The Senate has approved a measure rewriting the nation’s surveillance laws and granting immunity to phone companies involved in President Bush’s secret domestic spy program. The legislation gives the government new powers to eavesdrop on both domestic and international communications. The final vote was 69-to-28. As expected, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama voted in favor of the measure. The Democratic-controlled House approved its version of the bill last month. The measure has been widely criticized. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said, “With today’s vote, the government has been given a green light to expand its power to spy on Americans and run roughshod over the Constitution.” The ACLU says it plans a court challenge.
Meanwhile, the Senate has also voted to reverse Bush administration cuts both in payments to physicians who treat Medicare patients and funding for premium assistance to the elderly and disabled. The administration’s plans to reduce payments by ten percent have stoked fears doctors would opt out of treating Medicare patients altogether. The vote passed by a 69-to-30, enough to withstand a presidential veto. Senator Edward Kennedy returned to the Senate to support the measure in his first vote since undergoing surgery for a brain tumor. Kennedy was received with a standing ovation and loud applause on the Senate floor.
Iran has test-fired long-range missiles over the Persian Gulf for the second straight day. Earlier today, Iranian state television released video of Iranian ships launching missiles in an overnight test. On Wednesday, Iran test-fired nine long- and medium-range missiles, including one it says could reach Israel and US military bases in the Middle East. Iran has indicated the tests are a response to increasing threats of military attack from the US or Israel. Last month, the New York Times reported Israel carried out a major military exercise that appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he doesn’t think the US and Iran are closer to war.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "The fact is they’ve just tested a missile that has a pretty extended range. So my view in the first instance is, we’ve been saying, as we’ve talked about missile defense in Europe, that there is a real threat, and it seems to me that the test this morning underscores that."
Reporter: “Are we any closer to a military confrontation with Iran?”
Sec. Gates: “No, I don’t think so.”
Just last week, a leading American strategic analyst said the US has developed a new plan for attacking Iran but would prefer diplomacy for now. The analyst, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, had recently told Israeli officials Israel does not have a “green light” to attack Iran.
The initial missile test had come hours after the United States and Czech Republic signed a long-awaited agreement to station part of a planned US missile system on Czech soil.
In Bulgaria, visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the tests prove the missile system is justified.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: “But in terms of the missile test, I see it as evidence that the missile threat is not an imaginary one and that those who say that there is no Iranian missile threat against which we should be building missile defenses perhaps ought to talk to the Iranians about their claims, even about the distance and the range of the missiles that they test-fired.”
The Bush administration says the missile system would protect Europe from Iranian missiles, but it’s widely seen as a first-strike threat against Iran.
Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, both presidential candidates quickly reacted to the tests to highlight their approaches for dealing with Iran. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said he would use diplomacy including negotiations with Iran.
Sen. Barack Obama: “Part of what we have to do is get the Europeans, the Chinese, the Russians, all to recognize that it’s in nobody’s interests, including Iran’s, I believe, to have a nuclear weapon that could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. And that’s something that I intend to make a number one priority when I’m in the White House, making sure they don’t have that nuclear capability."
On the Republican side, Senator John McCain called for taking “action” against Iran.
Sen. John McCain: “It’s time for action. And it’s time to make the Iranians understand that this kind of violation of international treaties, this kind of threatening of their neighbors, this kind of continued military activity, is
not without cost."
Both Obama and McCain have previously stated "no option is off the table" in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.
In other campaign news, the Reverend Jesse Jackson has apologized to Senator Barack Obama for critical and crude comments accusing Obama of “talking down” to African Americans. Jackson was preparing for an interview on Fox News when he was secretly recorded criticizing Obama’s recent singling out of African American fathers who abandon their children.
Rev. Jesse Jackson: "See, Barack been talking down to black people on this faith-based — I wanna cut his [beep] off.”
Jackson was unaware his remarks were being recorded. He issued a public apology after Fox News announced it would play the comments on last night’s episode of the Bill O’Reilly broadcast The O’Reilly Factor.
Rev. Jackson: “If anything I’ve said in a hot mic statement that’s attributed as distraction, I offer apology for that, because I don’t want harm or hurt to come to this campaign. It represents too much of the dreams of so many who have paid such great prices, and I’m very sensitive to what that means."
In a statement, Jackson further explained his remarks, saying, “My appeal was for the moral content of his message to not only deal with the personal and moral responsibility of black males, but to deal with the collective moral responsibility of government and the public policy.”
Meanwhile, former presidential hopeful John Edwards is also in New York. On Wednesday, Edwards visited a Harlem food pantry and said he would consider the vice-presidential slot if he were asked.
Meanwhile, in Green Party news, presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney has chosen activist and journalist Rosa Clemente as her vice-presidential running partner. Clemente is the former executive director of the Hip Hop Caucus and a longtime activist and journalist. If McKinney wins the nomination, she and Clemente would make up the first all-female-of-color ticket in US history. The Green Party will select its nominee at its convention this weekend.
In North Carolina, a career government official has been forced to take early retirement for refusing to honor the late Senator Jesse Helms. The official, L.F. Eason, spent twenty-nine years at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. On Monday, Eason instructed staffers at his laboratory to ignore a statewide directive to fly the US and state flags at half-staff in honor of Helms’ death last week. Eason was told he could obey the directive or retire early. Eason chose the latter, writing, “I simply do not feel it is appropriate to honor a person whose epitaph of government service was to have voted against or blocked every civil rights issue that came before the US Congress. His doctrine of negativity, hate, and prejudice cost North Carolina and our Nation much that we may never regain.”
In Darfur, seven international peacekeepers have been killed in an armed attack on their convoy. Another seven troops were left critically injured. It was the worst attack on the joint United Nations-African Union force since it took charge in January.
In Peru, thousands of farmers have wrapped up a two-day strike protesting President Alan Garcia’s economic policies and trade deals with the United States. On Wednesday, thousands of protesters demonstrated and blocked key roads in areas across Peru. Mario Huaman of the Workers Association of Peru said neoliberal policies are driving up the cost of living.
Mario Huaman: “On the agenda is the necessity of a general pay increase — salaries and pensions — to compensate not only the constantly increasing cost of living, but also inflation."
Back in the United States, a leading government contractor has admitted it failed to disclose internal findings showing dangerous toxic levels in trailers it built for evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. Gulf Stream Coach says it didn’t tell government officials its own tests found formaldehyde levels as much as forty-five times greater than acceptable standards. On Wednesday, company CEO Jim Shea told lawmakers the results were deemed “irrelevant information” because Federal Emergency Management Agency officials already knew the levels were high.
And a federal judge has overturned a murder conviction for an ex-Black Panther who spent more than three decades in solitary confinement. Albert Woodfox and two other former Black Panthers are known as the Angola Three. Many believe they were framed for their political activism. A judge ruled this week Woodfox’s lawyer failed to properly challenge the credibility of witnesses who later admitted they were coerced into falsely testifying.