Life on earth 'began on Mars'
Geochemist argues that seeds of life originated on Mars and were blasted to Earth by meteorites or volcanoes
theguardian.com, Thursday 29 August 2013 01.31 BST
Evidence is mounting that life on Earth may have started on Mars. A leading scientist has claimed that one particular element believed to be crucial to the origin of life would only have been available on the surface of the red planet.
Professor Steven Benner, a geochemist, has argued that the "seeds" of life probably arrived on Earth in meteorites blasted off Mars by impacts or volcanic eruptions. As evidence, he points to the oxidised mineral form of the element molybdenum, thought to be a catalyst that helped organic molecules develop into the first living structures.
"It's only when molybdenum becomes highly oxidised that it is able to influence how early life formed," said Benner, of the Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology in the US. "This form of molybdenum couldn't have been available on Earth at the time life first began, because three billion years ago, the surface of the Earth had very little oxygen, but Mars did.
"It's yet another piece of evidence which makes it more likely that life came to Earth on a Martian meteorite, rather than starting on this planet."
All living things are made from organic matter, but simply adding energy to organic molecules will not create life. Instead, left to themselves, organic molecules become something more like tar or asphalt, said Prof Benner.
He added: "Certain elements seem able to control the propensity of organic materials to turn to tar, particularly boron and molybdenum, so we believe that minerals containing both were fundamental to life first starting.
"Analysis of a Martian meteorite recently showed that there was boron on Mars; we now believe that the oxidised form of molybdenum was there too."
Another reason why life would have struggled to start on early Earth was that it was likely to have been covered by water, said Benner. Water would have prevented sufficient concentrations of boron forming and is also corrosive to RNA, a DNA cousin believed to be the first genetic molecule to have appeared.
Although there was water on early Mars, it covered much less of the planet. "The evidence seems to be building that we are actually all Martians; that life started on Mars and came to Earth on a rock," said Benner, speaking at the Goldschmidt 2013 conference in Florence, Italy. "It's lucky that we ended up here nevertheless, as certainly Earth has been the better of the two planets for sustaining life. If our hypothetical Martian ancestors had remained on Mars, there might not have been a story to tell."
Mars had an oxygen-rich atmosphere four billion years ago
The oxygen was either produced by life forms or by a chemical reaction in the atmosphere of Mars
theguardian.com, Wednesday 19 June 2013 18.00 BST
Mars had an oxygen-rich atmosphere more than a billion years before the Earth, say scientists. An examination of meteorites and rocks on the planet suggests that oxygen was affecting the Martian surface four billion years ago.
On Earth, oxygen did not build up to appreciable quantities in the atmosphere for at least another 1.5bn years.
The researchers compared Martian meteorites that have crashed onto the Earth with data from rocks examined by Nasa's Spirit Mars rover. Differences in their composition can best be explained by an abundance of oxygen early in Martian history.
Spirit was exploring an ancient part of Mars containing rocks more than 3.7bn years old. The rocks bear the hallmarks of early exposure to oxygen before being "recycled" – drawn into shallow regions of the planet's interior and then spewed out in volcanic eruptions.
Volcanic Martian meteorites, on the other hand, originate from deeper within the planet where they would be less affected by oxygen. The meteorites travel to Earth after being flung into space by massive eruptions or impacts.
The new research, published in the journal Nature, has implications for the possibility of past life on Mars. On early Earth, the atmosphere was gradually filled with free oxygen by photosynthesising microbes. Scientists call this the Great Oxygenation Event.
The link between oxygen and life on Mars is less certain. Oxygen could have been produced biologically, or by a chemical reaction in the atmosphere.
Lead scientist Professor Bernard Wood of Oxford University said: "The implication is that Mars had an oxygen-rich atmosphere at a time, about 4,000 million years ago, well before the rise of atmospheric oxygen on Earth around 2,500 million years ago.
"As oxidation is what gives Mars its distinctive colour, it is likely that the 'red planet' was wet, warm and rusty billions of years before Earth's atmosphere became oxygen-rich."
Nasa's Opportunity rover finds Martian water appropriate for the origin of life
Nasa's Opportunity rover is celebrating 10 years on Mars by finding its best evidence yet: that the planet was once habitable
Friday 7 June 2013 20.16 BST
Solander Point outcrop on Mars After almost 10 years' exploring, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity will now head for Solander Point. Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Opportunity has made one of its greatest scientific discoveries so far. Clay minerals in a rock called Esperance clearly indicate that neutral water flowed across the rock some time in the first billion years of its existence.
The rock was found near Endurance Crater, and took seven attempts to analyse because it was partially covered in Martian dust.
The clay minerals are similar to one called montmorillonite. Formed under the influence of neutral water, this is significant because neutral water, which is similar to household tap water, is thought to be much more conducive to the chemistry needed for the origin of life.
Announcing the results, Steve Squyres, principal investigator for Opportunity, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. said that, although they have talked in the past about finding water with Opportunity, really it was more like sulphuric acid.
As Mars turned into the desert planet we see today, so the water became more acidic. This happened because of evaporation, which left a higher concentration of minerals in the remaining water – rather like reducing a sauce to make it richer.
Neutral water dates from an earlier time on the planet, when it rained frequently bestowing a more Earth-like environment.
Although a first for Opportunity, this is not the first time that neutral water has been found on Mars. In March, NASA's larger, younger rover Curiosity found evidence for 'drinkable' water in clay minerals in Gale crater. "It is really striking to me, how similar the stories are for the rocks at Gale and Endeavour crater," says Squyres, comparing the two findings.
Opportunity is now heading for a 55-metre high outcrop called Solander Point. Averaging 50 metres per day, the team hope to get there before August.
Winter is approaching on Mars. If Opportunity reaches Solander Point's sloping sides, the solar panels can catch more of the low winter Sun. This could give them enough power to drive during the winter months.
In previous Martian winters, on flatter terrain, power levels have dropped so much that engineers have had to park Opportunity and wait for the cold weather to end.
Images show that Solander Point displays layered terrain. These layers preserve a record of Mars's changing climate throughout the planet's history, which Opportunity can read. Analysing such layers is similar to Curiosity's mission at Mount Sharp in Gale crater.
The longevity of Opportunity is astonishing. Designed to last for just 90 Martian days, it is now approaching its 3400th Martian day of operation.
It has lasted almost 40 times longer than its design lifetime. It was launched on 7 July 2003 and landed on 25 January 2004.
Considering the age of the rover, and the fact that its twin Spirit 'passed away' in 2010 during its fourth Martian winter, it seems prudent to start the celebrations now. Just in case.
Stuart Clark is the author of The Day Without Yesterday (Polygon).
In the USA...President Obama Gives the Civil Rights Speech of the Decade
By: Sarah JonesAug. 28th, 2013
President Obama demonstrated the powerful politics of optimism today at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. This is also the first time I’ve ever caught him in a big fib.
The President gave an interview to CBS in which he warned, “It won’t be as good as the speech 50 years ago… I just want to get that out there early.” All politicians do their best to lower expectations and Obama had huge expectations riding on today, but that doesn’t change the fact that his speech was, for civil rights, the speech of the decade.
It wasn’t that the President’s speech was moving, though it was. It wasn’t that he has incredible oratory skills, though he has. It was that he chose this moment, in his second term, to go out on a limb to refocus the civil rights movement at a time when it’s easy to be discouraged and demoralized.
It was a speech of searing optimism combined with the politics of pragmatic, sequential change. He explained, “What King described was the dream of every American.” He focused our efforts on positive thoughts and actions, saying “Change does not come from Washington, but to Washington.”
People mock Obama’s “hope”, but without hope, there is no change. That’s why they mock it. Obama reminded us that King gave hope to millions:
We rightly and best remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.
He reminded us of the power of optimism and brotherhood (full transcript here):
They had every reason to lash out in anger or resign themselves to a bitter fate.
And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglas once taught: that freedom is not given; it must be won through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.
That was the spirit young people like John Lewis brought that day.
He reminded us that freedom and liberty are not abstract achievements, but quantifiable in equal opportunity, economic justice, legal justice, and more. And he reminded us that our work is not done yet, “To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”
“The young are unconstrained by habits of fear … They dared to dream different.”
The President urged us to validate the faith of those who came before us, who sacrificed so much for the changes they wrought.
To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed — that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years. Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr., they did not die in vain. Their victory was great.
He reminded us that the spirit of brotherhood is the only way to get there. He told us what those people 50 years ago changed, so that we could imagine what we can change today:
And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.
Because they marched, America became more free and more fair, not just for African-Americans but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for gays, for Americans with disabilities.
America changed for you and for me.
These are the thoughts of a brilliant leader, who understands as Martin Luther King Jr did, the power of unified positive action.
These are people, King, Obama, Lewis, and more, who frighten those who don’t really want equal rights for everyone — just as positive, pragmatic and determined spirits usually frighten the dark side of human nature.
Click to watch this powerful speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0z87SKSyyw
**************Every Republican That Was Asked Refused to Attend March On Washington Event
By: Jason Easley
Aug. 29th, 2013
John Boehner, Eric Cantor, John McCain, and every other Republican who were asked refused to attend the March on Washington event.
According to Roll Call:
Speaker John A. Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the House’s two most senior Republicans, were invited to speak at the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington — but declined.
According to a list obtained by CQ Roll Call, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was also invited to speak at Wednesday’s events, but according to a spokesman, the lawmaker was in Arizona all week with a schedule full of public events.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was also asked to attend in lieu of his brother, President George W. Bush, who reportedly had to turn down the invitation as he recovered from surgery due to an arterial blockage — not, as Bond suggested, he had to stay to attend to his also-ailing father.
“This was truly a bipartisan outreach effort,” said a spokesperson for the event in an email statement to CQ Roll Call. “All members of congress were invited to attend and the Republican leadership was invited to speak. Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office was very helpful in trying to find someone to speak at the event. Making this commemoration bi-partisan was especially important to members of the King family, too.”
It is obvious why Republicans made sure that they were “busy” on the day of the event. None of them wanted to be seen on or near a stage with President Obama. Republicans also view ignoring or antagonizing minorities as good politics. For example, Mitt Romney’s speech at the NAACP convention appeared to be designed to get him booed. (It was the one goal that the candidate was able to achieve, as he was nearly booed out of the building.)
By refusing to attend this event, Republicans affirmed that they are not interested in bipartisanship of any kind. Congressional Republicans don’t want to give the impression to their base that they are capable of agreeing with Democrats on anything, including honoring a one of the most important moments of the last half century.
Jeb Bush turned down attending the event, because he is stuck in perpetual mode of mulling a run of his own for the presidency. If he would have been healthy, George W. Bush might have been the event organizers’ best chance of getting a Republican to attend.
By refusing to even show up, Republicans sent the message to the country that only one party cares about inclusion and diversity, and it isn’t them. Their decision wasn’t just bad optics. It was bad politics.
Most of all, it was a completely unnecessary snub of the King family, and Martin Luther King’s legacy. The message has been effectively sent that Republicans don’t care about civil rights, equality, and inclusiveness.
Good luck running on that platform in 2016.
