Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate have reached a deal with the Bush administration that would grant retroactive immunity to major telecommunications firms that have aided the spying on U.S. citizens without court warrants. The measure would wipe out a series of pending lawsuits against the companies for alleged violations of privacy rights. Senate Democrats won a requirement that would allow the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to review the government’s procedures for deciding who is to be the subject of warrantless spying. The measure would also face renewal every six years, instead of being made permanent. The agreement came as House Democrats pulled their version of the surveillance bill under threat of a Republican-led defeat.
Attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey appears headed for Senate approval following his first day of confirmation hearings. On Wednesday, Mukasey defended many of President Bush’s most controversial post-9/11 policies. He said the president has the right to indefinitely detain American citizens without charge. He refused to recommend the closing of the military prison at Guantánamo. And Mukasey said he does not believe prisoners at Guantánamo should be allowed the right of habeas corpus. Meanwhile, Mukasey was harshly critical of a 2002 Justice Department memo on torture, which he described as "worse than a sin."
President Bush has escalated the rhetoric in his standoff with Iran by warning of a "World War Three" unless Iran curb its nuclear ambitions.
President Bush: "So I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. And I take this — I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously. And we’ll continue to work with all nations about the seriousness of this threat."
Bush’s comments came hours after Iranian officials announced Russia had put forth an undisclosed new proposal to end the nuclear standoff. The Bush administration has insisted Iran halt nuclear enrichment as a precondition to talks. Iran says it’s open to talks but without preconditions. President Bush also defended his veto of a bill expanding health insurance to millions of low-income children. He said using the veto is "one way to ensure that I am relevant."
The chair of the Federal Communications Commission is proposing to do away with media ownership rules that bar companies from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city. Kevin Martin says he will allow one month of public comment before the FCC puts the plan to a vote. Martin has backed a series of studies on the rules criticized for an alleged bias toward media consolidation. Gene Kimmelman, vice president of the nonprofit Consumers Union, said: "We will demonstrate that this is purely an ideological, politically motivated effort to allow media companies to consolidate and dominate local markets."
In Turkey, the Parliament has overwhelmingly approved authorization for a military offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. Turkey says it has no imminent plans for an attack but is still massing troops along the border. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani warned against a Turkish incursion.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani: "We hope that the wisdom of our friend Prime Minister Erdogan will be so active that there will be no military intervention, and we, Iraqi government, we are — and Kurdistan regional government are ready to cooperate with Turkish authorities to reach agreement."
Meanwhile in Iraq, there are new indications the private military firm Blackwater USA could be gone by the middle of next year. The Associated Press is reporting U.S. officials expect they won’t renew Blackwater’s contract when it expires in May. The non-renewal would fall short of an outright firing of Blackwater for the killing of at least 17 Iraqi civilians in a mass shooting last month.
In Somalia, the U.N. has suspended food aid in the capital Mogadishu following the arrest of the top World Food Programme official there. Idris Osman was being held overnight after dozens of armed soldiers stormed the U.N. compound. No explanation was given for his arrest. The shutdown will cut off some 75,000 people from receiving aid.
New video testimony has emerged of survivors of the Burmese junta’s crackdown on a popular uprising. Researchers with Amnesty International interviewed dozens of witnesses and victims along the Thai-Burma border. This is one unidentified monk’s account.
Unidentified monk: "Some of the injured were so bloody that you couldn’t tell where blood was coming from. Some of the monks lost the top part of their robes. I saw civilians trying to help an injured monk. Most of their injuries were head injuries. The riot police were aiming for the head."
Researchers also spoke to pro-democracy activist Hlaing Moe Than.
Hlaing Moe Than: "There are about 1,450 prisoners, and about 500 of them have head injuries. They need immediate medical attention. There wasn’t sufficient medical attention. There was no drinking water, and there was no toilet. None at all. Some of the monks were forcibly disrobed. They were given civilian clothes, but the monks didn’t want to wear civilian clothes so they remained topless. I was told that the situation was really bad."
In Bolivia, hundreds of people gathered Wednesday outside the U.S. embassy in La Paz to demand the extradition of former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. The gathering came on the fourth anniversary of the Black October government crackdown that killed 67 protesters and wounded more than 400. The protesters had been opposing a decision to export Bolivia’s natural gas through a port in Chile. De Lozada and two former top officials have resided in the U.S. since 2003 after a citizens’ uprising removed them from office. Bolivia is seeking De Lozada’s extradition.
Black October victims’ attorney Rogelio Mayta: "(Sánchez de Lozada) is trying to make out that the trial for the responsibility of the September and October 2003 massacres is a political persecution. But it isn’t. This is a cause of justice and four years of justice-in-waiting. It is part of the fight against impunity here in Bolivia and, as we consider it, for the whole American continent."
A new study shows remittances from migrant workers to their home countries dwarfs the amount of international aid from the world’s richest nations. The U.N. International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Inter-American Development Bank say workers sent more than $300 billion to developing nations last year — nearly three times foreign development aid from the world’s leading donors. IFAD President Lennart Bage said the numbers call for easing barriers to remittances.
Lennart Bage: "It’s hard-earned money by poor people in rich countries sending back to their families, but it has a potential. So let’s make it easy to transfer. Let’s make it cheap to transfer, and let’s build the financial system locally so that it can really come to use in the local communities where it’s destined to go."
The Supreme Court has granted a last-minute stay of execution to Virginia death row prisoner Christopher Scott Emmett. Legal experts say the move could signal a new nationwide moratorium on lethal injection.
And in other news from Virginia, local officials in Prince William County have unanimously approved some of the nation’s harshest restrictions on undocumented immigrants. Police will now be tasked with checking the immigration status of anyone accused of breaking the law if they believe that person is in the U.S. illegally. The Board of County Supervisors approved the measures by a vote of eight to zero. More than 1,200 people showed up at the board meeting, most of them against the proposal. The new rules are already facing a court challenge from opponents who say they’re unconstitutional.