Myanmar Holds Journalists over 'Chemical Weapons' Report
by Naharnet Newsdesk 04 February 2014, 14:36
Myanmar has detained several journalists after they published allegations of a military facility producing chemical weapons, according to their newspaper editor, as a media watchdog raised fears over press freedom.
Five journalists including the chief executive of the Unity Weekly News were arrested on Friday and Saturday, according to colleagues, who said they are facing charges over a report in January.
"Family members were informed last night by the authorities that they could visit them in (Yangon's) Insein prison and told to hire lawyers," said Unity editor Aung Thura Ko Ko.
"They have been charged under the official secrets act," he added.
The newspaper said the arrests were linked to an article claiming that the country's military was operating a chemical weapons factory in Pauk, in the central Magway region, under the instructions of former strongman junta chief Than Shwe.
Myanmar's military ruled the country with an iron fist for nearly five decades and locked it in isolation, banning dissent and imprisoning critics and journalists.
A quasi-civilian government took power in 2011 and ushered in much-heralded reforms including easing media restrictions.
Detained reporters were freed, draconian pre-publication censorship was ended and private newspapers were allowed to publish daily.
The army, which retains a powerful hold over the government and parliament, continues to be accused of rights abuses, particularly in ethnic minority areas.
But the United Nations has welcomed a reduction in the use of child soldiers.
Neither local police nor the government spokesman were available to comment on the report or subsequent arrests.
Unity Weekly quoted testimony from local people and workers and included pictures of the buildings.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) raised alarm about the developments.
"The fact that journalists can be charged with revealing state secrets shows how desperately Burma needs meaningful legal reform," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative, using the country's former name.
"Weapons proliferation issues are central to Burma's political narrative and journalists should not be threatened or arrested for reporting on topics of national and international importance."
In January last year Myanmar denied accusations it had used chemical weapons against ethnic minority rebels in the northern state of Kachin.
"Our military never uses chemical weapons and we have no intention to use them at all. I think the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) is accusing us wrongly," presidential spokesman Ye Htut said at the time.
The U.S. Treasury in December levelled sanctions against a Myanmar military official and three businesses in the country for trading arms with North Korea.
The Treasury said the sanctions, which forbid any U.S. person or entity from doing business with those blacklisted, "does not generally target" the government of Myanmar.
Thailand opposition mounts legal bid to annul election
Democrat party petition also urges dissolution of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra's ruling party amid poll chaos
Associated Press in Bangkok
theguardian.com, Tuesday 4 February 2014 12.39 GMT
Thailand's main opposition party has petitioned a court to annul last weekend's disrupted national election, launching a legal challenge that could prolong the deeply divided country's political paralysis.
The Democrat party's petition to the constitutional court also urges the dissolution of the ruling party of the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, which called Sunday's elections in an attempt to defuse anti-government protests that started three months ago.
Wiratana Kalayasiri, a former opposition politician and head of the Democrat party's legal team, said the petition argues that the polls violated the constitution on several grounds, including on the grounds that they were not completed in one day.
Critics call the Democrats' argument counter-intuitive, saying the reason the election could not be finished in one day was because anti-government protesters backed by the party sabotaged the vote.
The Democrat party boycotted the election, and protesters forced the closure of hundreds of polling stations in Bangkok and the south, preventing millions of people from voting.
As a result, a series of special elections are required to complete the balloting, as election results cannot be announced until all areas have successfully voted.
"This election has violated the constitution on several counts, but mainly it was not a fair one," Wiratana said. "The election was not held on the same day … that is why we are seeking to nullify it."
Despite fears of violence, the voting proceeded peacefully in 90% of polling stations.
The struggle to hold the balloting was part of a three-month-old conflict that has split the country between supporters of Yingluck and opponents, who allege her government is too corrupt to rule, and that she is a puppet of her brother, ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin, a billionaire businessman, fled into exile to avoid a corruption conviction after being deposed in a military coup in 2006.
The demonstrators have occupied major intersections in Bangkok and forced government ministries to shut down and work elsewhere.
The protesters are demanding the elected government be replaced by an unelected "people's council" to enact reforms ahead of fresh elections and remove the Shinawatra family's influence from politics.
Yingluck has refused to step down, arguing she was elected by a large majority and is open to reform, but that such a council would be unconstitutional and undemocratic.
U.S. Cautions against Thailand Military Coup
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 February 2014, 22:59
The United States Monday warned against moves to stage a military coup in Thailand and said it was "concerned that political tensions" are challenging the Southeast Asian nation's democracy.
"We certainly do not want to see a coup or violence... in any case of course. We are speaking directly to all elements in Thai society to make clear the importance of using democratic and constitutional means to resolve political differences," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said after disrupted weekend elections.
While there had been "peaceful and orderly polling" in most areas on Sunday "but there were also disturbing incidents of violence on the eve of the election," as well as efforts to block voters getting to the polls, she said.
"We remain concerned that political tensions in Thailand are posing challenges to the democratic institutions and processes of Thailand," Psaki told reporters.
"We certainly don't take sides, as you know, in Thailand's political disputes, but we continue to urge all sides to commit to sincere dialogue to resolve political differences peacefully and democratically."
Millions were denied the opportunity to cast ballots on Sunday, with blockades by protesters seeking to prevent the re-election of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra causing the closure of some 10 percent of polling stations.
Experts said that weeks of political upheaval have left the embattled government increasingly vulnerable to court intervention or even a military coup.
Psaki stressed: "We support democratic solution to the ongoing tensions in Thailand. So we're engaged very closely in that on the ground, and we of course believe there are more steps that need to be taken in that process."
North Korea Calls Japanese PM Abe 'Asian Hitler'
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 February 2014, 07:03
North Korea on Tuesday denounced Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as an "Asian Hitler" intent on amassing military power under the guise of ensuring regional stability.
The attack in an editorial carried by the North's official KCNA news agency followed commentary by the ruling party's newspaper Rodong Sinmun last month that described Abe as a "militarist maniac" for trying to amend Tokyo's pacifist constitution.
Abe said last month that Japan's pacifist post-World War II constitution, which limits its military to self-defense, could be amended by 2020.
The KCNA editorial, entitled "Is this the emergence of an Asian Hitler?" said the Japanese premier was fueling fears of North Korea's missile and nuclear threats in order to justify his country's military expansion.
"Ultra-rightwing groups led by Abe ... are trying to shift the focus of international criticisms from Japan to somewhere else," it added.
"There is no difference between the fascist maniac Hitler, who waged battle against communists to justify another war, and the reckless Abe who is using confrontation with North Korea to justify Japan's new militarist ambitions," it added.
North Korea repeatedly harangues Japan over its failure to atone for its 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula and for its claims to Korean island territory.
It also took exception to Abe's December visit to the Yasukuni war shrine that honors Japan's war dead including several high-level officials executed for war crimes after World War II.
The visit was widely condemned by regional neighbors South Korea and China as a slap in the face of victims of Japan's wartime aggression.
"The latest reckless behavior that has stirred the region is reminiscent of Hitler, who worked so hard to encourage war in post-World War I Germany," KCNA said, calling on Abe to "wake up" from his "militarist fever."
The North's nuclear and missile programs are of long-standing security concern to Japan, which is a member of the stalled six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.
Syrian government to attend Geneva peace talks
Russian minister says there is 'no doubt' delegation will attend as Syria says all chemical weapons will be removed by March
theguardian.com, Tuesday 4 February 2014 09.04 GMT
The Syrian government will attend the next round of peace talks in Geneva, Russia's deputy foreign minister has announced ahead of talks in Moscow between Russian officials and the Syrian opposition leader, Ahmad Jarba, on Tuesday.
"We have no doubt that the government delegation will take part in the second round of international talks in Geneva," Mikhail Bogdanov told reporters.
A Russian minister also announced that Syria would complete its removal of toxic agents from the country by 1 March.
"Yesterday, the Syrians announced that the removal of a large shipment of chemical substances is planned in February. They are ready to complete this process by 1 March," Gennady Gatilov told the state-run Russian news agency RIA.
The operation to dispose of Syria's chemical stockpile under a deal brokered by Russia and the US is far behind schedule and a deadline for sending all toxic agents out of Syria this week is predicted to be missed.
American officials have accused Damascus of dragging its feet and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, last Friday asked his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to put pressure on Bashar al-Assad's government to speed up the operation.
Russia, Assad's most powerful backer during a nearly three-year-old civil conflict in Syria, has said western concerns are overblown and rejected accusations that the delays were deliberate, citing security and logistical issues.
"As for timing, in principle everything is going OK," Sergei Ryabkov, another deputy foreign minister, was quoted as saying. "There really are difficulties linked to the need to provide security for this operation."
As the diplomatic effort continued in foreign capitals, 18 people including five children were killed in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in a series of air strikes on Monday, activists said.
Air raids hit the districts of Hanano, Qadi Askar and Mouwasalat, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The group, which monitors the conflict through a network of activists on the ground, said helicopters dropped crude bombs – barrels packed with explosives, fuel and scraps of metal – on neighbourhoods.
Syria chemical weapons handed over by March, says Russia
Regime will dispatch large shipment this month, says Russian deputy foreign minister, blaming security concerns for delays
Reuters in Moscow
theguardian.com, Tuesday 4 February 2014 07.32 GMT
Syria plans to send a large shipment of toxic agents out of the country this month and can complete the removal process by 1 March, the Russian deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, has been quoted as saying.
"Literally yesterday the Syrians announced that the removal of a large shipment of chemical substances is planned in February. They are ready to complete this process by March 1," the state-run Russian news agency RIA quoted Gatilov as saying.
The operation to dispose of Syria's chemical stockpile under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States is far behind schedule and a deadline for sending all toxic agents out of Syria this week is predicted to be missed.
US officials have accused Damascus of dragging its feet and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, asked his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov last Friday to put pressure on Assad's government to accelerate the operation.
Russia, Assad's most powerful backer during a nearly three-year-old civil conflict in Syria, has said western concerns are overblown and rejected accusations that the delays are deliberate, citing security and logistical issues.
"As for timing, in principle everything is going OK," Ryabkov was quoted as saying. "There really are difficulties linked to the need to provide security for this operation."
Eritrea Under Fire for Righs Abuses at U.N. Review
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 February 2014, 06:53
Enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture were just a few of the violations Eritrea was accused of during a UN review of its human rights record Monday.
Diplomats gathered at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva condemned the isolated and autocratic country's brutal repression of basic rights, charging the lack of freedom was prompting a mass exodus.
The government of Eritrea's "widespread violation of human rights and the lack of prospects for participatory democracy contribute to large numbers of Eritreans fleeing the country," U.S. representative Peter Mulrean told the assembly.
He was echoing the concerns of many of the 70 state representatives who spoke at Eritrea's so-called Universal Periodic Review, which all 193 U.N. countries must undergo every four years.
Chile and others urged the country to probe all reports of enforced disappearances, Denmark said it had done far too little to eliminate torture, while Estonia lamented the "disregard of freedom of expression."
Tesfamichael Gerahtu, Eritrea's ambassador to Britain, batted away the slew of charges, insisting that if anything was limiting human rights in Eritrea, it was the "unjustified sanctions" imposed on the country by the international community.
"To add insult to injury, Eritrea has been subjected to a litany of accusations of gross violations of human rights,... (that) are mainly motivated by sinister political agendas," he told the council.
Reporters Without Borders has ranked it the worst country in the world for press freedom, but Gerahtu insisted "There is no media censorship in Eritrea."
He said the 10 journalists and 11 opposition politicians arrested in a 2001 crackdown -- many of whom have since died in custody while others are still being held in secrete locations "were not detained because they expressed their ideas, (but because of) treason."
"I wish there had been a lie-detector device there. It was a mockery," exiled Eritrean journalist and writer Dessale Berekhet Abraham told AFP after listening to the session.
The 38-year-old who now lives in Norway said he knew Gerahtu well -- he was once his teacher at Eritrea's Revolution School -- and that he didn't take the "lies" personally.
"What else could he say if he wants to go back to Eritrea?" he asked.
Gerahtu meanwhile called on the U.N. diplomats to focus on Eritrea's progress in areas like reducing maternal and child mortality rates and in fighting HIV, as well as its 2007 law banning female genital mutilation.
And, he said, the country would hold its first free elections since it won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 and implement a 1997 constitution once the threats against its "national security" had dissipated.
"Eritrea's security situation does not and never has justified the denial of basic human rights to its people," the British representative said.
Only when the country has a democratically elected government and a constitution that ensures basic rights "will Eritreans stop fleeing," he added.
The U.N. refugee agency has registered more than 300,000 Eritreans refugees in neighboring countries, with thousands fleeing every month, often under very dangerous conditions.
Eritreans, along with Somalis, accounted for most of the more than 300 migrants who perished in a boat tragedy off Italy's Lampedusa last October.
U.N. Security Council Delegation Meets Mali Rebels
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 February 2014, 22:06
Arab and Tuareg rebel leaders from crisis-torn northern Mali told a visiting U.N. Security Council delegation Monday they want to resume talks with the government.
"Even if we have to go to the planet Mars to quickly resume the dialogue with the Malian government... we are ready," said Mohamed Maouloud Ould Ramadane of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) after meeting the Security Council delegation.
The visiting team includes the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, and the French ambassador, Gerard Araud.
They met in the capital, Bamako, with leaders of the MAA and two Tuareg armed groups, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA).
Azawad is the name Mali's Tuareg and Arab minorities use for the country's vast desert north, where they are concentrated.
The west African country, which straddles the continent's Saharan and sub-Saharan regions, exploded into crisis in 2012 when the MNLA launched a rebellion claiming Azawad as an independent state.
Al-Qaida-linked Islamist groups seized on the chaos created by the rebellion and a coup in Bamako to take control of northern Mali, ruling it under a brutal vision of Islamic law until former colonial ruler France sent in troops to flush them out in January 2013.
Mali, once considered a beacon of democracy in the region, is still struggling to regain its footing.
The MNLA and other armed groups are still calling for autonomy for the north, and say the government has not fully implemented a June 2013 peace deal that paved the way for elections aimed at restoring stability.
"We are demanding a special status for Azawad, demanding autonomy," Ould Ramadane told Agence France Presse, though he added the rebels recognize "Mali's territorial integrity."
French U.N. Ambassador Araud said the rebel groups had shown "a willingness to move forward."
"We stated that there is a feeling of urgency because there are risks of these groups' members becoming radicalized," he said.
Malian sources said a roadmap on new talks between the government and rebels will be released soon. Araud said any new talks would be based on the previous peace deal and would take place without preconditions.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita met the U.N. Security Council delegation Saturday, the day they arrived in the country, telling them it was "time for Mali to take over the Mali question itself," according to his office.
U.N. Appeals for $1.27 Billion for 'Shattered' South Sudan
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 February 2014, 13:19
The United Nations issued an urgent appeal Tuesday for 1.27 billion dollars for aid for South Sudan, hit by a seven-week-old conflict that has forced close to a million people from their homes.
"The priority is to save lives now, and ensure that we have food, medicine and other lifesaving supplies pre-positioned in the field, in easy reach of aid agencies before the rains hit and the roads become impassable," said Toby Lanzer, the U.N.'s top aid official in South Sudan.
Describing the impact of the fighting as "devastating", he said there were 3.2 million people suffering the humanitarian consequences, including 900,000 people who have been forced to abandon their homes and thousands more wounded.
"Livelihoods have been lost, and people's ability to move livestock to pasture, to fish or to hunt, has been severely compromised," he said.
"I ask the international donor community to stand with the people of South Sudan and the aid agencies working here to help them before the situation gets even worse," Lanzer added.
Fighting broke out in South Sudan on December 15 between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those allied to ousted vice-president Riek Machar, and quickly spread throughout the country.
Entire towns have been destroyed in the violence, with aid agencies and analysts estimating that close to 10,000 people have lost their lives in little more than a month.
The government and rebels signed a ceasefire agreement in neighboring Ethiopia on January 23, but sporadic fighting has continued to rage.
The work of aid agencies has been complicated by widespread looting of humanitarian supplies by both sides in the conflict.
On Monday Unicef said it was "extremely concerned" after government soldiers were pictured carrying bright-blue backpacks that were supposed to be destined for children but had been looted from a U.N. store.
Vehicles, food stockpiles and medicines have also been looted from organisations including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the World Food Program (WFP).
South African Police Disperse 3,000 'Violent' Miners
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 February 2014, 14:57
South African police said they used stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse about 3,000 "violent" striking miners Tuesday in the country's restive platinum belt.
Strikers "carrying dangerous weapons, such as knobkerries and sticks, blocked the road and were threatening to remove non-striking workers at the shaft," police said in a statement.
The incident occurred at Anglo American Platinum's Khuseleka 1 facility in the country's north. It marks the first instance of major unrest in the sector-wide strike, now in its second week.
"Police were forced to use stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd," the force said, adding that two protesters aged 52 and 47 were arrested.
They face charges of public violence.
The incident will raise fears of a return to violent strikes that have seen dozens of workers killed at the hands of rival unions and the police.
Around 80,000 members of the radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) downed tools on January 23 calling for a minimum monthly wage of 12,500-rand ($1,100) -- almost double their current pay.
Last Thursday the union rejected a three-year deal from Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin that offered a roughly seven percent annual increase.
South Africa produces 80 percent of the world's platinum and around 134,000 people are employed in the sector.
Platinum group metals are vital in products such as catalytic converters, computer hard disks and dental fillings.
Government-brokered talks to end the strike -- which firms say is costing them as much as $36 million a day -- restarted on Tuesday.
But AMCU has threatened the strike could go on for a month if no agreement is reached.
Companies, which have seen their revenues plummet in recent years, are looking for a long-term agreement in the hope of preventing what have become regular stoppages.
But they insist drastic wage increases are impossible and claim that the current pay package is more than a basic entry-level wage.
"The wage increases demanded by AMCU are unaffordable by industry, will push more of industry into loss-making territory," said South African Chamber of Mines economist Roger Baxter.
The strikes are costing Africa's largest economy $36 million a day in lost production, he told a continental mining conference in Cape Town.
Mining labor costs have more than doubled in South Africa in the past two decades, Baxter added.
Current wage demands date back to violent mass wildcat strikes in 2012, which resulted in the police shooting dead 34 strikers on one day at Lonmin's Marikana mine.
But industrial action has become "more peaceful" since then, Baxter said, a statement echoed by Mining Minister Susan Shabangu.
"We have restored the rule of law, peace and stability in this industry," Shabangu told the conference.
"These developments debunk the myth that labor laws in South Africa lack flexibility and are only created to protect workers," she said.
World Health Org.: Alcohol, smoking and obesity fueling ‘alarming’ global cancer surge
By Sarah Boseley, The Guardian
Monday, February 3, 2014 19:24 EST
World Health Organization experts issue timebomb warning and say key is prevention, possibly including tax on sugared drinks
A concerted global effort to tackle the causes of cancer linked to lifestyle, such as alcohol abuse, sugar consumption and obesity, has been urged on Monday by the World Health Organisation as it predicted that the number of new cases could soar by 70% to nearly 25 million a year over the next two decades.
Half of these cases are preventable, says the U.N.’s public health arm in its World Cancer Report, because they are linked to lifestyle. It is implausible to think we can treat our way out of the disease, say the authors, arguing that the focus must now be on preventing new cases.
Even the richest countries will struggle to cope with the spiralling costs of treatment and care for patients, and the lower income countries, where numbers are expected to be highest, are ill-equipped for the burden to come.
The incidence of cancer globally has increased from 12.7m new cases in 2008 to 14.1m in 2012, when there were 8.2m deaths. By 2032, it is expected to hit almost 25m a year – a 70% increase.
The biggest burden will be in low- and middle-income countries, where the population is increasing and living longer. They are hit by two types of cancers – first, those triggered by infections, such as cervical cancers, which are still very prevalent in poorer countries that do not have screening, let alone the HPV vaccine.
Second, there are increasingly cancers associated with the lifestyles of more affluent countries “with increasing use of tobacco, consumption of alcohol and highly processed foods and lack of physical activity”, writes Margaret Chan, director general of WHO, in an introduction to the report.
Dr Christopher Wild, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and joint author of the report, said when people know his job, they asked whether a cure for cancer had been found, yet few think about preventing the disease in the first place.
“Despite exciting advances, the report shows that we cannot treat our way out of the cancer problem. More commitment to prevention and early detection is desperately needed in order to complement improved treatments and address the alarming rise in the cancer burden globally.”
His co-author, Dr Bernard Stewart from the University of New South Wales, talked of “the crucial role of prevention in combatting the tidal wave of cancer” and called for discussion on how to encourage people to change their lifestyles, including a tax on sugared drinks, which could be one possible brake on cancers caused by obesity and lack of physical exercise.
The world had moved on from what Stewart called a “naive approach” to smoking, which causes lung and other cancers, and once was limited to handing out leaflets and haranguing people to give up. He cited the global tobacco control treaty from the WHO, which incentivises governments to pass laws banning smoking in public places.
The World Cancer Report, an 800-page volume on the state of cancer knowledge, which is the first for five years, must open up the debate, said Stewart.
“In relation to alcohol, for instance, we are all aware of the effects of being intoxicated but there is a burden of disease not talked about because it is not recognised,” he said.
The report shows that alcohol-attributable cancers were responsible for a total of 337,400 deaths worldwide in 2010, mostly among men.
The majority were liver cancer deaths, but drinking alcohol is also a risk for cancers of the mouth, oesophagus, bowel, stomach, pancreas, breast and others.
“Labelling and availability and the price of alcohol should all be on the agenda,” said Stewart.
So should taxation of sugar-sweetened drinks, he said. The report calls for efforts to reduce the amount of cola, lemonade and other drinks containing substantial amounts of added sugar to become a high priority. Obesity, said Stewart, was a greater risk for diabetes than cancer, but cancer awareness was so great in our communities that the cancer risk was likely to put more pressure on politicians to act.
Lung cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of the disease among men (16.7% of cases) and the biggest killer (23.6% of deaths), says the IARC report. Breast cancer is the most common diagnosis in women (25.2%) and caused 14.7% of deaths, which is a drop and now only just exceeds lung cancer deaths in women (13.8%). Bowel, prostate and stomach cancer are the other most common diagnoses.
Some of the causes of the rise in breast cancer are not amenable to change – women choosing to have fewer children and to have them later in life increase their risk. But increased breast feeding is protective. “There are some things we can change,” said Wild. “There is increasing evidence for the role of alcohol consumption in breast cancer and some evidence for obesity, particularly in post-menopausal women.”
