The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the disclosure of the Bush administration’s secret program to spy on Americans and foreign nationals without court-approval warrants. Prosecutors say the investigation will focus on who may have leaked classified information to the New York Times, which broke the story last month.
Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting a top Justice Department official held up approval of the secret spy program over concerns about its legality and oversight In March 2004, acting Attorney General James Comey refused to sign on to the program’s continued use. Comey was serving in place of then-Attorney General John Aschroft while Ashcroft was hospitalized. Comey’s refusal prompted senior Presidential aides Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales to visit Aschroft in his hospital room to grant the approval. The Times reports Ashcroft expressed reluctance to sign off on the program. It is unclear if he eventually relented. Both Ashcroft and Comey’s concerns appear to have led to a temporary suspension of parts of the program for several months, the Times says.
In Pakistan, heavy snow and rain have brought new complications to the country’s already hampered earthquake relief effort. Since Saturday, icy-rain and more than a foot of snow have hit some of the country’s most earthquake ravaged areas, flooding makeshift tent camps and cutting off delivery of desperately needed aid.
In Iraq, Reuters is reporting a U.S. air strike has killed 14 members of one Iraqi family in the northern town of Baiji. An Iraqi military spokesperson said the air raid damaged an additional four houses, injuring at least three other people.
Elsewhere in Iraq, armed forces have killed four Iraqis demonstrating against the country’s drastic increase in oil prices. It is unclear if the demonstrators were killed by US or Iraqi forces. The shootings occurred in the northern village of Rahinawa, near Kirkuk. An unidentified relative of one of the dead said: “They killed my brother. I was standing in the streets about 10 metres away from him and they wouldn’t let me go near his body. They dragged him out of his car with other residents and they were treating them like they weren’t human beings.”
Outrage has erupted across the country as Iraq has seen a five-fold increase in oil prices in recent weeks. The increase is attributed to the elimination of Iraq’s oil subsidies, as required by a debt relief deal Iraq’s interim government signed with the International Monetary Fund.
In related news, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi has been named interim oil minister. Chalabi was appointed to replace Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, who was forced out after publicly criticizing the IMF deal. This is the second time Chalabi has held the oil minister position.
Meanwhile, government officials say Iraq’s oil exports have reached their lowest level since the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003, with shipments now at about half the level seen under Saddam Hussein.
In other Iraq news, the New York Times has revealed controversial Pentagon contractor the Lincoln Group has been paying Sunni religious scholars for assistance with its propaganda efforts. The company is already under investigation over the disclosure it secretly paid Iraqi newspapers to publish American-authored articles favorable to the U.S. military. That investigation is reportedly complete; military officials told the Times an initial assessment concluded the military was “operating within our authorities and the appropriate legal procedures.”
Meanwhile, a new poll by the magazine group Military Times shows support for President Bush among US armed forces has fallen over ten percent in the last year. The survey found support for Bush’s overall policies at 60 percent, down from 71 percent. Support for the Iraq war for is at 54 percent–down from 63 percent. The Times says the poll found “diminished optimism that US goals in Iraq can be accomplished, and a somewhat smaller drop in support for the decision to go to war in 2003.”
This news from Egypt — the Egyptian government has announced plans to deport over 600 Sudanese migrants, just days after police killed close to 30 unarmed Sudanese on Friday. The killings occurred outside United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Cairo, where the Sudanese had gathered to protest the UN’s decision to deny them refugee status. After failing to disperse them with water cannons, police stormed the crowd with clubs and metal sticks. Close to 30 people — most of them children, elderly, and women–were killed. Another 2,000 people were arrested. Sudanese refugees have waged a bitter three-month protest, alleging racism and mistreatment in Egypt. While many have been granted permission to stay in Egypt, the Sudanese are demanding the UN grant them refugee status so they may emigrate to other countries.
In Turkey, the government is denying newspaper reports the United States has asked to use local military bases for possible attacks on neighboring Iran. Several newspapers have reported high-level U.S. officials have visited Turkey in recent months to prepare from Turkish-based strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The officials have included the heads of both the CIA and FBI. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is also expected to visit the country in the coming weeks. In a statement, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said the reports have: “no connection with reality.”
In the Gaza Strip, three British citizens have been released following their kidnapping last week. Aid worker Kate Burton and her two parents were kidnapped by a previously unknown militant group on a visit to a Gaza refugee camp. The group initially demanded Israel cease the bombardment of a northern Gaza area declared off-limits to Palestinians last week. The kidnapping prompted widespread calls throughout the Palestinian territories for the hostages’ release.
In the Philippines, a judge said today he’ll soon be issuing an arrest warrant for four US Marines accused in the rape of a Filipino woman. The four marines were charged last month for the rape of a 22-year old Filipina woman near a former US Navy base in November. The U.S. embassy has not responded to a request to hand them over to local authorities.
In Haiti, national elections have been postponed for a fourth time. After original plans for a vote last October, the election had most recently been set for January 8th. The delay all but confirms Haiti will be unable to have a new government in place by February 7, the date specified by the constitution. Haiti is holding its first elections since the February 2004 overthrow of the government of President Jean Bertrand Aristide.
In other news, the Associated Press has announced its ended ties with a reporter found to have been working for the U.S. government-backed National Endowment for Democracy. The NED, which receives annual funding from the US Congress and State Department, has been linked to supporting opposition groups favorable to US government positions in countries such as Venezuela and Haiti. The reporter, Regine Alexandre had contributed at least one dozen articles for the AP and at least two for the New York Times. Her ties to the NED were exposed by independent journalist Anthony Fenton and radio host Dennis Bernstein on the radio program Flashpoints on Pacifica’s KPFA.
And in West Virginia, rescue crews continue their attempt to reach 13 coal miners trapped at least 260 feet below ground following a mine explosion Monday. The explosion at Upshur County’s Sago Mine appeared to have been caused by lightning. There is no word on whether any of the 13 survived. Rescue teams were forced to enter the mine more than 11 hours after the blast due to dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide. The mine has reportedly been cited for several health and safety violations, with over 200 citations during 2005, up from 68 the year before.