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« Reply #7395 on: Jul 09, 2013, 06:23 am »


China vows to step up fight against Dalai Lama

Yu Zhengsheng's comments indicate China's new government has not softened stance towards exiled Tibetan leader

Reuters in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 9 July 2013 12.11 BST   

China's leading official in charge of religious groups and ethnic minorities has vowed to step up the fight against exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, as a rights group reported police shootings of monks marking his birthday.

The comments by Yu Zhengsheng, number four in the ruling Communist party's hierarchy, appeared aimed at thwarting speculation that China's new leadership could take a softer line on the Dalai Lama.

Beijing considers the Dalai Lama, who fled China in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule, to be a violent separatist. The Dalai Lama, who is based in India, says he is merely seeking greater autonomy for his Himalayan homeland.

Visiting a heavily Tibetan area of the western province of Gansu, Yu told local officials and religious leaders that the Dalai Lama's separatist activities ran counter to the country's interests and to Buddhist tradition.

"For the sake of national unity and the development of stability in Tibetan regions, we must take a clear-cut stand and deepen the struggle against the Dalai clique," the official Xinhua news agency cited Yu as saying.

Buddhist leaders must be guided to oppose separatism and any efforts to damage the Communist party's leadership, added Yu, who is head of a largely ceremonial advisory body to parliament that aims to co-opt religious and minority groups.

Yu repeated that ties with the Dalai Lama would improve if he openly recognised that Tibet had been a part of China since ancient times and abandoned his Tibetan independence activities, Xinhua reported.

"The Dalai Lama's 'middle way' aimed at achieving so-called 'high-degree autonomy' in 'Greater Tibet' is completely opposite to China's constitution and the country's system of regional ethnic autonomy," Yu added, according to Xinhua.

Speculation China would take a softer line towards the Dalai Lama had been fuelled in part by an essay written by a scholar from the Central Party School, who said that China could take some steps toward resuming talks with the Dalai Lama's representatives, which broke down in 2010.

Rights groups also say there has been some discussion about lifting restrictions on public displays of the Dalai Lama's picture in his birthplace of Qinghai province.

Despite a heavy security presence, protests and resistance against Chinese rule in Tibetan areas have continued.

Police in a restive Tibetan part of Sichuan province opened fire on a group of monks and others who had gathered to mark the Dalai Lama's birthday over the weekend, seriously injuring at least two, the US-based International Campaign for Tibet said.

While Chinese security forces often use heavy-handed tactics to stop protests in Tibetan regions, they rarely use guns.

Officials reached by telephone in Ganzi said they had no knowledge of the incident.

China's foreign ministry said it was also unaware of the reports, but said the Dalai Lama was using the opportunity of his birthday to promote his separatist agenda.

At least 119 Tibetans have set themselves alight in protest against Chinese rule since 2009, mostly in heavily Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces rather than in what China terms the Tibet Autonomous Region. Most have died from their injuries.

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Chinese police ‘fire on Tibetans honoring Dalai Lama’

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, July 9, 2013 6:16 EDT

Chinese police opened fire on Tibetans marking the Dalai Lama’s 78th birthday, shooting at least one monk in the head and seriously wounding several other people, two overseas groups said.

Security forces disrupted Tibetans in Sichuan province’s Daofu county as they carried out rituals to honour their exiled leader, whom Beijing denounces as a separatist, said the US-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) and India-based phayul.com.

Regional authorities denied the allegations.

“Two Tibetan monks were shot in the head and several others seriously injured after Chinese police opened fire at a crowd,” ICT said, citing unnamed local and exile sources.

It named the monks as Tashi Sonam and Ugyen Tashi, and said both were in hospital.

Armed police and soldiers who arrived to block the group began shooting and using tear gas “without warning”, it said, citing two Tibetans in exile.

At least 20 people were detained after the incident on Saturday, ICT added.

Phayul, a news site on Tibet, said police opened fire after a monk tried to “drive past the security blockade”, citing an overseas Tibetan. One monk was shot in the head, Phayul said.

Police and religious affairs authorities in Daofu both told AFP: “There was no incident of this kind”.

Daofu is part of Ganzi prefecture, one of southwestern China’s Tibetan-majority areas.

Members of the ethnic minority have long complained of religious and cultural repression by Beijing, and more than 100 have set themselves on fire in recent years in apparent protest at Chinese rule.

Beijing insists it respects ethnic minorities and has invested heavily to develop Tibetan areas. It blames self-immolations on overseas groups seeking to push a separatist agenda.

Friction in Tibetan areas has sharpened as ethnic majority Han Chinese have increasingly settled in Tibetan areas. Reports of authorities opening fire are rare, however.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet following a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 and later founded the Tibetan government-in-exile in India.

China has denounced foreign leaders for meeting with the Nobel peace laureate.

Last month Beijing denied reports that it had relaxed its policies of publicly denouncing the Dalai Lama and banning worship of his image.
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« Reply #7396 on: Jul 09, 2013, 06:25 am »

July 9, 2013

Japan Warns of Threats From China and North Korea

By HIROKO TABUCHI
IHT

TOKYO — Japan sounded the alarm Tuesday on rising security threats in Northeast Asia, warning in a government report of a potential military confrontation with China over maritime disputes, as well as a North Korean weapons program that appeared intent on producing longer-range nuclear missiles.

Japan’s annual defense paper, the first since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December, also raised concerns that budget cuts in the United States and a range of other distractions would hinder Washington’s much-touted “pivot to Asia” — a strategic reorienting of American interests from Europe and the Middle East toward East Asia.

“In its defense strategic guidance, the U.S. presented policies emphasizing a rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” the report drawn up by Japan’s Defense Ministry said. “But how its harsh financial situation will impact efforts to translate these policies into reality attracts attention,” it said.

Mr. Abe, a conservative, has been keen to revamp Japan’s military strategy to offset China’s growing military power and the continuing instability on the Korean Peninsula.

In January, he ordered his government to replace the nation’s five-year military spending plan and to review guidelines adopted in 2010 by the left-leaning Democratic Party, which would have shrunk the Japanese military’s ranks. Instead, Mr. Abe plans to increase Tokyo’s military spending for the first time in a decade.

Mr. Abe has also sought to bolster military cooperation with the United States, including holding joint military training drills with Tokyo’s longtime security ally. But Japan has struggled to hold America’s attention. President Barack Obama skipped a meeting with Mr. Abe on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland last month.

Even as Washington has remained distracted by other matters, the report warned, the security situation in Northeast Asia was turning increasingly volatile.

Tokyo is particularly worried by what the report called Chinese intrusions into waters around islands claimed by both countries. Since last year, Japanese and Chinese patrol ships have been engaged in a tense face-off near the Senkaku islands, a set of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea that China calls the Diaoyus.

Though there have been no clashes so far, some experts have warned that an incident at sea could inadvertently trigger a wider military confrontation between the two Asian powers. In January, Tokyo accused a Chinese military vessel of aiming a radar used to help direct weapons on a Japanese naval vessel near the islands. That came after Japan scrambled fighter jets in response to a Chinese military surveillance plane that had entered what Japan considers its airspace.

China’s “intrusion into Japan’s territorial waters, its violation of Japan’s airspace and even dangerous actions that could cause a contingency situation, which are extremely regrettable,” the report said. “China should accept and stick to the international norms.”

The Japanese government has also been rattled by renewed belligerence from North Korea, which fired off a long-range rocket in December and conducted its third nuclear test in February. Those moves suggest that North Korea is pushing ahead with plans to develop more advanced and longer-range missiles that could ultimately carry nuclear warheads.

“We assess that North Korea’s ballistic-missile development is considered to have entered a new phase,” the report said. Coupled with its nuclear tests, North Korea’s weapons program “has developed into a more real and imminent problem for the wider international community,” it said.
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« Reply #7397 on: Jul 09, 2013, 06:27 am »


Major US names missing as retailers sign deal to improve Bangladesh safety

Seventy-five mainly European signatories guarantee to inspect clothing suppliers in Bangladesh within nine months

Karen McVeigh   
guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 July 2013 22.51 BST   

A coalition of trade unions and predominantly European clothing retailers have agreed to a legally binding plan to inspect garment supply factories in Bangladesh within nine months.

The 75 signatories to the accord, unveiled on Monday, will guarantee that in every case where unsafe conditions are found, funds will be made available for necessary safety upgrades.

But only three US retailers have signed up to the plan. American firms are reportedly reluctant to join any industry accord that creates legally binding objectives. The small number of US signatories will disappoint advocates hoping for an end to dangerous conditions in Bangladesh's multi-million pound garment industry, in which 1,200 people have died in the past year.

A push for western retailers to take more responsibility for workers' conditions in Bangladesh came after a series of recent tragedies, such as the Rana Plaza building collapse outside Dhaka in April, which left more than 1,100 dead, and the Tazreen factory fire in November that left 112 garment workers dead. Labels for US and European brands were found in the rubble of the factories.

Some retailers, such as Primark, the British retailer and Loblaw, the Canadian company that makes Joe Fresh, confirmed soon after the tragedies that the Rana Plaza factory made their clothes. Primark and Loblaw have now signed up to the safety accord.

Negotiations between unions and retailers began in May, in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza deaths. Signatories also include H&M, one of Bangladesh's biggest clothing clients, Marks & Spencer, and at least three US companies: Abercrombie and Fitch, PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and Sean John.

To allow for inspections, the western retailers have agreed to make public by 15 July a list of more than 1,000 names and addresses of Bangladeshi factories they use. International teams of fire and building safety inspectors, working with inspectors in Bangladesh, will inspect all the signatories supply factories within nine months to identify "grave hazards" and the need for "urgent repairs".

The failure of more US retailers to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh has led to criticism from unions and human rights groups. They say the European-led plan will make factories safer.

However, leading North American retailers, including Walmart, will come together on Wednesday to announce details of a rival plan: the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Documents found in the rubble of the Tazreen factory showed that garment users supplying goods to Walmart and Sears were using the plant at the time of the fire. However, Walmart and Sears said they had no idea their clothes were being made at the factory.

The North American initiative was developed through a process facilitated by US senators George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe.

Christy Hoffman, the deputy general of UNI Global Union, said that the brands would require the factories to come up to certain standards and, when they do not, they would help to pay to bring them up to scratch.

Hoffman said it was "unfortunate" that more US brands have not joined. She said: "We have 75 brands signed up to this accord and we will be prepared to move forward without the US."

She said that joining the accord would cause a "very, very small increase" in the price of garments, "something like 2¢ per T-shirt".

"That is what it costs to make things safe in Bangladesh."

Jyrki Raina, the general secretary of the IndustriALL global union, said: "This historic accord will effect tangible change on the ground and help make the Bangladeshi garment industry safe and sustainable. Voluntary initiatives have proved insufficient, as 1,800 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in factory fires and building collapses during the past seven years."

Raina said that a "profound change" needed was only possible with a strong coalition between trade unions, international brands and retailers and Bangladeshi authorities with worker involvement.

A central aspect to the Accord, which is supported by the Workers Rights Consortium and the NGS Clean Clothes Campaign, is that it involved workers and their representatives. It also commits signatories to staying in Bangladesh for at least two years of the accord.

Critics have suggested that US companies were concerned over the cost of the plan.

Kevin Gardner of Walmart told the Guardian, in an email said that it had "taken a number of actions that meet or exceed other factory safety proposals" including strengthening safety standards, a "zero tolerance of unauthorised subcontracting" and "in-depth safety audits and remediations" made to every factory directly making its products.

Gardner said that Walmart was part of an alliance of retailers, industry associations and the Bipartisan Police Center, which was looking a the issue and would release details of their safety plan on Wednesday.

"What happened at the Tazreen and Rana Plaza factories is tragic." he said. "We are saddened by this situation and are working every day to improve worker safety in Bangladesh. Over the past several months we've taken a number of actions that meet or exceed other factory safety proposals and put out a lot of information on our audit process."


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« Reply #7398 on: Jul 09, 2013, 06:37 am »


Bin Laden killing: official report criticises Pakistan and US

Leaked report into killing of al-Qaida chief criticises both Pakistan and US, which it says 'acted like a criminal thug'

The Guardian, Tuesday 9 July 2013   

Pakistan failed to detect Osama bin Laden during the six years he hid in Abbottabad because of the "collective incompetence and negligence" of the country's intelligence and security forces, the official report into the killing of the al-Qaida chief in 2011 has concluded.

The much anticipated report, a copy of which was obtained by al-Jazeera, is withering in its criticism of Pakistan's dysfunctional institutions, which were unable to find the world's most wanted man during his long stay in a major Pakistani city.

"It is a glaring testimony to the collective incompetence and negligence, at the very least, of the security and intelligence community in the Abbottabad area," said the report, which criticised Pakistan's military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), for having prematurely "closed the book" on Bin Laden in 2005.

Nor does the 336-page document rule out the possibility of involvement by rogue Pakistani intelligence officers, who have been accused of deliberately shielding Bin Laden by some commentators.

"Given the length of stay and the changes of residence of [Bin Laden] and his family in Pakistan … the possibility of some such direct or indirect and "plausibly deniable" support cannot be ruled out, at least, at some level outside formal structures of the intelligence establishment."

It warns that the influence of radical Islamists inside the armed forces had been "underestimated by senior military officials whom the commission met".

The document also gives a fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day life of Bin Laden: according to an account given to the Abbottabad Commission by his wives, he wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat to avoid detection from spy satellites above, liked to have an apple and a bit of chocolate to perk himself up when he was feeling weak, and encouraged his grandchildren to compete over who could tend the best vegetable patch.

The children of one of Bin Laden's trusted Pakistani couriers knew him as "Miskeen Kaka", or "poor uncle" – after one asked why the tall Arab never went out on shopping expeditions, the child was told he was too poor to buy anything.

The document also reveals the tantalising moment when the car bin Laden was riding in was stopped by police in the picturesque region of Swat. The policeman was not quick-witted enough to spot the then clean shaven bin Laden and the group were allowed to pass.

In addition to its scorching criticism of Pakistani institutions, the document reflects official fury at the behaviour of the US. It concludes the US "acted like a criminal thug" when it sent the special forces raiding party into Pakistani territory.

It says that the incident was a "national tragedy" because of the "illegal manner in which [Bin Laden] was killed along with three Pakistani citizens".

It says the operation on 2 May 2011 was an "American act of war against Pakistan" which illustrated the US's "contemptuous disregard of Pakistan's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity in the arrogant certainty of its unmatched military might".

Begun soon after the dramatic US raid, the judge-led inquiry by the Abbottabad commission heard testimony from some of the country's most important players, including the ISI chief, Ahmad Shuja Pasha, who shared much of the authors' despair about Pakistan, warning that it is a "failing state".

With frank discussion of some of the country's most sensitive issues, there were real fears it would never be published.

In remarks that will be seized on by critics of the CIA's use of drone strikes against suspected militants inside Pakistan, Pasha admitted to a "political understanding" on the issue between Islamabad and the US – something Pakistan has always officially denied.

Pasha said there were no written agreements, and that Pakistan did subsequently attempt to stop drone attacks, but added that "it was easier to say no to them at the beginning".

The former spy chief was scathing about the quality of Pakistan's civilian leadership, accusing his nominal boss, the defence minister, of failing to have read "the basic documents concerning defence policy". "There was simply no culture of reading among the political leadership," and "the thinking process was also non-existent".

The report also contains much criticism of the US, in particular the CIA for its failure to share intelligence fully with the ISI.

At one point, the CIA gave Pakistan phone numbers to monitor that would ultimately help identify Bin Laden's personal courier – the all-important lead that eventually brought the manhunt to the al-Qaida chief's Abbottabad home. The CIA never explained the significance of the phone numbers and the ISI failed to properly monitor them, the report said.

But in a striking echo of US unwillingness to share intelligence with its Pakistani partners, Pasha also said the ISI was reluctant to work with Pakistan's own law enforcement organisations because "there were too many instances where information shared with the police had been compromised".

His evidence highlights the ISI's distrust of and anger at the CIA, which Pasha claimed deliberately prevented Pakistan from claiming the glory for finding Bin Laden, which he said would have improved Pakistan's international reputation.

The "main agenda of the CIA was to have the ISI declared a terrorist organisation", he is quoted as saying.

Pasha reports the words of a US spy: "You are so cheap … we can buy you with a visa, with a visit to the US, even with a dinner … we can buy anyone."

The report asks whether the ISI had been compromised by CIA spies. One lieutenant colonel who "disappeared" with his family the day after the Abbottabad raid had a profile that "matched that of a likely CIA recruit".

The document repeatedly returns to what it describes as "government implosion syndrome" to explain the failure of any institution to investigate Bin Laden's unusual hideout.

"How the entire neighbourhood, local officials, police and security and intelligence officials all missed the size, the strange shape, the barbed wire, the lack of cars and visitors … over a period of nearly six years beggars belief," it says.

It notes that the house was even declared uninhabited in an official survey of the area, even though 26 people were living there at the time.

It says Bin Laden must have required a support network "that could not possibly have been confined to the two Pashtun brothers who worked as his couriers, security guards and general factotums".

The report says: "Over a period of time an effective intelligence agency should have been able to contact, infiltrate or co-opt them and to develop a whole caseload of information. Apparently, this was not the case."

It also expresses shock that the US helicopters carrying members of Navy Seal team six were not spotted as they swooped in over Abbottabad on 2 May. A lack of operational radar meant the Pakistani air force only became aware of the attack from media reports after it was over.

Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vs_RweE_RN0


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« Reply #7399 on: Jul 09, 2013, 06:39 am »

July 8, 2013

U.S. Considers Faster Pullout in Afghanistan

By MARK MAZZETTI and MATTHEW ROSENBERG
IHT

WASHINGTON — Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with President Hamid Karzai, President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no American troops there after next year, according to American and European officials.

Mr. Obama is committed to ending America’s military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and Obama administration officials have been negotiating with Afghan officials about leaving a small “residual force” behind. But his relationship with Mr. Karzai has been slowly unraveling, and reached a new low after an effort last month by the United States to begin peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

Mr. Karzai promptly repudiated the talks and ended negotiations with the United States over the long-term security deal that is needed to keep American forces in Afghanistan after 2014.

A videoconference between Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai designed to defuse the tensions ended badly, according to both American and Afghan officials with knowledge of it. Mr. Karzai, according to those sources, accused the United States of trying to negotiate a separate peace with both the Taliban and their backers in Pakistan, leaving Afghanistan’s fragile government exposed to its enemies.

Mr. Karzai had made similar accusations in the past. But those comments were delivered to Afghans — not to Mr. Obama, who responded by pointing out the American lives that have been lost propping up Mr. Karzai’s government, the officials said.

The option of leaving no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 was gaining momentum before the June 27 video conference, according to the officials. But since then, the idea of a complete military exit similar to the American military pullout from Iraq has gone from being considered the worst-case scenario — and a useful negotiating tool with Mr. Karzai — to an alternative under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul.

The officials cautioned that no decisions had been made on the pace of the pullout and exactly how many American troops to leave behind in Afghanistan. The goal remains negotiating a long-term security deal, they said, but the hardening of negotiating stances on both sides could result in a repeat of what happened in Iraq, where a deal failed to materialize despite widespread expectations that a compromise would be reached and American forces would remain.

“There’s always been a zero option, but it was not seen as the main option,” said a senior Western official in Kabul. “It is now becoming one of them, and if you listen to some people in Washington, it is maybe now being seen as a realistic path.”

The official, however, said he hoped some in the Karzai government were beginning to understand that the zero option was now a distinct possibility, and that “they’re learning now, not later, when it’s going to be too late.”

The Obama administration’s internal deliberations about the future of the Afghan war were described by officials in Washington and Kabul who hold a range of views on how quickly the United States should leave Afghanistan and how many troops it should leave behind. Spokesmen for the White House and Pentagon declined to comment.

Within the Obama administration, the way the United States extricates itself from Afghanistan has been a source of tension between civilian and military officials since Mr. Obama took office. American commanders in Afghanistan have generally pushed to keep as many American troops in the country as long as possible, creating friction with White House officials urging a speedier military withdrawal.

But with frustrations mounting over the glacial pace of initiating peace talks with the Taliban, and with American relations with the Karzai government continuing to deteriorate, it is unclear whether the Pentagon and American commanders in Afghanistan would vigorously resist if the White House pushed for a full-scale pullout months ahead of schedule.

As it stands, the number of American troops in Afghanistan — around 63,000 — is scheduled to go down to 34,000 by February 2014. The White House has said the vast majority of troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of that year, although it now appears that the schedule could accelerate to bring the bulk of the troops — if not all of them — home by next summer, as the annual fighting season winds down.

Talks between the United States and Afghanistan over a long-term security deal have faltered in recent months over the Afghan government’s insistence that the United States guarantee Afghanistan’s security and, in essence, commit to declaring Pakistan the main obstacle in the fight against militancy in the region.

The guarantees sought by Afghanistan, if implemented, could possibly compel the United States to attack Taliban havens in Pakistan long after 2014, when the Obama administration has said it hoped to dial back the C.I.A.’s covert drone war there.

Mr. Karzai also wants the Obama administration to specify the number of troops it would leave in Afghanistan after 2014 and make a multiyear financial commitment to the Afghan Army and the police.

The White House announced last month that long-delayed talks with the Taliban would begin in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban opened what amounts to an embassy-in-exile, complete with their old flag and a plaque with their official name, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

But the highly choreographed announcement backfired, with Afghan officials saying the talks gave the insurgents undeserved legitimacy and accusing the Obama administration of negotiating behind Mr. Karzai’s back.

To the surprise of American officials, Mr. Karzai then abruptly ended the negotiations over a long-term security deal. He has said the negotiations would not resume until the Taliban met directly with representatives of the Afghan government, essentially linking the security negotiations to a faltering peace process and making the United States responsible for persuading the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government.

The Taliban have refused for years to meet directly with Afghan government negotiators, deriding Mr. Karzai and his ministers as American puppets.

There have been other points of contention as well. Meeting with foreign ambassadors recently, Mr. Karzai openly mused that the West was to blame for the rise of radical Islam. It was not a message that many of the envoys, whose countries have lost thousands of people in Afghanistan and spent billions of dollars fighting the Taliban, welcomed.

The troop decisions are also being made against a backdrop of growing political uncertainty in Afghanistan and rising concerns that the country’s presidential election could either be delayed for months or longer, or be so flawed that many Afghans would not accept its results.

Preparations for the election, scheduled for next April, are already falling behind. United Nations officials have begun to say the elections probably cannot be held until next summer, at the earliest. If the voting does not occur before Afghanistan’s mountain passes are closed by snow in late fall, it will be extremely difficult to hold a vote until 2015.

Of potentially bigger concern are the rumors that Mr. Karzai, in his second term and barred from serving a third, is trying to find a way to stay in power. Mr. Karzai has repeatedly insisted that he plans to step down next year.

The ripple effects of a complete American withdrawal would be significant. Western officials said the Germans and Italians — the two main European allies who have committed to staying on with substantial forces — would leave as well. Any smaller nations that envisioned keeping token forces would most likely have no way of doing so.

And Afghanistan would probably see far less than the roughly $8 billion in annual military and civilian aid it is expecting in the coming years — an amount that covers more than half the government’s annual spending.

Mark Mazzetti reported from Washington, and Matthew Rosenberg from Kabul, Afghanistan. Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington.


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Silk Road festival, Afghanistan: goat polo, tug-of-war and dreams of peace

Ghengis Khan invaded on horseback 800 years ago – but today crowds gather to watch Afghan highland games

Emma Graham-Harrison   
guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 July 2013 19.03 BST   

In the grass arena dozens of men were screaming and running as horses galloped towards them at full tilt, forcing them to flee uphill. The scene, at the Silk Road festival in Afghanistan's highlands, conjured visions of the horsemen of Genghis Khan, who descended on the region eight centuries ago and devastated it.

But the crowd gathered this week to watch the world's wildest sport was made up of delighted spectators rather than victims of a Mongolian cavalry charge. The riders were playing buzkashi, a game a little like polo but with no boundaries and with a dead goat instead of a ball, sometimes said to have been invented by Khan to keep his troops fit in winter.

Later came jousting, horse racing and the tug of war, all used to hone fighting skills in the area for generations, although the audience in 2013 roared up on thoroughly modern motorbikes and in Toyota pickups and battered jeeps, which doubled as shelter when the buzkashi teams thundered past.

"It's my first time seeing buzkashi in real life, and I'm a little scared," said Fariba, a student from Ghazni province trying to snap photos of the horsemen without getting too close. "It's great to see everyone here enjoying themselves, showing another side of our country."

The festival is a rare chance to celebrate the heritage of Afghanistan's now-isolated highlands, an area that has sunk into a deep poverty since sea routes decimated the lucrative trade caravans that once plodded east towards China and India or west to Europe.

"Buzkashi is our local sport," said Habibullah Elkani, a police commander and horseback referee for the day. He served four years near the frontlines of the insurgency in Kandahar before coming home and taking up the risky game he got addicted to in his teens.

Three days of events also included a poetry contest by men who honed their verbal battle skills through long, cold winters huddled round a communal stove, and traditional no-hands races to find coins hidden in bowls of yoghurt. .

The festival, now in its fifth year, celebrates the potential of an area that has escaped the worst ravages of Afghanistan's post-2001 violence, amid rising fears about the future without foreign troops. All coalition combat forces will be gone by the end of next year.

"People are worried, very worried, when you talk about 2014," said Reza Mohammadi, an organiser. "But life is continuing, and people are trying to make the best future for themselves, their family and their country.

"It's the people of Bamiyan who make this place peaceful, not the police or military men," he added, citing a high number of girls in education as one achievement. Women were well represented at the festival, with a female presenter and dozens of people packed into a women-only section of the audience to watch stars famous from reality TV.

A roar of excitement exploded when the singer Sajid Hussain Jannaty appeared on stage, against a backdrop of cliffs dotted with the remains of Buddhist cave monasteries over a millennium old. Jannaty won Afghan Star, a pirated version of Pop Idol, with songs drawn from traditional highland music, and had come back to repay his fans, said Mohammadi. "If you think about living in Afghanistan, there is a war on; there is poverty; many places don't have electricity or clean water. People need music because it's food for your mind."

One afternoon's events were held by a spectacular lake, a slice of shocking blue between the barren hills. Revellers wandered between the concert, swan-shaped pedalos on the lake, swimming areas, picnic places and food stalls selling fresh watermelon and fried snacks.

"It's my first time here, but I feel very safe," said Sayed Abul Hassan, an engineer in Afghanistan's fledgling air force.


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« Reply #7400 on: Jul 09, 2013, 06:51 am »

July 8, 2013

Istanbul Park Becomes Scene of Violence After Reopening

By SEBNEM ARSU
IHT

ISTANBUL — The public park at the center of last month’s antigovernment protests in Turkey, sealed off for weeks to keep demonstrators at bay, quickly became the scene of more unrest after reopening on Monday, offering a volatile reminder of how divided the government and its opponents remain.

Dozens of people were injured and at least 32 were detained after scores of them streamed back to the site, Gezi Park, after the governor announced its reopening around noon, news reports said. When a large group of people led by protest organizers marched toward the park, it was confronted by the police, who dispersed the crowd with water cannons and tear gas, detaining those who refused to leave.

The park, in Taksim Square, became a focal point of outrage in June that initially stemmed from concerns over a government-backed plan to redevelop the site, the only green area in the district.

But the harsh police crackdown that soon followed gave rise to protests in more than 60 cities, mushrooming into a broad movement against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and what critics call his autocratic style after his more than a decade in office.

In all, four people died and dozens were seriously wounded in the tumult last month, according to the Turkish Physicians’ Association, including 11 cases in which people lost eyes after being struck by tear-gas canisters.

Mainstream news organizations in Turkey, fearful of government pressure, largely declined to cover the clashes, but images on a few television networks showed antiriot police officers chasing civilians down streets and firing water cannons as tear gas smoke rose in and around Taksim Square. Messages on Twitter, a hub of information during the media slowdown, showed pictures of the injured and of water cannons targeting small clusters of people.

At least six tear-gas canisters landed on the premises of the British Consulate, with Leigh Turner, the consul, sharing a photo on Twitter of guards reaching out to a smoking canister in the courtyard. Mr. Turner added a note that said, “All in Consulate-General safe.”

The head of the Istanbul Chamber of Physicians, as well as leaders of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group that represents a large group of protesters, were detained, as security operations continued along Istiklal Street, a pedestrian road frequented by tourists, and on side streets late into the day.

“Police encircled us when we were walking to the park after the governor publicly opened it and invited all citizens to enjoy it,” Ali Ozyurt, an executive member of the Istanbul Chamber of Physicians, said as he rode in a police vehicle. “If it is a crime to go to a public park, the governor incited this crime, so is equally guilty.”

The exact number of injured was unclear, but a 17-year-old was in critical condition after being hit in the head by a tear-gas canister, said Sami Yilmazturk, a member of Taksim Solidarity.

“Gezi Park was full of children and the elderly after it was officially opened, and we were on our way to gather for a forum,” Mr. Yilmazturk said, in reference to public assemblies in city parks that have replaced street protests as a form of grass-roots organizing. “Police pushed people out of the park by force and, as we were approaching the park, asked us whether we had permission to enter the park. I have never heard of such a permission.”

Members of the Chamber of Architects — which recently won a court case against the city, canceling the large project to redesign Taksim Square and rebuild a commercial replica of an Ottoman-era military barracks in place of Gezi Park — were dragged and beaten by the police before being detained, Mr. Yilmazturk said.

On Monday, a video widely shared on the Internet showed a middle-aged man firing a gun into the air on a side street with civilians around, raising fears that the confrontation between the protesters and the police could pave the way for civilian clashes between the government’s supporters and its critics.

After midnight, the police continued to chase groups on side streets but left Gezi Park to protesters, who chanted, “This is just the beginning” and “Our struggle will continue,” news outlets reported.


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« Reply #7401 on: Jul 09, 2013, 06:54 am »

July 8, 2013

With Aid, Europe Keeps Pressure on Greece to Restructure Economy

By LIZ ALDERMAN, NIKI KITSANTONIS and JAMES KANTER
IHT

ATHENS — Euro zone finance ministers meeting in Brussels decided Monday to continue drip-feeding payments of emergency aid to Greece, pressuring Athens to keep its promises to restructure the economy.

At the same time, as many as 5,000 Greeks, including hundreds of angry police officers on motorbikes, joined demonstrations here against the austerity plans of a government still wobbly after skirting collapse last month. Protesters were particularly incensed by renewed calls by international creditors to cut 15,000 civil service jobs and to put thousands of public workers on reduced wages ahead of possible dismissal, in a country where unemployment already tops 27 percent.

The mayor of Athens was briefly hospitalized Sunday night after workers assaulted him as he left a meeting to discuss municipal layoffs, and the mayor of Greece’s second-largest city, Salonika, threatened to quit Monday rather than face deeper cuts.

The protests have flared after a period of relative calm in Greece and revived questions about the ability of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to carry out the cuts and changes being demanded — and indeed about the future of his government.

International creditors have already granted more than $257 billion in financial assistance to the euro zone’s crisis-hit countries, but the demands for further budget cuts and structural changes that have accompanied the aid are badly dividing the governments in Greece, Italy and Portugal.

Last week, the government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho of Portugal, considered something of a model nation by international markets and creditors, nearly came apart as support waned for the austerity program he was charged with carrying out in exchange for Portugal’s $100 billion bailout.

At the top of the agenda at the ministers’ monthly gathering in Brussels was how much of the next batch of a promised $10 billion in emergency aid they should release to Greece.

At a news conference in Brussels, the Dutch finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, said euro ministers had decided to make a disbursement of $3.2 billion, with a further disbursement of $650 million in October, on the condition that the country meets restructuring commitments by July 19.

Athens has little choice but to comply. Three years after the government’s debt crisis blew a hole in its public finances and threatened to knock the country out of the euro zone, Greece remains dependent on two aid packages of a little over $300 billion.

Payments of smaller amounts of bailout money began late last year, after serious concerns among Greece’s lenders that the country was backsliding on promised changes like dismantling protected sectors of the economy.

But it is proving increasingly difficult for Mr. Samaras to balance the demands of Greece’s creditors against the anger and exhaustion of the public, and to straddle the widening divisions the austerity program is causing within his fragile governing coalition.

Mr. Samaras was forced to reshuffle his government on June 24 after his junior coalition partner, Democratic Left, withdrew to protest an earlier decision by Mr. Samaras to shut down the state broadcaster, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation.

That step, a unilateral decree to eliminate some 2,600 jobs, set off a political firestorm in Greece and seems to have backfired. Employees have continued to occupy the broadcaster’s huge headquarters, pumping out underground broadcasts of news and culture programs through surreptitious satellite feeds.

The episode underscored just how difficult it is for any Greek government to cut the ranks of its bloated civil service. Most state employees are protected by the Constitution, but even those who are not may prove difficult to fire.

Of the 150,000 government job cuts sought since 2010, 128,000 have been achieved, but only through retirements, which only shift the financial burden to the pension system. Until the attempt to shut down the state broadcaster, Greece had not fired a single government employee. But as long as its international lenders continue to demand 15,000 job cuts, more social friction may be inevitable.

The government will also move ahead with a procedure to put 12,500 civil servants into a so-called mobility program, giving staff members reduced wages for several months before moving them to another public sector post or firing them, according to a government official who asked not to be named because of the confidential nature of the talks.

The Athens mayor, Giorgos Kaminis, issued a statement after his hospitalization blaming the head of the authority workers’ union, Themis Balasopoulos, for instigating the assault, accusing him of “longstanding involvement in the client-patron system of local government.”

In a hasty escape, broadcast on Greek television, Mr. Kaminis was escorted away from the scuffle and jumped on the back of a waiting motorcycle to flee the scene after assailants broke all the windows in his car.

Liz Alderman and Niki Kitsantonis reported from Athens, and James Kanter from Brussels.

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

Fascism in Greece: we needn't say goodbye to Athens quite yet

Greece is in crisis and fascism is on the rise, but it still falls far short of the 1930s Berlin chronicled by Christopher Isherwood

Jon Wiltshire   
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 7 July 2013 15.00 BST   

Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin chronicles (and partly fictionalises) his time hanging out in the city between late 1930 and early 1933. Towards the end of the book, he urges a friend not to take Nazi death threats too lightly: the Nazis, says Isherwood, are "capable of anything. That's just why they're so dangerous. People laugh at them, right up to the last moment."

Fascism is on the rise in Greece. It's the most perturbing political consequence of the current crisis. Golden Dawn, a far right party whose supporters are accused of violent and sometimes fatal attacks on immigrants, is now polling third. Many Greeks had never heard of them before the crisis. And, like the Nazis, those who knew them once thought them laughable.

I work in Athens and often hear the comparison. At its most pervasive, even Antonis Samaras, Greece's prime minister, likened Greece to the Weimar Republic in an attempt to guilt-trip German policymakers into giving Greece more time to meet the conditions on its loans. Perhaps Goodbye to Berlin's anecdotes from 1930s Germany match my own anecdotal experiences; what can rereading it in today's Athens tell us?

Golden Dawn could well be in Isherwood's book: thuggish beatings, big red flags with black (Hellenicised) swastikas, torch-lit marches, and paramilitary attire. I was recently at a rally of theirs in central Athens (on a church square) and for a party that denies any links with nazism, they do a pretty good job of giving off a neo-Nazi impression. The party uses immigrants as a scapegoat for Greece's problems, and bases its politics on the "ethnic purity" of Greeks (organising "Greek-only" blood donations, for instance).

Golden Dawn has tapped into flourishing anti-EU sentiment in a way that mirrors 1930s German resentment of the punitive treaty of Versailles. And, like the Nazis of the 1930s, Golden Dawn are accused of being in cahoots with the police. In 1932, walking down a busy street after a nearby Nazi rally, Isherwood witnesses two SA brownshirts (the Nazi paramilitaries later superseded by the SS), viciously stab a young man in a doorway in plain sight of the police, who "disregard" the attack.

Maddeningly, Golden Dawn are accused of operating with a similar impunity because, according to Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, as well as other human rights organisations and rough polls from the last election, the fascist party are supported by a sizeable faction of the police force.

The fearful atmosphere created by a deep economic crisis has, as in 1930s Germany, opened up the political field. Isherwood's landlady is introduced as typical of Berlin's now "bankrupt middle class". Like her, a once-comfortable Greek middle-class has been dragged into economic difficulties, if not into poverty. There's 27% unemployment, with 64% youth unemployment. And from most people you'll hear distressing stories. Golden Dawn has managed to turn some of this distress, and a good deal of fear, into votes.

So, on the surface, the comparison seems frightfully apt. Yet, the details clearly show that Athens is a long way yet from 1930s Berlin. Isherwood's book also chronicles the rise of the extremist left: lines of hand grenades hidden inside communists' overcoats; plans to strategically mount machine guns on rooftops, anticipating the Soviets' arrival; and so on. 1930s Berlin was polarised between anti-democratic extremism. Greece is not.

Golden Dawn acts in an anti-democratic way, yes, but Syriza (the coalition of the left currently polling a close second), is radical, not extremist, and thoroughly democratic. Although the once-mighty centre-left party, Pasok, is more or less finished (despite being in the coalition government, it's polling around 7%), the other ruling centrist party, New Democracy, remains popular. Unlike the end of the Weimar Republic, there hasn't been a complete decline in the popularity of traditional parties.

And unlike Germany, Greece is integrated with the rest of Europe through membership of the EU and the euro. It's tied, for better or for worse, to the fate of everyone else. 1930s Germany was, by contrast, isolated, and Europe was dogged by the threat of war which is, quite obviously, nonexistent today. Despite the suffering of so many ordinary Greeks, the stakes were higher in the 1930s.

Greece is undeniably in crisis. A walk around central Athens will give you a glimpse behind the numbers. And comparing Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin with today's Athens serves as a useful analogy, teaching us a simple lesson about economic malaise and its direct link with extremist politics. But Greece is not at the brink. To directly compare Greece with the Weimar Republic is, as things stand, misleading. Isherwood left Berlin because the Nazis were seizing power. If he were in Athens today, he wouldn't be saying goodbye; not for a while yet.



