Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Plot Thickens in Ferrari Crash

A deputy passes the wrecked Ferrari tht crashed on Pacific Coast Highway west of Decker Canyon Road on Tuesday. The car's registered owner, Swedish millionaire Stefan Eriksson, said that he was a passenger.
(Hans Laetz / Malibu Times) Feb. 21, 2006

Folks, we've got a new, exciting, dramatic series to present to you tonight: The F-Files! From the Los Angeles Times:

The mystery deepened Monday in the case of the puzzling crash last week of a $1-million Ferrari Enzo on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.

Sheriff's detectives said Monday that they believe a gun's magazine discovered near the wreckage is connected to the crash, and they plan to interview an unnamed person who they believe was in the car with Swedish game machine entrepreneur Stefan Eriksson.

The crash has also garnered the attention of a leading Scottish bank, which has informed sheriff's investigators that it may own the destroyed car. At the same time, detectives are trying to figure out why another exotic car in Eriksson's extensive collection, a Mercedes SLR, was listed as stolen by Scotland Yard in London, said Sheriff's Sgt. Phil Brooks.

The totaled Ferrari was one of two Enzos that Eriksson brought into the United States from England along with the Mercedes SLR, Brooks said. But detectives concluded that the totaled vehicle did not have appropriate papers and was not "street legal" for driving in California, he said.

Detectives have been trying for nearly a week to sort out what exactly happened last Tuesday morning when Eriksson's Enzo — one of only 400 ever made — smashed into a telephone pole, totaling the car. Eriksson told deputies that he was the passenger and that a man he knew only as "Dietrich" was behind the wheel. But detectives have been openly skeptical of the story, noting that Eriksson had a bloody lip and that the only blood they found in the car was on the driver's-side air bag.

Brooks said detectives have called in Eriksson for another interview. Eriksson has declined through the security guard at his gated Bel-Air estate to comment. An attorney who has previously represented Eriksson in civil matters, Ashley Posner, also declined to comment Monday.

Map of Ferrari Crash. From LA Times.

A gun magazine was discovered near the crash sight? A Scottish bank claims they are the owners of the Ferrari--and that the mysterious Mercedes that Eriksson owns and may have been drag racing the Ferrari was reported as stolen by Scotland Yard? And who was the mysterious Dietrich? Could he have been a space alien who beamed up to his secret ship--considering that the Sheriff's Department couldn't find any trace of Dietrich on the morning of the crash?

The mystery deepens here:

But some city leaders in Malibu, where the crash has been the talk of the town, were less circumspect.

"The guy should have had an IQ test," said Malibu Mayor Pro Tem Ken Kearsley, who has been following the coverage of the crash with a half-grin. The driver's IQ "couldn't come up above 60 if he was doing 120 on PCH," Kearsley said.

But in fact, Brooks said Monday, the car was traveling 162 mph when it crashed, far faster than the 120 mph originally believed. The Ferrari, with just a few inches of undercarriage clearance, hit a bump at a crest in the road, sending the vehicle airborne and into the power pole, Brooks said.

Brooks said they are investigating whether someone else may have been present and are trying to determine whether the recovered gun component is connected to the case. He declined to say more about the find or elaborate on the status of the Scottish bank and Scotland Yard in the case.

The question of whether Eriksson was the driver is key to the case, Brooks said. Eriksson's blood-alcohol level was 0.09%, higher than the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle.

Sheriff's officials are still trying to confirm witness reports that the Ferrari might have been drag racing with another car, and officials aren't sure if that's what happened.

Sheriff's officials said Eriksson was an executive with a game company that attempted to take on Sony and Nintendo, but the firm collapsed last year.

In Malibu, officials said they are not sure what to make of the accident.

Kearsley said the stretch of road was not known for drag racing, but for run-of-the-mill speeders. He said the Sheriff's Department has had success for the last year and a half using radar and lasers to catch overzealous drivers. The lasers are not detectable to drivers, he said.

"It's straight as an arrow where the accident was," he said. "You really have to go out of your way to hit a telephone pole."

Carol Moss, a longtime Malibu resident, activist and meditation group leader, said the accident came as no surprise.

"It was horrendous, but Malibu is full of idiots," she said. "There are a lot of wild cars and irresponsible people. The roads are dangerous. You always see people with those sorts of cars. You see some wild behavior."

But, in keeping with her Zen frame of mind, Moss extended an olive branch. "Everyone is welcome to attend the meditation group. Even the drag racer."

Perhaps the mysterious Dietrich is hiding among this meditation group?

(Cue creepy X-Files-type music).

Thousands to protect Bush in India

This is off of Reuters News Service:

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - About 5,000 personnel including snipers, commandos and U.S. marines using helicopters, bomb detectors and electronic jammers will protect President George W. Bush during his visit to India this week, officials said on Monday.

The personnel would be part of a three-ring security cordon around the U.S. president and First Lady Laura Bush who are due to arrive in New Delhi for their maiden visit to the subcontinent on Wednesday, they said.

"He is a much-threatened VVIP. We are fully geared," Manish Agarwal, a top Delhi police officer involved in security operations, told Reuters.

His comments came as Delhi police arrested two suspected militants belonging to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group fighting Indian rule in disputed Kashmir, the Press Trust of India news agency said.

Two pistols and 3 kg (6.6 lb) of the explosive material RDX were seized from them, it said.

Islamist militants are frequently arrested or killed in gun battles with police in the Indian capital and it was not immediately known if the men arrested on Monday had anything to do with Bush's visit.

Besides the inner-ring of security forces, an outer cordon would be deployed "as deep as possible" to thwart any attack by a rocket launcher, Agarwal said.

"A rocket launcher normally has a 1,000-meter (3,300 ft) range so we would be deployed in forests around venues," he said. "We will have 360-degree rooftop surveillance around all the venues."

Agarwal said precautions were also being taken to quell "snap protests" by Muslim groups and communist parties who have announced plans to demonstrate against Bush.

Bush is also due to briefly visit India's southern IT hub of Hyderabad, where some Muslim groups have launched a signature campaign against his policies.

Hyderabad, which has a sizeable Muslim population, has witnessed big protests against the publication of cartoons lampooning Prophet Mohammad.

Bush would hop around the city in helicopters to take part in events scheduled for him, police said.

When you have over 5,000 security personnel being deployed to protect a single man in a visit to what could be a hostile country, you have an incredible problem here. This is a troubling detail. Any nation that Bush will visit, there are going to be security concerns and possible threats to the president's life by extremists. But when you have president Bush visiting a nation that has a sizable Muslim population, you've got a serious problem. Those Muslims are going to have no love for President Bush. Even more, how much do you want to bet that some Muslim extremists are thinking about taking pot shots at Bush's helicopter? Just need to get some surface-to-air missiles near the vicinity of where Bush is staying. When Bush spoke to the crowd at Tbilisi, Georgia last May, someone tried to throw a hand grenade at the president (See CNN Story). Do you expect that Bush will get a rousing welcome from India? Or will we watch massive protests against Bush and the U.S. during his visit?

Will any of this register in Bush's conscious?

Bush denies Iraq heading toward civil war

This will be another post regarding President Bush's latest delusions. From Yahoo News:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush, hit by polls showing America's support for the Iraq war at an all-time low, denied on Tuesday Iraq was sliding into civil war, despite the worst sectarian strife since a U.S. invasion.

Asked what Washington would do if civil war broke out in Iraq, Bush told ABC News: "I don't buy your premise that there's going to be a civil war."

He said he had spoken to leaders of all Iraqi sects and "I heard loud and clear that they understand that they're going to choose unification, and we're going to help them do so."

Despite that, sectarian bloodshed has complicated efforts to forge a new unity government.

President Bushis seen in the Oval Office of the White House, February 28, 2006. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Considering the violence that has occurred in Iraq over this past week, and the death toll from these attacks now hovering at over 60, Bush still doesn't believe that Iraq is heading into a civil war. He is still spinning the PR that Iraq wants a unified government, rather than chaos. Mr. President, while the leaders in Iraq may want a unified country, the citizens of Iraq may have other opinions. You better get use to more car bombings and suicide bombings as the Shiites attack the Sunnis, and the Sunnis attach the Shiites.