In low- and middle-income countries, cancer rates could be brought down by relatively simple interventions. About 80% of cervical cancer deaths are in the developing world, but now there is a vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV) which causes most cases and is routinely given to UK schoolgirls. Cheap and simple screening techniques could detect cases early, when they are treatable.
There are also vaccines against hepatitis B, which could prevent many liver cancers. Infections are responsible for about 16% of all cancers.
Wild said the next most urgent goal – after stopping the further spread of the smoking habit – was to find ways to diagnose breast cancer early in poor countries where mammography equipment and people trained to operate the machines and interpret the X-rays were not affordable.
The least developed regions will bear the brunt of the cancer increase in the coming years. More than 60% of cases and 70% of deaths occur in Africa, Asia and Central and South America.
Cancer Research UK said the predicted steep rise in cancers was shocking and so was the fact that half were preventable. It called on governments to take action, such as banning “glitzy packs” of cigarettes that attract children.
Jean King, Cancer Research UK’s director of tobacco control, said: “People can cut their risk of cancer by making healthy lifestyle choices, but it’s important to remember that the government and society are also responsible for creating an environment that supports healthy lifestyles. It’s clear that if we don’t act now to curb the number of people getting cancer, we will be at the heart of a global crisis in cancer care within the next two decades.”
© Guardian News and Media 2014
NASA says it’s ready to build $8.8 billion super space telescope
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 3, 2014 17:44 EST
All the pieces of the most powerful space telescope ever are ready for assembly at NASA, the US space agency said Monday.
The $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch in 2018 and aims to provide an unprecedented look at far-away planets and the first galaxies formed.
A successor to the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990, it is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
All 18 of its primary mirror segments and four science instruments are now housed at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center facilities in suburban Maryland.
“The recent completion of the critical design review for Webb, and the delivery of all its instruments to Goddard, mark significant progress for this mission,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden.
“It’s very exciting to see it all coming together on schedule.”
The project has gained support from US lawmakers despite a number of delays and cost hikes that delayed delivery from its initial 2013 date and pushed spending way over its primary budget of $3.5 billion.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
In the USA...United Surveillance America
NSA/FBI Got Access To Content Of Around 40,000 Yahoo/Google User Accounts In First Six Months Of 2013
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 7:39 EST
Last week, we noted that the DOJ and various internet companies had settled their legal fight, which concerned whether or not those companies could reveal the details of how many FISA Court requests they were receiving -- both in terms of how many requests they get and how many accounts are impacted. While Apple immediately released their information, showing very few users impacted, the real interest is in Google, Yahoo and to a lesser extent Facebook. Both Google and Yahoo have put out blog posts updating their transparency report numbers. It appears that both Yahoo and Google decided to go with "option 1" in the settlement, which lets them reports NSLs and FISA orders separately, but in bands of 0-999. The big question with both of them, really, was just how many "customer accounts affected" there would be, and both presented numbers (in slightly different formats). Google showed a historical listing:
Yahoo just shows the most recent:
If you remember, by choosing Option 1, the companies could actually show "customer accounts affected" -- if they had chosen option 2, they could only show targeted customers, leaving out others who were affected as well. But here we see that the number of accounts affected is much larger than the number of requests (though certainly much more limited than some assumed). That is, these requests (which make up a large part of the PRISM program) impact thousands of users, but not millions or "all" as some have claimed. There may very well be other NSA surveillance programs that get data from many more users, but not the FISA orders/PRISM.
Concerning the Google data, you can see that there's been a pretty big increase in the number of users impacted over the past few years, peaking at the end of 2012, but that drop in the beginning of 2013 may be just seasonal. Meanwhile, it's interesting to see that a much larger number of Yahoo accounts have been impacted. Of course, for all we know, there could have been one FISA order to Google and three to Yahoo and then the number of accounts impacted would be around 10,000 per order. But, without more granularity, it's impossible to tell.
What does seem clear is that there are about 40,000 accounts on Yahoo or Google to which the NSA/FBI and others in the intelligence community have access.
Update: Facebook and Microsoft have updated their info as well and it's more of the same:
Microsoft, a major surveillance partner for the US government, received fewer than 1,000 orders from the Fisa court for communications content during the same period, related to between 15,000 and 15,999 “accounts or individual identifiers”.
The company, which owns the internet video calling service Skype, also disclosed that it received fewer than 1,000 orders for metadata – which reveals communications patterns rather than individual message content – related to fewer than 1,000 accounts or identifiers.
[....] Facebook disclosed that during the first half of 2013, it turned over content data from between 5000 and 5999 accounts – a rise of about 1000 from the previous six month period – and customer metadata associated with up to 999 accounts.
Democrats Hang Tough and Warn John Boehner Don’t Play Games With the Debt Ceiling
By: Jason Easley
Monday, February, 3rd, 2014, 11:40 am
A letter from the House Way and Means Democrats is one of the first official warnings to John Boehner that he better not play games with the debt ceiling, because Democrats aren’t negotiating.
In a letter, House Ways and Means Democrats issued a clear warning to Speaker Boehner:
The tax filing season began on Friday, having already been delayed more than a week because of last fall’s government shutdown. Tens of millions of Americans are likely to immediately file their tax returns with the expectation that the amount they overpaid in taxes last year will be promptly returned. Secretary Lew has notified us that if Congress does not act quickly when we reach the debt ceiling on Feb. 8, the United States may run short of cash to pay its bills in just a few weeks – before the end of February. Under the current calendar, we have only eleven legislative days remaining before that deadline.
As Members of the Committee on Ways and Means, which has responsibility for our nation’s tax laws, we urge you to immediately put a clean debt limit increase on the House floor. The bill’s passage would ensure that all taxpayers receive their money back promptly and protect against an economically disastrous default on our nation’s obligations. Failure to act quickly will endanger our economic recovery and send a signal to American taxpayers that their refunds may be in jeopardy, potentially raising unnecessary panic among families awaiting their tax refunds (nearly 110 million refunds of $2,700, on average, last year).
President Obama and Congressional Democrats have been clear: we will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States. Past Republican default threats rattled our economy and cost Americans hundreds of billions of dollars in lost retirement savings, increased the cost of owning a home, and cost us hundreds of thousands of desperately needed jobs. Let’s not add delaying tax refunds to the list. We look forward to working with you to protect American taxpayers.
Democrats aren’t going to play around with Republicans on this. Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell have all been rumbling about needing to “get something” in exchange for raising the debt limit. Democrats already know how to defeat this tactic. President Obama and congressional Democrats have been successful time and time again by standing firm and waiting the Republicans out.
Boehner and company aren’t entitled to anything for doing their jobs. If the House Republicans decide to play games again, Democrats aren’t going to play along. Harry Reid and President Obama aren’t going to agree to changes in the ACA, or more cuts to social programs in exchange for raising the debt limit. It simply isn’t going to happen.
This letter from the House Ways and Means Democrats is another step in staking out their official position. Boehner and McConnell are going to get nothing, so don’t even try it.
Republicans need pass a clean debt limit increase and save the dramas for their mamas. Democrats aren’t playing along.
Darrell Issa’s Agenda Outed As He Is Labeled a Pure Enemy Of The U.S. Postal Service
Monday, February, 3rd, 2014, 9:37 am
Few Americans would argue that the American government does not have a fairly long list of enemies from around the world, but some of the government’s most dangerous enemies work in Washington and are on a crusade to take down the government. One part of the American government, the United States Postal Service, has elicited special attention from Republicans who boast they are “fighting Washington” as foes of the government, and on Friday slimy Darrell Issa was labeled “a pure enemy of the Postal Service” because he is on a crusade to destroy the agency and hand it to private industry.
The man who proclaimed Issa is a pure enemy of the Postal Service is American Postal Workers Union president Mark Dimondstein who was sounding the alarm over a pilot partnership between the USPS and Willard Romney’s old friend Staples, and warned it is a stalking horse for privatization. Dimondstein said “There hasn’t been a fight to defend the public good, and there hasn’t been a real fight around good jobs,” and said demonstrations outside Staples stores were the first of an escalating wave of protests to save the postal service. The pilot program is the USPS’s desperation attempt to stave off elimination by Republicans led by Darrell Issa who wants the 500,000 postal workers, and their union replaced with low wage retail workers and private delivery companies UPS, FedEx, and DHL.
The program gives the office supply giant authority to provide postal products and services while paying minimum wages that Dimondstein said is supplanting the responsibility of “postal employees in uniform, accountable to the people of the country and under oath of office, and fully trained to protect the privacy and the sanctity of the mail of the public.” Dimondstein acknowledged that the USPS is being forced to find the cheapest “labor doing all of those things instead” because the agency is under attack from Republicans who claim it is posting losses that are largely due to the absurd Republican law requiring the service to fund retiree benefits 75 years into the future. First, no postal employee will ever work for the USPS for 75 years, and second, the requirement demands funding for employees’ that have not yet been born, and third, Republicans make no such demand for any other entity that does work for the government; private or not.
The pre-funding requirement is an abomination that no company could survive, but that is the point of the Republican-passed 2006 law. Issa says he is not interested in destroying the postal service, but he is a liar. After the bipartisan budget deal stole government employees’ pensions, including military retirees, Issa proposed reinstating military retirees’ (only) pensions and paying for them by eliminating USPS Saturday deliveries. Issa continues to assert his primary concern is saving the profitable USPS, but making the agency pay for military retirees pensions Republicans just eliminated had nothing to do with “helping” the USPS. He was attempting to give UPS and FEDEX an inroad to take up what the postal service just lost. He cannot possibly claim his intent is not destroying the postal service when he, on the one hand, claims the USPS is unprofitable and then proposes stealing money from it to pay for reinstating military retirees’ pensions. There is only one goal for Issa and Republicans and it is handing over the postal service to private industry to destroy one of the few remaining large unions in America and eliminate 500,000 living wage jobs from the economy.
In 2010 Issa wrote in an editorial that the Post Office wants Americans’ money to protect its Constitutionally-mandated job because it asked Congress to delay requirements to pre-fund workers retirement for 75 years that would have prevented a $5.2 billion loss that year. It is worth repeating that the USPS would have posted a net profit of $600 million in 2013 without the pre-funding requirement. Issa claimed the USPS wants the American people to provide a “bailout,” and said that Congress has an obligation to fix the Postal Service’s budget imbalance not through a bailout, but through mandates to cut costs and revise labor agreements. Translation; cut costs by using private sector minimum wage workers that is the ultimate labor agreement revision. Issa said American taxpayers do not want to “bail out” the USPS because they cannot make a profit under the Republican pre-funding law, but he and his Republican cohort force American taxpayers to bail out, with subsidies, the highly profitable private oil industry, agricultural corporations, churches, and retail giants like WalMart and McDonald’s through low-wage subsidies food stamps and Medicaid.
Republicans are out to destroy the USPS because they employ over 500,000 Americans, many of them Veterans, who all happen to belong to a union and earn middle class incomes. The USPS would not have to “farm out” services to low-paying retail corporations like Staples if Republicans did not pass a requirement that no company on Earth could survive. Republicans knew the postal service would be profitable without the pre-funding requirement. One thing is certain, if it was a requirement they felt would help businesses, they would demand that churches, WalMart, McDonalds, the oil industry, and agricultural corporations that reap taxpayer subsidies while posting obscene profits follow the same requirements. The postal service is being singled out because workers make living wages, belong to unions, and are considered a government entity’s employees that put them squarely in the crosshairs for privatization Republicans are hastening by attempting to end Saturday delivery and completely phase out the postal service by 2022.
Republicans like Issa want to drive the USPS into bankruptcy to turn over constitutionally-required mail delivery to private enterprises like UPS and FEDEX who donate heavily to Republicans. Destroying the postal service is Republicans way of repaying the two private delivery companies for their continued campaign contributions, and as a special bonus they will decimate a half-a-million union jobs. Remember, Republicans want every American to work for minimum wage and join the ever-growing ranks of Americans living in poverty, and Dimondstein is absolutely correct that “There hasn’t been a fight to defend the public good, and there hasn’t been a real fight around good jobs.” Dimondstein said “The people, we think, will need to step up, and say ‘this is ours, and nobody’s going to take it away from us.” It is possible that the people will step up after a decade of Republicans taking everything away from them, and if there was ever a time to fight for good jobs, it is now when a half-a-million postal service employees are under assault from Republicans. All Republicans are enemies of the government, but the assault on the USPS’s by its pure enemy is, as Dimondstein said, “cynical and diabolical” but that is what Americans should expect from Congress’s slimiest criminal who was convicted of illegally carrying a concealed weapon, suspected of arson and stealing a car.
Mitch Ditched: 10 Polls Show McConnell Tied or Trailing Democrat Alison Grimes
By: Jason Easley
Monday, February, 3rd, 2014, 4:11 pm
Mitch McConnell is in serious danger of losing his Senate seat. The Republican leaning Rasmussen poll became the tenth poll to show Mitch McConnell either tied with, or trailing Democrat Alison Grimes.
A Rasmussen poll released today found that Grimes and McConnell are tied at 42%-42%. A PPP poll a few days earlier revealed a statistical tie, with Mitch McConnell holding a one point 43%-42% lead that was within the poll’s margin of error. The Rasmussen poll is the tenth poll that shows McConnell either trailing or tied with Democrat Alison Grimes.
The Grimes campaign released a statement which stressed that even though Sen. McConnell spent $300,000 on advertising in the state last week, the race is still tied, “The poll was conducted a full week after McConnell spent nearly $300,000 on air in that week alone; Alison For Kentucky has yet to spend a single dollar on air. This marks the tenth recent poll showing Alison tied or ahead of McConnell – another clear sign that his millions in wasteful spending are not moving his abysmal approval rating with Kentucky voters. It also comes on the heels of news that the Tea Party is starting a new Super PAC to attack Mitch McConnell’s failed record.”
The fact that the most powerful Republican in the United States Senate is spending a lot of money months before the campaign really kicks into gear is a sign that the McConnell camp knows that they are in trouble. However, Mitch McConnell has yet to propose anything that resembles a jobs plan, and his first ad was recycled and repackaged from his 2008 campaign.
Ten polls aren’t all wrong. Mitch McConnell is in deep deep trouble. McConnell needs to forget about his dream of Republicans retaking the Senate, and making him Majority Leader again. He will be lucky to hold on to his seat. 2014 may boil down to the Kentucky Senate race. If Alison Grimes defeats Mitch McConnell, Democrats will probably keep the Senate. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and it looks like Kentucky voters are pushing Mitch McConnell closer to a forced retirement.
Chris Christie Is Toast as Hillary Clinton Opens Up a 16 Point Lead In 2016 Match Up
By: Jason Easley
Monday, February, 3rd, 2014, 9:39 pm
A new CNN/ORC poll finds Chris Christie slipping further into the never going to be president netherworld, as Hillary Clinton has opened up a 16 point lead on the New Jersey governor.
Christie has gone from holding a two point advantage over Clinton in December 2012 (48%-46%) to trailing the former Sec. of State 55%-39%. Gov. Christie has seen his support plunge by 20 points with Independents (59%-39%). In the last three polls taken, Hillary Clinton’s lead has gone from eight points to twelve points to sixteen points. After Christie was booed twice at public events during Super Bowl week, Republicans are finally starting to get the hint that the New Jersey governor is seriously damaged.
In their time of freakout, Republicans are begging Jeb Bush to run. Any time a Republican was asked about 2016 on the past week’s Sunday shows, they immediately tried to tilt the conversation towards Bush. If you think you’ve heard this song before, it’s because you have. When the Republican Party was disappointed with John McCain in 2008, they longed for Jeb Bush. Mitt Romney was such a disappointed that they were openly begging for the former Florida governor. After Chris Christie’s collapse, they are now hoping that Jeb Bush is their 2016 savior.
Republicans appear to be moving on from Chris Christie, but they are in for a rude awakening if they think Jeb Bush will defeat Hillary Clinton. The destruction done to the Bush family name by George W. has not been forgotten by voters. Republicans have been reduced to finding a name that might seem somewhat electable to voters. The last thing the party wants is to see Rand Paul walk off with the Republican nomination and then get totally crushed by Clinton.
A lot can change over the next year plus, but currently Republicans are losing the only electable presidential candidate that they had. Hillary Clinton looking the an even stronger candidate than she was in 2008, while Republicans are still refusing to admit that it is the message not the messenger that is their biggest problem.
Bridge scandal: Bridget Kelly refuses to turn over documents subpoenaed by legislative committee
on February 03, 2014 at 7:07 PM, updated February 04, 2014 at 9:01 AM
Bridget Anne Kelly, considered a crucial figure in unraveling the George Washington Bridge lane closures, is refusing to produce documents and information requested under subpoena by the state legislative committee investigating the controversy, The Star-Ledger has learned.
In a letter issued today by the lawyer for Kelly, who last month was fired as Gov. Chris Christie’s deputy chief of staff after emails emerged showing she had apparently orchestrated the lane closures, Kelly cited both her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and Fourth Amendment privacy rights.
Michael Critchley, Kelly’s lawyer — widely known as an aggressive and skilled trial lawyer – wrote in the letter that, “Here, the information demanded from Ms. Kelly … directly overlaps with a parallel federal grand jury investigation being conducted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey.
“As such … Ms. Kelly asserts her rights under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution and New Jersey law and will not produce the information demanded by the Committee.”
BRIDGET KELLY'S RESPONSE TO SUBPOENA
Critchley sent the letter late today to Reid Schar, special counsel to a joint Senate and Assembly committee investigating the September lane closures. The Star-Ledger obtained a copy of the letter shortly after it was sent to Schar.
Critchley further argued that because the subpoena attempted to compel Kelly to use her "own mind" to review and analyze information, it had a "testimonial aspect" that made her use of the Fifth Amendment appropriate.
"The Fifth Amendment's protections are not limited to verbal testimony," the lawyer wrote in the letter, citing case law.
In another portion of the letter, Critchley argued certain subpoena demands were "impermissibly overbroad" and invasive.
"Providing the committee with unfettered access to, among other things, Ms. Kelly's personal diaries, calendars and all of her electronic devices amounts to an inappropriate and unlimited invasion of the Ms. Kelly's personal privacy," he wrote.
Reached by phone this evening, Critchley said the letter was "meant to ensure that my client's rights are fully protected." He also said Kelly has not received a subpoena from federal prosecutors.
The legislative committee’s deadline for subpoenas to 18 people and two organizations was today, but its leaders, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), said little on the day’s developments other than announcing that "numerous extensions" had been granted and no documents would be released to the public yet.
In response to Critchley's letter, Weinberg and Wisniewski said this evening, "We just received Mr. Critchley’s letter. We are reviewing it and considering our legal options with respect to enforcing the subpoena."
Kelly, a 41-year-old mother of four from Ramsey, is the second figure in the bridge scandal who has objected to a subpoena issued by the committee. Last Friday, Bill Stepien, a former re-election campaign manager for Christie, refused to produce information. Like Kelly, he also cited his Fifth Amendment and Fourth Amendment constitutional rights and similar state rights.
On Jan. 8, Kelly was thrust into the national spotlight — and terminated the next morning by Christie — after a string of emails involving Kelly and other associates of the governor became public. In one exchange from August, Kelly wrote to an official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge and its access lanes: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
Several weeks later, Fort Lee, a small town at the bridge's lip, faced days of historic traffic jams as Port Authority shut off lanes leading from Fort Lee onto the bridge, considered the world's busiest.
Many politicians and others claim emails made public last month show that Kelly and other Christie aides and associates conspired to close off the lanes as political payback aimed at Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who did not endorse Christie for re-election.
Wisniewski has said one aim of his legislative investigatory panel is to determine how and why Kelly conspired with the governor's allies at the Port Authority to restrict access to the bridge from Fort Lee.
The broader objective for investigators is to find out if other members of the administration were involved. Wisniewski has said Kelly has clearly been implicated with her email, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," but the assemblyman questioned whether she had authorization from a superior.
"We need to figure out why she thought she could send those orders out," Wisniewski said. "Clearly it's the middle of the conversation."
In concluding his 5-page letter to Schar -- which was packed with both case-law cites and quotes -- Critchley wrote that "there has been public and vocal criticism by certain legislators in response to past assertions of constitutional rights" in the bridge scandal.
Apparently seeking to blunt such criticism, he then quoted a U.S. Supreme Court case that addresses use of the Fifth Amendment. The quote read, "Too many, even those who should be better advised, view this privilege as a shelter for wrong-doers....The privilege serves to protect the innocent who otherwise might be ensnared in ambiguous circumstances."
Obama’s Culture of Life: The Abortion Rate Has Fallen 13% Under This President
By: Sarah Jones
Monday, February, 3rd, 2014, 10:28 am
Abortion rate peaked in 1981 under former President Reagan (though he had just taken office), and is at the lowest rate since 1973 as of 2011, under President Obama. The abortion rate had been falling until it “stalled” between 2005 and 2008, under former President Bush.
According to a new study by Guttmacher, the abortion rate fell by 13% under Obama. Declines were the steepest in the Midwest and West, and “less steep yet noteworthy” in the South and Northeast (emphasis mine):
The U.S. abortion rate declined to 16.9 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 in 2011, well below the 1981 peak of 29.3 per 1,000 and the lowest since 1973 (16.3 per 1,000), according to “Abortion Incidence and Service Availability in the United States, 2011,” by Rachel Jones and Jenna Jerman. Between 2008 and 2011, the abortion rate fell 13%, resuming the long-term downward trend that had stalled between 2005 and 2008. The number of abortions (1.1 million in 2011) also declined by 13% in this time period.
Before conservatives can get all “Yea, restricting freedom is working!”, the study also suggests that this decline is not due to state level restrictions. “While the study did not specifically investigate reasons for the decline, the authors note that the study period (2008-2011) predates the major surge in state-level abortion restrictions that started during the 2011 legislative session, and that many provisions did not go into effect until late 2011 or even later.”
The drop was also not attributed to the loss of providers.
Furthermore, Republicans didn’t really get going on their war on women until 2010, when they began a full on assault courtesy of ALEC in many cases. Guttmacher notes that states enacted “205 abortion restrictions between 2011 and 2013, more than in the entire previous decade combined.” Looking at these statistics, one might ask why Republicans have been focusing on a non-problem that was getting better every year while ignoring the glaring lack of jobs due to the Bush recession.
What caused the drop in the abortion rate? As always, the number one factor that reduces the abortion rate is birth control, and that was a factor here, as well as the recession causing more people to plan to delay or avoid pregnancy.
“Rather, the decline in abortions coincided with a steep national drop in overall pregnancy and birth rates. Contraceptive use improved during this period, as more women and couples were using highly effective long-acting reversible contraceptive methods, such as the IUD. Moreover, the recent recession led many women and couples to want to avoid or delay pregnancy and childbearing.”
Ms. Jones also observed that the availability of medical abortion has led to a shift to early abortions, which also contrasts with the Republican version of reality under President Obama.
In November of 2012, the CDC released a study that showed that under Obama the abortion rate fell by 5%, “The change from 2008 to 2009 represented the largest single year decrease in the total number and rate of reported abortions for the entire period from 2000 to 2009.” (2009 is the latest year for which there was data at that time.)
Yet Republicans (including former Speaker and GOP Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich) continue to call this President and Democrats “baby killers”, especially when they are fighting to make contraception something that insurance does NOT cover. This Republican argument makes no sense, and is only used to drum up the emotions of people who aren’t aware of the facts. The facts are that birth control and sex education are the two proven methods to reduce abortion. Democrats champion both, while Republicans obstruct and defund both.
The CDC study proved that the way to reduce abortion was to reduce unintended pregnancy (duh). The way to do this is with………..
This is what happens when a party uses an emotional issue as a get out the vote tactic but does not really care about actually ending abortion at all. After all, even if they make abortion illegal it will still go on, it will just be unsafe and harm many women. Republicans don’t want the issue of abortion to go away, because it is one of the few ways they can get their evangelical base out to vote. They had better hope the base never catches on to the truth.
This also suggests that Democrats and Obama are not necessarily “pro abortion” as the Republicans like to charge. Quite the opposite. While they are pro freedom for women to make their own medical decisions, they also seek to help women avoid these tough decisions by making birth control accessible. If we want to deal in reality, it’s Republicans who are “pro abortion”, as their policies lead to more abortions, not less.
So here we have President Obama’s Culture of Life, which fits in nicely next to his badge for being fiscally responsible, getting Osama bin Laden, and getting the stock market to record levels.
How President Obama Turned The Tables and Humiliated Roger Ailes and Fox News
By: Jason Easley
Monday, February, 3rd, 2014, 12:32 pm
It’s clear that Roger Ailes and Fox News had big plans for their Super Bowl interview with President Obama. They were going to use the biggest stage of the year to prove that the president is a failure. Instead, it was Obama who humiliated Fox News.
It was obvious from the first question that Fox News had a clear agenda for this interview with Obama. The interview got off to a horrible start when O’Reilly tried to zing Obama with the long since fixed ACA website.
This exchange set the tone:
OBAMA: — as I said, I don’t think anybody anticipated the degree of problems that you had on HealthCare.gov. The good news is that right away, we decided how are we going to fix it, it got fixed within a month and a half, it was up and running and now it’s working the way it’s supposed to and we’ve signed up three million people.
O’REILLY: I don’t know about that, because last week, there was an Associated Press call of people who actually went to the Web site and only 8 percent of them feel that it’s working well, working well.
It was typical. President Obama responded with a fact. The Republican ignored the fact, and talked about the way people feel. Right away President Obama put O’Reilly on his heels, and it was clear that the right wing host was full of hot air and had no ammo. Things would only get worse for Fox News from this point forward. The question about why the president didn’t fire HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was supposed to make it appear to viewers that Obama doesn’t hold people accountable, but the president’s answer made the right’s position look weak, and allowed Obama to continue to drive the message home that the ACA is working. It’s also at this point that O’Reilly lost control of the interview. President Obama was now driving the bus.
Obama destroyed O’Reilly’s whole line of Benghazi questions by pointing out that Fox News is keeping the conspiracy alive,
OBAMA: Bill, think about…
O’REILLY: That’s what they believe.
OBAMA: — and they believe it because folks like you are telling them that.
O’REILLY: No, I’m not telling them that.
It is always bad for Fox News when a host leaves the door open for a guest to talk about the misinformation that the network spreads. It is a disaster when it happens on national broadcast television during the Super Bowl pregame show.
The ultimate humiliation for Ailes and Fox News came when O’Reilly ventured into another favorite right wing conspiracy theory, the IRS scandal.
O’REILLY: OK, so you don’t — you don’t recall seeing Shulman, because what some people are saying is that the IRS was used…
O’REILLY: — at a — at a local level in Cincinnati, and maybe other places to go after…
OBAMA: Absolutely wrong.
O’REILLY: — to go after.
OBAMA: Absolutely wrong.
O’REILLY: But how do you know that, because we — we still don’t know what happened there?
OBAMA: Bill, we do — that’s not what happened. They — folks have, again, had multiple hearings on this. I mean these kinds of things keep on surfacing, in part because you and your TV station will promote them.
O’Reilly closed with a viewer letter about transforming America, that the president easily knocked down. He also admitted that he hadn’t been fair to the president by saying, “I think — I — you know, I know you think maybe we haven’t been fair, but I think your heart is in the right place.”
If you have read the book The Loudest Voice In The Room, this interview had Ailes’ fingerprints all over it, but the Republican propaganda master appears to be losing his touch. He has left behind the aura of frustrated conservative everyman populism that Fox News was built on, and replaced it with far right conspiracy theories that mainstream America doesn’t believe in, or care about.
President Obama controlled this interview. The president put O’Reilly on the defensive, and used his conspiracy theory based questions to demonstrate that he and the Democratic Party represent the center of current American politics. An interview that was supposed to be ultimate Obama trap, ended up revealing why Fox News is a network that is only watched by about 2 million Americans.
Barack Obama blew up Roger Ailes’ plan, and humiliated Fox News. O’Reilly and Fox News will be puffing out their chests and claiming victory today, but this interview was a resounding humiliation for the interviewer, the network, and the old man in his bullet proof office who calling the shots.
Roger Ailes may run Rupert Murdoch’s conservative news channel, but it is President Obama who owns Fox News.
Ukrainian lawmakers fail to agree to limit President Yanukovych’s powers
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 16:28 EST
Ukrainian lawmakers failed to agree on curbing the president’s powers at a stormy debate on Tuesday as the EU’s foreign policy chief flew in to bolster international pressure to end the two-month crisis.
Catherine Ashton dined with opposition leaders and on Wednesday was to meet with President Viktor Yanukovych, who a senior lawmaker said was considering calling early elections to resolve the deadly stand-off.
Parliament will meet again on Wednesday although Yanukovych’s Regions Party and the opposition appear as divided as ever.
Ukraine’s protests erupted in November after Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow, and the turmoil has now become an all-out movement to oust him.
The pro-EU protest leaders are demanding constitutional amendments that would cut presidential powers and unconditional freedom for arrested activists.
But Yanukovych’s ruling Regions Party has insisted this can only happen if occupied government buildings are vacated.
The 63-year-old Yanukovych has already scrapped draconian anti-protest laws and dismissed the prime minister and the entire cabinet — two key opposition demands.
In a sign that Yanukovych’s position is softening further, his personal representative in parliament, Yuriy Miroshnychenko, told AFP the president was considering “two possible scenarios”.
“The first is the release of occupied buildings and an amnesty and the second is early elections. The amnesty is not working out,” he said, referring to the release of those arrested in past weeks.
Protesters camped out on Kiev’s Independence Square expressed mixed feelings about the possibility of Yanukovych stepping down before the end of his mandate in 2015.
“Until we see a complete change which is not just Yanukovych, people will stand here,” said Vasyl, a campaigner from Lviv in western Ukraine.
Bogdan, an activist from Kiev, said: “It would be the best way for us. A full reset of power. Both president and parliament.”
At a pro-government camp also in the centre of the capital, 27-year-old Andriy Kucher said Yanukovych’s resignation would mean that “the military coup has been successful”.
“He was democratically elected,” Kucher said.
‘End to dictatorship’
In parliament, world champion boxer turned protest leader Vitali Klitschko called for an “end to the dictatorship” saying Ukrainians were fed up with corruption.
After meeting Yanukovych, Klitschko said the president told him that constitutional reform could take up to six months.
“I told him we don’t have time,” he said.
Opposition MPs chanted “Killers! Killers! Killers!” as the chief lawmaker from the Regions Party, Oleksandr Yefremov, took the floor with an emotional speech in which he blasted the “extremism” of the protesters.
At least two protesters and two policemen have been killed in clashes and the opposition says activists are being beaten by pro-government militias as part of a “secret repression”.
Lithuania on Tuesday confirmed signs of torture on a Ukrainian activist it is treating and urged an independent probe into the crime.
“Dmytro Bulatov…has clear signs of long-term torture and cruel treatment on his body,” the Lithuanian foreign ministry said.
Bulatov, who alleges he was kidnapped and “crucified” by unknown assailants, is a criminal suspect in Ukraine and only left on Sunday after a court issued a special permit following intense diplomatic lobbying.
The violence has increased pressure from the international community for a swift solution.
Ashton has raised the possibility of financial aid from Brussels and Washington for Ukraine’s recession-hit economy in exchange for democratic reforms but the plan is still vague.
Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk has asked for a “Marshall Plan” — a reference to the massive US aid given to Europe after World War II to rebuild and prevent the spread of Communism.
Yatsenyuk said the minimum required would be the $15 billion (11 billion euros) that Russia has promised Ukraine in a critical bailout that is now on hold pending a resolution of the crisis.
But European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said on Monday there would be “no bidding competition” with Russia, and EU diplomats hinted the amount would be much lower.
The crisis has sparked tensions between the West, which is considering sanctions against Ukrainian officials, and Russia, which has accused the EU and US of interference in the former Soviet republic.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Ashton Meets Ukraine Leader in Push to Resolve Crisis
by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 February 2014, 13:26
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday in a fresh effort to resolve a two-month crisis as lawmakers battled over a deal to curb the president's powers.
Buoyed by support from Western dignitaries including the EU's Ashton, the opposition has accused Yanukovych of dragging his feet over proposals to end the worst standoff in Ukraine's history since the fall of the Soviet Union.
"The political crisis continues," boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko said in parliament as it debated an opposition demand for a curb on presidential powers.
"People in the streets are waiting for a solution. If we don't agree on it, there will be a new wave of escalating tensions," he said.
The protest leaders want the president to reform the constitution to take away some of his powers in an effort to defuse a crisis that has pitted Ukraine's former master Russia against the West.
"I hope that already today we will be able to agree on a blueprint according to which we will be changing the constitution," the president's representative in parliament, Yuriy Myroshnychenko, told reporters.
The embattled 63-year-old leader was expected to arrive in Sochi on Friday to discuss the crisis with Putin on the sidelines of the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympic Games.
Ukraine's economy is in tatters and the government is waiting for Russia to release in full the $15 billion (11 billion euros) Putin has promised Kiev in a critical bailout that has now been put on hold pending the instalment of a new government.
The opposition for its part has called for financial aid from the West, and Ashton has raised the possibility of Western financing in exchange for democratic reforms.
"During her visit she will discuss the efforts in support of a political resolution to the crisis and how the EU can assist these efforts," said spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic, confirming that a meeting with Yanukovych had begun.
Both Brussels and Washington have threatened sanctions against Ukrainian officials amid warning the country was on the brink of "civil war."
In a concession to protesters camped out on Kiev's barricaded Independence Square, Myroshnychenko said Yanukovych was also considering an early election before the scheduled end of his mandate in 2015.
Oleksandr Yefremov, the head of Yanukovych's Regions Party in parliament, also said the president next week could unveil his nomination for prime minister after the previous cabinet resigned last month under opposition pressure.
But the opposition accuses the Ukrainian leader of seeking to win time rather than put an end to a turmoil that left several people dead and turned parts of the capital Kiev into a battle zone.
'EU ready to mediate'
Ashton dined with opposition leaders on Tuesday and was set to meet them again Wednesday, along with representatives of anti-Yanukovych civil society movements and non-governmental groups.
"The European Union's high representative Lady Ashton assured us that Europe is ready to delegate high-level mediators for negotiations with the authorities," Klitschko said.
Ukraine's protests erupted in November after Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow, and the turmoil has now become an all-out movement to oust him.
The president has already scrapped controversial anti-protest laws and dismissed the government but protesters on the streets are demanding a wholesale "reset" of power.
Under Ukraine's constitution, the president now has less than 60 days to name a new cabinet.
In a phone call Tuesday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden urged Yanukovych to pursue dialogue and compromise as he called for the "immediate" pulling back of riot police.
The opposition says that while there are now no open clashes with the police, activists are being beaten by pro-government militias as part of a "secret repression".
Lithuania on Tuesday confirmed signs of torture on Dmytro Bulatov, a Ukrainian activist it is treating, and urged an independent investigation.
Bulatov, who claims he was kidnapped and "crucified" by unknown assailants, is a criminal suspect in Ukraine and was only allowed to leave on Sunday following intense diplomatic lobbying.
Lithuania Confirms Torture of Ukrainian Activist, Urges Probe
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 February 2014, 20:50
Lithuania on Tuesday confirmed signs of torture on a prominent Ukrainian anti-government activist and urged an independent probe into the crime which could breach a related United Nations convention.
"Dmytro Bulatov...has clear signs of long term torture and cruel treatment on his body," a Lithuanian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Bulatov, who alleges he was "crucified" and tortured for days by unknown assailants in his homeland, is one of three injured Ukrainian protesters receiving free medical care in Lithuania.
"Ukraine is a party to the United Nations Convention against torture (...) nevertheless, there have been concerns with the implementation of this Convention in the country," it said.
"The European Union has to demand Kiev to launch a thorough and independent investigation into these and other related offences, and take steps to punish the perpetrators," it concluded.
Bulatov, 35, arrived in Vilnius late on Sunday, hours after a Kiev court ruled that he could leave his country for treatment.
He will hold his first press conference in the Lithuanian capital on Thursday.
The leader of the "Automaidan" movement, he organised motorcade protests outside President Viktor Yanukovych's sprawling country estate near Kiev and has been targeted by police.
Bulatov said unidentified kidnappers held him for eight days from January 22.
"They crucified me, nailed me, cut my ear off, cut my face," he said on Ukraine's Channel 5 television shortly after his release last week.
"I can't see well now, because I sat in darkness the whole time."
Images of his bloodied face sparked international outrage, with the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton saying she was "appalled by the obvious signs of prolonged torture".
Lithuania played a prominent role in EU efforts to seal a partnership deal with Ukraine. Yanukovych rejected it in November, sparking the wave of at times deadly civil unrest gripping his country.
U.S. Urges Dialogue, 'Genuine Compromise' in Ukraine
by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 February 2014, 06:33
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden urged Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych Tuesday to pursue dialogue and compromise to end the country's crisis as he called for the "immediate" pulling back of riot police.
In a phone call, Biden "emphasized that the only viable path to peace and stability in Ukraine is through continued dialogue and genuine compromise to form a new government that can earn the confidence of the Ukrainian people," the White House said in a statement.
Ukraine has been rocked by protests since November after Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow, and the turmoil has now become an all-out movement to oust him.
The pro-EU protest leaders are demanding constitutional amendments to cut presidential powers and unconditional freedom for arrested activists.
Biden urged Yanukovych to "take advantage of every opportunity, including offers of international support, to reduce tensions and build trust with the people of Ukraine in order to find a political solution to the crisis."
That, he said, included taking "immediate steps" such as pulling back riot police, letting detained protesters go and "establishing accountability for those responsible for beatings and attacks on journalists and protesters."
Ukrainian lawmakers failed Tuesday to agree on curbing the president's powers at a stormy debate that took place as the EU's foreign policy chief flew in to bolster foreign pressure to end the two-month crisis.
Catherine Ashton was to meet with Yanukovych Wednesday, who a senior lawmaker said was considering calling early elections to resolve the stand-off.
Lithuania, meanwhile, confirmed signs of torture on a Ukrainian activist it is treating and urged an independent probe into the crime.
At least two protesters and two policemen have been killed in clashes and the opposition says activists are being beaten by pro-government militias as part of a "secret repression."
02/05/2014 12:03 PM
Iraq War Critic: US Targeted Gerhard Schröder's Mobile Phone
It wasn't only Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone that was on the NSA's target list for eavesdropping. New German media reports claim the US spy agency also tapped Gerhard Schröder's phone calls in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.
Edward Snowden appeared to come very close to announcing the news himself. During his recent interview with German public broadcaster NDR, he said: "I would suggest it seems unreasonable that if anyone was concerned about the intentions of German leadership that they would only watch Merkel and not her aides, not other prominent officials, not heads of ministries or even local government officials."
Now it appears that, in addition to eavesdropping German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile communications, the National Security Agency was also eavesdropping on Gerhard Schröder's phone while he was still chancellor. On Monday night, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and NDR reported that Schröder had appeared on the so-called National Sigint Requirement List, a list of people and institutions named for targetting by the intelligence agency whose telephone communications should be monitored. Schröder was reportedly assigned the number "388" in 2002, if not sooner.
The reports cite unnamed US government and NSA insider sources claiming that Schröder was declared a target for monitoring because of his critical position on US preparations for a war in Iraq. A person with knowledge of the action is quoted as saying that the US had reason to believe that Schröder would not help lead the alliance toward success.
Responding to questions about the allegation that the NSA spied on Schröder, agency spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told SPIEGEL ONLINE the intelligence agency would not public comment on every alleged intelligence service activity.
Spying on World Leaders
When SPIEGEL reported in October 2013 that Angela Merkel's mobile phone had been tapped -- even as far back as 2002, when she headed the conservative Christian Democratic Union party before becoming German's leader -- the article prompted massive outrage in Berlin. Further stories showed that the US intelligence service had also been eavesdropping on numerous other world leaders. In a speech addressing the NSA scandal, US President Barack Obama pledged that his agencies would no longer eavesdrop on the leaders of allied countries in the future. However, he at the same time imposed conditions that still give the intelligence agencies plenty of room for maneuver.
In a report in the German weekly Bild am Sonntag published shortly after the revelations about Merkel, the newspaper cited unnamed sources claiming that Gerhard Schröder's calls had also been monitored since 2002. The paper also reported that the chancellor told confidants he was convinced the US intelligence services were eavesdropping on him. In the report published on Monday, however, Schröder told the Süddeutsche Zeitung, "At the time, I wouldn't have thought that the American services were eavesdropping on me, but now it doesn't surprise me." The newspaper cited government sources claiming that officials in Berlin have long assumed that Schröder's communications had also been tapped.
In their reports, Süddeutsche and NDR claim the NSA was tasked not only with collecting metadata, but also information about when and with whom each target was speaking. The contents of telephone calls and SMS messages were also captured. And this appears to have applied to both Merkel and Schröder as well.
The method the NSA uses to tap mobile phone calls is already publically known. A mobile phone base station tricks a mobile phone into thinking it is a real mobile phone mast and intercepts the data before transmitting it on to the real one. Any communication intercepted by one of these base stations can be captured.
Am Ambivalent Relationship with Mobile Phones
It is already public knowledge that the NSA deploys these devices. SPIEGEL reported the contents at the end of December of an entire catalogue of spying and eavesdropping devices the NSA uses. In the case of eavesdropping on Merkel's mobile phone, it is believed that the spying was conducted from the top floor of the US Embassy in Berlin.
What's noteworthy about the revelations about Schröder is that the former German leader himself had an ambivalent relationship with mobile phones. Prior to his terms as chancellor, Schröder was known to use a mobile phone, but the ex-chancellor has stated that he didn't have a cell phone during his time in office.
When asked at a 2005 public event about his favorite ring tone, he told participants: "I don't even have a mobile phone. My wife and my daughter have one, but I don't think they have any ringtones. If someone wants to reach me by mobile phone, then that person calls my secret service men or a staffer accompanying me. They then pass the mobile phone to me if it is necessary."
02/04/2014 03:17 PM
Digital Independence: NSA Scandal Boosts German Tech Industry
By Hilmar Schmundt and Gerald Traufetter
The German IT sector is hoping to profit from trust lost in American technology firms in the aftermath of the NSA spying scandal. But critics warn that plans to create a European routing system could affect the openness of the Internet.
For those interested in learning what German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière thinks of the Internet, a visit to the little-known website bevoelkerungsschutz-portal.de (population protection) can be instructive.
The website is full of information regarding Germany's response to potential catastrophes: mass epidemics, terrorist attacks, floods and the like. Last week, the site posted a video from a conference during which de Maizière discussed Internet security with the country's digital elite.
In the video, the interior minister, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, speaks of a "devastating crisis of confidence," but he shies away from explicitly naming the danger. Instead of talking about the United States' NSA intelligence agency or about whistleblower Edward Snowden, he talks of "the recent events" and of "those who collect data." He says the task is now that of rebuilding trust.
The Internet as an issue for civil protection authorities? It's not that farfetched in Germany at the moment. The revelations made public in recent months by Snowden have shown just how easy it is to spy on Germany, how poorly prepared the country's officials are and how clueless the population is.
They have also led the government to promise a large digital offensive. No matter what areas of life are affected by the web, it is to become safer, more people-friendly and more powerful. People in Germany are to regain their digital sovereignty and be able to surf the net with confidence. And the country itself is to achieve digital independence by establishing an independent infrastructure that is free of reliance on the US.
Such are the goals of the "digital agenda" that the government hopes to assemble in the first quarter of this year. And though the starting point is poor, the Snowden affair could nonetheless become something of a turning point.
The revelations he brought to the world's attention have placed huge pressure on US Internet and IT giants. Companies that until recently were both extremely powerful and enormously arrogant are now concerned that their users could flee to firms overseas. According to market analyst James Staten of Forrester Research, US companies could stand to lose up to $180 billion (€133.2 billion) in turnover by 2016 as a result of distrustful customers. More conservative estimates place the potential losses at $35 billion.
The first signs of trouble can already be found on the balance sheets of the big players. Both IBM and Cisco have seen precipitous falls in foreign sales, particularly in China. Meanwhile, Google and Facebook are pleading with the government in Washington to exert more control over the country's intelligence agencies out of fear of a user revolt.
Microsoft also generated headlines when, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the company announced that foreign customers in the future would be able to store their data on local Microsoft data centers near where they live. The use of local clouds in data centers located in the Netherlands and Ireland is already possible now, but most customers are unaware of the service.
Critics have begun warning of the "Balkanization of the Internet" and doubt whether merely storing data on local servers will protect it from American intelligence. Microsoft, for example, with its headquarters in Redmond, will still have to continue obeying American law and turning over confidential data in some cases.
As a result, companies like Deutsche Telekom have demanded that data be processed within Europe to the degree possible. But the idea, known as "Schengen Routing," has been received with skepticism by European Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes. "It is not realistic to contain data within Europe. You cannot put up border controls. That would destroy the openness of the Internet," she told SPIEGEL.
Kroes, a native of Holland, is thus focusing on the development of a seal of quality for data protection within the framework of the European Cloud Partnership, as Europe's efforts toward establishing a digital single market for cloud computing in Europe is called. She wants to "force all companies active in Europe to report any kind of data breach, be it from hackers or from government agencies. This will be part of the Network Security Directive. Each country would be required to create a trusted platform where these data breaches must be reported by companies."
It is a proposal that could be seen as a threat on the other side of the Atlantic, but it represents an opportunity for Germany. "Our best marketing employee is Edward Snowden," goes a joke often heard these days within Germany's IT industry.
Indeed, optimism is spreading. Merkel's new government "has a unique opportunity to advance Germany as a place for doing business," says Philipp Otto from the information portal iRights Cloud.
"The Snowden effect is real," agrees Ali Jelveh, co-founder of the firm Protonet. "Many mid-sized companies that have thus far managed their communications using cloud services are now interested in re-establishing their digital sovereignty."
Jelveh, from Hamburg, has a product to fulfil such wishes. It is an elegant, orange-colored metal box: essentially a personalized cloud with a massive storage capacity. The company calls it "the simplest server in the world."
The Need for Encryption
Jelveh was born in Iran and his family was torn apart by the country's revolution and the ensuing war. He has little faith in state promises of security. Because it is difficult to attract venture capital in Germany, he requested support using the crowdfunding platform Seedmatch -- and was vastly successful. He raised the €200,000 he needed within a mere 48 minutes. Soon, he plans to expand to the US.
The small start-up Protonet is in some ways typical for the Internet sector in Berlin, with company names that are largely unknown. The list includes Secunet, G-Data, Boxcryptor, Secomba and others. A newcomer in recent years is the Berlin-based start-up Posteo. The company has nine employees and offers an encrypted e-mail service which, in contrast to many of its competitors, is easy to use and has received top marks from evaluators. Since the Snowden revelations, the number of accounts at the company has quadrupled.
Although these companies are small and relatively vulnerable, they could be nurtured by the state in order to give them a fighting chance of becoming bigger players. Current practices in Germany, however, make that especially difficult. When it comes to putting out IT security infrastructure to bid, for example, German government agencies are far more inclined to give their business to large, often American, firms rather than small German companies.
Can the Government Help?
Politicians say they want to change this. Brigitte Zypries of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- who for a few weeks now has been a senior official at the Economics Ministry responsible for the digital economy -- is pledging creative new Internet projects in all government ministries, including her own. "In addition to crowdfunding, we also want to see if a new market segment can be created on the stock markets in order to make it easier for Internet companies to raise venture capital," she said.
It will take a long time before any of that happens. For one thing, the reallocation of responsibilities, which is common with any new government, hasn't made the environment for change any simpler. The Transportation Ministry, for example, has been given extensive new responsibilities for Internet infrastructure. Its head, Alexander Dobrindt, is a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's conservatives. Dobrindt is very conscious of his own political muscle and isn't afraid to flex it. During the 11th hour of negotiations to form the new government, Dobrindt, who is calling himself the "Internet Minister," secured responsibility for the development of the country's digital infrastructure, stepping on the toes of those who were previously responsible for this area.
Many are staffers at the Economics Ministry. At the beginning of this year, Dobrindt sent a letter to the ministry stating that he wanted to transfer the entire Economics Ministry department responsible for digital infrastructure to the Transportation Ministry.
As might have been expected, Dobrindt ruffled feathers with Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD, who is also Merkel's deputy chancellor in their power-sharing coalition government. Gabriel rejected the former CSU general secretary's demand, agreeing only to allow two staffers to move to the Transportation Ministry -- the officials responsible for expanding the broadband network and the mobile phone network. The uproar was so great among Economics Ministry officials that Gabriel had to quiet them earlier this month by saying employees wouldn't be lost in "wrestling over areas of responsibility." He added: "There's plenty of work here for everyone."
A Hodge-Podge of Responsibilities
As Gabriel and Dobrindt quarreled, a third cabinet member held his own Internet conference to announce his ministry's plans. Interior Minister de Maizière, also had the Internet on his agenda during his short stint as head of the ministry during Merkel's second term as chancellor. At the time, though, his focus was largely on reining in terrorist and criminal threats on the Internet.
A hodge-podge of digital responsibility is also emerging in Germany's federal parliament. Previously, the economics and consumer protection committees had been responsible for digital issues, but now a "digital agenda" committee has been created.
The existing committees, of course, are in no way keen to cede authority for Internet-related issues, particularly when it comes to legislative procedures. If that weren't all confusing enough, plans are also afoot to establish expert panels. Each government minister appears to want to create his or her own.
Worry is growing among Germany's Internet activist community that ineffective institutions will ultimately be the result. "The politicians are once again getting caught up in petty jealousies," says Holger Mühlbauer of the Federal Association of IT Security.
But Lars Klingbeil, the SPD spokesman for the digital agenda committee in parliament, seeks to calm such fears. "We consider ourselves to be a coordinated institution," he says, calling on those who are pursuing their own course to close ranks. "Net politics needs to finally grow up, and that can only happen if we pull together."
Last week, the new German government unceremoniously missed its first opportunity to strengthen Germany's position as an IT player. During a meeting of the European Union interior and justice ministers in Athens, the German government blocked the EU's planned new Data Protection Directive.
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey
PIG PUTIN'S RUSSIA
Russian news channel TV Rain may close after main carrier pulls plug
Top satellite provider says it will stop airing opposition news channel next week, in what station chiefs say is political attack
Luke Harding and agencies in Moscow
The Guardian, Tuesday 4 February 2014 18.20 GMT
Russia's only opposition cable news channel faces the prospect of closure after the country's main satellite TV provider said it would pull the plug on broadcasts from next week.
TV Rain, one of the few surviving sources of independent news in a landscape dominated by state media, said it was now on the brink of bankruptcy. Tricolor TV announced on Monday that it was dumping the channel from 10 February.
Several other providers over the last week have also dropped the channel from their television packages. Staff say it is a political move, planned for some months and choreographed from behind the scenes by Pig V. Putin's administration.
The ostensible pretext for the decision was an online poll conducted by the channel last month. It asked whether the Soviets should have surrendered Leningrad during the second world war in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives. The poll appeared on the 70th anniversary of the siege of Leningrad, in which 800,000 people died.
The editors later removed it and issued an apology in the wake of a furious and co-ordinated attack by pro-Kremlin deputies. They have called on the general prosecutor's office to investigate the station for alleged extremism. Pig Putin's press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the channel had crossed a moral red line. Soon afterwards providers started pulling it from the air.
Tricolor's move will wipe out the channel's audience, reducing the number of Russian households that can access TV Rain from 17.4 million to as few as 500,000.
At a press conference in Moscow on Tuesday, Natalya Sindeyeva, TV Rain's general director, said the station was heavily reliant on advertising revenue for survival. This had now vanished, she said. The channel would offer its programmes to operators for free, she said, in an attempt to continue broadcasting.
The editor-in-chief, Mikhail Zygar, told agencies: "Tricolor TV is the largest operator. Its departure is a turning point. This is a red line which makes conclusively clear that a serious war is being waged against us."
Launched in 2010, TV Rain – known in Russian as Dozhd – covered the anti-government demonstrations in 2010-11, as well as the trial of two members of the punk band Pussy Riot, and the release of the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Its audience grew rapidly, especially among better-educated and middle class Russians who have been at the forefront of anti-Pig Putin protests. Its style is lively and pugnacious.
"We were waiting for this to happen and it happened," Tonia Samsonova, London correspondent for the Echo of Moscow radio station and TV Rain, told the Guardian. She said the campaign against the channel followed a squeeze on Russia's last remaining independent media outlets, which began when the Pig came to power in 2000 and had accelerated since his return to the Kremlin in 2011 for a third stint as president.
"It's impossible to be an independent, liberal, privately owned media channel in Pig Putin's Russia," she said. "There were rumours in late December we were going to be shut down. Everybody knows that someone has put pressure on broadcasters. This is the way the Kremlin operates. Not through legislation but financial blockade."
Asked why Kremlin officials should act now, on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, a showcase event for the Pig , she said: "They don't care about this. It isn't something that influences President Obama, or Merkel, or the International Olympic Committee."
Separately, the US ambassador to Moscow, Mike McFaul, announced he was quitting Russia after two turbulent years in the job. McFaul is the architect of the Obama administration's reset policy towards Russia – an attempt to improve relations following years of strain between Pig Putin and Obama's predecessor, George W Bush.
Soon after arriving, McFaul found himself the target of Kremlin-sponsored vitriol from Russia's state media. Since 2011 under the Pig, anti-Americanism has risen to spectacular levels.
The ambassador announced his departure in a blogpost on Tuesday, saying he would leave after the Sochi Winter Olympics. He explained that, having lived apart from his wife for seven months, "it is time for the family to be reunited".
He wrote: "I love my job here. It has been a tremendous honour to represent my country in Russia and I made this decision with a heavy heart. I will greatly miss interacting with my partners in the Russian government and with Russians from all sectors of society and business. I also will miss being part of a fantastic team at Embassy Moscow."
A longtime Stanford University professor, McFaul said he would be returning to California. His wife and two sons returned home last year.
Russia: Civil society activist arrested ahead of start of Sochi Olympics
Yevgeny Vitishko was arrested on 3 February near Sochi and charged with “petty hooliganism”, allegedly for swearing.
© Amnesty International
Vitishko's name has now become synonymous with harassment of civil society activists in the run-up to Sochi Games. Vitishko and his friends have been trying to expose environmental violations during the preparation of the Sochi Olympics. For this they are being punished. By trying to lock him up as a 'petty hooligan' the authorities are trying to gag him.
As the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics comes closer, harassment against civil society activists has intensified, Amnesty International said today after the arrest of an environmentalist for allegedly swearing in public.
Yevgeny Vitishko was arrested today in Tuapse, part of the Sochi area where the Games will take place. He has been reportedly charged with “petty hooliganism”, allegedly for swearing previously at a bus stop.
At a court hearing today he was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention.
“Vitishko's name has now become synonymous with harassment of civil society activists in the run-up to Sochi Games. Vitishko and his friends have been trying to expose environmental violations during the preparation of the Sochi Olympics. For this they are being punished. By trying to lock him up as a 'petty hooligan' the authorities are trying to gag him,” said Denis Krivosheev, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director.
“The concern is what will happen to civil society after the closure of the Olympics after the international focus moves away.”
Yevgeny Vitishko and his fellow activists have been actively involved in protests regarding the deforestation and illegal construction and fencing in areas of protected forest around Sochi.
In 2012, he received a suspended sentence in connection with an environmental protest. Last December, a court in Tuapse ruled that he should serve three years in prison for violating a curfew associated with the suspended sentence. His appeal hearing was reportedly scheduled for 22 February 2014, but now all information regarding it has been conspicuously removed from the court’s website.
Amnesty International has already raised concern about his unfair trial which resulted in a court decision to send him to prison colony for three years. His arrest comes as he is awaiting his appeal hearing.
Vitishko's supporters fear that he will be held in custody until the day of his appeal under administrative charges, and then be sent to a prison colony.
Environmental activist monitoring Sochi Olympics jailed for five days
• Second activist to be detained in region this week
• Found his car smashed up outside his house
theguardian.com, Wednesday 5 February 2014 11.24 GMT
An activist who has been shedding light on environmental fallout from the Sochi Olympics has been jailed for five days for resisting police.
Igor Kharchenko is the second activist to be detained in the region in three days.
Kharchenko was grabbed on the street in the regional capital of Krasnodar as he left his house and found his car smashed, his associate Olga Soldatova said on Wednesday.
Police took him to the police station where he was charged with resisting police orders.
Soldatova said Kharchenko was put on trial without a lawyer.
Like Yevgeny Vitishko, who was jailed on Monday for swearing in public, Kharchenko is a member of the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, a group that has been monitoring the environmental effects of Olympic construction.
An Olympics in the Shadow of a War Zone
By STEVEN LEE MYERS
FEB. 5, 2014
The Olympic Games that begin this week in Russia will be held just around the corner from one of the most violent parts of Europe.
BAKSAN, Russia — On Friday, exactly a week before the Olympics were set to open just 180 miles away, Russia’s security forces appeared on Makhov Street at 8:30 a.m. and cordoned off the area around a brick and stone house. One of the men inside called his father, who said it was the first he had heard from his son in 10 months.
“He said, ‘Papa, we’re surrounded,' ” the father said. “ 'I know they’re going to kill us.’ Then he said farewell.”
The Russians and the men inside exchanged gunfire, pausing only to allow a woman and two children to leave the house. By the time the shooting ended in the afternoon, four men inside were dead, according to official accounts. The Russians then blew up the house, leaving a bloodied pile of rubble and a crowd of sullen, angry neighbors.
For the first time in history, the Olympics are being held on the edge of a war zone. The conflict is one of the longest running in the world, a simmering, murky battle between increasingly radicalized militants who operate in the shadows of society and a security force that can be brutal, even when lethally effective.
The symbolic importance of the Games for Russia and for President Vladimir V. Putin has turned Sochi itself into a tantalizing target for Islamic terrorists who have vowed a wave of attacks to advance their goal of establishing an independent caliphate across the North Caucasus.
The threat has prompted the Kremlin to mount what officials and experts have described as the most extensive security operations in the history of sporting events, sealing off the city and conducting months of operations like the one here to crush militant cells across a region that stretches from Dagestan on the Caspian Sea to Sochi on the Black Sea, using tactics that critics say only fuel more violence.
“It’s terrifying what’s happening now: the total destruction of our youth,” the father said, agreeing to speak only if not identified because he feared reprisal. “Everyone is scared. Everyone is running away. Some go to Moscow. Some further away. People start to protect themselves after things like this.”
The Olympics have focused new attention on this country’s most-wanted terrorist, Doku Umarov, and threats of fanatical attacks like the ones in Volgograd that killed 34 people in December when suicide bombers struck mass transit. But the war in Russia more often takes the shape of events in places like Baksan. Rustam Matsev, a lawyer in the republic, Kabardino-Balkaria, called it “a slow-motion civil war.”
Even if Russia succeeds in keeping Sochi safe, the violence is certain to grind on here in the Caucasus when international attention moves on, nurtured by the nihilistic ideology of the international jihad and punctuated by terrorist attacks outside the region that experts say Russia, like other countries, will never be able to prevent completely.
“You don’t need much to do this,” said Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, the North Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group. “You need a committed jihadi and a bomb, which is quite cheap and you can make it at home. It’s difficult to deal with.”
In 2013, violence between militants and security forces left 529 people dead in the North Caucasus, according to a list compiled by the news site Caucasian Knot that does not include the attacks in Volgograd, a city farther north. Of those killed, 127 were Russian security officers, a death toll on a scale of the 160 soldiers who died during the same period in NATO’s war in Afghanistan.
The level of violence has dropped significantly since tens of thousands died during Russia’s two wars against separatists in Chechnya, who once hoped the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 would clear the way for the republic’s independence. The second war, under Mr. Putin’s leadership, lasted 10 years, but it crushed the rebels and drove the Chechen rebel commanders underground or “into the forest.” There, they gradually turned the cause of Chechnya’s independence into a broader, more radical vision of holy war that has little popular support but has nonetheless attracted adherents across the region.
Chechnya is no longer even the deadliest republic in the region, according to Caucasian Knot, having been surpassed in deaths and injuries last year by some of its neighbors, notably Dagestan, now the most dangerous region in Russia; Ingushetia; and Kabardino-Balkaria.
Mr. Umarov, who is described as Russia’s Osama bin Laden, has led the insurgency since 2006, but his influence and operational command are now a matter of dispute. Many officials and experts describe him as little more than a figurehead for a diffuse constellation of terrorist cells operating independently. Some think he might even be dead.
“For an insurgent, he’s quite an old guy,” Ms. Sokirianskaia said. “He’s nearly 50. He’s had many injuries. I can’t rule out that he’s dead.”
The terrorist cells are now so small and so deeply underground that they appear unable to undertake the sort of large-scale operations that seared Russia early in Mr. Putin’s rule, including the siege of a theater in Moscow in 2002 and a school in Beslan in 2004, both of which involved dozens of fighters.
“There is no real organization there,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security forces from New York University who is now conducting research in Moscow. “There are people who are networked together.”
He expressed doubt that Mr. Umarov would have known in advance of the bombings in Volgograd, for example, even though a previously unknown cell from Dagestan claimed responsibility for it last month, saying that it was carrying out his threat last summer to attack the Games.
As the attacks in Volgograd showed, the insurgents can still carry out spectacular and deadly suicide attacks against “soft” targets like trains, stations and buses, if not at will, then at least with appalling regularity. While attacks in the Caucasus often target Russian security operations, those outside appear intended to maximize terror by striking at civilians. That kind of attack, rather than one in Sochi itself, experts say, is more likely during the Olympics.
The Spread of Rebel Attacks in the North Caucasus
Russia Takes Over Violence started to spread beyond the borders of Chechnya after Russia retook control of the republic in 2000. That year, Russian forces pushed rebels into mountainous and forested areas near and across the borders with neighboring provinces.
While suicide bombings have been a recurring tactic since the second Chechen war — giving life to the lurid mythology of the “black widows,” women avenging the deaths of husbands, fathers, brothers or sons — the motive has shifted, according to Ms. Sokirianskaia. Those women now, she said, are driven less by a clear political goal than by the pursuit of martyrdom and heavenly reward.
Paradoxically, the most radicalized vision of an Islamic insurgency has little appeal among the majority of people in the region. There is no cult of martyrdom here except online. While the region is overwhelmingly Muslim, few appear to support either the goal of separatism or the imposition of an explicitly Islamic form of government.
The actions of the Russian security officers, however, fuel resentment, as do ethnic tensions and impoverishment. In Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital, Nalchik, a sense of disenfranchisement resulted in an uprising against security forces in 2005 that resulted in 135 deaths.
Muslim Presence in the Region
The North Caucasus has been in turmoil since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The separatist insurgency in Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim republic, gained a religious tone in its war against Russia. Violence and collective punishments by Russian forces aggravated Muslims in the region, and boosted an Islamist insurgency.
“People do not support them actively, but they do not resist,” Murat Khokonov, a professor of physics at Kabardino-Balkaria State University, said of the insurgent networks. “They don’t trust the security structures. They don’t trust the police.”
The insurgency has been driven so far underground that the reverberations in society are usually felt only when militants battle police. On the night of Jan. 11, in a small village near Baksan, Khizir Tlyepshev told his wife that he was leaving for the public bathhouse shortly before Russia’s security forces cordoned off the area, searching for four men who had sprayed a police car with bullets. When officers came to their house, they demanded to know the location of a bunker. “What bunker?” his wife, Ramyeta, said she had told them.
Ten days later, officers in masks came a second time.
Inside a chicken coop behind the house, where the Tlyepshevs’ four children often played, the officers uncovered a shallow trench, and there, the authorities said, they found four containers with more than 100 pounds of explosives. Mrs. Tlyepsheva said she had no idea the trench was there, how the explosives were put there or whether her husband could have been involved.
Mr. Tlyepshev, who has not returned or contacted his wife since that night, worked as a builder. Like the majority of Muslims in southern Russia, he showed no outward signs of embracing a radical strain of Islam, let alone aiding the amorphous networks of fighters who do, his wife said. She does not know whether he is in custody or in hiding, an accomplice of Russia’s insurgency or a victim of its security forces. She does not know if he is alive.
“I feel like I’m trapped between them,” Mrs. Tlyepsheva said.
On the eve of Sochi, even the Olympics, portrayed by officials and state news media as a unifying celebration of the country’s re-emergence on the world stage, are regarded with ambivalence here. The monumental relay of the Olympic flame, a staged event that went as far as the North Pole and the International Space Station, was sharply curtailed in the Caucasus, held inside well-guarded stadiums, including those in Dagestan, in Chechnya and, last week, in Nalchik.
Many of the ethnic groups in the Caucasus are related to the Circassians, who consider Sochi part of their homeland, conquered by the Russians in the 19th century after what activists today hope to publicize as an act of genocide.
A Diverse Landscape
The crest of the Caucasus divides Europe and Asia. The region is home to dozens of ethnic groups. Much of the area is a cultural patchwork where languages can vary from one valley to the next.
Valery Khatashukov, the chairman of the Human Rights Center in Nalchik, said that Russia stirred resentment by continuing to treat the region as a colony to be conquered. Instead of holding elections, Mr. Putin’s Kremlin simply appoints leaders, leaving the people disenfranchised.
Mr. Matsev, the lawyer, echoed the ambivalence of the plight that ensnared Mrs. Tlyepsheva’s husband. She did not oppose the police. Nor did she support the insurgency.
“It’s like an unhappy marriage where there can be no divorce,” he said “There is too much in common to divorce — the ties are too close — but too much has happened to be happy together.”
Andrew Roth contributed reporting.
Terrorism and Tension for Sochi, Not Sports and Joy
FEB. 4, 2014
Sports of The Times
By JULIET MACUR
SOCHI, Russia — One of my neighbors who doesn’t follow the news stopped me a few days before I flew to the Winter Olympics. She was excited to hear that I was going to Russia, and told me how lucky I was.
Could I pick up some souvenirs for her, she asked, perhaps some nesting dolls — you know, the colorful, babushka-wearing wooden toys of decreasing size that fit inside one another?
Nesting dolls? Her request threw me. In the lead-up to the Olympics, it was hard to think about anything quaint about Russia, not when the focus has been on terrorism and security. There’s nothing like a report about a “black widow” suicide bomber having infiltrated secure Olympic areas to douse one’s enthusiasm for the Winter Games.
To sober things up even more, 40 gay organizations have demanded that the top Olympics sponsors speak out against the legislation Russia passed last summer that is considered antigay, saying that those companies are risking their reputation because they haven’t taken a stand. Has that issue reached its boiling point?
We’ll find out soon. At the same time, athletes will be winning medals. But will anyone notice?
Never before has the pre-Olympic chatter been less about the athletes or the sports. And never before has the conversation leading to the Games been so grim: suicide bombers have struck Volgograd, about 400 miles north of Sochi, three times since the fall — including strikes in December that killed at least 34 people.
Global security experts have called this the most dangerous Games ever, based on the location of the competitions, the seriousness of the threats (including one from the head of a terrorist organization who last summer lifted a moratorium on civilian targets), and the capability of terrorist groups to carry out their plans (several in that region already have).
“It was a very, very risky decision for the Olympic committee” to hold the Olympics in Sochi, said Andrew C. Kuchins, the director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a security think tank in Washington. He basically said what is on the minds of many people headed to the Games, and the many people — including athletes’ families and friends — who were too scared to attend.
What was the International Olympic Committee thinking?
Seven years ago, the I.O.C. awarded the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi, making it the first subtropical host of the Winter Olympics. Its voters were wooed by President Vladimir V. Putin’s pitch for the Games, as well as his charm, both of which he delivered to voters in person.