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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Libya in Chaos

If Power Shifts In Libya, Transition Could Be Bumpy : NPR

If Power Shifts In Libya, Transition Could Be Bumpy : NPR

Abdel Magid Al Fergany/AP

Libyan  leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks in Tripoli on June 12, 2010, during a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of  the evacuation of the American military bases in the country.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks in Tripoli on June 12, 2010, during a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the evacuation of the American military bases in the country.

If the popular uprising in Libya succeeds, and protesters drive leader Moammar Gadhafi from power, the transition could be far from smooth.

Gadhafi's political genius has been his skill in creating a state that revolves completely around him while claiming that he has no formal role in government and is simply an adviser to the people.

During his 42-year reign, Gadhafi has dismantled nearly all the state institutions of the former monarchy he overthrew in 1969, creating a form of government that only functions because of massive amounts of oil money, political repression and his own skills in playing off competing interests that might challenge his grip on power.

Professor Udo Steinbach at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, says Gadhafi "created a Libya of two systems — one built around Gadhafi, his sons and his family, the other around the 'people's committees.' "

Gadhafi sat at the center of both systems; the first controlled the power and money, the second controlled the people.

Officially, the roughly 6 million citizens of Libya are ruled by a bewildering array of people's committees, from local neighborhoods right up to the national level. Many of these committees were either ineffective talking shops or had overlapping or contradictory responsibilities, creating a system where nobody knew who was responsible for anything, and who was supposed to be in control. Except that everyone knew who was really making the decisions — Gadhafi.

Although portrayed as a revolutionary system of giving direct control of the state to the people themselves, Dr. Alia Brahimi of the London School of Economics says the system "enshrines [Gadhafi's] inherent suspicion of state bureaucracies and institutions, and reinforced Gadhafi's divide-and-rule strategy," effectively preventing the development of any centers of power that could have challenged his leadership.

In the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, the armed forces were a source of national cohesion and stability — but Steinbach says that resource would be not available in Libya since the army is "practically useless" and Gadhafi "has divided it using the tribal system. It was never a national army in the true sense."

"Gadhafi was always suspicious of the army as a potential rival power base," says Brahimi, "and his rule has been riven with coup attempts, so the army has been deliberately emasculated and made powerless by Gadhafi."

Gadhafi was always suspicious of the army as a potential rival power base, and his rule has been riven with coup attempts, so the army has been deliberately emasculated and made powerless by Gadhafi.

Instead, she says, the Libyan leader has created "a number of militias which are ideologically and personally allied to the man himself."

"It will be a long and laborious process of rebuilding the power of the state," Steinbach says, and Libya will have to go back to its roots to find structures to replace the Gadhafi regime.

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libya as a country is actually an amalgam of about 140 tribes and clans, and "the traditional tribal leaders have come up recently," Steinbach says. Two of the largest tribes, the Warfalla and the Misurata, were the first to declare against Gadhafi. But others, notably the Qadhafah and Magariha, provide many members of the security forces. So if Gadhafi goes, there could be competition for power and influence between the tribes.

But, says Brahimi, "the tribes themselves have been fragmented over time, and a huge element of Libya's population lives in the cities, and they are less identified by their tribal affiliation."

About 97 percent of Libya's population is Sunni Muslim, which could be a unifying force for a new Libya.

Steinbach sees an opportunity for the Senussi religious and political movement, which led the struggle for Libya's independence from Italy "and ran Libya quite effectively until the Gadhafi revolution." Its leader, the former King Idris, was overthrown by Gadhafi in 1969. Although some reports say up to a third of Libyans still claim affiliation to the Senussi movement, Brahimi of the London School of Economics says the movement isn't what it used to be. "Their networks and capabilities have been severely and deliberately weakened by Gadhafi."

As for mainstream religion: "Up till now, to be a cleric in a mosque in Libya, you essentially had to have the backing of the state, and most had been co-opted into the system," Brahimi says. However, she says, "it was significant when we heard [recently] that some imams were refusing to read out the weekly sermon that had been handed out by the regime."

Map of Libya

Until the recent uprising, the most serious threat to Gadhafi's rule came in the 1990s, when he was nearly killed in an assassination attempt, and his security forces fought a series of battles against militants of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

They "were physically crushed by Gadhafi and the remaining leadership put in jail," says Brahimi. "Although those leaders were released over recent years in return for a renunciation of violence."

For his part, Steinbach says he believes "there is a danger of Islamist elements, including the AQIM [Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb] and other radicals" gaining influence in the chaos that would likely follow if Gadhafi falls.

In this case, says Steinbach, Libyans would have to rely heavily on "their intellectuals, especially intellectuals coming from abroad" to create a new system of government, "in a country with no structures, no parties and no constitution."

"Obviously there are tough times ahead," says Brahimi. "It's an unusual level of repression over an unusually long period of time."

But she sees grounds for optimism.

"There are a great number of intellectuals and a great number of very capable people in both Benghazi and Tripoli who are democratic reformers committed to rebuilding their country," she says. We should not underestimate the power of their message, she adds. "The notion of restoring human rights and democracy will find wide resonance in a society that has been kept in such isolation and under such repression for such a long time."

Fighting Piracy At Sea And In Court : NPR

Fighting Piracy At Sea And In Court : NPR

Until four Americans died this week after they were captured by Somali raiders, the United States and other countries considered pirates a nuisance. The world's navies catch and release hundreds of pirates off the African coast every year, and no one has worried too much about it.

The killings represent a new level of violence in the thriving high seas enterprise.

Fifteen pirates are now in custody in the incident, many of them headed to the U.S. to face criminal charges. But experts say that may be the worst option in fighting the piracy problem.

Nikolas Gvosdev, who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College, told NPR's Talk of the Nation that the killings could be a "9/11 moment," like when passengers and airlines decided they had to fight back against hijackers.

"The question is whether or not we've reached that tipping point in the waters off Somalia, where shipping companies and governments and the public say we can't tolerate this anymore," he said. "This isn't simply a price of doing business, that you accept some extra insurance payments and the cost of ransoms are spread out throughout the system, but something actually has to be done."

What has to be done is the subject of a big review by the Obama administration, and debate in the military and legal communities.

Piracy was the first internationally recognized crime. Governments worked together to stamp it out more than a century ago, only to see it return in full force, says lawyer David Rivkin. "We're talking about something that's come back," Rivkin says. "It's like a disease that's been virtually eradicated, that [has] sprung back and is just spreading like wildfire."

It's like a disease that's been virtually eradicated, that [has] sprung back and is just spreading like wildfire.
- Lawyer David Rivkin
Rivkin says international cooperation is the solution, and he has called on the U.N. Security Council to create a special tribunal to handle pirates. He also wants the U.S. and Europe to give more financial support and training to African countries to help them deal with the problem.

But Eugene Kontorovich, who teaches international law at Northwestern University, disagrees. "I don't see a serious role for the U.N. here," he says.

And Kontorovich says governments all over the world are loath to prosecute pirates because "nobody wants these pirates hanging out in their jails, later to be released to gain asylum in their cities."

Kontorovich says the U.S. and other governments need to change the law, to make it easier to prosecute by targeting the trappings of piracy.

Poor Somali fishermen often carry big guns such as AK-47s to protect themselves, he says, "but if you have some kind of combination of rifles, [rocket-propelled grenades], grappling hooks, boarding ladders and dollar-counting machines, there we might presume that you are engaged in attempted piracy."

Countries followed a similar approach in the drug wars. For instance, they made it a crime to have mini-submarines. The law now assumes that if you have a submersible, you're using it to carry drugs.

But criminal prosecution has some drawbacks. It's expensive, and it can take a long time.

Last year, a jury in Virginia convicted five Somali pirates — the first jury verdict in a piracy case in almost 200 years. A pirate sent to New York pleaded guilty.

Attorney General Eric Holder is deciding where to send the pirates involved in the latest incident. He'll make an announcement once the men land on U.S. soil.

Gvosdev says the real solution to the pirate problem is not on the high seas but on land, because "this is a profitable business."

He says, "It is essentially the main driver for revenue in Somalia. It trickles down, from the businessmen who sponsor pirate attacks through to the pirates through to a whole variety of villagers and people who provide services."

He says the U.S. might want to consider economic incentives and social programs, such as starting a coast guard that would pay unemployed Somalis to police the waters themselves.

Panel Pushes Back Delivery Of Gulf Oil Spill Report : NPR

Panel Pushes Back Delivery Of Gulf Oil Spill Report : NPR

A federal panel investigating the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and massive Gulf oil spill won't finish its final report by the one-year anniversary of the disaster as it had hoped.

Delays in testing the blowout preventer that failed to stop the spill forced the joint U.S. Coast Guard-Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement panel to seek another deadline extension.

Its final report was due in March. Instead, the investigation team told The Associated Press on Friday the panel now has until July. It will make a preliminary statement by mid-April.

The firm hired to do the blowout preventer testing should issue its findings by March 20. Its $3.6 million government contract for forensic analysis of the device, which was set to expire Monday, has been extended.

Blowout preventers sit at the wellhead of exploratory wells and are supposed to lock in place to prevent a spill in case of an explosion.

The 300-ton device that was used with BP's blown-out Macondo well was raised from the seafloor on Sept. 4 and taken to a NASA facility in New Orleans, where it sat for two months before testing began Nov. 16.

Since then, investigators have disassembled the device, run hydraulic fluids through parts of it and are preparing to test the pods that control the device to determine if they were functioning properly at the time of the explosion. Cut drill pipe was found inside the blowout preventer, suggesting to investigators that the shear rams at least partially closed at some point.

Shear rams are components in a blowout preventer that cut, or shear, through drill pipe and form a seal against well pressure.

No conclusions have yet been reached about what exactly happened and why oil was still allowed to flow to the sea.

The rig explosion killed 11 workers and led to more than 200 million gallons of oil spewing from the well a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico.

The federal investigative panel expects to hold another set of public hearings the week of April 4 to focus specifically on the blowout preventer findings.

