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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1070891 times)
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In the USA...United Surveillance America

December 4, 2013

Obama to Defend Health Law as Economic Benefit


WASHINGTON — President Obama leaves the White House on Wednesday for one of the capital’s most struggling neighborhoods to talk about the economy, not simply to divert attention from his troubled Affordable Care Act but to explain how that law, for all of its flaws, fits into his vision for Americans’ economic security and upward mobility.

It is a vision of partnership between government and citizens that Mr. Obama has described since he was a state senator in Illinois, and it draws on the legacies of three Republican presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Yet as president, he has only partly realized the policies reflecting that vision and has little chance of fulfilling all of them, given the opposition of conservative Republicans in Congress.

Still, the White House said that Mr. Obama’s speech would provide “a window into where the president will focus his energies over the next three years.”

He has put a lot of work into the address in recent days, aides say. It is intended to echo the one he delivered two years ago this month in Osawatomie, Kan., where he honored Roosevelt’s call there a century earlier for a “new nationalism” and defined the themes of his own re-election campaign.

Arguing that his ideas have a historical pedigree in federal investments like land-grant colleges, national parks, Depression-era public works projects, interstate highways and the G.I. Bill, Mr. Obama will again press for initiatives to promote manufacturing, energy innovations, education, infrastructure projects and more.

Mr. Obama’s venue for the speech, an arts and education town hall in the Anacostia neighborhood of Southeast Washington, symbolizes his message: Federal and local governments, corporations, foundations and philanthropists shared the $27 million cost of the community campus, which is intended to help residents seeking to escape poverty.

“President Obama will discuss the twin challenges of growing income inequality and shrinking economic mobility and how they pose a fundamental threat to the American dream,” the White House said in a statement.

He will describe “the steps he has taken to help reverse these trends, restore mobility and increase economic security for every American, including the economic benefits of the Affordable Care Act,” the statement said.

After being on the defensive for weeks about the health care program’s malfunctioning website and his own faulty promises, Mr. Obama previewed his economic case for the Affordable Care Act on Tuesday in a White House appearance with 19 people identified as its beneficiaries.

“For too long, few things left working families more vulnerable to the anxieties and insecurities of today’s economy than a broken health care system,” he said. “So we took up the fight because we believe that, in America, nobody should have to worry about going broke just because somebody in their family or they get sick.”

“Now that the website is working for the vast majority of people,” Mr. Obama added, “we need to make sure that folks refocus on what’s at stake here, which is the capacity for you or your families to be able to have the security of decent health insurance at a reasonable cost through choice and competition on this marketplace, and tax credits that you may be eligible for that can save you hundreds of dollars in premium costs every month, potentially.”

The prospects for Mr. Obama’s aspirations in his final three years is hardly promising. His speech on Wednesday comes at the close of a year in which none of his other economic legislative initiatives have made it through Congress.

The Senate passed a bipartisan, business-backed immigration bill to give about 11 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, but House Republican leaders have refused to take it up. Budget talks with a group of Senate Republicans fizzled, probably dashing Mr. Obama’s three-year-old hopes of a so-called grand bargain on spending and taxes, one that would combine deficit reductions in future years with immediate financing for infrastructure, education, science and technology projects. And spending cuts have squeezed the very programs that Mr. Obama has wanted to expand.

As knotty as the problems with the insurance program have been, Mr. Obama vows that those can and will be fixed. But the broader problems he will address on Wednesday — a longstanding and widening gap in incomes and opportunity between the rich and everyone else — defy easy solutions. A recent study by two prominent economists, Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, found that 95 percent of the income gains since the recession officially ended in mid-2009 have gone to the top 1 percent of individual earners.

In what Mr. Obama sees as a small but crucial step, he will renew his call on Wednesday to raise the federal minimum wage, which at $7.25 an hour is lower than the minimum in a growing number of states. He and other supporters say an increase would also help those workers earning just above the minimum wage by creating pressure to increase their pay, too.

Mr. Obama’s push is timed, in part, to help Senate Democrats pass a measure that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 in three stages over two years, raise the separate minimum wage for tipped workers, and peg both to rise with inflation.

Any such bill is likely to hit a wall in the House, where Republicans argue that an increase would force many employers to lay off workers or reduce their hours. Federal benefits like food stamps and assistance for the long-term unemployed also face further cuts.

Many Democrats see the minimum wage as a political issue that will help them in the 2014 midterm congressional elections. National polls show support in both parties for a wage increase. In a poll last month by CBS News, two-thirds of Americans — including more than half of Republicans — said the federal minimum wage should be higher.

“The public is clearly ahead of Congress on this,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio. Republicans in Congress, he added, “are on the wrong side of the public interest and the public sentiment here.”

“I think people are more and more understanding that these minimum wage workers are not overwhelmingly teenagers,” he said. “They are often families holding one or two minimum-wage jobs trying to support kids.”

The minimum wage issue and, more broadly, the problem of income inequality are also priorities for the host of Mr. Obama’s address on Wednesday, the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, a policy research group that includes many former officials from the Obama and Clinton administrations. Mr. Obama was invited to give the speech as part of the center’s 10th anniversary.


Obama Drops The Hammer on Republicans and Shatters Their Obamacare Repeal Fantasy

By: Jason Easley
Tuesday, December, 3rd, 2013, 6:02 pm   

President Obama dropped the hammer on the Republican fantasies of repealing Obamacare. He also challenged Republicans to reveal their own healthcare plan.

The president said,

    That seems to be the only alternative that Obamacare’s critics have. We’ll just go back to the status quo, because they sure haven’t presented an alternative. If you ask many of the opponents of this law what exactly they’d do differently, they’re answer seems to be well let’s go back to the way things used to be.

    Just the other day the Republican leader in the Senate was asked what benefits people without healthcare might see from this law, and he refused to answer. Even though there are dozens in this room and tens of thousands in his own state who are already on track to benefit from it. He just repeated repeal over and over and over again, and obviously, we’ve heard that from a lot of folks on that side of the aisle.

    Look, I’ve always said that I will work with anybody to implement and improve this law effectively. If you got good ideas, bring ‘em to me. Let’s go. But we’re not repealing it as long as I am president. I want everybody to be clear about that.

    We will make it work for all Americans. If you don’t like this law. If despite all the millions of people who are benefiting from it you still this law is a bad idea, then you’ve got to tell us specifically what you’d do differently to cut costs, cover more people, make the insurance more secure.

    You can’t just say the system was working with 41 million people without health insurance. You can’t just say the system’s working when you’ve got a whole bunch of folks who thought they had decent insurance and then when they got sick it wasn’t there for them, or they were left with tens of thousands of dollars in out of pocket costs that were impossible for them to pay.

    Right now, what that law is doing. Right now what this law is doing is helping folks, and we’re just getting started with the exchanges. Just getting started with the marketplace, so we’re not going to walk away from it. If I have to fight another three years to make sure this law works, that’s what I’ll do. That’s what we’ll do.

President Obama is going to be in the White House for three more years, and he is not going to budge an inch on the ACA. The president was calling out the Republicans on two different levels. He was shattering their fantasy that they can repeal the ACA if they take back the Senate in 2014, and he was challenging Republicans to offer an alternative on healthcare.

Republicans don’t want to offer an alternative on healthcare, because then they will be forced to admit that their alternative is to do nothing. President Obama’s remarks today suggest that Democrats feel like the momentum is shifting back to them on healthcare. The numbers are coming in, and it is clear that the ACA is working.

Remember how the media and Republicans said that the ACA website had doomed the Obama presidency? Not so much. Obama doesn’t look like a president in crisis now.

President Obama has the high ground, and he’s smashing the delusions of the ACA’s opponents.

Give it up, Republicans. Repeal is never going to happen.


John Boehner’s Anti-ACA Press Conference Backfires as He Crashes and Burns on Obamacare

By: Jason Easley
Tuesday, December, 3rd, 2013, 12:14 pm      

boehner-aca-websiteJohn Boehner tried to hold a press conference to bash Obamacare, but the whole thing backfired when he was asked whether he would allow a vote on a Republican ACA alternative.

The interesting part of the press conference came when Speaker Boehner was asked, “What is a patient driven healthcare system that the GOP talks about? Will there be a viable GOP alternative to Obamacare in 2014 put to the floor for a vote?” Boehner answered, “Well, when you look at Obamacare, which is a government centered healthcare delivery system, that’s not what the American people want. The American people want to be able to pick their own kind of health insurance. They want to be able to pick their own doctor. They want to be able to pick their own hospital. That’s what a patient centered healthcare system looks like.”

Then came the follow up question that doomed Boehner, “Will that be up for a vote in 2014, a bill for that? Mr. Speaker, will that be up for a vote in 2014?” Boehner answered, “We’ll see.”

Speaker Boehner’s two word answer meant no, and with that, his whole anti-ACA press conference went down the drain.

The media asked Boehner the relevant question, and he imploded. Everyone knows that the Republican plan is to not to propose an ACA alternative, because they don’t want to have a debate about healthcare. Republicans simply want to attack the ACA. If the debate shifts to one of policy alternatives, Republicans can’t get by with just attacking the ACA.

The House Republican leadership press conference was supposed to be a reply to the news that the website has improved. Instead of addressing the website improvements, Majority Leader Eric Cantor claimed that the website still wasn’t working, and if it is working, your personal information is not secure.

House Republicans spent six plus minutes repeating their Obamacare lies, and then their press conference turned into a total disaster when Boehner admitted that there is no plan to vote on a Republican alternative to Obamacare.

Democrats are winning the debate on the ACA. All Republicans can do is repeat the same tired talking points that they have been using against Obamacare for years. When media finally asked the right question, and Speaker Boehner fell apart.

As the success of the ACA continues to grow, Republicans aren’t going to be able get by just saying no. The website is working. People are signing up, and Republicans have nowhere to go but down.


Boehner Gets Caught Hyping Another Completely False Obamacare ‘Horror’ Story

By: Justin Baragona
Tuesday, December, 3rd, 2013, 3:24 pm   

On Monday, as was being visited by nearly a million people, Speaker of the House John Bohner (R-OH) felt it was necessary to try to save face and do his best to push the narrative that ordinary people were getting punished by the Affordable Care Act. One such story that Boehner focused on was that of Cornelius Kelly, a Long Island resident that claims he was told that he would have to buy a separate health insurance policy for his 18-month-old baby. Here is Boehner’s tweet:

    “I couldn’t believe what I was being told,” said a dad who learned #ObamaCare wouldn’t cover his baby

    — Speaker John Boehner (@SpeakerBoehner) December 2, 2013

The story was run in Sunday’s New York Post and Kelly found himself on Fox News on Monday detailing his awful, terrible ordeal having to deal with New York’s state exchange. Of course, as you have probably surmised, the story was complete hogwash. Kelly exaggerated for effect and did not reveal what really happened. Apparently, Kelly placed on his application that he had three children when in fact he has four. This caused a clerical error that had to be later fixed. Under the New York state exchange, no matter how many children you have, they can all be covered under one family plan and the cost cannot exceed 2.85 times an individual plan.

Now, Kelly claims he was told three different times that he’d have to buy a separate policy for his child. He also says that the problem was only fixed after he went to the New York Post with his story. Basically, he’s claiming he wouldn’t have gotten this issue fixed if he didn’t go public with it. However, it should be pointed out that Kelly ran for public office in 2011. He ran for a Suffolk County seat as a Conservative Party member and lost.

Kelly Fox News

Could it be that this man decided to submit an erroneous application and then contact state officials after the fact asking why his other child wasn’t covered? When confronted with confusion around his false application he is able to solicit differing responses from people he calls. He then takes all of this to the Post and gives them a juicy story, without revealing that he submitted an incorrect application. He is then able to get on Fox News and be used as another Obamacare cautionary tale.

So, what we have is a wanna be conservative politician who desperately wanted attention and was able to get it by concocting a scenario in order to get the story he wanted to tell the press. And Boehner saw it as a way to spread the word that some poor man was told he couldn’t cover his baby under his health insurance plan. He can then point out once more how this is all a #Trainwreck.  Instead, Boehner is left with egg all over his face. Again. Another attempt to make the ACA look awful completely spoiled by the truth.


Video: CNN employee`s own mistake crashed Obamacare Web page

12/2/2013 2:46pm
by John Aravosis

In a rather embarrassing revelation for CNN, their own “expert” crashed the Obamacare Web site yesterday by doing something that every child in America knows you simply do not do on the Internet: Refreshing the Web page while your transaction is processing.

Yet, an examination of the video, first noticed by AMERICAblog reader Jea this morning, reveals that that is exactly what CNN did – their expert refreshed the Affordable Care Act federal exchange site while their application was “processing.”

And what happened as a result?  The page crashed.  As it does on every single Web site in the world when you’re dumb enough to refresh the page while a transaction is in progress.

And now Republicans are crowing about how this CNN video “proves” that Obamacare is a disaster – because CNN managed to produce an error message with a rookie “my first Internet” mistake.

