The tycoon, the dictator's wife and the $2.5bn Guinea mining deal
FBI investigating Beny Steinmetz's company BSGR after lucrative deal to extract iron ore from Simandou mountain range
Ian Cobain, and Afua Hirsch in Conakry, Guinea
The Guardian, Tuesday 30 July 2013
In Conakry, a gleaming hotel looms over the filth of the city. Behind it a small coastal cove acts like a floating rubbish dump, collecting brightly coloured detritus from the murky Atlantic and distributing it in piles in stubbly black rock pools on the beach. A group of gangly young men sit by an abandoned fishing boat, looking despondently out to sea.
But in the gleaming, chandelier-lit hotel lobby it is easy to forget the scenery outside. Here, European, Australian and Brazilian mining executives, in jeans and suit jackets, sip rosé as they check emails. African businessmen huddle in groups, discussing shareholdings and the possibility of chartering planes to reach remote sites.
Businessmen think nothing of hiring private aircraft to reach Guinea's abundant reserves of diamonds, gold, uranium, aluminium ore and bauxite, because the returns are unparalleled. The country is an almost textbook example of what some refer to as the "paradox of plenty": it sits atop some of the most significant untapped mineral reserves in the world while its people live in squalor, without clean water, electricity, education or infrastructure.
In years past, during the dying days of Lansana Conté, the army general who ruled Guinea with an iron grip for almost all of hisa quarter-century tenure, an Israeli-French billionaire could be spotted similarly holding court at Conakry's once popular Novotel. Beny Steinmetz, one of the wealthiest men in the world, came here, sources say, with a clear mission. "Beny Steinmetz wanted to make sure he was the closest white man to President Conté," said one former presidential aide of the president.
The tycoon also wanted, and successfully obtained, the rights to mine Simandou – a mountain range in Guinea's remote south-east containing millions of tonnes of iron ore of the highest grade. According to some estimates, the ore from Simandou could generate around $140bn over the next 25 years, more than doubling the country's GDP.
Until now Guinea's riches have been exploited in a haphazard manner, one that benefited a tiny number of people in the country. Responsibility for this state of affairs lay with Conté, whose government was characterised not only by "state-sponsored abuses and repression", but by "an increasing criminalisation of the state" in which assets were seized and exploited by his close associates, according tosays a Human Rights Watch report.
Steinmetz is reckoned to have amassed a personal fortune of more than $4bn. Some say he has more than twice that. What appeared certain, however, was that when his firm, BSGR, secured the rights to extract half the Simandou iron ore, he was about to became a lot richer.
The Conté regime had originally granted the rights to the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto in the 90s. In 2008 those rights were stripped from Rio Tinto and then – in what is said to have been one of the dictator's final acts of government before his death – half were granted to BSGR.
The deal was notable not only because BSGR's expertise was in mining diamonds, rather than extracting and exporting iron ore, but because the glittering prize of Simandou had cost the company so little: rather than paying the government of Guinea for the concession, it had invested $165m in an exploration programme in the area.
This may not be unusual practice in the industry, and BSGR insists it made that investment "with no guarantee of success". But the region was known to be rich in iron ore, and the value of the concession became clear in April 2010 when BSGR announced it was selling 51% of its stake – effectively a quarter of the mountains' iron ore – to Vale, a Brazilian mining firm.
The two formed a joint-venture company, VBG, which would produce about 2m tonnes of ore a year, and which pledged to spend $1bn building a railway that would carry the ore to the coast.
The price paid by Vale: $2.5bn.
Even within the buccaneering world of African mining, the deal was regarded as stupendous. For an investment of just $165m, Steinmetz's BSGR had secured an asset worth around $5bn. One veteran of African mining was quoted in the financial press as saying that Steinmetz had hit the "jackpot". Many in the region were incredulous, however. The reaction of the African telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim was not untypical: "Are the Guineans who did that deal idiots or criminals?" he demanded to know. "Or both?"
The president's wives
During Conté's period in power mineral prospectors resorted increasingly to accessing the president through his four wives, bestowing lavish gifts and bribes to gain favours, according to others who were involved in business at the time.
"All of Lansana Conté's wives were involved in mining and business deals," said Abdoul Rahamane Diallo, Guinea programme co-ordinator for the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, and a commerce specialist at the US embassy during Conté's rule.
One wife in particular was favoured by the ageing president: his fourth and youngest bride, Mamadie Touré. "Mamadie was regarded as the most influential wife – she lived in the home town where Conté lived, she is young, she was close to him, she had real influence," said Diallo. "Whatever people wanted to bring into Guinea, whatever they wanted to take out, they went through one of his wives."
After the country's first fully democratic elections in December 2010 the new president, Alpha Condé, pledged an end to the years of corruption and misrule; he also promised to scrutinise closely some of the controversial deals his predecessors had struck with major mining companies.
Before long, the US justice department had joined Guinea's government in examining whether the most lucrative and controversial deal of all – the Simandou concession – had resulted in breaches of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and anti-money-laundering laws.
That, in turn, led to Steinmetz coming under investigation by the FBI. He firmly denies paying any bribes, or any other wrongdoing. So does BSGR, a Guernsey-registered company that he controls through family trusts. The allegations against him are "preposterous", Steinmetz insists. They are rooted, he says, in envy of his great success.
The people's outrage
The epic proportions of the Simandou story are not lost on ordinary Guineans, who have been following the saga with varying degrees of outrage.
"Yes, yes, yes, people are interested in what happened with BSGR, and they are mobilised," said Abdoulaye Bah, a journalist at the popular current affairs website Guinée News.
"They are speaking about it on the radio, reading about it in the papers. No one really understands what happened, but they are sure, with Simandou and all the other mining contracts, there was big corruption. Everyone knows that when the deal was done Conté was sick, and he wasn't in control."
At Sanfil, a neighbourhood in central Conakry where children sprawl across car bonnets and women busy themselves with the arduous task of washing and cooking despite infrequent water and electricity supplies, residents say they know of Simandou's fabled wealth.
"Simandou is a very important mine," said Ibrahima Barry, 62, a civil servant, bathed in yellow light from the plastic sheeting that acts as makeshift walls in a roadside tea and egg shack. "If they exploited it the way they are supposed to, then it could really help the country.
"But instead, these rich foreigners come, they buy Simandou, they do hardly any work, they sell it, and they pocket the profits. It's not right."
Further down the road in Sanfil, Rougui & Zee hairdressers is closed for Ramadan, but a group of women congregate in the owner's living room. They laugh when asked whether they are happy with the mining deals that have been done.
"Of course we are not happy – we do not profit at all," said Françoise Katty, a 22-year-old maths graduate who wears a black hijab and striped green and purple maxi dress, and who says it is almost impossible for graduates to find jobs in Guinea.
"We know about the diamonds and the iron, but we don't even know what they are doing to exploit it," said Adama Camara, 20, a student in political science at the university in Conakry. "It's not that we are against foreign companies coming here. It's a question of whether they come and go, or whether they want to stay and develop the country. Just look at the poverty and filth around you – just look!"
Guineans speak fluently and emphatically about the state of their country, and the French words they use to encapsulate their condition – la misère (misery), la galère (hard times), la pauvreté (poverty) – can almost take on the power of a motto in Conakry.
It is a far cry from the ideal – liberté, égalité, fraternité – that France claimed to impart to its former colonies. But even by the standards of other Francophone African countries – many of which are among the poorest in the world – Guinea is faring particularly badly, and many blame France for abandoning the country when its first post-independence leader, Ahmed Sékou Touré, essentially stuck two fingers up at the former colonial master, famously telling Charles de Gaulle in 1958: "We would rather have poverty in freedom than riches in slavery."
"France retaliated by cutting off all ties with Guinea, withdrawing all of their aid and technical assistance," said Diallo. "If you think of Ivory Coast, or Senegal, which have huge French presence and investment, it shows the relative lack of interest France has had in Guinea."
Ties were restored under Jacques Chirac, and France is now Guinea's biggest bilateral aid donor. But neither foreign aid nor government spending is reversing the fortunes of its 11 million people, an increasing number of whom are flocking to the capital in search not only of opportunities, but of food and the basic means of survival.
"We came here looking for money," said Kadiatou Diallo, 30, whose albino skin is wrinkled and covered with blistering moles, giving her the appearance of someone twice her age. Diallo stands on a thin wedge of pavement in front of Conakry's main Faisal mosque with her sister, Mariama Kesso Diallo, 28, and Mariama's eight-month old daughter, Assatou Baïlo Diallo – they sleep, eat, wash and beg here, hemmed in between large pools of stagnant rainwater as the rainy season pummels the town, incessant traffic and their makeshift tent – a single side of plastic sheeting that provides neither shelter nor privacy.
"Our parents are dead. We did not have the means to farm, we had nothing. We don't have enough to eat here either – passersby occasionally give us money or rice. That is more than we could hope for back home," she said. "We know there is great mineral wealth here. But the government refuses to share it with us to relieve our misery. It's not fair."
The Diallos, who travelled from Labé, around 280 miles north-east of Conakry, suffer from malaria, stomach problems and other health issues, like many who live and sleep in the grime of Conakrycapital's streets. It is Ramadan, and large gatherings of Guineans – 85% of whom are Muslim – create a space amid the rubbish and puddles to lay down their mats to pray beside the road.
People in Guinea's hinterland where most of its natural wealth is to be found are even poorer.
"People everywhere in Guinea are very poor. The further you travel inside the country, the worse the situation is," said Dr Faya Millimono, leader of a new opposition party, the Liberal Bloc, who comes from the forest region not far from Simandou. "The things they are asking for are so basic: schools for their children, hospitals for when they are sick." There are hospitals, but the way they are, you might go in with malaria, you will come out with two or three other diseases. Those in Conakry who are rich enough to leave fly to Dakar for medical treatment. Those in the interior, they die."
Condé has said repeatedly – echoing the mantra of other internationally popular African presidents in nearby countries such as Ghana and Liberia – that the key to lifting people such as the Diallo sisters out of poverty is a radical transformation of the country's mining sector, so that the proceeds can be used for the good of all Guineans.
His pledge comes as deals between mining multinationals and governments in the developing world come under scrutiny. The past year has seen the US, the European Union and the UK push for greater disclosure of payments made by mining and oil firms. In the runup to the G8 summit in Northern Ireland in June David Cameron wrote that the time had come to insist on greater transparency from resource-extracting companies, in order to "lift the veil of secrecy that too often lets corrupt corporations and officials in some countries run rings around the law".
While trying to rebuild his country, Condé has sought the advice of Tony Blair's African Governance Initiative, and of George Soros, the wealthy investor and philanthropist.
With western governments across the west all singing from the same hymn sheet and with Blair and Soros pledging public support, the new president clearly had some powerful allies.
Alpha Conde President Alpha Condé, in office since 2010, wants to transform the mining sector, so that the proceeds can be used for the good of all Guineans. Photograph: David Rose/Rex Features
Condé's government produced a new mining code, one that was intended to combat corruption and offer greater environmental protection. After several revisions, one investor in Conakry said the new code was "excellent".
With the help of Soros, Condé hired US lawyers and investigators with experience of looking into corrupt deals. These individuals assisted a committee of inquiry established in Conakry. By last January the FBI had been persuaded that it, too, should investigate the Simandou deal, to establish whether any US laws had been broken.
As the committee of inquiry's work progressed, reports emerged in the Financial Times and, subsequently, the New Yorker, of allegations that a number of luxury gifts and payments had been handed to relatives and associates of Lansana Conté before his death, as well as to senior figures in the short-lived military dictatorship that followed him. They included claims that a gold- and diamond-encrusted miniature Formula One car was given to a former government minister. BSGR responded to this allegation by saying that the car was worth no more than $2,000, and had been given to the mining ministry, not an individual, in a ceremony that was held in public.
The committee, its investigators and the FBI began to search for documentation that would shed light on the way in which the Simandou deal had been sealed.
They were not the only people hunting down documents.
An arrest in the US
In March an associate of Steinmetz, French national Frederic Cilins, 50, contacted Conté's widow, Mamadie Touré, at her home in Jacksonville, Florida. What Cilins did not know was that Touré had already been approached by the FBI, and had agreed to co-operate with its investigation. The phone call was being recorded, and when Touré met Cilins at a cafe at Jacksonville airport on three subsequent occasions, she was carrying a wire. After the final meeting, just as he was about to board a flight to Miami, Cilins was arrested. He is now awaiting trial.
When Cilins appeared in court for a preliminary hearing, it became clear that the FBI was attempting to discover whether BSGR had paid bribes to officials in Guinea in order to secure the rights to Simandou's riches. The US justice department accused Cilins of attempting to obstruct that inquiry by disposing of some of the evidence.
According to evidence submitted at a preliminary hearing, he was captured on tape offering Touré a substantial bribe to destroy a number of documents. "We need to urgently, urgently, urgently destroy all of this," he is alleged to have said.
Cilins denies he was trying to pervert the course of justice – an offence that carries sentence of up to 20 years in jail. He insists he was merely attempting to destroy forged documents that were being used in an attempt to blackmail him and BSGR.
On hearing of his arrest BSGR sought to play down any connections between the company and Cilins. Ian Middleton, Steinmetz's spokesman at Powerscourt, a London PR firm, said: "Cilins is not an agent for Steinmetz's company." Subsequently, however, Powerscourt conceded that Cilins had previously been engaged by BSGR in Guinea.
In court the prosecution alleged that Steinmetz and Cilins are close friends: the latter's attorney says she does not know whether this is true.
After Cilins's first court appearance, the FBI lodged a formal complaint with the court that set out the reasons for his arrest. This document makes clear that another individual was also under investigation. It describes one phone conversation during which Touré is alleged to have asked Cilins whether an individual identified as "CC-1" had agreed to the payment she was to receive. Cilins is alleged to have replied: "Of course."
Earlier tIn the past month both the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonot and the New Yorker reported that they believed CC-1 – or co-conspirator number one – to be Beny Steinmetz. A number of individuals who are familiar with the investigation have told the Guardian that this is correct.
Furthermore, the Guardian has seen documentation that shows that by the time Cilins was arrested the FBI was already investigating Steinmetz in an attempt to establish whether he played any role in the alleged wrongdoing.
Asked about this aspect of its investigation, the US justice department said: "The department declines comment."
Steinmetz and BSGR both vigorously deny paying any bribes and any other wrongdoing. In an interview with Yedioth Aharonot in June, he dismissed the accusations that he faces as "preposterous rumours", prompted by envy. "There are no skeletons in the closet," he said. "The company pays nothing to anyone."
Steinmetz has recently been spending time in Israel. He also holds French citizenship, and has spent time recently on the Côte d'Azur. Asked about the US investigation and Steinmetz's whereabouts, Middleton, his spokesman at Powerscourt, responded by threatening the Guardian with a libel action. "Your line of questioning risks defaming Mr Steinmetz and may give rise to legal action," he said. A few hours later the Guardian received a warning letter from Mishcon de Reya, one of the London law firms that represents Steinmetz.
Middleton also issued a statement saying: "We have no reason to believe that Mr Steinmetz is under investigation in the US or elsewhere. Mr Steinmetz is a hugely respected businessman who has operated in dozens of countries for 35 years and has faced no evidenced allegations anywhere." A subsequent statement said: "He has not been approached by the authorities and he denies any knowledge of wrongdoing."
Middleton added that the Guardian's questions about the US investigation were the direct result of what he described as a "desperate smear campaign" against Steinmetz, one that he said was being led by Condé in an attempt to divert attention from domestic political problems. This is a claim the Guinean president denies.
Earlier this month Cilins's attempt to obtain bail was rejected, and his trial has been fixed for December.
BSGR's Guinea director, Asher Avidan, has been banned from entering Guinea, and two of the firm's local managers – Sory Touré and Issaga Bangourain – have been arrested and are being detained in its central prison. Momo Sacko, one of four Guinean and two French lawyers representing the pair, said their incarceration was "disturbing" and a violation of their rights and Guinea's constitution.
Powerscourt issued a statement on behalf of BSGR complaining that the pair had been "illegally detained" by what it described as an "illegitimate government", and that BSGR had also been targeted as part of a blackmail plot.
But Guinea's government is not backing down. It is devoting what insiders say are "substantial resources" to investigating the BSGR contract – an investigation one government source said was necessarily shrouded in secrecy.
"They are investigating people in the government – they didn't even know that they were involved until they started investigating," said one source, who did not want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the inquiry. "So [the investigating committee] has to proceed carefully."
"Of course the progress of this case is important to the nation," said Kerfalla Yansané, Guinea's finance minister – an economist who responded to the call to return to Guinea from Congo, where he worked as a World Bank adviser, "out of duty", he said, "because my country needed me".
"When you are in a country like Guinea where you are sitting on big mining potential, but at the same time you are still poor, you don't have infrastructure, there is no water, electricity, good schools or hospitals, then you rightly should be concerned with why your wealth is being hijacked by a few people," Yansané added.
"The more people are getting from our mining sector, the less I'm getting for our budget."
Across town from the ministry of finance, Nava Touré has the physical presence of a man swamped. He met the Guardian at 9pm in a harshly lit office, beset, ironically, as it is the HQ of the national electricity firm, which he runs, with power cuts..
Touré heads the technical review committee, charged by the government with scrutinising mining contracts awarded under previous governments. He says the BSGR case has been a priority from the start.
"We have looked at all the mining contracts and title issues – 18 in total," he said. "BSGR really stands out. They got an almost free title, saying they would spend $150m, then they made a deal of $2.5bn. The government didn't gain anything from that. This is very frustrating."
BSGR, Touré said, will soon be summoned to appear at an oral hearing before the committee because of an alleged failure to answer properly a series of written questions to the latter's satisfaction.
Touré expressed his frustration at what he said was BSGR's repeated lack of co-operation with the process.
"I would not say BSGR has been co-operative, they have been obstructive at every stage," said Touré. "Now they have decided to instruct lawyers to contest the legality of the review committee. They have paid for legal advice from French specialists on constitutional law to try to prove that the whole process is illegal.