Friday, February 25, 2011

U.S. Imposes Sanctions to Deter Libya -

Coat of arms of Libya -- the "Hawk of Qur...Image via WikipediaU.S. Imposes Sanctions to Deter Libya -

WASHINGTON — The United States closed its embassy in Tripoli on Friday and imposed unilateral sanctions against Libya, including the freezing of billions in government assets, as the Obama administration made its most aggressive move against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi since his security forces opened fire on protesters.
Just minutes after a charter flight left Tripoli carrying the last Americans who wanted to leave Libya, officials markedly toughened the administration’s words and actions against Colonel Qaddafi, announcing that high-ranking Libyan officials who supported or participated in his violent crackdown would also see their assets frozen and might, along with Colonel Qaddafi, be subject to war crimes prosecution.
“It’s clear that Colonel Qaddafi has lost the confidence of his people,” said the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, in a briefing that was delayed to allow the plane to take off because the Americans feared that the Libyan leader might harm the passengers. “His legitimacy has been reduced to zero.”
On Friday night, President Obama issued a formal executive order freezing the American-held assets of Colonel Qaddafi, his children and family, and senior members of the Libyan government.
With Colonel Qaddafi killing more of his people every day in a desperate bid to remain in power, it was not clear that these actions would do much to mitigate the worsening crisis. Sanctions, for instance, take time to put in place, and every other option comes with its own set of complications. Colonel Qaddafi, increasingly erratic, has seemed to shrug off outside pressure, becoming even more bizarre — with charges that protesters are on drugs — in the face of the world’s scorn. And unlike with Egypt and Bahrain, close American allies that also erupted into crisis, the United States has few contacts deep inside the Libyan government, and little personal sway with its leadership.
Libya and the United States resumed full diplomatic relations only in 2008; before that it was regarded as an outlaw state. In fact, even as he was announcing that the Obama administration was cutting off military to military cooperation with the Libyan Army, Mr. Carney noted that such cooperation was “limited” — a stark contrast to the deep ties that the Pentagon has cultivated with other Arab armies.
The tougher American response came nine days into the Libyan crisis and six days after Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces first opened fire on protesters at a funeral in Benghazi, plunging Libya into something close to civil war and igniting worldwide condemnation. In the days after, the Obama administration repeatedly called for an end to the violence, but avoided criticizing Colonel Qaddafi by name — a cautious policy that brought criticism from the president’s Republican rivals.
Countering those criticisms, administration officials said they feared a hostage crisis, which tied President Obama’s hands until American citizens, diplomats and their families were evacuated from Libya. A ferry with 167 Americans left Tripoli on Friday afternoon, having been delayed for two days by 15- to 18-foot waves in the Mediterranean, and a charter plane with additional Americans left Friday night. The embassy, Mr. Carney said, “has been shuttered.”

European leaders have been more aggressive. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has called on Colonel Qaddafi to resign, a step that Mr. Obama has yet to take. But American allies and the United Nations also moved to isolate Libya diplomatically. A senior United Nations official said that the world should intervene to stop the bloodshed in Libya, and France and Britain called on the international organization to approve an arms embargo and sanctions. NATO said it was ready to help evacuate refugees.
In Geneva, the normally passive United Nations Human Rights Council voted unanimously on Friday to suspend Libya’s membership, but not before a junior delegate of the Libyan mission announced that he and his colleagues had resigned after deciding to side with the Libyan people. The gesture drew a standing ovation and a handshake from the United States ambassador, Eileen Donahoe.
Administration officials said that getting the people around Colonel Qaddafi to abandon him is a key part of the American and international strategy to isolate him. Administration officials say they are supporting a British proposal to try to bring before a war crimes tribunal Colonel Qaddafi and those who support or enable his violent crackdown.

“It’s hard to do, but the point is to encourage the remaining supporters of Qaddafi to peel off,” said Robert Malley, the Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group. “If you want to accelerate his demise, you send the message that those who do not participate in the violence might not be prosecuted for their association with the regime.”
American officials are also discussing a no-flight zone over Libya to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from using military aircraft against demonstrators. But such a move would have to be coordinated with NATO, and would require a Security Council resolution, diplomats said. Arab governments might object on sovereignty grounds.

Administration officials have avoided public discussion of additional military options. When asked whether the United States was considering using its military assets in the region — including a marine amphibious ship in the Red Sea — to support the rebellion in Libya, Mr. Carney said, “We are not taking any options off the table in the future.” But administration officials said there were no immediate plans to intervene militarily.

The administration’s measures appeared to satisfy human-rights groups. Analysts said they wanted more details about the sanctions, but they were encouraged by signs that the United States would support the effort to have Colonel Qaddafi referred to the International Criminal Court on war-crimes charges, as well as by a special NATO meeting.

“Even if people aren’t explicitly talking about no-fly zones, the fact that NATO met today suggests there is more on people’s minds than diplomacy,” said Tom Malinowski, the director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. “I sense military contingencies are on the table.”
One complication that could speed up consideration of any military action would be evidence that Colonel Qaddafi was prepared to use his remaining stockpile of mustard gas.

The American sanctions will also include travel bans against Colonel Qaddafi and senior members of his government, and the freezing of assets, including a move to freeze all American-controlled portions of Libya’s sovereign wealth fund, administration officials said. Sanctions, once they go into effect, could have an impact on oil-rich Libya. According to an American diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks, a senior Libyan official told American diplomats in January 2010 that the Libyan Investment Authority, which manages the country’s oil revenue, had $32 billion in cash, and that several American banks managed up to $500 million in each of those funds. Administration officials said they planned to go after that money as part of the punitive sanctions.

“The government of Libya has claimed that it holds as much as $130 billion in reserves and its sovereign wealth fund reportedly holds more than $70 billion in foreign assets,” an Obama administration official said. The official said that “while we are aware of certain assets owned by the Libyan government in the U.S., there are likely additional funds that we are not aware of.”
Analysts said that going after the assets of Colonel Qaddafi’s aides would probably be more effective than going after those held by the leader himself, given that he is engaged in an all-or-nothing defense of his rule.

A more draconian approach, suggested Danielle Pletka, an expert on sanctions at the American Enterprise Institute, would be to impose a trade embargo on Libya, excepting only food and other humanitarian aid.