***********Bill Clinton, ‘A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon.’
By: Jason Easley
Aug. 28th, 2013
President Clinton took down the entire rationale of the Republican Party with one sentence. Clinton said, ‘A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon.’
CLINTON: We cannot relax in our efforts to implement health care reform in a way that ends discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions — one of which is inadequate income to pay for rising health care — (applause) — a health care reform that will lower costs and lengthen lives; nor can we stop investing in science and technology to train our young people of all races for the jobs of tomorrow; and to act on what we learn about our bodies, our businesses and our climate. We must push open those stubborn gates.
We cannot be discouraged by a Supreme Court decision that said we don’t need this critical provision of the Voting Rights Act because, look at the states, it made it harder for African Americans and Hispanics and students and the elderly and the infirm and poor working folks to vote. What do you know; they showed up, stood in line for hours and voted anyway. So, obviously we don’t need any kind of law. (Applause.)
But a great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon. (Cheers, applause.) We must open those stubborn gates.
If our country is going to be a great democracy, it must let all Americans participate in that democracy. President Clinton gave a sneak peek of his explanation of Obamacare that he will be giving next week. Clinton hit it perfectly. Healthcare should be something that we fight for. Heathcare should be a right.
Anniversaries are not only about remembering the past, but looking forward to the future. If one examines the two political parties by the criteria of what they offer for the future what is revealed is a choice between whether America will go forwards or backwards.
President Clinton was correct. It should not be easier to buy an assault weapon than it is to vote. Democracy isn’t just about the Second Amendment, and the message today is that Americans who believe in progress can’t quit. They can’t give up. They can’t be discouraged by gridlock.
President Clinton reminds us all that the greatest struggle of all is the never ending struggle for freedom. Freedom isn’t just owning a gun. It is the ability to go see a doctor, and most importantly the right to express yourself with your vote.
*************President Obama’s OFA Targets Speaker Boehner Over Immigration Reform
By: Sarah Jones
Aug. 28th, 2013
Organizing for Action is targeting taking the immigration reform fight to Speaker John Boehner with a new Spanish-language radio ad. The Speaker has refused to act on immigration reform.
Organizing for Action announced the release of a new Spanish-language radio ad on Tuesday that targets Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA), and Representative and Democrat Daniel Lipinski (D-IL).
The ad aimed at Boehner urges the listener to call the Speaker’s office to tell him to support immigration reform. “Only a group of obstructionists in the House of Representatives are standing in the way – determined to block comprehensive immigration reform. Call Congressman John Boehner. Tell him it’s time to support immigration reform.”
(Translation by OFA)
"President Obama. The Democrats. And the Republicans in the US Senate all agree.
They have a bi-partisan solution to America’s immigration problem.
Their plan will give 11 million people a pathway to citizenship.
Create jobs and reduce our deficit.
Stop businesses from exploiting immigrant labor.
And ensure that DREAMers can get a college degree and proudly serve in the military.
Only a group of obstructionists in the House of Representatives are standing in the way — determined to block comprehensive immigration reform.
Forcing millions to live in fear of deportation and tearing families apart.
Call Congressman John Boehner. Tell him it’s time to support immigration reform.
Congressman, we’ll be watching. This is one vote we’ll never forget.
Paid for by Organizing for Action."
In July of this year, Organizing for Action protesters rallied outside of Boehner’s Ohio office to push the House to pass immigration reform similar to the bipartisan bill passed in the Senate.
Of the Speaker’s refusal to take the Senate version to the floor, immigration reform activist Dominic Lijoi told WCPO, “I know that they have to go through their process which is the democratic way. But we’ve already seen that we have an accord recently in the senate that was bipartisan.”
Note that Rep. Gary Miller is being targeted. He’s in a vulnerable House seat, and he was caught on tape telling DREAMers that he gets it because he’s from Arkansas.
President Obama’s finely tuned warhorse of an organizing machine didn’t dormant after he won reelection. Instead, he put Organizing for Action to work to support his legislative agenda, showing that he learned one of the tough lessons of his first term: He has to keep taking it to the people.
**************Republicans are Courting Disaster as 57% of Americans Oppose Defunding Obamacare
By: Jason Easley
Aug. 28th, 2013
A new Kaiser Health Tracking Poll released today found that Republicans are on the wrong course again, as 57% of respondents oppose their efforts to defund Obamacare.
The Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found that by a margin of 57%-36%, Americans oppose the Republican efforts to defund Obamacare. Democrats most strongly disapprove at 81%-15%. Independents disapprove by a margin of 53%-39%, but Republicans approve of the idea 60%-34%. Those who hold a favorable view of the ACA disapprove of the the efforts to defund the law 83%-14, and those who hold an unfavorable view support defunding 60%-33%.
This graphic shows that nearly 70% of Americans believe that using the budgetary process to defund Obamacare is not how our government is supposed to work:
It turns out that a large majority of the American people don’t want Obamacare defunded. It should come as a surprise to no one that the political instincts of Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Jim DeMint, and Sarah Palin are completely out of step with the rest of the country. The only people who support the defund movement are the tiny base of Republicans that the right spends most of their time appealing to.
If the Republican Party caves to the right and shuts down the government in an effort to defund Obamacare, they will be courting an epic political disaster. Republicans will be taking a stand that is unpopular with nearly 60% of the country. Politically, shutting down the government over Obamacare could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in the 2014 elections.
A majority of Americans don’t support a government shutdown, or the defunding of the ACA. Mitch McConnell and many of the Senate Republicans are likely to hold out against the defund movement, but weak kneed John Boehner and his far right House caucus could shutdown the government with glee.
This is setting up a situation where the unpopular and out of control House Republicans drag down their entire party with their extremism.
Republicans already know that Obama won’t be blamed for a government shutdown, but that isn’t enough to stop House Republicans from undertaking their yearly act of political self destruction.
Obama's Syria plans in disarray after Britain rejects use of force
White House forced to consider unilateral strikes against Assad after British PM unexpectedly loses key motion on intervention
Paul Lewis and Spencer Ackerman in Washington
The Guardian, Friday 30 August 2013
Barack Obama's plans for air strikes against Syria were thrown into disarray on Thursday night after the British parliament unexpectedly rejected a motion designed to pave the way to authorising the UK's participation in military action.
The White House was forced to consider the unpalatable option of taking unilateral action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad after the British prime minister, David Cameron, said UK would not now take part in any military action in response to a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus last week.
Although Britain's support was not a prerequisite for US action, the Obama administration was left exposed without the backing of its most loyal ally, which has taken part in every major US military offensive in recent years.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for Obama's national security council, indicated the administration would consider acting unliaterally. "The US will continue to consult with the UK government – one of our closest allies and friends. As we've said, President Obama's decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States.
"He believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable."
The US appears to have taken British support for granted. Hours before the vote, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Diane Feinstein, expressed confidence that Britain would join any strike.
Feinstein, a Democrat and staunch administration ally, told Time magazine: "I think the UK makes a difference. I think if the president were to decide to go there's a very high likelihood that the United Kingdom would be with us."
The timing of the British vote, 272 to 285 against the government, was disastrous for Obama. Less than 30 minutes after the vote, senior intelligence officials began a conference call with key members of Congress, in an attempt to keep US lawmakers on side.
Congressional leaders and the chairs and ranking members of national security committees were briefed by the most senior US intelligence officials, amid signs that some of the support for military strikes against Syria was fading.
The officials said there was "no doubt" that chemical weapons were used in Syria last week, Reuters reported. Obama aides cited intercepted communications of Syrian officials and evidence of movements by Syria's military around Damascus before the attack that killed more than 300 people, said Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House foreign affairs committee.
The 90-minute briefing was conducted by secretary of state John Kerry, secretary of defense Chuck Hagel, national security adviser Susan Rice, among others.
After the briefing, Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate armed services committee, urged a cautious approach. "I have previously called for the United States to work with our friends and allies to increase the military pressure on the Assad regime by providing lethal aid to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.
"Tonight, I suggested that we should do so while UN inspectors complete their work and while we seek international support for limited, targeted strikes in response to the Assad regime's large-scale use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people."
The UN has said more time should be given to diplomacy, and France, which earlier this week declared its support for taking action against Syria, is now calling for more time so UN inspections can be completed. A session of the United Nations security council in New York, called by Russia, broke up without agreement.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, instructed the 20-strong inspection team in Damascus to leave on Saturday, a day ahead of schedule. Ban also announced that the team would report to him immediately on departure, raising the possibility that the UN could issue an interim report on the 21 August chemical attacks that left hundreds of people dead.
The inspectors had not been due to deliver their findings for a week at least. The demand for a rushed early assessment reflects the fraught atmosphere at the UN triggered by US threats to launch punitive air strikes within days.
Shortly before Britain's parliamentary vote, the New York Times quoted senior administration officials saying the US administration was prepared to launch strikes on Syria without a UN security council mandate or the support of allies such as Britain.
Earlier on Thursday, Joshua Earnest, the White House deputy spokesman, seemed to confirm that was a possibility when he was asked whether the US would "go it alone". He repeatedly said it was in US "core national security interests" to enforce international chemical weapons norms. "The president of the United States is elected with the duty to protect the national security interests of America," he said. Any strikes would be "discreet and limited", he said.
However, Earnest also stressed the broad international support for the US position – backing that now appears to be dissipating. The Arab League has blamed Syria for the chemical attack, but stopped short of advocating punitive strikes by the US.
In recent days, Obama has spoken personally with leaders of France, Australia, Canada and Germany. But none were as important as Britain, a traditional ally during US military actions which has been lobbying behind the scenes for months for a tougher action on Syria.
Ken Pollack, a fellow from the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, said that with continuing uncertainty over the intelligence picture, and no obvious legal mandate for military action, the US will be desperate to secure more international backing to argue that intervention is "legitimate".
"If the administration can't even count of the full-throated support of our closest ally, the country that stuck by us even during the worst days of Iraq, that legitimacy is going to be called into question," he said.
Now that the UK parliament has rejected an attack on Syria, Washington's space for planning one is likely to be constrained, particularly as the Obama administration prepares to release its intelligence tying Assad to the 21 August gas attack. An unclassified report is due to be published on Friday.
Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA Middle East analyst and Georgetown professor, said the loss of British support would lead to more "intense" scrutiny of the US case for action against Syria. "The UK is, in many important respects, the most important ally of the United States," said Pillar. "This action by parliament is unquestionably significant in that regard."
Syria crisis: David Cameron still wants 'robust response' to chemical weapons
Prime minister says Britain will not be joining military action but can still help uphold 'international taboo' on weapons
theguardian.com, Friday 30 August 2013 13.10 BST
David Cameron has said he will still seek a "robust response" to Syria after MPs rejected the prospect of missile strikes on the regime.
In a television interview, the prime minister said British plans to join America in a military campaign "won't be happening" but there were other ways of "upholding the international taboo on the use of chemical weapons".
After his shock defeat in the Commons on Thursday night, Cameron said he had not spoken to the US president, Barack Obama, who is planning to press on alone, but felt there was "no question of having to apologise" to Britain's closest ally.