"The objective of the committee is to help the government manage the mining sector, to get a better outcome from our natural resources. It is not against Mr Steinmetz personally or any specific company. We have to start somewhere; the first case was BSGR."
After BSGR's spokesperson was asked to respond to Touré's comments, the Guardian received a second letter from Steinmetz's lawyers threatening a libel action. It is understood that the position of BSGR and Steinmetz is that the allegations of corruption are baseless and this will be borne out when BSGR and Steinmetz are cleared of any wrongdoing.
The Simandou project has stalled. At the offices of VSG – the joint venture formed between Vale and BSGR – there was little activity but heavy security. The offices lie in central Conakry at the Cité Chemin de Fer, a complex of dozens of high-rise buildings tiled pink and white, flanked by rows of 4x4s and drivers reclining lackadaisically on staircases, whiling away the hours of the Muslim fasting season Ramadan until nightfall, when they could break their fast with dates and tea.
The Guardian was not invited inside the VSG office, and the director declined to answer questions. A spokeswoman for Vale said it was deeply concerned by the allegations against its joint-venture partner. "Vale is monitoring the case and is at the full disposal of the US government to co-operate with the investigations," she said. There were a handful of staff milling around, the walls decorated with at least half a dozen "no guns allowed" signs, and guarded by security company G4S.
Vale has paid $500m of the sum it had agreed to give to BSGR, and says it will hand over the outstanding $2bn only when the work progresses.
Where the US and Guinean investigation will lead is unclear. Whether Steinmetz and his joint venture will ever be able to exploit Simandou's vast riches remains equally uncertain. For the time being, one of the world's richest men must wait to discover whether he is to become even more fabulously wealthy.
In Conakry, events at the FBI and in Guinea's own criminal investigation team are being closely followed by the businessmen who congregate in the city's air-conditioned hotel lobbies.
"This inquiry is very worrying for those of us who have been in the mining industry for a long time," said the source close to former president Conté. "I worry that they are looking for simplistic outcomes – black and white. Will they be brave enough to say that there is an overlap? The directors that have been running the mining industry are close friends with the people who are still the decision makers in this country to this day."
The source added: "Things are changing here, and it is good for the country. But it is still possible to pay for a mining concession. These days you just have to be a lot more careful about how you do it."
Saudi court sentences woman’s rights activist to 7 years and 600 lashes
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, July 29, 2013 16:18 EDT
A Saudi court sentenced on Monday a rights activist to seven years in jail and 600 lashes for setting up a “liberal” network and alleged insults to Islam, activists said.
“Raef Badawi has been sentenced to seven years in jail and 600 lashes,” lawyer Waleed Abualkhair wrote on his Twitter account, adding that the judge ordered the closure of the website of the Saudi Liberal Network.
He said Badawi, a co-founder of the Saudi Liberal Network, was charged with criticising the religious police, as well as calling for “religious liberalisation.”
A judge had referred Badawi in December to a higher court for alleged apostasy, a charge that could lead to the death penalty in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The judge said at the time that his lower court was not qualified to deal with the case.
But the charge of apostasy was dropped on Monday, activists said.
Badawi, 35, was arrested in June last year in the Red Sea city of Jeddah for unknown reasons.
The network that he co-founded with female rights activist Suad al-Shammari, had announced May 7, 2012 a “day of liberalism” in the Muslim kingdom, calling for an end to the influence of religion on public life in Saudi Arabia.
Sharia Islamic law strictly applied in Saudi Arabia stipulates death as a punishment for apostasy, but defendants are usually given the chance to repent and escape being beheaded.
Saudi blogger Hamza Kashgari was deported in February last year from Malaysia to the kingdom and is being held in jail to face blasphemy charges over Twitter comments deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammed.
Kashgari’s comments triggered a wave of calls to execute him, although he later said he repented.
Welcome to Kleinfontein, lingering outpost of apartheid South Africa
Aspiring Afrikaner-only enclaves highlight how race still shapes the nation's landscape
Sudarsan Raghavan for the Washington Post
Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 30 July 2013 10.39 BST
At the entrance to the rural settlement of Kleinfontein is a well-kept shrine to the primary architect of apartheid. Nearby rests an old wheelbarrow, a symbol of the white Afrikaners who once ruled the country. Inside the coffee shop, at the bank, everywhere, there are only white faces. A white security guard, wearing grey camouflage, checks cars at a gate on the main road. Race is a key factor for entry. No blacks are allowed to buy or rent houses.
Two decades after the end of apartheid, a system of brutally enforced segregation, this hamlet exemplifies the deep racial divides that still preoccupy South Africa. The existence of Kleinfontein and places like it has set off a debate about the type of country that South Africa should be today.
As Nelson Mandela, the country's first black president, battles a serious lung infection, many South Africans are examining whether their nation has lived up to his vision of equality, engaging in conversations about race, politics and the economy. That has drawn new attention to all-white communities and the festering legacy of apartheid.
To blacks, Kleinfontein is a remnant of a painful past, a gated community of whites determined to perpetuate racist, apartheid-era practices. The several hundred whites who live there say they need to safeguard their Dutch-based Afrikaner culture and language and seek refuge from affirmative action policies and high crime rates that they blame on blacks. They insist that they are not racist, noting that they don't welcome Jews, Catholics or any English speakers, either.
Under apartheid, the white Afrikaner-led government forced blacks to live in homelands to separate the races. Today, the residents of Kleinfontein say the creation of Afrikaner homelands is the best way for South Africa to progress under the black-led government of the ruling African National Congress party.
"I am here because outside there's no place any more for us. We don't feel welcome," said Dries Oncke, 57, a resident. "That's why we start places like this and build them up. We know as Afrikaners we can be safe here. We have a place where we can be ourselves."
There are three criteria for living in Kleinfontein: residents must speak the Afrikaans language, be Protestant Christians and be descendants of the Voortrekkers, the Dutch settlers who left the British Cape Colony in the early 1800s and migrated to the interior of what is now South Africa. They came to be known as Afrikaners.
The tension over Kleinfontein and other aspiring whites-only enclaves in a country that is nearly 80% black also reflects a broader societal conflict pitting individual rights against a community's rights. South Africa's constitution gives communities the right of cultural self-determination but also enshrines basic human rights that outlaw exclusionary practices.
"As Afrikaners, as a cultural group, we are basically a white people, a Caucasian people because of our history," said Marisa Haasbroek, a spokeswomen for the co-operative that runs the settlement. "Culturally, we are different from other people in this country, and we just want to protect our identity, and that includes language."
Local black leaders say Kleinfontein must be dismantled. Kgosientso Ramokgopa, the executive mayor of Tshwane, a municipality that includes Pretoria, the country's administrative capital, Kleinfontein and other surrounding areas, said there are "remnants of the bigger population who still think apartheid was the best system of governance, separate development premised on race".
"These are people who are still living in the past," he said, referring to the residents of Kleinfontein. "It's about time they begin to embrace the new South Africa."
Yet he and other ANC leaders have shied away from bulldozing the settlement, underscoring how race still shapes the nation's political landscape. The mixed-income community of homes, shacks and tents is on 715 hectares of private land zoned only for farming, Ramokgopa said. But he added that the government needs to avoid antagonising South Africa's white minority, which still largely controls the economy. Pretoria, just north of Kleinfontein, has the highest population of Afrikaners in the country. Being a seat of government under both black and white rule, racial tensions are more pronounced there.
"We don't want a situation where we are going to polarise the city," Ramokgopa said.
A sticker of an old South African flag is plastered on the window of the coffee shop in Kleinfontein. It is from the Transvaal Republic, a country ruled by the Boers, commonly referred to as the ancestors of the Afrikaners, during the 19th century that formed part of what is now South Africa. The flag was later used by Boer rebels seeking to create their own republic at the start of the first world war and remains a symbol of Afrikaner nationalism.
Outside the coffee shop, the stone bust of former South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, who is widely considered the father of apartheid and was assassinated in 1966, sits in a manicured patch of shrubs and stone ringed by a fence. It was moved from a nearby town whose residents no longer wanted to be reminded of the past.
The most well-known whites-only settlement is Orania, a remote town in the Northern Cape province where Afrikaners have their own flag and currency. It was formed a few months after the end of apartheid in the early 1990s. In 1995, as president, Mandela visited Verwoerd's widow, Betsie, in Orania as a gesture of racial reconciliation.
In 1992, shortly after Orania was formed, a group of 50 Afrikaners bought land that included the site of a battle between Boers and British and commonwealth troops in the early 20th century. But unlike Orania, Kleinfontein, which means "little fountain" in Afrikaans, stayed under the radar until recently, when it petitioned the government to be recognised as a town with the right to run its own affairs.
A few months ago, local officials learned that Kleinfontein's guards and residents had prevented black police officers from entering the settlement, Ramokgopa said. In May, the Democratic Alliance, South Africa's main opposition party, staged a protest outside Kleinfontein. Some of the demonstrators carried signs in Afrikaans that read "One nation. One future."
Kleinfontein has survived largely without the help of the government. It has its own water pumps and a natural reservoir. The community buys electricity from the government and distributes it to residents, who have built their own homes and roads. There's a shopping centre, a bank, a school, a retirement centre and small businesses that provide internet and other services. Only Afrikaners work in these places.
All signs in the settlement are written in Afrikaans. All subjects in schools are taught in Afrikaans. Historically important days are celebrated with zest, such as the Battle of Blood River, when a small force of Voortrekkers defeated a much larger Zulu force on 16 December 1838.
Kleinfontein's residents include professors, engineers and other middle-class professionals, who pay fees to the co-operative board for use of the water and electricity. A sizable population of poor Afrikaners live in tents, shacks and motor homes. Many blame the black-led government for their inability to find work, saying they have lost jobs because they are white.
Dries Oncke and his wife, Annatjie, arrived here eight years ago after burglars broke into their home in a nearby town. "It was black persons," said Annatjie, 49, who works as a maid and nanny. In June, their daughter arrived in Kleinfontein after a black man followed her as she took her granddaughter to school, Annatjie said.
"We're not racist," she said. "We speak nicely to them, and they speak to us. Racist means you do not do business with them, you don't greet them. We are here for our culture, for our safety, for our people. Kids can walk around here freely. They do not have to worry about rape or being attacked."
Andrew Shabalala tried to buy a house in Kleinfontein in May. The 50-year-old businessman and real estate speculator bid on a foreclosed property at an auction in a nearby town but later learned that the property was in an area where only whites could buy. Shabalala is black.
Shabalala declined to be interviewed for this article, but he told South Africa's Sunday World newspaper that he wanted to move to Kleinfontein to "teach them a lesson". "We can't sit back and say the government must do something about this place. It's for us to do something," he told the newspaper.
But before he even tried to visit the property, Kleinfontein's co-operative board used a clause in the bylaws that allowed its bank to make a counteroffer within 21 days, preventing Shababala from buying.
"He's not going to be happy in this community," Haasbroek said, adding that Shabalala's comment "just makes us feel more threatened and more closed".
The nation's constitutional court is expected to decide whether the settlement can survive in its current form, a ruling that could affect the legality of other whites-only settlements.
"There's a good chance there are more Kleinfonteins out there," Ramokgopa said. "The sooner you confront it, the better it is for South Africa."
This story appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from the Washington Post
July 29, 2013
Navy Officer’s Killing Escalates Fight for Mexican State
By DAMIEN CAVE and KARLA ZABLUDOVSKY
MEXICO CITY — Two months after Mexico’s president sent troops to the embattled state of Michoacán, gunmen ambushed and killed one of the Mexican Navy’s most senior officers on Sunday, raising the stakes in a battle for control of an area long considered a volcano of rebellion and violence.
The president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and Jesús Murillo Karam, the attorney general, both pledged on Monday to increase attention in the area where last week armed gangs mounted at least seven separate attacks on the federal authorities, killing four officers in gun battles that also left about 20 gunmen dead.
It was not clear whether Sunday’s attack was a planned assassination. Vice Adm. Carlos Miguel Salazar was killed while traveling with his wife and a handful of guards, including one who was also killed, in a white S.U.V. without military insignia.
But according to experts, his killing is the latest potent example of Michoacán’s unyielding challenge. Mountainous, fertile and never fully controlled by the Aztecs or the Spaniards, it is now an increasingly lawless state where rival gangs are deeply embedded in rural areas, brazen and often tied to armed vigilante groups that have expanded as a challenge to official authority.
“What it reflects in a broader sense is the growing complexity of Mexico’s criminal underworld,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and a former Mexican intelligence officer. Whereas spasms of violence in Mexico used to be caused by a few big drug organizations fighting for smuggling routes, now, especially in Michoacán, the motives and number of players have metastasized, he said: “What you have are more groups, more local in their scope.”
For example, much of the violence that first led the government to send in federal troops had nothing to do with drugs. The Knights Templar, an offshoot of the drug organization La Familia, had reportedly been setting fire to sawmills and killing business owners and avocado farmers who had resisted paying protection money.
The Knights’ demands, meted out by gunmen in trucks painted with red crosses that reflected the group’s religious self-image, resulted in an expansion of citizen-led security forces. Some were legitimate, residents and experts said, but others received support from a rival to the Knights known as the Nueva Generación or were suspected Knights themselves.
At issue for all was who would control the state’s resources — timber, avocados, limes, drugs, a long stretch of Pacific Coast and the roads leading to larger markets, like Mexico City, which is about three hours from the state capital, Morelia.
Some security experts say Mr. Peña Nieto underestimated the challenge Michoacán would pose. Mr. Hope said the federal government had not done enough to strengthen the local authorities, especially as a new governor arrived.
Jorge Chabat, a drug and security expert at CIDE, a Mexico City research group, said the federal government did not send in the troops that were needed to control the area in May.
“The operation was not sufficient, and it was not sufficient because the Knights Templar have much more power than what Peña Nieto’s government had calculated,” Mr. Chabat said.
During his campaign last year, Mr. Peña Nieto criticized his predecessor’s use of the military to fight crime. But after the death of Admiral Salazar, many experts predicted that Mr. Peña Nieto would have to double-down on the same policy.
The terrain and culture of the area make the task especially difficult. With lush land for marijuana growing and a major port, Michoacán has been a precious smuggling hub for years. Its winding roads through thick forests and steep mountains favor local knowledge over military might, while the area’s small towns have long maintained a distrust of government that makes it easier for criminals to claim they are trying to protect their community from outsiders.
The government has yet to explain how it will meet the challenge. On Monday, the attorney general announced that three suspects with the Knights Templar had been arrested and had confessed to being involved in the killing of the vice admiral. He attributed their capture to an alert system that was part of the government’s “distinct strategy for fighting delinquency.”
But Homero Aridjis, a poet and former Mexican diplomat from Michoacán, said the fog of recent violence had made it only harder for the government, and easier for criminals, who still have little trouble hiding in local communities where neighbors and relatives protect their own.
“They are very intertwined with the population,” Mr. Aridjis said. “It’s like the Vietcong. It’s very hard to know who is a narco or who is a farmer.”
Indeed, in a sign of the area’s dizzying uncertainty, the authorities said Admiral Salazar ended up on the dirt road where he was killed only because he was trying to avoid a protest march on the highway. Mexican officials said it was unclear whether those blocking the road wanted more security support from the government or less, whether they were led by frustrated citizens wanting peace or by locals wanting freedom to do as they pleased.
Cuba looks to medical tourism to entice international visitors
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, July 30, 2013 7:28 EDT
Football legend Diego Maradona blazed a path for Cuba to become a medical tourism destination when he traveled to the island for drug addiction treatment in 2000.
Since then, thousands of other famous and not-so-famous faces have traveled here for help, and the government wants to build on that success.
Drug rehab, post-accident motor skills rehabilitation, treatment for eye diseases and plastic surgery — foreign patients can get all of these services and more in Cuba, and at competitive prices.
“I’ve improved tremendously. Now I can move my arms and my legs, and I can almost sit down by myself,” said Venezuelan Cruz Ramos, who arrived in Cuba two months ago, so injured after a car accident that he could only move his eyes.
In downtown Havana, at a clinic that specializes in eye procedures, fellow Venezuelan Carlos Armando Montana gushes about the services.
“Medical attention here is excellent, as much for the quality of the doctors as for the atmosphere and the facilities,” said Montana, 24, who underwent a retina transplant after losing the use of his left eye in a fireworks accident.
Cuba has long been known for producing quality doctors and providing excellent medical services, and as the communist government of President Raul Castro seeks to revive the island’s moribund economy, it is turning to medical tourism as a revenue generator.
Cuba’s main source of foreign income is the sale of medical services to other countries — legions of doctors and nurses, who are public employees, travel abroad to work following an agreement with the host country.
While this generates billions of dollars a year, the related field of medical tourism is still in its infancy.
Servimed, a government-owned for-profit medical services company that caters to foreigners, has website pages in Spanish, French and English, the last two aimed mostly at Canadians.
“Cuba is a poor country which has placed its priorities in the right places, which is to say, in education and health services,” reads the site.
“We offer the opportunity to be seen and treated by qualified doctors without the delays that one would encounter while trying to visit a doctor in Canada.”
Cuba welcomed 2.8 million tourists in 2012, according to official figures. There are no figures however on how many of those foreigners came specifically for medical treatment.
“Cuba has the best doctors in the world,” said Maradona after being treated for drug addiction.
The Argentine football legend, who befriended Fidel Castro, was so enamored with the island that he has a tattoo of Che Guevara on his right shoulder and an image of Fidel tattooed on his left ankle.
African and Latin American leaders have also sought medical attention in Cuba, including Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and — most notably — the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
At Havana’s Cira Garcia Clinic, reserved for foreigners, breast augmentation surgery costs $1,248 (940 euros), compared to around $6,000 in the United States, $4,350 in Britain and $2,500 in Mexico, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
“In this clinic we handle all types of medical specialties,” said deputy director Maria Antonieta Gonzalez. And if an in-house expert is unavailable, one can be borrowed from another hospital, she said.