The United Nations Security Council will discuss a proposal backed by France and Britain for multilateral sanctions, including an arms embargo and financial sanctions. But no definitive move was expected until next week. Italy, which is not in the Security Council and has deep investments in Libya, said Friday that it also backed sanctions.

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Paris, Rachel Donadio from Valletta, Malta, and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.

Protesters' Message To Gadhafi: 'There Will Be Freedom' : The Two-Way : NPR

Protesters' Message To Gadhafi: 'There Will Be Freedom' : The Two-Way : NPR

Events continue to move quickly in Libya. Leader Moammar Gadhafi is said to be hunkered down in Tripoli — where, The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof reports, the sounds of gunfire can be heard.

The BBC reports that "eyewitnesses in Tripoli say that security forces are now shooting at protesters in the capital's suburbs."

Anti-Gadhafi organizers are hoping there will be large protests today in the Libyan capital. Al-Jazeera says that "security forces are deployed around mosques in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, fearing protests when Friday prayers end shortly."

As Korva reported earlier, Gadhafi's son Seif said today that the family's "plan A is to live and die in Libya; plan B is to live and die in Libya; plan C is to live and die in Libya."

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, reporting from the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, told NPR's Newcast earlier that again today thousands of people are outside the city's courthouse. Gadhafi's forces abandoned the city earlier this week, and Lourdes says that the people there are trying to send this message to other Libyans: "There will be freedom in this country, the whole of the country, not just the east."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Julian Assange Ordered by Court to Be Extradited to Sweden -

Julian Assange at New Media Days 09 in Copenhagen.Image via WikipediaJulian Assange Ordered by Court to Be Extradited to Sweden -

LONDON —A British court on Thursday ordered Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, to be extradited to Sweden to face accusations of sexual abuse. His lawyers have seven days to appeal the ruling and immediately indicated that they would so.

Mr. Assange, dressed in the blue suit he has worn to previous hearings, sat impassively as the decision was read. He is currently free on bail and the court continued that, subject to conditions which were being discussed.

Judge Howard Riddle, in his ruling, said that allegations brought by two women qualified as extraditable offenses and that the warrant seeking Mr. Assange’s return to Sweden for questioning was valid.

The verdict marks a turning point in the three-month battle in the British courts and the media against what Mr. Assange, his legal team and his celebrity supporters say is a conspiracy to stop WikiLeaks and its campaign to expose government and corporate secrets.

The case has been fought against the backdrop of the group’s highest-profile operation yet — the release of a quarter of a million confidential American diplomatic cables that became the basis of articles by news organizations worldwide, including The New York Times.

WikiLeaks supporters, many of whom contend that the case against Mr. Assange is retribution for the cables’ release, have mobbed courthouses over the course of six acrimonious hearings, chanting, “We love you, Julian.” Mr. Assange was initially denied bail and briefly jailed after defying a judge’s request to provide an address.

Swedish prosecutors argued that Mr. Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, must return to Stockholm to face accusations by two women who say that he sexually abused them last August. Under Sweden’s strict sexual-crimes laws, he is accused of two counts of sexual molestation, one count of unlawful coercion and one count of rape. His accusers, both WikiLeaks volunteers, have said that their sexual encounters with Mr. Assange started out as consensual but turned nonconsensual.

Mr. Assange has said the accusations are “incredible lies,” and he has referred to Sweden as “the Saudi Arabia of feminism.”

Judge Little said on Thursday that if there have been abuses in Sweden, “the right place for these to be examined and remedied is in the Swedish trial system.”

Mr. Assange has also denied accusations by the Swedish authorities that he fled the country in September rather than surrender to the police; he says he left Sweden with permission. And he has denounced the leaks of two Swedish police documents that provided graphic details of the accusations.

Mr. Assange, and his lawyers have signaled their intent to take their fight to Britain’s highest courts, and even to the European Court of Human Rights. In adjourning a hearing earlier this month to make his decision, Judge Riddle said with a note of resignation that whatever he decided would “perhaps inevitably be appealed.”

The long and costly legal battle has left Mr. Assange isolated in the country house of a wealthy friend, and he is electronically monitored as a condition of his bail.

During the legal fight, many of his closest colleagues have defected from WikiLeaks, and a dozen of them formed a rival Web site, OpenLeaks. The United States Justice Department, meanwhile, has subpoenaed his Twitter account as part of an investigation that could lead to espionage charges.

In one of the frequent interviews from his friend’s house, Mr. Assange compared himself to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In a recorded speech played this month at a rally in Melbourne, Australia, his adopted hometown, he went further, comparing the struggles of WikiLeaks to those of African-Americans who fought for equal rights in the 1950s, of protesters who sought an end to the Vietnam War in the ‘60s and of the feminist and environmental movements. “For the Internet generation,” he said, “this is our challenge, and this is our time.”

Mr. Assange is also working on his autobiography, which he has said will be worth $1.7 million in publishing deals. “I don’t want to write this book, but I have to,” he said in a December interview with The Sunday Times of London, explaining that his legal costs had reached more than $300,000. “I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat.”

The book, he said, will detail his “global struggle to force a new relationship between the people and their governments.” He said he hoped the book, due out in April, “will become one of the unifying documents of our generation.”

This month, in another fund-raising effort, he organized what he called a “dinner for free speech,” encouraging online supporters to donate to his defense and dine with friends while watching a video message he had recorded. On a Web site to promote the idea, where he was pictured holding a wine glass aloft, he was quoted as declaring, “There are four things that cannot be concealed for long, the sun, the moon, the truth — and dessert!”