He told Sky News he believed Obama and the America public would understand that he had to listen to parliament, which "reflected the great scepticism of the British people". The public unease about getting involved in another Middle East war "trumped the sense of outrage about chemical weapons", he added.
He insisted Britain was still "deeply engaged in the world" and argued the rejection of military action "doesn't stop us working with allies to bring maximum pressure on the regime" through the UN and other international bodies.
Cameron also contrasted his willingness to listen to parliament "very, very clearly" with Tony Blair's approach in the runup to the Iraq war in 2003.
The coalition lost the vote after Labour decided it would join with 39 Tory and Liberal Democrat rebels in rejecting the government's general motion proposing military action against Syria "if necessary".
In the previous few days, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, had indicated he would support the prime minister as long as more UN agreement was sought and weapons inspectors had given their verdict about the use of chemical weapons.
Asked whether he felt betrayed by Miliband's decision to withdraw his support, Cameron said it was a matter for the Labour leader to "defend the way he behaved and his conduct".
The prime minister also said he had forgiven two Tory ministers who missed the tight vote – Justine Greening, the international development secretary, and Mark Simmonds, a junior Foreign Office minister – who both claimed not to have heard the division bell. "This was a technical issue," he said. "They have apologised profoundly and I've accepted their apology."
Earlier, the prime minister was defended by his chancellor, George Osborne, for trying to seek a consensus. However, the senior Tory also warned that Britain would have to do some "soul-searching" about its international role, saying he hoped this was not "the moment where we turn our back on the world's problems".
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he acknowledged it could place a strain on the "special relationship" between Britain and the US. "I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that a big open and trading nation that I'd like us to be or whether we turn our back on that," he said.
"I understand the deep scepticism that my colleagues in parliament and many members of the public have about British involvement in Syria. I hope this doesn't become the moment where we turn our back on the world's problems," he added.
About 30 Tory MPs and nine Liberal Democrats rebelled against their leaders to reject military intervention on Thursday night, which Cameron had said was necessary to stop the regime of Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against his people.
During the debate, many questioned the intelligence used to justify an attack and called for the prime minister to make a better case.
Miliband said his party had not ruled out backing a strike but Cameron's "reckless and cavalier" approach had lost him support. However, he also came in for strong criticism for his role in blocking the vote.
Lord Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader, said he had "never been so depressed and ashamed of his country" for failing to step into the Syrian conflict.
Britain's failure to intervene over the use of chemical weapons put it "in danger of plunging into isolationism" and will cheer Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, Syria's Assad and Nigel Farage of Ukip, he said.
Jack Straw, foreign secretary at the time of the Iraq war, took a less dramatic view. "It is not that Britain has become isolationist," he said. "It is the failure of the case, not the failure of Britain's place in the world."
Whatever the international implications for Britain, the vote was seen as a devastating blow to Cameron's authority at home. He lost a government motion by 272 votes to 285 – an opposition majority of 13 – leading to calls of "resign" as the results were read out by the Speaker.
Outside the chamber, Michael Gove, the education secretary, was overheard shouting "disgrace" at Tory rebels. Angus Robertson, Westminster leader of the Scottish National party, told Sky News Gove had to be "persuaded to calm down" following the outburst.
"Emotions were running high," Robertson said. Gove's wife Sarah Vine tweeted, in remarks that appeared to be aimed at Labour: "Pathetic losers who can't see past their own interests."
Sir Menzies Campbell, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, highlighted the magnitude of the vote by saying that he could not remember a government defeat on a such a major foreign policy issue.
But Downing Street made clear that it would fight any attempt to table a no-confidence motion in the prime minister. One No 10 source said: "Our rebels are making clear that they support the prime minister on the economy and on his education and welfare reforms. They just did not support him on Syria."
There was deep irritation in the cabinet that the prime minister had misjudged the mood of his parliamentary party and had single-handedly revived the fortunes of Miliband after a recent bad patch. But there was support for the view that Cameron faces no threat to his position.
Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, who had accused Miliband before the vote of giving "succour" to the Assad regime by declining to support the government, said the government's defeat could damage Anglo-American relations.
Hammond told BBC Newsnight: "It is certainly going to place some strain on the special relationship. The Americans do understand the parliamentary process that we have to go through … Perhaps they have been surprised by the scale of opposition in parliament."
Some Tory cabinet ministers rounded on Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, who had struggled in the closing minutes of the debate to answer concerns on all sides of the house that the government motion would take Britain closer to joining a US military operation against the Assad regime in Syria after last week's chemical weapons attack.
Syria chemical attack must not go unpunished – French foreign minister
French president adopts measured tone as military says for the first time it is ready to commit forces to Syria intervention
Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
The Guardian, Thursday 29 August 2013 19.18 BST
French officials spent much of Thursday engaged in behind the scenes talks with its allies in Washington and London over how to move forward in what was described as a "crucial" reaction to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But despite being on military stand-by, the language emanating from Paris appeared to suggest the French government is keen to allow time to fully weigh up intervention options as well as allow the UN expert team time to conclude their report.
As David Cameron faced resistance in Westminster over an intervention, the French president deliberately struck a measured tone, stressing the overall importance of a political solution.
After meeting the Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba in Paris, Francois Hollande said: "Everything must be done to reach a political solution, but that will not happen unless the [opposition] coalition is capable of appearing as an alternative, with necessary force, notably its army. We will only achieve this if the international community is capable of bringing a stop to this escalation of violence, of which the chemical massacre is just one illustration."
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the government minister and spokesperson, said that France deciding the "most appropriate response possible" meant "taking time to reflect, to consult with partners, to receive the conclusions of UN experts."
However, the french foreign minister Laurent Fabius warned last night/tonight [Thurs] that the "chemical massacre committed by the Syrian regime" could not go "unpunished." He said Paris was working continually with international allies to come up with an "crucial" response which must be "well thought-out, proportionate and firm".
The French military said publicly for the first time that it was ready to commit forces to an international intervention in Syria if the president Francois Hollande decided to do so. "The Armed Forces are in a position to respond to the requests and the decisions of the president once he reaches that point" the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. France has a dozen cruise missile-capable fighter aircraft at military bases in the United Arab Emirates and the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti and France's military air power was at the forefront of the NATO-led attacks on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. French media reported that a key anti air-warfare frigate, the Chevalier-Paul, had left the port of Toulon headed to the eastern Mediterranean. Officials would not confirm its destination stressing only that it was on "routine manoeuvres".
France, the former colonial power in Syria, has been at the forefront of tough-talking on the Damascus regime from the start. It was the first European power to recognise the opposition Syrian National Council last November, and from the early days had stepped up its strong networks within Syria allowing it to pass on technical, medical and humanitarian support as well as, officials have said, brown-envelopes of cash to rebel zones no longer under government control.
Under France's presidential system, Hollande does not need parliament approval to launch any military action that lasts less than four months. But he is still sensitive to divisions in the political class and public opinion. While France's tough stance on Libya and Syria is in part aimed at making up for early miscalculations in the Arab Spring, namely in Tunisia, Paris also remains proud of its decision-making in leading world opposition to the US-led war in Iraq in 2003. The foreign minister stressed on Thursday that France's recent intervention in its former colony in Mali had been a success. Hollande has the backing of his own Socialist party and the Greens on possible Syria intervention. The main opposition right-wing UMP is divided, and the hard-left and far-right are opposed. The French parliament will debate the issue next Thursday - but without a vote as the decision-making power rests with the president.
An Ifop poll for Le Figaro found that 55% of French people would support a UN intervention in Syria, but only 41% would support French military engagement.
General Dempsey's warnings could go unheeded if Obama opts to strike
A multi-tour command veteran of the Iraq war, Dempsey has repeatedly highlighted the risks of US involvement in Syria
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Thursday 29 August 2013 22.49 BST
There is already a casualty of Barack Obama's anticipated strike against Syria: repeated warnings about the dangers of intervention voiced by his most senior military adviser.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and former top army officer, has highlighted the risks of US involvement in Syria's bloody civil war for over two years.
Dempsey, a multi-tour command veteran of the Iraq war, has never openly opposed a strike on Syria, something that would risk undermining civilian control of the military. But when asked for his views, in press conferences and testimony, Dempsey has tended to focus on the risks and costs of intervention.
In April, Dempsey said that the US military could force down Syria's warplanes and disrupt its air defenses, but not without significant peril to US pilots, all for a negligible impact on dictator Bashar al-Assad.
"It's not about: can we do it? It's: should we do it, and what are the opportunity costs?" Dempsey testified to the Senate armed services committee in March 2012.
Dempsey's nomination for a new term as chairman was even briefly delayed in the Senate last month after pro-war senators demanded fuller advice about Syria.
In response, Dempsey listed nearly every military option mooted, from limited strikes to full-blown US intervention, and found them fraught with risk and expense. He emphasized the difficulty of staying out of the Syrian civil war once Washington launches any military action.
"Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next," Dempsey wrote to the committee on 19 July. "Deeper involvement is hard to avoid."
Even the "limited stand-off strikes" of the sort the Obama administration is now considering would require "hundreds of aircraft, ships submarines and other enablers." The impact on Assad would be felt "over time" in the form of a "significant degradation of regime capabilities," but there is a risk that "the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets."
Tom Donnelly, a military analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that Dempsey would be in a difficult position if the Obama administration, as expected, strikes Syria.
"Dempsey has always gone an extra step or two too far in being zealous in promoting the administration line, and now the rug's getting pulled out from him a little bit," Donnelly said.
Air force colonel Ed Thomas, Dempsey's new chief spokesman, distinguished the chairman's comments on US intervention in the Syrian civil war from the current administration deliberations about punishing Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons.
"His responses to Congress, articulating military options and risks, were about using military force in Syria to tip the balance of power, to contribute to a regime change," Thomas said.
"The discussion on military force today is based on a fundamentally different outcome – deterring Syria or any others from violating international norms and attacking with chemical weapons."
Donnelly considered Dempsey to have advocated staying out of Syria militarily, something useful for an administration wary of committing to a new Middle Eastern war.
"I think he made a policy statement in the guise of a military judgment," Donnelly said.
Few believe that Dempsey's standing inside the administration will suffer now that Obama is publicly considering a military strike on Syria. Nor is it likely that Dempsey would resign in the event of a strike, an extreme rarity for top US military officers.
"General Dempsey had a reputation inside the army as an absolute straight shooter," said Bob Killebrew, a retired army colonel.
"I don't think in terms of his present job he has any devious political motivation at all. He probably stepped over the line of civilian policymakers and military executors – I thought he was just a little over the line on that. But on the other hand he is walking on a political minefield now that is more fraught than any chairman ever has."
Dempsey's reluctance to intervene in Syria is likely "the opinion of all the chiefs" of the armed services, Killebrew added, as the service chiefs are more attuned to the dangers and uncertainties of war than civilians often are.
Additionally, "the Iranians see the survival of Assad as a vital interest to them, and I'm sure that what Dempsey sees is the broader war – not just between Assad and his opposition, but the broader war for Iranian influence in the Middle East," Killebrew said.
