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The Bush administration has been secretly monitoring thousands of international bank transactions without court-approval. The secret program was enacted shortly after the 9/11 attacks in what government officials say is a crucial weapon in tracking the financing of terrorist activity. The information has been obtained from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT. The organization helps direct trillions of dollars in daily international bank transfers. Officials told the Los Angeles Times the program has been “marginally successful” in tracking the financial activity of al Qaeda. SWIFT executives apparently tried to withdraw from the program after becoming concerned over its legality. The executives were persuaded to continue their cooperation only after the intervention of top government officials, including former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan.
Major stories on the bank-monitoring program appeared in today’s editions of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. Both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times say the Bush administration lobbied them to withhold publication on the grounds public disclosure would harm national security.
In Iraq, the government has declared a state of state of emergency following a series of attacks in Baghdad. Earlier today, insurgents set up roadblocks and opened fire on U.S. and Iraqi troops close to the US-run Green Zone. Elsewhere in the Iraqi capital, 10 people were killed and 15 wounded in a bombing of a Sunni mosque. Another 19 deaths were reported around Baghdad. Meanwhile in Basra, at least five people were killed and fifteen wounded when a car bombing struck a market and a nearby gas station.
The Times of London is reporting the Iraqi government is preparing a major amnesty offer to Iraq’s resistance groups. The amnesty would promise a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops; inclusion in the political process; a halt to US operations on insurgent strongholds, and compensation to civivilian victims of armed attacks. There are no signals the US government has backed the proposal. A White House official said the administration has not agreed to any offer that would grant amnesty to insurgents who have killed US troops.
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, the Senate rejected two separate measures calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
Both measures were proposed by Democrats. A proposal calling for a withdrawal without a firm deadline was defeated 60 to 39. Another measure calling for a troop withdrawal by July of next year was defeated by an even wider margin — 89 to 13. The measure was introduced by Massachusets Senator John Kerry. Speaking on the Senate floor, Kerry argued that a firm timetable is necessary.
In other Congressional news, the House voted Thursday to roll back parts of the estate tax. Republicans call the bill a “compromise” because it does not completely eliminate the estate tax on those who inherit property. The House bill exempts taxes on individuals with estates valued up to $5 million dollars and on couples with estates valued up to $10 million dollars. Heirs of estates valued at up to $25 million dollars would also see a drop in their tax rates. The bill will now go to the Senate. Congressional tax experts estimate that only 5100 estates would now face taxation, down from the current number of 30,000. The bill is estimated to cost up to $300 billion dollars. The House vote came just one day after the Senate rejected a measure that would have raised the minimum wage for the first time in nearly a decade.
In Miami, seven people were arrested Thursday on charges of plotting to launch attacks inside the United States. The alleged targets include Chicago’s Sears Tower, an FBI office in Miami and other federal buildings. Authorities say the suspects prepared for the attacks out of a Miami warehouse. The seven are believed to be young American Muslims in their late teens and early twenties. A man claiming to be a member of the group told CNN Thursday they are peaceful and innocent of the charges.
At the United Nations, the Bush administration pressed on Thursday with its campaign to prevent Venezuela from securing an open seat on the Security Council. Under UN rules, Latin American governments are entitled to pick a country from the region to fill the rotating seat that comes open next year. Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay and several Caribbean nations have already backed Venezuela. The U.S. is lobbying for Guatemala to get the seat.
In Bolivia, the government says it has obtained proof members of ex-president Sanchez de Lozada’s government stole millions of public funds. On Thursday, Bolivia released video footage apparently showing ex-government figures looting money from Bolivia’s Central Bank. The footage is dated just days before de Lozada’s government was forced from office in October 2003.
In Germany Thursday, a parliamentary inquiry heard new evidence the government failed to take action upon hearing Khalid el-Masri had been kidnapped and handed to the CIA. El-Masri is the German citizen who was kidnapped and held in a secret prison in Afghanistan, where he says was repeatedly beaten and drugged. He was eventually released after his captors realized they had the wrong man.
In environmental news, the National Academy of Sciences has released a study showing that the recent surges in global temperatures are unprecedented for at least the last 400 years and potentially the last several millennia. Keeping in mind natural factors such as volcanic eruptions and solar radiation, the study nonetheless concludes that available evidence supports the argument that human activities are responsible for much of the recent warming.
Meanwhile, a new study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research has found global warming accounted for close to half of the extra warmth found in the tropical North Atlantic waters that fueled hurricanes last year. The study said natural cycles were only a minor factor, contradicting claims that natural cycles are responsible for the recent increase in Atlantic hurricane activity.
Meanwhile the UN is warning this year’s hurricane season could lead to another major disaster in Haiti. More than 1500 people were killed and thousands of homes were destroyed when Hurricane Jeanne struck Haiti in September of 2004.
In privacy news, AT&T has introduced a new policy that says the company owns customers’ account information and can share it with government agencies. Under the new policy, AT&T will collect customers’ user names, passwords, charges, payments, and online purchases. It will also track their activity while on sites that AT&T operates in a partnership with Yahoo. The changes come as AT&T is embroiled in a lawsuit brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation over the company’s involvement in the NSA spy program.
And a play based on the writings of the late peace activist Rachel Corrie has finally found a theatre in New York. “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” will open at the Minetta Lane Theater in October. Based on Corrie’s diaries, e-mails and letters, the play was originally supposed to open at the New York Theatre Workshop in March — just days after the three-year anniversary of Rachel Corrie’s death under an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza. But the workshop’s directors indefinitely postponed the production following concerns over its political content.