Leaders in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate have agreed to rewrite the nation’s surveillance laws and to give what amounts to legal immunity to phone companies that took part in the Bush administration’s secret domestic surveillance program. The bill has been described as the most significant revision of surveillance law in three decades. The legislation gives the government new powers to eavesdrop on both domestic and international communications. One provision would allow the government to wiretap Americans for up to a week without a court order. The House is expected to approve the measure today. The Senate will vote next week. Several prominent Democratic Senators criticized the bill. Senator Russ Feingold said, "The proposed FISA deal is not a compromise; it is a capitulation."
Meanwhile, the House has passed a $162 billion war-funding bill to keep funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill was approved by a vote of 268-155. As the House approved the war-funding bill, a protester in the visitor’s gallery began throwing red-stained dollars at lawmakers. Minority Leader Republican John Boehner said he was pleased with the vote.
Rep. John Boehner: "A compromise is a compromise. And I want to thank my Democrat colleagues for working with us to get to this point, and I want to thank them for their commitment, that this is the bill. This is the bill that will end up on the President’s desk."
Many Democrats criticized the bill for not setting any conditions on President Bush. This is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi: "So, let us think and hope that this is the last time that there will ever be another dollar spent without constraints, without conditions, without direction. Why should we trust the same judgment that got us here in the first place in this war?"
The House also voted to approve spending $63 billion to expand college aid for veterans of the two wars.
The New York Times is reporting Israel recently carried out a major military exercise that US officials say appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter planes took part in the maneuvers over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece. Helicopters and refueling tankers flew more than 900 miles, which is about the same distance between Israel and Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. One Pentagon official said the Israeli test was meant to send a clear message that Israel was prepared to act militarily if diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from producing bomb-grade uranium faltered.
Meanwhile, Iran said Thursday it is ready to negotiate over a new package of economic incentives put forward by the major powers seeking to persuade Tehran to curb nuclear work. But Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the United States should stop lecturing Iran on its nuclear ambitions.
Manouchehr Mottaki: "America is not in the position to be happy or unhappy with our nuclear activities to produce energy for peaceful purposes, because America is the first country which used nuclear weapons and killed more than 150,000 of the people in Japan. America is a country which even now is testing the third, fourth or fifth generation of the nuclear bomb. Such a country is not in the position to instruct other nations to have nuclear energy or not."
A new report by the US Climate Change Science Program is predicting North America will experience more extreme weather as greenhouse gas emissions rise. Some regions will experience more droughts and excessive heat, while others will be hit with more intense hurricanes and downpours. The report warned that extreme weather events are "among the most serious challenges to society in coping with a changing climate."
The extreme weather report was released while the Midwest continues to face widespread flooding. Officials say eighteen more levees on the Mississippi River are at high risk of being overwhelmed this weekend. Thirty-one levees have already been breached or topped. USA Today reports many of these levees were not built to handle a flood of such historic proportions.
In campaign news, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has announced he is opting out of the federal public financing system in the general election. By turning down $84 million in federal money, Obama will be allowed to raise and spend an unlimited amount during the election. Obama is the first major party candidate to reject public funds since the system started in 1976. The decision marks a reversal for Obama. Last year he had pledged to accept public financing if his opponent did as well. McCain confirmed he will stay in the public financing system. McCain spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker said, "[Obama’s] decision will have far-reaching and extraordinary consequences that will weaken and undermine the public financing system."
ABC News is reporting former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales ousted a top Justice Department attorney in 2005 for failing to adopt the administration’s position on torture and then promised him a position as a US attorney to placate him. Attorney Daniel Levin was asked to leave the Department after he wrote a legal opinion that declared "torture is abhorrent" and limited the administration’s use of harsh interrogation techniques.
The UN Security Council has unanimously approved a resolution denouncing rape and other sexual violence as a tactic of war. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged the UN to pass the measure.
Condoleezza Rice: "As many of you know, for years there’s been a debate about whether or not sexual violence against women is a security issue for this forum to address. I am proud that today we respond to that lingering question with a resounding yes. This world body now acknowledges that sexual violence in conflict zones is indeed a security concern. We affirm that sexual violence profoundly affects not only the health and safety of women but the economic and social stability of their nations."
Human rights activists say rape is no longer simply a byproduct of war and has become a deliberate tactic designed to demoralize and intimidate communities. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged a zero tolerance policy toward all forms of sexual violence.
Ban Ki-moon: "Violence against women has reached unspeakable and pandemic proportions in some societies attempting to recover from conflict. Responding to this silent war against women and girls requires leadership at the national level. National authorities need to take the initiative to build comprehensive strategies while the UN needs to help build capacity and support national authorities and civil societies."
In business news, the FBI has arrested and charged two former hedge fund managers at the investment bank Bear Stearns for fraud over two funds that collapsed last year. Matthew Tannin and Ralph Cioffi are the first executives to face criminal charges in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis. The FBI also announced it has charged more than 400 people since March in a nationwide crackdown on mortgage fraud. Deputy Attorney General Mark Filip announced the charges.
Mark Filip: "And the allegations detailed in that indictment are that the losses to investors are roughly $1.4 billion. Now, at the risk of overstating the obvious, lawyers will disagree, their experts will disagree as to what exact dollar amount is appropriate to ascribe to those losses as to fraud, but that’s what that indictment charge is. The other cases are believed to encompass an additional billion dollars. So you’re talking about billions of dollars."
The European Union has agreed to scrap its sanctions against Cuba. The EU’s External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner announced the news at a meeting in Brussels.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner: "Yes, the Cuba sanctions will be lifted, but at the same time there will be a very clear language also on what the Cubans still have to do. I mean, of course, releasing prisoners, really to work on human rights questions. So, indeed — and there will be a sort of review to see whether indeed something will have happened. But I think it’s very important, because we also want to encourage the changes in Cuba."
In San Francisco, over 1,000 protesters rallied outside a health insurance industry convention Thursday to demand the creation of a single-payer healthcare system. The demonstration targeted America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry group. Other protests calling for single-payer were held across the country. Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader addressed a rally in New York.
Ralph Nader: "How many die? The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that 18,000 Americans die every year because they can’t afford health insurance. Now, nobody dies in Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, England because they can’t afford health insurance, because they all have health insurance."
A judge in Washington state has sentenced a thirty-two-year-old violin teacher and environmental activist to six years in prison for her role in an arson at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture. Briana Waters was also ordered to pay $6 million in restitution. Federal prosecutors accused her of being a terrorist and had sought a ten-year sentence.
Here in New York, residents of Harlem are staging a protest Saturday to protest plans to rezone the 125th Street area. Critics say the rezoning will permanently change the character of Harlem and pave the way for greater gentrification. Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council is a lead organizer of Saturday’s march.
Nellie Bailey: "All of this is tied in; this isn’t just random. This is tied into to the way the city and the Bloomberg administration is determined to redefine these neighborhoods, and these neighborhoods where the message, I believe, is very, very clear: low-income and poor people cannot live on expensive real estate here in New York City."