"I rather suspect that's the concern about being drawn in that he has, aside from any chairman's natural predisposition to be cautious."
Thomas, Dempsey's spokesman, said the chairman simply provided his best professional advice about the available Syria military options.
"The chairman provides military options to our elected leaders based on desired outcomes. He articulates the risk to both the mission and to our force, balancing our global responsibilities," Thomas said.
"And as the principal military adviser, he contributes to discussions about the use of the military instrument of power."
UN orders its inspectors out of Syria in anticipation of strikes
US threats to launch air strikes within days trigger demand by Ban Ki-moon for early assessment of inspectors' findings
Julian Borger and Paul Lewis in Washington
The Guardian, Thursday 29 August 2013 21.08 BST
UN weapons inspectors have been ordered to leave Syria early amid mounting anticipation of US-led military strikes.
As the five permanent members of the security council held a second emergency meeting on Syria in two days on Thursday evening, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, instructed the 20-strong inspection team in Damascus to leave on Saturday, a day ahead of schedule. Ban also announced that the team would report to him immediately on departure, raising the possibility that the UN could issue an interim report on the 21 August chemical attacks that left hundreds of people dead.
The inspectors had not been due to deliver their findings for a week at least, with the analysis of samples a painstaking task. The demand for a rushed early assessment reflects the fraught atmosphere at the UN triggered by US threats to launch punitive air strikes within days.
In Washington US intelligence officials were on Thursday seeking to persuade congressman of the evidence that the Syrian government was responsible for chemical weapons attacks, as the Obama administration resisted comparisons with the run-up to the Iraq war.
Congressmen, currently in recess, are due to participate in "unclassified briefing" via telephone conference.
Downing Street had suggested it received US assurances that the White House was willing to wait until Tuesday to give the House of Commons time for a second debate on British involvement in air strikes, but Whitehall sources have acknowledged it is possible the US could go ahead with an attack on Syria without Britain, possibly with France, where the president, François Hollande – another proponent of punitive action – is not constrained by a parliamentary system.
Josh Earnest, the White House's deputy spokesman, asked about the possibility of "going it alone" at the daily briefing, repeatedly said it was in US "core national security interests" to enforce international chemical weapons norms. Earnest also provided the first formal confirmation of the kind of military offensive being considered. "What we're taking about here is something that is discreet and limited."
US officials told their British counterparts they understood the demands of the UK parliamentary system, and set great store in the transatlantic "special relationship" but that other considerations including core American national interests could take precedence when Barack Obama made a final decision how to act.
It is understood that one of the factors involved in the discussions within the Obama administration was the need to uphold US credibility, particularly in anticipation of a looming confrontation with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
The president appeared to hint at such considerations in a PBS television interview on Wednesday. "If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying: 'Stop doing this,' this can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term," he said.
Obama said he not made a final decision on air strikes but added: "We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out."
Most observers said that US air strikes were still likely, even without UK participation, probably in the form of cruise missiles launched from American ships in the Mediterranean. But the parliamentary revolt in the UK and tepid support for military action in the US, provoked the first real doubts for several days that the Obama administration would carry out its threats.
"If the administration can't even count on the full-throated support of our closest ally, the country that stuck by us even during the worst days of Iraq, that legitimacy is going to be called into question," said Ken Pollack, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution thinktank.
Meanwhile, US and British government attempts to rally support for military action were damaged by the publication of an Associated Press report quoting unnamed US intelligence officials as describing the case against the Assad regime as no "slam-dunk", adding that uncertainty remained over real control over Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles.
The basketball term slam-dunk, reflecting certainty of outcome, has haunting overtones in Washington as it was attributed to the then CIA director George Tenet in describing the intelligence case in the runup to the 2003 Iraq invasion for Saddam Hussein's supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. The AP report conflicts with the assertion by the UK joint intelligence committee on Thursday that "it is not possible for the opposition to have carried out a CW [chemical weapons] attack on this scale".
The report quoted "multiple US officials" as pointing towards gaps in the US intelligence picture, in strong contrast to the certainty expressed by American leaders, including Barack Obama, and said the US intelligence evidence against Syria was "thick with caveats". "It builds a case that Assad's forces are most likely responsible while outlining gaps in the US intelligence picture," AP reported.
Thursday night's second meeting of the permanent five security council members – the US, UK, France, Russia and China – was called by Russia, which is adamantly opposed to military intervention. An initial discussion of a British resolution calling for a UN mandate for armed action foundered on Wednesday in the face of Russian opposition.
In was not clear whether the Russians intended to bring new proposals to the table. The call for a meeting followed a telephone conversation between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, in which the German chancellor called on the Russian leader to seek a consensus alternative at the UN to military action.
"The chancellor called on the Russian president to use negotiations in the UN security council for a quick, unanimous international reaction," a German government statement said after the call.
The accelerated departure of the UN weapons inspectors was reminiscent of similar hasty exit from Iraq more than a decade ago, after receiving a tip-off from western intelligence agencies that US air strikes against Saddam Hussein's regime were imminent.
The inspectors, who have spent three days in the eastern Damascus suburbs where the 21 August mass killing of civilians took place, had so far sent none of the samples they had collected out of the country for tests, but would be carrying the samples with them when they left. Laboratory work would only begin once they had left Syria.
It is possible however Ban will ask for an interim report that could provide circumstantial evidence such as witness testimonies and the identification of the weapons and delivery systems used in the attack. That could provide part of what the UN has described as an "evidence-based narrative", from which member states could draw their own inferences. It is not clear whether the head of the inspection mission, Åke Sellström, would agree to such a partial report under intense pressure from the secretary general and some security council members.
Israel confirms plan to deport African migrants to Uganda
Interior minister says Israel will set a deadline by which 'infiltrators' will have to leave 'of their own free will'
Reuters in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Friday 30 August 2013 02.57 BST
Israel plans to soon begin deporting migrants from Eritrea and Sudan, who number more than 50,000, back to Africa via Uganda, officials said.
Israel regards most of the Africans as illegal visitors in search of jobs, and largely rejects the position of human rights groups that many fled their countries in search of political asylum.
A statement late on Thursday from interior minister Gideon Sa'ar said Israel would soon begin a staged process of deporting the migrants, most of whom have crossed the border with Egypt since 2006.
Sa'ar said an agreement had been reached with Uganda to absorb the "infiltrators", who would soon be urged "to leave of their own free will".
Sa'ar said the prime minister's special envoy Hagai Hadas had obtained Uganda's consent, Haaretz reported.
The chairwoman of parliament's committee on foreign workers, Michal Rozin, speaking by phone, said there were "rumours" that Uganda may have agreed to the arrangement in exchange for a deal for money and weapons.
There was no immediate comment from officials in Kampala.
"In the first stage, we will focus on raising awareness within the population of infiltrators while helping them with the logistics of their departure, including costs, airfare and dealing with the possessions they accumulated while they were in Israel," Sa'ar said.
Later the state would set a deadline by which "certain sectors within the infiltrator population" would be asked to "willingly" leave the country.
Once the deadline passed, the state would stop issuing extensions on visas and would begin enforcing laws that prohibit the employment of illegal migrants, the minister said.
Rozin urged the government to expose more details of the plan, including whether there were assurances that the migrants would not be forcibly repatriated to Sudan or Eritrea, saying that in these countries "we know many would be at risk of their lives".
Human rights groups say Israel has jailed hundreds of African migrants and taken other steps to get them to agree to leave the country.
A few thousand are believed to have left Israel in the past year since a law enacted in 2012 authorising migrants who lack any official residence permits to be jailed for up to three years, said Sigal Rozen, policy co-ordinator for Hotline for Migrant Workers (HMW), an Israeli human rights group.
In July, a group of 14 Eritreans were repatriated after receiving $1,500 each from Israeli authorities, in what HMW denounced at the time as a "grave human rights violation", citing Eritrea's poor human rights record.
At least one group of Africans was flown out of Israel to South Sudan in the past year and other migrants have been offered cash to leave. Some 2,000 Africans are being held in the southern detention centres.
A fortified fence along Israel's border with Egypt's Sinai has largely stemmed the flow of migrants, who walked across what was a porous frontier at a rate of up to 2,000 a month in 2011.
Oman sultan's Iran visit sparks hopes of progress in nuclear standoff
Iranian media speculates that former hostage negotiator will mediate between US and Islamic republic on nuclear programme
Tehran Bureau correspondent
theguardian.com, Friday 30 August 2013 12.22 BST
The first visit by a foreign leader to Iran since Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency came earlier this week with the arrival of Oman's sultan, Qaboos bin Said Al Said. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's new foreign minister, officially greeted Sultan Qaboos at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport on Sunday, and then saw him off personally on Tuesday.
While the sultanate, which lies across the Gulf of Oman from Iran, has limited geopolitical importance, its ruler's trip received heavy coverage in the Iranian media – a level of attention no doubt amplified by the fact that it came amid the dog days of the Tehran summer. Stories spread that there was a secret agenda to his meetings with Iranian officials, involving claims that he came to convey messages from the United States and then to relay Iran's response to White House officials.
According to the principlist website Asr-e Iran, Qaboos is supposed to set the stage for indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States. Iranian media outlets, before and after the sultan's visit, have claimed that he has received provisional US approval for his proposals.
The daily Khorasan newspaper reported that Qaboos carried a proposition under which Iran would be readmitted to the Swift international money transfer system in exchange for a reduction in its nuclear enrichment activities. For almost a year and a half, Iranian banks have been unable to execute most international financial transactions due to the country's exclusion from Swift, and the state has been blocked from accessing the estimated 60 to 80 billion dollars it has on deposit in various overseas banks.
On Tuesday, a foreign desk correspondent at one of Tehran's reformist dailies said he believed the reports were credible, "Otherwise why would Rouhani lavish his 'first foreign dignitary to visit' honor on Sultan Qaboos? And don't forget that Zarif both greeted him and escorted him off. He is the person in charge of Iran's nuclear program."
The reformist correspondent pointed out a breaking news item from the Iranian Labor News Agency, reporting that Zarif has confirmed that the "guesses" made by the media have been largely correct and that Qaboos had traveled to Tehran in the role of a mediator carrying communications. "During his visit to Iran, the sultan of Oman described his own takes on the positions of US officials and he will convey our position to them," the foreign minister was quoted as saying. "As I had expressed before, as Iran and the US don't have a direct link, when our friends travel to Iran, the usually explicate their takes on the positions of US officials and their tendencies."
The reporter also cautioned, however, "If you wish to call these 'exchanging messages,' then feel free to do so. I wouldn't call it that as that expression has a specific meaning in foreign relations."
Zarif's statement marks a major shift in how the Foreign Ministry has addressed Qaboos's visit. In the days leading up to his arrival, outgoing ministry spokesman Abbas Iraqchi regularly dismissed the suggestion that the Omani ruler was carrying a message for Tehran as "spinning tales . . . attempts by the foreign media to foul the positive climate that has appeared from the change of government. Regrettably, some domestic media get trapped in such webs." On Thursday, it was announced that Iraqchi would be replaced by career diplomat Marzieh Afkham, the first woman to serve as Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.
