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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Mugabe hosts lavish party despite national crisis

CHINHOYI, Zimbabwe (CNN) -- Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was celebrating his 85th birthday with a lavish all-day party Saturday despite the fact that the country is gripped by an economic and health crisis.

President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, attend a cake-cutting ceremony for his birthday Saturday.

President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, attend a cake-cutting ceremony for his birthday Saturday.

Mugabe's ZANU-PF party said it raised at least $250,000 to hold the party in Mugabe's hometown of Chinhoyi, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) outside of the capital, Harare.

Critics of the president say the country is desperate for that amount of money to be spent instead on its citizens, who are suffering from a cholera outbreak, food shortages, and spiraling hyperinflation. On Friday, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai visited a hospital's closed intensive care unit that he said needed $30,000 to resume operating.

During the celebrations, Mugabe announced that his controversial land reform would not be reversed. The program is designed to have white-owned farms given to blacks, and there have been violent seizures of such farms since the program began in 2000.

He emphasized that the country's "indigenization program" -- which forces all major foreign companies operating in Zimbabwe to have at least 51 percent black ownership -- will be carried out. It began last year and hasn't been implemented yet.

Mugabe's birthday falls on February 21 but his party loyalists postponed the celebrations as they were raising money for the event.

"I think it is going to be a great day for the legend and icon whose birthday we are celebrating today here," said Mugabe's nephew Patrick Zhuwawo, one of the fund-raisers for the birthday. "The country might be having problems, but we need to have a day to honor the sacrifices the president has made for this country." What do you think about the celebrations?

Zhuwawo said about 100 beasts would be slaughtered for the birthday bash. iReport.com: What do you think about Mugabe's lavish party?

Mugabe also invited schoolchildren from around the country to attend the party, being held at Chinhoyi University.

The farming town of Chinhoyi is usually quiet, but Saturday's event has changed everything. Cars with Mugabe's supporters could be seen hooting and some ZANU-PF supporters sang Mugabe's praises.

A banner in Chinhoyi read, "Age ain't nothing but a number."

Mugabe invited Tsvangirai, his new partner in a power-sharing government, but a Tsvangirai spokesman said the opposition party leader turned it down. He said it is political party function, with most of the attendees being ZANU-PF elite. As the prime minister, Tsvangirai is not obligated to attend, the spokesman said.

The spokesman would not acknowledge whether Tsvangirai had initially agreed to attend, but it was widely reported in Zimbabwean media that he had agreed to do so.

"Mr. Tsvangirai has other commitments, as far as I know," said Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change.

Tsvangirai last year said Mugabe's birthday party was "a gathering of the satisfied few." But at that point, he and the president were preparing to face off in a hotly contested presidential election.

As Saturday's celebrations began in a carnival atmosphere, just less than a kilometer (0.62 miles) away stood a deserted Chinhoyi government hospital -- a reflection of the country's dire health situation. A few nurses are attending to patients.

"There are no medicines. These patients have no option but to come here, but there is nothing we can do," said one nurse at the hospital.

On Friday Tsvangirai visited Harare Hospital, one of the country's biggest, and said its intensive care unit will need $30,000 in order to start operating again after a funding shortage.

Once a darling of Zimbabwe, Mugabe is blamed for driving the country into a meltdown.

A cholera epidemic that broke out in August has since hit every corner of the country, killing 3,731 people and infecting nearly 80,000, according to the World Health Organization, which quoted Zimbabwe's Ministry of Health.

The preventable disease has spread through Zimbabwe's 10 provinces through lack of access to clean water, faulty sewage systems, and uncollected refuse, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), which released a report this month on the outbreak.

The problems, MSF said, are "clear symptoms of the breakdown in infrastructure resulting from Zimbabwe's political and economic meltdown."

On Sunday, Tsvangirai appealed to the international community to help Zimbabwe's crippled economy, saying it would take $5 billion to stabilize the country.

