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The late Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy was honored across the nation and around the world Wednesday, hours after his death at the age of seventy-seven. Speaking from Martha’s Vineyard, President Obama paid tribute to Kennedy’s legacy.
President Obama: “He could passionately battle others and do so peerlessly on the Senate floor for the causes that he held dear, and yet still maintain warm friendships across party lines. And that’s one reason he became not only one of the greatest senators of our time, but one of the most accomplished Americans ever to serve our democracy.”
Kennedy’s body will lie in repose at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library until Friday, followed by a funeral service at a Boston church on Saturday. As Kennedy is mourned, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick says he hopes to carry out one of Kennedy’s last public wishes, appointing a temporary successor. Last week Kennedy asked Massachusetts lawmakers to change the state’s succession laws, which call for a special election at least 145 days after a vacancy occurs. That would leave Kennedy’s seat vacant until at least mid-January. We’ll have more on Ted Kennedy’s death after headlines.
In Afghanistan, US forces have attacked a medical clinic where an injured Taliban leader had reportedly sought treatment. Afghan officials say the assault in the eastern province of Paktika killed up to twelve Taliban militants. The US military says it fired on the clinic after ensuring no civilians were inside. Seven people, including the alleged wounded commander, have been jailed.
Meanwhile, a US soldier was killed earlier today in a militant attack in southern Afghanistan. The death brings this month’s US troop toll to forty-four, tying last month’s record high of the eight-year war.
Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has become the first senator to call for a withdrawal timetable from Afghanistan. Feingold made the proposal in a videotaped interview with the Appleton Post-Crescent, a Wisconsin newspaper.
Sen. Russ Feingold: “Most people like to have their own country, and the Afghans are no exception. So the idea of an open-ended commitment with no vision of when it will end is a problem. Again, I’m suggesting a flexible timetable that can be changed, but a vision, a public vision, of what we might intend and when we intend it.”
Feingold is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee. He was also the first senator to call for a withdrawal timetable from Iraq.
Iraqi officials are warning that southern Iraq is facing the worst water shortage since the dawn of Iraqi civilization. Up to two million people could be left without electricity, and almost as many could be deprived of drinking water. Electricity in Nasiriyah, Iraq’s fourth-largest city, has dropped 50 percent over the last three weeks.
In other Iraq news, the leader of Iraq’s largest Shiite party, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has died after a battle with lung cancer. The sixty-year-old Hakim helped lead Iraq’s exile movement against Saddam Hussein before returning to Iraq after the US invasion of 2003. Hakim helped form the United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite coalition that has dominated Iraqi politics since winning parliamentary elections in 2005.
More revelations on the CIA’s interrogation practices have been unearthed in the agency documents released earlier this week. The documents now show CIA operatives were certified as interrogation experts after just two weeks of training. And in Iraq, the CIA’s Iraq station chief was reassigned after the deaths of two Iraqi prisoners in 2003. An internal CIA memo cited the unnamed station chief for “potentially very serious leadership lapses.”
Chief executives of the nation’s largest private health insurers are being called on to testify before a congressional hearing next month. On Wednesday, Democratic Congress member Dennis Kucinich of Ohio sent letters to firms including Aetna, CIGNA Corp, and UnitedHealth Group. Kucinich wants the insurance executives to appear before a House Oversight Subcommittee hearing on insurers’ coverage policies and claim denials. The request comes one week after Democratic Congress members Henry Waxman of California and Bart Stupak of Michigan asked firms to provide detailed financial information including salaries and profit margins.
A new study shows more than half of the $1.1 million in campaign donations given to the group of right-leaning Democrats known as the Blue Dog Coalition came from the pharmaceutical, healthcare and health insurance industries. The Center for Public Integrity says the Blue Dogs received more donations than any other congressional grouping over the same period. On average, the Blue Dogs received over $62,000 more from the health industry than other Democrats. The Blue Dogs have played a key role in the standstill over healthcare reform since voicing objections to a public health insurance option last month.
Latin American leaders are gathering in Argentina tomorrow for a summit of the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR. The meeting is expected to focus on the expanded US military presence inside Colombia. Colombia has agreed to grant US forces the use of at least three military bases for anti-drug operations while also allowing hundreds of troops and private military contractors inside its borders. The plan has spiked tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. On Wednesday, Colombia lodged a complaint to the Organization of American States, accusing the Venezuelan government of interference in its vocal opposition to the US bases. Venezuela’s ambassador to the OAS, Roy Matos, defended Venezuelan concerns in light of US foreign policy.
Venezuelan Ambassador to OAS Roy Matos: “Wherever bases have been established, or were established, that belong to the powerhouse of the world, the military powerhouse, the economic one, the cultural one, etc., etc., the winds that have followed by the winds of war. In Vietnam, they began with a few little bases and small groups of advisers. That’s how they are going to begin now with these seven bases.”
In Honduras, the coup regime continues to face international isolation over its refusal to allow the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya. On Wednesday, Central America’s development bank said it would provisionally freeze credits to Honduras in protest of Zelaya’s ouster. The move by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration could stall infrastructure projects like highway construction. The bank has provided some $970 million in financing to Honduras since 2004.