A Tehran-based Green Movement activist had mixed feelings about the utility of such mediated exchanges between Iran and the United States. "Such mediations lead nowhere, existentially," he said. "The enmity and grievances harbored by each side toward the other can only be solved and resolved through hours of intensive labour at the negotiation table. But Sultan Qaboos's conciliations are necessary. He knows his role well. He had done some very good work in the past."
In an interview with the website Iranian Diplomacy, Siavash Zargar Yaqobi, former ambassador to Oman and India, expressed a hopeful outlook with less ambivalence. "This trip will certainly have a very positive effect in reducing tensions in Iran's relationship with the west and especially the US," he said. "Oman's history of mediation in Iran's issues and difficulties with the west shows that Oman has been able to play a positive role in this regards and we can probably expect that this trip will also be effective in this area."
When tensions rose between the Ahmadinejad and Blair governments in late March 2007 over the arrest of British marines in Iran's Persian Gulf waters, Oman played a significant role in arranging for their release. Qaboos also played a central role in negotiating the return home of the three US hikers who were detained on espionage charges in the summer of 2009. In the 1980s, worked hard to arbitrate peace between Iran and Iraq during their eight-year-long war.
Heshmat, a 60-year-old carpet merchant in south-central Tehran, reflected one popular take on Qaboos's trip. "May God bless the father of this Sultan so-and-so should he be able to reconcile these two," he told Tehran Bureau. "God as witness, they are quibbling over nothing and nonsense. Iran needs the US; so does the US need Iran. Iran should back down, and the US too, should back down. Someone should act as the wise man and undo this knot. With these sanctions, they've got our fathers rolling in their graves. God believe me, nobody wants to build a bomb. Make up and get on with your lives. Isn't it a waste that two nations who only 30 years ago were like brothers go after each other's throats like this?"
A few steps up the street from the carpet shop, Hossein, who organises Basij militia activities at a mosque in the area, argued that Iran is in no need of a mediator. Referring to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by one of his common epithets, the Farsi for "sir," Hossein said, "Either Agha wants negotiation between them or he doesn't. If he wants, he will say so, clear and direct. If he doesn't, then there is no need for shuttling messages."
Saudi Arabia adopts first law to criminalize domestic violence
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, August 29, 2013 12:17 EDT
Saudi Arabia has adopted a law criminalising domestic violence, usually targeting women and children, in a move hailed by activists who on Thursday demanded its swift implementation.
The law, approved by the cabinet on Monday, is aimed at protecting people from “all forms of abuse” and offering them shelter as well as “social, psychological, and medical aid,” according to its text.
Violators face penalties of one month to one year in prison and/or a 5,000 riyal to 50,000 riyal ($1,330-13,300) fine.
The measures — which are unprecedented for the ultra-conservative kingdom — concern “any sort of physical or psychological violence,” said the social affairs ministry’s website.
Women are the main victims of domestic violence with “98 percent of physical violence committed by men against women,” it said.
Saudi Arabia, which applies a strict version of Islamic sharia law, imposes many restrictions on women, based on laws and traditions that empower male guardians.
On Sunday, Saudi authorities freed a 50-year-old woman who had been held captive in a room for three years by her relatives over a family dispute.
The legislation was hailed by Saudi human rights activists who said they were waiting to see it implemented.
“The law represents a turning point in the field of human rights protection in the kingdom and mainly offers protection to women,” said Mufleh Qahtani, the head of Saudi Arabia’s National Society for Human Rights.
“Domestic violence must be dealt with in a special way… as the victim and the aggressor often live under the same roof when it comes to a man and his wife or a father and his children.
“What matters is applying the law and finding legal mechanisms for its implementation, since the final aim is to preserve the family,” he said.
Another activist, Jaafar Shaieb, said the law was “an important step” to put an end to the “escalation of violence within families or even against domestic workers,” the majority of whom are Asian women.
But applying the law “would take time due to administrative delays,” said Shaieb.
Human rights defender Walid Abulkhair was also wary of any obstacles in the application of the law due to the “bureaucratic mentality, especially among the radical conservatives.”
But social affairs ministry had promised law enforcement mechanisms would be published by the end of this year.
August 29, 2013
Deadly Kenyan Crash Underscores Traffic Safety Woes
By NICHOLAS KULISH
NAIROBI, Kenya — The wrenched and twisted wreck was, in itself, shocking enough: A passenger bus in Kenya crashed through a barrier at a sharp curve on Thursday, flipping over, tearing off the roof and killing 41 people, according to the Kenya Red Cross.
But perhaps the worst tragedy was how predictable the accident was.
Last week, two car crashes occurred at the same curve where the bus went off the road, leaving at least 10 people dead, according to local news reports. Another deadly accident in nearby Narok, at the junction for the popular safari destination Maasai Mara, killed two more people later in the day on Thursday.
But in particular, a series of fatal bus crashes have shocked the nation — including a school bus accident last month that killed 20 people and a bus crash in February that killed at least 35 people — underscoring the serious issue of traffic safety here.
President Uhuru Kenyatta vowed Thursday to take action on road safety in Kenya. “We must all begin taking responsibility and to protect the lives of Kenyans on our roads,” he said.
The problem goes well beyond Kenya. According to the World Health Organization, Africa is the deadliest region for road traffic deaths, with 24.1 fatalities per 100,000 people. That is more than twice the rate in Europe, where the figure is 10.3 deaths per 100,000, in spite of the fact that Europe has vastly more cars, trucks and buses.
“The African region has 2 percent of the world’s registered vehicles but a disproportionate 16 percent of the world’s road traffic deaths,” said Tami Toroyan, a technical officer in the department of violence and injury prevention at the World Health Organization in Geneva.
Rural roads tend to be unlit, and vehicles are frequently overcrowded. Accidents are common and often deadly, with drivers speeding and executing dangerous passing maneuvers on narrow two-lane stretches. Roads without sidewalks or shoulders are plentiful, posing significant dangers to pedestrians and cyclists.
Kenya has already taken steps as part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies road-safety initiative, founding a National Transport and Safety Authority this year to tackle the problem. Significant hurdles remain and many deadly accidents appear to go unreported.
In the World Health Organization’s Global Status Report on Road Safety this year, the official figure for road traffic deaths in Kenya was around 3,000. But the organization estimated that the actual figure was much higher, at nearly 8,500 deaths. One-third of all fatalities are passengers, many of them killed “in unsafe forms of public transportation,” the World Health Organization said.
Thursday’s accident happened about a two-hour drive west of Nairobi around 2 a.m. The bus was traveling from Nairobi to Homa Bay on Lake Victoria when it drove off the road.
Traffic Commandant Samuel Kimaru told Standard Media in Kenya that the driver had crashed straight into the guardrail. “From our investigations, the driver did not even attempt to brake or negotiate the corner,” Mr. Kimaru was quoted as saying. “He seemed to have slept.” The driver was believed to be alive, and the authorities were trying to find him.
Photographs from the scene of the accident showed that the top of the bus had been shorn off and was lying by the side of the road. Passenger seats in the base of the bus were wrenched and twisted around.
Francis Kimemia, secretary to the cabinet of Kenya, offered his condolences on his Twitter account. “Drivers and passengers alike should also have collective responsibility,” he said. “If a passenger isn’t happy with something,” he added, “report, it’s your life.”
Writing in a column in the newspaper The Daily Nation this month, the prominent journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo called for tighter regulation of buses.
“The problem is that the bus lobbies in the region are too powerful and politicians are either afraid of them, or are in their pockets,” Mr. Onyango-Obbo wrote.
The headline of the article read: “If you didn’t know, Kenya’s most deadly hangman lives in a bus.”
PIG PUTIN'S RUSSIA ..
Russia to deploy ‘star wars’ defense system in 2017: report
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, August 30, 2013 7:39 EDT
Russia’s defence ministry plans to deploy in 2017 a sophisticated new air missile defence system that can hit targets in space, a senior ministry source told Russian news agencies on Friday.
“The promising S-500 air defence missile system is at the development stage. It’s planned to be deployed in 2017,” the source was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
The long-range system will be able to destroy targets even if they are in space and cover the whole Russian territory, the source added.
Russia is developing more and more effective missile defence systems for use as a deterrent while opposing plans by the United States to build a missile defence shield in Europe.
Russia says its most advanced anti-aircraft and anti-missile system currently in use, the S-400 Triumph, has a range of 400 kilometres.
Russian President Pig Putin said last year that Russia’s armed forces would acquire around 28 S-400s over the following decade.
Russia has declined to cancel hugely controversial contracts to supply Syria with four of its powerful S-300 air defence missile systems, a deal that has sparked international concern.
Pig Putin in June praised the S-300s as the best such systems in the world and said Russia had not yet delivered the systems to Syria to avoid changing the balance of power in the region.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Izvestia pro-Kremlin daily on Monday that all Syria’s contracts with Russia were being fulfilled.
David Miranda: police win wider powers to investigate seized data
High court lets police investigate whether crimes of terrorism or breaches of Official Secrets Act have been committed
theguardian.com, Friday 30 August 2013 12.41 BST
David Miranda's lawyer
David Miranda's lawyer Gwendolen Morgan outside the high court after it granted extended powers to police. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
The high court has granted the Metropolitan police extended powers to investigate whether crimes related to terrorism and breaches of the Official Secrets Act have been committed following the seizure of data at Heathrow from David Miranda, the partner of a Guardian journalist.
At a hearing in front of Lord Justice Laws and Mr Justice Kenneth Parker, lawyers for Miranda said they had agreed to the terms of wider police powers to investigate a hard drive and memory sticks containing encrypted material that were seized on 18 August. Previously the inspection had been granted conducted on the narrower grounds of national security.
Following the court ruling, the police will now be allowed to examine the material to investigate whether a crime of "communication of material to an enemy" has been committed as well as possible crimes of communication of material about members of the military and intelligence services that could be useful to terrorists.
Miranda had been travelling from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro via London on behalf of his partner, Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who has exposed mass digital surveillance by US and UK spy agencies based on leaked secrets obtained by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The Home Office also placed before the court a witness statement from Oliver Robbins, deputy national security adviser in the Cabinet Office. In it, he claimed the encrypted material seized from Miranda includes personal information of UK intelligence officers, any compromise of which would result in a risk to their lives and those of their family members.
Release of the data, Robbins said, would render spies and their families vulnerable to attacks or even recruitment by terrorists and hostile intelligence agencies. He said the government had so far managed to access a portion of the encrypted files on the hard drive seized from Miranda which he said contained approximately 58,000 highly classified UK intelligence documents.
The material was "highly likely to describe techniques which have been crucial in life-saving counter-terrorist operations, and other intelligence activities vital to UK national security", the compromise of which "would do serious damage to UK national security and ultimately risk lives".
Gwendolen Morgan, solicitor for Miranda from the law firm Bindmans, disputed the claims. In a statement outside the court, she said: "The Home Office and Metropolitan police have lodged evidence with the court in which they make sweeping assertions about national security threats which they said entitled them to look at the materials seized, but they have said that they cannot provide further details in open court. Mr Miranda does not accept the assertions they have made and is disappointed that the UK government is attempting to justify the use of terrorist powers by making what appear to be unfounded assertions."
