Domestic Policy

  Wikileaks Gets Its Domain Name BackFebruary 29, 2008 21:55 Wikileaks is getting its domain name back.

After spending more than three hours hearing arguments from a raft of attorneys--two representing the Swiss bank that fought to get the site's plug pulled and about 10 who have been trying to get the site back online--a federal judge here has ruled in favor of Wikileaks.

Wikileaks, which uses Wikileaks.org as its primary domain, is a whistle-blowing site that focuses on posting leaked documents.

"The court denies the motion for preliminary injunction, and the court hereby dissolves the injunction against (domain name registrar) Dynadot, and the litigation may now proceed," said U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, who had called a brief recess around 11:40 a.m. PST, indicating that he was inclined to revisit his order from earlier this month that effectively pulled the plug on the Wikileaks.org domain name.

White said he will issue a written order very soon and added that he is skeptical that an injunction would survive free-speech scrutiny: "There are serious questions about prior restraint, possible violations of the First Amendment, which the court can make no definitive findings about at this point."

"The court has the obligation to get it right," White had told attorneys for Bank Julius Baer, or BJB, earlier Friday. "I took an obligation to uphold the Constitution. The court has its own obligation to raise these issues. Contrary to what you say, my obligation is to look down the road and see where this thing is going."

From the bank's perspective, it sued Wikileaks in federal court in California because the registrar, Dynadot, is located here. (Wikileaks alleges that the documents in question show that the bank supports the "ultrarich's offshore tax avoidance, tax evasion, asset hiding, and money laundering.")

But a host of free-speech groups, including Public Citizen, the California First Amendment Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Project on Government Oversight, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, requested to intervene in the case on behalf of Wikileaks.

They threw down a series of legal land mines against BJB, including that Wikileaks can't be sued in a U.S. court by a foreign company because it consists of foreigners; that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act prevents any action against Dynadot; that the First Amendment prohibits an overly broad attack against a Web site just to delete a subset of pages; that Dynadot cannot refuse to transfer the domain name to another registrar; and so on.

Some of the filings amounted to an implicit criticism of White, who granted the allegedly First Amendment-problematic order in the first place. So the first thing White did on Friday was defend himself--more to the half dozen reporters in the back of the room than to the attorneys.

"The parties need to understand, and those in this courtroom need to understand, the status of this case," White said. "This is a case in which we had a (dispute) with named parties, and the parties were duly served. One of which properly responded and came to this court with a proposed settlement in this lawsuit...Nobody filed any timely responses to the court's order."

While giving his ruling, White explained that the case is properly in his jurisdiction, in part because the domain name holder, an Australian citizen living in Kenya, sent an attorney to court Friday.
  Bush Promotes Tax Cuts, Domestic Oil And Gas ProductionFebruary 28, 2008 12:16 President Bush, saying he was unaware of predictions of $4-a-gallon gasoline in the coming months, told reporters Thursday that the best way to help Americans fend off high prices is for Congress to make his first-term tax cuts permanent.

"If you're out there wondering... what your life is going to be like, and you're looking at $4 a gallon, that's uncertain," Bush responded to a question posed at a White House news conference. "And when you couple that with the idea that... taxes may be going up in a couple years, that's double uncertainty."

Analysts have said that gasoline could reach $4 a gallon by this spring, due to strong demand and a change in formulation, among other reasons.

When taking the question about the $4 milestone, Bush told the reporter, "That's interesting. I hadn't heard that."

In other areas of energy policy, the president repeated his support for both renewable sources and conservation.

Bush also criticized Congress, which is considering an $18 billion tax increase for large oil companies.

"All that's going to do is make the price even higher," he said. "We ought to be encouraging investment in oil and gas close to home if we're trying to mitigate the problems we face."
  Democrats Try Again To Tax Oil GiantsFebruary 27, 2008 11:28 Democrats in Congress are relying on record oil prices and a surge in gasoline costs to make another attempt at imposing $18 billion in new taxes on the largest oil companies.

With crude oil prices exceeding $100 a barrel and gasoline prices moving well over $3 a gallon — and indications that $4 is not out of the picture as the summer driving season approaches — the House scheduled a vote on the tax measure for late Wednesday afternoon.

The House bill, similar to one that failed to win Senate approval last fall, would roll back two lucrative tax breaks for the largest U.S. oil companies, and use the money for tax incentives to support wind, solar and biofuel industries as well as energy efficiency programs.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to use the soaring prices at the pump as a way to garner support for the bill. Her office distributed a state-by-state list of high gasoline prices — up by more than 75 cents a gallon from a year ago — compared with oil industry profits, including a record $40.6 billion in earnings by ExxonMobil Corp. last year.

Pelosi called the shift of tax benefits from oil to alternative energy development critical to increased energy independence and lowering energy costs.
  New Fla. Standards Use Word 'Evolution'February 26, 2008 08:44 Florida's public school science standards for the first time will use the word "evolution," although the biological concept already was being taught under code words such as "change over time." The new standards, part of a set of overall science changes adopted by the State Board of Education Tuesday on a 4-3 vote, require schools to spend more class time on evolution and teach it in more detail.

more stories like thisThe standards state that evolution is "the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence." That statement rankled opponents, some of whom had urged the board to add an academic freedom provision that would have allowed teachers to "engage students in a critical analysis of that evidence."

Evolution supporters, including mainstream scientists and clergy, told the board the academic freedom proposal was a wedge designed to open the door for injecting religious arguments into science studies.

"We know what's going on here," said board member Roberto "Bobby" Martinez, a Miami lawyer. "What we have here is an effort by people to water down our standards."

Opponents of evolution denied they had a religious motive, arguing that there are flaws in the scientific theory of evolution and that students should be allowed to explore them.

As a compromise, the standards refer to evolution as a scientific theory, explaining that a theory is a well-supported and accepted explanation of nature, not simply a claim.

The vote was the latest in a long line of public debates over evolution dating back to the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, when a teacher was convicted of violating Tennessee's evolution ban. That verdict was reversed on technicality, but courts later ruled evolution could be taught.

Courts subsequently barred teaching the biblical account of creation along with evolution. Most recently, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that intelligent design, which holds the universe's order and complexity is so great science alone cannot explain it, also was a religious theory and could not be taught in public schools.
  Senate Panel To Review Use Of Oil Stockpile By The DoeFebruary 25, 2008 14:57 A U.S. Senate panel this week will review how the government uses the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a spokesman for the committee said Friday.

Some of the current administration's policies for filling and using reserves from the SPR, an emergency crude stockpile, have come under criticism from some Democratic leaders in Congress. In particular, the Bush administration's plan to fill the SPR at a time of record oil prices has prompted angry reactions from Capitol Hill.

Despite oil prices hovering in the $90-$100 a barrel range, hitting new nominal highs in the past week, the Department of Energy is planning the diversion of 125,000 barrels a day of crude oil from the open market into the rainy-day stockpile at the May-September height of the peak summer oil-demand season.

The planned shift of more than four million barrels during May alone would be the biggest injection into the SPR since March 2005 and precedes what government forecasters expect to be a 22-month high in refiner demand for crude oil in June. The moves are part of the Bush administration's strategy to fill the SPR to its 727-million-barrel capacity by the end of 2008. Currently, the reserve holds 698.6 million barrels of crude in underground salt caverns along the Gulf Coast.

Last week, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D., N.M.), chairman of the energy committee, said that after oil prices peaked at more than $100 a barrel, the SPR needed to be managed "in a more sophisticated way."

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D., N.D.) said he plans to introduce a bill to block government oil purchases when prices are high. Under the proposal, the government could resume acquisitions 30 days after notifying Congress that it had determined the weighted-average price for petroleum in the U.S. over the past 90 days was $50 or less a barrel. According to Energy Information Administration data on prices at Cushing, Okla., oil hasn't regularly traded below $50 a barrel since 2005.

 
  US Supreme Court Won't Questions Tobacco LawsuitFebruary 25, 2008 13:28 The tobacco industry lost a U.S. Supreme Court bid aimed at limiting damage awards in more than 700 West Virginia lawsuits filed by smokers who say cigarettes gave them cancer and other diseases.

The justices, without comment, today left intact a trial plan that Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris USA unit and other cigarette makers said will lead to unconstitutional awards of punitive damages. The approach calls for a jury to consider common issues, including the availability of punitive damages, before separate trials are held on individual cases.

``Defense counsel will be wholly unable to defend against plaintiffs' amorphous claim for punitive damages,'' the cigarette makers argued in their unsuccessful appeal, filed in Washington. In addition to Philip Morris, Reynolds America Inc.'s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Loews Corp.'s Lorillard Tobacco Co. urged the Supreme Court to intervene.

The rejection clears the way for sick smokers to seek millions, if not billions, of dollars in damages. Lawyers for the smokers say the trial plan is a valid way to ensure that claims against cigarette makers can move forward quickly.
  Government Accountability Chief ResignsFebruary 24, 2008 21:40 One of the government's chief internal watchdogs resigned yesterday, as Comptroller General David M. Walker, an outspoken gadfly and frequent witness on Capitol Hill, announced his plans to lead a new foundation focused on U.S. fiscal responsibility.

Walker has led the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative agency, for a decade.

He was an outspoken critic of the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Social Security, and Medicaid and Medicare spending -- issues on which the Democratic-led Congress, and Republicans before it, have had trouble building consensus.

In September, the administration and the military took issue with a bleak GAO assessment of progress in Iraq; the top military command in Baghdad described the assessment as flawed and "factually incorrect." Despite last-minute changes to address the criticism, the final report cast serious doubt on U.S. efforts to build a functioning democracy in Iraq.

At the time, Walker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "Given the fact that significant progress has not been made in improving the living conditions of the Iraqis on a day-to-day basis with regard to things that all citizens care about -- safe streets, clean water, reliable electricity, a variety of other basic things . . . I think you'd have to say it's dysfunctional -- the government is dysfunctional."

Most of Walker's tenure was spent with Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress, and he frequently irritated both bodies with his dire warnings on reining in spending.

During that time, "I would give Walker high marks for trying to stand up for GAO priorities even though he had a Congress that was trying to block him and which didn't want to know what the White House was up to," said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

"He handled it as forcefully as he could, given that the Congress that was funding him was discouraging him."

The Walker-era GAO filed, but then declined to appeal, legal action to force Vice President Cheney to provide notes and information about meetings he held with energy companies while developing U.S. energy policy. A related suit wound up before the Supreme Court, which upheld the vice president's refusal to make the information public.

 
  Stanford Waives Tuition If Income Under $100,000February 20, 2008 23:01 For students whose families earn less than $60,000 a year, Stanford University will not charge for either tuition or room and board, officials at the prestigious university near San Francisco said.

Harvard University, Yale University and Stanford have the three largest endowments among U.S. universities. Some lawmakers want universities to use investment gains in endowments to make college more affordable.

Tuition costs at leading U.S. universities have soared in recent years to levels that can leave students and their families tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt at graduation.
  Lawmaker Bushrsquos Epa Budget Cuts DrasticFebruary 20, 2008 09:31 Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., chairman of the House Environment and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, said Bush’s $7.1 billion request for EPA is notably low compared to last year’s funding, as well as compared to authorized budgets in years past. The FY 2009 budget request, for example, represents a $1.3 billion cut from EPA’s authorized $8.4 billion budget in FY 2004.

This proposal, Wynn claimed, would “dramatically cut spending by $400 million for environmental programs that are pivotal to the protection of public health and safety.”


“National budgets should reflect our national priorities,” said Wynn. “Clearly, President Bush has not made environmental protection a priority during the course of his administration.”

Budget Cuts to Impact Important EPA Programs
The proposal, according to Wynn, fails to adequately address environmental justice issues as only $4.6 million was allocated to EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, a stark decrease from last year’s allocation of $7.1 million. Such cuts would have serious implications for the health of minorities and low-income families, since these populations often live close to industrial zones, power plants and toxic waste sites, Wynn stated.

The Superfund program also will suffer, he added, as the funding for remediating hazardous waste sites – funding that already is inadequate, he said – would be cut by $4.5 million.

Wynn also noted that the president’s budget shortchanges the Leaking Underground Storage Tanks (LUST) Trust Fund, which helps pay to clean up leaking underground tanks that pollute drinking water supplies. Congress enacted legislation last year that provided $102.1 million for the LUST Trust Fund for FY 2008. Bush’s FY 2009 budget, however, cuts that funding by $29.8 million and provides only $72.3 million for the LUST Trust Fund.
  First Amendment Challenged: Wikileaks Shut By Ca. JudgeFebruary 20, 2008 09:30 A federal judge in San Francisco has ordered the shutdown of an anonymous whistleblower site, wikileaks.org. More precisely, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ordered a Bay Area Internet host to disable the main Wikileaks.org site and prevent the organization from transferring to any other server until further notice.

The website is still available here: 88.80.13.160 as the IP address is still running. San Mateo, California-based Dynadot, which hosts Wikileaks.org, was ordered to cease the resolving of DNS entries for the domain. Garret Murai, a lawyer for Dynadot, said to San Francisco Chronicle Tuesday that the shutdown was intended to be temporary.

You can also access the site through its mirrors in Belgium, Germany and the Christmas Islands. They have been registered through domain registrars other that Dynadot, thus were not affected by the injunction.

The order was triggered by a Swiss bank's lawsuit. The Julius Baer bank filed a complaint earlier this month against the site and Dynadot for posting several hundred of the bank’s documents. Some of those documents, posted by a former bank employee, allegedly reveal that Julius Baer was involved in offshore money laundering and tax evasion in the Cayman Islands for customers in several countries, including the U.S.

The documents leaked on the embattled site contain numerous references to the bank's former vice president in the Caymans, Rudolf Elmer, but it's unknown whether he is the whistleblower.

Wikileaks has been under fire since its inception in December 2006, as confidential documents belonging to some institutions have been posted on the site. Critics also have questioned the motives of the site’s founders. However, many others have praised the site for supporting the free dissemination of information.

"The order was entirely written by Cayman Islands Bank Julius Baer lawyer and was accepted by Judge White without amendment, or representations by Wikileaks or amicus. The case is over several Wikileaks articles, public commentary and documents dating prior to 2003," Wikileaks said in an e-mail statement quoted by Agence France-Presse.

In addition, in a press statement on its site, Wikileaks called the U.S. order "clearly unconstitutional" and said it "exceeds its jurisdiction."

Despite Court’s order, Wikileaks states that it will "keep on publishing, in fact, given the level of suppression involved in this case, Wikileaks will step up publication of documents pertaining to illegal or unethical banking practices."

"There is no justification under the First Amendment for shutting down an entire Web site," said to the New York Times David Ardia, the director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School, who called the order "not constitutional."

 
  Bush Record-Splitting Budget Cuts Environment, Funds Nuclear WeaponsFebruary 05, 2008 21:51 The White House budget request released Monday for Fiscal Year 2009 is historic as it is the first budget in U.S. history to crack the $3 trillion mark. It takes the United States deep into deficit spending - the deficit is predicted to be $407 billion in FY09. Even so, President George W. Bush requests less money for environmental measures and more for nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

Bush asked Congress to fund the first new U.S. nuclear weapons in two decades and requested additional funding to build a new nuclear bomb making plant.

The budget requests $10 million for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, RRW, program and $100 million to begin construction on a new plutonium pit facility. Plutonium pits are the cores of atomic weapons.

"This administration just doesn't seem to get the message. Congress and the people of this country do not want these new weapons," said Devin Helfrich, a lobbyist on nuclear disarmament for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Quaker peace lobby that helped lead lobbying efforts to defeat the RRW program in Congress.

Last year, Congress zeroed out funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program and did not fund a previously proposed nuclear bomb plant. "Yet," Helfrich said, "the administration is again requesting funding for RRW and a new bomb plant."

 
  USGS Budget for FY08-09February 05, 2008 07:56 The President has proposed a budget of $968.5 million for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in fiscal year 2009, a decrease of $38.0 million from the 2008 enacted level. The FY 2009 budget focuses on the highest priorities for research while ensuring that the USGS builds the expertise it needs to continue answering the complex scientific questions that may arise. The budget includes $34.9 million in program increases and $15.0 million in fixed costs, offset by $87.8 million in reductions for lower priority efforts and unrequested increases.

“The USGS is committed to providing timely, objective scientific information in support of key Departmental and Presidential priorities, including Water for America, Birds Forever, Healthy Lands, and Ocean and Coastal Frontiers,” said USGS Director Mark Myers. “The proposed budget will also strengthen our efforts in climate change studies, priority ecosystems research and the development of a National Land Imaging Program.”

The 2009 budget includes a net increase of $8.2 million to support the water census component of the $21.3 million Water for America Initiative with the Bureau of Reclamation. To support the water census, the National Streamflow Information Program is funded at $23.8 million, including an increase of $3.7 million to upgrade 350 streamgages with real-time telemetry and to reinstate 50 discontinued streamgages in 2009. Increases of $3.0 million for the Ground-Water Resources Program and $1.5 million for Cooperative Geologic Mapping will provide additional support for the water census by increasing knowledge related to groundwater resources.
  Condition Critical At The FdaFebruary 03, 2008 14:12 THE US Food and Drug Administration is supposed to guarantee the safety of one-fourth of all the goods American consumers buy with 1,311 fewer workers than it had 14 years ago. As a result, FDA staff now inspect US companies that make medical devices, such as heart pacemakers, just once every three years instead of two years, as required by its own rules. The situation is far worse when it comes to inspection of foreign makers of medical devices, prescription drugs, and food. Last week a House subcommittee learned from two reports on how incapable the agency is of fulfilling its responsibilities.

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Congress itself must shoulder much of the blame. In the past 14 years, its spending on the FDA, now at $2 billion, has declined by $400 million in inflation-adjusted dollars. The one function of the agency for which Congress has ensured adequate funding is the approval of new drugs, and lawmakers did that by requiring the drug companies themselves to carry much of the cost. The safety of drugs already on the market gets few resources, however - a factor in the failure to quickly detect the heart problems that the painkiller Vioxx was causing. The message from both a Government Accountability Office investigation and one by the agency's own advisory Science Board is clear: The country cannot risk the continued short-changing of this critical agency.

The attrition in personnel has been especially acute among inspectors of the exploding market in imported goods. While 80 percent of all drugs sold in the United States are made overseas, the number of import inspectors has plummeted, from 531 in 2003 to 380 in 2006. In 2007, the FDA inspected just 30 of several thousand foreign drug-making plants. It inspected just 100 of 190,000 foreign food plants.

 
  White House: Deficit On The Rise AgainFebruary 03, 2008 14:06 The biggest news of the record $3-trillion-plus federal budget that President Bush plans to propose to Congress on Monday may be the potential deficit that comes with it.

After years of White House boasting that it is getting the deficit under control – cutting it by $250 billion during the past two years – the administration appears ready to concede that the deficit will rise to $400 billion or more in the coming year. That’s a near-return to the record $413-billion deficit reached in 2004.

The deficit had come down to $163 billion, the Office of Management and Budget recently reported – with a projection that the U.S. should see a surplus in revenue by the year 2012.

But the combination of a slowing economy and the new economic stimulus that Congress and the president are pursuing – with about $150 billion in tax relief promised this spring, could be reversing the trend.

As usual, Bush will propose a significant increase in defense spending this year, as he has from the start, the Washington Post is reporting, and he will seek to slow the growth of “entitlement’’ spending such as Medicare, but he will have to concede that the deficit for 2008 and 2009 is on the rise again.

The president, who refrained from vetoing any spending bills when Republicans ran Congress, also is wielding the veto pen with a new vengeance now that Democrats are in control – promising to veto any spending bill that doesn’t cut the “earmarks’’ that members of Congress like to send home in half.

Some, such as Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, are not convinced by the president’s newfound approach to restraint in spending.

“I see no credibility to the notion that, after the equivalent of six years of binge drinking, now there is this enormous guilt and desire to make up for it at this moment,’’ Ornstein has told the Tribune.

The legacy of Bush’s spending record will be long-lasting, analysts say. The accumulated national debt – $5.77 trillion near the end of Bush’s first year in office – now stands at $9 trillion.
  Nonfarm Payrolls Contracted By 17,000 In January, U.S. SaysFebruary 01, 2008 11:16 Perhaps providing the smoking gun indicating that the nation's economy has entered a recession, government data released Friday showed a net reduction in U.S. nonfarm payrolls for the first time in more than four years.
As employers cut back their hiring, nonfarm payrolls fell by an estimated 17,000 in January, the Labor Department said. This is the first decline since August 2003. Read government report.
The nation's unemployment rate also fell, trending down to 4.9% from 5%.
The decline in payrolls came in stark contrast to the increase of 85,000 jobs that had been expected by Wall Street economists surveyed by MarketWatch. See Economic Calendar.
On Wall Street, stocks struggled to stay in positive territory, as the jobs report and Microsoft Corp.'s blockbuster acquisition bid for Yahoo Inc. competed for the market's attention. Read Market Snapshot.
In bonds, Treasury prices rose on new signs of economic weakness. See full story.
"The loss of jobs may not be proof that a recession is here, but it is a clear warning that the economy is teetering on the brink," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors.