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The Federal Reserve has lowered the benchmark interest rate by half a percentage point amidst news of a new government plan to assist Americans facing foreclosure on their homes. The rate cut drops it to its lowest point since the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2003. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports Treasury officials are close to finalizing a $40 billion mortgage bailout to assist up to three million struggling homeowners. Banks or other lenders would agree to reduce monthly payments. In return, the government would guarantee compensation for a portion of any losses if the borrower defaults on a revised loan.
This comes as the New York Times reports the insurance company American International Group has rapidly used most of its $123 billion government loan with little account for where the money has gone. AIG has drawn some $90 billion in government money so far.
In elections news, voter rights activists in Pennsylvania have won a major court victory to safeguard against faulty electronic voting machines. A federal judge has ordered state election officials to provide emergency paper ballots if half or more electronic voting machines become inoperable at any polling site in the state. The lawsuit was filed after Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State ordered counties to provide emergency paper ballots only if every electronic voting machine breaks down. In his ruling, Judge Harvey Bartle said he saw “a real danger…a significant number of machines will malfunction.” The plaintiffs include the NAACP, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and Voter Action. Democracy Now! interviewed John Bonifaz of Voter Action on Friday, the day after the suit was filed.
John Bonifaz: “This lawsuit is all about making sure the people are protected when they show up at the polls on Election Day in Pennsylvania. The fact of the matter is that these electronic voting machines have a long record of breaking down, not functioning on Election Day, apart from the issues around whether or not they can be counted as being accurately counting votes. But the — and in this instance, we’re dealing with a situation of long lines; with high voter turnout combined with that, we see a potential perfect storm impacting the right to vote. When machines break down, they cause these long lines, they turn people away.”
Bonifaz says he now hopes other states will follow Pennsylvania’s lead in protecting against voter machines.
Some 16 million people have already took part in early voting. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 59 percent of early voters say they voted for Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
On the campaign trail, Obama flooded the national airwaves last night with a paid infomercial aimed at undecided voters. The Obama campaign spent more than $3 million to air a thirty-minute campaign ad on seven corporate networks simultaneously. Obama later appeared at a joint rally in Florida with former President Bill Clinton.
On the Republican side, Senator McCain has revived an old attack on Obama by bringing up his alleged ties to Palestinian American professor Rashid Khalidi. Khalidi teaches Arab Studies at Columbia University, where he also heads the Middle East Institute. The McCain campaign has cited few allegations against Khalidi aside from the fact that he is a Palestinian and supports Palestinians’ right to resist Israeli military occupation. Speaking last night on CNN’s Larry King Live, McCain criticized the LA Times for refusing to release a video of Obama appearing at a 2003 event honoring Khalidi.
Larry King: “Speaking of newspapers, there is the LA Times.”
Sen. John McCain: “Yeah.”
King: “They apparently — your campaign says that they’re suppressing videotape of a 2003 banquet when Barack Obama praised Palestinian activist and scholar Rashid Khalidi. What’s this all — what is this?”
Sen. McCain: “Why shouldn’t they —”
King: “Why would the paper suppress this?”
Sen. McCain: “I have no idea. If they have the tape, they ought to make the American people aware of it, let them see it and make their own judgment. Frankly, I’ve been in a lot of political campaigns, a whole lot. I’ve never seen anything like this, where a major media outlet has information and a tape of some occasion — maybe it means nothing. Maybe it’s just a social event. I don’t know. But why should they not release it? And why shouldn’t the Obama campaign want it released?”
King: “Is this Palestinian some sort of terrorist?”
Sen. McCain: “We know that at that time, the PLO was a terrorist organization.”
King: “He was PLO?”
Sen. McCain: “Yeah, yeah — that’s what the allegation is, Larry. I haven’t seen the tape. So — but we should see the tape to make it — the American people make a judgment.”
