegosode still in the jungle, their presence can be seen by such signs as footprints and holes in trees that indicate they have been gathering honey, the rainforest group says. There also have been occasional sightings in the distance.

Mazower said he interviewed a small group of Totobiegosode who made contact with the outside world in 2004 and who described what their life is like.

"We were always running," Mazower said one Indian told him. "We would suddenly hear these bulldozers. We thought that it was a kind of monster that could smell us. We could see fire. We were very afraid, and we ran."

The bulldozers, Mazower said, are much larger than the commercial bulldozers seen at construction sites. Often, crews will string a chain between two bulldozers, which will move in tandem to cut down an increased number of trees.

As a result, many groups of Totobiegosode are fragmented into isolated patches as they scatter, divided by areas with no forest and increasingly busy roads. Families can be separated, and their lives become increasingly difficult, Mazower said.

By Survival International's reckoning, the forest where the Totobiegosode live is being destroyed at a faster rate than the Amazon jungle as a whole.

Despite Thursday's ruling, some observers say the future of tribes still living in the jungle in Paraguay and elsewhere, particularly Brazil, does not bode well.

"It's almost impossible in some sense to protect these tribes," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy center.

The reason, he said, is the same as it has been since the Western world started being colonized more than 500 years ago: "There's a lot of money to be made."

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Downed US spy plane now ‘property’ of MILF rebels

By Al Jacinto, Correspondent

ZAMBOANGA CITY: Philippine Muslim rebels recently shot down a US spy drone flying inside their territory in the restive southern region of Mindanao, where American forces are aiding local troops in fighting separatist and communist insurgents.

Mohagher Iqbal, a senior leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), on Friday said that the drone had been captured by rebel forces in the hinterlands of Talayan town in Maguindanao province.

He added that the spy plane was shot down on the night of October 31. Iqbal said the rebels recovered the plane on November 1 and the MILF leadership announced the capture of the drone on the same day.

Iqbal did not say whether the drone was armed or had a thermal and infrared video camera, only that the aircraft had a wing span of eight feet. He said the rebels had fired at the drone with automatic weapons.

“The spy plane is still in good condition and intact and we will not give it back to the US military. It is now the property of the MILF,” Iqbal told The Manila Times.

There were no immediate statements from either Philippine or US military officials about the shooting down of the drone.

The capture of the spy plane, though, exposed the apparent involvement of American forces in local anti-insurgency operations, which is a violation of the Constitution.

A US military spy plane also crashed in North Cotabato province near Maguindanao on October 18 after hitting a row of coconut trees. The news of the crash was kept secret by Filipino and US authorities until the local media reported about it a week later.

This plane, with a wing span of about eight feet, went down at night on a civilian neighborhood in Pikit town. Policemen quickly cordoned off the wreckage and returned the morning of October 18 to collect debris of the drone.

The drone is one of many spy aircraft used by US forces in surveillance operations in southern Philippines. It can be deployed for destructive missions.

There are three basic types of drones: the pre-programmed, the smart and the remotely-piloted.

A pre-programmed drone responds to an onboard timer or scheduler and has no sensor contact with the ground. The drone follows a set routine of maneuvers and altitude, speed and course changes that are programmed through an autopilot to the drone’s control surfaces and engine throttle. The drone is usually recovered by a parachute at the end of a mission.

A smart drone carries various sensors and is equipped with an onboard computer. Its ability to make decisions governing course and altitude changes is limited only by its computer and sensor capacity.

It can take off on its own from a given airport, navigate a circuituous route, make decisions en route based on weather or enemy radar action, fly to a second airport and make a safe landing.

The remotely-piloted drone, probably the most common of drones, is under the constant control of an operator or pilot through radio links. The pilot or pilots can be located on the ground, in other aircraft or on ships.

Typical missions for remotely-piloted drones include reconnaissance or surveillance of enemy activities, target acquisition, relay of friendly communications and jamming of enemy communications.

Advanced remotely-piloted drones are equipped with low-light-level television and infrared sensors that allow over-the-horizon reconnaissance imagery to be transmitted to ground commanders as it is being acquired.

In 2006, villagers in Sulu province, also in Mindanao, held for ransom an unmanned US drone that had crashed there. It was used by the Philippine military in tracking down the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group that is linked to al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah.

This drone, which was remotely-controlled, went down on February 10 in the village of Marang in Indanan town. Local television news showed footage of a villager holding the spy plane with a wing span of about one meter and slim body and a video camera mounted on its belly. The villagers demanded P100,000 in exchange for the unmanned aircraft.

Another US unmanned spy plane also crashed in November 2007 during a practice flight in Mount Tumatangis in Sulu. It was unknown if the drone was found or not, but the crash was never reported to the press.

In March 2002, a US spy drone called Predator also went down into the sea off Zamboanga City, also in Mindanao. It crashed for still unknown reasons and was also recovered.

The US military has a fleet of various unmanned spy planes, from a palm-size remote-con-trolled aircraft, to bigger and sophisticated high-altitude, long-range remotely-piloted ones designed for long-endurance photographic reconnaissance and electronic surveillance missions, and as attack aircraft.

It had used a Philippine Air Force base on Mactan island in Cebu province in central Philippines as station for its fleet of Orion spy planes.

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