There are plenty to choose from: Cuba has the highest number of doctors per residents in the world — one per 148 inhabitants, according to the World Health Organization.
In other countries, “what makes procedures expensive are the doctors, but in Cuba, they are paid like everyone else,” Gonzalez said.
What adds to the cost however is the difficulty in obtaining medical supplies, which cannot be bought in the nearby United States due to a trade embargo in place for a half-century, Gonzalez said.
On any given day there are 2,000 patients at the Cira Garcia from around the world. Most come from Latin America, but there are also patients from places like Angola, Canada, Spain, and even Cuban-Americans from the US.
Other Havana hospitals, like the Hermanos Ameijeiras and the Gonzalez Coro, have opened “international rooms” to cash in on the influx of foreigners.
Hotels are getting into the business too, with places like El Viejo y el Mar (The Old Man and the Sea), Triton and Neptuno catering to medical tourists.
Aside from foreigners who pay in much-needed hard currency, thousands of Venezuelans travel to Cuba each year for free medical treatment, benefitting from an agreement that Chavez signed with Fidel Castro, then president, in 2000.
There are 43 health centers in Cuba that cater to Venezuelans, with the government in Caracas picking up the tab.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
07/29/2013 02:27 PM
Back from the Dead: Resuscitation Expert Says End Is Reversible
Raising the dead may soon become medical reality. According to critical care physician Sam Parnia, modern resuscitation science will soon allow doctors to reanimate people up to 24 hours after their death.
At some point, everyone's heart will stop. For most, this is when they begin to die. Doctors succeed in very few cases at bringing the clinically dead back to life. However, more patients could be saved if medical professionals put existing knowledge about the treatment of cardiac arrest to better use, argues critical care physician Sam Parnia, 41, who is leading a revival of research in this field at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York.
When Parnia was a student some 20 years ago, a patient he knew well died under his care. It was a key moment for the young doctor, who has since sought to understand and fight the process of death.
SPIEGEL: Dr. Parnia, in your new book on resuscitation science, "Erasing Death," you state: "We may soon be rescuing people from death's clutches hours, or even longer, after they have actually died." That sounds a lot like resurrection. Is this a serious claim?
Parnia: In the past decade we have seen tremendous progress. With today's medicine, we can bring people back to life up to one, maybe two hours, sometimes even longer, after their heart stopped beating and they have thus died by circulatory failure. In the future, we will likely get better at reversing death. We may have injectable drugs that slow the process of cell death in the brain and other organs. It is possible that in 20 years, we may be able to restore people to life 12 hours or maybe even 24 hours after they have died. You could call that resurrection, if you will. But I still call it resuscitation science.
SPIEGEL: With all due respect, this discipline has a dismal record. Survival rates for out-of-hospital cardiac arrests continue to be poor and have barely improved from what they were 25 years ago.
Parnia: Sadly, that's correct. There is no generally enforced standard of care. In some communities in the United States, survival rates after resuscitation are as low as close to 0 percent. In general, we are better at rescuing people who suffer cardiac arrest in hospitals. But even in this group the average now in the US is 18 percent. The United Kingdom has 16 percent and I assume German hospitals have a similar rate.
SPIEGEL: That's shockingly bad.
Parnia: Here in Stony Brook we had a 21 percent survival rate when I first arrived. Now, two years later, we are at 33 percent. In the first quarter of this year, our latest available data shows that we reached 38 percent, which likely puts us among the top hospitals in the US. Most, but not all of our patients, get discharged with no neurological damage whatsoever.
SPIEGEL: Are you some sort of a magician?
Parnia: Not at all. We work strictly according to the recommendations of ILCOR, the International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation. We have taken some things even a bit further. ILCOR publishes their consensus findings every five years, most recently 2010. But the problem is: Most hospitals have not fully implemented all their findings.
SPIEGEL: Why not?
Parnia. That's exactly why I have written this book. I want to shine a light on the fact that resuscitation science has advanced tremendously over the last 20 years, yet the implementation of this knowledge remains very poor. This is costing us many lives every year.
SPIEGEL: Is this due to a lack of understanding on the part of doctors?
Parnia: Apparently. A recent study found that the optimal length of resuscitation to yield higher survival is at least 40 minutes. Yet most doctors will stop within 20 minutes. They don't try as hard because they wrongly think the brain will be damaged by then or that it will be pointless to continue.
SPIEGEL: Why are the findings of such studies not put into practice?
Parnia: Resuscitation has gone from something every doctor does every now and then to a highly specialized and complicated field, much like cardiology. Yet that is not generally recognized. As long as hospitals don't require their resuscitation doctors to implement all the nuances required to save brains and lives after cardiac arrest through fully trained specialists, survival rates in general will not improve. I think we need more regulation by state or medical authorities. That's the only way to reach higher standards. We can't go on with a situation where hospital or individual physicians decide for themselves what part of the guidelines they implement or not.
SPIEGEL: Basic first aid teaches us that the brain is very fragile. Three to five minutes after the heart stops, the brain incurs permanent damage due to lack of oxygen.
Parnia: This is a widely-held misconception, even among doctors. It's mostly based on research done in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. In those days, doctors concluded that brain cell death was inevitable in such a short time. Now we know that if treatment is correct, it really can take hours for brain cells to die. And only if all the treatments that we know today are not implemented, the damage can become apparent after as little as five minutes without blood flow. Part of the problem is that we all live in the past -- patients, doctors, nurses and legislatures. We have preconceived ideas about death. For thousands of years, death was a clear, precise moment: The heart stopped beating, and that was it. Nothing could be done from then on. You either were alive or not. But since the arrival of CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) more than 50 years ago, we know that this view is no longer correct. Death is not a fixed moment anymore. From a cellular perspective, it is a process that proceeds at various speeds in the different tissues of the body after the heart stops.
SPIEGEL: And that process is, in your words, fully reversible?
Parnia: Of course, it is of paramount importance to protect the brain. CPR as early as possible after cardiac arrest is essential. But the really dangerous period for brain is only after you restart the heart and get the person back to life. It is then that you start getting major brain damage. One of the reasons for this is that when you restart blood flow to the brain, which hasn't seen any blood for a while, the oxygen itself becomes toxic. The brain can become very swollen and inflamed and at the same time, blood flow to the brain drops to dangerously low levels. The brain also becomes perilously starved of oxygen and nutrients. Consequently, most brain damage after resuscitation occurs not within the first few minutes of death, but in the hours up to the first 72 hours after resuscitation. But with proper post resuscitation care, we can minimize that.
SPIEGEL: What exactly happens once the heart stops?
Parnia: A person immediately loses consciousness, breathing stops as well, and within seconds, the brain ceases working, even at the very basic level of the brain stem. The pupils become fixed and dilated. The EEG shows a flatline. This person is now dead, yet in what we may call the early stages of death. He is a corpse, and in a hospital setting might now be certified dead and sent to the mortuary.
Parnia: That depends on what caused the person to die, what caused his cardiac arrest.
SPIEGEL: What can you do to potentially bring him back to life?
Parnia: It is a chain of interventions, and everything we do counts. One error somewhere along the line, and he will stay dead or live with brain damage. We start with chest compressions as early as possible, first by hand, then by a machine, because in general human beings cannot administer this to the required standards for more that just a few minutes. At the same time we provide breaths via an ambu bag -- not more than 8 breaths per minute. Even this simple exercise is often done wrong in many cases. Once you pump too much air into the body, it squeezes the heart, and it won't start again. This itself can kill people -- or in this case, keep them dead.
SPIEGEL: What are some of the newer interventions that you'd recommend?
Parnia: We cool the body down, from 37 degrees to somewhere between 32 and 34 degrees. I usually go to 32 degrees. Patients stay at this temperature for 24 hours or so. Cooling has a lot of positive effects. It reduces the amount of oxygen the brain needs, it prevents dangerous chemicals like hydrogen peroxyde from forming and it slows down the process of cell death. Even this really critical part of resuscitation is not done routinely, not even in places where its benefits are known, including Germany. At times it has been reported to be used by less than 50-60 percent of hospitals.
SPIEGEL: How do you cool a body?
Parnia: We use pads that get attached to the thighs and the upper body. In a matter of hours, the cooling machine brings the body temperature down to the desired level. But you could also do this at home, if you found someone there in cardiac arrest. Call an ambulance, administer CPR and place a bag of frozen peas or other frozen vegetables on the patient. It helps to protect the brain.
SPIEGEL: What do you do that is not regularly done?
Parnia: Among other things, we check continuously how much blood and oxygen gets to the brain. If we have at least 80 percent of normal levels, the person tends to do better. If his condition doesn't improve, we follow steps that includes the use of an automatic machine to give compressions and breathing and eventually put him on ECMO. These are two catheters, one at the groin, one at the neck. It is basically a shortcut for the heart: The blood gets oxygenated outside of the body and pumped back in. It is more widely used in Japan and South Korea, and doctors there have found that their survival rates have increased when ECMO is used with the right patients. But most ICUs in the world still don't use it.
A New Understanding of Human Consciousness
SPIEGEL: If it's so easy, why don't doctors all over the world just follow suit? Are they ill-informed?
Parnia: No, it's not that they are ill-informed. The reality is that preserving the brain requires brain experts with specialization in this field, as it is very complicated. Saving lives also requires experts in ventilator management, together with cardiac experts. No physician can be expected to be a specialist in three different areas of medicine so each does the best they can from their own perspective. With such a complicated condition the solution is to have national and professional responsible bodies to enforce and train specialists to deal with resuscitation based on 21st century standards and not 20th century ones. Rightly used, reanimation could play a major role in the therapy for many life threatening conditions and thousands more will be saved.
SPIEGEL: In what way, exactly?
Parnia: In my view, young, otherwise healthy people shouldn't die from heart attacks anymore. Remember James Gandolfini, the actor from "The Sopranos" who died last month at age 51 in Rome? I believe if he died here, he could still be alive. We'd cool him down, put him on ECMO, so oxygen gets to the tissues and prevents them from dying. Clinically dead, he could then be cared for by the cardiologist. He would make an angiogram, find the clot, take it out, put in a stent and we would restart the heart.
SPIEGEL: Is this truly a realistic scenario?
Parnia: Of course we can't rescue everybody, and many people with heart attacks have other major problems. But I will say that if all the latest medical technologies and training had been implemented, which clearly hasn't been done, then in principle the only people who should die and stay dead are those that have an underlying condition that is untreatable. A heart attack is treatable. Blood loss as well. A terminal cancer isn't, neither are many infections with multiresistant pathogens. In these cases, even if we'd restart the heart, it would stop again and again.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't the idea of "bringing people back" imply that they weren't really dead in the first place?
Parnia: I think the state they are in corresponds to the cultural concept we all have of death. We encounter it in movies and books all the time. That is my basic message: The death we commonly perceive today in 2013 is a death that can be reversed.
SPIEGEL: But not real brain death.
Parnia: No. When brain cells have decayed after a number of hours, no intervention, neither now nor in a 1000 years, will bring them back. That death is final. But up to that point, there is a gray zone. Today, we simply do not know when someone transitions from potentially reversible to irreversible. Tests used today to diagnose brain death are tests of brain stem function -- not of actual cell death.
SPIEGEL: What does this finding mean for the diagnosis of brain death as a prerequisite for organ donation?
Parnia: Nobody knows exactly how long we should wait to be absolutely certain the brain has died after it stops functioning. That's why the criteria for the diagnosis of brain death vary from country to country and, in the US, even from state to state. There are many different recommendations regarding the tests and how long physicians should wait before repeating them. But clearly: The longer the brain doesn't function, the more likely it is that the brain has truly died. Technically speaking, the brain may then not be really dead yet, as you could take individual cells out of the brain and still grow them in a lab. But it is safe to consider a person at this stage irreversibly dead for the purpose of organ removal.
SPIEGEL: As a researcher, you not only work on resuscitation but also on what people experience during the process. But these people are clinically dead. They don't experience anything.
Parnia: At least, according to our perception of consciousness. And yet, over the last 50 years since the arrival of CPR, literally millions of people have gone beyond the threshold of death and come back. Many of them tell us incredible stories of their experiences. I myself have studied more than 500 people with NDEs (Near Death Experiences).
SPIEGEL: What exactly do they tell you?
Parnia: Typically, they report being very peaceful. Some see a bright light, others feel the presence of a warm, loving, compassionate being. Many describe having a review of their lives, from childhood up to that point. Others tell of encounters with family members who have died. Others report out-of-body experiences. They feel they witnessed the scene of their resuscitation from a position near the ceiling of the room. Some even correctly describe conversations people had, clothes people wore, events that went on 10 or 20 minutes into resuscitation. One of the most fascinating NDE tales was published in 2001 in medical journal The Lancet. A man asked his nurse for his dentures, which he remembered he had put in a cupboard during his cardiac arrest.
SPIEGEL: There's no scientific proof for any of these stories. Do you believe them?
Parnia: These experiences feel very real to those who had them. Why should we doubt the reality of their experience? NDEs occur everywhere, in all cultures, in every country, in religious people and atheists, even in children younger than three years old. It would be wrong to see them as mere fabrications.
SPIEGEL: What's your personal take on them?
Parnia: It looks like people's consciousness does not get annihilated just because they are in the early stages of death. It's a medical paradox.
SPIEGEL: To say the least.
Parnia: From what the patients describe, we have to conclude that death is a pleasant experience for most people. I think we have no reason to be afraid of it.
SPIEGEL: Maybe NDEs are just tricks of the brain due to a lack of oxygen, as other scientists have claimed?
Parnia: I checked that and I don't think that lack of oxygen leads to any of these experiences. I'm the principal investigator in the AWARE study for a number of years now. We have installed shelves with pictures on them near the ceiling in various ER rooms across the US and Europe. We want to find out whether people who claim to be hovering close to the ceiling can really perceive what's going on in the room. We will publish our first set of data in November. But I won't reveal any details yet.
SPIEGEL: You are a reputable researcher. But right now you sound more like a mystic.
Parnia: I'm neutral. I'm just a researcher. For many people, death has to do with religion and philosophy, not science. To me, that makes no sense. I deal with death every day in my life. What we study is very scientific, there's nothing paranormal about it. But of course I get criticized from all sides. Paranormal enthusiasts think we are treading on their territory. Religious people accuse me of blasphemy, skeptical scientists of leaning to the other side. And we also get requests from people who ask us to kill them and get them back for science. This is dangerous territory we're in.
SPIEGEL: You have experimented with putting pictures face up near the ceiling in hospital emergency rooms to determine if a person having an NDE will, upon regaining consciousness, report seeing the target object. Isn't that going too far?
Parnia: Any new field of science inevitably meets with criticism and incomprehension. Gene therapy was once seen as pure science fiction. When string theory was first proposed, physicists made fun of it. And everyone including Einstein laughed at quantum theory. This research might well lead to a new understanding of human consciousness. Nobody can yet explain how it works and how it interacts with brain cells.
Interview conducted by Marco Evers
A life spent in the wettest place on earth
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, July 30, 2013 7:33 EDT
Deep in India’s northeast, villagers use grass to sound-proof their huts from deafening rain, clouds are a familiar sight inside homes and a suitably rusted sign tells visitors they are in the “wettest place on earth”.
Oddly enough, lifelong residents of Mawsynram, a small cluster of hamlets in Meghalaya state have little idea that their scenic home holds a Guinness record for the highest average annual rainfall of 11,873 millimeters (467 inches).
“Really, this is the wettest place in the world? I didn’t know that,” Bini Kynter, a great-grandmother who estimates she must be “nearly 100 years old” tells AFP.
“The rain used to frighten me when I was a young girl, it used to make our lives hell. Today people have it easy,” she says, wrapping a green tartan shawl tightly around her shoulders.
Meteorologists say Mawsynram’s location, close to Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal is the reason the tiny cluster receives so much rain.
“What happens is that whenever any moisture gathers over the Bay of Bengal, it causes precipitation over Mawsynram, leading to a heavy, long monsoon season,” Sunit Das of the Indian Meteorological Department told AFP.
While annual monsoon rains lashed the national capital last week, causing traffic chaos and flooding at the international airport, such problems are mild for Mawsynram.
Just thirty years ago, Mawsynram had no paved roads, no running water and no electricity, making its six-month long monsoon an insufferable experience for its mostly impoverished residents.
Landslides still occur regularly, blocking the only paved road connecting the hillside hamlets. Rainwater still seeps into the mud huts occupied by some villagers. And, while most homes now have electricity, outages are commonplace.
Every winter the people of Mawsynram spend months preparing for the wet season ahead, anticipating nonstop rain and no sunshine for several days at a time.
They repair their battered roofs. They cut and hoard firewood — a source of light and fuel for cooking. They buy and store foodgrains, since few will venture out to shop during the wettest months between May and July.
The women make rain covers known as “knups,” using bamboo slivers, plastic sheets and broom grass to create a rain shield that resembles a turtle shell, meant to be worn on one’s head while being large enough to keep rain off one’s knees.
The labour-intensive process of weaving a knup — each one takes at least an hour to complete — occupies the women of the village right through the rainy season, when they are cooped up indoors for months at a time.
Bamboo and broom grass — a delicate, fragrant, olive-coloured grass used to make Indian brooms — are among the chief plants grown in this rocky, hilly region.
Broom grass is dipped in water, flattened using wooden blocks and finally dried on rooftops across Mawsynram. According to Prelian Pdah, a grandmother of nine, this makes the grass stronger and more likely to survive a downpour.
Pdah, 70, spends part of the winter and all of the monsoon season making bamboo baskets, brooms and knups which are bought by visiting businessmen who sell them around the state.
“I don’t like the heavy rainfall, it’s boring to stay indoors all day. It’s annoying,” she tells AFP.
Although few Mawsynram residents seemed to know or care about their record-holder status, the right to the Guinness title has been hotly disputed by a nearby town, Cherrapunji, which used to lay claim to that honour.
In sleepy Mawsynram, many find the record-setting monsoon downright depressing.