WikiLeaks, though unable to process and release new material, has continued to post classified United States diplomatic cables from the cache of the more than 250,000 it has obtained. Recent examples have included documents concerning the opulent lifestyle of the family of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. The documents were widely disseminated during the revolution that ousted Mr. Ben Ali and started a wave of protests in the Arab world.

In recent weeks, some of Mr. Assange’s supporters, eager to see WikiLeaks operating with its founder’s full attention, have been echoing a question asked by a judge at one of the initial hearings in the case. “If he is so keen to clear his name,” the judge, Justice Duncan Ouseley, asked in December, “what stops a voluntary return to Sweden?”

Mr. Assange told friends in Britain he feared that if he returned to Sweden he would be extradited to the United States and perhaps be detained at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, or executed. But one of his former WikiLeaks colleagues said in an interview that he thought Mr. Assange’s reason was more mundane.

The colleague, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who is one of the OpenLeaks founders, told reporters last week that when Mr. Assange first heard about the sexual abuse allegations in late August, “he was not concerned about the United States.”

“He was very scared of going to prison in Sweden,” Mr. Domscheit-Berg said, “which he thought might happen.” Such charges carry a maximum sentence of four years and no minimum sentence.

Richard Berry contributed reporting from Paris.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Obama Orders End to Defense of Federal Gay Marriage Law -

Official portrait of United States Attorney Ge...Image via WikipediaObama Orders End to Defense of Federal Gay Marriage Law -

WASHINGTON — President Obama, in a major legal policy shift, has directed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act — the 1996 law that bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages — against lawsuits challenging it as unconstitutional.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. sent a letter to Congress on Wednesday saying that the Justice Department will now take the position in court that the Defense of Marriage Act should be struck down as a violation of gay couples’ rights to equal protection under the law.

“The President and I have concluded that classifications based on sexual orientation warrant heightened scrutiny and that, as applied to same-sex couples legally married under state law,” a crucial provision of the act is unconstitutional, Mr. Holder wrote.

The move is sure to be welcomed by gay-rights advocates, who had often criticized Mr. Obama for moving too slowly in his first two years in office to address issues that concern them. Coming after the administration successfully pushed late last year for repeal of the military’s ban on gay men and women serving openly, the change of policy on the marriage law could intensify the long-running political and ideological clash over gay marriage as the 2012 presidential campaign approaches.

While Mr. Obama has long argued that the Defense of Marriage Act is bad policy and has urged Congress to repeal it, his administration has also sent Justice Department lawyers into court to defend the statute’s constitutionality.

The new position will require the administration to file new briefs in such litigation, including a major case now pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston.

Congress may decide to appoint its own lawyers to defend the law, or outside groups may attempt to intervene in the cases in order to mount legal arguments in the law’s defense. Mr. Holder said that the administration will continue to enforce the act unless and until Congress repeals it, or a court delivers a “definitive verdict against the law’s constitutionality.”

“Our attorneys will also notify the courts of our interest in providing Congress a full and fair opportunity to participate in the litigation in those cases,” he wrote. “We will remain parties to the case and continue to represent the interests of the United States throughout the litigation.”

The decision to change position grew out of an internal administration policy argument, first reported by The New York Times in January, over how to respond to two lawsuits filed late last year in New York.

Citing an executive-branch duty to defend acts of Congress when plausible arguments exist that they are constitutional, the Obama administration had previously argued that legal challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act should be dismissed.

But those lawsuits were filed in circuits that had precedents saying that when gay people say a law infringes on their rights, judges should use a test called “rational basis” to evaluate that claim. Under that standard, the law is presumed to be constitutional, and challengers must prove that there is no conceivable rational government basis for enacting it, a hard standard for challengers to meet.

But the new lawsuits were filed in districts covered by the appeals court in New York. That court has no precedent establishing which legal test judges should use when evaluating claims that a federal law violates gay people’s rights.

That vacuum meant that the administration’s legal team had to perform its own analysis of whether gay people were entitled to the protection of a test known as “heightened scrutiny.” Under that test, it is much easier to challenge laws that unequally affect a group, because the test presumes that such laws are unconstitutional, and they may be upheld only if the lawmakers’ purpose in enacting them served a compelling governmental interest.

In his letter, Mr. Holder said the administration legal team had decided that gay people merited the protection of the “heightened scrutiny” test, and that under that standard, the Defense of Marriage Act was impossible to keep defending as constitutional.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Emanuel Triumphs in Chicago Mayoral Race -

Rahm Emanuel, White House Chief of Staff, form...Image via WikipediaEmanuel Triumphs in Chicago Mayoral Race -

CHICAGO — Rahm Emanuel, a former congressman who worked for two presidents, was elected mayor of Chicago on Tuesday, a victory that marks a new path for a city that has, for 22 years, been led by a singular, powerful force, Richard M. Daley.

Mr. Emanuel, who will take office in May, had 55 percent of the vote against five other candidates with 90 percent of the precincts reporting.

The victory allows him to avoid a one-on-one runoff election in April that had been seen by some opponents as their best chance to defeat Mr. Emanuel.

His closest competitor, Gery J. Chico, a former chief of staff to Mr. Daley, came in second, with 24 percent of the vote. After Mr. Chico spoke on the telephone to Mr. Emanuel on Tuesday evening, Mr. Chico told his supporters that he had pledged his support, from here on out, to Mr. Emanuel's efforts for Chicago.

