The Bush administration is reportedly trying to push through a measure that would severely weaken regulation of workplace exposure to dangerous chemicals. The rule change calls for reexamining how to determine risks posed by workplace toxic exposure. The rule would also impose extra requirements before government officials can impose new limits in the workplace. The Washington Post reports the Department of Labor violated its own rules by failing to announce its plans in public regulatory notices. David Michaels, a workplace safety professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, said, “This is a guarantee to keep any more worker safety regulation from ever coming out…This is being done in secrecy, to be sprung before President Bush leaves office, to cripple the next administration.”
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is seeking immunity from lawsuits accusing it of exposing Hurricane Katrina victims to toxic fumes in government-issued trailers. Earlier this month, a government study found cheap materials and poor oversight exposed thousands of evacuees to toxic levels of formaldehyde in government-issued trailers following Hurricane Katrina. Researchers found toxic levels at between four to eleven times higher than those in average US homes. At least one death has been linked to toxic exposure in the Katrina evacuee trailers. More than 11,000 health complaints were filed over the trailers, leading government officials to move more than 4,000 families. FEMA says it should be immune from the suits, because it bought the trailers from private contractors. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say FEMA routinely ignored early-stage warnings of the trailers’ toxicity.
A former top Environmental Protection Agency official is accusing the Bush administration of directly intervening to block California’s attempts to regulate car emissions. On Tuesday, former EPA deputy Jason Burnett told lawmakers agency head Stephen Johnson thwarted the California regulations under direct orders from the White House. Burnett’s claim contradicts Johnson’s previous testimony that he made the decision entirely on his own. Burnett says Johnson had in fact concluded California’s request was legally sound but changed his mind after the White House ordered him to reverse his decision. California had sought a waiver under the Clean Air Act to reduce its car emissions by 30 percent by the year 2016.
Democratic candidate Barack Obama has wrapped up a two-day visit to Iraq. Speaking in Jordan, Obama defended his plan to redeploy troops but stressed he would still maintain a large US presence in Iraq. Obama also repeated his call to boost the US occupation of Afghanistan. From Jordan, Obama flew to Israel and the Occupied Territories for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Obama is visiting Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. In some of his most even-handed comments on the Israel-Palestine issue to date, Obama said the US government should recognize what he called the Palestinians’ “legitimate difficulties.”
Sen. Barack Obama: “What I think can change is the ability of the United States government and a United States president to be actively engaged with the peace process and to be concerned and recognize the legitimate difficulties that the Palestinian people are experiencing right now. And recognize that it is not only in the interest of the Palestinian people that their situation improves, I believe it’s also in the interest of the Israeli people, because it is going to be very difficult for Israel ever to feel secure if you don’t have some sense of opportunity and prosperity and stability with its — its neighbors.”
Obama has previously supported the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and called for undivided Israeli control of Jerusalem. In Ramallah, Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said Obama is nonetheless raising hopes for a change in US policy.
Hanan Ashrawi: “It’s the credibility of the US, the interest of the US has been adversely all affected by the last three years of American policy that has wreaked havoc in the region. We need re-engagement, but we need positive re-engagement in ways that would curb Israeli violations and would help produce a just and genuine peace.”
Obama’s visit came hours after a Palestinian man drove a construction vehicle into Israeli pedestrians in Jerusalem, injuring twenty people. It was the second such attack this month.
In other news, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports the Bush administration is debating whether to silence a forthcoming high-level report critical of Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Territories. The report is written by the top US official there, retired general James Jones. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Jones has written a “scathing” report criticizing both the Israeli government and the White House. Israeli officials who met with Jones said they expect the report to be “very harsh, and make Israel look very bad.” Jones is said to be particularly critical of Israel’s claim to have security interests to justify its large settlement blocs on Palestinian land. Top administration officials are said to be so upset by the report they are debating blocking its release.
Four US soldiers have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder in the killings of several Iraqi prisoners. The US military has not released details beyond the deaths that occurred in Baghdad in April-May of last year.
The private military company Blackwater is claiming it wants to reduce its vital role in guarding US military operations abroad. In an interview with the Associated Press, Blackwater CEO Erik Prince said Blackwater’s activities in Iraq had brought it undue media scrutiny. Blackwater has made headlines for a series of incidents, including the mass slaying of seventeen Iraqis in Baghdad last September. Blackwater says it wants to focus efforts on security training. But it will still continue working under its contract guarding US officials in Iraq. On Monday, Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia released a memo showing Defense Secretary Robert Gates questioning the use of private military firms. In a letter to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Adm. Mike Mullen, Gates asked, “Why have we come to rely on private contractors to provide combat or combat-related security training for our forces?”
At Guantanamo Bay, the military trial of Osama bin Laden’s driver continued Tuesday following opening statements. Salim Hamdan is being tried in the first US war crimes military commission since World War II. Defense attorney Jon Jackson criticized the proceedings because Hamdan could still be jailed, no matter the trial’s outcome.
Jon Jackson: “Mr. Hamdan or any accused at Guantanamo, but for right now, Mr. Hamdan, if he is convicted, he will stay at Guantanamo Bay. If he is acquitted completely, he’ll stay at Guantanamo Bay. And if he’s convicted and he gets, let’s say, time served, he’s going to stay at Guantanamo Bay, because the government has stated, through their prosecutor, Mr. Murphy, that regardless of what outcome in this case, they’re allowed to detain Mr. Hamdan for the duration of the global war on terrorism.”
The military judge has already ruled prosecutors cannot rely on certain statements from Hamdan, because they were made under coercion from US interrogators in Afghanistan.
The House Judiciary Committee is set to hold a hearing Friday on Congress member Dennis Kucinich’s measure to impeach President Bush. The single article of impeachment accuses Bush of deceiving Congress to authorize the invasion of Iraq. In an online video, Kucinich thanked the scores of Americans who had written in to support his efforts.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich: “We’re in danger of losing our country to a war based on lies, to destruction of our civil liberties, but it’s your commitment and your willingness to stand up and speak out that has enabled me to take a stand and to say not only are we going to save what’s right and save what’s dear to us, but we’re going to hold this administration accountable so that it never happens again.”
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to hear from both opponents and backers of the impeachment measure.
In Alabama, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit challenging a state law barring certain convicted felons from voting. The ACLU says the state attorney general illegally imposed a series of additional crimes that would render a felon unable to vote.
And President Bush has been recorded making light of the nation’s economic and housing woes. At a Texas fundraiser last week, Bush asked attendees to turn off their recording devices. He then said he believes Wall Street “got drunk” and is now suffering a hangover. Bush went on to address the housing crisis in light of his wife Laura Bush’s attempts to buy a home in Dallas.
President Bush: “There’s no question about it. Wall Street got drunk — that’s one of the reasons I asked you to turn off the TV cameras. It got drunk, and now it’s got a hangover. The question is how long will it sober up and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments. And then we got a housing issue, not in Houston, and evidently not in Dallas, because Laura’s over there trying to buy a house. I like Crawford, but unfortunately after eight years of asking her to sacrifice, I’m now no longer the decision maker.”
The White House says Bush’s comments were in line with previous statements he’s made about the economy.