Here’s the transcript from the CNN segment, video is below:

cnn-obamacare-web-site-crashCNN reporter: Then came the roadblock. Tell me about what happened, because we’re getting another error message here, and it’s supposed to be running smoothly – we’re just not seeing that.

CNN’s Matt: Yeah, so, you know, we’ve been trying to get into this site since October 1, on and off again. I have to say, it did work a lot more smoothly this morning. I got through, I picked my state, I put in all my information, and I got through the whole process in about 8 minutes. And then it said my status was ‘in progress,’ so I went to refresh it and I got the error message.

You got the error message.  No sh-t, Sherlock.

If you refresh a Web site while any submission is “processing” you will get an error message.  Always, always, always. Have you never purchased anything online before?

And if you refresh a page that has already finished processing, you will also usually get an error message, as the page is attempting to resubmit the same information you already just submitted.

In this case, the page would be resubmitting an application that was already just submitted.  So it would have no other choice but to give you an error message as you can’t submit the same application twice in a row.

I’m surprised that Matt at CNN didn’t know that, or bother mentioning it on the air.  Rather, CNN gave the impression that the Obamacare Web site messed up, and in fact, the site appears to have worked fine – it was CNN’s own employee, on the air, who messed up.

Considering that this CNN video is now being used all the Internet by conservatives as “proof” that the Obamacare Web site has not yet been fixed, CNN owes its viewers an on-the-air correction.  Especially since the video actually shows that the process went “smoothly,” the exactly opposite of what Republicans are now claiming.


Republicans Freak Out as Gets Nearly a Million Hits on Monday

By: Justin Baragona
Tuesday, December, 3rd, 2013, 10:09 am   

At his press conference on Monday afternoon, White House Press Secretary confirmed that over 375,000 people visited the federal health care exchange between midnight and noon ET. By the end of the day Monday, that number had surged to around 800,000. This comes on the heels of news that enrollment through the federal exchange had topped 100,000. With the deadline of Dec. 23rd approaching for enrolling in a health care plan that takes effect on Jan. 1st, expect to see huge numbers of people visiting and choosing plans.

Obviously, this makes the GOP a very sad group. They spent every waking moment since the government shutdown ended hammering the website for its flaws. They got a willing media to run a 24-hour loop about the ‘botched’ rollout of the ACA. Numerous committee hearings were held where they got to yell at HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and grandstand about the terrible implementation of Obamacare. You even had Speaker of the House John Boehner blog about his ‘frustrating’ experience enrolling on the website. Of course, his story turned out to be completely false and caused him embarrassment.

At this point, the GOP has no idea what to do. For the past three years, they have been in ‘repeal Obamacare’ mode. While they couldn’t be bothered to do any actual policy making or passing bills in the House, they found time to hold repeal votes nearly four dozen times. However, as they head back into session, they do not have another repeal vote on the calender. The fact is, they know they can’t do it anymore. Before, when enrollment had not begun, they could go on their rhetorical exercise of holding repeal votes that would never get through the Senate or past the White House. Now, they realize that hundred of thousands of people have already obtained health insurance, and millions more will once they come back in January.

The Republicans made a fatal flaw when they decided to focus on the website glitches. Everyone knew that, eventually, the site would be repaired and work well. And, even before the relaunch this week, the site was working well and people were enrolling. Now that the mainstream media has decided to actually acknowledge that the site is fully functional, the GOP is left whining about the law, but without any recourse and the knowledge that millions of people will health insurance. This leaves them in a bad place politically.

Once it became clear that the website was humming along and thousands of people were visiting every minute, Republican lawmakers took to Twitter to either deny that everything was going smoothly, or just to be grumpy about the good news.

    It’s Cyber Monday! And the #ObamaCare website still isn’t working. #GOP14

    — NRSC (@NRSC) December 2, 2013

    So Obamacare is fixed now that the website has been improved? Not on your life.

    — JohnCornyn (@JohnCornyn) December 2, 2013

    The Obamacare website isn’t the problem. Obamacare is the problem. #FullRepeal

    — Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) December 2, 2013

Apparently, the GOP thought that the website would forever have glitches and slow response times. They thought nobody would actually fix anything. They thought people would just decide not to buy insurance when they had never had the chance to do so before. While they focused on trying to drive the President’s poll numbers down a bit, they didn’t look at the big picture. Nobody is going to care what the President’s poll numbers were in November 2013. The midterm elections are still nearly a year away and POTUS isn’t running again. When it is all said and done, the ACA will be a rousing success, and Republicans will be the ones who will have to answer for their attempts to destroy it at every turn.


The Secret Agenda Behind House Republican ACA Hearings is Obama Impeachment

By: Sarah Jones
Tuesday, December, 3rd, 2013, 10:14 am   

The House is holding a hearing today (one of four ObamaCare hearings on your tax dollars) on “Presidential power”, alleging that President Obama disregarded the constitution when he tweaked the timing of the implementation of the individual mandate. This precedes impeachment, and that’s why they’re holding this hearing.

Megyn Kelly did what Fox does best; she “raised the question” of whether or not Obama has violated his duty. Has the President substituted his judgment over the Congress’ judgment?

Watch the December 2 edition of Fox News’ The Kelly File here via Media Matters:

First “Judge” Andrew Napolitano claimed Obama had let a large group of people off and refused to prosecute them for some kind of quid pro quo, but Megyn Kelly quickly steered him back to the Talking Point of the Day –, aka, ObamaScare. Stay on point, Andrew!

Kelly reminded Napolitano that they are both lawyers so they know how things work. I beg to differ. I know plenty of ignorant lawyers. Knowing enough about the law to pass the bar says almost nil about understanding government, unless you are a constitutional lawyer (like the President). Or you’ve worked on government (like the President).

Working on Fox “News” is a good indicator that you may have difficulty understanding logic and processing facts, or you have sold out so completely that your take on the “law” is pretty worthless. But I digress. Back to impeachments.

So Andrew, who also thought the President should be impeached over the sequester pending cuts imposed by Republicans, championed by Republicans and crowed about by Republicans on Andrew’s very own network, announced that the President violated the constitution when he decided to give “exceptions/exemptions” from the obligation of the law to some groups and not to others.

Kelly played fair cop with Napolitano. “That’s an administrative decision,” she barked. I might remind everyone here that Republicans in Congress make many such decisions – like how oil companies get subsidies but groups of poor people should not, or even other energy groups do not. Fox wants to indict on ideology, apparently. Kelly pretend-pushed him that the executive has the power to make these decisions, so that he could be set up to explain Why It’s Different This Time (aka, ‘cuz Obama did it).

This is the Outrage When the Black Man Uses His Authority segment of the program, when the two very white people smirk disdainfully over the “power grab” (assertion of proper authority) of the black person. It’s all very Southern Strategy on Fox.

So now we find out what Kelly is going for (aka, what the GOP leadership sent her re their hearing today). Delaying the individual mandate! Sure, “timing” used to fall under the purview of the executive branch, but not anymore, they tell us. The President may not change the date of implementation of a part of a law according to Napolitano.

In reality, the President controls policy implementation. That’s his role in the process. By delaying the individual mandate, Obama is simply changing an implementation date, not rewriting the law.

And now we come to the landing that sets up the Republican Congressional hearing today.

“What’s the remedy, you say impeachment, but can you go into court and challenge him? Can you try to impeach him, how would that happen?” Kelly wonders.

Sadly, Napolitano doesn’t think Obama will be impeached because of the experience “we had the last time when Bill Clinton’s eye was off the ball.” Yes. Never mind Iraq, WMD, Katrina, etc. Never mind Nixon. A breach of executive power is best exemplified in Foxland by the delaying of an implementation of a law these people don’t agree with.

But Kelly is very sad because impeaching Clinton backfired against the poor Republicans and then Napolitano reminded everyone that if Clinton hadn’t been impeached he wouldn’t have ignored Osama bin Laden, even though he admits that bin Laden attacked “in the early days of the Bush administration”.

These are the same people who will whine if you blame Bush correctly for the economic mess the country is in. In their minds, Clinton caused 911 because he should have left office when he was impeached. Try not to get lost in the crazy.

Here’s the point of the hearings today, and this is important because it clues us into where they are going. Judge Napolitano tells us that the Republicans may enact a resolution, “Will it lead to impeachment? I don’t know, but it will further diminish and destroy the trust he (Obama) once had with the American people.”

That resolution is what could lead to impeachment. Fox is trying to help the Republicans whip up a public fury to call for impeachment. This call for impeachment will be as good as an impeachment for them, because it will allow Republicans to use the soundbites and run against Obama in 2014 instead of having to come up with an actual platform.

How does Napolitano know ahead of time, since this was taped yesterday, that Obama will be found guilty in these GOP-led House hearings? Oh, I kid. No one thinks that Republicans are looking for facts.


Republicans Will Let Veterans and Children of Unemployed Go Needy This Christmas

By: Sarah Jones
Tuesday, December, 3rd, 2013, 4:15 pm   

Just in time for Christmas, on December 28 the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program will expire unless Congress takes action. This means that just days after Christmas, on January 1st, 1.3 million people stand to lose their unemployment benefits. Did you just shiver?

Sandy Levin (D-MI) and Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) introduced a bill last month to extend the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program through 2014, but so far, our Republican-led House is too busy with hearings on ObamaCare to address matters of poverty stricken children and veterans.

The Ways and Means Committee Democrats released a new report today showing the devastating effects on military veterans and children of unemployed Americans set to take place upon the expiration of the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

The Committee summarized the key points:

    More than 20,000 veterans would immediately be cut off from federal unemployment insurance the week of Dec. 28 if Congress does not reauthorize the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program.
    As many as 2 million children could be impacted by ending the federal EUC program.
    Without the federal EUC program, less than a quarter of unemployed Americans would have received unemployment benefits, the lowest UI recipiency rate for Americans looking for work in more than 50 years.

JP Morgan did their own research and they found that the expiration of the EUC benefits could lower labor force protection, which would in turn depress the unemployment rate, and any further decline in the unemployment rate could complicate the Fed’s communication efforts. “Another potential effect is through reduced spending by benefit recipients. EUC currently pays out benefits at around a $20-25 billion annual rate; should that flow dry up, consumer spending could take a hit in 1 Q, perhaps subtracting around 0.4% -pt from annualized real GDP growth in that quarter.”

In other words, it’s not just the bleeding heart liberals with compassion for their fellow citizens who support extending unemployment benefits. But shouldn’t starving children and veterans without jobs be a matter of concern to us all? Surely Republicans can take a break from one of their four hearings on ObamaCare this week to handle renewing these benefits. There is time, if they chose to use it.

“Millions of unemployed Americans and their children would be left out in the economic cold just days after Christmas unless Congress acts to extend this vital program,” said Representative Levin. “This report just adds to the urgency that confronts this Congress over the next two weeks. Congress must act.”

But unless they get a lot of pressure for failing our veterans (forget poor children, they can’t vote and Republicans have shown that they don’t care), they won’t. Remember, they won’t even sit down to budget reconciliation or let immigration reform come up for a vote. They’re very busy “bloviating” instead of legislating.

Merry Christmas.


December 3, 2013

Court Blocks Labor Board on Lawsuits


WASHINGTON — Employers can require their workers to sign arbitration agreements waiving all rights to class-action lawsuits over workplace grievances, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.

The ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturns a National Labor Relations Board decision last year that found such agreements conflicted with federal law giving workers the right to pursue collective action to complain about workplace conditions.

The court’s ruling is a win for businesses that want to limit legal exposure from the rising cost of class-action lawsuits over unpaid overtime and other wage violations. But it is a blow to workers who find it easier to band together when challenging the policies at a large company.

The case considered a policy in which D.R. Horton, a Fort Worth-based homebuilder, required all its employees to sign agreements to resolve any workplace disputes in individual arbitration proceedings rather than sue. The agreements prevented an arbitrator from granting relief to employees as a class or group.

In January 2012, the labor board ruled that the agreement violated workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Federal law has long protected the right of workers to join together to protest workplace conditions, including through litigation.

The board said the agreements also misled employees into thinking they could no longer file unfair labor charges with the board.

The appeals court panel, in a 2-to-1 decision, agreed with D. R. Horton, ruling that arbitration agreements including class-action waivers are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act. But the court ruled that such agreements must clarify that they did not waive an employee’s right to file a complaint with the labor board.


Most Americans think US should 'mind its own business' abroad, survey finds

• First time this specific sentiment recorded in four decades
• Most Americans also believe China is stronger economic power

Paul Lewis in Washington, Tuesday 3 December 2013 19.00 GMT   
A majority of Americans believe the US plays a less important and powerful role in the world than it did 10 years ago, according to a long-running study that found that most people now believe America should “mind its own business internationally”.

It is the first time the survey of US foreign policy attitudes has recorded such a sentiment in almost four decades of polling.

The findings, published on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center in association with the Council on Foreign Relations, suggest Americans want their leaders to adopt a less interventionist approach, although there is a growing desire for the development of stronger trade and business links abroad.

The US is now widely seen as less respected abroad, bucking a trend in which Americans believed their reputation had recovered since Barack Obama was elected. Impressions of how the US is perceived under Obama are now, broadly, as negative as they were in the final days of the George W Bush administration.

That may stem partly from a belief that America's power is in decline. According to the poll, Americans’ views about the geopolitical clout of their country has reached a historic low, with a majority (53%) for the first time believing that the US plays a less important role than it did 10 years ago. The proportion saying the US is less, rather than more, powerful has increased 12 points since 2009 and has more than doubled – from just 20% – since 2004.

The survey was conducted in a year in which the US pulled back from a military intervention in Syria, chose a diplomatic route to secure a nuclear deal with Iran and sought to contain the international fallout over disclosures by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the reach and nature of surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency.

The American public appears generally divided over Snowden’s leaks, and on related questions about the correct balance between security and civil liberties. Most of those questioned (55%) said Snowden’s revelations, which were first published in the Guardian in June, had “harmed the public interest”, although a sizeable minority of 34% said the whistleblower had “served the public interest”.

Perhaps surprisingly, the proportion of Americans who said the government’s anti-terror policies have gone too far in restricting civil liberties of average people has declined slightly since July, from 47% to 44%.

However, those critical of the impact of counter-terrorism policies on civil liberties still outweighs the 39% of Americans who believe national security programs have not gone far enough.

The poll confirms a significant shift in public attitudes, with growing concern about the privacy implications of national security efforts. As recently as January 2010, 58% of Americans expressed greater concern that government policies had not gone far enough to provide protection from terrorism, compared to only 27% who believed than that they had gone too far.

In broad terms, the survey is likely to be interpreted as evidence that President Obama’s cautious approach to foreign policy is backed by a public wary of becoming too embroiled in problems abroad.

However, most people surveyed disapprove of the president's handling of foreign policy, with particularly negative views reported of his handling of China, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. Terrorism is the only foreign policy area on which more Americans approve of the job Obama is doing than disapprove.

Exactly half of Americans believed the use of drone strikes against terrorist suspects in Pakistan and other countries has made the US safer – while only 14% say it has made the US less safe.

The latest survey, repeated every four years since 1993, was conducted in the week before November 6, before the interim deal with Iran – aimed at halting its nuclear program – was forged in Geneva.

But it highlights the scale of challenge for the US administration in selling an agreement with Tehran to the American public. According to the survey, 60% of Americans believe Iran’s leaders are “not serious” about addressing international concerns over their nuclear enrichment program.

One of the starkest findings in the survey was in response to a question about whether the US should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”.

A majority of respondents – 52% – said they agreed with the statement, while just 38% disagreed. The authors of a report accompanying the survey described it as “the most lopsided balance in favor of the US ‘minding its own business’ in the nearly 50-year history of the measure”.

The results show how much public opinion has changed since 2002, when just 30% of Americans believed the US should mind its own business.

Views on geopolitical influence in the world, however, contrast with American perceptions about the global economy. More than three-quarters of those polled were supportive of growing economic ties with other countries. Echoing other surveys, most Americans appear to believe that China is a stronger economic power than the US.

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« Reply #10441 on: Dec 05, 2013, 07:18 AM »

Snowden documents show NSA gathering 5bn cell phone records daily

• Washington Post reveals details of location-tracking program
• NSA monitors data of individuals wherever they are in the world

Paul Lewis in Washington, Thursday 5 December 2013 09.14 GMT      

The National Security Agency is reportedly collecting almost 5 billion cell phone records a day under a program that monitors and analyses highly personal data about the precise whereabouts of individuals, wherever they travel in the world.

Details of the giant database of location-tracking information, and the sophisticated ways in which the NSA uses the data to establish relationships between people, have been revealed by the Washington Post, which cited documents supplied by whistleblower Edward Snowden and intelligence officials.

The spy agency is said to be tracking the movements of “at least hundreds of millions of devices” in what amounts to a staggeringly powerful surveillance tool. It means the NSA can, through mobile phones, track individuals anywhere they travel – including into private homes – or retrace previously traveled journeys.

The data can also be used to study patterns of behaviour to reveal personal information and relationships between different users.

The NSA provided some input into the report, with one senior collection manager, granted permission to speak to the newspaper, admitting the agency is “getting vast volumes” of location data from around the planet by tapping into cables that connect mobile networks globally.

Civil liberties experts have long said that cell phone location data contains some of the most intrusive information about people in the digital age, leaving a kaleidoscopic footprint of a person’s life. Phones transmit location data whenever a phone is turned on, irrespective of whether they are being used to make calls or send text messages and emails.

According to the Post, the NSA is applying sophisticated mathematical techniques to map cell phone owners’ relationships, overlapping their patterns of movement with thousands or millions of other users who cross their paths.

These tools — known collectively as Co-Traveler — enable the NSA to search for possible associates of intelligence targets.

According to briefing slides cited in the report, the NSA draws location data from 10 so-called “sigads,” or signals intelligence activity designators, around the world, which in turn rely on data provided by corporate partners.

Defending the program, US officials told the Post that efforts to collect and analyze location data are lawful and intended strictly to develop intelligence about foreign targets, with information about the location of domestic cell phones only gathered “incidentally”.

Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said: “There is no element of the intelligence community that under any authority is intentionally collecting bulk cell phone location information about cell phones in the United States.”

However, data is also gathered from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cell phones every year, the Post reported.

“As with other surveillance activities, the NSA claims that its cell phone location program program is targeted at foreigners, and Americans' information is collected only ‘incidentally,’" said Elizabeth Goitein, a co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program.

“But the scale of foreign surveillance has become so vast, the amount of information about Americans ‘incidentally’ captured may itself be approaching mass surveillance levels.”

Two months ago, the director of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, admitted to secret pilot programs to monitor the precise location of Americans through their cell phones, saying the highly intrusive tracking data “may be something that is a future requirement for the country”.

He said in evidence to the Senate judiciary committee that pilot programs from 2010 and 2011 were intended to test the compatibility of the location data with the agency’s databases, but were not used for any intelligence analysis purposes.

It is not known whether or to what extent domestic spy agencies have dragnet collection programs for cell phone data, although the FBI does obtain such information through warrants in criminal investigations.

The latest disclosure comes at a point during which Congress is considering three separate bills that would to varying extents clips the wings of the NSA or reform the secret courts that intended to hold the agency to account.

None of the proposed reforms substantially alter the NSA's ability to surveil ordinary foreigners living outside of the US. The issue of surveillance of foreigners has mostly been low among the priorities of lawmakers, including those critical of the NSA, although there has been considerable concern raised about the agency monitoring the calls of leaders of allied nations.

Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security & Human Rights Program, said the latest revelations emphasized the need for Congress to take swift action. “Today's news is the latest startling blow to the right to privacy,” he said. “Congress should wake up from its post-holiday food coma and get to work passing legislation to reform the program.”

Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's speech, privacy and technology project, had this said: “It is staggering that a location-tracking program on this scale could be implemented without any public debate, particularly given the substantial number of Americans having their movements recorded by the government.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


Barack Obama can’t have an iPhone 'for security reasons'

The first US president to use email is banned from having an iPhone - forced instead to use a Blackberry limited to 10 people

Samuel Gibbs, Thursday 5 December 2013 11.07 GMT   

Despite being the most powerful man in the world, President Barack Obama is not allowed to use an iPhone because his security advisers have claimed it is not secure enough.

“I am not allowed, for security reasons, to have an iPhone,” Obama quipped during a pitch for his healthcare law at the White House, intimating that he was forced to be behind the curve in technology adoption.

His daughters, Sasha and Malia, however, do have iPhones, and “seem to spend a lot of time” using them, he said.

The iPhone is insecure

Obama famously became the first president in US history to use email and battled with the NSA in 2009 to allow him to keep a BlackBerry, a fight he eventually won although it is allegedly restricted to communicating with just 10 people.

Apple’s iPhone has yet to be certified as secure for government and military use by White House staff, meaning that the president and his staff are restricted from using Apple’s smartphone.

Despite not being allowed an iPhone, Obama does have an iPad 2, which was personally given to him by Steve Jobs before the device was released to the public in 2011.

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« Reply #10442 on: Dec 05, 2013, 07:28 AM »

Police remove protesters from Chevron's fracking site in Romania

Villagers complain of police brutality after being forced out of their camping site in fields targeted for shale gas drilling

Luke Dale-Harris and Vlad Ursulean, Thursday 5 December 2013 11.36 GMT   
US energy company Chevron has resumed its search for shale gas at a controversial site in north-east Romania after hundreds of riot police forcefully removed protesters from the village of Pungesti.

For more than two months, the village, which is believed to be sitting on large reserves of the valuable natural resource, has been the site of largely peaceful protests. Villagers, many of whom are elderly farmers, have set up camp next to the fields targeted for drilling, spending their nights in makeshift tents and cooking on open fires.   

Even as the weather turned and temperatures dropped below zero, they looked set to stick the winter out. "We want the mayor to leave and Chevron to leave. We need courageous men, not to use force, just to show them we are united and we are not afraid," said Alexandru Focșa, 45, a farmer who has been camping since October.

At 4am on Monday the Romanian gendarmerie [paramilitary police force] moved in to secure the way for Chevron's trucks. In a scene that resembled a military operation, they occupied the village, blocking all access points with riot police vans and preventing anyone from leaving or entering for over 24 hours. Several villagers were detained and fined for the criminal offence of blocking a public road. Villagers say that anyone leaving their homes was stopped for questioning.

With no journalists allowed entry at the time, details are vague. But local newspapers claim that between 30 and 40 people had been beaten by police. Many villagers complained of brutality and injustice. Costică Spiridon, 56, a former village mayor, said: "They came on Tuesday morning with their clubs, they shoved me, I fractured a rib."

By the time the police started to move out and the roads were opened up, Chevron had built a new access road, erected a metal fence around the drilling site and deployed their own private security team.

Prime minister, Victor Ponta, has responded to anti-fracking protests around the country by saying that "the actions of the gendarmes were 100% according to the law and I congratulate them for this."

But others are demanding investigation. Maria-Nicoleta Andreescu, executive director of the Helsinki Committee Association for the defence of human rights in Romania, said: "There are important signs that indicate that the gendarmes' actions were at least abusive if not illegal. It is very clear is that by restricting the access of the press in the area the authorities did not allow the public to be informed."

In response to questions from the Guardian, Chevron said: "The company is committed to building constructive and positive relationships with the communities where we operate and we will continue our dialogue with the public, local communities and authorities on our projects." Explaning this week's events, a spokesperson said they are "committed to working with local communities to explain the benefits of natural gas."

• Additional reporting by Stefan Mako

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« Reply #10443 on: Dec 05, 2013, 07:32 AM »

Bosnian police arrest nine ex-officers on suspicion of crimes during war

Prosecutors say they ordered arrests of Bosnian Serbs on suspicion of crimes against humanity

Associated Press in Sarajevo, Wednesday 4 December 2013 14.17 GMT   

Bosnian police have arrested nine Bosnian Serb former police officers suspected of having expelled, deported, illegally imprisoned, tortured or killed non-Serb civilians at the beginning of the 1992-95 war.

The state prosecution office said on Wednesday it had ordered the police to detain the suspects – seven in the northern town of Kotor Varos, one in Bileca and one in Trebinje in south-east Bosnia – on suspicion of crimes against humanity.

The towns where the suspects lived and allegedly committed the crimes are now controlled by Bosnian Serbs, following the wartime expulsions and killings of the Bosnian and Croatian population.

The suspects will now be questioned by prosecutors.

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« Reply #10444 on: Dec 05, 2013, 07:33 AM »

Croatia's vote forbidding gay marriage: a sign of the rotten heart of Europe

Anti-minority moves in Croatia are symptomatic of a Europe-wide slide back to the worst nightmares of the 20th century

Srećko Horvat, Wednesday 4 December 2013 16.51 GMT   
Imagine the following dystopian scenario. After a football game at one of the biggest stadiums in Germany, one of the players takes the microphone and shouts "Heil Hitler!". More than 30,000 people answer in one voice "Heil!". Just a few days later, 65% of Germans vote against gay people at a national referendum. At the same time, signatures are already being collected to organise another referendum – this time to ban the Yiddish language. What would you call this? Democracy?

Until now, Croatia has had only three referendums. The first was held in 1991 to declare independence from Yugoslavia, the second in 2012 on the EU accession, and the last this weekend, when 65% of Croatians voted to change the definition of marriage in the constitution to apply exclusively to "a living union of a woman and a man". Just a few days before the referendum, during Croatia's World Cup qualification celebration, footballer Joe Šimunić took a microphone on to the field and shouted to fans: "For the homeland!". The 30,000 fans responded: "Ready!" It might sound like nothing special, but he used the phrase "Za dom spremni!", an old war call used by Ustashas, the Croatian collaborators of the Nazi regime who sent tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and others to concentration camps.

Meanwhile, a citizen's initiative – with the enthusiastic support of the Catholic church and rightwing parties – have started collecting signatures to hold a referendum on ethnic minority rights. In 1941 the Croatian pro-Nazi regime brought in a law which prohibited the Cyrillic alphabet, used by the Serbs, in the territory of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). In September this year, plates in Cyrillic script were put at official buildings in Vukovar by the government, a city that was besieged and destroyed by Serbs during the war in 1991. But the plates were torn down by angry protesters. At the same time, the Croatian government is pursuing a law in which bilingualism is to be made compulsory in places where ethnic minorities (Italian, Serbian, etc) make up more than 30% of the population. But now, a genius came up with the idea that the threshold should be 50%, in other words, that a minority can have rights only if it's a majority!

Those behind these referendums allege that the model of the Croatian family is under threat – on the one hand, if gay people get the right to enter into marriage, and on the other, if Serbs get the right to use their own alphabet in Croatia. Yet it is the current crisis of capitalism that is truly destroying social safety nets – the gradual disappearance of a public health service and cuts to pensions are hurting the family more than gay people or Serbs. For instance, the unemployment rate among young people in Croatia is 52%, which brings us just behind Greece and Spain. And instead of organising a referendum on these problems or giving these young people jobs, Croatia spent €6.2m to define something that is already defined in family law: marriage as a legally regulated community of a woman and a man.

But it would be wrong to conclude that Croatia is now once again closer to the Balkans and conservative countries such as Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. What about the tens of thousands of protesters who marched in Paris in March 2013 opposing France's new same-sex marriage law? What about the atmosphere toward minorities in Denmark or Sweden, not to mention Italy or Greece?

What the Croatian constitutional referendum on gay rights, and the proposed one on ethnic minority rights, shows isn't only the misuse of democracy and a conservative backlash – it is actually a symptom of the rotten heart of Europe, a continent that is more and more resembling not only the dystopian scenario described above, but realising the worst nightmares of the 20th century. Not only the French Roma expulsion, the Golden Dawn in Greece, or Hungary's far-right turn, but also the rise of antisemitism in Sweden or Islamophobia in Denmark, prove that, as the Croatian poet Marko Pogačar might be right when saying "the only thing more horrible than fascism is moderate fascism".

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« Reply #10445 on: Dec 05, 2013, 07:35 AM »

Ireland PM: IRA-Garda collusion in murders of RUC officers is 'shocking'

Enda Kenny asked about the Smithwick report while on a trade mission to Japan

Henry McDonald Ireland correspondent, Wednesday 4 December 2013 15.18 GMT   

Ireland's prime minister, Enda Kenny, has described a high-powered report that found collusion between the IRA and the Garda Síochána in the murder of two top Northern Ireland police officers as "absolutely shocking".

While on a trade mission to Japan on Wednesday the taoiseach was asked about the Smithwick report, which concluded that "on the balance of probability" some Garda officers had aided the IRA in assassinating two senior Royal Ulster Constabulary detectives in 1989.

Kenny said he backed his justice minister Alan Shatter's offer of an apology to the families of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, who were caught in an IRA ambush on the north Louth-south Armagh border.

The pair had been returning from a joint RUC-Garda security conference in Dundalk where they were discussing how to target one-time IRA chief of staff and millionaire smuggler Thomas "Slab" Murphy. The Breen/Buchanan families alleged the Garda officers had passed on intelligence to the IRA about the policemen.

In response to the report, the taoiseach said he was willing to meet the murdered officers' loved ones.

Meanwhile the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, came under attack for appearing to blame the victims for the murders. The Louth TD claimed the pair had taken a "laissez-faire" attitude to their personal security.

Adams claimed the RUC officers "seemed to think that they were immune from attack by the IRA and tragically as it turned out for them that wasn't the case".

His remarks were sharply criticised by the leader of the main opposition party in the Republic Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, in the Dáil on Wednesday.

Martin's party colleague and Fianna Fáil justice spokesman said most Irish people would react with "disbelief and disgust" to Adams' comments.

Up to 70 IRA operatives were involved in the fatal ambush, during which one of the RUC detectives attempted to surrender. A state agent inside the IRA, known as Kevin Fulton, who gave evidence to the Smithwick tribunal, as well as a former member of the British army's intelligence-gathering force research unit, have told the Guardian that the IRA leadership had wanted to capture and interrogate the two senior RUC men instead of having them instantly killed at the scene.

The IRA command at the time was interested in extracting information from the RUC officers about who leaked information from the Provisionals that betrayed a major attack on Loughgall police station two years earlier. The SAS shot dead eight key IRA actvists in an ambush outside the RUC base in 1987. It was the single biggest loss of life for any IRA grouping since the war of independence in the 1920s.

By killing Breen and Buchanan at the border near Jonesboro their operatives robbed the IRA leadership of the chance to interrogate the two senior RUC detectives about Loughgall and the existence of a top-level mole inside the terror group.

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« Reply #10446 on: Dec 05, 2013, 07:36 AM »

12/04/2013 03:25 PM

Tabloid Espionage: Trial Exposes Darkest Corners of British Press

By Christoph Scheuermann

Former editors with newspaper News of the World are currently on trial in London, where they are accused of spying on private phone conversations for years. The unfolding testimony against close associates of publisher Rupert Murdoch shows just how far the British tabloid press has been willing to go for a scoop.

On March 21, 2002, a girl disappeared in a town in southern England, not far from London. Her name was Amanda Dowler, nicknamed Milly, and her disappearance soon gripped the entire country. She was just 13.

The police began searching for her, even deploying a helicopter equipped with special cameras. Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator, also took part in the search. Mulcaire was not working for the police or Dowler's family, though, but for the newspaper News of the World. His job was to help the paper secure an exclusive story.

It isn't unusual for editorial offices in the cutthroat London news business to hire professionals to dig through the dirt on their behalf. Private investigators can be useful because they can employ every legal and illegal trick on the hunt for stories, and their employers never have to get their hands dirty. Mulcaire was a good detective, and it didn't take him long to find Milly Dowler's cellphone number.

In its first edition on April 14, 2002, News of the World quoted a message left on Dowler's cellphone, which Mulcaire had intercepted. The call was from a recruitment agency employee, who it later turned out had simply dialed the wrong number. The police focused on other clues, and the missing girl's body was found in a forest several months later.

The call to Dowler's voicemail is now a key element in the indictment against seven former News of the World employees, including former editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. The Crown Prosecution Service in London has charged them with conspiracy to intercept hundreds of phone calls over the years, paying public officials for information and obstructing the subsequent investigations.

Betrayal, Bribery and Greed

It is the biggest media trial the United Kingdom's history. More than 100 journalists and public officials have already been arrested, and the presumed victims include many of the country's celebrities and prominent public figures: Prince Harry and many other members of the royal family, singer Paul McCartney, actor Hugh Grant, a former home secretary and his mistress, members of parliament, athletes, journalists, many TV starlets and footballer Wayne Rooney's masseuse.

For several weeks now, the proceedings in Courtroom 12 at the Old Bailey, London's central criminal court have offered a glimpse into the darkest corners of British journalism. The trial revolves around charges of bribery, not to mention betrayal, greed and ties between journalists and the government. Rebekah Brooks is a close associate of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who owned News of the World. Her trial is also an indictment of a portion of Murdoch's newspaper empire.

The British public has looked forward to the trial with about as much anticipation as the new season of "Downton Abbey." The trial, which could last until April of next year, promises to offer salacious tales from the depths of the celebrity world. And the public hasn't been disappointed so far.

Recordings of voicemail messages have been played in court, and a surprising love affair has come to light. A fashion model told the court that she had passed on ultrasound images of her unborn child to journalists. Her former boyfriend talked about his money problems and a nighttime encounter with the daughter of rock star Mick Jagger. Amorous escapades, not all of them made up, are mentioned almost daily. The judge initially insisted that he would not allow his courtroom to be turned into a circus, given the large number of celebrity witnesses, but he might as well have been talking to a wall. About a dozen cameramen and photographers lurk outside the building each day.

The central characters in the courtroom are Brooks and Coulson, both 45, and both with substantial experience in the swamps of tabloid journalism. Brooks is a striking woman with long red ringlets. Coulson usually wears a dark suit and black-rimmed glasses. Every morning both defendants can be seen bent over their files with blank expressions on their faces. If Coulson didn't occasionally change his tie and Brooks her outfit, it could almost seem as if they were spending the night in the dock.

Rising to the Top

Brooks began her journalistic career at 20 with News of the World, the Sunday paper in Murdoch's media empire. She quickly worked her way to the top, becoming head of the features department and joining the ranks of senior editors. At 34, she was named editor-in-chief of the Sun, the country's most caustic tabloid, also a Murdoch paper. She was later promoted to head News International, the publishing house that prints Murdoch's British newspapers, the Sun, the Times, the Sunday Times and, at the time, News of the World. Brooks frequently uses her iPad during the trial, although it isn't possible to see what she is typing from the public gallery. Perhaps she's writing her memoirs.

Coulson's journalism career began at the same time. In the late 1980s, he went to work as a reporter for the Sun, and was later given a gossip and show business column. When Brooks became head of the Sun, Coulson was made editor-in-chief of News of the World. Their professional lives became intertwined. In 2007 David Cameron, the current prime minister, made Coulson director of communications of the Conservative Party. After the 2010 election, he became director of communications for the government at 10 Downing Street.

Prosecutors accuse Brooks and Coulson of knowing about the material that private investigator Mulcaire was providing. They also argue that Brooks, as editor of the Sun, ordered payments made to government employees, including a soldier who wanted £4,000 (€4,830) for a photo of Prince William in a bikini. Coulson allegedly approved of payments made to guards at the royal palace to gain access to the royal family's telephone directories. Finally, when the investigations became more specific, Brooks and her husband allegedly destroyed incriminating evidence and obstructed the work of the police. The defendants deny the allegations.

Anything for a Good Story

The trial is also an indictment of part of British journalism. At best, UK newspaper reporters have the reputation for being willing to sell their souls for a good story. Unlike Germany and the United States, the UK has no law that specifically protects the press, which drives many journalists to become all the more aggressive in demonstrating their right to exist.

In addition, growing competitive pressure in the last few decades has made journalists hungry for exclusive material. Eleven large, daily English-language newspapers are published in London alone, as well as free papers in the morning and evening. Mulcaire was only one of the many people who profited from the growing pressure on newspaper editors. As long ago as the mid-1990s, dozens of private investigators were working for newspaper publishers. And, as Nick Davies, a journalist for the Guardian, writes in his book "Flat Earth News," they often broke the law.

One person who experienced this atmosphere firsthand is Paul McMullan, a reporter who started working for News of the World in 1994 when it all began. He can explain in detail how rewarding it is for the press to monitor people without their knowledge, as long as they are reasonably interesting. During a three-hour conversation, McMullan gave a good impression of the atmosphere in his former editorial department. For McMullan, the most important thing was to see a story with his byline in the next edition of the paper, even if it meant lying, stealing or hacking into the voicemail of someone like actress Nicole Kidman. He once stole a photo from former British Prime Minister John Major's mantelpiece. Brooks gave him his first fixed contract. "She was shit at being a boss," McMullan says. "It was terrible."

He is standing behind the bar at the Castle Inn in the British port city of Dover. Just a short walk from the ferry terminal, it's a cross between a waterfront dive bar and a lodging house for backpacking tourists from the Continent. McMullan bought the establishment years ago when he still had money. His Italian waitress and a man who introduces himself as McMullan's painter are standing at the bar. McMullan occasionally contributes a story or a photograph to the Dover Express, but he earns his living primarily as an innkeeper, which means having to deal with employees who might try to steal his whisky.

Reporters Under Enormous Pressure
On a personal level, he says, he got along well with Brooks. "She was a lovely girl, and desperate to get to the top," he says. Brooks wanted McMullan to write stories that would make a splash on Fleet Street. On one occasion, he was asked to check himself into a drug rehab clinic for a month, under an assumed name, and on another he was told to obtain the names and addresses of convicted pedophiles. He complied in both cases. McMullan says that reporters were under enormous pressure to deliver explosive material on a weekly basis. The paper was published on Sundays, and each Tuesday he was required to present three new ideas. He was often sent to stake celebrities' homes. "I was really good at sitting in the back of a van and waiting," he says.

For the editorial office, it made no difference whether the paper exposed actors, criminals or politicians. All that mattered was shock value. For reporters, it was all but impossible not to employ the shady methods that everyone apparently used, even if they were illegal. McMullan says that he even hacked into the occasional voicemail, and that it was a common practice. "And of course Rebekah knew it," he says.

Until a few years ago, all it took was a little luck to hack into someone's phone, says McMullan. Most cellphone users didn't change the preset PIN that came with their phones, so that someone like McMullan merely had to dial a target's number, listen to the greeting, press the star key and enter four zeros to gain access to the person's messages. It became more complicated later on, because reporters had to figure out their victims' individual unique voicemail numbers (UVNs). But all it took was a little money or charm for an experienced reporter to obtain the codes from telephone company employees.

It wasn't just tabloid papers that benefited from the dubious methods of private investigators, either. According to journalist Nick Davies, respected publications like the Sunday Times also resorted to these methods. In one case, a private investigator was first hired by News of the World and later by the Sunday Times to look into the bizarre story that Prince Charles was not Prince Harry's father. The man pursued Harry in an effort to obtain a glass or napkin he had used to sample of the prince's DNA, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Disturbing the Peace on Fleet Street

No story was too mundane for News of the World. The more prominent the subject, the better. In late 2005, the paper's editor on the royals beat wrote about a knee injury Prince William had reportedly suffered. The story wasn't particularly newsworthy, but it was enough to arouse the suspicions of palace employees, and Scotland Yard was brought in to investigate.

During their investigation, agents eventually happened upon private investigator Mulcaire. They searched his house in August 2006 and found 8,000 pages of notes, along with several hundred recordings of messages he had obtained by hacking into victims' voicemail. Mulcaire was sentenced to six months in prison for illegal wiretapping, and the royals editor was given four months. Coulson resigned as editor-in-chief of News of the World , but not much else happened. The publisher claimed that Mulcaire and the editor had acted alone and without the knowledge of their superiors.

One of the unusual aspects of the case is that the investigation was more or less suspended after Mulcaire's arrest. Hardly anyone was interested in the content of his notes, or in whom he might have been working for. No one took the trouble to further investigate the case and find out who else had used Mulcaire's services, or what the senior editors knew. The authorities were satisfied with the editorial office's assurances that the matter had been resolved.

But one person who never believed that Mulcaire was acting alone was Nick Davies, who has the reputation of being an excellent researcher. For years, Davies had been interested in the shady methods on Fleet Street, where the major newspaper publishers had once had their offices. With the publication of "Flat Earth News" in 2008, Davies made some powerful enemies, especially at News of the World. "They attacked us," he says. Davies was berated as a liar because he had disturbed the peace on Fleet Street.

Murdoch's Empire Falters

Sitting in the court cafeteria, Davies wears his trademark black leather jacket, his thinning white hair combed back across his head. Much has happened since 2008. After his book was published, he was contacted by attorneys who told him that Murdoch's publishing house was trying to silence and obstruct witnesses with out-of-court settlements, and that the scandal was attracting more and more attention. Davies was fascinated.

In July 2009, he wrote about the hush money scandal in the Guardian. He also described how journalists with News of the World and the Sun had illegally hacked into databases to investigate license plates and obtain public figures' addresses. Two of the celebrities were actor Jude Law and his then wife, Sadie Frost. Coulson, faced with growing speculation over his involvement in the scandal, resigned from his position as the government's director of communications in early 2011.

But it wasn't until the Milly Dowler case came to light that Murdoch's empire began to falter. In the summer of 2011, Davies and another reporter wrote a story describing how Mulcaire had tapped into the girl's voicemail for News of the World. This sparked an outcry in the UK, partly because Dowler was not a celebrity or a politician, but a 13-year-old murder victim.

It was a scandal that not even Murdoch could wipe away. It also meant that further details about the inner workings in the paper's editorial offices might come to light. He decided to shut down the 168-year-old newspaper. "It was panic," he said later. The last issue of News of the World appeared on Sunday, July 10, 2011. After that, Murdoch flew to England, apologized to Milly's parents and offered them £2 million in compensation.

Evidence Allegedly Destroyed

For Brooks, it marked the end of an illustrious rise to prominence within the media empire. Murdoch was her mentor. He had promoted her for years, and she had written toasts for him. Murdoch treated Brooks almost like a daughter, even hosting a surprise party for her 40th birthday. Her life, which had been centered entirely on Murdoch and his newspapers, was in ruins. A few days after News of the World closed, Brooks resigned as chief executive of News International.

According to the prosecution, she spent several days before and after her resignation destroying evidence. Among other things, she and several employees allegedly destroyed seven cardboard boxes containing notebooks from 1995 to 2007. Her husband Charlie reportedly helped her, although both deny this is true.

In the chaotic days after the newspaper was shut down, News International hired a security firm to provide Brooks with 24-hour protection. According to the prosecution, the security personnel helped hide computers, letters, a cellphone and a thumb drive from the police, allegedly using a hiding place behind garbage bins in the underground parking garage in the building where Brooks had her London apartment. The security personnel apparently enjoyed the game of hide-and-seek. After the material had been tucked away near the garbage bins, they sent each other conspiratorial text messages, like: "Pizza delivered and the chicken is in the pot."

There was a growing sense of outrage in the UK at the time, directed against Murdoch, his papers and many journalists. An independent investigative inquiry headed by Lord Justice Brian Leveson was appointed to come up with proposals on how to rein in the press. The hearings revealed an embarrassing piece of information, namely that Brooks and Prime Minister Cameron had apparently had a relatively close relationship. Cameron used to ride Brooks' horse, and they had exchanged text messages. During the run-up to his election, Brooks wrote to Cameron that she had "cried twice" during one of his speeches, and that she was looking forward to "working together."

Titillating Story Revealed

Brooks could be called to testify in Courtroom 12 before Christmas. The maximum penalty for illegal telephone wiretapping is two years, but she could also be convicted of bribing public officials and obstruction of justice. She could very well go to prison. In the end, a jury of nine women and three men will decide whether she is guilty.

The trial has already had some unpleasant consequences for Brooks and Coulson. The public prosecutor recently submitted a document as evidence that investigators had found on one of Brooks' computers. It was a love letter to Coulson, apparently written after he tried to end an affair they had been having. According to the prosecution, the relationship lasted at least from 1998 to 2004, at which point both Brooks and Coulson were married to other partners. The tabloid journalists couldn't have come up with a more titillating story for their gossip columns -- a love affair between a former government spokesman and a journalist. The public prosecutor argued that the letter was important evidence in the case, because it showed how trusting the relationship was between Brooks and Coulson at News of the World.

"The fact is you are my very best friend," Brooks wrote at the time. "I tell you everything. I confide in you, I seek your advice, I love you, care about you, worry about you. We laugh and cry together. In fact without our relationship in my life, I am really not sure how I will cope. I'm frightened to be without you." Brooks sat motionlessly in her chair as the prosecutor read excerpts from the letter out loud in the courtroom in late October. She knew what would happen next.

The story about the affair was splashed across front pages the next morning. It was the kind of story Brooks would have liked.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #10447 on: Dec 05, 2013, 07:42 AM »

12/04/2013 06:23 PM

The Deal Makers: Coalition Deal Shows Rising Clout of Lobbyists


As the dust settled in Berlin, one group came out of last week's coalition deal an unequivocal winner: Germany's lobbyists. When it comes to shaping policy, corporate interests are wielding ever more influence on national politics.

Political lobbyists in Berlin have been keeping very busy in the past few weeks as coalition negotiations to form the next German government were reaching their climax. Now that the talks have finally concluded, negotiators report that they were more inundated than ever before.

"I've been a member of the Bundestag for 11 years, but the scope of inquiries has taken on a different dimension than in the past," says lawmaker Dorothee Bär of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). "There were days when I didn't even want to look at my in-box," Bär added.

Although there are around 5,000 to 6,000 lobbyists based in the German capital, there is no reliable data on what groups wield influence where, or what amounts of money are involved. Unlike many countries in the European Union, Germany has no mandatory lobby registry and remains the only G-20 country other than Japan that has not signed the UN convention against parliamentary corruption.

Trail of Influence

Over the past weeks, the drafts of position papers made their way to the email in-boxes of Berlin lawmakers, and were promptly forwarded to lobbyists working for powerful corporations and other special interests. The lobbyists, in turn, used their smartphones, Facebook or Twitter accounts to voice their opinions, and in doing so made their imprint on the set of documents that became the coalition agreement between the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the conservatives.

Lobbyists for savings banks, for instance, were able to insert an inconspicuous sentence into the agreement that sounds commonplace, but is in fact a blanket clause against any serious reform: "We will adhere to the established three-pillar system of the German banking system, and will take its characteristics into account," the final document states.

The passage on the German national railway company Deutsche Bahn, in the transportation section of the coalition agreement, reads as if it had been written by the company itself. While the "integrated DB AG group" is to be preserved, as per Deutsche Bahn's wishes, the conservatives and the SPD note that they will be keeping a close eye on developments in the recently deregulated long-distance bus sector, which competes with Deutsche Bahn.

The task force on women's issues also felt the influence of lobbyists. In their final document, the parties recommended appointing equal numbers of men and women to the negotiating teams during collective bargaining rounds. Three days later, the heads of the women's task force, Annette Widmann-Mauz (CDU) and Manuela Schwesig (SPD), received a message from Berthold Huber, the outgoing head of the IG-Metall metalworkers' union. After a few polite phrases, he got to his point, writing that he was "irritated" over the task force's plans. "We view the composition of our panels as an internal matter of IG Metall and part of freedom of association."

The employer side didn't even need to send any letters. CDU deputy parliamentary leader Michael Fuchs, a one-time member of the board of the Federal Association of German Employers, called his former fellow colleagues in an effort to coordinate with them. As a result, the subject was removed from the coalition agreement.

A Question of Survival

The energy companies were especially diligent. After all, it was a question of survival for the large electric utilities in the coalition negotiations. RWE, based in the western city of Essen, had even set up its own war room, where it compiled all the information coming from the coalition negotiations, which was then analyzed and commented on by experts.

When, for example, the first versions of the coalition document contained no mention of government subsidies for coal-fired power plants, the energy companies asked all lobbyists, union members and union leaders to intervene. The electric utilities responded with similar consternation to the parties' plan to raise the nuclear fuel element tax and have the nuclear industry pay into a fund for the removal of decommissioned nuclear power plants. Its efforts were successful, and the plans were scrapped.

The large energy companies are now extremely satisfied. However, internal documents indicate that despite being pleased over the relatively favorable outcome of the coalition negotiations, the companies should remain "cautiously optimistic," since the wording of legislation devised by lobbyists still needs to be finalized in the ministries, where "a great deal can still happen."



12/04/2013 01:38 PM

Cold Cases: Germany May Revise Up Statistics in Far-Right Killings

German authorities may have to sharply revise statistics for the number of people killed by right-wing extremists since 1990. The official figure is around 60, but police combing through unsolved cases have identified a further 746 suspicious slayings or attacks.

Statistics for the number of people killed by right-wing extremists in Germany since 1990 may have to be increased dramatically, a newspaper reported on Wednesday.

Officially, authorities currently say neo-Nazis have killed around 60 people, including the 10 mostly Turkish immigrants shot dead by the National Socialist Underground (NSU) terrorist group between 2000 and 2007.

Anti-racism groups and analysts have long put the figure much higher, at close to 200. But even that may grossly understate the true number of victims, the Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper reported.

It cited the German Interior Ministry as saying police had re-examined a total of 3,300 unsolved killings and attempted murders between 1990 and 2011 and had concluded that there could be far-right involvement in 746 open cases with 849 victims. The checks were ordered after the NSU case came to light in 2011. For years, police had ruled out right-wing extremism as the motive behind those killings.

The case was only solved by chance following the suicide of two NSU members, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, after a bank robbery in 2011. DVDs claiming responsibility for the crimes, and a pistol used in the murders, were found in the apartment used by the NSU in the eastern city of Zwickau.

Cases to Be Re-Opened

The NSU case exposed deficiencies in Germany's security services, such as a lack of coordination between police and the domestic intelligence agencies.

A parliamentary report released in August made dozens of recommendations for reforms, including more racial diversity among police and security forces. But it stopped short of stating that Germany has institutional racism in its security services -- a problem anti-racism campaigners frequently refer to.

The Interior Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment. It was not clear how many of the 746 cases and 849 victims referred to killings and how many to attempted killings. The cases will now be sent back to regional police forces for re-investigation.

The ministry will decide next year whether to re-examine other categories of unsolved crimes such as bomb attacks and bank robberies to determine whether there might be a far-right link to them.

Germany's federal states on Tuesday launched a fresh attempt to outlaw the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NDP) on the grounds that its ideology is similar to that of Hitler's Nazi party and that it is seeking the militant overthrow of Germany's democratic order. One analyst told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Tuesday that the NPD was a "center of gravity for violent right-wing extremism."


How Hitler suspended the right to mail and telephone privacy

Roy Greenslade   
Wednesday 4 December 2013 15.20 GMT
As people consider the implications of the mass surveillance of their emails, here's an interesting historic parallel.

In 1933, Hitler demanded that Germany's president, Hindenburg, sign what became known as the Reichstag fire decree (Reichstagsbrandverordnung).

The decree is considered by historians to be one of the key steps in the establishment of a one-party Nazi state in Germany.

It nullified many of the key civil liberties of German citizens, and it was used as the legal basis to imprison anyone considered to be opponents of the Nazis.

It was also aimed at suppressing publications that were considered unfriendly to the Nazi cause.

According to Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's biography of one of Hitler's leading critics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer*, the decree meant that "the right to privacy of communication by mail or telephone no longer existed."


12/04/2013 06:19 PM

Rate Scandal: Deutsche Bank's First Big Fine Won't Be Its Last

By Stefan Kaiser

Subprime mortgages, currency tricks, interest rate fixing: Wherever supervisory authorities have probed crooked deals of the past, Deutsche Bank comes up. Now Germany's biggest bank has had to pay its first big fine. It won't be the last.

The statement had already been prepared: "We are attaching the highest institutional importance to ensuring that this type of misconduct does not happen again," the chief executives of Deutsche Bank, Anshu Jain and Jürgen Fitschen, said in a statement shortly before midday on Wednesday. Minutes earlier, the European Commission in Brussels had slapped record fines totaling €1.7 billion ($2.3 billion) on six international banks. Deutsche Bank's share was the biggest by far at €725 million.

The Commission concluded that Germany's biggest bank, together with three other banks, was part of a cartel that manipulated the Euribor benchmark interest rate. It also said the bank colluded illegally in setting the equivalent London and Tokyo rates. The banks had admitted their misconduct and agreed to a settlement, said Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia.

It's the first major fine Deutsche Bank has has to pay for its past sins,and it's unlikely to be the last. The bank is embroiled in many lawsuits around the world, most of them related to the time before the 2008 financial crisis.

• Several US authorities are targeting the perpetrators of the financial crisis -- banks that bundled and sold the controversial mortgage-backed securities from home loans. JP Morgan Chase alone has to pay $13 billion. Deutsche Bank faces possible claims running into billions of dollars.

• Deutsche Bank also faces a hefty fine in its neverending battle with the heirs of the late media tycoon Leo Kirch. A Munich court has already sentenced the bank to pay compensation but Deutsche Bank has lodged an appeal with the Federal Court of Justice. Kirch's lawyers blame the bank for the media empire's collapse in 2002. They want around €2 billion in compensation.

• There are also accusations of manipulation in the currency markets. A number of supervisory authorities have launched probes, including BAFin, the German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority. But a BAFin spokesman said there is no indication that traders from German banks have been involved. However, the FBI is reported to have paid a Deutsche Bank trader in New York an unannounced visit. Deutsche Bank is the world's largest currency trader.

The €725 million fine is unlikely to be the last payment in the interest-rate fixing case. The bank may even face a higher fine. Supervisory authorities in countries including the US and UK are also investigating the case.

They have already imposed fines on four banks: Swtzerland's UBS, Britain's Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Dutch Rabobank had to pay a total of almost $4 billion. Analysts expect Deutsche Bank to reach a settlement next year. Germany's BAFin is also investigating Deutsche Bank's interest business.

'Integrity Is a Core Values'

The new leadership under co-heads Fitschen and Jain are trying to limit the damage to the bank's image. But that will be difficult, given the frequency of newly emerging scandals -- especially since both bosses have long held leadership positions within the organization and can thus share some responsibility for the mistakes of the past.

Last summer, Fitschen and Jain presented their employees with a new set of corporate values. They're appealing to these same values now in view of the fallout over the interest rate scandal. "Acting with integrity is a core value at Deutsche Bank, and we expect every employee to adhere to it," they said in Wednesday's statement.

The bank has, by its own account, already improved its internal oversight structures in response to the interest rate scandal. A total of seven traders were fired. After a labor court judgment, however, five of them had to be rehired. The court held the bank's organizational structure primarily responsible for the failures. The bank has appealed against the decision.

But the material damage caused by the numerous scandals could turn out to be even more unpleasant than the damage to Deutsche Bank's reputation. The bank has already set aside €4.1 billion for dealing with the past. That should cover the penalties that have already been imposed. But whether it proves enough to quell ongoing conflicts, and those yet to arise, is doubted by even the highest authority, the European Central Bank (ECB). The provisions put in place by the institute are high, said ECB executive board member Jörg Asmussen at a recent panel discussion on Deutsche Bank chief Fitschen. "But the question remains whether that will suffice."


12/04/2013 06:19 PM

German Murder: Alleged Cannibal Ran Hotel With Grilling Area

New information about an alleged case of cannibalism in Germany suggests the suspect was immersed in the online fetish world, and had discussed a similar act with another willing potential victim. He ran a bed and breakfast which advertised its grilling facilities.
Police investigate the area around a house near Reichenau, south of Dresden, eastern Germany, where a body was discovered cut into small pieces in a suspected cannibalism case. Zoom

Police investigate the area around a house near Reichenau, south of Dresden, eastern Germany, where a body was discovered cut into small pieces in a suspected cannibalism case.

In recent days, new details have emerged in a bizarre alleged cannibalism case in Germany. The murder, which recalls a notorious killing perpetrated by Armin Meiwes in 2001, was allegedly committed by a 55-year-old police officer working as a handwriting analyst in the Dresden office of the State Criminal Police. The man has admitted to killing a 59-year-old Polish-born businessman from Hanover, whom he allegedly met on a cannibalism fantasy forum and whose body he allegedly dismembered and buried on a property belonging to him in the Ore Mountains, near the Czech border. The police officer -- thus far only known by his first name and last initial, Detlef G. -- disputes consuming any part of his victim.

According to an unconfirmed report in German daily Bild, Detlef G. was immersed in the online cannibal fetish community, and the police have yet to discover several parts of the victim, raising the question of whether they had been eaten.

'Long Pigs' and 'Chefs'

According to German daily Welt, the victim, known as Wojciech S., took a bus and a train to Saxony on Nov. 4, in order to meet with the alleged murderer. They met in Dresden, and drove to the police officer's Reichenau home, which doubled as a bed and breakfast. Shortly thereafter, Detlef G. allegedly stabbed his new acquaintance in the neck in the basement of the building, cut his body into small pieces and buried it in the garden of his home. The police officers investigating the case have said that the killing "had been desired by the victim."

The two men are alleged to have met on an online forum which describes itself as the "Number 1 site for exotic meat" and is visited by men with a fetish related to the consumption of human flesh. As of Friday, it had 3,000 users. The cannibal fetish community is a small, but not insignificant subgroup in Germany. Armin Meiwes, who was found guilty of killing and eating parts of 43-year-old Berlin engineer Bernd Jürgen in 2001, claimed after his conviction that there were approximately 800 "cannibals" living in the country.

In the online cannibal fetish world, men who want to be eaten are referred to as "long pigs," a term which comes from 19th-century explorers who encountered cannibals on their voyages. Men who fantasize about eating other men, meanwhile, are referred to as "chefs." The vast majority of forum-users, criminologist Petra Klages told Die Welt, are only interested in safely playing out a fantasy. Somewhat ominously, however, users for the forum are able to check a box marked "I'm interested in more than just role play."

Another Near-Victim

The alleged murderer, it seems, was part of the latter group. Yesterday, Bild published an interview with another man, a 31-year-old sewage mechanic from Baden Württemberg, who had also met with the police officer just a few weeks ago. The man, who went by "Junjie" online, had posted that he "wanted to be grilled alive." He wrote, "whether on the grill or on a spit, I don't care."

He told Bild he chatted online with the accused murderer, and the two made an appointment for him to be eaten because he says he had had a fight with his parents and wanted to disappear without a trace. In October he spent several weeks in the police officer's bed and breakfast, where the latter cooked Asian food and former East-German dishes for them, but finally decided that the 31-year-old was too young to be consumed. The younger man, who now lives with a boyfriend, was not shocked by the murder allegations because, he told Bild, "after all, I went there to be eaten."

Bed and Breakfast 'Ideal for Grilling'

The rustic bed and breakfast, called Pension Gimmlitztal, offered lodging for as little as €13 a night, including breakfast. Its website, which has been taken down, but is still cached online, advertised "a generous outside area, surrounded by woods, which is ideal for an evening of grilling." The suspect ran the business with his husband, who apparently knew nothing of his partner's criminal interests and has since gone into hiding.

Neighbors told Bild that Detlef and his husband would invite them over in the summer for parties in their garden, where the police officer would prepare "potato salad, sausages and steaks on the grill" and acted as the "perfect host." According to Bild, authorities will begin searching the interior of the house in the next few days.

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« Reply #10448 on: Dec 05, 2013, 07:43 AM »

12/04/2013 05:51 PM

Disneyland Paris: Europe's Magic Kingdom Loses Its Magic

By Claus Hecking

Disneyland Paris is currently besieged by unflattering headlines and faltering finances. Now an attempted suicide by a park employee is drawing attention to its labor practices. French unions are furious and an outspoken Belgian visitor is campaigning for big changes.

Guillaume Gallant is a passionate Walt Disney fan, and he's convinced Disneyland Paris is falling apart. When the Belgian national recently visited Europe's largest theme park, two rides were closed, four performances had been cancelled and, worst of all, he believed the food in one of the Magic Kingdom's exquisite restaurants had been reheated. Gallant claims to have been "shocked." So shocked he immediately wrote an angry petition to the Walt Disney Corporation, the main shareholder of the park's operating company, Euro Disney, which he posted online in six different languages.

Over 7,000 people have signed the Brussels-based copywriter's petition, which read: "The many years of budget cuts in maintenance, entertainment and food and beverage, have left the resort in an unacceptable neglected state … Many themed elements are decaying and crumbling, while others are literally falling apart." These fans, clearly, are afraid their "magical kingdom" is losing its magic.

Barrage of Bad Headlines

The feeling is understandable, given that Europe's Disneyland is currently generating one negative headline after another. Disney's US parks are cash machines, but Disneyland Paris, which is located in Marne La Vallée, outside of the French capital, is losing millions of dollars despite an impressive number of visitors. A strict cost-reduction program implemented by Chairman Philippe Gas has sown discontent amongst guests and employees. In late October, a child fell out of a water ride and was severely injured. And now, revelations of a suicide attempt have thrown a sinister shadow over Mickey Mouse's cheerful kingdom.

Shortly after being called in to meet with his superiors recently, a Euro Disney garden-worker doused himself in gasoline and took out a lighter. A colleague was only able to prevent him from setting himself on fire at the last minute. It's not the first such incident: In 2010, two Disneyland Paris employees committed suicide; one of them wrote in a suicide note, "I don't want to return to Mickey."

The unions argue that the park's "demeaning" working conditions are responsible for the suicides. Euro Disney spokesperson Laurent Manologlou told SPIEGEL ONLINE such accusations were false, citing an internal investigation that found no connection between the suicide and working conditions.

Now the National Union of Autonomous Unions (UNSA), a French trade-union confederation, wants to conduct its own investigation of the most recent suicide attempt. According to UNSA, many Disneyland Paris employees have become increasingly unhappy. The union notes a "deteriorating working climate," "lack of dialogue" and "sharpening of disciplinary measures" in a letter to Gas. They even call the board of directors "autistic" in a statement referencing Gallant's petition.

Precarious Finances

Gas is under pressure. About 15 million guests came to Disneyland Paris in the 2012/2013 fiscal year, almost as many as the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre combined. According to Euro Disney, the park is the "largest tourist attraction in Europe." However, the number of visitors has declined by over one million since the 2011/2012 fiscal year. The chairman blames the slump on the euro crisis and bad weather, while pointing out that Euro Disney "managed to increase spending per person" in the park.

Still, he must admit Euro Disney has lost around €78 million since 2008. Disneyland Paris has structural problems: Since it opened in 1992, the park has been in the red more often than it has been in the black.

European Disney fans are now pushing for a new beginning that Euro Disney can't afford. The company has a €1.7 billion debt load from the construction of the park and is required to pay €70 million in licensing fees every year to the Walt Disney Company, which owns 40 percent of its stock. The rest of the shares are owned by Saudi Prince Waleed bin Talal al Saud and frustrated small shareholders.

And yet the American mother ship still seems to believe in its European offshoot: In the past year, the Americans have bought up Euro Disney's debts, extended a repayment plan and lowered interest rates, giving the company wiggle room for future investments.

Gas reportedly said in a TV interview that he wants to open a new ride centered on the movie "Ratatouille," which could become, "A one-of-a-kind attraction that has never existed anywhere in the world." But even company executives seem to know that "Ratatouille" alone won't save them. "We are in a good position to be able to reach positive results as soon as the economic crisis has ended," said spokesperson Manologlou. In other words: Euro Disney will be in the red as long as Europe's economy is faltering. And, as long as that's the case, Guillaume Gallant will just have to keep yearning for the land of his dreams.

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« Reply #10449 on: Dec 05, 2013, 07:47 AM »

12/05/2013 01:12 PM

Weapons of Last Resort: ECB Considers Extreme Crisis Measures

The European Central Bank wants to spur lending by banks in Southern Europe, but conventional methods have shown little success so far. On Thursday, ECB officials will consider monetary weapons that were previously considered taboo.

From Mario Drahgi's perspective, the euro zone has already been split for some time. When the head of the powerful European Central Bank looks at the credit markets within the currency union, he sees two worlds. In one of those worlds, the one in which Germany primarily resides, companies and consumers are able to get credit more cheaply and easily than ever before. In the other, mainly Southern European world, it is extremely difficult for small and medium-sized businesses to get affordable loans. Fears are too high among banks that the debtors will default.

For Draghi and many of his colleagues on the ECB Governing Council, this dichotomy is a nightmare. They want to do everything in their power to make sure that companies in the debt-plagued countries also have access to affordable loans -- and thus can bring new growth to the ailing economies.

The ECB has already gone to great lengths to achieve this objective. It has provided the banks with virtually unlimited high credit and drastically lowered the collateral required from the institutions. The central bank has also brought down interest rates to historical lows. Since early November, financial institutions have been able to borrow from the ECB at a rate of 0.25 percent interest. By comparison, the rate was more than 4 percent in 2008.

Lending Still in Decline

The only problem is that all those low interest rates have so far barely been put to use. Lending to companies in the euro zone is still in decline. In October, banks granted 2.1 percent less credit to companies and households than in the same period last year.

In addition to a further cut in interest rates to zero percent, the central bankers are considering new, drastic measures to combat the negative trend. Some of them are likely to be hotly debated when the Governing Council meets this Thursday in Frankfurt.

So what measures are still on the table and how would they effect the European economy?

One scenario that drives fear into the hearts of all savers is the so-called negative interest rate. It would mean that the banks would have to pay a fee for the money they park, currently without interest, at the ECB -- a kind of penalty interest rate. The idea is to create an incentive for the institutions to loan out extra money to other banks, in Southern Europe for instance. This, it is hoped, would then lead to more lending to businesses and consumers.

The penalty interest rate was already a topic at the last Governing Council meeting in early November. ECB board member Benoit Coeure recently confirmed that the negative interest rate had been discussed and considered from both a technical and legal perspective. "The ECB is ready," he said.

It's questionable, however, whether the negative interest rate will actually be employed. Some economists doubt its effectiveness. "The question is whether the banks won't simply place less money at the ECB," said Hans-Peter Burghof, a professor of banking and economics at the University of Hohenheim in Germany. Thus, the problem of the lack of lending would not be solved.

Experiences with negative interest rates have so far been rather poor. Denmark tried it in 2012 with an interest rate of -0.1 percent on deposits at the country's central bank. The result: Many banks simply passed on the higher cost to the consumer.

Fresh Financial Aid for Banks

The ECB already lent a helping hand to banks with long-term, cheap loans at the end of 2011 and during early 2012, lending financial institutions a total of €1 billion for the exceptionally long period of three years -- a step it has so far only taken one time. Central bank head Draghi spoke at the time of using "Big Bertha," a reference to a World War I-era howitzer, to battle the crisis.

As a monetary weapon, it had mixed results. Many banks used the cheap money to purchase loans that had been issued at significantly higher interest rates in their home countries. For banks and the countries, it was a lucrative business, but it wasn't an intended side effect.

Meanwhile, the situation has become less tense and many banks have even paid the money back early. But the ECB is still thinking about a new form of long-term credit. Only this time, the loans would only have a term of one year and they are also supposed to have a specific purpose affixed to them. Banks would only be able to obtain the cheap money if they obliged themselves to pass that money on to companies.

Still, the experience gathered so far with these kinds of instruments hasn't exactly been encouraging. In Britain, the Bank of England recently undertook a similar program, which it called "funding for lending," but the results were limited. Many banks rejected the offer.

Economists have also criticized the planned-economy characteristics of the idea. "Banks should actually only give loans when they are certain that it is a good idea," said banking professor Burghof. "When people intervene in this process from the outside and try to steer the issuing of loans, it usually ends in disaster," he said.

Bond Buying

The ultimate means the ECB has for keeping market interest rates low is to purchase large quantities of bonds from investors. Other central banks including the Fed in the United States, the Bank of England and the Japanese central bank are already using this instrument more or less successfully. The idea behind "quantitative easing" is that a central bank purchases government or company bonds on the market and, by doing so, drives down prices -- e.g. interest rates.

In contrast to the ECB's previous bond buying, the new program would not be aimed at easing financing for individual countries. Nevertheless, it would be extremely difficult for the ECB to implement such a program, given the widespread resistance to it, particularly in Germany. Many German economists believe the purchase of government bonds is little more than a veiled effort to fund national budgets and is tantamount to printing money. Germany's highest court has also voiced criticism and is currently reviewing the issue.

Besides, experts believe the purchase of corporate bonds or packaged corporate loans would only have a limited effect on interest rates. The market may be large enough in the United States for such an undertaking, but it is simply too small in the euro zone.

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« Reply #10450 on: Dec 05, 2013, 07:49 AM »

France's lower house passes law imposing fines on prostitution clients

Proposed tougher rules have exposed divisions in French society and angered some sex workers

Reuters in Paris, Wednesday 4 December 2013 16.43 GMT   

Link to video: French sex workers protest against client criminalisation bill

The French lower house of parliament has passed a reform of prostitution law imposing fines on clients, a shift to tougher rules which has split the country and angered some sex workers.

Politicians voted 268 in favour and 138 against to give France some of the most restrictive legislation on prostitution in Europe – a radical switch away from the nation's traditionally tolerant attitude.

Those seeking to buy sex will now face a €1,500 (£1,240) fine, while the act of soliciting itself will no longer be punished.

Women's rights minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who has championed the reform, argued that prostitution in any form is unacceptable and said the aim of President François Hollande's Socialist government was to suppress the trade altogether.

Proponents of the reform point to rising human trafficking as a reason for tightening rules. Some 90% of France's estimated 20,000 to 40,000 sex workers are victims of Nigerian, Chinese and Romanian trafficking networks, the government says.

That is a jump from just over a decade ago when only one in five sex workers were foreign and mafia rings were less prevalent.

Yet the reform has exposed divisions in French society just months after Hollande's government faced down a series of giant street protests over legislation legalising gay marriage.

Fellow ministers including interior minister Manuel Valls have expressed reservations about being able to apply the law as it stands. Hollande's Green coalition allies voted against, as did the opposition centre-right UMP members.

Some prostitutes say the law, which must also pass through the senate upper house for a vote early next year, will rob them of their livelihood.

"Already, in the past two weeks we have felt the pinch," said a woman calling herself Sarah, who works in the Bois de Boulogne, a centre for prostitution on the outskirts of Paris.

"The clients aren't coming … and the few clients that do come all ask me the same questions: 'Is the law going through? What are we going to do?'"

Legislation in France lies somewhere between laws in the Netherlands and Germany, where registered sex workers pay taxes and receive health benefits, and Sweden, where clients are already targeted.

As France considers adopting a much tougher attitude, prostitution in Germany has become a heated political issue once again – 11 years after the country decriminalised prostitution and gave sex workers legal status that allowed them to get health insurance and pensions.

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« Reply #10451 on: Dec 05, 2013, 07:53 AM »

Ukraine protests: mediator flies in as paralysing standoff continues

Council of Europe's secretary general calls on Ukrainian authorities to launch independent inquiry into police violence

Shaun Walker in Kiev, Wednesday 4 December 2013 17.12 GMT      

A European mediator flew into Kiev to meet with the Ukrainian government and opposition on Wednesday, but there was no sign of an end to the standoff that has paralysed the centre of the city and the work of the government for days.

Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, was sober about the possibility of progress after meeting with Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, and said he had impressed upon the Ukrainian authorities the need to launch an independent investigation into police violence against peaceful protesters over the weekend.

"It's important to have an investigation into this that everyone can trust," said Jagland, adding that he hoped to facilitate dialogue between the government and opposition parties. "I don't know whether it is possible to have this dialogue," he admitted.

Azarov, who was carried through an emotional no-confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday by the support of President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions, criticised the protest movement during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

"We must decide all this in a calm environment," he said. "Not in the streets, but in a responsible dialogue." However, opposition politicians, including heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko, have called for the government to resign and for snap presidential elections. They say they will continue to blockade government buildings until their demands are met.

Demonstrations began after Yanukovych backed away from a trade deal with the EU, citing the importance of ties with Russia. The unrest appeared to be dying down, until riot police cleared Independence square of protesters on Saturday, in violent scenes which provoked a mass protest on Sunday.

The square, hub of the 2004 Orange Revolution, remains barricaded and filled with protesters, and the three main opposition parties insist that there can be no negotiations until Yanukovych calls snap elections. Yanukovych himself has left the country for a long-planned visit to China, where he took time out to view the terracotta army on Wednesday, apparently unconcerned by events at home.

"The big question is whether the opposition can keep people coming to the square, and keep the pressure on, or whether people will get bored," said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko. "The next week will show us who the winner is."

Russia and the west have accused each other of meddling in Ukraine's internal affairs, with the EU furious that the trade deal, years in the making, was scuppered after apparent pressure from Moscow.

Meanwhile Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, on a visit to Brussels, lashed out at Nato for its criticism of the Ukrainian authorities' violent response to protests. "I don't understand why Nato adopts such statements," said Lavrov. "I hope that Ukrainian politicians will be able to bring the situation into a peaceful vein. We encourage everybody not to interfere."


December 4, 2013

Kiev Protesters See Potent Ally Under a Spire


KIEV, Ukraine — After riot police officers stormed Independence Square here early Saturday, spraying tear gas, throwing stun grenades and swinging truncheons, dozens of young protesters ran, terrified, scattering up the streets. It was after 4:30 a.m., the air cold, the sky black. As they got their bearings, the half-lit bell tower of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery beckoned.

Inside, the fleeing demonstrators found more than warmth and safety. They had arrived in a bastion of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate, where they were welcomed not only on a humanitarian basis but because the church, driven by its own historical tensions with Moscow, is actively supporting their uprising. It strongly favors European integration to enable Ukraine to break free from Russia’s grip, and has joined the calls to oust the Ukrainian government.

From the conversion of Princess Olga, the regent of Kievan Rus, in the 10th century to the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Orthodox Church has generally flourished by acting in close concert with political powers. Its efforts to confront the authorities have tended to go badly, as when Philip II, the metropolitan of Moscow, protested political massacres in 1568 by refusing to bless Ivan the Terrible. He was jailed, chained around the neck and strangled.

But in recent days, the Kyivan Patriarchate, which controls St. Michael’s, has emerged as a powerful ally of the thousands of protesters demanding the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich and the revival of the far-reaching political and trade accords with the European Union that he has refused to sign. Some priests have even led prayer sessions in Independence Square, which protesters have occupied.

“Our church is together with the people,” the Kyivan Patriarchate’s 84-year-old leader, Patriarch Filaret, said in an interview. “It supports Ukraine entering the European Union. We pray to God that he will help us enter the European Union in order to keep our statehood, to keep peace and to improve the life of the people.”

On Wednesday, the demonstrators who have laid siege to public buildings in the rattled Ukrainian capital expanded their protest, blockading the central bank, setting up tents and lighting bonfires on the sidewalk outside.

Protest leaders had vowed to surround more government buildings after the Ukrainian Parliament on Tuesday defeated a measure calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his government. But as of Wednesday morning, their goal of blockading the presidential administration building had not been achieved.

While the situation remained fluid, the protesters could count on the support of the church and of Filaret, whose oppositional posture provides a striking contrast to Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church, a close and increasingly important ally of President Vladimir V. Putin.

As Russia sought in recent months to persuade Ukraine and other former Soviet republics to turn away from the agreements with Europe, Kirill lent his own spiritual muscle to the effort — making a personal visit, for instance, to Moldova, where he denounced Europe and the West as places where “morals are simply disappearing.”

Filaret is neither as powerful nor as influential as Kirill. The Kyivan Patriarchate is one of three governing entities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, along with the Moscow Patriarchate, led by Metropolitan Volodymyr, who reports to Kirill, and the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

There are also many other faiths in Ukraine, including the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which dominates the western part of the country. Experts said pluralism made religious leaders less likely to echo the views of the government.

“Ukraine has the most pluralistic religious market in Eastern Europe,” said Viktor Yelensky, president of the Ukrainian Association for Religious Liberty. “Because none of the churches unite more than a quarter of citizens, there is a balance of forces.”

“In Russia,” he added, “there is a main church, which cooperates with the authorities, while in Ukraine the church is more dependent on the people.”

A number of religious leaders in Ukraine, including Volodymyr, have issued statements condemning violence and urging a peaceful resolution to the unrest. Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, urged the authorities “not to permit the shedding of even a drop of blood,” and that church’s former leader, Lubomyr Husar, spoke at a large protest rally on Sunday.

But the Kyivan Patriarchate has gone far beyond such statements, providing direct and active support to the uprising. The sheltering of dozens of beaten demonstrators in its monastery is regarded among protest organizers as a major turning point.

“I don’t know who made the decision to go to St. Michael’s, but it was the right thing, in part because it rested on the whole concept of sanctuary,” said a Western diplomat observing the events here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with diplomatic protocol. “The monks closed the gates, and that was the thing that gave them the time to reconstitute.”

Yulia Onyschenko, 19, a student at Kiev Polytechnic Institute who was among those fleeing the violence, said church officials had protected the demonstrators as the police gave chase. “They closed all the gates, and there are a lot of gates,” Ms. Onyschenko said. “We’re very grateful.”

Church officials gave the protesters tea and blankets, and many slept on carpets on the floor of the main cathedral as a monk chanted prayers through the night. Participants have described it as an almost mystical experience, recalling events about 800 years ago when people sought refuge from invading Tatars and Mongols in the original monastery, long since destroyed.

“It’s very symbolic,” said Yuri Ignatenko, 27, an actor from Zhytomyr, about 85 miles west of Kiev. He has spent several nights in the church, and his eyes glistened as he recalled the nightlong prayer. Referring to the Ukrainian riot police, Mr. Ignatenko said, “The Berkut were like the Mongols who chased the people to the monastery.”

“It’s very important that the church is supporting people without any motive, but sincerely,” he said. “We can feel it.”

By Saturday afternoon, more than 10,000 protesters had gathered in the square outside the monastery. Volunteers brought food and clothing and tossed cash into plastic bags put out by organizers. It was an unexpected precursor to the huge march and rally by hundreds of thousands of people on Sunday in which demonstrators seized control of Independence Square and several public buildings.

“The church was always with the people,” said Yulia Solntsova, 28, a psychologist who spent Tuesday night at the monastery.

In the interview on Tuesday at his downtown headquarters, one subway stop from Independence Square, Filaret said the protesters, and people throughout Ukraine, had reason to feel betrayed by Mr. Yanukovich.

The president, Filaret said, had promised for more than a year that he would sign the accords, only to reverse course last month under heavy pressure from the Kremlin. “People really believed the president and believed in the government,” he said.

Filaret added that he recognized the challenges organized religion has faced in Europe, but that the promise of freedom and independence for Ukraine was more important. “We are under no illusions about Europe,” he said. “Europe has its disadvantages. But it doesn’t mean that Europe stopped being Christian.”

There are no illusions about Russia’s effort to keep a grip on Ukraine, either, Filaret said, adding that the tug of war between Europe and Russia created the risk of a new Cold War.

“If Ukraine enters the European Union,” he said, “then a big democratic force is created in the world, which means Europe and the United States of America. This is a big democratic force based on freedom, technological progress and peace. And this force can influence the whole world.”

Russia’s effort to derail the accords with Europe has been viewed by many here as an attempt to keep Ukraine stuck in Moscow’s orbit and to prevent improvements in public services, including the rule of law, and a general increase in quality of life.

Older Ukrainians have bad memories of Soviet times, and so has the Orthodox Church here.

In the 1930s, for instance, Soviet officials demolished St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, which was originally built in the 1100s and destroyed and rebuilt several times over the ensuing centuries. The complex was most recently rebuilt, modeled on an earlier design, in the 1990s.

Filaret said he believed that Russia was seeking to maintain geopolitical leverage. “Without Ukraine, Russia does not have such big influence,” he said.

The patriarch also had some advice, perhaps wishful. “My opinion, personal, about how we should exit from this situation: First, Ukraine’s entry into the European Union. Second: resignation of the government. If those conditions will be met, people will be happy with that.”

Oksana Lyachynska contributed reporting.

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« Reply #10452 on: Dec 05, 2013, 07:55 AM »

Pig Putin backs amnesty proposal that could free Pussy Riot members from Russian labor camps

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 4, 2013 12:51 EST

Russian President Pig Putin on Wednesday said he backed proposals for an amnesty for thousands of prisoners who, according to his rights advisor, could include ex-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Pussy Riot punks.

“I agree… that such actions must be pacifying, must emphasise the humanity of our state,” the Pig said in televised comments.

The amnesty could free up to 100,000 prisoners, said Mikhail Fedotov, the head of the presidential rights council, an independent advisory body, cited by RIA Novosti news agency.

Fedotov told journalists the amnesty could apply to former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the two jailed members of punk band Pussy Riot, who held a protest against Putin in a Moscow cathedral.

“I think that yes of course,” Fedotov said, when asked if it could apply to Pussy Riot. “After all that was not a violent crime.”

As for Khodorkovsky, Fedotov said: “I think so, yes.”

Khodorkovsky is set to be freed in August 2014 after spending more than a decade in jail on fraud and tax evasion charges, while Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokyhina are due to be released from penal colonies in March.

However Pig Putin said the amnesty must not apply to those charged with violence against officials, which excludes dozens of protesters charged over crowd violence in May 2012 after his reelection as president.

“I want to say that this amnesty can only apply to those who did not commit serious crimes and crimes involving violence against officials, of course that’s mainly law enforcement officials,” the Pig told rights advisors who are proposing the amnesty.

“I will take this as the starting point and will wait for a final document prepared by you together with the parliament,” Pig Putin added.

The amnesty is intended to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Russia’s constitution this year. The lower house of parliament is set to examine a draft proposal before the end of the year.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that “the president took the decision that he himself would submit the draft bill on the amnesty”, RIA Novosti reported.

Russia has one of the largest prison populations of any country. As of November its prisons held 681,050 inmates.

The Soviet Union held a mass amnesty of around 1.2 million prisoners, both common criminals and political prisoners, after the death of Stalin in 1953.

« Last Edit: Dec 05, 2013, 08:02 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #10453 on: Dec 05, 2013, 08:03 AM »

December 4, 2013

Kerry Vows to Help Moldova Hew to the West


CHISINAU, Moldova — In a lightning visit to Moldova, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged American support on Wednesday to help this former Soviet republic develop closer political and economic ties with the European Union.

During his three-and-a-half-hour visit, Mr. Kerry did not announce a significant new aid package.

But his presence — the first by a secretary of state since 1992 — and the possibility of future American assistance provided a measure of encouragement for a Moldovan government that is trying to maintain public support for its outreach to the West as it prepares to face the voters next year.

“The U.S. is still the world leader,” Prime Minister Iurie Leanca said in an interview.

“To have the U.S. secretary of state, to have his focus on the developments here,” he added, “is something extremely important for us.”

A small landlocked nation of 3.6 million, Moldova is situated on the fault line between the European Union and nations like Ukraine whose leadership still looks toward Moscow on sensitive decisions involving relations with the West.

Last month, Moldova signed a pact affirming its intent to complete a free-trade agreement with the European Union.

Moldova’s look West had not escaped the attention of the Kremlin. Russia has already shown its dissatisfaction by banning the import of Moldovan wine, Moldova’s major export, a move Moscow justified on the grounds that the wine contained impurities but that most observers saw as politically motivated. More ominously, the deputy prime minister of Russia has delivered thinly veiled threats that Russia might stop supplying Moldova with natural gas, no small matter for a nation that is almost entirely dependent on Russian energy supplies.

Mr. Kerry, who has sought to cooperate with Russia on Syria and Iran, avoided criticism Wednesday of the Kremlin’s heavy-handed pressure on Moldova and its policy of encouraging Ukraine to distance itself from the European Union.

Instead, Mr. Kerry asserted that economic development in the two countries would be good for Russia as well as the nations’ populations.

“The United States believes deeply that European integration is the best road for both security and prosperity in Moldova,” Mr. Kerry said during a tour of the Cricova winery near Chisinau, the capital.

“To the people of the Ukraine we say the same thing — you too deserve the opportunity to choose your own future,” Mr. Kerry added in a pointed criticism of the abrupt decision by the Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, to spurn concluding political and trade accords with the European Union.

To drive home the point, Mr. Kerry skipped a long anticipated visit to Kiev he was to make following a NATO meeting he attended in Brussels to meet with officials here.

Moldova’s desire to lessen its energy dependence on Russia, and the possibility of an American and European Union effort to foster economic development in Moldova, a nation with the smallest economy in Europe, were among the topics of Mr. Kerry’s talks here, officials said.

Mr. Leanca said that he had asked Mr. Kerry to consider extending the free-trade arrangements that the United States is now negotiating with European Union to Moldova now that it is moving to complete its own free-trade agreement with the union.

“Having a free-trade area with the E.U.,” Mr. Leanca said, “hopefully should bring more investment.”

Responding to the Russian ban on Moldovan wine, the European Union has lifted limits on the tariff-free import of Moldovan wine. Mr. Kerry said Wednesday that the Obama administration would sponsor a Moldovan trade mission so it could develop a market for its wine in the United States.

To guard against Moscow’s use of trade as a political weapon, Moldova has begun to build a pipeline to receive gas from Romania. But it will take several years before Moldova can meet a significant amount of its energy needs, electricity as well as gas, from Romania.

Mr. Leanca also received assurances in Kiev last month that Moldova would be able to obtain natural gas from Ukraine if Russia cut off its supply. But some observers wonder if the Ukrainian president’s recent shift toward Moscow would undermine this understanding.

Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister who met on Wednesday with Mr. Kerry in Brussels, made no mention of the secretary of state’s Moldova trip.

But Mr. Lavrov defended Ukraine’s “sovereign right” to back away from signing political and economic pacts with the European Union, blamed protesters in Kiev for “aggressive actions” and criticized NATO for passing a resolution that condemned the Ukrainian authorities for using “excessive force.”

“I hope that Ukrainian politicians will be able to bring the situation into a peaceful vein,” Mr. Lavrov said. “We encourage everybody not to interfere.”

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« Reply #10454 on: Dec 05, 2013, 08:06 AM »

December 4, 2013

Iran Takes Charm Offensive to the Persian Gulf


TEHRAN — Iran’s top diplomat, who only last month brokered a groundbreaking nuclear deal with the world powers, is now traveling the Persian Gulf region, trying to mend ties with Arab neighbors, Sunni nations that harbor deep suspicions of Shiite Iran.

On Wednesday, the diplomat, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, arrived in the United Arab Emirates, having stopped in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman this week, with the goal of undoing years of regional tensions, not only sectarian but also the fruit of the confrontational approach of Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Zarif met with several Emirati officials, among them Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, where an estimated 400,000 Iranians live and work in companies that are often front offices for trade with Iran — much of it illicit, because of sanctions. Mr. Zarif also invited the Emirates’ president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, to visit Tehran.

“My interpretation is that these countries as a whole are very much interested in opening a new chapter in their ties with the Islamic republic, which we hope will benefit peace and stability as well as the progress of the people in the region,” Mr. Zarif was quoted as saying by Iran’s state television on Tuesday.

It was only months ago that Mr. Zarif and his boss, President Hassan Rouhani, shocked the West by sending New Year’s wishes to Jews and indicated a new flexibility in negotiating an end to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. It now seems that the charm offensive is being directed to regional states, which are just as much a priority to Iran as restoring ties with the West, said Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University.

“No matter what happens between Iran and the West, improving relations with all regional countries is highly important to us,” he said.

The visit comes against a backdrop of long-growing regional and sectarian tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as they compete for power and influence through proxies in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of deliberately destabilizing Syria by supporting Sunni “terrorists” against the Syrian government. Iran is accused by the Saudis and the West of supporting not just Syria but Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that played a critical role in turning the Syrian civil war in the government’s favor in recent months.

In 2010, the White House rebuffed requests by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to “cut off the head of the snake” by destroying Iran’s nuclear sites in a military strike, according to leaked United States diplomatic cables.

On Sunday, while visiting the Qatari capital of Doha, home to the most important United States military command in the region, Mr. Zarif said Iran sought reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, emphasizing the recent nuclear deal and saying Iran posed no threat to other countries in the region. “We believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia should work together in order to promote peace and stability in the region,” he was quoted as saying by news agencies. “This agreement cannot be at the expense of any country in the region.”

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have in recent years expanded their stockpiles of advanced arms, buying nearly $42 billion of precision guided bombs, antiship missiles and F-15 warplanes and other weaponry from the United States.

Iran and the Emirates have a longstanding dispute themselves, over three tiny Persian Gulf islands. In April, Mr. Ahmadinejad paid a visit to one, Abu Musa, where both Iranians and Emiratis live, after the Emirates renewed its ownership claim on the island. Mr. Zarif said this week that Iran was ready to discuss ownership of the island.

Mr. Zarif said he intended to travel to Saudi Arabia, but a date would be set only “after consultations with our Saudi brothers,” the semiofficial Mehr News agency quoted him as saying last week. But some days later, Al Quds Al Arabi, an Arab newspaper based in London, wrote that unnamed Saudi officials had said the time was not ripe for such a rapprochement.

Iran’s foreign minister did not stop in Bahrain during his Persian Gulf tour, as relations between the two countries have been strained since the island’s Sunni rulers cracked down on Shiite-led protests two years ago.

One former Iranian lawmaker, who is close to Iran’s conservative faction, said the aim of Mr. Zarif’s visits was not just to reduce regional tensions but to sound an alarm over Saudi Arabia’s ambitions.

“We must not forget that it is Saudi Arabia sponsoring the terrorists in Syria, and they are also saying they want to purchase a nuclear weapon from Pakistan,” the lawmaker, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, said. “Mr. Zarif should make clear the regional states should not be worried over us, but over the Saudis.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 5, 2013

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated to whom Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran sent New Year’s wishes. They were sent to Jews worldwide, not Israelis.

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