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In economic news, the nation’s workers received more devastating news on Friday. Eighty-five thousand jobs were lost last month, a far higher number than analysts had projected. The official unemployment rate remained at ten percent, but that was only because 661,000 people were not counted as unemployed because they had not looked for a job in the four weeks preceding the December survey. If those people had been included in the tally, the jobless rate would have been closer to 10.4 percent. On Friday, President Obama acknowledged the latest job numbers were discouraging.
President Obama: “The jobs numbers that were released by the Labor Department this morning are a reminder that the road to recovery is never straight and that we have to continue to work every single day to get our economy moving again. For most Americans, and for me, that means jobs. It means whether we are putting people back to work.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports just 80 percent of men between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four were employed in December. That’s the lowest figure ever recorded. The economy has shed more than 7.2 million jobs since the recession started in December 2007.
In other economic news, Wall Street firms are preparing to give out billions of dollars in annual bonuses. The average employee at Goldman Sachs is expected to receive a bonus worth nearly $600,000. Many executives will earn far more. At JPMorgan the average bonus is expected to top $450,000. But the Wall Street Journal reports many employees at Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and other firms are grumbling because much of this year’s bonus will be in stock instead of cash.
In Afghanistan, another international journalist has been killed while embedded with US troops. Rupert Hamer, the defense correspondent for the Sunday Mirror of London, died on Sunday in a roadside bomb attack in Helmand Province. The blast also killed a US Marine and an Afghan soldier. A photographer for the Sunday Mirror, Philip Coburn, was injured in the attack and is in serious but stable condition. Rupert Hamer is the second Western journalist to have been killed on an embedded assignment in the past two weeks. Michelle Lang, a Canadian reporter from the Calgary Herald newspaper, died on December 30. In all, eighteen journalists have been killed since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but Lang and Hamer are the first journalists of the war to die while embedded with US or allied troops.
In other news from Afghanistan, the company formerly known as Blackwater is in the running for a contract potentially worth one billion dollars to train Afghanistan’s national police force.
Under an existing defense contract, the company, Xe, already trains the Afghan border police — an arm of the national police — and drug interdiction units in southern Afghanistan.
A Pakistani television station has aired a video of the suicide bomber double agent who blew himself up at the CIA base in Afghanistan. The video shows the bomber, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, sitting beside Pakistan Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud. Al-Balawi said the attack was revenge for the US killing of former Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who died a in drone strike in Pakistan in August.
Humam Khalil al-Balawi: "This jihadi attack will be the first of the revenge operations against the Americans and their drone teams outside the Pakistani borders after they killed the emir of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud."
Hours after the release of the video, Humam al-Balawi’s father confirmed the man in the video was his son. Balawi’s father blamed the Americans for his actions.
Khalil Balawi: "The American oppression against the Muslim world and injustice can turn anyone to this sort of thing. There is an American oppression, arrogance. They kill innocent people and children and find no one to tell them why they are doing that. We pray that God accepts him with the martyrs and prophets."
The US use of drones in Pakistan appears to be intensifying. On Saturday, four people were killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan. It was at least the sixth drone strike so far this year.
The New York Times reports the military is being overwhelmed by the amount of video captured by drones. Air Force drones collected nearly three times as much video over Afghanistan and Iraq last year as they did in 2007. It would take twenty-four years to watch what was recorded last year by the drones. And that volume is expected to multiply in the coming years as drones are added to the fleet and as some start using multiple cameras to shoot in many directions.
The news of the military equipment deal comes amid some tension between Israel and the Obama administration. Last week US envoy George Mitchell said Washington could penalize Israel financially to force it into making concessions to the Palestinians. Mitchell’s comments were widely criticized in Israel as well as by some of Israel’s staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill, including independent Senator Joseph Lieberman.
Senator Joseph Lieberman: “Any attempt to pressure Israel, to force Israel to the negotiating table by denying Israel support, will not pass the Congress of the United States. In fact, Congress will act to stop any attempt to do that. I don’t think we’re going to come to that point, because I think the President and his administration understand that."
In other news from the region, three Palestinians died Sunday by an Israeli tank in Gaza. Palestinians said the three men were militants who were in a field often used to launch rockets toward Israel. Meanwhile, Israel has announced plans to construct two walls along its southern border with Egypt in an attempt to prevent African refugees and asylum seekers from entering Israel. The two walls will cover a total of seventy miles.
The publication Defense News reports the US Army will double the value of emergency military equipment it stockpiles on Israeli soil and that Israel will be allowed to use the US ordnance if needed. The $800 million stockpile will include missiles, armored vehicles, aerial ammunition and artillery ordnance.
Republican Party Chair Michael Steele is calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to step down over racial remarks Reid made about Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. A new book reveals that in private conversation Reid said the country was ready to embrace a black candidate in part because Obama was a "light-skinned" African American with "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Harry Reid has apologized to Obama. In a statement, Obama said, "As far as I am concerned, the book is closed."
The New York Times reports federal officials have used their role as overseers to prevent the media from reporting deaths inside the nation’s immigration jails. Immigration and Customs Enforcement now admit 107 immigrants died in ICE custody since October 2003, but for years the deaths went uncounted and unnamed in the public record. The Times revealed jail officials and federal workers strategized about how to keep information about the deaths and mistreatment from the news media. In at least one case, jail medical personnel falsified a medication log in an effort to cover up the death of a twenty-two-year-old man from El Salvador. In another case, ICE officials considered paying to send the body of a Guinean man back to his home country to deflect news coverage of the man’s death in ICE custody. Some Bush administration era officials who played a role in the cover-ups remain in top posts in the Obama administration.
A former banker for the Swiss giant UBS who blew the whistle on the biggest tax evasion scheme in US history has begun serving a forty-month jail sentence. In 2007, Bradley Birkenfeld came forward to US authorities and began providing inside information on how UBS was helping thousands of Americans hide assets in secret Swiss accounts. On Friday, Birkenfeld spoke to reporters before reporting to prison.
Bradley Birkenfeld: “I’d like to say how proud I am to be courageous enough to come forward. I do what I did to expose the largest tax fraud in the world. And the Bush Department of Justice didn’t expose this. I did. But I’ll tell you what the Bush Department of Justice did do. What they did do was give the kingpin, Martin Liechti, immunity after he pled the Fifth in front of the United States Senate and let him go back to Switzerland uncharged. Additionally, they gave international clients amnesty so they wouldn’t be charged. They also gave the largest bank in the world, UBS, they rewarded them with a deferred prosecution, and they are still withholding 15,000 client names from our government. The American taxpayers should be outraged."
Bradley Birkenfeld’s lawyer Stephen Kohn criticized the Justice Department for prosecuting his client after he blew the whistle.
Stephen Kohn: "To take the whistleblower who is responsible for the single largest recovery ever for the American taxpayer, who has already saved and recovered for the taxpayers at least two to three to four billion — it will be much more — and to put him in jail is a travesty of justice. It is a miscarriage of justice. It is grotesque. But worse, it is sending a chilling effect. And maybe it’s fitting that we are here in the snow and in the cold, because this is the type of chilling effect it will have on the willingness of other bankers to step forward and do the right thing."
Here in New York, a federal court will hear arguments today in a lawsuit against several international corporations accused of aiding South Africa’s apartheid-era government. Companies named in the lawsuit include Daimler AG, General Motors, Ford Motor Company and IBM.
And over 125 activists have started a twelve-day fast to mark the beginning of the ninth year of the US military prison detention at Guantanamo. The Fast for Justice will continue until January 22, the date by which President Obama had initially vowed to close the prison.