State Department Confirms Blackwater Immunity Deal

The State Department has confirmed it has secretly granted immunity to the Blackwater guards involved in last month’s mass killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. According to ABC News, the Blackwater guards signed agreements that read in part: "I further understand that neither my statements nor any information or evidence gained by reason of my statements can be used against me in a criminal proceeding." The State Department says Blackwater guards can still be subjected to future prosecutions. But legal experts say convictions could be difficult because prosecutors would have to prove they did not use the sworn statements to prove their case. The protections are said to be commonly used in official investigations of incidents involving government employees. But Democratic senators say extending the immunity to private contractors is unprecedented. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has announced the U.S. military will now increase its control over private security contractors in Iraq. But it remains unclear which laws — if any — could be used to hold the Blackwater guards accountable.

Iraqi Cabinet Moves to Revoke Contractor Immunity

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government continues to take its own steps toward challenging the free reign of companies like Blackwater in Iraq. On Tuesday, the Iraqi Cabinet approved draft legislation that would remove immunity granted to private military firms in Iraq. Contractors remain immune from Iraqi law under an order from then-U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer in June 2004. The measure to revoke immunity will now go before Iraq’s parliament.

Supreme Court Blocks Mississippi Execution

The Supreme Court has stayed the execution of Mississippi prisoner Earl Berry just moments before he was to die by lethal injection. The seven-to-two judgment all but assures the Supreme Court will block all executions until it issues a final ruling on a case challenging how courts should evaluate the constitutionality of lethal injection. Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito opposed the decision.

AG Nominee Mukasey Unsure if Waterboarding Constitutes Torture

The nomination of attorney general hopeful Michael Mukasey is in further doubt today after he refused Democratic calls to acknowledge that waterboarding is a form of torture. In a letter to Senate Democrats, Mukasey said he finds waterboarding "repugnant" but maintained he doesn’t know if it violates U.S. laws against torture. Several Senate Democrats have vowed to hinge their confirmation vote on Mukasey’s waterboarding stance. On Tuesday, three Democratic senators — all presidential candidates — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden — said they would oppose Mukasey’s nomination.

Bush Promises Veto of "Any" Bill Increasing Tobacco Tax

President Bush has privately vowed to veto any legislation that would expand children’s health insurance by increasing taxes on tobacco. Officials say Bush made the pledge at a closed-door meeting Tuesday with Republican lawmakers at the White House. Bush is also said to have strongly suggested he will not sign legislation that includes any tax increase, such as the energy bill currently before Congress. Bush’s comments mark a hardening of his showdown with Democrats over expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as S-CHIP. Bush vetoed a bill increasing S-CHIP funding earlier this month.

Study: 21 States Facing S-CHIP Shortfall

His comments come as a new study shows S-CHIP is facing a crippling shortfall. The Congressional Research Service says 21 states will run out of money for children’s health insurance in the next year. Nine of those will run out by March. Local officials in California say they will be forced to begin cutting off health insurance for 64,000 children each month beginning in January.

Report: Bush to Issue Administrative Orders to Evade Congress

Meanwhile, The Washington Post is reporting the Bush administration is intent on sidestepping clashes with Congress by issuing administrative orders to implement new policies.

Voting Rights Chief Apologizes, But Won’t Retract, Statements on Minority Voters

The chief of the Justice Department’s voting rights section has apologized for, but refused to retract, his claim that elderly voters would be harmed most by voter ID laws because most minorities die before becoming elderly. John Tanner made the comment earlier this month at the National Latino Congreso.

John Tanner: "Of course, that also ties in to the racial aspect, because our society is such that minorities don’t become elderly, the way white people do. They die first, through inequities in healthcare. There are a variety of inequities in this country. And so, anything that disproportionately impacts the elderly has the opposite impact on minorities. Just the math is such as that."

On Tuesday, Tanner told a House committee his comments were "hurtful" and "clumsy," but stuck by his statement.

Intelligence Budget Tops $43B

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has disclosed the government intelligence budget for the first time in several years. On Tuesday, McConnell said Congress has approved $43.5 billion on spying over the past year. The number does not include money spent on military intelligence, bringing the actual total to more than $50 billion.

India PM: U.S. Nuclear Deal on Track

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has vowed his controversial nuclear deal with the U.S. is on track despite domestic opposition. Singh spoke Tuesday in New Dehli.

Manmohan Singh: "The agreement, 123 agreement, that we have signed with the United States is an honorable deal, good for India, good for the world, good for the cause of nonproliferation. We have run into some problems domestically which we are trying to resolve, but as far as our government is concerned, we remain committed to see that this process is carried forward."

Critics say the agreement would encourage nuclear production regionally and worldwide because it effectively rewards India for developing nuclear weapons outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

U.N. Renews Near-Unanimous Call to End U.S. Embargo on Cuba

The United Nations General Assembly has overwhelmingly voted for an end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba for the 16th consecutive year. Tuesday’s vote was 184 to four. The U.S., Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands were the lone countries opposed. Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque called the vote a repudiation of longstanding U.S. policy.

Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque: "The United States has ignored, with both arrogance and political blindness, the 15 resolutions adopted by this General Assembly calling for the lifting of the blockade against Cuba. The blockade is today the main obstacle to the development and well-being of the Cubans and a blatant, massive and systematic violation to the rights of our people."

The vote comes just days after President Bush vowed to maintain the embargo on Cuba through the end of his presidency.

Israel Threatens Gaza Invasion Amidst Fuel, Power Cuts

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is threatening a full-on invasion of Gaza amidst continuing Israeli air strikes. Speaking to Israeli Radio, Barak said a Gaza invasion draws nearer with each passing day. On Tuesday, at least four Palestinian officers were killed when Israeli aircraft bombed a police station in southern Gaza. Six civilians were also wounded when Israeli warplanes bombed a Gaza refugee camp. The attacks continue as Israel faces accusations of collective punishment for cutting off Gaza’s fuel and power supply. Karen Koning AbuZayd, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, said: "We keep saying people in Gaza are at rock bottom, but they keep digging into the rock." On Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also criticized the cutoff.

Mahmoud Abbas: "We will not, under any conditions, accept the collective or individual punishment of innocent people, because they are our people, and we are responsible for them, first and last."

Police: Child Responsible for California Wildfire

Back in the United States, police in Los Angeles say a child has admitted to starting one of the massive wildfires that raged last week in California. The child reportedly confessed to starting the fire with a pack of matches. Prosecutors are considering charges.

Rivals Focus on Sen. Clinton in Democratic Debate

And in campaign news, Democratic presidential candidates gathered in Philadelphia last night for their first debate in over a month. Front-runner Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton came under repeated criticism for her record on the Iraq war, trade agreements and torture. Senator Barack Obama accused Clinton of changing her stance when politically convenient. Clinton also came under criticism for voting in favor of a Senate resolution designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. Critics see the measure as a possible authorization for military attack on Iran. The debate excluded former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel. Organizers say he did not meet fundraising and polling requirements.

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