Egyptian court jails three secular leaders of 2011 uprising
Verdict against 6 April youth movement leaders proof that government wants to stamp out all opposition, say activists
Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 December 2013 15.47 GMT
Three of the figureheads of Egypt's 2011 uprising have been jailed for three years, the first secular activists to be sentenced in a crackdown that has previously centred on Islamist supporters of the former president Mohamed Morsi.
Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel – all senior members of the 6 April youth movement that stirred dissent during the final years of the Mubarak era – were also fined for flouting a new law that rights groups argue severely curtails the right to protest. They were accused of organising an unsanctioned street protest deemed illegitimate by a controversial new law, and of assaulting a police officer.
All three men were also targeted under Morsi's presidency, and campaigned for his removal in July. Their custodial sentence on Sunday is proof that the current administration is seeking to stamp out secular as well as Islamist opposition, say fellow campaigners.
"The repression happening now to the movement and to other NGOs [non-governmental organisations] is even higher than what we experienced in [Hosni] Mubarak's time," said Amr Ali – Maher's successor as leader of 6 April – in the build-up tojust before the verdict. "Mubarak's regime is trying to get power back, and there is a systematic approach of revenge against groups and movements that stood against it.
"Whoever's ruling now is more or less depending on a policy of fear – under the name of fighting terrorism and fighting the Islamists."
Dozens of other secular activists await sentences for similar charges, including Alaa Abd El Fattah, another figurehead of the 2011 uprising. The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) – a prominent NGO run by a former presidential candidate – was the subject of a violent raid on Thursday, after the group angered the security establishment in recent months by giving legal support to striking workers and jailed Syrian refugees.
For many campaigners, the imprisonment of the three activists highlights the extent of the Egyptian police's resurgence. Police brutality was a major cause of the 2011 uprising, and its continuation under Morsi contributed both to his downfall and to the institution's loss of prestige. But the interior ministry – which runs the police – returned to popularity by backing Morsi's deposition, and appears to believe it has a mandate to crush any kind of dissent, say observers.
"There's nothing new about the police behaving this way, and there's nothing new about them going after activists," said Heba Morayef, Egypt director at Human Rights Watch. "But for me what is significant, and what makes this so ominous, is the sense of entitlement the ministry of interior now has. They're going after the figureheads of the 2011 revolution, and they're trying to erase the gains made since January 2011."
But while the trio's sentencing has enraged Egypt's revolutionaries, it is unclear how much the move will effect the Egyptian street. Maher told the Guardian in November that people were beginning to realise the oppressive nature of Morsi's successors. But he also admitted that many ordinary Egyptians – exhausted by the economic chaos and violence that followed Mubarak's overthrow – were tired of the revolution and were now willing to trade freedom for a government that could bring them political and economic stability.
"I've been out of work for three years, and I just want this country to get better," said Adel Saleh, a bus driver watching a recent 6 April protest. "But 6 April want us to go down."
December 22, 2013
Dozens Are Killed in Syrian Violence, Even Amid Preparations for Peace Talks
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — At least 25 people were killed in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Sunday, antigovernment activists reported, in the eighth straight day of intense government bombardment of rebel-held areas there, while a suicide car bombing that the state news media blamed on insurgents killed at least 10 people in the central province of Homs.
Even as preparations are being made for internationally sponsored peace talks scheduled for late January, violence in Syria appears, if anything, to have escalated in recent weeks. Rebel and government groups have each been accused of massacring civilians, and the government has stepped up air attacks on Aleppo with barrages of improvised “barrel bombs” packed with high explosives that activists say have killed more than 200 people.
Video from Aleppo posted by activists showed a red fireball over a neighborhood, body parts and people digging frantically through the rubble as sirens wailed in the background. An antigovernment group, the Aleppo Media Center, put the death toll at 32, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict through a network of contacts in Syria, said it was 25, with others in critical condition.
The government has said it is targeting “terrorist” insurgents in Aleppo, while residents and activists have said that, in recent days, the bombings have mainly killed civilians in some of the fiercest attacks there in months.
In Homs, the state news media and antigovernment activists said the bombing struck near a primary school in a village. Syrian state news media said five schoolchildren and five other people were killed there. The Syrian Observatory put the toll at 12 and said the bombing was aimed at a school where displaced Shiite Muslims had been staying.
As a conflict that began with demands for political rights takes on a more sectarian tone, many insurgent groups have ratcheted up anti-Shiite statements, equating Syria’s tiny Shiite minority with Shiite powers like Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which support the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Sunday that a half-million people had been wounded in the Syrian civil war and that tens of thousands had been detained. In one of those cases, the British government is demanding that the Syrian government explain the death of Dr. Abbas Khan, a British citizen who was arrested a year ago while providing medical care in rebel-held areas and was found dead in his interrogation cell days before he was expected to be released.
The peace talks are scheduled to start Jan. 22 in Switzerland, but the government appears to be pressing its hand militarily as the opposition seems more divided than ever. The war has killed more than 120,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and the United Nations said that nearly nine million people, more than a third of the country’s population, had been driven from their homes.
The bombing of Aleppo has renewed calls from Mr. Assad’s opponents for international powers to impose a no-fly zone in Syria, a proposal that has been a nonstarter, in part, because Russia has blocked the move after a similar United Nations-endorsed measure in Libya in 2011 evolved into attacks on the government there.
The main Syrian exile opposition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, on Sunday issued a statement saying, “A no-fly zone, backed by the Western powers, is the only means to prevent the Assad regime from slaughtering the Syrian people.” The group said that global powers had a responsibility to prevent the international deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons — reached in the fall after the United States threatened to strike the government after accusing it of using chemical weapons — “from offering Assad a license to kill.”
“The attacks today targeted marketplaces, schools where displaced families had taken refuge, and apartment buildings,” the statement said. “The regime continues to use the pretext of countering ‘terrorists,’ while employing weapons of mass slaughter.”
Mohammad Ghannam contributed reporting.
Covert CIA program helped Colombia kill rebel leaders
The multi-billion dollar program had the NSA provide 'substantial eavesdropping help' to the Colombian government
Associated Press in Washington
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 December 2013 14.00 GMT
A covert CIA program has helped Colombia's government kill at least two dozen leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the rebel insurgency also known as Farc, The Washington Post reported Saturday.
The National Security Agency has also provided "substantial eavesdropping help" to the Colombian government, according to the Post. And the US provided Colombia with GPS equipment that can be used to transform regular munitions into "smart bombs" that can accurately home in on specific targets, even if they are located in dense jungles.
In March 2008, Colombian forces killed a top Farc commander, Raul Reyes, in one of several jungle camps the rebels operated in Ecuador, just across the border. The Post report Saturday said Colombia used US-made smart bombs in the operation.
The report is based on interviews with more than 30 former and current US and Colombian officials, who the Post said spoke on condition of anonymity because the program is classified and ongoing.
The CIA would not comment on the Post report. Without going into detail, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told the Post that the CIA has been "of help," providing Colombian forces with "better training and knowledge."
The multibillion-dollar program was funded secretly and separately from $9bn in aid that the US has openly provided to Colombia, mostly in military assistance. It was authorized by President George W Bush and has continued under President Barack Obama, the newspaper reported.
Colombia's government and Farc have been engaged in peace talks in Havana since late 2012, but there has been no ceasefire between the two sides. Earlier this month Santos blamed the rebels for an attack on a police post that killed nine people, including civilians, military and a police officer.
The Farc rebels took up arms in 1964. The US-backed military buildup has reduced Farc's ranks to about 9,000 fighters and killed several top commanders, though the rebels insist they are still a potent force.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
Udall: NSA 'Status Quo' Argument ‘Fell Apart This Week’
By Nicole Belle December 22, 2013 6:24 pm
The White House Special Panel on NSA Surveillance agrees with Mark Udall: the NSA needs to be reined back. So what's it going to take to get everyone on board?
Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), along with Ron Wyden, has been leading the charge for curtailing the NSA's domestic surveillance for as long as these revelations have been dribbling out. Turns out, the panel set up by the White House to look at the NSA activities in light of the Snowden allegations agrees with him:
The White House panel report, which some have criticized for not going far enough, said the NSA should end secret record collection, called for an independent privacy board, urged more protections for whistleblowers, and said the secret court that authorizes surveillance should be held more accountable. One panel member said the NSA provided no evidence that the bulk data collection programs had prevented terror attacks.
So after Peter King's segment of fearmongering over the great terrorist bogeyman thwarted by the NSA's over-arching collection of data, Udall just called it for the logic fail it was:
"The arguments for the status quo fell apart this week in Washington."
"It's now time to really fundamentally reform the way in which the NSA operates," he said.
Udall pointed to the 46 recommendations contained in the White House panel's report. They include the establishment of an independent privacy panel, the presence of public advocates at secret surveillance court hearings, and better protections for whistleblowers.
And while I applaud Udall for being on the side of angels, I wonder how effective this is. Despite the framing from the Snowden files (and I'm not sure if this is framing from Snowden or the media), this program has been in effect for far longer than the Obama presidency. And once that toothpaste is out of the tube, can we really hope that the NSA will be properly chastened and dial back their intelligence gathering? We know that intelligence gathering didn't stop after the Church Committee; it just went underground and unacknowledged. Black money funded bureaus with innocuous names or nameless espionage missions.
The simple fact is that technology advanced faster than our response to it. We are about two decades behind where we should be. But we're dealing with rather analog thinking in Washington DC in a digital age. How does Udall suggest we catch up?
Framing the Debate: CNN's SOTU Focuses on Obama Blunders/Disasters
By Nicole Belle December 22, 2013 12:23 pm
The Beltway framers at CNN really, really want to make sure that their viewership believes that the Obama presidency is a failure.
Joseph Goebbels famously said, "If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth."
Now perhaps it's arguable that it's a flat out lie, but I'll be damned if CNN isn't bound and determined to decree the Barack Obama presidency a failure.
Need proof? Look at the chyron during the "Authors' panel" on CNN's State of the Union this morning. While letting Mark Halperin, Newt Gingrich, Mark Leibovich and Dan Balz pimp their own individual books, the chyron invited audience interaction by soliciting which of President Obama's blunders put their campaign in disaster mode in 2012.
Let's unpack this glorious bit of conventional wisdom hackery, shall we?
Can we start off with the acknowledgment that we're in 2013, not 2012?
And is it possible to stop focusing on campaigns now? President Obama won his second term handily. There was no "disaster mode" in the works. Now, it's true that the White House did go on disaster-control after the horrible ACA website rollout, but that suggests then that CNN wants to implicitly further the meme that the ACA, which has not even been fully rolled out, is a "blunder" and a "disaster". Telling framing, that.
And tell me, why are we focusing on Obama's blunders, instead of Congressional obstruction, the amount of money and energy the Republican majorities have spent shutting down the government, holding the country hostage and chasing faux scandals while ignoring everything the American people want Congress to focus on?
Final White House Presser Features Mangled Questions
By karoli December 20, 2013 2:29 pm
If media wants more access to President Obama, they need to step up their game.
In the "most wonderful press conference of the year", questioners spent a lot of time patting themselves on the back and trying desperately to get the president to break down in a puddle of tears over the damage they've done to his credibility in 2013.
New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes gets the award for the most contorted question, where she managed to twist a question about the Affordable Care Act rollout into one about the Senate's push for harsher sanctions on Iran.
Citing the "non-partisan, truth-telling group Politifact," Calmes asked the president about his reaction to their Lie of the Year.
Whoa, hold up there, Jackie. That question assumes facts not in evidence, because we all know Politifact is neither objective nor tells the truth. We also know that Politifact conveniently overlooked insurers' role in the undoing of what was admittedly an overly optimistic and broad promise.
Then things got really weird. Calmes continued on by asserting that the fallout from the healthcare.gov rollout seems to be making Senate Democrats "a little rambunctious and independent" which Calmes claimed "is evidenced most clearly in the debate over the Iran sanctions."
At that point the president interrupted, telling her she was "stringing a bunch of things together" and asking her to hone in on a question. He might have also asked her to decide whether she wanted to talk about Iran or health care.
Calmes wasn't the only reporter framing long-winded questions. Ed Henry delivered a small lecture on the NSA, complete with quotes from the president before finally getting to the gist of his question. Chuck Todd thought it was wise to ask why the president wouldn't delay the ACA individual mandate for a year.
The best question of the entire hour probably came from CNN reporter Brianna Keiler, who asked what his New Years' resolution for 2014 would be. Laughing, President Obama said it was "to be nicer to the White House press corps."
After all their whining, I'm glad he granted them a full hour for self-congratulation. But if this was supposed to be something that informed people, it really wasn't, mostly because the Villagers haven't ventured out far enough to find out what the rest of us care about.
Van Susteren Attacks Obama Presser: So Depressing 'You Just Want to Slit Your Throat'
By Heather December 22, 2013 3:22 pm
The producers of ABC's This Week apparently believe that Greta Van Susteren just isn't getting enough air time already at Fox.
Funny... I've heard a lot of people say the same thing about watching too much Fox "news."
In yet another segment by our beltway Villagers opining over whether this was "the worst year" of Obama's presidency and whether or not the passage of the Affordable Care Act is going to look a whole lot better a few years down the road, Fox host Greta Van Susteren had this to say about the president's final press conference of the year on ABC's This Week:
STEPHANOPOULOS: That is the big question isn't it Greta?
VAN SUSTEREN: It is but let me just say it to you, how could we keep saying that over and over again? Why do we keep saying the thing about the Benghazi and the tapes over and over again long after? I know why he keeps saying these different things. But the president's most powerful weapon as president has been his ability to inspire. That's his greatest strength.
And then he comes out last Friday on the press conference. He was depressing, he was like, you know, pathetic, he sucked the oxygen out of the room. The media beat up on his. The media had bad questions. They kept punching him. He ends the year where you just want to slit your throat almost because it was so depressing. And he's completing lost his ability to inspire.
Somehow I think the only thing President Obama has ever "inspired" Van Susteren to do is call him a Socialist/Marxist/Kenyan usurper who wants to destroy America, or to let Rush Limbaugh on her show every time you turn around to say it for her.
There were plenty of things to dislike about that press conference, but most of them were due to the White House Press Corps, not President Obama.
NBC Is Considering Dumping David "I am not a used corporate condom" Gregory As Host of Meet The Press
By: Jason Easley
Sunday, December, 22nd, 2013, 4:01 pm
With Meet The Press pulling historically low ratings, reports are surfacing that NBC News is considering dumping host David "I am not a used corporate condom" Gregory and changing the format of the Sunday staple.
The New York Post (Murdoch owned) reported,
NBC News boss Deborah Turness is spending the last few days of the year eyeing cuts — moves that could include axing some senior on-air talent, The Post has learned.
Turness, brought on in August to shake up the moribund news division — where “Meet the Press” and “Today” had stumbled — is in the midst of a host of end-of -year buyouts and cost reductions, sources said.
Particularly distressed by the changes is the DC bureau team, whose duties include providing political coverage to “Nightly News with Brian Williams” and Sunday talk show “Meet The Press.”
Turness has been trying to figure out the future for David "I am not a used corporate condom" Gregory’s “Meet the Press,” with options including bringing in MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” team of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski for a Sunday show, or blowing up the entire franchise and trying something completely different, sources familiar with the situation said.
If NBC News wants to fix both Meet The Press and Today, they can do so with two moves. Fire David "I am not a used corporate condom" Gregory from Meet The Press. Get Matt Lauer off of Today. The ratings problems for both shows can be tied back to the fact that viewers don’t like the high paid on screen talent that each show is built around.
"I am not a used corporate condom" Gregory has pushed viewers away from Meet The Press with a disinterested approach to the show, and an endless habit of regurgitating Republican talking points as fact. Meet The Press has been transformed from the show where newsmakers expected to be challenged to a dull, lazy, and enraging hourlong informercial for Republican talking points and Beltway conventional thinking. David "I am not a used corporate condom" Gregory has been the exact opposite of the late Tim Russert, and the result is that millions of viewers have tuned out.
The worst thing that NBC News could do would be to replace the intolerable "I am not a used corporate condom" Gregory with the nausea inducing Joe Scarborough, and his band of Beltway lackeys. If Joe and Mika were to take over Meet The Press, the program that was once most important public affairs show on television would cease to exist.
The answer for Meet The Press is simple. Hire a dogged journalist who isn’t afraid to ask tough questions to the nation’s political leaders. In my opinion, Rachel Maddow was born to moderate Meet The Press. Maddow is smart, tough, and fair. She would restore the integrity that David "I am not a used corporate condom" Gregory has sucked from the show.
However, NBC and MSNBC have become the textbook example of consistently repetitive bad decisionmaking. If they dump "I am not a used corporate condom" Gregory, you can bet that Joe and Mika will be occupying Sunday mornings.
The good news is that David Gregory might be gone. The bad news is that he could be replaced by Joe Scarborough.
Majority of Americans Don't Trust Newspapers and Television News
According to a new Gallup poll, confidence in mass media continues to fall
By Allie Bidwell
Dec 23, 2013 RSS Feed Print
Only 23 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup.
Only 23 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup.
Continuing a decades-long downward trend, fewer than one-fourth of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to a recent Gallup poll.
[READ: Paywalls Could Be Print's Salvation Online]
The percentage of Americans saying they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers dropped to 23 percent this year from 25 percent last year, according to a report on the poll, which was released Monday.
American confidence in newspapers reached its peak at 51 percent in 1979, and a low of 22 percent in 2008.
But newspapers don't stand alone. Confidence in television news has also been slipping — it's tied with newspapers this year at 23 percent, which is slightly up from last year's all-time low of 21 percent. Newspapers and television news rank near the bottom of a list of 16 "societal institutions," according to the report. The only institutions television news and newspapers beat out this year are big business, organized labor, health maintenance organizations and Congress. Americans expressed the most confidence in the military, at 76 percent, and small businesses, at 65 percent.
[STUDY: Newspapers Becoming More Polarized]
Gallup attributed the drop in confidence to a number of factors, including a growth in social networking websites and an online audience that left news outlets struggling to find their place.
"Americans' confidence in newspapers and television news has been slowly eroding for many years, worsening further since 2007," the report says. "By that point, newspapers and television news had been struggling for years to figure out how to adjust their strategy for a growing Internet audience."
Though all key demographic groups express low levels of confidence in the media, according to the report, the levels of negativity varied by age, education and gender. College graduates are less likely to trust the media than those with only a high school diploma, for example. The poll also found that women are slightly more confident than men in both television news and newspapers.
[ALSO: Pulitzer Recognizes New Direction for Old School Journalism]
Much of the confidence can also be measured by political orientation. Conservatives remain the most critical of newspapers and television news, while liberals are the most supportive. Confidence in newspapers by party also mirrors their ideologies. Democrats are most confident, at 33 percent, while Republicans, at 16 percent, are least confident.
"The divided Congress, with Democrats controlling the Senate and Republicans the House, is likely part of the reason for the low levels of confidence rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans express, and is tied to Americans' frustrations with Congress' inability to get much done," the report says.
The EVIL CANCER THAT IS CALLED CAPITALISM ....
What Surveillance Valley knows about you
By Yasha Levine
On December 22, 2013.
“In 2012, the data broker industry generated 150 billion in revenue that’s twice the size of the entire intelligence budget of the United States government—all generated by the effort to detail and sell information about our private lives.”
— Senator Jay Rockefeller IV
“Quite simply, in the digital age, data-driven marketing has become the fuel on which America’s free market engine runs.”
— Direct Marketing Association
Google is very secretive about the exact nature of its for-profit intel operation and how it uses the petabytes of data it collects on us every single day for financial gain. Fortunately, though, we can get a sense of the kind of info that Google and other Surveillance Valley megacorps compile on us, and the ways in which that intel might be used and abused, by looking at the business practices of the “data broker” industry.
Thanks to a series of Senate hearings, the business of data brokerage is finally being understood by consumers, but the industry got its start back in the 1970s as a direct outgrowth of the failure of telemarketing. In its early days, telemarketing had an abysmal success rate: only 2 percent of people contacted would become customers. In his book, “The Digital Perso,” Daniel J. Solove explains what happened next:
To increase the low response rate, marketers sought to sharpen their targeting techniques, which required more consumer research and an effective way to collect, store, and analyze information about consumers. The advent of the computer database gave marketers this long sought-after ability — and it launched a revolution in targeting technology.
Data brokers rushed in to fill the void. These operations pulled in information from any source they could get their hands on — voter registration, credit card transactions, product warranty information, donations to political campaigns and non-profits, court records — storing it in master databases and then analyzing it in all sorts of ways that could be useful to direct-mailing and telemarketing outfits. It wasn’t long before data brokers realized that this information could be used beyond telemarketing, and quickly evolved into a global for-profit intelligence business that serves every conceivable data and intelligence need.
Today, the industry churns somewhere around $200 billion in revenue annually. There are up to 4,000 data broker companies — some of the biggest are publicly traded — and together, they have detailed information on just about every adult in the western world.
No source of information is sacred: transaction records are bought in bulk from stores, retailers and merchants; magazine subscriptions are recorded; food and restaurant preferences are noted; public records and social networks are scoured and scraped. What kind of prescription drugs did you buy? What kind of books are you interested in? Are you a registered voter? To what non-profits do you donate? What movies do you watch? Political documentaries? Hunting reality TV shows?
That info is combined and kept up to date with address, payroll information, phone numbers, email accounts, social security numbers, vehicle registration and financial history. And all that is sliced, isolated, analyzed and mined for data about you and your habits in a million different ways.
The dossiers are not restricted to generic market segmenting categories like “Young Literati” or “Shotguns and Pickups” or “Kids & Cul-de-Sacs,” but often contain the most private and intimate details about a person’s life, all of it packaged and sold over and over again to anyone willing to pay.
Take MEDbase200, a boutique for-profit intel outfit that specializes in selling health-related consumer data. Well, until last week, the company offered its clients a list of rape victims (or “rape sufferers,” as the company calls them) at the low price of $79.00 per thousand. The company claims to have segmented this data set into hundreds of different categories, including stuff like the ailments they suffer, prescription drugs they take and their ethnicity:
These rape sufferers are family members who have reported, or have been identified as individuals affected by specific illnesses, conditions or ailments relating to rape. Medbase200 is the owner of this list. Select from families affected by over 500 different ailments, and/or who are consumers of over 200 different Rx medications. Lists can be further selected on the basis of lifestyle, ethnicity, geo, gender, and much more. Inquire today for more information.
MEDbase promptly took its “rape sufferers” list off line last week after its existence was revealed in a Senate investigation into the activities of the data-broker industry. The company pretended like the list was a huge mistake. A MEDbase rep tried convincing a Wall Street Journal reporter that its rape dossiers were just a “hypothetical list of health conditions/ailments.” The rep promised it was never sold to anyone. Yep, it was a big mistake. We can all rest easy now. Thankfully, MEDbase has hundreds of other similar dossier collections, hawking the most private and sensitive medical information.
For instance, if lists of rape victims aren’t your thing, MEDbase can sell dossiers on people suffering from anorexia, substance abuse, AIDS and HIV, Alzheimer’s Disease, Asperger Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Bedwetting (Enuresis), Binge Eating Disorder, Depression, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Genital Herpes, Genital Warts, Gonorrhea, Homelessness, Infertility, Syphilis… the list goes on and on and on and on.
Normally, such detailed health information would fall under federal law and could not be disclosed or sold without consent. But because these data harvesters rely on indirect sources of information instead of medical records, they’re able to sidestep regulations put in place to protect the privacy of people’s health data.
MEBbase isn’t the only company exploiting these loopholes. By the industry’s own estimates, there are something like 4,000 for-profit intel companies operating in the United States. Many of them sell information that would normally be restricted under federal law. They offer all sorts of targeted dossier collections on every population segments of our society, from the affluent to the extremely vulnerable:
•people with drug addictions
•detailed personal info on police officers and other government employees
•people with bad credit/bankruptcies
•minorities who’ve used payday loan services
•domestic violence shelter locations (normally these addresses would be shielded by law)
If you want to see how this kind of profile data can be used to scam unsuspecting individuals, look no further than a Richard Guthrie, an Iowa retiree who had his life savings siphoned out of his bank account. Their weapon of choice: databases bought from large for-profit data brokers listing retirees who entered sweepstakes and bought lottery tickets.
Here’s a 2007 New York Times story describing the racket:
Mr. Guthrie, who lives in Iowa, had entered a few sweepstakes that caused his name to appear in a database advertised by infoUSA, one of the largest compilers of consumer information. InfoUSA sold his name, and data on scores of other elderly Americans, to known lawbreakers, regulators say.
InfoUSA advertised lists of “Elderly Opportunity Seekers,” 3.3 million older people “looking for ways to make money,” and “Suffering Seniors,” 4.7 million people with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. “Oldies but Goodies” contained 500,000 gamblers over 55 years old, for 8.5 cents apiece. One list said: “These people are gullible. They want to believe that their luck can change.”
Data brokers argue that cases like Guthrie are an anomaly — a once-in-a-blue-moon tragedy in an industry that takes privacy and legal conduct seriously. But cases of identity thieves and sophistical con-rings obtaining data from for-profit intel businesses abound. Scammers are a lucrative source of revenue. Their money is just as good as anyone else’s. And some of the profile “products” offered by the industry seem tailored specifically to fraud use.
As Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sergeant Yves Leblanc told the New York Times: “Only one kind of customer wants to buy lists of seniors interested in lotteries and sweepstakes: criminals. If someone advertises a list by saying it contains gullible or elderly people, it’s like putting out a sign saying ‘Thieves welcome here.’”
So what is InfoUSA, exactly? What kind of company would create and sell lists customized for use by scammers and cons?
As it turns out, InfoUSA is not some fringe or shady outfit, but a hugely profitable politically connected company. InfoUSA was started by Vin Gupta in the 1970s as a basement operation hawking detailed lists of RV and mobile home dealers. The company quickly expanded into other areas and began providing business intel services to thousands of businesses. By 2000, the company raised more than $30 million in venture capital funding from major Silicon Valley venture capital firms.
By then, InfoUSA boasted of having information on 230 million consumers. A few years later, InfoUSA counted the biggest Valley companies as its clients, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL. It got involved not only in raw data and dossiers, but moved into payroll and financial, conducted polling and opinion research, partnered with CNN, vetted employees and provided customized services for law enforcement and all sorts of federal and government agencies: processing government payments, helping states locate tax cheats and even administrating President Bill Clinton “Welfare to Work” program. Which is not surprising, as Vin Gupta is a major and close political supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
In 2008, Gupta was sued by InfoUSA shareholders for inappropriately using corporate funds. Shareholders accused of Gupta of illegally funneling corporate money to fund an extravagant lifestyle and curry political favor. According to the Associated Press, the lawsuit questioned why Gupta used private corporate jets to fly the Clintons on personal and campaign trips, and why Gupta awarded Bill Clinton a $3.3 million consulting gig.
As a result of the scandal, InfoUSA was threatened with delisting from Nasdaq, Gupta was forced out and the company was snapped up for half a billion dollars by CCMP Capital Advisors, a major private equity firm spun off from JP Morgan in 2006. Today, InfoUSA continues to do business under the name Infogroup, and has nearly 4,000 employees working in nine countries.
As big as Infogroup is, there are dozens of other for-profit intelligence businesses that are even bigger: massive multi-national intel conglomerates with revenues in the billions of dollars. Some of them, like Lexis-Nexis and Experian, are well known, but mostly these are outfits that few Americans have heard of, with names like Epsilon, Altegrity and Acxiom.
These for-profit intel behemoths are involved in everything from debt collection to credit reports to consumer tracking to healthcare analysis, and provide all manner of tailored services to government and law enforcement around the world. For instance, Acxiom has done business with most major corporations, and boasts of intel on “500 million active consumers worldwide, with about 1,500 data points per person. That includes a majority of adults in the United States,” according to the New York Times.
This data is analyzed and sliced in increasingly sophisticated and intrusive ways to profile and predict behavior. Merchants are using it customize shopping experience— Target launched a program to figure out if a woman shopper was pregnant and when the baby would be born, “even if she didn’t want us to know.” Life insurance companies are experimenting with predictive consumer intel to estimate life expectancy and determine eligibility for life insurance policies. Meanwhile, health insurance companies are raking over this data in order to deny and challenge the medical claims of their policyholders.
Even more alarming, large employers are turning to for-profit intelligence to mine and monitor the lifestyles and habits of their workers outside the workplace. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal described how employers have partnered with health insurance companies to monitor workers for “health-adverse” behavior that could lead to higher medical expenses down the line:
Your company already knows whether you have been taking your meds, getting your teeth cleaned and going for regular medical checkups. Now some employers or their insurance companies are tracking what staffers eat, where they shop and how much weight they are putting on — and taking action to keep them in line.
But companies also have started scrutinizing employees’ other behavior more discreetly. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina recently began buying spending data on more than 3 million people in its employer group plans. If someone, say, purchases plus-size clothing, the health plan could flag him for potential obesity — and then call or send mailings offering weight-loss solutions.
…”Everybody is using these databases to sell you stuff,” says Daryl Wansink, director of health economics for the Blue Cross unit. “We happen to be trying to sell you something that can get you healthier.”
“As an employer, I want you on that medication that you need to be on,” says Julie Stone, a HR expert at Towers Watson told the Wall Street Journal.
Companies might try to frame it as a health issue. I mean, what kind of asshole could be against employers caring about the wellbeing of their workers? But their ultimate concern has nothing to do with the employee health. It’s all about the brutal bottom line: keeping costs down.
An employer monitoring and controlling your activity outside of work? You don’t have to be union agitator to see the problems with this kind of mindset and where it could lead. Because there are lots of things that some employers might want to know about your personal life, and not only to “keep costs down.” It could be anything: to weed out people based on undesirable habits or discriminate against workers based on sexual orientation, regulation and political beliefs.
It’s not difficult to imagine that a large corporation facing a labor unrest or a unionization drive would be interested in proactively flagging potential troublemakers by pinpointing employees that might be sympathetic to the cause. But the technology and data is already here for wide and easy application: did a worker watch certain political documentaries, donate to environmental non-profits, join an animal rights Facebook group, tweet out support for Occupy Wall Street, subscribe to the Nation or Jacobin, buy Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”? Or maybe the worker simply rented one of Michael Moore’s films? Run your payroll through one of the massive consumer intel databases and look if there is any matchup. Bound to be plenty of unpleasant surprises for HR!
This has happened in the past, although in a cruder and more limited way. In the 1950s, for instance, some lefty intellectuals had their lefty newspapers and mags delivered to P.O. boxes instead of their home address, worrying that otherwise they’d get tagged as Commie symps. That might have worked in the past. But with the power of private intel companies, today there’s nowhere to hide.
FTC Commissioner Julie Brill has repeatedly voiced concern that unregulated data being amassed by for-profit intel companies would be used to discriminate and deny employment, and to determine consumer access to everything from credit to insurance to housing. “As Big Data algorithms become more accurate and powerful, consumers need to know a lot more about the ways in which their data is used,” she told the Wall Street Journal.
Pam Dixon, executive director of the Privacy World Forum, agrees. Dixon frequently testifies on Capitol Hill to warn about the growing danger to privacy and civil liberties posed by big data and for-profit intelligence. In Congressional testimony back in 2009, Dixon called this growing mountain of data the “modern permanent record” and explained that users of these new intel capabilities will inevitably expand to include not just marketers and law enforcement, but insurance companies, employers, landlords, schools, parents, scammers and stalkers. “The information – like credit reports – will be used to make basic decisions about the ability of individual to travel, participate in the economy, find opportunities, find places to live, purchase goods and services, and make judgments about the importance, worthiness, and interests of individuals.”
For the past year, Chairman John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV has been conducting a Senate Commerce Committee investigation of the data broker industry and how it affects consumers. The committee finished its investigation last week without reaching any real conclusions, but issued a report warning about the dangers posed by the for-profit intel industry and the need for further action by lawmakers. The report noted with concern that many of these firms failed to cooperate with the investigation into their business practices:
Data brokers operate behind a veil of secrecy. Three of the largest companies – Acxiom, Experian, and Epsilon – to date have been similarly secretive with the Committee with respect to their practices, refusing to identify the specific sources of their data or the customers who purchase it. … The refusal by several major data broker companies to provide the Committee complete responses regarding data sources and customers only reinforces the aura of secrecy surrounding the industry.
Rockefeller’s investigation was an important first step breaking open this secretive industry, but it was missing one notable element. Despite its focus on companies that feed on people’s personal data, the investigation did not include Google or the other big Surveillance Valley data munchers. And that’s too bad. Because if anything, the investigation into data brokers only highlighted the danger posed by the consumer-facing data companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Apple.
As intrusive as data brokers are, the level of detail in the information they compile on Americans pales to what can be vacuumed up by a company like Google. To compile their dossiers, traditional data brokers rely on mostly indirect intel: what people buy, where they vacation, what websites they visit. Google, on the other hand, has access to the raw uncensored contents of your inner life: personal emails, chats, the diary entries and medical records that we store in the cloud, our personal communication with doctors, lawyers, psychologists, friends. Data brokers know us through our spending habits. Google accesses the unfiltered details of our personal lives.
A recent study showed that Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to having their online activity tracked and analyzed. Seventy-three percent of people polled for the Pew Internet & American Life Project viewed the tracking of their search history as an invasion of privacy, while 68 percent were against targeted advertising, replying: “I don’t like having my online behavior tracked and analyzed.”
This isn’t news to companies like Google, which last year warned shareholders: “Privacy concerns relating to our technology could damage our reputation and deter current and potential users from using our products and services.”
Little wonder then that Google, and the rest of Surveillance Valley, is terrified that the conversation about surveillance could soon broaden to include not only government espionage, but for-profit spying as well.
[Image courtesy redjar]
Edward Snowden: ‘I already won’
'For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,' NSA whistleblower says
theguardian.com, Tuesday 24 December 2013 05.16 GMT
Whistleblower Edward Snowden has declared “mission accomplished”, seven months after revelations were first published from his mass leak of National Security Agency documents.
The documents, which were leaked to the Guardian and also the Washington Post and Der Spiegel, revealed how technological developments were used by the US surveillance agency to spy on its own citizens and others abroad, and also to spy on allies, such as the US on Germany and Australia on Indonesia.
In 14 hours of interviews with the Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman Snowden said,
“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished.”
He continued: “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.
“All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed.”
Snowden said other colleagues at the NSA had been concerned the agency was spying on “more Americans in America than Russians in Russia” and were not entirely comfortable with the data collected on “ordinary” citizens.
He described using the “front-page test” on his colleagues when raising the issues, asking them how they thought the public would react if information was reported on the front page of a newspaper.
He said he had brought his concerns to at least four superiors and 15 colleagues at the NSA and used a heatmap from the data query tool BOUNDLESSINFORMANT to show how much data the agency was collecting.
The NSA told the Washington Post that none of these approaches had taken place.
Snowden also said he had suggested changing NSA systems so there would need to be a second authorisation for copying files to a hard drive but was rejected.
If his suggestion had been implemented Snowden would not have been able to copy all the files he took. An NSA spokeswoman also denied those conversations had taken place.
“I am not trying to bring down the NSA, I am working to improve the NSA,” Snowden said.
“I am still working for the NSA right now. They are the only ones who don’t realise it.”
Snowden revealed a little of his life in asylum in Moscow. He likened himself to an ascetic and a house cat and said he rarely left the house, spending most of his days surfing the internet – though visitors have brought him piles of books.
He does not drink – he says he never has – and lives mostly on ramen noodles.
There has been speculation that Snowden has rigged up a type of “dead man’s switch” so if the NSA, or a similar spy agency, hurt or kill him, then a cache of thousands of documents would be released on to the internet.
Snowden denied this and likened the scenario to a “suicide switch”, alluding to people who might want the information on the internet, unchecked and unredacted, and would kill him for the sake of it.
He named the chairs of the Senate and house intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein and Mike Rogers, as people who had “elected” him to his whistleblower position by not doing their jobs properly in ensuring the oversight of the NSA.
“It wasn’t that they put it on me as an individual – that I’m uniquely qualified, an angel descending from the heavens – as that they put it on someone, somewhere,” he said.
“You have the capability, and you realise every other [person] sitting around the table has the same capability but they don’t do it. So somebody has to be the first.”
He said he had no relationship with the Russian government. “If I defected at all, I defected from the government to the public,” he said.
Security company RSA denies knowingly installing NSA 'back door'
Denial follows allegations that pioneering company made NSA algorithm its default in return for payment
theguardian.com, Monday 23 December 2013 19.30 GMT
The security company RSA has denied that it knowingly weakened the encryption it used in its products as part of a secret contract with the US's National Security Agency.
A report from the Reuters news agency on Friday alleged that RSA arranged a $10m contract to use a mathematically weaker formula in a number of its products, which would in effect have created a "back door" for cracking encrypted messages or communications.
RSA initially declined to respond to the reports. But in a blogpost on its site posted Sunday, the company now says: "Recent press coverage has asserted that RSA entered into a 'secret contract' with the NSA to incorporate a known flawed random number generator into its BSAFE encryption libraries. We categorically deny this allegation."
It adds that "We have worked with the NSA, both as a vendor and an active member of the security community. We have never kept this relationship a secret and in fact have openly publicized it. Our explicit goal has always been to strengthen commercial and government security."
The amount described would have been a substantial boost to RSA's revenues – totalling about a third of the revenue for the relevant division in the previous year.
Damien Miller, a security researcher at Google, commented that the blogpost might qualify for "carefully worded press release of the year". RSA's statement seems to deny knowing at the time of any contract that the random number generator was flawed. But clear details about its weakness have only emerged in the past few months, while the alleged contract would have been undertaken in at least six years ago.
The weakened encryption system – a random number generator known as Dual EC DRBG – is the default for a number of security "toolkits" built by RSA which it then issues to other companies. It also figures in its own products. It relies on an algorithm known as "Dual elliptic curve" – Dual EC – which was developed by the NSA.
Reuters alleges that the NSA paid RSA to make Dual EC DRBG the default method for generating numbers in its Bsafe software. Most people stick with the defaults in any software they use – even in cryptography.
"We made the decision to use Dual EC DRBG as the default in BSafe toolkits in 2004, in the context of an industry-wide effort to develop newer, stronger methods of encryption," the company says. "At that time, the NSA had a trusted role in the community-wide effort to strengthen, not weaken, encryption."
Disclosures from the whistleblower Edward Snowden have revealed that the NSA worked to weaken the random number generation in the system, which would make any communications much easier to crack.
The Dual EC DRBG algorithm was approved by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 2006, but concern was raised by two researchers from Microsoft the net year that it had a "back door" in it.
NIST has since recommended that the algorithm is not used to generate secure content.
Pussy Riot members reunited after early release from Russian prison
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina repeat claim that amnesty is a publicity stunt before the Winter Olympics in Sochi
Pussy Riot members: prison full of 'endless humiliations'
Associated Press in Krasnoyarsk
theguardian.com, Tuesday 24 December 2013 10.33 GMT
Two members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were reunited on Tuesday after spending nearly two years in prison for their protest at Moscow's main cathedral, and said they want to set up a human rights organisation.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina were granted amnesty on Monday, two months before their scheduled release, in what was interpreted as an attempt by the Kremlin to soothe criticism of Russia's human rights record prior to the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.
Alekhina flew into the eastern Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk early on Tuesday to meet Tolokonnikova. They have said the amnesty and their release was a publicity stunt by the Kremlin ahead of the Olympics. Tolokonnikova has also called for a boycott of the Olympics.
Alekhina, still dressed in a dark-green prison jacket, hugged Tolokonnikova and then shook hands.
Both women reiterated their statement on Monday that they intend to work to help prisoners, and that they will discuss setting up a human rights organisation.
A third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released on a suspended sentence shortly after the three were found guilty of hooliganism and sentenced to two years in prison in 2012 for their protest at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow.
The women have denied the accusation that they were driven by hatred of religion, and said their performance was aimed at raising concern about the close ties between the church and state.
Russian parliament passed an amnesty bill last week, allowing the release of thousands of inmates, including the two Pussy Riot members.
*****************Freed Pussy Riot members say prison was time of 'endless humiliations'
Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova say they want acquittal from Pig Putin, not amnesty
Anna Nemtsova in Moscow and Shaun Walker
The Guardian, Monday 23 December 2013 18.53 GMT
After nearly two years in prison for singing a song about Pig Putin in Moscow's main cathedral, the women of Pussy Riot are no less defiant. Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova have walked free from prison , and pledged to devote their energies to changing the political system in Russia and improving conditions inside its prisons.
Bareheaded despite the -25C cold, Tolokonnikova walked out of prison in the eastern city of Krasnoyarsk, flashing a victory sign to reporters waiting outside. "How do you like our Siberian weather here?" she asked, before shouting "Russia without the Pig !"
Speaking to the Guardian by telephone shortly after her release from prison in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, Alyokhina said that the pair – who were released as part of a wide-ranging amnesty announced last week – now plan to launch a project which will fight for the rights of inmates in the Russian prison system.
"We will be creating very special, colourful and powerful programmes to defend other innocent women in Russian prisons, who are being turned into slaves right now," Alyokhina said, adding that she planned to fly to Siberia in order to meet up with her band mate.
Tolokonnikova confirmed that the two women planned to meet soon to discuss the new project: "Russia is built along the same lines as a prison camp at the moment, so it's important to change the prison camps so that we can start to change Russia," she said. "Everything is just starting, so fasten your seat belts."
Alyokhina described her prison sentence as a time of "endless humiliations", including forced gynaecological examinations almost every day for three weeks.
She said: "I decided to become a human rights activist when I realised how easy it was for officials to make a decision and force women to be examined in the most intimate parts of their bodies. Russian officials should not stay unpunished, they cannot have this kind of absolute power over us."
Zoya Svetova, a member of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission visited Alyokhina in Moscow jail and confirmed that she had repeatedly been subjected to intimate searches.
"Inmates call it 'to be let through the chair' – it is a part of searching process. That is the most humiliating thing for any woman. I am not sure how many times Alyokhina went through it - I guess every time she left the jail to go to court," Svetova said.
Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova and a third band member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was released on appeal shortly after the guilty verdict, were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for their performance of an anti-Pig Putin "punk prayer" inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in March 2012.
The two were released as part of an amnesty initiated by Pig Putin and backed by the Russian parliament last week, which is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution. The women qualify because they have young children.
Alyokhina told Russian television that had she been given the chance, she would have turned down the offer of amnesty, and served out the remainder of her sentence, which was due to finish in March.
"This is not an amnesty, this is a hoax and a PR move," she said. Tolokonnikova called on western countries to boycott the Sochi Olympics in February in protest at the Russian regime.
Samutsevich also rejected the women's amnesty. "We were innocent when the Kremlin locked us up: it was not amnesty that we expected from the Pig; we demand acquittal," she told the Guardian.
The amnesty also provides a reprieve for 30 Greenpeace activists, including six Britons, arrested aboard the Arctic Sunrise in September. They had been bailed last month but were stuck in St Petersburg waiting for a trial for hooliganism that could have seen them jailed for up to seven years. They will now be allowed to leave Russia, though the paperwork looks like it will not be ready in time for them to spend Christmas at home.
The release of Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova came just three days after another prominent prisoner, former oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was released after asking Pig Putin for pardon and receiving it. Khodorkovsky described being woken up by prison guards in the dead of night, transferred to St Petersburg, and put on a plane to Berlin, where he spoke to journalists on Sunday.
Alyokhina said that her release from jail also felt "more like a secret special operation than an act of humanism". She was woken and told she had been released, but prison officials packed her belongings without letting her decide for herself what she wanted to bring and what she wanted to leave for other inmates. She was not given a chance to say goodbye to the friends she had made in the prison, and instead was led to a car and driven out of the prison. She was left at Nizhny Novgorod's railway station with her passport but no money, still wearing her prison overalls embossed with her name and prisoner number.
Alyokhina called friends at the Committee Against Torture, a local rights organisation, who came to pick her up. Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, one of the activists, said: "We were amazed that authorities would do something this ridiculous; secretly sneaking Masha out of jail so that she would not walk free to her family, friends and reporters waiting for her outside the prison walls with flowers."
Khodorkovsky did not fall under the terms of the amnesty but was pardoned separately by Pig Putin, who made the surprise announcement last week. The Pig's spokesman said there were no conditions attached to the pardon, which came after the country's former richest man wrote a handwritten letter personally to Pig Putin. Khodorkovsky has said he may not return to Russia for some time, however. He says he will work on human rights issues but does not plan to go into politics.
Tolokonnikova was moved to the prison in Krasnoyarsk last month, after previously serving most of her sentence in Mordovia, a region known for its Soviet-era gulags. In the autumn, she went on hunger strike over conditions at the camp, and wrote an open letter describing slave-like working conditions and sadistic punishments. She has said that the prison in Krasnoyarsk was much more humane, and on her release she promised that she would work to get the head of Mordovia's prison service fired.
Samutsevitch and the other members of Pussy Riot are waiting for Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina to return to Moscow. "Pussy Riot exists, we are not going to stop being active and creative," she said.
***********Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: release was 'cynical act' by Putin - video
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova from Russian protest band Pussy Riot says her release by Vladimir Putin was a 'disgusting and cynical act.' She criticises the country's prison system and says there are others behind bars that should have been released before her. Tolokonnikova and bandmate Maria Alyokhina were freed on Monday after Putin signed an amnesty
Click to watch: http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/dec/23/pussy-riot-nadezhda-tolokonnikova-release-cynical-putin-video
**************Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova outside prison – video
Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is released from prison in the eastern Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. Smiling to reporters and flashing a V sign, she speaks to waiting media in sub-zero temperatures, and criticises the Putin regime. She says she will campaign for other political prisoners to be freed, and also calls for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February
Click to view: http://www.theguardian.com/music/video/2013/dec/23/pussy-riot-nadezhda-tolokonnikova-free-prison-video
***************Now Pussy Riot are free, Russia's culture wars must end
The radical Orthodox backlash sparked by Pussy Riot has been disturbing. Now the band is free I hope we can all move on
theguardian.com, Monday 23 December 2013 17.43 GMT
As the result of a general amnesty, Pussy Riot rockers Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina have been set free. In case you're just joining us from outer space, these women had been serving a two-year sentence for hooliganism and incitement to religious hatred after performing an anti-Putin song at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in downtown Moscow.
Although they were originally due for release in March, just a few months from now, it's good that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina came out early, for both obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.
First of all, it's simply gratifying to see these women, who both have young children, set free. Whether or not you agree with Pig Putin's assessment that their performances were "degrading" to women (based on old polls Russians pretty much seem to agree with him), it's important to note that the sentence against them was extremely harsh and unfair.
Of course, the fact that the Pussy Riot members actually carried out their performance in a place of worship was the deciding factor in their fate. Even some Russian opposition figures, including veteran rocker Yuri Shevchyuk, were surprised and hurt following the cathedral stunt. The vicious persecution of clergy and the destruction of churches in the Soviet Union is not an issue most Russians take lightly – which is part of the reason why the original outcry against the group gained such momentum in Russia.
Yet the ugly show trial that followed, somehow managed to be more offensive than the original performance. Various prominent members of the clergy went on record to say that they did not support Pussy Riot's persecution. Even many of Pussy Riot's most serious detractors did not understand why the state needed to make martyrs out of them. The very wording of the verdict against Pussy Riot continues to be a subject of scorn for lawyers.
The Pussy Riot case eventually became a bitter punchline. Every time some unsympathetic bureaucrat or drunk driver was perceived to have got off easily in the courts, people would joke that, "Hey, at least there was no dancing in a church involved!" In that sense, the drama surrounding Pussy Riot served to further undermine a legal system plagued by allegations of inhumanity and abuse.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's letter from a Mordovian penal colony – a letter that accused the authorities of torture and exploitation of prisoners – was yet another blow against the legal system. In Izvestia, a conservative newspaper, Maxim Kononenko published a powerful essay about the feelings of shame he felt at seeing this young woman wage a lonely crusade against abuse of prisoners (Tolokonnikova was eventually transferred to a Siberian penal colony.)
The case against Pussy Riot also allowed a new group of radical Orthodox activists to rise to prominence. Galvanised by media attention, the radicals went from attacking people wearing Pussy Riot T-shirts to harassing staff at a downtown sex museum, calling for the "pagan" Olympic torch relay to be cancelled, and barging in on a satirical production at Moscow's venerated Chekhov Art theatre – among their many other "achievements".
The new culture war sparked by the original Pussy Riot performance is both tiresome and disturbing. Now that all Pussy Riot members have been freed – and now that prominent church officials are mentioning the possibility of dialogue with them – perhaps passions will die down.
As an Orthodox Christian, I don't want some glassy-eyed guy screaming at me to "repent" when I go to the theatre. I don't want to be lectured about the "forces of darkness" that will surely consume Russia for holding an Olympic torch relay. At the end of the day, I want there to be at least a measure of healing – for everyone involved. An amnesty is the perfect excuse to move on.
Britain pardons and apologizes to gay ‘father of computing’ Alan Turing
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 23, 2013 20:50 EST
Britain on Tuesday granted a posthumous pardon to Alan Turing, the World War II code-breaking hero who committed suicide after he was convicted of the then crime of homosexuality.
Turing is often hailed as a father of modern computing and he played a pivotal role in breaking Germany’s “Enigma” code, an effort that some historians say brought an early end to World War II.
He died in 1954 after eating an apple laced with cyanide, two years after he was sentenced to chemical castration for the “gross indecency” of homosexuality. A coroner ruled that Turing committed suicide, though this has since been questioned.
Queen Elizabeth II has now pardoned Turing for “a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory”, justice minister Chris Grayling said.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain in 1967.
“A pardon from the queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man,” Grayling said.
Prime Minister David Cameron said the code-breaker’s work had saved “countless lives”.
“Alan Turing was a remarkable man who played a key role in saving this country in World War II by cracking the German Enigma code,” Cameron said.
“He also left a remarkable national legacy through his substantial scientific achievements, often being referred to as the father of modern computing.”
The Enigma code was used to encrypt communications between German U-boats in the North Atlantic ocean. Turing’s efforts to break it were virtually unknown to the public at the time of his death, as his work was kept secret until 1974.
Turing also published pioneering work on early computers, writing in a 1936 paper of a “universal Turing machine”.
Having told people he was trying to “build a brain”, his theory was the first to consider feeding programmes into a machine as data, allowing a single machine to perform the functions of many — just like today’s computers.
He lost his job at Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency GCHQ after he was convicted and poisoned himself with cyanide at the age of 41.
A GCHQ spokesperson on Tuesday said the agency was “delighted about the pardon”.
The pardon is a victory for supporters, including leading scientists such as Britain’s Stephen Hawking, who have long campaigned to clear Turing’s name.
Britain’s prime minister in 2009, Gordon Brown, issued a posthumous apology to the code-breaker, saying he had been treated “terribly”.
But the government rejected a call to grant an official pardon last year on the grounds that Turing was properly convicted of what was then a criminal offence.
More than 37,000 people signed an online petition last year calling for a pardon.
Pardons are usually only granted in Britain when the person is innocent of the offence and when it is requested by someone with a vested interest, such as a family member.
Turing’s pardon is extremely rare in that it has been granted despite neither of these conditions being met.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
December 23, 2013
British Premier Faces Growing Criticism Over a Push to Curb Immigration
By STEVEN ERLANGER
LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron’s latest proposals on immigration are being criticized as dangerous political maneuvering, not only by the European Union, but also his own coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.
On Sunday, the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, warned that he would not tolerate any further curbs on immigration from within the European Union while he was in office, saying: “Sticking a big no-entry sign on the cliffs of Dover may be politically popular, but at a huge economic cost,” he wrote in the Sunday Times of London.
The cabinet minister in charge of business, Vince Cable, also a Liberal Democrat, accused Mr. Cameron and the Conservatives of pushing for further curbs on immigration because they are “in a bit of a panic because of U.K.I.P.,” the anti-immigrant, anti-European Union party known formally as the U.K. Independence Party.
“It’s not going to help them, I think, politically,” Mr. Cable said. “But it’s doing a great deal of damage.” Within the coalition government, he said, there is “quite a lot of tension,” with elections due in May 2015.
The latest dispute, as Mr. Cameron tries to tack to the right without offending the center, comes as Romanian and Bulgarian citizens are about to now receive the same rights to work in the European Union as citizens of other member countries, although their nations joined the union in 2007. The British news media and U.K. Independence Party leaders have warned of a huge influx of Romanians and Bulgarians who they say will take jobs from Britons and try to exploit the British social benefits system — so-called welfare tourism — and overwhelm the budget and the National Health Service.
While studies show that in fact previous immigrants usually fill jobs shunned by Britons and contribute more in taxes than they get in social services, the issue remains delicate in a period where growth is slow, joblessness is high and the British are complaining about the high cost of living, in particular energy and housing.
Mr. Cameron has said he wants legislation passed before the year’s end to ban new immigrants from qualifying for jobless benefits for the first three months. His home secretary, Theresa May, floated the idea of a cap of 75,000 a year on new European Union immigrants, which the Liberal Democrats and European Union officials have dismissed as “illegal and unworkable,” in Mr. Clegg’s words. Mr. Clegg supports the three-month benefit qualification, however.
The prime minister’s 2010 electoral pledge to cut immigration by “tens of thousands” by 2015, from the 200,000 a year expected under current trends, drew criticism on Monday from the independent National Institute of Economic and Social Research. The group said that the restrictions could shrink the economy by more than 10 percent by 2060 and that having fewer young immigrants would raise the cost of caring for the elderly.
Mr. Cameron is facing criticism not only from U.K. Independence Party and its leader, Nigel Farage, but more important, from a deeply anti-European wing in his own Conservative Party, with as many as 100 members of Parliament considered in favor of leaving the 28-nation European Union in its current form.
Mr. Cable was particularly harsh, telling the BBC that “we periodically get these immigration panics — I remember going back to Enoch Powell and ‘rivers of blood’ and all that, and if you go back a century, there were panics over Jewish immigrants.” Politicians have a responsibility when people panic, Mr. Cable said, “to try to reassure them and give them facts, and not panic and resort to populist measures that do harm.”
The tone of the British debate was hardly helped when a Conservative junior minister of defense, Anna Soubry, made an off-color comment about what she called Mr. Farage’s odd facial expressions. The comment prompted angry responses on Twitter and from Mr. Farage, and Ms. Soubry apologized, saying it was “a lighthearted remark.”
Given polls showing that Britons are unhappy about immigration, the opposition Labour Party has said little recently on the topic. Previously it tried to show itself as tough on immigration by proposing tougher residency tests and calling for large companies to take on an apprentice for every foreign worker hired.
The Bulgarian president, Rosen Plevneliev, warned Mr. Cameron not to play on people’s fears in a period when right-wing parties are doing relatively well in European opinion polls. “Isolating Britain and damaging Britain’s reputation is not the right history to write,” Mr. Plevneliev told The Observer, a Sunday newspaper. “Bulgarian people are raising a lot of questions today about the democratic, tolerant and humane British society.” He asked whether Britain was “writing a history of a switch to isolation, nationalism and short-term political approaches.”
Mr. Plevneliev’s comments echoed criticism last month from the European Union’s employment commissioner, Laszlo Andor of Hungary, who called Mr. Cameron’s effort to restrict benefits to new European immigrants an “unfortunate overreaction” that could cause hysteria. The plans “risk presenting the U.K. as the nasty country in the European Union,” he said.
The Romanian foreign minister, Titus Corlatean, recently criticized the fears about Romanians, Bulgarians and others as racist, calling on Mr. Cameron to reject, “in clear terms, the xenophobic and populistic, and once again sometimes racist attitudes which are promoted by some other British politicians.”
Mr. Corlatean said there would be no flood of Romanians to Britain, noting that “the U.K. is not the only country in the E.U. by the way.”
Toys R Us's Stockholm superstore goes gender neutral
'Children are not coded to blue for boys and pink for girls – they should be free to choose what they want to play with'
David Crouch in Stockholm
The Guardian, Monday 23 December 2013 16.27 GMT
In a huge Toys R Us warehouse on the Kungens Kurva retail estate in south-west Stockholm, cute and cuddly rubs shoulders with cool and crazy – closer in layout to the jumble of a child's bedroom than a normal store.
In Sweden's largest toy store, play kitchens stand opposite train sets; baby strollers are piled beside a stack of toy guns; My Little Pony stares at swords and ninja costumes; princess dresses brush up against firefighter outfits. Even the Barbie house – that last redoubt of the candy-pink – is under pressure from a Lego display. "Children are not coded to blue for boys and pink for girls – they should be free to choose what they want to play with," said Jan Nyberg, sales director in Sweden for Top-Toy, which owns the franchise for Toys R Us in Nordic countries. Top-Toy is the largest toy retailer in northern Europe.
The gender debate in Sweden has intensified in the last few years, he says, and retailers have had to move with the times. The firm is also changing packaging on its own brands, and will gradually spread the gender-neutral concept to stores across the country.
Parents shopping in the store reflect the new awareness that has filtered through Swedish society, driven by heated national debates over gender since the late 1990s, when equality entered the curriculum in nursery schools.
"It is so hard for me to find anything for my daughter. I hate pink princesses," said Ann-Karin, 39, an insurance broker. She is annoyed by gender-specific toys that teach children to conform to stereotypes. "It's great that they have changed this store," she added.
Shopper Teodors' daughter plays with everything from dolls to cars. "I always choose toys with gender in mind," said the security guard, 33. "I won't buy stuff that is too girly, unless she really wants it. If I had boys I would not buy swords or guns." Karin, 25, a nurse, is shopping for her four-year-old son, who likes dinosaurs, dolls and anything pink. "The grandparents laugh at him, but I don't care," she said.
Top-Toy caused a stir in the Daily Mail last year when it issued a catalogue depicting girls shooting guns and boys pushing prams. The company received customer complaints and a reprimand from the Swedish advertising watchdog for using stereotypes in its marketing. This year Toys R Us published "gender neutral" catalogues in Finland, Norway, Germany, Denmark and France, to a mixed reception. In September, it said it would stop labelling toys as boys' or girls' and would show children of both genders playing with the same toys.
"Toy companies have taken the first step by trying to communicate that they want to be modern, like a modern society," said Kristina Henkel, a gender expert and author of Give your Child 100 Opportunities Instead of Two.
Toys R Us was resistant in the past, she said, objecting that Spiderman is an action figure and so should not be sold with other dolls.
"We did many interviews with children about toys, and for example they complained they couldn't get a sword for their Barbie, or a baby stroller for Spiderman," Henkel said. "Why not leave it up to the child's fantasy?"
Rather than banning play with guns, Henkel suggests that parents add an ambulance to take the wounded to hospital. "We have more gender equality today because parents grew up with it and they are putting a lot of pressure on the companies."
Kicki, 29, a supermarket worker, and her husband Nicklas, 32, who works in a car rental company, are checking out My Little Pony for their daughters. But they are disappointed by the limited range of Spiderman toys in the Stockholm store.
"My youngest loves them," said Kicki. "I want my daughters to play with boys' and girls' toys."
Fears over disappearance of 150 Syrian refugees from Greek village
Activists say group was probably forced back into Turkey by police as part of campaign of enforced deportation
Helena Smith in Orestiada
The Guardian, Tuesday 24 December 2013
Not much happens in Praggi. So when 150 Syrian refugees arrived in the village, high in the flatlands of far-flung north-eastern Greece, it was not something residents were likely to forget.
Some of the Syrians were huddled against the biting cold in the courtyard of the church; others had congregated beneath the trees of a nearby forest. All had made the treacherous journey from Turkey – crossing the fast-flowing waters of the Evros river – in a bid to flee their country's war. Then came the white police vans and the Syrian men, women and children were gone.
"Ever since we have lost all trace of them," said Vasillis Papadopoulos, a lawyer who defends the rights of migrants and refugees. "They just disappeared. Our firm belief is that they were pushed back into Turkey."
Activists, lawyers, human rights groups, opposition MPs, immigration experts and international officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the heavy-handed tactics Greek authorities use to keep immigrants away.
In a recent report released by Amnesty International, Greece was strongly criticised for its "deplorable treatment" of would-be refugees, especially Syrians desperate to escape their nation's descent civil war.
Enforced deportations – highlighted by an alarming rise of migrant deaths – have spurred the criticism.
In contravention of international conventions signed by Athens, coastguard officials and police officers have waged a concerted campaign to stop thousands from accessing EU territory via Greece. Illegal pushbacks have been the focus of those efforts, according to human rights groups.
The drive has intensified as Greece – long seen as the EU's easiest backdoor entrance – has struggled to keep its economic and social fabric together in the face of the country's worst crisis in modern times. Since prime minister Antonis Samaras's conservative-led coalition assumed power in the midst of the crisis last year, authorities have faced charges of violently apprehending migrants, beating them and stripping them of their belongings. Special coastguard units – often masked and dressed in black – have been accused of dumping migrants, without any consideration for their safety, in Turkish territorial waters.
"The number and scale of these alleged incidents raises serious concerns," said Ketty Kehayioylou at the Greek outpost of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. "We still don't know what happened to the two groups in Praggi," she said. "No one was ever registered at the First Reception Centre as foreseen by national law and we've demanded an investigation."
The claims come as Amnesty International urged Greece to launch an inquiry into comments by the country's police chief, Nikos Papagiannopoulos, in which it is alleged he ordered his officers to make the lives of immigrants unbearable.
"If they told me I could go to a country … and would be detained for three months and then would be free to steal and rob … it would be great," Papagiannopoulos, the highest security official in the land after the public order minister, was quoted as telling officers during a secretly recorded meeting. "We must make their lives unbearable." The comments were published by the investigative magazine, Hot Doc, on 19 December.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's director for Europe and Central Asia, said: "If accurate, the deeply shocking statements attributed to the Greek chief of police would expose a wilful disregard for the rights and welfare of refugees and migrants seeking shelter and opportunity in the European Union."
With allegations of torture also on the rise, two senior coastguard officials were jailed last month after a military court found them guilty of subjecting an asylum seeker to a mock execution and water-boarding.
The discovery of ever more bodies – in the Aegean Sea and around the land border Greece shares with Turkey – have also raised the alarm. The German NGO, Pro Asyl, recently estimated that 149 people had died this year – an increase attributed mostly to the enormous risks refugees were prepared to take since Greece sealed its land border with Turkey in August 2012.
Following the construction of the fence – a six-mile barricade topped with thermal and sonar sensors – traffickers have focused on ferrying their human cargo to Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.
"The shift of escape routes has led to the deaths of many people … mostly Syrian and Afghan refugees, among them many children and pregnant women," said Pro Asyl in a report documenting the problems faced by those fleeing persecution and war. (pdf)
"The brutality and extent of violations are shocking," it claimed. "Refugees are being brutally pushed back by Greek authorities. This is happening systematically with the complicity of other European authorities despite the fact that it is against international law."
According to the EU border agency, Frontex, detections of illegal immigrants in the Aegean Sea have increased by 912% since the barbed-wire barrier went up.
"It is a wall of shame, a hair-raising element of Fortress Europe," said Aphrodite Stambouli MP of the radical left main opposition Syriza party. "It is outrageous that people in need of international protection should be obstructed from getting it in this way."
Last week, she travelled to the remote Evros region – passing signs emblazoned with the words "danger: mines" and guards posted at checkpoints – to learn for herself what had happened in Praggi.
"What we know is that 150 Syrians crossed the border because relatives they called, both in Greece and other European capitals, have confirmed that that is what happened," she said.
"They told them clearly, 'We are in a village called Praggi, some of us are in the yard of a church, some of us in a forest.' The police version of events, that only 13 [refugees] were found that day does not add up and that is because they were obviously pushed back over the border."
Immigration experts say blame lies partly with the rise of xenophobia in Greece, where the virulently anti-immigrant, neo-fascist Golden Dawn party is now the country's third biggest political force.
But they add that Greek authorities are under immense EU pressure to do the "dirty work" of buttressing what is widely seen as the bloc's most porous border. "From as far back as 1990, northern Europe's policy has always been that the south has to assume the burden of stopping irregular migration," said Martin Baldwin-Edwards, who heads the Mediterranean Migration Observatory in Athens. "That, growing xenophobia, and the disrespect Turkey and Greece have historically shown for migrants' human rights account for the push-backs."
Last week Turkey signed a deal with the EU promising to repatriate immigrants who illegally enter the 28-nation bloc in return for its citizens being granted visa-free travel across the union.
"It's hugely important," said Baldwin-Edwards. "Turkey is the main point of entry from Asia and the Middle East. The more it is brought into the European ambit and assumes the responsibility of managing Europe's south eastern borders it will lessen the pressure on Greece."
In the forlorn villages of squat one-story homes that dot the frontier's heavily militarised zone, the push-backs have caused consternation even if residents – many hard-bitten nationalists – have welcomed the erection of the wall.
"The fence may have made us feel safer but we also know that all these people want is to pass through," said Nikos Dollis ,who runs a cafe in Nea Vyssa, the last settlement before the frontier in one of Greece's most secretive corners. "Their intention is never to stay here. They want to get out, go to other countries in Europe."
Demonstrators recently protested outside the police headquarters in Orestiada, the gritty town that is the region's biggest metropolis, in a display of outrage over the incident in Praggi. Among them was Natasa Gara, a human rights campaigner who edits Orestiada's weekly newspaper, Methorios.
"We want to know what really happened to the 150 Syrians, whose only crime was to want to escape the war," she said after spending days investigating the affair.
"Are the police saying that everyone in Praggi is mad, that they just thought they saw 150 men, women and children? Because if they are, they are not telling the truth."
France to maintain headscarf ban in spite of legal advice
Education minister says religious neutrality does not apply to Muslim volunteer school monitors after council of state ruling
theguardian.com, Monday 23 December 2013 19.25 GMT
The French government has decided to maintain its ban on headscarves for Muslim volunteer school monitors despite a warning that it oversteps the law requiring religious neutrality in the public service.
The council of state, which advises on disputed administrative issues, said in a 32-page analysis this neutrality did not apply to mothers who help escort schoolchildren on outings such as museum visits. But the education minister, Vincent Peillon, announced the ban would continue because the council also said that schools could impose internal rules against religious wear. "The memo [establishing the ban] remains valid," he said.
France imposed the ban last year as one of several steps in recent years to tighten its policy of strict secularism. It banned headscarves for pupils in state schools 10 years ago and outlawed full-face Muslim veils in public in 2011. It has also considered extending this religious neutrality, which has long been the rule in public service, to some businesses such as private child daycare centres.
Muslim groups have denounced the increasingly strict limits on religious wear as discrimination against them. France's five-million strong Muslim minority is the largest in Europe.
France's official secularism policy, the product of a long struggle against the powerful Roman Catholic church that ended with the separation of church and state in 1905, remains a political minefield for governments and their critics.
The prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, came under pressure from the conservative opposition and some fellow Socialists last week when a report posted on his website said France should reverse this policy and recognise its "Arab-Oriental dimension". He denied that the report, part of a study on ways to fight discrimination, would become official policy.
France's top administrative court will have to rule early next year in the case of a woman fired from her job at a private daycare centre because she began wearing the Muslim headscarf despite an internal dress code banning it.
The council of state is the second advisory body to warn the government recently against overstepping the limits of the secularism policy.
An observatory of secularism" appointed by the president, François Hollande, advised in October against a new law to extend the religious neutrality requirement to some private businesses, despite support for the idea from within his Socialist party.
French firms warned of fines for not complying with gender equality laws
Women's rights minister says 500 companies given ultimatum, while five businesses have already been handed penalties
Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Monday 23 December 2013 13.30 GMT
The French government has warned 500 companies they face fines for failing to comply with gender equality laws.
Women's rights minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said the firms had been given an ultimatum to comply with anti-discrimination legislation dating back several years, but were still dragging their heels.
She said five companies were already being fined "penalties of several million euros for each month … until they bring themselves in line with the law".
"It is no longer a virtual sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of enterprises, but a real one. Suddenly the companies are sending us their professional equality plans. More than 4,000 have done so since January," Vallaud-Belkacem told Europe 1 television.
"But to be efficient, it [the legislation] has to be dissuasive and above all plausible," the minister, who has said that fining businesses who break the law is a "last resort".
French companies employing more than 50 people have been required to move towards equality in both seniority and salary since 2010, but many paid lip-service to the principle. However, in January 2012, financial penalties were introduced for non-compliance – legislation that allows the government to fine companies up to 1% of their total wage bill.
The gap between men's and women's salaries in private companies in France is estimated at 27%.
One of the companies that has already been fined, which employs 150 people, had a €500 a month average difference between male and female workers' salaries. It was fined €5,000 a month, 1% of its total wage bill, until it introduces more pay equality.
Asked about the company earlier this year, Vallaud-Belkacem, who has refused to name it, said: "The firm presented us with a plan that proposed nothing to remedy the situation."
Another firm, with 150 staff based in Aquitaine, south-west France, that failed to react to a government ultimatum was ordered to pay €8,500. It was sold shortly afterwards. "It's now up to the new owners to comply with the law," she added.
A European commission report in 2012 found that French women had to work 79 days more than men to gain the same salary.
December 23, 2013
Growing Mistrust Between U.S. and Turkey Is Played Out in Public
By TIM ARANGO
ISTANBUL — Coming together over crisis has been a hallmark of the relationship between the United States and Turkey in recent years. So it was an especially troubling sign of degraded trust that a meeting between Turkish and American diplomats was canceled last week because it seemed more like an ambush than a consultation.
A corruption inquiry of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s inner circle had been quickly intensifying, and late in the week, the Turkish foreign minister requested through an intermediary a meeting with the American ambassador, Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., to discuss the crisis, according to interviews with American and Turkish officials.
For days, American diplomats had been privately pleading that the Turks resist trying to divert attention by playing off the investigation as part of a foreign plot. But on Saturday, before the scheduled meeting, the machinery was obviously spinning.
Pro-government newspapers featured Mr. Ricciardone on their front pages, and later in the day the Turkish news media reported that the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was set to call Secretary of State John Kerry and banish the American ambassador over an unspecified American role in the corruption inquiry. And Mr. Erdogan embarked on a series of speeches in which he, too, hinted at American treachery and suggested Mr. Ricciardone might be expelled from the country.
Mutual suspicion ruled the day, and the Americans called the meeting off.
It was only a couple of years ago that President Obama, struggling for an American response to the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria, was said to be speaking with Mr. Erdogan more than the American president was to any world leader, with the exception of the British prime minister, David Cameron. And it was a source of pride for Turks: One newspaper at the time hailed the frequent conversations as a sign of Turkey’s “ascent in the international arena.”
“There was a honeymoon from 2010 until the summer of 2013,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It was guided by the personal rapport Obama and Erdogan had established.”
That now seems a long time ago here. The reality, say analysts, is that the two countries’ foreign policies have been notably diverging, and that the blowup over the corruption investigation and the American diplomatic contingent is being taken as the latest sign of a deepening distrust.
They are at odds over Egypt, where Turkey had been a strong supporter of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, and where the United States has sought a relationship with Egypt’s new military rulers.
In Syria, Turkey has aggressively backed and armed rebel fighters, and felt betrayed when the United States backed away from military action against the Syrian government in September. In Iraq, American officials believe the Turks, by signing oil contracts with the northern Kurdish region that cut out the central government in Baghdad, are pursuing a policy that could lead to the country’s breakup.
And more recently, Turkey angered its NATO allies by signing a missile-defense system deal with a Chinese company that is under American sanctions for its dealings with Iran, North Korea and Syria.
The United States Congress has threatened to cut off subsidies to Turkey for the purchase, and NATO has said it would never integrate Chinese technology into its own missile-defense system.
At the same time, Turkey’s own domestic troubles — laid bare by the antigovernment protests in the summer set off by a government plan to raze Gezi Park in Istanbul, and now by the corruption inquiry — are coming under a harsh spotlight, with both crises now being linked by Mr. Erdogan to the United States.
In the case of the corruption inquiry, he has been able to do so because two of its elements do obliquely point to the United States, even if there has been no explicit evidence of a link.
Part of the inquiry is focusing on the state-owned Halkbank, whose chief executive has been arrested in the case on suspicion of bribery. The bank has also long been suspected by the United States of helping Iran evade sanctions over its nuclear program by using gold to purchase Iranian oil and gas.
This year, 47 American lawmakers wrote a letter, which has been re-aired in the Turkish news media over the past week, to urge Mr. Kerry to push the Turks for closer monitoring of the relationship between Iran and Halkbank.
“These guys were massive sanctions busters,” said Steven A. Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on Turkey. “It’s been a sore point between Washington and Ankara.”
The other element is that the inquiry, which has targeted several people in the prime minister’s circle, has been linked to Fethullah Gulen, a popular Muslim cleric who once was a close ally of the prime minister but is now a fierce political enemy.
His life of exile in Pennsylvania has led to conspiracy theories here, and his followers are believed to occupy important positions within the police and judiciary, which are carrying out the corruption inquiry.
The investigation into Halkbank, Mr. Cook said, might “be part of a Gulenist effort to demonstrate to the U.S. that maybe Erdogan is not a reliable partner.”
It was just this May that Mr. Obama stood in the Rose Garden with Mr. Erdogan and said to reporters, “I value so much the partnership that I’ve been able to develop with Prime Minister Erdogan.” Now, when Mr. Erdogan speaks caustically about American scheming, officials are left to wonder if Mr. Erdogan really believes what he says, or whether he is using such talk as a populist ploy.
Suspicion of foreign meddling is deeply ingrained here, running back to the last days of the Ottoman Empire, when the region was, Mr. Cagaptay said, “a playing field for various foreign actors.”
Mr. Cook said that in Washington “there is an intellectual understanding” that Turkish officials fall back on such conspiracy theories at times of crisis. Yet, he said that among some American policy makers, “there has been a reassessment of Erdogan and his temperament.”
As with most alliances, the relationship has had its ebbs and flows over the past generation. But the current tension has a facet that was missing even in some of the most fraught episodes between the two countries, such as in 2003 when Turkey refused permission for the American military to invade Iraq across its borders, and in 2010 when it voted against United Nations sanctions on Iran.
“It’s the first time in memory that pro-government newspapers are calling for the American ambassador to leave,” Mr. Cagaptay said. “That’s unique.”
December 23, 2013
U.S. Softens Deadline for Deal to Keep Troops in Afghanistan
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
KABUL, Afghanistan — With about a week left in the year, the Obama administration is backing away from a Dec. 31 deadline for securing a deal to keep American troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, though it is standing by its warning that a total military withdrawal is still possible if delays continue, American and Afghan officials said.
The decision is a tacit acknowledgment of what has become obvious in both Kabul and Washington: Neither a hard sell nor soft persuasion has yet induced President Hamid Karzai to go along with the American-imposed timeline for the agreement.
It is also an embarrassing turn after weeks of threats by some senior administration officials, including Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, that a complete American withdrawal from Afghanistan — the so-called zero option — would be considered if Mr. Karzai did not sign the deal by the year’s end.
Instead of prompting Mr. Karzai to action, however, setting a boundary appears to have only reinforced his sense that American officials will back down if he refuses their demands — a lesson that has been repeated often over the past 12 years.
“I don’t know if I would call it bluffing,” said one American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “But it looks like that’s what we were doing, and now it looks like Karzai is calling us out.”
The official insisted that planning for a potentially final withdrawal in 2014 was still underway, and that it was still a very real possibility. “But if we want a deal,” the official continued, “we’re going to have to wait.”
The question now is how long the administration is willing to wait. American officials have been careful in recent interviews not to suggest any new deadlines. “I think it’s pretty obvious why,” one administration official said.
The officials spoke only in vague terms about timelines that stretched into the new year, and reiterated earlier statements about how the administration’s preferred outcome is to reach a deal that would permit a small American force, along with some European troops, to stay on to train and advise Afghan soldiers and the police.
Mr. Karzai, after initially agreeing to the wording of the security deal, known as a bilateral security agreement, or B.S.A., said he wanted to wait until after the April 2014 presidential elections before signing.
But American officials say they need a deal finalized soon, in part to give European allies, who lack the robust logistics capability of the United States military, time to plan for an extended mission in Afghanistan. They also said the longer they waited, the more likely those in the administration — and the public — who want a complete withdrawal would gain support.
“We’ve been clear that our preference is to conclude the B.S.A. by the end of the year, and that if we cannot conclude a B.S.A. promptly thereafter, then we will be forced to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan,” said Laura Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the White House. “That has not changed.”
With the deal in limbo, the official focus in Kabul has shifted to talks on a companion agreement that would allow other NATO members, such as Italy and Germany, to keep forces in Afghanistan after the alliance’s combat mission formally ends next year.
The NATO-led coalition here announced the start of talks in a statement this past weekend. The statement was carefully worded, Western officials said, to head off any talk from Mr. Karzai of cutting out the Americans and trying to work only with European allies, an idea he has previously floated in meetings with Western officials.
“The NATO status of forces agreement will not be concluded or signed until the signature of the bilateral security agreement between the governments of Afghanistan and the United States,” the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said in the statement.
But Mr. Karzai appears to still be holding out for a better deal with the United States, despite the original accord’s endorsement last month by a grand council of Afghans, known as a loya jirga, and economic signs that public confidence is falling in the absence of an agreement.
“I want this security agreement with the U.S.,” a statement from the presidential palace quoted Mr. Karzai as saying in an off-the-record meeting with Afghan journalists on Sunday. “But Afghans’ homes should be protected from American operations, and Afghanistan should not become the battleground of a continuous war.”
Mr. Karzai reiterated that a formal peace process with the Taliban must begin before he signs, and that the United States commit itself to Afghanistan’s peace and security.
“The conditions that we have put forward for the signing of the security agreement are ridding Afghanistan of instability and war,” Mr. Karzai told the journalists.
He would sign, he said, “as soon as they are ready to accept our conditions, because we are not in a rush.”
American officials have expressed frustration with Mr. Karzai’s demands, saying that the Taliban have not yet shown a willingness to negotiate seriously. And they emphasize that the United States has spent the past 12 years and hundreds of billions of dollars trying to stabilize Afghanistan.
They have also said the deal approved last month by the loya jirga is no longer open for negotiation.
But some American officials say there are ways to meet Mr. Karzai’s demands without reopening talks. Addenda could be added, or letters could be sent to Mr. Karzai from President Obama that address the Afghan president’s concerns.
First, though, American officials would have to start delivering consistent messages to Mr. Karzai, and to one another, said the American official.
“I think if you want to explain what’s going on, you have to look at why it’s confusing,” the official said. “We’ve never spoken with one voice. One person says sign now, another tells Karzai that he has time. It’s not been clear what’s going on.”
Habib Zahori contributed reporting.
December 23, 2013
Delhi Politician, in Post Known for Its Perks, Says No Thanks
By GARDINER HARRIS
NEW DELHI — Ever since independence, New Delhi’s leaders have commandeered the city’s most valuable real estate for themselves — living in the same bungalows behind the same walls left by British colonialists.
But on Monday, Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s new chief minister, vowed for the first time to break from India’s colonial past by promising that neither he nor his ministers would take up residence in those sumptuous homes.
He also promised to do away with a culture of privilege that allows ministers and top bureaucrats to zip through Delhi’s traffic in motorcades with police escorts and flashing lights.
In a letter dated Monday, a top Delhi police official wrote to Mr. Kejriwal’s private secretary that “Delhi police needs to give the security to him as per the norms,” and asked where the vast police detail should be sent.
In a handwritten response, Mr. Kejriwal wrote that he did not need security.
“God is my biggest security,” he wrote.
He did add, however, that he “would be grateful if some help is provided for crowd management or screening at a few places where I get mobbed.”
Mr. Kejriwal’s elevation to chief minister of India’s capital city is among the most unlikely and meteoric rises to power in Indian history. At 45, he is Delhi’s youngest chief minister ever, replacing a woman 30 years his senior.
A former tax commissioner, Mr. Kejriwal gained national attention three years ago as the top adviser to Anna Hazare, the activist who has pushed India’s Parliament to adopt legislation creating an independent corruption monitor. The movement fell apart amid resistance from the governing United Progressive Alliance and growing tension between Mr. Hazare and Mr. Kejriwal.
Mr. Hazare continued to push for the legislation but believed he needed to do so in a nonpartisan way. Mr. Kejriwal disagreed, saying the failure of the movement meant he needed to become directly involved in electoral politics. So last year he formed his own party — known as Aam Aadmi, or Common Man — and declared his intention to fight in Delhi’s state elections.
Whispers among Delhi’s political establishment suggested that he had no chance of competing in a system known for corrupt payouts and among voters who expected handouts. But two weeks ago, Aam Aadmi won 28 seats in Delhi’s elections, compared with eight by the once-dominant Indian National Congress Party. Most embarrassing, Sheila Dikshit, the Congress Party’s longtime chief minister, was crushed in her own constituency. Those results may signal that India’s longtime political dynasty, the family of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, could soon lose its grip on power.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party, won 31 seats in Delhi’s elections and was initially asked to form a government. But neither of the Hindu party’s rivals would lend support, so Mr. Kejriwal’s turn came.
Whether Mr. Kejriwal was willing to govern with help from the Congress Party, which he had criticized as hopelessly corrupt, was the much-asked question.
Mr. Kejriwal asked the people. More than half a million sent emails and text messages, and the party reported that the overwhelming response was that he should govern.
“It is not me who will be the chief minister,” Mr. Kejriwal told reporters in his office on Monday. “It will be Delhi’s common man who will be the chief minister. Alone I cannot do anything.”
Significant challenges remain. Delhi is one of the world’s most polluted and crowded cities. A third of its residents live in slums with little access to sanitation or clean water; its electricity is fitful and its roads and infrastructure poor. Inflation is soaring, and India’s economy is flagging.
While he based his campaign on eliminating corruption, Mr. Kejriwal also promised to slash electricity rates in half and give free water to every Delhi household. He also promised to build 200,000 community and public toilets.
“It is easy to lead a movement but difficult to run a political party,” said Sudha Pai, a political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Now they have to deliver on their promises of cheap electricity, free water and corruption-free government. Those are not easy promises to fulfill.”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
December 23, 2013
$40 Million in Aid Set for Bangladesh Garment Workers
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
Eight months after the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 workers and leaving hundreds of families bereft and financially adrift, several prominent retailers and labor groups have joined with the Bangladesh government to create an estimated $40 million compensation fund to aid the victims’ families.
So far, four retailers — Bon Marché, El Corte Inglés, Loblaw and Primark — have pledged to contribute to the fund, which is intended to compensate the families of those who died last April 24 in what was the deadliest disaster in garment industry history. The new fund is considered a landmark in compensating families of garment industry victims, in terms of both the amount to be paid and the sophistication of the arrangements. No United States-based retailers have signed on.
Several officials involved in negotiations to establish the fund said in interviews that the families of the dead would receive, on average, more than $25,000 each, while hundreds of workers who were injured or maimed would also receive compensation. Per capita income in Bangladesh is about $1,900 a year.
The fund’s members said they hoped to begin making payments in February, although they have yet to decide how much each firm will contribute, which depends in part on whether governments donate. The money is to be paid in installments to ensure that the families have a steady source of income for years to come. “We think the agreement is a really good result,” said Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a European antisweatshop group that has pressed retailers to do far more to help the families of the disaster’s victims. “The agreement will deliver to all the victims and the families of the Rana Plaza disaster full and fair compensation in a credible manner. What we need now is for other companies to agree to pay into the fund.”
Families of the victims have already received several months of short-term emergency aid from the Bangladesh government as well as from Primark, an Anglo-Irish retailer. But these families have been pressing for long-term compensation.
In some families, with the mother dead, children have quit school and gone to work. In other cases, workers who were seriously injured and cannot work are desperate for income.
Talks to establish the fund, coordinated by the International Labor Organization, began in September but stalled over such issues as how to collect information on claims, how to determine which claims were legitimate and who should administer the fund. The amount to be paid will be based on the anticipated wage loss of each worker killed, tied to the number of children, or, if the beneficiary is a parent, to the life expectancy of an adult.
With 1,800 workers having died in garment industry disasters in Bangladesh over the last decade, Dan Rees, program director for the Better Work organization, an affiliate of the International Labor Organization, said: “If you look at the history of compensation efforts in the Bangladesh garment industry, it’s not a good one. But this is a potential breakthrough.”
Among the groups that signed the agreement to create the compensation were the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, IndustriAll Global Union, the Bangladesh Employers Federation and the main Bangladesh coalition of labor unions.
Some retailers and labor rights groups have expressed dismay that no United States retailers have agreed to join the compensation effort.
“Following the collapse, we came very quickly to the conclusion that compensation was not only a necessity for the survivors and their families, but a responsibility for the many retailers sourcing from Rana Plaza,” said Robert Chant, senior vice president for corporate affairs at Loblaw, a Canadian company. “We are still hopeful that other retailers will join us in meeting the obligation, but we’ve already made public our disappointment in the failure of others to step forward.”
Loblaw owns the Joe Fresh apparel chain, with apparel from one of Rana Plaza’s factories.
Amid warnings that its columns were crumbling, the poorly constructed building collapsed, crushing hundreds of workers in tons of concrete and steel.
Labor rights groups say they found documents and remnants of apparel tying 25 European and American retailers and brands to the five garment factories spread across Rana Plaza’s eight floors. Several of the firms have since denied their apparel came from any of the factories. Mango, a Spanish apparel brand, said, for instance, that it only had a test order in a factory there.
Walmart has been urged to help the Rana Plaza families because production documents found in the rubble indicated that a Canadian contractor was producing jeans for Walmart in 2012 at the Ether Tex factory inside the building. Walmart said an unauthorized contractor was producing garments there without its knowledge. It says it is focused on assuring that there are no such disasters in the future.
The Children’s Place, which had obtained apparel from one of the factories inside Rana Plaza, said the factory was not supplying it at the time of the collapse.
A Walmart official said the company had no comment about requests for it to contribute to the fund. The Children’s Place did not respond to inquiries.
“These brands produced at Rana Plaza, yet did nothing to protect the workers who made their clothes, despite a history of deadly building collapses in Bangladesh,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a monitoring group based in Washington that is financed by American colleges and universities. “Incredibly, some companies do not seem to feel the slightest responsibility to the families whose lives were destroyed as a result of this negligence.”
Officials involved in the compensation fund say they have not yet worked out how much money each participant should contribute. That will depend, in part, on how many retailers ultimately agree to participate and whether various governments agree to give money.
Some industry experts say the American companies are afraid to participate for fear of being exposed to legal liability or appearing hypocritical after denying that they knowingly did business at Rana Plaza at the time of the collapse.
Mr. Rees, the I.L.O. official, said contributions would not lead to liability. “At the moment, this effort needs support,” he said. “It needs the backing of companies that were in Rana Plaza when it collapsed, that were there in the recent past before it collapsed and that weren’t in there at all and want to show solidarity with the industry.”