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« Reply #11610 on: Jan 30, 2014, 07:43 AM »

Tension Builds in Israeli Coalition at a Critical Juncture in Peace Talks

By JODI RUDOREN
JAN. 29, 2014
IHT   

TEL AVIV — Simmering tension between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and one of his right-wing political partners boiled into open hostility on Wednesday, threatening to reshape Israel’s governing coalition at a critical juncture of the American-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians.

The prime minister’s office issued a warning on Wednesday morning to Naftali Bennett, the leader of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party, that if Mr. Bennett did not apologize for his harsh criticism of Mr. Netanyahu’s positions in recent days, he could lose his seat in the cabinet.

“There is an expectation that he will apologize,” said an official in Mr. Netanyahu’s office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. “The prime minister has coalition alternatives.”

Mr. Bennett, 41, had delivered repeated, blistering denunciations over the past few days of a suggestion by the prime minister’s office that some Jews in far-flung settlements might live under Palestinian sovereignty in a future peace deal. Hours after Mr. Netanyahu’s office issued its ultimatum, Mr. Bennett said, “If the prime minister was offended, that was not my intention.” But he stood by the substance of his statements and did not explicitly apologize.

“I respect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his leadership in not-simple conditions,” Mr. Bennett said at a conference of religious-nationalist leaders near the Dead Sea. “I support him when it is needed, and I criticize him when it is needed. That is my duty.”

He added, “Imposing Palestinian sovereignty over Israeli citizens is dangerous, and it was my duty to remove this idea immediately from our agenda, and it has been removed.”

The prime minister’s office did not immediately respond to inquiries about whether Mr. Bennett’s statement would suffice.

The flap highlights political dynamics in Israel that many analysts see as a potentially fatal obstacle to any peace deal. Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition partners have profound ideological differences regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the prime minister’s own willingness to compromise on issues like the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees remains an open question.

The cracks in the coalition came as Secretary of State John Kerry prepared to present a “framework” laying out core principles for continuing the negotiations, which began last summer. Mr. Bennett has said he will quit the coalition if Israel signs a document that calls for a Palestinian state to be established along the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, as it is expected to do.

But two other coalition partners — Tzipi Livni, the justice minister, who is leading the negotiations, and Yair Lapid, the centrist finance minister — are likely to leave the government if Israel does not continue to support Mr. Kerry’s initiative. Mr. Lapid warned in a speech here Wednesday that if the talks fail, a European boycott could ensue that would cost Israel about $5.7 billion, threatening 9,800 jobs, and “substantially hurt the checkbook of every Israeli.”

Mr. Netanyahu, whose stated support of a two-state solution also faces deep opposition from within his own Likud Party, distanced himself from Mr. Kerry’s framework on Tuesday, saying, “Israel does not have to agree with everything America presents.”

The leader of the Labor Party has promised Mr. Netanyahu a “safety net” to pursue peace with the Palestinians, but it is unclear whether, if Mr. Bennett were pushed out, the party would agree to join the coalition before a framework was presented or signed. The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, long a political partner to Mr. Netanyahu but not a member of the current coalition, might also join, depending on what happens with a plan to draft more yeshiva students into the Israeli Army.

Recent polls have shown that Mr. Netanyahu faces no serious challenge for the premiership, and that if new elections are held, Likud and its ally, Yisrael Beiteinu, are most likely to gain seats. Some analysts see this as an opportunity for Mr. Netanyahu to force a break from the extreme pro-settler wing of Likud and move to the center, perhaps even by forming a new party, an Israeli political pastime.

“Netanyahu on one hand is trying to show he has options,” said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at Hebrew University and a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. “But his main problem was and remains with the Likud. The party is very right-wing and will make it difficult for him to reach an agreement, if that’s what he wants.”

Mr. Bennett, who made a fortune in Israel’s technology industry, was once Mr. Netanyahu’s top aide, but they parted unhappily. Mr. Netanyahu was forced to include the Jewish Home party in the governing coalition because Mr. Bennett partnered with Mr. Lapid, but that relationship has frayed: Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid used to refer to each other as brothers, but have lately downgraded to cousins.

The conflict escalated over the weekend, when the prime minister’s office floated the notion of Jewish settlers’ becoming minority citizens in a future Palestinian state. The idea was roundly criticized by Palestinians, settlers, Likud members and center-left politicians alike. Mr. Bennett said it reflected “the loss of a moral compass,” and on Tuesday night broadened his attack, declaring, “Our forefathers and ancestors and our descendants will never forgive an Israeli leader who gives away our land and divides our capital.”

Several members of the Likud publicly criticized Mr. Bennett on Wednesday, questioning his maturity and asking why he remained in the government if he did not support its policies.

Danny Danon, the chairman of the Likud Central Committee and a leader of the party’s far-right ranks, agreed that Mr. Bennett’s tone was inappropriate but said he supported “the content of what he said,” and hinted at a looming political challenge for Mr. Netanyahu.

“I think what should be done is say it very clearly — ‘We will not abandon our brothers and sisters in Judea and Samaria’ — but at the same time not to make it personal,” Mr. Danon said in an interview, using the biblical names for the West Bank. “I think Prime Minister Netanyahu knows it very clearly that if he wants to advance this policy and this idea, it will not pass within his own party.”


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« Reply #11611 on: Jan 30, 2014, 07:45 AM »

Push for federalism in Yemen faces hurdles amid widespread revolts

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 29, 2014 16:46 EST

Reconciliation talks have outlined Yemen’s future as a federal state, but its leaders now face the challenge of implementing change in an impoverished country grappling with multiple revolts.

A political transition stipulated by a UN-backed deal that saw long-ruling president Ali Abdullah Saleh step down in the face of Arab Spring-inspired protests was supposed to culminate this February with a new constitution and free elections.

But a national dialogue that is part of the same agreement concluded four months late on Saturday, extending the transitional period and allowing an extra year to draft a charter and vote on it.

In the meantime, Sanaa has struggled with an increasingly assertive separatist movement in the south, deadly clashes between Shiite rebels and Sunni Islamists in the north, and a string of attacks on security forces blamed on a powerful Al-Qaeda affiliate, all feeding a sense of crisis in the Arab world’s poorest country.

Yemen’s parties hope to rein in the unrest by agreeing on a federal system, but remain divided on whether it should consist of two regions or six.

Sanaa fears that a north-south division could set the stage for the south to secede, while southerners oppose the multi-region option, which would dilute their power.

“The dialogue has set the theoretical framework for a federal state,” said Yemeni analyst Fares al-Saqqaf.

“This is the beginning of the process,” said Ibrahim Sharqieh, professor of international conflict resolution at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

He argued that the “biggest challenge is now to apply” the decisions reached in the dialogue, pointing out that “pressure from the international community was crucial” to the success of the talks.

Interim President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi formed a committee on Monday, led by himself, that will decide on the number of regions and insert it into the text of the new constitution, which should be drafted and voted on within a year.

Postponing the decision on the number of regions allowed the talks to conclude, but did little to resolve the underlying conflict.

A government official speaking on condition of anonymity said that Hadi has “ruled out” a north-south division of the country, which “would maintain tension in the country and leave the door ajar for future conflicts.”

Hardline separatists have meanwhile boycotted the dialogue altogether, insisting on complete independence.

Southern parts of Yemen formed an independent state from the end of British colonial rule in 1967 until union with the north in 1990.

A secession attempt four years later sparked a brief but bloody civil war that ended with northern forces taking over the south.

If the six-region option is adopted, the area of former South Yemen would be divided into two regions, while the north would be divided into four regions.

Provinces bargain for wider authorities

The push for federalism, intended to mitigate Yemen’s various local conflicts, may achieve the opposite, with local power brokers having stepped up demands for greater autonomy in recent months.

Shiite Huthi rebels in the north have been expanding their reach ahead of the expected demarcation through battles with Sunni fundamentalists and allied tribes.

In Hadramawt, a southeastern desert province that sits on significant oil reserves and is a stronghold for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), tribes have taken to the streets since December, protesting against the central government.

Further east, representatives of Mahrah province have also demanded the formation of a separate region along with the island of Socotra.

The General People’s Congress, the party of former president Saleh, who ruled for 33 years, has also been accused of covertly trying to destabilise the country.

But perhaps the biggest threat comes from the hardline Southern Movement, parts of which are leading an armed struggle.

The ability of the Southern Movement and the Huthi rebels to sabotage the agreement remains the “main fear,” said Sharqieh.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #11612 on: Jan 30, 2014, 07:47 AM »

Mauritania Leader New African Union Chairman

by Naharnet Newsdesk
30 January 2014, 11:39

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz took over as African Union chairman on Thursday, replacing Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in the one-year post.

Aziz, in his opening speech, congratulated Hailemairan "for the remarkable work accomplished during his tenure," adding that "he has contributed brilliantly to strengthen the role of Africa on both continental and international levels".

Aziz became the north African country's president in 2009 after leading two coups in four years.

The two-day talks, opened by Hailemarian Thursday, are officially themed on agriculture and food security.

But the 54-member bloc is spending much of the time bogged down yet again trying to resolve conflict in member states.

"Let me congratulate my successor... and I pledge my full support as he continues to work... to advance the objectives of our union," Hailemariam said in his farewell speech.


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« Reply #11613 on: Jan 30, 2014, 07:49 AM »

1,500-year-old tooth DNA helps unlock secrets of ancient plague

By Arturo Garcia
RawStory
Wednesday, January 29, 2014 19:54 EST

A research team from Northern Arizona University has isolated the probable cause of the plague that terrorized tens of millions 1,500 years ago.

NPR reported on Wednesday that, using DNA extracted from dental pulp, they were able to reassemble the genetic code of the bacteria behind the Justinian plague, named after the Byzantine emperor who saw it overwhelm his subjects — and nearly himself — around 541 A.D.

“Some of the estimates are that up to 50 million people died,” evolutionary biologist David Wagner told NPR.

Though the pandemic predated the Black Plague by 800 years, the team wrote in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases that the two plagues not only emerged from China, but both spread from rodents to humans.

“We conclude that the Y pestis lineages that caused the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death 800 years later were independent emergences from rodents into human beings,” they wrote. “These results show that rodent species worldwide represent important reservoirs for the repeated emergence of diverse lineages of Y pestis into human populations.”

The team’s research was boosted in March 2013, after the discovery of a mass burial site in Munich, Germany, that dated back to Justinian’s reign.

“In this particular case, we examined material from two different victims,” Wagner told NPR. “One of those victims was buried together with another adult and a child, so it’s presumed that they all may have died of the plague at the same time.”

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« Reply #11614 on: Jan 30, 2014, 07:50 AM »

Proof of prehistorical sexual encounters: Fifth of Neanderthals’ genetic code lives on in humans

By Ian Sample, The Guardian
Wednesday, January 29, 2014 14:17 EST

The last of the Neanderthals may have died out tens of thousands of years ago, but large stretches of their genetic code live on in people today.

Though many of us can claim only a handful of Neanderthal genes, when added together, the human population carries more than a fifth of the archaic human’s DNA, researchers found.

The finding means that scientists can study about 20% of the Neanderthal genome without having to prise the genetic material from fragile and ancient fossils.

The Neanderthal traces in our genetic makeup are the lasting legacy of sexual encounters between our direct ancestors and the Neanderthals they met when they walked out of Africa and into Eurasia about 65,000 years ago.

The populations of both groups were likely so small that interbreeding was a rare event, but the benefits of some Neanderthal genes were so great that they spread through the population and linger on in modern non-Africans today.

Benjamin Vernot and Joshua Akey at the University of Washington in Seattle sequenced the genomes of more than 600 people from Europe and eastern Asia. They then used a computer analysis to find gene variants that bore all the hallmarks of having come from Neanderthals.

To see whether the technique worked, they checked the genes against the official Neanderthal genome, which was sequenced from fossil remnants in 2010 by researchers in Germany.

