Auto industry executives are set to appear on Capitol Hill today in their latest appeal for a taxpayer bailout. Collectively, General Motors, Chrysler and Ford are asking lawmakers for $34 billion. Each company says their executives are driving to the nation’s capital after coming under criticism for flying in on private jets for their first bailout plea last month.
Meanwhile, the first congressional audit of the $700 billion taxpayer bailout of Wall Street says the Bush administration has failed to implement any proper oversight over how the money is being used. Investigators at the Government Accountability Office say the Treasury has yet to introduce needed safeguards and ways to determine if the program is achieving its stated goals. At least $150 billion has already been doled out to dozens of firms. Not a single application for government funding has been denied.
The number of food stamp users in the United States has hit an all-time high. The Food and Nutrition Service says 31.5 million Americans used the food stamp program in September, surpassing the previous record set in November 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Meanwhile, new figures show the US lost 250,00 jobs last month. The total surpassed initial forecasts and amounts to the biggest monthly drop in six years.
In transition news, President-elect Barack Obama has announced New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson as his nominee to head the Department of Commerce. Obama and Richardson appeared together Wednesday at a news conference in Chicago.
President-elect Obama: "Bill Richardson has been selected because he is the best person for that job and is going to be outstanding in helping me strategize on how do we rebuild America, how do we get businesses moving, how do we export effectively, how do we open up new markets for American products and services. His mixture of diplomatic experience, hands-on experience as a governor, experience in the cabinet, experience in Congress means that he is going to be a key strategist on all the issues that we work on."
Richardson served as UN ambassador and Energy Secretary under President Bill Clinton before being elected to two terms as governor of New Mexico. He said he’s poised to help revitalize the economy.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson: "With your leadership, Mr. President-elect, America will once again be a forefront of innovation, especially in the new frontier of energy independence and clean energy jobs. We will create technologies the world is seeking, while creating millions of new jobs that can never be outsourced. We will revitalize our nation’s historic strength in manufacturing, while restoring our position of respect in the world."
Richardson is the first Latino selected to join Obama’s cabinet. He’s also its third member to have run against Obama in the Democratic primaries, after Vice President Joe Biden and incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In Minnesota, the campaign of Democratic senatorial candidate Al Franken is claiming Franken has taken a twenty-two-vote lead in the recount of his race against incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman. More than 100,000 ballots have yet to be counted. A Franken win would still leave Democrats one seat short of a filibuster-proof Senate majority. Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia kept his seat in Tuesday’s runoff election against challenger Jim Martin.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey is downplaying speculation President Bush might issue preemptive pardons for officials involved in torture programs used in the so-called war on terror. On Wednesday, Mukasey said he sees no need to immunize anyone from future investigation, because he doesn’t believe there’s been wrongdoing. His comments came as a group of retired fourteen military officers met with members of President-elect Obama’s transition team to call for scrapping the Bush administration’s torture policies. Organized by the group Human Rights First, the retired officials say they urged the Obama team to adopt a unitary internationally accepted standard for prisoner interrogation across all government agencies.
Afghanistan has defied the Bush administration and signed a new international ban on cluster bombs. The last-minute decision came as more than ninety other governments also ratified the treaty Wednesday in Oslo. The US has led a group of large nations refusing to adopt the ban. It bars use, stockpiling and trading of cluster weapons and requires signatories to clear contaminated areas within ten years. The White House reportedly urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai not to sign the treaty. Thomas Nash of the Cluster Munition Coalition welcomed the new signatories.
Cluster Munition Coalition Coordinator Thomas Nash: "When we banned landmines in '97 they had already affected more than eighty countries. We have actually only had thirty countries affected by these weapons so far. So we're actually acting before the problem gets out of hand."
According to the group Handicap International, 98 percent of cluster bomb victims are civilians, and 27 percent are children. The US has played a central role in two of the world’s worst cases of cluster bomb attacks. The Nixon administration dropped millions of cluster bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War. And the Bush administration provided critical support to Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon that also left millions of unexploded bomblets on the ground. In Washington, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino laughed off a question from veteran correspondent Helen Thomas on the Bush administration’s refusal to sign the ban.
