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Despite Intelligence Assessment, Bush Defends Iran Threats

President Bush continues to insist Iran threatens the United States despite the new National Intelligence Estimate refuting most of his key claims. This week’s consensus report from all sixteen US intelligence agencies concludes Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program more than four years ago. In his first public comments, President Bush said his position is unchanged.

President Bush: "I believed before the NIE that Iran was dangerous, and I believe after the NIE that Iran is dangerous. And I believe now is the time for the world to do the hard work necessary to convince the Iranians there is a better way forward."

President Bush was also asked if he was aware of the assessment when he warned of a “World War Three” less than two months ago. Bush admitted he was first informed of new information in August, but says he didn’t find out the specifics — until last week. Democratic Senator Joseph Biden responded, "If that’s true he has the most incompetent staff in modern American history.”

Ahmadinejad Hails Intel Report as National “Victory”

Meanwhile, in Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went on state television today to hail what he called a national victory.

Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "Yesterday’s report was apparently for solving the problems of America’s government and for dealing with the deadline it was confronted with. But in fact it was an announcement of the victory for the Iranian nation in the nuclear issue against all international powers."

Admin: Intel Won’t Slow Missile Shield Plans

The Bush administration is also insisting the Intelligence Estimate will not change its determination to build a missile system in Europe. The White House claims the missile shield would serve as a defense against Iran, but it’s widely seen as a first-strike option.

Supreme Court to Hear New Gitmo Challenge

The Supreme Court hears arguments today in a case challenging the Bush administration’s jailing of hundreds of Guantanamo prisoners without trial. Lawyers for the prisoners will argue the denial of habeas corpus violates the Constitution and international law. All of Guantanamo’s estimated 305 prisoners were seized abroad. It’s the third time the Supreme Court will consider a challenge to Guantanamo detentions since 2004.

Prisoner Spent 4 Years at Gitmo Despite Exoneration

Newly revealed documents show the US held a German prisoner at Guantanamo Bay despite privately acknowledging his innocence just months after his capture. Murat Kurnaz was kidnapped and handed over to US forces in Pakistan in December 2001. Four weeks later, he became one of the first prisoners to arrive at Guantanamo, where he would spend the next four years. Declassified documents show US and German intelligence officials concluded he had no links to terrorism as early as September 2002. A newly formed military tribunal finally took up his case in 2004. But the panel ignored the intelligence assessments and twice ordered his ongoing imprisonment. During this time, Kurnaz says he suffered severe torture. He says he was beaten, given electric shocks, submerged in water, starved, and chained to a ceiling for days. Kurnaz says he saw several people die and often thought he would die himself. He was finally released in August 2006, nearly five years after his capture.

New Iraq Oversight Rules Avoid Blackwater Immunity

In Iraq, the Pentagon and US embassy are said to have reached a deal governing the activities of Blackwater and other private military firms. According to the New York Times, the agreement focuses on boosting security coordination with military command and providing further guidelines on when private guards can open fire. But the agreement takes no steps to address whether private military contractors can be held accountable for their actions. Government officials remain mute on whether Blackwater and other private military contractors can be prosecuted for shootings, such as the September killing of seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. Contractors are currently immune from Iraqi courts under a US-imposed law.

For Contract Renewal, State Dept. Could Ignore Blackwater’s Mass Killing

Meanwhile, after initially indicating it would allow Blackwater’s contract to expire in May, State Department officials are now raising the likelihood of a renewal. The acting head of US diplomatic security, Gregory Starr, has reportedly told Blackwater it will be judged on its actions “from here on out.” That would preclude the September mass killings from consideration when the State Department makes its decision.

Colombia Hostage Relatives Urge Chavez Involvement

Relatives of Colombian hostages are in Venezuela today to seek the ongoing involvement of President Hugo Chavez in securing their release. The former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and more than a dozen others have been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia since 2002. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe suspended Chavez’s mediation last month after accusing him of improperly contacting the military. Chavez has denied the charges. On Tuesday, Bentancourt’s mother, Yolanda Pulecio, criticized Uribe.

Yolanda Pulecio: "I came to thank President Chavez and Senator Piedad Cordoba for all the efforts they’ve made. I’m very hurt over the very abrupt and very rude way in which President Uribe clogged everything up, but it’s not the first time he’s clogged everything up.”

Morales Praises Venezuela Referendum

Meanwhile, Chavez is dealing with the aftermath of his slim defeat in Sunday’s constitutional referendum. Voters narrowly rejected a series of proposals including an end to presidential term limits and an increase in executive authority. Others included reducing the workday to six hours, creating a new pension fund for informal workers, and empowering community councils. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales praised Chavez’s vow to respect the voters’ choice.

Bolivian President Evo Morales: "I respect and value Chavez very much. He’s democratic. If he were authoritarian, he would impose what he thinks to govern. But his desire is to consider the Venezuelan people, and Venezuelan people make democratic decisions. That must be respected. And here we don’t have to be afraid of a referendum. The people can decide the fate of the country."

Bush Urges Colombia Trade Deal

Meanwhile, in Washington, President Bush hailed the referendum results and said it should encourage Congress to pass a trade deal with Colombia.

President Bush: "The Venezuelan people rejected one-man rule. They voted for democracy. And the United States can make a difference in South America, in terms of Venezuelan influence. And here’s how: the Congress can pass a free trade agreement with Colombia.”