"Let’s all work together to get behind the new mayor," Mr. Chico told a subdued group during his brief concession speech, "and make this the best city on the face of the earth."

Mr. Emanuel, 51, is well known to nearly everyone here — less, perhaps, for his years as a congressman from the North Side than for his ties to President Obama, a fellow Chicagoan for whom he served as the White House chief of staff.

Some voters here viewed that connection as both an affirmation to support Mr. Emanuel and as a potential advantage for Chicago in its future dealings with Washington.

As the next mayor of this city, the nation’s third largest, Mr. Emanuel faces significant challenges. He must cope with staggering unfunded pension liabilities, as well as a budget deficit around $600 million, by some estimates. Easy fixes — the proceeds of privatization deals of the city’s parking meters, for instance — have already been used. Meanwhile, the city’s population of 2.69 million is smaller than it was a decade ago, unhappy news for a new mayor who would wish to see a growing tax base.

“There are no more rabbits to pull out of the hat,” said Joe Moore, an alderman from the North Side for the last 20 years, referring to the city’s budget of about $6 billion. “What is left for the next mayor and the next City Council is a series of bad choices — cutting services, perhaps raising taxes and fees.”

A Daley (the current mayor or his father, Richard J., who operated with a similarly tight control) has run this city for 42 of the past 55 years, and Mr. Emanuel, the city’s first Jewish mayor, is likely to be compared with that family’s legacy at every turn.

Among the questions certain to arise: How does he now handle the city’s 50 aldermen, some of whose political careers were owed to the current mayor and others who pressed for Mr. Emanuel’s opponents?

How may he push to change city workers’ pensions, a system he has described as unsustainable? And how does he soothe differences that arose during a tense campaign — differences with public-sector unions that endorsed Mr. Chico and with African-American leaders who pushed for Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman in the United States Senate?

Mr. Emanuel — who has spent plenty of time working behind the scenes for other politicians, including Mayor Daley and President Bill Clinton — has long been known for his tough-guy methods of negotiating, his harsh, blunt retorts, and his use of four-letter words. But over the last five months, in his own campaign, Mr. Emanuel showed a far more reserved side. That left some here wondering which Mr. Emanuel — fierce or muted — may next appear, with the campaign over and the governing ahead.

Mr. Emanuel had long suggested that he would love to be the mayor of Chicago, his birthplace. But his immediate road to City Hall began last September, when Mayor Daley stunned this city and announced he would not seek a seventh term. That meant the first mayoral election in 64 years without a sitting mayor on the ballot, and a huge crop of would-be candidates began emerging from seemingly every political rank.

In October, Mr. Emanuel left his post as White House chief of staff to return to Chicago for a run, and the number of candidates quickly began shrinking. In the months that followed, he would raise some $13 million andcampaign at more than 100 neighborhood L trainstations, 229 neighborhood stops and20 schools.

In the end, the effort — far more elaborate and expensive than his five opponents’ — spared him from a runoff in April. Some opponents had viewed that second race — a head-to-head race with only one candidate — as the only chance of defeating Mr. Emanuel.

At points in the campaign, Mr. Emanuel’s inevitability faltered over a seemingly simple question: Was he really a resident of Chicago? Critics challenged him, saying his time at the White House meant he failed to meet a requirement that candidates live in Chicago for the year immediately before Election Day. The Illinois Supreme Court found that he was allowed to run — he had never lost legal residency at his North Side home, the justices found — but not before the issue became a major drama here, with election workers, at one point, urgently halting the printing of ballots.

If the residency battle ultimately drew sympathy to Mr. Emanuel, it also raised a question that his opponents had quietly pressed on all along: Was he a true, die-hard Chicagoan the way Mr. Daley — an avid White Sox fan and a constant, if gruff cheerleader for his city — was a Chicagoan? Mr. Emanuel spent part of his youth in the northern suburbs, in addition to his working time in Washington — details regularly noted by his critics.

But voters who chose him on Tuesday seemed to dismiss the question. “Who cares if he lived on the North Shore?” said Ben Fogel, a social worker who said he was voting for Mr. Emanuel. “I have family there, and it is close enough.” The distinction was silly now, his supporters said, a nonissue in a post-Daley world.

Earthquake Kills Dozens In Major New Zealand City Christchurch : NPR

Earthquake Kills Dozens In Major New Zealand City Christchurch : NPR
People walk through debris in the aftermath of a strong earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, Tuesday. The region is still recovering from a 7.1 quake in September.
People walk through debris in the aftermath of a strong earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, Tuesday. The region is still recovering from a 7.1 quake in September.

People walk through debris in the aftermath of a strong earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, Tuesday. The region is still recovering from a 7.1 quake in September.

February 22, 2011

Parts of Christchurch, New Zealand, were in shambles Tuesday after a powerful earthquake struck
at midday, toppling tall buildings and historic churches and killing at least 65 people.

The South Island city of about 370,000 people was still rebuilding from a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in September and another strong aftershock in December when the magnitude 6.3 quake struck Tuesday. Although the quake was weaker in magnitude than the one in September, it appeared to cause far more destruction.
"It is just a scene of utter devastation," Prime Minister John Key said after rushing to the city within hours of the quake. He said the death toll was 65, and may rise. "This may be New Zealand's darkest day," he told TV One News.

The spire of the city's well-known stone cathedral toppled into a central square, while video footage showed multistory buildings collapsed in on themselves, and others with walls that had fallen into streets strewn with bricks and shattered concrete.