Helen Thomas: “Is the President going to sign the anti-cluster bomb treaty? Apparently this is —"
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino: “Right, this is a treaty that was passed out of the UN Security Council several months ago. We said then that, no, we would not be signing onto it. And so, I think that the signing is actually — we did not participate in the passage of it, and therefore we’re not going to sign it either.”
Thomas: “Why not?”
Perino: “What I have forgotten is all the reasons why, and so I’ll get it for you.” (Laughter)
In Iraq, armed guards opened fire Wednesday at a crowd of some 1,000 migrant workers protesting their poor treatment under the military contractor KBR. The workers have spent the past three months in Iraq awaiting work for a KBR subcontractor, but instead they’ve been walled off and held in three large warehouses near Baghdad airport without pay. Some paid up to $3,000 for the opportunity to work in Iraq. Many are expected to be sent out of Iraq without having worked a day. Meanwhile, KBR is facing a lawsuit for allegedly exposing National Guard members to chemical exposure in Iraq. More on that story after headlines.
In Bolivia, a regional investigative panel has labeled the killings of at least twenty people in anti-government protests in September a “massacre.” The victims were peasant supporters of Bolivian President Evo Morales. They died in what Morales called an attempted coup against his government in Pando province. The head of the South American bloc UNASUR’s investigation, Rodolfo Mattarollo, said the murderers acted in consort with Morales’s right-wing opponents.
Rodolfo Matarollo: "On September 11, 2008, in the village of Porvenir and in other places in the province of Pando, a massacre occurred, in the sense that term is employed by the United Nations. Although some people acted upon self-interest, those who attacked the peasants did it in an organized manner and responded, according to some witnesses, to authorities with the help of government staff and goods belonging to the province’s government, which served the criminals."
Morales said the UNSASUR findings backed his concerns political opponents are trying to derail his government and avoid a January referendum on advancing his social programs.
Bolivian President Evo Morales: "This investigation confirms what the Bolivian people have been experiencing from August, September until October. This was an attempt of a civilian state coup, and now that we are better informed, we know that some opposition members have proposed to end with Evo Morales’s government from August to next year’s January referendum."
In Zimbabwe, authorities have declared a national emergency over a growing outbreak of cholera. More than 500 people have died so far. Robin Waudo of the International Committee of the Red Cross said the outbreak is hitting densely populated areas.
Robin Waudo: "The problem is massive, of course, as you may see the figures of 11,000 infected, are not small figures. It’s quite big. And this is in several parts of the country. We are working only in Harare in the densely populated areas, where we are supporting eight clinics. Some of them have been converted into cholera treatment units, and this is where we are providing our assistance."
Last month, Zimbabwe came under criticism for blocking an international delegation including former President Jimmy Carter from entering the country to assess the humanitarian crisis.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, funerals were held Wednesday for two Palestinian teenagers killed in the latest Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. The youths, aged fifteen and seventeen, died when Israeli bombs struck the town of Rafah. Another two people were wounded.
Meanwhile, at the UN, Libya accused the Israeli government of “piracy” for blocking a Libyan ship from delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza. The Libyan sailing marked the first attempt by a foreign government to defy Israel’s blockade. The Palestinian observer to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, called on Israel to end its siege.
Riyad Mansour: "It is therefore imperative that Israel be compelled, first and foremost, immediately and completely, to lift its siege of the Gaza Strip to allow for movement of persons and goods to ease the isolation and humanitarian suffering of the Palestinian civilian population."
Back in the United States, a new report shows college tuition is becoming increasingly unaffordable for most Americans. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education says college tuition and fees have increased by 439 percent since 1982. The cost of attending a four-year public university now amounts to 28 percent of the median family income, while a four-year private university would account for 76 percent. The Center’s president, Patrick Callan, said, “If we go on this way for another twenty-five years, we won’t have an affordable system of higher education.”
And here in New York, the family of a Wal-Mart worker crushed to death by a stampede of shoppers has sued the company for wrongful death. Thirty-four-year-old Jdimytai Damour was killed after a crowd of 2,000 broke down store doors and ran over him shortly before the store’s scheduled 5:00 a.m. opening Friday, the traditional start of the shopping season.