The Senate is prepared to take two more key procedural votes today on overhauling the nation’s healthcare system. A final vote on the legislation is expected on Christmas Eve. On Monday, the American Medical Association endorsed the legislation, and President Obama described the Senate’s actions as historic. But many progressive supporters of President Obama have decried the Senate legislation in part because Democrats removed a proposal to create a government-run insurance program. Many questions still remain over how congressional leaders will merge the House and Senate bills.
Wall Street has reacted favorably to the Senate bill. Stock prices of health insurance companies have been soaring since October 27, when independent Senator Joe Lieberman announced that he would filibuster any healthcare reform bill that included a public option. Since then, the stock value of CIGNA has jumped 29 percent; Aetna, 27 percent; UnitedHealth, over 20 percent; and Humana, almost 14 percent. During that same period, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen by just over two percent.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has defended Iran’s decision to put three young American hikers on trial after they accidentally crossed the Iran-Iraq border. The Americans, Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal, have been detained since July. In September, Ahmadinejad said he would ask Iran’s judiciary "to look at the case with maximum leniency." But in a new interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News Ahmadinejad was less reassuring when Sawyer asked him if he is still going to do his best to set the hikers free.
Ahmadinejad: "Yes, but I’ve got a question to you. How do you know they have accidentally crossed into Iran? How do you know they were looking for waterfalls and forests?"
Sawyer: "Do you have evidence that it was not accidental? Young people on a hike on a vacation?"
Ahmadinejad: "Who has told you this? Are you a judge? Permit me" —
Sawyer: "By all examination" —
Ahmadinejad: "Have the intelligence agents told you that?"
Sawyer: "They will go on trial?"
Ahmadinejad: "I’m not the judge to judge about it."
The Guardian newspaper reports US Special Forces have conducted multiple clandestine raids into Pakistan as part of a secret war in Pakistan’s tribal areas. A former NATO officer said the incursions occurred between 2003 and 2008 and involved helicopter-borne elite soldiers. The NATO officer said, "The Pakistanis were kept entirely in the dark about it. It was one of those things we wouldn’t confirm officially with them." Last month independent journalist Jeremy Scahill revealed the private military firm Blackwater is also part of a covert program in Pakistan that includes planning the assassination and kidnapping of Taliban and al-Qaeda suspects.
A Somali man just released from Guantanamo described his time at the US military prison as “hell on earth.” Mohamed Saleban Bare was one of twelve Guantanamo prisoners released over the weekend. Bare told Agence France Presse "Some of my colleagues in the prison lost their sight, some lost their limbs and others ended up mentally disturbed. I’m OK compared to them.” Bare was first detained in Pakistan and then transferred to a series of US military prisons. He said, "At Bagram and Kandahar, the situation was harsh, but when we were transferred to Guantanamo the torture tactics changed. They use a kind of psychological torture that kills you mentally." The words of Mohamed Saleban Bare.
A group of sixteen human rights and humanitarian organizations have accused the international community of betraying the people of Gaza by failing to end the Israeli blockade. The report argues that Israel’s blockade on Gaza is a form of "collective punishment." Israeli authorities have allowed only forty-one truckloads of construction materials into Gaza since the end of its three-week invasion last January. Thousands of such deliveries are needed to repair homes. The report was released to coincide with the first anniversary of the Israeli attack that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians.
Egypt has rejected a request to allow international activists to cross the border into Gaza later this week as part of the Gaza Freedom March. Over 1,300 activists from forty-two countries are set to participate in the march. In a statement organizers of the march said, “Our efforts and plans will not be altered at this point. We have set out to break the siege of Gaza and march on December 31 against the Israeli blockade. We are continuing in the same direction.”