She said her client looked forward to having their assertions tested at a full hearing of his judicial review claim.
Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media, said: "Mr Robbins makes a number of unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims in his witness statement. The way the government has behaved over the past three months belies the picture of urgency and crisis they have painted.
"The government claims that they have at all times acted with the utmost urgency because of what they believed to be a grave threat to national security. However, their behaviour since early June – when the Guardian's first Snowden articles were published – belies these claims.
"Even after the destruction of the Guardian's London copies of the documents on Saturday 20 July, the government has done little – until the opportunistic detention of David Miranda under laws designed for terrorists, not journalists.
"On Monday 22 July, the Guardian directed the government towards the New York Times and ProPublica, both of whom had material from GCHQ. It was more than three weeks before anyone from the British government contacted the New York Times. We understand the British embassy in Washington met with the New York Times in mid-August – over three weeks after the Guardian's material was destroyed in London. To date, no one has contacted ProPublica, and there has been two weeks of further silence towards the New York Times from the government.
"This five-week period in which nothing has happened tells a different story from the alarmist claims made by the government in their witness statement.
"The Guardian took every decision on what to publish very slowly and very carefully and when we met with government officials in July they acknowledged that we had displayed a 'responsible' attitude. The government's behaviour does not match their rhetoric in trying to justify and exploit this dismaying blurring of terrorism and journalism."
The court's substantive ruling means that from Friday, the police and other agencies will be allowed to use the data Miranda was carrying to investigate whether a crime has been committed under section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 which lawyers said involved the collection or making a record of information "of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism", or possessing a document or record containing information of that kind.
Under section 58a of the same act they will look at offences of "eliciting, publishing or communicating information about current and former members of the armed forces, intelligence officers and police officers, which is of a kind useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism or publishes or communicates any such information".
Government lawyers said police will be able to investigate crimes under section one of the Official Secrets Act 1911 which deals with communication of material to an enemy and "various offences" under the Official Secrets Act 1989.
Appearing for Miranda, Matthew Ryder QC, said his client accepted the terms as part of "a pragmatic approach" to the dispute ahead of a full hearing into the legality of Miranda's detention and the seizure of his data which is expected in October. The court had last week allowed the data to be examined in the context of the protection of national security or for investigating if Miranda was involved in terrorism.
In his statement Robbins referred to the government's interaction with the Guardian in July over its use of the material for a series of stories about US and British digital surveillance. He said the government was seeking to avoid any misrepresentation it was seeking to stifle "legitimate journalism".
He criticised Miranda and his associates for "very poor judgment in their security arrangements with respect to the material rendering the appropriation of the material, or at least access to it by other, non-state actors, a real possibility".
Robbins said the government believes the data may have already been obtained by one or more of the countries through which Snowden has passed since he fled the US. They include China and Russia, where Snowden is currently living.
He said while most of the files remained encrypted, it was possible to access a portion of files on the hard drive because a piece of paper containing basic instructions for accessing some of the data that included a password for decrypting one of the files was among Miranda's things.
Robbins said assessments by GCHQ had shown that the number of documents on the hard drive seized from Miranda was consistent with the number that Snowden would have had access to when working at the NSA and that he "indiscriminately appropriated material in bulk", and that at least some of that was being couriered by Miranda.
"The material seized is highly likely to describe techniques which have been crucial in life-saving counter-terrorist operations, and other intelligence activities vital to UK national security," he said.
"The compromise of these methods would do serious damage to UK national security and ultimately risk lives."
He said any action by the court to prevent the authorities using the information would effectively prevent attempts to mitigate the risk of revealing the identities of UK spies and security officers which "would be of value to elements hostile to the national interest of the United Kingdom, including foreign intelligence agencies and terrorists".
Robbins continued: "It is known that contained in the seized material are personal information that would allow staff to be identified, including those deployed overseas." Any compromise of their identities would "result in danger to the persons concerned or their close associates … this danger includes a risk to life, both to intelligence officers and their families".
He warned they could be subject to recruitment attempts or threats to their safety "by hostile intelligence services or terrorist groups".
Robbins said he had been advised that "the information that has already been obtained has had a direct impact on decisions taken in regard to staff deployments and is therefore impacting on operational effectiveness".
He said: "Real damage has in fact already been done to UK national security by the media revelations [both in the UK and internationally]."
The Christian Science Monitor
Edward Snowden leaks again: five takeaways from the 'black budget'
By Peter Grier, Staff Writer / August 29, 2013 at 6:20 pm EDT
Edward Snowden has struck again, this time via The Washington Post. The former National Security Agency data professional leaked a secret-filled 178-page summary of the US intelligence community budget to Post reporters Barton Gellman and Greg Miller, who published online a lengthy story about the document, illustrated with great charts and graphics, on Thursday.
The bottom line, or rather the budget top line, is that all US intelligence agencies combined spent $52.6 billion in fiscal year 2013. That’s about 2.4 percent less than they spent in FY 2012.
That’s not classified, strictly speaking: The US has released its overall intelligence budget since 2007, as Messrs. Gellman and Miller note. But breakdowns as to which agency gets how much and what the money is spent on have been classified, and the Post reveals those things, too.
Here’s our quick take on significant things in the story:
The CIA is still first among equals. The nation’s human-oriented intelligence agency got $14.7 billion for 2013. The eavesdropping NSA, despite its need for expensive electronics, got less: $10.8 billion. The National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and maintains signal and photo intelligence satellites, received almost as much as the NSA, at $10.3 billion. That means those secret eyes and ears in the sky are really, really expensive.
Predicting the future: priceless. OK, maybe “priceless” isn’t quite the right word. There is a price tag here, a big one. The biggest single item in the breakdown of the budget by mission objective is “Provide Strategic Intelligence and Warning,” which gets 39 percent of intelligence community’s $52 billion. That means they are putting a lot of effort into the predictions that go into the president’s morning security briefings.
“Combat Violent Extremism” is the second-biggest function, with 33 percent of the budget. “Counter Weapons Proliferation” is third, with 13 percent.
Will Israel be insulted? The budget summary included discussion of the intelligence community’s priorities, successes, and failures, as well as numbers. For instance, it noted that the US takes an “interest” in countries that are allies, as well as countries that aren’t. Among the nations listed as counterintelligence “priority targets” are China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, and ... Israel.
Pakistan, a nominal ally, is also listed as an “intractable target." That’s not too surprising, is it, given that’s where Osama bin Laden was hiding in plain sight.
Why so many Spanish-speaking spies? Intelligence agencies pay bonuses to employees who maintain proficiency in foreign languages. The No. 1 bonus language is Spanish, with 2,725 bonuses dispersed. That’s more than twice as many as were paid out to the second-ranking language, Arabic. Arabic speakers got 1,191 bonuses. Chinese speakers got 903, and Russian speakers got 736.
Did Manning make Snowden possible? Near the end, the Post story notes that the intelligence community had budgeted for a “major counterintelligence initiative” in 2012 that would have tried to guard against insider threats by reinvestigating the activities of thousands of “high-risk, high-gain applicants and contractors.”
Mr. Snowden himself might well have fallen into that category. But the initiative never got carried out, the Post notes, because those resources were diverted to an all-hands-on-deck response to the leak of thousands of documents by WikiLeaks. Those documents were provided by Bradley Manning (who has recently asked to be known as a transgender woman named Chelsea).
“The government panicked so strongly about the threat caused by leaking documents classified at a lower level than this [budget] document that it diverted resources from the very program that possibly would have exposed Edward Snowden before he could have leaked,” notes national security journalist Joshua Foust on his blog.
The Christian Science Monitor
Secrets of Semipalatinsk: How nuclear theft was averted in Central Asia
By Ben Arnoldy, Staff writer / August 28, 2013 at 12:10 pm EDT
Semipalatinsk Test Site, Kazakhstan
Anastacia Kyseleva saw her first atomic mushroom cloud from the fields near her village.
Residents of Kanonerka, located near the Russian border in eastern Kazakhstan, had only heard the mysterious explosions from previous tests at the nearby Soviet nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk. This time, in 1956, soldiers came and ordered everyone outside – a move experts now suspect was made to protect residents from potential house collapses.
"It looked like a sunset," says Ms. Kyseleva. Some stood frozen, staring; others ran toward the bomb. "Those people who followed it, they either died or they couldn't walk afterwards."
They couldn't have known better, suggests Saule Orazlekova, director of a home for the elderly where survivors, including Kyseleva, reside. "The population wasn't informed. They didn't know what was going on.... And still a lot of information related to the testing is classified and it's in Moscow."
After the nuclear attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which in August marked the anniversaries of the nuclear bombings, the international mantra has been one of never letting the world forget the horrors of the nuclear aftermath. Here, the tenor has been more about figuring out what actually happened during the top-secret Soviet program, and to whom.
The US has played a major role in helping piece together answers, some of which have alarmed Washington. One part of the site that was finally secured last year had more than 400 pounds of recoverable plutonium – enough for at least a dozen nuclear weapons – packed into tunnels that scavengers were starting to access. Talks with Washington are ongoing about removing more nuclear residue, and scientists here admit they may not know the full extent of what's still on site.
What does ground zero look like?
Ground zero of the first Soviet test could be mistaken for eastern Montana, with its big sky and expansive fields of grass and sage. The Soviets drew a perimeter around these lands nearly the size of Belgium, moving out the sparse population.
The crater itself could be taken as just another small dent in the earth. But the soil is filled with unusual smooth stones that are drops of melted earth. Stretching out to the horizon along two perfect radials stand numerous four-story concrete structures.
Each once held aloft a 90-foot pipe that had sensors at the top. In the buildings' original state, the pipes gave them the look of long-necked geese; now they resemble an eerie Stonehenge of bombed-out buildings.
With the help of satellite imagery, a team led by Sergey Lukashenko, director of the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, a government agency tasked with researching the test site, located an area with unusual markings last year. They dug a meter down and pulled up a metal fragment containing enriched uranium, nickel, and iron.
"For us, it was discovered, and...," Dr. Lukashenko folds his arms, sits back, and looks down intently. "What is it?"
He says that he has been called a "nuclear archaeologist" by his colleague Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the US nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos.
It was Dr. Hecker who followed up in 1997 on suspicions that a significant amount of plutonium had been abandoned in the 207 tunnels at Degelen Mountain, an underground testing area at Semipalatinsk, according to a paper published in August by journalists Eben Harrell and David Hoffman.
The paper details how the United States had paid to shut the tunnels into the mountain, but did not fully realize what lay inside. Scientists in the recently independent Kazakhstan were beginning to suspect the scope of the materials, and it worried them: Scavengers were digging for scrap metal around the site and Russian authorities were tight-lipped about what they might find there.
Hecker managed to slowly pry from the Russians what was there, wrote Mr. Harrell and Mr. Hoffman, leading to a secret 17-year, $150 million project by the US, Russia, and Kazakhstan to fill the tunnels with special concrete.
