WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is appearing in a London courtroom today one week after his arrest on an international warrant to face sexual crime allegations in Sweden. Assange is asking to be released on bail as he fights his extradition to Sweden amidst the international uproar over WikiLeaks’ most recent publication of secret U.S. diplomatic cables. The U.S. Department of Justice is rumored to have empaneled a federal grand jury to indict Assange for publishing the cables. Earlier today, Assange’s mother, Christine Assange, spoke out after a brief conversation with her son.
Christine Assange: "He’s being held in the basement of the prison, right in the middle of the prison, in solitary confinement. As a mother, I’m asking the world to stand up for my brave son."
An online petition by the website Avaaz in support of WikiLeaks has attracted over 600,000 signatures. Among the latest prominent backers to volunteer as guarantors for Assange’s bail money is the U.S. filmmaker Michael Moore, who says he has put up $20,000 for Assange’s release. In a statement released today to Australian television, Julian Assange said, "My convictions are unfaltering. I remain true to the ideals I have expressed… If anything, this process has increased my determination that they are true and correct."
A federal judge in Virginia has struck down a cornerstone of President Obama’s healthcare reform law as unconstitutional. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson ruled the government cannot force Americans to purchase mandatory health insurance or face penalties. It was the first time a court has ruled against any piece of the healthcare law since it was adopted earlier this year. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the state of Virginia, one of two dozen challenging the law in federal courts nationwide. But it is expected to have little impact because it does not impose an injunction freezing the law’s implementation. Two other courts have also issued rulings favorable to the law in similar cases. The debate over the law is expected to end up before the Supreme Court. The judge in the Virginia case, Judge Hudson, is the part-owner of Campaign Solutions, a Republican consulting firm that has worked to oppose healthcare reform. The firm’s clients have included Sarah Palin and John McCain. Federal disclosures show Hudson has earned up to $108,000 in dividends from his holdings in the firm since 2003.
The U.S. Senate is on the verge of approving President Obama’s controversial tax deal with Republicans. On Monday, the Senate overwhelmingly voted 83 to 15 to end debate on the measure and bring it to a final vote. Under the deal, Obama agreed to extend the Bush-era tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and reduce the estate tax in return for a 13-month extension of jobless benefits and a handful of tax credits for low- and moderate-income Americans. According to the New York Times, at least a quarter of the tax savings under the deal will go to the wealthiest one percent of the population. The only group that will see its taxes increase are the nation’s lowest-paid workers. At the White House, President Obama called the deal a victory for the middle class.
President Obama: "It is a substantial victory for middle-class families across the country who would no longer have to worry about a massive tax hike come January 1st. It would offer hope to millions of Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, by making sure that they won’t suddenly find themselves out in the cold without the unemployment insurance benefits that they were counting on."
The measure will go to the House if the Senate approves it as expected today. House Democrats have voiced opposition to the deal and could seek to alter provisions reducing the estate tax.
The debate over tax cuts comes just as Wall Street’s biggest firms are set to complete their most profitable two-year period in investment banking and trading on record. According to Bloomberg News, the firms Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley generated $93.7 billion in the first nine months of 2010, on pace to fall 10 percent short of last year’s record $127.8 billion. Collectively the firms have taken in more than $135 billion under the Wall Street bailout program and borrowed billions more from the Federal Reserve.
The field of incoming Republican committee chairs in the U.S. House of Representatives continues to draw controversy before the new Congress begins next month. The next chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama has been quoted saying lawmakers and regulators should "serve" Wall Street. Speaking to the Birmingham News, Bauchus said, "In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks." Shortly before the midterm elections that propelled him into the committee chairmanship, Bachus urged a gathering of financial industry lobbyists to donate heavily to Republicans in response to the Democrats’ overhaul of financial regulation.
Three U.S. soldiers discharged under the law barring openly gay servicemembers have filed a lawsuit against the federal government. On Monday, the soldiers asked a U.S. District Court in San Francisco to grant them reinstatement in the military and declare the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy unconstitutional. The suit comes just days after U.S. Senate Republicans blocked advancement of a measure to repeal the ban.