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« Reply #7402 on: Jul 09, 2013, 06:55 am »

July 8, 2013

Czech Prosecutors Prepare to Charge Ex-Premier

By DAN BILEFSKY
IHT

PARIS — Czech prosecutors asked the Parliament on Monday to strip former Prime Minister Petr Necas of immunity from prosecution. Law enforcement officials said the request was a prelude to charging Mr. Necas with corruption.

Mr. Necas would be the highest-level official to face corruption charges in the country since the fall of communism. A bookish, churchgoing father of four, Mr. Necas came to power in 2010 promising to clean up a culture of cronyism and corruption, but he was forced to resign last month after his chief of staff was charged with bribery and abuse of office.
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« Reply #7403 on: Jul 09, 2013, 07:08 am »


Inna Shevchenko, topless Femen activist, wins asylum in France

Protester granted asylum after receiving threats following topless chainsaw attack on crucifix in Kiev

Reuters
guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 July 2013 19.29 BST   

France has granted asylum to a feminist activist who hacked down a Christian cross last year in Kiev with a chainsaw, the Ukrainian woman said on Monday.

Inna Shevchenko sought asylum last February after receiving threats over the act in August 2012 – during which she was topless – which was meant as a protest against the prosecution of the Russian feminist punk band, Pussy Riot.

Shevchenko destroyed a four-metre high wooden cross bearing the figure of Christ, as a Russian court prepared to rule on three Pussy Riot members for performing a political "punk prayer" at the altar of Moscow's main cathedral.

She told Reuters that the French government had recognised her as a political refugee because she faced criminal charges in Ukraine. The agency that decides on asylum requests could not be reached for confirmation. It is the first time that a member of Femen, a group that originated in Ukraine and often stages topless protests, has been granted refugee status. Shevchenko said the decision effectively made France the main headquarters of Femen, adding that he group planned to open "revolutionary schools" in France to train women protesters.

Femen has staged protests across Europe, mainly against Russia's detention of Pussy Riot last year. In France, they held counter-demonstrations at protests against gay marriage.

Tunisia jailed one German and two French members of the group after they staged a topless protest there in May. They have since been released.


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« Reply #7404 on: Jul 09, 2013, 07:10 am »


Nicolas Sarkozy storms back with tirade

Former French president cheered at UMP meeting despite costing party €11m in withdrawn state subsidies over campaign spending

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 July 2013 19.55 BST   

France's former rightwing president Nicolas Sarkozy has made his first political speech since his election defeat last year, lashing out at the state of France in a move seen as a step towards running for president again in 2017.

Sarkozy delivered a behind-closed-doors address to a crisis meeting of his UMP party on Monday after a constitutional court rejected his 2012 presidential campaign spending, prompting financial penalties that have pushed the party into financial meltdown.

Despite costing his party €11m (£9.5m) in withdrawn state subsidies, Sarkozy was welcomed by cheering supporters and delivered a speech styling himself as a saviour of the party.

"This is not my political return," he cautioned. "The day I return, it will be to speak to the French people about France." But the tone of his speech suggested the first stage of a comeback. After taking "full responsibility" for the debacle surrounding his campaign accounts, which were rejected due to overspending and improper accounting, Sarkozy delivered a grandstanding critique of France and, without naming him, the Socialist president, François Hollande.

He warned that the French were suffering. He said: "We talk of an economic, financial, political crisis. There's a crisis that worries me more: the crisis of ideas." He added that old "ideologies of the 20th century" could not be applied today, warning: "We're the only country that is afraid of progress."

Sarkozy, who once likened politics to a drug, warning that "you have to withdraw the needle slowly", had vowed to quit politics after his defeat last year. It remains to be seen how a comeback would sit within the fractured UMP party, badly bruised after its own bitter and contested leadership race. It faces a primary contest to choose the presidential candidate for 2017. Among others, Francois Fillon, Sarkozy's one-time prime minister and now internal rival, has vowed to run for the candidacy no matter who stands.

A CSA poll this weekend showed 67% of UMP supporters wanted Sarkozy as their candidate in 2017. An Ifop poll found 59% of French people did not want Sarkozy to run in 2017, but 70% expect he will anyway.

Sarkozy is currently at the centre of a series of corruption investigations, including alleged illegal campaign funding from Gaddafi and the L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.


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« Reply #7405 on: Jul 09, 2013, 07:12 am »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
07/08/2013 05:23 PM

Possessed: Polish Flock to Mass Conducted by Exorcist

Followers of a charismatic Ugandan priest packed a Warsaw stadium this weekend. It wasn't just an ordinary worship ceremony, though. Father John Bashobora is famed for his talents as an exorcist.

While Pope Francis is trying to modernize the Catholic Church in Rome, priests in Poland organized a large event over the weekend that took on a somewhat atavistic tone.

More than 58,000 believers packed into the Warsaw National Stadium to see Father John Bashobora, a self-proclaimed exorcist, as he preached on Saturday. Known as a healer, the Ugandan priest drew a number of people in wheelchairs to the event, along with many others hoping to ease their pain.

Bashobora has a reputation as a "faith healer who has already driven the devil out of a number of people," one 54-year-old woman told news agency DPA. The woman, a recovering alcoholic, added that she hoped to be "permanently healed of this evil."

A 44-year-old farmer told DPA that he'd heard the guest priest had "driven out different physical and spiritual sufferings" among his followers. During the sermon, people afflicted with "Satanic revelations" were reportedly able to seek the support of "exorcists" in a special area set aside for the purpose.

Three Speeches by Bashobora

Normally used for sporting events, the National Stadium in Warsaw was transformed into a giant church, complete with a heart-shaped stage and a giant cross about 15-meters (50-feet) tall. Organized by Henryk Hoser, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Warszawa-Praga, the event attracted the stadium's largest crowd ever, according to Polskie Radio's English-language website, which reported that attendance topped that of the England-Poland football match there last year.

With some 500 priests on hand to hear confessions, the day included a holy mass, three speeches by Bashobora and prayers for healing. Bashobora, who has reportedly visited Poland several times in recent years, works for the Mbarara Diocese in Uganda, and also reportedly appealed to his followers at the ceremony for financial support to combat malnutrition and support educational programs in Africa.


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« Reply #7406 on: Jul 09, 2013, 07:14 am »

Church of England restarts process to ordain women bishops

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, July 8, 2013 18:41 EDT

The Church of England voted Monday to restart the process that would lead to ordaining women bishops after traditionalists blocked the idea last year, plunging the church into turmoil.

The General Synod, the governing body of England’s state church, will consider the draft measures in November with the aim of securing final approval for women bishops in 2015.

“There is a strong desire to get it done,” said Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the church’s spiritual leader.

“We aren’t at the stage of saying ‘should we ordain women as bishops’ — we are at the stage of saying ‘we are going to ordain women as bishops, how do we go about that?’

“It is going to take a little while, we are going to have to go on working at it. There has been such a shift in mood over the last six months. I remain extremely optimistic.”

He admitted it would require effort to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority in each of the three houses of the General Synod — the bishops, the clergy and the laity — at final approval stage.

Last November, in its biggest decision since backing the introduction of women priests 20 years ago, just enough lay members voted against the measure for women bishops to bring it down, following years of wrangling between traditionalists and liberals.

The Church of England, which separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, claims that more than 40 percent of people in England regard themselves as belonging to the C of E. It is the mother church of the 85 million-strong worldwide Anglican communion.

But in the wider Anglican communion the first woman bishop was appointed in the United States in 1989 and there are now more than 30 female Anglican bishops worldwide, in countries such as Australia, Canada, Cuba, New Zealand and Swaziland.

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« Reply #7407 on: Jul 09, 2013, 07:17 am »

Corruption seen as on the rise, global study finds

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, July 9, 2013 7:05 EDT

More than half of respondents in a global corruption survey released Tuesday think that graft has worsened over the past two years, and a quarter reported having paid officials a bribe in the last 12 months.

The survey by Berlin-based non-profit group Transparency International also found that people have least trust in institutions meant to help or protect them, including police, the courts and political parties.

Respondents also believed official anti-corruption efforts had deteriorated since the 2008 start of the world financial and economic crisis.

The group’s Global Corruption Barometer 2013 is the world’s largest public opinion survey on corruption. It surveyed 114,000 people in 107 countries, the group said.

It found that 27 per cent of respondents had said they had paid a bribe to a member of a public service or institution in the past 12 months, revealing no improvement from previous surveys.

The group pointed to a link between poverty and graft. Eight of the 10 countries with the highest bribery rates are African, said a Transparency spokesman.

In 36 countries, respondents viewed police as the most corrupt, while 20 countries view the judiciary as the most graft-ridden. In 51 countries political parties were seen as the most corrupt institution.

People’s appraisal of government efforts to stop corruption was worse than before the financial crisis began in 2008, falling to 22 percent now from 31 per cent then.

Still, the group said that there was a growing will to fight back, with two-thirds of those who were asked to pay a bribe saying they had refused.

“Bribe paying levels remain very high worldwide, but people believe they have the power to stop corruption and the number of those willing to combat the abuse of power, secret dealings and bribery is significant,” said Huguette Labelle, chair of Transparency International.

She added that “governments need to make sure that there are strong, independent and well-resourced institutions to prevent and redress corruption. Too many people are harmed when these core institutions and basic services are undermined by the scourge of corruption.”


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« Reply #7408 on: Jul 09, 2013, 07:37 am »

In the USA....

The world must hear from Edward Snowden again

The White House and its media allies are gradually undermining the NSA whistleblower. The cause of liberty needs his advocacy

Mark Weisbrot   
guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 July 2013 15.20 BST   

In the case of Edward Snowden and the secret surveillance abuses that he has exposed, it's us against them. But who is "us" and who is "them?"

This started out as a story of government spying programs exposed by a daring whistleblower, akin to the famous Pentagon Papers of 1971. This clearly pitted "us", the citizens and residents of the United States, against "them", an abusive, unaccountable government violating our rights and our constitution in secret. The citizens of other countries who had their rights violated by NSA spying, such as in Europe and, now we learn, Brazil, also became part of that "us".

But over the last few weeks powerful media outlets, mirroring the efforts of the US government, have shifted the narrative to more convenient terrain. "Us" now means "America", led by our national security state, which – if possibly overzealous sometimes – is trying to protect "us". "Them" is our adversaries – terrorists, of course, but also any government that is independent enough to be branded as "anti-American". And Edward Snowden – the "fugitive leaker" at best, or "traitorous spy" at worst – has, in some unexplained manner, helped "them", and seems to be getting help from "them" (in this case, governments that are "anti-American"; that is, independent of Washington).

Never mind that even Russia didn't want to get involved in the whole thing, and insisted that Snowden could only stay there if he would "cease his work aimed at damaging our American partners", the cold war rhetoric is too irresistible for journalists steeped in its patriotic fervor. Like Mike Meyers' Austin Powers, who woke up after a decades' long nap and didn't know that the cold war was over, they are ready to do battle with America's "enemies".

One of the most influential human rights organizations in the world, Amnesty International, didn't buy this media narrative. Last Tuesday, it accused the US government of "gross violations of [Snowden's] human rights", for trying to block him from applying for political asylum. Amnesty declared:

    "It appears he is being charged by the US government primarily for revealing its – and other governments' – unlawful actions that violate human rights …

    "No one should be charged under any law for disclosing information of human rights violations … Snowden is a whistleblower. He has disclosed issues of enormous public interest in the US and around the world."

The leading media outlets virtually ignored this voice and the legal issues that it raised.

The media can often determine what most people think on most issues, if given enough time and insufficient opposition. So, it is not surprising that the number of people who think that Snowden "did the right thing" has fallen over the past few weeks.

At this point, there is only one person who can turn this around: that is Edward Snowden himself. He has recorded only one interview, the one with Glenn Greenwald in which he took responsibility for the disclosures. It was a brilliant interview: he was crystal clear – morally, politically, and rhetorically.

    "I'm no different from anybody else. I don't have special skills. I'm just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what's happening and goes, 'This is something that's not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.'"

The sincerity of his appeal convinced millions that he was "us" – and that the people who now want to put him behind bars for life are "them".

It is understandable why he hasn't given any media interviews since then. He didn't expose these programs, despite some ridiculous punditry to the contrary*, to promote himself. He wants the focus to be on the crimes committed in secret by government, not on him. But sometimes, there is no avoiding center stage.

*Click to read: http://dissenter.firedoglake.com/2013/06/29/glenn-greenwalds-speech-to-the-socialism-conference-with-transcript/

Snowden is the only person right now who can reach hundreds of millions of people with a truthful message. The media is currently hungry for his words; they are eager to ignore most of the other truth-tellers, like Amnesty International; or to disparage them. They have demonized Julian Assange, who has yet to be even charged with a single crime, not even a misdemeanor. They will eventually destroy Snowden if he does not forcefully speak out and defend himself.

This has practical, as well as political, consequences. On Friday, Venezuela and Nicaragua offered asylum to Snowden, followed by Bolivia on Saturday. And there are an unknown number of other countries – including Ecuador – that would almost certainly grant him asylum if he showed up there. There are a number of ways for him to fly to these places without passing over any country that takes orders from Washington. But will the US government violate international law again, and risk innocent lives, by trying to force down a plane in international air space?

This decision may depend on the Obama team's forecast of how the media would portray such a crime. If Snowden explains to the world why his actions were a legitimate and eminently justifiable exposure of government criminality, the White House may think twice about further illegal and possibly forceful efforts to block Snowden's right to political asylum.

The Obama team did not comment on the offers of asylum. This was very smart, since it was a safe bet that the media would respond for them, framing the issue not as one of independent governments exercising their right and obligation to offer political asylum to a whistleblower, but rather "them" trying to poke a finger in the eye of the United States.

But there are millions of Americans, and many more throughout the world, who can see through this crusty cold war retread. Snowden can reach many millions more with the truth. He needs to speak – not only to save himself, but also future whistleblowers whom the Obama administration wants to silence by punishing him. What is at stake is the whole cause of human rights, especially the right to asylum. The citizens of the world need to see that triumph over the intimidation from those who believe that raw power is all that counts.

***********

July 6, 2013

In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of N.S.A.

By ERIC LICHTBLAU
NYT

WASHINGTON — In more than a dozen classified rulings, the nation’s surveillance court has created a secret body of law giving the National Security Agency the power to amass vast collections of data on Americans while pursuing not only terrorism suspects, but also people possibly involved in nuclear proliferation, espionage and cyberattacks, officials say.

The rulings, some nearly 100 pages long, reveal that the court has taken on a much more expansive role by regularly assessing broad constitutional questions and establishing important judicial precedents, with almost no public scrutiny, according to current and former officials familiar with the court’s classified decisions.

The 11-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court, was once mostly focused on approving case-by-case wiretapping orders. But since major changes in legislation and greater judicial oversight of intelligence operations were instituted six years ago, it has quietly become almost a parallel Supreme Court, serving as the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come, the officials said.

Last month, a former National Security Agency contractor, Edward J. Snowden, leaked a classified order from the FISA court, which authorized the collection of all phone-tracing data from Verizon business customers. But the court’s still-secret decisions go far beyond any single surveillance order, the officials said.

“We’ve seen a growing body of law from the court,” a former intelligence official said. “What you have is a common law that develops where the court is issuing orders involving particular types of surveillance, particular types of targets.”

In one of the court’s most important decisions, the judges have expanded the use in terrorism cases of a legal principle known as the “special needs” doctrine and carved out an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a warrant for searches and seizures, the officials said.

The special needs doctrine was originally established in 1989 by the Supreme Court in a ruling allowing the drug testing of railway workers, finding that a minimal intrusion on privacy was justified by the government’s need to combat an overriding public danger. Applying that concept more broadly, the FISA judges have ruled that the N.S.A.’s collection and examination of Americans’ communications data to track possible terrorists does not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment, the officials said.

That legal interpretation is significant, several outside legal experts said, because it uses a relatively narrow area of the law — used to justify airport screenings, for instance, or drunken-driving checkpoints — and applies it much more broadly, in secret, to the wholesale collection of communications in pursuit of terrorism suspects. “It seems like a legal stretch,” William C. Banks, a national security law expert at Syracuse University, said in response to a description of the decision. “It’s another way of tilting the scales toward the government in its access to all this data.”

While President Obama and his intelligence advisers have spoken of the surveillance programs leaked by Mr. Snowden mainly in terms of combating terrorism, the court has also interpreted the law in ways that extend into other national security concerns. In one recent case, for instance, intelligence officials were able to get access to an e-mail attachment sent within the United States because they said they were worried that the e-mail contained a schematic drawing or a diagram possibly connected to Iran’s nuclear program.

In the past, that probably would have required a court warrant because the suspicious e-mail involved American communications. In this case, however, a little-noticed provision in a 2008 law, expanding the definition of “foreign intelligence” to include “weapons of mass destruction,” was used to justify access to the message.

The court’s use of that language has allowed intelligence officials to get wider access to data and communications that they believe may be linked to nuclear proliferation, the officials said. They added that other secret findings had eased access to data on espionage, cyberattacks and other possible threats connected to foreign intelligence.

“The definition of ‘foreign intelligence’ is very broad,” another former intelligence official said in an interview. “An espionage target, a nuclear proliferation target, that all falls within FISA, and the court has signed off on that.”

The official, like a half-dozen other current and former national security officials, discussed the court’s rulings and the general trends they have established on the condition of anonymity because they are classified. Judges on the FISA court refused to comment on the scope and volume of their decisions.

Unlike the Supreme Court, the FISA court hears from only one side in the case — the government — and its findings are almost never made public. A Court of Review is empaneled to hear appeals, but that is known to have happened only a handful of times in the court’s history, and no case has ever been taken to the Supreme Court. In fact, it is not clear in all circumstances whether Internet and phone companies that are turning over the reams of data even have the right to appear before the FISA court.

Created by Congress in 1978 as a check against wiretapping abuses by the government, the court meets in a secure, nondescript room in the federal courthouse in Washington. All of the current 11 judges, who serve seven-year terms, were appointed to the special court by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and 10 of them were nominated to the bench by Republican presidents. Most hail from districts outside the capital and come in rotating shifts to hear surveillance applications; a single judge signs most surveillance orders, which totaled nearly 1,800 last year. None of the requests from the intelligence agencies was denied, according to the court.

Beyond broader legal rulings, the judges have had to resolve questions about newer types of technology, like video conferencing, and how and when the government can get access to them, the officials said.

The judges have also had to intervene repeatedly when private Internet and phone companies, which provide much of the data to the N.S.A., have raised concerns that the government is overreaching in its demands for records or when the government itself reports that it has inadvertently collected more data than was authorized, the officials said. In such cases, the court has repeatedly ordered the N.S.A. to destroy the Internet or phone data that was improperly collected, the officials said.

The officials said one central concept connects a number of the court’s opinions. The judges have concluded that the mere collection of enormous volumes of “metadata” — facts like the time of phone calls and the numbers dialed, but not the content of conversations — does not violate the Fourth Amendment, as long as the government establishes a valid reason under national security regulations before taking the next step of actually examining the contents of an American’s communications.

This concept is rooted partly in the “special needs” provision the court has embraced. “The basic idea is that it’s O.K. to create this huge pond of data,” a third official said, “but you have to establish a reason to stick your pole in the water and start fishing.”

Under the new procedures passed by Congress in 2008 in the FISA Amendments Act, even the collection of metadata must be considered “relevant” to a terrorism investigation or other intelligence activities.

The court has indicated that while individual pieces of data may not appear “relevant” to a terrorism investigation, the total picture that the bits of data create may in fact be relevant, according to the officials with knowledge of the decisions.

Geoffrey R. Stone, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, said he was troubled by the idea that the court is creating a significant body of law without hearing from anyone outside the government, forgoing the adversarial system that is a staple of the American justice system. “That whole notion is missing in this process,” he said.

The FISA judges have bristled at criticism that they are a rubber stamp for the government, occasionally speaking out to say they apply rigor in their scrutiny of government requests. Most of the surveillance operations involve the N.S.A., an eavesdropping behemoth that has listening posts around the world. Its role in gathering intelligence within the United States has grown enormously since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Soon after, President George W. Bush, under a secret wiretapping program that circumvented the FISA court, authorized the N.S.A. to collect metadata and in some cases listen in on foreign calls to or from the United States. After a heated debate, the essential elements of the Bush program were put into law by Congress in 2007, but with greater involvement by the FISA court.

Even before the leaks by Mr. Snowden, members of Congress and civil liberties advocates had been pressing for declassifying and publicly releasing court decisions, perhaps in summary form.

Reggie B. Walton, the FISA court’s presiding judge, wrote in March that he recognized the “potential benefit of better informing the public” about the court’s decisions. But, he said, there are “serious obstacles” to doing so because of the potential for misunderstanding caused by omitting classified details.

Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the N.S.A. director, was noncommital when he was pressed at a Senate hearing in June to put out some version of the court’s decisions.

While he pledged to try to make more decisions public, he said, “I don’t want to jeopardize the security of Americans by making a mistake in saying, ‘Yes, we’re going to do all that.’ ”

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Supreme Court asked to suspend NSA and FBI’s blanket collection of phone data

By Dan Roberts, The Guardian
Monday, July 8, 2013 20:39 EDT

The US supreme court will be asked to suspend the blanket collection of US telephone records by the FBI under an emergency petition due to be filed on Monday by civil rights campaigners at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic).

This new legal challenge to the power of government agencies to spy on Americans follows the publication last month by the Guardian of a secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ordering Verizon to hand over metadata from its phone records.

Previous attempts to appeal against the rulings of these courts have floundered due to a lack of public information about who might be caught up in the surveillance net, but the disclosure of specific orders by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has opened the door to a flurry of new challenges. It comes as a similar legal challenge was filed in Britain on Monday.

The latest from Epic asks the supreme court to rule that the NSA and FBI have stretched the law governing state intrusion to such a point that checks and balances put in by lawmakers have become meaningless.

Under section 1861 of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa), authorities seeking such records from phone companies must show “that there are reasonable grounds to to believe that the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation”.

But lawyers acting for Epic argue that the sweeping nature of Fisa court orders revealed by Snowden make a mockery of this “relevancy” clause.

“It is simply not possible that every phone record in the possession of a telecommunications firm could be relevant to an authorized investigation,” says a copy of the petition seen by the Guardian.

“Such an interpretation of Section 1861 would render meaningless the qualifying phrases contained in the provision and eviscerate the purpose of the Act.”

The petition seeks a “writ of mandamus” to immediately overturn the order of the lower court, presided on in secret by judge Roger Vinson, or alternatively a “writ of certiorari” to allow supreme court justices to review the decision.

Epic lawyers also argue the original order is unconstitutional because it gives too much power to federal agencies, which could be abused to interfere in other areas of government.

“Because the NSA sweeps up judicial and congressional communications, it inappropriately arrogates exceptional power to the executive branch,” says the petition.

A number of other legal challenges have been launched since Snowden’s leaks began to be reported by the Guardian and Washington Post last month.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit with a Federal court in New York which accused the US government of a process that was “akin to snatching every American’s address book”.

It claimed the NSA’s acquisition of phone records of millions of Verizon users violates the first and fourth amendments, which guarantee citizens’ right to association, speech and to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.

And on Capitol Hill, a group of US senators have introduced a bill aimed at forcing the US federal government to disclose the opinions of the FISA court that determines the scope of the eavesdropping on Americans’ phone records and internet communications.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013

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Big Box Retailers Grab Big Data – What You Need to Know When You Shop

By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Jul. 8th, 2013
PoliticusUSA

Checkout? No, data grab.
I was in Meijer the other day to do my weekly grocery shopping. Meijer is a Michigan-based big-box retailer, whose stores were the country’s first supercenters. For those who have not been to a Meijer, therefore, it is similar in concept to Arkansas-based Wal-Mart or Minnesota-based Target. The cashier saw me glancing at a brochure at the checkout and volunteered information about their mPerks program (mperks.meijer.com).

This is the newest way to use coupons. No longer does the consumer have to go through the laborious process of clipping them; simply bring in your cell phone and redeem them. Sounds great, doesn’t it? All the convenience modern technology has to offer. And though that was one piece of information the cashier did not volunteer, all the surveillance.

If , as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis asserted in 1928, people have “the right to be let alone” (Everett-Church, 2009), consumers should question the degree to which retailers agree with him; they should be thinking very carefully about what rights they might be surrendering when they enter a retailer’s brick and mortar establishment, use its mobile applications like mPerks, or visit that chain’s website.

Retailers stress customer service: Sears, in its mission statement, speaks of trust (Sears mission statement, n.d.); Walmart speaks of saving their customers money and making their lives better (Walmart mission statement, n.d.); and Target speaks of “exceptional guest experiences” (Target mission statement, n.d.). Meijer stresses “core values” which begin with customers “meeting their needs and exceeding their expectations” (Meijer Core Values, n.d.). One wonders how many customers have the expectation of being surveilled?

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the degree to which their private information has become a commodity; they would not be wrong to assume that retailers feel the one right consumers absolutely do not have once inside a store or on a website, is the right to be “let alone.”

Consumers might think their buying habits were their own affair as well: Who’s business is it but theirs what they buy, and where? (Kabay & Takacs, 2009). But profiling is not just for criminals, and most consumers likely fail to realize that retailers engage in widespread profiling of their customers (Kabay & Takacs, 2009).

Privacy laws agree with Justice Brandeis and assert that people have some control over information about ourselves (Judy et al, 2009) but we live in the Information Age and information is an increasingly valuable commodity. One business writer used another name for our era: “the era of Big Data” (Matthews, 2012). It is hardly surprising then that consumers find themselves part of a big box “data grab” (Hill, 2012).

Add to this competitive and technologically enhanced environment that in the United States the private sector has generally regulated itself (Judy et al, 2009), and you have a recipe for disaster: Whatever nice things a company’s mission statement might say about customers it must be remembered that corporate entities answers solely to stockholders who want to make a profit.

In their 2010 report, the Federal Trade Commission (2010), found that some companies use consumer information in an “irresponsible or even reckless manner” (p. i). The result is that the old Roman expression, caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) has more relevance than ever.

The Data Grab and its Consequences: Gathering Data from Brick and Mortar Stores

The moment they walk into a Walmart or a Meijer store, customers are greeted. And shopping is likely to become more intrusive, not less. Every shopper is likely aware of price scanners and even phones that can be picked up by a customer to request assistance in a department, but retailers are always seeking to be more proactive in their approach.

It was reported last year that a newly developed software from the Netherlands will give retailers the ability to use cameras that recognize a shopper’s behavior in a store. Customers who look like they need help will be singled out for approach by a retail associate (Ingersoll, 2012). Meijer reassuringly promises customers that it “will not link security camera information to other information we’ve collected unless there is a security need” (Meijer privacy policy, 2010).

But being observed in a store by greeters, targeted for help by behavioral software, or tracked by ceiling-mounted security cameras (which could utilize facial recognition software), is only the tip of the surveillance iceberg. None of the big box retailers detailed in this report (Meijer, Walmart, Target, and Sears) admit to using facial recognition or behavioral software (a form of biometric identification) but Target, in contrast to Meijer, alerts consumers that they do “use in-store cameras, primarily for security purposes, and also for operational purposes, such as measuring traffic patterns and tracking in-stock levels” (Target privacy policy, 2013), though Walmart was sued in 2009 for putting a surveillance camera in a unisex bathroom used by both employees and customers (Zetter, 2009).

Yet stock levels could as easily be tracked at the POS (point of sale) level of store operations, and would impact consumer privacy less. Walmart, like Meijer, goes a step farther than Target, promising that their cameras will not be used to establish the identity of a customer (Walmart privacy policy, 2012) but such concerns are real.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sought public feedback on the subject of facial recognition software as far back as 2011 (Federal Trade Commission, 2011) and a letter from several members of congress to the FTC in January 2012, expressed concerns that some companies were already employing it unbeknownst to consumers (Barton et al, 2012).

In their report, the Federal Trade Commission (2012) concluded that while the potential for abuse is very real, the relative newness of the technology offers the opportunity to ensure that as the industry grows it does so in a way that benefits both business and consumer (p. 21).

As it happens, consumers surrender a great deal of privacy when they do business with any retailer. Walmart, for example, reveals that they gather data from sales transactions, customer service transactions (exchanges and returns), from visitors to their websites by way of cookies and information gathered from devices and from video cameras mounted in their stores (Walmart privacy policy, 2012). Meijer informs customers that they gather information “on this website and through our various promotional programs including, but not limited to, mPerks, text alerts, voice messaging alerts, email messaging couponing, and postal mailers (“Promotional Programs”) (Meijer privacy policy, 2010).

Some retailers now routinely ask customers for their zip codes when they make a purchase. With mPerks you must enter your telephone number to use your virtual coupons. While a zip code is no doubt helpful information for a retailer and no great threat to a consumer, it still represents a degree of intrusion. Some customers decline to volunteer even this much information.

Consumers have to expect to give out more or less personal information depending on what they are buying. If they are purchasing alcohol, for example, they will be required by law to provide proof of age in the form of a valid ID or drivers license. The same might apply to certain pharmacy transactions (e.g. pseudoephedrine), or when purchasing a hunting or fishing license.

Gathering Data from Mobile Apps

Use of mobile devices only serves to expose consumers to more information gathering, not less, and retailers are helpful in providing Wi-Fi for “savvy” (or unwary?) customers (Albright, 2011). Mobile apps like mPerks are a special concern and their use has prompted calls for federal regulation (Johnson, 2013).

Walmart’s mobile applications automatically collect data about the consumer’s device, and if they use it search for a store, their location (Walmart privacy policy, 2012). But that is a rather basic usage of a mobile app compared to what both Walmart and Target are now doing.

These retailers’ apps can now tell customers where to find what they are looking for, down to the aisle number; they can also potentially tell the retailer where the customer is (Yu, 2012). Walmart’s mobile and digital head calls this bringing the online store to the store, a tactic not to be despised because about 1 in 5 sales are lost due to the inability of the shopper to find the item they’re searching for (Yu, 2012).

These apps may allow consumers to shop more efficiently in a brick and mortar environment, but they also allow the retailer to track the consumer much more efficiently. Just as consumers value the commodities provided by retailers, retailers value the commodity provided by consumers: information (Himma, 2006).

Gathering Data from Websites

As a society, we have not yet arrived at the point portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report where, upon walking into a retailer, big billboards greet consumers by name and in a voice impossible to ignore tells them what they need to buy next, but thanks to facial recognition software, a family walking into a car dealer, for example, could see monitors suddenly flash ads for minivans (Plant, 2012). The underlying technology exists already in the form of online behavioral (OBA) or interest-based advertising (IBA) (Federal Trade Commission, 2009; Understanding online advertising, n.d.).

This predictive technology allows retailers to populate their websites (or in-store monitors) with customer-specific, or targeted ads; in other words, ads for products tailored to their interest based on data previously gathered about their likes and buying habits (Understanding online advertising, n.d.).

The online data gathered comes from what are known as cookies, and among that disturbing quantity of data is knowledge of the consumer’s whereabouts. It is not without reason that in 2009 the FTC published a staff report to address privacy concerns with regards this new technology (Federal Trade Commission, 2009).

Meijer (Meijer privacy policy, 2010), Walmart (Walmart privacy policy, 2012), Target (Target privacy policy, 2013), and Sears (Sears privacy policy, 2012), will learn, through employment of cookies, which browser a consumer is using, the operating system their computer uses, their Internet Protocol address, or IP address (which tells retailers roughly where they are located), and even the address of the referring website (Walmart privacy policy, 2012).

A cookie is a small text file that, having been placed on a hard drive, marks you as you, functions as a “weak form of authentication”(Ghosh, Baumgarten, Hadley, & Lovaas, 2009). A cookie may sound harmless (it is certainly made to sound harmless) but what consumers are doing by allowing cookies is giving somebody else the right to store something on their property (e.g. hard drive), and not only that, but something that will identify their computer (and them personally) if they visit the retailer’s website again (Judy, David, Hayes, Ritter, & Rotenberg, 2009). Because cookies impact privacy rights and utilize the website user’s rights to physical objects (e.g. their own hard drives), cookies are ethically problematic (Himma, 2006).

Meijer (Meijer privacy policy, 2010), Walmart (Walmart privacy policy, 2012), Target (Target privacy policy, 2013), and Sears (Sears privacy policy, 2012), all also employ web beacons (also known as ‘web bugs’ or ‘pixel tags’), which are small (1×1 gif) graphics files placed on a website (Everett-Church, 2006). These are intentionally invisible to the naked eye (Everett-Church, 2006) and their purpose is to recognize cookies (Judy et al, 2009).

Beacons allow companies to track “exact Internet usage and surfing patterns” (Judy et al, 2009, p. 69-15) and since they can be present even in advertisements, these big box retailers will know if a consumer visited other websites that have, for example, Walmart ads present.

Walmart informs its customers that beacons tell them when a webpage is accessed, when an email is opened and gives them information about the overall effectiveness of their websites (Walmart privacy policy, 2012), but it also tells Walmart (and other retailers using this technology) where the consumer has been before visiting Walmart, information a consumer might say is none of their business. Meijer says “the information we collect helps us better manage the Site, provides ease of use of the Site for you, and provides more effective marketing to you” (Meijer privacy policy, 2010), but it does more than that. And it is not only these retailers collecting consumer data by these means but their third-party service providers.

It is reasonable to assume that most people would probably decline having Walmart place a tracking device of plastic or metal on their person (for the record, there is no evidence Walmart does this), and they should at least be aware of what they are surrendering when they submit to placement of a tracking device composed of data. Privacy threats are a genuine concern, both for corporations and consumers and questions of “how much is enough?” are more relevant than ever.

Consumers do not give up their rights when they walk into a store or visit a website and corporations should take care that they do not make the assumption, pointed to by Himma (2006), that website visitors who do not refuse cookies consent to them. As Himma argued, giving a robber money as the alternative to being shot does not imply consent to give the robber money (Himma, 2006).

By the same token, consumers are not consenting to the gathering and use of their private information by walking through the doors of a brick and mortar retailer, whatever Target might claim to the contrary in its privacy policy (2013): “By interacting with Target, you consent to our use of information that is collected or submitted as described in this privacy policy”(Target privacy policy revisions, para. 1) Meijer likewise states ((Meijer privacy policy, 2010), that “by using our Site or participating in mPerks, or our email messaging, text alerts, or voice messaging alerts programs, you consent to Meijer’s collection and use of your personal information as set forth in this privacy policy.”

If you don’t agree, they say, don’t shop at Meijer. It’s as simple as that. What was all that great stuff they said about customers in their core values again?

The bottom line is that consumers should enjoy a reasonable expectation that their private information remains their property unless and until they consent to give it to, or share it with, another.

A Question of Consent

Unfortunately for retailers, what they might be (and are) doing to siphon more information from consumers is bigger news than the steps they might be (and are) taking to safeguard that information. For example, Business Insider marked New Year 2013 with a piece entitled “12 sneaky ways that big retailers track your every move” (Lutz & McConnell, 2013) and it hardly speaks well of retailers that the Harvard Business Review a year earlier could speak of retailers “fighting” customers’ anonymity (Plant, 2012).

Consumers want their anonymity intact and protected, not fought. The Harvard Business Review cites the example given above of a family presented with minivan ads as a form of “soft surveillance” but retailers need to understand that consumers might see it not as soft but as underhanded, and indeed, retail executives are warned that they need to know “how invasive the company can be” in a particular location, and how such efforts might “affect its relationship with customers” (Plant 2012).

Companies should be aware that the question “how invasive can we be?” is less conducive to good relations with consumers than “how protective of our customers rights can we be?” In this vein, it is worth noting that the Sears privacy policy mentions the word “consent” only once, with regards to information collected about children (Sears privacy policy, 2012), while in Walmart’s policy the word appears a dozen times (Walmart privacy policy, 2012). Target also mentions consent just once, only to inform visitors that by interacting with Target they have given their consent (Target privacy policy, 2013).

Recommendations for a Better Consumer Environment

Posting privacy policies is only a necessary first step. When visiting the websites of Sears, Walmart, or Target, a consumer will find no prominent link indicating where these policies are to be found. Nor will a customer find any reference to their privacy rights posted at the entrances of any of these stores. The Sears privacy policy (Sears Privacy Policy, 2012) fails to make even a mention of their brick and mortar locations and what information might be gathered there, or how it might be used.

Consumers want to know and retailers ought to be more forthcoming about data gathering. Transparency is at least as valuable a commodity in post-Bush America as information and a display of open-handedness is more likely to attract customers than drive them away. The FTC’s 2010 staff report urges companies to address transparency concerns, stressing the importance of detailing changes to privacy policies rather than simply updating them (Federal Trade Commission, 2010).

The concept of consent has not gone unnoticed: Consumer education was another recommendation advanced by the FTC, in order to inform consumers not only what information is collected and how it is used, but informing them as to their available choices (Federal Trade Commission, 2010). Walmart (Walmart privacy policy, 2010) and Target (Target privacy policy, 2013) relegate the topic of choice to fourth place in their list of headings while Sears barely discusses it at all (Sears privacy policy, 2012).

Privacy policies should be shorter, more concise, and follow a standardized format, making consumer comparisons easier (Federal Trade Commission, 2010). By way of comparison, the privacy policies of the four corporations examined in this article take up many pages and though they discuss many of the same topics (information collected, how it is used, shared, etc) they do not follow the same format (Sears privacy policy, 2012; Target privacy policy, 2013; Walmart privacy policy, 2012; Meijer privacy policy, 2010).

Retailers would do well to begin their privacy policies with a solemn guarantee of what they will not do to infringe upon the privacy rights of consumers, rather than with a discussion of what information will be collected. Consumers want to know, for example, that they will not be followed by “trackers” who will follow them as they shop, be subject to use of facial recognition software, or to use mobile apps to track their movement through stores and malls (Lutz & McConnell, 2013). The same concerns apply to browsing history.

Many of these technologies are not discussed in the existing privacy policies of Meijer, Walmart, Target, and Sears. But failure to address them is no assurance that they are not currently being, or will not in the future, be employed. A clear-cut, unequivocal rejection will serve better than silence; consumers know these technologies are out there and so they should be discussed. Each concern should be addressed in detail, removing the need for uncertainty and fear at the outset.

Sears ran afoul of the FTC in 2009 when it was found to have provided insufficient information in a disclosure to consumers voluntarily participating in a study (Yan, 2010). It is with good reason that Part IV of the FTC’s 2009 staff letter provided principles for self-regulation (Federal Trade Commission, 2009). The FTC’s first point related to the need for transparency and called for not only a clear statement of intent by retailers but an opportunity for consumers to not simply opt out of OBA but to decide whether they wish to participate in the first place (Federal Trade Commission, 2009). It should not be assumed that failure to say “no” represents consent.

The FTC also decreed that retailers, before they employ previously collected data, obtain new consent when policy changes might put the information to uses different than originally agreed to (Federal Trade Commission, 2009). Sears may or may not have learned from their previous troubles: the current Sears privacy policy (2012) informs consumers that “Your continued use of this Site after we post a revised Privacy Policy signifies your acceptance of the revised Privacy Policy” (Will I Receive Notice of Changes to the Privacy Policy?, para. 1), which does not seem to meet the FTC’s demand for “affirmative express consent” (Federal Trade Commission, 2009) according to Himma’s definition of consent (Himma, 2006).

Mobile apps could also be made more consumer friendly and less privacy intrusive. The Federal Trade Commission (2013) observed that operating system providers currently offer app developers “substantial amounts” of user data (pp. i-ii). The FTC recommended that users be given the opportunity to grant their affirmative express consent and to have knowledge of the types of data apps they have downloaded access. It was also recommended that apps have a Do Not Track (DNT) mechanism, which would allow users to prevent tracking by, say, Walmart or their third party affiliates (Federal Trade Commission, 2013).

The FTC urged expeditious adaption of their recommendations (Federal Trade Commission, 2013). For our purposes here, this also means that if they are not now engaging in such tracking, all three companies examined, Walmart, Sears, and Target, should assure consumers via their privacy policies of that fact and make a full disclosure of their mobile apps’ capabilities.

Retailers will benefit from actively cultivating trust more than by simply promising it and the FTC’s repeated calls for transparency are well-noted. There are certainly consumers who will consent to share information when it is asked for if there are benefits to doing so (Kooser, n.d.). Customer loyalty programs like Meijer’s mPerks demonstrate this: In exchange for discounts and special offers, a retailer gains useful insight into a consumer’s buying habits. Requesting, rather than requiring, consumers to share data would provide retailers with useful information about consumers while reducing privacy concerns and the risk of lawsuits and/or regulatory penalties.

In the end, it all comes down to the consumer and what the consumer is willing to tolerate in terms of intrusion into their privacy. But first the consumer must be aware of the existence and then the extent of this intrusion. Only then will informed choices be possible, and only then can retailers be informed by the people they claim to serve, what will and will not be tolerated in a free and open society.

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Obama should review force-feeding at Guantanamo: judge

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, July 9, 2013 7:27 EDT

A US judge Monday rejected a legal bid by a Guantanamo detainee to have his force-feeding blocked, but urged President Barack Obama to review the issue to see if the controversial practice should end.

Authorities at the military prison at the US naval base in southeastern Cuba say they are force-feeding 44 inmates out of an estimated 120 prisoners who are on hunger strike.

US District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that laws passed by Congress prevent her from intervening in aspects of detention at Guantanamo.

“Even though this court is obligated to dismiss the application for lack of jurisdiction, and therefore lacks any authority to rule on petitioner’s request, there is an individual who does have the authority to address the issue.”

Kessler cited the president’s speech of May 23, in which he referred to the force-feeding of terror suspects on hunger strike.

“Is that who we are?” Obama asked in his speech. “Is that the America we want to leave to our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.”

Kessler in her ruling also cited the US Constitution enshrining the president’s status as commander of all US military forces.

“It would seem to follow, therefore, that the president of the United States, as commander-in-chief, has the authority — and power — to directly address the issue of force-feeding of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay,” she said.

A motion filed by rights watchdog Reprieve on behalf of four detainees demands the immediate cessation of force-feeding, decrying it as “torture.”

Kessler said main petitioner Jihad Dhiab sought rapid review of the application because he feared that force-feeding during the day would interfere with his fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins on July 8.

The case is nearly identical to one in 2009 which was also rejected by the same court.

But in the current application, said Kessler, Dhiab laid out in detail “what appears to be a consensus that force-feeding of prisoners violates Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which prohibits torture or cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.”

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The Washington Post Is Now Publishing Republican Press Releases As News

By: Sarah Jones
Jul. 8th, 2013
PoliticusUSA

Is the Washington Post publishing Republican press releases as news now, without factchecking?

Monday evening, Jenna Johnson published a blog post on the student loan crisis that read eerily like the statement John Boehner’s office put out today. It opened in a similar fashion, “House Republican leaders gathered with dozens of well-dressed college students on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Monday afternoon to blast Senate Democrats for not yet passing a student loan bill, allowing the interest rate on one type of federal loan to double last week.”

No, it wasn’t plagiarized; it just managed to follow Boehner’s narrative and pass it off as news, with a bit of extra detail thrown in for substance. Boehner’s press release today read:

    House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Republican leaders joined college students from across the nation today in a rally at the U.S. Capitol urging Senate Democrats to follow the House’s lead and take action on student loan interest rates, which doubled one week ago.

Then we got Boehner’s statements, which translate into the entire arc of the WaPo article.

    “You know, Republicans have acted to stop student loan interest rates from doubling and to make college more affordable for students across the country, including these students that are right here behind me. The White House and Senate Democrats have let these students down. And frankly, I think they deserve better. It’s time for the president to lead, it’s time for him to bring Senate Democrat leaders together and develop a solution.

    “The House has done its job, it’s time for the Senate and the White House to do its job. And if you look at what the House passed, it’s very close to what the president offered in his own budget earlier this year.

From the Post:

    The Republican-led House passed a bill in late May that establishes a variable interest rate for Stafford loans that’s tied to the government’s cost of borrowing, a concept that President Obama has supported. For the coming school year, that would likely mean a rate of less than 5 percent. In future years, the rate could go as high as 8.5 percent.

Also, there were the usual tells of a Republican talking: “Democrat-led Senate” instead of “Democratic-led Senate”, and then the writer informs us inaccurately that President Obama supported the concept behind the House Republicans’ student loan bill. That, of course, is not true, because while there was some cross over, there were huge differences that caused Obama to threaten to veto the House bill, but Boehner suggests the same thing in his press release.

And then Ms. Johnson informs us that Boehner blasted the President for not doing enough to make Senate Democrats pass something. Where was the “other side” on that? No quotes from Democrats. No fact checking. No “balance” with even presenting the alternative argument. Oh, Republican spin world, how pretty things are in your teeny tiny corner of the propaganda world!

On May 31, President Obama stood up for students when he threatened to VETO the House Republicans’ attempt to stick students with paying down the deficit through the variable rate Ms. Johnson tells us Obama supported. So, Obama supported it except when he threatened to veto it on May 31.

    He explained that while he’s glad House Republicans did something, their plan is not smart or fair, “I’m glad that they took action, but their bill does not meet that test. It fails to lock in low rates for students next year. The House bill isn’t smart, and it’s not fair. I’m glad that the House is paying attention to it, but they didn’t do it in the right way.” The President is saying that it’s not fair to force students to pay down the deficit, especially when Republicans won’t even close tax loopholes for the wealthy.

So that’s a big fat public NO to Obama supporting the House plan.

Boehner’s statement today suggesting that the President can’t lead:

    “Listen, the failure to lead on student loans is part of the president’s larger issue, and that is the failure to lead on the biggest issues facing our country: jobs and the economy. Every American deserves better than this new normal of slow economic growth, not enough jobs, and no increase in wages.”

Ms. Johnson writes, “Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) criticized Obama for not pushing the Democrat-led Senate to take action before July 1. Stafford loans have annual borrowing limits and account for only a portion of all student loan debt, which currently totals more than $1 trillion.” Well, okay, but Obama’s May 31 speech is but one of many times Obama used the bully pulpit to try to get this historically lazy Congress to do SOMETHING for the people of this country, specifically to pass a student loan bill that would continue allowing students and their families to have some assurance that their rates would not spike in the future to unsustainable levels.

Obama can’t be blamed by rational people for Boehner’s record setting failure of a House of Representatives, but it’s sweet that he has such advocates in the political world.

Ms. Johnson then repeated Boehner’s criticism, noting that other Republicans joined in (shocking!). And she closed with this, “The hashtag again came to life, with both parties using it to push their ideas for finding funds to continue a lower interest rate.” Um, no, actually, Republicans have argued that we can’t afford to subsidize low student loan rates. That is the premise behind their argument, though not one they share with the public readily, I’ll grant.

Just in case it’s not clear yet, on July 1, Speaker Boehner issued a statement claiming inaccurately, “Republicans have passed common-sense legislation mirroring the president’s plan to stop student loans from doubling and make college more affordable.” Mirroring? You mean, if only the President had been willing to stick students with the higher rates of the GOP plan that he said he would VETO.

On June 28th, the Speaker’s office was desperately trying to establish the narrative that the House’s bill was bipartisan (as if — nothing bipartisan comes out of the House unless Pelosi gets it done for Boehner), “But rather than take up a bipartisan solution supported by President Obama and House Republicans, Senate Democrats are going to go ahead and let student loan interest rates double on Monday.”

Ironically, it was the Washington Post (in a link that now goes to page not found, but it was reported here) that pointed out that the Republican plan would cause the interest rate on a Stafford Loan to double, “Students who max out their subsidized Stafford loans over four years would pay $8,331 in interest payments under the Republican bill, and $3,450 if rates were kept at 3.4 percent. If rates were allowed to double in July, that amount would be $7,284 over the typical 10-year window to repay the maximum $19,000.”

The Republican version is variable rate scheme where a student’s loan rate would be reset every year in order to enable the banks to make a profit off of students and force students to pay down the deficit of their elders.

The Post’s own earlier reporting confirms my take on things, “The proposal cleared the GOP-led House on a largely party-line vote of 221 to 198, but it faces opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate and a veto threat from President Obama.” Yes, see, it wasn’t bipartisan, Obama did not support it, and he did threaten to veto it.

That same WaPo article noted that while there were some similarities, a key difference between Obama’s and the House Republicans’ plans is that under Obama’s plan, rates “would be fixed after students take out a loan. The Republican bill would let rates for individual loans float.” You can see what damage floating rates could do.

You might expect a writer to at least do a cursory search before passing a press release off as fact, but we got the entire inaccurate GOP narrative neatly painted for us and passed off as news. Buyer beware, because while not all press releases are full of lies, Speaker Boehner’s are by necessity inaccurate and misleading.

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Busted: Republicans’ State Mandated Ultrasounds Are Vaginal Probes, Not Choices

By: Sarah Jones
Jul. 8th, 2013
PoliticusUSA

You may have heard defenders of Republicans, who are claiming the right to rape women with the authority of the state via their many ultrasound laws currently sweeping the nation via the state level, explain that some of these laws do not mandate a vaginal probe, and therefore are not rape.

After all, it would be politically costly, even for rape-denying Republicans, to not only legalize rape, but to mandate it. They found this out when they tried to mandate vaginal ultrasounds in Virginia.

You see, rape is defined by the Justice Department and FBI (for reporting/statistical purposes – note that state by state definitions of rape vary) as, “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

So Republicans took out the word vaginal and replaced it with language that mostly only women who have had vaginal ultrasounds understand to mean vaginal ultrasound, and we all know Republicans aren’t interested in listening to women’s experiences (“mob rule”) as they pass these unprecedented invasions against women across the country. Republican Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) can’t stop trying to shame and hush state Senator Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) on the issue of women’s healthcare.

The language of Wisconsin Senate bill is an example of how they imbed the transvaginal probe while claiming you have a choice, “An ultrasound on the pregnant woman using whichever transducer the woman chooses; provide a simultaneous oral explanation during the ultrasound including the number of unborn children and presence and location of the unborn child; display the ultrasound images so that the pregnant woman may view them; provide a medical description of the ultrasound images including the dimensions of the unborn child and a description of any viewable external features and internal organs of the unborn child; and provide a means for the pregnant woman to visualize any fetal heartbeat, in a quality consistent with current medical practice, and a simultaneous oral explanation of the visual display of the heartbeat in a manner understandable to a layperson (ultrasound requirements).”

Hint: In order to achieve most of that with the “quality consistent with current medical practice”, a transvaginal ultrasound must be used. Oh, but they didn’t SAY vaginal probe. Republicans learned after the Virginia debacle. They found a new way to mandate vaginal ultrasounds without saying it.

There are two main types of fetal ultrasound exams, per the Mayo Clinic. The vaginal ultrasound is used in early pregnancies because the uterus and fallopian tubes are closer to the vagina than to the abdominal wall at that time. To wit:

    Transvaginal ultrasound. With this type of fetal ultrasound, a wand-like transducer is placed in your vagina to send out sound waves and gather the reflections. Transvaginal ultrasounds are used most often during early pregnancy, when the uterus and fallopian tubes are closer to the vagina than to the abdominal surface.
    Transabdominal ultrasound. A transabdominal fetal ultrasound is done by moving a transducer — a small plastic device that sends and receives sound waves — over your abdomen. This type of fetal ultrasound helps your health care provider determine your baby’s gestational age and evaluate your baby’s growth and development. The exam usually takes about 20 minutes.

As Think Progress explained in February, many of the laws mandate that the women must see the fetus, and therefore, since most abortions happen at an early stage, it mandates a vaginal probe. Others mandate hearing the fetal heartbeat, and the transvaginal probe is the medically preferred ultrasound to hear the fetal heartbeat.

Hike your feet up into some stirrups so you can get a transducer so large it requires lubricant shoved up your vagina until it hits and applies enough pressure against your cervix to read the uterus, ovaries, etc. This version of rape is now mandated by many states, courtesy of “small government” Republicans, only they’re not calling it rape. They’re calling it an option that’s “beneficial” to your health.

In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet knew that the names of things do not change what they are:

O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

So, too, a state mandated and unnecessary transvaginal probe by any other name is as invasive as a rape as defined by the DOJ, because it is what it is no matter what they call it.

We will refer to Republican ultrasound laws as mandated vaginal ultrasounds, because that is what they are. And Republican mandated ultrasound laws are state authorized rape. No sweet smelling lies can make this outrageous assault upon the bodies of women any less egregious, no matter what they call it.

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Paul Ryan Reveals That Everything He Said About Medicare in 2012 Was A Total Lie

By: Sarah Jones
Jul. 8th, 2013
PoliticusUSA

The fact that House Republicans are holding Medicare as a hostage over raising the debt ceiling (which is their job, as it represents money they already spent) should erase the media’s confusion about just which party is coming for Medicare. Republicans are making a move to give the insurance companies the key to the treasury so they can raid it on whim.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is working with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) among other conservatives to draft the debt ceiling “options” menu. Jason Easley referred to this House plan as the Stupid Linings Playbook, because they outline several very unpopular plans, which they will be forcing just in time for the next election. It’s as if they want to make 2014 about Medicare and Social Security, even though they already lost those fights very clearly in 2012.

Ryan and House Republicans presented the option to privatize Medicare as the Big Idea for the President. While it may be hard to stomach being lectured to by the party and often individuals who voted for Bush’s unfunded Medicare Part D, but now want to pretend they are the fiscal grown ups, the truth is that these folks are only fooling their base. And how hard is that? Sadly not hard at all.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, we were treated to epic lies about Medicare from Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, who were pretending that they had no intentions to change the program. They couldn’t defend their own plans, so instead they borrowed lies from the Koch brothers about Obama’s healthcare reform law, also known as ObamaCare.

The Ryan plan would not even offer traditional Medicare except to those now 55 and older; in fact, Paul Ryan and House Republicans voted to drop traditional Medicare altogether, except for those now 55 and older. Ryan and Romney claimed they were “saving” Medicare by privatizing it, while Obama had destroyed it with ObamaCare.

Ryan claimed ObamaCare “weakens Medicare for today’s seniors and puts it at risk for the next generation. First, it funnels $716 billion out of Medicare to pay for a new entitlement we didn’t even ask for. Second, it puts 15 unelected bureaucrats in charge of Medicare’s future.”

Reality? According to PolitiFact this was “Mostly False” and highly misleading, “Ryan’s comments are highly misleading. Neither Obama nor his health care law literally cut funding from the Medicare program’s budget. Still, the number has a slight basis in fact… So, yes, Obama’s law did find $716 billion in spending reductions. They were mainly aimed at insurance companies and hospitals, not beneficiaries.”

For these lies Ryan won many mostly false ratings, but the media was still “confused”. Even PolitiFact had a tough time with the idea that privatizing Medicare would actually be ending it as we know it. Back then, PolitiFact rated the claim that Republicans were privatizing Medicare as “mostly true”.

However, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Ryan plan suggested that a voucher system would shift costs from the taxpayers to seniors (“seniors would end up paying almost twice as much out of their own pockets — or more than $12,510 a year, the CBO estimates. Altogether, the total cost of insurance would be higher”) and
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However, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Ryan plan suggested that a voucher system would shift costs from the taxpayers to seniors (“seniors would end up paying almost twice as much out of their own pockets — or more than $12,510 a year, the CBO estimates. Altogether, the total cost of insurance would be higher”) and costs for healthcare for the elderly would increase since commercial insurers cost more to run than government plans. That’s pretty much ending Medicare as we know it, since Medicare is a safety net. It’s not a safety net if your “vouchers” don’t buy you the healthcare you need because they aren’t keeping up with rising healthcare costs.

In 2011, PolitiFact gave a good grade to President Obama’s “precise words” regarding the Republican plan, “President Barack Obama was also more precise with his words, saying the Medicare proposal ‘would voucherize the program and you potentially have senior citizens paying $6,000 more.’” You can see that voucherize is the same thing as privatize in this scenario, but if it wasn’t clear then, House Republicans are making sure it’s clear now. They want to privatize Medicare so badly that they will hold our credit hostage to do it. But Obama eventually did say during the campaign that the Romney Ryan plan will end Medicare as we know it.

Privatizing Medicare means it is no longer a guaranteed program. It is no longer a social safety net. You’re on your own, dealing with for profit insurance companies. You’re fighting for survival in Paul Ryan’s Randian “free market”, which is the exact opposite of a social safety net.

If privatized, Republicans would be lining the pockets of executives and lobbyists with millions of dollars along with paying for advertisements, as Ray pointed out for PoliticusUSA in November of 2011. Ryan got booed during the campaign for trying to sell his privatization scheme to retirees. Paul Ryan didn’t defend his plan; he just lied about ObamaCare, using Koch-funded falsehoods.

Ryan and his running mate lost the 2012 election. So what do House Republicans do in 2013? They let Ryan be in charge of their entire budget and plan their mode of “attack” on this president. You almost want to feel sorry for them.

Republicans are now holding Medicare hostage, and this should be an ah-ha moment for the media and the fact-checkers. Paul Ryan’s claims to be saving Medicare from mean old Obama were a lie. Paul Ryan’s outrage over his inaccurate claim that ObamaCare took money from the beneficiaries of Medicare was a lie. Not only were those lies, but they are exactly what he aims to do to Medicare.

Not only do Republicans justify their Medicare destruction by lying about ObamaCare, but they can’t defend the actuality of privatized Medicare. They never want to discuss the reality of turning Medicare into a for-profit business with middlemen like David Koch (someone has to make money on your healthcare or it’s not for profit) being in charge of your Medicare. Before ObamaCare, insurance companies were dictating to doctors what care you needed based upon their very high profit margin. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of what for profit Medicare would look like.

Republicans like Paul Ryan increased spending and cut taxes when they were in charge, rubber stamping huge expenditures like the unfunded Medicare Part D under Bush, which drove the deficit up. Spending under Obama is at its slowest pace since Eisenhower, but Republicans feel compelled to swagger around playing fiscal grown ups when in fact they are the adolescents who got us here by charging things on daddy’s credit card.

Instead of paying for the bills the House already approved to spend, the House Republicans are going to use their own spending in order to hold your Medicare hostage or the debt ceiling gets it again.

On one hand, Ryan and House Republicans try to sell the idea that harming Medicare would be very bad – this they do by attacking ObamaCare. In Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech, he proclaimed that he and Romney were going to save Medicare from Obama who just came and “took” money from Medicare for ObamaCare. Ryan called stealing from the elderly a cold power play, “The biggest, coldest power play of all in Obamacare came at the expense of the elderly.”

But while Ryan and the Republicans are saying that to you, their other hand is behind their back trying to give your Medicare to wealthy men like David Koch so he can raid the treasury that your tax dollars funded while denying you care. They call this “privatizing Medicare”. The media might want to pretend that privatizing Medicare doesn’t end it as we know it, but it would. Perhaps they are ignorant about the usual costs/results of privatization.

Following Republicans’ own logic, if taking money out of Medicare to fund something/someone else is so rotten, then Ryan and House Republicans attempt to hold Medicare hostage in order to privatize it so their funders can make a profit off of it while leaving the elderly with useless vouchers instead of care is actually the “biggest, coldest power play of all.”

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Oregon Passes Law That Could Eliminate College Tuition and Student Debt

By: Keith Brekhus
Jul. 8th, 2013
PoliticusUSA

The Oregon legislature passed legislation last Monday that could eliminate tuition costs and student debt for incoming students wishing to attend one of the state’s seven public universities. The plan passed both the Oregon state senate and state house with unanimous bi-partisan support and is expected to be signed into law later this month by Oregon’s Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber. The model is patterned after a similar income-based repayment program in Australia. Currently the average student debt burden for a graduate of an Oregon university is nearly 25,000 dollars.

Under the proposed program, tuition would be free during the student’s college career and consequently the need for taking out student loans would be eliminated. Instead graduates would pay three percent of their income for 24 years to pay for the costs of their education and to fund the program for the benefit of future students. The plan called “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back” would enable college students to bypass traditional lenders who charge interest rates on student loans. Instead the students would get their education for free while they were in school and then pay the costs back at a rate of three percent of their earnings. Students who attended college but did not graduate would pay a smaller portion of their income, based upon how long they attended college. Within a quarter century the fund would become entirely self-supporting, but an estimated initial investment of nine billion dollars over the first 24 years would be needed to implement the program before it becomes self-funding.

The sliding-scale nature of the program makes it a worthwhile project. First of all, by capping payback rates at three percent of one’s paycheck, it guarantees that no student can become saddled with unmanageable debt. In addition, those who benefit most from their education pay the most back into the system while those who are not earning much income pay less back into the system. While critics may argue that this is unfair because it “punishes the rich” by charging them more for their education, that criticism is misguided. Education is an investment, and making each person pay back three percent of their earnings ensures that those who gain the most pay the most. It also ensures that if someone is permanently disabled, underemployed or unable to find work, they are not required to pay back the costs of student loans that they cannot afford. Each person simply pays according to what they earn, and nobody pays more than three percent of their income.

The plan will be especially beneficial to low and middle income college graduates. Critics of the plan suggest that it may be more expensive for the average college graduate over time, but these criticisms are usually based on facile analysis that ignore the crippling effects of student interest and that fail to factor in the additional benefits of eliminating tuition costs.

A Portland Business Journal study found that Oregon State university graduates had the best mid-career earning potential of all the state’s graduates at 86,900 dollars per year. The average entry level salary for an Oregon State university grad was 44,600 per year. So how would the new plan work out for a typical graduate at the state’s top university? If we assume that the graduate reaches her* mid-career salary after twenty years of employment and advances incrementally from entry level to mid-career pay over that twenty year period, we can compare our hypothetical student under the new plan, with the same student paying back 25,000 in loans at 6.8 percent annual interest.

Under the borrowing scheme our graduate will enter the workforce at 44,600 a year and have to pay 288 dollars a month on time every month for ten years to pay off her loan. In addition, although loans would have covered most of her tuition costs, the student would have paid about 9000 out of pocket in tuition fees while she was in school. Under the new proposal, the same student would enter the workforce at 44,600 a year and only have to pay $111.50 per month (or 3 percent of his or her income) the initial year. By year number 10, the student would be paying 164.25 a month from a 65,750 dollar annual salary, and then from year 20 to year 24 she would be paying $217.25 a month off of an 86,900 dollar salary. In the end under the new proposal, the successful student graduating from the state’s best university would pay 49,988 dollars over 24 years to fund her education. Under the current borrowing system, the same student would pay about 45,240 dollars to cover loans, tuition and interest payments over the first ten years of her working career. So for successful students the new plan could cost more but those costs are deferred longer so that they are not forced to pay a high percentage of their income early in their career when they can ill afford to do so. In addition, if the student does not make it up to near the 85,000 a year mid-career mark, she ends up paying less.

For example, if our student diligently got her Bachelor’s degree and accumulated 25,000 in loan debt only to end up working a dead end ten dollar an hour job, under the current system she would be forced to pay the same 45,240 to cover loans, tuition and interest payments. In all likelihood, she would be unable to make those payments and then she would be charged even more additional costs through interest fees and late payment penalties. Under the new proposal, our struggling ten dollar an hour graduate would be compelled to pay only 52 dollars a month if she was working full-time, and over the course of 24 years she would pay in just 20,800 dollars or less than half what she would owe under the current student loan borrowing system.

Oregon’s proposed solution is a bold an innovative proposal that removes for-profit banks and lending agencies from the business of exploiting student debt for profit. The plan returns funding to the student’s themselves who pay for their own education, interest-free through a deferred cost, state run program, based on their ability to pay. The plan should be modeled by other states interested in saving higher education.

* {Author’s note: I have chosen to use the female pronoun since slightly more college students are female than male and for readability, to avoid the redundancy of repeatedly using both pronouns. For example s/he or  ”she or he”.}
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