The work was completed only last year, and talks are ongoing about whether to remove plutonium-laced soil from Semipalatinsk.
Years of Russian secrecy about the site raises questions for the US and Kazakhstan about what may remain there. "Really, we don't know exactly, and the problem is even the Russians don't have very exact information about events that happened in the '50s," says Lukashenko.
This sounds familiar
A similar problem may exist in the US at the Nevada test site.
"People from Los Alamos, they said that it's possible that they have some burial site where somebody from the '50s buried some materials and they don't know because they lost information about these materials," says Lukashenko. "It's just due to [the fact that] these events happened a long time ago."
Higher-level American and Kazakh officials portray the effort to secure loose nuclear material in Kazakhstan as more or less done. "By now we can say it is absolutely secure – there are no loose, dangerous materials," Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov told a visiting group of reporters.
"We can pretty much say that we are in a maintenance mode for that part," says Lt. Col. Charles Carlton, director of the US Defense Threat Reduction Office in Astana.
Yet even maintenance – including the monitoring of sensitive areas – requires upkeep.
Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has softened his undemocratic image abroad with his nonproliferation work. But the 72-year-old strongman has not named a successor, leaving the country – filled with uranium reserves and nuclear know-how – open to considerable turmoil and change ahead.
"Predicting the nuclear intentions of the next Kazakh regime is impossible – let alone those of whatever government may control this territory hundreds or thousands of years in the future," wrote Harrell and Hoffman. "The mismatch between the lifetimes of plutonium and of human institutions is a problem that extends far beyond the steppes of Kazakhstan."
Echos of nuclear fallout
For survivors living around Semipalatinsk, the long-term health implications are more pressing. In the years after 1949 when the tests started, the Soviets maintained a secret health facility for diagnosing and treating civilians affected by the fallout. It was named Dispensary No. 4. (It's still unknown if there were other clinics and where they were.)
The facility now operates openly as the Research Institute of Radiation Medicine and Ecology in Semey. The agency keeps a database of all residents exposed to fallout and their descendants along with the estimated dose based on location models.
The agency inherited some records stamped "top secret," but still had to reconstruct – with Russian and Japanese assistance – where fallout went and who was there.
"All the information on the nuclear tests was classified during the Soviet time ... and after the closing of the test site [in 1991] all this information went back to Moscow and we never received any information," says Talgat Muldagalief, of the research institute.
Their research done on sample villages near the test site found cancer mortality rates 2-1/2 times greater than those in a control village. The agency says some 356,000 people face radiation risk, with 70 percent of those being descendants of exposed villagers.
Lukashenko worries that those figures could give the wrong impression. The number of people alive today facing serious health effects may be more like 10,000, he says. Even then, the causes of cancer are hard to pin down, with naturally occurring radiation and industrial pollution also thought to be playing a role.
While some Kazakh officials expressed frustration with getting information out of Russia to help their work, there appears to be little push for Russian compensation.
"This is the first time I've heard this point of view [about compensation]. After independence, Kazakhstan assumed total responsibility for the health of its citizens ... without turning to Russia for help," says Dr. Muldagalief.
• Ben Arnoldy traveled to Kazakhstan on a trip organized by the International Reporting Project.
Greek finance minister: we don't need another bailout
Yannis Stournaras doused speculation that the debt-stricken country was in dire need of a third bailout, saying it has no additional need for money
theguardian.com, Thursday 29 August 2013 11.09 BST
If the eurozone is as strong as its weakest link, then it may be stronger than many think. Speaking exclusively to the Guardian, the Greek finance minister, Yannis Stournaras, doused speculation that the debt-stricken country was in dire need of a third bailout – a prospect raised by the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, last week.
"It's very early now to talk about a [third] economic support package. For the next full year we have no additional need for money," said Stournaras, referring to the country's current EU/IMF-sponsored rescue programme.
"All this speculation is premature. The EU [troika] money ends next July and that's when we'll have to judge the situation again. Nothing, absolutely nothing is certain yet."
Athens's aim, he insisted, was to "approach" international capital markets – from which it has been excluded since 2010 – which would preclude the need for further aid to plug a funding gap in 2014 and 2015 variously estimated at between €9.5bn (£8.12bn) and €11.1bn.
"There is a possibility that next year we will have entered the market again provided we fulfil two conditions, securing a primary surplus [before interest payments on debt] and a positive growth rate [after six years of economic contraction]," he added.
Stournaras, a macroeconomics professor and the government's only technocrat, not only refuses to refer to the possibility of enforced losses in the public sector – widely seen as the only way of Greece ever making its debt load sustainable – but goes out of his way to sound upbeat about the Greek economy. Athens' debt-to-GDP ratio is projected to reach 174%, or €320bn, by the end of the year according to government figures released earlier this week.
"Recent developments definitely are positive. Revenues are increasing and the recession seems to be easing," he said emphasising that most of the turnaround had been due to Greece's spectacular tourist season. "We've seen a 37% increase in net revenue from tourism compared to last year. If we're lucky and it continues over the next two months there's a good chance the growth rate will exceed projections."
The spectre of further economic assistance for Greece, no matter how small, is a frightening prospect if it comes on condition of more recession-inducing austerity.
Asked why Schäuble had reignited the debate of aid for Greece – a subject the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has desperately tried to avoid on the campaign trail – Stournaras felt fit to say: "I don't know."
Spanish economy shows signs of recovery as GDP drops by 0.1%
Turnaround means economy could stabilise and even grow in third and fourth quarters
he Guardian, Thursday 29 August 2013 16.41 BST
Spain's economy looks on the verge of coming out of recession, though data shows the slump will have lasted three months longer than previously thought.
GDP contracted 0.1% from the first quarter to the second, the National Statistics Institute (INE) said, in line with forecasts and a preliminary reading.
But in the third and fourth quarters it should stabilise or grow by up to 0.2%, Spain's economy secretary Fernando Jimenez Latorre said, enabling it to meet an official end-of-year target of a 1.3% contraction.
Latorre said: "We believe there's been an important turnaround in the economic cycle and that the bases are there to continue this new trend and this will show growth, finally ending the long and deep recession."
Spanish exports are recovering but domestic demand has remained weak, contributing to a slowing of consumer inflation, which separate data showed hit a four-month low of 1.5% in August.
The 0.1% drop in output was the smallest since the second quarter of 2011 when the economy started to contract.
INE revised its quarterly growth data back to the beginning of 2009. The earlier figures had pegged the beginning of the slump to the third quarter of 2011.
Spain has been in and out of recession since a decade-long property bubble burst in 2008 and, with unemployment at around 27%, is expected to remain in an economic slump for at least another year.
Serbia: ‘Eleven new ministers’
30 August 2013
Prime Minister Ivica Dačić (Socialist Party of Serbia) completed the reshuffle of his government on August 29, putting an end to two months of negotiations with his coalition partner and deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić (of the Serbian Progressive Party), reports Politika.
The 18-member cabinet will include 11 new ministers, including several independent experts. Among the most notable appointments are Minister of Finance Lazar Krstić, a 29-year-old Yale trained economist and mathematician, businessman Saša Radulović who will take over as minister for the economy, and the director of the Belgrade Philharmonic, Ivan Tasovac, who is the new minister of culture.
The Serbian parliament is expected to vote on a motion of confidence in the new government in the coming days.
Italy: ‘He was the inventor and beneficiary of the fraud’
Il Fatto Quotidiano,
30 August 2013
Italian former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was the architect of an elaborate series of frauds carried out by his Mediaset television company, according to documents released by the High Court explaining the sentence handed down to the politician earlier this month, writes Il Fatto Quotidiano.
The scam, which involved overvaluing royalty payments for television series and siphoning off excess money to be stashed in offshore accounts, earned the billionaire a one year jail term and ban on holding public office, continues the daily.
Il Cavaliere could lose his senate seat if a September 9 parliamentary committee meeting confirms his conviction makes him ineligible. This would put further pressure on the fragile ruling coalition, made up of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party and the Democratic Party, already shaken by a recent deal to cancel a controversial housing tax.
08/29/2013 03:30 PM
The Reluctant Giant: Why Germany Shuns Its Global Role
An Essay by Ullrich Fichtner
The world admires Germany and would like to see more active engagement from the country. But Germans themselves are reluctant and Chancellor Merkel has steered clear of taking on more global responsibility. Berlin should rethink its role in the world.
When a German reads current travel guides about Germany, written by foreigners clearly enamored of the country, he feels noticeably better afterwards. The travel guides praise Germany as a colorful, high-energy, beautiful country, a European power center in every possible way, a miracle world of culture and technology, inventive and with an entrepreneurial spirit, "truly … a 21st-century country."
That's what Rick Steves, a Germanophile American, writes in the latest edition of his "Germany" travel guide, published at the beginning of the year. Of course, he doesn't omit the clichés about schnitzel and the Oktoberfest, the Black Forest and Neuschwanstein Castle, but he is most enthusiastic about the modern, bustling Germany, which has "risen from the ashes of World War II to become the world's fifth-largest industrial power."
Steves raves indiscriminately about Germany's ICE trains, gleaming cities, world-class museums, the new Berlin and the Germans themselves, who he describes as people with bold "Type A" personalities. "Their cars are legendary," Steves writes, "BMW, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche. We ride German elevators and trains (ThyssenKrupp and Siemens), take German medicines (Bayer), use German cosmetics (Nivea) and eat German goodies (Haribo's Gummi Bears)." Similar, more or less eulogistic descriptions appear in many new travel guides on Germany.
'Most Popular Country'
Today, 68 years after the end of the war and 24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we Germans are respected, admired and sometimes even loved. The fact that we generally don't know what to do with all this admiration, because we collectively still seem to assume that we are not likeable and therefore must be unpopular, is a problem that very quickly becomes political. It's obvious that Germans' perception of themselves and the way we are perceived by others differ dramatically.
Even if some would not consider a travel guide to be the most credible basis for political reflections, it's easy to find other sources of praise for Germany and the Germans. The BBC conducts an annual poll to name the "most popular country in the world." Germany came in a clear first in the latest poll, and it wasn't the first time. Some 59 percent of 26,000 respondents in 25 countries said that the Germans exert a "positive influence" in the world (and not surprisingly, the only country in which the view of Germany is overwhelmingly negative at the moment is Greece).
In the "Nation Brands Index" prepared by the American market research company GfK, which surveys more than 20,000 people in 20 countries about the image of various nations, Germany is currently in second place, behind the United States. This index is not some idle exercise, but is used as a decision-making tool by corporate strategists and other investors. GfK asks questions in six categories, including the quality of the administration and the condition of the export economy, and Germany is at the top of each category. But when Germans do acknowledge their current standing in the world, they always seem to be somewhat coy or even amused.
The rest of the world doesn't understand this (anymore). The rest of the world is waiting for Germany. But instead of feeling pleased about Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski's historic statement that he fears Germany's power less than its inactivity, we cringe anxiously over such sentiments. When US President Barack Obama calls Germany a leading global power, we hope that he doesn't really mean it. And when politicians in Israel say that Germany should wield its power more actively, we don't interpret it as a mandate to become more committed, but are puzzled instead.
