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Talks begin in Geneva today between Iran, the US and five other nations. The meeting could lead to a side channel of bilateral talks between US and Iranian officials. That would in turn mark the most substantial negotiations between the two sides since the Iranian revolution thirty years ago. Iran is seeking to discuss a wide range of issues, including reforming the United Nations Security Council, while the Obama administration wants to focus on Iran’s nuclear activities. The talks come as the Iranian foreign minister has visited Washington, DC in the highest-ranking visit by an Iranian official since 1979. The State Department says the minister made a private visit to the Iranian interest section and held no talks with US officials. On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Iran faces "stronger" punitive measures if it fails to properly disclose its nuclear program.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: "I think you’ve heard the President and other leaders around the world say this is not talk for talk’s sake. There is a specific agenda and specific problems that need to be dealt with, and if they’re not dealt with responsibly by the Iranians, that stronger measures will be developed and implemented to ensure that they do."
As the US pressures Iran, the news agency Inter Press Service reports the US is going ahead with a Bush administration program increasing nuclear weapons production. The "Complex Modernization" initiative would expand two existing nuclear sites to produce new bomb parts. The administration is proposing to build new plutonium pits at the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico and expand enriched uranium processing at the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
In Honduras, international pressure appears to be forcing a slight shift in the business elite that helped install the coup regime in June. Honduran business leaders reportedly told international diplomats this week they’d be open to a plan for the return of the ousted President Manuel Zelaya. But in addition to limiting Zelaya’s authority under the Costa Rica-brokered Arias accords, business leaders are also insisting Zelaya face trial on corruption charges and be forced to leave office when his term expires in January, despite spending most of the past three months in exile. The plan was discussed at a meeting at the residence of the US ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens, last Sunday. A Zelaya adviser says the elite’s proposals were "born dead" because they presuppose his guilt. Zelaya remains inside the Brazilian embassy, where he has taken refuge since returning to Honduras last week.
Meanwhile, the coup regime continues its crackdown on protesters despite backing off a decree authorizing new draconian powers. On Wednesday, government forces arrested dozens of people at a building occupied by Zelaya supporters.
Protest leader Rafael Alegria: "The national congress has not ratified the decree. It is absolutely illegal. They have applied the decree because they are desperate. It is the iron fist of Micheletti, a fascist dictator attitude."
Meanwhile, a radio station shut down by government forces has resumed broadcasting on the internet. Radio Globo director David Romero said the coup regime is trying to silence opposition.
David Romero: "By silencing the people, they want to break up the resistance. They know that Radio Globo and Channel 36 are the communication links. By eliminating us, according to them, they silence the resistance."
In Indonesia, around 530 people have been killed in an earthquake in the western city of Padang. The death toll is expected to rise, with thousands believed trapped below scores of collapsed or damaged buildings.
The Obama administration has unveiled a proposal that would force the nation’s largest polluters to install technology limiting emissions of greenhouse gases. The rule would apply to any new or expanded industrial plant emitting at least 25,000 tonnes of pollution. The EPA says these plants currently account for 70 percent of US emissions.
The proposal comes as Senate Democrats introduced their version of a climate bill imposing federal limits on greenhouse gases. The measure would cut emissions 20 percent from 2005 levels over the next decade. It would also allow polluters to swap emissions credits under a program identical to "cap and trade." Appearing with co-sponsor Senator Barbara Boxer, Senate Foreign Relations chair John Kerry said addressing global warming is essential to US security.
Sen. John Kerry: "Washington is used to letting big oil and special interests stand between us and the goals of everyday citizens. And after the last few months, we know what’s coming. People will say we can’t afford to act. But you know the truth. You know it, all of you. And we know the truth, those of us standing here. And those who serve in the military know the truth, which is why they’re here today. The truth is our security and our economy will both be strengthened, and we can’t afford not to act."
In other environmental news, the EPA has unveiled plans to regulate tens of thousands of chemicals found in everyday items, such as toys, cell phones and food containers. The proposed rules would force companies to submit toxicity data for existing or new chemicals. A greater number of toxins would be evaluated for health and safety risks. The move is being described as the most substantial overhaul of chemical regulation since the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.
In New York, state officials have opened the door to natural gas drilling inside the watershed supplying drinking water to some fifteen million people, including nine million New Yorkers. On Wednesday, regulators unveiled new guidelines allowing companies to drill for gas in the Marcellus Shale, but under strict conditions. Environmental advocates and citizens’ groups had called for a full drilling ban over concerns the drilling will contaminate water supplies. The New York rules are billed as the toughest in the country, but critics say that doesn’t go far enough. Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council said, "It is not appropriate to allow drilling in such a unique and extraordinarily valuable resource. The record in other states is so abysmal, and it doesn’t take much to do better than [them]."
FBI Director Robert Mueller has revealed there was no imminent threat in the case of an Afghan immigrant accused of plotting a bombing attack on US soil. Twenty-four-year-old Najibullah Zazi is being held on charges of acquiring and preparing explosive materials. On Wednesday, Senator Joe Lieberman questioned Mueller about the alleged plot at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing.
Senator Joe Lieberman: "There have been some discussion in the media as to whether there remains an imminent threat related to the Zazi plot."
FBI Director Robert Mueller: "We do not believe there is an imminent threat."
Mueller went on to urge lawmakers to approve the renewal of three PATRIOT Act spying provisions due to expire at the end of the year. The measures allow the government to collect a wide range of financial and personal records, as well as monitor suspects with roving wiretaps.
