15 December 2012 - 05H14
Japan election candidates make final pitches
AFP - Hundreds of candidates vying for a seat in Japan's parliament are making their final pitches in an election expected to see the return of the country's old guard.
Opinion polls show the Liberal Democratic Party on course for a convincing victory in Sunday's lower house election, over Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Democratic Party of Japan.
Hawkish LDP leader Shinzo Abe is predicted to return to the premiership, a job he held without much distinction in 2006-7, in a move that may herald a hardening of Japan's foreign policy at a time of heightened tensions with China.
As light rain fell over Tokyo, some of the over 1,500 candidates running in the poll stood before train stations to make final pleas to voters, while their staff held banners with the candidates names and parties printed in bold typeface.
Abe donned a white windbreaker to speak with with voters in Wako-city, Saitama prefecture, north of the capital, reiterating his promise to reform Japan's education system, Kyodo News said.
Abe has pledged in previous campaign speeches to "repair the Japan-US alliance and firmly defend our territorial soil and waters".
Candidates have until 8:00 pm (1300 GMT) to campaign.
In one of the last gauges of the public mood before Sunday's vote, polls published Friday showed the LDP and its junior coalition party set to achieve a possible two-thirds majority in the lower house ballot.
That would hand Abe a mandate to try to fulfil his campaign pledge of bolstering Japan's military and coastal defences, particularly on the Tokyo-controlled Senkaku islands, which Beijing claims as the Diaoyus.
On Thursday Japan scrambled fighter jets after a Chinese plane entered airspace over the Japanese-held chain. Tokyo said it was the first time a Chinese state-owned plane had breached its airspace.
North Korea's rocket launch earlier this week could also boost the right-wing vote in a country that lives uneasily next door to an unpredictable Pyongyang.
Polls indicate that despite a strong current of anti-nuclear feeling since the March 2011 tsunami sparked reactor meltdowns at Fukushima, an array of smaller parties promising an atomic exit may struggle to gain traction.
On the economic front Abe has been vocal in calls to tackle deflation that has beset the economy, vowing to impose a three percent inflation target on the Bank of Japan and forcing it to buy bonds -- effectively deficit financing.
He has since rowed back after criticism he was endangering the independence of the central bank. But his comments helped pull down the high yen, delighting exporters hit hard by the surging currency.
The Democratic Party of Japan struggled in government to live up to the promise of its barnstorming 2009 election win that cracked the LDP's half-century virtual stranglehold on power.
December 14, 2012
A Political Pendulum in a Disgruntled Japan
By MARTIN FACKLER
KANAZAWA, Japan — The lesson of Japan’s last major national election was that the nation’s growing hunger for change had seemed to reach a threshold, a craving that became more intense after the Fukushima disaster exposed the failures of a collusive political system that protected the nuclear industry.
Now, just three years after that election and less than two years after the nuclear crisis, voters appear poised to hand power back to the Liberal Democratic Party, which they kicked out in the historic vote in 2009 that ended its virtually uninterrupted hold on power for half a century.
It is still possible that other parties could win enough votes in the lower house election on Sunday to force a coalition government. Polls show up to half of the voters are undecided, itself a sign that the hopes generated three years ago for reform have faded. But forecasts of vote tallies by major newspapers have been unanimous in predicting a resounding victory for the Liberal Democrats, whom many Japanese blame for creating the country’s deep economic and political problems.
News reports regularly feature photos of a smiling Shinzo Abe, a nationalistic former prime minister who, as party chief, now appears likely to get a second chance at running the nation.
Those searching for an answer to how Japan could reinstall its old guard need look no further than the predominantly rural election district that includes Kanazawa, a small city on the frigid Sea of Japan. On a recent evening, about 100 supporters of the local Liberal Democratic candidate braved a hailstorm to gather in a community center surrounded by barren rice paddies.
They sat politely listening in stockinged feet as the candidate, Hiroshi Hase, explained that his party was much more reform-minded than before 2009, when this district voted for the opposition despite the Liberal Democrats’ still-formidable rural vote-gathering machine. Then, after bowing deeply, he laid out a party platform that in some ways sounded unchanged from decades past, emphasizing increased public works spending — the sort of vote-buying move that many Japanese say helped create the nation’s huge debt problems.
When the speech ended, members of the audience stood to yell “Fight!” while punching their fists into the air.
But some people later said they were disappointed at the lack of bold measures to end Japan’s long malaise. Still, Toru Kondo, 49, a furniture maker, said he would vote for the Liberal Democrats to show his disgust with the incumbent Democrats. He voted for the Democrats in the last election in this former Liberal Democratic stronghold, only to feel betrayed by their failure to deliver on promises to end Japan’s long economic and political stagnation.
“Personally, I’m about 51 percent in favor of the Liberal Democratic Party, and 49 percent against it,” he said. “I know the party created Japan’s problems, but it seems the only choice.”
Experts say that sentiment is shared widely across Japan, where disgruntled voters seem determined to punish the Democrats not just for failing to rein in Japan’s powerful central bureaucracies, but also for mishandling the nuclear crisis.
At the same time, most voters have not viewed as credible alternatives a host of new parties that have sprung up with offers of more radical reform. Voters were captivated earlier this year by the brash and decisive young mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, who became for a time Japan’s most popular politician with promises to break the central ministries’ stifling grip.
But even his new party’s fortunes faltered after he decided against running for Parliament, precluding his becoming prime minister, and instead joined forces with Shintaro Ishihara, the octogenarian, ultranationalist former governor of Tokyo. And an antinuclear party that tried to capitalize on Japanese foreboding after the Fukushima disaster made little headway.
Mr. Kondo and more than a dozen other voters said in interviews here that they were leery of supporting yet another untried newcomer. “So long as a third political pole fails to form, the only way to throw out the Democratic Party is to go back to the Liberal Democratic Party,” said Takao Iwami, an author of books on politics.
What exactly that would mean for Japan is somewhat unclear, as the Liberal Democrats follow the well-worn path of trying to focus on what their audiences want to hear, and as the challenges facing Japan shift with China’s ascendance. Despite Mr. Hase’s emphasis on the old-style economics of construction projects, the party is offering at least one important economic change: saying it would tackle the high value of the yen, which has crippled Japanese exports and accelerated an industrial hollowing-out.
And while Mr. Abe, the party leader, is one of the country’s most vocal nationalists, it is unclear how he would handle a dispute with China, Japan’s largest overseas market, over islands in the East China Sea. In his last term as prime minister, Mr. Abe was considered a fence-mender, making Beijing his first official stop after taking office in an effort to end hard feelings over the previous prime minister’s visits to a shrine where war criminals from World War II are honored. But Mr. Abe has campaigned on building a stronger military to check China’s growing assertiveness.
Some experts say the wild swings in public support for the country’s leading parties are at least partly a result of the decades of virtual one-party rule. Large parties, like the Liberal Democrats, have tried to offer something for everyone, rather than offering an ideology to build loyalty.
“We are still seeing the creative destruction of the old postwar, one-party system,” said Gerald L. Curtis, a professor of Japanese politics at Columbia University.
The lack of voter passion has perhaps been captured best by one of the dominant images of the campaign: photos of former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, of the governing party, who is running to maintain his parliamentary seat in a Tokyo suburb. They show him standing on a white box bearing a slogan that is the Japanese equivalent of “no nukes,” appealing desperately to passing commuters who mostly ignore him.
December 14, 2012
Opposition to Labor Camps Widens in China
By ANDREW JACOBS
BEIJING — It is hard to say exactly which “subversive” sentiments drew the police to Ren Jianyu, who posted them on his microblog last year, although “down with dictatorship” and “long live democracy” stand out.
In the end, Mr. Ren, 25, a college graduate from Chongqing, the southwestern metropolis, was sent without trial to a work camp based on the T-shirt that investigators found in his closet: “Freedom or death,” it said.
Last year Mr. Ren was among tens of thousands of Chinese who were dumped into the nation’s vast “re-education through labor” system, a Stalinist-inspired constellation of penal colonies where pickpockets, petitioners, underground Christian church members and other perceived social irritants toil in dismal conditions for up to four years, all without trial. With as many as 190,000 inmates at any one time, it is one of the world’s largest systems of forced labor.
But now the labor system, known by its shorthand, “laojiao,” is facing a groundswell of opposition from both inside and outside the Communist Party. Critics say the once-in-a-decade leadership transition last month, which included the demotion of the chief of the nation’s vast internal security apparatus, has created a potential opening for judicial and legal reform.
“It’s high time we demolish this unconstitutional and abusive system that violates basic human rights, fuels instability and smears the government’s image,” said Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology who frequently rails against the system that Mao Zedong created in the 1950s to take down suspected class enemies and counterrevolutionaries.
The calls for change go beyond longstanding advocates of political reform like Professor Hu. China’s national bar association is circulating an online petition that has been signed by thousands. Legal experts have convened seminars to denounce the system. And almost every day, it seems, the state-run news media, with the top leadership’s tacit support, report on hapless citizens ensnared by the arbitrary justice that the local police impose with the wave of a hand.
Mr. Ren’s case would probably have gone unnoticed if not for China’s increasingly emboldened human rights defenders, who showcased his plight on the Internet. Evidently prodded by the torrent of news coverage, Chongqing officials cut short his two-year sentence and freed him.
“It was a depressing, dreadful experience,” Mr. Ren said in a telephone interview this month, describing long days spent in the camp’s wire-coiling workshop.
Other examples abound. A migrant worker from Inner Mongolia was sent away for quarreling with an official at a restaurant. A mother from Hunan Province was given an 18-month sentence after she publicly protested that the men who had raped and forced her 11-year-old daughter into prostitution had been treated too leniently.
This month an 80-year-old Korean War veteran with Parkinson’s disease sobbed on national television as he described spending 18 months in a labor camp as punishment for filing local corruption complaints.
People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, took aim at the system last month, saying it had become “a tool of retaliation” for local officials. In October the head of a government judicial reform committee noted a broad consensus in favor of addressing the system’s worst abuses.
And in a widely circulated recent essay, the vice president of the Supreme People’s Court, Jiang Bixin, argued that the government must act within the law if it is to survive. “Only with constraints on public power can the rights and freedoms of citizens be securely realized,” he wrote.
China’s incoming president, Xi Jinping, has not yet weighed in on the issue, but reform advocates are encouraged by a speech he gave this month talking up the widely ignored protections afforded by China’s Constitution, which include freedom from unlawful detention and the right to an open trial. “We must establish mechanisms to restrain and supervise power,” Mr. Xi said.
Until now, China’s powerful security establishment has staved off any erosion of its authority, warning of calamity if the police lose their ability to detain perceived troublemakers without the interference of judges or defense lawyers.
The Ministry of Public Security has other reasons to preserve the status quo. The system, which employs tens of thousands of people, is a gold mine for local authorities, who earn money from the goods produced by detainees. Officials also covet the bribes offered to reduce sentences, critics say, and the payments families make to ensure a loved one is properly fed while in custody.
Zhou Yongkang, who retired last month as the chief of domestic security, was known to scare senior leaders with the specter of social chaos — and the party’s loss of power — if the extralegal penal system were abolished.
“Zhou Yongkang knew how to put on a good show,” said He Weifang, a Peking University law professor who has waged a decade-long campaign against the security system.
Professor He and other legal experts said they were encouraged after party leaders downgraded Mr. Zhou’s law-and-order responsibilities, moving them to the 25-seat Politburo from the more influential Standing Committee.
The change underscores the leadership’s increasing wariness of China’s internal security machine, which grew by leaps and bounds in the decade under President Hu Jintao’s campaign for “social stability.” The annual $110 billion security budget now exceeds China’s military spending.
“There’s a sense that things have gotten out of control, that when there’s an intraparty struggle, even the most powerful official can be disappeared,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China. “No one is immune from a lawless state.”
Guo Xuehong, a former judge from Jilin Province in the northeast, has firsthand experience with extralegal justice. Mr. Guo, 47, was given a one-year sentence after protesting his dismissal — a result, he said, of refusing to back down from his ruling against a politically connected company. His ruling harmed the local economy, party officials determined.
In an interview, Mr. Guo complained that those ensnared have no ability to mount a defense and little chance of appealing their sentences, given that they are reviewed by the same agency that metes out summary convictions.
“The system is just a tool for officials to get rid of us troublemakers,” Mr. Guo said.
Mr. Guo was lucky enough — and perhaps well connected enough — to be allowed to serve part of his time at home because of poor health. Those who have spent time in one of the nation’s 350 labor camps describe inedible food, overcrowded cells and brute violence.
The vast majority of inmates are petty criminals, but political offenders and underground members of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong are often singled out for the worst abuse, especially if they protest the conditions or refuse to confess.
Liu Jie, 60, a former business executive from Heilongjiang Province, served a two-year sentence for “disturbing social order,” punishment for releasing a public letter demanding political and legal reform. She described how roughneck inmates violently imposed the guards’ will in return for reduced sentences. One particular thrashing cost her several front teeth and left her temporarily blind in one eye.
When she complained about dizziness from the paint used to make paper lanterns, Ms. Liu said, she was hogtied to a chair for a week, a dreaded punishment known as the “tiger bench.” Deprived of food and water for several days, she said, she repeatedly lost consciousness. “When they unshackled me from the chair, my legs had turned black with bruises.”
In a 2009 report, Chinese Human Rights Defenders documented what it called a “hotbed of injustice,” with inmates sometimes working 20-hour days to produce chopsticks, firecrackers, cardboard boxes or handbags.
“To meet the quota, we had to work so hard our fingers became coarse and swollen, with little blisters on top of our big blisters,” one detainee told investigators. Inmates are paid nothing or at most the equivalent of a few dollars a month.
Ms. Liu said, “It’s a big sweatshop built on an enormous chain of profits.”
Rights advocates say a genuine overhaul of the laojiao system would require, among other things, allowing victims access to lawyers and the right to appeal. But many of them fear that party leaders may instead opt for only modest modifications. Recent trial balloons include limiting sentences to a few months, providing inmates with weekend furloughs or requiring the police to issue written verdicts.
Such changes, said Professor He of Peking University, would accomplish little. “Technically speaking, laojiao is easy to fix,” he said. “But the danger is that all we’ll get is a deceptive name change.”
Patrick Zuo contributed research.
December 14, 2012
China’s Communist Party Chief Acts to Bolster Military
By EDWARD WONG
GUANGZHOU, China — Xi Jinping, the new Communist Party chief and civilian commander of the Chinese military, is moving quickly to make strengthening the country’s armed forces a centerpiece of what he calls the “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation.
The nationalist message of building up the People’s Liberation Army has been broadcast loudly in the aftermath of Mr. Xi’s recent visit to south China. The trip, which began Dec. 7, was Mr. Xi’s first outside Beijing as party chief and is now being examined for his policy priorities. This week, the state news media gave prominent coverage to Mr. Xi’s visit with troops of the Guangzhou military region, including a trip aboard the Haikou, a destroyer that belongs to the fleet patrolling disputed waters in the South China Sea.
“We must insist on using battle-ready standards in undertaking combat preparations, constantly enhancing officers’ and troops’ thinking about serving in battle, and leading troops into battle and training troops for battle,” Mr. Xi said, according to a report on Wednesday by Xinhua, the state news agency, that was later published by prominent state-run newspapers. “And we must insist on rigorous military training based on the needs of actual combat.”
Speaking to soldiers in the city of Huizhou, Mr. Xi emphasized the military aspects of his Chinese dream: “This dream can be said to be the dream of a strong nation; and for the military, it is the dream of a strong military. We must achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation, and we must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and a strong military.”
Mr. Xi’s comments and the gearing up of the party’s propaganda machinery behind them are certain to raise concerns among other Asian nations and the United States, the main military power in the Pacific. Analysts say the party has increasingly turned away from traditional Communist ideology and toward nationalism to try to legitimize itself in the eyes of Chinese citizens.
Mr. Xi “understands the military and what China’s military needs right now,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing. “He wants real combat capabilities.”
Chinese naval forces are modernizing more quickly than the rest of the military, and certain aspects of that progression — particularly a newly operational aircraft carrier that is China’s first — have become potent symbols of the nation’s rise.
Mr. Xi made his comments during meetings with commanders of the Guangzhou military region, which encompasses large parts of south and central China, according to a front-page article on Friday in People’s Liberation Army Daily. It was part of Mr. Xi’s five-day trip in Guangdong Province and the special economic zone of Shenzhen.
Early this week, the state news media emphasized the economic side of Mr. Xi’s southern tour, showing photographs and video of him visiting private companies and discussing economic policy with officials in the provincial capital, Guangzhou. A Xinhua report said that Mr. Xi underscored the need to deepen the market-oriented reforms begun in 1979 by Deng Xiaoping, the former supreme leader.
But by midweek, official coverage of the trip had shifted to Mr. Xi’s visits with the military. Reflecting the more open style of leadership he has adopted, China Central Television ran extensive video of Mr. Xi shaking hands with cheering soldiers and eating a meal on Dec. 8 in a canteen with sailors in white uniforms aboard the Haikou. The People’s Liberation Army Daily said that Mr. Xi sat in the captain’s chair, signed the ship’s log and ate in a self-serve canteen.
“Whether you’ve got the stuff to be a sailor,” the newspaper said he told some sailors, “doesn’t depend on whether you throw up or not, but on whether you can eat after you’ve thrown up.”
The coverage coincided with what Japan called the latest Chinese provocation in the East China Sea. On Thursday, a Chinese military surveillance plane flew over islands there long under Japanese administration, escalating the already tense standoff over the islands, which are also claimed by China. Japan responded by sending fighter jets to the area, but the propeller-driven plane had already left. Earlier in the week, China sent a navy flotilla near the islands.
It is unclear how Mr. Xi’s emphasis on building up the military will affect China’s defense budget next year. In March, China announced that its military budget for 2012 had increased by 11.2 percent over last year, which was consistent with the pace of growth in military spending over the past decade. The official military budget was $106 billion, which is widely considered by foreign analysts to be an underestimate, but it is still a fraction of the military spending of the United States, which topped $700 billion this year.
The Xinhua report said that Mr. Xi also visited units in Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Huizhou. In his remarks in Huizhou, Mr. Xi emphasized the fact that the military is subordinate to the Communist Party. The relationship between the party and the military has been a recurring theme in official military publications. Editorials attacked the notion of “nationalizing” the army, which means separating the army from the party. There is talk that some generals may believe that to create a truly professional army, the military must distance itself from the party, but it is unclear how widespread this belief is.
Questions over officers’ loyalties were raised in part by the scandal over Bo Xilai, the disgraced party official, and the ties that Mr. Bo had cultivated with generals.
Mr. Xi himself has close personal ties to some powerful generals because he, like Mr. Bo, is a so-called princeling, the son of a revolutionary leader. Mr. Xi’s father was a revered Communist guerrilla commander during the Chinese civil war and later became party chief of Guangdong, where he helped to shape more open economic policies. Many princelings believe they are the inheritors of the revolutionary mandate to build a strong China, one that can stand up to the West.
Some generals have already latched onto Mr. Xi’s take on national revival. Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, an outspoken military commentator, wrote in an essay published Dec. 4 in Global Times, a populist newspaper, that “the great revival of the Chinese nation includes the revival of the militaristic spirits worshiped by our ancestors, as well as the promotion of the revolutionary heroism of the Red Army.”
Mia Li and Amy Qin contributed research.
12/14/2012 03:03 PM
Battling Right-Wing Extremism: German States Give Green Light on Bid to Ban NPD
Germany's upper legislative chamber on Friday unanimously backed a bid to submit a petition to ban the far-right National Democratic Party to the nation's highest court. However, the initiative still requires approval from the German parliament and the cabinet of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Lawmakers in Berlin have been given the green light to file a complaint with the country's highest court seeking to ban the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) following a Friday vote by Germany's upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, on the issue.
The approval of the legal bid to ban the right-wing extremist party comes after governors of the 16 states had already agreed on supporting the measure earlier this month. They recommended that the Bundesrat, which represents Germany's 16 states, do the same.
"We are convinced that the NPD is unconstitutional," said Christine Lieberknecht, the governor of the eastern state of Thuringia and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who added that the far-right party was aggressively pursuing its goals.
Their existence, she alleged, had created the intellectual breeding ground that produced the National Socialist Underground, the neo-Nazi terrorist cell allegedly responsible for the murder of nine small business owners of Turkish and Greek origin, as well as a police officer. Such a party should no longer be recognized as legitimate or supported with taxpayer money, she added.
But one state, Hesse, abstained from the Bundesrat vote, with Hessian Justice Minister Jörg-Uwe Hahn citing fears about how a failure of a ban attempt could actually strengthen the party, or be rejected by the European Court of Human Rights.
In a statement, Hesse Governor Volker Bouffier and Justice Minister Jörg-Uwe Hahn said state officials had not presented an obstacle in the vote and that "fighting right-wing extremism, especially the NPD, is the permanent task and a high priority for all democrats and must be pursued at all levels of society and politics." The politicians warned, however, that "procedures to ban the NPD cannot replace a comprehensive battle" against right-wing extremism. "A succesful procedure to ban (the party) would neither cause the right-wing extremists to disappear nor would it effectively counter the danger that replacement organizations would be created."
'A Brown Horde'
A prior legal bid to ban the party -- supported by the Bundesrat, the Bundestag, and the federal government -- failed in 2003. The Federal Constitutional Court threw out the case because of the extent to which government informants had infiltrated the party at its highest levels. The court argued that the far-right party's policies were being formed, in part, by government informants.
Federal authorities cut their ties to government informants in the party this year in order to help pave the way for another ban attempt at the Federal Constitutional Court. But Merkel and members of her cabinet, including Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, are skeptical that another attempt would succeed in banning the party and remain concerned that a failed bid would only serve to further embolden members of a party that has been described as "anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic" by Germany's domestic intelligence agency.
Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) admitted on Friday that a renewed ban attempt was not without risk, but added that the case has been carefully assembled and the proof of the party's unconstitutionality is overwhelming.
Fellow SPD member Torsten Albig, the governor of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, echoed his support. "We are protecting ourselves with legal means against a brown horde that wants to abolish our democracy," he said, referring to the color of uniforms worn by top-level Nazis.
Whether Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, or the federal government will approve the proposal from the states remains uncertain. The Bundestag is set to address the issue in the first quarter of 2013.
The tiny NPD has never surpassed the hurdle of five percent of the vote to gain representation in the Bundestag, but it does hold seats in two eastern German state parliaments. Party membership has been slowly declining since 2007.
-- kla, with wire reports
15 December 2012 - 09H04
Australia police withdraw from East Timor
AFP - Australia withdrew its last remaining police officers from East Timor on Saturday as international forces wind up a 13-year presence in Asia's youngest nation, where thousands have died in political turmoil.
The eight Australian officers serving with the UN Police boarded a Darwin-bound plane from the capital Dili as the United Nations prepares to officially end its peacekeeping mission by December 31.
International forces began pulling out in earnest in October, when the UN handed policing responsibility back to the nation which recently celebrated a decade of formal independence that ended Indonesia's 24-year brutal occupation.
Australian police commander for the mission Charmaine Quade expressed confidence East Timor could handle its own security after successful national elections this year and the formation of a new government.
"Australian police have been there to contribute to the enhancement and professionalisation of the Timor-Leste police, and the competence the national police here have shown is testament to how far they've come," she said.
The move comes after the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF) ceased its security operations in November and began pulling out some of its 390 troops from the country.
Australia has stationed 50 police at a time in East Timor under the UN since 2006, with 33 deployed this year under a bilateral capacity-building programme.
International peacekeepers first entered the country in 1999 as deadly violence erupted around the country's referendum for independence.
The vote ended Indonesia's occupation, under which an estimated 183,000 people -- then a quarter of the population -- died from fighting, disease and starvation.
The only major violence in the impoverished half-island nation of 1.1 million people since has been a failed assassination attempt against then-president Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in 2008.
Quade said the last batch of Australian police to leave East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, were "looking forward to being reunited with their loved ones".
"They've been able to fully focus on their roles and duties here with the UN because they've had that support and understanding at home."
December 14, 2012
After Fighting Markets, Europe Now Prefers Working With Them
By ANDREW HIGGINS
BRUSSELS — Buoyed by an agreement to establish a single supervisor to watch over the biggest banks in countries that use the euro, the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, declared victory Friday over global financial markets, declaring them “totally wrong” for “seriously questioning whether the euro and indeed European integration would survive.”
Mr. Barroso’s triumphal comments, made at the end of a two-day summit meeting of the European Union’s 27 member states, could still prove premature, but they do signify a noteworthy evolution in the thinking of a Brussels bureaucracy that has long either ignored financial markets or denounced them as an alien and predatory force.
When the Greek debt crisis exploded three years ago, European officials often tended to vilify global markets and rating agencies, blaming “speculators” for the turmoil then stirring serious doubts about the long-term viability of the euro currency and even the entire “European project,” a six-decade-old venture to knit the region together through a gradual pooling of sovereignty.
As the crisis has developed, however, officials at the union’s headquarters in Brussels have stopped denouncing markets and learned instead to argue with them, presenting concrete steps to address their concerns. The banking supervisor deal, which will place about 150 of the most important banks in the 17 countries that use the euro under the supervision of the European Central Bank, is just part of a wide array of measures introduced over the last year to calm worries about the stability of Europe’s banks, government finances and, by extension, the union’s fundamental institutions.
“One of the big problems of Brussels has been that it is so remote from financial markets,” said Guntram B. Wolff, a former European Commission official who is deputy director of Bruegel, an independent economic research center in Brussels, the Belgian capital. “Now there is much more of a view of what is going on in the markets. This is a good thing.”
The traditional remoteness from, and often distaste for, financial markets, Mr. Wolff said, is largely a function of Brussels’ distance from major financial centers. The nearest is London, which for reasons of British domestic politics and fears in the city’s financial sector of meddling by the European Union, has often had testy relations with functionaries of the European Commission, the group’s main administrative and policy-making arm.
But ideology has also played a role, with many Brussels officials looking askance at what they have tended to scorn as an Anglo-Saxon preoccupation with markets, a phenomenon exemplified by the former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Mrs. Thatcher is despised by many so-called Eurocrats because of her robust hostility to the organization’s goal of an “ever closer union,” a mission laid out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and her insistence that Europe should focus instead on building a common market for goods and services and keeping the sovereign powers of individual states intact.
“The European Parliament has many rooms named after famous Europeans, but there is no Margaret Thatcher room and there never will be one,” predicted Derk-Jan Eppink, a Dutchman elected to the parliament by voters in Belgium and vice president of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. A member of the legislature’s budget and economic monitoring committees, Mr. Eppink said he had nonetheless noticed a sharp shift in attitudes toward markets among his colleagues and also E.U. officials since the debt crisis began shaking investors’ faith in the euro’s future.
“At the beginning of the crisis, everyone was always talking about greedy speculators and Wall Street sharks,” but such views were now “limited mainly to the hard left,” he said. “There has been a change in thinking. These markets and rating agencies are not widely seen anymore as an alien force of evil but as basically investors who don’t want to lose their money.”
“This changed over the past year,” Mr. Eppink added, when officials and politicians in Brussels “realized that many problems in the euro zone were bought on by ourselves, not by sharks and speculators.”
Carsten Brzeski, senior economist at ING Bank in Brussels, said, “It has been a steep learning curve, not just for the commission but also for markets.”
Accustomed to viewing the European Union through an American prism, many investors took fright at Europe’s fragmented and glacial decision-making process, Mr. Brzeski said. European officials, for their part, he added, often viewed the wild swings of the market, and the pain this caused as borrowing costs in Greece and Spain soared, with uncomprehending horror.
A big reason anxiety about markets has waned is that they have stayed calm in recent months, largely in response to a pledge this summer by the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, to “do whatever it takes” to defend the euro. The previous panic among investors has lifted to the point that the central bank has so far not needed to make any of the bond purchases Mr. Draghi vowed to make to shore up the debt of troubled countries.
Mr. Wolff, of the Bruegel research center, said this week’s summit meeting, far more tranquil and methodical than many previous conclaves, was an important step forward, but by no means the end of Europe’s troubles.
“There is a sense of direction at the moment, but the crisis is not over,” he said, warning that a grim economic outlook for next year, which will see much of the euro zone in recession, could upend the current optimism, especially if anger over unemployment — now at over 25 percent in Greece and Spain — leads to serious social unrest and political tumult.
James Kanter contributed reporting.
December 14, 2012
With European Bank in Spotlight, Bundesbank Is Left in Shadows
By NICHOLAS KULISH
FRANKFURT — The exposed-concrete slab of the Bundesbank headquarters stands like a bulwark outside the downtown financial district here, a stolid, Brutalist structure that in its sheer mass evokes not just the German central bank’s stubborn resistance to change but, above all, its obsessive commitment to crushing inflation.
Built 45 years ago, the modernist building is hardly old by European standards, yet it is a temple to tradition, embodying the ethos of this most conservative of institutions. “We are trying to keep it just the way it is,” said Reiner Bruckhaus, head of the bank’s centralized construction management division.
That starts with the granite floors, the Barcelona chairs in the lobby (designed by the Bauhaus great Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), and the grand, white Carrara marble by the elevators, and goes all the way up to the wood grid ceilings on the top floor. “You will find not even the slightest changes,” Mr. Bruckhaus said.
When the building was erected in 1967, the Bundesbank’s dominance in European monetary policy went unchallenged. But in the hazy distance of the Frankfurt skyline, significant change is evident in the outline of two towers and three cranes, the new headquarters of the European Central Bank — a visible reminder of the institution that has supplanted the Bundesbank, just as the euro replaced the German mark.
European leaders established the European Central Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt as a symbol of its status as heir to the Bundesbank. But the danger posed by Europe’s continuing debt crisis demanded improvisations at odds with the Bundesbank’s conservative teachings.
Over the summer the E.C.B.’s president, Mario Draghi, pursued an expansive policy that was anathema to the old guard, whose cause was championed by the Bundesbank’s youthful president, Jens Weidmann. He and his supporters base their views not, they say, on rigid orthodoxy but on experience gleaned from the disaster of hyperinflation and the success of adhering to a hard-money path.
In an increasingly uncomfortable pairing, the Bundesbank functions as the largest piece of the E.C.B. puzzle. With more than 9,500 full-time workers, the Bundesbank dwarfs the 1,600-strong central bank. Because of that limited staff, the E.C.B. depends on the Bundesbank to handle many of the back-office functions of the common currency.
But the European Central Bank’s influence continues to grow. Euro-zone finance ministers agreed to a deal Thursday to put 100 to 200 of their largest banks under its direct supervision.
The arranged marriage between the two banks will take enormous effort and flexibility. As its massive headquarters suggests, the Bundesbank is capable of enormous and sustained effort, but flexibility may be inimical to its nature.
Founded in 1957, the Bundesbank quickly grew into one of Germany’s most respected institutions. The rank-and-file behind Mr. Weidmann, 44, represent an unusually tight-knit group, almost like a monastic order, and they are steeped in the bank’s secular religion — often at the bank’s own school, a kind of Hogwarts for its future financial wizards, in a hilltop 12th-century castle in the town of Hachenburg.
“You hear it in the first lecture,” said Silke Frühklug, 32, a graduate and Bundesbank employee. “You hear it in the last lecture and every day in between: price stability.”
Ms. Frühklug married a classmate and in her free time plays on the central bank’s badminton team, which on a recent evening practiced in a gymnasium on the Bundesbank campus right after the handball team. The bank also has a theater society and “hobby artists” club, which exhibits in the lobby of the headquarters. It owns apartments for workers in tight real-estate markets like Munich and here in Frankfurt. Retired employees still lunch at the cafeteria, helping to nurture the all-important continuity.
“People feel connected with the goals of the bank,” said Matthias Endres, 43, editor of the Bundesbank’s internal magazine. Like Ms. Frühklug, he married a fellow graduate from the school in Hachenburg. He has vacationed with his wife and their three children at all three of the Bundesbank getaways, on the North Sea, in the Black Forest and on a lake in Bavaria.
Mr. Endres’s wife, Simone, works part-time in the headquarters’ Money Museum, which houses some 350,000 objects, of which roughly 1,300 are on display, including the worthless bills in denominations of millions and billions from the hyperinflation of the Weimar-era and examples of commodity money, like a gold bar, a tea brick and even a preserved cow standing near the entrance, a silent bovine greeter.
Museum visitors can try their hand at the Stability Game, which replicates the difficulty of managing money supply. Grasping the joystick, players inject and remove liquidity from the economy. But the game functions on a lag where, by the time the system begins lurching into inflation, it is too late to pull back. German policy makers, particularly at the Bundesbank, underline that peril every chance they get.
“As one of my predecessors said, ‘If you flirt with inflation, you end up marrying inflation,’ ” Mr. Weidmann told an audience in Berlin last month.
Erich Keller, rector at the Deutsche Bundesbank University of Applied Sciences in Hachenburg, said, “We have a mantra, only one goal — price stability.”
“This stability orientation is in the genes of the Bundesbank,” he said. “We are bringing in those genes.”
The Bundesbank bought the hilltop castle in 1974 for 3.9 million German marks, or what today would be around $7.6 million. The goal was to have a place to train the core of the Civil Service, preferably away from the distractions and temptations of the corporate banking world.
Tuition is free. Students are technically civil servants and receive monthly stipends of around $1,200 for recent high school graduates and roughly $1,600 for previously trained bank employees. They have to pay back much of the money if they do not go to work for the Bundesbank or one of several other public institutions for at least five years.
“In the last course, we were talking about recent developments in monetary policy,” Thomas Fehrmann, the school’s deputy rector, said recently, “and it’s really hard for me to make clear to the students that there are some reasons why Mr. Draghi could be right. They are members of the club and soldiers for Mr. Weidmann.”
Officially, Mr. Weidmann is no more powerful than his colleagues from tiny euro member countries like Malta and Luxembourg. Unofficially, as representative of the European Union’s largest economy and head of the Bundesbank’s muscular staff of financial experts, he ranks behind only Mr. Draghi in influence and importance.
The German news media speculate about the tenor of the relationship between the two men the way gossip magazines track the “Twilight” stars. Since he pointedly opposed Mr. Draghi’s bond-buying plan, Mr. Weidmann regularly hears the question of when he will resign, like his predecessor, Axel Weber, did.
Mr. Weidmann has tried to play down the conflict, which hibernates until the mere promise to buy bonds awakens into action. “I’m not lonely in the E.C.B. board,” Mr. Weidmann said at the conference in Berlin.
He might feel lonely in the halls of the Bundesbank, however, if he had a change of heart and supported Mr. Draghi against the judgment of his own staff.
“We’re too conservative to boo him,” Ms. Frühklug said. “A lot of people would write e-mails.”
Jack Ewing contributed reporting.
Eurozone crisis: Germany’s pact with the devil
14 December 2012
The Irish Times Dublin
In Goethe's most famous fable, Faust, the German author demonstrates his opinion that paper money is a continuation of alchemy by other means. This view, argues The Irish Times Berlin correspondent, is clearly evident in Germany’s current stance on the eurozone crisis.
For anyone struggling to grasp German attitudes to money and debt in the eurozone crisis, all roads lead to Frankfurt.
Germany’s financial capital is not just home to two central banks, the Bundesbank and the European Central Bank, but also a yellow, baroque building in the shadow of the ECB tower.
It was here that Germany’s literary genius, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, was born in 1749. Now a museum, the Goethe Haus is home to a fascinating exhibition, Goethe and Money (Goethe und das Geld), exploring how societal attitudes to money informed Goethe’s writing which, in turn, has shaped German attitudes to money.
Goethe was born with a silver spoon in his mouth thanks to a thriving family business and some advantageous marriages.
Though friendly with several banking families – Goethe almost married into one – losses sustained by institutions after the Napoleonic wars gave the writer a life-long suspicion of banks.
The writer’s household accounts show he was far from the frugal German stereotype, often spending 15 per cent of his annual earnings on wine. Bailouts from his mother and employers were a regular affair. As the exhibition curators note, Goethe defended his spendthrift ways as “crucial for the development of his personality”.
He was more stringent when he became finance minister of the duchy of Saxe-Weimar, around what is now the eastern state of Thuringia, from 1782. This experience shaped his thinking and contributed to the creation of his literary masterpiece, Faust, obligatory reading in all German schools, which centres on the notorious “Faustian pact” between the eponymous scholar and the devil Mephistopheles.
The devil promises to do Faust’s bidding on earth. But if Faust ever wishes for a moment in his life to last forever, Mephisto gets his soul.
The second part of Faust, published posthumously, opens in the bankrupt court of a hedonistic emperor. The royal treasurer reports that the “coffers are still empty”, as are the royal cellars thanks to regular parties.
The persuasive Mephistopheles turns up to propose, turning paper into money. The debt-burdened emperor is intrigued: “I’m sick and tired of how and when/We’re short of money so make it, then.” The notes signed by the emperor spark a consumer boom where “half the world seems obsessed with eating well/the other half with showing off new clothes”.
Only after Mephisto and his partner Faust vanish does anyone notice the value of the notes refer not to any real equivalent – gold in a vault, for instance – but to the promise of gold yet to be mined.
The parallels were not lost on Goethe’s contemporary readers, between the Faust fable and the capital needed to drive the industrial revolution. His warnings are once more relevant for countless German public figures who have seized on Faust to articulate their own concerns about the eurozone crisis.
ECB’s Faustian pact?
The modern role of the emperor’s chancellor in Faust, who warns against the paper money scheme, has been assumed by Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann.
“If a central bank can potentially create unlimited money from nothing, how can it ensure that money is sufficiently scarce to retain its value?” he asked a Frankfurt audience in September. “The temptation certainly exists, and many in monetary history have succumbed to it.”
He warns that the ECB’s unlimited bond-buying programme to stabilise the eurozone is a potential Faustian pact if it offers politicians a more palatable financing alternative to painful economic reform.
The ECB argues that this is not the case and their differing views has revived a cultural ambivalence in Germany to money and debt. This is, after all, the country where the word Schuld means both monetary debt and moral guilt. The ECB’s bond-market interventions have been condemned by the same moralist economists who attack indebted euro zone countries as Schuldensünder or “debt sinners”.
So is there a link between attitudes today and Goethe’s Faust, described by German literary theorist Werner Hamacher as a critique of “credit aesthetics and persuasion economics”.
Former ECB executive board member Ottmar Issing suggests Germans are not doubtful about money itself, but pessimistic that it is ever used wisely. In an essay for the Goethe and Money catalogue, entitled Inflation – the Devil’s Work? Issing argues that “the choice between blessing and curse” offered by paper money “lies in the hand of humankind”.
Former ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet agrees. In another essay, he praises Goethe’s lifelong debate about the dual nature of paper money which “produces the best and the worst in the economic sphere”.
Living within your means
For Prof Hans Christoph Binswanger, author of the Faust study Money and Magic, Goethe saw paper money as “the continuation of alchemy by other means”. To transform paper money into real wealth, argues Prof Binswanger, Goethe worried that everything would be “dragged down into the smouldering process of world production”.
“The apparently magical modern alchemy bears a profane price, it transforms the world into nothingness,” he adds. Goethe’s fear has resurfaced in the widespread German view that the eurozone crisis is the destructive result of uncontrolled, careless borrowing by societies refusing to accept the natural limits of their finances.
Economic collapse is thus a common thread running through Germany’s national trauma and its national drama. Faust and Mephisto lurk in the wings of the euro zone crisis, colouring Berlin’s demands for pan-European fiscal discipline and sparking a debate in Germany on the limits of economic growth.
“Goethe saw that money, when used properly brings with it positive opportunity, such as the rise of his own family,” said Dr Vera Hierholzer, co-curator of Goethe and Money.
“At the same time, like many of his class, he had a fear of the consequences of excess and exorbitance, of always pushing for more. It is a very German view, even today, to see the limits and to try and control things within these limits.”
The debate about monetary self-control has a relevance beyond Goethe’s Germany, particularly among crisis countries impatient to cast off their troika yoke and “return to markets”.
Interestingly, some of Ireland’s last sovereign debt auctions were chaired by the late Brian Lenihan at the hulking Frankfurter Hof hotel, located halfway between the ECB tower and the Goethe Haus.
After regaining economic sovereignty, it’s up to Ireland where it goes next. In the direction of the Goethe Haus, heeding the limits of its financial means, or back to the five-star Frankfurter Hof hotel to host expensive breakfast meetings for banks happy to lend us more Mephisto money.
December 15, 2012
Greece: Oligarch Under Arrest Expected to Be Moved to Prison
By NIKI KITSANTONIS
A Greek magistrate on Friday ordered that the oligarch Lavrentis Lavrentiadis, who was arrested Thursday on charges of embezzlement and fraud, be remanded to custody after visiting the 40-year-old businessman in an Athens hospital. Mr. Lavrentiadis, the former majority stakeholder in Proton Bank, which is alleged to have issued $900 million in bad loans to keep other businesses afloat, is the focus of an investigation that has highlighted concerns about deep-rooted corruption and crony capitalism in Greece. He was admitted to the hospital on Thursday night after citing health problems when the police visited his home in an affluent Athens suburb. Mr Lavrentiadis was expected to be transferred to the capital’s high-security Korydallos prison on Saturday after his request to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital was turned down and he spent Friday night in police custody.
« Last Edit: Dec 15, 2012, 09:41 AM by Rad »
12/14/2012 05:52 PM
Rethinking Global Warming: Experts Call for End to Climate Mega Summits
By Axel Bojanowski
Massive UN climate summits have been held for years, but accomplished little. Believing there is almost no chance of securing a global deal on reducing emissions, experts now want to ditch the current system and try something new.
The feeling of déjà vu was difficult to ignore. Immediately following the recently ended climate conference in Doha, German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier insisted that the gathering had "opened the door to the future of international climate protection."
It was a comment reminiscent of so many attempts by top politicians in recent years to sell yet another failed climate summit as a success. This year, the summit barely avoided collapse by forging a last-minute agreement that the 2015 meeting would be the one at which a global emissions reduction deal would be decided. That such a deal was supposed to be produced at the 2009 summit in Copenhagen seems to have been largely forgotten.
Even the definition of success has been dramatically diminished. The conference, said Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, the long-serving climate advisor to the government in Berlin, can be "counted as a success because a collapse of the arduous United Nations process was avoided."
Top climate researchers have had enough, though. Several leading experts at internationally renowned institutes in Germany are demanding an end to the climate summit charade. It is time to begin confronting the reality of a warmer future rather than meekly insisting that global warming can be slowed without taking action to make that happen, they say.
'Dream of a Deal Is Over'
The period characterized by "the UN's clever management of expectations" is coming to an end, says Oliver Geden, a climate expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "The expectation that the worsening problem would put pressure on the international community to find a solution has not been borne out -- and isn't likely to be."
"The dream of a global deal is over," agrees Frank Uekötter, an environmental historian at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. "An elimination (of the summit regime) would create space for new momentum."
For many, such statements border on sacrilege, though. Environmentalists have had huge expectations of the UN climate negotiation process, believing for years that it would ultimately result in a global deal for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It was, in short, to produce the holy grail of a more rigorous successor to the weak, largely non-binding Kyoto Protocol -- one that would limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
Instead, the process, culminating annually in highly publicized summits that invariably end in disappointment, has only managed to produce a series of agreements to reach an agreement. "I have never understood how negotiations that don't even work among 20 countries are supposed to work in the UN model with 194 countries participating," Geden says. "The US and China aren't going to be told what to do by Nauru or Tuvalu." He adds that it would likely be more productive if leaders negotiated in smaller groups.
Geden and Uekötter are joined in their skepticism by a number of respected academics and climate experts in Germany. Maximilian Mayer, a political scientist at the University of Bonn, says that the UN climate negotiations are at risk of becoming "a form of technocracy controlled by experts," and proposes a "significant slowdown in the UN climate process."
Discard 2 Degree Target?
Silke Beck, a climate expert at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research, blasts the summits for being little more than "symbolism" and says that the issue of global warming is "several sizes too big" for the UN process as it is now pursued. Hans von Storch from the Institute for Coastal Research at the Helmholtz Center adds that the process has transformed researchers into little more than "ushers in the political theater."
But what can be done? The answer given by many is a surprising one. The goal of limiting global warming to just 2 degrees Celsius has become much too central, they say, because it guarantees that the focus of the public debate remains almost exclusively on the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Yet after two decades of failed negotiations, the 2 degree goal has likely already become unattainable. It's time to broaden the focus, they say.
"The current discussion is much too fixated on greenhouse gases," says Uekötter. He refers to the recent climate conference failures as the "phase of inaction."
Instead, many say that measures aimed at dealing with the inevitable consequences of climate change must become central. That would involve including local initiatives in the broader UN approach rather than just focusing on average global temperature. Germany, for example, has moved ahead with a multi-billion euro plan to protect its coasts from rising sea levels and worsening storm surges. But such issues are left largely unaddressed at UN climate conferences.
'Disregard for Reality'
"The situation is absurd," says Sebastian Wiesnet of the University of Bamberg. "It would be more forthright, with respect to voters, to step back and think about how global climate protection could really be implemented." Efforts to actually prepare for the effects of climate change, he says, could not only be implemented more quickly, but they would also be cheaper than emissions reduction efforts.
Furthermore, the effects of the changing climate are different from place to place and are often magnified by local realities. When it comes to dangerous storm surges threatening islands in the South Pacific, for example, the UN climate conference tends to focus exclusively on rising sea levels. But the problem is often magnified, for example, by the destruction of coral reefs by fishermen. "At the local level, other, more rapidly changing conditions are often more consequential than climate change," says political scientist Mayer.
Any sort of move away from the 2 degree Celsius target, of course, would be politically risky. To many, it would sound like an abdication and a retreat from decades of pledges to finally launch a global effort to combat global warming. But researchers are beginning to come to the conclusion that there might be no other way.
Today's computer-simulated climate models, the foundation of all UN climate negotiations, represent the "almost complete disregard for reality," says Werner Krauss, from the Helmholtz Geesthacht Center for Materials and Coastal Research. "A world is being saved that only exists as a model."
Climate Change denier leaks intergovernmental report online
By Leo Hickman, The Guardian
Friday, December 14, 2012 12:37 EST
The draft of a major global warming report by the UN’s climate science panel has been leaked online.
The fifth assessment report (AR5) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is not due to be published in full until September 2013, was uploaded onto a website called Stop Green Suicide on Thursday and has since been mirrored elsewhere on the internet.
The IPCC, which confirmed the draft is genuine, said in a statement: “The IPCC regrets this unauthorized posting which interferes with the process of assessment and review. We will continue not to comment on the contents of draft reports, as they are works in progress.”
A little-known US-based climate sceptic called Alex Rawls, who had been accepted by the IPCC to be one of the report’s 800 expert reviewers, admitted to leaking the document. In a statement posted online, he sought to justify the leak: “The addition of one single sentence [discussing the influence of cosmic rays on the earth's climate] demands the release of the whole. That sentence is an astounding bit of honesty, a killing admission that completely undercuts the main premise and the main conclusion of the full report, revealing the fundamental dishonesty of the whole.”
Climate sceptics have heralded the sentence – which they interpret as meaning that cosmic rays could have a greater warming influence on the planet than mankind’s emissions – as “game-changing”.
The isolation by climate sceptics of one sentence in the 14-chapter draft report was described as “completely ridiculous” by one of the report’s lead authors. Prof Steve Sherwood, a director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, told ABC Radio in Australia: “You could go and read those paragraphs yourself and the summary of it and see that we conclude exactly the opposite, that this cosmic ray effect that the paragraph is discussing appears to be negligible … It’s a pretty severe case of [cherry-picking], because even the sentence doesn’t say what [climate sceptics] say and certainly if you look at the context, we’re really saying the opposite.”
The leaked draft “summary for policymakers” contains a statement that appears to contradict the climate sceptics’ interpretation.
It says: “There is consistent evidence from observations of a net energy uptake of the earth system due to an imbalance in the energy budget. It is virtually certain that this is caused by human activities, primarily by the increase in CO2 concentrations. There is very high confidence that natural forcing contributes only a small fraction to this imbalance.”
By “virtually certain”, the scientists say they mean they are now 99% sure that man’s emissions are responsible. By comparison, in the IPCC’s last report, published in 2007, the scientists said they had a “very high confidence” – 90% sure – humans were principally responsible for causing the planet to warm.
Richard Betts, a climate scientist at the Met Office Hadley Centre and an AR5 lead author, tweeted that the report is still a draft and could well change: “Worth pointing out that the wording in the leaked IPCC WG1 [working group 1, which examines the "physical science basis" of climate change] draft chapters may still change in the final versions, following review comments.”
Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, said that Rawls appeared to have broken the confidentiality agreement signed by reviewers: “As a registered reviewer of the IPCC report, I condemn the decision by a climate change sceptic to violate the confidentiality of the review process. The review of the IPCC report is being carried out in line with the principles of peer review which operate throughout academic science, including an expectation of high standards of ethical behaviour by reviewers. It is disappointing, if not surprising, that climate change sceptics have been unable to meet these high standards of ethical behaviour.”
The IPCC, which publishes a detailed synthesis of the latest climate science every seven years to help guide policy makers, has experienced leaks before. In 2000, the third assessment report was leaked to the New York Times, while the fourth assessment report was published in 2006 by the US government a year ahead of its official publication.
Prof Bill McGuire, Professor of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at University College London and contributing author on the recent IPCC report on climate change and extreme events, said that sceptics’ reading of the draft was incorrect: “Alex Rawls’ interpretation of what IPCC5 says is quite simply wrong. In fact, while temperatures have been ramping up in recent decades, solar activity has been pretty subdued, so any interaction with cosmic rays is clearly having minimal – if any – effects. IPCC AR5 reiterates what we can be absolutely certain of: that contemporary climate change is not a natural process, but the consequence of human activities.
Prof Piers Forster, Professor of Climate Change at the University of Leeds, said: “Although this may seem like a ‘leak’, the draft IPCC reports are not kept secret and the review process is open. The rationale in not disseminating the findings until the final version is complete, is to try and iron out all the errors and inconsistencies which might be inadvertently included. Personally, I would be happy if the whole IPCC process were even more open and public, and I think we as scientists need to explore how we can best match the development of measured critical arguments with those of the Twitter generation.”
© 2012 Guardian News and Media
15 December 2012 - 08H08
Australia plans drill of ancient Antarctic ice core
AFP - Australia announced plans to drill a 2,000 year-old ice core in the heart of Antarctica in a bid to retrieve a frozen record of how the planet has evolved and what might be in store.
The Aurora Basin North project involves scientists from Australia, France, Denmark and the United States who hope it will also advance the search for the scientific "holy grail" of the million-year-old ice core.
The project, in a area that harbours some of the deepest ice in the frozen continent, over three kilometres (1.9-miles) thick, will give experts access to some of the most detailed records yet of past climate in the vast region.
Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke on Saturday said such drills were critically important to understanding how the climate has naturally varied to help predict future responses to global climate change.
"Ice cores provide the written history of our atmosphere and our water," he said in announcing the project which will start with a French team traversing the site in December next year.
The eight-week drill through 400 metres (1,312 feet) of ice, 600 kilometres inland from Australia's Casey Station in the continent's east, will follow soon after.
"Seeking ice cores from this new area where there is much higher snow fall than other inland sites provides a massive increase in the level of detail which lives within the ice," Burke added.
"We have had information that is 2,000 years old before, but we have never had access to this sort of detail which we believe lies deep within this part of the ice."
He said it was an international effort in the quest for even older ice.
"It is expected that this will lead to actual drilling for a one million-year-old core by various international consortia in the coming years," he said.
Internet remains unregulated as UN Internet treaty fails
By Charles Arthur, The Guardian
Friday, December 14, 2012 9:28 EST
Failure to sign agreement at ITU conference stops governments having greater powers to control phone calls and data
A proposed global telecoms treaty that would give national governments control of the internet has been blocked by the US and key western and African nations. They said they are “not able to sign the agreement in its current form” at the end of a International Telecoms Union (ITU) conference in Dubai.
The proposals, coming after two weeks of complex negotiation, would have given individual governments greater powers to control international phone calls and data traffic, but were opposed as the conference had seemed to be drawing to a close late on Thursday.
The move seems to safeguard the role of the internet as an unregulated, international service that runs on top of telecoms systems free of direct interference by national governments.
The US was first to declare its opposition to the draft treaty. “It is with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities that I have to announce that the United States must communicate that it is unable to sign the agreement in its current form,” Terry Kramer, head of the US delegation, told the conference, after what had looked like a final draft was approved.
“The internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years. All without UN regulation. We candidly cannot support an ITU Treaty that is inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance.”
The US was joined in its opposition by the UK, Canada, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Kenya, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Qatar and Sweden. All said they would not sign the proposed final text, meaning that although a number of other countries will sign it, the treaty cannot be effectively implemented.
“In the end, the ITU and the conference chair, having backed themselves to the edge of a cliff, dared governments to push them off,”commented Kieren McCarthy, who runs the internet consultancy dot-nxt. “They duly did.”
But Access Now, a lobbying group against ITU oversight of the internet, said that “despite all of the assurances of the ITU secretariat that the WCIT wouldn’t discuss internet governance, the final treaty text contains a resolution that explicitly ‘instructs the [ITU] secretary-general to take the necessary steps for the ITU to play and active and constructive role in… the internet.’” It urged governments not to sign it.
The ITU is a UN organisation responsible for coordinating telecoms use around the world. The conference was meant to update international treaties which have not evolved since 1988, before the introduction of the internet.
But the conference has been the source of huge controversy because the ITU has been accused of seeking to take control of the internet, and negotiating behind closed doors. Google has mounted a vociferous campaign against conference proposals that would have meant that content providers could be charged for sending data and which would have given national governments more control of how the internet works. Instead, lobbyists have said the treaties should simply not mention the internet at all because it is a service that runs atop telecoms systems.
But a bloc led by Russia, with China and the United Arab Emirates – where the conference is being held – said the internet should be part of the treaties because it travels over telecoms networks. A Russia-driven vote late on Wednesday seemed to push to include the internet in a resolution – a move the US disagreed with.
The failure to reach accord could mean that there will be regional differences in internet efficacy. “Maybe in the future we could come to a fragmented internet,” Andrey Mukhanov, of Russia’s Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications, told the Reuters news agency. “That would be negative for all, and I hope our American and European colleagues come to a constructive position.”
The US and Europe have indicated that they instead want private companies to drive internet standards.
McCarthy, who has published ITU planning documents that would otherwise have been kept out of sight on dot-nxt’s website, criticised the conduct of the meeting: “attendees were stunned to find a conference style and approach stuck in the 1970s,” he said.
Writing on the dot-nxt site, he said: “A constant stream of information was available only in downloadable Word documents; disagreement was dealt with by increasingly small, closed groups of key government officials; voting was carried out by delegates physically raising large yellow paddles, and counted by staff who walked around the room; meetings ran until the early hours of the morning, and “consensus by exhaustion” was the only fall-back position.”
Attempts by the ITU to encourage the US to sign the proposed treaty by removing clauses – such as one that would give individual countries rights over website addresses – failed.
© 2012 Guardian News and Media
12/14/2012 05:03 PM
Dreams in Infrared: The Woes of an American Drone Operator
By Nicola Abé
A soldier sets out to graduate at the top of his class. He succeeds, and he becomes a drone pilot working with a special unit of the United States Air Force in New Mexico. He kills dozens of people. But then, one day, he realizes that he can't do it anymore.
For more than five years, Brandon Bryant worked in an oblong, windowless container about the size of a trailer, where the air-conditioning was kept at 17 degrees Celsius (63 degrees Fahrenheit) and, for security reasons, the door couldn't be opened. Bryant and his coworkers sat in front of 14 computer monitors and four keyboards. When Bryant pressed a button in New Mexico, someone died on the other side of the world.
The container is filled with the humming of computers. It's the brain of a drone, known as a cockpit in Air Force parlance. But the pilots in the container aren't flying through the air. They're just sitting at the controls.
Bryant was one of them, and he remembers one incident very clearly when a Predator drone was circling in a figure-eight pattern in the sky above Afghanistan, more than 10,000 kilometers (6,250 miles) away. There was a flat-roofed house made of mud, with a shed used to hold goats in the crosshairs, as Bryant recalls. When he received the order to fire, he pressed a button with his left hand and marked the roof with a laser. The pilot sitting next to him pressed the trigger on a joystick, causing the drone to launch a Hellfire missile. There were 16 seconds left until impact.
"These moments are like in slow motion," he says today. Images taken with an infrared camera attached to the drone appeared on his monitor, transmitted by satellite, with a two-to-five-second time delay.
With seven seconds left to go, there was no one to be seen on the ground. Bryant could still have diverted the missile at that point. Then it was down to three seconds. Bryant felt as if he had to count each individual pixel on the monitor. Suddenly a child walked around the corner, he says.
Second zero was the moment in which Bryant's digital world collided with the real one in a village between Baghlan and Mazar-e-Sharif.
Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach.
"Did we just kill a kid?" he asked the man sitting next to him.
"Yeah, I guess that was a kid," the pilot replied.
"Was that a kid?" they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.
Then, someone they didn't know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. "No. That was a dog," the person wrote.
They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?
When Bryant left the container that day, he stepped directly into America: dry grasslands stretching to the horizon, fields and the smell of liquid manure. Every few seconds, a light on the radar tower at the Cannon Air Force Base flashed in the twilight. There was no war going on there.
Modern warfare is as invisible as a thought, deprived of its meaning by distance. It is no unfettered war, but one that is controlled from small high-tech centers in various places in the world. The new (way of conducting) war is supposed to be more precise than the old one, which is why some call it "more humane." It's the war of an intellectual, a war United States President Barack Obama has promoted more than any of his predecessors.
In a corridor at the Pentagon where the planning for this war takes place, the walls are covered with dark wood paneling. The men from the Air Force have their offices here. A painting of a Predator, a drone on canvas, hangs next to portraits of military leaders. From the military's perspective, no other invention has been as successful in the "war on terror" in recent years as the Predator.
The US military guides its drones from seven air bases in the United States, as well as locations abroad, including one in the East African nation of Djibouti. From its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the CIA controls operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
'We Save Lives'
Colonel William Tart, a man with pale eyes and a clear image of the enemy, calls the drone a "natural extension of the distance."
Until a few months ago, when he was promoted to head the US Air Force's Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Task Force in Langley, Tart was a commander at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, near Las Vegas, where he headed drone operations. Whenever he flew drones himself, he kept a photo of his wife and three daughters pasted into the checklist next to the monitors.
He doesn't like the word drone, because he says it implies that the vehicle has its own will or ego. He prefers to call them "remotely piloted aircraft," and he points out that most flights are for gathering information. He talks about the use of drones on humanitarian missions after the earthquake in Haiti, and about the military successes in the war in Libya: how his team fired on a truck that was pointing rockets at Misrata, and how it chased the convoy in which former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and his entourage were fleeing. He describes how the soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan are constantly expressing their gratitude for the assistance from the air. "We save lives," he says.
He doesn't say as much about the targeted killing. He claims that during his two years as operations commander at Creech, he never saw any noncombatants die, and that the drones only fire at buildings when women and children are not in them. When asked about the chain of command, Tart mentions a 275-page document called 3-09.3. Essentially, it states that drone attacks must be approved, like any other attacks by the Air Force. An officer in the country where the operations take place has to approve them.
The use of the term "clinical war" makes him angry. It reminds him of the Vietnam veterans who accuse him of never having waded through the mud or smelled blood, and who say that he doesn't know what he's talking about.
That isn't true, says Tart, noting that he often used the one-hour drive from work back to Las Vegas to distance himself from his job. "We watch people for months. We see them playing with their dogs or doing their laundry. We know their patterns like we know our neighbors' patterns. We even go to their funerals." It wasn't always easy, he says.
One of the paradoxes of drones is that, even as they increase the distance to the target, they also create proximity. "War somehow becomes personal," says Tart.
'I Saw Men, Women and Children Die'
A yellow house stands on the outskirts of the small city of Missoula, Montana, against a background of mountains, forests and patches of fog. The ground is coated with the first snow of the season. Bryant, now 27, is sitting on the couch in his mother's living room. He has since left the military and is now living back at home. He keeps his head shaved and has a three-day beard. "I haven't been dreaming in infrared for four months," he says with a smile, as if this were a minor victory for him.
Bryant completed 6,000 flight hours during his six years in the Air Force. "I saw men, women and children die during that time," says Bryant. "I never thought I would kill that many people. In fact, I thought I couldn't kill anyone at all."
An Unpopular Job
After graduating from high school, Bryant wanted to become an investigative journalist. He used to go to church on Sundays, and he had a thing for redheaded cheerleaders. By the end of his first semester at college, he had already racked up thousands of dollars in debt.
He came to the military by accident. One day, while accompanying a friend who was enlisting in the army, he heard that the Air Force had its own university, and that he could get a college education for free. Bryant did so well in tests that he was assigned to an intelligence collection unit. He learned how to control the cameras and lasers on a drone, as well as to analyze ground images, maps and weather data. He became a sensor operator, more or less the equivalent to a co-pilot.
He was 20 when he flew his first mission over Iraq. It was a hot, sunny day in Nevada, but it was dark inside the container and just before daybreak in Iraq. A group of American soldiers were on their way back to their base camp. Bryant's job was to monitor the road, to be their "guardian angel" in the sky.
He saw an eye, a shape in the asphalt. "I knew the eye from the training," he says. To bury an improvised explosive device in the road, the enemy combatants place a tire on the road and burn it to soften the asphalt. Afterwards it looks like an eye from above.
The soldiers' convoy was still miles away from the eye. Bryant told his supervisor, who notified the command center. He was forced to look on for several minutes, Bryant says today, as the vehicles approached the site.
"What should we do?" he asked his coworker.
But the pilot was also new on the job.
The soldiers on the ground couldn't be reached by radio, because they were using a jamming transmitter. Bryant saw the first vehicle drive over the eye. Nothing happened.
Then the second vehicle drove over it. Bryant saw a flash beneath, followed by an explosion inside the vehicle.
Five American soldiers were killed.
From then on, Bryant couldn't keep the five fellow Americans out of his thoughts. He began learning everything by heart, including the manuals for the Predator and the missiles, and he familiarized himself with every possible scenario. He was determined to be the best, so that this kind of thing would never happen again.
'I Felt Disconnected from Humanity'
His shifts lasted up to 12 hours. The Air Force still had a shortage of personnel for its remote-controlled war over Iraq and Afghanistan. Drone pilots were seen as cowardly button-pushers. It was such an unpopular job that the military had to bring in retired personnel.
Bryant remembers the first time he fired a missile, killing two men instantly. As Bryant looked on, he could see a third man in mortal agony. The man's leg was missing and he was holding his hands over the stump as his warm blood flowed onto the ground -- for two long minutes. He cried on his way home, says Bryant, and he called his mother.
"I felt disconnected from humanity for almost a week," he says, sitting in his favorite coffee shop in Missoula, where the smell of cinnamon and butter wafts in the air. He spends a lot of time there, watching people and reading books by Nietzsche and Mark Twain, sometimes getting up to change seats. He can't sit in one place for very long anymore, he says. It makes him nervous.
His girlfriend broke up with him recently. She had asked him about the burden he carries, so he told her about it. But it proved to be a hardship she could neither cope with nor share.
When Bryant drives through his hometown, he wears aviator sunglasses and a Palestinian scarf. The inside of his Chrysler is covered with patches from his squadrons. On his Facebook page, he's created a photo album of his coins, unofficial medals he was awarded. All he has is this one past. He wrestles with it, but it is also a source of pride.
When he was sent to Iraq in 2007, he posted the words "ready for action" on his profile. He was assigned to an American military base about 100 kilometers (63 miles) from Baghdad, where his job was to take off and land drones.
As soon as the drones reached flying altitude, pilots in the United States took over. The Predator can remain airborne for an entire day, but it is also slow, which is why it is stationed near the area of operation. Bryant posed for photos wearing sand-colored overalls and a bulletproof vest, leaning against a drone.
Two years later, the Air Force accepted him into a special unit, and he was transferred to the Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. He and a fellow soldier shared a bungalow in a dusty town called Clovis, which consists mainly of trailers, gas stations and evangelical churches. Clovis is located hours away from the nearest city.
Bryant preferred night shifts, because that meant it was daytime in Afghanistan. In the spring, the landscape, with its snow-covered peaks and green valleys, reminded him of his native Montana. He saw people cultivating their fields, boys playing soccer and men hugging their wives and children.
When it got dark, Bryant switched to the infrared camera. Many Afghans sleep on the roof in the summer, because of the heat. "I saw them having sex with their wives. It's two infrared spots becoming one," he recalls.
He observed people for weeks, including Taliban fighters hiding weapons, and people who were on lists because the military, the intelligence agencies or local informants knew something about them.
"I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot." He felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. "They were good daddies," he says.
In his free time, Bryant played video games or "World of Warcraft" on the Internet, or he went out drinking with the others. He can't watch TV anymore because it is neither challenging or stimulating enough for him. He's also having trouble sleeping these days.
'There Was No Time for Feelings'
Major Vanessa Meyer, whose real name is covered with black tape, is giving a presentation at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico on the training of drone pilots. The Air Force plans to have enough personnel to cover its needs by 2013.
Meyer, 34, who is wearing lip gloss and a diamond on her finger, used to fly cargo planes before she became a drone pilot. Dressed in green Air Force overalls, she is standing in a training cockpit and, using a simulator to demonstrate how a drone is guided over Afghanistan. The crosshair on the monitor follows a white car until it reaches a group of mud huts. One uses the joystick to determine the drone's direction, and the left hand is used to operate the lever that slows down or accelerates the unmanned aircraft. On an airfield behind the container, Meyer shows us the Predator, slim and shiny, and its big brother, the Reaper, which carries four missiles and a bomb. "Great planes," she says. "They just don't work in bad weather."
Meyer flew drones at Creech, the air base near Las Vegas, where young men drive in and out in sports cars and mountain chains stretch across the desert like giant reptiles. Describing his time as a drone pilot in Nevada, Colonel Matt Martin wrote in his book "Predator" that, "Sometimes I felt like God hurling thunderbolts from afar." Meyer had her first child when she was working there. She was still sitting in the cockpit, her stomach pressing up against the keyboard, in her ninth month of pregnancy.
"There was no time for feelings" when she was preparing for an attack, she says today. Of course, she says, she felt her heart beating faster and the adrenaline rushing through her body. But then she adhered strictly to the rules and focused on positioning the aircraft. "When the decision had been made, and they saw that this was an enemy, a hostile person, a legal target that was worthy of being destroyed, I had no problem with taking the shot."
No Room for the Evils of the World
After work, she would drive home along US Highway 85 into Las Vegas, listening to country music and passing peace activists without looking at them. She rarely thought about what happened in the cockpit. But sometimes she would review the individual steps in her head, hoping to improve her performance.
Or she would go shopping. It felt strange to her, sometimes, when the woman at the register would ask: "How's it going?" She would answer: "I'm good. How are you? Have a nice day." When she felt restless she would go for a run. She says that being able to help the boys on the ground motivated her to get up every morning.
There was no room for the evils of the world in Meyer's home. She and her husband, a drone pilot, didn't talk about work. She would put on her pajamas and watch cartoons on TV or play with the baby.
Today Meyer has two small children. She wants to show them "that mommy can get to work and do a good job." She doesn't want to be like the women in Afghanistan she watched -- submissive and covered from head to toe. "The women there are no warriors," she says. Meyer says that he current job as a trainer is very satisfying but that, one day, she would like to return to combat duty.
'I Can't Just Switch Back and Go Back to Normal Life'
At some point, Brandon Bryant just wanted to get out and do something else. He spent a few more months overseas, this time in Afghanistan. But then, when he returned to New Mexico, he found that he suddenly hated the cockpit, which smelled of sweat. He began spraying air freshener to get rid of the stench. He also found he wanted to do something that saved lives rather than took them away. He thought working as a survival trainer might fit the bill, although his friends tried to dissuade him.
The program that he then began working on in his bungalow in Clovis every day was called Power 90 Extreme, a boot camp-style fitness regimen. It included dumbbell training, push-ups, chin-ups and sit-ups. He also lifted weights almost every day.
On uneventful days in the cockpit, he would write in his diary, jotting down lines like: "On the battlefield there are no sides, just bloodshed. Total war. Every horror witnessed. I wish my eyes would rot."
If he could just get into good enough shape, he thought to himself, they would let him do something different. The problem was that he was pretty good at his job.
At some point he no longer enjoyed seeing his friends. He met a girl, but she complained about his bad moods. "I can't just switch and go back to normal life," he told her. When he came home and couldn't sleep, he would exercise instead. He began talking back to his superior officers.
One day he collapsed at work, doubling over and spitting blood. The doctor told him to stay home, and ordered him not to return to work until he could sleep more than four hours a night for two weeks in a row.
"Half a year later, I was back in the cockpit, flying drones," says Bryant, sitting in his mother's living room in Missoula. His dog whimpers and lays its head on his cheek. He can't get to his own furniture at the moment. It's in storage, and he doesn't have the money to pay the bill. All he has left is his computer.
Bryant posted a drawing on Facebook the night before our interview. It depicts a couple standing, hand-in-hand, in a green meadow, looking up at the sky. A child and a dog are sitting on the ground next to them. But the meadow is just a part of the world. Beneath it is a sea of dying soldiers, propping themselves up with their last bit of strength, a sea of bodies, blood and limbs.
Doctors at the Veterans' Administration diagnosed Bryant with post-traumatic stress disorder. General hopes for a comfortable war -- one that could be completed without emotional wounds -- haven't been fulfilled. Indeed, Bryan's world has melded with that of the child in Afghanistan. It's like a short circuit in the brain of the drones.
Why isn't he with the Air Force anymore? There was one day, he says, when he knew that he wouldn't sign the next contract. It was the day Bryant walked into the cockpit and heard himself saying to his coworkers: "Hey, what motherfucker is going to die today?"
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
December 14, 2012
A Willing Explorer of São Paulo’s Polluted Rivers
By SIMON ROMERO
SÃO PAULO, Brazil
THE Tietê and Pinheiros Rivers, which cut through this metropolis of 20 million, flow well enough in some parts. But in certain stretches, they ooze. Their waters are best described, perhaps, as ashen gray. Their aroma, reminiscent of rotten eggs, can induce nausea in passers-by.
José Leonídio Rosendo dos Santos has been diving into both rivers for more than 20 years. Hired largely to unclog drainage gates, he scours the murky depths of the Tietê and Pinheiros, which have symbolized São Paulo’s environmental degradation for decades, bringing to the surface a list of items that is eerie and bizarre.
Over the years, his takings (which, as a contractor for public utility companies, he is required to hand over to the authorities) have included a suitcase with $2,000 inside, handguns, knives, stoves and refrigerators, countless automobile tires, and, in another suitcase, the decomposing remains of a woman who had been dismembered.
“I stopped looking for suitcases after that,” said Mr. dos Santos, 48.
He readily admits that jumping into rivers that rank among the world’s most polluted is not for everyone. But for Mr. dos Santos, a surfer who got into diving to pay for his wave-catching habit, his job has brought him an unusual level of notoriety and admiration from Paulistanos, as the residents of this hard-bitten megacity are called.
On the traffic-clogged highways that trace the rivers’ banks, some drivers stop their cars, taking pictures with their smartphones when they see him preparing to dive. Talk-show hosts marvel at his courage. One newspaper here, describing Mr. dos Santos in his futuristic diving garb, compared him to a “Japanese superhero.”
Part of the fascination with Mr. dos Santos has to do with how Paulistanos view their rivers. As the historian Janes Jorge recounts in a book on the city’s largest river, the Tietê (pronounced tchee-uh-TEY), it was adored by city residents as recently as the middle of the last century, when they fished, swam and held rowing competitions in its waters.
Then São Paulo rapidly expanded to become one of the world’s largest cities, its residents moving into high-rise buildings, gated enclaves and sprawling slums. Factories deposited their waste in the rivers. Flourishing districts in São Paulo’s metropolitan area expanded without basic sanitation systems, discharging sewage directly into the Tietê and Pinheiros.
The rivers now persist in Brazil’s popular culture as dystopian objects of derision. Rock bands like Skank composed songs about the seemingly impossible dream of cleaning up the Tietê. Laerte Coutinho, a cartoonist, created an entire strip, “Pirates of the Tietê,” in which marauders set forth from the malodorous river on raiding expeditions across contemporary São Paulo.
MR. DOS SANTOS, soft-spoken and bespectacled, insists that he has never seen any pirates navigating the Tietê or its tributaries. But he has glimpsed other living beings. Herons tiptoe along some riverbanks. He said that capybaras, the world’s largest rodents, roll in the mud along some stretches of the Tietê and Pinheiros. Alligators have been known to emerge from the rivers, weary but resilient.
One of the most astonishing sights of all, Mr. dos Santos said, was a man in São Miguel Paulista, a gritty district on São Paulo’s eastern fringe, who went by the name Pezão and dived into the Tietê without any gear in search of metal to sell to recyclers. “If there’s anyone who deserves recognition, it’s that guy, not me,” Mr. dos Santos said.
Still, he said he held out hope that the stubborn presence of life along São Paulo’s rivers might reflect the latest phase in their existence: the attempts to resurrect them. Since 1992, the authorities have been advancing with a painstakingly slow project to clean up the Tietê and Pinheiros.
Political leaders here contend that the cleanup effort, financed with loans from the Inter-American Development Bank, is going swimmingly. Gov. Geraldo Alckmin even said this year that by 2015, boats could start taking tourists down the Tietê for glimpses of São Paulo’s wonders. (“The problem is removing the smell,” he acknowledged.)
Brazilian scientists point to precedents of restoring vital waterways, as Paris has done with the Seine or London with the Thames, allowing salmon to thrive there decades after they had disappeared.
Cleaning the Tietê and its tributaries, however, offers complications that are in a league of their own, and paramount among them is access to sewage treatment. This deficiency plagues Brazil’s only truly global city, in which hedge funds inhabit hulking postmodern skyscrapers, well-heeled consumers stream into luxury shopping malls and immigrants are as likely to speak Castilian Spanish as Quechua.
At the same time, four million people — about 20 percent of São Paulo’s metropolitan population — still lack basic sanitation, according to Monica Porto, an expert on water reservoir management at the University of São Paulo. One area in metropolitan São Paulo, Guarulhos, with a population of about 1.3 million and home to the city’s international airport, treated almost none of its sewage before 2011.
PROGRESS is slowly being made to hook up more homes to the sewage system. But São Paulo’s hilly geography and its patchwork of squatter settlements, which persist in areas close to the rivers, make this a forbidding task. So the waste of millions, along with some industrial byproducts of dubious origin, still flows into the waterways once treasured by Paulistanos.
“We need to adjust our expectations,” said Ms. Porto, who cautioned against projections that the rivers could soon have recuperated ecosystems. “By 2030, we could have rivers we shouldn’t be ashamed of,” she said. About Mr. dos Santos and his unusual vocation, she had just one thing to say: “Poor thing.”
Still, Mr. dos Santos considers himself anything but unfortunate. The money is not great for diving in São Paulo’s rivers, with a salary of about $2,200 a month, but the job has enabled him to raise a family and buy a home. He proudly owns his own Kirby Morgan diving helmet, and he never touches the water without being in protective plastic gear that is thicker than a normal wet suit and requires assistance to put on.
He says that stress is part of each dive. His vision is severely impaired once under the water of the murky rivers. The stench, he acknowledged, can overwhelm. Then there is the fear of tearing his diving suit on a piece of metal, which could lead to infection, or coming across carcasses. “After every dive, I have a glass of Montilla Carta Ouro rum,” he said. “It helps me feel clean.”
But Mr. dos Santos says there is also something special about his job, if only because so few people can do what he does. By his own reckoning, the city’s rivers are a bit cleaner than they once were. He comes across fewer cadavers than in years past, and the Tietê, he said, now smells somewhat better than the Pinheiros, where he now does most of his diving.
His dives also give him a rare perspective on this intimidating city. “This sounds crazy, but the rivers are the most peaceful place in São Paulo,” he said.
“When I drop to their depths, it becomes absolutely quiet,” he added. “It’s like I’m in space, pondering a civilization which has pushed itself to the edge of destruction.”
Real Geronimo was wily fighter whose skill lay in avoiding war, author claims
By Paul Harris, The Observer
Saturday, December 15, 2012 9:50 EST
New book by Robert Utley claims Apache warrior was neither simply a merciless killer – nor a noble hero
Who was Geronimo? For white Americans, he was the most feared and hated Indian warrior of his time – the epitome of the merciless savage bent on slaughering them and their families.
Later, as the US came to terms with its harsh treatment of Native Americans, the Apache leader would emerge as a different figure: the noble hero fighting to defend his land, people and way of life.
A new book strips away both simple perceptions. The figure who emerges is a complex one: a spiritual warrior, who converted to Christianity before he died, with a deep and abiding hatred of Mexicans rather than Americans, and who was capable of great brutality.
Geronimo is the latest book by Robert Utley, one of the greatest contemporary writers on the American west and author of an acclaimed 1993 biography of the Sioux chief Sitting Bull.
The new book captures a life full of drama and surprise. Those who associate Geronimo with prowess in fighting may be shocked to learn that his birth name was Goyahkla: One Who Yawns – hardly a moniker that presages a career defined by guerrilla warfare.
But then the Geronimo who emerges from the book is full of contradictions. He was a man who prized family life, yet showed no remorse in killing other people’s families. He was seen as a leader of the Apaches, yet had many Apache enemies and was feared by other Native American tribes.
Geronimo was tireless in resisting the Mexican and US forces, but on his frequent breakouts from the reservation his major achievement was often to run rings around his enemy without actually fighting. Indeed, in the last two years of his freedom, as the US army chased him through the desert mountains of the Mexican province of Sonora, he never actually engaged with his pursuers.
“He ran the US army ragged in Sonora’s Sierra Madre and never even fought a skirmish, much less a battle,” Utley said. “This awareness led to my conclusion that Geronimo’s true greatness as a fighting Apache was not in fighting a war but in avoiding war.”
For those who seek to admire Geronimo as a defender of his way of life, accounts of his brutality will be difficult reading. A review of the book on the Daily Beast website even suggested that Geronimo might have been something like the Osama bin Laden of his day. Certainly he grew up in a culture that celebrated the raiding and murder of non-Apaches – whether whites or Mexicans or other tribes.
“Raid seems inadequate to describe what happened when a town, ranch, freight train or traveller was victimised,” Utley writes. “Besides plunder, raiders butchered people, often in the most brutal fashion. Thirty years of such barbaric slaughter, often involving torture and mutilation, form a major characteristic of Geronimo’s persona.”
But Utley is equally unflinching when describing tragedies that befell Geronimo, who lost his first wife, mother and three children to a brutal massacre by Mexicans. “I had lost all,” Geronimo wrote in his own autobiography. In agony, he vowed revenge on all Mexicans and nursed a virulent hatred of them for the rest of his life.
But he did not spend much of his later life fighting for his people or trying to preserve his lifestyle. Surrendering in 1886, he spent the next 23 years in US custody of one sort or another, under guard even as an old man who had cashed in on his notoriety to earn a living as something akin to a circus attraction. While a prisoner in Arizona, Geronimo carved his name on walking sticks to sell as dollar souvenirs to tourists.
At his last home, in Oklahoma, he appeared regularly in wild west shows and even attended the massive Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 in St Louis. He dressed up in Apache clothing, donned a traditional bonnet, posed for photographs and sold handicrafts.
In 1903, Geronimo was baptised into the Dutch Reformed Church, bringing many other Apaches with him and attending weekly services until he died – though a fondness for drinking and gambling disturbed church officials. He died of pneumonia in 1909 after falling from his horse and lying injured on the ground throughout a freezing night.
Such an ignominious end sums up a life marked by triumphs as much as defeats, acts of generosity as much as acts of cruelty. He was both brutal and brutalised – a loving family man responsible for the murder of many families. He was deeply committed to his native religion, but turned later to Jesus.
So, villain or hero? “The legend is easier to believe than the complex and contradictory character Geronimo really was,” Utley said.
© Guardian News and Media 2012
December 14, 2012
Obama’s Cautious Call for Action Sets Stage to Revive Gun Debate
By MARK LANDLER and ERICA GOODE
WASHINGTON — In the emotional statement on the Newtown shootings that President Obama delivered from the White House on Friday, it was a single line, spoken as much in anger as in grief, that stood out. The words were cautious and were immediately criticized for being too timid. But they may have signaled that the long-dormant debate over the nation’s gun laws is about to be re-engaged.
“We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” Mr. Obama said, listing the devastation wrought by other gun violence, from a recent attack in an Oregon shopping mall to the shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July.
But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York spoke for many gun-control advocates, who have been frustrated and disappointed by Mr. Obama’s failure to embrace the issue, when he said he wanted to hear much more.
“Calling for ‘meaningful action’ is not enough. We need immediate action,” said Mr. Bloomberg, who is a leader of a group of mayors against illegal gun ownership.
“We have heard all the rhetoric before,” Mr. Bloomberg added. “What we have not seen is leadership — not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today.”
White House officials professed not to know what Mr. Obama’s pledge for “meaningful action” meant. But given Mr. Obama’s methodical style, the words were not likely to have been chosen casually. And yet the president stopped short of detailing any new initiatives, like restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines or stricter bans on gun buyers with a history of mental illness.
Pressed about whether Mr. Obama would use the tragedy to fuel a new effort, the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said the administration did not want to politicize a tragedy. “There is I’m sure — will be, rather, a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I don’t think today is that day,” he said before Mr. Obama made his remarks.
Politics, of course, intruded almost immediately. Mr. Bloomberg’s group organized a vigil in front of the White House to demand that the president take action. On Capitol Hill, there was an outpouring of condolences and a predictably partisan split on how to respond.
Republicans and many moderate Democrats expressed their horror at the mass killing, but were either silent on a legislative response or said it was not time to talk about gun control. But liberal Democrats said it was time to move forward with serious gun laws.
“The time to talk about it should have been after the last shooting or the shooting before that,” said Representative Carolyn McCarthy, Democrat of New York, whose husband was one of six people killed in a shooting on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993.
Ms. McCarthy said she would resume her quest for broad gun violence legislation: reinstating the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004; banning high-capacity magazines; requiring criminal background checks on gun buyers at gun shows; and improving instant background checks to more thoroughly catch people with histories of mental illness.
“I’m not going to be shy anymore,” she said.
As the debate over gun control flares anew, it is likely to focus on the types of two of the guns that were found with the suspect in Connecticut, a Glock pistol and a Bushmaster .223 M4 carbine rifle, which are similar in type to the weapons used in the mass shootings in Oregon and Colorado.
Both guns are popular for target shooting and self-defense, and have been singled out by gun-control advocates because of their ability to rapidly fire multiple rounds and accommodate large magazines.
But Republicans said tighter gun-control measures would be the wrong step.
“That’s one thing I hope doesn’t happen,” said Representative Mike Rogers, a senior Michigan Republican who is a former F.B.I. agent. “That’s certainly the lowest common denominator. What is the more realistic discussion is, how do we target people with mental illness who use firearms?”
Kristen Rand, the legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control advocacy group, said it was too early to say whether the Newtown massacre would yield different political results than previous mass shootings, including the attack that nearly took the life of a member of Congress, Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.
But she said she believes it would for two reasons: the victims were children, which has elicited a gut-wrenching response across the country, and the National Rifle Association proved to be a political paper tiger in the 2012 election.
David Chipman, a former special agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who is now a consultant to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said he believed the shooting was “a game changer.”
“The only thing that I personally experienced that was similar to this moment was the Oklahoma City bombing, where another American killed scores of people,” Mr. Chipman said of his 25-year career.
Mr. Obama advocated gun laws days after the shooting in Aurora on July 20, but he did not break new ground in proposing legislation, and he reaffirmed his belief in the constitutional rights of gun owners. In a speech to the National Urban League in New Orleans, Mr. Obama endorsed tighter restrictions to bar mentally unstable people from buying weapons. Officials say the suspect in the Newtown massacre suffered from personality disorders.
“These steps shouldn’t be controversial,” Mr. Obama said in his speech in July. “They should be common sense.”
Gun control, however, played an incidental role in the presidential campaign. And the political prospects for federal gun legislation remain bleak, analysts said, even with the national outpouring of emotion that typically follows mass killings.
Given that, some advocates said Mr. Obama should focus on steps that he could do through an executive order. Like Presidents Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush, he could ban the import of assault rifles like AK gun, which have been used in shooting massacres.
More ambitious steps could include passing national legislation to toughen background checks, which are not currently required for guns bought from unlicensed, private sellers.
As a chilly winter sun set over the White House on Friday afternoon, a small group of gun-control advocates gathered outside. A few held signs that read “Mr. President, we are praying for your action.”
Mark Landler reported from Washington, and Erica Goode from New York. Jonathan Weisman, Eric Schmitt and Emmarie Huetteman contributed reporting.
December 15, 2012 07:00 AM
Doing ALEC's Job, MI Passes Laws Allowing Guns In Schools
By Susie Madrak
What timing. The Michigan state legislature rammed this ALEC-written legislation through in a midnight lame-duck session, the night before a gunman killed all those teachers and children in Sandy Hook. The spineless and shameless Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign it.
And you know what? If they really believe their insane rationale, how come you're not allowed to carry a gun in Michigan's state capitol, or when you visit a legislator's office? Maybe some brave reporter (yeah, right) should ask them:
Carrying concealed weapons into schools, churches and stadiums is against the law in Michigan, but it might not be for much longer.
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate approved Senate Bill 59 to allow concealed weapons in several gun-free zones Thursday, as well as doing away with county boards currently overseeing concealed pistol licensing.
The Michigan House and Senate voted Thursday to allow concealed fire arms for licensed carriers in previously restricted areas, including churches and schools.
"If you have pistol free zones they are actually mass murderer empowerment zones," said Steve Dulan, attorney for the Michigan Coalition of Responsible Gun Owners, who represents sportsman clubs throughout Michigan backing the bill. "If you actually look at the history, even over the past 10 years in the U.S., you find that maybe all but one mass shooting has occurred in a so-called gun free zone."
Michigan law currently prohibits concealed weapons in schools, churches, day cares, hospitals, dorms, casinos and any public entertainment venue able to hold more than 2,500 people. Violators can be charged a civil infraction with a $500 fine and six-month concealed pistol license suspension. Repeat offenses can lead to a four-year felony, $5,000 fine and concealed pistol license being revoked.
Under the new law schools and private establishments would be able to voluntarily remain pistol-free zones, if desired.
Dulan says creating gun-free zones disarms private citizens to any criminals who don't obey the laws in the first place.
"There is a complete logical fallacy that there are no guns in a gun free zone," Dulan said. "It's as ridiculous as the drug-free school zone signs. No one believes those either ... What you are doing in this case is disarming law biding people."
Drug-free school zones have double and triple penalties for those caught selling drugs. And yes, drug dealers avoid them for that reason. And I hope the gun lobbyists are paying Mr. Dulan enough money that he can use the dollars bills to WIPE THE BLOOD OFF HIS HANDS.
Michigan has 351,599 concealed weapons permits issued statewide, according to a state report dated Dec. 1. Those certified carriers would need an additional nine hours training and 94 additional rounds at the firing range to qualify to concealed carry in gun-free zones, the bill states.
Language in the concealed carry reform bill would eliminate county review boards made up of representatives from the Michigan State Police, county prosecutor's office and county sheriff's department, likely streamlining the process.
The Michigan Sheriff's Association has been one of the largest opponents of the bill. Northern Michigan sheriffs see the bill as a burden.
"It would make the sheriff the sole person on the board, and if I decide in my conscience a person should not have a (concealed carry permit) for what ever reason, then that person has the ability to appeal that in circuit court to the point where I could be fined for not giving a (permit)," said Charlevoix County Sheriff Don Schneider, who opposes the bill. "In no way do I want that dumped on us. It is just not right. You are going to cause every sheriff to say: 'You want a CCW? Fine, because I'm not going to get sued.'"
Emmet County Sheriff Pete Wallin also has issues with doing away with Concealed Weapons Licensing Boards and has contacted local lawmakers to voice his concerns.
"I just say if it's not broke, why try to fix it?" Wallin said. "It is nice to have other input on it. I don't want the sole responsibility, and I think it works just fine."
11 facts about guns, violence in America
No matter where people stand on the issue of firearms, the facts below about guns and violence may challenge their preconceptions and complicate a search for easy answers.
If past trends hold true, attitudes about guns aren't likely to change much after the shootings in Newtown, Conn.
No matter where people stand on the issue of firearms, the facts below about guns and violence may challenge their preconceptions and complicate a search for easy answers.
Each listing contains a link so you can explore pertinent documents, articles or data on the Web. (The links are case-sensitive.)
1. Shooting sprees are not rare in the United States.
Mother Jones has tracked and mapped every shooting spree in the last three decades. "Since 1982, there have been at least 61 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii," researchers found.
And in most cases, the killers had obtained their weapons legally.
2. Eleven of the 20 worst mass shootings in the past 50 years took place in the United States.
In second place is Finland, with two entries. In July, Time posted the full list (via Associated Press):
3. Of the 12 deadliest shootings in the United States, six have happened from 2007 onward.
That includes the Newtown, Conn., shooting. The preliminary death toll of 27 would make it the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
4. America is an unusually violent country. But we're not as violent as we used to be.
Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, in July made a graph of "deaths due to assault" in the United States and other developed countries. The United States is a clear outlier, with rates well above other countries.
As Healy writes, "The most striking features of the data are (1) how much more violent the U.S. is than other countries (except possibly Estonia and Mexico), and (2) the degree of change — and recently, decline — there has been in the U.S."
seati.ms/XogpKz5. The South is the most violent region in the United States.
In a subsequent post, Healy drilled further into the numbers and looked at deaths due to assault in different regions of the country. Just as the United States is a clear outlier in the international context, the South is a clear outlier in the national context.
6. Gun ownership in the United States is declining overall.
"For all the attention given to America's culture of guns, ownership of firearms is at or near all-time lows," political scientist Patrick Egan, of New York University, wrote in July. The decline is most evident on the General Social Survey, though it also shows up on polling from Gallup.
The bottom line, Egan writes, is that "long-term trends suggest that we are in fact currently experiencing a waning culture of guns and violence in the United States."
seati.ms/WcPulY7. More guns tend to mean more homicide.
The Harvard Injury Control Research Center assessed the literature on guns and homicide and found that there's substantial evidence that indicates more guns means more murders. This holds true whether you're looking at different countries or different states.
8. States with stricter gun-control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.
Last year, economist Richard Florida dived deep into the correlations between gun deaths and other kinds of social indicators. Some of what he found was, perhaps, unexpected: Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence.
But one thing he found was, perhaps, perfectly predictable: States with tighter gun-control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths. The disclaimer here is that correlation is not causation. But correlations can be suggestive.
"The map overlays the map of firearm deaths above with gun-control restrictions by state," explains Florida. "It highlights states which have one of three gun-control restrictions in place — assault-weapon bans, trigger locks or safe-storage requirements. Firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with stricter gun-control legislation. Though the sample sizes are small, we find substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42) and mandate safe-storage requirements for guns (-.48)."
seati.ms/SXghBR9. Gun control, in general, has not been politically popular.
Since 1990, Gallup has been asking Americans whether they think gun-control laws should be stricter. The answer, increasingly, is that they don't.
"The percentage in favor of making the laws governing the sale of firearms 'more strict' fell from 78 percent in 1990 to 62 percent in 1995, and 51 percent in 2007," Gallup reported after the Tucson, Ariz., shooting in 2011. "In the most recent reading, Gallup in 2010 found 44 percent in favor of stricter laws. In fact, in 2009 and again last year, the slight majority said gun laws should either remain the same or be made less strict."
10. But particular policies to control guns often are.
An August CNN/ORC poll asked respondents whether they favor or oppose a number of specific policies to restrict gun ownership. And when you drill down to that level, many policies, including banning the manufacture and possession of semi-automatic rifles, are popular. About 90 percent support background checks and no guns for felons or the mentally ill.
11. Shootings don't tend to substantially affect views on gun control.
In a poll taken after the Colorado movie-theater shooting that killed 12 on July 20, Pew Research Center reported "47 percent say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 46 percent say it is more important to protect American" rights to own guns — virtually unchanged from a survey in April, when 45 percent prioritized gun control and 49 percent gun rights."
December 14, 2012
Nation’s Pain Is Renewed, and Difficult Questions Are Asked Once More
By WILLIAM GLABERSON
On Friday, as Newtown, Conn., joined the list of places like Littleton, Colo., and Jonesboro, Ark., where schools became the scenes of stunning violence, the questions were familiar: Why does it happen? What can be done to stop it?
The questions have emerged after all of the mass killings in recent decades — at a Virginia college campus, a Colorado movie theater, a Wisconsin temple — but they took on an added sting when the victims included children.
The fact that the Newtown massacre, with 26 killed at the school, along with the gunman, was the second deadliest school shooting in the country’s history — after the 32 people killed at Virginia Tech in 2007 — once again made this process of examination urgent national business as details emerged from Sandy Hook Elementary School.
This painful corner of modern American history does offer some answers: Many of the mass killers had histories of mental illness, with warning signs missed by the people who knew them and their sometimes clear signs of psychological deterioration left unaddressed by the country’s mental health system.
The shootings almost always renew the debate about access to guns, and spur examination of security practices and missed warning signals in what were damaged lives.
Research on mass school killings shows that they are exceedingly rare. Amanda B. Nickerson, director of a center that studies school violence and abuse prevention at the University at Buffalo, said studies made clear that American schools were quite safe and that children were more likely to be killed outside of school.
But, she said, events like the Sandy Hook killings trigger fundamental fears. “When something like this happens,” she said, “everybody says it’s an epidemic, and that’s just not true.”
Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, may have earned singular infamy with the killing of 12 other students and a teacher from Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, but there have been others who breached the safety of American schoolhouses over the decades.
In 1927, a school board official in Bath, Mich., killed 44 people, including students and teachers, when he blew up the town’s school.
Even before Columbine in the late 1990s, school shootings seemed to be a national scourge, with killings in places like Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore. In 2006, a 32-year-old man shot 11 girls at an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pa., killing 5 of them.
Often in a haze of illness, the schoolhouse gunmen are usually aware of the taboo they are breaking by targeting children, said Dewey G. Cornell, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project. “They know it’s a tremendous statement that shocks people,” Dr. Cornell said, “and that is a reflection of their tremendous pain and their drive to communicate that pain.”
After 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on a prayer group at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., in 1997, it came out that he had made no secret of his plans. “He told me, once or twice, that he thought it would be cool to walk — or run — down the halls shooting people,” a friend from the school band testified later. Five Heath students were wounded; three were killed.
But some experts on school violence said Friday that it was not so much the character of the relatively rare schoolhouse gunman as it was the public perception of the shootings that transformed them into national and even international events. Dunblane, Scotland, is remembered for the day in 1996 when a 43-year-old man stormed a gym class of 5- and 6-year-olds, killing 16 children and a teacher.
Over the years there have been some indications of what warning signs to look for. The New York Times published an analysis in 2000 of what was known about 102 people who had committed 100 rampage killings at schools, job sites and public places like malls.
Most had left a road map of red flags, plotting their attacks and accumulating weapons. In the 100 rampage killings reviewed, 54 of the killers had talked explicitly of when and where they would act, and against whom. In 34 of the cases, worried friends or family members had desperately sought help in advance, only to be rebuffed by the police, school officials or mental health workers.
After the deaths in Sandy Hook on Friday, there was new talk of the need to be vigilant. But there has also been talk of the sober reality that it is hard to turn the ordinary places of life into fortresses.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, who is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and has worked on school violence issues, said there were steps that could be taken to try to limit school violence, like limiting entry, developing an explicit disaster plan that includes strategies to lock down schools and pursuing close ties with the local police.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “random acts of severe violence like this are not possible to entirely prevent.”
December 14, 2012 01:10 PM
Taibbi: After Laundering $800M in Drug Money, How Did HSBC Executives Avoid Jail?
By Diane Sweet
The banking giant HSBC has escaped indictment for laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and groups linked to al-Qaeda. Despite evidence of wrongdoing, the U.S. Department of Justice has allowed the bank to avoid prosecution and pay a $1.9 billion fine. No top HSBC officials will face charges, either.
Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi, author of "Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History," joins Democracy Now! to discuss how the bankers escaped criminal prosecution for their actions.
"You can do real time in jail in America for all kinds of ridiculous offenses," Taibbi says. "Here we have a bank that laundered $800 million of drug money, and they can’t find a way to put anybody in jail for that. That sends an incredible message, not just to the financial sector but to everybody. It’s an obvious, clear double standard, where one set of people gets to break the rules as much as they want and another set of people can’t break any rules at all without going to jail."
"Now, how did Forbes put it, Matt," asks Amy Goodman. "What’s a bank got to do to get into some real trouble around here?"
"Exactly, exactly," begins Taibbi. "And what’s amazing about that is that’s Forbes saying that. I mean, universally, the reaction, even in—among the financial press, which is normally very bank-friendly and gives all these guys the benefit of the doubt, the reaction is, is "What do you have to do to get a criminal indictment?" What HSBC has now admitted to is, more or less, the worst behavior that a bank can possibly be guilty of. You know, they violated the Trading with the Enemy Act, the Bank Secrecy Act. And we’re talking about massive amounts of money. It was $9 billion that they failed to supervise properly. These crimes were so obvious that apparently the cartels in Mexico specifically designed boxes to put cash in so that they would fit through the windows of HSBC teller windows. So, it was so out in the open, these crimes, and there’s going to be no criminal prosecution whatsoever, which is incredible."
A full transcript of the discussion below the fold.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s go on to HSBC. The banking giant has escaped indictment for laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and groups linked to al-Qaeda. The bank reportedly supplied a billion dollars to a firm whose founder had ties to al-Qaeda and shipped billions in cash from Mexico to the United States despite warnings the money was coming from drug cartels. Earlier this year, a Senate investigation concluded that HSBC provided a, quote, "gateway for terrorists to gain access to U.S. dollars and the U.S. financial system."
Despite evidence of wrongdoing, the Justice Department has allowed the bank to avoid prosecution and pay a $1.9 billion fine. No top HSBC officials will face charges. While it’s reportedly the largest penalty ever paid by a bank, the deal has come under wide criticism. Officials reportedly agreed to seek the fine over concerns that criminal charges would have hurt the global financial system.
Loretta Lynch is U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
LORETTA LYNCH: We are here today to announce the filing of criminal charges against HSBC Bank, both its U.S. entity, HSBC U.S., and the parent HSBC group, for its sustained and systemic failure to guard against the corruption of our financial system by drug traffickers and other criminals and for evading U.S. sanctions law. HSBC, as you know, is one of the largest financial institutions in the world, with affiliates and personnel spanning the globe. Yet during the relevant time periods, they failed to comply with the legal requirements incumbent on all U.S. financial institutions to have in place compliance mechanisms and safeguards to guard against being used for money laundering.
HSBC has admitted its guilt to the four-count information filed today, which sets forth two violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, a violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA, and violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act. As part of its resolution of these charges, HSBC has agreed to forfeit $1.256 billion, the largest forfeiture amount ever by a financial institution for a compliance failure.
AMY GOODMAN: That was U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch.
Meanwhile, HSBC Group Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver said in a statement, quote, "We accept responsibility for our past mistakes. We have said we are profoundly sorry for them." He added the bank had, quote, "taken extensive and concerted steps to put in place the highest standards for the future."
News of HSBC’s fine comes as three low-level traders were arrested in London as part of an international investigation into 16 international banks accused of rigging a key global interest rate used in contracts worth trillions of dollars. The London Interbank Offered Rate, known as Libor, is the average interest rate at which banks can borrow from each other. Some analysts say it defines the cost of money. The benchmark rate sets the borrowing costs of everything from mortgages to student loans to credit card accounts.
Well, for more on the latest bank scandals, we’re joined by Matt Taibbi, contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine. His latest book is Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History.
Now, how did Forbes put it, Matt? "What’s a bank got to do to get into some real trouble around here?"
MATT TAIBBI: Exactly, exactly. And what’s amazing about that is that’s Forbes saying that. I mean, universally, the reaction, even in—among the financial press, which is normally very bank-friendly and gives all these guys the benefit of the doubt, the reaction is, is "What do you have to do to get a criminal indictment?" What HSBC has now admitted to is, more or less, the worst behavior that a bank can possibly be guilty of. You know, they violated the Trading with the Enemy Act, the Bank Secrecy Act. And we’re talking about massive amounts of money. It was $9 billion that they failed to supervise properly. These crimes were so obvious that apparently the cartels in Mexico specifically designed boxes to put cash in so that they would fit through the windows of HSBC teller windows. So, it was so out in the open, these crimes, and there’s going to be no criminal prosecution whatsoever, which is incredible.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And emails found where bank officials were instructing officials in Iran and in some other countries at how best to hide their efforts to move money into their system?
MATT TAIBBI: Exactly, yeah, and that’s true at HSBC, and apparently we have a very similar scandal involving another British bank, Standard Chartered, which also paid an enormous fine recently for laundering money for—through Iran. This, again, comes on the heels of the Libor scandal, which has already caught up two major British banks—the Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays. So, you have essentially all of the major British banks now are inveigled in these enormous scandals. We have a couple of arrests, you know, today involving low-level people in the Libor thing, but it doesn’t look like any major players are going to be indicted criminally for any of this.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole argument that the bank is too big to indict because of the threat to the world financial system, most people don’t know that HSBC stands for Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. It’s a British bank that goes back to the early days of British colonialism in Asia.
MATT TAIBBI: Sure.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And is it too big to be indicted?
MATT TAIBBI: The amazing thing about that rationale is that it’s exactly the opposite of the truth. The message that this sends to everybody, when banks commit crimes and nobody is punished for it, is that you can do it again. You know, if there’s no criminal penalty for committing even the most obvious kinds of crimes, that tells everybody, investors all over the world, that the banking system is inherently unsafe. And so, the message is, this is not a move to preserve the banking system at all. In fact, it’s incredibly destructive. It undermines the entire world confidence in the banking system. It’s an incredible decision that, again, is met with surprise even with—by people in the financial community.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Thomas Curry, head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the lead regulator for HSBC in the U.S., defended the settlement.
THOMAS CURRY: These actions send a strong message to the bank and to the financial services industry to make compliance with the law a priority to safeguard their institutions from being misused in ways that threaten American lives.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Thomas Curry, head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. It seems like a lot of people who are in prison right now—low-level thieves, criminals, drug launderers, people who have been accused of working with al-Qaeda—perhaps could appeal their convictions now and get out of jail.
MATT TAIBBI: Right. Right, yeah, exactly. I was in court yesterday, in criminal court in Brooklyn. I saw somebody come out of—come into court who had just been overnight in jail for walking from one subway car to another in front of a policeman. You can do real time in jail in America for all kinds of ridiculous offenses, for taking up two subway seats in New York City, if you fall asleep in the subway. People go to jail for that all the time in this country, for having a marijuana stem in your pocket. There are 50,000 marijuana possession cases in New York City alone every year. And here we have a bank that laundered $800 million of drug money, and they can’t find a way to put anybody in jail for that. That sends an incredible message not just to the financial sector but to everybody. It’s an obvious, clear double standard, where one set of people gets to break the rules as much as they want and another set of people can’t break any rules at all without going to jail. And I just don’t see how they don’t see this problem.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Matt, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer outlined some of HSBC’s alleged drug cartel ties.
ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL LANNY BREUER: From 2006 to 2010, the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, the Norte del Valle cartel in Colombia and other drug traffickers laundered at least $881 million in illegal narcotics trafficking proceeds through HSBC Bank USA. These traffickers didn’t have to try very hard. They would sometimes deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in a single day into a single account, using boxes, as Loretta said, designed to fit the precise dimensions of the tellers’ windows in HSBC’s Mexico branches.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Matt, this is like Monopoly, the board game, all over again, you know? Get out of jail free, you know.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Instead of $50, you pay $1.9 billion, but you’re still getting out of jail free.
MATT TAIBBI: And this fits in the—in with the pattern of the entire financial crisis. $1.9 billion sounds like a lot of money, and it definitely is. It’s a record settlement. No bank has ever paid this much money before. But it’s about two months’ worth of profits for HSBC. It’s not going to cripple this bank. It’s not even going to hurt them that badly for this year. It fits in line with the Goldman Sachs settlement in the Abacas case, which was hailed at the time as a record settlement. It was $575 million. But that was about 1/20th of what they got just through the AIG bailout. So, this is not a lot of money for these people. It sounds like a lot of money to the layperson, but for the crimes they committed, getting away with just money—and it’s not even their own money, it’s not their personal money, it’s the shareholders’ money—it’s incredible. It really—it literally is a get-out-of-jail-free card.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, the way that big banks these days can borrow money from the U.S. Fed for no interest—
MATT TAIBBI: For free.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: For free.
MATT TAIBBI: Free.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Basically, they can just take money from the government and pay the government back.
AMY GOODMAN: What does the Justice Department, what does the Obama administration, gain by not actually holding HSBC accountable?
MATT TAIBBI: You know, I think—I’ve asked myself that question numerous times. I really believe—and I think a lot of people believe this—that the Obama administration sincerely accepts the rationale that to aggressively prosecute crimes committed by this small group of too-big-to-fail banks would undermine confidence in the global financial system and that they therefore have to give them a pass on all sorts of things, because we are teetering on the edge of a problem, and if any one of them were to fall out, it would cause a domino effect of losses and catastrophes like the Lehman Brothers business. And I think they’re genuinely afraid of that. And so, that’s the only legitimate explanation that you can possibly assign to this situation, because, as we know, Wall Street abandoned the Obama administration this year when it came to funding in the election. They heavily supported Mitt Romney and didn’t give Obama much money at all.
Originally published Friday, December 14, 2012 at 6:52 PM
EPA tightens clean-air standard for soot
A new federal rule will force communities to further limit airborne soot, or fine particulate matter, which stems from activities ranging from burning wood to vehicle emissions, and which causes disease by entering the lungs and bloodstream.
By Juliet Eilperin
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON—The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tightened the nation’s soot standards by 20 percent Friday, a move that will force communities across the country to improve air quality by the end of the decade while making it harder for some industries to expand operations without strict pollution controls.
The new rule limits soot, or fine particulate matter, which stems from activities ranging from burning wood to vehicle emissions, and which causes disease by entering the lungs and bloodstream. Fine particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or one-30th the width of a human hair, ranks as the country’s most widespread deadly pollutant.
The new rule is a result of a 2009 court ruling that said the EPA standards for the amount of soot permissible in the air, based on an annual average, ignored the advice of scientific advisers by maintaining the standard established in 1997 and must be rewritten. That limit was 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
The EPA has decided to cut the level to 12 micrograms per cubic meter.
The soot rule “is among the most critical standards that EPA could set” because it triggers a series of measures local governments must take to comply or risk facing federal penalties, said Clean Air Watch President Frank O’Donnell.
The rule is significant because once areas are found in violation, it becomes harder for new pollution sources, such as industrial facilities and power plants, to get operating permits. While the federal government offers several incentives to cut soot — such as money to phase out dirty diesel school buses — funding for these initiatives is in short supply.
The agency will determine which areas are out of attainment in 2014, and those communities will then have six years to come into compliance. According to people familiar with the rule, 66 of 3,033 counties will be found in violation of the new standard, though EPA projects just seven will be out of compliance by 2020.
Air concentrations of soot can vary widely. In Pittsburgh’s Liberty-Clairton neighborhood, the annual average is 15 micrograms per cubic meter; in more bucolic Harrisonburg, Va., near Shenandoah National Park, it averages 10.2. An estimated 17.3 million Americans are living in areas that don’t meet the soot standard of 15.
The EPA issued a draft rule in June, and faced a court-ordered deadline of Dec. 21 to finalize it. The agency picked the more stringent standard of the choices laid out in the draft rule. The agency soon is likely to finalize another air-pollution rule, the first carbon standard for new power plants.
The agency sent the final rule over to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Tuesday, and business groups have been scrambling to alter it. Several trade groups — including the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the American Chemistry Council and the Rubber Manufacturers Association — got less than a day’s notice to weigh in with the OMB on Wednesday, where they argued that the EPA could protect public health and minimize economic harm with a more lenient standard of between 13 and 15 micrograms per cubic meter.
Ross Eisenberg, NAM’s vice president for energy and resources policy, said the stricter rule will raise the price of doing business in the United States.
“It is impossible to ignore that, against the backdrop of a still-fragile economy and a looming fiscal crisis, EPA is heaping another new set of costs and burdens on manufacturers,” he said.
“EPA seems wedded to the notion that it must push its policies as hard as it possibly can, with the goal being to enact the strictest possible standard that will survive legal scrutiny. That’s not EPA’s job.”
Brooke Suter, who heads the Clean Air Task Force’s National Diesel Clean-up Campaign, noted that the EPA’s scientific-advisory panel said a standard that would protect public health would range between 11 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter, and that the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to base the rule on scientific rather than economic considerations. Her group has estimated a soot limit of 12 micrograms would save 15,000 lives a year by the time the rule takes full effect in 2020.
“When it comes down to this, we have to do this,” Suter said. “This is the law.”
It is difficult to pin down the new standard’s economic impact, partly because some of the required reductions will be achieved under other EPA rules limiting mercury and sulfur dioxide. But one of the main rules that would have cut sulfur-dioxide emissions in the eastern half of the country, the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, was struck down in federal court last summer. Also, some members of Congress are threatening to block an upcoming rule curbing cruise-ship pollution.
“EPA has said that the rule will not cost anything because the costs are effectively ‘baked in’ through compliance with a laundry list of other regulations. ... We don’t think it’s quite that clean,” Eisenberg said.
Brad Muller, vice president of marketing for Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, said his company couldn’t get an air permit to build a new facility in rural North Carolina because county officials feared it would push them out of compliance.
“We’re not going to make this investment if we can’t get an air permit,” said Muller, who estimated his firm would have hired 1,985 employees and generated 815 temporary construction jobs if they had built the new plant.
Poll: Supermajority of Americans finally support climate action
By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, December 14, 2012 13:37 EST
A large supermajority of the American public thinks that the rising temperatures felt across the nation in recent years are a serious problem that demands action soon, The Associated Press reported Friday.
An AP-GfK poll found that a record high 78 percent of Americans, nearly 4 in 5, are worried about climate change now that so many have experienced the results for themselves. By party, the poll found that 83 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans accept that climate change is happening. The survey didn’t ask whether respondents think that the shift in climate is man-made, but it did notice that the biggest shift has occurred among people who say they don’t trust scientific analysis.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that about 80 million Americans experienced higher-than-average temperatures during the summer months, and 2012 is about to go down in the history books as the hottest year on record.
Meanwhile, as the climate talks in Doha come to a close with no new emissions deals, it’s not clear what if anything world leaders are going to do before the next major round of talks in 2015. Doha, however, was not a complete failure by some accounts. Delegates managed to secure some structural changes to how emissions will be measured and enforced, along with a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol, which commits certain wealthy nations to reducing their emissions.
President Obama, though he commented during his re-election acceptance speech that America will do something about climate change, has not put forward any specific proposals yet. He told reporters in November that he plans to use his second term to engage in “a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what more can we do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons.”
December 14, 2012
Most Governors Refuse to Set Up Health Exchanges
By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Friday that more than half the states had rejected its pleas to set up their own health insurance exchanges, dealing a setback to President Obama’s hopes that Republicans would join a White House campaign to provide health insurance to all Americans.
Friday was the deadline for states to notify the federal government of their plans, and administration officials had been hoping that Mr. Obama’s re-election would overcome resistance to the new health care law.
Federal officials said they knew of 17 states that intended to run their own exchanges, as Congress intended.
Two of those states, New York and Kentucky, won conditional federal approval on Friday for their plans to create and run state-based exchanges. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, also approved an application from the District of Columbia.
In seeking federal money, New York estimated that one million people could obtain insurance through its exchange. In addition, said Josh Vlasto, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the exchange will lower the cost of coverage for many New York businesses.
But in Virginia, after more than a year of planning and research, Gov. Bob McDonnell said his state would not operate its own exchange. “Despite repeated requests for information, we have not had any clear direction or answers from Washington until recent days,” Mr. McDonnell said.
On Monday, Ms. Sebelius gave preliminary approval to state-based exchanges being established by Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington.
The exchanges are online supermarkets where people can shop for private health insurance and obtain federal subsidies to help defray the cost. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 25 million people will eventually receive coverage through the exchanges.
Federal officials and federal contractors will set up and run the exchange in any state that is unable or unwilling to do so.
Gary M. Cohen, a federal health official, said the administration “has encouraged states to establish their own exchanges.” But, he added, consumers will have access to affordable health insurance in all states, regardless of who is in charge of the exchange.
The concept of an exchange is simple: Competition will drive down prices. But operating an exchange is an immense technical challenge requiring sophisticated information technology to digest and display huge amounts of data on the costs and benefits of various insurance plans.
The federal government and states face a series of deadlines in the new year. On Jan. 1, Secretary Sebelius must determine whether each state will be able to operate its own exchange in compliance with federal standards. By Feb. 15, states must notify the federal government if they want to help with selected tasks, like consumer assistance and the supervision of health plans, in partnership with the federal government.
On Oct. 1, consumers can begin to enroll in health plans, for coverage starting on Jan. 1, 2014, when most Americans will be required to have insurance.
Administration officials said they were delighted this week when a Republican governor, C. L. Otter of Idaho, announced plans to establish a state-run exchange.
However, Mr. Otter’s rationale provided little comfort to the administration. He said he did not want to surrender power to “federal bureaucrats.” He denounced “the mandates and overreaching federal authority of the Affordable Care Act.” He said the law “will do little or nothing to reduce costs while force-feeding us coverage and increasing the size and scope of government.” And he said his decision could be rescinded if the State Legislature disagreed with him.
Pennsylvania seriously considered running its own exchange, but Gov. Tom Corbett said on Wednesday that he would not pursue the idea.
“State authority to run a health insurance exchange is illusory,” Mr. Corbett said. “In reality, Pennsylvania would end up shouldering all of the costs by 2015, but have no authority to govern the program.”
In Tennessee, state officials did a huge amount of planning for a state-run exchange. But Gov. Bill Haslam announced this week that he had decided against the idea because the Obama administration had failed to answer numerous operational questions.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey cited similar concerns in vetoing legislation to establish a state-based exchange last week.
“New guidance continues to trickle out of Washington at an erratic pace,” Mr. Christie said.
December 14, 2012
With a Major Push, AARP Returns to a Hard Line Against Cuts in Benefits
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
WASHINGTON — Seeking to stave off cuts in retirement programs, executives at AARP are determined to prove their mettle, not only to government officials negotiating a deficit deal but to their 37 million members as well.
The group, which advocates a range of federal health and fiscal issues that affect older Americans, angered many of its own last year when it opened the door for the first time to the possibility of accepting modest cuts in Social Security benefits.
Chastened, AARP now appears to have veered back to a hard-line position of opposing any cutbacks in Medicare or Social Security and is seeking to keep those programs off the bargaining table altogether. The group’s stance has made it a favorite target in recent weeks for conservatives pushing for cuts in social programs.
The strong position has won back some skeptics who questioned whether the nation’s highest-profile advocate for older Americans was wobbling in its defense of crucial programs, said Witold Skwierczynski, a leader in a federal workers’ union who has been organizing pickets at Social Security offices nationwide to protest possible cuts.
After last year’s brouhaha, AARP officials “got a lot of pushback and changed their tune,” said Mr. Skwierczynski. “I trust them now. They learned their lesson.”
It has no official seat at the bargaining table, but AARP, occupying a lavish blocklong headquarters not far from the Capitol, will play an outsize role nonetheless in the debate over the fiscal crisis as it seeks to protect benefit programs.
It has orchestrated a national television and radio advertising blitz, dispatched volunteers to Washington to meet with lawmakers and worked to organize grass-roots support at local levels. AARP’s president, Barry Rand, was also among a group of civil liberties advocates who met with President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. at the White House in November to discuss the deficit negotiations.
The group’s sheer size gives it clout in the discussions. It has an annual budget of about $1.4 billion and has spent more than $220 million on federal lobbying since 1998, to rank sixth among the top spenders, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks spending.
AARP sees the two biggest threats in the current negotiations as the possibility of Congress lowering cost-of-living increases for Social Security and raising the eligibility age for Medicare, ideas favored by Republican leaders.
If either step is included in any deal reached by the White House and Congressional Republicans, AARP executives are already primed to try to head them off by blocking passage in the House and Senate.
“At the end of the day, whatever agreement is reached by the leadership will be voted on by the entire Congress,” Nancy A. LeaMond, AARP’s chief lobbyist, said in an interview. “What we want to do is paint a picture of what this would mean for the economic circumstances of people over 50.”
Leading Republicans in Congress, in resisting the White House’s call for higher taxes on wealthy Americans, have demanded structural changes in entitlement programs that could mean deep reductions in payouts.
President Obama and leading Democrats, meanwhile, say there are ways to achieve significant savings without cutting benefits — but they have not ruled out that approach completely.
If the Chamber of Commerce is the lead voice of business leaders on the right in opposing increased taxes in the deficit talks, AARP plays a similar role on the left in opposing benefit cuts. It hopes to meet or make contact with the office of every member of Congress before a deal is done.
“It’s important for them to know where we stand, even if they disagree with us,” Ms. LeaMond said.
Randy Myers, 76, who leads AARP’s state organization in West Virginia, went to Washington last week and met with five of the state’s Congressional representatives, including both its senators. He went armed not only with data about the programs’ importance but also with a not-so-subtle message: what lawmakers ultimately do will matter deeply to the voters at home.
“They know when they come home and talk to seniors in West Virginia, they’ll be asked: ‘What’s going to happen to my Social Security? What’s going to happen to my Medicare?’ ” said Mr. Myers, a former state Medicaid official. “And if they don’t have the right answer, they’re going to hear about it.”
But AARP’s success or failure comes with political risks for the group, which has been badly bruised in the past by its positions on issues like President Obama’s sweeping health care reform and former President George W. Bush’s plan in 2003 to provide prescription drugs through Medicare.
Conservatives have stepped up their attacks on AARP in recent weeks, accusing it of a financial conflict because it is lobbying to protect Medicare even as it receives millions in royalties from its backing of some Medicare-related insurance plans.
AARP officials say there is no conflict because their positions are determined independently of their financial interests.
Still, Congressional Republicans have raised the subject repeatedly; it was explored in a front-page article last week in The Washington Post.
The 60 Plus Association, an advocacy group affiliated with Pat Boone, which casts itself as a conservative alternative to its more prominent rival, charged last week on its Web site that AARP “now is an annex of the Democrat party engaging in underhanded money-grubbing tactics that sell-out its members.”
Liberal groups have been at odds with AARP on particular policies as well. After last year’s controversy over the group’s position on Social Security, lesser-known advocacy groups on the left stepped in and were seen as stronger defenders of retirement programs.
AARP leaders now insist that any structural changes in Social Security must be considered down the road, separate from any last-minute deficit deal.
Protecting the entitlement benefits is the group’s top priority at the moment.
“We’re very focused on there not being cuts to beneficiaries,” Ms. LeaMond said. “This is a very big and very significant effort for AARP.”
December 14, 2012
Senate Republicans Are Splitting With House Over Taxes
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — A split developing between House Republican leaders and some Senate counterparts who are increasingly open to extending the expiring Bush-era tax cuts only for the middle class is adding to pressure on Speaker John A. Boehner to cut a deficit reduction deal with President Obama.
Senate Republican aides said Friday that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, sounded out his Senate Republican colleagues Thursday on a plan to extend the expiring tax cuts for incomes under $250,000, while attaching some Republican priorities like low tax rates on capital gains, dividends and inherited estates.
Leadership aides emphasized that Mr. McConnell was not advocating any specific plan, nor was he saying that extending the middle-class tax cuts was the only option to resolve a potential fiscal crisis next month when hundreds of billions of dollars in tax increases and automatic spending cuts are scheduled to kick in.
“Senator McConnell does not advocate raising taxes on anybody or anything,” Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman, said Friday. “Despite the president’s failure to lead or to offer any real solutions to the last four years of trillion-dollar deficits, Republicans will continue to look for ways to protect American families and jobs while strengthening entitlement programs.”
But Senate Republican voices favoring a swift extension of the middle-class tax cuts are proliferating. Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina and a close friend of Mr. Boehner’s, told reporters Thursday: “We’re for extending the middle-class tax rates. We can debate the upper-end tax rates when we do tax reform. But if we’ve got to do this to get the president focused on reform of taxes, preservation of entitlements — Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid — I’m all for it.”
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who will take over next year as the Senate’s No. 2 ranking Republican, told Politico this week, “I believe we’re going to pass the $250,000 and below sooner or later, and we really don’t have much leverage there because those rates go up by operation of law Dec. 31.”
A Cornyn spokeswoman, Megan Mitchell, said the senator’s sentiments were “addressing a worst-case scenario” that did not produce a broad deal that prompted serious negotiations next year to overhaul the tax code and entitlement programs like Medicare.
But with time running out, the worst case is nearly here. Besides Mr. Cornyn and Mr. Burr, several other Republican senators — Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Bob Corker of Tennessee — have called for passing an extension of the middle-class rates now.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Tea Party favorite, said Republicans in the House should call up the Senate-passed bill extending the middle-class tax cuts, then vote “present” in protest, allowing Democrats to “own” the tax code.
“State what you’re for, then vote present,” he said in an interview. “Let them raise taxes, and at that point, it’s theirs. They’re the party of higher taxes. We have to remain the party of low taxes.”
But in the House, only a handful of Republicans have joined the chorus. Most are still holding out hope that a deal can be reached to extend all the expiring tax cuts for a year while Congress tries to overhaul the tax code in a way that raises additional revenue but sets the top tax rate no higher than the current 35 percent.
Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, a senior Republican on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, said “decoupling” the Bush-era rates and allowing the top rates to rise to Clinton-era levels could kill momentum for changing the tax code because Democrats would already have what they want: higher taxes on the rich and more revenue for the government.
“Raising tax rates in January makes it very difficult to do tax reform in September,” he said.
Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman, shrugged off the idea that such views might be creating pressure on negotiations now.
“We’re focused on getting a balanced plan from the White House that will begin to solve the problem of our debt and deficit to improve the economy and create American jobs,” he said. “Right now, all the president is offering is massive tax hikes.”
December 14, 2012
How Maps Helped Republicans Keep an Edge in the House
By GRIFF PALMER and MICHAEL COOPER
Wisconsinites leaned Democratic when they went to the polls last month, voting to re-elect President Obama, choosing Tammy Baldwin to be their new United States senator and casting more total votes for Democrats than Republicans in races for Congress and the State Legislature.
But thanks in part to the way that Republicans drew the new Congressional and legislative districts for this year’s elections, Republicans will still outnumber Democrats in Wisconsin’s new Congressional delegation five to three — and control both houses of the Legislature.
Pennsylvanians also voted to re-elect Mr. Obama, elected Democrats to several statewide offices and cast about 83,000 more votes for Democratic Congressional candidates than for Republicans. But new maps drawn by Republicans — including for the Seventh District outside Philadelphia, a Rorschach-test inkblot of a district snaking through five counties that helped Representative Patrick Meehan win re-election by adding Republican voters — helped ensure that Republicans will have a 13-to-5 majority in the Congressional delegation that the state will send to Washington next month.
Republican-drawn lines also helped Republicans win lopsided majorities in other swing states Mr. Obama won: Democratic Congressional candidates won nearly half the votes in Virginia but only 27 percent of its seats, and 48 percent of the vote in Ohio but only a quarter of its seats.
Last month’s Congressional elections were the first to be held in new districts that were drawn across the country after the once-a-decade process of redistricting, when many state officials, charged with redrawing their district maps to account for population shifts, indulge in carefully calculated partisan cartography aimed at giving their party an edge.
Republicans had the upper hand: thanks to the gains they made in 2010 state-level elections, Republicans controlled the redistrict
16 December 2012 - 12H42
Japan conservatives win election: broadcasters
AFP - Japan's conservative Liberal Democratic Party look to have secured a convincing majority in Sunday's general election, broadcasters said.
NHK, citing forecasts based on its own exit polls, said hawkish Shinzo Abe's LDP was likely to win 275 to 310 seats in the 480-seat lower house against 55 to 77 seats to be secured by Yoshihiko Noda's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
New Komeito, LDP's coalition partner, is likely to win 27 to 35 seats, NHK said.
That could give the pair a more than two-thirds majority in the powerful lower house, enough to override the upper house, in which no party has overall control.
"The LDP sweeps to victory; Abe administration to start," the online edition of the Nikkei newspaper said in a banner headline.
All main broadcasters were in agreement that the LDP would return to power, three years after it was booted out by voters fed up with their more than half-century of almost unbroken rule.
Nationalist former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, whose bid to buy disputed islands provoked a fierce diplomatic showdown with China, was also headed to parliament, NHK said.
Ishihara, who heads the populist Japan Restoration Party, appeared to have secured one of 180 seats up for grabs in the proportional representation section.
Parliament will be called to session as early as December 26th to name Abe as the new prime minister, the Nikkei newspaper said.
"Mr Abe is expected to form his cabinet on the same day," the Nikkei said.
"He will issue his plan to draft an extra budget by the year-end as well as a broad direction for the next fiscal year's budget before closing the extraordinary Diet session on December 28," the Nikkei said
In an evening that looked set to be a fairly miserable one for Noda, TV Asahi reported at least two of his ministers would lose their seats.
Internal Affairs Minister Shinji Tarutoko and Education Minister Makiko Tanaka appeared to have lost their constituency seats. It is possible that they may win through on the proportional representation part of the ballot.
Noda's own fate as leader of the much-diminished DPJ also looked in doubt, reports said, despite his apparently having retained his seat.
Kohei Otsuka, a senior party official told NHK: "In general, (Noda) can't help but take responsibility for (the defeat). But he will consider how to take his responsibility.
December 15, 2012
China Steps Up Pressure on Japan in Island Dispute
By JANE PERLEZ
BEIJING — A modest-looking twin-propeller Chinese aircraft loaded with radar and other surveillance equipment swooped low over the waters close to disputed islands in the East China Sea on Thursday, the latest move by China to increase the pressure on Japan over who owns the uninhabited island chain.
By itself, the less than 30-minute flight by the nine-year-old plane into what Japan considers its airspace did not amount to much. Japanese F-15 jets were sent in response, but the Chinese plane had left by the time they got to the area.
But the Chinese sortie was part of a steady escalation in the air, on the sea and in public statements by China against Japan, a strategy that analysts say was fixed upon three months ago to take back the islands known as Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan. The strategy, they say, is being overseen by the new leader, Xi Jinping.
Just days before the Chinese plane ventured into Japanese airspace, four Chinese warships, returning from an exercise elsewhere, entered waters near the islands, cruised along for five hours and then left, Chinese state news media said. Chinese law enforcement boats have been patrolling the waters close to the islands regularly since September, but the appearance of the Chinese Navy near the islands on three occasions, combined with the incursion by the plane, adds new dangers to the dispute, analysts said.
In effect, they say, the Chinese authorities are trying to unilaterally change the status quo of the islands, which have been administered by Japan for decades, attempting to use the air and naval patrols as evidence of their own longstanding claim.
“China is now challenging Japan’s effective control of the islands with ships on the water and planes in the air,” said M. Taylor Fravel, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The goal was to deter Japan from trying to develop the islands, he said, but there was an inherent risk that an accident at sea or in the air between the two sides could spiral out of control with unforeseen consequences.
Japan, which itself regularly patrols the islands, argues that the Chinese have no case. Japanese officials say the Chinese started making a claim to the islands only in the early 1970s, after evidence emerged that the seabeds nearby might hold rich oil and natural gas deposits. The latest dispute over the islands began months ago, when the right-wing governor of Tokyo suggested that his city might buy some of them back from a Japanese family to bolster Japan’s control by erecting structures on them. The central government then bought the islands, saying it was trying to reduce tensions and would not build structures there, but China viewed the purchase as a provocation.
The stepped-up pressure by China has come as the Japanese prepare to go to the polls on Sunday in an election that is likely to return to power the former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Although Mr. Abe in the past has tried to improve relations with China, he is also known as a hawk and has campaigned on strengthening Japan’s defense forces against China’s mounting challenges. The Japanese Navy is considered one of the world’s most sophisticated, but China is increasing its naval capacity.
In China, Mr. Xi was appointed as head of a powerful interagency group formed in September at the top of the Chinese government to oversee the country’s maritime disputes. That was two months before he assumed the leadership of the Communist Party and before he became the civilian head of the military at the 18th Party Congress.
That means that for three months now, Mr. Xi has had a critical say in how China conducts its strategy with Japan, Western and Chinese analysts say.
At the same time, China has put greater focus on its growing maritime capacities. The outgoing leader, Hu Jintao, said in a farewell address that China aimed to become a maritime power. A highlight of Mr. Xi’s just-finished tour of southern China was a visit to one of China’s most advanced destroyers, the Haikou, which often patrols the South China Sea, another disputed area off China’s shores.
The dispute with Japan carries great resonance with the Chinese public.
The older generation recalls the history of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese war when Japan humiliated China at sea and annexed the islands. Many people also remember the brutal World War II Japanese occupation of China.
The younger generation bristles with the themes of a revised 1990s nationalistic school curriculum even as they buy Japanese cars, electronics and fashion.
The economic fallout from the dispute has hurt Japan, but may not leave China unscathed, either.
Japanese economists say that Japanese auto sales in China, where top-tier Japanese brands were something of a status symbol, slumped precipitously in September and October. There has been a slight recovery since those lows, they said.
Some Japanese manufacturers in China, including Toyota and Sony, suspended production after anti-Japanese protests related to the islands, and laid off Chinese employees who demanded higher wages when they returned. Some Chinese economists have warned the government that large-scale boycotts of Japanese goods could lead to huge job losses in a softening Chinese economy.
With little prospect of a return to more normal relations anytime soon, some Japanese factories in China are beginning to seek alternative locations in Southeast Asia, such as Myanmar, where wages are lower and employees are less demanding, according to Japanese surveys.
As the dispute drags on, China’s words and actions in international forums have escalated, too. The foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, wrote in an article in The People’s Daily last week that China would “resolutely fight against the Japanese side” over what he called the illegal purchase of the islands.
On Friday, China submitted documents to the United Nations detailing its claims to the continental shelf in the East China Sea, another step toward establishing what it says are its legal rights.
In mid-September, as the islands dispute intensified, a vice minister of foreign affairs, Le Yucheng, foreshadowed China’s unfolding game plan. Referring to the claims that would be handed to the United Nations, he said: “All these are proclamations of China’s sovereignty.” China, he said, “will take tit-for-tat measures to protect our territory as the situation develops.”
Bree Feng contributed reporting.
December 15, 2012
The World’s Worst War
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
LAST month, as I was driving down a backbreaking road between Goma, a provincial capital in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kibumba, a little market town about 20 miles away, I came upon the body of a Congolese soldier. He was on his back, half hidden in the bushes, his legs crumpled beneath him, his fly-covered face looking up at the sun.
The strangest thing was, four years ago, almost to the day, I saw a corpse of a Congolese soldier in that exact same spot. He had been killed and left to rot just as his comrade would be four years later, in the vain attempt to stop a rebel force from marching down the road from Kibumba to Goma. The circumstances were nearly identical: a group of Tutsi-led rebels, widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, eviscerating a feckless, alcoholic government army that didn’t even bother to scoop up its dead.
Sadly, this is what I’ve come to expect from Congo: a doomed sense of déjà vu. I’ve crisscrossed this continent-size country from east to west, in puddle jumpers, jeeps and leaky canoes. I’ve sat down with the accidental president, Joseph Kabila, a former taxi driver who suddenly found himself in power at age 29 after his father was shot in the head. I’ve tracked down a warlord who lived on top of a mountain, in an old Belgian farmhouse that smelled like wet wool, and militia commanders who marched into battle as naked as the day they were born and slicked with oil — to protect themselves from bullets, of course. And each time I come back, no matter where I go, I meet a whole new set of thoroughly traumatized people.
Some are impossible to forget, like Anna Mburano, an 80-year-old woman who was gang-raped a few years ago and screamed out to the teenage assailants on top of her: “Grandsons! Get off me!”
Congo has become a never-ending nightmare, one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II, with more than five million dead. It seems incomprehensible that the biggest country in sub-Saharan Africa and on paper one of the richest, teeming with copper, diamonds and gold, vast farmlands of spectacular fertility and enough hydropower to light up the continent, is now one of the poorest, most hopeless nations on earth. Unfortunately, there are no promising solutions within grasp, or even within sight.
I didn’t always feel this way. During my first trip, in July 2006, Congo was brimming with optimism. It was about to hold its first truly democratic elections, and the streets of the capital, Kinshasa, were festooned with campaign banners and pulsating with liquid Lingala music that seemed to automatically sway people’s hips as they waited in line to vote. There was this electricity in the air in a city that usually doesn’t have much electricity. In poor, downtrodden countries accustomed to sordid rule, there is something incredibly empowering about the simple act of scratching an X next to the candidate of your choice and having a reasonable hope that your vote will be counted. That’s how the Congolese felt.
But the euphoria didn’t last — for me or the country. The election returned Mr. Kabila to power and nothing changed. I came back less than a year later and hired a dugout canoe to take me up the mighty Congo River, where I saw 100-foot-tall stalks of bamboo and spiders the size of baseballs. In the middle of the country, I came to appreciate how shambolic the state of Congo’s infrastructure really is. Rusty barges that used to ply the river now lie on the riverbanks with weeds shooting up through their ribs. The national railway, which used to haul away all the coffee and cotton and bananas that this country produces, is all but shuttered.
I met a pair of soldiers who had chained a chimpanzee to a corroded railway tie, leaving the animal in a pile of its own feces, staring up at us with rheumy eyes as the soldiers howled with laughter. Congo is estimated to possess $24 trillion of mineral resources. Its soil is so productive that a trip through the countryside, past all the banana, orange, papaya, guava and mango trees virtually scraping the windshield, is like driving through a fruit salad. But without any functioning infrastructure, all this agricultural potential is moot. “How will you get anything to the market?” one local official asked me. “There’s only so much you can carry on your head.”
Later in 2007, I returned to write about a rape epidemic. In eastern Congo, which is savaged by dozens of armed groups, many of them scrambling for a piece of Congo’s delicious mineral pie, it is as if the real battlefields are women’s bodies.
Out here, hundreds of thousands of women have been systematically assaulted in recent years, leading the United Nations to call Congo “the rape capital of the world.” Many of these rapes have been marked by a level of brutality that is shocking even by the twisted standards of a place rived by civil war and haunted by warlords and drugged-up child soldiers. What’s the strategic purpose of putting an AK-47 assault rifle inside a woman and pulling the trigger? Or cutting out a woman’s fetus and making her friends eat it?
THE government’s response has been a shrug. Not long after writing that rape story I sat down with Mr. Kabila at a hillside villa. He drove himself to the interview and stepped out in jeans and a leather jacket. He didn’t come across as arrogant, heartless or power hungry. No, he just seemed tired and overwhelmed. “We don’t have time on our hands,” he sighed.
We spoke shortly after the last round of violence in Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province and probably the most important city in eastern Congo. Back in 2008, just as now, it appeared that Rwanda was sending troops across the border. It’s complicated and a bit unimaginable how one of Africa’s smallest and poorest countries, Rwanda, could steer events inside giant Congo.
But for years Tutsi-led Rwanda has tried to carve out a zone of influence in eastern Congo, using ethnic Tutsi militias and Tutsi businessmen inside Congo to do its bidding. Rwanda has a very disciplined, patriotic army that punches above its weight — the Israel of Africa. It was Rwanda’s invasion in 1996 that sent Congo into a tailspin it has yet to recover from.
For years, the United States and Rwanda’s other Western friends turned a blind eye to this meddling. Again, like Israel, Rwanda has succeeded in leveraging the guilt that other countries feel for not intervening in its genocide — in which almost a million people were killed when Hutu militias targeted Tutsis in 1994 — to blunt criticism of itself. But recently the United States and Britain have been presented with such a mountain of allegations about how Rwanda funneled arms into Congo and even directed the recent capture of Goma that they had no choice but to change tack. So the Western powers recently slashed aid to Rwanda because of Congo, sending a simple but forceful message: Get out.
But it’s unfair to blame Rwanda for all of Congo’s ills. Congo’s core is so mushy and rotten from decades of titanic misrule that this country has become a dumping ground for armed groups from all over the place that exploit its porous borders and feed off its ambient chaos. In 2009, I traveled to Congo’s northeast corner, where you can see beautiful aged mansions from the Belgian days beginning their slow, inexorable slide toward the jungle floor. This area, now totally cut off, without cellphone service or functioning roads, has become a refuge for the Lord’s Resistance Army, a psychopathic rebel group originally from Uganda led by Joseph Kony. Nearly every year, its fighters club to death hundreds of people as they raid villages and kidnap children. Again, the Congolese Army, whose soldiers often don’t get paid because of corruption, was nowhere to be found when the rebels stormed in.
There are few places in Congo today that are rebellion-free. Take the northwest corner, where I found myself in 2010 writing about a witch-doctor/insurgent leader who gave his troops a special emollient to rub on their chests and backs to make bullets bounce off them. “It’s hard to kill these guys,” one Congolese Army commander told me, with a completely straight face. “You have to shoot them from the side.”
By the time elections rolled around again last year, the Congolese were fed up with Mr. Kabila. Just like Congo’s last strongman, Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who ruled what was then Zaire for more than 30 years and robbed this country blind, Mr. Kabila and Co. have steadily siphoned government coffers to buy villas around the world and fancy cars while Congolese children with protruding bellybuttons rub their stomachs alongside the road as aid organizations drive past. But Mr. Kabila had no intention of leaving. Instead, election observers said, he rigged the vote. My most dominant memory from this period — and one of the most frightening things I’ve ever witnessed — was watching a mob of furious voters attack a poll worker, slugging him in the face until he toppled to the ground and then stomping on his rib cage until I’m sure he died.
Working in Africa, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “It’s all colonialism’s fault.” Clearly, that’s often a dodge, but maybe in Congo the legacy of misrule is too big to overcome. It began in the late 19th century when King Leopold II of Belgium virtually enslaved the population to extract as much ivory and rubber as possible. The next generation of colonists wasn’t much better, whipping the Congolese with strips of hippo hide and making no effort to build up a professional class before they abruptly disappeared in 1960, turning over the keys to a country the size of Western Europe to a handful of college graduates, with rebellions breaking out almost from Day 1. And then came Mr. Mobutu, friend of America and utter disaster for the Congolese.
Congo could learn from Somalia, of all places. There, after two decades of civil war, the green shoots of a functioning government are finally sprouting, a result of grass-roots empowerment, a motivated business community and the steely resolve of African peacekeepers willing to absorb hundreds of casualties — which the United Nations mission in Congo has shown time and again that it is unwilling to do, despite having nearly 20,000 peacekeepers. Those peacekeepers sat riveted in their seats in their armored personnel carriers as the rebels marched into Goma on Nov. 20. Western powers pressured the rebels to leave, and they did less than two weeks later, but only after cleaning out the central bank and all the ammunition dumps and assassinating some enemies.
The rebels are now threatening to come back, and if they do, the government will surely throw in a few poor, underpaid souls to defend the town along that blood-soaked axis from Kibumba to Goma.
And we all know what we’ll find in the bushes the day after.
Jeffrey Gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times.