We Germans? Exercise power? Take action? Lead?
A 'Europeanized' Germany
The German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), Germany's government-run aid organization operating in 130 countries, made a concerted effort in 2012 to question decision-makers around the world about their views on Germany. Instead of quickly flipping through a list of questions, the GIZ conducted real, in-depth conversations with participants, and essentially arrived at two conclusions: Germany's reputation in the world is sky-high, yet Germany is considered anything from spineless to completely incapable when it comes to investing this "soft" capital in an effective way for the benefit of everyone.
The positive image we enjoy worldwide is fed by a large number of widely dispersed sources, but it's obvious that Germany's accounting for its Nazi past, its clear acknowledgement of historic culpability and its development of a model democracy in the West laid the foundation for the Germans to be given a new chance in the 20th century.
But it is also clear that Germany's reputation has received its biggest boost since the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification. Since then, the Germans have managed to demonstrate repeatedly that they are capable of producing economic miracles, which is precisely what reunification and the development of the former East Germany are. At the same time, Germany was able to dispel widely held fears of the return of a gloating major power in the middle of Europe. To everyone's relief, especially that of our European neighbors, Germany has kept its feet on the ground, only waving its black, red and gold flag during football matches.
Perhaps the European financial crisis -- and the key role Germany is playing in the effort to overcome it -- has rekindled unease among our neighbors at the moment. But even if there is disagreement over the right way out of the crisis, and even if the German government has often proved to be too intransigent, no European in his right mind fears that Germany is pursuing some sort of secret plan to dominate the continent once again. Instead, Germany has "Europeanized" itself, both intentionally and credibly. But now it's time to share Germany's rich experiences along the winding paths of the 20th century with the rest of the world.
History as Obstacle
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has a tendency to stress a supposed certainty of German policy, which became stuck in a post-World War II way of thinking and which the country actually seemed to have overcome: namely that "the history" of our country, which only means the years between 1933 and 1945, is an obstacle in foreign policy in every respect. But from today's perspective, there is every indication that the opposite holds true, namely that "history" has given us reformed Germans in the 21st century the mandate to play an influential role in all of the world's affairs precisely because of that experience.
Who, if not we Germans, is as well versed in emerging from the swamp of overthrown dictators? Who, if not we Germans, could advise war-torn countries on how to find their way back to peace? Who, if not Germany, whose path to liberal democracy was long and rocky, could help other countries along this path? And who, if not we Germans, would be destined to warn the Americans, for example, that absolute national security doesn't protect freedom but instead destroys it?
Seen in the cold light of day, we have no other choice. Germany may have resolved never to become a major power again, but opted instead to somehow dissipate into the big, wide West and the many multilateral organizations. For a long time, it was easy to abide by this resolution, because Germany was indeed no longer a major power. Divided into two countries and occupied by foreign troops, its national sphere of influence was de facto limited. That changed after 1990.
'Auschwitz Never Again'
After the deliberately quiet approach taken by the late former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, this sphere of influence was understood around the turn of the millennium. The government of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a coalition of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, handled the new German sovereignty both casually and boldly, by saying yes to the mission in Afghanistan but no to the invasion of Iraq. That administration was hardly in office before it led Germany, alongside its NATO partners, into the war in Yugoslavia, both to prevent an impending genocide in Kosovo and to give new meaning to the maxim "Nie wieder Auschwitz" (Auschwitz Never Again).
Fischer fostered the ambition to use German experiences of the 20th century to develop ideas for the world of the 21st century. His plans and position papers on the conflict in the Middle East and Europe's future enriched international politics. They also enhanced Germany's reputation as a country that doesn't just sit on its wealth, but is willing and prepared to get involved, to participate, to contribute financially and to energetically tackle the eternal construction of a better world.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Westerwelle have taken us back to the tired 1990s, and our "history" must serve, once again, as justification for German inaction that extends all the way to denial of assistance. Listening to Westerwelle, one would think Germans were a bunch of narrow-minded people whose love of peace knows no bounds.
In fact, we are repugnant hypocrites. We like to talk about our pacifism, and we even use it to generate a warm feeling of moral superiority, and yet we supply large numbers of German weapons to buyers all over the world. Those weapons often end up in countries where regime critics are suppressed with armed force.
What is missing in Germany is an understanding of obvious geopolitical circumstances, an understanding of the fact that obligations, demands and hopes arise from a country's economic and military importance without any political assistance, and that there is clearly a need to consider at length our role in the world. But that doesn't happen, or at least it happens far too rarely.
Less Emphasis on Foreign Policy
In Germany, foreign policy is a specialized, niche subject, even at universities, which is downright absurd. In light of our situation and our leading global position in so many fields, and in light of our ongoing title as the world's export champion, foreign affairs ought to be a top issue at all times. And yet in Germany foreign policy is viewed as a burdensome nuisance and cost factor within the context of managing our wealth.
There is no doubt that the German ambassador to the United Nations in New York occasionally has to introduce a politically correct, ineffectual resolution that -- on paper, at least -- is intended to protect children in war zones. But when the time comes to concretely prevent the massacre of children and adults in Libya, we abstain from voting and, to be on the safe side, withdraw our warships from the Mediterranean. And although we recognize that the threat of a terrorist coup in Mali could have far-reaching consequences for our own security, we would rather let the French step in to prevent it.
Germany's maneuvering in the crisis over a united Europe is even more depressing. Neither Merkel nor Westerwelle, nor anyone else in the administration, has given a single memorable speech on the subject of Europe in the last four years. It's humiliating that, for the last four years, it has seemed somehow unclear whether the German government's stance on Greece differs significantly from the slogans printed in the tabloid newspaper Bild.
Critics have said, and will continue to say, that the chancellor naïvely equated the euro with the entire European project, and the thousand options for taking action were reduced to a single brutal program of austerity measures. In fact, when the time came to fight tooth and nail to defend every German cent, especially the money deposited in German banks, the chancellor felt called upon to display her full power, which then alienated Germany's European partners.
Getting Involved is a Duty
It would be nice to see Germany pursue a different, better foreign policy, with a horizon extending beyond our own borders. From the government of Europe's strongest economy, we should expect programs for an improved Europe, and we should demand that the government come up with a tangible plan for reforming its institutions and its financial system, a plan it can implement, if necessary.
The only problem is that this German government has absolutely no clue when it comes to foreign policy. Aside from a few catchwords, does anyone know its position on the crisis in the Middle East? Has it come up with any good ideas on the Arab spring? Is there a German Africa policy? Does anyone in Berlin make an effort to understand Asia? Are we part of the solution or part of the problem in Afghanistan? Could we improve the situation in Iraq? Could we help Egypt? Does Syria concern us? And how do we feel about Turkey? And Brazil?
For a country as important as Germany, getting involved is a duty, not a choice. The role of being an active player falls on us, whether we want it or not. And when it comes to the stability of entire regions of the world, or the crises of individual countries, we are called upon to contribute our ideas and our money and to throw our full weight behind our efforts.
It is debatable whether Germany considers itself an active and driving member of the global community or a passive player in contemporary history. It is worth discussing, as the newspaper Die Zeit wrote so pointedly, why Germany always wants to profit but never wants to intervene. And worth considering is the dream that Germany has made it its mission to utilize its experience to make the world a better place.
Being a Role Model
In the second decade of the 21st century, Germany has to get used to the idea of being a model for other countries. We will never be able to see our country as a model society for the entire world, as the United States and France, with their more fortunate history, do as a matter of course. Today, other countries and peoples want us to be a role model, a teacher and a partner. That demand cannot be satisfied with a few Goethe Institutes, with posters by political graphic designer Klaus Staeck hanging on the walls, or with endless screenings of the film "Goodbye Lenin!"
Germany's fans in the world want more involvement than that, and they hope that we don't just export our machines, but also our knowledge about government or our experience with ecological renewal. African countries, as well as nations in South America and South Asia, are no longer waiting for benevolent aid workers, but would rather see people with ideas and investors, and are looking for momentum. They want to know how government administration works, how to organize an education system, how to plan factories, how to decentralize a country, how to write a constitution and how a democratic police force works. They want to learn from us, the Germans, because we have acquired so much authority in these fields.
There is enormous potential in this. In the course of a more active foreign policy, Germany could promote and disseminate throughout the world the values and principles it has recognized as right. At the same time, it could also network internationally in a way that would make the future less daunting.
Uninspired Development Policy
This globally involved Germany could easily become a magnet for people seeking a new home, not just out of need, but also out of interest, curiosity and inclination. They certainly won't come just because a few officials mention the need for skilled personnel every few months. They will only come if they get to know Germany as a generous, progressive, modern nation, one that is willing to share.
But that country has to develop first. So far, Germany has only sullenly performed what it sees as its duties abroad. Otherwise, it pursues a great deal of old-fashioned, uninspired development policy under Development Minister Dirk Niebel, whose claim to fame seems to be his propensity for finding senior government posts for as many of his fellow members of the Free Democrats (FDP) as possible -- and who openly considered giving the tons of frozen lasagna illegally containing horse meat to the poor (which is truly crazy).
The aforementioned study by the GIZ, titled "Germany in the Eyes of the World," reads in part like a guideline for a new foreign policy. The respondents, from India, Pakistan, Britain, South Africa, Morocco and France, don't just know a lot about Germany, but they also clearly recognize its strengths and weaknesses. They want to see more German involvement in practically all areas, in other words, more active German participation in what happens in the world.
In the study, an Indian is quoted as saying that Germany has "no pressing poverty or security problems" and should, in light of "these healthy conditions, assume a greater role in international policy." A South African says that Germany is a leader in science and innovation, but doesn't sufficiently allow others to share in its advantage. An American says that the Germans should "finally put on bigger shoes." An Israeli says: "The Germans could be shaken once in a while and asked what's wrong, and what happened to their emotions and their enthusiasm for the future."
Somewhere to Dream?
Enthusiasm for the future. In the age of Merkel governments, this isn't the kind of expression that occurs to a German anymore. And shouldn't we pay attention to the Chinese artist who, in the GIZ study, says that he goes to Germany to work "and to France to dream?"
We, too, want to dream again, of a better Germany in a better world. We want to dream of the chancellor announcing, in prime time, that freedom-loving Germany is granting refugee Edward Snowden asylum, for example. Such a bombshell would have set the cliquish world in motion and would have catapulted Germany's worldwide reputation into the stars, and of course Merkel would have given a perfect speech about freedom and friendship, and she would have assured the Americans that Berlin's goal was not to offend them, but rather was to not betray Europe's experiences. Of course, this would merely be a dream.
Anyone who has that dream is derided as being naïve, even though the idea of asylum for Snowden wouldn't be nearly as inconceivable as everyone in the government would have had us believe. It was only inconceivable for those who always portray their own actions as being "without any alternative," who dismiss every contradiction as being childish and for whom visions and dreams departed from the realm of ideas long ago.
When it comes to foreign policy, Germany is oddly idle. Germany is being administered, not governed. It could be a soft giant, but when it looks in the mirror, it still sees itself as a gray mouse. But that's just an optical illusion.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan