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Blair: Financial Crisis Is Top Security Threat to US

The nation’s new Director of Intelligence, Dennis Blair, warned Thursday that the current global economic crisis has become a greater security concern to the United States than terrorism. Blair said the crisis has already increased questioning of US stewardship of the global economy.

Dennis Blair: "And I’d like to begin with the global economic crisis, because it already looms as the most serious one in decades, if not in centuries...Economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they are prolonged for a one- or two-year period. And instability can loosen the fragile hold that many developing countries have on law and order, which can spill out in dangerous ways into the international community. There are some silver linings. With low oil prices, Venezuela will face financial constraints this year. Iran’s president faces less-than-certain prospects for re-election in June."

While discussing other global threats, Intelligence Director Dennis Blair highlighted the potential for an Iran-Israeli confrontation.

Dennis Blair: "The Levant is the key focal area for these strategic shifts. Recent fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has deepened Palestinian political divisions. It has also widened the rift between regional moderates, led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and hardliners, including Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria. With Hamas controlling Gaza, Hezbollah growing stronger in Lebanon, progress on a Palestinian-Israeli accord is going to be more difficult. With Iran developing a nuclear weapon capability and with Israel determined not to allow it, there is potential for an Iran-Israeli confrontation or crisis."

Sen. Gregg Withdraws as Commerce Pick

Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire has withdrawn his nomination as Commerce Secretary, saying he had “irresolvable conflicts” with President Obama on the economic stimulus and the Census.

Sen. Judd Gregg: “You know, I’m a fiscal conservative, as everybody knows, fairly strong one. And it just became clear to me that it would be very difficult, day in and day out, to serve in this cabinet or any cabinet, for that matter, and be a part of a team and not be able to be 100 percent with the team, 110 percent with the team. You know, you can’t have a blocking back who only pulls off every second or third play."

Judd Gregg is the third prospective cabinet secretary to bow out from consideration. Gregg would have been the third Republican in Obama’s cabinet.

Poll: 2/3 Americans Support Investigating Bush Crimes

In a new USA Today/Gallup poll, two-thirds of Americans say they want investigations into the role of Bush administration officials in torture, warrantless wiretapping and the politicization of the Justice Department. 40 percent of respondents said they want to see prosecutions. Senator Patrick Leahy recently proposed the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate Bush administration crimes. On Monday, President Obama was asked about Leahy’s proposal.

President Obama: “My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted, just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards. I want to pull everybody together, including, by the way, the — all the members of the intelligence community who have done things the right way and have been working hard to protect America and I think sometimes are painted with a broad brush without adequate information. So I will take a look at Senator Leahy’s proposal, but my general orientation is to say let’s get it right moving forward.”

Some Obama administration officials have already ruled out prosecutions. Earlier this month, the new head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, said CIA officers would not be prosecuted for harsh interrogations authorized by the Bush White House. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Panetta by a voice vote.

Lawyer: Torture Evidence "Hidden from Obama"

Meanwhile, The Guardian newspaper reports US defense officials may be preventing Barack Obama from seeing evidence that Binyam Mohamed, a former British resident held in Guantánamo Bay, has been tortured. The prisoner’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, says he sent Obama evidence of what he called "truly mediaeval" abuse, but substantial parts were blanked out before the President could read it. Smith says Obama should be aware of the "bizarre reality" of the situation. Smith said, "You, as commander in chief, are being denied access to material that would help prove that crimes have been committed by U.S. personnel. This decision is being made by the very people who you command." The Guardian reports US defense officials might have censored the evidence to protect the President from criminal liability or political embarrassment.

Documents Reveals CIA & Pentagon Worked Closely on Rendition

In related news, three human rights groups released more than a thousand pages of Pentagon and CIA documents Thursday that reveal the two agencies worked closely together in rendering terrorism suspects to black sites. The documents also confirm the existence of secret prisons in Iraq and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

49 Killed in Continental Plane Crash Near Buffalo

A Continental flight from Newark to Buffalo crashed Thursday night, killing forty-nine people. The dead included forty-four passengers, four crew members and a person on the ground. The crash occurred about five miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport. It was the nation’s deadliest air crash in more than two years. One of the passengers killed was the widow of a businessman who died in the September 11 attacks. Beverly Eckert had been traveling to Buffalo to mark what would have been her late husband’s fifty-eighth birthday.

Judges Admit Taking Bribes from Private Juvenile Prison

In Pennsylvania, two judges have pleaded guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking bribes in return for placing youths in privately owned jails. Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan are said to have received $2.6 million for ensuring juvenile suspects were jailed in prisons operated by the companies PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care. Some of the youths were jailed over the objections of their probation officers. An estimated 5,000 juveniles have been sentenced by Ciavarella since the scheme started in 2002.

Pakistan Arrests Six Connected to Mumbai Attacks

Pakistani security forces have arrested the alleged ringleader and five others believed to have been involved in the conspiracy behind the attacks in Mumbai, India that killed 179 people. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik said gunmen had sailed from Karachi in Pakistan. Malik admitted at least part of the conspiracy had been organized in Pakistan.

Rehman Malik: "Fact remains that it is not only Pakistan, but the system of the other countries has also been used. And I had earlier mentioned, the telephone SIMs from Austria, the web service, the payment from Spain and the payments in Italy, and the domain name is in Houston; therefore, we will be requesting through Interpol to FBI to help us investigate it, because this is also a good piece of evidence."

Afghanistan Probes Pakistan Link to Taliban Raid on Kabul

Afghan intelligence agents are investigating links between Pakistan and the Taliban militants who killed twenty-six people in three simultaneous suicide bomb and gun raids earlier this week on state offices in the capital Kabul.

30 Shiite Pilgrims Killed in Iraq

In Iraq, at least thirty Shiite pilgrims have been killed by a female suicide bomber south of Baghdad. The pilgrims were heading to the city of Karbala to take part in a religious ceremony.

Israeli Election Results Confirm Livni Won Most Seats

The final results of Israel’s parliamentary election confirmed Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party won the contest by a single seat over Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party. Both candidates are attempting to form coalition governments.

Report: Hamas to Sign Deal to Release Israeli Soldier

Meanwhile, the Arabic daily Al-Hayat is reporting Hamas is prepared to sign a deal next week for the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as part of a long-term truce agreement with Israel. According to the report, Shalit would be freed in exchange for 1,000 Palestinians jailed in Israel.

UN to Probe Israel Attacks on UN Facilities in Gaza

In other news from the region, the United Nations has launched a formal inquiry into Israel’s bombings of UN installations and convoys during its twenty-two-day attack on Gaza.

African Union and Arab League Criticize Possible Indictment of Bashir

African Union and Arab League diplomats are urging the UN Security Council to suspend an expected war crimes indictment of the Sudanese president over atrocities in Darfur. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is the most senior figure pursued by the court since it was set up in 2002. If the warrant is issued as expected, he will be the first acting head of state indicted. China, the African Union and Arab League have all suggested that an indictment of Bashir could destabilize the region and worsen the Darfur conflict.

Canada Restricts Use of Taser Stun Guns

The Canadian federal police have issued new guidelines restricting the use of taser stun guns. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police now bars officers from using stun guns against suspects who are merely resisting arrest or refusing to cooperate. At least twenty Canadians have died after being shot by stun guns. In 2007, an unarmed Polish man died at Vancouver International Airport after he was repeatedly tasered.

San Jose Man Dies After Police Tasering

Another taser death has been reported in the United States. In San Jose, California, a man in his twenties died Wednesday night after police shot him with a taser. The death is the sixth to occur after the use of tasers by San Jose police since 2004.

TVA: Coal Ash Spill to Cost Up to $800 Million to Clean

The Tennessee Valley Authority says it may cost over $800 million to clean up last year’s massive coal ash spill at a Tennessee coal plant. 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge spilled from a containment pond, flooding homes and nearby water sources.

Gay and Lesbian Couples Protest Marriage Laws

Hundreds of same-sex couples attempted to get married Thursday in a national day of action to protest laws prohibiting same-sex marriage. Couples went to marriage bureaus, county clerks’ offices and county courthouses to apply for marriage licenses, only to be turned away. In New York, activists wore signs reading “Just Not Married” after they were turned away by officials. The protests were organized as part of the twelfth annual Freedom to Marry Week.

Obama Marks Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday

Ceremonies were held across the nation Thursday to mark the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. At a ceremony in Washington, President Barack Obama praised the nation’s sixteenth president as a visionary of great courage.

President Obama: "As we mark the bicentennial of our sixteenth president’s birth, I cannot claim to know as much about his life and works as many who are also speaking today, but I can say that I feel a special gratitude to this singular figure who, in so many ways, made my own story possible and, in so many ways, made America’s story possible."

Hampshire College Students and Official Argue Over Divestment Decision

A dispute has emerged between officials at Hampshire College and student organizers over the school’s recent decision to divest from a mutual fund run by State Street Global Advisors. Activists with the group Students for Justice in Palestine said the move came after it had pressured Hampshire’s Board of Trustees to divest from six companies that provide the Israeli military with equipment and services in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza. Hampshire College officials admit they reviewed the State Street fund after receiving a petition from the group, but the school said the divestment decision “did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country.” The trustees said they divested from the fund after learning the fund held stocks in more than 200 companies engaged in business practices that violated the college’s policy on "socially responsible investments.” The six companies that formed the basis of the student group’s complaints were Caterpillar, United Technologies, General Electric, ITT Corporation, Motorola and Terex. Students for Justice in Palestine are hailing the divestment decision as a major victory. They say Hampshire has become the first college in the country to break financial ties with companies specifically because they do business with Israel. In 1977, Hampshire became the first college in the nation to divest its South African holdings.

Jewish Activists Protest World Zionist Organization

Here in New York, a group of Jewish activists have been staging a twenty-four-hour protest in front of the Midtown Manhattan building that houses the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. Jane Hirschmann helped organize the event.

Jane Hirschmann: "My parents were Holocaust survivors. And when I was a young girl, they taught me that it was important to have a Jewish homeland. But I question all that, because if getting a Jewish homeland means that you have to persecute 750,000 Palestinians and remove them from their land to get the state of Israel and then to continue for sixty years to persecute other people to control their air, their land, their sea, to control their water, to decide where they can go and when they can go, to put up barbed wire and keep them behind a wall, then I don’t want my children to grow up learning that because you’ve been persecuted in the past, you have a right to persecute others. And that’s why I’m standing here today as a Jew."

Other protesters included the artist Abigail Levine.

Abigail Levine: "I don’t feel conscionable with this senseless violence being perpetuated in the name of the Jewish people and Jewish culture. And in one of the centers of the Jewish community in the world, here in New York, I feel like we have to stand up and say no to the occupation and no to violence against Palestinians. These people have a right to a humane existence and to education and to a decent home, like we demanded in our history."

Jury: Florida Smoker Died Because of Addiction

And in Florida, a jury will soon decide whether tobacco giant Philip Morris should pay millions of dollars in a damage to the family of a smoker who died of lung cancer after being addicted to cigarettes for forty years. Lawyers for the family of Stuart Hess argue he became hooked on cigarettes because of deceptive practices by Philip Morris that hid the dangers of smoking. On Thursday, the jury decided Hess was helplessly addicted to nicotine and that he did not continue smoking by his own choice.

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