01/16/2014 12:09 PM
The Mafia's Deadly Garbage: Italy's Growing Toxic Waste Scandal
By Walter Mayr
For decades, the Mafia has been dumping toxic waste illegally in the region north of Naples. Recently declassified testimony shows that leading politicians have known about the problem for years, yet done nothing about it -- even as the death toll climbs.
Carmine Schiavone has been baptized twice. The first time was as a newborn, by the priest. The second was by the godfather himself, Luciano Liggio, a leading figure in the Sicilian Mafia.
"The second baptism went like this," says Schiavone. "An icon was placed in my hand and a drop of blood was dribbled onto it. Then, the icon was burned and the following was recited: 'You shall burn like this saint if you betray the brothers or the allies of the Cosa Nostra.'"
Schiavone gave his vow, committed himself to the cause -- and nevertheless went on to betray it in the end. After years as a leader in the notorious Casalesi clan, part of the Mafia network around Naples, he changed sides in 1993 and became a key witness in legal proceedings against his associates. He testified against Casalesi heavies with nicknames such as Sandokan, Midnight Fatty, Baby and others.
When the so-called "Spartacus Trial" finally ended in 2010, members of the Campania clan received up to 16 consecutive life sentences, thanks not least to the testimony provided by Schiavone. His reward has been a new life under police protection in which he had to constantly remain on the move. On this morning, too, he has a fake ID in his pocket just in case, complete with an alias and a birthplace in Libya.
Sitting in front of an open fireplace in a countryside villa, a cat dozing on his lap, he looks like someone who has made his peace with the world. But the bucolic scene is misleading; the guilt from his previous life weighs heavily on Schiavone. "I participated in about 50 murders, some of them I ordered myself. I knew about an additional 400 to 500."
The ex-Mafioso has spent roughly half of his 70 years in jail or under house arrest. From a legal point of view, he has paid for his crimes. Yet these days, Schiavone is once again the center of attention, due to testimony that he delivered on Oct. 7, 1997 before a parliamentary investigative committee in Rome. His statement was so expansive that it was kept secret -- until the Italian parliament relented to public pressure at the end of October last year and lifted its classification.
'Millions of Tons'
The 1997 hearing was not focused on the kind of killing that Schiavone played a role in during the gang warfare in the Neapolitan hinterlands. Rather, it centered on negligent homicide -- the product of contaminated soil and groundwater from highly toxic waste that, as is now known, was for years illegally and profitably dumped, primarily by the Casalesi clan.
"We are talking about millions of tons," Schiavone, formerly head of administration for the Mafia organization, told the parliamentarians. "I also know that trucks came from Germany carrying nuclear waste." The operations took place under the protection of darkness and were guarded by Mafiosi in military police uniforms, he said. He showed Italian justice officials the location of many of the dumpsites because, as he put it in 1997, the people in those areas are at risk of "dying of cancer within 20 years."
More than 16 years have passed since Schiavone uttered this prophecy before the investigative committee -- and nothing has been done. The outrage is all the greater now. Not only because cancer researchers have found mounting indicators that Schiavone might have been telling the truth. But also because numerous officials at all levels must have known about Schiavone's warnings since the mid-1990s -- and ignored them.
The pressure is particularly great on the following players:
Giorgio Napolitano was Italy's interior minister at the time and thus ultimately in charge of the investigation. Today, he is the country's president.
Gennaro Capoluongo was, according to Schiavone, in a helicopter that went on a tour of some of the toxic waste dumps. Today, he is Italy's Interpol head.
Alessandro Pansa was head of mobile units for the Italian police force at the time. Now he is head of the Italian State Police.
Nicola Cavaliere was with the criminal police at the time and was involved in the case, according to Schiavone. Today is the deputy head of Italy's domestic intelligence service.
But even as evening news programs in Italy are now warning of an "atomic inferno," the country's officials are proceeding as they always have, particularly President Napolitano. He speaks of the Camorra as being the "main actor" in the environmental disaster near his hometown of Naples while preferring not to talk about his own role. Secret service deputy Cavaliere has said that he "never directly" dealt with the issue. And others implicated by Schiavone have either remained silent or attempted to play down concerns.
Names, Dates and Places
Didn't the journalist Roberto Saviano already describe in his book "Gomorrah" how the Mafia had transformed Italy's south into a garbage dump for the rich north? Why the sudden alarm? Might it be that a crazed ex-Mafioso is suddenly sowing panic so that the state spends millions to clean up the toxic sites -- from which the Mafia could once again profit?
It's certainly possible.
But even that would do little to lessen the severity of Schiavone's accusations. Nobody before him spoke of nuclear waste transports. Nobody before him described in such detail how industrial waste from illegal plants in the north found its way to the south. He recounted how the waste -- irrespective of whether it contained dioxin, asbestos or tetrachloroethylene -- was dumped into pits that had been dug in the process of road construction.
It is estimated that 11.6 million tons of waste are illegally disposed of each year in Italy. The environmental organization Legambiente puts the business in black garbage at over €16 billion in 2012. It would seem to be a crisis-proof line of work, particularly given that Mafia clans offer their services at a fraction of the price of official disposal firms.
The Mafia is a part of the state, Schiavone says, adding that the Casalesi were a "state clan" and that the state profited from the garbage business as well -- serious accusations which he says he can prove. The former Mafioso opens the door into a room where he keeps boxes of documents, digs into the papers and starts naming names, dates and places.
All of the information in his possession, Schiavone says, was provided to national anti-Mafia officials in the 1990s. The name of a Milan-based intermediary firm, which played a key role in the north-south waste transfer, was also included in the documents. "But that part of my testimony was classified by King Giorgio," he says.
King Giorgio? "Napolitano, who was interior minister at the time." And who was behind the company in Milan? "One of the partners," Schiavone says, "was PB -- Paolo Berlusconi." Paolo Berlusconi is the vice president of the football club AC Milan and brother of four-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Was he really a participant in the Mafia's trade in toxic and nuclear waste? Schiavone has publicly said as much, but Paolo Berlusconi calls his claims a "fairy tale."
'Land of Poison'
If you head south on the Autostrada del Sole and exit at Casserta, just short of Naples, you will end up where thousands of trucks in past decades dumped their loads of industrial waste -- in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. It is right in the heart of the region where Goethe spent some time during his southerly travels, describing it delightedly as the "most fertile plain in the world."
Times have changed. As early as 2004, the British medical journal The Lancet Oncology described the area around Acerra as a "triangle of death" where sheep with two heads were born. Later, the entire region north of Naples was dubbed "Terra dei fuochi" or "Land of Fires." Images circulated of ragged children in front of black pillars of smoke rising above unauthorized garbage dumps. Now that it has become clear that the greatest danger is posed by what remains beneath the earth, it is referred to as "Land of Poison."
The area that Goethe once traveled through is now a series of non-descript settlements separated by cauliflower fields and shopping centers; one sees Nigerian prostitutes, figurines of saints in roadside altars and mountains of garbage where you can find everything from beer bottles to barrels of dioxin. And yet, even on this piece of maltreated Italian territory, there is a tiny drop of color: a vanilla-toned fortress, stranded like a UFO on a far-away planet.
The lovingly landscaped US Navy base in Gricignano lies halfway between two poisoned swathes of land. Which means that everyone on the base, including Admiral Bruce Clingan, who commands US and Allied forces in Europe and Asia -- and resides in the "Villa Capri" with its view of Mt. Vesuvius -- must obey strict rules. Tap water may no longer be used on base, not even for brushing teeth. Even the Naval Support Activity commander's cat drinks bottled water.
Tumors and Autism
The reasons are carefully listed in a $30 million study commissioned by the US Navy in 2011 -- a paper that was only brought to the attention of Italians via an article in the magazine L'Espresso. It's title: "Drink Naples and die."
The Americans took soil, water and air samples from the thousands of square kilometers surrounding the base, with 5,281 contaminated or suspicious locations being identified. It was found that water from 92 percent of the private wells sampled outside the base posed an "unacceptable health risk." In 5 percent of the samples, uranium levels were found to be "unacceptably high." The most embarrassing verdict for Italians? "Over time, it became evident that lack of enforcement by responsible institutional bodies contributed to the current situation in Naples."
Should a soldier elect to live off base, he or she is advised to live in a multi-story building and to avoid ground-floor apartments; contamination from toxic gases is lower on upper floors. Three areas not far from the base have been declared completely off-limits.
In the meantime, the more than 500,000 Italians who live in the region north of Naples are trying to make the best of their situation. They spend their evenings in places like the Goldhotel in Marcianise, right in the heart of the residential zone that is forbidden for American troops. They don't ask three times where the vegetables in their insalata mista come from or where the buffalo, whose milk was used for the mozzarella, grazed.
Indeed, much of the produce from the region is still considered to be uncontaminated and there are several harvests per year. Yet there are still days when even upright men such as General Sergio Costa from the national forest service have the feeling they are looking through the "gates of Hell:" on the day in November, for example, when he and his men dug up barrels of toxic waste from beneath cauliflower fields in Caivano. The plastic gloves some of the officers were using to handle the waste dissolved on contact.
Europe's Nastiest Landfill
Further west in Giugliano, 500 Roma live in shacks and caravans at the foot of what is probably Europe's nastiest landfill, stuffed with, among other things, toxic sludge and dioxin. It is a place where, in the opinion of the responsible government commissioner, a "sarcophagus like in Chernobyl" would be necessary to protect the public. According to a geological study, a disaster of such finality isn't expected there for another 50 years -- until then, the poisons will continue to "contaminate dozens of square kilometers of land and everyone who lives there."
Antonio Marfella from the Italian Cancer Research Institute in Naples offers other sober findings: Tumors have increased by 47 percent among men in the province of Naples within the past two decades. Above all, the occurrence of lung carcinoma is increasing, even among non-smokers -- a rarity in Europe. The region of Campania now has the highest infertility rate in Italy and also leads in cases of severe autism -- triggered, experts suspect, by increased exposure to mercury.
That autistic children now play on the precious marble in the villa of the incarcerated Casalesi boss known as Sandokan is one piece of good news out of Naples. The residence was confiscated and transformed into a social center for the autistic.
There are other signs of hope elsewhere: when angry farmers, who are forced to sell their suspicious produce at ridiculously low prices, come together and discuss eco-agriculture as a model for the future, for instance. Or when Padre Maurizio Patriciello preaches to his flock.
The pastor of Caivano is a symbol of resistance in the toxic belt around Naples, a silver-tongued rebel in long robes who commands an audience when he says he can no longer look at all the "white coffins of children" in his church. On this morning he has placed photos of the children he has buried in the past few years close to the altar while he talks about how locals have begun to fight back.
'Despair Is Spreading'
"Early on, we didn't even know what was happening in the next parish," says the pastor, "until we began to organize ourselves. Since we started adding up the cancer deaths, there is fear -- and despair is spreading."
Padre Maurizio preaches, comforts and fights practically around the clock. He encourages believers to be vigilant and perform their civic duties. He teaches schoolchildren to keep a closer eye on politicians and on the Carabinieri. He has lobbied the senate in Rome and the European Parliament in Brussels for assistance, and he has requested an audience with Pope Francis.
Civil rights campaigners working with Padre Maurizio have sent 150,000 postcards, depicting mothers looking into the camera while holding photos of their dead children on their laps, to the pope and to President Napolitano. More than 100,000 people attended a protest march in November in Naples -- solidarity with the Land of Fires.
The petite Anna was on the front line of demonstrators. Her son Riccardo, a "boy who smiled constantly," was 20 months old when he died of leukemia in 2009. The children in this area have been "murdered, you understand? Murdered!" Anna shouts from the stage in Naples. "We demand first and last names, and not just of the Camorra people," she continues. "Everyone should pay for multiple murders and crimes against humanity!"
"Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!" the crowd echoes from below; the name of President Napolitano is hardly mentioned. The state and the Mafia, it's "more or less the same thing," Schiavone told the parliamentary committee in Rome way back in 1997.
Radioactive Waste from East Germany
Of course the influence of the Casalesi clan didn't -- nor does it now -- end on Italy's northern border, Schiavone says, sitting by the fireplace at his villa, adding that he said the same thing to the German federal police who interrogated him in Munich and Rome. "We had one of our men in Germany, who had contacts to politicians there," said Schiavone. "Through him, among others, came the toxic waste, including nuclear, to the company in Milan."
Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office confirms that a meeting with Schiavone took place in 1994 and that it pertained to Casalesi activities on German soil. But officials say they have no recollection of discussions over toxic or nuclear waste.
Schiavone insists, however, that radioactive material "presumably from East Germany" was delivered in lead containers around 50 centimeters long. The containers were then buried "up to 20 meters deep -- but the probe, which was later used for measurements, only went six meters deep."
According to the prefect of the Campania region, the information provided by Schiavone is being verified. But for small quantities of radioactive material, he said, that could take a while.
Militants Unleash Wave of Violence in Iraq, Killing Dozens
By KAREEM FAHIM and DURAID ADNAN
JAN. 15, 2014
BAGHDAD — Militants launched lethal and coordinated car bombings in Baghdad on Wednesday, killed truck drivers outside the city and detonated explosives at a funeral tent in a village during one of the deadliest outbreaks of violence in Iraq so far this year, according to health and security officials.
By day’s end, at least 64 people were dead, including residents who had been shopping in markets, soldiers on patrol and seven truck drivers who were found dead from gunshot wounds. The motive for those killings was unclear.
Iraq has seen little relief this year after 12 months of surging violence that left more than 8,000 people dead, the highest number of fatalities since 2008. The bloodshed has come as the government is consumed with a battle in the western province of Anbar against militants, including fighters linked to Al Qaeda, who have seized territory and government installations in recent weeks.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has tried to rally Iraqis with a call to defeat what he says is foreign-sponsored terrorism. Yet he has struggled to win allies among Sunnis antagonized by the Shiite-led government’s security tactics, and by his own blunt talk, which has frequently tarred Sunni opponents as Qaeda members, regardless of their affiliation.
The International Committee of the Red Cross warned on Wednesday of a growing humanitarian toll from the fighting in Anbar, which includes Falluja, saying in a statement that its workers had delivered aid to about 12,000 displaced people as a result of the violence.
“People are struggling hard to cope with the cold as blankets, mattresses and food are lacking,” the group said.
There were at least eight bombings in Baghdad on Wednesday, starting around 10:30 a.m. and continuing in rapid succession for about an hour with most of the bombs striking markets. One of the cars exploded outside the home of Naji Subhi, 39, who lives in the well-to-do Karada neighborhood.
Hoping to cheat Iraq’s capricious violence, Mr. Subhi, a computer wholesaler, had moved his office across the street from his house, to eliminate his daily commute. But the bomber parked his car on the street between the two buildings on Wednesday. It exploded as Mr. Subhi was getting water from the kitchen in his office, injuring his hands and legs. He found his wife in their house, unable to move, with blood streaming from her nose.
Another bomb struck a barbecue restaurant nearby, sending shrapnel into the building and killing at least two people, according to Salah Abdel-Hassan, a mechanic working next door. Soon afterward he said he was trying to reach the family of two young brothers who were eating breakfast in the restaurant at the time of the explosion. One of the brothers was killed, he said, and the other survived.
In Anbar, heavy clashes were reported around Falluja and a few miles away, in Saqlawiya, where gunmen stormed a police station before they were attacked and routed by the army and tribesmen, according to the police. The deadliest attack of the day occurred north of Baghdad where explosive devices planted in a funeral tent killed at least 18 people. Local officials said many of the victims were members of the so-called Awakening Councils, local Sunni tribesmen the government pays, and relies on, to fight jihadists.
School in India Ensnared in U.S. Diplomatic Spat
By GARDINER HARRIS and BENJAMIN WEISER
JAN. 15, 2014
NEW DELHI — A handout for new teachers at this city’s exclusive American Embassy School, an academic oasis for children of American diplomats and other expatriates, offers some unusual guidance to female teachers whose husbands will also be teaching at the school.
“The female spouse should not state that she will be working,” the handout states, instructing spouses to list their occupation on visa applications as “housewife,” adding that “no sexism is intended on our part.”
That advice, which top Indian officials say is illegal, has ensnared the American school, a cherished institution among foreigners living here, in a growing diplomatic spat between India and the United States that began last month with the arrest in New York of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian consular official, on charges of visa fraud and making false statements in connection with her employment of a domestic worker.
The arrest and her resulting strip-search shocked the Indian diplomatic corps and generated about as much outraged commentary in the Indian news media as the beheading last year of an Indian soldier on a disputed border with Pakistan.
Since the arrest, Indian diplomats have peppered American officials here with a blizzard of questions and demands in the hope of uncovering similar violations by American diplomats. The police removed security barriers in front of the American Embassy here and stopped many diplomats’ cars and cited them for minor traffic violations such as having tinted windows. Many of the moves and queries have been quietly shrugged off by United States officials.
But questions about the school have sent a deep shudder through the expatriate community here. The school, which is next to the United States Embassy on land owned by the American government, has a swimming pool, tennis courts and vast athletic fields. Its stone classroom buildings and generous libraries could grace an Ivy League campus. Its price tag — around $20,000 a year — rivals that of some of New York City’s top private schools. A small army of uniformed security men patrol its perimeter.
Paul Chmelik, the school’s top administrator, refused to comment on Tuesday about the visa issue with the Indian government. Expecting an article in The New York Times, Mr. Chmelik emailed parents on Wednesday warning that “there could be a goodly number of members of the media present around the perimeter of the school during the course of the school day today and Thursday and Friday.”
“So you know,” he continued, “the article will most likely focus on the degree to which the school has complied with various government regulations.”
Hours earlier, the State Department in Washington released a statement that the deputy secretary of state, William J. Burns, had hosted the Indian ambassador, S. Jaishankar, for a lunch meeting at which they discussed “the variety of issues raised by the Ministry of External Affairs via diplomatic note, including alleged issues with the American Embassy School.”
“Deputy Secretary Burns conveyed that we take their concerns very seriously and will continue to address them via appropriate diplomatic channels,” the statement said.
False rumors have swirled through the school in recent days of vast teacher dismissals, and Nancy J. Powell, the American ambassador to India, addressed a special meeting Tuesday afternoon of school faculty and staff members. About a third of the school’s nearly 1,500 students are from the United States, another 20 percent are from South Korea and the rest come from dozens of other countries. The students include many children of foreign diplomats, executives and journalists.
Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs, said the visa instructions listed on the teachers’ handout were “clearly a violation of tax law.”
The handout notes that India has placed restrictions on the number of tax-free visas available to school employees. “So, if you are a teaching couple,” the handout says, “we usually have the male spouse apply for the ‘employment’ visa and the female spouse be noted as ‘housewife’ on the visa application.”
One reason the school is widely admired is that it has a veteran and respected staff of teachers recruited in part by generous pay packages, including tax benefits.
A senior Indian official estimated that the American Embassy School had at least 16 teachers working illegally, and that smaller American schools in Mumbai and Chennai probably had several more. Schools are not alone in this: Many tax laws in India are at best fitfully enforced and often widely ignored.
Last February, the country’s finance minister, P. Chidambaram, announced that just 42,800 people reported earning at least $162,000 a year. In a country of 1.2 billion, where about 25,000 luxury automobiles are sold every year, the actual number is almost certainly much higher.
Ms. Khobragade’s arrest has plucked at deep sensitivity over how India is portrayed, and the news media and the public have searched for examples of American diplomats’ misbehaving. This has led to headlines and a dedicated website in recent days listing some of the Facebook posts of Wayne and Alicia Muller May, the American diplomats who were expelled from India over the weekend in retaliation for the American insistence that Ms. Khobragade leave the country after she refused to settle the charges against her in exchange for a modest fine.
“One week in country and I already miss STEAK,” Mr. May, head of embassy security in New Delhi, stated in one post among many that caused outrage. Cows are venerated by Indian Hindus, and slaughtering cows is illegal in many places. In another, Ms. May, the embassy’s community liaison officer, responded to an article that claimed nonvegetarians were more prone to violence. “It’s the vegetarians that are doing the raping, not the meat eaters — this place is just so bizarre,” she wrote.
In a briefing Monday, a spokeswoman for the State Department, Marie Harf, said that these posts “absolutely do not reflect U.S. government policy, nor were they made on any official U.S. government social media account.”
Neither officials in Washington nor in New Delhi have publicly identified the Mays as the expelled diplomats, but their identity has been widely reported.
On Tuesday, Ms. Khobragade was welcomed by nearly 60 people at the Mumbai airport as she arrived home after a weekend in New Delhi. The crowd, fired up by the fierce patriotism her arrest has provoked in India, shouted “Down with America, down with Barack Obama” and other slogans.
When Ms. Khobragade finally appeared, she was swarmed by TV cameras and supporters.
“I am thankful to my city, Mumbai, for the love and support,” she said.
Ms. Khobragade’s husband and children are American citizens and remain in New York. She said she was not sure when she would see them again since American officials had promised to press charges against her if she returned.
Indian officials are negotiating with the United States on the status of at least 14 other maids of diplomats in the United States. Indian diplomats have proposed to the Finance Ministry that the government pay the maids’ salaries, which would make them immune to American wage-and-hour laws. But in an editorial on Tuesday, The Hindustan Times argued that the Finance Ministry should reject the request as “there is no argument in favor of the Indian taxpayer paying for household help for its officers.”
Thailand Protests Wane Despite Calls to Shut Down Bangkok
By THOMAS FULLER
JAN. 16, 2014
BANGKOK — Antigovernment demonstrators marched to government offices on Thursday but their numbers were far lower than earlier in the week, when they started their campaign to “shut down” Bangkok.
Protesters are pledging to stop elections next month while the government is vowing that they will take place. During two months of protests the number of government detractors on the streets has waxed and waned, and many parts of Bangkok have been unaffected by the demonstrations.
But the country appears no closer to resolving its debilitating power struggle, and protesters say they will not give up until Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and other key ministers step down.
Ms. Yingluck, who called elections last month in a failed attempt to defuse the crisis, presided over a political forum on Wednesday meant to be a concession to her opponents to discuss the possibility of postponing the election.
But in a sign of the distrust and the highly fractious political atmosphere in the country, the protest leaders, the opposition Democrat Party and the Election Commission all refused to take part in the meeting.
Ms. Yingluck said it was “regrettable” that the Election Commission “refused to show up,” although the secretary general of the organization attended as an observer. The governing party has accused the commission of lacking independence and being overly politicized.
Phuchong Nutawong, the secretary general of the Election Commission, was quoted as saying the commission was “ready to arrange” the election on Feb. 2.
Ms. Yingluck’s party would almost certainly win the election. The Democrat Party, which has not won an election in more than two decades, is boycotting and has allied itself with the protesters.
Highlighting the threat of violence in the deeply polarized country, a protester was injured in a shooting Wednesday morning and the compound of a former prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was damaged by a small explosion. Mr. Abhisit, the head of the Democrat Party, was not home at the time of the blast.
Four plainclothes police officers were hospitalized overnight after being beaten by the protesters, according to the police. The government has been praised by foreign governments for its restraint in handling the protests but police officers recently held their own protest demanding more protection. One police officer was shot dead last month as protesters tried to block the registration for elections.
In two months of protests, a total of eight people have been killed and more than 477 injured.
On Wednesday, one of the leading intellectuals supporting the protests explained his rationale for the demonstrations, which have divided the society between northern Thailand — which largely supports the government — and southern Thailand and members of the middle and upper classes in Bangkok, who are seeking to banish Ms. Yingluck and her family from the country.
Thirayuth Boonmee, one of the few prominent scholars to overtly back the protesters, said a “tsunami of corruption” had created “anarchy” in Thai society.
“The principle of one person, one vote must not be violated,” he said. “However, when the elected government is corrupt, it can of course be overthrown.”
Mr. Thirayuth echoed the view of the protest leaders in saying the driving force behind corruption in Thai society was Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister and Ms. Yingluck’s brother.
Corruption has been a problem in Thailand for decades, and by at least one measure it did not worsen significantly after Mr. Thaksin became prime minister in 2001. The country’s score in a “corruption perception index” by Transparency International, a corruption monitoring group, has remained largely unchanged for the past 15 years.
Mr. Thirayuth said Thailand could probably not stomach an armed revolution in the style of France or the United States in the 18th century, but seemed to be pursuing a “peaceful revolution.”
Suthep Thaugsuban, the protest leader, marched through Bangkok on Wednesday collecting cash donations from supporters. He has laid out a plan where an unelected “people’s council” would reform the political system. Only then can “pure democracy” be achieved, he says.
By many measures, Thailand seems an unlikely candidate for a social revolution.
The country has rapidly modernized in recent years, unemployment is close to zero and living standards are well above those of many neighboring countries.
At the heart of the protest movement appears to be a highly emotional reaction to the political dominance of Mr. Thaksin and his allies, and a backlash against the emergence of a newly assertive voting class in northeastern Thailand, a populous area that historically was an impoverished backwater but was galvanized by Mr. Thaksin’s party and its policies.
Mr. Thaksin is from the north while Mr. Suthep is from southern Thailand, the stronghold of the opposition.
A different set of protests have been held this week in northern Thailand: large crowds have gathered for candlelight vigils under the slogan “respect my vote.”
Pentagon: China tested hypersonic missile vehicle
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 15, 2014 21:08 EST
China for the first time has tested a hypersonic missile vehicle designed to travel several times the speed of sound, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
The test makes China the second country after the United States to conduct experimental flights with hypersonic vehicles, a technology that could allow armies to rapidly strike distant targets anywhere around the globe.
“We’re aware of the test of the hypersonic vehicle but we are not commenting on it,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Pool, a Pentagon spokesman.
The flight was conducted on January 9 and the Chinese vehicle, dubbed the WU-14, is supposed to travel at Mach 10, or 10 times the speed of sound, according to a report in The Washington Free Beacon, an online publication.
Chinese state-run broadcaster China Radio International quoted the defense ministry information office as saying: “China’s planned domestic scientific research and experiments are normal and are not aimed at any country or target.”
It did not explicitly confirm or deny the test.
In its annual report on the Chinese military, the Pentagon made no mention of hypersonic test flights but did say the Chinese had built a hypersonic wind tunnel for experiments.
China’s surging economic power has been matched by increasing military might, including investments in an aircraft carrier, anti-ship ballistic missiles, satellites and other hardware.
Three Republican lawmakers, including the House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, expressed concern over the test of what they called a “Chinese hypersonic cruise missile” and said the US military was falling behind.
“While round after round of defense cuts have knocked America’s technological advantage on its back, the Chinese and other competitor nations push toward military parity with the United States; in some cases, as in this one, they appear to be leaping ahead of us,” they said.
“This situation does nothing to support peaceful coexistence in the Pacific,” added the statement, also signed by Representatives Randy Forbes and Mike Rogers.
The United States has placed a high priority on hypersonic projects, spending $200 million in fiscal year 2013 on three programs while conducting a number of test flights with hypersonic vehicles.
Chinese Activists Test New Leader and Are Crushed
By ANDREW JACOBS and CHRIS BUCKLEY
JAN. 15, 2014
BEIJING — The 20 or so activists gathered at an isolated guesthouse on the outskirts of the capital, leaving their cellphones behind to avoid detection by the police. China’s first leadership change in a decade was fast approaching, and the group saw an opening for a movement to fight injustice and official corruption.
That day, in May 2012, they began work on a plan to expand the New Citizens Movement, an ambitious campaign for transparency and fairness that would eventually draw as many as 5,000 supporters, inspire street protests across the country and provide the first major test to help gauge the new leadership’s tolerance for grass-roots political activism.
They were heartened when China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, came to power that November, vowing to stamp out corruption, promote judicial fairness and respect the Constitution, goals tantalizingly close to their own. Now, 14 months later, their ideals have collided with a harsh reality.
About 20 people associated with the group have been detained. Three members have been tried and await judgment. And the rights lawyer who organized the guesthouse meeting, Xu Zhiyong, was indicted last month for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order” and faces almost certain conviction. The crushing of the New Citizens Movement is just one stark example of the new leadership’s refusal to countenance any stirrings of opposition.
Since Mr. Xi assumed control, the Communist Party has used the state news media to denounce perceived ideological threats, sought to rid the Internet of politically unwelcome rumors and opinion, and tried to silence rights lawyers and muckraking journalists. Wen Yunchao, a Chinese rights activist studying at Columbia University, estimates that 160 activists have been arrested over the past year, not counting the Tibetans and Uighurs detained on separatism-related charges.
These events have largely flown under the radar, drawing little notice at home or abroad and only muted international protest. But taken together, they amount to a sweeping crackdown that experts say is broader and more concerted than other recent assaults on dissent.
“The new leadership has been much more systematic and strategic about how it cracks down,” said Maya Wang, a researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch, noting simultaneous efforts to rein in traditional news media and online commentary and stamp out even the smallest street rallies. “The government is basically sending a signal in dealing with these people that it has the upper hand.”
Mr. Xu, 40, is hardly a radical firebrand. As a young lawyer, he earned a national reputation for forging social change on the edges of the system. In 2003, he won a seat as an independent candidate on a district People’s Congress, a council stacked with party-appointed officials. Photogenic and articulate, he was celebrated by the domestic news media and appeared on the cover of the Chinese edition of Esquire magazine.
He emerged as a dogged legal activist during a popular backlash against the practice of forcibly relocating people without proper residence permits. In 2003, after the fatal police beating of a young designer in the southern city of Guangzhou, Mr. Xu and two other legal scholars publicized a petition to the government demanding an end to the system. To their surprise, Wen Jiabao, then prime minister, abolished it months after assuming office in 2003.
That case and others crystallized into an approach to activism combining litigation and government appeals on specific cases with public lobbying in the media and the rapidly expanding Internet. Mr. Xu and his colleagues took up the cases of death-row prisoners, parents of children poisoned by adulterated milk powder and a woman raped by officials. The movement came to be called “rights defense,” or weiquan in Chinese.
“You could think of the weiquan rights defense movement as an unintended consequence of legal reforms and the spread of the Internet,” said Eva Pils, an associate law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “They allowed the genie to come out of the bottle.”
But the movement soon drew official hostility. The police, courts and the party-run body that oversees lawyers prevented them from taking sensitive cases, refused to allow their suits to move forward or revoked their law licenses. In 2009, the government shut Mr. Xu’s advocacy and research organization, the Open Constitution Initiative, and arrested him on tax evasion charges. After a public uproar, he was released on bail and the matter was dropped.
Rather than subdue the movement, the pressure convinced many activists to shift away from the increasingly fruitless battles in party-run courts and toward broader and more public campaigning for political change.
Chinese citizens were increasingly aware of their legal rights, and willing to challenge the government to assert them. The Internet, especially social media, magnified public awareness of abuses.
Mr. Xu and other activists decided it was time to advance their ambitions through a more cohesive effort. In 2012, they created the New Citizens Movement and issued a manifesto, urging supporters to adopt its ideals and symbol — a distinctive blue and white logo declaring “Citizen” — and to form groups that would meet regularly.
“This is a political movement whereby this ancient nation bids ultimate farewell to autocracy and completes the civilized transition to constitutional government,” Mr. Xu wrote that May.
The new leader’s promises about corruption and fairness were not the only signs that bolstered the movement’s resolve. Mr. Xi also downgraded the post of domestic security chief, suggesting to some that the police would have to pay more heed to legal restraints.
The party’s initially mild response to a protest over censorship at the Southern Weekend newspaper in early 2013 also fed expectations that the government would tolerate more concerted activism, said Chen Min, a former editor at the paper.
“The impression left with some people was that there would be more space for street-level, organized rights defense, even if there would always be risks and setbacks,” said Mr. Chen, who is better known by the pen name Xiao Shu.
Supporters also saw an advantage in the movement’s lack of clearly defined leadership, which they feared would provoke a government ban. Meetings were informal, often over dinners at restaurants.
Mr. Xu “believed in the power of the people to make a change,” said Guo Yushan, a reform-minded scholar. “He thought he would succeed, and that once he stepped out, others would follow him.”
In early 2013, supporters organized public demonstrations on the streets of Chinese cities. Some wore T-shirts and pins with the movement insignia and its slogan “Freedom, Justice, Love.” They posted pictures of their rallies online.
As awareness of the group spread, it began drawing grass-roots activists like Liu Ping, a former steel mill worker from China’s southeast Jiangxi Province.
Ms. Liu and two others remain jailed as they await sentencing for illegal assembly and other charges, but in a telephone interview, her daughter, Liao Minyue, said Ms. Liu’s activism was initially spurred by unpaid wages and the beating of a relative. “Over time, she became interested in other people’s problems, she became more involved and more aware, and she saw the New Citizens Movement as way of realizing her ideals,” Ms. Liao said.
The Communist Party has partly endorsed some of the changes demanded by rights advocates, like ending re-education through labor, a form of imprisonment without trial. But behind the scenes, Mr. Chen and others said, the gatherings fed leaders’ fears that the growing clamor for reform could crystallize into a threat to the party’s authority.
During secretive meetings last spring, security and propaganda officials concluded that they had to take a tough line, Mr. Chen said. In April, the leadership approved an internal directive identifying seven ideological threats, including rights defense activists and civil society advocates.
The detentions appear to have effectively stymied the movement. In addition to a core of longtime activists, the authorities in October arrested Wang Gongquan, a wealthy venture capitalist who supported the group.
In their indictment, prosecutors described Mr. Xu as the “ringleader” of several of the 2013 protests. On Monday, as he sat in a Beijing jail, his wife gave birth to a daughter.
“This time, I think Xu is going to prison, and not for a short time,” said Mr. Guo, the scholar. “Xi needs to put on a big show. He feels confident right now. He needs to show people who’s boss.”
Rafik Hariri assassination: trial of Hezbollah suspects begins
UN's special tribunal for Lebanon tries Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Badredine, Hussein Onessi and Assad Sabra in absentia for 2005 killing
Martin Chulov in The Hague
theguardian.com, Thursday 16 January 2014 11.20 GMT
Almost nine years after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the trial of his alleged killers has started in The Hague.
The defendants, all members of the powerful militia Hezbollah, are being tried in absentia – the first time this has happened at an international trial since the Nuremberg prosecutions.
The trial at the UN's special tribunal for Lebanon comes as the country continues to reel from instability caused by the 2005 killing and as a combustible political climate cripples the region.
Victims of the attack, which killed Hariri and 22 others and wounded several hundred more, have said they are expecting accountability from the process – a rare thing in Lebanon where assassinations have long been part of the political fabric, with perpetrators rarely caught.
Prosecutor Norman Farrell laid out a case against the four accused – Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Badredine, Hussein Onessi and Assad Sabra – whom Hezbollah have vowed never to arrest, and whom neither Lebanese authorities, nor members of the STL investigative team have been able to locate since the international body was established by UN statute five years ago.
He said the case against the accused would be anchored by communications evidence that "presents a blueprint of how the crime was carried out and by whom".
Farrell said Hariri had been under surveillance "every minute" he had been in the country from the end of December 2004 until his death in Beirut at 12.55pm on 14 February 2005.
He said the bomb that killed Hariri and obliterated much of his convoy was comprised of an "extraordinary quantity of high-grade explosives. Clearly their aim was not only to make sure the target was killed but to send a terrifying message to the people of Beirut and of Lebanon."
Hariri had been a popular prime minister of post-civil war Lebanon, credited with rebuilding the central area of the capital, Beirut, and with trying to instil sovereignty in state institutions. He had cross-sectarian appeal and was vocal in his criticism of Syria's influence in Lebanon, which had been a spillover from the war years. In the months before his death, he had supported a UN resolution calling on Syrian forces to leave the country.
Farrell alleged that Salim Ayyash "was on the ground leading the team carrying out the final acts in preparation for the attack. Ayyash organised and co-ordinated the physical surveillance of the attack."
Hariri's son Saad, who was ousted as Lebanon's prime minister in January 2011, travelled to The Hague for the trial's opening session. One of his chief advisers, Mohammed Chatah, was killed in a similar explosion in Beirut last month. An investigator responsible for the Lebanese end of the international investigation into the 2005 killing was also killed by a car bomb in late 2012.
Hezbollah has vehemently denied carrying out the attack. It describes the trial as a US and Israeli plot aimed at discrediting the group.
Nigerian president replaces chiefs of defence, army, navy and air force
Goodluck Jonathan appoints four new chiefs of staff, with no reason given for change
Reuters in Abuja
theguardian.com, Thursday 16 January 2014 11.50 GMT
The Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, has replaced the country's chiefs of defence, army, navy and air force, an official statement has said, without giving a reason.
Nigeria is struggling to end a four-and-a-half-year insurgency by Boko Haram, an extremist sect which has killed thousands in its attempt to create an Islamic state in a religiously mixed country of 170 million people.
Jonathan is also facing a political crisis within his ruling People's Democratic party (PDP) and mass defections to an increasingly powerful opposition.
The PDP is holding a meeting on Thursday to decide the future of its chairman, Bamanga Tukur, a Jonathan ally who has been under pressure to quit from Jonathan's opponents.
Africa's biggest oil producer is also blighted by rampant oil theft in the Niger delta, where criminal gangs tapping into pipelines can cut out hundreds of thousands of barrels per day of output and cause devastating environmental damage.
All the four new appointed chiefs of staff are experienced military officials in their mid-50s.
The truth about Israel's secret nuclear arsenal
Israel has been stealing nuclear secrets and covertly making bombs since the 1950s. And western governments, including Britain and the US, turn a blind eye. But how can we expect Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions if the Israelis won't come clean?
The Guardian, Wednesday 15 January 2014 18.18 GMT
Deep beneath desert sands, an embattled Middle Eastern state has built a covert nuclear bomb, using technology and materials provided by friendly powers or stolen by a clandestine network of agents. It is the stuff of pulp thrillers and the sort of narrative often used to characterise the worst fears about the Iranian nuclear programme. In reality, though, neither US nor British intelligence believe Tehran has decided to build a bomb, and Iran's atomic projects are under constant international monitoring.
The exotic tale of the bomb hidden in the desert is a true story, though. It's just one that applies to another country. In an extraordinary feat of subterfuge, Israel managed to assemble an entire underground nuclear arsenal – now estimated at 80 warheads, on a par with India and Pakistan – and even tested a bomb nearly half a century ago, with a minimum of international outcry or even much public awareness of what it was doing.
Despite the fact that the Israel's nuclear programme has been an open secret since a disgruntled technician, Mordechai Vanunu, blew the whistle on it in 1986, the official Israeli position is still never to confirm or deny its existence.
When the former speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, broke the taboo last month, declaring Israeli possession of both nuclear and chemical weapons and describing the official non-disclosure policy as "outdated and childish" a rightwing group formally called for a police investigation for treason.
Meanwhile, western governments have played along with the policy of "opacity" by avoiding all mention of the issue. In 2009, when a veteran Washington reporter, Helen Thomas, asked Barack Obama in the first month of his presidency if he knew of any country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, he dodged the trapdoor by saying only that he did not wish to "speculate".
UK governments have generally followed suit. Asked in the House of Lords in November about Israeli nuclear weapons, Baroness Warsi answered tangentially. "Israel has not declared a nuclear weapons programme. We have regular discussions with the government of Israel on a range of nuclear-related issues," the minister said. "The government of Israel is in no doubt as to our views. We encourage Israel to become a state party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT]."
But through the cracks in this stone wall, more and more details continue to emerge of how Israel built its nuclear weapons from smuggled parts and pilfered technology.
The tale serves as a historical counterpoint to today's drawn-out struggle over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The parallels are not exact – Israel, unlike Iran, never signed up to the 1968 NPT so could not violate it. But it almost certainly broke a treaty banning nuclear tests, as well as countless national and international laws restricting the traffic in nuclear materials and technology.
The list of nations that secretly sold Israel the material and expertise to make nuclear warheads, or who turned a blind eye to its theft, include today's staunchest campaigners against proliferation: the US, France, Germany, Britain and even Norway.
Meanwhile, Israeli agents charged with buying fissile material and state-of-the-art technology found their way into some of the most sensitive industrial establishments in the world. This daring and remarkably successful spy ring, known as Lakam, the Hebrew acronym for the innocuous-sounding Science Liaison Bureau, included such colourful figures as Arnon Milchan, a billionaire Hollywood producer behind such hits as Pretty Woman, LA Confidential and 12 Years a Slave, who finally admitted his role last month.
"Do you know what it's like to be a twentysomething-year-old kid [and] his country lets him be James Bond? Wow! The action! That was exciting," he said in an Israeli documentary.
Milchan's life story is colourful, and unlikely enough to be the subject of one of the blockbusters he bankrolls. In the documentary, Robert de Niro recalls discussing Milchan's role in the illicit purchase of nuclear-warhead triggers. "At some point I was asking something about that, being friends, but not in an accusatory way. I just wanted to know," De Niro says. "And he said: yeah I did that. Israel's my country."
Milchan was not shy about using Hollywood connections to help his shadowy second career. At one point, he admits in the documentary, he used the lure of a visit to actor Richard Dreyfuss's home to get a top US nuclear scientist, Arthur Biehl, to join the board of one of his companies.
According to Milchan's biography, by Israeli journalists Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman, he was recruited in 1965 by Israel's current president, Shimon Peres, who he met in a Tel Aviv nightclub (called Mandy's, named after the hostess and owner's wife Mandy Rice-Davies, freshly notorious for her role in the Profumo sex scandal). Milchan, who then ran the family fertiliser company, never looked back, playing a central role in Israel's clandestine acquisition programme.
He was responsible for securing vital uranium-enrichment technology, photographing centrifuge blueprints that a German executive had been bribed into temporarily "mislaying" in his kitchen. The same blueprints, belonging to the European uranium enrichment consortium, Urenco, were stolen a second time by a Pakistani employee, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who used them to found his country's enrichment programme and to set up a global nuclear smuggling business, selling the design to Libya, North Korea and Iran.
For that reason, Israel's centrifuges are near-identical to Iran's, a convergence that allowed Israeli to try out a computer worm, codenamed Stuxnet, on its own centrifuges before unleashing it on Iran in 2010.
Arguably, Lakam's exploits were even more daring than Khan's. In 1968, it organised the disappearance of an entire freighter full of uranium ore in the middle of the Mediterranean. In what became known as the Plumbat affair, the Israelis used a web of front companies to buy a consignment of uranium oxide, known as yellowcake, in Antwerp. The yellowcake was concealed in drums labelled "plumbat", a lead derivative, and loaded onto a freighter leased by a phony Liberian company. The sale was camouflaged as a transaction between German and Italian companies with help from German officials, reportedly in return for an Israeli offer to help the Germans with centrifuge technology.
When the ship, the Scheersberg A, docked in Rotterdam, the entire crew was dismissed on the pretext that the vessel had been sold and an Israeli crew took their place. The ship sailed into the Mediterranean where, under Israeli naval guard, the cargo was transferred to another vessel.
US and British documents declassified last year also revealed a previously unknown Israeli purchase of about 100 tons of yellowcake from Argentina in 1963 or 1964, without the safeguards typically used in nuclear transactions to prevent the material being used in weapons.
Israel's nuclear reactor also required deuterium oxide, also known as heavy water, to moderate the fissile reaction. For that, Israel turned to Norway and Britain. In 1959, Israel managed to buy 20 tons of heavy water that Norway had sold to the UK but was surplus to requirements for the British nuclear programme. Both governments were suspicious that the material would be used to make weapons, but decided to look the other way. In documents seen by the BBC in 2005 British officials argued it would be "over-zealous" to impose safeguards. For its part, Norway carried out only one inspection visit, in 1961.
Israel's nuclear-weapons project could never have got off the ground, though, without an enormous contribution from France. The country that took the toughest line on counter-proliferation when it came to Iran helped lay the foundations of Israel's nuclear weapons programme, driven by by a sense of guilt over letting Israel down in the 1956 Suez conflict, sympathy from French-Jewish scientists, intelligence-sharing over Algeria and a drive to sell French expertise and abroad.
"There was a tendency to try to export and there was a general feeling of support for Israel," Andre Finkelstein, a former deputy commissioner at France's Atomic Energy Commissariat and deputy director general at the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Avner Cohen, an Israeli-American nuclear historian.
France's first reactor went critical as early as 1948 but the decision to build nuclear weapons seems to have been taken in 1954, after Pierre Mendès France made his first trip to Washington as president of the council of ministers of the chaotic Fourth Republic. On the way back he told an aide: "It's exactly like a meeting of gangsters. Everyone is putting his gun on the table, if you have no gun you are nobody. So we must have a nuclear programme."
Mendès France gave the order to start building bombs in December 1954. And as it built its arsenal, Paris solds material assistance to other aspiring weapons states, not just Israel.
"[T]his went on for many, many years until we did some stupid exports, including Iraq and the reprocessing plant in Pakistan, which was crazy," Finkelstein recalled in an interview that can now be read in a collection of Cohen's papers at the Wilson Centre thinktank in Washington. "We have been the most irresponsible country on nonproliferation."
In Dimona, French engineers poured in to help build Israel a nuclear reactor and a far more secret reprocessing plant capable of separating plutonium from spent reactor fuel. This was the real giveaway that Israel's nuclear programme was aimed at producing weapons.
By the end of the 50s, there were 2,500 French citizens living in Dimona, transforming it from a village to a cosmopolitan town, complete with French lycées and streets full of Renaults, and yet the whole endeavour was conducted under a thick veil of secrecy. The American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote in his book The Samson Option: "French workers at Dimona were forbidden to write directly to relatives and friends in France and elsewhere, but sent mail to a phony post-office box in Latin America."
The British were kept out of the loop, being told at different times that the huge construction site was a desert grasslands research institute and a manganese processing plant. The Americans, also kept in the dark by both Israel and France, flew U2 spy planes over Dimona in an attempt to find out what they were up to.
The Israelis admitted to having a reactor but insisted it was for entirely peaceful purposes. The spent fuel was sent to France for reprocessing, they claimed, even providing film footage of it being supposedly being loaded onto French freighters. Throughout the 60s it flatly denied the existence of the underground reprocessing plant in Dimona that was churning out plutonium for bombs.
Israel refused to countenance visits by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), so in the early 1960s President Kennedy demanded they accept American inspectors. US physicists were dispatched to Dimona but were given the run-around from the start. Visits were never twice-yearly as had been agreed with Kennedy and were subject to repeated postponements. The US physicists sent to Dimona were not allowed to bring their own equipment or collect samples. The lead American inspector, Floyd Culler, an expert on plutonium extraction, noted in his reports that there were newly plastered and painted walls in one of the buildings. It turned out that before each American visit, the Israelis had built false walls around the row of lifts that descended six levels to the subterranean reprocessing plant.
As more and more evidence of Israel's weapons programme emerged, the US role progressed from unwitting dupe to reluctant accomplice. In 1968 the CIA director Richard Helms told President Johnson that Israel had indeed managed to build nuclear weapons and that its air force had conducted sorties to practise dropping them.
The timing could not have been worse. The NPT, intended to prevent too many nuclear genies from escaping from their bottles, had just been drawn up and if news broke that one of the supposedly non-nuclear-weapons states had secretly made its own bomb, it would have become a dead letter that many countries, especially Arab states, would refuse to sign.
The Johnson White House decided to say nothing, and the decision was formalised at a 1969 meeting between Richard Nixon and Golda Meir, at which the US president agreed to not to pressure Israel into signing the NPT, while the Israeli prime minister agreed her country would not be the first to "introduce" nuclear weapons into the Middle East and not do anything to make their existence public.
In fact, US involvement went deeper than mere silence. At a meeting in 1976 that has only recently become public knowledge, the CIA deputy director Carl Duckett informed a dozen officials from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the agency suspected some of the fissile fuel in Israel's bombs was weapons-grade uranium stolen under America's nose from a processing plant in Pennsylvania.
Not only was an alarming amount of fissile material going missing at the company, Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (Numec), but it had been visited by a veritable who's-who of Israeli intelligence, including Rafael Eitan, described by the firm as an Israeli defence ministry "chemist", but, in fact, a top Mossad operative who went on to head Lakam.
"It was a shock. Everyody was open-mouthed," recalls Victor Gilinsky, who was one of the American nuclear officials briefed by Duckett. "It was one of the most glaring cases of diverted nuclear material but the consequences appeared so awful for the people involved and for the US than nobody really wanted to find out what was going on."
The investigation was shelved and no charges were made.
A few years later, on 22 September 1979, a US satellite, Vela 6911, detected the double-flash typical of a nuclear weapon test off the coast of South Africa. Leonard Weiss, a mathematician and an expert on nuclear proliferation, was working as a Senate advisor at the time and after being briefed on the incident by US intelligence agencies and the country's nuclear weapons laboratories, he became convinced a nuclear test, in contravention to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, had taken place.
It was only after both the Carter and then the Reagan administrations attempted to gag him on the incident and tried to whitewash it with an unconvincing panel of enquiry, that it dawned on Weiss that it was the Israelis, rather than the South Africans, who had carried out the detonation.
"I was told it would create a very serious foreign policy issue for the US, if I said it was a test. Someone had let something off that US didn't want anyone to know about," says Weiss.
Israeli sources told Hersh the flash picked up by the Vela satellite was actually the third of a series of Indian Ocean nuclear tests that Israel conducted in cooperation with South Africa.
"It was a fuck-up," one source told him. "There was a storm and we figured it would block Vela, but there was a gap in the weather – a window – and Vela got blinded by the flash."
The US policy of silence continues to this day, even though Israel appears to be continuing to trade on the nuclear black market, albeit at much reduced volumes. In a paper on the illegal trade in nuclear material and technology published in October, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) noted: "Under US pressure in the 1980s and early 1990s, Israel … decided to largely stop its illicit procurement for its nuclear weapons programme. Today, there is evidence that Israel may still make occasional illicit procurements – US sting operations and legal cases show this."
Avner Cohen, the author of two books on Israel's bomb, said that policy of opacity in both Israel and in Washington is kept in place now largely by inertia. "At the political level, no one wants to deal with it for fear of opening a Pandora's box. It has in many ways become a burden for the US, but people in Washington, all the way up to Obama will not touch it, because of the fear it could compromise the very basis of the Israeli-US understanding."
In the Arab world and beyond, there is growing impatience with the skewed nuclear status quo. Egypt in particular has threatened to walk out of the NPT unless there is progress towards creating a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. The western powers promised to stage a conference on the proposal in 2012 but it was called off, largely at America's behest, to reduce the pressure on Israel to attend and declare its nuclear arsenal.
"Somehow the kabuki goes on," Weiss says. "If it is admitted Israel has nuclear weapons at least you can have an honest discussion. It seems to me it's very difficult to get a resolution of the Iran issue without being honest about that."
Widespread boycotts as Egyptian voters back new constitution
Government likely to portray result as conclusive endorsement of direction country has taken since overthrow of Mohamed Morsi
Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
theguardian.com, Thursday 16 January 2014 10.20 GMT
Participants in the first Egyptian vote of the post-Morsi era have voted overwhelmingly in favour of approving a new constitution.
More than 90% of voters opted to ratify Egypt's third constitution in as many years, state-run media reported – a result likely to be portrayed by the Egyptian establishment as a conclusive endorsement of the direction the country has taken since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi.
But after a campaign in which no campaigners were arrested and the government said participation was a patriotic duty, many also saw the poll's turnout as a more significant indicator of public sentiment.
Provisional results suggested turnout was just over 38% – higher than the 33% who voted in a referendum during Morsi's tenure, but lower than the 41.9% who turned out in a similar poll following Egypt's 2011 uprising.
Egypt's new constitution strengthens the country's three key institutions – the military, the police and the judiciary – as well as removing certain Islamist-leaning clauses inserted under Morsi, and gives more rights to women and disabled people.
But the referendum was seen less as a poll on the text's contents and more of a vote on Egypt's current leadership.
In the buildup to the poll, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the army chief who ousted Morsi last July, hinted he would view a strong yes vote and a high turnout as a mandate to run for the presidency later this year.
Shortly before polls closed on Wednesday, the army's spokesman, Ahmed Ali, appeared to position the referendum as an endorsement of Egypt's new order.
Egyptians, he was quoted as saying, were "the first free people in the history of humankind, [and] have continued to surprise the world by working to build a modern future".
Pro-army sentiment was clearly displayed in many polling stations, with supporters of the process circulating several photographs of women kissing soldiers policing voting queues. In one polling station, a stereo played a pro-army song so loudly that those present could not hear each other speak.
As the final hours of polling approached, one television channel split its screen into 16 sections to display 16 different polling queues, in an attempt to exaggerate the extent of voter turnout. Others said voting yes was a revolutionary act essential to the country's future. "You built the pyramids," talkshow host Tawfiq Okasha reportedly told his viewers following the end of polling, "and today you built the future for all of humanity."
Enthusiasm for the poll seemed to contrast sharply between the country's north and south. In upper (or southern) Egypt, turnout was noticeably down from 2012, whereas the opposite largely held true in the north.
The south has traditionally been a stronghold for Islamist groups, who almost all boycotted the poll in protest at Morsi's overthrow and at a crackdown on Islamist dissent.
The referendum's integrity has been challenged by opposition members and rights campaigners, who say the poll was conducted against a backdrop of fear. Up to 35 no campaigners were arrested, claimed one opposition party that boycotted the poll in protest. Their arrests follow the jailing of thousands of Islamists, as well as dozens of secular activists, since last July.
Flow of Westerners to Syria Prompts Security Concerns
By ALISON SMALE
JAN. 15, 2014
FRANKFURT — A week before international peace talks on Syria are to begin in Switzerland, Western leaders and intelligence officials are reacting with alarm to what they say are the rising numbers of young people leaving Europe and the United States to wage jihad against President Bashar al-Assad.
The public comments, which coincided with an international donors conference on Wednesday for victims of Syria’s war, have highlighted the issue Western nations face. Concerns over the continuance of what they call Mr. Assad’s dictatorial rule must be weighed against the threat that the rebellion, which the West supports, is creating a new generation of jihadists.
Across Europe, intelligence officials, police officers, social workers and teachers have reported an increased push in recent months by Islamist radicals to recruit young Europeans to fight on the Syrian battlefield. Most are men, but some women have also been drawn to Syria with the prospect of helping establish an Islamic state, according to German officials and experts monitoring the trend.
American and European intelligence officials estimate that 1,200 young people have left to join Syria’s rebel groups, some of which have ties to Al Qaeda. On Tuesday, President François Hollande of France, in a news conference, said that French intelligence had counted 700 French citizens and foreigners who had headed to Syria from his country. “We must prevent them,” he said.
The same day, Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, speaking after meeting with the heads of German intelligence and the police, ranked international terrorism as his No. 1 problem. The main concern, he said, is the flow of young people to the Syrian battlefield, which he called “a great danger,” particularly if they return home trained in the use of weapons and explosives.
Mr. de Maizière said that 240 people left Germany for Syria last year. Intelligence officials and experts say most of those who head for the battlefield are young men from immigrant families, often with a Muslim background and usually unsuccessful at school and in life.
There have been indications over the past week that Western intelligence officials are pooling knowledge about the trend of Westerners traveling to Syria, which is often accomplished via the long border with Turkey. The issue has been raised in several countries, and Mr. de Maizière spoke on Tuesday after what he said were talks with his French counterpart.
In the United States, senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials told The New York Times in an article published last week that at least 70 Americans have either traveled to Syria, or tried to, since the conflict began there nearly three years ago. The officials also expressed concern that those going to Syria are radicalized to mount attacks after their return home.
Increasingly, European and American officials are taking steps to counter the trend, although the extent of that effort remains unclear.
On Wednesday, the BBC reported that a Syrian official, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, said that several Western intelligence services had visited Damascus for discussions. The BBC broadcast his comments after The Wall Street Journal reported that French, Spanish and German spy services had made contact with Mr. Assad’s government.
Mr. Mekdad declined to specify which countries had made such contact, but he asserted that representatives of many countries had visited Damascus.
There was no immediate confirmation from French, Spanish or German officials of such activity.
A British Foreign Office official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he believed that the Syrian Information Ministry was promoting the report for reasons of its own.
“We are not in contact with the Assad regime,” the official said. Referring to the coming peace conference, he added, “We believe they’re getting jumpy about Geneva II and they are trying to destabilize the opposition by suggesting that the British government is involved with the regime in order to bolster support for it.”
In Germany, the state of Hesse, where Frankfurt is, has been one of the main sources of jihadist recruitment for Syria. Officials in Hesse say 23 youths headed there in recent months, including nine students. One 16-year-old from Frankfurt was reported to have been killed in Syria’s embattled northern city of Aleppo last month.
German authorities detained a 20-year-old man last month at the Frankfurt airport who was returning from Syria, but so far they have not brought charges.
Boris Rhein, interior minister of Hesse until a government reshuffle this week, has increasingly sounded the alarm about Islamist radicals in recent months. In an opinion article written for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in November, he called their religious extremism “the greatest security policy challenge” of the 21st century.
Mr. Rhein, who will remain in the Hesse government but as minister of science and arts, has drawn attention in particular to German-language videos on the Internet aimed at turning disaffected young men into radicals and recruiting them for the battle in Syria.
“It starts harmlessly with an offer of a free copy of the Quran,” he wrote in November. “The propagandists engage the young people in conversation and just show them some simple paths in life. But the real aim is indoctrination with extreme Islamic thought.”
A Quandary for Mexico as Vigilantes Rise
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
JAN. 15, 2014
ANTÚNEZ, Mexico — Word spread quickly: The army was coming to disarm the vigilante fighters whom residents viewed as conquering heroes after they swept in and drove out a drug gang that had stolen property, extorted money and threatened to kill them. They even had to leave flowers and other offerings at a shrine to the gang’s messianic leader.
Farmers locked arms with vigilantes to block the dusty two-lane road leading here. The soldiers demanded to be let in; people begged them to leave. Tempers flared, and rocks were thrown. The soldiers fired into the air, and then, residents said, into a crowd. At least two people were killed on Tuesday, officials and residents said.
“He was just a farmer, and now he died for a cause,” one resident, Luis Sánchez, said of Mario Torres, 48, a lime picker who was not part of the vigilante group but was among the two buried on Wednesday as mourners cried out against the government and the soldiers.
As convoys of federal police officers and soldiers crisscrossed the rolling farmland, the turmoil here in Michoacán State — where vigilantes have taken up arms to battle cartel gunmen on village streets — has confronted the image-conscious Mexican government with a thorny security challenge and a daunting Catch-22.
Should it disarm the loosely organized gunmen who have risen up to fight the drug cartels, risking deadly clashes with some of the very citizens it has been accused of failing to protect in the first place?
Or should it back down and let these nebulous outfits — with little or no police training, uncertain loyalties and possible ties to another criminal gang — continue to fight against the region’s narcotics rings, possibly leading to a bloody showdown?
Here in the town where the civilians were killed, the government seems to have chosen the second option: to back off and cool down. After Mexican officials urged the vigilantes to disarm and go home, this small farming town and at least one other that resisted the government remained under the control of gunmen — some of them teenagers — in battered pickups.
The rise of the so-called self-defense groups is perhaps the most striking example of the weakness of policing, exposing a strain of vigilantism that courses through the country, especially in rural areas where frustration and a lack of confidence in institutions is deepest.
“Michoacán, and especially its western mountainous region, has suffered persistent problems of violence and perhaps a more persistent problem with the state’s weak response to violence,” said Matthew C. Ingram, an assistant professor at the University at Albany who studies Mexico’s justice institutions. “If the state cannot or will not do it, then, in short, ordinary citizens take it upon themselves to do it.”
Or, as the Rev. Antonio Mendoza, the Roman Catholic priest who presided over the funeral of the two victims here on Wednesday, put it, “the solution is legality and rule-of-law reforms.”
“Until we have them,” he added, “people will take justice into their own hands.”
It was clear that the attempt by the government to reassert authority would come at best in fits and starts, offering little interference with the groups in some towns where they agreed to put down or at least hide their weapons, and backing off where it was not welcome. Late Wednesday, the federal government named a commissioner to direct its effort in Michoacán. In Apatzingán, a small city that the vigilantes had vowed to seize because they see it as the stronghold of the Knights Templar drug ring, federal police officers kept a heavy presence. Still, a pharmacy had been burned under suspicious circumstances, and several businesses had closed under threat by the Knights Templar, local reporters said.
Here in Antúnez, there were no signs of federal police officers or soldiers, and certainly no disarmament. And residents would not have it any other way.
“Since they came last week, everything changed,” said a fruit vendor who, like many here, spoke in whispers and anonymously out of fear that the gang that had ruled would return. “It is peaceful.”
In nearby Parácuaro, where the burned remnants of a truck and a bus left over from a clash with the gang remained, the vigilantes kept a blockade at the town’s entrance.
According to residents, the Knights Templar moved in a couple of years ago, erecting a shrine to its mysterious leader, Nazario Moreno González. The government says that he was killed three years ago and that his followers, who revere him with something approaching religious adoration, have forced people to leave offerings to him. Yet there have been many reports across Michoacán that Mr. Moreno González is still alive. (The Knights Templar are an offshoot of his old gang, La Familia Michoacana.)
Residents told of a long ordeal of terror and helplessness. A landowner was killed when he refused to surrender property. Trucks, money and other valuables ended up with gang leaders and their allies. And death threats became commonplace. The town police, residents said, were bought off or forced to work for the gang.
“The leader of the Knights, even when he was leaving here when the self-defense police came in, said they would be back and would kill us all,” the vendor said.
The self-defense group, armed with automatic rifles and police-style pickups that it said had been seized from the gang, swept in. The group denied suggestions by some in the government that it represented another gang, the New Generation, but when questioned about how ordinary farmers could disarm vicious and hardened criminals, members declined to discuss tactics.
The local police disappeared, they said, and the gang members, outmanned, went into hiding or, perhaps, left to regroup.
The vigilantes set up a checkpoint at the entrance to Antúnez, screening visitors and receiving fruit, tacos and even small cash payments from residents, voluntarily, they insisted. They have a ragtag look to them, and some are clearly not accustomed to handling weapons. As a leader of the group spoke to a reporter, another member accidentally discharged his rifle as he got into a truck.
But it was difficult to find residents who did not appreciate them.
One of the first things the vigilantes did was destroy the image of Mr. Moreno González in the shrine’s doghouse-size chapel. Residents later replaced it with a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
Venezuelan windsurfing mecca blown off course as it becomes party zone
El Yaque once drew fans of the sport from all over the world but relaxed vibe has been replaced by heavy drinking until dawn
Virginia López in El Yaque, Venezuela
theguardian.com, Wednesday 15 January 2014 17.30 GMT
When Yoli de Brendt swapped banking for windsurfing, 10 years ago, her friends thought she was mad. After all, she barely knew how to swim.
But De Brendt went to the right place at the right time. Ten years ago, El Yaque was a mecca for windsurfers from all over the world, thanks to the trade winds that blow into the Caribbean basin, shallow waters and year-round sunshine. The constant influx of foreigners teaching each other the latest tricks, coupled with the natural conditions, meant De Brendt quickly went from novice to master.
Today, De Brendt holds three sub-champion titles, ranking among the top three in the world. But she says the Yaque she knew is long gone: the relaxed, cosmopolitan aura has given way to a debauched party culture where the reggae and heavy drinking can last until dawn, and where few wake up for an early morning sail.
"Bodysuits were replaced by G-strings, and one no longer sees the flutter of sails in the sea," says De Brendt. "It's more like drunkards passed out on reclining chairs."
El Yaque is a tiny fishermen's village 15 minutes from the international airport at Margarita island, off the coast of Venezuela. Its main road splits the town of more than 6,000 into two distinct areas – one where local people live in precarious mud-and-zinc houses and make a meagre living from fishing, the other where an influx of Germans, French, Brazilians and Italians built a string of two-storey, beachfront hotels in the 1980s and set up windsurfing schools where aficionados would come all year round to practise in the warm Caribbean waters.
According to De Brendt, crimes such as the murder of a Briton and a Frenchman two years ago have deterred foreigners from coming back.
Additionally, the direct flights from Germany, the Netherlands and Canada have dwindled as a result of insecurity and the country's economic troubles. Of the 15 windsurfing schools, only three remain.
"Windsurfing offered a lot of the local kids here an option. Now I see kids trade in their sails for drugs," De Brendt says of a situation that leaves her increasingly discouraged.
For her colleague, the five-times world champion Gollito Estredo, life is a breeze, however. At 24, the nimble athlete is enjoying his time in the limelight. Estredo acknowledges that windsurfing was his ticket out of a life in which fishing seemed the only option.
"If I hadn't gone into windsurfing I'd probably be fishing for a living. Both are good things. We need fish," says Estredo of the way the other half of El Yaque lives.
With the prizes Estredo has earned, he has built a home for his mother, and is now constructing his own hotel. But despite his success, the author of the renowned pasko move – spinning 360 degrees on one's axis not once but twice – is worried about what lies in store for his community as it struggles to adapt to a shift in tourism.
"It's become a party destination, and we really need to recover the sports-oriented vibe the beach had," Estredo says.
As El Yaque prepares to host its first world championship in March, Estredo hopes the town will regain its lost lustre. Others remain sceptical.
De Brendt says: "Rarely does life give you a second chance. We've been lucky, but let's see if we get it right this time."
Ancient tomb of unknown Egyptian pharaoh ‘Senebkay’ found in Abydos
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 15, 2014 13:04 EST
US archaeologists have uncovered the tomb in southern Egypt of a previously unknown pharaoh who ruled 3,700 years ago, antiquities officials said on Wednesday.
The discovery by a team from the University of Pennsylvania provides new evidence that at least part of Egypt may have escaped the rule of the Hyksos, invaders from what is now Syria who dominated the Nile Delta between the 18th and 15th centuries BC, the officials said.
A royal cartouche bearing the full name of pharaoh Senebkay was found on the sarcophagus and on a wall of the tomb unearthed in the ancient city of Abydos, the head of the antiquities ministry’s pharaonic department, Ali El-Asfar, said.
The team also recovered the skeleton of the pharaoh, which suggested he stood 185 centimetres (just over six foot) tall.
They found canopic vases, traditionally used to preserve body organs, but no grave goods, suggesting the tomb was robbed in ancient times.
Asfar said the discovery suggested that the rule of the Hyksos did not extend to all of Egypt and that a native dynasty managed to preserve its independence in the south.
“The royal family in Abydos, which may have been founded by Senebkay, is of Egyptian origin and did not submit to the Hyksos’s rule,” he said.
The same US team announced last week that it had identified the pharaoh whose tomb they unearthed at Abydos last year.
Pharaoh Sobekhotep I is believed to have been the founder of the 13th dynasty 3,800 years ago. His identity was established after the team found fragments of a slab inscribed with his name.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
Obama’s Path From Critic to Overseer of Spying
By PETER BAKERJAN. 15, 2014
Christopher Gregory for The New York Times
Throughout his political career, President Obama has expressed a range of views on balancing national security needs with personal rights and freedoms.
WASHINGTON — As a young lawmaker defining himself as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama visited a center for scholars in August 2007 to give a speech on terrorism. He described a surveillance state run amok and vowed to rein it in. “That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens,” he declared. “No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime.”
More than six years later, the onetime constitutional lawyer is now the commander in chief presiding over a surveillance state that some of his own advisers think has once again gotten out of control. On Friday, he will give another speech, this time at the Justice Department defending government spying even as he adjusts it to address a wave of public concern over civil liberties.
The journey between those two speeches reflects the transition from the backbench of the United States Senate to the chair behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Like other presidents before him, the idealistic candidate skeptical of government power found that the tricky trade-offs of national security issues look different to the person charged with using that power to ensure public safety.
Aides said that even as a senator, Mr. Obama supported robust surveillance as long as it was legal and appropriate, and that as president he still shares the concerns about overreach he expressed years ago. But they said his views have been shaped to a striking degree by the reality of waking up every day in the White House responsible for heading off the myriad threats he finds in his daily intelligence briefings.
“When you get the package every morning, it puts steel in your spine,” said David Plouffe, the president’s longtime adviser. “There are people out there every day who are plotting. The notion that we would put down a tool that would protect people here in America is hard to fathom.”
At the same time, aides said Mr. Obama was surprised to learn after leaks by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, just how far the surveillance had gone. “Things seem to have grown at the N.S.A.,” Mr. Plouffe said, citing specifically the tapping of foreign leaders’ telephones. “I think it was disturbing to most people, and I think he found it disturbing.”
Yet it is hard to express indignation at actions of the government after five years of running it, and some involved in surveillance note that it was Mr. Obama who pushed national security agencies to be aggressive in hunting terrorists. “For some, his outrage does ring a little bit hollow,” said a former counterterrorism official.
All of which leads to worries by critics of government surveillance that he will not go far enough on Friday. “If the speech is anything like what is being reported, the president will go down in history for having retained and defended George W. Bush’s surveillance programs rather than reformed them,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Mr. Obama first confronted the questions of national security and privacy during his 2004 campaign for Senate, taking aim at the Patriot Act for “violating our fundamental notions of privacy” and declaring that “we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries.”
Once elected, Mr. Obama took an interest in curbing surveillance. “He would ask me about various issues that relate to the topic of the day — how do you come up with policies that make sure that security and liberty are not mutually exclusive?” recalled Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and a leading critic of surveillance policies then and now.
Mr. Obama was a sponsor of a bill in 2005 to raise the standard required for federal agents using administrative subpoenas known as national security letters to obtain business records without court order. He joined other Democrats fighting the renewal of the Patriot Act until it was amended to address civil liberties concerns, then voted for its extension in 2006 after a compromise, breaking with Mr. Wyden who voted no.
Mr. Obama’s 2007 speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars came after the revelation that President George W. Bush had authorized warrantless surveillance in terrorism cases without permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. A presidential candidate, Mr. Obama criticized Mr. Bush’s “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.”
But as a former Obama aide put it recently, “The rhetoric was probably sharper than his votes.” By summer 2008, with the Democratic nomination secured and the White House now a real possibility, Mr. Obama voted for legislation essentially ratifying Mr. Bush’s surveillance programs. Mr. Obama realized he would “take my lumps” from the left and said it “was not an easy call for me,” but he argued that putting the programs under the jurisdiction of the intelligence court restored accountability.
As a result, after he won the election, surveillance issues were off his agenda; instead, he focused on banning interrogation techniques he deemed torture and trying, futilely, to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. “There wasn’t really any serious discussion of what N.S.A. was up to,” said a former intelligence official, who like others did not want to be named describing internal conversations.
Mr. Obama was told before his inauguration of a supposed plot by Somali extremists to attack the ceremony, what David Axelrod, his adviser, called a “welcome-to-the-N.B.A. moment before the first game.” Although the report proved unfounded, it reinforced to Mr. Obama the need to detect threats before they materialized. “The whole Somali threat injected their team into the realities of national security in a tangible and complicated way,” recalled Juan C. Zarate, the departing counterterrorism adviser to Mr. Bush who worked with the Obama team on the threat.
So while instituting additional procedural changes, Mr. Obama undertook no major overhaul of the surveillance programs he inherited. “He’s sitting on the other end of the pen now,” said the former Obama aide. “He has more information than he did then. And he trusts himself to use these powers more than he did the Bush administration.”
Just weeks after the inauguration, Judge Reggie B. Walton issued a secret ruling reprimanding the N.S.A. for violating its own procedures. But when Mr. Obama was briefed, the case did not stir consternation. The president’s team instructed the Justice Department to fix the problem, but “this was not a central concern and he was very quick in knowing how to deal with it,” said a former administration official.
The calculus had shifted enough that Mr. Obama began presiding over a record number of leak prosecutions. When civil liberties advocates visited to press him to do more to reverse Mr. Bush’s policies, Mr. Obama pushed back. “He reminded me that he had a different role to play, that he was commander in chief and that he needed to protect the American people,” recalled Mr. Romero of the A.C.L.U.
That was brought home even more starkly at Christmas in 2009 when a Nigerian man tried to detonate explosives in his underwear aboard an airliner. At a meeting at the White House afterward, an agitated Mr. Obama “was extremely firm” with intelligence officials, saying that he “expected us to do better,” recalled one who was in the room.
“We hadn’t had a major attack in a number of years and the fact that this guy came as close as he did — basically the detonator didn’t work — and the fact that we hadn’t detected it in advance really came as a shock to them,” said John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy C.I.A. director who participated in a review of the incident for the administration.
Feeling little pressure to curb the security agencies, Mr. Obama largely left them alone until Mr. Snowden began disclosing secret programs last year. Mr. Obama was angry at the revelations, privately excoriating Mr. Snowden as a self-important narcissist who had not thought through the consequences of his actions.
He was surprised at the uproar that ensued, advisers said, particularly that so many Americans did not trust him, much less trust the oversight provided by the intelligence court and Congress. As more secrets spilled out, though, aides said even Mr. Obama was chagrined. They said he was exercised to learn that the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was being tapped.
Mr. Obama appointed a panel to review the programs. “The point we made to him was, ‘We’re not really concerned about you, Barack, but God forbid some other guy’s in the office five years from now and there’s another 9/11,’ ” said Richard A. Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism adviser who served on the panel. He had to “lay down some roadblocks in addition to what we have now so that once you’re gone it’ll be harder” to abuse spying abilities.
On the other hand, Mr. Obama was acutely aware of the risks of being seen as handcuffing the security agencies. “Whatever reforms he makes, you can be sure if there’s another incident — and the odds are there will be in our history — there’ll be someone on CNN within seconds saying if the president hadn’t hamstrung the intelligence community, this wouldn’t have happened,” Mr. Axelrod said.
Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser working on Friday’s speech, said Mr. Obama saw the issue as two separate questions — abuse of government power and extent of government power. With the 2008 legislation setting a new structure, the president had focused on avoiding abuse until the latest revelations. “At this point, we’re looking more systematically at these programs to ensure that we’re taking into account both technological advances and also the need to inspire greater public confidence,” Mr. Rhodes said. “We have an ability to do essentially anything technologically. So do we have the appropriate legal and policy overlay to ensure that’s focused?”
That will be the question Mr. Obama tries to answer in the speech.
Correction: January 15, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated the month in 2007 that Mr. Obama made the speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It was in August, not October.
New federal spending bill will demand transparency on NSA surveillance programs
Wednesday, January 15, 2014 19:31 EST
Hidden in the 1,500+ pages of the $1.1 trillion federal funding bill is a stipulation aimed at giving the NSA's much-heralded oversight some actual oversight. The wording specifically targets the NSA's bulk collection programs, and if passed along with the rest of the bill (which is expected to pass shortly), will be the first Congressional action taken against the agency. (There are many, many more in the pipeline.)
Here's how the accompanying "explanatory statement" breaks it down:
The Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) is directed to provide the following to the congressional intelligence committees, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and the House Committee on the Judiciary, not later than 90 days after the enactment of this Act:
1) A report, unclassified to the greatest extent possible, which sets forth for the last five years, on an annual basis, the number of records acquired by the NSA as part of the bulk telephone metadata program authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, pursuant to section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, and the number of such records that have been reviewed by NSA personnel in response to a query of such records. Additionally, this report shall provide, to the greatest extent possible, an estimate of the number of records of United States citizens that have been acquired by NSA as part of the bulk telephone metadata program and the number of such records that have been reviewed by NSA personnel in response to a query.
2) A report, unclassified to the greatest extent possible and with a classified annex if necessary, describing all NSA bulk collection activities, including when such activities began, the cost of such activities, the types of records that have been collected in the past, the types of records that are currently being collected, and any plans for future bulk collection.
3) A report, unclassified to the greatest extent possible and with a classified annex if necessary, listing terrorist activities that were disrupted, in whole or in part, with the aid of information obtained through NSA's telephone metadata program and whether this information could have been promptly obtained by other means.
The agency has been extremely resistant to the notion of quantifying its bulk collection efforts. The "incidental" collection of American data and communications has been discussed at length, but so far, the agency has refused to offer even an estimate at how much "incidental collection" actually occurs. While it has noted how many RAS-approved numbers it actually searches in its Section 215 database, it has not specified how many of those intersect with wholly domestic communications.
This stipulation goes further than the 215 program, which would add to the body of knowledge needed for Congressional overseers to provide something closer to actual oversight. Much of what's being collected under other authorities (Section 702, Executive Order 12333) remains somewhat of a mystery. Obviously, the NSA would like it to remain this way, hence its oft-used tactic of purposefully reframing questions about these collections as questions about Section 215.
It's a small push but it does ask for a level of transparency and accountability the NSA hasn't experienced to date. The usual "national security" dodge has lost a lot of its effectiveness over the past several months as it's been repeatedly shown that vast, untargeted metadata collections are next to useless when it comes to preventing terrorist attacks. The other claims that exposing the inner workings will allow the nation's enemies to route around surveillance are equally weak considering the vast amount of documents Ed Snowden has released to journalists. Chances are, the inner workings will be exposed sooner or later. It would be better to get out ahead of the leaks and allow the Congressional oversight to do its job for a change.
The leaks have exposed the NSA's true motivations. It doesn't fear exposure nearly as much as it fears losing any of its surveillance programs, no matter how ineffective they are and how much they add to the problem of too much data.
U.S. to Expand Rules Limiting Use of Profiling by Federal Agents
By MATT APUZZO
JAN. 15, 2014
The Justice Department will significantly expand its definition of racial profiling to prohibit federal agents from considering religion, national origin, gender and sexual orientation in their investigations, a government official said Wednesday.
The move addresses a decade of criticism from civil rights groups that say federal authorities have in particular singled out Muslims in counterterrorism investigations and Latinos for immigration investigations.
The Bush administration banned profiling in 2003, but with two caveats: It did not apply to national security cases, and it covered only race, not religion, ancestry or other factors.
Since taking office, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has been under pressure from Democrats in Congress to eliminate those provisions. “These exceptions are a license to profile American Muslims and Hispanic-Americans,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said in 2012.
President George W. Bush said in 2001 that racial profiling was wrong and promised “to end it in America.” But that was before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. After those attacks, federal agents arrested and detained dozens of Muslim men who had no ties to terrorism. The government also began a program known as special registration, which required tens of thousands of Arab and Muslim men to register with the authorities because of their nationalities.
“Putting an end to this practice not only comports with the Constitution, it would put real teeth to the F.B.I.’s claims that it wants better relationships with religious minorities,” said Hina Shamsi, a national security lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.
It is not clear whether Mr. Holder also intends to make the rules apply to national security investigations, which would further respond to complaints from Muslim groups.
“Adding religion and national origin is huge,” said Linda Sarsour, advocacy director for the National Network for Arab American Communities. “But if they don’t close the national security loophole, then it’s really irrelevant.”
Ms. Sarsour said she also hoped that Mr. Holder would declare that surveillance, not just traffic stops and arrests, was prohibited based on religion.
The Justice Department has been reviewing the rules for several years and has not publicly signaled how it might change them. Mr. Holder disclosed his plans in a meeting on Wednesday with Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, according to an official briefed on the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the conversation was private.
Mr. de Blasio was elected in November after running a campaign in which he heavily criticized the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactic, which overwhelmingly targets minorities and which a federal judge declared unconstitutional. The mayor and attorney general did not discuss when the rule change would be announced, the official said.
A senior Democratic congressional aide, however, said the Obama administration had indicated an announcement was “imminent.”
The Justice Department would not confirm the new rules on Wednesday night but released a short statement saying that the mayor and the attorney general discussed “preventing crime while protecting civil rights and civil liberties.”
In the past, Mr. Holder has spoken out forcefully against profiling. “Racial profiling is wrong,” he said in a 2010 speech. “It can leave a lasting scar on communities and individuals. And it is, quite simply, bad policing — whatever city, whatever state.”
Officials in the Bush administration made similar statements, however, which is why civil rights groups have eagerly waited to hear not just Mr. Holder’s opinion, but also the rules he plans to enact.
As written, the Justice Department’s rules prohibit federal agents from using race as a factor in their investigations unless there is specific, credible information that makes race relevant to a case.
For example, narcotics investigators may not increase traffic stops in minority neighborhoods on the belief that some minorities are more likely to sell drugs. They can, however, rely on information from witnesses who use race in their descriptions of suspects.
The rules cover federal law enforcement agencies such as the F.B.I. They do not cover local or state police departments.
That is significant because Muslim groups have sued the New York Police Department over surveillance programs that mapped Muslim neighborhoods, photographed their businesses and built files on where they eat, shop and pray.
Mr. Holder’s comments about the new racial profiling rules came up in a conversation about that topic, the official said. William J. Bratton, the city’s new police commissioner, has said he will review those practices.
While the rules directly control only federal law enforcement activities, their indirect effect is much broader, said Fahd Ahmed, the legal director of the Queens-based South Asian immigrant advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving.