McCain went on to compare Obama’s appearance at the dinner to appearing at a “Neo-Nazi” event. The LA Times says it won’t release the tape because of a promise made to the source who provided it. Khalidi has never worked as a spokesperson for the PLO. McCain’s attack on Khalidi marks the latest in a series of efforts to disparage Obama because of real or concocted ties to Arabs and Muslims. Khalidi is a respected scholar who has called for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict in accordance with a majority of public opinion in the US and worldwide. The so-called Khalidi “controversy” also comes as a surprise in light of McCain’s own previous ties to Khalidi’s work on behalf of Palestinian rights. During the 1990s, McCain chaired the International Republican Institute when it gave several grants to Khalidi’s Center for Palestine Research and Studies.
A former US-backed Haitian death squad leader has been sentenced to thirty-seven years in prison for mortgage fraud. Emmanuel “Toto” Constant was found to have orchestrated a scheme to flip New York properties at inflated prices by selling them to so-called straw buyers. Human rights groups say Constant ordered killings and torture in Haiti before fleeing to the United States. He has evaded deportation after threatening to go public with the extent of his ties to the CIA. Constant’s attorneys say they plan to appeal. In sentencing Constant, Judge Abraham Gerges noted what he called a “truly heinous record of violence, murder, torture and intimidation.”
In Maryland, new details have been released about the state police spying on social justice activists. An environmentalist who helped campaign for clean air legislation has revealed he was among the dozens of activists placed on a list of suspected terrorists. Josh Tulkin was placed on the list while he led a campaign to reduce pollution from Maryland’s coal-fired plants. In July, Maryland was forced to admit its agents infiltrated meetings and events of the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance and the Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty. More than fifty nonviolent activists and protest groups were classified as terrorists and entered onto a federal database that tracks terrorism suspects. The “suspects” included several peace activists, including two Catholic nuns. In a statement, Tulkin said, “I deserve to know why I was being monitored and what is in my file. And we need legislation passed so that this type of infringement of privacy will not happen again.”
In Iraq, the International Red Cross is warning millions of Iraqis are at risk of disease because of inadequate healthcare, water and sanitation. 40 percent of Iraqis are cut off from a functioning water network.
In other Iraq news, the White House acknowledged Wednesday it has received the Iraqi government’s proposed revisions to a pact that would keep US troops in Iraq for at least three more years. The Iraqi cabinet wants the US to pledge it won’t use Iraq as a staging ground for attacking other Middle East nations. Iraq also wants the right to inspect incoming US military shipments and is seeking more legal authority over US troops accused of crimes. At a White House meeting with Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani, President Bush said he has received Iraq’s proposed changes.
President Bush: "We talked about the progress on the election law and on the hydrocarbon law. But we also talked about the Status of Forces Agreement, called the SOFA. President Barzani has been a very strong advocate of the Iraqi government passing the SOFA, and I appreciate that. I informed the President we received amendments today from the government. We’re analyzing those amendments. We obviously want to be — we want to be helpful and constructive without undermining basic principles, and I remain very hopeful and confident that the SOFA will get passed.”
The White House has already threatened Iraq with shutting down vital services unless it accepts the troop deal and has said further revisions are unlikely.
The UN General Assembly has voted to lift the US embargo on Cuba for the seventeenth consecutive year. The vote was 185 votes in favor, with the US joined only by Israel and Palau in opposition. Before the vote, US representative Ronald Godard said the embargo would endure.
Ronald Godard: "Each of the member states of the United Nations has the sovereign right to conduct its own trade with another country as it sees fit, subject
only to the treaty obligations it has freely undertaken."
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque responded by saying the US is isolated in seeking to punish Cuba.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque: "To you, sir, I have to say that the representatives of the United States here in this room should feel a deep sense of shame. You are alone, in the most profound and absolute isolation. The entire world stands with our small rebel island. And I want to make something clear to you gentlemen: we are not anti-North American, we are anti-imperialist."
And in Colombia, President Álvaro Uribe says his government has fired more than two dozen officers and soldiers involved in the killings of innocent civilians. The victims’ bodies were recently uncovered in a mass grave. Uribe said his government would curb abuses in the military.
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe: "In the instances of the army where there’s been negligence, a lack of care with following the procedures that have to be observed, and this has enabled some people to get involved in crimes, crimes resulting from the plotting between delinquents and members of the army."
Human Rights Watch recently accused Uribe of trying to block several probes of his allies’ ties to right-wing death squads. Uribe has proposed to strip the investigating court of most of its authority.