FBI Director Robert Mueller: "Those provisions have been very essential to us, particularly the first two, which relate to the business records provision and, secondly, the roving wiretaps. And a third, while it has not been used, on lone wolf, is — will be and is important, if we get a similar situation that we had with Moussaoui in 2001. So, I would urge the reenactment of those provisions."
As Mueller advocated the extension of PATRIOT Act spying powers, the American Civil Liberties Union accused the FBI of misusing those powers to help stifle debate over their renewal. The ACLU says the FBI has used a PATRIOT Act provision allowing it to issue gag orders on its use of National Security Letters, or NSLs. The FBI can gather personal information from libraries, internet service providers and others, while barring those institutions from revealing their disclosures. ACLU staff attorney Melissa Goodman said, "The gag power has allowed the FBI to manipulate the debate, to suppress evidence of its misuse of the NSL power, and to deprive Congress and the public of important information it needs to inform whether these intrusive surveillance and gag powers should be reformed."
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government has agreed to free twenty Palestinian women in exchange for information on the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. In return for the prisoners’ release, Hamas is expected to release a video showing Shalit is still alive.
The Israeli government meanwhile is reportedly considering establishing an inquiry on UN allegations it committed war crimes in the assault on the Gaza Strip earlier this year. It’s unclear if the proposal under consideration would probe the allegations or focus on how to deal with avoiding prosecution under international law. An Israeli cabinet minister has proposed establishing a commission to assess the UN inquiry’s judicial ramifications. On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the UN report, saying those who take it seriously "oppose peace."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "Those who support Goldstone, the Goldstone report, oppose peace, because there’s not a government in sight, there’s not a citizen — not consensus. There won’t be an Israeli public that will say, 'Let us take additional risk for peace, because whatever happens, we'll have the right of self-defense.’ This report is a blow to peace because it says that Israel cannot defend itself."
Netanyahu’s comments come as the head of the inquiry, Judge Richard Goldstone, continues to defend the report’s findings. In an interview with CNN, Goldstone said he believes Israel intentionally targeted Palestinian civilians in the Gaza assault.
In other Gaza news, Israel has reportedly agreed to allow the reconstruction of a Palestinian hospital destroyed during the assault. Agence France-Presse reports Israel will allow in materials to rebuild the al-Quds hospital in Gaza City. The Israeli government reportedly made the decision as a gesture to the French government for its confrontational stance on Iran’s nuclear program.
In other news, a seventeen-year-old Palestinian teenager was killed Wednesday when he was struck by an Israeli army jeep. Palestinians say the teen was deliberately run over.
In Afghanistan, the United Nations has dismissed a senior US diplomat in a spat over Afghanistan’s disputed elections. Peter Galbraith was let go as deputy to UN special envoy Kai Eide after vocally criticizing alleged voter fraud by supporters of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
In Italy, prosecutors have rested their case in the trial over the CIA kidnapping of the Egyptian cleric Abu Omar. Twenty-six Americans are being tried in absentia along with several former Italian intelligence officials. Omar was seized on the streets of Milan in 2003 and taken to US bases in Italy and Germany before being sent to Egypt. He says he was tortured there during a four-year imprisonment. Prosecutors are seeking sentences of up to thirteen years in prison.
Back in the United States, a group of Democratic lawmakers is calling for expanding medical coverage to undocumented immigrants under healthcare reform. In a letter to Democratic leaders, twenty-two Congress members say they oppose plans to bar undocumented immigrants from purchasing insurance. The letter says, "It is not rational to exclude individuals who are willing and able to share in the responsibility of paying into the system."
In Montana, a little-known private firm has taken control of an unused jail in the rural town of Hardin. Last week, executives of the company American Police Force arrived in SUVs bearing the logo of a local police department that has never existed. Local officials say they’ve signed a deal with APF, but no agreement has been validated. Company officials say they intend to hire some 200 employees. In addition to running a jail, company officials say they intend to use the facility as a military and law enforcement training center. For its first local hire, APF has hired a Montana reporter who has been covering the prison as its spokesperson.
The Treasury Department has launched its long-awaited program to purchase toxic assets from troubled financial firms. Government officials say the effort could expand to around $40 billion, a fraction of initial projections. Financial companies have been reluctant to sell of mortgage-backed securities at low prices based on predictions they could end up becoming profitable.
In other business news, Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis has announced plans to step down at the end of the year. Lewis came under wide criticism for seeking billions of dollars in additional government bailout money to purchase Merrill Lynch even as the firm authorized million-dollar employee bonuses.
The Supreme Court has decided to rule on whether state and local handgun laws violate the Second Amendment right to gun ownership it recognized last year. The 2008 decision struck down a handgun ban in Washington, DC. Justices will now decide whether handgun rights also extend beyond federal districts to the state and local level.
The news comes as a new study has found gun possession greatly increases the odds of being shot during an armed assault. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found people with a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot by assailants than those without a gun.
In Vermont, four women were arrested earlier this week after blocking entry to a nuclear plant in the town of Vernon. The four members of Vermont Yankee Shut It Down Affinity Group entered the plant housing the Vermont Yankee reactor and sat down on folding chairs. The group includes the ninety-year-old peace activist Frances Crowe. They were arrested for unlawful trespass and ordered to appear in court later this year.
And the New York Times is reporting the Obama administration is opposing a measure to protect reporters from disclosing sources in cases deemed to potentially harm national security. The stance was issued as lawmakers craft a new media shield law.