Mexico has become the latest Latin American country to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. On Friday, the Mexican government enacted a law that makes it legal to carry up to five grams of marijuana and smaller amounts of other drugs including cocaine and heroin. A similar measure was approved in 2006 but later dropped under pressure from the United States. Ethan Nadelmann of the US-based Drug Policy Alliance Network praised the new move.
Ethan Nadelmann: “What Mexico did a few days ago in decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs was very much a step in the right direction, and it’s also consistent with what’s going on in other countries in Latin America and Europe. I mean, it’s basically about decriminalizing the individual who simply uses drugs and is not otherwise involved in crime, and it’s also about treating people who have addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal issue.”
Argentina also took a similar step this week. The Argentine Supreme Court has effectively decriminalized small-scale marijuana possession after ruling it unconstitutional to prosecute Argentines who use it privately.
African leaders are considering a proposal that would demand compensation from leading industrial nations for the devastating effects of climate change on the African continent. The plan calls for annual payments of $67 billion to the African Union. If approved, the proposal could enter the agenda at the world climate summit in Copenhagen later this year.
In Pakistan, human rights groups say they’ve discovered mass graves in areas of intense fighting between Pakistani troops and Taliban fighters. Over two million Pakistanis have been displaced since the Pakistani military launched an offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley earlier this year. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says it founds mass graves in two sub-districts of the Swat Valley. The group has accused the military of scores of extra-judicial killings. The Pakistani government says Taliban fighters buried their dead in the graves.
Amnesty International is renewing calls for an international tribunal to prosecute Indonesian military officials on the tenth anniversary of East Timorese independence. Amnesty says Indonesian generals continue to enjoy impunity for crimes committed around East Timor’s 1999 independence referendum and the preceding twenty-four years of occupation. An estimated 1,500 people were killed and 300,000 forced to flee their homes during the 1999 violence alone.
More details have been revealed on how the Pentagon is vetting reporters before allowing them to embed with US troops. The Army newspaper Stars and Stripes recently disclosed the military has hired a PR firm named the Rendon Group to screen whether the reporters’ prior work has “portrayed the US military in a positive light.” New documents show journalists were evaluated with pie charts breaking down their coverage into percentages of “positive,” “neutral” or “negative.” The evaluations were further used to help military officials determine which stories and situations a reporter could be exposed to. The latest known reporter assessment was conducted in May, contradicting Pentagon claims to have stopped the evaluations in October.
A Federal Reserve official is backing estimates of a higher US unemployment rate if the under-employed and those not actively seeking jobs are taken into account. Atlanta Fed Chief Dennis Lockhart says the real unemployment rate would move from the official 9.4 percent to 16 percent with those numbers factored in.
New figures show the nation’s largest bailed-out banks have made $6 million in contributions to members of Congress since last November. The watchdog group Public Citizen says financial lobbyists held more than seventy fundraisers for lawmakers during the same period.
In New Jersey, state and federal lawmakers are voicing opposition to the possibility Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi may stay on a property there next month. Gaddafi is scheduled to attend the UN General Assembly in New York. The Libyan government has apparently made plans for Gaddafi to stay at a residence owned by the Libyan embassy in the town of Englewood. Gaddafi’s visit would come just weeks after Libya welcomed home Abdel al-Megrahi, who was jailed for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which killed 270 people, including 189 Americans. The Scottish government released Megrahi because he’s dying of cancer, but his celebratory reception in Libya drew international criticism. Democratic Congress member Steve Rothman said Gaddafi isn’t welcome in New Jersey.
Rep. Steve Rothman: “He is a murderous dictator with American blood on his hands, a person who just held an obscene celebration for the release of the mass-murdering Lockerbie bomber, so it makes him even more of an unpleasant and unwelcome guest or visitor. But we would have objected no matter which nationality he was from, because there are not the resources here, and it’s not the neighborhood for that kind of a visitor or resident in this single-home residential neighborhood.”
Megrahi’s release has renewed attention on the Lockerbie bombing. Megrahi has always maintained his innocence. There has been speculation the bombing was actually committed by Iranian militants in retaliation for the US shoot-down of an Iranian airliner just four months earlier, killing all 290 people aboard.
In West Virginia, a chemical plant has agreed to a major cut in production of the toxic chemical behind the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984. Thousands of people died in the Indian town of Bhopal when a Union Carbide pesticide plant released methyl isocyanate, or MIC. The owner of the West Virginia plant, Bayer CropScience, says it will reduce MIC production 80 percent, following a public outcry. An explosion at the plant killed two workers last year, raising fears that a similar accident could trigger the MIC’s release.
And New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has reportedly been cleared after a year-long investigation into allegations his office awarded contracts to a major donor. The Associated Press reports Justice Department officials have declined to file any charges against Richardson or members of his staff. Richardson was tapped to become President Obama’s Commerce Secretary but withdrew his name, saying the investigation would delay his confirmation.
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