The cholera outbreak has worsened Zimbabwe's economic crisis. Failed government policies and an acute food shortage because of years of poor agricultural production and widespread corruption have ravaged the currency of Zimbabwe, which has the world's highest inflation rate.

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Man held after mailing HIV-tainted blood to Obama

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An Ethiopian immigrant with a history of mental health problems is in custody after being accused of mailing a letter with HIV-tainted blood to Barack Obama when he was president-elect, according to court records.

Police say blood-stained letters were addressed to President Obama and top aide Rahm Emanuel.

Police say blood-stained letters were addressed to President Obama and top aide Rahm Emanuel.

Saad Bedrie Hussein told investigators that he is an admirer of Obama and that the letter -- containing his photo, an admission ticket to Obama's election night victory party in Chicago's Grant Park and six index cards containing writing and reddish stains -- was his way of seeking government help and tickets to Obama's inauguration.

Hussein, who has HIV, said he "purposely cut one of his fingers with a razor so he could bleed on the letter," according to an affidavit by Terry L. Cullivan, an investigator with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

The letter, postmarked December 27 and written in an Ethiopian language, was addressed to Obama at the Illinois Department on Aging in Springfield, Illinois. When the letter was opened two days later, it was found to contain an orange powder, Cullivan said. A state employee then took the letter to another state office, resulting in a two-hour lockdown of the building, affecting more than 300 people, the affidavit says.

During an interview, Hussein was unable to remember what the orange powder was, but tests revealed it to be a drink-mix powder, the affidavit says.

According to the affidavit, during a December 29 interview, Hussein denied mailing any additional letters.

But, the affidavit said, two days later, the Illinois Department of Revenue notified him it had received two similar letters, both with Hussein's return address. One was addressed to the Illinois Department on Aging, and the second to "Emanuel," which investigators believe was intended for Obama aide Rahm Emanuel. Both letters contained what appeared to be dried blood and an orange powder.

The criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Illinois alleges that Hussein "knowingly mailed" the letters containing HIV-infected blood "with the intent to kill or injure another."

In January, a federal judge ordered a mental evaluation of Hussein, saying "there is reasonable cause to believe [Hussein] may ... be suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent [and] unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him."

According to court records, Hussein was arrested March 29, 2006, by Chicago police after setting a fire in the middle of a Chicago intersection, waving a Quran in the air and yelling "Allah[u] Akbar" -- Allah is great -- and other words. Hussein "created a standstill in the traffic and refused to comply" with police commands, Cullivan's affidavit says.

Hussein's attorney, public defender Robert J. Scherschlight, could not immediately be reached for comment.

U.S. Postal Service Inspector Peter Rendina said this is the second known case in which a person is alleged to have sent HIV-tainted blood through the mail for malicious reasons. In the other case, which is ongoing, a man sent blood to a person he thought was a business associate.

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The Torture Trap: Can Obama Really Ease Up?

Just because he's closing Guantanamo doesn't mean the new president can reform all those real-world Jack Bauers. Or convict them. Or stop them from wiretapping your phone. The reckoning for the Bush administration's interrogation memos may surprise you.

By John H. Richardson

David Hughes



Way back in November, before I even broke out the crystal ball on Barack Obama, I made something of a prediction in this column: "It may be time for Democrats to start slowly ratcheting back their outrage on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, alternative terrorism courts, and even some forms of aggressive interrogation. Otherwise, it's going to be awkward for them to adjust to the realities of life under Democratic rule."

And, verily, it has come to pass. Late last month, the Obama administration filed papers asking for a stay in the lawsuit over the legality of George W. Bush's refusal, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, to request search warrants before wiretapping American phones. On the terrorism trials, President Obama has indicated more than once that he is considering the need for some kind of alternative court. And he has hedged on interrogation from the outset, limiting the Army to the Geneva Convention but holding open the door to the CIA's use of more aggressive interrogation techniques. (At his confirmation hearing, CIA Director Leon Panetta made this explicit by saying if the Geneva-appropriate techniques proved insufficient, he would ask for "additional authority.")