For instance, he said, immigration bills in Congress have copied the Justice Department profiling language. And civil rights groups can use the rules to pressure state and local agencies to change their policies.
“Federal guidelines definitely have an impact,” Mr. Ahmed said. “Local organizers can say, ‘These policies are not in line with what’s coming from the federal level.’ ”
In the Real World Republican Budget Cuts Have Increased Hunger, Poverty and Sickness
Wednesday, January, 15th, 2014, 10:29 am
Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Thus, a morally right act (or omission from acting) is one that will produce a good outcome and is commonly summarized as “the ends justify the means.” Republicans have attempted to convince Americans that it is morally right to cut funding for domestic programs that serve the elderly, children, and the poor because it produces a good outcome of shrinking the government, and teaches them there are consequences for getting old, being poor, and working for low wages. Republicans have had a measure of success persuading their supporters that the pursuit of smaller government justifies cutting domestic programs that serve vulnerable Americans, and validate the devastating consequences of the their actions by portraying the poor, children, and seniors as moochers robbing America of its wealth.
The one thing Republicans never talk about when making devastating cuts to safety nets are the real world consequences to the people their cuts impact. No Republican stands on the floor of the House or Senate and says they need to cut billions from the food stamp program and the result will be that 48 million Americans will have significantly less food to eat and go hungry, or that not extending unemployment benefits means 1.3 million Americans lose the lifeline keeping them from falling into dire poverty. It is much easier to dehumanize the cuts as much-needed deficit reduction, or reining in the size of government to prevent it from robbing Americans’ tax dollars and preventing job creators from recording higher profits that might encourage them to hire more workers. However, there are human consequences in Republicans’ harsh austerity that is keeping Americans hungry, homeless, and sick and still, Republicans have fought tooth and nail to make deeper cuts and keep their precious sequester in place.
The sequester is directly responsible for increased hunger, homelessness, and sickness among the poor, but there is little mention of its effects that are literally killing Americans. Last month it was reported that sequester cuts were killing homeless Americans forced to live on the streets in freezing winter weather due to cuts to the Section 8 housing assistance program. Over the weekend, sequester cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) that assists low income households meet their home energy needs were responsible for deaths of three children in the Midwest. LIHEAP particularly helps Americans with the lowest incomes that pay a high proportion of that income for home energy, especially for heating during the winter months.
The three children lived in Hammond, Indiana where most residents were able to keep the bitter cold at bay by turning up their heat to stay warm against freezing temperatures. That was not the case for Andre Young’s family whose rented house had been without electricity, gas, and water for 6 months, and had barely survived the frigid winter weather by using a propane space heater until January 8th. At about 10:30 that night witnesses said Young ran in to his burning rented house to rescue his five children and was successful saving a two-year-old and a six-year-old before he was burned seriously and collapsed in the snow. Another man attempted to kick down a door and save three remaining children aged four, three, and seven months, but he was unsuccessful. By the time first responders arrived they found the three and four-year-old in each other’s embrace and the seven-month old nearby; all three children perished.
Mr. Young, who works in lawn care, remains hospitalized in critical condition and his wife, a Walmart worker until recently, did not earn enough money to afford rent, food, and still make their utility payments. They were forced to choose food and shelter over heat, and the consequence of their choice was three dead children and a critically-burned father. It is likely that Republicans are still patting each other on the back for successfully implementing the sequester to “rein in spending” and “cut the size of government,” and look longingly forward to nine more years of austerity cuts with no regard for the costs in human terms.
In November, the National Energy Association Directors’ Alliance (NEADA) released a report citing the sequester had cut 330,000 poor families from energy assistance heading into the winter season. The report said the outlook for poor families during the heating season was grim with colder weather, higher energy costs, and declining purchasing power due to declining incomes and low wages. NEADA reported that the number of households receiving home heating assistance declined in fiscal year 2013, and noted that the sequester cuts were on top of severe cuts to the program since 2010. All told, nearly 1.5 million households lost heating assistance, and the outlook is especially bleak since the Energy Information Administration projected the average cost of home heating increased from $922 to $977 that leaves most Americans working for poverty wages with a choice of eating or staying warm. It is a choice forced on them by cruel Republicans and their precious life-ending sequester.
In the town the Young family lives, Hammond, money provided by the federal low-income energy assistance program (LIHEAP) is administered by the North Township Trustee and can give amounts between $100 and $500 starting in October to individuals and families living in poverty if funding is available. The Indiana utility, NIPSCO, confirmed Young was on some form of assistance, though it did not specify which kind, but with five children and rent to pay, it was likely food stamps that were cut two months ago on November 1st. An average household in Indiana house spends about $530 on heat between November and March which is significantly more than the assistance provided, and experts warned that the frigid weather from the “Polar Vortex,” coupled with devastating sequester cuts that have already reduced the amount of LIHEAP assistance available will push those on heating assistance to the limits of their budgets and force them to choose feeding their families or keeping them warm.
Republicans love boasting to their inhumane followers that “reining in spending” and “cutting the size of government” justifies their cuts that are killing poor Americans struggling to survive in poverty. One might be inclined to say the Young family’s tragedy is a cautionary tale of what dire consequences result from Republican austerity, but it is a stark reality that is recurring all across America with no apparent end in sight. Republicans are well-aware of the devastation their senseless and barbaric cuts are wreaking on the most vulnerable Americans and yet they are dissatisfied the damage is not severe enough or they would not continue panting to make deeper cuts to social safety nets.
The consequences of Republican austerity are the ultimate basis for judgment about the rightness of their conduct, and in human terms, their conduct is beyond wrong, it is inhumane, immoral, and sheer evil. Their jobs as legislators, according to the U.S. Constitution, is to provide for the general welfare of the people, and yet their standard practice is inflicting pain and suffering first on the most vulnerable Americans with more of their attention being shifted to the declining middle class. It is a sad state of affairs that Republicans would withhold heating assistance, food, and adequate housing from those who need it most and never acknowledge the consequences of their actions. As their austerity drives more Americans to choose between shelter, food, and heating in inclement weather, more poor Americans will opt to feed their families and use dangerous propane stoves to keep warm and suffer the deadly consequences of Republicans’ reining in spending and cutting the size of government.
NLRB Busts Walmart for Breaking The Law in 14 States
By: Justin Baragona
Wednesday, January, 15th, 2014, 5:16 pm
On Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board issued a historic complaint against Walmart for the company’s activities against its employees. The complaint, the largest ever issues against Walmart, alleges that Walmart illegally fired around 70 workers due to their speaking out for better wages and working conditions. The complaint names more than 60 store managers and spokespeople across 34 stores in 14 states. It also named Walmart’s vice president of communication, David Tovar.
OUR Walmart released a statement shortly after the NLRB’s announcement was made. OUR Walmart is a national organization of Walmart workers that works towards getting living wages, better benefits and improved working conditions for the company’s employees. The press release included a moving statement from Colby Harris, one of the workers fired for voicing his opinion.
“Walmart workers like me are calling for better jobs for all Americans. It’s not right that so many of us are struggling to get by on less than $25,000 a year while the Waltons have more wealth than 42% of American families combined. Today the federal government confirmed that Walmart is not above the law, will be held accountable, and I have rights.”
This complaint that has been filed should hopefully open the door for full-time workers at Walmart to make at least $25,000 a year with some basic benefits. Also, if Walmart is found liable, the improperly fired workers will most likely receive back pay and their jobs back. However, one extremely important development from all of this should be that Walmart will be unable to discipline or fire any of their workers for organizing labor activity or strikes. A positive ruling in court will prevent Walmart from retaliating against its employees in the future. Perhaps even just having this complaint filed will make the company’s management think twice before intimidating workers.
At this time, Walmart appears to be ready to fight the complaint in court. They actually had the opportunity to address this matter directly with the NLRB and perhaps even come to a settlement. However, the nation’s largest corporation decided against that and wanted to see if action would be taken against them. That is indeed what occurred. The company released a short statement on Wednesday:
“We look forward to shedding light on the facts of the situation. Again, this is just a procedural step – it provides us the opportunity to speak in front of a judge.”
Nothing yet has been fully accomplished as a court date still looms. But it looks like the NLRB is actually serving its intended purpose–to protect worker’s rights and prevent abuse from the hands of employers. By standing up to a large corporation like Walmart, which profits mightily by paying its workers very little, the NLRB is making a statement to the rest of corporate America.
Darrell Issa Commits A Treasonous High Crime By Leaking Sensitive Obamacare Documents
By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, January, 15th, 2014, 3:47 pm
According to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Darrell Issa has jeopardized the security of the ACA website by leaking sensitive Obamacare documents to unauthorized consultants.
On several occasions since November, I have written to you to request that we meet to discuss the adoption of a bipartisan protocol to safeguard sensitive documents obtained during this investigation and to develop a responsible approach to making information public that the Committee determines is important to its investigation.
I also remain concerned with the unilateral release by your office of partial transcripts and select document excerpts to promote partisan narratives that often turn out to be inaccurate, particularly when these releases are not part of any official report, correspondence, or other Committee action. Not only is this a disservice to the American people and the goals we share, but it undermines the credibility and integrity of the Committee.
Another concern is the security of documents in the custody of the Committee. Currently, the Committee has no procedure governing the storage and handling of these sensitive documents. As a result, there have been two separate occasions last week when sensitive documents were left unattended in unlocked rooms accessible by the public. Although I understand that your office believes these documents are not sensitive, one was produced to the Committee in encrypted, password-protected format, and both were marked as sensitive documents that require special handling.
A third concern relates to providing access to sensitive information to individuals outside the Committee. In December, you stated that you intended to “consult carefully with non-conflicted experts to ensure no information is released that could further jeopardize the website’s security.” Several days later, you wrote a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services indicating that you had already begun this process, stating that you would “continue” consulting with outside security experts.
Based on your statements, it is unclear who these outside experts are, who they work for, and who they may be affiliated with, raising concerns about what they may do with the information. If they do not work for the government or any of its contractors, it is unclear what contractual or other restrictions they are under not to disclose this sensitive information further. There have been multiple reports about organizations and individuals who are deliberately targeting the Healthcare.gov website for malicious purposes. The risk that this information could get into the wrong hands increases dramatically as more individuals gain access to it, particularly when these individuals are under no obligation to safeguard it.
Darrell Issa is leaking sensitive Obamacare documents to consultants that he refuses to name. Even more troubling is the fact that he will not disclose what the individuals intend to do with this information. Rep. Issa is clearly not securing important documents, and making those documents available to parties that he refuses to identify. Given his partisan bent, it is a safe guess that this is all part of an attempt to destroy Obamacare.
Twice last week someone left sensitive documents unattended in an unlocked room that is accessible to the public. Why do you think someone would do that? Carelessness perhaps, but a more likely answer is that someone wanted those documents available to people who aren’t authorized to view them.
Rep. Cummings was correct. Issa’s behavior increases the possibility that hackers can get their hands on this sensitive information, which I suspect is exactly what Rep. Issa wants. Issa has abused his power as chairman of the House Oversight Committee from the moment that he took power. Rep. Issa’s one and only goal has always been to impeach President Obama.
It is easy to imagine that Issa would leak sensitive documents related to the security of healthcare.gov in order to jeopardize the website. It’s time for the investigator to become the investigated. If Issa is trying to sabotage the ACA website through leaks, he must be removed from office.
Issa’s obsession with bringing down the Obama presidency may have finally taken him too far, and he must be stopped.
NSA collects millions of text messages daily in 'untargeted' global sweep
• NSA extracts location, contacts and financial transactions
• 'Dishfire' program sweeps up 'pretty much everything it can'
• GCHQ using database to search metadata from UK numbers
• Dishfire presentation on text message collection – key extracts
James Ball in New York
The Guardian, Thursday 16 January 2014 18.55 GMT
The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks and credit card details, according to top-secret documents.
The untargeted collection and storage of SMS messages – including their contacts – is revealed in a joint investigation between the Guardian and the UK’s Channel 4 News based on material provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The documents also reveal the UK spy agency GCHQ has made use of the NSA database to search the metadata of “untargeted and unwarranted” communications belonging to people in the UK.
The NSA program, codenamed Dishfire, collects “pretty much everything it can”, according to GCHQ documents, rather than merely storing the communications of existing surveillance targets.
The NSA has made extensive use of its vast text message database to extract information on people’s travel plans, contact books, financial transactions and more – including of individuals under no suspicion of illegal activity.
An agency presentation from 2011 – subtitled “SMS Text Messages: A Goldmine to Exploit” – reveals the program collected an average of 194 million text messages a day in April of that year. In addition to storing the messages themselves, a further program known as “Prefer” conducted automated analysis on the untargeted communications.
The Prefer program uses automated text messages such as missed call alerts or texts sent with international roaming charges to extract information, which the agency describes as “content-derived metadata”, and explains that “such gems are not in current metadata stores and would enhance current analytics”.
On average, each day the NSA was able to extract:
• More than 5 million missed-call alerts, for use in contact-chaining analysis (working out someone’s social network from who they contact and when)
• Details of 1.6 million border crossings a day, from network roaming alerts
• More than 110,000 names, from electronic business cards, which also included the ability to extract and save images.
• Over 800,000 financial transactions, either through text-to-text payments or linking credit cards to phone users
The agency was also able to extract geolocation data from more than 76,000 text messages a day, including from “requests by people for route info” and “setting up meetings”. Other travel information was obtained from itinerary texts sent by travel companies, even including cancellations and delays to travel plans.
Communications from US phone numbers, the documents suggest, were removed (or “minimized”) from the database – but those of other countries, including the UK, were retained.
The revelation the NSA is collecting and extracting personal information from hundreds of millions of global text messages a day is likely to intensify international pressure on US president Barack Obama, who on Friday is set to give his response to the report of his NSA review panel.
While US attention has focused on whether the NSA’s controversial phone metadata program will be discontinued, the panel also suggested US spy agencies should pay more consideration to the privacy rights of foreigners, and reconsider spying efforts against allied heads of state and diplomats.
In a statement to the Guardian, a spokeswoman for the NSA said any implication that the agency’s collection was “arbitrary and unconstrained is false”. The agency’s capabilities were directed only against “valid foreign intelligence targets” and were subject to stringent legal safeguards, she said.
The ways in which the UK spy agency GCHQ has made use of the NSA Dishfire database also seems likely to raise questions on the scope of its powers.
While GCHQ is not allowed to search through the content of messages without a warrant – though the contents are stored rather than deleted or “minimized” from the database – the agency’s lawyers decided analysts were able to see who UK phone numbers had been texting, and search for them in the database.
The GCHQ memo sets out in clear terms what the agency’s access to Dishfire allows it to do, before handling how UK communications should be treated. The unique property of Dishfire, it states, is how much untargeted or unselected information it stores.
“In contrast to [most] GCHQ equivalents, DISHFIRE contains a large volume of unselected SMS traffic,” it states (emphasis original). “This makes it particularly useful for the development of new targets, since it is possible to examine the content of messages sent months or even years before the target was known to be of interest.”
It later explains in plain terms how useful this capability can be. Comparing Dishfire favourably to a GCHQ counterpart which only collects against phone numbers that have specifically been targeted, it states “Dishfire collects pretty much everything it can, so you can see SMS from a selector which is not targeted”.
The document also states the database allows for broad, bulk searches of keywords which could result in a high number of hits, rather than just narrow searches against particular phone numbers: “It is also possible to search against the content in bulk (e.g. for a name or home telephone number) if the target’s mobile phone number is not known.”
Analysts are warned to be careful when searching content for terms relating to UK citizens or people currently residing in the UK, as these searches could be successful but would not be legal without a warrant or similar targeting authority.
However, a note from GCHQ’s operational legalities team, dated May 2008, states agents can search Dishfire for “events” data relating to UK numbers – who is contacting who, and when.
“You may run a search of UK numbers in DISHFIRE in order to retrieve only events data,” the note states, before setting out how an analyst can prevent himself seeing the content of messages when he searches – by toggling a single setting on the search tool.
Once this is done, the document continues, “this will now enable you to run a search without displaying the content of the SMS, especially useful for untargeted and unwarranted UK numbers.”
A separate document gives a sense of how large-scale each Dishfire search can be, asking analysts to restrain their searches to no more than 1,800 phone numbers at a time.
The note warns analysts they must be careful to make sure they use the form’s toggle before searching, as otherwise the database will return the content of the UK messages – which would, without a warrant, cause the analyst to “unlawfully be seeing the content of the SMS”.
The note also adds that the NSA automatically removes all “US-related SMS” from the database, so it is not available for searching.
A GCHQ spokesman refused to comment on any particular matters, but said all its intelligence activities were in compliance with UK law and oversight.
But Vodafone, one of the world’s largest mobile phone companies with operations in 25 countries including Britain, greeted the latest revelations with shock.
“It’s the first we’ve heard about it and naturally we’re shocked and surprised,” the group’s privacy officer and head of legal for privacy, security and content standards told Channel 4 News.
“What you’re describing sounds concerning to us because the regime that we are required to comply with is very clear and we will only disclose information to governments where we are legally compelled to do so, won’t go beyond the law and comply with due process.
“But what you’re describing is something that sounds as if that’s been circumvented. And for us as a business this is anathema because our whole business is founded on protecting privacy as a fundamental imperative.”
He said the company would be challenging the UK government over this. “From our perspective, the law is there to protect our customers and it doesn’t sound as if that is what is necessarily happening.”
The NSA’s access to, and storage of, the content of communications of UK citizens may also be contentious in the light of earlier Guardian revelations that the agency was drafting policies to facilitate spying on the citizens of its allies, including the UK and Australia, which would – if enacted – enable the agency to search its databases for UK citizens without informing GCHQ or UK politicians.
The documents seen by the Guardian were from an internal Wikipedia-style guide to the NSA program provided for GCHQ analysts, and noted the Dishfire program was “operational” at the time the site was accessed, in 2012.
The documents do not, however, state whether any rules were subsequently changed, or give estimates of how many UK text messages are collected or stored in the Dishfire system, or from where they are being intercepted.
In the statement, the NSA spokeswoman said: “As we have previously stated, the implication that NSA's collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false.
“NSA's activities are focused and specifically deployed against – and only against – valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements.
“Dishfire is a system that processes and stores lawfully collected SMS data. Because some SMS data of US persons may at times be incidentally collected in NSA’s lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for US persons exist across the entire process concerning the use, handling, retention, and dissemination of SMS data in Dishfire.
“In addition, NSA actively works to remove extraneous data, to include that of innocent foreign citizens, as early as possible in the process.”
The agency draws a distinction between the bulk collection of communications and the use of that data to monitor or find specific targets.
A spokesman for GCHQ refused to respond to any specific queries regarding Dishfire, but said the agency complied with UK law and regulators.
“It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters,” he said. “Furthermore, all of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.”
GCHQ also directed the Guardian towards a statement made to the House of Commons in June 2013 by foreign secretary William Hague, in response to revelations of the agency’s use of the Prism program.
“Any data obtained by us from the US involving UK nationals is subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards, including the relevant sections of the Intelligence Services Act, the Human Rights Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act,” Hague told MPs.
Alan Rusbridger: Westminster is hoping Snowden revelations go awayGuardian editor accuses UK politicians of failing to tackle issues raised by NSA revelations, which have sparked US debate
theguardian.com, Friday 17 January 2014 09.33 GMT
Britain's political class has been closing its eyes and hoping the revelations from Edward Snowden go away rather than tackle important issues over mass surveillance that have provoked such heated debate in America, the editor in chief of the Guardian has said.
Alan Rusbridger accused Westminster of "complacency" about the revelations from Snowden, which have been published in the Guardian over the past six months.
Speaking to the BBC hours before the US president, Barack Obama, was due to give details about reforms to the US spy headquarters, the National Security Agency (NSA), Rusbridger said: "I think one of the problems is that both of the main political parties feel compromised about this. Labour is not keen to get involved because a lot of this stuff was done on their watch."
He added: "I think there is a degree of complacency here. There has been barely a whisper from Westminster. I think they are closing their eyes and hoping that it goes away. But it won't go away because it's impossible to reform the NSA without having a deep knock-on effect on what our own intelligence services do."
Interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Rusbridger said the oversight mechanisms that were supposed to review the work of Britain's intelligence agencies had proved to be "laughable". He said the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, even with the extra money it had received recently, was not up to the job. "I just don't think they have the technical expertise or the resources," he said.
Rusbridger added: "What is unprecedented in the last 15 years is the advance of technology. It is completely different from anything that has existed in humankind before."
Earlier in the programme, William Hague, the foreign secretary, reaffirmed his belief that Britain's eavesdropping headquarters, GCHQ, had acted within the law when it looked at the content of intercepted messages.
He refused to comment on the Guardian's latest story from the Snowden files – which shows GCHQ has access to "unwarranted" text messages collected by the NSA in a programme codenamed Dishfire.
"I am not going to comment on allegations or leaks. I can't possibly do that," said Hague.
"But I can say [we have] a very strong system of checks and balances of warrants being required from me or the home secretary to intercept the content of the communications.
"That system is not breached. I have not seen anything to suggest that system has been breached. We have probably the strongest system in the world. Not only do I and the home secretary oversee these things, but we have commissioners who oversee our work and report to the prime minister. No country has a stronger system than that."
But Rusbridger said Hague had sidestepped the main issue.
Dishfire collects so-called "metadata", which can be analysed with fewer legal restraints. Yet expert after expert had admitted metadata was as valuable as content to intelligence analysts, said Rusbridger, because it allows analysts to build up a picture of your whereabouts and your relationships.
"There is not much distinction between metadata and content," he said.
"[Hague] talked about being within the law on content. This isn't content. This is metadata, which politicians make out as very harmless. This is not just billing data. The world has moved on. What people can tell through metadata is almost everything about you.
"Contrary to what William Hague said the documents say, the NSA likes working here because of the light legal regime here."
Rusbridger also questioned the claims of Britain's security chiefs that the Guardian's revelations had undermined national security and – in the words of the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers – left al-Qaida rubbing its hands in glee.
Rusbridger said the claim was "theatrical … but there was no evidence attached".
NSA surveillance: privacy board denies being sidelined by Obama
President to deliver key speech on surveillance before PCLOB watchdog officially hands down its findings
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Friday 17 January 2014 01.23 GMT
The head of the US government’s independent privacy watchdog has denied that his organization has been neutered by Barack Obama’s decision to deliver a major speech on surveillance before it completes its examination into the National Security Agency.
Obama is due to announce his proposed reforms on surveillance activities on Friday, before the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has had a chance to deliver its final report.
But the chairman of the task force, David Medine, told the Guardian on Thursday that he did not feel undercut. "We felt we accomplished our goal of having input to the president’s decision-making process,” he said.
Medine and his four colleagues on the board have given the White House drafts of their recommendations, which will be published on 23 January, for reforms to the bulk collection of domestic phone records and the composition of the Fisa court. They met with Obama and the vice-president, Joe Biden, last week ahead of Obama’s widely anticipated speech on Friday about the future course of the NSA’s sweeping surveillance powers.
It has struck some observers as awkward that Obama is delivering his speech before the so-called PCLOB delivers its own assessment of US surveillance and its implications for civil liberties, a subject central to its existence.
Additionally the PCLOB has been overshadowed by a surveillance review panel Obama handpicked in August, whose recommendations have captivated a Washington debate the PCLOB has yet to influence – and one of those recommendations was to replace the PCLOB with a more institutionally powerful organization.
“It appears as if the president is thumbing his nose at the PCLOB’s recommendations,” said Angela Canterbury of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.
Julian Sanchez, a privacy researcher at the Cato Institute, said: “The timing here really seems like a bit of a slap to the PCLOB; you would think if only for the sake of appearances the White House would have waited a few weeks for the publication of their full analysis before announcing a policy agenda.
“But the president may have decided it would be even more awkward to announce the rather flaccid reforms we've been led to expect after two of the government's own expert panels have concluded a more serious overhaul is needed.”
While the PCLOB gave Obama and Biden their recommendations about bulk domestic phone records collection and the Fisa court, the board did not advise the president about its recommendations on the NSA’s foreign-directed mass surveillance under Section 702 of the Fisa Amendments Act.
That surveillance dragnet – which includes communications between foreigners and Americans, and through which the NSA has authority to search for Americans’ identifying information – will be the subject of a follow-on report from the PCLOB. Medine said the board still did not have a publication date.
“When I say we’re going to turn to 702 it’s not that as if we’re turning from scratch, it’s based on the study, the research, the input we’ve received. We’ll turn to the 702 report as soon as we finish the 215 report,” Medine said, using a bureaucratic shorthand for mass domestic phone metadata collection.
The PCLOB has had a rocky first decade. Despite being created in 2004 as a post-9/11 intelligence reform the board has not done any substantive work until this year, struggling with independence from the White House and persistent vacancies that have left it unable to function as intended.
“It’s just been a total frustration,” former New Jersey governor and 9/11 commissioner Tom Kean, one of the architects of the board, said in 2012 for a New York Times story about the board’s “troubled life”.
Obama did not finish nominating the board’s full membership until December 2011 including Medine, whose nomination was held up in the Senate for 510 days due to ongoing fights between Obama and chamber Republicans. Since only the PCLOB’s chairman has the power to appoint staff the board did not get properly under way until Medine finally arrived in May of 2013, just days before the Guardian published the first Edward Snowden leak about the NSA.
“My first week on the job, you published your story, so you made my job a lot more exciting,” Medine said.
The board has had an opportunity to add staff – it has six staffers now, up from two – and has held two marathon public hearings into the NSA disclosures, in July and November. Medine said he was satisfied the PCLOB had received a comprehensive look inside the NSA and associated intelligence agencies; it had received briefings not only on the agencies’ bulk domestic phone records collection and foreign internet communications collection but also its broader foreign intelligence activities that operate under an executive order called 12333, which officials cite to justify, among other things, collecting data transiting between Google and Yahoo data centers.
Medine is aware that the PCLOB’s performance reviewing the controversial surveillance activities has implications for his organization’s prestige – and even its existence given the surveillance review board’s recommendation to replace it.
“It was certainly a very challenging first project for us,” Medine said.
“But I believe we’ve risen to the task, and are demonstrating both in the United States and around the world that the United States has a vigorous oversight body that will take a close look at these programs, have full access to them, and will be able to advise whether the programs do strike the right balance.”
Regardless of the timing of Obama’s speech, privacy advocates hope the PCLOB’s recommendations – which Medine would not discuss – would arrive in time to influence a congressional debate on surveillance likely to intensify in the wake of Obama’s remarks.
“Hopefully his speech and his recommendations are just the beginning of a back and forth between the Hill and the administration, so the PCLOB will still have an opportunity to weigh in,” said ACLU surveillance lobbyist Michelle Richardson.
“In terms of both the public and Congress, the fact that we’re issuing our report in close proximity to the president’s speech gives everyone a chance to evaluate the president’s conclusions and recommendations with our conclusions and recommendations,” Medine said.
“To the extent there’s a congressional process, it’s just starting, and we will have put into that process, both in terms of our report and, if requested, any testimony that we give congressional committees on these issues.”