Mark Mitchell/AP

Rescue workers try to extinguish flames at a collapsed building in central Christchurch, a city of about 370,000 people.
Sidewalks and roads were cracked and split, while thousands of dazed, screaming and crying residents wandered through the streets as sirens blared. Groups of people helped
victims clutching bleeding wounds, and others were carried to private vehicles in makeshift stretchers fashioned from rugs or bits of debris.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker declared a state of emergency and ordered people to evacuate the city center. Troops were deployed to help people get out and to throw up a security cordon around the stricken area, said Deputy Prime Minister Bill English.

The airport was closed, and Christchurch Hospital was briefly evacuated before it was deemed safe and patients were returned. Power and telephone lines were knocked out, and pipes burst, flooding the streets with water. Some cars parked on the street were buried under rubble.
The quake struck just before 1 p.m. local time, as the streets and businesses of Christchurch were teeming with activity. Key urged residents to evacuate the city, promising they'll be looked after.

It is just a scene of utter devastation. This may be New Zealand's darkest day.

- Prime Minister John Key

Some people were stuck in office towers, and firefighters climbed extension ladders to pluck people trapped on roofs to safety. A crane lifted a team of rescuers on a platform to one group of survivors in a high-rise. Plumes of gray smoke drifted into the air at several points around the city from fires burning in the rubble.
Key held an emergency Cabinet meeting then rushed to the stricken city to observe the scene.

People walk through debris in the aftermath of a strong earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, Tuesday. The region is still recovering from a 7.1 quake in September.
He said eight or nine buildings had collapsed, and that officials were working as fast as they can to free an unknown number of people who were trapped.
New Zealand police said in a statement that reports of fatalities included two buses that had been crushed by falling buildings.
Gary Moore said he and 19 other colleagues were trapped in their 12th-floor office after the stairwell collapsed in the quake. He did not know if people on other floors were trapped.

"We watched the cathedral collapse out our window while we were holding onto the walls," Moore said. "Every aftershock sends us rushing
under the desks. It's very unnerving, but we can clearly see there are other priorities out the
window. There has been a lot of damage and I guess people are attending to that before they come and get us."
The multistory Pyne Gould Guinness Building, housing more than 200 workers, collapsed, and an unknown number of people were trapped inside. Television pictures showed rescuers, many of them office workers, dragging severely injured people from the rubble. Many had blood streaming down their faces. Screams could be heard from those still trapped.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the temblor was centered 3 miles from the city at a depth of 2.5 miles. Two large aftershocks — one magnitude 5.6 and another 5.5 — hit the city within two hours, and officials warned people to stay away from damaged buildings because of the danger of further collapses.
"When the shaking had stopped, I looked out of the window, which gives a great view onto Christchurch, and there was just dust," said city councilman Barry Corbett, who was on one of the top floors of the city council building when the quake struck. "It was evident straightaway that a lot of buildings had gone."

Debris crushed a car outside the Christchurch Catholic Cathedral after the quake that was one of the country's worst natural disasters.
A search and rescue team was being flown in from Australia to help in the recovery, and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she had offered Key any other support he requested.

The USGS said the latest quake was part of the "aftershock sequence" following the magnitude 7.1 earthquake on Sept. 4 last year. That quake wrecked hundreds of buildings and inflicted an estimated $3 billion in damage, but caused no deaths.
A strong aftershock in December caused further damage to buildings. The city, considered a tourist center, was still rebuilding from those quakes when Tuesday's temblor hit.

The USGS said the latest quake hit "significantly closer to the main population center of Christchurch" than the September quake, which was centered 25 miles west of city.
"The critical issue with this earthquake was that the epicenter was at shallow depth under Christchurch, so many people were within 6 to 12 miles of the fault rupture," said Gary Gibson, a seismologist at Australia's Melbourne University.
"Its effect depends on how close it is, and ground shaking will be severe within 10 to 20 kilometers of the rupture," he said.

Stuart Cohen in Sydney and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Witnesses Report Bodies In Streets Of Libyan Capital : NPR

The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi.Image via WikipediaWitnesses Report Bodies In Streets Of Libyan Capital : NPR: ""
The bodies of slain protesters were left on the streets of the Libyan capital Tuesday and frightened residents hunkered down in their homes as forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi sought to crush anti-government demonstrations by shooting on sight anyone outside, residents and an opposition activist said.

Amid the crackdown, a defiant Gadhafi appeared on state TV in the early hours Tuesday to show he was still in charge, brandishing a large umbrella and wearing a cap with fur ear flaps, and denying reports he had left the country.

The eruption of turmoil in the capital after a week of protests and bloody clashes in Libya's eastern cities has sharply escalated the challenge to Gadhafi, and his regime has been hit by a string of defections by ambassadors abroad and even some officials at home. His security forces have unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region, which toppled leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, citing sources inside the country, said Tuesday that at least 250 people have been killed and hundreds more injured in the crackdown on protesters in Libya, though its officials said the true number was not known.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the toll at at least 233 killed, based on contacts with Libyan hospitals — but their toll did not include casualties from crackdowns in Tripoli since Sunday night, a sign of the difficulty of getting information out of the highly closed North African Nation.

The head of the U.N. agency, Navi Pillay, called for an investigation, saying widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population "may amount to crimes against humanity."

The first major protests to hit an OPEC country — and major supplier to Europe — sent oil prices soaring to more than $93 a barrel Tuesday, and the industry has begun eyeing reserves touched only after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 1991 Gulf War.