On top of all that, as Charlie Savage pointed out last week, Obama's team has also supported the indefinite detention without trial of terror suspects in Afghanistan and the rendition of captives to other countries; taken the Bush position that at least one torture trial cannot proceed because of state secrets; and refused to give prisoners in Afghanistan the right to challenge the evidence against them in U.S. courts.

Faced with these decisions, partisans on both sides give their all-too-predictable responses: Civil libertarians call Obama's decisions "disgraceful," while the Wall Street Journal crows about the "new legitimacy" Obama is giving to Bush's legacy. Bush Derangement Syndrome, meet Bush Justification Syndrome.

As far as I'm concerned, Bush earned nearly every bit of suspicion and hostility he received. By manipulating intelligence, by allowing his minions to lie about yellowcake and mushroom clouds, by hiding his wiretapping and interrogation decisions from the public, by dismissing the legitimate strategic concerns of other nations and even his own top military brass — the examples go on and on — he turned the world's sympathy into hatred.

But that doesn't mean everything he did was wrong.

Take the interrogation issue. On the left, the answer is simple: Bush tortured, so we need war crimes trials to re-establish the rule of law. But this will never happen. Consider the sequence of events. A few months after 9/11, the CIA captured a top Al Qaeda strategist named Abu Zubaydah. They believed he had knowledge of coming attacks and wanted a legal opinion on how rough they could get during interrogation. Getting somewhat rough seemed to be an option because terrorists were never covered by the Geneva Conventions, and the Convention Against Torture defined torture as "extreme" physical or mental pain.

The job of defining extreme pain went to John Yoo, a lawyer often mentioned in the category of Future Defendant in a War Crimes Trial. Critics like Scott Horton have written that Yoo was part of a "torture conspiracy," writing dishonest briefs "for the explicit purpose of covering the torture project with impunity and pushing it forward by overriding the judgment of serious lawyers at the Pentagon and CIA." But even before entering government service, Yoo had written a long book arguing that a president can break the law in the time of war. This contrarian argument made him an academic star. As to his infamous definition of the extreme pain as equal to organ failure or death, Horton insists that Yoo simply lied about the law, ignoring contrary arguments. But I spent a week with Yoo last year, attending his law classes and traveling with him, and I'm fairly certain that Yoo really believes the things he wrote. A jury could convict him of bad lawyering, but not of lying to advance a criminal conspiracy.

Under Yoo's memo, with Bush's approval, the CIA waterboarded three people. It seems extremely unlikely that a jury would convict CIA officers who acted under a decision from the Justice Department and a go-ahead from the president. It seems equally unlikely that a jury would convict a president who made that decision in the months after 9/11.

And what about Guantanamo, you say? Didn't Susan Crawford — the woman Bush put in charge of bringing Guantanamo prisoners to trail — admit last month that we tortured a prisoner named Mohammed al-Qahtani?

This is the heart of the problem: We have come to a national consensus that waterboarding is torture, which is why the CIA stopped after three abuses. But the interrogation techniques used on al-Qahtani included sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation, nudity, and prolonged exposure to cold — none of which rise to the level of torture individually. As Crawford notes, "This was not any one particular act. This was a combination of things."

These are the "enhanced" interrogation techniques. They're what Donald Rumsfeld was talking about when he wrote his famous note asking why standing was limited to six hours. To the civil libertarians, this is evidence of the torture conspiracy. But the whole point of Rumsfeld's question is to stay on what he considered to be the permissible side of the line. You can certainly denounce his judgment, but it's unfair to say that he was gleefully embracing torture.

And what about Abu Ghraib? What about the 100 or so prisoners who died during interrogation? What about that guy packed in ice?

There's no question that allowing the Guantanamo techniques to migrate to Iraq led to a historic disaster, giving a government stamp of approval to men's worst impulses. I've talked to military interrogators who served in Iraq, and it's clear that things got crazy — at Camp Nama, hunting the head of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, they were picking up random civilians in sweeps and dousing them with buckets of freezing water. The military should never have been allowed to take make this kind of technique mainstream. But walking that cat back to the White House will be impossible, especially when you consider the Crawford problem: A single bucket of freezing water is cruelty. Fifty is torture. Where did it cross the line?

This said, there will be investigations and subpoenas and congressional hearings. If solid evidence turns up, there will be trials. That is inevitable and good, making the line clear. It's also wise, no matter how practical or reformed it may be, to close the terrorist-recruiting tool known as Guantanamo. And we should all honor the noisy Americans who brought the torture issue to light, from military officers like Captain Ian Fishback and Colonel Alberto Mora to journalists like Jane Mayer, Seymour Hersh, Dana Priest, Andrew Sullivan and Mark Danner — our modern Woodward and Bernsteins, heroes all.

But the point is, there is no happy answer to the warrantless wiretap problems. Or to the prosecution of terrorists captured under secret or imperfect evidence, or to indefinite detention of enemy soldiers in an endless and ill-defined war. Or to the interrogation of terrorist leaders in a world of nuclear weapons and suicide terrorism. Obama is wise to keep his options open, even if it means keeping a tiny crack in the lid of Pandora's Box.

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Jindal Admits Katrina Story Was False

By Zachary Roth

Looks like the game is up.

Remember that story Bobby Jindal told in his big speech Tuesday night -- about how during Katrina, he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a local sheriff who was battling government red tape to try to rescue stranded victims?

Turns out it wasn't actually, you know, true.

In the last few days, first Daily Kos, and then TPMmuckraker, raised serious questions about the story, based in part on the fact that no news reports we could find place Jindal in the affected area at the specific time at issue.

Jindal had described being in the office of Sheriff Harry Lee "during Katrina," and hearing him yelling into the phone at a government bureaucrat who was refusing to let him send volunteer boats out to rescue stranded storm victims, because they didn't have the necessary permits. Jindal said he told Lee, "that's ridiculous," prompting Lee to tell the bureaucrat that the rescue effort would go ahead and he or she could arrest both Lee and Jindal.

But now, a Jindal spokeswoman has admitted to Politico that in reality, Jindal overheard Lee talking about the episode to someone else by phone "days later." The spokeswoman said she thought Lee, who died in 2007, was being interviewed about the incident at the time.

This is no minor difference. Jindal's presence in Lee's office during the crisis itself was a key element of the story's intended appeal, putting him at the center of the action during the maelstrom. Just as important, Jindal implied that his support for the sheriff helped ensure the rescue went ahead. But it turns out Jindal wasn't there at the key moment, and played no role in making the rescue happen.

There's a larger point here, though. The central anecdote of the GOP's prime-time response to President Obama's speech, intended to illustrate the threat of excessive government regulation, turns out to have been made up.

Maybe it's time to rethink the premise.

Late Update: Politico's Ben Smith has updated his post with the following:

UPDATE: I'd initially misunderstood Sellers to be saying Jindal and Lee didn't meet while rescue efforts were still underway. In fact, she said, the conversation took place in the aftermath of the storm, but after the boat incident.

"Bobby and I walked into harry lee's office - he's yelling on the phone about a decision he's already made," Jindal chief of staff Timmy Teepell recalled. "He's saying this is a decision I made, and if you don't like it you can come and arrest me."

Teepell said the exchange took place in the week following Katrina, when Jindal visited Jefferson Parish multiple times.

"He was boots on the ground all the time," he said.

This doesn't seem to bear on the key question. As we said, the key elements of Jindal's story were that he was in Lee's office during the crisis itself, and that his support for the sheriff helped ensure the rescue went ahead. Neither of those things was true, it now seems.

Late Video Update: Here's the relevant section of Jindal's speech.

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