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The top US military officer said Saturday the Pentagon could double the number of US forces in Afghanistan by next summer to 60,000. Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that up to 30,000 additional US troops could be sent to Afghanistan. Mullen said any increased US deployment would be directly tied to force levels in Iraq, where US commanders are drawing down troops.
Meanwhile, at least eight people died earlier today in northwest Pakistan in a suspected US missile strike. Local officials said an unmanned drone struck two vehicles. The US has carried out a series of more than thirty missile strikes since August inside Pakistan.
In auto news, Japan’s biggest carmaker, Toyota, has forecast its first annual loss in seventy-one years due to plummeting sales and a surge in the value of the yen. Toyota said it expects to lose about $1.1 billion this year.
On Friday, President Bush said the government would provide $17.4 billion in emergency loans to General Motors and Chrysler. In return, the carmakers have agreed to provide a restructuring plan by March 31 that would show they would survive, or they would be required to repay the loans.
President Bush: "There’s too great a risk that bankruptcy now would lead to a disorderly liquidation of American auto companies. My economic advisers believe that such a collapse would deal an unacceptably painful blow to hardworking Americans far beyond the auto industry. It would worsen a weak job market and exacerbate the financial crisis. It could send our suffering economy into a deeper and longer recession. And it would leave the next president to confront the demise of a major American industry in his first days of office."
As part of the loan deal, the Bush administration is requiring the United Auto Workers to accept lower wages and decreased benefits comparable to non-union workers at the US car plants of Nissan, Toyota and Honda. Analysts say the concessions would essentially erase the significant distinctions between union and non-union auto workers, and the lack of such union worker advantages would render moot the union’s fundamental purpose. UAW president Ron Gettelfinger said the loan "will keep the doors of America’s factories open,” but he criticized Bush for adding what he described as “unfair conditions singling out workers." At a news conference in Chicago, President-elect Barack Obama said that workers should not be the ones taking all the hits.
President-elect Barack Obama: "There are going to be some painful steps that have to be taken. I just want to make sure that when we see a final restructuring package, that it’s not just workers who are bearing the brunt of that restructuring, that they’re not the ones who are taking all the hits, and others who in the past have enjoyed a lot more of the benefits of the auto industry somehow aren’t being affected. I think all shareholders are going to have to be — play a part in this process."
In other economic news, several major corporations are trimming their contributions to their workers’ 401(k) retirement plans. Last week, FedEx announced it would suspend all of its contributions to workers’ 401(k) plans for at least a year. Eastman Kodak, Motorola, General Motors and Resorts International are among other companies that have cut matching contributions to their plans since September.
Meanwhile, President-elect Barack Obama is expanding his economic stimulus plan. Advisers say the current version of the plan seeks to create or save three million jobs and will cost up to $800 billion. As part of the stimulus, Obama is expected to propose major new spending to subsidize states’ share of Medicaid and their children’s health programs and to expand healthcare coverage for those who lose insurance from their employers. Meanwhile, Vice President-elect Joe Biden will head a “White House Task Force on Working Families.” The Task Force will work on raising the living standards of middle-class, working families in America.
In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Obama pledged to put science at the top of his agenda
President-elect Barack Obama: “Whether it’s the science to slow global warming, the technology to protect our troops and confront bioterror and weapons of mass destruction, the research to find life-saving cures, or the innovations to remake our industries and create twenty-first century jobs, today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It’s time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.”
President-elect Obama’s decision to select Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the inauguration continues to draw fierce criticism. Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, the firstly openly gay member of Congress, said Obama was making a mistake to invite Warren, a leading evangelical opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage. Frank said, "Mr. Warren compared same-sex couples to incest. I found that deeply offensive and unfair.”
In California, State Attorney General Jerry Brown has asked the California Supreme Court to overturn Proposition 8, saying the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage violates basic rights guaranteed in the state Constitution. Brown said the authors of the state Constitution did not intend to “put a group’s right to enjoy liberty to a popular vote." Meanwhile, the sponsors of Proposition 8 have asked the California Supreme Court to nullify the marriages of the estimated 18,000 same-sex couples who exchanged vows before voters approved the ballot initiative that outlawed gay unions.
Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York has urged Attorney General Michael Mukasey to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other senior Bush administration officials for violations of the law relating to the torture of prisoners in US custody. Nadler is the chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Last week, in an interview on ABC News, Cheney defended the CIA’s use of torture, including waterboarding.
Jonathan Karl: “Did you authorize the tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?”
Dick Cheney: “I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared. That is, the agency, in effect, came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn’t do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.
On Sunday, Vice President Cheney appeared on Fox News and once again defended the Bush administration’s actions.
Dick Cheney: “There are bound to be debates and arguments from time to time and wrestling back and forth about what kind of authority is appropriate in any specific circumstance, but I think that what we’ve done has been totally consistent with what the Constitution provides for.”
Agence France-Presse reports Israel has launched a diplomatic campaign to gather international support for a major offensive on Hamas-ruled Gaza. In a letter to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Israel’s envoy to the United Nations Gabriela Shalev said the Jewish state would respond to continuing rocket fire. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has ordered Israeli ambassadors around the world to emphasize that Israel "will not hesitate to react militarily if necessary" to protect its citizens. Livni, who is running for prime minister, said "Israel must topple the Hamas rule in Gaza and a government under my command will do just that.” The public relations effort came a day after Israel threatened a major offensive against Gaza. On Friday, Hamas said it would not renew a six-month truce with Israel.
The Iranian government has closed down the country’s main human rights organization, headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. The Center for the Defense of Human Rights in Tehran was shut down on Sunday hours before it was scheduled to hold a ceremony to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government accused the organization of carrying out illegal activities, such as publishing statements, writing letters to international organizations and holding news conferences.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports a class-action suit has been filed against the Department of Defense, alleging that it illegally denied medical and disability benefits to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The lawsuit said the Army failed to follow its own rules when it denied the services and payments to the veterans.
On Friday, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich spoke publicly for the first time since his arrest on corruption charges. Blagojevich said he was innocent and that he would not resign.
Rod Blagojevich: "I’m here to tell you right off the bat that I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing, that I intend to stay on the job, and I will fight this thing every step of the way. I will fight. I will fight. I will fight until I take my last breath. I have done nothing wrong. And I’m not going to quit a job the people hired me to do because of false accusations and a political lynch mob.”
In Minnesota, Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken has taken his first lead over over Republican incumbent Norm Coleman. According to a tally by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Franken is now beating Coleman by 251 votes. The Franken camp is projecting it will end up winning by a margin of thirty-five to fifty votes once the hand recount ends.
And the linguist Carol Chomsky has died at the age of seventy-eight. For years she taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and wrote oft-cited articles about how young children learn to read. She was married to Noam Chomsky.
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