World leaders also have expressed outrage. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Gadhafi to "stop this unacceptable bloodshed" and said the world was watching the events "with alarm."

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, visiting Cairo, denounced the violence and called for dialogue. He said his country was worried about the "imminent danger of a civil war in Libya and the exodus of migrants to Italy." Libya, just across the Mediterranean from southern Italy, is a common departure point for Africans trying to reach Europe, and Italy has close cooperation with Gadhafi's regime on stopping migrants, as well as economic ties.

Protesters demanding Gadhafi's ouster had planned a new rally in Tripoli's central Green Square and other locations Monday evening. But pro-regime militiamen — reportedly a mix of Libyans and foreign mercenaries — fanned out to unleash a heavy crackdown, sealing off neighborhoods and shooting from rooftops, several residents said.

Throughout the night, until just before dawn Tuesday, militiamen assaulted the Tripoli district of Fashloum, an impoverished area where many protesters have come, one resident told The Associated Press.

Militiamen shot any "moving human being" with live ammunition, including ambulances, so wounded were left in the streets to die, the resident said.

He said that as he fled the neighborhood Monday night, he ran across a group of militiamen, including foreign fighters. "The Libyans (among them) warned me to leave and showed me bodies of the dead and told me: `We were given orders to shot anybody who moves in the place,'" said the resident.

"Bodies are now in the streets; those injured and now bleeding can't find a hospital or an ambulance to rescue them. Nobody is allowed to get in and if anybody gets in, will be shot to death," he said.

Like others reached in Libya he spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation. Western media are largely barred from Libya and the report couldn't be independently confirmed.

Another resident said commandos were in control of the streets and were stationed on rooftops, opening fire. "Life is paralyzed, even those who were shot can't go to hospital," he said. "No one is able to walk in the street."

Mohammed Ali, an exile opposition activist, said he had also received reports from residents of scores of bodies in the streets. Inhabitants of the capital of some 2 million people were staying home Tuesday after warnings by Gadhafi loyalists that anybody on the streets would be shot, said Ali, who is based in the Gulf emirate of Dubai.

The week of upheaval in Libya has weakened — if not broken for now — the control of Gadhafi's regime in parts of the east. Protesters in the country's second largest city Benghazi over the weekend overran police stations and security headquarters, taking control of the streets with the help of army units that broke away and sided with them.

Benghazi residents, however, remained in fear of a regime backlash. One doctor in the city said Tuesday many spent the night outside their homes, hearing rumors that airstrikes and artillery assaults were imminent. "We know that although we are in control of the city, Gadhafi loyalists are still here hiding and they can do anything anytime," he said.

A warplane bombed Monday near a military camp that protesters had overwhelmed and were looting for weapons outside the city of Ajdabiya, said one witness, Ahmed al-Zawi. He said he was among those who broke into the camp to seize ammunition, automatic weapons and grenades when the plane dropped a bomb, hitting an empty area nearby, causing no injuries.

"I think the pilot is a good man. He was given orders to bomb the camp but he didn't," al-Zawi said. "We needed the weapons to protect ourselves and the city from the mercenaries."

Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, appeared to be largely under control of protesters, who formed watch groups to guard streets and entrances to the city. The two main local tribes, the Maghrabiya and Zawi, announced their support for the protesters, and tribal fighters were guarding nearby oil fields and refineries to prevent vandalism or looting, al-Zawi said.

Gadhafi, the longest serving Arab leader with nearly 42 years in power, appeared briefly on TV early Tuesday to dispel rumors that he had fled. Sitting in a car in front of what appeared to be his residence and holding an umbrella out of the passenger side door, he told an interviewer that he had wanted to go to the capital's Green Square to talk to his supporters gathered there, but the rain stopped him.

"I am here to show that I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela. Don't believe those misleading dog stations," Gadhafi said, referring to the media reports that he had left the country. The video clip and comments lasted less than a minute.

Gadhafi appeared to have lost the support of at least one major tribe, several military units and his own diplomats, including Libya's ambassador in Washington, Ali Adjali. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi accused Gadhafi of committing genocide against his own people in the current crisis. Two air force colonels flew their Mirage fighter jets to Malta and sought asylum.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Beverly Hills, California, on Monday described the crackdown as "a serious violation of international humanitarian law." The U.N. spokesperson's office said late Monday that the Security Council had scheduled consultations on the situation in Libya for Tuesday morning.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting Egypt, called the crackdown "appalling."

The chaos engulfing the country prompted many foreigners to flee.

Italy's government on Tuesday dispatched an air force jet to Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, to evacuate around 100 Italian citizens. Many countries had already urged their nationals to avoid nonessential travel to Libya, or recommended that those already there leave on commercial flights.

Benghazi's airport was closed, according to an airport official in Cairo.

Egyptian troops, meanwhile, have beefed up their presence on the border with Libya and set up a field hospital as thousands of Egyptians return home from Libya by land, according to an Egyptian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't allowed to release the information.

Oil companies, including Italy's Eni, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and U.K.-based BP have also begun evacuating their expat workers or their families or both.

Jordanians who fled Libya gave horrific accounts of a "bloodbath" in Tripoli, saying they saw people shot, scores of burned cars and shops, and what appeared to be armed mercenaries who looked as if they were from other African countries.

Many billboards and posters of Gadhafi were smashed or burned along a road to downtown Tripoli, "emboldening" protesters, said a man who lives on the western outskirts of the capital.