In news from El Salvador, the website Upside Down World reports a prominent anti-mining activist has been assassinated. Ramiro Rivera Gomez was vice president of the Cabañas Environmental Committee and a leader in the resistance against gold mining projects proposed by the Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining Company. Another anti-mining activist, Marcelo Rivera, was murdered earlier this year in El Salvador.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has proposed forming an investigative body to examine crimes committed during the country’s 1964-85 military rule. During the dictatorship, as many as 20,000 people were believed to have been tortured, often through the use of electric shocks and chemicals, and over 400 Brazilians were murdered or "disappeared." Unlike neighboring countries such as Argentina and Chile, Brazil has never convicted anyone for participating in dictatorship-era abuses and has refused to make public the military’s archives from the period. Lula’s chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, said the "truth commission" is needed for Brazil to move forward.
Dilma Rousseff: "It’s always painful to remember all those people that went to prison, all those who were brutally tortured in some way. Many times, those people were left with no trace of humanity, and many times their lives were taken."
In Guatemala, the government has agreed to pay $3 million to compensate victims of a 1982 massacre in the mountain hamlet of Dos Erres, where where more than 200 villagers were killed by a special forces unit. The payment was announced following a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Mexico City has become the first city in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage. City lawmakers passed the measure by a 39-to-20 vote. The bill changes the definition of marriage from the union of a man and a woman to "the free uniting of two people."
The environmental group Greenpeace is calling on the Danish government to release four of its members who have been held in jail since Thursday. The activists were arrested after managing to enter the Danish Royal Palace in Copenhagen ahead of a dinner for the 120 heads of state participating in the climate talks. After tricking security guards, the activists arrived just before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s envoy. They were arrested after holding up a banner that read “Politicians Talk, Leaders Act." Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace International, said, “While the perpetrators of the real crime fled the country on private jets, it is shocking that the Danish authorities have decided to detain, without trial, four peaceful protesters over Christmas. ”
The Washington Post reports states are quickly running out of funds to pay unemployment-compensation funds due to the nation’s high jobless rate. Twenty-five states have already run out of unemployment money and have borrowed $24 billion from the federal government to cover the gaps. Another fifteen state funds are expected to go broke within two years.
The military newspaper Stars and Stripes reports four female US soldiers have been punished under a controversial new rule that makes pregnancy a violation of military law in northern Iraq. Under the rules, any female soldier who became pregnant could be punished by court-martial and jail time, but so far the pregnant soldiers have only been given letters of reprimand. Three male soldiers have also been punished for impregnating female soldiers. The Army’s chief commander in northern Iraq said he instituted the ban to prevent the loss of valuable female soldiers. The rule only applies in northern Iraq; no other units in Iraq or Afghanistan have instituted similar rules on pregnancy.
A new report in Playboy has revealed the Bush administration raised the terror alert level to high in 2003 after a self-proclaimed scientist from Nevada convinced the CIA that the TV network Al Jazeera was transmitting secret messages to al-Qaeda sleepers. The alleged codebreaker, Dennis Montgomery, claimed that secret bar codes were hidden in Al Jazeera’s broadcast that told terrorists the terms of their next mission, laying out the latitudes and longitudes of targets, sometimes even flight numbers and dates. Montgomery also claimed he had developed technology to decrypt this code. Convinced that Montgomery had cracked an important code, the Bush administration relied on the conman for years for information used to determine when to increase the terror alert level. Montgomery’s intelligence found its way to the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, Special Forces Command, the Navy, the Air Force, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and even to Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. Eventually a branch of the French intelligence services helped convince the Americans that Montgomery’s claims were all faked.
And anti-whaling activists have returned to the waters near Antarctica in an attempt to stop seven Japanese whaling fleets. Tension is rising between the whaling ship and the activists from Sea Shepherd. The Japanese harpooners have reportedly used water cannons, loudspeakers and military-grade acoustic weapons as part of an attempt to repel the anti-whaling activists. The anti-whaling campaign is led by Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Paul Watson: "Solutions don’t seem to come through politics. It comes through economics, really. And what we’ve been doing over the last three years is cutting the Japanese kill quotas and negating their profits, and that’s something they’re feeling."
Japan killed nearly 700 whales last year using a loophole in an international moratorium that allows "lethal research."