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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1019452 times)
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« Reply #10635 on: Dec 13, 2013, 07:50 AM »

December 12, 2013

Opposition Leader’s Execution Spurs Protests in Bangladesh


NEW DELHI — The execution of a top opposition leader on Thursday night spurred violent protests across Bangladesh, with worse expected for Sunday when the opposition has called for a nationwide strike.

Abdul Quader Molla, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic party, was hanged at 10:01 p.m., said Shaikh Yusuf Harun, the deputy commissioner of Dhaka, the capital.

Mr. Molla, 65, is the first person executed as a result of a war-crimes tribunal that has sought to hold people to account for atrocities committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence. The government says that Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators, killed about three million people and raped 200,000 women during the war. Many of those killed were Hindus.

In February, the tribunal found Mr. Molla guilty of aiding Pakistani troops in killing hundreds of people, among other charges. His original life sentence prompted protests, with tens of thousands gathering in Dhaka to demand death sentences for Mr. Molla and others deemed war criminals. The protests were led in part by bloggers, and political commentators struggled to explain a situation in which progressive forces demanded death penalties while conservative ones urged leniency.

In September, the Bangladesh Supreme Court changed Mr. Molla’s conviction to a death sentence. By then, the protests had spawned counterprotests by Jamaat-e-Islami, and the dueling actions have paralyzed Bangladesh, wounded the country’s critical textile industry and led to hundreds of deaths.

Jamaat-e-Islami leaders promised “dire consequences” if Mr. Molla were executed. Elections are set for Jan. 5, but the opposition has demanded that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the governing Awami League step aside in favor of an independent caretaker government, which the government has rejected.

Mr. Molla’s hanging was initially set for Tuesday, but a stay was granted, frustrating hundreds who had gathered in Dhaka. The Supreme Court rejected his final appeal on Thursday. News of his death led to jubilation among the protesters.

Also Thursday, at least four people were shot dead and 25 injured in Laxmipur after elite security forces raided the home of Sahabuddin Sabu, a leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which is allied with Jamaat-e-Islami. And the home of a war-crimes tribunal judge was attacked with crude bombs.

More than a dozen others have been convicted or stand accused by the war-crimes tribunals. On Tuesday, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, called for a stay of Mr. Molla’s execution.

Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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« Reply #10636 on: Dec 13, 2013, 07:55 AM »

North Korea executes Kim Jong-un's uncle as 'traitor'

Jang Song-thaek, previously one of the country's most powerful men, accused of plotting to overthrow state

Tania Branigan in Beijing, Friday 13 December 2013 08.11 GMT   

North Korea has executed Kim Jong-un's uncle as a "traitor for all ages" who confessed to planning a coup, state media has announced.

Jang Song-thaek, previously one of the country's most powerful men, was accused of everything from plotting to overthrow the state to instigating disastrous currency reforms and dishing out pornography in the report from official news agency KCNA.

It denounced him as "worse than a dog" and "despicable human scum".

KCNA said a special military tribunal had found him guilty of treason and the Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried a photograph of him handcuffed and held by uniformed guards in the courtroom.

North Korea announced earlier this week that Jang, thought to be in his late 60s, had been stripped of all posts and expelled from the Workers' party for offences including factionalism, corruption and dissolute behaviour. But many had thought his marriage to the youthful leader's aunt – the sister of late leader Kim Jong-il – was likely to save his life.

In Pyongyang, people crowded around subway station billboards displaying the morning paper and news of the execution, Associated Press reported. Others sat quietly and listened as a radio broadcast broadcast into the subway listed Jang's crimes.

The lengthy, bombastic and at times downright bizarre report from KCNA quoted an alleged admission by Jang that he sought to destabilise the country, triggering discontent among the military and others. He planned to become premier if North Korea approached collapse and use illicitly acquired wealth to ensure that "the people and service personnel will shout 'hurrah' for me" and his coup would succeed smoothly".

It also claimed he pursued a "decadent capitalist lifestyle" – squandering at least €4.6m in 2009 alone, including in a foreign casino – and deliberately hampered construction projects in Pyongyang.

He sold off natural resources "at random" and committed treachery by selling off land at the Rason special economic zone for five decades, it added, apparently in reference to a deal with Russia.

"They are using this opportunity to scapegoat Uncle Jang by relegating responsibility for all policy failures," said Leonid Petrov of the Australian National University.

Other offences cited include halfhearted applause as Kim rose to power and Jang's "reckless" instruction to security forces to erect a granite block with Kim's signature in a shaded corner rather than in front of their headquarters.

Brian Myers, an expert on ideology at Dongseo University in Busan, noted that the denigration of Jang held potential perils for the leadership. It raised questions about his ability to cause so much damage for so long and sat uneasily with North Korea's use of collective punishment.

"This is a member of the clan in a culture where the regime tends to punish entire families for crimes committed by one of them. So it seems odd to be so explicit about [his] crimes," Myers said.

KCNA said Jang had long held a "dirty political ambition" but dared not act while Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were alive.

"He began revealing his true colours, thinking that it was just the time for him to realise his wild ambition in the period of historic turn when the generation of the revolution was replaced," it added.

That was when Jang – who had been purged twice before – returned to the forefront of North Korean politics. Kim Jong-il appeared to have selected him as a mentor figure who could help smooth Kim Jong-un's path to power.

Adam Cathcart, an expert on North Korea, said accusations of factionalism and seeking power were "pro forma" in such cases, but he noted how specific the charges were and added: "There certainly were discussions about the direction North Korea would take [when Kim Jong-il died]. It would be natural for Jang to want to be part of a collective leadership system.

"But North Korea is not moving towards a collective system: it's all about the one leader … It's the divine right of Kims."

Myers added: "The most surprising and unprecedented thing is not that someone was planning to overthrow the state … but the implication that he had a substantial number of followers. That's the first ever official admission of significant disunity in the North Korean state itself."

Kim has made sweeping changes to the hierarchy in North Korea, changing key military personnel repeatedly as well as removing civilian members, but family members are normally dealt with more leniently and quietly. It is unclear how the position of Jang's wife Kim Kyong Hui – also seen as something of a mentor for Kim following her brother's death – has been affected.

Nor is it clear whether Kim himself initiated his uncle's ousting or whether other parts of the elite were behind Jang's fall. While some analysts predict increased instability in the North, as those associated with Jang are removed, others argue that Kim has consolidated his position effectively.

Patrick Ventrell, White House National Security Council spokesman, said: "If confirmed, this is another example of the extreme brutality of the regime."

The KCNA report raises further questions about the development of North's economic and foreign policy, alleging Jang believed that after his coup his "reformist" reputation would encourage foreign countries to recognise him quickly.

Cathcart noted: "Kim has been very lucky in the external environment and I think he will continue to be. For all the bile [the North has] directed at South Korea, Japan and the US and even China, none of those countries are interested in grabbing this hornets' nest and shaking it right now."

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« Reply #10637 on: Dec 13, 2013, 07:59 AM »

Israel negotiator warns right-wingers seeking to derail peace

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 12, 2013 12:59 EST

Israel’s chief peace negotiator on Thursday accused a key coalition partner of deliberately seeking to sabotage talks with the Palestinians by ramping up settlement construction.

Speaking just hours before the arrival of US Secretary of State John Kerry on his second visit within a week, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni accused the far-right national religious Jewish Home of deliberately promoting settlement projects in a bid “to derail” the ongoing negotiations.

“More building, more announcements of building in isolated settlements are meant to prevent us reaching peace,” she told an audience at Tel Aviv University in remarks broadcast Thursday on public radio.

“That is their deliberate intention, to derail the negotiations. To cause the other side to walk out of the room,” she said.

Jewish Home controls the housing ministry, giving it a key role in promoting Israeli construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state.

“When one speaks of the Jewish Home’s veto power in the government, everyone is concerned with its veto on issues of religion and state,” said Livni, whose centrist HaTnuah party is also part of the coalition.

“They have another veto — with more (settlement) building, they place a veto on peace. They must not be allowed to use this informal veto, this illegitimate veto,” she said.

Kerry is due to arrive in the evening for another round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at driving forward the peace talks, which have been brought to the brink of collapse by a series of major settlement announcements, enraging the Palestinians.

Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, said the talks would go nowhere as long as the Palestinians refused to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and to accept an Israeli military presence along the eastern edge of their future homeland, bordering Jordan.

“So far the Palestinians say ‘no’ to everything; so Kerry can come here many more times but… I don’t think anything is going to change,” he told public radio.

During the trip, Kerry will meet Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah before heading to Jordan on Friday from where he will continue on to Asia.

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« Reply #10638 on: Dec 13, 2013, 08:01 AM »

U.N. report concludes that chemical weapons were used in Syrian conflict

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 12, 2013 22:25 EST

Chemical weapons have been used at least five times during the Syrian conflict and in some cases children have been slaughtered, according to a UN report released Thursday.

The report cites “credible evidence” and “evidence consistent with the probable use of chemical weapons” in the Syrian sites of Ghouta, Khan Al Asal, Jobar, Saraqueb and Ashrafieh Sahnaya.

But the UN said it could not corroborate their use in two of seven sites studied — Bahhariyeh and Sheik Maqsood.

“The United Nations Mission concludes that chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic,” said the report, prepared by a team of experts led by Swede Ake Sellstrom.

However, the report does not attribute blame for the attacks, as this was beyond the mandate given the team by the UN Security Council.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has admitted his forces hold chemical weapons, and has vowed to surrender them to international experts. But he insists his forces did not target civilians.

Western and Arab governments, human rights groups and Syrian rebels accuse the regime of carrying out the attacks. Assad and his allies in Moscow and Tehran blame the rebels.

Sellstrom, who led an investigative mission to Syria, had already provided a preliminary report to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on September 16.

That report concluded that banned chemical weapons had been used on a wide scale and that there was clear evidence that sarin gas was used in an attack in the Eastern Ghouta neighborhood near Damascus on August 21.

The final report said the mission “collected clear and convincing evidence that chemical weapons were used also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale” on that day in Ghouta.

“A number of patients/survivors were clearly diagnosed as intoxicated by an organophosphorous compound,” the report said.

“Blood and urine samples from the same patients were found positive for sarin and sarin signatures.”

The inspectors collected “credible information” corroborating allegations that chemical weapons were used in Khan Al Asal on March 19 against soldiers and civilians.

In Jobar, near Damascus, the inspectors “collected evidence consistent with the probable use of chemical weapons” there on “a relatively small scale against soldiers” on August 24.

But the report said it could not “establish the link between the victims, the alleged event and the alleged site” due to the “absence of primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody.”

In Saraqueb, the mission collected evidence “that suggests that chemical weapons were used” on a small scale there — “also against civilians” — on April 29 of this year.

In Ashrafiah Sahnaya, near Damascus, the inspectors collected evidence that “suggests” chemical weapons were used there on August 25 “on a small scale against soldiers.”

Here again, however, it was not able to establish the link between the alleged event, the alleged site and the survivors due to absence of primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples, according to the report.

Another factor, it said, was that samples collected by the inspectors “one week and one month” after the alleged incident tested negative.

In Bahhariyeh and Sheik Maqsood, where the use of chemical weapons is alleged to have occurred on August 22 and April 13 respectively, the UN could not corroborate the claims.

In Bahhariyeh this was due to the absence of positive blood samples, it said.

The Syrian regime had accused the opposition of using chemical weapons in Khan Al Asal, as well as in Jobar, Ashrafiah Sahnaya and Bahhariyeh.

The other alleged incidents were reported by the opposition or by Western countries supporting them.

The report, presented to Ban by Sellstrom on Thursday, has been distributed to Security Council members. The panel was expected to take it up on Monday.

Ban was due to present it to General Assembly on Friday.

When he received the report, Ban called the use of chemical weapons “a grave violation of international law and an affront to our shared humanity.”

“We need to remain vigilant to ensure that these awful weapons are eliminated, not only in Syria, but everywhere.”

Under an international agreement brokered to avoid US military strikes on the Damascus regime — which resulted in a landmark Security Council resolution — Syria’s most dangerous chemical weapons have to be out of the country by a December 31 deadline and destroyed by June 30, 2014.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #10639 on: Dec 13, 2013, 08:02 AM »

12/12/2013 04:55 PM

Abducted in Syria: Extremist Rebels Target Journalists

By Ulrike Putz

Radical Islamists embedded among the rebels in Syria are reportedly targeting foreign journalists for abduction. Instead of holding them for ransom, however, they use them as trump cards in their power struggles with more moderate rebel groups.

It was Sept. 16. The two Spaniards had almost made it to safety. Journalists Javiar Espinosa and Ricardo García, as well as their escorts, fighters with the Free Syrian Army, were hardly 15 minutes by car from the Turkish border when they were stopped at the last checkpoint within Syrian territory and abducted.

Some of their escorts were subsequently freed. From them, it is known that the men at the checkpoint were members of the extremist rebel group "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).

