Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Nightowl Newswrap

Will the Olympics even happen at all? One whiff of that Beijing air...Olympic torchbearers trotted through the cordoned streets of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa Saturday as China displayed its tight grip on a region that only three months ago was ravaged by bloody rioting. Militarized police stood arms distance apart along a route that ended at the foot of the towering 1,000-room Potala Palace, the abandoned former residence of Tibetan Buddhism's exiled leader. Local authorities used the event to attack the Dalai Lama, exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, and offer a visible gesture of their sovereignty over Tibet. "Tibet's sky will never change and the red flag with five stars will forever flutter high above it," Zhang Qingli, secretary general of the Communist Party in Tibet, said at a relay ceremony. "We will certainly be able to totally smash the splittist schemes of the Dalai Lama clique." Only a few hundred handpicked spectators were allowed along the route to cheer the torch. Most Lhasa residents were told to stay home and watch the relay on television. You gotta love the verbal machinations of those old school communists...

The Secretary of Energy tells a whopper: The U.S. energy secretary said Saturday that insufficient oil production, not financial speculation, was driving soaring crude prices. Secretary Samuel Bodman's comments on the eve of an energy summit in the Saudi port city of Jeddah set the stage for a showdown between the U.S. and conference host Saudi Arabia, which has largely blamed speculation in the oil markets for record prices. The U.S. and many other Western nations have put increasing pressure on Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, to increase production. Saudi officials have been hesitant to do so, arguing that soaring prices have not been caused by a shortage of supply. Bodman disputed that assertion Saturday, saying oil production has not kept pace with growing demand, especially from developing countries like China and India. The question is--how is Bodman able to make that assessment when oil speculation is unregulated?

El Baradei speaks: The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency is warning that any attack on Iran could turn the Mideast into a "ball of fire." IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei spoke in an interview aired today on Al-Arabiya television, a day after reports emerged of a large-scale military exercise by Israel. U.S. officials say they think the Israeli exercises were meant to warn Iran of Israel's abilities to hit its nuclear sites. ElBaradei also warned that he will resign as chief of the UN nuclear agency if Iran is attacked by any country. He says a military strike against Iran now would make him unable to continue his work.

Another Bush cabinet official who will not be missed: The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was on the losing end of a vote for the first time in his tenure when his colleagues sided with the cable industry in a dispute over marketing practices. Late Friday night, the commission voted to reverse a staff decision and uphold a complaint that Verizon Communications Inc. had violated privacy laws, according to an agency official who asked not to be named because the decision has not yet been made public. Cable companies claimed that Verizon had improperly used proprietary information in an attempt to keep their customers from switching providers. Agency enforcement staff originally dismissed the complaint. But by a 4-1 vote, with FCC chairman Kevin Martin the lone dissenter, the commission upheld the complaint and sided with the cable industry.

Levees continue to fail: Amid the battle to hold back the swollen Mississippi River, some towns got an unwelcome surprise Saturday as river levels rose higher than projected. Recent levee breaks north of Canton had allowed the river level to drop at towns like Canton and Hannibal in northeast Missouri. Officials knew the water would rise again to crests expected during the weekend, and while the amount of the increase caught them off guard, it did not make things any worse. The folks in Canton were keeping a tight watch over the city's levee, but it continued to hold strong against the Mississippi. Flooding and widespread storms this month have forced thousands from their homes and inundated towns and cities along rivers in six U.S. states, killing 24 and injuring 148 since June 6.

Failing to safeguard our nukes over there as well: Most European air force bases that house US nuclear bombs are failing to meet security requirements to protect the weapons, according to an internal US Air Force investigation. The air bases often fall short of US Defense Department (DOD) standards, with fencing, lighting and buildings in need of repair and security guards lacking sufficient training and experience, said the document, obtained by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The 30-member air force team looking at the safety of nuclear weapons said that "inconsistencies in personnel, facilities, and equipment provided to the security mission by the host nation were evident as the team traveled from site to site" in Europe. "A consistently noted theme throughout the visits was that most sites require significant additional resources to meet DOD security requirements," said the report, titled "Air Force Blue Ribbon Review of Nuclear Weapons Policies and Procedures."

Our "Soviet Expert" continues to amaze: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will land in Prague on July 8 to sign an agreement with the Czech government to site a US anti-missile radar in the country, Dnes newspaper reported Saturday. Rice "is scheduled to come to Prague on the morning of Tuesday July 8 to sign the deal. She is due to leave after a formal dinner," according to a high-ranking foreign ministry source who requested anonymity, cited by the paper. Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg told the paper simply that Rice would come to the Czech Republic "during the second week of July." The ministry said details of her visit would not yet be officially announced for security reasons. In the interim, officials from both countries expect to conclude the second part of the radar deal, which deals with conditions and status issues for US servicemen and women on Czech soil. Thereafter, the two accords will still have to be ratified by the Czech parliament, which as with the European Union's Lisbon Treaty, cannot be considered a formality. One wonders if they'll negotiate that Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) as badly as they did the one with Iraq.

Because we still think we're badasses in our own hemisphere, you know: The United States downplayed the European Union's decision to lift its sanctions on Cuba, even after a White House official a day earlier called it disappointing. "The US and the European Union share common objectives in Cuba: freedom, democracy and universal human rights," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday. On Thursday, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Washington was "disappointed" at the EU decision, which he said should have come after human rights conditions improved in Cuba. McCormack refused to describe the US reaction as disappointment, saying: "This is a tactical difference."

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