The researchers found that while most non-Africans carried 1 to 3% Neanderthal DNA, the total amount in modern humans reached about 20%. “Although Neanderthals are extinct, there’s still a lot of genetic information about them floating around, in our own genomes. It’s not necessarily useful in that it will cure cancer, but it helps us to learn about our history,” Vernot told the Guardian. Details of the study are reported in Science.

The researchers now believe that even deeper mining of modern genomes could help to find genetic traces of other archaic humans.

In a separate study published in Nature, David Reich at Harvard University looked for Neanderthal genes in the DNA of more than 1,000 living people. He found that the Neanderthals left a mark in distinct regions of the modern human genome, but in others left no trace at all.

Many of the Neanderthal genes that live on in people today are involved in making keratin, a protein used in skin, hair and nails. Reich speculates that modern humans may have picked up Neanderthal genes that were better suited to the cold environment, perhaps because they produced more or thicker hair, or tougher skin.

More striking was that humans are missing Neanderthal DNA from many other regions of their genomes, which suggests that evolution steadily stripped the archaic DNA out until it vanished all together.

Reich found that hardly any Neanderthal genes were expressed in modern men’s testes, and that the X chromosome was almost completely devoid of Neanderthal DNA. That would happen if males with Neanderthal and modern human parents were infertile, because the males would never get to pass on their single Neanderthal X chromosome.

“When Neanderthals and modern humans interbred they were actually at the edge of biological compatibility. They did interbreed, and Neanderthals left an important biological trace in modern humans, but nevertheless, the population had to sort out some problems afterwards, because certain Neanderthal variants led to reduced male fertility,” said Reich. The finding suggests that most Neanderthal DNA found in humans today was passed down from females.

“Anything related to maleness in the Neanderthal has been purged from our genomes,” said Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London. “Neanderthal DNA has come down to us today, but that transmission was mainly through the female line, because the males would have been significantly less fertile, and possibly even sterile.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014


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« Reply #11615 on: Jan 30, 2014, 07:52 AM »

Stem cell discovery could eliminate need for embryo research and usher in human cloning

By Travis Gettys
RawStory
Wednesday, January 29, 2014 15:05 EST

Any cell can be rewound to a pre-embryonic state, according to stem cell researchers.

Scientists in Japan and at Harvard said they found that stem cells, which can transform into any tissue and potentially regenerate the body, could be quickly made by dipping blood cells into an acid bath or under other physical pressure.

The research, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, was conducted on mice, but if the results can be repeated in humans, disease treatment and physical healing could be revolutionized.

“The age of personalized medicine would have finally arrived,” said Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College in London.

Biologists had previously believed that mature cells serve specific roles and cannot change back into an immature state, but the new research suggests that any mature cell can be transformed into a stem cell.

Nobel Prize-winning research has also showed that skin cells could be genetically reprogrammed to become stem cells.

In the first few days after conception, all embryonic cells are stem cells that can turn into any cell in the body, but as fetuses develop, they transform into cells with specific functions.

Embryonic stem cell research is ethically fraught because it usually involves the destruction of days-old embryos after cells are removed, and 1996 legislation prohibits taxpayer funding in the U.S.

The new technique for generating stem cells could sidestep that ethical and funding barrier, in addition to being potentially quicker and cheaper.

These cells could also potentially be used to create human clones, researchers said, because the cells appear to be totipotent, which is an even earlier and more flexible state than the embryonic stem cells that had been previously available to researchers.

Totipotent cells have only undergone the first couple of cell divisions after fertilizations and are able to form an embryo and placenta.

“The implication is that you can very easily, from a drop of blood and simple techniques, create a perfect identical twin,” said Charles Vacanti at Harvard Medical School, who helped lead the team of researchers.

The U.S. does not specifically prohibit human cloning under federal law, although 15 states and many other nations laws limiting such research.

Vacanti said another researcher grew a cluster of cells from white blood cells that was implanted into a mouse uterus and developed into a fetus, although another scientist on the team said direct cloning had not been attempted.

But if the method could be successfully performed, it would create the world’s first perfect cloned embryo.

All animals cloned previously have been created using nuclear transfer, which replaces DNA from an unfertilized egg with DNA from an adult cell that is stimulated to divide and then implanted into a uterus.

The researchers published their findings this week in two papers, saying they had produced stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP, cells by placing white blood cells under various stressors, including a low-pH, acidic solution for five minutes and five other physical conditions similar to those found in the human body during injury.

The research has so far only been conducted using mice, but Vacanti said he recently created what appears to be STAP cells from human skin cells.

But that research must first be replicated and peer reviewed to be considered valid.

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« Reply #11616 on: Jan 30, 2014, 08:14 AM »

In the USA....United Surveillance America

Al-Qaida faction in Syria contemplating US attack, intelligence officials warn

Senate hears Nusra Front has 'aspirations for attacks on the homeland' amid concern over civil war's terrorism implications

Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Wednesday 29 January 2014 20.17 GMT   
 
Intelligence officials have claimed that a faction linked to al-Qaida in Syria has a desire to launch a domestic attack on the US, an assertion that underscored the growing importance of the Syrian civil war to global terrorism.

The Nusra Front, one of the jihadist factions in Syria that aligns itself with al-Qaida, “does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland”, James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, told the Senate intelligence committee on Wednesday.

Clapper pointed to the deterioration of Syria during three years of violence – a situation he compared to the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) in Pakistan that became a haven after the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan for the core leadership of al-Qaida.

“What’s going on there, may be in some respects a new FATA force ... and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very worrisome,” Clapper said.

Clapper did not discuss the capabilities of the Nusra Front, which pledged loyalty to al-Qaida in April, nor another al-Qaida-centric organization in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has recently emerged as a rival to Nusra. Neither faction has yet shown interest in attacks on the US, focusing their violence on the Bashar al-Assad regime, rival Syrian rebels, and neighboring Lebanon and Iraq.

But Clapper estimated there were more than 7,000 foreigners fighting in the Syrian carnage, coming from 50 countries, “many of them from Europe and the Mideast”. Clapper stopped short of warning that Americans were a significant component of Syrian jihadist groups, the subject of considerable speculation as Syria’s civil war has dragged on.

Clapper said approximately 26,000 Syrian combatants could be classified as “extremists”, out of an estimated 75,000 to 110,000 armed opponents of Assad. An anonymous Israeli intelligence officer recently estimated to the Associated Press that al-Qaida’s allies in Syria topped 30,000.

US intelligence had picked up indications of “training complexes” within Syria, Clapper said, “to train people to go back to their countries and conduct terrorist acts, so this is a huge concern”.

Yet Clapper, in his prepared testimony for the committee, listed cyber threats and counter-intelligence before focusing on terrorism. Among those threats were leaks from “trusted insiders with the intent to do harm”, an apparent reference to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, whom Clapper excoriated during the hearing.

Al-Qaida’s “locus for operational planning” has dispersed around the world, Clapper said, with “some five different franchises at least in 12 countries” of particular concern, including in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and Syria.

That dispersal is in keeping with a years-long trend in al-Qaida toward decentralization. An academic debate exists among counter-terrorism analysts concerning the control and relevance of the “core al-Qaida”, based in Pakistan, which Clapper called the “ideological center” of the terrorist organization.

Despite the focus on Syria, Clapper said al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based affiliate that twice attempted unsuccessfully to bomb US aircraft in 2009 and 2010, remains the franchise with the strongest interest in attacking the US, with many of the others principally interested in more localized assaults and contests for power.

“Of all the franchises, that’s the one that poses the most immediate threat for a potential attack on the homeland,” Clapper said. “The probability of an attack now, compared to 2001 is, at least to me, is a very hard question to answer, principally because this very dispersion and diffusion of threat.”

Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said it was difficult for the US intelligence agencies – which had a 2013 budget of $67.6bn after congressionally imposed restrictions, according to officially declassified figures – to provide tactical warning of a terrorist attack domestically.

“The nature of the threat has become significantly more geographically spread out, and that challenges the community in collecting the kinds of information that would provide that kind of tactical warning,” Olsen said.

Attacks like the September assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall “using small arms, a small number of individuals, puts a great deal of pressure on us to provide the kind of tactical warning that would save lives under those circumstances”, Olsen said.

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Lessons From SOTU: Democrats Are Mainstream, Republicans Fringe

By Amanda Marcotte
Pandagon
Wednesday, January 29, 2014 11:10 EST

John Boehner can’t exert any control over his party.

Last night’s State of the Union was pretty good. I realize a lot of people felt it was “meh”, but I liked the fact that it wasn’t dilly-dallying and President Obama laid forth a bunch of goals for himself that are achievable. And, of course, a bunch of goals for Congress that are unachievable because House Republicans are a bunch of layabouts whose sole interests are banning abortion and hoping that the one millionth time they repeal the ACA will be the one that sticks. That’s an important thing to highlight. The public needs to understand that Republicans are lazy and worthless and that they’re actually kind of proud of it.

I think the President’s points all felt very obvious and mainstream for two major reasons: 1) The country has shifted left on economic issues in recent years, largely due to the recession. That’s no big surprise, and a similar thing happened during the Great Depression. Nothing like watching the middle class wither away and economic insecurity become the mainstream for people to stop spitting on poor people, as they are in very real danger of becoming poor people themselves. It’s a real life version of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance. 2) The Republicans have become so extremist that even the most ordinary, mainstream ideas—such as the idea that a person who works full-time should not live in poverty—have become strongly identified as partisan ideas. As Brian Beutler pointed out in Salon:

    Intentionally or otherwise, Obama’s speech was a reminder to Democrats that the storm clouds of Obamacare implementation have obscured their view of the popular platform the party ran on so confidently in 2012. That there are a series of issues that animate Democratic constituencies on the docket, both ahead of 2014 and beyond, and all of them are political and substantive winners for the party.

All the Republicans can do, really, is try to conceal what they really stand for. There was a lot of that going on last night, with them disingenuously applauding things like pay equity and the right to vote, even though Republicans have been pretty active in fighting both, especially the latter. Not that there’s anything new about the Republican strategy to win elections  by simply lying about where you stand, of course, but it’s becoming increasingly untenable for them as their base, hyped up by their internet-enabled ability to express themselves, are increasingly demanding more public right wing posturing to go along with the right wing policy.

You saw that problem on full display with the many and varied “responses” that were given. The official one, by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, was mostly fluff with the only serious aspect being her signaling that Republicans fully intend to continue with their single-minded obsession with rolling back reproductive rights. But even that was in coded language, bland platitudes about how much she loves life that are scripted so as to imply that Republicans have nothing more serious in mind than congratulating mothers for being awesome, instead of the real plan to force childbirth on the unwilling. The fact that other Republicans felt that wasn’t enough was telling. They can’t help but undermine themselves. Pandering to the right means giving up votes, but at a certain point, they clearly don’t care anymore.

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President’s State of the Union Speech Strikes Most of the Chords Dems Were Waiting For

By: Dennis S
PoliticusUSA
Wednesday, January, 29th, 2014, 6:21 pm

I watched President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night. I was one of the 15% who did in my area of South Carolina. That is if you believe the Tuesday local paper poll question responses. Readers were asked “Will you watch President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night?” As I wrote, 15% allowed as to how they would. That leaves 85% with more important things to watch. While the president was speaking, viewers had the option of the latest vapid mind candy on ‘E’, something about rich kids, or Bravo’s the “Shahs of Sunset” a show of contrived stereotypes that couldn’t be more insulting to Islam.

How about diving deeper into the cable pool for DSC’s “Moonshiners” or the oddest show on all of television, “Dance Moms” on Lifetime. Yep, plenty of fare infinitely more important that the present and future of America.

Then there was the predicted local reaction to this truly inspiring speech. Some cartoon, ‘er cartoonist named Summers, who plies his ink-stink from the Orlando Sentinel and let’s the Tribune Content Agency spread it throughout media land, drew a first panel showing the president at the SOTU podium stating “I’m willing to work together.” The second panel has him holding out a pen. He asks, “Right?” as the pen responds “RIGHT!” The reference is obviously to Barack Obama finally taking Executive Order leadership into his hands after years of a kindergarten Congress refusing to entertain any Democratic initiatives. Of course, at least 85% of the local population will nod their heads in enthusiastic affirmation of the message of the cartoon since they know nothing of a speech they didn’t bother to listen to.

The speech was what I would term an intellectual stem-winder. Obama is not an orator in the classic sense of MLK or Bill Clinton or the late Congresswoman and civil rights leader, Barbara Jordan. Even nearly four decades after the fact of her 1976 Democratic Convention Keynote Speech, Representative Jordan’s oration is politically iconic. You can find it all over YouTube.

As for the president, he delivers a different kind of passion; not blood boiling, but mind roiling. Barack Obama stimulates contemplation and deliberation. He’s a craftsman and modulator. He makes few, if any, mistakes. You know by the tenor of his voice when he’s serious and he commands your attention. He was in full command of his speech faculties Tuesday night.

What were these words that were so well crafted? The president started off on a note of accomplishment, steering through the entrepreneur and professions of autoworker, farmer and doctor to highlight recent achievements. He continued with positive facts and figures emerging from his administration in recent months. The overarching message; things are improving and that “The United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.”

He added some pithy and not so subtle barbs aimed at the right-wing House. One of my favorites was, “But the budget compromise should leave us freer to focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crisis.” Fist bump, speechwriters.

Jobs, wages, including an escalating minimum wage and the Middle-class took up a fair amount of the first 20 minutes or so, as well they should have. Barack bragged on some of Michelle’s projects. Funny, The National Enquirer barely had them speaking according to the front-page I saw checking out at the grocery store the other day. It was at this point that Obama made his first mention of veterans in lauding his wife’s and Jill Bidens co-venture called “The Joining Forces” alliance that asks employers to train and hire 400,000 veterans and their wives.

It’s a wonderful program and the least we can do for our veterans, especially those military victims of Iraq, a war forced on tens of thousands of young people in their prime, who ended up in Iraq so the likes of Dick Cheney, his oil buddies, bankers and war industry profiteers could build another wing onto their 15,000 square foot houses and add multiple millions to their bottom lines.

Thank the Good Lord that for every opportunistic numbskull, there’s a genuine, courageous and honest hero. Tuesday night that hero was somebody most of America had never heard of. He was a Ranger, Army Sergeant First Class, Corey Remsburg. Sgt. Remsburg had deployed to Afghanistan 10 (TEN) times. A roadside bomb left him in a coma for months with shrapnel in his brain. The president told of dozens of surgeries and hours of grueling rehab for Remsburg. He remains blind in one eye and has problems with his left side.

The most striking characteristic I noticed about the Sergeant was that while others clapped when particularly approving of a presidential statement, Corey pounded his chest in Tarzan fashion with the flat palm of his right hand to show his agreement. Clapping is one of the first things humans do as babies. This adult male can’t do what babies can do.

I love Corey Remsburg for his sacrifice and every serviceman and woman like him, whether severely injured or untouched. Only in the most extreme of threatening circumstances should we send any fellow American in harm’s way. Initially, Afghanistan seemed legit. Osama bin Laden was hiding out there as were other identified terrorists. But bin Laden is now dead. The Taliban will never be totally exterminated and graft and poppies rule the day, starting at the very top. There’s no reason to sacrifice even one more Corey Remsburg to our national ego and Halliburton.

Overall, Obama spent a lot of time defending America’s foreign policy. And things are getting better. I would have liked to have heard more about women’s issues, though equal pay for equal work was a winner, education and immigration and a word or two about Keystone. Showing his continued fear of the NRA, he gave over a single paragraph to gun violence. He at least mentioned Sandy Hook. Right-wing propaganda has made the sacrifice of 20 children and 6 adults to our insane gun culture an afterthought virtually forgotten as an A rating from the NRA means more to politicians than the lives of little children. That’s the 100% truth. For shame!

I like the new retirement savings idea articulated last night. Treasury savings bonds until a certain amount is saved, then on to IRAs. Works for me. The president also defended voter rights and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He showed where the health insurance market was working and challenged the snickering Republicans in attendance to show the nation if they’ve got something better. They won’t because they don’t. I liked his reference to the ridiculous “40-something” anti-ACA votes in the House.

IMHO, the speech rates an “A.” Now, let’s follow the lead of Sgt. Remsburg. Like the extraordinary man he is, Corey still wants to serve, “My recovery has not been easy,” he says. “Nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy.

So I’ll tell you what, Republicans, you take your narrow-minded cretins like Phil Robertson, we Democrats will welcome the Corey Remsburgs into the fold and flip the red state legislatures and the House of Representatives.

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President Obama Hard At Work Providing Retirement Security For Working Americans

By: Justin Baragona
PoliticusUSA
Wednesday, January, 29th, 2014, 4:19 pm   

On Wednesday, President Obama sent out a memorandum directing the Treasury Department to develop a new retirement savings security for working Americans. The development of the new security is to be finalized by the end of this year so that workers can start contributing into the accounts by 2015. The President also directed Treasury to work with employers and have a pilot program in place within 90 days.

In essence, the President realizes that many Americans are concerned about what will be available to them when they retire. Currently, only about half of working Americans have access to 401(k)s or other employer-sponsored retirement accounts. The other half then need to find other means of putting money aside towards their retirement or rely entirely on Social Security. One option out there is an Individual Retirement Account, or IRA.

However, less than 10% of all workers voluntarily contribute into an IRA. However, if a worker is automatically enrolled in a 401(k) plan through work and can have their contributions deducted directly from their paycheck, the participation rate is extremely high. In fact, around 90% of those workers contribute directly into their retirement accounts. Therefore, the President figured that it would be a great idea for more working Americans to have the opportunity to invest into their retirement savings directly from their pay.

The proposal is more or less an IRA that will have the money directly deposited from an employee’s paycheck. It is not requiring employers that do not currently offer sponsored retirement savings accounts to contribute on their end. Merely, that the employer allow the employee to enroll in this savings account and allow for automatic deductions from the employee’s pay.  Since participation and contributions into workers’ retirement accounts is much greater when automatic enrollment and payroll deduction is available, this plan should allow more Americans to save a lot more money for their golden years.

On top of that. the President has also directed Treasury to make sure that this new retirement savings security has safeguards built in to protect the contributor. One, the principal amount in the account shall stay protected. Therefore, while it will accrue interest over time due to investments, it won’t be subjected to huge losses due to volatility in the stock markets. The principal amount of a worker’s contributions will stay protected even during rough patches in the financial markets.

Second, unlike current IRAs, this security will allow for a low starting deposit and small contributions, as well as the ability to easily access the funds in cases of emergency. In essence, this is to help low-income workers put aside a little bit of money every paycheck to get a start on saving for the future. At the same time, they can have the peace of mind knowing that this money is available to them at anytime.

As we have seen so far in 2014, and what was hammered home in Tuesday night’s State of the Union, the President is pursuing an aggressive strategy to address the needs and concerns of the working and middle class. Measures such as this one shows just how serious he really is.

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President Obama Takes Down Walmart By Giving A Speech at Costco

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Wednesday, January, 29th, 2014, 3:13 pm   

President took a big swipe at Walmart today without ever mentioning them by name. By speaking about everything that Costco is, President Obama pointed out what Walmart isn’t.

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kn2R5mUl7E

The president said,

A hundred years ago, Henry Ford started Ford Motor Company. Model T — you remember all that? Henry Ford realized he could sell more cars if his workers made enough money to buy the cars. He had started this — factories and mass production and all that, but then he realized, if my workers aren’t getting paid, they won’t be able to buy the cars. And then I can’t make a profit and reinvest to hire more workers. But if I pay my workers a good wage, they can buy my product, I make more cars. Ultimately, I’ll make more money, they’ve got more money in their pockets — so it’s a win-win for everybody.

And leaders today, business leaders today, some of them understand this same concept. Costco’s CEO, Craig Jelinek, he understands this. He feels the same way. He knows that Costco is going to do better, all our businesses do better when customers have more money to spend. And listen, Craig is a wonderful guy, but he’s not in this for philanthropy. He’s a businessman. He’s looking at the bottom line. But he sees that if he’s doing right by Costco’s workers, then they can buy that 80-inch TV, too. Right?

Profitable corporations like Costco see higher wages as a smart way to boost productivity and to reduce turnover. So entry-level employees here — stock associates, cashiers — start out at $11.50 an hour. Start at $11.50.

The average hourly wage is more than $20, not including overtime or benefits. And Costco’s commitment to fairness doesn’t stop at the checkout counter; it extends down the supply chain, including to many of the farmworkers who grow the product — the produce that you sell. (Applause.)

Now, what this means is that that Costco has some of the lowest employee turnover in your industry. So you’re not constantly retraining folks because they quit. You got people like Teressa who has been here 27 years — because it’s a company that’s looking out for workers.

And I got to tell you, when I walk around, just — I had a little tour of the produce section, the bakery — you could just tell people feel good about their job and they feel good about the company, and you have a good atmosphere, and the managers and people all take pride in what you do.

Now, folks who work at Costco understand that, but there are a lot of Americans who don’t work somewhere like Costco, and they’re working for wages that don’t go as far as they once did. Today, the minimum wage — the federal minimum wage doesn’t even go as far as it did back in the 1950s. And as the cost of living goes up, the value of the minimum wage goes down over time. Just last year alone, workers earning the minimum wage basically got the equivalent of a $200 pay cut because the minimum wage stayed the same but costs of everything else are going up.

I don’t need to tell you this. You go shopping. So you’re like, mm-hmm. For a typical minimum-wage worker, that’s a month’s worth of groceries. It’s two months of electricity. It’s a big deal to a lot of families.

Peter Deier, an E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, Occidental College, explained why President Obama chose Costco as the venue for his speech, “Why Costco and not Walmart, which is a much bigger and better-known discount retailer? The answer is that Costco’s labor practices help reduce income inequality while Walmart’s labor practices widen it. Yes, Walmart is better-known, but what it’s known for is low wages and abusive labor practices….When Americans think of the phrase “working poor,” they think of Walmart. Many of its employees make so little that they are eligible for food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies. America’s taxpayers are subsidizing Walmart’s poverty-wage labor practices to the tune of billions of dollars. The company’s low-wage business model contributes to its stocking problems, the low customer service ratings, and the retailer’s current decline in sales. Not only do Costco workers earn much more than their Walmart counterparts, but Costco’s CEO makes considerably less than Walmart’s CEO. So while Costco helps narrow the gap between the rich and the rest, Walmart widens it.”

President Obama was sending a not so subtle message to the corporate giant that is most responsible for income inequality in this country. The point of the president’s speech at Costco was that it is more than possible for a company to both pay a living wage and be profitable.

Costco proves both the Republican Party and Walmart wrong. A company can pay its employees well and be successful. Republicans always frame any proposed increase in the minimum wage as a choice between paying employees well and jobs. Even though research shows that increasing the minimum wage does not cause employers to layoff workers, Republicans still stick to this tired old talking point.

By highlighting what Costco does right, Obama was taking a shot at Walmart and all of the other retail and service industry giants who oppose raising the minimum wage. Costco should be the norm, not the exception. President Obama’s speech was a not so subtle reminder to the country of the damage that Walmart is doing to us all.

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Sarah Palin Disrespects President Obama with Jealous, Racist SOTU Rant

By: Sarah Jones
PoliticusUSA
Wednesday,
January, 29th, 2014, 12:37 pm

Sarah Palin was very busy last night. Too busy and important to watch the State of the Union, but she did catch it on her “truck radio” and she’s very concerned about that man in the White House. He’s arrogant and dangerously full of hubris. He dared to act like a President and use presidential powers. Something must be done!

She warned her flock on Facebook today, “We the People” don’t have to be “We the Sheeple” and just get shepherded towards a fundamental transformation that’s against America’s will.” To remedy this horrible, big government intrusion, she says we can elect more Republicans this November. Because if anyone knows how to do nothing while getting paid a lot of money for it and using taxpayer funded health insurance, it’s the GOP.

Yes, Ms. Palin did not watch “the fantasy declaration of ‘utopia’s-on-its-way’”, which is good, because I’m beginning to suspect that she allergic to hope and optimism, so certainly utopia is out.

Listening on her truck radio, she heard what she “forebodingly anticipated.” She was alarmed by the President’s hubris, “But the extreme hubris and naïveté that emanated from that speech was something new and alarming.” It’s as if he is President or something. Uppity Obama.

Palin cited Ronald Reagan and claimed that Obama’s speech “confirms we need rescuing from government like never before.” Who’s gonna rescue us from the “government”? Governmental employees like Republicans. Don’t try to work this out in your head. It works on a bumper sticker and that’s all that matters.

Apparently, Ms. Palin, who had health insurance via her husband’s union at one point and certainly as a governor, even if she did quit, lost her health insurance because of affordable health insurance being made available to everyone else. I think you know who wins in this case, and it’s not you. “In an attempt to “fix” our health care system, government has taken away our health insurance and forced us to buy worse plans we don’t want and can’t afford.”

She worried about the deficit but never mentioned the 24 billion dollars her tea party doppelgänger Republican Senator Ted Cruz cost the country with his shutdown over nothing. And while she hates green energy (she was the most socialist governor in America by the way – she pushed for oil companies to pay citizens for the privilege of using their land), nothing gets her down like amnesty. Obama amnesty.

    Speaking of which, while claiming to be concerned with job creation for American workers, our government is trying to ram through amnesty, which will result in a flood of foreign workers competing with Americans for the few jobs there are.

Fear! I tell you fear! They’re coming for your stuff! VOTE GOP in 2014 because they already have your stuff and they want to keep it. They don’t want you getting a piece of the pie before some “foreign worker” comes in to snatch it from you, so it’s best if you just don’t have health insurance at all, and it’s best if Republicans keep obstructing job bills.

Palin is very hot under the collar about Obama’s “arrogance” and “hubris”, which she mentioned yet again in her clearly not over her 2008 defeat tome, “Between the hubris of an executive branch governing by fiat, to the arrogance of believing it can spy on citizens’ communications and unleash the IRS to harass people who happen to disagree with the President, it’s now more important than ever for us to press in and pay attention.”

Yes, pay attention! The IRS investigated liberals and conservatives, but if we ignore the facts, we can feel really scared and sorry for ourselves, which is always a bonus in Palin world. This is leading up to an implied request for money. Are you scared enough yet? (Please don’t ask about Republicans wanting the IRS to investigate rape victims, because we are on a one-way ticket to utopia here and reality does not apply.)

    Why? Because we’re obviously on a dangerous path, but “We the People” don’t have to be “We the Sheeple” and just get shepherded towards a fundamental transformation that’s against America’s will.

You are being manipulated by evil, “alarmingly” “dangerous” Obama. Glenn Beck, is that you?

    Understand the way words are manipulated by politicians who practice to deceive, so that we can DO something about it. For instance, proving he’s immune to irony, the President used the phrase “fairness and equality under the law” at the end of last night’s address. This is the same President who has been arbitrarily amending his signature legislation, Obamacare, practically every other day to give breaks to his cronies and leave the rest of us without “connections” out in the cold. I guess some of us are less fair and equal under Obama’s laws.

Oh, God yes, if anyone is without connections, it’s Sarah Palin and her new TV show, her Fox gig, her PAC, and her standing as a person of importance in the Republican Party in spite of having quit on Alaska mid term in order to pursue reality TV appearances and make some cold hard cash. Sparkly flags and God, please donate.

The last thing we need is “big government”, so send Republicans to DC:

    The last thing we need right now is more “help” from big government. In this mid-term year, we need to send new leadership to D.C. to get government back on our side and off our aching backs.

    Thankfully, November is just around the corner.

Now you know what to do. There’s a nice little button going to SarahPAC at the top of the page. Donate to her so she can keep the cash in her PAC, which allows her to send Republicans to DC because it frees her up to write things like this on Facebook.

Arrogant Obama needs to stop acting like he was elected, stop using that executive power, which he uses much less than Bush, but Bush was President so… Obama needs to stop being so “arrogant” by acting like a president. It burns. The jealousy is palpable.

Many say Sarah Palin is a has-been and irrelevant, but she perfectly embodies the problems of the modern day GOP. She is all hot rage and vague fear tactics, lots of accusations steeped in not so veiled southern strategy and no solutions, and most troubling of all, there is zero consistency in the policy positions. You can’t fear monger about big government while you try to use the IRS to harass rape victims. Sarah Palin is all bitter Obama hate and nothing else. Just like the entire modern day Republican Party.

Go ahead, laugh, because ultimately, this is what is behind every Republican politician right now. They are all Sarah Palin, some of them just manage to hide it better. They are the party of spoiled children who do nothing but point fingers at others and call names. That is their only contribution, and for that, they expect to be paid by you.

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How Pressure Mounted for Development in Hoboken

By PATRICK McGEEHAN and CHARLES V BAGLI
JAN. 29, 2014   
NYT

HOBOKEN, N.J. — Last May 8, a severe rainstorm left the streets of this city flooded once again, causing the mayor, Dawn Zimmer, to recall the inundation from Hurricane Sandy.

So she dashed off a letter to Gov. Chris Christie, imploring him to help with Hoboken’s “ongoing flooding emergency,” and attached photos of cars in water up to their hoods. She was due to meet the next day with officials of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, when she hoped to talk about protecting Hoboken from the next catastrophic deluge to come.

But according to newly obtained emails sent among the participants, the first topic of discussion on the agenda was “review of concepts for flood control measures at Rockefeller property,” a reference to a billion-dollar office complex proposed at the north end of town. The developer, the Rockefeller Group, which had long been trying to gain approval from local officials, sent two executives, two lobbyists and an engineer to the meeting.

Mayor Zimmer, through a spokesman, said on Wednesday that she went to the meeting but refused to discuss the project, feeling it was premature to do so.

The next day, the mayor has said, she received a call telling her that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno would visit Hoboken the following Monday. Ms. Zimmer, a Democrat, has alleged that during that visit, while in the parking lot of a Shop-Rite supermarket, Ms. Guadagno, like the governor a Republican, told her that the Rockefeller project was important to Mr. Christie and that the mayor needed to “move forward” with it if she wanted Hoboken to receive the flood protection money being distributed in the wake of the hurricane.

The Christie administration has denied ever linking the Rockefeller project to hurricane relief, an accusation that is now under federal investigation.

But whatever the outcome of the inquiries, the emails and interviews make clear that the development-wary mayor was coming under increasing and repeated pressure from politically connected lawyers working for Rockefeller Group and from the Christie administration.

The company had laid out about $100 million to buy up property in a forsaken section of town littered with bus lots and long-dormant factories, property that was zoned for low-slung industrial buildings but blessed with a stunning view of Manhattan. Though the plans have never been made public, in discussions with local officials they described a project that would dwarf anything that Hoboken had ever seen.

Following a well-worn playbook, they hired lawyers and lobbyists with connections to the leadership of both parties. State officials, beginning with the administration of Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, have come through for the company with money and support. Just last June, the state’s mass transit agency reached a nonbinding agreement with the company for the construction of a light rail station near its property.

Rockefeller Group had every reason to expect that local officials would come through, too. For years, Hoboken was known as development-friendly, a financially stressed city happy to move beyond the old image of a dockworkers’ ghetto immortalized by Elia Kazan in “On the Waterfront.”

But Hoboken took a sharp turn when it elected Ms. Zimmer mayor in 2009. She had entered local politics primarily because she thought Hoboken needed more parks. She joined the City Council during the second term of David Roberts, who as mayor welcomed development and encouraged the construction of the 25-story W Hotel that is still Hoboken’s tallest building.

After granting several interviews last week, Ms. Zimmer stopped speaking publicly about the issue, saying federal investigators had asked her not to. On Wednesday, a spokesman for Mr. Christie provided the dates of five meetings Ms. Zimmer had with state officials over the past year in which they discussed how the state could help Hoboken recover from the hurricane. The spokesman, Colin Reed, also noted that the mayor had asked Rockefeller engineers to come up with ideas to protect the city from major storms, and in her January 2013 State of the City speech, she thanked them for doing so.

The Christie administration also has questioned the timing of her accusations, which came eight months after the Guadagno meeting, and just days after evidence surfaced that the governor’s aides had created a huge traffic jam in Fort Lee to punish its mayor. That episode, too, is under federal investigation.

City’s North End

A wave of residential development and the long decline of manufacturing had already swept away much of Hoboken’s industrial past, including a shipyard and the factories that produced Stahl Soap, Lipton Tea, Maxwell House coffee and Tootsie Rolls.

Rockefeller Group, a national developer, began prowling Hoboken for construction sites in 2007. (The company built Rockefeller Center, but has not had a relationship with the Rockefeller family since the late 1980s.)

At the northern end of Hoboken, not far from the mouth of the always congested Lincoln Tunnel, Leslie E. Smith Jr., Rockefeller Group’s executive vice president overseeing development in the region, envisioned a vast, $1.1 billion complex that included a 40-story office tower, 300 condominiums and parking for 1,400 cars. Another developer, Larry Bijou, had spent two years and upward of $70 million buying land in the north end, for a residential and retail development of 14-story buildings.

By late 2007, with the economy starting to flag, Mr. Bijou agreed to sell most of the property — roughly 4.9 acres on three adjoining blocks — to Rockefeller Group, for about $100 million.

Mr. Roberts, the mayor, did not dismiss Rockefeller Group’s concept out of hand. There was, after all, the promise of 5,000 jobs and millions of dollars in state and local taxes. But he had questions about putting a large office complex on the north side of Hoboken, instead of closer to the city’s transit hub at the south end.

Mr. Roberts said in a recent interview that he needed “more convincing that it could work, and more discussion about mass transit.”

The next mayor, Peter J. Cammarano III, seemed enthusiastic about the project, but he resigned after 31 days in office, after he was caught accepting a $25,000 bribe from an F.B.I. cooperating witness who was posing as a developer.

The Rockefeller investment was a risky proposition from the start. There were no indications of what zoning changes the Council would allow in Hoboken, where a 14-story building is considered a high-rise, and many residents wanted to retain the relatively low-scale character of the city.

According to people who know him, Mr. Smith presumed that the company, with its resources and connections, could overcome any obstacles and get the project approved within two years.

In a statement on Wednesday, Mr. Smith said: “The north end of the city presented an excellent opportunity for commercial development and infrastructure improvements that would benefit all of Hoboken. We feel our project will make a positive contribution to employment opportunities, new amenities and future tax revenues for the city.”

In 2007, Rockefeller Group hired Wolff & Samson, a law firm with deep ties to New Jersey’s Republican leaders, to handle environmental issues. The company hired DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole, a firm with Democratic connections, to handle land use issues, and the Hoboken Strategy Group, run by a former vice chairman of the Hudson County Democratic organization, to lobby local officials.

Ms. Zimmer became mayor in 2009, promising more transparency in dealing with developers and better planning for the city’s future.

“It was a political sea change in Hoboken,” said Thomas W. Newman, a cabinetmaker and former councilman. “Part of the machine-style politics of the past was making deals with the developers.”

Ms. Zimmer kept the developer and their lobbyists at arms’ length, saying she did not want to deal with a single project before she had conducted a planning study for the entire north end. But there was never any money in the city budget for the study.

If the Rockefeller Group could not gain much traction with local officials, they were doing better with the Corzine administration. In 2009, the state’s Economic Development Authority approved reimbursing Rockefeller Group up to $750,000 for the removal of contaminated soil and underground storage tanks and monitoring groundwater contamination.

Efforts on the state level accelerated after the election of Mr. Christie as governor in late 2009. Mr. Christie, like most governors, has been eager for new developments and uses them to lure companies to New Jersey.

He also is close to David Samson, a Wolff & Samson founder whom the governor would name as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in October 2010, a connection that Ms. Zimmer and her supporters have highlighted. The firm said in a statement that its work for Rockefeller Group was “appropriate in all respects.”

The company suggested that the mayor seek money for a planning study from the Port Authority, which sets aside some of its revenue from tolls and airport fees for local economic development projects. Bill Baroni, a former state senator and Christie appointee at the Port Authority, authorized up to $75,000 for the study. Mr. Baroni, who emails indicated was involved in the Fort Lee lane closings, has resigned from the Port Authority.

Slow Progress

The study dragged on for two years, delayed partly because of the hurricane. Four years after buying the Hoboken parcels, Rockefeller Group still had no certainty that it could build a large-scale project, so it asked Wolff & Samson to expand its work with the Christie administration in early 2012, two executives involved with the project say.

When the study, conducted by a planning firm based in Trenton, was finally completed in early 2013, it concluded that out of 19 north end blocks, only the three Rockefeller Group blocks qualified for redevelopment. That recommendation, if ratified by the city, would have given Rockefeller tax breaks for up to 30 years.

The group believed that the slow gears of City Hall were finally moving. It demolished buildings in danger of collapse, including the old Tootsie Roll factory, later used by Macy’s to store its Thanksgiving Day parade floats. The company also thought the mayor was warming to it, especially after her State of the City speech.

A few months later, the company struck a memorandum of understanding with New Jersey Transit to build a light rail stop near their property. Transportation planners have long said a station would someday be needed there, but for Rockefeller Group, which would pay part of the costs, it made the project more attractive to tenants. A spokesman for the mayor said that Ms. Zimmer was not apprised of the agreement. A transit agency spokesman declined to discuss it.

By the mayor’s accounting, the pressure really began last spring. In an April email, Hoboken’s planning lawyer wrote that Mr. Samson and Lori Grifa, a lobbyist from his firm and a former member of Mr. Christie’s cabinet, wanted to meet with him. The planning lawyer wrote that he was “getting the full court press on this.”

Later that month, Hoboken officials discovered that Ms. Grifa was going to be in attendance at the May 9 meeting in Trenton about flooding. “If this is a meeting between city and state, please explain what role Lori Grifa has in this,” a mayoral aide, Stephen Marks, wrote in an email to one of Ms. Grifa’s colleagues at Wolff & Samson.

“Wolff & Samson P.C. and Lori Grifa categorically deny Mayor Zimmer’s allegations relating to this firm’s role in the Rockefeller Group’s redevelopment project,” the firm said in a statement.

The day before that meeting, May 8, Ms. Zimmer wrote her letter to Mr. Christie: “I have tried to assure Hoboken residents that Hoboken would be treated fairly because you have always treated Hoboken fairly in the past.”

That was also the day that the planning board met to vote on whether to accept the redevelopment study. As it turned out, Rockefeller might have inadvertently hurt its own bottom line. The planner who did the study, Michael Sullivan, told the board that after the demolitions, two of the three Rockefeller blocks would no longer qualify as redevelopment property under New Jersey guidelines. With that, the planning board voted to designate the entire north end a “rehabilitation” area, allowing for much smaller tax breaks.

Rockefeller Group said the decision made no difference; the zoning change it needed was still possible.

Accusations and Denials

The conversation between Ms. Zimmer and Ms. Guadagno occurred the following Monday. She has said Ms. Zimmer’s version of their talk is “not only false, but is illogical.”

In the fall, the governor’s office called Ms. Zimmer’s office to set up a meeting with two state officials: Marc Ferzan, who oversees New Jersey’s hurricane recovery and rebuilding efforts, and Michele Brown, who oversees economic development. To the mayor’s office, the meeting, which was postponed, was another example of the Christie administration’s tying hurricane aid to the Rockefeller project.

Mr. Reed, the governor’s spokesman, said that was a mischaracterization. “It’s common practice for members of the Christie administration to jointly meet with officials from Sandy-impacted communities across New Jersey,” he said, noting that Ms. Brown’s agency also has a major role in distributing hurricane relief money.

Ms. Zimmer has also alleged that, in a separate meeting in December, Mr. Ferzan linked Hoboken’s prospects for receiving aid to her appetite for development. A spokesman for the governor said that Mr. Ferzan denied drawing any such connection.

Privately, representatives of Rockefeller Group say they were taken aback by the mayor’s accusations, especially after their cooperation with the city on flood planning. And just a few days before she first discussed her meeting with Ms. Guadagno, on Jan. 18 on MSNBC, Ms. Zimmer met with company representatives in her office. They presented their latest plans, scaled back to 1.5 million square feet of office space, down from 1.8 million, with a possible future apartment building and no buildings taller than the W Hotel.

Last week, the mayor invited the public to view plans for protecting Hoboken from floods should it get the necessary funding. City officials said it was merely a set of ideas, not concrete plans.

But the Rockefeller Group representatives could not help thinking that the proposal was sending a message. In the drawings, one of the company’s three blocks had become a retention pond.

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Former lawyer for Christie takes helm of ethics watchdog agency

nj.com
on January 29, 2014 at 7:38 PM, updated January 30, 2014 at 7:51 AM

TRENTON — A former lawyer for Gov. Chris Christie has been installed as executive director of the state's ethics watchdog agency as his top aides face a series of allegations that they abused their power for political purposes.

As a result, Susana E. Guerrero, an in-house lawyer for the Republican governor from 2010 to 2012, will oversee the investigations of any ethics complaints or potential conflicts of interest concerning her former colleagues. She was appointed Tuesday.

The appointment led one former Democratic governor to question whether Guerrero should be the top ethics cop in Trenton, potentially investigating the same people she worked with for years.

Guerrero, 41, began her career at the law firm Dughi, Hewit & Palatucci, working with one of Christie's closest political advisers, Bill Palatucci, then a partner at the firm, and briefly crossed paths with Christie while he was a lobbyist there in the early 2000s. Most recently, she was a top deputy to state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.

State lawmakers, U.S. senators and the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, are all investigating what role Christie aides and associates played in closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September, causing a huge traffic jam in Fort Lee that many Democrats say was political payback for the borough's mayor.

Separately, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer has alleged that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and two other members of Christie's cabinet pressured her to approve a real estate development in exchange for Hurricane Sandy relief funds.

Andrew S. Berns, a Republican lawyer appointed by Christie as chairman of the Ethics Commission, said five of the seven commissioners met Tuesday and approved Guerrero unanimously after reviewing her resume and qualifications.

Berns said the commissioners did not debate whether her close ties to the administration or past work with Christie in private practice should disqualify her from the position.

"She's extremely well qualified and it wasn't a concern of ours," Berns said. "It's just not something that we consider. The people are very committed to evaluating each case on a case-by-case basis."

While the governor has the power to appoint all the commissioners to the independent ethics agency, Christie's predecessors refrained from recommending executive directors.

Berns said since he became chairman in 2010, the commission has appointed two directors recommended by the governor's office.

The previous one, Peter Tober, was also an in-house lawyer for Christie before he took the ethics job, Berns said. Tober left this month after winning confirmation to a state Superior Court judgeship.

"I would say that he was qualified, objective and handled the office as well as I could have expected," Berns said of Tober. "I have never noticed one way or the other any political bent. I assume that if complaints come to us, they will be dealt with in the same way."

But state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), who toughened New Jersey's ethics laws as governor after the resignation of Gov. Jim McGreevey, said Christie's office should not be recommending candidates to lead independent agencies such as the Ethics Commission. Before Christie, the commissioners themselves would find and interview candidates for the top job.

"You want someone who is independent of politics," said Codey. "I'm not criticizng the person, but it sends the wrong signal."

Records show Guerrero is a registered Democrat.

A spokesman for Christie, Kevin Roberts, defended the selection.

"Ms. Guerrero is widely respected across state government as a legal professional and public servant," Roberts said in an email today. "She was not only nominated by a Democrat, but received a unanimous vote of approval by the bipartisan membership of the Ethics Commission."


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« Reply #11617 on: Jan 31, 2014, 06:14 AM »

Ukraine Army Calls on President to Take 'Urgent Steps' to Ease Crisis

by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 11:30

Ukraine's army on Friday called on embattled President Viktor Yanukovych to take "urgent steps" to ease the political crisis in the ex-Soviet country.

"Laying out their civil position, servicemen and employees of Ukraine's armed forces... called on the commander-in-chief to take urgent steps within the limits of existing legislation with a view to stabilizing the situation in the country and reaching consent in society," a statement from the defense ministry said.

***********

Missing Ukrainian Activist Found after Torture Ordeal

by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 11:20

A Ukrainian opposition activist who went missing more than a week ago has been found badly beaten, saying his captors cut off his ear and drove nails through his hands.

Dmytro Bulatov, a 35-year-old activist from the Avtomaidan group that organised protests against President Viktor Yanukovych, stumbled into a village outside Kiev more than a week after his wife first reported him missing.

Speaking with Channel 5 television on Friday, Bulatov said his captors blindfolded and tortured him before dumping him in a forest.

"My hands... they crucified me, nailed me, cut my ear off, cut my face," said Bulatov, his face swollen and covered in caked blood. "Thank God I am alive."

"I can't see well now, because I sat in darkness the whole time," he said, still wearing his blood-stained clothes.

The activist was eventually able to make contact with his friends after wandering through the forest to the nearest village, a fellow activist identified only as Yuriy told Channel 5.

"He's alive! All of these days he was tortured, cut, crucified," opposition MP Anatoliy Grytsenko wrote on his Facebook page after speaking with Bulatov.

Bulatov disappeared and stopped picking up his cell phone on January 22 as the two-month protests in Ukraine escalated into deadly clashes with police.

His disappearance caused great concern because it followed other cases of apparent kidnappings of prominent activists from the opposition protests in central Kiev.

One of the activists, Yuriy Verbytsky, was found dead in the forest while another, Igor Lutsenko, survived a severe beating and was hospitalized.

Avtomaidan is a loose group of drivers who have organised protest motorcades near Yanukovych's sprawling country estate in Mezhygirya outside Kiev.

Its members have come under immense pressure from the authorities and some of its members have gone into hiding or left the country.

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U.S. Ups Pressure on Ukraine Leader with Planned Kerry Talks

by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 07:07

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Ukrainian opposition leaders for the first time on Saturday in a major show of support for pro-democracy protesters locked in a deadly two-month stand-off with President Viktor Yanukovych.

Among those slated to hold talks with the top U.S. diplomat on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference are former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who leads the UDAR (Punch) party, and opposition politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

The announcement from senior U.S. officials came hours after Yanukovych savaged the "irresponsible" opposition for inflaming tensions after he unexpectedly went on sick leave with no end in sight to the turmoil.

The street rallies first erupted when the president backed out of a key pact with the European Union in November in favor of closer ties with Moscow. The unrest has since spiraled into an uprising seeking the president's removal.

The opposition has refused to abandon the protests despite a string of concessions from the government, including a promised amnesty for jailed demonstrators.

Kerry kept up pressure on Yanukovych by holding a conference call with top opposition leaders, while the US administration said it was consulting with Congress about possible sanctions on Ukraine.

"We've been cautiously optimistic that this dialogue between the government and the opposition is beginning to bear fruit," a senior State Department official said.

"There's the question of whether they can move on to form a government of national unity. So they're coming to Munich in the middle of this negotiating process on what the political compact might look like going forward."

The official spoke just before Kerry's plane left Andrews Air Force Base en route first for Berlin as part of a three-day trip to Germany.

Representatives of the Ukrainian government were also expected to attend the Munich talks, including Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara.

President Yanukovych's sick leave for an acute respiratory infection came after a fraught parliament session on Wednesday night, where he had to personally intervene to prevent a possibly decisive schism in his ruling Regions Party over the amnesty bill.

Hours after the sick leave was announced, Yanukovych issued a defiant statement accusing the opposition of behaving irresponsibly by not calling off the protests.

"The opposition is continuing to inflame the situation and is calling on people to stand in the freezing cold due to the political ambitions of several leaders," he said in a statement on the presidential website.

But in a rare show of contrition, Yanukovych also admitted he needed to take more account of the country's mood.

"From my side, I will show more understanding for the demands and ambitions of people, taking into account the mistakes that authorities always make."

Yanukovych has already yielded some ground to the protesters by accepting the resignations of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and the entire cabinet, as well as allowing the annulment of tough anti-protest laws.

In his conference call with the opposition leaders, Kerry "underscored the United States' unwavering support for the democratic European aspirations of the Ukrainian people and commended these opposition leaders for speaking out against violence", State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

"We're willing to consider sanctions. No decision has been made," she added, after Washington revoked the U.S. visas of several unidentified Ukrainians implicated in violence against the protestors.

Thousands of protesters remain camped out in much of Kiev's city center, including radical activists in balaclavas who are patrolling the barricades with crowbars.

Clashes between protesters and security forces last week left three activists shot dead and turned parts of the capital into a battlefield, in the country's worst unrest since its independence in 1991.

According to prosecutors, four people have died and 234 people have been arrested across Ukraine in the protests. The amnesty would apply to all those detained save those accused of grave crimes.

Ukraine remains mired in deep economic trouble and has accepted a $15 billion bailout from Moscow, though Russia this week warned that further payments will only be released when a new government is named.

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Russia Slams as 'Circus' Kerry Ukraine Opposition Meetings

by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 08:41

Russia on Friday slammed as a "circus" U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's planned weekend meeting with Ukrainian opposition leaders.

The top U.S. diplomat is due to meet former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, leader of the UDAR (Punch) party and opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk on the sidelines of the annual Munich Security Conference on Saturday.

Russia's outspoken Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin called Kerry's upcoming meetings a "circus" in a tweet on Friday.

"It's also necessary to involve Verka Serdyuchka in the talks," he said in apparent sarcasm, referring to Ukraine's bombastic drag queen pop star.

"Her/his authoritative opinion should be heard by the White House and taken into account!"

The crisis in ex-Soviet Ukraine flared in November after President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of a key pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with historical master Moscow.

Russia's President Pig Putin has repeatedly warned against foreign interference in the country's worst crisis since its 1991 independence.

In Munich, Kerry is also expected to meet Ukraine's pop singer Ruslana, who has encouraged protesters to keep up their fight against Yanukovych.

***************

Defiant Yanukovych attacks opposition after sick leave announcement

President defends government's record and accuses opposition of escalating crisis

Oksana Grytsenko in Kiev and Luke Harding   
The Guardian, Thursday 30 January 2014 14.39 GMT   
   
Ukraine's embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych, has accused the opposition of escalating the situation in the country and insisted that his government is doing all it can to solve the crisis.

Yanukovych's defiant statement – released on the presidential website – followed an announcement that he is taking sick leave due to an acute respiratory illness and high fever. There was no indication of how long he might be on leave or whether he would be able to do any work. The chief medical officer said the president was suffering from a "severe cold with a high temperature".

The opposition UDAR party led by Vitali Klitschko responded with a statement saying that the sick leave "gives the impression he is trying to stay aloof from the political crisis rocking the country".

Yanukovych accused the opposition of "continuing to whip up the situation, calling on people to stand in the cold for the sake of the political ambitions of a few leaders". He is under pressure after two months of major protests seeking his resignation, early elections and other demands.

On Tuesday Yanukovych's hardline prime minister, Mykola Azarov, quit in an apparent concession to the opposition. The president has yet to appoint a successor. Azarov's deputy, Serhiy Arbuzov, has taken over as interim PM.

Yanukovych's illness is another unpredictable element in Ukraine's already combustible political drama. His predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, fell dramatically ill in 2004 after apparently being poisoned with dioxin, while standing against Russian-backed Yanukovych in the presidential election.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, Ukraine's parliament passed a law that would grant an amnesty to arrested protesters but – to the opposition's fury – depended on the demonstrators vacating all occupied government buildings. Yanukovych turned up in parliament late on Wednesday evening for the vote, looking pale. He is said to have told supporters that he had been receiving treatment in hospital.

After 12 hours of negotiations the amnesty law was passed amid applause from the ruling party and angry shouts of "shame!" from the opposition.

Over 50 members of Yanukovych's Regions party were willing to approve a milder version of the draft law that would have allowed the unconditional release of protesters arrested during clashes. But the president insisted that the amnesty could only take place if occupied administrative offices were vacated in the 15 days after the new law comes into force. The law passed by 232 votes.

Protesters are holding three administrative buildings in Kiev, including the building housing the city administration. With temperatures in Kiev falling to as low as -20C at night, the buildings are vital for the opposition's ability to continue street protests and maintain pressure on the government.
Ukrainian opposition co-leader Vitali Klitschko speaks at an anti-government rally in Kiev Vitali Klitschko. Photograph: Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA

Yuri Miroshnychenko, Yanukovych's representative in parliament, said the protesters would now have to leave the buildings. But he insisted the opposition headquarters in Trade Union House, as well as Independence Square and Khreschatyk Street, where the protest camp is located, would not be touched.

The offer was quickly greeted with contempt by opposition protesters. Klitschko said the law "will only increase the temperature in society", while Andriy Parubiy of the Batkivshchyna party called the demands unacceptable. "No one will comply with them," he said.

Ukraine's political uprising began more than two months ago as a pro-European movement after Yanukovych rejected an integration pact with the European Union. Instead he accepted a $15bn (£9bn) bailout from Russia. The Kremlin has now said it may fail to pay the loan in full if the government in Kiev changes.

The protests have since spread across much of the country, and have turned into a highly personal campaign to topple Yanukovych. Radical groups clashed with the police last week, with at least three civilians killed. Several dozen opposition activists have disappeared.

Amid an escalation that turned Hrushevskoho Street in the centre of Kiev into a kind of battlefield, officials even mooted imposing a state of emergency in the country.

Parliament has voted to repeal a series of draconian laws hurriedly passed on 16 January, which outlawed freedom of assembly and ushered in – according to critics – a form of dictatorship. Yanukovych has yet to ratify the vote, which means that the punitive laws still stand.

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Ukraine: running out of road

Yanukovych's step back from the frontline at such a pivotal time increases speculation that a power struggle is under way

Editorial   
The Guardian, Thursday 30 January 2014 21.54 GMT          

Turbulent although it has been for more than two months already, Ukraine's political conflict may now have reached a climactic crisis. This week has been marked by a series of significant weakenings of the position of President Viktor Yanukovych: first, by the removal of his hardline prime minister and long-term ally, Mykola Azarov; second, by the Ukrainian parliament's repeal, amid mounting demonstrations in Kiev, of the draconian anti-protest laws brought in two weeks ago; and, third, by the parliamentary amnesty for arrested protesters – which Mr Yanukovych has not yet signed into law.

Now the president has announced that he is taking sick leave. There may be nothing more to this news than meets the eye – although in view of the sinister illness suffered by Mr Yanukovych's predecessor and rival Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 that could be a naive view. Mr Yanukovych's defiant message on his presidential website on Thursday continued to berate the opposition and to insist that his government is intent on solving the crisis. But his step back from the frontline at such a confrontational time inevitably increases speculation that a decisive power struggle is under way and that Mr Yanukovych is closer than ever to being toppled.

Whatever the outcome, Mr Yanukovych cannot possibly succeed in reconstructing the position of power that he has maintained in Ukraine since his election in 2010. Things have gone too far for that and nor should he be permitted to do so. Mr Yanukovych presides, increasingly shakily, over a country that has been bankrupted to a quite tragic extent by a combination of his own corrupt kleptocratic circle, by the billionaire oligarchs who until now have supported him (but who may be about to side with an alternative), and by the persistent interference, including this week's threat to withhold part of the loans it offered in December, of Pig Putin's Russia. The Pig, who sees Ukraine in essentially proprietorial terms, has a lot at stake. As an authoritarian – and unlike the cautious European Union – he also has the will and means to defend it .

Whether Mr Yanukovych has run out of road or not, a tough question faces Ukraine and its neighbours. Is there a stable political process that can allow Ukrainians to make a free choice about their own government and national direction without further internal disorder and without outside – which in practice largely means Russian – interference? It is a big ask, and none of the steps will be easy. Internal Ukrainian politics are more complex and fissiparous than the much-cited pro-Russian or pro-western divide implies. But a path must be agreed towards early elections. And the EU, not just Russia, must remain engaged with and open to Ukraine's many needs.


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« Reply #11618 on: Jan 31, 2014, 06:22 AM »

U.S. Warns Moscow of Concern over Cruise Missile Test

by Naharnet Newsdesk
30 January 2014, 21:51

The United States has raised concerns with Moscow over a reported Russian test of a cruise missile and is evaluating whether it breaks a 1987 treaty, a U.S. official said Thursday.

Washington has raised "the possibility of... a violation," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, amid reports that Russia had tested a new ground-launched cruise missile.

The New York Times said Thursday that Moscow had begun testing the new missile as early as 2008, and that the State Department's senior arms control official Rose Gottemoeller had repeatedly raised the issue with Moscow since May.

Psaki said she could not refute the details of the Times report, and there was an ongoing interagency review to determine whether the Russians had violated the terms of a U.S.-Russian arms control pact.

The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed by then U.S. president Ronald Reagan and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, eliminated nuclear and conventional intermediate range ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles.

"The important note here is that there's still an ongoing review, an interagency review determining if there was a violation," Psaki stressed, adding the consultations had been continuing for some months.

"We do of course take questions about compliance with arms control treaties, including the INF Treaty, very seriously."

A NATO official said "this is a serious matter" adding that the treaty was "a key component of Euro-Atlantic security."

"Compliance with arms control treaties is a fundamental requirement if we are to have more transparency in our dialogue with Russia. NATO allies consult at all times on all matters relevant to their security," the official added.


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« Reply #11619 on: Jan 31, 2014, 06:24 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
01/30/2014 03:51 PM

Benefits for EU Migrants: Brussels Warns Germany against Populism

Interview by Christoph Schult

Officials in Brussels have been highly critical of a German provision that limits access by EU nationals to its unemployment benefits. In an interview, EU Commissioner László Andor criticizes "unscrupulous politicians" seeking to foment populism.

A debate has sprung up in Germany in recent months over a significant uptick in immigration from Romania and Bulgaria. The final limitations on the freedom of movement and access to labor markets in the European Union, which the countries joined in 2007, were lifted in January.

Since the two countries joined the EU, the number of migrants from Romania and Bulgaria moving to Germany has risen dramatically. Because they come from poorer countries, many populist politicians have accused these immigrants of seeking to take advantage of Western European social safety nets. In Britain, some politicians call them "benefit tourists;" in Germany they've been given the label "poverty migrants". Residents of the two countries generally earn far less than their fellow citizens in Western Europe, and large Roma populations from both have made their way to what they hope will be greener pastures in recent years.

Despite the statistical fact that most Bulgarians and Romanians living in Germany are gainfully employed, their presence has launched a heated discussion about the EU's freedom of movement rules and access to social welfare benefits.

SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with Lásló Andor, the European commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion, about his office's recent criticism of a German legal clause that restricts immigrants from other EU countries from immediately accessing German unemployment benefits.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your office is on the eighth floor of the European Commission's headquarters in Brussels. Does it feel like you live in an ivory tower?

Andor: Definitely not. Yes, our offices are in Brussels, but like all commissioners, I visit the member states regularly. We have to see the situation on the ground. We inspect all the issues we are dealing with. During the past year I visited Berlin, I was twice in Bavaria and twice in Leipzig. I was in Hamburg and I will visit Berlin's Neukölln district this week and Duisburg next week.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When the Süddeutsche Zeitung recently reported that the European Commission had criticized a central element of Germany's so-called "Hartz IV" welfare laws for the unemployed at the European Court of Justice, Horst Seehofer -- chairman of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- said it drives him "to despair how little this EU Commission takes note of the everyday reality of citizens in Europe."

Andor: In this debate many things are presented in a distorted manner. Last year, a so-called quality newspaper from the United Kingdom suggested that there were 600,000 unemployed people from other EU countries (in Britain). The correct number is just one-tenth of that figure. Some people are deliberately spreading lies. They take advantage of the fears in some sectors of the population.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The opinion you submitted to the European Court of Justice on behalf of the Commission, argued there cannot be a blanket ban excluding citizens from other EU countries from receiving German Hartz IV unemployment benefits -- and that each case has to be dealt with individually on the basis of the person's circumstances. The head of the joint CDU/CSU group in the German parliament, Volker Kauder, warned of a "substantial flow of people" if the court backs the Commission's position.

Andor: We are not advocating that every EU citizen should have the right to social welfare in Germany from day one! In times of elections or economic crisis, bashing migrants is very easy for populists. There are unscrupulous politicians who want to capitalize on such feelings. They start to blame the EU for expanding to certain countries. There is very often a sense of superiority: "Because we are a higher income country we should be able to tell the others where their place is." That is very far away from the spirit and the law of the EU under which we are all EU member states and EU citizens and thus share the same rules and the same rights.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In some places, such as Duisburg, which has seen the arrival of large numbers of Romanian and Bulgarian workers, reality might look different.

Andor: I am not denying the problems. But the freedom of movement in the EU is a fundamental right. It applies to everybody because we are all European citizens with equal rights. The European single market was developed to create opportunities for all. Everybody benefits from the mobility: The companies who would otherwise not find the workforce. The origin countries because many of the workers are sending home a significant part of their income and then come back with more professional experience. And the host countries, because the fact is that their gross national product is growing faster. In addition, the social welfare budgets of the host countries are also boosted because migrant workers pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. If a country like Germany is already a big winner of labor mobility, I think it is morally wrong to try to to reduce your welfare costs as much as possible at the expense of EU citizens from other countries.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Germany's Hartz IV law includes a clause stipulating that citizens from other EU countries can be the subject of a blanket ban from that social payment. Is that in line with EU law?

Andor: It is not. There always has to be an individual assessment of each case.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If the German government does not change that clause, will the Commission launch an infringement procedure against Germany?

Andor: If there is a sustained practice which breaks EU law or if national law is not in full harmony with EU law, the Commission can start an infringement procedure. It starts with a letter of formal notice. But we are very far from this. If the problem can be solved by the European Court of Justice, the Commission does not have to act.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Last spring, the Belgian government filed a complaint with the Commission against wage dumping -- unacceptably low wages that undercut competition -- in the German meat processing industry. The government claimed that some workers in Germany are paid only €3 ($4) or €4 per hour, without any social protection, and that these "mini-jobs" undermine EU competition rules. Belgian Economics and Consumer Affairs Minister Johan Vande Lanotte described such practices as unacceptable. "That is unfair competition," he said. Where does the Commission stand on this?

Andor: We seriously looked into this. This example shows that not everything should be allowed under the umbrella of free movement. The fact that the new German government announced the introduction of a comprehensive minimum wage (for the first time in Germany) changed the situation and could be a solution to the wage dumping Belgium complained about. The decision to implement a minimum wage is a very good one; we have been advocating it for a long time. It is good for the German taxpayers because there will be less need for topping up lower salaries with social assistance. It is good for the German economy because it will boost demand, and it is also very good for the euro zone as a whole. If you ask me, the minimum wage should come even earlier than planned. (The German government is set to implement a minimum wage nationwide by Jan. 1, 2017.)

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a Socialist yourself, are you happy that Germany's Social Democrats have joined Chancellor Merkel's government?

Andor: I see that there is a more balanced approach. The German government is more aware of the problems the export surpluses create for other countries. I also think it is good that the new government wants to reconcile better work and family life. Indeed, some ministers are living that new vision themselves by working from home on some days.

Interview conducted by Christoph Schult


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« Reply #11620 on: Jan 31, 2014, 06:34 AM »


Italian parliament erupts amid vote on central bank capital

Opposition MPs storm government benches after speaker cuts short debate on measure to boost commercial banks

John Hooper in Rome
theguardian.com, Thursday 30 January 2014 12.43 GMT   

There have been chaotic and at times violent scenes in the Italian parliament after the lower house speaker made unprecedented use of her powers to cut short a filibuster by deputies of Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement (M5S).

Late on Wednesday, M5S MPs stormed the government benches, put on symbolic gags and kept up a barrage of whistling after the speaker, Laura Boldrini, cut short the debate and ordered a vote on a complicated and intensely controversial measure to square Italy's public accounts. One of Grillo's followers said an MP from the governing majority had slapped her during the disorder.

Opposition MPs claim that the measure would hand more than €7bn (£5.8bn) of taxpayers' money to the banks.

Members of the far-right opposition Brothers of Italy party showered chocolate coins on the government's representatives in the chamber and unfurled an Italian flag. After the vote was taken, Boldrini's party colleagues in the radical Left Ecology and Freedom (SEL) party broke into a chorus of the old partisan song Bella Ciao, prompting the M5S to respond with a rendition of the national anthem.

It is the first time since the foundation of the Italian republic after the second world war that a speaker has used the power to cut short a debate in this way. If she had not intervened, the decree at the centre of the dispute would have lapsed at midnight and Italian homeowners would have been landed with a bill for €2.2bn.

Enrico Letta's left-right coalition government won the vote by 236 to 209.

The decree was the latest stage in the government's tortuous efforts to fulfil an election pledge by Silvio Berlusconi to scrap an unpopular tax on first homes – and to do so without increasing Italy's already vast, €2tn public debt. Part of the cost is being passed to banks.

But the decree included provisions for an increase in the capital of Italy's central bank – a move that will swell the balance sheets of the commercial banks that are shareholders in the Bank of Italy. Since the central bank is to use its statutory reserves for the increase, the M5S argued that it amounted to a gift of more than €7bn to the banks.

Berlusconi and his party withdrew their backing for the government last year. But the Democratic party (PD), to which Letta belongs, needs the media tycoon's support to pass a new electoral law and a constitutional reform due next year.


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« Reply #11621 on: Jan 31, 2014, 06:41 AM »


Madeleine McCann: Met asks Portugal to close net on suspects

British detectives ask Portuguese police to search homes and examine bank accounts of three former resort workers

Press Association
theguardian.com, Friday 31 January 2014 06.48 GMT   

The judiciary police headquarters in Faro where Scotland Yard detectives have met with Portuguese police over the Madeleine McCann case. The judiciary police headquarters in Faro where Scotland Yard detectives have met with Portuguese police over the Madeleine McCann case. Photograph: Reuters

British police searching for missing Madeleine McCann want their Portuguese counterparts to search the homes and examine the bank accounts of three former employees of the resort where she vanished, it is reported.

Detectives from both countries are running their own investigations and a team from Scotland Yard made the request during meetings with Policia Judiciaria after flying to Portugal this week.

Police are keen to investigate the trio, who are believed to have been working at the Ocean Club complex in Praia da Luz where the McCanns were staying in 2007, the Daily Mirror said.

Officers reportedly believe they were behind a spate of burglaries in the weeks before three-year-old Madeleine disappeared.
Kate and Gerry McCann with a missing person poster for their daughter Madeleine. Kate and Gerry McCann with a missing person poster for their daughter Madeleine. Photograph: Sang Tan/AP

Nelson Rodrigues, a barman at the Ocean Club at the time, told the Mirror a wide range of staff would have had access to rooms.

He said: "There were quite a few staff who had access to keys. Reception staff, the cleaners, and the maintenance men could all get into rooms. Waiters and barmen did not have access to keys.

"I remember at the time things belonging to guests went missing now and then. Mobile phones, cash, anything valuable lying around."

Police from both countries met in Faro after Scotland Yard sent an international letter of request linked to its own inquiry.

The Met said it had not yet made any arrests and that officers had visited Portugal a number of times in the past 18 months.

British detectives launched a fresh investigation into the girl 's disappearance last July – two years into a review of the case – and made renewed appeals on television in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany.


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« Reply #11622 on: Jan 31, 2014, 06:45 AM »

Turkey Purges Hundreds More Police Over Graft Probe, Media Reports

By REUTERS
JAN. 31, 2014, 6:52 A.M. E.S.T.   

ISTANBUL — Turkey has purged at least 700 more police officers, local media said, over a corruption investigation portrayed by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as part of a plot to undermine the country's economy and his government.

Turkey's Central Bank raised all key interest rates by some 500 basis points at an emergency meeting on Tuesday. Erdogan had long argued against the move that could hit growth ahead of polls this year seen as an important test of his popularity.

A photograph in the Hurriyet daily showed staff at Istanbul's main courthouse carrying boxes of documents which the paper said were from the offices of two prosecutors who were removed from the graft inquiry this week.

Altogether, more than 5,000 police officers have been dismissed or transferred since the graft inquiry became public on December 17 with the arrest of businessmen close to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and three cabinet ministers' sons.

In the latest upheaval, hundreds of police were transferred from their posts in Ankara and Izmir on Thursday, and dozens more were affected in Istanbul and the southeastern city of Gaziantep, Radikal newspaper reported.

A spokesman at police headquarters in Ankara could not immediately confirm the reports.

A similar shake-up in the judiciary has left the fate of the corruption investigation unclear.

Some 200 prosecutors and judges have been reassigned in a purge of the judiciary that has brought to a halt the investigation Erdogan has called a "judicial coup".

The government sees the probe as orchestrated by Erdogan's former ally, the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers, part of a group known locally as "Hizmet," or Service, are influential in many state institutions, including the police and legal system.

LIRA REMAINS WEAK

There is as yet no sign the graft scandal and Erdogan's purging of police and judiciary he sees as engineering it has produced any significant fall in his popularity.

Erdogan's AK Party has won three elections since 2002. A hitherto weak opposition sees local elections next month and a presidential poll later this year as an opportunity to make inroads into his vote.

When the corruption investigation first came to light, anti-government newspapers showed photographs of police removing shoeboxes full of money from an official's house. The investigation has since faded somewhat from public view.

The removal of the prosecutors this week was part of a reshuffle this week in which some 90 prosecutors were reassigned by newly appointed Istanbul chief prosecutor Hadi Salihoglu.

Ankara has also relieved state employees of their duties at other state bodies including the banking and telecoms regulator and the state broadcaster, firing dozens of executives.

The central bank raised interest rates by around 500 basis points on Tuesday causing a spike in a currency that has been falling steadily.

But the lira has since erased much of those gains, returning to where it was just before the rate hike, although it is still some way from Monday's record low of 2.39. It was trading at 2.2735 to the dollar by 1100 GMT.

Ratings agency Moody's said on Friday that pressure on the currency was likely to continue despite the rate hike, which it said had also significantly weakened Turkey's growth prospects.

Erdogan has said "a Plan B or a Plan C" for the economy may be announced by the government in the coming days or weeks, although his ministers have given no details, beyond saying capital controls are out of the question.

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Ayla Jean Yackley and Ralph Boulton)
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« Reply #11623 on: Jan 31, 2014, 06:46 AM »

IAEA Head: Time to Tackle 'More Difficult' Issues with Iran

by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 09:36

After recent progress with Iran, it is time to tackle "more difficult" nuclear issues such as allegations of past weapons work, the head of the U.N. atomic watchdog told Agence France Presse in an interview.

"We started with measures that are practical and easy to implement, and then we move on to more difficult things," said Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"We certainly wish to include issues with 'possible military dimensions' in future steps ... We have already discussed it and will continue to discuss it at the next meeting" between the IAEA and Iran on February 8, he said.

A November 11 agreement with the IAEA towards improved oversight over Iran's program included six steps such as this week's visit by IAEA inspectors to the Gachin uranium mine and to a new reactor plant at Arak in December.

But the deal, separate to an accord struck with world powers on November 24 in Geneva, made no specific mention of long-standing allegations that prior to 2003, and possibly since, Iran's nuclear work had what the IAEA calls "possible military dimensions".

Two years of talks between the IAEA and Iran over these accusations, detailed in a major and controversial IAEA report in November 2011 and consistently denied by Iran as being based on faulty intelligence, went nowhere.

But Amano, 66, told AFP that Iran has not been let off the hook, saying that the November 24 accord with world powers made clear that "all past and present issues" must be resolved.

"When we say past and present issues, naturally it includes issues of possible military dimensions," said the Japanese, head of the IAEA since 2009.

How long this takes "very much depends on Iran. It can be quick or it can be long. It really depends on their cooperation," he said.

Under the November 24 deal with world powers, Iran stopped for six months on January 20 enriching uranium to medium levels and began converting its stockpile of this material into a form much more difficult to process into weapons-grade.

This set the clock on Iran and the powers -- the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany -- negotiating a long-term "comprehensive" accord likely permanently reducing Iran's nuclear programme while removing U.N. and Western sanctions.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said he sees the chances of such a deal as no more than 50:50, but a smiling Amano, sitting in his office on the 28th floor of IAEA headquarters in Vienna, refused to be drawn into a prediction.

"We are a technical organization. We focus on facts, we report only facts. Foreseeing the future, speculating the future, is very difficult," he said.

"You could not have foreseen this situation six months ago. A year ago it was completely impossible. One of the things I learned in this profession is that foreseeing things does not help much."

The IAEA has had to double its number of inspectors and increase the frequency of visits to Iran's nuclear facilities in order to verify Iran is sticking to the freeze and converting material as promised.

Amano said that the IAEA would inform member states "without delay" if Iran began to veer away from its commitments in a "significant" way. Otherwise there would be brief "regular" updates and in-depth quarterly reports as normal.

This increased verification role led Amano last week to appeal for some 5.5 million euros ($7.5 million) in extra money, and he said that "more than one dozen" countries have so far committed to contributing.

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Its Great Lake Shriveled, Iran Confronts Crisis of Water Supply

By THOMAS ERDBRINK
JAN. 30, 2014

LAKE URMIA, Iran — After driving for 15 minutes over the bottom of what was once Iran’s largest lake, a local environmental official stepped out of his truck, pushed his hands deep into his pockets and silently wandered into the great dry plain, as if searching for water he knew he would never find.

Just an hour earlier, on a cold winter day here in western Iran, the official, Hamid Ranaghadr, had recalled how as recently as a decade ago, cruise ships filled with tourists plied the lake’s waters in search of flocks of migrating flamingos.

Now, the ships are rusting in the mud and the flamingos fly over the remains of the lake on their way to more hospitable locales. According to figures compiled by the local environmental office, only 5 percent of the water remains.

Iran is facing a water shortage potentially so serious that officials are making contingency plans for rationing in the greater Tehran area, home to 22 million, and other major cities around the country. President Hassan Rouhani has identified water as a national security issue, and in public speeches in areas struck hardest by the shortage he is promising to “bring the water back.”

Experts cite climate change, wasteful irrigation practices and the depletion of groundwater supplies as leading factors in the growing water shortage. In the case of Lake Urmia, they add the completion of a series of dams that choked off a major supply of fresh water flowing from the mountains that tower on either side of the lake.

“Only some years ago the water here was 30 feet deep,” Mr. Ranaghadr said, kicking up dust with each step on the dry lake bed. In the distance, spots of land — once islands where tourists would spend vacations in bungalows overlooking the blue waters — were surrounded by plains of brown mud and sand. “We just emptied it out,” he said with a sigh, stepping back into the car.

Iran’s water troubles extend far beyond Lake Urmia, which as a salt lake was never fit for drinking or agricultural use. Other lakes and major rivers have also been drying up, leading to disputes over water rights, demonstrations and even riots.

Major rivers near Isfahan, in central Iran, and Ahvaz, near the Persian Gulf, have gone dry, as has Hamoun Lake, in the Afghanistan border region. Dust from the dry riverbeds has added to already dangerously high air pollution levels in Iran, home to four of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, the United Nations says.

But nowhere is the crisis more pronounced than at Lake Urmia, once one of the largest salt lakes in the world — at 90 miles long and roughly 35 miles wide, it was slightly larger than Great Salt Lake in Utah. Environmentalists are warning that the dried salt could poison valuable agricultural lands surrounding the lake, and make life miserable for the three million people who live in its vicinity.

Along what used to be a lakeshore boulevard, worn-down snack bars and dressing rooms are testament to the days when people from across Iran would come to water-ski on the lake or cover themselves in its black mud, which is said to have healing powers.

About two decades ago, a local villager, Mokhtar Cheraghi, began to notice the water line receding. “First a hundred meters, then two hundred meters. After a while, we couldn’t see the shoreline anymore,” he said, standing in what was once his thriving cafe, Cheraghi’s Beach. “We kept waiting for the water to return, but it never did.”

Most people in the area blame the half-dozen major dams the government has built in the region for the lake’s disappearance. The dams have greatly reduced the flow of water in the 11 rivers that feed into the lake. As an arid country with numerous lofty mountain chains, Iran has a predilection for dams that extends to the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Dam construction was given renewed emphasis under Mr. Rouhani’s predecessor as president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who as an engineer had a weakness for grand projects. Another driving force is the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which through its engineering arm, Khatam al-Anbia Construction, builds many of the dams in Iran and surrounding countries.

Half an hour’s drive into the mountains above the city of Urmia stands the mighty Chahchai Dam, collecting water that would otherwise have reached the lake. The dam, finished during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s first term, now holds a huge lake itself, which local farmers use for irrigating their lands.

“Some of Urmia’s water is here,” said Mr. Ranaghadr, raising his voice over the howling winds that blow down from the surrounding snowcapped peaks. “The people here need water, too, is what they say.”

Besides producing badly needed electricity, the dams are intended to address the water shortage. But too often, the water is wasted through inefficient irrigation techniques, particularly spraying, Mr. Ranaghadr and other experts say.

In recent decades, the amount of land dedicated to agriculture in the region, the country’s heartland, has tripled, with many farmers growing particularly thirsty crops like grapes and sugar beets, Mr. Ranaghadr pointed out. His department has calculated that about 90 percent of all the water that should end up in the lake is sprayed on fields.

In a 2005 book that he wrote on national security challenges for Iran, Mr. Rouhani estimated that 92 percent of Iran’s water is used for agriculture, compared with 80 percent in the United States (90 percent in some Western states).

“They turn open the tap, flood the land, without understanding that in our climate most of the water evaporates that way,” said Ali Reza Seyed Ghoreishi, a member of the local water management council. “We need to educate the farmers.”

The lake has also been attacked from underground. As part of the government’s drive to promote local agriculture, large landholdings were divided into smaller plots, and most of the new owners promptly dug new wells, soaking up much of the groundwater. 

“There are around 30,000 legally dug wells and an equal amount of illegal wells,” Mr. Seyed Ghoreishi said. “As the water is becoming less, they have to dig deeper and deeper.”

Climate change, particularly rising temperatures, has played a role. Average temperatures around Lake Urmia have risen by a little over 3 degrees in the past decade, official statistics show.

A long drought in the region seems to have ended two years ago, with rainfall levels returning to normal. But the increased rainfall has not made up for the other factors that are draining the lake.

“We are all to blame,” Mr. Ranaghadr said. “There are just too many people nowadays, and everybody needs to use the water and the electricity the dams generate.”

Back in his office, the Department of Environment, officials sounded like soldiers on a doomed mission. They had drawn up no fewer than 19 plans to save the lake, ranging from the sensible (educating farmers in new irrigation technologies) to the fanciful (seeding clouds to increase rainfall).

“We can start now,” said Abbas Hassanpour, the head of the office. Flanked by his assistants, including Mr. Ranaghadr, he said his department had created “task forces and models ready to implement.”

While Iran is shooting monkeys into space to advance its missile program, the Rouhani government, low on funds because of the impact of the international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, has not made any money available for efforts to restore the lake.

Even if it were, officials say, it is probably too late to save Lake Urmia. All the money in the world can be poured into the lake, one of the officials said, but in the most optimistic projections, it would take decades, if ever, for the water to reach its old levels. There are simply too many problems, too many competing interests, for the rescue to be feasible.

Not doing anything, or not enough, will still create many problems. In 2010 and 2011, violent protests over the lake erupted in Urmia, and security forces had to be flown in to restore order.

“We are not allowed to speak of the lake,” said Morteza Mirzaei, who lives in Urmia. “But they built their dams, and now everything is gone.” Others said ordinary people were also to blame, but “the government is the steward of the country,” said Mushin Rad, who sells printer equipment. “They are responsible.”

Mr. Ranaghadr, who grew up around the lake, said he spends free time battling poachers in the hills around it. “You know what the real problem is?” he said. “Everybody across the world is only thinking of money. We did, too, and now our lake is gone.”


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« Last Edit: Jan 31, 2014, 06:54 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #11624 on: Jan 31, 2014, 06:48 AM »

Afghan ministries incapable of managing U.S. aid

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 30, 2014 18:52 EST

Millions of dollars in US aid is flowing into Afghanistan even though the ministries receiving the funds are incapable of managing such large sums of money, a US official report said Thursday.

Despite moves by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to boost safeguards over direct assistance to the Afghan government, “a number of troubling issues remain,” a special watchdog found.

The US has committed some $1.6 billion in direct aid to the Afghan government this year to fund some 18 programs across 10 ministries.

But according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, “USAID contractors assessed 16 Afghan ministries and found they are unable to manage and account for funds.”

“USAID’s own risk reviews of seven Afghan ministries concluded each ministry is unable to manage US direct assistance funds,” it added, also pointing to a high level of corruption among Afghan officials.

Despite its findings, USAID “waived its own requirements” for direct assistance and has “not required the Afghan ministries to fix most of the risks identified prior to receiving US money.”

The watchdog also maintained that USAID had sought to hide its findings from Congress, which is responsible for setting US budgets.

But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki hit back, saying that “there are not billions of US assistance dollars going straight into Afghan government coffers.”

“On the contrary, we have disbursed less than $300 million through rigorous accountable mechanisms that maintain US government control of funds throughout the process,” she told reporters.

“All of our programs are managed by US officials, whether they use Afghan government systems or not.”

The audit comes amid a standoff between Washington and Afghan President Hamid Karzai over a security pact to safeguard any US troops remaining in the country after international combat forces are withdrawn at the end of this year.

Karzai is refusing to sign the deal painstakingly drawn up over months with US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a move which the US says jeopardizes proper planning for a withdrawal.

The audit by the watchdog, known as SIGAR, may well exacerbate the situation as Karzai has long accused Washington of trying to undermine his authority.

SIGAR recommended that USAID should draw up a risk mitigation plan for each Afghan ministry.

But Psaki said that trying to “fix every problem in each ministry before we set up programs” was “not prudent use of US government resources.”

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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