The two Spaniards were a big catch for the radical Islamists. Since early last summer, ISIS and other extremist groups have apparently shifted their strategy and begun targeting foreign reporters for abduction. On Tuesday, Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Beirut-based SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, said that 20 foreign journalists are being held captive in Syria. Some of the missing journalists are in the hands of the regime, he added, but the majority are captives of extremist groups.

And these are not the only missing reporters. In addition to foreign journalists, Mhanna says, about 10 Syrian journalists have been kidnapped and are being held. Since fighting broke out in the spring of 2011, roughly 55 journalists have lost their lives in Syria.

So far, all attempts to free Espinosa and García have failed. The Islamists don't appear to be concerned with ransom money. According to sources close to the extremists, the foreigners are instead viewed as a kind of life insurance policy. As things now stand, ISIS and similar radical groups are at war not only against regime forces, but also against groups of moderate Syrian rebels. For them, the Western reporters in their power are akin to a trump card that could win them concessions from moderate rebels concerned with the Westerners' well-being. The situation has also apparently prompted the Islamists to increase their attacks on rebels with opposing goals.

On Tuesday, four well-known human rights advocates were abducted in a rebel-controlled area near Damascus. Among the kidnapped were also Razan Zeitouneh, an acclaimed human rights lawyer, and her husband, Wael Hamada. The abductions have triggered sharp international criticism.

Experienced, Respected, Abducted

Islamists have set up a prison in the city of Ar-Raqqah specifically for their kidnapping victims, observers say. In addition to the journalists Espinosa and García, at least five other Westerners and an unspecified number of Syrians are being held there. At yet another location, ISIS has reportedly imprisoned at least four French citizens: Didier Francois and the photographer Edouard Elias, who were kidnapped in July, and Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres, who were abducted in June.

Espinosa and the photographer García were experienced and internationally renowned war correspondents. They were aware of the risks associated with their work. Espinosa, for instance, was in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, when a rocket struck nearby, killing American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik. The fact that Espinosa didn't just look after his own safety and that of other Western reporters, but also helped evacuate wounded Syrians, earned him great respect among Syrian rebels.

Prior to their kidnapping, the Spaniards had been traveling for two weeks in the Syrian province of Deir el-Zour on behalf of Spanish daily newspaper El Mundo. There, they documented the fighting between the regime and the rebels, but also the fight for survival of ordinary civilians. "Another body, another funeral and 1 more hole in the park," tweeted Espinosa on Sept. 15 from a burial ceremony.

It was his second-to-last tweet before he disappeared.

The fact that Espinosa's story is only now becoming public knowledge is the decision of his wife, Mónica García Prieto. After trying for weeks to negotiate with the kidnappers, she has now come to the conclusion that a news blackout is no longer useful, García Prieto said Monday in Beirut. Meanwhile, the García family has relayed the story to the Spanish public.

García Prieto appealed to the Syrian people to campaign for the release of her partner. "Javier and Ricardo are not your enemies," she said at a press conference, adding that they and their associates had made great sacrifices in order to report on the Syrian tragedy.

"Please honor the revolution that they have protected and free them," she added.

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« Reply #10640 on: Dec 13, 2013, 08:04 AM »

Central African Republic peacekeepers save Muslim group from violent crowd

Group seeking refuge in church saved as suspected Seleka members come under increasing threat in the capital

Associated Press, Thursday 12 December 2013 17.28 GMT   

African peacekeepers were forced to intervene in the Central African Republic on Thursday to disperse a crowd waiting to attack a group of Muslims who had taken refuge in a church compound.

Several thousand people stood by on Thursday as a group of men threw large rocks trying to break into the compound of the Saint-Jacques church in Bangui. They were looking for an ex-rebel general they believed to be inside.

They chanted: "Kill him! Kill him!" as others placed a large felled tree in front of the gate to prevent people escaping the refuge.

"He has attacked everyone and is responsible for many abuses here in Bangui," said Jonny Clevar, 18, as he and his friends stood near the entrance to the church. "We want to kill him."

The crowd hurled rocks at the peacekeepers and their vehicles, dispersing after shots were fired. Several men dressed in civilian clothing were then removed from the church compound.

Alongside 1,600 French soldiers, the peacekeeping forces are seeking to stabilise the country after more than 500 people were killed last week.

In March, an alliance of mostly Muslim rebels from the north removed the country's Christian president in a coup that brought President Michel Djotodia to power. Known as the Seleka, they have since been accused of carrying out scores of attacks on civilians.

Suspected Seleka members have come under increasing threat in Bangui since bloodshed started in the capital on 5 December. Earlier this week a crowd stoned to death a suspected Seleka member in front of his house and then set his two cars ablaze as onlookers watched.

Two French soldiers were killed earlier this week when they came under attack from gunmen near the city's airport.

There are an estimated 3,000 to 8,000 armed militia members belonging to diverse alliances in Bangui. Most have abided by calls by the French and African forces to hand in their weapons or return to their barracks, said a French military spokesman.

"The number of weapons circulating has dropped significantly in Bangui," he said in Paris on Thursday. "What remains is a certain number of individuals prone to carrying them or hiding them. It will take time to try to find these people and the weapons caches.

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« Reply #10641 on: Dec 13, 2013, 08:06 AM »

December 13, 2013

Crowds Gather for Final Glimpse of Mandela


QUNU, South Africa — For a third and final day, the body of Nelson Mandela was lying in state on Friday in a glass-topped coffin outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the capital, as thousands of South Africans waited in the heat to catch a final glimpse of the man they credit with unifying the nation following the end of apartheid rule.

But such were the numbers of people who turned out — some camping overnight — that the authorities said many might be turned away by the time the official viewing period came to an end on Friday afternoon.

According to South African officials, an estimated 20,000 people viewed Mr. Mandela’s body on Thursday, moving past at a brisk pace. But on Friday, the government said at least 50,000 people were trying to file past the coffin.

Some estimates put the number of people forming long lines much higher, gathering at screening centers to be bussed to the Union Buildings on a bluff overlooking the capital. Mr. Mandela’s body was lying in state in the amphitheater where he took the oath of office in 1994 as South Africa’s first black president.

“We cannot guarantee that every person who is presently in the queues at the various centers will be given access to the Union Buildings,” the government said in a statement.

Mr. Mandela is to be buried on Sunday in the remote village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape — his childhood home. The state funeral is scheduled to be the last formal moment in a 10-day national mourning period that has confronted many South Africans with questions about the post-Mandela era under the governing African National Congress.

“The A.N.C. must find its way back to the values of Mandela,” Jay Naidoo, a longtime associate of Mr. Mandela, said in a radio talk show, reflecting a sense among some South Africans that the party had strayed. In a clear display of disaffection with the current leadership during a memorial for Mr. Mandela on Tuesday, some in the crowd booed and whistled at President Jacob G. Zuma.

“We have to get back to basics,” Mr. Naidoo said.

As the crowds built in Pretoria, some attention began to shift to Qunu, where military jets roared through the skies on Friday in a rehearsal for the state funeral. Hundreds of soldiers lined up along a main highway and a brigade of satellite trucks and cameras sprouted on a hill overlooking this green village as the nation and the world prepared to give Mr. Mandela a final farewell.

Officials said they were planning for a miles-long procession to Qunu on Saturday from Mthatha Airport, where Mr. Mandela’s body will arrive from Pretoria. Thousands of mourners are expected to line the road in a human chain.

On Friday the government said 25 foreign dignitaries — including the presidents of Malawi and Tanzania, Britain’s Prince Charles and an array of serving and former government leaders — would attend the funeral. The dignitaries will land at the East London Airport, more than a two-hour drive southwest of Qunu.

More than 4,000 journalists have been accredited to cover the event, officials said, but only the South African Broadcasting Corporation will have access to the funeral. The burial itself will not be televised, following a request from Mr. Mandela’s family, said Harold Maloka, a government spokesman.

The security presence has been tight in and around Qunu, with the police setting up roadblocks limiting access into town. A long stretch of the highway from Mthatha to Qunu is scheduled to be closed from Friday night to prepare for the procession.

Hundreds of miles to the north, in Johannesburg’s leafy suburb of Houghton, some mourners and well-wishers went to Mr. Mandela’s former home where he died on Dec. 5 at age 95 after months of illness that started with a lung infection. They included Jesse Jackson, who also planned to attend the state funeral in Qunu.

Reflecting some of South Africa’s unresolved political divisions, Julius Malema, a radical leader who has been expelled from the governing African National Congress, led a phalanx of followers to place flowers at Mr. Mandela’s former home, all of them wearing the distinctive red berets of his Economic Freedom Fighters movement.

“We are picking up the spear to continue the struggle,” Mr. Malema said.

John Eligon reported from Qunu, South Africa, and Alan Cowell from London.

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« Reply #10642 on: Dec 13, 2013, 08:08 AM »

December 12, 2013

Mexico’s Pride, Oil, May Be Opened to Outsiders


CIUDAD DEL CARMEN, Mexico — Every gas station in Mexico is stamped with the green-and-white logo of the state-owned oil monopoly, the economic lifeblood of the government. Oil Expropriation Day, commemorating the day Mexico seized control of the industry from foreign companies in 1938, is celebrated with speeches and even parades in some towns. An old song, “The Oil Worker Hymn,” credits oil with “saving our fatherland.”

But now, in what could be the biggest economic change in two decades, President Enrique Peña Nieto is on the verge of rewriting the Constitution to open Mexico’s oil, gas and electricity industry to private investment — a provocative move expected to lure international oil companies and expand North America’s energy supply while testing the grip oil has on Mexico’s soul.

“We must defend our oil,” Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a three-time presidential candidate and son of the president who nationalized the oil industry, declared in a television advertisement. The state oil company, he said, belongs “to all Mexicans, and we must not allow it to go private.”

The legislation, which won final congressional approval on Thursday afternoon, declares that Mexico still owns its oil. But it allows private businesses to drill for oil and natural gas in partnership with the state monopoly, called Pemex, or on their own, returning international oil companies to territory they were kicked out of 75 years ago.

“They have been waiting for a long time for a true opportunity,” Jeremy M. Martin, director of the energy program at the Institute of the Americas, said of the oil companies.

In a country where oil is often equated with sovereignty and national pride, the plan has set off furious debate. But while demonstrations helped thwart a more tepid attempt to open the industry in 2008, they were not effective this time — though there were some colorful moments.

As the lower chamber of the legislature argued over the change, one leftist lawmaker stripped down to his black underwear to suggest that the country was giving away its most treasured resources. The change must be ratified by just over half of Mexico’s states in order to become law. Mr. Peña Nieto’s party controls a majority of the states.

The goal, Mr. Peña Nieto’s aides say, is to stimulate Mexico’s sliding oil production and vault the country into the developed world by tapping vast pockets of oil and natural gas deep under the earth and sea. Foreign oil companies have quietly lobbied the government to open up for years. Pemex, short for Petróleos Mexicanos, is known for inefficiency at best and corruption at worst.

The energy overhaul is the centerpiece of a series of changes Mr. Peña Nieto has pushed through this year with mixed results, including an effort to break up telecommunications monopolies, raise taxes and weaken the teachers union’s hold on faltering schools. His Institutional Revolutionary Party — which nationalized the oil industry in the first place, setting Mexico on its course toward industrialization — joined with conservatives who have long wanted the changes, casting off a weakened left.

Opinion polls suggest that Mexicans are growing impatient with Mr. Peña Nieto’s agenda and do not feel the benefits, as economic growth has slowed and the violence he promised to tackle persists largely unchecked.

Mr. Peña Nieto is banking that the energy changes will inject new life into the economy. Other presidents have failed in taking on the oil monopoly, a lifeblood to government coffers and a touchstone for the left.

“Oil has symbolic power in Mexico that it does not have in every oil country,” said Noel Maurer, a political economist at Harvard Business School. “Mexico has built up national mythologies that ‘the oil is ours.’ It’s like a flag-burning issue.”

Polls show that a majority of Mexicans generally oppose foreign investment in oil, but the passions may be fading. While schoolchildren are still taught about the nationalization of the industry, it is covered in just one page in the standard fifth-grade history textbook.

Even here in Ciudad del Carmen, where the discovery of one of the world’s largest oil fields at the end of the 1970s propelled the country to the top ranks of oil producers and turned this fishing village into a prominent oil town, the “it’s ours” passion has dwindled.

Foreign-run contracting companies are already ubiquitous here, providing a variety of services to offshore platforms and nearby wells. A common complaint is that the benefits of sovereign oil have been oversold.

“I laugh when I hear those arguments, ‘it’s our oil,’ ” said Enrique Sánchez, an engineer for a Pemex contractor. “I am still waiting for my payment.”

New malls, housing developments and big-box stores speak to the boom that oil exploration has provided, but many of the jobs have come from service contractors that pay less than Pemex, where a powerful union controls jobs and many speak of having to pay off leaders for entree.

The contractors’ orange jumpsuits and hard hats, in contrast to the yellow worn by Pemex workers, are far more visible on the streets, and skepticism about the new law runs deep.

“The rich will get richer,” said José Luis Gutiérrez, an oil platform welder preparing for a 14-day shift at sea. “It is our pride, our heritage, but up to now, the poor are still poor.”

Two decades after Mexico sold off banks and the telephone monopoly, Mexicans pay more for credit and phone service than other Latin Americans, and they suspect they will pay more for gas under the new law, too.

The government and oil industry analysts say Pemex cannot go it alone any longer. The urgency stems in part from the energy revolution in the United States, where cheap energy is helping American businesses.

Mexico’s oil production has declined by 25 percent from its 2004 peak, to just over 2.5 million barrels a day. Pemex is spending more to pump less: Investment has more than doubled in the same period, to more than $20 billion a year.

Mexico has abundant oil and natural gas reserves, but they are increasingly difficult and expensive to reach, far below the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and trapped in shale deposits deep below the earth. New technology has unlocked those sources of oil and gas around the world, particularly in the United States, but Pemex has not kept pace.

It is an appendage of the Mexican government, heavily taxed to fund as much as 40 percent of the national budget. To keep that money flowing, almost all of its investments have gone to pumping crude for export. It is also an enormous source of patronage, creating fortunes for contractors with political connections, including the union.

The union leader, Carlos Romero Deschamps, is a senator and a rich man whose spending extravagances and those of his children regularly make headlines here. The legislation ejects the union from the Pemex governing board but maintains other privileges.

Some on the left worry that as more efficient foreign companies move in, Pemex may ultimately lose control over a growing share of Mexico’s oil and gas reserves.

“Pemex needs major surgery, not euthanasia,” said Graco Ramírez, the leftist governor of the state of Morelos.

This city is already creaking under the growth, but a gold-rush mentality in anticipation of the new law is setting in.

“They’re already building three hotels, and many more people from other countries will be coming in,” said Nelson de Ganzer, who owns three Brazilian restaurants in town and has seen a surge of foreign workers among his customers. “This will be big for Mexico.”

Randal C. Archibold reported from Ciudad del Carmen and Mexico City, and Elisabeth Malkin from Mexico City. Clifford Krauss contributed reporting from Houston.

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« Reply #10643 on: Dec 13, 2013, 08:10 AM »

Unease among Brazil's farmers as Congress votes on GM terminator seeds

Environmentalists warn approval could shatter global agreement not to use technology, with devastating repercussions

Jonathan Watts in Rio de Janeiro and John Vidal, Thursday 12 December 2013 16.34 GMT      

Brazil is set to break a global moratorium on genetically-modified "terminator" seeds, which are said to threaten the livelihoods of millions of small farmers around the world.

The sterile or "suicide" seeds are produced by means of genetic use restriction technology, which makes crops die off after one harvest without producing offspring. As a result, farmers have to buy new seeds for each planting, which reduces their self-sufficiency and makes them dependent on major seed and chemical companies.

Environmentalists fear that any such move by Brazil – one of the biggest agricultural producers on the planet – could produce a domino effect that would result in the worldwide adoption of the controversial technology.

Major seed and chemical companies, which together own more than 60% of the global seed market, all have patents on terminator seed technologies. However, in the 1990s they agreed not to employ the technique after a global outcry by small farmers, indigenous groups and civil society groups.

In 2000, 193 countries signed up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which recommended a de facto moratorium on this technology.

The moratorium is under growing pressure in Brazil, where powerful landowning groups have been pushing Congress to allow the technology to be used for the controlled propogation of certain plants used for medicines and eucalyptus trees, which provide pulp for paper mills.

The landowning groups want to plant large areas with fast growing GM trees and other non-food GM crops that could theoretically spread seeds over wide areas. The technology, they argue, would be a safeguard, ensuring that no second generation pollution of GM traits takes place. They insist that terminator seeds would only be used for non-food crops.

Their efforts to force a bill to this effect through Congress, ongoing since 2007, have been slowed due to resistance from environmentalists.

The proposed measure has been approved by the legislature's agricultural commission, rejected by the environmental commission, and now sits in the justice and citizenship commission. It is likely to go to a full Congressional vote, where it could be passed as early as next Tuesday, or soon after the Christmas recess.

Environment groups say there would be global consequences. "Brazil is the frontline. If the agro-industry breaks the moratorium here, they'll break it everywhere," said Maria José Guazzelli, of Centro Ecológico, which represents a coalition of Brazilian NGOs.

This week they presented a protest letter signed by 34,000 people to thwart the latest effort to move the proposed legislation forward. "If this bill goes through, it would be a disaster. Farmers would no longer be able to produce their own seeds. That's the ultimate aim of the agro-industry," she said.

The international technology watchdog ETC, which was among the earliest proponents of a ban on terminator technology in the 1990s, fears this is part of a strategy to crack the international consensus.

"If the bill is passed, [we expect] the Brazilian government to take a series of steps that will orchestrate the collapse of the 193-country consensus moratorium when the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meets for its biennial conference in Korea in October 2014," said executive director Pat Mooney.

But Eduardo Sciarra, Social Democratic party leader in the Brazilian Congress, said the proposed measure did not threaten farmers because it was intended only to set controlled guidelines for the research and development of "bioreactor" plants for medicine.

"Gene use restriction technology has its benefits. This bill allows the use of this technology only where it is good for humanity," he said.

The technology was developed by the US Department of Agriculture and the world's largest seed and agrochemical firms. Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, Dow, Monsanto and DuPont together control more than 60% of the global commercial seed market and 76% of the agrochemical market. All are believed to hold patents on the technology, but none are thought to have developed the seeds for commercial use.

Massive protests in the 1990s by Indian, Latin American and south-east Asian peasant farmers, indigenous groups and their supporters put the companies on the back foot, and they were reluctantly forced to shelve the technology after the UN called for a de-facto moratorium in 2000.

Now, while denying that they intend to use terminator seeds, the companies argue that the urgent need to combat climate change makes it imperative to use the technology. In addition, they say that the technology could protect conventional and organic farmers by stopping GM plants spreading their genes to wild relatives – an increasing problem in the US, Argentina and other countries where GM crops are grown on a large scale.

A Monsanto spokesman in Brazil said the company was unaware of the developments and stood by a commitment made in 1999 not to pursue terminator technology. "I'm not aware of so-called terminator seeds having been developed by any organisation, and Monsanto stands firmly by our commitment and has no plans or research relating to this," said Tom Helscher.

On its website, however, the company's commitment only appears to relate to "food crops", which does not encompass the tree and medicinal products under consideration in Brazil.

• Additional research by Anna Kaiser
Background to a controversy

Ever since GM companies were found to be patenting "gene-use restriction" or "terminator" technologies in the 1990s, they have been accused of threatening biodiversity and seeking to make farmers dependent on big industry for their livelihoods.

In many developing countries, where up to 80% of farmers each year choose their best plants and save their own seed, terminator technology is a byword for all genetic modification, raising fears that sterile GM strains could contaminate wild plants and regular crops – with devastating consequences.

The GM companies, which claimed in the 1990s that they wanted to introduce the seeds only to stop farmers stealing their products, were forced to shelve the technology in the face of massive protests in India, Latin Amercia and south-east Asia.

In the face of growing international alarm, the 193 countries signed up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity unanimously agreed in 2000 that there should be a de facto international moratorium. This was strengthened at the Conference of the Parties in 2006, under the presidency of Brazil.

Since then, the moratorium has held firm. But the GM companies have shifted their arguments, saying that gene-use restriction technologies now allow seeds to reproduce, but could "switch off" the GM traits. This, they argue, would reduce the possibility of the seeds spreading sterility. In addition, they say the technology could protect organic and conventional farmers from the spread of transgenes to wild relatives and weeds, which plagues GM farmers in the US and elsewhere.

The fear now is that the global moratorium could quickly unravel if Brazil, one of the most important agricultural countries in the world, overturns its national law to ban terminator technology. Other countries, pressed strongly by the powerful GM lobby, would probably follow, leading inevitably to more protests.

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« Reply #10644 on: Dec 13, 2013, 08:13 AM »

Why climate change threatens Peru's poverty reduction mission

As Peru prepares to host the COP summit in 2014, the UNDP is urging the country to focus on sustainability

Dan Collyns in Lima
Friday 13 December 2013 12.07 GMT   

The Peruvian Amazon became a net emitter of carbon dioxide rather than oxygen for the first time in 2012, according to the UN Development Programme's (UNDP) latest human development country report.

The reversal of the rainforest's usual role as a carbon sink is a direct result of the droughts in the western Amazon in 2005 and 2010 – and a stark reminder, say scientists, that this mega-biodiverse country is highly vulnerable to climate change.

Peru, which has four of the five geographical areas most vulnerable to climate change – ranging from fragile mountain ecosystems to low-lying coastal areas – will host the 20th UN climate change conference in 2014.

The 2013 UNDP report warned that Peru's climate change vulnerability could undo the advances it has made in channelling economic growth into sustained poverty reduction. Peru's poverty rates have been more than halved over the past decade, dropping from 48.5% of the population in 2004 to 25.8% in 2012, according to the World Bank.

"If we disregard [environmental] sustainability, whatever progress we have made in poverty reduction or improvement of human development will just be erased due to climate change," cautioned Maria Eugenia Mujica, one of the UNDP report's authors.

Peru has already lost 39% of its tropical glaciers due to a 0.7C temperature rise in the Andes between 1939 and 2006. But, the report noted, with a predicted temperature rise of up to 6C in many parts of the Andes by the end of this century, there will be "harmful impacts on human development".

Peru, which contributes just 0.4% of the world's greenhouse gases, was ranked third after Bangladesh and Honduras, in climate hazards risks by the UK's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

What could be pushing Peru to the brink, researchers warned, is that its economic boom is inextricably linked to activities that damage the environment and contribute to climate change.

Illicit activities such as illegal gold mining and logging, and the cocaine trade – all of which are environmentally destructive but lucrative – are economic drivers in many regions of the country, boosting incomes and, ironically, human development.

A marked increase in the human development ranking in Peru's Amazon region – measured in increased income – was largely linked to environmentally destructive and illegal coca growing and gold mining, the latter of which also damages human health.

"The growth does not come from education or health, but from predatory activities, like [resource] extraction and mining," said Francisco Santa Cruz, another of the report's authors.

As a result of high global gold prices combined with the widespread nature of the informal economy, illegal and artisanal mining now occurs in 21 of Peru's 25 regions. In Madre de Dios, the Amazon region where illegal gold mining has had most impact, the rate of forest loss has tripled since the 2008 economic crisis, when gold prices began to soar.

Significantly, the rise in income has not been accompanied by an improvement in health and education, the two other key indicators in measuring human development. Consequently, Peru's 28% human development growth between 1980 and 2012 is more lopsided than it might appear.

"Despite stellar economic growth, the fact that human development is falling or stalled in one of every 10 districts shows the need for Peru to promote inclusive growth and rights," said the UK-based Peru Support Group.

"A key step in this direction would be to ensure that the millions of indigenous peoples have a say on how extractive projects should go ahead, by implementing their right to prior consultation, so they aren't forced to accept projects that are harmful to their interests but that ministers want to go ahead."

In recognition of Peru's status as a signatory to the International Labour Organisation's Convention 169, the law is designed to give indigenous communities the right to an opinion on development projects in or around their territories.

As Peru announces plans to invest $6bn in renewable energy projects, experts predict climate change could cost between 8% and 34% of its GDP. The Latin American and Caribbean region will face annual damages in the order of $100bn by 2050, according to an Inter-American Development Bank report.

"Environmentally damaging activities in Peru mean there are ecosystems which can no longer respond to climate change," said James Leslie, technical advisor on ecosystems and climate change for the UNDP.

"Peru needs to bring in mechanisms so that public finance takes into account climate risks."

Peru has called its hosting of next year's COP summit an opportunity to change the world. Its heightened sensitivity to climate change makes it, perhaps, the perfect location for a summit on which rest the hopes of so many nations.

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« Reply #10645 on: Dec 13, 2013, 08:22 AM »

It’s not a movie — the universe really is a hologram, according to new science

By Travis Gettys
Thursday, December 12, 2013 9:22 EST

A team of physicists has found evidence to support an idea long theorized by philosophers and stoners alike that the universe might actually be one big holographic projection.

Theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena proposed in 1997 that gravity is the result of vanishingly small, vibrating strings that that exist in nine dimensions of space and one of time.

If that were the case, then the universe would essentially be a hologram – a simpler, flatter cosmos without gravity – that is perceived much the same way that Plato described in his Allegory of the Cave.

“The work culminated in the last decade, and it suggests, remarkably, that all we experience is nothing but a holographic projection of processes taking place on some distant surface that surrounds us,” wrote physicist Brian Greene, of Columbia University. “You can pinch yourself, and what you feel will be real, but it mirrors a parallel process taking place in a different, distant reality.”

Plato compared human perception to some ancient cave-dweller watching shadows flicker across a dimly lit wall, and Green suggests that his metaphor may describe a reality that theoretical physicists are just beginning to map out.

“Reality — not its mere shadow — may take place on a distant boundary surface, while everything we witness in the three common spatial dimensions is a projection of that faraway unfolding,” Greene wrote. “Reality, that is, may be akin to a hologram. Or, really, a holographic movie.”

The holographic principle suggests there’s a two-dimensional surface that contains all the information needed to describe a three-dimensional object – even the universe.

Physicists have been fascinated with Maldacena’s hologram conjecture because it could help prove string theory and solve inconsistencies between quantum physics and Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity.

Einstein understood that space and time were bound together as spacetime and theorized that they could be warped by massive objects – much like a heavy ball dropped onto a trampoline.

General relativity describes planets and galaxies, but quantum mechanics zooms in to the subatomic scale and the fundamental particles that make up matter – and gravity is negligible at that level.

The quantum field theory of particle physics holds that one fundamental particle exerts force on another by sending over messenger particles called gauge bosons, which has been observed in three of the fundamental forces — the electromagnetic force, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force.

But physicists have not observed gravity’s hypothetical messenger particle, the graviton.

The idea that fundamental particles are actually tiny vibrating strings allows physicists to work around mathematical problems in quantum gravity, but there are many physical qualities that string theories can’t describe – and physicists had not been able to test them.

Maldacena may have solved the riddle by imagining gravity as an illusion conjured up by a quantum hologram, and his conjecture has been accepted as valid for years.

New calculations published by Japanese physicists from Ibaraki University make the same predictions as Maldacena’s 10-dimensional model, but in fewer dimensions.

For one study, physicist Yoshifumi Hyakutake and his colleagues created a computer model of a black hole – which is formed when a large amount of mass is concentrated in a tiny region of space and creates a gravitational pull so strong that not even light can escape.

They computed the internal energy of a black hole, the position of its event horizon – or the boundary between the black hole and the rest of the universe — its entropy and other properties based on string theory predictions and other factors.

In the other study, Hyakutake and his team calculated the internal energy of the corresponding lower-dimensional cosmos without gravity.

Significantly, they found the two computer calculations matched.

“They have numerically confirmed, perhaps for the first time, something we were fairly sure had to be true, but was still a conjecture — namely that the thermodynamics of certain black holes can be reproduced from a lower-dimensional universe,” said Leonard Susskind, a theoretical physicist at Stanford University.

What this means is that there may be physical processes taking place on some distant surface that can be perceived as three-dimensional reality.

Or, put even more simply, it’s possible that what we call reality is actually a hologram projected onto the surface of a black hole in which our universe exists.

Maldacena, who now works at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, said the works appears to be a correct computation.

“(The findings) are an interesting way to test many ideas in quantum gravity and string theory,” Maldacena said, noting that the Japanese team had worked for several years to test the theory. “The whole sequence of papers is very nice because it tests the dual (nature of the universes) in regimes where there are no analytic tests.”

Neither model universe resembles our own, Maldacena said.

The cosmos with the black hole has 10 dimensions, he pointed out, with eight of them forming an eight-dimensional sphere.

The gravity-free universe has only one dimension with quantum particles resembling a group of springs attached to one another.

However, Maldacena said, the numerical proof suggests that our own universe can one day be explained purely in terms of quantum theory.

“I view this idea as a model, but it’s a model that gives a mathematical description of quantum spacetime,” he said in a previous interview. “So we should take it seriously until someone refutes it, or comes up with something better.”

[Image via Agence France-Presse]


Scientists find water plumes shooting off Jupiter moon

December 12, 2013 10:03PM ET

New observations from the Hubble Space Telescope show jets of water vapor blasting off the southern pole of Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter that is believed to hold an underground ocean, scientists said Thursday.

If confirmed, the discovery could affect scientists' assessments of whether the moon has the right conditions for life, planetary scientist Kurt Retherford, with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, told reporters at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

"We've only seen this at one location right now, so to try to infer that there's a global effect as a result of this is a little difficult at this time," Retherford said.

Researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope found 125-mile-high plumes of water vapor shooting off from Europa's south polar region in December 2012.

The jets were not seen during Hubble observations of the same region in October 1999 and November 2012. The now-defunct Galileo spacecraft, which made nine passes by Europa in the late 1990s, likewise did not detect any plumes.

Scientists believe the water vapor may be escaping from cracks in Europa's southern polar ice that open due to gravitational stresses when the moon is farthest from Jupiter.

"When Europa is close to Jupiter, it gets stressed and the poles get squished and the cracks close up. Then, as it moves further away from Jupiter, it becomes un-squished, the pole moves outward and that's when the cracks open," said planetary scientist Francis Nimmo, with the University of California in Santa Cruz.

The plumes also could be the result of frictional heating from rubbing ice blocks or a fortuitously timed comet impact, scientists said.

Similar jets have been detected on Saturn's moon Enceladus, which because it has 12 times less gravity than Europa, can shoot its plumes much farther into space.

Scientists find it interesting that both Europa and Enceladus, which is being studied by the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft, are pumping out about the same amount of water vapor, roughly seven tons per second.

"We were really kind of surprised by the number ... and we're grasping what that means," Retherford said.

Additional NASA Hubble observations are planned, as well as a review of archived Galileo data taken when Europa was farthest away from Jupiter.

"Now that we know where (the plumes) are, that narrows the window that we have in comparison to the passes that we've made," said NASA's planetary sciences chief, Jim Green.

"I think we'll have some other great results, or another controversy," he said.

NASA scientists announced in early December that Mars rover Curiosity had discovered what appeared to be an ancient lake that may have supported life.

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« Reply #10646 on: Dec 13, 2013, 08:46 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

December 12, 2013

Obama Panel Said to Urge N.S.A. Curbs


WASHINGTON — A presidential advisory committee charged with examining the operations of the National Security Agency has concluded that a program to collect data on every phone call made in the United States should continue, though under broad new restraints that would be intended to increase privacy protections, according to officials with knowledge of the report’s contents.

The committee’s report, the officials said, also argues in favor of codifying and publicly announcing the steps the United States will take to protect the privacy of foreign citizens whose telephone records, Internet communications or movements are collected by the N.S.A. But it is unclear how far that effort would go, and intelligence officials have argued strenuously that they should be under few restrictions when tapping the communications of non-Americans abroad, who do not have constitutional protections under the Fourth Amendment.

The advisory group is also expected to recommend that senior White House officials, including the president, directly review the list of foreign leaders whose communications are routinely monitored by the N.S.A. President Obama recently apologized to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany for the N.S.A.’s monitoring of her calls over the past decade, promising that the actions had been halted and would not resume. But he refused to make the same promise to the leaders of Mexico and Brazil.

Administration officials say the White House has already taken over supervision of that program. “We’re not leaving it to Jim Clapper anymore,” said one official, referring to the director of national intelligence, who appears to have been the highest official to review the programs regularly.

But resistance from the intelligence agencies is likely. In an interview two months ago, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the soon-to-retire director of the N.S.A. and the commander of the military’s Cyber Command, suggested that a major cutback in American spying on foreign nationals would be naïve. And officials who have examined the N.S.A.’s programs say they have been surprised at how infrequently the agency has been challenged to weigh the intelligence benefits of its foreign collection operations against the damage that could be done if the programs were exposed.

One of the expected recommendations is that the White House conduct a regular review of those collection activities, the way covert action by the C.I.A. is reviewed annually.

Another likely recommendation, officials say, is the creation of an organization of legal advocates who, like public defenders, would argue against lawyers for the N.S.A. and other government organizations in front of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the nation’s secret court that oversees the collection of telephone and Internet “metadata” and of wiretapping aimed at terrorism and espionage suspects. Mr. Obama has already hinted that he objects to the absence of any adversarial procedures in front of the court’s judges.

But even if the N.S.A.’s activities are curtailed, it may be hard to convince Americans — or Germans, Mexicans and Brazilians — that the agency’s practices had changed. In part, that may depend on how much public transparency is built into programs that the government has spent years cloaking.

The advisory report offers the first signs that the revelations by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who took thousands of documents from the agency’s archives and has given some of them to news organizations, may lead to changes in the programs he exposed. While Mr. Snowden has been widely condemned in Washington for violating his oaths to protect secrets, and for taking up asylum in Russia instead of facing prosecution, it now appears likely that his disclosures will lead to the result he told interviewers he was seeking.

Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, declined to discuss any specific recommendations of the panel. “Our review is looking across the board at our intelligence gathering to ensure that as we gather intelligence, we are properly accounting for both the security of our citizens and our allies, and the privacy concerns shared by Americans and citizens around the world,” she said. “We need to ensure that our intelligence resources are most effectively supporting our foreign policy and national security objectives — that we are more effectively weighing the risks and rewards of our activities.”

She added that the review was especially focused on “examining whether we have the appropriate posture when it comes to heads of state; how we coordinate with our closest allies and partners; and what further guiding principles or constraints might be appropriate for our efforts.”

The five-person advisory group of intelligence and legal experts, several of whom have long connections to Mr. Obama, is expected to deliver its lengthy, unclassified report to the White House by this weekend. Among its members are Richard A. Clarke, who served in the Clinton administration and both Bush administrations and has become an expert on digital conflict; Michael J. Morell, a former deputy director of the C.I.A.; and Cass R. Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who served in the Obama White House and is married to Samantha Power, the ambassador to the United Nations.

Two leading legal academics are also members: Peter Swire, an expert in privacy law, and Geoffrey R. Stone, a constitutional law expert and a former dean of the University of Chicago Law School, where Mr. Obama once taught.

Members of the advisory group have declined to talk about their recommendations until the report is published. But fragmentary accounts of their main conclusions have begun to seep out, as word has spread of a preliminary briefing they gave to Mr. Obama’s top advisers. Two officials said that the advisers had gone further to challenge the intelligence agencies’ ways of doing business than they had expected.

“There’s going to be a lot of pushback to some of their ideas,” said one person familiar with the contents, who declined to go into detail. Another said that the report was “still being fine-tuned,” and that elements of the recommendations may change.

As a senator, Mr. Obama was critical of the Bush administration’s efforts to extend the N.S.A.’s surveillance powers, but as president he has embraced most of the programs begun during Mr. Bush’s time, including the bulk collection of telephone metadata. Only one major N.S.A. program, involving the bulk collection of metadata from about 1 percent of all emails sent inside the United States, is known to have been ended during Mr. Obama’s presidency.

Once it is delivered to the White House, the report is expected to feed into another review being conducted by national security officials across the administration. Mr. Obama has indicated that he plans to announce a range of changes, though officials say that is not likely to happen until early next year. At some point, officials say, the advisory group’s entire report will be made public.

In an interview last week on MSNBC, Mr. Obama said, “I’ll be proposing some self-restraint on the N.S.A., and, you know, to initiate some reforms that can give people more confidence.” But he gave no details.

Mr. Obama asked the advisory group to determine whether the N.S.A. had overreached, putting new programs in place because it had the technological capability, rather than weighing the costs to privacy. “What’s coming back is a report that says we can’t dismantle these programs, but we need to change the way almost all of them operate,” said one official familiar with the advisory group’s instructions.

So far, the intelligence agencies have largely opposed most proposals for major changes in the programs that they developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. For example, General Alexander has told Congress that it would not be possible to dismantle the bulk collection of data about American telephone calls until there was an efficient way to search quickly for data held by communications companies like AT&T and Verizon. Many of those companies do not retain the information for more than 18 months, and say they do not want to take on the burden and legal liabilities of holding it longer.

But General Alexander suggested in the interview two months ago that it may be several years before the United States can develop technology that would make it unnecessary for the government to amass that data in its own storage sites.

Michael S. Schmidt and Charlie Savage contributed reporting.


Bill Moyers: 'We Are This Close to Losing Our Democracy to the Mercenary Class'

The great journalist sounds the alarm about the rise of the plutocracy and the shredding of the social contract.
December 12, 2013  |  

I met Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in 1987 when I was creating a series for public television called In Search of the Constitution, celebrating the bicentennial of our founding document.  By then, he had served on the court longer than any of his colleagues and had written close to 500 majority opinions, many of them addressing fundamental questions of equality, voting rights, school segregation, and -- in New York Times v. Sullivan in particular -- the defense of a free press.

Those decisions brought a storm of protest from across the country.  He claimed that he never took personally the resentment and anger directed at him.  He did, however, subsequently reveal that his own mother told him she had always liked his opinions when he was on the New Jersey court, but wondered now that he was on the Supreme Court, “Why can’t you do it the same way?” His answer: “We have to discharge our responsibility to enforce the rights in favor of minorities, whatever the majority reaction may be.”  

Although a liberal, he worried about the looming size of government. When he mentioned that modern science might be creating “a Frankenstein,” I asked, “How so?”  He looked around his chambers and replied, “The very conversation we’re now having can be overheard. Science has done things that, as I understand it, makes it possible through these drapes and those windows to get something in here that takes down what we’re talking about.”

That was long before the era of cyberspace and the maximum surveillance state that grows topsy-turvy with every administration.  How I wish he were here now -- and still on the Court!

My interview with him was one of 12 episodes in that series on the Constitution.  Another concerned a case he had heard back in 1967.  It involved a teacher named Harry Keyishian who had been fired because he would not sign a New York State loyalty oath.  Justice Brennan ruled that the loyalty oath and other anti-subversive state statutes of that era violated First Amendment protections of academic freedom.

I tracked Keyishian down and interviewed him.  Justice Brennan watched that program and was fascinated to see the actual person behind the name on his decision.  The journalist Nat Hentoff, who followed Brennan’s work closely, wrote, “He may have seen hardly any of the litigants before him, but he searched for a sense of them in the cases that reached him.”  Watching the interview with Keyishian, he said, “It was the first time I had seen him.  Until then, I had no idea that he and the other teachers would have lost everything if the case had gone the other way.”

Toward the end of his tenure, when he was writing an increasing number of dissents on the Rehnquist Court, Brennan was asked if he was getting discouraged. He smiled and said, “Look, pal, we’ve always known -- the Framers knew -- that liberty is a fragile thing.  You can’t give up.”  And he didn’t.

The Donor Class and Streams of Dark Money

The historian Plutarch warned us long ago of what happens when there is no brake on the power of great wealth to subvert the electorate.  “The abuse of buying and selling votes,” he wrote of Rome, “crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections.  Later on, this process of corruption spread in the law courts and to the army, and finally, when even the sword became enslaved by the power of gold, the republic was subjected to the rule of emperors.”

We don’t have emperors yet, but we do have the Roberts Court that consistently privileges the donor class.  

We don’t have emperors yet, but we do have a Senate in which, as a study by the political scientist Larry Bartels reveals, “Senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes.”

We don’t have emperors yet, but we have a House of Representatives controlled by the far right that is now nourished by streams of “dark money” unleashed thanks to the gift bestowed on the rich by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case.

We don’t have emperors yet, but one of our two major parties is now dominated by radicals engaged in a crusade of voter suppression aimed at the elderly, the young, minorities, and the poor; while the other party, once the champion of everyday working people, has been so enfeebled by its own collaboration with the donor class that it offers only token resistance to the forces that have demoralized everyday Americans.

Writing in the Guardian recently, the social critic George Monbiot commented,

“So I don’t blame people for giving up on politics... When a state-corporate nexus of power has bypassed democracy and made a mockery of the voting process, when an unreformed political system ensures that parties can be bought and sold, when politicians [of the main parties] stand and watch as public services are divvied up by a grubby cabal of privateers, what is left of this system that inspires us to participate?”

Why are record numbers of Americans on food stamps? Because record numbers of Americans are in poverty. Why are people falling through the cracks? Because there are cracks to fall through. It is simply astonishing that in this rich nation more than 21 million Americans are still in need of full-time work, many of them running out of jobless benefits, while our financial class pockets record profits, spends lavishly on campaigns to secure a political order that serves its own interests, and demands that our political class push for further austerity. Meanwhile, roughly 46 million Americans live at or below the poverty line and, with the exception of Romania, no developed country has a higher percent of kids in poverty than we do.  Yet a study by scholars at Northwestern University and Vanderbilt finds little support among the wealthiest Americans for policy reforms to reduce income inequality.

Class Prerogatives

Listen!  That sound you hear is the shredding of the social contract.

Ten years ago the Economist magazine -- no friend of Marxism -- warned: “The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.”  And as a recent headline in the Columbia Journalism Review put it: “The line between democracy and a darker social order is thinner than you think.”

We are this close -- this close! -- to losing our democracy to the mercenary class. So close it’s as if we’re leaning way over the rim of the Grand Canyon waiting for a swift kick in the pants.

When Justice Brennan and I talked privately in his chambers before that interview almost 20 years ago, I asked him how he had come to his liberal sentiments.  “It was my neighborhood,” he said.  Born to Irish immigrants in 1906, as the harsh indignities of the Gilded Age brought hardship and deprivation to his kinfolk and neighbors, he saw “all kinds of suffering -- people had to struggle.”  He never forgot those people or their struggles, and he believed it to be our collective responsibility to create a country where they would have a fair chance to a decent life.  “If you doubt it,” he said, “read the Preamble [to the Constitution].”

He then asked me how I had come to my philosophy about government (knowing that I had been in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations).  I don’t remember my exact words, but I reminded him that I had been born in the midst of the Great Depression to parents, one of whom had to drop out of school in the fourth grade, the other in the eighth, because they were needed in the fields to pick cotton to help support their families.

Franklin Roosevelt, I recalled, had been president during the first 11 years of my life.  My father had listened to his radio “fireside chats” as if they were gospel; my brother went to college on the G.I. Bill; and I had been the beneficiary of public schools, public libraries, public parks, public roads, and two public universities.  How could I not think that what had been so good for me would be good for others, too?

That was the essence of what I told Justice Brennan.  Now, I wish that I could talk to him again, because I failed to mention perhaps the most important lesson about democracy I ever learned.

On my 16th birthday in 1950, I went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town where I grew up.  It was a racially divided town -- about 20,000 people, half of them white, half of them black -- a place where you could grow up well-loved, well-taught, and well-churched, and still be unaware of the lives of others merely blocks away.  It was nonetheless a good place to be a cub reporter: small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy and learning something new every day.  I soon had a stroke of luck.  Some of the old-timers in the newsroom were on vacation or out sick, and I got assigned to report on what came to be known as the “Housewives’ Rebellion.”  Fifteen women in town (all white) decided not to pay the Social Security withholding tax for their domestic workers (all black).

They argued that Social Security was unconstitutional, that imposing it was taxation without representation, and that -- here’s my favorite part -- “requiring us to collect [the tax] is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage.”  They hired themselves a lawyer -- none other than Martin Dies, Jr., the former congressman best known, or worst known, for his work as head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the witch-hunting days of the 1930s and 1940s.  They went to court -- and lost.  Social Security was constitutional, after all.  They held their noses and paid the tax.

The stories I helped report were picked up by the Associated Press and circulated nationwide.  One day, the managing editor, Spencer Jones, called me over and pointed to the AP ticker beside his desk.  Moving across the wire was a notice citing the reporters on our paper for the reporting we had done on the “rebellion.”  I spotted my name and was hooked.  In one way or another, after a detour through seminary and then into politics and government, I’ve been covering the class war ever since.

Those women in Marshall, Texas, were among its advance guard.  Not bad people, they were regulars at church, their children were my classmates, many of them were active in community affairs, and their husbands were pillars of the business and professional class in town.  They were respectable and upstanding citizens all, so it took me a while to figure out what had brought on that spasm of reactionary defiance.  It came to me one day, much later: they simply couldn’t see beyond their own prerogatives.  

Fiercely loyal to their families, to their clubs, charities, and congregations -- fiercely loyal, in other words, to their own kind -- they narrowly defined membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.  The black women who washed and ironed their laundry, cooked their families’ meals,  cleaned their bathrooms, wiped their children’s bottoms, and made their husbands’ beds, these women, too, would grow old and frail, sick and decrepit, lose their husbands and face the ravages of time alone, with nothing to show for their years of labor but the creases on their brows and the knots on their knuckles.  There would be nothing for them to live on but the modest return on their toil secured by the collaborative guarantee of a safety net.

The Unfinished Work of America

In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a moral compact embedded in a political contract or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.

I should make it clear that I don’t harbor any idealized notion of politics and democracy.  Remember, I worked for Lyndon Johnson.  Nor do I romanticize “the people.” You should read my mail and posts on right-wing websites.  I understand the politician in Texas who said of the state legislature, “If you think these guys are bad, you should see their constituents.”

But there is nothing idealized or romantic about the difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens (something otherwise known as social justice) and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud.  That can be the difference between democracy and plutocracy.

Toward the end of Justice Brennan’s tenure on the Supreme Court, he made a speech that went to the heart of the matter.  He said:

“We do not yet have justice, equal and practical, for the poor, for the members of minority groups, for the criminally accused, for the displaced persons of the technological revolution, for alienated youth, for the urban masses... Ugly inequities continue to mar the face of the nation. We are surely nearer the beginning than the end of the struggle.”

And so we are. One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln stood on the blood-soaked battlefield of Gettysburg and called Americans to “the great task remaining.”  That “unfinished work,” as he named it, remained the same then as it was when America’s founding generation began it. And it remains the same today: to breathe new life into the promise of the Declaration of Independence and to assure that the Union so many have sacrificed to save is a union worth saving.


For Republicans, a Homeless, 11-year-old Black Girl Named Dasani is a 'Useless Eater' Who Should Die
The right's politics of cruelty would have the poor, the brown and even children 'disappeared.'
December 12, 2013  |  

Al Sharpton did some great work on Monday's PoliticsNation where he further exposed the politics of cruelty that have possessed the Republican Party.

Republicans want to cut food stamps, believe that kicking people off of unemployment insurance who cannot find a job in an economy where there are 3 people for every available job, and that a particularly evil and twisted version of "Christian faith" justifies punishing and hurting poor people as righteous deeds and acts that mark conservatives as the elect who are destined for heaven.

I am not a "Christian." But my understanding of the "historical" Jesus was that he was a man who died fighting State tyranny and would do anything to help the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. The Tea Party GOP's bastardization of Jesus Christ remakes him into a figure who puts his foot on the throats of the hungry, weak, the vulnerable, and the needy, in order to motivate them into self-sufficiency--or alternatively die from a lack of breath.

For the Tea Party GOP, either outcome is acceptable.

The panoply of Right-wing hypocrites that Al Sharpton calls out, what is a rogues gallery of the cruel and the heartless, are wealthy people who have not internalized basic principles such as how noblesse oblige may actually create the social stability necessary to protect the rich while advancing their long-term interests.

I wrote about how the Tea Party GOP wants to kill the "useless eaters" here. I was also fortunate to do an interview on Right of Fire Radio where I explained my argument in more detail.

During that conversation, I made a special effort to "connect the dots" between how the Republican Party's hostility to the poor and working classes is fueled by white racism and an explicit appeal to Eliminationism, i.e that some citizens are worthy of life and others are to be purged and eliminated from the body politic.

During his TV segment, Al Sharpton mentioned this heart-wrenching piece about a homeless 11-year-old child in New York by the name of Dasani. Her tale of struggle and endurance is both tragic and inspiring. Dasani is a little soldier; Dasani should not have to play such a role in what is ostensibly the world's "richest" country.

America is rotting from within while the very rich smile and gloat. The 1 percent can buy their kids tree houses that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Dasani has to struggle to maintain her dignity while living in the shadow of squalor.

There are no children in Dasani's world. The super rich enjoy an extended childhood and adolescence, one that for many never ends because wealth is ultimately an insulation from the consequences of your choices: thus are the fruits of money and privilege.

The NY Times' story about Dasani and her family is socially responsible and important journalism. The fourth estate should and must do this type of work if it is rehabilitate itself as the watchdog of American democracy. Al Sharpton is to be commended for daring to get close to the truth of how the Republican Party views the working class and the poor as leeches, bums, social parasites, and whose children should be in workhouses or cleaning their schools as janitors.

Yet, The NY Times and Al Sharpton are teasing a harsh reality. Unfortunately, neither are able to state that plain fact for fear of reprisal by the Right-wing noise machine and the corporations which control the American news media. I have no such restrictions.

The Republican Party wants poor people and the vulnerable such as 11-year-old children like Dasani and her family to be "disappeared" from the body politic--in essence to die. As viewed by the White Right, they are "untermensch." The language which Republicans and their media use to describe poor, working class, and unemployed people--in particular those who are black and brown--leads to no other reasonable conclusion.

Leeches and parasites are to be destroyed; this is pest control; human leeches and parasites are to be eliminated with even greater expediency.

Little black girls like Dasani are subjected to a social phenomena known as "adultification".

Here, they are not allowed the innocence of childhood or to be vulnerable and in need of help and assistance by majority white society. The White Gaze, especially from the Right, has historically seen black folks as children for the purposes of civic inclusion and democracy (see the GOP's obsession with suggesting that African-Americans are civic children, veritable slaves, on a "Democratic plantation" without agency, as an example). In parallel, black children are seen as adults who can be imprisoned, executed, harassed by police, punished, profiled, expelled, and not allowed their innocence by a criminal justice system or educational system that deems them not allowed the white privilege of youthful error, insecurity, or nurturing.

Moreover, race, class, and gender are inexorably linked in the racial logic and rhetoric of Right-wing (and American) politics. Black women are "welfare queens". Black men, borrowing from Reagan's language, are "strapping young bucks" who use welfare to buy steaks. Because claims about poverty are also claims on morality in American society where the poor "deserve" their fate and have made "bad choices," the myth and cult of meritocracy combines with a centuries-long legacy of white supremacy to further mark and stigmatize children like brave Dasani.

If Sharpton, and The NY Times, were able and willing to offer up the basic and fundamental truth about how Republican rhetoric about poverty and people of color is not "innocent" political gamesmanship or mere bombast, but rather how the Tea Party GOP actually feels about the "useless eaters," they would tell a plain truth: the American Right-wing wants to see little innocent black girls like Dasani die...or at the very least conveniently disappear.

They are "surplus" people to be eliminated. Why? For conservatives, and those other who adhere to an Ayn Randian culture of cruelty that is intermixed with a a worldview and ideology in which conservatism and racism are one in the same, the sins of the mother and father are passed down to the child. As such, stalwart and strong little girls like Dasani are tainted with "bad culture"--and perhaps even bad genes.

As understood by contemporary Republicans, why should the United States' social safety net support and protect the poor and working classes when American elites can choose to instead enrich the 1 percent, while also continuing to support Wall Street and the Corporateocracy, those who are the "makers" and not the "takers?"


December 12, 2013

$15 Hourly Minimum Wage in Northwest City Faces Court Challenge


SEATTLE — The highest municipal minimum wage in the nation, approved by voters last month in the small city of SeaTac, Wash., at $15 an hour, survived a narrow election and a recount. Now, just weeks before its scheduled Jan. 1 start date – raising the pay of thousands of SeaTac residents and workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which is within the city limits — opponents are sending in the lawyers.

At a hearing scheduled for Friday in King County Superior Court in Seattle, Judge Andrea Darvas is expected to rule on whether to affirm the statute, strike it down or perhaps hold it in abeyance. Supporters of the measure said they were braced for a loss, and were preparing an emergency appeal to the state’s highest court.

The statute, which is being closely watched around the nation by labor and business groups as a barometer of the nation’s working wage debate, specifically exempts airlines and small businesses, including restaurants with fewer than 10 employees, but could raise pay for about 6,500 workers on and off airport property and give paid sick days to many of those workers for the first time.

Alaska Airlines and the Washington Restaurant Association are leading the legal challenge, contending that the measure, known as Proposition 1, was too broadly and vaguely written, and that the city has no authority to regulate economic activity at the airport, which is operated by the Port of Seattle.

Although Alaska Airlines employees would not be covered by the law, the company said that higher costs borne by its contractors would be passed on to the airlines and travelers.

The director of government affairs for the Restaurant Association, Bruce Beckett, said he thought that no matter what happens on Friday, the statute could have a long legal road ahead because of the complexity of the issues raised. “I don’t know how this can all be resolved by Jan. 1,” he said.

Labor leaders, in pushing the wage measure before the election, said that higher wages for airport workers would benefit the entire region, since most of those workers live outside the city of SeaTac.

In responding to the legal challenge, Heather Weiner, a spokeswoman for a group that worked for Proposition 1’s passage, derided the lawsuit as containing “everything but the legal kitchen sink.”

Washington already has the highest state minimum in the nation, at $9.19, but stands to be surpassed by California, which recently approved a $10 minimum, phased in over two years. The federal minimum is $7.25. The SeaTac statute passed by just 77 votes out of about 6,000 cast – a number affirmed in the recount results that were announced this week.

Friday’s hearing will not be the first time Proposition 1 has come before Judge Darvas. In August, she threw the measure off the ballot, agreeing with opponents that the signature process had been flawed. Her order was later reversed by an appeals court in time for the election.

But she also stressed in her ruling at the time that she was taking no position on the underlying question about minimum wage levels — only on the technical aspects of the law.

“The court wishes to emphasize that its decision in this matter has nothing whatsoever to do with the substance of the initiative itself,” she wrote.


December 12, 2013

House Passes Budget Pact and Military Abuse Protections, but Not Farm Bill


WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday approved a bipartisan budget accord and a Pentagon policy bill that would strengthen protections for victims of sexual assault. But as it wrapped up its business for the year, it left unfinished a major piece of domestic policy — the farm bill — making it likely that Congress will not deal with it until January.

Republicans and Democrats hope the budget pact, which passed 332 to 94, will act as a truce in the spending battles that have paralyzed Congress for nearly three years, and leaders in both parties sought to marginalize hard-line conservatives opposed to any compromise.

The defense measure would, in addition to strengthening protections for military victims of sexual assault, leave open the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, over President Obama’s objections.

The provisions to stem the growing number of sexual assault cases in the military are the most expansive in years. They would include new rules to prevent commanding officers from overturning sexual assault verdicts.

But an agreement remained elusive on the farm bill, the subject of continuing disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over spending for food stamps and expanding crop insurance for farmers, among other issues. All the House could pass on Thursday was a simple one-month extension of the current law, which Senate Democrats oppose because they think it will distract from the completion of a new bill.

Earlier, with bipartisan support in hand for the budget deal, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio declared war on the outside conservative groups that tried to scuttle it. For the second day in a row, he accused groups like the Club for Growth, Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity of reflexively opposing a reasonable plan to try to raise their profiles and improve their fund-raising.

He said the groups had devised the strategy of linking further government spending to the repeal of Mr. Obama’s health care law, then pressing their members and House Republicans to go along, even though they knew it would shut down the government and ultimately fail.

“Are you kidding me?” the speaker shouted, denouncing opposition to the budget accord. “There comes a point where some people step over the line. When you criticize something and you have no idea what you’re criticizing, it undermines your credibility.”

Yet when the Senate takes up the bill, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, is likely to vote against it, as are virtually all of the Republican senators who are contending with Tea Party challenges next year or are wooing conservatives for a potential presidential bid.

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, has already declared his opposition.

“Much of the spending increase in this deal has been justified by increased fees and new revenue,” Mr. Sessions said. “In other words, it’s a fee increase to fuel a spending increase — rather than reducing deficits.”

By most analyses, the budget deal, struck by Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, and Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, is a modest plan to soften the blow of the across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, that went into effect in March, and to slightly lower the budget deficit over the next decade.

The legislation would also extend current Medicare payment rates for three months, staving off a cut of more than 20 percent to health care providers. That would allow lawmakers to try to find a more permanent “doctors’ fix” to avoid a deficit reduction measure that neither party has been able to stomach for more than a decade.

The budget fight has turned into a donnybrook between congressional leaders and the groups and lawmakers aligned with the Tea Party. It pits the House Republican leadership against the Tea Party wing; one potential Republican presidential candidate, Mr. Ryan, against two others who oppose his deal, Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky; and a congressional majority against outside pressure groups, both liberal and conservative.

“It is clear that the conservative movement has come under attack on Capitol Hill,” 50 conservative activists wrote in a letter to congressional Republicans.

Democratic leaders took heart in what they saw as a turning point in their battle with uncompromising conservatives and as a moment when a cooperative attitude in Washington might return.

“The benefits of this agreement will go far beyond the actual agreement itself,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in Congress. “What we have seen in the Senate over the last several months, and now in the House, led by the courage of Congressman Ryan, is mainstream conservatives standing up to the hard right and saying: ‘This is no good for America. This is no good for the Republican Party. We’re not going to follow the Tea Party, like Thelma and Louise, over a cliff.’ ”

Conservative activists and their congressional allies said they would not surrender despite the vote on Thursday. The budget deal “exposes the true colors of several in the G.O.P. establishment when it comes to protecting conservative principles,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots.

The budget deal would reverse many of the across-the-board sequestration cuts that were set to deepen next month. Spending on military and domestic programs would rise to $1.012 trillion from the $967 billion expected this fiscal year, then inch up to $1.014 trillion in the fiscal year that begins in October.

But over 10 years, deficits would drop slightly, because of higher airline ticket fees, larger worker contributions to federal retirement plans, slower growth in military pensions, and a two-year extension in the next decade of a 2 percent cut to Medicare provider payments. Mr. Boehner said the legislation “takes giant steps in the right direction.”

“We feel very good about where we are with our members,” Mr. Ryan said.

Some conservatives feel betrayed, as they often have since the Republicans took control of the House in 2011. Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, said the House Republican conference agreed in the spring that spending levels exacted by the sequestration cuts would not change unless Congress and the White House could strike an accord to control the long-term causes of the rising costs of the federal debt, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Representative Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas, said most of the deficit reduction in the Ryan-Murray legislation “could be in Hillary’s second term,” a nod to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s expected presidential bid and a measure of the conservatives’ demoralization.

The deal does not address the statutory debt limit, which Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has said would have to be lifted by March for the government to avoid a devastating default. But Representative Raúl R. Labrador, Republican of Idaho, said Republicans “should just cave” on that, too, “because that’s what Republicans do.”


December 12, 2013

Jobless Fear Looming Cutoff of Benefits


WASHINGTON — Mary Helen Gillespie of Londonderry, N.H., is about to lose her last government lifeline. Since being laid off from a large banking firm in April, Ms. Gillespie, 57, has been living on little more than her unemployment insurance payments of $384 a week. She has burned through her savings and moved back in with her parents.

“There are times where I’ll go two, three, four days where I only have five dollars in my wallet and no money in my checking account,” said Ms. Gillespie, who worked as a corporate compliance officer at her previous employer,choking up as she described the difficulty of finding a job, any job, after her second extended period of joblessness since 2007. “I’ve been making decisions such as: Do I buy groceries or do I buy prescriptions?”

Ms. Gillespie’s 26 weeks of state benefits ran out this month, but she remained eligible for the emergency federal unemployment-insurance program, which has provided as many as 73 additional weeks of checks in states with high jobless rates.

Until now. Unless Congress acts — suddenly and unexpectedly — that recession-era initiative will expire at the end of the month. About 1.3 million current beneficiaries will lose aid. Also affected are an estimated 1.9 million more who would have been eligible for the program in the first half of 2014 after their state benefits ran out.

Democrats in Congress are pushing for an extension, which would cost the government an estimated $25 billion through 2014, while providing a modest lift, according to the Congressional Budget Office, to overall economic activity.

“If Congress refuses to act, it won’t just hurt families already struggling,” President Obama said last week. “It will actually harm our economy. Unemployment insurance is one of the most effective ways there is to boost our economy.”

But the bipartisan budget deal introduced by Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, and Representative Paul D. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, does not include the extension.

Republicans contend that they would be willing to negotiate one, if its cost were offset with spending cutbacks elsewhere. But congressional aides described that as unlikely to happen — and certainly not before the end of the year.

“We’ve worked all year to get our economy going again and to help produce better jobs and more wages,” John A. Boehner of Ohio, the speaker of the House, told reporters this week. “When the White House finally called me last Friday about extending unemployment benefits, I said that we would clearly consider it as long as it’s paid for and as long as there are other efforts that’ll help get our economy moving once again. I have not seen a plan from the White House that meets those standards.”

Many Republicans are more adamantly opposed to an extension, on the grounds that unemployment insurance payments tend to lengthen the time a jobless worker remains without work and thus raise the unemployment rate. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, for instance, has argued that another extension of the program would be a “disservice” to the jobless.

Economists generally agree that long-term unemployment payments can act as a disincentive for some people by encouraging them to hold out longer for a better job. But most say that the reason the vast majority of the nation’s unemployed cannot find work is because of the weak economy.

Today, the official unemployment rate stands at 7 percent, with about 11 million Americans looking for work, including four million who have been looking for more than six months. Many millions more have dropped out of the labor force altogether or been forced to take part-time jobs when they want full-time work.

Barry Iverson, a 34-year-old online content manager from Washington State, has a college degree and a solid work history. Since getting laid off from a failing start-up in June, he has applied to scores of jobs. “I can’t even get a job mopping floors,” he said.

Mr. Iverson’s income dropped by nearly two-thirds when he lost his job and started accepting about $490 a week in unemployment insurance payments. He said that his family had pared back spending to the essentials: things like groceries, gas and utilities. Even then, he said, they have maxed out their credit cards. He carefully watches their bank account to make sure their checks do not bounce.

He and his wife, who have two small children, are not sure what they will do if his unemployment insurance payments run out before he can find another job. “It’s really tough to think about,” he said.

“Christmas is just a hurdle to get through,” he said. “I don’t want to call it a stressor, but it’s just one of those things where you have to put on your best smile and get through it and try to focus on the positive.”

For job seekers like Ms. Gillespie and Mr. Iverson, the labor market remains punishing even though the economy has been on a modest upswing for more than four years. The hiring rate has scarcely increased, and competition for positions remains fierce. The unemployment rate has come down mostly because workers are dropping out of the labor force, and businesses are no longer letting large numbers of workers go.

Many employers refuse to even look at the résumés of the long-term unemployed, leaving them unable to secure jobs even if they are qualified and willing to work for less.

“I’ve tried for minimum-wage jobs, just to bring some income in,” Ms. Gillespie said. “I’ve been told I’m overqualified, and that I wouldn’t last because if I got a real job, I’d leave. That means it’s just another cycle of hearing no and no and no over and over again.”

The end of the jobless payments, by removing a modest source of consumer spending, will actually cost the economy jobs. Economists estimate that losing the emergency benefits will reduce economic growth by about 0.4 percentage points in the first quarter of next year below what it otherwise might be.

For now, hundreds of thousands of workers are bracing for the imminent loss of the payments. “I was terrified when I found out the payments were ending,” Ms. Gillespie said. “It is just another kick in the head.”


6-year-old Suspended for Sexual Harassment After Kissing Classmate on the Hand

Experts and social media wonder: Has zero tolerance run amok?
December 12, 2013  |  

Six-year-old Hunter Yelton was suspended and now has a permanent record as a result of kissing a fellow student on the hand, and now his Colorado school district has come under fire for labeling the incident as "sexual harassment."

School officials have maintained that Yelton violated the school's strict zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, and stand by their decision to suspend the first grader from the Lincoln School of Science and Technology in Canon City, Colorado.

Since then, the school has begun gaining national attention, with many suggesting that the school's reaction has been far too extreme. Education experts say the punishment was more reactionary than appropriate.

"Zero tolerance policies in schools have not been shown to work," Nadine Block, a child psychologist, told Raw Story. "This is just another example of going overboard on rules in schools that need to be more flexible…schools should be looking for ways to teach appropriate behavior."

For many, the prevalence of zero-tolerance policies in schools signals an attempt to configure a punishment system that will institute large-scale results, though educators are always quick to point out that these policies have not led to a decrease in incidents. So the question arises: Is it sero tolerance, with zero results?

This marks the second suspension for poor Yelton, who was previously suspended for kissing the same girl on the cheek, a girl whom he identified as his "girlfriend" to his mother.

"it cannot be a good thing for a 6-year old child to be told he has to leave school just for kidding a girl," Feather Berkower, founder of Parenting Safe Children, a popular parenting website told Raw Story. "The school should look for a teachable moment in this, helping the kids to understand what age-appropriate sexual behavior is."


With the ACA Succeeding Darrell Issa Threatens to Charge Kathleen Sebelius With a Crime

By: Jason Easley
Thursday, December, 12th, 2013, 4:21 pm   

Rep. Darrell Issa’s endless abuse of his investigative powers hit a new low today, as he threatened to charge HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius with a crime.

In a letter to Sebelius, Issa wrote, “The Department [HHS] subsequently instructed those companies not to comply with the Committee’s request. The Department’s hostility toward questions from Congress and the media about the implementation of Obamcare is well known. The Department’s most recent effort to stonewall, however, has morphed from mere obstinacy into criminal obstruction of a congressional investigation.”

Issa is outraged because CCSI’s contract with HHS requires that they get the approval of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services before cooperating with Congress.

This is why Issa is threatening Sebelius with criminal obstruction, “In fact, it strains credulity to such an extent that it creates the appearance that the Department is using the threat of litigation to deter private companies from cooperating with Congress. The Department’s attempt to threaten CCSI for the purpose of deterring the company from providing documents to Congress places the officials responsible for drafting and sending the letter on the wrong side of federal statues that prohibit obstruction of a congressional investigation. Obstructing a Congressional investigation is a crime.”

The claim that documents are being withheld is the main go to move for the worst investigator in history, Magnum DI. Ironically, it was the exposure of transcripts that Issa was withholding that killed the Obama angle in the IRS “scandal.” Beneath these empty claims is Issa’s biased belief the truth is out there, all he has to do is find the documents that Obama must be hiding. Issa said the same thing during Fast and Furious, Benghazi, and the IRS scandals. He was wrong every single time.

It looks like Kathleen Sebelius has become the new Eric Holder for Darrell Issa, but just like his other “investigations,” the real target is President Obama. Issa’s main objective is to find the smoking gun that he can use as the basis for impeaching the president.

The ACA is succeeding. Millions of people already have health coverage, yet Darrell Issa is still trying to earn political points by drumming up a new Obama scandal. The website “scandal” will fail, just like all the others that have failed, because the only crime being committed is the waste of taxpayer resources that are being spent on bogus investigations by the real criminal Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA).


December 12, 2013

Tempers Flare as New Rules Strain Senate


WASHINGTON — If there is a rock bottom in the frayed relationship between Senate Republicans and Democrats, it seemed uncomfortably close as the final days of 2013 on Capitol Hill degenerated into something like an endurance contest to see who could be the most spiteful.

As the sun rose on Friday, senators had worked through a second straight all-night session — called by Democrats as a way of retaliating for Republicans’ delaying tactics on confirmations. They held their first vote of the day at 7 a.m., confirming Deborah James to be secretary of the Air Force.

“I think it resembles fourth graders playing in a sandbox, and I’ll give the majority leader, Harry Reid, 99 percent of the responsibility for it,” Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and usually one of the more reserved members, said Thursday.

“He’s going to have ‘The End of the Senate’ written on his tombstone,” Mr. Alexander complained.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, called this week “chaotic and confusing, and a shameful waste of time.”

“I am loath to cast partisan blame,” he added, before doing just that. “But the plain fact is that there is a faction of the Republican Party that is essentially insisting on burning through all of these time deadlines.”

Republicans, furious that Democrats last month stripped away most of their power to filibuster presidential nominations, are using every procedural barricade available to them in the Senate’s two-century-old rule book, forcing it to run the clock as long as possible while they vote on a series of President Obama’s nominees.

Democrats, hoping to make the situation so unpleasant for their colleagues across the aisle that they eventually break, are scheduling votes at all hours of the day and night. Mr. Reid is threatening to refuse to let anyone go home until a backlog of dozens of nominees is gone — even if that means spending Christmas Eve in the Capitol.

Mr. Reid has votes planned through Saturday afternoon and will push through another battery of nominations next week, including some that would each require 30 hours of debate, like that of Janet L. Yellen to lead the Federal Reserve.

What members of both parties bemoaned more than anything was not the lack of civility or bipartisan cooperation — which they seem to have given up on long ago — but what they said they see as the irreversible damage inflicted on an institution they claim to revere.

“If Bob Byrd had been here he would have had a stroke,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, referring to the late Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the senator whom Republicans and Democrats hold up as the embodiment of senatorial dignity and forbearance.

Some senators expressed concern that this moodier, more intemperate Senate would become the norm now that Democrats have unilaterally changed filibuster rules.

“It’s the beginning of what we were worried about,” said Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, one of just three Democrats who did not support the rules change. “It’s just concerning, very much concerning, where it goes from here.”

The Democratic push was producing results as the Senate confirmed Cornelia T. L. Pillard, one of the nominees at the heart of the fight with Republicans over the filibuster, to the country’s most powerful appeals court, the District of Columbia Circuit, shortly after 1 a.m. on Thursday by a 51-to-44 vote.

As the day wore on, several other nominees were confirmed as well: Chai Feldblum to serve as a commissioner on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Elizabeth Wolford to Federal District Court for the Western District of New York; and Landya B. McCafferty to the Federal District Court for the District of New Hampshire, among others.

Republicans complained that instead of tackling the many substantive issues that the Senate should resolve before the end of the year — whether to impose sanctions on Iran, passing the annual defense authorization bill and settling a long-running dispute over federal subsidies to farmers and food stamps — lawmakers were wasting their time on midlevel nominations.

“I can’t imagine what folks think,” said Senator Deb Fischer, Republican of Nebraska, chastising her colleagues.

The Senate is a body where one member can slow down just about anything. Much of its business is accomplished through unanimous consent, which allows senators to move quickly through mundane tasks like approving low-level nominations.

Republicans have held up the votes on dozens of Mr. Obama’s pending nominees by refusing to provide unanimous consent to waive the time that is allotted for debate. Instead, they are using the debate time to take to the Senate floor to vent.

“Let’s be really frank,” said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. “Senate Democrats have for petty partisan reasons taken away the power of Congress, taken away one of the checks and balances on a rogue presidency.” Earlier in the day, Mr. Paul told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that he did not think there would be anything approved by unanimous consent “until hell freezes over.”

Like the many paralyzing partisan squabbles before it, this one left its combatants confused and disheartened about how it had spiraled so out of control.

Senator Angus King, a first-term independent from Maine who usually votes with Democrats, brought his toothbrush and a change of clothes on Wednesday. He said he had an uncomfortable night on a couch that was about eight inches too short. And when he rolled over in the morning, he set off the motion sensor that turned on his office lights.

The experience drove home for Mr. King a stark realization: This is no way to run the Senate. “It’s not a very constructive use of time,” he said. “I don’t fully understand it.”

With that, he walked back toward his office. He had a long night ahead. He was assigned to be the presiding officer from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.

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« Last Edit: Dec 13, 2013, 08:56 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #10647 on: Dec 14, 2013, 06:30 AM »

12/13/2013 05:03 PM

Ukraine Protests: Kiev Makes U-Turn on EU Association Deal

The government of embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has signaled that an association agreement with the EU may now be signed after all. The reversal follows weeks of street protests in Kiev and mounting Western pressure.

Three weeks into a power struggle that has seen an estimated 20,000 demonstrators camping out on Kiev's Independence Square in subzero temperatures, it seems as if closer ties between Ukraine and the European Union may be on the cards after all. On Thursday Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov announced his country would sign the free trade and association deal with the EU "soon," following talks with EU authorities. Arbuzov failed to give a specific deadline for signing the deal or to explain his government's change of heart.

In an interview Thursday evening with German television network ARD, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko reacted skeptically to the Ukrainian government's diplomatic offensive in Brussels. "Our president has promised to sign the agreement countless times over the past three years," Klitschko said, confirming his intention to stand for the presidency and stressing the need for reform. "We have to fight for our vision and our country," he told the network.

On Friday, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced his intention to offer amnesty to those who had been detained during the recent mass anti-government protests and now face criminal charges.

"There should be an amnesty, in order to give guarantees that the process of confrontation will stop," he said in a statement on Friday.

The present conflict was provoked by Yanukovych's unexpected refusal on Nov. 21 to sign an association deal with the EU, following months of seemingly successful negotiations which were to conclude with signing at the EU's Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. Yanukovych later explained his decision citing economic pressure from Russia, Ukraine's largest trading partner and principal supplier of natural gas.

In hisstate of the nation address on Dec. 12, Russian President Pig Putin reiterated his offer to Ukraine of membership in a customs union, which would also include Belarus and Kazakhstan. The European Commission has made it clear that an association agreement with the bloc is incompatible with membership in a Russian-backed customs union.

EU Takes More Robust Stance

Following the failure of its previous soft-power strategy in the face of concerted Russian opposition, it seems as if the EU has moved toward a more robust combination of incentives and threats. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle was quick to respond to the Ukrainian government's change of heart, promising the country help in implementing the association agreement, should Kiev demonstrate genuine willingness to sign.

The EU would also assist Ukraine in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a new credit line, something Kiev has failed to achieve in recent months. Prior to the collapse of negotiations in November, Ukraine signaled financing needs in the range of €20 billion annually to help its economy adjust to EU standards. EU officials were only able to offer some €600 million, leading observers to assume the EU had been outspent by Russia, which was offering lucrative discounts and financing deals on its natural gas deliveries.

The European Parliament condemned Russian pressure on Ukraine in a cross-party resolution Thursday and urged the Commission to consider sanctions against Moscow should it persist in breaking World Trade Organization rules on politically motivated trade sanctions. In a frank telephone conversation US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cautioned his Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Lebedyev against using force to disperse peaceful protests, warning of consequences for the bilateral relationship.


Ukraine protest leaders unconvinced by Yanukovych moratorium on violence

Mood in Kiev remains tense as tens of thousands of people descend on capital to carry on three-week-long pro-Europe demonstration

Shaun Walker and Oksana Grytsenko in Kiev, Friday 13 December 2013 19.09 GMT      

Ukraine's embattled president has come face to face with the opposition leaders who have led protests against him for the past three weeks, in roundtable talks aimed at solving the political crisis that has gripped the country.

Viktor Yanukovych promised a moratorium on violence against the protesters who have occupied his capital city, but the opposition left the meeting unconvinced, and the mood in the capital remains tense as tens of thousands of people descend on Kiev from across the country for another weekend of protest.

Organisers say over 50,000 people are en route to the capital from western Ukraine to swell the ranks of the pro-Europe protest that has taken root in Kiev's Independence Square, known as the maidan. Simultaneously, the government is believed to be mobilising people from its support base in the east and south of the country to hold a giant "anti-maidan" over the weekend, sparking rumours of potential clashes and provocations.

Journalists and witnesses in provincial towns spoke of special trains being put on to transport government workers to Kiev to take part in weekend rallies in support of Yanukovych.

The president and the prime minister, Mykola Azarov, sat at the table together with the three main opposition leaders, the first time that he has spoken to them since the protests that have paralysed Kiev began.

The three main opposition leaders – former heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko, nationalist Oleh Tyahnibok and Arseniy Yatsenyuk from jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko's party – arrived late at the meeting. When they began speaking, the televised feed of the discussion was mysteriously cut off.

The trio demanded that Yanukovych sack Azarov, as well as punish those responsible for using force. Klitschko warned Yanukovych of further violence. "It will have horrible consequences for the country and personally for you," he said. "You are personally responsible for everything that is happening."

The president continued to send mixed signals over whether Ukraine will sign the association agreement with the EU, a trade pact that he pulled out of at the final moment last month, sparking protests that have refused to fade.

Azarov said that signing the agreement would have led to the "definite collapse of the economy". Kiev is asking the EU for billions of euros in loans to tide over its fragile economy if it signs. Russia has pressured Yanukovych not to sign, and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev again criticised western politicians on Friday, saying they were guilty of "crude intervention" in the policies of a sovereign state by pushing the deal.

Yanukovych insisted that Ukraine was still interested in European integration, but said the deal as it was offered contradicted Ukraine's national interests. "Work was done not simply badly, but in violation of national interests, and an investigation will be held," he said. "Those who worked on it will be suspended, and maybe even fired."

Patriarch Filaret, the powerful head of the Ukrainian Orthodox church, told Yanukovych that signing any deals with Russia would only radicalise the protest, and also warned against violent attempts to clear protesters.

"Force will only radicalise the protest and cause our country to slide into a full-scale civil conflict," said the patriarch.

A tent city has been set up in Independence Square, while two government buildings have been occupied and the city's statue of Lenin torn down. An attempt early on Wednesday morning to storm the barricades around the square with thousands of riot police led to a prolonged standoff which ended when police withdrew again from the centre. The protesters have now rebuilt the barricades twice as high, with sandbags filled with snow, tyres and metal railings.

Yanukovych announced a moratorium on the use of force at the roundtable, and promised to investigate those responsible for violence. The president left the talks surrounded by a scrum of journalists but only said, smiling, "Everything will be fine."

"There are no results," Klitschko told the Guardian after the meeting. "Only declarations, promises, but no concrete action."


December 13, 2013

A Ukrainian Uprising Fueled by Outrage (and Salted Pork Fat)


KIEV, Ukraine — As much as by outrage, the pro-European uprising here is being fueled by heaping bowls of buckwheat and pork fat, steaming helpings of borscht and other meaty and fatty fare.

Since the demonstrations began more than three weeks ago, with a spontaneous outpouring of public anger over President Viktor F. Yanukovich’s refusal to sign political and trade accords with Europe, leaders have worried about how to consistently maintain the large crowds in Independence Square. Recognizing the axiom that an army marches on its stomach, organizers have taken great pains to keep the crowds well fed.

The protesters can choose from a rotating menu of a half-dozen Ukrainian folk recipes, intended to provide fortification for people spending hours on the streets in the icy Ukrainian winter, not to speak of girding for an occasional clash with the police.

“People are very grateful for anything warm,” said Anastasia Slobodyanyuk, a 15-year-old volunteer who carries platters of tea through the crowd in the evenings after school, a heart in the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag painted on her cheek.

In the protesters’ arsenal are trays with slices of buttered bread and the central ingredient of the classic Ukrainian sandwich: smoked and salted pork fat, or salo.

More than a few Ukrainians swear that salo makes them strong and beautiful, and some insist that it can treat liver problems. There were many takers for the salo sandwiches making the rounds on the revolutionary square, especially for the “troshechki” variety, with a generous coating of pepper on bits of salted pork fat.

While there are restaurants open nearby, not everybody can afford them. And the goal, of course, is to keep a sea of demonstrators visible at all times to the television cameras that are broadcasting the protest events live virtually around the clock. Outdoor canteens where protesters can line up for bowls of soup and cups of tea, and volunteers who circle through the crowd like waiters and waitresses at some huge, outdoor cocktail party, serve the goals of the protest movement far more than people sneaking off to McDonald’s.

Wherever the eye falls on Independence Square, cooks busy themselves about huge kettles over bonfires in an all but medieval tableau of an army at camp, but for the blinking neon advertisements all about.

One cook, Yuri Dorozhivsky, shared this recipe for buckwheat with salo (feeds thousands):

1) Heat a 50-gallon kettle over an open fire.

2) Brown 20 pounds of salo and 10 pounds of onions.

3) Fill with water and bring to a gentle boil, stir in 60 pounds of buckwheat kernels.

4) Simmer for an hour, then remove from direct heat, salt to taste.

Members of the Ukrainian opposition, to be sure, are practiced hands at protests. Yulia V. Tymoshenko, the opposition leader now in prison on politically inspired charges, once told an interviewer that she picked out clothes each morning with an eye to how they would hold up either in a riot or in prison.

Cooks now stew food on the street and in a makeshift kitchen on the ground floor of one of three buildings occupied by the protesters. Outside, the hungry crowds chant and stomp. Inside, a hundred or so volunteers frantically slather butter on bread and send it out on trays.

The kitchen prepares 300 to 400 hot meals an hour, along with countless sandwiches and cups of tea, said Ekaterina Kryuchkova, 20, a college student in Kiev, who is now head night-shift cook for the uprising.

The food is donated. Ms. Kryuchkova relays requests for donations to activists on social networks and television stations sympathetic to the protesters and the food piles in, sometimes from distant parts of the country.

“We have enough of everything but too much of some things,” she said. Most recently, she said, “the problem is we have a lot of bread and lemons.”

Unable to use all the bread, they donated some to orphanages. But on the theory that vitamin C would keep colds at bay, the antigovernment cooks decided to push as many lemons as possible on the crowd. Curious protesters were given plates of sliced lemons sprinkled with sugar, open-face sandwiches of lemon and salted mackerel, and tea with lemon slices. And still, the kitchen had lemons in reserve.

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« Reply #10648 on: Dec 14, 2013, 06:37 AM »


12/13/2013 02:42 PM

Russia in Stagnation: Pig Putin Speech Hints at Big Problems

Commentary By Uwe Klußmann

In his annual state of the nation address on Thursday, Russian Pig Vladimir Putin spoke about the need to rein in corruption and called for technological progress. But he also hinted at the bigger problems that will plague his country in years to come.

Sometimes a sigh says more than words. On Thursday, Russian President Pig Putin held his annual state of the nation address in front of members of his government and both chambers of parliament, the State Duma and the Federal Council. And when, during his speech, he lamented that "very corrupt" officials were preventing local authorities from giving vacant community property to large families, he let out a quiet sigh.

Russia's head of state spoke about his country's apparatus of state like a teacher speaks about students whose poor grades threaten their graduation. It was also a throwback to May 2012, when he announced directives aimed at improving the country's administration -- none of which have been implemented.

The Pig  complained about "administrative barriers" for exporters, mentioned "grueling conversations" with the finance minister and asked civil servants to fulfill their duties "without excuses" and without "watering down" assignments.

Pig Putin hinted at the dramatic effects of corruption by mentioning "rising ethnic tensions." He also warned about "corruptible employees of the law enforcement agencies building a shelter for the ethnic mafia."

Russia in Stagnation

Pig Putin touched on another sensitive subject when he called for the "de-offshorization" of the economy. He was referring to the habit of government-owned and -affiliated companies to avoid paying Russian taxes by registering themselves in sunny island havens. Some listeners in the hall smiled mischievously during this part of the speech because they knew full well which practices he meant. So far, the Pig said, "de-offshorization" had yielded "barely noticeable" results.

On the brink of his 15th year in power, this was a de facto acknowledgment that, despite his czar-like powers, the head of state is still helpless in the face of kleptocratic administrators. Russian society is currently in a phase of stagnation. Even the loyal state workers who once again voted for Pig Putin a year and a half ago are noticing more and more similarities to the crisis in Soviet society at the end of General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev's era of leadership.

The Pig called for a "broad social discussion" and for greater control of the administration through "civil society," and, in a change, he vowed to "support the civil rights movements." Nevertheless, he did not make any self-critical remarks about his repressive approach to the non-parliamentarian opposition in the past year -- including the disastrous verdict against the young women of Pussy Riot.

Hostage of Bureaucracy

Pig Putin's speech confirms what Moscow analyst Mikhail Delyagin warned about a decade ago, when he said the president could become a "hostage of bureaucracy." Putin's call, before the applauding bureaucrats of the Kremlin's Georgievski Hall, to "finally" achieve a "technological breakthrough" will likely be as ineffective as his previous appeals.

In his last address to the nation, in Dec. 2012, Pig had clearly spelled out the dangers caused by bureaucrats who slow things down: Those who miss out on progress, Pig Putin said, will become "outsiders" in a world of increased competition and will "inevitably lose their independence." It's a warning he did not repeat this year, though circumstances remain the same.

Pig Putin spoke about foreign policy with pragmatism and moderation, as if trying to restrain the hotheads. "We do not aspire to super-power status," said the president. Together with its allies, Russia wants to conduct itself like a "mature, responsible great power," like it did in the case of Syria's chemical disarmament and the most recent agreement on the Iranian nuclear program.

America's Missile Defense Plans Alarm Moscow

When it came to Ukraine, the Pig called for cooperation with the European Union. This shows that the head of state, who is regularly briefed on Ukraine's domestic and foreign political happenings by his intelligence agencies, is moving toward a realistic assessment of the country. He knows that Ukraine will not join the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, let alone sign on to the Moscow-run Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Moscow can't accomplish more than a selective cooperation between Ukraine and the EAEC customs union, something Pig Putin admitted when he said: "We are not imposing anything on anyone." Russia is apparently not interested in a confrontation with the EU about Ukraine.

Alarms are going off in Moscow, however, about American plans for a missile defense system. Pig Putin sees this project as "defensive only in name" and as one that has offers "offensive potential" that could upset the "strategic balance of power."

Thus, if the Americans build the missile defense system, Moscow will embrace countermeasures. But Pig still plans to keep the door open to negotiations with the United States. International conflicts, he stressed, should be resolved "only with peaceful means."

Pig Putin is acting a bit like Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of the German Reich between 1871 and 1890. Outwardly professional and in many ways successful, the Iron Chancellor ultimately failed because of his refusal to reform domestic politics and as a result of his repressive treatment of the opposition.
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« Reply #10649 on: Dec 14, 2013, 06:43 AM »

Germany awaits ballot verdict on grand coalition

No vote in SPD ballot could tip Germany and eurozone into turmoil and quell German appetite for more direct democracy

Philip Oltermann in Berlin, Friday 13 December 2013 15.18 GMT      

Three months of political deadlock in Germany could come to an end on Saturday evening when the Social Democratic party will announce the result of a ballot of its members on entering a coalition with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.

If party members vote in favour of a "grand coalition", the ballot will be remembered as a bold, high-risk experiment in direct democracy. A no vote, however, could tip Germany – and with it the eurozone – into turmoil.

The SPD's 470,000 members had until Thursday night to post their ballot paper, and it is widely expected that the majority of votes are positive. According to a poll for the ZDF television channel, 80% of party members expect a grand coalition to happen.

But the outcome is by no means certain: the SPD's youth organisation, which accounts for 55,000 members, has passionately opposed the deal, and influential party members such as the authors Günter Grass and Bernhard Schlink have written articles urging a no vote. Many worry that the party is losing its leftwing credentials and will be punished by voters at the next election, as it was after the last grand coalition in 2009.

If all goes well, the coalition agreement will be signed on Monday, Merkel will be sworn in as chancellor on Tuesday and will make a speech in the Bundestag on Wednesday. If the coalition treaty is voted down, however, it would lead to nothing short of a national crisis.

Negotiations on the future of the eurozone, already effectively in limbo since the start of the election campaign, would be further stalled. Borrowing rates for Spain and Italy would probably go up. And there would be only an interim chancellor to attend the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday.

The SPD party leaders Sigmar Gabriel and Andrea Nahles would be expected to resign, and Merkel would go back to trying to coax the Green party into a coalition. If that failed, the president would call new elections.

Yet over the last few weeks many Social Democrats have begun grudgingly to admire Gabriel's decision to put the coalition agreement to the vote, according to Michael Miebach, deputy director of the Progressives Zentrum thinktank.

"It looks more and more like an ingenious chess move that solves several problems at once. Instead of debating the disastrous election result or even the detail of the coalition deal, everyone's talking about the ballot," Miebach said. "It will keep in check party rebels who complain that they weren't asked, and it has proved a useful tool during the negotiations with Merkel. But of course, it could still all end in disaster."

Many in Germany have criticised the SPD leadership for "moving political decision-making outside of parliament", as Die Welt put it. The CDU politician Wolfgang Bosbach said calls for more direct democracy were "highly popular" but also "highly problematic", because they could strengthen populist tendencies.

But membership ballots and referendums are becoming increasingly common in Germany. The Social Democrats have found an unlikely ally in the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU, which has been lobbying for party ballots on key policies. Its leader, Horst Seehofer, argued that banning ballots would be disastrous since "then we'd have even fewer people deciding over the fate of German democracy".

In recent years there have been local referendums on the Winter Olympics in Munich, on a train station extension in Stuttgart and on renationalising the energy grid in Berlin and Hamburg. A negative result on Saturday could still the appetite for more direct democracy; a positive outcome could increase the hunger for more.

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