The Obama administration has lifted a ban on deportations to Haiti. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it expects to resume deporting Haitian immigrants next month—the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people. Human rights groups have criticized the move amidst a cholera outbreak, election-related violence and the ongoing devastation from the earthquake. In a statement, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti and Alternative Chance called the move "unconscionable," adding, "The situation in Haiti has not improved and may be even worse now than when the deportations were halted in the weeks after the [earthquake]."
New York has become the first U.S. state to impose a partial moratorium on the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Outgoing Governor David Paterson has issued an executive order barring fracking until next July. A grassroots campaign pushed for a moratorium over concerns drilling could contaminate the water supplies of New York City and other areas. But Paterson’s order only applies to horizontal wells, not vertical wells, which have been linked to contamination in Pennsylvania and are still undergoing environmental review. On Monday, opponents of hydraulic fracking held a rally outside the New York State Senate in Albany. The actor and director Mark Ruffalo celebrated the moratorium but urged anti-drilling activists to continue their struggle.
Mark Ruffalo: "We are the first state in the nation, the first nation in the world, to stand up against the dangers of hydro-fracking. And I think it’s very important that you people understand that you did this, the system does work. Millions of dollars came in against us and the hard work that we’ve been doing, and we still beat it. OK? I don’t care how anyone characterizes this, we won. But it’s the first game in the playoffs, alright? And we still got plenty of games ahead of us."
Backers of low-power FM community radio stations protested outside the National Association of Broadcasters on Monday to call for the passage of the Local Community Radio Act before the end of the year. The bill has already been approved in the U.S. House of Representatives, but secret holds have been put on the bill in the Senate. On Monday, members of the Prometheus Radio Project accused Gordon Smith, the head of the National Association of Broadcasters, of orchestrating the secret holds. As part of the demonstration, protesters hula-hooped and juggled outside the NAB offices chanting, "Stop making us jump through hoops." Speakers at the rally included Veronica Dorsey of the group United Workers.
Veronica Dorsey: "We are here because we are supporting expanding community radio to every city and every town across the United States of America. The big broadcasters of the National Association of Broadcasters and their Senate friends have blocked the Local Community Radio Act. So to the National Association of Broadcasters, stop making community radio jump through hoops!"
Kuwait is cracking down on the satellite network Al Jazeera for its coverage of a police assault on an opposition gathering. Al Jazeera says Kuwaiti authorities closed its office and withdrew its accreditation after the network aired footage of police officers beating opposition activists. Kuwait says Al Jazeera was censored for "interference" in the country’s "internal affairs."
The Australian government has reportedly broken with the views of the U.S. and its allies on Iran’s nuclear program. U.S. cables released by WikiLeaks show Australian intelligence agencies see Iran’s nuclear program as a "deterrent" in the face of threatened military attack by Israel and the United States. The cables also show Australian officials have raised concerns about the likelihood of a unilateral military strike on Iran and have rejected labeling Iran a "rogue state."
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has announced plans to seek a second term. Four candidates have already announced plans to replace Steele as the Republican Party head.
And the veteran U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke has died at the age of 69. Holbrooke served under four Democratic administrations dating back to President Lyndon Johnson. In a statement, President Obama praised Holbrooke as "a true giant of American foreign policy… who will be remembered for his tireless diplomacy, love of country, and pursuit of peace." Widely respected in Washington and corporate media circles, Holbrooke is well known for brokering the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia. But he came under criticism elsewhere for implementing and backing U.S. policies that killed thousands of civilians. As Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter administration, Holbrooke oversaw weapons shipments to the Indonesian military as it killed a third of East Timor’s population. In 1980, he played a key role in the Carter administration’s support for a South Korean military crackdown on a pro-democracy uprising in the city of Kwangju that killed hundreds of people. During the 1990s Holbrooke was seen as one of the key figures in the dismantling of Yugoslavia. He was also a prominent Democratic backer of the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq in 2003. Holbrooke served as President Obama’s chief envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan until his death. According to the Washington Post, family members say Holbrooke’s final words, said to his Pakistani surgeon, were: "You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan."