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U.S. to Send 1,400 More Marines to Afghanistan

The Wall Street Journal reports the Obama administration has decided, in a surprise move, to send an additional 1,400 U.S. Marine combat forces to Afghanistan. The move comes just days after the end of the bloodiest year for U.S. troops in the war. More than 700 NATO troops were killed in 2010, including nearly 500 U.S. soldiers.

Nancy Pelosi Passes House Speaker Gavel to John Boehner

On Capitol Hill, Congress has reconvened with Republicans taking control of the House. On Wednesday, outgoing House Speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, passed the gavel to Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), the new House Speaker.

Nancy Pelosi: "I now pass this gavel, which is larger than most gavels here, but the gavel of choice of Mr. Speaker Boehner — I now pass this gavel and the sacred trust that goes with it to the new Speaker. God bless you, Speaker Boehner."

Soon after, Boehner addressed lawmakers.

John Boehner: "We gather here today at a time of great challenges. Nearly one in 10 of our neighbors is out of work. Healthcare costs are still rising for American families. Our spending has caught up with us, and our debt soon will eclipse the entire size of our national economy. Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress. No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin to carry out their instructions."

In one of its first acts in power, House Republicans are planning to read aloud the Constitution.

Hedge Funds Spent $10 Million to Help GOP Win Election

The Center for Public Integrity is reporting a small network of hedge fund executives pumped at least $10 million into Republican campaign committees and allied groups in last year’s elections to help Republicans win control of the House. Much of the money came late in the campaign or was funneled through obscure “joint fundraising committees” in order to avoid disclosing the names of big donors. In one case, executives at the hedge fund Elliott Management Corp. raised at least $195,800 for Republican Congressman Scott Garrett of New Jersey, who has just become the new chair of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Capital Markets. The Elliott contributions provided about 96 percent of all the funds raised by Garrett’s victory committee.

Census: 48 Million Americans Now in Poverty

Newly released census data indicates that the number of Americans living in poverty is millions higher than previously known. Under a new revised census formula, one in six Americans, or 48 million people, lived in poverty last year. The census shows a growing number of people over the age of 65 who are struggling in poverty due to rising medical costs.

Global Food Prices Hit Record High

Global food prices have hit a record high, surpassing the previous records of two years ago when prices spiked sparking food riots across the globe. Abdolreza Abbassian is an economist at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

Abdolreza Abbassian: "So this is really the concern we have here, that people look at the past and they say, 'Well, in the past, prices rose very fast, and they came down very fast, even in 2007 and ’08.' Well, situations have changed. The supply-demand structures have changed. And certainly the kind of weather developments we have seen makes us worry a little bit more that, well, it may last much, much longer. And are we prepared for it? Really, this is the question. And I think the December number, highlighting further strength, further firming of prices, simply, you know, underpins this concern."

Gene Sperling Expected to be Tapped for Top Economic Post

President Obama is reportedly preparing to name Gene Sperling the new director of the National Economic Council, replacing Lawrence Summers. Sperling served in the same post under President Bill Clinton. He is currently a special adviser to U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner. During his time in the Clinton administration, Sperling is credited with helping to create the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has become a key part of the federal government’s anti-poverty policy. Sperling has been criticized by some for his ties to Wall Street. In 2008, he earned nearly $900,000 at Goldman Sachs, where he was hired to help run a charitable project at the bank. He earned an additional $158,000 in speaking fees that year. The economist Dean Baker has criticized Sperling for supporting financial deregulation during the Clinton years and for not recognizing the danger of the growth of the housing bubble. Meanwhile, JPMorgan executive William Daley remains the frontrunner in Obama’s search for a new chief of staff. The White House is also looking for a new press secretary. Robert Gibbs announced Wednesday he is stepping down in February. Gibbs said he plans to become a paid consultant to the Obama reelection campaign.

Commission: Cost-Cutting Decisions Led to BP Spill

A preliminary report from the White House oil spill commission says the Deepwater Horizon explosion occurred in part because of decisions by BP, Halliburton and Transocean to save time and money. The commission was also highly critical of the regulatory process that oversees deepwater oil drilling.

Amnesty Report: Sexual Violence Against Women on Rise in Haiti

As Haiti prepares to mark the first anniversary of last year’s devastating earthquake that killed 230,000 people, Amnesty International is warning that Haitian women and girls are facing an increasing threat of sexual violence. Amnesty said more than 250 cases of rape in several makeshift camps were reported in the first 150 days after the earthquake on January 12, 2010. Gerardo Ducos is a researcher for Amnesty in Haiti.

Gerardo Ducos: "The women and girls are being attacked under their shelters in the camps, dragged by a group of men into a secluded area or into another tent, and just being raped there, because in most of the camps, there is no lighting at night or even in the street, so obviously that creates an environment that is conducive to these kind of aggressions."

Amnesty called on the Haitian police and international community to address the issue.

Gerardo Ducos: "The overcrowding of the camps, the lack of security, the lack of protective measures that actually prevent or respond to sexual violence is — and the lack of capacity of the Haitian police to respond to this report — to reports of sexual violence, has all compounded a humanitarian crisis, and women and girls are actually paying the price for it."

Oxfam: Haiti is Still in Ruins a Year After Earthquake

A new report by Oxfam sheds new light on how reconstruction efforts have barely begun in Haiti a year after the catastrophic earthquake. According to Oxfam, less than five percent of the rubble has been cleared, only 15 percent of the temporary housing that is needed has been built, and relatively few permanent water and sanitation facilities have been constructed. In addition, less than 45 percent of the $2.1 billion pledged for Haiti’s reconstruction during last year’s international donor conference had actually been disbursed.

U.N. Calls for 2,000 Troops for Ivory Coast

In news from Africa, the United Nations is calling for up to 2,000 more peacekeepers to be deployed to Ivory Coast, joining the existing force of 10,000. Some 800 U.N. troops are stationed outside of a hotel in Abidjan, where the government of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara has been holed up since the country’s disputed presidential runoff on Nov. 28.

Pakistani Guards Questioned over Assassination of Governor

Pakistani police have detained six more security guards for questioning in the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab province. One of Taseer’s own guards, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, has admitted shooting the governor. But there are now reports that other guards may have known about the attack but decided not to act. The assassination has raised new concerns about the extent that Islamist groups have infiltrated Pakistan’s security forces.

Sadr Returns to Iraq After Exile in Iran

In news from Iraq, the prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has returned to Iraq ending nearly four years of self-imposed exile in Iran. Sadr has been the most prominent Shiite critic of the U.S. invasion and occupation. Sadr returns at a time when his political power is increasing. He recently helped Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cobble together a new government, ending eight months of political deadlock. Supporters of Sadr now control at least eight ministries in Maliki’s new cabinet.

Israel Considers Probe of Human Rights Groups

Israeli lawmakers have voted to establish a formal inquiry into the foreign funding of human rights groups and left-wing organizations. Critics denounced the move as a political witch hunt. The bill accuses human rights organizations groups of damaging the legitimacy of Israel’s military by "branding IDF soldiers and commanders as war criminals." Peace Now director general Yariv Oppenheimer described the move as "another step on the path toward wiping out democracy in Israel."

Brazilian Truth Commission Proposed

And in Brazil, the country’s new Secretary of Human Rights has asked the Brazilian Congress to form a truth commission to investigative atrocities committed by the dictatorship in the 1970s. The calls comes just days after the inauguration of President Dilma Rousseff, who was jailed and tortured by the military regime between 1970 and 1972.


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