“There’s no sun, so if you don’t have electricity it’s very dark indoors, even during the day,” Moonstar Marbaniang, the pyjama-clad headman of Mawsynram says.
Those who have second homes elsewhere flee to escape the season. Others catch up on their sleep, according to Marbaniang, whose first name suggests one of the more striking legacies of colonial rule in India’s northeast.
Historians say the past presence of British soldiers and missionaries in this region has seen many people name their children after random English words or famous historical figures, often with no knowledge of what they might mean.
State capital Shillong’s former nickname as the “Scotland of the East” also goes some way to explain the popularity of tartan scarves and shawls, even in the most far-flung and underdeveloped villages of Meghalaya.
Somewhat fittingly for a state whose name means “the abode of the clouds” in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, it is not unusual for clouds to drift through people’s homes in Mawsynram, leaving a wet film on their furniture.
The grass-covered roofs are meant to muffle the relentless drumming of the rain, but a heavy downpour will usually dislodge the grass to deafening effect.
“We have to talk a little louder to be heard during the monsoon!” 67-year-old Marbaniang tells AFP, his mischievous eyes sparkling.
When the monsoon finally ends, there are no parties to mark its exit. The rainy season simply gives way to the repair season, Marbaniang says.
“We don’t hold any celebration or festival to mark the end of the rain. We just start drying our clothes outside,” he says, flashing a toothless grin.
Despite enduring record amounts of rain, sanguine villagers say there is no other place they would rather live.
Marbaniang, whose children all live in Shillong, says: “I’ll never leave, this is my home, I was born here, I will die here.”
“Sure, it rains a lot, but we are used to it. We just wait it out.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Scientists claim to have figured out the evolution of monogamy
By Ian Sample, The Guardian
Monday, July 29, 2013 16:00 EDT
Study says some species have become monogamous through evolution and, for primates, infanticide is at its root
As an enduring mystery of the human condition, it has been praised and damned in equal measure. It is a bridge over the abyss of isolation but can be a bit like croquet: easy enough to grasp the rules but a hard game to enjoy.
Now scientists in Britain have taken the puzzle of monogamy and boiled it down to one big question: how did it come about in the first place? A new study claims finally to have an answer.
“Humans have ended up monogamous to some extent, it’s the predominant way we live,” said Christopher Opie, an anthropologist at University College London. “What we have now is an evolutionary pathway for the emergence of monogamy.”
How males and females come together is as varied as anything in nature. Around 90% of birds live in pairs, but less than 3% of mammals do. Humans and other primates fall somewhere in the middle, with a quarter of species pairing up, according to Opie.
What leads some species to monogamy and others not has prompted scientists to come up with three possible explanations.
One is that when offspring are demanding, two parents might be better than one. The second, known as “mate guarding”, proposes that males need to stay close to their mates to ward off rival males. The third is that males stick with females to defend their offspring against the violence of other males, who want to kill existing offspring so that females become fertile again and can be impregnated.
Opie’s team drew up a plan to find out which hypothesis most likely led to monogamy. They took a family tree of 230 animals, including lemurs, bushbabies, monkeys, apes and modern humans, and collected information on their mating behaviour, rates of infanticide and paternal care.
Next, they used simulated evolution from 75m years ago to modern day. As the simulation ran, it showed how monogamy rose and fell for different species. Having run the program millions of times, they found that the evolution of monogamy in primates was preceded by one thing only: infanticide by males.
“You do not get monogamy unless you already have infanticide, and you do not get a switch to paternal care if you don’t already have monogamy,” said Opie, in research published in the journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Opie says the findings are linked to increases in brain size. In primates, brain size expanded as social groups grew larger, which meant that mothers were infertile for longer and more males were close by. For males, infanticide was a strategy to make females fertile again.
“Monogamy is only one strategy for dealing with infanticide. But it’s not the only one,” said Opie. “Chimps mate with all the males in their group to confuse paternity so males won’t attack. But in others, humans included, males stick with females to protect them.” Once a species becomes monogamous, paternal care and other behaviours evolve that help offspring to thrive, he said.
Robin Dunbar, a co-author on the paper and director of the social and evolutionary neuroscience at Oxford University, said : “It highlights the risk of infanticide and harassment for primates in general and it simply gets worse and worse as you get bigger brains, because the reproductive cycle gets longer.” Dunbar believes monogamy evolved in our human ancestors only after modern forms emerged 200,000 years ago, and perhaps in the past 100,000 years.
For some scientists, however, the mystery of monogamy remains unsolved. Dr Maren Huck, who studies animal behaviour at the University of Derby, said the findings should be treated with “extreme caution”. She said the authors had labelled some animals as monogamous that were not in the wild, and made false assumptions about the impact of infanticide. “Owl monkeys give birth once a year. So if the female loses her offspring, she will not resume oestrous again until the next breeding season the following year. Hence, killing the offspring would not hasten reproduction,” she said.
She also queried the classification of monogamy, saying the numbers seemed very high. “Very few old world monkeys, for example, are monogamous.”
© Guardian News and Media 2013
In the USA...
U.S. accuses JPMorgan of manipulating electricity market
Monday, July 29, 2013 21:27 EDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. power regulator outlined its case of market manipulation against JPMorgan Chase & Co on Monday as industry sources said a final settlement on the issue should come on Tuesday.
Traders used improper bidding tactics in California and the Midwest to boost profits, officials said in a statement that brought to light some details of an extensive investigation.
Reports of that probe have circulated for months and a deal with the regulator could put an end to a distraction for JPMorgan Chief Executive Jamie Dimon.
The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) staff has found “eight manipulative bidding strategies” used by a JPM affiliate in 2010 and 2011, the regulator said.
JPMorgan declined to comment.
Two industry sources said a settlement over the trades could come as early as mid-morning on Tuesday. The bank is expected to pay around $400 million to end the investigation and the settlement could include other payments, according to reports and an industry source.
Monday’s regulatory move did not contain any mention of specific traders or commodities chief Blythe Masters, who had been mentioned in media reports as having been singled out by investigators.
The FERC action is a reminder of the tougher regulatory environment commodity traders are facing, particularly banks, which have been under intensifying public and political pressure over their ownership of things such as metals warehouses and power plants.
JPMorgan announced abruptly on Friday that it was quitting the physical commodity markets, seeking a buyer or partner to take over an operation that includes ownership of three power plants, as well as a handful of large tolling agreements.
The alleged violations in Monday’s letter offered little new insight into the bank’s trading, as most of the details had already been laid out in previous FERC filings.
If there is a settlement, JPMorgan would close the book on a probe that dates back more than two years when California’s power grid operator noticed the bank was using an “abusive” trading strategy that effectively forced the grid to pay for plants to sit idle, ultimately adding to costs.
The FERC has been particularly active this month. The regulator approved a $470 million penalty against British bank Barclays Plc and four of its traders for manipulating California power markets. Barclays said it would fight the fine in court.
For JPMorgan, a deal would also allow CEO Jamie Dimon to make good on his promise to resolve multiple government investigations and regulatory run-ins over the past year. The bank, which is the biggest in the United States by assets, is under pressure in Washington for its size and for its $6.2 billion “London Whale” loss on derivatives trades last year.
(Reporting By Patrick Rucker in Washington and Jonathan Leff in New York; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz and Andre Grenon)
Federal Reserve expected to stay the course on near-zero interest rate
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, July 29, 2013 17:38 EDT
The Federal Reserve holds a monetary policy meeting this week amid intense speculation about the timing of a wind-down of massive stimulus, although few expect a change in direction.
The Federal Open Market Committee will wrap up a two-day meeting Wednesday with a policy statement that will be closely scrutinized for clues on how quickly the Fed will begin to taper its $85 billion-a-month asset-purchases program.
There will be no news conference with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to further shed light on the central bank’s thinking, as there was six weeks ago after the prior FOMC meeting.
Bernanke suggested the Fed could begin cutting the asset-purchase program, also known as quantitative easing, later this year and end it in mid-2014 if the economy continued to improve.
Markets appeared to ignore his assertion that the Fed’s key federal funds rate, at 0.0-0.25 percent since December 2008, would not rise before 2015.
Interest rates jumped more than a full percentage point in two months, pushing mortgage rates suddenly higher, raising concerns they could snuff out the housing market recovery, one of the few bright spots in the sluggish economy.
In later comments, particularly two days of twice-yearly testimony to Congress in mid-July, Bernanke sought to assure markets that the near-zero interest rate would stay put for a while, given the “weak” economy.
“If we were to tighten policy, the economy would tank,” he told lawmakers.
The Fed has said any rate hikes still hinged on reducing the unemployment rate, now at 7.6 percent, to 6.5 percent or less, and keeping inflation tame at around 2.0 percent.
The Fed policy meeting falls between two major reports — on growth and the jobs market in the world’s largest economy.
Hours before the panel ends its deliberations on Wednesday, the Commerce Department will publish its first estimate of gross domestic product for the second quarter.
After a spate of disappointing data, economists on average are forecasting GDP growth slowed to an annual rate of 1.1 percent from 1.8 percent in the first quarter.
The July jobs report Friday was expected to show the unemployment rate ticked down to 7.5 percent from 7.6 percent in June.
But jobs growth also was seen as falling, by 20,000 to 175,000.
“Whether GDP moves up or employment down will be a key issue for the Fed as well as markets in coming months — arguably, more important than the pace for GDP in Q2,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief US economist at High Frequency Economics.
While there was little anticipation of a change in monetary policy coming out of the FOMC meeting that begins Tuesday, analysts predicted the panel would try to improve its communications.
“Markets are pressing the Fed for better forward guidance on quantitative easing, and it would be prudent for the central bank to comply,” said Ryan Sweet of Moody’s Analytics.
Moody’s predicted the Fed will reduce its asset purchases in September by $20 billion per month, evenly split between Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities.
HFE’s Sullivan and other analysts agreed the tapering was likely to begin after the September 17-18 FOMC meeting and that expectation had already been fairly baked into the markets.
Sullivan said the post-meeting statement would probably be reworded to suggest tapering could begin soon.
Ed Yardeni of Yardeni Research said the Fed would be looking to minimize adverse market reactions.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the 6.5 percent threshold for the unemployment rate is lowered to 5.5 percent,” Yardeni said.
Bernanke is hunting for an opportunity to taper the bond purchases “but the economic data are not giving the Fed the justification to pursue the policy it wants to have the justification to pursue,” said Robert Brusca of FAO Economics.
“And all of this has resulted in communication issues between the market and the Fed.”
July 29, 2013
With Too Much Rain in the South, Too Little Produce on the Shelves
By KIM SEVERSON
FORT VALLEY, Ga. — Peaches, the gem of the Southern summer, are just not so sweet this year.
The tomatoes in Tennessee are splitting. Tobacco in North Carolina is drowning. And watermelons, which seem as if they would like all the rain that has soaked the South, have taken perhaps the biggest hit of all.
Some watermelon farmers in South Georgia say they have lost half their crop. The melons that did survive are not anywhere as good as a Southern watermelon ought to be.
“They are awful,” said Daisha Frost, 39, who works in Decatur, Ga. “And this is the time of year when they should be the bomb.”
Day after day, the rains have come to a part of the country that relies on the hot summer sun for everything from backyard tomato sandwiches to billions of dollars in commercial row crops, fruit and peanuts.
While the contiguous United States as a whole is about only 6 percent above its normal rainfall this year, Southern states are swamped. Through June, Georgia was 34 percent above normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center. Both South Carolina and North Carolina were about 25 percent above normal. Alabama’s rainfall was up 22 percent.
The weather is a particular shock because more than two-thirds of the region was abnormally dry or suffering a drought last year.
Although the total cost to farmers has yet to be tallied, agricultural officials in several states in the Deep South predict severe losses this year that could be in the billions of dollars.
“Nobody’s ever seen it this wet this long,” said Randy Ellis, a Georgia farmer who grows wheat and watermelons, the latter of which end up at East Coast grocery stores.
He usually pulls about 60,000 pounds of melons from an acre of land. This year, he said, he barely got 30,000 pounds. What is worse, the cooler, rainy weather meant the crop was ready after the important Fourth of July window, when prices are at their peak.
Standing water has made cornfields look like rice paddies in some parts of the rural South. Mold is growing on ears of corn, and in some fields entire stalks have toppled. Late blight, a funguslike pathogen, is creeping into tomato fields early and with unusual vigor.
Even though the Georgia pecan crop will not be harvested until fall, there are already worries that the rain will bring on a rash of the fungus commonly called scab disease. Experts are predicting that the crop could be about 15 million pounds lower this year.
There are a few pluses. Irrigation costs are down, and the rain has been surprisingly good for the look of Georgia peaches.
Here in the part of central Georgia where Duke Lane Jr. grows 30 varieties on about 10,000 acres, his fields have already taken on as much water to date as they usually do in an entire year.
“This is something that has never been on our radar,” he said.
Still, the peaches are bigger than usual and shaped perfectly. He had a single peach on his desk that weighed more than a pound.
But even though those peaches look good, the water has diluted the sugar content.
“The flavor is just not there,” said Doris Westmoreland, who works at Lane Southern Orchards. “It’s like having a mouthful of cotton.”
The rain is doing more than compromising quality and bringing on disease. Some fields are so wet that farmers have not been able to get equipment into the fields to harvest.
“With fruit and vegetables, you’ve got to hand-harvest it when it’s ready,” said Charles Hall of the Georgia Watermelon Association. “If you can’t get to it, you lose it.”
Some farmers report wheat sprouting before it can be harvested, and peanut farmers in Alabama, who rely on heavy applications of chemicals, have missed crucial application windows because fields have been too wet to navigate, said Randy Griggs, the executive director of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association.
Peanut harvest usually begins in late August and runs into September, so there is hope that fields might dry out by then.
But Jake Crouch, a climatologist at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., is not hopeful.
“Whenever we get in a pattern like this, we kind of stay in the status quo,” he said. “When we’re hot and dry, we stay hot and dry. When we’re wet, we stay wet.”
Alan Blinder contributed reporting from Atlanta.
July 29, 2013
At the 11th Hour, a Languid Congress
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — Congressional lawmakers will straggle into the Capitol this week for the last legislative days before their long summer recess, crunch time in past Congresses but a sleepy time for the underachieving 113th.
The last week before the August recess is usually full of late nights, last-minute deal-making and achievements to take home to constituents. This week, the House will not even show up until Tuesday evening.
The most pressing business is student loans. Congress is likely to give final approval to legislation that ties student loan interest rates to the market-set rate of Treasury bonds, lowering interest rates at least in the short term.
But the House’s marquee moment before adjourning until Sept. 9 will come on Friday with its 40th vote to cripple President Obama’s health care law. House members preparing their vacation plans have been assured that the last vote will be no later than 3 p.m.
In the Senate, a glimmer of hope has appeared for a bipartisan deal to end the automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration and shift some of those savings to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. But even optimistic negotiators do not suggest that an agreement between Senate Republicans and the White House is in reach before the break.
Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, said that meetings on Capitol Hill between a small group of Senate Republicans and Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, gave reason for optimism, but that no agreement was in sight.
“There’s been enough spade work where during Thursday’s meeting, things came into much more focus,” he said.
Speaker John A. Boehner said this month that the 113th Congress should not be judged by the number of laws it passed, but by the number of laws it repealed. But Congresses past — both Republican- and Democratic-controlled — have made substantive achievements in the week before the summer break.
Last year, the Senate moved toward passage of a major cybersecurity bill and extended expiring middle-class tax cuts. The House approved agriculture disaster assistance on Aug. 2, a day after its own tax cut extension bill passed — a prelude to the deal in January that brought the nation back from the “fiscal cliff,” when all of the Bush-era tax cuts were set to expire.
In 2011, with the government staring at its first debt default, Congress approved the Budget Control Act on Aug. 2, which capped discretionary spending for a decade and empowered a special committee to find a broader deficit reduction deal or set off the automatic sequestration cuts now in force.
The Senate confirmed Robert S. Mueller III to a new term as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The House approved compensation for 9/11 rescue workers suffering from health effects.
In 2010, the Senate confirmed Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court on Aug. 5, the same day it gave final passage to a major Federal Aviation Administration and air-traffic control overhaul. Earlier that week, the Senate made progress on a small-business lending program that would become law in September.
In 2009, Congress passed “Cash for Clunkers,” the law that subsidized the purchase of cars and trucks; replenished the highway trust fund; and confirmed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
It is not as if there is no work to do this year. None of Congress’s 12 annual spending bills have reached Mr. Obama’s desk, and with the House and the Senate far apart on total spending levels, a government shutdown is possible on Oct. 1, when the current spending law expires.
Once Congress returns on Sept. 9, lawmakers will have just nine legislative days until the current fiscal year ends and large swaths of the government would be forced to close.
By early November, Congress must raise the government’s statutory borrowing limit or risk a federal debt default.
House and Senate negotiators have yet to reach agreements on a farm bill, a budget, an immigration law overhaul, or an annual defense policy law. The House has yet to pass legislation reauthorizing the food stamp program after supplemental nutrition assistance was stripped from the House’s version of the farm bill this month.
About a half-dozen Senate Republicans met with Mr. McDonough last week hoping for a deal — grand or small — on future spending. The group appears to be closing in on a modest agreement to replace deep and automatic cuts to defense and domestic programs at Congress’s annual funding discretion with more subtle changes to entitlement — or “mandatory” — programs.
“One of the more sensible things the Senate could do would be to take those discretionary cuts and replace them with mandatory savings,” Mr. Corker said, declining to offer any details about the cuts.
But some basic decisions need to be made, starting with whether to try again for a broader deal to tackle deficit spending long term with significant changes to entitlement programs and more tax revenue.
“There’s been enough back-and-forth, sounding each other out, that there’s enough information to make some decisions: Is it worth doing something different on sequester? I think there’s appetite for that on both sides. Is it worth doing something bigger? I don’t know at this point,” said Mr. Corker, suggesting that lawmakers and the White House would have a better sense of direction by the end of this week.
July 29, 2013
Obama Reassures Leaders on Enforcing Voting Rights
By JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON — Days after his administration filed suit against Texas to protect minority voters, President Obama told civil rights leaders and local officials on Monday that the federal government would vigorously enforce voting rights in the country despite a Supreme Court ruling against a core section of a landmark 1965 law, several participants said after a White House meeting.
“The president said that the Voting Rights Act is not dead, it’s not even critical, it’s just wounded,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist and MSNBC talk show host. “He was very reassuring,” Mr. Sharpton added.
Mr. Obama met with the group for about 40 minutes, and administration officials led by the attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., met with the group for a bit longer. The administration was addressing what Mr. Sharpton described as the civil rights community’s “alarm” over the court’s 5-to-4 vote last month. In that case, Shelby County v. Holder, the majority struck down as outdated and unnecessary the law’s language requiring that the federal government review and clear any changes in election laws in nine states, most of them in the South.
Even before the meeting, the Obama administration reassured civil rights leaders last week with Mr. Holder’s announcement that the Justice Department was asking a Texas federal court to require that state and local officials there get approval from the federal government for any changes in election law. The department’s case is based on surviving provisions of the voting law.
Texas’ Republican leaders had said after the Supreme Court ruling that they would immediately put into effect new maps for electoral districts, which Latinos had challenged, as well as a new law requiring voters to show acceptable proof of identity.
Mr. Obama also said that he would seek bipartisan support for legislation reversing the impact of the court’s decision, but participants were skeptical that he could prevail.
The White House meeting, however, provided “more than reassurance,” said State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in the Texas Legislature in Austin. The president and his team, he said, conducted “an actual practical discussion about where are we going to go,” and made clear that “we’re not going to wait for the Congress to act, we know there are some things we can start doing.”
In all, a dozen civil rights leaders and five elected officials from Texas, Florida, Georgia and Alabama attended the White House meeting. Others included Kasim Reed, the mayor of Atlanta; Janet Murguía, president of NCLR, also known as the National Council of La Raza, a prominent Hispanic rights advocacy organization; Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League; Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund; and Roslyn Brock, board chairman of the N.A.A.C.P.
Mr. Sharpton said that there was no discussion of whether the Justice Department would prosecute George Zimmerman on civil rights charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin. The attendees also did not press Mr. Obama against nominating Raymond W. Kelly, New York City’s police commissioner, to become secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Civil rights groups oppose Mr. Kelly, who has overseen an aggressive stop-and-frisk program that has mostly affected black and Latino men in New York.
July 29, 2013
Plan to Capture an Asteroid Runs Into Politics
By KENNETH CHANG
It is known, informally, as the asteroid-lasso plan: NASA wants to launch an unmanned spacecraft in 2018 that would capture a small asteroid — maybe 7 to 10 yards wide — haul it closer to Earth, then send astronauts up to examine it, in 2021 or beyond.
But the space agency has encountered a stubborn technical problem: Congressional Republicans.
Normally, there is bipartisan support (or disapproval) in Congress for NASA’s bolder plans, particularly when they involve human spaceflight. What squabbling does take place tends to pit lawmakers from states with big NASA presences, like Florida and Texas, against those with fewer vested interests.
This month, however, the science committee in the Republican-controlled House voted to bar NASA from pursuing that faraway rock. In a straight party vote — 22 Republicans for, 17 Democrats against — the committee laid out a road map for NASA for the next three years that brushed aside the asteroid capture plan, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s agenda for space exploration. The plan, instead, included new marching orders, telling NASA to send astronauts back to the Moon, set up a base there and then aim for Mars (and to do so with less money than requested).
“A costly and complex distraction,” is how one Republican critic, Representative Steven Palazzo of Mississippi, described the asteroid mission. Other legislators complained that the project seemed far-fetched and poorly articulated, and that it would not advance America’s bragging rights in space the way a return to the Moon could. The bill awaits a vote by the full House.
NASA and its rocket scientists are trying to figure out how to proceed.
President Obama had asked them to find a way to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s. They presented their plan in April, describing it, perhaps immodestly, as a way to “protect our planet” from dangerous asteroids in addition to making strides in human spaceflight.
A non-NASA study had estimated the total cost of capturing and redirecting an asteroid at $2.6 billion. New analysis by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is in charge of the robotic part of the mission, put the cost at perhaps half that — $1 billion plus the cost of the rocket, said Charles Elachi, the laboratory’s director.
“It allows us to get to an asteroid four years ahead of time,” said Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, a former astronaut and a proponent of the asteroid plan.
Mr. Nelson, like NASA officials, ticked off other possible benefits: The agency would learn how to push around heavy objects in space, which could help if a large asteroid were on a collision course with Earth; and NASA would develop technologies like thinner, lighter solar panels that would be useful for a human mission to Mars in the 2030s.
“And the fourth thing it does is, if it ends up an interesting asteroid, then we’ve got the possibility of the science of mining an asteroid,” Mr. Nelson said.
The proposal, unveiled in April as part of Mr. Obama’s budget, is far from dead. On Tuesday, a committee in the Democrat-controlled Senate is scheduled to work on its version of the bill, one that makes no mention of capturing asteroids but gives leeway to NASA to do whatever it thinks best for getting to Mars. On the same day, experts will convene at NASA headquarters in Washington to review work on the asteroid mission so far.
As yet, those experts have not pinpointed an asteroid to kidnap, but the idea is this: First, build a robotic spacecraft with a novel inflatable cone-shaped structure that could envelop the asteroid (which will be tricky to catch, because it will probably be spinning). Next, meet the space rock as it swings by the vicinity of the Earth and the Moon. Then, after essentially wrapping the asteroid in a bag (no lassos are actually involved), the spacecraft would lug it into orbit above the Moon, a slow do-si-do of mechanics that could take a few years.
“Over all, I think this is a very doable mission,” said Brian Muirhead, the chief engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
After that, astronauts would travel aboard a giant new rocket that NASA is designing, to meet the asteroid for a closer look. Their trip would give NASA the opportunity to test its deep-space spacecraft, the Orion capsule, as well as its procedures for helping astronauts work with asteroids, which have almost no gravity.
Asteroids have been having their moment in the news, in part because of the terrifying asteroid explosion over Russia in February, which injured about 1,500 people. Last month, NASA announced an Asteroid Grand Challenge, inviting people and organizations to collaborate in finding asteroids that threaten Earth and proposing solutions. On Friday, the agency said it had received more than 400 responses to the challenge and suggestions to help with the asteroid capture mission.
Separately, at least two private companies have announced intentions to mine asteroids for rare metals, arguing that supplies on Earth are dwindling.
There is near unanimity in Congress and NASA that the ultimate goal is to send people to Mars, but the logistical challenges and costs are too big to conquer right away. NASA officials depict the asteroid capture plan as an elegant interim step, one that would send humans deeper into space than before and break new ground in rocket technology.
But Republicans on the House science committee complained this month that the proposal came “out of the blue,” lacking much explanation from NASA officials, support from scientists or cost analysis. Some Democrats on the committee were also skeptical, but most were willing to hear NASA out.
“I was never very excited about it,” said Representative Donna F. Edwards of Maryland, a Democrat on the committee. However, she was much more critical of the Republican alternative that passed.
To some Democrats, the Republican objections came across as part of a larger strategy to block Mr. Obama on all fronts.
“I really thought that was really a direct insult to the president,” said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
Historically, NASA’s bipartisan support in Congress dates to its founding in 1958 in the aftermath of Russia’s launching of Sputnik. And it is far too soon to say whether the House Republicans’ objections will ultimately scuttle the asteroid plan. But some longtime NASA observers wonder if the differing views can coalesce to give NASA clear marching orders.
“As long as the Republicans control the House and Mr. Obama is president, I don’t think that agreement will happen, and we’ll just muddle through,” said John M. Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
Meanwhile, Democrats say that the current House bill, the NASA Authorization Act of 2013, would give the agency an impossible mission, reviving expensive ambitions to send astronauts back to the Moon while proposing to cut NASA’s budget to $16.6 billion for the next fiscal year, down from $17.8 billion appropriated this year. Republicans have taken the position that spending plans should take into account the current budget sequester. The Senate authorization bill, being taken up this week, proposes $18.1 billion for NASA.
Given the fiscal climate, the Republicans’ Moon ambitions are just not possible, according to Louis D. Friedman, a former executive director of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit group that promotes space exploration.
“Frankly, it comes down to this or nothing,” Dr. Friedman said, referring to the asteroid plan. “This at least does everything we need in the American space program at a price we can afford while we debate when we are going to make those bigger commitments.”
July 29, 2013
Six Decades Later, a Second Rescue Attempt
By JANE PERLEZ
BEIJING — As more than 100,000 Chinese soldiers swarmed far fewer American Marines and soldiers in subzero temperatures on treacherous terrain in one of the fiercest battles of the Korean War, two United States Navy pilots took off from an aircraft carrier to provide cover for their comrades on the ground.
One of the airmen, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, was the son of an African-American sharecropper from Mississippi. The other, Lt. Thomas J. Hudner Jr., was the son of a white patrician merchant family from Massachusetts.
An hour into the flight, Ensign Brown’s plane was hit by enemy fire, forcing him to crash land on the side of a mountain at Chosin, north of Pyongyang. Lieutenant Hudner brought his plane down nearby and found Ensign Brown, but could not rescue him.
On Monday, nearly 63 years after the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Mr. Hudner, 88, arrived in Beijing after a 10-day visit to North Korea aimed at finding his friend’s remains.
The trip to North Korea coincided with the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, a milestone that the North Korean government has tried to use for propaganda purposes.
Mr. Hudner’s trip was arranged by Chayon Kim, a Korean American who organized the visit in April of Dennis Rodman, the former N.B.A. star who became the first American to meet with the North’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, since he took over from his father in 2011. The timing of Mr. Hudner’s visit coincided with a massive military parade on Saturday.
Not wanting to be a North Korean prop and citing his frail legs, Mr. Hudner said he avoided the parade and stayed away from the opening of a military museum featuring the U.S.S. Pueblo, an American Navy ship captured by North Korea in 1968.
Nonetheless, he said he made the trip to help bring closure not only to himself but to Mr. Brown’s widow, Daisy Brown Thorne, 88. In the end, though, his mission failed. It is the rainy season in the North, and the North Koreans told him that almost daily downpours had washed away roads and bridges and made access to the crash site, a five-hour drive from Pyongyang, impossible.
“It was sort of a jolt to see how they were claiming this was a victory,” Mr. Hudner said, as he and his traveling companion, Dick Bonelli, 82, a Marine veteran from the battle of Chosin, relaxed at a hotel here before returning to the United States on Tuesday. “We decided not to go to the parade and to skip the museum and the U.S.S. Pueblo. It still belongs to the United States.”
Mr. Hudner’s attempt to save Mr. Brown has resonated through American military annals not only for its daring, but because of what it said about race relations in the newly desegregated military.
The two men met two years after the official desegregation order. “Shortly after I joined the squadron, I was changing into flight gear and he came in and nodded ‘Hello,’ ” Mr. Hudner said of meeting Ensign Brown in December 1949. “I introduced myself, but he made no gesture to shake hands. I think he did not want to embarrass me and have me not shake his hand. I think I forced my hand into his.”
Mr. Brown, the United States Navy’s first black aviator, had endured scorn and prejudice during training from 1947 to 1948, said Adam Makos, who is writing a book on the wartime friendship between the two pilots, and who also visited Pyongyang with Mr. Hudner.
On the day of the fateful flight, Mr. Hudner said he took off with Mr. Brown on his wing on Dec. 4, 1950. They were in a formation of six Corsairs, single-propeller planes from World War II that are big enough only for a pilot and are mounted with .50-caliber machine guns.
The pilots had been flying almost daily sorties, giving protection to American soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Chinese soldiers sent by Mao Zedong to fortify the weak North Korean army.
The Americans, surprised by the wave upon wave of Chinese soldiers, and hindered by machine guns that did not work in the freezing weather, had been ordered to withdraw.
They were within days of completing that operation when Mr. Hudner and Mr. Brown flew with instructions to patrol roads for enemy troops.
About an hour after takeoff, Mr. Hudner saw white vapor from Mr. Brown’s plane. “I pointed to a clearing on the mountain where Jesse could land,” Mr. Hudner said. “He landed with such force, we were convinced he perished. But we saw that Jesse opened the canopy of the cockpit, and we knew he was alive.”
Mr. Hudner managed to land about 100 yards from Mr. Brown. Two feet of snow covered the ground, the temperature was around zero, and they were behind enemy lines.
“Jesse saw me coming and said in a calm voice: ‘Tom, we’ve got to figure a way of getting out of here.”
The downed pilot had taken off his gloves, apparently to unbuckle his harness, but his hands were frozen stiff and he could not lever himself out of the cockpit, Mr. Hudner said. Mr. Hudner clambered onto the wing of Mr. Brown’s plane, but his boots, slick with ice and snow, slid and he could not grab his friend.
Mr. Hudner went back to his plane and called for a rescue helicopter to come with an ax and a fire extinguisher. “I was trying to console him and assuring him help was on the way.” By the time an American helicopter arrived Mr. Brown had grown weak. “He told me, ‘If anything happens to me, tell my wife, Daisy, I love her.’ ”
The helicopter pilot told Mr. Hudner that darkness was coming, and they had to leave. “I told Jesse we couldn’t get him out without more equipment, and we were going to get more. He didn’t respond. I think he died while we were talking to him.”
During his visit to Pyongyang, Mr. Hudner met twice with three North Korean army officers to discuss the return of Mr. Brown’s remains from the crash site. In the end, he was told that he should return in September when the weather was more predictable.
The North Koreans wanted a representative of the United States Joint P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Command, the arm of the military that sends recovery teams to old battlefields to retrieve the remains of American soldiers, to come on the return trip, Mr. Hudner said. The command ceased working with North Korea in 2005, in protest of the North’s disputed nuclear program.
Mr. Hudner, who received a Medal of Honor for his actions, said it was disappointing not to go to the crash site. “But we were gratified by the encouragement” of the North Koreans to return, he said. “From what we’ve seen, something positive will come out of getting the remains.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 29, 2013
An earlier version of this article contained several errors. It misspelled the given name of North Korea’s current leader. He is Kim Jong-un, not Jung-un. It also misstated the extent of the desegregation order that was issued two years before Ensign Brown and Lieutenant Hudner met in the Navy. The order applied to the entire military, not just the Army. And because of an editing error, it misspelled the given name of Mr. Brown’s widow. She is Daisy (not Daily) Brown Thorne. An earlier photo caption with this story incorrectly described Ensign Brown as the first black aviator in the U.S. military. He was the first black aviator in the U.S. Navy.
In the USA...continued ..
Inside Groundswell: Read the Memos of the New Right-Wing Strategy Group Planning a "30 Front War" Ginni Thomas, Allen West, and a crew of conservative journalists and activists have formed a hush-hush coalition to battle progressives—and Karl Rove.
By David Corn | Thu Jul. 25, 2013 9:53 AM PDT
Social Title: Inside the New Strategy Group Where Right-ing Activists and Journalists Coordinate Messaging
Social Dek: Been hearing the phrase "politics over public safety" deployed against Obama lately by prominent conservatives? Meet Groundswell.
Believing they are losing the messaging war with progressives, a group of prominent conservatives in Washington—including the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and journalists from Breitbart News and the Washington Examiner—has been meeting privately since early this year to concoct talking points, coordinate messaging, and hatch plans for "a 30 front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation," according to documents obtained by Mother Jones.
Dubbed Groundswell, this coalition convenes weekly in the offices of Judicial Watch, the conservative legal watchdog group. During these hush-hush sessions and through a Google group, the members of Groundswell—including aides to congressional Republicans—cook up battle plans for their ongoing fights against the Obama administration, congressional Democrats, progressive outfits, and the Republican establishment and "clueless" GOP congressional leaders. They devise strategies for killing immigration reform, hyping the Benghazi controversy, and countering the impression that the GOP exploits racism. And the Groundswell gang is mounting a behind-the-scenes organized effort to eradicate the outsize influence of GOP über-strategist/pundit Karl Rove within Republican and conservative ranks. (For more on Groundswell's "two front war" against Rove—a major clash on the right—click here .)
One of the influential conservatives guiding the group is Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, a columnist for the Daily Caller and a tea party consultant and lobbyist. Other Groundswell members include John Bolton, the former UN ambassador; Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center for Security Policy; Ken Blackwell and Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council; Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch; Gayle Trotter, a fellow at the Independent Women's Forum; Catherine Engelbrecht and Anita MonCrief of True the Vote; Allen West, the former GOP House member; Sue Myrick, also a former House GOPer; Diana Banister of the influential Shirley and Banister PR firm ; and Max Pappas, a top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Among the conveners listed in an invitation to a May 8 meeting of Groundswell were Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News Network; Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who resoundingly lost a Maryland Senate race last year (and is now running for a House seat); Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society; Sandy Rios, a Fox News contributor; Lori Roman, a former executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council; and Austin Ruse, the head of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. Conservative journalists and commentators participating in Groundswell have included Breitbart News reporters Matthew Boyle and Mike Flynn, Washington Examiner executive editor Mark Tapscott, and National Review contributor Michael James Barton.
Groundswell has collaborated with conservative GOPers on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Cruz and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a leading tea partier. At its weekly meetings, the group aims to strengthen the right's messaging by crafting Twitter hashtags; plotting strategy on in-the-headlines issues such as voter ID, immigration reform, and the sequester; promoting politically useful scandals; and developing "action items."
A certain amount of secrecy cloaks Groundswell's efforts. Though members have been encouraged to zap out tweets with a #GSW hashtag , a message circulated to members of its Google group noted that the role of certain advocates should be kept "off of the Google group for OPSEC [operational security] reasons." This "will avoid any potential for bad press for someone if a communication item is leaked," the message explained. (The Groundswell documents were provided to Mother Jones by a source who had access to its Google group page and who has asked not to be identified.)
"We want to protect the strategic collaboration occurring at Groundswell and build on it. Please be careful about bringing guests and clear them ahead of time."
Washington is full of coalitions that meet to coordinate messaging and strategy. For two decades, conservative strategist Grover Norquist , who heads Americans for Tax Reform, has held his now-famous Wednesday morning meetings for a broad spectrum of Republicans, including conservatives opposed to gay rights and abortion rights and those who favor them, as well as GOPers on different sides of the immigration reform debate. Groundswell, which meets at the same time as Norquist's group, appears to be a more ideologically pure version of the Norquist confab, and its emergence—given the prominent role of Ginni Thomas and the participation of journalists—prompts several intriguing questions.
Critics have contended  that Thomas' work as a lobbyist opposing Obamacare posed a conflict of interest for her husband, who would rule on the constitutionality of the health care reform initiative. (Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court minority that favored striking down the law.) And Common Cause has maintained  that Justice Thomas had a conflict of interest when he participated in the Citizens United case because his wife at the time was running a conservative nonprofit fighting the "tyranny" of President Barack Obama that would benefit from removing limits on such groups' spending and fundraising. With her involvement in Groundswell—which zeroes in on contentious issues that come before the high court, including voting rights, abortion, and gay marriage—Ginni Thomas continues to be intricately associated with matters on which her husband may have to render a decision. Ginni Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.
The participation of journalists in coordinating messaging with ideological advocates and political partisans raises another set of issues. Conservatives expressed outrage when news broke in 2009 about Journolist, a private email list where several hundred progressive-minded reporters, commentators, and academics exchanged ideas and sometimes bickered. (I was on Journolist, mainly as a lurker .) The late Andrew Breitbart once offered $100,000  for the full Journolist archives and denounced it as "the epitome of progressive and liberal collusion that conservatives, Tea Partiers, moderates and many independents have long suspected and feared exists at the heart of contemporary American political journalism." The Groundswell documents show conservative journalists, including several with Breitbart News, colluding on high-level messaging with leading partisans of the conservative movement.
How Groundswellers Win "Brownie Points"
Notes prepared after a Groundswell meeting held on March 27 detailed the group's mission and origins :
Groundswell evolved out of conversations among conservative leaders after the November elections. This is the eighth meeting. Now others are asking to be included. Growth needs to be strategic; it should be made up of senior level people willing to collaborate. It is important to keep a balance of social conservatives, national security conservatives, and constitutional conservatives. Outreach has occurred to incorporate groups with extensive reach: Heritage, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, AFP [Americans for Prosperity], FRC [Family Research Council] and the NRA, among others…Our country is in peril. This is a critical moment needing critical leadership. We want to protect the strategic collaboration occurring at Groundswell and build on it. Please be careful about bringing guests and clear them ahead of time.
The memo declared that the goal was not to merely ponder, but to be proactive:
What Groundswell is not is a room of note takers. The goal of Groundswell is to sync messages and develop action from reports and information exchanged. Going forward there should be an action item accompanying each report.
At the March 27 meeting , Groundswell participants discussed one multipurpose theme they had been deploying for weeks to bash the president on a variety of fronts, including immigration reform and the sequester: Obama places "politics over public safety." In a display of Groundswell's message-syncing, members of the group repeatedly flogged this phrase in public. Frank Gaffney penned a Washington Times op-ed  titled "Putting Politics Over Public Safety." Tom Fitton headlined a Judicial Watch weekly update  "Politics over Public Safety: More Illegal Alien Criminals Released by Obama Administration." Peter List, editor of LaborUnionReport.com, authored a RedState.com post  called "Obama's Machiavellian Sequestration Pain Game: Putting Politics Over Public Safety." Matthew Boyle used the phrase  in an immigration-related article for Breitbart. And Dan Bongino promoted Boyle's story on Twitter by tweeting , "Politics over public safety?" In a message to Groundswellers, Ginni Thomas awarded "brownie points" to Fitton, Gaffney, and other members for promoting the "politics over public safety" riff.
"If we lose on immigration, we lose on every other issue. They key to defeating this bill is Sen. Rubio."
There was much more on the agenda for the March 27 meeting  than a single talking point. The group routinely addresses an ambitious to-do list for its campaign against the left. At that session, Groundswellers discussed several immigration-related "action items." These included attempting to link the pending reform bill to Obamacare and collecting health care reform horror stories to provide to Cruz, a leading opponent of the Senate immigration reform bill. (Cruz has repeatedly compared  the legislation to the health care reform law.)
Groundswell members saw immigration as a life-or-death issue. "If we lose on immigration," the post-meeting memo noted, "we lose on every other issue. The key to defeating this bill is Sen. Rubio. He can gracefully remove himself from the 'gang of 8' and still save face…The messaging on this issue has to be 'we can't trust Obama' to enforce immigration laws after the amnesty."
The group also reviewed how best to oppose the confirmation of Tom Perez , Obama's nominee for labor secretary. Groundswellers claimed that Perez, then a senior Justice Department official, supported "Muslim Brotherhood organizations and Shariah." (One Groundswell memo maintained that Perez "is extremely antagonistic toward whites.") A third agenda item that Wednesday morning was beating back the effort to end the Boy Scouts of America's ban on gay Scouts. And there was yet another issue for the Groundswell members to stoke: "John Kerry has family ties to Iran that opens the doors to blackmail and other national security risks. Kerry's son in law is an Iranian American with extensive family still in Iran." The post-meeting memo suggested Twitter hashtags to push: #CantTrustObama, #PoliticsOverPublicSafety, #SequesterLies.
"We're Failing the Propaganda Battle"
The Groundswellers feel that they too often lose the political narrative to their progressive rivals. One memo that circulated among members declared, "We must reclaim the language and put 'a face' on our messages; tell stories. Write articles on 4th grade level!"
A Groundswell memo noted, "Terms like, 'GOP,' 'Tea Party,' 'Conservative' communicate 'racism.'" They proposed an alternative: "Fredrick Douglas Republican."
Notes from a February 28 Groundswell gathering  reflected both their collective sense of pessimism and desire for aggressive tactics: "We are failing the propaganda battle with minorities. Terms like, 'GOP,' 'Tea Party,' 'Conservative' communicate 'racism.'" The Groundswellers proposed an alternative: "Fredrick Douglas Republican," a phrase, the memo noted, that "changes minds." (His name is actually spelled "Frederick Douglass.") The meeting notes also stated that an "active radical left is dedicated to destroy [sic] those who oppose them" with "vicious and unprecedented tactics. We are in a real war; most conservatives are not prepared to fight."
The notes from the March 20 meeting  summed up Groundswell griping: "Conservatives are so busy dealing with issues like immigration, gay marriage and boy scouts there is little time left to focus on other issues. These are the very issues the Left wants to avoid but we need to magnify. R's cannot beat Obama at his own game but need to go on the offense and define the issues." The group's proposed offensive would include hyping the Fast and Furious  gun-trafficking controversy, slamming Obama's record, and touting Benghazi as a full-fledged scandal. "The problem," the memo noted, "is Speaker Boehner and [Rep.] Mike Rogers (Intelligence Community) are refusing to deal" with the Benghazi issue. It added, "Leaders can and should be shamed into doing the right thing."
Another problem for right-wingers, this memo pointed out, was that though "a group of freshmen and sophomore representatives in Congress…are willing and ready to stand up" for conservative causes, "no one is willing to step up and become that leader." Reflecting the dim view held by Groundswell members of House GOPers, the memo maintained that too many Republican lawmakers were co-opted by power and reluctant to challenge House Republican leaders: "The Speaker holds the control in the House. He controls committees, chairmanships, meeting rooms, etc. Conservatives sell out rationalizing their compromises will position them to advance their agenda through committee work. In reality they are being bought." Boehner, according to his memo, was too frightened to confront Obama head-on regarding budget issues because he "believes that Newt lost his speakership due to the government shutdown."
Venting about weak and squishy GOP leaders was a regular feature of Groundswell gatherings. One action item put it bluntly :
GAP of REPUBLICAN LEADERSHIP: how do we tell them they are failing their base; will lose in 2014 unless they fight for principles (as opposed to show disdain for them and accommodate Obama; O is dividing Rs and they seem clueless: IDEAS NEEDED!
A week later, Newt Gingrich was scheduled to address the group  on the "lack of Republican Leadership right now, and Rove." For 10 minutes.
At the March 27 meeting, Groundswellers once more voiced their anger with the GOP establishment and Rove—ideological sellouts, they believed, who undercut conservative candidates in order to back Republicans deemed more electable. They discussed the efforts among conservatives to respond to the Republican Party's recently released autopsy  (PDF) of the 2012 elections, which called on the party to be more inclusive of minorities and less severe on social issues.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, the post-meeting memo huffed, "is sending messages to the party…If we were all gay illegal aliens, the party likes us. He is preparing the way for a change on social issues by giving a warning, 'don't go Old Testament' and advising the party to consider what Rove said about the next nominees could speak favorably of homosexual marriage in the campaign." The memo summed up Groundswell's preferred solution to GOP woes: "embrace the libertarian and conservative wing of the party."
"I'm Going to Need Help Pushing Back"
Shortly after its creation, Groundswell started bolstering interactions between right-wing advocates and conservative members of the Senate and the House. On March 5, Gaston Mooney, a staffer for the Senate Republican Steering Committee, posted a message  to Groundswell's Google group asking for questions that could be posed to Gina McCarthy, Obama's nominee to lead the EPA, during confirmation hearings or in meetings between her and individual senators. (She was confirmed as EPA chief this month.)
"If we were all gay illegal aliens, the party likes us. [RNC chair Reince Priebus] is preparing the way for a change on social issues by giving a warning, 'don't go Old Testament.'"
At an April 3 meeting , Groundswell members were encouraged to send Paul Teller, executive director of the Republican Study Committee, the caucus of House conservatives, "feasible asks in exchange for raised debt ceiling." The post-meeting memo noted, "House conservatives want clear consensus on what the conservative grassroots want to see negotiated." Here was a chance for Groundswellers to shape the next debt ceiling showdown.
In Groundswell's first months, one of the most active members in its Google group was Danielle Cutrona, chief counsel to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. She frequently placed information—speeches, articles, press releases—on Groundswell's Google group. In February, she posted opposition research material  regarding a judicial appointment and asked members to distribute it: "Any help is much appreciated." In another message to Groundswell, she requested assistance in opposing the pro-immigration reform GOP establishment. "I'm going to need help pushing back,"  she wrote.
On one occasion , Cutrona promoted a column  from the conservative site RedState.com. Headlined "Who is Going to Put an End to the McCain/Graham Circus?" this RedState.com post excoriated Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham as "Benedict Arnolds" for retreating on their opposition to Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary and for "their treachery on the issue of illegal immigration." Cutrona, who occasionally used her official Senate email to communicate with Groundswell members, was encouraging this band of conservatives to spread the word that two party colleagues of her boss were ideological traitors. A spokesman for Sessions says that this blog post did not reflect Cutrona's views and "was simply one of scores of diverse news and opinion pieces she emailed on immigration."
"Even If the Idea Isn't Perfect, I Can Help Massage It"
Several conservative journalists have enthusiastically participated in Groundswell's deliberations. In March, Mark Tapscott, the executive editor of the conservative Washington Examiner, sent his most recent column  to group members . It focused on a theme that Groundswellers had resolved to hype: President Obama is a divider. And after a meeting that month, Tapscott wrote to the group , "Enjoyed hearing from all of you who spoke earlier today. It's amazing how much we are accomplishing on so many fronts." But Tapscott tells Mother Jones that after attending one or two meetings at the invitation of Ginni Thomas, he decided to stop participating: "The implication of attending is that you're participating in their planning, and, as a journalist, I don't think that's appropriate. Other journalists may think differently."
At another Groundswell gathering, according to the minutes , the members decided to ask Breitbart's Stephen Bannon to arrange for his media organization "to get senators on the record regarding their support [or non-support]" of the filibuster that GOP Sens. Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz were threatening to mount against the gun control bill. This suggested that the Groundswellers thought they could task Breitbart News to pursue a story that would be strategically useful for the group. (Breitbart News was already covering the possible filibuster.)
"It's amazing how much we are accomplishing on so many fronts," the Washington Examiner's Mark Tapscott wrote to fellow Groundswell members.
Groundswell has forged a particularly close relationship with Breitbart. Matthew Boyle, one of Breitbart's more prominent reporters, has attended Groundswell meetings, used the group as a source for tips and a mechanism to promote his stories, and joined in its efforts to whip up coordinated bullet points to be deployed by conservative advocacy shops. In February, he tried to enlist the group  to push a story  he had written the year before at the Daily Caller, in which he maintained the Justice Department was in cahoots with the liberal group Media Matters to smear conservative whistleblowers and journalists. In a long note addressed to all Groundswellers—written at a time when reporter Bob Woodward was making (what turned out to be inflated) claims about the Obama White House intimidating foes—Boyle said, "Figured this might be a good time to bring this story back up and see if there's a way to drive it."
Boyle said he was hoping to prompt congressional Republicans to launch an investigation. He contended he had only revealed the "tip of the iceberg" and shared his suspicion that many government agencies (State, the CIA, the Pentagon, the EPA, and more) were conspiring with "far left wing groups" to undermine conservatives in the media: "I think we can get at the heart of the Obama admin's weaknesses here." He explained: "Any evidence obtained would be more proof of collusion between the administration and the media and far left groups, while at the same time serving as evidence of whatever ridiculously moronic big government policies they're pushing are."
The following month, Boyle sent a message to Groundswell members  seeking tips and offering to help shape stories Groundswellers wanted to disseminate: "I'm saying we can get pieces out fast on Breitbart. Whenever you have an idea, email or call me with a pitch and I'll do my best to get the story out there. Keep us on offense, them on defense. Even if the idea isn't perfect, I can help massage it to get there."
A high-priority cause for Groundswellers is voter identification efforts—what progressives would call voter suppression—and when Groundswellers developed a thread on their Google group page exploring the best way to pitch the right's voter identification endeavors as a major voting rights case was pending in the Supreme Court, the coalition's friendly journalists joined right in. Dan Bongino, the ex-Secret Service agent and 2012 Senate candidate, kicked off the discussion : "We need to reframe this. This narrative of the Left has already taken hold in MD. The words 'Voter ID' are already lost & equated with racism. Maybe a 'free and fair elections initiative' with a heavy emphasis on avoiding ANY voter disenfranchisement combined with an identification requirement which includes a broader range of documents."
Sheryl Kaufman, communications director for Rep. Jim Bridenstine, chimed in: "'OBAMAGRATION'—I love it!! Communicates the similarity with Obamacare."
In response, Tapscott suggested, "How about 'Election Integrity'?" And Gaffney weighed in: "I like it." Fitton noted that Judicial Watch had an "Election Integrity Project." Boyle proposed, "Fair and equal elections," explaining, "Terms 'fair' and 'equal' connect with most people. It's why the left uses them." Then came True the Vote's Anita MonCrief: "We do a lot under the Election Integrity Banner. Does not resonate with the people. Voter Rights may be better. We really have been trying to get the messaging right."
Minutes later, Breitbart's Mike Flynn tried to change the conversation , noting that Boyle earlier in the week had reported that Obama's daughters had been vacationing in the Bahamas while the White House had suspended tours due to the sequester. "The Obama White House has never been so exposed to public criticism as they are right now, because of their decision to cancel WH tours," Flynn wrote. "Everything should be focused on that front." He declared, "We have to be willing to march to the sound of the guns." (Earlier in the week, Boyle had posted his story on the Obama daughters on Groundswell's Google group page, noting, "I think this fits in nicely with that politics over public safety theme…Enjoy.") Ignoring Flynn's missive, Engelbrecht, the president of True the Vote, wrote, "We bill ourselves as an Election Integrity Initiative and have found it strikes the right tone."
In a response to a request for comment regarding his participation in Groundswell's message-making, Flynn emailed, "We have reporters covering lots of meetings in DC, as I'm sure you do as well. As you know, it provides critical background to know what's happening on the Hill." In a subsequent email, Flynn insisted, "[N]either Boyle nor I have spent 1 minute on any messaging. We haven't spent any time creating talking points." Flynn added, "[W]e are journalists with a point of view. We are open about that. We attend meetings of conservatives. Where we are allowed, we attend meetings of leftist activists." Boyle did not respond to requests for comment.
"We All Lament the Difficulty We Have Persuading Americans"
In between the weekly meetings, Groundswellers keep on scheming, frequently using their Google group to share ideas and need-to-know information. The material is often routine: a John Bolton op-ed , a press release opposing  the nomination of the EPA administrator, a call to rally support  for a Rand Paul filibuster. Often the material reveals the group's ideological excesses, such as a PowerPoint supposedly proving that John Brennan, the Obama national security adviser who has become CIA chief, is soft on radical Islam. In one post, Ginni Thomas encouraged Groundswell members to watch Agenda: Grinding America Down, a documentary  that claims that progressives (including Obama) seek "a brave new world" based on the "failed policies and ideologies of communism" and that an evil left is purposefully "destroying the greatest country in all of world history." MonCrief posted an email noting that the bombs that exploded at the Boston Marathon were "similar to Bill Ayers' Weather Underground nail bomb."
But Groundswellers constantly brainstorm via their Google group in search of a magic talking point, or a silver bullet of messaging. On April 24, Keli Carender, the national grassroots coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, posted a message to the Google group, writing, "We should have a unified name for the immigration bill so that as the other side is calling it 'reform,' we present a unified front against that notion. If we're all calling it different things, their 'reform' message will win. We only combat the idea that it is reform if we hammer back with one different phrase/name." She tossed out a few ideas: "Schumer-Rubio bill," "anti-security bill," and "amnesty bill." Sheryl Kaufman, the communications director for Rep. Jim Bridenstine, chimed in that she was fond of a phrase derived by MonCreif: "'OBAMAGRATION'—I love it!! Communicates the similarity with Obamacare."
When Campaign for America's Future, a progressive group, sent out an email regarding the sequester headlined "Don't let Republicans destroy the economy," Carender sent a message to Groundswell members via the Google group: "What about a 'stick with sequester' (or similar) mantra from our side?" Responding to Carender's note, Peter List of LaborUnionReport.com wrote, "Most Americans don't understand sequesters. We need to be more clever than the Left on this…Something amusing and easy for LIVs [low-information voters] to understand. Maybe a tie in to Humpty Dumpty (the economy) and all King Obama's men ('tax increases') not being able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. (I'm open to anything…and just made that up.)"
At another point, List emailed Ginni Thomas an idea for an anti-Obama ad  that he thought could go viral:
A 15 sec internet [YouTube ad] featuring ethnically diverse children on a merry-go-round [soft music]…
Two bullet points on the facts.
Call to action:
Tell President Obama & Congress not to cut our nation's defense.
Thomas posted the note for all in Groundswell to see. "Brilliant idea," she commented. "…Taker?"
Several months after Groundswell kicked off, Steven Sutton, vice president of development for the conservative Leadership Institute and a former chief of staff to several House GOPers, proposed a "strategic message development project" for the outfit. "What is needed," he wrote , "is an umbrella thematic message under which each specific issue can be magnified and maximized. For those familiar with it, this is an extension and development of the Leesburg Grid  (which the Left has co-opted and now uses extensively, and the Right has ignored and allowed to fall into disuse.)"
Sutton suggested using four main themes: Obama and liberal policies fail; Obama and liberal policies make things worse; there is a lack of leadership in the White House; and Obama "puts politics ahead of people/our country/America." These themes, he contended, "are best used sequentially, rather than randomly/haphazardly/isolated…The most important thing is to think thematically and drive these messages." Sutton went on:
Issues matter. Details matter. Substance matters. But theme matters more. Substance matters only as it helps to reinforce the themes.
We all lament the difficulty we have persuading Americans. After all, we have the facts, figures, and data to prove our points. Why can't we persuade? There are many tactics we can use to help persuade (telling stories, finding victims, tempering tone). But these tactics pale in comparison to the importance of providing a context…a theme…to help people organize their thoughts and opinions.
Groundswell has set itself up as the theme lab for the true-red activists of the conservative movement. Fearing that some hydra of the left has long been running wild, vanquishing the right, and bringing the nation closer to utter ruin, the members of Groundswell have birthed a hydra of their own.
July 30, 2013 07:00 AM
Groundswell Group Stoked Scandals with Help From GOP Leaders
When David Corn broke the Groundswell story last week, the general reaction among the politerati was a shrug and a giggle. Even influential NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen called it "no big deal."
But audio of a May Groundswell meeting held in May obtained by C&L reveals Groundswellers met with top Congressional leaders to lobby for a select committee endowed with subpoena power to investigate the White House. Lobbying may be too mild a term, since they really are plotting with those same leaders to invent very real scandals with very real investigations in order to sink the country into a mire of inaction and sabotage the remaining years of President Obama's term.
Messaging is a part of their activity, but there is also an entire set of marching orders and demands made by this group and granted by Congressional leadership. It isn't limited to the Benghazi 'scandal', and it may not be limited to Congress.
Catherine Engelbrecht "facilitated" the May 8th Groundswell meeting. Engelbrecht is the president and founder of True the Vote, a Texas group dedicated to challenging voting rights among the poor, students, and minorities. In addition to their regular work attacking sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act via lawsuits, Engelbrecht was the media go-to person for the media on the phony IRS scandal. That story broke on May 9th, after the Benghazi hearings had more or less fizzled out the previous day.
There was wave after wave of headlines about these so-called scandals. Some people wrote about what an awful week the White House had. It wasn't coincidence. It was orchestrated and planned by this group of people, who had the will and the power to secure the participation of people like Darrell Issa, John Boehner and more.
True the Vote led the charge to sue the IRS and serve the highest-profile plaintiff among the "aggrieved" groups. Yet this audio recording shows their president "facilitating" a clearly partisan, right-wing activist group meeting of people who claim to be fighting a "30-front war." No big deal? When is the last time anyone you know could ring up the Speaker of the House and the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee and take a face-to-face meeting in the wee hours of the evening with approval from the wife of a sitting Supreme Court justice?
In the first 20 minutes of the meeting, a lot of ground was covered. The audio of the final hour or so is available, but the quality is not clear enough at this time to publish it. However, they helpfully provided handouts at the meeting relating to their voter suppression efforts discussed later on. Here are some highlights from the audio and then parts that came later.
At 3:45, Jerry Boykin advises the group of the meetings he and Frank Gaffney had with Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Darrell Issa concerning Benghazi on the evening of May 7th about how the Benghazi investigation is progressing. This was the night before the last Congressional Oversight Committee hearing was held on Benghazi, where the so-called whistleblowers were to testify.
In the late-night meeting with Gaffney and Boykin, Boehner advised both that they needed to allow the regular order of committee meetings to play out before he would push for a select committee. Issa told him the same thing. Boykin and Gaffney reported this to the group, along with a promise that there "would be answers." Both reiterated that they and former Rep. Allen West were very concerned about the lack of a military response and assured the group that "what we'll find today is that Hillary Clinton made some egregious decisions and the president was basically absent from his post and did not make the decisions that as the Commander-in-Chief he should have been making...because he was focused on some other things."
They further assured the group that they weren't backing away from their demands, but instead they "kind of have a pledge from...Issa and the Speaker."
Future Debt Ceiling Battles
Just past the Benghazi discussion, the group received a report about upcoming debt ceiling negotiations, where they are advised that a survey has gone out to conservative lawmakers to see "what they're looking for in exchange for their votes raising the debt ceiling."
Of course, you'd never know from the press they get that there was any intention of raising the debt ceiling at all. Now we all can see that they will in fact do it reluctantly, as Shonda Weery reports when she advises that it's "not a vote they'll want to give without getting back something in return." Let the horse-trading begin.
During the meeting, True the Vote made a presentation (document below) about their plan to attack groups who are actively working to protect voting rights around the country, particularly after the Supreme Court gutted most of the protections. Code-named "Hydra", True the Vote argues that the left is undermining voting rights, and must be stopped, by hook or by crook.
Let's review that timeline.
On May 8, 2013, True the Vote is a facilitator and presenter at a meeting where Ginni Thomas and others are key players. TTV presents their plan to attack "the left" for daring to register voters. They're committed to stopping them from challenging any and all efforts to disenfranchise voters. Or as they describe it, securing the vote. Others might call it democracy corrupted.
On May 9, 2013 the IRS "scandal" breaks after Lois Lerner plants a question in a conference Q&A about IRS "targeting."
On May 21, 2013, True the Vote, represented by ActRight Legal Foundation, sues the IRS for not granting their tax-exempt status and targeting them for their beliefs. ActRight Legal Foundation uses Cleta Mitchell as one of their consulting attorneys. Mitchell is a well-known and very high profile litigator on behalf of conservative causes. There are very few conservative nonprofits that don't have Mitchell's fingerprints all over them.
True the Vote goes all over conservative media with their tale of woe. Their message: The IRS was used as a tool by the liberal president to target conservatives and suppress their free speech rights. Until True the Vote was a victim of the terrible IRS, they were under Congressional investigation for voter suppression, by the way.
In fact, the IRS had ample reason to believe they were a partisan, political group who was not simply acting on behalf of voters everywhere. But that did not stop Engelbrecht from pushing forward with her anti-voter initiatives while simultaneously leading the charge against the IRS.
But wait, there's more. True the Vote wrote a letter in opposition to the nomination of Thomas Perez for Secretary of Labor, complaining that "Mr. Perez, through political appointment and action, has made clear his intent to ignore key functions in federal election law – namely Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA)."
In TTV's document entitled "Hydra with Footnotes", the battle lines are drawn with very partisan rulers. After making their case that the "Organized Left is preparing a massive campaign to promote 'Universal Registration' and threatening to block citizen observers from the polls," TTV vows to target those groups however they can and defeat the terrible lefty Hydra by "attack[ing] the source of its strengths", which they view as the usual right-wing targets: unions, the NAACP, Common Cause, Project Vote, Demos, Center for American Progress, The Nation Foundation, and more.
While this flurry of organizing and activism is happening, TTV is front and center in the press with loud, strident claims that the IRS "targeted" them.
Another active member of Groundswell, J. Christian Adams, contributes content to the True the Vote site on issues such as whether any fix to the Voting Rights Act is possible after it was gutted by the Supreme Court in June. Adams serves as counsel to the Election Law Center, yet another right-wing effort to suppress the vote.
The efforts of this group should not be marginalized, given that what they are saying is repeated in the halls of the House and the Senate on a daily basis. It isn't just right-wing crazy people being crazy. These are activists with contacts in high places who are using those contacts to strip people of their rights, to invent scandals to undermine the President at every turn, and to marginalize Hillary Clinton if she should choose to run in 2016. Those are just a few of their goals. They have power and they're not afraid to use it.
Group members are the water-carriers and action arm of the billionaires' tea party. Listen to the full 20 minutes of that audio, or read the transcript here to see just how destructive they intend to be.
This is the first of a two-part series. Tomorrow, I'll look more closely at Ginni Thomas' involvement to see whether Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas engaged in unethical conduct or colluded with his wife and her associates.
Italy’s first black cabinet minister: Racist insults hurt both me and ‘civil conscience’
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, July 30, 2013 13:50 EDT
Italy’s first black cabinet member, Cecile Kyenge, on Tuesday called for an end to racist insults from members of the anti-immigration Northern League party.
People “should debate with ideas, not with insults, even when they have different ideas,” Kyenge, who is minister for integration, told reporters.
“These attacks hurt me but also hurt the civil conscience of the majority of this country,” said Kyenge, an eye doctor born in the Democratic Republic of Congo who is now an Italian citizen.
Kyenge, 48, has so far played down the onslaught, including being likened to an orangutan by senior party member and Senate deputy speaker Roberto Calderoli.
But on Tuesday she appealed directly to the leader of the Northern League, Roberto Maroni, who is also governor of the Lombardi region, to end the racism.
She said that otherwise she would not take part in a conference with the Northern League this week.
“I feel I can respect this engagement only if Maroni appeals to his activists to immediately cease their continual attacks against me,” she said.
Kyenge had bananas thrown at her at a political rally on Saturday, and far-right militants hung nooses in a town where she was due to speak earlier this month.
Racism is common in Italy, where large-scale immigration is still a relatively recent phenomenon.
The Northern League has a small but vociferous support base, and most of Italy’s mainstream political forces have condemned the insults directed at Kyenge.
Why is Italy still so racist?
The verbal attacks on Cécile Kyenge are shocking, even in a country where racism is part of everyday life
Tuesday 30 July 2013 16.27 BST
The events of the last few weeks have proved, beyond doubt, that Italy has a serious problem with racism. Bananas have been thrown at Cécile Kyenge, Italy's first black government minister. A (female) councillor for the Northern League has said she should be raped. A Northern League senator has likened her to an orangutan. Last week the AC Milan footballer, Kevin Constant, walked off the pitch after a barrage of abuse, just as Kevin-Prince Boateng did earlier this year.
The Northern League is, admittedly, a minority party, usually gaining only between five and 10% of the national vote. And other political parties have expressed solidarity with Kyenge. But anyone who has listened to Italian political debate, or worse, stood in an Italian football stadium, knows that Italy simply isn't a tolerant place. This is a country where a recent prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, thought it hilarious to joke that Obama had a decent suntan. The racism isn't restricted to right or left, old or young, rural or urban: it is noticeable everywhere.
The reasons are pretty obvious. As Italians will constantly tell you, theirs is an incredibly provincial country. Campanilismo – the attachment to one's local belltower – is one of the reasons the place is so charming: people often stay put, they're rooted rather than rootless. All over the country, even in a tiny village, you'll see caput mundi graffitied on walls, suggesting that this sleepy place is considered the capital of the world. The downside is that outsiders are treated as aliens, if not enemies.
Through the centuries Italy has been, not a colonial power, but a colony, a plaything of the superpowers. So with the exception of small parts of Somalia, no other country speaks Italian. Unlike France, Britain, Portugal or Spain, there's no large diaspora of Italian speakers who can immediately integrate into the "mother country", knowing already its literature and history. So the peninsula remains insular, an astonishingly monocultural, monoconfessional place.
There are other reasons for the racism: the legacy of fascism and the continuing adulation of Benito Mussolini; the tangible insecurity, even sense of inferiority, of many Italians; widespread economic misery for at least the last decade; and a political class that is absurdly ignorant. But perhaps the most interesting explanation for racism comes from an Italian mate of mine who's an armchair anthropologist. He maintains that in a country that is famously lawless, in which rules are often wilfully ignored, everyone is oddly very conformist in other ways: all wearing the same fashionable colour, or eating the same food at the same festivals. Italy simply isn't a country of eccentricity, or a place where difference or diversity are accepted, let alone cherished. I once tried to experiment by putting an unorthodox topping on my pizza and was harangued by irate mates as if I'd committed a terrible crime.
The conundrum of Italian racism is that Italy, ever a country of contradictions, is also a place of remarkable generosity and hospitality. I know it's easy for a white Englishman to say that, but centuries of visitors have noted Italians' esterofilia, their love of all things foreign. The dignity and intelligence of Kyenge in the face of recent attacks may yet remind Italians that they have a reputation for loving, rather than fearing, those from afar.
Tobias Jones's Italian novel, Death of a Showgirl, has just been published by Faber
07/30/2013 03:19 PM
Endgame for Il Cavaliere?: Berlusconi Awaits the Final Verdict
By Fabian Reinbold in Rome
For the first time, Silvio Berlusconi is threatened with a legally binding conviction. Italy's highest court is due to rule this week on the former premier's tax fraud verdict. It could finally mean an end to the magnate's political career -- and spell serious trouble for the fragile governing coalition.
Silvio Berlusconi is already rehearsing the role of martyr. "If they convict me, I won't go into exile," he told Il Libero, a conservative newspaper that is sympathetic to the former prime minister. He said he was innocent, but that he would not apply for house arrest: "If I am convicted, I'm going to prison," said the four-time premier, media mogul and multi-billionaire.
Berlusconi later half-heartedly denied the quotes, saying they had been loosely interpreted by the journalists. It is a well-known game of "Il Cavaliere": make a comment only to contest it a bit later. But things are different this time. Berlusconi avoided attacking the judiciary, because now he has to contend with the highest court in the country.
Though he's been indicted on dozens of charges, this is the first time Berlusconi has been threatened with a legally binding conviction. The Court of Cassation in Rome will decide whether to uphold the former premier's conviction and sentence for tax fraud relating to his broadcasting company Mediaset. Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in prison and a five-year ban from holding public office. The first surprise came on Monday evening. It was suddenly announced that the judges wouldn't release their ruling on Tuesday as planned but would wait until Wednesday -- or even later.
Berlusconi definitely won't be going to jail. Because of his age -- Berlusconi is 76 -- the sentence would be commuted to house arrest. It's the political penalty that will likely hit him harder. The ex-premier, who still holds a seat in the senate, would no longer be able to run in elections. And without public office, it is difficult for Berlusconi to protect himself from prosecution for other alleged crimes, such as in the Ruby sex trial.
The End of an Era?
The judges have the power to put an end to Berlusconi's political career. But there's also the chance that, in typical Berlusconi fashion, it could once more go another way.
In Italy, no one knows how the judges will rule or what trump cards Berlusconi's lawyers may still have up their sleeves. The media are treating the case cautiously, and Prime Minister Enrico Letta's Social Democrats are trying to downplay the ruling -- because a conviction would put their coalition with Berlusconi's party to the test.
What is the trial about?
Berlusconi was found guilty of tax evasion in two lower courts: A subsidiary of his Mediaset company bought film distribution rights then sold them at inflated prices to Mediaset, dodging taxes. Berlusconi has consistently maintained that he was not aware of what was going on within his media empire.
What ruling is expected?
Many media observers believe that the most likely outcome is that the judges uphold the verdict. But they could also acquit him or refer the case back to the last court that dealt with it. Berlusconi's lawyers have raised 50 objections. The word in Rome is that lawyers and judges might agree to postpone a ruling until after the summer break. This would be risky, because as a head of government, Berlusconi delayed the trial by years and the statute of limitations will run out, at some point.
What will the ruling mean for the government?
After Italy's election stalemate in February, a grand coalition is striving to reach consensus. It could be badly shaken by the ruling. Were the court to uphold the verdict, the Senate upper house of parliament will have to decide whether Berlusconi immediately loses his Senate seat. Berlusconi's party and the Social Democrats -- the latter united primarily by their loathing of "Il Cavaliere" -- are unlikely to reach an agreement on this. Even the Court of Cassation's announcement a few weeks ago that a ruling could be expected in late July left Rome deeply unsettled. Berlusconi loyalists have already repeatedly threatened to scupper the coalition if their idol is convicted this week.
According to the Libero report, Berlusconi himself said that he expected a conviction would bring down the government. He blamed the leftists, who would, he predicted, refuse to govern with a convicted criminal.
The chief justice will have to ignore such attempts to influence the outcome. But in crisis-ridden Italy, there appears to be no alternative to the current grand coalition. The court might, therefore, take political factors as well as legal ones into account. Once again, Silvio Berlusconi has the country on the edge of its seat.
07/31/2013 12:57 PM
Neo-Nazi Terror: Trial Advances Despite Immense Complexity
By Gisela Friedrichsen
The NSU trial in Munich has so far been plodding along with disjointed hearings on multiple crimes and defendants, but the presiding judge has nevertheless moved the trial forward. Yet another complication is emerging, though, between prosecutors and victims.
In the beginning, everything went more or less according to plan. The first to be heard was Carsten S., the only one of the five defendants to have come clean in the trial surrounding the case of neo-Nazi terror cell, the National Socialist Underground (NSU). He was followed by Holger G., who gave a statement, though his lawyers said he would not answer any questions about it.
But the other defendants, most notably Beate Zschäpe, the only surviving member of the NSU, along with former far-right National Democratic Party official Ralf Wohlleben, have remained silent. This means that the court will have to scramble to reach the conclusions necessary for a verdict on a case that involves a series of crimes that were allegedly committed over the course of 10 years. The court is essentially addressing 14 criminal proceedings at once: 10 cases of murder, mostly of men of Turkish descent, two bombing attacks, arson and various robberies.
The taking of evidence began on the 14th day of the trial, with the second in the series of murders, the shooting of tailor Abdurrahim Özüdogru in Nuremberg in 2001. The first witnesses were police officers who had been at the scene, as well as a local resident who claimed that she could look straight into the tailor shop from her living room. "I saw him lying there! I swear to you, I saw him lying there!" the teary-eyed woman insisted in court. She also said that she had seen a woman near the shop "who was blonde at the time." Was it Beate Zschäpe?
But the police officer who could have quickly debunked the woman's testimony, because there was in fact no clear view from her living room into the tailor shop, did not testify until four weeks later. In the meantime, the court had turned its attention to the murder of flower vendor Enver Simsek, followed by the widow of victim number four, Habil Kilic. A number of officers who had questioned Carsten S. and Holger G. were also summoned to testify. And then there were the witnesses who had something to say about the case of arson on Frühlingsstrasse in the eastern German city of Zwickau, where Zschäpe is accused of setting the apartment she shared with the NSU's two other members on fire after they committed suicide following a botched bank robbery. Finally, the court heard the testimony of medical examiners, who explained the victims' wounds, and weapons experts, who tried to deduce the position of the shooter from the bullet channels.
The gruesome "Pink Panther" video produced by the NSU was introduced at the beginning of the evidence hearing only coincidentally, simply because the opportunity arose. And who can even still remember the clumsy presentation of photos of the possible murder weapon? More memorable was the witness summoned by the Federal Criminal Police Office, who had been able to get Zschäpe to talk on a trip to her grandmother's house in the eastern state of Thuringia. He behaved like an emcee in court, until it became clear how much deceit was behind this facade.
Things are becoming confused. Rarely is a day in court devoted to a single topic, and the trial is fragmented. The hearing June 24 hearing of one witness wasn't continued until July 24, when hardly anyone could remember what was said in the first hearing. On some days, the court addresses three murder cases at the same time, which is exhausting for everyone involved. People are searching for a common thread leading through the thicket of files and facts.
Success Amid Chaos
Alexander Kienzle, representing a plaintiff in an incidental action, recently reminded the court of the original summons, issued in February, "which revealed a logically comprehensible structure of the hearing of evidence," and petitioned the court to return to this system. But how is that supposed to happen? In February, no one anticipated the uproar that would ensue from the allocation of press seats, which would not only lead to a delay in the beginning of the trial, but also stymied the court's ambitious program to structure the criminal trial.
Nevertheless, despite the chaotic presentation of evidence and all attempts to turn it into a scandal, the NSU trial is going better than might have been expected. The presiding judge, Manfred Götzl, has not only quickly gained control of the proceedings, but has also moved things along.
The picture of principal defendant Zschäpe has become clearer, as has her role in the radical right-wing community. There is no longer any talk of Zschäpe as the cake-baking housewife who ran the household for her fellow NSU members, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos. But she isn't the sister of the disturbed Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, either.
She was apparently a role model for the younger generation of neo-Nazis, who admired her for having crossed the line into illegality. She was allegedly present when weapons were delivered and violence against foreigners was discussed. She must have known who was for and against the idea, and probably had to take her own position. In her apartment, law enforcement officers found city maps with routes marked to possible crime locations. Zschäpe was also probably present when supporters were given instructions. It would be naïve to claim that she had no knowledge of the NSU's plans. Or perhaps she didn't want to know anything. But would the two Uwes have lived with her if Zschäpe's views had differed from their convictions?
Very little is known about the relationships within the trio. But without the perfectly staged appearance of middle-class normality Zschäpe apparently cultivated, which kept the neighbors from becoming suspicious, Böhnhardt and Mundlos would hardly have been able to commit crimes for so many years. Zschäpe took care of the paperwork necessary for renting a car, for example. She was the safe haven, according to the indictment.
The image of a dependent little woman also doesn't coincide with the few statements Zschäpe has made to investigators. Will she remain silent throughout the trial? Or will she eventually break her silence? One can only speculate over Zschäpe's attitude toward her lawyers and their advice.
A Strict Judge
If prosecutors can prove that she started the fire in her apartment, knowing that she was endangering others, which seems hard to doubt so far, then does this radical solution, this sudden and absolute way of putting an end to her shared life with the two Uwes, suggest that she panicked? That she was especially sensitive? The prosecutors don't know how the gasoline poured out in the apartment was set on fire. This is one of the prosecution's weaknesses. On the other hand, there are witnesses who ran into Zschäpe on the street after the explosion and note how "relaxed" her face had seemed.
Thanks to the judge's extremely precise method of questioning, the case is moving forward one step at a time. Götzl's knowledge of the files is thorough. It wasn't until the 27th day of the trial that a member of the court had any reason to ask a question he had forgotten. The federal prosecutor's office is calmly observing the trial in the knowledge that its indictment is not in jeopardy yet. Fears that the defense would be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the prosecution, with roughly an additional 60 attorneys involved in incidental actions, have not come to pass yet.
The presiding judge severely disciplines anyone who demands anything that is inadmissible or takes the wrong tone. In one instance, an attorney for one of the victims' families couldn't stop himself from loudly challenging retiree Josef Wilfling, one of the most experienced investigators in Bavaria, on why there was an investigation in the drug community but not into radical right-wing groups. Götzl became annoyed and even unpleasant, but never lost his cool as he has been known to do.
This presiding judge is extremely meticulous in complying with criminal procedure. He gives the parties involved plenty of space, allowing questions to the limit of the acceptable, and only interrupts in extreme cases. It's not his fault that Zschäpe's defense team doesn't exploit this advantage, and only engages in brief skirmishes with the judge.
However, there could be serious conflicts in the future between the public prosecutor's office and attorneys on individual incidental actions. Some of the victims seem unable to make peace with this country as long as they are being sent home with unanswered questions. Depending on the competency of their lawyers, their goals generally do not diverge significantly from those of the public prosecutor's office. But they also want to know why their families were struck by misfortune right beneath the eyes of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, or whether it is true that the NSU only became radicalized under the influence of a BfV informant. For these people, it is no comfort to say, as former Federal Public Prosecutor Herbert Diemer often does, that: "This is not relevant to this case, but instead belongs before an investigative committee."
This is an opportunity to gain insights into how the defendants came to commit their alleged crimes, and into how right-wing radicalism develops in the first place. The genesis of the murder series is important when it comes to the question of guilt, but it's important in other respects too.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
July 29, 2013
Wiesenthal Center Calls for Closing of German Magazine It Says Glorifies Nazism
By JACK EWING
FRANKFURT — The Waffen-SS is widely seen as one of the main perpetrators of the Holocaust, but not in the pages of Der Landser, a weekly German pulp magazine.
In one recent issue, members of the feared World War II military unit were portrayed as just a bunch of good-natured soldiers doing their jobs and, between battles, sharing rounds of local plonk with Greek villagers grateful to have been invaded.
“We conquered them, and they’re still a friendly folk,” remarked one member of the squad, a unit that served as Hitler’s personal bodyguard.
That jarring view of history, in a magazine published by one of Germany’s largest news media companies and available for download on Amazon and Apple’s iTunes, has come under fire from a prominent American Jewish group. Acting on what it said were several recent complaints, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles invoked German laws against Nazi propaganda and Holocaust denials in asking Berlin last week to shut down Der Landser.
German Interior Ministry officials said they took the Wiesenthal Center complaint “very seriously” and would investigate. But in the meantime, companies that print and distribute Der Landser said they would continue doing so, noting that previous legal challenges had failed to find fault with the editorial stance of the magazine, whose relatively small circulation belies its lightning-rod role in Germany.
The new focus on Der Landser is the latest incarnation of a debate — one that has lasted decades — over the balance between free speech and efforts in Germany to eradicate the neo-Nazi movement and tamp down anti-Semitism.
The magazine, which advertises that it is based on true events but also clearly includes fictional elements, studiously avoids mentioning the word “Nazi” and does not overtly propagate anti-Semitism. But critics say Der Landser, with its failure to acknowledge atrocities and little sense of regret for the deaths of millions of people, is stuck in a World War II time warp that ignores efforts by broader German society to come to terms with Nazi crimes.
“The way they interpret it, everyone in the Wehrmacht was just like in the American Army or the Canadian Army or the British Army,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Wiesenthal Center, using the term for the German armed forces at that time. “They forget the most important point. People in this army were thugs and murderers who almost brought down Western civilization.”
He called Amazon’s refusal to stop selling the magazine “preposterous.”
But even some experts skeptical of the magazine’s pseudo-historical tales of military heroics and camaraderie among German forces question whether it violates the prohibition against glorifying Nazism or denying the Holocaust.
“Legally, there is not much to grab on to,” said Peter Conrady, a retired professor of literature at the University of Dortmund who has studied Der Landser. Mr. Conrady said the magazine subtly promotes nationalism by portraying German soldiers, even from the SS, as sympathetic everymen who were morally superior to their enemies.
Mr. Conrady said a ban of the magazine would simply drive such material underground. It would be more useful to promote public knowledge of the issues raised by the magazine’s portrayal of history, he said. “It’s important for the public to be aware of this phenomenon,” he said.
The magazine’s editor in chief, Guntram Schulze-Wegener, who is in his late 40s, waved off assertions that Der Landser plays to contemporary extreme rightist sentiments.
In a brief telephone interview, Mr. Schulze-Wegener, who also edits several other magazines about military history, said the content was nonpolitical. He declined to comment further, saying he first had to consult with his superiors.
Der Landser’s publisher, Bauer Media Group, cited previous rulings by German officials that the magazine did not violate any laws. Its own review of the magazine has concluded that it “neither glorifies National Socialism nor downplays Nazi crimes,” Bauer said in a statement. The company would not disclose the circulation of the magazine, widely distributed on newsstands and online, but about a decade ago it was estimated at 60,000, not counting special issues.
Amazon said it would continue to sell the magazine after determining that it had previously passed muster with German officials who scrutinize the news media available to children.
Apple, which offers Der Landser on iTunes, did not respond to e-mails and telephone messages asking whether it was aware of the magazine’s content.
Irish president signs law increasing abortion access into law
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, July 30, 2013 11:43 EDT
Abortion became legal in Ireland on Tuesday in limited cases where the mother’s life is at risk, after President Michael D. Higgins signed a law that has exposed deep divisions in the Catholic-majority nation.
Irish lawmakers had overwhelmingly voted through the abortion bill earlier this month, prompted by an outcry over the death last year of an Indian woman who had been refused an abortion in an Irish hospital.
“President Higgins has today signed the bill into law,” a statement from the president’s office confirmed on Tuesday.
The law permits the termination of a pregnancy if doctors certify there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act ends years of uncertainty over the legal status of terminations in Ireland.
It follows a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 that found Ireland had failed to properly implement the constitutional right to abortion where a woman’s life is at risk.
Under a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, women in Ireland are also legally entitled to an abortion if it is needed to save a mother’s life — but six successive governments had failed to introduce legislation to reflect this.
The death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital last October placed Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws under global scrutiny and forced the current government to act.
Halappanavar, who was from India, had sought a termination when told she was miscarrying, but the request was refused as her life was not at risk at the time. She died of blood poisoning days later.
In a sign of the rifts that remain on abortion in predominantly Catholic Ireland, tens of thousands of people protested both in favour and against a change in the law following Halappanavar’s death.
The lower house of the Irish parliament passed the legislation with 127 votes in favour and 31 against earlier this month. It passed through the upper house last week.
But seven lawmakers including a junior minister were expelled from Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael party for voting against the legislation.
Lucinda Creighton, junior minister with responsibility for European affairs, quit her cabinet post after voting against the bill over her concerns that a woman deemed suicidal will be allowed a termination.
The new act permits a termination when one obstetrician and two psychiatrists unanimously agree that an expectant mother is a suicide risk, in a clause that deeply divided opinion.
Pro-life groups are widely expected to challenge aspects of the new law through the courts.
Some say the law does not go far enough and will not stop the flow of women travelling from Ireland to Britain for terminations.
Almost 4,000 Irish women had abortions in England or Wales last year, according to the British health ministry.
Scottish separatist Adam Busby to be extradited over terror charges
Irish court rules 64 year old should be returned to the UK to face trial for hoax bomb warnings and poisoning threats
Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent
theguardian.com, Tuesday 30 July 2013 18.46 BST
Adam Busby, the self-appointed leader of a hardline Scottish nationalist group involved in a series of terror attacks in the UK, is to be extradited from Ireland.
The high court in Dublin ruled on Monday that Busby, 64, should be returned to the UK, more than three decades after he fled to Ireland to escape arrest and trial for allegedly co-ordinating attacks against military sites, British political leaders and oil companies.
The Irish Examiner reported that Mr Justice John Edwards said Busby should be extradited on seven counts of telephoning hoax bomb warnings and poisoning threats to Scottish newspapers and agencies between November 2009 and June 2010.
Those included alleged threats to poison the water supply of major British cities, that several bridges including the Forth road bridge would be bombed, and claims that packages containing toxic substances were sent to the then prime minister Gordon Brown.
Describing himself as leader of the fringe Scottish National Liberation Army (SNLA), Busby has been an extradition target for the Scottish police and Scottish prosecutors ever since he fled to Ireland in 1980.
Those efforts intensified after a spate of terror attacks in Scotland in the early 1990s during an upsurge in hardline nationalist hoaxes targeting English residents in Scotland and senior political figures.
Busby has since been accused of masterminding bomb threats against international airlines, organising crude or hoax letter bombs against political figures including Margaret Thatcher, Cherie Blair, Douglas Hurd and Alex Salmond, and helping supporters send toxic drinks by post to celebrities.
Other hoax attacks linked to Busby, who is now wheelchair bound with multiple sclerosis, include fake anthrax-laced letters and bomb threats against major bridges, and threats against journalists who have written about him and the SNLA.
Busby was sent to jail by a judge in Dublin in July 2010 after sending email threats from a public library in the Irish capital to BAA at Heathrow, claiming that bombs were on two flights to New York in 2006 at the height of fears of Islamist terror attacks in the UK.
He was convicted of similar offences in Ireland in 1997 by a special criminal court, set up originally to deal with Irish terror groups, for making threatening phonecalls to the press.
In May 2009, his son Adam Busby Jr, from Paisley, was jailed for sending suspect packages to Alex Salmond, the Scottish National party leader and now first minister; the SNP's then headquarters in Edinburgh; to Glasgow city council and the English-born Scottish Liberal Democrat then MSP Mike Rumbles.
The latest alleged offences against Busby carry sentences of up to seven years in jail or, in one case, life. Busby said the alleged offences did not take place inside the UK and that as an Irish resident for 30 years, his extradition was a gross interference in his family life.
How Bank of England 'helped Nazis sell gold stolen from Czechs'
Official account of what many believe was British central bank's most shameful episode revealed more than 70 years after event
The Guardian, Wednesday 31 July 2013
Bank of England records detailing its involvement in the transfer and sale of gold stolen by Nazis after the invasion of Czechoslovakia were revealed online on Tuesday.
The gold had been deposited during the 1930s with the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), the so-called Central Banker's bank, as the Czechoslovak government faced a growing threat from Germany.
The document goes on to detail how a request was made in March 1939 to transfer gold, then worth £5.6m, from a Czech National Bank account at the BIS to an account operated by Germany's Reichsbank. Some £4m of the gold went to banks in the Netherlands and Belgium, while the rest was sold in London.
The document tells how the chancellor, Sir John Simon, had asked the governor of the bank, Montagu Norman, if it was holding any of the Czech gold in May 1939, two months after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.
It says: "The Governor in his reply (30th May) did not answer the question, but pointed out that the Bank held gold from time to time for the BIS and had no knowledge whether it was their own property or that of their customers. Hence, they could not say whether the gold was held for the National Bank of Czechoslovakia." A further transaction was made that June – despite concerns from Simon being raised. On that occasion, there were sales of gold to the value of £440,000 and a £420,000 shipment to New York.
According to the documents: "This represented gold which had been shipped to London by the Reichsbank. This time, before acting, the Bank of England referred the matter to the Chancellor, who said that he would like the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown."
The BoE's account, of what some regard as one of the Threadneedle Street's darkest episodes, was written in 1950 and published online on Tuesday following the first stage of the digitalisation of the bank's archive. It admits that the incident involving the Czech gold "still rankled" at the outbreak of the second world war "and for some time afterwards".
"Outside the Bank and the government the Bank's position has probably never been thoroughly appreciated and their action at the time was widely misunderstood," it adds.
"On the BIS enquiring, however, what was causing delay and saying that inconvenience would be caused because of payments the next day, the Bank of England acted on the instructions without referring to the Law Officers, who, however subsequently upheld their action."
Professor Neville Wylie, a historian at the University of Nottingham who has examined the period as part of research into Nazi Germany's looted gold and the role of Britain and Switzerland, said on Tuesday that the Bank of England's official history of the period was news to him and shed new light on a number of issues.
Wylie said that the attitude shown by the BoE in the history was consistent with what emerged from his own research into the British position towards Germany's wartime financial activities, which he described as "wanting".
He added: "The bank was wedded to a view of international finance and central bank co-operation. It was too concerned about maintaining London's status as an international financial centre – and clung to the need to maintain sterling's convertibility long after it was wise to continue with this policy."
Sources at the Bank of England on Tuesday drew attention to a section in the official history, containing comments by the chancellor to the House of Commons in June 1939, when he stated that Law Officers had advised him that the British government was precluded by protocols from preventing the BoE from obeying instructions given to it by the BIS to transfer the gold.