Now for this little quote regarding Bush's declining poll numbers:

At home, pessimism over Iraq, and Bush's support -- despite bipartisan objections -- for letting a state-owned Arab company take over operations at six U.S. ports, appeared to be major factors driving his job performance rating down to 34 percent.

They were the lowest CBS News poll numbers of his presidency, creating a grim picture in a midterm election year.

Bush brushed aside the findings, saying ups and downs in the polls were not worth worrying about.

"I've got ample capital and I'm using it to spread freedom and to protect the American people," he told ABC before leaving on an trip to South Asia that offered a breather from problems and miscues that have recently plagued him in his second term.

CBS News Graphic

How can I comment on something this absurd? Look at my post on the CBS News Poll. A majority of Americans (7 out of 10) disapprove of the sale of American ports to DP World. His own job performance rating is down to 34 percent. Fifty-one percent of Americans think that the president doesn't care about ordinary American citizens. Half of Americans say they disapprove of the president's handling of the war on terror. The president's poll numbers are dropping, and yet he still claims that he has ample political capital? What country does the president believe he's successfully governing--Candyland?

Now here's a third interesting detail in this story:

Raising questions about Bush's vow to keep troops in Iraq as long as they are needed, a Le Moyne College/Zogby poll showed 72 percent of U.S troops serving there think the United States should exit within the next year. Nearly one in four said the troops should leave immediately.

A strategy often used by the Bush administration against opponents of the war in Iraq has been to accuse them of being unfair to troops who want to stay until they get the job done.

U.S. President George W. Bush greets U.S. Marines from the 7th Marine Division on their way to Kuwait during Bush's refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, Wednesday, March 1, 2006. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

You have to love the hypocrisy here. President Bush has always stated that American troops will stay in Iraq until they get the job done--until they complete the mission. This argument has pretty much blunted opponent's calls for a time-table on withdrawing U.S. troops. Of course, the Bush administration has also stated that such a time-table would be advantageous to the terrorists, since the terrorists could wait out the U.S. occupation forces. Never mind that the president has never defined any clear steps or measurable goals for completing "the mission." But now we get this interesting little poll number saying that 72 percent of American troops serving in Iraq want the U.S. to pull out by next year. And almost a quarter of the troops want the U.S. to immediately pull out of Iraq. Let's put some troop numbers into this equation. According to this USA Today story, the Pentagon estimates that there are 138,000 American forces in Iraq by March 2006. If 72 percent of American forces believe that the U.S. should pull out of Iraq by next year, and there are 138,000 forces currently in Iraq, it would mean that 99,360 American troops want to go home by next year. Even more astounding is that 34,500 troops, or a quarter of the 138,000 American forces in Iraq, want to pull out immediately.

This number is only going to go up, as long as President Bush continues to dawdle in Iraq

Bush says bin Laden tape aided re-election: report

Osama Bin Laden in a videotaped statement broadcast November 3, 2001. President Bush said his 2004 re-election victory over Sen. John Kerry was inadvertently aided by bin Laden, who issued a taped diatribe against him the Friday before Americans went to the polls, The Examiner newspaper reported on Tuesday. REUTERS/Al-Jazeera TV

I'm not sure where this story is going. From Yahoo News:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush said his 2004 re-election victory over Sen. John Kerry was aided by Osama bin Laden, who issued a taped diatribe against him the Friday before Americans went to the polls, The Examiner newspaper reported on Tuesday.

Bush said there were "enormous amounts of discussion" inside his campaign about the 15-minute tape, which he called "an interesting entry by our enemy" into the presidential race.

Bush's comments in the Washington newspaper were excerpts from the new book "Strategery" by Bill Sammon, a long-time White House correspondent.

"What does it mean? Is it going to help? Is it going to hurt?" Bush told Sammon of the bin Laden tapes. "Anything that drops in at the end of a campaign that is not already decided creates all kinds of anxieties, because you're not sure of the effect.

"I thought it was going to help," Bush said. "I thought it would help remind people that if bin Laden doesn't want Bush to be the president, something must be right with Bush."

In an ABC News interview before leaving on a visit to India and Pakistan, Bush said he was optimistic that bin Laden would be brought to justice. Bush said he would be discussing with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf efforts to track down the al Qaeda leader.

Many experts believe bin Laden is hiding on the Pakistan side of the border with

"So long as I'm the president, we'll stay on the hunt and we'll use resources and power and influence to convince others to join us on the hunt as well," Bush told ABC. "I'm an optimistic person. I believe we will bring him to justice."

Bush thought that the bin Laden tape would help his campaign, by reminding people that Bush was the stronger president? That bin Laden made the tape because he didn't want Bush to be president? What is happening here is that we're getting into some off-the-wall conjectures here. The only person who knows why this tape is made, and how this tape was to have influenced the U.S. elections is Osama bin Laden himself. And Osama isn't talking.

It is still too early to explore the historical ramifications of this bin Laden tape influencing the 2004 elections. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan is still going on. With this continued ongoing conflict, historians may never be able to interview bin Laden, or the top al Qaida operatives that were close to him in 2004 and knew how he thought. Bush's presidential papers will not be released for historical review until well after 2008--or perhaps never, considering how secretive this administration is. While I am interested in learning what Sammon finds for his book, I doubt we're going to get a full and complete story on this issue.

A 184-proof whisky, and that's no blarney

Bottles of whisky. Following a 17th century recipe, one of the eight artisanal whisky producers on the tiny Scottish isle of Islay will produce a dozen barrels of 184-proof whisky(AFP/File/Jean-Pierre Muller)

This is wild! I found this off Shakespeare's Sister's blog, and then went to the original news source. From Yahoo News:

LONDON (AFP) - Following a 17th century recipe, one of the eight artisanal whisky producers on the tiny Scottish isle of Islay will produce a dozen barrels of 184-proof whisky, the company announced.

That's 92 percent alcohol, which is about as strong as whisky can get without being sold in a pharmacy.

"The first taste affects all the members of the body," a 1695 description of the elixir reads. "Two spoonfuls of this last liquor is a sufficient dose -- if any man should exceed this, it would presently stop his breath, and endanger his life."

The Bruichladdich distillery said it would install webcams so that customers thirsty with anticipation could watch the potentially lethal concoction come into being.

"If the distillery doesn't explode during the process," Bruichladdich added.

That's some pretty strong stuff. WOW!

Draft the Donald! Campaign Effort Begins

Donald Trump talks to reporters in New York in this May 18, 2005 file photo. The February 27, 2006 premiere of the new season of his hit show, 'The Apprentice', lost some ratings steam in its new home on Monday night, compared to its previous Thursday timeslot. REUTERS/Jeff Christensen

Here we go again. In a previous post, I wrote about how the Republican Party courted Donald Trump to run for governor in 2006. Trump also toyed with the idea of running for president on the Reform Party in 2000. Nothing ever came from that. Now we've got this interesting story from Yahoo News:

ALBANY, N.Y. - The head of New York's Independence Party has launched a Web site aiming to draft Donald Trump into the 2008 presidential race as a third-party candidate.

Party Chairman Frank MacKay says he recently met with Trump to tell him about the draft plan. MacKay says the mega-developer was flattered and intrigued by the idea but noncommittal about running for president.

Trump considered a third-party run for the White House six years ago as the candidate of the
Ross Perot-inspired Reform Party, but eventually decided against it.

MacKay's Web sit is http://www.donaldtrump2008.com.

MacKay says it's up to him and other activists to convince Trump to run. He says Trump looks and sounds more presidential than Perot -- and needs no introduction to the American public.

There is an underlying lesson within this story. The American public is craving for strong, competent, intelligent leadership. Donald Trump exemplifies this leadership role for the American public. Not only is he a successful business mogul and real estate tycoon, but he comes into American living rooms each week with his Apprentice television series. Each week, the public watches Trump the boss question the young, smart Trump wanna-bees and then delivers his signature verdict of, "You're FIRED!" Through the Apprentice television series, Trump has crafted an image of himself as a strong, decisive business leader--and you can bet that he's laughing all the way to the bank with his show. Now that shows some successful business savvy on Trump's part.

So it is no wonder that political activists are courting Trump to run for president? They have certainly seen how our latest strong, decisive leader, that currently occupies the White House, has caused some incredibly collosal screw-ups in U.S. foreign and domestic policy. If this nation's first MBA president can cause so much damage to the country, then how about selecting a new business leader--someone who is successful in building a real estate empire, someone who has a strong personality and some real moxie. Someone who has certainly show his personality and business sense through his own television series? It doesn't surprise me that Trump is again being courted to run for public office--only this time the most powerful public office in the country.

I have to wonder, is the Office of the President of the United States too big or too small for Trump's ego?

Dow Ends Down 104 on Mixed Economic Data

Traders look at computer monitors at the New York Stock Exchange in New York February 28, 2006. REUTERS/Seth Wenig

Looks like I'm not the only one who is puzzled by these numbers. This is from Yahoo News:

NEW YORK - A mixed economic picture sent stocks tumbling Tuesday, with the Dow Jones industrials falling more than 100 points after investors were unnerved by weakness in home sales, consumer confidence and manufacturing. An upward revision in the fourth-quarter gross domestic product, meanwhile, raised worries about higher interest rates.

The GDP showed that the economy grew at an annual rate of 1.6 percent, much better than the 1.1 percent the Commerce Department initially estimated and beating the 1.5 percent economists predicted. The GDP is the broadest measure of the economy's performance — and one indicator of whether the economy continues to grow fast enough to prompt additional interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve.

The day's other data showed soft spots in the economy. Sales of existing homes fell for the fifth consecutive month January, exacerbating some investors' concerns that a fall in homes sales and refinancings could choke off a source of wealth for consumers, slowing their spending.

Consumer confidence numbers reinforced that worry, dropping below analysts' estimates in February, according to The Conference Board, a New York-based private research group. And a survey of Chicago-area purchasing managers fell unexpectedly; it's seen as a precursor of national manufacturing figures due to be released Wednesday.

"The GDP (gross domestic product) upgrade could put more pressure on the Fed," said Jack A. Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank. "At the same time, we're losing ground with the consumer.... From the perspective of today's market, it's a one-two punch."

According to preliminary calculations, the Dow fell 104.14, or 0.94 percent, to 10,993.41.

Broader stock indicators also fell sharply. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 13.46, or 1.04 percent, to 1,280.66, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 25.79, or 1.12 percent, to 2,281.39, hurt by a sharp decline in Google Inc.

Bonds edged higher, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note falling to 4.55 percent from 4.59 percent late Monday. The U.S. dollar fell against other major currencies. Gold prices rose.

Crude oil futures rose. A barrel of light crude was quoted at $61.41, up 41 cents, in trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

With scant earnings reports and few Federal Reserve speeches, economic data should continue to dominate the week, said Alexander Paris, economist and market analyst for Chicago-based Barrington Research.

"The problem is, investors have been going back and forth," about economic data, he said, pushing stocks higher on weak economic data one day, then lower on poor data another day.

"Sometimes they think a good economic report is good, other times they think it's bad," he said.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006. Inflation concerns and a disappointing earnings report from Viacom Inc. prompted investors to collect profits Thursday, sending the major indexes modestly lower. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

I don't usually post about the stock market's daily trading, but I thought that this story is an interesting complement to my previous post on the contradictory economic statistics. I would say that the investors and stock traders don't have a clue as to what is happening to this economy. When they see what appears to be good news, the investors are going to start buying stocks, causing the Dow to rise. When there's bad news, investors will sell, causing the Dow to fall. Normally, we'd see these small, incremental changes in the stock market during a regular, sustained economic growth. But if we're going to start seeing contradictory economic statistics, traders are going to have problems figuring out where the economy is heading--and where the market is heading. I'd say we're going to be in for some wild swings in the stock market for this year.

Some contradictory economic news

Graphic of US economic growth rate as the fourth quarter 2005 is revised upwards from 1.1 % to 1.6 %.(AFP)

Here's a couple economic stories that I found off Yahoo News. I'm not sure how to comment on them. The first story is titled, Job Fears Push Down Consumer Confidence:

NEW YORK - Americans in February became less optimistic about the overall economy, especially the short-term prospects for the job market, sending a widely followed barometer of consumer sentiment below analysts' estimates.

The Conference Board, a New York-based private research group, said Tuesday its consumer confidence index fell to 101.7, from a revised 106.8 in January, the highest level since May 2002. The drop in February stalled a rebound in the index that began in November following the Gulf Coast hurricanes. Analysts had expected a reading of 104.0 in February.

Chart shows consumer confidence for the past 13 months. (AP Graphic)

In a statement, Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center, said "consumers are growing increasingly concerned about the short-term health of the economy and, in turn, about job prospects."

But consumers' assessment of present conditions is holding steady at a four-and-a-half-year high, suggesting that the start of 2006 will be better than the end of 2005, Franco said.

The report came as the Commerce Department reported that the economy grew at an annual rate of 1.6 percent in the final quarter of 2005, a lackluster performance but still slightly better than originally thought.

Stock prices fell as traders worried the stronger-than-expected growth in gross domestic product could prompt the Federal Reserve to continue raising short-term interest rates. In afternoon trading, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 99.17, or 0.89 percent, to 10,998.38.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 12.72, or 0.98 percent, to 1,281.40.

The component of the consumer confidence index that assesses views of current economic conditions rose to 129.3 from 128.8. But another component that measures consumers' outlook over the next six months, the Expectations Index, fell to 83.3 from 92.1 in January.

Excluding the two months following Hurricane Katrina, the Expectations Index in February was at its lowest level since March 2003, when it was 61.4. Franco warned that if expectations continue to lose ground, the outlook for the remainder of the year could deteriorate.

Now here's the second story that I found off Yahoo News. This one is titled, Economy Grows at Mediocre Pace:

WASHINGTON - The economy, sagging under the strain of lofty energy prices, grew at an annual rate of 1.6 percent in the final quarter of last year — a mediocre performance that nonetheless turned out to be slightly better than first thought.

Chart shows quarterly rate of change in the gross domestic product. (AP Graphic)

The new reading on gross domestic product, released by the Commerce Department on Tuesday, did represent an upgrade from the 1.1 percent growth rate initially estimated for the October-to-December quarter. Still, economic growth under the new GDP figure — as well as the old one — was the slowest in three years and clearly showed a loss of momentum from the third quarter's brisk 4.1 percent pace.

Economists, however, said the economy is already rebounding smartly from the end-of-year lull. They predict growth will clock in at a robust 4.5 percent pace in the current January-to-March quarter.

Gross domestic product measures the value of all goods and services produced within the United States and is considered the best gauge of the economy's performance.

The fourth quarter's slowdown was blamed on the lingering fallout of the Gulf Coast hurricanes and elevated energy prices, which caused consumers especially to tighten their belts. Analysts said the final quarter's performance was more like the economy hitting a pot hole on the road of expansion, rather than a sign of a more serious derailment.

Indeed, other recent economic barometers — including production, retail sales and jobs — suggested the economy did start bouncing back at the beginning of this year. The nation's unemployment rate dropped to 4.7 percent in January, the lowest in 4 1/2 years.

Now here's a third Yahoo News story--this one about housing. This story is titled, Housing market cools, pace of resales slows:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. housing market has begun to cool, new data showed on Tuesday, as the pace of home resales slowed in January and the number of homes on the market hit a high not seen since 1998.

The National Association of Realtors said sales of existing U.S. homes eased 2.8 percent in January to a 6.56 million unit annual rate, the slowest pace in nearly two years and the fifth monthly decline in a row.

January's sales rate was slightly more sluggish than economists expected. Wall Street had forecast existing home sales at a 6.6 million unit pace. December sales were revised up to a 6.75 million unit annual rate.

Chart shows new-home sales for the past 13 months, seasonally adjusted. (AP Graphic)

The existing home sales figure includes both single-family houses and condos.

"The housing market is certainly shifting away from a record-breaking pace," said Lawrence Yun, senior economist for the Realtors.

The figures were the just the latest in a string of data pointing to a cooling in the U.S. housing market after a five-year rally that shattered sales and construction records, and sent prices soaring more than 55 percent across the country.

he Realtors data showed January's decline was driven by a 1.5 percent fall in the pace of single-family home sales and a 10.6 percent drop in condo sales.

Inventories climbed in January by 2.4 percent, leaving 2.91 million existing homes available for sale at the end of the month. That equates to 5.3 months' supply at the current sales pace, the highest since August 1998.

Home prices, however, have been more resilient, and economists chalk that up to sellers trying to cash out at the market's highs. For January, Realtors data show the median home price rose 11.6 percent to $211,000 from a year ago.

According to the Realtors, home sales were easing in the priciest markets where an increase in mortgage rates will have the biggest effect on buying power. Sales dropped 10 percent in the Northeast, 7.7 percent in the Midwest and 3.5 percent in the West.

Looking at these three stories, the big question on my mind is, are we heading for a major recession? These statistics are contradictory. The economy grew at a sluggish pace, consumer confidence fell, and yet unemployment remains low at 4.7 percent (And even there, I have to wonder what the rate is for people who have dropped out of the labor market, or have taken part-time jobs, or jobs that are of a lower skill set). And now the red-hot housing market is starting to show signs of deflating. I'd say a good chunk of the U.S. economic growth has been fueled by the refinancing craze, which allowed American homeowners to swap higher interest rate mortgages for lower interest rate mortgages, which allowed them to pocket--or spend--their interest rate savings. Now that economic stimulus is dying out. What is going to keep Americans spending, when they are starting to worry about job prospects? Throw in the high energy and heating costs that will also eat into the consumers pocketbooks, and perhaps continue to lower consumer confidence, and you've got a convoluted mess here.

I'm looking at these numbers here, and I'm worried. They don't make much sense.

Two interesting stories here

I've got two interesting stories here that I would like to post on. Actually, it is more of a contradiction of these two stories. Here's the first one, titled Bush Decries Sectarian Violence in Iraq, from Yahoo News:

WASHINGTON - President Bush on Tuesday decried the latest surge in sectarian violence in Iraq and declared that for Iraqis "the choice is chaos or unity."

Five attacks rocked Baghdad on Tuesday, killing more than 40 people, continuing a recent surge of violence.

Bush spoke after an Oval Office meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He left several hours later on a five-day trip to India and Pakistan, and possibly an unannounced stop in Afghanistan.

U.S. President George W. Bush (R) hosts a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in the Oval Office of the White House February 28, 2006. REUTERS/Larry Downing

For his part, Berlusconi said that he would stand by plans to withdraw all of Italy's 3,000 troops from Iraq by the end of the year.

"This plan has been agreed upon by our allies and the Iraqi government," said Berlusconi, one of the strongest U.S. allies on Iraq, who is facing a tough re-election campaign at home. He said that Italy's troops had helped train 10,000 Iraqi security officers.

Nothing really special here--Bush states his call for reducing the violence in Iraq, giving the Iraqis a stark choice of chaos or unity. I will say that it is interesting that Berlusconi is now withdrawing Italy's 3,000 troops from Iraq--another country leaving the "coalition of the willing" here. I'd say that Berlusconi is having his own domestic troubles, with Italians now opposing the Berlusconi government's role in this war. And Berlusconi's role has been documented through the La Repubblica expose regarding Italian intelligence operatives selling forged documents of Iraqi purchases of Nigerian uranium to the Bush White House.

Now we come to this little story, titled Multiple Bombings in Baghdad Kill 66, also from Yahoo News:

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A series of suicide attacks, car bombs and mortar barrages rocked Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least 66 people and wounding scores as
Iraq teetered on the brink of sectarian civil war.

Iraqi firefighters douse a car that exploded in the northern city of Kirkuk. Four civilians were wounded in the blast that targeted a senior police officer. Attacks on Iraq's Shiite majority, including a car bombing at a mosque, claimed the lives of 58 people and wounded 180 others, raising fears of a new round of sectarian violence across Iraq.(AFP/Marwan Ibrahim)

Iraqis suffered through days of reprisal killings and attacks on Sunni mosques after bombers blew apart the gold dome of a Shiite Muslim shrine north of Baghdad on Wednesday.

Fears were complicated by the continuing struggle among Iraqi politicians to form a government based on parliamentary elections nearly three months ago.

National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie traveled to the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Tuesday to meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the Shiite community's most revered leader. Al-Rubaie emerged to tell reporters "the way to forming the government is difficult and planted with political bombs. We ask the Iraqi people to be patient, and we expect forming the government will take a few months."

"The (United Iraqi) Alliance has chosen (Prime Minister Ibrahim) al-Jaafari and will not give up this choice. We expect that our partners in this country will respect this choice ... taking into consideration the election results" which gave the Shiite bloc a majority, but not enough seats to rule alone.

Al-Jaafari, now serving as interim Prime Minister, is a controversial figure even among some Shiite politicians.

An Iraqi resident douses burning cars with water after a car bomb attack in Baghdad February 28, 2006. Ten people were killed in one of the bombs that exploded in Karrada district, a witness said. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

In the south Tuesday, two British soldiers were killed in Amarah, 290 kilometers (180 miles) from Baghdad, the Defense Ministry reported in London, but gave no other details. A witness said a car bomb targeted a British patrol and helicopters were seen taking away casualties.

And north of Baghdad, a blast badly damaged a Sunni mosque where the father of
Saddam Hussein was buried in the family's ancestral hometown, Tikrit. The deposed leader's trial resumed in Baghdad with his defense team ending their monthlong boycott of the proceedings.

The Iraqi Islamic Party reported the Sunni Thou Nitaqain mosque in Baghdad's northern al-Hurriyah neighborhood was destroyed in an explosion Tuesday morning. Police said three people were killed and 11 injured in the blast. The Sunni organization blamed the Shiite-dominated government that, it said, "cooperates with the criminal hands that sabotaged God's houses and lighted the fires of sedition."

Also Tuesday, gunmen in two speeding cars opened fire on the Sunni al-Salam mosque in the western Baghdad's Mansour district, killing the guard, said police Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razaq.

That night, explosions hit two Shiite targets in northern Baghdad. A car bomb hit the Abdel Hadi Chalabi mosque in Hurriyah, killing 23 and wounding 55, police said. Mortar fire at the Shiite Imam Kadhim shrine in the Kazimiyah neighborhood on the opposite side of the Tigris River killed one and wounded 10, police said.

The Baghdad filling station blast killed 23 and wounded 51 in the mostly Shiite New Baghdad neighborhood, said Interior Ministry official Maj. Falah al-Mohammedawi.

The attacker joined a line of people waiting to buy kerosene before detonating the explosives strapped to his body, police and witnesses said. The charred remains of metal carts used by customers to transport kerosene drums littered the scene.

In the same neighborhood, a car bomb targeting a police patrol killed five people and wounded 15 — many of them construction workers who gather there to look for work — the Interior Ministry said.

Another car bomb hit a small market opposite the Shiite Timimi mosque in the mostly Shiite Karradah neighborhood, killing six people and injuring 16, the Interior Ministry said. Distraught residents rushed to the scene, as fire fighters fought back flames from burning cars.

A roadside bomb targeting the convoy of a defense ministry adviser killed five soldiers and injured seven others in the eastern Zaiyona neighborhood, ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said. The adviser, Lt. Gen. Daham Radhi al-Assal, escaped unharmed, he said.

A fifth blast, believed to have been a mortar round, landed in an open area not far from the National Theater, officials said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Doctors look at the bodies of shooting victims outside a hospital in Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad February 28, 2006. Nine bodies of shooting victims were found just south of the city of Baquba on Tuesday, the army said. The corpses were found in wastelands in the hamlet of Tarfaya, the officials said. REUTERS/Helmiy al-Azawi

Mr. President--I'd say that Iraqis have made their choice. They want chaos. They want American forces to get out of Iraq. And Iraq will descend into a civil, tribal and religous war, pitting the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds against each other to carve up Iraq between themselves. The country is going break apart between these three groups. To stay in Iraq, means continued violence--both against the different factions, and against the current U.S. occupation forces.

What are you going to do about it?

Monday, February 27, 2006

Republicans Split With Bush on Ports

A Maryland Transportation Authority police boat patrols the waters along the Port of Baltimore Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006 in Baltimore. The Bush administration said Friday it won't reconsider its approval for a United Arab Emirates company to take over significant operations at six U.S. ports. The former head of the Sept. 11 commission said the deal 'never should have happened.' (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Here's some more interesting details regarding Portgate. From The Washington Post:

Faced with an unprecedented Republican revolt over national security, the White House disclosed yesterday that President Bush was unaware of a Middle Eastern company's planned takeover of operations at six U.S. seaports until recent days and promised to brief members of Congress more fully on the pending deal.

One day after threatening to veto any attempt by Congress to scuttle the controversial $6.8 billion deal, Bush sounded a more conciliatory tone by saying lawmakers should have been given more details about a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates purchasing some terminal operations in Baltimore and five other U.S. cities.

So we know there's a rift between the Republicans in Congress, and the Bush White House. And President Bush promises to brief Congress with further details on this deal. Much of this is old news.

Now for some interesting details buried into this Post story:

With the president's ratings mired around 40 percent approval, some Republican lawmakers who face tough reelection bids in November have been looking for ways to distance themselves from Bush without appearing to be soft on terrorism. The president, who once enjoyed near unanimous support from GOP allies on Capitol Hill, has seen a steady rise in Republican criticism over Iraq, Iran, warrantless domestic spying and now the port deal.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said political pressure from constituents is driving the debate. Lawmakers, he said, are "responding to incredible local political pressure."

In other words, Congressional Republicans are hearing some strong words from the American public--and the American public doesn't like what they see regarding the sale of these ports to DP World. Also recall in my previous post regarding Bush's drop in the polls, "Americans are also overwhelmingly opposed to the Bush-backed deal giving a Dubai-owned company operational control over six major U.S. ports. Seven in 10 Americans, including 58 percent of Republicans, say they're opposed to the agreement." When you're a Republican congressman is faced with a national poll showing a majority of Americans opposed to such a deal, you better listen to your constituents.

Now here's another fun little detail:

Some of the big names on K Street have joined the Dubai Ports World fight on the side of the United Arab Emirates-owned company.

These include former Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), and a Democratic power couple in Washington, former representative Tom Downey (D-N.Y) and Carol M. Browner, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Dole's law firm, Alston & Bird LLP, led the effort by Dubai Ports World to steer its proposed acquisition of Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. through the U.S. government approval process.

Not much to comment here--just George Bush selling out to K Street lobbyists. Although I am surprised that former senator Bob Dole is now connected to this port deal. Dole used to be a moderate Republican--now he's pretty much selling his country out for the sake of a buck! Of course, Dole's law firm is involved. I wonder how many other K Street lobbyists have jumped on this bandwagon for the sake of a buck?

Another fun detail:

At the Treasury Department, the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS), which includes Cabinet officials and White House aides, examines sales with potential national security risks and usually attracts little attention.

Administration officials did not consider the sale of port terminal management to a Middle Eastern company dangerous or potentially controversial, White House aides said. Foreign-owned companies including a Chinese operation have controlled terminals at various U.S. ports for years -- and lawmakers have rarely complained. The White House said intelligence officials reviewed the sale and raised no concerns.

In a private briefing for House aides late yesterday, administration officials from the departments of State, Defense, Treasury and Homeland Security said the CFIUS met only once during a 23-day review of the sale and that the few objections raised were quickly addressed.

The CFIUS met only once during the 23-day review of the sale? There was no real debate and whatever objections were quickly addressed--or would that be ignored? There was no investigation into possible security concerns, or connections between the UAE and al Qaida terrorist network which could compromise the security of American ports? Incredible.

Now here's the real kicker of a detail:

Joseph King, who headed the customs agency's anti-terrorism efforts under the Treasury Department and the new Department of Homeland Security, said national security fears are well grounded.

He said a company the size of Dubai Ports World would be able to get hundreds of visas to relocate managers and other employees to the United States. Using appeals to Muslim solidarity or threats of violence, al-Qaeda operatives could force low-level managers to provide some of those visas to al-Qaeda sympathizers, said King, who for years tracked similar efforts by organized crime to infiltrate ports in New York and New Jersey. Those sympathizers could obtain legitimate driver's licenses, work permits and mortgages that could then be used by terrorist operatives.

Dubai Ports World could also offer a simple conduit for wire transfers to terrorist operatives in the Middle East. Large wire transfers from individuals would quickly attract federal scrutiny, but such transfers, buried in the dozens of wire transfers a day from Dubai Ports World's operations in the United States to the Middle East would go undetected, King said.

My question here is why didn't the CFIUS even look into this scenario? This is a big security concern that the committee should have debated on. This is not something you push through for a single day. Even I can see how al Qaida operatives could use lower-level UAE government employees to gain access to DP World's paperwork, or security information that would allow al Qaida to infiltrate American ports. Even more, what if some of those UAE government employees even sympathize with al Qaida's causes? It is absurd not to take these scenarios into account, when considering this sale.


Cheney seen retiring after midterm elections

This is off Insight on the News, which is the sister publication of The Washington Times. Both Insight on the News, and the Washington Times are owned by the Moonies, and are hard-core conservative publications. But the story here is interesting. From Insight on the News:

Vice President Dick Cheney is expected to retire within a year.

Senior GOP sources envision the retirement of Mr. Cheney in 2007, months after the congressional elections. The sources said Mr. Cheney would be persuaded to step down as he becomes an increasing political liability to President Bush.

The sources reported a growing rift between the president and vice president as well as their staffs. They cited Mr. Cheney's failure to immediately tell the president of the accidental shooting of the vice president's hunting colleague earlier this month. The White House didn't learn of the incident until 18 hours later.

Mr. Cheney's next crisis could take place by the end of the year, the sources said. They said the White House was expecting Mr. Cheney to defend himself against charges from his former chief of staff, Lewis Libby, that the vice president ordered him to relay classified information. Such a charge could lead to a congressional investigation and even impeachment proceedings.

"Nothing will happen until after the congressional elections," a GOP source said. "After that, there will be significant changes in the administration and Cheney will probably be part of that."

The sources said the accidental shooting highlighted the lack of communications between Bush and Cheney staffers. They said at one point, the president held what was termed a private conversation with Mr. Cheney regarding the Feb. 11 incident. Hours later, Mr. Cheney, who kept away from reporters, explained the incident in an interview with Fox News on Feb. 15.

"Nobody on the president's staff could get to Cheney, let alone tell him what to do," the source said. "At that point, the president picked up the phone and suggested that Cheney get his story out fast."

The sources said Mr. Cheney, 65, has been struggling with the departure of his closest aides. In addition to Mr. Libby, Mr. Cheney's media adviser, Steve Schmidt, has left to manage the re-election campaign of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Mr. Bush, the sources said, has rejected the advice from circles close to his father, the former president, to dismiss Mr. Cheney. They say Mr. Bush has long regarded Mr. Cheney as the experienced hand in national security, as well as being trusted by the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

"The Libby case is far more lethal than the hunting accident," another GOP source said. "If the heat gets too much, Cheney might say his health requires him to leave office. Whatever happens, the president will make sure it's handled delicately."

Now this is an interesting story. There has never been a vice president who has gathered such unprecedented power, as that of Dick Cheney. George Bush may be the President of the United States, and enjoy all the trappings of the White House and Oval Office. However, the Bush administration has been greatly influenced by the Vice President--the war in Iraq and the indoctrination of PNAC as U.S. policy, the role of Haliburton in Iraq's reconstruction, or perhaps even the Valerie Plame outing? Cheney worked in both the Nixon and Ford administrations, where he saw what he believed was an erosion of presidential power at the hands of Congress. Cheney even admits to this erosion of power. Consider this quote:

Almost 30 years later, back in the White House as vice president, Cheney has spoken regretfully of the weakening of the presidency after Watergate.

''In 34 years, I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job," Cheney declared on ABC in 2002.

This is a man who has accumulated unprecedented power for the presidency, and personal power as the principle advisor to a bumbling George Bush.

But there has been some problems with Cheney's rise to the top. The big problem has been his desire for secrecy, and his utter contempt for accountability. This has certainly been reflected with the scandals that have tainted the vice president's office--specifically Valerie Plame, the energy task force, and even Cheney's hunting accident. All of this projects a negative image to the Bush White House, and to the incredibly poor polling numbers that Cheney has with the American public. And all of these scandals certainly provide such friction between the president and his vice president. But can the president afford to replace Cheney? Can the Bush White House operate a more improved foreign and domestic policy agenda if Cheney is forced to "retire?" Not that they have a currently effective foreign and domestic policy agenda today, considering the missteps, scandals, and screw-ups. Who would replace Cheney? I'd say that the money would be on Condi Rice as a possible vice presidential replacement to Cheney. Rice certainly has the president's ear and trust. She's got the foreign policy credentials--working both as President Bush's National Security Advisor, and as the current Secretary of State. As a vice president, Rice would be well positioned to embark on a 2008 presidential run as the Republican candidate. Finally, President Bush's selection of Condi Rice would make Rice the first women vice president, and the first black vice president. Those are all certainly positive political points that Bush can use to keep his floundering presidency afloat. The big negative of a Condi Rice vice president is that Rice has no domestic policy experience. I'm not even sure what her domestic policy viewpoints are. What political advice could Rice give to Bush regarding Katrina, health care, Social Security, tax policy, or even economic policy? I can't say.

Will Dick Cheney step down? If President Bush demanded that Cheney steps down after 2006, I believe he would. Of course, the White House would spin their PR in claiming Cheney is retiring for "health reasons." But Cheney is the driving force behind the president's political agenda--he and Karl Rove are the ones that make White House policy. The president is the sales and marketing guy, trying to pitch the White House political agenda to the American public. To replace Cheney with Condi Rice would mean a complete shake-up of the White House operations, and would require time for a new vice presidential staff to learn how the White House operates--all within the last two years of the Bush presidency. Can the president afford mistakes from an inexperience vice president and vice presidential staff, especially if the scandals take a prominent role due to Democratically-controlled congressional investigations, assuming the Democrats take control of Congress in this year's elections? There's a lot of political questions that can be raised due to Cheney's stepping down.

I'm not sure that they can be answered.

Poll: Bush Ratings At All-Time Low

U.S. President George W. Bush speaks at the Republican Governors Association Reception at the National Building Museum in Washington, February 27, 2006. The reception comes as some Republican governors fear a series of missteps by the White House may take a toll on election-year results for the party back home. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Looks like it is time for some polling numbers here. This is from CBS News:

(CBS) The latest CBS News poll finds President Bush's approval rating has fallen to an all-time low of 34 percent, while pessimism about the Iraq war has risen to a new high.

Americans are also overwhelmingly opposed to the Bush-backed deal giving a Dubai-owned company operational control over six major U.S. ports. Seven in 10 Americans, including 58 percent of Republicans, say they're opposed to the agreement.

In a separate poll, two out of three Americans said they do not think President Bush has responded adequately to the needs of Katrina victims. Only 32 percent approve of the way President Bush is responding to those needs, a drop of 12 points from last SeptemberÂ’s poll, taken just two weeks after the storm made landfall.

Mr. Bush's overall job rating has fallen to 34 percent, down from 42 percent last month. Fifty-nine percent disapprove of the job the president is doing.

For the first time in this poll, most Americans say the president does not care much about people like themselves. Fifty-one percent now think he doesn't care, compared to 47 percent last fall.

Just 30 percent approve of how Mr. Bush is handling the Iraq war, another all-time low.

By two to one, the poll finds Americans think U.S. efforts to bring stability to Iraq are going badly – the worst assessment yet of progress in Iraq.

Even on fighting terrorism, which has long been a strong suit for Mr. Bush, his ratings dropped lower than ever. Half of Americans say they disapprove of how he's handling the war on terror, while 43 percent approve.

In a bright spot for the administration, most Americans appeared to have heard enough about Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident.

More then three in four said it was understandable that the accident had occurred and two-thirds said the media had spent too much time covering the story.

Still, the incident appears to have made the public's already negative view of Cheney a more so. Just 18 percent said they had a favorable view of the vice president, down from 23 percent in January.

This is a huge drop in Bush's approval ratings--especially since the president has been spending time on the PR-campaign trail to drum up support for his policies. The issue here is that all this White House political campaigning is being drowned out by the continued scandals, screw-ups, and the general incompetence the White House has for effective governing. The whole Portgate scandal is a perfect example of President Bush thinking about his corporate cronies over that of the average American--let alone the security issues this sale has raised. President Bush starting touting new energy breakthroughs, and even toured the National Renewable Energy Laboratory last week. Of course, no one told the White House that they had cut funding for the lab, forcing the lab to lay off 32 people just before Bush's visit--oh dear, have to add more funding to keep those people employed for Bush's visit! I'm not even going into the disaster of Iraq. There's the illegal domestic spying scandal, the Valerie Plame scandal, the Katrina fiasco, the Jack Abramoff lobbying connections with Bush, Cheney's secret energy policy--which was nothing more than a give-away to Big Oil and Big Energy corporate interests. It is disaster heaped upon disaster, heaped upon disaster.

What is astounding is that the Bush White House still believes they can politically spin these disasters to the American public. President Bush is decisive and resolute in threatening to use his veto power and fight against the evil Democrats that want to destroy the DP World port deal. Of course, both Democrats and Republicans are against this sale due to a lack of security concerns that the Bush administration ignored. The domestic spying scandal is a political non-issue for the Democrats that has damaged the U.S. ability to fight terrorism--the Democrats have given the terrorists our playbook. We should be searching for the whistle-blowers who revealed this successful terrorist-fighting program. Never mind that the White House is domestically spying on American citizens without a court order, or has done an end-run around the FISA Court. Just keep spinning the PR. The problem here is that as the American public compare the details of these disasters with the White House PR spin, the American public is losing its trust and confidence with the Bush administration's leadership. It is going to take more White House PR-spin to maintain their rapidly eroding base, even as the scandals and disasters continue to heap upon the White House.

It is just going to get worst.

There is one positive aspect about President Bush's sagging poll numbers. At least Bush's approval ratings are twice that of Vice President Cheney's approval ratings. I'm not sure what to make of that....

Paper: Coast Guard Has Port Co. Intel Gaps

A China Shipping Line ship is docked at the the Port Newark Container Terminal (PNCT) in Newark, New Jersey. The US Coast Guard warned US officials that "intelligence gaps" barred it from determining potential terrorism risks in an Arab company's planned takeover of operations at six US ports, according to a document.(AFP/Stan Honda)

More dirty details on Portgate coming out. This is from Yahoo News:

WASHINGTON - Citing broad gaps in U.S. intelligence, the Coast Guard cautioned the Bush administration weeks ago that it could not determine whether a United Arab Emirates-based company seeking a stake in some U.S. port operations might support terrorist operations.

The disclosure came during a hearing Monday on Dubai-owned DP World's plans to take over significant operations at six leading U.S. ports.

The Bush administration said the Coast Guard's concerns were raised during its review of the deal, which it approved Jan. 17, and that all those questions were resolved.

The port operations are now handled by London-based Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co.

"There are many intelligence gaps, concerning the potential for DPW or P&O assets to support terrorist operations, that precludes an overall threat assessment" of the potential merger, the unclassified Coast Guard intelligence assessment said.

"The breadth of the intelligence gaps also infer potential unknown threats against a large number of potential vulnerabilities," the assessment said.

The Coast Guard said the concerns reflected in the document ultimately were addressed. In a statement, the Coast Guard said other U.S. intelligence agencies were able to provide answers to the questions it raised.

"The Coast Guard, the intelligence community and the entire CFIUS (Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States) panel believed this transaction received the proper review, and national security concerns were, in fact, addressed," the Coast Guard said.

That multi-agency government panel reviews foreign purchases of vital U.S. assets.

The report raised questions about the security of the companies' operations, the backgrounds of people working for the companies, and whether other foreign countries influenced operations that affect security.

Rear Admiral Thomas Gilmour, Assistant commandant for Prevention, United States Coast Guard, looks at a map of U.S. ports operated by Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company as he arrives to deliver a briefing to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington February 27, 2006. The briefing was held to discuss the security implications of Dubai Ports World's bid to take over the management of these P&O ports. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

There is really not much here to comment on, aside from the fact that this is another example of the Bush administration ignoring security concerns for the sake of corporate cornyism. Another example of corporate cronyism trumping the greater concerns of security for the nation as a whole. Should I be surprised?

Two-Thirds of Katrina Donations Exhausted

A tattered American flag lies in mud in the backyard of a destroyed house, December 2005 in St. Bernard Parish, Meraux, Louisiana. As New Orleans struggles to rebuild entire neighborhoods destroyed by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, many of those who were caught in its wake are still struggling to rebuild their lives.(AFP/Getty Images/File/Ethan Miller)

This is from The Washington Post:

Six months after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast, charities have disbursed more than $2 billion of the record sums they raised for the storm's victims, leaving less than $1 billion for the monumental task of helping hundreds of thousands of storm victims rebuild their lives, according to a survey by The Washington Post.

Two-thirds of the $3.27 billion raised by private nonprofit organizations and tracked by The Post went to help evacuees and other Katrina victims with immediate needs -- cash, food and temporary shelter, medical care, tarps for damaged homes and school supplies for displaced children.

What's left, say charities and federal officials, will need to be stretched over years to rebuild lives and reconstruct the social fabric of the Gulf Coast -- from job training to mental health counseling to rebuilding the homes of the poor to reestablishing arts organizations and paying clergy as they wait for their congregations to return.

The Post survey, the first detailed examination of the largest outpouring of charity in the nation's history, also found the following:

· The American Red Cross, which was criticized for slow distribution of donations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has given out 84 percent of its Katrina and Rita donations.

· 50 cents of each donated dollar went out in cash to victims.

· 6 percent of contributions came in the form of supplies -- building materials, food, water, clothing, heavy equipment -- donated mostly by corporations.

· 56 percent of remaining donations are controlled by faith-based organizations. They include such well-known institutions as Catholic Charities USA and the Salvation Army but also such lower-profile groups as the United Methodist Committee on Relief and United Jewish Communities.

What remains to be done goes well beyond even the staggering costs of rebuilding infrastructure -- projects estimated to require nearly $200 billion in government aid over the long term.

A string af rubber-ducky Mardi Gras beads can be seen in the debris around a shrimp boat that sits in the middle of a Chalmette, La., neighborhood, Friday, Feb. 24, 2006, where it landed almost six months ago during Hurricane Katrina. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

What I find laughable is that the Bush White House and their Republican cronies love to play up the significance of private charities and "faith-based" organizations. And yet, the non-profit organizations have only been able to raise $3 billion for Katrina relief, and they've already spent $2 billion of that money. And it is going to take over $200 billon to rebuild the Gulf Coast region! There is no way that private charities can raise $200 billion for Katrina relief. The only way to rebuild the Gulf Coast is for the federal government to step in with a massive infusion of relief aid--and the government right now is flat broke!

But there's something else here to comment on. Consider this:

"There are many, many needs that the federal government cannot cover," said Don Powell, a former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chairman who was named coordinator of the Gulf's long-term recovery by President Bush in November. Many are "the crucial part of life that we all depend on," he said. "It's not public works. It's not water, sewage or utilities. It's the soul of our life."

No one has put a price tag on restoring the "soul" of a region after such devastation, but the current charitable resources of about $960 million, as calculated by The Post, will not be sufficient, Powell said.

"There are many, many needs that the federal government cannot cover." Many are the "crucial part of life that we all depend on. It's not public works. It's not water, sewage or utilities. It's the soul of our life." What the heck is Powell talking about here? The federal government cannot cover many needs that are crucial to the soul of our life? What needs? Is it food, shelter, clothing? We've got programs to cover those needs--food stamps, The Housing and Urban Development, and the federal government can provide large block grants to states to promote the general welfare of the people--think Medicare and Medicaid for health. Is it also not possible for the federal government to provide grants and money to the states for the purchase of clothing? Is it jobs? Why not develop public works programs that will hire the American citizens that were hit in the Gulf Coast regions, and paying a decent salary to those citizens--rather than allowing companies to bring in illegal workers who will work for pennies on the dollar. This is such a convoluted, contradictory, PR-spinmeistered quote that could make any rational, sane person to watch stars twirling around their head.

The Bush administration doesn't get it. Katrina is an unprecedented disaster! Not only is it going to take hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild the region, but it is also going to need to take new strategies and policy analysis to reconsider the roles that the federal government and private charities have in coping with disasters of this magnitude. The federal government has got to find ways to fund the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast region. Both the government and private charities have got to work together, and figure out how they can complement each other in providing relief and reconstruction for the region. Unfortunately, policy analysis is not a strong trait within this administration. Once this last billion is exhausted--perhaps before the end of November--that's it. The soul of our life in the Gulf Coast region will start to go out. And since private charities don't have the resources or fundraising ability to pick up the slack, and the federal government under the Bush White House remains ignorant to this issue, you're going to witness another light grow and through the Gulf Coast--a burning red light of anger.

GOP Governors Say Bush's Missteps Hurting

Now this is interesting. When you've got the GOP governors claiming that the White House scandals, missteps, and screw-ups are hurting the Republican Party during a midterm election year, you know you're in trouble. This if from Yahoo News:

WASHINGTON - Republican governors are openly worrying that the Bush administration's latest stumbles — from the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina to those of its own making on prescription drugs and ports security — are taking an election-year toll on the party back home.

The GOP governors reluctantly acknowledge that the series of gaffes threatens to undermine public confidence in President Bush's ability to provide security, which has long been his greatest strength among voters.

"You've got solid conservatives coming up speaking like they haven't before, it's likely that something's going on at the grass roots," said Republican Mark Sanford of South Carolina. "Whether it's temporary or not remains to be seen."

The unease was apparent from interviews with more than a dozen governors over the weekend, including nearly half of the Republicans attending the winter meeting of the National Governors Association. The annual conference was taking place in a capital enthralled by the political firestorm over government plans to approve takeover of operations at some terminals at six U.S. ports by a company owned by the United Arab Emirates government.

Democrats see opportunity, and even those in conservative states say the administration's missteps will have a ripple effect politically at home. "I do think there's a considerable degree of skepticism about what's been happening at the federal level," said Democrat Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. "If you didn't pick it up on Katrina, you did when you tried to help your parents" get drugs through the new Medicare program.

But it wasn't Bush's political opponents alone who saw weaknesses. So did his allies — listing the days of chaos in New Orleans after the hurricane, the nationwide confusion over the drug prescription program that forced many states to step in to help seniors get medications, and the ports security debacle that has drawn criticism from leading Republicans in Congress and the states.

"I don't think he was well served on the port issue by the bureaucracy," said Republican Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, who is leading a united front of governors pushing back on potential reductions to National Guard forces. "He's at the forefront on national security. When you combine this flap on the ports, and these potential cuts on the military, you need to make sure that issue doesn't slip away. It's one of his strengths."

He also said the lack of communication from the administration on the Guard issue has been a problem. "There has been too much we have learned outside the loop. It's time we be inside the loop."

Republican Bob Taft of Ohio offered judgment on Katrina: "This is hindsight, but it was a mistake to bury FEMA under the Department of
Homeland Security."

In his state, where manufacturing job losses have left much of the Midwest lagging behind the improved economies that much of the rest of the country has seen in the past two years, the economy plays a bigger role. "There's a sense it's more wrong direction than right track. That affects how they feel about the president, it affects how they feel about anybody in power. It's bound to play some role in the elections" for Congress and the governors race.

The Republican governors are right to be worried. This Bush White House is serving for both its own self-interest in accumulating dictatorial power, and in the interests of corporate cronyism. President Bush's contempt for this country, and for the democratic ideals that are found in the Constitution is now being realized by the American public--when you have conservatives questioning the sale of American ports to a Middle Eastern government-controlled country, you've got a problem here. When a majority of the American public polled feels that this country is on the wrong track, and the White House refuses to even look at these polls while claiming they know what's right for the country, you've got a major problem here.

The GOP governors know that the Bush administration's dicatorial rule is going to damage the Republican Party in the long run. Five years of neoconservative / religious right-wingnut rule is starting to fracture the Republican Party. You've got fiscal conservatives that are starting to worry about the spiraling deficit and out-of-control government spending. You've got small government conservatives who will worry about increased government spying on American citizens. The governors can see these issues being raised at the sate and local levels. They have a greater contact with the American public--both Republicans and Democrats--than the White House-generated PR rallies that are stocked with only pro-Bush supporters. And not only is this a problem with the Republicans, but the Democrats under DNC chairman Howard Dean has been investing Democratic Party resources into state and local campaigns, setting up a party structure of new Democratic leaders to challenge the Republicans for future congressional and presidential races.

We'll have to see what happens in this election, and in 2008.

Second Ports Review Aims to Avoid Showdown

With the Staten Island ferry behind them, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., left, and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., right, flank U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., as he speaks to the reporters in Battery Park, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2006, in New York. Dubai-owned DP World, a United Arab Emirates company, on Sunday offered to submit to a broader U.S. review of the security risks from its deal to take over major operations at six American ports. Seeking to avert a showdown between President Bush and Congress, DP World also promised to create an American subsidiary that would function independently of executives in Dubai. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

This is also from Yahoo News:

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration will conduct a highly unusual second review of potential security risks in a business deal it previously approved for a United Arab Emirates-based company to take over significant operations at six leading U.S. ports.

The new, 45-day investigation is aimed at averting an impending political showdown as Congress returned to Washington on Monday from a weeklong break.

"We think this is a good middle ground that has been found," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who helped negotiate the plan, quickly recommended that lawmakers wait for the outcome before acting on legislation to delay or block the deal. Frist, R-Tenn., said he expects oversight hearings to continue this week.

In six pages of legal documents sent Sunday to the White House, Dubai-based DP World offered to submit to a second, broader investigation of its plans to run shipping terminals in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.

The Treasury Department, which governs the U.S. review panel, said it would accept DP World's extraordinary offer once the company formally filed its request for one. It said the same government panel will reconsider the deal that it earlier had agreed unanimously posed no national security concerns.

Some senators, led by Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said they still intend to introduce legislation Monday to block the deal pending a 45-day review and to require congressional approval before DP World can conduct business in the United States. Under existing law, Congress effectively has no role considering deals.

Bush has pledged to veto any measure blocking the deal. "The president's position remains the same," McClellan said. After the review, it will be up to Bush to decide whether the deal takes effect.

Schumer said Monday he is skeptical of the review panel's ability to evaluate the deal, saying the panel has been more focused on economic development rather than national security.

"The bottom line is this group did a very cursory review" when it approved the deal, Schumer said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "I'm a little dubious of this review, but let's wait, let's see the report and see what they say."

Still, the administration's announcement means the White House likely won't face a broader revolt this week by fellow Republicans. A united GOP can assert that its leaders — in Congress and at the White House — have taken additional steps to protect national security.

This is a compromise? Another 45-day review conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States--the same secret government committee that casually signed off this deal in the first place?

Let's take this for what it really is--Bill Frist sold out to the White House. This is a face-saving measure which allows the White House to claim that Republican congressional leaders approved of Portgate. The Committee on Foreign Investment will go through its act of reviewing the deal, then sign off on Portgate for the same reasons it originally approved of the deal in the first place. Congress will be castrated regarding this deal--there is no way the Republican leadership will allow the Democrats to conduct any type of congressional hearings or investigations regarding Portgate, nor will the Republican leadership allow any type of legislation go through which would require Congressional approval for this port deal. The last thing that President Bush, Karl Rove, Bill Frist, or even Dennis Hastert would want is to have a bi-partisan Congress looking into this deal, especially the issues regarding security, and any connections between al Qaida and the government of UAE.

More Portgate to come....

White House Rejects Special Counsel

I find this post rather ironic. From Yahoo News:

WASHINGTON - The White House on Monday rejected the call by several House Democrats for a special counsel to investigate the Bush administration's eavesdropping program.

"I think that where these Democrats who are calling for this ought to spend their time is on what was the source of the unauthorized disclosure of this vital and critical program in the war on terrorism," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "I really don't think there is any basis for a special counsel. ... But the fact that this information was disclosed about the existence of this program has given the enemy some of our playbook."

You've got to love Scotty McClellan's remark here. Senate Democrats are calling for a special counsel to investigate Bush's eavesdropping program on the premise that Bush is domestically spying on Americans without any search warrants. And how does Scotty respond? By claiming that the Democrats should really look into who was the whistleblower on this program, that the disclosure of this program harmed U.S. efforts on the war on terrorism (The terrorists now know our playbook), and that the special counsel is not needed. In effect, Scotty spins this whole issue on top of its head, yet refuses to provide any details regarding this illegal spying operation. Continuing on:

In a letter released Monday, 18 House Democrats told Bush that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should appoint a special counsel. They said the surveillance of terrorists must be done within the bounds of U.S. law, but complained that their efforts to get answers to legal and factual questions about the program have been stymied — "generally based on the feeblest of excuses."

"If the effort to prevent vigorous and appropriate investigation succeeds, we fear the inexorable conclusion will be that these executive branch agencies hold themselves above the law and accountable to no one," wrote the lawmakers, led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif., a member of the Judiciary and
Homeland Security committees.

The lawmakers initially asked the independent watchdogs at the Justice and Defense departments to open inquiries. Both declined.

Justice's inspector general Glenn Fine said he lacked authority, and deferred to the department's Office of Professional Responsibility. That office has said it is investigating the conduct of the department's lawyers, but not the program's lawfulness.

Congress' investigative arm, the General Accountability Office, similarly declined to open a review, noting the administration would be expected to designate the necessary documents as foreign intelligence materials and limit access to them.

The Democrats see "ample precedent" for a special counsel, citing the Justice Department's appointment of U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

After 22 months of investigation, Fitzgerald indicted the vice president's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for allegedly lying about his role in the disclosure.

"Indeed, the allegation of a secret NSA spying program conducting warrantless domestic surveillance of U.S. persons is at least as serious" as the matter Fitzgerald investigated, the Democrats wrote.

In their six-page letter, the Democrats said the special counsel should investigate any possible violation of federal criminal law, noting that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act says the monitoring of U.S. citizens and residents — without a warrant — is punishable by imprisonment.

Bush administration officials have argued the program does not fall within that law. They say Bush was exercising his constitutional authority as commander in chief when he allowed the National Security Agency to monitor — without court approval — the international calls and e-mails of people inside the U.S. when one party may be linked to terrorism.

The administration also maintains the president had the power to order the surveillance under a broad 2001 authorization to use military force in the war on terror.

The last thing that the Bush administration wants is to have a special counsel looking into any of their scandals. Already, the direction of the Valerie Plame leak is pointing towards the White House. And you can bet that an investigation by an independent prosecutor into this domestic spying program will probably find the White House breaking some major laws--in other words, spying without a search warrant. If the dirt on domestic spying ever becomes public, you can bet it will be grounds for impeachment. So the White House is stalling, while at the same time trying to maintain Republican control of Congress. Because you can bet that if the Democrats do gain control of one or both houses of Congress, they are going to start initiating congressional investigations into all of these scandals--Valerie Plame, intelligence failures, domestic spying, Katrina. And if the Democrats do gain control of one or both houses, the White House dirty laundry will really start coming out.