Senate Approves Peru Trade Pact

The trade deal has been held up amidst concerns over Colombia’s record on human rights. But Bush scored a victory Tuesday when the Senate overwhelmingly approved a new trade deal with Peru. The final vote was 77 to 18. Republican Senator Kit Bond of Missouri said the pact would help counter the influence of leaders like Hugo Chavez.

Sen. Kit Bond: "We have an opportunity to establish good working relationships with Peru, with Colombia, with Panama, to show the leaders of the opposition in Venezuela that there’s a better way than Hugo Chavez and his blind
adherence to the Castro model in Cuba."

The House OKed its version of the Peru deal last month. Amazon Watch says the agreement will grant new rights for oil companies to drill in the Peruvian Amazon, benefiting US corporations including Hunt Oil, ConocoPhillips, Occidental Petroleum and Newmont Mining.

UN Appeals for International Aid to Somalia

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continues a foreign trip with a stop in Ethiopia today. Rice’s visit comes as Ethiopia’s US-backed military intervention in Somalia draws growing scrutiny. The UN estimates 215,000 people have fled their homes in fighting over the past six weeks. On Tuesday, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes appealed for increased international aid.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes: "Well, the situation is obviously serious. Any place where you’ve got tens of thousands of people living in very, very makeshift huts in the open is obviously a very serious situation and one that’s very worrying. And one wonders how long they’re going to have to be there, because the violence in Mogadishu is still continuing."

Israel to Build New Homes in Jerusalem Settlement

Israel has announced plans to build more than 300 homes in a Jewish-only settlement in East Jerusalem. The new homes would be built in Har Homa, a settlement of more than 200,000 people occupied since 1967. Palestinians have called for sovereignty over East Jerusalem as part of final peace deal. The move comes just one week after Israel made the latest of several pledges to freeze settlement construction at the US-brokered summit in Annapolis. But on Tuesday, Israeli officials said the Road Map does not apply to Jerusalem but only the West Bank. In a letter of protest, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the settlements the "single greatest threat" to a final peace deal.

Study: Israel Demolished 3% of Illegal Outposts

Meanwhile, a new study shows the Israeli government has carried out just three percent of its pledges to demolish unauthorized buildings in West Bank settlements over the last decade. The Israeli group Peace Now says the Israeli military conducted 107 of more than 3,400 demolition orders. By contrast, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions says Israel has destroyed well over 5,000 Palestinian homes since the outbreak of the second intifada seven years ago. Israeli courts have deemed the outposts illegal, while the World Court has ruled the entire settlements are illegal themselves.

South African Miners Strike over Safety, Wages

In South Africa, nearly a quarter-million miners took to the streets of Johannesburg Tuesday in a one-day strike calling for better safety conditions and fair wages. Mineworker union president Senzeni Zokwana said the mining industry has failed its employees.

Senzeni Zokwana: "We believe that the mines have not done enough to save the lives of mineworkers. We believe that if employers would make sure that workers participate in deciding what kind of support is used underground, workers are given more power, that employers respect our members and treat them like human beings, this situation can change."

An average of 200 miners have died in South Africa’s mines over the past three years.

US Peace Activists Detained in Pakistan

In Pakistan, two American peace activists have been arrested and apparently deported. Medea Benjamin and Tighe Barry of the antiwar group CODEPINK were detained as they headed to a student rally against the ongoing emergency rule.

Bali Conference Urged to Increase Global Warming Compensation

In Indonesia, the international environmental summit in Bali heard pleas Tuesday from communities affected or threatened by catastrophe caused by global warming. Speakers including farmers, activists and aid workers called for a vast increase in international funding to offset the impact of rising seas, droughts and other crises. The “Adaptation fund” has drawn contributions of just $67 million. Meanwhile, Australia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol drew widespread praise but questions about the country’s reliance on coal. Shane Rattenbury of Greenpeace International said Australia will need to make drastic changes as the world’s biggest coal exporter.

Shane Rattenbury: "It should have happened much sooner, but it’s good news, especially here at these climate negotiations, that Australia will now be a positive player rather than a wrecker when it comes to the Kyoto Protocol. That said, Australia still has a great challenge. As the world’s biggest coal exporter or as an enormous coal exporter, Australia has to really ask itself a question: is it going to get serious and deal with climate change, or is it going to keep exporting coal and simply fuel the problem and make it worse?"

With Australia’s signing, the US is now the only developed nation not to have ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

Giuliani Steps Down from Consulting Firm

Back in the United States, Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani has resigned as head of his consulting firm Giuliani Partners. For months, Giuliani has resisted calls to disclose his role in the firm and the clients he’s represented.

Credit Card Execs Questioned over Interest Practices

And back on Capitol Hill, credit card executives were called to testify Tuesday on an increasingly criticized practice of using questionable credit scores to raise customers’ interest rates. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee is considering introducing legislation that would force credit card companies to honor their advertised rates. The committee also heard testimony from Americans charged exorbitant rates without their knowledge or consent. Tens of thousands of credit card holders have been forced to pay higher rates when their so-called FICO scores decline. Critics say the scores are lowered arbitrarily, often against customers that pay their bills regularly and promptly. Credit card debt in the United States is currently estimated at some $900 billion.


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